Digby - RCAF Digby
Updated: 22 Nov 08
CHAPTER 3 - THE WAR YEARS
Before we deal with the war years in detail, it should be noted that some of the incidents claimed for Digby in this history took place at one of its satellites, Wellingore or Coleby Grange. As these airfields were temporary wartime strips, this seems reasonable. Where squadrons were split (eg No 29 to Shawbury and No 611 to Ternhill), their activities from these locations have not been covered.
The first squadron at Digby to see wartime ‘service’ was No 46 Sqn. At 2134 hours on 3 September 1939 they were ordered into the air to intercept an enemy raid which was approaching. They saw nothing and landed, without having done any fighting.
There was an air raid warning on that night. Everyone had been told to expect gas. As Corporal Taylor turfed out the men in his barrack block, he heard one of them coughing badly. He immediately ordered everyone to don gas masks before they ran to the nearest shelter, which was some little distance away. It was only next morning that he discovered that the man concerned was an extremely heavy smoker!
On 10 October 1939, No 611(West Lancashire) Squadron RAuxAF (which had Spitfires) joined Nos 46 and 229 Squadrons, which had Hurricanes and Blenheims respectively. Initially, the Squadron flew affiliation exercises with the other 2 squadrons and with Nos 44 and 144 Squadrons, who were equipped with Hampden light bombers. Both sides gained advantages from this practice, if only in aircraft recognition which was often so sadly neglected in World War II.
Later in the month yet another Blenheim Squadron arrived, No 29. With the Squadron came 3 very famous officers; Guy Gibson, ‘Bob’ Braham and Douglas Bader. It seems that the Squadron operated little from Digby; instead, the aircraft and pilots left early each morning for North Coates and returned again each evening. At much the same time, No 504 left Digby.
One of the first major air battles of the war took place on 21 October 1939 when Digy aircraft destroyed 4 Heinkel 115 torpedo bombers before they could damage either shipping or aircraft, Sergeant Mather of A Flight, No 611 Squadron — together with 2 Spitfires from No 72 Squadron, Church Fenton, made contact with 10 plus enemy near Mabelthorpe. Mather fired on the flank aircraft, which he saw diving steeply towards the sea. No 72 later claimed 2 enemy destroyed, but 611 made no claim, though it was felt that Mather had made some contribution.
[On 21 Oct 1939, 611 Sqn Spitfire joined Hurricane of A Flt, 46 Sqn, in incercepting and shooting down 7 He-115 biplanes off the Humber Estuary. This sortie is depicted on the plotting table of the Fighter Command Lima Sector Operations Room Museum at RAF Digby.]
On 24 October 1939, A Flight of No 46 Squadron engaged a force of enemy aircraft which were attacking the docks of Hull and Immingham. Three of the enemy were confirmed as destroyed and one as damaged. As a result of this battle, Squadron Leader R Barwell, the Commanding Officer of No 46, was awarded a DFC in December 1939. [confirm 21/24 Oct data from F540/ORB]
On 2 November 1939, King George VI made the first of his 2 visits to RAF Digby. In addition to inspecting 46 Sqn, he presented decorations to personnel from Digby and neighbouring stations. The recipients included Guy Gibson and Sqn Ldr Barwell, OC 46 Sqn, who both received a DFC.
On 8 January 1940, Wing Commander I R Parker assumed command of Digby. He had been a CO of No 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, and was one of the first auxiliaries to be given command of a station. By now, the squadrons were mainly engaged in escorting convoys in the North Sea. This task might sound mundane, but it was both dangerous and exacting.
On 28 February 1940, Sergeant Bruce of Green Section No 611 Squadron was killed on convoy escort duties. Weather conditions were so bad that he and his colleagues frequently had to fly below mast height to keep a check on their charges. Air Vice Marshal Leigh-Mallory, AOC No 12 Group, and the Admiral Humber Fleet commended the Squadron on its performance.
Also in February 1940, No 611 Squadron gained first place in No 12 Group’s rearming trials; 12 Spitfires in 14 minutes. By this time No 611 also had a detachment at RAF North Coates, where conditions were extremely primitive. Although not strictly a Digby story, it is amusing to note the comment on them in the Squadron’s record ‘Sent airman to buy enough aspirin and Alka Seltzer for 3 pilots with 6 headaches.’
229 Sqn lost a Blenheim Mk 1 (L6742) on 24 Feb 1940 whilst undertaking a night time searchlight co-operation exercise. The aircraft tragically crashed out of control at Toynton St Peter after being dazzled by searchlights. Records show that the aircraft had been flying lower than it should have been for searchlight co-operation and the crew did not give recognition signals. Sadly, all those aboard L6742 lost their lives as a result of the accident. They were:
On 8 Mar 1940, a Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampden bomber of 61 Sqn was returning from an abortive bombing patrol to Sylt, N Germany, during which it had suffered severe damage by enemy action. The aircraft, L4111, was plotted as just off the English coast at 02:00 hrs, however no requests for bearings were made until 3 hours later, with mist and enemy action holding them on the coastline. Subsequently the crew managed to navigate as far as Digby. The usual method of landing was to perform a left hand turn but, perhaps due to rudder problems, they had to attempt a right hand turn. The airfield's lights were not put on and, in the darkness, at 5:30am the plane crashed into a nearby field. The 4 crew, including pilot Fg Off Derek Clinkard, all perished.
No 29 Squadron moved to Wellingore in June 1940, but movement was not confined to the squadrons. Sometime that year, the Accounts Section was moved to Ashby Hall. This had been the seat of Lord Garvagh, whose kitchen gardens had, in peacetime, supplied many of the vegetables for the Officers’ Mess. The Accountant Officer used the library as his office; there hung a splendid portrait of His Lordship’s son - in an RFC uniform. The clerks used a splendid room overlooking the lake; the floor had only just been renovated, so to protect it, they covered it in felt. At that time, the Station was very much dispersed. As well as for Wellingore, and Coleby Grange, Digby had pay responsibility for some early radar stations. Today we are not sure when these were. Quite rightly at the time, no one asked any questions about them.
Edgar James Kain (27 June 1918 - 7 June 1940) was a New Zealand fighter pilot. Nicknamed "Cobber", Flying Officer Kain was the first RAF air ace of the Second World War, and also the first recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross in the Second World War. During the Battle of France in 1940, he scored 17 confirmed kills. He was a household name in Britain in early 1940
Sgt WJ 'Sticks' Gregory flew with 29 Sqn throughout the Battle of Britain. On the early morning of the 18 Aug 1940 he was flying with RA Rhodes when they chased a Ju 88 intruder for 35 minutes and shot it down. He finished it off with his Vickers machine gun in a long burst. Later in the war he was to fly as Wg Cdr Braham's AI operator in a famous, successful partnership, retiring as a Wg Cdr. 'Sticks' was one of the characters of the Sgts Mess and a top rate AI operator. His nickname stemmed from the days before joining the RAF when he was a professional drummer. He was mainly responsible for 29 Sqn's daily routine of not leaving the Sgts' Mess without Glenn Miller's 'n the Mood' being on the turntable as the transport arrived to take them night flying. You can imagine the mood of the time served WOs!
On the night of 24 August 1940, Pilot Officer Braham and Sgt Wilsden, flying a Blenheim of No 29 Squadron, shot down a Dornier over the Humber. Neither the action nor the aftermath were without incident. In his excitement, Wilsden managed to fire on a Hurricane, and after the event the Army claimed that AA fire had downed the Dornier. Graham was eventually credited with the kill.
Shortly after this, on an overcast day, Digby was attacked by a single JU 88. The last 2 of a stream of Hurricanes were still in the air at the time of the attack, but neither seems to have seen the enemy aircraft. He, unfortunately, seems to have seen them, as he dropped his bombs harmlessly on the airfield, fired a few desultory bursts from his machine guns and headed for the safety of the overcast.
By the late summer of 1940, direct entry to airmen began to arrive and swapped their best blues of training days for the world of blue overalls, black macs, roll—top sweaters, thick white stockings and rolled-down gumboots. It was essential always to have 3 particular items in one’s possession — a GS screwdriver, a fuel tank cap spanner and a pair of wellington boots! Often it happened that on leaving the muddy satellite at Wellingore gumboots would be retained f or the night crews just coning on duty. If one had no pre—warning of this arrangement, and did not have one’s gumboots with one, it was quite a sight for the Station Warrant Officer and those in the guardroom to see a Bedford track disgorge its load of bootless airmen, with the few who were shod piggy—backing the unlucky ones over rain—soaked paths back to their billets
29 Squadron soldiered on until September when the first Beaufighter arrived. This was received with quite a sense of awe and wonder because of its great size and the two huge Hercules engines. As they arrived in quantity, the new aircraft were allocated round the squad on, but the air and ground crew who operated the first of them were regarded as the ‘gen kiddies’ of the squadron. There was a lot to learn: and the habit of two riggers jack—knifing themselves over the tailfin of a Beau during engine run—up (as previously done on Blenheims) was soon abandoned before those poor unfortunates were blown off their feet by a howling slipstream. The early Beau had large drum ammunition for the four cannons, items which were none too popular with the AI operator in the rear fuselage, who had to re—arm with the heavy drums in poor light whilst in flight. Ground crews too found the four drums stacked across the fuselage floor a hazard, and the cause of many cut and bruised ankles. Engine priming had to be carefully watched — if there was little too much, either the engine would fail to fire or a sheet of fire would shoot out of the exhaust. The Beau was possibly the first such aircraft fitted with entry and exit escape hatches. When released for emergency in the air they caught the airstream, swung open, locked tight, and gave a clear drop for the pilot and his operator into space.
The early radar sets brought their teething troubles, with calls -that ‘M—Mother’ was returning with a ‘bent weapon’. Tail wheel troubles soon developed, with a nasty shimmying on landing, but eventually most snags were solved with new and better components, and the Beau settled down. One serious fault was stern frame cracks which occurred after a series of moderate landings. Engineers from the Bristol company stayed with No 29 squadron for many months, modifying and strengthening the stern frame. The overall black paintwork was also changed several times, ranging from a dull black which was slightly shiny, to a final sooty non—reflective black. Air crews were supplied with a tube placed near their seats to answer nature’s call on the cold winter nights, and occasionally a rather embarrassed pilot would return saying “I’ve used the P—tube, laddie’, and the rigger would have the job of flushing it out. One other minor snag concerned the air bottles on pilot dinghies which tended to inflate prematurely whilst the aircraft was in flight. This fault resulted in at least one fatal accident, and pilots later carried knives in their flying boots to puncture the dinghy should this occur
On 2nd October a thick blanket of cloud covered the entire East of England and much of the North Sea, a fact which had been reported by the Luftwaffes daily reconnaissance flights. This weather situation was ideal for a long intruder raid by the Luftwaffe using the Knickebein, ‘Crooked Leg’, blind bombing system. There was no relaxing the programne of flying training being carried out by No 151 Squadron and, while the German bomber was approaching its target, 2 Hurricanes took off from Digby for a routine training flight to practice battle formations and fighter tactics. The pilot of one of the aircraft was a newcomer to the Squadron while in the other aircraft there was one of the experienced survivors from the Battle of Britain -. Pilot Officer I S Smith.
The 2 Hurricane pilots were busy with their training flight when Digby operations called up Pilot Officer Smith and advised him that a hostile aircraft was in his vicinity. A Heinkel had been plotted by the Observer Corps: and this position was passed on. So, sending his No 2 home, Smith set off in pursuit of the enemy. Whe the position of the Hurricane and the Observer Corps plots coincided the target was nowhere to be seen below cloud. Smith climbed at full speed and at maximum angle until he was 4,000 feet or so above the tops of the cloud. Having satisfied himself that the raider was flying in the cloud he began to descend on the same heading as the target until just above the top of the cloud when he spotted what can only be described as a ‘mole run’. The German aircraft was flying so near the upper limit of the cloud cover that, although totally immersed, it was leaving a tell—tale wake which was visible from above. Smith synchronised his speed with the moving head of the run and then gently lowered his aircraft into the cloud until he could feel the slipstream from his target. He looked up from his instruments and there, but a few feet away, was the Heinkel. He was able to give the intruder a very quick burst of machine—gun fire before it disappeared from his view. This short burst caused serious damage to the Heinkel. Bullets entered the fuselage and put the Lorenz receiver out of action, thus depriving the crew of their all—important navigational aid, Furthermore, the starboard engine was hit and within seconds the oil pressure had dropped to nil and the engine seized up. The flight engineer, Oberfeldwebel Valentin Weidner, switched the propellor to the feathered position and then took up his position behind one of the machine guns situated in the waist of the aircraft. Struggling on one engine the aircraft began to lose height and broke cloud cover over the Old Leake Observer Corps post, and ahead to starboard of Smith.
Below the level of cloud the Hurricane pilot renewed his attack and in a pass from below and on the port quarter caused further damage, including shooting Weidner’s machine gun from its mounting. By now it was inevitable that the enemy machine was doomed and Smith broke off his attack. With the second engine stopped, the Heinkel went into a glide and the pilot made a successful wheels up landing on the beach, below high water mark, at Chapel St Leonards, the aircraft coming to rest about 300 yards from the end of Trunch Lane. Smith made one final pass over the enemy bomber and was able to see the crew jumping out of their ditched aircraft into the sea. He then returned to Digby to report his victory, the 100th kill for No 151 Squadron, and the 500th victory for No 12 Group aircraft. In 1968 the Heinkel’s engines, Junkers Jumo 211B’ were removed from their sandy resting place and one of the engines was passed to the Lincolnshire Aviation Museum at Tattershall, where it is still displayed.
In late October, No 46 had a new Commanding Officer when Squadron Leader K B B Cross took over from Squadron Leader Barwell. Squadron Leader Cross is probably better known for his later work in Bomber Command as Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, KCB CBE DSO DFC.
During 1940 there was a fair amount of movement of squadrons. in March, no 229 re—equipped with Hurricanes and did a short detachment to Wittering before leaving for good in June 1940. No 46 Squadron went to Norway with the Allied Expeditionary Force in May. In July, as a result of their operations n Norway, 2 pilots of No 46 Squadron received the DFC. The survivors returned from Norway later in the year and finally in September left Digby for North Weald.
Also in May, No 611 Squadron left Digby for a short period, in this case the destination was Dunkirk. The Squadron saw a great deal of fighting in France, and opened its official tally of victories with a claim of 8 aircraft destroyed. Back at Digby, No 611 helped re-form No 46 Squadron. Despite this, a detachment was again sent to Ternhill to help protect that vital training area. Those who remained at Digby were far from inactive. On 2 July 1940, a DO 215 was shot down into the sea off Withernsea. On 5 July 1940, a JU 88 was damaged off Spurn Head. (After the war, it was shown that this aircraft was destroyed as it attempted to land back at its base in France.) On 21 August, 3 DO 17Zs were destroyed, 2 off the Lincolnshire Coast and one near Burnham Market in Norfolk. On 30 August 1940, the Squadron went to Duxford, but were back on 5 September in time to give inconclusive chase to an enemy reconnaissance aircraft over Nottingham. Although the Squadron took part in several other operations in the Battle of Britain period, none were conclusive. Before leaving for Rockford on 12 December 1940, the Squadron managed to shoot down one aircraft, and to damage 2 more; one of the damaged aircraft landed in Lincolnshire and yielded 4 prisoners.
At about this time, another Squadron made a brief visit to Digby. No 151, a Hurricane Squadron, arrived in September and left in November 1940.
No 46 Squadron, back again for their last visit, engaged in convoy patrols and fighter defence. December 1940 saw 2 other events which are worthy of note. Firstly, a Pilot Officer F F E Yeo—Thomas was posted in ‘for training in intelligence duties’. Yeo—Thomas later became world—famous as the "White Rabbit". It is a pity that Bruce Marshal’s otherwise excellent biography tells us nothing of this (probably short) period of Yeo—Thomas’s life. and All we do know is the excellent use to which this training was later put during the war. Also significantly, in December, Digby had its first encounter with the Canadians, No 112 Squadron, later to be known as No 2 (Canadian) Squadron arrived.
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