RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 5)

After Part 4, in this, the final part of Trail 62, we round off our look at RAF Leuchars. We have seen how to grew from a balloon training ground in the pre-war years to a training station for early flyers. Then on to maritime patrol, the Cold War and QRA status. Now as the years pass, defence cuts rear their heads once gain, Leuchars is once more under threat from politics.

The 1970s would see a return to training here at Leuchars with both the RAF and the Royal Navy embarking on new ventures with the Phantom – McDonnell Douglas’s all round, all-weather, multi-role aircraft. With new models, come new training units, and with the arrival of 111 Sqn the famous ‘Treble One’, in November 1975, also came a training support unit – the Post Operational Conversion Unit (later known as the Phantom Training Flight). The primary role of this unit was to train Fleet Air Arm aircrews for carrier borne models of the Phantom.

A No. 111 Squadron McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FG.1, an aircraft closely associated with RAF Leuchars. (License: GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)

By the early 1970s, the shortcomings of the Lightning were now more than apparent, a lack of range and loitering ability becoming more obvious as the Phantom’s capabilities outshone it. A slower, but far more advanced Phantom, was proving to be more than just a suitable replacement for the now ageing ‘rocket of the skies’.

Whilst the Phantom was phased in and the Lightning phased out, pilots of the Lightnings continued to be wary of its tendency for engine fires, a problem that had  been present for some time. One such incident saw Lightning XS918 catch fire before the pilot (Flying Officer Doidge) manged to eject over the North Sea, West of The Bell Rock, 9 miles East of RAF Leuchars. Unfortunately controversy surrounded several aspects of the pilots kit, after he ejected he became detached from his survival kit, an inquiry highlighting ‘modifications’ to his clothing that may or may not have led to his tragic loss of life. In what appears to have been common practice amongst many airmen, changes were officially made to the kits supplied to aircrew in light of the accident.

The transition between Phantom and Lightning was a smooth if not rapid one. At Leuchars, the final farewell was made at the annual open day in September 1975, when six of 23 Squadron’s Lightnings and and four Phantoms of 43 Sqn formed a flypast. The Lightnings passing over the airfield in dramatic style saying a last farewell to the station where it has performed its duties so well for many years. With their disbandment in October, the baton and well and truly been passed over to a new breed of aircraft.

Between 1972 and 1978, Leuchars saw further sporadic returns of the Royal Navy, with 892 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal utilising the ground space for its operations. By 1978 though, 892 Sqn was disbanded, and their ship – the Ark Royal – decommissioned, bringing an end to this relationship between the navy and Leuchars. However, the FG.1 Phantoms used by 892 were absorbed into 111 Sqn, replacing the FGR.2s they had been operating before.

The end of 892 Sqn was marred by a tragic accident When rehearsing for the final solo display, the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG 1 ‘XT868’ flown by Cdr. C. C. N. Davies and his navigator/observer Lt J. Gavin, suffered multiple engine failures whilst flying low, downwind along the runway axis. The aircraft entered a tight right hand turn through 180º to fly dead stick back along the runway. The Phantom’s right wing then struck the ground, and with the aircraft now perpendicular to the runway, the pilot ejected followed almost immediately by the observer. In their exits, the pilot was severely injured whilst the observer was sadly killed.

The decision to scrap the angled-decked carriers of the Navy would in turn have an eventual knock on effect at Leuchars. With both naval Buccaneers and Phantoms transferring to the RAF, no new training would take place – the Navy now looking toward the introduction the Harrier. The Phantom Training Flight would for now, remain at Leuchars though its role ‘downgraded’ to performing refresher training, ensuring that a round the clock, carrier based status was maintained in the UK.

It was also at this time that another film crew arrived – this time from the BBC – who used Ark Royal and her on-board flying units, including 892 Sqn, for their documentary ‘Sailor‘. The iconic insight into carrier operations was perhaps made even more famous by its theme tune of a similar name sung by Rod Stewart.

The 1970s saw continuous and increased intrusions into the the northern airspace around the UK, and as a result QRA scrambles became more common place at Leuchars than any other UK station. A massed show of force on Lenin’s centenary provided a massive ‘target’ for the QRA aircraft, with no less than 60 ‘Bears’ and ‘Badgers’ filling the skies on one day alone over the North Sea. A major headache for the QRA crews, it did however provide an excellent photo opportunity even allowing for a Marham Victor to shadow a Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ much to the annoyance of the AOC No.1 Group when he got to hear about it.

With continued use, the runway needed a further resurfacing, and after the Phantoms of 43 Sqn had departed to Kinloss for a ‘Bolthole’ (where Station based aircraft deploy to temporary locations) deployment to carry out QRA operations from there, and those of 111 had left for Coningsby, Leuchars was left to the developers, and for an estimated eight months the airfield was effectively out of front line action.

Now with restricted runway use, the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters and later Sea Kings, of 22 Sqn, would be the main users of Leuchars; their Air Sea Rescue operations combining with the Scottish Mountain Rescue teams, saving not only downed aircrew but stranded climbers as well . They would also be joined by the University Air Squadrons from nearby St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen and Dundee (later amalgamated to form the  East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron) who would use Leuchars for training with their Scottish Aviation Beagle Bulldogs.

Once completed, a second phase of work was then undertaken, new hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were to be built. Common place on bases in Germany, these were designed to withstand conventional attacks, providing protection for individual aircraft whilst dispersed around the airfield. In an announcement made by Sir Michael Beetham the Chief of the Air Staff, Leuchars and five other airfields were to receive these ‘new’ shelters. It would take several years though before those at Leuchars were ready with its QRA aircraft safely tucked inside.

As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the Phantom had now reached the end of its life and the new Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) the ‘Tornado’ would soon be appearing. The two Leuchars based squadrons, 43 and 111 were both stood down, the Phantoms removed and the Tornadoes brought in. 43 Sqn, who had been based at Leuchars since 1969 being the first to receive the new aircraft, a transition that saw all the Phantoms gone from the Scottish base within a year.

The introduction of the Tornado was not without its own political and military wrangling. Doubts cast upon the ability of the multi-role aircraft to perform as well as those aircraft it was designed to replace were raised by the military. History had shown some dramatic failures on this score whilst others, such as the Mosquito, had shown it more than possible with great success. Politicians however, seemed more drawn between upsetting the Americans who were trying to sell the F-15, and the multi national consortium Panavia Aircraft GmbH,  who collectively built the Tornado.  The decision would be a fine balance.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet incursions  around the UK’s airspace would drop, the need for interceptors had now seemingly reduced, and so a review of the RAF’s front line operations was once again on the cards. The withdrawal of both the Phantom and shortly after the Buccaneer, left the Tornado as Britain’s only front line defence aircraft.

With the Gulf War in the 1991, the Tornadoes of Leuchars would play a major part and all eyes would be on them, scrutinising their every move. The gradual phasing out of Buccaneers and Jaguars leaving a lot on the shoulders of Tornado crews.

In 1995 two 43 Sqn Tornadoes from Leuchars were involved in a mid air collision over the North Sea. One of the aircraft ZE210 collided with the second, ZE733, during a joining up manoeuvre at 12,000ft whilst using night vision goggles. The pilot of ZE733 lost control and the two crew (Flt. Lt. McCarry and Flt. Lt. Booth) safely ejected, being rescued by an Air Sea Rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer.  The second aircraft, ZE210, suffered damage to the hood and electrics, which knocked out the navigational aids. On landing, it took a considerable time to extract the crew due to the damage sustained to the hood. The aircraft was not repaired instead being used for spares before finally being dumped at St. Athan. *8

RAF Leuchars Tornado ZE967 Gate Guard at Leuchars 2018.

The 2000s saw further upgrades to aircraft and new squadrons arrive. An Operation Conversion Unit for Tornadoes No. 56 (Reserve) Squadron, arrived in 2003. It was designed to upgrade pilots to the new variant Tornado. Absorbed into the long standing 43 Sqn, it remained on site and active until 2009 when it too was disbanded.

Further cut backs to finances meant the final departure of the Jaguars from bases in England. For Leuchars it would see the reforming of the University Air Squadrons into the ESUAS. A single training unit operating in conjunction with the three Scottish Universities .

After 2010 the Tornadoes were replaced by the Typhoons of 1 and 6 Sqns. 1 Sqn was reformed here on 15th September 2012, and joined 6 Sqn who had been reformed here on 6th September 2010, this offered an almost seamless transition from Tornadoes to Typhoons. These modern fighters now formed Britain’s front line of defence against potential aggressors taking over the QRA status for the north.  But in 2014, orders came through to move the RAF out of Leuchars transferring the aircraft, personnel and role to Lossiemouth in Moray. On 31st March 2015 at 12:00 hrs, ownership of Leuchars officially passed over to the Army, Leuchars’ named was changed to Leuchars Station, and its history as an operational airfield had finally come to an end.

Designated an emergency landing ground, (Master Diversion Airfield or MDA) between 2015 and 2016 no fewer than fifteen aircraft used Leuchars for ’emergency’ landings. These included: Tucanoes (Linton-on-Ouse), Tornadoes GR4 (Lossiemouth); Hawks (Leeming); Typhoons (Coningsby) and F15s from Lakenheath in Suffolk.

A minor respite in 2020 saw the QRA Typhoons return briefly as work was carried out on Lossiemouth’s runway. Within a short period of time though, this was completed and the aircraft departed once more leaving Leuchars quiet again.

This move signified the last full use of Leuchars by the Royal Air Force, responsibility of this long standing Scottish airfield being handed over to the the British Army who now based the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Engineers here. Various other non-flying units do serve here including The Military police units and 612 (R) Squadron, a medical unit of the RAF.

Whilst the defence cuts of 2010 indicated the closure of Leuchars, in October 2020, it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence that they were looking into increasing both civilian and military usage of the airfield at Leuchars. Whilst there remains no intention to retain, or base aircraft here, the installation of fuel facilities does give hope that aviation will return in some form in the future. The indications are that by opening Leuchars to civilian traffic, it could bring revenue in to the hard pressed MOD*7.

Leuchars played a major part in two World conflicts being used primarily by the RAF throughout its life. The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) have also been based here, as have the Army who are now the current main residents of the base. Other users include: the Dutch,  the Norwegians, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealand Air Forces as well as civil aviation organisations and University Air Squadrons.

More recently, with it being located closer to international airspace which is regularly penetrated by Soviet aircraft, the RAF’s Northern QRA aircraft were based here for many years before moving away to Lossiemouth in Moray, someway further north. Leuchars’ history is therefore long and very varied, covering a wide range of users in a multitude of roles.

RAF Leuchars has a history going back over 100 years. It was never upgraded to ‘A’ class status, and has only ever had two runways. Originally built from concrete and wood chip, the surface was upgraded to accommodate the jets of modern warfare, and the infrastructure has been added to as the airfield grew.

It has been home to a considerable number of front line squadrons along with an extensive collection of support flights, training flights and non-flying units. The number of people that have passed through its doors probably uncountable. It performed during the first World War, trained air crew in the inter-war years, and carried out vital work during the Second. Post war, it formed the front line of defence against potential Soviet aggression before returning to training through the University Air Squadrons across Scotland. Now home to the British Army, it is at least for the time being open for business, but as a flying military site, it is all but closed.

Its location has been in many ways its saviour. Operating maritime patrols and clandestine operations into occupied and neutral Europe. The Fleet Air Arm were formed from its units, and the Air Forces of several nations have been based here. It has a history that is so diverse and dynamic that very few other airfields in Britain can match it. As with other airfields across the country, its future hangs in the balance, I hope that this long living and prestigious site remains alive and well to honour all those who over the last 100 years have served from its runways.

Leuchars as an operational military site is not accessible to the general public and views across it are limited. It is thought that two rare First World War Double Royal Flying Corps General Service Aircraft Sheds are among the few original buildings that survive on the site. The accommodation areas have now been sold off to private buyers, but the airfield is intact as it is used as an emergency landing ground and by the ESUAS. With care, opportunities are there to see this historic and fascinating piece of Britain’s aviation history.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

Sources and further reading

*1 Fatal Air Accidents website 12th November 1918 – November 1919

*2 Royal Flying Corp Website

*3 An interesting film of 489 Beaufighters with invasion markings appears on the IWM website, it shows the take off and formation flying of the squadron along with some interesting ground shots too.

*4 For additional information and pilot stories about the ‘ball-bearing’ run see the Royal Institute of Navigation Blog.

*5 Thirsk, I. “de Havilland Mosquito – An illustrated History Vol.2“, Crecy 2006

*6 Further details about the BOAC Mosquitoes appear n ‘Mosquitoes on BOAC Service.

*7 The Courier.co.uk newspaper website.

*8, 11 Aviation Safety Network Website.

*9 National Archives AIR 27/2612/1

*10 Defence Transformation Volume 531: debated on Monday 18 July 2011 Dr. Liam Fox’s announcement to Parliament. UK Parliament House of Commons.

Gracie’s Guide to British Industrial History website.

Flying Magazine, (August 1972) website.

National Archives: AIR 27/1383

AIR 27/624/29

AIR 27/624/33

BAE Systems Website accessed 6/3/21.

For first hand stories of MRT work see Heavy Whalley’s blog

For a detailed account of life at Leuchars, read “Northern Q – The History of RAF Leuchars” by Ian Smith Watson.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 4)

As Leuchars emerged from the Second World War in Part 3, it entered a new phase in its long and distinguished life. No longer operating maritime patrols, it was now entering the Cold War, and under a new Command, that of Fighter Command, it would take on a new role with a new breed of aircraft.

Throughout the war Leuchars had been a maritime operations base, with submarine hunts, convoy patrols and anti-shipping flights taking the role of its front line squadrons. But with the last of the long range patrol aircraft being posted out, Leuchars’ role would now change, and a new breed of aircraft would be seen along its runways.

The Cold War brought a new dimension to warfare, nuclear weapons and the arms race were the flavour of the day. With both sides fearing preemptive attacks, fighters and bombers capable of carrying these potent weapons were in great need. Whilst bomber airfields across the length and breadth of Britain were modified to accommodate newer and bigger aircraft, Leuchars physically changed very little. However, being transferred to the control of RAF Fighter Command, Leuchars would be propelled to the forefront of RAF operations, with both day and night fighters soon shattering the quiet of this post war airfield.

This new focus would mean that the 1950s would see Leuchars aircraft participating in a number of high profile exercises ‘Coronet‘, ‘Premraf‘, ‘Kingpin‘, ‘Formulate‘ and ‘Fabulous‘ which often required the deployment of detachments to airfields around the United Kingdom. These exercises, varied in their structure, would often include Leuchars aircraft acting as the enemy trying to attack shipping or other targets at altitudes from very low level up to 50,000 feet. Air-to-air gunnery was also involved as war air-to-ground rocketry.

With this transfer came further changes. The first jet to arrive was the Meteor in the form of the F4. with 222 Sqn in May 1950. After staying for seven years upgrading to the F.8 and then returning back to the F.4, the unit was finally disbanded in 1957 only to re-emerge as a Bloodhound operator at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The next squadron to arrive, 43 Sqn, arrived in November 1950, and also brought the Meteor F.8. On 22nd October 1952, one of these aircraft Meteor F8 VZ461 ‘W’ was lost on route from  RAF Acklington to Leuchars as part of  three-ship formation. The aircraft (number two in the formation) suffered problems when its artificial horizon failed. The pilot, Pilot Officer Maurice William Prior, notified the lead pilot who instructed him to make a starboard turn and rejoin the group above the clouds. Unfortunately the Meteor descended instead, and struck the sea near to Coquet Island off Amble, Northumberland. In the accident, which was put down to ‘instrument failure’, the pilot lost his life.*9

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Hunter F.1s of 43 sqn RAF Leuchars, in a vertical climb. © IWM RAF-T 42a

43 Sqn retained their Meteors until 1954, they then replaced them with the Hawker Hunter; flying marks including the: F.1, F.4, F.6 and F.G.A.9 in a front line role. After transferring to Nicosia in 1961 and eventual disbandment, the squadron was reformed here at Leuchars in in 1969 with the McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1. An upgrade to the FGR.2 in May 1988 eventually led to the Phantom being replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1989. This made 43 Sqn one of the longest standing front line squadrons to reside at Leuchars in its entire history.

1951 would see another long standing resident unit at Leuchars. But the early months were noted for more short stay units. The ‘sister’ of the Meteor, the DH. Vampire, made a presence through 602, 612 and 603 Sqns between April and July that year, each reflecting Leuchars’ war time record and staying for short periods before moving on. For a while over the summer months, Leuchars would be home to no less than six front line squadrons, five of them with Meteors or Vampires with a sixth flying that old favourite the Spitfire.

Then in September 1951, 151 Sqn was reformed, an ex-wartime unit it had its roots firmly in 1918. Initially flying the Vampire NF.10, Meteor NF.11, and then in September 1955, the Venom NF.3, it left for a spell at Turnhouse before returning to Leuchars in 1957 with the Delta Winged Gloster Javelin FAW.5. In September 1961, the squadron disbanded again being reformed a year later at Watton.  During the war it had operated as a night fighter unit, a role it continued here at Leuchars. Donned with the Saltire of St. Andrew, the flag of the patron Saint of Scotland, it would make a good companion for 43 Sqn with whom it had flown with during the Battle of Britain with Hurricanes.

In 1952, a 222 Sqn Meteor from Leuchars took off on a low level training sortie over the Scottish mountains. The aircraft, an F.8 ‘WA882’ piloted by Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, departed Leuchars at 9:58am in poor conditions. Snow covered the mountains and frequent snow showers were experienced over the area. At 10:20, a witness reported hearing a crash and seeing black smoke rising from the Scottish mountain Oxen Craig, in the Bennnachie hills, Aberdeenshire. The Meteor had struck the mountain killing the pilot. It took some two weeks to locate the wreckage, most of which was buried at the scene by RAF rescue teams, after which a small memorial was built to commemorate not only the life of P.O. Lightfoot, but also the crew of a Westland Wallace ‘K6028’ which had crashed at the same location in September 1939. The official cause of the pilot’s death was attributed to “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”. It was one more loss in the Scottish hills*11.

The 50s saw a more permanent move by some RAF squadrons. 264 Sqn who only stayed for six months in 1952 with Meteors led the way. In 1954 ‘C’ Flight of 275 Sqn arrived, this signified another change in role for Leuchars as it brought the first of the helicopters to the airfield – the Sycamore HR.14. This squadron, formed in 1941 continued to perform its role of Air Sea Rescue (a much needed but over looked service during the war), and the Flight stayed here until the entire squadron was disbanded in 1959. As an Air Sea Rescue unit it understandably had Flights based at a number of sites around the UK, and took on the Whirlwind HAR 2 and 4 prior to disbandment. Working in conjunction with the Mountain Rescue Teams, many civilians as well as aircrew owe them a great deal of gratitude.

1957 then saw Leuchars enter the film industry when a crew arrived to make a film using 43 Sqn as its main squadron. Headlined by Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Leslie Philips (Squadron Leader Blake) and John Le Mesurier as the Commandant, it was about a Commanding Officer of an RAF Training School (Cranwell) who must deal with a difficult cadet. The problem was not the cadet’s behaviour so much as the fact that he reminded the Commandant of himself when he was young. The film included shots of 43 Sqn in low level, gunnery and aerobatic manoeuvres which were filmed until the end of the year when the days were too short to carry on.

The squadron initially identified with the ‘starring role’ was 111 Sqn, who had only that year been recognised as the RAF’s official Fighter Command Aerobatics team, pipping their Leuchars stable mates, 43 Sqn, at the post. ‘Treble One’ took the name of ‘Black Arrows‘ and with their nine ship formation went on to be as famous as the Red Arrows are today. 43 Sqn’s ‘Fighting Cocks‘ were a four ship group and the disappointment of not achieving the status of their Leuchars partners, ended a decade of pageants, displays and European tours where they had been centre stage across many countries.

As the decade drew to a close, so July 1958 would see the arrival of yet more Meteors with 29 Sqn. These NF.12s were operated until replaced by the Javelin, Gloster’s delta wing fighter, before they departed to Nicosia in 1963. This time  would also see the arrival of another Air Sea Rescue detachment, that of ‘C’ Flight from 228 Squadron also with the Sycamore helicopter. Throughout the war they had flown in Sunderland flying boats, including from the Scottish West coast base at Oban in 1941. The detachment had remained here until 1964 when it was renumbered as 202 Sqn.

The next forty years would see more front line jet squadrons, 25 Sqn with Javelins FAW.7s who retained these until their disbandment in 1962. They were followed by 23 Sqn who had disposed of their Javelins in preparation for the mighty Lightning, which they received a year after their arrival here in 1963. For eleven years they flew both the F.3 and the F.6, before they too were disbanded in preparation for yet more modern upgrades.

The arrival of the Lightning also heralded the arrival of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, the Lightning proving to be a huge step forward in terms of aircraft speed and climb rate compared to its predecessors, was an ideal interceptor; only the appalling fuel consumption and limited armaments of early models prevented it from being the ultimate attack aircraft.

Although QRA’s origins are associated with the Lightning, the Hunters of 43 and 222 Squadrons had previously retained a two minute readiness with aircrew remaining in the cockpit at all times, a rota that kept aircraft at the ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting in the cockpit for many hours, waiting for the chance to intercept a Soviet aircraft, must have been somewhat tedious on occasions – a draining but very necessary part of the job.

Two more units arrived in 1964, 74 (Tiger) Sqn and 202 Sqn. 74 Sqn had had the honour of being the first Lightning squadron in 1960, and for bringing the first Lightning to Leuchars, roaring into the Fife skies in August that year. They remained here for three years whilst another detachment from 202 brought the Whirlwind HAR.10 strengthening Leuchars’ role in Air Sea Rescue. For the next twelve years the helicopters of ‘C’ Flight would operate from here, with other detachments at similar sites including Boulmer and Coltishall.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Lightning F.6 of No 74 Squadron, RAF Leuchars. Armed with Red Top air-to-air missiles, and carrying over-wing long range fuel tanks.(© IWM RAF-T 6973)

74 Sqn soon took on the upgraded Avon powered Lightning F.3, this proved to be a godsend as the MK.Is were soon becoming worn out, regular faults being difficult to repair meant that flying hours were starting to fall. This upgrade was followed in September 1966 by the F.6. With this new aircraft they, and Leuchars, would participate in the sixth ‘Tiger Meet’, which saw a gathering of NATO ‘Tiger’ units from across the European and American nations. As Leuchars was hosting the gathering, it would mean a range of unusual aircraft types would appear here, if only for a short period of time. For four days in July 1966: F-100D Super Sabres, Super Mystére B2s, F-104G and CF-104 Starfighters along with F-4D Phantom IIs and a range of support aircraft, would all be present in these operations. This brought a multinational collection of pilots and crews from France, the US, Belgium and Germany to this Scottish airfield.

Unfortunately, the event was marred by the death of French pilot Capt. Joel Dancel, whose Armée de l’Air Super Mystère B.2 struck the ground shortly after take off killing him. As a mark of respect the final days solo displays, which he was practising for, went ahead with the flags of all nations at half mast.

Then followed the infamous Labour Government’s decision in 1965 to axe large parts of the defence budget, thus cancelling numerous projects such as TSR.2. This meant that Britain’s future strike capability was seriously weakened. The various separate commands were rapidly becoming no longer viable, and so now the nearly non-existent Bomber Command and Fighter Command were both amalgamated to form the new Strike Command. It was this Command that would take Leuchars on into the 1970s and beyond.

With more Lightnings arriving in April 1967 with the reforming of the fighter squadron 11 Sqn,  a stay of some five years would see the Lightnings continue the role of policing Britain’s North Sea airspace. The RAF’s ongoing interest in Leuchars would also be kept alive and well by the the newly formed 43 Sqn, who joined 11 Sqn in 1967 with the Phantom FG.1. 43 Sqn would remain at Leuchars for over forty years, taking over where the Lightning left off, and  eventually taking on the Tornado in 1989/90.

The end of the 1960s saw what was a first for not only 23 Squadron but perhaps even the RAF, when two Lightnings of the squadron left Leuchars to perform at an airshow in Toronto. The flight, made non-stop with the help of over-wing tanks and no less than six Victors for in-flight refuelling, was made by Sdn. Ldr. Ed Durham and Flg. Off. Geoff Brindle, supported by a VC10 carrying ground crew, supplies and spare pilots. The flight, which had lasted for some seven and a half hours, ended at Toronto in front of a massed crowd of well wishers and press, a real coup for the crews of Leuchars.

Leuchars personnel would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAF in 1968, when it was granted the freedom of St. Andrews. A parade through the town was supported by all makes of aircraft stationed at Leuchars including no less than sixteen Lightnings. Whirlwinds and Chipmunks from both the Air Sea Rescue service and the University Air Squadron also took part, further cementing the strong bond that had existed between Leuchars and its neighbouring town.

The 1960s finally drew to a close, world war had so far been averted but Leuchars remained on the front line, monitoring and intercepting Soviet aircraft over the North Sea, at least for the time being.

In the fifth and final part of this trail, we see how Leuchars is affected by defence cuts. The QRA status is at risk as is the very future of this historic airfield.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 3)

In Part 2, a number of twin engined models frequented Leuchars performing anti shipping roles and U Boat hunts out in the North Sea. BOAC had begun its clandestine role and shipping ball-bearings back from neutral Sweden. We now see a change to these flights and as the war ends, a new much larger breed begin to appear here are Leuchars.

Throughout all these changes at Leuchars, the BOAC company had been continually running its clandestine operations to Sweden. But by now it was clear that a new, faster more agile aircraft was needed. Even though they were marked with civilian markings and flown by Swedish crews, the Electras were slow and cumbersome and made easy targets for both fighters and flak. Now, with the development of the Mosquito, the opportunity had finally arrived.

It was during December 1942 that the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived here at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and would begin flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943, after which it was joined by six other aircraft. These MK.VIs were given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to GH, and would arrive during the April and May of that year.

By the end of April the following year, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

BOAC Mosqquito BAE Systems (@BAE Systems)

All these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

It was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, however, this made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

These operations were by now carrying more than just mail and ball-bearings though. These covert operations, took the civilian marked and unarmed Mosquito across the North Sea to Sweden, where it would drop off the mail, papers and other written material held within its bomb bay, and return with prominent scientists, special agents or allied aircrew who had been interned in Sweden as well as vital ball-bearings produced by the Swedes. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

The returning ‘passenger’ on these flights had the unfortunate prospect of having to sit in a modified ventral bay for the whole duration of the flight. The prospect of further internment probably outweighing that of cramp and three hours of discomfort.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden, was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory, had won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922.*4 He would go on to work on the Atom Bomb in the Manhattan Project, the results of which were seen at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’, a former 27 MU aircraft, was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board were killed as it approached on return from Stockholm; the passenger being a BOAC Mosquito pilot himself. The crash was believed to have been caused by a structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. By the war’s end fourteen Mosquitoes had been used in some way by BOAC, five of which crashed.*6

As the war moved on, squadron numbers at Leuchars begin to diminish. 1943 brought only two, that of 235 Sqn and 333 (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Sqn who were formed here on April 5th as ‘B’ Flight after the dividing and renumbering of 1477 (Norwegian) Flight. This was a split unit, one part flying the Catalina from Woodhaven, whilst ‘B’ Flight flew the Mosquito MK.II. An upgrade to the MK.VI then saw the unit move to join the famous Banff Strike Wing in September 1944. Whilst at Leuchars they operated as sub-hunters and convoy escorts, whilst ‘A’ flight flew more clandestine operations smuggling secret agents and supplies into occupied Norway. The Mosquito as a multi-function aircraft performed well in these duties, and by the end of the war numerous U-boats had been attacked by aircraft based at the Scottish airfield.

RAF Leuchars

One of the Hangars at Leuchars 2018

With 1944 dawning and major events happening on the continent, more changes would take place at Leuchars.

In the early months, proposals to extend and widen one of the runways was put forward, a part of which was agreed in April. This move also required the relocation of the Watch Office and widening of the perimeter tracks. A further three squadrons would pass through this year beginning with a detachment of 281 Sqn, who stayed for a year from February. A second unit 206 Sqn, stayed here for less than three weeks. But then September/October would bring a new and interesting model in the shape of the B-24 Liberator and 547 Sqn. A change to the smaller twin-engined models that had frequented Leuchars for the last four years or so, the move here was unfortunately a signal of their ending though, the squadron being disbanded in June 1945 never to appear again.

Whilst here, the Liberators would patrol the Norwegian coast in the A/U (anti-U boat) role, many of these patrols being uneventful, the U-boat threat by now greatly reduced compared to its previous Atlantic successes. However, on October 12th, Liberator MK.VI “G” did spot a U boat on the surface which it attacked with both front and rear turrets. Strikes from both guns were seen on and around the conning tower, and it was initially thought that the sub was sunk. After patrolling for a further 45 minutes, the U boat was again sighted some two miles away, but managed to escape in the poor weather. It was believed by the crew to have been a 740 ton vessel which had subsequently suffered damage from the attack.

The B-24s of the these RAF squadrons would be complemented by B-24s now flying separate runs to Sweden by the Americans. In addition to these, Leuchars also saw the reintroduction of the popular and highly successful American built Douglas DC3. The route to Stockholm now being a little less dangerous than it had been in previous years.

The arrival of the Liberator had signified a big change in direction for Leuchars,  they were to be the first of many four engined heavies to serve from the Fife base.

In 1945, 519 Sqn brought along the Halifax III, but sadly they were to go the way of 547 Sqn and disband here at Leuchars in the following May; it too would not reappear in the RAF’s inventory of operational Squadrons. 519 were a meteorological unit, collecting data for flying operations. Using both the Spitfire VII and Halifax IIIs, they would climb to altitudes of around 40,000 ft, and collect valuable meteorological data. Using Prata I, Prata II and Recipe I (Pressure And Temperature Ascent) many of these flights would take the aircraft high out over the North Sea.

With the close of the war, Leuchars had seen no less than twenty-eight operational squadrons pass through its doors, some of these merely staying for a day, whilst others were more prolonged. A range of aircraft had come and gone, mainly twin-engined models operating in the photographic reconnaissance or anti-shipping role. With its position on the north eastern coast, Leuchars had proven vital to maritime operations protecting the seas between Britain and Scandinavia, an area it had operated in, in a number of clandestine roles. But with the war now at an end, these were no longer required, and Leuchars’ role would again revert back to its original one – that of training.

The post war world was very different to the pre-war one, Britain like many other countries was rapidly trying to revert to pre-war budgets. A reduction in the armed forces was seen as essential to cutting costs, whilst rebuilding the nations cities that had been so heavily bombed in the Blitz, was paramount. As a result, the RAF as with the other forces, were having to do with what they had. A reduction in man power and machinery though would not only mean a reduction in squadrons, but the airfields that used them.

Leuchars, like so many, was now under the potential threat of closure. However, the increasing post war tensions between the east and west created the Cold War, with a strained and anxious stand off between Soviet and Western forces right across the European frontier. As had happened before, Leuchars’ position would once again be its saviour. Over the coming years it would see a wealth of operational aircraft and a broad range of front line fighters be based in this small corner of Scotland,

The coming months after the war’s end would see further four-engined models reappear, a previous resident 203 Sqn who had been here in the 1920s, returned from overseas operations in May 1946, bringing back with them the B-24 (Liberator VIII). Within two months though, this would be replaced by the Lancaster GR.3, a version of the mighty four-engined heavy that had wreaked so much devastation across Germany’s industrial cities. But by 1947, 203’s link with the Scottish airfield would finally draw to a close, and the squadron would depart for good.

160 Sqn who arrived a month later in June, also brought the Liberator, and similarly began taking on the Lancaster GR.3. By October though their demise had also arrived, they were renumbered and reformed as 120 Sqn, and by 1947 they had lost the last of their Liberators retaining only the Lancaster.

In December 1950, 120 Sqn were posted to Kinloss, where its wartime bombers were replaced with the newer Avro model, the long range maritime patrol aircraft, the Shackleton with its rare contra-rotating props.

Avro Shackleton MR.3 (WR989) of 120 Sqn RAF (@BAE Sytems)

The aircraft, built in response to the growing Soviet threat, was designed around the Lancaster,  Roy Chadwick’s dream bomber. Chadwick, like R.J. Mitchell, having sadly died before their dream had finally been put into service. Built to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Shackleton was initially designed with gun turrets and two Rolls-Royce Griffon 57A engines inboard, and two Roll-Royce Griffon 57 engines outboard.

One other unit arrived here at Leuchars that year, that of 82 Sqn, initially as a Lancaster detachment and then in June 1947 as a base with its own detachments at Eastleigh, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. The last of the prop driven aircraft were now making their ultimate RAF appearances, and soon Leuchars would enter in the jet age.

In Part 4 Leuchars enters the jet age. The Cold War begins and Leuchars takes on a new challenge as it moves to a new Command, that of Fighter Command.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 2)

After Part 1 in which we saw how Leuchars came about and develop as we moved towards the Second World War, we enter the early 1940s. Here we now see anti shipping sorties, U boat hunts and a strange relationship spawn between the recently formed civilian organisation BOAC and RAF Leuchars.

Immediately after the declaration of war, searches began with flights penetrating out over the North Sea. On the September 4th, a Hudson of 224 Sqn spotted a Dornier 18. The Dornier attacked the Hudson which sustained damage in both the fuselage and fuel tank. Thankfully, the pilot evaded further damage and manged to nurse the aircraft back home to Leuchars without further problems. Leuchars’ position on the eastern coast provided an ideal opportunity for such flights, hunting for bombers, U-boats and ships over the North Sea; it was this operation perhaps that marked the beginning of these maritime searches- a role it would carry out for the next 5 years.

Armourers secure 250lb bombs in the bomb-bay of a Lockheed Hudson of No. 224 Squadron at RAF Leuchars. (public domain)

The two units at  Leuchars continued with repeated patrols, with 233 sighting  both enemy flying boats and a submarine on September 7th. Attacks were made on both but no signs of damage were reported to either. Sadly, on this day, a 224 Sqn Hudson was seen diving into the sea, no explanation was available as to the cause, and a launch was dispatched to search for survivors – sadly with no results. This rolling programme of patrols over the North Sea pretty much set the scene for the remainder of 1940, culminating in the departure of 233 Sqn in September, followed not long after by 224 Sqn on April 15th the following year.

At the base itself, more hangars were built, four (austerity) ‘C’ type hangars were added which expanded the servicing and maintenance area hugely. Leuchars was clearly expanding.

Leuchars like many of Britain’s airfields would not only operate ‘operational’ squadrons from them, but numerous support flights that would run along side. Some of these included: training flights, communications flights, Army support and co-operation flights, and Leuchars was no different. One such unit was that of  18 Group Communications Flight, who resided at Leuchars from the spring of 1940 right the way through to 1960. With only a brief spell at Turnhouse, it would operate a wide range of aircraft throughout its long service and be one of, if not the longest serving unit at the airfield.

The early part of 1940 saw yet another front line squadron arrive here at Leuchars, that of 605 Sqn with Hurricanes. The fighter squadron, whose battle honours would include The Battle of Britain and the Malta campaign,  would only stay for a very short period of time, transferring again at the end of the month to the rather unsuitable Wick, where only one Bessineau hangar existed and there were little or no dispersal facilities. As two other squadrons were also moving onto the airfield at the same time, it was decided to billet the non operational crews off the airfield site, an idea that became the norm in the following war years.

Over the next few years, there would be a plethora of squadrons use Leuchars. In October, 320 Sqn arrived in a move that saw the return of the Avro Anson. Within days of their arrival though the squadron would begin receiving the Hudson I. What makes this particular unit special was the fact that both it, and 321 Sqn with whom it would soon merge, were both formerly of the Royal Dutch Naval Air Service, and had arrived at Pembroke Dock in June that year after the Germans invaded Holland. They brought with them Fokker T VIII seaplanes which were quickly replaced with the Anson.

On January 18th 1941, the two units were merged to form 320 (Dutch) Sqn, whose headquarters were at Carew Cheriton under the command of Lieutenant Commander W. van Lier, at which point all but one of the Ansons were disposed of. For short time the unit would perform from both there and Silloth training crews on aerial photography in the Hudson, before returning here to Leuchars in the March, where upon they gradually updated the Hudsons with the MK.II, the MK.III and eventually the MK.IV before ending their link with Leuchars and departing to Bircham Newton in the April of 1942.

Another unusual squadron to arrive at Leuchars was that of 72 Sqn in November 1940. A Spitfire unit, they had then taken on the Gloster Gladiator, a 1934 designed bi-plane that became famous in the defence of Malta as ‘Faith‘, ‘Hope’, and ‘Charity‘. The switch to the bi-plane appears to have been made as a result of an unsuitable airfield at Acklington. However, and even though the Gladiator was in no way equal to the Spitfire, 72 Sqn retained the Gladiator well into the Spring of 1941, at which point they upgraded to the newer Spitfire, the IIa.

Arriving at Leuchars on November 29th, 1940, 72 Sqn immediately began flying patrols over the sea, their first being in the area around Dunbar. However, the Scottish winter weather dogged operational flying resulting in many cancelled flights and patrols. On December 8th, Green section led by P.O. Norfolk struck lucky, and the flight encountered a lone Luftwaffe Heinkel He.111 over Holy Island. The Spitfire engaged the Heinkel firing numerous shots at the enemy aircraft, but the bomber made his escape flying into the heavy cloud that blanketed the coastal skies. As a result, P.O. Norfolk was unable to make a claim against it. It was this very same bad weather that prevented the squadron’s proposed move back to Acklington, meaning that the planned trip for the 15th, was delayed, the aircraft unable to make the transfer until the end of the month.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 152 BEAUFORT.

Beaufort Mark I, N1172 ‘AW-S’, of 42 Sqn RAF, in flight with L9834, also of 42 Sqn (@ IWM CH 2775)

The majority of 1941 saw similar moves; short stays by 86 Sqn (2nd February – 3rd March) with Blenheims; 42 Sqn (1st March – 18th June) with Beauforts on their way to the Far East; 107 Sqn (3rd March – 11th May) with Blenheims and 114 Sqn (13th May – 19th July) also with Blenheims, all of which brought a number of twin-engined models to the Scottish airfield. The primary role for these units was maritime patrols, monitoring and photographing vessels out over the cold waters of the North Sea.

In 1941 a strange relationship spawned between the recently formed British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and RAF Leuchars. BOAC – being formed by the amalgamation of British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways – formed a partnership with Leuchars that would remain at the airfield up until the war’s end, operating in an ‘open’ but rather contradictory clandestine role.

The civilian company would initially operate a single Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra (the forerunner of the Hudson) named ‘Bashful Gertie‘, between Leuchars and Stockholm in neutral Sweden. Piloted by Swedish aircrew, the idea behind the route was to pass POW mail into Sweden where it could be forwarded to prison camps in occupied Europe. At the time though, Sweden was one of Europe’s largest producers of ball-bearings, a commodity that both the allied and axis powers needed in order to keep their war machine turning. It is now known that much of Germany’s war supply of ball-bearings was in fact coming from Sweden, but they were not the only country buying the Swedish goods. After dropping off the post, the Electra would be refuelled and filled with ball-bearings before returning to Leuchars. This run hence became known as the ‘ball-bearing run’. These operations would continue for several years from Leuchars, but upgrades at a later date, would see a new form take over from these rather slow and vulnerable aircraft.

On August 12th, another new squadron was formed here at Leuchars, that of 489 Sqn with Beauforts, who kept them until the January of 1942. At this point they began replacing them with the Blenheim IV. After departing to Thorney Island in March 1942, they returned here as a full squadron in October 1943. At this point they began receiving the Beaufighter X an aircraft they kept until the war’s end. Prior to D-day the squadron moved to RAF Langham in Norfolk where they donned invasion stripes ready for their part in the forthcoming invasion of Normandy*3.

A detachment of the Horsham-St-Faith based 105 Sqn, arrived at Leuchars in December 1941 bringing yet another twin-engined, but new design, to these Scottish shores. A revolution in aircraft design, it was the envy of the Luftwaffe and a joy for British pilots – the de Havilland Mosquito IV.

Aircrew of 105 Sqn next to a Mosquito (location unknown) (@IWM CH 018011 1)

The detachment would stay here until after September 1942 whereupon it would reform as a complete unit at RAF Marham in Norfolk. In the last days of September however, four aircraft would leave Leuchars to attack a ‘special’ target in Oslo.

In Oslo on this day was a gathering of high level Nazi officials at the Gestapo headquarters, and this was to be the primary target for the four aircraft. After bombing successfully, they four sped away at low level toward the sea and home, only to be attacked, by four FW-190s. All four Mosquitoes received damage to varying degrees, and one was sadly lost, that flown by twenty-six year old Flt. Sgt. F. Carter and his navigator twenty-year old Sgt. Young. The Mosquito was seen heading toward the Oslo Fjord (Lake Engervann) with its starboard engine on fire. Unable to maintain height, the aircraft clipped trees and struck the water killing the two crew. The two bodies were successfully  pulled from the Fjord by local fishermen and buried in Oslo. The four crews had only been posted to Leuchars the day before.

Little changed throughout 1942. More short detachments and movements through Leuchars saw 217 Sqn, 415 Sqn, 455 (RAAF), 144 Sqn and 544 Sqn bringing mainly twin engined models to Leuchars. Only the detachment of 544 Sqn with Spitfires saw any major changes. The longest standing unit at this time was 144 Sqn with Hampdens, but they were spread far and wide, detachments being located at Skitten, Sumburgh, Wick, Afrikanda and Vaenga.

In October, a month after the departure of 105 Sqn, the Mosquito returned once more. This time a new unit, 540 Sqn, who were created from both ‘H’ and ‘L’ flights of 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). The multiple flights of this former RAF Benson unit was divided up into five separate consecutive squadrons 540 – 544. Flying models that included:  Mosquito II ‘DD615’, IV ‘DZ592’, VIII ‘DZ424 and IX ‘LR422 they would also use the Spitfire IV up to the end of the year. Their role here was primarily to photograph targets in Norway and northern Europe, a role they performed until early February 1944. They would eventually return to their former home at RAF Benson leaving a year’s long stay at Leuchars behind.

In Part 3, the running of BOAC aircraft from Leuchars see a change, the war comes to a close and new larger aircraft begin to appear here at the Scottish base.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 1)

Following on from Trail 53 we leave the former RNAS Crail and Dunino behind and head north-west to the mecca of the golfing world, and the historic town of St. Andrew’s, where just outside of the University town is an airfield whose history goes back as far as 1911; this makes it one of Britain’s oldest and most established airfields. Its development then takes it through the First World World War, to the relative peace of the 1920s, the expansion period of the 1930s and on into the Second World War. Faced with potential closure it then went on to be one of the most significant and important airfields in Britain’s Cold War defence network.

Sadly politics played its part as it often does, and in 2011, its fate was sealed when at 4:48pm on July 18th, Dr. Liam Fox the then Secretary of State for Defence announced when talking about bringing the Army back from Germany: “Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth.”*10 With that the airfield was to close, being transferred over to the Army, a transfer that occurred four years later in March 2015. Since then the RAF has, on occasion, returned for flying duties,  but its front line RAF role had gone. A state which exists today.

On this next stop, we take an extensive look at the long and incredible life of RAF Leuchars.

RAF Leuchars.

Leuchars sits on the north-eastern coast of Fife, on the banks of the River Eden as it enters the sea at St. Andrew’s Bay. To the north across the River Tay, lies Dundee, and to the west, the city of Perth. South of Leuchars is the University town of St. Andrews – the home of world golfing. Being literally on the shore line, Leuchars provided an ideal location for a whole host of maritime operations, aerial reconnaissance and even later on, search and rescue.

Its life began just after the turn of the last century in 1911, when powered flight was but a mere few years old.  Even before the first aero-engine had been started here, the site was being put to use by the Royal Engineers with a Balloon Squadron, who used it for reconnaissance training in the Tentsmuir Forest on the edge of what is now the airfield.

With the formation of the RFC in 1912, the Balloon Squadron would become part of the first military flying arm to exist in the UK. It would continue in its role as spotting for artillery, even as powered flight gradually became established. On the nearby beaches, small aircraft were tried and tested, but balloon training would ultimately remain the focus of the squadron.

In 1916, the RNAS then acquired the land and began to develop the site as a place for powered flight. Taking over farmland, and eventually swallowing up the resident farm, the airfield slowly expanded, and by 1918 its future was established. By this time, the RAF had been formed, the flying responsibilities of the Navy were transferred to the RAF and the first unit was ready to move in. The Grand Fleet School of Aerial Fighting and Gunnery, run by the RAF to train Naval airmen, resided at the airfield from the end of 1918 on into 1920. This unit, a new unit in its own right, was formed out of the disbanded 208 (Temporary) Training Depot Station which, whilst formed at East Fortune in the Scottish borders, had only been in existence for as little as one month.

RAF Leuchars

The control tower at Leuchars. The airfield’s proximity to the shore line being evident.

In these early days of flying, risks were high, the thrill of manned flight was a draw for many young men eager to experience the joy of soaring above the clouds. As a result, there were numerous accidents and Leuchars was no different.

On May 19th, 1919, Lt. David Gardiner Cooper (22) lost his life when he misjudged a slow roll whilst flying in his Sopwith Camel (F8497), and on August 1st, Canadian, Lt. Philip Hall-Smith (30) was killed, after his Camel was seen to inexplicably nose dive into the ground.*1*2 Two unfortunate losses after a war that had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives.

During the 1920s, with the war now over, military might was seen as an almost unnecessary waste, units were cutback, airfields that had been established for war were closed, and fighting men were returned to civvy street. Political fighting amongst the three arms of the military, saw the RAF cut back to a fraction of its former self, its cause for survival spearheaded by Lord Trenchard. However, Leuchars managed to cling on, remaining not only active, but receiving further development as well. More land was purchased and in 1925 the base was officially renamed RAF Training Base Leuchars.

It would be a time of dramatic change and turbulence for the fledgling Air Force though, and this was wholly reflected by the number of units appearing at Leuchars during this period. Operating as one of the UK’s major Naval training bases (the RAF being responsible for Naval flying at this point), the first of these units to appear was 203 Sqn in March 1920 which had reformed here after having been disbanded just two months earlier at Scopwick.

On April 1st 1923, the RAF Carrier units were re-designated under the new 400 series of squadron codes – a major stepping stone in RAF / Naval structure. Then a year later in 1924, these units were combined to form the new Fleet Air Arm (FAA), the flying branch of the Royal Navy. These changes had a major impact on operational numbers here at Leuchars.

Formally a Royal Naval Air Service unit, 203 Sqn initially flew the Sopwith Camel, replacing these  in April 1922, with the Nieuport and the General (Gloster) Nightjar. In mid September, the squadron was posted to Turkey, departing Leuchars onboard HMS Argus; a posting that would last for three months. After that, the squadron returned to Leuchars once more, again onboard HMS Argus, remaining active at Leuchars until 1st April 1923. At this point the squadron was disbanded, being divided into two Naval Flights: 401 and 402. The squadron as was, would be reformed later, but it would be another twenty-three years before they would see the shores of Leuchars once more.

203 Sqn would be joined a month after their arrival by another former RNAS unit – 205 Sqn. Like 203, it too was disbanded at Scopwick only to reform here at Leuchars in April 1920. Bringing another new model of aircraft to the Scottish airfield, 205 Sqn flew the Parnall Panther, and would serve in its entirety as 205 until October 1921, when the Mobile Flight element  was reformed as 3 Squadron. The remainder of 205 Sqn continued serving alongside here at Leuchars.

3 Squadron would operate out of the Scottish base until 1st April 1923, at which point it was similarly divided into three flights: 420, 421 and 422 now serving at Gosport. The remainder of 205 were also divided up into separate Flights – 440, 441 and 442, but unlike its sister unit, 205 would not return in any form to these Fife shores.

As part of this formation of the FAA, Leuchars would see all these Flights joined by another seven: 403, 404, 405, 406, 443, 445, and 446, and all around this time. This would bring a whole range of aircraft to these shores: Nightjars, Panthers, Nimrods, Flycatchers and the like.  Some of these units would depart for foreign shores whilst some would remain in the UK at other bases. The skies above Leuchars was now buzzing with activity.

For the majority of the 1930s, Leuchars would remain as an FAA training base, being renamed No. 1 Flying Training School, on April 1st 1935. Aircraft seen here would have included a range of training types including the: Fairey IIIF, Fairey Gordon, Avro Tutor and Avro 504N. For three continuous years pilots trained at Leuchars for the Fleet Air Arm, a branch that continued to be the responsibility of the RAF.

The mid to late 1930s would see tensions slowly rise in Germany, but Britain’s general post war doctrine was to defend her shores rather than attack any potential enemy. The Royal Navy was still seen at these times as the main military force, a belief that would very soon change. Britain in these early years, had not seen Germany (partly due to the devastating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles) but France, as her biggest potential aggressor, and as such long range aircraft or heavy bombers were not seen as an important requirement.

Government ideas that Britain should only arm itself with a view to defence against its nearest potential threat, meant that early on, defences were developed at the cost of attacking units. But by the time it was clear that Germany was the threat, Britain was lacking far behind, as little national development had been undertaken. This doctrine saw a far reaching impact right across Britain’s peace time airfields, which at this time included Leuchars. With only one squadron, 36 Sqn (the former Coastal Defence Torpedo Flt.) transiting through on its way to the Far East, preparation for war and flying in particular, remained limited to training flights here at the Scottish base.

As Britain then entered the Expansion Period, new aircraft specifications were being pushed through and airfield development became increasingly important. A number of new airfields were built and a restructuring of the RAF was once again on the cards. Here at Leuchars, the number of hangars was extended, with 7 Belfast Truss hangars being added to the site.

With further changes in the late 1930s, Leuchars became a Temporary Armament Training Camp (later station) with a small collection of Wapitis who used the nearby range at Tentsmuir.

Then in 1938, this restructuring took place, Leuchars, driven by its coastal location, was passed over to Coastal Command in an exchange that saw the two squadrons based at Thornaby (224 Sqn and 233 Sqn) transfer across here, whilst 1 FTS would leave for Netheravon. The Temporary Armament Training Camp previously established here would also disband.

Both these units brought the Avro Anson with them, 224 replacing them the following year with the Lockheed Hudson, a military aircraft born out of a civil transport model. Over the next two years, 224 Sqn would upgrade each of these with both the MK.II and MK.III models before departing to Limvadi in April 1941.

233 Sqn however, would have a more turbulent time, moving initially to Montrose, and then back to Leuchars, where they also took on the Hudson, only to replace it a month or so later with the Blenheim IV. Then, within less than a year, they would depart Leuchars for good, heading for Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where they would continue their operations with Coastal Command.

As 1938 passed the situation in Europe looked even more grave, and home based units were put on alert. 224 Sqn began carrying out searches of the North Sea, looking for vessels making their way to the open waters of the Atlantic. A further flight began sweeps of the Firth of Forth looking for submarines operating in the waters off the Scottish coast. However, in September, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, and following his ‘Peace in our time’ speech, war had seemingly been averted for the time being, and these precautionary measures were then relaxed.

In mid December, with tensions eased, 224 Sqn was granted 3 weeks leave allowing personnel time to go home over the Christmas period. The relaxation of measures was however, short lived, and a year later the squadron was put on a war footing with mobilisation orders coming through on September 1st 1939.

In part 2 Leuchars enters the war, being a coastal airfield the sea would dominate its actions and the squadrons that would be based here. It would also be the first line of defence against Luftwaffe bombers, ships and U-boats.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

de Havilland Mosquitoes in BOAC Service.

Very few countries around the world managed to avoid the influence of the Second World War as it ravaged and rampaged its way across the globe. One such nation that did manage to keep its borders secure though was Sweden, a place that became known as a safe haven for downed airmen or those trying to escape the clutches of the Nazi tyranny that would engulf vast swathes of the European continent. Surrounded by conflict and declared neutral, Sweden was to all intents and purposes cut off from the rest of the world.

However, Sweden was a country reliant on imports and exports, a reliance that led to extensive negotiations between herself and both the axis and allied powers who effectively blockaded her supply routes. Through these negotiations she achieved an  agreement to the rights of passage for ‘safe-conduct traffic’, an agreement that allowed the passage through hostile waters of shipping, allowing the exports of paper and wood from Sweden, in exchange for imports of food and oil.

Sweden’s role in the Second World war was largely political. If she was to survive she was going to have to forge safe links beyond her closest Scandinavian neighbours. Fearing she would be sucked into war and absorbed into a Europe ruled by Germany, she turned to Britain with a view to forging a safe airway between Stockholm and Scotland.

Discussions around the opening of the Swedish air routes began prior to war breaking out, negotiations between the Chairman of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Sweden’s airline company AB Aerotransport (ABA) and Germany’s Hermann Goring, eventually led to an agreed flight once per week from Stockholm – Oslo-Stavanger-Perth. However, ongoing Swedish concerns led to long delays in activation of the service, even though a successful test flight involving a Junkers 52 had taking place on November 27th 1939.

The Swedish ABA were to run the operation, initially using three DC-3s (named Gripen ‘Griffin’, Gladen ‘kite’ and Falken ‘falcon’) painted bright orange and clearly marked Sweden/Schweden in large black lettering to prevent attacks from either side on a neutral aircraft. Throughout the war though this link was tenuous at best, heightened German aggression and fearsome weather often being the determining factors for the safe passage of the aircraft between the two countries. German restrictions on both freight and passengers angered the Swedes, who defiantly disobeyed their rulings. This decision led to a number of Swedish operated aircraft being attacked and shot down.

By 1945 the Swedes decided it was now too dangerous to fly, particularly with trigger happy defences and over keen allied pilots. The airspace around Sweden’s near neighbour Norway, had become a cauldron of  fire, and so the service was eventually closed down.

However, this official Swedish run route was not the only airway that operated between the two countries. The Norwegians also ran a service albeit reduced, as did the Americans later on in the war with five stripped out B-24 Liberators. Another service however, a ‘British’ service, also operated, but this was much more of a clandestine role than that of their Swedish counterparts.

At the time Sweden was a producer of iron but more importantly ball-bearings, a  commodity essential for any moving parts in machinery; whether it be a simple tool or a more complex engine, without them machinery simply wouldn’t work.

Ball-bearings in Sweden were all manufactured by one company, Svenska Kullagerfabriken AB (SKF), who before the war, exported around 9% of her total output to Germany with another 9% going to the United Kingdom. During the war however, this balance dramatically fell heavily on the side of Germany with as much as 65% of her total output ending up in German hands by 1943.*1 This imbalance was primarily due to the exports that were received in the occupied territories, falling into German hands, and being diverted into Germany’s own industrial operations.

Britain however, also needed these ball-bearings, and was perhaps more keen on maintaining this link than many would have initially thought. Having her supply line to Swedish goods cut was going to hit Britain hard. Britain needed all the ball-bearings she could find, and so Sweden was vital to this supply. So desperate were the British  authorities to obtain these components that they mounted two naval operations,  ‘Rubble‘ and ‘Performance‘, both of which turned out to be disastrous in terms of both the loss of life and the loss of shipping.

There were many other reasons why Britain wanted to maintain this link though, one was the expansion of its resistance operations across Scandinavia, Sweden providing a safe passage for agents entering and leaving the region safely, a move that was just as important as it was for returning escaped or interned airmen of the RAF and later USAAF.

Furthermore, Britain needed to ensure that Sweden was receiving as much British propaganda as it was German. If this line were to be severed, there would be a chance that the imbalance in material may have detrimental effects on Sweden’s future as the war developed.

In late 1939 flights began in secrecy, operated by British Airways Ltd, who used three Junkers 52 transport aircraft and one Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra (the forerunner of the Hudson) named ‘Bashful Gertie‘ (G-AGBG). Like the Swedish operation, these flights took place between Perth and Stockholm via Norway and were flown by civilian crews in civilian marked aircraft. However, this route was subsequently closed when one of the aircraft was attacked by a Luftwaffe fighter, and another was captured in Oslo when the Germans invaded Norway.

Then in 1939/40 the two British aviation companies, British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways, merged to form the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), a civilian operation that would go on to serve as Britain’s leading national airline for many years after the war’s end. The amalgamation of these companies was an important step forward leading to the reinstatement of the Swedish route, this time using the military base at RAF Leuchars in Fife.

Also piloted by Swedish or Norwegian aircrew, the idea behind the route was to pass POW mail and propaganda (magazines, newspapers etc) into Sweden where it could be forwarded to prison camps in occupied Europe. However, constantly aware of the need for ball-bearings and the fact that Sweden was a major supplier of them, plans were put in place for returning aircraft to be refuelled and filled with ball-bearings before returning to Leuchars. This run hence became known as the ‘ball-bearing run‘.

In these early years of the war, BOAC operated other similar aircraft types, these included C-47 Dakotas, converted Whitley IV bombers and Curtis Wright C46 aircraft, but their lack of speed and manoeuvrability left them vulnerable to Luftwaffe attacks. It soon became clear that a new and much faster type was needed and so BOAC began to put pressure on de Havilland for their new Mosquito.

Picture

A Whitley bomber in BOAC markings *7

A trial flight was undertaken using an unmarked Mosquito of 105 Sqn (DK292) on August 6th 1942 (there is some confusion over this exact date), flown by  Fl. Lt. Parry and P. Off. Robinson, the results of which showed the aircraft to be highly suitable for the purpose of the flights. The journey from Leuchars to Stockholm covered some 800 miles was, on average, completed in around 3 hours.

On 15th December 1942 the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and began flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943. After this, it was joined by six other Mosquito MK.VI aircraft between April and May (all being given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to AGGH) with a further three in April 1944.

The incredible carrying capacity of the Mosquito, which would be proven later in the war, would allow for up to 650Kg (10 -12 crates) of ball-bearings to be carried in the aircraft’s bomb bay.

The opening of such a link was kept very secret, the British not wanting the Germans to know about the new revolutionary Mosquito, nor their important cargo. However, keeping such an operation from German intelligence was difficult, if not impossible, and soon they discovered that the flights were again taking place between the two countries. Now embroiled in a political stand off, the Germans put pressure on neutral Sweden to put a stop to these flights, insisting that they were giving the British an advantage, and that as a neutral country, they should not be allowing British aircraft to land on Swedish soil. The Swedes maintained that the service was purely civilian and controlled solely by the Swedish authorities, to which the Germans threatened to inform Hitler thus rendering the aircraft legitimate military targets. Fearing that the British would in turn close the passage for the safe-conduct traffic, the Swedes ignored the German threats and so the service continued.

However, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, it was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations. But that made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

So all of these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

The first example DZ411, was a Mosquito B.IV Series II, powered by two Merlin 21/23 engines built under the contract 555/C.23(a) and converted to a PR.IV at Hatfield prior to its delivery to BOAC at RAF Leuchars. It would go on to serve until early 1945 with BOAC before presumably returning to RAF ownership.

The first of the next batch, all FB.VIs, was ‘HJ680’ another example built at Hatfield under the same contract 555/C.23(a) but with Merlin 23/25 engines. This aircraft was initially passed to BOAC at Bramcote on April 16th 1943, receiving the registration G-AGGC before flying on to Leuchars immediately after. On the 18th, on the return leg of its maiden flight for BOAC, it was chased by enemy fighters, but its speed and agility allowed the Mosquito to escape unharmed. It was eventually removed from service on November 30th 1944, but remained at Leuchars in case a ‘spare’ aircraft was urgently needed. This particular model was the longest serving Mosquito in BOAC’s service, being taken off the civil register on January 4th 1946, whereupon it was passed to 22 Maintenance Unit. On June 15th 1950, the example was eventually sold as scrap to the John Dale Scrap merchants.

The next aircraft ‘HJ681’ arrived at the same time, and remained in service until January 1944, under the civil registration G-AGGD. This particular aircraft crash landed in Sweden and was reduced to spare parts.

‘HJ718’ arrived on April 24th and was given the registration G-AGGE, it served until June 1945, whilst ‘HJ720’ (G-AGGF) crashed into high ground at Invernairk, Glen Esk on 17th August 1943, killing both crewmen Captain L.A. Wilkins and Radio Operator N.H. Beaumont. A further FB.VI, ‘HJ721’ (G-AGGG) also crashed, this time on the return leg only a mile or so from Leuchars on October 25th 1943, when the port engine failed. Both crewmen, Captain Hamre and Radio Operator Haug, lost their lives along with their passenger Mr Carl Rogers.

The last FB.VI ‘HJ723’ also built under the same contract as the other models, arrived on the 2nd May 1943, and would operate until the end of June 1945 as G-AGGH . It was subsequently handed over to the RAF and eventually presumably disposed of.

By the end of May 1943, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

DH98 Mosquito G-AGFV (DZ411) MkIV BOAC on 8th January 1943 (© 2021 BAE Systems)

In June 1943, with the need for ball-bearings increasing, two Mosquitoes departed Leuchars with two very important dignitaries onboard. Firstly the British president of the Swedish SKF airline and secondly a ball-bearings expert from the British authorities, who were going to negotiate the delivery of further supplies to Britain.

In order to accommodate these additional passengers the bomb bay of the aircraft had to be converted, thus allowing them to lay on their backs on padded felt*6. An additional reading lamp was fitted, along with an oxygen supply, intercom and even coffee. The passenger would have a piece of string the other end of which was tied to the pilots leg, and should the conditions  in the bomb bay become too uncomfortable, they would pull the string.

These operations were very soon regularly carrying human cargo. On the outward leg mail, newspapers and other written material held within its bomb bay, would be deposited in Sweden, the aircraft would be refuelled and stocked up with either human cargo (allied aircrew, special agents or scientists), ball-bearings or a mix of the two. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory had won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.*4 His journey almost cost him his life though after he failed to operate his oxygen mask correctly. Only when the failed to respond to the pilot’s attempts to contact him, was action taken and the aircraft reduced altitude allowing Bohr to breathe normally and regain consciousness. Bohr went on to work on the Manhattan project, an American project that led to the development of the atomic bomb that would end the war, and plunge the world into the nuclear age.

A large number of other significant people were also carried by these Mosquitoes, Sgt. Jack Byrne who went on to be a  founder member of the SAS, after being shot in the face, bayoneted in the groin and detained in several prisoner of war camps, was one such person repatriated to Leuchars. Three of those who escaped in the famous ‘Wooden Horse‘ escape were also returned via Mosquitoes from Sweden; as where Norwegians Peter Bergsland and Jens Muller two of the three to escape in ‘The Great Escape’.

In ‘Operation Gunnerside’, the SOE operation to blow up the German heavy Water plant in Norway (featured in the film ‘The Heroes of Telemark‘), six of the team were repatriated using this route. A key player in this operation was Leif Tronstad, a Norwegian Physicist who was also flown to Scotland to provide vital information about the German efforts to produce heavy water at the plant.

A considerable number of British personalities were also flown into Sweden using this method; T.S. Elliot, Sir Kenneth Clarke and even the Bishop of Chichester were flown into Sweden this way.

Sgt. Jack Byrne, was shot, bayoneted and imprisoned. He fought at Dunkirk, on D-Day, in North Africa and at the Battle of the Bulge and then went on to be a founder member of the SAS.*2

By the end of 1943, 157 such flights had been made, 129 of which were by these Mosquitoes. A total of some 110 tonnes of freight (a mix of human and mainly ball bearings) had been carried.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’ a former 27 MU aircraft was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board, Captain G. Rae, Radio Operator D.T. Roberts and Captain B.W.B. Orton (himself a BOAC Mosquito pilot), were killed as it approached Leuchars on its return flight from Stockholm.  The crash was believed to have been caused by the aircraft’s structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. The total number of aircraft being used by BOAC reached fourteen, with five of these crashing including one G-AGKR ‘HJ792’ being lost at sea in August 1944 with no trace of either the aircraft or crew ever being found.

On 17th May 1945 the service officially ceased. Between 1941 and the war’s end, 1,200 of these trips had been made, many by the Mosquitoes. The service between Sweden and Scotland had been a vital link between the two countries not only for the supply of ball-bearings but a life line for escapees and special agents. For these Mosquitoes it was a remarkable achievement for an aircraft that would prove itself to be one of the war’s most incredible designs.

de Havilland Mosquitoes used by BOAC*3:

DK292 – The first Mosquito to fly the Leuchars – Stockholm route
DZ411 – G-AGFV flew to 1945
HJ667 – G-AGKO flew to 1945
HJ680 – G-AGGC flew to 1946
HJ681 – G-AGGD crash landed Sweden 1941
HJ718 – G-AGGE flew to 1945
HJ720 – G-AGGF crashed Invernairk 1943
HJ721 – G-AGGG crashed near to Leuchars 1943
HJ723 – G-AGGH flew to 1945
LR296 – G-AGKP crashed near Leuchars 1944
HJ792 – G-AGKR lost at sea 1944
HJ898 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial flew to 1945
HJ985 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial returned to RAF 1944
LR524 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial returned to RAF 1944

RAF Leuchars appears in Trail 53.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Martin Fritz (1975) Swedish ball-bearings and The German war economy,
Scandinavian Economic History Review, 23:1, 15-35, DOI: 10.1080/03585522.1975.10407803

*2 Photo from “Think Scotland website”  accessed 12/3/21

*3*6 The Mosquito Page Website accessed 12/3/21

*4 For additional information and pilot stories about the ‘ball-bearing’ run see the Royal Institute of Navigation Blog.

*5 Thirsk, I. “de Havilland Mosquito – An illustrated History Vol.2“, Crecy 2006

*7 Photo from Aircraft Enthusiast Group Website.

BAE Systems Website

Flying Officer John Cruickshank V.C. 210 Sqn (RAF)

In Trail 60 we visited the former RAF Oban (Karrera) on Scotland’s west coast, from which various squadrons operated flying a mix of flying boats notably the Short Sunderland and Consolidated Catalina. 

One of these squadrons, 210 Sqn, was posted from Oban to Sullom Voe, a major deep water harbour on the Shetland Isles. These squadrons were used primarily for maritime patrols – U-boat searches and convoy escorts – flying for many hours out over the Atlantic and northern reaches toward Iceland.

John Cruickshank full length photograph

Flying Officer John Alexander Cruickshank, V.C.© IWM CH 13745

It was from Sullom Voe that 210 Sqn Flying Officer John Cruickshank, earned himself the Victoria Cross for his action against a heavily armed German U-boat. During the attack, Cruickshank and three other crewmen were severely injured, his navigator was killed and the aircraft badly damaged. He continued to fly his aircraft (Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’) before relinquishing control to his second pilot. But knowing he couldn’t land the aircraft, Cruickshank refused morphine, circling over the base until daylight which allowed him to supervise the landing of the Catalina by the Second Pilot. His actions that night undoubtedly went a long way to saving his crew and his aircraft. Cruickshank is the last living recipient to have been awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

Born on 20th May, 1920 in Aberdeen, on Scotland’s north-east coast, Cruickshank spent some of his life in both Aberdeen and Edinburgh being educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, the Aberdeen Grammar School and Daniel Stewart’s College in Edinburgh. Before the war, he was employed by the Commercial Bank of Scotland, joining them in 1938. In 1939 he served in the Territorial Army before joining up in May, the 129 Field Regiment Royal Artillery being mobilised in the following August. 

In June 1941, he transferred across to the Royal Air Force completing his flying training in both the US and Canada before returning to England and an operational squadron. By 1942 he had earned his wings and after further training he was assigned to an operational unit, 210 Squadron who were operating flying boats on maritime and anti-submarine patrols. By 1944 he was an accomplished and experienced pilot, flying many hours with 210 Sqn.

At 13:45 hrs on 17th July 1944, F.O. John Cruickshank, along with his crew: F.O. J.C. Dickson (Navigator); F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett (2nd Pilot); Sgt. F. Fidler (3rd Pilot); F.Sgt. S.B. Harrison (F.Engineer); W.O. W.C. Jenkins (1st W. Op.); F.Sgt. H. Gershenson (2nd W. Op);  Sgt. R.S.C. Proctor (W.Op/Air G.); F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton (W.O/Air G.); and F.Sgt. A.I. Cregan (Rigger) took off in Catalina Mark IVA, JV928 ‘Y’ from Sullom Voe as part of Operation ‘Mascot’, an operation designed to attack and sink the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’.

Tirpitz was anchored at her mooring in Kaafjord, Norway, and the RAF’s 18 Group role was to protect the attacking fleet from a defensive force of twelve German submarines designated Group Trutz. Cruickshank and 210 Sqn were part of that RAF 18 Group.

Following the unsuccessful attack, the British fleet returned, Group Trutz was re-positioned to lay in wait for them and it was here that Cruickshank made his attack.

At 21:45 at the position 6842N 0612E and a height of 1,500 ft, Cruickshank’s radar operator picked up a signal some 15 miles away, a position west of the Lofoten Islands, west of Narvik. The aircraft turned and vectored onto the vessel. At 5 miles distance they sighted an unknown surface vessel, and went to investigate. 

The aircraft reduced altitude to 200 ft on a course of 2200 noting that the vessel was at that time stationary. After entering cloud, Cruickshank then sighted the vessel again at 2 miles, this time is was moving at a speed of about 20 knots and turning to starboard. The crew at this time considered it to be a ‘friendly’ and so fired a recognition flare whilst signalling the letter of the day. At this point, the vessel began to open fire and it was now certain that it was a U-boat and not a British vessel.

The Catalina, followed the U-boat (believed to be a German type VIIC submarine U-361) as it turned to port, and made a compete circuit remaining at 2 miles distance. Once ahead, the aircraft began its run in. Diving from 1,000 ft to 500 ft, it headed straight for the U-boat, inaccurate flak being met with fire from the Catalina’s front turret. As the aircraft passed the U-boat depth charges were dropped and the blister turrets also opened fire, hits were seen on the coning tower by both front and port blister turret. 

Unfortunately the depth charges didn’t release and so Cruickshank turned the aircraft for a second attack. This time, the U-boat was stationary and firing more accurate flak. The Catalina was hit several times, killing the navigator, F.O. John C. Dickson, and seriously wounding Cruickshank along with three other crewmen. At 50 ft, 6 Depth Charges were released, this time successfully, the two blister turrets confirming wash from the drops but no defined ‘hits’. Immediately after the attack the Catalina entered thick sea fog obscuring any further views. 

Photograph of the U boat attack

A photograph taken from Cruickshank’s Catalina during the attack. It shows the splashes from the first of six depth charges dropped on the second attack, landing astern of the U-boat which was making violent ‘S’ turns in an effort to escape. Machine gun fire from a gun housed in one of the Catalina’s ‘blisters’ can also be seen at top left. © IWM C 4590

At 21:58 the attack was over, the Second Pilot took control of the Catalina, himself injured in the hand. The Wireless Operator F.Sgt. F.J. Appleton, treated the injured dressing their wounds, including those of Cruickshank. F/Sgt Fidler took over the navigation from the killed navigator. He calculated the aircraft’s fuel and consumption and initial results were not good, but with damaged instruments this proved to be difficult.

A message was sent back to Sullom Voe that an ambulance was required urgently. A conversation then began between the ground and the second Pilot in which it was said that the flying boat’s hull had been damaged and the pilot was unable to land the aircraft as he was badly wounded. The Catalina informed Sullom Voe that they had about 5 hours of fuel (450 Gallons) available. It was also clear by this point that the radio wasn’t working. 

Whilst dressing Cruickshank’s wounds Appleton realised how seriously injured the pilot was, but knowing the Second Pilot, F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett, could not land the Catalina, he refused morphine, instead insisting on being carried back to the controls to oversee the landing. 

Garnett set a course for home, and just after 03:00 hrs they arrived over Sullom Voe. With unsuitable weather and darkness still enshrouding the base, the aircraft circled the area burning off fuel and waiting for daylight, beaching being the only option due to the aircraft’s damage. 

For a further hour, some five and half hours after the attack,  the Catalina circled the base, Cruickshank giving instructions, keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings. Finally, daylight appeared and the aircraft was able to land, successfully beaching at 04:05 hrs. 

On examination, Cruickshank was found to have seventy-two separate wounds, including his lungs and legs, and the aircraft had been badly damaged. Cruickshank was given an immediate blood transfusion and then transferred to Lerwick hospital, with one further stop over before finally being transferred south. 

Cruickshank made a good recovery but despite this he didn’t return to flying operationally again. On 29th August 1944, his award appeared in The London Gazette, receiving the Victoria Cross from King George at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, on 21st September 1944; he was just 24 years of age. He eventually left the RAF in 1946 and returned to banking, the career he had held before the war.

For his efforts and determination F.Sgt. J.S. Garnett was awarded the DFM.

The submarine was later confirmed as sunk, which that night, enabled the British fleet to sail through a gap in the German Submarine line, a gap made possible by both Cruickshank and one other successful sinking. 

On May 20th 2020 John Cruickshank VC turned 100, his story was widely celebrated and reported about on BBC Scotland.

On 1st September 1944, Number 36682, p. 4073, Cruickshank’s citation appeared in The London Gazette, its states:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Flying Officer John Alexander CRUICKSHANK (126700), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.No. 210 Squadron.

This officer was the captain and pilot of a Catalina flying boat which was recently engaged on an anti-submarine patrol over northern waters. When a U-boat was sighted on the surface, Flying Officer Cruickshank at once turned to the attack. In the face of fierce anti-aircraft fire he manoeuvred into position and ran in to release his depth charges. Unfortunately they failed to drop.

Flying Officer Cruickshank knew that the failure of this attack had deprived him of the advantage of surprise and that his aircraft offered a good target to the enemy’s determined and now heartened gunners.

Without hesitation, he climbed and turned to come in again. The Catalina was met by intense and accurate fire and was repeatedly hit. The navigator/bomb aimer was killed. The second pilot and two other members of the crew were injured. Flying Officer Cruickshank was struck in seventy-two places, receiving two serious wounds in the lungs and ten penetrating wounds in the lower limbs. His aircraft was badly damaged and filled with the fumes of exploding shells. But he did not falter. He pressed home his attack, and released the depth charges himself, straddling the submarine perfectly. The U-boat was sunk.

He then collapsed and the second pilot took over the controls. He recovered shortly afterwards and, though bleeding profusely, insisted on resuming command and retaining it until he was satisfied that the damaged aircraft was under control, that a course had been set for base and that all the necessary signals had been sent. Only then would he consent to receive medical aid and have his wounds attended to. He refused morphia in case it might prevent him from carrying on.

During the next five and half hours of the return flight he several times lapsed into unconsciousness owing to loss of blood. When he came to, his first thought on each occasion was for the safety of his aircraft and crew. The damaged aircraft eventually reached base but it was clear that an immediate landing would be a hazardous task for the wounded and less experienced second pilot. Although able to breathe only with the greatest difficulty, Flying Officer Cruickshank insisted on being carried forward and propped up in the second pilot’s seat. For a full hour, in spite of his agony and ever-increasing weakness, he gave orders as necessary, refusing to allow the aircraft to be brought down until the conditions of light and sea made this possible without undue risk.

With his assistance the aircraft was safely landed on the water. He then directed the taxying and beaching of the aircraft so that it could easily be salvaged. When the medical officer went on board, Flying Officer Cruickshank collapsed and he had to be given a blood transfusion before he could be removed to hospital.

By pressing home the second attack in his gravely wounded condition and continuing his exertions on the return journey with his strength failing all the time, he seriously prejudiced his chance of survival even if the aircraft safely reached its base. Throughout, he set an example of determination, fortitude and devotion to duty in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service.

 

Sources and further reading

The Shetland Museum Archives website.

The Scottish Saltire Air crew Assosiation website.

The Fourth Supplement to The London Gazette of 29th August 1944. Published on 1st September 1944, Number 36682, p. 4073

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.