Great Sampford – A disaster for the U.S. “Eagles”.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

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

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

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

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford.

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RAF Drem – The home of Airfield Lighting Systems.

In Trail 42 we continue our journey northward driving along the coastal route taken by the A1 road. The North Sea views here are simply breathtaking. Heading toward the seat of the Scottish Government and the beautiful and historic city of Edinburgh, we visit two more airfields with long and distinguished histories. One of these also has perhaps, one of the best collections of preserved buildings left on any wartime airfield outside of Duxford.

We start off just outside of Edinburgh heading eastward at an airfield that became synonymous with airfield lighting. The idea was simplistic, the effect wide-reaching. It was so successful, it became standard across many of Britain’s wartime airfields, it is of course RAF Drem.

RAF Drem

Drem is often used when talking about airfield lighting systems, the lights used to illuminate perimeter tracks, runways and landing patterns during the Second World War. But as an airfield, it played a much bigger part in the war, hosting some 47 RAF squadrons, a selection of Fleet Air Arm units and various Technical and Developmental Flights at some stage during its wartime life.

Many of these units were here on short detachments or rotations, whilst not conducive to long-term development of the site, it did bring a wide variety of aircraft to this small airfield in Scotland: Hurricanes, Spitfires, Whirlwinds, Mosquitoes, Defiants, Beaufighters, Typhoons and Tempests to name but a few. It also brought a multitude of nationalities with it: French Czechoslovakian, Polish, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen all used the airfield at some point.

Located in East Lothian, Drem has a history that started in the early stages of World War I. Used by 77 Sqn, who were based at nearby Edinburgh, it was then called West Fenton, a name it retained until 1919 when it was renamed Gullane. 77 Sqn were responsible for the protection of the east coast of Scotland, and in particular the Firth of Forth in the Home Defence role. They used a number of landing grounds in this region including both Eccles Toft (Charterhall) and Horndean (Winfield); and had detachments spread widely around the Edinburgh region: Turnhouse, New Haggerston, Whiteburn and Penston.

77 Squadron flew a number of BE Types in this role, a role that continued up to 13th June 1919 when the squadron was disbanded. Also in 1919, (21st February) cadres from both 151 and 152 squadrons were also based here, staying until September and June respectively, when they too were disbanded following the end of the war.

RAF Drem

The Stand-by Set house, an auxiliary power station, still remains in good condition today.

A year before the end of the conflict, No. 2 Training Depot Station was formed here flying types such as the Bristol Scout, Sopwith’s Pup and Camel, the S.E.5a, Avro’s 504, and the Royal Aircraft Factory F.2B. A short role, they too were disbanded at the end of 1919, thus bringing the end of flying to Gullane.

In the interwar years Gullane, although only a temporary facility, was renamed Trenent, and it remained in this guise for a further six years becoming a full-time facility in 1939. In two years time, it would undergo fighter name changes finally taking on the name it has today, that of RAF Drem.

It was on 17th March 1939 that Drem returned to the flying training role with No. 13 Flying Training School (FTS) being formed here, operating a number of aircraft types including, Avro’s Anson, and Hawker’s Audax and Harts. After being renamed 13 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in September that year, it would only last a month before being disbanded and absorbed into No. 8, 14 and 15 (SFTS). But it was at this point that Drem’s potential as a fighter airfield would be realised and its first operational unit would move in. Drem had finally reached maturity and its war would very soon begin.

Transferred to Fighter Command at the end of October 1939, a number of operational units would quickly arrive: 602 (13/10/39-14/4/40), 609 (17/10/39-3/6/42) and detachments from 607 Sqn (10/10/39) and 72 Sqn (17/10/39) would all precede 111 Sqn (7/12/39-27/2/40) in these early days.

It was during this time, in the early stages of the ‘phoney war,’ that Drem aircrews would have their first and perhaps their most significant aircraft intercept.

On 16th October 1939, Heinkel He 111 ‘1H+JA’, of Stabskette/KG26 piloted by Kurt Lehmkuhl was spotted en-route to the Firth of Forth. Immediately, aircraft from Drem’s 602 Sqn and Turnhouse’s 603 Sqn, were ordered to take off and intercept the aircraft. Whilst the Heinkel tried desperately to avoid the Spitfires, their deadly firepower proved too much, and the aircraft was eventually brought down at Kidlaw Hill. This Heinkel became known affectionately as the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ due to its close proximity to the village of Humbie. The air-frame rapidly became a tourist attraction, locals would climb up into the hills to see the intact bomber as it lay helpless amongst the Scottish heather. The aircraft lay just a few miles short of where an Airspeed Oxford (N4592) had crashed just two days earlier killing both its young corporals: Basil F. Evans (23) and Charles M. Thorpe (22). The hills around Edinburgh were fast becoming a graveyard!

As a result of the Heinkel attack, the two gunners Cpl. Bruno Reimann and Sgt. Gottleb Kowalke were both killed (both are buried at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase), the pilot was injured, but the navigator remained unharmed. Both the navigator and pilot surrendered to a local Policeman who was first at the scene of the crash*1.  This shooting down was particularly notable as it was the first German aircraft to be brought down on British soil and the victory was claimed by Drem’s 602 Squadron pilot, Flt. Lt. Archie McKellar. McKellar’s jubilation would be short-lived though, being shot down and killed himself one year later and within days of the official ending of the Battle of Britain – his name would never appear in the Battle’s roll of Honour.

Perhaps one of the most iconic photos of the war, The ‘Humbie Heinkel’ lies on a Scottish hillside surrounded by onlookers, the first German aircraft to be shot down on British Soil.*2

Drem had now entered the war and whilst it was a ‘front line station’ its buildings would never be more than temporary. Crew numbers would reach 1,807 RAF air and ground crew along with a further 374 WAAFs. The runways (1 x 1850 yds extended to 2,300 yds and 2 of 1,400 yds) would remain grass and a number of hangers (15 in all) would include 3 Bellmans. Seven hardstands were built all suitable for single engined aircraft with the technical and main accommodation sites located to the north-east.

However, these early stages of the war were not all smooth running. In December 1939 tragedy struck when a combination of errors led to a number of 602 Squadron Spitfires inadvertently attacking a flight of Hampdens of 44 Squadron. During the confusion, in which it is thought the Hampdens failed to identify themselves correctly as ‘friendly’, two were shot down: Hampden I L4089 and Hampden I L4090. In the second aircraft Leading Aircraftman T. Gibbin was killed by the Spitfire’s bullets, as the two aircraft crashed into the cold waters of the North Sea. The remaining seven were all picked up by trawlers and taken safely to shore. In a moment of dark humour the next day, the remaining Hampdens departed Drem, dropping hundreds of toilet rolls over the squadron huts!

The winter of 1940 saw a short stay by 43 Sqn, arriving mid December and then departing at the end of February, possible one of the less appreciated stays knowing the inclement Scottish weather.

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945

RAF crews of 43 Squadron sit around their dispersal hut stove at Drem. (IWM)

The early months of 1940 saw a royal visit to Drem, when on 28th February 1940, King George VI visited, escorted by none other than Air Marshall Dowding. Whilst here, the King awarded Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Farquhar with the DFC after he had brought down another HE 111 that was able to be repaired at Drem and subsequently flown to a base in England for evaluation.

The subsequent months would prove to be very hectic for Drem. Like other airfields in the north, Drem was to become a home and solace for battle weary crews moved from 11 Group in the southern regions of Britain. To keep up their skills, they would fly both coastal patrols and convoy escort missions, a far cry from the hectic and turbulent skies of Kent and the south coast.

This rotation of units through Drem would continue throughout the war, most squadrons remaining for short periods of only a month or two, and many ‘leap-frogging’ between here and other stations. One of these units included, in 1940, 29 Sqn (RAF) a night fighter unit that excelled and became perhaps one of the most successful night fighter Squadrons of the Second World War.

With these short stays, came a variety of nationalities, including two Polish units (307 and 309); a French (340); two Canadian (409 and 410); an Australian (453) and three New Zealand squadrons (485, 486 and 488), each bringing their own touch of life to Drem.

With them also came night fighter training, and it was with one of these units 410 Sqn (RCAF) – who had only been formed a month earlier on 30th June 1941 – that Pilot, Sergeant Denis W. Hall, (s/n 1168705) and Gunner, Flight Sergeant Denis G. Cresswell (s/n 751880) would lose their lives, when their Defiant N1731 crashed into a hillside near to the village of Gifford in East Lothian, whilst on  a night training flight. Their military service at Drem had lasted a mere twenty-four days.

It was just prior to this, during 1940, that the Drem Lighting system was developed. Born out a necessity to solve issues around the Spitfire’s poor visibility when landing, the station Commander, Wing Commander “Batchy” Atcherly, personally addressed the issue. The problem was that Spitfires needed to keep their noses up in a relatively high angle of attack in order to maintain slow landing speeds, a configuration that meant the pilot could not see directly in front of him. Atcherly devised a plan using lights, whereby the pilots would be able to maintain this high angle and still be able to see where they were supposed to be going. He also had to overcome the added problem that lighting illuminated an airfield and thus attracted enemy aircraft over the site.

So he developed his idea, a bright lighting system that was mounted in such a way that only aircraft in the landing pattern and flight path could see the lights, yet they were dim enough and shrouded well enough, to be hidden from those not directly in the landing circuit. Essentially, the idea involved mounting covered lights on poles 10 feet high at designated points around the airfield indicating the landing pattern. If enemy aircraft were to approach, they would not be able to see the field and home based aircraft could land in relative safety. In an emergency, the entire system could be dimmed or even shut down, something that didn’t, as a rule, need doing.

The system was so successful that it was adopted by the RAF and used widely across other RAF airfields. Remnants of this system are scare today, but some can be found with careful scouring of the ground where runways were once laid.

During the latter half of 1940, Drem would be the place where the remains of the beleaguered 263 squadron would reform and recuperate. Formed in 1939, 263 would go on to serve in Norway with Gloster Gladiators, and after many problems, would bring their aircraft home during the Allied evacuation of Narvik. Unable to fly the great distance from Norway, the aircraft were loaded onto the carrier HMS Glorious for the trip home. It was during this trip that the Glorious met two of the German’s deadliest warships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who simply outgunned the carrier and on June 8th 1940, sank the Glorious with all the aircraft, many of its pilots and its commanding officer, on board.

The surviving fourteen pilots returned to Drem, where they were given Hurricanes. Gradually new pilots arrived and the squadron was returned to full strength. In July, after a short spell at Grangemouth, 263 Sqn returned to Drem with Whirlwinds replacing the Hurricanes.

Dogged by problems, the Whirlwinds were not to be the master of the air they had designed to be. 263 Sqn also brought a new idea they had successfully used in Norway, that of log-lined dispersals. Sadly they were too far away from the crew huts and apart from a photo opportunity, they were never used.

Slowly the war progressed, units came and went. Being near to the coast, Drem was regularly used for detachments of Air Sea Rescue Squadrons including 278 Squadron whose parent base was at Coltishall  several hundred miles south in Norfolk!

In the mid 1940s Drem’s focus narrowed not only in to the night fighter role, but also airborne radar investigations. The Radar Development Flight were formed here in December 1942 operating Defiant IIs and Beaufighter VIs. For six months they would fly these aircraft evaluating new radar designs and new methods in aircraft interception. They carried on this role through several name changes including: 1692 (Radio Development) Flight and then 1692 (Bomber Support Training Flight) after it had left Drem for Norfolk.

As the war drew to a close, the Royal Navy strengthened its involvement with Drem, renaming it HMS Nighthawk on May 3rd, 1945. The Royal Navy had a keen interest in night fighter training and used the skills of the RAF to aid its own programmes of night flying training.

Whilst RAF involvement had all but wound down, one final important act was to occur at Drem. Just as Drem aircraft had taken part in the first downing of a Luftwaffe aircraft at the start of the war, it was another Drem unit, 603 squadron, who would take part in the ending of the war. 603 Sqn Spitfires were tasked on May 11th 1945, just four days after returning to Drem, with escorting three white Junkers JU 52s that were carrying a number of German High Command officers into Drem as part of the official surrender of the Norwegian delegation. As part of this agreement, the senior officers would provide not only detailed information on the locations of mines laid out in the Norwegian waters: but the locations of all military shipping; lists of all stocks of oil; petrol and coal; coastal batteries and their associated supplies and all matters concerning German naval activity – including the surrender of the entire U-boat fleet.

The German High Command in front of their white JU52. Left to right: (from doorway) Lieutenant Albens; Captain Loewisch; Captain Kruger; and on extreme left, Commander Mundy Cox, RN, C/O of the Royal Naval Air Station. (IWM)

Throughout the war, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had a number of units use Drem themselves: 732, 770, 784, 884, 892 and both 1791 and 1792 squadrons were all based here along with detachments from three other FAA units. This brought a new breed of aircraft including the Seafire, Hellcat and Firefly to Scotland’s skies.

After the war ended the Royal Navy’s Night Fighter Training School pulled out, the RAF returned but never really used it for more than glider training, and eventually Drem was closed in September 1947. Its closure had been swift and its decline even faster.

Much of Drem today is agriculture. The airfield is split into two parts, divided by the B1345 road. To the west is the former airfield, a grass site with a virtually intact perimeter track. Along this track (now a farm road) are the various dispersals used during Drem’s wartime life. To the south is a Type B Fighter Pen, distinguished from Type ‘E’s by their cranked walls, greater in size, they provided greater protection to aircraft than the ‘E’.

The technical site sits to the north-east of the airfield, now a small industrial site it still contains many of the original buildings used by Drem’s personnel. Some of these have been refurbished whilst others contain many original features. Back along the road, the Stand-by Set house still stands and what remains of the accommodation site sits across the other side of this dividing road.

RAF Drem

Part of the Accommodation site still stands in use by small industrial and retail units. A small display of information about Drem is also located on this site.

Inside one of these buildings, the Arts & Crafts Gallery, now Fenton Barns Retail Village which is the former WAAF dining hall, is a small display providing information about Drem and its wartime operations, with free entry it is an interesting stop off if you have time.

RAF Drem had a long and chequered history. For such a  small airfield, it played a major part in the war: bringing down the first Luftwaffe bomber on British soil, being involved in the sad situation of friendly fire, and having a Royal visit. It provided solace for many weary crews, helped develop night fighter interception tactics and methods, and was used by the Royal Navy. It saw many nationalities pass through its doors, along with a wide range of aircraft types. Drem gave its name to a remarkable system of lighting that revolutionised airfield lighting both during the war and for aviation today. It certainly should have a place in today’s history books, it truly deserves it!

After we leave Drem, we travel a few miles south-east to a former satellite airfield of Drem. To an airfield that became a player in its own right, and has since been developed into perhaps Scotland’s biggest Aviation Museum  it is certainly one of the best preserved airfields around. We go to the former airfield at RAF East Fortune.

Sources and further reading:

*1 A report of the crash appeared 75 years later in The Berwickshire News.

*2 © National Archives of Scotland. http://www.scotlandsimages.com

 

Georges Nadon – Spitfire pilot, flew 277 sorties

War creates some remarkable heroes. It makes people perform beyond the limits of normal human endurance; through immense pain and suffering, these heroes are able to perform duties beyond those expected or even believed possible.

There were many airmen who carried out these duties with little or no recognition for their actions, never to speak of them or be acknowledged for them. Georges Nadon, a French-Canadian Spitfire pilot, is one of them.

Georges had a long career, he fought both in the skies of Britain and Malta, and completed two ‘tours’ that amounted to an incredible 277 operations and more than 500 hours in the air.

Georges Nadon’s flying career began with 122 Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch, where he flew Spitfires. Of the 27 original pilots of 122 Sqn, only Georges and one other pilot survived. On Christmas Eve 1943 he sailed to Malta, where he would fly – on average and against incredible odds – four sorties a day with 185 Sqn, defending the small island and vital supply routes through the Mediterranean.

At the end of this tour, he returned to England and onto his home country Canada, where he was married.

His second tour began in June 1944, with 403 Sqn (RCAF) based at RAF North Weald, in Essex. They then moved across to France where they gave cover to the advancing allied armies. He eventually left flying service in March 1945.

In 2015, as part of the Canadian commemorations of the Battle of Britain, an image of his face was painted on the tail of the Canadian CF-18 demo aircraft, an image seen by thousands; but yet he still remains relatively unknown and unrewarded.

To find out more about this remarkable man, visit Pierre Lagace’s  fabulous 403 Sqn blog, containing information, letters and photographs of Georges Nadon. A man who achieved great things defending the skies over countries far from home, and a man who deserves much greater recognition than he gets.

File:Flight Sergeant Georges Nadon, a French-Canadian pilot with No. 122 Squadron, in his Spitfire at Hornchurch, May 1942. CH6781.jpg

Georges Nadon of No. 122 Squadron, in his Spitfire at Hornchurch, May 1942. (public domain)

Other remarkable achievements can be found on “Heroic Tales of World War II

Mosquitoes abound – RAF Swannington

This airfield forms another in a short trail through this part of north Norfolk. An area littered with the remnants of war and aviation history.  As we continue south through the narrow lanes of the Norfolk countryside, we find the almost forgotten airfield at Swannington.

RAF Swannington

Swannington was one of the last airfields to be opened during the Second World War, hence very few units were permanently based here. This considered, an appreciable amount of it remains visible even today.

Also known as Haveringland, construction was started as early as 1942, but it didn’t actually open until 1944. It utilised much of the forests of nearby Haveringland Hall along with large parts of its estate. The hall itself, a rather large and grand building, was blown up at the end of the war following requisition damage and then being classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ by the MOD!

Once the forest area had been removed, work could begin, and a number of accommodation sites were erected. Haveringland Hall itself became the Officers mess, with various accommodation sites constructed all around it, all located to the east of the airfield. In 1944 there were 154 Officers (of both RAF and WAAF ranks) along with 1239 other ranks stationed here although accommodation was provided for around 2,500.

RAF Swannington

Former Sergeants Mess in use Today

Designated a class ‘A’ airfield, Swannington would have two T2 hangars and one B1, three runways (1 x 2000 yds and 2 x 1,400 yds) and 36 loop style hardstands.

100 Group became the immediate owners of Swannington and instantly placed two squadrons of de Havilland’s Mosquito at the base – No. 85 and 157 Squadrons. 100 Group were formed in November 1943 to investigate and oppose the electronic warfare operations being conducted by the Luftwaffe. To counter this threat, a number of airfields in this area were utilised, Swannington being one of them.

Using a range of new devises and tactics, 100 Group operated a range of different aircraft, predominately the heavier bombers: B-24s, Lancasters, B-17s, Halifaxes, Wellingtons along with the smaller and more agile, Mosquito.

On May 1st 1944, following a successful tour at West Malling*1 , the first Mosquito XVIIs of 85 Squadron arrived at Swannington.

Having a history that extended back to the First World War, 85 Sqn had been in France to support the B.E.F then, re-equipped, they participated in the opening skirmishes of the Battle of Britain. After taking on a new role as a night fighter squadron and moving to Yorkshire, they transferred to 100 group with their move to Swannington. Here they began supporting bombing missions, seeking out enemy night fighters before they attacked the bombers and then loitering over their airfields as they returned.

The Mosquitoes had proven so successful in all operations that 85 Sqn were moved back to West Malling for a short period to combat the increasing threat from the V-1 ‘Doodlebugs’. Their stay in Kent ended in the following August, at which point they returned to Swannington upgrading to the Mosquito XXX before moving off again, to RAF Castle Camps.

157 Squadron joined 85 at Swannington on May 7th 1944 with the Mosquito XIX, later upgrading to the NF.30 with its superchargers and a new radar. 157 had been the first squadron to receive the NF.IIs earlier in March 1942 with the delivery of both W4087 and W4098*2 .

157 Sqn’s arrival would not be the best. Three days after their arrival, Flight Lieutenants Tweedale and Cunningham would take off for an Airborne Interception (AI) training sortie in their Mosquito XVII. On their return, the aircraft would crash, losing its starboard undercarriage, and whilst neither officer was injured, it would be the first ‘casualty’ of 157 Squadron whilst based at Swannington. A very successful fighting unit, they would not be immune from further incidents, some to the embarrassment of their crews.

Whilst on patrol on November 21st 1944, Mosquito MM629 ‘RS-Y’ piloted by Flying Officers A Mackinnon and G Waddell, were shot down in error by another Mosquito of the same squadron, who believed them to be a Ju 88! Both crew members parachuted safely into enemy territory but managed to evade capture returning home within 12 hours.

RAF Swannington

Portions of concrete remain in the Technical Area.

157 Sqn would also transfer with 85 Sqn to West Malling, undertaking ‘anti-diver’ or ‘Doodlebug’ sorties; operations that saw 157 Sqn claim a total of 36.5 flying bombs, whilst 85 claimed some 18.

157 Sqn then returned to Swannington with 85 Sqn at the end of August 1944 and as with 85 Sqn, they upgraded to the MK XXX Mosquito. They, unlike 85 Sqn however, remained at Swannington until disbandment on 16th August 1945. By the end of operations at Swannington, both 85 Sqn and 157 Sqn had completed a touch under 2000 sorties between them, with 108 enemy aircraft destroyed and 19 damaged.

Toward the end of 1944 and early 1945, four other fighter squadrons would visit Swannington. 229 and 451 (Australian) Squadrons came first in the November of 1944; in a move initiated by poor weather, they would come from nearby waterlogged Matlask. 229 brought Spitfire IXs which within a month they would replace with LF XVIEs. This was followed by a swift departure to nearby Coltishall where they were disbanded and renumbered 603 (Auxiliary) Sqn in the following January.

It was a similar story for both 453 (Australian) Sqn with their Spitfire LF XVI, and 602 Sqn with their Spitfire XVI, both swinging like a pendulum between Matlask and Swannington and Swannington and Coltishall. 453 Sqn then transferred to Kent and eventually the continent whilst 602 Sqn followed 229 to Coltishall where they were disbanded on May 15th 1945. These late model Spitfires were now escorting daylight bombing raids such was the strength and superiority of the Allied Air Force over Europe.

RAF Swannington

Portions of the Perimeter track remain, some of it in full width.

These four squadrons, 602, 229, 453 and 451, were to join forces with 124 and 303 to tackle the new V-2 rocket, strafing and bombing the launch and control sites. It was on the 14th February 1945, that 602 Sqn pilot Sgt. T “Cupid” Love fired upon a rising V-2, the first (and only) record of any such incident occurring. An account of the event appears in Raymond Baxter’s log, and he explains how it was fortunate that the shots missed, for had he hit the rocket, it would no doubt have exploded ending the lives of himself and his fellow crews.

As the war came to a close and German forces were thought to be amassing troops at Kiel for a final assault on Norway, Mosquitoes from 157 Sqn were sent along with those from 8 Group to attack airfields in the area. These were to be some of the last attacks carried out by RAF aircraft in the European Theatre.

Their final departures signalled the end of operational duties for Swannington. The site was used for storage of surplus materials, mothballed Mosquitoes and numerous Merlin Engines until the RAF finally pulled out in 1947. Future plans for an upgrade to the airfield were abandoned, and the site was then sold off, it has since become a mix of agriculture and forestry.

DSC_0220

Swannington’s Stand By Set House is used for storage.

The majority of Swannington airfield is best seen from the eastern side. Approaching from the north, you first come across the former technical site that marks the top right corner of the site. Turn right here and you will see the location of one of the T2s, a farm building now stands here and behind it the location of the tower and a small number of ancillary buildings. These are today shrouded in trees and large bushes, which prevents any real sighting of them. Sadly the current condition, which is believed to be quite poor, is difficult to verify from this point on the roadside. Large portions of concrete denote the perimeter track and access routes to the technical area. Across the road from here, other buildings do still remain and are easily seen from the roadside. A small portion of the north-east / south-west runway also remains here, virtually full in its width.

Turning back on yourself, turn right and drive past the technical area to your right. Poultry sheds and farm buildings now stand here, but the shape of the hardstands are easily recognisable. On your left are more concrete structures and piles of rubble from former buildings. After a sort distance you arrive at the perimeter track, this crosses the road and is full width at this junction. A gate to your left allows access to the distant church, and by driving along here you traverse the actual perimeter where many Mosquitoes would  have moved on those night missions in 1944/45. The distant round-towered Church was so close to the perimeter that aircraft were often parked next to  the church yard, a rather eerie and stark reminder to those crews boarding the aircraft at this point. Stopping at the church the enormous size of the track can again be seen,  virtually full in its width, photos exist of a Mosquito also standing here in this very same position.

Outside this church, is a memorial dedicated by the ‘Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust’, the only ‘official’ memorial on the site. The church itself is locked, but two graves within the church yard and a bench dedicated to two members of the same family can be found here. The bench, dedicated to Lt. Cdr. M. Auckland and Flt. Lt. W. Auckland, both Harrier Pilots stands near the gate, whilst the older graves, F.O J. Edwards (Navigator) and Corporal C. Mace, can be found behind the church.

Flying Officer Edwards (s/n) 172240) was killed when his Mosquito TA392 ‘RS-K’ developed trouble whilst returning from an intruder mission. The aircraft crashed close to the airfield and both he and his pilot, Flt. Lt. W. Taylor, lost their lives. *3

Before returning, look across to the north to the small wooded area and you will see the Squash courts, standing in  what was the Haveringland Hall estate. Now return back to the road, and turn left, follow the road south. You will cross, a short distance away, the remains of the east-west runway, followed shortly by the returning perimeter track. Carry on to Clay Lane, and turn right. To your left is a small farm and a track that leads away over private land. This is the entrance to the bomb store, it circles round and rejoins the road further along, both now narrow and restricted to farm traffic only.

RAF Swannington

The Grave of F.O. J Edwards, Killed 22nd December 1944, age 22.

From here it is best to retrace your tracks, go back along Clay Lane, turn left and head north. On your right is a turn into the Haveringland Hall Holiday Park. A number of buildings remain here, the squash court, former sergeants mess and standby set house and most in good condition. The woods around here also contain many derelict remains and foundations of former structures. Some visible others shrouded by growth, many are too dangerous to explore.

Swannington had a short life, and many of the crews that passed though here went on to achieve great things. Swannington though wasn’t without its drama. Because of the nature of the operations carried out from here, losses were incurred, many fatal. The later part of 1944 saw a particularly high number of accidents and crew losses, many of these young men never being found.

The remaining buildings at Swannington stand as a silent reminder of the activities of 100 Group. Along with the brave Mosquito and Spitfire crews are all those who fought a long and hard battle against Hitler and his terror weapons. Whilst the Griffons and Merlins have gone, their memories have not.

Sources and further reading.

*1 85 Squadron was previously commanded by Wing Commander ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham, who became famous for downing 20 enemy aircraft during hostilities. He later went on to be a test Pilot for de Havilland, testing the DH Comet – the worlds first jet airliner. He received a number of awards and achieved a number of aviation firsts, He died in 2002.

*2 de Havilland Mosquito, An Illustrated History Vol 2, Ian Thirsk, Crecy Publications.

**3RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R. Chorley, Midland.

Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V-2, Volume 2, Bill Simpson, Pen and Sword Books, has a good account of the V-2 war by the RAF Squadrons.