RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how Graveley had been formed, its early years and the how it was drawn into Don Bennett’s Pathfinder Group. We saw the Introduction of FIDO and the benefits of this incredible fog busting system.

In this, the second and final part we see more uses of FIDO, new aircraft and new squadrons arrive, but we start on the night of 18th/19th November 1942 which saw a remarkable turn of fortune for a squadron who had suffered some devastating losses.

Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left, the fire extinguished itself. Robinson then decided to try and nurse the damaged bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne in Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were unfortunately captured and taken as prisoners of war by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO. Robinson would go on to have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base here at Graveley.

35 Sqn would continue to carry out missions both marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany, but accuracy, whilst improving, was not yet 100%.

By the end of 1942 the new H2S ground scanning radar system was being introduced, and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. The continuing missions were on the whole successful, even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it, and eventually, the whole of the PFF were fitted with it.

In April 1943, a detachment of 97 Sqn Lancasters arrived at Graveley. Based at the parent station RAF Bourn, they also had detachments at Gransden Lodge and Oakington, and they remained here for a year. After that, they moved on to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, but with it came the end of good fortune for Group Captain Robinson. Fate was finally to catch up with him, and he was lost on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943. Flying in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, his loss that night brought a further blow to the men of Graveley and 35 Sqn. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number of these experienced men being lost was quickly becoming unsustainable.

On November 18th/19th 1943, Bomber Command began the first phase of its ‘Battle for Berlin’, and Graveley’s Pathfinders would find FIDO more than beneficial. A raid of some 266 aircraft would see light losses on the second night of operations, but on returning to England, crews would find many of their bases shrouded in heavy fog. With visibility down to as little as 100 yards on the ground, the order was given to light up FIDO. This would be FIDO’s first official wartime use, and whilst some of Graveley’s bombers were diverted elsewhere, four managed to land safely using the system. This new invention may well have saved precious lives, as others failed to survive landing at their own fog-bound bases. At debriefing, one airmen, was noted as saying he could see Graveley’s fire as he crossed the English coast, a considerable distance from where he was now safely stood.

The night of 16th/17th December of 1943 would go down as one of the worst for Bomber Command and in  particular for the Pathfinders who were all based in the area around Graveley.

In what was to become known as ‘Black Thursday’ a massed formation of almost 500 aircraft attacked targets in Berlin, and although covered in cloud, marking was reasonably accurate and bombs struck their intended targets. On return however, England was fog bound, thick fog with a layer of heavy cloud prevented the ground from being seen. Whilst not operational that night, Graveley lit up its FIDO in an attempt to guide fuel starved bombers in. With little hope for even getting in safely here, crew after crew requested landing permission in a desperate attempt to get down. Many, out of fuel, bailed out leaving their aircraft to simply fall from the night sky. Others, desperate for a landing spot, simply crashed into the ground with the expected disastrous results. At Graveley, several attempts were made by desperate crews, but even FIDO was unable to help everyone. One aircraft came in cross wind losing vital power as he realised his error and tried to pull away. Another crashed a few miles away to  the north-east and a third aircraft trying to land came down to the south-east of the airfield. Of all those lost around Graveley that night, survivors could be counted on only one hand. 97 Squadron at Bourn, Gravely’s sister Pathfinder station, had taken the brunt with seven aircraft being lost. The role call the next morning was decimated.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 Squadron (RAF). Their first mission here would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would defiantly attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitoes were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitoes were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitoes of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night for Bomber Command casualties since the war started – even worse than ‘Black Thursday’. With 79 aircraft failing to return home, the RAF had taken another pounding and squadrons were finding themselves short of crews. These casualties including those in Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’. Flown by F/L. W. Thomas (DFC) and F/L. J. Munby (DFC) the aircraft took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The Mosquito was subsequently shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)

35 Sqn, who were still flying their Halifaxes, suffered even worse. TL-J, TL-B, TL-N, and TL-O, all fell to the accurate guns of night fighters over the continent. In yet another devastating night of losses, neighbouring Warboys, Wyton and distant Leeming and Waterbeach all lost crews. The casualty list was so high, that barely a squadron operating that night didn’t suffer a loss.

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitoes (RAF Downham Market) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington. From there that then transferred to  RAF Warboys, where the squadron was eventually disbanded. A series of events not untypical for Graveley.

692 would go on to have another claim to fame a year later, when on January 1st 1945, in an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive, they attacked supply lines through a tunnel. A daring attempt it required the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel after the attack.

The final 692 Sqn mission would then be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945. As the war was coming to a close, it was feared that remaining resolute Germans would make their escape from Keil, and so 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 went sent to bomb the coastal town. A successful mission, all crews returned safely.

692 Squadron, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life including the B.IV, XIV and XVI who would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

692 Sqn would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. The squadron had performed well since arriving here at Graveley, and had seen many highly regarded crew members lost in operations, including both Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick; its record of prestige losses reflecting the nature and danger of flying as part of the elite Pathfinder Force. 35 Sqn meanwhile would go on to have a long and established career, operating as late as 1982.

The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancasters MK. I and MK.IIIs, mainly prior to thier disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitoes in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitoes.

As one of the many Pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ a path that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north. Using this walk allows you to visit a number of these bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of modern farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

Perimeter Track

The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, was poorly maintained when I was there. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

This aside, a beautiful stained glass window can be found in the local Graveley church and is worthy of a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, toward our next planned destination, RAF Bourn. On the way, we make a brief stop at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet, a little airfield with a colourful history.

*1 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire FIDO – The Fog Buster of World War Two“, 1995, Alan Sutton Publishing, Page 109.

(Graveley was initially visited in 2015, in Trail 29, this is an updated post).

RAF Graveley and the Pathfinders (Part 1).

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group RAF, and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Village sign Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

Graveley airfield sits on the south side of Huntingdon, a few miles to the east of St. Neots in Cambridgeshire. It takes its unusual name from the nearby village. The airfield itself would see a number of changes to its infrastructure, including both upgrades and improvements and it would be home to several different squadrons during  its wartime life.

Initially built as a satellite for RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 when it accepted its first residents, 161 (Special Duty) Squadron.  Formed from a combination of elements from both 138 Sqn and the King’s Flight, it had been formed less than a month earlier at RAF Newmarket  and would bring with it the Lysander IIIA, the Hudson MkI and the Whitley V.

The role of the Special Duty Sqn  was to drop agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) into occupied France, a role it would perform throughout its operational wartime life.  Their stay at Graveley would however be short lived, remaining here for a mere month before departing to  Graveley’s parent airfield in Bedfordshire, before moving elsewhere once more.

By the war’s end, Graveley would have become a complete operational airfield in its own right, forming part of Air Vice Marshall Donald Bennett’s 8 Group, with the Pathfinders. After upgrading, its initial concrete runways of 1,600 yards, 1,320 yards and 1,307 yards would be transformed into the standard lengths of one 2,000 yards and two 1,400 yard runways; the measures associated with all Class ‘A’ specification airfields.

Accommodation for all personnel was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were separated into nine separate accommodation areas, incorporating both a separate communal area and sick quarters. Graveley would, once complete, accommodate upward of 2,600 personnel, a figure that included almost 300 WAAFs.

As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation area, to the south-west, partially enclosed by the ‘A’ frame of the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked these runaways with 36 pan style hardstands, all suitable for heavy bombers (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical area, with its range of stores, workshops and ancillary buildings lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were also located, the third being erected to the south-east next to the only B-1 hangar on the site.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn, Graveley lay operationally dormant. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU based at RAF Wing, flew from Graveley as part of the massive bombing operation. Sadly four of the Wellingtons (all Mk ICs) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709. One of these, DV709 crashed some thirteen miles north-east of Cambridge whilst trying to make an emergency landing at Graveley. Unfortunately, when the aircraft came down, it overturned killing two of the crew on board: Sgt. J. Dixon the pilot, and Sgt. B. Camlin the tail gunner. Both these airmen were laid to rest in Beck Row Cemetery, at nearby Mildenhall.

St. John's Church Beck Row, Mildenhall Beck Row Cemetery, Mildenhall.

The difficulty faced by Bomber Command crews in accurately hitting targets at night had, by now, become a problem for the ‘top brass’ at High Wycombe, and by April 1942, it had been decided, much against the views of Arthur Harris, that a new special Pathfinder Force was to be set up as soon as possible. As if adding salt to the wound, Harris was then instructed to organise it, and with a mixed charge of emotions, he appointed the then Group Captain Don Bennett, a man who had proven himself to have excellent flying and navigation skills.

Bennett then took charge, and on August 15th 1942, he formally took control of the new 8 (Pathfinder) Group, consisting of a specialised group of airmen who were considered to be the cream of the crop.

With its headquarters initially at RAF Wyton, Bennett received the first five founder squadrons of which 35 Sqn was one, the very day they moved into Graveley airfield.

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon Castle Hill House, Huntingdon, headquarters of the Pathfinders 1943 – 45. (Photo Paul Cannon)

Initially arriving with Halifax IIs, 35 Sqn would upgrade to the MK III in the following October, and then to the Lancaster I and III a year later. There would be little respite for the crews arriving here however, for they would be flying their first mission from Graveley, just three days after their initial arrival.

On the night of 18th/19th August 1942, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg, close to the German-Danish border. However, poor weather and strong winds, prevented accurate marking, and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. It was a rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn and the Pathfinders.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn a month later, when on the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced 24 year old Wing Commander James.H. Marks DSO, DFC was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme in France. Also being lost that night with W.C. Marks, was 19 year old F.L. Alan J. Child DFC and 25 year old F.O. Richard L. Leith-Hay-Clark; the remaining three crewmen being taken prisoner by the Germans. The squadron designation for this aircraft would then be reallocated, as was the case in in all squadrons, and as if bad luck were playing its hand yet again, that aircraft, Halifax HR928, would also crash with the loss of all its crew, including the highly experienced Sqn Ldr. Alec Panton Cranswick.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)

In October, Gravely made history when it was earmarked to become the first operational airfield to test the new and revolutionary fog clearing system, FIDO. Classified as Station II, it would be the second of only fifteen British airfields to have the system installed and whilst it had its opponents, it was generally accepted and greeted by all who used it.

Installed by contractors William Press, the system’s pipes were laid along the length of the runway, a not easy feat as operations continued in earnest. One of the initial problems found with the FIDO system, was the crossing of the intersecting runways, pipes had to be hidden to avoid aircraft catching them and an obvious disaster ensuing. Two types of pipe were laid at Graveley, initially the Four Oaks type burner, but this was later replaced by the Haigas (Mk.I) burner. A more complex system, the Haigas took considerable time to install but by January 1943 it was ready, and an aerial inspection was then carried out by Mr. A Hartley – the Technical Director of the Petroleum Warfare Dept (PWD) and Chief engineer of the Anglo-Iranian oil Co. It was Hartley who later played a major role in PLUTO, the cross channel pipeline installed for D-day. Hartley, himself a non flyer, was flown over the burning pipes in a Gypsy Major by no less than Don Bennett himself.

It was later, on February 18th, that Bennett made the first four-engined heavy bomber FIDO landing at Graveley, using a Lancaster of 156 Sqn from Oakington. Setting off from Oakington, Bennett headed towards Graveley airfield, and with the burners lit, he remarked how he was able to see them from some 60 miles distant, the fire providing a far better light than searchlights alone, the means by which aircraft had been guided home on foggy nights previously. A great success, Bennett requested that certain minor modifications be made as he thought pilots could be distracted by the cross pipes at the threshold of the runway. Hartley keen to please Bennett, duly arranged for the necessary alterations and the modification were carried out without further delay.  However, further problems were to come to light on the the first operational lighting of the system, when bushes, hedges and telegraph poles adjacent to the pipelines were ignited due to an extension of the system passing through a nearby orchard!

The installation of FIDO meant that huge oil containers had to be installed too. At Graveley, sixteen cylindrical tanks were mounted in two banks, each tank holding up to 12,000 gallons of fuel. These tanks were kept topped up by road tankers, there being no railway line nearby as was the case at other stations.

Over the next few months, FIDO was tested further, but for various reasons its benefits weren’t truly exploited. On one occasion it was prevented from being lit by a crashed Halifax on the runway, the resultant lack of FIDO after the accident, was then blamed for the loss of two more aircraft, neither being able to safely put down in the poor conditions.  On another night, poorly maintained pipes caused burning fuel to spill onto the ground rather than heating the vaporising pipes above. Bennett somewhat angry at this, once more requested modifications to be made, needless to say they were not long in coming!

With further trials, one pilot was remarked as describing flying through FIDO as “entering the jaws of hell”*1 but once crews were used to it, the benefits were by far outweighing the drawbacks.

The safety of FIDo could not assist all crews though, and a number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November 1942 saw a remarkable turn of fortune.

In Part 2 we see how Graveley sees out the war, the changes that occur, the new aircraft and new squadrons that arrive.

The whole trail can be read in Trail 29 – Southern Cambridgeshire.

Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

In 2014, I published Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’ a trail around six American bases from the Second World War, one of these, RAF King’s Cliffe, was, at the time, under threat of development.

In 2015, objections from over 300 people were received which included supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have.

At an initial meeting in September that year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from different interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so planning for 55 holiday homes were passed on an area known as Jack’s Green.

This area includes a memorial to the late Glenn Miller, who performed his last ever hangar concert here at King’s Cliffe before being lost over the sea. Assurances from the land owner at that time, were that the development would be in keeping with the area and that the memorial would remain “exactly as it was”.

I have not been able to return to Jack’s Green, nor King’s Cliffe airfield to see how this development has affected the area, and was wanting to know if anyone had photos of the development taken since the development started or more so, in the years following. As it would directly affect the memorial and adjoining public footpath, I was interested in the Jack’s Green area especially. I know that many geocachers use this path as do horse riders, walkers and enthusiasts alike, and am hoping someone may have a small collection of photos I could see.

Any photos you are willing to share would be very much appreciated.

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.

A very Happy Christmas!

As the year draws to a close, I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to all those of you who have followed, read, commented and shared a common interest with me here at Aviation Trails. It has truly been a challenging year but with determination we will no doubt get through these difficult times and on to better ones in the months ahead.

Since starting, I have now written over 60 trails, the number of airfields I have now visited has increased to over 120 stretching from Scotland’s north west coast to Kent in the south, from the eastern regions of England to the west; a huge area but one in which there are still many, many more airfields and sites yet to visit.

As 2021 approaches I would like to take the opportunity to wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a very happy and safe Christmas and both a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Merry Christmas one and all!

IMG_1716

Christmas menu 324 Wing Deversoir

RAF Great Massingham – Blenheims, Bostons and Mosquitoes.

In the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century.  Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17. In Trail 21, we return to RAF Great Massingham.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.

RAF Great Massingham

The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.

RAF Great Massingham

The Officers Mess now a farm building.

There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks.  This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.

In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of  WAAFs to 431.

The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.

18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.

Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.

18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.

As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.

Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.

The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.

For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.

RAF Great Massingham

Remains around the perimeter track.

On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.

Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.

The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.

Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!

The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With  visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2

On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.

On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.

RAF Great Massingham

Gymnasium and attached Chancellery now a car repair shop.

The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2  Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.

But the end was not quite here, and January  of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.

It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.

Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.

By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.

In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.

It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.

In April 1944 Great Massingham  was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at  2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.

In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.

RAF Great Massingham

Original high-level Braithwaite water tank.

With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site.  As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

Over the years a number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.

After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.

Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.

The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

RAF Great Massingham

The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links RAF Great Massingham

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10

RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.

Massingham was first visited in 2015.

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands (Part 2)

After Part 1  of Trail 59, we return to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere, to see how the Second World War affected the tranquil waters of the Lake district. In particular, we go to White Cross Bay, where that majestic aircraft the Short Sunderland made its dramatic appearance.

Windermere White Cross Bay.

In the intermediate war years Windermere remained as it was, tranquil and aviation free, but once war broke out things would change.

With increased bombing of Britain and in particular the growing threat to aircraft production in southern England, the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) began studies into creating new factories in safer areas away from Kent and the south. Short Brothers at Rochester was one such organisation identified for expansion. Primarily home of the Stirling bomber and located not far from London, it was a high risk location, and it was within easy reach of the Luftwaffe’s bombers. In response to the need for expansion and relocation, the ministry turned their attention to Windermere, ordering an immediate feasibility study*4 into the move.

With just three Sunderland Squadrons at the outbreak of war, the defence of shipping and anti-submarine patrols needed a major boost. Production of Sunderlands, Short’s long range Flying boat, had to be increased, and so it was decided, that a new factory independent from Rochester,  would be constructed at Windermere. At 75,000 sq ft, it was to be the largest single span hangar in the country, and it would be at a huge cost too.

As had happened before at Windermere, local objections became a major issue. The thought of the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape succumbing to both an aircraft factory and housing  for some 1,200 workers, would not be without its consequences. Other suitable sites were given due consideration too, but with Rochester coming under attack from German bombers, the Government were pushed into making a decision and quickly. On 16th December 1940, it was confirmed, and the go ahead to build at Windermere was given, albeit with some concessions. It was agreed between the Government of the time and the local population, that the factory and all its associated buildings, would be removed once the war was over and the site was no longer needed. A concession that sadly led to virtually nothing of this remarkable venture remaining visible today.

Over the next two years, building work progressed, jigs were brought in and new specialist tools were ordered. There were in essence, two main buildings for the production process, the factory where the various parts were made, and an assembly hangar where the aircraft were fabricated. A third area located at Troutbeck Bridge (subsequently referred to as Calgarth), consisted of a range of accommodation blocks and associated buildings, it was in fact, an entirely new ‘village’.

Known as the Calgarth Estate, it would have everything from two shops to a primary school, a laundry to a football team, it even had its own Policeman! The estate was set out in a semi-circular design, with rows of houses around the outside. The canteen, assembly hall and school were all located withing the centre of the site next to a large and open recreation ground.

Building a flying boat is probably more like building a boat than an aeroplane – rather than fixing stringers over bulkheads allowing the aircraft to be built in sections and pieced together, the Sunderland was built from the keel upwards.

The Sunderland (a pure flying boat) was a massive aircraft, 112 ft in span, 85 feet in length and standing 32 feet high (to the top of the fin), it could fly for some 13 hours with a range of 1,700 miles. With a crew of up to 15, it was an ideal sub-hunter and long range maritime escort. Its hull was a single step hull, with two decks; the upper for the flying crew, and the lower a storage area for bombs and depth charges. Being such a large hull, it also had a wardroom, galley, cooking and washing facilities.

ML824 Sunderland Flying Boat

ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon. Depth charges/bombs were extended out onto the wings from inside the fuselage.

By April 1942 the first hulls had begun to be assembled. Even the enormous hull of the Sunderland was dwarfed by the size of the hangar. The first RAF allocated aircraft, DP176 began construction in April. The jigs were cemented into the ground and the construction process began with six keels being formed. A skeletal fuselage was built up, and then treated aluminium panels (Dural) were added using rivets.

Even though the site at Windermere was huge, the wings, like the engines, were pre-built and delivered to Windermere for adding to the hulls. Space inside the wing was tight, the only way to access internal wing parts (control rods for example) was to crawl inside the wing and work in the very confined space between the two surfaces. Many workers, proud of what they had achieved, left their names inside the wing using a pen.

Each Sunderland built at Windermere (all MK.IIIs) was ‘hand made’, panels bent and riveted, most by hand rather than machine, so that each one was unique. Operating on water, each aircraft had to be water tight, this being tested from the inside under pressure, and any that were not, were stripped down and rebuilt. It was extremely noisy work, mainly using a non-skilled workforce recruited primarily from the local area. As skilled labour was in very short supply, and Short Bros. at Rochester couldn’t afford to let their skilled work force go (many were working on the RAF’s heavy bomber the Stirling) women and youths were drafted in (as part of the Governments recruitment plans) to fill those spaces left by the men who had joined up.

This meant extensive training programmes had to be delivered, and it became a frustrating time for those employed at the site. But, over time, things settled down and production got into full swing, the workers united and a ‘family’ was formed.

Once complete, the aircraft was rolled out using a special tail-trolley with beaching wheels attached to the fuselage sides beneath the wings. As a pure flying boat, the Sunderland could not easily move under its own power whilst on land, but had to be towed by a small tractor. Once in the water, it cold move using its engines and rudder,  but having no water rudder meant it was difficult to manoeuvre. To help, two drogues were used, located either side of the fuselage and passed through the galley windows. These 3 foot wide drogues could catch huge amounts of water, pulling a large cable and a man’s hand with it – if care wasn’t taken. Each man would throw one of the drogues out of the open window and drag it through the water to turn the aircraft, rather like how a canoeist does today. These methods, whilst primitive, were effective.

Once out of the hangar, the aircraft were lowered into the water, and the beaching gear was removed. The aeroplane was then towed, by boat, out onto the Mere where they were moored to buoys. To assist with this, the front turret could be withdrawn into the hull and a crew man would lean out and grab the mooring rope using a hook. Moving the aircraft into and out of the water was a tricky job indeed, and required great skill so as to not damage the hull of the aircraft through grounding.

RAF Museum Hendon

Sunderland ML824 at the RAF Museum Hendon showing the front turret withdrawn to enable mooring. Notice also the maintenance panel in the wing, lowered to allow maintenance whilst moored. My father would fasten cork to his tools in case he dropped them into the water.

On September 10th 1942, the first aircraft, DP176, finally left the hangar ready for engine runs and its first flying test. Lashed down to the slipway, the four Bristol Pegasus XXII air-cooled radial engines were started up and ran. After a successful test, the test pilot John Lankaster-Parker, took the aircraft onto the water where it was moored ready for further tests, and its first flight the following day.

The next day, 11th September 1942, the workforce were given the day off to witness their first Sunderland’s flight. As Short Brother’s own test pilot John Lankester-Parker  (who also flew the first Stirling) climbed aboard with a selection of technicians, a large crowd gathered outside the factory. The buzz of seeing the first Windermere Sunderland, was met with cheering and clapping as it gradually rose in to the air. After twenty minutes, Parker returned to the water and all was reported to be well. After further flying tests, DP176 was passed to RAF control, and taken away to have its electronics fitted before commencing operational flying duties with the RAF.

Dad's Photos

A post war picture of a Sunderland launching (photo my father) either Wig Bay or Stranraer. Does anyone know what U.I.D might mean?

The ‘Flying Porcupine’ as the Sunderland was known, became the backbone of Coastal Command operations, a sturdy reliable aircraft it was used as a model for the RAF’s Stirling bomber (less successfully) and went on to be the basis for the Short Shetland, a flying boat that dwarfed even the Sunderland.

In January 1944, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps*5, now the Minister of Aircraft Production (after Churchill had removed him from the War Cabinet for criticising his policies on war) visited Windermere to see the site and meet with the management team. The visit, unbeknown to those at Windermere, had an ulterior motive and in his meeting with the managers he announced that all production at the site was to stop with the last few fuselage frames in the factory being the last. It was a devastating blow for the workforce, but it was not however, the end of Windermere. As part of the change, the factory was to be retained and utilised as a Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) repairing and updating older Sunderlands rather than building new ones.

The job of repairing the aircraft brought home to the workers just how bad things could be. Worn out, damaged and battered aircraft flew into Windermere to be repaired and returned to service. In some cases, women were not allowed entry into the aircraft until the blood and human remains had been removed, such was war. Some aircraft came only to be scrapped, taken apart by the axe, any usable parts were saved and reused on other less worn models.

A number of these damaged aircraft passed through Windermere, many due to action with the enemy, but some due to accidents. Those that were repairable were hauled into the factory on the beaching gear, stripped and repaired. Some were converted into MK.Vs, having new engines fitted with feathering propellers – over heating engines had been an issue on some long flights.

The CRO carried out repairs on Sunderlands, until the war’s end. In 1945 a new direction was taken and upgrading work took over as the main task for the workers. MK.IIIs were brought in, stripped and upgraded to MK.Vs. New Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines were installed, the dorsal turret was removed, and two gun mounts were added to the insides of the fuselage behind the wings. In addition, to extend longevity all of the control cables were replaced.

RAF Museum Hendon

Inside the Sunderland looking forward. The two brackets either side are the gun mounts of the MK.V, the turret having been removed and replaced.

The Sunderland gained the nickname ‘Flying Porcupine’ (Fliegendes Stachelschwein), generally thought so because of its extensive array of aerials. Alternatively, it gained its name from the Germans who fell foul of its powered gun turrets. It is also thought however, and more likely, that this naming was more to do with British propaganda than anything else, as the name appeared in print before any real skirmishes had occurred between RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft.

At the beginning of the Second World War, Coastal Command had only thirty-four Sunderlands on their books, but by the end almost 750 had been built, the majority being MK.IIIs, serving well into 1959. There were four military marks built: MK.I, MK.II, MKIII. and MK.V. The MK.IV being an upgrade of the MK.III with heavier guns: (.50 inch machine guns and 20mm Hispano Canons); a larger tail; longer fuselage and bigger, stronger wings. It also had in addition, more powerful Bristol Hercules engines. It was then considered an entirely new aircraft, and so received the designation S.45 ‘Seaford’. Only 8 examples were ever completed, all of which arrived too late to see combat duties. None of those constructed making it beyond trials with the Royal Air Force.

The last Windermere Sunderland worked on, ML877, arrived from 228 Sqn on April 4th 1945, along with NJ171 to collect and return the crew. The aircraft was upgraded to MK.V standard after which it was taken away and returned to operational duties.

Dad's Photos

The last Sunderland ML877 taken at Pembroke Dock (from my fathers photo album).

With that, Windermere’s aviation history closed. By the time production had ceased, Windermere had produced thirty-five aircraft equipping seventeen front line RAF Squadrons, along with Maintenance Units (MU) and Operational Training Units (OTU). Their service stretched as far as West Africa, Hong Kong and of course bases around the shores of the UK. One of the biggest ‘users’ was 57 MU / 1 FBSU (Flying Boat Service Unit) at Wig Bay, whilst others ended up at Pembroke Dock – both of which my own father was posted to, to work on Sunderland Flying Boats, I wonder if he came across any of these.

Workers from Windermere were transferred to either Rochester or Belfast, others stayed in the area to find alternative employment. After being nationalised by the Government during the war, Shorts in Rochester was closed and all production moved to Belfast. It was eventually taken over by the Canadian company Bombardier. It is believed that some aircraft parts along with general rubbish were dumped into Windermere to dispose of them, and rumours of complete aircraft being scuttled there have long since drawn divers to the area in search of these hidden wrecks. These are unfortunately unfounded, those who worked at the site have not given any credence to the myths, and so it remains a sad truth that the Windermere Sunderlands are indeed now just a part of history.

Back at the Windermere, the Government’s agreement to remove the buildings wasn’t implemented straight away.

In August 1945, the British government agreed to give refuge to 1000 child sufferers of Nazi concentration camps. 300 of them were brought to the Calgarth Estate, the former Short’s accommodation area, where a team of counsellors and volunteers had been assembled hoping to rehabilitate them.

The (4 month) pioneering project run by Oscar Friedman at Windermere, aimed to rehabilitate the children, allowing them to lead a normal life in society once more, after the horrific treatment they had received in the various concentration camps under the Nazi regime.

On arrival the children were separated into girls and boys, asked to remove clothing and given a medical examination. Some, fearful of what had happened before believed they were going to experience similar atrocities. Others were more forgiving and more hopeful. Their clothes were burnt, they were deloused and then the children were fed.

The former flying boat site provided accommodation for the workers, this accommodation would now house the refugees, each older child having their own bed, in their own room. A far cry from the squalid bunks of the concentration camps.

With the freedom of coming and going, even simple things frightened the children. A dogs bark or a uniform could mean the difference between life and death. Their nightmares would linger on for years to come.

During the day, they attended classes, English and sport along with therapy sessions using art as a medium through which they expressed their emotions. The pictures they created reflected the brutal suffering and emotional damage that the Nazi regime had inflicted upon them. Not the happy blue skies and sunny landscapes a ‘normal’ young child would have created.

Very soon the Red Cross brought the devastating news about their families:. Brothers, sisters, parents who had all perished in the various death camps across Eastern Europe. This was another blow to those who were either located here or worked here.

By the time the children were able to leave they had formed great friendships. In all, 732 children passed through British ‘camps’ all going on to make independent lives for themselves. Many set up businesses here in the UK, some in the US. Of those who stayed, many received accolades – an MBE and a knighthood being among them.

Windermere was a place of salvation, of peace and harmony. The journey was a difficult one, but after the horrors of the German concentration camps it brought life, love and lasting friendship to many heartbroken children.

Even though the local people had grown to liking the new factory, eventually the agreement made between them and the Government,  to remove the buildings and all trace of the factory, was carried out. In 1949, the factory element was pulled down, leaving the accommodation area to continue on well into the 1960s.

In July 1990 the world’s last flyable Sunderland flew over Windermere visiting White Cross Bay. ML 814 (known as ‘Islander’), was a Belfast built Sunderland, and served with the RNZAF after the war. She also served as a civilian aircraft operated by Ansett Airlines. She was given permission to land on Windermere during the 1990 Windermere Festival, whilst the then owner Edward Hulton was looking for a permanent base for the aircraft. Sadly it was not to be, the authorities in 1990 were less keen than their predecessors to have large four engined aircraft on the water, and so the aircraft departed eventually being purchased and transported to Florida’s Fantasy of Flight Museum.

Traces of the site remained for many years, but now only the slipway, odd patches of concrete and paths hint at its history. The Holiday camp built on the site has a small display of items to do with the factory, and the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust have erected a memorial stone to all those who served here. The stone stands outside of the ‘club house’.

Once a conglomeration of buildings, it is now a huge holiday park; how many of those who stay here I wonder, give more than a passing glance at the historic value of this once busy and noisy place.

Post Script.

For years rumours of scuttled Sunderlands proliferated around the aviation world drawing divers to explore the depths of Windermere in search of the wrecks. Whilst aircraft were indeed taken apart at Windermere, it would seem none were actually scuttled here and the rumours of such events were indeed just that – rumours. Perhaps they were created by locals wishing to extend the longevity of Windermere’s historic links, or perhaps they were created out of the minds of ex-workers misguided by fading memories. Whatever the origin, it would be nice to think that at least one does remain down there waiting for the day it is discovered and brought back to the surface to rekindle Windermere’s history once more.

Both the Imperial War Museum (IWM) at Duxford and Hendon have a Sunderland Flying boat on display. At Hendon ML824, a MK. V was transferred from the French Navy to Pembroke Dock (see photo above) where it sat outside exposed to the elements for many years. After deteriorating it was transported to Hendon where it was fully restored and now allows public entry into the fuselage.

At Duxford, ML796, the first production MK.V went to Calshot on the Solent  and then onto Wig Bay in 1946. After remaining in storage for three years she was also passed to the French Navy, serving until 1950 when she was transferred to Shorts Brothers in Ireland for modifications. Returning to France in 1951 via Wig Bay, ML796 served again until 1962 at which point she was struck off charge. Purchased privately, she was then unceremoniously gutted being turned into a discotheque and drinks club. She then became the charge of the IWM in 1976 where she too was refurbished. Like her surviving sister, she remains on public display, located in the Airspace hangar.

Both the Windermere site and the Sunderlands that were built there are no more, an important and decisive part of Britain’s aviation history has gone forever. With two models in Britain and less than five globally, the Sunderland is an iconic aircraft that helped in Britain’s defence of Europe, and in the defence of her own borders. It’s such a shame that both this beautiful aircraft and the memory of Windermere, have been allowed to disappear from our skies forever.

Sunderland ML796

Sunderland ML796 at Duxford (2019)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Lake District National Park Website.

*2 Whilst others had attempted, and to some extent achieved flight (both Gnosspelius and Commander Oliver Schwann at Barrow in Furness) Adams gained the title as he was the only one able to keep the aircraft under control, a pre-requisite for being the first.

*3 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website.

*4 National Archives AVIA 15/3622

*5 Spartacus Educational website

Uboat.net website. An excellent site dedicated to the U-Boat war.

English Lakes Website

Windermere Sunderland Flying Boats website.

Westmorland Gazette website.

Imperial War Museum website,

For further information on the production of Sunderlands at Windermere, including personal stories and photographs, I would suggest Allan King’s excellent book “Wings on Windermere“, published in 2008 by MMP.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.

Trail 59 – Windermere’s Early Flying Boats (Part 1)

In Trail 59, we head to the northwest of the country, to an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is an area made famous by its many hills and lakes. It was the home of Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome’s series of books Swallows and Amazons; several water speed records, and it is a mecca for tourists flocking to “get away from it all”.

Surprisingly then, it is an unlikely place for aviation, yet it was up until the end of the Second World War, a major player in Britain’s aviation industry, utilising one of the vast lakes for that spectacular machine the flying boat.

In Trail 59 we head to the Lake District, and Lake Windermere in particular, where there are two sites linked to Britain’s aviation history. The first, at Cockshott Point, is where the aviation link began, whilst the second, White Cross Bay, is where the more substantial part of the trail takes place.

Windermere.

(RNAS Windermere/Cockshott Point / RNAS Hill of Oaks)

Lake Windermere (as it is incorrectly known) is the largest of the 16 bodies of water in the Lake District, and at almost seventy metres deep, eleven miles long and just under a mile wide, it is actually classed as a ‘Mere’, and not a lake. It is however, probably the most famous of all the Lakes, Meres or Tarns in the district and certainly it is the most visited.  In 2018, Windermere helped draw more than 19,000,000*1 visitors to the area, many taking up recreational activities on its 14.8 square kilometres of water.

Windermere’s aviation connection began in 1911, when a civil engineer, Oscar Gnosspelius, and a barrister, Captain Edward William Wakefield, began trials of flying from water both men using Windermere as their base. Progress for the two was slow, each finding out for themselves the perils of trying to take off from water. Both men trove to be the first to achieve this challenging task, and both found the many difficulties of such an action.

After many failed attempts of breaking the water’s hold over these  ‘hydro-aeroplanes’, both Gnosspelius and Wakefield reached a point where they believed take off was truly possible, all it needed was good weather.

The notoriously poor climate of the Lakes finally broke, and on 25th November 1911, Gnosspelius made his attempt first. After steering his aircraft along the water, lift was achieved, and it momentarily rose from the lake only to have the wing strike the water bringing the aircraft and Gnosspelius crashing down.

Wakefield meanwhile, had teamed up with a Rolls Royce engineer, 27 year old Herbert Stanley Adams, whilst he was based at Brooklands. Wakefield had offered him the job of test pilot, which Adams duly accepted. On the same day that Gnosspelius made his attempt, Adams took Wakefield’s aircraft, an Avro adapted Curtiss biplane, out onto Windermere water. The first run failed to gain any lift at all, but then, on his second run, he turned the craft and headed north. Now with a good headwind, the aircraft broke the surface tension and it gradually rose from the water flying some 50 feet or so above its surface. History was at last made, and Adams became the first man in the UK to fly an aircraft that had taken off from water*2

Lake Windermere

November 25th 1911, the date Adams took off from Windermere and flew the first UK flight from, and back, to water.

And so, Adams’ achievement set in motion a series of events that would lead Windermere on a long, and difficult path to aviation history. As confidence grew in waterborne aviation, more and more flights were made which soon led to the formation of the Lakes Flying Company. All this activity and the noise from albeit small aircraft engines,  inevitably led to vehement objections from many locals including Beatrix Potter herself. These objections were so strong that organisations were set up to oppose the continuation of flying. Support for them rapidly grew, and soon they had amassed over 10,000 signatures in their support. But the argument in favour of flying was also strong. Many had the foresight to see where flying from water could lead, and in April 1912, the Government made the decision to allow further flights from Windermere, a decision that enabled Wakefield to continue with his business endeavour.

Fearing other nations were also trialling flight from water, especially France, the Government debated at length the need for such measures. During one such debate, the Rt. Honourable Mr. Joyson-Hicks directed his questions about France’s progress in hydro-planes, directly to the then 1st Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.

Mr. Joyson-Hicks asked Churchill  how many such hydro-aeroplanes the British Navy owned. Mr. Churchill, in his answer, explained that there was indeed one under construction at East-Church, two others on order, and another thirty-two experiments with machines of this type occurring at: Sheerness, Lake Windermere, and at Barrow. He went on to explain that the  results obtained so far from these trials “were promising“.*3

Gnosspelius meanwhile, repaired his damaged aircraft. Learning from his mistakes he modified it and retested it – it flew, giving him the lesser honour of becoming the first person to fly an aircraft built solely in Cumbria; albeit in the shadow of Adams’ and Wakefield’s triumphant achievement.

By the time World War I arrived, the benefits of taking off from water were well and truly clear, the Royal Naval Air Service took a great interest in the exploration seeing a future for water borne aircraft within their service. Wanting to perform their duties, both Adams and Gnosspelius joined up, leaving the company without anyone to lead it. Seizing on the opportunity, it was bought out by William R. Ding, an instructor who had been brought in by Wakefield, and had also realised the potential of taking off from water. In light of the RNAS’s interest, he could see profit in training pilots to perform the task. Eventually, so keen to investigate and carry on the idea themselves, the RNAS requisitioned the company and took over the site renaming it RNAS Hill of Oaks.

Many of the civilian staff who were already employed on the site remained for the time being, but when the last individuals left in 1916, it became a naval base, and as such was renamed again – this time the more appropriate RNAS Windermere. Training continued under the supervisory eye of the RNAS, but eventually, as the war approached its end, operations from Windermere began to wind down. Predictably, it reached a point where flying ceased altogether and the RNAS departed the site.

This could well have been the end of the line for Windermere, but a short reprieve in 1919 saw the once famous 1914 Schneider Trophy air race pilot, Charles Howard Pixton, return to the site. Utilising Avro 504K floatplanes, he set up and carried out tourist flights, which he combined with an newspaper delivery service to the Isle of Man. These operations breathed new life into waterborne flight, and in particular, into Windermere.

Eventually though even these ceased, and during these post war years, flying activity gradually declined at Windermere, and apart from a few recreational flights onto the water, it eventually ceased altogether. With this, the final flight had been made, and Cockshott Bay, a place unique in British aviation history, would no longer resound to the sound of aircraft engines. This part of Windermere’s aviation life had come to an end.

Now a major marina, only a tiny section of slipway remains, its access is difficult even for boat owners, primarily due to its location. It is rather sad, especially considering the importance of this site that nothing more tangible remains (a memorial stone from Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust is nearby) to commemorate the incredible deeds of Adams, Wakefield and Gnosspelius, who between them took Windermere into the annals of aviation history.

The second site visited today lies a few miles north from here, also along Windermere’s  eastern bank. It is this site that is perhaps the more prominent, and perhaps the more defining, of the two. From here we take a short trip north stopping off at White Cross Bay.

The full trail can be found at Trail 59 – Windermere’s Sunderlands.

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