Friday, 21 January 2022

The First Arnhem Casualties (1944)

In November 2021 I was invited by the Royal British Legion to attend a ceremony of remembrance at the Commonwealth War Graves plot in Milton Cemetery, Weston-super-Mare. The particular focus of this event, were twenty three men who had been killed when their Horsa glider broke apart in mid-air over the village of Paulton near Bristol. On Sunday, 17 September 1944 at 10:25, a Short Stirling of 299 Squadron had taken off from RAF Keevil in Wiltshire, towing Horsa Glider RJ113. The entire complement of the glider was lost when the glider disintegrated - twenty one men of 1 Platoon, 9th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers and two crew from the Glider Pilot Regiment. 

Wreaths were laid on behalf of The Volunteer Training Development Team at Regional Command, The Bristol Royal Engineers Association, The Glider Pilot Regiment Society, The Royal British Legion and The Double Hills Arnhem Commemoration Committee. Fittingly, a final wreath was laid on behalf of Mrs Valerie Austin, daughter of Sapper John Fernyhough - one of the casualties. After the Collect of The Army Air Corps and the Collect of The Royal Engineers, the padre asked those present to remember with thanksgiving all those who have died on operational service, especially the 23 soldiers who died aboard glider RJ113, the first casualties of Operation Market Garden. The customary two minutes silence was observed and flags were paraded.

Whilst researching his book 'Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle', Martin Middlebrook tracked down the tail gunner of the 299 Squadron Stirling that was towing the glider in question. Sergeant Wally Simpson's eye-witness account does not make comfortable reading. 

I was watching the Horsa trailing behind when suddenly, the glider just seemed to part in the middle; it looked as if the tail portion parted from the front. Horrified, I shouted to the skipper, "my God, the glider is coming apart". As the tail section of the glider fell earthwards, its front section was still in tow with the Stirling and falling like a rock to earth. As it fell, the tow rope gave way and fell with the glider still attached to it. Had the tow rope not broken when it did, I shudder to think what might have been.

The pictures below show a Horsa under tow by an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle during the earlier D-Day campaign. Photo credits: Jonathan Ware.

After the incident the Stirling tow aircraft returned to RAF Keeble. The crash site had been marked and the crew of the bomber resolved to travel back to Somerset by jeep and find their lost comrades. Simpson remembered what he and his skipper found.

We left the formation and gradually lost height and turned back to locate the wreckage. Noting the spot, we reurned to Keevil and then drove by jeep to the crash location. I described it at the time as being like a matchbox that had been stepped on. The bodies of the men had remained inside. I had no way of estimating how many dead there were. There were no survivors.

Apparently the other half of the RE platoon was flying a glider just below and watched, with understandable horror, the wreckage floating downwards. The tail fell in a roadway and the fuselage section fell in a field on a feature known locally as Double Hills. The cause of the accident was never established. 

One can get a sense of what the interior of a Horsa was like by visiting the example in the Cobbaton Military Vehicle Collection in Devon. The replica shown in the image above was built for the film A Bridge to Far.

A couple of months after the ceremony in Weston-super-Mare I took a trip out to the crash site which is a short walk out of the village of Paulton in the Mendip Hills. The spot is marked by a rather impressive memorial which lists the names of those who were killed. A plaque informs the visitor that the memorial was unveiled - very appropriately - by the commander of the British 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, Major General R.E. Urquhart CB. DSO. on the 23rd September 1979. 

My photo Jan 2022
My photo - Jan 2022

Earlier photo - Undated

The memorial is clearly looked after. Indeed some of the names of those who have been involved in its upkeep are recorded on the site. The memorial was flanked by two striking sculptures but both are gone (presumed stolen) - as shown in the second undated photo. A plaque records the one on the right has having been a sapper of the 9th Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers. Created and donated by SPR Roy Cleeves 2008. 

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

The Black Down Decoy Site (1940-44)

 From January 1940 onwards, an elaborate decoy strategy designed to protect urban areas from aerial bombardment was planned and implemented. Over the course of the next 18 months or so no fewer than 602 such sites were built. There were four types of decoy - dummy aerodromes (K and Q sites), diversionary fires (QF and Starfish), simulated urban lighting (QL sites) and dummy factories and buildings. The QF diversionary site at Black Down is one of the few that wasn't totally eradicated after the end of the Second World War.

Control Bunker - Black Down QF Site

Black Down is the highest point in the Mendip Hills, offering a spectacular view of the Chew Valley. It is close to Cheddar (BS40 7XU / OS Grid: ST 470564) and the QF site can be accessed via a steep path adjacent to Tynings Farm. The site, which formed part of Bristol's defences, operated in tandem with a QL simulated lighting system and Z anti-aircraft rocket battery to the south. The western control bunker is on top of the hill at the end of the steep access path leading up from the farm. It's not possible to get inside but most of the structure is clearly visible, including the blast wall protecting the main entrance.

Tynings Farm and the site of the QL decoy beyond

After a couple of hundred yards beyond the western control bunker (from which both the QF and the QL sites could be triggered) at the top of the access path turn right and walk up towards the trig point on the summit of the hill. The landscape in front of you is punctuated by channels and mounds which, in war time, supported various materials and devices for simulating a city on fire. One can also discern firebreak trenches which enclosed emplacements used for simulating burning building.

Old military road up to the trig point
Simulated Bristol Targets

The planners went to considerable lengths to replicate potential sites in Bristol, the configuration of factories, railways and houses was copied and the site would be lit up on the approach of Luftwaffe bombers, the intention being that they bomb these open spaces in the mistaken belief that they were hitting Bristol. For example Temple Meads was simulated at Point C on the above map. In this instance there was a combination of QL and F features i.e. a lit up area, partially on fire.

Bronze Age Bowl Barrow

At the trig point on Beacon Batch there are a number of Bronze Age burial barrows of which two are particularly prominent (see picture above). From this point look east towards the two masts. The QL site mimicking Bristol's Eastern Depot was situated in that area. There is a second control bunker to the south of this spot on the southern boundary of the Black Down designated site.

500  metres to the south of Tynings Farm there is a bunker with blast wall which was almost certainly the control centre for the Z Battery based in this area. The Z Batteries were manned by Home Guard units and developed from a single-rocket launcher into more sophisticated projectors which could fire a salvo of 36 at the touch of a button. The combination of decoys and ground to air fire power was a potent threat to enemy bomber forces - tricked into releasing their bombs to early, in doing so they were exposed to rocket attack.