Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 trail (Part 3).

In Part 2 we saw the first of the Canadian units form at Dishforth, still a new unit, they very quickly become part of the new 6 Group (RCAF).  As they began operations over occupied Europe, they quickly learnt that war brings casualties. We also see that Dishforth soon becomes ‘upgraded’ to a Standard ‘A’ specification airfield, and then the Canadians move out and a new training unit move in. The aircraft now get bigger.

The new year brought new changes both at Dishforth and within the RAF. Expansion of the force saw a new Group born, that of 6 (RCAF) Group, and after some four years of wrangling between the Canadians and the British, all but two of the Canadian squadrons, and their airfields, were transferred over to RAF control. The formation of the Group was with mixed emotions though, the Canadians having no control nor say over its operation, but still paying the bill for the squadrons for the duration of the war – a rather one sided agreement in the eyes of the Canadians. However, the expansion increased Squadron numbers, now some 37% of the RAF’s pilots were from the Dominion and of these, almost two-thirds were Canadian.

On January 1st 1943, 6 (RCAF) Group was therefore officially up and running, and it would be now that 426 Sqn would become operational.

Their start to the war began with an attack on the French port at Lorient on the night of 14th/15th January. 6 Group’s first attack as an operational group, was part of a 122 strong aircraft formation, sending nine Wellingtons and six Halifaxes. Only two aircraft were lost that night, both Wellingtons, one a Polish crew from 300 Sqn and the other a Canadian crew from 426 Sqn.

The aircraft, piloted by 21 year old P.O. George Milne (s/n:J/9355), was lost without trace, presumably crashing into the sea on its way to the target, it was not heard from since leaving Dishforth at 22:37.

Within a month of 6 Group’s inauguration, 426 Sqn would suffer a heavy blow when its Commanding Officer Wing Commander Blanchard would be shot down whilst returning from Germany. The aircraft, a Wellington III ‘X3420’ was shot down by Hauptmann Manfred Meurer near Limburg with the loss of all six crewmen. It was a bitter blow to the fledgling squadron.

The role of commander then passed to Wing Commander Leslie Crooks DFC a non-Canadian, he would lead the squadron into battle on numerous occasions. A brave and determined leader, he would soon add a DSO to his collection, dutifully awarded after surviving an attack from a night fighter, when he nursed the stricken bomber home. Unable to land the aircraft due to its extensive damage, he ordered the crew to bail out leaving the Wellington to its ultimate and final fate.  Crooks, would go on to lead further operational missions with the squadron, but sadly his luck would run out over Peenemunde on the night of August 17th/18th 1943 when he was lost for good.

The time then came to upgrade Dishforth, its now unsuitable surfaces needed replacing and the airfield needed bringing up to ‘modern’ standards. The two Canadian units moved out – 425 Sqn to North Africa in May, and 426 Sqn to Linton-On-Ouse in June. That left the airfield operationally silent. The bulldozers and earth-movers then moved in;  its three concrete and tarmac runways were constructed, and the whole site was upgraded to the Class ‘A’ specification. By November the works were all but complete and it was handed over to No.61 Training Base, 6 (RCAF) Group, led by the transfer in of 1664 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) operating the four engined heavy the Halifax Mk.III.

Formed in May 1943 at Croft, they were renamed 1664 (RCAF) ‘Caribou’ HCU on moving to Dishforth and were primarily a training unit converting pilots onto Halifaxes from other aircraft – usually twin engined bombers like the Wellington. One of their first customers was the former Dishforth unit 425 Sqn, who returned from Tunisia with their Wellingtons to convert over to the Halifax over the next month. By mid December they were all done, and they departed for RAF Tholthorpe where they picked up their new aircraft.

RAF Dishforth

A rather sad end to the Watch office.

Converting crews to the four engined types was no easy task, and whilst crews were experienced, accidents did still happen.

The first Dishforth blow came to 1664 (RCAF) HCU two days before Christmas 1943. Halifax V ‘ZU-C’ crashed after getting into difficulties whilst on a night training flight. The aircraft was partially abandoned, but three of the crew were killed and a further two were injured. This tragic accident would not be the last for the Dishforth unit though, and would draw 1943 to a sad close.

Some of these accidents were understandably down to the inexperience of crews on the new type, as the night of January 30th 1944 showed. Halifax V DG308 flown by F.L. J. Bissett DFM along with a student, came into land at Dishforth. The student inadvertently lowered the bomb doors rather than the flaps causing the aircraft to come in too fast. Bissett, in an effort to avert a catastrophe, swung the Halifax off the runway subjecting it to great stresses. As a result of this action, the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft fell on its belly severely damaging it. But Bisset had done his job, and the student had learnt a valuable lesson.

With two further accidents on the following night, one due to a strong cross wind and the second when the aircraft hit high ground due to excessive drift, the training programmes were proving hard going for the Dishforth unit.

For some crewmen there was even the misfortune of multiple crashes, and for one man in particular, these unfortunate events occurred in the space of just one week.

For Sgt. H. (Ray) Collver, mid March would be his worst week. During a training flight on the 16th, his Halifax swung on landing, badly damaging the undercarriage. Thankfully however, there were no major injuries and all walked away relatively unhurt. But then on the night of 21st/22nd, he was on a night training flight (thought to be a nickle flight), when the port inner engine failed, and refused to feather. The cause of the problem was not clear, but the aircraft began to shake violently as a result. Before coming down in Derbyshire, Sgt. Cullver gave the order to abandon the Halifax, two of the crew escaping through the nose hatch. By then though, the bomber was too low for others to escape, the remainder of the crew were effectively trapped inside. When the aircraft hit the ground, two of the four left on board were killed, the remaining two Sgt. Russ Pym and Sgt. Cullver were injured, Cullver being thrown clear as the Halifax struck a bank aside a road*1.

On many occasions though, pilot error was not a cause, engine faults seeming to have been the primary cause of the aircraft’s demise; problems that either required an engine to be shut down or engines failing, seeming to be high on the list of causes for the squadron’s losses.

During August a Lancaster Finishing Flight was set up within the HCU at Dishforth, its job to polish pilots and crews in their Lancasters before returning them to operational units. Loses here would be far lower.

By the years end, the HCU would have lost some fifty aircraft on training flights, which for a training unit, was a substantial number of heavy aircraft and for the Command.

With the close of the war ahead, changes are in the pipeline for both the Royal Air Force and Dishforth. With the need for bombers diminishing, a new form of aircraft arrives and in good number. In the final part we see Dishforth head in to the jet era but opportunities are missed and sadly it gets left behind, its future then looks bleak.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 trail (Part 2).

After seeing Dishforth’s pre-war construction and arrival of its first squadrons in Part 1, we head in to 1941, more trips to Germany and a special mission to Italy.

The beginnings of 1941 were much the same for the two Dishforth units. Trips to Germany were very much the order of the day. But on February 3rd, six Whitleys from 51 Squadron were sent as part of a force to blow up the aqueduct crossing the Tragino river in the Campania province of southern Italy. Code named Operation ‘Colossus‘, it was a daring operation where troops would be parachuted into enemy territory, destroy their target and escape by submarine.

After departing to Mildenhall, the Dishforth aircraft then flew on to Malta, arriving at Luqa airfield after a long, eleven hour flight. On the night of the 11th, the plan was put in place. Two aircraft were to perform a diversionary attack on the marshalling yards at Foggia, whilst the remainder dropped members of ‘X’ Troop in the valleys near to the target. Whilst the aqueduct was successfully blown apart, none of the ground forces, nor the crew of one of the 78 Squadron Whitleys on the diversionary raid, managed to get home. All were unfortunately picked up by Italian forces and placed in POW camps. The raid being a success, had suffered high losses.

That same night, the remaining crews at Dishforth fared little better. On returning to the airfield following a raid on Bremen, they were ordered to divert to RAF Drem in Scotland. Four of the aircraft either misunderstood the instruction, got lost or ran out of fuel, resulting in each of them being abandoned over the British countryside. Unfortunately even abandoning an undamaged aircraft was not entirely safe, as nine of the twenty crewmen suffered injuries whilst doing so. All four of the aircraft were left to their inevitable and catastrophic rendezvous with mother Earth.

A new Bomber Command Directive drove the Group’s Whitleys to Germany night after night. Then a turn of focus to aircraft factories saw a change in operations, and although losses for Bomber Command were high, both the Dishforth units managed to scrape through relatively unscathed.

April saw the departure of 78 Squadron from Dishforth, this time though there would be no return, and their time here had finally come to an end.  Dishforth however, continued on, retaining its one operational squadron, that of 51 Sqn, who continued to soldier bravely on with their Whitley Vs.

Industrial targets were then once again at the forefront of Bomber Command’s agenda. 51 Sqn joining many other units on raids to the German heartland. In early May, they visited Ludwigshafen, followed by Dortmund, Duisburg and Dussledorf losing one aircraft on each operation (P5106, Z6663, Z6657, and Z6563 respectively) with the loss of all but five of the airmen on board.

Whilst 51 Sqn’s losses per operation continued to be relatively light, overall they suffered some of the highest losses for the year, some 43 aircraft being lost on operations throughout 1941. A tally that put them amongst the top five biggest losses of Bomber Command squadrons for the year.

As with many bomber stations, support and training flights also operated from these larger airfields, Dishforth was no different with 1512 Beam Approach Training Flight (formally 12 Blind Approach Training Flight) forming here in October 1941. The unit trained pilots to land in poor visibility using a system designed ironically by the Germans. Previously known as ‘Blind Approach’, it was felt the the use of the word ‘Blind’ was not very reassuring for pilots and so all units were changed to Beam. Also ironic as no beam was actually used, but more a single distorted radio transmission.

The dawn of 1942 saw more of the same for the Bombers of 51 Sqn and 4 Group. With a renewed focus on the German fleet anchored at Brest, Bomber Command would soon pay the price, and it would be Operation ‘Fuller’, that would be the cause.

On the night of February 12th, a determined and combined force of naval vessels and aircraft along with RAF aircraft, would attack the a force of mighty ships including the ScharnhorstGneisenau and Prinz Eugen as it made its way through the English Channel to home waters from Brest harbour. For over a year, the ships had been a thorn in the sides of the RAF, being damaged and repaired they could not be put out of action permanently. Patched up but not fit for heavy warfare, the attacks came in poor weather, ideal for a sea escape. The resultant allied losses were a tragedy for both services, and would leave them blooded and badly scarred.

Thankfully though, the fortunes of the Command would soon turn, albeit briefly on the night of the 27th-28th February, bringing a smile to both the faces of the British forces and the population as a whole. February would thankfully close on a good note.

The events began at Thruxton airfield, where twelve Whitley bombers were having holes cut in their floors and special doors added to allow paratroopers to jump through. This small force would be led by 51 Sqn W.C. Charles ‘Percy’ Pickard who, described as a tall, fair haired pipe-smoker, was known as a real character within 51 Sqn. Pickard’s character had been projected well beyond the mess halls of Dishforth though, noticeably after he took a leading part as Squadron Leader Dickson in ‘Target for Tonight‘; the RAF’s 1941 film about a crew on a bombing mission over Germany. Pickard would eventually leave 51 Sqn, transferring to the 2nd Tactical Air Force in Operation ‘Jerrico’, and the attack on the prison at Amiens where he met his death with almost seventy operations to his name.

The February raid was to be carried out by a small force of British Paratroops, which involved them being dropped into enemy territory to capture a secret German radar site. Once established, they were to remove vital components from the radar and bring them back to England for analysis. The raid, whilst not without its hiccups, was a huge success in the war of the electronics, and not only allowed the British to examine the workings of the radar, but also provided them with a prisoner who was one of the operational technicians at the site. The night had been a real coup, and a much needed morale booster for the RAF and the UK’s population. Known as the ‘Bruneval Raid‘, Britain now had a significant insight into the German Wurzburg radar system, and 51 Sqn played a major part in delivering those gallant men to their drop zone. For his part in the operation Pickard was awarded a bar to his DSO.

Charles ‘Percy’ Pickard (believed to be at Lissett, Yorkshire) with his dog ‘Ming’.(© IWM CH 10251)

In May 1942, 51 Sqn received orders to depart Dishforth for the base at Chivenor in Devon. This too would be their final farewell to the Yorkshire base as they would not be returning. By the end of the year they would be replacing their Whitleys with the Halifax, their last Whitley being lost whilst at Dishforth a few days prior to their departure on the night of 23rd/24th April 1942.

A short period of calm then led to further changes. It was during this ‘quiet period’, that the 1472 (Army Co-Operation) Flight formed here at Dishforth. Using only light aircraft: Battles, Tomahawks Hurricanes and Masters, they didn’t require the lengthy runways that heavy bombers needed, and operated in conjunction with land based forces primarily on training operations.

It was after this that a new Canadian unit 425 (Alouette) Sqn RCAF was formed here at Dishforth. The first ever French-Canadian unit formed in the U.K., it was led by W.C. J. St. Pierre, and was part of a Canadian force manned totally by Canadian personnel. It would not be ready and operational though until the October of 1942.  It was also during October that another Canadian squadron would be formed, also here at Dishforth, that of 426 (Thunderbird) Sqn led by W.C. Sedley Blanchard. A third unit, that of 6 Group’s Communication Flight also joined the Canadians here at Dishforth.

Both these squadrons flew the twin-engined Wellington, with its remarkable geodetic design, a sturdy aircraft it would be the main type used by the two squadrons for the next year.

425 Sqn spent the next weeks building up to operational status, training flights both cross country and in the local area being carried out when the weather permitted. It was on one of these flights that the first Wellington was lost from the squadron. During a fighter affiliation exercise, in which cloud ranged from 3/10 to 6/10 at 3,000 ft to 10/10 at higher altitudes, the 403 Sqn Spitfire ‘attacking’ the Wellington collided with the nose turret bringing down both the Spitfire and the Wellington. There were no survivors from the bomber.

Once declared operational, 425 Sqn’s inauguration into the war soon occurred. On the night of October 5th/6th 1942, they took part in a raid on Aachen. 101 Wellingtons, almost half the force, were sent to the town but weather was poor and target markers were way off track, some 17 miles away over the Dutch town of Lutterade. As a result, little significant damage was done to the target, and it was the Dutch who bore the brunt of the force. To make matters worse, 425 Sqn lost one of its aircraft, Wellington III ‘X3943’ KW-G piloted by Sgt. O’Driscoll. The first operational loss for the squadron with the entire crew being killed when the aircraft crashed in Essex on its return home.

In Part 3, we head in to 1943 where we see the official formation of 6 Group (RCAF) – the Canadians officially arrive in Yorkshire and the Group begins operations over occupied Europe. Dishforth plays a big part in those operations.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth Along the A1 trail (Part 1).

As we continue our journey north along the A1, the ‘Great North Road’, (Trail 54, Trail 57) we come across an airfield that began life in the prewar expansion period of the 1930s. Destined to become a bomber station for a large part of the war, it soon returned to its initial role as a training base, a role it carried on after the war’s eventual end. Today the base is still active but in the hands of the British Army, and although no major flying takes place, it does occasionally see the odd aircraft pass by.

This airfield sits alongside the A1 road, this offers opportunities to see what’s left and observe the goings on at the base. On the next part of our trail along the A1, we stop off at the former RAF Dishforth,

RAF Dishforth.

As a prewar airfield built during the expansion period, Dishforth was a ‘non-dispersed’ airfield, distinguished by having both its accommodation and technical areas located closely together. Initially it fell under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, but would soon transfer to 4 Group for use as a training airfield for their bombers; a Command which in itself was also born out of the expansion era of the 1930s.

By the war’s end, Dishforth would have grown considerably, eventually being capable of catering for over 2,500 personnel, and upgraded to the standard Class ‘A’ specification with three concrete and tarmac runways (1 at 2,000 and 2 at 1,400 yards in length). The main runway runs parallel to the main A1 road, in a north-west to south-east direction, with the two subsidiary runways running east / west and north-east to south-west, thus forming the recognisable ‘A’ shape of this airfield design.

Around the perimeter were twenty-seven pan and eleven spectacle hardstands, and to the south-east, located between the legs of the ‘A’, were five ‘C’ type hangars and a range of ancillary, technical and storage buildings. The Watch office, initially located between the hangers overlooking the pan, was later rebuilt to the north of the airfield over looking the entire flying site now to the south.

Alongside Dishforth came airfields at Linton-on-Ouse, Driffield, Leconfield and Finningley, all of which would see a range of light and medium bombers grace their runways. Other major airfields built at this time included the bomber bases at Wyton and Upwood in Cambridgeshire, Scampton in Lincolnshire and the fighter airfield at Debden in Essex, the RAF was indeed expanding at great speed.

On January 12th 1937, the first of the squadrons arrived, 10 Squadron RAF, with a mix of Heyfords and Virginias. The move was led by the advanced party, followed by the main party on the 25th and the rear party on the 2nd February. Whilst settling in and preparing the airfield for operations, they were joined by another squadron, 78 Sqn, also with Heyford IIIs.

K3489 the first production Handley Page Heyford the last biplane heavy bomber. These aircraft were well liked at the time and were, unbelievably, able to be looped as was seen at the 1935 Hendon Air show.  Note the retractable gun turret. (©IWM ATP 7352C)

Within a month of their arrival at Dishforth though, 10 sqn would begin to replace these now obsolete biplanes with Whitleys, flying both the MK.I and later the much improved Merlin powered MK.IV, until their eventual departure from Dishforth in July 1940. The first of these Tiger IX powered MK.Is arrived on the 9th March, followed by sporadic arrivals culminating at the end of June, with a full complement of aircraft; the last of these being Whitley K7195 on the June 25th.

One of the highlights for 10 squadron’s posting to Dishforth, was to perform a ‘set piece’ at the 1937 Hendon Air Show, five Dishforth aircraft performing well to the gathered crowds below. This was nothing new to the Squadron, having previously performed at Mildenhall for the King’s review and at Old Sarum for an Indian Army Officers School, both in July 1935.

Over the remainder of the year and into 1938, a number of observer calibration flights took place. These were later supplemented with squadron operations, under what was described as ‘war conditions’, and although repeatedly hampered by bad weather, the squadron managed 3,733 daylight hours and 752 night flying hours, over the two year period.

78 Sqn, which was officially reformed on 1st November 1936 under the command of Wing Commander M.B. Frew DSO, MC, AFC, was also assigned the obsolete aircraft. With a second flight forming in April 1937, they too soon began updating these models with both the MK.I and later in 1939, the MKIVa Whitleys.

Following the disbandment of the rather mashed together Air Defence Great Britain (ADGB) and the introduction of the four commands (Fighter, Bomber, Training and Coastal), Dishforth and its two squadrons would now fall under the control of the newly formed 4 Group. With Air Commodore A. T. Harris as its (short lived) lead, 4 Group’s headquarters made its move from Mildenhall to Linton-on-Ouse, only a few miles to the south-east of Dishforth. Yorkshire would now become the county synonymous with the Group and its aircraft.

4 Group had struggled obtaining a suitable bombing range to use with its Whitleys, Harris, in his book ‘Bomber Offensive‘, talks about being frustrated because he repeatedly came up against local objections. Abbotsford was one such site that dragged on largely due to objections about the local swan population. As it turned out, having a range actually kept people away and as a result the swans thrived!

The dawn of 1939 would herald a new era. January introduced Dishforth to the forthcoming events with the loss Whitley K7211 off the coast of Kent. The last message from the aircraft being received  at 18:20 on January 23rd. There then followed an extensive search, but despite the efforts of the Royal Navy, neither the aircraft, nor its crew, were ever found, and the Whitley along with its crew remains missing to his day.

The declaration of war by Neville Chamberlain in September 1939, shook the nation. It brought with it immediate mobilisation orders to the Group. Within days 10 Squadron were ordered to send eight aircraft on a reconnaissance and ‘Nickle‘ flight over northern Germany. Following Air Plan No. 14, they were loaded with propaganda leaflets, the aircraft then flew over the ‘target’ dropping these ‘paper bombs’ on the citizens below. Returning anti-aircraft fire was light and sporadic, and as a result, all aircraft returned without incident.

RAF Dishforth

Two of Dishforth’s five hangars.

On the night of the 21st, two more 10 Sqn aircraft were ordered out on another Nickle operation, this time over Bremen and Hamburg; an additional order was given to “create a disturbance in Berlin”. Again no enemy aircraft were encountered, and anti-aircraft fire was very light. But with that, and a flight of three more Whitleys on the night of 1st/2nd October, 10 Sqn had gained the honour of being the first allied squadron to fly over the German capital during wartime.

Meanwhile, Dishforth’s other squadron, 78 Sqn, were allocated as 4 Group’s Reserve Squadron, acting as a pool for training crews and a reservoir for the Group’s other front line squadrons. I wonder if, at the time, there were any reservations about such a move from those within the squadron.

However, by early October 1939 a move was on the cards for 78 Sqn. Linton-on-Ouse was now calling, and early in the morning of 15th the move had begun with the Whitleys landing at Linton. This move, a few miles south, would temporarily leave Dishforth with only one operational squadron.

This lull lasted until early December, when 51 Sqn joined those at Dishforth. Like other squadrons, they had ditched their ageing Virginias for the more modern Whitley and were now in the process of upgrading these to the MK.V.

The winter of 1939/40 was a harsh one, and as a result little flying took place from the snowed in Dishforth. With only a short lull in February, aircraft were well and truly ‘frozen in’ for the large part of the winter months. It was most certainly a cold start to the war, and even when the thaw came, the ground remained dangerous to fly from due to water logging from the melting snow.

Following the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, 4 Group’s aircraft began attacks on airfields and supply routes being used by the Germans. Both 51 Sqn and 10 Sqn visited several of these airfields including Aalbourg on the night of 22nd-23rd April. On this operation, one of 51 Sqn’s aircraft, Whitely IV ‘MH-G’ piloted by F.O. J Birch, was lost without trace not long after departing Dishforth at 21:50.

By July 1940, the Battle of Britain was in full swing and 10 Sqn were moving out; the period between January and July being filled with numerous and relatively uneventful trips to Germany. Barely cold, their vacant beds were quickly filled by 78 Squadron, who had previously departed to Linton-on-Ouse; now they were given orders to return back to Dishforth.

The month of July had been one of some confusion for the squadron, initial orders requiring they transfer to the unfinished RAF Leeming, the place where kit and materials had, by now, been sent. What’s more, they were also informed that they would continue performing the role of reserve squadron whilst at Leeming, but now however, on moving to Dishforth, they were made fully operational for the first time since war had broken out with Germany.

The move went relatively smoothly, aircraft were deposited at Topcliffe (Dishforth’s satellite) with personnel transferring directly to Dishforth. The move involved organising transport from not only Linton, but also York and Leeming too, such was the wide spread of both men and equipment. As a result, “very little useful work” was done, the primary objective being to reorganise the squadron following the confusion of the orders and counter orders over the previous weeks.

A Whitley at an unknown location revving up its engines. © IWM CH 681

As we leave 1940 behind and head to 1941, we see, part 2, what changes come to Dishforth. There are more ventures into Germany and a special mission to Italy that results in success but at a great cost.

The full page can be seen in Trail 61 – RAF Dishforth – Along the A1 Trail.

September 26th 1942, a near tragedy for three RAF Squadrons.

The Eagle Squadrons were three RAF Squadrons made up of American volunteers, their achievements and records are well-known and well documented, however, it was not all plain sailing for these determined and courageous flyers. For one Squadron in particular, 133 Squadron, September 26th 1942 would be a disaster, a disaster that would almost wipe out the entire flight of twelve airmen.

133 Squadron had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving at RAF Great Sampford, a satellite for RAF Debden. The ground crews were predominately British, assisting and training the US ground crews in aircraft maintenance and support. All the pilots however, were US volunteers, formed into three separate squadrons but under RAF control.

1st Lt Dominic 'Don' Gentile and Spitfire BL255 'Buckeye-Don', 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF.

1st Lt Dominic ‘Don’ Gentile and Spitfire BL255 ‘Buckeye-Don’. The photo was taken after 133 Squadron RAF was disbanded and absorbed into the USAAF as the, 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF. (@IWM)

133 Squadron would arrive at RAF Great Sampford on September 23rd 1942, the same day as 616 Sqn RAF departed, they would be the last operational unit to fully use the airfield before its eventual closure.

Initially flying the Spitfire VBs, they soon replaced them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise. It was so new and improved, that it remained on the secret list until after this particular operational flight.

On that fateful day, September 26th 1942, fourteen Spitfires of 133 Sqn took off from RAF Great Sampford in Essex, piloting those Spitfires were:

BS313 – F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) The only British pilot and leader
BS275 – P/O. Leonard T. Ryerson (O-885137)
BS446 – P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113)
BS137 – P/O. Dennis D. Smith (O-885128)
BR638 – P/O. G.B. Sperry (O-885112)
BS445 – P/O. Dominic “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile (O-885109)
BS138 – P/O. Gilbert G. Wright (?)
BS279 – F/Lt. Marion E. Jackson (O-885117)
BS447 – P/O. R.E. Smith (O-885110)
BR640 – P/O. C.A. Cook (O-885112)
BS148 – P/O. Richard “Bob” N. Beaty (?)
BS301 – P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr (O-885127)
BS140 – P/O. Gene P. Neville (O-885129)
Unknown  – P/O. Ervin “Dusty” Miller (O-885138) (not listed but known to have been on the flight).

They were to fly to RAF Bolt Head in Devon, where they would meet with 401 Squadron (RCAF) and 64 Squadron RAF, refuel and be briefed for the mission. A mission that was supposed to be straight forward and relatively uneventful.

The aim of the mission was to escort US bombers to Morlaix on the Brest peninsula. The usual commander of 133 Sqn, Red McColpin, was not placed in charge that day, instead he had been posted, and a British Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, was issued with the task.

McColpin was a strict disciplinarian and his leadership was admired by those who followed him. Without this leadership, 133’s preparation was slack and they ultimately paid the price for this.

After landing at 12:30 hours, they realised there were no facilities at Bolt Head for refuelling, and they would have to go with what they had. This would kick-start a catalogue of errors that would ultimately seal the fate of the flight. Following a briefing in which Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC and all but two of 133 Sqn pilots had failed to show up for, the flight (which included the sixteen 401 (RCAF) Squadron Spitfire IXs from RAF Kenley) took off at 13:50 hours. Of the fourteen 133 Sqn Spitfires sent to Bolt Head, only twelve would be needed, and two pilots were instructed to remain at Bolt Head, they were P/O. Ervin Miller, and P/O. Don “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile, they would be the luckiest two men of the squadron that day.

The briefing, a very vague and rushed one, instructed the flight to carry out a ‘Circus‘ mission escorting seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, who were bombing Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix in Brittany. When the squadron took off the weather was clear, and winds were predicted to be 35 mph at 24,000 feet, but 5 miles off the English coast, they encountered 10/10th cumulus cloud cover at 7,000 feet, and so had to climb above it so that they could locate the bombers more easily.

The take of was a mess, disorganised and lacking both radio information and in many cases maps, the aircraft were lucky not to collide with each other.

Of the three RAF squadrons involved in the mission, 401 would take the high position, 133 the middle and 64 Squadron, the lower. They were to form up over Bolt Head at 2,000 feet and then head at 200o at 180 mph to overtake the bombers before they arrived at the target. If they could not locate the bombers, the flight was to circle the target for three minutes and then depart.

As the flight approached the rendezvous area, one 133 Squadron Spitfire had to drop out of formation and return home, as he had encountered engine problems; this problem was thought to be due to his low fuel. The remainder of the flight  scanned the skies for any sign of the bomber formation, and after searching for some 45 minutes, they spotted the bombers, some 50 miles south of Brest. The bombers had in fact already turned for home after having discarded their bombs near to the Pyrenees.

By now the 301st BG had been recalled, as their fighter escort failed to materialise, whilst the 97th BG had continued on. However, due to the heavy cloud cover over the target area, they had been ineffective as no bombing of the target had taken place. The American bombers, who were only three months into their European air war, had inadvertently miscalculated a tail wind putting them off track well away from the Bay of Biscay.

1st Lt George H Middleton Jr 336FS, 4FG, 8AF USAAF. Former Eagle Sqn Spitfire pilot.

P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr of 133 Squadron RAF was shot down and taken Prisoner of War (@IWM).

The three squadrons formed up on the bombers at just after 16:45 hours, with 64 Squadron on the port side, 401 Squadron on the starboard and 133 Squadron behind. The whole formation then flew north for 30 minutes, at which point it became evident that the wind speed was in fact over 100 mph, and not the 35 mph as stated by the Meteorological Office, or at the briefing! It has since been revealed that this information was known to those in authority, but it had not been passed down the chain of command and the pilots were never informed.

The formation then spotted land, the bombers thought they were over Falmouth and turned right. 64 and 401 Squadron broke away maintaining height, but 133 Squadron dropped down below the cloud base and prepared to land.

133 Squadron then began to search for the airfield, and after searching in vain, they found a large town, this they hoped would give them the vital fix they desperately needed. Flying low over the houses they realised they were not over England at all but in fact still over France. The flight, uninformed of the 100 mph north-easterly wind at their altitude, had also been blown wildly off course, and after 1.5 hours flying time, the situation had suddenly become very severe indeed.

The Squadron flight Leader, Flight Lieutenant E.G. Brettell, wanting to ascertain his exact position, called up a ground direction finding station who provided a  bearing and heading – 100 miles off the English coast with a homing vector of 020o. It was at this point they suddenly realised they were over the port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German occupation.

Immediately, the sky filled with flak and small arms anti-aircraft fire. The pilot in the number 2 position, Pilot Officer Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140, took a direct and fatal hit, he was killed instantly. Three other aircraft were to be shot down in the melee that followed: Pilot Officer William H Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; Pilot Officer Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and Pilot Officer Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294 – all four were killed, and all four were awarded the Purple Heart.

2nd Lt. Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

The remainder of 133 Squadron struggling to defend themselves, they scattered and were forced to land out of fuel, either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

Of the seven 133 squadron pilots who crash landed on French soil, five were known to have been captured immediately and taken prisoner: P/O. G.B. Sperry; F/Lt.  Edward Brettell; F/Lt. M.E. Jackson; P/O. C.A. Cook and P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr., with a sixth, P/O. G.G. Wright, evading the Germans for several days before being captured later on.

Of these initial five, F/Lt. Jackson was injured in his crash and hospitalised for eight weeks. He was then taken to Stalag Luft III from where he was able to escape for about ten days by jumping from the roof of his cell house into a lorry load of evergreen branches that were being taken away from the camp.

Another Pilot, F/Lt.  Edward Brettell  DFC. was executed for his part in the Great Escape from the same prison camp, Stalag Luft III, whilst P/O. Robert E. Smith, the last remaining pilot, managed to abandon his aircraft evading capture, eventually returning to England on 18th January 1943.

The pilot who turned back early due to his own engine problems,  P/O. Robert Beatty,  crash landed his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel over the Channel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal and was able to give an account of the mission through what he heard over the radio.

Several of the 401 Squadron pilots,  who had continued on, also reported being low on fuel and gave their intention to bail out before land was finally sighted. One of these, P/O. Junius L. Hokan (s/n: J/6833), did have to bail out over the sea, he was last seen in a gradual dive, his aircraft heading seaward. His body was never recovered. Others in the flight that day only just made land fall, one crashed and was taken to hospital where he recovered from his injuries, the others just managed to reach either RAF Bolt Head or RAF Harrowbeer. The Operational Record Books for 401 Squadron state that “many casualties were avoided by the clear thinking and cool behaviour of all members of our Squadron“.

A full report of the days tragic events was issued to Fighter Command Headquarters by Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC, Squadron Leader Gaze and Squadron leader K. Hodson DFC.

S/L Gordon Brettell 133 Eagle Squadron

S/L Gordon Brettell, 133 Eagle Squadron, executed for his part in the Great Escape breakout at Stalag Luft III  (@IWM UPL 25574)

The effect on those left behind in 133 Squadron was devastating. The result of poor preparation, inadequate briefings and sub-standard communication between the Met. Office and Fighter Command had cost many lives, and very nearly many, many more. A number of postings to the Far East soon followed, and many lessons weren’t that day that led to improvements preventing such a tragedy ever happening again.

133 Squadron would continue to operate after this, transferring over to the USAAF being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, three days later as planned, leaving both RAF Great Sampford and the sad memories of that very tragic day far behind.

New York Times September 16 1942.

Sources and further reading.

Great Sampford appears in Trail 50.

National Archives: Operational Record Book 133 Sqn – AIR 27/945/2

National Archives: Operational Record Book 401 Sqn – AIR 27/1772/17

National Archives: Operational record Book 64 Sqn – AIR 27/590/41

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

RFC/RAF Allhallows – Kent.

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

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

My thanks to Mitch.

RFC/RAF Allhallows. (1916-1935).

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

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

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

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

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

Former RAF Allhallows Main Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

ABCT memorial Allhallows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mitch Peeke.

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

Sources and further Reading:

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust website

​ Southend Timeline website

American Air Museum website

 Imperial War Museum website

Village Voices Magazine

Allhallows Life Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

Post Script:

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

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

Sources and further reading.

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

BAE Systems Website

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

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

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

*4 Huntingdonshire District Council Local Plan Proposal

*5 Lochailort Investments Ltd, Webiste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

Guard house to the former airfield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

Upwood’s collection of buildings are numerous.

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

A scene typical of the buildings at Upwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generalfeldmarschall
Erhard Milch March 1942 (Source: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 1)

In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.

Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys.

Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.

RAF Warboys

The farm sign reminds us of the aviation link (it would appear that this sign may have recently been removed).

The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.

As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).

Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron,  Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.

However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1

The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.

In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.

Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off,  three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.

RAF Warboys

The remnants of the main runway are used for buildings.

On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.

Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream –  officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.

This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.

Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.

The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.

RAF Warboys

Industry marks the south-western perimeter.

As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.

For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.

So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.

On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.

RAF Warboys

Airfield defence in the form of an ‘Oakington’ pill box.

The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.

Further operations were carried out on the night of  27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.

Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot,  New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.

The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.

However, by early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Perhaps now the tide of misery would turn and Warboys crews would begin a new era in aviation history.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

The full trail appears in Trail 17