RAF Leeming – The Great North Road (Part 1).

In another of our Trails along the ‘Great North Road’ we arrive in Yorkshire, to stop off at a station with a history that stretches back to 1937, and one that continues its flying tradition today.

As a modern jet training facility, this airfield has a long and distinguished history; it is also one that has seen a number of aircraft types and squadrons using it. Born as a bomber airfield, transforming to a fighter establishment, it has now turned its attention to pilot training. From the early twin engined bombers of the late 30’s to the modern jets of today, it is an active aviation establishment.

Heading north, we pull off the A1 and stop at RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming has been an operational RAF airfield ever since its official opening in the summer of 1940. Following two years of construction in which a non-dispersed accommodation site, hangars and technical area were all built – the three concrete and tarmac runways were added. Each of these were built to the standard 50 yard width, and measured 1,950 yds, 1,650 yds, and 1,400 yds in length. Aircraft dispersals were included, these amounted to thirty-six of the ‘frying pan’ style, with the all important technical area nestled between the legs of the ‘A’ of the multiple runway design.

At its wartime peak, Leeming could cater for almost 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender, all accommodated within the boundary of the airfield perimeter, a normal practise for non-dispersed airfields of the pre-war expansion period.

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

It was this expansion period that would also see the creation of 4 Group – the initial ‘owners’ of RAF Leeming. Hatched from 3 Group, it would hold control of twenty-two operational airfields in the Yorkshire area. Headed by one Arthur Harris, 4 Group would become synonymous with this region of England and Bomber Command, a command of which Harris would himself eventually take full control of.

During the war itself, Leeming would operate as a bomber base, operating beyond the focus of most Luftwaffe intruders. It would, throughout its life, be home to a large number of  front line squadrons, supported by: training units, Flying Training Schools and RAF support flights that would extend right the way through to the present day. With the impending closure of Scampton in Lincolnshire in 2022, Leeming has been identified as one possible location for the RAF’s Red Arrows to relocate to. Such a move, whilst not welcomed by many, would ensure the continued operational activities of the base in an otherwise uncertain military situation.

Leeming’s life began shortly after 12:05 on July 6th 1940, when an advanced party from 10 Sqn – ‘Shiny Ten’ as they were known – left RAF Dishforth to prepare Leeming’s accommodation site for the forthcoming arrival of the Whitley  squadron. Not long after they arrived, ‘spare’ aircraft from Dishforth began to arrive, the squadron remaining on full alert, and at readiness for operations that were continuing in earnest.

Two days later, on the morning of the 8th, the main party began its transfer over, all the time crews were being prepared and briefed for the days operational duties. Indeed there would be no settling in period and no honeymoon to find their feet. The first Leeming based aircraft took off and attacked targets at Kiel on the very same day they arrived. Following the briefing, aircraft were prepared and checks were made, then at around 21:00, five Leeming Whitleys took off at one minute intervals to join sixty-four aircraft departing Britain’s airfields to attack the ports of northern Germany. The primary target for the Leeming group was the Howaldts Railway Yard in Kiel. Prepared with a mix of 250lb and 500lb bombs, 20% of which had time delay fuses, they headed towards Kiel along a flight path designated as target corridor ‘A’.

In this early mission of the war only one Whitley was lost, that of 10 Squadron, N1496 ‘ZA-V’ flown by Flt. Lt Douglas A. Ffrench-Mullen, who was shot down  by Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster (8./NJG 1),  in a Luftwaffe night-fighter off Heliogoland. Flt. Lt. Ffrench-Mullen and his four other crewmen were then picked up by German ground forces and detained as Prisoners of War. Sadly their time together would end there, they would not be sharing the same camps.

On the 10th, the then flamboyant Wing Commander William E. Staton, CB, DSO and  Bar,  MC, DFC and Bar arrived at Leeming to take over formal control of the airfield. A highly decorated man with a service going back to the First World War, he was soon to become known as ‘King Kong‘, his large stature being a prominent feature around Leeming’s site.

Staton, who record covered both World Wars, includes the downing of 25 enemy aircraft on the Western Front on no less than three separate occasions in 1918. On another occasion, during the Second World War, he spent an hour over the target area, after which he brought home his badly damaged Whitley. His accuracy in flying helped lead to the formation of Bennett’s Path Finder Force, and whilst serving in the Far East, Staton suffered at the brutal hands of the Japanese who removed his back teeth. Post war, his character would lead the British Shooting Team in both the 1948 and the 1952 Olympics. He was certainly a good choice to take Leeming forward as a bomber base.

Staton's Whitley.

The damaged wing of Staton’s Whitley Bomber. Despite the damage Staton carried out the raid on Bremen, nursing the aircraft back to England. His medal collection sold for £52,000 in 2013 (BNPS.CO.UK)

Due to delays installing the telephone system combined with an illness suffered by Wing Commander Staton, the transition to Leeming was slow, with operations continuing from both Leeming and Dishforth well into July. By the end of the month though, 10 Sqn had finally moved across allowing missions to continue in an almost seamless fashion.

The autumn of 1940 would become a hectic time at Leeming. Transition stops saw the arrival and departure of several 4 Group bomber units. On August 15th, an incursion on RAF Driffield left five 102 Sqn Whitleys destroyed and a number of 77 Sqn aircraft damaged. The airfield’s operational capability then being dramatically until repairs could be carried out. As a result, 102 Sqn transferred across here to Leeming at the end of August, staying here for one week before being temporarily detached to 15 Group and Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would also depart Driffield transferring for a short period to Linton-On-Ouse another of 4 Group’s Yorkshire airfields.

Whilst Driffield was being visited by the Luftwaffe, another RAF unit, 7 Squadron, was being resurrected for the third time of the war. 7 Squadron’s creation here at Leeming would herald a new era in Bomber Command, and a rather historical moment in aviation.

With this reformation would come the first ‘operational’ and soon to be ill-fated Short Stirling MK.I.

As Stirling N3640 flew into Leeming, it was greeted warmly and openly by the ground crews who had gathered to welcome it in. They all waited expectantly outside the hangars that they had repeatedly cleaned in order to keep themselves busy. August 2nd would not only mark a new period in the war, but it would also be the beginning of what would become a difficult time for those crews in Bomber Command.

The grace, beauty and sheer size of the Stirling brought a cheer, and instantly raised morale within the ranks of the RAF. It was their first long range, four-engined heavy bomber, and so at last, the war could now seriously be taken directly to the enemy’s front door.

The logistics of the change though would give rise to many problems, the Whitley, the Stirling’s predecessor, was a Merlin in-line powered aircraft, whilst the Stirling had a Bristol Hercules – a radial engine. Spares and tools were lacking and in addition, no one in 7 Sqn. had any experience of four-engined aircraft. To combat the problem, new crews were draughted in, mostly from Coastal Command, who had already been operating Short’s successful flying boat, the Sunderland. Closely linked, the transference of skills from one to the other came relatively quickly, and it needed to.

Despite the now known history of the Stirling’s on-going problems: its mechanics, the undercarriage, tail wheel, engine difficulties and its performance in general, the Stirling was liked by many, a good handling aircraft its manoeuvrability was better than others in its class. In battle it was also able to take a lot of punishment before finally giving up, a factor that no doubt saved a good number of crews. The Stirling, after many struggles within Bomber Command,  would eventually find its niche either laying mines or as a transport / glider tug in the numerous airborne operations over Europe.

But at Leeming however, it wasn’t to be. The aircraft’s arrival was slow, the initial eight promised with the arrival of the new Sqn. Commander, Wg. Cdr. Paul.I Harris D.FC., being held up after Luftwaffe attacks on the Short’s factories in both Belfast and at Rochester. By the end of the month only two more aircraft had arrived, N3641 and N3642.

Stirling, N3641 ‘MG-D’, the second Stirling to be delivered to 7 Squadron at Leeming. It took part in their first raid over Rotterdam on the night of 10-11 February 1941© IWM (CH 3139)

On September 5th another communication came through confirming the allotting of yet another eight aircraft so that 7 Sqn. could form a second flight – the note must have raised a few eyebrows across the station, as there wasn’t enough yet for one.

Being a new aircraft, 7 Sqn. crews had to perform a range of tasks on it, many of which they relished, completing over and over so they could get to know the aircraft and her delicate intricacies. One of these was loading the enormous bomb bay, and depending upon the load, it could be in one of twelve different configurations. Here the crews got to find the first of its many faults, the cables to haul the bombs up into the bays were too short, so it couldn’t, at this point, accept a full complement of bombs. What use was a bomber with only half a load?

Fuel consumption tests were next. On September 29th, F.O. T. P.  Bradley D.F.C., took off on a cross-country flight in N3640, the first Stirling to arrive at Leeming. During the flight the aircraft developed engine problems forcing it to crash at Hodge Branding in Lancashire (this location may be an error in the ORB). In the crash the aircraft struck a wall ‘writing it off’, luckily though the crew managed to avoid any serious injury.

Throughout October, 7 Squadron’s Operational Record Book*1 read badly, “Teething troubles seriously interfered with the programme of intensive flying“, hardly a glowing testament to a new aircraft. With that though, on 29th October, 7 Sqn. moved out from Leeming transferring across to Oakington in Cambridgeshire, where they continued to be dogged by serious issues. Comments such as “continual modifications interfering with squadron activities” and the training flights taking place in “the two or three aircraft more serviceable than the others” clearly showing the frustration of the squadron as they struggled to get to grips with the new aircraft.

Meanwhile Leeming’s resident Whitleys would be playing a large part in Bomber Command’s operations, flying many missions over Europe. On the night of October 15th 1940, three Whitleys of 10 Squadron were lost. The first, P4952, ran out of fuel trying to find and airfield in thick cloud. The pilot Sqn. Ldr. K. Ferguson gave the bail out order, and all crew members landed safely. The second Whitley T4143, on the same mission to the Stettin oil facility,  also ran out of fuel, and without radio contact the pilot also ordered the bail out. Unfortunately two of the crew were killed, one of whom, had only lost his brother a matter of weeks earlier in the same squadron. Sgt. Leslie Neville (age 26) and his brother Sgt. Brian Neville (age 19) had joined on the same day, and their service numbers were  only 4 digits apart. The third aircraft lost that night, Whitley P4993, struck a balloon cable whilst on its way to Le Harve. Sadly all five crewmen were lost that evening, their bodies being returned to their respective homes.

In the following month, November 1940, another short stay squadron appeared at Leeming in the form of 35 Squadron, the first unit to be equipped with that other new four-engined heavy, the Halifax MK.I. Designed initially to meet Specification P.13/36, it took its maiden flight on 25th October 1939 and would go on to form 40% of the RAF’s heavy bomber force.

After being disbanded at RAF Upwood early that year, 35 Squadron then reformed at Boscombe Down (7th November 1940) taking on their first Halifax, L9486, flown by F.O. M.T.G. Henry and his crew. On the 20th, the squadron moved across here to Leeming, to come under the control of 4 Group taking on the prototype Halifax L7244 from the Ministry of Aircraft Production (M.A.P)  for ‘dual’ purposes. The aircraft was ferried in by Wg. Cdr. R.W.P. Collings AFC, the squadron’s first Commanding Officer along with his crew. On December 5th, 35 Squadron would then transfer to Linton-On-Ouse where it would, within a matter of days, lose its first Halifax (L9487) in a tragic accident with the loss of all on board. The aircraft, which is thought to have crashed because a fuel cap had been left off, had only had 4 hours of flying time before crashing at Howefield House, near Baldersby St. James in Yorkshire*2. Whilst at Linton-On-Ouse, 35 Sqn. would receive many new pilots, one of whom, P.O. Geoffrey L. Cheshire DSO.,  would go on to achieve amongst others, the DFC and the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He would also go onto lead 617 Sqn. and not only be the youngest group captain in the RAF, but one of the most highly decorated pilots of the entire war.

After all these arrivals and subsequent departures, Leeming was then left with just its original 10 Squadron, which meant that the winter – summer period 1940/41 was relatively quiet in terms of operational movements in or out of Leeming. 10 Sqn. performing their role as best they could with their Whitleys.

December 22nd 1940, brought the last Leeming fatalities for the year. On take-off for a training flight,  10 Sqn. Whitley P4994 ‘ZA-U’ struck the roof of a farm house located beyond the end of the runway. In the resultant crash, one crewman was killed – Canadian P.O. Ross Flewelling. Two further crewmen were injured whilst the forth escaped unharmed.

Two Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark Vs of No. 10 Squadron based at Leeming, Yorkshire in flight © IWM (CH 4451)

The introduction of the new heavy bombers was not smooth. A third, the Manchester from Avro, merely compounded the issues already being faced by bomber and ground crews. Faced with unreliable mechanics and poor handling characteristics, regular flying was now being further reduced by continual poor weather, making maintenance, flying practise and life generally miserable on the ground as well as in the air. 10 Sqn. would be subjected to gales, severe icing and heavy rain, airfields across Britain were fast becoming churned up and boggy.

It would not be long into 1941 before casualties would be incurred. 10 Sqn, who were now beginning their own transition to Halifaxes, were still operating  Whitleys, and on the night of 16th – 17th January, they sent them to the port at Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s North Sea coast. With eight aircraft taking off around 18:30, they would briefed at Linton-On-Ouse where the night’s operations were being commanded from. At 21:15 hrs Whitley T4220 piloted by F.O. H Skryme would report in that the mission had been successful and that they were on their way home. It would be the last time the crew were heard from, and the aircraft along with its occupants were recorded as missing at 04:30 hrs. The crew of T4220 were never heard from again, their aircraft, nor they, were ever found.

The implementation of a new directive saw Bomber Command’s focus change to oil production facilities. Some seventeen sites were earmarked for attacks, over 80% of Germany’s production was going to soon be on the receiving end of Bomber Command. Implementation of a second, and parallel directive that focused on maritime operations, would then follow leading to attacks on docks, ports and shipping facilities particularly those located along the French coast.

By September 1941, things would change again at Leeming.  77 Squadron – another Whitley Squadron – would arrive, staying here until the early summer of 1942. With a history dating back to the First World War it was later resurrected by the renumbering of ‘B’ Flight of 102 Sqn in 1937. One of 77 Sqn’s Commanding Officers whilst at Leeming would be Wing Commander Don Bennett, the later Commander of 8 Group and the Pathfinders.

Like many units, 77 Squadron’s transition between its former base, RAF Topcliffe and its new base RAF Leeming, occurred whilst operational sorties remained in progress. On the very day the transfer began (September 2nd), aircraft were ordered to a raid on Frankfurt. On return from this operation, many of the squadron’s aircraft landed directly at Leeming rather than returning to their former base RAF Topcliffe.

On their next sortie, their first official Leeming mission, 77 Sqn. would lose three aircraft, Whitleys: Z6654 flown by P. Off. Havelock, (classed as missing); Z6668 flown by Sgt. D. Mercer (loss of all onboard) and Z6824 flown by Sqn.Ldr. A. Hanningan, with the loss of all but one. It had proven to be a bad start for the squadron at Leeming.

The next ten days were consistently poor weather with rain and mist preventing operational flying for the squadron. Indeed the remainder of October followed a similar pattern, rain or mist interspersed with operations. During these flights, which took the squadron to Wilhelmshaven, Le Harve, Kiel, Hamburg and Cherbourg, casualties were light allowing the squadron to settle into their new home.

Leemings’s long standing squadron 10 Sqn, began replacing their Whitleys with Halifaxes in December 1941. It was at his point that the squadron would be split; a detachment moving to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, in a move that would mark the beginning of change for this long standing resident of Leeming.

The beginning of 1942 saw air operations focus on the German Cruisers located at the French port at Brest. With successive operations attempting to sink, or at least cripple the ships, it became a thorn in the side of not only Bomber Command, but the Government as well, who as a result of these failed operations were to suffer a great humiliation. The culmination of these attacks saw many Bomber Command squadron losses along with six Swordfish crews of 825 Naval Air Squadron take part in ‘Operation Fuller’, a disaster that saw the loss of so many lives.

With the appointment of Harris as Command in Chief of Bomber Command, little immediately changed. Operations carried on as usual and at Leeming 77 Sqn visited St. Nazaire from which two aircraft were lost on their return trip. With a further 10 Sqn Halifax also being lost that night, it was a bit of a blow for the station.

The further loss of three more 77 Sqn aircraft at the end of February,  and four more in March – Z9293 ‘KN-D’; Z9312 ‘KN-S’; Z6975 ‘KN-V’ and Z9221 ‘KN-G’ – meant that the squadron was taking a bit of a battering and that the Whitley was perhaps beginning to show its outdated status. Indeed, April followed with several ‘softer’ targets being attacked without loss. Then on May 6th – 7th, the squadron began its departure from Leeming to Chivenor and a spell of Maritime Duties with Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would later return to Bomber Command but their spell at Leeming was now over, and this chapter of their life was closed.

The summer of 1942 would see big further changes at Leeming. In May, the departure of 77 Sqn. on the 6th along with the move of another section of 10 Sqn. to Aqir south of Tel Aviv, meant that numbers were once again low. The final departure of all remaining 10 Squadron personnel in the August 1942, meant that Leeming was now all but empty, and it would be passed over to the control of the Canadians and 6 Group Bomber Command. The new Command would then retain control of the airfield operating a small number of Canadian Squadrons right the way through to the war’s end.

With that, new times lay ahead. The four engined heavies were beginning to make their mark, the lighter of the bombers were starting to be withdrawn from front line service, and the focus on shipyards was now about to shift. The Canadians were about to arrive at Leeming.

Australian Flt. Sgt. Rawdon H. Middleton VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF

100641

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton (RAAF)*1

Middleton (s/n: 402745) was born on 22nd July 1916 in Waverley, New South Wales, Australia. Son of Francis and Faith Middleton, he was educated at Dubbo Hugh School. Nicknamed ‘Ron’ by his friends, he was a keen sportsman excelling at many sports particularly cricket and football. After leaving school, he worked as a ‘Jackaroo’ (cattle handler) until joining the Royal Australian Air Force on the 14th October 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme. He learnt to fly at Narromine, New South Wales and then was sent to Canada for further training in preparation for his posting to the UK. He finally arrived in Britain in September 1941, as a second pilot, and his first operational squadron was No. 149 Squadron RAF, who were flying Short Stirling bombers out of both Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall in Suffolk.

P01019.003

Five student pilots from No. 7 Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) course at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School (5 EFTS) Narromine. They are left to right: Aircraftman (AC) Gordon Orchard; AC Douglas Scott; Leonard Reid; Pilot Officer (PO) Douglas Wilberforce Spooner (DFM); PO Rawdon Hume Middleton*2

Middleton’s first experience of operations, was in a Short Stirling over the Rhur, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. After spending a short time with 149 squadron he moved temporarily to No. 7 Squadron (RAF).

In July 1942, as first pilot, he was given his own aircraft and crew, it was also around this time that he returned to 149 squadron.

Their first mission together would be on July 31st, to bomb the strategic and heavily defended target, Düsseldorf. Middleton and his crew would continue to fly together and took part in other prestigious missions; namely Genoa on the 7th of November and his 28th mission, Turin on the 20th November. His 29th and final mission, would take place on the night of 28/29th November 1942.

In the early evening of the 28th he took off in Stirling BF372 coded ‘OJ-H’ as part of the raid on the Fiat works in Torino, Italy, along with 227 other aircraft which included – 117 Avro Lancasters, 46 Short Stirlings, 45 Handley Page Halifaxes, and 19 Vickers Wellingtons.

Middleton’s crew consisted of: Ft.Sgt. Leslie Anderson Hyder, Ft. Eng: Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey, Bomb Aimer F.O. G. R. Royde, Wireless Operator: Sgt. John William Mackie; Gunners: P.O. N. E. Skinner, Sgt. D. Cameron and Sgt. H. W. Gough. Three of these had already completed their tour of 30 operations and could have left. However, their dedication to Middleton kept them together.

The mission would take the aircraft over the Alps and the Stirling, laden with bombs and fuel combined with having a notoriously poor ceiling, had to negotiate through the mountains rather than fly over them. A factor that often resulted in a high number of casualties.

Once over the target area, OJ-H was subjected to an extreme flak barrage. With poor visibility, Middleton had to make three passes over the target area to enable his crew to positively identify it. It was on the third pass that a shell burst hit the cockpit. The resulting damage was severe, and fragments had hit Middleton’s head badly injuring him. His right eye was lost and his skull exposed. There were further hits on the aircraft’s fuselage causing considerable damage to the control systems and airframe. Knocked unconscious by the blast, Middleton lost control and the aircraft plummeted through the skies to an altitude of around 800ft. The second pilot, Fl.Sgt. Hyder eventually managed to take the controls, release the bombs over the target and then pull the aircraft into a climb, safely reaching 1,500ft.

With his aircraft severely damaged, Middleton had a choice, get his crew to bail out over occupied France and certain capture, fly to Africa or head back to England; a journey that would last over 4 hours and put the aircraft at risk of attack and the crew in danger. Wanting to give them a fighting chance of getting home, he opted for the latter, and set a course for England.

SUK10501

Middleton was buried with full military honours at St. Johns Church, Beck Row. Suffolk.*3

The aircraft experienced a number of attacks as they crossed occupied France, but Middleton, fighting for survival, kept reassuring the crew that he would get them home. Eventually, and against all the odds, they made the English coast, and once over land Middleton ordered the crew to bail out. Five crewmen left the stricken aircraft whilst the other two remained to help him control it. Turning for the Channel, Middleton ordered the two remaining crew members to bail out, whilst he stayed at the controls, steadying the aircraft.

By now the Stirling was very low on fuel and it finally gave up the fight and crashed at 03:00 on the morning of November 29th 1942. Middleton, too injured and too weak to escape the wreckage, drowned within the aircraft fuselage. His two crew members, Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey (576050) age 19 and Wireless Operator Sgt. John William Mackie (994362) age 30, despite escaping, also drowned. Both the bodies of Sgt Mackie and Sgt. Jeffrey were washed ashore later that day on the 29th.

Middleton’s body remained in the aircraft, but was eventually freed from the wreckage by the action of the sea, and was washed ashore on Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in February 1943. His remains were taken to RAF Lakenheath and he was buried in St John’s churchyard, Beck Row, within sight of his airfield in Suffolk, with full military honours. Middleton was only 26 and only one mission away from ending his tour and returning home.

For his action, dedication and bravery, Flt. Sgt. Middleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to any serving member of the R.A.A.F in World War II. He was also posthumously awarded a commission as Pilot Officer, backdated to mid November before his sortie to Turin. Thirty years later, in 1978, Middleton’s V.C. was presented to the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra for safe keeping and preservation.

For their actions, the other crew members received three DFMs and two DFCs. Fl.Sgt. Leslie Hyder (DFM) was injured, P.Officer. N. Skinner (DFC) was also injured, along with Sgt. H. W. Gough (DFM). F.O. G. R. Royde (DFC) and Sgt. D. Cameron (DFM) escaped unhurt.

The London Gazette published a report on 12th January 1943. It said:

“Fl. Sgt. Middleton was captain and first pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack the Fiat Works in Turin one night in November, 1942. Very difficult flying conditions, necessitating three low altitude flights to identify the target, led to excessive petrol consumption, leaving barely sufficient fuel for the return journey. Before the bombs could be released the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and a splinter from a shell which burst in the cockpit wounded both the pilots and the wireless officer. Fl. Sgt. Middleton’s right eye was destroyed and the bone above it exposed. He became unconscious and the aircraft dived to 800 ft. before control was regained by the second pilot, who took the aircraft up to 1,500 ft. releasing the bombs, the aircraft meanwhile being hit many times by light flack. On recovering consciousness Fl. Sgt. Middleton again took the controls and expressed his intention of trying to make the English coast, so that his crew could leave the aircraft by parachute. After four hours the badly damaged aircraft reached the French coast and there was once more engaged and hit by anti-aircraft fire. After crossing the Channel Fl. Sgt. Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five left safely, but the front gunner and the flight engineer remained to assist the pilot, and perished with him when the aircraft crashed into the sea”.

SUK10500

Funeral service for Flight Sergeant Middleton. Air Vice Marshal H. N. Wrigley represented the High Commissioner for Australia (Mr S. M. Bruce) and the RAAF. The graveside service was conducted by Squadron Leader H. C. Thrush of Prospect, SA, RAAF Chaplain.*4

Middleton’s citation read:

“Flight Sergeant Middleton was determined to attack the target regardless of the consequences and not to allow his crew to fall into enemy hands. While all the crew displayed heroism of a high order, the urge to do so came from Flight Sergeant Middleton, whose fortitude and strength of will made possible the completion of the mission. His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.

In honour of Middleton’s bravery, Number 1 RAAF Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Wagga has renamed the club in his name, the “Middleton VC Club”, and he also appeared on one of the 1995 Australian 45c stamps. The dining hall located at the nearby (now American) base at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, has also been named in his honour.

Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC, St. John's Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Fl. Sgt. Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF, St. John’s Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Middleton was a brave and dedicated young man who gave his life to save those of his crew. Each and every one of them acted with the highest dedication, sadly for some, it cost them dearly.

Sources

*1 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image 100641, Public domain.

*2 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image P01019.003, Public domain.

*3 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10501, Public domain

*4 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10500, Public domain

Heroic tales – Aviation Trails.

RAF Methwold -History was made, War was won and Lives were lost.

Whilst visiting the Swaffham (Norfolk) area, this was perhaps more prominent than in many of the other places I’d been. Like other sections, this area was predominately American in nature, forming the back bone of the USAAF, bomber squadrons of the 8th Air Force. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found. Our first stop along Trail 8 is RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

Methwold village sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Methwold

One of the original hangars at Methwold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Methwold

Stores huts used for light industry

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

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

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

RAF Methwold

One of the former runways looking north-west.

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

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

Notes and further reading 

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

Methwold was originally visited in April 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham

There are many reminders of RAF Metheringham.

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

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

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

Sources and further reading.

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

*2 The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham.

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

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

RAF Metheringham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Metheringham

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

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

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

The full post can be seen in Trail 1. 

Loss of Wellington Z1327 – 17th February 1942

On February 17th 1942 a cross-country training flight was planned in which the crew of No. 460 Squadron RAF would fly from their base at RAF Breighton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to Peterborough, Harwell, Pershore, Sywell and then back to Breighton.

At 19:20 the Wellington MK.IV ‘Z1327’ (listed in the operational record books as V1327) took off. On board were a crew consisting of all Sergeants: Sgt. James Henry Ware  (RAAF) (s/n: 402897), Sgt. Robert Litchfield Tresidder (RAAF) (s/n: 402894), Sgt. William Leonard Ashplant (RAFVR) (s/n: 1170676), Sgt. Cyril Caradoe Davies (RAFVR) (s/n: 1052270), Sgt. Frederick Dutton (RAFVR) (s/n: 1006728) – the youngest member – and Sgt. Cyril Raymond Dickeson (RAFVR) (s/n: 1292128), a mix of pilots, wireless operators, observers and Air Gunners.

The initial part of the flight went according to plan and contact was made between the ground Station at RAF Holme-upon-Spalding Moor at 22:22 hours moments before the aircraft crashed into a hillside killing all on board. In the fire that followed the crash as Farnley Tyas near to Huddersfield, the Vickers Wellington was also destroyed being written off charge shortly after. It is thought that the aircraft was off course by almost 40 miles and may have been looking for landmarks, when it hit the roof of a cottage  sending it crashing into the hillside.

This was the first 460 Sqn fatality since the squadron was formed in the previous November. Four of the crew remain buried together at All Saint’s Church, on the hill overlooking the village of Holme-upon-Spalding Moor.

All Saint's Church

Sgt. C.R. Dickeson (RAFVR)

All Saint's Church

Sgt. W.L. Ashplant (RAFVR)

All Saint's Church

Sgt. R. L. Tresidder (RAAF)

All Saint's Church

Sgt. J. H. Ware  (RAAF)

Sources:

AIR 27/1907/1 National Archives.

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading.

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

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

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

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

RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

RAF Waterbeach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporal C. P. Eva

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will remember them…

War Graves Cemetery - St Mary's Great Bircham

St Mary’s Great Bircham

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

Ypres 007

Tyne Cot, Ypres

DSC_0587

The American Cemetery Madingley

Anthem for Doomed Youth

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

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

Wilfred Owen (18/3/1893 – 4/11/1914)