Chapter 3: Target for tonight
On the Wings of the Morning
The waning moon at the end of November 1941 was accompanied by deteriorating weather across the whole of northern Europe. Whilst aircraft could take off in low cloud or fog, landing was another matter and, if there were no airfields to which they could be diverted, they were in trouble. Although each aerodrome had a Direction Finding station which could obtain a radio fix and provide a course to reach the runway, approaches in poor visibility were fraught with danger. Altimeters were only accurate to fifty feet, and if a pilot misjudged and let down too rapidly the result was often fatal. Equally, he might only see the ground at the last moment and not leave enough space to stop. If he was quick he could open out the throttles and go around again. Unfortunately the Manchester’s Vultures often failed to respond to sudden bursts of throttle, leading to a loss of airspeed, height, and a collision with either the ground or any obstructions beyond the threshold. Bottesford was far from ideal for this. Three hundred yards north of the main runway were woods, the SSQ and WAAF sites. Half a mile in the opposite direction lay Beacon Hill, 199 feet above sea level, and beyond that the spire of St. Mary’s church. To make matters worse, the Vale of Belvoir was particularly susceptible to fog, so until March when Bottesford was fitted with the new Standard Beam Approach radio aid for landings in poor visibility, bad weather meant a stand-down from ‘ops’.
One evening during this same period, December 7th to be precise, Flying Officer Peter Ward-Hunt was listening to the wireless in the Mess when he heard some news which compelled him to wake his friend, 21-year-old Frank Roper. The item which caused so much excitement told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Although greeted with horror and outrage in America, in Britain it gave rise to a new sense of optimism. She had been fighting alone since June 1940, and 1941 had been a particularly bleak year; but when, four days after Pearl Harbor Germany and Italy declared war on America, she had a formidable ally. The news held particular significance for Roper, because although a Pilot Officer in the RCAF, he was actually an American, born in Washington D.C. He had wanted more than anything to fly, but lacked the necessary qualifications to enlist in the Air Corps, so when in 1940 a friend joined the RCAF Roper did the same. Under U.S. law he faced a ten year jail sentence and a $20,000 fine for doing so, but he believed that America would enter the war eventually anyway – besides which, the recruiting officer told him that, his American citizenship was not a problem, and that he could merely dispense with the usual pledge of allegiance to the King. Roper joined 207 at Waddington as second pilot on David Green’s crew before being given his own crew when Green was posted ‘tour-expired’ in February 1942.
For the most part the last weeks of 1941 were spent practising formation flying and cross-countries. There was little enthusiasm when it was revealed that a lack of results against the ships in Brest meant that attacks were to be switched to daylight, an almost suicidal prospect in an underpowered and poorly armed heavy bomber. For 207 the point was rammed home two days before Christmas when two stragglers from a formation of six Manchesters were attacked by Spitfires in fading light over the North Sea. Only one aircraft, R5782 EM-R piloted by Flight Sergeant Geoff Dawkins, was damaged. It returned safely to Bottesford, the fighters having broken off when they saw the RAF markings, but it was a salutary lesson.
As the station came to life the trickle of women from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force gradually increased as they took over jobs done by airmen. All trades were open to women excepting armourer and aircrew, but the idea of women actually doing the jobs took far longer to accept. Among those arriving in December was Section Officer Marie Cooper, one of the first women trained in Intelligence duties. Capable and determined, well read and well travelled as she was, life at Bottesford was a shock to her.
The WAAF quarters were not yet finished so I was billeted on a local farmer with a bicycle for transport. I broke the oil lamps regularly through inexpert use. There were hams and onions hanging from the ceiling of a vast kitchen, a strange dialect and a routine in the household largely unchanged from Elizabethan times, chamberpots and all! There were three generations in the farmhouse and the daughter was on the point of delivery of another child. This duly occurred with the ceremony of lying in state in a special bedroom to receive the congratulations from a stream of visitors on the following morning. It was an incredible time, and a sharp contrast to the Manchester aircraft flying above and at war!
Some villagers resented the war for the influx of outsiders that it had brought into their small community. They were not alone. A few older officers and NCOs objected to the presence of women on the station, particularly since they were temporarily forced to share messes with the men. Marie Cooper remembered that one ground staff officer wrote a piece in the Mess ‘Line Book’ (usually used for good-natured boasts and ‘line-shoots’) predicting what would happen, ‘ … once women are allowed into the Mess. The disgusting exhibition etc.’. Despite the views of such people the WAAFs were there to stay, but tradition had to be observed. As Lianne Beauchamp, a former Section Officer in the Code and Cypher section wrote:
For the time being we were billeted in various houses in Long Bennington, ate at a separate table in the Officers’ Mess, and had the use of the billiard room. We never went into the ante room except for the Customary pre-Sunday lunch drinks or for mess parties. There were only six or eight of us, all in Admin., Code and Cypher and Intelligence. We kept a very low profile, and whilst I don’t know how the senior regular officers viewed this unusual state of affairs, I think the younger men enjoyed our company and we came to know many of them very well. On ordinary evenings if there were signs of a wild party brewing, Bunty Vardon, who was rather older than the rest of us, would herd us together, call for transport and we would beat a discreet retreat back to our various billets. Mine was in a big house in Long Bennington. The accommodation there was very luxurious, bedroom with bathroom, en suite, all expensively carpeted, which was lovely, only I couldn’t find anywhere to clean shoes and polish my buttons!
Leading Aircraftwoman Daphne Forbes had trained as a driver (Motor Transport) at Blackpool and Bottesford was her first posting. She recalled:
For the first few months most of us were on duty for 36 hours on and 12 hours off. This did not mean that we were driving all the time, but we were on call. Quite often I was sent off in a 15 cwt Bedford van to Worksop, Mansfield and Matlock with the airman in charge of the pigeon loft. We went mostly to miners houses where they plied us with tea. They were kind, gentle men with such knowledge of their birds. One or two pickups were from pubs where they gave us beer and shandy. The airman in charge of the Bottesford loft was a nice bloke, who when I told him I was going on leave, said he had two awkward birds who would not return to their lofts. Before I could think straight I had two fluttering corpses in my hand. The only way to keep them was to hang them from the springs of my bed, and hope that the all-seeing Section Officer Kirby did not spot them, because the airman would have denied all knowledge, and it would have strained even my imagination to come up with a convincing story!
As well as the pigeons, we also took aircraft cylinder blocks back to Rolls-Royce, at Derby I think, for their specialist attention. We visited the armoury in the morning with boxes of ammo., took groundcrews out to bomb up in the afternoon, or drove tractors towing bomb trolleys. We carried cameras and flashes out for the camera section. There were the lorries for ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights to carry groundcrews to dispersal points, aircrew from the messes to briefing, and later to the kites, and collect them on their return for debriefing. We also drove tractors for moving the kites, petrol bowsers, and the small ambulance. Then there were all the mundane jobs around the camp. The coal lorry visited the dispersed site, the ration wagon the Mess, salvage to the dump, mail van to the Post Office, Staff car for the CO and visiting VIPs etc. Quite a few of the older vehicles were swung started with a starting handle. They had self-starters but the batteries went flat if used too much. Because of the size of the vehicles and the muscle required to start and drive them WAAF drivers had to be over 5’4″.
Our own daily routine was more or less as follows. We got up at 6 am, dressed, plodded over the ablutions hut to wash, then returned to stack blankets, biscuits (mattress) and sheets. We then tidied our bed space before getting out for working parade. We were not allowed to make our own beds until 4.30 pm. Each hut housed about 30 bods with an NCO in a small room by the entrance. We had a kit inspection, I think, about every two weeks. We had no WAAF cookhouse or NAAFI on-site at first, so we had to walk or bike to the mens’ mess. Most of us missed breakfast and waited for the NAAFI wagon for ‘char and a wad (a bun)’. At Bottesford one would also see a group of airmen and women standing close to the hedge opposite the farm house (Normanton Lodge), and a woman coming out with a pile of fried egg sandwiches which she had cooked to order – I think they were 6d each.
With the bad weather boredom was rife on the station, so rugby and football teams were hastily formed, resulting in an inter-flight match won by ‘A’ Flight. Many airmen attended carol services in Bottesford Methodist chapel, the village school and a newly opened canteen next to the green. On the ‘drome itself, continuing invasion and sabotage scares led to the issue of revolvers, but despite initial enthusiasm for target practice, interest declined in proportion to a lack of results. Sergeant John Banfield, a former wireless operator recalled the furore over an article in the Daily Mirror which said how easy it would be for a saboteur to plant a bomb on board a bomber. Within two days Bottesford was surrounded by three coils of barbed wire!
Christmas day itself was spoilt by an order to have nine Manchesters ready for take-off at dawn to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. However, good sense prevailed and the aircraft took off instead to practice formation flying and to wish a ‘Merry Christmas’ to neighbouring aerodromes over the R/T. The comparative inactivity came to an end two days later when seven aircraft were readied for an attack on Dusseldorf. It was an eventful night for one crew at least. Sergeant Douglas Barnes, wireless operator on board L7483 EM-O (aptly called ‘Hobson’s Choice’), flown by Squadron Leader Beauchamp wrote:
One engine had failed before we reached the English coast on the way out. We dropped the bombs in the North Sea (avoiding, I hope, a convoy we were aware of) and turned back to land at Martlesham Heath. We were fired on by our own AA and then the airfield lights were lit, then extinguished. This performance was repeated several times, much to the captain’s annoyance. Committed to land, we crash-landed and came far too close to a row of Spitfires as a result of the tower’s games with the lights. The captain was not amused!
‘Hobson’s Choice’ was unfortunately all too typical of its type. In the six months it had been on Squadron strength it had flown just four operations before crashing.
The start of January 1942 saw three raids in quick succession against French ports, and during an attack on Brest in the early hours of the 10th, 207 Squadron suffered its first operational loss at Bottesford, the only casualties for three months. Pilot Officer Reginald Bayley and crew in L7322 EM-Q had been the third aircraft off at 0359. The last aircraft to return landed back just after ten having been in the air for just over six hours, and whilst telephone calls from Exeter and Boscombe Down informed operations that Pilot Officers Dave Green and ‘Dodo’ Doble had diverted to these stations, nothing more was heard of the Bayley crew. Their Manchester had been hit by flak and crashed into the sea off the north-western coast of France. Of the seven on board four were washed ashore and buried at Crozon, but the other three are listed on the Runnymede Memorial, dedicated in 1953 to the 20,466 air¬men who went missing while serving with the RAF in northern Europe during the Second World War.
After two more raids the Squadron was stood down for three days. On the 14th, despite the first fall of snow, it was called upon to join an attack on Hamburg. Modem airports have the luxury of mechanical snow clearing equipment, but at Bottesford and other aerodromes it was ‘all hands to the shovels’. As parties of airmen struggled to clear roads and several thousand square yards of runway it was noticed that the Wimpey builders who had previously been much in evidence were nowhere to be seen. They were found sitting in their huts smoking, playing cards and brewing tea, lest they be roped in to the frantic activity going on around them. Their popularity had fallen since the night they had decided to dispose of some building debris on the landing ground by setting fire to it. This was bad enough, but they had chosen an air raid alert to do it in! The flames were visible for miles around, but on this occasion the Luftwaffe was slow to act and some forceful language soon ens~red that the fires were dowsed. The general opinion was that since the majority of the workmen came from Eire, they had probably expected the Germans to respect their neutrality and leave well alone …
The aiming point for the crews attacking Hamburg that night was given as the dockyards and nearby Blohm und Voss aircraft factory. As it was, the North Sea was covered by a thick layer of cloud, and many aircraft were unable to locate the target. It was a particularly bad night for 207, with two aircraft failing to return. As the force droned eastwards towards the target, Manchester L7309 EM-O, skippered by Flying Officer Gerry Dawkins, was attacked by a German night fighter. Dawkins reacted quickly, throwing the aircraft into a violent tum, but although his manoeuvre shook off the fighter, they had been hit and the port engine began to surge dramatically. After a long struggle the second pilot, Flight Sergeant Geoff Allan, managed to shut it down but the propeller continued to windmill in the airflow. Although Dawkins was doing his best to maintain height, it soon became obvious that the drag was slowing them considerably and that there was no chance of reaching England. Reluctantly, they turned back towards the German coast and decided to bale out once over land. Still over the sea, everything of conceivable use to the Germans was thrown overboard, and with Dawkins holding the Manchester steady the crew prepared to leave via the escape hatch in the base of the aircraft’s nose. Inexplicably, as Sergeant James Cadman knelt over the hatch, his parachute fell out through the opening. Geoff Allan immediately volunteered to carry him on his back. They were lashed together with makeshift bindings, but when the rip chord was pulled the sudden shock caused Cadman to break free and he was killed. Their aircraft crashed close to Wilhelmshaven just after nine in the evening and the six survivors were made prisoners of war.
The circumstances leading up to the loss of the second aircraft, Manchester L7523 EM-M, have never been fully established. With some sort of technical problem, Flight Sergeant Wescombe took off fifteen minutes after the rest of the Squadron. From this point nothing more was heard. His widow Audrey wrote in 1992.
For several months prior to January 1942, Basil, our daughter Marie and I shared a furnished house at 1 Harlaxton Street, Nottingham with the wireless operator, his wife Margaret, and their baby son Clemmie. We rented the house from a Mrs Cooke – she was the aunt of another member of the crew (Sergeant Westbury). The crew sometimes had nights out together in Nottingham and then had supper and spent the night in our home. Just around the corner from us there used to be what I sup¬pose today would be called a takeaway – although customers supplied their own containers; pudding basins and old fashioned pie dishes for food such as fish and chips, faggots and peas, pie and peas and so on. The proprietors were great folk and sort of adopted ’tile boys’ as they called them. The boys were always great company, full of fun, never a trace of fear showing, although I know Basil knew what the odds were. Several times Basil said to me, ‘Don’t worry. If anything happens to me you will know’. I didn’t attach any special significance to the remark until the day the crew were lost. Margaret and I had had a bad day. She kept crying for no apparent reason and things kept going wrong. It was latish in the evening before we got round to putting the little ones to bed. I went upstairs to get their nightclothes, and as I entered the bedroom I stopped. I saw Basil in a corner, at least from his hips up, wearing uniform. He was smiling, then disappeared. Imagination? No matter what anyone may say or think I know what I saw and cannot nor will not deny it.
At 20.45 farmer Walker’s eldest daughter was sitting in the kitchen of Cliff House Farm in the hamlet of Holmpton on the Yorkshire coast when she heard the roar of an aircraft at extremely low level. She rushed into the yard just in time to see the aircraft pass overhead, heading inland streaming flames. Seconds later there was a flash and an explosion. Although members of the Home Guard were soon on the scene it took the Withernsea Police and the Auxiliary Fire Service over an hour to reach the crash site. They found a deep crater filled with wreckage, and propaganda leaflets printed in Ger¬man were being blown about in the stiff breeze. Amongst the debris were also three bodies. The Firemen returned to their depot at 01.55 and by 02.46 it was established that the wreck was that of a British bomber. The Home Guard carried the remains of the crew to Cliff House Farm where they remained overnight before being conveyed the following morning to RAF Catfoss. The subsequent inquest held at the farm established that L7523 had jettisoned her warload out to sea, and concluded that the aircraft had probably been damaged by enemy action, forcing an early return and culminating in the crash. The more likely explanation given the engine fire – that failure of one of the Vultures had forced Wescombe to turn back – was apparently not considered. Such occurrences were far from unusual, and some 8,000 Bomber Command aircrew were killed in accidents over Britain in the last war. Audrey Donohue said:
I never saw Basil when my heart didn’t give a skip and a jump. When he was first posted missing I dreaded the thought that perhaps he was freezing, hungry or injured in one of those yellow boats in the North Sea, so that, when I received the final telegram, although devastated, I felt a degree of relief that he wasn’t suffering. This, together with the fact that his little daughter needed extra love and care helped me through those dark days.’