Extract from "A HISTORY OF No.221 SQUADRON"
FORMATION AND TRAINING AT BIRCHAM NEWTON
December 1940 - March 1941
Towards the end of 1940, we faced a very serious crisis because German U-Boats and Long Range Focke-Wulf Aircraft were putting our shipping out of action faster than we were able to build replacements. Drastic action was necessary to avoid defeat. Coastal Command was, at that time, desperately short of aircraft, even to provide Convoy escorts let alone to undertake offensive operations. It was decided, therefore, that they should be reinforced with some newly formed squadrons at the expense of the other Royal Air Force Commands, and very high priority was given to all matters connected with this project. One of these squadrons was to be given Long Range Wellington Bomber aircraft, adapted for anti-submarine operations. This was allotted the number 221, which had been held by a RNAS - RAF Squadron that had been engaged on General Reconnaissance duties in the Aegean and Caspian Seas during the later part of the First World War.
No.221 Squadron officially came into being on 21st November 1940, at Bircham Newton, where it was to form and train. Coastal Command was as short of aerodromes as it was of aeroplanes in those days, so accommodation was hard to find. However, this was a pre-war station able to assist us considerably from the administrative aspect and a satellite airfield at Langham had just been opened up and was available for circuits and bumps. S/Ldr Tim Vickers, then on the Signals Staff at Coastal Command Headquarters, who had previously been in No. 3 Bomber Group and had a little experience of Wellingtons, was posted in as Squadron Leader Flying, and shortly afterwards was promoted to Wing Commander and appointed as the first C/O P/O Parr, also from Coastal Command HQ, came along as Squadron Adjutant, and the next to arrive was F/O. Stocker as Engineer Officer. The Records Office were instructed to man the Squadron completely by the end of the year and posted us in a number of airmen from Wellington Bomber Squadrons. The C/O paid them a personal visit to arrange for some good NCOs. This produced F/Sgts Williams, from an I.T.W. for disciplinarian duties, and Barrett, Abrahams, Wrench, Kitchen, Booth, Mill-ward, Page and other stalwarts who very soon began to get their sections properly organised There was plenty of work for everybody and no time to bind. It was quite clear from the start that we would be a happy unit and would do our job as well as anybody could.
On the aircrew side, Nos. 500 and 608 Squadrons were instructed to send us 10 Pilots and 10 W/Ops each. They sent us a number of auxiliary fellows who had got fed up with stooging round the East Coast Convoys in Ansons and welcomed a change to something more interesting. Now began an intensive drive to round up all the experienced and keen types who could be won from the jobs they were engaged upon. S/Ldr Monty Smith, who had served in the same Bomber Squadron with the C/O before the war, arrived to take over command of "A" Flight, and S/Ldr Ian Brolly, a flying boat pilot just home from Singapore, took "B" Flight. Eric Starling, Bliss, Tony Spooner, Sanderson, and later Ramsey and Lazell, were all ex-civvy pilots with considerable experience whom we were able to get hold of. F/Lts Pat Green and Cakebread were two other experienced pilots obtained. P/O Bannerman, who had been Gunnery Instructor in No. 10 (RAAF) Squadron during its early days, arrived as our Squadron Gunnery Leader. Only a small percentage of our 70 odd W/Op / A/Gs. had any previous operational experience, so Bannerman and W/O Page, on the Signals side, had a big job to organise and train them.
Some of our Navigators came from Blenheim Bomber Squadrons, with a good deal of flying experience, but none had any Long-Range overseas navigation training behind them. We were fortunate in obtaining F/Lt Clive Hullock, a navigation specialist, to take them in hand. Hardly any of our pilots were trained in General Reconnaissance work so all had a tremendous amount to learn apart from the actual conversion to a new type of aircraft. Among the Junior Pilots posted in were five on loan from the fleet Air Arm, three of who had never flown twins. An Anson was procured on which to start these off. We were eventually to receive new aircraft straight from the factory fitted with an entirely new device for detecting U-Boats, namely ASV In the meantime, we received a few Wellingtons from Bomber Training Units, which were in very poor condition and later were supplied with a full quota of Bomber Type Mark Ic aircraft. Some of these were new and all required a great deal of work on them to make them operational.
During December, January, February, the winter weather and shortage of aircraft prevented much flying, but a great deal of ground training, was completed and the aircrews began to emerge in their final composition. While at Bircham Newton, our NCOs. and airmen were accommodated at Heacham Hall, a large derelict country mansion, situated 10 miles away from the aerodrome. They were conveyed to and from work in very unreliable buses provided by a civilian contractor. It was not unusual for the entire Squadron to have to push these ancient vehicles a considerable distance on the cold winter mornings. Heacham Hall consisted of a large number of small rooms with no central heating and totally unguarded fireplaces. Twice we set the place on fire, and each time, by the Grace of God, the fire was put out without serious consequences. The only damage was to the Station Commander's dignity, and in this connection, we really had our own back because when we left, Station Headquarters personnel moved in, and within three weeks the place was burnt to the ground. The Station Commander, G/Capt Primrose, and his staff were extremely, helpful to us during the days of our early teething troubles, and we owe them a considerable debt in getting us organised as an independent unit in double quick time.
Our plan was for the individual aircrew members to train in "A" Flight and then go across into "B" Flight as complete crews, for advanced training which included simple Operational Flights. We relieved the Anson and Hudson Squadrons of escorting the East Coast Convoys, and on moonlight and anti-shipping patrols round the Dutch Coast. Our night flying training was carried out at Langham, where we had some bother with intruders. This airfield was right on the coast, easy to find and was the nearest one to Germany. Several aircraft were shot up in the circuit or when coming in to land, and we had the bad luck to lose one shot down in flames, in which two pilots and an A/G were killed. One important event during February was a visit to the Station by the Royal Family. The King personally inspected the Squadron, and showed great interest in our work.
Another highlight during this period was in answer to a panic call from HQ Coastal Command, when the "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" had broken out into the Atlantic and were expected to play merry hell with our shipping. Every available aircraft was wanted to look for them and we were asked at 10.30 on the morning of March 21st to get anything we could down to St. Eval. By mid-day our three most serviceable aircraft, with three scratch crews and some ground personnel, were on their way led by the C/O On arrival, we found St. Eval in a chaotic state, as aircraft were arriving from all over the country. Somehow we managed to procure petrol and vast quantities of oil (those training aircraft swallowed oil almost as fast as petrol) which was stowed in spare drums inside the fuselage, and got ourselves bombed up with 250 lb. SAP bombs! By four o'clock in the afternoon, we reported to the Operations Room ready for briefing. We were not sent out that evening owing to the onset of bad weather, and the German ships were sighted by a Hudson at last light as they were making for Brest. The next day, the panic was over as far as we were concerned and the party returned to Bircham Newton.
In March our new operational aircraft started to arrive from the Vickers factory at Weybridge, with whom we were in close liaison. ASV training was now possible and became first priority. F/O Anderson, a Canadian, had arrived as Squadron Radar Officer and soon made his enthusiasm felt. He was to become known to all and sundry as "Blip". Our Radar Mechanics had been sent on special maintenance courses at Messrs E. K. Cole's and great results were hoped for with the new weapon. Our training programme was completed just in time to prov4e crews to take over the new aircraft as they arrived from Weybridge and were prepared for operations by the Squadron. Some embarrassment was caused through the failure to allot away the aircraft we had used for training purposes and possibly an all time record for any one squadron was created in one daily "Mayfly" which reported us as holding a total of 42 Wellingtons and 1 Anson! In April we received orders to move to Limavady, Northern Ireland, to commence operations in earnest and "F" flight officially moved across in the middle of the month. The remainder of the Squadron stayed on at Bircham Newton for a little longer to complete individual crew training and get rid of the surplus aircraft. "A" Flight and Squadron Headquarters eventually moved to Limavady on May 2nd. In addition to our 24 new aircraft, we took with us three of our old aircraft to use for training purposes, as no other Wellington training unit had been organised as yet to provide replacement crews. It was evident that we should have to continue to do our own training, as well as operating against the enemy, for some time to come.
Just as we were moving the five Fleet Air Arm pilots were recalled to their own service after all of them had been trained up to the stage of being able to fly Wellingtons solo at night. This was a serious setback entailed re-crewing and meant a considerable waste of effort as far as we were concerned. P/O Bannerman was selected for trainer as an Armament Specialist and was replaced by F/O Spuli Squadron Gunnery Officer. By this time, we had got together a promising squadron football team led by F/Sgt Williams. We had also raised our own squadron dance band under P/O Freddy Green. While at Bircham Newton our advanced training had included over 150 operational sorties involving 750 flying hours, so already we had managed to make quite a useful contribution to the war effort.
MAY 1941 - SEPTEMBER 1941
DURING our first few weeks at Limavady we encountered extremely difficult conditions owing to the incomplete state of the aerodrome. On the airfield only the runways and perimeter track had been finished and work had not yet begun on technical buildings, while the domestic accommodation was less than half completed. A small number of temporary wooden huts were used for Flying Control and Operations Room Offices. One of these was obtained as Squadron Headquarters. A completely hare dispersal area was allotted to the Squadron in the middle of which there was a small Irish farm house anti out-buildings, which had just been requisitioned. The farmhouse was adapted to serve as flight offices and crew rooms while the pig sties and cow Sheds were eventually transformed into passable accommodation for the technical sections. Until the advent of summer weather, everywhere was a sea of mud and we were far from comfortable. However, everyone did his best and several issues of rum helped to restore morale. The Station was commanded by G/Capt Freddy Pearce, who had won for himself a great reputation as an operational squadron Commander, and he did everything in his power to help us.
Operating from such an aerodrome was extremely difficult since the ground which bounded the runways and perimeter track was too boggy to support the weight of an aircraft, so there were plenty of taxi-mg troubles. In addition there was an unpleasant little mountain right in the circuit, which later became known affectionately as Ben Twitch. Close co-operation with Flying Control and good local knowledge was essential if aircraft were to get down safely in bad weather. The runways were only 1,200 yards long and the old Wellingtons only just staggered off the ground at the end in near stalling condition. Operations consisted of anti-submarine sweeps and providing escort to the North Atlantic convoys. We suffered a very early setback when P/O Catley failed to make a proper descent through cloud over Loch Foyle and crashed into the hills in Donegal. The entire crew lost their lives. Another disaster occurred when F/O Jimmy Robinson and his crew were lost in a crash shortly after taking off one night. It is believed that he ran into a line squall and temporarily lost control of the heavily loaded aircraft, which crashed and exploded, with the loss of the entire crew. To offset these troubles we began to find occasional U-boats, which were attacked with varying degrees of success.
Close liaison was obtained with the Naval Escort Groups based at Londonderry, and they provided us with a submarine for intensive practice attacks. Trials were also carried out with an experimental aircraft fitted with the first Leigh Light, F/O Bliss and his crew being detailed for this purpose. This crew was eventually absorbed into the Coastal Command Development Unit, but it is worth recording that the early trials were made in 221 Squadron of this device which had such far-reaching effects when it was introduced operationally later on. The Squadron was asked to provide two crews to be transferred to the newly formed 120 Squadron which was being equipped with Liberators. F/Os Jimmy Proctor and Jimmy Ray and crews were selected and transferred. Jimmy Ray and his crew were killed in a crash early on in their training on Liberators by hitting a piece of solid cloud in Scotland. Jimmy Proctor joined up with us again later as a member of an attached flight of Liberators in the Western Desert.
In June, the Squadron was instructed to detach six aircraft to St. Eval in accordance with plans to try and intercept U-Boats proceeding to and from bases in the Bay of Biscay. Very few U-Boats were sighted on operations from Limavady at this time, since they were intercepting convoys beyond our radius of action. Accordingly, the instructions were interpreted to mean maintaining six serviceable aircraft at St. Eval and the whole of A Flight was transferred! Our patrols from here met with greater success and quite a number of sightings and attacks were made. F/O Watson and his crew first found, then lost, and subsequently regained contact and attacked a U-boat entirely with the aid of ASV This is believed to have been the first action on which ASV was used to such good purpose. Patrols in the Bay of Biscay often encountered enemy aircraft, and several inconclusive combats took place. F/O Sanderson was shot down just south of the Scilly Isles, and F/Lt Cakebread failed to return from a patrol. At about this time P/O Johnson, a 608 Squadron Sergeant Pilot, who had just won his commission, failed to return off patrol to Limavady. It is possible that he was intercepted by a Focke-Wulf Kurrier.
Replacing the crews we lost on operations and on postings involved continuous training at Limavady until a Wellington training unit was formed at Silloth, to which we had to send P/O Jack Hoskins, an old 500 Squadron Sergeant Pilot who had just got his commission, to act as senior instructor. In July and August we also sent several detachments to operate from Iceland when important convoys were passing through within our radius of action from Reykjavik. One combined sweep by aircraft of 221 and 502 Squadrons from Limavady and Iceland resulted in at least three U-boat sightings and attacks. In this action F/O. Blip Anderson was flying with F/Lt. Pat Green and himself picked up a U-boat on the ASV, which was considered a most popular and successful effort by the Squadron Radar Officer. Following on trials made by the C/O in an Anson at TRE Hum, of blind bombing with automatic release equipment, we were ordered to detach a crew to carry out operational trials of this equipment in a Wellington. F/Lt Lazell and crew were detailed for these duties and, as in the ease of Bliss, they were eventually absorbed into the CCDU Subsequently F/Lt. Lazell returned to duties with BOAC, while P/O Job became captain of the crew and they were lost over the Dutch Coast on the first patrol which the equipment was tried out operationally.
In each of the months of June, July and August, the Squadron put in more flying hours than any other in Coastal Command. We also had the lowest accident rate per 1,000 flying hours, while putting in about 1,000 hours on operations and 250 hours training flying each month. The secret here lay in the close co-operation we had with the Vickers factory at Weybridge, who gave us a representative to remain permanently with the Squadron. Whenever an aircraft suffered minor damage which required repair by contract with the manufacturers, this good friend included in the list of spare parts he required, all the bits and pieces we needed to keep our other aircraft serviceable. We thus bye-passed the service maintenance organisation, which was far too slow in providing us with spares. In September, W/Cdr. Vickers was ordered back to Signals Specialist duties and W/Cdr Murdoch, RAAF, seconded temporarily to the RAF to obtain operational experience, assumed command of the Squadron. Almost immediately afterwards, we were ordered to cease flying from Limavady and St. Eval and prepare to move to Reykjavik. At the same time, we were ordered to select three crews to be posted to Malta. F/Lt Milton, F/O Watson and F/O Tony Spooner and crews were selected to go and show the boys what ASV could do in the Mediterranean. Tony Spooner subsequently won the DSO and DFC and it is clear that the party did not let us down.
By this time, the Squadron had won a good name for itself in Coastal Command, having sighted an attacked 16 U-Boats and having earned a special commendation from the AOC in C. for the amount of flying hours and the low accident rate previously mentioned. Conditions had by now greatly improved at Limavady and we were well dug in there. Strenuous efforts were made to persuade the powers that be to allow the Squadron to remain based here, where good aircraft maintenance facilities had been created, and work as a detachment from Iceland. However, our protests were unanswered and so began the first of the moves with which we later became so familiar.
To read the rest of the history, visit the 221 Squadron Home Page at www.geocities.com/Athens/Agora/9349/