(click on photographs to enlarge them, then Escape to go back to the story)
The crew were:
Pilot Officer Ronald John Furey, RAAF, pilot
The brief entry for November 15, the day he died, reads: "Weather. Cloudy - poor visibility drizzle 0200 hours. Operations: six aircraft engaged in operations. One (R.1775) failed to return from target. Crew consisted of:- Capt AUS404332 - P/O Furey, R. J., 2nd Pilot, AUS400460 - Sgt Cox, A. L., Observer 400403 P/O Goldman, W., W/OP/AG., 1050936 Sgt. Rowland, E. W/OP/AG., 946888 Sgt Pepper, D. B. A./Gunner., 745531 Sgt. Duffield, H. W."
A separate entry reported that the flight has taken off at 1717 hours for Emden. Last communication with the aircraft was received just over 3 1/4 hours later at 2035 hours.
"Operations/Intelligence 15/11/41. N.C.O. i/c Photographic Section left on posting overseas. 5 aircraft took off to attack EMDEN but encountered bad weather conditions with 10/10 cloud. 3 sorties attacked the estimated position of the target (1 with 1 bomb only, the rest being brought back) 1 attacked a Flak concentration at Schiermonikoog. In one case only, were any results seen. One aircraft claiming [to have seen] fires after attack. One aircraft is missing. Weight of bombs dropped:- Emden. 17 - 500 lb. H. E. [high explosive]. Schiermonikoog. 8 - 500 lbs H.E. "
Yet another Operations Record Book for November 15 reads: "Holme 15/11/41: Today was dull. Operations are planned for this evening by 458 Squadron. Arrangements are almost completed for the function in the Officers' Mess on the opening up of the Station. Soccer and rugby matches were played today at Church Fenton and Holme. The former match was won and the latter match was lost. An outing of the Corporals' Club was held today to York."
The following day's entry read: "Holme 16/11/41: Divine Services were held on the Camp this morning for all denominations. Last evening, five aircraft of 458 Squadron attacked Emden. One aircraft is missing. Weather today was overcast, with rain in the late afternoon. A variety concert is being held this evening for all ranks. The concert being given by voluntary artistes from [the nearby town of] Goole."
"The accounts of what happened to Alex Cox are very spare, in keeping with the manner of all the records kept at RAF Holme. Allied raids on German and German-occupied territory and German raids on RAF Holme were reported very briefly and in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Emotive language was never used. Reading through the records, there is no sense of just how difficult times were for Britain and the Allies. Casualties in the Allied air forces were extremely high, and air crews could in 1941 expect a short life ahead. Amid the dry accounts of casualties, there were similarly brief reports on sporting events, church services, concerts, trips to neighbouring towns, new arrivals and construction work at the airfield."
"26/12/41: Once again weather is bright. Air Vice Marshall R. D. Oxland OBE visited the Commanding Officer today. Arrangements are being made to house a Blind Approach Flight of 18 officers and 48 airmen at the Satellite [base] at Breighton, where Oxford aircraft will be parked at nights and flown to this aerodrome during the day for their technical flights. The usual church services were held in the morning. The entire squadron had half a day holiday."
"13/8/41: Work continued on extending the central runway."
"14/8/41: Trench digging. Arrangements being made for buses to run from the station [RAF Holme] to Selby [a nearby town] and to have a telephone kiosk and pillar box erected. A cinema company is arranging to have shows on the station. Training of all airmen in defence continues."
"15/8/41: 35 airmen of the new Squadron which is to be formed at this station have been posted to us. It is reported that the new Squadron will be No. 458. Some have arrived today, and they are the maintenance sections."
"30/8/41: Two sergeant air gunners of No. 458 Squadron arrived yesterday; these are the first aircrew members of the new Squadron. The new Squadron personnel are to be drawn as far as possible from Australian personnel at present serving with the RAF and completed later on by members of the Royal Australian Air Force at present being trained under the Empire Training Scheme."
"1/9/41: Last evening at 23.04 hours an attack was made on the Main Site of the station by an enemy aircraft, thought to be a HE100. It dropped several Personnel Bombs and is believed to have fired cannon. Two airmen died as a result of injuries and 7 to 10 airmen are injured, and also one NAAFI girl employee."
It will probably never be known whether the aircraft went down because of damage done by German ground-to-air, or air-to-air fire, or because of mechanical failure, or because the pilot was seriously or fatally wounded. Even if members of the crew were not killed on impact with the sea, the waters of the North Sea would have been bitterly cold and survival would have been difficult. Such was the design and cramped structure of the plane that escape would have near impossible.
The Wellington was designed by Barnes Wallis, the man who also designed, among other things, the bouncing bomb used by the RAF Dam Busters. The plane was described as immensely strong and able to take large amounts of damage and still fly. That said, they were slow with unreliable engines.
The main body frame was covered with canvas or similar fabric, then painted with aircraft dope. This tightened and stiffened the fabric stretched over the frame and made it waterproof. The Wellingtons had no heating, so crews had electrically heated flying suits. And as the cruising height for the planes was around 15,000 feet, oxygen masks were required. To say that the Wellington was an uncomfortable and dangerous plane to fly is a serious understatement.
Here is a photograph of one of Alex Cox's younger sister, Bess Carr, on a visit to Brooklands during a visit to England from Melbourne, Australia.
Alex's 458 Squadron first came into existence at Williamtown in New South Wales on July 8, 1941 and began to establish itself in Britain on August 25, 1941, at RAF Holme as a night bombing unit. The squadron was equipped with Wellingtons, the RAF's most common bomber. 458 Squadron began its operations on October 20, less than a month before Alex Cox perished.
It is not known how many missions Alex and his fellow crew members took part in, as his log book and some of his diaries were destroyed by his father's second wife, Phyllis, after his father's death in 1969. However, a few of his letters home have survived. They mostly contain personal family references and news and because they all had to be passed through a censor, they contain nothing specific about military operations. However, here are extracts from one written to his parents from Bassingbourn in August 1941:
My Dear Mother and Father, I have been rather lucky this last week as I received a letter from you both, Father's was an Airmail via America and Mother's sea mail via Canada. In addition, I received eight from Edna [Alex's fiancée, Edna Smith].
Last Monday evening I had rather a pleasant surprise as I was sitting in the mess a message from the guard house that a Mr Evans [a relative living at Angmering in southern England] was waiting to see me. He was on his way back to London after taking his wife and children up to Yorkshire for a holiday and as Monday was Bank Holiday. He stayed there until Monday evening and called on his way back. It seems he called in on Sunday on his way up but as I was out riding around the country they couldn't locate me. He is a great chap and I am going to ride my bike down there one week end in a fortnight's time and if I don't feel like riding back he will bring me at least halfway in the car. The last week I have been training in the evenings after dinner for a sports meeting next week, and from then I will most likely travel around the country every week with the station team. In the next contest I am doing six events so I hope I wont be very stiff after it as I was in Canada.
How do you reckon I would go as an airman paperboy, as that is what we do to get operational experience before we take to the big stuff? First we take propaganda slips over France, which is fun as long as there are no jerry night buzzards about. This Russian business [Russia entering the war] is very good for us, as I am quite sure now that I am here at the scene of the action, Britain would never have won in ten years so we have everything to thank the Russians for but even then the going is going to be terrific, as I think most of the people here are terribly complacent and don't realise the enormous strength of the Reich. What I have just said may sound a hot-headed statement but I have come to that conclusion after doing a lot of watching, listening and thinking and it seems to be the only conclusion to come to.
It's a pity I couldn't write more it may be encroaching on the ground that the censor wouldn't like and quite possibly would be removed from the letter.Here are extracts of a letter Alex from Bassingbourn to his brother-in-law, Malcolm Stewart. :
It was really a treat to get your letter, and believe me it was greatly appreciated. Thanks! very much for your congratulations for getting the wings, which I hardly ever notice I wear now, but it was really well worth getting them. Today is really the first day of beautiful sunshine we have had for some time, and I believe as September is the best month here I can expect some more. Really this country is very beautiful and in most ways just like a well cultivated garden, because mainly it is on a much smaller scale than our own countryside. Every chance I get I spend wandering around the countryside looking out some of these beautiful little thatch villages and there very old and historic churches or ruins.
I guess Mal you will remember the little camera I bought before leaving home; well! it is doing great service, and I have a big album of beautiful snaps, all with printed descriptions and well laid out, so I guess you will find it of interest as seeing a thing is really better than hearing about it. London is really a big place and a great place to wander around. With almost every building there is some connection to history. Unfortunately I had only [a few?] days there, but will spend more time there. I have friends who will take me around as they know where to find things easier than I do.
And here are extracts from an earlier letter written to his sister, Lorna Stewart, from Canada:
After graduating at Saskatoon I had quite a nice look over Eastern Canada or as much as I could possibly squeeze into the 3 days leave allowed us over and above our 3 day travelling time to Halifax, Nova Scotia. My main disappointment was the Niagara Falls which I expected to be beautiful as well as large, but they are only immense and at any rate I could [not] see anything beautiful about them even at night.
Spent most of our time in Toronto, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec Province, but at every opportunity we had when the train stopped as it often did for a period of 30 minutes we would get a taxi and dash around and have a look and we saw quite a few more towns and people than we would otherwise would have been able to.
The travelling this time was very good and was in absolute contrast to our trip from Vancouver to Saskatoon where comfort was not known. Of course we were all sergeant pilots on this trip and it does make a small amount of difference such as first class dining sleeping and day cars so it has its advantages.
Well Lorna I think this is about all I can write at present or all I am allowed to write as I could tell you what it is like being convoyed across the Atlantic, but all I will say is I feel quite safe and really don't think there is need to worry except a possible air attack when we get close to the old country [England].
The airfield was built on Holme Common between the A614 road to the west and the Market Weighton Canal which formed the eastern boundary. A short distance to the south was the River Foulness and to the north the Land of Nod road and the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor from which it was named. Approach by road could only be made from the west. Airfield construction workers moved to the site in 1940 and started to develop it into a standard pattern airfield with the main technical and accommodation site on the northern side of the landing area, the main hangar being a "J" type. Briefing rooms, control tower, officers’ and men’s quarters were built in record time.
The airfield was officially opened in August 1941 under No 1 Bomber Command, although it had been used by light aircraft prior to then. The first units, which both arrived during August, were No 20 BAT Flight which formed here with Oxfords and was later to become No 1520 BAT Flight and No 458 Squadron RAAF, which came into existence at Williamtown, New South Wales, on the 8th of the previous month. It was officially established in Britain on August 25, 1941, at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, as a medium bomber unit in No 1 Group. The code letters were “FU” and it was equipped with Wellington Mk IVs. The commanding officer, Wing Commander Mulholland (later killed in action on February 16 1942) and one of his flight commanders, Squadron Leader Johnston, were Australians and many RAAF aircrew were immediately posted in, but it was not fully RAAF.
The Aussies were quickly into their stride and began operations on the night of October 20/21 when ten Wellingtons were despatched - two to Emden and eight to Antwerp. One aircraft was unable to locate Antwerp and returned with its bombs and one failed to return. By the end of January 1942, 458 Squadron had bombed Mannheim, Aachen, Cologne and Dusseldorf in the campaign against German transport centres as well as attacking ports and other North Sea installations. The last operation was on January 28/29, l942, when two aircraft bombed Boulogne docks, and at the end of the month, 458 Squadron was withdrawn from all Bomber Command duties and, after having re-equipped with Wellington Ics, moved to the Middle East in March 1942.
My earliest recollection of Alex is when we lived at Spotswood, where my parents had a Newsagency. The size of the house dictated that Alex and I slept on the side verandah in a sleepout which was lined with hessian. I used to wait for him to come to bed. I was terrified of the dark. His presence was an incentive to get out of bed and use the pot, rather than wet the bed.
During my writing it has become evident that his ambition was always to become a pilot. Alex attended primary school at Hawthorn West and Camberwell South, with a short period at Tullibigeal, New South Wales. When the family moved to Spotswood, he attended Footscray Technical School, where he gained his Intermediate Certificate and applied for a position as an apprentice with a pattern-making firm in Seddon.
At the end of the probationary period, his employer called my parents in and told them that Alex was intelligent, conscientious, enthusiastic and a good worker, but his employer said he was not cut out to be a tradesman and advised them to try him in sales or office work, as his school work was good. Something he had in common with his father was that he had little practical aptitude, but a keen sense of anything military. Thus he began work [in the warehouse] at Isherwood & Bartlett in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, selling Manchester, Garments and Haberdashery.
After a short while, he was taken out of the warehouse, given a brand new Dodge Sedan car and put on the road. Eventually, he became responsible for northern Victoria. At the age of 19, he topped the sales figures for all the salesmen in Isherwood & Bartlett. It was there that he met Edna Smith from Mitcham and became engaged. My parents counselled him not to marry as things were so uncertain. [Sadly, Edna Smith died from tuberculosis on an unknown date in the 1940s.]
To enable him to be eligible for Air Crew, he returned to night school to pick up and refresh subjects such as trigonometry. He played cricket before the days of sophisticated protective gear and sustained a serious injury which laid him low. For a while, suffice it to say the Cox Dynasty could have ceased at that time.
He was a health crank, taking part in gymnasium work, badminton and cross country running. He ran for St Stephens Harriers with his idol Gerald Backhouse of international fame. I don't remember seeing any trophies, but he was always a competitor.
He enlisted in the Army Militia, part-time in the artillery as a bombardier and finishing as corporal. All this was a means to an end in enlisting in Air Crew.
My task has been made more difficult by the lack of records. I started by writing to RAAF Personnel Records. From there, I contacted his squadron and received a lot of help. The secretary of the 458 Squadron suggested I contact a member who would have been in the ground staff at the same time as Alex at RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor. On contacting him, I found he joined two weeks after Alex's death, but he floored me as he knew Alex's service number, knew he worked for Isherwood & Bartlett, and was in fact the cousin of Edna Smith, Alex's fiancée mentioned earlier.
The 458 Squadron Association could not throw much more light on Alex that was not already known. Among the papers missing would have been his Flying Log Book, detailing the number of sorties flown. Being an avid diarist, several members of the family remember the diaries he wrote. These would have been very valuable to the 458 Squadron Association. Nevertheless, there is one in my possession which details his journey by ship from Australia to Canada. In it, he makes reference to correspondence from his boyhood friend Les Knight who joined the RAAF after him and was one of the RAF Dam Busters who subsequently died in Holland. My father attended the unveiling of the Runnymede Memorial to allied air personnel who died in the war and who had no known graves. He found it most stirring and rewarding.
I learned more about what it was like for Alex Cox from Jim Oliver, our daughter-in-law Ann Oliver's father, who was an RAF aircraft armourer in WW2. These are my notes made of our conversation in 2008:
Jim said that Emden was one of the most heavily defended ports in Germany. When there was an allied raid, the German fighters would stay on the fringes of Emden, for fear of being hit by the intense flak fired at the allied bombers, and would instead attack the bombers on their way to and from their targets. He said the casualty rate for allied bombers early in the war was very high. It was "bloody good going" if a crew managed to survive five raids. Jim said the Wellingtons and all the other allied bombers in service when Alex died were very slow and unreliable.
He said the main target in Emden was the German U-boat base. But he said that in the early years of the war the submarines sheltered under very deep concrete roofs and the 250lb and 500lb bombs would just bounce off the roofs without causing any real damage. He said it wasn't until 1943/4 that the larger bombers then in service began dropping 10-ton bombs that were able to penetrate the concrete at Emden.
In October, 1953, Queen Elizabeth unveiled the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, overlooking the Thames on Cooper's Hill four miles from Windsor. It commemorates the names of over 20,000 airmen -- including Alex Cox -- who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe and who have no known graves. They served in all commands from Bombers to Maintenance, and came from all parts of the Commonwealth as well as countries in Europe which had been taken by the Germans (such as Denmark, the Netherlands, or Poland) and whose airmen continued to fight in the ranks of the Royal Air Force. The memorial was designed by Sir Edward Maufe with sculpture by Vernon Hill and ceilings by John Hutton. More details are on the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website.
Over the years, various members of the Alex's extended family visited the Runnymede memorial.
Holme-on-Spalding Moor is a small town [of a few thousand residents]. RAF Holme was a couple of miles out of the town. During the war it was the base first for 458 Squadron, to which Alex was attached, then later for 76 Squadron. It is now known as the Holme Industrial Estate, and is a messy mix of former airforce buildings and new structures.
We arrived at the estate with what can be described, without exaggeration, as an extraordinary piece of good timing. We stopped the car just inside the entrance and spotted an elderly chap scrubbing the nameplate on one of two memorials, one for 76 Squadron; the other for 458 Squadron. He identified himself as Frank Robertson, an amateur local historian and retired air traffic controller. He said he was awaiting the arrival of an author and a former member of 76 Squadron, about whom she was writing a book.
A few minutes later a car pulled up containing the author, Audrey James, accompanied by a retired publican and wartime wireless operator and gunner, Arthur Briggs, and his wife, Eva. We were invited to tag along for a tour of the estate, while Arthur helped Frank identify various buildings and talked to Audrey about his wartime experiences with 76 Squadron, then later with 35 Squadron. He became a crew member on the Pathfinders, the planes fitted with sophisticated (for their time) navigational equipment that allowed them to drop flares on targets as a guide for less-well-equipped bombers.
After the war, RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor was closed down and placed on Care and Maintenance until the Korean War when it was used by both the British and United States airforces. In 1957, it was handed over to the company which was later to become British Aerospace for testing its Buccaneer bombers. It was eventually closed down as an airfield in December 1983 and the three runways, laid out in a triangle, were ripped up and used in the foundations of motorways being built in the area.
The guardhouse and station headquarters are now occupied by J. Rotheram, a company selling marble. Rotherams are planning to refit the interior over the next year or so and will provide display space for a history of the airfield being organised by Frank Robertson. [This has since been done.] Most of the other buildings are occupied by small businesses, such as motor garages. But the windowless, brick and concrete operations bunker, surrounded by an outer protective wall of bricks and earth, is empty, except for rubbish dumped in some of the rooms. Surprisingly, some of the lights still worked.
Away from the main group of buildings is the former sergeants’ mess, which is now in a very sad state with almost all the windows broken and with holes in the roof. Its only occupants these days are pigeons. Alex would have used the mess most days. Arthur took us around the building, pointing out the locations of the dining room, kitchen, lounge and bar. He recalls that it was a very comfortable place. It was a strange feeling knowing that I was standing in the building which had played such an important part in Alex Cox’s final months. The same applied to the operations bunker which included the pre-raid briefing rooms. [The former mess has since been demolished.]
We all went back into town for lunch at a very nice pub, Ye Olde Red Lion Coaching Inn, where Arthur told us about life on the airbase. None of it was boastful. It was only in recent years that he has talked about his experiences. I gather they were too painful.
He said that during the darkest days of the war, the aircrews were quite stoical about the events. Most airmen were convinced they would survive, but it was always a bit of a shock to go to the mess for breakfast the morning after a raid and to see who was missing. Arthur took part in a great many raids, including one on the guided missile research centre at Peenemunde. Eventually, his aircraft was shot down on its way to bomb Berlin and he spent six months in a prisoner-of-war camp.
Alex’s Wellington bomber made radio contact with base three hours and 15 minutes after take-off. Both Arthur and Frank said radio contact indicated that the plane was crashing. They said strict radio silence was observed throughout raids, except in the most dire of emergencies. They said that if the Wellington had ditched in the North Sea, it would have sunk very quickly, and the crew would not have survived long in the icy water. When I asked why there were no detailed records about the disappearance of the plane, they said that so many planes were lost about that time it was not possible to investigate to any extent what had happened to them.
RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor was just one of many wartime airfields in Yorkshire, and at the peak of its operations, it had 2300 people stationed on it. Frank and Arthur said that sometimes the evening sky in the area would be full of British bombers from the various airfields circling to gain height before setting off on their bombing raids. Some operations would last 10 hours from take-off to landing, which was very uncomfortable for the crew, specially those members who had to wear heavy, electrically heated clothing to keep out the bitter cold. And, of course, there was also the strong possibility that each trip could be their last.
The outbreak of official war was, almost, a relief. In the solemn and dispirited tones of the British Premier, Neville Chamberlain, at 11.00 am. on 3rd September 1939, over the air came knowledge that the Western World was now launched into a tempest of huge size and with an unknown outcome. But, at the same time, came something like relief at the lifting of the intolerable tensions of the past year, since the Munich Treaty. In the past year Adolf Hitler, with the immense German war machine in his hands, had led the world to and from the brink of terror so often that war itself was a release.
September 3 was the official day of the outbreak of war. But not much real warfare followed for the British world for some time. The Western Allies (Britain and France) had no great strength of arms. Certainly not enough, in the view of the Supreme Commander, General Gamelin, to attack. The Germans, for their part, were interested only in the spoils on their Eastern Front. They overran Poland; and then, of course, came an unwarlike lull-the "Phony War".
The British concentrated - and probably were lucky to be able to do so - on amassing war material and on training soldiers. The military material, however, they then lost in large quantities at Dunkirk when the "Phony War" turned into the Fall of France. Here, though the soldiers were withdrawn, the crippling loss of material made Britain incapable of further expeditions on the European continent for many years.
In the air, the position was not quite so bad. The relatively small but superbly efficient Metropolitan Air Force was in being, and was soon to repulse the Luftwaffe's main assault on Britain. The factories were coming into being which were to turn out the Wellingtons, Spitfires and Sunderlands and later on the Lancasters and Mosquitoes of the Royal Air Force. An "Empire Air Training Scheme" had been got under way - not without undercover disorganisation on the top level, which, however, did not prevent the scheme's magnificent success. Dominion airmen, including Australians, of the highest quality came forward in great numbers, to be trained as aircrew under the scheme.
Simultaneously, as far as Australia was concerned, training continued at home for the Royal Australian Air Force. At this time the flight mechanics, electricians and instrument repairers, some of whom later went overseas to join 458 Squadron, began their training as airmen and as technicians.
In Britain, where the Royal Air Force was converting itself with massive purpose from a small specialist force into a great striking machine, recruits-largely conscripted-were pouring into and through the great reception camps, such as Uxbridge, Cardington and Blackpool. They were given an intensive few weeks of drill and basic training before passing on to flying and technical training camps such as Calshot and Cranwell where in a few short months they learned to fly, navigate, signal and fire from their aircraft-to-be, or learned the theory of aircraft and engine maintenance, wireless and instrument repair, cooking, clerical work, police work, or whatever their mustering was to be.
This period of training and preparation was a period of "holding" the enemy in the best way it could be done. The war went ill. Holland, France, Belgium and Norway fell in the west. The mounting submarine offensive began to take Britain by the throat as shipping losses grew. It was a period of struggling to survive until the bombers - yet to be built and flown by men yet to be trained - could hammer Germany into pulp, and until the long-range aircraft, yet to come into service, could range over the shipping airways and ward off the U-boats.
High in the planned strategy of offence was the Empire Air Training Scheme, agreed upon by the Dominion representatives meeting in London. Training schools in three British Dominions - Canada, Australia and New Zealand - undertook large-scale air-crew training. The trainees, on passing out from training, were posted to Britain.
It was the intention that as far and as soon as possible they be sent to squadrons predominantly composed of men from their own country. Squadron numbers from 450 upwards were reserved for such Dominion squadrons. Administrative difficulties which, it must be emphasised, were monumental, were to cause infuriating delays, not only in getting the trainees into squadrons of their own nationality but in getting them into squadrons at all. However, in spite of these difficulties, the 450-and-upwards squadrons gradually came into being. 458 Squadron was one of the earliest.
A party of Australian ground staff were posted overseas specifically as members of 458 Squadron in August 1941. This party which felt, and was to retain, a sense of pride and achievement in its membership of 458 Squadron, assembled at Williamtown RAAF Station in New South Wales. It included Sgt. Power, A.C's McGowen, Palmer, Griffith, Strom, Balmer and Piggott and a number of others, totalling two non-commissioned officers and thirty-seven airmen, many of whom were to remain with the Squadron for the greater part of four years.
Apart from practice bayonet fighting, stand-downs for the weekend, and fatigues for making new bayonet targets, nothing much happened until 7th August, 1941, when the whole thirty-seven airmen marched out for embarkation overseas on the S.S. Awatea. This ship provided quite a good trip across the Pacific to Canada.
Meanwhile, in Britain, RAF personnel, mainly ground staff, were being assembled at Holme-on-Spalding Moor in Yorkshire, also as part of 458 Squadron-to-be. They were of all the musterings necessary to the make-up of an operational squadron. The first sections to be staffed were the Wireless Section and the Armoury.
BOMBER COMMAND: HOLME-ON-SPALDING MOOR
On 1st September 1941 458 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, came together as a squadron at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, in Yorkshire.
That was the official date. A few RAF ground staff, principally armourers, had arrived at the station during August, but in fact the aircrew and ground personnel of the Squadron establishment continued to arrive throughout September and early October. The Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Mulholland, of course, was there very early.
By the end of October there was, between the RAF and RAAF contingents, something like the assembly of crews and ground staff that make up a bomber squadron: fitters and flight mechanics, engine or airframe, who were each assigned to an aircraft and made responsible for its engines and fuselage; electricians who maintained the generators, bomb release gear and general electrical wiring; wireless operators and mechanics, who tuned and tested wireless and radio transmitters and receivers; instrument repairers keeping an eye on compasses, clocks, airspeed indicators and the multitude of instruments and indicators in intimidating array in the pilot's cockpit; armourers, bomb and gun; general duty aircraft hands, storemen, photographers, clerks and a disciplinary warrant officer whose presence was felt but not appreciated; they made up several hundred men.
The newly arriving airmen were not impressed with what they saw at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, though in fact the country was probably at its best then in the late summer. It was flat country of some farming value but small beauty.
Yorkshire, England's largest county, consisted, it seemed, of moors dotted with large industrial cities. This was one of the moors, flat, with fields growing turnips; occasionally a small brick farmhouse or hind's cottage; more occasionally an uninteresting village. It was well suited for winds to blow across. In this setting, three miles from the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, nine miles from the nearest town, Market Weighton (and nine miles is a long way in England), two substantial runways had been laid crosswise through fields in which carrots were still growing. Two corrugated iron hangars and various single-storied brick buildings-messes, wash-houses, signals offices, and the like-had been assembled at one side of the aerodrome. Round the perimeter road which encircled the airfield were scattered at intervals asphalt circles - aircraft hard standings, where the aircraft stood when on the ground, protected from mud and dispersed to diminish damage from enemy bombs.
It was all. very new; no doubt it was all very modern; but it was all very unfinished. Living quarters, in the form of Nissen huts, for the airmen of the Squadron (as distinct from airmen of station headquarters who were in barrack huts on the station itself) were at four different sites, none much less than a mile from the station. This scattering was also in aid of diminished casualties from enemy bombs, and was standard RAF practice. But there were no washing facilities at these dispersals: they weren’t finished.
Transport to the station was scanty and in consequence one often began one's day with a two-mile walk from one's dispersal to the station, a short and competitive wash in cold water at the troughs called "ablutions" by the Air Force, and a hasty breakfast of a quality at which one would have looked askance at home, before (at any rate if one was of the ground-staff) rushing to a parade at which a Senior NCO. "called the roll". Later on, when the snow came, the ablutions froze and one's washing was highly intermittent. However the Squadron shook down into place pretty quickly.
The CO, W/Cdr. Mulholland, who was, under the overseeing eye of the Station Commander, a group captain, and in turn of Group headquarters who were commanded by an air vice-marshal, responsible for getting things under way, was himself an Australian serving in the RAF. Before joining the RAF. in 1933 he had for some years been a civil pilot in Australia, coming from Brisbane. His Distinguished Flying Cross had been awarded to him in January 1941 for skill, courage and leadership in operations over enemy territory. Shortly after that, in March 1941, he had suffered severe facial injuries, permanently affecting his eye and nose, when the throttle of a Wellington aircraft he was piloting broke, causing a crash landing in which he struck a hedge and trees. In spite of his injuries he had resumed flying at the first chance, and now put all the considerable drive he possessed into preparing 458 for operational flying. He was thirty-three at this time. Speaking of Mulholland, one of the Squadron wrote years after in the Squadron newspaper:
"At this distance of time things come back to the memory in episodes and vignettes rather than as pictures in the round. But the vignettes are still revealing enough. We recall his war-damaged face - resulting from a serious prang before he came to 458. But after it he had resumed flying at the earliest possible opportunity. We recall the feeling of urgency and drive he was able to evoke through the forming squadron in all its sections. Discipline had something to do with it too. There was no 'mucking around' permitted.”
For the aircrew, preparations consisted of a lot of practice flying "circuits and bumps" - that is, landing and take off practice, particularly at night; "swinging the loop"; calibrating wireless transmitters; harmonising gun sights. And, of course, lectures. The ground staff maintained the aircraft, and by coping with the equipment failures that showed up during practice flying, learned the practical, and the hard, way how the aircraft worked. Throughout September, flying crews arrived at Holme-on-Spalding Moor Station - mainly as new crews straight from their Operational Training Unit where they had first become associated together as crews.
458 Squadron was designed as a medium bomber squadron to bomb Germany and German-occupied territory. For this purpose it was attached to No. I Group, RAF. The Squadron was equipped with the Vickers Wellington, a twin-engined aircraft of unusual structure, being, basically, a network of metal struts, and not, like the conventional aircraft, of riveted metal sheets. It was the mainstay of Bomber Command from 1939 to 1942.
A few years before the war the Wellington was considered to be a revolutionary step forward in design, and when one disappeared at sea while on a testing flight, it was openly suggested by the Press that the aircraft had been brought down by the German Government for the sake of its secret "geodetic" design. The Wellington was probably one of Britain's most successful aircraft, being used throughout the war, and until 1953 in Training Command. But by 1941, while still treated as an operational bomber, it was hardly thought of as a world-beater, and its days as a front-line bomber were numbered.
Over the geodetic network of light alloy metal (the design of which was the brainchild of Barnes Wallis, later inventor of the dambuster bombs) was stretched, at stress, a cloth fabric. This was supposed to give, and in fact did give, the aircraft strength at reduced weight. Different "Mark" numbers were assigned to the aircraft according to the type of engine or ancillary equipment fitted. 458 had the Mark IV, with Pratt and Whitney twin-row "Wasp" engines. These engines caused the Squadron considerable irritation, but throughout the Squadron history the Wellington was popular with its crews. From figures supplied by the makers, Vickers Ltd., the performance capabilities of the Mark IV were:
Maximum speed: 247mph at 14,500 ft
Maximum cruising speed: 221mph at 16,500 ft
Economical speed: 180mph AT 15,000 ft
Service ceiling: 17,700 ft
Maximum range: 2,250 miles at 180mph
Weight: 31,500 lbs
With three bomb bays running the greater part of the length of the aircraft's underbelly, the Wellington was able to carry a substantial load of 250- or 500-lb. bombs, flares or incendiaries; for longer distance trips, one or even two bomb bays might be fitted with overload petrol tanks to extend the normal flight range.
There was a crew of six. The pilot (who was captain) sat at the controls forward, with perspex windows giving fair vision forward, to the sides, and upward. He was responsible overall for the welfare of the aircraft and its crew when airborne. He took the aircraft off and landed it, and controlled it over the target. The second pilot, at his side, took the controls as a relief for periods of flight to and from the target, and carried out certain other duties, such as the change-over from one petrol tank to another. After surviving approximately half a tour of operations as a second pilot, the second pilot usually became captain of a crew and aircraft of his own.
The pilot had at his hand in the cockpit the vital controls of the engines and the airframe. Starters, throttles, ignition switches, flaps, ailerons, rudder, trimmers, undercarriage bomb doors, pitch and mixture controls. Many of the airframe controls were automatic, being hydraulically operated by pressure from an engine-driven pump. But damage to the hydraulics from flak or sheer mechanical failure did occur of course. Then the controls concerned could be laboriously hand-pumped, provided the lines had not been cut or damaged. If they had, the pilot would be compelled to land without flaps or wheels or perhaps brakes, dependent on the nature of the damage. "George", the automatic pilot, was usually fitted but not always relied on. The multitude of dials on the black painted pilot's instrument panel were luminous since the Wellington was a night-flying aircraft which could not afford to reveal its presence by a display of lighting.
Immediately behind the two pilots was a compartment in which the wireless operator sat with his transmitter and receiver, and at his feet the battery-powered intercommunication gear. Each member of the crew had earphones and a small microphone in his flying helmet and these were connected into the intercommunication amplifier, which enabled the crew to talk among themselves. For security reasons the wireless operator did remarkably little transmitting. After leaving the target area he might transmit a short signal to base. Otherwise he maintained a listening watch on prescribed frequencies. He had, however, an important part to play in the ease of homeward navigation by obtaining "bearings" from beacons or direction-finding ground stations.
Further aft was the navigator, sitting immediately behind the wireless operator, but facing the port side of the aircraft. He had a desk suitable for maps; an adjustable, shaded table-lamp for its illumination; a compass and astro-compass. His duties centred round plotting the course to and from the target area; and the aiming of the bombs. The latter duty took place from the nose of the Wellington where there was a downward-facing safety glass window and suitably placed bomb sight and bomb-selector switches. Here the navigator-bomb aimer, prone, directed the pilot to port or starboard during the steady run-up to the target. Under ground fire the run-up could be a trial of cold courage since there could be no violent evasive action until the bombs had gone.
For navigation there was a perspex bubble on the back of the aircraft, called the astrohatch, from which celestial observations could be taken with a sextant and which served a secondary purpose as a means of egress in emergency, or for directing fire against, or evasion of an enemy fighter. In hasty exits, it was vital for the crew to remember not to inflate their "Mae Wests" before using the astro-hatch, it being a notoriously tight fit.'
The Air Force required rather higher educational qualifications from its candidates for navigator than from other crew members and this of course tended to make the navigator the scholarly and often the quiet member of the crew. There were memorable exceptions (at least to the second adjective).
Passing aft through a substantial geodetic rib and underneath the base of the direction-finding loop aerial (on which it was possible to hit one's head with stunning effect), and then over the main spar linking the wings, there was a couch on which a crew member could rest during flight. Further aft still was an Elsan lavatory pan to port and to starboard the flare chute from which flares were launched on their way.
A narrow "catwalk" then led to the rear gunner's rotating Frazer-Nash turret, made substantially of perspex, fitted with intercom. and armed with two Browning .303 machine guns (the front gunner had a similar turret in the nose of the Wellington). The turrets were power-operated (when the engines were running to supply the power) and rotated at the movement of a handle.
What was the Wellington like inside, when airborne, at night? It was dark. Only a dim light here and there, for the navigator and perhaps the wireless operator. Occasionally a call light operated on the intercom. when someone had something to say. It was noisy. Two piston engines cruising roared continuously and the whole aircraft vibrated finely. It was cold. At north European latitudes in winter, 10,000 feet up, it is cold. The aircrew wore thick leather fur-lined clothing and there was an aircraft heating system operating off the exhaust manifold; but still it was cold. Above it all of course, however deadened by use and fatigue, there was the apprehension of high adventure.
458 Squadron operated against the enemy, German Europe, for the first time on the night of 20th October 1941. This was about six weeks from its formation date and a signal of congratulations came from Group and its commander (Air Vice-Marshal R. D. Oxland).
Ten aircraft under the personal leadership of the Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Mulholland, attacked Emden and the docks of German-occupied Antwerp and Rotterdam. This was the culmination of Mulholland's diligence and drive, and indeed of the efforts of thousands of people throughout the Allied world: factory workers in Britain making Wellingtons; hoarse-voiced NCO's drilling rookies in training camps; bored flying instructors in Britain, Canada and Australia; seamen transporting supplies and men across the globe.
The day itself before the night of the operations had been pretty hectic. The fitters had been hard at it testing engines and airframes, electricians and wireless operators and mechanics had carted accumulators and wireless gear from aircraft to aircraft. Flight Commanders and Flight N.C.O's had dashed importantly and imperiously about in cars and trucks; the crews had waited in the crew room and had been briefed. Armourers with long low bomb-trailers had made the slow pilgrimage from aircraft to aircraft in turn, transporting and loading yellow-painted British bombs, 250 lb., 500 lb., and 1,000 lb.
The aircrews were brought out to their aircraft at the appointed hour, carrying their personal gear, maps, helmets and parachutes, by the aircrew bus - a grey-painted enclosed van which did a circuit around the perimeter regularly like a bus - and were off-loaded by it at the dispersal where the aircraft and its ground crew of fitters were waiting to cope with any last-minute snags and to direct the taxiing of the aircraft out of the dispersal towards the runway.
The crews passed their gear up and climbed aboard. The pilots started their engines one after the other. This wasn't always an easy process: the Wasp engines were inertia-started and had an aversion to cold weather. Once started they were highly reliable. Calls were exchanged with Flying Control by radiotelephone, and the aircraft rumbled slowly round to the leeward end of the runway in use. There, near the Chance Light - a generator which gave a focused flat light beam to illuminate the runway for night landings - the duty ground crew were in attendance. The pilot gave the engines a last test at power - with the brakes on - and then, after a brief intermission, Flying Control gave an O.K. and the aircraft moved. The engines giving the full bass roar of maximum power, each aircraft in turn charged purposefully at increasing speed down the runway into the darkness. Each was seen to take off, gain height, and set course to the east. These opening operations each took about six hours' flying time.
The weather on the night of 20th October was officially described as "fair but cloudy with moderate visibility". Over the continent the visibility was very moderate indeed. The CO and S/Ldr. Mellor, the "A" Flight Commander, dropped the first bombs. Mulholland and his crew reached and identified Antwerp. They were seriously impeded by the ground defence but dropped twelve 250-pounders and two 500-pounders from 11,000 feet up. They observed seven bursts and resulting fires in and about the target area. Mellor, the Irishman, took his crew to the Antwerp docks and bombed them and an aerodrome flarepath from 10,000 feet. They dropped the same bomb load as Mulholland except that one 500-lb. bomb stayed put in the bomb rack, for reasons of its own. Mather, Laver and Skinner bombed Rotterdam and were all hit by flak though the crews were unhurt. Sargeaunt, over Antwerp, found his flarechute jammed and was unable to drop flares but dropped some bombs.
Johnston located Antwerp, which was blanketed in cloud, but not the particular targets assigned to him so brought his bombs back and landed with them. Of Sgt. Hamilton and his crew nothing more was heard after their take-off. However it is known that they reached Europe, for a fortnight later Air Ministry notified the Squadron that with the exception of the rear gunner, Sgt. Brown, who was a prisoner of war, the crew were dead. Peter Hamilton was an Australian in the RAF. His crew were 458's first casualties.
The two experienced crews - Hare's and Leslie's - were directed to Emden, which they bombed, each dropping one 1,000-pounder, four 500-pounders and one 250-pounder. Hare recorded his bombing height as 15,000 feet. Leaving the target area, and after about four hours' flying, Leslie's crew ran into trouble. The starboard engine stopped and the aircraft suddenly went into a steep dive from 12,000 feet, spiralling, with the second pilot at the controls. Leslie made a mad dash to the front and took over the controls. He succeeded in levelling out the aircraft at between 400 and 1,000 feet. The dead engine was the one which drove the aircraft generator so that the wireless had to be operated off the aircraft accumulators. This was done but it proved impossible to receive signals. The fact was, as was later found, that the main aerial had been lost. Lovelace, the wireless operator, went on to the distress frequency (500 kilocycles, a high frequency) using the trailing aerial, normally a medium frequency aerial. Even now, though base contact was made, it was too weak for Lovelace to read the signals. The crew then found that the plane was only 30 feet above the sea and that the aerial was trailing in the drink. Everything over 10-lb. that could be thrown overboard was dumped to lighten the load on the one engine. The crew were manning dinghy stations when Leslie managed to get a spurt from the starboard engine, and then to get it going again. The aircraft gained some altitude and got up to 400 feet. They made base.
"When I walked into the Signals Section to give my report," said Lovelace afterwards, in a Canadian accent, "I found the ground operator had entered the words 'Missing, failed to return' opposite my name."
During November, on only two occasions did the climate allow night ops from Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Each day during the month the elaborate routine of preparation for a night of operations was gone through: the 18 or so serviceable aircraft were inspected and tested by the ground and air crews and, laboriously, bombs were loaded by the armourers. But, on most evenings, about 4 o'clock, the word came through, "Ops. scrubbed"; and the bombs were laboriously removed. The feeling of exasperation and anticlimax and, at the same time, of release, became familiar. Throughout the period personnel and new aircraft - to replace losses - continued to be sent to the Squadron.
The November ops were on the 7th and 15th. On the 7th, seven crews flew to Dunkirk to attack the battleships there. Of the six crews operating on the 15th, four had pilots doing their first operation as captain. These were P/O Pete Hickey (well-known at home in Australia as a footballer), Sgt. J. H. ("Rube") Holmes (RAAF), P/O J. Clark, and P/O R. N. Furey (RAAF). They, with Bond and Moore, raided Emden in heavy cloud. Furey and his crew [which included Alex Cox] did not return. The last communication from them was at 2035 hours, 3 hours and 18 minutes after their take-off.
At this stage, with the weather playing the decisive part in affairs, it might be well to pause and have a look at the day-to-day life of the men, away from their aircraft. Holme was a large station. You entered, past the guardhouse, off a country road. Camp roads were carefully made and maintained. Successively you passed the administrative offices on the left and NAAFI on the right. Officers' and sergeants' messes and airmen's cookhouse were succeeded by Technical sections and Flight huts. Side roads led to barrack huts. Finally there were two large hangars and aircraft aprons and, beyond, the aerodrome with runways, perimeter track and hard standings - all hurriedly laid down on still-planted fields.
The general picture of daily life has already been painted in incidentally. Sleeping in Nissen huts on dispersal sites some way from the main camp, dispersals without water or - for the most part - light other than candles; eating meals in the officers' or sergeants' messes or airmen's cookhouse; spending working time in crew rooms (where, to quote F/Lt. Sargeaunt, on a similar subject, there was the alternative of opening the windows and freezing or, having lit the fires, getting smoked out), or in Technical sections or the hangar.
By comparison with the wartime rations of the civilian population, service rations were good. They were carefully planned for dietetic balance. Notwithstanding all that, RAF meals (being cooked in bulk by rapidly-trained cooks) were usually uninteresting, often poorly cooked, and occasionally uneatable and uneaten. The Orderly Officer of the day made the rounds of the airmen's mess at each meal to receive complaints but complaints did little good. After all, there was little that could he done except make a note of them and try to get the sergeant cook posted somewhere else if there were too many. Breakfast was based on porridge in which the milk and sugar were "built-in " - cooked with the porridge - canned bacon slices and dried egg powder cooked in various ways, and of course the notorious wartime sausages, the "Soya Link". Lunch and the evening meal were centred about stews and hashes with vegetables-cabbage and turnip and dehydrated potato, and fruits such as prunes or jam tart with thin custard sauce. Supper - cocoa - was provided for crews on night duty or guards, and had usually to be fetched from the cookhouse.
For the airmen there was the station branch of NAAFI (the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute), which sold razor blades, soap, cigarettes, hair oil, toothpaste, morning tea with buns and sometimes supper. The NAAFI, with its crumb and tea-slop covered tables and chairs, cold and smoky as it usually was, provided a refuge from work but scant comfort. Nevertheless airmen were apt to stay in it when they were supposed to be at work, and the Squadron Disciplinary Warrant Officer made raids from time to time to see who was there who shouldn't be.
Squadron military discipline in the sense (using the pouter term) of "spit and polish" was subject to the overseeing control of the Station Commander and his staff. The Station Warrant Officer and Service police, all of the RAF, cast their eyes over the appearance and the behaviour of the Squadron airmen, and the Station Administrative Officer of the officers. The relevant commands and comments of Station Daily Routine Orders were repeated in Squadron orders. Station liked officers to be saluted and overcoat buttons to be done up but, on the whole, station control was not a nuisance. The squadron policed itself. The CO brought the squadron officers sharply to the point of his requirements if any of them strayed from it. For the airmen and NCO's squadron discipline at first meant Sergeant Reilly, of the RAF. He took the morning working parades and detailed airmen for guards, and was not unpopular.
For the airman who wanted to get away from it all in the evenings, the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor had three public houses selling English beer in the leisured and comfortable English way. It took the Australians some time to like English beer, which they considered weak, but, after all beer is beer and they drank it. There were neighbouring farms and some 458 members got to know the farmers and their daughters. On the station itself there were members of a WAAF contingent. The village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor was the scene of one or two fracas involving the Australian ground staff personnel, and of course centring round one or other of the inns. There was, for instance, the affair of the missing goat's head. The stuffed head of a deceased and presumably prized goat was mounted on the wall of one pub. One evening when the bar was full of Australian fitters, someone turned the lights out and by the time they were turned on again someone else had removed the goat's head, which despite thorough searching by RAF police, was not located for return to its owners. In fact it was next seen by the public a year later in North Africa lying, no longer prized, with its nose in the desert sand outside someone's tent.
Before passing from the local scene some mention must be made of the uncanny virtuosity displayed by A. C. Staveley, a fitter from Western Australia, in biting pieces from beer glasses and swallowing them. This ability created considerable interest though it was perhaps less than popular with the innkeepers who may have preferred their glasses whole.
Leave was granted generously enough. Seven days each three months with forty-eight hours off in each of the intervening months was the standard allowance (apart from this of course the men worked a seven-day week). The RAF men went home for their leaves to their wives and parents in villages or in heavily bombed cities. The Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders went in the first place one and all to London. Subsequent leaves, according to individual likings, were spent in London, where there were various hostels and restaurants (such as the Boomerang Club at Australia House); in the private homes which offered hospitality to Dominion airmen; or perhaps in most cases, in exploring with some enterprise the British Isles and seeking out ancestral homes or relatives often in remote places. Many, being the sons of emigrants of the 20's, had relatives in Scotland, England and Ireland. 48-hour leaves could be spent in York, an attractive city or even in camp doing nothing in particular except rest.
By orders dated 14th February the squadron had been posted to the Middle East with instructions to ferry the aircraft out. Air Ministry reasons for the decision to move 458 Squadron to the Middle East, though not, of course, made available for general publication, must have had their basis in the famous and bold strategy of Winston Churchill's War Cabinet, which led to the heavy reinforcement of the Suez area at a time when the British Isles themselves were in imminent danger of invasion from Europe - Hitler's German Europe.
The technical difficulties of winter operations by Wellingtons from northern English airfields had, it is true, been rubbed into the Air Ministry by the weather; but if that were all, the squadron might have been posted farther south or re-equipped with the Stirlings, Halifaxes or Lancasters now coming from the factories. The useful purposes the long-range Wellington could achieve over Mediterranean waters were visualised, it seems, and 458 Squadron, with its Wellingtons joined the growing stream of military power mustering south of Europe's "soft underbelly".
A further factor which may have had some bearing on the matter was the heavy loss of aircraft in transit to the Middle East which Ferry Command was suffering at this time. Aircraft were being flown out by inexperienced crews direct from OTU's, and neither of the two routes to the Middle East - i.e, via Gibraltar and Malta or via Freetown and Takoradi - was escaping losses. The success of Air Ministry's decision to send out two operational squadrons (458 and 99) was to be demonstrated by the high proportion of aircraft they delivered in good condition to Middle East Command at a most critical time.Finally, during one of my trips to Holme-on-Spalding Moor, I found the former airbase enhanced by poppies, more associated with Flanders and the First World War, but very touching nonetheless: