As well as glamorous visits there were nasty accidents too. RAF Tempsford was not the only airfield in Bedfordshire. There were others at Cranfield, Little Staughton, Shefford, Poddington, Thurleigh and Twinwood. Great Gransden, Abbotsley, Steeple Morden and Bassingbourn airfields in Cambridgeshire were not far away either. It is surprising that there were not more near misses and aircraft crashes. Under the Official Secrets Act not a lot of official information was released so there are conflicting details about the incidents. In Freddie Clark’s Agents by Moonlight he used both squadron records to detail the aircraft losses between 1941 and 1945.
Within a fortnight of the first crews arriving on the base in December 1941 Flight Sergeant (F/S) A. Reimer, the Canadian pilot of a Whitley Z9385, was returning from an op in bad weather when he was attacked by a Messerschmidt 110. His ‘plane caught fire but he managed to get it back to base only to crash on the airfield. Three of his crew were killed and he died a fortnight later.
Mont Bettles recalls that whilst building work was still going on a Wellington, coming in low from the west over Tempsford village, caught the telegraph wire alongside the railway line and crashed into bushes in the field about 200 yards from the runway. It didn’t catch fire. He wondered if the pilot had been ordered not to crash on the concrete. As he mentioned that the wires had all been lowered to make it easier for pilots to clear them, if there had been a passing train it would have been taken out! The following day a group of R.A.F. personnel arrived at his father’s farm asking permission to walk over his fields near the railway. Mont wondered if the pilot had jettisoned important packages before the crash.
In the early months of 1942 at Tempsford Wing Commander Hockey took one of the pilots, S/L Romanoff on several unofficial sorties as a second pilot and arranged his transfer as a flight commander. On his first flight as captain, Romanoff crashed his Whitley Z9125. He and four crew members were killed and one escaped injured. In the Daily Telegraph’s Second Book of Obituaries it detailed the incident.
Hockey, in the tower, dashed for a van and then ran across ploughed fields to the burning wreckage, only to arrive as ammunition grenades and other explosives went up.
Thrown some 40 yards, he returned to the blaze and managed to extricate the rear gunner, who was the sole survivor. Hockey recovered, although he carried splinters all over his body for the rest of his life.
On 22nd June 1942 Sgt. W. Smith of 161 Squadron crashed his Whitley Z9224 on take-off as a result of a faulty ASI [Air Speed Indicator]. There were no injuries but the aircraft was written off and he was commissioned a week later. Unfortunately, he was killed four months later when, on 22nd October, his Whitley BD228 crashed on the airfield and it burst into flames. One crew escaped with serious injuries but the other three got out with minor cuts and bruises. Throughout 1942 the Squadrons lost 35 ‘planes, including 24 Whitleys, three Lysanders and eight Halifaxes.
Peter Wisson, a student at Everton School during the war, recalls being taken to the site of a crash in 1942 or 1943 by a large hedge at the foot of the Greensand Ridge about 400 yd (365 m) north of St Mary’s Church. All the wreckage had been removed but there had been a serious fire. This could have the crash witnessed by Mont Bettles who recalled a twin-engined Hudson in trouble over Mr Barker’s Coldharbour Farm. It blew up before it hit the ground and crashed at the bottom of the hill.
In February 1943 Wing Commander Ken Batchelor arrived to take command of 138 Squadron. He had flown with Bomber Command serving in No. 9 Squadron. He later commanded 311 Bomber Squadron which had a large contingent of Czechoslovakian refugee pilots. The first accident at the base that year was not until 13th April. F/O A. Cussen of 161 Squadron was doing air tests in a Halifax DG409 when the port inner engine failed during take-off. The undercarriage collapsed when the aircraft swung and it was written off. No injuries were reported.
A month later F/Lt. J. Bartrum of 161 Squadron was using a Lysander R9106 for a training flight when it stalled, crashed and caught fire. The Station Sick Quarter records show that he died of multiple injuries but there was no mention of other casualties. This could have been another of the crashes Mont Bettles witnessed. Although he said it might have been May or June 1943 he saw a Lysander doing some stunts to the west of the railway line. It was diving from the north at great speed towards the railway crossing when it stalled, couldn’t get out of the dive and crashed into the field next to the large hangar just northeast of the level crossing. He was told by aircrew that the pilot shouldn’t have died as the fire engine with modern equipment did not get to the scene quickly enough to get him out of the flames.
David Taverner’s father recalled maybe the same incident when, after a plane crashed and burst into flames, the fire-fighters in their asbestos suits tried unsuccessfully to rescue the trapped crew members. Their screams still haunted him.
On 19th June during a training flight Wireless Operator S. Klosowski of the Polish Air Force flying with 138 Squadron crash landed his Halifax W1229 in cross winds. No one was injured but the ‘plane was written off. Three days later he took another Halifax DT727 up on a training flight with two other members of the Polish Air Force but it crashed into a hangar when he was attempting a three-engine landing. Again there were no injuries but the ‘plane was a write off. Another Halifax DG253 was written off on 19th August when P/O K. Brown of 138 Squadron returned to base 15 minutes early. There had been a strong smell of petrol coming from the bomb bay fuel tank. He landed too fast, ran off the end of the runway and crashed into scrubland. No one was injured and he was up again the following night. Three weeks later another Halifax DK232 was lost when F/Lt. S. Gray of 161 Squadron swung on take-off onto the grass and ran over a sodium flare. The undercarriage collapsed. Only one of his five crew was injured.
The most serious losses of the entire war were in 1943 just before Christmas. The weather that month was appalling. On 16th/17th December six Halifaxes, three from each squadron, were lost in thick fog. They crashed whilst trying to land at an emergency airfield at Woodbridge in Suffolk. On the same night two Lysanders crashed in the fog returning to Tangmere with the loss of both pilots and two of the four agents. On 19th December nine men from 138 Squadron were killed when Sgt. H. Williams’ Halifax BB364 collided with one of the chimneys at Henlow brickworks on a training flight. It brought the number of ‘planes lost that year to 62. More than one a week and nearly double the previous year must have been a grave worry. They included 52 Halifaxes, six Lysanders, two Lancasters, a Hudson and a Liberator.
With so many Halifaxes being lost the Short Stirlings were brought in to replace them. When the Americans arrived at Tempsford they brought the Liberators with their accompanying US and Canadian ground and aircrew. Lancaster bombers were brought in as well. Three of the latter belonging to 617 Squadron flew from Tempsford on Special Duties to France on 8th December 1943. Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire was said not to have been pleased when two of them failed to return three days later.
One Sunday afternoon, 8th January 1944, two ‘planes, an American and a British, were reported as “chasing” each other. The latter, a Halifax LK743, ‘J for Johnny’, coming in low and overloaded with 10 on board, could not clear the highest clump of trees and crashed into one of the cottages in front of Tetworth Hall. The ‘plane and the house caught fire. The tenant, Fred Gore, was killed but his wife, Miriam, his sister-in-law and Mr H.J. Waddington escaped. All that was left of the house was a burnt chimney stack. Mr Waddington managed to get help at the nearest farmhouse. The captain, W.O. Kennedy of 138 Squadron, all his seven crew and three members of the resistance were killed. Maybe the number of accidents and the public’s interest in the secrecy of the rescue operations led to a growing awareness of the role of the Special Duties Squadrons. The Daily Telegraph carried a story with the headline ‘Allied ‘planes Secret Landings in France’ on 9th February 1944.
Two months later P/O E. Edwards of 218 Squadron wrote off a Stirling EE944 when he over shot the runway on a three-engine landing. A similar accident occurred on 23rd May when the tyre of F/Lt. J. Perrins’ Halifax DG286 burst on take-off. The aircraft swung and the undercarriage collapsed. No one was injured. A week later a Halifax LL300 under maintenance in one of the hangars caught fire. The fire crew could not save it in time. Another Halifax LL284, piloted by F/L Hugh Stiles DFC of 138 Squadron, came down three minutes after take-off at dusk on 2nd June near Sandy Hills. He lost his port inner engine at a height of only 100 ft (30 m) but landed it skilfully in the fields behind the lodge on Sandy Road. Counterfeit coins were found scattered everywhere. The aircraft caught fire and five of his crew escaped with serious injuries.
The problem of the aircraft swinging was experienced by not just officers, sergeants and flight lieutenants. The day after D-Day, 7th June 1944, 138 S/L Brogan wrote off his Halifax LL390 when it swung on take-off. Not to be outdone on 1st August 161 S/L R. Wilkinson swung on landing and crashed into buildings. No one was injured in either of these two incidents. The following month F/O A. Spencer of 161 Squadron wrote off a Stirling LK208 in the same way. Stirlings had a very successful record but 1944 was a bad year.
Pilot Officer Bill Frost reported he and friend’s narrow escape in an accident involving F/Lt. R. Levy, DFC, RNZAF and the rest of his crew in Stirling LK207. Their crew had completed 24 operations with only one more to go.
We had transferred to 161 Squadron from 138 Squadron after my commission had come through. I was acting as Gunnery Leader the day that Alan Levy, the Pilot, came to my flight office to say he was taking up a new Stirling on Air Test and would I like to join him. I had never missed any flight with him but this was an aircraft belonging to another crew who were on leave and I declined to go saying I might be needed. I was thinking particularly of the half-finished letter to my parents that was overdue. Alan collected the rest of the crew except for Tony the Navigator because navigators, like Mid-Upper Gunners, were not essential on Air test. I saw them go. The aircraft, new from the factory, climbed away and Alan started air test manoeuvres. Suddenly the tail, including the gun turret, broke away and the aircraft fell to the ground, narrowly missing the local school at Potton and all the crew were killed.
Jim Breeze provided further details. He stated that the ‘plane exploded in the sky over Everton and crashed near the school’s playground.
After the clearance of the fog on the morning of the 19th October several crews were airborne on local flights, and it was while returning from one of these flights that F/L Levy and some of his crew lost their lives. On his approach to the airfield witnesses heard a sudden change in engine noise, looking towards the ridge they saw the aircraft at about 2,000 ft. [609 m] below cloud suddenly lose the whole of its tail section, the front part crashing into a field near the village of Potton, killing all on board. The aircraft was LK 207 ‘MA-W’ and it was obvious from the wreckage that it had suffered structural failure of the rear fuselage just forward of the tailplane.
Reports in the Biggleswade Chronicle told a similar story but of a crash over a week earlier. Was it the same event from another witness or another crash? It stated that on 10th October 1944 a ‘plane “disintegrated 11 minutes after takeoff”. Freddie Clark stated that Levy was only in the air ten minutes. This would have taken it a long way from the airfield unless it was in trouble and turned back. A heavy landing had been reported five days earlier and the aircraft placed under suspicion.. The pilot managed to steer clear of Potton School before crashing near Deepdale. One task undertaken during an air test was to put the ‘plane through a corkscrew, a roll over. Unfortunately, the stress on the fuselage caused by the ‘Joe hole’ being cut out caused it to fracture and the the tail to break off - with tragic results!
In 1944 Peter Wisson witnessed an accident in the playground of Everton School during his afternoon break.
The weather was bright with high broken cloud. We first noticed the aeroplane high in the sky to the east at an elevation of 80 degrees. It was in a vertical spinning dive. It was not on fire and did not appear to be damaged, but I do not recall hearing any engine noise. It seemed to be falling for ages but suddenly it hit the ground and a large cloud of black smoke rose up from the direction of Potton. It was a twin-engine aeroplane with a single tail fin. We saw no parachutes emerge from the aeroplane. A day or two later I was taken to see a crashed aeroplane along the Potton to Sandy Road. The aeroplane was badly damaged but I do remember the tail was fairly intact and it had a single fin. The crash location is on the right of the Potton-Sandy Road, about 50 yards from the road, to the west of the recreation ground midway between two detached houses, map reference 213493. I assumed this was the aeroplane which I saw crash.
The year 1944 saw the loss of 56 aeroplanes including 33 Halifaxes, 11 Stirlings, six Lysanders and six Hudsons. The next year, the last of the war, had the least number of losses. Jim Breeze described the third Stirling that year, LK 236 ‘MA-Y’, from 161 Squadron going down on 14th February. As the event was shrouded with secrecy it was only in recent years that research in the Imperial War Museum’s records has allowed the truth to come out. F/O Eric Timperley and his six crew were returning from bombing practice on the Wash in murky conditions when at 14.15 hrs it was ‘buzzed’ by a P51 Mustang of the 383 Fighter Squadron USAAF. A witness saw it go up through a gap in the clouds and make “an unauthorised pass”. It flew too close and hit the Stirling’s tail. Both aircraft went out of control. Part of the American ‘plane came down in houses immediately behind the old Fire Station in Cambridge Road, Sandy and part hit the Sand Hills, above the town. Fred Punter who witnessed the event as a young boy in Sandy stated that the American pilot, Lt. T.W. Kiley, bailed out but, being so low, his chute failed to open. He landed feet first and sunk in the sand up to his waist. His plane landed on top of him and burst into flames. The Stirling dived into a field near the present day site of Sandy television mast. The tail landed in woods behind the petrol dump. F/O Timperley and six of his crew were killed. They included two Australians, F/S Bill Saunders and F/O G.C. Wiggins from the RAAF. Parts were unearthed in gardens behind Peels Place in Sandy. That was the last ‘plane to crash at Tempsford but that year eight Stirlings were lost and six Hudsons.
A near miss was reported by Mont Bettles when he had just got his milk cart across Everton level crossing and was watching ‘planes landing and taking off on the northern runway towards Highfield Farm. He was surprised to see a Lysander coming down to land but which seemed stationary. As it got larger he realised it was coming right at him and very low. He remembered the grins of the pilot and crew as it flew over his head just before his horses shied and bolted, overturning the cart. He fell out and often wondered whether the milk in the rolling churns had turned to butter by the time he got it to the Officers’ Mess.
Another story told by Mont Bettles was of a lady reporting seeing a crash on the top of Everton Hill. Two R.A.F. pilots got out of the wreckage but also two men in German uniforms. Gwen Sharpe, a Gamlingay woman, recalled how a Halifax, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, came in low in front of her house, Low Farm and hit the trees at the side of Weavely Wood. The tail section broke off in the tree tops, the rest fell to the ground in flames. One man escaped who walked along the farm track and was met by a special constable, Mr Howkins. He was taken to Green Man Farm. Gwen Sharpe’s brother, a member of the Home Guard, cycled over to find out what had happened and was met by a hail of bullets! Her father and neighbour arrived by car but there was nothing they could do. The fire engine coming up from Tempsford had to go back for a second load of water to put out the fire. It worried her father to see the pilot sitting in the fire. They couldn’t account for all the personnel but by daylight the rear gunner was still in the tail section up the tree. A container was also missing, a search was made and, given the security, one has to presume it was found. The Home Guard were sworn to secrecy that night and they didn’t tell until after the war.
She also recalls working at the potato pit at Low Farm and seeing a trainer ‘plane loop the loop. When it tried a second time she saw that it could not possibly succeed and it crashed at New Farm, Tetworth. The instructor was killed and the learner escaped with a broken leg. Another story was of one of the earlier crashes where one Sunday afternoon she was feeding poultry and saw a fighter ‘plane coming over and exploding. She saw pieces fall away. The pilot’s parachute failed to open and the ‘plane crashed by the roadside near Highfield Farm. (TL 206553) It didn’t burn.
Gordon Dunning who survived a crash recalls the same event in late-1944 when a Halifax III crash landed at Great Barford. They were trying to get practice at how to fly running on only three engines. The pilot stretched behind him to cut the fuel off to one engine but cut off both on one wing. The ‘plane spiralled down but luckily
...coming down in a field full of Land Girls picking potatoes or similar - none of the girls were injured but, unfortunately our Bomb Aimer, Flying Officer ‘Nick’ Carter was killed in the crash... We carried no Navigator or Dispatcher that day as we were flying a local Air test prior to operating that night, and two of the engines on one wing cut out through lack of fuel! Needless to say we were collected quickly by the Station Medical team, transported back to Tempsford, sent up straight away in a new aircraft after a medical examination, provided with a ‘spare’ Bomb Aimer, Sergeant E. Zwicker, and flew on operations the same night with our regular crew... The Squadron Commanders didn’t give people time to brood or lose their nerve after a crash - it was ‘up again’ immediately and back to operational activity without delay.
Freddie Clark recalled a terrible night in 1944 when his Halifax, K – King, was in operation during a heavy snow shower southwest of Orleans. After four attempts he made a successful drop and made haste for home feeling sorry for the reception committee. Apart from getting to the DZ to set it up, they had to collect the containers and packages, dispose of them and the parachutes and tidy up the site for the next drop; all during a curfew and under the noses of the enemy. These faceless persons were the true heroes of the hour. He detailed his landing the following morning.
Ten minutes from base, over the W/T, I heard the chatter of other aircraft asking Tempsford for a turn to land. It seemed a good time to reserve my place otherwise we would be out here all night. I switched on my face microphone, pressed the transmission button on the control wheel and said “Hello, Brasstray, Goldchain ‘K’ King, my turn to land please, over” [Brasstray was the control tower code and Goldchain the 138 Squadron code - author] A cheerful female voice came over my headphones, “Goldchain ‘K’ King this is Brasstray, your turn to land 4 out.” We had timed it nicely; the speed was down to 140 mph [224 kmph]. When we reached the airfield Drem lights and instructions came from the control tower. “Goldchain ‘K’ King, your turn to land number one, over.” I acknowledged, checked with Ron that the aerial was in, reminded Kit, Eric and Ron to move out of the nose and take up their landing positions, Eric set up the jump seat beside me and strapped himself in. The main runway lights ran down the edge of the port wing tip and I advised ‘Goldchain’ that we were now downwind, and selected ‘undercarriage down’ which rumbled out of its housings beneath the inboard engines. A small light on an instrument in front of me turned from red to green. Mixture controls to rich and airscrews to fully fine – just in case I made a ‘cock-up’ of the landing and had to go round again. Down with half flap, push the nose forward to counter the tendency for the aircraft to gain height, all trims to neutral and turn into the wind. The runway lights appeared, stretching out before me and the glide path indicator blinking green, beckoned me to the ground. Slowly back on the throttles, speed down to 100 mph [160 kmph], down with the rest of the flap. Over the runway threshold, throttles fully back, gently back on the pole. She bounced, protesting that the air was her domain, then settled, the tail wheel touching a moment later. We ran fast between runway lights, streaming white either side of us, and a touch of squealing brakes finally slowed us to a halt. I moved the throttles of the inboard motors forward, the inertia generated by the airscrews taxyed us down the remaining length of the runway. We turned off and I raised the flaps, pressed the button on the control wheel and said into the microphone, “Brasstray, Goldchain ‘K’ King landed, goodnight.” “Goodnight ‘K’ King” the WAAF replied.
We moved slowly between coloured taxy lights, the aircraft gently bouncing on her hydraulics, the phosphorescent-lit instrument needles dancing as we ran over each bump, the engines murmuring. Two torches penetrating the darkness signalled me to come ahead. A change in the signal pattern instructed me to turn right. I pushed the rudder bar to the right, opened up the port outer motor and squeezed the brake intermittently to avoid turning on a static wheel. The aircraft slowly responded and amid protesting squeals from the starboard brake turned a half circle facing the direction from which we had just come. I carried out the shutting procedure, finally the fuel cocks are closed and ignition switches were flicked to ‘Off’ and the four-bladed airscrews rotated slowly to a halt. Above the unaccustomed silence there was the clatter of movement from inside the aircraft. I unstrapped myself, unfastened the last umbilical cords of oxygen and radio – I was free. Eric was already out of his seat. From its stowage bin I grabbed my parachute, made my way down the silent black hull and left by the rear door. A voice outside asked if everything was OK – I said it was. We had been in the air 6 hours 50 minutes and had landed at 03.55 hrs. Apart from visibility problems caused by snow over the DZ it had been an uneventful and successful first Op.
We climbed into a waiting crew bus which took us back to where we had started – the briefing room door. We entered and put our flying gear onto a table. The station Padre welcomed us with a steaming cup of coffee laced with brandy and a large wedge of fruitcake on a plate. He was always there to meet us crews no matter what time we landed. Once I told him how much it was appreciated and asked him why he did it. He said a mother lost her son and had written to him; he realised he had never known the boy. Thereafter he met every crew member on their return to make sure he knew them.
Losing colleagues in action was a terrible blow. The loss of so many of the pilots and crew in accidents was devastating to those who survived. E. P. Richardson, the Padre in July 1944, wrote to the family of F/L Ian Menzies a sympathetic and empathetic message when he was shot down over Holland. “I have known your son ever since he has been on this station and, with all those who knew him, have grown to admire the splendid qualities of his character”. In Adrian Lee’s article in a local paper about the post-war reunions for those associated with Tempsford Airfield which were held at the barn on ‘Gib’ Farm he added that
...Unlike other bomber Squadrons Tempsford often suffered heavy losses and it was impossible for the surviving crews to shrug off the deaths of companions. “It did have an effect on you if there were heavy losses,” says Monty, [a veteran of the base] “You couldn’t look at it straight and sometimes I asked myself when my time was coming. But I think the people who suffered most were the WAAF drivers who had to take the crews out to the airplanes - they seemed to know everybody.
Their contribution of the aircrews was acknowledged in an undated contemporary newspaper cutting: “Aircrew are the cream of the country, and the lads at Tempsford are the cream of the aircrew”. In the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Everton are six well-kept war graves. There were seven but one Canadian was disinterred to be buried in his hometown. The others are: -
R/78532 LDG Aircraftman A. M. Galbraith, RCAF, 26th March 1942, aged 25, ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them’.
352613 F/S E. M. Fletcher, RAF, 6th June 1942, aged 38, ‘Tho lost to sight to memory dear thou ever wilt remain.
1385168 Sergeant A. Christie, Pilot, RAF, 30th November 1942, aged 26, ‘Sleep on beloved, Sleep and take thy rest’.
1167643 Sergeant L. E. Neary, Air Gunner, RAF, 19th December 1942, aged 22, ‘For our country’.
P/O I. M. Wilson, Navigator, RCAF, 25th January 1943, aged 25.
1371493 Sergeant R. Macauley, Air Gunner, RAF, 19th December 1942, ‘Always remembered’.