- Contributed by
- Warwickshire Libraries Heritage and Trading Standards
- People in story:
- Numerous Air Force Personnel
- Location of story:
- Wellesbourne, Warwickshire
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 July 2005
Half a century ago, over two hundred acres of prime farmland, six miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon, was requisitioned by the authorities giving its owners, the Littler family, immediate notice to remove their dairy herd and leave their farmhouse to the bulldozers.
From this moment, life in and around the two villages of Wellesbourne Hastings and Wellesbourne Mountford was never to be the same again. Twelve months later on April 14th 1941, R.A.F. Wellesbourne Mountford opened, which over the next four years was to train British and Commonwealth aircrews, day and night, for the dangerous task of wartime operations.
Today, the airfield is a busy centre for civil aviation and two resident flying schools still teach future pilots the basic skills of flying modern aeroplanes, some going on to fly airliners to all parts of the globe.
It’s a far cry from those dark days of the 1940’s ..
The first Wellington bombers arrived at Wellesbourne following twelve months of hectic work by John Laing and Co constructing the three runways and hangers. Locals suddenly found they could no longer travel freely along the roads as the R.A.F. police were on patrol moving on anyone inquisitive enough to stand and stare at the amazing scenes. It wasn't long into the war, before all three roads surrounding the airfield were closed and barbed-wire barriers placed across each end. This was not only done for security reasons, but also to protect the over enthusiastic public from the danger of low flying aircraft.
Using large old hand held cross-cut saws and axes, many trees were felled around the airfield boundary to allow the bombers more height for climbing away from the runways with their heavy bombloads. The surrounding area was not ideally situated, with hills to the south (Red Hill) and Atherstone airfield to the West directly in line with runway 06/24.
On the 14th April 1941, No 22 Operational Training Unit was formed at Wellesbourne Mountford, being part of No.6 Group Bomber Command (Later transferred to No. 91 Group). It's purpose was to train United Kingdom and Commonwealth aircrews, pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and air gunners, and have them ready to move on to operational squadrons, fit for the grim task of war.
Flying training began in earnest, day and night around the clock with circuits and bumps, cross-country navigational exercises, air to air gunnery and bombing missions on various practice ranges on land and at sea. At the end of each eight week course, the crews had to carry out at least one 'Nickel' raid which was a leaflet dropping sortie over occupied Europe. The first training course consisting of six pilots, three observers, three air gunners and five wireless operators/air gunners began on the 6th May 1941. At its peak in March 1944, 22 O.T.U. would be turning out thirteen aircrews a month and it was destined to become the largest Operational Training Unit in the United Kingdom and the main unit for all French Canadians.
The domestic area, (now covered by the Dovehouse housing estate) consisted of mostly wooden huts and a few brick built buildings for accommodation blocks, and airmen, N.C.O.'s and officers messes.
One hut was converted into a Roman Catholic chapel of St. Bernadette, and another into the station cinema called ‘The Dominion’. This was a very popular place as there wasn't a great deal of local entertainment in the evenings. Many of the popular films were shown such as 'Fury’ starring Spencer Tracy, ‘Highway Patrol’ and 'Down Mexico Way’ featuring Gene Autry. Seats cost 9 pennies (4p) for the best seats at the rear and 6 pennies (2 1/2p) for those at the front.
An R.A.F. vehicle, known as the Liberty Bus, was available several nights a week to transport personnel into local towns such as Warwick, Stratford and Leamington for an evenings entertainment at the dance halls, cinemas or public houses.
Wellesbourne also provided a lot of sporting activities such as football, rugby, tennis, softball and hockey, all of which were played against local teams in the area. There was also an R.A.F. band which marched through Wellesbourne village and local towns, on such appropriate occasions as 'Wings for Victory’ week.
There were several more dispersed accommodation sites, three on Redhill and another amongst Wellesbourne Woods.
Atherstone airfield (Stratford) was officially taken over as the satellite for Wellesbourne Mountford on July 5th 1941 with Fit. Lt. W.P.T. Vear taking command. 'C’ Flight eased the congestion at Wellesbourne when they moved over to the new airfield in September.
The same month saw the arrival of two V.I.P.'s in the shape of Rt. Hon. P Fraser, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, who visited the station to meet all his fellow countrymen and Air Marshall Sir Arthur Longmore who, in his role as Inspector General of the R.A.F., inspected the airfields of both Wellesbourne and Atherstone.
July was also to see the first W.A.A.F. personnel posted to the station being one Corporal and thirteen airwomen. They were all billeted in Wellesbourne House but the Officers were later accommodated in Little House, Chestnut Square, Wellesbourne.
The construction of the airfield had not gone on undetected by the Germans, for in 1940 Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft had taken high-level aerial photographs of Wellesbourne Mountford and Atherstone.
Nearly all major airfields had a dummy airfield known as a 'Q’ site which were decoy areas of land, laid out with lights to represent a landing ground. They were usually approximately three to four miles from the parent airfield and were lit up at night to draw the enemy bombers away from the real target which would be blacked out. Wellesbourne’s ‘Q' site was at Pillerton Priors, north of the Banbury to Stratford road where several bombs have been found and defused on various occasions since the war.
Despite this, the reality of war was soon to arrive as on the 8th May 1941 eleven bombs were dropped by an enemy bomber, fortunately causing only slight damage to the windows and roof of the fire tender building which was situated close to the control tower. Two nights later at 01-10 hours, three bombs exploded between the north barriers at Kings Mead corner and the huts of No 1 dispersal point with only slight damage being caused to a Wellington by flying earth.
On the 12th May, enemy aircraft again dropped twelve bombs across the North East corner of the airfield with two Wellington bombers being rendered unserviceable and Anson No 9846 receiving a direct hit on the gun turret which blew the aircraft in half.
Mr. Sid Cunliffe, now living in Withington, Manchester, was on duty when Anson No 9846 was lost. Here he recalls the incident:-
"I was on a night shift in the battery room when I heard a low flying aircraft going over about midnight. I ran outside to see what was happening to find a searchlight had located the aircraft and I could plainly see the swastikas on the tail. At the same time it released its bombs, fortunately most of them falling on soft ground, but one did wreck an Anson. The area where I stood was showered with mud and clods of earth but I was not hurt.
Half an hour later the station fire brigade arrived with two aircraftsmen pushing a two-wheeled contraption supporting a couple of dustbin sized containers full of water and a stirrup pump. They asked me whether I !new where the bombs had dropped! They were relieved to find out their ordeal was over for they had been pushing this thing all over the station and they were really exhausted. It was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy comedy".
On the 26th June 1941, Wellesbourne had its first fatal accident when Wellington R1586, unable to maintain height due to an engine problem, hit a row of trees near Loxley while trying to get back to the airfield to make an emergency landing.
The five man crew were all killed and interred with full military honours on the 30th June at 15-15 hours in Stratford-upon-Avon War cemetery. The Commanding Officer, Group Captain E.A.Healey and Chief Flying Instructor Wing Commander L.G.Harman D.F.C. both attended the funeral and the Station Chaplain, Squadron Leader Hillary officiated at the service.
Sgt. T.L.Kirk Pilot R.C.A.F. R7/72.0
Sgt. F.J.Venn Pilot R.C.A.F. R59770
Sgt. D.R.White WO/AG R.C.A.F. R56085
Sgt. A.Bush WO/AG R.A.F. 633380
Sgt. J.G.Smithson AG R.A.F. 1378146
Most of the Wellington bombers allocated to Training Units were ex-squadron aircraft which were somewhat worn out and weary having been passed from station to station. The normal life of their Bristol Pegasus XVII engines gradually rose from 240 hours to 320 hours. Repeated periods of ground running and take-off at maximum boost meant that they were subject to as much stress in 200 hours of training as 320 hours of operations. This was much of the reason for the many accidents that were beginning to occur.
As 22 O.T.U. grew in size, sadly the loss of aircraft and personnel rose accordingly. In total some 90 aircraft were destroyed with 80 airman injured and 299 killed. Of these 244 were Canadians. One such accident, typical of dozens that were to befall Wellesbourne, occurred on 7th December 1941. It was a Sunday evening and the Midlands was suddenly engulfed in severe snowstorms. Two aircraft were carrying out circuits and landings. At 18-30 hours Wellington T2566 of 'B’ Flight was on finals approaching runway 24 when the pupil pilot, P/0 J Lynas aged nineteen, completely lost visual sight of the runway lights. He dramatically lost height and hit a row of trees in line with the flarepath. The aircraft burnt out in the ensuing crash by Heath Spinney on the Newbold road, killing P/0 Lynas, P/Instructor Turner and WO/AG Sgt Chancellor and badly burning P/0 Jackson and AG Sgt Lane. Five minutes later, Wellington X9625 of 'A’ Flight was unable to line up with the runway due to the snow and in trying to overshoot caught the trees on Loxley Hill finally crashing into the top of Red Hill, near Woodfield farm quite close to the station wireless building. Two of the crew, PO Alien and WO/AG Sgt Cuthbert died in the crash with the Pilot, Sgt Cox and AG Sgt Allen being injured.
ON THE OFFENSIVE
It wasn't until the end of August 1941 that Wellesbourne received it's first stocks of heavy bombs which came by rail to Ettington station and then by R.A.F. transport. The bomb dump was situated south of the airfield and can still be seen today at the bottom of Wellesbourne wood on the Loxley road. A large field near Priors Hardwick was used by 22 O.T.U. as a practice bombing range. Small practice bombs were dropped onto a marker in the shape of a white cross, and the results were monitored by observers who were positioned in a brick tower some safe distance away. During the month of October, a record was achieved when 1100 practice bombs were dropped and 85000 rounds of .303 ammunition fired in both day and night practices. On 25th February 1942 22 O.T.U. dropped its first 'live' bombs on the Stert Flats in the Bristol Channel using 80 high explosive bombs.
The following message came from Commander in Chief of Bomber Command, to all bomber stations on 30th May 1942;..."You have an opportunity to strike a blow at the enemy which will resound not only throughout Germany but throughout the whole world."
Orders were first received on the 27th May for the 'Thousand’ plan, as it was dubbed, although officially named Operation Millennium. By 13-30 that afternoon all personnel at Wellesbourne had been confined to camp and those that lived outside were accommodated inside the airfield boundaries. Rumours were rife throughout the camp about the forthcoming operation. Arthur 'Bomber' Harris had planned to execute the 'Thousand' plan for propaganda purposes as much as for its destructive capability. To achieve the magic thousand he had to take crews from O.T.U.'s the length and breadth of the country to fly against Germany with fully trained Squadron crews. To this end, eleven Wellingtons were transferred from Atherstone to Elsham Wolds and thirty-seven in total stood by from 22 O.T.U., in anticipation of the coming action. At 14-40 hours the operation was postponed due to poor weather conditions and for the next two days the crews stood by in nervous anticipation only to find the operation was cancelled again. They didn't have to wait long, for on the 30th May, they flew. The Operations Book of 22 O.T.U. records the events as follows:-
'Stood by for "Thousand’ plan - Operation carried out. 35 Wellingtons (14 parent station, 11 satellite, 10 Elsham) took part. 15 crews briefed at parent station at 1800 hours and 13 at satellite 19-30 hours. Very heavy rainfall at time of take-off. First aircraft airborne at 22-47 hours. Two aircraft returned early, one owing to sickness of Captain, the other due to generator failure. Four aircraft failed to return ...... Reports of a very successful attack on Cologne received from aircrews' Altogether, 1046 aircraft had taken off, of which 898 claimed to have found the target dropping 540 tons of high explosive and 915 tons of incendiaries. The casualty rate was only 3 8 per cent or 40 aircraft, although another 116 were damaged - 12 of them beyond repair. Thirty -three more suffered 'serious' damage.
To the surprise of all, the bombers from O.T.U. stations such as Wellesbourne had suffered less than those flown by the more experienced crews, although the following still went missing:-
F/0 H. R. Blake R.N.Z.A.F. P/0 D. S. Mclean R.C.A.F.
Sgt. N. Gratton R.C.A.F. F/Sgt R. J. Wanbon R.A.F.
Sgt. R. N. A. Creswell R.C.A.F. F/O L. J. Tait R.A.F.
P/0 W. A. Fulleterton (D.F.M.) R.A.F. F/Sgt. R. M.Saunders R.A.F.
F/Sgt. J. K. Napier (D.F.M.) R.A.F. Sgt. P. G. Barclay R.C.A.F.
Sgt. R. A. Armstrong R.A.F. P/0 W. F. Caldwell R.A.F.
P/0 D. A. R. Tallis R.A.F. F/Sgt. C. J. Matthews R.A.F.
Sgt. D. H. Edwards R.A.F. F/0 A. C. Hammon R.A.F.
w/o E. Neeson N.Z.R.A.F. F/Sgt. W. S. Hawkins R.A.F.
Sgt. R. R. Harrison R.C.A.F. Sgt. K. P. E. Monk R.A.F.
Many of these men paid the supreme sacrifice.
The target had been Cologne, and half of the city, 600 acres, had been devastated. At least 250 factories had been destroyed, many of which had turned out materials essential to Germany's war effort. As put by the official Air Ministry publication, 'Bomber Command Continues’ -
"The hammer had fallen, one thousand bombers had been over Cologne"
This raid and many others which followed over the next few weeks against Bremen, Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Essen, were later compared to such military horrors as the Somme and Passchendale - such was the loss of life and destruction.
22 O.T.U. was to lose a further ten crews on these operations.
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