RAF Leeming Part 2 – The Canadians arrive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Lancaster C-GVRA

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

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

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

1.10.42.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for Lana Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It goes onto say:

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

it ends:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Leeming.

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

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

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staton's Whitley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 30th 1944 – Loss of Lancaster PB304 – 106 Squadron.

On Sunday July 30th 1944, Lancaster PB304 from 106 Squadron RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, crashed with the loss of all on board, along with two civilians, in Salford Greater Manchester.

Lancaster PB304, was a MK.III Lancaster based at RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, flying under the squadron code ZN-S. It was tasked to attack enemy strong points at Cahagnes in the Normandy battle zone following the Allied invasion in June.

The early briefing at 04:00 was not a welcome one, many men having been out the night before following a stand down order due to bad weather and heavy rain over the last two days. On board that day was: F/L. Peter Lines (Pilot); Sgt. Raymond Barnes (Flt. Eng.); F/O. Harry Reid RCAF (Nav.); F/O. John Harvey Steel (Air Bomber); Sgt. Arthur William Young (W.O/Gunner); Sgt. John Bruce Thornley Davenport (Mid-Upper Gunner) and Sgt. Mohand Singh (Rear Gunner)*1.

The operation, code-named Operation Bluecoat, would involve attacking six specific targets, each one identified to assist a forthcoming offensive by British land forces in the Normandy area.

After all the ground checks were completed and the signal given to depart, PB304 began the long taxi to the runway, take off was recorded as 05:55, but it is thought that this was ten minutes early with the first aircraft (ND682) departing at 06:05. Once in the air, the aircraft formed up alongside twenty other 106 Sqn aircraft,  meeting with a smaller formation from 83 Sqn at Coningsby before joining the main formation.

The weather remained poor with heavy cloud blanketing the sky between 5,000 and 10,000 feet, as the 183 Lancasters from No. 5 Group and one Mosquito headed south toward the Normandy coast.

With further poor weather ahead, signals were beginning to come through to abandon the mission and return to base, but communication between aircraft was garbled and difficult to understand, it may have been as a result of German interference broadcasting messages over that of the master bomber. The order to abort finally came through just after 08:00 even though some of the formation had released bombs on target indicators (TI) dropped by the Pathfinders. Smoke was by now mixing with the low cloud causing more confusion and difficulty in identifying the primary targets. Not all aircraft understood the message however, and many continued circling in the skies above Cahagnes. To make a difficult situation even worse, there was by now, an  approaching formation of over 450 American A-20s and B-26s along with just short of 260 P-51 and P-47 escorts on their way to France; the sky was full of aircraft in thick cloud and was an accident waiting to happen.

Difficult communication continued, some aircraft were seen disposing of their bomb loads over the Channel, whilst others retained them. Various courses were set for home, but with many airfields closed in by low cloud, alternatives were gong to be needed and alternative courses were issued to the returning bombers of each squadron.

106 Sqn were ordered to fly north along the western coast, passing over Pershore and on to Harwarden near Chester, before turning for home. The messages coming through continued to be misheard or misunderstood with several aircraft landing at either Pershore, Harwarden or Squires Gate at Blackpool. Gradually all aircraft managed to land, whether at home at Metheringham or at away airfields. Patiently the Metheringham staff waited, nothing had been heard from PB304 and they could not be contacted on the radio, something was wrong.

Precise details of the accident are sketchy, but an aircraft was seen flying low and in some difficulty. It passed low over Prestwich on the northern edges of Manchester, where it was later seen engulfed in flames. It twice passed over a playing field, where some suspect F/L. Lines was trying to make a crash landing, but this has not been confirmed. At some time around 10:10 -10:15 the aircraft came down resulting in a massive explosion, a full bomb load and fuel reserves igniting on impact. Many houses were damaged in the explosion with one being completely demolished.

As a result of the accident, all seven of the crew were killed along with two civilians, Lucy Bamford and George Morris, as well as, what is believed to be, over 100 others being injured all to varying degrees.

PB304 was the only aircraft lost that night, in a mission that perhaps with hindsight, should not have taken place. The poor weather and difficult communication playing their own part in the terrible accident in Salford on July 30th 1944.

RAF Metheringham

The Memorial at Metheringham pays tribute to all those who flew with 106 Sqn.

Notes and Further Reading.

*1 Operational Record Book AIR 27/834/14 notes Sgt. Young as Sgt. A.L. Young.

A book written by Joseph Bamford the Grandson of Lucy who was killed that night, was published in 1996. “The Salford Lancaster” gives excellent details of the crew, the mission and the aftermath of the accident, published by Pen and Sword, it is certainly worth a read for those interested in knowing more about the incident.

Carter. K.C., & Mueller. R., “Combat Chronology 1941-1945“, Centre for Air Force History, Washington D.C.

Freeman. R., “Mighty Eighth War Diary“, Jane’s Publishing. 1980

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading.

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

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

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

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

RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will remember them…

War Graves Cemetery - St Mary's Great Bircham

St Mary’s Great Bircham

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

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

Ypres 007

Tyne Cot, Ypres

DSC_0587

The American Cemetery Madingley

Anthem for Doomed Youth

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

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

Wilfred Owen (18/3/1893 – 4/11/1914)

RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’

RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P2)

After part 1, we continue at Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Holme has recently changed hands owing to the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries. 101 Squadron had departed and now 78 Sqn were moving in.

76 Sqn had been through a number of disbandments and reforms since its original inception in 1916.  Being reformed in 1941, it arrived here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor from Linton-on-Ouse, another Yorkshire base. It was truly a multi-national squadron, made up of Polish, Norwegian, New Zealand and Canadian crews.

76 Sqn would see the war out at Holme, progressing through a series of Halifax upgrades, from the Mk.V, to the better performing MK.III and onto the MK.VI, a model they used in the final operations on 25th April 1945.

Shortly after arriving at Holme, 76 Sqn would suffer their first loss, with the downing of Halifax MP-Q #DK224, on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943. On board this aircraft was Group Captain D. Wilson (RAAF) their station commander.  Of the eight men on board all but one (Sgt. R. Huke’s, parachute failed to open after he had baled out of the aircraft) survived, seeing the war out as POWs. Whilst the crew survived, albeit in captivity, it was none the less a blow to the station losing such a prestigious officer. The mission to Mulhelm saw 557 aircraft of mixed types attack and destroy 64% of the town including road and rail links out of the city, virtually cutting it off from the outside world. Whilst a heavy loss for those on the ground, it also suffered the loss of thirty-five aircraft, 6.3% of the force, a figure well above the ‘acceptable’ limit of Bomber Command losses.

File:Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-1945. CE91.jpg

Halifax B Mk.II, DK148 ‘MP-G’ “Johnnie the Wolf”, of No. 76 Squadron RAF rests at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, after crash-landing on return from an operation to Essen on the night of 25th/26th July 1943. The propeller from the damaged port-inner engine flew off shortly after the bombing run, tearing a large hole in the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner immediately baled out, but the pilot, F/L. C. M. Shannon, regained control of the aircraft and managed to bring the rest of the crew back to Holme. © IWM (CE 91).

Perhaps one of the more bizarre accidents to happen at Holme was the death of a car driver who ended up on the runway as aircraft were taking off. On December 7th 1944, Halifax MK.III #NA171 ‘MP-E’ piloted by F/O. W. MacFarlane had begun its take off run when the pilot noticed a car parked on the runway. Unable to stop or divert, he lifted the huge aircraft up over the car, but clipping it as he passed. The occupant of the vehicle was killed but the aircraft carried on relatively unscathed. This same aircraft was brought down later that month over Kola with the loss of all but one of the crew.

For the duration of the war, 76 Sqn would take part in some of the heaviest air battles over Germany: Essen, Koln, Hamburg, Nurnberg and Berlin, in which losses were sustained in all. By the war’s end, 76 Sqn had been credited with 5,123 operational sorties, in which they had lost 139 aircraft, the highest number of missions by any Halifax squadron.

By the end of the war, it was decided that Bomber Command was to be reduced, No. 4 Group would become a transport group, No. 4 (Transport) Group, a change of ownership meant not only a change of role but a change of aircraft too. The Halifaxes were swapped for C-47 Dakotas in May 1945, and three months later the unit transferred from Holme to Broadwell and eventually the Far East.

Other resident units at Holme including No. 1689 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight (15th February 1944 – 7th May 1945) were also disbanded as their services were no longer needed. Many of these training flights had already disbanded by the end of 1944, as the force was being cut back and reduced. The Spitfires, Hurricanes and other assorted aircraft being disposed of in various manners.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

One of two turret trainers still on site.

As 76 Sqn left, another Dakota unit moved in to the void left behind, but 512 Sqn, a short-lived squadron, left in the October and eventual disbandment in 1946.

For the next six years Holme-on-Spalding Moor was left in a state of care and maintenance, slowly degrading over that time. At this point Holme’s future took a turn for the better when No. 14 (Advanced) Flying Training School  was reformed in response to an increase in pilot training needs. Reformed along with a small number of other training flights such as 15 Flying Training School, at Wethersfield, they were short-lived units, operating aircraft such as Airspeed Oxfords. No. 14 AFTS disbanded at the end of January 1953 at Holme.

However, the demise of 14 AFTS was to allow the airfield to transfer to the USAF, for deployment of its bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). A move that would require extensive upgrading of the airfield including lengthening of the main runway to 2,000 yards. The USAF moved large amounts of equipment through Holme, while the main airfield at Elvington was also upgraded. The extensive work carried out here though would not to come to anything, and after three years the USAF pulled out leaving Holme empty once more.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The perimeter track bends round the former technical site.

However, it was not the end of Holme, the upgrading work meant that Holme airfield had a good long runway capable of taking the modern fast jets coming on-line. Blackburn Aviation Ltd, who were based not far away at Brough, saw the potential and began to carry out trials of the new Blackburn NA.39 ‘Buccaneer’. A rugged carrier-borne, high-speed, low-level strike aircraft, it went on to serve in both the Royal Navy and the RAF – the prototype (XK486) being first flown at RAE Bedford on 30th April 1958, piloted by Derek Whitehead.

As Brough could not accommodate the Buccaneer, the aircraft were towed on their own wheels, backwards, along the roads around the area. Protected by a Police escort, they were commonly seen in the back streets of Holme being prepared and test flown from the new runway at Holme airfield.

An aviation firm established by Robert Blackburn in 1911, Blackburn Aviation became an established aircraft manufacturer during the interwar and war years, producing models such as the T-4 Cubaroo of which only two were built, the B-2 trainer and the B-24 Skua, the first British aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft on 25th September 1939.

Blackburn concentrated on ship-borne aircraft, many, including the early variants, having folding wings. In the Second World War they produced the B46 Firebrand, a successful aircraft, of which they produced just over 200 models of different variants. The Buccaneer was their modern version and proved to be just as successful. In the 1950s they also produced the Beverley, which at the time was the largest transport aeroplane in the world.

Over the next 40 years, the British aircraft industry would go through major changes, big names like Blackburn were amalgamated into Hawker Siddeley Aviation, then British Aerospace and finally the modern BAE Systems.

Bruntingthorpe May 2016 106

AT the former RAF Bruntingthorpe, Buccaneers regularly perform fast taxis along the runway. A sight and sound that once graced Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

The change brought new opportunities for Holme. The development of the American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom allowed for testing at Holme, along with Harriers and Hunters of Hawker Siddeley fame. Trails of the Phantom included taking it to the extremes of its performance envelope, pushing the aircraft through maximum turns at supersonic speeds. Don Headley, Hawker Siddeley’s Chief Test Pilot at Holme, described the tests as “arduous” but “exhilarating nevertheless”.*3

Being a test pilot was a dangerous job, pushing aircraft to unknown limits. Deputy Chief Test Pilot with Blackburn Aircraft, Gartrell R.I. “Sailor” Parker DFC, AFC, DSM had to eject from the first prototype Buccaneer XK486 on 5th October 1960 when it got into difficulty following the artificial horizon breaking whilst in cloud. Both he and his passenger, Dave Nightingale, managed to escape the aircraft without injury. However, he didn’t have such a lucky escape when on 19th February 1963, the aircraft he was testing, Buccaneer XN952, went into an upright spin following a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) demonstration over Holme airfield.

In this manoeuvre, the aircraft flys in low enters a climbing loop and then releases the bomb near to the top of the loop, the aircraft completes the loop pulling away before the bomb strikes the target (also called ‘Toss’ or ‘Loft’ Bombing).  During the demonstration there was a loss of control due to a ‘roll-inertia coupling’ resulting in violent pitching and yawing, and loss of control as the aircraft rotated on all three axes. In the accident both Parker and his back seat observer, Mr Gordon R. C. Copeman (Senior Flight Test Observer), ejected from the aircraft, but Parker was too low, and Copeman fell into the burning wreckage after it had hit the ground. *4

Eventually on December 7th 1983, Buccaneer XV350 and Phantom XV429, took off  from Holme for the final time signifying the final closure of Holme airfield, a closure that ended a long history of aviation. With that, the name ‘Blackburn’ was gone forever, but the legacy of Robert Blackburn and his remarkable work in the aviation field would live on for many years yet.

No longer required or aviation purposes, Holme was sold off, the runways and Perimeter tracks were dug up, and the grounds returned to agriculture.

Sadly, the technical area which is now an industrial estate, is run down and tatty. Many of the original buildings are used by small businesses, furniture manufacturers, tool makers and car part suppliers. Buildings that are not used are run down and in dangerous conditions, fenced off they have a limited life span left. That said however, it remains quite intact and there are a good number of buildings left to see.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Sadly many of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and have only a short life left.

If approaching from the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor along Skiff Lane, you arrive at the first of three entrances. The first is the former perimeter track located at the north end of one of the secondary runways. The runway has long gone, but there is a hardstand still present, its large circular footprint giving a good indication of the nature of the site. This road leads round to the technical area and where the watch office was. A Post-war Fire Tender Shed does still stand here, but the office was believed  demolished in 1984. This road is gated and access is not permitted beyond here.

Continue along the road and a second entrance allows access to a small number of buildings of the former technical site. There is evidence across the road of further buildings but these have been removed leaving only their foundations visible. Continue passed here and you arrive at the main entrance, the two memorials are located just inside on the left hand side.  Continue along this road and you are entering the technical area, with a number of buildings on either side. Distinctly clear are the turret trainers and parachute stores, all in use with small businesses. At the end is one of the T2 hangars, re-clad and in use but inaccessible. Driving / walking round here you can see many of the former stores and admin blocks that formed the heart of the operations.

Some of these buildings are fenced off and in a dangerous condition, others have been better looked after, most are used by small businesses.

Commemorative memorials can be found at the former entrance to the site, including one to Group Captain (Lord) Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC, who commanded 76 Sqn before being posted to Marston Moor. A highly respected man, he fought for changes to the Halifax to improve its handling and performance, and also post war, for funding for the memorials that stand at the entrance. His record of achievement and dedication is well versed across the history books and internet.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Memorial to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.

Holme-on-Spalding Moor is a remarkable airfield that is steeped in history. From the early days of the 1941 to the end of 1983 it saw some of the most heroic acts and the greatest advances in aviation. It took the fight to the heart of Nazi Germany, it led the way in state of the art fighter testing, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes until its final dying day.

Its present condition does not sadly reflect the enormous contribution it, and its personnel played in those turbulent years of history. Whilst having a largely intact technical area, its condition is a sad reflection on the importance we place on these once busy and historical places. Even with considerable development between inception and closure, and an ever-changing facade, the main heart of Holme always remained, but today sadly, it is a heart whose beat is slowing and one that will no doubt eventually stop and die. A remarkable place indeed.

Not far from here are both the airfields at Breighton and Melbourne, both of which have flying activities still going on, ‘intact’ runways and a number of buildings are still present. Also in Holme village is the All Saints Church, sadly kept locked out of hours, it has a window of remembrance dedicated to the crews of 76 Sqn and their heroic battle against Nazi Germany. It also has a number of graves from those who never saw peacetime again. It is certainly worth a visit.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The base system was brought in following the need for more airfields at the end of 1942 when the United States was drawn into the war. To ease administrative and support problems associated with multiple airfields, they were combined into a groups of 3 (or 4) with a parent station and 2 (or 3) satellites. Overall command was given to the HQ airfield (or base) headed by an Air Commodore. Approved in February 1943, it was rolled out over the following year.

*2 Australian War Memorial, Article number P04303.010

*3 Caygill, P., “Phantom from the Cockpit“, Leo Cooper Ltd; First Edition edition (26 July 2005) Pg 134

*4 ejection-history Website accessed 27/8/18.

ORB AIR 27/1902/1 National Archives

The 458 Squadron website aims to preserve the Squadron’s history paying tribute to those who served.

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Midland Counties Publications (1994)

BAE Systems website, accessed 27/8/18.

RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P1)

In this next part of Trail 40, we head to the south-east of York, to an airfield that started off as a bomber airfield in the early stages of the war. As Bomber Command operations grew, so did the airfield, and so too did the casualties rise.

Post war, it went on to play a minor part in the cold war as an American air base, then like a phoenix out of  the ashes it rose to feature in the development of modern British fighter jets. Sadly, it all ended with the demise of the British aviation industry, now a handful of dilapidated buildings form the core of a rundown industrial estate that was once RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor (RAF Holme/Spaldington)

The parish of Holme-on-Spalding Moor is  the largest historic parish in the county of  East Riding, covering 11,514 acres, with  a history that goes back as far as the iron age. The majority of the parish was, before the mid 1700s, a moorland, a bog in many places, that only the brave or knowledgeable could safely cross. The village and surrounding area is dominated by the medieval All Saints Church, that sits on land called Beacon Hill, 45m above sea level, about half a mile to the north-east of the village. The village  sits approximately halfway between York and Hull, whilst the airfield itself lies a few miles south-east of the village in the small hamlet of Tollingham.

Construction began in late 1940 as a bomber airfield for the expansion of the RAF’s No 4 Group, one of forty-three built in Yorkshire. It would initially cover around 400 acres, taking land from four separate local farms, an area that extended to over 1,500 acres as the war progressed.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Many of the buildings still stand used as an industrial site.

Designed in the early stages of the war, as a parent station for Breighton and Melbourne (implemented after the introduction of the Base system in February 1943*1), Holme-on-Spalding Moor (or Holme) was built as a dispersed airfield with accommodation constructed to the north-east away from the main airfield site, the start of a new design aimed at reducing casualties in the event of an attack.  As a Scheme ‘M’ airfield, it would have one austerity measure ‘J’ type hangar and two type T2 hangars, designed to replace the former Type ‘C’ hangar. By the end of the war, these numbers would have been increased giving a total of five Type T2s and one ‘J’.

Whilst not a Class A airfield (implemented in 1942), Holme was built with three intersecting concrete runways, thirty-six dispersed hardstands and a watch office (designed to drawings 518/40 & 8936/40) built of brick, concrete and timber. As a parent airfield, the office would have a meteorological section attached.

The technical site was located to the north side of the airfield (within the legs of an upturned ‘A’ with the bomb store to the north-west and the dispersed accommodation area to the north-east. At its peak it housed upward of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank including nearly 500 WAAFs. For many, Holme-on-Spalding Moor was not a particularly pleasant stay, the locals objecting to the influx of airmen into their quiet community, forcing ‘nights out’ to go much further afield. Those who stayed here considered it bleak, cold and damp with few comforts, but like many personnel on Britain’s wartime airfields, they made the best of what they had.

Once the airfield was declared open, it was handed to No. 1 Group to train (Australian) bomber crews on the Wellington bomber. The first major squadron to arrive was 458 Sqn (RAAF), formed at Williamtown, New South Wales, under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Many airmen were posted to Canada to finish their training, before finally being sent to the UK and their first operational squadron. The first thirty-seven of these qualified airmen spent the majority of August 1941 en route to the UK, arriving at Holme later that month, where they joined with other commonwealth airmen to form the squadron. The first aircraft they would use was the Vickers Wellington MK.IV, a model they retained until January/February 1942, when they replaced them with the MK.IC. At the end of March that year, 458 Sqn transferred to the Middle East, retaining various models of Wellingtons for the remainder of the war.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Very easily visible is one of the few hardstands that survive at Holme today.

Whilst here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, 458 Sqn would focus on the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, taking part in operations that took them to numerous cities in both Holland and Germany.

On the night of 20th/21st October, ten aircraft from 458 Sqn  joined twenty-five other aircraft in a raid on the port of Antwerp. With other raids targeting Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and Emden, it would be a busy night for Bomber Command. On board one the of the 458 Sqn aircraft (Wellington IV #Z1218, ‘FU-D’) was: Sgt. P. Hamilton (Pilot); Sgt. P. Crittenden; P/O. D. Fawkes; Sgt. T. Jackson; Sgt. A  Condie and Sgt. P. Brown. The aircraft would depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor at 18:39, on the squadron’s first operational sortie. The weather that night was fair but cloud covered much of the target, and so many aircraft returned with their bomb loads intact. On route, just after midnight, Wellington ‘FU-D’ was shot down by a German night-fighter, with all but Sgt. Brown being killed.

The average age of these men was just 23, Sgt. Philip George Crittenden (aged 20) was the first Australian airman to be killed whilst serving in an RAAF Bomber Command squadron. He, along with the remainder of the crew, were buried in the Charleroi Communal Cemetery, Belgium, and is commemorated on Panel 106 at the Australian War Memorial.

Pilots of No. 5 Flight at No. 4 SFTS, Saskatoon, Canada. The majority of the students are recently arrived members of the RAAF, who travelled to Canada under the Empire Training Scheme. Third row back, left side:  Sgt Phillip George Crittenden 400410 (KIA 20th/21st October 1941)*2

A second 458 Sqn bomber (#R1765) was lost on the night of 22nd/23rd October, on operations to Le Harve. Hit by flak, the aircraft made it back to England where the crew baled out. Only one crewman, Sgt. Hobbs, failed to do so, his body was subsequently found in the bomber’s wreckage. A third Wellington was lost before the year was out, that of  #R1775 which lost contact at 20:35 on the night of 15th/16th November 1941, with the loss of all crewmen.

The October also saw the arrival of No. 20 Blind Approach Training (BAT) Flight, formed at the sub-station RAF Breighton, they moved here in the same month only to be disbanded and reformed as 1520 Beam Approach Training (BAT) Flight. This addition brought Airspeed Oxfords and Tiger Moths to the airfield, and was designed as part of the pilot’s training programme teaching night landing procedures.

January 1942 saw little change, with the loss of three further aircraft, one (#Z1182) ‘FU-G’ due to icing causing the aircraft to crash just after take off, a further two were lost 3 days later,  #R1785 was hit by flak and crashed over the target, with #Z1312 hitting high tension wires after returning home suffering flak damage from an aborted mission. In total there were twelve airmen killed and six injured in just three days, a terrible startto 458 Sqn’s entry into the European war.

During the February 1942, 458 Sqn began changing their Mk.IVs for MK.ICs, and then on March 23rd they moved out of Holme-on-Spalding Moor and set off to the Middle East, where they remained until the war’s end.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Original hangars once housed Lancasters, Halifaxes and Buccaneers!

This left 1520 (BAT) Flight the sole users of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, until the August when, for a short period of six weeks, 460 Sqn Conversion Flight stationed a flight of Halifaxes here from the sub-station at Breighton. The four engined heavies then went through a period of changes eventually taking on the Lancaster.

After their departure, the end of September saw another Wellington squadron arrive, that of 101 Sqn RAF. The squadron, who transferred in from No. 3 Group, remained off operations for a short while whilst they converted to the new Lancaster, a major change from the poorer performing twin-engined ‘Wimpy’.

It was during one of these training flights that 101 Sqn would suffer their first accident at Holme, when it was thought, a photo flash flare exploded causing structural failure of the  Lancaster’s fuselage whilst flying over Wales – all seven crewmen were lost in the tragic November accident. During the autumn and winter months training would continue as Wellingtons were gradually withdrawn from front line operations, and units converted to the four engined bombers, primarily the Lancasters. Holme-on-Spalding Moor was no different, and once over, 101 Sqn would continue where 485 Sqn left off, taking the fight to the German heartland. During 1942-43 they would lose six aircraft in non-operational flights and fifty-nine during operations.

During January 1943, the first three aircraft of the year would be lost; Lancaster Mk.Is #W4796 ‘SR-R’, #ED443 ‘SR-B’ and # ED447 ‘SR-Q’ were all lost on operations to Essen and Hamburg with no survivors. Twenty-one fully trained aircrew were gone along with their aircraft.

Whilst the Lancasters of 101 Sqn fared reasonably well compared to other units, casualties being generally light, there was one night that stood out above all others, a night that would devastate the crews of 101 Sqn.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The parachute store is now a tool shop.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, during the Battle of the Rhur, 141 Halifaxes, 255 Lancasters, 10 Mosquitoes, 80 Stirlings and 110 Wellingtons headed for Dortmund. A massive force, it was the largest single force below the 1,000 bomber raids so far, it was also the first major attack on Dortmund. Reports say that marking was accurate, but decoy fires lit on the ground drew many bombers away from the actual target. Even so, damage was extensive, with large areas of the city being flattened, over 3,000 buildings were either destroyed or damaged and 1,700 people either killed or injured. Sadly, 200 POWs were amongst those killed, alas a new record had been set for ground casualties. As for the Lancaster force, only six were lost, a small percentage compared to the other aircraft, but all six were from 101 Squadron.

All aircraft took off between 21:40 and 22:05 and headed out toward Germany. Of the six lost, one was lost without trace #W4784 ‘SR-E’ piloted by Sgt. W. Nicholson, and another ‘SR-F’ #W4888, piloted by F/O. N. Stanford, was shot down by a night fighter crashing in Friesland with the loss of six. The remaining four crashed either on their way out from, or on their return to, the airfield. ‘SR-G’, #W4863 piloted by Sgt. J. Browning (RNZAF) crashed at Scorton near to Richmond, Yorks; ‘SR-U’ #ED776, piloted by F/S. F. Kelly crashed short of the runway without injury; ‘SR-X’ #ED830, piloted by Sgt.F Smith hit trees near to Little Ouseburn, Yorkshire, and ‘SR-T’ #ED835 piloted by W/O. G Hough, was hit by flak but managed to return to Holme-on-Spalding Moor crashing a few miles away between Hotham and North Cave. On this night twenty airmen were lost, one was taken as a POW and seven sustained injuries of varying degrees. It would be the worst night for 101 Squadron for many months.

All Saint's Church

W/O. Gerald Hough killed on the morning of May 5th 1943 on 101 Sqn’s worse night of the war so far.

With the final loss taking place on the night of 12th June 1943, 101 Sqn would three days later, depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor for good, moving to Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire. A move that was triggered by the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries, Holme being taken over by No. 4 Group RAF.

The move would mean there would be no peace at Holme though, as 101 Sqn departed 76 Sqn arrived not with Lancasters though, but the other four engined heavy – the Halifax.

In Part 2 we see how 78 Sqn coped with the Halifax, an aircraft that was overshadowed by the Lancaster. Initially a poor performer, with improved engines it began to make its mark. It was slow process and in the meantime casualties for Halifax crews remained high. We also see what happened to RAF Holme post war, and how it played its part in the development of Britain’s jet fighters.

Duns Cemetery – Berwickshire.

In the graveyard at Duns, in Berwickshire, not far from the village and former airfield RAF Charterhall (Trail 41), are two graves of nationals a long way from home.

Both airmen died in service whilst flying from RAF Charterhall, an Operational Training Unit airfield that prepared night fighter crews before posting to relevant night fighter squadrons.

The first grave is that of Flt. Lt. William Devaux Woodruff Hilton (RCAF)  who died on 23rd July 1942.

Flt. Lt. Hilton (Duns Cemetery)

Flt. Lt. William Devaux Woodruff Hilton

Flt. Lt. William Hilton (s/n: C/1626) was born on May 17th 1916, to D’Arcy Hilton (himself an ex pilot of the US Army Flying Corps in the First World War) and Gladys Woodruff, in Chicago, Illinois. He signed up for a flying career joining the RCAF as the United States were not at that time at war and therefore he was unable to train with the US forces.

Flt. Lt. Hilton reached the rank of Pilot Officer on 29th January 1940 after completing further training at RAF Twinwood Farm in Bedfordshire and RAF Acklington in Northumberland. On completion of this training, he was posted to RAF Charterhall and 54 Operational Training Unit (OTU), where he would fly Beaufighters.

The summer of 1942 suffered from poor weather, so poor in fact, that there were many restrictions on flying time, July only having 2,104 hours in total. This bad weather was to be responsible for many flying accidents and deaths that year, of which Flt. Lt. Hilton would be one.

On July 23rd 1942, he was tasked with flying a model new to him, the Bristol Beaufighter, and was taken by an instructor on several circuits to better acquaint himself with the various controls and idiosyncrasies of the aircraft. After several successful landings and take offs, the instructor passed Flt. Lt. Hilton to fly solo, and handed the controls of  Beaufighter #R2440 over to him. His instruction to Hilton was to stay within the circuit of the airfield, sound advice as one of Scotland’s summer storms was rapidly approaching.

Hilton duly carried out the order and took off to perform various solo flight tasks. An experienced pilot, Flt. Lt. Hilton found no problem landing or taking off himself and completed one full circuit before things went wrong.

On the second  circuit of the airfield, Flt. Lt. Hilton somehow got lost, whether through an aircraft malfunction or pilot error, it is not known, but after entering bad weather, the aircraft was instructed to climb to a safe height which it failed to do. Moments later, the Beaufighter was heard circling over the nearby town of Duns before ploughing into low-lying ground, one mile south-east of the town. At the time of the accident the aircraft’s undercarriage was in the down position. The crash killed Flt. Lt. Hilton instantly, the aircraft being torn apart by hedges and the subsequent slide along the ground. A board of enquiry was set up and investigations carried out, but no blame was apportioned to Hilton and the case was closed.

Flt. Lt. Hilton, an experienced pilot, somehow got into trouble, and that combined with the bad weather he was in, resulted in the loss of his life at the young age of just 26. To this day the cause of the crash is not known and Flt. Lt. Hilton remains buried in Scotland not far from the crash site, he is however, many thousand miles from home.

Flt. Lt. Hilton is buried in Duns graveyard in Sec. R. Grave 2.

The second airman’s grave in the graveyard at Duns, is that of Sgt. Thomas Alan Rutherford s/n 406626 (RAAF) who died on 14th August 1942, age just 20.

Sgt. Rutherford (Duns Cemetery)

Sgt. Thomas Rutherford

Sgt. Thomas Rutherford, born to Stamford Roy Rutherford and Laura May Rutherford, of Cottesloe, Western Australia, came from an aviation family, his father Stamford Rutherford RAAF (296635) and older brother Sgt Bernard Rinian Roy Rutherford RAAF (406540), were also serving Air Force members. As with many families who had siblings serving in the forces at this time, Sgt. Rutherford’s brother was also killed in an air accident, earlier that same year.

Sgt. Rutherford was born 3rd August 1922 at Brampton, England but enlisted in Perth Western Australia, on 3rd February 1941.

After completing his training, he also transferred to 54 OTU at RAF Charterhall in the Scottish borders.

August 1942 was, like July before it, a particularly bad month weather wise, which saw only 1,538 hours of flying carried out by 54 OTU. Only a small portion of these, just short of 400, were by night, the remainder being daylight flights. As a night fighter training station, this would be difficult for trainers and trainees alike, but undeterred they flew as many sorties as they could.

On August 14th, Sgt. Thomas Rutherford climbed aboard Blenheim Mk. V #BA192 along with is observer Sgt. James Clifford Kidd (s/n: 1417331). They dutifully carried out their pre-flight checks and lined the aircraft up ready for take off from one of Charterhall’s runways. After lifting off the Blenheim struck a tree causing it to crash. Both Sgt. Rutherford and Sgt. Kidd were killed instantly in the accident.

It is not known what caused the aircraft to strike the tree, whether it be pilot error or aircraft malfunction, but it was an accident that resulted in the loss of two young men far too early in their lives.

Sgt Rutherford is buried at Sec. R. Grave 3 next to Flt. Lt. Hilton.

Further reading.

McMaster University Alumni has further details of Flt/ Lt. Hilton’s life and career.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (accessed 9.5.18)

National Archives of Australia website (accessed 9.5.18)