RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. 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. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 2)

In Part one, we saw Tuddenham’s opening to the war. A rather cold and uninspiring airfield, it housed the Stirlings of 90 Squadron. Now, the Lancasters were arriving and front line bombing missions were once again on the horizon. 

The first of these major operations was on the night of 10th/11th June, when seven Lancasters, a mix of MK.Is and MK.IIIs, left Tuddenham to bomb rail facilities at Dreux –  90 Sqn had at last returned to the ‘front line.’

Sadly it was not to be the best night for the squadron, of the seven Lancasters that departed, two never returned home. The first NE149 ‘WP-A’ and the second NE177 ‘WP-B’ (both MK.IIIs), crashing in France. Of the fourteen airmen on board, three evaded capture, one was caught, and the remaining ten were all killed – it was not the most auspicious start for the unit. 

With two more Lancasters lost that month – one on the infamous Gelsenkirchen raid in which seventeen Lancasters were lost – June had proven to be difficult, and even though Stirlings were still operating, the Lancaster had become the main type and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride to Christmas. Forty-three, 90 Sqn airmen had been posted as either ‘killed’ or ‘missing’ in June alone.

Bomber Command’s tactical support of the land based forces continued on until mid September, by which time, Harris was back in charge and Bomber Command could once again turn its attention to targets in the German heartland. As the allied forces moved ever closer, night raids turned to daylight as allied air power began to get its grip on the skies over Europe. 

In October, a new squadron would reform here at Tuddenham, 186 Squadron also flying Lancaster MK.I and IIIs. Originally having its roots on board HMS Argus in 1918, it was another unit that had had short spells of activity before being disbanded once again. In a very different guise to its original formation, this time it was born out of 90 Sqn’s ‘C’ Flight, there the differences cease and by the December,  the squadron had left Tuddenham moving to Stradishall where it remained until the war’s end, and its final disbandment once more. 

The remainder of the year was relatively quiet for the Tuddenham group, regular missions with little or no opposition meant losses were low, and results were generally considered successful. But with bad weather setting in across both the UK and the wider continent, many squadrons had days of being stood down. Tuddenham on the other hand, with their FIDO system, was able to put up more flights than many others. Indeed during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, 90 Sqn were one of the few units able to launch attacks when most others were fog bound. 

The dawn of 1945 brought hope for an end to the war as the allied war machine moved ever closer to Berlin. The German’s last ditch attempt in the Ardennes was eventually overrun, and bombing picked up as fair weather returned once more. 

On February 2nd, Wing Commander W. G. Bannister joined the squadron on attachment. On the same day as he arrived, he took off at 20:52 in Lancaster HK610 ‘WP-Z’ along with thirteen other Lancasters from the squadron. Around an hour later, the aircraft collided with Lancaster PD336 ‘WP-P’, striking the tail trapping the rear gunner, Sgt. K. Hudspeth, inside the turret by his legs. Injured, he lay slumped over his guns. The pilot turned the aircraft over the Wash and ordered the bombs dumped in the sea. The rear tyre of the aircraft was burst and the port side of the tail was badly damaged, maybe even missing, and the turret by now was hanging off the aircraft. The pilot ordered chutes to be put on, after which the mid gunner Sgt. G. Wraith, went to help Sgt. Hudspeth, pulling him back into the aircraft’s fuselage where he administered morphine. The Lancaster made its way back to Tuddenham, and with the radio knocked out, red flares were fired to inform ground staff of its difficulties. Badly damaged with injured on board, the Lancaster made a safe landing, thanks to the skill of the pilot and crew.

Bannister’s Lancaster however, did not recover from the collision. After striking ‘P’ for Peter, the aircraft fell from the sky, crashing at 21:25,  3 miles from Bury St. Edmunds;  sadly there were no survivors.   

March 1945 saw a return of the Stirling to Tuddenham with 138 Sqn*3 transferring from Tempsford with the MK.V. As soon as they arrived they began to replace these with Lancasters MK.I and IIIs. 138 Sqn had been heavily involved in clandestine operations with the SOE, dropping agents into occupied Europe. With the need for such missions now largely gone, operations were wound down and the Stirling squadron were to be upgraded to front line bomber status. The first operational mission under this new guise was planned for the 28th but postponed until the following day. Three aircraft were ordered and all returned safely after having bombed the target. 

As the war drew  to its conclusion, 90 Squadron turned their attention to Kiel with both mining and bombing to prevent a German withdrawal. By the of the month it was all but over and operation Manna was put into place. On April 30th, 90 Sqn began their part in dropping supplies to the Dutch – targeting Rotterdam. Drop zones were identified by red T.Is and / or white crosses placed on the ground. By the end of the month 23 tons of food supplies had been dropped by the one squadron alone. During May, they began flights to Juvincourt to collect and bring back prisoners of war, dropping them at various sites including Dunsfold, Tangmere, Wing and Oakley; the aircraft then returned to base before carrying out further flights. 

On the 25th, ‘Cooks tours’ began, aircrew flying ground crew to Germany to see for themselves the damage inflicted by the war on the German heartland, it was a harrowing site for many. 

RAF Tuddenham

An electrical sub station shows its original RAF paint work

With no operational flying to do, training flights took over. It was a major change for  both the air and ground crews. As bases around the country began to close, so squadrons were moved around in preparation for disbandment. In April, two more Lancaster squadrons arrived here at Tuddenham, both 149 and 207 Sqns transferring across from RAF Methwold. The number of bomber squadrons now residing at Tuddenham totalling four.

Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were all withdrawn. All four squadrons were pulled out of Tuddenham, 90 and 186 Sqns taking their Lancasters to RAF Wyton, whilst 149 and 207 went to RAF Stradishall. In what must have been a mass exodus, Tuddenham fell suddenly silent.

The airfield stood dormant for many years  whilst remaining in RAF hands, but then in 1953 life returned once more as the USAF arrived and used it as an ammunition storage area and renovation depot for surplus WWII ammunition and equipment. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they too finally withdrew.

Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, ideal because of its low population and rural location, it was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site was redeveloped accordingly.  Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron RAF reformed here, operating three of the Thor missiles as part of the UK-USA nuclear deterrent agreement. Retaining these until July 1963, the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out and the gates were finally locked.

After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for quarrying to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture, but a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day and has been responsible for the removal of large quantities of the main airfield site.

Visiting Tuddenham, reveals little of the history of the airfield and the people who stayed here. A few buildings, primarily the gymnasium and squash court remain standing, but in a very poor state and are likely to be pulled down soon. The roof has collapsed and part of the walls are missing. Located to the south of the airfield, they stand as reminders of those days long gone.

Other technical areas and the main part of the airfield, are now the workings of the quarry. The entrance to this site, rather insignificant, is part of the original perimeter track and is marked by an electrical sub-station. The shell is intact and complete with two blast walls, even the original RAF paint work can be seen! Overgrown and hidden beneath large thorns, this lone building will no doubt soon go the way of others some distance away.

Tuddenham airfield now stands lonely, large parts excavated and gone along with the memories of those who were stationed here. A pig farm covers a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered. Tuddenham’s place in history is most certainly confined to the books and the memories of those whose numbers are also rapidly diminishing.

Before leaving Tuddenham, return to the village and stop at the village green. The village sign depicts a Lancaster flying low over the Suffolk landscape. A sundial, beautifully crafted marks the history of 90 Sqn, both the aircraft flown (1917 – 1965) as well as the airfields they were stationed at throughout their life. A superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who served here*4.

RAF Tuddenham

Beneath the sundial, all the aircraft used by 90 squadron.

In July 2021 I was contacted by Herb Zydney who was stationed at the former RAF Tuddenham in the mid 1950s, he kindly sent some photos and has since sent the original road sign ‘home’ to remind us of RAF Tuddenham. Hopefully this will be suitable displayed. 

RAF Tuddenham road sign

The original road sign to Tuddenham airfield. It has since been returned to Tuddenham for display. (Photo courtesy Herb Zydney)

On leaving Tuddenham, carry on in a south-easterly direction toward Bury St. Edmunds and follow the A14 east. Passing Bury, we arrive at an industrial area on your left. Here we discover an aviation dream world see Trail 16.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/731/25

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

*3 No. 138 Squadron RAF went on to be the first ‘V-bomber’ squadron of the RAF, flying the Vickers Valiant between 1955 until being disbanded in 1962.

*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.

*5 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire – FIDO The Fogbuster of World War Two“, Alan Sutton Publishing. 1995 (An excellent book detailing the work on FIDO and its installations at each airfield).

National Archives: AIR 27/733/3; AIR 27/733/4

My thanks to Herb Zydney for the You Tube video and photos, they are very much appreciated.

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 1).

In this trail we return to an RAF bomber airfield which opened later in the war. With a relatively quiet start, it soon became a front line base operating the four engined heavies the Lancasters of Bomber Command. Within a short time of it opening, it would become one of only a small number of airfields that would use the cleverly designed fog clearing system FIDO, a system that allowed aircraft to take-off and land in difficult weather conditions. As a result, it became a safe haven on more than one occasion. 

In Trail 16 we return to RAF Tuddenham.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham (as opposed to the decoy site North Tuddenham) is one of those places that is today surrounded by large towns. To the north-east lies Thetford, to the south-east, Bury-St.-Edmunds and to the south-west that mecca of horse racing – Newmarket. As a result, the landscape of the area today is somewhat different to what it was in the 1930s and 40s.

Using land requisitioned in 1943 it was opened that same year. A standard Class ‘A’ airfield, its main runway ran south-east to north-west and was the standard 2,000 yards in length. With two secondary runways both of 1,400 yards, it would open under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command. For its protection it had its own decoy site built a short distance away at Cavenham, but even this didn’t stop attacks on the airfield, none of which thankfully caused any major damage.

Built by Taylor Woodrow, it would have two T2 and later one B1 hangar, with thirty-eight loop style hardstands and a perimeter track of the standard 50 yards width. A standard watch office for all commands (design 12779/41) was later redesigned to match the new war-time standard 343/43 design which had the smaller windows especially designed for bomber airfields.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham village sign showing its links to a once active airfield.

Accommodation for air and ground crews was located on land to the south of the airfield spread across twelve sites. A mix of huts, they would accommodate around 2,000 personnel of which some 250 were WAAFs. Built as temporary buildings, these huts were unheated and unhomely, they were cramped and cold and as such, Tuddenham was not one of the most popular stations with crews posted there.

A fairly nondescript airfield, it was first frequented by the RAF’s 90 Squadron with the huge Stirling MK.III. 90 Squadron in name, had been in existence since 1917 although it had been disbanded and reformed on no less than four previous occasions, and had been at a variety of locations before arriving here at Tuddenham. This time however, it would be a much more permanent formation, and for the duration of the war it would reside at only one station, that of RAF Tuddenham.

90 Squadron had previously been recreated to test the suitability of B-17s for RAF service. Initially based at Watton, it would be less than a year before they were disbanded once more. Their more recent reincarnation led them to Wratting Common, from where they departed on their journey to Tuddenham on October 13th 1943.

According to the official records*1, this move was ‘worked out in every detail‘ and it went ‘expeditiously without incident‘ even though the airfield was still in a state of non completion. 90 Squadron’s first operational mission from Tuddenham occurred on the 17th, a return to mine laying off the Frisian Islands. Classed as ‘minor’ operations three aircraft were ordered to fly that day, one of which had to return early due to being struck by lightning and suffering damage to a number of areas including the rear turret. With only three other mining operations and an air-sea rescue search that month, the move to Tuddenham would have been uneventful had it not been for an accident involving Stirling EF497, piloted by Sgt. Wallace Jones who was aged just 21. The crew of the Stirling were on an air test when the aircraft struck trees just close to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As a result, all of the crew, of which three were in the RCAF, died in the ensuing crash. 

With only two other operational losses before the year was out, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were not fairing as badly as many other units, but the days of the type were indeed now numbered as losses overall in 3 Group were high. The Stirling would soon be relegated to secondary duties completely. 

December 1943 would see a major installation take place at Tuddenham. By now, the fog dispersal system FIDO, was in place across several other British airfields and was proving to be a major breakthrough in poor weather flying.

Designed after pre-war investigations into ways of dispersing fog, it led to oil burners being laid along a mile length of the main runway at Tuddenham. Where these crossed secondary runways, the burners were entrenched and metal plates placed over the top to prevent aircraft using these runways, from having an accident. 

At Tuddenham (classed as FIDO Station XIX), the Mark IV Haigill burners were used, each burner was 40 yards in length and made of three pipes looped at the ends. Oil was fed into the burner via a feed pipe from the main pump on the southern side of the airfield. 

Supplying these burners took huge quantities of oil, this was brought in on the nearby railway which passed through the village of Higham. A special siding was constructed which could take a large number of wagons from which fuel was pumped into a small pumping station. From here, it would then cross several fields via underground pipes into one of three large storage tanks capable of holding around half a million gallons of fuel in total.

Work began at Tuddenham early in the new year 1944, and again Taylor Woodrow were charged with the task of carrying out the construction. By August, they were ready and stocks had begun arriving ready for a test burn.

Location unknown. FIDO burners alongside a runway 1945. © IWM CH 15274

FIDO amazed all those who saw it for the first time. Its ability to clear not only fog but low cloud as well, was a god send to those who were unfortunate enough to have found themselves lost in the thick of it. The first use of FIDO at Tuddenham was on August 8th 1944, when by pure accident, an American B-26 ‘Marauder’ was caught by fog. On that day, a test burn was planned, the burners were lit and the amazed onlookers watched as both fog and low cloud began to clear. Suddenly, out of the darkness and murk came the B-26, who had attempted to land elsewhere no less than eight times unsuccessfully. Seeing the bright blaze of Tuddenham’s burners, the pilot made for the airfield, flew over it to ascertain what it was, and once satisfied, made a successful wheels up landing. 

FIDO would be used regularly over the next few months, in November it provided a safe haven for both RAF and USAAF aircraft. In Geoffrey Williams’ book ‘Flying Through Fire‘, he quotes one pilot as stating he could see Tuddenham’s FIDO “from Ostend at 7,000 ft“, a point that illustrates the effectiveness of FIDO in poor conditions. 

The idea behind FIDO was to install it at a number of airfields that were located in a ‘hub’ of other airfields, thus keeping returning aircraft as close to their parent airfield as much as possible. It allowed returning aircraft to land (and take off) safely in poor or deteriorating weather conditions, but it was used ‘sparingly’, as in one day’s total of 6 hours burn, some 200,000 gallons*5 of fuel had been used. Not many sites actually had FIDO installed, just fifteen in the UK, eleven of which were Bomber Command airfields. However, FIDO was undoubtedly successful, these fifteen alone enabled somewhere in the region of 2,500 safe landings that would have no doubt led to a number of casualties or even deaths had it not been available. The airfields were very much appreciated by those who were caught out when returning from raids over Europe, the only major complaints being glare from the bright fires as aircraft came into land*2

RAF Tuddenham

South of the airfield lay the Squash court and Gymnasium.

Back in early 1944, Tuddenham’s operations continued, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were soldiering on. More mining operations and bombing raids on the French coast dominated the months of January and February, whilst ‘special duties’ (SOE supply operations) took over as the main focus from March to May. By this time the Stirlings were starting to be replaced by the Lancaster, as it was now being relegated universally to secondary operations: supply sorties, paratroop transport and mining operations off the European coast. 

This transition began on May 11th, with pilots gaining initial experience by flying as 2nd pilot in other squadrons. New crewmen were soon being posted in, many of these from Conversion Units, whilst 90 Sqn’s Stirling crews were posted out. The continual cycle of trained crews coming in and ‘untrained’ crews going out filling the record books.

During all this operations continued on, and Stirlings continued to be lost. Four aircraft were shot down in May, three of them, on the two consecutive nights between the 8th and 10th, with many of the crewmen either being killed or captured.

The last Stirling to be lost on operations for 90 Sqn was on the night of June 2nd / 3rd when EF294 ‘WP-B’ crashed in France in the early hours of the 3rd. Of those on board, two managed to evade capture whilst the remaining five were caught and imprisoned in POW camps. 

With the invasion of Normandy on June 5th/6th, four Lancasters and fifteen Stirlings were prepared for operations in connection with the landings, but the Lancasters were withdrawn – perhaps to the annoyance of those on board. The Stirlings all took off and carried out their mission successfully, each one returning to Tuddenham safely. 

The last Stirling only operation took place on June 7th, the last two aircraft to return landing at Newmarket after completing their special operations. The Lancaster would now take over as the main aircraft and so 90 Squadron would soon return to bombing operations once more.

RAF Tuddenham

A sundial on the village green remembers the crews of 90 Squadron RAF.

In Part two the Lancaster arrive, but it is not the most auspicious of starts for the squadron. 

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 2)

In the early years at Warboys, the Pathfinders had had a difficult start. High loses and poor results were compounded by poor weather. But in early 1943 the Lancaster began to arrive, and the old Wellingtons began to be phased out. The weather however,  takes no account of this and for the early part of January 1943, it continued to envelop the country preventing flights from Warboys going much further afield than Wyton, a stones throw away from their base. Even so, on the 13th, the Pathfinders took another major step forward, being formed into a new and unique Group of their own, No. 8 (PFF) Group, with Don Bennett (now an Air Commodore) remaining at the helm.

On the 26th, the squadron were able to use the new Lancasters for the first time on operations, a bombing raid to Lorient in which 4 Lancasters from Warboys took part; ‘ED474’, ‘ED485’, ‘W4851’ and ‘W4853’. On the 27th the same four aircraft, with different crews, went to Dussledorf, an operation that saw the use of Oboe Mosquitoes for the first time, and a mission that was followed on the 30th by Hamburg. All aircraft returned safely from each of these early operations – 1943 was beginning to look better already.

This run of ‘good luck’ ran well into April, with a relatively low loss rate per operation. This included on  April 16th, the death of Sgt. Patrick Brougham-Faddy (S/N: 577758) and the crew of both Lancasters ‘W4854’  and ‘W4930’. What perhaps makes this incident more notable, was the fact that Sgt. Brougham-Faddy was only 18 years of age, making him amongst the youngest to lose their life in Bomber Command operations. With him lost on that mission was also: his pilot P/O. Harald Andersen DFC; P/O. Kenneth Bordycott DFC, DFM and P/O. Frederick Smith DFM along with ten other experienced aircrew. These losses were a major blow to both the Warboy’s crews and the Pathfinders.

In June 1943, the Navigation Training Unit, a Lancaster based unit formed at RAF Gransden Lodge began its move, taking residency at both Upwood and here at Warboys. The split was not be in everyone’s favour, running a unit on two different sites initially caused some difficulty as the idea of the unit was to train crews in navigation techniques ready for postings to Pathfinder squadrons.

By the time 1943 drew to a close, fifty-seven aircraft had been lost from Warboys, a mix of both Lancaster MK.Is and MK.IIIs, the Wellington now having been replaced entirely within the squadron.

RAF Warboys

Buildings mark the edge of the bomb site.

The cold winter months of 1943 – 44 signified another major event in Bomber Command’s history – the air campaign against Berlin.

For almost 5 months, November to March, Bomber Command would attack Berlin relentlessly in pursuit of Harris’s doctrine of area bombing. The Short Stirling would be withdrawn as the losses mounting were unsustainable, a similar fate that began to land on the door of the Halifax. Some compared the Lancaster to the Halifax, similar to comparing a  “sports car and family saloon”*4. The handling of the Lancaster being far superior to that of the Halifax. As a result, the Lancaster squadrons would bear the brunt of the campaign, and Warboys crews would be in the thick of it. The Pathfinders using an updated version of H2S, would operate outside the range of Oboe, the land based navigation system introduced operationally a year before.

The cold of January 1944, did nothing to dampen the flights nor reduce the combat fatalities. Raids on Berlin, Brunswick, Munich and Frankfurt saw heavy losses (seventeen alone failed to return to Warboys in January, all experienced crews) and numerous aircraft returning early. For 156 Sqn this was disastrous, the squadron began to get a name for itself being referred to as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently morale fell. With high losses the survival rate fell to an estimated 15%, *3 an unsustainable level of loss for any squadron. For the last fourteen days of January the squadron was effectively reduced to non-operational flights, and in a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the King and Queen. Both their majesty’s arrived on February 9th, where they talked to aircrew and took lunch in the Officer’s Mess. After a short stay they departed Warboys going on to visit other Pathfinder airfields in the area.

A widely used photo showing King George VI & Queen Elizabeth talking to ground crew of No 156 Squadron at Warboys(IWM CH 12153)

By the end of February 1944, 156 Sqn were prepared to leave Warboys, maybe a new start would give a new impetus. This move would be a direct swap with the remaining Lancasters of the Pathfinder’s Navigation Training Unit (NTU) based there. Perhaps ending the operating of the unit on two sites had been seen as an ideal opportunity to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, moving 156 and reuniting the NTU.  Whatever the reason the transfer began with a small advanced party taking the short drive to RAF Upwood.

By mid March the move was complete, and Warboys settled into its new role with a full complement of the NTU, hopefully now, the harrowing tales of loss were a thing of the past. With courses of generally three to five crews every few days, turnover was rapid.

With the Mosquito taking  a greater role in the Pathfinders, more crews were needing training in its operation. The 1655 (MTU) Mosquito Training Unit (formerly the 1655 Mosquito Conversion unit) originally formed at Horsham St. Faith in 1942, moved across from RAF Marham in Norfolk; Warboys was now awash with twin and four engined aircraft.

The Training unit would only stay at Warboys until December, at which point it moved to Upper Heyford where it would disband at the end of the year, being renumbered 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU). However, for that short time at Warboys, it grew extensively, gaining five flights including a mix of aircraft for training purposes. Whilst pilots were taught how to fly the Mosquito, the navigators were taught Pathfinder navigation & marking techniques, all prior to joining as a new crew for final training and ultimately postings to a Pathfinder squadron.

RAF Warboys

Further buildings survive near the bomb site.

Many of the aircraft delivered to Warboys were veteran aircraft themselves, having served with other numerous squadrons. Mosquito DZ606 which initially arrived in April 1944, had already flown at least nineteen operational sorties before arriving here. It was then passed on to another unit (139 Sqn) before returning with a further twenty-nine sorties under its belt. The dedication of ground crews, ease of repair and the reliability of the Mosquito enabled it to complete thirty-seven more operations with other units before the year was out.  It was eventually struck off charge in 1945 after being badly damaged.

One other notable example that appeared at Warboys with 1655 MTU, was W4053 which had been the Mosquito Turret Fighter Prototype in 1941. The (bizarre) idea of this was the fitting of a four gunned Bristol turret behind the cockpit, rather like a Boulton Paul Defiant. On tests though, the turret seized when turned to the front effectively trapping the occupant inside. After running further tests with the same results, the project was abandoned and no one was allowed to fly in it again – even though some did try! The aircraft had its turret removed and served with both 151 and 264 Squadrons before passing to 1655 MTU here at Warboys. In November 1944 it was damaged in a landing accident, repaired and then reused by the unit when it was renumbered as 16 OTU at Upper Heyford, where the Mosquito was destroyed in a crash.

With the Mosquito training unit moving away, the Navigation unit remained the sole user of Warboys, but years of use by heavy bombers had had a toll on the runway, their surfaces beginning to break up and cause problems. Warboys was going to need considerable repair work carried out. However, the Navigation unit remained here until the war’s end. On the 18th June 1945 a communique came through from Bomber Command and 8 (PFF) Group, announcing the disbandment  of the Navigation Training Unit., Staff began postings elsewhere, the last courses were completed and ‘Cooks’ tours (tours taking ground crews over Germany to see the devastation) were wound down.

Before the closure of Warboys though, two more squadrons would arrive, 128 Sqn and 571 Sqn, both Mosquito Pathfinder squadrons. 571 was disbanded here on September 20th, whilst 128 Sqn transferred out to B58/Melsbroek, then Wahn where it was disbanded in 1946.

After the training units were disbanded all flying ceased. The RAF did return briefly with Bloodhound missiles in 1960 staying for 4 years until the airfield was finally closed and sold off.

With that, Warboys was gone, and its remarkable history now a distant memory. But these memories were not to be forgotten forever. The local village commemorated the loss of one particular pilot who on the 10th April 1944, lost his life whilst flying a Lancaster over the Welsh countryside.

Flt. Lt. John L. Sloper DFC and Bar, was a veteran of 156 Sqn who had transferred out of operational duties to the Training Unit after completing his tour of duty on December 29th 1943. His last mission being a bombing raid to Berlin in Lancaster JB476. Flt. Lt. Sloper had achieved his quota in just seven months. He joined the Mosquito unit to pass on his skills to others, his personality, knowledge and determination making him very popular with the other crews.

RAF Warboys

A plaque dedicated to the memory of both Flt. Lt. Sloper and those who served with 156 Squadron.

Flt Lt. Sloper (S/N: 147214) was killed in Lancaster ‘JB 471’ during a cross country navigation flight near the village of LLanwrtyd Wells in Breconshire. The aircraft crashed after entering cloud, the ensuing fireball killing all those inside. Flt. Lt. Sloper’s remains were buried at Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium, Bath.

The site today houses small industrial units, but it is primarily farmland. Only a small section of the main runway exist, and this has farm buildings upon it. This section, has been cut by the original A141 now a ‘B’ road, and evidence of the runway can still be seen either side of the road.

RAF Warboys

Pathfinder long distance walk.

The farm entrance has a large sign with a Lancaster modelled out of metal. Two memorials on the gate posts mark the runway (since my original visit the sign and one of the memorial plaques appears to have been removed, though I have yet to verify this). Across the road from here, you can see the extension to the runway and the remains of a small building, but probably not war-time due to its location.

There is luckily a footpath that circumnavigates the field called ‘The Pathfinder Long distance Walk’, and uses that iconic aircraft, the Mosquito, as its icon. This path allows views across the airfield and access to some of the remaining buildings.

Entry to the path is toward the village, a gated path that is actually part of the perimeter track. As you work your way round, to your right can be found one of the few Air Ministry designed pill boxes. The manufacturer of these mushroom defences being F. C. Construction, they were designed in such a way as to allow machine gun fire through a 360 degree turn. Often referred to as ‘Oakington’ pill boxes, there are only a few remaining today.

Also, deeply shrouded in hedges and undergrowth, another structure possibly a second pill box or the battle headquarters. With permission from the farmer, you may be able to access these, but they look in a rather dangerous condition.

Further along to your right is where one of the T2 hangars would have stood before its demolition. Tracks lead away from here, and there is what appears to be further examples of airfield architecture buried amongst the trees.

The perimeter track takes you around the rear of the airfield across the threshold of the main runway and round the perimeter track. A local model flying club now uses this part of the site between the runway and perimeter track. To your right would have been the bomb store, now open fields laden with crops rather than bombs. There are a few buildings here marking the boundary of the store, now used for chickens and extensively ‘modified’ by the farmer. They house farm machinery, a far cry from what would have been here many years ago.

The track then takes you away from the site and out across the Cambridgeshire countryside.

RAF Warboys

The remains of the Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station.

Returning back to the road, we go in the opposite direction from the village and come to the entrance of the industrial site. These buildings stand on the perimeter track marking the western corner of the airfield.

Next to this part of the site, is a large telecommunications transmitter, apparently the origins of the site being 1941. Whilst its use and history is somewhat difficult to locate or verify, it is known that this was a Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station used to lock fighters onto incoming enemy aircraft. Later, there was a high-powered transmitter here used by RAF Mildenhall and RAF Wyton. It was also used to communicate with the V bombers on long-range flights. The mast believed to be original, has been updated and refurbished for telecommunications purposes, but the block house remains behind high fencing with very strong padlocks!

The majority of the admin sites are located along the A141 toward Wyton, some evidence exists here but the majority have long gone. Return toward the village and find the church; located just on the outskirts of the village.

A superb memorial window and roll of honour can be found here, and it is well worth the effort. In Huntingdon town is the former Headquarters building of the Pathfinders, Castle Hill House, which now belongs to the local council. A blue plaque describes the historical significance of the building.

Pathfinders

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon. The Headquarters of the Pathfinders. (Photo courtesy Paul Cannon)

Designed initially as a satellite airfield, Warboys went on to be a pioneering airfield for a new and dedicated team of bombing experts. With 156 Squadron it took the war deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. As a result it suffered great losses, but without  doubt it performed one of the most vital roles in the latter parts of the war and it’s a role that should not be forgotten beneath waving crops and developing industry. The name of Warboys should be remembered as a Pathfinder icon.

After we leave Warboys, we head to her sister station to the west, and an airfield with a history going back to World War I. This airfield saw a spy caught and hanged; the making of a film using Lancasters, and more recently the site of a hospital for the treatment of victims of a nuclear war. We of course go to RAF Upwood.

Sources and further reading (RAF Warboys).

*1  A good blog  describes the life of Wing Co. T G ‘Jeff’ Jefferson, DSO AFC AE who served part of his life as a Pathfinder at RAF Upwood. It is well worth a read.

*3 Smith, G. “Cambridgeshire airfields in the Second World War“. Countryside Books (1997)

*4 Flying Officer J Catford DFC “View from a Birdcage“Tucaan Books (2005) Pg 51

National Archive: AIR 27/203/18
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/13
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/14
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/16
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/24

For more details of the Pathfinders see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive Website.

A website detailing crews, missions, aircraft and other information about 156 squadron is also well worth visiting for more specific and detailed information.

Warboys was originally visited in 2014 in Trail 17.

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 1)

In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.

Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys.

Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.

RAF Warboys

The farm sign reminds us of the aviation link (it would appear that this sign may have recently been removed).

The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.

As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).

Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron,  Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.

However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1

The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.

In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.

Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off,  three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.

RAF Warboys

The remnants of the main runway are used for buildings.

On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.

Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream –  officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.

This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.

Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.

The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.

RAF Warboys

Industry marks the south-western perimeter.

As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.

For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.

So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.

On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.

RAF Warboys

Airfield defence in the form of an ‘Oakington’ pill box.

The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.

Further operations were carried out on the night of  27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.

Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot,  New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.

The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.

However, by early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War. Perhaps now the tide of misery would turn and Warboys crews would begin a new era in aviation history.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

The full trail appears in Trail 17

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

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

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

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

RAF Leeming.

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

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

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staton's Whitley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Flt. Sgt. Rawdon H. Middleton VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF

100641

Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton (RAAF)*1

Middleton (s/n: 402745) was born on 22nd July 1916 in Waverley, New South Wales, Australia. Son of Francis and Faith Middleton, he was educated at Dubbo Hugh School. Nicknamed ‘Ron’ by his friends, he was a keen sportsman excelling at many sports particularly cricket and football. After leaving school, he worked as a ‘Jackaroo’ (cattle handler) until joining the Royal Australian Air Force on the 14th October 1940 under the Empire Air Training Scheme. He learnt to fly at Narromine, New South Wales and then was sent to Canada for further training in preparation for his posting to the UK. He finally arrived in Britain in September 1941, as a second pilot, and his first operational squadron was No. 149 Squadron RAF, who were flying Short Stirling bombers out of both Lakenheath and nearby Mildenhall in Suffolk.

P01019.003

Five student pilots from No. 7 Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) course at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School (5 EFTS) Narromine. They are left to right: Aircraftman (AC) Gordon Orchard; AC Douglas Scott; Leonard Reid; Pilot Officer (PO) Douglas Wilberforce Spooner (DFM); PO Rawdon Hume Middleton*2

Middleton’s first experience of operations, was in a Short Stirling over the Rhur, the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. After spending a short time with 149 squadron he moved temporarily to No. 7 Squadron (RAF).

In July 1942, as first pilot, he was given his own aircraft and crew, it was also around this time that he returned to 149 squadron.

Their first mission together would be on July 31st, to bomb the strategic and heavily defended target, Düsseldorf. Middleton and his crew would continue to fly together and took part in other prestigious missions; namely Genoa on the 7th of November and his 28th mission, Turin on the 20th November. His 29th and final mission, would take place on the night of 28/29th November 1942.

In the early evening of the 28th he took off in Stirling BF372 coded ‘OJ-H’ as part of the raid on the Fiat works in Torino, Italy, along with 227 other aircraft which included – 117 Avro Lancasters, 46 Short Stirlings, 45 Handley Page Halifaxes, and 19 Vickers Wellingtons.

Middleton’s crew consisted of: Ft.Sgt. Leslie Anderson Hyder, Ft. Eng: Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey, Bomb Aimer F.O. G. R. Royde, Wireless Operator: Sgt. John William Mackie; Gunners: P.O. N. E. Skinner, Sgt. D. Cameron and Sgt. H. W. Gough. Three of these had already completed their tour of 30 operations and could have left. However, their dedication to Middleton kept them together.

The mission would take the aircraft over the Alps and the Stirling, laden with bombs and fuel combined with having a notoriously poor ceiling, had to negotiate through the mountains rather than fly over them. A factor that often resulted in a high number of casualties.

Once over the target area, OJ-H was subjected to an extreme flak barrage. With poor visibility, Middleton had to make three passes over the target area to enable his crew to positively identify it. It was on the third pass that a shell burst hit the cockpit. The resulting damage was severe, and fragments had hit Middleton’s head badly injuring him. His right eye was lost and his skull exposed. There were further hits on the aircraft’s fuselage causing considerable damage to the control systems and airframe. Knocked unconscious by the blast, Middleton lost control and the aircraft plummeted through the skies to an altitude of around 800ft. The second pilot, Fl.Sgt. Hyder eventually managed to take the controls, release the bombs over the target and then pull the aircraft into a climb, safely reaching 1,500ft.

With his aircraft severely damaged, Middleton had a choice, get his crew to bail out over occupied France and certain capture, fly to Africa or head back to England; a journey that would last over 4 hours and put the aircraft at risk of attack and the crew in danger. Wanting to give them a fighting chance of getting home, he opted for the latter, and set a course for England.

SUK10501

Middleton was buried with full military honours at St. Johns Church, Beck Row. Suffolk.*3

The aircraft experienced a number of attacks as they crossed occupied France, but Middleton, fighting for survival, kept reassuring the crew that he would get them home. Eventually, and against all the odds, they made the English coast, and once over land Middleton ordered the crew to bail out. Five crewmen left the stricken aircraft whilst the other two remained to help him control it. Turning for the Channel, Middleton ordered the two remaining crew members to bail out, whilst he stayed at the controls, steadying the aircraft.

By now the Stirling was very low on fuel and it finally gave up the fight and crashed at 03:00 on the morning of November 29th 1942. Middleton, too injured and too weak to escape the wreckage, drowned within the aircraft fuselage. His two crew members, Sgt. James Ernest Jeffrey (576050) age 19 and Wireless Operator Sgt. John William Mackie (994362) age 30, despite escaping, also drowned. Both the bodies of Sgt Mackie and Sgt. Jeffrey were washed ashore later that day on the 29th.

Middleton’s body remained in the aircraft, but was eventually freed from the wreckage by the action of the sea, and was washed ashore on Shakespeare Beach, Dover, in February 1943. His remains were taken to RAF Lakenheath and he was buried in St John’s churchyard, Beck Row, within sight of his airfield in Suffolk, with full military honours. Middleton was only 26 and only one mission away from ending his tour and returning home.

For his action, dedication and bravery, Flt. Sgt. Middleton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to any serving member of the R.A.A.F in World War II. He was also posthumously awarded a commission as Pilot Officer, backdated to mid November before his sortie to Turin. Thirty years later, in 1978, Middleton’s V.C. was presented to the Australian War Memorial, in Canberra for safe keeping and preservation.

For their actions, the other crew members received three DFMs and two DFCs. Fl.Sgt. Leslie Hyder (DFM) was injured, P.Officer. N. Skinner (DFC) was also injured, along with Sgt. H. W. Gough (DFM). F.O. G. R. Royde (DFC) and Sgt. D. Cameron (DFM) escaped unhurt.

The London Gazette published a report on 12th January 1943. It said:

“Fl. Sgt. Middleton was captain and first pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack the Fiat Works in Turin one night in November, 1942. Very difficult flying conditions, necessitating three low altitude flights to identify the target, led to excessive petrol consumption, leaving barely sufficient fuel for the return journey. Before the bombs could be released the aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and a splinter from a shell which burst in the cockpit wounded both the pilots and the wireless officer. Fl. Sgt. Middleton’s right eye was destroyed and the bone above it exposed. He became unconscious and the aircraft dived to 800 ft. before control was regained by the second pilot, who took the aircraft up to 1,500 ft. releasing the bombs, the aircraft meanwhile being hit many times by light flack. On recovering consciousness Fl. Sgt. Middleton again took the controls and expressed his intention of trying to make the English coast, so that his crew could leave the aircraft by parachute. After four hours the badly damaged aircraft reached the French coast and there was once more engaged and hit by anti-aircraft fire. After crossing the Channel Fl. Sgt. Middleton ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Five left safely, but the front gunner and the flight engineer remained to assist the pilot, and perished with him when the aircraft crashed into the sea”.

Funeral service for 402745 Flight Sergeant Rawdon Hume Middleton, the RAAF’s first VC winner. He was buried with full military honours in a country churchyard near his station. Air Vice Marshal H. N. Wrigley represented the High Commissioner for Australia (Mr S. M. Bruce) and the RAAF. The graveside service was conducted by Squadron Leader H. C. Thrush of Prospect, SA, RAAF Chaplain. (Australian War Memorial Public Domain)

Middleton’s citation read:

“Flight Sergeant Middleton was determined to attack the target regardless of the consequences and not to allow his crew to fall into enemy hands. While all the crew displayed heroism of a high order, the urge to do so came from Flight Sergeant Middleton, whose fortitude and strength of will made possible the completion of the mission. His devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds is unsurpassed in the annals of the Royal Air Force”.

In honour of Middleton’s bravery, Number 1 RAAF Recruit Training Unit at RAAF Base Wagga has renamed the club in his name, the “Middleton VC Club”, and he also appeared on one of the 1995 Australian 45c stamps. The dining hall located at the nearby (now American) base at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, has also been named in his honour.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall

Fl. Sgt. Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC (RAAF) 149 Sqn RAF, St. John’s Church, Beck Row, Suffolk.

Middleton was a brave and dedicated young man who gave his life to save those of his crew. Each and every one of them acted with the highest dedication, sadly for some, it cost them dearly.

Sources

*1 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image 100641, Public domain.

*2 photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, image P01019.003, Public domain.

*3 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10501, Public domain

*4 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial, Image SUK10500, Public domain

Heroic tales – Aviation Trails.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.

Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.

The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.

December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.

The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.

Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR HARRIS, KCB.,OBE.,AFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, KCB.,OBE.,AFC. © IWM (CH 13021)

Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.

These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles.  Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.

One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of. 

The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.

The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.

On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.

On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.

After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.

After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.

Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.

At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.

With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.

The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian  raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.

Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor,  unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead.  It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.

On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.

Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.

By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.

As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.

In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.

75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.

Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.

In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.

June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.

Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.

As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.

On 13th September 1943, the BDU  moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the  idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.

A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)

Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.

The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.

The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.

Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.

The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.

RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.

After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.

National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8,  AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36

Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website.  June 2nd 2000.

Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980

For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.

RAF Barton Bendish – Norfolk

In Trail 7 we visited north-west Norfolk, staring at the market town of Downham Market heading on toward Norwich. Here we pass seven airfields and a bomb store. In the second visit of this trail, we leave Downham, travel East to find a few miles along, a field, unmarked and to all intents and purposes, insignificant. It did however, play a vital role and serve several squadrons.

RAF Barton Bendish

At the outbreak of war, orders were issued to all airfields across the UK to implement the ‘Scatter’ directive, a plan to relocate aircraft at various satellite airfields to disperse them away from the main airfield and possible German attack. This meant that many squadrons were spread over several airfields for short periods of time until the immediate threat, or perceived threat, had subsided.

This was first seen at Barton Bendish (a satellite of Marham) when Wellingtons of 115 Sqn located at nearby RAF Marham were placed here. With no cover, the protection Barton Bendish offered seemed small in comparison to the main airfield at Marham.

The openness and cold of Barton Bendish has been noted in several scripts, and this caused problems in the winter months when starting cold engines. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson recalls in Martin Bowman’s book “The Wellington Bomber“*1 how they had to start the Wellington’s engine by getting it to backfire into the carburettor thus igniting unspent fuel in the air intake. This was then allowed to burn for a few seconds warming the carburettor allowing the engine to start. Careful timing was paramount, the danger being that the aircraft could catch fire if you were not cautious!

In the early part of the war Barton Bendish was also used as a decoy site, a flare path being lit at night to attract enemy bombers away from Marham a few miles down the road. How effective this was, is not known, but it may well have saved one or two lives at the main airfield.

Also during 1941,  26 Squadron (RAF) flying Tomahawk IIs were stationed here for three days from the 27th – 30th September, as was 268 Squadron on several other occasions. Also flying Tomahawk IIs, they passed through here during May 1941, then again between the 21st and 25th June 1941, 28th and 30th September 1941 and then again on the 25th/26th October 1941, 268 Sqn who were then based at RAF Snailwell, used the airfield as ‘the enemy’ in  a station defence  exercise, whereby they would perform mock attacks on Snailwell using gas, parachute and low flying strafing attacks methods. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for the visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight, these being removed the next day after the attacks had been made.

By 1942, the Stirling was becoming a predominant feature at Marham, and with Barton Bendish being too small for its required take off distance, Downham Market became the preferred satellite, Barton Bendish being sidelined for other minor uses.

Little exists about its existence or purpose other than a few mentions in the operational record books of these squadrons, or recordings in the writings of RAF Marham personnel. Rumours state a ‘huge military (HQ) bunker’ and hard standings, but these are more likely farmer’s concrete pans, abundant across the area. No physical buildings (other than pill boxes) were ever thought to have been built and the airfield is listed as a satellite or landing ground of the parent airfield RAF Marham. No other signs seem to exist of the airfield. Another case of an airfield completely disappearing!

Continuing on from Barton Bendish, toward Norwich we shortly arrive at RAF Marham, one of the RAF’s few remaining front line fighter stations.

Sources and further reading

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

*1 Bowman, M. “The Wellington Bomber“, (2015), Pen and Sword