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Tag Archives: Aviation

  • Shropshire Airfields Through Time by Alec Brew

    Wander nowadays down many Shropshire country lanes near small villages like Atcham, Condover, Montford Bridge or Rednal, and you will come across silent, sightless sentinels, looking out across empty fields of corn or cows, derelict control towers watching over long forgotten airfields. High above, only soaring skylarks can be heard, where once aircraft engines filled the heavens with noise, as young men from across the World learned the necessary skills to fight the aerial battles of the Second World War.

    The Spitfires moved south in August and were replaced by the Lockheed Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group, who flew their aircraft from California. An RAF officer greets one of the pilots. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When war clouds loomed in the late Thirties, the adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire were seen as the ideal place to site the training airfields which would be needed for an expanding air force, thought to be far enough away from Europe to be out of range of the Luftwaffe. Shropshire alone had nearly twenty airfields across its Northern plain, two of them, at Shawbury and Tern Hill, reviving First World War airfields, which had served the same function. Suddenly the skies over Shropshire were filled with aircraft, the circuits at many airfields almost touching.

    There was basic training from RAF Tern Hill, advanced training from RAF Shawbury, Bomber Operational Training Units (OTUs) at Tilstock, Sleap and Peplow, a fighter OTU at Rednal and Montford Bridge, the Fleet Air Arm used an airfield at Hinstock which they called HMS Godwit, about as far from the sea as a godwit could fly. Even the Americans came, operating a Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Atcham, and when their P.47 Thunderbolts chanced upon the Spitfires from Rednal, could they resist a mock dogfight?

    Other combats were far from mock. Night fighters operated from High Ercall and Tern Hill, stalking the Germans who came to bomb the North-West or the Black Country. Bomber OTUs joined raids on Europe, new crews testing their skills.

    Even in training accidents were many, young men let loose on powerful machines, always a recipe for disaster, and especially with the Shropshire and Welsh hills close at hand. The Americans at Atcham had a favourite sport, chock to chock races in their powerful Thunderbolts, all around the Wrekin, which loomed large just to the south. Such was its peril that they placed a warning beacon on the top, with the on/off switch in Atcham control tower, turning it off when Germans were about. After the War, when Atcham closed, the switch was moved to High Ercall, and now resides in the tower at RAF Shawbury.

    This photograph has always been attributed to Tern Hill, but shows 1456 Flight Turbinlite aircraft. In the foreground is a Handley Page Harrow transport ‘Boadicea’, sometimes called a ‘Sparrow’ without the front turret. Behind is an Airspeed Oxford of No. 286 Army Co-operation Squadron, a Havoc and two black Hurricanes of 1456 Flight. The Pontoon and Dock Company, currently make Marina equipment in this Type K hangar on No. 2 Sub Site. High Ercall has a total of three Type K hangars. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When the invasion of Europe loomed, assault gliders were assembled at RAF Cosford, and glider pilots trained at Tilstock, Peplow and Sleap, and then they went away to carry the fight to Normandy fields.

    At the end of the War the cut back was swift, airfields soon closed, those at High Ercall and Tern Hill lasting longer than most. RAF Shawbury remains today training the helicopter pilots for all three services, including, in its time, two young princes. Its runway remains a safe haven for aircraft in difficulty, in an area of the country where few remain. RAF Cosford remains the sole training base for ground based trades, and the home of the RAF’s only surviving annual Air Show. Tern Hill was turned over to the Army but the helicopters from Shawbury visit often. Sleap became Shropshire’s main general aviation airfield, and up on the Long Mynd, the one airfield closed during the War, has thrived since, as the home of the Midland Gliding Club. One other airfield is a surprising survivor, little RAF Chetwynd, a neat grass field lost down the lanes north of Newport, continues to serve as an extra landing field as it has for over 75 years, currently for the helicopters from Shawbury.

    Hopefully my book makes sense of what once was there, and what little still remains, those silent sentinels, the old control towers, those small industrial estates in surprisingly rural places, built on the old technical sites like Condover, Hinstock, Atcham or Rednal, those derelict Romney or Maycrete huts in farmyards or woods. Unsung memorials to a generation of young men now disappearing as they are reclaimed by Nature and the march of time.

    Alec Brew's book Shropshire Airfields Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • Through Adversity - 'Lives of Three Operational Pilots' by Alastair Goodrum

    The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots

    My seventh and latest book tells the stories of three pilots from widely differing places: Lincolnshire, Warwickshire and South Africa, and social backgrounds: sons of a country JP, a market gardener and a vet. They are typical of the composition of the RAF and their individual military careers link to present day in a dramatic perspective of the period from the fragile biplane-age when the Royal Flying Corps/ Royal Naval Air Service (RFC/RNAS) was created in April 1912, through the First World War, Inter-war, Second World War and up to the strategic, atomic-age jets of the RAF V-Bomber force, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. One introduced air reconnaissance in BE2s over the battlefields of France; another flew Hurricanes and Spitfires in combat; while the fourth tested and introduced air-to-air refuelling for Valiant bombers that gave the RAF V-Force its global capability.

    BE 2a '272' was first allocated to No. 3 Squadron at Larkhill in March 1913 then passed to No. 2 Squadron at Montrose in May 1913, where it took part in the squadron deployment to Ireland. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Major Leonard Dawes learned to fly at his own expense in 1912, gaining Royal Aeronautical Club (RAeC) pilot certificate number 228, on a Bristol Boxkite, marking him as one of the very earliest 'fledgling' airmen. He joined the Royal Flying Corps's (RFC) first aeroplane squadron (No.2) in whose frail BE2 biplanes he made many ground-breaking long-distance flights throughout England, Scotland and Ireland before the outbreak of the First World War. He attended the embryo Central Flying School, training alongside airmen - including Hugh Trenchard and other famous names in aviation – many of whom established the formative organisation and traditions of the RAF and went on to occupy its highest echelons.  Leonard flew his aircraft to France as part of the first RFC operational deployment to the battlefront upon outbreak of war in August 1914. Having been in some of the very first air-to-air combats - firing rifles and pistols at equally primitive German aircraft; decorated by the British and French governments while flying some of the first air reconnaissance patrols of the First World War; because of his experience, Leonard was posted back to England in 1915 to raise new squadrons and prepare them for battle over the Western Front. In the course of this training phase, he became associated with several squadrons that still exist today in the RAF, such as No.2 Squadron (Leonard's own first squadron; now flying Typhoons) and No.29 Squadron (He was its first CO; Typhoons).

    Ex-Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane I, R4118 in the markings of 605 Squadron. Wg Cdr Dickie Barwell flew Hurricane R4115 with 242 Squadron, as wingman to Sqn Ldr Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain. (Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Gp Capt Dickie Barwell volunteered and learned to fly with the RAF in 1926.  He became the youngest Group Captain when in 1942 he took charge of Biggin Hill, the RAF's most famous fighter airfield, at a crucial period of the air battles of the Second World War. Having been schooled in the unique, traditional inter-war method of on-squadron flying training, his exceptional flying skill was quickly recognised and he was sent to the Central Flying School, first as a student for Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). When later called back to join its staff, Barwell became a member of the crack CFS Air Display team at the RAF Hendon Pageants.  After further training as an aero engineer, he returned to flying duties in the 1930s, rose to command No.46 Squadron, the fighter squadron he had joined as a novice in 1926. When the Second World War began in September 1939, he gained fame and a DFC as the victor of the Battle of Spurn Point, the first major air battle of the Second World War, fought off the east coast of England in October 1939. With his skills and experience, Dickie was earmarked for high rank and promoted to command RAF Sutton Bridge and after a spell at No.12 Group Fighter HQ, became station commander of RAF Biggin Hill. Always keen to get a slice of the action and see how his subordinates did their work, he flew combat sorties in the Battle of Britain as wingman to the legendary Douglas Bader and even as a station commander, flew on highly demanding fighter 'sweeps' over France in 1941/42, during which he was always in the thick of the action and credited with shooting down enemy aircraft. It was a sad end to his brilliant career when he was himself shot down and killed in 1942 by a novice Spitfire pilot in a tragic case of 'friendly fire'.

    Brian Fern in Vickers Valiant WZ376 refuels Avro Vulcan ZX478, 1959. (c. Brian Fern Collection, Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots, Amberley Publishing)

    Born in Mafeking, South Africa and educated in England, Sqn Ldr Brian Fern joined the RAF and learned to fly at the British Flying Training School in Ponca City, Oklahoma, USA during 1942. Returning to England, he was selected for training at the Central Flying School (CFS) to became a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) for multi-engine aircraft, after which he trained hundreds of other pilots destined for Bomber Command during the Second World War. Made redundant from the RAF - like thousands of his contemporaries - at the end of the war, he joined the Tanganyikan Police Force for five years but with the advent of the Cold War, Berlin Air Lift, and Korean War, the RAF found itself very short of aircrew and mounted an advertising campaign for recruits. Out in Africa, Brian responded and with his past experience, was gratefully accepted by the RAF, eventually becoming operational on the Canberra and Valiant bombers at the height of the Cold War. Having served as aircraft captain of a Valiant bomber he was deployed frequently to distant parts of the British Empire. When the RAF decided it should become a global-reach, nuclear-equipped, jet-bomber force it required a new approach to the question of in-flight refuelling in order to achieve this strategic aim. As a Flight Commander of 214 Squadron, at this point Brian became one of the earliest exponents of air-to-air refuelling operations in the RAF's new V-bomber force, carrying out lengthy operational trials with the Valiant as a flying tanker, including claiming its first long-distance flying record. He later trained Valiant and Vulcan pilots how to re-fuel in the air, a technique vital, not only to the strategic aims of the RAF, but also to the many record-breaking long-distance flights made in that era to all corners of the Commonwealth. Brian ended his RAF career as deputy station commander of RAF Gatow in Berlin where, among his diplomatic duties, he carried out spying sorties, for BRIXMIS, at the controls of the innocuous DH Chipmunk trainer aircraft flying at low level over East German territory in the Berlin Corridor.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book Through Adversity: The Story of Life in the RFC and RAF Through Three Operational Pilots is available for purchase now.

  • West of England Emergency Service Vehicles by Dave Boulter

    I have always had a strong interest in all three emergency services as well as the RNLI. I served for almost 30 years as a police officer, retiring at the end of 1996 as a chief superintendent (divisional commander) with the Ministry of Defence Police (MDP), my early police service being ten years with Somerset & Bath which amalgamated to become Avon & Somerset Constabulary. After eight years serving in uniform and plain clothes in Weston-super-Mare, followed by two years as a detective sergeant on the Regional Crime Squad, I transferred in 1978 to become a detective inspector with the MDP.

    Wiltshire's air ambulance is Helimed 22, registration G-WLTS, a Bell 429 with a top speed of 178 mph. (West of England Emergency Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

    My retirement present at the end of 1996 from MDP colleagues was a decent camera and it was then that I made the decision to record the street view of emergency service vehicles in use in London and Bristol so that a record of the vehicles mainly captured on the move in their working environment could exist for any grandchildren I might eventually have. (They now total seven with very little interest at this stage of their lives in their grandfather’s archive!)

    I do stress it has never been to impose on anyone’s grief, dignity or privacy, my photographic interest being confined to the vehicles themselves. The only licence I did give myself was to broaden the term ‘vehicle’ to include police and ambulance helicopters, marine police vessels, mounted and dog sections. Undercover and plain clothes department vehicles are not subject of my photographic interest, security considerations and the safety of the officers involved being paramount.

     

     

    The other very strict rules I have are:

    1. To ask permission where possible to photograph even in a public street although I accept this is often not practical given my style of photography.
    2. Never to use flash photography, not even at night. It is vital drivers are not distracted.
    3. To be as discreet as possible so as not to become a nuisance to anybody.
    4. To be mindful of my own personal security, especially at my age carrying photographic equipment.
    5. As often as circumstances allow thanking the emergency crews regardless of which service they represent for the work they do. I have always found this simple, heartfelt gesture greatly appreciated by them.
    MAN aerial ladder platform appliances. (West of England Emergency Service Vehicles, Amberley Publishing)

    Looking back, I wish I knew then what I know now as it was never my intention to write a book in those early days, merely to keep a video and 35mm still print record. Successive house moves resulted in loss, damage and destruction to parts of my collection, subsequently not aided in my early computer days by programmes crashing and material disappearing for evermore. Then the digital era arrived and presented all manner of opportunity for the non-professional like me to experiment with basic tasks such as cropping the image. Unfortunately my endeavours ruined many a good shot as I was to later find them unsuitable for a publisher’s technical requirements! However, if you love a subject you persist, undaunted by failures from the past or what could have been if only more care had been taken by me with the original material. But we all learn - and as the years advance the rule holds just as good in my 70s as it did when I was a younger man.

    Thus, with the encouragement and advice from my commissioning editor, Connor Stait - to whom I will always be grateful - I persisted, embarking on a very steep learning curve involving much burning of the midnight oil. As a result, and thanks to my wife Margaret’s help behind the camera, London’s Emergency Service Vehicles and West of England Emergency Service Vehicles, published in 2017 and 2019 respectively, enable a record to be exist thereby allowing future generations to look back on the current scene. With pride in helping others, particularly the younger generation, have a greater appreciation of their emergency services in these modern times, I regard my books as the “The Future History, Today.”

     

    Dave Boulter's new book West of England Emergency Service Vehicles and previous book London's Emergency Service Vehicles are available for purchase now.

  • School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain by Alastair Goodrum

    My latest book, School of Aces (Amberley; 2019), tells the story of how RAF Fighter Command prepared for battle. It takes an in-depth view of the creation and development of its premier fighter pilot and air gunnery school, located at RAF Sutton Bridge. This station is where, for example, the RAF prepared for the air Battles of France and Britain, a decade before they were actually fought. The story that unfolds throughout my book is nothing, of course, without the pilots themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? These are a few of the questions the book addresses. It is interesting to discover, too, that by the time the Second World War was into its stride, RAF Sutton Bridge was training pilots of every nationality that served in the RAF. This first blog post uses the story of nineteen-year old Plt Off Denis Wissler, from Greenwich, England, to illustrate just what these young men – fresh from No.6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge – were asked to do.

    Plt Off Denis Wissler Hurricane 1940. (School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Together with sixteen companions, Denis learned to fly the Hawker Hurricane on the first course run at RAF Sutton Bridge. That course lasted six weeks but the deteriorating situation in France cut subsequent courses to a mere three weeks duration. Denis was posted to 85 Squadron on Lille-Seclin airfield in France on 27 April 1940 but, recognising his lack of experience, his CO, Sqn Ldr John Oliver, ordered him to fly only to get himself accustomed to the local area. The CO considered there was no pressing need at the moment for Wissler to go on operational patrols and he would be much better occupied putting in some more hours on the Hurricane; familiarising himself with squadron routine and generally making himself useful on the ground.

     

     

     

    Plt Pff Denis Wissler, 17 Sqn, 1970. (Courtesy B. B. M. London, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When the Germans rolled into France on the morning of 10 May 1940, Seclin was bombed, causing many casualties on the ground but fortunately most of the pilots were already in the air on patrol. Left behind, Denis Wissler literally had to run for his life for a slit trench when the bombing started and soon found out what war looked like when he helped to rescue the casualties afterwards. With mounting pilot casualties, too, his CO had no option but to commit Plt Off Wissler to combat operations and Denis took his place alongside his comrades in the air – and managed to survive. During his first patrol on 12 May, Denis became separated from his flight and got lost. Landing on what – fortunately – turned out to be a French Air Force aerodrome he had to ask for directions back to his own base. No sooner had he returned than he was airborne again for another patrol. That night Denis wrote in his diary: ‘I now have had just six hours sleep in the last forty-eight hours and have not washed for over thirty-six hours. My God, I’m so tired, and I am up again at 3 am tomorrow.’ Next day, 13th, he was indeed up at the crack of dawn for a patrol from which he returned safely. His second sortie of the day was part of a flight led by Sqn Ldr Oliver. They were jumped by enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and John Oliver was shot down. Denis Wissler made a bee-line for the cover of clouds and emerging cautiously, found himself alone and unsure of his whereabouts – again. Landing on another French airfield, this time Cambrai, it was pointed out to him that his Hurricane was leaking oil badly. For once, he was able to sleep soundly in the French officers’ mess while RAF ground-crew were sent to fix his aeroplane. Just four days had elapsed in which Denis had to try to learn to do all the things needed to simply get himself airborne from a bombed airfield; fly his Hurricane in combat; avoid being shot down and – as if that wasn't enough – then find home when he had spent most of his time pulling such tight turns that he hardly knew which way was up. Tired he was – weren’t they all? – but he survived until the squadron was withdrawn to England (RAF Debden) on 22 May. But Denis was not quite done with France yet. At Debden he was posted to 17 Squadron on 8 June and it was still operating in France, covering the British withdrawal while flying from Le Mans airfield. He flew out to join the squadron on 9 June and survived the final days of the RAF campaign in France, finally withdrawing via Dinard and Jersey once more to Debden airfield on 19 June.

    Hurricane Is of 111 Squadron up from Northolt, in July 1938. (Courtesy ww2images.com, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Denis Wissler remained with 17 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, scoring his first success on 29 July when he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111 bomber. By September he was now considered an experienced fighter pilot but, in combat with Bf 109s over the Thames estuary on 24 September, after shooting at one ’109, he went for a gaggle of four more and in the ensuing scrap, his Hurricane took a cannon shell hit in the port wing. The explosion damaged the flaps on that side and a shell fragment wounded him in the left arm. Denis dived hard to escape the fight and flew back to Debden where he made a flap-less landing. His Hurricane ran into a pile of rubble which added to his woes by causing cuts and bruises to his face. After a couple of weeks in Saffron Walden hospital he returned to flying duties on 10 October. It was in the closing stage of the Battle of Britain, when 17 Squadron moved to RAF Martlesham Heath, that Fate finally caught up with Denis. On 11 November 1940, while leading a section of his squadron into action, he was shot down and posted as missing in action during an engagement off the Essex coast near Burnham-on-Crouch.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Boulton Paul Defiant by Alec Brew

    The Myths of the Boulton Paul Defiant

    The aircraft most associated with Wolverhampton’s Boulton Paul Aircraft Ltd, and the Black Country’s highest profile contribution to the Second World War, was the Defiant turret fighter. It fought over the beaches of Dunkirk, two squadrons fought in the Battle of Britain, and then, during the dark nights of the Blitz, it was our most effective night fighter, seven Defiant squadrons operating against the German raiders using its unusual characteristics.

    A rare photograph of the Defiant prototype, K8310, in the air, fitted with the turret and other modifications, including a tailwheel and ejector exhausts, but as yet without guns. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The Defiant was built to an official requirement for a fighter with all its guns concentrated in a power-operated turret. In the belief that bomber formations could only be broken up by fighters attacking in squadron strength, with pilots maintaining formation and gunners aiming the guns in their power operated turret. This theory had been around since the First World War, but finally came to fruition in the form of an official requirement in the mid Thirties, as bombers were becoming all metal, and much faster.

    The Defiant was born in Norwich, where the Aircraft Department of the firm of Boulton & Paul Ltd had existed since 1915. It had recently been sold off and was having a new factory built alongside Wolverhampton’s new Municipal Airport at Pendeford. The prototype was started at Norwich but its first flight was at Pendeford in August 1937, and a total of 1062 were to be built there.

    The first squadron of Defiants, No.264, went to War over Holland as the Germans invaded but it was over the beaches of Dunkirk that it had its greatest day. In two sorties over the Channel No.264 claimed 37 German aircraft shot down, for no loss of their own. The first of the myths surrounding the Defiant was created that day. It was said that the Germans mistook them for Hurricanes, attacked from the rear and were shot from the sky by the concentrated fire of 12 four-gun turrets. This hardly stands up to a second’s scrutiny, the majority of the German aircraft claimed were bombers, it was the Defiants doing the attacking. When they were attacked by Messerschmidts No.264 they adopted their practiced tactic of a defensive circle or spiral, and it didn’t matter from which direction the Germans attacked, they were met with defensive fire. These were tactics they successfully used on several other occasions over the Channel.

    A flight led by No. 264's CO, Squadron Leader Philip Hunter, which undertook the first patrol over the Netherlands together with six Spitfires of No. 66 Squadron. Between them they shot down a Junkers Ju.88. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    The CO of No.264 was careful to explain these tactics to the second Defiant Squadron, No.141, which joined the fight over the Channel on 19th July 1940. A patrol of nine Defiants was attacked by superior numbers of Messerschmidts and was decimated, six of them shot down, another written off and ten aircrew killed. The myth arose that the Defiant was a sitting duck against single seat fighters. The truth is that No.141 did not adopt No.264’s successful tactics, but continued to fly straight and level, and the Germans, who recognised the Defiants, took advantage. Even so the heavily outnumbered Defiants claimed four of the 109s in return.

    Nevertheless the panic button was hit at Fighter Command, and No.264 Squadron who were actually in the air at the time, were ordered back to the ground. No.141 was taken out of the Battle to lick its wounds and re-equip. No.264 eventually re-joined the fight, and had many more successful days of daylight fighting. I have interviewed many Defiant aircrew from No.264, and to many they believed they could hold their own in daytime battles and did not have a bad word to say about the aircraft. It is apparently true that whenever members of the two squadrons met in bars there was trouble, because No.264 blamed No.141 for the Defiants soiled reputation.

    The next myth now arose, that because the Defiants were failures during the day, they were relegated to night fighting. The truth is that, as the nights lengthened during the Autumn of 1940, the Germans increasingly attacked at night in what has been termed the Blitz, the front line was now at night, and the Defiants which had been designed as day or night fighters from the beginning, were the best available. They were faster than the clumsy twin-engined Blenheims, and in the days before radar they had the advantage over single-seaters of two pairs of eyes. In addition their very configuration enabled them to attack unsuspecting German bombers from below, silhouetted against the stars, and their gunners were often able to carefully aim for one engine or the other from very short range.

    Early production Defiants with 'L' serial numbers, that on the right being L7009, which was to be shot down on No. 141 Squadron's sole daylight operation. (Boulton Paul Defiant, Amberley Publishing)

    Seven squadrons of Defiants fought through the Winter of 1940/41, and then through the second Winter of the War, by which time twin engined heavier-armed, radar equipped fighters, like the Beaufighter and Mosquito, were becoming available. At the Wolverhampton factory, Boulton Paul workers would pin newspaper articles about Defiant successes on the noticeboard, with the words ‘Our Work’ scrawled across them.

    Even when they were withdrawn from night fighting the Defiants found new frontline roles. They equipped five air sea rescue squadrons looking for downed airmen all around the coast, and often having to defend themselves over the contested waters of the Channel and the North Sea. One unit of Defiants also equipped the World’s first electronic countermeasures squadron, No.515, jamming and spoofing German radar.

    When even these roles were taken by newer aircraft, the Defiant still had an important role to play as a target tug, towing targets for ground and air gunners in theatres right across the World, from India to the West Indies. The Defiant served right through the War and is rightly revered by the people who built them, men and women.

    At Wolverhampton’s Tettenhall Transport Heritage Centre, which has a display about the Defiant, including a restored cockpit, volunteers still have to defend the aircraft when visitors repeat the myths that beset it. They can now point to Amberley’s illustrated history of the aircraft to back them up.

    Alec Brew's new book Boulton Paul Defiant is available for purchase now.

  • The F-14 Tomcat by Terry C. Treadwell

    My interest in aviation started when I was in the Royal Air Force and has continued unabated over the years. Some years ago I became the European Correspondent of Naval Aviation News, which is the official aviation magazine of the US Navy, giving me access to a great amount of material regarding American Naval aircraft. This allowed me to write about the various aircraft in the US Navy and I have written a number of books on these subjects. A few years later I also became the European Correspondent for a magazine called ‘Wings of Gold’, a magazine aimed predominantly at the US Navy and Marine Corps aviation, this gave me access to even more material.

    An excellent shot of an F-14 with its wings swept back. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    In the 1930s the Grumman Corporation became the main supplier of aircraft to the US Navy and Marine Corps and the F-14 Tomcat was just one of a series of Grumman aircraft that were acquired by them. Throughout the Second World War the name Grumman became synonymous with US Naval aircraft and acquired the name ‘Ironworks’ because of their aircrafts rugged construction. Almost all the aircraft had ‘cat’ names, like the Wildcat, Hellcat, Tigercat and Bearcat. The Tomcat however was unofficially named (but widely accepted) after Vice-Admiral Thomas (Tom) F. Connolly championed the development of the aircraft for the US Navy at the cost of his fourth star. The full bitter story of this is in my book the F-14 Tomcat. The Tomcat was regarded by many as being the most lethal attack aircraft in the world at the time and was involved a number of conflicts.

    An F-14D Tomcat taxiing along the perimeter track at NAS Oceana. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)
    F-14s being lined up for launch. (The F-14 Tomcat, Amberley Publishing)

    A number of F-14 Tomcats were sold to the Shah of Persia and in the book there are several unique photographs of the aircraft in Iranian colours and markings. However the Shah was deposed just after the delivery of the aircraft leaving the F-14 in Iran with no spares. The result was that within months they had to cannibalise all but two of the aircraft to keep them flying and even they were grounded within six months because of engineering problems.

    The history of naval aviation is extremely interesting, as it shows not only the development of the aircraft but also the aircraft carrier. It all started using converted cargo ships and warships and developed quite rapidly because of conflicts and wars.  The first carrier landings and take-offs were carried out by a civilian pilot, Eugene Ely in 1910 aboard the USS Birmingham. During the war against Mexico, seaplanes were carried aboard the USS Birmingham and were lowered into the water by crane. It was during the battle for Veracruz that a seaplane on patrol became the first American navy aircraft to be hit by gunfire and to sustain battle damage.

    Early aircraft carriers carried a complement of about fifty aircraft, today’s aircraft carriers like the USS George W. Bush, carries ninety-six aircraft and an array of weapons some nuclear. The development of the angled deck and the ski jump (both British innovations), enabled fast jets to be launched within minutes of each other.

    Amberley Publishing have produced a number of books on aircraft, all of which are of an equally high standard and extremely informative to the layperson without being too technical.  As the years progress so will aviation, but with drones becoming more and more sophisticated who knows what the future holds, but then that’s another story.

     

    Terry C. Treadwell's new book The F-14 Tomcat is available for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Leader: Robert Bungey DFC by Dennis Newton

    Tragic Battle of Britain Hero

    When you visit the Australian War Memorial in Canberra you can find Robert Wilton Bungey’s name low down on Panel 114 in the Commemorative Area. It is shown as ‘BUNGEY R. W.’ under the heading ‘PERSONNEL UNITS’.

    Robert Bungey DFC wearing his 'wings' and his RAF uniform. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Ask about him at the entry desk and you will find out that Bob Bungey was in the Royal Australian Air Force, that his service number was 257414, his unit was No.4 Embarkation Depot Adelaide, and that he was a squadron leader. You will learn that he died on 10 June 1943 and you will be informed that his death was ‘accidental’. And that is about all.

    But, that is not all – not by a long shot! There is so much more to Bob Bungey and his story than just that.

    Nothing informs you that Bob Bungey also had another service number, 40042, a Royal Air Force number, and that he was a wing commander who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Robert Bungey's name displayed at the Australian War Memorial. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Nothing tells you that he was a Fairey Battle light bomber pilot flying operations along the German/French border from the very first month of the Second World War and that he survived the overwhelming German onslaught through France in the desperate days of May and June 1940.

    Nothing tells you that he volunteered to fly fighters and that he was lucky to survive when he had to ditch his shot up Hurricane. Bob Bungey’s name is not only found in the Australian War Memorial, it can also be found on memorials throughout Britain – those commemorating the Battle of Britain - and over the years it has cropped up in many publications.

    Nothing informs you that he was the very first Australian to command the very first Australian Spitfire squadron, No.452 RAAF. Nothing lets you know that this squadron achieved the pinnacle of its achievements under his leadership, and at times he successfully led an entire Spitfire wing on operations over the Continent.

    Spitfire P7973 on display in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra during the 1960s. (c. Dennis Newton & Richard Bungey, Spitfire Leader, Amberley Publishing)

    Nothing informs you that he was one of the few pilots who actually flew the Spitfire which is on display in the Australian War Memorial.

    Nothing tells you of his role in the RAF’s fledgling Air/Sea Rescue Service while in command of a ‘front line’ airfield just across the Channel from the enemy, and nothing tells you of his connection with Britain’s Combined Operations Command.

    Nothing reveals the tragic circumstances of his homecoming after more than three years of ‘front line’ service. What happened in Adelaide on 10 June 1943 was not an accident – but what followed afterwards was a miracle.

    None of these things will be revealed when you ask at the desk.

    Now at last, for the very first time, Bob Bungey’s story is finally told in full in Spitfire Leader by myself, Dennis Newton, and Richard Bungey, Bob’s son.

    Dennis Newton and Richard Bungey's new book Spitfire Leader: Robert Bungey DFC, Tragic Battle of Britain Hero is available for purchase now.

  • US Air Force Bases in the UK by Paul Bingley

    When it was suggested that I write a book about US Air Force bases in the UK, I jumped at the chance. After all, as the chairman of a museum dedicated to one base in particular, I knew I had a solid foundation on which to build. Shortly afterwards, though, I began to wonder if I had the tools for the job.

    The 'Stars and Stripes' are raised at RAF Burtonwood on 22 October 1943. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    My first task was to determine exactly how many US Air Force (USAF) bases there had been. This was no easy task, especially considering that the USAF and its antecedents – the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces – had been in the UK since 1942. After some time, I concluded that there had been approximately 186 airfields used by the Americans at one time or another. This was not counting those that were allocated to them by the British and never actually used (probably another 40 or so); nor their support and non-flying facilities, which numbered around 300. Even a lengthy USAF report compiled in 1985 failed to fully determine the actual number of wartime American installations in the UK. So how to write about such a huge, undefined subject with a limited word count? My foundations were looking decidedly weak.

    With so many disused bases around the country, it would have been easy just to list each one and give a brief description of its current condition. However, for a reader with scant knowledge of the story behind the USAF’s presence in the UK, it would have failed to answer two very important questions: why was a particular airfield given over to the Americans, and why was it built where it was?

    A Douglas C-54 Skymaster lifts off from RAF Prestwick loaded with wounded GIs bound for the US. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    The most logical way of answering these questions was to build a chronological picture of airfield construction and use. Starting with the earliest American air force arrivals (but always bearing in mind those airfields that are still in use with today’s USAF), I began compiling a timeline of events running from January 1939 to the present day. Using this as the basis for a narrative, I then decided to ‘thread’ the story of present-day USAF facilities throughout, whilst highlighting other wartime airfields that had either continued to be used by the USAF post-war, or had particularly interesting back stories, i.e. emergency and advanced landing grounds, and those built by the Americans themselves.

    It must be said that my research was the easy part. Having a passion for a subject that I had a basic knowledge of meant that I knew roughly where to look. Putting it into words, however, was much more difficult. Using the timeline as my guide, I quickly realised that the restricted word count would mean that I could only focus on a limited number of bases. As a result, I decided to select 50 airfields and other facilities, including those still in use today. But this presented me with another challenge.

    The scale of RAF Burtonwood can be seen from this aerial image taken in August 1945. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the writing process, I was mindful of those who share my passion. Like me, many enthusiasts are devoted to particular airfields (in my case, the former RAF Ridgewell). I soon realised that by not touching on over 100 other American bases, I was risking the wrath of many in the airfield history community. Unfortunately, it was something that could not be helped, so I added a caveat to the preface and concentrated on the wider picture. Again, writing a limited number of words on such a sizeable subject was the most hindering aspect.

    Next, came the images. I already possessed a large collection of historical photographs, but I required some up-to-date shots of the bases as they are today. Thankfully, a very good friend and airfield aficionado came to the rescue. Richard E. Flagg has been on a mission to photograph airfields all over the UK. Moderator of various Facebook groups and content creator of the website, ukairfields.org.uk, Richard owns a fantastic library that he kindly gave me access to. The bulk of the images used in US Air Force Bases in the UK came through the lens of Richard.

    An F-15 Strike Eagle of the 48th FW ('Liberty Wing') outside its Hardened Aircraft Shelter at Lakenheath. (Richard E. Flagg, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Finally, I began seeking a foreword written by someone highly regarded in the field of military history. I had given a small amount of assistance to the Battle of Britain historian, James Holland, for his most recent book, Big Week. To say I was overjoyed when he agreed to write my foreword is an understatement.

    Shortly after US Air Force Bases in the UK was released, I was invited to attend a book-signing event at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. This was a huge moment for me, having been a volunteer tour guide in its AirSpace gallery for over five years. To see my book on the gift shop’s shelf (rather appropriately, below James Holland’s Big Week) was certainly a proud moment. But to sign it for other enthusiasts was the most humbling experience. Needless to say, when someone asked me if ‘their’ airfield was included, I was greeted with a look of despondency when I announced that it wasn’t. I guess this is the life of a writer – risking reputations to help educate others. One thing’s for sure, though – I now know I have the tools to build on something special.

    Paul Bingley's new book US Air Force Bases in the UK is available for purchase now.

  • Jet Flying Boats by David Oliver

    The magic of water-borne flight

    Technicians checking the complex Bristol Proteus turboprop engines in preparation for the first flight of the Princess give scale to its immense size. (Richard Riding Collection, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was fifty years ago that I landed on the calm blue waters of Catalina Island’s Avalon Bay, lying 50 miles off the coast of southern California, in a 30-year-old Grumman amphibian, the Goose. As the veteran flying boat settle in a flurry of green water that covered the windows for a few seconds, it seemed that I had experienced the last of a dying breed of aviation. I had flown from London to Los Angeles a few days earlier on one of Pan Am’s first ‘Jumbo Jets’ and the elderly six-seater Goose, which still flew hourly shuttles for tourists between Long Beach Harbor and Catalina, seemed to have little or no relevance to international air travel in the modern world.

    However, this flight would inspire a life-long interest in water-borne aircraft during which I have been fortunate enough to experience many aerial voyages that stay in the memory. These include flying a Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol from Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia in another Grumman Goose, and scheduled flights from Miami’s Watson Island terminal to the Bahamas on Grumman Mallards and Turbo Mallard amphibians belonging to Chalks International, then the world’s oldest airline.

    An R3Y-1, the long-range troop transport variant of the Convair Tradewind, taxies into San Diego Bay during the early trials. (Convair, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a long way from a flooded gravel pit in Rye, Sussex, to the Nass and Kinsault Rivers in northern British Columbia, and Lake Coeur d’Alene, Spokane in Washington State, but they were all places where I flew from in floatplanes. From the Rye gravel pit I flew in the only UK-registered Tiger Moth on floats and a Super Cub floatplane, piloted by a former Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat, the ‘Jumbo Jet’ of the 1940s, Roger Sherron, while it was Cessna C180s in Canada and a DH Beaver in the United States.

    Having obtained a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), I tried my hand at learning to pilot a flying boat in the 1980s. The American Lake LA-200 Buccaneer is a small single-engine amphibious flying boat which I flew from Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent to the River Medway where I attempted to master the challenging skill of landing and taking-off an aircraft from water. My instructor was one of the most experienced post-war flying boat pilots, Keith Sissons.

    In 2016, Be-12PS Yellow 20 was returned to Russian Navy service following a comprehensive rebuild at Beriev's Taganrog facility on the Sea of Azov. (Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    My all too short time spent at the controls of the Buccaneer gave me a lasting respect for the likes of Keith Sissons and Roger Sherron who had to combine the dexterity of sailing a ship and flying an aeroplane.

    Although the flying boat fell out of fashion after the Second World War as a commercial transport aircraft, after being the symbol of luxurious and sophisticated international travel in the 1930s, new and more practical roles would virtually save the large amphibious flying boat from extinction, one of which was aerial fire-fighting. I was lucky enough to make several flights in a French Canadair CL-215 which included scooping and dropping six-ton water bombs. The exhilaration of skimming across a lake in what is then essentially a 4,000hp speedboat at 82 miles per hour, as is scooped 1,200 gallons of water, can be imagined. When the water was dropped, the Canadair bucked in the air relieved of its load.

    With twenty-two in service, Italy's Protezione Civile operates the largest fleet of CL-415 water bombers outside of Canada. (Martin Visser, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    The only company that has continued to design and built flying boats since 1945 is Russia’s Beriev. I was one of the first Western journalists to visit the previous closed Beriev factory at Taganrog on the Sea of Azov after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and get to fly in a Be-12 amphibian. Beriev had built more than 200 turboprop-powered anti-submarine warfare Be-12s for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and developed its advanced jet-powered replacement, the A-40 Albatross, under wraps.

    Built like a tank with ladders between the two decks, the Be-12 had numerous astrodomes, portholes and an extensively glazed nose which provided an excellent camera platform from which to photograph the A-40 that was flying in formation.

    A Beriev Be-200 gives a patriotic demonstration of the amphibian's sequential drop capability using different coloured liquids. (Beriev, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    During the same visit I saw the prototype of the Be-200, the world’s only jet-powered fire-fighting amphibian, and have kept in touch with Beriev and followed growing success in a niche market to this day.

    When Amberley asked me to write a book on Jet-Powered Flying Boats, I rediscovered the many failures due mainly to the fact that they were too far advanced for the technologies, especially engine development, of the time, and the cost of their development which was considerably higher than those of contemporary landplanes.

    However, it is reassuring to know that Russia and Japan is still producing technically advanced amphibious flying boasts albeit in small number, and that they are soon to be joined by Germany and China which are developing state-of-the-art water-borne aircraft for the future.

    David Oliver's new book Jet Flying Boats is available for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing by Bill Simpson

    USS Wasp in British waters in 1942. It is likely that it is in the Firth of Clyde. (c. IWM Image A 9483, Reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Having written in the past about our local squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force here in Edinburgh, 603, I was both intrigued and uncomfortable about allegations made against the young American NCO pilot, ‘Bud’ Walcott, who was posted to the squadron in early 1942. At that time, Malta had been under siege by German and Italian forces based in Sicily since the summer of 1940 and things were grim. The island, in the middle of the Mediterranean was vital to the British campaign in North Africa and they were desperate to stop it falling into Axis hands.

    Axis aircraft based in Sicily 60 miles away were bombing Malta constantly and the British were struggling to keep them at bay with the limited fighter aircraft they could get through. In early 1942, it was decided that Spitfires were needed and 47 pilots (without the ground crews) of two auxiliary squadrons – 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 601 (County of London) Squadrons – with brand new Spitfires were discreetly taken into the western Mediterranean in the American carrier USS Wasp and in the early hours of 20 April 1942, they made a difficult take-off from the deck of the carrier to fly the 400 odd miles to Malta.

    An elevation of one of the Spitfire VCs flown by 603 Squadron to Malta. This one was flown by Bill Douglas. (c. Reproduced with the kind permisson of Richard Caruana, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    But only 46 arrived. Bud Walcott did not and it was immediately assumed that he had chosen to ‘desert’ to the enemy because he was frightened of flying in the Malta battle – said by some to be more intense and dangerous than the Battle of Britain. A signal from the Air Officer Commanding Malta to the Air Ministry in London stated that Walcott had ‘intended to desert’, that he had no intention of going to Malta and had previously landed in the Irish republic in an attempt to be interned and returned to the USA. It was subsequently suggested that having crash landed in ‘neutral’ Vichy French North Africa, he had made his way to the office of an American consul and been repatriated to his home country. It was also suggested that he had been seen in an internment camp but essentially, after taking off from Wasp, he was never seen again.

    Having been made, the allegation has been repeated in several works about the air fighting in Malta including, sadly, one of my own – although I did soften it because of the circumstances that Walcott found himself in. He was an American in a foreign air force, in a squadron in which he was disliked, about to be sent to some of the most vicious air fighting of the Second World War with no operational experience and finding himself in the more comfortable and familiar environment of an American warship.

    603 Squadron pilots on the deck of the USS Wasp, Walcott is in the back row, bareheaded. (c. Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Could he be blamed for having second thoughts?

    I very quickly became concerned at the lack of evidence to justify the allegations made against him and together with a fellow writer and historian, Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche, tried to find out what evidence there was and if possible, establish just what did happen to Walcott. What we discovered was that Walcott’s life was buffeted by national factors out of his control – the Second World War and the Cold War and, intriguingly, that the decisions about what should happen to him when he landed in Dublin may have involved the head of the Irish government Éamonn De Valera and have been influenced by relations between neutral Eire and the United States. I suspect too, that some of the social attitudes within 603 and the auxiliaries who did not take kindly to the lively, almost brash young ‘Yank’ who arrived in the unit contributed.

    Walcott volunteered to fight for the British in the Second World War by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force – an act which could have cost him his US citizenship but he is given little credit for this. He was also involved in a frightening mid-air collision with another 603 Squadron Spitfire in which the other pilot was killed and this seems to have raised strong feelings of dislike for him in the unit. And these became to be expressed in the allegations against him all of which emanated from the squadron.

    603 Bill Douglas preparing his aircraft below deck for launching to Malta on 20 April 1942. Note the crude application of the blue paint particularly noticeable around the serial number. (c.Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    From the research we have carried out, I have been able to draw conclusions as to the quality of the evidence to support the allegations made and have found out just what did happen to Walcott both with regards to Malta and the rest of his life which came to a premature and rather tragic end in the early 1960s.

    I have to give my profound thanks to Squadron Leader Blanche for all of his help and encouragement without which this book would not have been written.

    The auxiliary squadrons were different to the regular RAF units. They drew their members from local areas and before the war, many of them were seen as gentlemens’ flying clubs for the wealthy young officers who joined as pilots and who – it has to be said – fought and died with great courage when war broke out. But many came from a privileged background – the nobility and the landed and professional classes. 601 was known as ‘the millionaires’ squadron’. The ground crews were also drawn from the local areas but tended to remain intact whilst the war progressed and the aircrews were killed, injured or posted on elsewhere to be replaced by non-auxiliary airmen. The essential spirit of the auxiliary squadrons resided with the ground crews who in some cases did not even regard some of the British pilots posted to the squadrons as real members of the squadrons because they were not auxiliaries.

    As an American, Walcott ‘ticked’ the wrong boxes and in my view paid the price.

    Bill Simpson's new book Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing is available for purchase now.

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