by Alastair Goodrum
In its time, Sutton Bridge saw aircrew of all Allied nationalities pass through its gates. Poles, the first of many batches of exiles destined for active service in the summer of 1940, arrived on June 23 complete with an interpreter. The latter was a highly necessary role in a potentially hazardous situation.
Some of these fellows, in most cases trained pilots (to varying degrees) already, had little command of the English language, high performance aeroplanes in which all the knobs, levers and dials were labelled in a foreign tongue, or RAF radio procedures. No.6 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was eventually to train with great success these men and a stream of other foreign pilots, many of whom carved out distinguished war records.
It is not intended here to record in detail the wealth of individual careers and feats, as these are far more adequately handled in books such as Kenneth Wynn’s Men of the Battle of Britain (Glidden, 1989). Instead, a few examples will be outlined to illustrate the richness of activity at Sutton Bridge and some of the more prominent incidents that occurred.
Officers commanding RAF Sutton Bridge September 1939 to April 1942:
|Sep 1939||F/Lt R P Smillie||Care and Maintenance|
|Sep 1939 to Nov 1939||F/Lt N Hawker||3 Recruit Training Pool|
|Nov 1939 to Jun 1940||W/Cmdr P R Barwell DFC||254/264/266 and 6 Sqns|
|Jun 1940 to Aug 1940||G/Capt H D O’Neill AFC||6 OTU|
|Aug 1940 to Jun 1941||G/Capt B B Caswell||6 and 56 OTU|
|Jun 1941 to Sep 1941||G/Capt F O Soden DFC||56 OTU|
|Sep 1941 to Apr 1942||G/Capt I A Bertram||56 OTU|
First Polish pilot course at 6 OTU
Posted in: June 23, 1940 – Posted out: July 16, 1940
|P/O S Lapka||302 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O T Nowak||253 Sqn||KIA Sep 1941|
|F/O A Ostowicz||145 Sqn||KIA Aug 1940|
|F/Lt W Pankratz||145 Sqn||KIA Aug 1940|
|P/O E R Pilch||302 Sqn||KIA Feb 1941|
|P/O W M C Samolinski||253 Sqn||KIA Sept 1940|
Note: All but Virpsha, who was retained at Sutton Bridge, fought in Battle of Britain
To say that these exiled patriots, be they Poles, Czechs, Belgians, French, Danes, Norwegian and many others, simply ‘arrived’ at Sutton Bridge is to understate their tortuous journeys. These individuals fought their way across Europe and even North Africa first to fight the Germans in the air with their respective air forces – and even other air forces – then when that failed, they undertook lengthy and hazardous routes to reach England in order to carry on that fight.
The next Polish course, comprising 12 pupils, began on July 14 and it was from this batch that the next fatality occurred.
P/O K Olewinski was airborne at 07:00 hours on July 29 in Hawker Hurricane L1714, authorised to practise air combat and aerobatic manoeuvres above 5,000ft (1,600m) altitude. His aeroplane was last seen by one of his comrades to begin a dive at 10,000ft (3,000m) altitude from which it never pulled out, crashing deep into the earth at Walsoken, near Wisbech. Olewinski occupied the first of the long lines of wartime graves in Sutton Bridge village churchyard.
Central to the co-ordination of this embryo training system was Station Headquarters, RAF Sutton Bridge. From November 1939, W/Cmdr Barwell was at the helm initially. Having got three embryo fighter squadrons ‘off the ground’ at the station, the way was open for 6 OTU to take up residence. ‘Dickie’ Barwell saw it safely established then on June 13 handed over command of the station to G/Capt H D O’Neill AFC.
On July 20 it was the turn of the Free French to arrive, followed ten days later by three Belgians, more Poles and on August 17 the first group of 20 Czechs. Of course, interspersed between all these was a steady flow of English and Commonwealth pilots too – a further illustration of overlapping the courses among the three Flights to keep the momentum going.
For example, on the day of the Czechs’ arrival, a group of 13 English pilots also appeared, three from 9 Flying Training School (FTS), Hullavington, Wilts, and ten from to FTS, Ternhill, Shropshire. Among their number was one, Sgt F J Howarth, whose name would be forever linked with the Czechs due to a mid-air collision near the station.
Sgt F J Howarth aged 20 years, victim of a mid-air collision in Hurricane L1654 on Sept 3, 1940. Frederick Howarth was a pre-war RAFVR trainee who joined up immediately war was declared. His training between September 1939 and May 1940 followed a conventional route via 1 Initial Training Wing and 7 EFTS. In May 1940 Sgt Howarth was posted to 10 Service Flying Training School and thence to 6 OTU Sutton Bridge for advanced training on the Hurricane.
This accident, which occurred at 08:30 in the bright sunlight of September 3, 1940, seems to have been due simply to an error of judgement by one or both pilots during an authorised combat flying exercise. Perhaps in that sunlight – mentioned by an eyewitness – they momentarily lost sight of each other with fatal consequences. In the opinion of that same eyewitness: …both aircraft seemed to be stunting… in an effort to gain an advantage one over the other… and collided at about 700 feet altitude.
At this stage of the air war – it was the height of the Battle of Britain – there were not enough instructors to accompany pupils on a regular or individual basis, therefore trainees were sent off in pairs to practise combat tactics amongst themselves. Training course lengths were being cut to the bone and once a pupil could be trusted with a Hurricane he was shown the ropes, then left to get as much air experience as the time permitted.
Frederick Howarth, in L654, fell about half a mile from Czech Sgt Karel Stibor in L1833, near the village of Wiggenhall St Germans. At the time, a minimum of site clearance was carried out – just enough to recover the bodies of the unfortunate airmen and clear farmers’ property of ordnance and surface debris.
It was not until the early 1975 that the site of L1833 was excavated by the landowner to remove the engine and other major components. The site of L1654 was left undisturbed until 1985 when the Fenland Aircraft Preservation Society (now the Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum with a superb collection on view at West Walton Highway, near Wisbech) undertook an extensive and successful excavation in the course of which the Merlin III was recovered. These two Hurricanes were neither the first nor the last, collision to be experienced by later 56 OTU. The first collision at 6 OTU occurred on August 8, only two weeks prior to the Howarth/Stibor incident. Fatalities on that occasion were Sgt D McGee in L2082 and M. Niedswiecki, a Polish pilot in 324, one of the former Canadian Hurricanes mentioned elsewhere.
The composition of these first foreign courses is set out in accompanying tables. Needle say the influx of this tide of foreign airmen had a profound effect on the local population who took many into their homes and quickly became used to meeting them in pubs and on social occasions in that small community.
Composition of first Czech pilot course at 6 OTU
Posted in: Aug 17, 1940 – Posted out: Sept 17, 1940
|S/Ldr J Ambrus||312 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O J Bryks||310 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O F Fajtl||310 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O S Fejfar||310 Sqn||KIA 1942|
|P/O J Himr||79 Sqn||KIA 1943|
|P/O F Kordula||17 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O J Machacek||310 Sqn||KIA 1941|
|P/O K Mrazek||43 Sqn||Survived the war|
|P/O R Rohacek||238 Sqn||KIA 1942|
|P/O K Vykoukal||111 Sqn||KIA 1942|
|P/O F Weber||145 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt F Bernard||238 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt V Cukr||43 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt J Hlavac||79 Sqn||KIA Oct 1940|
|Sgt V Horsky||238 Sqn||KIA Sept 1940|
|Sgt V Jicha||1 Sqn||Killed in accident 1945|
|Sgt O Kucera||238 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt M Kopecky||310 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt J Postolka||311 Sqn||Survived the war|
|Sgt K Stibor||56 OTU||killed in a training accident Sept 1940|
Karel Stibor arrived in England in June 1940 and was initially attached to 310 Squadron at Duxford as potential fighter pilot material. Little is known about his previous flying record but he appears to have had sufficient experience to warrant joining the RAF training process at the OTU stage. This accounts for him being posted to 6 OTU Sutton Bridge where he met with a tragic end in Hurricane L1833 in the mid-air collision of Sept 3, 1940.
Composition of first French pilot course at 6 OTU
|W/O J Denis|
|W/O L Ferrant|
|W/O G Grasset|
|F/Sgt R Grasset|
|Sgt N Castelain|
|Sgt E M de Scitivaux|
|W/O R Speich|
|W/O A Littalf|
|F/Sgt A Moulenes|
|Sgt J Joire|
|Sgt R Guedon|
|Sgt C A D Deport||This pilot is noted on staff of 6 OTU later in 1940.|
Composition of first Belgian pilot course at 6 OTU
Posted in: July 20, 1940 – Posted out: date not known
|P/O B M G de Hemptinne||145||KIA May 1942|
|P/O A R I G Jottard||145||Missing in Action Oct. 1940|
|P/O J H M Offenberg||145||Killed Jan 1942|
All three Belgian pilots fought in the Battle of Britain.
To cope with the rising tide of pupils, 33 for example arrived to begin training on August 17, the inventory of 6 OTU was increased. Serviceable aircraft on that date included 34 Hurricanes, four North American Harvards, eight Miles Masters, four Fairey Battles and four Miles Mentors. In addition to a few remaining Battle (T) trainers, four Battle (TT) target-tugs also appeared in the OTU inventory during July 1940.
This seems to reflect the increased workload on Sutton Bridge Station Flight – which operated the Hawker Henley tugs primarily for ‘visitors’. Up to July, the Henleys provided a service for OTU trainees when required, as well as towing sleeve or cone targets for any squadron wishing to book air-to-air firing time over Holbeach Marsh range – much as their predecessors had done pre-war.
Squadrons served regularly between April and June, for example, were 19, 23, 29, 32, 66, 213, 254, 264 and 611. It should be remembered, too, that air-to-ground firing continued apace on the range and it was even recorded, on October 15/18/19 and 27, 1940, that a cannon-armed Hurricane and V-S Spitfire used Holbeach Range for that purpose. Battle TTs therefore were operated by the OTU which allowed Station Flight to concentrate on operational units, while the OTU dealt with its own requirements.
Similarly, the influx of so many aeroplanes caused another problem; how to accommodate upwards of 5o machines both for protection against the elements and for servicing purposes. To this end, W/Cmdr Barwell had pressed for more hangar space and on May 1 work began to erect a new Bellman hangar.
It did not escape the Station Commander’s notice that, situated as it was, close to the east coast and within the potential invasion area, his airfield might attract hostile attention from the Luftwaffe. He surmised that the enemy might attempt to carry out attacks on the aerodrome either by dropping bombs or parachute troops. Under certain circumstances they might arrive over, or in the vicinity of, the aerodrome without having been intercepted by fighter squadrons.
Being a man of action, therefore, he drew up on May 12 his Operational Order No. 1, the stated intention of which was: “To provide from Station resources air opposition to an attack on this Station.” W/Cmdr Barwell ordered OC 6 OTU to detail one section of three Hurricanes to be brought to readiness:
* whenever air raid warning ‘yellow’ was received in daylight hours.
* from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunrise.
* at other times as ordered by the Station Commander.
The readiness section, callsign Domino Green, must always be led by an instructor but the other members could be either pupils or instructors. Pilots were to be strapped in, ready for take-off, with aircraft positioned on the leeward side of the airfield, fully armed and with starter batteries connected. As might be imagined there was no shortage of volunteers!
Wary of trigger-happy ground defences and for the well-being of his men, Barwell also took care to warn the section to be particularly careful how they returned to the airfield after a sortie. There was to be no high spirited stuff: … a wide circuit at 1,000-1,500 feet must be made, at a speed of 140mph so that ground defences may have time to recognise friendly aircraft. Pilots must not approach at low altitude, high speed or by diving on the airfield.
It was made pretty clear that if they did so, they risked getting their heads shot off!
Ground defence at that time comprised light anti-aircraft weapons – Bofors and machineguns – manned by 66 officers and men of ‘D’ Company, ist Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment, supported by a searchlight battery operated by ten men of the Royal Engineers.
The composition of these units changed from time to time as the war progressed. While in August 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, in addition to its transient pupils, Sutton Bridge permanent staff numbered 386 officers and airmen and 54 civilians.
Air Raids and Decoys
Little opportunity for the readiness section presented itself, for although there were plenty of air raid warnings, even ‘red’ ones, with very few exceptions these occurred in the hours of darkness. From mid-June 1940 for example, there was an air-raid warning at Sutton Bridge every night until the month end. A similar situation continued throughout July and August with alerts sounding at intervals of every two or three nights.
Anticipating attacks by the Luftwaffe against RAF stations, in 1940 the Air Ministry implemented its plan for decoy airfields and other deception devices. Among these were ‘Q’ sites, an arrangement of night flare-path lights or Drem-type circuit lights erected at some distance, perhaps 4 or 5 miles (6.4 or 8km), from a parent airfield.
In the case of Sutton Bridge, a ‘Q’ site was established on farmland between the village of Terrington St Clements and Terrington Marsh. It comprised electric night landing lights and obstruction lights, the intensity of which could be adjusted to simulate, for example, an oil-burning ‘gooseneck’ flare-path, as well as more substantial runway lighting schemes.
The Luftwaffe took its first crack at Sutton Bridge on the night of August 30/31, 1940, and proved the effectiveness of the Terrington’Q’ site. In the early hours of the 31st, farms in the vicinity reverberated to the ‘crump’ of four high explosive bombs (HE) detonating about 1,000 yards (900m) northwest of the glimmering ‘flarepath’. A few minutes later, 15 explosions heralded the arrival of more bombs, this time falling in a line 1,000 yards to the south-east of the site.
Enemy Air Raids Directed at 6/56 OTU 1940/1941
|Aug 30/31, 1940||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|Sept 22, 1940||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|Oct 28, 1940||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|Feb 14, 1941||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|Feb 14/15, 1941||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|Feb 16, 1941||RAF Sutton Bridge|
|Feb 18, 1941||Terrington’Q’ Site|
|May 12, 1941||RAF Sutton Bridge|
Casualties were limited to one farm horse killed and a greenhouse damaged. The raid would not have done much for the nerves of the good farmers of the district.
Three weeks later the Luftwaffe tried again; equally unsuccessfully. At 22.00 hours on September 22 those tempting lights at Terrington did their job again by persuading a single raider to unload seven HE bombs near the ‘Q’ site. The lights were doused when the first bomb exploded and the remainder landed 1,000 yards south-west. Five minutes after the enemy aeroplane departed, the lights were turned on again but attracted no more customers.
Once more it was the horse population which suffered, with the loss of another and two more injured by shrapnel. A number of windows in Bentinck Farm house were broken by the blast. Perhaps it was this latter occurrence which finally prompted residents of Terrington district to send a petition on October 4 to Sutton Bridge, pleading for the removal of the ‘Q’ site from their locality.
By now G/Capt O’Neill had been posted away to HQ Fighter Command after only a few months as Station Commander and his place was taken on August 17 by Wg Cdr B B Caswell, formerly of Acklington, Northumberland.
How W/Cmdr Caswell dealt with the petition is not recorded, but one might guess that while being sympathetic he would hardly be keen to give up such obviously effective protection – nor could he anyway. No doubt he would also consider two horses and a few broken windows in so sparsely a populated area a small price to pay.
As if to back up such a view ‘Jerry’ paid two more visits during the night of October 28 when the ‘Q’ site collected more bombs. At 19:40 13 HE bombs whistled down at the lights, and half an hour later another five dropped a quarter mile from the site. Fragments found later, suggested these were of 220lb (100kg) size and all fell into open fields. The residents would not be amused though, as one house had a ceiling damaged by the blast.
‘Trade’ on the Horizon
There was a brief respite for a while at night while the Luftwaffe directed its Blitz efforts elsewhere, but occasionally daylight brought ‘trade’ for the local fighter squadrons, much to the chagrin of the 6 OTU Readiness Flight.
One such foray by the Luftwaffe into the Fens, however, resulted in Sutton Bridge getting the closest possible sight of enemy aircrew.
Based at RAF Wittering, Northants, 1 Squadron engaged the enemy on a number of occasions in late October 1940 when raiders entered its territory. For example, at dusk on October 29 three Spitfires, scrambled to investigate a hostile raid believed to be heading for Sutton Bridge or one of the other airfields in the vicinity, intercepted Dornier Do 17s nearby.
In the melee that followed, ‘Blue Section’ leader Sgt W T Page claimed to have damaged one of the Dorniers before his own aeroplane, P3318, was hit by return fire. Glycol fumes forced him to return to base but he had to force land at Orton near Peterborough.
Re-emphasising once more that invisible between Sutton Bridge and 1 Squadron, came a most interesting engagement the next afternoon. Another section of three Spitfires caught a Junkers Ju 88 – later found to have been making its way inland for an armed recce of the Metro-Vickers plant in Salford, Manchester.
P/O G E Goodman (in P2877), a graduate of the very first 6 OTU course at Sutton Bridge, P/O R G Lewis (P3229), back with No.1 aft spell of instructing at 6 OTU; and Sgt V Jicha a (graduate of the first Czech course at Sutton Bridge, were directed onto a raider heading in from The Wash.
Coming at it head-on, Goodman mistook the aeroplane for a Blenheim and did not open fire. Recognising it as a Ju 88, the other two half-rolled and pulled up to attack from the rear. Lewis opened fire from 200 yards (180m), away and then Sgt Jicha put in a short burst before it disappeared into cloud.
The Ju 88, had turned south before the attack and now heading towards Sutton Bridge, the enemy crew baled out. They landed at Lovell’s Hall, Terrington St Clements where, slightly hurt on landing, they were captured by soldiers from 374 AA Battery, taken to Sutton Bridge and thence to a PoW camp in Dunstable, Beds.
Post-war research shows this enemy plane to be Junkers Ju 88A-1, w/nr 5008, from 8/LG1. The pilot was Uffz W Arndt who, with Uffz A Bronner, stayed in the aircraft to crash-land it at Middle Fen, Stuntney near Ely while the two who baled out were Ogefr P Flieger and Gefr W Kellner.
On November 1, 1940, officialdom decreed that all OTUs were to be re-numbered by ’50’ added to their unit numbers and thus now became 56 OTU, still under the command of newly promoted Gp Capt Caswell.
Reproduced from the October 2000 edition of Flypast with kind permission from the publishers, Key Publishing Ltd. www.flypast.com