The death of the Robson Children, 1st December 1943.

It was on Wednesday 1st December 1943, that a 75 Squadron Stirling MK.III (EH880)  piloted by F/S J. S. Kerr (s/n 1558163) would be diverted from RAF Mepal and instructed to land at RAF Acklington in Northumbria. On the final approach it undershot striking a family home in Togston near Amble. Inside the house, Cliff House Farmhouse, was the Robson family. The five children, ranging in ages from 19 months to 9 years of age, were all killed, whilst the parents who were playing cards downstairs, escaped with varying injuries. All but one of the Stirling’s crew were killed, the mid upper gunner Sgt K Hook, was pulled from the burning wreckage his burning clothes being extinguished by the local butcher, Jim Rowell.

This crash was the greatest civilian loss of life in the district,

The crew of Stirling EH880 ‘AA-J’ were:

F/S George John Stewart Kerr, RAFVR (s/n 1558163) – Pilot.
Sgt. Donald Frank Wort, RAFVR (s/n 1585034) – Navigator.
Sgt. Ronald Smith, RAFVR (s/n 1239376) – Air Bomber.
Sgt. Derek Arthur Holt, RAFVR (s/n 1217087) – Wireless Operator.
Sgt. Leonard George Copsey, RAFVR (s/n 1691471) – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Kenneth Gordon Hook, RAFVR (s/n 1335989) – Mid Upper Gunner.
Sgt. George William Thomas Lucas, RAFVR (s/n 1250557) – Rear Gunner.

The Robson children were:

Sheila (19 months)
William (3 Years)
Margery (5 Years)
Ethel (7 Years)
Sylvia (9 Years)

The ‘Times’ Newspaper, published the story of 3rd December 1943:

Aircraft Crash on Farmhouse. Family of five young children killed.

Five children – all their family – of Mr and Mrs W. Robson were killed when an Aircraft crashed into Cliff House, a small dairy farm near Amble, Northumberland, on Wednesday night. The children’s ages ranged from one to nine years. They were sleeping in an upstairs room.

The mother and father, who with two friends Mr. and Mrs Rowell of Dilston [Terrace] Amble, were sitting in a downstairs room, were injured but not seriously. One of the crew of the aircraft, a gunner, was saved by Mr. Rowell.

Mr Rowell said last night: “We did not realise what had happened until the house collapsed above our heads. We managed to stand up, bruised and badly dazed, and, looking upward we saw the sky. Mrs Robson tried to make her way towards the stairs, which had been blown away. My wife called my attention to a burning object outside which was moving about.  We rushed over and found it was a gunner with his clothes alight. Mr Rowell rolled the airman on the ground to extinguish the burning clothes. Although badly burned, the gunner was alive.

The children’s partly charred bodies were recovered later.

Five streets on a housing estate near to the crash site in Amble have since been named after each of the Robson children. The crew are remembered on a plaque in St. John the Divine, the official church of RAF Acklington St. John.

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R.A.F. Wethersfield (U.S.A.A.F. Station 170).

After a short journey from Castle Camps we soon arrive at our next port of call. This airfield, although a Second World War airfield, saw little action but was used by both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. both during and after the war. Whilst it does not generally have active flying units today, it does house the M.O.D. dog training unit and as such is classed as an active military site.

This part of the trail brings us to the former airfield RAF Wethersfield.

R.A.F. Wethersfield (Station 170).

RAF Wethersfield was originally designed and built as a Class ‘A’ bomber airfield with construction occurring during 1942. During this expansion period materials and labour were both in short supply, which delayed the completion of the airfield until late 1943. During this period, ownership of the airfield passed hands several times, initially belonging to the Eighth Air Force, it was to be loaned to the R.A.F. between December 1942 and May 1943, before returning back to American hands. However, the delay to construction meant that by the time it was completed and opened, it would not be used by the R.A.F. but passed instead directly into the hands of the ‘new’ U.S. Ninth Air Force.

Constituted in 1941, the Ninth had already been fighting in Egypt and Libya, before they were moved to England in late 1943 in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of the continent. Throughout the remainder of the war they would pave the way for the advancing forces from Normandy deep into Germany itself. As an Air force, it would be disbanded in 1945 only to be reborn post war as part of the Tactical Air Command, and latterly the Continental Air Command, at which point it was assigned to Reserve and National Guard duties.

The first units to arrive at Wethersfield did so in the February of 1944, four months before the invasion took place. The first aircraft to arrive were the A-20 ‘Havocs’ of the 416th Bombardment Group (Light). The Group, who was only a year old itself, was made up of the: 668th, 669th, 670th and 671st Bomb Squadrons, and would fall under the control of the IX Bomber Command, Ninth Air Force who had their headquarters at the rather grand stately home Marks Hall in Essex.

A-20 Havocs, including (serial number 43-9701) of the 416th BG. 9701 was salvaged August 18th 1945. IWM (FRE 6403)

A journey that started at Will Rogers Airfield in Oklahoma, would take the men of the 416th from Lake Charles in Louisiana, through Laurel Airfield, Mississippi and onto Wethersfield some 28 miles to the south-east of Cambridge, in Essex.

As a Class A airfield, its three concrete runways would be standard lengths: 1 x 2,000 yards and 2 x 1,400 yards, all the normal 50 yards wide. Scattered around the perimeter were fifty hardstands for aircraft dispersal – all but one being of the spectacle style.

The 2,500 ground and air crews would be allocated standard accommodation, primarily Nissen huts, situated over several sites to the south-west of the main airfield site. Two T2 hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance, one in the technical area also to the south-west, and the second to the east. One notable building at Wethersfield was a Ctesiphon hut. An unusual, and indeed controversial design, it originated in the Middle East when a sergeant, unable to camouflage his tent, had poured concrete over it. As the pole was removed, the structure remained both intact and strong. The commanding officer, Major J.H. De W. Waller took the idea, named it after a 1,600 year old palace at Bagdad, and developed it in the UK, through the Waller Housing Corporation.

The idea behind the building is that a metal frame is constructed, similar in design to Nissen hut ribs, then covered with hessian after which concrete is poured over it. As the concrete hardens, the hessian sags giving added strength through its ‘corrugated’ shape. The ‘scaffolds’ are then removed leaving the hut’s shell standing independently. At Wethersfield there were originally fourteen of these huts built, all within the technical site, it is not currently known whether any of these still exist today, but it is extremely unlikely as most were pulled down post war.

The 416th BG were part of the 97th Combat Wing, and were among the first to receive the new ‘Havocs’, along with the 409th and 410th BG who were also under the control of the 97th. For the short period between the 416th’s arrival (February 1944) and the invasion in June, they carried out sustained training missions transferring their skills from the B-25s they had earlier used, to the new A-20s, which included operational sorties targeting V-weapons sites in northern France starting in March 1944.

During these flights, accidents would happen. A number of aircraft were damaged or written off whilst attempting  landings at Wethersfield: ’43-9203′, (671st BS) piloted by George W. Cowgill crashed on 21st April 1944; ’43-9209′ piloted by Pilot Elizabeth O. Turner, crashed on 13th August 1944, and ’43-9368′ crashed two days earlier on 11th August 1944. Some of these accidents resulted in fatalities, including that of ’43-9223′ (668th BS) which crashed on a routine test flight 1.5 miles north-west of Wethersfield, on 9th May 1944. The pilot Capt. William P. Battersby (the Squadron Operations Officer) and a passenger Private First Class Charles W. Coleman (s/n 32372194) a Parachute Rigger, were both killed in the accident.

In the April, two months after the Americans had moved in, the R.A.F. officially handed over the airfield to the U.S. forces in a ceremony that unusually, saw a large number of civilians take part.

As the invasion neared, the 416th began to attack coastal defences and airfields  that were supporting Luftwaffe forces. During and after the invasion they targeted rail bottlenecks, marshalling yards, road networks, bridges and other strategic targets to prevent the build up of reinforcements and troop movements into Normandy.

As the German forces retreated, the 416th attacked escape routes in the Falaise Gap to the south of Caen, destroying the many bridges that allowed the German armies to leave the encircled area. During the battle, nine aircraft were lost, and all those lucky enough to return suffered flak damage, some of it heavy. For their actions here between the 6th and 9th of August 1944, the 416th earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) the only one they would receive during the conflict.

By the following September, the Allies had pushed into France and the Ninth began to move across to captured airfields on the continent, the 416th being one of those to go. Leaving the leafy surroundings of Wethersfield for the Advanced Landing Ground (A.L.G.) at Melun, to the south of Paris, it would be a move that would coincide with the change to the new A-26 ‘Invader’; the 416th being the first unit to do so, another first and another distinction. During their seven month stay at Wethersfield the 416th BG would fly 141 operational sorties losing twenty-one aircraft in the process.

A-20 Havocs and A-26 Invaders of the 416th Bomb Group at Wethersfield. This picture was probably taken around the time the 416th were departing Wethersfield for the Landing Ground at Melun, France. FRE 7445 (IWM)

With their departure, Wethersfield was handed back to the R.A.F. and the First Allied Airborne Army. This would see a dramatic change from the light twin-engined A-20s to the mighty four-engined Stirlings MK.IV, the former heavy bombers turned transport and glider tugs, whose nose stood at over 20 feet from the ground.

The two squadrons operating these aircraft at Wethersfield, 196 Sqn and 299 Sqn, would both arrive on the same day, October 9th 1944 and depart within 24 hours of each other on 26th and 25th of January 1945 respectively.

The Stirling, initially a heavy bomber of Bomber Command, was pulled from front line bombing missions due to its high losses, many squadrons replacing them with the newer Lancaster. 196 Sqn however, retained the Stirling and instead transferred from Bomber Command into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

The Stirlings proved to be much more suited to their new role supporting resistance and S.O.E. operations in occupied Europe. But the heavy weight of the Stirling took its toll on the runways at Wethersfield, and eventually they began to break up. Now in need of repairs, the two squadrons were pulled out and sent to Shepherds Grove where they would eventually be disbanded at the war’s end.

RAF Wethersfield

One of the original T2 Hangars on the south-eastern side.

A short stay in March of 1945 by the 316th Troop Carrier Group (T.C.G.) allowed them to participate in Operation ‘Varsity‘, transporting paratroops of the British 6th Airborne across the Rhine into Wessel, and on into northern Germany itself. An operation that saw 242 C-47 and C-53 transport aircraft leave bases in England filled with paratroops and their associated hardware. For many of these troops, it was their first drop into enemy territory – a true baptism of fire. During the take offs, paratroopers witnessed a V-1 flying bomb race across the Wethersfield sky, the Germans last-ditch effort to turn the tide that was very much against them. Immediately after the operation the 316th returned to their home station at R.A.F. Cottesmore, a move that signified the operational end of Wethersfield for the Second World War. Now unoccupied the site was put into care and maintenance, a state it remained in for a good number of years.

With the heightening threat of a soviet attack and the suggestion of the Cold War turning ‘hot’, Wethersfield was then given a new lease of life. On the 1st June 1952, the U.S. returned once more with the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing (F.B.W.), the 55th and 77th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (F.B.S.) operating the F-84G ‘Thunderjet’.

To accommodate the new jets, the main runway was extended, the original wartime buildings were removed and replaced with more modern structures. The original control tower was developed and upgraded to meet the new higher standards required of a military airfield. Accommodation and family support was also considered. Like many U.S. bases in the U.K. they had their own shops, bowling complex, basketball centre, Youth club, cinema and school. Wethersfield was to become, for a short period of time, a front line base and a major part of the U.S.’s twenty-two European bases.

Children are shown around RAF Wethersfield as part of cementing American and British relations. 

The F-84G was a Tactical-fighter bomber designed to carry a 2,000 lb nuclear bomb for use on enemy airfields in the event of all out war. Operating as part of the 49th Air Division, 3rd Air Force, they would operate in conjunction with the B-45’s located at nearby R.A.F. Sculthorpe.

In June 1955, the wing, now reformed but utilising the same units, began flying the Republic F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’. The ‘F’ model was essentially a swept-wing version of the ‘G’; designed to be more powerful whilst utilising many of the tooling used by the ‘G’. Gradually the ‘G’ was phased out by the 20th with the ‘F’ becoming the standard flying air frame.

Up grading of the F-84F to the F-100 ‘Super Sabres’ occurred in 1957, during which time the unit was also re-designated the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing after a major reorganisation of the U.S. forces in Europe. The Super Sabres remaining in service here until 1970 when the nearby development of Stansted Airport led to the Wing moving to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Prior to this move Wethersfield would bear witness to the first demonstration of the F-111 in U.K. skies, an aircraft that would become the back-bone of the 20th after its departure to Upper Heyford in June that year.

In 1963, Wethersfield suffered a blow when  an F-100F Super Sabre ’56-3991′ piloted by First Lieutenant Paul Briggs (s/n 69418A) and co-pilot Colonel Wendell Kelley (s/n 7784A) crashed at Gosfield in Essex. The aircraft experienced repeated “severe compressor stalls” and ongoing problems with oil pressure. After disposing of their fuel tanks over the sea, the aircraft was guided back towards Wethersfield. Eventually the crew decided to eject, the co-pilot asked for the canopy to be blown, and believing he had gone, the pilot ejected. It was not until afterwards that the pilot realised the co-pilot was still in the aircraft, and he was killed in the resultant crash in a farmer’s field. To commemorate the tragic accident that took the life of Colonel Kelley, a memorial stands on the village playing field*1.

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

With this move in 1970, Wethersfield went back into care and maintenance, used by the airport repair organisation the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers or RED HORSE for short, who were responsible for the rapid repair of runways and other large airfield structures in times of war. This would also mean the end of operational flying at Wethersfield, and after the departure of the 20th, no further active flying units would return.

As the Americans began their European wind down, the ‘RED HORSE’ unit was also pulled out and the site returned to Ministry of Defence ownership. The R.A.F.’s M.O.D. Police units moved in during 1991, the hands of which it remains in today.

The airfield is still complete, the runways a little worn, its surfaces ‘damaged’ by experimentation with new techniques and repair practices, but it is used by visiting aircraft associated with Police and M.O.D. operations – Police Helicopters and the like. A glider training unit 614  V.G.S. also reside here utilising one of the remaining T2 hangars, keeping the aviation spirit alive if only for a short while longer.

Today it remains an active Military base, and as such access is strictly forbidden. The roads around the airfield do offer some views but these are limited. A public road and footpath is located at the north-eastern end of the site, from here the runway, parts of the perimeter track and hangar can be seen through the fencing. Passing the main entrance, there are a small number of buildings remaining derelict on adjacent farmland, these were part of the original accommodation site and are few and far between. Continuing along this road leads to a dead-end and private dwelling, but it does allow views of the current  accommodation and training buildings on the former technical area, all now very modern.

RAF Wethersfield

There have been many of these post-war additions to the airfield,

Whilst Wethersfield remains an active site, plans were announced in March 2016 to dispose of it as part of the M.O.D.’s plan to sell off many of its sites to raise money and streamline its activities. If planning permission is granted, Wethersfield could see 4,850 homes being built on it and the resident units of the military being moved elsewhere. It is planned to pass Wethersfield over to the Homes and Communities Agency by 2020, for its disposal*2.

Having a short war service and limited cold war history, Wethersfield is one of those airfields that never achieved huge recognition. Despite this, it was nonetheless, one that played its part in major world history. Achieving many ‘firsts’ and seeing many new developments in aviation, it is slowly starting that decline into obscurity. If the Government have their way, Wethersfield will shortly become a housing estate, and its history will sadly become yet another of those condemned to the local library.

After leaving here, we carry on into Essex and yet another airfield that has remained active but not as a flying base. We go to the Carver Barracks and the former R.A.F. Debden.

Sources and further Reading.

*1A website dedicated to the 20th T.F.W. at Wethersfield has a number of pictures of both aircraft and people associated with Wethersfield and the 20th T.F.W.  It also includes a transcript of the discussion between the pilot and the tower prior to the Sabre’s crash. There are also other documents relating to the crash located on the site.

*2 The announcement was highlighted ion the Essex Live website, March 24th 2016.

Flt. Sgt. Arthur L. Aaron, V.C., D.F.M., 218 Sqn, RAF Downham Market

The Second World War produced some incredible heroes, men and women, who in he face of incredible odds, continued to carry out their duties, often going beyond those expected of anyone.

One such man was Arthur Louis Aaron, of 218 Squadron, RAF Downham Market, Norfolk.

Image result for arthur louis aaron

Arthur Louis Aaron (RAFVR) V.C., D.F.M, (source unknown)

Aaron, born 5th March, 1922, in Leeds,  who at the time that war was declared, was training to become an architect at Leeds School of Architecture. On joining the Royal Air Force on December 15th, 1941, he was sent, via Canada, to No.1 British Flying Training School (B.F.T.S.) at Terrell, Texas, where he completed his initial flying training.

Aaron like the other recruits would pass through ten weeks of biplane flying, moving onto monoplane aircraft at which point, if successful, they would receive their wings. Returning back home also via Canada, he was hoping to fly fighters but was disappointed when he was posted to bomber training, and was sent to 6 Advanced Flying Unit at Little Rissington. After further training, he was sent on to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (Stradishall) flying Stirling MKIs, and then on 17th April 1943, he was posted to his first operational flying unit, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, at RAF Downham Market.  

Whilst here at Downham Market, Aaron continued flying Short Stirling bombers, the large heavy bomber that proved to be both vulnerable to fighters and poor performing. Due to high losses it  was eventually pulled out of front line bombing duties, and used for mine laying, glider towing and parachute operations.

Aaron’s first mission would be the very next day after arriving at Downham Market. He, and his crew, would fly a ‘gardening’ mission laying mines off Biaritz, after which he would be sent on more heavily defended targets within German occupied Europe and Germany itself.

At 21:35 on the night of August 12 – 13th 1943, Flt. Sgt. Aaron and his crew: Sgt. M. M. Mitchem (Flt Eng.); Sgt. A. C. Brennan (RCAF) (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. A. W. Larden (RCAF) (Bomb Aim.); Sgt. T. Guy (Wop/AG); Sgt. J. Richmond (M.U. Gunner) and Sgt. T. M. McCabe (R. Gunner), all took off from Downham Market on their second mission of August to attack Turin, a night that featured several attacks on Italian targets.

This would be Aaron’s 20th and final mission, three as co-pilot and seventeen as pilot. He was a man known for his courage and bravery, only 12 days earlier he had struggled with his aircraft whilst his crew bravely fought fires that had broken out in the fuselage after being hit by incendiaries from aircraft flying above. Using his skill and judgement, he managed to evade both flak and searchlights by corkscrewing his aircraft whilst the crew members put out the fire that resulted from the accident. For his action on this day, he would be awarded the D.F.M.,*1 one of the highest possible awards for non-commissioned officers in the Royal Air Force, but this, like his V.C., would only come posthumously after his death on 13th August 1943.

That night, two of the thirteen 218 Sqn aircraft from RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, would be posted ‘missing’; Stirling HA-Y ‘MZ 263’ piloted by F/O J. McMallister, and that of 21-year-old Arthur Aaron – Stirling III ‘EF452’ HA-O . Whilst in the bomber stream heading toward Turin,  the aircraft was hit by gunfire from another aircraft. The navigator, (Sgt. Brennan s/n R/117605) was killed, Sgt. Mitchem and Flt. Sgt. Larden were both injured. The aircraft, now badly damaged, had been hit in three of the engines resulting in one of them being put out of action. Both front and rear turrets were immobilised, various control lines were broken and the windscreen was shattered. During the attack, Aaron received devastating blows to his face, his jaw being broken and quantities of flesh being blown away. A further bullet struck him in the chest, puncturing his lung. Now in great pain and severely injured, Aaron fell against the control column forcing the aircraft into a dive. After the Flight Engineer regained control, a course was set for North Africa, Aaron was moved to the rear of the plane where he was treated. He remained here for only a short time, insisting on returning to the cockpit where he was placed with his feet on the rudder bars. Wanting to take over, he had simply insufficient strength, and was persuaded to assist rather than fly. He wrote notes with his left hand, guiding the crew toward the airfield at Bone, in Algiers. After four failed attempts at landing, the bomb-aimer finally managed to get the aircraft down, low on fuel and with its undercarriage still raised.

The entry in the Operations Record Book for August 12th 1943, merely states “Landed in Algiers, Sergeant Brennan, Navigator Killed.”*2

At 15:00 on August 13th 1943, Arthur Aaron finally lost his determined battle to survive and died from his terrible injuries. He had fought on, overcoming severe pain and injury to guide his crewmen back to safety. Flt. Sgt. Aaron was buried alongside Sgt. Brennan in Bone War Cemetery, in Algeria.

For their action Flt. Sgt. Larden received the C.G.M., and Sgt Mitcham and Sgt. Guy, both a D.F.M.

Arthur Aaron was awarded not only his D.F.M. from his previous mission, but the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. His V.C. was announced in the London Gazette on November 5th, 1943*3.

It reads:

Air Ministry, 5th November, 1943.

The King has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned airman in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:
1458181 Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, D.F.M., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 218 Squadron (deceased).

On the night of 12 August 1943, Flight Sergeant Aaron was captain and pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack Turin. When approaching to attack, the bomber received devastating bursts of fire from an enemy fighter. Three engines were hit, the windscreen shattered, the front and rear turrets put out of action and the elevator control damaged, causing the aircraft to become unstable and difficult to control. The navigator was killed and other members of the crew were wounded.

A bullet struck Flight Sergeant Aaron in the face, breaking his jaw and tearing away part of his face. He was also wounded in the lung and his right arm was rendered useless. As he fell forward over the control column, the aircraft dived several thousand feet. Control was regained by the flight engineer at 3,000 feet. Unable to speak, Flight Sergeant Aaron urged the bomb aimer by signs to take over the controls. Course was then set southwards in an endeavour to fly the crippled bomber, with one engine out of action, to Sicily or North Africa.

Flight Sergeant Aaron was assisted to the rear of the aircraft and treated with morphia. After resting for some time he rallied and, mindful of his responsibility as captain of aircraft, insisted on returning to the pilot’s cockpit, where he was lifted into his seat and had his feet placed on the rudder bar. Twice he made determined attempts to take control and hold the aircraft to its course but his weakness was evident and with difficulty he was persuaded to desist. Though in great pain and suffering from exhaustion, he continued to help by writing directions with his left hand.

Five hours after leaving the target the petrol began to run low, but soon afterwards the flare path at Bone airfield was sighted. Flight Sergeant Aaron summoned his failing strength to direct the bomb aimer in the hazardous task of landing the damaged aircraft in the darkness with undercarriage retracted. Four attempts were made under his direction; at the fifth Flight Sergeant Aaron was so near to collapsing that he had to be restrained by the crew and the landing was completed by the bomb aimer.

Nine hours after landing, Flight Sergeant Aaron died from exhaustion. Had he been content, when grievously wounded, to lie still and conserve his failing strength, he would probably have recovered, but he saw it as his duty to exert himself to the utmost, if necessary with his last breath, to ensure that his aircraft and crew did not fall into enemy hands. In appalling conditions he showed the greatest qualities of courage, determination and leadership and, though wounded and dying, he set an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed.

A number of memorials exist in honour of Arthur Aaron. On the site of the former accommodation blocks at Bexwell (RAF Downham Market) stands a small plaque in his honour along side that of Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, who also won the V.C. whilst at Downham Market.

There is another plaque in the main hall of Roundhay School, Leeds, Aaron’s former school; another commemoration can be found at the AJEX Jewish Military Museum in Hendon, London, and a five-metre bronze sculpture by Graham Ibbeson has been erected on a roundabout to the north of Leeds city centre. Unveiled on 24th March 2001 by the last survivor of the crew, Malcolm Mitchem, it represents the freedom Aaron’s sacrifice helped ensure.

RAF Downham Market

The Memorial Plaque at the former RAF Downham Market.

Sources and Further Reading:

RAF Downham Market appears in Trail 7.

Other Heroic tales appear in Heroic Tales of WW II.

*1 London Gazette, 15th October 1943, page 4620.

*2 Air 27/1351 – National Archives

*3 London Gazette, (supplement) 5th November 5th, 1943, page 4859

No. 218 Gold Coast Squadron, 1936-1945. A blog that has many letters, from Aaron along with the history of 218 Squadron.

A New Memorial to Honour Those Who Never Came Home.

RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, was home to 6 squadrons during the Second World War: 214, 218, 571, 608, 623 and 635 along with a number of other non-flying units. It was also home to a number of aircraft types, Short’s enormous Stirling, the famous Lancaster and of course de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito of the RAF’s Pathfinder force.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts still left on the airfield.

It was also the airfield that launched the last bombing mission by an RAF aircraft, a Mosquito, on May 2nd 1945, to attack retreating German forces at the Kiel canal.

Considering the strong links it has with the RAF and Bomber Command, it has never been given a fitting memorial, but maybe finally, this is about to change.

A proposal has been put forward to erect a grand memorial on a site next to where one of the former accommodation sites once stood. It will honour not only those who flew from Downham Market and never returned, but those who served and were stationed here as well.

It is hoped that the new memorial will consist of seven polished, black granite slabs with each name of the 700 crewmen who lost their lives, carved into it, in the order in which they were lost. It is hoped to raise £250,000 to cover the cost of the structure which will be grand in scale and stand next to the main A10, a road that was made using the runways for its hardcore.

Currently the only reminder of their sacrifice is a small memorial outside of Bexwell church. It is a small memorial telling the stories of the two heroic crew members, Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, two pilots who both received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today whilst none of the runways or perimeter tracks exist, a number of the original buildings are still present, used by small businesses and light industry. Recently however, a  £170m regeneration plan was announced, one that may signify the end of these buildings and Downham Market airfield for good (see here).

RAF Downham Market and especially the many crew members, who came from all across the Commonwealth, deserve great recognition for the work they did. Perhaps this, is finally a sign that it may now happen.

The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. 

RAF Downham Market appears on Trail 7 – North West Norfolk. 

 

RAF Methwold – unassumingly famous.

The East Anglia countryside is littered with remnants of the Second World War. The massive build up that occurred here in the mid 1940s has led to changes in both landscape and culture, the ‘friendly invasion’ as it has become fondly known, had a huge impact on the towns and villages around here. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found.

Whilst on the eighth Trail of aviation sites, we stop at the former site that was RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

Methwold village sign

Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.

Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.

On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.

On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.

Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.

In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

The Intelligence Room of No. 140 Wing, No. 2 Group, at Methwold, Norfolk. © IWM (HU 81315)

Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.

Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitos, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.

The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.

Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.

DSC_0029

One of the original hangers

The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.

On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.

In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.

Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.

The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.

In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.

The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.

During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385  ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.

In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.

As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.

The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.

In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.

RAF Methwold

Stores huts used for light industry

Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.

Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.

Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.

RAF Methwold

One of the former runways looking north-west.

Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.

Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.

Notes and further reading:

Methwold appears in Trail 8 and was originally visited in April 2013.

Local information and further detail is available from the local Methwold history group. 

RAF Great Dunmow – In the shadow of Stansted Airport.

In Trail 33, we continue to explore the county of Essex. Touching the outskirts of London to the south and Suffolk to the north, it has an aviation history that has lasted over two world wars.

After visiting both Matching Green and Andrews Field, we travel a few miles west back again toward Stansted Airport.

Our next stop is Great Dunmow.

RAF Great Dunmow (Station 164)

Great Dunmow is another former airfield that sits in the shadow of nearby Stansted airport, itself a former World War 2 airfield. Dunmow was home to only two RAF units, 190 Squadron (RAF) and 620 Squadron (RAF) operating Stirling IVs and latterly the Halifax III and VII. It was also used by the USAAF flying B26 Marauders under the 386th BG.

Great Dunmow, had a multitude of names: Little Easton,  Easton Lodge and Great Easton due to its close proximity to all three locations. It was designated Station 164 by the Americans but became more commonly known as Great Dunmow.

RAF Great Dunmow

The Village sign depicts its wartime heritage.

Not built until mid-way through the war (1942-43) by the US Army’s 818th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), the American units of the 386thBG were the first to move in.

It would have three runways (concrete and wood chip), with the main one running north-west / south-east and 6,000ft in length. The second and third runways ran east-west and north-east \ south-west and were both 4,200 ft in length. The main technical and administrative areas were to the north side in which one of the airfield’s two T2 hangars were located. A bomb store was situated to the east and was capable of storing in excess of 800 tons of bombs. Dispersals consisted of 50 loop style hardstands around the concrete perimeter track. The staff accommodation sites were dispersed over 12 sites all to the north around the Easton Lodge, referred to by crews as ‘The Big House’*1. Two Mess sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters, an officers and four airmen sites housed a huge number of personnel – even parts of the house itself were used. A communal site provided a number of small shops selling local produce and groceries.

RAF Great Dunmow

The secondary runway (N/E-S/W) disappears into the distance. This section is the only part in full width. The tree line marks the third E-W runway.

The 386th BG (M) were activated mid-war, on December 1st 1942 at MacDill Field, Florida, and arrived in England with their olive and grey B-26s in the following June. Their journey to Great Dunmow would take them via both RAF Snetterton Heath and RAF Boxted. For four months they would operate under the control of the Eighth Air Force, swapping in October 1943, to the 99th Combat Wing of the Ninth Air Force. Consisting of four Medium Bomb Squadrons: 552nd (code RG), 553rd (AN), 554th (RU) and 555th (YA), they would focus their attention on airfields, marshalling yards and gun batteries. Over the winter of 1943-44 they targeted V weapon sites, along France’s coast, and attacked enemy airfields during the ‘Big-Week’ campaign of February 1944.

During the Normandy invasion, they targeted bridges and Luftwaffe airfields, coastal batteries, fuel and munitions supplies, they preceded the allied forces as they moved inland; supported ground troops at Caen and St. Lo in July 1944, earning themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their actions. As the allies moved deeper into France, they were then free to move to the continent allowing them to reach further afield and support the advance toward and into Germany itself.

A crashed B-26 Marauder (AN-J, serial number 41-31585) nicknamed

B-26 Marauder ‘AN-J’, (s/n 41-31585) nicknamed “Blazing Heat” of the 553rd BS, 386th BG, 23rd June 1944.  balances on its nose after making a crash landing at Great Dunmow. (IWM)

In total, the 386th would fly 257 missions from Dunmow, operating between 24th September 1943 and 2nd October 1944, in an aircraft that earned itself a rather distasteful name for being unreliable and difficult to fly. Later versions having both larger wingspans and flying surfaces, partly cured this problem, but in the hands of a good crew, they were deemed no more ‘dangerous’ than any other bomber of that time. In fact, a number of Marauders were known to return home in an incredible condition, after taking a substantial beating at the hands of both flak and fighter attention.

After the 386th left Dunmow, it was handed over to the RAF and the first unit to arrive was 190 Squadron (RAF) with the Stirling IV. Pulled out of bomber squadrons for its ‘poor’ record, they were used by various units for both mine laying activities and glider-tug operations. Arriving from Fairford they stayed here until July 1946 whereupon 190 Sqn was disbanded. During this time they also flew the Halifax III and later the Halifax VII – an aircraft that was proven in combat and also as a transport machine. With a history that extended back to the First World War, 190 Sqn operated as a Glider-tug unit taking Horsa gliders to a number of prestige targets;  both Normandy, during the D-Day invasion, and Arnhem during the ill-fated Rhine crossing of Operation Market Garden. They flew fuel and supplies to advancing troops and carried out a number of transport duties as the war drew to a close.

The changeover between the exiting Americans and the arriving British was seen as an ideal opportunity to gather ‘supplies’ by the locals. Many tins of rationed food and other ‘luxuries’ left by the U.S. airmen were deemed ‘fair-game’ and ‘removed’ in the intervening days. Dennis Williams*2 book ‘Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces’ describes in detail how the incoming airmen were surprised by the extent of the items left by the Americans.

Four days after 190’s arrival, 620 Sqn also arrived at Dunmow, along with all their respective Echelons. Like their partners, they also came from RAF Fairford flying the Stirling IV. A former bomber squadron, they cut their teeth at RAF Chedburgh, then in November 1943 they transferred across to the Airborne Forces. Also flying glider operations, they too swapped their Stirlings for Halifax A.VIIs in July 1945 before moving off to the Middle East post war. Similarly, 620 Sqn flew troops into some of the most dangerous war zones, losing a number of crews and aircraft along the way.

Both 620 and 190 Sqn returned to operations soon after their arrival, flying SOE operations, glider training sorties across the UK and dropping equipment into occupied territory. As can be imagined these dangerous operations were not without their problems. A number of aircraft were lost and even during training flights, losses were still incurred.

On the 21st November 1944, Stirling LK276 crashed killing all seven crew members. It was initially thought that the pilot either failed to read his altimeter correctly causing the aircraft to strike trees and power lines, or he took his attention away from the instruments in front. Subsequent reports however, show eye witnesses claiming to have seen a following night fighter. Again contradictions in statements were not helpful and no conclusive decision could be reached. The court of enquiry ruled that it was an accident and so the case was closed. Whatever the cause was, it was a major blow to the crews at Great Dunmow.

RAF Great Dunmow

The Administrative site is now used by the local farmer and small ‘industrial’ units. The crew briefing room (front) stands in front of the intelligence block. The main Operations block has gone but the station offices are still here.

Being so far south, Great Dunmow offered a safe haven for some returning bombers. On November 5th 1944, whilst on their return from mission 166 over Frankfurt, the 401st were diverted to the Great Dunmow as bad weather had closed in over Deenethorpe. An eye-witness account describes two B-17s ‘colliding’ on the runway, whilst other records suggest the two B-17s crash landed both suffering from extensive flak damage.  Records show one of them as B-17G ’42-102674′ flown by 2nd Lt. William F. Grimm  and the other as B-17 ’42-31662′ flown by 1st Lt. Leland R. Hayes. However this particular aircraft (42-31662) was known to be ‘Fancy Nancy IV‘ flown by Walter Cox which did not crash at Dunmow, going on to serve to the war’s end. As with many war records, it can be difficult ascertain total accuracy and an anomaly has occurred here somewhere.*3

Both 190 and 620 Sqns continued on in SOE operations, including their first to Norway on the night of November 6th/7th 1944.  Both operations were seen as failures but it would highlight the difficulties of flying for four hours to often heavily fog-laden environments and back again.

Poor weather dogged this part of the country especially in the early 1940s. The airfield was in a poor condition and a great deal of work had to be carried out to assist operations. Lighting, repairs to the runways and drainage were all severe problems and all needed urgent and immediate attention. Conditions therefore were not good. Successive cold winters and the continual mud, left some with very ‘unsavoury’ memories. Working in bitter cold weather outside certainly became a challenge for hard pressed ground-crews.

A number of operations involved Dunmow aircraft over the next few months, but they were mainly confined to practice flights towing Horsa gliders. Then in late March 1945, Operation ‘Varsity’ began. The drive into Germany required 21,000 troops, 1,800 transport aircraft and over 1,300 gliders. The base was sealed off from the outside world, only air-tests and spoof flights were scheduled, and then on the morning of the 24th March 1945 60 aircraft were lined up along the runways ready to go.

Anti-aircraft fire was heavy and conditions poor over the drop zone, but all 190 Sqn and 620 Sqn aircraft returned – some with damage. They seem to fair far better than the gliders though of which some 80% were damaged by flak – many severely.

Toward the end of the war, both squadrons dropped supplies and recovered POWs from the now free Europe. It was an emotional time for all but accidents and losses still occurred and crews still died.

In July 1945 620 Sqn received the Halifax A.VII and finally in January 1946 it would be all change for Great Dunmow. 620 Sqn were posted to Aqir in Palestine; 190 Squadron was disbanded and the unit renumbered as 295 Squadron and sent to Tarrant Rushton – this was the end for Great Dunmow. The airfield was used as a vehicle storage unit until 1948, at which point it was closed for good. The tower and major buildings were demolished, the concrete dug up for hardcore for the new road, and the remainder returned to agriculture, a state it survives in today.

As with many airfields today, there is little left to see in the way of buildings and infrastructure at Dunmow airfield. A memorial stands alongside the B1256 road a few miles to the south side of the airfield site and an adjacent footpath takes you through what was the bomb store on to the airfield itself.  By driving from here to the village of Little Easton, you can more easily access the site from the northern side, by far the better option. Drive through the small village of little Easton, past the quaint village duck pond and on toward Little Easton Manor. Much of the grounds of the Manor were the accommodation areas and now as an estate once more, is (at the time of writing) up for sale for a cool £5,000,000.

Before arriving at the manor – which shows little of its aviation history – there is a small tourist sign and access to the adjacent fields. Stop here. The footpath to your left crosses the airfield utilising  much of the remaining perimeter track. This path is an old access road to the airfield and takes you up to the threshold of the former second runway (N/E-S/W).  It is a short walk but once there the full width of the runway can be seen, and when looking on, so to can the length (albeit cut short). The only part that is full width, the enormity of these tracks is staggering. The path then leads off to the west through the field strangely enough only feet from the usable but broken and much narrower perimeter track. At the end of this path, you arrive at the threshold of the third (E-W) runway. Now only a single farm track; the length is in its entirety but again standing at this point you can see how long the runways were. The path then crosses over the southern half of the airfield away to the south but there is little to be gained from taking this route, other than to know you have walked where many crews would have spent their time.  The dispersals that once stood here are now long gone and no trace remains of their existence.

If you continue east the path splits again and the one turning south takes you through the former bomb store and onto the afore-mentioned memorial. Now a quarry, the store is supplied by the perimeter track which is used by lorries to transport materials. Turning back on yourself it is possible to walk along the perimeter track back to your starting point. Along these paths are signs of the concrete that once carried the B-26s, Stirlings and Halifaxes, much narrower now, their significance little more than a farm track. Away to your right, was the former ‘dump’ or Marauder graveyard, where scrapped B-26s were left to rot.

Return to the road and walk from here west toward the lodge. After a few minutes you arrive at the former airfield entrance. The airfield sub-station marks the entrance and a footpath takes you along the road onto the airfield site. The technical area would be to your left and right, with one of the T2 hangars to your left. Follow the path as it crosses the field and you arrive where the tower once stood. There is no sign of it now, but the path takes you right though the spot where so many decisions were made and aircraft counted back. The path then leads on through the airfield and  joins the third (E-W) runway at its centre. largely overgrown with trees, the line is clearly evident, but again evidence of the concrete structure lay  scattered along the edges of this once gigantic pathway.

RAF Great Dunmow

The airfield substation marks the airfield entrance.

Turn back again and through the technical area. Hovering over the tress to your left you will be able to see the current control tower and landing aircraft at Stansted airport – a mere stones throw away. Also to your left are a small group of farm buildings , amongst them a blister hangar that appears to have been moved here after the war. Beyond these and accessible from the roadway, a small collection of administrative buildings remain now used by the local farmer and as small industrial units. By walking along the road these are accessible and perfectly visible from the roadway.

The road from here continues on and takes you into where the  main accommodation sites once stood. Much of this is private land but traversed in places by small bridal ways and footpaths. Immediately opposite was the mess site 4 and further along the road the sick quarters. The remaining accommodation sites were to the north of here amongst the now dense forests that have replaced them. To the north of these woods was the sewage plant that once served the airfield. It has now been replaced by a more a modern unit but its location is still precise.   Various tracks lead into private land from here, but they are the original tracks for the various accommodation sites that once housed the crews and staff of this once busy base.

Return to your car and drive back to Little Easton stopping at the church  (St. Mary the Virgin). Inside at the back of the church on the north wall are two beautiful widows that commemorate the service of those stationed here at Great Dunmow – both RAF and USAAF. Primarily focusing on the USAAF, they depict a number of scenes – each reflecting the daily lives of the airmen. Some show them holding hands with the civilian children, others preparing for and returning from flight; Marauders in the ‘Missing man’ formation, and two hands clasped together as a sign of American and British unity – each one is beautifully presented and well maintained. One of the windows depicts ‘peace and tranquillity’, whilst the other called “The Window of the Crusaders”; depicts the role played by the 386th. Plaques, rolls of honour and information boards give great detail about the lives of those who were stationed here for those short periods during the Second World War.

August 2015 007

One of two stained glass windows in Little Easton church.

Great Dunmow served an important role during the Second World War. Today its historical significance is in no way played down. Whilst the majority of the airfield is now crops, ‘free access’ allows you to revisit those days of the Second World War, to walk in the footsteps of heroes, to experience the sight of a welcome runway as a returning bomber would. The huts and church windows stand as reminders of those who, whilst so young, gave their all in the name of freedom and democracy.

Notes and further reading

*1The Big House, was the former Estate of Frances, Countess of Warwick, who was regularly visited by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. A railway halt was built outside the house to accommodate these visits.

*2 Williams Dennis, Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces, Pen and Sword Aviation, 2008 – this book provides an in-depth look at life within both 620 Squadron and 190 Squadron whilst at RAF Great Dunmow. It is highly recommended as a follow-up to the activities of these two units whilst here and abroad.

*3 See the 401st BG website for details of these aircraft and missions, including the original mission reports.

Is this the missing Stirling LJ850?

A recent report has identified what is believed to be the wreckage of Stirling LJ850 ‘QS-Y’ of 620 Squadron (RAF), that crashed whilst on a mission to drop paratroopers behind German lines.

Crew of Missing Stirling LJ850

The crew of LJ850 *1

The aircraft was part of a three ship formation and disappeared on the night of 17th / 18th June 1944, with a number of RAF personnel and the 1st SAS Regiment servicemen on board, – there were no survivors*2.

There has been considerable speculation about the fate of this aircraft and a number of theories as to what happened to it.

It was last heard from whilst over the English Channel, and initial thoughts were that it crashed into the sea. Other reports state it crashed into high ground on the run-in to the drop zone in the Morvan Mountains area near Les Valottes. A further report states it crashed 100 miles off course in the Savoy Hills, but there were never any reports by the German authorities at the time and no substantial wreckage has as yet been found.

Fragments form this particular wreckage may have been located a few miles inland of what was Omaha Beach, a possible location if LJ850 did come down shortly after its last transmission.

It is known that there were very few heavy bomber activities that night, and no bomber casualties were reported. Early indications are that the wreckage is of a Stirling bomber, so could this be the wreck of LJ850?

Before any investigations can proceed, a permit is required, but French officials are refusing to grant permission for any detailed search of the site, as the site is a “war grave”. They also quite rightly raise concerns over the conservation of the site, safety issues, and also jurisdictional considerations. So, for now, the story and final closure of LJ850 looks set to continue for some time yet.

620 Squadron was formed on 17th June 1943 at Chedburgh, and were initially involved in night bombing duties. In November 1943, they converted to airborne operations, dropping supplies, Paratroops and performing glider tug operations. Between March 18th 1944 and 18th October 1944, they operated from RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, before moving to Great Dunmow and subsequently to the Middle East at the end of the war.

The crew of the Stirling were:

Wing Commander R.W. Crane  RAAF (s/n 413535) (Pilot)
Fgt. Sgt. F.N. Johnson  RAFVR (s/n 1395038) (Nav.)
W.O. II J.P. Clasper RCAF (s/n R159971) (B/A)
Sgt. D.W. Evans RAFVR (s/n 1407968) (Flt. Eng)
Flt. Sgt. G.W. Stopford RAFVR (s/n 657479) (W/O – A/G)
Flt. Sgt. B.J. Profit RCAF (s/n R189226)  (A/G)
Sgt. P. Wilding RAFVR (s/n 1345156) (Parachutist Dispatcher)*2.

The crew are represented on the Runnymede memorial.

Included on that flight when it crashed was Sgt. Reginald Wortley, (s/n 4863732) of the 1st Special Air Service Regiment. Wortley was one of the founder members of the SAS.

The names of the paratroops appear on the Bayeux Memorial.

The reported story can be found here.

*1 photo from CBC News website.

*In Dennis Williams’ book “Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces“, the crew list omits Wilding, the dispatcher, and lists 15 SAS troops killed on the night. Many thanks go to reader Darren Sladden for the further information and book recommendation, which I too recommend to anyone with an interest in this area of aviation. The Book was published by Pen and Sword Books, 2008, ISBN 184415648-6,

‘Black Thursday’ took the lives of many crews – RAF Bourn.

In Trail 31 we continue our trip around the historic countryside of Southern Cambridgeshire. Moving on from the open expanses of Graveley and Caxton Gibbet, we visit two more airfields both of which continue for now, to uphold their aviation heritage. Our first stop is the current small airfield on the former RAF Bourn.

RAF Bourn.

Bourn sits between the towns of Cambourne to the west and Hardwick to the east and is confined by the new dual carriageway cutting across its northern side. Both the immediate eastern and western sides are heavily built upon and with further developments under proposal, the future of this historic airfield remains in the balance.

RAF Bourn was built-in 1940 /41 initially as a satellite for nearby RAF Oakington. With growing pressure from Bomber Command it would eventually become a bomber station  in its own right and come under the control of Air Commodore Donald Bennett’s 8 Group operating the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF). Accommodation would be suitable for 1,805 males and 276 females making it a relatively large airfield. Its three ‘A’ style concrete runways, would be extended later in 1942 to accommodate the heavier aircraft that were to use Bourn thus raising its profile as a bomber base. By the end of the war, Bourn squadrons would lose 135 aircraft in total accounting for: 60 Lancasters, 32 Short Stirlings, 24 Mosquitos and 19 Wellingtons – a considerable number of lives.

runway

Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

Bourn would serve a number of RAF squadrons during its short wartime life: 15, 97, 101, 105, 162 and 609 would all play a part in its rich wartime tapestry. The first to arrive were the Wellington ICs of 101 Squadron (RAF). They arrived at Bourn very soon after the runways were constructed on February 11th 1942. During this time 101 were going through the process of updating their Wellingtons with the new Mk III. One of the first casualties of Bourne would be one of these models. Wellington ‘X3656’  SR-L, was lost on the night of March 8th/9th 1942, on a mission to Essen. Flight Sgt. S. Brown, P.O. C. Luin and Sergeants L. Calderhead, R. Lawrence and C. Parry were all lost in the attack; the aircraft missing in action and the crew presumed dead. Their names are now inscribed  on the wall of remembrance at Runneymede Cemetery.

101 sqn would continue the fight staying at Bourn until the 11th August that same year. They would then move on to Stradishall and Holme-on-Spalding Moor where they took on the Lancaster.

As 101 left, 15 Sqn (RAF) moved in, bringing the much heavier Short Stirling MkI. Having a rather checkered history behind them, 15 Sqn would operate the MkIs until the following January when the MK IIIs came into operation. Built by Short Brothers, the Stirling was a massive aircraft, dwarfing many of its counterparts with a cockpit height of some 22 feet. A forbidding aircraft, it was cumbersome on the ground but was said to be very agile in the air, some would say it could out-turn a Spitfire! Sadly though, it was a slow aircraft and whilst heavily defended, loses were to be high leading to its eventual withdrawal from front line operations .

A few miles away at Cambridge, an industrial unit of some  six / seven hangars were built by Short Sebro Ltd who manufactured the Stirling parts. Final assembly and air testing was then carried out at Bourn, the wings being transported by ‘Queen Mary’ trailers and the fuselage on specially made carriers pulled by tractors. To help, three large hangars would be built away to the east of the airfield to accommodate both these and battle damaged bombers for repair.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The crew of the Short Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, of No. 15 Squadron after their 62nd mission. © IWM (CH 7747)

It was here at Bourn that a record would be set by a 15 Squadron crew. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’,  would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type. N3669 would eventually be reduced to an instructional airframe in February 1943.

A short spell of conversion proceeded 15 Sqn moving to their new base at RAF Mildenhall on April 14th 1943, where they would eventually take on the new and more successful Lancaster I. It was here that LL806 “J-Jig”, would become one of the most famous Lancasters in Bomber Command, flying 134 sorties accumulating 765 hours in the air. Two incredible records were now set by 15 squadron aircraft and their crews.

Bourn would then have just another short spell visitor, 609 Sqn. Battled hardened from covering the BEF withdrawal at Dunkirk and defending Britain in the Battle of Britain, 609 Sqn moved in on 26th August 1942, with the potent Typhoon IB. Accustom as they were to moving around, their stay at Bourn would last only 4 days.

It was at this time that Bourn really came into its own as a bomber base. 97 squadron (RAF) arrived on April 18th 1943 with their Lancaster Is and IIIs. With small detachments at nearby Graveley, Gransden Lodge and Oakington, they would stay here until moving on to Coningsby a year to the day later. Whilst at Bourn, they became a ‘marker’ squadron as part of the PFF  Group.  Notable target’s were both the  Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in June 1943 and the Italian naval base at Spezia in April 1944; an event that became to be the first RAF “shuttle-bombing” raid. The introduction of Lancasters at Bourn greatly reduced the number of crews being lost. However, 97 Sqn were to suffer one of the worst nights on Bomber Command record, and not through enemy action either. During the night of December 16th /17th 1943, a large number of aircraft left from some 20 squadrons*1 to attack Berlin. Casualties to and from the target were on the whole low but for 97 Squadron it was arriving home that their troubles were to begin. This night would become known as ‘Black Thursday’.*2.

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A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

As they approached Cambridgeshire, they were informed that the weather had closed in on Bourn and landing would be very difficult if not impossible. In an effort to get the bombers down safely, all manner of tactics were used to move the fog and illuminate the runways.  Some aircraft managed to divert to other bases in Lincolnshire and Norfolk where FIDO was in operation, but many tried to wait it out. The result was a critical loss of fuel and subsequently several aircraft crashed in the dense fog. The loss that night was devastating for 97 Sqn: JB531 ‘OF-Y’; JA963 ‘Q’; JB243 ‘P’; JB482 ‘S’; JB219 ‘R’; JB117 ‘C’; JB119 ‘F’ and JB176 ‘K’ were all lost crashing in the vicinity of the airfield with many of the crews being killed.*3

It was during these last few weeks of 97 Sqn’s stay that Bourn would start to accept new residents. The smaller and much more agile Mosquito IX of 105 Squadron arrived to continue the pathfinder operations. Noted for their unusual black paint work, they would carry out many notable operations from here, especially in the lead up to D-day in June 1944, identifying and marking coastal batteries for the heavier bombers to attack in preparation for the invasion. One of these aircraft, MM237, would sadly fall victim to ‘friendly fire’. On crossing the coast on its way home, on March 6th 1945, it was shot down by a British night fighter. The crew luckily managed to bale out moments before the aircraft struck the ground.

105 would stay at Bourn for the duration of the war, taking on a new model Mosquito XVI in March 1944. They would mark high-profile targets such as: oil refineries, road and rail junctions, marshalling yards and coastal batteries. Many targets were as far afield as the German heartland; 105’s  final operational sorties would take  4 Mosquitos to Eggebeck on the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945, a month before they left Bourn for Upwood and final disbandment.

In December 1944, the last residents of Bourn would arrive and join 105 Sqn. Being reformed here on December 16th, 162 Squadron (RAF), would fly the Mosquito XXV until February the following year when they would replace them with the Mosquito Mk XX. As part of the light-bomber unit of the Light Night Striking Force, 162 would quickly establish their effectiveness, striking hard at the heart of Germany, Berlin, in 36 consecutive raids.  162 would eventually leave Bourn on July 10th 1945 to go to RAF Blackbushe and their disbandment. Even though they were only here at Bourn for a short period, they would amass 4,037 flying hours in 913 operational sorties. Their loss rate would reflect the effectiveness of the Mosquito as a fighter, a bomber and a PFF weapon, losing only four aircraft in operational missions.

The departure of 162 Sqn would leave Bourn both desolate and very quiet.

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

Post war, Bourn lay idle, the nearby hangars were used by Marshalls of Cambridge for vehicle repairs but eventually these were sold at auction, leaving the  site empty. It was completely closed down three years later. The land was sold off in the early 1960s and development has gradually encroached ever since. One small saving grace for Bourn is that a small flying club operated by the Rural Flying Corps is utilising a small part of the field including sections of two of the original runways. It is hoped that this will continue and keep the history of Bourn airfield alive.

Recently affected by the building of extensive housing developments and a new dual carriageway, Bourn has had much of its original infrastructure removed. The runways were cut slightly short and much of the accommodation and technical site redeveloped. However, a small gain from this is that the dual carriage way offers some interesting views along the remains of its enormous stretches of runway.

If approaching from Caxton Gibbet to the west, leave the dual carriageway and pull on to the smaller Saint Neots road that runs parallel. From the bank you can see along the runway taking in its enormous width. Other views of this, can be seen from the bridge that takes you back over the A428 toward the village of Bourn to the south.

It is also along this road that the fire tender station can be found, now utilised by a small industrial company it is one of the few original buildings surviving in good condition today.

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

Many tracks can also be seen along here, pathways that would have led to the admin and accommodation areas of Bourn, the road now separating the two areas. There are a couple of Nissen huts here too, again used by small industrial companies, whilst other buildings stand derelict and in grave danger of demolition by weather or developer.

Whilst the runways are intact, large parts are used for storage and a section is used for motorcycle training. A lone windsock flies over the flying club.

Recent archeological investigations have revealed late prehistoric and Roman connections around the site, including a Roman burial site within the grounds of the airfield. Great crested Newts are also known to inhabit the area, perhaps history and nature will prevail. With continued development and further proposed housing, the future of Bourn is very uncertain and should these plans go ahead, Bourn like many other airfields of Britain will most likely cease to exist.

After leaving Bourn, we travel a stones throw south-west to a small airfield now more commonly seen with sedate gliders than fearsome fighters of the Second World War. We stop at Gransden Lodge.

Notes:

*1 loses were recorded from 7, 9, 12, 44, 57, 97, 100, 101, 103, 156, 166, 207, 405, 408, 426, 432, 460, 576, 619, 625 squadrons all Lancasters.

*2 a website dedicated to 97 Squadron gives detailed information into ‘Black Thursday’ including personal accounts, the unit, men and operations.

*3 records from aircrew remembered

156 Sqn RAF – a 15% chance of survival!

Due to high losses, 156 sqn became known as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently,  morale fell. With a 15%  chance of survival, morale continued to be an issue and the station was stood down for a short period. In a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the Queen. Read more about RAF Warboys and the valuable work they did here.

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Warboy’s Church Memorial to the Pathfinders.