September 26th 1942, a near tragedy for three RAF Squadrons.

The Eagle Squadrons were three RAF Squadrons made up of American volunteers, their achievements and records are well-known and well documented, however, it was not all plain sailing for these determined and courageous flyers. For one Squadron in particular, 133 Squadron, September 26th 1942 would be a disaster, a disaster that would almost wipe out the entire flight of twelve airmen.

133 Squadron had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving at RAF Great Sampford, a satellite for RAF Debden. The ground crews were predominately British, assisting and training the US ground crews in aircraft maintenance and support. All the pilots however, were US volunteers, formed into three separate squadrons but under RAF control.

1st Lt Dominic 'Don' Gentile and Spitfire BL255 'Buckeye-Don', 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF.

1st Lt Dominic ‘Don’ Gentile and Spitfire BL255 ‘Buckeye-Don’. The photo was taken after 133 Squadron RAF was disbanded and absorbed into the USAAF as the, 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF. (@IWM)

133 Squadron would arrive at RAF Great Sampford on September 23rd 1942, the same day as 616 Sqn RAF departed, they would be the last operational unit to fully use the airfield before its eventual closure.

Initially flying the Spitfire VBs, they soon replaced them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise. It was so new and improved, that it remained on the secret list until after this particular operational flight.

On that fateful day, September 26th 1942, fourteen Spitfires of 133 Sqn took off from RAF Great Sampford in Essex, piloting those Spitfires were:

BS313 – F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) The only British pilot and leader
BS275 – P/O. Leonard T. Ryerson (O-885137)
BS446 – P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113)
BS137 – P/O. Dennis D. Smith (O-885128)
BR638 – P/O. G.B. Sperry (O-885112)
BS445 – P/O. Dominic “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile (O-885109)
BS138 – P/O. Gilbert G. Wright (?)
BS279 – F/Lt. Marion E. Jackson (O-885117)
BS447 – P/O. R.E. Smith (O-885110)
BR640 – P/O. C.A. Cook (O-885112)
BS148 – P/O. Richard “Bob” N. Beaty (?)
BS301 – P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr (O-885127)
BS140 – P/O. Gene P. Neville (O-885129)
Unknown  – P/O. Ervin “Dusty” Miller (O-885138) (not listed but known to have been on the flight).

They were to fly to RAF Bolt Head in Devon, where they would meet with 401 Squadron (RCAF) and 64 Squadron RAF, refuel and be briefed for the mission. A mission that was supposed to be straight forward and relatively uneventful.

The aim of the mission was to escort US bombers to Morlaix on the Brest peninsula. The usual commander of 133 Sqn, Red McColpin, was not placed in charge that day, instead he had been posted, and a British Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, was issued with the task.

McColpin was a strict disciplinarian and his leadership was admired by those who followed him. Without this leadership, 133’s preparation was slack and they ultimately paid the price for this.

After landing at 12:30 hours, they realised there were no facilities at Bolt Head for refuelling, and they would have to go with what they had. This would kick-start a catalogue of errors that would ultimately seal the fate of the flight. Following a briefing in which Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC and all but two of 133 Sqn pilots had failed to show up for, the flight (which included the sixteen 401 (RCAF) Squadron Spitfire IXs from RAF Kenley) took off at 13:50 hours. Of the fourteen 133 Sqn Spitfires sent to Bolt Head, only twelve would be needed, and two pilots were instructed to remain at Bolt Head, they were P/O. Ervin Miller, and P/O. Don “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile, they would be the luckiest two men of the squadron that day.

The briefing, a very vague and rushed one, instructed the flight to carry out a ‘Circus‘ mission escorting seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, who were bombing Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix in Brittany. When the squadron took off the weather was clear, and winds were predicted to be 35 mph at 24,000 feet, but 5 miles off the English coast, they encountered 10/10th cumulus cloud cover at 7,000 feet, and so had to climb above it so that they could locate the bombers more easily.

The take of was a mess, disorganised and lacking both radio information and in many cases maps, the aircraft were lucky not to collide with each other.

Of the three RAF squadrons involved in the mission, 401 would take the high position, 133 the middle and 64 Squadron, the lower. They were to form up over Bolt Head at 2,000 feet and then head at 200o at 180 mph to overtake the bombers before they arrived at the target. If they could not locate the bombers, the flight was to circle the target for three minutes and then depart.

As the flight approached the rendezvous area, one 133 Squadron Spitfire had to drop out of formation and return home, as he had encountered engine problems; this problem was thought to be due to his low fuel. The remainder of the flight  scanned the skies for any sign of the bomber formation, and after searching for some 45 minutes, they spotted the bombers, some 50 miles south of Brest. The bombers had in fact already turned for home after having discarded their bombs near to the Pyrenees.

By now the 301st BG had been recalled, as their fighter escort failed to materialise, whilst the 97th BG had continued on. However, due to the heavy cloud cover over the target area, they had been ineffective as no bombing of the target had taken place. The American bombers, who were only three months into their European air war, had inadvertently miscalculated a tail wind putting them off track well away from the Bay of Biscay.

1st Lt George H Middleton Jr 336FS, 4FG, 8AF USAAF. Former Eagle Sqn Spitfire pilot.

P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr of 133 Squadron RAF was shot down and taken Prisoner of War (@IWM).

The three squadrons formed up on the bombers at just after 16:45 hours, with 64 Squadron on the port side, 401 Squadron on the starboard and 133 Squadron behind. The whole formation then flew north for 30 minutes, at which point it became evident that the wind speed was in fact over 100 mph, and not the 35 mph as stated by the Meteorological Office, or at the briefing! It has since been revealed that this information was known to those in authority, but it had not been passed down the chain of command and the pilots were never informed.

The formation then spotted land, the bombers thought they were over Falmouth and turned right. 64 and 401 Squadron broke away maintaining height, but 133 Squadron dropped down below the cloud base and prepared to land.

133 Squadron then began to search for the airfield, and after searching in vain, they found a large town, this they hoped would give them the vital fix they desperately needed. Flying low over the houses they realised they were not over England at all but in fact still over France. The flight, uninformed of the 100 mph north-easterly wind at their altitude, had also been blown wildly off course, and after 1.5 hours flying time, the situation had suddenly become very severe indeed.

The Squadron flight Leader, Flight Lieutenant E.G. Brettell, wanting to ascertain his exact position, called up a ground direction finding station who provided a  bearing and heading – 100 miles off the English coast with a homing vector of 020o. It was at this point they suddenly realised they were over the port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German occupation.

Immediately, the sky filled with flak and small arms anti-aircraft fire. The pilot in the number 2 position, Pilot Officer Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140, took a direct and fatal hit, he was killed instantly. Three other aircraft were to be shot down in the melee that followed: Pilot Officer William H Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; Pilot Officer Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and Pilot Officer Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294 – all four were killed, and all four were awarded the Purple Heart.

2nd Lt. Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

The remainder of 133 Squadron struggling to defend themselves, they scattered and were forced to land out of fuel, either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

Of the seven 133 squadron pilots who crash landed on French soil, five were known to have been captured immediately and taken prisoner: P/O. G.B. Sperry; F/Lt.  Edward Brettell; F/Lt. M.E. Jackson; P/O. C.A. Cook and P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr., with a sixth, P/O. G.G. Wright, evading the Germans for several days before being captured later on.

Of these initial five, F/Lt. Jackson was injured in his crash and hospitalised for eight weeks. He was then taken to Stalag Luft III from where he was able to escape for about ten days by jumping from the roof of his cell house into a lorry load of evergreen branches that were being taken away from the camp.

Another Pilot, F/Lt.  Edward Brettell  DFC. was executed for his part in the Great Escape from the same prison camp, Stalag Luft III, whilst P/O. Robert E. Smith, the last remaining pilot, managed to abandon his aircraft evading capture, eventually returning to England on 18th January 1943.

The pilot who turned back early due to his own engine problems,  P/O. Robert Beatty,  crash landed his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel over the Channel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal and was able to give an account of the mission through what he heard over the radio.

Several of the 401 Squadron pilots,  who had continued on, also reported being low on fuel and gave their intention to bail out before land was finally sighted. One of these, P/O. Junius L. Hokan (s/n: J/6833), did have to bail out over the sea, he was last seen in a gradual dive, his aircraft heading seaward. His body was never recovered. Others in the flight that day only just made land fall, one crashed and was taken to hospital where he recovered from his injuries, the others just managed to reach either RAF Bolt Head or RAF Harrowbeer. The Operational Record Books for 401 Squadron state that “many casualties were avoided by the clear thinking and cool behaviour of all members of our Squadron“.

A full report of the days tragic events was issued to Fighter Command Headquarters by Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC, Squadron Leader Gaze and Squadron leader K. Hodson DFC.

The effect on those left behind in 133 Squadron was devastating. The result of poor preparation, inadequate briefings and sub-standard communication between the Met. Office and Fighter Command had cost many lives, and very nearly many, many more. A number of postings to the Far East soon followed, and many lessons weren’t that day that led to improvements preventing such a tragedy ever happening again.

133 Squadron would continue to operate after this, transferring over to the USAAF being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, three days later as planned, leaving both RAF Great Sampford and the sad memories of that very tragic day far behind.

S/L Gordon Brettell 133 Eagle Squadron

S/L Gordon Brettell, 133 Eagle Squadron, executed for his part in the Great Escape breakout at Stalag Luft III  (@IWM UPL 25574)

Sources and further reading.

Great Sampford appears in Trail 50.

National Archives: Operational Record Book 133 Sqn – AIR 27/945/2

National Archives: Operational Record Book 401 Sqn – AIR 27/1772/17

National Archives: Operational record Book 64 Sqn – AIR 27/590/41

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

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Great Sampford – A disaster for the U.S. “Eagles”.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

Pilot Officer Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford.

RAF Debden (Part 3) – The USAAF Arrives.

After Part 1 and Part 2 of the trail, we find that Debden has a new owner, the USAAF. Its fortunes change and it becomes home to one of the most famous Fighter Groups of the Second World War.

121 Sqn, were reformed in 1941 at Kirton-in-Lindsey, initially with the Hurricane MK. I, and then IIBs moving on to the Spitfire IIA and eventually the VB; a model they brought with them to Debden. 71 Squadron had been formed at Church Fenton, and after moving through a series of stations that included Martlesham Heath, they arrived at Debden on 3rd May 1942 also with the Spitfire VB. On September 29th 1942 the two RAF units along a with a third, the 133 Sqn at Great Sampford,  were officially disbanded, but the men of the three units were not dispersed. Instead they absorbed into the USAAF as the 4th Fighter Group (FG). The men of these squadrons were all originally US volunteers who formed the three  American ‘Eagle Squadrons‘ operating within the Royal Air Force.

The 4th FG was specially created to take these three squadrons, they were brought together at Debden where they became the 334th (71 Sqn), 335th (121 Sqn) and 336th (133 Sqn) Fighter Squadrons (FS).  Debden would then be passed from the RAF to the USAAF, the transition of which, would be smooth and relatively uneventful, the units retaining the Spitfires they already had before replacing them with P-47s later in 1943.

A Spitfire Mk. V (QP-V) of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group. Handwritten caption on reverse: '1942. 334 FS. 4th FG.'

A Spitfire Mk. V (QP-V) of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group. (IWM)

The handover of ownership of Debden took place on the 12th September 1942, with an official ceremony on the 29th to coincide with the disbandment of the RAF units. During this ceremony both Major General Spatz and Brigadier General Hunter were joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas of the RAF’s Fighter Command, to see Debden and the aircrews officially joining the ranks of the USAAF. Initially little changed after the handover, the most prominent feature being the removal of the RAF roundels and the application of the US Star on the aircraft’s fuselage and wings. New ground crews were brought in and trained by RAF personnel to maintain the Spitfires, and so RAF crews remained on site until such times as the American were in position to become self-sufficient.

As these crews had been involved in front line operations for some time – the 71st having gathered a total of over half the 73.5 kills recorded by the three squadrons – they were immediately made operational and went on performing in the duties they had been so adept at completing thus far. So proud of their origins were they, that the 4th FG stood out from their fellow Americans both in the way they flew, and the way they behaved.

With their first mission under the ‘Stars and Stripes’ on October 2nd, they would not have to wait long before seeing action once again. The Eagle Squadrons would become famous throughout the war, achieving many records in aerial combat over the next three years. Taking part in the Normandy invasion, aerial battles over Northern France, the Ardennes, the Rhineland, and over Berlin itself; they would not be short of combat experience. Throughout their time the 4th FG would achieve many ‘firsts’. They were the oldest fighter group of the Eighth Air Force, and their combined totals of  enemy aircraft destroyed both in the air and on the ground was the highest of the entire USAAF. They were also the top scoring Allied Fighter Group of the war, destroying 1016 enemy aircraft for a loss of 241 of their own aircraft, many of which were due to flak. They would be the first unit to engage the enemy in air battles over both Paris and Berlin, and they would be the first US Eighth AF Group to penetrate German airspace – a record they established on 28th July 1943. The 4th would also be the first fighter group to be selected to escort the heavy bombers of the USAAF on their first shuttle run, landing in Russia before returning home.

Not only did they undertake many ‘firsts’, but the 4th FG gained an undeniable reputation, between the 5th March and 24th April 1944 they earned a Distinguished Unit Citation when they shot down 189 enemy aircraft whilst destroying 134 on the ground. You cannot mention the 4th without mentioning the name of Donald M. Blakeslee, credited with 16 kills, he was a brilliant fighter pilot who retired from the USAAF as a Colonel. Blakeslee was considered one of finest combat fighter leaders of the Second World War who shunned publicity even refusing to paint ‘kills’ on his aircraft, and he was known, on several occasions, to give kills to rookie airmen. Blakeslee initially flew in 401 Sqn (RCAF) before transferring to 133 Sqn and then the USAAF when they transferred across. He was a remarkable man, a great leader who was looked up to by all those who flew with him, he sadly died in September 2008 leaving a daughter. All-in-all, the 4th achieved quite a remarkable record considering they were initially volunteers of the American air war in Europe.

The 4th FG would remain at Debden thought the war, leaving it only when the RAF required the return of the airfield in July 1945, at which point the whole group packed up and departed for Steeple Morden in Cambridgeshire.

Airmen of the 4th Fighter Group ride in the back of a jeep at Debden air base. A P-47 Thunderbolt is in the background of the shot. Passed by the U.S. Army on 2 October 1943, THUNDERBOLT MISSION. Associated Press photo shows:- Pilots at a U.S. Eighth Air Force station in England are taken by truck from the Dispersal room to their waiting P-47's (Thunderbolts) at the start of a sortie over enemy territory. L-R: Lt. Burt Wyman, Englewood, N.J. ; Lt. Leighton Read, Hillsboro, W.V.; F/O Glen Fiedler, Frederickburg, Tex. AKP/LFS 261022 . 41043bi.' [ caption].' Passed for publication ....1943'. [stamp].

Taken almost a year to the day the US forces moved in, airmen of the 4th FG are taken ot heir P-47s before departing on a mission over enemy territory. The aircrew are: L-R: Lt. Burt Wyman, Englewood, N.J. ; Lt. Leighton Read, Hillsboro, W.V.; F/O Glen Fiedler, Frederickburg, Texas. (FRE 28 – IWM).

As 1943 dawned it would become much quieter in terms of movements at Debden. Now officially a US fighter airfield, the RAF had little to do here. For a short period of a week, 303 Squadron would stop over, the only visitors to make any great use of the airfield for the entire year. With Debden having long concrete runways, it was regularly visited by the lighter bombers, Marauders and Havocs taking refuge here from their own fog bound airfields during poor winter weather. It was during this time in 1943, that The Duchess of Kent, made a royal visit to Debden, taking time out to inspect the aircraft and crews of the 4th Fighter Group, accompanied by General D. Hunter and Colonel Edward Anderson.

With that 1943 faded into 1944, the jet age was dawning and the end of the war nearing sight.  In the July, 616 Squadron appeared with the Meteor, Britain’s first operational Jet aircraft. The squadron detachment stayed here until early 1945 when they moved on to Colerne and eventually the continent.

This move would signify the end of operational flying at Debden. The RAF retained the site reforming the Empire Flying Training School here on 7th March 1946 by merging both 12 and 14 Radio Schools into one. Flying a number of aircraft including Proctors, Tiger Moths, Ansons, Dominie and Lincoln IIs until October 20th 1949 when it was disbanded and Debden became the Royal Air Force Technical College, Signals Division. After a further name change the unit was finally disbanded on April 8th 1960, after it had operated a variety of aircraft including an: Anson, Air Speed Oxford, Spitfire XVI, Lincoln and Varsity.

Between 1963 and October 1973, Vampire F. MK.3 VF301 stood outside Debden’s front gate as guardian, one of several that have been here. It is now sits in the Midland Air Museum at Baginton in the markings of 605 (County of Warwick) Sqn as ‘RAL-G’.

DH Vampire F-1

A former Guardian of Debden now at the Midland Air Museum at Coventry’s Baginton airport.

Although remaining open, the airfield was used for a number of public displays and as a race track, including in 1966, the RAF Debden Motor Gala which featured Donald Campbell’s car, Bluebird CN7, in which Campbell set the land speed record in 1964.  Parts of the site are still used for racing today by the Borough 19 Motor Club*3

In 1975 the airfield officially closed although 614 Gliding School (later 614 Volunteer Gliding School) remained on site using it for flying, until they too departed moving to Wethersfield in 1982.

The army took over the site when the RAF Departed and they remain there to this day.

Debden, because if its post war usage, is a remarkably unique site, but whilst many of the original buildings remain intact, some even being listed as Grade II buildings*4, access is not permitted to the general public and therefore very little can be seen without prior permission. From public roads, high fences and thick hedges obscure most views although from the south, parts of the runway, and several dispersals can be seen quite easily.

RAF Debden

One of the pans now missing its Blister hangar.

By keeping the gate house to your right and passing along the road east to west, you pass the current accommodation area, Guard House and modern buildings used by the current Army owners. Continuing along this road soon brings you to the memorial. Whilst there is no official parking space here, there is a grass verge opposite the memorial where you can safely park your car off the busy main road. Behind the memorial is the north-south runway, still in full width, in which a small section of it can be seen as it rises and dips over the hill. Returning toward the main entrance brings you to a parking area on your right, where public access is permitted to Rowney Wood. Here there are a small number of original buildings still left along with former roads / and taxi ways. During its US occupation, there were five Blister Hangars located here, today only a couple survive, both in current use by local companies.

Like many former airfields and military sites, Debden has been identified as a possible housing location, with the potential for the construction of 55,000 homes. The announcement to close the barracks was made on November 7th 2016, as part of the ‘Better Defence Estate’ strategy, in which 91 MOD sites across the country will close by 2040. Government figures say that the move will save £140 million by closing these sites which also includes the US base at Mildenhall.*5

Considering the history of RAF Debden and the current status of its buildings, the restrictive nature of the site is also its guardian angel. However, with the axe looming heavily overhead, what will become of this site in the future? Its runways will no doubt be dug up, the older non-classified buildings could be demolished, its pathways and taxiways removed. Debden is in danger of disappearing for good leaving only small traces of this once famous airfield that not only took part in the Battle of Britain, but whose airmen defended London in what was very much our darkest hour.

Sources and further reading.

*2 AIR 27/703/17 National Archives

*3 ‘Borough 19 Motor Club’ website has details of their race activities.

*4 One such building is the Sector Operations Block, built in 1938, to the designs of J.H. Binge of the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Works and Buildings (drawing no. 5000/137).

*5 The story was highlighted in the Saffron Walden Reporter website accessed 11th October 2017.

Royal Air Force Police Flights who were at Debden have photos and information on their website.

RAF Debden (Part 2) – The Battle of Britain.

Following on from the first part of this Trail, we see how Debden was thrust into the Battle of Britain and the historic changes that followed.

On August 18th 1940,  at 17:30, the squadron consisting of thirteen aircraft were scrambled to patrol the Skies over Debden. Almost immediately they were diverted to Canterbury and ordered to patrol at 20,000 ft. Five minutes after reaching their designated point, they were ordered into battle attacking ‘raid 51’ who were crossing the coast in the vicinity of Folkestone. Within minutes, the two formations were entwined and the aircraft of 85 squadron set about the 150 – 250 machines of the Luftwaffe.

A mix of J.U. 87s, H.E.111s, J.U. 88s, M.E. 110s and M.E. 109s were staggered in layers between 10,000 feet and 18,000 feet, and as soon as the aircraft of 85 squadron were sighted, the enemy immediately employed tactical defensive manoeuvres with some of the bombers heading seaward whilst other climbed toward their fighter protection.

Hugely lacking in aircraft numbers, the RAF  had little choice but to ‘dive in’, as a result large numbers of individual ‘dog fights’ occurred, resulting in aircraft being strewn across the Essex sky around Foulness Point.  For a while there was complete chaos, aircraft were burning and crews knew little of each other’s whereabouts. In one incident P/O. J. Marshall (Yellow 2) followed his leader into attack. In the melee that followed Marshall flew into a cloud of vapour created by a damaged H.E.111 his wing colliding with the tail of the Heinkel severing it completely and cutting the wing tip-off of his own aircraft. Despite the damage Marshall nursed his crippled aircraft to Debden where he landed safely and unhurt.

During this attack six Me 110s, three Me 109s and one He 111 were confirmed as destroyed, a further He 111, Me 110, Ju 87 and Me 109 were confirmed as probables, whilst four Me 110s and two Do 17s were known to have been damaged.

85 Squadron casualties on the day consisted of one Hurricane destroyed and one damaged. It was during this attack that  Flight Lieutenant Richard H.A. Lee, D.S.O., D.F.C. (s/n 33208), flying as Blue 1, was last seen by Sqn. Ldr. Townsend and F/O. Gowers 10 miles east of Foulness Point chasing 5 Me 109s. He lost contact and failed to return to Debden.  Lee, a veteran with nine victories to his name, was Lord Trenchard’s Godson, and was reported missing that day. *2

On the next day, 19th August 1940, 85 Squadron departed Debden, swapping places with 111 squadron who had previously moved to Croydon. In a signal Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, G.C.B., C.M.G., C.B.E., A.M., expressed his thanks to the crews of 85 Sqn, sending his gratitude for “all your hard fighting” in which he added “This is the right spirit for dealing with the enemy.” 85 Squadron went on to continue the fight at Croydon flying in the same determined manner they had shown whilst based at Debden.*2

RAF Debden

The memorial at Debden sits at the end of the north south runway (seen behind).

It was also during August 1940 that Debden became a focus for attacks by the Luftwaffe. On the 20th, a small reconnaissance mission took German aircraft over the airfield along with other airfields in the region. Six days later, on August 26th, the first attack on Debden would occur, a combined attack that would also involve strikes on Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald airfields.

Whilst 11 Group – whose sector headquarters were at Debden – put up ten squadrons and one flight to intercept the incoming raiders,  a number of bombers did get through and over 100 bombs were dropped on the airfield damaging the landing area; the sergeants mess, NAAFI , a motor transport depot and equipment stores. In addition to this the water and electricity supplies were both cut, and five personnel were killed. The raid was made worse by the inefficient vectoring of protective aircraft from Duxford due to them being unable to obtain the correct radio frequency. This mishap did little to help the ongoing ‘dispute’ between Air Marshal Sir Keith Park and Air Vice-Marshall (later Air Marshal) Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who were both locked in dispute over the defences of 11 Group’s airfields – it was arguably this feud that eventually cost Park his command of 11 Group, and a move as AOC to Malta.

At the end of August, Debden would once again become the focus of Luftwaffe attacks. Shortly after 8:00am on the morning of August 31st 1940, waves of Luftwaffe bombers flew over Kent turning northwards toward North Weald, Duxford and Debden. A formation of Dornier bombers managed to reach Debden again where they dropped over 100 incendiary and high explosive bombs on the airfield. This time the sick quarters and barrack blocks received direct hits whilst other buildings were damaged by blasts.

Further attacks on September 3rd and 15th failed to materialise and Debden was finally left alone to lick its wounds and repair the damage to its fragile infrastructure. It was also during this time (2nd September to the 5th September 1940) that all three resident squadrons: 257, 601 and 111  would depart, leaving Debden behind and heading further south to pastures new.

With the ending of the Battle of Britain, things would become a little quieter at Debden, although movements of man and machine would continue with a perpetual occurrence. The October and November would see more short stays: 25 squadron (8th October for around two and half months); 219 Sqn as a detachment for two months, and 264 Sqn at the end of November for just one month. These changes would lead Debden into the new year and 1941.

During 1941, 85 Squadron would return yet again, and after being bounced around with almost regular occurrence this, their final visit, would be in the night fighter role. Initially using their Hurricanes and then Defiants, they soon replaced these with the Havoc before vacating the site for good and the fields of Hunsdon in May that year.

There were yet more short stays during 1941: 54 Squadron in June (two days), 403 Squadron (25th August  – 3rd October); 258 Squadron (3rd October  – 1st November); 129 Squadron (1st November – 22nd December); 418 squadron (15th November – 15th April 1942); a detachment of 287 Squadron; 157 who were reformed here on 13th December moving to Castle Camps five days later where they would receive their Mosquito II aircraft, and finally 65 Squadron who arrived three days before Christmas and stayed until 14th April 1942.

One of these squadrons, 403 Squadron flying Spitfire VBs, was formed as a result of Article XV of the Riverdale Agreement, in which it was agreed between the British Government and the nations of the commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand; that their trained military personnel would fly and operate as part of the Royal Air Force. This would mean that both air and ground crews would perform their duties under RAF command. Some 70 squadrons were created as a result of this agreement, and of those seventy, 67 were numbered in the 400 series. Even though they were part of the RCAF, RNZAF and RAAF, they were treated as integral parts of the British Royal Air Force for the duration of the conflict.

Into 1942 and yet more of the same, 350, 41, 124, 232 and 531 Squadrons all following this similar pattern of short stays and placements, thus life at Debden was becoming a constant carousel of ground crews and flying personnel. Two squadrons from here did make a real name for themselves though, that of 71 and 121 Squadrons.

In Part 3, we see Debden take on a new owner, its fortune changes and it becomes home to one of the most famous Fighter Groups of the USAAF – the 4th Fighter Group.

RAF Debden (Part 1) – The Build up to the Battle of Britain.

Not far from Wethersfield, lies the parent airfield of Castle Camps. Now closed to aviation, it currently resides in the hands of the Army as the Carver Barracks. On this next part of this Trail we wind our way through the Essex countryside to the former fighter station that gained notoriety during the early 1940s, and in particular the Battle of Britain. In this, the first part of the visit, we look into the development of the airfield, and the build up that took it into the heart of the Battle. We visit the former RAF Debden.

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

The internet and history books are awash with pictures and information about RAF Debden, and rightly so. It is an airfield with an incredible history, famous for its part in the Battle of Britain and the defence of London, it was home to no less than thirty RAF squadrons at some point; it was used by the U.S. volunteer squadrons the ‘Eagle Squadrons’, and then taken over by USAAF as a fighter airfield following their official entry into the war. It was then used again by the RAF post war up until 1975 when the British Army took over,  those whose hands it remains in today as the Carver Barracks.  Not only is it history long but the site is historically highly significant. According to Historic England, Debden airfield represents “one of the most complete fighter landscapes of the Battle of Britain period“, considered historically important due to its “largely intact defensive perimeter and flying-field with associated blast pens“.*1

Debden is therefore a remarkable site, but as an active military base, access and views are understandably very restricted. However, some buildings can still be seen from public areas, particularly the front as you pass by the main entrance.

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

Debden’s life began in the mid 1930s, it eventually opened in 1937, as part of the expansion programme of the pre-war era, and was classified as a fighter airfield under Scheme ‘C’ of the airfield construction programme. During this period, great consideration was given to the architectural features of airfield buildings, standard designs being finished and positioned aesthetically in line with both the local landscape, stone and environment. Design and construction of these airfields, in this the second part of the expansion phase, was carried out in conjunction with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, whose influence led to an overall improvement in airfield design. During this phase of expansion, over 100 permanent sites were built using these new designs, in fact, according to Historic England, it is these sites that have tended to survive in the best condition to date largely thanks due to their post war and Cold War usage. Even in this pre-war period, aesthetics were as important as operability!

Built by W. L. Fench Limited, Debden wasn’t completed until after it had been opened, thus the first units there were using the site in its unfinished state. The two initial landing surfaces were grass, but as a fighter airfield little more was needed. Even so, and not long after it opened, these were replaced by concrete and tarmac surfaces, giving the airfield much stronger and more adaptable landing surfaces. Being the standard 50 yards wide, these runways were also extended from the initial 1,600 and 1,300 yards to 2,600 and 2,100 yards respectively, allowing for larger and more powerful aircraft to utilise the site.

Debden had a large number of hangars built: three ‘C’ type, one Bellman and eleven blister hangars which were all spread around the perimeter and technical areas of the airfield. Some 80 hardstands were also provided, thus large quantities of aircraft were expected to use the site at one point or another.

Of these thirty operational flying squadrons to pass through Debden, the primary aircraft to see service would be the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command. Biplanes such as the Demon and the Gloster Gladiator were also to feature here, as were the twin-engined aircraft the Beaufighter, Havoc/Bostons and the jet engined Meteor in the latter stages of the war. The period 1939 – 1942 though, was by far the busiest period for Debden, the majority of squadrons operating from here during this time.

Upon opening in 1937, Debden would operate the outdated and obsolete biplanes of the Royal Air Force, Hawker’s Fury II of 87 squadron being the first to arrive on 7th June 1937, being replaced shortly after by Gloster’s Gladiator, that famous Biplane that protected Malta as ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’. In the summer of 1938, prior to the outbreak of war, Hurricanes were brought in and the entire squadron moved to airfields in France where they would stay until May 1940, when France was invaded by the German forces. Brought back to England, a short two-day stop over at Debden, would lead to a move north and Yorkshire before returning to the battle, and a night fighter role over Southern England.

Joining 87 Sqn in June 1937 were further Gladiators, those of 80  Squadron who, themselves formed a month earlier, would stay at Debden until departing for the Middle East and Ismailia a year later. A third squadron would arrive during this time, 73 Squadron, who shortly after reforming at nearby Mildenhall, would also replace their Hawker Furys with Gladiators coinciding with their move to Debden. Also moving to France, 73 Sqn would eventually move to the Middle East, where they would remain for the duration of the war, flying from numerous airfields including that of Habbaniyah, one of several places where my father was stationed post-war.

One other squadron would grace the skies over Debden that year, that of 29 Squadron, whose Hawker Demons were adapted to accept a Frazer-Nash turret for defence. A small aircraft, they would be no match for enemy fighters and so were replaced in December 1938 by the far superior aircraft the Blenheim IIF. Coinciding with this, was the movement of a detachment of 29 sqn aircraft to Martlesham Heath, which was followed by a months stay at RAF Drem in the border region before returning to Debden once more. By the end of June though, the entire squadron have been pulled out of Debden and moved to Digby in Lincolnshire and a new role as night fighters.

1938 also saw the reforming of 85 Squadron on the 1st June. 85 sqn, as a unit, had their roots in the First World War, being stationed in France before disbandment in the summer of 1919. But on this occasion, they were reformed out of ‘A’ Flight of 87 squadron prior to them taking on their Hurricanes and imminent move abroad. During the period 1939 – 1940, 85 Sqn would move around almost weekly, with one of their longest permanent stays being between November 1938 and September 1939 whilst here at Debden. Being the parent airfield of Castle Camps, Debden units would often be dispersed there, or in some cases stationed there, whilst also operating out of Debden – 85 Sqn being no exception.

Two other squadrons would fly from Debden during the winter/spring of 1939 – 40, both 17 and 504 operating the Hurricane MK. I. On an almost weekly basis, both units would yo-yo between Debden and Martlesham Heath, an almost continuous spiral of postings saw them using the ‘Heath’ as a forward operating airfield until around May 1940, when both units were moved to France in support of the B.E.F.

Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No 17 Squadron taxiing at Debden, July 1940. In the foreground is YB-C, that of the CO, Squadron Leader Harold ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson, who was shot down on 24th September flying YB-W (P3878) (IWM – HU 54517)

As the fall of France turned into the Battle of Britain, fighter units to defend Britain became top priority. The dawn of 1940 would see the beginning of six more squadrons operate out of Debden, the majority of which would arrive during the height of the Battle. Debden, as the Sector Station responsible for the Thames Estuary and eastern approaches to London, would become a prestige Luftwaffe target during those early days of the Battle. As a result, it along with other Sector stations at Northolt, North Weald, Biggin Hill, Tangmere and Hornchurch, would endure some of the most sustained and prolonged attacks by German bomber formations.

To meet the demand for fighter units, 257 Squadron were reformed and posted to Debden initially flying the Spitfire MK. I. They quickly replaced these with the Hurricane I prior to them becoming operational on July 1st. Four days later they were joined at Debden by both 601 (the ‘Millionaires Squadron’ named so after the men who initially joined it) and 111 Squadron making this one of the largest collections of Hurricanes at that time.

85 Squadron were soon in the thick of the battle. As July 1940 turned to August, patrols would be sent up as regularly as the sun would rise, many of these patrols would result in enemy engagement; the Operational Record Books being testament to the continuing battle for the skies over Britain at that time. At the beginning of August on the 7th, Air Vice-Marshal K.R. Park M.C., D.F.C. visited  Debden, a visit that preceded the transfer of Debden from 12 Group into 11 Group. It was also at this time that the funeral of P/O. Brittan of 17 sqn took place, a young man who lost his life in a flying accident.

In mid August 1940, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ flights of 85 Sqn were brought back from Martlesham Heath and Castle Camps to Debden, a move that preceded the not only the first but one of the largest attacks by a Debden squadron on enemy aircraft.

In part 2, we see how Debden was affected by the German campaign, the relentless attacks that drew Debden crews into battle. We look at the changes at Debden and how the American made a name for themselves as determined and fearless fighter pilots.

*1 Historic England, Historic Military Aviation Sites – Conservation Guidance, 2016.