Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

For many weeks the British had been monitoring the vessels awaiting some movement out to sea. Then,  German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting false readings to interfere with British radar sets on the south coast. In mid February, the Luftwaffe organised themselves over northern France and the radars went wild with false readings and interference. Temporarily blinded by these measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation Fuller was a disaster not only for the Royal Navy but also for the Royal Air Force. A force of some 100 aircraft made up from almost every Group of Bomber Command also made its way to the Channel. By the time evening had dawned it had become clear that some fifteen aircraft from the force had been lost. The loss of life from those fifteen aircraft totalled sixty-three, with a further five being captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war.*1

February 12th had been a disaster, but from that disaster came stories of untold heroism, bravery and self sacrifice that have turned this event into one of Britain’s most remarkable stories of the war.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.

Further reading

*1 To read more about Bomber Commands part in Operation Fuller and a German film of the event, see the Pathfinders Website

RAF Gravesend – A mecca for RAF squadrons.

Another trip along the North Kent coast in Trail 44, brings us from Herne Bay past Allhallows to the former RAF Gravesend. Another of Britain’s airfields that has since disappeared under housing, it has a history going back to the heydays of aviation and the 1920s. It was, during the war, a fighter airfield and was home to many famous names including James “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Squadron Leader Peter Townsend. A number of RAF squadrons used the site, as did American units in the build up to D-day. A wide range of aircraft from single engined biplanes to multi-engined fighters and even air-sea rescue aircraft could have been seen here during those war years. Gravesend was certainly a major player in Britain’s war time history and thanks to Mitch Peeke, we can visit the site once more.

RAF Gravesend

Gravesend aerodrome was born during the heyday of public interest in aviation in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The original site was nothing more than two fields off Thong Lane in Chalk, which was used by some aviators of the day as an unofficial landing ground. One such pilot was the Australian aviator Captain Edgar Percival, who often landed his own light aircraft there when visiting his brother, a well-known Doctor in Gravesend. It is widely thought that it was Percival, who was after all a frequent user of those fields, who first suggested the actual building of an airport there.

Whether he did or whether he didn’t, the two men who founded the airport’s holding company, Gravesend Aviation Ltd., in June of 1932, were Mr. T. A. B. Turnan and Mr. W. A. C. Kingham. A local builder, Mr. Herbert Gooding, was engaged to build the Control Tower/Clubhouse building. In September of that year, with the construction work well advanced, Herbert Gooding and a man named Jim Mollison (the husband of the British aviatrix Amy Johnson), joined the Board of Directors of Gravesend Aviation Ltd.

The Mayor of Gravesend, Councillor E. Aldridge JP, officially opened the newly constructed airport as “Gravesend-London East”, on Wednesday 12th October 1932. To mark this Gala occasion, the National Aviation Air Days Display Team, led by Sir Alan Cobham, visited the new airport and gave flying demonstrations to thrill those people present. Also on display for visitors was a curious flying machine called the Autogiro, a sort of cross between a helicopter and a small aircraft, that had been built for a Spanish aviator by the name of Senor Cierva.

At the time of its opening, Gravesend airport covered 148 acres. Its two 933 yard-long runways were grass and the airfield buildings comprised the combined Control Tower/Clubhouse, two smallish barn-style hangars and some other, small ancillary workshop and stores buildings. Located in open countryside on the high, relatively flat ground on the western side of Thong Lane, between the Gravesend-Rochester road and what is now the A2 (Watling Street), Gravesend airport boasted an Air-Taxi service and a flying school among its amenities.

In November of 1932, just one month after the airport’s opening, Herbert Gooding took over as Managing Director of Gravesend Aviation Ltd. It seems likely that Mr. Gooding had effectively been “saddled” with the airport that he’d largely built. The original Directors, Messrs. Turnan and Kingham, possibly had run out of cash with which to pay Mr. Gooding for his construction work. They disappeared at this time, probably having paid Mr. Gooding with their own company shares. Jim Mollison, though married to Amy Johnson, had never been anything more than a “sleeping” director anyway, so it fell solely to Gooding to try to recoup his investment by making the airport a commercial success.

The original idea behind the airport had been to encourage the rapidly expanding European airlines to use Gravesend as an alternative London terminal to the often-fogbound Croydon airport, and this, Gooding now set out to accomplish. Although a number of airlines such as KLM, Swissair, Imperial Airways and even Deutsche Lufthansa did indeed make use of Gravesend, they didn’t utilise it on anything like the scale that had been hoped for. Perhaps it was thought at the time that Gravesend just wasn’t quite close enough to London, geographically.

Then in 1933, a year after the airport had been officially opened; Captain Edgar Percival established his aeroplane works in the small hangar next to the flying school. It was from here that he started to turn out the Percival Gull and Mew Gull aircraft. These were possibly the finest light and sports aeroplanes respectively, of their day, and in fact pilots flying these aircraft set many inter-war aviation records. Such pilots, for example, as Alex Henshaw, (who later became a Spitfire test pilot), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson, and another well-known aviatrix, Jean Batten, as well as Edgar Percival himself.

Gravesend airport 1935 – Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg). During this time, a much larger, third hangar had been constructed by A.J. & J. Law Ltd. of Merton, alongside the existing two. This new hangar, forever referred to as the “Law hangar”, was 130 feet wide and 100 feet long, with integral offices and workshops running down each of its two sides. The Law hangar was completed in the early part of 1934 and prominently bore the legend “GRAVESEND LONDON EAST” above the hangar doors.

In December of 1936, Captain Percival moved his business to Luton. This may have seemed like a disaster for Gooding and his airport at the time, but as luck would have it, a company called Essex Aero Ltd., moved into Percival’s vacated premises almost immediately and stayed at Gravesend, building a thriving business from aircraft overhaul and maintenance, though their real forte was the preparation of racing aircraft and the manufacture of specialist aircraft parts.

Business at Gravesend airport was positively booming when Gooding sold the place to Airports Ltd., the owners of the recently built Gatwick airport. It was felt that if anyone could make a proper commercial success out of using Gravesend for its originally intended purpose, these people could. They certainly tried, but in the end sadly, even they couldn’t; and they quickly offered the site to Gravesend Borough Council, for use as a municipal airport. There followed protracted negotiations over terms, price, etc., all of which were suspended when, because of the increasingly ominous rumblings from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the Air Ministry stepped in.

It was the expansion of the Royal Air Force that ultimately saved Gravesend. In 1937, No 20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School was established at Gravesend to train pilots for the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm.

The training of service pilots began in October of 1937. The school operated the De Havilland Tiger Moth and the Hawker Hart at that time. Accommodation for the instructors and the student pilots wasn’t exactly salubrious. For the most part, they used the clubhouse, together with rooms in some of the local houses.

Meanwhile, as the trainee service pilots learned their craft daily, (and not without accident!) the civil aviation side of Gravesend continued, with record attempts to the fore.  In 1938, the twin-engined De Havilland Comet, G-ACSS that was used to set a record for the flight to New Zealand and back, was fully prepared for its successful record attempt by Essex Aero, as was Alex Henshaw’s Percival Mew Gull, which he used the following year to make a record-breaking flight from England to Capetown and back. Both of these record flights departed from Gravesend and were well publicised at the time.

The origin of the Hawker Hurricane. This visiting Hawker Fury MkI, K2062 belonging to No.1 Squadron, was photographed at Gravesend airport in 1938. Photo: S Parsonson via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

But in the same year that Alex Henshaw set his record, war with Germany looked to be a near certainty and the Air Ministry duly set in motion the formalities needed to requisition Gravesend airport, in the increasingly likely event of war.

When war indeed came that September, No 20 E&RFTS was relocated, Airports Ltd surrendered their lease to the Air Ministry and the RAF duly took over Gravesend airport as a satellite fighter station in the Hornchurch sector. Essex Aero however, stayed; taking on a vast amount of contract work for the Air Ministry. Among the items they soon found themselves making, were fuel tanks for Spitfires.

The first fighter squadron to be based at what was now RAF Gravesend was 32 Squadron, who moved in with their Hurricanes in January of 1940. They were followed by 610 (County of Chester) Squadron with their Spitfires, who helped cover the Dunkerque evacuation. Following the deaths in action of two successive commanding officers within a short space of time, 610 Squadron was moved to Biggin Hill in July and 604 Squadron moved into RAF Gravesend temporarily with their Bristol Blenheims, whilst training as a night fighter unit. Also on temporary detachment at this time from their usual base at Biggin Hill, were the Spitfires of 72 Squadron.

It was during this period that the two decoy airfields at Luddesdown and Cliffe were completed, to help protect Gravesend. It was thought to have been an obvious matter to the Germans that the RAF would take over the airport at the commencement of hostilities. After all, the Germans certainly knew that Croydon airport was now a fighter station.

Accommodation was always to remain something of a problem at Gravesend. The clubhouse of course had some rooms, but nowhere near enough to house an operational fighter squadron’s complement of pilots, let alone the ground crews, station maintenance crews, or even the administration staff. In the end, most pilots were billeted either in the Control Tower/Clubhouse accommodation, or at nearby Cobham Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Darnley. (In fact, Lord Darnley nearly lost his home during the Battle of Britain. Not to German bombs, but to the hi-jinks of some of 501 Squadron’s pilots, who nearly burned the place down letting off steam on one drunken evening!).

The station’s Ground crews were billeted at either the Laughing Waters Roadhouse (the original site of which is now occupied by The Inn on the Lake) about one mile up Thong Lane, or just the other side of Watling Street in somewhat spartan accommodation encampments, where “home” was a village of Nissen huts hidden in Ashenbank Woods. (Nothing remains of these encampments today save for three of the large underground Air Raid Shelters). Those who could not be accommodated in the huts were billeted in Bell tents pitched around the airfield perimeter. No doubt this was fine during the spring and summer, but not so good during the winter.

On 27th July 1940, 604 and 72 Squadrons moved out and 501 Squadron took up residence, being based there throughout the greater part of the Battle of Britain period, during which time the sector boundary was changed, so that Gravesend then came under the aegis of Biggin Hill. 66(F) Squadron arrived to relieve 501 in September, but as the Battle of Britain raged and German bombs mercilessly pounded Fighter Command’s other airfields, Gravesend got off lightly, especially compared to the sector command station at Biggin Hill.

Pilots of 66(F) Squadron in the clubhouse at RAF Gravesend in September 1940. From left to right, standing: Flight Lieutenant Bobby Oxspring, Squadron Leader Rupert Leigh and Flight Lieutenant Ken Gillies. From left to right, seated: Pilot Officer C Bodie, Pilot Officer A Watkinson, Pilot Officer H Heron, Pilot Officer H (Dizzy) Allen, Hewitt (Squadron Adjutant), Pilot Officer J Hutton (Squadron Intelligence Officer) and Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley. Photo: The Times, via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

Although the Luftwaffe reconnaissance branch belatedly photographed Gravesend airfield again in November of 1940 and updated their target identification sheet, (Gravesend was given the target designation G.B. 10 89 Flugplatz) one can only conjecture that prior to that, the decoy site at Cliffe must have performed its role superbly. The fact that only two German bombs ever landed on RAF Gravesend during the entire Battle of Britain period, and then only in passing, would seem to support this, as the decoy airfield at Cliffe was bombed many times. Each time the Germans bombed the decoy airfield at Cliffe, with its equally fake Hurricanes dispersed around it, RAF work gangs would fill in the craters. This activity in turn seemed to convince the Germans that Cliffe ought to be bombed again. In the meantime, the real fighter station at Gravesend was left virtually unmolested. On the only occasion when Gravesend airfield was specifically targeted, the Germans bombed the wrong side of Thong Lane and missed the airfield completely.

Given the fact that during the pre-war period, Lufthansa flights had regularly made use of Gravesend airport to deposit passengers, it seems all the more astonishing that the Luftwaffe were seemingly unable to find the place again when distributing their stock of bombs. Ultimately, the night decoy airfield at Luddesdown also attracted little attention from the Luftwaffe either.

Piece of paper from the Sergeants Mess at RAF Gravesend in 1940, bearing the signatures of some of the Sergeant Pilots of 501 Squadron. Clearly legible is that of James “Ginger” Lacey DFM, who became the top-scoring RAF Battle of Britain pilot, and Geoffrey Pearson, (last one down, right hand column) who was killed in combat, aged just twenty-one. Via Kent County Library Services.

In October, at Churchill’s insistence, 421 Flight was formed at Gravesend from a nucleus of 66(F) Squadron’s pilots. In recognition of their origin, 421 Flight’s aircraft wore the same squadron identification letters as 66(F) Squadron’s aircraft, (LZ) but with a hyphen between them. Their job was to act as singleton flying observers to incoming enemy raids. A job with rather a high risk element!

With the manifest failure of the Luftwaffe’s daylight offensive, 66(F) Squadron and 421 Flight moved out of Gravesend at the end of October, and 141 Squadron with their Boulton-Paul Defiants moved in. They were joined soon afterwards by the Hurricanes of 85 Squadron, a former day-fighting unit led by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, to take up the challenging role of night-fighting. These two squadrons stayed at Gravesend throughout the remainder of 1940. Townsend’s squadron moved out just after New Year, leaving 141 Squadron as the resident unit into the spring of 1941, though another Defiant-equipped squadron, 264 Squadron, joined them for a short time while the Luftwaffe continued with their efforts to destroy London by night. When the Luftwaffe finally abandoned that enterprise late in May of 1941, the night fighters moved out and Gravesend once again saw the Spitfires of several different day-fighting squadrons based there to carry out offensive sweeps over occupied France.

In 1941, the height of the control tower was raised by one level and during more major works that were carried out during 1942 and 1943, the two existing 933-yard grass runways were extended. The north-south runway was lengthened to 1, 700 yards and the east-west runway to 1, 800 yards. The station’s storage facilities were also enlarged and runway lighting was finally installed, as was Summerfield runway tracking, in an attempt to combat the autumn and winter mud. Also enlarged was the ground crew accommodation camp at nearby Ashenbank Wood.

Spitfire LF VB BM271/SK-E Kenya Daisy of No 165 Squadron returns to its dispersal at Gravesend on 16 October 1942. © IWM CH 7686

In December of 1942, 277 Squadron, an RAF Air-Sea Rescue unit, duly took up residence. An unusual unit inasmuch as they flew a variety of aircraft at the same time. They had the amphibious Supermarine Walrus, which one would expect given the nature of their work, but they also had Westland Lysanders, Boulton-Paul Defiants and Spitfires. They were stationed at RAF Gravesend for a total of sixteen months, making them the record holders for the longest stay of any squadron at Gravesend.

The enlargement and improvement of the station had made possible the accommodation of three squadrons and in fact, three fighter squadrons of the USAAF were stationed at Gravesend for a while. Having longer and better runways also meant that battle-damaged heavy bombers returning from raids on Germany now stood a reasonably good chance of making a successful emergency landing at Gravesend, too.

In the early part of 1944, 140 Wing of the 2nd Tactical Air Force was based at Gravesend with their Mosquito fighter-bombers. The Wing comprised two Australian squadrons and one New Zealand squadron. The Wing’s task was that of “softening up” targets prior to the Normandy landings. With the success of the D-Day landings, 140 Wing continued their operations but shortly after D-Day, a new menace totally curtailed the station’s flying activities.

On 13th June, the very first V-1 “Doodlebug” landed at nearby Swanscombe, having flown almost directly over RAF Gravesend. In the coming weeks, the sheer numbers of these high speed pilot-less rocket-bombs passing very close to, if not actually over the RAF station, meant that flying from there was now a hazardous undertaking. 140 Wing moved out.

With the aircraft gone, RAF Gravesend became a command centre for the vast number of barrage balloon units that were brought into the surrounding area to help deal with the V-1 menace. The station also became a local air traffic control centre, to ensure that no friendly aircraft fell foul of the balloons. The V-1 campaign petered out toward the end of 1944 as the advancing Allied armies rapidly overran the launching sites and five months into 1945, the war ended.

With the end of the war, Gravesend was put into a care and maintenance state and surplus service equipment was stored in the Law hangar for a while. Only Essex Aero continued to work there, as they had throughout the war, eventually taking over the Law hangar, too.

Although Essex Aero tried hard to carry on from where they had left off just before the war, the nature of civilian aircraft and aviation had changed a great deal. Air racing and record-breaking was no longer in the public eye, as they had been in the thirties. The Air Training Corps now ran a gliding operation from Gravesend, and Essex Aero continued to make specialist aircraft parts and revolutionary Magnesium Alloy products, but the biggest problem facing them was the fact that Gravesend Borough Council steadfastly refused to grant the necessary planning permission that would allow the wartime runway extensions to be properly incorporated into the post-war aerodrome.

In April 1956, unable to work on the more numerous but ever-larger civilian aircraft types, because the pre-war dimensions of the airfield would not permit them to land there, Essex Aero went into liquidation.

In June of 1956, the Air Ministry relinquished their lease on the airfield and demolition and clearance work began in 1958. First to go were the two Barn-style hangars. The Law hangar was dismantled and re-erected on Northfleet Industrial Estate, minus its offices and workshops, where it served as a bonded warehouse until the late 1990’s. The rest of the buildings, except the Control Tower/Clubhouse, which became the site offices of the developers, were bulldozed to make way for a massive new housing estate, known today as Riverview Park. In 1961, the control tower was finally demolished and the last houses were built where it had stood. No visible trace of the once vital fighter station was left to remind anyone of what had been there.

A final view to the south from the Control Tower of Gravesend aerodrome, prior to its demolition in 1961. The stacks of bricks piled up on the old hangar floors are for the construction of the houses that made up the final stage of the development. These houses were built where the airport buildings once stood, thus removing the last visible trace of this once vital fighter station. Photo: P Connolly, Gravesend Airport Research Group, via Ron Neudegg.

Yet RAF Gravesend had one last, hidden, reminder of its presence left to reveal. In April of 1990, many of the houses on the estate had suddenly to be evacuated when an unusual item was found buried in one of the gardens.

Fifty years previously, in June of 1940, the prospect of a German invasion looked very real. As we have seen, measures were taken to protect the airfield such as the setting up of the two decoy fields and the building of perimeter defence positions. Another, since totally forgotten measure, was the laying of “pipe mines” that would be exploded to deny the use of the airfield to the Germans should they succeed in invading England. It was one of these mines that had been found.

It transpired that Dolphin Developments Ltd, the building contractors who had constructed Riverview Park, were completely unaware of the presence of these mines and had happily built the entire estate on top of them. The original plans of the minefield were finally procured and the Royal Engineers were called in to locate and remove the rest of the mines. Once this operation had been successfully completed, the very last wartime vestige of RAF Gravesend had been removed.

Yet the story of RAF Gravesend doesn’t quite end there. When “Cascades” Leisure Centre was built on the eastern side of Thong Lane, almost opposite where the main entrance to the RAF station once was, they put up a plaque of remembrance to the station and the pilots who had lost their lives flying from there during the Battle of Britain. The original plaque was initially located on an outside wall. Unfortunately, the name of the first of those pilots, Phillip Cox of 501 Squadron, was somehow shamefully omitted.

RAF Gravesend

Cascades Leisure Centre, Thong Lane, Chalk, near Gravesend (Mitch Peeke)

The plaque stayed there, despite the inglorious error, for many years until 2003; when Sunday 2nd March saw the dedication of an all-new memorial to commemorate RAF Gravesend, the part it played in the Battle of Britain and a new plaque commemorating all fifteen of the pilots who died in combat whilst flying from the airfield during the battle.

The memorial itself is a large Black Marble plaque with Gold lettering, bearing both the RAF and the Fighter Command crests; one set either side of the gilded legend “RAF GRAVESEND”. The plaque is set into a purpose-built, stone-clad wall outside the gates of the Leisure Centre, and faces the houses that now stand close to where the airfield’s main entrance once was. The new plaque, finally listing all fifteen pilots, can now be found on the wall in the reception of the Leisure Centre, along with other displays which include a brief history of the airfield and the two squadrons that flew from there during the Battle of Britain. A few years later, photographs of all of the fifteen pilots were put into a collective frame and added to the display.

There was a full dedication ceremony flanked by standard-bearing parties of Air Cadets from the two local units, 402 Gravesend and 2511 Longfield Squadrons, led by Flight Lieutenant Tony Barker, the Commanding Officer of 2511 Squadron. Reverend Group Captain Richard Lee, lead the service of dedication and thanksgiving. Also included was a short history of the airfield read by Ron Neudegg, a founder of the Gravesend Airport Research Group. The Right Honourable Chris Pond, MP for Gravesham, then read the lesson, before Sergeant Steve Maher of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force sounded the ‘Last Post’ on the bugle. At last was paid a truly fitting tribute to a once vital fighter station and the fifteen pilots who lost their lives while flying from there.

One last, but still little-known fact however, is that if you know where to look, you will find the graves of two of those fifteen pilots quite nearby, in Gravesend Cemetery. The graves are those of Pilot Officer John Wellburn Bland of 501 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Hugh William Reilley of 66(F) Squadron.

The fortunes of the place where the pilots used to relax, The White Hart, have been as up and down as the aircraft those pilots flew. The pub the airmen knew was opened on October 19th 1937, just as the RAF moved into Gravesend Airport and started to train service pilots there. It was a new building, replacing one that had stood there for over a century, which was itself a replacement of the much older original building. The new White Hart was owned by Truman’s Brewery and Daniel Pryor was the first Landlord of this newly built inn. Daniel’s association with the airfield’s pilots probably started with those being trained at No 20 E&RFTS. By the time Daniel’s Den was playing host to the pilots of 501 and later, 66(F) Squadrons’ pilots, a direct line had been set up from the airfield to the pub, to warn pilots of imminent air raids (and probably visits from high-ranking officers!). Daniel Pryor’s tenure lasted till 1943. After a succession of further Landlords, the building was demolished in 1999 to make way for the Harvester Pub and Restaurant that occupies the site today.

In what is surely a strange quirk of fate, more actually remains of the fake airfield at Cliffe marshes, despite the bombing, than the real one at Gravesend, today. At the site of the decoy airfield, the southwest and the western parts of the access track remain, as does the fake control point. The control point is accessible from the track and is a two-roomed, brick-built bunker with a concrete roof. The bunker is entered via a small, door-less corridor. The two rooms are at the end of the short corridor, one on each side. The left-hand room has light, due to a square hatch in the ceiling, the cover of which has long since been removed. The right-hand room is smaller and completely dark, as the whole bunker is window-less. There is nothing inside the bunker today except for a small amount of rubbish and the seemingly inevitable graffiti that adorns the walls. The three-quarter-mile-long grass runways that never actually were, are today home to grazing cattle.

RAF Gravesend

The new memorial situated in Thong Lane, Gravesend, to commemorate the part played in the Battle of Britain by RAF Gravesend. Photo: Mitch Peeke.

Apart from the bunker, there is no lasting or purpose-built memorial to the part played by the dummy airfield, even though it saved untold damage being done to the real fighter station at Gravesend, not to mention the corresponding casualties that would have been sustained among the personnel stationed there. Sadly, RAF Cliffe is now but a little-known and seldom remembered place. Above all, like the vital fighter station it once protected, it is yet another example of this country’s disappearing heritage.

By Mitch Peeke.

Editors note: in 2016 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected an airfield marker outside of Cascades Leisure Centre to commemorate and mark the location of RAF Gravesend. 

The Best of British and German!

Here’s another guest post from Mitch Peeke.

In the afternoon of the September 30th, 1940; a lone Messerschmitt 109 flew low and slow over Strood, Kent, belching smoke. The pilot, Unteroffizier Ernst Poschenrieder, had been in combat with Spitfires from 222 Squadron whilst escorting bombers to London. Ernst’s squadron had suffered  heavily when the Spitfires pounced. The aircraft he was flying wasn’t even his usual mount. He wasn’t superstitious, but so far this definitely wasn’t his day.

Knowing he would never get back to France and that he was too low to jump, crash-landing on Broom Hill, a hilltop field cultivating vegetables for the war effort, was now his only option. He could see it would be tricky. People were tending the field, but his wounded engine was giving up. To minimise the dangers of a wheels-up landing, he overflew the field and emptied his guns harmlessly into the surrounding treetops.

Unteroffizier Ernst Poschenrieder (courtesy Shoreham Aircraft Museum)

Approaching the tree-line, Ernst throttled back and put the flaps down, losing as much airspeed as possible. The treetops seemed to be trying to grab him as he cut the dying engine; a fire prevention measure. Skimming the trees, the Messerschmitt sank through the last thirty feet of the air and hit the ground violently at 60 MPH, ploughing down the slope. Bucking and bouncing, it tore up the dry soil then broke its back, slewing half-round and stopping just before the trees. He’d made it, just; but the force of the crash had nearly broken Ernst’s back, too.

The farm workers ran to the scene with hoes and forks. Thinking the pilot had tried to machine-gun them, they sought blood; but a young Land Army girl, a Scots lass named Sarah Kortwright, got there first. Standing beside the cockpit, she kept them back. Ernst sat there, ears ringing and in intense pain; and waited. Someone had gone to fetch a Policeman.

PC Jack Matthews (back row, 3rd from right) who later arrested Unteroffizier Ernst Poschenrieder (by kind permission of Mike Hearne)

Sixty-year-old PC 28 Jack Matthews, of the Rochester Police, quickly arrived on the scene. Taking immediate control, he arrested the pilot, for his own protection. Jack was over six feet tall and athletically built. Facing the mob, truncheon in hand, he sternly announced that anyone trying to interfere would be obstructing a Police Officer or having to assault one. The mob lost interest and Ernst was carefully extracted from his cockpit, grateful to be alive.

Ernst’s crashed 109, courtesy Friends of Broomhill

Ernst was taken to Chatham Police station, then immediately to Hospital, for emergency surgery. Thereafter, he was a POW.

He returned to England in 1955, to thank both Sarah Kortwright and the doctor who’d treated him. He traced the hospital doctor, but Sarah had returned to Scotland. Undeterred, he tracked her down and armed with a bouquet of flowers, went to Scotland and took her out to dinner!  In 2005, Ernst visited artist Geoff Nutkins, at the Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent, to sign some prints and sketches. Ernst became a frequent visitor to the museum’s events. Sadly, he died in 2009, aged 98. he was killed not by old age; but rather unexpectedly, by a car.

This article was excerpted from a new e-book. 1940: THE BATTLES TO STOP HITLER gives the full story of this and many other events like it, that took place during the time when it seemed that only the French and the British stood in Hitler’s way. Published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd this e-book is available to download at  http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/1940-The-Battles-to-Stop-Hitler-ePub/p/11119  priced at £8:00.

RFC/RAF Allhallows – Kent.

Many of you will be aware of Mitch Peeke, a friend of mine and author, who has contributed several articles to Aviation Trails. He also organised the building of a memorial to the crew of B-17 #44-6133 which crashed after colliding with another B-17 over the Thames Estuary.  Mitch has now written about the former RAF/RFC site at Allhallows, located not far from the memorial, which is a long abandoned airfield, now totally agriculture, located on the northern coast of Kent on the Hoo Peninsula.

It has been included in Trail 44, as an addition to the Barnes Wallis memorial statue, the Herne Bay / Reculver Air Speed Record and the Amy Johnson statue. 

My thanks to Mitch.

RFC/RAF Allhallows. (1916-1935).

The operational life of this little known Kent airfield began in the October of 1916, a little over two years into World War 1. Situated just outside the Western boundary of Allhallows Village, the airfield was bounded to the North by the Ratcliffe Highway and to the East by Stoke Road. Normally used for agriculture, the land was earmarked for military use in response to a direct threat from Germany.

​Toward the end of 1915 and into 1916, German Zeppelin airships had begun raiding London and targets in the South-east by night. At a height of 11,000 feet, with a favourable wind from the East, these cigar-shaped monsters could switch off their engines and drift silently up the Thames corridor, to drop their bombs on the unsuspecting people of the city below, with what appeared to be impunity. 

Not surprisingly, these raids caused a considerable public outcry. To counter the threat, street lights were dimmed and heavier guns and powerful searchlights were brought in and Zeppelin spotters were mobilised. Soon, some RFC and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons were recalled from France and other, specifically Home Defence squadrons, were quickly formed as the defence strategy switched from the sole reliance on searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, to now include the use of aeroplanes. Incendiary bullets for use in aircraft were quickly developed, in the hope of any hits igniting the Zeppelins’ highly flammable lifting gas and thus bringing down these terrifying Hydrogen-filled German airships.

No. 50 Squadron RFC, was founded at Dover on 15 May 1916. Quickly formed in response to the Zeppelin threat, they were hastily equipped with a mixture of aircraft, including Royal Aircraft Factory BE2’s and BE12’s in their newly created home defence role. The squadron was literally spread about trying to cover the Northern side of the county, having flights based at various airfields around Kent. The squadron flew its first combat mission in August 1916, when one of its aircraft found and attacked a Zeppelin. Though the intruder was not brought down, it was deterred by the attack; the Zeppelin commander evidently preferred to flee back across the Channel, rather than press on to his target.

At the beginning of October 1916, elements of 50 Squadron moved into Throwley, a grass airfield at Cadman’s Farm, just outside of Faversham. This was to become the parent airfield for a Flight that was now to move into another, newly acquired grass airfield closer to London; namely, Allhallows. On 7 July 1917 a 50 Squadron Armstrong-Whitworth FK8 successfully shot down one of the  big German Gotha bombers off the North Foreland, Kent. 

Former RAF Allhallows Main Entrance

The main entrance of the former airfield (photo Mitch Peeke)

In February 1918, 50 Squadron finally discarded its strange assortment of mostly unsuitable aircraft, to be totally re-equipped with the far more suitable Sopwith Camel. 50 Squadron continued to defend Kent, with Camels still based at Throwley and Allhallows.  It was during this time that the squadron started using their running dogs motif on their aircraft, a tradition which continued until 1984. The design arose from the squadron’s Home Defence code name; Dingo.  

Also formed at Throwley in February of 1918, was a whole new squadron; No. 143, equipped with Camels. After a working-up period at Throwley, the complete new squadron took up residence at Allhallows that summer, the remnants of 50 Squadron now moving out. 

RFC Allhallows had undergone some changes since 1916. When first opened, it was literally just a mown grass field used for take-off and landing. Tents provided accommodation for mechanics and such staff, till buildings began to appear in 1917. The first buildings were workshops and stores huts, mostly on the Eastern side of the field, on the other side of Stoke Road from the gates. The airfield itself was never really developed, though. No Tarmac runway, no vast Hangars or other such military airfield infrastructure was ever built. 

On 1st April, 1918, the RFC and the RNAS were merged to become the RAF. 143 Squadron and their redoubtable Camels continued their residence at what was now RAF Allhallows even after the Armistice. In 1919, they re-equipped with the Sopwith Snipe, but with the war well and truly over, the writing was on the wall. They left Allhallows at the end of that summer and on October 31st, 1919; 143 Squadron was disbanded.

Their predecessors at Allhallows, 50 Squadron, were disbanded on 13th June 1919. An interesting aside is that the last CO of the squadron before their disbandment, was a certain Major Arthur Harris; later to become AOC-in-C of RAF Bomber Command during World War 2.

ABCT memorial Allhallows

The Allhallows was presented by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust. The former airfield lies beyond the trees. (Photo by Mitch Peeke).

Now minus its fighters, RAF Allhallows was put into care and maintenance. It was still an RAF station, but it no longer had a purpose. The great depression did nothing to enhance the airfield’s future, either. But it was still there. 

In 1935, a new airport at Southend, across the Thames Estuary in Essex, opened. A company based there called Southend-On-Sea Air Services Ltd began operating an hourly air service between this new airport and Rochester, here in Kent. They sought and were granted, permission to use the former RAF Allhallows as an intermediate stop on this shuttle service. Operating the new twin engined Short Scion monoplane passenger aircraft, each flight cost five shillings per passenger. Boasting a new railway terminus, a zoo and now a passenger air service, Allhallows was back on the map! 

Alas, the new air service was rather short-lived. The service was in fact run by Short Bros. and was used purely as a one-season only, testing ground for their new passenger plane, the Scion. At the end of that summer, the service was withdrawn. As the newly re-organised RAF no longer had a use for the station either, it was formally closed. Well, sort of. 

The land reverted to its original, agricultural use. But then, four years later, came World War 2. The former RAF station was now a declared emergency landing ground. In 1940, the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires fought daily battles with the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Allhallows, as the might of Germany was turned on England once again, in an attempt at a German invasion. That planned hostile invasion never came to fruition thankfully, but in 1942/43 came another, this time, friendly invasion. America had entered the war and it wasn’t long before the skies over Allhallows reverberated to the sound of American heavy bombers from “The Mighty Eighth.” It wasn’t long before the sight of those same bombers returning in a battle-damaged state became all too familiar in the skies above Allhallows, either.

On 1st December 1943, an American B 17 heavy bomber, serial number 42-39808, code letters GD-F, from the 534th Bomb Squadron of the 381st Bombardment Group; was returning from a raid over Germany. She was heading for her base at Ridgewell in Essex, but the bomber had suffered a lot of battle damage over the target. Three of her crew were wounded, including the Pilot; Harold Hytinen, the Co-Pilot; Bill Cronin and the Navigator; Rich Maustead.

B-17 42-39808 of the 534BS/381BG [GD-F] based at RAF Ridgewell, crashed landed at Allhallows following a mission to Leverkusen on 1st December 1943 . The aircraft was salvaged at Watton, all crew returned to duty. (@IWM UPL 16678)

Tired from the long flight, fighting the pain from his wounds and struggling to keep the stricken bomber in the air, Hytinen chose to crash-land his aircraft at the former RAF station, Allhallows. Coming in roughly from the South-east, he brought her in low over the Rose and Crown pub, turned slightly to Port and set her down in a wheels-up landing along the longest part of the old airfield. All ten crew members survived and later returned to duty. The USAAF later salvaged their wrecked aircraft.

That incident was the last aviation related happening at the former airfield. In 2019, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial to the former RAF station, in the car park of the Village Hall. No visible trace of the airfield remains today, as the land has long since reverted to agriculture, but the uniform badge of the nearby Primary School, features a Sopwith Camel as part of the design of the school emblem. 

RAF Allhallows is yet another part of the UK’s disappearing heritage, but although it has long gone, it will be long remembered; at least in the village whose name it once bore.

By Mitch Peeke.

Editors Note: Allhallows, or to be more precise ‘Egypt Bay’ also on the Hoo Peninsula and a few miles west of Allhallows, was the location of the death of Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr., when on 27th September 1946 he flew a D.H. 108, in a rehearsal for his attempt the next day, on the World Air Speed record. He took the aircraft up for a test, aiming to push it to Mach: 0.87 to test it ‘controllability’. In a dive, the aircraft broke up, some say after breaking the sound barrier, whereupon the pilot was killed. The body of Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr. was days later, washed up some 25 miles away at Whitstable, not far from another air speed record site at Herne Bay – his neck was broken.

Sources and further Reading:

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust website

​ Southend Timeline website

American Air Museum website

 Imperial War Museum website

Village Voices Magazine

Allhallows Life Magazine

A Dogfight That Ended At The Movies.

Another guest post by Mitch Peeke.

Toward the end of the Battle of Britain, Reichsmarschall Herman Goring chose to blame his hitherto beloved fighter pilots for the devastating losses the German bomber squadrons had suffered that summer. He decided that if the fighters couldn’t protect the bombers, then the fighters could carry the bombs to London themselves! On his direct orders, about one third of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force was swiftly converted to carry a single bomb slung under the belly of their Me109’s. Flying at high altitude, these Jagd-Bomber aircraft, or Jabos as they were now called, were then to be heavily escorted by the regular fighters, in an attempt to draw the RAF’s fighters into battle, where they could be annihilated by the superior German numbers. It didn’t matter to the Germans where the bombs fell as the hapless Jabos were simply the bait.

On the morning of Sunday, October 20th 1940, the high-flying Jabos were making daylight attacks on south-east England and London again. They came over in five waves, heavily escorted as per Goring’s orders, from about 09:30 till approximately 14:00. Part of the fighter escort for one of the later raids was provided by 6/JG52, based at Peuplingues, in France and one of the escort pilots from this unit was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann.

The inbound raiders and their escorts had already been fighting their way across Kent when they reached Central London at around 13:35. Having dropped their burdensome bombs, the Jabo pilots could now accelerate to fighting speed and engage the defending RAF fighters on equal terms, though ever with a cautious eye on the fuel gauge.

One of the RAF squadrons sent to deal with these raiders that day was 41 Squadron, up from Hornchurch in Essex. High over the City of London area, 41 Squadron’s Flying Officer Peter Brown in his Spitfire, was in combat with a yellow-nosed Messerschmitt 109, that flown by Friedemann.  During the combat, Brown succeeded in gaining the advantage over his opponent and scored several decisive hits on the nose of Friedemann’s Messerschmitt, which started to belch brownish-black smoke from its now mortally wounded Daimler-Benz engine.

Flying Officer Peter Brown in combat with Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann over London on Sunday 20th October 1940.

Flying Officer Peter Brown in combat with Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann over London on Sunday 20th October 1940 (Painting by Geoff Nutkins of Shoreham aircraft Museum, by kind permission).

The crippled Messerschmitt began to lose speed and height as it flew over Tower Bridge, crossing the Thames in a roughly East-south-easterly direction, towards Shooters Hill. Brown flew his Spitfire alongside his vanquished foe as the German pilot jettisoned his cockpit canopy and raised himself out of the seat. Having no choice in the matter, Friedemann baled out of his doomed fighter over the Plumstead/Welling area of South London and as it transpired, his exit was not a moment too soon. Seconds after Friedemann had jumped, the Messerschmitt’s fuel tank exploded in mid-air. The time was almost exactly 13:45.

On the ground at Welling, was fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe. Though still at school, Ennis was the sort of girl who hated the fact that she was considered too young to take any active part in the war effort. She badly wanted to “do something” and even though it was she who had done the Lion’s share of the work involved in constructing the family’s Anderson shelter, it simply wasn’t enough for her to be content with; an attitude that had lead to several arguments with her father recently.

Not feeling inclined to enjoy the dubious comforts of the public air-raid shelter in Bellegrove Road that Sunday, Ennis was making her way home, on foot, half-watching the vapour trails of yet another aerial battle that was obviously taking place at altitude over London again. Suddenly, she heard a loud “boom” high above her. Stopping, she quickly looked up in time to see a fireball and a fighter aircraft breaking apart as another fighter turned rapidly away. The tail section of the stricken aeroplane disintegrated, but the front section was coming straight down, dropping like a stone.

A good many people on the ground, including young Ennis, also saw something else falling away from the doomed aircraft, flailing and tumbling through the air as it came down. It was Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann, who was now condemned to realise a horrible end to his young life, by the fact that his parachute had failed to open.

The Messerschmitt’s largely intact front section landed with a very loud thud, upside-down in a front garden in Wickham Street, Welling, just across the road from the gate of Gibson’s Farm. The impact forced the Messerschmitt’s undercarriage to spring partially from the wheel-bays. Albert Friedemann fell to his terrifying death a short distance away across the farm, whilst pieces of his Messerschmitt’s tail section fluttered down over a wide area.

The wreck of Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann’s Messerschmitt 109 where it fell, opposite Gibson’s Farm in Wickham Street, Welling, on October 20th 1940. The aircraft exploded in mid-air shortly after Friedemann baled out of it following combat with Flying Officer Peter Brown of 41 Squadron. Friedemann fell to his death when his parachute failed to open. The fence in the background is the perimeter fence to the farmhouse garden of Gibson’s Farm, across the road. Photo: Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, by kind permission.

Meanwhile, in Wickham Street, there was already a small crowd around the wreckage; the fallen Messerschmitt having miraculously missed the houses. The hot metal of the fighter’s engine was still ticking as it cooled, but there was no fire. The Messerschmitt’s remaining fuel had been burnt off in the mid-air explosion, some twelve thousand feet ago. People seemed to be looking at the vanquished aircraft with a mixture of curiosity and awe, as if it were something from outer space.

The authorities were soon on the scene and gradually the crowd dwindled as the Police sent the sightseers away. Later, the RAF posted a guard over the wreck to prevent any possible souvenir hunting, for the wreck rapidly became a spectator attraction. The authorities quickly removed Albert Friedemann’s shattered and lifeless body from Gibson’s Farm, but the wreck of his aircraft stayed in Welling for another three weeks. Removed from its crash site, it was put on display outside the local cinema and fifteen year-old Ennis Mowe stood proudly beside it nightly, in all weathers, for just over a fortnight. She was collecting donations from the queue of cinema-goers, in aid of the district Spitfire Fund.

This is the site of Oberfeldwebel Albert Friedemann’s crash as it is today. Wickham Street has been widened since the war, but as near as I can place it, the wreck of Friedemann’s Messerschmitt landed roughly where the van is parked, with the propeller hub facing across the road. The entrance to Gibson’s Farm is just to the left of the picture, out of shot, and about ten feet or so toward the camera from the position of the traffic island. Photo: Mitch Peeke.

At the end of each collection, she gave her collecting tin to the cinema manager, who counted the money she’d collected, paid it into the Post Office on her behalf and posted a notice showing the Post Office receipt for the amount raised. Ennis felt proud that she was at last doing her bit for the war effort, while her father simply shook his head in quiet capitulation. However, this episode proved to be just the beginning of a long, long history of young Ennis “doing her bit”.

Following her successful spell of fundraising beside the wreck of Albert Friedemann’s Messerschmitt outside the cinema; Ennis Mowe, in late 1941, blatantly lied about her age, falsely obtained a driving licence, and joined the London Ambulance Service. She soon became Britain’s youngest-ever Ambulance Driver, a fact not realised till long afterwards, when she confessed to her “crime” at her official retirement! Her father had by then long given up the unequal paternal struggle with his fiercely independent daughter. Ennis eventually married, becoming Ennis Smith, and she carried on “doing her bit” in just about every conflict that has involved British servicemen ever since. Her last such activities were based around the organisation and distribution of Christmas parcels to British troops stationed in Bosnia. Throughout her life, Ennis never once allowed her age to be a deterrent to her determination.

OberFeldwebel Albert Friedemann was 26 at the time of his death. His body was interred at the German Military Cemetery in Cannock Chase, Suffolk; there to rest with many of his comrades. Details of his grave can be found using the ‘Find a Grave’ Website.

Flying Officer Peter Brown, the RAF Spitfire pilot who had shot Friedemann down, finished his RAF career as a Squadron Leader. Like Ennis, he went on to a life of helping others. Peter was also a lifelong friend of The Shoreham Aircraft Museum in Kent. He passed away in 2011 and the museum has posted a fine tribute to him, which can be found using the link below.

http://www.shoreham-aircraft-museum.co.uk/news/2011/02/02/remembering-squadron-leader-peter-brown/

by Mitch Peeke

My sincere thanks go to Mitch for this article.

Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle: A Free, French Pilot.

June 1940: Britain’s last remaining European ally, France; was now hors de combat, and the French people began to face the gruelling prospect of an indeterminate period of time in the shadow of the Swastika, under German occupation.

As news of the ignominious armistice and the new collaborationist Vichy government under Marshal Petain spread, there were many brave and defiant French servicemen who refused to acknowledge it. Some went underground, founding the Maquis; the French Resistance movement, whilst quite a number decided to get to England, by any available means, following their chosen leader: Brigadier-General Charles de Gaulle. Once in England, they formed themselves into La France Libre, the Free French Forces, with General de Gaulle as their commanding officer.

One such Frenchman was a nearly 24 year-old, qualified Pilote de Chasse, (fighter pilot) who was then serving overseas in the Armee de l’Air at Oran in French Algeria. He was Sergeant Emile “Francois” Fayolle.

Battle of Britain London Monument - ADJ EFM FAYOLLE

Sgt. Emile “Francois” Fayolle (Photo: © Friends of the Battle of Britain Monument)

Born on 8th September 1916, at Issoire, in Central France, Emile’s father was an Admiral in the French Navy and his Grandfather was none other than Marshal Marie Emile Fayolle, the legendary French Army commander of the First World War. With such ancestry, it was little wonder that Emile refused to acknowledge the humiliating armistice of Compiegne. After much discussion, and despite the warnings of dire consequences from their Station Commander, Emile, his good friend and squadron-mate Francois De Labouchere and two other like-minded pilots, stole two of the station’s aircraft and flew to the British base at Gibraltar. There all four took ship to England, arriving in Liverpool in mid July. Emile Fayolle and his close friend Francois De Labouchere strengthened their already inseparable partnership throughout their RAF training and even made sure they were posted to the same fighter squadron later.

On August 18th 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Emile and Francois were posted to 5 OTU, (Operational Training Unit) at Aston Down. Both men were by now commissioned as Pilot Officers and at 5 OTU, they would be learning to fly and fight with the Hurricane. Pilot Officers Fayolle and De Labouchere would join 85 Squadron, commanded by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend at Church Fenton, on September 13th 1940, flying Hurricanes. They would both soon start making their presence felt with the Luftwaffe.

Emile stayed with 85 Squadron for nearly three months, being posted to 145 Squadron on December 3rd. He stayed with 145 Squadron till April 26th 1941, when he was then posted to Douglas Bader’s 242 Squadron. Although the Battle of Britain was over by then and the German night Blitz on Britain’s major towns and cities had largely petered out, every now and again the Luftwaffe could, and would, still mount a really big raid, such as the one they made on London during the night of May 10th 1941. Exactly one year to the day since they’d started the whole ball rolling by attacking the Low Countries and France, this raid would prove to be pretty much the Luftwaffe’s swansong; their final, despairing fling. Making use of the full moon in a cloudless night sky, the Luftwaffe, in that one night, seemed to drop a month’s worth of bombs and incendiaries on the British Capital. The damage they inflicted was widespread and severe.

It was on this night, during a late evening patrol, that Pilot Officer Emile Fayolle scored his first confirmed ‘kill’. Emile’s victory was one of three that night; all Heinkel 111 bombers and all scored by French pilots. Pilot Officer Demozay of 1 Squadron shot his down over East London, whilst Pilot Officer Scitivaux and Pilot Officer Emile Fayolle, both of whom were serving with 242 Squadron, had their encounters over the London Docks. All three ‘kills’ were confirmed.

On October 14th 1941, Emile was posted to 611 Squadron, flying the Hurri-bomber: a cannon-armed, bomb carrying, fighter-bomber version of the Mk IIc Hurricane. It wasn’t long before he personally took a heavy toll on enemy shipping. Despite being there for only three weeks, Emile seemed to take particularly well to 611 Squadron’s role, becoming something of a specialist in the rather risky art of fast and accurate low-level attacks. He was posted to a very special unit; 340 Squadron, at Turnhouse.

When the RAF formed 340 Squadron, it was the first, all-Free French, squadron. It was formed as part of the Ile de France fighter group and Emile, as well as his great friend Francois de Labouchere, naturally joined the unit. Promotion, as well as confirmed ‘kills’, swiftly followed. As well as the Heinkel 111 he’d shot down on 10th May 1941, he also had confirmed a FW 190 on 3rd May 1942 and a JU88 shot down into the sea on 11th May 1942. His tally of enemy shipping stood at an impressive 25 sunk by then. At the end of July 1942, Emile was further promoted; to the rank of Squadron Leader, and given command of 174 Squadron at Warmwell.

On the Dieppe operation of 19th August 1942, his first one as Commanding Officer, his Hurricane took a hit from defending German anti-aircraft fire after he’d led his squadron of Hurri-bombers fast and low into the attack. His battle-damaged aircraft lost height and crashed in the Channel on the way back to England, not far from Worthing.  Emile was still in the cockpit.

But that is not quite the end of this extraordinary Frenchman’s story. By the strange vagaries of the English Channel’s currents, Emile’s body was eventually washed ashore in his native France. The Germans recovered it and given that he was wearing what remained of the uniform of an RAF Squadron Leader, but with some French insignia, they presumed him to have been a Canadian. Emile’s body had been in the water for some time and was in no real state to be positively identified, so the Germans buried him in a grave marked “Unknown RAF Squadron Leader”.

It wasn’t till 1998, after much laborious research had been done, that Emile finally got a headstone of his own. He is buried at Hautot-sur-Mer (Dieppe Canadian) Cemetery and he is also commemorated on the London Battle of Britain memorial; with all the other gallant countrymen of his who had flown and fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain. His fighting prowess had earned him a total of four medals, including the DFC and the Croix de Guerre. At the time of his death; the remarkable, Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle, had been just two weeks and six days short of his 26th birthday.

By Mitch Peeke

My thanks to Mitch for this story.

 An Unknown Airman; No longer

A Guest Post by Mitch Peeke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An update to the Allhallows 379th BG Memorial.

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

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

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

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

Allhallows Memorial update

Photo by Mitch Peeke 14/3/20

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

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

The unveiling took place on June 22nd 2019.

November 7th 1945 – World Air Speed Record Herne Bay.

Trail 44 takes a look at the aviation highlights of the North Kent Coast in the small town of Herne Bay and its neighbour Reculver. It was here, on November 7th 1945, that the World Air Speed record was set in a ‘duel’ between two Gloster Meteors, as they raced across the Kent Sky.

On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.

The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.

With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and  Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.

Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at:  599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.

The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.

In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.

As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal  worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.

I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.

At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I  expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.

On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.

Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…

I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. 

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.

On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.

All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.

On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”

Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.

I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.

Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.

This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.

After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…

At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.

The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.

Related image

EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4

An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.

Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.

Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.

His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.

Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.

It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.

During the trials for the Meteor, Greenwood and Wilson were joined by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who between them tested the slimmed-down and ‘lacquered until it shone’ machine, comparing  drag coefficients with standard machines. Every inch of power had to be squeezed from the engine as reheats were still in their infancy and much too dangerous to use in such trials.

To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.

RAF Manston History Museum

One of the two plaques now on display at the RAF Manston History Museum.

To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.

Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).

From Herne Bay, we continue on to another trail of aviation history, eastward toward the coastal towns of Margate and Ramsgate, to the now closed Manston airport. Formerly RAF Manston, it is another airfield that is rich in aviation history, and one that closed with huge controversy causing a great deal of ill feeling amongst many people in both the local area and the aviation fraternity.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.

*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).

*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

The RAF Manston History Museum website has details of opening times and location.

The Manston Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museum website has details of opening times and location.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt 1).

In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last.  It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.

Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.

Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!

RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).

Snailwell lies  just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now  owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.

Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’  Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.

As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.

To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.

In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.

During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.

The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron  268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.

Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.

In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.

During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.

Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk.  Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.

Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea.  Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, 137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.

The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring  the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.

On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.

Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.

In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, 614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making  Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.

With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.

In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.

The full page can be seen on Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.