RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

In Part 1 we saw how Waterbeach was built. How the Conversion Units were created in response to the demands of Bomber Command and how crews were being  trained in old and war weary aircraft. In this next part we see how the station transitioned from the Stirling to the Lancaster and how Waterbeach’s squadrons fared with the aerial war.

Training exercises in old and worn aircraft were often the cause of mishaps, accidents and tragedies, and as was seen in other training squadrons, the casualty rates were sometimes high. One of the first accidents for 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) at Waterbeach was caused by a malfunction in the extractor controls of N3642 which was being flown solo at the time by Sgt. K. Richards. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that it was downgraded being used as an instructional airframe only. Thankfully Sgt. Richards was unhurt in the incident and went on to fly with a new operational squadron later on.

Several more incidents in the following months led to further badly damaged aircraft, but the first fatalities came on the evening of June 16th 1942 when Stirling N6088 ‘LS-X’ flown by 24-year-old New Zealander F/O. Milan Scansie (s/n: 411491) was seen to fall from the sky over Nottingham with its port wing in flames and parts falling away. The entire crew died as a result of the accident, the cause of which has not yet been verified. The Stirling they were flying, was a veteran of European Operations, it had flown for nearly 250 hours and in twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

Bombing-up a Stirling of No 1651 CU/HCU  Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, 30 April 1942.© IWM (CH 5474)

Gaining operational experience was one of the most valuable tasks the trainee crews could undertake, and there was no ‘softly, softly’ approaches for the Conversion Units. The first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne required every available aircraft and the Conversion Units were called upon to provide some of these aircraft.  In June 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the first operational aircraft casualty would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. Another factor that made this loss so great was the fact that not only did all seven crewmen lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had international caps for the England rugby team.

Born in 1909, Booth is one of sixteen boys from the Malsis School, who is commemorated on the Chapel’s stained glass window. After playing his debut match against Wales, his career ended in a game against Scotland at Murrayfield. In-between these games he achieved seven international caps for England scoring three tries.

The following July and August were to see the start of a catalogue of accidents and operational losses that would reflect not only the poor quality of the machines that trainees were expected to fly, but the disadvantages that the Stirling became famous for. The night of July 28th/29th being one of the worst with the loss of four aircraft in a mission to Hamburg, followed on the 30th by a further loss of an aircraft whilst on a training flight. In two nights alone, twenty-four airmen had lost their lives with a further one being injured and four taken prisoner.

Waterbeach would prove to be a safe haven again on the night of August 10th/11th 1942, when aircraft sent to drop SOE troops at zones ‘Giles‘ and ‘John‘ found their home base at Fairford fog-bound. Spread far and wide the sight of Waterbeach’s runway must have been a very welcome sight indeed.

In the early days of October 1942, on the 7th, the two flights, 214 and 15 Squadron Conversion Flights were amalgamated fully into 1651 Conversion Unit raising the number of personnel to over 1,000. This change would mean that 1651 would now be designated 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) allowing for the first time, flight engineers and second air gunners to join the crews. Training would then continue, some of it for only a matter of a few weeks, as would more losses.

Whilst the transition between Conversion and Heavy Conversion Unit went smoothly, the 2nd and 18th saw two more training accidents. Whilst both incidents only involved one crewman – the pilot – both accidents involved the aircraft developing a swing that became uncontrollable – the resultant crash leaving both aircraft severely damaged.

1942 turned to 1943, and by the end of the year 1651 HCU would eventually depart Waterbeach. With a further small number of training accidents, some due to the aircraft swinging, some due to mechanical failures, others were due to forces outside of the control of Waterbeach crews.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, a Lancaster from 97 Squadron from RAF Bourn was diverted to land at Waterbeach. On landing, the aircraft overshot the runway colliding with Stirling MK.I  (BF393), wrecking both aircraft. Of the seven aircrew in the Lancaster, the pilot Sgt. Anthony Reilly (s/n: 1005145) was killed with a further three injured, thankfully there were no injures associated with the parked Stirling.

May would also see an increase of the numbers of Heavy Conversion Units at Waterbeach, but inadequate planning meant that this unit was spread across three separate airfields, a situation that proved too much and so within a month, they were all moved to RAF Woolfox Lodge. This short interlude by 1665 HCU played no major part in Waterbeach’s history.

The last 1651 HCU  accident occurred at Waterbeach on October 27th 1943 when Stirling N3704 piloted by F/O. K Becroft DFC, another New Zealander, and F/S. F Burrows, an Australian, landed with its undercarriage still retracted. Neither airmen were hurt in the accident, but it was F/O Becroft’s third accident in a Stirling in the last year. Whilst no further accidents were to occur at Waterbeach, a 1651 HCU aircraft did have the misfortune to crash-land at RAF Witchford a few miles away, after suffering brake failure, on the last day of the month.

November 1943 would bring further changes to Waterbeach as 1651 CU pulled out, moving to Wratting Common to allow room for the new radial engined version of the famous Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster MK.II of 514 Squadron and her associated Conversion Unit 1678 HCU. This move was in response to a reorganisation of No. 3 Group, the whole process of transferring taking a mere few days, primarily by road.

514 were formed on 1st September 1943, and 1678 HCU on the 16th September, both whilst at Foulsham (under the control of No.3 Group) and would go on to specialise in blind bombing techniques. Like many of Bomber Command’s Squadrons, 514 Sqn would draw their crews from a broad spectrum of the Commonwealth countries, giving it a real multi-national feel.

The squadrons first mission took place on the night of November 26th/27th and it would be to the German heartland, and Berlin. This would be their second trip into the Lions den in three days and would see eight aircraft  leave Waterbeach each carrying 4,000lb bombs and a wide range of incendiaries. Leaving between 17:45 and 17:55, they would arrive over the target at around 21:30 dropping their bombs from a height of between 20,000 and 21,000 feet. Large fires were seen from the bomber stream, some crews saying from 100 miles away, indicating that the city was “well alight”. On this mission, one aircraft returned at 19:28 with engine problems jettisoning its bombs before returning and another was reported ‘missing’ over the target area. It was later found that the aircraft was shot down over Germendorf killing all on board. Lancaster MK.II (DS814) ‘JI-M’ was piloted by twenty-one year old Canadian F/O. Maurice R. Cantin (RCAF).

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

It was during this period of the war that the Stirling was withdrawn from front line operations, its losses far outweighing its benefits. From this point on no further action over Germany would include the Stirling, and the hunters now focused on the Halifaxes and Lancasters. On this night alone over 40 Lancasters were lost (either over the target or crashing in England) with the majority of the crews being killed. This would prove to be one of the most devastating raids of Berlin causing extensive damage, loss of life and casualties.

The terrible winter of 1943/44 made operational flying very difficult. Ice was a problem as was thick cloud over the target area. With numerous bombing missions taking place, many to Berlin again, Harris’s desire to destroy the German Capital was proving difficult. Whilst many front line squadrons were suffering high casualties, for 514 Sqn, losses would be light.

The first loss of 1944 would not occur until January 14th/15th in a raid to Brunswick. During this night two Lancasters would be lost, that of LL679 ‘JI-J2’ and LL685 ‘JI-G2’ with the loss of fourteen airmen. For a raid that cost thirty-eight Lancasters, equivalent to 7.6% of the force, it provided very disappointing results, many of the bombs falling on open countryside or in the suburbs of the city.

Berlin would be hit hard during January. Over almost three consecutive nights, 27th-31st Lancasters would strike at the heart of the Reich, 514 Sqn losing  no aircraft in their part even though nineteen aircraft would participate in the mission. Of those nineteen, four would not get off the ground and one would return early.

February 1944 was a big month for both the RAF and USAAF as more combined operations began against the aircraft production and supply facilities. On the 19th/20th, Leipzig was hit by 823 aircraft of which 561 were Lancasters. 514 Sqn would lose three aircraft that night: DS736 ‘JI-D2’, piloted by F/S. Norman Hall, DS823 ‘J1-M’ piloted by F/S. Walter Henry and LL681 ‘JI-J’ piloted by F/L. Leonard Kingwell, there were no survivors from any of the three aircraft.

Schweinfurt ball bearing factories were once again targeted on the night of the 24th/25th, a foreboding target that had proven so disastrous for the USAAF in the previous October. Luckily for 514 Sqn though, losses were much lighter, with only one crew failing to return home.

As the summer arrived in England, so too did the invasion of continental Europe. May meant that the RAF’s bomber force would switch from the industrial targets of Germany to strategic bombing of defences, marshalling yards, communication lines and fortifications all along western France and in particular the Normandy area. Allied leaders stressed the importance of blocking a German reinforcements through the rail network, as a result, the entire system west of the Rhine became a target with Bomber Command being given the lion’s share to attack. Seventy-nine rail centres were chosen for the attacks, and by D-Day all those assigned to Bomber Command had received their attention.

On the days before the invasion the aircraft were painted with the well-known black and white invasion stripes, used to allow easy identification of allied aircraft by friendlies. On the early morning of June 6th, twenty-two 514 Sqn aircraft set off to attack fortifications at  Ouistreham, the port at the mouth of the Canal de Caen à la Mer, the canal that serves Caen found on the eastern flank of the allied beachhead area.

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

Considering that the June raids set new records for the number of Bomber Command raids, 514 Sqn suffered no casualties. The first coming in the days after when two Lancasters (DS822) ‘JI-T’ and (LL727)  ‘JI-C2’ were lost over France. With a loss of four, the remainder of the two crews were either captured or managed to escape.

By June 1944 the need for the HCU had diminished, crews no longer needing the training to transfer to heavy bombers, and so 1678 HCU was disbanded in the usual grand style that was becoming famous in RAF circles.

It was also at this time, mid June, that 514 Sqn began to replace it MK.II Lancasters with the more famous Merlin engined MK.I and IIIs. The change itself didn’t herald a significant change in operations, now dogged by bad weather the constant cancellation of missions began to affect morale as crews were stood down often at a moments notice. The poor weather continued for most of the summer, what operations did take place were in support of the Allied forces as they advanced through France. Harris remained under the control of Eisenhower and so the focus of attacks continued to be Western France and German supply lines to the invasion area.

July into August saw a return to Germany for the bombers, a new experience for many crews of Bomber Command. By the October, raids were now being carried out in daylight hours. The first enemy jet aircraft were encountered and morale was high. However, the year would not end quietly.

December 29th 1944 was a hazy day with severe frost, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst H2S and G.H. training was provided for the non-operational crews. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster (PD325) ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall, had repercussions across the airfield damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, some simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day, partly in case time-delayed bombs exploded. To clear them and make the area safe, bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft’s bomb bays.

1945 brought good fortune as the war came to an end. ‘Manna’ operations became the order of the day along with ‘Exodus’ flights bringing POWs back home for their captive camps across the continent. Slowly flights were wound down and on August 22nd 1945, 514 Squadron was disbanded at Waterbeach. Whilst they had been here, 514 Sqn had lost sixty-six aircraft on operational missions with the loss of over 400 aircrew, some of whom are buried in the neighbouring Cemetery at Waterbeach.

Thus ended the wartime exploits of RAF Waterbeach, despite crews leaving and the aircraft being taken away, Waterbeach’s wartime legacy would go on, strongly embedded in Britain’s aviation history. The peace would not last long though, for within a month a new era would dawn, a new aircraft type would arrive and Waterbeach would begin to see a change in operational flying take place.

In the final part of this trail we see how Waterbeach entered a new age of flying and how its wartime legacy was carried on through the front line fighters of the RAF as the jet age arrived.

 

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RAF Waterbeach – Birth of the Conversion Units (Part 1).

In Trail 11, we visit three airfields all within a stones throw of each other, and all situated around Britain’s third smallest city Ely, in Cambridgeshire. They were all once major airfields belonging to the RAF’s Bomber Command. Post war, two of the three went on to be major Cold War stations, one housing the Thor Missile, whilst the second housed the fast jets of the RAF’s front line of defence. It is this one we visit in the final part of this Trail. It is also one whose days are numbered, already closed and earmarked for development, the bulldozers are knocking at the door whilst the final plans are agreed and development can begin. But this development may not be the total clearing of the site it often is. With plans to integrate parts of this historical site into the development, it is aimed to create a living and working space that reflects it significant historical value. Today, in the final part of Trail 11, we visit the former station RAF Waterbeach.

RAF Waterbeach.

The land on which Waterbeach airfield stands has a history of its own, with royal connections going back as far as the 12th Century. Eventually divided up into farms, one of which, Winfold Farm, stood at the centre, the area would be developed into a long-term military base.

RAF Waterbeach would have a long career, one that extended well into the Cold War and beyond. It would be home to no less than twenty-two operational front line squadrons from both Bomber Command and Fighter Command, along with a further five Conversion Units. With only six of these units (3 front line and 3 Conversion Units) operating during the Second World War, the majority would be post-war squadrons, three being reformed here and eleven being disbanded here. This range of squadrons would bring with them a wide range of aircraft from Dakotas and Wellingtons through the four engined heavies the Stirling, Lancaster and B-24 Liberator, and onto the single and two seat jets, the Meteor, Hunter and Javelin, who would all grace the skies over this once famous airfield.

Originally identified as a possible site in the late 1930s, the land was purchased by the Government with development beginning in 1939. The farm at its centre was demolished and the surrounding fields dug up and prepared for the forthcoming heavy bombers of Bomber Command. As with many airfield developments, there was local opposition to the idea, partly as it occupied valuable Fen farmland with a farm at its centre.

In the early years of the war, it was found that heavy aircraft, bombers in particular, were struggling to use the grassed surfaces originally constructed on pre-war airfields. The rather ridiculous test of taxing a laden Whitley bomber across the site to test the ground’s strength would soon be obsolete, and so after much internal wrangling, hard runways were eventually agreed upon which would be built into all bomber and some fighter stations from that point forward*1.

As an airfield built at the end of the expansion period and into the beginning of the war, Waterbeach would be one of those stations whose runways were hard from the start; a concrete base covered with tarmac to the soon to be standard 2,000 and 1,400 yards in length. By the end of 1945, there would be 35 heavy bomber hardstands of the ‘frying pan’ style and a further three of the spectacle style, all supporting a wide range of aircraft types well into the cold war.

Waterbeach would develop into a major airfield, capable of housing in excess of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, dispersed as was now common, over seven sites to the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The bomb store was located well away to the north of the airfield, but surprisingly close to the main public road that passed alongside the western boundary of the site.

Being a bomber base, there would be a wide range of ancillary and support buildings, including initially, two J type hangars, followed by three T2s and a B1. The site was considered by its new occupants as ‘luxurious’ and compared to many other similar airfields of that time, it certainly was. This opinion was not formed however, when it opened on January 1st 1941, as it was in a state that was nowhere near completion. The official records show that along with Group Captain S. Park (Station Commander) were the Sqn. Ldr. for Admin  (Sqn. Ldr. F Carpenter), Station Adjutant (Flt. Lt. H. Daves) and Sqn. Ldr. J. Kains (Senior Medical Officer) who were joined  by various other administrative officers, Senior NCOs and 157 corporals and Airmen. They found the majority of buildings incomplete, the runways and dispersals still being built and the site generally very muddy. The cook house was ‘adequate’ for the needs of the few who were there, but the sergeants mess could not be occupied for at least another five to six weeks.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ Hangar seen from the public road at Waterbeach.

As occurred with many airfields at this time, the first personnel to arrive took up the task of completing many aspects of the outstanding work themselves, laying concrete, installing fixings and preparing accommodation blocks for the forthcoming arrivals.

During these early years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s Fighter airfields as a way of smashing the RAF before the German planned invasion could take place. Whilst this policy failed, attacks on RAF airfields were continued, becoming more ‘nuisance’ attacks or small raids, in which airfields beyond the reaches of Kent and London were also targeted. Waterbeach itself was subjected to these nuisance attacks on two occasions between the New Year December 1940 and February 1941. During these, some minor damage was done to the site (hangars, aprons and a runway) and there was one fatality.

These early days of 1941 would be a busy time for the personnel at Waterbeach, further attacks intermixed with flying activities kept them alert and on their feet. Being a large base, its runways would become safe havens for crippled or lost aircraft desperately trying to find a suitable site on which to put down. A number of aircraft used Waterbeach for such an activity, primarily Whitleys and Wellingtons, many being damaged and unable to reach their home bases further north in Yorkshire.

With changes in airfield command taking place a month after its opening, the first units to arrive were the Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron RAF, in a move that was delayed by a further month in part due to the late completion of the construction work and also because of yet another nuisance attack by the Luftwaffe.

Whilst 99 Sqn were preparing to transfer to Waterbeach, operations would continue from their base at Newmarket Heath, bombing raids that took the Wellingtons to Breman, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Cologne.

Once arriving here at Waterbeach, they found early missions, on both the 1st and 2nd of April 1941, being cancelled due to poor weather – training would therefore be the order of the day. The 3rd however, would be very different.  With revised orders coming through in the morning, thirteen aircraft would be required to attack the Battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau located in Brest harbour.

Whilst one of the aircraft allocated was forced to land at RAF St Eval in Cornwall due to icing, the remainder flew on completing the raid which was considered a “great success”. One crew, led by P/O. Dixon, carried out particularly daring diving attacks scoring direct hits on one of the two ships in question. Whilst no other hits were recorded by the Wellingtons, many bombs fell very close to the targets and it was thought some may have even struck one of the two ships.

With the squadron being stood down on the 5th April, there would be a return to flying on the 6th, with ten aircraft being allocated to a maximum effort mission returning to Brest and the two German ships. Taking off at 20:17, ten aircraft flew directly to the harbour and carried out their attacks, whilst a ‘freshman’ crew flew a diversionary mission elsewhere. Although all but one aircraft returned safely to base, one aircraft did have problems when its 4,000lb bomb fell off the mounts prematurely.

Flying the MK.I, MK.IC and MK.II Wellington, 99 Sqn would carry out further operations to Germany, and on one of these sorties on the night of April 9th/10th, eight aircraft were assigned to Berlin, two to Breman and a further two to Emden. One Wellington, R1440, piloted by P/O. Thomas Fairhurst (s/n 85673) crashed in the Ijsselmer near Vegesack, whilst the second, R3199 disappeared without trace after making a distress call. On the 30th, the Air Ministry informed Waterbeach that POW cards had been received from a German prison camp from four of the crew: S/L. D. Torrens, P/O. P. Goodwin, Sgt. A. Smith and Sgt. E. Berry. The remaining two crewmen were also taken prisoner but this was not confirmed until much later.

April was a difficult month for 99 Sqn, operations called for in the morning were often cancelled by the evening, those that went ahead were made more difficult by poor weather over the target area. Two positive events occurring during April did bring good news to the crews however. On the 15th, the King approved an award of the DFC to P/O. Michael Dixon (s/n: 86390) for his action in attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau earlier on, and on the 22nd, the Inspector General of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt visited the station where he inspected various sections of the squadron, met the crews and discussed some of their recent operations with them. A nice end to what had been a difficult start at Waterbeach.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, sitting in his office at Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe. © IWM (C 1013)

Throughout the summer months 99 Sqn would continue operations into Germany along with further attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau docked at Brest. With further loses on May 5/6, May 8/9, June 11/12 , and June 21st with the loss of X9643 two miles from the airfield, losses would be relatively low. In a freak accident X9643 would be lost with all of her crew when the dingy became dislodged and fouled the elevators causing the aircraft to crash and burst in to flames.

Corporal C. P. Eva

Corporal C. P. Eva, killed 21st June 1941 when the dingy in his aircraft fouled the elevators.

The latter months of 1941 would see two conversion flights formed at Waterbeach. Designed to train crews on the new four engined bombers, the Stirling and latterly the Lancaster, 26 Conversion Flight was formed out of ‘C’ flight of 7 Sqn on 5th October with 106 Conversion Flight joining them in December. Both units flew the Stirling bomber and were amalgamated in January 1942 to form 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) (later 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU)). Flying a mix of Stirlings and later Lancasters, they also used a Beaufighter, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford. 1651 CU were one of only three Conversion Units set up in early 1942, with 1651 being the only Stirling unit at this point; the other two units flying with the Halifax or Liberator aircraft.

By the end of 1941, 99 Sqn would suffer thirty-four aircraft lost (2 in non-operational accidents), with many of the crewmen being killed. Whilst these were tragic losses, they were nevertheless ‘in line’ with the majority of all 3 Group operational units of that year. In early 1942 the squadron was sent overseas to India, a move that coincided with the new arrivals at RAF Waterbeach of No. 215 Sqn.

215 Sqn were going through a process of reorganisation and transfer. On 21st February 1942, the air echelon formed at Waterbeach whilst the ground echelons were already on route to India from Stradishall. With more Wellington ICs, they would also depart for India a month later, where they would stay for the remainder of the war. Being only a brief stay, their departure left Waterbeach with only 1651 Conversion Unit and its associated units in situ.

Being a conversion unit, 1651’s aircraft were worn and often unserviceable, and in February 1942, they could only muster five flight worthy aircraft. As the need for more bomber crews grew, so too did the number of aircraft supplied to the Conversion Units, and as a result the number of crews undertaking training also grew. To help meet this demand, another new squadron was formed within 1651 CU in the April, that of 214 Squadron Conversion Flight. Another Flight was also formed at Alconbury and moved to join these two units, No. 15 Squadron Conversion Flight. The idea behind this unit was to provide aircrews with operational experience, an experience many would find hard to deal with.

In Part 2 we see how the Conversion Units were sent into battle, how they coped with the rigours of the aerial war over occupied Europe and then the change from Stirlings to the Lancaster.

 

“1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” – Mitch Peeke

A book review.

This is a superbly written book that looks at the Battle of Britain through the life of the airmen who were primarily based at a now disused RAF station (RAF Gravesend) in Kent. Whilst being historically accurate throughout, it is not one of those books that is full of data, figures and graphs, more a book based on personal and general historical events. It deals well with the political climate in Europe post World War I, setting the scene for Hitler’s rise to power, and the lethargic way in which the Allies allowed him to achieve his ultimate goal. It looks at the political unrest at home, and how that shaped both a public and government totally unprepared for war.

Each of the first four chapters look at specific events that led to the declaration of war on September 3rd, 1939. It looks at how the Allied response to Poland’s invasion was belittled by the massive and hugely technologically advanced German forces, who cut through Belgium circumnavigating the Maginot line, forcing the BEF and French forces to a small pocket at Dunkirk. It then looks at the evacuation through the eyes of two small boats (one of which Mitch supports through his book sales) and those who sailed on her. By examining the infrastructure surrounding the evacuation, it adds a very personal touch to what was a massive undertaking, and one that the many other books, films and documentaries have failed to highlight.

After Dunkirk, Mitch examines the Battle of Britain as it occurred in the skies over Kent and London. Individual skirmishes, with details of those involved, add a very personal touch to the blow-by-blow account of the battle as it weaves its way to its ultimate ending.

It is clear from the references to the skirmishes that Mitch has carried out extensive and prolonged investigations into each one, even pinpointing in many cases the actual crash site of the aircraft. Added to this are the personal and eye-witness accounts which continue to keep the personal aspect very much at the front. As the battle draws to its conclusion, life in London’s city streets are revealed through events that are again backed up with eyewitness accounts and personal details. Some of these stories will make you laugh, the absurdity of ill-fitting fire hoses and the tenacity of the firemen to solve the problem whilst all around were in chaos, is just one incredible example. It also shows that how through it all, the people of Britain managed to keep smiling, still seeing the good in what was a terrible time.

Whilst the Battle of Britain officially ended on 31st of October, Mitch continues to tell the story as autumn turns to winter and as the Battle of Britain turned to the Blitz. The nightly bombing of British cities gave rise to some dark secrets and activities, but balanced with these are other more informal and light-hearted highlights, all of which add to pulling the reader into the atmosphere of 1940s Britain.

In summing up, Mitch analyses the flaws in the German strategic plan for attacking Britain. He looks at how poor decisions enabled Britain to refocus and rearm thus building her forces up to a strength that was far better than those that remained in the period immediately following Dunkirk.

He then reintroduces the characters that had appeared throughout the book informing the reader of their postwar lives, some of whom were his own family members and who witnessed first hand, the true horrors of war.

Throughout Mitch’s final chapters there is a glowing slant toward the people,  showing the true grit and resolve of the British people who ‘pulled together’, that has become synonymous with those dark days of 1940/41. But this is not a patriotic, ‘let’s wave the flag and tell the world how good we were’ book, it’s more a heartfelt look at a very decisive time in world history, one that could have been so very different if it were not for ‘the few’, their leaders and the British people who supported them.

As appendices, Mitch looks at one RAF Station in particular, RAF Gravesend, its history and what has happened to the site since its closure post war. Now long gone, it is one of the many airfields that were so important to Britain’s survival, yet nothing remains of it today. He also looks at the 15 brave airmen who lost their lives in 501 and 66(F) Sqns, their names now on a plaque on the wall of a leisure centre on what was the former entrance to the airfield. Reading their short biographies really brings home the tender age of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

I read this book in about two days, it’s easy, and compelling reading, very detailed and very personal. “1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” is not about the Battle of Britain per se, but more a personal examination of the people who were involved in the two battles; Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, and how their lives were interwoven in the summer of 1940. Light hearted in places, extremely moving in others, it adds another dimension to those famous battles, and I for one would most certainly recommend it.

1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” by Mitch Peeke is available from Pen and Sword Books Limited. It is sadly only available in digital format and all the author’s royalties go to The Medway Queen Preservation Society, The Medway Queen being a survivor of the Dunkirk evacuation and featured in Mitch’s book.

1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler”  is available from Pen and Sword Books,  ISBN: 9781473858091, Published: 24th June 2015. https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/1940-The-Battles-to-Stop-Hitler-Kindle/p/11118

I would like to pass on my immense gratitude to Mitch for providing me with a copy of the book via publishers Pen and Sword Books.

November 11th 2018 – At the going down of the sun…

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, the guns on the western front fell silent. Four years of war in which millions were either killed or wounded, towns and villages wiped from the map and the environment changed forever, had finally come to an end. All along the front line, men were soon to put down their arms and leave their trenches for home.

The war to end all wars had finally come to an end. During the last four years some 40 million people had been killed or wounded, many simply disappeared in the mud that bore no preference to consuming man or machine.

Back home, virtually no city, town, village or hamlet was left unscathed by the loss of those four years. Many who returned home were changed, psychologically many were wounded beyond repair.

Sadly, twenty years later, the world slipped into the abyss of war once more. A war that saw some of the most incredible horrors, one that saw the extreme capabilities of what man can do to his fellow-man. Across the world millions of innocent people were slaughtered under the guise of an ideology. An ideology that was determined to rid the world of anyone who was willing to speak out against that very same ideology.

Young men were transported thousands of miles to fight in environments completely alien to them. Many had never been beyond their own home town and yet here they were in foreign lands fighting a foe they had never even met.

The bravery and self-sacrifice of those young men  on the seas, on the land and in the air, go beyond anything we can offer as repayment today.

For nearly 80 years, the world has been at an uneasy rest, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Middle East, and the Far East, in almost every corner of the globe there has been a war in which our service men and women have been involved. The war to end all wars failed in its aim to bring peace to the world.

In this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War along with the anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, we remember those who laid down their lives in the fight for freedom. We remember those who fought for the right to free speech, for the right to be who you are and the right to live our lives in peace.

We will remember them…

War Graves Cemetery - St Mary's Great Bircham

St Mary’s Great Bircham

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The rosette of the Commonwealth Air Forces – St. Clement Danes

Ypres 007

Tyne Cot, Ypres

DSC_0587

The American Cemetery Madingley

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (18/3/1893 – 4/11/1914)

RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how, at the end of 1943, the 93rd BG stationed at Hardwick had been ridiculed by B-17 crews, they had been spread far and wide and had won a hard fought DUC for their action over the Polesti oil fields. As 1943 turned to 1944, was their luck about to change?

1944 brought more similar events. January saw ‘No Ball‘ missions, attacks on the V-weapon sites across northern France. A turn that pleased some of the tired crews of the USAAF but one that was considered unnecessary and unlikely to turn the tide of the war by many others. January also saw the build up to February’s ‘Big Week’ campaign, a series of RAF and USAAF operations to destroy Germany’s aircraft manufacturing plants.

A dramatic picture taken shortly after a B-24 of the 93rd BG crashes on take-off at Hardwick on March 3rd 1944. Surprisingly the crew were all able to escape before the bombs exploded. (IWM FRE 3779)

In the following month, April 1944, the US Air Force was to suffer its greatest loss ever to intruders, Luftwaffe night fighters who followed the heavy bombers home, picking them off one at a time until they reached their bases in England. The bombers, many badly damaged or low on fuel, were easy pickings as they tried to land in the early evening darkness. Illuminated by navigation lights, the bombers could do little to protect themselves as the Luftwaffe pilots waited until the most opportune moment to unleash their cannon and machine gun bullets into the bombers. The mission to Hamm in Germany would mean the bombers were arriving back later, and once it was realised that the Luftwaffe were there, runway lights were extinguished, navigation light were put out and aircraft almost left to their own devices – the risk of collision increasing ten fold as a result of these actions. Two aircraft at Hardwick were attacked that night, both sustaining minor damage but thankfully suffering little in the way of long-term harm. Whilst a number of airfields across East Anglia did suffer badly that night, Hardwick on the face of it, got off lightly, with minimal damage being inflicted by these intruders.

June saw the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The 2nd BD sending almost 550 B24s to the Normandy area with the 93rd bombing strategic military targets such as gun emplacements and bridges around Cherbourg. They would then go on to support the breakthrough at St. Lo and drop supplies to troops as they advanced across occupied Europe.

High numbers of operations during the summer of 1944 led to many crews achieving their 200 mission mark, each one showing the strain of continuous operations over occupied France.

During the failed operations in Market Garden, the 93rd supported the airborne troops dropping supplies on the 18th September. Then over the winter of 1944-45, they would support the troops in the Ardennes, a role they continued as the allied forces pushed across the Rhine and on into Germany itself.

By April 1945, the end was in sight and the 93rd were officially withdrawn from operations, performing their last mission on 25th April 1945.

Their stay post war would not be prolonged. They departed Hardwick over May and into June 1945, at which point the airfield was handed back to the Royal Air Force. The RAF retained the site until the early 1960s when it was eventually sold off, quickly returning to agriculture, a state in which it remains in today.

By the time they left, the 93rd had conducted 330 missions (41 from North Africa) from Hardwick, which added to the 66 already carried out from Alconbury, meant this was to be the highest number of operations of any Eighth Air Force Group. They flew 8,169 sorties dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs across Europe.  They were the oldest Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, having the first bombers to fly both 25 and 50 missions – ‘Boomerang‘ and ‘Hot Stuff‘ respectively. They had also performed in numerous theatres: the Atlantic (Anti submarine theatre), Egypt-Libya, Sicily, Normandy, the Rhine, and over wide areas of central Europe making them the most travelled Group of the Eighth Air Force. They were awarded two DUCs, and post war went on to serve well into the early 1950s. This achievement made them the only USAF Group that had not been inactivated since its original formation in 1942.

Their departure from Hardwick marked the end of an era, a move that left an enduring mark on the local area. The Liberators may have moved on, but the history of the 93rd lives on to this day though the displays and actions of those who preserve Hardwick’s small number of buildings for the benefit of future generations.

While the airfield was returned to agriculture, proposals were put forward to transform part of the site into a domestic waste site. These were later withdrawn though after investigations into the geology of the site revealed that such actions could lead to toxins entering the water course below ground. A potentially lethal release with serious consequences.

RAF Hardwick

Original buildings now serve as poultry sheds.

Today there are few physical remains of the airfield, a few scattered buildings amongst the trees, a small section of runway and a smattering of Nissen huts that form the recently created 93rd BG Museum. With such a large site, all of which is on private land, it is difficult to investigate individual parts in any depth. However, this does not lead to an uninteresting visit.

The airfield is separated by the local road, to the west are the runways and the east the admin and accommodation areas. To the west, one section of the main runway still exists in good condition and for a very special reason; the local farmer (Hardwick Warbirds) uses this to fly his TWO restored P-51Ds and other ex-military aircraft! Seen over the airfield on special occasions, he performs small displays for ‘open days’ and other museum related activities.  Looking across the westerly side, one can see a lone windsock catching the morning breeze. This windsock marks the location of  the remaining runway sections part of which can be seen easily from the public road.

There are two entrances to the eastern side, both go across private land, but the landowners are happy (in my experience) to allow free passage on both. I approached from the Barondole Lane entrance and headed to the aptly named ‘Airfield Farm’. Once there, I knocked at the farm door and gave notice of my intentions to the farmer’s delightful wife. She was happy for me to wander, and even took time out to explain the layout of the remaining buildings. She took time to show me the memorial that now stands outside the farmhouse, and then pointed me toward the museum further along the farm track and suggested I take a drive down even though they were not fully open for business. A truly lovely and helpful lady!

RAF Hardwick Museum

The original Nissen huts serve as a superb Museum.

The family now own a large part of the airfield and its remaining buildings. They have utilised some of these as part of the farm many of which now house chickens. In one of them, is a small clear block with a Liberator suspended inside, marking it as an original. Behind here are further building’s remains, in particular the gas training room, condemned as unsafe it is too costly to have demolished.

Driving on, you arrive at a small collection of Nissen huts, this forms the museum. Each one is original and in very good condition. Here they hold a huge range of memorabilia, uniforms, photographs and aircraft parts. This museum is a real gem quietly hidden away in this corner of Norfolk.

One of the volunteers at the time, himself ex-USAF, (RAF Bentwaters), told me stories about the site, the history of all the parts they had gathered and then he gave an amazing personal guided tour even though they were closed. He explained how at the end of the war, as the Americans pulled out, large trenches were dug and filled with unwanted bicycles and other artefacts that they were not allowed to give away for fear of disrupting the local economy – what you wouldn’t give for a heavy-duty metal detector! He also showed me spent cartridges that were used to light the Nissen hut fires, all found in the topsoil of the adjacent field!

RAF Hardwick

A lone windsock marks the runway.

After you leave the museum, going back by the same track, turn left out onto the road and then right, you come across another one of the entrances to the original airfield, considerably smaller in size it is now only a  farm track. It looks so insignificant shrouded by tress and bushes that it is difficult to imagine what went on here all those years ago.

Hardwick once bustled with airmen and personnel, several thousand in all, but with so much gone there is little to show for it now. It is however, good to know that flying still does take place here, and that through the museum,  the dedication, sacrifice and bravery of those young men in their B-24s shall live on for many years to come.

Hardwick was originally visited in 2014, it appears in Trail 12.

Sources and further reading.

93rd BG casualty reports.

More information about Hardwick and museum details can be found on the museum website.  When visiting the museum, check opening times as they are limited, but do spend a good half-day or more here. It will be worth your while.

RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

RAF East Wretham (P2)- From Bomber Command to USAAF

After part one of RAF East Wretham, we see how the poor fortunes of the Czech squadron of Bomber Command were left behind, a new breed of aircraft had now arrived in the form of the US fighter Group’s P-47s and P-51s. After the departure of Bomber Command, the site was turned over to the USAAF and renamed Station 133.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

With this change came a number of modifications to the airfield. Temporary Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) was laid, more concrete pathways added and the site accommodation improved generally. The work continued for several weeks whilst the personnel of the newly formed 359th Fighter Group (FG) were gathered together in the United States, finally shipping out across the Atlantic in the October 1943.

Only being recently manned, the 359th were truly a new group (although some pilots were drawn from other established combat units) being formed of the 368th, 369th and 370th Fighter Squadrons (FS). Arriving from Westover Field Massachusetts in the October 1943, they were one of the last units to join the Eighth Air Force with P-47 Thunderbolts; a move that bolstered fighter numbers to some 550, trebling the Eighth’s total number of fighters in only a matter of weeks.

By December they were combat ready, and their first mission took place on December 13th 1943 – an escort mission protecting  heavy bombers as they attacked airfields in France. During the mission, thirty-six aircraft of the 359th carried out fighter sweeps in the  Pas-de-Calais area without loss and without a single ‘kill’, a rather calm opening to their European war. On the 20th, they undertook their second mission, another escort of heavy bombers to Breman. Joining them were the 4th FG, 56th FG, 78th FG, 352nd FG, 353rd FG, 356th FG, and for their first time the 358th FG all flying P-47s. For the fighters it was another ‘uneventful’ mission with only minimal losses, but for the heavy bombers it was their first encounter with Me-410s, and their time-fused, aircraft launched missiles.

During March 1944 a special squadron was formed commanded by Capt. Charles E. Ettlesen of the 359th. Known as “Bill’s Buzz Boys”, the purpose of the unit was to develop ground-attack tactics as so few of these had been truly successful up until now.

The group tried many new ways of attacking enemy airfields, and in the month they were together, they succeeded in destroying or damaging numerous aircraft, blowing up several hangars, locomotives, barges and other small boats in their attacks. During one of these attacks on the airfield at Chateudun, Capt. Ettlesen hit a high tension wire which cut half way through his wing. He manged to fly the P-47 back to England landing at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, trailing a good 30 feet of wire behind him! On April 7th, the unit’s four flights returned to their respective groups, and the new tactics learned were taken to RAF Millfield, the brainchild of General Quesada to train pilots in the art of ground attack.

, 8AF USAAF.

Capt Charles C. Ettlesen 369FS, 359FG, headed the specialised ground attack unit. After returning to East Wretham he was last seen going down to strafe a Locomotive north of Gotha, 9th Feb. 1945. Classed as MIA he was never heard from again. *2

The 359th at East Wretham continued on with bomber escort operations throughout the early stages of 1944, and then in the April, they began to convert to P-51 Mustangs, a change that involved major retraining of both pilots and ground crews. Used to the air-cooled Douglas Wasp engines of the P-47s, they now had to convert to liquid cooled Merlins. To prepare mechanics for the forthcoming Mustangs, ‘sample’ P-51Bs were sent out prior to the shipment to allow for a smooth transition from one aircraft to the other.

By May, the 359th were ready with their P-51s and their first foray into enemy territory took place on the 5th. Not unlike their first mission with P-47s, it was an escort mission to attack targets in the Pas-de-Calais and Siracourt areas in ‘Noball‘ operations. Like the first, it also was uneventful, cloud cover preventing both allied bombing or Luftwaffe intervention.

Ground attacks were incredibly dangerous, and the summer of 1944 would reinforce that fact. In May pilot, Major George “Pop” Doersch, whose daring would eventually take his ‘kill’ rate into double figures, flew too low to the ground in a strafing attack on an airfield near Rheims. In the attack his propeller struck the ground causing the blades to bend at the tips. Fortunately and using all his skill and strength, he managed to nurse the aircraft (P-51B) back to Manston where it landed without further incident.

George

Major George Doersh who took his P-51B too close to the ground bending the propeller tips. (IWM)* 3

As D-Day approached, the 359th focused on strafing ground targets in and around the Normandy area; railway locomotives and communication lines were all now very high priority. During the invasion itself, the 359th escorted the heavy bombers across the channel, and whilst over France, they took the opportunity to continue with these opportunist attacks.

With the new P-51s they were now able to fly deeper into the heart of Germany and as far east as Poland. It was during these later stages of the war that the 359th really began to make their mark, participating in some of the biggest bombing missions of Germany, including those of: Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, Mersberg, and Brux.

On 11th September 1944, the green nosed Mustangs of the 359th were finally rewarded for their efforts when they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over Mersberg. After attacking over 150 Luftwaffe fighters they also went on to destroy seven  locomotives on their way home. The detailed Citation highlights the bravery and dedication shown by the pilots of the 359th summing up with:

The conspicuous intrepidity, aggressive tactics and esprit de corps displayed by the pilots of this unit on this occasion accounted for the destruction of thirty-five enemy aircraft and contributed to the safe escort of the attacking bombardment formations. The actions of this unit reflect the highest credit upon the 359th Fighter Group and the Armed Forces of the United States.

The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th’s (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories (plus 3 on the ground)- his last being an Me 163. Flying latterly  in P-51 #44-14733, Wetmore, like Doersch had a very lucky escape when his aircraft was hit by friendly fire during the Battle of the Bulge. By putting the Mustang into a steep dive he was able to extinguish the fire and return home safely. Flying in three aircraft all called “Daddies Girl” after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

RAF East Wretham 4

The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

Along with further support operations in France and Holland, the 359th went on performing ground attack missions as the allied forces entered Germany. At the war’s end flying wound down, and the USAAF remained at East Wretham until the November of 1945 when the 359th departed, returning to the States and inactivation. With this, no further flying took place at East Wretham and the skies would fall quiet once more.

The airfield then reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command. Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally been moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

Bomb Store

The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined with the majority standing on inaccessible military ground. Parts of the perimeter track and hardstands do exist, many overgrown or broken up by the weather and weed growth.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk through Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

Bomb Store

The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is ‘intact’, the warning signs are there and the wartime structures are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

Sources and further reading: (East Wretham)

For more detailed information on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force see their superb website.

No.311 ORB – AIR 27/1687/7

*1 IWM –  FRE 6117

*2 IWM – UPL 31469

*3 IWM – UPL 22685

Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.

RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’

RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P2)

After part 1, we continue at Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Holme has recently changed hands owing to the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries. 101 Squadron had departed and now 78 Sqn were moving in.

76 Sqn had been through a number of disbandments and reforms since its original inception in 1916.  Being reformed in 1941, it arrived here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor from Linton-on-Ouse, another Yorkshire base. It was truly a multi-national squadron, made up of Polish, Norwegian, New Zealand and Canadian crews.

76 Sqn would see the war out at Holme, progressing through a series of Halifax upgrades, from the Mk.V, to the better performing MK.III and onto the MK.VI, a model they used in the final operations on 25th April 1945.

Shortly after arriving at Holme, 76 Sqn would suffer their first loss, with the downing of Halifax MP-Q #DK224, on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943. On board this aircraft was Group Captain D. Wilson (RAAF) their station commander.  Of the eight men on board all but one (Sgt. R. Huke’s, parachute failed to open after he had baled out of the aircraft) survived, seeing the war out as POWs. Whilst the crew survived, albeit in captivity, it was none the less a blow to the station losing such a prestigious officer. The mission to Mulhelm saw 557 aircraft of mixed types attack and destroy 64% of the town including road and rail links out of the city, virtually cutting it off from the outside world. Whilst a heavy loss for those on the ground, it also suffered the loss of thirty-five aircraft, 6.3% of the force, a figure well above the ‘acceptable’ limit of Bomber Command losses.

File:Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-1945. CE91.jpg

Halifax B Mk.II, DK148 ‘MP-G’ “Johnnie the Wolf”, of No. 76 Squadron RAF rests at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, after crash-landing on return from an operation to Essen on the night of 25th/26th July 1943. The propeller from the damaged port-inner engine flew off shortly after the bombing run, tearing a large hole in the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner immediately baled out, but the pilot, F/L. C. M. Shannon, regained control of the aircraft and managed to bring the rest of the crew back to Holme. © IWM (CE 91).

Perhaps one of the more bizarre accidents to happen at Holme was the death of a car driver who ended up on the runway as aircraft were taking off. On December 7th 1944, Halifax MK.III #NA171 ‘MP-E’ piloted by F/O. W. MacFarlane had begun its take off run when the pilot noticed a car parked on the runway. Unable to stop or divert, he lifted the huge aircraft up over the car, but clipping it as he passed. The occupant of the vehicle was killed but the aircraft carried on relatively unscathed. This same aircraft was brought down later that month over Kola with the loss of all but one of the crew.

For the duration of the war, 76 Sqn would take part in some of the heaviest air battles over Germany: Essen, Koln, Hamburg, Nurnberg and Berlin, in which losses were sustained in all. By the war’s end, 76 Sqn had been credited with 5,123 operational sorties, in which they had lost 139 aircraft, the highest number of missions by any Halifax squadron.

By the end of the war, it was decided that Bomber Command was to be reduced, No. 4 Group would become a transport group, No. 4 (Transport) Group, a change of ownership meant not only a change of role but a change of aircraft too. The Halifaxes were swapped for C-47 Dakotas in May 1945, and three months later the unit transferred from Holme to Broadwell and eventually the Far East.

Other resident units at Holme including No. 1689 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight (15th February 1944 – 7th May 1945) were also disbanded as their services were no longer needed. Many of these training flights had already disbanded by the end of 1944, as the force was being cut back and reduced. The Spitfires, Hurricanes and other assorted aircraft being disposed of in various manners.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

One of two turret trainers still on site.

As 76 Sqn left, another Dakota unit moved in to the void left behind, but 512 Sqn, a short-lived squadron, left in the October and eventual disbandment in 1946.

For the next six years Holme-on-Spalding Moor was left in a state of care and maintenance, slowly degrading over that time. At this point Holme’s future took a turn for the better when No. 14 (Advanced) Flying Training School  was reformed in response to an increase in pilot training needs. Reformed along with a small number of other training flights such as 15 Flying Training School, at Wethersfield, they were short-lived units, operating aircraft such as Airspeed Oxfords. No. 14 AFTS disbanded at the end of January 1953 at Holme.

However, the demise of 14 AFTS was to allow the airfield to transfer to the USAF, for deployment of its bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). A move that would require extensive upgrading of the airfield including lengthening of the main runway to 2,000 yards. The USAF moved large amounts of equipment through Holme, while the main airfield at Elvington was also upgraded. The extensive work carried out here though would not to come to anything, and after three years the USAF pulled out leaving Holme empty once more.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The perimeter track bends round the former technical site.

However, it was not the end of Holme, the upgrading work meant that Holme airfield had a good long runway capable of taking the modern fast jets coming on-line. Blackburn Aviation Ltd, who were based not far away at Brough, saw the potential and began to carry out trials of the new Blackburn NA.39 ‘Buccaneer’. A rugged carrier-borne, high-speed, low-level strike aircraft, it went on to serve in both the Royal Navy and the RAF – the prototype (XK486) being first flown at RAE Bedford on 30th April 1958, piloted by Derek Whitehead.

As Brough could not accommodate the Buccaneer, the aircraft were towed on their own wheels, backwards, along the roads around the area. Protected by a Police escort, they were commonly seen in the back streets of Holme being prepared and test flown from the new runway at Holme airfield.

An aviation firm established by Robert Blackburn in 1911, Blackburn Aviation became an established aircraft manufacturer during the interwar and war years, producing models such as the T-4 Cubaroo of which only two were built, the B-2 trainer and the B-24 Skua, the first British aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft on 25th September 1939.

Blackburn concentrated on ship-borne aircraft, many, including the early variants, having folding wings. In the Second World War they produced the B46 Firebrand, a successful aircraft, of which they produced just over 200 models of different variants. The Buccaneer was their modern version and proved to be just as successful. In the 1950s they also produced the Beverley, which at the time was the largest transport aeroplane in the world.

Over the next 40 years, the British aircraft industry would go through major changes, big names like Blackburn were amalgamated into Hawker Siddeley Aviation, then British Aerospace and finally the modern BAE Systems.

Bruntingthorpe May 2016 106

AT the former RAF Bruntingthorpe, Buccaneers regularly perform fast taxis along the runway. A sight and sound that once graced Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

The change brought new opportunities for Holme. The development of the American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom allowed for testing at Holme, along with Harriers and Hunters of Hawker Siddeley fame. Trails of the Phantom included taking it to the extremes of its performance envelope, pushing the aircraft through maximum turns at supersonic speeds. Don Headley, Hawker Siddeley’s Chief Test Pilot at Holme, described the tests as “arduous” but “exhilarating nevertheless”.*3

Being a test pilot was a dangerous job, pushing aircraft to unknown limits. Deputy Chief Test Pilot with Blackburn Aircraft, Gartrell R.I. “Sailor” Parker DFC, AFC, DSM had to eject from the first prototype Buccaneer XK486 on 5th October 1960 when it got into difficulty following the artificial horizon breaking whilst in cloud. Both he and his passenger, Dave Nightingale, managed to escape the aircraft without injury. However, he didn’t have such a lucky escape when on 19th February 1963, the aircraft he was testing, Buccaneer XN952, went into an upright spin following a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) demonstration over Holme airfield.

In this manoeuvre, the aircraft flys in low enters a climbing loop and then releases the bomb near to the top of the loop, the aircraft completes the loop pulling away before the bomb strikes the target (also called ‘Toss’ or ‘Loft’ Bombing).  During the demonstration there was a loss of control due to a ‘roll-inertia coupling’ resulting in violent pitching and yawing, and loss of control as the aircraft rotated on all three axes. In the accident both Parker and his back seat observer, Mr Gordon R. C. Copeman (Senior Flight Test Observer), ejected from the aircraft, but Parker was too low, and Copeman fell into the burning wreckage after it had hit the ground. *4

Eventually on December 7th 1983, Buccaneer XV350 and Phantom XV429, took off  from Holme for the final time signifying the final closure of Holme airfield, a closure that ended a long history of aviation. With that, the name ‘Blackburn’ was gone forever, but the legacy of Robert Blackburn and his remarkable work in the aviation field would live on for many years yet.

No longer required or aviation purposes, Holme was sold off, the runways and Perimeter tracks were dug up, and the grounds returned to agriculture.

Sadly, the technical area which is now an industrial estate, is run down and tatty. Many of the original buildings are used by small businesses, furniture manufacturers, tool makers and car part suppliers. Buildings that are not used are run down and in dangerous conditions, fenced off they have a limited life span left. That said however, it remains quite intact and there are a good number of buildings left to see.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Sadly many of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and have only a short life left.

If approaching from the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor along Skiff Lane, you arrive at the first of three entrances. The first is the former perimeter track located at the north end of one of the secondary runways. The runway has long gone, but there is a hardstand still present, its large circular footprint giving a good indication of the nature of the site. This road leads round to the technical area and where the watch office was. A Post-war Fire Tender Shed does still stand here, but the office was believed  demolished in 1984. This road is gated and access is not permitted beyond here.

Continue along the road and a second entrance allows access to a small number of buildings of the former technical site. There is evidence across the road of further buildings but these have been removed leaving only their foundations visible. Continue passed here and you arrive at the main entrance, the two memorials are located just inside on the left hand side.  Continue along this road and you are entering the technical area, with a number of buildings on either side. Distinctly clear are the turret trainers and parachute stores, all in use with small businesses. At the end is one of the T2 hangars, re-clad and in use but inaccessible. Driving / walking round here you can see many of the former stores and admin blocks that formed the heart of the operations.

Some of these buildings are fenced off and in a dangerous condition, others have been better looked after, most are used by small businesses.

Commemorative memorials can be found at the former entrance to the site, including one to Group Captain (Lord) Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC, who commanded 76 Sqn before being posted to Marston Moor. A highly respected man, he fought for changes to the Halifax to improve its handling and performance, and also post war, for funding for the memorials that stand at the entrance. His record of achievement and dedication is well versed across the history books and internet.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Memorial to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.

Holme-on-Spalding Moor is a remarkable airfield that is steeped in history. From the early days of the 1941 to the end of 1983 it saw some of the most heroic acts and the greatest advances in aviation. It took the fight to the heart of Nazi Germany, it led the way in state of the art fighter testing, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes until its final dying day.

Its present condition does not sadly reflect the enormous contribution it, and its personnel played in those turbulent years of history. Whilst having a largely intact technical area, its condition is a sad reflection on the importance we place on these once busy and historical places. Even with considerable development between inception and closure, and an ever-changing facade, the main heart of Holme always remained, but today sadly, it is a heart whose beat is slowing and one that will no doubt eventually stop and die. A remarkable place indeed.

Not far from here are both the airfields at Breighton and Melbourne, both of which have flying activities still going on, ‘intact’ runways and a number of buildings are still present. Also in Holme village is the All Saints Church, sadly kept locked out of hours, it has a window of remembrance dedicated to the crews of 76 Sqn and their heroic battle against Nazi Germany. It also has a number of graves from those who never saw peacetime again. It is certainly worth a visit.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The base system was brought in following the need for more airfields at the end of 1942 when the United States was drawn into the war. To ease administrative and support problems associated with multiple airfields, they were combined into a groups of 3 (or 4) with a parent station and 2 (or 3) satellites. Overall command was given to the HQ airfield (or base) headed by an Air Commodore. Approved in February 1943, it was rolled out over the following year.

*2 Australian War Memorial, Article number P04303.010

*3 Caygill, P., “Phantom from the Cockpit“, Leo Cooper Ltd; First Edition edition (26 July 2005) Pg 134

*4 ejection-history Website accessed 27/8/18.

ORB AIR 27/1902/1 National Archives

The 458 Squadron website aims to preserve the Squadron’s history paying tribute to those who served.

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Midland Counties Publications (1994)

BAE Systems website, accessed 27/8/18.

RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P1)

In this next part of Trail 40, we head to the south-east of York, to an airfield that started off as a bomber airfield in the early stages of the war. As Bomber Command operations grew, so did the airfield, and so too did the casualties rise.

Post war, it went on to play a minor part in the cold war as an American air base, then like a phoenix out of  the ashes it rose to feature in the development of modern British fighter jets. Sadly, it all ended with the demise of the British aviation industry, now a handful of dilapidated buildings form the core of a rundown industrial estate that was once RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor (RAF Holme/Spaldington)

The parish of Holme-on-Spalding Moor is  the largest historic parish in the county of  East Riding, covering 11,514 acres, with  a history that goes back as far as the iron age. The majority of the parish was, before the mid 1700s, a moorland, a bog in many places, that only the brave or knowledgeable could safely cross. The village and surrounding area is dominated by the medieval All Saints Church, that sits on land called Beacon Hill, 45m above sea level, about half a mile to the north-east of the village. The village  sits approximately halfway between York and Hull, whilst the airfield itself lies a few miles south-east of the village in the small hamlet of Tollingham.

Construction began in late 1940 as a bomber airfield for the expansion of the RAF’s No 4 Group, one of forty-three built in Yorkshire. It would initially cover around 400 acres, taking land from four separate local farms, an area that extended to over 1,500 acres as the war progressed.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Many of the buildings still stand used as an industrial site.

Designed in the early stages of the war, as a parent station for Breighton and Melbourne (implemented after the introduction of the Base system in February 1943*1), Holme-on-Spalding Moor (or Holme) was built as a dispersed airfield with accommodation constructed to the north-east away from the main airfield site, the start of a new design aimed at reducing casualties in the event of an attack.  As a Scheme ‘M’ airfield, it would have one austerity measure ‘J’ type hangar and two type T2 hangars, designed to replace the former Type ‘C’ hangar. By the end of the war, these numbers would have been increased giving a total of five Type T2s and one ‘J’.

Whilst not a Class A airfield (implemented in 1942), Holme was built with three intersecting concrete runways, thirty-six dispersed hardstands and a watch office (designed to drawings 518/40 & 8936/40) built of brick, concrete and timber. As a parent airfield, the office would have a meteorological section attached.

The technical site was located to the north side of the airfield (within the legs of an upturned ‘A’ with the bomb store to the north-west and the dispersed accommodation area to the north-east. At its peak it housed upward of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank including nearly 500 WAAFs. For many, Holme-on-Spalding Moor was not a particularly pleasant stay, the locals objecting to the influx of airmen into their quiet community, forcing ‘nights out’ to go much further afield. Those who stayed here considered it bleak, cold and damp with few comforts, but like many personnel on Britain’s wartime airfields, they made the best of what they had.

Once the airfield was declared open, it was handed to No. 1 Group to train (Australian) bomber crews on the Wellington bomber. The first major squadron to arrive was 458 Sqn (RAAF), formed at Williamtown, New South Wales, under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Many airmen were posted to Canada to finish their training, before finally being sent to the UK and their first operational squadron. The first thirty-seven of these qualified airmen spent the majority of August 1941 en route to the UK, arriving at Holme later that month, where they joined with other commonwealth airmen to form the squadron. The first aircraft they would use was the Vickers Wellington MK.IV, a model they retained until January/February 1942, when they replaced them with the MK.IC. At the end of March that year, 458 Sqn transferred to the Middle East, retaining various models of Wellingtons for the remainder of the war.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Very easily visible is one of the few hardstands that survive at Holme today.

Whilst here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, 458 Sqn would focus on the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, taking part in operations that took them to numerous cities in both Holland and Germany.

On the night of 20th/21st October, ten aircraft from 458 Sqn  joined twenty-five other aircraft in a raid on the port of Antwerp. With other raids targeting Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and Emden, it would be a busy night for Bomber Command. On board one the of the 458 Sqn aircraft (Wellington IV #Z1218, ‘FU-D’) was: Sgt. P. Hamilton (Pilot); Sgt. P. Crittenden; P/O. D. Fawkes; Sgt. T. Jackson; Sgt. A  Condie and Sgt. P. Brown. The aircraft would depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor at 18:39, on the squadron’s first operational sortie. The weather that night was fair but cloud covered much of the target, and so many aircraft returned with their bomb loads intact. On route, just after midnight, Wellington ‘FU-D’ was shot down by a German night-fighter, with all but Sgt. Brown being killed.

The average age of these men was just 23, Sgt. Philip George Crittenden (aged 20) was the first Australian airman to be killed whilst serving in an RAAF Bomber Command squadron. He, along with the remainder of the crew, were buried in the Charleroi Communal Cemetery, Belgium, and is commemorated on Panel 106 at the Australian War Memorial.

Pilots of No. 5 Flight at No. 4 SFTS, Saskatoon, Canada. The majority of the students are recently arrived members of the RAAF, who travelled to Canada under the Empire Training Scheme. Third row back, left side:  Sgt Phillip George Crittenden 400410 (KIA 20th/21st October 1941)*2

A second 458 Sqn bomber (#R1765) was lost on the night of 22nd/23rd October, on operations to Le Harve. Hit by flak, the aircraft made it back to England where the crew baled out. Only one crewman, Sgt. Hobbs, failed to do so, his body was subsequently found in the bomber’s wreckage. A third Wellington was lost before the year was out, that of  #R1775 which lost contact at 20:35 on the night of 15th/16th November 1941, with the loss of all crewmen.

The October also saw the arrival of No. 20 Blind Approach Training (BAT) Flight, formed at the sub-station RAF Breighton, they moved here in the same month only to be disbanded and reformed as 1520 Beam Approach Training (BAT) Flight. This addition brought Airspeed Oxfords and Tiger Moths to the airfield, and was designed as part of the pilot’s training programme teaching night landing procedures.

January 1942 saw little change, with the loss of three further aircraft, one (#Z1182) ‘FU-G’ due to icing causing the aircraft to crash just after take off, a further two were lost 3 days later,  #R1785 was hit by flak and crashed over the target, with #Z1312 hitting high tension wires after returning home suffering flak damage from an aborted mission. In total there were twelve airmen killed and six injured in just three days, a terrible startto 458 Sqn’s entry into the European war.

During the February 1942, 458 Sqn began changing their Mk.IVs for MK.ICs, and then on March 23rd they moved out of Holme-on-Spalding Moor and set off to the Middle East, where they remained until the war’s end.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Original hangars once housed Lancasters, Halifaxes and Buccaneers!

This left 1520 (BAT) Flight the sole users of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, until the August when, for a short period of six weeks, 460 Sqn Conversion Flight stationed a flight of Halifaxes here from the sub-station at Breighton. The four engined heavies then went through a period of changes eventually taking on the Lancaster.

After their departure, the end of September saw another Wellington squadron arrive, that of 101 Sqn RAF. The squadron, who transferred in from No. 3 Group, remained off operations for a short while whilst they converted to the new Lancaster, a major change from the poorer performing twin-engined ‘Wimpy’.

It was during one of these training flights that 101 Sqn would suffer their first accident at Holme, when it was thought, a photo flash flare exploded causing structural failure of the  Lancaster’s fuselage whilst flying over Wales – all seven crewmen were lost in the tragic November accident. During the autumn and winter months training would continue as Wellingtons were gradually withdrawn from front line operations, and units converted to the four engined bombers, primarily the Lancasters. Holme-on-Spalding Moor was no different, and once over, 101 Sqn would continue where 485 Sqn left off, taking the fight to the German heartland. During 1942-43 they would lose six aircraft in non-operational flights and fifty-nine during operations.

During January 1943, the first three aircraft of the year would be lost; Lancaster Mk.Is #W4796 ‘SR-R’, #ED443 ‘SR-B’ and # ED447 ‘SR-Q’ were all lost on operations to Essen and Hamburg with no survivors. Twenty-one fully trained aircrew were gone along with their aircraft.

Whilst the Lancasters of 101 Sqn fared reasonably well compared to other units, casualties being generally light, there was one night that stood out above all others, a night that would devastate the crews of 101 Sqn.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The parachute store is now a tool shop.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, during the Battle of the Rhur, 141 Halifaxes, 255 Lancasters, 10 Mosquitoes, 80 Stirlings and 110 Wellingtons headed for Dortmund. A massive force, it was the largest single force below the 1,000 bomber raids so far, it was also the first major attack on Dortmund. Reports say that marking was accurate, but decoy fires lit on the ground drew many bombers away from the actual target. Even so, damage was extensive, with large areas of the city being flattened, over 3,000 buildings were either destroyed or damaged and 1,700 people either killed or injured. Sadly, 200 POWs were amongst those killed, alas a new record had been set for ground casualties. As for the Lancaster force, only six were lost, a small percentage compared to the other aircraft, but all six were from 101 Squadron.

All aircraft took off between 21:40 and 22:05 and headed out toward Germany. Of the six lost, one was lost without trace #W4784 ‘SR-E’ piloted by Sgt. W. Nicholson, and another ‘SR-F’ #W4888, piloted by F/O. N. Stanford, was shot down by a night fighter crashing in Friesland with the loss of six. The remaining four crashed either on their way out from, or on their return to, the airfield. ‘SR-G’, #W4863 piloted by Sgt. J. Browning (RNZAF) crashed at Scorton near to Richmond, Yorks; ‘SR-U’ #ED776, piloted by F/S. F. Kelly crashed short of the runway without injury; ‘SR-X’ #ED830, piloted by Sgt.F Smith hit trees near to Little Ouseburn, Yorkshire, and ‘SR-T’ #ED835 piloted by W/O. G Hough, was hit by flak but managed to return to Holme-on-Spalding Moor crashing a few miles away between Hotham and North Cave. On this night twenty airmen were lost, one was taken as a POW and seven sustained injuries of varying degrees. It would be the worst night for 101 Squadron for many months.

All Saint's Church

W/O. Gerald Hough killed on the morning of May 5th 1943 on 101 Sqn’s worse night of the war so far.

With the final loss taking place on the night of 12th June 1943, 101 Sqn would three days later, depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor for good, moving to Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire. A move that was triggered by the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries, Holme being taken over by No. 4 Group RAF.

The move would mean there would be no peace at Holme though, as 101 Sqn departed 76 Sqn arrived not with Lancasters though, but the other four engined heavy – the Halifax.

In Part 2 we see how 78 Sqn coped with the Halifax, an aircraft that was overshadowed by the Lancaster. Initially a poor performer, with improved engines it began to make its mark. It was slow process and in the meantime casualties for Halifax crews remained high. We also see what happened to RAF Holme post war, and how it played its part in the development of Britain’s jet fighters.