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Canadian and American Squadrons at Headcorn Airfield

by egertontelecottage

Contributed by 
egertontelecottage
People in story: 
Alan Palmer; Johnny Johnson
Location of story: 
Egerton, Kent
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2723474
Contributed on: 
08 June 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Viv Foulds of Egerton Telecottage on behalf of Alan Palmer and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Alan Palmer was a boy of 11 during World War 2. He and his family lived in Bedlam Lane, a rural hamlet in the Weald of Kent just below the village of Egerton and ten miles from Ashford. This story records his memories of the squadrons who flew from from the Advance Landing airfield built at Egerton in 1942.

On August 20th 1943, Canadians flying Spitfires arrived at Headcorn from Lashenden (the current Headcorn Airfield) as their runway needed repairing. Lashenden was not used again until 1944 when P51 Mustangs flew from there. The two Canadian Squadrons were 403 and 421, led by Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson CB CBE DSO DFC DL. He finished the war as the RAF ace destroying 38 German planes. He was the only Englishman in the Canadian Wing, and he led both squadrons. He has visited us since the war and shown us the logbook he used when flying from here. Every man, both pilots and crew, was housed under canvas. Briefings took place in a large wireless-type vehicle parked under an oak tree opposite Weeks Farm. After briefings the pilots were taken aboard a utility van to their Spitfires which were at dispersal points around the airfield. Johnnie Johnson would always walk with his black Labrador across a field and over two ditches to his plane, which had the initials " d.E.d" on both sides. These are frequently seen on airplane kits to be found in model shops. I always looked out for these letters when the planes returned from operations in France.

From here they flew sorties carrying small bombs to drop over France. They strafed landing barges, trains, airplanes and anything that moved. The Spitfires also escorted bombers. Many other planes had to land here due to fuel shortages etc. On one day 13 Flying Fortresses had to land because of fuel shortage or damage. We saw most types of planes landing here with some problem or purpose!

Soon after the Spitfires arrived one of the Canadian pilots, Flying Officer Thomas (Toddy) Todd visited Kingsden - my home, to ask my mother if she would accommodate his wife while he was stationed at the airfield. He had married a 19-year-old Welsh air controller called Val in Swansea. The answer must have been "yes" because they both moved in with us and remained until October 1943.
Toddy flew a Spitfire that had the squadron letters AUT on the fuselage (another one I always checked for on their return). One particular morning Toddy had overslept and was woken by his batman calling him from under the bedroom window. Having no time to dress or eat breakfast, with only five minutes to spare until he was due at briefing, he pulled his uniform on over his pyjamas, and went off to cause havoc over France - if only the enemy had realised!

The pilots would fly up to three missions a day, weather permitting. Toddy flew as wingman to Johnnie Johnson and his successor; this meant he had to protect the tail of the Wing Commander's plane, with a great risk of being shot down. This must have helped Johnnie Johnson to become the Ace! There were very few accidents or losses while the Spitfires were here. Johnnie Johnson left here on September 9th 1943 for a course in preparation for D-Day. His place was taken by Wing Commander Hugh Constant-Godefroy until October 14th 1943, when with much regret the squadron left for a permanent base for winter at Kenley. Val returned to Wales to await the birth of their baby, and later sailed to Canada to stay with Toddy's family.

During his stay with us I had taken photographs of Toddy and Val, and my mother had taken one of me with them. We each treasured these photos for 47 years until we met again.

Toddy was shot down 6 weeks before the end of the war and was taken prisoner. He should not have been flying that day, but had offered to take the place of a young pilot who was exhausted. He records his dreadful experiences in the hands of the retreating German soldiers and the Hitler Youth for his grandsons. They can be read in the blue covered book which I have in my collection.

Another pilot who joined the Canadians while they were here was a bit of a loner, a rebel. His name was George Beurling known as "Screwball" Beurling or "Buzz" Beurling.
Johnnie Johnson had been asked to take him into the squadron and try to straighten him out. He couldn't, but tolerated him as he was an excellent pilot. Unfortunately he would not fly as part of a team. If he saw the enemy he would fly off and deal with them himself, usually successfully, and often outnumbered by them! I remember so well how he would go off in a Tiger Moth Bi-plane trainer during the evening. He would go up very high, and then he would put the nose down and let the plane float down in a dive. This was called "the falling leaf. He would recover just before reaching the treetops and go up again. He was asked- perhaps told - to stop this activity or face a courts martial. He did it again but the Canadian Commissioner let him off, as he was such a good pilot!

As far as I remember there was no enemy activity over here during the summer of 1943 in daylight, there may have been some after dark. No bombs were dropped on airfields around here. During that time the young airmen took part in " Evasion Exercises" which they called "ringo" operations. The object was for the pilots of 126 Wing at Staplehurst to try and find a way into the Headcorn (127) Wing airfield and vice versa. The following extract from the diary of D.R. Matheson shows it was a welcome break from the busy operational flights they had made that summer.
'....Commanding Officer lan Ormeston and I had been dumped out of the back of a truck in the general area. From there we pinched a bike and found our way to the vicinity of Headcorn Airfield. We crept up through the barbed wire and eventually got into the airfield. You may know that we were all living in tents at that time. Ormeston and I crept into the tent of Group Captain William McBrien, the 127 Airfield commander. We stole some of his clothes, then we stole his Station commander's car. We were considering the theft of his personal Spitfire but found it to be too closely guarded. We drove his car out of the main gate, getting the appropriate salutes from the service police on guard and returned in triumph to Staplehurst. Later that day a whole assortment of other pilots arrived back. One flew into the airfield in a Tiger Moth, while another arrived in a new Spitfire 12 stolen from another airfield........"
He later adds that this seemingly "nonsense" training was put to good use two months later when he found himself an evader in France!

ARRIVAL OF THE AMERICANS

A Flying Fortress with engine trouble was the first American plane to land on our field on February 15' 1944. One of the crew remained on guard and I went over to view it. The guard showed me all over the inside, a wonderful experience for a plane mad lad of 15 and a half.

On April 12th 1944 the American 362 Fighter Group consisting of Squadrons 377, 378, and 379 with 87 Thunderbolt fighters flew in. 84 were painted green, 3 were unpainted. About 2000 personnel accompanied them, all living under canvas. I believe the senior officers lived in the commandeered houses along Bedlam Lane. The Americans were very well organised, but the one thing they had not planned was where to empty their latrines (toilets). Murray Mitchel at Burnt House Farm had mostly poultry and some market garden produce, tomatoes and cucumbers. The cucumbers were grown on ridges with gullies between each row. It was in these gullies that the latrines were emptied, and in the same gullies the local women stood to cut the cucumbers, poor souls!

Each evening five or six 6 wheeled Chevrolet trucks would leave the airfield loaded with Americans en-route for Rochester and Maidstone for clubs and dancing etc.

Where the Brookgate Caravan Park is now situated in Bedlam Lane there stood four dwellings, known as Brookgate Cottages. Due to the danger of being situated at the end of the runway they were demolished in 1943. On June 13th 1944 a Thunderbolt piloted by Lt. Curtis was taking off west to east when his plane caught fire. He kept it on the ground, running off the end of the runway where he came to a halt in the road between the two sharp comers a few yards from where the cottages had stood! Lt Curtis climbed out only seconds before the fuel and the bomb the plane was carrying exploded, leaving a large crater in the road.

The Americans flew two or three missions a day weather permitting .The fighters acted as escorts to bombers with whom they would rendezvous over the channel. Because of the distance to the targets, they would carry extra fuel tanks holding 100 gallons under each wing which could then be jettisoned, allowing them to leave the bombers and hasten home, faster and lighter. In the mean time another group of Thunderbolts would take off with extra tanks to meet the bombers and escort them home. These Thunderbolts were also able to carry one tank under the fuselage and two 5001b bombs under the wings. The belly tanks used here were brought over from America in plywood packing cases to protect them while in transit. They would dive bomb the marshalling yards, trains, bridges, tunnels, and barges on the rivers Rhine and Moselle, airfields tanks and lorries on the road, besides aircraft in the air

The Americans put up rather a large Butler hangar - metal framed covered by canvas just behind “The Badgers”. One afternoon, soon after the Thunderbolts arrived. Bedlam Lane was something like the M25. All along the lane Chevrolet lorries were parked nose to tail, all had black drivers and all moved off after dark. Later we noticed the East/West runway was floodlit. In the morning we noticed that the wire netting runway had been taken up and a new metal one laid, already in use! The lorries in the lane the previous day had been loaded with metal planking for the new runway. The Americans had an accident almost every day either taking off or landing, sometimes with tragic consequences. One afternoon. May 12th 1944 Thunderbolts were taking off three abreast from north to south when one developed a problem. Two got up but the third eventually came down the runway and tried to climb sharply to his left to catch up with the other two. He collided with the top of a large oak tree, which caused the plane to lose height across a field between Watersheet Farm and Kingsden. The plane took the top off an ash tree and came to rest in the next field- minus its' wings, tail, and engine: only the cockpit was still intact. The pilot, Lieutenant Donald Gripple broke many bones and died some days later.

On another occasion, June 7th at 4am, planes were taking off east to west heading for Normandy. One plane veered off the runway and crashed into the parked Thunderbolts. Another got off the ground but half a mile later lost height and crashed into an Oast house at Southernden. The photo is there for you to see- the pilot Lieutenant Hamlin miraculously survived.

One plane I particularly remember during this time was often taxiing to its dispersal point, crossing in front of me with its canopy slid open. The pilot would be wearing sunglasses and always gave me a wave. The squadron letters were E4P with "Lady Phyllis" painted on the side in front of the cockpit. Ever since, I have wondered what happened to this plane and pilot. Eventually, as a result of my request in the 362 Fighter Group Newsletter in the Autumn of 2000,1 received a letter from Colonel Magoffen in America informing me that "Lady Phyllis" and her pilot Joe Lane, had been his wingman. "Phyllis" was named after Joe's wife. By coincidence, it was Colonel Magoffen who later sat at our table at a reunion in June 1998 - as I will refer to later!

The Thunderbolts left for a French base in Normandy on July 19th 1944. The only personnel left were a group of auxiliary firemen, living under canvas on the edge of a pond in Tilden Hales' field, now part of Clarke Hills Farm. On the night of the 19th and 20th a doodlebug came down on the edge of the pond: the firemen were uninjured but badly shaken. It is possible that the doodlebug had been shot down by a fighter.

When the Thunderbolts left for France only 4 out of the original 84 green planes were left. The rest consisted of replacement silver planes. By July 20th, all the Americans had left for bases in France. The airfield was just a ghostly open space.

I can remember many incidents involving planes over the years of the war.
On October 17th 1940, a Hurricane crashed in the area after being shot down from above the clouds by a German ME 109. We heard the cannon fire and knew that it was a German plane firing, as the RAF did not have cannons. The Hurricane whistled like a bomb through the clouds and exploded on hitting the ground. A local airman home on leave, possibly Bob Turk, Dick Weeks' cousin collected the pilot's scattered remains. He was Sergeant Pilot Atkinson -just 19 years old. His identity tag was later found in the crater. The Rolls Royce engine remained 12 feet down until it was dug up in 1975. Later in 1940 two very large bombs were dropped within this area, one made two craters, the other made three, the latter measured 90 yards around the perimeter and the earth was piled up around it. On October 12th 1940 a ME 109 tried to hit Headcorn station but the bomb missed, exploding close to "Chantry" the home of Frank Foreman's family in Oak Lane. Frank's mother, his 22-year-old sister Mary, his Aunt, Blanch Munn and the gardener, Walter Tassel were killed. Lawrence Woodcock had been delivering bread there and was fortunate enough to crawl, badly shaken, safely out from the rubble.

At about 7am on a very foggy Sunday morning in September 1944 a Hawker Tempest landed near Kingsden Farm and so I made it my business to inspect the plane. I met the pilot, a New Zealander wearing an RAF uniform coming out of the fog. He told me he had run short of fuel and was unable to reach his base at Manston. He had shot down two V1s the second exploding in front of him, which resulted in the plane being scratched from front to back as he flew through the debris. Out of ammunition he encountered a third VI that he destroyed by flying alongside and tipping its wing with his wing tip. The VI became unstable and crashed to the ground. He encountered two more V1s, which he disposed of in the same manner! Now short of fuel as well as being out of ammunition explained why he landed near Kingsden. The pilot telephoned Manston from the farmhouse to notify them of the situation and joined us for breakfast and lunch! The laborious task of refuelling his plane was done using 4-gallon cans carried from a lorry to the plane. Once, refuelled he departed, but not before giving us an air display!

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