Chapter 5: Return to Battle
On the Wings of the Morning
For six weeks that it was stood down 207 was busily engaged in converting on to the Lancaster. By the end of April it could boast sixteen of the new type on strength with as many trained crews. In the meantime the seemingly interminable circuits, night landings and cross-countries were not without their drama, with two aircraft being destroyed. The first and most tragic loss was that of 27-year-old Mancunian Sergeant Norman Lingard and his crew in Lancaster R5501 EM-G. Just after lunch on March 28th they were engaged in a daylight cross-country exercise south of Lincoln when Cranwell based Miles Master DK793 flown by a pupil pilot, Lieutenant Linaker, began to carry out a series of unauthorized feint attacks. Unauthorized aerobatics of any kind were expressly forbidden. Many a trainee had been killed showing off, and on one pass witnesses on the ground saw the Master slice into R5501’s tail section, both aircraft spinning out of control to crash on the Bracebridge road. Lingard and fellow Sergeants Wood, Cox and Massey, along with the Master pilot were all killed instantly. Norman Lingard had already survived many operations as a second pilot and to die in such a way was particularly sad.
Fate was fortunately kinder to the crew skippered by Flight Sergeant J.J.N. McCarthy RNZAF. In the early hours of April 8th four crews were engaged in ‘circuits and bumps’. A gentle rain was falling as ‘Mac’ McCarthy in R5498 Z-Zebra turned into the wind to line up with Bottesford’s main runway. With the help of second pilot, Canadian Leo La Salle, McCarthy set the flaps fully down, lowered the undercarriage and allowed the Lancaster to sink slowly earthwards. ‘Zebra’ was approximately 300 feet from the end of the runway when a booster pump failed causing both starboard engines to cut out, starved of fuel. The Lancaster’s airspeed fell dramatically, and she quickly began sinking and turning to starboard. As she skimmed low over the Normanton/Bennington road a wing tip struck the corner of a nearby farmhouse, Normanton Lodge, and she slewed round and ‘bellied in’ close by. Bruised and shaken, McCarthy, LaSalle, wireless operator John Banfield and navigator Jack Leahy rapidly scrambled clear as the wreck caught fire. The wingtip had destroyed a chimney stack and removed the corner of a bedroom, inside which was the farmer’s young daughter, unharmed and miraculously still asleep! For many years afterwards the repairs to the house were visible, although when John Banfield visited the site in 1987 they could no longer be seen. A few weeks after the incident with R5498, McCarthy, indulging his passion for low flying, neatly clipped the chimney pots from the same farmhouse with his tail wheel. The first time, farmer Barnes had suffered the damage with reasonabiy good grace, but the second time around he was implacable!
207 was pronounced ready to return to 5 Group’s order of battle in time for the raid on the Baltic port of Rostock on the night of the 24/25th April. Four crews took part, but whilst in the vicinity of Heligoland the rear turret on L7582 became unserviceable and Ginger Hathersich reluctantly turned back. The other aircraft found Rostock unobscured, but on their return to Britain it was a different matter altogether, and poor visibility forced two of the three to divert to Waddington and Leeming respectively. It was an inauspicious start for the Lancaster in 207’s service, but the aircraft inspired confidence in a way that the Manchester never could. When in early May Thos Murray was posted ‘tour expired’ (Footnote 1) he was succeeded as commander of ‘A’ Flight by the newly promoted ‘Babe’ Ruth (Footnote 2). Although both were extremely popular, he and Ruth were as different in temperament as they were in appearance. Marie Cooper had fond memories of Ruth.
Along with his ability to command and his swift unequivocal decisions, he could just as swiftly reverse these if proved wrong. I witnessed a great performance in the Flight Office one day when he looked out of the window and saw someone make an appalling landing. ‘Send that chap in!’. Before the culprit could utter a word, Ruth launched in to a tirade, tearing him off a strip with enthusiasm. When the abashed pilot had retreated, the groundcrew came in to list the series of defects the aircraft had landed with. ‘Send him back in!’. On entry Ruth flung an arm around his junior’s shoulder, laughing his rather high pitched laugh, and said: ‘I gather I owe you an apology? Congratulations on that splendid landing you made – can’t think how you did it…!’.
Through those first depressing winter months a great camaraderie had developed amongst all ranks, not least because of the aerodrome’s isolated position and its lack of facilities. In the face of such adversities it was up to the men to make their own entertainment, with the result that they got to know one another much better than they might otherwise have done. For the more sedate the Officers’ and Sergeants’ messes had billiard and tabletennis tables, or one could sit reading, writing, or have a quiet drink in the ante room. However, on many occasions one drink would lead to another, culminating in a variety of mess games. Frank Roper remembered that favourites were ‘High Cockolorum’ and’ Are you there, Moriarty?’. The former involved piling furniture to the roof, and then clambering to the top, the winner being the one who could remain there. Avariation on the theme was to plant sooty hand or footprints across the ceiling. Needless to say, there were frequent accidents resulting in broken limbs, and the game was later banned on RAF stations.
Not long after the crash at Fiskerton Lake in November Charles Smith had re-crewed with Pilot Officer Leland. He remembered:
Our skipper was notoriously untidy in his dress, so one night after a party in the Mess we persuaded him to let us press his uniform in our room. After completing the job and several more drinks, he was about to set off to his own room on the other side of the airfield when it began to pour down with rain. Not wishing to get his freshly pressed uniform wet he insisted on wrapping it up in brown paper to keep it dry. Having done this he set off in the pouring rain dressed only in his underwear. Unfortunately he fell in a ditch, lost his uniform and arrived at his quarters soaking wet and covered in mild. He alerted the Guard Room to find his uniform – which they did the next morning. So much for our efforts to smarten lip our skipper!’
As a postscript to the story, having fallen in the ditch, Leland had apparently decided to make his way back to the Mess for a stiff drink. Unbeknown to him, several of the WAAF officers who had attended the party were still waiting for transport to take them back to their billets. Just as they were preparing to leave, the pilot burst in, soaking, and clad only in his air force issue long johns. With great presence of mind the senior WAAF officer, Bunty Vardon, seized a nearby greatcoat and hurriedly wrapped it around him to spare the blushes of her charges!
The railway line running through Bottesford offered access to the pubs and cinemas of Grantham or Nottingham. There was also a regular bus service but this was generally shunned by the WAAF’s wishing to avoid the attentions of the amorous builders who were still working on the aerodrome. Nottingham’s most famous attractions were The Trip to Jerusalem, The Flying Horse (or Airborne Nag) and the Black Boy, and for those who liked
dancing and the girls, The Palais de Danse – all well known to Bomber Command. Closer to home, Bottesford had The Red Lion (officers only) and The Bull Inn. The latter was used by airmen and had the distinction of being run by Stan Laurel’s sister. In Foston there was the Black Boy, another regular haunt, and even more popular (because they could be reached via Sewstern Lane without going past the Service Police) were Long Bennington’s The Reindeer and the Wheatsheaf. Others might take a bus to Newark, strike out on their bicycles deep into the Vale of Belvoir or perhaps hitch a lift on one of the many trucks travelling through Bennington on the AI.
The preferred form of transport for Sergeant Doug Barnes was a basic £3.19.9d model Royal Enfield bicycle, bought for him with the help of his aunt and uncle who lived in nearby Foston. He remembered that his disgust knew no bounds when he arrived back at Bottesford station after a day in Nottingham to discover that his bike had been stolen in preference to more expensive models! AC2 Dennis Bentley cycled to Nottingham whenever he could, and on the one occasion he did use the train he was picked up by the M.P.s on Nottingham Low Level station for wearing his hat ‘contrary to King’s regulations’ (it was in his pocket). When there were no passes available, the more daring airmen would exchange their gum boots for shoes, sneak across the boundary hedge and hitch to Nottingham. On their return the following morning they would smear their faces with a little grease or oil to pretend they had been working through the night, forge a late breakfast ‘chit’ and take their place in the dining hall. Food was relatively plentiful on the station, but because of the thousands of meals that had to be prepared every day, presentation sometimes left a lot to be desired. For this reason anything to supplement the rations was eagerly sought after. One armourer was encouraged by his hut companions to court a particularly unattractive farmer’s daughter because of her ready supply of fresh bread and eggs. His protests led to calls for him to remember where his loyalties were! The poor facilities available on a temporary aerodrome in comparison to the more comfortable pre-war examples made men go to great lengths to escape whenever possible. AC2 Ernie Spooner, an armourer from Nottingham, particularly recalled the resourcefulness of one ground crew NCO, a Flight Sergeant who built a concealed tank in the roof of his car designed to hold surreptitiously obtained aviation fuel. He would start the car on rationed petrol and then using a special tap, switch to 100 Octane, accompanied by much spluttering, banging and backfiring. By this method he commuted to and from his married quarters in Waddington and avoided spending off-duty hours at Bottesford. In the end he burned out his valves but preserved some semblance of marital bliss!
For airmen, opportunities for unwinding on the station were far more limited. Their socializing had to be done in the Y.M.C.A.next to the Airmens’ Mess, which contained a bar, a billiard room and a canteen. They could also attend filmshows in the station gymnasium, or the periodic shows put on by ENSA, the services’ concert party (unkindly referred to as ‘Every Night Something Awful’). One unexpected source of entertainment concerned charges of indecency brought against the Station Warrant Officer, the unfortunate man standing accused of propositioning an orderly in the sick quarters. SWO’s were generally not liked by airmen, because a major part of their responsibility was to enforce discipline and dispense punishment. A former Sergeant on 207 Squadron takes up the story:
The Court had assembled and the Defending and Prosecuting Officers had been called, the prisoner was called, and the Court Orderly went to the door and bellowed at the top of his voice, ‘Members of the Public’. All the ‘erks’ in Bottesford, or it seemed like all of them, tried to stampede through the door to witness the downfall of the Station Warrant Officer. They didn’t all get in, as it was quite a small courtroom. I seem to remember I was there, I must have been officiating in some way. The outcome was that he went down for twelve months hard labour, but the evidence which his ‘victim’ gave was quite amusing. He was asked firstly, ‘Had the Station Warrant Officer’s attentions been forced on him?’ ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘I was quite willing’. ‘Why, then, did you eventually complain about this?’ Addressing the Court, he said, ‘Well sir, I didn’t mind his attentions during duty hours, but he wanted me on my days off, and I thought that a bit much!’.
The room temporarily dissolved into uproar …
On the night of 22/23rd May the ‘B’ Flight commander, Penny Beauchamp and his crew in Lancaster R5499 EM-O took part in a very eventful mining sortie. Flying with him as second pilot was the Squadron commander, Charles Fothergill. The Beauchamp crew were briefed to lay their mines in the Fehrmarn Belt of islands, codenamed ‘Willows’, and took off at 2152 hours. The operation went smoothly until the port-outer engine stopped whilst the aircraft was still off Aero Island. The mines were therefore jettisoned ‘safe’ and Beauchamp set course back to England. In the clear conditions he decided it was prudent to keep as low as possible to avoid detection. As ‘0- Orange’ thundered over the Danish coast north east of Ringkjobing, tracer suddenly flashed towards them and they were fixed by searchlights.
Already low, the Lancaster struck the water a glancing blow as Beauchamp was temporarily blinded. He reacted quickly and hauled back on the control column. By now they had only two good engines, one with a buckled propeller. The navigator, Douglas Barnes remembered looking on in surprise as sea water shorted out his Gee navigation set and started an electrical fire, also putting out of action both the IFF device and the radios. The crew prepared for ditching, but by jettisoning everything removable they managed to gain just a little height and hover above stall speed. ‘Orange’ limped slowly westwards to cross the east coast at a little under 700 feet. She touched down at Bottesford at 0417 hours after a feat of outstanding airmanship.
Whilst the drama was unfolding, Squadron Leader Beauchamp’s wife Lianne, a WAAF officer in Code and Cypher, was at home asleep. They had met at Bottesford, and in April had asked Group Captain Swain for permission to marry. As Lianne Beauchamp wrote:
It all happened so quickly, like a dream. We were engaged on the Friday and married by special licence on the following Wednesday, for we only had ten days leave. Before leaving we had fixed up accommodation in Long Bennington. I no longer remember the name of the dear lady who let the rooms to us, but I do remember the huge bunch of golden daffodils she thrust into my arms as we drove off in ‘Pen’s’ little Morris Eight open tourer on that glorious spring moming, with not a care in the world!
Unusually for the services they were allowed to remain together on the station, and on nights when her husband was flying Lianne Beauchamp often slept in the WAAF Mess, keeping well away from operations. When the aircraft were due back she would sometimes assemble with the other WAAFs in Bunty Vardon’s room, mug of cocoa in hand, to listen on the wireless for the returning crews. After debriefing and breakfast, Squadron Leader Beauchamp would collect his wife from the Mess, by climbing through a window and carrying her back to his car. He was surprised one morning on doing this to see the headlights pointing heavenwards. The mystery was soon solved when he got closer and discovered he’d forgotten to put the handbrake on and the Morris had rolled backwards into a ditch. However, on the night that he got into difficulties over Denmark, his wife had gone back to their rented rooms in Long Bennington at ‘Quettadene’, and the first that she knew of the incident was when he woke her at seven. Sergeant Scotty Scott, a wireless operator with 207, had this to say of the incident:
When out mine laying, which was a fairly low-level business, crews used to come back and say ‘We got seaweed in the bomb bay’. Similar lines were constantly shot. On this occasion, when Beauchamp got back to Bottesford he was asked how he made out. He said ‘Some people say they had seaweed in the bomb doors, but go and have a look for yourself ..!’.
The training of crews had to be a continual process, either to make good operational losses or to replace those few lucky enough to finish their tour of operations. At this stage of the war a pilot would still have to serve a long apprenticeship as second pilot before becoming captain of his own aircraft. Because throughout 1942 escalating losses were placing a serious drain on trained pilots, it was decided that the post of second pilot on heavy bombers would be replaced by that of Flight Engineer. These were to be technically minded men whose task was to assist in monitoring instruments and fuel, effect minor repairs in the air, and as a last resort take over from a wounded pilot. They were easier to train than pilots, but would not begin reaching squadrons in any numbers until the end of 1942. Until then, for every single crew missing, two pilots would be lost.
In a strange quirk of fate, the day after Penny Beauchamp’s fine effort with R5499, his former second pilot, Sergeant Tom Paul RNZAF was badly injured in an accident whilst training-with his new crew. They had been sent on a night cross-country exercise over Wales and the south-west in Lancaster R5617. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated to such an extent that the recall signal was transmitted. Faced with a rapidly advancing weather front, the inexperienced Paul elected to try and avoid the worst effects of the storm by getting beneath the cloud base rather than climbing above it. In order to minimise the risk of colliding with high ground, it was standard procedure to fly well out to sea before beginning a descent in poor visibility. The crew probably believed they were over water, but at 2330 hours their Lancaster emerged from the murk and struck Standon Hill on the edge of Dartmoor. It disintegrated on impact, killing the second pilot Andrew Paterson and three others instantly. Tom Paul received severe head injuries, but the wireless operator, Sergeant Tom Whiteman miraculously escaped with only minor cuts and bruises. Fifty years on, the only local memories of the night R5617 crashed were of a Tavistock smallholder finding one of the crew’s watches. For Tom Paul luck was to remain elusive. He recovered, only to be killed in January 1944 in another accident.
Murray stayed at Bottesford and took over command of the Conversion Flight.
Squadron Leader W.D.B. Ruth DFC*, MiD was to be killed on his third tour of operations on June 12th 1944 flying with 201 Squadron. He is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.