The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

We carry on from Part 2 of Trail 41 for the final Part of RAF Charterhall. An airfield that had become known as ‘Slaughterhall’ it was about to see a new breed of aircraft, perhaps even a turn in luck.

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

The night of May 27th – 28th 1944 was a heavy night for Bomber Command, with large numbers of four engined heavies attacking targets in Germany.  On their return, ten Lancaster bombers were diverted to Charterhall, the first time the four engined bombers would use the airfield, but not the last. On the 8th June, another seven were to arrive, also diverted on their return from the continent. Then in July, a Halifax was diverted here after sustaining heavy flak damage over Helioland. The pilot, P/O W. Stewart of the RCAF and navigator P/O K. Evans (RAF) were both awarded DFCs for their action whilst badly injured, such was the determination to get all the crew and aircraft back safely.

July to October saw an increase in flying and an increase in accidents. July ‘led the way’ with heavy landings, burst tyres, ground collisions and engine failures being common place. The majority of these incidents were Beaufighter MKIIfs, some were visiting or passing aircraft who suffered problems and had to divert. Charterhall saw a mix of Lysanders, Barracuders, Beauforts, Wellingtons and Hurricanes all use Charterhall as a safe haven.

As the threat of attack was now diminishing, a reorganisation of the O.T.Us would see 9 Group disband in September that year. The responsibility of 54 O.T.U (now flying mainly Mosquitoes) and Charterhall would now pass to 12 Group.

Eventually 1944 turned to 1945 and the year that saw for 17 fatal crashes also saw 54 O.T.U. take on more aircraft and more crews.

January 1945 was incredibly harsh in terms of weather and the cold. Training new crews on new radar meant that Wellingtons were brought into Charterhall. Small teams of pupils would take turns to operate the radar to detect Hurricane ‘targets’. These new models increased the air frame numbers at Charterhall to 123 by the end of January.

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

By now the allies were winding their way into Germany, pressure was increased by Bomber Command and so more heavies were to find Charterhall a refuge when the weather closed in. On the 15th February a large ‘Gardening’ operation led to 12 heavies landing at Charterhall along with four Mosquitoes who had been flying with them over Norway. All these aircraft were able to return to their various bases at Skipton-On-Swale, Leeming and Little Snoring the next day.

Two days later, more aircraft were to find Charterhall (and Winfield) needed. Some 266 aircrews – an incredible influx for one night – were going to need bedding – billiard tables, sofas and chairs suddenly became in very short supply.

The poor weather continued well into the year and snow caused some ‘minor’ accidents at Charterhall. The first confirmed death was not until early March and others were to follow. By May the war had come to an end and operations began to wind down. Winfield was closed and crews returned to Charterhall. Beaufighters were gradually sold, scrapped or moved elsewhere, and by August the last aircraft had left.

March would see the last fatalities at Charterhall, both in Mosquitoes on the 25th and 29th. In the former, the aircraft was in a high-speed vertical crash and the latter the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Cole (s/n125484), overshot the runway and crashed his Mosquito FBVI (HR297) a mile south of the airfield. He was 22.

Apart from a small detachment of crews from 770 Squadron Naval Air Branch carrying out trials, operations began slowing down. After VJ day, the Mosquito numbers were also wound down, only fifty-one aircraft remained by the end of August.

In September the order came through to vacate Charterhall and the packing began. By the end of the month 54 O.T.U. had all but vacated leaving Charterhall quiet once more. The last eighty aircraft consisting of: Mosquito VI,  XVII and NF30s, Martinets, an Oxford, Miles Master II, Ansons, Hurricane IICs and Wellington XVIIIs were flown out for the final time, 54 O.T.U. had played its part and their end lay ahead.

In the three years that Charterhall had been in operation, they had passed over 800 crews for night fighter operations, they had suffered over 330 accidents, 56 of which had resulted in deaths. During this time crews had flown just short of 92, 000 hours flying time day and night, with almost a third being carried out at night. Had it not been for this unit, the heavy bombers of Bomber Command may well have suffered even greater losses, the determined and deadly night fighters of the Luftwaffe may have had a much wider and easier reign over our skies and the losses we quote today would be even higher.

But the withdrawal of 54 O.T.U. was not the demise of Charterhall. For a short period it was set up as No 3 Armament Practice Station, designed to support and train fighter pilots in the art of gunnery. During its period here November 1945 – March 1947 it would see a range of aircraft types grace the runways of Charterhall.

The first units were the Spitfire IXB of 130 squadron from December 1st 1945 – January 24th 1946, followed by 165 Squadron’s Spitfire IXE between 30th December and January 24th 1946. On the day these two squadrons moved out, Charterhall entered a new era as the jet engines of Meteor F3s arrived under the command of 263 Squadron. After staying for one month they left, allowing the Mustang IVs of 303 (Polish) Squadron to utilise the airfield. Each of these squadrons followed a course which included air-to-air target practice, ground attack, bombing and dive bombing techniques.

Following the completion of the course 303 pulled out and the order was given to close No. 3 Armament Practice Station and wind Charterhall down for good. The RAF sent no further flying units here and apart from a detachment of Mosquitoes from 772 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, by the following summer, it had closed. The final spin of the airscrew had taken place.

Post war, the airfield was left, the runways and buildings remained intact and the airfield was used by small light aircraft. Gradually though it fell into disrepair, used mainly for agriculture, it had a new lease of life when on Saturday May 31st, 1952, the airfield saw its first motor race using sections of the perimeter track and runways. A two-mile track became the proving ground for a number of the worlds most famous racing drivers including: Sir Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart O.B.E., Roy Salvadori, Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE, Giuseppe “Nino” Farina and local boy Jim Clark O.B.E. Clark cut his racing teeth at Charterhall, eventually winning 25 Grand Prix races and the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. His grave lies in nearby Chirnside cemetery alongside his mother and father. Charterhall also saw the appearance of Scotland’s first organised sports car team, ‘Ecurie Ecosse’, using Jaguar cars*4. Racing occurred here until 1969, when the current owners took over the site.

The RAF then returned briefly in late 1976 undertaking trials of the Rapier ground-to-air missile system, in which a range of fast jets including Jaguars and Phantoms would participate. These lasted a month which would see the last and final RAF involvement end.

The owners reinvigorated the site providing a venue for rally sport events which started again in 1986. Eventually on March 30th, 2013, the last ever race was run and motor sport stopped for good and so another era finally came to a close.*5

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

Today a section at the western end of the main runway is still available for use by light aircraft (with prior permission) and the main technical area is home to the Co-op Grain store, a facility which has a number of large stores for drying and storage of grain.

Accessing the site is from the B6460 where a memorial stands to the crews who passed through Charterhall and in particular Flight Lieutenant Hillary and Flight Sgt. Fison, who died in such tragic circumstances. A track leads all the way to the airfield site, which was the main entrance to the airfield. A good quantity of buildings still stand here on the technical site along with two of the original hangars. All of these are used for storage or stabling of animals including horses and are rather rundown. The perimeter track and runways are complete but their surfaces are breaking up and in a poor state of repair.

These buildings are a remarkable and poignant reminder of the tragic but significant years that Charterhall prepared and developed crews for the night fighter squadrons of the RAF. Hundreds passed through here, for many it was a difficult twelve weeks, for some it ended abruptly and decisively. Not known for its comforts, it was a pivotal station in the Second World War and indeed also for many years after for the those who went on to become some of the world’s most famous motor racing drivers.

Many airmen came and stayed, sixteen of them who were killed on active service whilst at Charterhall are buried in the nearby cemetery at Fogo, a short distance to the north of the airfield. Many are from around the commonwealth who came here to help and were never to return.

After leaving Charterhall, we head a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

Sources and further reading

*4 Obituary of Bill Dobson: ‘Ecurie Ecosse’ racing driver in ‘The Scotsman‘ newspaper 21st October 2008.

*5 A news report of the event can be read on ‘The Berwickshire News‘ Newspaper, 28th March 2013.

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Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent VC – RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold was a small airfield that was never intended to be a major player in the Second World War, yet it would see some remarkable achievements performed by the people who were stationed there.

Once such notable person was Squadron Leader Leonard Trent V.C., who, on 3rd May 1943, took a squadron of Lockheed Venturas on a ‘Ramrod’ Mission to attack an electricity power station on the northern side of Amsterdam.

As part of a larger attack, it would not be a mission central to Bomber Command’s overall bombing strategy, but more a mission of support and encouragement to the resistance fighters bravely fighting in occupied Holland.

Trent (N.Z.248i), born in Nelson, New Zealand on 14th April 1915, achieved his wings with the RNZAF in Christchurch in May 1938, a month before sailing to England and a role with the Royal Air Force.

At the outbreak of war he was sent with No. 15 Squadron flying Fairy Battles, to France to carry out photo-reconnaissance sorties over occupied territory. The squadron then moved back to England (RAF Wyton) and changed their Fairy Battles for Bristol Blenheim IVs.

After carrying out a number of low-level attacks, he was awarded a DFC for his part in the air war over Belgium, after which he became a flying instructor for RAF crews.

Wing Commander G J “Chopper” Grindell (centre), Commanding Officer of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF, with his two flight commanders in front of a Lockheed Ventura at Methwold, Norfolk. On his left is the ‘A’ Flight commander, Squadron Leader T Turnbull, and on his right is the commander of ‘B’ Flight, Squadron Leader L H Trent. (IWM)*1

In 1942 he returned to operational duties as a newly promoted Squadron Leader taking command of B Flight, 487 (NZ) Squadron at Feltwell. At the time 487 were part of No. 2 Group and were in the process of replacing their Blenheims with Venturas. The squadron moved from Feltwell to Methwold in early April 1943. Little did they know that only a month later, the Squadron’s Operations Record Book would read: “This is a very black day in the Squadron history…a better set of boys could not be met in 30 years. Everybody is still feeling dazed by the news.”

As an experienced pilot Trent would fly several low-level missions over the low countries, using an aircraft that was originally designed around a small passenger aircraft back in the United States. Whilst having powerful engines, Venturas suffered from poor manoeuvrability and a heavy air frame, these two failings combined with its rather ‘fat’ appearance, earned it the name “flying pig”.

Loses in Ventura operations would be high, and this was reflected nowhere else than on the very mission that Trent would fly on May 3rd 1943.

On that day fourteen Venturas of 487 Sqn were detailed to attack a target in Amsterdam, however only twelve aircraft actually took off, all at 16:43 from RAF Methwold. These aircraft were all part of a much wider operation, one that would involve an escort of nine RAF fighter squadrons. Timing was therefore crucial, as was low-level flying and maintaining the element of surprise. Within five minutes of their departure though, ‘EG-Q’ piloted by Sgt. A. Baker, would return after losing the crew escape hatch. This left eleven aircraft to carry on to the target.

A diversionary attack carried out by aircraft of 12 Group flying ahead of the main formation flew in too high, too soon, thus losing the surprise and alerting the defenders of the impending attack. Caught out by low fuel, many of the escorting fighters had to then leave thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the defensive escorting force. The Luftwaffe, now ready and waiting, had scrambled numerous fighters, a deadly cocktail of FW-190s and Bf-109s. The squadron record book reports an estimated “80+ ” enemy aircraft in the locality of the attacking Venturas.

From this point on things went very badly for 487 Sqn.

As they crossed the Dutch coast Ventura ‘AJ478’ (EG-A) was attacked and shot down by Luftwaffe fighters. Ditching in the sea the crew took to a life raft where Sgt. T Warner, injured in the attack, died of his injuries. Committing his body to the sea the remaining three would be captured and become prisoners of war. Warner’s body would wash up two days later on a Dutch beach and be buried in the small town of Bergen op Zoom – all four were from New Zealand.

A second aircraft, ‘AE916’ (EG-C) was also very badly shot up by the pouncing fighters. However, it managed to return to England landing at their former base RAF Feltwell. The pilot and navigator were both unhurt, but the wireless operator and air gunner were both badly wounded, and were immediately taken directly the RAF hospital at Ely, Cambridgeshire. The aircraft was so badly damaged in the attack that it was written off. For their actions the pilot (F/Lt. Duffill) and navigator (F.O. Starkie) were both awarded the DFC, whilst the wireless operator (Sgt. Turnbull) and gunner (Sgt. Neill) the DFM.  Dufill later went on to become the managing director of Humbrol paints, a company renowned for its paint and modelling supplies.

Pressing on to the target, the casualties got worse and the loss rate increased.

Firstly, Ventura ‘AE684’ (EG-B) was shot down at 17:45 near Bennebroek with the loss of two; at the same time ‘AE731’ (EG-O) was shot down  just north of Vijfhuizen, three crewmen were captured but the fourth, Sgt. Tatam, died. Five minutes later at 17:50, ‘AE780’ (EG-S) was lost, with only one crew member surviving – the aircraft crashing into the suburbs of Amsterdam. Within three more minutes, a fourth aircraft of this group would go down; ‘AE713’ (EG-T) was hit, also causing it to crash in the northern suburbs of Amsterdam, this time killing all on board. By 18:00 there were only two of the eleven aircraft left, ‘AJ209’ (EG-V) flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, and ‘AE716’ (EG-U) flown by F.O. T. Baynton.

Baynton’s aircraft, ‘EG-U’, would then be shot down by fighters causing it to crash in the outskirts of Amsterdam, also killing all four on board. Squadron Leader Trent, seeing all around him fall from the sky, pressed on. Flying toward the target he dropped his bombs and then turned away. Trent bravely and coolly defended his aircraft, shooting down a Bf-109 with his forward facing guns. Shortly after, he too was hit, the aircraft badly damaged, spiralled earthward uncontrollably, breaking up as it did so, throwing both Trent and his navigator F.L. V. Philips, out of the falling wreckage.

Both Trent and Philips were later captured and taken prisoner, the other two crew members; F.O. R. Thomas and Sgt. G. Trenery, both lost their lives in the crash.

One further aircraft, ‘AJ200’ (EG-G) piloted by New Zealander Sgt. J Sharp was thought to crash 3 km west of Schiphol, with only Sharp surviving; whilst the remaining two unaccounted aircraft, ‘AE956’ (EG-H) and ‘AE 798’ (EG-D), were lost over the sea on the way to the target. All eight crewmen were presumed killed, two of them being washed up several days later on the Dutch coast. The remainder were never heard from again.

In the space of only a few minutes, eleven aircraft had been attacked and ten shot down with the loss of 28 young RAF lives.

operations-record-page

The Operations Record Book for May 3rd 1943, shows the depth of feeling felt by the crews at Methwold following the disastrous mission. (Crown Copyright*2)

Trent spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. Only on his eventual return to England did the full and disastrous story of what had happened come out. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses. The London Gazette published his citation on Friday 1st March 1946, in the Third Supplement which said:

“Before taking off, Squadron Leader Trent told the deputy leader that he was going over the target, whatever ‘happened…”

It later went on to say…

“On this, his 24th sortie, Squadron Leader Trent showed outstanding leadership. Such was the trust placed in this gallant officer that the other pilots followed him unwaveringly. His cool, unflinching courage and devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds, rank with the finest examples of these virtues.” *3

A determined attack, it was flawed from the moment the preceding force were spotted. The Venturas, woefully inadequate and unprotected, were literary cut down from the sky. Fighters escorting the Venturas confirmed seeing seven parachutes from the aircraft, but the scale of the loss was a blow so devastating, it left only six operational crews in the entire squadron.

For many days after, the Operational Record Books indicated “no news of the boys“, and as new crews and aircraft arrived, prayers for their return faded, but hopes for a return to operational status rose. Following a number of training flights, the next operational mission would finally take place on May 23rd, a mission that was a total success, and one that must have boosted the morale of the squadron immensely.

This mission was a disaster for the Royal Air Force and for Methwold in particular. The loss of life dealt a huge blow to the community both on, and around the base. In memory of these gallant young men, many of whom were never found, their names are inscribed on the Runnymede memorial, whilst those whose bodies were recovered, remain scattered in various graves across the Dutch countryside.

May their memories live for evermore.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo source The Imperial War Museum Collections

*2 AIR\27\1935\13

*3  The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37486. p. 1179. 26 February 1946. Retrieved 29th January 2017

AIR\27\1935\13 – Operational Records Book (summary), The National Archives

AIR\27\1935\14 – Operational Records Book (work carried out), The National Archives

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses, 1943, Midland Counties, 1996

RAF Methwold – unassumingly famous.

The East Anglia countryside is littered with remnants of the Second World War. The massive build up that occurred here in the mid 1940s has led to changes in both landscape and culture, the ‘friendly invasion’ as it has become fondly known, had a huge impact on the towns and villages around here. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found.

Whilst on the eighth Trail of aviation sites, we stop at the former site that was RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

Methwold village sign

Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.

Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.

On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.

On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.

Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.

In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

The Intelligence Room of No. 140 Wing, No. 2 Group, at Methwold, Norfolk. © IWM (HU 81315)

Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.

Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitos, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.

The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.

Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.

DSC_0029

One of the original hangers

The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.

On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.

In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.

Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.

The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.

In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.

The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.

During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385  ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.

In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.

As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.

The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.

In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.

RAF Methwold

Stores huts used for light industry

Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.

Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.

Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.

RAF Methwold

One of the former runways looking north-west.

Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.

Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.

Notes and further reading:

Methwold appears in Trail 8 and was originally visited in April 2013.

Local information and further detail is available from the local Methwold history group. 

Aircrews struck at the Very Heart of the Gestapo

In this trail we head to the south once more, to the west of Harlow and to two wartime airfields, one of which played a major part in striking a blow at the very heart of the Nazi regime.

Hertfordshire is an area rich in commuters to both London and the technological towns of Harlow and Bishops Stortford. Being north of London, it is also close to Stansted airport, another ex World War 2 airfield.

It has some beautiful countryside, delightful little villages and quaint country pubs. It is also an area with a wealth of history.

Our first stop is a small airfield nestled in the heart of the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside behind the village that gives it its name, RAF Hunsdon.

RAF Hunsdon

May 2015 081

The Hunsdon Village sign reflects its history and links to the RAF.

RAF Hunsdon was built between October 1940 and March 1941, it was a constructed with two concrete runways, one N/S initially of 1,250 (extended to 1,450 yds) and the main E/W of 1,450 yds (also extended by a further 300 yds). Aircraft dispersals amounted to 18 hardstands, 16 Blister hangars around the perimeter, a Bellman Hangar, fuel dump and accommodation for up to 440 airmen and about 270 WAAFs, in 8 dispersed sites.

Hunsdon is within a stones throw of London and its main role was that of night fighter operations. A number of operational units (in excess of 25) would pass though it doors during it relatively short life, including: 3, 21, 29, 85, 151, 154, 157, 264, 287, 409 (RCAF), 410 (RCAF), 418 (RCAF), 442, (RCAF), 464 (RAAF), 487 (RNZAF), 488 (RNZAF), 501, 515, 530 (initially 1451 Turbinlite flight), and 611sqn, providing Hunsdon with a multinational mixture of crews.

The first unit to arrive was that of 85 sqn with Douglas Havocs IIs, followed by Mosquitos II, XV and XIIs; other models to be seen at Hunsdon included: Hurricanes, Defiants, Beaufighters, and the Mustang to name but a few. 85 Squadron, which went on to a long and distinguished career, staying for two years from May 1941 to May 1943 before moving to West Malling where it continued its night fighter role. 85 sqn was eventually disbanded in 1990/91.

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The Parachute store now holds farm machinery.

The first DH Mosquito, for which Hunsdon is most commonly known, arrived in 1943 with Mosquito VIs. Around this point, the Air Ministry decided to form a new wing designated 140 Wing RAF. This wing would consist of 21 Squadron (RAF), 464 squadron (RAAF) and 487 squadron (RNZAF) all based at Hunsdon and would be part of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) designed to support troops in the forthcoming invasion.

Between 1944 and 1945 140 Wing would carry out a number of daring low-level bombing raids against key Gestapo buildings and prisons in occupied Europe. These famous raids were designed to free captive resistance fighters and destroy important Gestapo documents. Operation Carthage took place in Denmark and occurred whilst the wing was based at RAF Fersfield in 1945, but the first, Operation Jericho, was whilst they were based at Hunsdon in early 1944.

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Pill boxes of various types, line the perimeter of the airfield.

On February 18th that year, 19 Mosquitos including a photo reconnoissance model, led by Group Captain Percy C. Pickard (DSO and two bars, DFC), took off to attack, breech or destroy the walls and main building of the Amiens prison*1. A famously brave act, it resulted in the death of 3 crew members; G.Capt. Percy C. Pickard, and F. Lt. John A. Broadley, (RNZAF), both in Mosquito HX922, ‘EG-F’;  and F. Lt. Richard W. Samson, (RNZAF) in Mosquito MM404, ‘SB-T’. Samson’s pilot, S. Ldr. A. I. McRitchie survived his crash and was taken as a prisoner of war. Two Typhoons escorting the Mosquitos also failed to return home. Considered a success at the time, evidence has since come to light to suggest that the operation was ‘unnecessary’ and may have failed to achieve anything more than a successful PR role.

A further significant role that Hunsdon was to take part in, was that of the Turbinlite Trials. These were relatively unsuccessful as aircraft operations, and were soon withdrawn as better radar equipped fighters were produced. The idea behind Turbinlite was to adapt an aircraft, initially the Havoc II, or Boston III with the fitting of a large 2,700 million candle searchlight to the front of the aircraft. These would then fly at night, locate enemy bombers whereupon escorting fighters would shoot them down. Several adaptations attempted to improve the ‘kill’ rate but to no avail. At Hunsdon, this unique method of fighter interception was carried out by 530 Sqn (initially 1451 Flight), who were formed on 8th September 1942. As one of ten Turbinlite squadrons,  they did not last and were disbanded only four months later on 25th January 1943.

As the war progressed and the end was in sight, Hunsdon’s role changed to that of long-range fighter escort, all be it for a brief period. P-51 Mustangs would operate escorting bombers deep into enemy territory before the conflict finally ceased in 1945.

Hunsdon then closed to operational activity very quickly, being used to receive returning men and materials up until mid 1946 whereupon it was placed into Care and Maintenance and quickly ran down. The tower was demolished very soon after the war ended, and the site was returned to agriculture. In total, Hunsdon’s crews accounted for over 220 enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged – a remarkable feat in any squadron’s chapter.

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Remnants of the main runway looking West.

Today Hunsdon remains one of the more accessible airfields of Britain. A number of public footpaths criss-cross its boundaries allowing unprecedented access to it. It is still an active site, a small microlight operation exists here and has done since 1997. Using three small grass runways it has brought life, in albeit a small part, back to this old wartime airfield.

The perimeter track and narrow sections of all its runways still exist today and can be walked using a variety of footpaths. Along these paths and off to the sides can still be seen examples of runway lighting, drainage, inspection covers and even a small number of buildings.

The parachute store is one of the most notable of these, used by the farmer for storage, it is located at the north-western side of the airfield near to the former admins site and where the tower would have stood before being torn down. Also near here is the fire tender shed, now home to the local shooting club, a number of latrines \ wash blocks can also be found hidden amongst the trees to the south-east. The battle headquarters rests nestled amongst the crops still watching over the site, and small defence trenches and shelters can be found to the north and again these are visible from public footpaths. A number of airfield defences buildings in the form of pill boxes and an Oakington style pillbox can also be found around the site.

Many of these examples are buried amongst the undergrowth and are most easily seen in winter when the thorns and vegetation are at their lowest. Careful searching will also reveal a number of minor archeological examples but again best in the winter when crops and weeds are minimal.

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An air-raid shelter no longer covered with soil.

To the northern side of the airfield, next to where the microlight site is based, is a memorial to the crews of all nationalities who were based here all those years ago. Formed from a propeller boss of a Mosquito, it was donated to by the former Mosquito Museum (now de Havilland Aircraft Museum – Trail 5), it stands proud looking down what was the length of the secondary runway. A further memorial plaque can also be found on the wall of the village hall.

Hunsdon is a small site with a big history. It played a large part in trials of new innovations, carried out night intruder missions, and attacked with daring at low-level, at the very heart of the Gestapo. Hunsdon and its crews proudly earned their place in the annals of world history.

After walking Hunsdon we travel the short distance to the north-east to the outskirts of Bishop Stortford and a little known about airfield that is all but gone. We go to RAF Sawbridgeworth.

*1 – There is some debate as to the validity of the Amiens raid, one of the French Resistance fighters has now revealed his doubts, and that it may have been some propaganda or diversionary attack. A book has been written by author Simon Parry and historian Dr Jean-Pierre Ducellier entitled The Amiens Raid – Secrets Revealed‘ and is published by Red Kite.

RAF Langham – A revolution on the very tip of Norfolk.

This airfield concludes our four-part tour around Norfolk. It visits a large airfield that played a revolutionary part in the Second World War. So revolutionary, that it paved the way for air defence well beyond the Second World War. We go to the very edge of North Norfolk, to an area of sanctuary, mud flats and a bird watchers paradise. A place where the sound of the Lark has replaced the roar of the piston engine.

RAF Langham

RAF Langham is located at the tip of North Norfolk’s coast. Its location perfect for the role it was to operate.

Built as a satellite to Bircham Newton, it opened in 1940, with three grass runways, and would take aircraft from a number of nearby airfields. Not having any official resident units until 1941, when the Polish and Czech units of 300 and 311 squadrons used it as a forward operating base, it saw little operational action. Langham was initially used as a gunnery training airfield, towing targets for gunnery practice at nearby Stiffkey, a few miles to the north. This is perhaps Langham’s most famous role and the one that many people associate with Langham.

Langham airfield display board

Langham Airfield (photo of the display board at Langham Dome).

Then in November 1942 Langham was closed and redeveloped having concrete runways laid and around 35 looped style dispersals. The longest runway, (NE/SW) was of 1,988 yards, the second (N/S) 1,400 yards and the third (E/W) also of about 1,400 yards, all approximate. The accommodation sites were well away from the airfield many in and around the village of Langham itself to the east or south-east. Three T2 hangars were also erected, one to the north-west and two the south-east in the technical area. There were also various technical and administration blocks and a bomb storage area well away to the north of the site.

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Langham’s Watch Office.

The first operational units arrived in April 1944, with Beaufighters of 455 (Australian) and 489 (New Zealand) squadrons of the Beaufighter Strike Wing, on the 8th and 13th respectively. This wing would famously form a combined attack against enemy shipping in the North Sea, being responsible for the sinking of 4 ‘U’ Boats and 36 surface vessels whilst here. A combination of nose mounted cannons and underwing rockets proved a deadly adversary for the flak ships and merchant vessels of the German Navy.

In August that year, the 521st Squadron moved from their base at RAF Docking to Langham to carry out its role of meteorological reconnaissance. Operating with Lockheed Hudsons, they would soon be ‘upgraded’ to Boeing’s massive B-17 adapted for these special duties. Other coastal command roles such as air-sea rescue were also carried out from Langham and a range of aircraft types would operate from here for the duration.

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A collection of technical buildings still exist today.

Post war Langham was used by the Royal Netherlands Air Force as a Technical Training School, until June 1947 when it was vacated and then finally put into care and maintenance in the following September. For a short period between March 1953 and November 1958, it became a target towing site once more, pulling targets for No. 2 Civilian Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Unit and finally as if to defy the odds, it was used as an emergency landing ground for aircraft from nearby RAF Sculthorpe.

As with many of these Norfolk sites, Langham was eventually sold off, bought by Bernard Matthews becoming home to a number of turkey Sheds, the role it performs to this day.

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Like so many in Norfolk, Langham’s main runway now houses poultry.

The majority of the concrete layout of Langham remains today, utilised by the company for transportation and storage. The technical sites and accommodation sites virtually indistinguishable from the farmland it once occupied. A small collection of buildings can be seen from the public road including: the watch tower, Fire tender shed, a Floodlight trailer, tractor shed,  a Night flying equipment store and a small brick hut used for weather balloons. To the north-east, on the brow of the hill sits the restored battle headquarters. But certainly the most famous and most distinguishable building of this site, is the former gunnery trainer dome.

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The ‘famous’ Langham Dome – former Gunnery Trainer.

Refurbished through Lottery Money, the dome is now classed as an ancient monument and a museum run by the Trust and Friends of the Langham Dome. Much has been written about the dome and recently (May 17th 2015) the BBC ran a programme about its development and history which is available on BBC iplayer for a short period. Only a small number of these structures exist today, none of which are accessible, which is what makes the Langham dome so special and unique. Developed in conjunction with Kodak, it projected a film of an aircraft onto the dome wall, to simulate an attack, at which the gunner would ‘fire’ his gun. The trainer would measure the trainees accuracy using a dot to the front of the aircraft visible only to himself. A remarkable breakthrough in gunnery training, it led the way in anti-aircraft training for a good number of years even after the war.

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A plaque from Veterans of the Royal Netherlands Airforce in the Church at Langham.

Langham is one of Norfolk’s most Northerly airfields, it provided a safe haven for returning aircraft, and its residents conducted air-sea rescue missions, sank a number of ships and played a role in meteorological reconnaissance and anti-aircraft training. A mixed bag, but certainly an important one, the memory of Langham should continue and thrive for without it, there would certainly have been many more casualties in the Second World War.

References

A website dedicated to the Dome and life at RAF Langham can be found here. It includes a range of photographs and first hand accounts of what it was like to live on or near the airfield.

The BBC iplayer programme may only available in the UK and for a short period of time. You can find it here.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: …

Originally posted on the anniversary of the publication of his poem, For the Fallen, 21st September 2014, Laurence Binyon’s poem has become synonymous with remembrance services across the country. This week is remembrance Weekend (and Veteran’s day in the United States) on which we remember the fallen: those who gave the greatest sacrifice, so we could live in peace.

I thought it appropriate to repost this during Thai special week so we know a little more about the poem and the history behind it.

‘Lest we forget’

“To all those who went before, (Robert) Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem is widely used in remembrance services across the world. Laurence Binyon wrote his For the Fallen, with its Ode of Remembrance, while Binyon was visiting the cliffs of North Cornwall between Pentire Point and The Rumps.

Today, if you visit, there is a stone plaque at the spot to commemorate his poem, which reads: For the Fallen Composed on these cliffs 1914″. There is also a second plaque located on the beehive monument on the East Cliff above Portreath in central North Cornwall. There, you will find a plaque on a statue inscribed with the same words. Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the Fallen, was published in The Times newspaper, following heightened public sentiment due to the recent Battle of Marne (5-12 September 1914) on 21st September 1914, 100 years ago today. http://wp.me/P4xjD9-8u

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

(Published in The Times newspaper, 21st September 1914).

Thanks to Marcella who contributed to the writing of the original post.”

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 For the Fallen – Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

Trail 8 – RAF Methwold, Desert Rats Memorial and RAF Bodney

Trail 8 is the first part of a three-day trail around Swaffham.

We take in RAF Methwold built close to Thetford Forest, home to New Zealand and Australian crews. It was also used prior to D-Day for the storage of Horsa gliders.

We visit the memorial to the Desert Rats whilst they undertook preparation for D-Day, the only time they were stationed in the UK. Then we move to RAF Bodney (USAAF Station 141), home to the ‘Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney’ of the USAAF, who had a reputation as fierce as their title. Read more…

Bodney's water tower

Bodney’s water tower