The Last Word to Guy Gibson

I’ve just finished reading “Enemy Coast Ahead”, written by Guy Gibson VC DSO DFC, and would recommend it to anyone interested in the man or the missions.

At the end, there is a very poignant comment made by Gibson following the Dams raid when the remaining eight of the original sixteen aircraft were returning home to Scampton. It made me think, and at this festive time, I leave you with his words which are abundant with significance. One related quotation, quite often attributed to Winston Churchill, but first used by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, reflect  in Gibson’s own words. 

“Why must we make war every twenty-five years? Why must men fight? How can we stop it? Can we make countries live normal lives in a peaceful way?” But no one knows the answer to that one. 

The answer may lie in being strong. A powerful, strategic bomber force based so that it would control the vital waterways of the world, could prevent and strangle the aggressor from the word ‘Go’. But it rests with the people themselves; for it is the people who forget. After many years they will probably slip and ask for disarmament so that they can do away with taxes and raise their standard of living. If the people forget, they bring wars on themselves, and they can blame no one but themselves.

 Yes, the decent people of this world would have to remember war. movies and radio records should remind this and the future generations of what happened between 1936 and 1942. It should be possible to keep this danger in everyone’s mind so that we can never be caught on the wrong foot again. So that our children will have a chance to live. After all, that is why we are born. We aren’t born to die.

A sincere thanks to everyone who has followed Aviation Trails. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very peaceful New Year.

Andy

 

“Enemy Coast Ahead”, Guy Gibson, Published by Goodall Paperback from Crecy Publishing, 1986 ISBN 9780907579625

Advertisements

An airfield that holds a tremendous history, yet little exists.

In this revised trip, we go back to Woodhall Spa, and visit the former Bomber Command airfield, famed for its crews, missions and aircraft. Woodhall Spa is a remarkable airfield, yet it is hardly known, or recognisable today.

RAF Woodhall Spa was originally built as a satellite to RAF Coningsby a short distance away, and opened on 1st February 1942. It was built with three concrete runways; two of 1,480 yds (1,353 m) and a third and main runway of 2,075yds (1,897 m) all 50yds (46 m) wide. The site like other Standard ‘A’ class airfields had two T2 hangars and one B1, thirty-six pan-style hardstandings and numerous support buildings scattered around its perimeter. Accommodation was spread over 7 sites, along with a WAAF, sick quarters and 2 communal sites all located to the south-east. The technical and administrative sites were also to the south-east side of the airfield between the accommodation areas and the main airfield.

A bomb store was well to the north and the main entrance to the north-west. A range of accommodation and technical style hut styles were used, Laing / Nissen / Seco and a Watch Tower to drawing 15956/40.

aerial photo

An aerial photograph of Woodhall Spa taken post war. The B1 and T2 hangers can be seen to the north-west, a further T2 to the south. The accommodation block are below the frame. (Taken from a photo at the Thorpe Camp museum).

One remarkable features of Woodhall Spa was the installation of 6 arrester gear units on the runways. These were designed to prevent aircraft overshooting the runway and were installed during the building programme. Some 120 units were manufactured in all but only a handful of sites had them. On October 22nd 1942, the Woodhall Spa units were tested using an Avro Manchester from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and all went well. However, as the war progressed, reservations were registered about such a technique and the units were never used ‘operationally’ in any of the allocated sites.

At the same time that Woodhall Spa opened, the newly equipped Lancaster (Mk I & III) squadron, 97 Sqn, moved from RAF Coningsby into RAF Woodhall Spa and within a month were flying operations from their new home. However, their first operation, mine laying, was to be fatal for three aircraft, cashing on the journey home. This was not to be the general theme for 97 Sqn though. For the next year they would prove themselves more than capable, hitting many targets accurately with bravery and courage.

Lancaster Mk I ‘R5495’ OF-N of 97 Sqn Woodhall Spa, bombs up. This aircraft was shot down over Essen 8th/9th June 1942, the crew were all killed.*1

The following March (1943) the main bulk of 97 Sqn moved to Bourn to form part of the new Pathfinder force, with detachments at Graveley, Gransden Lodge, Oakington and a further section remaining at Woodhall.  On April 18th 1943, 619 Sqn was formed from the Woodhall Spa detachment retaining their Lancaster Is and IIIs. However, their stay was very short; they moved out to Coningsby in January 1944 and were replaced overnight by the famous 617 (Dambusters) Sqn*2.

During their year here, 619 Sqn would prove themselves further in raids over the Ruhr, Düsseldorf, Oberhausen and Krefeld. Casualties were light during these early missions, but in the following August (1943) the RAF a mounted a massive raid consisting of 596 aircraft on the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde. Three of the twelve aircraft sent by 619 Sqn would fail to return.

DSC_0174

The bomb shelter now flooded and inaccessible.

When 619 Sqn moved out, 617 Sqn moved in. Lead by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, 617 Sqn were the elite of 5 Group, Bomber Command and accordingly were to be assigned some of the most difficult and outright dangerous precision bombing missions.

Throughout 1944, 617 Sqn would have many near misses, and losses, ranging from low-level bird strikes to fighter attacks and flak. Targets varied considerably including those at: Limoge (aircraft engine factory), the Antheor Viaduct, Albert, St. Etienne and Metz (aircrafts parts factories); many using the new ‘Tall Boy’ 12,000lb bomb.

On 15th April 1944, 617 Squadron were joined by 627 Sqn and obtained some D.H. Mosquito VIs, using these to good effect in the Pathfinder role while their Lancasters continued with the bombing. In June, they had a small respite from bombing missions and on the day of the Allied Invasion, they were tasked with dropping ‘Window’ over the Pas-de-Calais to fool the Germans into believing the invasion force would strike there.

DSC_0162

A handful of huts and buildings remain.

Throughout the remainder of 1944, 617 Sqn continued to use ‘conventional’ and Tall Boy  bombs on prestige targets like U-boat pens and the Samur Tunnel. Cheshire found himself handed a P-51, and after having it unpacked and engine tested, he used it to mark a V1 target to which 617 struck a devastating blow.

Further major targets were to befall the wrath of 617 Sqn. Flying 2,100 miles to a forward operating base at Yagodonik with Lancasters from 9 Sqn, they attacked the German main Battleship the ‘Tirpitz’. During the mission, for which they had long-range fuel tanks, of the 38 aircraft that set off, six were to crash on the outward journey, one turn back and one to crash on the return. The Tirpitz however was to remain ‘unsinkable’ for some time. It would take two more return trips by 617 Sqn from Lossiemouth to finally sink the ship, the last being on 12th November 1944, with the loss of 1000 German sailors.

Bombing and pathfinder operations for Woodhall spa crews continued right up to the end of the war. Early that year they would start to use the new ‘Grand Slam’ 22,000lb bomb, with their last operational fatality being on 16th April 1945. That was not the end for Woodhall Spa though. The famous Guy Gibson drove here and ‘borrowed’ a Mosquito of 627 Sqn against a backdrop of changed minds, mishaps and misjudgments, the resulting crash leaving him dead.

DSC_0181

Brick walls outline former structures.

Woodhall closed soon after the war ended, but it was identified as a suitable location for Britain’s air defence missile the ‘Bloodhound’ and on May 1st 1960, Woodhall Spa became the base of 222 Sqn with Bloodhound MkI missiles. These were disbanded in June 1964 and replaced by Bloodhound Mk IIs of 112 Sqn on November 2nd 1964. These stayed until 1st october 1967 when they moved to Episkopi in Cyprus.

After the removal of the Bloodhound squadron, the RAF continued to use a small site near to the main entrance, utilising the 617 Sqn T2 hangar and other ancillary buildings as an engine maintenance and testing facility. This too has since closed and the main use is now as a quarry.

Missile site

Map showing the location of the Bloodhound Missile Site (Photo of the display at the museum).

A long and distinguished life, Woodhall Spa’s operational losses totalled 91 aircraft, of which 74 were Lancasters and 17 Mosquitos. Daring and brave crews, they gave their all for freedom and the love of flying.

Today little exists of this former airfield. Being a quarry and partly MOD land it is not accessible to the general public. Most of the buildings have long since gone and the runways mostly dug up. A few minor concrete ‘side roads’ are in situ and with searching some evidence can be found. The tower was demolished just after the war as were many of the other buildings and huts. Although there are steps being taken to turn whats left into a nature reserve (see post dated 4th July 2015) it really is too late for this airfield with its incredible history. The best remnants can be seen a little way to the south-east at the former No 1 communal site at Thorpe Camp.

DSC_0166

The former NAAFI for 469 airmen and 71 officers.

A small number of buildings remain here utilised now as a museum. These include a war-time NAAFI able to accommodate 469 airmen and 71 officers, the ablutions block, ration store and various Nissen huts. A bomb shelter is also here, now flooded and blocked off along with other part brick structures.

In the adjacent woods, the airmen’s quarters and other buildings can be found, now derelict and in a dangerous condition. Odd buildings are scattered about the various sites but these too are few and far between.

Considering the history of Woodhall Spa, the men who flew from here, the operations they undertook, the testing of revolutionary equipment, the new and deadly bombs, it has suffered possibly greater than most and much of this history, if it were not for the Thorpe Camp museum, would now be lost forever. Perhaps if it becomes a nature reserve in part, then maybe, just maybe, the footsteps of those who were stationed here may once again be walked by others and their memories brought back to life.

*1 Author unknown, photo from http://www.aircrewremembered.com/hughes-mervyn.html, August 2015

*2 617 Squadron are most famous for the raid on the Ruhr dams in Operation Chastise ‘Operation Chastise’ carried out on 17 May 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

This is an updated trail part of Trail 1 Lower Lincolnshire. For the other places on this trip see here.

1940s revisited

A little more light-hearted look at the 1940s away form the disused airfields of Britain.

These last two years have been significant years in terms of both the First and Second World Wars. With the 100th anniversary  of the start of WWI last year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, VE-day and of course to come VJ-day commemorations, there has been an understandable increase in interest in all things Second World War.

One thing I have noticed in particular, is the increase in numbers at 1940s weekends, in both participants and visitors.

DSC_0008

Vehicles of all shapes and sizes came for the weekend.

I myself have been to two recently, and at one I got the chance to sit in a Spitfire cockpit. Not something you do every day!

I know these events are not to everyone’s taste and some will groan at the thought of it, but I do think there is an historical value to them. Many of the participants only use genuine clothing or equipment, much of what you see is rare and in all cases they are only too keen to talk about what they have, its history, how and where it was used and in some cases, allow you to hold the articles in question.

DSC_0010

The rumbling of tanks could be heard once more.

From another perspective, and for those of you who know my day job, there are too, a growing number of children attending these events which I believe is a good thing as it brings history to life – something that is very difficult in a school classroom. A gun in school? I can see the headline now!

Two events I recently attended, both for different reasons, were at Woodhall Spa and Baston, two small villages in ‘Bomber country’, Lincolnshire.

Woodhall Spa was the home to the Dambusters, and for one weekend each year the entire village steps back in time to the 1940s. A second invasion occurs. Walking along the high street is like walking along in 1940, uniforms of every description can be seen, from RAF aircrew to British Army, U.S. infantry, Canadian, and even a variety of Russian, Luftwaffe and German infantry. Even the 1940s housewife, ‘spiv’, Firemen, Policeman and Milkman are represented in full 1940s attire. Many of the vehicles that line the numerous side streets are authentic World War II vehicles, half-tracks, trucks, endless jeeps and even the odd small tank driven here on trailers or under their own steam. Owners have taken a lot of time and money to get them rebuilt and keep them going.

DSC_0018

Re-enactors were everywhere

At the Petwood Hotel, used by 617 Squadron as a mess and officers quarters, there are re-enactments, talks and even ‘briefings’ in a 1940s style. The BBMF perform short displays over the grounds of this small village adding to the feel and as always people stop and watch in awe as once again a Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota fly low over the streets of this small Lincolnshire village.

Inside the Petwood, you can wander the rooms that 617 Sqn once wandered by Guy Gibson and his crews; drink a tea or refreshing beer in the same room they did. The Squadron bar, displays numerous letters, photographs and other memorabilia connected with 617’s stay here. It is a remarkable place to be, knowing you walk the same ground as those special crew members did some 70 years ago.

July 2015 008

The Squadron bar.

Outside in the manicured gardens among the rhododendrons singers perform the many songs that inspired a nation, bolstered our morale and kept us going through those dark days of the Second World War. The feel is very much 1940s.

DSC_0001

Spitfire that is about 80% original.

Baston was very much the same. A large participation of re-enactors, vehicles and uniforms, many rasing money, good money, for War Veterans – a valuable cause I’d say. But it is the most odd feeling to walk amongst uniforms that once fought to the death and that were feared by those who were governed by them. In the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain came so close to being invaded, today an invasion has taken place.

Whether you like them or not, these events do have a place in our ‘living history’ and thankfully now, at least, it is on friendly terms.

In Honour of the 55,573 Young Men Who Never Returned

RAF Bomber Command – Green Park,

London

The Bomber Command memorial was erected in honour of the 55,573 crew members of the RAF Bomber Command who died during the Second World War. It stands as a reminder of the young men, whose average age was only 22, and who never returned to their beloved homes. It was unveiled by the Queen, on June 28th 2012, when a Lancaster bomber of the BBMF flew over dropping thousands of poppies.

RAF Bomber Command Memorial

RAF Bomber Command Memorial

The monument can be found in London adjacent to Green Park. It stands proudly watching over the grassed picnic area where picnickers, shoppers and tourists sit. The main part of the monument is a bronze sculpture consisting of seven members of a typical bomber command aircrew.

Perhaps not obviously noticed, some of the crew are looking to the sky, some with hands to shield from the morning sun, as if looking for missing friends. Others are looking downward, perhaps in despair or fear for those not yet home. The stance of the statues suggests a crew recently returned from a mission who have just disembarked from their damaged aircraft. Tired, bewildered and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed, they have been created in precise and superb detail.

The Pilot stands central and to the rear of the group; the navigator to the left, followed by the flight engineer, mid-upper gunner, bomb aimer, rear gunner and then the wireless operator to the right. Their faces reflecting the feelings and emotions that these young men felt. The base of the statues were ‘littered’ with photos of loved ones and messages from around the world. A moving tribute.

RAF Bomber Command Crest "Strike hard, Strike Sure"

RAF Bomber Command Crest “Strike Hard, Strike Sure”

Outside and on the walls of the memorial, are two crests; on the left, the RAF crest “Per Ardua ad Astra” meaning “Through adversity to the Stars“. The crest has its origins going back to August 1st 1918 and has been the symbol of the RAF ever since. On the right, is the crest of Bomber Command whose motto is “Strike Hard, Strike Sure“. Both beautifully carved into the undoubtedly beautiful Portland Stone.

A number of quotes, including one from Winston Churchill, “The Fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory” surround the memorial giving  it strength. A further quote, to the rear of the memorial reflects the losses of all nations, who on the ground, lost lives as a result of bombing campaigns on both sides – a reflection of reconciliation and peaceful times ahead.

The roof above the memorial is open. This allows you to see the figures against a backdrop of sky, whether at day or night, rather than the bustling city behind.  A view more representative of the times they lived and flew in.

The remainder of the roof is similar to the kriss cross design of the Vickers Wellington, one of the RAF’s bombers during World War II. The design is both eye-catching and unique, not only to the memorial but the Wellington from which it came.

The building of the memorial, which is truly a mix of emotion, international representation, and a build that reflects the lives of those affected by the war, is considered as closure for many; a symbol of what the young crews had to endure on long missions over occupied Europe. It also serves to act as a lesson to the those who were too young to know what the war meant to those who fought and died in it. It is A beautiful place to sit and give thanks to those 55,573 brave young men who never lived to experience peacetime again.

IMG_0426

RAF Bomber Command Memorial – Note the Roof Design.

The official Bomber Command Memorial website is here. An app is also available for a small fee that goes part way to supporting the maintenance of the memorial, it gives greater detail to the construction and design of the memorial, along with an audio script and stories from survivors of Bomber Command.

A history of the RAF Crest and its derivations can be found by clicking here.

By clicking here, you can see and hear some stories of those to whom the monument is honouring.

  “The Fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory

Winston Churchill, 1940

To see more memorials from airfields around the country please click here