Monday, February 17, 2014
RAF Rivenhall June 2013 the former base for 295 squadron..........RAF 38 Bomber Group World War Two
HOWEVER 69 YEARS EARLIER.......
At mid-day on Saturday 7th October 1944, Short Stirling bombers, now converted to towing duties, made the cross-country flight from their airfield at Harwell, from which they had recently taken part in Operation MARKET GARDEN - the airborne drop at Arnhem. The Stirlings, and their Airspeed Horsa gliders, formed part of No. 38 Group, and many of the local airfields previously occupied by the U.S. Air Forces were taken over by the Group.
Two squadrons were based at Rivenhall, Nos. 295 and 570, consisting of two flights of each, 'A' and 'B'. No. 295 Squadron was coded 8Z for 'A' flight and 8E for 'B' Flight. 570 Squadron Stirlings were coded E7.
The Short Stirling Mark IV differed from the earlier marks in several external features. The nose machine gun turret had been replaced with a clear plexiglass observation position and the mid upper turret removed and faired over. This reduced the defensive armament to a rear turret comprising four Browning 303 machine guns. The bomb bays were retained, there was an exit hatch in the bottom of the rear fuselage for use by paratroopers, and each aircraft was equipped with a 'U' shaped tow attachment under the rear turret.
The stalky undercarriage was a distinctive feature of the aircraft. In order to improve the Stirlings performance, it had been decided to increase the angle of attack of the wing that would help to reduce the touchdown speed on landing. The consequence of this meant a longer undercarriage which resulted in an unfortunate tendency for it to collapse when turning off the runway too fast. In addition, the tyres were prone to burst after picking up flints or stones from the runways or perimeter track.
The Airspeed Horsa was perhaps the most successful glider used by any of the airborne forces in World War II. It was a high wing monoplane with a span of 88 feet (only 11 feet less than the Stirlings) and extremely large split flaps, which have been described as 'being as big as barn doors'. These flaps were the secret of its very steep descent and short landing run.
From the outside, the Horsa looked like any other big aeroplane, but without engines. As soon as one stepped inside the difference was evident - it had the appearance of a big model, everything in the structure being of wood. The sound of footsteps and the echoes in the fuselage sounded like walking in a wooden hut, and seated at the dual controls it came as something of a surprise to find they were made from laminations of multiply. In flight, the controls were heavy, as one would expect from such a large machine, and the ailerons had a 'delayed action' effect. After applying aileron to bank the aircraft in a turn or to pick up a dropped wing, there was no immediate reaction, which invited the application of more aileron, when it took effect and the ailerons were centralised, the wing kept on lifting, requiring opposite aileron, and so on. The result was over-controlling until the pilot got the hang of it. Altogether there were some thirty aircraft to each squadron, with the same number of gliders, and the airfield took a distinctly crowded appearance.
Practice flights were swiftly instituted and the local inhabitants saw for the first time just what the gliders were capable of in the hands of an experienced pilot. Contrary to popular belief, glider pilots were not volunteers. Such volunteers as there were fell far short of the requirements and in order to offset the heavy losses incurred during the Arnhem operation, many R.A.F. pilots were seconded to the Glider Regiment This enforced transfer was the reason for a certain amount of bitterness in some glider pilots, who felt they had been trained for bigger and better things than gliders.
A tactical landing was a heart stopping sight. The Horsa, traveling at 100 m.p.h. would cast off from its tow, lower its huge flaps and point its nose downwards. This descent slope of 1 in 1 1/2 and to the onlooker seemed certain to end in disaster. At the lat moment, the glider would round out, landing on its main wheels, rock onto its front wheel, and apply brakes. This manoeuvre, if correctly executed, could enable a skilful pilot to land the Horsa in little more its own length.
The technique for mass landings was rather different, much longer landing runs were used to enable gliders to reach their appointed place and leave the area clear for others. In the early stages of training, many gliders landed outside the airfield perimeter, often in a badly damaged condition. The news of a crashed glider would flash around the district and unless a guard was placed on the wreck, many parts of it would swiftly disappear. Plywood was a rare commodity during the war years and a Horsa was built of very little else. Bungee rubber was also used in its construction and this also was quickly spirited away. The writer well remembers acquiring 1/16 inch thick plywood, useful for making model airplanes, which was removed from a Horsa, Stuck firmly in a hedge. Parts of a number of fuselages may still be seen today, often used as shed in gardens or allotments. A standard Horsa comprised thirty production units, mainly produced in furniture factories, and subsequently assembled together. It weighed a total of 7000 pounds, and was capable of carrying twenty-nine fully loaded troops or a 75mm pack Howitzer.
Although the squadrons based at Rivenhall had the outward appearance of a glider group, the Stirlings were used extensively for several other duties besides that of towing Horsas. One of these was the supply of arms and equipment to the many resistance groups in Occupied Europe. The navigational efficiency required, in order to locate a pinpoint in the heart of enemy occupied territory had to be of the highest order. In addition, each aircraft, operating alone, had to ensure that the drops were made from a certain height with the greatest accuracy. The correct signal had also to be received from the reception committee, whose members often waited for the supplies at the risk of their lives.
The Norwegians were reported to be among the best at marking the dropping zones and in giving the correct signal from the ground. Aircraft flying toNorway had only approximately half an hour in which to locate the zone, in a land of mountains, mist and snow before a shortage of petrol made their return essential. The total flying time was approximately nine hours.
Warrant Officer Peter Baldock, of Braintree, flew with 295 Squadron as navigator of B-Beer, serial No. LK129. He recalls that Special Operations Executive (S.O.E) drops were made whenever the weather conditions were favourable. During the month of April, the aircraft of 295 and 570 Squadrons flew S.O.E. missions to aid the resistance fighters near Copenhagen and other place in Denmark. Wherever possible these operations were carried out in at least half moon conditions, as the final part of the navigation had to be visual.
Returning from a successful drop to the freedom fighters in Holland during this period, B-Beer was coned by the searchlight defences. The pilot pushed the control column forward to build up speed and began to take evasive action from the anti aircraft fire that was being hurled at them. Leveling out of the high-speed dive, in which the aircraft touched over 300 m.p.h., the rear gunner got in a good burst and knocked out one of the searchlights
On the night of 26th April, seven aircraft took part in an operation code named 'TABLEJAM 343' and were assigned to different targets in Denmark. The defences were reputed to be severe and the instructions were to 'go in low'. B-Beer was one of the three aircraft that returned safely, after dropping its supply load of twenty-four containers and two packages. W.O. Baldock saw one of the Stirlings that was flying extremely low, belly in on the shores of an inland lake. On their return from the target it was learned that the crew of the crashed Stirling had escaped without serious injury, but there were casualties among the other lost aircraft. One of the hazards of low flying was small arms fire, the wireless operator of a 570 Squadron Stirling on the night of 23rd April was hit in the shoulder by a spent bullet, which was assumed to have been caused by small arms fire.
The Short Stirling was the first four-engined bomber of the war, although its limited ceiling prevented it from ever attaining the fame of its later compatriots, the Halifax and Lancaster. Nevertheless it did continue to serve in its original capacity with 295 and 570 Squadrons, both of whom underwent bombing training in addition to their other varied duties.
In February 1945 the crews put their training to good use when they were called on to perform tactical bombing in support of the 1st Army Group. The operation called for close support bombing, at night, just behind the front line. The aircraft successfully delivered their loads of 24 x 500 pound bombs, bombing being accomplished using 'Gee' radar control. Used correctly it was possible to bomb within an accuracy of 200 yards.
Both of the Rivenhall squadrons, together with others of No. 38 and 46 Group took part in the final large scale airborne operation of the war, code named 'VARSITY' On Saturday 24th March 1945, in conjunction with Allied troops on the ground, the American 17th and the British 6th Airborne Divisions were landed on the east bank of the Rhine. Two days before, gliders, airborne troops and aircrews were 'sealed off'. They were not allowed to leave camp, post letters, telephone or be telephoned. On 23rd March the glider pilots, crews and airborne troops were carefully briefed. They were told that the success of their mission would considerably hasten final victory. At 2 a.m. on the morning of the 24th the crews were called, given breakfast of bacon and eggs and received a last briefing that included final weather reports. All aircrews were given revolvers and warned that if they had to bale out over Germany the Nazis might be too disorganized and panicky to take prisoners.
The Stirlings were marshalled along the perimeter track, facing the main runway. The airborne troops, khaki clad figures with maroon berets, filed into the gliders that were parked together as a group. The tug aircraft converged on the runway from the perimeter track, the towrope was fixed and the next glider brought up by tractor. The Control officer signaled the first aircraft away at 0700. As one Stirling cleared the end of the runway another was given the signal to go. The take-off, with a fully loaded glider, was sluggish. The Horsa was first off the ground, after a run of about thirty seconds, and three seconds later the Stirling became airborne. The vast air armada made rendezvous over Hawkinge, Kent before heading out over theNorth Sea. The four-hour flight, in perfect spring sunshine, was fairly uneventful.
Nos. 295 and 570 Squadrons had the distinction of leading the airborne fleet over the Rhine at Wesel, where the gliders were cast off. The drop was not without incident. Fighter Bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, whose task it was to nullify the defences, had been partially prevented from doing so by the early arrival by seven minutes of the tugs and gliders. The paratroopers and gliders had to descend through dust and smoke, in the face of anti aircraft and ground defences. The glider lands were exceedingly accurate, many touching down within 20 or 30 yards of their objective. Fortunately the casualties were light. About three hundred gliders were damaged, more or less severely, and ten were shot down. Among them was the Horsa towed by B-Beer, one of the first aircraft to cross the Rhine. All Stirlings from Rivenhall returned safely. With the Allied armies racing across Europe, the question of supplying essential materials to the forward areas became of paramount importance. During the month of April, Stirlings from 295 and 570 Squadrons were called upon to ferry 625 gallons of high octane fuel in jerry cans to Allied fighter aerodromes. It says something for the logistics of that period, when it is realized that in order to carry the 625 gallons to the waiting fighters, each Stirling used between 1,000 and 1,200 gallons of fuel on the round trip.
As the war in Europe drew to its close, the squadron's Stirlings were used in yet another capacity, as ferry aircraft. The advancing Allied armies liberated many prisoner of war camps and the freed prisoners were transported to Brussels. There, the Stirlings picked them up and flew them back toEngland and freedom. In the months that followed, Rivenhall became one of the busiest airfields in East Anglia, so much so that eventually customs facilities were installed. The Stirlings continued to ferry the returning ex P.O.W's and servicemen on leave or for demobilization, during the weeks following the end of the war in Europe.
On V.E. +1 10th May 1945, the squadrons of No. 38 Group were engaged in operation DOOMSDAY, the airlifting of troops for occupation duties inNorway. The manifest for B-Beer included 16 R.A.M.C. personnel, one motorcycle and one dog. An ex-Luftwaffe airfield, Gardermoen, 40 miles north of Oslo was the destination, where the German commander surrendered to the senior British officer. The German personnel continued to man the airfield services and to assist the turn round of aircraft. Tragically, three aircraft from the group crashed due to bad weather, which involved the loss of Air Vice marshal Scarlett Streatfield and many soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division. At the time of writing (1976) an attempt is to be made to recover the wreck of one of these Stirlings, No. LJ899 belonging to No. 19 Squadron, from Lake Rydafors, Sweden.
With the war in Europe over, the Rivenhall Stirlings began making almost daily trips to Brussels, Munster, Schleswig, acting as mail and newspaper carriers for the occupying troops. Occasional trips were also made to Copenhagen, Prague and Vienna. From September 1945, with the war in the Far East finished, the aircraft assisted Transport command in ferrying spares and machine parts to such far distant places as Karachi and Cairo via Tripoli. The 'slip crew' system was used whereby a crew took over an aircraft along the route in order to speed the whole operation and turn round. W.O.Baldock was unfortunate to be part of the crew when the aircraft was used to carry a load of carrier pigeons back from Tripoli. He still recalls the smell.
Rivenhall continued to be one of the busiest airfields in the U.K. until January 1946 when No. 295 and 570 Squadrons moved to Shepherds Grove airfield, situated 12 miles North east of Bury St. Edmunds.
On the 8th January 1946, 570 Squadron was disbanded, followed by 295 Squadron on 14th January.