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15 October 2014
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An Air Gunner Remembers: RAF Training and Service with 625 Squadronicon for Recommended story

by RAF Cosford Roadshow

Contributed by 
RAF Cosford Roadshow
People in story: 
William "Billy" Bates
Location of story: 
Peplow, Kelstern
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 July 2004

About seven miles due north of Wellington and immediately south of the villiage of Child's Ercall stands the Shropshire aerodrome of Peplow. In July 1943, No 83 Operational Training Unit was formed here, being redesignated No 23 Heavy Glider Conversion Unit in October 1944. At the end of hostilities, the aerodrome became one of many in Shropshire to be abandoned although a number of hangars and other buildings still remain.
Mr William "Billy" Bates of Dawley, Shropshire , attended No 5 Course of 83 O.T.U. from October 1943 until January 1944, This is his story of life at peplow during his training and at subsequent duties as an Air Gunner in Bomber Command.
As a newly-promoted sergeant, Mr Bates arrived at Peplow from No 40 Course of No 4 Air Gunners School Morpeth, after completion of 17 hours flying in Ansons.
The O.T.U course began with circuits and landings, with an instructor as captain, the trainee pilot taking command after solo check flights. This was followed by stick bombing and high level practices, making a total of 38 hours day flying on the unit's Wellingtons.
In early December, night flying training began with further circuits and landings followed by cross country flights, air firing, stick bombing, high level bombing and air-to-sea firing. During the month, Mr Bates and his crew flew a total of 42 hours night flying and 6 hours day flying. Gunnery exercises brought Mr. Bates' total flying time at the O.T.U. to 94 hours by completion of his course in early January 1944.
In common with many wartime O.T.U's Peplow saw a number of flying accidents as newly-matched crews learned unfamiliar techniques. Mr Bates told us that the sight of aircraft burning around the aerodrome became familiar to crews returning from night flights. His own pilot apparantly experienced difficulty in controlling his aircraft on the ground during the early stages of the course, earning the nickname "Bogger" A memorable end came to one night flight when the aircraft left the runway on landing and came to a halt with the nose embedded in soft earth.
Fortunately, no-one was injured, but Mr. Bate;s the rear gunner, found himself firmly trapped in his turret over 20 feet above ground level! After being urged by spectators to jump, he was eventually rescued by ladder.
During off-duty nights, Mr. Bates was able to visit his home by either cycling or hitch-hiking some twelve miles to Dawley. A road construction gang which travelled from Bridgnorth to the Peplow area co-operated by offering lifts, their reward being a jug of tea from the Sergeant's Mess each morning. Evenings spent in Market Drayton often ended with scuffles on the returning bus between R.A.F. servicemen and Naval personnel from H.M.S. Godwit, a Fleet Air Arm unit at neighbouring Hinstock.
The O.T.U course was followed by flying training at no 1481 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight, R.A.F. Binbrook, Lincs, during February 1944. From Binbrook, Mr. Bates was posted to Blyton for crew conversion onto heavy bombers at 57 course, No 1662 Conversion Unit. Here, a flight engineer joined the crews for training on Halifax Mk.1 and Mk2 bombers. The course consisted of circuits and landings, a solo check flight and cross-country exercises during a total of 13 hours day and 14 night flying.
In early April 1944, the final stages of flying training began with posting to No 8 Course of No1 Lancaster finishing school, Hemswell, Lincs where 9 hours day and 3 hours night flying were completed on Lancaster familiarisation, circuits, fighter affiliation exercises and bombing practice.
With training completed and a total of 96 hours day and 60 hours night flying logged, Mr. Bates and his crew joined 625 Squadron R.A.F. Kelstern Lincs to begin operational duties. Their first "Op" was on May 3rd when Lancaster "Q" took off at 22.30 hours for Mailly-Le-Camps, a 4.5 hour sortie during which a Junkers 88 was sighted and fired on. Two further missions during May were supplemented by training flights. After completing two operations in June, flights over enemy-occupied territory became more frequent, with three missions to targets in France, and raids on Gelsenkirchen, Kiel and Stuttgart in July. However, August proved to be the peak month for operations, nine being completed, with targets including Russelsheim, Kiel and two flights to Stettin, one of which is marked in Mr. Bates' log book as "Too damn long" being of 8 hours duration. The operational hours for the month totalled 20 hours day and 37 hours night flying, bringing the total number of missions to 19. September operations reflect Bomber Command's changing task in bombing tactical targets as the allied land forces advanced across the Continent. The targets attacked by day Gilze-Rijen airfield in Holland, Le Harve, and Calais, with one 5- hour night operation to Neuss, Western Germany, a total of six missions. By mid-September, Mr Bates had left his rear turret and taken up duties as a mid- upper gunner. From October, the pattern of day and night bombing continued until the end of the year. Day targets including Duiserg, Donburg, Fort-Frederick-Hendrick and St. Vith, with night attacks against the German industrial towns of Cologne, Bochum, Freiburg, and Ulm, making a total of 34 operational missions. Mr Bates' final "op" came on 14th january, 1945, when Lancaster "K" took off at 18.47 hours on an 8.5 hour mission to Meuresburg.
The following log-book enteries must have been particularly significant to Mr. Bates:-
Total operational time. - 52.45 hours (day)
- 121.47 hours (night)
Total non operational
time. - 25.30 hours (day
- 2.15 hours (night)

Total time 625 Sqn - 78.15 hours (day)
- 124.12 hours (night)
Total 202 hours 27 minutes

Certified completion of first tour with 35 sorties.

Despite this impressive total of operations, Mr. Bates made several other special missions which deserve attention . These were not recorded in normal log book entries due to their secret nature. Individual aircrew members would be flown to Newmarket from different units to form a complete Halifax Bomber crew. All were complete strangers to each other, and briefing was conducted in conditions of utmost secrecy. After a final warning that the forthcoming mission should not be discussed by crews on returning to their individual squadrons, all were required to sign a security declaration document. Shortly before take off, two French resistance agents would boad the aircraft. On reaching their destination, the agents would bail out and the aircraft return to Newmarket, where the crew would disperse to their own units.
The extreme danger of these missions may be appreciated if one thinks of the consequences of being captured with such "passengers". In recognition of service beyond the normal order of duty, Mr Bates received the second highest reward bestowed by the French people - The Croix de Guerre.
A request to stay on flying duties at the end of his tour took Mr. Bates to R.A .F. Acklington for target-towing duties on Vultee Vengeance aircraft of 291 and 288 Squadrons. Between April and August, 1945 a total of 87 hours were flown, towing targets for trainee gunners and Merchant Navy vessels. Flying log entries end on 29th August when a Vengeance of 288 squadron took off at 0940 hours, taking Mr. Bates (a warrant officer by this time) on his final two hour flight as target-tug operator.
the deeds, experiences, tensions and dangers of a wartime Bomber Command tour can be comprehended only by the few young men who survived. With characteristic modesty however, Mr Bates recounts his most poignant memories as being the sound of rain beating against the fuselage, the intense cold and loneliness of the rear turret, the strangely frightening sight of guns, wing tips and propeller blades glowing during electrical storms, of wearing his parachute in the cramped turret in preference to leaving it in its stowage, and the frustration of reaching the target to find the bomb sight unserviceable, a technical fault which resulted in the mission being discounted despite the tremendous dangers encountered.
In common with the thousand of air crews who served their country with courage and honour, Mr Bates sums up his experiences in these modest terms " We had some good times and some bad, I suppose we were just lucky."

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