World War II
With the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, No. 4 Sqn was ordered to prepare to move to
France under the control of 50 (Army Co-operation) Wing as part of the Air Component of the British
Expeditionary Force, under the command of Air Vice Marshal Blount, an ex-commander of 4 Sqn. Lorries
were requisitioned from wherever they could be found, and frequent parades were held at Hook railway
station to practice entrainment. These were understandably not a popular part of the squadron routine,
but they did give plenty of opportunity for kit inspections and the like.
When the order was finally given for the move, it went off without a hitch; the technical kit
and tentage being moved by road in convoy to Southampton on 23 Sept, with the majority of the personnel
following by train, taking ship on the SS Maid of Orleans. By the following day, the Squadron was
safely established at Mons-en-Chausee, about twenty miles east of Amiens. Although many were not aware
of it, the area which the Squadron would be covering was the same one which it had covered during the
Great War over twenty years before.
Unfortunately the lorries with all the personal kit on them had become lost somewhere along the
way from Cherbourg and the airmen were without either blankets or kit. The lost vehicles eventually
arrived a week later, but in the meantime blankets and rations had to be drawn from the French air
force. The rations caused quite a stir as although the bread, jam and Camembert cheese suited the
British palate, the horsemeat decidedly did not.
Conditions at Mons-en-Chausee were primitive and as the airfield was being shared by almost
all the Air Component, accommodation was slightly lacking. Personnel were scattered about in
various buildings in the local village, ranging from the old brewery near the river for the
groundcrew and non-commissioned aircrew to a disused sugar beet factory for the cooks and other
attached personnel. Commissioned aircrew were billeted under canvas on the aerodrome itself.
It wasn't long before off-duty forays were made to the local village and the fact that a
small cafe just outside the village served Excelsior Brown Ale was met with great rejoicing.
Unfortunately, the French attitude to beer being what it was, disappointment was soon rife when
it was found that the ale had been watered down, and to quote Paddy McAleese, who was an LAC
air gunner at the time, "was like gnats water." Soon however it was discovered that the
landlord served a suitable substitute in the form of Cointreau or Cherry Brandy in half-pint
glasses, and the little cafe became the standard off-duty meeting place for 4 Sqn personnel.
Missions were commenced as soon as the Squadron was ready, and these consisted of
familiarisation missions for the aircrew as well as photographic missions. Advantage was taken
of these flights to train up many of the Squadron groundcrew as unofficial air gunners, but
understandably, this was a rather unpopular pastime. The area covered by patrols was from the
Belgian border to the Maginot Line. Pretty soon the pilots and their crews came to know the
region like the back of their hand, but this didn't stop them occasionally straying into
Belgian airspace. The Belgian gunners invariably informed them about their faux pas, however,
by firing off a few rounds of flak, resulting in the British pilots scurrying back to the right
side of the border.
Congestion at Mons-en-Chaussee led to No. 4 Sqn being relocated at the satellite airfield of
Monchy-Lagache on 3 October, but as this was only a few miles down the road, the crews kept their
original billets. A detachment was kept at Ronchin, one of the cluster of aerodromes around Lille,
and each Flight took it in turns to provide the aircraft and personnel for the duty, a change of
Flight being made every week. Once more, forays were made to determine the best of the local hostelries,
and the Tavern Lillevois became the meeting place. The great advantage with this Tavern was the tram
stop just outside, which took late night revellers directly back to their billet, which being a house
on the outskirts of Lille, was considerably more comfortable than the rough quarters back at Monchy.
So the squadron settled down to the routine of the "Phoney War". Many of the airmen found a
cheap way of getting cigarettes. Letters were written to the big cigarette manufacturers, offering
essays about the "adventures" of British troops in France. These were duly written, usually with a
fair amount of "artistic licence", and exchanged for tins of fifty cigarettes.
This easy life continued throughout the winter, and despite the indications of the perils to
come, the greatest danger to 4 Sqn personnel was the ever present one of being bored to death. The
weather deteriorated rapidly during the early part of November, and as the airfields turned into
quagmires and flying was perforce cancelled, attention turned to attempts to stave off the boredom.
Frequent parades and kit inspections were expected and received, and sports afternoons became more
and more prevalent. Sightseeing trips to the Maginot Line were arranged, as they were for virtually
any British serviceman who expressed an interest, and these only served to lull people ever more
into a false sense of security. Hitler's November 12th deadline for his offensive into France came
and went, unbeknown to the Allies, postponed by the appalling weather, and the New Year arrived with
only occasional skirmishes to disturb the false peace.
With the arrival of the spring, and the increase of equipment from twelve to eighteen aircraft
in March, operations could again commence, and warning was received of the anticipated German attack.
But when the blow fell on 10 May 1940, it was greater than anyone had expected.
At dawn, German formations attacked along the borders of Holland and Belgium, punching through
the weak armies of those countries and heading for the Channel ports and the French border. A frantic
request for help from the Belgians led to BEF units moving forward and advancing to engage the German
formations as far into Belgium as they could.
The blitzkrieg started early for No. 4 Sqn as at first light the airfield at Monchy-Lagache was
raided by a formation of Heinkel bombers. Fortunately little damage was caused, and there were no
casualties, but now the Squadron realised that the holiday was over. With the BEF II Corps moving
into Belgium, No. 4 Sqn was tasked with reconnaissance and contact patrols and as soon as the ground
units moved, aircraft from 4 Sqn crossed the border into hostile airspace in Belgium, four hours
ahead of Allied troops. From 0915 hrs onwards, missions were flown but as contact with the enemy had
not yet been made, there were no losses. There were various engagements with German fighters, but they
were mostly inconclusive. Although the rest of the RAF in France was taking a battering, the Air
Component seemed to be standing up nicely.
Of primary importance was the location of a suitable advanced landing ground in Belgium. On the
following day, (11th) all crews were briefed to keep an eye out for suitable fields, whilst Flt Lt
Campbell-Voullaire received instructions to reconnoitre various known landing grounds. This he did,
reporting that all could be made suitable. However, the CO, Wg Cdr Charles, decided to use a field he
had found at Aspelaere, as not being marked as a landing ground on any maps, was unlikely to be known
to the Germans. A Royal Engineer construction company was despatched to the site, and it was hoped to
operate from it within a few days. Plans were also put into action to disperse aircraft back to Monchy
every night, so decreasing the chances of losing all the aircraft on the ground in a bombing raid.
On 13 May,with II Corps dug in along the River Dyle, No. 4 Sqn commenced reporting on enemy
movements, and immediately started taking losses. First contact with enemy troops was made at
Tirlemont by Plt Off Bill Malins and LAC Ginger Drewitt, who were lucky to come through the very
heavy anti-aircraft fire unscathed. Enemy fighters were encountered in increasing numbers, and
although, with luck and skill, they could be evaded, as one 4 Sqn pilot found when he was set upon
by nine Messerschmitt Bf 109s but returned safely to base despite having taken 32 hits. However,
Fg Off Vaughan and AC Mold, his gunner were not so lucky. They failed to return from a recce mission
in P9063, and there were no reports as to what had happened. Similarly, the following day Fg Off
Clarke and his gunner, AC Rodalson in L4742, TV-B , and Plt Off Barbaur and Cpl Waters in L4745 were
lost in two separate incidents, while Plt Off Hankey and Sgt Lewis in P1711 were injured in a crash.
On 16 May 1940, the whole Squadron moved from Monchy to Ronchin, with the detached flight,
currently B Flt, taking up position at Aspelaere. This was basically a small field by a crossroads,
and although conditions were primitive, it was hoped to fly close support missions from here.
Unfortunately it seems that a German spotter aircraft noticed the Lysanders landing, and the
aerodrome was immediately attacked by a large formation of Junkers JU87 Stuka dive-bombers. Damage
was minimal and there were no casualties, and despite the attack, the flight managed to carry out
its assigned missions. By this time the BEF was in full retreat from the Dyle, so B Flt was put at
30 mins mobility and moved back to Ronchin. This was just as well, because the ground was now within
range of German artillery, and the withdrawal was hampered by bouts of shelling.
A fortunate instance occurred when it was discovered that the German light reconnaissance
troops were using, not the expected tanks and armoured cars, which had been taking a heavy toll of
Allied recce aircraft, but motorcycles and sidecars. The Lysander proved to be an ideal weapon
against these troops, and B Flt were able to take out their frustrations, provided that there were
no Messerschmitts in the area. Unfortunately, the loss of the light reconnaissance elements only
slowed the German advance momentarily.
By this time the morale of the Squadron had been crushed, and an unfortunate incident occurred
on the night of 17 May. The adjutant, Flt Lt Bencher, came across some of the truck drivers stealing
rations from the cooks wagon, and he arrested them. Fully intending to hold a field court martial,
he was persuaded by the Sqn Warrant Officer, WO Wallace, to wait until the flight was withdrawn to
safety. Unfortunately, the following night, more airmen were caught filching food, but on closer
examination they were found to be aircrew, dressed in NCO's uniforms stolen from the stores wagon.
However all disciplinary action was abandoned the following day when the Squadron received orders
to withdraw to Boulogne, and so the convoys were readied in two echelons. The groundcrew of the first
echelon, under the command of Fg Off King got away handily, but the aircraft were caught soon after
take-off by six Messerschmitt Bf 110s. A running fight ensued, with the Lysander pilots relying
heavily on their low speed at very low altitude to force the large German Zerstorers to overshoot.
The majority escaped, and one 4 Sqn crew even claimed to have shot down one of the enemy fighters.
However Plt Offs Plumb and Oldacres and their crews were shot down and killed. Plumb had only been
with the Squadron for a week.
The convoy under Fg Off King stopped at Merville, where they were bombed by ten Heinkel He 111s,
but luckily there was no damage or casualties. On arrival at Boulogne, King was instructed to proceed
to Clairmarais, as the Squadron was to operate from there.
Hasty anti-aircraft defences were devised, with some .303 Browning machine guns which had been
salvaged from the unrepairable wrecks of Lysanders which now littered the airfield being erected on
twin mountings built by the Squadron riggers.
Although replacement aircraft and personnel reached the Squadron, the murderous attrition rate
could not be maintained. To compound the troubles, Ronchin was subjected to an artillery barrage
which lasted for 48 hours. Again damage and casualties were extensive and the Squadron was told to
withdraw to Clairmarais, which most pilots knew as St Omer. The convoys were readied in quick time,
and most of the heavy equipment was destroyed rather than risking it falling into enemy hands.
Despite the setbacks, everyone firmly believed that the Squadron would be returning to the
airfield, and so the Squadron flag and safe were buried in a wooded area at the edge of the
airfield. The safe contained a large number of French francs and all the Squadron records
appertaining to the stay in France. Obviously these were never recovered and so the little that
we know today about Squadron experiences during the withdrawal through France has been gleaned
from letters written to the squadron in later years.
With a lull in the shelling on 22 May all the remaining serviceable Lysanders took off to
head for Clairmarais. However the respite was a deliberate ploy by the Germans to allow a bombing
raid on the airfield, and the aircraft ran head on into a force of about fifty enemy aircraft;
Dornier Do 17 bombers and their escort of Messerschmitt Bf 109s and 110's. The surviving 4 Sqn
aircraft were forced to scatter and this marked the end of B and C Flts as an effective fighting
force. However there were many other trials for the Squadron.
A Flight groundcrew and the Headquarters section reached Clairmarais and met up with three
aircraft which had found their way out of the melee over Ronchin. From there 4 Sqn continued to
support the British withdrawal as best it could, absorbing the survivors of A Flt of 13 Sqn, which
had been decimated in the previous two days.
One Lysander crew, Pilot Officer Gerry Scott and LAC Paddy McAleese, were forced to head for
the airfield at St Pol, where they landed only to be met by an Army major who informed them that the
airfield had been evacuated. He asked them to look for some German tanks which were reportedly in
the vicinity as he had some troops and guns acting as a rearguard and so Scott and McAleese took off
again to carry out the search. After failing to find the enemy, they were returning to St Pol when
they came across the Germans quite by chance, and were hit by machine-gun fire. They cleared the
area, but were obliged to make a forced landing to assess the damage. They found 23 bullet holes in
the aircraft, with some minor engine damage, one cylinder having been holed. It was now late evening,
so they decided to spend the night there, after repairing the damage as best they could.
Next morning they were woken by a Frenchman who said that the German tanks were only a mile
down the road, and so they hastily made preparations to take-off. To their chagrin they found that
the aircraft battery was flat and wouldn't turn the engine at first. They were just about to resign
themselves to death or captivity when the engine caught, and they managed to take-off right under
the noses of the Germans, who opened fire. There was nothing for it now, and the crew flew to
England, landing at Ford in Sussex. This airfield was still part civilian, and after refuelling and
receiving instructions that other 4 Sqn aircraft had been seen at Hawkinge, the surprised airmen in
their clearly battle- damaged Lysander were stopped by a white-coated civilian who demanded they pay
7s 6d landing fee! At Hawkinge, they found nothing but confusion and a harassed flying controller
who tried to persuade them to load supplies and fly to Calais. Luckily they received instructions to
report to Detling, to where by this time the surviving aircrew had been withdrawn, meeting Malins and
As has been explained, some of the survivors from Ronchin arrived at Clairmarais, but there the
Squadron was told to abandon all their transport on the airfield, destroy all their documents, and
withdraw to Dunkirk. This order had come from GHQ, but the Air Component had instructed 4 Sqn to stay
put, so Sqn Ldr Maffett took a car to visit GHQ to get a ruling. By midnight Maffett had not returned
and a search party was organised in case his car had broken down. The search party returned with the
news that the bridges into St Omer were barricaded, and that there was no sign of Maffett. The
adjutant took the initiative and ordered the Squadron to withdraw to Dunkirk.
The convoys moved off at 0100 hrs on 22 May, and were met en route by Sqn Ldr Maffett and the
rear party of Air Component HQ, reaching Dunkirk at 0830 hrs. They suffered six attacks by Heinkels
on the way and as the convoy approached Dunkirk it was attacked by a formation of dive- bombers, with
severe loss of life amongst the 4 Sqn members. The survivors, under the command of WO Wallace, buried
their dead in a field beside the wreckage of their transport and straggled into Dunkirk on foot. That
night they embarked on the SS St Helier, arriving at Dover at 2130 hrs.
The remainder of B Flt were following to Clairmarais. On their arrival the flight set about
salvaging what equipment they could, and recommenced flying reconnaissance missions. However the
British position in France was untenable, and on 24 May Major Fontaine, CO of the AA defence of the
area, visited Clairmarais with information that a heavy contingent of tanks were about to overrun the
area. All aircraft were flown off at 0430hrs and the groundcrew were withdrawn to Dunkirk. A final
recce flight was made as soon as the convoy had cleared the airfield, and Sqn Ldr Charles and Plt
Off Falconer returned to Clairmarais to destroy everything of value left behind, including the
Squadrons DH.89 "hack" and 5,000 gallons of fuel.
On arrival at Dunkirk the remaining 4 Sqn Lysanders, the last operational British aircraft in
France, were withdrawn to Hawkinge. Eventually the groundcrew embarked on HMS Wild Swan for the
return to the UK.
By this time No. 4 Sqn had received orders to reform at Ringway; now Manchester Airport, and
so after a nights rest at an Army depot outside Dover, the dejected members of B Flt were put on a
train and reunited with the remainder of the Squadron.
In the period 10 to 23 May 1940, No. 4 Sqn had flown 106 combat sorties and lost all but eleven
of their aircraft and all of their technical equipment and transport. Although nine aircrews (ie
eighteen persons) had been killed, the groundcrew had sustained over 60% casualties. The Squadron
was in shreds.
Decorations which were awarded to 4 Sqn included DFCs to Flt Lts Campbell-Voullaire and Barton,
Plt Off Langley and Capt Hill, and LACs Allen and Drewitt both received the DFM.
With time on their hands many of the Squadron personnel could be found in Listons Bar in
Manchester Picadilly, and as all the Squadrons' aircraft had been withdrawn there were all sorts of
rumours about replacement types; there was a general dissatisfaction with the Lysander by this time
and so most people were hoping for either Blenheims or Defiants. The new equipment arrived on 28 May
and to the chagrin of all they were Lysanders again.
With the arrival of the aircraft, and replacements for all the personnel lost in France, it was
business as usual. Ground defence courses were held, from which no one was exempt, and the long slow
work up back to operational readiness began. However with the Germans expected to invade at any minute,
availability of military transport was minimal, and so when the Squadron was moved to a more permanent
base at Linton-on-Ouse, on 7 June, buses had to be borrowed from Manchester Corporation.
Operations commenced immediately, with dawn patrols being flown up and down the coast looking for
invasion barges. With the occasional invasion scares, the Squadron was frequently put on alert and all
personnel recalled from leave. However with there being more aircrews than missions available and
pilots taking the air gunners slots on many missions, many of the non-commissioned aircrew were forced
to take what sorties they could with 58 Sqn's Whitleys, which were detached to Linton at the time.
August 1940 saw an increase in enemy activity over the British Isles, and with the Battle of
Britain approaching its height, there was a strong need for rescue aircraft to be based around the
southern shores of England. Therefore the AC squadrons were tasked with providing a detachment at
Manston in Kent, for the express purpose of Air-Sea Rescue. Each of four Lysander squadrons were to
provide three crews and aircraft in month-long detachments. The first three crews left Linton early in
the month and on 20 August carried out the first successful rescue. However the ASR role was a rather
dangerous one and with enemy fighters ranging over the English Channel it was only a matter of time
before one of the Lysanders would be lost. This occurred late in August, with Plt Off Empson and Sgt
Gethin being posted missing. No trace was ever found of their aircraft.
On 27 August 1940 the Squadron moved its base once again, this time only a short distance to
Clifton, on the outskirts of York, and the next month saw the delivery of the Mk.III version of the
Lysander. September also saw the loss of Plt Offs Knight and Edwards to enemy fighters whilst on an
Eventually the Battle of Britain came to an end, but the ASR Flight was maintained at Manston,
and the main squadron settled down to concentrate on an intensive training programme.
Ever since the return from France, there had been deep discussion, sometimes verging an acrimony,
between the Army and the RAF, as to the best tactics and techniques for Army Co-operation. Both
parties conceded that the system used throughout the Great War and through the twenties and thirties
was no longer credible. The main role was still artillery observation, which required a slow stable
aircraft to remain on station for long periods. Clearly this was folly, as an aircraft flying this
sort of mission was an open invitation to enemy fighter intervention.
The second role was tactical reconnaissance, and here the folly was even greater. An aircraft
designed to fly slowly could in no way be expected to carry out a low level recce of enemy positions
against modern anti- aircraft weapons and determined crews, and was just as vulnerable to that old
bugbear, the fighter. Clearly, a total rethink of tactics and equipment was required.
As usual, the British Press thought they had the answer. Day after day, articles in the
newspapers clamoured for the RAF to be equipped with large numbers of dive-bombers along the lines
of the Luftwaffe. This the Air Ministry refused to do, and it was bitterly castigated by the press
and the public, both of whom failed to see that it was not the Stuka alone that caused the amazing
successes of the Wehrmacht, but the combined use of both air and ground forces. In the event the Air
Staff never ordered dive-bombers in any great numbers, and as it turned out, this was the correct
The answer to the problem was seen to be the formation of Army Co- Operation Command, intended
to work more closely with the Army, to improve tactics and, once re-equipment had been carried out,
to develop new techniques. The Command was formed on 1 December 1940, under the command of Air
Marshal Sir Arthur Barratt. It was split into two Groups; No.71 consisted of the dozen AC
squadrons which were still flying the venerable Lysander; the second, No.70 was to control policy,
training and administration of the Command. Unfortunately Barratt had no operational control over
his squadrons and matters remained much as they had been before the formation of the unit. Army
Co-Operation Command was still a force with outdated equipment and tactics, although the bravery
and devotion to duty of its members was never brought into doubt. However there was no question of
it being allowed into action for the time being.
No. 4 Sqn was engaged in an intensive training period but there were occasional bouts of
excitement. Two days before Christmas the flying programme was cancelled due to an air raid warning.
A damaged Whitley returning from an operation with a full load of bombs attempted a forced landing
at Clifton and struck a stationary Lysander. Both went up in flames, and fire-fighting attempts
were hampered by exploding bombs from the Whitley. To cap it all, a marauding German bomber joined
in the fun, but luckily his aiming was so bad that he missed the airfield completely.
However, 4 Sqn's second wartime Christmas passed peacefully, as the airfield at Clifton was
snowed in, although the winter was not nearly as bad as the previous one. So ended 1940, which was
probably the most traumatic year the Squadron had to live through.
January 1941 dawned quite inauspiciously for 4 Sqn. Although New Years Day was granted as a
half-day holiday, flying was carried out during the afternoon, mainly training for the new
signallers posted in. After all, there was a war on. Thereafter the weather closed in, four inches
of snow having fallen overnight. Snow-clearing equipment was hastily borrowed and the runway was
cleared, allowing minimal flying. Various methods of snow clearance were tried, the most
efficacious being found to be spraying brine from the air.
With the slimmed down flying program, time was deemed to be hanging heavily on everyone's
hands, and so Wg Cdr Saunders commenced a programme of lectures for all ranks. On the 8th the
lecture was "Qualifications for Promotion to Corporal", but as time went on and the weather
failed to improve, lecture subjects went from the mundane to the ridiculous.
"Sanitation", the usual lecture on the dangers of VD gave way to "RAF equipment and the
Obtaining thereof"; "The Supply and Demanding of equipment and the Accounting thereof" and,
scraping the bottom of the barrel, "Publications, Forms, etc, use of." Luckily the decision was
taken to allow personnel to take days off before even more arcane subjects could be sought.
The weather did not put paid to flying altogether, however, and led indirectly to the first
loss for the Squadron of 1941. On the 15th, Plt Off Tennant was reported overdue whilst ferrying
a new Lysander from Kemble to Clifton. Three days later the wreck of his aircraft was located, it
being clear that Tennant had flown into a hillside on Ilkley Moor in a snowstorm and had been killed.
The bad weather dragged on into February 1941, but now there was an added distraction to Squadron
life. Northern Command gave notice that German invasion forces were expected to use gas, and so all
personnel should be well versed in the use of their gas masks and decontamination procedures.
Accordingly various times were set aside for anti-gas practice. This involved the wearing of gas
masks for normal work and understandably was heartily disliked by everyone. However everyone got
steadily used to the masks and so greater and greater times were spent in practice. Eventually full
anti-gas exercises were carried out, with an added incentive to get things right; tear-gas was used
to simulate mustard gas! The weather finally allowed a return to a full flying programme towards the
end of the month, and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. The only aircrew who had been getting any
decent training had been the air gunners, who had regularly been out clay pigeon shooting on the
airfield! Although a relatively peaceful routine, there were occasional reminders of the war; for
instance on 19 February a formation of German aircraft raided York. Although all personnel took
cover, no bombs were dropped on the airfield.
The routine which the Squadron settled into for the next twelve months was one of intensive
training. The photographic reconnaissance capability of the Lysander was exploited to the full with
mapping flights to update the Army's maps of the East Yorkshire area, and sorties were made to
various ranges every day for dive bombing and air- to-ground and air-to-air gunnery practice. On the
days when flying was impossible due to the weather, lectures on various subjects (usually useful, such
as "Air Attacks on Enemy Occupied Beaches") were given and the rest of the day dedicated to "bull".
Saturday mornings were usually reserved for PT parades in the local Railway Institute hall.
At first glance 4 Sqn seems to have been having an easy time, whilst the rest of the country was
fighting for its life. Appearances can be deceptive however. It must be realised that at this time
Great Britain was separated from the German forces by the English channel, and there was simply nothing
for an Army Co-operation squadron to do in the way of active duty. Furthermore, even if there was, there
is questionable logic in pitting a slow vulnerable aircraft such as the Lysander against determined
fighter opposition. The folly of such tactics had been amply demonstrated in France in the previous year.
The search was on for a more efficacious aircraft for Army Co-operation work.
Moreover, the Squadron was proving to be a valuable training unit for both aircrew and groundcrew
who were continually being posted in and out. Large numbers of personnel, mostly groundcrew and
air-gunners, were posted away en masse to provide a nucleus of experienced people for the formation of
new squadrons, notably 138 Sqn and 161 (Special Duties) Sqn.
The peaceful routine was not a "peacetime" routine, however. Crews were given their chance at
action by regular detachments to Manston for duties with the Rescue Flight. By this time all the
aircraft had had a small bomb container fitted to their sponsons containing a dinghy and survival gear;
these could be dropped to any aircrew who had abandoned their aircraft without a dinghy, and so the
Lysanders became very useful as SAR aircraft. Now that the Battle of Britain was over, Fighter
Command had commenced offensive fighter sweeps over the Channel, and damaged aircraft were likely to
ditch in the sea off Kent. Added to that, there was always the possibility of a stricken bomber crew
being found afloat. Therefore the Rescue Flight was kept rather busy, and the workload was increased
by the use of the Lysander to search for magnetic mines.
On 14 February a large force of Bf.109s crossed the coast at Dover and were immediately engaged
by Spitfires. The resulting missing aircraft reports kept the Flight busy for a couple of days.
Unfortunately the nature of the Rescue Flight's work; long patrols in hostile airspace, frequently
without fighter cover, led to the aircraft and their crews being extremely vulnerable to enemy
fighters. On 27 February 1941, Plt Off Fowler had a bad fright when he was attacked by four
Messerschmitts, but luckily they were driven off by a Spitfire. However on 4 May, the Bf.109
once again proved the obsolescence of the Lysander design when pitted against modern fighters.
Plt Off Edwards and his gunner, Sgt Knight in T1690 were set upon by three Messerschmitts and
were shot down and killed.
This then was the daily routine of most squadrons which were not engaged on operations. Although
the units of Bomber and Fighter Commands had the more glamorous jobs and were continually in the
public eye, most of the Air Force just carried on with their thankless, but essential tasks.
Despite being an outdated design, and being rather a liability in its designed role, the
Lysander was still being developed, and by now the Mk. IIIA version was ready for service. The first
five of these aircraft were delivered direct from the manufacturers on 13 May and the rest of the
day was devoted to acceptance checks and harmonisation of weapons. There were problems however,
and only two aircraft were fully serviceable by the following day. These were accordingly delivered
to the Rescue Flight at Manston.
Once the new aircraft were serviceable, however, training continued in the same vein as before.
The Mk.IIIs were withdrawn and although the replacements only arrived in a trickle, owing to pilot
shortages in the Air Transport Auxiliary, a full training programme was initiated with the three
Lysanders available. This included dusk and dark landings, formation flying, low-level and dive
bombing and airborne morse practice. The establishment was increased and new pilots were posted in
to make up the numbers.
On 1 June 1941, Wg Cdr Saunders again gained command of the Squadron, but little was to
change for a few months. Pilot Officers Mould and Theys were unfortunately killed in a training
crash at Scarborough on the 4th.
The seemingly interminable round of exercises continued, with detachments to Acklington to
support the Northumberland Division in June; to Blackburn for Exercise "MOOR" in July and Air
Firing Camp at Weston Zoyland in August.
August was the traditional month for inspections and the annual formal inspection of the
squadron was carried out on the 5th by General Sir Alan F. Brooke, KCB, DSO, GOC-in-C Home
forces and the AOC 71 Gp, Air Vice Marshal P.C. Maltby, CB, DSO, AFC, both of whom inspected
the Guard of Honour and Squadron personnel as well as the defence posts and aircraft. AVM
Maltby seems to have enjoyed his treatment so much however, that he returned six days later,
for an impromptu inspection. The Squadron was not caught out, however.
Unfortunately, the Lysander squadrons of Army Co-Operation Command were now redundant.
The use of large, cumbersome aircraft for artillery observation was finally recognised as a
tactical blunder. The aircraft which the Corps squadrons had used during the Great War were
small and light; ideally suited for the purpose, but with the general belief that bigger
naturally equated to better, the size and weight of Army Co- operation aircraft had escalated
during the inter-war period. It was a sad fact that many aircrew paid with their lives for
the Air Ministry's indolence and inability to address itself to the changing realities of
Eventually however, a change was made. The role of artillery observation was still an
important one, and the ideal answer to the problem was at first appearance a retrograde one.
If the most successful "Art-Obs" types had been small and light, why not use a modern light
aircraft type? The Taylorcraft Auster, a small high-wing light aircraft which had been
popular as a sports type before the war, was pressed into service in the newly formed "Air
Observation Post" squadrons. These proved to be worth their weight in gold, both in the
Western Desert and, later on, in Europe, but the Army Co-operation squadrons had, at a
stroke, lost their raison d'etre. Pressure for a new role and new equipment was almost
Despite this, there were still a large number of Lysanders in service. Plans were put into
operation for their withdrawal and use in Special Duties squadrons (the famed "Cloak and Dagger"
units), and there was the glimmer of hope for a replacement, but for the time being, until that
replacement became available in numbers, the Lysander squadrons were fated to plod on as before.
Although being far removed from the scene of action could lull one into a false sense of
security, one could still be brought back to earth with a bump, as Fg Off Astin found on 14
August. During the day he was involved in a mid-air collision between his aircraft, V9485, and
that of Plt Off Huntley, V9427. Fortunately both managed to recover to base safely, with damage
to mainplane and elevator respectively, but it could have been much worse. Astin's trials were
not over yet however. Within four hours of landing, and being torn off a strip by the CO, he
was back in the air. That night his bad luck again held, as he was singled out for attention by
a German intruder, probably a JU88. The enemy fired a long burst at his aircraft, but Astin
managed to evade. The German crew consoled themselves by shooting up Plt Off Wales instead, but
despite taking hits and being severely damaged, both the crew were uninjured and in fact the
gunner, Flt Sgt Lewis, managed to open fire on their tormentor, but reported no hits.
The year played itself out in dull fashion with a final series of exercises, practising
outdated tactics in obsolete aircraft with armies who needed more air cover than could be given
by an outsized spotter. September saw Exercises "OUTSPAN", "CHRIS" and "BUMPER"; October saw
Ex "PERCY" and November 1941 was the highlight; a large scale defence exercise for the station.
This tested the stations defences should the (still) anticipated German invasion arrive. "Action
Stations" was given at 1015 hours, and throughout the day various Army formations made attacks
on the airfield. These were all repulsed and the umpires concluded that the airfield would have
been held. Although one major test of the unit was satisfactorily concluded, 4 Sqn could not
escape yet another exercise and this time it was to simulate enemy bombers in an exercise with
50th Armoured Division. This was intended as a show piece, and was in fact watched by the Prime
Minister, Winston Churchill, who showed a particular interest in the air role played by the
Lysanders. Little did the pilots know that Churchill was aware of a great change for them which
With the worsening weather at the end of the year, lectures once again obtruded into the
routine of the Squadron, only interrupted by Exercise "SCORCH" with Easter command on 5
December 1941, and live artillery shoots at Redesdale Ranges. The year ended in typical low-key
fashion, a year devoted almost wholly to training and one of the low points in the Squadron
January 1942 was quite an abortive month, as snow fall kept the flying programme down to a
minimum. Again there was an air of "What now?", and various tasks were set to take up the
Squadrons time. At least much needed servicing could be carried out on the aircraft, and Physical
Training sessions were held for the whole Squadron. By February, however, things were getting
desperate, and on the 6th three pilots were detailed to spray brine on the runways. This induced
a thaw and flying was able to continue apace.
Again flying accidents took a toll, and on the 17th, Plt Off L.E.G. Buck was killed in a
landing accident at Clifton, with his gunner, Flt Sgt Boyd, being severely injured.
Invasion fever had, thankfully, disappeared with the German army mostly engaged on the
Eastern Front, but with an eye to a possible opening of a Western Front, invasion tactics were
kept current. On 18 February 1942, the Squadron attempted the first smoke screen sorties along the
coast. although the trials were a success, it was found that here was yet another role in which
the Lysander could be very vulnerable to fighters. In the event this role was given over to light
bombers such as the Douglas Boston.
Thankfully the days of the Lysander were numbered and during March aircraft were delivered
away from the Squadron to Hawarden. With no official word as to their replacement, there were
rumours aplenty. Defiants, Blenheims and Havocs were all expected, but when a Master Mk.I trainer
was delivered from 225 Sqn on the 27th, imaginations ran riot. The Master was a large, brutish
aircraft, and although designed as a trainer, had the proportions of a fighter. The engine was
considerably more powerful than that of the current Squadron trainers, the Proctor and Tiger Moth,
and indeed that of the Lysander. Pilots queued for dual instruction on it.
Finally it became known what was to happen to the squadron. With the rethink in tactics,
Army Co-operation duties were to be split into two distinct roles; that of artillery
observation has already been explained, but the vital role of tactical reconnaissance still had
no suitable aircraft. The Air Ministry realised that any recce pilot would have to be able to look
after himself in combat with enemy fighters, and the ideal type would seem to be a fighter with
cameras. Unfortunately the British aircraft manufacturing capability was stretched to capacity,
but there was a suitable contender for the position.
Following the orders for Harvards from North American Aviation in 1940, the company had
expanded considerably, to the point where the British Purchasing Commission suggested that they
undertook licence manufacture of the Curtiss Tomahawk for the UK. North American, however,
reckoned that they could do better with their own design. The BPC agreed to finance a new design,
and issued a requirement based on the experiences of British pilots in France. Within weeks, the
company came up with the XP-51 Mustang, powered by an Allison V-1710 engine. Deliveries to the UK,
intended for Fighter Command, commenced in November 1941. The Mustang was greeted with enthusiasm
by British pilots; it was large, powerful, agile, and strongly built. Unfortunately, the A&AEE at
Boscombe Down was not so easily pleased.
The Allison engine was the bone of contention. A new design, it was still prone to engine
failures and the power fell off rapidly at high altitude, restricting its use to low-level
operations. Also, although the armament consisted of two 50 calibre machine guns in the nose,
supplemented with four 0.303 guns in the wings, most European aircraft were now armed with 20 mm
cannons. Despite these drawbacks, low-level performance was still excellent, and the aircraft was
deemed ideal for the tactical reconnaissance role. The Mustangs were adapted for the role by the
fitment of a Telford F-24 camera behind the pilot, pointing downwards at an angle to port.
The Mustang design was a good one though, and experiments commenced into the possible
re-engining of it with a Rolls-Royce Merlin. This led to the Mustang becoming probably the finest
fighter of the Second World War, being used as a long-range escort fighter by the USAAC, but that
story is outside the scope of this narrative.
Before the Mustangs could be delivered to the squadrons, however, the pilots had to be
converted to fighter aircraft. Besides the Master, 4 Sqn gained two Curtiss Tomahawks at the
beginning of April, and cockpit procedure training could commence. The Tomahawk was a bit of a
white elephant. Ordered and paid for by the French Government in late 1939, they were delivered
to Britain by default after the fall of France. Unfortunately. with their limited altitude
performance, they would have been sitting ducks on Fighter Commands offensive sweeps across
occupied France, but they were considered ideal for tactical reconnaissance. No. 2 Sqn had been
equipped with them since February 1941, but the advent of the Mustang rendered them obsolescent,
and they were relegated to training roles or were shipped out to fighter squadrons in the Middle
East, where they were to be a great success.
Training was still carried out on the remaining Lysanders as well as the various "hack" aircraft
held by the Squadron, but this was just to keep pilots current. Unfortunately, there were still
accidents. On 11 April 1942, the Dominie communications aircraft crashed on take off, killing Sqn Ldr
Inglefield, Plt Off Boyce and AC2 Giblin, a great loss to the Squadron.
Single seat conversion training was going well by this time, and the first pilots soloed on the
Tomahawk on the 22nd, but there was great excitement when the first Mustang, AG554, was delivered
two days later.
The Mustangs were finished in the new Fighter Command scheme of Ocean Grey and Dark Green in a
disruptive pattern on the upper surfaces, with Medium Sea Grey on the lower surfaces. The shift in
tactics to the offensive led to many operations being carried out over water, and the greys were found
to be extremely good camouflage. As an aid to recognition, the leading edges of the wings were painted
yellow, and a Sky band was painted round the rear fuselage. Squadron code letters were dropped; the
Mustangs carrying just one aircraft identification letter forward of the fuselage roundel, which was
the new Type C low-visibility style. The new aircraft looked purposeful and potent, like the fighter
it was; 4 Sqn had regained its teeth.
Cockpit training commenced immediately, and more pilots converted to the Tomahawk, itching to lay
their hands on the Mustang. Five more Mustangs were delivered on 28th while six Lysanders were
delivered away to Elstree. A month of excitement culminated in an air raid on 29th. This occurred at
0240 hours and lasted for just over an hour. There was considerable damage to buildings on the station
and the runway was also bombed. Although no aircraft were destroyed there were seven people killed and
eight wounded. The lack of air raids on York in the previous months leads one to ask the inevitable
question; did German intelligence know about Mustang deliveries to 4 Sqn, and was this a deliberate
attempt to destroy the new aircraft? With the air gunners now rendered redundant on the Squadron, they
were all granted leave, and arrangements were made for their posting. The first pilots soloed on the
Mustang on 4 May and spirits were high. A return to active duty was forecast by everyone, and for most
it couldn't come soon enough. To prepare No. 4 and various other squadrons for active duty, Boscombe
Down had gathered a collection of captured enemy machines, and this "Flying Circus" visited Church
Fenton the following day. Also an informal visit was made by Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Viscount
Trenchard. Although Trenchard had been retired since 1929, he came out of retirement during the
Second World War to act in a morale raising role. Many of the older serving members knew him from
their youth, and to the younger men he was a symbol of all that they had to live up to. Trenchard made
a point of talking to all the pilots and gunners.
The air gunners, together with the gunnery leader, Flt Lt Stone, were posted away en masse on the
12th, to either 296 or 297 Sqns, both of which were operating Whitleys. Although the majority of the
gunners were experienced on the type, having taken many rides in them the previous year, the postings
were greeted with unanimous disapproval.
With the Squadron almost fully converted to the Mustang, an exercise work up programme was
commenced, starting with Exercise "Tiger" on the 26th. This involved a detachment to Detling, in
Kent, and in view of the very short notice received for the move, it speaks well of the Squadron's
organisation as the aircraft and ground parties left for Detling by 1000 hours the following day. The
exercise continued until the 30th, with 4 Sqn providing simulated low-flying attacks, which was in
fact excellent training for the envisaged role when returned to operations.
The end of the month saw the delivery of two Fairey Battles for dive- bombing training, but in
the event dive-bombing was never practised by 4 Sqn, and the Battles were used mainly for navigation
training. JUNE 1942 The first accident with the Mustang occurred on 5 June, when Plt Off Hartill
overran the runway, but damage to the Mustang was slight, and Hartill himself was uninjured. The
work-up continued. On the 21st, four pilots went on a course to HQ 65 Med Regt RA in connection with
forthcoming artillery shoots. There were some incredulous faces at the proposition that Mustangs
should do Artillery Observation duties, and these plans were quickly (and quietly) scrubbed.
The last two Lysanders were delivered away, and ten more Mustangs collected on 28th. Army
Co-operation Command was aware of an apparent shortcoming with the Mustang; or more accurately with
the recognition of the Mustang. Up until now, all British fighters had had curved or pointed wingtips.
The Mustang however, with its square cropped tips, looked remarkably like the Messerschmitt Bf 109
from some angles, and was liable to attack by friendly aircraft and AA guns. An attempt was made to
make the Mustangs more prominent by painting yellow bands around the wings, but this only succeeded
in compromising the camouflage. The only alternative was a tour of Fighter Command establishments by
Mustangs, and this duty was allotted to 4 Sqn. The first display was at Digby on 29th.
No. 4 Sqn was deemed to be almost ready for a return to operations, but Clifton was a little out
of the way for cross channel sorties. Plans were afoot for a move, but in the meantime there was still
some loose ends to be tied up. Postings to and from the Squadron continued, and on 14 July 1942, 4 Sqn lost
one of its longest serving members; Flt Lt Bill Malins was posted to 268 Sqn. Malins had joined 4 Sqn
before the start of the war, serving with distinction in France. He went on to become a flight
commander with his new squadron, but was not entirely finished with 4 Sqn.
Armament butt tests on all Squadron aircraft heralded an imminent return to ops, and finally the
long awaited day arrived; on 13 October 1942 Plt Offs Draper and Skirrow proceeded on detachment to
Gatwick for operational flights.
The first operations in nearly thirty months took place the following day, when Draper and
Skirrow carried out a coastal defence patrol in AG545 and AG579 respectively. There were no incidents
on this and a similar patrol the following day. That changed on 20th, when the pair carried out a
photo recce of Witrepan on the French coast. The photos were obtained satisfactorily, and on the way
back, both pilots attacked machine gun posts and ammunition dumps; Draper's aircraft was hit by light
flak, necessitating a forced landing at Redhill, but the aircraft was not badly damaged and two days
later the same two pilots carried out a photo recce of the St-Valerie area. They returned to Clifton
on the 23rd, to a heroes welcome.
On 29 October 1942, 4 Sqn again changed hands. The CO, Wg Cdr Saunders, was posted to
HQ RAF Northern Ireland, while his replacement came from HQ Army Co-op Command. Wg Cdr G.E. MacDonald,
a New Zealander, was to be a great example to the whole Squadron. The month ended with three more
coastal patrols from Gatwick.
Although nominally based at Clifton, Flights were detached to either Detling or Gatwick to fly
ops; this unsatisfactory arrangement was the best that could be organised at the time. Operations were
carried out at a steadily increasing rate, and both air and groundcrews did extremely well to keep up
the serviceability rate of the Mustang. On 1 November 1942, Fg Off Stephenson and Plt Off Frost
carried out a recce sortie over the French coast.
Meanwhile, back at Clifton, the rest of the Squadron was, according to the diary, practising
"Rhubarbs". "Rhubarb" was the code name for offensive fighter sweeps intended to taunt the German
fighters into combat. Why the Mustang should be employed on this type of mission is unclear as it would
have been ideally suited to the "Ranger" mission, a roving ground attack sortie, attacking targets of
opportunity; or the "Popular" mission, which was armed reconnaissance.
The first Rhubarb was carried out by Wg Cdr MacDonald and Fg Off Scrivener on the 24th, but due
to the lack of cloud cover over the operational area, it was abandoned.
A Popular mission on 27th yielded better results, however. MacDonald, Stephenson, Frost and
Scrivener attacked marshalling yards at Sequeox and Aboncourt, claiming to have destroyed several
railway engines, and also strafed AA units at Poix and Quevilly. Their detachment over, they returned
to Clifton the following day.
November 1942 also saw the first loss of a Mustang, when Fg Off S.P. Marlett in AP208 flew into
a hill in cloud at Dunsop Bridge, near York, and was killed.
Operations, mostly coastal patrols, carried on throughout December 1942, as did a small number of
offensive sorties. Wg Cdr MacDonald revelled in these, and he and his wingman, Fg Off Scrivener,
carried out the lions share of them. However first contact with enemy aircraft fell to Plt Offs White
and Mobbs on 7 December 1942. While MacDonald and Scrivener were happily engaged in attacking
Transformer and Wireless stations along the French Coast, White and Mobbs were tasked with a Ranger.
After claiming one locomotive destroyed and various buses and troop concentrations attacked, to their
consternation they encountered a formation of FW.190s. Fortunately the German pilots did not seem to
keen to engage, and the two 4 Sqn pilots headed for home at top speed.
There was another sad loss two days later when Plt Off R.A. Hunnings lost control of his aircraft
(AG347) whilst over the sea, and crashed. The remainder of the Squadron were tasking with locating the
wreckage and hopefully the pilot, but it soon became evident that Hunnings had been killed in the
crash. No. 4 Sqn had not yet lost a pilot to enemy action, but had lost two Mustangs and their pilots
in training accidents.
Removed from operations for a short while, to allow the fitting of new IFF equipment to all the
Squadrons' aircraft, didn't reduce the training accidents. Plt Off Draper was injured when he
undershot the landing at Clifton in Mustang AG663. The aircraft was a write-off, but fortunately
Draper received only minor injuries.
Christmas Day 1942 was given as a holiday, the first such of the war for 4 Sqn. In the morning
the Officers visited the Sergeants' Mess, and served meals in the Airmens' Mess, a tradition of long
standing in the RAF.
The New Year 1943 saw a return to operational flying, with intensive Rangers and Populars over
France and the Low Countries. Flt Lt Wilson failed to return from a sortie on 18 January 1943; he was
last seen heading towards the French coast in AG545, just south of the Somme Estuary. He was posted
missing, believed killed, although the cause was never confirmed. Flt Lt Stephenson was attacked by
two FW.190s over St-Omer on 5 February 1943, but managed to evade them by flying at zero feet to
the coast, and there was another accident on the 9th, when Plt Off Richardson was killed in the crash
February 12 1943 was the day when 4 Sqn finally hit the headlines. After an abortive start, four
pilots set out on a Ranger sortie. Two were forced to turn back, but Wg Cdr MacDonald (of course) and
Flt Lt Stephenson attacked various targets, including a parade of troops on an airfield.
The story, giving a great insight into the personality of MacDonald, is related by one of his
flight commanders, Flt Lt Baker;- "Wg Cdr MacDonald was the most vivid and invigorating person who came
to No. 4 Squadron in my time. When Mac first joined us in October, 1942, we were based at York, but
used to detach flights, for a month at a time, to Gatwick or Detling, to take pictures, or as a
sideline, to beat up trains. Mac had little interest in cameras, except camera guns, and in his sudden
visits to the detachment he set a splendid example of zeal and skill in finding Germans and killing
them. One day he and CTP Stephenson came upon a parade on Poix airfield, which they joyously attacked.
The next day, Sunday, the picture papers bore the headline "WE DISMISSED THE PARADE," SAYS WING
COMMANDER. In fairness to Mac, I should say that I believe this to have been an invention of the
Mac was a splendid pilot and shot and an inspiring if impetuous leader. We were all the better
for trying to live up to the standards he set us and achieved himself. His passion was guns. He loved
using them, harmonising them, talking about them, and, I have no doubt, dreaming about them. When off
this one subject his mind ricocheted from topic to topic with a speed that left his audience
speechless. His adjutant, "Arty" Fischel, was the chief sufferer, and after a session of trying to get
a decision on an administrative matter, Arty would be quite distraught.
One day a new pilot asked Mac how to go about shooting down a Hun. Mac reply went like this:
"What, shoot down Jerries? Too easy. Go to the French coast, fly up and down slowly at 5000 ft for an
hour or two. They'll come up. Shoot a couple down, come home. No trouble. Barman, a flock of beers!"
All this was delivered with such a serious air that for a little while it was taken to be serious
advice......" Although success attended the Squadrons' (but mostly MacDonald's) labours across the
Channel, training accidents were still taking a toll, and Fg Off Fisher was reported missing on a
flight from East Moor to Edinburgh on the 19th. His aircraft was later found mostly buried in a bog
at Otterburn. Fisher did not survive the crash.
No. 4 Squadron was temporarily removed from operations at the end of February 1943 in order
for it to take part in Exercise "SPARTAN". This was officially an attempt to expand on the lessons
learned at Dieppe the previous year, with the air element trying to improve close support techniques;
in fact it was actually a large scale rehearsal for the invasion of Western Europe. The scenario for
SPARTAN was that the "Allies" had gained a bridgehead with air superiority, built a handful of landing
grounds and were now preparing for a break out and advance. The close support tactics which were to
be used were drawn up by Air Marshall Barratt, AOC-in-C Army
Co-Operation Command, and were based on the tactics which he had seen used by the Desert Air Force
on a visit to the Middle East.
No. 4 Sqn moved at short notice to Barford St John, near Oxford, and throughout the exercise acted
as a tactical support squadron would in war. The exercise began in earnest on the 4th, with six
tactical recce sorties being flown covering roads in the area bounded by Stroud, Swindon, Warminster
and Bath. The following day the exercise scenario called for Barford to be evacuated, so a move was
made to Cranfield. Recce sorties were carried out and in the evening Fg Off Thwaites was attacked and
considered shot down by no less than twenty-four "hostile" Spitfires. The 7th again saw intensive
Recce sorties, but the previous days lesson had been learned, and these were carried out under
friendly fighter cover. By the 8th, the Squadron was briefed to search an area south-east of Oxford
for suitable targets for fighter-bombers, but were caught on the ground at Cranfield by "hostile"
Typhoons. When the Umpires again allowed movement on the airfield, it was evacuated, and the whole
Squadron gathered at Duxford, from where the following day thirty four successful sorties were flown.
Thirty two sorties were flown the following day, with two pilots adjudged to have been shot down
by Spitfires and on the 11th Duxford was heavily attacked. Three 4 Sqn aircraft were designated
destroyed in the raid, but that didn't prevent another thirty two sorties from being flown. The
exercise was now approaching its conclusion, with both armoured formations engaged in a pitched
battle. On the morning of 12 February 1943 the "cease fire" order was given, and 4 Sqn packed
up and left for Clifton in very short order.
SPARTAN was a success, with many valuable lessons being learned, not the least of which was that
army co-operation, or "air support" as it was now becoming known, was not just the province of a
select few squadrons, but was, to quote Barratt's report,a broader conception of air support, in which
the fighter, the ground attack fighter, the fighter reconnaissance aircraft, the light bomber and the
heavy bomber were all harnessed for army support. This made the old idea obsolete, in which army
co-operation was considered a specialised and limited form of air assistance. This was an extension
of the tactics which the Germans had used to such devastating effect in 1940, but was to become honed
to a greater efficiency than the Germans had ever dreamed about.
No. 4 Sqn had carried out a total of 151 sorties over the course of the exercise, an average of
16 sorties a day, which was a very creditable achievement in what were field conditions.
Back at Clifton, there was a short respite, as the airfield was fogbound for a few days, but
then the Squadron was ordered to move to Bottisham, near Cambridge. all personnel were recalled from
leave and packing up commenced on the 18th. After the trials and tribulations of SPARTAN, this was
The move to Bottisham took place on 19 March 1943, and for the next month pilots were engaged in
local flying, to get to know the area. April 1st 1943 was the 25th Anniversary of the formation
of the RAF, and so a parade was held in the morning, and a telegram wishing the Squadron success and
showing admiration for the Royal Air Force was received by the CO from the Mayor and citizens of Reading.
Once again the spectre of the training accident raised its head on the 10th; Fg Off Thwaites
crashed near Burwell in AG486 and was killed. However, training continued apace.
Operations recommenced on the 23rd, with Wg Cdr MacDonald (naturally) and Flt Lt Baker engaged on
a Lagoon, which was a coastal anti-shipping sortie. Unfortunately, MacDonald suffered engine problems;
he was prepared to bale out, but managed to make a forced landing at Coltishall.
Lagoons were carried out for the next few days, but on 28 April 1943, the Squadron returned to
Rangers over Holland. Unfortunately this was one mission too many for MacDonald, who, apparently
pressing his attack too closely, was caught in the explosion of his target. His aircraft, AP255, was
blown to pieces. Flt Lt Baker again takes up the story: Mac's death was spectacular and typical. He
was on a Ranger with Brian Slack (later killed in a Typhoon in Holland) as his No. 2. Mac found some
barges on a canal between Zwolle and Deventer. He opened fire at one thousand yards. Instead of
dropping his opening burst half-way, as most of us would have done, his first rounds were on the
target. The barges were full of ammunition and as Mac arrived they exploded. I was in the Ops Room
that morning, and when we heard that only one of this pair was coming back, we assumed that we had
lost Brian Slack, for to our minds, Mac was indestructible. We had cursed him often when he was
with us, but missed him when he was gone. We yarned about him for years.
Fg Off Slack stayed in the area, looking for signs of a parachute, but had to give up. He
returned to the UK and landed, short of fuel, at Matlask. The Squadron Exec Officer, Sqn Ldr Riggall,
was recalled from leave, and HQ 71 Gp informed. The following day, the new CO, Wg Cdr R. Noel-Smith
arrived from HQ 35 Wg to take over the Squadron.
Noel-Smith was the exact antithesis of MacDonald; where the latter was brash, the former was
reserved; MacDonald was impetuous, Noel-Smith was cautious. Despite the differences, Noel-Smith was
both liked and respected on 4 Sqn. MacDonald had never been much interested in the administrative
side of the Squadron, but Noel-Smith immediately set about putting a tight rein on this aspect,
noticeably with respect to the compilation of the Squadron diary, the F540. Up until now, entries
had been made in the form of short essays or even stories. Under the new CO's influence, the format
of the 540s became more concise and yielded up their information more readily. However, he was not
opposed to a few choice comments now and again. With his support, Arty Fischel, the adjutant, again
saw things running the way he liked.
The remainder of May 1943 was mostly devoted to training to incorporate new tactics -
scheduled before the loss of MacDonald, and in no way the result of his death.
There were one or two operations carried out towards the end of the month, and on 20 May 1943,
Plt Off North reported engine problems whilst returning from a Lagoon of the island of Terschelling. He
attempted to bale out, but at low level his chances were minimal. The aircraft, AG579, ditched into
the sea and sank immediately. Despite searching for several minutes his wingman, Sgt Cooper, saw no
trace of either the wreck or the pilot, and so North was posted missing, believed killed.
Unseasonably bad weather interfered with sorties for the remainder of the month.
Army Co-Operation Command was abolished on 1 June 1943 as a direct result of the lessons learned
from SPARTAN. Its place was taken by the Tactical Air Force, an organisation which could, and did,
call on units of any RAF Command with which to carry out its tasks. The majority of June was taken up
by intensive Lagoon and Popular operations. One Ranger was carried out during the month, on the 29th,
and after attacking marshalling yards near Uitfiest and river traffic on the Waal, Wg Cdr Noel-Smith
and Fg Off MacElwain were both hit by intense flak near The Hague. The CO's aircraft, AG487, was
severely damaged, but he managed to recover to Bottisham where he found that the undercarriage would
not lower. Noel-Smith landed the Mustang on its belly and walked away uninjured. Such was his skill
that the aircraft was repairable, and was later returned to service.
Other pilots were not to have the same luck however. On the morning of 7 July 1943 four aircraft
took off for a dawn raid on Ackmaar airfield in Holland. Unfortunately the airfield was approached
incorrectly, alerting the defences, and so the leader, Flt Lt Stephenson, called off the attack and
ordered a return to base, despite the sighting of several FW.190s sat out in the open, a tempting
target. After reaching the sea, he tried to contact Fg Offs Scrivener and Macmillan, who had been in
the second section, but gained no reply. The pair never returned and it was presumed that they had
returned to Ackmaar to attempt to destroy the FW.190s and had been caught by the airfield defences,
which by now were ready and waiting for them.
Shipping recces - Lagoons - were carried out the following day. Sqn Ldr Riggall and Fg Off
Hindmarch attacked a German minesweeper off the Dutch coast and also attempted to strafe one or two
stationary minesweepers that they spotted. They soon realised that these were actually flak ships,
and so left well alone, and returned to base. Other pilots reported a large convoy heading north. Fg
Off Skirrow saw a Dornier Do 24 flying boat anchored off the southern tip of Texel. He attacked and
the Dornier was seen to burst into flames, but unfortunately Skirrow was bracketed by flak as he
pulled out of his dive. The Mustang, AM127, crashed on the beach and Skirrow was killed. Over the
next few days, Squadron pilots took their revenge on the minesweepers and flak ships in the area,
claiming many as damaged.
On 15 July 1943, 4 Sqn was warned of a move to Gravesend on the following day, and so operations
were halted and all the domestic and technical kit packed. The road party left Bottisham at 0800
hours on the 16th, and arrived at Gravesend just as the aircraft were circling for a landing.
Gravesend was a very primitive airfield and all the Squadron personnel had to be accommodated under
canvas. The changes had only just begun, however.
Under new plans, all squadrons of the RAF were to be reduced to aircrew and administrative
personnel only. The maintenance and technical personnel were posted to the station, in the case of
Gravesend No. 130 Airfield HQ, This was not a popular move and there were quite a few dissenting
voices. The CO, Adjutant and Engineering Officer, Fg Off Whipp, visited HQ 84 Gp two days later,
voicing their displeasure, but all was in vain. However, the CO did learn of the imminent
re-equipment of the Squadron with Mosquitos. The postings out of all the technical staff was
effected on 22 July 1943, and the Squadron non-aircrew establishment was reduced to 1x Clerk GD,
1x Fitter IIE, 7x Photographers and 1x Instrument Repairer II. Although now being on the strength
of 130 Airfield HQ, the groundcrew continued to work on 4 Sqn aircraft, and whenever the Squadron
moved, 130 Airfield moved with it; despite their misgivings, the groundcrews were still part of
4 Sqn in all but name.
A planned move to Bicester was changed to Odiham at the last minute and the move, for both 4
Sqn and its attendant 130 Airfield HQ, took place on 7 August 1943 although many pilots had been
operating from Odiham for some days. All personnel were billeted in tents, but the aircraft were kept
in Hangar No.1, 4 Sqn's old hangar, until the airfield dispersal sites were ready. The next few days
were devoted to unpacking and local flying and there was a bit of excitement on the 12th when a
solitary Mosquito Mk.II arrived for ground training.
Apart from a couple of sorties escorting a captured Heinkel He.111, there were no operations
until the 18th, when coastal patrols, photo recce sorties and Rangers started again in full force.
There were four sorties carried out on the 25th, all recces of German airfields, a notoriously
dangerous operation. Fg Offs Miller and Kirby (AG576) covered Euerveaux airfield and one the way
back home were jumped by two FW.190s. Both aircraft were damaged in the engagement, and as they
evaded, the pilots lost contact with each other. Miller returned to base alone, and Kirby was
reported missing, although some held out hope that he had suffered engine failure, had force-landed
and was now a POW.
Sunday, 29 August 1943, was a disastrous day for 4 Sqn; the one offensive patrol carried out was
a success with both aircraft returning undamaged, but after the Squadron was stood down from ops, the
diary mournfully reports Pilots of 4 Squadron played pilots of 2 Squadron at Rugger. 2 Squadron won,
two tries to one. The month ended with all pilots engaged on a search for Sqn Ldr Holloway of 16 Sqn,
who had baled out off Cherbourg. The pilot was found by a section of Spitfires, and four Mustangs
escorted the ASR Walrus, which picked up Holloway only a few miles off the French coast, right from
under the noses of the Germans.
There was excitement aplenty on 9 September 1943, with a joint forces exercise in the Channel.
The role of 4 Sqn was to escort a convoy of liners which left Portsmouth before dawn and steamed at full
speed towards the French coast, returning later in the day. Although an exercise, there was a real
danger of German forces attempting to interfere, but all the pilots returned to base without having
seen any enemy aircraft.
Despite being relatively settled at Odiham, by 15 September 1943, 4 Sqn was on the move again,
this time to Funtington, one of the satellite airfields of Tangmere. This was an ideal place from which
to carry out offensive sweeps over France, as it was only a few miles from the coast at Portsmouth.
After the customary period of local flying (marred by the death of Plt Off J.A. Elms in a training
crash), there was a return to ops.
Offensive patrol recommenced on the 25th, with Fg Off Bailey reported missing in bad weather
near Dreux. The following day, two pilots met enemy aircraft in force. Fg Offs Slack and Miller were
engaged on a Ranger in Northern France when they saw two Mustangs of 268 Sqn being attacked by seven
FW190s. As the pair attempted to engage the enemy aircraft, they were separated by intense flak. The
Focke-Wulfs broke off their attack and latched on to Miller, allowing the other Mustangs to escape.
Finding himself in a bit of a sticky situation, Miller headed for cloud, with half a dozen angry
Germans buzzing around his ears. Slack meanwhile was desperately trying to catch up and draw the
fighters off his wingman. Losing Miller in cloud, the Germans turned on Slack, who put his nose down
and dived away north, heading for home. At low-level the Mustang was no slouch, and showed the
Germans a clean pair of heels. All four Mustangs returned safely to base.
The following month was relatively quiet, broken only by a further move back to Odiham on the
6th and a brace of aircraft written off in training accidents, although fortunately no pilots were
The hopes of Fg Off Kirby's friends were dashed at the beginning of November 1943, with the news
that his body had been recovered from the English Channel near Newhaven. It seemed likely that he
had indeed suffered engine problems, and had glided as close to the English coast as he could before
baling out. Unfortunately he had become entangled in the rigging lines of his parachute and drowned.
There was now a slight change in emphasis to the missions carried out by 4 Sqn; up until now
there had been Rangers and Populars in about equal ratio, but with the imminent re-equipment of the
Squadron and the resultant change of role to that of High Level Photo Recce, there were more and more
Populars tasked. However, one or two pilots still took the opportunity to cause havoc as and when
they could and on 8 November 1943, Fg Off Thomson and the recently commissioned Plt Off Cooper,
found a German army football match and spoiled everybody's day.
On the 11th November 1943, Wg Cdr Noel-Smith was posted to 2 Sqn, and command of the
Squadron fell to Sqn Ldr H.P. McClean, the Exec. The Squadron was now on the run down with Mustangs
and preparing for re-equipment with Mosquitos, and so even McClean's period in command was short.
November as well saw two moves; to North Weald on the 14th, and Sawbridgeworth on the 30th.
Sawbridgeworth was heartily disliked by everyone; just an advance landing ground cut from marshland
near Luton, the dispersals were made from large areas of PSP, Pierced Steel Planking, and the runway
was a strip of cinders. There was mud everywhere, even the living tents were pitched on marshland.
The airfield was officially unfit for combat aircraft, but with every spare piece of ground in
Southern England occupied by the literally thousands of British, American and Allied Squadrons,
it was the best that could be spared.
The worst aspects of the aerodrome were shown up within days; for the first ten days of December
there was torrential rain, and the airfield was perforce declared unserviceable for all but
operational flying. Luckily, although various pilots were warned for ops, all were cancelled.
More information as to the future of the Squadron trickled in on the 3rd when all pilots were
asked to state their preference for Spitfires or Mosquitos. It became clear that after the change of
role, there would be one flight operating each type; in effect two squadrons in one. Once the
airfield was declared serviceable, the final ops were flown with the Mustang; a Lagoon off the Dutch
coast carried out by Flt Lts Draper and Speares and Fg Offs Mobbs and Shute. Mobbs had to return
early due to engine problems, but otherwise this final sortie was uneventful, something which could
not be claimed of 4 Sqn's whole career with the Mustang.
Stood down from operations, there was a period of confusion, with pilots sent on Mosquito
conversion courses, others proceeding on Photo Recce courses at the PRU, and finally Sqn Ldr McClean
relinquishing command to Flt Lt Baker. Baker really only acted as a caretaker until the new CO, Sqn
Ldr R.J. Hardiman, DFC, arrived on the 27th. For the rest of the month there was virtually no flying,
as all the Mustangs were on loan to 2 Sqn and 170 Sqn. During its career with the Mustang, 4 Sqn had
been equipped solely with the Mk.I version, never having the chance to try out the cannon armed
Mk.Ia version and despite cutting a swath of destruction across Hitler's Fortress Europe, more
pilots had been lost in training than in action.
January 1944 commenced with an air of expectancy for No. 4 Sqn. Taken out of the line for
conversion, the Squadron was obliged to move to Aston Down, near Gloucester, to complete conversion
to the two new types, the Mosquito PR.XVI and Spitfire PR.XI, and most people were glad to get away
from the clinging mud at Sawbridgeworth. Conversion training was continuing at Hunsden, and the
pilots left at 4 Sqn kept themselves current on the handful of Mustangs left, when the weather
allowed. A break in the weather allowed the delivery of one aircraft of each type, and those pilots
who were now converted to the new types lost no time in building up their hours.
The Spitfire PR.XI was a specialised high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft. Specially
designed, it was no last minute conversion. With a new wing which replaced the armament with fuel
tanks, and a modified oxygen system and supercharged Merlin engine for high altitude operation, it
could fly comfortably at 40,000 ft, considerably above the operational ceiling of most German
fighters. However, if it was intercepted, the Methanol-water injection system meant that the pilot
could outrun virtually any aircraft at that height apart from the Mosquito. All armament had been
removed, so PR pilots could not engage in combat, but the consensus was that this was no great
problem. Spitfire XIs were already ranging deep into Germany, photographing the results of the
previous nights raids by Bomber Command; planned targets for future raids and even the secret German
test establishments; they seemed invulnerable. The Germans were desperately developing a high
altitude version of the FW.190, but for the moment, nothing could touch the Spitfire PR.XI.
All the Spitfires delivered were finished in the High Altitude scheme of overall PRU Blue, a
colour which made them almost invisible from the ground at their operating heights. Roundels were
Type B, with no white ring to compromise the camouflage. There was no squadron identification code
carried; for security reasons this was standard practice on PR squadrons.
The Mosquito PR.XVI on the other hand was a conversion of a bomber version. The bomb bay was
filled with cameras and the cockpit was pressurised, so giving a degree of comfort to the crew that
was lacking from the Spitfire. Being a converted bomber there was , of course, no armament. The
Merlin engines with twin-stage superchargers gave the "Mossie" an excellent high altitude
performance, even better than that of the Spitfire, but its great advantage was its phenomenal
range and two-man crew. The cockpit workload was therefore reduced, and in all the Mosquito was a
lot less tiring to fly on long range missions than a single-seater. All PR Mosquitos were finished
in a similar PRU Blue scheme to the Spitfires, again with no squadron identification. This was no
problem for 4 Sqn, however, as the "TV" code had not been carried since the last Lysander left in
When the weather finally allowed flights from Aston Down, both aircraft were put through their
paces. Flt Lt Baker took the new Spitfire up to 40,000 ft, while Flt Lt Astin took the Mosquito up
to 30,000 ft. Both altitudes were considerable higher than either pilot had ever been before. Both
expressed themselves as very satisfied with their new mounts.
Conversion continued, with more and more pilots becoming qualified on type, and there were large
numbers of Navigators posted in, as well as one or two experienced Mosquito crews. Eventually the
Squadron was up to establishment in both crews and aircraft and the two flights were formed. The
Spitfire section became A Flight and that of the Mosquitos B Flight.
By the beginning of February, B Flt was adjudged to be ready to undertake mapping sorties over
the south of England and the first ones were carried out on the 3rd. A Flt was still receiving new
aircraft, but due to the considerable experience of the pilots on single engined types was considered
to be ready for operations. The operational debut of the Squadron was postponed however, as Group
wished to have both flights ready as a unified force, instead of having the Squadron committed
piecemeal. Unfortunately B Flt were having problems which delayed the start of ops even further. On
16 February, nine navigators were posted onto the flight, straight from No. 3 School of General
Reconnaissance at Squires Gate. After the first few flights of each entrant it was realised that all
the new navs were massively inexperienced in map- reading, which one would have thought would have
been a prerequisite for a navigator. Accordingly, a training schedule was set up in which all the
navs were given experience in map reading and position plotting from the confines of an Oxford
trainer, from which all benefitted immeasurably. The other aspect of B Flts problems was the
recurrent unserviceability of the twin-stage superchargers and icing of the pressure cabin at
altitude. Although the groundcrew rapidly got on top of the engine problems, the pressure cabin was
a different matter, and a solution was not found for several months.
Nevertheless, by the end of February it was considered necessary to commit A Flt to operations,
and the Squadron was warned to have two aircraft ready for operations on the 29th. This led to the
curious sight of those pilots who were keen to fly the missions assisting the groundcrews to clean
and polish the aircraft! Unfortunately the hoped for operations never materialised, and the Flight
was stood down with the depressing news that a return to Sawbridgeworth was imminent.
This move took place five days later with the ground party leaving early in the morning. The
air party left Aston in one large formation, as detailed in the Squadron diary:- The air party went
in the largest "Balbo" 4 Squadron had known for some time. Pilots were briefed by W/C R.J. Hardiman
DFC at 1100 hours and the first aircraft took off at 1330 hours. The formation was led by
W/C Hardiman in a section of 4 Spitfires. Behind him came the 6 Mosquitos, in two sections of line
astern, led by Flt Lt C.T.P. Stephenson DFC. To port and starboard of the Mosquitos were two more
sections of Spitfires, led by Flt Lt D.A.J. Draper and Fg Off D.E. Mobbs. Four Mustangs in line
abreast, led by Flt Lt M.S. Lumsden formed the rear of the formation.
The move was completed in good order, and all aircraft arrived safely. The following day, in one
of the policy changes that were becoming all the more frequent, a number of the groundcrew that had
been posted away to 130 Airfield HQ (but had in all but name remained with the Squadron) were
returned to the 4 Sqn establishment. Although at first numbering only 48, the maintenance
establishment was slowly but surely raised, so that by the middle of the year, 4 Sqn had returned
to, and indeed exceeded its previous manning levels.
Operations commenced on 6 March, when Gp Capt P.L. Donkin, the OC of 35 Wg, used Spitfire
PA857/F on a secret Photo Recce mission of an area in Holland. On landing, the camera magazines were
removed from the aircraft and taken away for processing elsewhere; Squadron personnel were not
informed as to the target for the mission, or indeed if it had been successful. One can only assume,
with the imminence of Operation OVERLORD, that the mission was to cover a high value strategic target.
Local training sorties were continued, but again problems were experienced with the Mosquito.
As has been said already, the runway at Sawbridgeworth was composed entirely of cinders and stones.
Spitfire operations were not affected but severe damage was caused to the tailplanes of the
Mosquitos on their take-off and landing runs, as the clinker thrown up badly pitted the wooden
construction of the aircraft. So bad was the damage that after a few days at Sawbridgeworth there
was not one serviceable Mosquito on the Squadron. Once an aircraft was repaired, it had to be put
u/s immediately it returned from a flight. Clearly this was an unacceptable state of affairs.
Missions were commenced in earnest the following day, when Flt Lt Draper took PA857 over the
French coast to photograph "Rocket Installations"; V1 launching sites which were termed "Noball"
targets. These targets were a matter of priority as London was now under a severe bombardment from
these elusive weapons. Unfortunately when he arrived over the target there was 10/10ths cloud, and
the mission had to be abandoned, much to everyone's' disappointment. Draper made up for his failure
the following day when he was briefed to cover Laon airfield in France. He returned to say that owing
to the area being completely covered by cloud he had managed to take photographs of a couple of
unspecified aerodromes. It transpired that he had in fact covered Laon completely, as well as two
other aerodromes and two Noball targets.
There were two other sorties flown that day, one of which was another secret mission by Gp Capt
Donkin; again the Squadron was not informed of the target or success of the sortie. During the day
Flt Lt Wilkins flew to RAF Gatwick, to see if the airfield was suitable for the operation of
Mosquitos. Luckily it was and on his return to Sawbridgeworth, Wg Cdr Hardiman put in a request for
With the build up to OVERLORD, A Flt was involved in intensive operations over the French coast
for the next few days, but little did the pilots know that for most of the time they were involved
in a great subterfuge. There was intensive Allied air activity over the proposed beachhead, but for
every sortie over Normandy, there were two over the Pas de Calais. This was part of Operation
BODYGUARD, a vast feint intended to confuse the Germans with reports of impending invasions from all
quarters. Operation ZEPPELIN was a non-existent attack into the Balkans; FORTITUDE NORTH, a threat
to Norway and FORTITUDE SOUTH a clear indication of an attack at Boulogne. It can be seen that in all
aspects, BODYGUARD was a success, as when the blow finally fell, the German strength was still massed
around the Pas de Calais.
The Mosquito flight of 4 Sqn had still not carried out any operational mission, as problems were
still being shown up in training. The navigators were now deemed sufficiently competent, but high
altitude flights had thrown up another difficulty. At operational altitude the internal surfaces of
the cockpit canopies were prone to icing, which effectively prevented navigation. The problem was not
confined to 4 Sqn, and inquiries by the Air Ministry confirmed that the Mosquito PR.XVI had been
produced in such a hurry that there had not been time to develop a heater which would ensure that
dry air was injected into the pressure cabin. No. 140 Sqn at Hartford Bridge had overcome this
problem and the "fix" was passed on to the rest of the PR force; by leaving the cabin windows
slightly open during the climb to operational altitude, all but a little icing could be prevented.
Unfortunately this meant foregoing the comfort of the pressure cabin, at least until operational
altitude was attained, but it did allow the Mosquitos to be committed to operations.
Accordingly, the first B Flt operation was flown on 20 March, when Flt Lt Stephenson and his nav,
Fg Off Brittain set out in MM313/T to photograph Noball targets on the French coast. The target was
obscured by cloud, but good photos were obtained of the secondary target, Le Touquet airfield. On the
outward leg of the journey, the crew sighted a formation of enemy fighters about 7000 ft below them,
but these were probably at their operational ceiling, and so were unable to engage. The Mosquito had
proved its legendary invulnerability again. The Spitfires of A Flt were again engaged in intensive
operations, and although various pilots saw enemy aircraft, once again the enemy were mostly below
the aircraft, and the 4 Sqn pilots were unchallenged.
The first Mosquito was lost on 22 March when Fg Off Fellowes lost control of his aircraft on
take-off. The undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft was written off, but fortunately the crew
The remainder of the month was spent in intensive operations over France and Belgium. Up until
now, as has been related, Allied PR operations had enjoyed a degree of invulnerability, due to the
inability of German fighters to operate at extremely high altitudes. As always though, a counter had
been found, and the period of grace enjoyed by 4 Sqn was very short indeed.
The counter was the Focke-Wulf FW.190D, a development of the excellent fighter which had been
giving Allied aircrew such a hard time at medium altitudes. The original FW.190 was a short stubby
little fighter with a powerful radial engine. Now however, the design team had replaced the radial
with a water cooled Daimler-Benz engine, which conferred an excellent high-altitude performance on
the aircraft and gave it a distinctive long nosed appearance. The FW.190D was in fact the best German
fighter of the war, possessing a manoeuvrability which matched that of the Mustang, but with a higher
ceiling. Such was the success of the aircraft that it was dubbed "Butcher Bird" by its crews.
The new German fighter was immediately pressed into service against Allied incursions, and on 26
March gave Flt Lt Lischke a nasty shock. While concentrating on his navigation, Lischke was unaware
of the approach of two FW.190Ds until they were less than five hundred yards from him, at the same
altitude. While they manoeuvred for an attack, Lischke turned sharply to port and climbed away to sea,
abandoning his mission. As can be seen, the Germans did not have to shoot a PR aircraft down to
effectively curtail its mission, and for the next few months, more and more missions had to be
abandoned due to interception by enemy fighters. This was brought home two days later when
Stephenson and Graham in a Mosquito were intercepted over Amiens and had to abandon their mission,
and Draper, in a Spitfire, was attacked by two more FW.190s. As he attempted to evade, his aircraft
was struck by bullets, and the engine began to leak oil over the windscreen. Draper managed to lose
the enemy fighters, and returned to base safely, but his mission had been a failure.
The long hoped for move to Gatwick occurred on 4 April, and although the airfield was only just
large enough for Mosquito operations, being bounded on all sides by fairly high obstructions, it was
considered to be infinitely better than Sawbridgeworth. The Squadron was stood down from ops until
the 10th, and training continued apace. Unfortunately accidents also continued, with another, brand
new, Mosquito being written off on the 9th; the crew were, again, unhurt.
The emphasis on targets for PR missions changed, and the Squadron was heavily involved in
mapping the river systems of Northern France. Despite the intensive workload, incidents were
thankfully few, one of note occurring on the 27th, when four FW.190s made an unsuccessful attempt to
intercept Flt Lt Silk. Luckily Silk was at his maximum altitude, and was travelling too fast for the
enemy to catch him. He completed his tasks and returned to base safely. Three days later, Fg Off
Fellowes and his nav again encountered enemy opposition when an unidentified enemy aircraft made a
stern attack on them. Fellowes broke off his photo run and although his aircraft was undamaged, dived
for home, leaving the German behind.
At the end of April 1944 the decision was taken that all ex-Mustang pilots attached to B Flt
were to become current on the Spitfire. Mosquito operations on 4 Sqn had never met with any great
success, and by far the burden of recce missions had been carried by the Spitfires of A Flt.
Consequently the pilots of A Flt were undergoing a fair amount of stress, and this measure was
intended to alleviate the pressure by increasing the number of Spitfire pilots available.
These measures were simply a matter of expedience on the Squadron, but apparently the lack of
success in Mosquito operations had reached the ears of somebody higher up. On 2 May, Wg Cdr Hardiman
received a signal informing him that by the end of the month, 4 Sqn would lose its establishment of
Mosquitos and would be equipped solely with Spitfires. The first Mosquito crew was posted away two
days later. Even at this late stage, Mosquito operations were held up by problems. The customary
early morning weather reconnaissance had to be carried out by Spitfires because the Mosquitos were
invariably encrusted with ice. Although it was clear that the new Mosquito crews who only had
experience on the one type would be posted away, many of the pilots who had served with 4 Sqn since
the days of the Mustang and had single engine experience were eager to stay with the Squadron and so
a list of hopeful candidates was sent to HQ 35 Wg. By the 8th, an order had been received that only
OTU trained crews were to fly the Mosquito, and that all other crews were to convert to the Spitfire
The intensive flying continued, mostly reconnaissances of enemy airfields and radar stations,
which were daily being attacked by Allied aircraft in the softening up operations which were part of
the lead up to OVERLORD. At the height of the Squadrons' successes, Wg Cdr Hardiman was posted to a
new command on the 15th, and his exec, Sqn Ldr Shepherd, took over command temporarily.
The final Mosquito operation took place on 20 May when Fg Off Fellowes and Sgt Howat attempted
to take photographs over Lille. This last mission was abandoned due to cloud, bringing to a close a
rather unsuccessful chapter in the history of the Squadron. The Spitfires, however, were going from
strength to strength with eleven sorties being carried out on that day, all of which were successful.
The new CO, Sqn Ldr C.D. Harris St.John arrived on 21 May, the same day that Sqn Ldr Shepherd
left to take over the command of 84 GSU at Aston Down. The diary notes the state of flux that the
Squadron was in, with OTU trained Mosquito crews and navigators being posted out, various Spitfire
pilots being posted in, and almost all the ex-Mustang pilots of B Flt busily converting to the
However this state of affairs did not prevent operations, and a high sortie rate was being
sustained. The new CO carried out his first mission with the Squadron on 27 May, and this was a
record breaking day in terms of sorties flown: seventeen, not including training flights. Some idea
of the pressure that crews were under can be gained from the Squadron diary entry for that day:-
Weather Ground mist in the early morning cleared by 0900 hours. Cloud formed in the afternoon.
Operations A big day for the Squadron, 17 sorties being flown. S/L CD Harris St.John DFC &
Bar photographed the radar stations at St Valery and Le Treport. The photos had to be taken at
12000ft and he flew out at zero feet, climbing just before reaching the coast - the sortie was
successful. Flt Lt KO Peachey took the RDF installations at Touvres and Cap D'Antife. Flt Lt C.A.B.
Slack and Fg Off R.C. Cooper took the RDF station at De la Perces and of St Denis Westrem airfield
respectively. Flt Lt D.C. Wilkins and F/S D.E. Penn photographed Cap de la Hagueand at Boulogne and
Neufchatel respectively. Fg Off D.E. Mobbs was allotted target Etrapagny/Begy and Bovara airfield
but had to return due to oxygen trouble. Flt Lt Draper took photos in the Trouville area and saw an
enemy aircraft at 20000 ft South of Rouen. Flt Lt Leventon took photos of St.Denis D'Arclon, Bonnetot
and Le Grandperdet. Flt Lt M.J. Ahearne took two VPPs at Antwerp/Devous and Grimbergen. Plt Off J.C.
Cox took photographs of Louviers, Forges, Sanney-Forges, Argueil, Londinn, Ieres and Amiens. Fg Off
C.G. Hubah took photos at Le Culot and Tirlemont/Gossencourt. Flt Lt C.A.B. Slack secured two VPPs at
Bouvard airfield and Grand Parc, whilst Flt Lt R.C. Cooper made 4 runs of a mosaic N.E. of Rouen and
S.E. of Dieppe. Flt Lt K.O. Peachey took VPPs of Campagne Les Hesdin and Gueschart Tillen Court. Flt
Lt H.D. Leventon was able to cover three of his targets only; Saleux, Amiens marshalling yard and
Arras marshalling yard - the remainder were covered in cloud.
Some pilots carried out two sorties, and with the average mission duration being over two hours,
almost all of it in hostile airspace, it can be seen that the strain on the Squadrons' aircrews was
intense, as indeed it was for the groundcrews who performed miracles in keeping the aircraft
By the end of the month the last Mosquito pilots, Fg Off Ogilvie and Flt Lt Fellowes, were
posted away to 1655 MTU, but Ogilvie was to return to the Squadron after a short time.
Flt Lt Lischke had to abandon his sortie on 30 May, when he was again intercepted. This time
however, his assailants were not the customary FW.190s, but a section of four USAAC P-47
Thunderbolts! The American pilots, mistaking Lischke's Spitfire for an enemy aircraft, made repeated
attacks on him, despite his attempts to display his insignia but Lischke managed to evade them and
headed for home. A few minutes later Plt Off Cox sighted the same four wayward Thunderbolts, but he
was too high and fast for them to catch him.
As the month of June started, the German V1 campaign reached a peak. London was suffering
heavily even though almost 70% of the missiles launched were caught by the fighter defences, or
shot down by AA fire. Scarcely a day went past without one of the "Doodlebugs" landing in the
vicinity of Gatwick airfield.
The high-level sorties continued at the previous high rate. On 4 June, Flt Lt Cowell
experienced one of the hazards of high-altitude flight at first hand. While flying at 31000 ft
over his target, Cowell noticed that his oxygen supply was diminishing. Abandoning his sortie, he
decided to dive down to a safer height, but apparently blacked out due to anoxia. He had no further
knowledge of events until he regained consciousness over the English coast. He was believed to have
spent an hour over France at heights between 10000 and 15000 feet, during which time he was fired
at by flak guns at Zeebrugge. All the time he was tracked on radar from Kingsley and he caused
puzzlement due to his unconscious antics. All in all, Cowell was very lucky, but he suffered no
permanent damage from his adventure, and was soon returned to ops. On this day seven sorties were
flown by 4 Sqn, all in the Pas de Calais area.
June 6, 1944 was the day that the walls of Fortress Europe were finally breached. The Allied
armies finally made a return to North West Europe in a massed attack on the beaches of Normandy. The
majority of 2ATAF were heavily involved in the air support of the beachhead; not so 4 Sqn, however.
The Squadron diary states; D-Day. Today must be the most disappointing day in the long history of 4
Squadron. Cloud obscured the operational areas and only one sortie was flown all day. Flt Lt D.E.
Mobbs did a VPP over Le Messil Le Roi and two runs South-West of Rouen.
Now that the assault had commenced, there was no point in carrying on the subterfuge of BODYGUARD,
and so all the sorties flown by the Squadron were in support of the invasion forces. on the 12th,
twenty-two sorties were flown, mostly recces of the bridges over the Seine, and this total was exceeded
two days later. The Spitfires were standing up to the pressure admirably, with an excellent
serviceability rate compared to that of the Mustang and Mosquito.
Allied air superiority in France was such that the Luftwaffe was hard pressed when attempting to
support its own troops, but that didn't prevent the occasional Germans getting through, as Fg Off
Cooper found out on the 13th. He was intercepted by two Bf.109s (presumably while carrying out his
mission at a lower than usual altitude) which were extremely persistent, chasing him for twenty
minutes. Eventually Cooper was forced to abandon his mission, and outclimbed the Messerschmitts,
returning home without further incident.
Despite the appalling weather on the continent, sortie rates were high for the remainder of the
month; usually around the twenty mark. Operations were concentrated in Normandy, and with a large
amount of fuel being used up in transits from Gatwick to Normandy, the decision was taken to move
the Squadron yet again to Odiham. This occurred on the 27th, and operations recommenced two days
July 1944 was noted for the exceptionally bad weather, a facet of the whole campaign in Normandy.
Sorties over the beachhead area were abandoned due to cloud on numerous occasions, although when
missions were possible, the sortie rates were extremely high. When operations in France were not
possible, the Squadron was kept busy photographing areas of London for a bomb damage assessment.
However over the beachhead it seemed that the Luftwaffe was making an all out effort to harass Allied
reconnaissance, despite the almost complete Allied air superiority. This was particularly evident on
the 6th, with Flt Lts Crawley, Silk, Bignell and Cowell all being intercepted. Luckily the usual
climbing evasive action was successful, and none of the pilots were engaged.
The high sortie rates carried on throughout the month, putting both crews and aircraft under
great pressure. Finally the inevitable happened and an aircraft (PA787) was lost due to mechanical
failure. The following is an extract from the Squadron diary:- Today No. 4 Squadron suffered its
second casualty since becoming a Photographic Reconnaissance squadron and it is regretfully recorded
that Flying Officer Norman "Ace" Cooper was killed in action. He had taken off on an operational
sortie at 1130 hours and soon afterward was heard to call up on his R/T that his engine had failed
and that he was gliding due North towards the English coast. A couple of minutes later he said his
aircraft was burning and after confirming that Tangmere had a good "fix" on him, he stated that he
was going to bale out (altitude 18000 ft). Unfortunately there was a dense sea-fog below and a
proper air search could not be started until the evening. His body was picked up the same evening
by a Naval Air Sea Rescue Launch. Fg Off Cooper was among the oldest members of the present No. 4
Squadron and joined as a Sergeant in January 1943, being commissioned in April 1943. Flt Lt D.J.
Bignell visited his wife and parents and extended the sympathy of the whole Squadron.
Despite the loss of individual members of the Squadron, life, or more correctly the war, had to
go on. The pressure continued unabated, albeit affected slightly by the bad weather. Everyone knew
it was just a matter of time before the Squadron joined those operating from the continent, and
notification of an impending move was received on 29 July. By this time, there were a number of
operational Advanced Landing Grounds in the Normandy Beachhead which were being used by Allied
close-support aircraft. Despite the fact that 2 Sqn was operating from one of these grounds in the
fighter reconnaissance role, there was a dire need for a dedicated recce facility for the beachhead,
tasked by and reporting to the local Allied commanders. No. 4 Sqn fitted the bill admirably. However
space at the landing grounds was at a premium and there was no room for the whole squadron. Another
solution had to be found.
The solution was simple. Early on the morning of 31 July, Flt Lt Draper and Fg Off Hutchinson
were told they would be going to France that day. There was no time to pack any kit, and indeed no
place to stow any on the aircraft. The idea was that the pair would operate from B.10 (Plumetot), an
advanced landing ground on the continent currently occupied by 2 Sqn. All servicing requirements
would be carried out by 2 Sqn groundcrew and the detachment would only last for two days, whereupon
the pair would be relieved by another two pilots from Odiham. On arriving at Plumetot the pilots
found a different world. The airfield was covered in confusion, with aircraft from three squadrons
continually landing and taking off with the ever present threat of enemy air attack hanging over
their heads. Both pilots had to "muck in", but the aircraft were ready for a sortie the following day.
The one mission required was flown by Draper in PA852. His brief was to search for a railway gun
which had been holding up the Allied advance, and indeed shelling the beachhead itself. The mission
was flown at 12000 ft and indeed medium altitude missions became a feature of all the missions flown
from the Continent. At this height the threat of enemy fighter intervention was very real, and so a
fighter escort was provided by four Spitfires of 131 Wg. Although Draper and his escort experienced
some flak, there were no fighters to be seen. Draper located the gun, and after his return to
Plumetot, the gun was attacked and destroyed by rocket carrying Typhoons.
Hutchinson was not required to carry out any sorties during the day, and the pair were relieved
by Flt Lt Wilkins and Fg Off Urban on the following day. An exhausted Draper and Hutchinson returned
to Odiham with (according to the Diary) gruesome stories of dust, lack of beer, lack of sleep (owing
to AA barrages) and of a shell on the airstrip perimeter. All these discomforts were outweighed by
the innovation of flying at less than 12000 ft and with (very efficient) escort. One and all seem
keen to get out to Normandy, especially if it's just for a few days.
Unfortunately the weather was bad and the new pilots were unable to fly any sorties until the
4th, when both flew one mission each. They were relieved on the 6th, after having spent four days at
Plumetot without kit. So much for the two day detachments! Meanwhile back at Odiham, the main
Squadron was heavily engaged in tactical reconnaissance ahead of the front line. Most of the missions
were abortive due to the dreadful weather.
On the continent, more ALGs had become available, and 2 Sqn relinquished its place at Plumetot
to close support squadrons and move back towards the coast to B.4, Beny-sur-Mer. This move
however did not stop recce missions being flown and Flt Lt Lischke found out about the hazards of
medium level ops. While taking VPPs on the 8th, his escort had to return to base due to
unserviceability. Lischke elected to continue his mission unescorted, by was set upon by four Bf.109s
which had somehow eluded the Allied fighter screen. They made repeated attacks on him, and Lischke
had no option but to abandon the mission and return to Beny-sur-Mer. Fortunately the Spitfire's climb
rate totally outclassed that of the Messerschmitt, and Lischke escaped uninjured.
The work being done by the 4 Sqn detachment was vital to the 1st Canadian Army, which was the
unit that 4 Sqn was attached to. Unfortunately the pressure of work could be too great for the
processors and interpreters on the continent to handle, and on the 11th, Fg Off Wilkins had to
return to Odiham with his film. The film was processed in short order, and the information gathered
was intended to be loaded back into the aircraft, while Wilkins returned to France. Unfortunately by
the time the photographs were printed - 2000 hours - the weather had clamped in Normandy. The
photographs were absolutely vital to the Canadian advance, so Capt Duffus, one of the Infantry
Liaison Officers with HQ 35 Wg, flew to Portsmouth with the prints where the Royal Navy took him to
Cherbourg by their fastest launch. There Duffus was met by a staff car and an armed escort. After a
hectic journey to 1st Canadian Army HQ, the photos were delivered in time to aid the morning offensive.
Finally the big day arrived and 4 Sqn, in its entirety, moved to Normandy. The groundcrew left
in two parties, one by road on the 10th, and an air party left Odiham in Dakotas on the 16th. The
Squadron diary is rather confused for this day, as the personnel leaving Odiham assumed that the
Normandy detachment would complete the entry for that day, while those in France assumed the opposite.
Consequently, 16 August 1945 has no full report, one of the few days in the history of No. 4 Sqn that
has not been fully documented.
Conditions at Beny-sur-Mer were cramped and arduous to say the least. The airfield was a dust
bowl when the weather was dry, which quickly turned into a quagmire in the rain. The aircraft had to
be parked in the open under camouflage nets, and even though the dispersals and runways were made
from PSP, they were invariably submerged under a few inches of mud. All personnel were billeted in
There was to be no respite in the pace of operations, not even time for personnel to settle in.
The following days saw intensive operations over the area immediately to the rear of the
battlefields, but soon a new factor in the fight to carry on ops made itself apparent. The late
summer of 1944 was noted for its unseasonably poor weather. Once again the landing grounds in
Normandy became waterlogged, and the diary for 21 August states; "It poured and poured and then
started raining again. The strip was converted from an arid desert into a sea of slippery, oozy mud
and so quickly it just wasn't true. No sorties were flown and those pilots who weren't suffering
from diarrhoea (which has been and is very prevalent) and a few other unfortunates stayed in their
tents and brooded." Round the clock work by the Royal Engineers, improving the PSP runway and
hardstandings, allowed operations to recommence on the following day. Again there were intensive
operations. The Squadron diary again; "...after a dull morning we had quite a busy day. There was no
Hun opposition and the Squadron was quite satisfied with itself until we heard in the evening that
many of the sorties were useless as the Army had advanced so quickly that we had been in many
instances, photographing our own troops. APIs who had been expecting a long night of hard work are
reported to have torn the prints into small pieces and made a bonfire of the whole futile issue."
Despite this minor annoyance, further sorties were most helpful and on the 25th, the Squadron set
a record for the number of sorties flown; thirty-two. During the later part of that day the Luftwaffe
returned to the fray and several pilots were harried, fortunately without loss. Flt Lt Buckley not
only reported meeting enemy fighters but also "four hundred gremlins". What these were is unclear.
Flt Lt Draper also reported a strange sighting, which was interpreted as being "...a jet propelled
job. The aircraft was single-engined and flying at 28,000ft leaving a non-persistent black trail."
Once again this sighting was an enigma as the Germans at that time had no operational single engined
jet aircraft. However strange sightings were to become all the more prevalent in the next few months.
The continuing Allied advance meant a move forward for 35 Wg on 2 September, this time to B-27,
Boisney. As usual, the aircraft arrived first, with the groundcrew arriving by road in the evening.
However when they landed the pilots had quite a surprise. With a distinct lack of groundcrew to see
the aircraft in all available personnel had to be press-ganged into providing an impromptu aircraft
handling party. "...there was a reception committee of a Group Captain, a Wing Commander and two
Squadron Leaders to show them to their dispersal area. One Squadron Leader was on the end of the
runway and the other senior officers were hanging on the wingtips of the aircraft...." Operations
were only carried out from Boisney for a couple of days before a further move was required, this time
to B-31, Fresnoy-Folny. The scheduled date of departure was the 5th, with the now familiar routine
of recovering from a sortie to the new base being planned. However the weather intervened again, with
conditions over the planned targets being unsuitable for reconnaissance. Instead the first party
transferred to Fresnoy-Folny in atrocious conditions of rainy squalls. The following day's weather
was more conducive to ops, and so the second party recovered to the new base after their sorties over
the Pas de Calais. With the whole of the Squadron there, camp was pitched just as the eternal rains
set in. Despite the fact that Fresnoy-Folny was an excellent base area, the were very few sorties
carried out due to inclement weather. By the time conditions had improved, the battlefield was so far
away that another further move was required.
This was carried out over two days, with a ground party moving to B-43, Fort Rouge, on the 10th,
and the aircraft recovering there after sorties on the following day. There were a few sighs of
relief as the last aircraft left, for the torrential rains had reduced the airfield to a marsh, and
three of the Spitfires had been bogged in before take-off.
The transit was not without incident however; Flt Lt Bignell was attacked by two FW.190s over
Antwerp. Although he managed to outclimb them, the enemy pilots were persistent and made a further
attack from head on, which Bignell again managed to evade. A second section of two FW.190s made a
further attack a few minutes later, and Bignell was obliged to return to base as he was now short
"Base" by now was Fort Rouge, in the Pas de Calais. Expectations were high when it was learned
that the new strip was a former home of the Luftwaffe, but there were a few glum faces when the true
nature of the strip became apparent; it was little better than earlier strips which the Squadron had
used, despite its previous occupancy.
Once again, operations settled into a methodical, if punishing, routine. Intensive ops were
flown all over the Pas de Calais, as well as Belgium and Northern Holland. A report of a suspected
V.2 launching site at Schouwen led to a sortie being flown but there was nothing conclusive.
On 19 September, Flt Lt Watterson reported yet another strange sighting, south of Bruges. This
appeared to be a corkscrew vapour trail moving in a westerly direction, but it had dispersed before
Watterson could confirm his sighting. The report was dismissed, but later that same day Flt Lt
Rowcliffe also reported a similar trail. The intelligence officer though the most likely explanation
was that these were V.2 trails, and in fact this is what they were later confirmed as being.
The month ended with another in the interminable round of moves; to B-61, St.Denis Westrem on
the 27th. The new base was located to the south of Ghent in Belgium and was a great improvement on
earlier strips, with a great many amenities.
Policy changes could be implemented quickly when required, and to the consternation of some
pilots it was learned on 1 October that No. 4 Sqn would henceforth have a subsidiary low level
reconnaissance role, using fighter recce versions of the Typhoon.
The Hawker Typhoon was a large beefy aircraft which had been originally designed as an
interceptor fighter. Although a qualified success in its designed role, by 1943 the Typhoon was being
superseded by other, more successful, designs, and was relegated to close-support. It was in this
role that the Typhoon came into its own. The activities of the Typhoon squadrons after D Day are now
legendary, with the destruction of literally thousands of enemy ground targets being one of the main
reasons for the seemingly rapid Allied advance.
A handful of Typhoons were converted into the FR.1b fighter-recce version, although there were
in fact two discrete versions sharing this designation. The first had two vertical cameras fitted in
the rear fuselage, while the second had a forward facing cine camera replacing the port inboard
camera. It was the former version that was to equip No. 4 Sqn.
As has been noted above, the policy change was implemented quickly; the plans were announced in
the morning of the 1st; by the afternoon the Typhoons had been delivered! The four aircraft were
simply transferred from 268 Sqn, which was sharing the airfield at the time, but as No. 4 Sqn
personnel were keyed up to maintaining the Spitfire, engineering support of the Typhoons had to be
carried out by 268 Sqn personnel, at least until a spares supply infrastructure could be created for
The Typhoons as delivered were left in the markings which they had carried with 268 Sqn, which
is to say, virtually none. The camouflage was the standard Ocean Grey and Dark Green disruptive
pattern on the upper surfaces with Medium Sea Grey under surfaces, as carried by the majority of
RAF fighters in Europe. Unfortunately no photographs have survived of 4 Sqn Typhoons, so markings
details can only be inferred from what 268 Sqn aircraft were wearing at the time. Apparently the Sky
rear fuselage band had been removed, and airscrew spinner overpainted in black. The only aircraft
identification was a single code letter, in Sky, worn behind the Type C1 fuselage roundel. All other
roundels were normal for the period.
Soon after delivery four flights were made by pilots who had some experience on the type, but
most of the Spitfire pilots were prevented from soloing on the new Typhoons by a strong crosswind,
which also kept the Spitfires on the ground. Many of the pilots were disconcerted by the sheer size
of the Typhoon, a monster compared to the dainty Spitfire and a few had restless nights. This
situation was not to last, thankfully. Over the next few days, in addition to the customary round
of Spitfire recce missions, the pilots and groundcrews became more familiar with their new mounts.
The Typhoon was known to be relatively easy to maintain, even with the added difficulties imposed
by field operations. The aircrew also found their first impressions to be false, founded as they were
in the horror stories of two years before when Typhoons seemed to lack structural integrity and would
disintegrate in mid-air with monotonous regularity. The Typhoon had since matured into a useful
combat aircraft and was to become a great asset to the Squadron. Training continued apace, alongside
the intensive operational sorties.
On the 6th, Flt Lt Leventon encountered some enemy fighter opposition when he was intercepted
and fired upon by two Messerschmitt Bf.109s. Leventon used the usual tactic of climbing, but the
Germans pursued him, albeit at a lower altitude, until they were all nearing Rotterdam. Thereupon
the enemy pilots abandoned the chase, but Leventon was so far off his track that he was obliged to
abort the mission and return to base. On the same day Flt Lt Jackson-Smith had an eventful time. On
his first flight of the day his canopy blew off at altitude, necessitating a return to base. Later in
the day he spotted a further V.2 trail, but was unable to plot the source.
By 10 October the Wing was again on the move, this time to B-70, Deurne; on the outskirts of
Antwerp. The weather that day was wretched, and so all energies could be devoted to the move, with
the road party departing ion the morning. Many of the personnel were sorry to be leaving St.Denis
The following day saw the first operational use of the Typhoons, which by this time numbered six
aircraft, as the diary relates; "Today saw a momentous departure from what has been, for some time
past, the Squadron's normal role. Apart from two high-level sorties over Walcheren and Ternouzen
carried out in Spitfire XIs, the Squadron flew its first operational sorties from a low-level;
2,500-3,000 ft. Five pairs took off at intervals and all the sorties were successful. With the
exception of some slight/medium inaccurate light flak, no enemy opposition was encountered." The
aircraft followed the by now well established routine of recovering at their new base and all
personnel settled in as best they could.
With rumours of an impending visit by a VIP, the Squadron had a very successful time on the
following day, with twenty-two sorties being carried out. The rumours proved to be well founded
and on the 13th, the VIPs arrived. In fact it was difficult to be any more important than the
chief visitor; HRH King George VI with Field Marshal Montgomery and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham,
AOC 2ATAF in tow. His Highness spoke to several pilots, including Sqn Ldr Harris St.John and showed
a great interest in the Squadron ops room.
By the end of the month, all the targets covered were in western Holland, and V.2 trails were a
common sight, although attempts to pin- point the launching sites all came to nought; hardly
surprising considering the mobile nature of V.2 operations.
Although the panzer divisions were falling back on all fronts and the Luftwaffe was keeping a
low profile (not an unforeseen occurrence when the number of Allied fighters based in Northern France
is taken into consideration), the Germans still had one or two nasty surprises up their sleeves;
namely a missile bombardment. During the course of the 24th, V.2 trails were to be clearly seen from
the base. Late in the afternoon a sudden flurry of explosions on the edge of the airfield, caused by
a barrage of V.1 "Doodlebugs", caused great consternation, but little damage. Things were to hot up
on the following day however, as one of the missiles exploded in the maintenance yard of No. 146 Wg,
about 200 yards away from the 4 Sqn dispersal. A number of windows and considerable quantities of
wall and ceiling plaster became dislodged but no damage was done to any of the aircraft. Not so the
airmens' billet, where considerable damage was sustained and the billet was rendered uninhabitable.
The Squadron diary makes no mention of casualties, but they were likely to have been at least moderate.
The weather again caused the cancellation of sorties for the next few days, until the 29th, which
turned into quite an eventful day. The Typhoon pilots covered their targets at Enschede but to their
consternation found a bombing mission in progress at the time. Not only did they have to contend with
severe flak, but also with bombs being dropped from the Allied bombers above. Luckily all escaped
with minor damage. Not so Flt Lt Wilkins however. The Squadron received a radio message from him to
the effect that he was attempting to force-land his Spitfire on the border of friendly and hostile
territory. Nothing more was heard from him but hopes were high that he would return to the Squadron.
Despite the frequent "Doodlebug" bombardments the following day, sorties were carried out as usual,
including one by Sqn Ldr Harris St.John, who attempted to locate the whereabouts of Wilkins' aircraft.
Despite locating several wrecks, he returned without having found the Spitfire or its pilot.
The beginning of November was marked by an increase in the number of enemy aircraft willing to
engage in combat. On the 4th Flt Lt Lischke was again attacked by two FW.190Ds, which gave him a
nasty shock when they appeared in a favourable position to make good their attack. Breaking into his
tormentors, Lischke climbed to evade, but his shock was compounded when the German pilots showed the
mettle of their aircraft by keeping up with him. All his attempts to evade were futile, and the two
Germans were preparing a further attack when they were pounced upon by four American Mustangs.
Lischke took his chance and smartly disengaged, returning promptly to base. Flt Lt Draper also
encountered FW.190s at 36,000 ft; sixteen of them! Four chased him to within 30 miles of Antwerp
before breaking off.
Up until this point all enemy attacks on the PR Spitfires had been made from below or a similar
altitude. However on the 6th, Flt Lt Cowell was attacked from a totally unexpected direction; above.
While flying at 36,000 ft in the area of Hengold, an altitude which had given the Spitfires a deal
of invulnerability to all except the Luftwaffe's best fighters, he noticed an aircraft above him,
at 45,000 ft. The aircraft dived on Cowell and opened fire. To his alarm Cowell saw that his
assailant was a Messerschmitt Me.262, a twin-engined jet fighter. Breaking into the attack, Cowell
tried to climb away, but the German had an aircraft that was both faster and more agile than his
own. Time and again the German came in, cannons blazing; each time Cowell evaded by the skin of his
teeth, always desperately struggling to gain cloud cover. Eventually he managed to dive into an area
of sparse cloud, and luckily lost the Messerschmitt; he returned to base considerably shaken.
The Spitfires were meeting relatively little resistance, despite the incidents related above;
not so the Typhoons however. As the theatre of operations neared the German border, the defenders
threw everything into the fray. The levels of flak that 4 Sqn crews met on low-level ops had
increased dramatically. The Typhoons were frequently returning with damage, and it was only a matter
of time before an aircraft was lost.
With this in mind, on the 12th, Sqn Ldr Harris St.John initiated a program of air-to-sea firing
for the pilots; the hope being that the Typhoon's battery of four 20mm Hispano cannons would be able
to suppress any flak defences. Despite these precautions, six days later a Typhoon was indeed lost to
flak. Flt Lts Draper and Cowell were on a sweep over the Bocholt area when they were engaged by
several light flak units. The luckless Cowell, in Typhoon EK429, was hit and obliged to carry out a
forced landing south east of Kessel. After landing he contacted Draper over the R/T and reported
that he was alright. Draper returned to base. Nothing further was heard from Cowell and it later
transpired that he had been captured.
The following day a further aircraft was lost, in the shape of Spitfire MB907. Warrant Officer
LVA Burgis, on his return from an operational sortie, came in to land too fast and overran the
runway. The aircraft overturned and was so badly damaged as to be written off. Thankfully Burgis was
not badly injured, but he was taken to the 8th RAF General Hospital at Brussels.
A further move occurred on 23 November amid exceptionally bad weather. This time the Squadron
moved across the border to B-77, Gilze-Rijen; an ex-Luftwaffe base in Holland. The ground party left
in the morning but the aircraft were unable to fly for two days, finally arriving at Gilze on the 25th.
The billets occupied by both airmen and officers were those that had been recently vacated by the
Luftwaffe, and were a revelation, proving to be most comfortable. The month ended with one of the more
successful days on the 29th, with thirty sorties being carried out, only one of which was abortive.
There was also a visit by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, General Dwight D Eisenhower.
December was a quiet month, the calm before the storm. Missions continued at a high rate but with
few incidents. There was however a scare on the 17th, when the airfield at Gilze was overflown by
fourteen Messerschmitt Bf.109s. Despite the meagre anti-aircraft defences, the Germans made no attempt
to attack. Several pilots were intercepted by enemy aircraft on Christmas Eve; Flt Sgt Hughes by three
fighters, W/O Seeley by a FW.190 and Flt Lt Johnson by two Me.262s. All of these managed to evade, but
Fg Off Priddle was not so lucky. He was intercepted by German fighters over Nieuwkuik, and was unable
to escape. His Spitfire, PL796, was shot down and Priddle was killed.
Christmas Day was not even noted as such in the Squadron diary. To 4 Sqn it was simply "another
excellent flying day with no cloud and very little haze." The chance was taken to fly twenty PR
sorties. Despite the COs aircraft being hit by flak on the 29th, the year ended quietly.
A welcome occurrence was the completion of operational tours by three members of the Squadron;
Flt Lts Draper, Rowcliffe and Leventon.
A tour was seen as the optimum time to keep a pilot in the front line, and was different in
length depending on the type of operations flown. As is widely known, that for members of Bomber
Command was fifty operational missions.
The tour length for fighter and FR pilots however, was calculated in hours and that for recce
pilots was set at 200 hours of operational flying although was more likely to be judged completed at
the 80 mission point. This was deemed to give a pilot a 36% chance of surviving an operational tour,
but as has been seen, the pilots on 4 Sqn had a much greater chance due to the high-altitude nature
of the work.
A pilot completing his first tour was posted back to the UK for a well deserved tour of
instructional duties. This was standard practice. After his instructors tour, a pilot would be liable
to be posted back to the front line for a second tour, and then, if he survived that, would be
entitled to be demobbed.
All three of the 4 Sqn pilots were completing their second tours, but all volunteered for further
service with the RAF.
The storm broke on New Years Day, 1945, with the German Operation "Bodenplatte". In an attempt
to destroy the Allied air forces in the Low Countries on the ground, and so prevent the use of
tactical fighters over the Ardennes, the Luftwaffe organised a surprise strike. Some eight hundred
aircraft were cobbled together into an improvised striking force. This was a meagre force compared
with the two thousand aircraft planned, but the depredations of Allied fighters had taken a
horrendous toll of the German aircrews. The operation had in fact been planned for the middle of
December, but had been postponed by consistently bad weather. January 1st, 1945, was simply the
earliest suitable day, although many members of 2ATAF assumed it was intended to catch the Allied
airmen with hangovers.
The whole operation was very much organised on a wing and a prayer. The more experienced German
aircrew had already been lost in combat, and all that was left were inexperienced men barely out of
training. They all lacked practice in navigation, so various force packages were put together to each
be led by a pathfinder. Several packages went astray and the numbers of aircraft that found their
targets was severely depleted. Nevertheless damage on the Allied airfields was severe. Twelve
airfields were hit, including Gilze-Rijen.
The 4 Sqn diary for that day states; "At approximately 0900 hours, sixteen enemy aircraft,
ME109s, ME262s and FW190s, attacked the airfield. Little damage was done and the Ack Ack defences of
the airfield claimed 1 ME109, 1 FW190 and 1 ME262 destroyed and 3 ME109s, 1 FW190 and 1 ME262 as
damaged. One ME109 was hit near the cockpit whilst crossing the airfield at low altitude and black
smoke was seen to come from the aircraft which flew away from the airfield losing height rapidly.
One German airman baled out and was locked up in the Guard Room. No further attack was made during
the day and the Wing was able to complete a successful days operations without further interference."
The claims by the ground defences are typically exaggerated; in fact very few German aircraft were
lost over the targets. Also in error in this report is the fact that "little damage was done." The
truth is that two aircraft were destroyed on the ground; Spitfire XI PL765 of 4 Sqn and a Typhoon of
164 Sqn. The Typhoon was taxying for take off and its unfortunate pilot was killed. Severe damage
was also done to several buildings and installations.
Gilze-Rijen was one of the lucky airfields, only losing two aircraft. At Eindhoven, forty-four
Allied aircraft were destroyed while fifty-five were destroyed at Melsbroek.
This was the last occasion on which the Luftwaffe could offer any appreciable influence, and
although there were infrequent later attempts at interceptions on Allied aircraft, to all intents
and purposes, the German air force outside the Fatherland had ceased to exist.
The need for low-level missions had by now abated with 2 Sqn carrying out all the FR commitment,
and so the Typhoons were withdrawn from 4 Sqn during the course of January (the final 4 Sqn typhoon
sorties were actually made on 1 February 1945), and the Squadron returned to pure high-altitude
The pace of ops continued unabated, with few incidents to lift the tedium. On the 14th, Flt Lt
Collinson spotted three very bright objects, rather like magnesium flashes, moving south over
Haarlem at a very high speed. Although this sighting was never explained, it was probably a formation
of Me.262s. The majority of these aircraft had unpainted undersurfaces, and the bright flashes were
probably caused by the sun glinting off the bare aluminium.
Eight days later Flt Lt Thorne was chased by two single-engined fighters, but without much
apparent enthusiasm. The Germans soon gave up and went home.
The end of the month saw storms and a general drop in temperature, leading to sheets of ice over
the strip. However a thaw materialised and the airfield once more turned into a bog. It was during
this month that Flt Lt Speares and Fg Off Penn completed their first and second operational tours
respectively. Both had joined 4 Sqn in mid-1942 and had flown Mustangs, Mosquitos, Spitfires and
Typhoons. The pair were later posted to 14 PTC en route to the UK. Luckily for Speares the war was to
end before he completed his instructional tour.
January ended in a spell of bad weather, grounding the Squadron until the early part of February.
Luckily things improved in time for sorties to be flown over the area of a forthcoming Canadian
offensive towards the Rhine.
This duly opened on the 8th, and the Squadron was kept busy with recce missions to army demands.
By the 14th, the Germans were again making an attempt to intercept reconnaissance aircraft, but they
all seemed to be rather half-hearted. Perhaps the German pilots were pre-occupied with searching for
hostile fighter cover as by this time Allied air superiority was almost complete.
Once again 4 Sqn excelled itself on the 21st, with 40 sorties over the battle area, keeping a
similarly high rate up over the next few days, with no incidents reported whatsoever. It seemed the
only thing which could prevent the Squadron from carrying out its tasks was the weather, but Flt Lt
Fryer even found a way around that problem.
On the 25th, the battle for the Rhine was reaching a critical stage, and reconnaissance reports
were essential to ensure the Allied advance. Unfortunately when Fryer reached his allotted area at
30,000ft, he found the target obscured by alto-stratus cloud at 13,000ft. Therefore he dived to below
the cloudbase and took his photos from there. Of course at the lower altitude Fryer could not expect
to cover all his demands, but what he did cover was the main battle area, so his mission was judged
a success. This mission also brought his personal tally up to 80, leaving him tour expired, as indeed
Flt Lt Urban had become earlier in the month.
Even though morale on the Squadron was high, a little bit of good news never goes amiss. The good
new this time (apart from the rumours of an imminent end to the war) was that three ex-members of
4 Sqn; Flt Lts Draper, Rowcliffe and Leventon, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for
their work whilst active with the Squadron. Official notification was received to the effect that
Flt Lt Cowell, who was missing on 18 November 1944 having force landed in enemy territory, was now a
POW and was well.
By now, with the fighting solely within Germany, another move east was required, this time to
B-89, Mill, just south of Nijmegen. The weather at the beginning of March was atrocious, so all
energies could be devoted to packing up. The move was made, by both air and ground parties, on the
9th, and after two days of enforced idleness, again due to the weather, 4 Sqn was back in action.
Three days of steadily increasing operations led to 4 Sqn surpassing their own record yet again,
flying forty-three sorties on the 15th. All seemed set for an Allied victory, and everyone knew it.
Even the German fighters which were infrequently encountered steadfastly refused to engage the
reconnaissance aircraft, content to scurry home as soon as contact was made.
APRIL 1945 For the first part of April the recce sorties were still in support of the 1st
Canadian Army, this time in their efforts to cut off northern Holland from Germany. with this
objective achieved by the 12th, attention changed to enemy airfields, docks and industrial areas in
north-west Germany, concentrating on Bremen, Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. Again, a further move was
necessary, this time north to B-106, Twenthe, an airstrip just outside Enschede, right on the German
The move was made by 35 Wg as a whole, the HQ party moving on the 16th leaving 4 Sqn to carry
out 22 sorties over high value German targets, and to follow on to Twenthe the following day.
At the new airfield living conditions were again found to be to everyone's liking. Officers and
airmen alike were billeted in the old Luftwaffe Officers Mess. The month ended with another further
record; forty-six sorties flown on the 25th.
Three further pilots became tour expired at the beginning of May; Flt Lts Tozer, Hutchinson and
Events now began to move fast. On 30 April, with the Third Reich falling down around his ears,
Hitler committed suicide. The following morning the remainder of the German High Command attempted to
negotiate a partial surrender with the Allies, with Admiral Doenitz as the new leader of the Reich.
Doenitz's great fear was that Germany would be overrun by the Russians and so he attempted to
negotiate an armistice in the west whilst continuing the war in the east. This was rejected out of
hand by the Allies. Meanwhile events were being taken out of his hands. The German forces in the
north surrendered on 4 May.
For 4 Sqn it was a time of great confusion. Six new pilots had been posted in, to make up the
shortfall since there had been so many departures recently. The weather was bad, as usual, and so no
sorties were being flown. Rumours of imminent German surrender abounded, but any information to be
gained came solely from the BBC news, or the ever popular "rumour control". Finally on 7 May
unofficial notification came through of an unconditional German surrender. To all intents and
purposes the war was over, yet 4 Sqn stayed on a war footing, and carried out seven sorties over
Luftwaffe airfields in north west Germany.
May 8th was VE Day. Six sorties were despatched over similar targets as the previous day,
but the Squadron was notified that that day and the following were to be holidays. The aircraft were
put to bed in double quick time, and all personnel concentrated on some serious celebration! Although
the fighting was over, there were still missions to be flown. With all the recent bad weather, large
areas of Holland had flooded, and an aerial survey was commenced. Reports on the dispositions of
German troops had to be supplied. Furthermore, the commander of 84 Gp, Wg Cdr Malins (who was
himself an ex-member of 4 Sqn, having flown Lysanders during the Battle of France) organised a
victory flypast over the Hague, scheduled for the 21st.
Click to see Part 4 - After WWII
Click to Return to 4 Sqn History Index