RAF Leeming Part 2 – The Canadians arrive.

In part 1, we saw how 4 Group had been operating mainly Whitleys from Leeming, and how the squadrons here had taken a beating in the European skies. Now, following the departure of the last elements of 10 Sqn. in August 1942, Leeming was all but empty, and ready to be handed over to the Canadians. With the introduction of the four engined heavies, hopefully things would begin to change and the losses of before would be lessened. Harris was now in charge of Bomber Command, new directives and a renewed focus would see the first of the 1,000 bomber raids, perhaps now, the air war would turn.

Formed in October 1942, 6 Group was born out of Article XV of the Riverdale Agreement, which allowed the formation of distinct squadrons manned by personnel from across the British Commonwealth – primarily Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This would, in theory, allow the aircrews of these countries to keep their national identity whilst serving in the Royal Air Force, and allowing the governments of these nations to have a say in the service of these crews. However, Britain did not want this – fearing interference from abroad in strategic matters – and so an agreement was drawn up whereby they would keep their nationality but serve under the full control of the Royal Air Force.

After negotiations on 17th April 1941, it was agreed that there could be 25 Canadian squadrons created (along with 18 Australian and 6 New Zealand Squadrons). But with shortages of trained personnel, and slow progress  through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), many of these squadrons took a long time to come, and many units were simply filled with a range of nationalities, thus defeating the original objectives of the agreement.

Ultimately though, 44 Canadian, 16 Australian and 6 New Zealand squadrons were formed operating across a range of fields. Of these, 15 Canadian squadrons operated within Bomber Command – one transferring to the Pathfinders of 8 Group.  As the war progressed, and air superiority fell to the allies, Bomber Command took fewer casualties, and so the number of  individual nationals serving within each squadron began to rise. By the time the war began to close, these squadrons had had their  national identities and character restored, and they were by now, either Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Squadrons in their own right.

Transferring so many units from other countries would initially cause confusion, with similar numbered units appearing in both the RAF, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand Air Forces. To overcome the problem, Canadian squadrons were allocated the first fifty numbers of the ‘400’ block (400 – 449), and so Canadian born squadrons were renumbered accordingly once they had transferred to the UK*4. With this, 6 Group was born, and over the next few years it would become synonymous with Yorkshire, utilising the many airfields found within its boundaries.

At Leeming, six of these fourteen units would operate, Nos: 405, 408, 419, 424, 427 and 429, all between August 1942 and May 1946 when the last two resident groups would disband.

The first of these squadrons to arrive would be 419 (Moose) Squadron.

419 Sqn. were only at Leeming a short time, a transition stop between 13th and 18th August 1942, just prior to the forming of 6 Group. Preparations for the move began a few days earlier with an advance party of twenty-five personnel making the journey to Leeming from Mildenhall by train. On the 11th, the squadron was stood down from operations and all hands helped load equipment onto another train consisting of 25 goods wagons. Loading took place at night at Shippea Hill, a small desolate, and rarely used station not far from Mildenhall airfield.

On the 12th, a second train was laid on in which 200 personnel were loaded onto 30 cars, led by Flt. Lt. D. S. McCann, they made their way north arriving at Leeming Bar station at 21.40 hrs. After unloading, a warm and no doubt welcome meal was provided, and then the personnel all retired for the night. Also on the 12th, a further 150 personnel transferred by air, flying in seventeen of the squadron’s aircraft. They made their way from Mildenhall, not to Leeming airfield but to RAF Skipton, where they stayed the night. The next day, they made the last leg of the journey, transferring across to Leeming landing on the one serviceable runway. Here they unloaded and prepared the airfield for operations. However, the stay was short lived, a visit by the Canadian Minister of National Defence for Air, the Honorable Charles Gavan “Chubby” Power, MC. PC., and Air Marshall L.S. Breadner the following day, preceded the squadron’s move out from Leeming to RAF Topcliffe, where operations would finally finally began once more.

Named 419 (Moose) Squadron they were named after their first Commanding Officer, Wing Commander John “Moose” Fulton, and displayed a Canadian Moose in the centre of their unit crest. Not joining 6 (R.C.A.F.) Group until the following year, they flew Wellingtons into Leeming going on to be resident at several of the Group’s airfields. It was 419 Sqn. pilot Andrew Charles “Andy” Mynarski, who would so bravely try to save the life of his trapped tail gunner; Mynarski himself dying from the severe burns he received in the action. The Gunner, Cpl. Pat Brophy, remarkably survived the aircraft’s crash, and it was his testimony that led to Mynarski receiving the Victoria Cross.  The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, Ontario have restored and fly, one of only two air worthy Lancasters as a memorial and tribute to Mynarski’s brave efforts.

Canadian Lancaster C-GVRA

Canadian Lancaster KB726 ‘VR-A’ dedicated to Andrew Mynarski on her arrival at RAF Coningsby August 2014. The dedication to Mynarski being displayed beneath the Lancaster’s cockpit.

A rather impromptu visit interrupted changes at Leeming, when P.O. Colin Frank Sorensen (RCAF) was practising aerobatics in the Leeming vicinity in Spitfire P8784. During a manoeuvre his engine cut out, luckily he was able to make a wheels up landing after gliding into Leeming. The aircraft was badly damaged in the landing but the Danish born Sorensen walked away unhurt.

The second of the six Canadian Squadrons to arrive at Leeming, 408 (Goose) Sqn., made their appearance on 14th September 1942, the squadron arriving whilst  in the process of changing over from the Hampden to the Halifax. After a busy, but ‘run of the mill’ period, October would prove to be rather significant, although the Operational Record Books wouldn’t quite recognise it as such. The entry for October 1st 1942*3  states:

1.10.42.

Today started a month which proved to be a rather dull one from the historian’s point of view, but a very busy one for the squadron. The printed word can hardly paint the picture of industry of receiving aircraft and modifying them for operations, of air and ground training and of personnel going to and coming from various courses of instruction on Halifax aircraft and equipment.

This entry would kick off a short period of major events that were in no way ‘run of the mill‘! Firstly, on the 2nd October, confirmation was received at Leeming that two of 408 Squadron’s aircrew had successfully evaded, making their way to Gibraltar after being shot down over Belgium in the former Commanding Officer’s aircraft. Their remarkable journey had taken them across the European continent to safety – quite an amazing achievement in itself. Unfortunately, there had been no word as yet as to the whereabouts of the Commanding Officer.

After that on the 11th, the first of the new four-engined heavy bombers arrived, two Halifax MK.Vs, which were subjected to great scrutiny and discussion by the crews. Their presence giving the squadron a renewed keenness to get back to operations. As they milled around the aircraft, morale was instantly lifted, and a new impetus had been injected. By the end of the month there would be thirteen MK.V’s all being modified ready for operations.

Additional changes on the 12th, saw 408 (RCAF) Squadron Conversion Flight along with 405 (RCAF) Conversion Flight merging to become 1659 Canadian Conversion unit (Heavy Conversion Unit) here at Leeming, the record books playing down the historical  importance of early October 1942.

This impetus would see 408 Sqn. through to early November without loss, until on the afternoon of 9th November 1942, Halifax V, DG238 piloted by Flt. Sgt. R. Bell DFM, stalled and crashed 5 miles east of Croft airfield. The entire crew were tragically lost in the accident in which they were participating in a fighter affiliation exercise. The event marked not only the first loss for 408 Sqn. since arriving here at Leeming, but the first loss of any Halifax V in the whole of Bomber Command.

However, within a month of the first Mk.V’s arriving at Leeming, 408 Sqn. would begin receiving another mark of the Halifax, this time the MK.II with its Merlin XX inline engines. They would keep this model for a further year until replacing them, for a short while, with the Lancaster.

The November tragedy would round off 408’s year, taking them into 1943 and a new year that would see Bomber Command finally ready – fully trained and fully operational with four engined heavies. Harris would waste no time in using this to his advantage, striking at the many cities deep in the heart of Germany time and time again.

By January 1st, 1943, 4 Group had transferred no less than ten airfields over to the Canadians, their numbers rising as more and more aircrews were passing through the training programme. Along with Leeming, the Canadians now operated from: Croft, East Moor, Middleton-St-George, Topcliffe, Dalton, Skipton-On-Swale, Dishforth, Linton-On-Ouse and Tholthorpe. The Canadians were quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

For 408 Sqn. 1943 finally saw them confirmed as operational with seventeen MK.IIs and one MK.V on their books, it would also see their first operational casualty. On January 23rd, Halifax MK. II ‘EQ-C’ lost power in both starboard engines, this loss of power caused the aircraft to crash near to Ossington in Nottingham. Thankfully though, all the crew escaped unharmed, but it was a rather unfortunate start to 408’s mission record.

Engine fires and engine failures would see several other aircraft crash over the next few months. On return from Koln on the night of 14th – 15th February, Halifax ‘EQ-U’ crashed when the port outer engine burst into flames on the approach to the airfield. After gaining some height the pilot Flt. Lt. R. Boosey ordered the crew to evacuate the aircraft. All but one, an American, survived, his parachute failing to open in time.

Following the attack by a night-fighter on 1st – 2nd March, Halifax EQ-H,  also suffered engine failure on the port side. As a result of the attack, the pilot F.O. A. Stewart (RNZAF), dropped his bombs and turned the aircraft for home. Picked up by another night fighter, the lonesome aircraft was again attacked this time the result was more decisive, the Halifax being shot down. After the crash, three of the crew were taken prisoner, the remainder managing to avoid capture going on to evade their enemy.

Enemy action may have also caused a further Halifax’s loss on the night of 12th – 13th March. Whilst on finals returning from Essen,  Halifax ‘EQ-S’ lost both port engines as they also cut out. Unable to control the violent yaw, the aircraft came down not far from Leeming airfield, again thankfully all the crew escaped unharmed, the aircraft coming off much worse.

The ground crew doing maintenance work on a Halifax II of No 408 Squadron at Leeming, August 10th, 1943.

The ground crew completing maintenance work on a Halifax II of No 408 Squadron at Leeming, August 10th, 1943. days before they departed Leeming. (National Defence Image Library, PL 19510 – Via Juno Beach Centre)

During March 1943, a further Canadian unit arrived at Leeming airfield – 405 (Vancouver) Squadron. They were the first Canadian unit to have been formed overseas, and the first to carry out an operational mission. It then went on to be the only Canadian unit to be part of Bennett’s elite Pathfinder Group. 405 Sqn. also had the honour of being the first to operate the Canadian built Lancaster, the MK.X, although its entry not occurring until the dying days of the war. Remaining at Leeming from early March to mid April, 405 Sqn. departed for Gransden Lodge on the 19th. Their journey to Leeming had taken them through Driffield, Pocklington, Topcliffe and Beaulieu, a two year journey that had started on April 23rd 1941.

405 (Vancouver) Sqn had earlier taken part in the controversial 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne, and had taken part in maritime operations before joining 6 Group. Their stay here being a brief one, being transferred by special train (X771) to Gamlingay station, and onward travel to Gransden Lodge and 8 Group.

It was also during April, that another Canadian unit would pass through Leeming, 424 (Tiger) Squadron, staying here for just one month before moving on.  424 Sqn. took their name from the Hamilton Wildcats, a Canadian Rugby team that played in the city of Hamilton, Ontario, after the people there adopted the Squadron as their own. Formed in December 1942 at Topcliffe, they operated Wellington IIIs which they changed for MK. Xs prior to moving over to Leeming, and eventual departure to North Africa.

The fifth Canadian unit to reside at Leeming arrived on 5th May 1943, in the form of 427 (Lion) Sqn. Four days earlier, orders had been received by 427 Sqn. that their aircraft (Wellington MK.X) were to be flown to RAF Skipton-On-Swale to form a new Canadian Squadron 432 (Leaside) Sqn., after which, their personnel were to be transferred here to Leeming, where they would receive new Halifax MK.Vs.

On the next day, twenty-one aircraft and five crews led by Sqn. Ldr. W. McKay of Vancouver, flew to Skipton, taking with them equipment and personnel. The departure was honoured by a party in the Officers’ and Sergeants’ messes both of which had been opened to all ranks, resulting in a party of true ‘Lion Squadron’ style.

The 4th and 5th then saw the transfer of the crews and equipment to Leeming, the stark contrast between a main station and satellite station coming as a pleasant surprise for the personnel of 427 Sqn. The transition from one to the other meant that there would be no flying for the squadron over the next few days, aircraft not having been fully modified or prepared for operational duties.

With two full squadrons now operating at Leeming, Halifaxes were littered across the airfield, the hardstands almost bursting with the different examples.

It was at this time (8th) that the BBC visited Leeming, making a documentary film illustrating the flight of the commanding Officer and his crew and how they had gallantly won their collection of medals. It was impeccable timing as another medal was also awarded that day, the squadron’s first DFM to Flt. Sgt. Higgins for his part in recent operations.

Over the next few days, aircrew took great pride in adorning their new aircraft with painted motifs, a tradition that had become steadfast in American circles and now more frequent within Bomber Command.

On the 24th May, the M.G.M. film company officially adopted the Squadron, in a grand ceremony outside the hangars, in which speeches were made and medals were awarded. During the ceremony a draw was held in which seventeen names were put into a hat and one drawn out. The lucky winner got to chalk the name of Lana Turner on his aircraft, Turner being one of M.G.M’s biggest stars and an icon of Hollywood glamour. The lucky pilot was Sgt. Johnson who had the privilege of chalking her name on his aircraft in front of a cheering crowd.

Image result for Lana Turner

Lana Tuner – the pin up of Canadian crews. Wikipedia (public domain)

On the 28th the squadron finally became operational with the first mission the next day to Wuppertal. With thirteen aircraft booked to fly, one suffered technical difficulties and so only twelve made it into the air. All returned to Leeming with only one having to land away at Thurleigh due to severe damage. 427 Squadron’s war had now officially begun at Leeming.

As the summer progressed so too did operational sorties. An increase in sorties also meant an increase in risk. After all the parties and the celebrations, 427’s morale was high, but it would be short-lived, the dangers of the air war were about to be made very clear to the crews of Leeming.

On the night of 12th – 13th June, Halifax V DK183 (427 Sqn) was brought down by a night-fighter over Germany. In the attack three crewmen were killed, another was injured and three others were taken prisoner, but there was yet more to come.

A near tragic accident was only just avoided on the 16th when Flt. Sgt. E. Johnson landed after a training flight. On landing, the aircraft swung badly, and in avoiding a group of airmen, Johnson crashed the Halifax – thankfully without injury.

June continued its onslaught when on a mission to Krefeld, three of Leeming’s longer standing 408 squadron aircraft were shot down. Of the twenty-one crew aboard only seven made it out alive, all the survivors being taken prisoners of war. On the following day (22nd – 23rd) it would be 427 Sqn’s turn and another four aircraft would be lost. This time, only two of the twenty-eight survived, both being picked up by German forces and incarcerated in POW camps. In two nights, forty-nine airmen had been lost, nine of them ending up in German internment camps. But the bad spell was not yet over, another three 427 Sqn aircraft;  DK135, DK144 and DK 190 along with a 408 Sqn MKII, JB858, were lost two nights later – another fourteen airmen were gone and seven more taken prisoners of war. The end of June simply couldn’t come soon enough.

But July would carry on in the same vein, 408 Sqn. losing two aircraft on the night of 3rd – 4th July, JB796 ‘EQ-C’ was lost with all but one of the crew, whilst JB913 ‘EQ-F’ was lost shot down by a night-fighter just after midnight. Two of this crew evaded whilst the others were taken prisoner by the German authorities. Both aircraft were on operations to Koln.

With a further three lost at Gelsenkirchen on the night of 9th – 10th July, two more on July 13th – 14th and one further aircraft on 27th – 28th July; the summer would come to a close with 408 having lost forty-two Halifaxes since being made operational earlier that year. 427 Sqn were not far behind in the loss stakes, the Canadians were taking a heavy battering and the mess halls must have seemed remarkably light.

It was during this time that the pilot of 408 Sqn Halifax ‘JD174’, F.O. Donald Thomas Bain RCAF (s/n: J/9412) would earn the DFC for his actions in saving his crew. The aircraft had departed from Leeming 9 minutes after midnight on the night of the 14th to bomb Aachen as part of a 374 strong force of allied bombers. After having the hydraulic system badly damaged by night fighters, Bain lost his attackers only to be subjected to further attacks on the homeward leg of the flight. Again, F.O. Bain managed to loose his pursuers, and once over the English coast realised that the damage to the hydraulics was more extensive than perhaps they first thought. The undercarriage could not be lowered, and so a belly landing was the only way the aircraft was going to be put down. However, with his bomb bay still full of bombs, this was not an option and so F.O. Bain gave the bail out order, turned the aircraft toward open ground and departed himself. After landing badly and breaking both ankles, F.O. Bain was discovered by a local farming family who, suspicious of his accent, dragged the wounded airman back to the farm house where he managed to convince them he was in fact Canadian, and not an enemy spy in disguise. He was then treated for his injuries and allowed to return to operational duties later on.

Bain’s received a DFC for his actions in saving his crew, the citation appearing in the Third Supplement of the London Gazette on August 6th 1943 which stated:

Flying Officer Donald Thomas Bain (Can/J.9412), Royal Canadian Air Force, No. 408 (R.C.A.F.) Squadron. One night in July, 1943, this officer piloted an aircraft to attack Aachen. Whilst over the target area, the bomber was seriously damaged when engaged by an enemy fighter. Despite this, Flying Officer Bain made several  determined runs over the objective. On the return flight 2 more enemy fighters were encountered but Flying Officer Bain out-manoeuvred them. By superb airmanship and great tenacity he succeeded in flying the crippled bomber to this country. He displayed commendable courage and a fine fighting spirit in circumstances of great difficulty.”

At the end of August, 408 Squadron were then transferred out of Leeming moving to RAF Linton-On-Ouse, another of 6 Group’s airfields a short distance away. With 427 Sqn. now being the only squadron on site, there was once again room for one final Canadian unit to join them.

The last Canadian squadron to use Leeming arrived on August 13th 1943, 429 (Bison) Sqn who like 427 Sqn. had swapped their Wellingtons for Halifaxes. The transition for the majority of these squadrons taking the same steps, from Wellington to Halifaxes and onto Lancasters and eventual disbandment.

429 Sqn. were only based at two airfields in their entire operational history, East Moor where they were formed, and Leeming where they were disbanded.

In January 1944 the Halifax Vs of 427 Sqn. were replaced by the MK.III. All this changing between aircraft models was proving to be a headache for the ground crews. Whilst some components were common and easily maintained, others were not, new tooling being required particularly when changing from radial to in-line Merlin engines.

By now the air war was swinging in the favour of the allies and tactics employed by the Luftwaffe were becoming more calculated and desperate. Attacking a bomber from  its blind spot – underneath – had long been a method used by Luftwaffe night fighter pilots, and as a result mid upper gunners were rapidly becoming redundant. To counteract this, it was considered achievable by removing the Halifax’s turret in 429 Sqn aircraft and covering over the resultant hole. Now a window could be inserted into the belly of the aircraft and the redundant gunner, laying on a mattress, could be used to look out for attacking aircraft from beneath*7. The lighter load also meant that the aircraft could gain a little more speed and altitude, always a bonus when in a heavy bomber over occupied territory.

In the early part of 1944, Leeming suffered a series of puzzling fires, all minor, but none the less strange. The civilian workforce were suspected and as a result four were relieved of their duties in June with another 24 being reprimanded for their behaviour*7.

Halifax B Mark III, LW127 ‘HL-F’, of No. 429 Squadron RCAF, in flight over Mondeville, France, after losing its entire starboard tailplane due to bombs dropped by another Halifax above it. © IWM (CE 154)

On July 18th 1944, Operation ‘Goodwood’ was put in place. The operation required the bombing of five German held positions to the east of Caen, prior to the British Second Army’s attack.  429 Sqn. were part of this massive raid of 942 aircraft of which 260 were Halifaxes. Whilst flying on this mission Halifax LW127 was struck by falling bombs from aircraft above, its tailplane being severed completely off on the one side. Now difficult to fly, the pilot Flt. Lt. G Gardiner (RCAF) gave the bail out order, of the seven in the aircraft that day, three lost their lives, one evaded and three others were taken prisoner. A second Leeming aircraft (427 Sqn.) LV985, was also lost that day, this time with the loss of all those on board. This apart, the mission was considered a complete success with Bomber Command dropping 5,000 tons of bombs and US Forces an additional 1,800 tons.

The striking of bombers from above was not an uncommon one, for a similar event occurred on August 3rd, when another 427 Sqn Halifax LW163 ‘U’ was hit no less than three times by falling bombs from above. The pilot, F.O. L. Murphy, managed to keep the aircraft flying, delivering his own bomb load on target before returning to Leeming this time making a safe landing. Once on the ground the damage could be properly assessed, a hole had been made through the fuselage behind the turret, with a further hole through the starboard mainplane.

The supply of materials was always difficult during war time, and a shortage of bombs at Leeming caused another headache for ground crews. A shortage of 1000lb bombs meant that bombs had to be ‘borrowed’ from Dishforth until new supplies could arrive. The lead up to D-Day was particularly busy, with some 37,000 bomb tails having to be collected from Skipton in readiness for an all out maximum effort.

In May 1944 the Halifax IIIs of 427 Sqn. were replaced by Avro’s magnificent showpiece the Lancaster Mk.I and MK.III; a four engined heavy that had been born out of the disastrous, under powered twin-engined Manchester. For a year 427 Sqn. flew operations in the RAF’s ultimate bomber. By the end of the war, 427 Sqn. had dropped over 8,500 tons of bombs, in just over 3,200 sorties, the majority of these occurring in 1944. In total 101 crews had been lost  in operational sorties between 1943 and 1945 from Leeming, a stark ending to a bright and happy start.  427 Sqn was eventually joined in the flying of the Lancaster by 429 (Bison) Sqn. who eventually swapped their Halifaxes for the Lancaster in May 1945.

With the end of the war in Europe and eventually the war in Japan, celebrations began in earnest at Leeming. Its doors were thrown open to the locals and many parties were held in celebration. Trips were offered to the WAAFs and ‘thank yous’ paid to the ground crews through flights over bombed German cities.

In August 1945, the last two squadrons of 6 Group passed over to 1 Group, operating under a new command following the disbandment of the ‘Base’ concept. Leeming being No. 63 base disbanding on August 31st, 1945. The base concept, implemented during the war, improved both administrative and technical services across a group of stations, streamlining the two processes by giving overall control of several airfields to one ‘base’ station.

By now Britain’s airfields were littered with unspent ordnance and it had to be disposed of. The skies continued to be full of the sound of heavy bombers taking these bombs out over the sea where they were dropped into the waters below. With disbandment on the horizon and a return to civvy street, there would be one last roll of the dice and one last casualty to remind the Canadians that flying can be a dangerous game.

On November 5th 1945, whilst on a training flight, Lancaster RA571 ‘AL-D’ of 429 Sqn crashed into a hillside, four of those on board, one an aero-mechanic, would not be returning home to a civilian life.

In the remaining months crews from both 427 and 429 took part in the repatriation flights under Operation ‘Dodge‘. Flying out to Italy, many crews ‘extended’ their stay before returning home to Leeming.  By May 1946, most crews had by now departed and on the 31st, both 427 and 429 Squadrons officially disbanded, the Operational Record Books*5 stating:

The return to Canada of Nos. 427 and 429 Squadrons, the last of the Canadian Heavy Bomber Squadrons which so ably operated in Bomber Command throughout the war and subsequent emergency, cause a regrettable break in an unforgettable relationship of the air, founded during (unreadable) heroic days and nights when the command bore the brunt of the offensive against the enemy.”

It goes onto say:

During the war, the R.C.A.F. Squadrons in Bomber Command (unreadable) for themselves the most commendable operation which will forever remain prominent in the history of air warfare, and in the annuls of Bomber Command. Not the least of these are the proud operational records, too long to mention here, of Nos. 427 and 429 RCAF Squadrons.”

it ends:

I sincerely hope that our mutual ties of comradeship which have been closely knit in war will endure, and that they will be fostered throughout the peace by the more peaceful activities of our two great nations.”

Both the importance and the contribution of Canadian crews (or any other nation for that matter) can never be understated. Trained through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada,  they would go on to form a third of the total number of Bomber Command air crews operating during the Second World War. They would become some of the elite bomber crews, one of the fourteen squadrons forming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder force in 8 Group.

With that, Leeming was put into wind down, the rear party departed and Leeming was then at peace once more. But the skies over Yorkshire would not stay quiet for long.

In the final part of this trail, Leeming enters the jet age, its future still in the balance as many of Britain’s airfields are closed and sold off. But with new aircraft coming on line and a new threat looming from the east, Leeming survives and takes on a new role.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.

Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.

The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.

December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.

The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.

Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR HARRIS, KCB.,OBE.,AFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, KCB.,OBE.,AFC. © IWM (CH 13021)

Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.

These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles.  Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.

One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of. 

The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.

The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.

On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.

On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.

After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.

After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.

Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.

At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.

With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.

The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian  raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.

Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor,  unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead.  It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.

On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.

Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.

By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.

As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.

In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.

75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.

Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.

In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.

June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.

Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.

As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.

On 13th September 1943, the BDU  moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the  idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.

A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)

Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.

The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.

The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.

Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.

The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.

RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.

After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.

National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8,  AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36

Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website.  June 2nd 2000.

Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980

For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.

Sgt. Norman Cyril Jackson VC. RAF Metheringham.

On April 26th 1944, the RAF sent 206 Lancasters and 11 Mosquitoes from No. 5 Group, along with 9 Lancasters from No. 1 Group, to attack the notorious ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt in Bavaria.

Schweinfurt, had since August 1943, struck fear into the the hearts of allied airmen, ever since the USAAF’s attack on the city resulted in a disaster in which 230 unescorted B-17s were cut to pieces by German defences. Subsequent raids, whilst not as disastrous, had also proven costly, and it was a target that Bomber Command’s Commander in Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, so vividly wanted to avoid.

The attention Schweinfurt was getting from the Allies, gave the German authorities sufficient concern to force them into spreading their ball-bearing production far and wide across Germany. This aligned with the fact that the Swiss and Swedes were supplying large quantities of ball-bearings to the Germans, led Harris to believe it was a target for the American forces to deal with, and not Bomber Command.

Norman Cyril Jackson 106 Sqn RAF Metheringham (photo via Wikipedia)

Much against his wishes, an order under the ‘Point-blank’   directive was given, and Harris sent his men to attack the factories. With smoke screens surrounding the area, it proved difficult to hit, as the attack in February proved.

In April, they were to go again, this time using a new low-level target marking technique devised by the then Wing Co. Leonard Cheshire. It would be in this mission that the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known.

At RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, sixteen Lancasters completed their ground checks, started their engines and began the taxi along to the runway’s threshold. For around fifteen minutes between 21:30 and 21:45, the heavily laden aircraft took off and headed along the first long unbroken leg 130 miles into enemy held territory.

In Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ #ME669 were: F/O. F Miffin DFC (Pilot); Sgt. N Jackson (Flt. Eng.); Flt. Sgt. F. Higgins (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. M. Toft (Bomb Aim.); Flt. Sgt. E. Sandelands (W/Op); Sgt. W. Smith (M.Up. Gunner) and Flt. Sgt. N. Johnson (Rear Gun.) on the penultimate operation of their tour of duty. The plan was for two groups to attack the city from different directions, bombing on a series of markers dropped by the pathfinders.

On approach to the target the formation encountered strong headwinds and no cloud. With a new moon, they were going to be easy targets for the Nachtjägers. These winds blew markers off track, and repeated efforts by the master bomber to relay instructions to the crews failed, primarily due to faulty radio equipment.

Throughout the run-in over the city, attacks were fierce and consistent. Confused by poor messages and inaccurately placed markers, bombs fell well away from their intended targets. By now fourteen aircraft had already been lost to the fighters, many of them the ghostly Schräge Musik, upward firing fighters.

After bombing from 21,500 feet, Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ was hit several times by a night fighter, starting a fire started in the inner starboard wing section next to the upper fuel tank.  Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. In doing so, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft at speed and altitude, was no easy task, and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire now spreading, began to burn his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.

Norman Cyril Jackson VC

Sgt. Jackson’s Grave. He died almost 50 years to the day after his brave attempt to save teh aircraft and crew. (Photo Paul Cannon)

The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson, both failing to survive.

Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross, his actions being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.

25 year old Sgt. Jackson from London, had been with the crew since training at Wigsley, and had completed his tour of duty. He volunteered for the Schweinfurt mission so he could be with his own crew as they completed their own tour of duty, before all going to join the Pathfinders. Earlier that same day, Sgt. Jackson had received news that he was now a father too.

Sgt. Jackson spent ten months in hospital before eventually being repatriated. He received his VC at the same time as the then, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, would receive his. Cheshire asking for Jackson to receive his first, citing his selfless act of bravery as going far beyond anything he had achieved himself.

Sgt. Jackson’s citation reads:

This airman’s attempt to extinguish [sic] the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when  travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his, parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.

Sources.

RAF Metheringham features in Trail 1.

The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.

National Archives. AIR 27/834/8

RAF Metheringham – One of Bomber Command’s finest. (Part 3)

In this, the last part of RAF Metheringham, we see how one of its brave crews earned the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery, and how, as the war camr to a close, Metheringham was closed down and disposed of.

On the night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.

Metheringham would send sixteen aircraft that night with take off commencing at 21.25 from the Lincolnshire airfield with another mix of 4,000lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, marking would again be low level by Mosquitoes but this time  it was inaccurate. Strong winds hampered the bombers, with many of the bombs falling away from the main target. Crews reported large fires across the city accompanied by ‘large explosions’. Sadly these were not to be the target and as a result the mission was not deemed a success.

Of the 206 Lancasters sent out that night (26th/27th) twenty-one were lost to heavy and sustained night fighter attacks, a figure of 10% of the force, a terrible blow for Harris and his Command. From Metheringham, five aircraft failed to return, with a further one returning on three engines. Methringham’s loss that night was some 31%, a third of its force gone in one mission. It was a difficult mission for 106 Sqn, with thirty-six airmen lost,  (JB601 was carrying a second pilot). Ten of these were taken alive as POWs, four managed to evade capture, whilst the rest were killed. The deaths of the remaining twenty-two must have had another huge impact in the Metheringham dining room that morning.

During this mission the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known. After being hit several times by a  night fighter, a fire started in the inner wing section next to the upper fuel tank.  Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. Upon leaving, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft and at altitude, was no easy task and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire, now spreading, began to burn both his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go, releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.

The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson (Air Gunner) both failing to survive.

Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross for his actions, his citation being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.*2

The Schweinfurt raid had been a major blow to the Metheringham crews, but it had also shown their courage and determination to win, regardless of the dangers to their own safety.

Another heavy blow on the night of 7th/8th May took another four aircraft along with all but one of the crew, Sgt. J Smith evading capture, in a month that would see a further six aircraft go down with heavy losses.

June 1944 would see another remarkable event take place. Although the entire crew of DV367 were lost on the night of 7th / 8th, they were all awarded the DFM for their action, an usual act in any squadron, and one that nonetheless reflected the bravery of RAF crews at that time.

RAF Metheringham

Metheringham’s memorial garden rests besides a C-47 Dakota ‘KG651’ as a representative model that visited the airfield at the end of the war. Visitors are able to enter the aircraft and sit in the cockpit.

Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, the US forces would begin to use Metheringham as an evacuation point for wounded American troops from nearby  Nocton Hall Military Hospital. Once a suitable recovery had been made, the troops were brought to Metheringham and flown on to Prestwick for onward travel and reparation to the United States.

Rarely a month would go by without the squadron facing some loss. Exactly a month later in July, Metheringham would see yet another dip in their crew numbers as five more aircraft went down on the mission to St.-Leu-D’Esserent – the flying bomb storage dump. A force of 208 Lancasters and thirteen Mosquitoes accurately bombed the mouth and access roads to the tunnels in which the bombs were being stored. Metheringham’s loss was particularly high, almost a third of the sixteen sent out being lost. Whilst many airmen were either captured or evaded capture, another eighteen were lost.

In September 1944, No. 1690 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight arrived ay Metheringham airfield. A unit formed seven months earlier at Syerston after 1485 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight was re-designated, it operated a number of single and twin engined aircraft including the Spitfire, Oxford and Wellington bomber under the code ‘9M’. They were used to train bomber crews in the art of defence against fighters, performing violent moves to throw off their attacker. One famous pilot of this unit who served at Metheringham was the Commanding Officer Sqn. Ldr. John Leslie Munro, CNZM, DSO, QSO, DFC, JP of 617  Sqn fame. The Flight would leave Metheringham in the summer of 1945, being disbanded in October that same year back at Syerston.

It had been a long and difficult war for the crews at RAF Metheringham. As the end of the war drew ever closer, they all knew their last mission would soon be here. On April 25th 1945, that day arrived.

Sixteen Lancasters took off to either bomb Tonsberg in the southern region of Norway, or mine the Oslo fjord. A last ditch effort to force the capitulation of the German leadership and end the conflict that had devastated the world for the last six years.

By the time the cease fire was announced, 106 squadron had flown 5,834 sorties with a loss of 187 aircraft (59 from Metheringham), 3.21% on average per mission. 17,781 tons of bombs and mines were dropped and 267 decorations awarded.

After the war, 106 Sqn was earmarked for ‘Tiger Force’ operations and training was tailored to meet these new requirements: fighter affiliation sorties, high level bombing and air-sea firing exercises. Also during May, operation ‘Exodus‘ was put into place and a number of 106 Sqn aircraft flew to the Continent to bring back POWs, many landing at Dunsfold on their return. On the 9th May, whilst evacuating POWs from Rheine airfield, one aircraft from 106 Sqn struck a bomb crater causing damage to the aircraft, the crew and their valuable cargo of POWs thankfully escaped unhurt. The aircraft was then repaired with parts being ferried over from Metheringham the next day. Between May 4th and May 11th, Metheringham crews repatriated 1,484 prisoners of war bringing them home from captivity.

During June aircraft were exchanged with those from 8 Group at RAF Oakington, RAF Warboys and RAF Graveley, allowing Operation ‘Firebrand‘ to be completed by the 19th. Other operations included ‘Rebecca‘, ‘Dodge‘, ‘Nickel‘ and ‘SPASM‘.

On June 15th, another Lancaster squadron, No. 467 (RAAF), joined 106 here at Metheringham. In the days preceding their arrival, they spent many hours dropping ordnance into the sea, a comment in the ORB stated “it seemed like the old days with all serviceable aircraft loaded with incendiaries and it looked like a real operational take off.” It goes on to say a ‘waste but necessary‘ reflecting perhaps the feelings of the men as the squadron wound down for the final few weeks.

The advanced party arrived to make sure the transition went smoothly, with the main party arriving shortly afterwards. Beer was supplied by Metheringham and the crews soon got to know each other well. On July 11th, an athletics competition was run between the two squadrons, involving contests such as ‘tug-o- war’, ‘hop, step and jump’, ‘throwing the cricket ball’ and distance races.

With the announcements of Japan’s capitulation on August 15th, all 106 Sqn ‘Tiger Force’ training flights were cancelled although it continued to be used as the basis of further training operations. B.A.B.S. (Beam Approach Beacon System) training also continued at the airfield.

RAF Metheringham

Air Raid Shelters were once common place on Britain’s airfields.

Shortly after 467’s disbandment on September 30th 1945, October saw yet another Lancaster unit arrived at Metheringham, No. 189 Squadron who brought yet more Lancaster MK.Is and III. to be disposed of and they too were disbanded within a month.

The poor weather that had caused so many problems during the winters of the 1940s leading to Metheringham having FIDO installed, continued on into 1946 curtailing many flights and operations. On 13th  February 1946 the final curtain came down and a memo came though to Metheringham to ‘stand down’ from all operational and non-operational flying as of 00:01, 15th February 1946. Sixteen aircraft were to be ferried to RAF Graveley to have Mark III H2S units fitted, although this was cancelled and the aircraft were sent to Waddington (10), Binbrook (1), Lindholme (4) and one further Lancaster going to Waddington. By 22nd February 1946 all aircraft had left Metheringham and the squadron no longer existed, 106 Squadron was once more consigned to the history books and Metheringham airfield would follow not long after. Men, machinery and administrative items were then disposed of in accordance with the relevant Bomber command instructions. By April, everyone had left, the site was stripped and placed in care and maintenance, a condition it remained in until December 1950, whereupon it was abandoned before being sold off ten years later.

Like many stations, local people used the accommodation sites for their own accommodation, the runways were eventually pulled up for hardcore, buildings and other metal structures were removed for scrap or sold off to farmers. By the early 1970s Metheringham had all but been wiped off the map. The Watch Office left to decay has since been bought by a local developer, with a mammoth task ahead of him he hopes to turn it into accommodation and a small museum/residential block.

Metheringham’s record of achievement was a proud one, with generally low loss statistics they were to face some of the toughest challenges of the war, losing many crews in the process. Their determination to survive and to win over the Nazi tyranny led to many brave and heroic acts, acts which helped secure the release of hundreds of captured airmen.

RAF Metheringham

There are many reminders of RAF Metheringham.

Metheringham’s gallant and brave young men, are all remembered in a small, but excellent museum that now utilises part of one of the accommodation areas. A memorial to the aircrew stands on the eastern perimeter track as a reminder of the 995 Airmen who were lost whilst serving with 106 Sqn.

Much of Metheringham’s runway and perimeter track still exists today, in most part as a public road. The width of the concrete bases far exceeding the width of the road. A memorial stands to the eastern side overlooking the main airfield site (Site 1) with lines of tress denoting the remainder of runways long gone. The main B1189 road dissects the accommodation areas with Site 1, as was common with late wartime airfields. The museum lies off the junction of this road and the main Woodhall Spa road B1191 along the entrance to Westmoor Farm. If taking the B1189 toward the Metheringham village, you will pass a number of former wartime buildings used as small industrial units and farm storage. These are on private land although the museum do organise visits to some of these at certain times of the year. After passing these, turn right, this road was one of the secondary runways and crosses the remains of the main runway part way down. It then bends to the right taking you along the perimeter track, and then right again to the memorial – a circular route that traverses what was the peri track. Several of the hardstands still survive, mainly on farm property and difficult to see from the ground, but the number of buildings still standing is quite remarkable for such a short lived airfield.

Trail 1 then continues on, visiting another former Bomber Command airfield RAF Woodhall Spa.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Fleming, J., “The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964)“, 2007, The American Meteorological Society

*2 The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.

*3 Operational Record Book March 1944 – IWM AIR-27-834-6

Operational Record Book January 1944 – IWM AIR 27/834/1

Operational Record Book November 1943 – IWM AIR 27/833/22

Operational Record Book April 1944 – IWM AIR 27/834/8

Operational Record Book – Squadron Number: 106 Summary of Events: Y – IWM AIR 27/835/9, (01 May 1945 – 28 February 1946)

467 RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Summary of Events: Y 01 May 1945 – 30 September 1945 – IWM AIR 27/1931/33

Middlebrook. M., Everitt. C., “The Bomber Command War Diaries.” 1996, Midland Publishing.

Records of a 1690 BDTF pilot can be read on the Website ‘A Pilot’s Story‘.

Metheringham Airfield Museum webiste holds details of opening times, admission fees and special events. An excellent little museum it is well worth a visit.

RAF Metheringham – One of Bomber Command’s finest. (Part 2)

After Part 1, we continue following the crews of 106 Squadron at RAF Metheringham. The weather and in particular fog became a huge problem for aircrew, and bomber Command in particular. Something had to be done.

During the 1940s, fog was a particular problem around Britain’s airfields, often reducing visibility down to virtually nil, meaning bombers could neither take off nor land. Arthur Harris realising the effect this was having on his bomber operations, requested investigations be carried out into a possible method for clearing the fog thus allowing bombers to operate in this appalling conditions and widening the possibilities of operations in bad weather.

Churchill, influenced by Harris’s argument, instructed his Scientific Adviser Lord Cherwell to begin action at once, and so the Petroleum Warfare Department began to assemble a team of experts – who had already carried out some investigations into the weather and methods for dealing with fog – into a team to investigate the problem. A wide ranging group of scientists and industrialists carried out research concluding that heat was by far the best method for clearing fog over the low lying landscape.

The requirement put forward was to clear a standard Class A runway of at least 1,000 yards long and 50 yards wide, and an area up to 100 feet above the ground – a staggering 1.65m cubic yards of air. Further limitations were then put on the order restricting the placement of any obstacles likely to endanger an aircraft within 50 feet of the runway’s edge.  A mammoth task but one which saw the development of the oil burning FIDO system.

The FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) system was developed under the leadership a British Civil Engineer Arthur Clifford Hartley, CBE who worked with the Petroleum Warfare Department, and whose initial ideas involved using one of two streams of fuel; petroleum trialled at RAF Graveley, and Coke trialled at RAF Lakenheath.  After initial (and rather crude) tests at both Moody Down (petroleum) and Staines (coke), petroleum was found to be the better of the two fuels, and henceforth, the Gravely model was used as a template for fourteen further sites of which Metheringham was one.

Installed at Metheringham during early 1944, it saw pipes laid alongside the runway which when lit, created an initial mass of smoke. Once the system had ‘warmed up’ the smoke dissipated and the fog began to ‘burn off’ as the immense heat from the burners created an up draft of warm air.

By the war’s end FIDO had been used across England to assist in the landing of almost 2,500 aircraft most of which would otherwise have not been able to land without great danger to the crews or ground staff; it had been one of the war’s greatest success stories and was sold as such to the wider public. So successful in its outcomes, FIDO was intended to be installed at London’s major airport Heathrow, after the war, but the cost of running each system was astronomical, burning some 6,000 – 7,000 gallons of fuel in four minutes – the time it took to clear the designated volume of air. It is estimated that during its wartime use, something like 30 million gallons of fuel were burnt and whilst the cost to the taxpayer was tremendous,  it is thought to have saved the lives of over 10,000 airmen in the process.*1

Back in the air, the night of March 15th/16th saw split missions  with one section going to Stuttgart and and a further six aircraft heading to the aero-engine factory at Woippy in France. These six made up a total formation of twenty-two Lancasters, a flight that included 617 Sqn aircraft. With promises of good weather over the Metz region, it came as  a huge disappointment to find 10/10 cloud cover over the entire target.  Even with the target being identified on the H2S screen and five marker flares being dropped, the leader announced the mission scrubbed and all aircraft were instructed to return to base taking their full complement of bombs with them. So strong were the crew feelings that 617 Sqn’s leader, Leonard Cheshire, seriously considered complaining! However, despite this, all aircraft returned including those of 106 Sqn to Metheringham with only minor flak damage to ND331.

Lancaster B Mark IIIs of No. 106 Squadron at Metheringham,heading to Frankfurt. The attack on 22/23 March 1944 caused extensive destruction to eastern, central and western districts of the city. © IWM (CH 12543)

With the next few missions passing without major incident, the night of March 30th, would deal a hefty blow to the crews of 106 Sqn.

With take off starting at 22:15, seventeen Lancasters would depart Metheringham heading for Nurumberg carrying a range of 4,000lb, 1,000lb, 500lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, skymarkers guided the bomb-aimers as cloud was reported as heavy as 10/10 again. Searchlights and flak were evident as were fighters which attacked and damaged Lancaster ND332 piloted by F/O. Penman. The Lancaster, which claimed two enemy aircraft damaged, returned to England putting down on Manston’s emergency runway. Both the rear and mid upper turrets were out of action, one of the engines caught fire, and on landing, the undercarriage collapsed due to the enemy action. luckily though, no crewmen were injured in the sustained attack that caused the Lancaster’s severe damage.

A further Lancaster had to return early, Lancaster JB567 after suffering the failure of the port inner engine landing back at Metheringham after two and half hours into the flight. Similarly it was an engine failure that also caused the early return of JB641 this time landing three hours after departure. Three of the seventeen Lancasters were already out of action.

Meanwhile on the continent, Lancaster ND585, was reported missing, later being found to have been shot down by a German night fighter, crashing in Belgium with the loss of all its crew. On board was, at 18 years old, another of Bomber Command’s youngest ever crewmen, Sgt. Julian Mackilligin RAFVR (S/N: 1804016), who even at his young age, was already half way through his operational quota. He was buried at the Hotton War Cemetery, Luxenbourg.

Next came another two losses, Lancasters JB566 piloted by F/S. T. Hall DFM and ND535 piloted by F/O. J Starkey. Both went down with the loss of all but four crewmen. The mission had indeed been costly, forty-two airmen were out of action, seventeen of them killed.*3

By the end of the first quarter of 1944, 106 Sqn had carried out more sorties than any other 5 Group squadron (358) losing 8 aircraft in the process. This gave the men of Metheringham an average of 19 sorties per aircraft in the first 90 days.

April began with a mix of bombing and ‘Gardening‘ missions, operations that included laying mines along the Koningberger Seekanel, with mines being dropped from as low as 150 ft. Even though some aircraft reported heavy ground fire from the banks of the Canal, the mission was deemed to be a great success and all aircraft returned safely.

The month continued to go well for the Metheringham crews, but the night of April 22nd / 23rd would take another toll on the morale of the crews. That  night saw twenty Lancasters fly to Brunswick as part of  a much larger force of 238 Lancasters and seventeen Mosquitoes. The mission, whilst generally uneventful, marked the first operation in low level target marking by No. 5 Group over a large city, an aid that proved fruitless on this occasion partly due to low cloud/haze obscuring the bomb aimer’s clear sight. With varying reports of cloud from 5/10 to no cloud and haze, all bombers reported bombing on markers, but damage and ground causalities were recorded as low.

RAF Metheringham

The former Gymnasium now forms part of the museum and holds a range functions including weddings and talks.

RAF loses that night were also relatively low, with only four aircraft being lost from the whole flight. Sadly though, one of these, Lancaster MK.III ‘JB567’ ZN-E piloted by F/Lt. J. Lee was a Metheringham aircraft. F/Lt Lee had only one more mission to go before completing his first tour of duty. Only two of his crew survived, being picked up by German forces and sent to POW camps. This loss only went to strengthen the idea that it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a full tour of duty unscathed.

The next night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.

In part 3, we see how incredible brave acts earned a Metheringham airman the highest honour – the Victoria Cross.

The entire post can be seen in Trail 1.

RAF Metheringham – One of Bomber Command’s finest. (Part 1)

In this post we return to Lincolnshire and ‘Bomber County’, to the area south of the city of Lincoln. Here, we are not far from the still active RAF Coningsby, the former RAF Woodhall Spa, the Officer Training College at RAF Cranwell and the former bomber base RAF East Kirkby.

Many of the airfields in this area were the RAF’s Bomber Command airfields, several housing the four-engined heavies the Lancaster bomber. Being a flat region of England it was an ideal landscape for Bomber Command, it was also near enough to the continent and yet far away from intruders to suffer the risk of major attack.

We continue on on this trail by visiting one such airfield, an airfield that lasted until the war’s end featuring only one major flying unit, 106 Squadron. Today, we add a new addition to Trail 1 as we visit the former base RAF Metheringham.

RAF Metheringham.

Located on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens 3 miles east of the Lincoln Cliff escarpment, and near to the village from which it takes its name, Metheringham was opened in 1943 as a class ‘A’ bomber airfield under the control of No. 54 Base, 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command. It would fall under the control of the main base at RAF Coningsby, operating in conjunction with RAF Woodhall Spa, in a three station network implemented to streamline the Bomber Command structure.

Like many airfields of the time, it had the usual three concrete  runways; a main runway running slightly off north-south at  2,000 yds,  and two additional runways of 1,400 yds each running north-east to south-west and north-west to south-east. The technical area was located to the west of the airfield, with the huge bomb store to the north. Metheringham had two T2 hangars and one B1, along with numerous spectacle hardstands around the perimeter track.

RAF Metheringham

Large sections of Metheringham’s runways still exist mainly as public highways. The line of trees denotes a further runway.

The accommodation areas, mainly Nissen hutting, were spread to the south and west of the airfield, separated from the main airfield by the public highway, a feature common with many late wartime airfields. The entire site covered 650 acres, previously utilised as forest or rich farmland,

Built from requisitioned land over the winter of 1942/43, construction was not complete until after the advanced party arrived in early November 1942. Described by some as ‘cold’, ‘bleak’ and ‘inhospitable’, it was not unlike the many other unfinished wartime airfields scattered across Britain at the time. Muddy and with little in the way of creature comforts, it was soon to be home for bomber crews of the Royal Air Force, who would reside here for the remainder of the war.

With the advanced party hurriedly connecting mains water and power, the first and primary unit to serve from the airfield, 106 Squadron, began arriving hoping for something more than cold huts and muddy pathways.

A First World War Squadron who had been disbanded in 1919 and reformed in 1938 as war loomed, 106 Squadron had initially operated single engined and twin-engined light trainers before transferring to No. 5 Group and bombers. It first real foray into the bomber war was with the under-powered Manchester before switching to the far superior big sister, the Lancaster, in May 1942. This change over occurred at their previous station RAF Syerston, and within a week of their November 11th arrival here at Metheringham, they were flying their first Metheringham mission, and it would be right into the German Heartland.

Following on from the usual familiarisation flights, thirteen Lancasters of 106 Sqn would take to the air on the night of November 18th/19th for a bombing raid on the German capital. Mid November signified the start of  a period known as the ‘Battle of Berlin’, a period in the Second World War where Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, would finally get the chance to put into practice the idea that massed bombing of the capital would bring about the demise of the morale of the population by sustained attacks from Bomber Command. After witnessing first hand the Blitz of Britain’s cities, Harris was determined that such a campaign could succeed. However, ignoring the fact that the German’s own example had failed in reducing the British morale, he pressed on, sending wave after wave of bombers deep into Germany and Berlin itself.

So it began on that November night. With each 106 Sqn Lancaster carrying a 4,000lb bomb along with a mix of smaller bombs, they set off for Berlin. With moderate flak over the target, and no night-fighters encountered,  resultant damage was light especially compared to some missions that would be flown by the Command.

The raid itself was not considered a great success, and whilst no major injuries were sustained on the mission, Sgt. R. Smith, the Mid upper gunner of Lancaster JB642, suffered severe frost bite after passing out due to a faulty Oxygen system in the aircraft. After landing at the fighter airfield at RAF Tangmere, Sgt Smith was treated for his injuries.

With one other aircraft landing away from base, the remainder of 106 Sqn all made it back to Metheringham with relatively minor damage. A remarkable escape considering the nature of the target.

RAF Metheringham

There were plans to rebuild the Watch Office, a mammoth task considering its very poor condition.

A return to Berlin saw 106 Sqn back in the air on the 22nd/23rd and then again on the following night 23rd/24th November. The continuing spell of good luck saw all crews return safely again with only light to moderate damage to their aircraft. However, the night of 26th/27th would see 106’s luck finally run out and the first Metheringham loss.

Lancasters JB592 piloted By F/O. J. Hoboken DFC (his third flight to the capital that week) and ED873 piloted by F/O. R. Neil, were both lost that night. JB592, was brought down not far from Gross-Karben, in Hesse Germany with the loss of all the crew on board. ED873 suffered early engine problems with the starboard outer engine surging not long after take off. Once passed the coast, the 4,000 lb bomb was safely jettisoned and sent to the waters below where it was seen to explode by the crew. The aircraft then turned to land, overshot the runway and crashed into a field opposite the airfield. The crew were uninjured apart from the rear gunner (Sgt. Parker) who received minor injuries in the crash. This injury would however, prove to be a godsend, playing a vital role in his survival later on. This third night of bombing saw a force of 443 Lancasters take a heavy toll, with 28 being lost in action over the continent and another 14 over England. A loss rate of over 6%.

It was F/O. Neil’s crew who, after their lucky escape, would fall as the next victims of Berlin’s defence. With the original rear gunner still out of action due to the broken arm received in the last crash, he was replaced by Sgt. G. Stubbs, who made his last and fatal flight in ED874 on the night of December 2nd/3rd. The aircraft was brought down with the loss of all those on board, including the replacement Sgt. Stubbs. Berlin was fast becoming a rather large and sharp thorn in the side of Metheringham crews who by now, longed for a change in the target.

With one more Lancaster lost that year (Lancaster MK.III ‘JB638’, ZN-G) again with all on board, the cold 1943 winter drew to a close with many empty bunks in the Metheringham huts. It would be a long and bitter winter though, a winter that would last for several months over the 1943/44 period and all as the Battle for Berlin continued to rage on.

The New Year 1944 should have brought new hope for the Metheringham crews, but sadly things were to be worse – much worse. In fact, it would go on to prove to be the worst year in 106 Sqn’s history with their highest losses experienced to date.

The year began with fine but cold weather recorded as fifteen crews reported for duty on New Years Day. With bated breath they waited for the curtain to be pulled back to see where the bomb run marker would now take them. A thin line that denoted high chances of survival or low. But once again, and to the dismay of crews, the flight line marked its way across the continent to Berlin, it would be yet another night over the capital. With a take off time of 23:59, crews were briefed, checks carried out and engines started. Over the target 10/10 cloud were reported, so bombing was carried out on Pathfinder markers, with many of the Metheringham aircraft verifying their position with H2S.

Although fifteen aircraft took off, only thirteen made it to Berlin, Lancasters JB642 ‘ZN-J’ and JB645 ‘ZN-F’, both MK.IIIs, were shot down with the loss of thirteen airmen. The youngest of these, Sergeant John Alfred Withington (s/n: 1628244) was only 18 years of age and one of the youngest causalities of Bomber Command. The only survivor, F/S. A. Elsworthy, was captured and taken to a POW camp, Stalag Luft III in the German province of Lower Silesia  not far from the town of Sagan.

RAF Metheringham

Many of Metheringham’s buildings remained scattered about the accommodation areas.

With yet more flights to Berlin, briefings were becoming rather repetitive, and January ended the way it began with the loss of another seven air crew led by RAAF pilot P/O. K Kirland. Over the whole month, 106 Squadron had flown 123 sorties over nine nights, a total of 769 flying hours,  dropping 497 tons of bombs, the second highest total in the whole of No. 5 Group.

In the next post we see how Metheringham along with thirteen other airfields coped with the problem of fog, and how they continued to take the battle deep into the heart of Germany.

The full post can be seen in Trail 1. 

29th December 1944 – Disaster at RAF Waterbeach

Christmas and New Year doesn’t stop for war, and the inevitable battle of the Second World War continued on with air and ground crews across Britain carrying out their duties as normal, perhaps looking forward to a rest in the following days. December 29th 1944 was one such day.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

514 Squadron RAF 1944. Photo taken at Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum, August 2017

It was a hazy morning with a severe winter frost laying across the ground, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst for those non-operational crews it would be H2S and G.H. training. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster PD325 ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The resultant explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall some 23 miles away,  had repercussions right across the airfield, damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, five of them simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day in case time delayed bombs on other aircraft exploded. The bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft bomb bays. New Year at RAF Waterbeach would be very solemn in 1944.

Those that lost their lives that day were all members of 514 Sqn:

Leading Aircraftman Derrick Gordon Bichard (RAFVR) Radar Mechanic (s/n: 1870102)

Leading Aircraftman Samuel Bolton (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1639785) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Aircraftman 2nd Class Donald Victor Brewer (RAFVR) Armament Assistant (s/n: 1893614)

Leading Aircraftman Ronald Davies (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1128796)

Leading Aircraftman Geoffrey Graham Haydn (RAFVR) Radar Mechanic (s/n: 1863381)

Aircraftman 1st Class Harry George Leach (RAFVR) Electrician (s/n: 1429200) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Leading Aircraftman Laurence Smales (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1621436) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Leading Aircraftman Frederick Charles Watson (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1169390) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Corporal John Westgarth (RAF) Armourer (s/n: 552023) – Commemorated at Runnymede

 

RAF Waterbeach – A period of change (Part 3).

In this last part looking at RAF Waterbeach we see how its military career finally came to a close. The jet age was had arrived but would soon pass, the curtain was about to fall on this historic airfield.

Immediately after the war, two new squadrons would take up residence at Waterbeach. During early September 1945 No. 59 Squadron would arrive followed within a few days by No. 220 Squadron, both flying the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Both these squadrons transferred from Coastal Command into the Transport Command and were used to ferry the many troops back and forth from India and the Far East. These operations would continue well into May (59 Sqn) and June (220 Sqn) 1946 whereupon both Squadrons were disbanded. The cessation of the units allowed for crews of the Squadrons to be transferred to a new unit and training on the Avro York aircraft, a model 59 Sqn would then use once reformed in 1947 at Abingdon. No. 220 Sqn would later reform flying the Shackleton, returning once more to Maritime Patrols from Kinloss in Scotland. Neither Squadron would return to Waterbeach, but whilst here, they would carry almost 19,000 troops across the world, a tremendous achievement indeed.

Whilst neither 59 nor 220 Squadrons would return, the Avro York would come to Waterbeach. In the August of 1946, No. 51 Squadron brought the C.1 York from Stradishall, continuing the India flights that both 59 and 220 had performed before her. Initially carrying freight, they the went on to carry passengers before departing themselves to Abingdon in December 1947.

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

The advanced party of 51 Sqn would arrive on the 16th, with the main party arriving on the 20th of August (1946). Flights would occur almost daily for the whole of August, flying to Palam (India) and back. In that month alone the Squadron would fly 1,435 hours of training flights, 355 of which were at night.

With a regular number of aircrew being posted to RAF Bourn amongst other airfields, the turnover of staff would be very high. Specific training was targeted at the long distance flights, many going to Cairo or Singapore, and many flying via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A year later, in mid November 1947, 242 Squadron joined the York group, crews gradually absorbing into 51 Sqn. Shortly after this however, notice came through that 51 Squadron was to move to Abingdon, along with the remnants of three other squadrons (242 included) to form a new long-range unit there.

After their departure, two more transport squadrons moved in to Waterbeach, taking a step backwards in terms of aircraft, both with that Second World War Veteran the  Dakota. No. 18 and 53 Squadrons stayed here, operating flights to and around the Middle East from December 1947 to early September 1948 (18 Sqn) and the end of July 1949 (53 Sqn).

With the Berlin Airlift demanding high levels of aircraft, 18 and 53 Sqns were soon ordered into the affray, and began carrying out flights under operation ‘Plainfare‘. After their withdrawal from the operations, 18 Sqn moved to Oakington for almost a year, during which time No. 24 Squadron moved into Waterbeach momentarily sharing the ramp with 53 Sqn. Yet another York unit, they also flew Avro’s Lancastrians and Dakotas, a role that involved them carry numerous dignitaries such as Field Marshall Lord Montgomery to various destinations around the globe. A short return of 18 Sqn meant that Waterbeach was again particularly busy with transport aircraft, and then for another short two month period it would get even busier.

During the New Year period, 1st December 1949 – 20th February 1950, No 206 Squadron appeared at Waterbeach, also reforming with that old favourite the C-47 Dakota. Using examples such as KN701, it was another squadron who had a long and distinguished history in Maritime patrol, eventually going on to return to this role also from Kinloss in Scotland.

Between the 25th February and the 29th February 1950, both No. 18 and 24 Squadrons departed Waterbeach, 18 Squadron disbanding and 24 Sqn moving to Oakington. During the move, the resident aircraft were disposed of, and the new Vickers Valletta was used in their place.

Quiet then reigned at Waterbeach for about three months. After which time Waterbeach took yet another turn of its page in the history books. With a combined flight of twenty-seven Meteors from both No. 56 and 63 Squadrons the silence was broken and the jet age had arrived. On May 10th 1950, the Meteors became the first major units of the RAF’s front line to be stationed at Waterbeach, two units that would remain here for a number of years operating several variants of the Meteor, Supermarine’s Swift and then the Hawker Hunter.

The initial variants of Meteor F.4 were replaced within two years by the F.8, during which time a number of accidents occurred – some incurring fatalities. Perhaps the worst blow came with the death of the Station Commander Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC when on 27th June 1951 his Meteor F.8 (WA953) rolled after take off crashing into the ground. Sqn. Ldr. Yeates was killed in the resultant crash and is buried in the local cemetery next to the airfield.

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC killed on 27th June 1951.

Sqn. Ldr. Yeates’ death came at the end of a month that had seen four other aircraft damaged in landing accidents. These included two Station Flight Tiger Moths and two other Meteor F.8s, a decidedly bad month for the two squadrons.

A further landing accident brought home the dangers of jet aircraft on November 1st 1951, when Meteor WA940 of 63 Sqn collided with Meteor VZ497 of 56 Sqn after landing. The collision caused a fire in which both F/O. K Jones and Sgt. G Baldwin were both killed. As if through foresight, the personnel of 63 Sqn has noted on their arrival in 1950 that not only was the accommodation sub-standard but the hangarage and aircraft dispersals were insufficient for the needs of two squadrons. Highlighting the problems certainly didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. The terrible conflict of the Second World War may have been over, but casualties at Waterbeach would continue on for some time yet.

The work of 56 Sqn and 63 Sqn was carried out in cooperation with the US forces at nearby RAF Lakenheath, who at that  time were operating Boeing’s B-29 ‘Superfortress’ known for their devastating effect on Japan. These exercises, carried out over the skies of the UK,  were joint Anglo-American fighter affiliation exercises and included not only the B-29s but F-86 ‘Sabres’ as well.

As if history was to repeat itself, the bad weather that had brought disaster upon the bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command on ‘Black Thursday‘ (RAF Bourn) ten years earlier also brought havoc to 56 Sqn on December 16th 1953.

With visibility down to a little as 100 yards on the Tuesday, Wednesday saw some improvements. With flying restricted to four aircraft per flight, it was going to be difficult. The Cathode Ray Direction Finding equipment (C.R.D.F.) was not working and so bearings needed to be obtained by VHF. Whilst the majority of aircraft were able to land using a Ground-Controlled Approach (G.C.A.) ‘A’ flight were not so lucky. Red Section were diverted to Duxford, but failed to achieve a landing. Being too low on fuel to continue on or try for a third time, the two aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet and the pilots, Flt/Lt. G. Hoppitt  and F/O. R. Rimmington ejected. Fuel gauges at the time were reading as little as 20 Gallons. Both aircraft came down near to each other, no damage was caused to public property and both pilots were unhurt. Yellow section, also diverted to Duxford, where they attempted G.C.A. landings also, but unable to do so, the section leader, F/O. N. Weerasinghe suffered a broken neck and fractured skull after he force landed in a field. The fourth pilot, F/O. Martin, broke his back in two places after ejecting at only 700 feet. A court of enquiry ruled that three of the pilots had difficulty in jettisoning their canopies, and F/O. Martin, even though he managed to succeed,  ejected at an all time low-level. It was well into the New Year before  F/O. Weerasinghe regained consciousness, and all four aircraft, WA769, WH510, WA930 and WH283 were written off.  In a light-hearted but perhaps tasteless ‘that’s how its done‘ demonstration, both Flt/Lt. Hoppitt  and F/O. Rimmington jumped off the bar at a Pilot’s party in the Bridge Hotel.*2

Over the next four years a number of other squadrons would arrive and depart Waterbeach. On 18th April 1955 a new night fighter squadron was formed, that of No. 253 Sqn. Operating the DH Venom NF.2A, an aircraft designed around the earlier Vampire, it was a short-lived squadron, disbanding on September 2nd 1957. 253’s reforming would however, see the beginnings of a string of Night Fighter Squadrons being stationed here at Waterbeach.

Almost simultaneously to the disbanding of 253 Sqn, was the arrival of a second Night Fighter squadron, the Meteor NF.14 of 153 Sqn from RAF West Malling absorbing the staff of the now disbanded 253 Sqn. Training crews on Meteors along with being on 24 hour standby, meant that flights were frequent, a regime that continued until July 2nd 1958 when 153 was disbanded being renumbered 25 Sqn. After having a short spell in the turmoil of the Middle East, they then began to prepare to upgrade to Gloster’s Delta wing fighter the Javelin in September. By December only a handful of aircraft had been received, but further training and upgrades saw the FAW.7 replaced by the FAW.9. Work was slow but by late 1959 the squadron was considered operational.  By the October 1961, 25 Sqn was posted north to Scotland and RAF Leuchars, where it received the FAW.7 back before being disbanded once more.

Gloster Javelin FAW.7 of No 25 Squadron RAF Waterbeach, showing its missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. © IWM (RAF-T 2172)

During this time 56 Sqn who had been one of Waterbeach’s longest standing squadrons, departed to RAF Wattisham where it would receive the Lightning, the RAF’s high-speed interceptor that burnt fuel at an incredible rate of knots. No. 56 Sqn had whilst here at Waterbeach, used not only the Meteor but the Supermarine Swift (F.1 and F.2) and the Hunter F.5 and F.6. No. 63 Sqn, who also flew the Hunter F.6 was also disbanded at Waterbeach during this period (October 1958), and the loss of these Hunters would also see the end of the line for 63 Sqn RAF.

The last 5 years would see the last of the RAF’s involvement at Waterbeach. July 17th 1959 saw the arrival of No. 46 Sqn with Javelin FAW.6s. Disbanded in 1961 the nucleus would remain ferrying Javelins to the Far East. The November 1961, would then see two more squadrons arrive; No. 1 on the 7th and No. 54 on the 23rd.

Both these squadrons were Hunter FGA.9 Squadrons, both moving in from RAF Stradishall operating as Ground Attack squadrons. With successive  deployments to the Middle East, they were armed for operational flying patrolling the border along Aden.

By August 1963, both No.1 and No.54 Sqn were moved on, thus ending the RAF’s ‘front line’ flying involvement with Waterbeach. Whilst the military retained Waterbeach as an active airfield, the Royal Engineers as airfield construction and maintenance units used the site to  test numerous runway surfaces and construction methods. Testing of these surfaces used a wide variety of aircraft types, from small jets to large multi-engined aircraft such as the Hercules and BAC 111. A further ten years of intermittent flying activity ensured that the legacy of Waterbeach continued on. With various open days and flying events to raise much need money bringing crowds onto the airfield, Waterbeach’s life was extended yet further, but then in March 2013 the MOD finally pulled out, and the site has since been earmarked for development.

The post war era saw many gate guardians at Waterbeach. Spitfire Mk22 (PK664) was later moved to Binbrook, whilst the Hurricane MKIIc went to Bentley Priory. Another  Spitfire replaced both these examples, Mk XVIe (TE392) which was brought here in 1961 and remained here until 1966. A veteran of 63, 65, 126, 164, 595 and 695 Sqns, it eventually ended up in the United States flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas.

Other guardians include Westland Whirlwind HAR3  (XG577) of the Royal Air Force and a Hawker Hunter (WN904) which flew with 257 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. It was brought in to represent the Hunters, the last aircraft that flew from Waterbeach, and was present here until 2012. It was then moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northampton.

Plans are already in the pipe-line to develop the 293-hectare site along with adjacent fields into a £2.5bn ‘Silicon Valley’ style township, complete with marina facilities and three schools. The barracks site alone will include 6,300 new homes with some original aspects such as the Watch Office utilised in the modern development.

At present the site is empty, entrance strictly controlled and by prior appointment only, the gate guarded by a private security firm. A fabulous museum exists in a managed building just inside the gate and can only be accessed by appointment. Whilst the site is gradually becoming overgrown, it is virtually intact, the main runway, hangars and ancillary buildings are all present. Local farmers store hay on the disused runways and an eerie silence blows across the parade ground.

Some views are possible from certain public advantage points but these are very limited and restrictive. The busy A10 allowing only occasional glimpses to the watch office and hangars, and side roads giving no more than fleeting glimpses through high fences and locked gates.

This once thriving airfield has finally met its match. The enormous hangars that once housed the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, the mighty B-24s of Transport Command and the fast jets of Fighter Command, now shells awaiting their fate. Once one of the RAF’s biggest and most important airfields, Waterbeach will soon been relegated to the history books, buried beneath the conglomeration of houses, schools and small technology businesses that thrive in today’s fast living world. Which buildings survive have yet to be finalised, the future of Waterbeach lays very much in the hands of the developer, and as a historical site of major aviation significance it is hoped that they look upon it sympathy and understanding, something that is often left out when it comes to development.

RAF Waterbeach appears in full in Trail 11 with Mepal and Witchford.

Sources and further reading.

*Aviation Trails – “The Development of Britain’s Airfields“.
*2 AIR 27/2620/1 – The National Archives
AIR 27/789/5 – The National Archives
AIR 27/792 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1977/2 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1978/11 – The National Archives

Grehan, J., & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations 1942-1945“, Pen & Sword. 2014

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

For details of the development of Waterbeach see the Cambridge News Live website, with links to the plans.

RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

RAF Waterbeach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal C. P. Eva

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

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

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

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

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

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