Friday 14 June 2024

Clevedon's Pathfinder (1943)

Yesterday, I was privileged to spend time with 103 year old RAF Bomber Command veteran Arthur Spencer, who lives just a few hundred metres from my home. Brought up in Southampton, where his father - a veteran of the Great War - supplemented his disability pension by working as a postman, Arthur joined the RAF as soon as he left school in 1940 aged 19 years. I asked him why he had joined up, and his answer couldn't have been clearer.

There was a madman marching his armies all over Europe and something needed to be done to stop him.

Apparently so many young men had applied to join the Royal Air Force in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain, that there was a delay in the start of Arthur's training. The gap was filled through service as an Air Raid Precautions Warden (ARP) in his home town. At that point Southampton hadn't experienced what Arthur describes as 'the big raids' but it had been hit quite hard.

A flyer for Arthur Spencer's autobiography

In November 1940 Arthur put on a blue RAF uniform for the first time, and started on an accelerated training schedule that was to take him to various locations around the UK and to North America. Along with fellow cadets he spent time manning air defences at RAF Watton in Norfolk in between 8 week training courses which had been collapsed down to 5 weeks in order to feed the demand for fully trained flyers more quickly. After a difficult journey to Halifax in Canada via Iceland Arthur trained on Stearman PT-13s down at Lakeland in Florida before progressing to monoplanes. After being 'washed out' in Florida, Arthur trained as a Navigator back in Canada and subsequently returned to the UK where he completed advanced training, was allocated to Bomber Command and underwent 'conversion' to Lancasters at RAF Swinderby. In December 1942 Arthur was allocated to 97 Squadron based at RAF Woodhall Spa (coincidentally the town where I grew up, indeed my first job was as a waiter at the Petwood Hotel which served as the Officer's Mess during the war years).

One of the buildings which still stands at RAF Woodhall Spa

After teaming up with his new crew, which included pilot Jimmy Mullen, Arthur begun his operational career at the start of the new year (Sadly, Jimmy was killed on active service during his third Tour of Operations and is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial). On Arthur's second operation over Dusseldorf in January 1943, the reality of war was writ large.
By the time we got to the target, the navigator's job was done. We would sit behind the pilot in a space blacked out with dividers and curtains so the route could be plotted in decent light. After my job was done, I pushed the curtain back and climbed through to the pilot. I was amazed to see the sky illuminated with searchlights and flak. I thought to myself 'can we really fly through that!'. I was scared at the time, but we all got used to it.

 After about 20 Operations from Woodhall Spa, 97 Squadron was chosen to join the Pathfinder Force. 3 crews were allocated to 617 Squadron (The Dambusters), several were stood down, and the rest of the men were posted with 97 Squadron to RAF Bourn where they undertook new training on the use of more sophisticated radar and bomb aiming. Their job would be to light up and mark targets. The former by using Target Indicators which were flares that ignited at 3,000 feet.

Avro Lancaster at RIAT in 2014

In all Arthur would complete two Tours, one of 30 Operations and One of 15. just under half of these were with the Pathfinders. Many of the Operations that Arthur was involved with, are recounted in his book. Having visited Peenemunde in Germany a few years ago, I was particularly interested in hearing about Operation Hydra (17/18 August 1943). Peenemunde, near Rugen Island on the Baltic Coast was a special weapons establishment where V1 and V2 rockets were being developed under a cloak of secrecy.

At the briefing we were told that a new type of radar was being developed at Peenemunde. We were to hit the target in the following sequence: The living quarters of the scientists, the development works and the factory. We were also warned about a nearby Polish PoW Camp. It was the first raid to be conducted with a Master of Ceremonies (A Master Bomber who would oversee the target marking in real time). We were told that if we weren't successful, then we would need to go every night until it was!

 Eight mosquitoes were sent over Berlin to mark targets as a decoy, so as to keep the German night fighters busy. It worked, we got back safely. However, once the Luftwaffe knew was happening the night fighters tracked north and 40 Lancs were lost in subsequent waves. We did see one shot down 20 miles or so away over Flensburg, They must have gone off course and we watched as the aircraft was 'coned' by searchlight beams.

Peenemunde - now a 'dark' tourist attraction

My Aunt Joan & Friends - V1 Ramp (1948)

Another memorable Operation was the bombing of Frederikshaven which was so far into Axis territory that the Lancasters flew on and landed in North Africa. On the way back to their home base at Bourn the Lancs dropped bombs on the Italian naval base at La Spezia. Arthur recalls the Lancaster pilots competing to get back to their bacon and egg breakfast at Bourn, with some encouragement from the CO.

I didn't want to outstay my welcome, so I will wait for the book to hear more, but to complete the wartime story, Arthur unsurprisingly turned down the opportunity to fly a third Tour and moved down to Foggia in Southern Italy as an instructor. Following the war he settled down to civilian life with his wife of 79 years Eva, and two daughters. Arthur worked for BOAC for a while before undertaking a successful career in education. 

Details of Flight Lieutenant Arthur Spencer's book can be found here: A Pathfinder in the Peenemunde Raid

An account of my visit to Peenemunde is here: A Visit to Peenemunde

My portfolio of photos taken at the old RAF Woodhall Spa airfield in 2007 here: RAF Woodhall Spa


Saturday 18 May 2024

Cruising the Caribbean

 At the behest of my wife, I recently spent a couple of weeks in the Caribbean on a cruise ship. On the face of it, not really my scene - but we had a great time. The Britannia is a lovely ship, and waking up every morning docked on a different island presented some great opportunities - white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, exotic wildlife, rum punch and ... military history! Here are five sites that pricked my interest.

Firstly, the North Tanki Maraka Heritage Park on the island of Bonaire. When Holland fell to Nazi Germany in May 1940, the Dutch Antilles were effectively 'orphaned'. German ships were seized and the authorities on the Dutch Islands joined the Allied cause. The islands of the Curacao Colony became important - and a focus of German attention - as local oil production was geared up. Following Pearl Harbour the US Army established a presence on the islands - initially by expanding the airfields and then by establishing a major supply base on Bonaire. 

North Tanki Maraka US Base (1942-47)

The site of the Tanki Maraka base is on the circular route which skirts around the south of the island. We hired a golf buggy and spotted the entrance easily as there is a large interpretation panel next to the entry path. A circular walking route picks out the main points of interest and a series of panels explain the history. The building are long gone, but the concrete footings remain along with old oil drums, cables and long forgotten vehicles. As one strolls along the paths, it is easy to imagine what a hive of activity this place was from 1942 right through to 1947 when it was deciommissioned.

The nearby island of Curacao has a 'modern' history going back to the early 1500s when the native population was enslaved by Spanish colonists. It was fought over by the Dutch and Spanish during the 1600s, until the former gained control - periodically suppressing slave revolts and fighting off the British until oil was discovered in nearby Venezuela and the geo-political importance of the island was transformed.

The Rif Fort on Curacao (1829-1947)

The Rif (Reef) Fort in Willemstad is an easy stroll from the port, so no need to negotiate a taxi ride! Built in 1829, under the direction of King William I of the Netherlands, the fort consists of five foot thick walls made of coral stone built to a height of four stories. It was originally armed with 56 cannons - two of which are sited at the entrance to what is now the Renaissance Shopping Mall. These massive muzzle loaders date to the early 19th Century.

The third site I've chosen for this whistle stop tour is the truly spectacular Brimstone Fort on St Kitts, a sail day away from the Dutch Antilles and back in the British zone of interest. The Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is noted as an 'outstanding example of European military engineering dating from the 17th and 18th Century'. It can be reached by taxi from the port at St Christopher. 

Brimstone Fort, St Kitts (1690-1853)

Lower Bastion, Brimstone Fort

Eagle eyed readers will have noted the rather odd grey colouring of the cannons in the picture above. The reason for this was that at the time of our visit they had just been primed for a coat of black paint. During the American Revolutionary War- in Jan/ Fen 1782, a substantial French Force besieged and successfully stormed the fortress. It was restored to the British a month or two later under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

Next on my list is the stunningly beautiful and aptly named Nelson's Dockyard on the island of Antigua. Once described as a 'vile hole' by Horatio Nelson, it is now an achingly pretty collection of beautifully restored colonial buildings adjacent to a harbour that is still in use today. No more the preserve of Royal Navy ships, it now serves the super yachts of various non-doms! Abandoned by the British in 1889, the site was superbly restored in the 1950s. Take a taxi, not an organised trip, that way you will have more than 30 minutes to look around.

Royal Navy Offices, Nelson's Dockyard

Above the dockyard at Shirley Heights, one can find Fort Shirley - a British military base which was active from 1781 ton 1825. Aside from the stunning view of the English Harbour (and Eric Clapton's villa and Crossroads rehabilitation centre) one can explore a number of military structures including several blockhouses. Nearby is the military cemetery which includes a striking memorial to the 54th Regiment inscribed with the names of those who were killed during skirmishes with the French, and who died of disease.

Blockhouse on Shirley Heights

Memorial to the 54th Regiment, Shirley Heights

Finally, back on the island of Barbados, a trip to the Gun Hill Signal Station, St George is definitely worthwhile, and can be covered on one of P&Os day trips along with the stunning Sunbury Plantation House. The hill, which offers spectacular views, has military associations going back to 1697 and remained in use to the early part of the 20th Century. The signal station was one of six built in 1818 to warn of invasion or civil unrest. 

Gun Hill Signal Station, Barbados

Inside the main tower at the old station, there is a mini-military museum displaying information and images relating to the West India Regiment and the Barbados Regiment (the latter extant from 1948). Two soldiers from the former won the Victoria Cross and their stories are recounted on well-researched information panels. The case full of military badges and equipment give a flavour of the various units which were stationed at this remote outpost over the years. Near the steps to the tower there is one of two restored early 19th Century naval cannons. Rather mysteriously, one of the has a plaque affixed, commemorating Craftsman Llewelyn Kellond of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Kellond hailed from Hayes in Middlesex and lived in Sheffield, England. He died near Arnhem in 1944, and is commemorated on the Groesbeek Memorial in the Netherlands.

The Britannia from Fort Frederick, Grenada

So, that's it. Just a taster of some of the fascinating military history that one can explore whilst on a Caribbean Cruise. Time to venture beyond the beaches?