Digby - RCAF Digby
Updated: 28 Nov 08
CHAPTER 3 - THE WAR YEARS
d. Sep 1942 - 1944 - RCAF Digby
On 16 September 1942, a significant change of responsibility came to Digby. It now became officially Canadian, and was known as RCAF Digby, under its new Station Commander, Group Captain MacNab, RCAF. From this time onwards more and more Canadian ground staff arrived. We know that Accounts Section for instance was jointly manned. The RAF personnel looked with awe at such things as adding machines without which their new colleagues seemed unable to manage. The decision to restrict pay issues to the level that an RAF equal would draw was apparently very unpopular with the Canadians, although they were able to draw the rest as deferred pay in Canada later. On the other hand, they took quite well to the RAP style pay parade even though they found all the saluting and ceremony rather archaic. We do know that a Canadian YMCA was established at Digby, but we are not sure where. A not very accurate article in the RAF College Journal (see Bibliography) claims that a signpost to it still existed in 1952; trace of it has since vanished, unfortunately.
Since the war in the air had now relaxed a little as far as the Home Defence Fighters were concerned, operational activity at Digby also declined. This is shown clearly in the Stations Operations Record for the period, which shows much more training activity than operations in the air. But the squadrons were engaged on fighter sweeps and night-intruder operations. Life for the ground crew worked may have finally begun to offer some respite to the ground crew and echelon personnel, who had bee working for up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, since the early days of the war. Leave was rare, seven days twice a year but he did manage to get a 48 hour pass every six weeks or so.
No 410 Squadron arrived in February 1943 with its De Havilland Mosquito aircraft.
No 411 Squadron was moved to Kenley in March 1943 to be replaced by No 402 Squadron flying Spitfires and No 350 Squadron spent a couple of months here. In September 1943 a Mosquito of No 410 (RCAF) Squadron was on patrol over the East Coast when it encountered a Dornier. The Mosquito engaged the Dornier in combat and eventually shot it down. The Dornier was so close to the Mosquito when it exploded that the Mosquito itself was seriously damaged in the explosion, losing a lot of the covering from the fuselage, fin and tailplane. The explosion also temporarily blinded the pilot Flight Lieutenant A Cybulski, RCAF, and the aircraft, out of control, went into a dive. The navigator, Flying Officer H H Ladbrook, RAFVR, took the controls and pulled he aircraft out of the dive. He maintained control of the aircraft for several minutes until the pilot recovered his vision and flew back to base. For this exploit both crew members were awarded the DFC.
At this time a young Canadian pilot is mentioned who received a DFC
for his activities. He was Flying Officer J A Rae, later known to millions
as TV Singer/ Compere Jackie Rae.
No 19 Sqn with Spitfires, was stationed at Digby through May and June and was engaged on bomber escort duties.
A second tour commenced on 1 Apr 42 and flying demonstrations were carried out at RAF Stations North Luffenham, Cottesmore, Saltby, Cranwell, Digby, Waddington, Hemswell, Kirton-in-Lindsey, North Coates and Snaith and returned to Duxford on 18 Apr. A further 6 tours followed up to Dec 42 visiting different regions of the UK and the unit was also employed in a number of films.
27 May 1943 was an auspicious date for RAF Digby as it was to be the third royal visit of the War, King George IV having visited previously on 2 Nov 1939 and 13 Nov 1941. During the visit, amongst units being inspected was the so-called 'RAFwaffe', 1426 EAC Flight and its German aircraft visiting for a second time (previously in April 1942).
In June No 416 Squadron arrived equipped with Spitfires, and was engaged on anti—shipping ‘ramrods’ and ASR duties. With No 402 Squadron they formed the Digby Wing which acted as close escort to bombers attacking targets in France, Holland and Belgium and shipping off the Belgian and Dutch coasts.
An interesting development is noted it October 1943 when No 416 Squadron began to practice deck—landings on aircraft carriers under the auspices of the Fleet Air Arm. This went on for some time, but nothing came of the experiments as far as No 416 Squadron were concerned, However, their trials probably contributed to the later development of the Seafire.
By late 1943 Mosquito night—fighter experience had shown the need for a steeper climb, more speed at around 20,000ft and quick clearance of the ice from windscreens. Those aircraft fitted with Merlin 23s had their performance improved slightly by cleaning up the engine cowlings and sealing oil leaks in such places as the carburettor air—intake ducts. To produce temporary increases of power and a faster speed at height a nitrous—oxide (N20) — the ‘laughing gas’ of dentistry — engine—injection system was developed. The systems were installed by Heston Aircraft Ltd, on aircraft of 410 (Cougar) Squadron.
On a later occasion, an Aeracobra aircraft was doing circuits. A young newcomer decided to take this chance to practice his aim, and began following the aircraft with his Lewis gun. After a couple of circuits he decided to try squeezing the trigger. Unfortunately for him and to the great consternation of the pilot, someone had previously loaded the gun for a test firing and some rounds remained in the magazine. The aircraft was hit by about a dozen rounds, fortunately without any real damage being done. The enraged pilot landed in great haste, and the soldier was court martialled shortly afterwards
During these years the role of the aircraft at Digby had been changing. Originally the duties, as befitted the aircraft types (Hurricanes, Spitfires, Beaufighters) had been defensive. New offensive tasks were added — Intruder Operations, Anti—Shipping Patrols, Fighter Sweeps and the delightfully—named ‘Rhubarbs’ — for the latter the idea seemed to be that an aircraft patrolled a section of enemy territory and if anything moved the aircraft attacked it. In 1943, in fact, No 410 Squadron claims to be the first squadron to fly over a sortie over enemy territory in Mosquito aircraft, which was used for ‘Ranger’ and night intruder operations. The aircraft were still used in defence and a Mosquito of No 410 Squadron is recorded as having destroyed a Dornier aircraft which was attacking Imingham Docks.
In March Wg Cdr James Edgar "Johnnie" Johnson was put in command of 144 Wing at Digby, which comprise 411, 442 and 443 Squadrons. The Wing's purpose was to ensure the allies' air superiority during the Normandy landings and then to convert to ground attacks.
1944 - Preparations for D-Day - operational flying diminishes
1944 again saw much movement among Digby squadrons. No 504 (County of Nottingham) Squadron returned and engaged in Bomber Escort and Fighter Sweeps. No 310 (Czech) Squadron spent a couple of months here as did No 350 (Belgian) Squadron; both squadrons were equipped with Spitfires and flew convoy patrols and offensive sweep Sorties. No 410 was still at Coleby Grange, and on the night 19/20 August 1944 made the first kill with the new Mosquito NF 30. Despite this success, the NF 30’s exhaust system gave the Squadron a lot of trouble necessitating the grounding of all NF 30s just after they entered service; this ban was lifted following an interim mod to the outer exhaust shrouds, but this was followed by further trouble with the inner shrouds and eventually louvred shrouds were fitted to all HF 30’s retrospectively.
Some feeling of the scale of the preparations for D-Day and how the impacted every corner of Lincolnshire can be felt in the number of RAF Regiment Squadrons to process through Digby in the months leading up to Operation OVERLORD. On 14 Apr 1944, 2815, 2882, 2892, 2894 and 2896 Sqns arrived at Digby and departed just one week later on 20th. 2882 LAA Sqn RAAF had only arrived at Coleby Grange on 1 Mar 1944; 2898 AA Sqn RAuxAF arrived at Wellingore on 15 Mar 44.
The ORB for 2742 Sqn RAF Regiment records that on 2 Aug 1944 "F/O Parker and complete armoured flight attached to 2777 squadron. F/O Huggins attached to 2757 squadron." On 4th August, Acting Squadron Leader Raine recorded that "Two mortar teams together with guns, ammunition and equipment attached to 2713 squadron. Information received that we are to be made into an AFV squadron in due course and that we are to be prepared to move to RAF Digby for training."
On 5th August, "F/O Joels (137882) and one complete rifle flight attached to us from 2777 squadron. Our squadron personnel now consists of 4 rifle flights complete, the remains of Special flight and the whole of HQ personnel less one Corporal (cook) (Cpl Alger) who has been posted." It seems amazing that, so soon after D-Day (in which several RAF Regiment squadrons were involved) there was such a wholesale reorganisation of the RAF Regiment. This must have caused a great deal of uncertainty and, presumably, administrative chaos.
A/S/L Raine reported on 11th August 1944 that "Conditions at RAF Digby are definitely bad. Something in the neighbourhood of 2000 men have been given one field in which to pitch canvas. Tents are crammed guy rope to guy rope throughout the field. Facilities of all kinds are poor and the men will not be very happy unless considerable improvements are made. Bathing facilities inadequate. Cinema is only available one afternoon per week from 1600 to 1800 hours."
On 12th August, “Day spent settling in. Latrines erected, sites for various departments fixed. The men have no NAAFI at the moment, as they are barred from the station NAAFI and the Salvation Army Wagons. This last facility was thought to be a service to all members of HMF this appears to be an error. A tented NAAFI is being erected and it is hoped it will be open early in the week."
The officers didn’t seem to have it any easier than the men. “Officers of the RAF Regiment have been ordered not to use the Officer’s mess. No amendment to King’s Regulations and ACIs rendering such an order valid has been seen by this unit”!
Good weather and the commencement of training seems to have helped morale. 14th August 1944: "The excellent weather continues and the squadron is enjoying the training in the brilliant sunshine. Great interest is being shown by the men in the R/T procedure and elementary 19 set working. There is an equal interest in the driving instruction under F/O Joels. Driving instruction is being conducted on an empty aerodrome nearby."
The reorganisation of the RAF Regiment seems to have caused further disruption. Despite the earlier transfers of men to other squadrons, there was more to come. On 19th August, it is recorded "It has been learnt that this squadron without headquarters will move to RAF Regiment Depot, Grantham, on 26 August. Actually, the flights will not leave here complete as only the drivers can be absorbed into the new 2742 squadron. Strength will be made up by RAF Regiment Grantham. The news of the breaking of the squadron is causing much unhappiness amongst the men."
On 24th August 1944, "The men of the squadron who are surplus to establishment and others not being retained because they are not drivers have been told their fate. They are going in parties to Nos. 2179, 2724 and 2843 squadrons." Less than half the squadron went to Grantham. Despite all this, the squadron was organised into 4 armoured car flights (A, B C and D) together with a headquarters flight by 1st September.
"A" flight finished training first and was sent to Belgium along with 2804 squadron in advance of the rest of 2742 squadron. They arrived at Arromanches on 19th September 1944. Training continued for the remaining flights at Grantham, the flights returning to RAF Digby in October to rejoin the headquarters flight.
16 Nov 1944 saw some unscheduled visitors. Some 30 USAAC Flying Fortresses returning from a daylight raid by 452nd Bomb Group on Duren in Germany were diverted from their home bases in Norfolk and landed at Digby. These visitors remained for some weeks, and the strain on Digby’s facilities was very great. Beds were in short supply and the Americans were loathe to split up into the RCAF 3 mess system for meals. As a result the Airmen’s Mess had to cope with nearly 300 extra meals 3 times a day for a while, with a mobile USAAC Mobile Maintenance Team brought in to repair flak damage adding to the problems
At least one Fortress, B-17G 42-32083, also known as 232083, was badly damaged during the raid and landed with its starboard outer engine badly damaged requiring replacement. . However, it was the weather rather than damage that delayed the Fortresses’ departure even further until 18 Nov 1944. Even with minimum fuel, the Fortress’ take off run was so long that the American pilots had to wait for the wind to blow from the NW to give them the longest possible run. Even so, the occupants of Scopwick Lodge Farmhouse were evacuated for the exercise. The story has it that this precaution was just as well, as the Fortresses cleared the chimney pots by only a few feet.
Air-sea rescue duties were carried out by No 116 Squadron flying Airspeed Oxfords, while Nos 527 and 528 with Bristol Blenheirns did calibration flying as well as interception duties. Their calibration was to assist GCI and radar sites to greater efficiency. By the end of the year the weather was so poor, in fact, that the only flying from Digby was by aircraft involved in calibration.
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