The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 3)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Three).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part 2 we saw how Tony Bridgman’s war had been going, his friendships, falling in love with John Collier’s sister in law and ultimately; how he’d been shot down and taken prisoner. Now, we find him incarcerated in a POW Camp in Germany.

One month after capture, Kriegsgefangenen (POW) 1264, Bridgman: Anthony Oslands, Squadron Leader RAF, was transferred from the Dulag Luft at Oberursel to OffizierLager (Oflag) IX-A. Better known as Spangenberg Castle, it was a traditional medieval German Schloss. There he would find himself in the company of fellow officers from all three services who would later become distinguished escapers.

POW Card back

Tony’s POW Card showing his continual movements (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 4th March 1941, Tony and a number of other POW’s from all three service branches, were transferred from Spangenberg to Stalag XX-A, nearly 500 miles away to the East. Word had reached the Germans that some of their officer POW’s held in Canada were imprisoned at Fort Henry, which was not a camp deemed suitable for officers. As a reprisal, the Germans sent British officer POW’s to one of their equally unsuitable camps. Three months later, they were transferred back to Spangenberg.

On October 8th 1941, Tony was transferred to Oflag VI-B at Doessel, Warburg; about 50 miles North-East of Spangenberg. On September 4th 1942, he was transferred again, with other RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, this time to Oflag XXI-B at Szubin, Poland; about 480 miles East of Doessel, as the camp at Doessel was temporarily closed.

Escape is forbidden!

By now, Tony had well and truly had enough of this nomadic German hospitality. He was becoming ever more determined not to remain at Oflag XXI-B. It was here that he turned his own skills toward escapism, and I don’t mean idly reading novels, though he did keep a daily journal during his time as a POW.

During his attempt, he and a friend had successfully tunnelled out of their compound. On 5th November 1942, their appointed night to go, Tony went into the tunnel first. By the time he had reached the end of the tunnel and broken the soil to exit, their attempt had been rumbled and Tony’s comrade had already been caught. Tony poked his head out of the ground to find himself confronted by torch beams and the bared teeth of a snarling German Shepherd Dog that was straining at the end of it’s handler’s lead, just inches from his own face. “AUS! AUS!” growled the Dog Handler. Tony climbed out and was marched/shoved back into camp with his hands on top of his head and the barrel of an MP40 Schmeisser at his back. He also very probably had rather a wry smile on his face, too!

As was usual for would-be escapees, the following day he was placed under strict Stubenarrest (House Arrest) for a period of ten days, as a punishment for his Tunnelbau (Tunnel construction). A tedious reminder that “Flucht ist verboten!”

On 28th February 1943, Tony developed a middle ear infection known as Otitis Media. Usually a painful childhood condition, it could also be fairly common among pilots and submariners. The treatment he received was a ten-day course of what was then a crude first generation of antibiotics, known as Sulfa tablets. Given in high doses, these tablets would often have most unpleasant side effects of their own, but it was better than the old treatment of an equally painful incision made in the inner ear to drain it. The condition and especially the surgical treatment for it, could often lead to long term hearing problems for the sufferer.

Another change of address.

After nearly two years of his not being a model prisoner, Tony was moved again on April 14th 1943, with others of his troublesome ilk, to a brand new camp near Sagan; about 100 miles South-east of Berlin, in upper Silesia and 190 miles South-West of Szubin. (It is now a part of Poland). This new camp was sited there because the soil is quite sandy. Also, the topsoil and the subsoil are distinctly different colours, which combined with its sandy texture and the fact that the huts were built raised off the ground; led the Germans to believe that these factors would make tunnelling extremely difficult. Just to be sure, the Germans installed seismographic microphones at regular intervals, into the ground around the perimeter. The camp was opened in March 1942 and Tony and the others were sent there purely because they had been a considerable nuisance to their captors. Oflag IX-A, East Compound, Stalag Luft 3, was now Squadron Leader Tony Bridgman’s latest address.

Someone who frequently used that address, as well as his previous ones, was Tony’s girlfriend, Virginia Bishop. The two maintained as steady a correspondence as was possible throughout Tony’s incarceration, but theirs was very much a long distance relationship now. At least through Virginia, via her sister, Elizabeth; John Collier was being kept informed of his friend’s situation.

Tony was once more in good company at Stalag Luft 3. Among some of his more renowned inmates were people like Roger Bushell, Robert Stanford-Tuck, Roland Beamont, Paul Brickhill and a Naval Pilot named Peter Butterworth, who would later find fame in the Carry On films.

Never look a Gift Horse in the mouth.

In October of 1943, the East Compound was set for the first ever escape from Stalag Luft 3. Inspired by the ancient story of the Trojan Horse, the prisoners had constructed a gymnastic vaulting horse, mostly from the plywood cases of their Red Cross parcels. The horse was designed to conceal one or two men, the tools for digging and bags for excavated soil. Each day, the horse, with either one or two men hidden inside it, was carried out to exactly the same spot near the perimeter fence and while a long line of prisoners conducted gymnastic exercises over it, a tunnel was being dug from within the horse. Two of the many “Gymnasts” vaulting over the horse every day were Tony Bridgman and Peter Butterworth. When Tony wasn’t vaulting; then he, Peter and many others, took turns at tunnelling. The sounds of the men vaulting and landing prevented the sound of the digging from being detected by the buried microphones.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film.

Model Stalag Luft_III used in the film The Great Escape. (Free to use image, courtesy Stalag Luft 3 Museum).

At the end of each “exercise period”, a wooden trap door was placed over the tunnel entrance, on a ledge a few inches below the surface, and carefully covered with the surface soil. The horse, with its hidden cargo of men, tools and bagged-up spoil, was then carried back inside to be unloaded, and the day’s excavated soil distributed evenly in the roof space of the prisoners’ huts.

Over a few months the prisoners, working in shifts of one or two diggers at a time, had managed to dig a tunnel over 30 metres (100 ft) long, deep underground. They used bowls as shovels and poked metal rods carefully through the tunnel roof to make air holes. The only shoring they’d used was for the entrance.

In the early evening of 19th October 1943, Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot, all three dressed in “suits” made from blankets, made their escape. All three men spoke German fluently, which is why they were nominated to go. Williams and Codner successfully reached the port of Stettin, where they stowed away onboard a Danish ship. Philpot posed as a Norwegian businessman and managed to catch a train to the port of Danzig. Once there, he stowed away on a Swedish ship bound for Stockholm. All three made it safely back to England and once home, they sent a coded postcard to Herbert Massey, (Later Air Commodore Massey) the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft 3, which boosted morale in the camp considerably when he read it out to the prisoners, during morning parade.  The story of the escape was made into a film in 1950 called The Wooden Horse. An interesting aside here is that Peter Butterworth auditioned for a part in that film, but was turned down. Apparently, he wasn’t considered to be sufficiently athletic and heroic-looking, to take part!

Obviously, news of the successful escape of three prisoners from this brand new, supposedly very hard to escape from camp, was not well received by the Germans. The Kommandant at Stalag Luft 3 was a Luftwaffe Officer: Oberst (Colonel) Friedrich Von Lindeiner-Wildau. Von Lindeiner was a highly decorated veteran of WW1 and before. He was a German patriot and most irrefutably anti-Nazi in his beliefs. He had a reputation for fairness and liberal open-mindedness. He had tried to retire before the war, but was not permitted to. As a result of the Wooden Horse Escape, he ordered that certain prisoners were to be relocated to other camps. Having spent close to two years in Stalag Luft 3, Tony Bridgman was among those who had to go. This was probably just as well, as that was not the only escape project that had been on the go in Stalag Luft 3. Five months after Wooden Horse, in March 1944, came the mass breakout that would become known as The Great Escape, organised by Roger Bushell. Given his track record for getting involved in these things, Tony may well have been up for it and as history has shown, a very high number of those involved, including Bushell, were recaptured and executed by the Gestapo; an event which sickened Von Lindeiner. Subsequently relieved of command at the camp, Von Lindeiner was arrested. Facing Court Martial and a likely execution, he cleverly feigned mental illness to avoid further punishment. After the war, he identified and testified against those who had been responsible for the wholesale murder of his prisoners, at the Nuremberg Trials. Von Lindeiner himself was found to have behaved impeccably throughout the war. He died in May 1963 in Frankfurt, aged 82.

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3

Oberst Von Lindeiner-Wildau, Kommandant of Stalag Luft 3 (Photo: Free to use image, commons-wikipedia).

After leaving Stalag Luft 3, the Germans stopped recording Tony’s whereabouts on his POW Identity Card. It wasn’t too much longer till news of the successful Allied D Day invasion and breakout began reaching the camps. As the net closed in on Nazi Germany, the guards became increasingly averse to the idea of surrendering to the Russians coming in from the East. They decided to gather their prisoners and march them Westwards, toward the advancing British and American forces. The overall distance involved in these staged marches was in the order of a couple of hundred miles or more and it was all done on foot. Thirty to forty miles per day was not out of the ordinary and the guards and POW’s slept in Churches and Barns along the way. By the time they reached their destination camp somewhere on the outskirts of Berlin, the POW’s, Tony included, had literally made it there on their hands and knees. Tony later recalled crawling into a bunk and staying there for about three days.

Liberation

By now it was becoming increasingly clear to the Germans that their war was lost. In those final weeks and days, the Germans’ treatment of their prisoners became more relaxed. In the event, that long, agonising march had been for nothing. The prisoners woke up one morning to find that the Russians had arrived to liberate the camp. Now the war really was over!

However, the prisoners had to remain in their camp for another couple of weeks, till transport could be arranged for them all on trucks. Once the trucks had been arranged, the prisoners were driven to an American Army Camp. The Americans then flew them on to Brussels in Belgium, ready for the cross-Channel journey home, but there were naturally delays and problems. By now, Tony was fulfilling the role of Senior British Officer.

From Brussels, the men were finally all flown home to England, but Tony was asked to bring a list of all his fellow POW’s to General Grant, at his headquarters in Paris. Tony was duly put on a C47 (the Military version of the famous DC3 Airliner) and flown to an airfield just outside of Paris. From there he was taken to General Grant’s HQ.

Tony said that he was feeling very self-conscious at this point because he now found himself standing in this very fine building, surrounded by well-dressed Americans, dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing when he was shot down four and a half years previously! Despite his attire, Tony was ushered in to see General Grant.

At the end of their meeting, General Grant put Tony up in the smartest hotel in Paris at Uncle Sam’s expense. He also took Tony out to dinner. Grant asked Tony if there was anything he needed and Tony asked him for a new uniform, if it were possible. Tony was duly fitted out with such.

After a few days and nights of General Grant’s hospitality, Tony was put on a ship back to England. Having arrived in Newhaven, he boarded a train to London. Somewhere on that train journey, Tony had a keepsake of some kind that he’d managed to hang on to throughout the war, stolen from him. He was particularly upset by that, as can be imagined.

Tony stepped off the train at London’s Victoria Station and went to a friend’s house for dinner. After dinner and a no doubt pleasant evening, Tony left his friend’s house to walk to the Barracks where he was being put up. Quite suddenly, he found that he did not know what to do or where to go. He later tearfully recalled that “I just felt finished, and didn’t know what to do”. Wandering aimlessly about and obviously in a state of some bewilderment, Tony was found by a Policeman, who directed him to Knightsbridge Barracks. Tony’s war had suddenly caught up with him.

This was not an uncommon occurrence with returning POW’s. The subject of one of my previous books was a former POW of the Japanese and exactly the same thing happened to him. Driving the normally short distance home from work one night, he just went blank. When he “came to”, he was in his old home village of Radway in Oxfordshire, with absolutely no recollection of how he’d got there. Unfortunately, he lived in Kent.

The RAF officially gave Tony a backdated promotion to Full Squadron Leader and the corresponding back-pay due to him. They also offered him a Commanding Officer’s job, but he turned it down. The RAF wasn’t the same now and besides, he’d lost nearly everyone that he knew. He’d also lost Virginia Bishop. She had met and married somebody else in the four and a half years that Tony was a POW. (Her son would grow up to become Patrick Bishop, the author). A man who seemingly now had nothing much left to lose, Tony went on three months leave and was officially discharged from the RAF in 1946.

Civvy Street.

So, what on earth was a now Ex, highly trained, low-level attack pilot and dedicated serial escaper, going to do in peacetime Civvy Street? Well, to start with, someone he knew got him into Ogilvy and Mather’s of Fleet Street, and certainly for a while, it seemed like a good idea. They had connections in America and were a large advertising and publishing company. But a man like Tony was far more used to giving the daily orders, than he was to taking them.

In 1950, Tony was asked to meet someone at London Airport. An American woman by the name of Jeannette Graef, from New York. Tony got talking to her in the car and it was the start of a whirlwind romance that would see them getting married that very same year, despite the fact that she was fourteen years younger than he was.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club.

Tony in 1951 at Temple Golf Club (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The couple spent the early 1950’s living something of a nomadic life involving London, then Camberley and finally, Canada. For a while, they lived in J M W Turner’s old house at 119 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea; then they moved to Camberley in Surrey. They also found time to have three daughters; Judith in 1951, Frances in 1952 and Kathleen in 1957. Kathleen was born in Canada, as Tony had moved the family to Vancouver in 1956. Tony and Jeannette separated not long after Kathleen was born.  Jeannette took all three children to Nassau in the Bahamas; and there she stayed. Tony remained in Canada, convinced he could still make it.

In Canada, Tony had ended up working in a Gas Station on the Alaska Highway. One snowy, icy night, he was the passenger in a car being driven by a friend, who lost control and crashed. Tony’s back was broken in the accident. As can be imagined, he was in hospital for a very long time and was lucky indeed that he was finally able to walk away from it. Meanwhile, one of his sisters, Marian; concerned that nothing had been heard from him in ages, contacted the Missing Persons Bureau to find him. Find him they did and he was brought back to England; to Hindhead in Surrey.

“Pressed” into action

Once recovered, Tony needed something to do, workwise. Keen not to go down any roads he’d been down before, he still took another chance and bought a small printing company in nearby Guildford. This was the start of the rest of his career, as with presses rolling, Tony Bridgman got Dramrite Printers Ltd off the ground. Guildford was all well and good to start with, but if any money were to be made, it would surely be in London, so Tony decided to move Dramrite’s. He found a small but suitable premises in Long Lane, Southwark, SE1.

In 1968, my Dad, Jim; got himself a job at Dramrite’s, as a printer. My Dad was the original “get on your bike and get yourself a job” type, long before Norman Tebbit’s advice! I was a six year old boy at the time and my Brother was four and a half. It was shift work, as most print jobs were and indeed still are. One week on earlies, one week on lates and some days of double shifts. Fortunately, we lived within easy walking distance of Long Lane; in Great Dover Street.

Most of Dramrite’s work was the urgent kind of jobs, fast turnaround. My Dad loved working there. He loved the small, close-knit fraternity of it and he quickly came to like Tony, very much. My Mum would often help out from home, especially during the school holidays, with some of the finishing work, which Tony paid her for. Typical of the work she did was collating the business forms that Dramrite’s seemed to turn out in their thousands. I well remember the four piles of different coloured paper that seemed to live semi-permanently on a table in our front room. They had to be collated into one pile, in the order white on top, then pink, then yellow and then green on the bottom. Once collated, they were boxed up ready for Tony to collect in the firm’s van. As he collected them, he would of course drop a lot more off to be collated! Tony used to sit in our kitchen sometimes having a cold drink and playing little “where’s it gone?” games with my Brother and I. My Dad always said he was such a fair man to work for, but I don’t remember Tony paying me for any of the collating that I got roped into!

Tony at his desk at Dramrite's, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him.

Tony at his desk at Dramrite’s, taken about eight years after my Dad worked for him (Photo courtesy Frances Leach).

My Mum says that Tony was always “such a Gentleman”. One day during the second summer that my Dad worked for him, I took my first flying lesson; …….over the handlebars of my bike! The resultant crash landing wasn’t exactly text-book and I broke my left forearm. Crying and cradling my arm, I ran home and my Mum decided it would be quicker if we walked up to Guys Hospital. We had no phone in those days and we’d have to pass Dramrite’s anyway, so we stopped off to let my Dad know what had happened. On hearing me crying, Tony came out of his office to find out what was going on. My Mum quickly told him and then off we went to Guys. Just after we left, Tony told my Dad to get himself cleaned up as soon as he could and come straight after us. My Dad said to him “but what about the job on my press, its urgent?!” Tony said: “They’re all urgent, Jimbo; (Seems being given an RAF-style nickname was still traditional!) don’t worry, we’ll cope! Now GO!” He still paid my Dad to the end of his shift.

It is fair to say that Tony lived and breathed Dramrite’s. He lived in the flat above the print works. Frances recalls visiting him there as a student. Frances would often rent a little bedsit during any term time in London as both she and Judith were living and studying at University in London by then. Tony would often call round to them with food shopping and anything else an impoverished student was likely to be in need of! My Mum said Tony often told her how he missed his girls. Frances describes him as being a good and kindly Dad, but he seemed to find it hard to express emotion. After he and Jeannette separated, Tony never remarried, though Jeannette did.

Tony did have two other passions though. One was Golf and the other was horses. No, not the wooden, vaulting-over kind again! The four-legged show-jumping kind. An accomplished horseman himself, Tony owned two horses at Hickstead. One was named Contrast and the other was called Sandyman. I can remember my Dad taking us to a show somewhere to see Contrast compete. Champion show-jumper David Broome used to ride Tony’s horses for him.

Tony with Sandyman.

Tony with Sandyman (Photo: Courtesy Judy Costa).

In May 1972, my family moved out of Central London to the then leafy suburbs of Sidcup, Kent. My Dad didn’t want to leave Dramrite’s, but with nowhere to park a car nearby, he had to rely on the train to get to work. Despite his earnest efforts, British Rail’s timetable just couldn’t be made to fit the demands of a busy and necessarily flexible shift pattern such as that at Dramrite’s. Reluctantly, my Dad had to leave Tony’s employ, but armed as he was with a glowing reference, he quickly found work locally. Although he happily settled in first at Ashmead Press and shortly after at Masterprint, he always said that he never again found anywhere like Dramrite’s. My Dad (who must have liked his nickname, because he was still known as “Jimbo” 16 years later at Masterprint), died very suddenly in 1988, eight weeks short of his 51st birthday.

"Jimbo" a few years later at MasterPrint.

“Jimbo” a few years later at MasterPrint. (Photo Mitch Peeke).

Steer South-west, more Gardening Ops

With retirement in mind, Tony finally sold his beloved and very successful Dramrite’s in 1980 and moved to the picturesque village of Polruan in Cornwall, where he lived in a very comfortable semi-detached house by the sea. He still loved gardening, but it was the green-fingered type this time, and he grew lots of vegetables, which didn’t explode or sink enemy ships! Frances described his garden as being; “Military. Everything was in very straight rows.” He also kept a meticulous daily journal of his gardening activities. Tony bought a small Sailboat too, but he never really got into sailing and he ultimately sold it with very few nautical miles on the clock.

I asked Frances if she knew whether Tony had ever kept in touch with any of his old RAF friends. She said; “No, not really. Though he would sometimes cut obituaries out of the newspaper and file them away”. Leonard Snaith, his old C.O. in 83 Squadron, died in 1985 and John “Joe” Collier died in 2000. Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, Rossy and Guy Gibson of course were all killed in action during World War 2. Tony had once given Frances a copy of Guy’s book, Enemy Coast Ahead to read.

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris

Tony with Judith 1951, Tony in his garden at Polruan and Tony on an outing in Paris (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Tony lived happily in his house by the sea for nearly twenty two years till in 2002, he moved up to Hartland in North Devon. By the time he’d reached 85, Tony was starting to have trouble coping on his own. Frances had long been married with two children of her own by then and was an established potter. She and her husband had their own business, a successful pottery in Hartland, and Tony had moved there from Cornwall so that he could be nearer to them. It wasn’t long though till Tony really couldn’t cope on his own any more and he moved into the Lakenham Residential Home in Northam, North Devon; just a few miles up the A39 from Hartland.

Squadron Leader Tony “Oscar” Bridgman DFC, passed away on 14th January 2006 in the care home, aged 90. He left his three daughters and five grand children. In the end, it was he who was the very last of “The Old Guard” from 83 Squadron. However, Tony’s story doesn’t quite end there.

The unfulfilled destiny of Tony Bridgman.

As I mentioned earlier, Dramrite’s was a very busy printers, but they had breaks! During those breaks, the printers, my Dad included, would often get Tony to share one of his stories. He seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of them! During one such break, the subject of Guy Gibson and the Dambusters was raised; possibly after the film had been on the television. Tony smiled and told his “chaps” (as he often called them) “If I hadn’t have had the damned bad luck to get shot down, the history of that raid may well have been different.” Asked what he meant, Tony got up, signifying that it was time to go back to work and said; “Because that could easily have been my show, and not Gibbo’s!”

My Dad didn’t tell me that one till I was about 14. I had more than a keen interest in aircraft by then. I was in the Air Cadets and a weekend flying member of the Kent Gliding Club. I didn’t know all that much about the Dams Raid, then. I’d seen the film (more than once) and read Paul Brickhill’s book, but my knowledge was really not much more than that. So at the time, I tended to think that it may have been something of a “line shoot” perhaps. After all, I’d been brought up with my Grandad’s sea stories and everyone knows how old sailors love to yarn! Why should airmen be any different? Furthermore, Tony wasn’t mentioned in either the film or the book. So, I left it there, but I never actually forgot it.

Fast forward to April/May 2020. I am nearly 58 and we are in the middle of the Coronavirus lock down. For about twenty one years now, I have been something of a writer/historian in my spare time. I’ve had four books and countless articles published in that time and in what is surely a sign of the times, those articles have been increasingly less for printed magazines and increasingly more for websites.

With being somewhat “confined to Barracks” due to the lock down, I have been keeping myself busy (and my sanity preserved), by writing more articles. I was having an email discussion with a man called Paul and he sent me a slightly unusual, though typically posed photo, of Guy Gibson; asking me if I could tell him anything about it. I dug around a bit and was able to tell him where it was taken and that it had been taken shortly before he was selected to command 617 Squadron. I also mentioned that my Dad had once worked for a man who knew Gibson very well.

Then I remembered what my Dad had once said about the possibility of the Dams Raid not being Gibson’s show if circumstances had been different. In what could only be described as my having a “Light bulb moment”, I suddenly found that I had the idea for another article. Little did I realize at the time quite what a mission I had just set myself, or what the sheer size of that article would turn out to be!

So; now that we are all familiar with Tony’s frankly, amazing story; we can come to the $64, 000 question: Namely; is there any truth in Tony Bridgman’s assertion that if he hadn’t been shot down, he may well have led 617 Squadron himself, with Gibson as a Flight Commander.

John “Joe” Collier was a Group Captain by 1943 and was working in Bomber Command’s Raid Planning Dept. As a pilot, he could easily have led the Dams Raid himself, but he was now far too senior and far more valuable where he was. Collier did much of the initial planning of the Dams Raid, including putting forward his suggestions for a suitable leader for such a daring enterprise.

In 1943, in looking at a suitable leader, they were looking for someone with a proven track record in low-level precision attacks. Somebody who was a highly skilled, experienced and successful leader of men. A man who was openly daring, fearless almost. He would have to be a superb pilot of course and if it could be somebody you actually knew personally who possessed all those traits, well; so much the better.

Now, put yourself in Collier’s shoes. He is asked to come up with a recommendation for such a man. Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC, formerly of 49 Squadron; the man who brought down the aqueduct in August 1940, was available. He was undoubtedly highly experienced and highly skilled. He was certainly extremely brave and a great leader, but he perhaps didn’t quite have that “openly daring” side to him. He was something of a reluctant hero, perhaps; a more than admirable character trait of course but not one that, of necessity, you are looking for at that precise point. Guy Gibson; a skilled and decorated pilot, known personally as both a friend and a squadron mate and still very eager to win himself that VC, was also available. Now, let’s add a third name to the shortlist: That of “Oscar” Bridgman DFC.

Let’s say Tony hadn’t been shot down and that perhaps he had then followed the same sort of path that Gibson did. He’d have left 83 Squadron, been promoted to full Squadron Leader, moving on to larger aircraft types and being given command of a night bomber squadron, followed by further promotion to Wing Commander. Tony was very much the senior man of the two, so he would have done it all that bit sooner and therefore would have had that much more experience. Gibson, if Tony hadn’t have been shot down, would always therefore have been that much behind, following in Tony’s footsteps.

Then the idea for the Dams Raid is put forward. You are still in Collier’s shoes. You have known both those men personally and professionally for years, Tony Bridgman slightly longer. Whom would you choose, if you had to make that choice? The highly skilled but still slightly impetuous and VC-chasing Gibson, or the man who had taught him; the very man that Gibbo himself looked up to: “Oscar” Bridgman. Put it into that context and I really do think there is a great deal of truth in Tony’s assertion.

However, the reality in 1943 was that Tony was shot down, so that choice simply wasn’t one that Collier would ever have to face making. Given the choices that Collier did have available to him, Gibbo was naturally going to be his recommendation and it was Gibson of course who did get the job, as Air Chief Marshal Cochrane evidently went along with Collier’s recommendation.

Ultimately though, I personally feel that if the hand of fate had not intervened that night over Germany in September 1940, this somewhat epic article might never have been written; because Tony Bridgman, like his protogee, probably would not have survived the war. The one thing that both “Oscar” and “Gibbo” never considered, was taking a rest. That mindset certainly took its toll on Gibson. Although he finally got the VC he so desperately wanted, for leading the Dams Raid; his war ultimately cost Guy Gibson his young life.

As something of a finale perhaps, what remained of the wreckage of Tony’s Hampden and that errant 500lb bomb that the German disposal engineers blew up, was found in 2015 by Herr Volker Urbansky; a passionate German local historian. I am indebted to him for the extra information he has so happily and freely provided me with. I am also deeply indebted to Frances Leach, nee Bridgman; for  everything.

Sources and Acknowledgements for (Part 3).

Frances Leach  (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Judith and David Costa. (Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter and her Husband).
Stalag Luft 3 Museum, Poland.
My Mum; Eve.
My own memories of my Dad; “Jimbo” .
Old Waynfletes Magazine. Issue 36, Page 18. Tony’s Obituary.
Herr Volker Urbansky.
Ditte Trudslev of Aalborg Bibliotekerne, HistorieAalborg, Denmark.
Philippe Listemann at www.raf-in-combat.com

A final acknowledgement must also go to James Marley of The Ringwood and Verwood Round Table; to Mrs Nicky Van der Drift and Dan Ellin, both from the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincolnshire, and to Mr Patrick Otter.

My thanks again to Mitch and everyone who has contributed to the story. It can be read in full in Heroic Tales.

Following the writing of this post, a new page has been created in Wikipedia about Anthony Bridgman.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 2)

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part Two).

By Mitch Peeke.

In Part one, we saw how Tony Bridgman had grown up, joined the RAF and how he had fast become a true leader of men; as a Senior Flight Commander in 83 Squadron at Scampton and how he had taken Guy Gibson under his wing. Now, as we rejoin him in mid-April 1940; things were hotting up.

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton

83 Squadron aircrew and Hampden at RAF Scampton (IWM CH266).

April 1940 saw a marked increase in the squadron’s gardening activities and now ploughing ops were growing in frequency, too. By now, young Gibbo was a fully-fledged Flying Officer and an experienced one. He had a tight-knit aircrew who were right behind him and he was well on his way to becoming the legendary leader he would prove himself to be. Although he never did quite lose his disdain for those of a non-commissioned rank or lower, he was definitely a lot better in that respect than he used to be. He also had a ground crew who could now at last take some pride in both “their man” and “their aircraft”. Gibbo idolised his Flight Commander and would have followed him into the very gates of Hell if required. Tony had not only become Gibson’s friend and mentor, he was now very much Gibson’s role model. For Tony’s part, his good friend Gibbo could be trusted implicitly as his wingman; both in the air and on their many drunken sorties on the ground! Gibbo was in fact, doing his level best to emulate his Flight Commander, in everything.

On the night of 17th/18th April, Tony and his wingman that night, Rossy; were out on what had become a two-plane gardening mission in the entrance to the Skagerrak Strait, off the North-western Danish coast. The third aircraft that was supposed to be following them had been unable to locate their intended garden and was now taking its vegetable back home. Having both successfully planted their own vegetables, Tony and Rossy went on to have a look at Aalborg aerodrome.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938.

Aalborg Airport just after its opening in 1938 (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

Aalborg was a new, pre-war airport opened in 1938, which the Germans were now using to fly troops and supplies into Denmark and Norway, with their venerable three-engined Junkers 52 transport planes. The Germans were known to be expanding the place already and it was felt that it might be worth “paying them a visit”. Tony and Rossy flew a couple of fast and low “Recce” passes over the airport to see how the Germans were getting on and to see what their responses would be like.

It didn’t take a genius to realize that the two intruders were not at all welcome. Heavy Anti Aircraft fire came at them, but flying low and fast as they were, Tony and Rossy came through it virtually unscathed, as the Germans, caught by surprise, were not able to get their range in time. Unfortunately for the Germans, Tony and Rossy had both seen and noted the three large concentrations of Luftwaffe aircraft parked near the hangars at Aalborg. By the time the pair returned to Scampton, the basis of a Ploughing Plan was formed in Tony’s mind and a “visit” from 83 Squadron was now most definitely on the cards.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg.

German transport and communications aircraft at Aalborg on the first day of the occupation. Tony and Rossy would have seen a similar sight on their recce of Aalborg (Photo: J A Kirkegaard, via Aalborg Stadsarchiv. By kind permission).

The evening of the 19th April found Tony and Rossy in the officers Mess. Tony had already decided who the third man on this sortie was going to be, so he and Rossy sought out Gibbo and suggested they all go get a bite, to escape the noisy atmosphere of the Mess. Seated in a quieter environment, Tony outlined his plan for the three of them. Taking off at two minute intervals, Tony leading, they would come in from the North-eastern approach, with Sweden behind them. They’d be coming in at 800 feet from behind Aalborg’s Hangars, to hit the airport with a mixture of Incendiary and General Purpose bombs with delayed action fuzes. Prime targets were the Hangars and parked aircraft first, then the runways on the way out. One pass per aircraft low and fast, bombs and incendiaries on the spot then get the Hell out of it, turning starboard away from the Harbour and Limsfjord and back out to sea. The operation was set for the following night, 20th/21st with Tony taking off at 01:00.

The following night, the planned raid was evidently brought forward to 23:00, probably due to the weather. (The squadron’s Operations Record Book records Tony’s take off time as 23:10). The weather was low cloud and light rain, which was set to worsen later. Despite that, the raid was still on. With the three aircraft sat ready, engines running, Gibson tried a radio check. Nothing. He tried again, still nothing but static. Turning to his Radio man, Gibson shouted back to him to try to get it working, fast! Unfortunately, the rain had leaked into it somehow and rendered it useless. As always, there was a spare aircraft prepared. That night it was Jack Kynoch’s Hampden that was standing spare, with the same load as the other three. Gibbo and his crew hurriedly transferred over to it. After a ten minute delay to Tony’s intended take off time and still no sign that Gibbo and his crew would be able to go, Tony and then Rossy took off, leaving a frustrated Gibbo still trying to get Kynoch’s aircraft hurriedly through its pre-flight checks, to join the other two.

Slightly late but otherwise fine, Tony and then Rossy found Aalborg and between them, paid it a comprehensive visit. At 800 feet, as planned, they came in low and fast over the hangars, Tony first. Amid a hail of A/A fire, they paid their individual respects by making holes and starting fires in the hangars, damaging transport aircraft and cratering the runways. Their lower Air Gunners further strafed the parked aircraft and other ground targets behind them, before the two took their leave just as quickly as they had arrived. Both of them now had some “extra ventilation” in their Hampdens; far more so in Rossy’s, but the Hampden had proven its ability to withstand a lot of damage and still keep flying. They headed home, no doubt very pleased with their handiwork. A “good show” as Tony would have said.

Taking off some 35 minutes behind Rossy, Gibson was roundly cursing his luck. He’d always had something of a love/hate relationship with his own “kite”, C-Charlie; which tended to swing hard right on take-off for reasons that had never been discovered, but at least he was used to her wiles. Now, having hurriedly transferred to the spare and got her off the deck, he discovered that this aircraft wasn’t flying right, either. She seemed unusually heavy on the ailerons for some reason. He was having a bit of a fight to keep her going straight and level, but he was determined not to let the side down. Coming in late like this also meant that the Germans would be on their toes when he got there after Tony and Rossy’s visit. They’d certainly be giving him a “warm welcome”.

Nearly two hours into the flight, with the throttles having been set for a fast cruise, Gibson kept checking his watch. By his reckoning, they should have sighted land by now. All he could seem to see, was the North Sea. He asked Jack Warner, the Navigator; to check their ETA again and was told another five minutes to the enemy coast.

When that five minutes elapsed with no recognizable sign of a coast, Gibson asked Jack for an update. They flew on for a few more minutes and then, sighted definite land at last. Crossing the coast, both Jack and Gibson realized that something had gone terribly wrong. They were over Copenhagen! They were way off course, a good 200km South-east of where they should have been. Furthermore, the sun was just beginning to come up. Realizing they were now much deeper into enemy territory than was considered healthy, and that very soon they’d be totally exposed in the coming daylight, Gibson swore at Jack over his duff navigation, set the throttles to “Full” and turned for home. Even staying low and going flat-out as he now was, it would take them nearly thirty minutes flying time, avoiding known defended areas, to re-cross the coast. Finding and bombing Aalborg was absolutely out of the question now. They had failed; which for Gibson, wasn’t an option. Apart from one policeman taking an overly optimistic pot-shot at them with his revolver, the two and a half hour return flight was solemn, and uneventful.

The three returning aircraft were diverted to Lossiemouth as the weather had clamped right down at Scampton. Tony and Rossy landed at Lossiemouth at 06:10. Gibson was still on his way there. By the time he’d found Lossiemouth and landed, his petrol gauges were decidedly near their empty marks and he was nearly two hours overdue! At that precise moment, Gibson was not the happiest bomber pilot in the land and his Navigator had somewhat borne the brunt of his displeasure.

In refuelling and checking Gibson’s aircraft over, the ground crew at Lossiemouth discovered that the aircraft’s compass was defective, having a huge twenty degree range of unsteady deviation. Gibson thanked the crew chief then went to seek out Jack, his Navigator. Having found him, Gibson explained what he’d just been told about the compass and he duly and sincerely apologized to Jack for the “rough treatment” he’d given him on the flight. With Gibson’s apology accepted, all was deemed well again.

Compass problem fixed, the three aircraft returned to Scampton together later that day. Upon landing, Gibson reported to “Chiefy” Langford that there was definitely something wrong with the aircraft and it was not flying right. Langford later reported back to Gibson that whilst inspecting the aircraft, he’d found that one of the self-sealing fuel tanks had an undetected hole in it and the sealant had swollen to the point where it was fouling one of the aileron control cables.  Due to his own physical strength, Jack Kynoch simply hadn’t noticed it himself!

Of course, Gibson and Warner took a lot of good-natured ribbing in the mess over their “Danish sightseeing trip.” I dare say that comments such as; “I say Gibbo, did you take in the castle? Lovely gardens!” Or; “Oh, you two must have seen the palace. It’s quite splendid, isn’t it?!” were probably quite common, but Gibbo and Jack took it all on the chin, even when no less a man than “Bomber” Harris was laughing at them over it, too! (Harris visited 83 Squadron the day after). Having some time ago found the ability to laugh at circumstance or even himself, rather than simply finding fault or blaming others, Gibson was now considerably more popular around Scampton than he used to be.

Tony and Rossy both got the DFC for that raid and deservedly so, as did their respective Navigators. Their Air Gunners were also decorated with the DFM. Gibson and his crew missed out of course but it certainly hadn’t been for the want of trying! The squadron’s Operations Record Book for that raid simply says that the enemy fire Tony and Rossy met with over Aalborg had been “Intense”. To give the reader some idea of Aalborg’s defences; barely four months later, Twelve Bristol Blenheims from 82 Squadron set out to bomb Aalborg as one formation. Eleven of those aircraft were shot out of the sky by a deadly combination of heavy Flak and Fighters. Almost the entire squadron was wiped out in a little less than twenty minutes. It would have been all twelve aircraft, but one Blenheim had the good fortune to suffer with fuel problems over the sea on the way to the target, and was forced to turn back.

Just three days after their spectacular raid on Aalborg, Tony received some extremely bad news. One of his Brothers, Francis; had been killed in action. Francis Harley Bridgman had earlier joined the RAFVR and was at that time a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in 105 Squadron, who were flying Blenheims. He was 24 when his aircraft; a Blenheim MkV, code letters GB-T, serial V6370; was shot down and crashed into the sea 5 kilometres West of Westkapelle, Holland. They’d been attacking enemy shipping and were hit repeatedly by Flak.

Blitzkrieg!

Less than a month later, and the German Blitzkrieg was blasting its way across the Low Countries. Europe collapsed like a house of cards beneath the German onslaught. Holland fell, Belgium fell and now the Battle of France was being hard fought. Chamberlain had been replaced as Prime Minister by Winston Churchill and now the gloves were off. Targets in Germany were now very much “on the menu” and if “Private Property” got in the way during an attack, so be it; as long as it wasn’t intentional. 83 Squadron stepped up both their ploughing and gardening operations; anything to try to slow the German advance by causing them supply problems or disrupting troop movements. Railways, Harbours, Canals, Shipping; all became targets for the boys of 83 Squadron, of which Tony was now Acting Squadron Leader.

One of the last gardening trips that 83 Squadron would be doing for a while was to Copenhagen. During the briefing, Snaith reminded them all that it was a place that Gibbo and his Navigator knew well! This trip, Jack Warner excelled himself and the successful round trip was made in just under six and a half hours. It was Dawn when Gibbo landed. Barely had he jumped off his Hampden’s wing when Tony told him that Pit was missing. After a tense two hour wait, a damaged but intact OL-B was spotted with it’s wheels down and coming in to land. The straggling Pit had made it. “Good show, chaps!” Tony said to Gibbo and the others who were waiting. “Now we can go and have some bacon and eggs!” With that, he led the way to get breakfast.

Gibson had a close call himself whilst out ploughing on 17th May. Pressing home his low level attack, one wing of his Hampden struck a balloon cable. Normally, that would have meant certain disaster, but Gibbo and his crew were extremely lucky that the cable snapped. They brought a fair length of the heavy  steel cable back to Scampton with them, wrapped around the wing; the resultant drag from which combined with damaged rudders and her usual wiles, made C-Charlie very hard for Gibbo to fly. But as ever, he was nothing if not determined!

On 31st May, the awarding of the DFC to Tony and Rossy for their daring low level reconnaissance and successful subsequent attack on Aalborg, appeared in The London Gazette, but May turned to June with no let up in operations. The Dunkerque Evacuation was now under way, and 83 Squadron were using their low flying, hit and run skills against a seemingly never ending range of targets. There certainly wasn’t time to mark Tony’s 25th Birthday on the 4th properly, but two days later, the award of his DFC also appeared in the Service Aviation pages of the very popular Flight magazine, along with a brief, but not too specific, description of the Aalborg raid. On June 9th, Wing Commander Sissons arrived to take over from Leonard Snaith as the CO of 83 Squadron.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

On 27th June, Gibson took part in a ploughing operation against the heavily defended Dornier Factory’s airfield at Wismar, on the Baltic coast of Germany. During the course of the raid, Gibson’s aircraft took a hell of a lot of Flak but he was delighted that his bombs appeared to have been placed on target, despite the Germans’ best efforts to spoil their aim. He managed to nurse Flak-Blasted C-Charlie home somehow. At debrief, there was a heated argument between the crews, Gibson’s included, as to exactly who it was that had started the only fire seen on Messrs. Dornier’s property! Meanwhile, Chiefy Langford’s crews found that Gibson’s aircraft was extremely badly damaged. It took them a full week to get it airworthy again. Deservedly, on 9th July, Flying Officer Guy Gibson and Flight Lieutenant Jamie Pitcairn-Hill were both awarded the DFC for their outstanding flying during several raids. Gibbo had finally been given his Aalborg. The debate as to who’d started that one fire at Dornier’s was finally settled on 27th July; when the squadron returned to Wismar and pretty much everybody started a fire there!

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC's. Guy was on a week's leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time.

Postcard sent to Tony and Rossy on 3rd June 1940 from Guy Gibson, congratulating them on their DFC’s. Guy was on a week’s leave with his girlfriend Evie in Brighton at the time (Image courtesy Judy Costa).

Still no let up.

With the Battle of Britain raging over the Southern Counties, 83 Squadron played their part in the Battle of the Barges. The Germans were putting together a large invasion fleet in the French Channel Ports. The Barges were for ferrying the Wehrmacht’s forces over to England. Over Scampton’s dead bodies! Sadly, that is how it soon began to be played out.

There was one day in early August 1940 at Scampton, which the Luftwaffe would have been so proud of, if only it had been they who had done the damage. Talking amongst themselves that day, Tony, Guy, Rossy and some of the others were sitting on the grass outside of their accommodation block, laughing and joking, when Jack Kynoch came along to say goodbye. He and one other, Sgt Ollason; were being posted away to an OTU for a spell as Instructors. When Tony asked if he knew why, Kynoch told them all that the CO had said something about them having a rest. He said his cheery farewells and left. Tony, Gibson and Rossy all looked at each other. The one thing none of them had ever considered, was having a rest. It was something of a shock.

The three resumed their conversation, which had turned to the subject of different methods of attack. Rossy preferred high level attacks but Tony and Guy definitely preferred the low level ones, though Guy’s personal favourite was dive-bombing, even in the Hampden! Tony reckoned that if you kept low, stayed as far away from defended areas as much as possible (except over the target of course!) and remained alert, he couldn’t see any reason why you couldn’t survive a hundred sorties. Gibson agreed: He thought they could go on forever like that. After all, they had pretty much become specialists in precision low level flying now.  Then, rather abruptly, there came another, much bigger shock.

For reasons never determined, there came an almighty explosion, which interrupted Tony mid-sentence. The ground shook as 18 of Scampton’s stock of “Vegetables” blew up without warning in the station’s Bomb Dump. Among others, Gibson would describe it being the single biggest explosion he had ever heard; one which sent a pall of thick black smoke to a height of nearly 3,000 feet over the aerodrome. Perhaps it wasn’t just the aircrews who were getting over-tired and in need of a rest.

On 12th August, aircraft from both of Scampton’s squadrons made a very daring, low-level attack on the aqueduct and locks on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, at Munster. Rossy, second one into the attack, was shot out of the sky in a horrific fireball, his aircraft having taken the full force of a lethal direct hit. Rossy had followed Jamie Pitcairn-Hill, who’d led the attack and whose aircraft had certainly suffered a lot of damage. “Pit” managed to limp his Hampden home. Rossy’s friend and fellow Aussie, Mull; third into the attack, was shot down and captured. With his aircraft suffering catastrophic damage from the Flak and too low to bale out, Mull quickly ditched his bomb. He clawed his way up to just under 2,000 feet to let his Navigator and the Lower Rear Gunner bale out and then opted for a crash landing in a field. It took the Germans quite some time to free Mull and his Wireless Operator from the twisted remains of their Hampden. Fourth man in was Pilot Officer Matthews. He exited the Flak with one engine smashed.

The aqueduct was successfully breached by the last aircraft to attack, that of Flight Lieutenant Roderick “Babe” Learoyd of 49 squadron. Like the others, Learoyd was coming in very low, flying up the canal at a height of just 300 feet. But of course, with four having gone before him, the German gunners were fully prepared and waiting for Learoyd’s approach.

Even though he’d seen what happened to the four who’d attacked before him, Learoyd flew through the absolute firestorm of Flak and Cannon-fire that was put in his path, to drop his bomb right on the aqueduct. His aircraft was hit severely and his hydraulics were blown away, but his engines were still going strong and he was able to make a safe return to Scampton. Even then, he was forced to circle till daylight, as without their hydraulics, his undercarriage and flaps were not functional. When daylight came and he had used up most of his fuel, Learoyd managed to make a successful wheels up crash landing, which everyone walked away from. Learoyd was justly awarded the VC for his actions. His was Bomber Command’s first VC. Pit was awarded the DSO for his leadership. Mull got a Bar to his DFC.

Wing Commander Roderick "Babe" Learoyd VC.

Wing Commander Roderick “Babe” Learoyd VC (Photo: IWM CH13631 Crown Copyright expired).

In Germany, Learoyd’s bomb had destroyed half of one arch on the old stone aqueduct. It took the Germans ten full days to repair the span with a new concrete section, which given the considerable damage inflicted by Learoyd’s bomb, was pretty good going. Even so, the daring raid caused a significant delay in the movement of a large fleet of Rhine Barges that were being taken to France for use as troop transports. That raid, plus the effects of the other raids the RAF were making on his assembled Barges, caused Hitler to postpone his invasion plans till 21st September. Time was fast running out for the Germans’ Operation Seelowe.

However, the Munster aqueduct raid was very much different to their other, previous attacks inasmuch as the crews had been specifically training for their target. They even had a “special weapon” for the task. A converted Sea Mine with a drogue parachute and a delayed action fuze, it was called an “M-Bomb”. John Collier had greatly helped to plan the raid and it was Collier who led the diversionary attack on the locks. That raid was in essence, the RAF’s first properly planned precision raid of the war, trained for by crack aircrews who’d practised it first, using canals in Lincolnshire. In many ways, it was the forerunner of another raid that would make history later. A raid that would also see its initial planning involving Collier and the advanced planning being done jointly with, and the raid led by, another former 83 Squadron officer. But that was still another two years and nine months into the future.

83(F) Squadron?

Two weeks after Rossy had been killed, two members of 83 Squadron proved just how versatile the Hampden could be; if you were a good enough pilot! On the night of August 24th/25th, whilst returning from a Gardening trip over Lorient, Gibson spotted a lone Dornier 17 “stooging about” below him. He dived on it, raking it with the Hampden’s fixed forward-firing gun, in a Fighter-style attack, which was certainly not a role that the Hampden had ever been designed to fulfil! He was overjoyed to see his victim going down. When he landed back at Scampton, he very excitedly told Tony Bridgman and John Collier all about it.

Two nights later, Tony found himself in exactly the same favourable position and thought he’d give Gibbo’s newest trick a go. To his amazement, he found that it apparently did work like a charm, as he too, observed his “Kill” going down. Both men each claimed a Dornier 17 destroyed, but as neither crash could be verified, both were credited with a “probable”.

Last of the Old Guard.

Then came the night of August 30th when on his 35th Op, John “Joe” Collier’s Hampden suffered an overheating engine as they headed out to raid Magdeburg. With no option but to turn straight back to Scampton, Collier undershot the blacked out runway in making his emergency landing and crashed, with a full bomb load onboard. Mercifully, nobody was killed but, pulled unconscious from the wreckage by one of his  crew members, Collier did have severe concussion. He was posted away from 83 Squadron to recover and would be medically grounded for the next six months.

The strain of these constant operations was more than beginning to tell. The boys of 83 were beginning to look more like veterans of 63. Even an action-hungry pilot such as Gibson admitted to feeling “Jumpy”, but he wasn’t about to let his Flight Commander or his squadron down.

As things stood on 1st September; of the original officers of the pre-war 83 Squadron, only Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson were left and Tony had been Acting Squadron Leader since May, as the now absent Collier had also been. They all were over-tired, stressed and long overdue for relief, just as their comrades in the Fighter Squadrons were at that time.

Then, on 18th September, came another bitter blow. The lovable and fiercely brave Scotsman that was F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill; promoted into Collier’s position as the second Acting Squadron Leader, “bought it” over Le Havre. Hit by Flak, his Hampden crashed into the Seine Estuary. His body was recovered and interred at nearby Luc Sur Mer, where he remains to this day. Jamie’s death left Tony and Guy as the very last of “The Old Guard” at 83 Squadron.

The Hand of Fate.

Since the Germans began bombing London, at first due to a navigational error, but after an RAF reprisal on Berlin, by design; the German capital had been added to Bomber Command’s “to do” list. On the night of 23rd/24th September 1940, a force of over 200 RAF bombers was sent to raid Berlin. Eleven of those aircraft were the Hampdens of 83 Squadron, led by Tony Bridgman.

The weather wasn’t ideal, with cloud all the way to the target. To make matters worse, the Germans were successfully jamming their loop bearing indicators, so both the navigation and the bombing was being done by dead reckoning. Ultimately, very few of the bombs they dropped actually hit Berlin itself.

Tony was flying Hampden L4049, code letters OL-A that night. After dropping his bombs and turning for home, Tony found that one of his 500lb bombs had not left the aircraft as it should have done. It wasn’t a problem, it was more an annoyance. They’d gone all that way with luck and the weather against them, only to be bringing one back.

As they passed a little to the South-west of Bremen, more than halfway back to the German coast and on a direct route home, the German searchlights and Flak Gunners found them; with devastating effect. Within seconds of being illuminated in an intense white light, Tony’s Hampden was crippled. With one engine now on fire, his Wireless Operator; Sgt Gorwood DFM; sent a message that they were bailing out. That was quickly followed by another message saying they were trying to make it home. Then the German gunners scored another, fatal hit. OL-A was going down fast, and in flames. No more messages were sent.

Tony pressed the emergency signal to all crew stations, giving the order for everyone to jump. As the stricken Hampden plummeted earthward, Tony unplugged his radio lead, unfastened his straps, pushed the cockpit hood back and took to his parachute. As noted in part one, evacuating a Hampden in an emergency, wasn’t a prospect to be relished. This is graphically borne out by the fact that unknown to him at the time, Tony was the only one who’d made it out of that blazing aircraft alive.

The burning Hampden hit the ground in a field behind a barn near Bethen; a village in Niedersachsen, Lower Saxony; in Germany. Tony was coming down under his parachute fairly close to it.

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049

Wreckage Pieces from Hampden. L4049 (Photo Volker Urbansky, by kind permission).

The village teacher there was a Herr Niemeier, who kept a journal of local events of the Second World War. With regard to Tony’s Hampden crashing he noted the following:

“Evening sorties, wave after wave. It flashed and crashed, rumbled like a storm that passed over us. At about 2 clock in the morning, there crashed an Englishman, down in flames behind a barn. The pilot had been able to save himself by his parachute. Three others burned with the aircraft on the ground. The aircraft was a “Handley Page, Hampden” type.

The rescued pilot met with the hurrying villagers and at first the police missed him. The square was cordoned off. In the afternoon the charred corpse remains were placed in a coffin. The aircraft wreckage was towed. No one suspected that beneath the aircraft was still a 250kg bomb. In cleaning up the crash site it was discovered with horror. The next day it was taken by a task force (further into the same field) and was exploded. The crater after was 5-6m deep. It had a circumference of about 40 steps”. 

(Author’s note: Herr Niemeier’s journal entry was tidied up a little by me, but only where strictly necessary, as the direct translation from German rendered some of the phrasing a little confused).

There stood Tony, somewhat incongruously, with his parachute bundled in his arms, amid all the commotion he’d caused; till he was finally found and arrested by the local Police. They in turn handed him over to the military authorities to be taken away for interrogation.

POW card front

Tony’s POW Card (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

He was taken to the main interrogation centre at Oberursel; a holding centre where he was questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. A special note about his distinctive freckles was also recorded on his personal details. When asked during his interrogation, he’d politely and sarcastically given his Mother’s maiden name as “Goring”. The Germans evidently also had trouble with his middle name, which they recorded as “Oslands”. Both “facts” can be seen officially recorded on his POW Identity Card!

POW Card

Tony’s POW Card details (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

Back at Scampton, the rest of the pilots waited anxiously. In Enemy Coast Ahead, Guy Gibson recalls how they waited and waited till dawn broke, but their hopes faded as the light grew. “Still we waited……..but Oscar never came back”. Tony and his crew were posted as “Missing: Presumed Killed In Action”. Gibson was devastated by the loss. The next day, the reading of Tony’s Will took place in the mess. Gibson recalled being struck by the overwhelming realization that he was now the last one left, mournfully noting;“All my friends have gone”. Included in that statement of friends lost was Pilot Officer Francis “Watty” Watson DFC, his own Navigator/Bomb Aimer. Watson had flown some 20 ops with Gibbo, including the ones when they’d hit the balloon cable and when they’d shot down the Dornier. Through careful nurturing, Gibson had turned the man into a first class Navigator and Tony had “pinched him” a couple of sorties ago, after his own Navigator had been wounded. Much to Gibbo’s chagrin, Tony told Gibbo to take the squadron’s newbie in Watson’s place, so Watson was in Tony’s crew over Berlin. The Squadron would remain unaware of Tony’s survival till the Red Cross sent word that he was alive and well, and now a prisoner.

Meanwhile, the Germans were burying the remains of Tony’s crew. Watson, Gorwood and Blatch were buried in a local cemetery. After the war, their bodies would be moved to the Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany, where they remain to this day.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 2).

Frances Leach. (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Herr Volker Urbansky. (For more detailed information about Tony’s crash, details of his crew’s interment and for Herr Niemeier’s journal entry).
https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/15714
http://www.bomberhistory.co.uk/canal_raids/muenster1940
National Archives; No. 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, April to September 1940.
Flight Magazine, Service Aviation section, Page 514, June 6th 1940
The London Gazette, May and July 1940.
International Bomber Command Centre, Lincolnshire.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman, DFC. (Part 1)

This three part post has been researched and compiled by Mitch Peeke. It is a fascinating story of Sqn. Ldr. Anthony Bridgman DFC who, if fate had dealt a different hand, may well have been in Guy Gibson’s seat when 617 Sqn. attacked the ‘Great Dams’ of the Ruhr. Anthony Bridgman was also in Stalag Luft III at the time of the ‘Wooden Horse’ breakout. His story is incredible, and appears in whole, under Heroic Tales.

My thanks go to Mitch for his remarkable research of Anthony, and to the many people who have contributed to Anthony’s story.

The Hand of Fate and Squadron Leader Anthony O. Bridgman DFC.  (Part One).

By Mitch Peeke.

Squadron Leader Anthony Bridgman DFC, is a name that could have been; and perhaps should have become; a household name from the dark days of World War 2. If you know where to look, you will find him frequently mentioned in the books that were written by his RAF contemporaries. You will find that he is mentioned with affection and with very high regard too, for to them; Bridgman was practically a legend.  But on the night of 23/24th September 1940, whilst returning from a raid on Berlin, the fickle hand of fate intervened and decreed that Anthony Bridgman would not fulfil what was perhaps his destiny: Another man would. That other man was somebody Bridgman knew well, a friend of his in fact;  who would ultimately, daringly and famously, make Anthony Bridgman’s destiny his own. He would do it flying a Lancaster bomber over the Ruhr one moonlit night in May 1943; whilst Anthony Bridgman was a POW, “helping out” as he once succinctly put it, with the preparations for what would soon become known as The Wooden Horse Escape.

Anthony O. Bridgman was born on 4th June 1915 in North Stoke, in the parish of Keynsham,  Somerset; which in turn lies on the River Avon, about four and a half miles North-west of Bath. The only reason he was born there was that he, perhaps inconsiderately, decided to enter the world whilst his parents were paying a rare visit to England. Anthony was born into a family where he would have five siblings and rather distant parents. His Father managed a Tea plantation in Munar, Southern India and as soon as it was possible, baby Anthony was taken there, where he would spend the first five years of his life. As soon as he was able to go, his parents packed him and his brother, Kit; off to Boarding School; Magdalen (pronounced “Maudlin”) College School, Oxford to be exact. Even during the school holidays, he was often “farmed out” to the locals on behalf of his parents. He was destined never to return to India, even after he finished Magdalen, at the age of eighteen.

By the time he was in the Lower 4th  year, he would have been encouraged to take part in the activities of school’s Officer Cadet Unit, (OCU) before joining it became compulsory in the Lower 5th. The school’s cadet unit was at that time divided into Army, Navy and Signals, and Air Force sections. (Today, it is known as the Combined Cadet Force, or CCF. The Navy and Signals section closed comparatively recently, leaving today’s student with just the Army or Air Force sections to choose from). Tony, as he preferred to be called, had become attracted to the idea of flying and it was a dream he would pursue with vigour as an officer cadet right through to his Upper 6th.

Magdalen College School was established in 1480 as part of Oxford University’s Magdalen College. This meant that Tony, as one of the school’s Air Force Officer Cadets, had full access to the Oxford University Air Squadron. In 1933, now aged eighteen, he was to be found actively undergoing flying training, at nearby RAF Abingdon, where Oxford UAS was based.

Learning to fly 1933

Learning to fly 1933 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

The following year, he moved on from Oxford UAS, to N0. 3 Flying Training School at RAF Grantham, for advanced flying training. If there was one thing that the now nineteen year old Tony Bridgman knew for certain, it was that Tea-growing was most definitely not in his blood! He was joining the exclusive ranks of “The Best Flying Club in the World”, as the inter-war RAF was known, and if the truth be known, he was rather enjoying it! In the photo of him taken at RAF Thornaby, he is standing beside a Hawker Hart T, having completed a cross-country exercise as part of his advanced training.

RAF Thornaby in 1934.

RAF Thornaby in 1934. (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On 29th February 1936 (obviously a Leap Year!) Tony, who was already a qualified service pilot of course, gained his Private Pilot’s Licence, No. 9160, after passing the necessary ground exam and a short flying assessment at Brough in East Yorkshire. This is borne out by the address given on his licence; “c/o North Sea Aerial and General Transport Ltd. Brough, East Yorkshire”. North Sea Aerial and General was in fact wholly owned by Blackburn Aircraft Ltd, who had a factory and airfield at Brough. They provided flying training there for RAF and RAFVR pilots, under contract to the Air Ministry. Tony probably had their address put on his new licence as he was about to be given his first posting. There would have been no point in using the address of whichever RAF Station he was posted to, as that could change frequently. Given that the RAF was Tony’s home, it would have made sense to have any correspondence relating to this “pleasure flying only” licence, (renewals etc) sent to the address of the training establishment, which was of course a fixed address. Tony could easily contact them if he needed to. He probably felt that having such a licence might well come in handy, especially later, when he left the Air Force. It was and in fact still is, something service pilots often do.

Private Pilots Licence

Private Pilots Licence (Image courtesy Judith Costa, via Mitch Peeke)

On 23rd March 1936, he was granted a short service commission as an Acting Pilot Officer On Probation in the RAF. On 27th January 1937, 37667 Bridgman, Anthony O; was commissioned as a fully fledged Pilot Officer and posted to 2 Group, Bomber Command. He was sent to 83 Squadron, a day bomber unit then equipped with Hawker Hinds, that was still in the process of being re-formed in their native Scotland; at Turnhouse, near Edinburgh.

83 Squadron was originally formed at Montrose on 7th January, 1917. They were formed as a night bomber unit in the Royal Flying Corps and equipped with the Royal Aircraft Factory’s FE2b and FE2d. After training, the squadron moved to France in March of 1918 and quickly specialised in attacking railway targets, as well as performing vital reconnaissance duties. On April 1st 1918, the RFC was merged with the RNAS to form the Royal Air Force. The motto of what was now 83 Squadron RAF, was “Strike to Defend” and the squadron crest features the Red Deer’s antler, due to the squadron’s connection with Scotland. The antler emblem has six points, which commemorates one outstanding occasion during WW1, when six DFC’s were awarded for one extremely crucial reconnaissance operation.  It was an operation that was successfully completed by six individuals in three aircraft on 14/15th June 1918. Those three aircraft from 83 Squadron were the only Allied aircraft flying; the weather having grounded all others. The antler is outlined in black, which refers to their night flying role.  After WW1, 83 Squadron was disbanded; on the last day of 1919. Now, in 1937, it was being re-formed; due to the RAF’s expansion programme.

83 Squadron Crest.

83 Squadron Crest. (Photo IBCC digital archive, by kind permission).

Upon arrival at Turnhouse, Tony met a group of fellow officers who, over the next four years, were to become more than just squadron mates or friends. Outside of his siblings, the RAF was probably the nearest thing to a family that he now had. Among those he struck up a close friendship with at Turnhouse was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. Upon introduction, it was a popular RAF practice to be given a nickname, usually based on one’s real name. Jamie’s nickname was “Pit”.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill.

F/L Jamie Pitcairn-Hill (Photo: Patrick Otter by kind permission).

 

A regular officer, graduate of Halton and then Cranwell and above all, a true Scot; Jamie had played Rugby for the RAF. Asked what the “O” in Anthony O. Bridgman stood for, Tony smiled and said; “Oscar”. But Tony had simply used the code word for the letter O in the phonetic alphabet and for one very simple reason: In reality, the “O” was for “Orlando”; after Sir Orlando Bridgeman. It seems to have been a popular choice for the middle name of boys whose last name was Bridgman/Bridgeman in those days. Either way, it was a name that Tony had disliked intensely from day one. Nobody in the mess questioned his phonetically coded statement and thereafter, Tony was always referred to as “Oscar” Bridgman. Many believed that it really was his middle name.

In April of 1937, another junior officer arrived to join the mess at Turnhouse. Acting Pilot Officer John Collier. Tony, Jamie and John quickly formed a close friendship. John’s nickname had come with him, it was “Joe”.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier.

Flight Lieutenant John Joe Collier (Photo Ringwood and Verwood Rround Table via Mitch Peeke)

With flying their two-seater Hawker Hind biplanes on cross-country flights, formation practice or else dive-bombing practice in the Firth of Forth; then re-living the day’s events in the convivial atmosphere of the mess after dinner, squadron life was pretty easy-going in those days. John Collier later recalled in his memoirs that if you were selected to perform the ground based task of Range Officer during bombing practice, it was pretty much a sunny day by the sea, (albeit with a pair of binoculars, a pen and a score sheet), that you were in for. A hardship indeed!

The Pilots not only formed great bonds with each other, but also with their ground crews and Air Gunners, too; all of whom they relied upon. Pilots often took members of their ground crew up on pleasure flights around the immediate locale and this greatly helped to engender a deep pride in “their aircraft” and “their man” in the ground crews.

On 12th May 1937, not long after John Collier had arrived, the coronation of King George VI was taking place in London. Tony and John somehow managed to wangle last-minute permission (and a three-day pass!) from their C.O, to attend. Dashing off to London, they took in a bit of a detour to RAF Upper Heyford, there to collect one of John’s friends; the dashingly Bohemian, half English/half German Count Manfred Beckett Czernin. (Manfred would later distinguish himself as an RAF Fighter Pilot, particularly during the Battle of Britain).

The three arrived in London in time to be too late for the main event, probably due to their detour, and realized to their horror that in their haste to leave, nobody had thought to bring much in the way of cash! Undeterred, the three officers duly called on Count Czernin’s Mother, obtained the necessary funds and then went out to find a suitable party to invite themselves to! It didn’t take them long to find one and a thoroughly decent time was had by all! Oh, and the new King was crowned as well, apparently!

The start of Tony and Guy.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death.

Guy Gibson VC as Wing Commander 1944. The photo was taken shortly before his death (Photo: IWM CH13618 Crown Copyright expired).

In September of 1937, yet another junior officer arrived at Turnhouse to join their ranks. Acting Pilot Officer Guy Gibson. He was assigned to the care and tutelage of Pilot Officer Tony Bridgman, in A Flight, but when Gibson arrived, he already had something of a blot on his copybook: A for Attitude.

The young Guy Gibson has been described as being something of “an acquired taste”. Gibson came from a remarkably similar family background as Tony had, but where Tony’s parents had been distinctly distant, Gibson’s parents had added a further dimension to distant parenting. Like Tony, Gibson was born to Colonial parents in India, but his Mother and Father separated when he was just six. His Mother took the children and returned to England, but sadly she also took to drinking and became increasingly abusive and bullying toward her children. As she descended into alcoholism, her treatment of her children worsened and Guy was more or less taken into care via his school. It may have been this factor that had led the young Gibson to adopt a very condescending attitude toward his ground crews.

In the Officer’s Mess, he was called “Gibbo” and despite his perhaps being an acquired taste, Tony, Jamie and John happily accepted Guy into their circle of friendship. It would fall principally to Tony, as Gibson’s supervising officer, to smooth off the rather immature Gibson’s rough edges.

At the end of June 1937, John Collier was promoted to Full Pilot Officer and 83 Squadron got a new CO. Squadron Leader Leonard Snaith, a former member of the victorious 1931 Schneider Trophy Team, had arrived to take up command. The pilots of 83 Squadron felt justly proud of their new CO.

On 16th November 1937, Guy Gibson was also promoted to the rank of Full Pilot Officer. This elevation in status and responsibility though, did little to curb his attitude toward the lower ranks. He could still be pretty obnoxious, to his ground crews in particular, and there was still little sign that his attitude toward them was changing. Though known as “Gibbo” to his fellow officers, Gibson was now known to his ground crews as “the Bumptious Bastard”. This was something that could not be allowed to continue and changes were coming.

Nothing much changed immediately, though. During the Winter of 1937/38, the squadron practised attacking such vitally important targets as Tilbury Docks and Worthy Down. A “bracing” practice to say the least, dressed up as they were, very much like their RFC predecessors and flying an equally antiquated, open cockpit biplane. As the Spring of 1938 came, so too did a slow-growing tension with Hitler’s New Germany.

Changes.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938.

Hawker Hinds of 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton, 1938 (Photo: http://www.raf-in-combat.By kind permission).

On 14th March, 1938, the first big change came. The squadron “upped sticks” from 2 Group and Turnhouse and moved South, to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. They were now part of 5 Group, Bomber Command and were sharing Scampton with 49 Squadron. Soon, they would also be saying goodbye to their Hawker Hinds as 83 Squadron, like their comrades of 49 Squadron, were about to be modernised. Between March and May of 1938, Pilots, Air Gunners and ground crews were all sent off in batches to different stations for armaments, technical, gunnery and other courses. All books, cramming for exams and no flying!

On 20th May 1938, Tony was made Acting Flying Officer and on 27th August that same year, having proved his worth, he was duly promoted to the rank of Flying Officer. He was also now the Acting Flight Commander of A Flight. His friend John Collier was made Acting Flight Commander of B Flight. 83 Squadron were gearing up for war.

However, the tensions with Hitler were seemingly resolved that September by the Munich Agreement. “Peace for our time” declared a jubilant Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, as he stepped off the Imperial Airways airliner at London’s Croydon Airport. But it was an uneasy peace, obtained at the betrayal of Czechoslovakia, that Chamberlain had in fact won.

With the political tensions eased, at least for now, the Pilots started their aircraft conversion courses. They converted onto the Bristol Blenheim to start with, as 83 Squadron were going to be re-equipped with the new Handley-Page Hampden; a (fairly) fast, twin engined, monoplane medium bomber carrying a crew of four, soon to be dubbed “The Flying Suitcase” by its crews.

The Flying Suitcase

The Hampden was a rather peculiar aircraft. It was designed by a German, Gustav Lachmann. It was very long and slim, much like the German Dornier 17, in the crew section particularly. The Hampden had a maximum speed of 260mph, a theoretical maximum bomb load of 4,000lbs and carried a crew of four.

Internally, the aircraft was rather cramped, being only about three feet wide. Up front, on the lower part of the stepped deck, with his own personal entrance/exit, was the Navigator/Bomb Aimer.  Aft on the lower section, also with his own personal entrance/exit, was the aft-facing Ventral gunner. Between these two crew positions, was the aircraft’s Bomb bay.

On the upper stepped level of the deck sat the Pilot, with the aft-facing Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner some ten feet or so behind him.  Boarding the aircraft, the Wireless Operator/Dorsal gunner had to climb in first, much in the manner of a Fighter Pilot; up onto the wing (via a ground crew ladder) then climb in through the pilot’s sliding canopy to clamber through to his position. Once inside, it was his job to fold the back of the pilot’s seat up, so that the pilot could then clamber aboard in the same fashion to take his seat in the cockpit.

Pilot's cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden.

Pilot’s cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden (Photo: IWM CH1207. Crown copyright expired).

The pilot’s cockpit (or “Office” as it was usually called) was a very busy place. He had literally every control for the aircraft in front of and around him. There was also a fixed, forward firing gun which, (if he had any spare time!) the pilot could use. Moving about inside the cramped interior of a Hampden with a parachute strapped on, was practically impossible. Trying to get out of a Hampden in an emergency, frankly; didn’t bear thinking about too much.

In October, once conversion training was completed, the new aircraft had to be collected from the factory by their crews and flown back to Scampton. Thereafter, a friendly rivalry began to develop, not only between 49 Squadron and 83 Squadron, but also between  A Flight and B Flight of 83 Squadron; in everything from flying prowess to drunken partying!

As Gibson later recalled in Enemy Coast Ahead, they were “forever putting it across B Flight.” Hi-Jinks in the Mess, pranks, drinking games, but above all; flying. With John Collier in B Flight, and Tony Bridgman, Jamie Pitcairn-Hill and Guy Gibson in A Flight, Tony began surreptitiously using this inter-Flight rivalry to smooth out some of Gibson’s less admirable traits. Gibson was competitive to say the least and it was this trait that Tony tapped into. In flying, Tony first began nurturing Gibson’s considerable piloting skills, by supplementing them with his own. He was sharpening and focusing Gibson’s daring side, yet carefully imbuing in his protogee a sense of respect for his crews, both Air and Ground. Having achieved that aim, he started pushing Gibson little by little as a pilot, by making Gibson compete with him, in a “anything you can do, I can do better”, style.

The Hampden, never the most beautiful of aeroplanes, was still something quite new, revolutionary almost, for pilots who were used to biplanes. For a twin-engined bomber type, the Hampden could almost be flown like a fighter, if you were a good enough pilot; which Tony knew of course, was something that Gibson was just so itching to prove that he was. Flying the Hampden in such a manner was something that both of them would later prove was quite possible.

Tony often said that he’d always felt Gibson wanted to be famous for something and Gibson himself made no secret of the fact that he wanted to win a VC, somehow. The friendly rivalry between A Flight and B Flight not only greatly strengthened the camaraderie of each Flight and the bond between the four friends at the head of it, but also helped to firmly bolster the brotherhood of the squadron’s officers. Flying hard together, training hard together and partying hard together, theirs was a fraternity that each would come to rely on over the coming two years, as the clouds of war were ominously forming for all to see. On August 31st 1939, telegrams were sent out to all officers on leave: “Return to unit immediately”.

War!

The balloon finally went up on Sunday 3rd September 1939; as with a heavy, leaden tone, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to the nation over the wireless, that Britain was once more at war with Germany. The “World’s Best Flying Club” was suddenly forced to closed its peacetime doors and that hitherto carefree life now came to an abrupt end. Flying Officer Tony Bridgman and 83 Squadron would be in action from day one of the conflict.

That Sunday morning of 3rd September 1939, saw the boys of A Flight gathered in their Flight Commander’s office. Guy Gibson gave a wonderful description of that momentous morning, not only of the setting but also of his Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman, in Enemy Coast Ahead.  They had just finished their morning Tea, which had been brought to them by a girl from the NAAFI, and the room was full of palpable tension and cigarette smoke.

“There Oscar Bridgman, the Flight Commander, sat with his hat to the back of his head, his feet up on the table and his chair looking liable to fall over backwards at any minute. He was a tremendous character was Oscar. He had a quick temper, but could fly as well as any man. I could never wish for a better Flight Commander and we were all right behind him”. In reading those and his next few sentences, one is acutely struck by the maturity of his attitude and the reverence with which he described not only Tony. There were others present that Gibson noted: “…Mulligan and Ross (we used to call them Mull and Rossy), two Australian boys who joined us back in 1937. They did practically everything together. Sometimes they would have long heated arguments which were the amusement of the whole Flight.”

However, it is his next paragraph that is perhaps the most telling. Gibson recalled that the Flight Sergeant in charge of maintenance (known to one and all as “Chiefy”) came in to report that all aircraft were ready for flight testing. Gibson continues: “Great fellow was F/Sgt Langford…I could write a lot about the ground crews. They are wonderful men and do a really hard job of work for very little pay; only their pride in their squadrons keeping them going.” So wrote Wing Commander Guy Gibson in the Winter of 1943/44. The “Bumptious Bastard” was by then no more; and that was very largely due to Tony Bridgman’s influence and leadership. In fact, it would not be long at all before Gibson would be taking care to nurture his own crews, just as Tony had shown him, by example.

With Chamberlain’s announcement over, Tony inhaled his cigarette deeply, then blew the smoke out through his nose. Turning to his assembled Flight, he said: “Well, boys, this is it. You’d better all pop out and test your aeroplanes. Be back in half an hour’s time. There will probably be a job for you to do.” As it turned out, there wasn’t. After flight testing, the crews all had lunch. They were all called to the lecture hall over the Tannoy, but it was for a brief talk from the Station Commander about the situation. It was the next day that the squadron was called to action.

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939

Tony with P/O Powell. Taken at Scampton in 1939 (Photo courtesy of Frances Leach).

On that first day proper of the war, confusion was rife. People were seeing enemy aircraft where there were none and the same went for enemy warships. 83 squadron were required to provide six aircraft; three from A Flight and three from B Flight. As Squadron Leader Snaith was going to lead the raid himself, his Senior Flight Commander; Tony Bridgman,  would be remaining on the ground. His job would be holding the Fort or leading if another operation was required whilst Snaith and Co were out on this one.

Snaith chalked up the two other crews from A Flight as being those of Rossy and Gibbo. Joe Collier would lead the three from B Flight. Each aircraft was armed with four 500lb bombs with the fuzes set at eleven and a half seconds delay. “So we can come in pretty low”, Snaith told them. The targets were possible German Battleships anchored in Schillig Roads at the entrance to the Kiel Canal. Snaith continued: “If by chance there are no Battleships there, you may bomb the ammunition depot at Marienhof, but under NO circumstances are you to bomb civilian areas or houses”. Initially, this was to be a gentlemanly war, it seemed. Take off was at 15:30, the weather was expected to be bad with low cloud and they were told to watch out for balloon cables. The balloons themselves would be hidden in the clouds. Prime target was the Battleship Admiral Scheer. If she was there.

In the event, the sortie was a washout. All they found was a lot of very low cloud, a choppy and murky-looking sea and fast fading light. No Admiral Scheer, in fact no warships of any kind. Disappointed yet possibly slightly relieved, they brought their bombs back to Scampton.

What followed now was a long period of ennui. The Autumn weather soon arrived and militarily, nothing much was happening. The period known as “The Phoney War” to the British and “Sitzkrieg” to the Germans, had set in. 83 Squadron contented themselves with further training, including night flying. They may not necessarily have welcomed it, but in truth, they needed it.

On 3rd December 1939, three months exactly since the outbreak of war, Tony was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was now the actual senior Flight Commander, not the acting one. There was excitement later that month when someone had evidently started seeing German warships again. This time it was the Lutzow they were sent forth to hunt. Taking off at short notice, the squadron raced out to sea; North-east, toward the Norwegian coast. Nearly eight hours later, they returned having yet again seen nothing but a great expanse of grey sea, grey cloud and their own breath condensing inside their frigid aircraft. Handley-Page it seemed, had not deemed an internal heating system to be necessary for the Hampden’s crew compartments. Either that or they’d simply left themselves with no room to install it!

The only other bit of excitement for the squadron was when John “Joe” Collier got married on 30th December, to his fiancée of two months; Miss Elizabeth Julia Bishop. Collier’s best man was Jamie Pitcairn-Hill. It was perhaps somewhere around this time that Tony had started seeing Elizabeth’s sister; Virginia.

The Winter of 1939/40 was a harsh one with heavy snowfalls. Not much good for flying. In the meantime, improvements such as armour plating and self-sealing fuel tanks were being fitted to the Hampdens. Still no crew heating though!

With so much in the way of bad weather keeping both of Scampton’s squadrons grounded, the older officers on the base, some of whom had seen action in WW1, did what they used to do back then: Gather round the piano and sing songs. There were the old favourites such as The Bold Aviator, I don’t want to join the Air Force and of course newer songs like He had to go and Prang her in the Hangar and The Flamin’ Firth o’ Flamin’ Forth. With 83 and 49 Squadrons both having their roots in the RFC, each had their own “War Cry”, too. With battle lines drawn from each end of the Mess, and trying to outdo each other for sheer volume: “Up the Forty-Ninth!” and “It’s not Eigh-ty-one, it’s not Eigh-ty-two; It’s EIGHT-TEE THREEE!” was loudly chanted by each beer-fuelled squadron’s officers, before they all “sallied forth” into the fray, hell-bent on the “de-bagging” of their respective opponents!

In his book, Guy Gibson recalls one, though somewhat less livelier, evening in the middle of January. “One night Oscar Bridgman came howling with laughter into the Mess. It was unlike Oscar to howl with laughter, so we asked him what was wrong. He could hardly speak. ‘Go into the Billiard-Room’ he said, ‘and see what I have seen’. Quickly we went along, and there a sight met our eyes that made us almost collapse. Three Padres were sitting solemnly around a piano, each with a glass of beer in his hand, each one looking very serious. They were singing ‘Here’s to the next one to die’ !”

With the weather abating, training resumed in February. Blind flying using radio beams was included. This was not exactly “new” as the system was the commercial pre-war German Lorenz System for blind approach and landing, but it was useful.

Spot of Gardening, anyone?!

As the Spring came, both 49 and 83 Squadrons turned to Gardening when the weather permitted. No, they hadn’t all developed green fingers with the Phoney War’s boredom. “Gardening” was the code name for a fairly dangerous pastime; one which both squadrons would become specialists in.

The “Back Room Boys” or “Boffins” as they were usually known, had been very busy refining the design of a new German, Air-dropped Magnetic Mine. One had kindly made itself available by obligingly washing up on a beach and after some brave soul had successfully managed to defuse the Hadean device, it was taken away to be thoroughly investigated. Not only did the Scientists quickly come up with a counter measure, they greatly refined the mine itself and the RAF now took on the job of returning the favour to the Germans.

The refined British version weighed in at 1,700lbs; just under half of the Hampden’s absolute maximum load, but the mines were physically rather large so each aircraft could only carry one of them.  The mine had to be planted accurately and its position marked on a chart. It also had to be dropped from very low altitude on a parachute, to ensure the accuracy of its placement, in areas known to be shipping lanes in and out of enemy harbours. Each mine was referred to as a “Vegetable” and each area was called a “Garden”. In turn, each Garden had its own code name, such as “Carrot” or “Cabbage”. Even flower names were used, such as “Daffodil” or “Hollyhock”.

With the sudden German invasion of Denmark and Norway, 83 Squadron started “Planting” their vegetables in gardens such as the Baltic approaches to Kiel or Harbour entrances on the Danish Coast. Anything to disrupt enemy shipping, Naval or Merchant. At that time, there really wasn’t any kind of overall bombing strategy in place. The type of operations were decided at Group level but the details of who, when and where, were decided at Squadron level. On Chamberlain’s order, non-military targets were strictly off limits. The phrase “There must be no danger of hitting Private Property” became an RAF euphemism for “not killing civilians”.

So, with nothing much in the way of detailed operational orders coming down from “on high”, it was quite common for Pilots to “go off and do a spot of gardening”. Pilots planned their own routes, take off times, etc. They filed their flight plans and if there were no objections, off they went. 83 Squadron’s monthly Operations Record Books start to feature such operations from around the last days of March 1940. Comments such as “Four aircraft detailed for Gardening operations. Carrot successfully planted. All aircraft returned safely” almost begin to appear routinely thereafter.

Tony's escape map

Section of one of Tony’s RAF escape maps. Designed to be sewn into the lining of aircrew Flying Jackets, these maps were printed on incredibly thin, silk-reinforced paper. They were issued to aircrew operating over enemy territory in case they were shot down (Courtesy Judy Costa).

With Sweden being neutral, a lot of pilots on gardening trips would cross the North Sea and turn onto the heading for their dropping run, by finding a suitable Swedish landmark to go from. The Swedish coast was lit up like a Christmas Tree, which made their job a lot easier. Initially, the Germans didn’t seem to realize exactly what these nocturnal low-flying singleton aircraft were up to either, presumably because they seemed to be coming from neutral Sweden. It wasn’t till later, as France was falling, that the Germans; rather un-sportingly it was felt, deployed Flak ships out in the Roads.

Occasionally though, the weather over the garden prevented planting. In which case, the pilots were under strict instructions to bring their vegetable back or to dump it well out into deep water. Under NO circumstances was one of those mines to be allowed to fall into enemy hands. As far as was known, the Germans hadn’t realized that the British knew about their new magnetic mine, let alone that they had devised a counter measure to it and refined the design. Any successes the British sown mines were known to have had were never made public either, for the same reasons.

In between sorties, squadron life now tended to consist of horseplay, drinking and high jinks. Guy Gibson’s book is laced with rich stories of such capers, which usually occurred as a result of Tony Bridgman “taking over” a pub and getting Gibson to drive them all there, with far too many people crammed into his car!

Gardening however, was not the only type of operation that 83 Squadron undertook. “Ploughing” was another. This was a low-level, hit-and-run strike. A sneak attack, where the objective was to “Plough the field, then scatter”! It was one such raid that would win Tony Bridgman his DFC.

Sources and Acknowledgements (Part 1):
Frances Leach (Tony Bridgman’s middle Daughter).
www.rafcommands.com/archive
Howard Eastcott, for locating Frances Leach and for some background information on Tony.
http://www.mcsoxford.org/history Modern website of Tony’s old school.
The Authorised Biography of Group Captain John “Joe” Collier. By Simon Gooch.
Enemy Coast Ahead. By Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
National Archives; No 83 Squadron, Operations Record Books, February, March and April 1940.
www.warfactory.com  Specs for the Handley-Page HP52 Hampden Mk 1.
The Airman’s Song Book by C. H. Ward-Jackson. Published 1945.
Most Secret War by Professor R V Jones.
David Costa. (Husband of Judith, Tony Bridgman’s eldest Daughter).
Letters to Tony Bridgman from Dr G. Pearson.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 1.

In the second of the four airfields visited in Trail 55, we move on from Snailwell, a small grassed airfield to a similar station a stones throw away to the west.

This second airfield is now one of the major venues of British Horse Racing, second only to Ascot, and is found in an area where much of the land is owned by the British Horse Racing School, stud farms, and stabling. It is also home to the famous Jockey Club, an organisation founded in 1750 that has a turnover of over £200 million.

Now where virtually all traces have long gone, we visit the former base RAF Newmarket Heath.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile).

Like RAF Snailwell, Newmarket Heath saw a wide variety of units using it, initially as a satellite airfield. It housed in excess of 20 squadrons or training units during its life. Being a satellite it would also be used by a wide range of aircraft types, but primarily the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, each one bringing its own story of hardship and heroism.

Opened in October 1916, its history lasted until the military finally pulled out on 15th April 1948, but whilst military flying has ceased, some light flying still does occur, mainly for those attending race days at the Newmarket race course.

Today Newmarket airstrip is one that confuses many pilots trying to land and use its facilities. The original landing strip was know as ‘Rowley Mile’, which now forms part of the Newmarket racecourse ending at the Rowley Mile Stands. During the summer months, another strip is used, known simply as the ‘July landing strip’, and this sits to the west of the Rowley Mile along side the ‘Devils Dyke’*1 (locally called the  Devil’s Ditch’). This is is a 7 mile long embankment, created in Anglo-Saxon times, and is thought to be around 1,450 years old.  Because of its collection of wild fauna and flora, is has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which, at its highest point, reaches some 50 feet. It was this dyke that caused at least one major accident when a Stirling of 75 Squadron, based at the airfield, struck the dyke at ten minutes past ten on December 16th 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Devils Dyke looking north. The ‘July Strip’ is to the left and the ‘Rowley Mile’ and Newmarket Airfield to the right. This is the bank struck by the Stirling.

During take off, Stirling R9245 piloted by Sgt. B. Franklin, and carrying mines for the Gironde Estuary, clipped the Dyke with its starboard undercarriage tearing out the oil tank which caused one of the engines to fail.  The incident brought the aircraft down  about a mile from the airfield, killing all seven crewmen on board after the mines it was carrying, exploded. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the following five aircraft were stood down for the night. Because of this, and other accidents involving the Dyke, part of it was lowered during 1943, the results of which are still apparent today, and it is where a memorial stands in memory of the crew lost of that night in December 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The plaque at the base of the Dyke where Stirling R9245 struck on the night of December 16th 1942.

Today there is a further, and more permanent landing area located behind the racecourse stands, and it is this area that forms the bulk of what was the Royal Air Force base RAF Newmarket Heath.

The Rowley Mile airfield originally opened during the First World War and operated for almost than three years. The primary users of this site, were the two Night Training Squadrons: 190 and 192 who were created out of elements of both 51 Sqn and 33 Sqn respectively. These two units operated from Newmarket in the latter stages of World War I, both being disbanded in 1919 after the war’s end. 190 Sqn had by then, moved to RAF Upwood whilst 192 had remained at Newmarket whereupon its operations ceased.

Between the wars it would seem there was no real flying activity, the race course being the prominent feature. But when war broke out again, it was put back into use, and utilised by the RAF as a large airfield capable of dealing with some rather large aircraft.

Being bordered to the north by the modern A14 road, and with the town of Newmarket to the east, Newmarket Heath reopened for military business in 1939 under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, whose headquarters were at Harraton House in nearby Exning. Newmarket accepted its first visitors, a detachment of Blenheim IVs from 107 Sqn, during May of that same year.

On September 1st, two days before the declaration of war between Britain and Germany, the airfield was, by then, a satellite for RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Present at Mildenhall was 99 Sqn, with Wellington MK.Is, an aircraft they had been operating for a year.

The beginning of September marked a turning point not only in world history, but also in British aviation. On September 1st, a general mobilisation order was received at airfields across Britain, and at RAF Mildenhall, like many, 99 Sqn were told to prepare to put “Scatter” schemes into operation. Once confirmation was received, eleven aircraft were flown from Mildenhall to Newmarket along with a sufficient number of crews to prepare Newmarket for crew accommodation. This accommodation was to be the Grandstand originally used for spectators at the various race meetings.

The Grandstand was never designed for aircrew accommodation, the NCO’s never fully accepting the poor living conditions in which they had to stay. It was dirty and the mess hall was merely a room provided for them within the grandstand complex; the ablutions were a makeshift building outside, and it was impossible to keep yourself, or your clothes clean. Newmarket was not a popular place to be posted to.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Grandstand today taken from the Devil’s Dyke. The white fencing indicates the Rowley mile and the former World War 1 landing strip.

The intention was to transfer the entire squadron to Newmarket leaving only a maintenance and repair section at Mildenhall, a move which began almost immediately. Then on September 3rd, at 11:00 hrs, the squadron were called to assemble on Newmarket’s parade ground to hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.  Little did they know that history was being made, and that for the next five years the world would be plunged into very dark times indeed.

On the very same day that the declaration was made, orders were put in place to carryout leaflet drops, but subsequent instructions cancelled these, and no flying took place. As Britain entered the ‘phoney war’, confusion, mixed orders and a rather disorganised period would follow. Orders and counter orders became the norm, squadrons were moved and reorganised, and no one seemed to know quite what they were to do.

New orders came through on the 5th to prepare to ‘disperse all aircraft that could be flown’, along with skeleton crews, to RAF Upper Heyford. The confusion of the Phoney War continued, and when the local air raid warning sounding at 7:15 on the 6th, crews found themselves spread about the field as only one air raid shelter at Newmarket was usable. Immediately after, a new order came through to implement the ‘withdrawal’ scheme and so eleven Wellingtons, who had only recently arrived, took off for RAF Upper Heyford. A twelfth aircraft, that had also transferred over to  Newmarket, was unable to fly due to it being unserviceable.

Further mixed orders came through with yet more operations being cancelled. But then on the 8th, a new order for leaflet drops was issued, and four aircraft were designated to fly to Newmarket and then onto Mildenhall where they would receive up to date information on the ‘target’ area. Four crews arrived and prepared to take off from Mildenhall. One of these Wellingtons, L.7770, was then found to have a leak in the oxygen system, and its flight was cancelled. With insufficient time to collect a spare aircraft from Newmarket, the operation was again scrubbed, and the three aircraft returned to base; another frustrating let down and another source of confusion for the crews.

On the 9th, another message came through to evacuate Newmarket, and all aircraft were prepared once more to move to RAF Elmdon (now Birmingham Airport). An additional sortie also planned for that night was also again cancelled, this time though due to bad weather, as preparations for the squadron’s move continued. Four Newmarket aircraft then departed for Elmdon in the afternoon, Wing Commander Walker making the necessary arrangements, flying to both RAF Upper Heyford, where further aircraft were dispersed, and then onto RAF Elmdon to ensure the move went smoothly. Coinciding with all this, the squadron received its first upgrade, the MK.IA, in the form of Wellington N2870, which was delivered by a ferry pilot to RAF Mildenhall.

The evacuation was completed by the late evening, all personnel had departed leaving just an NCO and a working party to clear the Grandstand and remove any remaining stores. A 32 seat omnibus along with a heavy lorry transported thirteen men and their supplies to Elmdon. The remainder of the party then transferred back to Mildenhall.

On the 25th, another order was received in the early evening to return to Newmarket, Sqn. Ldr. J. Griffiths must have said a few choice words as he made the arrangements to move the men and their stores back from where they had only just come.

Suggestions where again made to locate the entire squadron to Newmarket, but this was now seen as impracticable, and so only the dispersed Elmdon group made the  move. By the end of the next day the transfer was complete.

With firing trials taking place at Carew Cheriton near Tenby, further instructions came through, again suggesting the squadron move to Newmarket. Again though this was noted as impractical, and the move stopped for a second time. The confusion was then broken at 12:15 when a message came thought to say that a Wellington had crashed on take off prior to undertaking gunnery practice, the crew sustaining minor injuries, but the aircraft being severely damaged in the accident. The crew were able to return to Newmarket after receiving treatment for their injures, where they resumed their duties.

On the 20th, the aircraft located at Newmarket were placed on a 60 minute standby, ready to attack the German fleet which was sailing from its base in northern Germany. But, by 16:30, the chance had passed and the flight was stood down. The irony of training with Leica cameras must have broken the monotony of gunnery practice, when on the 8th October, six aircraft did finally take off from their Newmarket base to attack the fleet. Unfortunately, the aircrews could not locate the ships, and all aircraft returned to Mildenhall for debriefing before flying on back to Newmarket.

Official photograph

Wellingtons of 9 Sqn in close formation 1939. The idea of bombers defending themselves was proven to be a misconception, and daylight raids were soon stopped as a result. © IWM (CH 17)

It was this same order that would, on December 14th 1939, decimate the Newmarket detachment. A search for the fleet over the North Sea led to forty-two aircraft from various squadrons, flying Bomber Command’s most extensive search yet. The twelve 99 squadron aircraft finally managed to locate the fleet through the cloud at Schillig Roads, close to Willhelmshaven. Once here, the cloud, highly accurate flak and the Luftwaffe, decimated the formation. Five of the Wellingtons went down in the target area, and a further aircraft, after disposing of its bombs over the sea, limped back to Newmarket badly beaten up. Even though they were away from hostile territory, the crew were not yet safe, and when within sight of the airfield, the aircraft finally gave up the battle and crashed into the ground. The pilot, Flt.Lt. Eugene Hetherington (s/n: 39026) a New Zealander, perished along with two others of his crew. Of the six aircraft lost, only three from Flt. L. Herington’s crew survived, and the bodies of only two men from the other five aircraft were ever found. 99 Sqn had lost 33 aircrew in one night, a terrible blow to the Newmarket crews.

In the post operation analysis, Bomber Command officials decided that it was not the fighters that brought the aircraft down, and that good close formation flying had been a ‘success’ of the mission. They decreed that concealment was better than any amount of firepower and that pilots should seek shelter in cloud wherever possible.

With only one other aircraft going down in the then, neutral Belgium, there were no other major loses in 1940 and only a few, largely due to training accidents, in early 1941. The Winter of 1939-40, was certainly a baptism of fire for the crews of 99 Sqn.

The dawn of 1941 would signify changes to Newmarket. By March, 99 Sqn had finally pulled out, their poor start to the war proving that the idea of bombers successfully protecting themselves on daylight missions was a fallacy. A point made in dramatic style in one single operation.

On the 16th of March, orders were issued at nearby RAF Oakington to move the Stirlings of  ‘A’ Flight, 7 Sqn, out to the new satellite station here at Newmarket; the runways at Oakington now becoming nothing more than a mass of mud, causing a danger to any aircraft that dare to venture out. By the 26th, the situation has become so bad that both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight officers had departed, with the main body of ‘A’ Flight following the next day. For a month the squadron’s Flights operated out of Newmarket whilst Oakington’s mud dried out. However, by the 5th April, it was clear that the  accommodation situation at Newmarket, both ‘inhospitable’ and ‘cold’, was far too cramped, and ‘B’ Flight were ordered back to Oakington where they would be ferried the short distance to Newmarket where their aircraft were to remain.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BOMBER COMMAND

Stirling N3663/MG-H of No 7 Squadron,  at Newmarket Heath, during a visit by King Peter of Yugoslavia, 29 July 1941. © IWM (CH 3175)

By the 27th April, Oakington had sufficiently dried out and the surface was ‘improving rapidly’, enough at least for ‘A’ Flight to return home. After one  month of being at Newmarket, the crews could finally breathe a sigh of relief to be leaving the rather inaptly named ‘Grandstand’ behind.

Part 2 will see how Newmarket developed further, its wartime legacy and its eventual demise as an operational airfield.

The full text appears in Trail 55.