The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 3)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Three).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part 2 we saw how Tony Bridgman’s war had been going, his friendships, falling in love with John Collier’s sister in law and ultimately; how he’d been shot down and taken prisoner. Now, we find him incarcerated in a POW Camp in Germany.

One month after capture, Kriegsgefangenen (POW) 1264, Bridgman: Anthony Oslands, Squadron Leader RAF, was transferred from the Dulag Luft at Oberursel to OffizierLager (Oflag) IX-A. Better known as Spangenberg Castle, it was a traditional medieval German Schloss. There he would find himself in the company of fellow officers from all three services who would later become distinguished escapers.

POW Card back

Tony’s POW Card showing his continual movements (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 4th March 1941, Tony and a number of other POW’s from all three service branches, were transferred from Spangenberg to Stalag XX-A, nearly 500 miles away to the East. Word had reached the Germans that some of their officer POW’s held in Canada were imprisoned at Fort Henry, which was not a camp deemed suitable for officers. As a reprisal, the Germans sent British officer POW’s to one of their equally unsuitable camps. Three months later, they were transferred back to Spangenberg.

On October 8th 1941, Tony was transferred to Oflag VI-B at Doessel, Warburg; about 50 miles North-East of Spangenberg. On September 4th 1942, he was transferred again, with other RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, this time to Oflag XXI-B at Szubin, Poland; about 480 miles East of Doessel, as the camp at Doessel was temporarily closed.

Escape is forbidden!

By now, Tony had well and truly had enough of this nomadic German hospitality. He was becoming ever more determined not to remain at Oflag XXI-B. It was here that he turned his own skills toward escapism, and I don’t mean idly reading novels, though he did keep a daily journal during his time as a POW.

During his attempt, he and a friend had successfully tunnelled out of their compound. On 5th November 1942, their appointed night to go, Tony went into the tunnel first. By the time he had reached the end of the tunnel and broken the soil to exit, their attempt had been rumbled and Tony’s comrade had already been caught. Tony poked his head out of the ground to find himself confronted by torch beams and the bared teeth of a snarling German Shepherd Dog that was straining at the end of it’s handler’s lead, just inches from his own face. “AUS! AUS!” growled the Dog Handler. Tony climbed out and was marched/shoved back into camp with his hands on top of his head and the barrel of an MP40 Schmeisser at his back. He also very probably had rather a wry smile on his face, too!

As was usual for would-be escapees, the following day he was placed under strict Stubenarrest (House Arrest) for a period of ten days, as a punishment for his Tunnelbau (Tunnel construction). A tedious reminder that “Flucht ist verboten!”

On 28th February 1943, Tony developed a middle ear infection known as Otitis Media. Usually a painful childhood condition, it could also be fairly common among pilots and submariners. The treatment he received was a ten-day course of what was then a crude first generation of antibiotics, known as Sulfa tablets. Given in high doses, these tablets would often have most unpleasant side effects of their own, but it was better than the old treatment of an equally painful incision made in the inner ear to drain it. The condition and especially the surgical treatment for it, could often lead to long term hearing problems for the sufferer.

Another change of address.

After nearly two years of his not being a model prisoner, Tony was moved again on April 14th 1943, with others of his troublesome ilk, to a brand new camp near Sagan; about 100 miles South-east of Berlin, in upper Silesia and 190 miles South-West of Szubin. (It is now a part of Poland). This new camp was sited there because the soil is quite sandy. Also, the topsoil and the subsoil are distinctly different colours, which combined with its sandy texture and the fact that the huts were built raised off the ground; led the Germans to believe that these factors would make tunnelling extremely difficult. Just to be sure, the Germans installed seismographic microphones at regular intervals, into the ground around the perimeter. The camp was opened in March 1942 and Tony and the others were sent there purely because they had been a considerable nuisance to their captors. Oflag IX-A, East Compound, Stalag Luft 3, was now Squadron Leader Tony Bridgman’s latest address.

Someone who frequently used that address, as well as his previous ones, was Tony’s girlfriend, Virginia Bishop. The two maintained as steady a correspondence as was possible throughout Tony’s incarceration, but theirs was very much a long distance relationship now. At least through Virginia, via her sister, Elizabeth; John Collier was being kept informed of his friend’s situation.

Tony was once more in good company at Stalag Luft 3. Among some of his more renowned inmates were people like Roger Bushell, Robert Stanford-Tuck, Roland Beamont, Paul Brickhill and a Naval Pilot named Peter Butterworth, who would later find fame in the Carry On films.

Never look a Gift Horse in the mouth.

In October of 1943, the East Compound was set for the first ever escape from Stalag Luft 3. Inspired by the ancient story of the Trojan Horse, the prisoners had constructed a gymnastic vaulting horse, mostly from the plywood cases of their Red Cross parcels. The horse was designed to conceal one or two men, the tools for digging and bags for excavated soil. Each day, the horse, with either one or two men hidden inside it, was carried out to exactly the same spot near the perimeter fence and while a long line of prisoners conducted gymnastic exercises over it, a tunnel was being dug from within the horse. Two of the many “Gymnasts” vaulting over the horse every day were Tony Bridgman and Peter Butterworth. When Tony wasn’t vaulting; then he, Peter and many others, took turns at tunnelling. The sounds of the men vaulting and landing prevented the sound of the digging from being detected by the buried microphones.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film The Great Escape. (Free to use image, courtesy Stalag Luft 3 Museum).

At the end of each “exercise period”, a wooden trap door was placed over the tunnel entrance, on a ledge a few inches below the surface, and carefully covered with the surface soil. The horse, with its hidden cargo of men, tools and bagged-up spoil, was then carried back inside to be unloaded, and the day’s excavated soil distributed evenly in the roof space of the prisoners’ huts.

Over a few months the prisoners, working in shifts of one or two diggers at a time, had managed to dig a tunnel over 30 metres (100 ft) long, deep underground. They used bowls as shovels and poked metal rods carefully through the tunnel roof to make air holes. The only shoring they’d used was for the entrance.

In the early evening of 19th October 1943, Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot, all three dressed in “suits” made from blankets, made their escape. All three men spoke German fluently, which is why they were nominated to go. Williams and Codner successfully reached the port of Stettin, where they stowed away onboard a Danish ship. Philpot posed as a Norwegian businessman and managed to catch a train to the port of Danzig. Once there, he stowed away on a Swedish ship bound for Stockholm. All three made it safely back to England and once home, they sent a coded postcard to Herbert Massey, (Later Air Commodore Massey) the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft 3, which boosted morale in the camp considerably when he read it out to the prisoners, during morning parade.  The story of the escape was made into a film in 1950 called The Wooden Horse. An interesting aside here is that Peter Butterworth auditioned for a part in that film, but was turned down. Apparently, he wasn’t considered to be sufficiently athletic and heroic-looking, to take part!

Obviously, news of the successful escape of three prisoners from this brand new, supposedly very hard to escape from camp, was not well received by the Germans. The Kommandant at Stalag Luft 3 was a Luftwaffe Officer: Oberst (Colonel) Friedrich Von Lindeiner-Wildau. Von Lindeiner was a highly decorated veteran of WW1 and before. He was a German patriot and most irrefutably anti-Nazi in his beliefs. He had a reputation for fairness and liberal open-mindedness. He had tried to retire before the war, but was not permitted to. As a result of the Wooden Horse Escape, he ordered that certain prisoners were to be relocated to other camps. Having spent close to two years in Stalag Luft 3, Tony Bridgman was among those who had to go. This was probably just as well, as that was not the only escape project that had been on the go in Stalag Luft 3. Five months after Wooden Horse, in March 1944, came the mass breakout that would become known as The Great Escape, organised by Roger Bushell. Given his track record for getting involved in these things, Tony may well have been up for it and as history has shown, a very high number of those involved, including Bushell, were recaptured and executed by the Gestapo; an event which sickened Von Lindeiner. Subsequently relieved of command at the camp, Von Lindeiner was arrested. Facing Court Martial and a likely execution, he cleverly feigned mental illness to avoid further punishment. After the war, he identified and testified against those who had been responsible for the wholesale murder of his prisoners, at the Nuremberg Trials. Von Lindeiner himself was found to have behaved impeccably throughout the war. He died in May 1963 in Frankfurt, aged 82.

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3 (Photo: Free to use image, commons-wikipedia).

After leaving Stalag Luft 3, the Germans stopped recording Tony’s whereabouts on his POW Identity Card. It wasn’t too much longer till news of the successful Allied D Day invasion and breakout began reaching the camps. As the net closed in on Nazi Germany, the guards became increasingly averse to the idea of surrendering to the Russians coming in from the East. They decided to gather their prisoners and march them Westwards, toward the advancing British and American forces. The overall distance involved in these staged marches was in the order of a couple of hundred miles or more and it was all done on foot. Thirty to forty miles per day was not out of the ordinary and the guards and POW’s slept in Churches and Barns along the way. By the time they reached their destination camp somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin, the POW’s, Tony included, had literally made it there on their hands and knees. Tony later recalled crawling into a bunk and staying there for about three days.

Liberation

By now it was becoming increasingly clear to the Germans that their war was lost. In those final weeks and days, the Germans’ treatment of their prisoners became more relaxed. In the event, that long, agonising march had been for nothing. The prisoners woke up one morning to find that the Russians had arrived to liberate the camp. Now the war really was over!

However, the prisoners had to remain in their camp for another couple of weeks, till transport could be arranged for them all on trucks. Once the trucks had been arranged, the prisoners were driven to an American Army Camp. The Americans then flew them on to Brussels in Belgium, ready for the cross-Channel journey home, but there were naturally delays and problems. By now, Tony was fulfilling the role of Senior British Officer.

From Brussels, the men were finally all flown home to England, but Tony was asked to bring a list of all his fellow POW’s to General Grant, at his headquarters in Paris. Tony was duly put on a C47 (the Military version of the famous DC3 Airliner) and flown to an airfield just outside of Paris. From there he was taken to General Grant’s HQ.

Tony said that he was feeling very self-conscious at this point because he now found himself standing in this very fine building, surrounded by well-dressed Americans, dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing when he was shot down four and a half years previously! Despite his attire, Tony was ushered in to see General Grant.

At the end of their meeting, General Grant put Tony up in the smartest hotel in Paris at Uncle Sam’s expense. He also took Tony out to dinner. Grant asked Tony if there was anything he needed and Tony asked him for a new uniform, if it were possible. Tony was duly fitted out with such.

After a few days and nights of General Grant’s hospitality, Tony was put on a ship back to England. Having arrived in Newhaven, he boarded a train to London. Somewhere on that train journey, Tony had a keepsake of some kind that he’d managed to hang on to throughout the war, stolen from him. He was particularly upset by that, as can be imagined.

Tony stepped off the train at London’s Victoria Station and went to a friend’s house for dinner. After dinner and a no doubt pleasant evening, Tony left his friend’s house to walk to the Barracks where he was being put up. Quite suddenly, he found that he did not know what to do or where to go. He later tearfully recalled that “I just felt finished, and didn’t know what to do”. Wandering aimlessly about and obviously in a state of some bewilderment, Tony was found by a Policeman, who directed him to Knightsbridge Barracks. Tony’s war had suddenly caught up with him.

This was not an uncommon occurrence with returning POW’s. The subject of one of my previous books was a former POW of the Japanese and exactly the same thing happened to him. Driving the normally short distance home from work one night, he just went blank. When he “came to”, he was in his old home village of Radway in Oxfordshire, with absolutely no recollection of how he’d got there. Unfortunately, he lived in Kent.

The RAF officially gave Tony a backdated promotion to Full Squadron Leader and the corresponding back-pay due to him. They also offered him a Commanding Officer’s job, but he turned it down. The RAF wasn’t the same now and besides, he’d lost nearly everyone that he knew. He’d also lost Virginia Bishop. She had met and married somebody else in the four and a half years that Tony was a POW. (Her son would grow up to become Patrick Bishop, the author). A man who seemingly now had nothing much left to lose, Tony went on three months leave and was officially discharged from the RAF in 1946.

Civvy Street.

So, what on earth was a now Ex, highly trained, low-level attack pilot and dedicated serial escaper, going to do in peacetime Civvy Street? Well, to start with, someone he knew got him into Ogilvy and Mather’s of Fleet Street, and certainly for a while, it seemed like a good idea. They had connections in America and were a large advertising and publishing company. But a man like Tony was far more used to giving the daily orders, than he was to taking them.

In 1950, Tony was asked to meet someone at London Airport. An American woman by the name of Jeannette Graef, from New York. Tony got talking to her in the car and it was the start of a whirlwind romance that would see them getting married that very same year, despite the fact that she was fourteen years younger than he was.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The couple spent the early 1950’s living something of a nomadic life involving London, then Camberley and finally, Canada. For a while, they lived in J M W Turner’s old house at 119 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea; then they moved to Camberley in Surrey. They also found time to have three daughters; Judith in 1951, Frances in 1952 and Kathleen in 1957. Kathleen was born in Canada, as Tony had moved the family to Vancouver in 1956. Tony and Jeannette separated not long after Kathleen was born.  Jeannette took all three children to Nassau in the Bahamas; and there she stayed. Tony remained in Canada, convinced he could still make it.

In Canada, Tony had ended up working in a Gas Station on the Alaska Highway. One snowy, icy night, he was the passenger in a car being driven by a friend, who lost control and crashed. Tony’s back was broken in the accident. As can be imagined, he was in hospital for a very long time and was lucky indeed that he was finally able to walk away from it. Meanwhile, one of his sisters, Marian; concerned that nothing had been heard from him in ages, contacted the Missing Persons Bureau to find him. Find him they did and he was brought back to England; to Hindhead in Surrey.

“Pressed” into action

Once recovered, Tony needed something to do, workwise. Keen not to go down any roads he’d been down before, he still took another chance and bought a small printing company in nearby Guildford. This was the start of the rest of his career, as with presses rolling, Tony Bridgman got Dramrite Printers Ltd off the ground. Guildford was all well and good to start with, but if any money were to be made, it would surely be in London, so Tony decided to move Dramrite’s. He found a small but suitable premises in Long Lane, Southwark, SE1.

In 1968, my Dad, Jim; got himself a job at Dramrite’s, as a printer. My Dad was the original “get on your bike and get yourself a job” type, long before Norman Tebbit’s advice! I was a six year old boy at the time and my Brother was four and a half. It was shift work, as most print jobs were and indeed still are. One week on earlies, one week on lates and some days of double shifts. Fortunately, we lived within easy walking distance of Long Lane; in Great Dover Street.

Most of Dramrite’s work was the urgent kind of jobs, fast turnaround. My Dad loved working there. He loved the small, close-knit fraternity of it and he quickly came to like Tony, very much. My Mum would often help out from home, especially during the school holidays, with some of the finishing work, which Tony paid her for. Typical of the work she did was collating the business forms that Dramrite’s seemed to turn out in their thousands. I well remember the four piles of different coloured paper that seemed to live semi-permanently on a table in our front room. They had to be collated into one pile, in the order white on top, then pink, then yellow and then green on the bottom. Once collated, they were boxed up ready for Tony to collect in the firm’s van. As he collected them, he would of course drop a lot more off to be collated! Tony used to sit in our kitchen sometimes having a cold drink and playing little “where’s it gone?” games with my Brother and I. My Dad always said he was such a fair man to work for, but I don’t remember Tony paying me for any of the collating that I got roped into!

Tony at his desk at Dramrite's, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him.

Tony at his desk at Dramrite’s, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him (Photo courtesy Frances Leach).

My Mum says that Tony was always “such a Gentleman”. One day during the second summer that my Dad worked for him, I took my first flying lesson; …….over the handlebars of my bike! The resultant crash landing wasn’t exactly text-book and I broke my left forearm. Crying and cradling my arm, I ran home and my Mum decided it would be quicker if we walked up to Guys Hospital. We had no phone in those days and we’d have to pass Dramrite’s anyway, so we stopped off to let my Dad know what had happened. On hearing me crying, Tony came out of his office to find out what was going on. My Mum quickly told him and then off we went to Guys. Just after we left, Tony told my Dad to get himself cleaned up as soon as he could and come straight after us. My Dad said to him “but what about the job on my press, its urgent?!” Tony said: “They’re all urgent, Jimbo; (Seems being given an RAF-style nickname was still traditional!) don’t worry, we’ll cope! Now GO!” He still paid my Dad to the end of his shift.

It is fair to say that Tony lived and breathed Dramrite’s. He lived in the flat above the print works. Frances recalls visiting him there as a student. Frances would often rent a little bedsit during any term time in London as both she and Judith were living and studying at University in London by then. Tony would often call round to them with food shopping and anything else an impoverished student was likely to be in need of! My Mum said Tony often told her how he missed his girls. Frances describes him as being a good and kindly Dad, but he seemed to find it hard to express emotion. After he and Jeannette separated, Tony never remarried, though Jeannette did.

Tony did have two other passions though. One was Golf and the other was horses. No, not the wooden, vaulting-over kind again! The four-legged show-jumping kind. An accomplished horseman himself, Tony owned two horses at Hickstead. One was named Contrast and the other was called Sandyman. I can remember my Dad taking us to a show somewhere to see Contrast compete. Champion show-jumper David Broome used to ride Tony’s horses for him.

Tony with Sandyman.

Tony with Sandyman (Photo: Courtesy Judy Costa).

In May 1972, my family moved out of Central London to the then leafy suburbs of Sidcup, Kent. My Dad didn’t want to leave Dramrite’s, but with nowhere to park a car nearby, he had to rely on the train to get to work. Despite his earnest efforts, British Rail’s timetable just couldn’t be made to fit the demands of a busy and necessarily flexible shift pattern such as that at Dramrite’s. Reluctantly, my Dad had to leave Tony’s employ, but armed as he was with a glowing reference, he quickly found work locally. Although he happily settled in first at Ashmead Press and shortly after at Masterprint, he always said that he never again found anywhere like Dramrite’s. My Dad (who must have liked his nickname, because he was still known as “Jimbo” 16 years later at Masterprint), died very suddenly in 1988, eight weeks short of his 51st birthday.

"Jimbo" a few years later at MasterPrint.

“Jimbo” a few years later at MasterPrint. (Photo Mitch Peeke).

Steer South-west, more Gardening Ops

With retirement in mind, Tony finally sold his beloved and very successful Dramrite’s in 1980 and moved to the picturesque village of Polruan in Cornwall, where he lived in a very comfortable semi-detached house by the sea. He still loved gardening, but it was the green-fingered type this time, and he grew lots of vegetables, which didn’t explode or sink enemy ships! Frances described his garden as being; “Military. Everything was in very straight rows.” He also kept a meticulous daily journal of his gardening activities. Tony bought a small Sailboat too, but he never really got into sailing and he ultimately sold it with very few nautical miles on the clock.

I asked Frances if she knew whether Tony had ever kept in touch with any of his old RAF friends. She said; “No, not really. Though he would sometimes cut obituaries out of the newspaper and file them away”. Leonard Snaith, his old C.O. in 83 Squadron, died in 1985 and John “Joe” Collier died in 2000. Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, Rossy and Guy Gibson of course were all killed in action during World War 2. Tony had once given Frances a copy of Guy’s book, Enemy Coast Ahead to read.

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Tony lived happily in his house by the sea for nearly twenty two years till in 2002, he moved up to Hartland in North Devon. By the time he’d reached 85, Tony was starting to have trouble coping on his own. Frances had long been married with two children of her own by then and was an established potter. She and her husband had their own business, a successful pottery in Hartland, and Tony had moved there from Cornwall so that he could be nearer to them. It wasn’t long though till Tony really couldn’t cope on his own any more and he moved into the Lakenham Residential Home in Northam, North Devon; just a few miles up the A39 from Hartland.

Squadron Leader Tony “Oscar” Bridgman DFC, passed away on 14th January 2006 in the care home, aged 90. He left his three daughters and five grand children. In the end, it was he who was the very last of “The Old Guard” from 83 Squadron. However, Tony’s story doesn’t quite end there.

The unfulfilled destiny of Tony Bridgman.

As I mentioned earlier, Dramrite’s was a very busy printers, but they had breaks! During those breaks, the printers, my Dad included, would often get Tony to share one of his stories. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them! During one such break, the subject of Guy Gibson and the Dambusters was raised; possibly after the film had been on the television. Tony smiled and told his “chaps” (as he often called them) “If I hadn’t have had the damned bad luck to get shot down, the history of that raid may well have been different.” Asked what he meant, Tony got up, signifying that it was time to go back to work and said; “Because that could easily have been my show, and not Gibbo’s!”

My Dad didn’t tell me that one till I was about 14. I had more than a keen interest in aircraft by then. I was in the Air Cadets and a weekend flying member of the Kent Gliding Club. I didn’t know all that much about the Dams Raid, then. I’d seen the film (more than once) and read Paul Brickhill’s book, but my knowledge was really not much more than that. So at the time, I tended to think that it may have been something of a “line shoot” perhaps. After all, I’d been brought up with my Grandad’s sea stories and everyone knows how old sailors love to yarn! Why should airmen be any different? Furthermore, Tony wasn’t mentioned in either the film or the book. So, I left it there, but I never actually forgot it.

Fast forward to April/May 2020. I am nearly 58 and we are in the middle of the Coronavirus lock down. For about twenty one years now, I have been something of a writer/historian in my spare time. I’ve had four books and countless articles published in that time and in what is surely a sign of the times, those articles have been increasingly less for printed magazines and increasingly more for websites.

With being somewhat “confined to Barracks” due to the lock down, I have been keeping myself busy (and my sanity preserved), by writing more articles. I was having an email discussion with a man called Paul and he sent me a slightly unusual, though typically posed photo, of Guy Gibson; asking me if I could tell him anything about it. I dug around a bit and was able to tell him where it was taken and that it had been taken shortly before he was selected to command 617 Squadron. I also mentioned that my Dad had once worked for a man who knew Gibson very well.

Then I remembered what my Dad had once said about the possibility of the Dams Raid not being Gibson’s show if circumstances had been different. In what could only be described as my having a “Light bulb moment”, I suddenly found that I had the idea for another article. Little did I realize at the time quite what a mission I had just set myself, or what the sheer size of that article would turn out to be!

So; now that we are all familiar with Tony’s frankly, amazing story; we can come to the $64, 000 question: Namely; is there any truth in Tony Bridgman’s assertion that if he hadn’t been shot down, he may well have led 617 Squadron himself, with Gibson as a Flight Commander.

John “Joe” Collier was a Group Captain by 1943 and was working in Bomber Command’s Raid Planning Dept. As a pilot, he could easily have led the Dams Raid himself, but he was now far too senior and far more valuable where he was. Collier did much of the initial planning of the Dams Raid, including putting forward his suggestions for a suitable leader for such a daring enterprise.

In 1943, in looking at a suitable leader, they were looking for someone with a proven track record in low-level precision attacks. Somebody who was a highly skilled, experienced and successful leader of men. A man who was openly daring, fearless almost. He would have to be a superb pilot of course and if it could be somebody you actually knew personally who possessed all those traits, well; so much the better.

Now, put yourself in Collier’s shoes. He is asked to come up with a recommendation for such a man. Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC, formerly of 49 Squadron; the man who brought down the aqueduct in August 1940, was available. He was undoubtedly highly experienced and highly skilled. He was certainly extremely brave and a great leader, but he perhaps didn’t quite have that “openly daring” side to him. He was something of a reluctant hero, perhaps; a more than admirable character trait of course but not one that, of necessity, you are looking for at that precise point. Guy Gibson; a skilled and decorated pilot, known personally as both a friend and a squadron mate and still very eager to win himself that VC, was also available. Now, let’s add a third name to the shortlist: That of “Oscar” Bridgman DFC.

Let’s say Tony hadn’t been shot down and that perhaps he had then followed the same sort of path that Gibson did. He’d have left 83 Squadron, been promoted to full Squadron Leader, moving on to larger aircraft types and being given command of a night bomber squadron, followed by further promotion to Wing Commander. Tony was very much the senior man of the two, so he would have done it all that bit sooner and therefore would have had that much more experience. Gibson, if Tony hadn’t have been shot down, would always therefore have been that much behind, following in Tony’s footsteps.

Then the idea for the Dams Raid is put forward. You are still in Collier’s shoes. You have known both those men personally and professionally for years, Tony Bridgman slightly longer. Whom would you choose, if you had to make that choice? The highly skilled but still slightly impetuous and VC-chasing Gibson, or the man who had taught him; the very man that Gibbo himself looked up to: “Oscar” Bridgman. Put it into that context and I really do think there is a great deal of truth in Tony’s assertion.

However, the reality in 1943 was that Tony was shot down, so that choice simply wasn’t one that Collier would ever have to face making. Given the choices that Collier did have available to him, Gibbo was naturally going to be his recommendation and it was Gibson of course who did get the job, as Air Chief Marshal Cochrane evidently went along with Collier’s recommendation.

Ultimately though, I personally feel that if the hand of fate had not intervened that night over Germany in September 1940, this somewhat epic article might never have been written; because Tony Bridgman, like his protogee, probably would not have survived the war. The one thing that both “Oscar” and “Gibbo” never considered, was taking a rest. That mindset certainly took its toll on Gibson. Although he finally got the VC he so desperately wanted, for leading the Dams Raid; his war ultimately cost Guy Gibson his young life.

As something of a finale perhaps, what remained of the wreckage of Tony’s Hampden and that errant 500lb bomb that the German disposal engineers blew up, was found in 2015 by Herr Volker Urbansky; a passionate German local historian. I am indebted to him for the extra information he has so happily and freely provided me with. I am also deeply indebted to Frances Leach, nee Bridgman; for  everything.

Sources and Acknowledgements for (Part 3).

Frances Leach  (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Judith and David Costa. (Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter and her Husband).
Stalag Luft 3 Museum, Poland.
My Mum; Eve.
My own memories of my Dad; “Jimbo” .
Old Waynfletes Magazine. Issue 36, Page 18. Tony’s Obituary.
Herr Volker Urbansky.
Ditte Trudslev of Aalborg Bibliotekerne, HistorieAalborg, Denmark.
Philippe Listemann at www.raf-in-combat.com

A final acknowledgement must also go to James Marley of The Ringwood and Verwood Round Table; to Mrs Nicky Van der Drift and Dan Ellin, both from the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire, and to Mr Patrick Otter.

My thanks again to Mitch and everyone who has contributed to the story. It can be read in full in Heroic Tales.

Following the writing of this post, a new page has been created in Wikipedia about Anthony Bridgman.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 2)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Two).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part one, we saw how Tony Bridgman had grown up, joined the RAF and how he had fast become a true leader of men; as a Senior Flight Commander in 83 Squadron at Scampton and how he had taken Guy Gibson under his wing. Now, as we rejoin him in mid-April 1940; things were hotting up.

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton (IWM CH266).

April 1940 saw a marked increase in the squadron’s gardening activities and now ploughing ops were growing in frequency, too. By now, young Gibbo was a fully-fledged Flying Officer and an experienced one. He had a tight-knit aircrew who were right behind him and he was well on his way to becoming the legendary leader he would prove himself to be. Although he never did quite lose his disdain for those of a non-commissioned rank or lower, he was definitely a lot better in that respect than he used to be. He also had a ground crew who could now at last take some pride in both “their man” and “their aircraft”. Gibbo idolised his Flight Commander and would have followed him into the very gates of Hell if required. Tony had not only become Gibson’s friend and mentor, he was now very much Gibson’s role model. For Tony’s part, his good friend Gibbo could be trusted implicitly as his wingman; both in the air and on their many drunken sorties on the ground! Gibbo was in fact, doing his level best to emulate his Flight Commander, in everything.

On the night of 17th/18th April, Tony and his wingman that night, Rossy; were out on what had become a two-plane gardening mission in the entrance to the Skagerrak Strait, off the North-western Danish coast. The third aircraft that was supposed to be following them had been unable to locate their intended garden and was now taking its vegetable back home. Having both successfully planted their own vegetables, Tony and Rossy went on to have a look at Aalborg aerodrome.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938 (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

Aalborg was a new, pre-war airport opened in 1938, which the Germans were now using to fly troops and supplies into Denmark and Norway, with their venerable three-engined Junkers 52 transport planes. The Germans were known to be expanding the place already and it was felt that it might be worth “paying them a visit”. Tony and Rossy flew a couple of fast and low “Recce” passes over the airport to see how the Germans were getting on and to see what their responses would be like.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the two intruders were not at all welcome. Heavy Anti Aircraft fire came at them, but flying low and fast as they were, Tony and Rossy came through it virtually unscathed, as the Germans, caught by surprise, were not able to get their range in time. Unfortunately for the Germans, Tony and Rossy had both seen and noted the three large concentrations of Luftwaffe aircraft parked near the hangars at Aalborg. By the time the pair returned to Scampton, the basis of a Ploughing Plan was formed in Tony’s mind and a “visit” from 83 Squadron was now most definitely on the cards.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

The evening of the 19th April found Tony and Rossy in the officers Mess. Tony had already decided who the third man on this sortie was going to be, so he and Rossy sought out Gibbo and suggested they all go get a bite, to escape the noisy atmosphere of the Mess. Seated in a quieter environment, Tony outlined his plan for the three of them. Taking off at two minute intervals, Tony leading, they would come in from the North-eastern approach, with Sweden behind them. They’d be coming in at 800 feet from behind Aalborg’s Hangars, to hit the airport with a mixture of Incendiary and General Purpose bombs with delayed action fuzes. Prime targets were the Hangars and parked aircraft first, then the runways on the way out. One pass per aircraft low and fast, bombs and incendiaries on the spot then get the Hell out of it, turning starboard away from the Harbour and Limsfjord and back out to sea. The operation was set for the following night, 20th/21st with Tony taking off at 01:00.

The following night, the planned raid was evidently brought forward to 23:00, probably due to the weather. (The squadron’s Operations Record Book records Tony’s take off time as 23:10). The weather was low cloud and light rain, which was set to worsen later. Despite that, the raid was still on. With the three aircraft sat ready, engines running, Gibson tried a radio check. Nothing. He tried again, still nothing but static. Turning to his Radio man, Gibson shouted back to him to try to get it working, fast! Unfortunately, the rain had leaked into it somehow and rendered it useless. As always, there was a spare aircraft prepared. That night it was Jack Kynoch’s Hampden that was standing spare, with the same load as the other three. Gibbo and his crew hurriedly transferred over to it. After a ten minute delay to Tony’s intended take off time and still no sign that Gibbo and his crew would be able to go, Tony and then Rossy took off, leaving a frustrated Gibbo still trying to get Kynoch’s aircraft hurriedly through its pre-flight checks, to join the other two.

Slightly late but otherwise fine, Tony and then Rossy found Aalborg and between them, paid it a comprehensive visit. At 800 feet, as planned, they came in low and fast over the hangars, Tony first. Amid a hail of A/A fire, they paid their individual respects by making holes and starting fires in the hangars, damaging transport aircraft and cratering the runways. Their lower Air Gunners further strafed the parked aircraft and other ground targets behind them, before the two took their leave just as quickly as they had arrived. Both of them now had some “extra ventilation” in their Hampdens; far more so in Rossy’s, but the Hampden had proven its ability to withstand a lot of damage and still keep flying. They headed home, no doubt very pleased with their handiwork. A “good show” as Tony would have said.

Taking off some 35 minutes behind Rossy, Gibson was roundly cursing his luck. He’d always had something of a love/hate relationship with his own “kite”, C-Charlie; which tended to swing hard right on take-off for reasons that had never been discovered, but at least he was used to her wiles. Now, having hurriedly transferred to the spare and got her off the deck, he discovered that this aircraft wasn’t flying right, either. She seemed unusually heavy on the ailerons for some reason. He was having a bit of a fight to keep her going straight and level, but he was determined not to let the side down. Coming in late like this also meant that the Germans would be on their toes when he got there after Tony and Rossy’s visit. They’d certainly be giving him a “warm welcome”.

Nearly two hours into the flight, with the throttles having been set for a fast cruise, Gibson kept checking his watch. By his reckoning, they should have sighted land by now. All he could seem to see, was the North Sea. He asked Jack Warner, the Navigator; to check their ETA again and was told another five minutes to the enemy coast.

When that five minutes elapsed with no recognizable sign of a coast, Gibson asked Jack for an update. They flew on for a few more minutes and then, sighted definite land at last. Crossing the coast, both Jack and Gibson realized that something had gone terribly wrong. They were over Copenhagen! They were way off course, a good 200km South-east of where they should have been. Furthermore, the sun was just beginning to come up. Realizing they were now much deeper into enemy territory than was considered healthy, and that very soon they’d be totally exposed in the coming daylight, Gibson swore at Jack over his duff navigation, set the throttles to “Full” and turned for home. Even staying low and going flat-out as he now was, it would take them nearly thirty minutes flying time, avoiding known defended areas, to re-cross the coast. Finding and bombing Aalborg was absolutely out of the question now. They had failed; which for Gibson, wasn’t an option. Apart from one policeman taking an overly optimistic pot-shot at them with his revolver, the two and a half hour return flight was solemn, and uneventful.

The three returning aircraft were diverted to Lossiemouth as the weather had clamped right down at Scampton. Tony and Rossy landed at Lossiemouth at 06:10. Gibson was still on his way there. By the time he’d found Lossiemouth and landed, his petrol gauges were decidedly near their empty marks and he was nearly two hours overdue! At that precise moment, Gibson was not the happiest bomber pilot in the land and his Navigator had somewhat borne the brunt of his displeasure.

In refuelling and checking Gibson’s aircraft over, the ground crew at Lossiemouth discovered that the aircraft’s compass was defective, having a huge twenty degree range of unsteady deviation. Gibson thanked the crew chief then went to seek out Jack, his Navigator. Having found him, Gibson explained what he’d just been told about the compass and he duly and sincerely apologized to Jack for the “rough treatment” he’d given him on the flight. With Gibson’s apology accepted, all was deemed well again.

Compass problem fixed, the three aircraft returned to Scampton together later that day. Upon landing, Gibson reported to “Chiefy” Langford that there was definitely something wrong with the aircraft and it was not flying right. Langford later reported back to Gibson that whilst inspecting the aircraft, he’d found that one of the self-sealing fuel tanks had an undetected hole in it and the sealant had swollen to the point where it was fouling one of the aileron control cables.  Due to his own physical strength, Jack Kynoch simply hadn’t noticed it himself!

Of course, Gibson and Warner took a lot of good-natured ribbing in the mess over their “Danish sightseeing trip.” I dare say that comments such as; “I say Gibbo, did you take in the castle? Lovely gardens!” Or; “Oh, you two must have seen the palace. It’s quite splendid, isn’t it?!” were probably quite common, but Gibbo and Jack took it all on the chin, even when no less a man than “Bomber” Harris was laughing at them over it, too! (Harris visited 83 Squadron the day after). Having some time ago found the ability to laugh at circumstance or even himself, rather than simply finding fault or blaming others, Gibson was now considerably more popular around Scampton than he used to be.

Tony and Rossy both got the DFC for that raid and deservedly so, as did their respective Navigators. Their Air Gunners were also decorated with the DFM. Gibson and his crew missed out of course but it certainly hadn’t been for the want of trying! The squadron’s Operations Record Book for that raid simply says that the enemy fire Tony and Rossy met with over Aalborg had been “Intense”. To give the reader some idea of Aalborg’s defences; barely four months later, Twelve Bristol Blenheims from 82 Squadron set out to bomb Aalborg as one formation. Eleven of those aircraft were shot out of the sky by a deadly combination of heavy Flak and Fighters. Almost the entire squadron was wiped out in a little less than twenty minutes. It would have been all twelve aircraft, but one Blenheim had the good fortune to suffer with fuel problems over the sea on the way to the target, and was forced to turn back.

Just three days after their spectacular raid on Aalborg, Tony received some extremely bad news. One of his Brothers, Francis; had been killed in action. Francis Harley Bridgman had earlier joined the RAFVR and was at that time a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in 105 Squadron, who were flying Blenheims. He was 24 when his aircraft; a Blenheim MkV, code letters GB-T, serial V6370; was shot down and crashed into the sea 5 kilometres West of Westkapelle, Holland. They’d been attacking enemy shipping and were hit repeatedly by Flak.

Blitzkrieg!

Less than a month later, and the German Blitzkrieg was blasting its way across the Low Countries. Europe collapsed like a house of cards beneath the German onslaught. Holland fell, Belgium fell and now the Battle of France was being hard fought. Chamberlain had been replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill and now the gloves were off. Targets in Germany were now very much “on the menu” and if “Private Property” got in the way during an attack, so be it; as long as it wasn’t intentional. 83 Squadron stepped up both their ploughing and gardening operations; anything to try to slow the German advance by causing them supply problems or disrupting troop movements. Railways, Harbours, Canals, Shipping; all became targets for the boys of 83 Squadron, of which Tony was now Acting Squadron Leader.

One of the last gardening trips that 83 Squadron would be doing for a while was to Copenhagen. During the briefing, Snaith reminded them all that it was a place that Gibbo and his Navigator knew well! This trip, Jack Warner excelled himself and the successful round trip was made in just under six and a half hours. It was Dawn when Gibbo landed. Barely had he jumped off his Hampden’s wing when Tony told him that Pit was missing. After a tense two hour wait, a damaged but intact OL-B was spotted with it’s wheels down and coming in to land. The straggling Pit had made it. “Good show, chaps!” Tony said to Gibbo and the others who were waiting. “Now we can go and have some bacon and eggs!” With that, he led the way to get breakfast.

Gibson had a close call himself whilst out ploughing on 17th May. Pressing home his low level attack, one wing of his Hampden struck a balloon cable. Normally, that would have meant certain disaster, but Gibbo and his crew were extremely lucky that the cable snapped. They brought a fair length of the heavy  steel cable back to Scampton with them, wrapped around the wing; the resultant drag from which combined with damaged rudders and her usual wiles, made C-Charlie very hard for Gibbo to fly. But as ever, he was nothing if not determined!

On 31st May, the awarding of the DFC to Tony and Rossy for their daring low level reconnaissance and successful subsequent attack on Aalborg, appeared in The London Gazette, but May turned to June with no let up in operations. The Dunkerque Evacuation was now under way, and 83 Squadron were using their low flying, hit and run skills against a seemingly never ending range of targets. There certainly wasn’t time to mark Tony’s 25th Birthday on the 4th properly, but two days later, the award of his DFC also appeared in the Service Aviation pages of the very popular Flight magazine, along with a brief, but not too specific, description of the Aalborg raid. On June 9th, Wing Commander Sissons arrived to take over from Leonard Snaith as the CO of 83 Squadron.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

On 27th June, Gibson took part in a ploughing operation against the heavily defended Dornier Factory’s airfield at Wismar, on the Baltic coast of Germany. During the course of the raid, Gibson’s aircraft took a hell of a lot of Flak but he was delighted that his bombs appeared to have been placed on target, despite the Germans’ best efforts to spoil their aim. He managed to nurse Flak-Blasted C-Charlie home somehow. At debrief, there was a heated argument between the crews, Gibson’s included, as to exactly who it was that had started the only fire seen on Messrs. Dornier’s property! Meanwhile, Chiefy Langford’s crews found that Gibson’s aircraft was extremely badly damaged. It took them a full week to get it airworthy again. Deservedly, on 9th July, Flying Officer Guy Gibson and Flight Lieutenant Jamie Pitcairn-Hill were both awarded the DFC for their outstanding flying during several raids. Gibbo had finally been given his Aalborg. The debate as to who’d started that one fire at Dornier’s was finally settled on 27th July; when the squadron returned to Wismar and pretty much everybody started a fire there!

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

Still no let up.

With the Battle of Britain raging over the Southern Counties, 83 Squadron played their part in the Battle of the Barges. The Germans were putting together a large invasion fleet in the French Channel Ports. The Barges were for ferrying the Wehrmacht’s forces over to England. Over Scampton’s dead bodies! Sadly, that is how it soon began to be played out.

There was one day in early August 1940 at Scampton, which the Luftwaffe would have been so proud of, if only it had been they who had done the damage. Talking amongst themselves that day, Tony, Guy, Rossy and some of the others were sitting on the grass outside of their accommodation block, laughing and joking, when Jack Kynoch came along to say goodbye. He and one other, Sgt Ollason; were being posted away to an OTU for a spell as Instructors. When Tony asked if he knew why, Kynoch told them all that the CO had said something about them having a rest. He said his cheery farewells and left. Tony, Gibson and Rossy all looked at each other. The one thing none of them had ever considered, was having a rest. It was something of a shock.

The three resumed their conversation, which had turned to the subject of different methods of attack. Rossy preferred high level attacks but Tony and Guy definitely preferred the low level ones, though Guy’s personal favourite was dive-bombing, even in the Hampden! Tony reckoned that if you kept low, stayed as far away from defended areas as much as possible (except over the target of course!) and remained alert, he couldn’t see any reason why you couldn’t survive a hundred sorties. Gibson agreed: He thought they could go on forever like that. After all, they had pretty much become specialists in precision low level flying now.  Then, rather abruptly, there came another, much bigger shock.

For reasons never determined, there came an almighty explosion, which interrupted Tony mid-sentence. The ground shook as 18 of Scampton’s stock of “Vegetables” blew up without warning in the station’s Bomb Dump. Among others, Gibson would describe it being the single biggest explosion he had ever heard; one which sent a pall of thick black smoke to a height of nearly 3,000 feet over the aerodrome. Perhaps it wasn’t just the aircrews who were getting over-tired and in need of a rest.

On 12th August, aircraft from both of Scampton’s squadrons made a very daring, low-level attack on the aqueduct and locks on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, at Munster. Rossy, second one into the attack, was shot out of the sky in a horrific fireball, his aircraft having taken the full force of a lethal direct hit. Rossy had followed Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, who’d led the attack and whose aircraft had certainly suffered a lot of damage. “Pit” managed to limp his Hampden home. Rossy’s friend and fellow Aussie, Mull; third into the attack, was shot down and captured. With his aircraft suffering catastrophic damage from the Flak and too low to bale out, Mull quickly ditched his bomb. He clawed his way up to just under 2,000 feet to let his Navigator and the Lower Rear Gunner bale out and then opted for a crash landing in a field. It took the Germans quite some time to free Mull and his Wireless Operator from the twisted remains of their Hampden. Fourth man in was Pilot Officer Matthews. He exited the Flak with one engine smashed.

The aqueduct was successfully breached by the last aircraft to attack, that of Flight Lieutenant Roderick “Babe” Learoyd of 49 squadron. Like the others, Learoyd was coming in very low, flying up the canal at a height of just 300 feet. But of course, with four having gone before him, the German gunners were fully prepared and waiting for Learoyd’s approach.

Even though he’d seen what happened to the four who’d attacked before him, Learoyd flew through the absolute firestorm of Flak and Cannon-fire that was put in his path, to drop his bomb right on the aqueduct. His aircraft was hit severely and his hydraulics were blown away, but his engines were still going strong and he was able to make a safe return to Scampton. Even then, he was forced to circle till daylight, as without their hydraulics, his undercarriage and flaps were not functional. When daylight came and he had used up most of his fuel, Learoyd managed to make a successful wheels up crash landing, which everyone walked away from. Learoyd was justly awarded the VC for his actions. His was Bomber Command’s first VC. Pit was awarded the DSO for his leadership. Mull got a Bar to his DFC.

Wing Commander Roderick "Babe" Learoyd VC.

Wing Commander Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC (Photo: IWM CH13631 Crown Copyright expired).

In Germany, Learoyd’s bomb had destroyed half of one arch on the old stone aqueduct. It took the Germans ten full days to repair the span with a new concrete section, which given the considerable damage inflicted by Learoyd’s bomb, was pretty good going. Even so, the daring raid caused a significant delay in the movement of a large fleet of Rhine Barges that were being taken to France for use as troop transports. That raid, plus the effects of the other raids the RAF were making on his assembled Barges, caused Hitler to postpone his invasion plans till 21st September. Time was fast running out for the Germans’ Operation Seelowe.

However, the Munster aqueduct raid was very much different to their other, previous attacks inasmuch as the crews had been specifically training for their target. They even had a “special weapon” for the task. A converted Sea Mine with a drogue parachute and a delayed action fuze, it was called an “M-Bomb”. John Collier had greatly helped to plan the raid and it was Collier who led the diversionary attack on the locks. That raid was in essence, the RAF’s first properly planned precision raid of the war, trained for by crack aircrews who’d practised it first, using canals in Lincolnshire. In many ways, it was the forerunner of another raid that would make history later. A raid that would also see its initial planning involving Collier and the advanced planning being done jointly with, and the raid led by, another former 83 Squadron officer. But that was still another two years and nine months into the future.

83(F) Squadron?

Two weeks after Rossy had been killed, two members of 83 Squadron proved just how versatile the Hampden could be; if you were a good enough pilot! On the night of August 24th/25th, whilst returning from a Gardening trip over Lorient, Gibson spotted a lone Dornier 17 “stooging about” below him. He dived on it, raking it with the Hampden’s fixed forward-firing gun, in a Fighter-style attack, which was certainly not a role that the Hampden had ever been designed to fulfil! He was overjoyed to see his victim going down. When he landed back at Scampton, he very excitedly told Tony Bridgman and John Collier all about it.

Two nights later, Tony found himself in exactly the same favourable position and thought he’d give Gibbo’s newest trick a go. To his amazement, he found that it apparently did work like a charm, as he too, observed his “Kill” going down. Both men each claimed a Dornier 17 destroyed, but as neither crash could be verified, both were credited with a “probable”.

Last of the Old Guard.

Then came the night of August 30th when on his 35th Op, John “Joe” Collier’s Hampden suffered an overheating engine as they headed out to raid Magdeburg. With no option but to turn straight back to Scampton, Collier undershot the blacked out runway in making his emergency landing and crashed, with a full bomb load onboard. Mercifully, nobody was killed but, pulled unconscious from the wreckage by one of his  crew members, Collier did have severe concussion. He was posted away from 83 Squadron to recover and would be medically grounded for the next six months.

The strain of these constant operations was more than beginning to tell. The boys of 83 were beginning to look more like veterans of 63. Even an action-hungry pilot such as Gibson admitted to feeling “Jumpy”, but he wasn’t about to let his Flight Commander or his squadron down.

As things stood on 1st September; of the original officers of the pre-war 83 Squadron, only Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson were left and Tony had been Acting Squadron Leader since May, as the now absent Collier had also been. They all were over-tired, stressed and long overdue for relief, just as their comrades in the Fighter Squadrons were at that time.

Then, on 18th September, came another bitter blow. The lovable and fiercely brave Scotsman that was F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill; promoted into Collier’s position as the second Acting Squadron Leader, “bought it” over Le Havre. Hit by Flak, his Hampden crashed into the Seine Estuary. His body was recovered and interred at nearby Luc Sur Mer, where he remains to this day. Jamie’s death left Tony and Guy as the very last of “The Old Guard” at 83 Squadron.

The Hand of Fate.

Since the Germans began bombing London, at first due to a navigational error, but after an RAF reprisal on Berlin, by design; the German capital had been added to Bomber Command’s “to do” list. On the night of 23rd/24th September 1940, a force of over 200 RAF bombers was sent to raid Berlin. Eleven of those aircraft were the Hampdens of 83 Squadron, led by Tony Bridgman.

The weather wasn’t ideal, with cloud all the way to the target. To make matters worse, the Germans were successfully jamming their loop bearing indicators, so both the navigation and the bombing was being done by dead reckoning. Ultimately, very few of the bombs they dropped actually hit Berlin itself.

Tony was flying Hampden L4049, code letters OL-A that night. After dropping his bombs and turning for home, Tony found that one of his 500lb bombs had not left the aircraft as it should have done. It wasn’t a problem, it was more an annoyance. They’d gone all that way with luck and the weather against them, only to be bringing one back.

As they passed a little to the South-west of Bremen, more than halfway back to the German coast and on a direct route home, the German searchlights and Flak Gunners found them; with devastating effect. Within seconds of being illuminated in an intense white light, Tony’s Hampden was crippled. With one engine now on fire, his Wireless Operator; Sgt Gorwood DFM; sent a message that they were bailing out. That was quickly followed by another message saying they were trying to make it home. Then the German gunners scored another, fatal hit. OL-A was going down fast, and in flames. No more messages were sent.

Tony pressed the emergency signal to all crew stations, giving the order for everyone to jump. As the stricken Hampden plummeted earthward, Tony unplugged his radio lead, unfastened his straps, pushed the cockpit hood back and took to his parachute. As noted in part one, evacuating a Hampden in an emergency, wasn’t a prospect to be relished. This is graphically borne out by the fact that unknown to him at the time, Tony was the only one who’d made it out of that blazing aircraft alive.

The burning Hampden hit the ground in a field behind a barn near Bethen; a village in Niedersachsen, Lower Saxony; in Germany. Tony was coming down under his parachute fairly close to it.

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049 (Photo Volker Urbansky, by kind permission).

The village teacher there was a Herr Niemeier, who kept a journal of local events of the Second World War. With regard to Tony’s Hampden crashing he noted the following:

“Evening sorties, wave after wave. It flashed and crashed, rumbled like a storm that passed over us. At about 2 clock in the morning, there crashed an Englishman, down in flames behind a barn. The pilot had been able to save himself by his parachute. Three others burned with the aircraft on the ground. The aircraft was a “Handley Page, Hampden” type.

The rescued pilot met with the hurrying villagers and at first the police missed him. The square was cordoned off. In the afternoon the charred corpse remains were placed in a coffin. The aircraft wreckage was towed. No one suspected that beneath the aircraft was still a 250kg bomb. In cleaning up the crash site it was discovered with horror. The next day it was taken by a task force (further into the same field) and was exploded. The crater after was 5-6m deep. It had a circumference of about 40 steps”. 

(Author’s note: Herr Niemeier’s journal entry was tidied up a little by me, but only where strictly necessary, as the direct translation from German rendered some of the phrasing a little confused).

There stood Tony, somewhat incongruously, with his parachute bundled in his arms, amid all the commotion he’d caused; till he was finally found and arrested by the local Police. They in turn handed him over to the military authorities to be taken away for interrogation.

POW card front

Tony’s POW Card (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

He was taken to the main interrogation centre at Oberursel; a holding centre where he was questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. A special note about his distinctive freckles was also recorded on his personal details. When asked during his interrogation, he’d politely and sarcastically given his Mother’s maiden name as “Goring”. The Germans evidently also had trouble with his middle name, which they recorded as “Oslands”. Both “facts” can be seen officially recorded on his POW Identity Card!

POW Card

Tony’s POW Card details (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Back at Scampton, the rest of the pilots waited anxiously. In Enemy Coast Ahead, Guy Gibson recalls how they waited and waited till dawn broke, but their hopes faded as the light grew. “Still we waited……..but Oscar never came back”. Tony and his crew were posted as “Missing: Presumed Killed In Action”. Gibson was devastated by the loss. The next day, the reading of Tony’s Will took place in the mess. Gibson recalled being struck by the overwhelming realization that he was now the last one left, mournfully noting;“All my friends have gone”. Included in that statement of friends lost was Pilot Officer Francis “Watty” Watson DFC, his own Navigator/Bomb Aimer. Watson had flown some 20 ops with Gibbo, including the ones when they’d hit the balloon cable and when they’d shot down the Dornier. Through careful nurturing, Gibson had turned the man into a first class Navigator and Tony had “pinched him” a couple of sorties ago, after his own Navigator had been wounded. Much to Gibbo’s chagrin, Tony told Gibbo to take the squadron’s newbie in Watson’s place, so Watson was in Tony’s crew over Berlin. The Squadron would remain unaware of Tony’s survival till the Red Cross sent word that he was alive and well, and now a prisoner.

Meanwhile, the Germans were burying the remains of Tony’s crew. Watson, Gorwood and Blatch were buried in a local cemetery. After the war, their bodies would be moved to the Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany, where they remain to this day.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 2).

Frances Leach. (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Herr Volker Urbansky. (For more detailed information about Tony’s crash, details of his crew’s interment and for Herr Niemeier’s journal entry).
https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/15714
http://www.bomberhistory.co.uk/canal_raids/muenster1940
National Archives; No. 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, April to September 1940.
Flight Magazine, Service Aviation section, Page 514, June 6th 1940
The London Gazette, May and July 1940.
International Bomber Command Centre, Lincolnshire.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 1)

This three part post has been researched and compiled by Mitch Peeke. It is a fascinating story of Sqn. Ldr. Anthony Bridgman DFC who, if fate had dealt a different hand, may well have been in Guy Gibson’s seat when 617 Sqn. attacked the ‘Great Dams’ of the Ruhr. Anthony Bridgman was also in Stalag Luft III at the time of the ‘Wooden Horse’ breakout. His story is incredible, and appears in whole, under Heroic Tales.

My thanks go to Mitch for his remarkable research of Anthony, and to the many people who have contributed to Anthony’s story.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part One).

By Mitch Peeke.

Squadron Leader Anthony Bridgman DFC, is a name that could have been; and perhaps should have become; a household name from the dark days of World War 2. If you know where to look, you will find him frequently mentioned in the books that were written by his RAF contemporaries. You will find that he is mentioned with affection and with very high regard too, for to them; Bridgman was practically a legend.  But on the night of 23/24th September 1940, whilst returning from a raid on Berlin, the fickle hand of fate intervened and decreed that Anthony Bridgman would not fulfil what was perhaps his destiny: Another man would. That other man was somebody Bridgman knew well, a friend of his in fact;  who would ultimately, daringly and famously, make Anthony Bridgman’s destiny his own. He would do it flying a Lancaster bomber over the Ruhr one moonlit night in May 1943; whilst Anthony Bridgman was a POW, “helping out” as he once succinctly put it, with the preparations for what would soon become known as The Wooden Horse Escape.

Anthony O. Bridgman was born on 4th June 1915 in North Stoke, in the parish of Keynsham,  Somerset; which in turn lies on the River Avon, about four and a half miles North-west of Bath. The only reason he was born there was that he, perhaps inconsiderately, decided to enter the world whilst his parents were paying a rare visit to England. Anthony was born into a family where he would have five siblings and rather distant parents. His Father managed a Tea plantation in Munar, Southern India and as soon as it was possible, baby Anthony was taken there, where he would spend the first five years of his life. As soon as he was able to go, his parents packed him and his brother, Kit; off to Boarding School; Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College School, Oxford to be exact. Even during the school holidays, he was often “farmed out” to the locals on behalf of his parents. He was destined never to return to India, even after he finished Magdalen, at the age of eighteen.

By the time he was in the Lower 4th  year, he would have been encouraged to take part in the activities of school’s Officer Cadet Unit, (OCU) before joining it became compulsory in the Lower 5th. The school’s cadet unit was at that time divided into Army, Navy and Signals, and Air Force sections. (Today, it is known as the Combined Cadet Force, or CCF. The Navy and Signals section closed comparatively recently, leaving today’s student with just the Army or Air Force sections to choose from). Tony, as he preferred to be called, had become attracted to the idea of flying and it was a dream he would pursue with vigour as an officer cadet right through to his Upper 6th.

Magdalen College School was established in 1480 as part of Oxford University’s Magdalen College. This meant that Tony, as one of the school’s Air Force Officer Cadets, had full access to the Oxford University Air Squadron. In 1933, now aged eighteen, he was to be found actively undergoing flying training, at nearby RAF Abingdon, where Oxford UAS was based.

Learning to fly 1933

Learning to fly 1933 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The following year, he moved on from Oxford UAS, to N0. 3 Flying Training School at RAF Grantham, for advanced flying training. If there was one thing that the now nineteen year old Tony Bridgman knew for certain, it was that Tea-growing was most definitely not in his blood! He was joining the exclusive ranks of “The Best Flying Club in the World”, as the inter-war RAF was known, and if the truth be known, he was rather enjoying it! In the photo of him taken at RAF Thornaby, he is standing beside a Hawker Hart T, having completed a cross-country exercise as part of his advanced training.

RAF Thornaby in 1934.

RAF Thornaby in 1934. (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 29th February 1936 (obviously a Leap Year!) Tony, who was already a qualified service pilot of course, gained his Private Pilot’s Licence, No. 9160, after passing the necessary ground exam and a short flying assessment at Brough in East Yorkshire. This is borne out by the address given on his licence; “c/o North Sea Aerial and General Transport Ltd. Brough, East Yorkshire”. North Sea Aerial and General was in fact wholly owned by Blackburn Aircraft Ltd, who had a factory and airfield at Brough. They provided flying training there for RAF and RAFVR pilots, under contract to the Air Ministry. Tony probably had their address put on his new licence as he was about to be given his first posting. There would have been no point in using the address of whichever RAF Station he was posted to, as that could change frequently. Given that the RAF was Tony’s home, it would have made sense to have any correspondence relating to this “pleasure flying only” licence, (renewals etc) sent to the address of the training establishment, which was of course a fixed address. Tony could easily contact them if he needed to. He probably felt that having such a licence might well come in handy, especially later, when he left the Air Force. It was and in fact still is, something service pilots often do.

Private Pilots Licence

Private Pilots Licence (Image courtesy Judith Costa, via Mitch Peeke)

On 23rd March 1936, he was granted a short service commission as an Acting Pilot Officer On Probation in the RAF. On 27th January 1937, 37667 Bridgman, Anthony O; was commissioned as a fully fledged Pilot Officer and posted to 2 Group, Bomber Command. He was sent to 83 Squadron, a day bomber unit then equipped with Hawker Hinds, that was still in the process of being re-formed in their native Scotland; at Turnhouse, near Edinburgh.

83 Squadron was originally formed at Montrose on 7th January, 1917. They were formed as a night bomber unit in the Royal Flying Corps and equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory’s FE2b and FE2d. After training, the squadron moved to France in March of 1918 and quickly specialised in attacking railway targets, as well as performing vital reconnaissance duties. On April 1st 1918, the RFC was merged with the RNAS to form the Royal Air Force. The motto of what was now 83 Squadron RAF, was “Strike to Defend” and the squadron crest features the Red Deer’s antler, due to the squadron’s connection with Scotland. The antler emblem has six points, which commemorates one outstanding occasion during WW1, when six DFC’s were awarded for one extremely crucial reconnaissance operation.  It was an operation that was successfully completed by six individuals in three aircraft on 14/15th June 1918. Those three aircraft from 83 Squadron were the only Allied aircraft flying; the weather having grounded all others. The antler is outlined in black, which refers to their night flying role.  After WW1, 83 Squadron was disbanded; on the last day of 1919. Now, in 1937, it was being re-formed; due to the RAF’s expansion programme.

83 Squadron Crest.

83 Squadron Crest. (Photo IBCC digital archive, by kind permission).

Upon arrival at Turnhouse, Tony met a group of fellow officers who, over the next four years, were to become more than just squadron mates or friends. Outside of his siblings, the RAF was probably the nearest thing to a family that he now had. Among those he struck up a close friendship with at Turnhouse was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. Upon introduction, it was a popular RAF practice to be given a nickname, usually based on one’s real name. Jamie’s nickname was “Pit”.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill (Photo: Patrick Otter by kind permission).

 

A regular officer, graduate of Halton and then Cranwell and above all, a true Scot; Jamie had played Rugby for the RAF. Asked what the “O” in Anthony O. Bridgman stood for, Tony smiled and said; “Oscar”. But Tony had simply used the code word for the letter O in the phonetic alphabet and for one very simple reason: In reality, the “O” was for “Orlando”; after Sir Orlando Bridgeman. It seems to have been a popular choice for the middle name of boys whose last name was Bridgman/Bridgeman in those days. Either way, it was a name that Tony had disliked intensely from day one. Nobody in the mess questioned his phonetically coded statement and thereafter, Tony was always referred to as “Oscar” Bridgman. Many believed that it really was his middle name.

In April of 1937, another junior officer arrived to join the mess at Turnhouse. Acting Pilot Officer John Collier. Tony, Jamie and John quickly formed a close friendship. John’s nickname had come with him, it was “Joe”.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier (Photo Ringwood and Verwood Rround Table via Mitch Peeke)

With flying their two-seater Hawker Hind biplanes on cross-country flights, formation practice or else dive-bombing practice in the Firth of Forth; then re-living the day’s events in the convivial atmosphere of the mess after dinner, squadron life was pretty easy-going in those days. John Collier later recalled in his memoirs that if you were selected to perform the ground based task of Range Officer during bombing practice, it was pretty much a sunny day by the sea, (albeit with a pair of binoculars, a pen and a score sheet), that you were in for. A hardship indeed!

The Pilots not only formed great bonds with each other, but also with their ground crews and Air Gunners, too; all of whom they relied upon. Pilots often took members of their ground crew up on pleasure flights around the immediate locale and this greatly helped to engender a deep pride in “their aircraft” and “their man” in the ground crews.

On 12th May 1937, not long after John Collier had arrived, the coronation of King George VI was taking place in London. Tony and John somehow managed to wangle last-minute permission (and a three-day pass!) from their C.O, to attend. Dashing off to London, they took in a bit of a detour to RAF Upper Heyford, there to collect one of John’s friends; the dashingly Bohemian, half English/half German Count Manfred Beckett Czernin. (Manfred would later distinguish himself as an RAF Fighter Pilot, particularly during the Battle of Britain).

The three arrived in London in time to be too late for the main event, probably due to their detour, and realized to their horror that in their haste to leave, nobody had thought to bring much in the way of cash! Undeterred, the three officers duly called on Count Czernin’s Mother, obtained the necessary funds and then went out to find a suitable party to invite themselves to! It didn’t take them long to find one and a thoroughly decent time was had by all! Oh, and the new King was crowned as well, apparently!

The start of Tony and Guy.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death (Photo: IWM CH13618 Crown Copyright expired).

In September of 1937, yet another junior officer arrived at Turnhouse to join their ranks. Acting Pilot Officer Guy Gibson. He was assigned to the care and tutelage of Pilot Officer Tony Bridgman, in A Flight, but when Gibson arrived, he already had something of a blot on his copybook: A for Attitude.

The young Guy Gibson has been described as being something of “an acquired taste”. Gibson came from a remarkably similar family background as Tony had, but where Tony’s parents had been distinctly distant, Gibson’s parents had added a further dimension to distant parenting. Like Tony, Gibson was born to Colonial parents in India, but his Mother and Father separated when he was just six. His Mother took the children and returned to England, but sadly she also took to drinking and became increasingly abusive and bullying toward her children. As she descended into alcoholism, her treatment of her children worsened and Guy was more or less taken into care via his school. It may have been this factor that had led the young Gibson to adopt a very condescending attitude toward his ground crews.

In the Officer’s Mess, he was called “Gibbo” and despite his perhaps being an acquired taste, Tony, Jamie and John happily accepted Guy into their circle of friendship. It would fall principally to Tony, as Gibson’s supervising officer, to smooth off the rather immature Gibson’s rough edges.

At the end of June 1937, John Collier was promoted to Full Pilot Officer and 83 Squadron got a new CO. Squadron Leader Leonard Snaith, a former member of the victorious 1931 Schneider Trophy Team, had arrived to take up command. The pilots of 83 Squadron felt justly proud of their new CO.

On 16th November 1937, Guy Gibson was also promoted to the rank of Full Pilot Officer. This elevation in status and responsibility though, did little to curb his attitude toward the lower ranks. He could still be pretty obnoxious, to his ground crews in particular, and there was still little sign that his attitude toward them was changing. Though known as “Gibbo” to his fellow officers, Gibson was now known to his ground crews as “the Bumptious Bastard”. This was something that could not be allowed to continue and changes were coming.

Nothing much changed immediately, though. During the Winter of 1937/38, the squadron practised attacking such vitally important targets as Tilbury Docks and Worthy Down. A “bracing” practice to say the least, dressed up as they were, very much like their RFC predecessors and flying an equally antiquated, open cockpit biplane. As the Spring of 1938 came, so too did a slow-growing tension with Hitler’s New Germany.

Changes.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938 (Photo: http://www.raf-in-combat.By kind permission).

On 14th March, 1938, the first big change came. The squadron “upped sticks” from 2 Group and Turnhouse and moved South, to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. They were now part of 5 Group, Bomber Command and were sharing Scampton with 49 Squadron. Soon, they would also be saying goodbye to their Hawker Hinds as 83 Squadron, like their comrades of 49 Squadron, were about to be modernised. Between March and May of 1938, Pilots, Air Gunners and ground crews were all sent off in batches to different stations for armaments, technical, gunnery and other courses. All books, cramming for exams and no flying!

On 20th May 1938, Tony was made Acting Flying Officer and on 27th August that same year, having proved his worth, he was duly promoted to the rank of Flying Officer. He was also now the Acting Flight Commander of A Flight. His friend John Collier was made Acting Flight Commander of B Flight. 83 Squadron were gearing up for war.

However, the tensions with Hitler were seemingly resolved that September by the Munich Agreement. “Peace for our time” declared a jubilant Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, as he stepped off the Imperial Airways airliner at London’s Croydon Airport. But it was an uneasy peace, obtained at the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, that Chamberlain had in fact won.

With the political tensions eased, at least for now, the Pilots started their aircraft conversion courses. They converted onto the Bristol Blenheim to start with, as 83 Squadron were going to be re-equipped with the new Handley-Page Hampden; a (fairly) fast, twin engined, monoplane medium bomber carrying a crew of four, soon to be dubbed “The Flying Suitcase” by its crews.

The Flying Suitcase

The Hampden was a rather peculiar aircraft. It was designed by a German, Gustav Lachmann. It was very long and slim, much like the German Dornier 17, in the crew section particularly. The Hampden had a maximum speed of 260mph, a theoretical maximum bomb load of 4,000lbs and carried a crew of four.

Internally, the aircraft was rather cramped, being only about three feet wide. Up front, on the lower part of the stepped deck, with his own personal entrance/exit, was the Navigator/Bomb Aimer.  Aft on the lower section, also with his own personal entrance/exit, was the aft-facing Ventral gunner. Between these two crew positions, was the aircraft’s Bomb bay.

On the upper stepped level of the deck sat the Pilot, with the aft-facing Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner some ten feet or so behind him.  Boarding the aircraft, the Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner had to climb in first, much in the manner of a Fighter Pilot; up onto the wing (via a ground crew ladder) then climb in through the pilot’s sliding canopy to clamber through to his position. Once inside, it was his job to fold the back of the pilot’s seat up, so that the pilot could then clamber aboard in the same fashion to take his seat in the cockpit.

Pilot's cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden.

Pilot’s cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden (Photo: IWM CH1207. Crown copyright expired).

The pilot’s cockpit (or “Office” as it was usually called) was a very busy place. He had literally every control for the aircraft in front of and around him. There was also a fixed, forward firing gun which, (if he had any spare time!) the pilot could use. Moving about inside the cramped interior of a Hampden with a parachute strapped on, was practically impossible. Trying to get out of a Hampden in an emergency, frankly; didn’t bear thinking about too much.

In October, once conversion training was completed, the new aircraft had to be collected from the factory by their crews and flown back to Scampton. Thereafter, a friendly rivalry began to develop, not only between 49 Squadron and 83 Squadron, but also between  A Flight and B Flight of 83 Squadron; in everything from flying prowess to drunken partying!

As Gibson later recalled in Enemy Coast Ahead, they were “forever putting it across B Flight.” Hi-Jinks in the Mess, pranks, drinking games, but above all; flying. With John Collier in B Flight, and Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson in A Flight, Tony began surreptitiously using this inter-Flight rivalry to smooth out some of Gibson’s less admirable traits. Gibson was competitive to say the least and it was this trait that Tony tapped into. In flying, Tony first began nurturing Gibson’s considerable piloting skills, by supplementing them with his own. He was sharpening and focusing Gibson’s daring side, yet carefully imbuing in his protogee a sense of respect for his crews, both Air and Ground. Having achieved that aim, he started pushing Gibson little by little as a pilot, by making Gibson compete with him, in a “anything you can do, I can do better”, style.

The Hampden, never the most beautiful of aeroplanes, was still something quite new, revolutionary almost, for pilots who were used to biplanes. For a twin-engined bomber type, the Hampden could almost be flown like a fighter, if you were a good enough pilot; which Tony knew of course, was something that Gibson was just so itching to prove that he was. Flying the Hampden in such a manner was something that both of them would later prove was quite possible.

Tony often said that he’d always felt Gibson wanted to be famous for something and Gibson himself made no secret of the fact that he wanted to win a VC, somehow. The friendly rivalry between A Flight and B Flight not only greatly strengthened the camaraderie of each Flight and the bond between the four friends at the head of it, but also helped to firmly bolster the brotherhood of the squadron’s officers. Flying hard together, training hard together and partying hard together, theirs was a fraternity that each would come to rely on over the coming two years, as the clouds of war were ominously forming for all to see. On August 31st 1939, telegrams were sent out to all officers on leave: “Return to unit immediately”.

War!

The balloon finally went up on Sunday 3rd September 1939; as with a heavy, leaden tone, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the nation over the wireless, that Britain was once more at war with Germany. The “World’s Best Flying Club” was suddenly forced to closed its peacetime doors and that hitherto carefree life now came to an abrupt end. Flying Officer Tony Bridgman and 83 Squadron would be in action from day one of the conflict.

That Sunday morning of 3rd September 1939, saw the boys of A Flight gathered in their Flight Commander’s office. Guy Gibson gave a wonderful description of that momentous morning, not only of the setting but also of his Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman, in Enemy Coast Ahead.  They had just finished their morning Tea, which had been brought to them by a girl from the NAAFI, and the room was full of palpable tension and cigarette smoke.

“There Oscar Bridgman, the Flight Commander, sat with his hat to the back of his head, his feet up on the table and his chair looking liable to fall over backwards at any minute. He was a tremendous character was Oscar. He had a quick temper, but could fly as well as any man. I could never wish for a better Flight Commander and we were all right behind him”. In reading those and his next few sentences, one is acutely struck by the maturity of his attitude and the reverence with which he described not only Tony. There were others present that Gibson noted: “…Mulligan and Ross (we used to call them Mull and Rossy), two Australian boys who joined us back in 1937. They did practically everything together. Sometimes they would have long heated arguments which were the amusement of the whole Flight.”

However, it is his next paragraph that is perhaps the most telling. Gibson recalled that the Flight Sergeant in charge of maintenance (known to one and all as “Chiefy”) came in to report that all aircraft were ready for flight testing. Gibson continues: “Great fellow was F/Sgt Langford…I could write a lot about the ground crews. They are wonderful men and do a really hard job of work for very little pay; only their pride in their squadrons keeping them going.” So wrote Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the Winter of 1943/44. The “Bumptious Bastard” was by then no more; and that was very largely due to Tony Bridgman’s influence and leadership. In fact, it would not be long at all before Gibson would be taking care to nurture his own crews, just as Tony had shown him, by example.

With Chamberlain’s announcement over, Tony inhaled his cigarette deeply, then blew the smoke out through his nose. Turning to his assembled Flight, he said: “Well, boys, this is it. You’d better all pop out and test your aeroplanes. Be back in half an hour’s time. There will probably be a job for you to do.” As it turned out, there wasn’t. After flight testing, the crews all had lunch. They were all called to the lecture hall over the Tannoy, but it was for a brief talk from the Station Commander about the situation. It was the next day that the squadron was called to action.

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On that first day proper of the war, confusion was rife. People were seeing enemy aircraft where there were none and the same went for enemy warships. 83 squadron were required to provide six aircraft; three from A Flight and three from B Flight. As Squadron Leader Snaith was going to lead the raid himself, his Senior Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman,  would be remaining on the ground. His job would be holding the Fort or leading if another operation was required whilst Snaith and Co were out on this one.

Snaith chalked up the two other crews from A Flight as being those of Rossy and Gibbo. Joe Collier would lead the three from B Flight. Each aircraft was armed with four 500lb bombs with the fuzes set at eleven and a half seconds delay. “So we can come in pretty low”, Snaith told them. The targets were possible German Battleships anchored in Schillig Roads at the entrance to the Kiel Canal. Snaith continued: “If by chance there are no Battleships there, you may bomb the ammunition depot at Marienhof, but under NO circumstances are you to bomb civilian areas or houses”. Initially, this was to be a gentlemanly war, it seemed. Take off was at 15:30, the weather was expected to be bad with low cloud and they were told to watch out for balloon cables. The balloons themselves would be hidden in the clouds. Prime target was the Battleship Admiral Scheer. If she was there.

In the event, the sortie was a washout. All they found was a lot of very low cloud, a choppy and murky-looking sea and fast fading light. No Admiral Scheer, in fact no warships of any kind. Disappointed yet possibly slightly relieved, they brought their bombs back to Scampton.

What followed now was a long period of ennui. The Autumn weather soon arrived and militarily, nothing much was happening. The period known as “The Phoney War” to the British and “Sitzkrieg” to the Germans, had set in. 83 Squadron contented themselves with further training, including night flying. They may not necessarily have welcomed it, but in truth, they needed it.

On 3rd December 1939, three months exactly since the outbreak of war, Tony was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was now the actual senior Flight Commander, not the acting one. There was excitement later that month when someone had evidently started seeing German warships again. This time it was the Lutzow they were sent forth to hunt. Taking off at short notice, the squadron raced out to sea; North-east, toward the Norwegian coast. Nearly eight hours later, they returned having yet again seen nothing but a great expanse of grey sea, grey cloud and their own breath condensing inside their frigid aircraft. Handley-Page it seemed, had not deemed an internal heating system to be necessary for the Hampden’s crew compartments. Either that or they’d simply left themselves with no room to install it!

The only other bit of excitement for the squadron was when John “Joe” Collier got married on 30th December, to his fiancée of two months; Miss Elizabeth Julia Bishop. Collier’s best man was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. It was perhaps somewhere around this time that Tony had started seeing Elizabeth’s sister; Virginia.

The Winter of 1939/40 was a harsh one with heavy snowfalls. Not much good for flying. In the meantime, improvements such as armour plating and self-sealing fuel tanks were being fitted to the Hampdens. Still no crew heating though!

With so much in the way of bad weather keeping both of Scampton’s squadrons grounded, the older officers on the base, some of whom had seen action in WW1, did what they used to do back then: Gather round the piano and sing songs. There were the old favourites such as The Bold Aviator, I don’t want to join the Air Force and of course newer songs like He had to go and Prang her in the Hangar and The Flamin’ Firth o’ Flamin’ Forth. With 83 and 49 Squadrons both having their roots in the RFC, each had their own “War Cry”, too. With battle lines drawn from each end of the Mess, and trying to outdo each other for sheer volume: “Up the Forty-Ninth!” and “It’s not Eigh-ty-one, it’s not Eigh-ty-two; It’s EIGHT-TEE THREEE!” was loudly chanted by each beer-fuelled squadron’s officers, before they all “sallied forth” into the fray, hell-bent on the “de-bagging” of their respective opponents!

In his book, Guy Gibson recalls one, though somewhat less livelier, evening in the middle of January. “One night Oscar Bridgman came howling with laughter into the Mess. It was unlike Oscar to howl with laughter, so we asked him what was wrong. He could hardly speak. ‘Go into the Billiard-Room’ he said, ‘and see what I have seen’. Quickly we went along, and there a sight met our eyes that made us almost collapse. Three Padres were sitting solemnly around a piano, each with a glass of beer in his hand, each one looking very serious. They were singing ‘Here’s to the next one to die’ !”

With the weather abating, training resumed in February. Blind flying using radio beams was included. This was not exactly “new” as the system was the commercial pre-war German Lorenz System for blind approach and landing, but it was useful.

Spot of Gardening, anyone?!

As the Spring came, both 49 and 83 Squadrons turned to Gardening when the weather permitted. No, they hadn’t all developed green fingers with the Phoney War’s boredom. “Gardening” was the code name for a fairly dangerous pastime; one which both squadrons would become specialists in.

The “Back Room Boys” or “Boffins” as they were usually known, had been very busy refining the design of a new German, Air-dropped Magnetic Mine. One had kindly made itself available by obligingly washing up on a beach and after some brave soul had successfully managed to defuse the Hadean device, it was taken away to be thoroughly investigated. Not only did the Scientists quickly come up with a counter measure, they greatly refined the mine itself and the RAF now took on the job of returning the favour to the Germans.

The refined British version weighed in at 1,700lbs; just under half of the Hampden’s absolute maximum load, but the mines were physically rather large so each aircraft could only carry one of them.  The mine had to be planted accurately and its position marked on a chart. It also had to be dropped from very low altitude on a parachute, to ensure the accuracy of its placement, in areas known to be shipping lanes in and out of enemy harbours. Each mine was referred to as a “Vegetable” and each area was called a “Garden”. In turn, each Garden had its own code name, such as “Carrot” or “Cabbage”. Even flower names were used, such as “Daffodil” or “Hollyhock”.

With the sudden German invasion of Denmark and Norway, 83 Squadron started “Planting” their vegetables in gardens such as the Baltic approaches to Kiel or Harbour entrances on the Danish Coast. Anything to disrupt enemy shipping, Naval or Merchant. At that time, there really wasn’t any kind of overall bombing strategy in place. The type of operations were decided at Group level but the details of who, when and where, were decided at Squadron level. On Chamberlain’s order, non-military targets were strictly off limits. The phrase “There must be no danger of hitting Private Property” became an RAF euphemism for “not killing civilians”.

So, with nothing much in the way of detailed operational orders coming down from “on high”, it was quite common for Pilots to “go off and do a spot of gardening”. Pilots planned their own routes, take off times, etc. They filed their flight plans and if there were no objections, off they went. 83 Squadron’s monthly Operations Record Books start to feature such operations from around the last days of March 1940. Comments such as “Four aircraft detailed for Gardening operations. Carrot successfully planted. All aircraft returned safely” almost begin to appear routinely thereafter.

Tony's escape map

Section of one of Tony’s RAF escape maps. Designed to be sewn into the lining of aircrew Flying Jackets, these maps were printed on incredibly thin, silk-reinforced paper. They were issued to aircrew operating over enemy territory in case they were shot down (Courtesy Judy Costa).

With Sweden being neutral, a lot of pilots on gardening trips would cross the North Sea and turn onto the heading for their dropping run, by finding a suitable Swedish landmark to go from. The Swedish coast was lit up like a Christmas Tree, which made their job a lot easier. Initially, the Germans didn’t seem to realize exactly what these nocturnal low-flying singleton aircraft were up to either, presumably because they seemed to be coming from neutral Sweden. It wasn’t till later, as France was falling, that the Germans; rather un-sportingly it was felt, deployed Flak ships out in the Roads.

Occasionally though, the weather over the garden prevented planting. In which case, the pilots were under strict instructions to bring their vegetable back or to dump it well out into deep water. Under NO circumstances was one of those mines to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. As far as was known, the Germans hadn’t realized that the British knew about their new magnetic mine, let alone that they had devised a counter measure to it and refined the design. Any successes the British sown mines were known to have had were never made public either, for the same reasons.

In between sorties, squadron life now tended to consist of horseplay, drinking and high jinks. Guy Gibson’s book is laced with rich stories of such capers, which usually occurred as a result of Tony Bridgman “taking over” a pub and getting Gibson to drive them all there, with far too many people crammed into his car!

Gardening however, was not the only type of operation that 83 Squadron undertook. “Ploughing” was another. This was a low-level, hit-and-run strike. A sneak attack, where the objective was to “Plough the field, then scatter”! It was one such raid that would win Tony Bridgman his DFC.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 1):
Frances Leach (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
www.rafcommands.com/archive
Howard Eastcott, for locating Frances Leach and for some background information on Tony.
http://www.mcsoxford.org/history Modern website of Tony’s old school.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
National Archives; No 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, February, March and April 1940.
www.warfactory.com  Specs for the Handley-Page HP52 Hampden Mk 1.
The Airman’s Song Book by C. H. Ward-Jackson. Published 1945.
Most Secret War by Professor R V Jones.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Ludham began its life and how things got off to a slow but steady start, the period April to August 1942 being  pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles. But the autumn signifies the beginning of many changes here at this Norfolk airfield. First however, the resident Spitfire squadron, 610 Sqn, would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham airfield

One of several buildings located around the perimeter of the airfield.

On August 16th, a need arose for fighters to bolster 11 Group for ‘Operation Jubilee‘ –  the raid on Dieppe by allied forces, primarily Canadian. The raid was supposed to achieve a number of objectives, but only one was successful, the main force being held on the beach where vehicles became bogged down in the shingle. 610 Sqn formed part of the aerial umbrella, along with 411 Sqn and 485 Sqn who all jointly formed the 12 Group wing flying from a temporary base at RAF West Malling. On the previous night to the raid, the 19th, ground crews were busy at West Malling fitting long range drop tanks to the Spitfires which according to the ORB, “proved their worth on this occasion“. During the air battle, which raged between the Spitfires, Typhoons and around fifty Me 109s and FW 190s, 610 Sqn claimed two 109s along with one FW 190 as destroyed and two FW 190s as damaged.  Three of 610 Sqn’s aircraft went down, one of the pilots Flt. Sgt. Creagh, being picked up from the sea. Interestingly enough, during this skirmish, pilots noted seeing FW 190s in Italian markings! By 09:30 hrs the squadron had returned to West Malling.

The flight then returned to the skies over Dieppe three further times that day, taking off at 11:20 hrs and then again at 14:00 hrs, each time to cover the withdrawal of shipping. The last evening sortie took off at 17:35 hrs. On the 20th, 610 Sqn flew out to France once again, this time though it was to escort  US bombers returning from the continent, perhaps seeing the carnage left by the disastrous raid the day before.

By the 21st it was all over, and the sixteen aircraft returned to Ludham where they would receive a message of thanks from the AOC 11 Group – Leigh Mallory.

As the squadron were returning to Ludham, so too came a new delivery, the squadron’s first batch of Spitfire Mk.VCs, with three arriving on the 21st and one further aircraft arriving on the 22nd. These were gradually absorbed into flying duties as the squadron returned to normal patrols and escort duties from Ludham. 610’s tally for the month stood at 123 enemy aircraft destroyed and 41.5 probables.

Over September, flights were pretty much routine once more, then October arrived and Ludham became frantic again. On the 8th, a road party was sent as advanced party to Biggin Hill with a view to taking part in a “Hush-Hush” operation. Unfortunately the operation was cancelled just prior to the party’s arrival, and they had to return to Ludham somewhat disappointed; road and rail transport being provided for the next morning.

That day also saw 610 Sqn Spitfires provide withdrawal cover for “over 100 Fortresses”, which at the time was a “headline” mission, this being the largest daylight raid of the war so far. The incredible sight of this massed formation would be dwarfed in comparison by the wars end with formations consisting of 1,000 aircraft or more, in a stream that lasted for what must have seemed forever.  Whilst enemy aircraft were seen in this first momentous occasion, there were no claims of ‘kills’ or ‘probables’ made by pilots of Ludham’s 610 Sqn.

By now, rumours of another move were circulating widely, hopes for a move south nearer to the action were dashed, when signal O2OB, dated 11.10.42, came through instructing the squadron to move to Castletown, near Caithness in Scotland – the opposite end of the country to where they wanted to be.

The move was to take place on the 14th October, and would be a direct swap with 167 (Gold Coast) Sqn, yet another Spitfire VC squadron. The airlift of 167 Sqn was late in arriving, meaning that many men were left ‘Kicking their heels” at Ludham, so a number headed to Norwich and a little light entertainment at the cinema. The transfer then happened on the next day, the 15th, with many of the pilots suffering sickness on the way up, thought to be due to the poor weather. Now 610’s link to this small Norfolk airfield was broken, and a new link in Ludham’s chain of history would be forged – a new squadron had arrived.

167 Sqn stayed at Ludham for five months, after which they took part in exercise ‘Spartan‘, a twelve day posting first at Kidlington and then Fowlmere, before returning to Ludham on March 13th, 1943. Exercise Spartan was a prelude to D-day, a huge military exercise that took place in southern England as a practise for the allied offensive across Europe in June 1944. Like Operation Jubilee, it consisted heavily of Canadian units, and also like Operation Jubilee, there were many shortcomings, the result of which was the loss of Command for three Canadian Generals.

A further short two month stay at Ludham then saw 167 Sqn depart in May for good. This left the Norfolk airfield to the only Typhoon squadron to use the base – 195 Sqn.

Formed in November 1942, 195 Sqn had formed at Duxford, transferring to Hutton Cranswick where they were assigned their Typhoons. A further move to Woodvale then brought them to Ludham where they would stay until 31st July 1943.

Ludham airfield

The second Watch Office also in a very poor state of disrepair.

On arrival at Ludham the squadron was immediately confirmed as operational, and on the 15th May 1943, the very day the operational  notice came through, Sgt. R.A. Hough spotted an Me 109f bombing Southwold. He engaged the enemy shooting him down into the sea, the squadrons first confirmed kill of the war.

With four more Typhoons arriving on the 20th, the squadron was in good spirits and eager to get on. But like their predecessors before them, their month consisted of patrols, practice scrambles and training flights some of which included the squadron’s Hurricane (7778) and Tiger Moth (209). By the end of the month, the Ludham unit had made 362 flights, most as patrols or as training flights. June was similar, the lack of contact frustrating the pilots; a note in the ORB saying “Patrols carried out dawn to dusk, 12 operational sorties being flown, but the Hun wouldn’t play“. The highlight of the day was perhaps the darts match against the local Home Guard, the Home Guard winning that night! As the month progressed, the squadron began to venture further afield taking on trains and oil storage facilities on the continent, scoring many hits and receiving flak damage as a result. On the 8th July the squadron suffered its first Ludham fatality when Flt. Sgt. F. Vause hit the ground in a low flying exercise. A talk by Sqn. Ldr. Taylor reflected the sentiments of the unit when he said they had lost a “Damn good pilot”. He went on to stress the low flying rules.

The end of July came and notification to depart Ludham for Matalsk, and a share of the airfield with 609 Sqn. There was some regret withe the more ‘romantic’ types of the squadron and due honours were paid to Ludham on that last night of the 30th July.

The last Spitfire squadron before Ludham left RAF control was 611 Sqn, with their Spitfire LF VBs. This was a short stay lasting only until August 4th, when they were told to move to Coltishall as Ludham was being closed down in preparation for transference to the USAAF. After one sortie at Ludham the move went ahead on the 4th, but it was not overly welcomed as Coltishall was already busy and accommodation was cramped.

With that, Ludham was closed, and the airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry (Works) whereupon construction work began on three new concrete and tarmac runways, a project that would take a year to complete. During this time new hardstands were installed – a mix of (17) double and (18) single types using pierced steel, some of these were located outside of the perimeter, and a small maintenance unit took care of the running of the airfield. A new two storey watch office was built with the original being re-purposed.

Designated Station 177, Ludham was never actually occupied by the Americans though, even though all the upgrade work had been completed, it remained firmly deserted apart from a small maintenance unit who oversaw its use.

Instead, it was decided to use Ludham as a dummy airfield and emergency landing ground for returning aircraft. A decision that was partly made for them as heavy bombers returning from daylight missions over occupied Europe would often come in over this part of East Anglia, and Ludham was the first airfield they would come across. Because of this, Ludham would see some eight B-17s, a B-24, one P-47, and a P-38 aircraft have to either crash or make emergency landings at Ludham or in the immediate vicinity.

The first to make use of the airfield in this way occurred on October 8th, 1943 barely a month into the airfield’s upgrading. A B-17F #42-3393  “Just-A-Snappin” was badly damaged over Bremen. The aircraft, piloted by Capt. Everett Blakely, made it back to England crossing the Norfolk coast east of Ludham. The aircraft had sustained severe damage from flak, the Number 4 engine, the hydraulics and the brakes all being put out of action. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Ludham crashing into a large tree causing further damage to the air frame. It was salvaged a few days later. This particular aircraft had only been assigned to the 418th BS at Thorpe Abbots, part of the Bloody Hundredth, in the July. It also went under the name of  “Blakely’s Provisional Group” and ”Did You Say Ten Cents?“, the multitude of names causing confusion in a number of references.

Part of a door cover from P-38 Lightning named

Part of door cover retrieved from wreckage of P-38H5LO #42-67053 ‘CY-L’, flown by Lt. Goudelock on December 13th 1943. The aircraft crashed in Ludham after flying for 375 miles on one engine (IWM FRE 158)

A second aircraft would attempt to use Ludham as a safe haven not long after this. On the 13th December, 1943 P-38H #42-67503 of the 55th FG, 343rd FS, “Vivacious Vera” piloted by First Lt. Hugh J. Goudelock, sustained damage to one engine whilst escorting bombers also over Bremen. After nursing the aircraft back to Britain he attempted a landing at Ludham when, suddenly, the second engine gave out. This left the P-38 powerless, causing it to crash in Ludham, the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. The strength of the P-38 having brought the pilot back for 375 miles on a single engine,

A similar story was repeated on December 23rd when B-17F #42-3273 “Impatient Virgin” crashed at Potter Heigham, another village only a stones throw from the airfield, while attempting to land at Ludham following damage it received over Munster. A sudden loss of power meant the aircraft had to put down in a field rather than on the airfield, all ten crewmen luckily returned to duty and the aircraft was salvaged.

B-17F “Impatient Virgin” #42-3273 of the 95th Bomb after crashing at Potter Heigham near to Ludham airfield. (IWM FRE 3903)

December had certainly been a busy month for Ludham, even though officially it was closed to flying, it had more than proved its worth as an emergency landing ground.

The work continued at Ludham and eventually, in August 1944, it was complete. By then though the US forces had decided against using Ludham and it was handed over to the Royal Navy (RN).

In the concluding part we saw how the Royal Navy fared at Ludham and how eventually Spitfire squadrons return. The V2 becomes a menace to be dealt with and then the war comes to a close and Ludham’s future is decided.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Squadron Leader Emile Fayolle: A Free, French Pilot.

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

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

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

Battle of Britain London Monument - ADJ EFM FAYOLLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mitch Peeke

My thanks to Mitch for this story.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (pt2).

In Part 1 we saw how Rackheath had been developed, and how the 467th BG, the resident group had been subjected to a fierce introduction to the war.

Now, in part 2, we continue our visit to Rackheath and the bizarre event of December 1944.

On December 24th,  B-24 #42-50675 “Bold Venture III” piloted by 1st. Lt. P. Ehrlich, was one of sixty-two B-24s from the 467th taking part in a maximum effort attack on a range of targets in Germany. Hit by flak over the target, five of the  crew, including the pilot, bailed out fearing the aircraft was lost. All five were subsequently captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war. The fires in the engines then extinguished themselves allowing the remaining crew to engage the auto-pilot, taking the aircraft homeward and over allied territory. Once over France, they too bailed out as they were unable to land the heavy bomber, each of these men being safely picked up by allied forces. The plane then continued on, unmanned across the Channel, until it ran out of fuel.

RAF Rackheath

The former hangar has been completely refurbished.

At this point, the story becomes confused. Some say it landed / crashed  in a field near to  Lower House Farm, Vowchurch Common in Herefordshire. The wreck being salvaged the following day. However, there is little evidence of this event, and other sources (Freeman “The Mighty Eighth“) have it landing in a Welsh marsh a little further west. Whatever the truth is, its a remarkable, but not unique, story of  a crewless bomber flying ‘home’ coming to rest safely on British soil.

Also on that Christmas Eve, another Rackheath B-24, #42-95220, piloted by First Lieutenant William W. Truxes Jr , was hit over Pruen. The aircraft then exploded over Rettigny in Belgium, killing Sgt. Walter Walinski (TG); Sgt. Stanley P. Koly (LWG); Fl. Off. David J. Countey (Nav); Sgt. Roland L. Morehouse (BA); St. Sgt. Peter Hardick Jr (TTG); St. Sgt. John N. Ellefson (Radio Op) and Sgt. Alek Onischuk (RWG). Only the Nose Gunner St. Sgt. Robert J. Ball Jr. returned to duty the remainder being taken prisoners of war.

On the 29th the continuing appalling weather caused the loss of two more B-24s, both crashing attempting to take off from a foggy Rackheath (#42- 95115 and #42-51572). A third (#42-94881) was then abandoned over the sea, and a forth (#44- 10607) crashed at Attlebridge also after sustaining damage on its take off. The  visibility was so poor that day that the crews couldn’t even make out the edge of the runway. As a result of these crashes, the mission to Prum, was finally scrubbed, but by then fifteen airmen had already been lost.

The dawn of 1945 saw the Ardennes offensive continuing, and at Rackheath B-24 ‘Witchcraft‘ was approaching its 100th Mission an achievement it made on January 14th 1945. In just 140 days since arriving, it had reached its 70th mission an average of one mission every two days, but what made this particular achievement so remarkable was not this incredible average, but the fact that the aircraft had been mechanically sound throughout, not having to turn back from any sortie it had undertaken. A remarkable achievement, and a solid testament to the dedication of the ground crews who kept her in the air.

The Witch“, as she affectionately became known, would go on to complete a total of 130 missions without a single abort nor injury to any crewman. She became one of the most celebrated aircraft in the 8th Air force’s history. This total would surpass all other B-24s in the whole of the European theatre of operations. Like many though, ‘The Witch‘ eventually returned to the US where she was unceremoniously taken apart at Altus, Oklahoma. In memory of the aircraft, her achievements and the crews who were lost flying B-24s, she is now represented by the world’s last flying Liberator, currently owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, Massachusetts.

Ground crew of the 467th BG B-24 “Witchcraft“. Standing Crew Chief Joe Ramirez, Chamberlin. Front Row Walter Elliot, Geo Dong, Joe Vetter, Ray Betcher.’ (IWM FRE 1979)

As 1945 progressed the end of the war was near. Attempts by the Luftwaffe to curtail bomber intrusions into German airspace were becoming desperate. The introduction of the Me 262 was too little, too late, to make a major difference. But so determined to stop the bombers were the Luftwaffe pilots that many still got through and they were finding the bombers.

Other fighters more determined to bring down the enemy began ramming them. A specialist squadron the ‘Sonderkommando Elbe‘  was set up using volunteer pilots. They were instructed to strike the fuselage of the bomber between the wing and tail thus cutting the aircraft in two, a tactic that would  allow the German pilot to bail out of his aircraft whilst taking down the bomber.

On April 7th, the unit was put into action in its one and only recorded attack, as over 1,000 heavies flew towards German airfields, oil storage facilities and factories in north-west Germany. From the 2nd AD, 340 B-24s headed for Krummel, Duneburg and Neumunster. As the force approached they were targeted by a mix of over 100 Luftwaffe fighters including 109s, 190s and 262s. In this mix was the Sonderkommando Elbe. Whilst the tactic would prove to be more devastating to the rammer than the target, one of Rackheath’s B-24s #42-94931 ‘Sack Time‘ was hit in the tail severing the starboard stabiliser. The B-24’s pilot, Lt. Robert Winger, managed to keep the aircraft flying but with little control, he ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft once over allied territory. The B-24 then crewless, fell from the sky.

It is not known whether the attack was a deliberate act by the Sonderkommando Elbe, or as a result of the tail gunner Robert (Bob) Perkins’s action. Perkins in his attempt to defend the B-24, fired desperately at the attacker, Heinrich Henkel, striking the aircraft several times.

Then for three days in mid April, the heavies of the USAAF turned their attention to the gun batteries around Royan. These German strong holds were hindering the allied plans to use the port at Bordeaux, they had to be ousted.

During one of the missions, on April 15th, the 467th would make history again when three of the four squadrons released all their 2,000lb bombs within 1,000 ft of the mean point of impact, half of these being within 500 ft – a record that would not be beaten by any other USAAF unit. This was the ‘icing on the cake’ for the 467th who were building a strong reputation for consistent and accurate bombing.  So determined were the Americans to remove the defenders on the ground, that they used Napalm in 500 lb tanks, a rather horrific weapon used to great effect during the Vietnam war.

By the end of April the war was all but over, and at bases all around the UK, air and ground crews eagerly awaited the notice to cease operations. Some units were already being stood down, and very soon operations would begin to drop food rather than bombs. As the end of hostilities was announced, the figures began to be totted up. The 379th BG at Kimbolton were recorded as dropping the greatest number of bombs on a target, with the 467th BG at Rackheath achieving the greatest accuracy. This Rackheath record was due, in part, to the dedication, support and drive of its Commander, Colonel Albert Shower.

On April 25th 1945, the 467th completed its last mission, a total that amounted to 212 (5,538 sorties credited), dropping 13,333 tons of bombs. With 29 aircraft classed as ‘missing’, and a further 19 lost on operations, the war had not been cheap.

RAF Rackheath

The former runway looking north-east.

On May 13th, the 467th were to lead the Victory Flypast over High Wycombe, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force operations, the choice of a B-24 as lead fuelling the ‘ill-feeling’ between B-24 and B-17 crews even further.

Over the next month, the aircraft and men of the 467th would return to the US, the majority of aircraft departing Rackheath on June 12th, whilst the ground echelons left via the Queen Mary from Greenock, the same port they had arrived at just over a year earlier. Eventually the 467th would be disbanded, renamed the 301st, but for Rackheath it was the end, and within a year much of the airfield was already being ripped up, the runways were disappearing and many of the accommodation buildings had been torn down. The entire site measuring just short of 4 km2  was already beginning to disappear.

Gradually agriculture has taken over, much of the main airfield site are now fields. The technical area has since been developed into an industrial estate with many of the original buildings being re clad, redeveloped, modernised or pulled down. The watch office has thankfully been refurbished and from the outside resembles a watch office typical of the time. Inside it is now offices. The one surviving T2 hangar, has had brickwork added to it, other buildings are almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. A memorial, dedicated to the men and Women of the 467th was unveiled on 29th July 1990, by the then 80 year old Colonel Albert J. Shower, returning for one last time to the place he had built up a reputation for hard graft whilst appreciating the need for recreation.

If approaching from the south, take the A1270 from Norwich heading north, leave at the roundabout with Salhouse Road turning right. The Holy Trinity Church is a few hundred yards along this road. Here you will find the village sign, memorial benches and numerous plaques in memory of the 467th. The two wrought iron gates at the entrance of the church were donated by the Coffey crew. Inside here (the church was closed on my visit) a collection of photographs and letters bring the Rackheath to life once more.

RAF Rackheath

The memorial gates donated by the Coffey crew.

When leaving the church, go back but turn right along Green Lane West. This takes you past the remaining hardstands and along to the industrial estate. Enter by Wendover Road, named after Wendover Field in Utah. Turning into Bidwell Road, (following the signs) you will find the main memorial on the the corner of Bidwell Road and Liberator Close.

Coming back again, turn left, follow Wendover Road to the corner with Witchcraft Way, a small road to your left. Here you will see the Watch Office. Also along here are Ramirez Road, Albert Shower Road, the T2 and other buildings of interest. A real rabbit warren, it is best explored to really discover the many buildings and plaques that remain.

The main accommodation areas were located back across the from the entrance of Wendover Road. Today a new road has been cut through this wooded area but within these woods, remains of huts still exist, some with etchings on the walls. All on private land, they are also gradually disappearing from view.

Rackheath was a short lived base, operating for just a short part of the war. But its contribution and the contribution of its crews, was nonetheless immense. With high accuracy and the determination to win, they took the war into the heart of Germany itself. The names of these young men now live on, in the road names and plaques that adorn many of the building and streets around this beautiful and now peaceful area of Norfolk.

After departing Rackheath we head a few miles east, toward the coast. Not far away, is another airfield, this time a former RAF site. Long gone it continues to use part of the original runway, two watch offices remain, and a smattering of wartime buildings lay dormant in the corner of now agricultural fields. In part 2 of Trail 58 we visit RAF Ludham.

Sources and further reading RAF Rackheath

For more detail on Mission 311 see: McLachlan, I., “Night of the Intruders” Pen and Sword (1994).

Sgt. William Stannard – 487 Sqn RAF – Miraculous Escape

There have been many instances of incredible acts of bravery and bizarre cases of survival that would normally seem impossible. Flt. Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade falling from 18,000ft without a parachute is just one of very many.

Another such remarkable event occurred on May 3rd 1943, when twelve Lockheed Venturas attacked a Dutch Power Station near Amsterdam. The ‘Ramrod‘ mission involved twelve Venturas from 487 Squadron from RAF Methwold, an airfield located between Downham Market and Thetford, on the edge of Thetford Forest.

This mission, ‘Ramrod 16‘, turned out to be a total disaster for the Venturas, an aircraft converted from a passenger aircraft  for war. With its fat body and poor handling, the Ventura earned itself the unsavoury name the “Flying Pig”.

On May 3rd, twelve aircraft, all Ventura MK.Is, departed RAF Methwold, heading for Amsterdam as part of a much larger force involving aircraft from both 12 Group (the main force) and 11 Group who were flying a diversionary sweep.

One Ventura from Methwold would turn back shortly after takeoff when the crew hatch broke off, leaving eleven to proceed: AE684 (EG-B); AE713 (T); AE716 (U); AE731 (O); AE780 (S); AE798 (D); AE916 (C); AE956 (H); AJ200 (G); AJ209 (V) and AJ487 (A). On board each of those aircraft were four crewmen including one Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent V.C.  whose bravery saw the attack through to the bitter end and the awarding of the Victoria Cross for his actions.

The carefully planned attack went horribly wrong though, after aircraft on ‘Rodeo 212′ from 11 Group entered the Vlissingen area thirty minutes ahead of schedule, alerting both the ground and air defences. By the time the Venturas of 487 Sqn arrived, the defenders were well and truly ready.

The crew of  ‘EG-B’ Sgt George Sparkes 2nd from the right – others F/O S. Coshall, F/O R.A. North & Sgt W. Stannard *1

On board another one of the other Venturas AE684, (EG-B) that day,  was Sgt. William Stannard (s/n: 1253660) and crew. As they approached the target area, Sgt. Stannard’s aircraft was attacked by the alerted Luftwaffe fighters, the Ventura being shot down at 17:45 over Bennebroek, a few miles from Haarlem, in Holland. As a result of the attack, the Ventura broke in half, the tail section – in which Sgt. Stannard was located – breaking away from the main fuselage. The main body of the aircraft – now out of control, burning and failing to Earth – would crash killing both the Pilot F.O. Stanley Coshall (s/n: 46911) and Sgt. George Henry Sparkes (s/n: 1392394). The forth crewman, F.O. Rupert A. North, luckily survived the ordeal, bailing out before the aircraft crashed, being captured and taken prisoner. Sgt. North would be reunited for a short while with Sgt. Stannard before being transferred to Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria.

Sgt. Stannard, still trapped in the tail, remained there until it too hit the ground – its descent slowed by the flying qualities of the tail becoming an impromptu glider. The whole section coming to Earth where it  collided with a tree knocking Sgt. Stannard unconscious. When he came to, Sgt. Stannard was in a Dutch Manor House surrounded by astonished German officials who were waiting to interrogate him before taking him into custody!

Sgt. Stannard, alive and well, was imprisoned at Stalag Kopernikus for the duration of the war. He miraculously survived the fall trapped  inside the rear section of the Ventura which managed to glide to Earth before striking the tree.

Sources.

*1 Photo (Courtesy Pat McGuigan via Paul Garland –  RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages).

Sgt. North’s story can be read on the RAF Feltwell – Personnel – memorial pages website along with further crew photos.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8 and Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent’s story appears in Heroic tales.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rackheath (Station 145)

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

RAF Rackheath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Rackheath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 An Unknown Airman; No longer

A Guest Post by Mitch Peeke.

At 10:30 on the morning of Tuesday 3rd September, over the Kent village of Chart Sutton, near Maidstone, the then usual sounds of cannon and machine gun fire, from yet another dogfight high in the heavens, were heard. Then came the other sound; a high-pitched screaming, as a blazing Hurricane plunged toward the earth out of the summer sky, with a long plume of black smoke marking its descent. Farm workers and others watched in horror; the stricken fighter looked set to crash onto the village school, where classes of local children were in attendance. But at almost the last moment, the doomed fighter was seen to veer sharply away to Port and to then crash in flames on the edge of the apple orchard at nearby Parkhouse Farm. The unfortunate pilot was obviously still at the controls.

The force of the crash was so great that identification of the pilot and aircraft seemed virtually impossible at the time, though in typically British fashion, a sharp-eyed local Police Officer watching the events unfold, had managed to note the aircraft’s serial number and the crash was reported to the Hollingbourne district ARP office. Despite this, it would be another forty-five years before the identity of this self-sacrificing pilot would even be guessed at, and a further five years before it was even remotely confirmed. Until then, he would simply be one of the increasing number of unsung heroes; young pilots who were simply posted as “Missing, presumed Killed In Action” as the Weald of Kent continued to be both a witness to, and a graveyard of, the great aerial struggle that was known as The Battle Of Britain.

Yet what this tiny piece of the huge Battle of Britain jigsaw vividly illustrates, is precisely the reason that this period of our island’s history is so dear to us.

As I said; the identity of the gallant pilot, who had stayed with his blazing aircraft and steered it away from the village school, remained a mystery for years. In 1989, I’d just moved to that area and was intrigued when one Sunday afternoon, I saw a Hurricane and a Spitfire, obviously from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, performing a display over a nearby farm. My curiosity was of course aroused, as I knew the BBMF do not spare the engine hours of their aircraft lightly; so I asked around locally the following day and started to piece together the story, which ultimately turned into a full page article for the local newspaper, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle.

During the course of my research in 1989, I came across the following reports in the Kent County Archive at Maidstone:

Tuesday 3rd September 1940, Hollingbourne District A.R.P. Office: 

10:42.  A British Fighter has crashed in flames on Parkhouse Farm, Chart Sutton. Map reference 21/73.

11:12.  The aircraft is still burning fiercely and its ammunition is now exploding. There is no news of the pilot yet.

I also found out, thanks to the helpful locals, that even then, 49 years on from the crash, there is in fact a memorial to this unknown pilot, very close to where the aircraft crashed. It is a peaceful, beautifully kept garden, with a simple wooden cross bearing the inscription “RAF PILOT 3rd September 1940”. It was above this little memorial garden that the RAF had been performing their display.

The memorial lies hidden in a shady copse beside an apple orchard, on a south-facing slope that overlooks the one of the most beautiful parts of the county: the Weald of Kent. It is only open to the public once a year, and few people outside of the local Royal Air Force Association’s Headcorn branch and the people of Chart Sutton village, know its location. The whole thing, even now, is still a rather private affair between the local people, the RAF and the memory of the fallen pilot.

In 1970, the overgrown crash site was cleared and a formal garden constructed. There has been a memorial service every year at Chart Sutton Church ever since, which is usually followed by a display from either a lone fighter, or a pair of fighters, from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Tuesday, 3rd September 1940, is a date that Chart Sutton, and the RAF, have never forgotten.

Despite the fact that a local Police Officer had actually witnessed the crash and managed to log the involved aircraft’s number, confusion arose at the time because two more British fighters crashed in close proximity to the first very soon afterwards; one the next day in fact, at neighbouring Amberfield Farm and one ten days later on 14th September, almost unbelievably at Parkhouse Farm again.

The RAF sent a recovery squad to Chart Sutton on September 26th 1940, to clear the wreckage from all three crash sites. Although a local constabulary report to the RAF cited Hurricane P3782 as having been cleared from Parkhouse Farm, along with the fragmented remains of its pilot, plus the remains of the other pilot who’d crashed there on the 14th, that single piece of seemingly unimportant paper then got buried, lost in the general Police archives for years. It didn’t come to light again till the early to mid-nineteen eighties, probably during a clearout. It was then reproduced in that epic book, “The Battle of Britain Then & Now”.

Meanwhile, the removed remains of both pilots were interred at Sittingbourne & Milton Cemetery, in graves marked “unknown British airman”. The fighter that crashed at Amberfield Farm had left very little in its wake, having gone straight into the ground, so it is easy to see now, how the confusion over the identification of the three pilots subsequently arose, as aircraft crashes in Kent were of course quite commonplace during that long hot summer of 1940.

That was pretty much how things remained, till in 1980 a museum group excavated the site of the second Parkhouse Farm crash. Forty years to the very day since he’d crashed, Sergeant Pilot J.J. Brimble of 73 Squadron and his Hurricane, were exhumed from the Kent soil and positively identified. Also excavated at sometime soon afterwards, was the site of the Amberfield Farm crash, which was then positively identified as being that of Flying Officer Cutts of 222 Squadron, and his Spitfire. This left the last of the three “unknown airmen” and Hurricane P3782, the number from the now rediscovered police report.

Hurricane P3782 belonged to No. l Squadron, whose records show that on 3rd September 1940, it was allocated to Pilot Officer R.H. Shaw. The squadron log posts both Shaw and Hurricane P3782 as: “Missing, failed to return from a standing patrol” on the morning of Tuesday September 3rd 1940.

There can be little doubt now as to whom the Chart Sutton memorial belongs, but as the engine and cockpit of Shaw’s Hurricane are still deeply buried where they fell, there is nothing to base any official identification upon. Despite this, and the fact that the RAF removed what human remains they could find at the time, it has always been regarded locally as the last resting place of this gallant young airman.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron. By kind permission of Winston G. Ramsay, via Mitch Peeke.

Robert Henry Shaw was born on 28th July 1916, in Bolton to a family in the textile Business. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF on February 1st 1940 and posted to 11 Group, Fighter Command. On March 11th, he joined No.1 Squadron in France, as part of the force attempting to stem the German advance. The squadron was withdrawn to Tangmere, in Hampshire just before Dunkerque. It was at this time that Robert was inadvertently shot down by the pilot of another British fighter, who had evidently mistaken Robert’s Hurricane for a Messerschmitt 109. However, Robert managed to land his damaged Hurricane back at Tangmere and was himself unhurt.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert’s brother when we were introduced to each other at the annual memorial service the year after the local newspaper ran my original story. Unbeknown to me, the paper had traced and contacted Robert’s family. His brother, who was completely unaware that Robert’s memory had been honoured annually in Chart Sutton for the previous nineteen years, travelled down for the 1991 service. At our meeting, he told me that Robert, in connection with the family’s textile business, had been a frequent visitor to Germany before the war and was at first mightily impressed by Hitler’s regime. However, during what turned out to be his final visit in 1937, Robert was witness to a public incident that dispelled any illusions he had formed of Hitler’s new Germany. Robert never did say exactly what it was that he’d witnessed, but though obviously tight of lip, he was decidedly firm of jaw. Robert came straight home and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, immediately.

The exact circumstances of Robert’s death have never been established, but it seems likely that he and his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat, probably encountered a pack of “Free hunting” Messerschmitt 109’s; ironically, one of the last such hunting pack operations before Goring unwisely tied his fighters to the bomber formations as a close escort. Robert was by then a seasoned and experienced fighter pilot, but the ensuing dogfight would have been anything but equal. Despite the odds being heavily against them, the pair did not shrink from the fight. Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat was also killed.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron Chart Sutton, Maidstone (photo Mitch Peeke)

The Chart Sutton memorial is the village’s way of honouring that last great courageous deed of Robert’s in steering his blazing and doomed Hurricane away from the village school. It was his final, desperate act of pure self-sacrifice that has justly made twenty-four year-old Pilot Officer Robert H. Shaw an immortal part of that Kent village.

Since I first penned this, some evidence has now emerged in the form of an engine plate that was apparently dug up at the site as long ago as 1987, which has now at last been brought out into the light of day. One is left to wonder just how many such artefacts, souvenired at some point in the past, still lie undiscovered in people’s houses!

My thanks go to Mitch for bringing this story to us.