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Oh Mother, it’s a lovely place!

An illustrated history of RAF Millom and their Mountain Rescue Team.

John Nixon


Oh Mother,

it’s a lovely place


For my Mother and Father, the Servicemen and Women of RAF Millom and my much missed, late Aunt Mary for whom my early delinquency was completely transparent!!

Oh Mother It’s a Lovely Place By Max Mundy Dear Mother, It’s a place called Millom up in Cumberland A Pretty little spot, the air is simply grand. We’ve got a picture palace and a big brass band Oh Mother it’s a lovely place. We’ve got a dining hall like the Ritz cafe A rhythmic band to take the taste away. And for your indigestion a nice sick bay Oh Mother it’s a lovely place. There ain’t no if’s or but’s We’ve got the cutest huts. With roses round the door Electric lights installed. And every morn we’re called Could you ever ask for more. And when the day is done It’s ten to one, you’ll find us. In the NAAFI or the Rising Sun Whoop up the night And having fun. Oh Mother it’s a loverly, Yes Mother It’s a loverly, Oh Mother It’s a loverly place. It is from this oft sung mess ballad that I have taken my book title...

About the Author

John Nixon was born in Ulverston on 3 August 1953. He was educated at High Newton Primary School, and Cartmel Priory C of E School. After leaving school in 1968, he made his living in many varied ways until he joined HM Prison Service in 1974. In July 2006 he took early retirement from the Prison Service to pursue his research and indulge his insatiable passion for travel! “Mother, it’s a lovely place” is his first attempt at writing.


Contents PART ONE — THE PLACE

INTRODUCTION.............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................1 TROUBLED TIMES — A BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKDROP TO THE CREATION OF RAF MILLOM...................................................................3 THE ENEMY BRINGS THE WAR TO MILLOM.................................................................................................................................................................................4 1941 — FLYING MACHINES BUT POOR LATRINES!................................................................................................................................................................4 AN ADDITIONAL ROLE FOR NO. 2 BOMBING AND GUNNERY SCHOOL.................................................................................................................7 A GRIM DAY FOR RAF MILLOM ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................7 NO 2 BOMBING AND GUNNERY SCHOOL BECOMES NO 2 AIR OBSERVER SCHOOL.....................................................................................13 1942 — INCLUDING A BRIEF VISIT BY THE LUFTWAFFE!.................................................................................................................................................20 1943 — TRIALS, TRAGEDIES AND THE FOUNDATIONS LAID FOR A UNIQUE SERVICE..............................................................................30 TRAGEDY OVER WHITEHAVEN..........................................................................................................................................................................................................38 1944 — RECOGNITION FOR MOUNTAIN RESCUE WORK AND THE BIRTH OF AN OFFICIALLY DEDICATED TEAM.................40 1945 — AN END TO FLYING AND YET ANOTHER CHANGE OF ROLE.....................................................................................................................53 1952 — THE ARRIVAL OF OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN!.................................................................................................................................................56

PART TWO — THE PEOPLE

MRS IRENE ASHLEY — 1941–1945.................................................................................................................................................................................................59 MR JIM ANDERSON — 1941..............................................................................................................................................................................................................59 MR JIM ALLAM — 1941.........................................................................................................................................................................................................................60 MR BOB BRYANT — 1941.....................................................................................................................................................................................................................60 MR NEVILLE BEALE — 1944................................................................................................................................................................................................................61 MR JIM P. BAILEY — 1944 –1945......................................................................................................................................................................................................61 MS MOLLY BAKER W.A.A.F. — 1942–1943................................................................................................................................................................................62 MR JOHN BRANDON — 1943...........................................................................................................................................................................................................63 MR REG BEINT — 1943...........................................................................................................................................................................................................................63 MR E BARCLAY — 1943.........................................................................................................................................................................................................................64 MR JOHN BROWN —1943–1944.....................................................................................................................................................................................................64 MR ROSS BLANCHARD — 1944 –1945.......................................................................................................................................................................................86 MR DERRICK WILLIAM CROISDALE — ATC 1942..................................................................................................................................................................98 MR JOE CRAWFORD — 1942 – 1944............................................................................................................................................................................................99 MR EDWIN ‘DIXIE’ DEAN — 1942 – 1945.................................................................................................................................................................................100 MR ALFRED WISE DUDLEY — 1940 –1946............................................................................................................................................................................101 MR JOHN EDMUNDS —1941 –1942..........................................................................................................................................................................................112 MR EDDIE ELLIN — 1942...................................................................................................................................................................................................................114 MR ARTHUR J. EVANS — 1941 –1942........................................................................................................................................................................................114 MR PETER FEAR........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................116 MR EDGAR FEATHERSTONE — 1941–1943...........................................................................................................................................................................118 MR GEOFF FROUDE — 1941 –1943...........................................................................................................................................................................................131 MR KENNETH R. FULTON —1943 ................................................................................................................................................................................................132 MR C.K. GARNER — 1941...................................................................................................................................................................................................................134 MR D. J. GRIFFITHS — 1941 – 1943.............................................................................................................................................................................................135 MR BOB GILLESPIE 1943–1944.......................................................................................................................................................................................................136 MR BILL GRACIE —1942 –1944.....................................................................................................................................................................................................138 MR C KODER — 1942 –1944...........................................................................................................................................................................................................140 MR J FOSTER — 1941...........................................................................................................................................................................................................................141 MR P JORDAN — 1944........................................................................................................................................................................................................................141 MR A J L HICKOX — 1941..................................................................................................................................................................................................................142 MR TOM JUPP............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................147 MR PETER MESTON — 1942 – 1943...........................................................................................................................................................................................150 MR R MCGILL — 1944.........................................................................................................................................................................................................................151 MR RON MORGAN.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................153 MR A.L. MELOCHE — 1944 ............................................................................................................................................................................................................157 MR R. MARSDEN — 1941–1943....................................................................................................................................................................................................158 MR E. NYE — 1942.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................159 MR M. PITCHERS —1944 –1945....................................................................................................................................................................................................160 MR F.W. RAMSAY — 1942..................................................................................................................................................................................................................163 MR K. RICHARDSON — 1942 –1945...........................................................................................................................................................................................163 MR J. RUSSELL — 1941.......................................................................................................................................................................................................................165 MRS A. RENTON — 1941 – 1942...................................................................................................................................................................................................166 MR E.G. THALE — 1944.......................................................................................................................................................................................................................167 MR NIGEL TRENDELL — 1943 –1944.........................................................................................................................................................................................178 MR ROLAND WILLIAMSON — 1942...........................................................................................................................................................................................180 MR CLAUDE WILLIAMS — 1944....................................................................................................................................................................................................181 AIR COMMODORE ARTHUR WRAY, DSO, MC, DFC, AFC...............................................................................................................................................182 MR DAVID WATERS 1942 – 1944...................................................................................................................................................................................................185 MR DONALD EARL WRATHALL ....................................................................................................................................................................................................202 INDEX OF ABBREVIATIONS...............................................................................................................................................................................................................204 THANK YOU................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................206


Oh Mother, it’s a lovely place! ©John Nixon 2009 Graphic Design: Russell Holden • www.pixeltweaks.co.uk

Printed by: Elanders Ltd, Merlin Way, New York Business Park, North Tyneside, NE27 0QG Third Edition 06-2010

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INTRODUCTION I still remember quite clearly the day that I was taken to Cark Airfield by my father for the first time. My father was, I believe, delivering wood and as a small boy I was under strict instructions to remain in his wagon until he had completed his business. I can recall even now, how I was held enthralled by the old control tower, the air raid shelters and the runways, though at the time I had no idea why. The reason has become clear to me over the years. I am, and have been from birth, an incurable romantic and like all those of this nature, I seem to have an instinctive sense of history. It is my experience, however, that there are very few sites on earth that exude the powerful atmosphere one experiences on an abandoned World War II airfield. I developed a keen interest in local WWII airfields throughout my teenage years when, after a carefree and aimless working life, I joined Her Majesty’s Prison Service. My first posting as a very green ‘screw’ was to Gartree maximum security prison in Leicestershire – a prison built on the site of the old RAF Market Harborough, which had, during the war years, been home to a heavy bomber conversion unit. As one can imagine, this gave me many happy hours of wandering around old runways and buildings and provided me with a gentle diversion from my working life, which at that time was ‘interesting and challenging’ to say the least! After three years’ service at HMP Gartree,I was granted a home posting to HMP Haverigg, a category C closed training establishment on the outskirts of Millom in Cumbria. Just across the estuary from Barrow-in-Furness. When I arrived there in the spring of 1978 I walked into what was, effectively, an expansion period air base that had simply had a fence thrown around it in 1967 to create an instant prison. This change of site usage was common during the 1960’s and made perfect sense at the time. All military sites had everything that a prison needed – kitchen, gymnasium, workshops, billet accommodation, etc, plus a great deal of acreage which could be given over to agriculture. For the next 14 years I slowly gained a very sketchy picture of its wartime life. During those 14 years on more occasions that I can remember, ex-servicemen and women of all nationalities would visit our gate area and ask how much of the old airfield site remained. Many would reminisce with us about their RAF Service spent at RAF Millom, and I was not alone in a desire to whisk them through the prison and have them tell us ‘how it used to be’! The Prison Service, and prisons in general, remained fairly much a difficult to access environment for members of the public, until the early 1990’s when the Prison Service seems to have embarked upon a period of ‘Glasnost’ (openness) during which, and quite rightly, the public were encouraged to see and judge for themselves, our attempts at making best use of their money in terms of rehabilitation and crime reduction. In 1992 HMP Haverigg had been on site for 25 years, and our Governor, Mr Bernard Wilson, was looking for a suitable way to mark the occasion. A working committee was established in early spring and various themes and attractions for the event were discussed. Governor Wilson had in fact served in the Royal Air Force before beginning his career in the Prison Service. When I suggested that I attempt to research the history of the site back to its inception as an airfield, he was both delighted and intrigued. I had little idea how to begin but felt that local appeals and notices in various RAF publications for photographs and information would be a good start. It is fair to say Governor Bernard Wilson. In foreground is engine valve from that I had no plans for any resulting material Millom Anson AX293 (see further text) Author’s Photo... beyond a modest display of memorabilia, and a proposed Silver Jubilee gala day. I had not, however, bargained on the huge response with which my 1


appeals were to be met! By the time our gala day dawned, I had amassed a display which took up two large rooms, with countless letters, photographs, plans and artefacts. Taking pride of place amongst all this unexpected trove of material were the substantial, and unexpectedly sound remains of an Armstrong Siddeley radial engine from one of RAF Millom’s crashed Avro Ansons. Haverigg’s Inshore Rescue Team, along with a group of Prison staff, had recovered the engine three months previously from the Irish Sea. Our gala day was a great success, and was attended by a vast crowd, made up of members of the public and ex-servicemen and women of the old RAF Millom. Local radio, newspapers and TV began to take a keen interest and my mail tray started to sag and groan as the flow of photographs, information and artefacts became a torrent. The most common question I was asked at the time was “what are you going to do with all this wonderful stuff?” I had been guided this far in my efforts by David Reid and the team of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum, who operate what is probably the best amateur-run aviation museum in the country. It was with David’s support and encouragement that I began to explore the possibility of establishing a museum of our own, but where? Haverigg Prison Officers’ Social Club occupies about half of the buildings that had been the old RAF Officers’ Mess. The other half was, at the time, taken up by bachelor accommodation for prison staff, which was no longer in use. On a bright winter’s morning, and with cap visibly in hand, I made the formal (and outrageous) request that I be granted the unused bachelor quarters to house my burgeoning collection of treasures. Governor Wilson not only agreed to my request, but participated wholeheartedly in the establishment and development of the RAF Millom Museum up until his retirement from HMP Haverigg and beyond. The gutting of the buildings, and the fitting out with display cases took place over the winter of 1992/93 and was back-breaking work made possible by the many volunteers who constantly ‘dropped by’ and selflessly gave their time and energy. It would be foolhardy to try to thank everyone by name (I would be bound to forget someone!) but you know who you are and my heartfelt thanks go to all of you. And so at Easter 1993, the RAF Millom Museum opened its doors officially for the first time. The ribbon was cut by Pilot Officer David Waters, of Hull, who served from 1942 to 1944 as RAF Millom’s Senior Test Pilot, and for the very first time the ex-servicemen and women of RAF Millom gathered for an official reunion, some 100 strong. I thought very hard about how best to present the anecdotes and recollections sent to me to best effect within the museum. I reasoned that if I processed all the information and presented it my own way, then with the best will in the world, it would have my writing style throughout it, and could become a little boring. My dearest wish has always been that our visitors to the museum would leave with the feeling that veterans have been telling them their personal stories and showing them their photographs, just as they first did to me. To pursue this end, I asked our exservicemen and women to write their stories as they would tell them and I would simply present them word for word. I have decided to stick tight to this ethos in presenting this book too. Like our museum, I shall begin with a year by year history of RAF Millom, after which those who served here during the war years and beyond, will paint a far richer picture for you of their lives, loves, tragedies and joys than I ever could. I hope that it brings alive our old airfield for you and helps keep alive the memory of all those who gave so much in defence of our islands in those troubled and dangerous times.

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Left to right – Mrs Irene Ashley, Mr David Waters, The author (John Nixon) and Mr & Mrs Bernard Wilson at the opening of the RAF Millom museum. Author’s Photo.


TROUBLED TIMES

A BRIEF HISTORICAL BACKDROP TO THE CREATION OF RAF MILLOM

It is not my intention to write an in-depth history of the period leading up to World War II, but to set the scene for the building of RAF Millom and the many airfields like it during the build up to the onset of the war and beyond. When Hitler came to power in 1933 he withdrew Nazi Germany from the League of Nations, which caused the collapse of the International Peace Conference in Geneva, and created great alarm here in Britain. At this time also, the Luftwaffe was being covertly trained for hostilities behind the smokescreen of gliding clubs and commercial flying. So great was British concern that a committee was set up to assess and report on the potential dangers of the situation. It was to conclude in its report that ‘Nazi Germany was now Britain’s ultimate potential enemy and that should aerial bombardment of our country by Germany begin, it would not be confined to our capital city’. A period of expansion by the RAF on a scale never before undertaken was about to begin. By the time war was declared on 3 September 1939, the Emergency Powers Act had been established which authorised the requisitioning of any suitable land for military purposes. An area of level ground, 1½ miles south of Millom in Cumberland was deemed suitable, plans were duly drawn, submitted and approved. WORK BEGINS Though RAF Millom spent its life as a training airfield, it was in fact build under the jurisdiction of No. 9 Group as an advanced fighter station. This may well have been as part of a protection plan for the West coast, should the Germans occupy Ireland, and perhaps the Isle of Man. Although we cannot pinpoint with any certainty the exact day on which work began, we do know however that the construction of RAF Millom was undertaken by the Construction Firm Constable and Hart. Mr Alan Shute of Millom recalled for me that he had worked as an office boy for the company before being lured to the ranks of the carpenters for more money! He was also able to tell me that the land for the airfield was requisitioned from Layriggs Farm, Hemplands Farm, a piece known locally as ‘Van Diemans Land’, and Gelderbanks, along with some which belonged to Bankhead Farm. RAF Millom was to have eight Bellman Type hangars, which were constructed by Carters of Sheffield, and ‘blister’ type hangars around its dispersal points. The Bellman hangars appear to have been used, almost exclusively, for maintenance whilst the ‘blister’ type hangars, constructed from curved corrugated steel and open at both ends, offered shelter for otherwise openly dispersed aircraft.

FOR THOSE WHO LOVE STATISTICS! • Airfield construction peaked in 1942 • During the five years of war, the Air Ministries Directorate of Works spent £600 million on airfield construction, and laid approximately 160 million square yards of concrete in the form of runways, dispersals and perimeter tracks. • It is further estimated that 336,000 miles of electrical cables were installed and that by 1945 airfields occupied 360,000 acres of land in Britain.

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THE ENEMY BRINGS THE WAR TO MILLOM With the German aerial bombardment of Britain gaining momentum, all centres of industry and those living close to them were at risk. Whilst the construction of RAF Millom was nearing completion, the Luftwaffe operating from occupied western France launched a bombing raid on Millom Ironworks. The date was 2 January 1941 when, in the small hours of the morning, the German raiders released their bomb load, missing the Ironworks and instead hitting the houses of Steel Green on the outskirts of Millom, destroying three houses and killing five civilians. Those killed were John Morgan, aged 56, Stephen Balton, aged 62, and three members of the Geldard family – William, aged 51, Isabella, aged 43, and William, aged 17. William and Isabella’s daughter, Margaret, survived as, by good fortune, she was staying that night with a friend in Newton Street, Millom. The small community was still reeling with shock from the horror of that night when days later a lone German raider dropped two 2,300 pound bombs on Haverigg village. Fortunately they fell in a field close to the edge of the village and missed any housing. It was fortunate too that both missiles were fitted with time delay fuses and evacuation of the area was possible. After several hours one of the bombs exploded leaving a huge crater, but the other remained dormant and in due course people were allowed to move back in to their homes, where they tried to ignore their new German neighbour! It was obvious to those who investigated immediately after the event that the unexploded bomb had penetrated to a great depth and extraction at the time was not thought possible. It would be 1949, after many days of hard work, before the bomb was found, removed and disarmed Aerial photo taken morning after bombing of Haverigg. Small and large craters at top left of frame. – a great relief to the residents of Photo RAF Millom Museum Haverigg I am sure!!! 1941 – FLYING MACHINES BUT POOR LATRINES! Whilst men and machines had been arriving for several days, it was on 20 January that RAF Millom was officially opened as No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School. The airfield’s operational records book (ORB), a daily service diary, records on that day the opening up party consisted of Flt/Lt Davenport Adjudant and 112 NCOs and Airmen Available on-site equipment was listed as: 1 Blackburn Botha Aircraft L6169 from No. 48 Maintenance Unit 2 Ford V8 3 Tonner Lorries 1 Albion Ambulance 2 Morris Light Ambulances 1 Hillman Minx Staff Car 5 Fordson Tractors 1 Norton Motorcycle

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The opening ORB entry then goes on to paint a rather bleak picture of life for those on the new station: ‘The building of the station was far from complete, in particular only a few airmen’s barrack huts were ready for occupation. The Officers’ and Sgt’s Mess is not ready. The roads are in a bad state and the ground is waterlogged. Unexpected difficulties have been experienced in laying the deeper parts of the sewerage and drainage system so it was not anticipated that the ablutions and the lavatories in the airmen’s sections would be fully working for another six weeks. A smaller section of the drainage system serving the Officers’ Mess was expected to be ready in one week. The non-delivery of essential stores caused difficulties, e.g., no mattresses were available so the men had to sleep on blankets, and dining tables and forms had to be improvised from the builders’ materials. Dry bucket latrines were instituted in the ablutions building and external canvas walled latrines commenced. It was found impossible to dig trench latrines as the water was only 16 – 18 inches from the surface in all parts of the station. Excrement was disposed of in a deep pit in the adjacent sand dunes. The feeding and housing of the airmen was satisfactory but bare. The Officers were billeted in the nearby town of Millom and the surrounding country. There is very little spare accommodation in the district as this has all been taken by workmen from the nearby Ironworks and Mines, those employed on airfield construction, and by evacuees from industrial towns’. Author’s Note: To this day, drainage and any maintenance that requires digging proves a major headache to HM Prison Service as the water table on what has always been the build up area of the old airfield site (now HMP Haverigg) is frequently found not more than 16 inches below surface level. On 21 January Group Captain AM Wray, MC, DFC, AFC, arrived at RAF Millom and assumed command of the new station, along with Wing Commander CC O’Grady who was to take up post as RAF Millom’s first Chief Instructor. Grp/Cpt Wray was a decorated veteran of the First World War and other conflicts, having served with the Royal Flying Corps. It would be quite easy to devote a complete chapter to his character and service history – I refrain from attempting this as in the second part of this book a wonderful pen portrait is included by one of the many who knew him personally, served under him and remember him fondly with the greatest respect and admiration. Arriving at RAF Millom that same day came a further 84 NCOs and airmen, along with yet more of the equipment needed to bring the new airfield to operational status. For all the hardships encountered, progress was steadily made and 25 January 1941 was marked by the arrival of four Blackburn Botha aircraft, the first of many of their type which, having been found to be operationally useless due to their weight and lack of power, were sidelined for training purposes. It would become apparent that even in the hands of the most experienced pilot, the Botha could prove to be nothing short of, at best, a liability and in several cases, quite lethal! Author’s Note:

The RAF Millom Museum is fortunate enough to have in it’s collection one of the largest, if not the largest piece of Botha wreckage in existence. This item is an almost complete wing tip, a section of some eight feet in length and even a cursory examination of this piece of airframe and diagrammatic plans for the type speak of a very robust aircraft. The Botha’s main ‘Achilles’ heel’ was its lamentable lack of power and at bases like RAF Millom, also its operational environment as we shall see. The very first Botha flew on 28 December 1938 (the prototype) and a further slight modification on 7 June 1939. The Air Ministry was sufficiently impressed to order 580 of these new aircraft and manufacture began at the outbreak of the war in factories at Brough and Dumbarton. Very quickly the Botha’s shortcomings became painfully obvious – weighing 5

Blackburn Botha in flight. Author’s Photo.


over 12,000 lbs empty, even with it’s uprated 930hp Bristol Perseus XA radial engines, the Botha could only manage a top speed of 250mph, its max range being 1,270 miles and its rate of climb a very poor 985 feet per minute. It would be remiss of me not to include the following tale told to me by a visitor to the RAF Millom Museum who knew a pilot who test flew an early Botha, and was asked to submit a written appraisal of the aircraft and the experience. An apocryphal tale it may be, but I was told the report read something like this – “I am … etc, etc, and have duly, as instructed, etc. The aircraft handles poorly until approaching take off … etc, etc, though responds reasonably well when up to full flying speed”. He concluded his report by commending the room for aircrew but stated “the Botha is incredibly underpowered and access for the pilot to the cockpit is quite difficult. It is my recommendation that access to the Botha cockpit is rendered impossible as soon as is practical”! Throughout January 1941 men, machinery and aircraft flowed steadily into No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School RAF Millom. On 31 January 1941, Millom’s ORB records the total strength of the new station as 28 Officers and 458 other ranks. It further records that all Officers were billeted or living out in the local community. No Senior NCO accommodation was available at this time, although Corporal and aircrew accommodation was provided for 405. Senior NCOs were occupying bunks at the end of airmen’s barrack huts, and huts built for 26 airmen were in fact accommodating 30. The drainage system for the Officers’ Mess sector of the station is recorded as almost complete. ORB records at the close of the month tell us that the station had on strength, 12 Blackburn Bothas and 4 Fairey Battle Aircraft, and that prior to the commencement of flying, a meeting was convened to decide the structure of the new station. It was decided to organise the new airfield as three wings – a Defence Section training wing consisting of a bombing squad, a Gunnery Squadron, towing targets for gunnery Millom ATC cadets Summer camp RAF Millom, 1941 (with station Botha) Photo RAF Millom Museum practice, etc, each squadron having an instructional and flying flight. A third maintenance wing was to consist of a maintenance squadron and workshops, and would include all services and administration sections. Millom’s ORB entry for 31 January 1941 concludes by stating: ‘flying has commenced at the station, pilots inexperienced in Botha A/C being given dual instruction’. Author’s Note: Fairey Battle Aircraft – designed as a two seater bomber and powered by the 1035 Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the type enjoyed limited success with the advanced striking force in France and later with Coastal Commands. However once again, as with the Botha, its lack of power, speed and range meant that the type was destined to find its way from operational duties to be utilised for training purposes. The Battle could be used for gunnery training as many were fitted with a Browning machine gun in the rear of the cockpit, or as target towing aircraft. At Millom most of the Battles seem to have performed the latter duty. Target towing involved the towing of a fabric target, or drogue, a safe distance behind the towing aircraft to provide an airborne target for pupil air gunners to hone their classroom taught skills upon. At this stage in Millom’s history the pupils would be firing from the mid-upper turret of a pursuing Botha and the success of the exercise (or otherwise) was easily established by examination of the target upon landing! On 3 February 1941 the final stage of Millom’s opening up programme was put into operation and the process of posting the unit up to its full strength had begun. At this point Millom was still experiencing a serious shortfall in equipment and ORB records no dining tables or forms supplied – considerable difficulty with the serving of meals. Sleeping arrangements were also proving to be 6


an increasing worry as the station strength rapidly increased. Due to what Millom’s ORB describes as ‘hastening action’ (someone kicked someone’s backside!), 1,000 mattresses arrived just in time to

Moving target range. Photos: RAF Millom Museum

accommodate the station’s next surge in numbers. Newly completed and situated to the south of the airfield a moving target range was now coming into use. This consisted of a small rail track around which a wooden model of an aircraft would travel whilst gunnery pupils practiced deflection firing at it from an aircraft gun turret placed nearby. The system was powered by electricity and whilst the generator buildings are long gone, much of the range, including the huge concrete stop butt can be seen today. AN ADDITIONAL ROLE FOR No. 2 BOMBING AND GUNNERY SCHOOL On 4 February 1941 Grp/Cpt Wray and W/Cdr O’Grady attended a conference held at HQ Flying Training Command to discuss the conversion of RAF Millom into a combined Bombing & Gunnery, and Air Observer School. The conference accepted that Millom should take on the role of a combined school and that only Air Observers (Navigators as they would come to be known) should be trained there. In so far as on-site services were concerned, some progress had been made, however sewage disposal appears to have been a continuing problem to the extent that Millom’s local MP raised the issue of the conditions personnel were being force to endure on the new station and suggested that as things stood, the airfield was not yet suitable for occupation. His allegations were considered to be baseless and Millom was left to struggle on! I have wondered on more than one occasion whilst strolling through those lovely sand dunes at Haverigg whether they owe their lush and plentiful of RAF Millom’s last surviving air raid shelter now buried vegetation and flowers to RAF Millom’s early Sad remains under motorcycle scramble track. Author’s Photo.. sewage disposal methods!!! A GRIM DAY FOR RAF MILLOM Aircraft continued to arrive at Millom to bring their numbers to required strength and did so midst various training and other flights from the station. All this activity took place without incident until on 24 February 1941, Millom’s ORB records the Unit’s first two accidents. Both of these incidents involved Blackburn Bothas, one fairly minor with slight injury, and the other a horrifying harbinger. I quote directly from Millom’s ORB for the day: 7


24/2/41 – Flying accident, Botha L6247 swung off runway on landing and hit obstruction. Pilot slightly injured. Crash. Botha L6262 on flight to Detling, Kent, dived out of control into ground near Tonbridge. Aircraft completely wrecked and burnt out. All four crew killed. Pilot P/O S G Rodd, Crew Sgt G L Pitman (Pilot Navigator), LAC P L Jackson, AC1 H Davenport. Bodies mutilated and unidentifiable. The shock of this latter horrendous loss will doubtless have reverberated throughout the whole of the new unit with no firm conclusions reached at the time as to the cause of such a crash, we can fairly confidently assume, in the light of what was to transpire in the coming months, that a failure of one of the aircraft engines is a likely culprit. Station life went on with all the usual scrapes and difficulties of service life during the war years. Those who served at Millom during this time speak of fairly regular but manageable problems with the Botha engines but it would only be a matter of weeks before a serious and life threatening problem with the Botha manifested itself once more. Several nationalities of servicemen and women served at Millom during the war years, but frequently it was the station’s Polish pilots who were most mature in years and with the most flying experience, having been forced to leave the country of their birth after previously serving as pilots in their native Poland. One such man was P/O Jacob Spychala. If the Blackburn Botha is to be the villain of this piece then P/O J Spychala must surely be considered the hero, for on two notable occasions displaying both courage and incredible airmanship and skill, he saved the lives of both himself and his crews when confronted with two separate Botha engine failures. The RAF Millom Museum is fortunate to have in its possession the entire account of one such incident as recounted for officialdom by P/O Spychala and his crew. Sadly the print on the original document has suffered with the passage of time, so I have reproduced the report exactly as it was submitted, and in the same format. Even from the safety of my desk, it makes chilling reading. REPORT ON FLYING ACCIDENT OR FORCED LANDING NOT ATTRIBUTABLE TO ENEMY ACTION

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CERTIFIED TRUE TRANSLATION (SIGNED T CLASTULA P/O 15.4.1941 From: P/O J Spychala, Flight, No. 2 B & GS Millom To: I/C Flying, No. 2 B &GS Millom Date: 14 April 1941 Subject: Accident to Botha No L 6283 Sir I have the honour to report to you as follows. April 14, 1941, I took off at about 2pm on Botha No 6283 for practice bombing from high level 6,000 feet. I had on board the following crew – Sgt Outhall, L.A.C. Bicknell and L.A.C Baker. During the climbing both engines were working well and everything on engines controlling gauges was normal as prescribed. When I climbed up to 6,000 feet, one of the pupils found wind speed and bombing by fine course method and then I started a practice bombing. I was coming over the target from two directions. After two bombs were dropped, the clouds lower that 6,000 feet came over the target and so I must glide lower. I throttled back to –3 boost and then I started the gliding (climb indicator –10) when I was on good height for bombing (height between 5,000 and 4,500 feet) I started holding up turning in the same time from East to West. I was at this moment over the south coast of bay at Duddon river. Suddenly I felt the slight vibrations of port engine. The revolutions of port engine started to go down slowly. I did all vital actions for one engine flying using in the same time the rudder and rudder trimmings. I put the airscrew of port engine on full coarse pitch and I closed the throttle of this engine. As I had quite a lot of height (about 2,500 feet) before approach to landing and steering to the aerodrome, I decided to put my undercarriage down in order to have all completed in the last moment, but in this time the vibrations increased rapidly and were so strong that I was afraid that the engine would go off. In this moment I realised that I should probably have to do a forced landing outside of the aerodrome and then I put my selector lever of undercarriage back to ‘up’ position. I thought that I shall be able to reach the beach but the vibrations were very strong and the smoke was pouring from the port engine. I switched off this engine and in order to decrease the vibrations I throttled slightly back my starboard engine. As an effect of this, I started to lose height so rapidly that I decided to do a forced landing straight ahead. The ground below me was hills. I chose the field which seemed to be the best one in this place. It was quite clear for me that I should not avoid the great damage of my aeroplane. I decided to do all possible for safety of my crew. The line of trees was running across the field. I wanted to lose my speed before these trees in order to land on the part of the field behind the trees which was too short for losing my speed over it and land on it. On the other end of this field there were the bushes being on the steep hill. I did the approach on speed about 100 knots (my flaps were up as before I was trying to reach the beach and after it was too late to put them down). During the approach I switched off my both main switches of starboard engine and I turned off petrol cocks. I hit the trees with my tailplane (the trees were too low). As I saw that my speed is still quite high and that I am going into the bushes, I decided to turn in order to hit the bushes with my wing first and in this way diminish the shock. I succeeded and the aeroplane stopped on the bushes. Nobody from my crew was hurt or injured. All got out from the aeroplane in good spirit. From my point of view, the damage of aeroplane is about 40%. I do not know the damage of my port engine. I landed on fields aside Goldmire Quarry near the town of Dalton-inFurness. Short time later after I landed the Police with Inspector W.T. Quinn came to the place of the accident and the people from artillery from Barrow as well. I gave the aeroplane into their protection and then I went to the police station in Dalton-inFurness from where I was picked up by RAF ambulance from Millom.

Signed: J Spychala

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The following three reports are once again faithful reproductions of those reports submitted by the crew of L6283 following this incident. NO. 2 BOMBING & GUNNERY SCHOOL MILLOM, CUMBERLAND 14 APRIL 1941 REPORT ON CRASH – BOTHA A/C L6283 I was the instructor in the above named aircraft which was doing a high level bombing exercise on No. 1 target. We took off at 14:00 hrs (approx), and after having found WDEB, made several runs over the target during which two bombs were dropped. Cloud banks made it impossible to drop bombs on two of the runs so the captain, P/O Spychala, suggested that we go and do low level bombing. I agreed and we had just started to come down to 4,000 feet when at 14:35 hrs (approx) the cabin became full of smoke and the port engine lost revs rapidly until it was just ticking over (height approx 4,500 feet). The pilot made several attempts to make the engine pick up but these were unsuccessful so he put the starboard engine up to full revs. After a few moments the aircraft began to judder violently and we lost height rapidly. Shortly before this the pilot had lowered the undercarriage thinking that we might make the aerodrome, but owing to the direction of the turn he was forced to take this was not possible, so the undercarriage was raised again. We eventually force landed in a field near the town of Dalton-in-Furness (time approx 14:40 hrs). The first impact was taken by a row of small trees and after broadsiding across the field, we eventually came to rest in a clump of trees which were growing on the side of a railway cutting. The starboard tailplane was torn away on the first impact and when the machine came to a stop I noticed that the fuselage appeared to be fractured under the leading edge of the mainplane and petrol was running out of the starboard tank. It was impossible to replace the safety pins in the bombs as before we went down I ascertained that the bomb doors were closed. All the occupants of the machine were unhurt and I dispatched LAC Baker, who was one of the crew, to the nearest telephone. An armed guard was soon on the scene. Signed: F J Outhall SGT 14th April 1941 LAC Bicknell JB April 14th 1941

To Officer Commanding No 2 AONS Millom, Cumberland 13:55 hrs airborne. 14:04 hrs, finding windspeed and direction, 5,000 – 6,000 feet. 14:20 hrs, 1st bomb dropped. 14:25 hrs, 2nd bomb dropped. Height altered from 6,000 to 5,000 feet owing to bad visibility due to cloud. 14:30 (approx) turning to come onto course for third bomb heading approx south. Port engine spluttering, starboard engine full throttle, maximum pitch. Aircraft turning to starboard position approx SE Barrow, near coast. 14:35 hrs A/C shuddering badly, losing height rapidly, undercarriage down, still losing height. Undercarriage up again, A/C heading approx NW, losing height, undercarriage partially down. 14:36 – 14:40 hrs, prepare to make forced landing avoiding village, making for field which looks almost flat. 14:40 hrs approx, hit small ridge of earth and trees head on. A/C swings to port, slides thus into clump of trees, comes to rest, both engines dead, no fire. Signed: J B Bicknell

LAC Baker GS UT Observer 10


April 14th 1941 To the Commanding Officer No 2 BAGS Millom, Cumberland Sir Re Landing at Dalton of Botha Aircraft L6283 Whilst flying at between 4,000’ and 5,000’ this afternoon the port engine suddenly seized and almost stopped. We lost height very rapidly and for a while some flares came from behind the engine cowling, but eventually this fire was extinguished. We thought at first that it would be possible to reach the aerodrome but unfortunately we were only able to fly in a gradual turn away from this and as we were still losing height, it became obvious that a forced landing was imminent. It was not possible to reach any flat land or the beach and the pilot chose the most suitable looking field in the vicinity. At our side of this field there was a stone wall and a row of trees, and the pilot hit three trees in order to lose as much speed as possible. I should have mentioned that when we were still about 2,000’ up, a terrible vibration started from the port engine which shook the whole craft to such an extent that we thought that possibly the port engine might break away from its mountings and might even have taken the wing with it. At about 800’ the pilot put his undercarriage down but decided against using it and put it up again. Actually when we hit the ground it was not quite up. After hitting the trees we landed on a field and as we crashed the pilot turned the aircraft broadside on and we landed amongst the trees at about 14:40 hrs. Signed: Gerald Baker

And there we have a detailed account, told first hand by those who had experienced a Botha engine failure and survived. If ever you should pass the area around Goldmire Quarry, adjacent to the new Dalton-inFurness bypass, take a moment to reflect upon the skill required to accomplish a safe forced landing in such a landscape. It should now be obvious to the reader that even in the hands of a very skilled pilot, the Botha’s power/weight ratio meant that the loss of an engine resulted in a white knuckle descent to the most likely usable section of ground below the aircraft. As the Pilot’s report clearly indicates, even with 2,500 feet altitude over the Duddon Estuary it was impossible for him to make the obvious choice of his airfield or the flat sandy expanses of the beach! Even when on the ground, taxiing, and when stationary, the poor old Botha seems to have attracted more than its share of bad luck. The very day after the Dalton disaster Millom’s ORB records that Battle A/C L5785, Pilot Sgt Dudiewieq, suffered engine failure causing forced landing on the aerodrome, when his machine ran into stationary Botha A/C 6431. Slight damage to Battle A/C, Botha write off. Unrepairable, except engines which received no damage. That same afternoon, ORB records Taxiing accident to Botha L6285 – fouled hangar door, damage repairable at unit. The Botha engines were a continuing cause for concern over the following weeks, ORB, 26/4/41, Botha L6525 A/C involved in a forced landing with undercarriage retracted. Power failed during take-off and A/C landed at end of runway – crew uninjured, 28/4/41 Botha A/C L6246, Pilot Sgt Wildgoose, forced landing after starboard engine failed on take-off, A/C landed without damage, crew uninjured. 4/5/41 Botha L6462 forced landing after engine failure, no other damage. For me the performance of the Botha’s engines was summed up best by a pilot who flew them on more than one occasion – he said “they were as predictable as a newborn baby’s bum!” – One cannot help but agree!! This dangerous state of affairs was obviously completely unacceptable and on 11/4/41 Millom’s Engineer Officer attended a meeting in London to discuss the technical aspects and 11


operating conditions for aircraft stationed at Squires Gate (Blackpool) and Millom, and to explore the reasons for the repeated failure of Perseus engines in Botha Aircraft. At Millom some 10 engines had to be replaced due to excessive oil consumption and this was ascribed to the action of sand being blown around the two newly completed coastal sites. It was decided to fit filters to all engine air intakes and this was to improve reliability considerably. By the end of May Millom’s defence system appears to have been approaching completion, with antiaircraft guns being positioned around the station and ORB recording the completion and manning of four pillboxes on the perimeter of the aerodrome, fitted with Lewis machine guns and manned 24 hours a day.

Unamed group pose with newly completed pillbox (this pillbox survives to the present day). Photos: Mr B.Woan

Photo: RAF Millom Museum

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No 2 Bombing and Gunnery School becomes No 2 Air Observer School RAF Millom’s ORB records that following a meeting of Flying Training Command it was decided that Millom’s training role would change to that of Air Training Observers (or Navigators) but that the station would retain an element of bombing and gunnery training also. After interviewing several veterans of Millom’s early months it is apparent that the Blackburn Botha was earning itself an awesome reputation as a very dangerous aircraft indeed. Even with filters fitted to the air intakes of its engines it was frequently involved in scrapes and incidents caused by other components, brakes, etc. For example 5/6/41 Botha L6392 swung off runway on take-off, crew uninjured, repairable at unit; Botha L6379 force landed downwind, crew uninjured, repairable at unit; 11/6/41, Botha L6440 force landed near Hawick due to engine failure, extensively damaged by obstructions. Clearly this was a state of affairs that could not be allowed to continue and Millom’s ORB records that on 21/6/41 Station Commander Grp/Cpt Wray and Station Engineer Sqdrn/Ldr Christmas went by air to HQ25 GRP and later to HQ FTC to discuss the question of Botha serviceability. In order to fulfil the flying programme and alleviate difficulties caused by a high number of engine replacements, it was decided to loan 18 Avro Anson Aircraft to Millom. From this point on, the Botha’s days were numbered, though sadly it was to Sgt/Pilots Reg Stillwell (left) and ‘Cobber’ Baird with one of Millom’s Bothas. Summer 1941 add further to its already dubious reputation before Photo Mr. R. Stillwell the last of its type left RAF Millom. Author’s Note: Avro Anson A/C – a twin engined light bomber used for various duties including coastal command. With its two Armstrong Siddeley ‘Cheetah’ radial engines and a top speed of 188mph, the type fairly quickly found its way into a training role. In the mid upper position the Anson carried a glazed rotatable gun turret with two .303 Browning machine guns and with ample cabin space for pupils, it was ideal for, and indeed used for, the training of wireless operator/air gunners/Navigators and to give dual instruction to pilots. As its role as a navigational trainer grew, more and more appeared at Millom, minus their gun turrets, these having been removed and covered by a continuation of the fabric and dope covering the airframe. Navigational training flights were frequently over 3 hours in duration and because of the constant need for fully trained navigators for operational duties, were often flown in less than ideal weather conditions. A fairly typical training ‘sortie would be, for example, take off from Millom, fly to a given point in Scotland then on to Chicken Rock (just off the Isle of Man), fly down to the Isle of Anglesey and back to base at RAF Millom. It must be kept in mind that on occasion these training flights were taking pilot and crew over some of the most inhospitable and mountainous terrain in the north of England, not to mention the Irish Sea. Instruments in those war years were nowhere near as accurate and with many aircraft using the same airspace, and no air traffic control, the experience could be an interesting one! I have been given more than one first-hand account of aircraft passing each other so close and in such poor visibility that all that was felt and heard of the other craft was violent turbulence and a sudden roar of engines! I can also recall being told at one of RAF Millom’s reunions by the Pilot in question how on a night of poor visibility, in one of Millom’s Ansons, he spent a fascinating few moments trying to make sense of two slowly growing points of light dancing in front of his aircraft as he and his crew bounced along in the turbulence over the Welsh mountains. It was with a start and a fright that he realised he was staring at the exhaust flares from the engines of what was probably another Anson only scant yards in front of him!! It was on a cross-country navigational exercise, or ‘navex’ on 27 June 1941 that the Botha was once again to manifest lethal tendencies. ORB for that day records – Botha L6446 crashed near Stranraer, pilot slightly injured, crew seriously injured, three crew dangerously injured. Engine failure was followed by a dive into the ground. A/c extensively damaged. 13


The pilot of L6446 was Plt/Sgt Menkes, a Belgian by birth who joined the RAF soon after the outbreak of war. To state that L6446 simply dived into the ground following an engine failure fails, I think, to grant her pilot due credit for a determined and skilled piece of flying which must have done much to minimise damage to craft and crew (though both were to be quite severe). We know a good deal more about this crash than many others because not only the RAF Millom team, but also the team from the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum carried out an excavation on the site of the accident in the autumn of 1994. David Reid (curator of DGAM) and his team first Plt/Sgt Menkes (middle foreground) with ATA pilots and their return identified the crash site and through careful transport (Tiger Moth). Lysander and Anson in background. Photo Mr Bill Gracie (date unknown) reconstruction of the incident from information available to them, established the point of final impact. L6446 had suffered an engine failure in the skies over the Glenluce Parish near Dumfries and had begun a very rapid descent. The pilot must have regained sufficient control to flatten the craft’s trajectory somewhat, as after striking a small hill, the Botha travelled some further distance before coming to rest amongst soft peaty ground just short of the shores of Dernarglar Loch. On 6 March 1982 the DGAM began a search of the site and recovered several various items of wreckage, but it became obvious that the site had been almost completely cleared at the time of the crash. However just before their investigations were brought to a close, metal detectors indicated a substantial object beneath the peat. A dig on site was begun, hampered by the very wet ground and the fact that the once clear terrain of the war years had since been planted with trees! A sufficiently deep hole was excavated to establish that a very large section of airframe lay well below ground, though frustratingly, their time ran out before they could complete the extraction of it and their various other excavations, for which they are now deservedly famous, took precedence. Thus, it came about after a conversation between David and myself, that in the Autumn of 1994 our two museums led a joint team up to Dernoglar Lock to solve the mystery of exactly what piece of RAF Millom’s history still lay beneath the Scottish peat! The weather was kind to us as we made our way to the water filled depression left in 1982, and using house guttering, pipes and buckets to take the water away from us, the amount of water was soon brought to a level at which we could begin to dig deeper. The first metal that we encountered presented as a series of alloy tubes, followed by a pulley cable and sheet metal of a type that led us to conclude that we were dealing with a section of the aircraft’s wing, and a sizeable one at that! The dig was a Magnificent

The wingtip of L6446 slowly emerges under the expert eye of David Reid of the Dumfries and Galloway aviation museum. David is on the right, in cap, in hole!! Author’s Photos

effort by all concerned, and after digging by hand an amazing 11 feet into the ground, the joint team were able to retrieve the wing tip (port) of L6446, complete with its camouflage paint and RAF roundel. A note is appropriate here on the work of the various RAF maintenance Units. Based at various stations, these units would respond by attending the scene of a crash and dealing with the wreckage. This was done in various ways and in most cases depended on the location of the incident. 14


Several factors determined the method employed. Firstly, there was a war on and crashes were not uncommon. If any metal engines or components could be salvaged or reused then that was done. Where access for vehicles was available, wreckage was removed wholesale, though debris might be burnt or buried on site. When crashes occurred in inaccessible areas, such as the fell tops, frequently it was simply left there. In those areas which fell loosely between all these criteria, the resultant wreckage was simply chopped up and buried. This of course provides the life-blood for latter day aviation museums as many of the artefacts we now hold in preservation originate from aircraft, examples of which no longer exist. With this knowledge in mind we were led to conclude that L6446 almost certainly struck the ground in a ‘wing down attitude’ and that the port wing, having entered the ground, then snapped cleanly off. The MU either didn’t know that it remained there, or ignored it, considering at least part of their job done for them!! Author’s Note: I can still recall the feelings I had when I stood and looked at the wing tip of L6446. My working life as a Prison Officer had been spent on the site of the old Aerodrome since 1978 and there I stood, self-appointed historian of RAF Millom, confronted by a very tangible part of its early history. David had kindly agreed that the wing tip should return to Millom to be displayed and as I stood contemplating it, newly excavated in the Autumn light, I couldn’t help but consider the irony. I had been missing from Millom for two days, whilst this artefact left Millom some 53 years ago! Strange indeed that it would be a Government service (though a different uniform) which facilitated our return! By the time I had transported the wing tip to HMP Haverigg’s restoration workshop (another story, another book!) its paint had begun to dry and peel. This forced a problem upon me to which I found the solution in a moment of inspiration (in my case these are few and far between!). I decided to completely clear out the peat from the inside of the wing section, strip the peeling paint from it and refinish it including RAF roundel. On completion of this restoration we had a pristine example of what is quite likely the largest surviving piece of Botha in preservation anywhere, and a very large flat surface!! What an autograph page – and that is how it continues its service – mounted vertically against the RAF Millom Museum wall, it has been signed by, and continues to be signed by all who served at RAF Millom during the station’s service life. It is clear that at some point in July the station was visited by the well-known Broadcaster and Journalist, Godfrey Winn. Many of an age will remember him as the voice of radio’s ‘Housewife’s Choice’, but on this occasion he was preparing an article on RAF Millom’s trainee observers for the Express newspaper. The article was entitled ‘Man with One Wing’, which referred to the Observers’ tunic insignia, and appeared in the Sunday Express of 13 July 1941. Two photographs survive from that visit and were kindly loaned to us for reproduction by the two young airmen who appear in them. The first one forms the cover for my book, and the second, shown here, pictures Visit by Godfrey Winn. July 1942 (left to right) Bill Hickox, Grp/Cpt Wray, Photo Mr Bill Hickox Godfrey Winn, John Archbold and Senior Navigational Instructor Hadow. The photograph was taken in front of one of the station’s Bothas just prior to the group flying out to the Isle of Man on a visit to RAF Jurby. Godfrey looks very relaxed about the whole affair and it is reasonable to assume, I think, that he knew nothing of the dubious reputation of his waiting transport!! Station ORB records that P/O J Spychala was not enjoying a good day, yet again, on 8 July 1941. I 15


quote, P/O Spychala taxied a Botha A/C into a stationary Battle A/C, partial failure of brakes and crosswind caused the accident. Battle little damaged, Botha repairable at the unit. It is likely that by this point in time P/O Spychala was expecting the worst from the Botha even prior to take-off and if this was indeed the case then his cynicism was to save, once again, not only his own life but that of his crew when on 15 August 1941 his flying skills and rapid reactions were called upon yet again in the most dire circumstances. Millom’s ORB from that day records – P/O Spychala and four crew in Botha L6354 force landed in the sea two miles S/W of the aerodrome after failure of the port engine, all crew rescued by Barrow Lifeboat after two hours on the aircraft (which was on the sand at low tide). Sadly in the case of this incident I was unable to locate any official reports which might answer a couple of questions which puzzled me, and to which I could not satisfy myself that I had answers to. quite soon after I began to actively search for the wreck, a fishing boat from Askam-in-Furness pulled up a piece of wreckage whilst trawling in the approximate area of the ditching. Very kindly this was donated to the RAF Millom Museum and I began restoration and investigation of the item. It proved to be a robust section of spar upon which a perfectly preserved hydraulic ram was bolted. The ram held it’s maker’s name and specifications, all clearly discernible and a very easy piece of investigative research told me that it was in fact a bomb door jacking ram from a Blackburn Botha. And so my two questions – firstly, why sit on a ditched aircraft for two hours, why not use the emergency dinghy?, and secondly, did the fact that the trawled up piece of aircraft come from the underbelly section mean that the aircraft was upside down, rendering the dinghy stowage (top of fuselage between the wings) inaccessible? If the latter was the case then how on earth did the crew escape injury in an aircraft which had inverted itself upon impact with the sea? (ORB does not state whether the aircraft came to rest on its belly or its back). On a bright afternoon in 1996 my questions were answered beyond doubt when I was visited at my home by a charming gentleman named George Bury, who was accompanied by his equally charming daughter. In the course of a most enjoyable visit George informed me that he had been a navigational instructor at Millom during 1941 and, incredibly, was part of the crew of L6354 when she was ‘ditched’ by P/O Spychala! What follows is his account of the incident which is taken from a book written by himself, and which he very kindly gave me permission to use. A further picture of George’s life at Millom is included in the second part of this book, however this is a first hand account of what took place that August day in 1941. George told me besides giving classroom navigational instruction at RAF Millom, instructors’ duties included accompanying the trainees during bombing and navigational exercises in order to judge their progress. George takes up the story. As a result on 15 August 1941 I was to receive what was my second forced landing in the sea. We had just commenced a bombing exercise and as the target was only some two miles off the coast in the area of Walney Island, we would never be more than four miles out to sea at any stage of the exercise. P/O Sphychala, a Polish pilot, was flying the aircraft and all was proceeding according to plan when he throttled right back on the port engine. I glanced at the oil pressure gauge and temperature gauge and they appeared to be normal. I could see no reason for his action. All he said was “going down” – I took this to mean that we were returning to base so told the trainees to come up from the bombing position and sit in their normal positions. The pilot first tried to turn to starboard but found this difficult against the operating engine, so he turned to port but after he had completed a 180 degree turn and was heading in the direction of the airfield, he had lost a great deal of height and it was becoming obvious that “going down” was exactly what we were going to do! I immediately told both trainees to take up the crash position. As the pilot had not yet done so, I opened the sliding hatch over the cockpit as I did not intend to be trapped inside the aircraft even if he did! I noticed that one of the trainees was not braced in anticipation of the impending crash but was just sitting there gazing out of the side window at the rapidly approaching sea dashing past. I went to warn him and had not regained my own safe position when we struck. There was no long drawn out glide, no skimming the wave tops, but right in one go! I was thrown about the aircraft and received some damage to my head and knee, but this did not prevent me from operating the dinghy release and being the first out of the aircraft (pilots make wonderful stepladders!!). The pilot climbed out and just sat on the cabin top with his arms folded, the cover fell clear from the dinghy stowage but no dinghy came out – the stowage 16


was empty! It would be an exaggeration if I said the stowage contained a notice saying “in an emergency complete form X in triplicate and forward to the stores!” One of the trainees came out of the front hatch but the one who had been gazing out of the window was missing and then we saw him swimming, with his head in the water, away from the side of the aircraft in the direction of the Isle of Man – intent on deserting no doubt! All of a sudden he ceased swimming, turned over on his back and started to swim back to the aircraft where he collapsed on the wing, exhausted. All this had taken place in a very short space of time but it must have been like a lifetime to him as he explained when he eventually regained his breath. Seeing that three of us were making for the front escape exit, he had decided to make for the door towards the rear of the aircraft. The passage is quite narrow because most of the space is taken up by the internal bomb stowage. He had experienced difficulty locating the door handle and by this time the fuselage was full of sandy water and visibility was nil. Opening the door, he started to swim towards what he believed to be the surface but he eventually ran out of breath and gave up the fight. Fortunately he turned over at this point and found that he was on the surface, never having been more that three or four feet under. A long time afterwards even he began to see the funny side of the incident. Two hours after the crash the lifeboat arrived from Walney Island, the local papers reported that it had been launched within two minutes of the maroon being fired, a great effort of their part. Out plight had not been noticed and it had been some time before the alarm was raised but there was no urgency – as it turned out the aircraft couldn’t sink as we were sitting on a sandbank with the wings just level with the water. We were about four miles from shore when the engine was shut down and ended up in the sea two miles from the shore. If that was the best that could be done on one engine even without a bomb load, no wonder they were removed from operational work. As soon as the lifeboat arrived, the pilot demanded that they head straight for the beach near the airfield as he had to fly again that afternoon, and he was therefore indignant when they headed in the opposite direction! Not for the first time I found myself back in sick quarters for a few days. And so there we have a very personal account of yet another of Millom’s near tragedies. Following the few clues we posses with regards to the present day location of the remains of L6354, I have searched for years to no avail. I remain hopeful however that the next time a net snags, someone will drop a marker on her – maybe the sands will shift a little and on a very low tide ? Who is to say – in she went, and to the present time, there she stays! The effect of the repeated failure of the Botha and its growing reputation as a very dangerous craft must have by now begun to sap station morale. Following the loss of L6354 to the Duddon sands, the station had hardly drawn breath when just seven days later on 22 August 1941, whilst on a cross country navex from Millom, Botha L6416 crashed at a location recorded as Castle Moss, near Appleby in the old county of Westmorland. Pilot Sgt W Wasilewski, LAC W G Yeo, LAC H Vernon and Lt LAD Appleby (Royal Artillery) were all killed and the aircraft totally destroyed. The cause of the accident is officially recorded as unknown and it must have been with growing trepidation that crews climbed by day and night into their allotted Bothas and hoped for the best! Two days later it was the turn of one of Millom’s newly acquired Ansons to come to grief – this however was due to bad weather conditions. P/O Bilecky became lost and crash landed N5135 in a small field in Scotland, happily suffering no injuries in the process. ORB records total flying hours for August 1941 as 2,044.15. In September 1941, Millom was to see an upsurge in aircraft numbers as Airspeed Oxfords were flown in for station use and “R Flight” of No 1 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit flew in temporarily as a “lodger unit” with their Boulton Paul Defiants and Hawker Henleys. R Flight would eventually leave in January 1942 to take up post at RAF Cark, which by then would be completed. This unit was towing airborne targets to provide target practice for the AntiAircraft Gunners in the area who were defending towns and industrial installations such as Vickers Unknown group with ‘R’ flight Defiant early 1941 Photo RAF Millom Museum Armstrong’s Shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness. 17


Author’s Note: Airspeed Oxford Aircraft – a twin engined aircraft very like the Anson; the Oxford, however, was designed specifically for dual engined training purposes. Powered by two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah X engines, the Oxford had a top speed of 190 mph. Hawker Henley Aircraft – designed as a dive bomber and built along very similar lines to the Hurricane, the Henley was deemed to be of no operational value and was used for air target towing duties. Powered by the R/R Merlin engine, the Henley was capable of a top speed of 272 mph. Boulton Paul “Defiant” – being the first fighter to be armed with a power operated four gun turret, the Defiant enjoyed quite an extensive field of fire. Early in its operational career in the skies over the Dunkirk beaches, 12 Defiants shot down no less than 38 German aircraft without loss to themselves. It is likely that this and other early successes were due to the fact that owing to the Defiant’s distinctly fighter-like shape, German pilots were coming in from the rear to pounce on what seemed to be an unsuspecting target, only to be met with the full force of four rearward firing machine guns. It did not take the Germans long to discover that the Defiant had no forward firing armament with predictable consequences! The type became widely used for training purposes as a result, but did however make a name for itself as a night fighter in some areas of the country. The Defiant carried a crew of two, was powered by the R/R Merlin and could reach a top speed of 304 mph. By mid-September 1941 Millom was beginning to shed its ailing Bothas in favour of the Oxfords and Ansons being flown in to replace them. The month however produced two more incidents involving the Botha – one minor accident on the night of 11 September 1941 when L6444, piloted by Flt/Lt Viney, taxied into an ambulance and a fire engine (you can‘t have a safer accident than that!!!), and more seriously, ORB records that on 15 September 1941 Botha L6224, Piloted by Sgt J Moore, landed on the aerodrome with undercarriage retracted after a rushed landing owing to a pupil being injured by the airscrew in the air. Author’s Note: I have been unable to uncover the full facts concerning this incident, or indeed the extent of the pupil’s injuries though it is likely, due to the type of accident, that they could have been quite severe. I have been led to believe by those with a dim recollection of the incident, that shortly after take-off and whilst climbing under full power, one of the engines of the L6224 shed a propeller blade which pierced the fuselage and struck the pupil navigator. A one engined forced landing quickly followed, during which L6224 was sufficiently damaged to be written off. At the close of September, ORB Records total flying hours as 1716.00 and states during the month seven Botha aircraft were reported with various defects; two cases causing engine failures in the air. On 10 September 1941 6 Botha aircraft reported with loose simmonds nuts on the bearing housing, screws having worked loose and on the same date 5 Botha aircraft were reported with movement of the selector controls and excessive play. Whether one understands the technical terminology or not is irrelevant as by this stage the reader will doubtless have, like myself, concluded that had the Botha been an automobile then it would have been a Lada! October 1941 began poorly for Millom with ORB recording 1 October 1941, a taxiing accident to Oxford AS478 (no injuries); and 2 October 1941, Anson K8731 forced landing at Barrow Castle (no injuries). It was to be the middle of the month however that any mention of the Botha was to be made, for the very last time and for the usual reason: ORB 16 October 1941 – Botha L6425 forced landed at Broad Quarry, Ravenglass; 3 airmen injured. From this point on Millom’s ORB carries mention of only two more accidents involving RAF Millom’s Bothas and it must have been of great relief to all when the last Botha flew out of the station, though it would be several more weeks before this occurred. A further, though less welcomed departure from RAF Millom was that of its first C/O Grp/Cpt A Wray who left the station on 17 October 1941 for a posting to Goxhill in Lincolnshire. His replacement was to be Grp/Cpt A Franklyn, posted into Millom from Stormy Down in Glamorganshire, Wales. The troublesome Botha was disappearing as Oxfords and Ansons replaced them for training flights, but flying of increasing regularity in less than perfect weather over hazardous terrain was always 18


going to result in mishaps. On 2 November 1941 Millom’s ORB records Oxford AT485 crashed, Sgt Diabaillets and AC Hodgkinson killed. No evidence to show cause of accident. This crash is a significant event in Millom’s station history as it was to be their first loss of an aircraft to the surrounding high ground and for the first time, a team from Millom made its way into the mountains to recover the crew of AT485 and to deal with the resultant wreckage. The crash site was located near the summit of Caw Fell, high above Ennerdale, and in quite a remote location. After recovery One of the engines from Oxford AT485 pictured in of the crew, a contingent took some four days to burn September 2001 on Caw Fell the wreckage on site. Due to its remote location, a fairly Author’s Photo.. complete Cheetah engine can be examined partially exposed at the site, along with various other small items of debris. Author’s Note: At the time of this accident and up until 1943, no specialist team dealt with mountain rescues/emergencies. The aerodrome’s tannoy system would simply call for available personnel to report to a specified location (usually Station Flying Control) where a team would be kitted out with heavy clothing and boots, and driven to the approximate scene of the accident with stretchers and radios to begin a search for survivors. It was to prove a grisly and all too regular occurrence as the war years progressed. On 19 November 1941 ORB records Oxford AT478 crashed, PO R White, LAC Bingham and LAC Claridge all killed. Cause of accident unknown (crashed on cross country navex). Author’s Note: An enquiry took place, as was always the case following such incidents, but I have been unable to discover any further information regarding the conclusions reached. When tragedy struck the station yet again it was to be one of the troublesome Bothas that claimed the lives of four airmen. Following what ORB describes as “failure of adjustable tube connecting lever and bell crank lever”, Botha W5053 went out of control killing her crew. They were Sgt Jones, LAC Reid, LAC Jump and AC Clarke – all died instantly. The station’s first year was closing in a sombre way and more was to come. On 3 December 1941 Battle R7401, piloted by Sgt Coleman, overshot the E/West runway and the aircraft was damaged. There will have been few Battles on the aerodrome by this point as for over a month they had been replaced in their target towing duties by Westland Lysanders. Author’s Note: Westland Lysander – high wing aircraft with very short take-off and landing capabilities, making it ideal for it’s well known role of landing SOE operatives in occupied territory, and earning it the fond nickname, “Moonlight Lizzie”. Powered by a single Bristol Perseus engine, it was also ideal for target towing duties with a top speed of 230 mph, but it was also capable of flying as slowly as 55mph! Sgt Coleman escaped without serious injury and his accident was regarded as a mere scrape compared to the tragedy of 17 December 1941 when Anson N9842 was lost and her four crew killed outright. ORB records Anson N9842 crashed into the sea, PO Crump, PO Petter, Sgt Peggie and Sgt Gibbons all killed. It appears that after taking off from the station’s E/West runway heading out to sea, a loss of power resulted in a violent impact with the sea. An eyewitness account at the time states that the aircraft appeared to be on fire after take-off and that one member of her crew was rescued alive by an unidentified local boatman, but died later. These are all the details we have to hand with regard to this tragic accident but whatever the cause, it was a cruel end to Millom’s first troubled year of service life and doubtless cast a dark shadow over the Christmas period for all those on the station. ORB, however, records all non-essential personnel given Christmas day off; full programme of entertainment and NCOs waited on airmen and airwomen at their Christmas dinner.

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An illustrated history of the former RAF Millom, No2 B.A.G.S, No2 O.A.F.U, No1 O.C.T.U and the station’s wartime Mountain Rescue Team. Presented in two parts, this book covers the airfield’s wartime service and brief reoccupation of the station in 1953. Part one is drawn almost entirely from historical and official records whilst Part two is comprised of anecdotal material contributed by those who served at RAF Millom, or by their families. The unit’s primary purpose was the training of aircrew for Bomber Command and those airmen who passed through the station went on to have many and varied experiences of aerial warfare. From evading the Germans in occupied territory, the raid on Dresden, to the formative years of the Australian Airlines. Their stories are recounted for you here. At the heart of them all lies a small and windblown airfield which served sovereign and country through the dark days of WWII and beyond. Lest we forget.

price £10.99

Oh Mother, it's a Lovely Place  

An illustrated history of the former RAF Millom and the station's wartime Mountain Rescue Team - including first hand accounts by the men &...

Oh Mother, it's a Lovely Place  

An illustrated history of the former RAF Millom and the station's wartime Mountain Rescue Team - including first hand accounts by the men &...

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