Chapter 2: Leicester's Own

On the Wings of the Morning

Vincent Holyoak

S/O Marie Cooper, a WAAF Intelligence Officer at Bottesford, showing the fates of crew captains on 207 Squadron
S/O Marie Cooper, a WAAF Intelligence Officer at Bottesford, showing the fates of crew captains on 207 Squadron
207 Squadron Armourers amid the appalling conditions at Bottesford during the winter of 1941. Left to right: Smithers, F /Sgt Weatherall, Eric, Bob Waldrer, Dennis Bentley, Bill Freeman, Ron Walker, 'Ginge', 'Housie', Alf, George, Eric King, Alan and Vic
207 Squadron Armourers amid the appalling conditions at Bottesford during the winter of 1941. Left to right: Smithers, F /Sgt Weatherall, Eric, Bob Waldrer, Dennis Bentley, Bill Freeman, Ron Walker, 'Ginge', 'Housie', Alf, George, Eric King, Alan and Vic
First of the many. F/Lt W.D.B. Ruth DFC and F/Sgt B.C. Wescombe carried out the first raid of the war from Bottesford on the night of 23/24th November 1941: neither survived the war
First of the many. F/Lt W.D.B. Ruth DFC and F/Sgt B.C. Wescombe carried out the first raid of the war from Bottesford on the night of 23/24th November 1941: neither survived the war
The wreck of Manchester L7300 'F-Freddie', in Fiskerton Quarry lake after P /0 Bill Hills' miraculous crash-landing.
The wreck of Manchester L7300 'F-Freddie', in Fiskerton Quarry lake after P /0 Bill Hills' miraculous crash-landing.

Since late September 1941 the Avro Manchester bombers of 207 Squadron had become frequent visitors to the aerodrome. Squadron Leader Beauchamp had been first to test the runways in an unladen aircraft, and was followed a few days later by the C.O., Wing Commander Lewis in a Manchester loaded up to the maximum all-up weight, 45,000 lbs. These activities were explained by Group Captain Cheshire’s visit to RAF Waddington to discuss arrangements for 207′ s impending move to Bottesford. It was a particularly apt choice for Leicestershire’s only front-line aerodrome of the last war. In the immediate pre-war period the RAF had mounted a campaign to increase public support by encouraging cities to adopt squadrons officially, and in June 1939 the Leicester Mercury reported:

Leicester was not mentioned when the scheme for the affiliation of RAF squadrons to principal cities and town of the country was announced in April last, but the Air Ministry announces new affiliations including that of 207 Bomber Squadron to Leicester. The Squadron will pay an annual ceremonial visit to Leicester, and it is understood, will give a display at Leicester Air Port. On this occasion the public will be afforded an opportunity of inspecting aircraft when on the ground and meeting the crews. The Squadron, which will ‘watch over Leicester’, will probably cooperate with other air interests in important civic events, providing Service commitments permit. The total number of towns now affiliated to RAF Squadrons is 59. Several members of No.207 Squadron are Leicester-born men.

Although the outbreak of war meant that the ties between the city and the Squadron were never formally cemented, the story came full-circle in 1989 when the Squadron’s Roll of Honour was placed next to its standard in Leicester Cathedral. As the Mercury remarked, many of 207’s men had local connections, not just with Leicester, but with the East Midlands generally. Flight Sergeant Roger Rowlands, an air gunner, came from Scraptoft near Leicester and was the grandson of a Bottesford horse breeder. From Nottingham came Sergeant Jack Culley, a former insurance salesman from Netherfield, and Sergeants Eric Cartwright and Claude Westbury; and from Sherwood, Sergeant George Duke. All four were killed flying from Bottesford in 1942. Amongst the groundcrews were Nottingham born armourers Arthur Giles, George Thompson, Ernie Spooner and Dennis Bentley. Throughout the war the Midlands’ industrial cities provided a rich source of recruits for the technical trades.

207 Squadron itself had a history dating back to 1916, and after various incarnations had been reformed at Waddington in November 1940 to introduce to service the first of the RAF ‘s new generation of heavy bombers, the Avro Manchester. In many respects the Manchester was an innovative design. With a bomb bay 33 feet in length it could accommodate a warload of 5 tons, greater than any other bomber then in RAF service, but because it was such an improvement on many other types Bomber Command was forced to fly, it had been rushed into service long before it was ready. Aside from problems with stability, finally solved by fitting a larger tail section, there were two other concerns. First and foremost were the engines, its Rolls-Royce Vultures. Six years in development, the Vulture was a novel design attempting to mate together two 12-cylinder ‘vee’ engine blocks around a single crankshaft to produce an ‘x’ configured 24-cylinder engine, theoretically with the power of two normal units. It was hoped that this would save weight, but unfortunately the Vulture produced far less power than expected, and problems with oil circulation made seizures and engine fires common. To make matters worse, underpowered as it was, the aircraft would not stay airborne for long on one engine! The other problem was the elaborate hydraulic system which powered the gun turrets, the undercarriage, bomb doors and flaps. Leaks and pressure failures were commonplace but, as with the engines, Bomber Command was in such a desperate situation that it could not afford to withdraw the aircraft to rectify the faults. For this reason, by the time that the Manchester was entering service it had already been decided that it would be replaced as soon as possible by an uprated four-engined model using the tried and tested Rolls-Royce Merlins. Although referred to for security reasons as the Manchester III, this improved model eventually became known as the Lancaster. In the meantime, against all the odds 207 did much to overcome chronic serviceability problems. Even so, Flying Officer John de Lacy Wooldridge (or ‘Dim’ as he was better known) summed up the general feeling on the Squadron by carrying his greatcoat on operations, saying in explanation ‘I’m damned if I’ll be cold in a prisoner of war camp!’.

At 10 am on November 15th 1941 207 Squadron’s fifteen serviceable Manchesters took off from Waddington, overflew the station in salute, and made for Bottesford where they landed a few minutes afterwards. The lorries carrying the Squadron’s personnel did not begin arriving until dusk when some attempt was made to assign billets. Dennis Bentley, then a 19 year-old armourer remembered the misery of splashing through the mud in his ‘best blues’. Having been paraded in the rain earlier that morning he and his companions only leant of their destination when the driver of their lorry stopped to ask directions, all the signposts having been removed to hinder German paratroopers. The confusion didn’t improve on arrival. Everywhere in the darkness men were shouting, cursing and swearing as they stumbled along with heavy kitbags. When Dennis finally reached his hut on a sleeping site off Sewstern Lane, it was to discover that there were no straw palliasses and only two sodden blankets each. Worse still, there was nothing to light the coke stove. Sergeant Frank Belfitt, observer on Jimmy Kneil’s crew, had flown in earlier that same day and was equally unimpressed.

Waddington was a 1936 purpose-built station, comfortable and convenient to Lincoln for our forays on our nights off. No such luck with Bottesford! Our first impression was of a sea of mild, and one stepped off the concrete pathways at one’s peril. It was damp and miserable when we landed there, and it stayed that way! It seemed as thollgh it were bllilt all aile vast bog. Bottesford was not a station one was happy honey alld Ryvita to keep me going. She imagined I was at the North Pole or somewhere – she wasn’t far wrong!

Sergeant ‘Goldie’ Goldstraw, observer on Flying Officer Dave Green’s crew also had vivid memories of that first winter:

When we arrived the workmen were still finishing off many of the construction tasks, and there was liquid mud all over the place. Sleeping accommodation was very poor; the wooden huts were cold and draughty and let the rain in. The room which I shared with the rear gunner was of often awash. The concrete base on which the solid fuel stove was perched was always full of water, and it would have been impossible to light a fire even if we could have obtained coal. Bedding, clothing and personal effects were always damp, so we slept in trousers and shirts under the blankets. Most of the time was spent in the Sergeant’s Mess on the communal site where we at least we could be warm and dry.

So bleak were the surroundings that according to the diary of an Australian pilot, Flight Sergeant George Hawes, Canadian ‘members of the Squadron half expected Indians to come whooping over the hill!’ The biggest shock after the compact Waddington was the distance between sites, and although this was eased by the issue of bicycles, sticks had to be carried to clean off the mud which clogged wheels and prevented them turning. Mud was not a problem confined to bicycles, for over the first weeks several aircraft became bogged when pilots accidentally put wheels off taxi tracks or dispersals. Each aircraft weighed something over thirteen tons unloaded, and it was no mean feat to free them once caught.

Since Wing Commander Lewis had tested Bottesford’s runways some weeks before, command of 207 had passed to Wing Commander Charles Fothergill. Always dapper and sporting a luxuriant moustache, he rarely flew and delegated this responsibility to his two flight commanders. In charge of’A’ Flight was Squadron Leader ‘Thos’ Murray who had joined the Squadron back in April 1941. Prior to that he had flown an extended tour of operations on 49 Squadron which was where he first met Squadron Leader K.H.P. Beauchamp, now commanding 207’s ‘B’ Flight. In appearance the tall angular ‘Beach’ contrasted sharply with ‘Thos’ Murray, whose balding head made him appear far older than his years. In fact both men were aged just 25. Coinciding with 207’s move was the appointment of Group Captain F.R.D. Swain as station commander. A career officer, in 1936 ‘Ferdie’ Swain had won the world altitude record for Britain by taking a Bristol 138A up to 49,967 feet, for which he had been awarded the AFC. On a later transatlantic trip he met the American lady who was to become his wife, and often boasted in the Mess that on the return he had been allowed to take the controls of the Dornier X flying boat, the flagship of Nazism.

Six days after 207’s arrival two crews were rostered to take part in the very first operation from the aerodrome. Piloting L7319 ‘EM-X’, one of the Squadron’s oldest aircraft, was Flight Lieutenant W.O.B. Ruth OFC, whilst flying L7432 ‘EM-J’ was Flight Sergeant B.C. Wescombe. The latter was considered 207’s ‘lucky’ Manchester as it had been nursed back from Berlin on one engine the previous August to earn its pilot a DSO. The story was that it would have been a VC, but this was considered too much of an adverse comment on the Manchester’s unreliability! Twenty-four year-old ‘Babe’ Ruth and 25-year-old Basil Wescombe had both just begun their second tours, but because it was then customary to fly a complete tour as second pilot before becoming a captain on ‘heavies’ they were still considered ‘freshmen’. Their mission was to attack German submarines in the French port of Lorient, and theirs would be the only Manchesters taking part, the rest of the force comprising 51 Hampdens, all from 5 Group.

At this point in the war Bomber Command was expending an increasing amount of effort in attacking enemy ports. German U-Boats operating in theAtlantic were enjoying increasing success in their efforts to cut off Britain’s ship-borne supply lifeline, added to which the capital ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, sheltering under heavy protection in Brest harbour were threatening at any moment to break out into the Atlantic and cause further havoc with the merchant convoys. Since the Royal Navy was already hopelessly overstretched, the obvious solution was to ask the RAF to attack any ports where there were signs of enemy naval activity.

Secondly, and perhaps most critical of all, in August 1941 the Government-sponsored Butt report had concluded that RAF bombing attacks had been depressingly ineffective, with only a fifth of crews managing to get within five miles of the target. Appalling losses at the outbreak of the war had shown that Bomber Command’s aircraft could not defend themselves in daylight, so the switch had been made to night attacks. But the crews had little experience in navigation at night, and with the unsuitable equipment available, even in good weather, whole cities, let alone specific targets were proving impossible to hit. This would soon lead to the controversial decision to use ‘area bombing’ (1). But in the meantime, not only were German targets still defying air attacks, they were also inflicting escalating casualties on the raiders, the average life of a heavy bomb~r being just fourteen sorties. After a disastrous raid on Berlin on November 7/8th 1941, Bomber Command was ordered to curtail its attacks on inland German targets, with the result that ports would receive most of its attention for some time to come.

Sunday 23rd November 1941 saw the beginning of the daily routine that was to continue at Bottesford for the next two years. Groundcrews were split into two flights, ‘A’ and ‘B’, and every morning would make their way to the aircraft dotted on their dispersals around the aerodrome. First job was the daily inspections which included routine checks of airframe, hydraulics, engines and coolant levels, and then the engines were run up one by one to check ‘magneto drop’. Meanwhile, instrument ‘bashers’ and wireless technicians would be carrying out their own tests whilst the armourers cleaned and installed the Browning .303 machine guns in each turret. Cold and icy as they were, the aircraft were not easy to work on. For those working in the biting winds which swept the flights in winter there were two alternatives; either wrap up well and sacrifice mobility, or simply freeze to death! The various combinations of clothing reflected their occupants’ trades and personal preferences, and although gloves were impractical, given the mud which coated everyone and everything, gumboots were a necessity.

Having checked their names on the roster in the Flight Office, the aircrews appeared mid-morning to give their allotted aircraft a ‘Night Flying Test’. Assuming nothing was amiss, after taxiing back to the dispersal the captain would sign the Form 700 to say that he accepted the aircraft as serviceable. The crews then cycled back up the hill to wile away the hours before briefing as best they could, reading newspapers in the Mess, listening to gramophone records in their huts, catching up with correspondence or perhaps pensively smoking a cigarette. In 1941 briefings were still relatively informal affairs held in the ‘Ops’ Block behind Station Headquarters. The red tape pinned to the wall map gave them their route, the Met. Officer told them the weather situation and the Intelligence Officer would describe the target and its importance. Individual timings, attack heights, bomb settings and other details were left to the captains and their observers. Then finally, after briefing, it was another cycle ride to the messes for the pre-flight meal.

Meanwhile the fuel and oil tanks on the Manchesters were being topped up and the warloads prepared. Tonight each would be carrying ten 500 lb General Purpose bombs. Since October daily convoys from Norton Disney had stocked the bomb dump to capacity. The bombs were taken from storage to the fusing hut, and from there out to the aircraft on long trolleys. Small winches were then manhandled into the aircraft, their cables pushed through holes in the roof of the bomb bay, and the bombs, already on shackles, generally pushed, pulled and sweated into place. Then it was only a matter of connecting the electrical leads in the bay and checking the circuits so that the shackles disengaged when the bomb aimer pressed the ‘tit’. Such mundane activities were common to all bomber airfields, but as the groundcrews busied themselves on Wescombe and Ruth’s aircraft that after-noon, something decidedly out of the ordinary was unfolding just a few miles away. Pilot Officer Bill Hills had been asked to fly two groundstaff and two fellow pilots to Waddington in Manchester L7300 ‘EM-F’. He had hoped to use the opportunity for a spot of low-level flying, but as his 21-year-old wireless operator, Sergeant Charles Smith from Beverley recalled:

After being airborne for only a few minutes one of the engines failed, but having decided we could still get to Waddington we informed them of our approach and carried on hopefully. Unfortunately on the other side of Lincoln the other engine faltered and we made a rapid descent. The skipper managed to keep control until when coming down over a railway embankment the rear turret broke off and we slithered down the other side into a lake which had once been a gravel quarry. We all managed to get out of the rapidly sinking fuselage with the aid of the air sea rescue rubber dinghy and a severely shocked angler who had been fishing from a punt. This was listing badly itself, having been flooded by our crashing aircraft! There were no fatalities but a few broken limbs and other injuries. We revived ourselves by drinking the bottles of film from the first aid equipment, and this helped keep out the cold, as we were soaking wet, and being November it was bitterly cold.

Sergeant John van Puyenbroek, the other Wireless Operator / Air Gunner on Bill Hills’ crew also has cause to remember that afternoon:

The second pilot, Pilot Officer Plaistowe, was standing up when we crashed and hit his head on the instrument panel sustaining concussion and a suspected fractured skull in the process. On the bank near the lake was ‘Applegarth’ cottage and the occupants stripped Plaistowe off, dried him and wrapped him in a rug, leaving him dressed only in a pair of dripping wet socks. The ambulance had been called but after nearly an hour had not appeared, and the fisherman with us said he would drive us to Lincoln hospital. We set off and as we turned by Lincoln’s Stonebow into the High Street, Plaistowe yanked at the door handle and was off down the street naked – leaving his rug by the car. It was now late afternoon and being Sunday there were countless airmen walking their girlfriends along the ‘monkey-run’. Plaistowe’s eyes were staring wildly, he was showing all the signs of concussion, and the girls began to scream. After a few yards he was brought to a halt by a large Lincolnshire bobbie. Almost at the same time an ambulance came tearing down the High Street, bell ringing, realised we were probably from the crash and stopped …

We were put straight to bed, unwashed, stinking, wounds drying up by now; the big cups of tea the nurses brought in tasted marvellous. The next morning, Plaistowe started doing handstands on the end of his bed until the nurses saw him and tucked him in again! As a sequel to the crash, when the Maintenance Unit boys started the salvage operation a civilian approached them and said ‘We want this ****ing wreck out of here by next Saturday – we’ve got a fishing competition on!’ Life could be difficult for some civilians at that time … !’

Back at Bottesford, Ruth took off at two minutes to five into the darkness, Wescombe following minutes later. After the drama that afternoon, the raid itself was uneventful:

Flight Lieutenant Ruth (OFC) described his trip as the most enjoyable he had ever had. Conditions, he said, were those of a summer night. Visibility over the whole route, both to the target and back to Coningsby (where he had been instructed to ‘home’) were excellent … The dock installations were easily picked out and bursts were observed from the bombs in the target area. No results,however were seen…Flight Sergeant Wescombe made a similar trip enjoying equally good conditions …

Footnote
(1) A directive was issued on February 14th 1942 which stipulated that in future whole cities rather than just the industrial targets within them were to be attacked.
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