Important Announcement – ATVARA joins BCCAV- The Chairman and Executive of the Bomber Command Commemorative Assoc Vic (Inc) are pleased to warmly welcome all veterans and family members of ATVARA under the wing of the Bomber Command Command Commemorative Assoc Vic (Inc). This significant decision jointly made by ATVARA (Aust Tempsford Veterans & Relatives Assoc ) and BCCAV was formally acknowledged at the recent annual commemorative ceremony held at The Shrine of Remembrance on Sunday 09/07/2017 where the Chairman of BBCAV was honoured to be the MC for the last ceremony conducted under the auspices of ATVARA. The chairman of BCCAV paid tribute to Dr John Williamson and his committee for their outstanding work. Dr John Williamson has for many years been a strong motivational force that united all “special duty” veterans and family members who served in the Tempsford Special Duty Squadrons during WW2. All future commemorative ceremonies will be joint commemorative ceremonies under the auspices of Bomber Command where veterans and family can honour the deeds of so many who valiantly served resistance fighters throughout Europe in WW2. It must be noted that both ‘special duty” squadrons came under the command of Bomber Command during WW2 and as such its fitting that the Tempsford Squadrons be formally recognised under the wing of BBCAV . In his address the Chairman of BCCAV stated categorically that the memory and service of the veterans in WW2 will be forever remembered in all future BCCAV ceremonies. It was a pleasure to meet many family members who paid tribute to their relatives and presented wreaths in their memory. It was also a pleasure to meet our NZ friends who had made a special effort to attend in memory of their relatives and family members .The Chairman & Executive of BCCAV extend a warm welcome to all ATVARA family and friends . We welcome their contribution to the memory of all brave servicemen and women who represented all “Tempsford Special Duty Squadrons”
The following is the speech given by GP CPT Stephen Longbottom:
I am honoured to speak to you today on behalf of the Commander Air Force Training Group, Air Commodore Geoff Harland, AM CSC DSM, who is absent on duty and sends his regrets.
If one takes passage to the Old Country and sets forth on the A1 motorway northbound from Cambridge, you will pass through a small town called Sandy, then Gitford and then on the right hand side there is an exit to a location called Tempsford.
The map indicates an abandoned airfield, one of the hundreds constructed to support RAF and US Army Air Corps Bomber Command operations in WWII. Today you will not see very much that tells you it was once a bustling aerodrome, which supported the many Special Duties flying activities that were vital to the success of Allied operations in that mighty conflict.
Not very far from the former RAF Tempsford is a neat and tidy barn which is the last surviving structure of Gibraltar Farm.
During WWII, this farm appeared very nondescript and ordinary. If you blink you will miss these places today and yet they are the last tangible assets of a very special type of courage and sacrifice within Bomber Command, on a scale hard for us to comprehend today.
When German forces completed their rapid and unexpected occupation of Europe in mid 1940, Allied intelligence and guerrilla warfare efforts were caught unprepared.
After that, it became impossible to insert such teams by sea for the purposes of gathering intelligence, carrying out sabotage and setting Europe ablaze against the Nazi regime.
The only method available was by air using parachutes for supplies and personnel and the hazardous operation of landing Allied aircraft in enemy territory.
Despite senior RAF Command pressure against diverting their Command assets to the Special Duties, or SD operations, these ops started in 1940 with humble beginnings.
By August 1941, the original No 1419 SD Flight had become the re-formed 138 SD Squadron RAF.
In February 1942, the UK Government recognised the importance of these operations and the RAF re-formed another separate SD squadron, No. 161 RAF.
By March 1942, RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire had been constructed and hosted both of these units cloaked in great secrecy. It is reputed to be the foggiest and boggiest airfield in the UK, allocated to SD operations some said as a proof of the RAF antipathy against having to support them.
The irony of the aerodrome location is that the stacks of the power generating plant immediately south west at Great Barford served as the visual turning point for the Luftwaffe bombers attacking London. Despite personal pressure from Hitler to locate and destroy Special Duties operations, the location was never compromised or attacked.
When agents were ready to be transported to Europe by parachute or landing they were brought to Gibraltar farm nearby the day before to complete their final preparations.
The agents, men and women of many races and backgrounds were known as “Joes” by the RAF personnel who operated what was known colloquially as the “Tempsford Taxi” service or “Moon Squadrons” since all SD flights required moonlight phases for navigation.
Some agents returned to RAF Tempsford having been recovered by landing operations in Europe. Some went and survived their hazardous wartime duties to resume normal lives. Many went and met their deaths, sometimes because their SD aircraft crashed or were shot down enroute or because the agents were betrayed in Europe. Inevitably when captured they suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the Gestapo before being executed in death camps or other locations. They have no known graves.
One of the rarely discussed tragedies of WWII British Intelligence operations was their repeated failure to recognise the Gestapo’s capture of agents and turning of the radio operation to suit German purposes. In Holland, this failure was momentous and became known as “Der Englander Spiel – the English Game”. Sadly, when more agents were sent to Europe their scheduled arrival by SD aircraft at a known location and route meant inevitably the loss of that aircraft and crew also. Occasionally a crew would be lucky such as the Lysander pilot who recognised a German helmet on the supposed friendly reception committee while landing in France and gunned his engine to climb away at the last moment, his aircraft being damaged and himself wounded by ground fire in the process but still getting home.
Other aircraft losses were frequent due to the hazards of operating large bomber aircraft at very low level in enemy territory frequently in bad weather below the minimum safe altitudes for terrain clearance and with the hugely difficult navigation tasks. Some pilots logged up to seven hours on instrument flying without autopilots using what we today would call antiquated and difficult flight instruments. Also they were hunted by night fighters and subject to ground and seaborne flak sites. The catch cry among RAF Tempsford crews was to “stay low, stay on track and stay alive”.
There was the case of a Lysander pilot, Squadron Leader Nesbitt-Dufort, who on 4/5 September 1941 was signaled to land by an agent awaiting return to UK at what turned out to be a small and unsatisfactory field in Vichy controlled France. His passenger had been chased by French police and had abandoned the proper pickup site in his haste to be rescued. When confronted with this situation, the pilot took off, hitting high-tension cables, then a set of telephone wires and finally the tops of trees with his undercarriage and propeller tips. Two night fighters almost intercepted him on the return flight, but he turned in under them and escaped attention. At Tangmere airfield, fog had formed but he made a safe landing using the funnel lights. Some other RAF aircrew were not so fortunate to return to England after dropping or landing sorties and were captured after crashing or bogging on landing. These crews were subjected to long and brutal interrogations betray their knowledge. None of them ever did.
In all more than 430 aircrew were lost while serving with the Special Duties squadrons. 147 of these are remembered at the Runnymede Memorial to those RAF and Allied airmen of WWII who perished and have no known grave.
Without the efforts of these Special Duties squadrons, so many significant events in the European Theatre of War would not have happened. There are so many examples and just one of these was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which led to the strengthening of the Resistance Movement in Central Europe.
At war’s end, Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged their efforts and equated them to at least one Division of troops supporting the invasion of France. The words in the dedication by our Gracious Sovereign in 1953 merit reading.
“Indeed the heroism of each will be remembered as long as this memorial shall stand. But that which was done by all will, with God’s help, still be remembered when these stones have crumbled into dust. For whenever and for as long as freedom flourishes on the Earth, the men and women who possess it will thank them and will say they did not die in vain. That is their true and everlasting memorial.”
The interest of one Australian, Dr. John Williamson, in his first cousin, Flight Sergeant George Williamson, who perished in the loss of Halifax LL356 on the night of April 27th 1944, led to many of the broader details of the Special Duties Squadrons coming to light about ten years ago. George Williamson’s body was the only one recovered from his crew of seven when it floated ashore two months after the aircraft failed to return on Terschelling Island, off the coast of Holland. His grave is among the 81 others of many nationalities on that island who gave their lives for freedom.
John’s two books detail the search for relatives of those who died and the background to the SD operations. These relatives had previously no awareness of the work their sons had embarked on or the manner of their deaths. John and his wife are to be commended for their efforts in illuminating this significant chapter of Commonwealth Aircrew operations in Bomber Command.
When we who remain take the trouble to read the excellent books now published in this field of military history and think of these young men and women and what they achieved, we honour them still. Then their sacrifices for liberty so long ago are not in vain.
We might well remember them all by the poetry of T.W. White from his “Sky Saga: A story of Empire Airmen”.
“Forever young, their souls will soar on among the stars they sought, guiding the wings of destiny to lasting peace… they gave their all. We who are left did not. Forget them never, or be yourselves forgot”.
Rest in Peace.