Digby - RCAF Digby
Updated: 28 Oct 08
CHAPTER 3 - THE WAR YEARS
c. Jan - Sep 1942
In those war years, the ‘Musicians Arms’ at Dorrington (since pulled down and rebuilt) seems to have been a favourite spot for the aircrew to eat as good food was to be found anywhere in wartime. No doubt fewer questions were asked of origins of the pheasant and souffle omelettes than of the ‘Belgian Barouche’.
The pilots may have felt under—employed but 609 Squadron had seldom worked harder in its life, once reaching an all--time high of 60 hours flying in the course of a day that began at dawn and ended well after dark. New pilots became operational by day and into dusk, all experienced ones night operational as well. (Once, when fog threatened the landing of 4 aircraft on a dusk patrol, their leader half humorously gave the order: “Prepare to bale out in formation.”) Apart from that, there were endless exercises conducted for the benefit of GCI controllers, bomber gunners and searchlight operators - while 609, 91 and 412 (Canadian) Squadrons took it in turns to observe a state of defensive Readiness and mount constant patrols over the North Sea convoys.
During 1942 Digby suffered at least one of aerial attacks. A marauding Dornier-17 dropped a stick of bombs which straddled the Station sports field, the corner of the Sergeants' Mess and the field behind the old Digby Post Office. (I believe this may have been the occasion when the final bomb in the stick landed on a farmer on his tractor in the field causing a sad fatality).
Occasionally, when cloud conditions made interception difficult, enemy bombers did attack, and on 2 occasions in February, 1942, 609 was engaged. On the first a particularly large convoy was attacked at 2-hour intervals by Dornier 217s which dropped out of cloud cover singly or in pairs, and were set upon successively by pairs of Belgians. Though only one of the enemy aircraft was damaged, the interceptions prevented any bombing accuracy and the convoy was unscathed. The second occasion was similar, except that this time 3 pairs of fighters (Wing Commander Blatchford leading one of them) were successfully engaged with an estimated total of 8 Dorniers, of which one was shot down, and 2 others damaged.
While at Digby 609 lost no pilots on operations, but on 22 January 1942, it suffered a very serious loss in an accident. Flight Lieutenant Jean (‘Pyker’) Offenberg DFC was training a new Belgian, ‘Balbo’ Roelandt, having decided to profit from an improvement in the weather. For more than an hour the 2 Spitfires practised over the airfield. The pupil followed his master well, until Jean said over the radio “One more figure and we’ll call it a day — you are doing well.”
Another Spitfire, from No 92 Squadron, saw the manoeuvres and joined in. Someone was careless and the 92 Squadron aircraft and Offenburg’s, Spitfire AB188 "PR-Y", collided over Blankney Heath. The horrified pupil saw both aircraft crash into the snow. Offenburgs funeral, on 26 January 1942, attended by Belgian friends from London HQ and other squadrons was fitting. At the outset it was snowing hard, but when the flag draped coffin, with ‘Pyker’s’ cap and decorations, was borne through Scopwick cemetery gates by his Belgian Squadron colleagues past a guard of honour of his British and Commonwealth ones, suddenly the sun came out, and uniforms wreaths and priestly robes became lustrous against the newly fallen snow. Standing apart was a lady in black with a single snow white lilly. The burial service was read, the bugles sounded the last Post, the rifles of the firing party cracked; and finally, starting with the Station Commander, each officer and senior NCO saluted the grave and departed. It was all very beautiful, and very sad. By all accounts Offenburg was exceptional. Father Morris, the Roman Catholic Padre of the Station, gave this testimony to a colleague. “I had the privilege and honour to buy him this afternoon. According to all I have heard of him it is both consoling and encouraging to know that a saint sometimes slips unseen among the others. Offenburg did not receive the last Sacraments but I am convinced that he did not need them.” Jean de Selys Longchamps, a fellow pilot, wrote to Jean’s uncle. “I do not know if you know your nephew well. Jean was the greatest, the most magnificent of us....” “I cannot explain to you all Jean meant to us. He was a symbol of integrity, a permanent example, an inexhaustible hope in the future, in our future, in the future of our country, in our King and all that we hold dear.”
Jean Offenburg’s mother living at 43 Square Riga, Brussels, never heard the plaudits, nor did she read his diaries. The shook of his death, broadcast in one of the BBC bulletins on 24 January 1942, killed her ...
The lady in black was Marigold, Countess of Londesborough, a very good friend of RAF Digby. Many of its officers had come to regard her residence, Blankney Hall, as a home from home ever since she bad invited them to Christmas dinner and afterwards led them via a complicated cross-country route to Fulbeck, there to attend a dance given by Air Vice Marshal Willock of Cranwell, his charming wife and stunningly beautiful daughter. Hospitality was lavish.
After Christmas 1941, the Digby Operations Room was moved from Station Headquarters to a wing of Blankney Hall, though whether this precaution was against enemy bombers or 609’s Goat was never disclosed!
No 92 Squadron went overseas in February 1942, followed shortly by No 412 Squadron. No 609’s pilots managed to move as far as Ashby Hall in late February. They therefore arranged a house warning for 28 March. Some 10 days beforehand a signal arrived posting 609 Squadron to Duxford on the very day the party was due. The move was put back by 2 days, but now the wording of the invitation had to be changed, and finally ran:
To which the Station Commander replied:
Campbell’s sense of humour failed him when Maurice Choron, an ex-member of No 609 beat up SHQ in a Miles Magister. Choron was booked for a Court martial. Later, good humour prevailed and Choron was forgiven -- at about 3am!
The incoming Canadian Squadron, No 411, which replaced 609, were not very impressed wit the state of Ashby Hall. However, they soon settled in again, and later took part in the Combined Operations raid on Dieppe on 19 August, carrying out 4 operational sweeps during the day.
One evening, a Whist Drive in the blacked-out village hall at Digby was interrupted by an officer, from Digby, who enquired if anyone present knew anything of a Spitfire that was missing, believed crashed. I at once replied that I had seen smoke from an aircraft round about lunchtime in the general direction of Roxholme, near Cranwell. The officer knew of this aircraft which had not been from Digby. Theirs had disappeared at approximately 3.30-pm, within a mile or 2 of base, as the pilot had been in touch with control, and had been expected to land in a few minutes, but nothing more had been heard of him. They had, he said, 300 men searching for it, but without success. Some men and women at work riddling potatoes had said that they had heard a crash about that time, but had seen nothing.”
Some time later the Vicar, as Bishop Healey was then, had been driving me to Ashby from Digby when an elderly man waved him down. He had told the Vicar that while taking his dog for a walk, he had turned down a track which led him to a plantation. “There’s a plane there”, he had said, “and a dead man in it.” He had already told the police, so, goes on Bishop Healey, “As I had other work to do just then, I thanked him and went on my way and so I did not see the wreckage. It was astonishing that it had so long eluded discovery.”
Mr P H Chaster, of Grimsby, was an ambulance driver with the RAF in the war years, and his comments upon an incident he went to were - “A Spitfire of 609 (F) Squadron crashed in a wood near Digby Airfield, and was not found for 2 days; the pilot was frozen to death, as it was winter 1941/42.” I am reasonably certain that this was the same aircraft as the Bishop’s.
The so-called 'RAFwaffe', 1426 EAC Flight and its German aircraft, visited RAF Digby in April 1942 (they called again for a Royal Inspection on 27 May 1943.
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