FLYING MEMORIES 8
Johnny Baldwin was sent on rest, to return as Wing Commander (flying), of another Airfield shortly before D - DAY. The Squadron was led for a short while by Mike Bryan, a previous C.O. of 198 before Johnny Baldwin, until he also was promoted to Winco of 136 Airfield. Flt/Lt "Nibby" Niblett, an ex 609 Sqdn Flt/ Commander became our C.O. and Wing Commander Brooker became our Airfield Winco Flying. We were now operating from Thorney Island (Nr. Havant) where the main runway ended almost on the beach, which was fine, as we needed to stay at sea level in order to avoid enemy Radar. It was from here that an attack on the Radar site on the cliffs above Dieppe was planned.
Denis Sweeting, Don Mason and myself had already been detailed to fly on the next show. The flight plan was for all twelve aircraft of 198 Sqdn, of which our section being led by the C.O. would each carry 8 Rockets, with the remaining aircraft to be pure fighters with only their cannons. The 8 fighters were to lead with our section in the rear, all at sea level until about 2 miles from the enemy coast. The fighters would then climb steeply to about 10,000 ft. when the enemy Radar would track them, and hopefully not pick us up at sea level still. These 8 fighters were then supposed to come screaming down out of the sun, blazing away at known anti aircraft positions in order to keep the gunners heads down, while we four sneaked up over the cliff top to attack the Radar Installations. We all set course at sea level and in the correct formation, but Nibby had our section too close to the fighter escort.
Although we were about 30 mph slower than the fighters because of the drag caused by the Rocket rails and Rockets, Nibby had us flying at almost full throttle to keep up. Secondly we were only travelling at around 320 mph, which would decrease as we pulled up to cliff top level, whereas in even a shallow dive the speed would have reached 500 plus very quickly. Thirdly the fighters climbed too early thus alerting the enemy Radar, also in climbing lost considerable speed, which meant that our section was catching them up, if not slightly overtaking. Surprise was lost, and we four Rocket attack planes came stooging along at sea level from about 2 miles from the targets. About a mile from the cliffs Nibby climbed to cliff top height with Denis on his right, I was on Nibby’s left with Don on my left. The fighters were just starting their diving attack when all hell was let loose at us, there was a bright flash on my right; both Nibby and Denis vanished from sight. I then saw that Nibby had been hit and was just a ball of fire slowly rolling over to crash at the base of the cliffs.
I pushed the throttle through the gate, (an extra amount of power only to be used in extreme circumstances, and then only for a very short time) crossed the coast line as near the deck as I could, fired a salvo of 8 rockets at an Radar Installation which appeared in my gun sight, and then got the hell out of there taking the most violent evasive action, staying as close to the deck as I could.
I continued like this for a few miles inland before making a wide sweep around Dieppe still at nought feet to cross the coast and home without further trouble. Don Mason failed to line up on the target on the initial attack, so he proceeded inland at deck level and then made a second attack on his way home. Denis also pressed home his attack and then immediately turned back towards the sea staying as low as possible whilst taking violent evasive action. All three of us returned with some damage but thankfully nothing serious.
Cheval was later to become C.O. of our sister Squadron and a damn good leader he was. As a flight commander he was tops in my estimation, only taking calculated risks and truly believing in "He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day". He had been well trained by Johnny Baldwin. This incident occurred on 2nd June 1944 and though we were ignorant of the exact date of D - DAY, we could see for ourselves all the activity going on around the Southampton waters.
Had not a clue what the vast concrete structures were for but kept well away as they were protected by numerous balloons, they of course were to be part of the famous Mulberry Harbour. We had been attacking various Radar Stations along the coast but mostly to the north of Dieppe prior to this raid, and had observed that the flak defences of the sites had been greatly increased. On all these shows we came screaming down out of the Sun if possible, at well over 500mph with cannons blazing, in the hope it would put the German gunners accuracy off. On many occasions if you were not in the first four attacking, the ground would disappear from view due to the mass of flak bursts at around 5-6000ft, which you had to go through to see the target.
We were all informed in the early evening of the 5th June 44 at a mass gathering of all aircrew, that D –Day was to be the following day and maximum effort was expected from everyone. Bags of excitement plus a lot of apprehension of what lay ahead. Sleep was impossible due to excitement, and around 23.30hrs we were able to make out and hear the noise of the aircraft pulling numerous gliders on their way to Normandy, it seemed an endless stream.
June 6th arrived when everyone hoped to be on the first show of the day, but it turned out that only Officers got the first chance shortly after dawn. They reported on return, the vast armada that was still proceeding across the channel, but found no resistance from the German Air Force and little activity inland to attack. I was detailed later that morning to go on an armed recce with three others South of Caen. The sight of all the shipping heading towards France in neat and straight lines extending all the way to France, is something I shall never forget, navigation was just not required and instead of flying at sea level to avoid enemy Radar, we now had wide black and white bands painted on our aircraft for easy recognition and were instructed not to fly lower than 3,000ft near or over this vast armada, because the Navy was inclined to be rather trigger happy. Typhoons had on more than one occasion been mistaken as F.W.190s with a couple or so being shot down. I note from my Log Book that our section of four on D - DAY were lucky in destroying 1 Lorry, damaging 2 Tanks and also 2 Armoured Vehicles. Unless they blew up or were left burning fiercely we could only claim as damaged. I feel certain that Cheval was leading with possibly Bill Stratford in the flight as well, but I can't be sure. We lost 9 pilots killed from our Squadron with three others shot down, 2 to become P.O.W and the other Bill Stratford, managed to get down in land occupied by American invasion troops and was back with the Squadron within a week. These losses all took place in June and included 2 C.Os. I was part of flight detailed to attack targets in Cherbourg Harbour which was to be led by our new C.O. S/Ldr Davies on 22nd June in order to assist the American Forces having trouble there. We had at this time moved to Hurn Airport near Bournemouth, where we joined a vast fleet of 8 Squadrons of Typhoons all under the command of Gr/Cpt Gillam, later to be broken down into smaller units. I started my take - off with my wingman and was almost airborne when my engine cut dead, I immediately cut all switches, thought of pulling my undercarriage up, decided that with full tanks and eight rockets on board it was not the best idea, so braked as hard as possible, held control to finish up with the nose of the plane sticking over a wide 30 ft. deep ditch full of workmen, and my wheels only inches from the edge. Walked slowly back to dispersal carrying my chute and dinghy to be told later on that the bottom drive had broken. Once again my guardian angel had taken care of me, but not so much luck for our new C.O. S/Ldr Davies, he failed to return having been shot down in Cherbourg Harbour.
I had experienced engine failure earlier in May when returning from a successful attack on a petrol installation, we were approaching our own coast at around 10,000ft when the engine decided to quit on me, at first I thought it was "finger trouble" on my part and that I had failed to change tanks correctly, but it soon became obvious that it was something more serious. I called my leader informing him I had engine failure, he acknowledged and wished me good luck, all the time I was looking around to see where I could put her down, grateful to observe about 2 miles away was the small civilian aerodrome of Shoreham. I was loosing height rapidly because a 7-ton Typhoon has a very steep angle of glide and requires around 180 - 200mph to control safely. I had already decided to do wheels up landing, so while positioning myself for the final run in, I was ensuring that my harness straps were very tight, all switches and petrol cocks off and the hood back and in the locked position. As I had been descending the prop had been slowly wind- milling, but when I was on the final run into land it stopped completely. I was amazed to see a chap from Flying Control come out and start firing Red Very lights at me when it was all to clear to see that I had nowhere else to go but down. I managed to set her down without doing very much damage; Cheval came over later in an Auster to fly me back to Thorney Island. Early in May we attacked railway marshalling yards at Fromerie leaving the place a mass of flames, as I was pulling up after releasing my Rockets I felt a sudden jolt of the plane, only to find that my rudder controls had been shot away.
The engine still sounded sweet and all the instruments were acting normally, so I was able to return quite easily using aileron only to bank and turn. Shrapnel had severed the cables attached to the rudder controls, had it severed the elevator cables, which were close by, I, would have been in serious trouble. All's well that ends well!
A first class Frenchman called Paul Ezanno, who had been flying with the squadron for a while to gain experience on type, became our new C.O. after S/Ldr Davies was shot down at Cherbourg. I understand that Paul Ezanno who had been a senior French air force officer, requested that he be demoted a rank or two in order that he may command a Typhoon Squadron, we certainly heard some funny words of command to begin with.
We continued to attack any Radar Station that became operational again, and carried out many armed recces as well as attacking specific targets ordered by H.Q. from Hurn, until 8th July when we started to operate from Airstrips made by the Army on the Normandy Beachhead. Our first Airstrip B 5 was at a small village called Le-Fresne with one runway only made from a strong type of wire mesh.
The dust created when we were taking off from this strip made the German gunners shell the place, and because of this we moved to another Strip B 10 at Plumetot after only three days. At Plumetot we had the odd shell come over but the noise of endless convoys of tanks, lorries and other armoured vehicles, passing within yards of our sleeping area, creating clouds of dust day and night, did not help our much needed sleeping requirements.
We were now involved in close support attacks with the ground forces, operating a system called "Cab - Rank". Anything from a flight to the whole squadron could be orbiting over a certain area at around 10,000 ft. awaiting instructions to attack a target usually marked with Red Smoke, or you would be given a grid reference to attack. On many occasions you would find yourself attacking part of a wood without any sign of the target, only to see something blow up after the attack and then receive a thankyou from the Brown Jobs. We remained at Plumetot only until the 19th July when we "up tents" and moved to B 7 Martragny where we were to remain until the middle of September. Life became pretty hectic with us doing three shows a day on occasions but mainly only two, our losses were mounting with Bill and myself becoming the old hands of the non commissioned ranks. We were both Warrant Officers and were now leading new boys to the squadron that were F/Lt, F/O and Pilot Officers. Paul Ezanno submitted our names to the A.O.C. 2ndTAF for commissions as he felt we deserved them. I duly received mine but poor old Bill Stratford was shot down and killed before they were promulgated. Don Mason was shot down on the 18th June 44 and I with Denis Sweeting and others returned to Normandy 49 years later to represent the Squadron at his full military funeral, where I met his daughter Judith and other members of his family. A French farmer who had known the whereabouts of his crashed aircraft all those years, but for personal reasons had kept quiet about its existence, decided to inform the authorities as he intended to sell the land. For all those years I had thought that Don had probably gone down in the "drink" trying to return to England after having called up to say that he had been hit.
It is pleasing, especially for Don's family, that we now know exactly where his last resting place is, which is in a very pleasant British War Cemetery at St. Charles de Percy near Vire. This cemetery also contains another of our Squadron, a chap called Reg Thursby whose crashed aircraft was also discovered some 40 odd years after the event. Both graves we know will be well cared for by the War Graves Commission, who keep all cemeteries under their care in immaculate condition.