The Last 'Ops' By European Based Wellingtons
Walter Harvey saw active service as a photo reconnaissance/bomb aimer in the Squadron in the last stages of World War II. Pictured below are Aussies in the 69 Squadron. Walter Harvey is far right.
Chuck Toomer recalls his days with 69th Squadron
April 1944 saw me working in the “Minors” hangar at RAF Westcott, Buckinghamshire doing 50 hour checks on the Vickers Wellingtons of 11 Operational Training Unit, part of Bomber Command's 92 Group. This changed suddenly, and with a whole group of 'Other Trades,’ I found myself being shipped off to Northolt, Middlesex, to a holding unit called '6069 SE'.
We were transferring to the 2nd Tactical Air Force, the invasion air force - the '6' was the clue, the '69' told us we were to join 69 Squadron. We wondered which aircraft the unit would fly. Surely the Wellington was too old and slow to be of use to an invasion force?
May 1, our group reported to Northolt. SNAFU – no one knew what ‘6069 SE’ was! We were there for three days before someone claimed us. On the far wooded side of Northolt, 34 Wing, 2nd TAF, resided in tents. Consisting of 16 Squadron and its blue and pink Supermarine Spitfire XIS, and 40 Squadron with its blue DH Mosquito IXs and XVls, it was a photo-recce wing.
No.69 Squadron was to join 34 Wing, but it was not until May 5 that it arrived - at least some of the aircrew did. About a week after we arrived, we were surprised, to say the least, when three gleaming white Wellington XIII pitched up. They were equipped with a whole bunch of antennae - which led us to call them 'Sticklebacks' - plus a two-gun front turret, a four-gun rear and a single Vickers 'K' amidships.
I was assigned to one of these white beauties, and ordered to inspect it. What a joke, we had no tools except for our RAF issue pocket knife which had a screwdriver blade on the end of it. This was enough to take the cowlings off, to visually check for leaks, and then run the engines up and give them their various checks, such as looking for magneto drops. Lucky for me, there were none, and I was able to sign my first Form 700 for a Wellington of our re-formed unit.
It was during this early period, that King George VI paid us a visit to wish us well on the forthcoming invasion. We were lined up on the perimeter track, waved and took our hats off to him as he drove by in his RAF uniform. We were then picked up by a lorry and transported to another portion of the perimeter track, where we went through the same performance again as our C-in-C drove by us once more.
By now we had some tools, but as soon as we had got them, we lost our aircraft. They were sent back from whence they came to be brought up to the standards required for our new job, which was to be 2nd TAF slow-flying night photo reconnaissance squadron.
We could hardly recognize our Wellingtons when they came back, the Browning in the front turret had disappeared, and the slots in the turret had been covered up by tape, the turret was also disconnected from its power source in the port engine. All the 'Stickleback' antennae had gone, along with the 'K' gun, but the biggest shock was its new form of dress, the wings and fuselage were now covered in green and grey camouflage. A new camera system was also installed which included a flash cartridge dispenser.
We were now ready to prepare our crews for war-- we had the month of May to get operational. It was during this period of training, that I was to get my first flight in a Wellington when I completed a cross-country training flight with New Zealander Flight Sergeant Fairmaid. He lost his life when we later operated from Belgium.
Our flight commander Mike Shaw became the Squadron CO, and led us right up until August 1945 when we were disbanded in Holland. While all this cross-country training was taking place, our tactics were devised - at first our aircraft were to fly to their target area at 5,000ft (1,525m), drop flares and if a target was found, dive down under the flares to 1,000ft and take photographs.
On examination of the results, it was decided that 1,000ft was too high for really clear photos, so the tactics were adjusted and our Wellingtons were advised to fly down as low as 500ft or less before turning on the cameras. No.69 Squadron went operational at the end of May and took part in photographing many of the areas in Normandy prior to D-Day. We had our first loss over the Normandy area at Carpiquet airfield.
Foothold In France
Our first hint that D-Day was nearly upon us, was when the order came down to paint black and white stripes on the wings and fuselages of our 'Wimpys'. Then khaki battle dress was issued.
When it came time to leave Northolt and head for Normandy, the ground echelon, '6069' made a stop at Salisbury-Plain to get issued with lifebelts, K-rations and a roll of toilet paper each. I took one look at the skimpy item they called a life belt, and realised that as a non-swimmer, the silly thing would never hold me up, so I went around again and collected another lifebelt, K-ration pack and toilet roll!
We left England from The Hard at Gosport, our ships were LCTs- Landing Craft, Tank - and for company we had a batch of Sherman tanks. Our destination was the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches. Our first home in Normandy was airstrip Aiz in the US area at Balleroi, built in the middle of apple orchards. Flying from an airstrip was a novelty for the unit, and the three squadrons of 34 Wing seemed to be hidden away from one another. Aiz was also the home of a USAAF Republic P-47 Thunderbolt group.
Our largest operation up to that time had been the photo reconnaissance sorties we had made over the Seine River in aid of the Canadian Army. It was on these sorties that our aircraft met the fiercest opposition of the war. Many of the photos taken did not reveal any ground targets, but instead showed nothing but 'Flaming Onions' and other types of enemy fire tearing through the sky at us. That we did a good job was made clear to us in a letter of recommendation from the C-in-C of the Canadians who crossed the Seine.
We followed the advancing armies, and Glicy, just outside Amiens, was to be our next stop. With this move, we decided to discard our khaki and revert to our own blue battledress. As we drove through Caen in our Bedford lorries, the French started to scowl at us, raise their fists and spit at us- what a way to treat their liberators! Later it dawned on us, that they had not seen RAF 'blues' since 1940, and thought we were German prisoners.
After this, we found ourselves back at Aiz again. Here we became a democratic squadron - to save the bother of creating three messes, it was decided that Officers, Senior NCOs and Other Ranks would all mess together.
It was soon made known why we had returned to Aiz. The advance had been stopped due to a shortage of fuel - we were to remedy that shortage. All members of the squadron who held RAF driving licenses were shipped off to Arromanches, where they were issued with lorries to haul supplies to the Amiens area. The rest of us had to service our Wellingtons in the blazing heat of the day, and then spend the rest of that day and night, loading five-gallon Jerry cans of petrol into them until they were stuffed full.
Our Wellingtons were to fly their load of fuel to Glicy, where they were unloaded with haste; they then flew back to Aiz for another load. This went on for roughly eight days, in blazing sun during the day, and cold rain over night. I caught a bout of ague from this and for the few hours of sleep we managed to catch each night, I spent them shivering and shaking. Relief was at hand, one day a bunch of museum pieces dropped from the sky and took over – Handley Page Harrows.
Tired and dirty, we made our way at last to Glicy. Thankfully our stay was short, the airfield was protected by the French Army of Liberation, many of them 15 and 16 year olds. If you were accosted at night by these soldiers, you had better know the password or you would hear a 0.303 whizzing by your ear.
From Glicy, we moved on to Melsbroek airfield just outside of Brussels, on September 26, to be close to the 2nd TAF’s HQ. As Brussels had only been liberated earlier in the month, we were still getting royal receptions as we drove through the town. We pitched our tents on the airfield, and very soon after, we were to ‘unpitched’ them. From out of the blue, a heavy snow fall hit us, covering all and sundry.
Soon after, we were lucky enough to be placed inside an unused hangar. For heat we acquired a number of chimneyless wood stoves. We kept them stoked up all night, though in the mornings, we would wake up covered in an inch of wood ash.
I was in ‘M’ flight and we were ordered down to a strip of grass that was to be our flight line, our Wellingtons were coming in that day. Another SNAFU - the area was covered with bombs, just lying around waiting to blow up. We were ordered to clear our new flight line of these nasty leftovers. With fingers crossed, we kicked and rolled away enough bombs to start a war with - none blew up. As the last bomb was moved, the first of our aircraft arrived, followed soon after by the rest of the flight's Wellingtons.
We began operations, but all that snow was now melted and the ground was like a quagmire. Soon our aircraft were getting stuck in ruts other aircraft had left behind as they were pushed, pulled or towed from their parking spots.
We were ordered to fill in the ruts, but nobody said what with. The only materials we had for that job were the bombs we had shoved to the back of the flight line. So we pushed and rolled them back from whence they had come, but this time, we deposited them into the ruts and covered them with mud. We walked and taxied our aircraft from the flight as though we were tip-toeing through the tulips.
Many of our operations were now in aid of the US 9th Army, for the advance on our front was stalled in Holland, but we were to lose aircraft and crews. One loss was Flight Sergeant Fairmaid, who I had made my first Wellington flight with. He is buried, with his crew, in Evere Cemetery. Then Flight Officer Tinker (Distinguished Flying Cross), while flying in our circuit, was shot down by Allied AA guns. All the crew, except for the rear gunner, died. He survived when his turret broke loose as the Wellington hit the ground.
While at Melsbroek, our Wellingtons played many roles apart from our night PR work. When Group Capt Ogilvy, our Wing Commander, failed to return from a met flight in a 16Squadron Spitfire, we were ordered out to search over the North Sea - he was never found. We even joined the Navy for awhile, when each day a number of our Wellingtons flew to Knocke, there to take on depth charges and help the Fleet Air Arm chase midget submarines down the Channel. Meanwhile, we were also checking out German jet airfields and got into a few air fights with the Luftwaffe. Though they were unable to dispose of us, we did reduce their numbers, one in particular, when a 'M' Flight rear gunner shot down a Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter.
Dawn Of A New Year
Christmas saw us fogged in and we resumed our operations again, just in time for New Year. War or no war, we celebrated the New Year coming in and on January 1, 1945, it was a lot of heavy headed airmen that made their way to the flight line, me among them.
Climbing into the cockpit of my Wellington, '129', while waiting for the cylinder head temperature to climb prior to running the engines up and testing them, I glanced out of the cockpit window. There before my eyes were a bunch of fighters beating up the airfield. It was not until little holes started to appear in my Wellington that I realised, those aircraft were German and we were under attack. This was the Luftwaffe's Operation BODENPLATTE - nearly 500 Allied aircraft were destroyed in this series of raids.
As our Wellingtons began to burn, I made a hasty exit, only to be thrown down to the ground by a hot burning pain in my right side, I had been wounded. The next six weeks, I was away in hospital along with many others. We had five killed that day and 25 wounded, and we lost all but two of our aircraft. I did not get to see how efficiently Tommy Kinch re supplied the squadron with new Welling tons. When I got back in late February I was given a new Wellington, '535', and a new crew, under another New Zealander, Flight Sergeant Dave Richie. I made many flights with Dave and company, including one to Denmark that found us force-landing in Germany at Wunsdorf.
Our targets were getting fewer and the armies were beginning to move again after the winter stalemate. We were also on the move again, this time to Eindhoven in Holland. Our time here was pretty dull - a few 'ops' over the Wesel area, and a lot of daytime sight-seeing flights but we did enjoy two periods while there.
The first was May 4, when the Germans facing the 21st Army Group surrendered on Luneberg Heath, we helped the Dutch celebrate their VH (Victory Holland) Day. Four days later, on May 8, the full surrender was made to Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder. We left the airfield and made our way to Brussels to help our Belgian friends celebrate the end of the war in Europe.
While we were still at Melsbroek, the BBC announced that the last Wellington operational squadron in Europe had been disbanded. We still had one more important mission to fulfil. ‘M’ Flight was detached to Aalborg in Denmark to fly over the Skagerrak along the coast of Norway to drop flares at chosen spots, so that surveyors could take readings to help remap that part of the country.
On August 7, 1945, we were disbanded and returned to England. It could now truly be said that there were no more Wellington squadrons operational in Europe. We did not want to make liars out of the BBC!
The Wellington Bomber
The Vickers Wellington was a British twin-engine, medium bomber designed in the mid-1930s at Brooklands in Weybridge, Surrey, by Vickers-Armstrong’s' Chief Designer, R.K. Pierson. It was widely used in the first two years of World War II, before being replaced as a bomber by much larger four-engine designs like the Avro Lancaster. The Wellington was popularly known as 'the Wimpy' by service personnel, after J. Wellington Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons. The Wellington used a unique geodetic construction designed by the famous Barnes Wallis for airships and used to build the Vickers Wellesley bomber. The fuselage was built up from a number of steel channel-beams that were formed into a large network. This gave the plane tremendous strength because any one of the stringers could support some of the weight from even the opposite side of the plane. Blowing out one side's beams would still leave the plane as a whole intact. Wellingtons with huge holes cut out of them continued to return home when other planes would not have survived.