Woodhall Spa’s World War II historical story
Each of the trail sites around Woodhall are marked by interpretation boards. These carry just a summary of information about each particular site with more detailed content to be found here. The boards link to the relevant page here by QR pads – you’ll need a smartphone with reader obviously to do so. Additionally, there is a Wartime Woodhall Heritage Trail leaflet available from the Cottage Museum.
The aim is to instigate community involvement whereby people contribute articles etc. to build upon our research. The interpretation panels will contain the knowledge and research we have now; and, the plan is for there to be links to the Cottage Museum site where additional content will be added as it arises (this will be moderated and not open for anyone to post).
Additionally, historical groups, military associations and individuals will be invited and indeed encouraged to contribute articles to the site content with due accreditation.
A Sea of Blue and Khaki
Woodhall Spa would have been a sea of blue and khaki with the population of the village increasing tremendously – the influx far exceeding those who had “gone away to war”. Estimates put the numbers of servicemen in and around Woodhall at between 4,500 – 5,000. This must have been a considerable shock to long-term residents, many of whom would have been above fighting age or in reserved occupations such as agriculture.
A number of seminal events were initiated from Woodhall: from here 617 Squadron undertook the majority of its wartime operations using the revolutionary Tallboy and Grand Slam earthquake bombs; and, 627 Squadron took part in the Berlin raids on Stuttgart, Brunswick and the attack on the Gestapo HQ in Oslo.
Additionally, the 1st Airlanding Brigade who fought at Arnhem were based here in Woodhall. The Brigade, which comprised three infantry battalions along with supporting units, requisitioned hotels, billeted soldiers with local families and occupied hutted camps at Roughton Moor.
An Early Reveille for Woodhall Spa
St Andrew’s Church was damaged by a German parachute mine on 17 August 1943 – the same device that badly damaged the Royal Hotel (site of present day Royal Square). It was thought too costly to repair the hotel so it was demolished. And, the church was finally demolished in 1957, but the graveyard remains.
Troops being stationed in or around Woodhall Spa would arrive at Woodhall Junction and march into the village along the Witham Road. The King’s Own Scottish Borderers, arriving on 4th December 1943, did just this led by their Pipes and Drums, marching through Woodhall Spa and onto Kirkby Moor Camp to take up their role as airlanding infantry and part of 1st Airlanding Brigade.
Local residents recall standing here on Chapman’s Corner watching survivors from the action at Arnhem in September 1944, being brought back into the village on military trucks after being flown home into RAF Woodhall Spa. Memories are of locals cheering and clapping, and handing out cigarettes to the returning men, some of whose uniforms were torn, and many with bandaged wounds.
Tallboy and Grand Slam
The Petwood was requisitioned by the military authorities early in the war and initially used as an army brigade headquarters defending the Lincolnshire coastline and providing searchlight and Ack-Ack batteries around the bomber airfields. In early ‘44 619 Squadron departed Woodhall for Coningsby and then the Petwood became the Officers’ Mess for 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron which had moved from RAF Scampton with Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC as the Commanding Officer.
The remains of an ‘Upkeep’ bomb (nicknamed the ‘Bouncing Bomb’) prototype can be found in front of the hotel. Within the hotel there is The Squadron Bar, packed with Lancaster and Squadron memoribilia. The hotel grounds once had more statues than can be seen today, but these were used as targets for revolver and Sten gun practice by officers, both officially and after Mess Dinners.
It was while based at RAF Woodhall that 617 carried out their raids using the revolutionary new “earthquake bombs”.
The early days
The story of 617 Squadron cannot begin without a mention of Barnes Wallis, who worked for Vickers Aircraft at Weybridge in Surrey. He had an idea that if the oil, electric and water supplies to the munitions factories in Germany could be destroyed the war would be cut short. One of the main sources of water used in the manufacture of arms was held in the upper part of the Ruhr Valley. This water was fed from Möhne, Sorpe, Eder, Lister and Ennepe Dams to the towns of Dortmund, Hagen, Wuppertal, Gladbach and the famous Krupp works at Essen. All of these dams were surrounded by high ground and would therefore be difficult to attack with any great accuracy. To add to his many problems there were no bombs available to destroy these very large targets. After many weeks’ research he came up with the idea of a bomb which bounced across the surface of the water. The principle was accepted by the Air Ministry and the go-ahead given by Bomber Command for the formation of a special squadron to carry out the attack.
A squadron is formed
It was decided that 5 Group, under the leadership of Air Chief Marshal The Hon. Sir Ralph Cochrane, CBE, KCB, AFC, would be responsible for setting up the entire operation. Cochrane decided he would require someone with very good leadership and experience in bomber operations to form the squadron and lead the raid. He chose Wing Commander G. P. (Guy) Gibson, DSO (Bar), DFC (Bar), who had just completed 99 operations. He was at this time flying with 106 Squadron at RAF Syerston. He was called to Cochrane’s office in 5 Group headquarters at St. Vincent’s on the outskirts of Grantham. With only very little information given to him he accepted the challenge.
RAF Scampton was the airfield chosen for the squadron. They were called X Squadron in the early days as no number was allocated at that time. It was some time later they were given the number 617.
The first thing Gibson had to do was to select his crews. He was given free choice of any aircrew from within 5 Group.
Needless to say he chose very wisely and picked the crews, which, in his opinion, were most suited to the operation. A total of 21 crews were formed but only 19 aircraft went on the actual raid. Aircraft and crew began to arrive with their ground crews and back-up equipment. The aircraft were specially modified Lancasters. To save weight the mid upper turret was removed, along with the bomb doors. The bomb weighed 5 tons and was similar in shape to a 40 gallon barrel, but much larger. To stop the bomb sinking immediately it hit the water, it was spun backwards in vee type supports, suspended from the underside of the aircraft. Wallis found out during trials that the best height to drop the bomb was 60 feet above the water, with the bomb rotating at 500 r.p.m. The standard Lancaster altimeter would be unsuitable for such a difficult operation, so the aircraft were fitted with two Aldis lamps under the fuselage. The lamps shone down on the water and when the circles formed a figure of eight, the aircraft was at the correct height.
During April and the early part of May the crews trained for the raid. The water levels in the dams would be at their highest during the latter part of May. It was decided that the raid would take place on the 16/17 May.
The aircraft took off in three waves, the first and third waves taking the southern route, with the second wave taking the northern route. The crews, flying Lancasters with the code AJ, had one or two problems to and from the targets. The raid was a great success, however, and a large amount of damage was done: the most serious damage being the breaching of the Möhne Dam. Of the 19 aircraft that took off for the raid, 2 returned before reaching the target, due to damage, and 8 aircraft failed to return at all. In all 53 aircrew died in the raid and 3 were taken prisoners of war. It was a sad day when the full details of the losses were revealed, and Barnes Wallis was heartbroken at the loss of so many young aircrew. For his contribution, Guy Gibson was awarded the V.C. Many of the remaining aircrew were awarded medals for their efforts during the attack.
After the dams
Following the loss of so many aircrew and aircraft it took some weeks to build the squadron back up to its full operating strength.
During this build-up period, Bomber Command decided to keep 617 Squadron as a special operating squadron. In late August 1943 they moved to RAF Coningsby. This was to allow the old grass runways at Scampton to be replaced by concrete runways. At this time the squadron was led by Wing Commander G. W. Holden who took over from Gibson soon after the dams raid. He led an attack on the Dortmund Ems Canal during the night of 16th September 1943. Due to bad weather the squadron lost over 60% of their aircraft along with the aircrews. Commander Holden was also lost, with most of Guy Gibson’s dams raid crew. Squadron Leader H. B. “Mick” Martin took over as temporary CO until a new one could be found. A young Group Captain by the name of Leonard Cheshire was looking for an operational squadron, but to take the job he had to agree to drop down a rank to Wing Commander.
The final move
Leonard Cheshire had completed a full tour of operations on Halifax bombers at Marston Moor. Soon after his arrival at 617 Squadron he was sent to RAF Bottesford to be checked out on the Lancaster bomber. It was not long after Cheshire took over that it was decided by 5 Group headquarters to move the squadron yet again, this time to a much smaller airfield four miles north of Coningsby at RAF Woodhall Spa. The squadron was slowly building up its crews and aircraft to operating strength for a second time. They were becoming known in 5 Group as the “Suicide Squadron”.
During this time the aircraft had been fitted with a new type of bomb sight called the Stabilising Automatic Bomb Sight. This required a great deal of skill to operate. The aircraft now carried new code letters KC, on their Lancaster. The surviving aircraft from the dams raid still carried their AJ code.
Cheshire learned a great deal about low flying from Mick Martin and from this developed a new marking technique. In the early raids of 1944 Cheshire used his Lancaster, but decided he would like to have a smaller, lighter and faster aircraft. After some talks with 5 Group headquarters he was given a Mosquito from the night fighter base at RAF Colby Grange. This proved so successful that he acquired several more. This enabled the squadron to mark its own targets and, in the event of a problem, have back-up support.
Many raids were carried out during the period January 1944 to April 1944. The squadron began training in May for the D Day Spoof Raid, known as Operation Taxable. This operation was the dropping of “Window” (long thin strips of silver paper, which, when picked up by radar, looked like a large fleet of ships) at regular intervals. This was to give the impression to the German land forces that a large seaborne attack was taking place, when in fact the actual attack was on the Normandy beaches.
Two nights later saw the squadron again in operation, this time on the Saumur Tunnel. The Germans were moving large quantities of ground troops by rail to the Normandy beaches. Most of this rail traffic went through a tunnel about one mile west of the town of Saumur. This raid was very successful in two ways – firstly the tunnel was destroyed, and secondly it used the Tallboy bomb for the first time. The Tallboys were the brain-child of Barnes Wallis and had a total weight of 12,000 lbs. The special design of the nose gave them a great deal of penetration when dropped from 16-20,000 feet. They became known as the Earthquake Bomb, due to the large amount of damage they caused.
Soon afterwards, and no doubt as a result of the Saumur Tunnel damage, the squadron were called upon to attack E-Boat pens in Le Havre and Boulogne, with their new Tallboys. During the rest of June and July the Squadron attacked V2 (A4) sites at Watten and Wizerns. A V1 site at St. Pol called Siracourt was successfully attacked on the 4th July. The squadron attacked the only V3 site in Europe at Mimoyecques.
A change takes place
In mid July Cheshire was taken off operations along with the Flight Commanders. A new CO arrived in the person of Wing Commander P. B. Tait, known to his friends as “Willie”. He appointed new flight commanders and carried on with the well-proven methods. He carried on with raids on the V1 and V2 sites. During August the squadron went over to attacking the U-boat pens in Brest, La Pallice and Ijmuiden.
The final change
In late December 1944 Willie Tait, who was sometimes now called “Tirpitz Tait”, was taken off operations and a new CO took office. He was a Canadian called Johnny Fauquier and had a rank of Group Captain. He led raids on shipping and several viaducts in the following months.
The third weapon designed by Barnes Wallis, the 22,000 lb. Grand Slam, was introduced in March of 1945. 617 Squadron received special Lancasters with the code letters YZ and a new daylight camouflage. These special Lancasters had many modifications to enable them to carry this, the largest bomb carried by any air force in World War II. The bomb doors were removed, together with the turrets, and the aircraft were fitted with special heavy-duty undercarriages. The first Grand Slam was dropped on the Bielefeld Viaduct on 14th March 1945.
The final raid of the war was on Berchtesgaden. This was known to be the holiday home of Hitler, and it was thought that he was there at the time of the raid.
So ended the operations of 617 Squadron during World War II. Guy Gibson left the squadron and went on a tour of America. On his return he found himself sitting behind a desk. After many requests, he was posted to 54 base RAF Coningsby, and during September 1944 went on a raid to Rheydt, as the master bomber. After giving his final instructions over the target, nothing was ever heard from him again. His Mosquito, from 627 Squadron, crashed on the way home in Holland. His navigator, Squadron Leader Jim Warwick, DFC, was also killed, and they are buried side by side in the cemetery at Steenberg in Holland.
During the twenty-four months the squadron operated they took part in over 100 bombing operations and lost 204 aircrew.
They still carry with pride, as they did during the war, their famous name: “THE DAMBUSTERS”.
A memorial in the Royal Square at Woodhall Spa serves as a permanent reminder of those who gave their lives for our freedom.
Researched and written by JIM SHORTLAND and displayed in 2002.
The Flicks in the Sticks
Affectionately known as ‘The Flicks in the Sticks’, the Kinema was a popular venue for airmen and troops based in the area.
The building was originally a sports and entertainment pavilion dating from the late 19th century. The pavilion sat in the grounds of The Victoria Hotel looking over tennis courts, croquet lawns and gardens.
The accommodation during the wartime years was described as being spartan, comprising old benches and some sofas. And then, deckchairs formed the front several rows of seating but was reserved for officers. This original seating was later replaced by ‘proper’ seating salvaged from a bombed Nottingham cinema.
Whilst used for entertaining troops, it is thought that the Kinema may well have been used for showing operational briefing and training films to the military.
From Galloway to Arnhem
The Dower House, a private house at that time, was the Headquarters of the 7th Battalion the King’s Own Scottish Borderers – one of the three infantry Battalions that comprised the 1st Airlanding Brigade based here in Woodhall at Kirkby Moor Camp.
The 7th KOSBs was a Territorial unit recruited in Galloway that came to Woodhall from the Orkney and Shetland islands where it had the role of being the Defence Force. It was the only Scots and Territorial unit to fight at Arnhem and this action would be its first and last action in the war. Lt Col Robert Payton-Reid was the commanding officer, who would be the only battalion commander to return with his unit from the battle.
The 7th KOSBs flew to Arnhem in 56 Horsa gliders from Down Ampney and Blakehill Farm, and a Hamilcar glider from Tarrant Rushton.
The Battalion’s strength was of 765 officers and men when it went in to fight at Arnhem, of this total only 76 were evacuated. Of the others: 112 officers and men died in action and a further 577 missing in action.
All In This Together
Now shops and offices, in the war years, Mathew Temple House was a NAAFI and Women’s Volunteer Service Canteen. Additionally, it was used as accommodation for military nurse. No doubt an attractive place for the troops to visit. NAAFI is the acronym for Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes: an organisation providing canteens, shops, etc., for British military personnel at home or overseas.
The scale of the influx of servicemen and women into Woodhall would have been a sudden culture shock for the local population. In addition to the 4,500 – 5,000 servicemen stationed and camped in and around Woodhall, there would have been the Women’s Land Army and a considerable number of Italian PoWs in the area who worked on local farms: though not housed in the village, they lived in nearby camps.
The fact that, gauged by the local press of the period, they all seem to have been welcomed and that there was generally no ill-feeling or trouble suggest that an ethos of ‘we’re all in it together’ prevailed.
Written by Jim Haskins
No.627 Squadron was in existence for a total of 688 days and unusually for the period, the ground, technical and administrative staff, remained almost the same people for the entire life of the unit. As for the aircrew, the vast majority of those who formed with the Squadron in November 1943 were still on the Squadron’s operational strength at the end of 1944. This fact alone probably made the Squadron one of the closest knit communities of the war. The Squadron was equipped with the extremely versatile de Havilland Mosquito twin-engine fighter-bomber and was given the identification letters of AZ.
Wing Commander Roy Elliott was the first Commanding Officer and he led a friendly and ultra efficient squadron. The aircrews had been handpicked from across a wide variety of backgrounds and were put to together to form a new squadron of fast and agile bombers and latterly to create a niche ability of accurate target marking for the heavy bomber squadrons – the brainchild and inspiration of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire of No.8 Group.
On 14 April 1944 the Squadron detached to No. 5 Group in Lincolnshire and the small village of Woodhall Spa. Their task was to carry out low-level visual marking of precision targets, a system initiated by the requirement of avoiding civilian casualties in occupied countries, notably France, while destroying strategic and tactical targets such as factories, marshaling yards and flying bomb depots in support of ground forces before, and after D-Day.
The Mosquitos of 627 Squadron were modified for low-level visual marking by removing the customary bomb sight and replacing with a standard fighter gun button on the right hand arm of the control column thereby transferring the actual release of Target Indicators to the pilot.
At night, the Lancasters of 83 and 97 Squadron would illuminate the target area selected, and the Mosquitos would then locate the precise aiming point and dive from 5000ft to low level and mark the actual target with their Target Indicators – bright illuminated markers that then allowed the heavy bombers to bomb with vastly improved accuracy.
Other duties aside from bombing raids, included Window-Dropping: an early technique for confusing German radars by dropping large quantities of tin foil; mine laying (in German canals) and photographic reconnaissance.
The Squadron remained with No. 5 Group until victory had been won and during this period figured in such notable attacks as those against Munich on 24/25th April 1944; the Gestapo Headquarters at Oslo on 31St December 1944; and Wesel on 23rd/24th March 1945, just before the crossing of the Rhine.
It was while flying on operations in a Mosquito of 627 Squadron on 19/20th September 1944, that Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, met his death. He had acted as Master Bomber in a raid on Rheydt near the Ruhr (he was Base Operations Officer, No. 54 Base at the time and had volunteered for this mission), and his aircraft crashed in Holland on the return journey killing both himself and his navigator.
An extract from the memories of Peter Walker – ‘The Hard Way Back to Base’
Mosquito DZ479 ‘F’ of 627 Squadron crewed by Leslie (Doggie) Simpson, pilot and myself, navigator, took off bound for Berlin. After flying with 139 Squadron this was our first operation with 627. Before leaving the English coast it was found that the GEE navigation set was unserviceable but it was decided to carry on using Dead Reckoning navigation with the forecast winds. This proved to be highly dangerous as, instead of Southerly winds, it was later reported that the winds had veered to the North and strengthened.
Apart from the occasional burst of flak nothing amiss happened until, some one hundred miles from Berlin, in the region of Magdeburg, a predicted burst of flak took out the starboard engine. Doggie Simpson decided to carry on to the target on one engine. At a much reduced height and twenty minutes late on target, Berlin was bombed and the aircraft turned for the journey home. Unfortunately there was no way of obtaining a visual pinpoint and those unreliable winds were used.
At approximately 23.59hrs a terrific barrage of flak was encountered during which time the aircraft was continuously hit. The aircraft was then at a very low altitude with a considerable number of pieces missing from the airframe. After passing through this area, later presumed to be the Ruhr, we continued for a further fifty minutes when at 00.50hrs the aircraft was abandoned.
Our Mosquito ‘F’ Freddie had flown 2hrs with both engines functioning and 4hrs single engine, a total of 6hrs – it was time finally to leave the stricken ‘Freddie’. After a rough parachute descent I landed in a tree, smoked a cigarette, climbed down, buried my parachute and started to walk. During the next hour I continually had to jump into the ditch to avoid German cars and motor cycles rushing to the scene of the burning aircraft. I eventually came across a small farmhouse and, taking a risk, I knocked at the door. The farmer and his wife confronted me and seeing my Mae West heavily stained with blood, quickly ushered me in. I was handed a large pitcher of cider and some bread and cheese and, using my schoolboy French, I learned that I had landed near le Beny Bocage in the Calvados region of France.
This couple, knowing the risks they were taking, hurriedly saw me to the door and directed me to the road to the coast. I had not walked far when I saw in a layby, a large van. Without thinking, I jumped into the back and within minutes, probably due to the cider, I was asleep. Before dawn I awoke and climbed out only to see that on the side of the vehicle was the German insignia – probably one of my very few mistakes whilst on the run. Within a mile I came across another small farm but this time I was greeted at the door by a middle aged lady who, seeing my state, did all she could to help. I lived in her barn for five days, being fed and watered at regular intervals.
Resistance workers from the area had been contacted and at the end of my stay in the barn I was taken by them to Caen where false documents were produced. My name was Pierre Andre and I was a hairdresser by trade. Of course, by this time, I was suitably attired in civilian clothes. From Caen I travelled by train to Paris, where I had my first encounter with the SS. From Paris I was escorted on a train to Lyons where the local Resistance arranged for my transfer to the Maquis in the mountainous district of Savoie. Life with the Maquis was very rough and I had many frightening experiences including my involvement in preparing “plastique’ for blowing up a party of Germans.
During January an SOE agent paid a visit to the barn in which we were domiciled and said that there was no possibility of crossing into Spain. That decision left only one choice: Switzerland, which was only 50 miles away. To walk to the frontier took nearly a fortnight and was crossed on the night of 24 February. On being interviewed by the British Consul in Berne it was made clear that evaders entering in civilian clothes were not interned and, having possession of emergency passports, were allowed freedom of travel within the Swiss borders. Until 1 April I stayed at a hotel in Arosa and then went on to Montreux.
Shortly after “D” Day I spent a short holiday in Zurich where, with the aid of a very attractive young woman, I made arrangements with members of the French Resistance to return to France. In July l attempted to cross the Franco-Swiss frontier at Annemasse but, unfortunately, I was caught climbing the wire. I was committed to Geneva prison for trying to leave the country illegally. On the day following my release, however, I planned my second attempt, this time in a much more uninhabited area in the mountains and successfully crossed the frontier at an altitude of 2235 metres. I rejoined the Maquis at Abondance and with them went via Annecy and Chambery to cross through the fighting lines just north of Grenoble, where I met the United States forces.
Although in civilian clothes, I was allowed by the Americans to travel reasonably freely and was able to make plans to complete my return to the UK, which was done quickly, by going to St. Maxime in Provence from whence I obtained passage aboard a Liberty ship to Naples, then a flight to Casablanca via Tunis and finally another trip by US aircraft to St. Mawgan, Cornwall.
I returned to 627 Squadron, still in civilian clothes and wearing a very nice line in brogue shoes, courtesy of the Swiss.
B Flight – Douglas ‘Gerry’ Garton
I reported in to 627 Orderly Room early in November 1943 to Chiefy Dobson and Flight Lieutenant Levander, the Squadron Adjutant, and then into a room full of admin clerks to ask for the “Gharry” driver to take me to “B” Flight dispersal. A bundle of WAAF clothing and greatcoat unwrapped itself from around the coke stove and spoke up identifying it as the driver. Then I noticed the CANADA shoulder flashes and the first words I spoke were to ask if she had brought enough dowry with her to marry me (Jo Kearny no less – now Mrs Garton). At dispersals I met Jock Taylor, Flight Sergeant of “A” Flight — we were of the same entry at Halton and became very good friends and working partners, let alone good drinking pals.
Established in my new job I painted caricatures on the noses of several Mosquitos, some of which can be seen in the squadron photographs.
In April 1943 when we moved to Woodhall Spa it was the first time many of us had been on a wartime dispersed camp of Nissen huts, and with cold water in the ablutions, everything miles apart, we found it a little hard. We shared a Nissen hut with NCOs from Maintenance Flight and there was some friction between us when Maintenance re-sprayed the Mosquitos, removing all bomb scores, crests and nose art. This caused several days of work on the section and was not much good for morale.
The Flight accommodation was unsatisfactory at the outset, with the two Flights complete with Armourers, Electricians and Instrument wallahs all in one large hut. This was soon rectified when we sawed 16 feet off the end of the hut and removed it to “B” Flight dispersal, where we made ourselves slightly more comfortable. My carpentry apprenticeship in Scunthorpe had come in useful!
We were fortunate in having Mosquitos, they were user friendly aircraft as far as flight servicing was concerned, as at the time there was a shortage of high quality fitters and riggers. We could usually muster 18 fitters and riggers provided there had been no operations during the previous night, and we all had our work cut out. In spite of this shortage we maintained a particularly high standard of serviceability due mainly to the enthusiasm of all concerned, everyone realising they were on a first class squadron with outstanding aircrews, doing an extremely worthwhile job. At the time the dive marking practice at Wainfleet range was returning an average bombing error of only 17 feet.
In view of the shortage of ground crews I had the idea of having three Mosquitos on each hard-standing, with tails over the edge on gravel or tarmac “obtained” from somewhere. This made things much easier and saved ground crews a considerable amount of running around. The station engineering department wanted the aircraft widely dispersed, but we were supported by our CO in arguing serviceability as against the history of successful enemy attacks on Bomber Command airfields in recent years. 627 Squadron won the battle.
I was on duty the night Wing Commander Guy Gibson appeared at the Flight to sign the FTUU. and to take Mosquito BXX KB267 “AZ-E” on Master Bomber duties to Munchen Gladbach, from which he did not return. This meant that I had seen him off on his first wartime operation on 83 Squadron, in L4070 “OL-C” and on his last operation.
There were always incidents on a wartime blacked out airfield, and I recall one night I was going back to debriefing with the aircrews after operations, with Jo driving and I was in the cab with her. All the Mosquitos were back bar one, which had diverted to another airfield. Unknown to us, the pilot had changed his mind and was coming home – In the dimness of the blacked out headlights we were suddenly confronted by a Mosquito taxiing at about 35 mph on the perimeter track, straight for the crew coach. Jo reacted with great alacrity and swerved off into the grass and mud. There were loud shouts from the rear as crews sorted themselves out from their parachutes and nav bags, and they gave us a hard time – being unaware as to the cause of the violent change of course. We learned later that the crew of the taxiing aircraft had not seen us, and were unaware of the incident.
In September 1944 I was standing at the bus queue across the road from the guardroom at Tattershall Thorpe when I noticed, alongside me, one of our Navigators, Sergeant Peter Walker, who had been shot down and had got home via neutral territory. He was wearing civvies and when I admired his very good looking brogue shoes he told me he had obtained them in Switzerland.
Calling to mind those far-off days has had a somewhat strange effect; as each memory has come into being so it has called up further memories until I am surprised with what I can call to mind. I remember a unit which was efficient, cohesive and very friendly, a unit which did a job, the importance of which has never been adequately declared, a unit which carried out a task, the effectiveness of which was way in excess of its small size.
A Special Affection For The Mosquito – J. R. “Benny” Goodman DFC* AFC AE
Since the beginning of 1944 the Dam Busters (617 Squadron), led by Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, had been successful in marking and destroying small industrial targets, at night. To do this, Cheshire had dropped flares over the target and by the light of these had marked the target with red spot fires dropped visually from his Lancasters in a shallow dive at low level, This technique was to achieve far-reaching results later in the year and heralded an improvement in hitting power in Bomber Command.
The brilliant AOC of No.5 Group, Air Vice-Marshal the Hon. Ralph Cochrane, was quick to appreciate that if a single aircraft could mark a target accurately for a squadron then it should be possible for a squadron of properly trained crews to mark targets with similar accuracy for the whole Group. The Lancaster was a splendid aircraft but was vulnerable to light flak at low level; a more manoeuvrable aircraft was required for the operations Cochrane had in mind.
Leonard Cheshire was well aware of the limitations of the Lancaster and had already decided that the best aircraft for low level marking was the Mosquito, he briefed the AOC on his ideas and this led to the meeting at Bomber Command Headquarters which resulted in the redeployment of 627 Squadron from Oakington to Woodhall Spa and 83 and 97 Lancaster Squadrons from their respective Pathfinder bases to Coningsby. No.5 Group was about to receive its own Pathfinder Force and 8 Group was no longer to enjoy its hitherto unchallenged monopoly over Pathfinder tactics.
No hint of these momentous events reached the crews of 627 Squadron in the ‘trenches’ at Oakington. We had, of course, heard of Leonard Cheshire, but he belonged to 5 Group – the Independent Air Force as it was known in Bomber Command. We were too busy attending to our daily grind in 8 Group to concern ourselves unduly with what the glamour boys of a rival Group were doing.
My Flying Log Book reveals in its cold, unremarkable way that in early April, Bill Hickox and I went to Cologne, Essen, Hanover and Osnabruck, the last of these taking place on the 12th. The Osnabruck trip was interesting because it coincided with the arrival at Oakington of the radio celebrity Stewart McPherson and an Outside Broadcasting team. They had come to record a typical operation by a Mosquito squadron and the results were to be broadcast next day on Radio Newsreel at 4pm.
McPherson and his merry men installed themselves at the upwind end of the runway in use and recorded some very good noises of Mosquitos taking off. Then, while we were engaged over the “Third and Last Reich” they were briefed on what the trip was about; and finally they set up their gear in the Control Tower to record the landing of the Squadron.
Early next morning l rushed to the GPO telephone in the Officers’ Mess and called my wife in Sutton, Surrey, urging her to listen to Radio Newsreel that afternoon. She did so, as did all the neighbours and heard my one and only broadcast on the BBC Home Service. They were all thrilled to bits. How strange that such a little thing somehow means so much, especially in times of trouble.
That day coincided with the announcement that 627 Squadron was to re-deploy to Woodhall Spa, and two days later Bill Hickox and l insinuated ourselves into DZ484 “G” George and flew to Lincolnshire with the rest of the Squadron. After landing, we were formed into a single line and the Station Commander arrived with what I can best describe as a bevy of brass. It was the AOC with his principal staff officers. He moved along the line with Wing Commander Elliott, our CO, who introduced us individually to the great man.
Within a few minutes I found myself looking into the cold eyes of a tall, rather ascetic man, who abruptly welcomed me to 5 Group and moved on along the line. Why had he taken the trouble to meet us? Such a thing was unheard of in bomber circles- We all felt somewhat uneasy. Obviously something was ‘up’ and it promised to be bloody dangerous.
The next day, the whole Squadron journeyed by bus to Coningsby and were directed to the Station Cinema. Here were assembled all crew members of 83 and 97 Lancaster Pathfinder Squadrons, our own Squadron, the AOC and his entourage, and Leonard Cheshire. The AOC opened the meeting by saying that a number of successful attacks had been made by 617 Squadron on important pinpoint targets and it was now intended to repeat these on a wider scale. The Lancaster Pathfinder Squadrons were to identify the target area on H2S and were to lay a carpet of flares, under which 627 Squadron would locate and mark the precise aiming point. The target would then be destroyed by 5 Group Lancaster bombers. So that was it – we were to become low-level visual markers, and it did sound dangerous.
Cheshire now took the stand and explained carefully how the low-level marking business was done. What the Lancasters had to do was lay a concentrated carpet of hooded flares, the light from which would be directed downwards onto the target, making it as bright as day. A small number of Mosquitos – four or possibly six – would orbit, find the aiming point, and then mark it in a shallow dive with 11lb spot-fires. Marker Leader would assess the position of the spot-fires in relation to the aiming point and would pass this information to a Master of Ceremonies in one of the Pathfinder Lancasters, the MC would then take over and direct the main force Lancasters in their attack on the target.
On returning to Woodhall, the CO called the Flight Commanders to his office and an intensive programme of dive bombing at Wainfleet Bombing Range was worked out. Although Leonard Cheshire had said we must fly low for the best results it was decided to try dropping smoke bombs from various levels. Attempts were made to dive bomb from 15,000ft and, when this failed, from progressively lower heights. In the end we found it was as Cheshire had said – to get a smoke marker close to the target in the Wash we had to fly at around 2,000ft and then dive directly at the blob in the sea; down, down, until it was held in the middle of the windscreen, then ‘Bomb away’.
This time, however, it was not Master Hickox who did the releasing of the bomb. I had a button on the control column and merely had to press it with my right thumb when I judged that the correct moment had arrived. It was entirely a matter of practice, and within a very short time the crews of 627 Squadron could plop their markers right alongside the Wainfleet target. The question now was – could we do this under battle conditions?
We did not know that plans for the invasion of France – Operation Overlord – required destruction of the French railway system leading to the landing areas. The best way of doing this was by employing heavy bombers, but grave doubts existed at the highest level as to the accuracy with which this could be done. Winston Churchill was adamant that French lives must not be lost needlessly and eventually it was agreed that 5 Group should under – take a mass attack on a marshalling yard in the Paris area to prove the case one way or the other. Juvisy was selected as the target and on 18 April the marshalling yard was attacked by 200 Lancasters led by Leonard Cheshire and a small force of Mosquitos – 627 Squadron participating as ‘under instruction’. One of our pilots, Jim Marshallsay, was not detailed for the trip but thumbed a ride in a 617 Squadron Lancaster.
The attack on Juvisy was a bombing classic; the railway yards were marked at each end with red spot fires and the heavy bombers laid their cargoes between the target indicators. The bombing was concentrated, the yards were put out of action, few French lives were lost and all participating aircraft returned safely to base. The railway yards were so badly damaged that they were not brought back into service until 1947. The real test of the new tactics had still to be made – against targets in Germany. No.5 Group were therefore unleashed against three of these targets in quick succession – Brunswick on April 22, Munich two nights later, and Schweinfurt on April 26. After these attacks the Group turned exclusively to support of the bombing campaign against interdiction targets for Operation Overlord.
Much has been written about the all-5 Group blows on the German targets mentioned. So far as Brunswick and Munich were concerned, considerable damage was done; and in the case of Munich 90% of the bombs fell in the right place, doing more damage in one night than had been achieved by Bomber Command and the United States 8th Air Force in the preceding four years.
The flexibility and superiority of the new system was clearly revealed and, speaking for myself, I found the business of marking a German target no worse than marking anywhere else. The point was that enemy AA defences in Germany were almost exclusively of the heavy variety, for use against relatively high flying aircraft. There was not much light flak; this was concentrated in France and the Low Countries. Consequently, when the Mosquitos of 627 Squadron circled Brunswick on April 22, there was not much opposition from the ground. The aiming point was a large park and we plonked our four spot-fires into it with the greatest of ease. Only three of the 265 Lancasters taking part in this attack were lost.
During the week in which these early low-level marking efforts against German targets were taking place, Bill Hickox and I were suddenly called to the CO’s office. We were 25 trying desperately to fathom what we could have done wrong when we were ushered in to Roy Elliott’s presence. He got up from his chair, grinned broadly, and announced that we had each been awarded the DFC. This was a proud moment for us, particularly since these were the first DFCs awarded to members of 627 Squadron.
The 1 May was another ‘first’ for Bill and me. The target was an engineering works outside Tours – the Usine Lictard works. We air-tested our faithful Wooden Warrior in the morning and then settled down to study maps of the Tours area and photographs of the target itself. The factory had been bombed a few days earlier by 8th Air Force B-l7s, but the photographs showed that nearly all the bombs had fallen in the surrounding fields. To drop bombs a few hundred yards from the aiming point might be good enough on a large area, but on a pin-point target like a factory the bombs had to be on the ‘button’.
We took off-in the late evening and headed for France, climbing rapidly to 25,000ft. The Pathfinder Lancasters of 83 and 97 Squadrons had taken off about an hour before us and were to drop a yellow target indicator ten miles from Tours, from which the four low-level marker aircraft would set course accurately for the target area. Having dropped the yellow indicator for us, the Lancasters would head directly to the target, identify it on H2S and discharge hundreds of hooded illuminating flares above it.
As Bill and I approached the final turning point, losing height steadily, the yellow TI suddenly cascaded down ahead of us. We flew over the TI and headed for the target. As we approached Tours a great carpet of light suddenly spread out in front of us; we lost more height and soon we were under the carpet at 1500ft and it was as bright as day. If a fighter appeared now, we would be dead ducks, and if there was light flak in the area we would certainly have a rough time.
Nothing happened. We circled around, and suddenly I saw the factory close by. I immediately pressed the transmit button on my VHF and called “Pen-nib Three Seven, Tally Ho”. This was the laid down method of informing the other marker pilots that the target had been found; they now withdrew from the illuminated area to give me room to manoeuvre and make my dive onto the factory.
I circled around the works, losing speed and positioning the Mosquito for the dive, then opened bomb doors and pressed the control column gently forward. Our speed increased and the target leapt up towards us, filling the windscreen. At about 500ft I pressed the bomb release button and there was a slight jerk as the four spot-fires left their slips. I continued in the dive for a couple of seconds, selected bomb doors closed and turned sharply to the left in order to check our results.
There was a red glow among the factory buildings and in fact the spots had fallen through the glass roof of a machine shop. This was splendid from my point of view – I had marked the target accurately – but as the spot-fires were inside the machine shop they could not be seen clearly by the main force crews, now trundling towards Tours – Marker Leader flew over the works and called in the next marker pilot to lay his red indicators in the yard alongside the machine shop. This was done. Marker Leader then called the Controller and told him that the target had been marked successfully; the Controller broadcast to the main force on WT and VHF to bomb the clump of red spots, and this was done.
The marking had taken less than five minutes, from my “Tally Ho” to confirmation to the Controller that the target was ready for main force action. The low-level marking technique had been vindicated once more, and the target was flattened.
Two nights later I made a grave tactical miscalculation which might easily have killed us – or alternatively might have set Bill Hickox on another long hike home from an enemy target, with me in tow. The target was Mailly-le-Camp, a German tank depot near Epernay. Leonard Cheshire was to lead the low-level marker aircraft and 8 Mosquitos of 627 Squadron were to be at a slightly higher level and were to dive-bomb the light flak positions which were known to be around the depot.
The raid was timed to begin at 00.01 hours, when all good troops should be in bed, and the Mosquito force arrived over Mailly five minutes before zero hour as briefed. Although the target was marked accurately and Cheshire passed the order to bomb, confusion occurred. The first wave did not receive instructions and began to orbit the target. This was fatal and the German night fighters moved in and began to shoot down the Lancasters. Eventually the situation was sorted out and bombs began to crash down onto the depot; but the cost was high – 46 of the 362 attackers were lost.
From our worm’s eye view, Bill and I could see bomber after bomber coming down in flames towards us; and we had a scary time as we dived on the light flak batteries, dropped our bombs singly on them, avoided light flak and burning Lancasters and contrived to keep ourselves out of harm’s way.
When our fourth bomb had gone I called Marker Leader and was told to go home. Bill gave me a course to steer for the French coast and I should have climbed to 25,000ft, but because of the mayhem in the target area I stayed at low level. All went well for a few minutes and then a searchlight shone directly on us, followed immediately by two or three more. Light flak batteries opened up and the pretty blue, red, green and white tracery associated with light AA fire came shooting up the beams and exploded all around us.
We were at 500ft above the ground and I did not dare to lose height, nor could I climb because this would have been a ‘gift’ to the German gunners. With Bill’s exhortation “Watch your instruments” ringing in my ears I turned steeply to port through 30 degrees, levelled out for a few seconds, then rolled into a steep turn to starboard and repeated the performance. Although we were in searchlights and flak for quite a long time, we were not being held by any one light or being shot at by any one gun for very long; and we zig-zagged our way steadily towards the coast. It was a tense time for us and we did not speak; we could hear the explosions around us from light AA shells, but incredibly, were not hit.
Deliverance came eventually as we breasted a low hill and ahead of us lay the sea. Now we were treated to a rare sight. The final group of searchlights were shining through the trees on top of the hill we had just passed, and the beams were actually above us and lighting us on our way. We roared along a river estuary, below the level of the lighthouse at Le Treport and then were away over the ‘drink’ and climbing to safety, home and bed.
1 June, 1944 was the same as any other day at Woodhall Spa. Bill and I found that we were on the Battle Order and went to the dispersal and air-tested G-George. We then strolled to the Operations Room and were told that the target was to be the Marshalling yard at Saumur. The day proceeded normally, with detailed briefing about the target and a close examination of maps and photographs. At the end of the afternoon we attended the AOC’s broadcast link-up with the COs of all squadrons participating, then made ready to go.
The operation was a copy-book No.5 Group attack, with no alarms and excursions. After landing, we switched off everything and climbed out as we had done so often before. G-George stood black and silent; the ground crew moved forward to ask if all was well; it was a lovely summer night. After debriefing we ate the usual bacon and eggs and went to bed. Maybe tomorrow there would be a stand-down for us.
We did not know it, but in fact our tour was over. We had flown together against Fortress Europe 38 times; soon we would be instructors again; and soon our work in No.5 Group would be recognised by the award of a Bar to the DFC to each of us. Bill and I never flew together again.
This building was the Battalion Headquarters of 1st Border who arrived in Woodhall on 11th December ’43 after fighting in Sicily. 1st Border suffered heavy losses in Italy and so reinforcements from its recruiting areas in the industrial towns in Lancashire and the North East arrived here in Woodhall to join the unit.
1st Border was one of the three infantry battalions that comprised, along with supporting units, the 1st Airlanding Brigade, all camped in and around Woodhall. Accommodation was in such short supply that troops were billeted in private houses and one of the Border’s companies was detached and based in Bardney.
After repeated false starts the Brigade was sent into action to fight at Arnhem in September ‘44. The Battalion flew in 56 Horsa gliders from Broadwell and Blakehill Farm and a Hamilcar glider from Tarrant Rushton. Of the 788 officers and men who flew to fight at Arnhem, 121 died in action (more than any of the other battalions) and 235 were evacuated. A further 432 were missing in action. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col TH Haddon, had one if the most frustrating experiences of any officer in the operation: he was taken prisoner while attempting to reach his battalion after his glider came down twice before reaching Arnhem.
The Golf Hotel was requisitioned for military use during the war as the Headquarters of the 2nd Battalion the South Staffordshire Regiment.
The 2nd South Staffords was one of the three infantry Battalions that comprised the 1st Airlanding Brigade, with all three battalions being stationed in Woodhall Spa for the build up to Operation Market Garden. The battalion arrived in Woodhall Spa on 8th December ’43 and took over Roughton Moor Camp – hutted lines on Kirkby Lane. The unit was already part of the 1st Airlanding Brigade having fought in Sicily where it sustained heavy losses.
The 2nd South Staffords flew to fight at Arnhem over two days in 62 Horsa gliders from Manston and Broadwell, and a Hamilcar glider from Tarrant Rushton. Of the 767 officers and men that went in, only 124 were evacuated. Of the others: 85 died in action with 558 others missing in action. The Battalion was commanded by Lt Col DH McCardie who was wounded and taken as a prisoner of war. The Regiment won two Victoria Crosses in the Arnhem action: Major Robert Cain and Lance Sergeant John Baskeyfield – the only regiment in the WW2 to have been awarded two VC’s for a single action.