Georges Nadon – Spitfire pilot, flew 277 sorties

War creates some remarkable heroes. It makes people perform beyond the limits of normal human endurance; through immense pain and suffering, these heroes are able to perform duties beyond those expected or even believed possible.

There were many airmen who carried out these duties with little or no recognition for their actions, never to speak of them or be acknowledged for them. Georges Nadon, a French-Canadian Spitfire pilot, is one of them.

Georges had a long career, he fought both in the skies of Britain and Malta, and completed two ‘tours’ that amounted to an incredible 277 operations and more than 500 hours in the air.

Georges Nadon’s flying career began with 122 Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch, where he flew Spitfires. Of the 27 original pilots of 122 Sqn, only Georges and one other pilot survived. On Christmas Eve 1943 he sailed to Malta, where he would fly – on average and against incredible odds – four sorties a day with 185 Sqn, defending the small island and vital supply routes through the Mediterranean.

At the end of this tour, he returned to England and onto his home country Canada, where he was married.

His second tour began in June 1944, with 403 Sqn (RCAF) based at RAF North Weald, in Essex. They then moved across to France where they gave cover to the advancing allied armies. He eventually left flying service in March 1945.

In 2015, as part of the Canadian commemorations of the Battle of Britain, an image of his face was painted on the tail of the Canadian CF-18 demo aircraft, an image seen by thousands; but yet he still remains relatively unknown and unrewarded.

To find out more about this remarkable man, visit Pierre Lagace’s  fabulous 403 Sqn blog, containing information, letters and photographs of Georges Nadon. A man who achieved great things defending the skies over countries far from home, and a man who deserves much greater recognition than he gets.

File:Flight Sergeant Georges Nadon, a French-Canadian pilot with No. 122 Squadron, in his Spitfire at Hornchurch, May 1942. CH6781.jpg

Georges Nadon of No. 122 Squadron, in his Spitfire at Hornchurch, May 1942. (public domain)

Other remarkable achievements can be found on “Heroic Tales of World War II

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Home to eight squadrons and the Pathfinders.

The second part of Trail 31 continues on through the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Low soft hills give for superb views and fine examples of aviation heritage. We move on to the former RAF station at Gransden Lodge.

RAF Gransden Lodge

Sitting high on the hill-top, Gransden lodge rests peacefully nestled next to the villages of Little and Great Gransden to the west and Longstowe to the east; the county borders of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire pass right across it. Surrounded by undulating countryside it no longer reverberates to the mass sound of piston engines, but more with the gentle whistle of gliders.

Gransden Lodge was another Cambridgeshire airfield modified to class ‘A’ specifications. It was opened in 1942, initially as a satellite for RAF Tempsford. Going through many modifications, the original design differed greatly from the eventual layout; initially the runways not reaching the perimeter track and there being no allocation of hangar, staff accommodation or hardstand space. As a satellite station, presumably these would not have been required. However, with the expansion of Bomber Command and the need for more airfields, Gransden Lodge would eventually become much larger and much more significant. Following changes to plans and redesigns of the infrastructure, three concrete runways (NE-SW, N-S and E-W) were eventually constructed and with one at 1,600 yards and two at 1,200 yards each, they were not huge. However, these were then extended to the more usual 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards later on, when in April 1941, the government decided that every Bomber Command airfield would have to accommodate the larger four-engined aircraft. Again further development of the site was undertaken and the runways were extended.

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Part of the Track in the Technical area.

A total of 36 hardstands were constructed using the pan style design, two of which were replaced when a hangar was built during the later development stage. This would give Gransden Lodge three hangars in total, two (a B1 and T2) to the north and one T2 to the south of the airfield.

The bomb store was located to the eastern side whilst the accommodation sites were spread to the west and north-west. These 10 sites were made up of two communal, two WAAF, and six domestic sites which included sick quarters and associated premises. The technical area would be to the west. In total, Gransden Lodge could accommodate 1,867 men and 252 women ranks.

Building plan of RAF Gransden Lodge*1

Once open, Gransden Lodge would be home to eight operational RAF squadrons: 53, 97, 142, 169, 192, 405, 421 and 692 before it would finally close at the end of the Second World War.

First to arrive were the combined units of 1474 and 1418 flights, who were here between April 1942 and April 1943, conducting radio navigation tests using the new GEE system. Operating the Wellington IC, III, X, IV and Halifax IIs, they were heavily involved in radio navigation and electronic counter-measure operations. These flights would probe German radar defences, gathering information so that counter-measures could be devised allowing bomber formations safer passage to their targets. The Wellingtons used for this would fly over Germany, France, and the Low Countries and even over the Bay of Biscay, gathering information and reporting back.

Eventually, these flights would become combined forming 192 Squadron (RAF) which officially formed on 4th January 1943 here at Gransden Lodge. 192 would pass over to 100 Group and move away to RAF Feltwell on the April 5th that same year and they  would go on to gain the honour of flying more operational sorties, and as a result, suffer more casualties than any other Radio Counter Measures (RCM) squadron in the RAF.

With their departure, Gransden Lodge would then be transferred to No. 8 (PFF) Group like its sister station, RAF Graveley, whereupon its operational role would be changed for good.

The next units to arrive would only stay for 5 days. Passing through with their Mustang Is, 169 Squadron would transit on to RAF Bottisham, whilst 421 Squadron would take their Spitfire VBs to nearby RAF Fowlmere.

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An overgrown Nissen Hut.

On April 18th 1943, 97 Squadron (RAF) arrived at neighbouring RAF Bourn – but would be split over several sites. A detachment was based here are Gransden, whilst two other detachments were located at Graveley and Oakington. 97 would go onto to gain notoriety for the disastrous ‘Black Thursday’ (See RAF Bourn) operation that took the lives of many of its crews. 97 Sqn would undertake many bombing operations staying here for a year, departing Gransden Lodge on 18th April 1944, a year to the day of their arrival.

April 1943 would be a busy time for Gransden. On the 19th, a day after 97 Sqn’s arrival, 405 Squadron (RCAF) would arrive, bringing with them Halifax IIs. Formed on April 23rd 1941, 405 would fly with 6 Group until their arrival here at Gransden. Adopted by the people of Vancouver, it would be the first Canadian unit to serve with Bomber Command.

405 Sqn’s entry into the Pathfinder Group brought more experience and skill. Participating in the both the ‘1000 bomber raid’ on Cologne and conducting temporary operations with Coastal Command, 405 had seen a number of different operational conditions. Initially bringing Halifax IIs, they would take on the Lancaster I and III only four months later. 405 Squadron would be the first unit to fly the Canadian built Lancaster – named ‘The Ruhr Express’, KB700 would be the first production model Mk. X.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The first Canadian-built Lancaster B Mk X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario. IWM (CH 11041)

405 Sqn would go on to attack many high-profile targets including: Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, Düsseldorf and toward the end of hostilities, Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. They would be the last unit to attack targets in Italy and they would see action over Peenemunde.

Operating in conjunction with 97 Sqn, 405 would also fall victim to ‘Black Thursday’, when Lancaster JB477 ‘LQ-O’, would strike the ground within a stones throw of Graveley airfield killing six of the seven crew members. Two other Lancasters would also crash with fatalities that night, JB481 ‘LQ-R’ and JB369 ‘LQ-D’, – would both fail to make it home in the thick fog of ‘Black Thursday’ – truly a dark night for the Canadian Squadron.

At the end of 1944, No. 142 Squadron (RAF) would be reformed at Gransden Lodge. With an extensive Middle-Eastern history behind them, they would fly from here between 25th  October 1944 and September 28th 1945, the date of their departure a year later. Serving as apart of 8 Group (PFF) they flew Mosquito XXVs and would go on to complete 1,095 operational sorties, achieving 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s. They remained at Gransden Lodge carrying out their last raid on the night of May 2nd / 3rd 1945, finally disbanding on September 28th that year.

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The Watch Tower today.

It was during this time that Gransden’s second Mosquito squadron would arrive. 692 Squadron (RAF) would fly the MK. XIV until September that year. Moving from neighbouring Graveley, it had a short life of only 20 months. Its last casualties being March just before their arrival at Gransden.

It would be three months before any further units would be based at Gransden Lodge. On December 1st 1945, Liberator VIs of 53 Squadron (RAF) would arrive and stay for two months whilst they carried out trials of a new radar-assisted airborne mapping system. They were eventually disbanded on February 28th 1946. Their demise would mark the end of military flying at Gransden and whilst it remained in MOD hands it would not be home to any further military units.

Post war, Gransden Lodge was home to the first motor racing event using the old runways and northern section of the perimeter track. This was not to be permanent arrangement sadly and Gransden would remain disused. Military life almost returned with the escalation of the Cold War when ‘The Lodge’ was earmarked as a possible site for Cold War forces, however this never came to fruition and all continued to be quiet. Finally, in the 1960s Gransden Lodge closed it doors for good and the site was left to decay.

That was not the end of Gransden Lodge though. In the 1990s the Cambridge University Gliding Club, (now the Cambridge Gliding Club) took over the site and flying has returned once again. Small airshows have taken place and whilst gliding is the more prominent, the sound of the piston engine can once more be heard over this historic site.

Whilst little of the original infrastructure survives today, there are some good reminders of this airfield’s history to be found. After driving through Little Gransden go up the hill towards what is now the rear of the airfield, you will arrive at an old Windmill. Sitting below this Windmill is a small and rather sadly insignificant memorial dedicated to the crews and personnel who worked, died and served at RAF Gransden Lodge.  Carry on past the memorial along a small track and you finally arrive at the rear of the airfield. In front of you the barrier and beyond the barrier the former watch tower. This road would have been the main entrance to the airfield’s technical site, you can still see a number of small buildings and a picket post to the side. To the right of this a track leads off to one of the few remaining huts now heavily shrouded in weeds and undergrowth. The tower, a mere shell, has had a modern but temporary ‘watchtower’ added to its roof. Whilst in poor condition, the watch office stands overlooking what is left of the airfield towards the small flying club that keeps its aviation history alive. A small number of other buildings can be seen around here all buried beneath the undergrowth and all skeletons of their former selves.

Leave the site return back to the village bear left, and continue to follow the road round. You will eventually come to a gravel entrance on your left with a small sign pointing to the flying club.

Take this road, and traverse the potholes as you climb the hill. On your left you will pass a small selection of foundations and piles of bricks that were once part of the southern side of the airfield. Continue on from here and the road bears right, this is now the original perimeter track, follow it as it winds its way around the outside of the airfield. It’s width is greatly reduced throughout its length and only small patches of concrete tell you of its former life. As you pass the former bomb store on your right and the end of the modern grass runways, bear left where you will finally arrive at the flying club. Here  a collection of small aircraft and gliders will greet you. A small modern watchtower and clubhouse watch over the aircraft and the airfield as gliders take to the sky.

On warm summer days, or when  the thermals are good, this is a lovely place to sit and watch in awe as the majestic birds of the sky float silently above this once busy wartime airfield. A small club house provides refreshments and a welcome break from the dusty road that leads here.

As you depart the club, and drive back round the perimeter track, you can see in the distance, the control tower standing proud on the horizon, what memories it must hold and stories it could tell.

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The Stained Glass window in St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Before departing this site for good, it is worth going to Great-Gransden and the church of Saint Bartholomew. Within its walls is a beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates those who served at Gransden Lodge. Also placed nearby is the roll of honour detailing those individuals who gave their lives whilst serving here. A fitting and well deserved memorial, it forms an excellent record of those long gone.

The villages of Little and Great-Gransden bear virtually  no reminders of their local aviation history. Delightful in their settings, nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside, their secrets are bound tightly within their boundaries, but the airfield and the flying, still live on.

We finally leave here and head west to another ‘hilltop’ site. One that boasts one of the most prestigious memorials in the country. An open site with superb views over the Cambridgeshire countryside, we head to the former American base – RAF Steeple Morden.

Notes:

*1 Photo courtesy of RAF museum

The Cambridge Gliding Club website can be accessed here.

Aircrews struck at the Very Heart of the Gestapo

In this trail we head to the south once more, to the west of Harlow and to two wartime airfields, one of which played a major part in striking a blow at the very heart of the Nazi regime.

Hertfordshire is an area rich in commuters to both London and the technological towns of Harlow and Bishops Stortford. Being north of London, it is also close to Stansted airport, another ex World War 2 airfield.

It has some beautiful countryside, delightful little villages and quaint country pubs. It is also an area with a wealth of history.

Our first stop is a small airfield nestled in the heart of the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside behind the village that gives it its name, RAF Hunsdon.

RAF Hunsdon

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The Hunsdon Village sign reflects its history and links to the RAF.

RAF Hunsdon was built between October 1940 and March 1941, it was a constructed with two concrete runways, one N/S initially of 1,250 (extended to 1,450 yds) and the main E/W of 1,450 yds (also extended by a further 300 yds). Aircraft dispersals amounted to 18 hardstands, 16 Blister hangars around the perimeter, a Bellman Hangar, fuel dump and accommodation for up to 440 airmen and about 270 WAAFs, in 8 dispersed sites.

Hunsdon is within a stones throw of London and its main role was that of night fighter operations. A number of operational units (in excess of 25) would pass though it doors during it relatively short life, including: 3, 21, 29, 85, 151, 154, 157, 264, 287, 409 (RCAF), 410 (RCAF), 418 (RCAF), 442, (RCAF), 464 (RAAF), 487 (RNZAF), 488 (RNZAF), 501, 515, 530 (initially 1451 Turbinlite flight), and 611sqn, providing Hunsdon with a multinational mixture of crews.

The first unit to arrive was that of 85 sqn with Douglas Havocs IIs, followed by Mosquitos II, XV and XIIs; other models to be seen at Hunsdon included: Hurricanes, Defiants, Beaufighters, and the Mustang to name but a few. 85 Squadron, which went on to a long and distinguished career, staying for two years from May 1941 to May 1943 before moving to West Malling where it continued its night fighter role. 85 sqn was eventually disbanded in 1990/91.

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The Parachute store now holds farm machinery.

The first DH Mosquito, for which Hunsdon is most commonly known, arrived in 1943 with Mosquito VIs. Around this point, the Air Ministry decided to form a new wing designated 140 Wing RAF. This wing would consist of 21 Squadron (RAF), 464 squadron (RAAF) and 487 squadron (RNZAF) all based at Hunsdon and would be part of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) designed to support troops in the forthcoming invasion.

Between 1944 and 1945 140 Wing would carry out a number of daring low-level bombing raids against key Gestapo buildings and prisons in occupied Europe. These famous raids were designed to free captive resistance fighters and destroy important Gestapo documents. Operation Carthage took place in Denmark and occurred whilst the wing was based at RAF Fersfield in 1945, but the first, Operation Jericho, was whilst they were based at Hunsdon in early 1944.

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Pill boxes of various types, line the perimeter of the airfield.

On February 18th that year, 19 Mosquitos including a photo reconnoissance model, led by Group Captain Percy C. Pickard (DSO and two bars, DFC), took off to attack, breech or destroy the walls and main building of the Amiens prison*1. A famously brave act, it resulted in the death of 3 crew members; G.Capt. Percy C. Pickard, and F. Lt. John A. Broadley, (RNZAF), both in Mosquito HX922, ‘EG-F’;  and F. Lt. Richard W. Samson, (RNZAF) in Mosquito MM404, ‘SB-T’. Samson’s pilot, S. Ldr. A. I. McRitchie survived his crash and was taken as a prisoner of war. Two Typhoons escorting the Mosquitos also failed to return home. Considered a success at the time, evidence has since come to light to suggest that the operation was ‘unnecessary’ and may have failed to achieve anything more than a successful PR role.

A further significant role that Hunsdon was to take part in, was that of the Turbinlite Trials. These were relatively unsuccessful as aircraft operations, and were soon withdrawn as better radar equipped fighters were produced. The idea behind Turbinlite was to adapt an aircraft, initially the Havoc II, or Boston III with the fitting of a large 2,700 million candle searchlight to the front of the aircraft. These would then fly at night, locate enemy bombers whereupon escorting fighters would shoot them down. Several adaptations attempted to improve the ‘kill’ rate but to no avail. At Hunsdon, this unique method of fighter interception was carried out by 530 Sqn (initially 1451 Flight), who were formed on 8th September 1942. As one of ten Turbinlite squadrons,  they did not last and were disbanded only four months later on 25th January 1943.

As the war progressed and the end was in sight, Hunsdon’s role changed to that of long-range fighter escort, all be it for a brief period. P-51 Mustangs would operate escorting bombers deep into enemy territory before the conflict finally ceased in 1945.

Hunsdon then closed to operational activity very quickly, being used to receive returning men and materials up until mid 1946 whereupon it was placed into Care and Maintenance and quickly ran down. The tower was demolished very soon after the war ended, and the site was returned to agriculture. In total, Hunsdon’s crews accounted for over 220 enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged – a remarkable feat in any squadron’s chapter.

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Remnants of the main runway looking West.

Today Hunsdon remains one of the more accessible airfields of Britain. A number of public footpaths criss-cross its boundaries allowing unprecedented access to it. It is still an active site, a small microlight operation exists here and has done since 1997. Using three small grass runways it has brought life, in albeit a small part, back to this old wartime airfield.

The perimeter track and narrow sections of all its runways still exist today and can be walked using a variety of footpaths. Along these paths and off to the sides can still be seen examples of runway lighting, drainage, inspection covers and even a small number of buildings.

The parachute store is one of the most notable of these, used by the farmer for storage, it is located at the north-western side of the airfield near to the former admins site and where the tower would have stood before being torn down. Also near here is the fire tender shed, now home to the local shooting club, a number of latrines \ wash blocks can also be found hidden amongst the trees to the south-east. The battle headquarters rests nestled amongst the crops still watching over the site, and small defence trenches and shelters can be found to the north and again these are visible from public footpaths. A number of airfield defences buildings in the form of pill boxes and an Oakington style pillbox can also be found around the site.

Many of these examples are buried amongst the undergrowth and are most easily seen in winter when the thorns and vegetation are at their lowest. Careful searching will also reveal a number of minor archeological examples but again best in the winter when crops and weeds are minimal.

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An air-raid shelter no longer covered with soil.

To the northern side of the airfield, next to where the microlight site is based, is a memorial to the crews of all nationalities who were based here all those years ago. Formed from a propeller boss of a Mosquito, it was donated to by the former Mosquito Museum (now de Havilland Aircraft Museum – Trail 5), it stands proud looking down what was the length of the secondary runway. A further memorial plaque can also be found on the wall of the village hall.

Hunsdon is a small site with a big history. It played a large part in trials of new innovations, carried out night intruder missions, and attacked with daring at low-level, at the very heart of the Gestapo. Hunsdon and its crews proudly earned their place in the annals of world history.

After walking Hunsdon we travel the short distance to the north-east to the outskirts of Bishop Stortford and a little known about airfield that is all but gone. We go to RAF Sawbridgeworth.

*1 – There is some debate as to the validity of the Amiens raid, one of the French Resistance fighters has now revealed his doubts, and that it may have been some propaganda or diversionary attack. A book has been written by author Simon Parry and historian Dr Jean-Pierre Ducellier entitled The Amiens Raid – Secrets Revealed‘ and is published by Red Kite.