Digby - RCAF Digby
Updated: 22 Oct 08
Before we deal with the war years in detail, it should be noted that some of the incidents claimed for Digby in this history took place at one of its satellites, Wellingore or Coleby Grange. As these airfields were temporary wartime strips, this seems reasonable. Where squadrons were split (eg No 29 to Shawbury and No 611 to Ternhill), their activities from these locations have not been covered.
In the last days of peace, Warrant Officer (later Squadron Leader) Akhurst was the Station Armament Officer. His responsibilities included Station defence and anti-gas. Not only did he Look after the Service personnel, but gave lectures to families in the married quarters and to civilians in the surrounding villages. During one of his practice raids, the BBC took quite a bit of film, including some of families running into shelters. this footage has apparently since been used in several war films. Akhurst also owned a pet lamb ‘Akhy’; he had great difficulty in preventing some members of the squadron from taking him on an unauthorised flight.
In June 1939, the first reservists began to arrive at Digby. Their arrival caused many a headache for the regulars. One can sympathise with the flight commander who received a draftee who described himself as ‘Rigger, Airship’! No doubt the pay accounts people puzzled over that one as well. One reservist reported for duty as a dispatch rider at the age of 67. Whilst the fuss caused by the reservists arrival was subsiding, another arose. All occupants of married quarters were ordered to vacate them so that they could be used to house the WAAFs who were drafted in in August 1939 (read about this in Peggy Balfour's recollections). One can imagine the wives not being very happy with this arrangement’.
The Sector Operations Room for "L" Lima Sector, 12 Group, Fighter Command, entered service in Jul 1939. The Digby Station Museum recreates the ops room as well as exhibiting other information from throughout the years of the Station's existence.
The first squadron at Digby to see wartime ‘service’ was No 46 Sqn. At 2134 hours on 3 September 1939 they were ordered into the air to intercept an enemy raid which was approaching. They saw nothing and landed, without having done any fighting.
There was an air raid warning on that night. Everyone had been told to expect gas. As Corporal Taylor turfed out the men in his barrack block, he heard one of them coughing badly. He immediately ordered everyone to don gas masks before they ran to the nearest shelter, which was some little distance away. It was only next morning that he discovered that the man concerned was an extremely heavy smoker!
On 10 October 1939, No 611(West Lancashire) Squadron RAuxAF (which had Spitfires) joined Nos 46 and 229 Squadrons, which had Hurricanes and Blenheims respectively. Initially, the Squadron flew affiliation exercises with the other 2 squadrons and with Nos 44 and 144 Squadrons, who were equipped with Hampden light bombers. Both sides gained advantages from this practice, if only in aircraft recognition which was often so sadly neglected in World War II.
Later in the month yet another Blenheim Squadron arrived, No 29. With the Squadron came 3 very famous officers; Guy Gibson, ‘Bob’ Braham and Douglas Bader. It seems that the Squadron operated little from Digby; instead, the aircraft and pilots left early each morning for North Coates and returned again each evening. At much the same time, No 504 left Digby.
On 21 October 1939, Sergeant Mather of A Flight, No 611 Squadron — together with 2 Spitfires from No 72 Squadron, Church Fenton, made contact with 10 plus enemy near Mabelthorpe. Mather fired on the flank aircraft, which he saw diving steeply towards the sea. No 72 later claimed 2 enemy destroyed, but 611 made no claim, though it was felt that Mather had made some contribution.
[On 21 Oct 1939, 611 Sqn Spitfire joined Hurricane of A Flt, 46 Sqn, in incercepting and shooting down 7 He-115 biplanes off the Humber Estuary. This sortie is depicted on the plotting table of the Fighter Command Lima Sector Operations Room Museum at RAF Digby.]
FIRST ENGAGEMENT WITH THE ENEMY
Yellow Section (1) P/O R.M.J. COWLES
The flight was controlled by radio telephony from the operations room
at DIGBY, assisted by an R/T tender situated at NORTH COATES. After various
patrolling positions had been given, the Flight was in position over
SPURN HEAD at 5000 feet at about 1450 hours.
As “A” Flight proceeded to attack from above, the markings on the upper surfaces of the enemy’s main planes could be clearly seen. They consisted of a black cross on a white background. The SQUADRON LEADER opened fire on his target at 400 yards. His rate of approach was rather high, and as one of the enemy aircraft was rather far behind his own formation and almost abreast of the SQUADRON LEADER, the latter did not throttle back. He broke away under the tail of his target at a distance of about 30 yards from it, having seen flames from the starboard engine. After breaking away he turned back and saw this aircraft diving to the water, where the pilot apparently tried to alight. Just after he touched the water, the starboard wing folded back.
RED 2, PILOT OFFICER P.J. FROST, had attacked the aircraft which was almost abreast of the SQUADRON LEADER during his attack. He saw flames from the port engine of this aircraft and watched it crash into the water.
RED 3, FLIGHT SERGEANT E. SHACKLEY, apparently attacked the same aircraft as Red 2, due to the enemy aircraft changing formation during attack.
After the main attack, the enemy formation broke up and just after seeing his target crash onto the water, the SQUADRON LEADER noticed one of the enemy aircraft diving in a southerly direction. He followed it and fired the remainder of his ammunition, which was about one-third of his full amount, from a range of about 300 yards. The aircraft continued to fly and it was then attacked by three other Hurricanes, piloted by PILOT OFFICER R.M.J. COWLES, FLIGHT SERGEANT E. SHACKLEY, PILOT OFFICER R.P. PLUMMER.
The SQUADRON LEADER watched them attack and it appeared that they were firing from rather long range, so he called up on the R/T and told the last aircraft that he saw attacking to get closer. This he did, and after a repeated attack he saw the enemy aircraft crash and turn upside down in the water. This was PILOT OFFICER R.P. PLUMMER.
After the main attack, PILOT OFFICER P.J. FROST and PILOT OFFICER P.W. LEFEVRE followed and attacked one of the enemy aircraft which tried to evade them by flying in and out of cloud. After chasing him for some time and carrying out repeated attacks, the enemy aircraft came to the end of his friendly cloud-layer, when, after a final attack, he was seen to alight on the water, apparently intact, but with both engines stopped.
The Hurricanes returned to RAF Digby and buzzed the airfield, line astern.
On 24 October 1939, A Flight of No 46 Squadron engaged a force of enemy aircraft which were attacking the docks of Hull and Immingham. Three of the enemy were confirmed as destroyed and one as damaged. As a result of this battle, Squadron Leader R Barwell, the Commanding Officer of No 46, was awarded a DFC in December 1939. [confirm 21/24 Oct data from F540/ORB]
On 2 November 1939, King George VI made the first of his 2 visits to RAF Digby. In addition to inspecting the squadrons (see Fig 4 ), he presented decorations to personnel from Digby and neighbouring stations. One of the recipients was Guy Gibson, who received a DFC.
Digby Oral Histories:
- A History
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