Recollection: RAF Feltwell
...in the words of Arthur Ashworth
At the end of January 1941 I joined No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron at Feltwell having only once seen the inside of a Wellington. It wasn't until midway through February that I flew my first solo after two and a quarter hours dual. Shortly afterwards I was off, as a second pilot, on my first operational flight. I wasn't particularly apprehensive about this until I saw enemy flak coming up for the first time and suddenly realised that it was possibly intended for me! There were ten more trips as second pilot before I was given my own crew. I had also spent a considerable time as O.C. Night out on the flare path of that cold grass airfield. I was very fortunate in being given the chance to learn something of the problems confronting the bomber crews before being sent off on my own. Many pilots were not given this chance, although almost all of them had been trained at Wellington O.T.U's which I had been denied. The most fortunate aspect of this period for me was being crewed with Pilot Officer Ron Simich, a New Zealander. He was an extremely competent bomber pilot, calm but determined, patient and knowledgeable with a unique capacity for imparting that knowledge. I learned more from him than from any other bomber source.
During April we were sent off to bomb Berlin. The trip itself was comparatively uneventful, but we were over a continuous cloud sheet for most of the return journey and, unbeknown to us, the winds had changed during the flight. With the very limited navigational aids available to us at that time, and not being able to see the ground, we went past our base. After descending below the cloud we called to 'Darky' (the 1941 version of 'Mayday') on the primitive TR9 and were guided by searchlights to Ternhill.
On landing, Simich overshot the flare path and we finished up in a nasty tangle of barbed wire. A Polish crew who landed just after us were not so fortunate and their aircraft was extensively damaged. There had been a mix-up in laying the flare path, which was only 300 yards long and was laid downwind, so that, in fact, there was little, if any, chance of making a successful landing. We had been in the air for almost nine hours.
The 3rd of May 1941 was my 21st birthday. It was also the day of the wedding of Sergeant Jimmy Blundell, the Wireless Operator in Ron Simich's crew. The whole crew were present at the wedding, the reception and certain jollifications which occurred during our one week's leave. Even I would be forced to admit that this was not the most sober period in our lives.
On the 7th of May we departed from Southport, where the wedding had been held and travelled overnight via London so that we could be back in time to rejoin the Squadron on the 8th. After breakfast on the 8th of May I was asked by Squadron Leader J.M. Southwell if I thought I was capable of taking a Wellington on operations that night. Being now 21, over confident and big-headed I told him I could and was promptly told to take his aircraft and crew that night.
By the time my birthday arrived I had flown eleven operational missions with three different Captains, had done 77 hours 45 minutes as second pilot, 11 hours 55 minutes dual, including a course at the Blind Approach Training Flight at Mildenhall and had completed the grand total of 10 hours and 55 minutes as Captain of a Wellington. I had never landed a Wellington at night.
By an amazing coincidence, the Navigator in Johnny Southwell's crew was Sergeant Ted McSherry, who had been the stroke of the Youth's rowing four of the Wellington Rowing Club for two New Zealand championship regattas. I was the bow in the same crew.
As others will doubtless tell you, the system of navigation in a Wellington at night in 1941 was - certainly by today's standards - crude in the extreme. The system was to use dead reckoning , supplemented by visual pinpoints and bearings and drifts using either the bomb sight or the tail turret. Although all navigators were trained in Astronavigation, it was inaccurate and very rarely used. This was in the days before such luxuries as Gee. A good Wireless Operator could get bearings from radio stations with known locations and it was possible to get bearings from base on return. Only the time of take-off, a suggested route to the target and a time to bomb were given at briefing with the Met., bomb load and some information, if known, of German defences. The direction of approach to the target and the height of attack were left to the individual crew.
In this event, the target was the submarine shipbuilding yards at Hamburg and we duly arrived over that city at the appointed hour. We were at 11 000 feet and had approached from the North, having crossed the coast just North of the Western end of the Kiel Canal.
As frequently happened in those days, the German defences decided' to lie 'doggo', presumably in the hope that if they didn't annoy us we wouldn't retaliate or the hope that, if the defences were not revealed, we would be unable to find the target. On this occasion, because it was a clear night and the amount of water pointing like an arrow to our target in Hamburg, we easily located the target and dropped our load. The entry in my log book is, "hit target, starting first fires. Badly beaten up by heavy flak". I'm not certain what this means after this length of time, as the log book seems to contain a lot of references to "Blitz on....." and "Intense and accurate AA". I do, however, recall that, as soon as our bombs were on their way down, the searchlights came up, although we were not coned and both heavy and light guns started firing immediately.
Anyway, we returned home the way we had gone - to the North and reached base after six hours and twenty five minutes. The whole way I had had this niggling doubt as to my ability to put the aircraft safely back on the ground. In the end I needn't have worried, as Wimpy proved again what a Lady she was and the landing was almost perfect. The next night we veterans bombed Mannheim.
On the 18th of June we took off for another attack on Brest, this time trying to hit the 'Scharnhorst’. We spent a considerable time over the target area and finally established, by the light of one of our flares, that the Scharnhorst was not berthed where we had been briefed to find her. However, there was another large ship in the harbour and this we attacked. On the way home we got ourselves lost by misidentifying our landfall. As a consequence we flew through the balloon barrage at Bristol. It was just breaking daylight when this happened and there was quite a bit of anxiety in that aircraft until we were clear. My log book records only that we were lost and came through the balloon barrages, but for this particular flight I was awarded the D.F.C.
After a night flight to Cologne during which our aircraft was again hit we took off in daylight on the 30th of June to attack Kiel. As we approached the German coast just South of Denmark it seemed to me that it was still virtually daylight and also that we seemed to be alone. We flew over the peninsular towards Kiel. We were almost over the target when we were coned by searchlights and all hell seemed to be let loose from the German AA batteries. I used every trick I knew but could not escape from the glare. Finally I dived the aircraft frantically towards the Baltic Sea and jettisoned the bombs. We eventually escaped from the searchlight beams then crept shamefacedly over Denmark at a lower altitude to return to base. I did not return to Kiel until an attack in 1945 but never again was I to jettison bombs in this way.
On the 24th of July we were ordered to bomb the 'Gneisnau` at Brest in daylight in formation. Our briefing was from Wing Commander Trevor Freeman, who was by then a Staff Officer at No 3 Group and he also led the formation. Together with six Wellingtons from our sister Squadron - No 57 - six of us took off and headed for the Scilly Islands. From there we did a circuit of the Brest Peninsular to attack from the South West. We were not bothered at all by the fighters on our way in, although we saw other aircraft in trouble. Over the target we were subjected to very severe anti-aircraft fire, during which all the aircraft were hit. One of them, on the other side of the Vic in which I was flying, lost an engine and proved easy prey for the fighters waiting to pounce as we left the flak. The rest of us high-tailed it for England, but we didn't all manage to get back to base.
My next operational flight was the last in the first series and entailed a flight to Hanover. We reached the target alright and were the object of the usual barrage of AA fire. Coming back we flew direct and were caught in a searchlight cone not long after we left the target. Above the aircraft on the base of the clouds, I could see the silhouettes of the Wellington, one for each beam. Safety lay in the cloud, providing we weren't hacked down by a fighter first. There was no flak, which normally meant that the victim had been left for the .fighters. For what seemed hours I frantically climbed that aircraft, using all the power I could muster. We were passed from one group of searchlights to another in succession until we finally ran out of them over what was then the Zuider Zee. We never did reach that cloud.
I left 75 after 31 sorties total and went off to fly Wellingtons from Malta and Egypt and DH 86's and Bristol Bombays around the Middle East. The transport flying didn't last long as all the Wellington aircrew employed on other duties in the Middle East were recalled to England, mainly to support the 1000 bomber raids.
I reached England at the end of May 1942 and went straight off to see 75 at Feltwell. I was welcomed with open arms by one Ted Olsen, who arranged for my posting back to the Squadron.
It wasn't long before I was back in the swing, starting with Duisburg four times in a row. I developed a technique for getting back through the German defences by low flying which paid dividends in my case.
In an attack on Hamburg on the night of the 28th of July we were, as far as I could subsequently determine, the only crew to make a successful attack. Three times we crossed the city and three times we took photographs of the centre. We didn't get much support from any of the other chaps. Losses were said to be heavy that night due to icing, but we didn't see any - probably we didn't go high enough to find it.
I was congratulated by the A.O.C. 3 Group for these photos. It wasn't long after this that I was promoted to Acting Squadron Leader and again, not long after that I was awarded the D.S.O.
Shortly after that, a sign appeared on the door of O.C. 'A' Flight. It read:
ASHWORTH & CO. - AVIATORS
TRIPS TO 'HAPPY VALLEY’ AT GOVERNMENT EXPENSE
Some low type subsequently inserted below this: 'Return Trip Not Guaranteed'.
After an attack on Düsseldorf on the night of the 31st of July we were returning at low level when we spotted a train and stopped it by spraying the engine liberally from both front and rear turrets.
When we got back to base from this sortie there was fog on the ground and we were instructed to divert to the North, but, being confident of my ability to land using the 'Lorenz' system, I told ground control that I was coming in anyway and asked the Navigator to switch to the relevant beam frequency.
You will remember that I mentioned that I had completed a course at the Blind Approach Training Flight on using the 'Lorenz' system of blind approach. All pilots of my vintage and many from later vintages are familiar with this system, mainly through long hours of practice in the 'Link' trainer. The system consists of a fixed narrow beam which, when the aircraft is correctly aligned, gives a continuous tone signal. Deviation from the beam to one side results in dots being heard, while dashes appear when off the beam on the other side. There are also the warning signals from an outer and an inner marker and, at the source of transmission, a cone of silence. Back in 1941 I had often used the beam at Marham for navigational purposes.
A New Zealand squadron groundcrew with two Wellington bombers at RAF Feltwell.
The picture was taken in 1941. Picture: Archant archives
By 1942 beams had been installed at a large number of airfields including our own at Feltwell. I timed the beam, a procedure from which one could learn the direction from oneself of the transmitter, and then joined the beam. I was a bit nonplussed when I found that the beam I was flying did not appear to be aligned on the same compass heading as I had expected, but I put this down, wrongly, to a cross wind. (Strong cross wind in fog?)
Eventually, having checked the outer and inner markers and the cone of silence, I started my approach. We passed over the outer marker at the correct height and let down at the stipulated rate of descent to cross the inner marker. Shortly after this the flare path lights should have appeared and, sure enough, a line of lights shone through the fog on our port side and I set the aircraft down. Immediately there were marked movements by the aircraft and she showed that she was unhappy with the state of the surface on which she had been landed and there was a general indication of rough ground. I concluded that our airfield had been bombed and informed my crew to that effect. Because the navigator had selected the wrong frequency and I had been somewhat careless in my assumptions, we had landed off the runway of the newly finished airfield at Lakenheath, some miles from our base and the ground surrounding the runway had yet to be consolidated.
I left 75 on the 29th of August 1942 to join the H.Q. of the newly formed Pathfinder Force.
~ A small selection from Arthur Ashworth's autobiography.
Memorial to No 75 NZ Squadron at RAF Feltwell
Photo source: RAF Feltwell memorial page