Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle – Heartbreak on Christmas Eve, 1944

On the morning of December 24th, 1944, Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (s/n 0-319375), woke to the greet the day, and like most pilots facing perilous missions, he probably wondered if it would be his last. However, knowing what I know about Castle from my research, he was a calm, confident and highly competent pilot, so most likely he had every reason to believe in the success of his next mission. Sadly though, that was not to be the case. Castle never made it back that night. On Christmas Eve of 1944, this brave pilot lost his 30th and final battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Vandevanter of the 385th Bomb Group with Colonel Frederick W Castle (centre) of the 487th Bomb Group and Brigadier General Curtis A LeMay. *1

Frederick W. Castle was born on October 14th, 1908 at Fort McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. He came from an active military family and was the son of Col. Benjamin Frederick Castle. Following the end of World War 1, he was to settle in the United States in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

From a young age, Castle was destined to follow in his fathers footsteps, groomed for a life of military service. He attended Boonton High School and Storm King Military Academy before moving on to the US Military Academy from where he graduated in June 1930.

His first service was with the New Jersey National Guard, where he stayed for two years  transferring to the Air Corps, March Field, California, then onto Kelly Field in Texas. Castle gaining his wings in October 1931.

Serving as a pilot with the 17th Pursuit Squadron for 3 years, he eventually left the forces returning to civilian life but holding a reserve status. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Castle would be called upon by his good Friend Ira Eaker, returning to the fold in January 1942, and being promoted within two months to Major. By the following September, Castle had been promoted yet again, he was now a Lieutenant Colonel.

With the forming of the Eighth Air Force in England, headed by General Ira Eaker, Castle was one of seven high-ranking officers selected to fly with him on the dangerous route over the Bay of Biscay, eventually arriving at Hendon wearing their civilian clothes. Joining Eaker on February 20th 1943 in the DC-3 from Lisbon were: Lt Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr, Major Peter Beasley, Captain Beirne Lay Jnr, Lt. Harris Hull and Lt. William Cowart Jnr.

Castle desired a combat role, and this desire would lead to him taking over the command of the ailing 94th Bomb Group. His methods of command were initially considered weak, but in the face of low morale and apprehension, he personally took the 94th to some of the furthest targets yet, his first being Oschersleben in the heart of Germany; a mission that went on to inspire the film “12 o’clock High“.  Castle went on to fly in many combat missions including numerous high prestige targets, a role that took him on to Brigadier General and command of 4th Combat Wing.

On Christmas Eve 1944, following a week of poor weather, orders came though for a maximum effort mission, involving every available B-17 and B-24 in support of the troops in the Ardennes. Airfields, supply lines and troop movements were to be attacked, and following weeks of poor weather, a break was at last predicted.

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham), home of the 379th Bomb Group. Image stamped on reverse: 'Passed for publication 3 Sep 1943.' [stamp] nand '282085.' [censor no.] A printed caption was previously attached to the reverse however this has been removed. Associated news story: 'American Air Forces G.O.C. Meets The

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)*2

As a joint effort, this would be the largest single attack to date involving 500 RAF and Ninth Air force bombers, 800 fighters and just short of 2,050 Eighth Air Force bombers. Such was the demand for aircraft, that even ‘war weary’ examples, were hastily armed and prepared, many unfit for more than assembly or training duties. Truly an armada of incredible proportions.

Taking lead position, Frederick Castle, was in B-17G-VE, ’44-8444′ “Treble Four“, an aircraft that had itself seen battle experience. Assigned to the 836BS, 487BG, and at RAF Lavenham, it was previously damaged in a raid over Darmstadt. The aircraft was  later salvaged in January 1945.

A veteran of 29 missions, Castle was a more than a competent leader. They set off, the weather was as predicted but with a haze that restricted ground level visibility. It was this haze prevented the fighters from leaving causing an all important delay in the escorts. This delay was not considered a major problem at the time however, as the escorts being faster, would soon catchup and overtake the heavily laden bombers. The Luftwaffe, in an unprecedented move, brought forward fighters into the Liege area to meet the oncoming bombers before any escorts could reach them. In the first few minutes of the battle, four of the 487th BG’s aircraft were downed and a further five forced to land in Belgium.

Castle’s lead plane, suffering problems with one of its engines (possibly due to previous battle damage) was attacked by the first wave of fighters, action was taken to leave the flight and join a formation further back. It was then attacked again, the aircraft catching fire, and the navigator being wounded.

Castle took control, and even though still being attacked, refused to jettison the bombs for fear of killing civilians or allied troops below. Further attacks led to both engines on the starboard wing catching fire, which ultimately led to the fuel tank exploding sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin.

Through Castle’s actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly  though not all survived.

Frederick Castle died in the crash, his body is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Liege, Belgium, Plot D, Row 13, Grave 53.

His citation reads:

“He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells. set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crew-members an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward. carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service*3.”

For his action, Frederick W. Castle was awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously. In 1946, the Castle Air Force Base, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, was dedicated in his name, and on June 20th, 1981, the Castle Air Museum was officially opened on the now closed base, for the purpose of preserving the Air Force and Castle heritage. Museum details can be found on their website. His  name is also on a plaque in the Memorial Park, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

The awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”, who chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, and leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

*3 Congregational Medal of Honour SocietyWebsite, accessed 22/12/15

Mountain Lakes Library, Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1997.

Air Forces Historical Support, Division,  Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The Mighty Eighth”, Roger Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1986.

RAF Great Massingham – Blenheims, Bostons and Mosquitoes.

In the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century.  Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17. In Trail 21, we return to RAF Great Massingham.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.

RAF Great Massingham

The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.

RAF Great Massingham

The Officers Mess now a farm building.

There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks.  This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.

In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of  WAAFs to 431.

The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.

18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.

Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.

18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.

As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.

Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.

The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.

For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.

RAF Great Massingham

Remains around the perimeter track.

On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.

Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.

The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.

Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!

The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With  visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2

On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.

On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.

RAF Great Massingham

Gymnasium and attached Chancellery now a car repair shop.

The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2  Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.

But the end was not quite here, and January  of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.

It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.

Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.

By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.

In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.

It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.

In April 1944 Great Massingham  was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at  2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.

In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.

RAF Great Massingham

Original high-level Braithwaite water tank.

With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site.  As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

Over the years a number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.

After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.

Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.

The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

RAF Great Massingham

The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links RAF Great Massingham

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10

RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.

Massingham was first visited in 2015.

RAF Seahouses – A short lived airfield of the First World War.

A final stop on Trail 47 sees us north again, a few miles from the A1 on England’s north east coast, where in the distance are the Farne Islands, a small group of islands that are home to some 150,000 seabirds all fighting for their own small piece of space during the breeding season. A little further north is Bamburgh Castle and beyond that, Holy Island and Lindisfarne with its Castle and monastic history. It is truly a location full of history and beauty.

Here we stop off at the small coastal town of Seahouses, a town much visited by tourists along this beautiful Northumbrian coastal route.

During the First World War though, this was also the site, albeit for only a short time, of a wartime airfield and a marine operating station.

RFC/RAF Seahouses (Elford ).

Seahouses or Elford as it was primarily  known, was initially a landing ground for 77 (HD) Sqn from February 1917. 77 Sqn, who were based at numerous airfields around the country including Thetford, Edinburgh and the not so far away Haggerston, used it well into 1918, flying Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and B.E.12 models. They operated here until it became a Maritime Operations Station (RNAS Seahouses) in the summer of 1918. It was at this point that 256 Sqn were formed at the airfield with the idea of carrying out maritime patrols. Shortly after their creation though, they were absorbed as 256 Sqn into the newly formed Royal Air Force.

In conjunction with this formation, the final 92 acre site was graced with Bessonneau hangars, these were standard aircraft hangars constructed using a canvas covering over a wooden frame, and could be erected by a team of twenty skilled men within forty-eight hours. As a transportable hangar, they were used well into the 1930s being replaced by Bellman hangars after that time.

256 Sqn, initially operated the DH.6, one of  along line of de Havilland models built by Airco and de Havilland. These would be maintained in the hangars and used for anti-submarine patrols over the North Sea.

DH6SideView.jpg

DH 6 Note the roundel under the top wing as a result of the wings being interchangeable. (public domain via Wikipedia)

The Airco company was founded in 1911 by George Holt Thomas, who initially had the idea of selling and maintaining Farman aircraft at Hendon on the outskirts of London. He met with Geoffrey de Havilland at Farnborough and soon an agreement was struck between the two for Airco  to begin manufacturing de Havilland aircraft. After a period away in service, de Havilland returned to Airco and the process of designing new aircraft fr the military began. Many of these new models were given the designation DH.

At Seahouses, 256 Sqn took delivery of the DH.6, their arrival being just after they were formed, in June 1918. A standard British military trainer biplane, it was designed to be cheap and easy to repair, de Havilland considering the mishaps that many pilots were likely to have during training periods.

RFC Seahouses

The memorial plaque erected by Airfield of Britain Conservation trust.

It was a solid basic design, with wings that were interchangeable, heavily braced and with a strong camber. Many considered them ‘too safe’ being almost impossible to stall even by the unwary, and with dual controls any trainee was even less likely to get into trouble as the instructor could easily take over if the situation required it. Even so, those that used them would often refer to them in derogatory ways, a range of unsavoury names becoming the more common wartime references.

256 Sqn consisted of four initial flights: 525, 526, 527 and 528 (Special Duty) Flights all arriving in the summer / autumn of 1918, with 495 (Light Bomber) Flight arriving at the war’s end. With detachments at New Haggerston (a field a few  miles north of here), Remmington, Cairncross and Ashington, the DH.6s were eventually supplemented by Blackburn Kangaroos of 495 (Light Bomber) Flight in the November of 1918. Both of these models operated with 256 Sqn even after they departed Seahouses for Killingholme as a cadre in January 1919. By the June of that year, with the war in Europe long over, the squadron was disbanded.

During their time here at Seahouses, 256 Sqn patrolled the coastal region around the Northumbrian coast. Flying in the twin seaters they were not armed but did carry bombs, luxuries such as parachutes were considered too heavy and so were not permitted. Flying over the sea, they would search for German submarines, but with a four hour duration, flights could be long and cold and concentration was sometimes difficult. Once spotted though, a sub would be forced to submerge, here it could do little damage, wartime submarines being unable to communicate or place mines once under water.

One Flight Lieutenant Morley Roy Shier, one of many Canadian pilots in the fledgling RAF was killed flying from Seahouses in his D.H.6 (C5172), when he went into the sea in fog off Coquet Island. He was killed on September 6th 1918, age 23,  in the last few days of the war. He is commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, a memorial that honours some 1,900 service men and women from the commonwealth who were lost at sea or have no known grave from such action.

Two weeks later on the 19th September, another 256 Sqn accident occurred, also with a D.H.6 (C5174), when a young eighteen year old Air Mechanic 3 Thompson Mackenzie and his Canadian pilot 2Lt Clarence Wilfred Kerr,  were caught in a gust of wind on take-off at Edinburgh. Unable to control the light aircraft in the wind, it crashed killing Thompson Mackenzie and injuring Clarence Kerr.

When the armistice finally came, one over exuberant pilot, Captain Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, decided to ‘celebrate’ in style. He took off from the airfield in a biplane armed with rockets for shooting down Zeppelins, and flew over Seahouses town. He decided he was going to have his own firework display and fired off the rockets toward to the sea. However, some fell short and landed on hay stacks at Seafield Farmhouse, setting fire to the hay. The local people, also excited by the rather large fires, came to watch the event unfold.

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, by Bassano Ltd - NPG x83908

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville by Bassano Ltd. In the Second World War he went on to become a Flight Lieutenant in the RAFVR © National Portrait Gallery, London

With the posting of 256 Sqn, Seahorses as it was now known, returned to agricultural use, any remnants of its aviation heritage being removed very quickly.

This signified the ending of all aviation activity at the site, Seahouses never being brought back to military aviation use again.

On June 14th, 2018, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial plaque in the town centre of Seahouses, to commemorate those who served. It is all that stands to remind us of that small and short lived airfield of the First World War.

 

Sources and Further Reading.

Graces Guide to British Industrial History website.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

In early 2020, I posted an article about the crash and subsequent death of William G. Rueckert of the 93rd BG, 409 BS at RAF Hardwick in Norfolk. Since posting this article, I have been contacted by his son, ‘Little Bill’, who has very kindly sent me a collection of photographs, letters, documents and a considerable amount of information around both his father’s life and his tragic accident. I wholeheartedly thank Bill for this – in some cases – very personal information, which has helped to build a bigger and more detailed image of the life of William Rueckert. This has been added to the page and is included here with Bill’s permission.

The journey of how ‘Little Bill’ found out the details of his father’s death was a long and somewhat difficult one, as many of the official records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire. It was made more difficult by the fact that at home, 1st. Lt. William Rueckert was never talked about by Bill’s mother and step father (2nd Lt. Leroy H. Sargent), and as Bill was only two and a half  years old at the time of his father’s death, he knew little of him. It’s only since Bill’s mother sadly passed away in 1994 that Bill has been able to make proper enquires, kick started by the discovery of a copy of the “Ladies Home Journal” in the attic of her house. All Bill knew before this, was that his father was a pilot and that he died in a crash in England.

Ladies Home Journal ( Jan. 1945)

Ladies Home Journal (Jan. 1945) The magazine that started Bill’s journey to find out about his father.

Since then, Bill has written an article for the “STAR”, a journal for “AWON” (American War Orphans Network) and he has been given an article published in the ‘Weekender’, a supplement published by the Eastern Daily Press*1 newspaper in Norwich, UK, written in December 2014; the title of which was “No Greater Love”, an article about Bill’s mother and father.

His journey also allowed him to make friends with David Neale, an officer of the “Friends of the 2nd “, an organisation he joined not long after. Since then, he has travelled to England on many occasions, including attending the 2nd Air Division  American Library Dedication in Norwich, in November 2001; visiting Madingley Cemetery and the former Hardwick airfield (owned and run by David Woodrow) where Bill’s father lost his life. He has also donated a replica of William’s Purple Heart to the local church at Topcroft, who honour both him and all those who served at Hardwick, every year.

This is 1st. Lt. William Rueckert’s story.

William Gamble Rueckert (S/N: 0-420521) was born June 9th 1920, in the Lutheran Hospital, Moline, Illinois. His father, Reuben Franklin Rueckert (26) was a chief electrician whilst his mother, Fay Wilforim Gamble (24) was a Housewife.

At school, William was a model student, developing a studious and conscientious approach to his studies. He worked hard at all he did, continuously achieving high grades; a work ethic he would carry and continue throughout his short life.

William, Dee and Little Bill

Dorothea ‘Dee’, Little Bill and William

At 18 years of age William joined the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Illinois, becoming a member of  the ‘Scabbard & Blade‘, an Honorary Military Society that promotes and develops the “Five Gold Stars”: Honour, Leadership, Professionalism, Officership, and Unity.  Here William studied law and used his passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust, to continue to achieve those high grades he was known for. His reputation for hard work and dedication was his bedfellow.

Whilst in the Cavalry, William got the nickname ‘Square John‘, he took to fencing and riding, whilst enjoying ‘Breaded Veal chop’ and listening to Ernie Pyle, an American journalist who would become one of the most famous war correspondents of World War II. One of the rules as a Cavalry Cadet  was that you had to carry a ‘handkerchief’, this was used to fulfil the joyful operation of cleaning your horse’s rear, a very unpleasant but ‘necessary’ duty.

On graduating, William would be presented with a sabre from his class, fulfilling both roles of president of the Cavalry Officers’ Club and as a Cadet Major. The sabre would remain in the family home for many years after.

William 'Square John' Horse jumping,

William ‘Square John‘ Horse jumping,

It was at University, on April 29th 1939, that William met on a blind date, his wife to be, Dorothea Griffiths, the woman he later referred to as ‘Dee’. Even before meeting up, the two were destined to face problems, a faulty car doing its utmost to prevent William from getting to his destination on time. But as a lover of dancing, William charmed Dee with his dance floor moves, and they turned out to be the perfect match, Dee forgiving William’s lateness and agreeing to see him a second time.

The two became inseparable, and within a year they were married, on June 10th, 1940, when William was just one day over 20 years old. The ceremony took place at Clinton, Iowa, but it would be here that the second of their problems would arise. Angry at the marriage, William’s mother objected, stating that he was too young to be legally married. Successfully, and much to the anger of William and Dee, she had the marriage annulled. However, the two were not to going to accept that, they simply ran away to repeat the wedding and reinstate their marriage vows in a new ceremony – love had conquered all.

Second Marriage Certificate

William and Dee’s second Marriage Certificate

After leaving the Cavalry and returning to his studies, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce and Law on June 9th, 1941.  William and  Dee then moved to 64 Sommers Lane, Staten Island, on the southern edge of New York, Dee’s home town. William managed to secure himself a job with the Bethlehem Steel Co.  a company that would become a major supplier of armour plate and ordnance to the U.S. armed forces. Here William worked in the accounts department, whilst all the time continuing to work for his law license with the New York State Bar.

University Certificate

William’s University Certificate

With the war in Europe escalating, William, being a reserve at this time, was called up under President Roosevelt’s Defence plan, in August 1941, and he was sent to the Maintenance Officer Company, 35th Armoured Regiment, Fourth Armoured Division Pine Camp, Watertown, New York. He served as a 1st Lt. Artillery Officer in Company ‘A’, 1st Battalion. It was here that the dedication and hard work that he had shown throughout his education would shine through yet again, quickly standing out from other cadets. William also stood out on the ranges, soon winning himself a medal for artillery and rifle shooting.

A heavily pregnant Dee joined William at Watertown not long after his call up, remaining at home as a ‘Housekeeper’ whilst William went about his duty. The love between them never faltering once. In an interview after his death, Dee described William as “Sweet” saying that “Even after we were married, he would telephone for a date and arrive home with flowers and candy.”

It was this love for each other that produced at 5:45pm on December 1st, 1941, the same month as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, their first child, William Griffiths Rueckert (Little Bill). Bill being born in a small Catholic Hospital just outside the base at Watertown. In those first few years of his life, Bill would grow very fond of his father, a father who would sadly be taken away from him far too soon. William and Bill developing a mutual love for each other.

Four years after his military career had begun with the cavalry, and one year after leaving the Armoured Division at Pine Camp, William would make a big change in his career,  resigning his commission and  volunteering for the United States Air Corps. In Bill’s words referring to why his father left the Army he said:  “After four years of wiping his horse’s ass, and looking up at the new way to travel, he had the flying bug“.

William Rueckert’s life then changed forever. In 1942 as a 1st Lt. Trainee Pilot, he left New York, Dee and his son, and moved to the West Coast Training Centre whose headquarters and administration centre was at Santa Ana Airbase in California.

Early Flight Training.

William would have progressed through several stages of training, from primary to basic, then on to advanced flying and eventually to the heavy bombers. This would take him through many courses at several sites. After primary flight training, he would have gone onto basic flying. Here a nine week course of some 70 hours or so would have taught William more basic flying skills, including: instrument flying, aerial navigation, night flying, long distance flying, radio operations and etiquette, and finally formation flying.

One of these first stations would be Lemoore AAF in California. Whilst here, William would learn firsthand the perils of flying, when on May 20th, 1943 he was involved in a mid air collision with another aircraft piloted by Air Cadet Donald. W. Christensen (S/N: 39677502). Sadly, Christensen would die in the crash whilst William would suffer a wound to the forehead.

I have, since the original post, been able to establish beyond doubt that this is the accident that Dee refers to, although she would later retell the event believing it was a B-24 at a Biggs Field, El Paso, in Texas.

The Army Air Corps used a range of aircraft to train pilots in basic flying, one of the more powerful and complex models was the single engined aircraft the Vultee BT-13 (replaced by the Vultee BT-15). On that day (May 20th, 1943) William was flying solo in BT-15 #42-1957 at Lemoore AAF, and was approaching to land.

The official records (crash number 43-5-20-6)*8 held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, states that:

At 17:02, May 20, 1943, while upon final approach at Lemoore Field at the termination of a routine training flight, Student Officer, 1st. Lt. W.G. Rueckert collided with A/C  D.W. Christedsen [sic].

Both airplanes were approaching the field in the usual manner. The wind was slightly from the right at 10 mph. Position of the approaching ships gave the control ship stationed on the south-west corner of the mat no cause for alarm. A/C Christensen in ship 32 was in front below and to the right of Lt. Rueckert in ship 12. Several hundred yards from the south-west edge of the mat. Lt. Rueckert noticeably dropped the nose of his ship which struck the A/C Christensen’s airplane behind the canopy. Both airplanes remained in contact and fell to the edge of the mat from a height of about 50 feet. A/C Christensen plane landed on its back, exploded and burned killing A/C Christensen immediately. Lt. Rueckert’s landed nose first, broke clear of the other plane and the pilot jumped out and attempted to extinguish the blaze with his fire extinguisher. He sustained a cut on his forehead and shock. The fire truck and ambulance arrived immediately afterward, put out the blaze and conveyed Lt. Rueckert to the hospital.

Lt. Rueckert stated that he never saw A/C Christensen’s plane in the traffic pattern.

It is probable that one or both pilots were making improper correction for wind drift although witnesses were located at angles which made it impossible to verify this fact.”

The enquiry that followed concluded:

Failure of pilot in airplane to look around. Poor correction for drift on the part of one or both pilots. Lack of control tower in the vicinity of mat. Present control tower is approximately four thousand feet from the scene of the accident.

Dee would later retell the story to Bill, describing how she went to the hospital and how she had to remove little splinters of the shatter windshield from William’s forehead for weeks after the crash. It had been a hard lesson learnt for William.

On completion of the basic course, he then transferred to the multi engined Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field*4, California, the Air Force’s first west-coast Advanced Flying Field. Here William was enrolled in Class 43-H.

On the Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field, William would have undertaken a further seventy hours of multi-engined flying, formation flying, night flying and instrument flying using standard training aircraft such as the: Curtiss AT-9, Beech AT-10 or the Cessna AT-17 / UC-78. Upon completion of this course, William would receive his wings and a Commission.

Whilst William was here at Stockton Field, his son Bill, would reach his first birthday and William would send a heartfelt letter home telling Bill how much he missed him, and looked forward to spending time with him again. In his opening paragraph William said to Bill: “This eventful year you have quickly grown from an infant, into one grand, little boy, and I’m certainly proud of you, Billy.

WIlliam's letter to Little Bill on his first birthday.

William’s letter to Little Bill on his first birthday

The course lasted well into 1943, and on August 30th, Lt. William G. Rueckert graduated received his wings and his commission – his dreams were slowly becoming a reality.

For his next posting, William would be transferred to Kirtland Field, New Mexico (formerly known as Albuquerque Army Air Base, being renamed Kirtland Field in 1942 after Colonel Roy C. Kirtland), which specialised in navigation and bombardier training. The aircraft used here were the twin-engined Beechcraft AT-11 or the Douglas B-18 Bolo aircraft. Although split into three specialist schools, it also trained entire crews ready for the heavy Bombers the B-17 and B-24. It would be here that William would have his first encounter with the B-24 ‘Liberator’.

On October 28th 1943, William passed his instrument flying test, and by the time he was finished at Kirtland Field, he was a qualified pilot instructor on B-24s. With this under his belt, William was now ready, his flying training completed, he would transfer again, this time to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas.

It would be here at Biggs Field that the family would be reunited once again, Dee and Bill joining William on the base’s accommodation. It would also be here that Dianne, Bill’s sister, would be born. Dianne sadly passing away in 2007.

Little Bill in El Paso

Little Bill in El Paso. The boots, he tells me, he still owns today!

Dee’s account of the accident that is now believed to have been the Lemoore AAF collision was retold later to Bill. Her account of the day’s events being sketchy. I am continuing to search for evidence of this but it is unlikely that William was involved in an accident whilst here at El Paso.

Finally, the draw of the war led William to requesting a post overseas. But before departing, he would pick his own crew members,  Harold Emerson Roehrs – his co-pilot, and Jimmy Gardner – his navigator, both of whom he had become good friends with at El Paso.

Later in life, Harold Roehrs would write his own biographical account, “Harold’s Story“, in which he mentions William in a dedication. William being the one who taught Harold to fly a B-24, something Harold had to prove to his Commanding Officer Major (later Lt. Colonel) Thermand D. Brown. In doing so, Harold flew Major Brown around the skies of Hardwick until he was convinced, and convinced he was! In his book, Harold pays homage to William saying of him: “My pilot and friend who shared his knowledge and taught me how to fly a B-24 Liberator“.  William being one of those many people who helped shaped Harold’s life.

L to R: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

Left to Right: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

The three friends would all be posted together to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk, England to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Air Force, in April 1944. All three serving in the same crew.

The three left Biggs Field travelling to Forbes Field, Topeka, Kansas at the end of March 1944, where they would collect their B-24 to fly to England. The aircraft was loaded up and they took off heading over the southern route.

Off to War.

"Harold's story"

“Harold’s Story” is dedicated to many including William Rueckert.

Harold detailed the journey in his book “Harold’s Story”*3, shining an immense light on the enormity of the trip, one that was made by many crews transporting themselves and aircraft across the vast southern hemisphere to a war very far away.

The journey would be broken into stages, each covering many miles, with hours of flying over water. Much of the journey taking in hot humid days broken by the cold nights, the time when they would fly the most.

The first part of the journey took them from Topeka to West Palm Beach on Florida’s southern point, then via Aguadilla, Porto Rico, to Georgetown in British Guiana. The crew would then fly onto Belem in Brazil before arriving at Fortaleza, their last stop before the next leg and the Atlantic.

The crossing of the Atlantic, then took the crew from Fortaleza, across the monotonous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. They were aiming for Dakar on the Cape Verde Peninsula, Africa’s most westerly point. The 1,928 miles would take them exactly twelve hours and thirty-five minutes, and cross four time zones point to point.

After a nights rest, the crew then flew from Dakar to Marrakesh in Morocco, where they waited for five days until the notoriously poor British weather cleared sufficiently for them to proceed. Finally, they were given the go-ahead, and the last leg would take them around neutral Spain and Portugal, wide of the Bay of Biscay, arriving finally at the US Staging post RAF Valley in Wales.  (RAF Valley, had been designated a major staging post for US arrivals along with St. Mawgan in Cornwall and Prestwick in Scotland).

As in many cases, the aircraft flown over by the crews was not the aircraft they would keep as part of their operational unit. The new aircraft being taken and flown by ferry crews to other operational squadrons. From Valley, crews would make their way to Liverpool where they would then be transferred to their assigned squadrons, William, Jimmy and Harold making their way to Hardwick by train. The journey not being a direct one, would lead to them arriving at Hardwick (Station 104) on April 24th 1944.

Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be William’s only operational squadron. Having won three D.U.C.s already for operations over Europe including, the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Polesti, and the enormous raids of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were already a battle hardened group.

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, were very much in the front line of operations, taking part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area. Here they focused on cutting German supply lines and vital communication routes across France.

First and last Mission.

William’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944, one week after his arrival at the base. It was to be an early morning flight, take off at 05:00. Mission 332 was for more than 500 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions, to attack V- Weapons’ sites in northern France. These “Crossbow” operations were designed to destroy launching areas for the Nazi Terror weapons the V-1s that were targeting London and the South East. On that day William and Jimmy decided to volunteer to fill the vacant co-pilot and navigator spots in the crew of pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (s/n: 0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his other regular crewmen behind at Hardwick including Harold. William’s work ethics playing one last card as he wanted to get familiar with combat missions before taking his own crew out.

2nd Lt. Schreiner, a veteran pilot from Gloucester County, New Jersey had been along a similar path to  William’s, the ‘green’ newcomer. A Cavalry man he had enlisted in 1941, joining the National Guard before transferring across to the Air Corps.

On the night before the mission, William visited the local church at Topcroft, here he said his prayers in preparation for the following day’s flight. The church having strong links with the base, continues to honour the crews today.

The next morning, May Day 1944, two missions were planned, the first to the V Weapons site at Bonnieres, the second to a Brussels railway yard. About half the aircraft managed to get airborne for the first sortie, then it was the turn of ‘Joy Ride’.

The engines roared into life, 2nd Lt. Schreiner had signed the aircraft off fit for flight after a fuse for heating the suits had been replaced; the brakes were released and the aircraft began its roll along the perimeter track to the end of the runway where it sat waiting. After the signal to go was given, the engines were brought to full power, the brakes released and the aircraft shook and shuddered its way down runway 020 heading south. As it reached almost mid point it began to lift off, and when about 20 – 30 feet in the air, Schreiner gave the order to raise the undercarriage. S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw, the Top Turret Gunner / Flt. Engineer reported all instruments were well. He reached down to the undercarriage levers, when suddenly the aircraft hit the ground with an almighty sound.

A heavy landing tore off the left undercarriage leg and the nose wheel collapsed. Unable to gain any height, the aircraft crashed down and slid along the rest of runway 020 spinning round several times before ending up at the crossing with runway 032. Flames had by now engulfed the bomb bay and fuselage, Bradshaw pushed open the top hatch striking the Navigator 2nd Lt. James E. Gardner, on the head. Not seriously injured, both men escaped from the aircraft through the hatch, the top turret now resting on the nose of the stricken B-24, the fuselage engulfed in fire.

In the B-24 lined up behind William’s aircraft was Radio Operator Sgt. Cal Davidson who was stood between the pilot and co-pilot, a common practise on ‘night’ flights which allowed the pilot to focus on the instruments whilst the Radio operator watched the runway. Watching carefully between the rows of burning oil drums that lit the darkened runway, Davidson had a grandstand view of the incident that unfolded in horrifying detail in front of him. He described how he watched as William’s B-24 carrying a full load of fuel and bombs, took off from Hardwick’s north-south runway 020. In his diary that day, Sgt. Davidson wrote*5:

May 1 Blue Monday. No sleep last night as we were called for a mission, briefed at 2:00 and scheduled for a 4:00 take off flying the “War Goddess” to go on a practice mission before going to the actual target. As we sat on the runway next in line to take off, the plane ahead of us didn’t make it off crashing and exploding about 2/3rds of the way down the runway. Flames shot up and lit up the whole field. As I was standing between the Pilot and Co-pilot, the three of us watched stunned at what had just happened. Neast [The pilot: John K Neast] put his head down on the controls and said “O God why did this happen?”. He’d never taken off in the dark before and said he was all set until this happened.  The tower sent up red flares and told all remaining crews to get out of their planes. Once out of the plane with the engines quiet you could hear the 50 calibre bullets going off and the 500 lb bombs began exploding. Colonel Fiegel Base Commander and our Sq. C.O. Major Brown had tears in his eyes as he told us it was a 409th plane. Major Brown is one of the finest officers I have ever met.”

He then goes onto say:

One of those killed was a young French-Jewish boy from our barracks and had the bunk next to mine. We had nicknamed him ‘Frenchie’

‘Frenchie’ was Radio operator Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine, who claimed to be probably the only French-Jew in the Eighth Air Force, he shared a barrack hut with Davidson, having adjacent bunks. Davidson himself, cleared out Sheinfine’s belongings almost immediately, and his loss, and the loss of the crew, had a great impact of Davidson.

Sgt. Cal Davidson front

Sgt. Cal Davidson (laying down front)

Two nearby Groundcrew Sgt. Harry Kelleher*2 and Sgt. Johnny Findley also witnessed the crash. Sgt. Findley was closest and recalled how he heard “the squeaking sparks flying off, as the plane slid along the runway“. Then he watched as it “burst into flames as it continued down 020 north-south to 032  runway“. Findley ran over to one of the ejected crew members holding him until rescue crews arrived. Sgt. Kelleher leapt into a jeep and raced over to the crash site picking up a further two crewmen. “At that point” Kelleher said ,”the gas tanks exploded knocking over the jeep“. That was enough and they made a quick exit, in Kelleher’s words “they got the hell away.”

Standing on dispersal number 8, Engineering Officer Captain Thomas H. Jackson also saw the aircraft “crash and burn“, as it slid along the runway it “burst into flames“.

Another witness, ground crewman Corporal Johnny Fridell Jr*7, who was standing by runway 020 as the B-24 slid along on its belly, described sparks flying from the aircraft until it reached the crossing with 032, spinning around catching fire. Fridell then jumped into a shelter fearing what was about to happen. Over the next half an hour, seven of the 500 lb bombs on board the B-24 exploded, the full complement of fuel caught fire and the ten  ammunition boxes containing nine yards of .50 calibre bullets, began exploding too. It was a massive fireball from which it was unlikely anyone would survive.

Standing on the balcony of the control tower, the Commander Colonel Leland Gordon Fiegel, also watched as the lumbering B-24 came down onto the runway and caught fire. From where he stood, he didn’t think the damage was any more worse than “an ordinary belly landing“, but noted how “the fires increased rapidly in their intensity“.

B-24 "Joy Ride" Tail section

The tail section of B-24 “Joy Ride” after the crash.

Ground crewman Cpl. Johnny Fridell , along with rescue crews, then ran toward the fireball to try and help anyone they could. Miraculously, of the total number of crew, three were uninjured: Navigator 2nd Lt. James Gardner, Waist Gunners S/Sgt. Harold Loucks and T/Sgt. Kerry Belcher, mostly located within the rear of the aircraft between the bomb bay and the tail. Two further crewmen received injuries; Top Turret/ Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw and  Tail Gunner Sgt. Anthony Constantine. The remaining five, including Rueckert, were killed: Pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin, Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine and Nose Gunner Sgt. John Dalto. All of these were located in the front portion of the aircraft. The fire and explosions were so intense only a single thumb was found by rescuers.

The B-24 after the fireball

The remains of Reuckert’s B-24.

By 16:00 RAF Bomb Disposal crews had managed to remove and deal with the remaining bombs, it was thought at this stage the aircraft may have suffered from prop wash, a devastatingly dangerous effect caused by preceding aircraft creating turbulent air.

The explosion caused such damage that it created a huge crater closing the two main runways for five days. The mission was scrubbed (22 aircraft had already gotten airborne and carried on), red flares being fired into the night sky instructing crews to abandon their aircraft and return. For the next week all aircraft had to take off using the short runway and climb up over nearby woods approaching Topcroft village. As a result of the difficulty in doing so, there were subsequent crashes at Hardwick, with aircraft falling into the woods beyond the airfield. The crater and burnt debris of William’s B-24 leaving a stark reminder of the dangers of flying a heavy bomber laden with combustible and explosive materials.

Dee finds out!

For seventeen days Dee knew nothing of her husband’s fate. At home, she had been working on the new family flat at St. George, on the north-eastern corner of Staten Island, whilst living a few miles away with her family at Castleton Corners. Dee had been writing letters every day, in many cases two or three times a day, but unbeknown to her they were not reaching her husband very quickly – if at all.

To Dee, the old furniture with scratches and rips from the dogs they had owned held fond memories of their early days together. The many moves they had made as William had been posted from one training airfield to another, were emphatically etched in their structure.

Dee was at her mum’s house on May 18th when the buff telegram arrived. With ‘Western Union’ emblazoned across the top and two tell-tale red stars*6 in the bottom left corner, Dee knew exactly what it meant, she didn’t need to open it. As the tar stained hand of her father held it out to her, her life fell apart. The man she had adored for the last five years was gone, the moment she, and all serving personnel wives’ feared, had happened. She became ill and slid towards depression. Seeing the changes in her, Dee’s mother took charge, she gave up her own job and took Dee and the two children in. Encouraging Dee to go out and get a job, as she cared for Bill and Dianne and nursed Dee back to full strength.

Gradually, Dee recovered and got her life back on track. Small reminders would never be far away though, each one bringing William back to her thoughts. Not long after his death, flowers he had ordered only days before the accident, finally arrived on Dee’s doorstep.

The Telegram that brought the terrible news to Dee

The dreaded Telegram that brought the news of William’s death to Dee

Shortly after the 20th, a confirmation letter arrived from the War Department in Washington D.C. In three short paragraphs it confirmed that William had been “killed in action on 1 May 1944 over England.” It said nothing about the incident, as these are “prepared under battle conditions and the means of transmission are limited“. Signed by Brigadier General Robert H. Dunlop, it told Dee that William’s service had been “heroic“.

Back in the UK, those that had escaped, particularly William’s good friend James ‘Jimmy’ Gardner the Navigator, went into shock. He was sent to London to recuperate, before being sent home. In later years Bill tried to talk to him about the crash, but the shutters came down and Jimmy understandably turned away from Bill.  In June 1944, Harold, Bill’s other good friend from  their days at El Paso, would convince Col. Brown of his flying abilities, being approved as a pilot and then assigned another crew, he would go on to complete 37 missions with the 93rd at Hardwick.

In the official enquiry that followed the crash the engineer stated that all engines were running OK, each at 2,600 rpm with 49” M.P. (Manifold Pressure) in each one; recognised as sufficient power to achieve a good take off with the load being carried by the bomber. Schreiner’s training record was scrutinised and found to be in order. The pre-flight mechanic’s report was checked and several eye witness accounts were taken. After deliberations the committee apportioned 100% blame to the pilot Lt. Schreiner’s night take off technique, saying that he had allowed the aircraft to land again without realising what he had done. As a result, the committee recommended modified training for all crews to include further training in night take off and landings.

First page of the Crash Report

The first page of the accident report which blamed the pilot for his ‘take off technique’. Note the misspelling of William’s name.

Rueckert’s remains was initially buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley, a few miles outside of Cambridge, along with the pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner. Later on, William’s mother asked Dee if his body could be returned to Illinois to be placed along side his father in the family plot in Moline. Dee, still angry at her attempts to stop the marriage, and knowing there was little more than bricks in the coffin, agreed to the move and the coffin was returned in 1952. Of the others, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin was buried in section 14 of the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Raytown, Jackson County, Missouri, and Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine was buried at the Beth Israel Memorial Park, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Sheinfine was only nineteen years of age. The last crewman to lose his life that day, was twenty-one year old Sgt. John Dalto, who was buried in the Long Island National Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Suffolk County, New York. The average age of the crew that day was only 20 years old.

At the end of the war, one of William’s original crewmen stopped off at Dee’s to explain that William had volunteered to fly in ‘Joyride‘ that fateful day, the purpose being to gain experience before taking his own crew into heavily defended enemy territory.

Since discovering a lot more about his father’s death, his son ‘Little Bill’, has repeatedly returned to Hardwick and has become very good friends with the site owner David Woodrow. William’s wings and wedding ring were never recovered from the crash site, and remain buried in Hardwick’s 032 runway, where the concrete patch stands today.

On the farm that now stands in the place of Hardwick airfield, is a small museum, maintained by a volunteer crew set up by both David Neale and David Woodrow. The farm also has a memorial to the 93rd BG and regularly honours those who served. During the time the airfield was open, a pond was located in this area, into this pond aircrew who had passed their statutory mission number were thrown, a right of passage that allowed them to go home. Many however didn’t, choosing to stay on and serve for longer.

Following the accident, 1st. Lt. Rueckert was awarded the Purple Heart, as was the pilot. His son Bill, has since donated a replica of the medal to the church at Topcroft, the church William visited the night before his death.

Purple Heart Certificate

William Rueckert’s certificate for his Purple Heart.

Inside the church, a plaque sits on the wall remembering the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick from missions. William’s name also appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

William G Rueckert was a brave young man who, like many others, went to fight a war a long way from home. Doing their duty came above all else, but like many others he longed to see his wife and family. Sadly, that day never came, and William lost his life serving the country and people he loved.

RAF Hardwick and the story of the 93rd BG whilst based here appears in Trail 12

William G Rueckert appears on the World War II Honours list of Dead and Missing, State of New York 1946 Page 136.

Sources, notes and further reading.

Much of the basic information used was supplied by William Rueckert (Little Bill) through emails, and all pictures (unless stated) were donated and used by kind permission from Bill to whom I am truly grateful.

*1 The Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekender’ was published on December 13th 2014.

*2 Sgt. Harry Kelleher went with the 39th BG when it took part in the Polesti raid. His rank was that of Non-flying Ordnance ground crew. However, it is believed he joined Captain Llewellyn L. Brown’s crew taking the position of Ball Turret Gunner on the B-24 #41-24298 ‘Queenie‘ which was hit by flak and diverted to Sicily. Harry had been denied the opportunity to fly in the bomber by his superiors, but went anyway. He is credited as Ball Turret Gunner on the ‘American Air Museum’ website having been awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Harry had relayed the story to Little Bill before passing away, however, none of the crew have ever verified his claim and no other record seems to exist of it.

*3 Extracts from “Harold’s Story” written by Harold Emerson Roehrs, William’s best friend, were kindly given to me by Bill. The book I believe is now out of circulation.

*4 The History of Stockton Field can be found on the Military museum website, including images of Stockton Field taken during the war.

*5 Email from Cal Davidson to Bill Rueckert 25/8/04, courtesy of Bill Rueckert.

*6 One Red Star would signify Missing in Action or wounded, whereas two meant they were killed. Hence anyone seeing the telegram would know before even opening it what it meant. Dee’s father owned as company that repaired water tanks on top of the skyscrapers using tar, hence his hands were always covered with it.

*7 Corporal John L. Fridell Jr (s/n: 14077456) was one of the ground crew for ‘The Sleepy Time Girl‘ also referred to as “Sleepytime Gal‘ which completed 135 missions without returning once with mechanical problems.

*8 Accident number 43-5-20-6 Lemoore Army Air Field provided by the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

All quotes regarding the crash of the B-24 are from witness statements taken from the War Department Investigation, Report of Aircraft Accident Number 0000198.

USAAF Training Aircraft Fuselage Codes of WW II website

Abandoned and Little known Airfields website has a  very interesting collection of photographs and information on Lemoore AAF.

Kirtland Air Force Base Website

MyBaseGuide website

Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research website.

El Paso Times Website.

2Lt. Thomas E. Cartmell Blog by Michael John Hughey, MD

My sincere thanks go to Bill for allowing me to publish his father’s story and to all those who have contributed comments, corrections and information about the accident. I am continuing to search for further information, if / when this arrives, I shall add it to the text.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Ludham began its life and how things got off to a slow but steady start, the period April to August 1942 being  pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles. But the autumn signifies the beginning of many changes here at this Norfolk airfield. First however, the resident Spitfire squadron, 610 Sqn, would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham airfield

One of several buildings located around the perimeter of the airfield.

On August 16th, a need arose for fighters to bolster 11 Group for ‘Operation Jubilee‘ –  the raid on Dieppe by allied forces, primarily Canadian. The raid was supposed to achieve a number of objectives, but only one was successful, the main force being held on the beach where vehicles became bogged down in the shingle. 610 Sqn formed part of the aerial umbrella, along with 411 Sqn and 485 Sqn who all jointly formed the 12 Group wing flying from a temporary base at RAF West Malling. On the previous night to the raid, the 19th, ground crews were busy at West Malling fitting long range drop tanks to the Spitfires which according to the ORB, “proved their worth on this occasion“. During the air battle, which raged between the Spitfires, Typhoons and around fifty Me 109s and FW 190s, 610 Sqn claimed two 109s along with one FW 190 as destroyed and two FW 190s as damaged.  Three of 610 Sqn’s aircraft went down, one of the pilots Flt. Sgt. Creagh, being picked up from the sea. Interestingly enough, during this skirmish, pilots noted seeing FW 190s in Italian markings! By 09:30 hrs the squadron had returned to West Malling.

The flight then returned to the skies over Dieppe three further times that day, taking off at 11:20 hrs and then again at 14:00 hrs, each time to cover the withdrawal of shipping. The last evening sortie took off at 17:35 hrs. On the 20th, 610 Sqn flew out to France once again, this time though it was to escort  US bombers returning from the continent, perhaps seeing the carnage left by the disastrous raid the day before.

By the 21st it was all over, and the sixteen aircraft returned to Ludham where they would receive a message of thanks from the AOC 11 Group – Leigh Mallory.

As the squadron were returning to Ludham, so too came a new delivery, the squadron’s first batch of Spitfire Mk.VCs, with three arriving on the 21st and one further aircraft arriving on the 22nd. These were gradually absorbed into flying duties as the squadron returned to normal patrols and escort duties from Ludham. 610’s tally for the month stood at 123 enemy aircraft destroyed and 41.5 probables.

Over September, flights were pretty much routine once more, then October arrived and Ludham became frantic again. On the 8th, a road party was sent as advanced party to Biggin Hill with a view to taking part in a “Hush-Hush” operation. Unfortunately the operation was cancelled just prior to the party’s arrival, and they had to return to Ludham somewhat disappointed; road and rail transport being provided for the next morning.

That day also saw 610 Sqn Spitfires provide withdrawal cover for “over 100 Fortresses”, which at the time was a “headline” mission, this being the largest daylight raid of the war so far. The incredible sight of this massed formation would be dwarfed in comparison by the wars end with formations consisting of 1,000 aircraft or more, in a stream that lasted for what must have seemed forever.  Whilst enemy aircraft were seen in this first momentous occasion, there were no claims of ‘kills’ or ‘probables’ made by pilots of Ludham’s 610 Sqn.

By now, rumours of another move were circulating widely, hopes for a move south nearer to the action were dashed, when signal O2OB, dated 11.10.42, came through instructing the squadron to move to Castletown, near Caithness in Scotland – the opposite end of the country to where they wanted to be.

The move was to take place on the 14th October, and would be a direct swap with 167 (Gold Coast) Sqn, yet another Spitfire VC squadron. The airlift of 167 Sqn was late in arriving, meaning that many men were left ‘Kicking their heels” at Ludham, so a number headed to Norwich and a little light entertainment at the cinema. The transfer then happened on the next day, the 15th, with many of the pilots suffering sickness on the way up, thought to be due to the poor weather. Now 610’s link to this small Norfolk airfield was broken, and a new link in Ludham’s chain of history would be forged – a new squadron had arrived.

167 Sqn stayed at Ludham for five months, after which they took part in exercise ‘Spartan‘, a twelve day posting first at Kidlington and then Fowlmere, before returning to Ludham on March 13th, 1943. Exercise Spartan was a prelude to D-day, a huge military exercise that took place in southern England as a practise for the allied offensive across Europe in June 1944. Like Operation Jubilee, it consisted heavily of Canadian units, and also like Operation Jubilee, there were many shortcomings, the result of which was the loss of Command for three Canadian Generals.

A further short two month stay at Ludham then saw 167 Sqn depart in May for good. This left the Norfolk airfield to the only Typhoon squadron to use the base – 195 Sqn.

Formed in November 1942, 195 Sqn had formed at Duxford, transferring to Hutton Cranswick where they were assigned their Typhoons. A further move to Woodvale then brought them to Ludham where they would stay until 31st July 1943.

Ludham airfield

The second Watch Office also in a very poor state of disrepair.

On arrival at Ludham the squadron was immediately confirmed as operational, and on the 15th May 1943, the very day the operational  notice came through, Sgt. R.A. Hough spotted an Me 109f bombing Southwold. He engaged the enemy shooting him down into the sea, the squadrons first confirmed kill of the war.

With four more Typhoons arriving on the 20th, the squadron was in good spirits and eager to get on. But like their predecessors before them, their month consisted of patrols, practice scrambles and training flights some of which included the squadron’s Hurricane (7778) and Tiger Moth (209). By the end of the month, the Ludham unit had made 362 flights, most as patrols or as training flights. June was similar, the lack of contact frustrating the pilots; a note in the ORB saying “Patrols carried out dawn to dusk, 12 operational sorties being flown, but the Hun wouldn’t play“. The highlight of the day was perhaps the darts match against the local Home Guard, the Home Guard winning that night! As the month progressed, the squadron began to venture further afield taking on trains and oil storage facilities on the continent, scoring many hits and receiving flak damage as a result. On the 8th July the squadron suffered its first Ludham fatality when Flt. Sgt. F. Vause hit the ground in a low flying exercise. A talk by Sqn. Ldr. Taylor reflected the sentiments of the unit when he said they had lost a “Damn good pilot”. He went on to stress the low flying rules.

The end of July came and notification to depart Ludham for Matalsk, and a share of the airfield with 609 Sqn. There was some regret withe the more ‘romantic’ types of the squadron and due honours were paid to Ludham on that last night of the 30th July.

The last Spitfire squadron before Ludham left RAF control was 611 Sqn, with their Spitfire LF VBs. This was a short stay lasting only until August 4th, when they were told to move to Coltishall as Ludham was being closed down in preparation for transference to the USAAF. After one sortie at Ludham the move went ahead on the 4th, but it was not overly welcomed as Coltishall was already busy and accommodation was cramped.

With that, Ludham was closed, and the airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry (Works) whereupon construction work began on three new concrete and tarmac runways, a project that would take a year to complete. During this time new hardstands were installed – a mix of (17) double and (18) single types using pierced steel, some of these were located outside of the perimeter, and a small maintenance unit took care of the running of the airfield. A new two storey watch office was built with the original being re-purposed.

Designated Station 177, Ludham was never actually occupied by the Americans though, even though all the upgrade work had been completed, it remained firmly deserted apart from a small maintenance unit who oversaw its use.

Instead, it was decided to use Ludham as a dummy airfield and emergency landing ground for returning aircraft. A decision that was partly made for them as heavy bombers returning from daylight missions over occupied Europe would often come in over this part of East Anglia, and Ludham was the first airfield they would come across. Because of this, Ludham would see some eight B-17s, a B-24, one P-47, and a P-38 aircraft have to either crash or make emergency landings at Ludham or in the immediate vicinity.

The first to make use of the airfield in this way occurred on October 8th, 1943 barely a month into the airfield’s upgrading. A B-17F #42-3393  “Just-A-Snappin” was badly damaged over Bremen. The aircraft, piloted by Capt. Everett Blakely, made it back to England crossing the Norfolk coast east of Ludham. The aircraft had sustained severe damage from flak, the Number 4 engine, the hydraulics and the brakes all being put out of action. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Ludham crashing into a large tree causing further damage to the air frame. It was salvaged a few days later. This particular aircraft had only been assigned to the 418th BS at Thorpe Abbots, part of the Bloody Hundredth, in the July. It also went under the name of  “Blakely’s Provisional Group” and ”Did You Say Ten Cents?“, the multitude of names causing confusion in a number of references.

Part of a door cover from P-38 Lightning named

Part of door cover retrieved from wreckage of P-38H5LO #42-67053 ‘CY-L’, flown by Lt. Goudelock on December 13th 1943. The aircraft crashed in Ludham after flying for 375 miles on one engine (IWM FRE 158)

A second aircraft would attempt to use Ludham as a safe haven not long after this. On the 13th December, 1943 P-38H #42-67503 of the 55th FG, 343rd FS, “Vivacious Vera” piloted by First Lt. Hugh J. Goudelock, sustained damage to one engine whilst escorting bombers also over Bremen. After nursing the aircraft back to Britain he attempted a landing at Ludham when, suddenly, the second engine gave out. This left the P-38 powerless, causing it to crash in Ludham, the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. The strength of the P-38 having brought the pilot back for 375 miles on a single engine,

A similar story was repeated on December 23rd when B-17F #42-3273 “Impatient Virgin” crashed at Potter Heigham, another village only a stones throw from the airfield, while attempting to land at Ludham following damage it received over Munster. A sudden loss of power meant the aircraft had to put down in a field rather than on the airfield, all ten crewmen luckily returned to duty and the aircraft was salvaged.

B-17F “Impatient Virgin” #42-3273 of the 95th Bomb after crashing at Potter Heigham near to Ludham airfield. (IWM FRE 3903)

December had certainly been a busy month for Ludham, even though officially it was closed to flying, it had more than proved its worth as an emergency landing ground.

The work continued at Ludham and eventually, in August 1944, it was complete. By then though the US forces had decided against using Ludham and it was handed over to the Royal Navy (RN).

In the concluding part we saw how the Royal Navy fared at Ludham and how eventually Spitfire squadrons return. The V2 becomes a menace to be dealt with and then the war comes to a close and Ludham’s future is decided.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

 An Unknown Airman; No longer

A Guest Post by Mitch Peeke.

At 10:30 on the morning of Tuesday 3rd September, over the Kent village of Chart Sutton, near Maidstone, the then usual sounds of cannon and machine gun fire, from yet another dogfight high in the heavens, were heard. Then came the other sound; a high-pitched screaming, as a blazing Hurricane plunged toward the earth out of the summer sky, with a long plume of black smoke marking its descent. Farm workers and others watched in horror; the stricken fighter looked set to crash onto the village school, where classes of local children were in attendance. But at almost the last moment, the doomed fighter was seen to veer sharply away to Port and to then crash in flames on the edge of the apple orchard at nearby Parkhouse Farm. The unfortunate pilot was obviously still at the controls.

The force of the crash was so great that identification of the pilot and aircraft seemed virtually impossible at the time, though in typically British fashion, a sharp-eyed local Police Officer watching the events unfold, had managed to note the aircraft’s serial number and the crash was reported to the Hollingbourne district ARP office. Despite this, it would be another forty-five years before the identity of this self-sacrificing pilot would even be guessed at, and a further five years before it was even remotely confirmed. Until then, he would simply be one of the increasing number of unsung heroes; young pilots who were simply posted as “Missing, presumed Killed In Action” as the Weald of Kent continued to be both a witness to, and a graveyard of, the great aerial struggle that was known as The Battle Of Britain.

Yet what this tiny piece of the huge Battle of Britain jigsaw vividly illustrates, is precisely the reason that this period of our island’s history is so dear to us.

As I said; the identity of the gallant pilot, who had stayed with his blazing aircraft and steered it away from the village school, remained a mystery for years. In 1989, I’d just moved to that area and was intrigued when one Sunday afternoon, I saw a Hurricane and a Spitfire, obviously from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, performing a display over a nearby farm. My curiosity was of course aroused, as I knew the BBMF do not spare the engine hours of their aircraft lightly; so I asked around locally the following day and started to piece together the story, which ultimately turned into a full page article for the local newspaper, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle.

During the course of my research in 1989, I came across the following reports in the Kent County Archive at Maidstone:

Tuesday 3rd September 1940, Hollingbourne District A.R.P. Office: 

10:42.  A British Fighter has crashed in flames on Parkhouse Farm, Chart Sutton. Map reference 21/73.

11:12.  The aircraft is still burning fiercely and its ammunition is now exploding. There is no news of the pilot yet.

I also found out, thanks to the helpful locals, that even then, 49 years on from the crash, there is in fact a memorial to this unknown pilot, very close to where the aircraft crashed. It is a peaceful, beautifully kept garden, with a simple wooden cross bearing the inscription “RAF PILOT 3rd September 1940”. It was above this little memorial garden that the RAF had been performing their display.

The memorial lies hidden in a shady copse beside an apple orchard, on a south-facing slope that overlooks the one of the most beautiful parts of the county: the Weald of Kent. It is only open to the public once a year, and few people outside of the local Royal Air Force Association’s Headcorn branch and the people of Chart Sutton village, know its location. The whole thing, even now, is still a rather private affair between the local people, the RAF and the memory of the fallen pilot.

In 1970, the overgrown crash site was cleared and a formal garden constructed. There has been a memorial service every year at Chart Sutton Church ever since, which is usually followed by a display from either a lone fighter, or a pair of fighters, from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Tuesday, 3rd September 1940, is a date that Chart Sutton, and the RAF, have never forgotten.

Despite the fact that a local Police Officer had actually witnessed the crash and managed to log the involved aircraft’s number, confusion arose at the time because two more British fighters crashed in close proximity to the first very soon afterwards; one the next day in fact, at neighbouring Amberfield Farm and one ten days later on 14th September, almost unbelievably at Parkhouse Farm again.

The RAF sent a recovery squad to Chart Sutton on September 26th 1940, to clear the wreckage from all three crash sites. Although a local constabulary report to the RAF cited Hurricane P3782 as having been cleared from Parkhouse Farm, along with the fragmented remains of its pilot, plus the remains of the other pilot who’d crashed there on the 14th, that single piece of seemingly unimportant paper then got buried, lost in the general Police archives for years. It didn’t come to light again till the early to mid-nineteen eighties, probably during a clearout. It was then reproduced in that epic book, “The Battle of Britain Then & Now”.

Meanwhile, the removed remains of both pilots were interred at Sittingbourne & Milton Cemetery, in graves marked “unknown British airman”. The fighter that crashed at Amberfield Farm had left very little in its wake, having gone straight into the ground, so it is easy to see now, how the confusion over the identification of the three pilots subsequently arose, as aircraft crashes in Kent were of course quite commonplace during that long hot summer of 1940.

That was pretty much how things remained, till in 1980 a museum group excavated the site of the second Parkhouse Farm crash. Forty years to the very day since he’d crashed, Sergeant Pilot J.J. Brimble of 73 Squadron and his Hurricane, were exhumed from the Kent soil and positively identified. Also excavated at sometime soon afterwards, was the site of the Amberfield Farm crash, which was then positively identified as being that of Flying Officer Cutts of 222 Squadron, and his Spitfire. This left the last of the three “unknown airmen” and Hurricane P3782, the number from the now rediscovered police report.

Hurricane P3782 belonged to No. l Squadron, whose records show that on 3rd September 1940, it was allocated to Pilot Officer R.H. Shaw. The squadron log posts both Shaw and Hurricane P3782 as: “Missing, failed to return from a standing patrol” on the morning of Tuesday September 3rd 1940.

There can be little doubt now as to whom the Chart Sutton memorial belongs, but as the engine and cockpit of Shaw’s Hurricane are still deeply buried where they fell, there is nothing to base any official identification upon. Despite this, and the fact that the RAF removed what human remains they could find at the time, it has always been regarded locally as the last resting place of this gallant young airman.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron. By kind permission of Winston G. Ramsay, via Mitch Peeke.

Robert Henry Shaw was born on 28th July 1916, in Bolton to a family in the textile Business. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF on February 1st 1940 and posted to 11 Group, Fighter Command. On March 11th, he joined No.1 Squadron in France, as part of the force attempting to stem the German advance. The squadron was withdrawn to Tangmere, in Hampshire just before Dunkerque. It was at this time that Robert was inadvertently shot down by the pilot of another British fighter, who had evidently mistaken Robert’s Hurricane for a Messerschmitt 109. However, Robert managed to land his damaged Hurricane back at Tangmere and was himself unhurt.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert’s brother when we were introduced to each other at the annual memorial service the year after the local newspaper ran my original story. Unbeknown to me, the paper had traced and contacted Robert’s family. His brother, who was completely unaware that Robert’s memory had been honoured annually in Chart Sutton for the previous nineteen years, travelled down for the 1991 service. At our meeting, he told me that Robert, in connection with the family’s textile business, had been a frequent visitor to Germany before the war and was at first mightily impressed by Hitler’s regime. However, during what turned out to be his final visit in 1937, Robert was witness to a public incident that dispelled any illusions he had formed of Hitler’s new Germany. Robert never did say exactly what it was that he’d witnessed, but though obviously tight of lip, he was decidedly firm of jaw. Robert came straight home and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, immediately.

The exact circumstances of Robert’s death have never been established, but it seems likely that he and his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat, probably encountered a pack of “Free hunting” Messerschmitt 109’s; ironically, one of the last such hunting pack operations before Goring unwisely tied his fighters to the bomber formations as a close escort. Robert was by then a seasoned and experienced fighter pilot, but the ensuing dogfight would have been anything but equal. Despite the odds being heavily against them, the pair did not shrink from the fight. Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat was also killed.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron Chart Sutton, Maidstone (photo Mitch Peeke)

The Chart Sutton memorial is the village’s way of honouring that last great courageous deed of Robert’s in steering his blazing and doomed Hurricane away from the village school. It was his final, desperate act of pure self-sacrifice that has justly made twenty-four year-old Pilot Officer Robert H. Shaw an immortal part of that Kent village.

Since I first penned this, some evidence has now emerged in the form of an engine plate that was apparently dug up at the site as long ago as 1987, which has now at last been brought out into the light of day. One is left to wonder just how many such artefacts, souvenired at some point in the past, still lie undiscovered in people’s houses!

My thanks go to Mitch for bringing this story to us.

An update to the Allhallows 379th BG Memorial.

A note kindly sent in by Mitch Peeke regarding an update of the Allhallows memorial – 379th BG after its winter ‘clean up’.

I had taken the plaque and the storyboard down for the winter, after I got out of hospital (that’s another story!). The storms we’d had plus the unprecedented amount of rain, had inflicted some damage to the base work. Paul Hare and his Grounds keeping team at the Holiday Park once again stepped in. They installed a third, lower stand for me and then carefully removed the decorative stones so they could concrete the entire base, putting the stones back on the setting concrete so that the whole thing is now set and solid. I came back and repainted the original stands.

I then re-installed the original plaque and storyboard, the backboards of which I had re-varnished. On the third, lower stand is a new plate I had made, bearing the only known photos of some of the crew members. The pictures had been taken by Teddy Chronopolis during a training flight in Texas. His daughter, Jeanne, very kindly let me have copies, which I took to the signmakers. Having done that, I went down onto the beach and gathered up loads of Oyster shells and some driftwood. I laid the driftwood at the base of the lower stand with some of the Oyster shells, then used the rest of the shells to lay a complete border around the inner perimeter of the memorial base. The driftwood and shells are to symbolize the aircraft’s final resting place.I then took a photo, which I sent to both Jeanne and Noel. They were both touched by this “Mk II” memorial!

The memorial has now been formally inducted into the Allhallows Village Heritage Trail. The first guided Heritage walk was held on the second weekend in March and was well attended. Unfortunately of course, the Coronavirus restrictions have curtailed such activities at the moment and the Holiday Park is closed to holidaymakers too. But people do still exercise their dogs and themselves along the seafront. Hopefully, things will return to some kind of normality before this summer is done!

Allhallows Memorial update

Photo by Mitch Peeke 14/3/20

My thanks to Mitch for the update and photo, the memorial is looking splendid!

The original story was told in ‘A Long Way From Home‘.

The unveiling took place on June 22nd 2019.

Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour.

Leon vance.jpgThe story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily stricken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the European theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Air Force, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

File:846bs-b24-42-94860--halesworth.jpg

B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defences including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as  a precursor to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux, fly over dropping their payload, and then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over English soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone a heavy bomber with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crew member whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*2

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

DSC_0582

The American War Cemetery, Madingley. Leon Vance’s Name Appears on the wall of the missing (to the left of the picture).

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, see the Heroic Tales Page.

Sources.

* Photo public domain via Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – website World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Australian Flt. Sgt. Rawdon H. Middleton VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF

100641

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton (RAAF)*1

Middleton (s/n: 402745) was born on 22nd July 1916 in Waverley, New South Wales, Australia. Son of Francis and Faith Middleton, he was educated at Dubbo Hugh School. Nicknamed ‘Ron’ by his friends, he was a keen sportsman excelling at many sports particularly cricket and football. After leaving school, he worked as a ‘Jackaroo’ (cattle handler) until joining the Royal Australian Air Force on the 14th October 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme. He learnt to fly at Narromine, New South Wales and then was sent to Canada for further training in preparation for his posting to the UK. He finally arrived in Britain in September 1941, as a second pilot, and his first operational squadron was No. 149 Squadron RAF, who were flying Short Stirling bombers out of both Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall in Suffolk.

P01019.003

Five student pilots from No. 7 Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) course at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School (5 EFTS) Narromine. They are left to right: Aircraftman (AC) Gordon Orchard; AC Douglas Scott; Leonard Reid; Pilot Officer (PO) Douglas Wilberforce Spooner (DFM); PO Rawdon Hume Middleton*2

Middleton’s first experience of operations, was in a Short Stirling over the Rhur, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. After spending a short time with 149 squadron he moved temporarily to No. 7 Squadron (RAF).

In July 1942, as first pilot, he was given his own aircraft and crew, it was also around this time that he returned to 149 squadron.

Their first mission together would be on July 31st, to bomb the strategic and heavily defended target, Düsseldorf. Middleton and his crew would continue to fly together and took part in other prestigious missions; namely Genoa on the 7th of November and his 28th mission, Turin on the 20th November. His 29th and final mission, would take place on the night of 28/29th November 1942.

In the early evening of the 28th he took off in Stirling BF372 coded ‘OJ-H’ as part of the raid on the Fiat works in Torino, Italy, along with 227 other aircraft which included – 117 Avro Lancasters, 46 Short Stirlings, 45 Handley Page Halifaxes, and 19 Vickers Wellingtons.

Middleton’s crew consisted of: Ft.Sgt. Leslie Anderson Hyder, Ft. Eng: Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey, Bomb Aimer F.O. G. R. Royde, Wireless Operator: Sgt. John William Mackie; Gunners: P.O. N. E. Skinner, Sgt. D. Cameron and Sgt. H. W. Gough. Three of these had already completed their tour of 30 operations and could have left. However, their dedication to Middleton kept them together.

The mission would take the aircraft over the Alps and the Stirling, laden with bombs and fuel combined with having a notoriously poor ceiling, had to negotiate through the mountains rather than fly over them. A factor that often resulted in a high number of casualties.

Once over the target area, OJ-H was subjected to an extreme flak barrage. With poor visibility, Middleton had to make three passes over the target area to enable his crew to positively identify it. It was on the third pass that a shell burst hit the cockpit. The resulting damage was severe, and fragments had hit Middleton’s head badly injuring him. His right eye was lost and his skull exposed. There were further hits on the aircraft’s fuselage causing considerable damage to the control systems and airframe. Knocked unconscious by the blast, Middleton lost control and the aircraft plummeted through the skies to an altitude of around 800ft. The second pilot, Fl.Sgt. Hyder eventually managed to take the controls, release the bombs over the target and then pull the aircraft into a climb, safely reaching 1,500ft.

With his aircraft severely damaged, Middleton had a choice, get his crew to bail out over occupied France and certain capture, fly to Africa or head back to England; a journey that would last over 4 hours and put the aircraft at risk of attack and the crew in danger. Wanting to give them a fighting chance of getting home, he opted for the latter, and set a course for England.

SUK10501

Middleton was buried with full military honours at St. Johns Church, Beck Row. Suffolk.*3

The aircraft experienced a number of attacks as they crossed occupied France, but Middleton, fighting for survival, kept reassuring the crew that he would get them home. Eventually, and against all the odds, they made the English coast, and once over land Middleton ordered the crew to bail out. Five crewmen left the stricken aircraft whilst the other two remained to help him control it. Turning for the Channel, Middleton ordered the two remaining crew members to bail out, whilst he stayed at the controls, steadying the aircraft.

By now the Stirling was very low on fuel and it finally gave up the fight and crashed at 03:00 on the morning of November 29th 1942. Middleton, too injured and too weak to escape the wreckage, drowned within the aircraft fuselage. His two crew members, Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey (576050) age 19 and Wireless Operator Sgt. John William Mackie (994362) age 30, despite escaping, also drowned. Both the bodies of Sgt Mackie and Sgt. Jeffrey were washed ashore later that day on the 29th.

Middleton’s body remained in the aircraft, but was eventually freed from the wreckage by the action of the sea, and was washed ashore on Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in February 1943. His remains were taken to RAF Lakenheath and he was buried in St John’s churchyard, Beck Row, within sight of his airfield in Suffolk, with full military honours. Middleton was only 26 and only one mission away from ending his tour and returning home.

For his action, dedication and bravery, Flt. Sgt. Middleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to any serving member of the R.A.A.F in World War II. He was also posthumously awarded a commission as Pilot Officer, backdated to mid November before his sortie to Turin. Thirty years later, in 1978, Middleton’s V.C. was presented to the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra for safe keeping and preservation.

For their actions, the other crew members received three DFMs and two DFCs. Fl.Sgt. Leslie Hyder (DFM) was injured, P.Officer. N. Skinner (DFC) was also injured, along with Sgt. H. W. Gough (DFM). F.O. G. R. Royde (DFC) and Sgt. D. Cameron (DFM) escaped unhurt.

The London Gazette published a report on 12th January 1943. It said:

“Fl. Sgt. Middleton was captain and first pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack the Fiat Works in Turin one night in November, 1942. Very difficult flying conditions, necessitating three low altitude flights to identify the target, led to excessive petrol consumption, leaving barely sufficient fuel for the return journey. Before the bombs could be released the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and a splinter from a shell which burst in the cockpit wounded both the pilots and the wireless officer. Fl. Sgt. Middleton’s right eye was destroyed and the bone above it exposed. He became unconscious and the aircraft dived to 800 ft. before control was regained by the second pilot, who took the aircraft up to 1,500 ft. releasing the bombs, the aircraft meanwhile being hit many times by light flack. On recovering consciousness Fl. Sgt. Middleton again took the controls and expressed his intention of trying to make the English coast, so that his crew could leave the aircraft by parachute. After four hours the badly damaged aircraft reached the French coast and there was once more engaged and hit by anti-aircraft fire. After crossing the Channel Fl. Sgt. Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five left safely, but the front gunner and the flight engineer remained to assist the pilot, and perished with him when the aircraft crashed into the sea”.

Funeral service for 402745 Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton, the RAAF’s first VC winner. He was buried with full military honours in a country churchyard near his station. Air Vice Marshal H. N. Wrigley represented the High Commissioner for Australia (Mr S. M. Bruce) and the RAAF. The graveside service was conducted by Squadron Leader H. C. Thrush of Prospect, SA, RAAF Chaplain. (Australian War Memorial Public Domain)

Middleton’s citation read:

“Flight Sergeant Middleton was determined to attack the target regardless of the consequences and not to allow his crew to fall into enemy hands. While all the crew displayed heroism of a high order, the urge to do so came from Flight Sergeant Middleton, whose fortitude and strength of will made possible the completion of the mission. His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.

In honour of Middleton’s bravery, Number 1 RAAF Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Wagga has renamed the club in his name, the “Middleton VC Club”, and he also appeared on one of the 1995 Australian 45c stamps. The dining hall located at the nearby (now American) base at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, has also been named in his honour.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall

Fl. Sgt. Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF, St. John’s Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Middleton was a brave and dedicated young man who gave his life to save those of his crew. Each and every one of them acted with the highest dedication, sadly for some, it cost them dearly.

Sources

*1 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image 100641, Public domain.

*2 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image P01019.003, Public domain.

*3 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10501, Public domain

*4 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10500, Public domain

Heroic tales – Aviation Trails.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P2)

In Part 1 of RAF Bottisham, we saw how the airfield was opened as a satellite and how it was underused for the first part of its life. With numerous short stay or training squadrons it never really  attained the level of prestige it wanted.

In part 2 we see how this struggle continued in 1943, but in 1944 things would change, and Bottisham would become a major front line airfield with a record breaking Fighter Group.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Between January and mid March, 2 Squadron were stationed here, albeit briefly, after receiving their own Mustangs in the preceding April. With their parent airfield Sawbridgeworth being unusable, they needed a new place to stay. The advanced party departing, led by F.Lt. Fletcher, on the 30 January, with the main party leaving the following day. Using these Mustangs 2 Sqn would fly long range reconnaissance flights over to Holland, where they would photograph military compounds and enemy shipping.

After that, in March, came another four short-stay units; 268 Squadron who stayed for a mere 4 days; 613 Sqn who stayed for twelve days; 169 Sqn for two days and 4 Sqn who stayed here for a little longer at four months. 4 Sqn were another unit who had previously used both the Lysander and Tomahawk before converting over to the Mustang.

Their departure in July signified the end of RAF operations from Bottisham airfield, the site being all but empty for the next six months. At this point the US Eighth Air Force took over the airfield, poured engineers into it, developed the technical site and  improved the accommodation blocks. After renaming the airfield Station 374, they began to bring in a new unit and Bottisham would finally become the airfield it was so struggling to be.

At the end of November, the twelfth and last Fighter Group to fly P-47s joined the VIII Air Force here at Bottisham. The 361st FG had only been active for eleven months when they entered combat in January 1944. Their journey had taken them from Richmond AAB in Virginia, through Langley Field, Millville New Jersey, back to Richmond and then, via the Queen Elizabeth, on to Bottisham their first European stop. Here the three squadrons: 374th FS, 375th FS and 376th FS flew P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ or ‘Jugs’ as they were affectionately known, under the command of Colonel Thomas J.J. Christian Jnr, a high ranking officer who was killed in action in August 1944.

‘The Bottisham Four’, 26th July 1944, Leader is Col. Thomas J. J. Christian Jr. Second plane ‘E2-S’ flown by Lt. Urban L. Drew; third is Major Roswell Freedman’s E2-A and the fourth is P-51B E2-H ‘Suzy G’ flown by Lt. Francis Glankler. None of these aircraft survived the war (IWM UPL 18209)

Colonel Christian led the 361st on their first combat sortie on January 21st 1944, as part of an escort of over 600 fighters, to the Pas de Calais and Cherbourg areas. Here, almost 800 B-17s and B-24s from the First, Second and Third Bomb Groups attacked thirty-six ‘V’ weapons sites, thirty-four in the Pas de Calais and two at Cherbourg. As the formation split, the 361st went to Calais, where poor weather hampered the bomb runs. However, allied air superiority meant there were little pickings for the fighters and few enemy aircraft were engaged or shot down. The group returned to Bottisham yet to draw their first blood.

Over the next few weeks, the Group would take part in further escort duties, covering bombers to Frankfurt, Watton, Wilhelmshaven and Gilze-Rijen. February saw them participate in the ‘Big Week’ campaign with further missions to Germany.

On April 27th, the Eighth Air Force undertook two missions, No. 322 and 323, both targeting areas in France and Belgium. On one of these missions was Capt. Charles H. Feller who took off with the 375th FS to escort the bombers. His P-47, ’42-75447′ was the only aircraft lost on that mission, a loss made worse by the fact that his brother Cpl. Jack Feller, was waiting to meet him at the main gate. Cpl. Feller, was informed that his brother was missing in action, and at the time his whereabouts weren’t known. It later transpired that he was killed whilst attacking the former French Air base Etampes-Mondesir which had been taken over by the Luftwaffe*1.

Back at Bottisham, the heavy weight of the Thunderbolt was playing havoc with the Sommerfeld tracking, forcing it to be replaced with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), a feat that was achieved in a matter of just three days.

As the winter of 1944 passed and spring arrived, the 361st were told that their P-47s were to be replaced by Mustangs, the P-51 would be returning to Bottisham once more, but in a far Superior form than its original one.

In May, the first of these more agile and more powerful P-51s arrived, and under the guidance of General Arnold’s New Year message, “Destroy the enemy Air Force where ever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories” they performed well achieving many high scores. Operating over the Normandy landscape during May, they attacked targets such as airfields, marshalling yards and transport systems, taking out 23 Locomotives in one day, a quarter of the entire day’s total. After Normandy, the 361st  would go on to  cover the breakout at St. Lo, and the failed airborne operation ‘Market Garden‘ in the autumn of 1944.

In late September 1944, the 361st transferred to Little Walden in Essex, but even with their belongings packed and furniture in transit, they would still be willing to perform their duty. On the 26th, they escorted over 1,100 heavy bombers to a range of targets in Germany. Whilst approaching Hamm, one of the pilots 1st Lt. Urban Drew (one of the Bottisham Four), spotted an Me 262 beneath him. After giving chase, diving at incredible speeds to catch the jet, he finally lost him, but not until after he had expelled over 1,300 rounds of ammunition, in a chase that took him from 20,000 ft to 0 ft, in a matter of minutes. The frustration of the pilots in catching these new aircraft clear in their reports back at base.

On the next day, as the move was progressing, another call came out. This time it would be a good day for the pilots of the 361st. Escorting almost 1,200 bombers to Germany again, the group spotted large numbers of enemy fighters attacking the bomber formation in a ‘company front’ attack. The P-51s dived in, splitting the 109s and 190s sending them wayward. ‘Heading for the deck’, a flight of four P-51s lead by Lt. William Beyer gave chase, and in what turned out to be a disastrous day for the Tibbenham based 455th BG (losing 25 aircraft the highest of any mission), the 361st managed to achieve the highest recorded number of kills for any fighter group to date.

After Kassel, Sept. 27, 1944: Lt. William Beyer (left), and Lt. Bocquin (right) prepare their reports. While Bocquin downed three enemy planes, Beyer got five– becoming an “Ace in a Day.” .(IWM UPL 29364)

With eighteen confirmed kills, five for Beyer who was an ‘Ace in a day’, and three for the Squadron Leader 1st. Lt. Victor Bocquin, it was an amazing achievement for the 361st, and as their last operation from Bottisham, it gave cause for great celebration.

Their time at Bottisham had now come to an end and they never returned to the airfield where they had cut their teeth. The move, instigated by a reshuffling of the Air Force’s organisation, meant that the 361st would be closer to the Bomb Groups they were to be attached to. It also signalled the end of Bottisham as an active front line airfield.

By the time the ‘Yellow Jackets‘ as they were known, had completed their tours, they had completed 441 missions, claiming 226 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 105 on the ground.

With the departure of the 361st, Bottisham fell operationally quiet. In the following June 1945, it was passed back to RAF control and linked once more to Snailwell, who used it as a relief airfield for Belgian pilots of the RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School. In the October, its status was reduced to satellite and the Belgian’s partially moved in. Using primarily Tiger Moths, the Belgians used Bottisham for a mere ten months, disbanding as a Royal Air Force unit in April 1946 and passing over to the Belgian Air Force. With that, Bottisham closed on May 1st, and stood empty until sold for agricultural use in October 1958.

Since then, the runways have been pulled up, the buildings on the airfield have been removed and the accommodation blocks have all been built up expanding the village that played such a great part in its life. On the corner of the airfield site a small cluster of buildings still stand, these include the former squadron offices (themselves former crew rooms), a sleeping shelter, and general purpose huts. These have been purchased and are being restored to house a small museum dedicated to those who served at the airfield.

RAF Bottisham

The former Sleeping Shelter.

The airfield itself is now cut by the main A14 dual carriageway. But by leaving this road and turning along the A1303,  you can access both the museum and the airfield quite easily. The museum sits on the corner of the A1303 and Wilbraham Road, along which, if you turn right, cuts across the airfield and the remains of the former runway. As with many former airfields the runway line has been planted with trees giving a good indication of both its location and size. Parts of the perimeter track are also visible from this road to the north end, but otherwise there is little left to see other than a small selection of concrete patches. The village has a memorial in both the British Legion club and in the village with the Thomas Christian memorial. Sadly, little else of this small but once busy airfield exists today.

Bottisham airfield was generally speaking, a minor airfield housing a number of units in its early years. However, once it became fully fledged, it became not only significant, but a leader in the stakes of war. Now all but gone, the memories of those who served here are firmly embedded in the streets of Bottisham along with a few buildings that survive to tell their story.

My sincere thanks go to the members of the Bottisham Airfield Museum who so kindly stopped their work to give me a personal guided tour of the site when I visited. I wish them luck in their venture.

Sources and Further Reading.

The full story of Bottisham can be read in Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

The full story of Colonel Thomas Christian appears in Heroic Tales. 

National Archives – AIR 27/1465/10

National Archives – AIR 27/19/25

National Archives – AIR 27/2170/1

Bottisham Airfield Museum website.

*1 Wilson, K., “Blood and Fears – How America’s Bomber Boys and Girls in England Won Their War” Orion Books, 2016.