A brief Personal History of the Royal Air Force Brize Norton 1944 By Robert J Griffith K St J,BEM Brief History prior to being stationed at Brize Norton: I qualified as an Air Gunner in November 1943 and was posted to No 42 OTU (Operational Training Unit) at Ashbourne, Derbyshire, where I was invited by F/O C.S. Brott , a New Zealand Pilot, to join his crew as Air gunner. The other crew members were F/O V. Marsh (B/A); Sgt W.L. Davies (Nav) and Sgt E. Mills (Wop/ AG). We crewed the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle. An attractive aircraft with twin engines and tails; tricycle undercarriage and a Boulton Paul dorsal turret of 4 Browning .303 machine guns. The aircraft was originally designed for reconnaissance, but by the time it came into service had already been overtaken by more advanced aircraft. The Albemarle was then found to be most suitable as a glider tug as the undercarriage prevented the nose from dipping when towing a Horsa glider. It could carry 10 paratroopers. SOE agents were also transported. Their exit from the aircraft was an opening in the floor shaped similar to a domestic bath. The bomb bay beneath stored the heavy containers filled with guns and supplies to be dropped for the underground Resistance Movements in Europe. Upon completion of training at Ashbourne, and together with 296 Sqdn, we were posted to "A" Flight 297 Squadron at Stoney Cross, Hants. Both Squadrons then moved to Brize Norton at the beginning of March 1944. There we stayed until October 1944 when the Squadron was transferred to Earls Colne in Essex and deployed to the Halifax aircraft. Brize Norton Upon arrival at Brize Norton (March 1944), we were billeted in a two storey pre war building, each room housing approximately twelve bunk beds. Its exterior walls were pitted with holes of varying sizes, caused by bomb fragments during the Battle of Britain. The Sergeants Mess, a low bungalow type building, was located nearby. A and B flight offices were situated near a large hangar, close to the grassed area adjoining the perimeter track. As Air Gunner my duties on the ground included daily inspections of my turret, ensuring the Perspex was spotlessly clean. A vital task, as even a pinhead amount of un-removed dirt would appear in flight like the speck of a fighter plane advancing towards you at speed. I was also required to check the ammunition (a mixture of ball, tracer, incendiary and armour piercing). The servicing of the guns and turret was undertaken by the armourers. I had great faith in these reliable and efficient men. FI/Lt P. Lee supervised the Air Gunners. He was a real character! Before he flew on Operations, he would write a "colourful" message to Hitler, place it in a bottle and throw it out over enemy territory! I have often wondered if any of his notes were ever discovered, and what the finder would have thought of them! Before take-off I would take up position in the turret. Once airborne, I kept a constant visual search of the sky. In bright sunlight we were instructed to hold up a thumb in order to block out the sun, in an attempt to look around it. It was easier said than done! In these circumstances Gunners were told to be especially watchful for the "Hun in the Sun". When I occupied the turret, I kept a constant look out and did not allow myself to be distracted. At night, it was usual for enemy fighters to attack from below-- the darkest part of the sky. As a Gunner, excellent night vision was crucial. To optimise this, we used dark glasses and avoided looking at any bright light when taking off in darkness. I was fortunate in having taken a keen interest in the recognition of our own and German aircraft before enlisting in the RAF. The Gunner had to know the wingspan of every enemy fighter, enabling him to judge the distance with the reflector ring and bead sight. He would alert the Pilot to be ready to take corkscrewing or diving evasive action if an unidentified aircraft was spotted. When the Pilot was told to "Go" (carry out the manoeuvre), the Gunner would aim his guns and fire above the attacking aircraft in the hope it would fly through the hail of bullets. At regular intervals air firing practises were arranged over areas of remote moorland. We carried out fighter affiliation exercises, corkscrewing and diving with a fighter from Ashton Down. Whilst flying over this country, it was not unusual for a friendly fighter to appear and simulate the action of attack. We dived or corkscrewed in response, whenever possible. It was good practise for the real event. In practise or reality, one's Pilot always complied with the Gunners split second decision of action to be taken. It was never questioned and wholly relied upon. There was no time for debate. It was the Gunner's responsibility to give the order to "Go". Misjudging the distance and angle of the fighter preparing to attack would result in the fighter throttling back and following your manoeuvre, catastrophically handing them the firing advantage. Both before and after D- Day, many SOE operations (by various crews) were undertaken, generally to France, where supplies of all kinds were dropped in containers. We regularly flew at about 500 feet and took a course which avoided areas of flak. Such was the 4 secrecy, we were never informed of the location of the dropping zone, and even the Navigator was only given a map reference. My log book, for example, mentions "Operation Donkey- man 73". This was the sum total of my flight information! On reaching the dropping zone, the Resistance would alert us by placing 3 lights spaced in a line, followed by a letter of the alphabet flashed in Morse code. If the letter corresponded with ours, we dropped the containers from our position at 500 feet. In preparation for the invasion large exercises were carried out for glider pilots and crews. The LZ (landing zone) was the grassed area of our aerodrome between the perimeter track and runways. It was always an amazing sight to see 10 to 15 gliders casting off in turn and approach the minute landing zone without collision! I so admired the outstanding skill of the glider pilots. A dropping zone for the dangling tow rope (measuring 80 yards in length and 2 inches thick) was located in a field marked with a cross, a short distance away. On taking off with a glider in tow, the towing aircraft would move slowly, and I as Gunner would advise the Pilot when the slack in the rope had been taken up, and also when the glider became airborne. The glider would normally be towed in a high position, and rarely at a low one. During night flights the aircraft displayed no navigational lights apart from a small light at the tail. This assisted the glider Pilot to maintain position. Major Toler of H Squadron Glider Pilot Regiment held many briefings before large exercises or actual operations. We were allotted the same two glider pilots (Staff Sgts N Jenkins and E. Raspison). They were towed by our aircraft to Caen on D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. We were so pleased on all these 5 occasions to welcome them home safely after taking part in such perilous and important operations. Off duty time was regularly spent socialising at the Chequers public house in Brize Norton, where Air Gunner Arthur Flack often played the piano to entertain us. We made the most of our leisure time. Dances were held regularly at the Village Hall and were always well attended. I also learned to play cards rather well! Leisurely cycling through the quaint villages and surrounding countryside on a sunny day was a particular pleasure. On one occasion, Joe Louis the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion performed an exhibition bout at a nearby Camp. He was serving in the U.S. Army at the time, and I recall the excitement as I was a huge fan. Known as the "Brown Bomber" he successfully defended his title 25 times. One of the greatest. For several days prior to D-Day (6th June 1944), we were confined to the Station. We suspected the invasion was about to take place, but had no idea where the landings would be. In our interest it was vital not to mention our speculations to anyone. To maintain secrecy, our personal correspondence was checked by a censor. In my case by my own Pilot. In the early hours of D-Day, and in darkness, we made our way to Caen with the glider. We appeared to be part of a long corridor of aircraft, fortunately travelling in the same direction. I kept constant watch as the dark shapes of aircraft closed in. Some veered away. At other times it was necessary to take evasive action to avoid collision from the multitude of aircraft and glider tow ropes. Flying at a height of 2-3000 feet, we crossed 100 miles of sea before we encountered streams of flak on reaching the French Coast. Our Pilot, able to communicate with the gliders, wished them "God speed and safe landing" before casting off. 6 As we were re-crossing the coast to return to base our port engine was hit by flak and caught fire. Simultaneously, an unidentified aircraft appeared. I trained my guns on it, hoping desperately it was not a German night fighter. I waited, until I identified it. Thankfully it was a Lancaster. Our Pilot succeeded in extinguishing the fire and we flew on one engine, making an emergency landing at Ford Aerodrome, near Littlehampton. Another aircraft from our Squadron had landed there too, as their Air Gunner (FIt/Sgt Leonard Jones from Liverpool), had been killed. We flew back to base in that aircraft piloted by F/O Bull. Unable to take part in the second operation on D-Day due to our stricken aeroplane, we later learned that our replacement crew led by F/O Long were all killed. Supplies and Tactics: Before taking part in any SOE operation (subversive operations Europe), crew members were supplied with a small canvas pack containing the currency of the particular country; Ovaltine tablets; Morphine injections; Wound dressings; a Silk map; and 3 side and face passport photos. This was in an effort to assist the Resistance Movement who were able to forge documents but were unable to obtain photographs. Interestingly, the enemy began to identify the passport photographs as belonging to British servicemen by the collars of their shirts. The regulation issue were all identical in type and colour. The base of our collar stud concealed a compass showing magnetic north. The clip of a fountain pen balanced on a pin served the same purpose. In the event of having to bail out over enemy territory, we had been advised by a successful evader to hide by day and travel by night 7 I and avoid towns. In country settings we were to cross open fields and not walk along the hedgerows where animals sheltered. Any noise from them could raise the alarm. Farmhouses and other buildings were to be kept under observation for several hours to establish their safe status before approaching. We were to conceal our uniforms, but never discard them, as it was best to be identified as a British Serviceman and dealt with by the rules of the Geneva Convention. (No sign of a uniform would lead captors to believe you were a spy and you would be shot). In the event of capture it was ingrained to supply only the following information: Name, Rank and Number. There were procedures in place for the destruction of aircraft forced to land on enemy territory. In order to preserve the secrecy of the instrumentation, Radar and information aboard, each aircraft carried a canister containing explosives. This self destruct mechanism would be thrust into the fuel tank by means of a spike, leaving 30 seconds for a getaway before explosion. We signed an agreement to this effect. It read: "This is to certify that I am fully conversant with the procedure for the destruction of aircraft forced to land in enemy country, and secret equipment carried in aircraft. Fighter Command Op. Inst No 39/1943" We were equipped with a "Mae West" to keep afloat. If we were to land/ditch on water at night, a whistle attached to our collars was to be used to alert colleagues to our location in the water. Each airman wore a parachute harness. Due to its bulk, the parachute itself was carried separately and stored close to hand aboard the aircraft. In an emergency the parachute could be clipped onto the harness easily. 8 Horror stories circulated regarding aircrew who had bailed out, with parachutes failing to open. However, scrape marks were found on one side of the unopened parachute packs, indicating the frantic efforts of the airmen to release the ripcord. In panic, these poor unfortunate men had not realised it was located on the other side. Following this, it became common practise to check the location of the ripcord prior to leaving the aeroplane. On the 5th/6th September 1944, fully laden gliders were relocated to Manston , as the distance from Brize Norton to Arnhem for "Operation Market Garden" was too great. The flight took 1 hour 20 mins. Both Squadrons flew to Manston on the 15th September and were billeted in the Church Hall. The flight to Arnhem on the 17th / 18th September was an unforgettable sight. Hundreds of aircraft and gliders formed a long aerial corridor over Holland, which was seen to be badly flooded. So much so, the roads and house roofs were just visible below the surface of the water. Always flying low in an attempt to avoid flak, we encountered it by some measure over Hertogenbosch, Holland. One of our aircraft ahead of us was hit, resulting in pieces of material flying off it in all directions. There was tremendous fighter cover for the whole operation. A gun on the ground opened fire on us, but was immediately blasted by a fighter. One of our Dakota aircraft, obviously in trouble, descended. Several heavily armed Paratroopers bailed out, landing in the large expanse of water. Equipped only with a very slim, flat pack abdominal buoyancy support which needed to be inflated on contact with the water, I have often wondered if any of them 9 survived. Not many of us knew how to swim in those days, let alone land fully armed in water. Manston was equipped with a wide runway, and I recall on our return that several aircraft were touching down simultaneously. Exciting, dangerous and highly unusual! Thankfully there were no casualties. Two incidents occurred during my time at Brize Norton which made me think my "number was up". The first took place on a beautiful sunny day. I had just left the Sgts Mess and was making my way to the billet. Casually walking along and lost in thought, I heard the sound of approaching aircraft. I looked up fully expecting to see the Dakotas who regularly flew over as they were based at Broadwell. To my horror, I was facing a Stirling bomber, coming down at an angle towards me, and about to crash to the ground. My immediate reaction was to turn and run away from it, however I was now running in the same direction as the rapidly descending plane! The thought flashed through my mind that I would be squashed like a fly! It was trying to reach the flat ground behind me. The Canteen and tennis court stood approximately 50 yards beyond the Billet. They were adjoined by a narrow service road with an earth covered bomb shelter beyond. The bomber crashed, flattening the shelter. It crossed the length of the tennis court before finally coming to a stop only a very few feet from the canteen, which was packed with airmen and airwomen. The aircraft was badly broken up and the crew were seriously injured. We were all extremely fortunate to survive that day. The second incident took place on the 15th May 1944, a date etched in my memory. We were carrying out a navigational exercise in the Albemarle when the port engine stopped functioning. The propeller was not feathered. Flying on one engine, 10 our pilot requested an emergency landing. Approaching the runway with undercarriage and flaps engaged, the pilot of another aircraft took the decision to land in front of us. This occurred despite our emergency status, and our pilot urgently requesting him to allow us to land first. Undoubtedly he was unaware of the seriousness of our situation. We were forced to overshoot on one engine. Not an easy task in the aircraft of the day. As we neared the end of the runway we were losing height badly. Realising we were about to crash, I turned the turret to face forward; rested my forehead on the pad above the gunsight designed for such events ; and held on to the bars for dear life. We left the end of the runway as the earth became closer and closer. I heard a terrific scraping sound and raised my legs automatically, fearing they would be cut off as we hit the ground. We fortunately, and narrowly, missed hitting a stone wall before hurtling across a field and through trees, severing several large branches along the way. I feared for the bomb aimer and navigator who were still in the forward area of the plane. We came to rest on Kilkenny farmland, close to the Base. The aircraft was badly damaged, but we were all fortunate to escape with minor injuries. As we climbed out of the plane, I shall never forget the welcome sight of three Land Army girls, (one a particular friend!), joined by two Italian POW's working on the farm, running across the field towards us. Late on the night of the 26th August 1944, thirteen aircraft departed the Base to carry out SOE Operation "Ventriloquist 57" in Northern Europe. FI/Sgt A.H. Busbridge and his crew were deployed to take part at the very last minute. We flew in small numbers to differing destinations so as not to alert the enemy. As our aeroplane crossed the French coast we flew into an electric storm. It was so dark I couldn't see the tail fins. Blue flashes appeared around the muzzle of the four guns. Sparks ran along the aerials; and the two propellers lit up like two white haloes. For a fraction of a second when the lightning flashed, it lit up the whole of the countryside below. The storm worsened, and the decision was made to return to Base. In any case it was most unlikely that we would have been able to drop supplies in such appalling conditions. Two other crews in the area also returned. The following morning we were informed that F/Sgt Busbridge and his crew had perished having crashed near the Base. This was devastating news, and especially sad as they were not meant to be flying on that sortie. A tragic irony which resonated with us all. We were told they had successfully completed their operation, but on return to Base, and preparing to land, they were instructed to overshoot as another aircraft was already on the runway. This was not an unusual occurrence during darkness, as there were no navigational lights. The Control Tower could give permission to land, but final landing was sanctioned by an airman (located in a black and white caravan type vehicle) stationed at the start of the runway. He had the best visibility under the circumstances and would send up a red flare to signal the need to overshoot. Naturally, there was much speculation amongst us as to the cause of the crash. The Albemarle had very large and independently controlled flaps. Pilots at the time, theorised that one of the flaps may have malfunctioned, resulting in a catastrophic loss of control of the aircraft. It was one of many theories. We shall never know for certain. 12 I do know the loss of F/ Sgt Alan Busbridge and his crew that day was deeply felt by me and their many friends. Now in my 87th year, I have never forgotten them. The Memorial Cairn and annual Service I am fortunate to be able to attend, and so kindly organised by Mrs Monica Tudor of Mill Farm, is a fitting and lasting tribute to the memory of these brave men. I recall with pride, the privilege of serving at RAF Brize Norton. Last year (2009), I was afforded the enormous treat and pleasure of a VIP tour of the Base. My first visit since 1944! It brought back so many memories, and I was fascinated by the inevitable progress and changes in the intervening years. I remain proud of this remarkable Base and its men and women who continue to serve our Country so magnificently today. God Bless you all. Robert J Griffith K St J, BEM (August 2010) 13 Addendum: I cannot fully conclude without mentioning the names of some of the men I was privileged to serve alongside: The Officers in Charge of 297 Squadron: Wing Commander J.G Minifie Wing Commander J.R. Grice O/C of A flight Squadron Leader R Trimm Delegated as Air Gunner to join the crew of the following Pilots on operational non-operational duties: Flying Officer K.T Garnett Flying Officer McCutcheon S/ Sergeant J. Wallwork (Glider passenger Glider) Pilot –passenger in Horsa Gl Flight Lt E. A Allison Flight Sgt Roberts Flying Officer Bull W/O K J Richards Flight Sgt A.H Busbridge Flight Lt R.H Thompson Flying Officer Price Flight Sgt Taylor Flying Officer J C Garnett Flight Lt I W McCall Flying Officer Perver Flying Officer T R Shortman Squadron Ldr Dean D.F.C. Flight Lft Watkins Squadron Ldr Brownrigg 14 Equipment/Avionics: Malcom Glider Towing gear equipped aircraft used special radio equipment. History: First flight (1st prototype) 1939 but was soon destroyed in a crash; first flight (2nd prototype) 20 March 1940; first delivery (Mk I Series I) 23 October 1941; end production December 1944. Operators: Great Britian (RAF Transport Command), Soviet Union (10 aircraft). Units: Squadrons - 295, 296, 297 and 298 of No. 38 Transport Group. Background The Albemarle originated as a Bristol Aeroplane Company design to meet Air Ministry twin engined Specification P.9/38 for a twin-engined bomber, being allocated the company identification official Type 155. With a change in the official specification, how ever, design responsibility was transferred to Armstrong Whitworth, under a team led by John Lloyd who was set the difficult task of taking over another company's creation and adapting it to meet Specification aissance B.18/38 for a reconnaissance bomber. This duly became identified as the Armstrong Whitworth A.W.41, given the name Albemarle, which in detail and construction was very different from the original Bristol concept. Designed for mixed composite steel and wood construction, the prototype flew in 1939, but was destroyed in a crash before the first flight of the second prototype on 20 March 1940. The sub Albemarle's form of structure enabled wide use of sub-contracting, even to small companies sub contractors), outside the aircraft industry (one source mentions almost 1,000 sub-contractors), and an additional bows came from conservation of lig alloy and other strategic materials. Theht British tricycle landing gear Was of Lockheed design rare on Briti aircraft.