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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His citation reads:

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

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

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

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

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

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

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

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

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

A very Happy Christmas!

As the year draws to a close, I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to all those of you who have followed, read, commented and shared a common interest with me here at Aviation Trails. It has truly been a challenging year but with determination we will no doubt get through these difficult times and on to better ones in the months ahead.

Since starting, I have now written over 60 trails, the number of airfields I have now visited has increased to over 120 stretching from Scotland’s north west coast to Kent in the south, from the eastern regions of England to the west; a huge area but one in which there are still many, many more airfields and sites yet to visit.

As 2021 approaches I would like to take the opportunity to wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a very happy and safe Christmas and both a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Merry Christmas one and all!

IMG_1716

Christmas menu 324 Wing Deversoir

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands (Part 2)

After Part 1  of Trail 59, we return to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere, to see how the Second World War affected the tranquil waters of the Lake district. In particular, we go to White Cross Bay, where that majestic aircraft the Short Sunderland made its dramatic appearance.

Windermere White Cross Bay.

In the intermediate war years Windermere remained as it was, tranquil and aviation free, but once war broke out things would change.

With increased bombing of Britain and in particular the growing threat to aircraft production in southern England, the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) began studies into creating new factories in safer areas away from Kent and the south. Short Brothers at Rochester was one such organisation identified for expansion. Primarily home of the Stirling bomber and located not far from London, it was a high risk location, and it was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe’s bombers. In response to the need for expansion and relocation, the ministry turned their attention to Windermere, ordering an immediate feasibility study*4 into the move.

With just three Sunderland Squadrons at the outbreak of war, the defence of shipping and anti-submarine patrols needed a major boost. Production of Sunderlands, Short’s long range Flying boat, had to be increased, and so it was decided, that a new factory independent from Rochester,  would be constructed at Windermere. At 75,000 sq ft, it was to be the largest single span hangar in the country, and it would be at a huge cost too.

As had happened before at Windermere, local objections became a major issue. The thought of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape succumbing to both an aircraft factory and housing  for some 1,200 workers, would not be without its consequences. Other suitable sites were given due consideration too, but with Rochester coming under attack from German bombers, the Government were pushed into making a decision and quickly. On 16th December 1940, it was confirmed, and the go ahead to build at Windermere was given, albeit with some concessions. It was agreed between the Government of the time and the local population, that the factory and all its associated buildings, would be removed once the war was over and the site was no longer needed. A concession that sadly led to virtually nothing of this remarkable venture remaining visible today.

Over the next two years, building work progressed, jigs were brought in and new specialist tools were ordered. There were in essence, two main buildings for the production process, the factory where the various parts were made, and an assembly hangar where the aircraft were fabricated. A third area located at Troutbeck Bridge (subsequently referred to as Calgarth), consisted of a range of accommodation blocks and associated buildings, it was in fact, an entirely new ‘village’.

Known as the Calgarth Estate, it would have everything from two shops to a primary school, a laundry to a football team, it even had its own Policeman! The estate was set out in a semi-circular design, with rows of houses around the outside. The canteen, assembly hall and school were all located withing the centre of the site next to a large and open recreation ground.

Building a flying boat is probably more like building a boat than an aeroplane – rather than fixing stringers over bulkheads allowing the aircraft to be built in sections and pieced together, the Sunderland was built from the keel upwards.

The Sunderland (a pure flying boat) was a massive aircraft, 112 ft in span, 85 feet in length and standing 32 feet high (to the top of the fin), it could fly for some 13 hours with a range of 1,700 miles. With a crew of up to 15, it was an ideal sub-hunter and long range maritime escort. Its hull was a single step hull, with two decks; the upper for the flying crew, and the lower a storage area for bombs and depth charges. Being such a large hull, it also had a wardroom, galley, cooking and washing facilities.

ML824 Sunderland Flying Boat

ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon. Depth charges/bombs were extended out onto the wings from inside the fuselage.

By April 1942 the first hulls had begun to be assembled. Even the enormous hull of the Sunderland was dwarfed by the size of the hangar. The first RAF allocated aircraft, DP176 began construction in April. The jigs were cemented into the ground and the construction process began with six keels being formed. A skeletal fuselage was built up, and then treated aluminium panels (Dural) were added using rivets.

Even though the site at Windermere was huge, the wings, like the engines, were pre-built and delivered to Windermere for adding to the hulls. Space inside the wing was tight, the only way to access internal wing parts (control rods for example) was to crawl inside the wing and work in the very confined space between the two surfaces. Many workers, proud of what they had achieved, left their names inside the wing using a pen.

Each Sunderland built at Windermere (all MK.IIIs) was ‘hand made’, panels bent and riveted, most by hand rather than machine, so that each one was unique. Operating on water, each aircraft had to be water tight, this being tested from the inside under pressure, and any that were not, were stripped down and rebuilt. It was extremely noisy work, mainly using a non-skilled workforce recruited primarily from the local area. As skilled labour was in very short supply, and Short Bros. at Rochester couldn’t afford to let their skilled work force go (many were working on the RAF’s heavy bomber the Stirling) women and youths were drafted in (as part of the Governments recruitment plans) to fill those spaces left by the men who had joined up.

This meant extensive training programmes had to be delivered, and it became a frustrating time for those employed at the site. But, over time, things settled down and production got into full swing, the workers united and a ‘family’ was formed.

Once complete, the aircraft was rolled out using a special tail-trolley with beaching wheels attached to the fuselage sides beneath the wings. As a pure flying boat, the Sunderland could not easily move under its own power whilst on land, but had to be towed by a small tractor. Once in the water, it cold move using its engines and rudder,  but having no water rudder meant it was difficult to manoeuvre. To help, two drogues were used, located either side of the fuselage and passed through the galley windows. These 3 foot wide drogues could catch huge amounts of water, pulling a large cable and a man’s hand with it – if care wasn’t taken. Each man would throw one of the drogues out of the open window and drag it through the water to turn the aircraft, rather like how a canoeist does today. These methods, whilst primitive, were effective.

Once out of the hangar, the aircraft were lowered into the water, and the beaching gear was removed. The aeroplane was then towed, by boat, out onto the Mere where they were moored to buoys. To assist with this, the front turret could be withdrawn into the hull and a crew man would lean out and grab the mooring rope using a hook. Moving the aircraft into and out of the water was a tricky job indeed, and required great skill so as to not damage the hull of the aircraft through grounding.

RAF Museum Hendon

Sunderland ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon showing the front turret withdrawn to enable mooring. Notice also the maintenance panel in the wing, lowered to allow maintenance whilst moored. My father would fasten cork to his tools in case he dropped them into the water.

On September 10th 1942, the first aircraft, DP176, finally left the hangar ready for engine runs and its first flying test. Lashed down to the slipway, the four Bristol Pegasus XXII air-cooled radial engines were started up and ran. After a successful test, the test pilot John Lankaster-Parker, took the aircraft onto the water where it was moored ready for further tests, and its first flight the following day.

The next day, 11th September 1942, the workforce were given the day off to witness their first Sunderland’s flight. As Short Brother’s own test pilot John Lankester-Parker  (who also flew the first Stirling) climbed aboard with a selection of technicians, a large crowd gathered outside the factory. The buzz of seeing the first Windermere Sunderland, was met with cheering and clapping as it gradually rose in to the air. After twenty minutes, Parker returned to the water and all was reported to be well. After further flying tests, DP176 was passed to RAF control, and taken away to have its electronics fitted before commencing operational flying duties with the RAF.

Dad's Photos

A post war picture of a Sunderland launching (photo my father) either Wig Bay or Stranraer. Does anyone know what U.I.D might mean?

The ‘Flying Porcupine’ as the Sunderland was known, became the backbone of Coastal Command operations, a sturdy reliable aircraft it was used as a model for the RAF’s Stirling bomber (less successfully) and went on to be the basis for the Short Shetland, a flying boat that dwarfed even the Sunderland.

In January 1944, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps*5, now the Minister of Aircraft Production (after Churchill had removed him from the War Cabinet for criticising his policies on war) visited Windermere to see the site and meet with the management team. The visit, unbeknown to those at Windermere, had an ulterior motive and in his meeting with the managers he announced that all production at the site was to stop with the last few fuselage frames in the factory being the last. It was a devastating blow for the workforce, but it was not however, the end of Windermere. As part of the change, the factory was to be retained and utilised as a Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) repairing and updating older Sunderlands rather than building new ones.

The job of repairing the aircraft brought home to the workers just how bad things could be. Worn out, damaged and battered aircraft flew into Windermere to be repaired and returned to service. In some cases, women were not allowed entry into the aircraft until the blood and human remains had been removed, such was war. Some aircraft came only to be scrapped, taken apart by the axe, any usable parts were saved and reused on other less worn models.

A number of these damaged aircraft passed through Windermere, many due to action with the enemy, but some due to accidents. Those that were repairable were hauled into the factory on the beaching gear, stripped and repaired. Some were converted into MK.Vs, having new engines fitted with feathering propellers – over heating engines had been an issue on some long flights.

The CRO carried out repairs on Sunderlands, until the war’s end. In 1945 a new direction was taken and upgrading work took over as the main task for the workers. MK.IIIs were brought in, stripped and upgraded to MK.Vs. New Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines were installed, the dorsal turret was removed, and two gun mounts were added to the insides of the fuselage behind the wings. In addition, to extend longevity all of the control cables were replaced.

RAF Museum Hendon

Inside the Sunderland looking forward. The two brackets either side are the gun mounts of the MK.V, the turret having been removed and replaced.

The Sunderland gained the nickname ‘Flying Porcupine’ (Fliegendes Stachelschwein), generally thought so because of its extensive array of aerials. Alternatively, it gained its name from the Germans who fell foul of its powered gun turrets. It is also thought however, and more likely, that this naming was more to do with British propaganda than anything else, as the name appeared in print before any real skirmishes had occurred between RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Coastal Command had only thirty-four Sunderlands on their books, but by the end almost 750 had been built, the majority being MK.IIIs, serving well into 1959. There were four military marks built: MK.I, MK.II, MKIII. and MK.V. The MK.IV being an upgrade of the MK.III with heavier guns: (.50 inch machine guns and 20mm Hispano Canons); a larger tail; longer fuselage and bigger, stronger wings. It also had in addition, more powerful Bristol Hercules engines. It was then considered an entirely new aircraft, and so received the designation S.45 ‘Seaford’. Only 8 examples were ever completed, all of which arrived too late to see combat duties. None of those constructed making it beyond trials with the Royal Air Force.

The last Windermere Sunderland worked on, ML877, arrived from 228 Sqn on April 4th 1945, along with NJ171 to collect and return the crew. The aircraft was upgraded to MK.V standard after which it was taken away and returned to operational duties.

Dad's Photos

The last Sunderland ML877 taken at Pembroke Dock (from my fathers photo album).

With that, Windermere’s aviation history closed. By the time production had ceased, Windermere had produced thirty-five aircraft equipping seventeen front line RAF Squadrons, along with Maintenance Units (MU) and Operational Training Units (OTU). Their service stretched as far as West Africa, Hong Kong and of course bases around the shores of the UK. One of the biggest ‘users’ was 57 MU / 1 FBSU (Flying Boat Service Unit) at Wig Bay, whilst others ended up at Pembroke Dock – both of which my own father was posted to, to work on Sunderland Flying Boats, I wonder if he came across any of these.

Workers from Windermere were transferred to either Rochester or Belfast, others stayed in the area to find alternative employment. After being nationalised by the Government during the war, Shorts in Rochester was closed and all production moved to Belfast. It was eventually taken over by the Canadian company Bombardier. It is believed that some aircraft parts along with general rubbish were dumped into Windermere to dispose of them, and rumours of complete aircraft being scuttled there have long since drawn divers to the area in search of these hidden wrecks. These are unfortunately unfounded, those who worked at the site have not given any credence to the myths, and so it remains a sad truth that the Windermere Sunderlands are indeed now just a part of history.

Back at the Windermere, the Government’s agreement to remove the buildings wasn’t implemented straight away.

In August 1945, the British government agreed to give refuge to 1000 child sufferers of Nazi concentration camps. 300 of them were brought to the Calgarth Estate, the former Short’s accommodation area, where a team of counsellors and volunteers had been assembled hoping to rehabilitate them.

The (4 month) pioneering project run by Oscar Friedman at Windermere, aimed to rehabilitate the children, allowing them to lead a normal life in society once more, after the horrific treatment they had received in the various concentration camps under the Nazi regime.

On arrival the children were separated into girls and boys, asked to remove clothing and given a medical examination. Some, fearful of what had happened before believed they were going to experience similar atrocities. Others were more forgiving and more hopeful. Their clothes were burnt, they were deloused and then the children were fed.

The former flying boat site provided accommodation for the workers, this accommodation would now house the refugees, each older child having their own bed, in their own room. A far cry from the squalid bunks of the concentration camps.

With the freedom of coming and going, even simple things frightened the children. A dogs bark or a uniform could mean the difference between life and death. Their nightmares would linger on for years to come.

During the day, they attended classes, English and sport along with therapy sessions using art as a medium through which they expressed their emotions. The pictures they created reflected the brutal suffering and emotional damage that the Nazi regime had inflicted upon them. Not the happy blue skies and sunny landscapes a ‘normal’ young child would have created.

Very soon the Red Cross brought the devastating news about their families:. Brothers, sisters, parents who had all perished in the various death camps across Eastern Europe. This was another blow to those who were either located here or worked here.

By the time the children were able to leave they had formed great friendships. In all, 732 children passed through British ‘camps’ all going on to make independent lives for themselves. Many set up businesses here in the UK, some in the US. Of those who stayed, many received accolades – an MBE and a knighthood being among them.

Windermere was a place of salvation, of peace and harmony. The journey was a difficult one, but after the horrors of the German concentration camps it brought life, love and lasting friendship to many heartbroken children.

Even though the local people had grown to liking the new factory, eventually the agreement made between them and the Government,  to remove the buildings and all trace of the factory, was carried out. In 1949, the factory element was pulled down, leaving the accommodation area to continue on well into the 1960s.

In July 1990 the world’s last flyable Sunderland flew over Windermere visiting White Cross Bay. ML 814 (known as ‘Islander’), was a Belfast built Sunderland, and served with the RNZAF after the war. She also served as a civilian aircraft operated by Ansett Airlines. She was given permission to land on Windermere during the 1990 Windermere Festival, whilst the then owner Edward Hulton was looking for a permanent base for the aircraft. Sadly it was not to be, the authorities in 1990 were less keen than their predecessors to have large four engined aircraft on the water, and so the aircraft departed eventually being purchased and transported to Florida’s Fantasy of Flight Museum.

Traces of the site remained for many years, but now only the slipway, odd patches of concrete and paths hint at its history. The Holiday camp built on the site has a small display of items to do with the factory, and the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust have erected a memorial stone to all those who served here. The stone stands outside of the ‘club house’.

Once a conglomeration of buildings, it is now a huge holiday park; how many of those who stay here I wonder, give more than a passing glance at the historic value of this once busy and noisy place.

Post Script.

For years rumours of scuttled Sunderlands proliferated around the aviation world drawing divers to explore the depths of Windermere in search of the wrecks. Whilst aircraft were indeed taken apart at Windermere, it would seem none were actually scuttled here and the rumours of such events were indeed just that – rumours. Perhaps they were created by locals wishing to extend the longevity of Windermere’s historic links, or perhaps they were created out of the minds of ex-workers misguided by fading memories. Whatever the origin, it would be nice to think that at least one does remain down there waiting for the day it is discovered and brought back to the surface to rekindle Windermere’s history once more.

Both the Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford and Hendon have a Sunderland Flying boat on display. At Hendon ML824, a MK. V was transferred from the French Navy to Pembroke Dock (see photo above) where it sat outside exposed to the elements for many years. After deteriorating it was transported to Hendon where it was fully restored and now allows public entry into the fuselage.

At Duxford, ML796, the first production MK.V went to Calshot on the Solent  and then onto Wig Bay in 1946. After remaining in storage for three years she was also passed to the French Navy, serving until 1950 when she was transferred to Shorts Brothers in Ireland for modifications. Returning to France in 1951 via Wig Bay, ML796 served again until 1962 at which point she was struck off charge. Purchased privately, she was then unceremoniously gutted being turned into a discotheque and drinks club. She then became the charge of the IWM in 1976 where she too was refurbished. Like her surviving sister, she remains on public display, located in the Airspace hangar.

Both the Windermere site and the Sunderlands that were built there are no more, an important and decisive part of Britain’s aviation history has gone forever. With two models in Britain and less than five globally, the Sunderland is an iconic aircraft that helped in Britain’s defence of Europe, and in the defence of her own borders. It’s such a shame that both this beautiful aircraft and the memory of Windermere, have been allowed to disappear from our skies forever.

Sunderland ML796

Sunderland ML796 at Duxford (2019)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Lake District National Park Website.

*2 Whilst others had attempted, and to some extent achieved flight (both Gnosspelius and Commander Oliver Schwann at Barrow in Furness) Adams gained the title as he was the only one able to keep the aircraft under control, a pre-requisite for being the first.

*3 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website.

*4 National Archives AVIA 15/3622

*5 Spartacus Educational website

Uboat.net website. An excellent site dedicated to the U-Boat war.

English Lakes Website

Windermere Sunderland Flying Boats website.

Westmorland Gazette website.

Imperial War Museum website,

For further information on the production of Sunderlands at Windermere, including personal stories and photographs, I would suggest Allan King’s excellent book “Wings on Windermere“, published in 2008 by MMP.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Early Flying Boats (Part 1)

In Trail 59, we head to the northwest of the country, to an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is an area made famous by its many hills and lakes. It was the home of Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome’s series of books Swallows and Amazons; several water speed records, and it is a mecca for tourists flocking to “get away from it all”.

Surprisingly then, it is an unlikely place for aviation, yet it was up until the end of the Second World War, a major player in Britain’s aviation industry, utilising one of the vast lakes for that spectacular machine the flying boat.

In Trail 59 we head to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere in particular, where there are two sites linked to Britain’s aviation history. The first, at Cockshott Point, is where the aviation link began, whilst the second, White Cross Bay, is where the more substantial part of the trail takes place.

Windermere.

(RNAS Windermere/Cockshott Point / RNAS Hill of Oaks)

Lake Windermere (as it is incorrectly known) is the largest of the 16 bodies of water in the Lake District, and at almost seventy metres deep, eleven miles long and just under a mile wide, it is actually classed as a ‘Mere’, and not a lake. It is however, probably the most famous of all the Lakes, Meres or Tarns in the district and certainly it is the most visited.  In 2018, Windermere helped draw more than 19,000,000*1 visitors to the area, many taking up recreational activities on its 14.8 square kilometres of water.

Windermere’s aviation connection began in 1911, when a civil engineer, Oscar Gnosspelius, and a barrister, Captain Edward William Wakefield, began trials of flying from water both men using Windermere as their base. Progress for the two was slow, each finding out for themselves the perils of trying to take off from water. Both men trove to be the first to achieve this challenging task, and both found the many difficulties of such an action.

After many failed attempts of breaking the water’s hold over these  ‘hydro-aeroplanes’, both Gnosspelius and Wakefield reached a point where they believed take off was truly possible, all it needed was good weather.

The notoriously poor climate of the Lakes finally broke, and on 25th November 1911, Gnosspelius made his attempt first. After steering his aircraft along the water, lift was achieved, and it momentarily rose from the lake only to have the wing strike the water bringing the aircraft and Gnosspelius crashing down.

Wakefield meanwhile, had teamed up with a Rolls Royce engineer, 27 year old Herbert Stanley Adams, whilst he was based at Brooklands. Wakefield had offered him the job of test pilot, which Adams duly accepted. On the same day that Gnosspelius made his attempt, Adams took Wakefield’s aircraft, an Avro adapted Curtiss biplane, out onto Windermere water. The first run failed to gain any lift at all, but then, on his second run, he turned the craft and headed north. Now with a good headwind, the aircraft broke the surface tension and it gradually rose from the water flying some 50 feet or so above its surface. History was at last made, and Adams became the first man in the UK to fly an aircraft that had taken off from water*2

Lake Windermere

November 25th 1911, the date Adams took off from Windermere and flew the first UK flight from, and back, to water.

And so, Adams’ achievement set in motion a series of events that would lead Windermere on a long, and difficult path to aviation history. As confidence grew in waterborne aviation, more and more flights were made which soon led to the formation of the Lakes Flying Company. All this activity and the noise from albeit small aircraft engines,  inevitably led to vehement objections from many locals including Beatrix Potter herself. These objections were so strong that organisations were set up to oppose the continuation of flying. Support for them rapidly grew, and soon they had amassed over 10,000 signatures in their support. But the argument in favour of flying was also strong. Many had the foresight to see where flying from water could lead, and in April 1912, the Government made the decision to allow further flights from Windermere, a decision that enabled Wakefield to continue with his business endeavour.

Fearing other nations were also trialling flight from water, especially France, the Government debated at length the need for such measures. During one such debate, the Rt. Honourable Mr. Joyson-Hicks directed his questions about France’s progress in hydro-planes, directly to the then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Mr. Joyson-Hicks asked Churchill  how many such hydro-aeroplanes the British Navy owned. Mr. Churchill, in his answer, explained that there was indeed one under construction at East-Church, two others on order, and another thirty-two experiments with machines of this type occurring at: Sheerness, Lake Windermere, and at Barrow. He went on to explain that the  results obtained so far from these trials “were promising“.*3

Gnosspelius meanwhile, repaired his damaged aircraft. Learning from his mistakes he modified it and retested it – it flew, giving him the lesser honour of becoming the first person to fly an aircraft built solely in Cumbria; albeit in the shadow of Adams’ and Wakefield’s triumphant achievement.

By the time World War I arrived, the benefits of taking off from water were well and truly clear, the Royal Naval Air Service took a great interest in the exploration seeing a future for water borne aircraft within their service. Wanting to perform their duties, both Adams and Gnosspelius joined up, leaving the company without anyone to lead it. Seizing on the opportunity, it was bought out by William R. Ding, an instructor who had been brought in by Wakefield, and had also realised the potential of taking off from water. In light of the RNAS’s interest, he could see profit in training pilots to perform the task. Eventually, so keen to investigate and carry on the idea themselves, the RNAS requisitioned the company and took over the site renaming it RNAS Hill of Oaks.

Many of the civilian staff who were already employed on the site remained for the time being, but when the last individuals left in 1916, it became a naval base, and as such was renamed again – this time the more appropriate RNAS Windermere. Training continued under the supervisory eye of the RNAS, but eventually, as the war approached its end, operations from Windermere began to wind down. Predictably, it reached a point where flying ceased altogether and the RNAS departed the site.

This could well have been the end of the line for Windermere, but a short reprieve in 1919 saw the once famous 1914 Schneider Trophy air race pilot, Charles Howard Pixton, return to the site. Utilising Avro 504K floatplanes, he set up and carried out tourist flights, which he combined with an newspaper delivery service to the Isle of Man. These operations breathed new life into waterborne flight, and in particular, into Windermere.

Eventually though even these ceased, and during these post war years, flying activity gradually declined at Windermere, and apart from a few recreational flights onto the water, it eventually ceased altogether. With this, the final flight had been made, and Cockshott Bay, a place unique in British aviation history, would no longer resound to the sound of aircraft engines. This part of Windermere’s aviation life had come to an end.

Now a major marina, only a tiny section of slipway remains, its access is difficult even for boat owners, primarily due to its location. It is rather sad, especially considering the importance of this site that nothing more tangible remains (a memorial stone from Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust is nearby) to commemorate the incredible deeds of Adams, Wakefield and Gnosspelius, who between them took Windermere into the annals of aviation history.

The second site visited today lies a few miles north from here, also along Windermere’s  eastern bank. It is this site that is perhaps the more prominent, and perhaps the more defining, of the two. From here we take a short trip north stopping off at White Cross Bay.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 4)

In Part 3 Upwood became part of the Pathfinders operating Mosquitoes on major operations as Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. Eventually the war drew to a close and bombing operations wound down. Then we entered the jet age.

With the war in Europe now over, Upwood would become a ‘graveyard’ for RAF squadrons. The first of these 105 Squadron, arrived in the same month as 156 departed, with Mosquito XVIs. By the end of January 1946 they were gone, but like the Phoenix of Greek folklore, they would arise from the ashes at Benson in the early 1960s.

102 Squadron were another typical example of this, arriving in February 1946, only to be disbanded two weeks later, being renumbered as 53 Squadron. 53 Sqn made a conscious effort to buck the trend by  flying with the four engined heavies the Liberator VIs and VIIIs, but sadly they too did not last long, closing in the summer of that same year.

1946 was a busy year at Upwood, with what seemed a constant ebb and flow of ‘heavies’, this motion setting a scene that would prevail for the next eight years or so.

February 1946 finally saw the departure of 139 Sqn to Hemswell, after two years at Upwood, their time here had come – their historic role had come to an end. But for Upwood, it was still not the final curtain, for on July 29th, another unit would arrive, 7 Squadron. The unit was reduced to just ten aircraft prior to the move, and would not take on any new models until 1949 when the Lincoln B.2 arrived. An aircraft developed from the highly successful Lancaster, it would be used in operations over Malaya until the squadron was disbanded and then reformed elsewhere with Valiants in 1956.

Back in November 1946, two other squadrons would reform here at Upwood, both 148 and 214 Sqns, and both with Lancaster B.1 (F.E.). These ‘tropicalised’ versions of the B.1 had been destined to go to the Far East to fly operations against Japan as the ‘Tiger Force‘. These modifications included changes made to the radio, radar, navigational aids and included having a 400 gallon fuel tank installed in the bomb bay. Faced with the high temperatures of the Far East, they were painted white on top to reduce heat absorption, and black underneath. Fortunately though, the war with Japan had ended before they could be used, and in 1949, both these units would lose them in favour of the Lincoln also. This meant that Upwood now boasted three Lincoln squadrons, the war may have been over, but the power of the Merlin continued on well into the mid 1950s, these three squadrons disbanding between 1954 and 1956.

In the summer months of 1952, Dirk Bogarde starred in a film made at Upwood using Lancasters in an ‘Appointment in London‘.

A wartime story it was made by Mayflower Film Productions, and used four Lancasters crewed by Upwood airmen. Starring Dirk Bogarde, it is a story of intense rivalry between a Wing Commander aiming for his 90th mission, and an American officer, there is the usual love story attached as the two try to put aside their rivalry to achieve their own personal aims.

On February 23rd 1954, a forth Lincoln squadron arrived at Upwood, 49 Squadron took the number of four engined heavy bombers even further, staying here until August 1st the following year, at which point they were disbanded only to be reborn at Wittering in 1956.

By now, the RAF’s long range jet bomber, the Canberra, had been in service for a few years, and had proved itself as a more than capable aircraft. A first generation medium bomber, it was designed by W. E. W. ‘Teddy’ Petter, and would go on to set the world altitude record of 70,310 ft two years after entering service here at Upwood.

The success of the Canberra would be one to rival the Lancaster and Spitfire. Being built in twenty-seven different versions, it was exported to over fifteen countries world wide. In the RAF it served with no less than thirty-five squadrons, several of them ending up here at Upwood. Over 900 examples were built by British companies, with a further 403 being built under licence by the American Martin Company and designated the B-57. In RAF service, it reigned for fifty-seven years, the last examples being stood down in 2006.

Between 22nd May 1955 and 11th September 1961, eight RAF squadrons: 18, 61, 50, 40, 76, 542 and finally 21,  were all disbanded at Upwood, and all operating the aforementioned Canberra; primarily the B.2 or B.6 models, few of them operating the model for more than three years. There was also a return of 35 Sqn, the former Bomber Command unit who operated from Upwood in early 1940; they came over from Marham having operated as the Washington Conversion Unit before renumbering as 35 Sqn. They remained here until September 1961 whereupon they were disbanded for the penultimate time.
After the last Canberra Sqn had departed, Upwood remained under RAF control as part of the RAF’s Strike Command, until 1964 when they too pulled out leaving a small care and maintenance unit behind. Over the next few years Upwood would be used in the training of non-flying duties, until these units also left, the last in 1981. Upwood’s future now looked very insecure.

RAF Upwood

Inside the Gate house, the USAF presence. (Security Police Squadron).

Fortunately though, control of Upwood was then passed to the USAF for training and support services for nearby RAF Alconbury and RAF Lakenheath. It was earmarked for medical services, and should an attack occur during the Cold War, it would quickly be turned into a control area ready to deal with heavy nuclear attack casualties. Thankfully this was never put to the test though, and gradually the USAF phased out its use of Upwood, and as other airfields closed, personnel numbers became less and the homes they used emptied. Eventually, even the 423rd Medical Squadron pulled out, taking their community support, equipment and staff with them.

Upwood finally closed on 26th October 2012, and the remaining buildings including the NAFFI and NCO homes, were all sold off to developers and the site wound down. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to purchase the site and develop it with housing. These have all faltered along the way for one reason or another. On the positive side, the hangars remain actively used by an aero-engine company who refurbish jet engines. A glider club has been agreed a 10 year lease on the remaining parts of the runways (although these have been removed) and two Nissen huts have been fully refurbished to allow modern use. This part of the airfield looks and feels like a real and active military base, whilst the admin and medical side are ghostly reminders of its past. Standing on the site looking around, the imagination can only begin to think how this lonely and desolate place once bustled with crews and aircraft, crews going about their business and vehicles ferrying aircrew to their machines.

RAF Upwood

RAF Upwood’s hangars are still in use today. Aero engines outside await work.

Today it is an enormous site covered with derelict buildings as if left following an atomic blast. The windows are all shattered, the buildings vandalised and graffiti daubed on all the walls. Two tanks have been brought in and a small urban assault company use it for mock battles. The guardroom, officers quarters and associated mess halls all remain, some in a worse state than others.

In 2017 the redundant site was acquired without conditions, and planning permission obtained for a comprehensive development of a small six acres of the site. This plan, put forward by Lochailort *5 included 60 houses. Huntingdon District Council have now incorporated Upwood into their long term Local Plan, and a proposal is under consideration for further development which would include the removal of large quantities of the buildings. It would also see hardstands being replaced by a mix of housing (450 homes) and business premises. The intention is to keep the architecturally significant buildings and layout, along with the hangars, thus retaining the military atmosphere, developing it “in a way which respects its setting and former use“.*4 I only hope that the sympathetic approach is indeed used, and that this incredible and historic site does not become another of Britain’s matchbox towns.

Post Script:

A website dedicated to RAF Upwood shows a range of older photographs, squadron details and information about Upwood’s history. Created by Sean Edwards, it is well worth a visit for more specific details.

A local gentleman has purchased a scrapped Canberra nose section that once flew  from Upwood, and has rebuilt it. It remains in his garage and is displayed at shows around the country.

Sources and further reading.

National Archives – AIR 27/379/4
National Archives – AIR-27-961-4

BAE Systems Website

*1 Photo from the UK Archives, (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives) no known copyright restrictions.

*2 Josepf Jakobs story can be read on the: Josef Jakobs blog with further information on the Upwood Website.

*3 Middlebrook, M & Everitt, C. “The Bomber Command War Diaries 1939-1945“, Midland Publishing (1996)

*4 Huntingdonshire District Council Local Plan Proposal

*5 Lochailort Investments Ltd, Webiste.

Thirsk, I., “de Havilland Mosquito an illustrated History – Vol 2” Crecy publishing (2006)

For more information and details of the Pathfinders, see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive at: https://raf-pathfinders.com/

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 3)

In Part 2 Upwood progressed through the early war years as a training airfield operating a range of aircraft types. As the larger, heavier aircraft came n line, its wet and boggy ground became churned up necessitating the construction of hard runways.

By the end of the year these runways were completed, and in the early months of 1944, two more new squadrons would arrive at the airfield, 139 and 156 in February and March respectively.

By  now Bomber Command aircraft had been pounding German cities and industrial targets, the period January to March 1944 was to see Berlin hit particularly hard, and with Stirlings being withdrawn due to their high losses, the Lancaster crews would now be taking the brunt.

Now under the control of Bennett’s new Pathfinder Force (PFF), 139 (Jamaica) Sqn would bring with them the beautiful and much loved Mosquito MK.XX. Coming from nearby RAF Wyton, they had already begun replacing these with the MK.XVI, flying both models whilst performing operations from the Cambridgeshire airfield. The following month a Lancaster squadron, 156, who were based at another PFF airfield, RAF Warboys, joined 139. Within a month Upwood had become a major front line airfield, the roar of multiple Merlins now filling the Cambridgeshire skies.

RAF Upwood

139 (Jamaica) Squadron had a long history, which had begun on July 3rd 1918. This first period of their existence lasted only a year, the unit being disbanded in March 1919. With the onset of war they were called back into operation being reformed in 1936, when they went on to fly Blenheims, and later Hudsons, until being disbanded and renumbered as 62 Sqn in April 1942. Reformed again in the June of that year 139 Sqn would go on to serve well into the late 1950s.

Named ‘Jamaica’ Squadron, 139 acquired their name as a result of the huge effort of the colony to provide enough money for twelve Blenheims, a remarkable effort considering the nature and size of the country. It was from Trinidad that Sqn. Ldr. Ulric Cross came, the most decorated West Indian of World War II, who earned himself the DSO and DFC whilst flying with the Pathfinders.

139’s drafting in to the Pathfinders occurred at the end of May 1943, leaving 2 Group for Don Bennett’s 8 Group, they formed the nucleus of the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF).  At this time they were still at RAF Marham, but moved across to Wyton and then onto Upwood arriving here on 1st February 1944, with a mix of Mosquito IV, IX, XX and XVIs.

There would be no settling in period for 139 Sqn, their first sortie, marking for a raid on Berlin, was due that very night. Take off for F.O. D Taylor and F.Lt. C. Bedell in Mosquito DZ 476, was at 17:50; they dropped their Target Indicator which was subsequently bombed on by Mosquitoes from another squadron. Whilst flak was recorded as ‘slight’, the aircraft was heavily engaged over Neinburg. The Mosquito landed back at Upwood, ending the squadrons first successful operation from here, at 22:40.

Photograph taken during an attack by De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IVs of No. 139 Squadron, on the locomotive sheds at Tours, France (date unknown) © IWM C 3409

156 Squadron were one of the four initial Pathfinder units having been taken on by the new Group in August 1942 whilst at RAF Warboys a few miles up the road. After two years of relatively high losses for the Squadron, the time for change had come, and they moved across here to RAF Upwood. Hopefully a new start for the depleted unit would see better results and higher morale. As 156 moved in, the few remaining aircraft of the NTU moved out, rejoining the main collection at Warboys, the unit having been split over the two sites for some time.

However, the first three months of 1944 were to prove to be the worst for 156 Sqn, over half its total yearly losses occurring during this period. This culminated, at the end of March, with the loss of four Upwood aircraft. Lancaster MK.IIIs: ND406 (S),  ND466 (Z), ND476 (V) and ND492 (L) all left as part of a seventeen strong force from Upwood joining with a further ninety-three other PFF aircraft to attack Nuremberg. Even though the weather was against the bombers, the operation went ahead, the 795 heavy bombers of Bomber Command making their way east. Strong winds caused havoc, with large parts of the force drifting off course, much farther north than they should have done. This resulted in them unknowingly bombing Schweinfurt and not Nuremberg. Outward bound, the German defences waited, many picking off the bombers before they even reached Germany. In total 95 bombers were lost, 82 of them on the outward journey. For 156 Squadron it was another devastating blow, and for Bomber Command a disaster, their biggest loss of the entire war*3.

RAF Upwood

A huge number of derelict buildings remain on the now abandoned site.

Of the thirty 156 Sqn airmen lost that night (two Lancasters were carrying eight crewmen), only six survived, each of these being incarcerated as POWs, the rest all being killed and buried in this region of Germany.

The months preceding June were taken up with missions to support the impending D-Day landings. With Bomber Command forces being pulled away from targets in Germany, many missions now focused on V weapons sites, rail and transport links, coastal batteries and airfields across western France. The number of Pathfinder Mosquitoes increased, as did the need for precision bombing, the wider ‘blanket’ bombing not being implemented on these small scale targets.

The transportation plan as it was known, required intense operations from 8 Group, and although the number of missions rocketed the number of casualties fell. Morale was on the increase and things were looking up for the crews of Upwood based aircraft.

With the Pathfinders being mainly experienced and skilled crews, any loss was considered damaging. In the period up to D-Day, losses for both squadrons were  in single figures, but of those who were lost, many were DFC or DFM holders, including on the 27th – 28th April, 156 Sqn Lancaster III ND409, which had five DFC bearing crewmen on board.

During this raid, which was only some four weeks after Nuremburg, 323 aircraft attacked Friedrichshafen’s engineering plants, where components were made for German tanks. Highlighted as an ‘outstanding’ raid, marking was near perfect which resulted in the entire destruction of the plant and almost three-quarters of the town.

Meanwhile, the Canadians were busily building Mosquitoes for the RAF, and on May 10th – 11th, the first Bomber Command MK. XX built in Canada, was written off when a flare ignited inside the aircraft. Returning from Ludwigshafen, the marker had failed to release only to cause disaster near Cambridge on the return flight. Inside the aircraft were Flying Officers G. Lewis and A. Woollard DFM, Woollard going on to survive a second serious crash on 12th June when his aircraft crashed in Sweden after it was hit by flak. Flying Officer Lewis in the first crash failed to survive.

In June 1944, a very special aircraft was unveiled at the de Havilland Canada Downsview factory during the ‘Million Dollar Day’ ceremonies. Mosquito KB273 was unveiled by  the cousin of Geoffrey de Havilland Junior, Joan Fontaine, the Hollywood film star, who gave her name to the aircraft. KB273 ‘Joan‘ would be passed to 139 Sqn here at Upwood before being handed over to 608 Sqn in August. In fact, KB273 was one of many Mosquitoes from this same stable that passed through 139 Sqn to the Downham Market unit. It was sadly lost on 29th February 1945, its pilot evading capture whilst the navigator was taken as a POW.

Losses remained relatively low on a month by month basis for the two squadrons, an excellent improvement compared to previous months and against other units. By the end of the year, 139 Sqn had sustained twenty operational losses whilst 156 Sqn suffered fifty-two. All in all 1944 had been a little more positive.

The dawn of 1945 saw the world entering the final stages of the war. The long and cold winter of 1944-45 prevented many operations from being carried out, and even though the Luftwaffe were finding it difficult to put up sufficient numbers of aircraft and skilled pilots, losses in Bomber Command were still high overall. Last ditch efforts saw attacks from fighter jets, mainly Me 262s, and 1945 would signify the end of operations from Upwood for one of the two Pathfinder squadrons based here.

For 156 Sqn the early months of 1945 would be their last, and although there was an all out effort, casualties were relatively light. With one Lancaster being lost in January (PB186) with all on board; three in February – two over the Prosper Benzol plant at Rottrop, (ME366, PB505) and another (PB701) over Dussledorf – January and February would close with few losses. March similarly would see another two in the closing hours of the month over Berlin, both crews of PB468 and PB517 being completely wiped out.

Germany continued to be pounded by large formations during April, a month that saw many of the last major operations for several squadrons. For 156, their final bombing mission came on the 25th, sixteen aircraft taking part in a raid to Wangerooge in which Bomber Command lost seven aircraft – six of which were collisions in near perfect weather. For 156 though, the raid was casualty free, and with that their bombing raids ceased. The final capitulation of Germany was taking place and mercy raids could now be flown to supply those who had lived in terror and hunger under the Nazi regime.

3010671412_0a0a4fd717

Aerial photo taken on 25th April 1945 over Wangerooge*1.

In that month alone, Squadron crews were awarded no less than: one DSO; nineteen DFCs; a CGM and three DFMs. Aircrews had flown over 850 operational hours in 141 sorties, a small fraction of the 4,839 they had flown in their three year existence. By June, operations for 156 Sqn had wound down at Upwood and they moved back to Wyton, finally being disbanded and removed from the  RAF register in September.

139 Sqn meanwhile, had continued their marking for night raids on German cities. During the period late February to the end of March, 139 Sqn carried out thirty-six consecutive night raids on Berlin, one of these being the largest ever attack by Mosquitoes on the German capital. On this operation, 142 twin-engined ‘Wooden Wonders’ from a number of different squadrons unleashed their loads in two waves over the German city. 139 Sqn leading the Light Night Striking force using up to date models of H2S.

After the Battle of Berlin had ended, along with a winter of heavy bombing, the analysis would now begin. Bomber Command’s effectiveness, and in particular its bombing strategy, would suddenly be under the spotlight, with its leader Sir Arthur Harris, the focal point. It would be a legacy that would last for generations to come, even to this day the debate continues, and there are many that fight the cause in support of Harris’s operational strategy.

The end of the bombing war for 139 Sqn came in May 1945, ironically their busiest month of the year, flying 256 sorties which culminated with an attack on Kiel.

Throughout their operational tour, 139 Sqn had lost a total 23 aircraft in 438 raids , the highest of all the Mosquito PFF squadrons.

Part 4 takes us into the Cold War, the development of the jet engine in which Upwood becomes a graveyard for disbanding RAF Squadrons.

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Upwood was formed and how the first squadrons arrived ready to show off their new Fairey Battles. As September 1939 dawned, war was declared and Upwood stepped up to the mark and prepared itself for the conflict.

The immediate issuing of order S.D.107 and S.D.107a, resulted in the whole of 63 Sqn, including their dispersed aircraft, being moved to Abingdon, whose crews and aircraft were in turn moved to France. The transfer of men and machinery being completed by 08:00 on the 8th September, at which point 63 Sqn joined No.6 Group, leaving Upwood far behind.

52 Sqn also brought back their aircraft from Alconbury filling the spaces left by 63 Sqn, before moving themselves to Kidlington, and then onto Abingdon where they would join once again with 63 Sqn.

The outbreak of war saw huge changes for the RAF. The immediate mobilisation began with the implementation of the ‘Scatter Scheme’, where aircraft were dispersed away from parent airfields to avoid the ‘imminent’ threat of attack. Over at West Raynham, 90 Sqn were doing just that. In mid September, aircraft that were dispersed to Weston-on-the-Green were now brought over to the all but vacant Upwood, in a move that preceded a more long lasting move by the squadron to the airfield.

RAF Upwood

Guard house to the former airfield.

Over the next few weeks a mix of Mk.I and MK.IV Blenheims were collected and brought into Upwood supporting the training role carried out by 90 Sqn. Training was a risky business, as many trainee crews would find out. On the 18th October, two Upwood Blenheims crashed, one in a field with its undercarriage retracted following an engine failure, and the second on the airfield itself. The worst of these was Blenheim L4876 which crashed on take off, and resulted in the loss of the life of the pilot P.O T. Peeler. His observer, Sgt. Dobbin was injured, whilst the wireless operator, AC2 Brown,  managed to escape without injury.

Over the winter months Upwood would rise in the league tables of airfields notorious for flooding and water logged  ground. The heavy rains making the airfield unserviceable on numerous occasions. This caused great concern for the air staff who made the difficult decision to cut short training programmes, thus enabling the supply of aircrew to be maintained. It did however, mean that there would be a supply to front line squadrons of crews with partial or less than perfect training.  This problem would persist at Upwood for some time to come, eventually being partly solved by the building of hard runways.

1940 brought with it another training squadron, 35 Sqn, who also found the ground at Upwood difficult, their move being hampered for several weeks before they could finally settle in and begin operations properly. The summary for February shows thirteen days were lost to bad weather and nine to waterlogged surfaces!

March 12th 1940, saw another fatal accident at Upwood, with the death of trainee pilot Sgt. Alphonse Hermels (s/n: 517823) whose aircraft collided with a Blenheim on detachment from  90 Sqn, the two aircraft taking off simultaneously but neither apparently being aware of the other’s presence.

In early April, both 35 and 90 Sqns were disbanded and amalgamated to form No. 17 Operational Training Unit (OTU). The name of 35 Sqn would be reborn as part of Bomber Command at Boscombe Down at the year’s end, but that would be their ties with this rather wet airfield cut, until in 1956, when it would return extending its stay to a more permanent five years. For the next three years the OTU would be the main user of Upwood, flying with a wide range of aircraft types, including: the Lysander, Anson, Hurricane, Spitfire, Wellington and Fairey Battle. The unit  eventually departed to Silverstone – famous for British Motor Racing – in December 1943.

As the BEF were being withdrawn from the beaches of Dunkirk, Britain began to brace itself for the impending invasion. Although the Battle of Britain would not officially start for some time yet, the period immediately after Dunkirk saw minor attacks on British airfields, particularly those in East Anglia. On several days during June, enemy bombers would penetrate British airspace and unload their small bomb loads on these sites. Some of the first enemy intruder missions were recorded at this time, and Upwood would receive its fair share of bombings although little damage was done.

This operational ‘dry spell’ was momentarily broken when 26 Squadron appeared on the scene at Upwood. For what must be one of the most mobile squadrons of the RAF, 26 Squadron were constantly transferring from airfield to airfield, staying here on an overnight stop in early October. In the space of less than a week the squadron had operated from no less than 6 different airfields including: Twinwood Farm (Glenn Miller’s last stop), Barton Bendish, and Snailwell.

RAF Upwood

Upwood’s collection of buildings are numerous.

Upwood was to experience some rather difficult times and localised action. Numerous accidents were interspersed with attacks by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft, they even had their own parachuting spy. The event caused a great deal of excitement around the base, and saw the spy,  Josef Jakobs, being found guilty of treason and subsequently executed at the Tower of London.

Jakobs, who parachuted into England on January 31st 1941, broke his ankle when he landed at Dovehouse Farm, Ramsey Hollow, a few miles from the airfield. He was found by passing farm workers after firing shots into the air. With him were maps with both RAF Upwood and RAF Warboys identified, transmitting equipment and false papers. He was arrested, taken to London where he was interrogated and imprisoned until August. On the morning of the 15th he was shot by firing squad at the Tower of London, his body being buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, North-West London.*2

Often, training airfield squadrons would operate in conjunction with various specialised units, in this case 11 Blind Approach Training Flight who were formed here at Upwood, in October 1941, with Air Speed Oxfords. This unit was quickly renamed 1511 (Beam Approach Training) Flight, and trained pilots in the use of navigation beams for poor weather or night landings. These twin engined Oxfords were found in numerous training flights and at numerous airfields across Britain and in Canada, and were generally popular with trainees.

As the war progressed new advances meant that the older aircraft were becoming tired and in need of replacement. With larger bombers coming on line, Wellingtons pulled from front line service were now being used in training operations. Added to this, the introduction of the Lancasters of the Navigation Training Unit (NTU) in June 1943, meant that Upwood’s runways could no longer withstand the churning up by heavy aircraft, and it was now that Upwood’s notoriously bad surface began to really show its true colours.

RAF Upwood

A scene typical of the buildings at Upwood

Being a heavier breed than the Blenheims and Oxfords, the ground began to break up, and it was for this reason that the OTU moved to Silverstone, and the Beam Training Flight moved out to Greenham Common. This left the airfield devoid of all operational aircraft apart from the NTU. It was now time to make amends at Upwood.

Whilst the site was all but vacant, one of the RAF’s Airfield Construction Flights moved in and construction began on the three concrete runways needed for Upwood to continue operations. The brain child of Wing Co. Alexander John ‘Daddy’ Dow, they were a huge organisation that supported the RAF’s front line squadrons by building, repairing and maintaining their runways.

In Part 3 Upwood see the arrival and use of the four engined heavies. The Pathfinders are born and Upwood becomes a front line bomber airfield.

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 1)

In the second part of Trail 17 we visit a station  with a history going back to World War One. This airfield saw a spy caught and hanged; the making of a film using Lancaster bombers, and more recently the site of a hospital for the treatment of victims of a nuclear war. Ever since its closure it has been the subject of numerous failed planning applications, and seems to have hung on by the skin of its teeth – perhaps until now.

This site must rank as one of Britain’s largest collection of ex military buildings (albeit subjected to the usual vandalism) for its collection is huge, and its a collection that includes wartime hangars. We of course go to RAF Upwood near Huntingdon.

RAF Upwood

RAF Upwood is a remarkable site to visit. Its buildings remain very empty stripped of their dignity and daubed with a wide range of graffiti, yet within its boundaries lay many years of history.

Located in the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, not far from both RAF Alconbury and RAF Warboys, Upwood is possibly one of the countries most photographed aviation sites.

RAF Upwood has seen no less than twenty-two different RAF flying units grace its runways, the majority of these being post war operational units, many coming here prior to their disbandment – it is perhaps the graveyard of RAF squadrons.

However, whilst the latter part of the 20th Century saw it gain its recognition, its origins lay way back in the First World War.

Originally opened in September 1917, as Bury (Ramsey) after the adjacent village, it had no permanent buildings and was merely a grassed airfield with no fixed squadrons of its own. Towards the end of the war though, in 1918, five hangars and a small number of huts had been built, and it was at this time that it became officially known as ‘Upwood’.

RAF Upwood

Post war, Upwood served as a hospital and most of the buildings survive.

Then, when the war ended, the personnel departed and the site was cleared of all military related artefacts, the site being returned to the local community once more.

However, the impending conflict in the late 1930s, required a massive rethinking into Britain’s defences and the need for greater air power. A number of locations were earmarked for opening, and as a former airfield, Upwood was one of them. Designed as a medium bomber station, plans were put in place for as many as five large hangars, although only four were ever completed.

Opened in early 1937, during the expansion period of pre-war Britain, it was home to both 52 and 63 Squadrons Royal Air Force. In March the two newly formed squadrons arrived, 52 Sqn from Abingdon, No. 1. Bomber Group, and 63 Sqn from Andover, No. 2 Bomber Group. At the time of opening conditions were far from ideal, only half of the total number of hangars had been built, and more importantly, there was no provision for permanent accommodation; instead, crews were faced with a rushed collection of inadequate, temporary blocks. 52 Sqn were first, followed two days later by 63 Sqn, by which time conditions had changed marginally for the better, the officers mess being one such building to open as a permanent structure – clearly rank was to have its privileges.

For 52 Sqn it was a complete change, the move being managed over just two days, which also saw them transfer to No. 2 Bomber Group bringing them in line with 63 Sqn. Initially, 52 Sqn brought with them seven Hawker Hinds, then four more on the 8th and a further two on the 10th, bringing the total number of aircraft on role to thirteen. Six of these Hinds were immediately put into reserve saved for the formation of a ‘B’ Flight.

Meanwhile, 63 Sqn began to upgrade their aircraft taking on four replacement Audaxes, each being delivered straight from the A.V. Roe factory (Woodford Aerodrome)  in Manchester. With a further three and then two more being delivered from A.V. Roe’s on the 17th and 18th respectively, the number of aircraft at Upwood now amounted to twenty-two.

This was a busy time for Upwood, with personnel coming and going, new postings arriving and staff being posted out, there was considerable movement before things finally began to settle down and operations bed in.

On the 22nd and 24th, both squadrons took turns to carry out search operations over the local countryside looking for the remains of a DH Moth belonging to Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, which disappeared on the evening of the 22nd during a snowstorm. Both searches proved unsuccessful, with no sightings been made. It later transpired that the Duchess had crashed into the North Sea, her body never being found.

With 52 Sqn’s ‘B’ Flight being formed on April 6th and 63’s on the 12th, the scene was almost set, and with visits by both Air Chief Marshall Sir John Steel KCB, KBE, CMG (Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Bomber Command), and then the Under Secretary State for Air a few days later; Upwood was finally on the map and making progress toward being both operational and fighting fit.

63 Squadron would then take a step forward, having the honour of being the first operational unit to receive the new Fairey Battle, K7559 landing at Upwood on May 20th 1937, some 6 months before 52 Sqn received theirs.

Throughout the summer of 1937, the number of delivered Battles gradually increased, each one coming directly from Ringway Aerodrome, one of Fairey’s main sites. For 63 Sqn, the following months would be a busy time ‘showing off’ their new aircraft to various dignitaries from around the globe. A massive PR stunt, it started with the Gaumont British Film Company, who filmed nine of the aircraft taking off, landing and flying in formation, scenes being recorded for the film “Under the Shadow of the Wing“.

During this period, Upwood would be inundated with visitors; his Highness the Duke of Aosta along with Italian representatives started the ball rolling, followed by: Major Woutieres of Belgium; Lt. Lim Weir K’nei of the Chinese Air Force; Air Chief Marshal Sir E. Ludlow-Hewitt KCB, CMG, DSO, MC; Air Commodore S. Goble CBE, DSO, DSC. and even a consortium from Germany – General der Flieger Milch, General Lieutenant Stumpff, General Major Udet along with their entourage. These three high ranking officials were, from the 1930s onward, key to the development, build up and use of Germany’s illegal Luftwaffe. Accompanying them, were a number of high ranking British Air Force personnel, who openly guided the party through a range of inspections of the Battles, a programme of events that included a flying display at RAF Mildenhall.

Generalfeldmarschall
Erhard Milch March 1942 (Source: Wikipedia)

By the end of 1937, 63 Sqn had flown 2,256 hours, many of these to show off their aircraft. With little else to do at this time, a range of pageants and shows kept the crews busy in between the obligatory gunnery and navigation training sessions.

1938 would be filled with similar such undertakings, but as the year drew on training  would take on a more serious and predominant role, mock bombing attacks being regularly practised by the squadron on various sites including Upwood itself.

After a short period away training at West Freugh, the squadron was placed in a ‘precautionary’ state, in readiness for immediate mobilisation – the threat of war in Europe now growing ever stronger. This period was short lived however, and the squadron temporarily returned to normal duties, with yet more visits from both high ranking officials and royal dignitaries from overseas.

November 25th 1938, would be a sad day for Upwood crews, training flights proving to be hazardous, and even fatal.

New Zealander P.O. K Vare, managed to land and walk away from Battle K7603 as it burned on a nearby railway line, whilst 63 Sqn Battle K7567 crashed in poor weather whilst undertaking a navigation exercise over Hampshire. The aircraft, piloted by P.O. J Ellis (killed), collided with trees severely injuring Cpl. A Thoroughgood and ejecting AC2 V. Rawlings. Being thrown from the aircraft was possibly Rawlings’s saviour, the likely hood of being killed himself higher had he not been.

Fairey Battle Mk.I (K7602) of 52 Squadron, at RAF Upwood.© IWM H(am) 179

On the 16th December, in a ceremony attended by the station staff, P.O. Ellis’s ashes were scattered over the airfield, the procedure being carried out from another Fairy Battle from the squadron.

After a short Christmas break, 63 Sqn returned to their duties once more, training flights, many of which were in conjunction with squadrons from other airfields, increasing in frequency as events across the Channel took on an even more sinister turn.

In mid March, a new policy was issued that would affect the operation of both the Upwood squadrons. This policy turned both 52 and 63 into ‘non mobilising’ units, meaning that the more senior officers would remain on site as instructors, whilst the ‘regular’ crews would be posted to operational units. The spaces left by these vacating staff being filled by Volunteer Reserves from the various Flying Schools. After a period of some months, these trained staff would revert to civilian status, but as reserves, they could be called upon if, or more likely when, war was declared – the war machine was again stepping up a gear. A further element of this change was the allocation of 10 new Avro Anson aircraft, each of these twin-engined training aircraft arriving over the next few weeks direct from Woodford.

This period would see world tensions rise even further, and as war looked even more likely, changes were again made to Upwood’s staff. Rehearsals in dispersing aircraft were carried out, passes were restricted to ensure sufficient numbers were always on hand in case of war being declared, and mock attacks on the airfield were carried out. During these mock attacks ‘Gas’ was sprayed by both ‘attacking’ aircraft and from a ground based “High Pressure Jenny”, a devise developed in America to spray water and steam over the outside of aircraft.

Upwood then experienced a second fatal accident, which occurred on the night of 25th July 1939, the crash involving Fairy Battle K9412 of 63 Sqn with the loss of all on board: Sgt. Albert Shepherd, Sgt. Aubrey Sherriff and AC2 William Murphy. The aircraft struck the ground and caught fire whilst taking part in one of these preparatory exercises.

The end of August saw a further ramping up of the gears with the implementation of the Bomber Command War Order (Readiness ‘D’). Aircraft of both squadrons were now restricted to essential tests and practises only, being dispersed across the airfield, bombed up but without fuses, ready for flight. Personnel were also put on high alert, anyone on leave was recalled and had to return back to the station.

As September dawned, the full readiness ‘D’ plan was brought into full force. 52 Sqn were ordered to disperse aircraft at nearby Alconbury, with twenty-four Battles and five Ansons being flown across, along with a small guard and a selection of maintenance personnel. The Royal Air Force as a body was mobilised by Royal Proclamation, and preparations were made for war, the entry in the Operations Record Book for 63 Sqn simply stating:

3rd Sept. 11:00 “A state of war is declared between Great Britain and the German Reich

In Part 2, Upwood goes to war, major changes come in terms of both aircraft and infrastructure. New squadrons arrive and an unwelcome visitor is caught.

The entire text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders.

Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle: A Free, French Pilot.

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

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

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

Battle of Britain London Monument - ADJ EFM FAYOLLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mitch Peeke

My thanks to Mitch for this story.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.