Digby - RCAF Digby
Updated: 26 Jan 12
CHAPTER 3 - THE WAR YEARS
Early in 1941 it was announced that Flying Officer Braham and Flight Sergeant Munn, both of No 29 Squadron, had been awarded the DFC and the DFM respectively for ‘determined operations against the enemy under adverse weather conditions’. Braham celebrated on 13 March 1941 by destroying his second Dornier 17, this time near Skegness.
One afternoon late in the spring of 1941 a single Ju-88 appeared through the clouds over Digby and made quite a mess of part of the Station. Bomb blast lifted a small saloon car into the air and hung it on a tree like a Christmas decoration quite near to the guardroom.
February 1941 saw 46 Squadron leave Digby for the last time. In the same month No 1 (Canadian) Squadron arrived, and with No 2 (Canadian) Squadron were renumbered, Nos 401 and 402, under which numbers they served with distinction at Digby with Hurricanes.
Not all Digby’s wartime operations were conducted in the air. The Station was also the home of No 14 Bomb Disposal Squad from mid—1941 onwards. Commanded initially by Pilot Officer A E Haarer, the squad was based in the old Station armoury building. The Unit had many hair raising experiences — both at Digby itself and at other Stations in the local area — but managed somehow to suffer no casualties in its 2 ½ years at Digby. One of the most dangerous tasks that faced the squad was trying to deal with the German ‘Butterfly’ anti—personnel bombs officially designated SD2 (see RAF Bomb Disposal History site for more) This was a small weapon weighing 2Kg which was air dropped in a container of 23 bombs. When packed the bombs had an outer thin metal cover the same shape as the bomb which hinged in two halves and opened after a short delay to reveal vanes which rotated as it descended to remove an arming spindle to arm the fuze. The problems encountered when these bombs were dropped were compounded when they were found hanging in houses, in organ lofts, on fences, on telegraph wires, down sewers, in hangars containing aircraft in fact everywhere they were dropped became an area problem for the BD Crews. The SD2 was in effect an area denial weapon. After 2 years of war, there had still been virtually no butterflies recovered intact, so no one really knew what they were dealing with. To FS Handford fell the doubtful honour of finding 8 of these bombs which had failed to arm properly, at RAF Harlaxton. These were later successfully defused and used as training aids, thus helping to save many lives. For this it appears that he was awarded the British Empire Medal. Today, 2 of the more conventional bombs thought to have been defused by the squad stand outside No 591 SU. When they were put there is not known; a 1947—vintage photograph shows them outside the Officers Mess. In 1943, the squad was renumbered No 6214 Bomb Disposal Flight. Later on, 6215 Flight was also based at Digby.
On 14 April 1941, the Canadian Digby Wing was formed from Nos 401 and 402 Squadrons, each flying Hurricanes. The wing was led by Wing Commander G R McGregor, DFC. (In the otherwise excellent book (RAF Squadrons and Aircraft’ (see bibliography), it is suggested that Digby became officially RCAF on the same day, but I think that this is an error). On 15 April 1941, the Wing carried out the RCAF’s first offensive mission over enemy occupied territory when 12 Hurricanes of No 402 Squadron, supported by 2 RAF Spitfire Squadrons (Nos 65 and 266) of the Wittering Wing, flew an uneventful fighter sweep over the Boulogne sector.
Airfield guarding duties seems to fall to a variety of Army units and later to the RAF Regiment. From the middle of 1941 until 1942 Digby was guarded by D Company of the 70th Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. The soldiers were nearly all youngsters from the Rhyl area in North Wales. They found their duties were too arduous, and the accommodation and food far above the then current Army standards. One over—enthusiastic soldier challenged a visiting VIP car, which failed to slow down. The soldier therefore tried to stop it by thrusting his bayonet into the door. Needless to say, he failed!
In June 1941, three more Canadian Squadrons were formed at Digby, Nos 409, 411 and 412. No 409 was equipped with Boulton Paul Defiant night fighters and operated from the satellite airfield of Coleby Grange until February 1943. Nos 411 and 412 were equipped with Spitfires.
A dinner was held in one of the hangars at Digby on 20 Jun 1941 to celebrate the first anniversary of the arrival of two RCAF squadrons in Britain. The menu is reproduced below:
Royal Canadian Air Force
Friday, June 20th, 1941
Nos 401 and 402 Squadrons
Royal Canadian Air Force in Great Britain
With the kind permission of Air Commodore L F Stevenson
- Air Officer Commanding R.C.A.F. in Great Britain -
and of Group Captain G W Murliss-Green D.S.O., M.C.
Spring Onions and Radishes
Cold Chicken and Beef
Apple Pie and Cheese
Coffee - Beer
Bread and Butter
In August 1941, the first Canadian Commanding Officer, Group Captain A P Campbell, RCAF, arrived. On 8 August 1941, No 401 Sqn gained its first victory. Two Hurricane IIs were on a coastal patrol off Skegness. Fg Off E L Neal in Z3577 YO—J was credited with damaging a Ju88. He was, however, hit by return fire, and was himself forced to land in a wheat field near Horncastle.
The airfield was subject to an attack by a formation of German aircraft. This came as a particular shock to WAAF Eileen Pitkeathly who had arrived only moments before, straight from RAF Leighton Buzzard and plotter/teller training.
September 1941 saw visits to Digby by 2 distinguished Canadians. Mr Mackenzie King, the Canadian Prime Minister, inspected the squadrons and the Honourable Vincent Massey, the first Canadian to be High Commissioner for Canada, visited the Station. Incidentally, Massey’s son, Hartland, served for a while at Digby as a Flight Lieutenant. Apparently, he was a very small and rather youthful, looking man. Bill McKay, then a sergeant pilot, recounted the tale to me in 1977 of their first meeting. On seeing Massey he complained bitterly about the idiot who had made his son wear fancy dress. Unfortunately, Massey overheard, and was far from amused!
In October 1941, No 401 Squadron went to Biggin Hill and No 92 Squadron equipped with Spitfires came to Digby from Biggin. No 92 Squadron, later to become famous as the RAF Aerobatics Team, operated on fighter sweeps over occupied France. On 13 October 1941, Sgt E N Macdonnell in a Spitfire 11A P7856 VZ—E destroyed a Bf 109 ten miles of Boulogne. This was No 412 Squadron’s first victory.
On the night of 1 November 1941, No 409 Squadron, who were operating from Coleby Grange claimed their first victim. Wing Commander Davoud and Sgt Carpenter destroyed a Do217 some 70 miles east of Digby.
His Majesty King George IV made a second visit to the Station on 13 November 1941 just over 2 years after his first, (see Fig 4), No 609 (West Riding) Squadron came to Digby with its Spitfires for a rest from operations, and No 288 Squadron was formed here, engaged in anti—aircraft Army co—operation duties. No 411 Squadron moved to Hornchurch.
Nov 1941 also saw the L Sector Ops Room dispersed from its hardened bunker on the station, from where it had operated in Jul 1939, to the more salubrious setting of Blankney Hall, 3 miles distant. The Sector Ops Room stayed there until the end of the war.
In the winter of 1941, the sporting life of the Station took on a Canadian
flavour, with ice hockey matches being played against other Canadian
units in England. The pilots of No 609 Squadron found that Digby possessed
neither ‘the comfort nor the reputation’ of Biggin Hill.
The further a war—time fighter station was from the war, the more
strained relations were apt to be between the station authorities and
the squadrons based there; disciplinary regulations retained some of
the holiness of peace—time. Pilots’ leave was reduced from
once in 4 weeks to once in 6, scarves and flying boots were taboo in
the Officers Mess, and a £4 maximum monthly bar bill reflected
not only a shortage of spirits but disapproval of their consumption.
No 609 Squadron took an instant dislike to Digby; if 609 was itself initially
disliked, there were probably 3 reasons. One may have been that its personnel
were something outside the Station’s previous experience; most
of its officers were Belgian, and many of its ground staff were Yorkshiremen,
who indicated that something called ‘Auxiliaries’ could work
very well without ‘bull’. Secondly, the Squadron had brought
their mascot, a pet goat, William, with them. Hardly had he regained
terra firma from the Harrow aircraft which had flown him north, than
he made his way to the Station Orderly Room and reduced it to a shambles.
He then proceeded to the Adjutant’s office and consumed the Station’s
Christmas cards. “My office has become a pig pen!” declared
that officer, for once gaining a little sympathy. It was a bad start,
and William did nothing to improve his squadron’s popularity by
subsequently nibbling the shoots from the Station Commander’s prized
ornamental trees and — after apparently overcoming sentry by sheer
brute force penetrating the Operations Room itself and reducing East
Anglia’s air defence to chaos. Thirdly, and most importantly, No
609 Squadron owned a unique car - the ‘Belgian Barouche’.
By an agreement between the British and Belgian Govenments, this was
allowed to fill up with Service petrol. No wonder the people on the Station
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