Chapter 17: On the wings of the morning
In the three weeks since allied forces had gained their toe-hold in Normandy the Germans had fought back fiercel but were unable to prevent the push inland. The airborne troops who had begun the assault in the early hours of June 6th were now fighting as infantry in the dense bocage, and the gliders which for many months had crowded Bottesford’s hangars and landing ground were amongst the thousands littering the fifty square miles of American drop zones around the base of the Cherbourg peninsula. The urgent need to store gliders had now ended and the closeness of the southern aerodromes to the battlefront made them a better choice for staging the mammoth airborne supply operation needed to continue the offensive. In July the IXth AAF therefore vacated Fulbeck, Balderton, Langar and Bottesford in favour of more suitable aerodromes in the south-west, although Barkston Heath, Cottesmore, Saltby and Folkingham were retained. Within two months Langar and Fulbeck were temporarily back under American control for ‘Operation Market-Garden’, but Bottesford was destined to remain in RAF hands until its closure.
In the two years since 207 Squadron’s residency the training of aircrews had come a long way. In October 1942 the conversion flights on all bomber squadrons were amalgamated to form separate ‘Heavy Conversion Units’. Crews now graduated from medium bombers at Operational Training Units to Heavy Conversion Units, and then having familiarised themselves with the peculiarities of ‘heavies’, were posted on to their squadrons. But although this removed the burden from operational squadrons, it was by no means perfect. Although there were plenty of Halifaxes and Stirlings to spare for training, the lack of Lancasters meant that those intended for Lancaster squadrons would have to attend both an HCU, and then a familiarisation course at a Lancaster Finishing School before becoming operational. The result was that Lancaster crews took longer to train than any others, but by July 1944 a few Lancasters could at last be spared. 5 Group’s 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit about to be re-formed at Bottesford would be the first to train its crews from start to finish solely on Lancasters. The post of Chief Flying Instructor went to Wing Commander B.R.W. Hallows, formerly CFI at Winthorpe. ‘Darky’ Hallows had joined the RAFVR in 1938. In April 1942 whilst with 97 Squadron, he took part in the famous daylight low-level raid on the M.A.N. factory in Augsburg. Seven of the twelve raiders were shot down, but the remainder pressed on doggedly. Squadron Leader Nettleton of 44 Squadron received the VC for leading the raid, and Brian Hallows was awarded the DFC. He wrote:
Mine was a fairly unique job, and the Lancaster HCU meant that it cut two months at least off a crew’s total training, in that, after the Stirling or Halifax HCU, they did not then have to go on a Lancaster conversion course (as had been the case before). The basic set-up was for two flights (really squadrons) engaged in flying, and a ground training flight. This eventually expanded to three flying squadrons. The crews came to us as pilot, navigator, flight engineer, bomb aimer/front gunner, wireless operator mid rear gunner – six in all. We added another gunner for the mid-upper turret, making a crew of seven. The pilot mid flight engineer first leamed to fly the Lancaster, with the other crew members training on the ground in their specialist roles – navigation, radar signals, gunnery and bomb aiming.
Initially we had to set everything up from scratch, and the ground training side in particular caused many headaches. We had to ‘acquire’ all the facilities for every aspect of training. This required dummy front, rear and mid-upper turrets, as well as a complete dummy fuselage for flight engineering mid other training. When the pilot, flight engineer and navigator were ready, the whole crew set off on ‘Bullseyes’ which involved several hours flying, bombing and gunnery practice on live ranges. Flying was by both day and night, mid they got 50-75 hours in their time with us.
As the HCU’s personnel began to arrive there were still a few Americans on the station, and the RAF gratefully ate American rations until their own cooking facilities were set up. In the meantime a survey of aerodrome buildings showed many to need repair and redecoration. Doors and floorboards had been removed and burned to stave off the miserable English weather, and on two sites the damage was so great that they were temporarily abandoned. An investigation was made by officers of the USAAF Ninth Troop Carrier Command Substitution Unit and repairs were begun immediately. The task was not made easier by the scarcity of tools, and most of the men, fresh from operational squadrons, viewed the work with little enthusiasm. One such airman was 20-year-old Corporal James Paxton, a Fitter / Armourer who had joined up a month before war broke out:
All my service since passing out from Halton had been on either operational squadrons or on operational stations, and quite frankly I was none too pleased with my posting to a training unit. [n common with many of my fellows in the armaments trades, I regarded it as something of a come-down. From the early days, pre-aircraft times, we were beginning to build up a little in numbers and were at that time under the direction of the station admin. officer and station warrant officer, as were several other NCO’s including two sergeants, class ‘E’ reservists. On working parade one day we were informed that we were to be sorted out according to trades with a view to employing us appropriately. The two sergeants in question had great difficuity keeping straight faces. On dismissal, one with whom I’d been working passed the comment, ‘This should be interesting – I’m a rigger, rigid dirigibles. Bring me a rigid dirigible and I’ll rig it for you!’. On hearing that, the other old boy remarked that he was a Fitter, Gnome Rotary engines, bllt that he hadn’t seen any around for quite a while! such were the founder members of 1668!
Gradually, more men and equipment began to arrive and the various sections took shape. Whilst the instructors laboured on putting together a ground and flying training syllabus, the Engineering Officer, Wing Commander King, took stock of the maintenance situation. The paper strength of 1668 was 36 Lancasters, but since front-line squadrons had first priority it had to make do with whatever was left, namely a variety of aged Mk I’s, II’s and Ill’s. Given the varied marks engine fitters had to cope with Rolls-Royce Merlin XX’s, XXII’s, XXIV’s, XXVIII’s, XXXVIII’s, and in the case of the Lancaster II’s, with Bristol Hercules Mks VI and XVI! It was virtually impossible to stock enough spares to carry out servicing, and since all of the aircraft were ‘ex-ops’, many were nearing the end of their useful lives. When Group had trawled front-line units for spare aircraft it had duly received the ropiest examples imaginable, and eight of the first batch delivered were all within fifty hours of their major inspection!
With such trials to endure ‘Wingco’ King ran a tight ship. It was his boast that since he’d held every rank from Aircraftman 2nd Class to Wing Commander, no ploy could fool him when it came to skiving because he’d tried them all himself! James Paxton remembers a Lancaster which seemed particularly prone to magneto’drop’ on the port inner engine. It was intermittent, inconsistent, and had defied all the experts. A recently arrived junior engineering officer ordered a corporal engine fitter to check the oil filters, but instead the corporal took out a torch and began to examine the ground in the vicinity of the port wheel. At this point Wing Commander King arrived, and the junior officer anxiously asked the NCO what he thought he was doing. ‘I’m looking for your bloody mag. drop’ he replied, ‘I’ve just as much chance of finding it here as in the oil filters!’. Rather than put the man on a charge, ‘Kingy’ asked for a torch himself – to help in the search!
The presence of the Hercules engined Lancaster Mk II’s is worthy of note, because only 300 of this sub-type were built out of total Lancaster production run of 7,377. Since the supply of Hercules engines were plentiful the conversion to the powerful radials had been made in the hope of reducing demands on Rolls-Royce. However, when the American Packhard company began to produce Merlins under licence orders for more Mk II’s were cancelled. Operational losses meant that the 300 produced quickly became depleted, and so the remainder were relegated to training duties, being used by 1668 HCU for familiarisation. Until finally struck off charge in March 1945, Bottesford was to receive almost all of the survivors. Coincidentally, since the crews under training had mostly flown Hercules engined Wellingtons at OTU, they found the transition onto Lancasters much easier. Their enthusiasm was not shared by the staff training pilots, only one of whom had experience of the type, so that in the final days before courses began they were forced to fly in pairs to gain air time! After frantic scrounging by the engineering staff, it was the second week of September 1944 before the ten crews of No.1 Course finally began the flying stage of their instruction, having spent the first week on ground school. However, many of the aircraft had still not arrived and the ground facilities required further work, for which reason No.2 course had to be delayed. The difficulties were compounded by a lack of chocks, towing arms and engine inspection trestles. There were as yet no spares in the stores and only four jacks on the entire station! Throughout the next few months 1668’s Lancasters were plagued with electrical faults brought about by dampness.
Due to a re-organisation in RAF training on November 1st the station came under the control of the newly formed 7 Group (Training) Bomber Command based at St. Vincent’s, Grantham. A new teleprinter line was installed by G.P.O. engineers but, more significantly, in line with current policy Bottesford and Langar found themselves linked together to form a single administrative unit – No.72 Base. In a subsequent re-shuffle Group Captain Flinn took over command of 72 Base, and Group Captain Ken Batchelor DFC was posted in as Bottesford’s new station CO. Other changes included the re-Iocation of the station headquarters and the arrival of the 7 Group Communications flight, bringing with it more aircraft and more headaches for the overworked engineering staff. Langar now also housed an HCU, No. 1669 operating Halifaxes. From this point on visiting ‘Halibags’ would often ‘lob in’, but on November 25th 1944 one of 1669’s aircraft was forced to make a night emergency landing, colliding with a hut on one of the dispersals, fortunately unoccupied at the time. This type of visitor the station could well do without!
Before long the winter fogs made the flying side of the courses fall weeks behind the ground instruction. Bottesford had always suffered from poor visibility and ground mist, not helped by the smoke from Nottingham’s factories. With the number of trainees increasing rapidly, the facilities were stretched to breaking point. The cramped night flying billets in particular became filled to capacity, so much so, that as one former ‘inmate’ observed, it was a wonder anyone slept at all with the chorus of snoring and other unpleasant noises arid odours! In each hut, ‘duty crews’ were detailed to monitor the weather every morning and to inform their colleagues as to the suitability of conditions for flying. Sergeant Don Moore, a flight engineer U / Tat Bottesford in late 1944 recalled a Canadian crew who, on looking out of the window one morning shouted gleefully ‘Flying’s off! Can’t see outside!’. Everybody settled back down again, but their slumbers were soon interrupted by an irate instructor. Outside it was in fact a bright, sunny day, and the ‘fog’ nothing more than condensation on the windows. As a penance, the occupants of the hut were made to run around the perimeter track.
The winter of 1944/45 must have been an unusually miserable one, even by Bottesford’s standards. By December there were 2,373 members of the RAF and 462 WAAFs on the station, almost 3,000 in all. Wing Commander Hallows returned in November following an operation only to be diagnosed as having jaundice. He spent Christmas in the SSQ on a diet which, he recalls, did nothing to raise his spirits! For others on the station there were well attended dances and parties, for despite the recent bloody nose at Arnhem and a German counter attack in the Ardennes within the last few days, all were aware that this would surely be the last Christmas of the war.
In the meantime, Ken Batchelor was posted on to command Mildenhall, Charles Flinn reverted back to CO of Bottesford and Air Commodore J.W.F. Merer came from Syerston to take over 72 Base. In January it was also time for ‘Darky’ Hallows to move on, taking over 627 Squadron at Woodhall Spa. With illness and a blizzard of paperwork, he had only managed a few hours flying in his four months as CFI and gratefully handed over to Wing Commander W.N. Crebbin, who was to remain with the HCU until its disbandment.
For the officers at least, life was brightened up by the monthly mess parties, for which each gave a day’s pay. Guests included members of the ATS from a nearby depot, and nurses from the Nottingham City Hospital, both groups reciprocating by inviting the officers to their dances. Officers were also attended parties held at the RASC depot in Bottesford village. For the airmen and women the Entertainments Officer had gathered together the more talented members of the station to form the ‘Bottesfordians’, a concert party which played to packed houses on camp and toured the district. Bob Williamson particularly remembered an airman named Aubrey Mirrelson who impersonated George Formby. He also recalled a visit by ‘Prima Scala and his Accordian Band’. Having befriended an Italian P.O.W. named Mario from the camp in the nearby village of Allington, Bob arranged for him to meet Prima Scala before the concert. He had always thought the latter something of a fraud, but his suspicions were disproved when the maestro and Mario began to chat away in Italian!
Back in December a station lending library had been opened, with a complement of 950 books which could be borrowed for the princely sum of 1d for two books for two weeks. With a view to the needs of a postwar world, education and training classes were also started in earnest, with four airmen learning about building construction on day release in Newark, whilst others enrolled on correspondence courses or began evening classes at University College, Nottingham. For WAAFs classes in domestic science and mothercraft were deemed to be more suitable, completely ignoring the skills they had trained in over the past few years and showing that although for some it was to be a ‘brave new world’, for others things were expected to remain as they were. A news room was also opened, and the station music circle concentrated on the works of Beethoven. For the more energetic a hangar was equipped with facilities for badminton, netball, skittle ball and six-a-side hockey and football, and on three nights a week there was an inter-section table tennis tournament! Outside, waterlogged fields led to the postponement of many sporting fixtures. However, as James Paxton relates, entertainment was inadvertently provided for ‘erks’ one day on parade:
The whole unit was paraded one bright, S1l/lIlY morning before Group Captain Flinn. We were drawn lip into a hollow square for inspection, with the ritual checking of people for haircuts and suchlike. On inspecting the front rank of the maintenance flight, the CO stopped in front of a corporal, looked hard at him, raised his eyebrows, and glanced at the officer in charge of this section of the parade. The officer promptly turned on his heel and told the SWO to take the corporal’s name and number as he needed a haircut. At this point, before the SWO could react, the corporal broke ranks, stepping one pace forward in the correct manner (at this point you could have heard a pin drop), and asked, ‘Haircut? Who, me sir?’. Then without waiting for a reply, with his right hand he removed his forage cap, and with his left hand he removed his wig to reveal a gleaming scalp, saying as he did so, ‘Certainly sir. Will this do, sir? ‘. The incident was all the more amusing for the fact that the officer who had given the order, a Wing Commander flying, had hair so long that it practically covered his greatcoat collar! Group Captain Flinn could hardly keep a straight face, and immediately dismissed the parade. The ‘hairless’ corporal had a bright red wig, supplied by the service when his own hair was lost due to enemy action. He could often be seen in the maintenance hangar, wig askew, scratching his head as he puzzled out some technical problem.
January 1945 brought no improvement in weather. Snow, ice, fog and low cloud meant that flying was scrubbed for days on end, or as in December, exercises cancelled half way through. Such periods at least gave time for repair work about the station. Three of the older hangars defied all attempts to make them waterproof and half of the perimeter track had to be re-concreted due to the reappearance of cracks. The only ray of hope was the reopening of 5 Site after redecoration. On the last Sunday of the month the Bishop of Leicester also consecrated the new station church. At the same time, moves were made to beautify the area by planting conifers around the station. In the meantime an increasing backlog of trainees meant that 4 Site was forced to re-open, and a sudden thaw brought a plague of burst water pipes!
In the late afternoon of Monday 15th January the weather cleared sufficiently to allow flying. At 2030 hours Lancaster LM619, engaged in a light bombing exercise, crashed and exploded at Westborough, about half a mile from Long Bennington. Only the rear gunner, Sergeant Ashby, survived. In such circumstances it was often difficult to establish a cause. Although a Court of Enquiry attributed the crash to a loss of control in haze following an overshoot, with the combination of poor weather, war-weary aircraft and inexperienced crews such accidents were inevitable. As at all airfields, bird strikes were another constant hazard. On 26th February Pilot Officer Petfield was taking off when a flock flew across his path, smashing through the perspex and damaging a propeller blade. With so many experienced aircrew as instructors complacency could also be equally dangerous. Thirty-five yearold Flying Officer Harold Brightwell had been a chartered surveyor before the war, and was finally accepted for aircrew in 1942. In October 1944 he found himself posted to Bottesford as a navigational instructor, and he has particular cause to remember two unusual trainees:
A few days ago I had to refer to my logbook and was reminded of the advent of two Chinese captains who arrived at Bottesford in early’ 45 to become better acquainted with Lancs. Naturally, they were the centre of much curiosity, and were known as captains ‘Bang-On’ and ‘Press-On’. One real name was Chen, but I cannot recall the other. Their command of the English language was minimal, but their capacity for ale was never plumbed – we gave up long before! At about the same time an experienced PFF bomb aimer named ‘Stew’ persuaded me to teach him the rudiments of navigation. When it was time for the Chinese solo flight I went along with Stew, he insisting on navigating. After persuading ‘Bang-On’ that it was usual to close the bomb doors before take-off, we were airbome. I got Stew settled and then retired to the rest bed with a book. I eventllally fell asleep, only to be rudely awakened by Stew saying that he was lost. I looked outside, and like the Ancient Mariner, there was water, water, everywhere. I had no charts and Stew’s were incomprehensible, so the only thing to do was to fly on the reciprocal course until we struck land, and then attempt to map read back to base. Mission accomplished, I was very glad to be back on terra firma!
But even the presence of an instructor did not guarantee safety. On February 7th Flying Officer Walker, demonstrating three engined overshoots to Flying Officer Wilkinson in JA684, crashed just beyond the threshold of the runway. The aircraft was burnt out and three crew members admitted to hospital. In another professionally embarrassing episode, the Station Fire Officer fell into an inspection pit at Langar and broke his leg!