Tag Archives: Air Force

By Michael Gordon, Project Assistant

The 16th and 17th of May this year mark the 70th Anniversary of Operation Chastise, better known as the “Dambusters” raids. These raids saw 19 modified Avro Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron embark on a daring mission to destroy the dams within the Ruhr valley, in an attempt to cripple German industry.

Derwent Dam today (14270 and 14271 ©IWM, 2012)

Derwent Dam today (14270 and 14271 ©IWM, 2012)

617 Squadron was formed for the specific purposes of this mission and was equipped with a bespoke weapon, the now famous Bouncing Bomb codenamed ‘Upkeep’, designed by Barnes Wallis. This highly specialised mission required training and preparation unlike anything the crews had previously experienced. To prepare, the crews were sent to practise their technique at suitable locations within the UK.

Although the crews did not know the specifics of their mission during the training phases, it was quite obvious that they had been selected for a unique task due to the very specific topography of the practice locations. The crews were sent to four different locations to practise low level flying over water and precision targeting. We have recorded three memorials to these events which are located on the practice sites.

Eyebrook Reservoir in Stoke Dry, Rutland was mocked up with canvas towers to resemble the profile of the German targets. It was also used beyond the raids for further training with the ‘Upkeep’ bomb. A plaque at the site commemorates the reservoir’s importance in preparing the crews for the raids on the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany.

617 Squadron, Derwent Dam (14270 and 14271 ©Roy Branson, 2010)

617 Squadron, Derwent Dam (14270 and 14271 ©Roy Branson, 2010)

At Derwent Dam (14270) in Derbyshire, chosen because of its close resemblance to the Ruhr dams, there is a stone tablet inside the gatehouse recording the use of the dam by 617 Squadron.  In 1988, a further tablet was added, commemorating those who died during the raid. In 2008, a 65th Anniversary event was held at the Derwent Dam, involving a flypast by a Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, which made low level passes over the dam at 100ft.

The exploits of 617 Squadron during Operation Chastise inspired their famous title of the Dambusters, and earned them a reputation as a precision bombing squadron for future operations.

The names of the 204 men of the Squadron who died in raids during the Second World War are inscribed upon the memorial wall to the Squadron at Royal Gardens, Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire. The wall has been purposely shaped to resemble a dam.

617 Squadron, Woodhall Spa (20485 ©Rachel Farrand, 2012)

617 Squadron, Woodhall Spa (20485 ©Rachel Farrand, 2012)

This article was submitted by Derbyshire Volunteer Co-ordinator, Roy Branson

Many aeroplanes crashed in the UK during the Second World War, some as direct casualties of conflict shot down by anti-aircraft fire or in aerial combat, some because they just could not get back to base after sustaining earlier damage. What is lesser known is that in the years immediately following the war navigational and weather problems also led to crashes and the Peak District of Derbyshire seems to have had more than its share of these.  

Bleaklow crash site on skyline

Bleaklow crash site on skyline

Several years ago I became intrigued by a story about a wartime aeroplane crash site featured in Blood on the Tongue, a crime novel by Stephen Booth.  Set in the Peak District, Booth’s geography is fictional, based on a mixture of features drawn from all over the area, but a possible inspiration for the story may have been wreckage still to be found on Bleaklow, east of Glossop.  Intrigued by Booth’s fiction, I decided to visit this crash site, which is known to have a memorial.

In 1948, a United States Air Force (USAF) Superfortress crashed near a remote moorland hilltop. It was delivering mail from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to USAF Burtonwood in Cheshire. The crash occured by a cruel trick of fate: if the aircraft had been ten metres higher it would have cleared the hilltop and would probably have reached its destination.

In view of the location, careful preparations had to be made for my visit to the crash site. Amongst the problems of walking in the Peak District are weather conditions, which can change very quickly, and the sheer isolation. After postponing the walk on the first attempt due to heavy rain, I set off with a colleague equipped with walking gear, maps, compass, gps equipment and whistle (no mobile phone signal in these parts) and emergency rations. The moorland is not called Bleaklow for nothing and we were not keen to become the subjects of one of Derbyshire’s several mountain rescue teams.

Wreaths and tributes form a shrine at the crash site

Wreaths and tributes form a shrine at the crash site

In the event, weather conditions were good and leaving Snake Pass, good progress was made along the Pennine Way. After walking for one and a half hours the crash site was reached. The last kilometre was off the path and through boggy peat moorland. Wreckage still covers a huge area and is in remarkable condition after sixty years. Some of the steel components of the undercarriage and engines are now quite rusty but most panels merely possess the patina typical of oxidised aluminium. A few stainless steel components seemed as bright and shiny as the day they were fashioned.

Final destination: reading the memorial

Final destination: memorial to the thirteen airmen

Despite its remoteness the site receives many visitors and has developed the characteristics of a shrine. Many crosses have been constructed; some by repositioning pieces of wreckage, but others are formed from rocks placed in patterns on the bare peat. At least one of these is visible from the air, as users of Google Earth can confirm!

One large piece of panelling forms a rudimentary shelter over a mound of peat which has become covered with wreaths, tributes and small British Legion crosses. Amongst this scene stands the subject of the visit: a sandstone pillar bearing a bronze plaque commemorating the thirteen airmen who lost their lives in a tragic accident.

There was news last week that Tempelhof airport in Berlin is to close in October 2008.  The vast, semi-circular terminal buildings (one of the largest free standing structures in the world) were built in the late 1930s as a centre piece of the Nazi redevelopment of Germany.  Tempelhof played a vital role during the Berlin Airlift of June 1948 to May 1949, when the Russians cut off overland access to the Western occupied section of Berlin. 

All essential supplies required by the city’s 2.5 million inhabitants had to be brought in by air. 

At its peak there were over 1,500 flights a day, delivering more than 2.3m tons of supplies over the course of the eleven months.  

This photo shows an RAF Dakota being unloaded at Tempelhof airfield as army lorries stand by to take supplies into the city.

Such huge numbers of flights inevitably led to casualties, including 39 from Britain and the Commonwealth.  Several memorials in the UK mark these deaths, including one at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.  It includes 39 trees and a smaller copy of a memorial at Tempelhof Airport.

Click to see the record.

It’s 90 years to the day that the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were merged to form the Royal Air Force (RAF).   There are a great many war memorials that commemorate the members and actions of the RAF – over 800 if we search the database for ‘RAF’.

One notable, recent memorial (unveiled in 2005) is the Battle of Britain Memorial on Victoria Embankment, London.  It features friezes cast in bronze depicting scenes from the Battle, during 1940.  These include: pilots at rest; members of the Observer Corps watching for an attack; ground crews arming hurricanes; pilots scrambling; pilots sharing stories in the mess hall; hop pickers in Kent watching an aerial battle; anti-aircraft gunners; women working in an aircraft factory; a pilot closely pursued by a Luftwaffe plane; St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by smoke from the Blitz; people searching the ruins after an air raid; and a family making tea in an Anderson shelter.   The memorial also lists the names of 2935 members of the RAF who served or died during the Battle of Britain.

Battle of Britain Memorial

Also in London, you will find many RAF memorials in St Clement Danes church.  The church was gutted by fire in 1941 and rebuilt by the RAF to become their central church, commemorating personnel killed on active service.

Another very significant memorial is the Air Forces Memorial to the Missing at Runnymede, built and managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  It is a large shrine that commemorates over 20,000 airmen by name, who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves.

On a window of the shrine, is a poem written by Paul H Scott.

The first rays of the dawning sun
Shall touch its pillars,
And as the day advances
And the light grows stronger,
You shall read the names
Engraved on the stone
Of those who sailed on the angry sky
And saw harbour no more
No gravestone in yew-dark churchyard
Shall mark their resting place
Their bones lie in the forgotten corners
Of earth and sea.
But, that we may not lose their memory
With fading years, their monument stands here,
Here, where the trees troop down to Runnymede.
Meadow of Magna Carta, field of freedom,
Never saw you so fitting a memorial,
Proof that the principals established here
Are still dear to the hearts of men.
Here they now stand, contrasted and alike,
The field if freedom’s birth, and the memorial
To freedom’s winning.

As the evening comes,
And mists, like quiet ghosts, rise from the river bed,
And climb the hill to wander through the cloisters,
We shall not forget them. Above the mist
We shall see the memorial still, and over it
The crown and single star. And we shall pray
As the mists rise up and the air grows dark
That we may wear
As brave a heart as they.

Today’s blog post was written by one of our volunteers, Richard.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend…’

Wilfred Owen ‘Strange Meeting’

The reference in an earlier blog post to memorials to nationals of enemy countries may seem strange, although in recent times new memorials have been erected with inscriptions intended not to cause offence by referring to all victims of war or conflict.

While such inscriptions may seem colourless, if well-intended, they do recognize that the advance of technology during the twentieth century rendered civilian populations in wartime vulnerable to an unprecedented extent. So for example small children killed in Dresden or Hiroshima were as blameless as their counterparts in a Poplar school killed in a German air raid on London’s docklands in 1917. (Click to see memorial record)

Distinct from this, there is the recognition that it’s advisable for all concerned for there to be some constraints on the conduct of war, and part of this is the respect, including war memorials, paid to the enemy’s dead: some examples were quoted previously.

Another example is the memorial to French prisoners of war at Norman Cross on the A1 in Cambridgeshire. Significantly this was not unveiled until nearly a century after Waterloo, not long after the Entente Cordiale and shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Some Napoleonic memorials, however, are rather earlier such as the one at HM Prison, Dartmoor, and one now at Chatham. On this one part of the inscription refers to ‘...many brave soldiers and sailors who…have been laid in an honourable grave by a nation which knows how to respect valour and to sympathise with misfortune.’

From the First World War a German teacher is commemorated on a memorial at Manchester Grammar School. At Oxford at the insistence of the Warden of New College, Dr Spooner (he of the spoonerism), a tablet to three German students was unveiled in the 1920s, amid some controversy. 

Recent research has established that Gerhard Brumund, included on the Great Central Railway’s memorial at Sheffield was born in Germany. He was killed when that company’s steamship SS Leicester hit a mine in the English Channel and sank in 1916.

The last moments of the the German Army's airship, SL 11, in flames above HertfordshireSome enemies died in the skies over Britain. In the First World War, SL11 a German Army airship, was shot down over Cuffley in Hertfordshire in 1916 by Lt William Leefe Robinson. He was awarded the VC for ‘most conspicuous bravery’ in attacking the first German airship destroyed on British soil. The crew of SL11 were buried with full military honours at Potters Bar, the vicar of Cuffley having refused them burial. The photo opposite shows the last moments of SL 11, in flames above Hertfordshire. In 1967 the graves of Germans who died in Britain during the two world wars, including the crew of SL11, were concentrated at the Cannock Chase German War Cemetery in Staffordshire.

At King’s Somborne in Hampshire is a small memorial to the crew of a Luftwaffe plane downed in 1940. A more substantial Second World War memorial at St Peter’s Italian church in central London commemorates enemy aliens, both Italian and German, lost when the Arandora Star carrying them to internment in Canada was torpedoed in 1940 by the German submarine U47. As a reminder that political alliances are not necessarily unchanging, the same church has a memorial to its members in the war of 1915-1918 (sic) killed at a time when Italy was one of Britain’s allies.

Following up on the story we covered yesterday (the new award issued to members of the Air Transport Auxiliary who served during the Second World War) there is an interesting interview on the BBC website with Margaret Frost, one of the women pilots who served in the ATA.  Click to read the full interview

Margaret said:

“It is marvellous to get the recognition but I also feel very embarrassed about it all really because there are so few of us left.  I should think that the original girls who started it all would be turning in their graves now at all the fuss.  When the war was all over people just went their own way and didn’t want any recognition. That was just the way it was.  Nobody wanted any fuss they just did what was needed doing at the time and after the war got back on with their lives.”

This is typical of the attitude of many others after the Second World War and can also been seen in the approach to war memorials.  We have written before about how people’s attitudes to memorials changed markedly after the Second World War.  The desire to erect elaborate memorials, such as had been seen after the First World War, was replaced with a preference for ‘functional’ memorials or even none at all.  Click to read full post

Pauline Gower (far left), Commandant of the Women's Section of the ATA with the eight other founding female ATA pilotsMembers of the Air Transport Auxiliary – pilots who ferried planes in the Second World War – are to receive a new award recognising their contribution to the war effort.

Read more from BBC News

The ATA was made up of trained pilots who were ineligible for a combat flying role.  This included men who were too old or unfit,  women and foreign nationals.  Among them were pilots like Stuart Keith-Jopp, a 50-year-old First World War veteran who’d lost an arm and one eye.  In all 1,152 men and 166 women served as pilots, with a number of engineers and ground crew.  Thirty different nationalities were represented.

The ATA ferried training aircraft, fighters and bombers around the country on behalf of the RAF, often flying aircraft they had little experience with.  The most qualified pilots were expected to fly up to 147 different types of aircraft.  They had no radios and little in the way of instruments, making flying in bad weather particularly hazardous.  German fighters were also a very serious threat as the planes were invariably unarmed.

Over 150 members of the ATA were killed and a small number of war memorials record their service.  These include a tablet in St Paul’s Cathedral, unveiled in 1950 and a recently unveiled memorial stone at Manchester Airport Memorial Gardens.

The photo above dates from 1939 and shows the first nine women pilots in the ATA.  At the far left is Pauline Gower, the Commandant of the women’s section.  She was a commercial pilot before the war and was instrumental in the decision to allow women to fly in the ATA.  Sadly she died in 1947, shortly after giving birth.

The other members (left to right) are Mrs Winifred Crossley, Miss M Cunnison, The Hon. Mrs Fairweather, Miss Mona Friedlander, Miss Joan Hughes, Mrs G Paterson, Miss Rosemary Rees and Mrs Marion Wilberforce.  

The founding members all survived the war, with the exception of Flight Captain Margaret Fairweather, who was killed in August 1944.  Margaret had been the first woman to fly a Spitfire.  Her husband, Captain Douglas Fairweather, was also an ATA pilot and was killed four months before his wife.  They are buried together in a joint grave tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Plans are underway to erect a memorial in Ipswich to Prince Alexander Obolensky.  Obolensky was the first England rugby international to be killed in the Second World War when his Hurricane crashed during a training flight in March 1940.  The son of Russian nobility who fled to London after the 1917 Russian Revolution, he had played rugby for England four times in the 1930s.

Read more from

A memorial service has been held in the English Channel to mark the anniversary of the ‘Channel Dash’Watch a report about the service from BBC News.

The Channel Dash is the name given to an action that took place during the Second World War.  For several months, from early 1941, three German ships (the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen) had been trapped in the French port of Brest, where they were subjected to heavy bombing by the RAF. 

On 12 February 1942, RAF Spitfires reported that the German ships were making a break for the safety of a North German port.  The British hastily assembled a force of six Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers.  These were slow and vulnerable aircraft.  To have any success reaching and attacking the German ships they would need a large escort of fighter planes.  Unfortunately the Spitfire squadrons were too far away and speed in launching the attack was critial.  Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde – who was in command of the Swordfish bombers – made the decision to go after the German ships with a small escort of just ten Spitfires.

The RAF Station Commander at Manston said of Esmonde:

“He knew what he was going into. But it was his duty. His face was tense and white. It was the face of a man already dead. It shocked me as nothing has ever done since.”

 German Messerschmitts engaged the Spitfires soon after they had set out and the Swordfish were left on their own.  They approached the German ships, under heavy attack from the fighter planes escorting them.  Some were able to drop their torpedoes, although none made contact with the ships.  All six Swordfish were shot down with the loss of 13 of the 18 crew.  Those 18 crew were decorated for their part in the action, with Esmonde receiving a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Further attacks were launched by Royal Navy ships and RAF fighters and bombers but the German ships were able to reach safety.  It did however mean that the German navy was never again able to launch attacks on Atlantic convoys from Western French ports.

The German battlecruisers SCHARNHORST and GNEISENAU travel in a line with their guns firing, allegedly taken during their escape from Brest, known as the 'Channel Dash' on 12 February 1942

This photo shows the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau travelling in a line with their guns firing.  It is believed to have been taken during the Channel Dash on 12 February 1942.

Read a detailed report on the action from the Ministry of Defence

There are a few memorials commemorating this action.  These include a wooden memorial board in Manston, Kent. It reads:


HMS Belfast, now a floating museum and a branch of the Imperial War Museum, was later involved with the sinking of the Scharnhorst, on Boxing Day 1943.

A new memorial has been unveiled this week at RAF Leconfield to commemorate air crews who flew from the base during its seventy year history as an airfield.

The memorial consists of a garden of remembrance in which the centre piece is an upright frame salvaged from one the old hangers.  The hanger was attacked by a Luftwaffe plane during the Second World War and bullet holes can still be seen in the metal frame.

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