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There had been a small commercial airfield at Chivenor, near Barnstaple in North Devon since 1934. As well as private flying, flights operated to Lundy and to Cardiff from this airfield. Plans were drawn up in 1938 for the construction of a military airfield on the Great Field in the nearby village of Braunton, but this was opposed by many people due to the historical significance of this field, it being one of the few Saxon strip field systems extant in the U.K. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Barnstaple Airfield was closed,

The Bristol Beaufort

The Bristol Beaufort was the standard torpedo bomber and strike aircraft of the Royal Air Force Coastal Command from 1940 until 1943.  It replaced the Vickers Vildebeest biplanes, which were obsolete by the outbreak of the Second World War.  The Bristol Aeroplane Company Limited, based at Filton, on the northern outskirts of the Gloucestershire city which name it bore, developed the Beaufort in response to two Specifications issued by the Air Ministry.  Specification M.15/35 was for a twin-engine monoplane for use as a torpedo bomber, and G.24/35 for a general reconnaissance bomber.  The prototype Beaufort (L.4441) first flew on 15 October 1938, and the Air Ministry issued a contract to build seventy-eight aircraft to the Specification 10/36. The production aircraft differed from the prototype in several details, but they were still essentially of the same design.  The aircraft was a monoplane torpedo-bomber, with a crew of four: pilot, observer, wireless operator and air gunner.

It had an all metal, stressed skin construction, and weighed 13,107 lbs (5.85 tons) when empty, and 21,228 lbs (9.5 tons) when fully loaded.  The aircraft was powered by two, 1,010 horsepower (hp), Bristol Taurus Mk. II air cooled, radial engines.  In service, these were found to be underpowered for the aircraft and its use, so Bristol Taurus Mk. VI engines were installed, each of which delivered 1,130 hp.  The Beaufort Mk. IA was fitted with the Bristol Taurus Mk. VI and XII engines, but was otherwise similar to the Mark I.

The Beaufort had a wingspan of 57’ 10”, a length of 44’ 7”, a height of 12’ 5”, and a wing area of 503 square feet.  The maximum speed of the Beaufort was 265 mph at 6,000 feet, with a cruising speed of 200 mph.  Its range was 1,035 miles in normal operation, with a maximum range of 1,600 miles.  The endurance of the aircraft was six hours, and it had a ceiling of 16,500 feet, although this was used rarely.  The Beaufort was armed with two 0.303 machine guns in the nose (although not in all operational Beauforts), and two in the rear turret.  Some aircraft had a rear-facing 0.303 machine gun installed in a blister under the nose, and two beam guns.  The bombload was 1,500 lb of bombs, or one 1,605 lb, eighteen-inch torpedo semi-enclosed in the bomb bay.

1,013 Beaufort Mk. I aircraft were built by the Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd. at Filton, and a shadow factory at Banwell, Somerset.  The Australian government built additional Beauforts in Australia for use by the Royal Australian Air Force.  The only other major version of the Beaufort was the Mark II.  This was fitted with two, American Twin Wasp S3C4 engines, with the prototype flying in November 1940.  The Twin Wasp engines developed 1,200 horsepower, but other than a few improvements made through operational experience, the basic aircraft was the same.  The Beaufort squadrons found that the Taurus equipped aircraft performed better in temperate climates, but the Twin Wasps were better in hotter and more humid climates.  415 Beaufort Mk. II and Mk IIA aircraft were built before production ceased in 1944.  Total production was 2,129 Beaufort aircraft, including 700 built in Australia.

Operational Deployment

The Bristol Beaufort first entered R.A.F. service in November 1939, with No. 22 Squadron, based at Thorney Island, Hampshire.  The Beauforts superseded Vickers Vildebeest biplanes, and were a marked improvement in capability for the squadron.  The conversion to the new aircraft continued until the last Vildebeest left in February 1940.  The unreliability of the engines, and a marked tendency to swing on take-off, led to some lack of confidence in the new aircraft.  The issue of the unreliable and underpowered engines was to remain with the Beaufort for most of its service with the R.A.F..  It was apparent that the weight of the aircraft was such that it could not fly successfully on one engine.  An engine failure at take-off, or while flying at low-level as most sorties were, was likely to prove fatal; as was proved at No. 3 (C) O.T.U., and its successor.

A problem arose as it was realised that although the R.A.F. had a new torpedo bomber, it had no torpedo capable of being dropped from the Beaufort.  The simple issue was that the design of British air-launched torpedoes had fallen behind the improvement in aircraft design.  The torpedo in use at the time was the Mk. XII, which had been designed during the First World War to be fired from Motor Torpedo Boats.  The most modern Royal Navy torpedo carrying aircraft was the Fairy Albacore, a development of the Fairy Swordfish that remained the principal R.N. torpedo bomber.  These were biplanes, with a top speed of about 160 mph, and very different from the Beaufort.

On 8 April 1940, No. 22 Squadron moved to North Coates in Lincolnshire, to cover the North Sea, in consequence of the German invasion of Norway.  The first operational sortie by No. 22 Squadron using their Beauforts was on the night of 15/16 April 1940, with a mine-laying operation in the mouth of the River Jade.  The squadron dropped their first bomb on 7 May 1940.

The second squadron to receive the Beaufort was No. 42 Squadron.  This unit had been formed in August 1939, from a flight of No. 22 Squadron.  It was equipped with the Vickers Vildebeest biplane torpedo bomber but received its first Beaufort (L.4489) in April 1940.  This coincided with a move to R.A.F. Thorney Island in Hampshire, to replace No. 22 Squadron which had moved to North Coates.  The move was to allow the conversion of No. 42 Squadron to the Beaufort.  In June 1940, with the conversion completed, the squadron moved to R.A.F. Wick, in Caithness, to fly operational sorties over the North Sea to Norway.

The third squadron to be equipped with the Beaufort was No. 217 Squadron.  This pre-war squadron had been based at R.A.F. Warmwell, Dorset, at the outbreak of the Second World War.  In October 1939, it moved to R.A.F. St. Eval in Cornwall, to cover the Western Approaches.  It received its first Beaufort in May 1940, just after No. 42 Squadron started to receive its Beauforts.

Pre-war, No. 48 Squadron was a training squadron specialising in air navigation, but in September 1938, it was transferred to Coastal Command for maritime patrol duties.  It was equipped with the Avro Anson and on 25 August 1939, it was posted to R.A.F. Thorney Island in Hampshire.  It received its first Bristol Beauforts in May 1940, and in July, it moved to R.A.F. Hooton Park in Cheshire.  The delivers of Beauforts was so slow that in November 1940, No. 48 Squadron gave up its Beauforts which were allocated to No. 217 Squadron instead with effect from 19 October 1940.  No. 48 Squadron, which had only flown one sortie with the Beaufort on 17 October 1940, continued to use the Anson until it converted to the Lockheed Hudson in June 1941.

No. 217 Squadron remained at R.A.F. St. Eval until October 1941, when it moved to R.A.F. Thorney Island, Hampshire, however, the squadron maintained a detachment at R.A.F. St. Eval.  No. 217 Squadron remained a bomb (and mine) only squadron, well into 1941, before torpedo training was undertaken, however, the squadron had a trials detachment at R.A.F. Chivenor testing A.S.V. radar, and the use of depth charges.

The fourth, and last, squadron in the U.K. to receive the Beaufort was No. 86 Squadron.  This squadron was formed at R.A.F. Gosport, Hampshire, on 6 December 1940.  The new squadron was equipped with Bristol Blenheim Mk. IV aircraft.  It spent a month at R.A.F. Leuchars in Fife, in February 1941, and moved to R.A.F. Wattisham in Suffolk in March 1941.  It moved to R.A.F. North Coates in May 1941, where it began to receive Beaufort aircraft in June of that year.  The first Beaufort sortie was flown on 11 June 1940, but in practice, it acted as a holding and dispatch unit for No. 39 Squadron in Egypt.  The Beaufort Mk. II was issued to No. 217 Squadron beginning in November 1941, and to No. 86 Squadron with effect from January 1942.

The early sorties were against targets in Germany, mainly the naval bases on the north coast, and the area of Heligoland.  The aircraft were armed with bombs, meaning that they were specialist aircrew attacking a standard target suitable for bombers.  The opening of hostilities in Norway meant a realignment of the sorties undertaken by the Beauforts.  On 21 June, No. 42 Squadron conducted a strike against the battlecruiser Scharnhorst off Norway.  There were no hits on the German warship, but the weakness of the defensive armament of the Beaufort was exposed, especially when attacked by the German Me 109 aircraft now based in Norway.  To counter this, Beaufort sorties were usually given escorts, with Beaufighters becoming common in this role.  Due to the limitations of engine power, additional armour could not be fitted to the aircraft.  Shortly after the Scharnhorst incident, persistent trouble with the engines led to all the Beauforts being grounded for a period, and for a time, it was a possibility that the aircraft would be declared unsuitable for operational duties.  On 28 August, the Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd. agreed to fit an improved version of the Taurus, the Mk. VI, and this allowed No. 22 Squadron to resume operations on 31 August 1940.  No. 217 Squadron resumed operations on 25 September, followed by No.42 Squadron three days later.

With the fall of France, the German Navy took over French ports in Brittany, and on the Bay of Biscay.  This led to another change in the tasking of the Beaufort squadrons, with attacks against French ports, in particular Brest, becoming frequent.  No. 22 Squadron undertook its first sortie with torpedoes on 11 September, and then a new form of sortie commenced four days later, when the first ‘Rover’ patrols were flown.  Prior to this, the R.A.F. relied on aircraft carrying out reconnaissance sorties, and then if they found something of interest, radio back for a strike force to be dispatched.  This introduced delays, so that most strike sorties failed to locate any meaningful targets.  The Rover patrols were an attempt to overcome this, by dispatching aircraft, often armed with a mix of torpedoes and bombs, so that any target of opportunity could be attacked.  The first success with a torpedo came on 17 September, at Cherbourg, when the small merchant vessel Johann Blumenthal was sunk by either L.4508 or L.9790.

No. 42 Squadron gained its first success on 26 October, with two ships being torpedoed off the coast of Norway by L.9813, and N.1159, but both aircraft were shot down.  New bombs were introduced late in 1940, being modified sea mines, these could only be carried by Beauforts and Hampdens.  Bremerhaven was attacked with these bombs on 25 October, by five aircraft from No. 22 Squadron.  No. 22 Squadron gained further success on 18 September, with the sinking of a naval tanker, the sinking of Sperrbrecher 17 on 27 December, and the cargo-line Mar Del Plata on 26 March 1941.  On 6 April 1941, three aircraft from No. 22 Squadron were tasked to attack the German battleship Gneisenau at Brest on 6 April.  Flying Officer (F/O) K. CAMPBELL and his air crew flew in one of these aircraft and succeeded in hitting the German warship.  The heavy flak brought the aircraft down in the harbour, and all four men died.  F/O K. CAMPBELL was awarded, posthumously, the Victoria Cross for his selfless gallantry.

The entry of the Bismarck into the North Atlantic led to all three Beaufort squadrons being placed on readiness to attack the warship, when located.  In addition, aircraft from the Torpedo Training Unit (T.T.U.) at R.A.F. Abbotsinch were placed on stand-by.  No. 217 Squadron stood by at St. Eval, armed with bombs as they were not ready to fly with torpedoes until 8 July 1941.  From mid-1941 onwards, the number of successful operations by the four-homebased squadrons declined.  This was due to a combination of factors: shortage of torpedoes, and the shortage of experienced pilots and aircrew.  The pilot aimed and dropped the bombs or torpedoes.  They had to drop their torpedoes at low speed, about 160 mph, at a height of about seventy feet, and at a range of about 750 yards from the target, in order to achieve the likelihood of a hit against any target moving at speed.  The course at the T.T.U. in Scotland taught pilots to drop torpedoes at small and slow (often stationery) targets, from a range of 1,500 yards, a situation not rectified until the Spring of 1942.

To obtain a hit, the pilot had to fly in the face of heavy light flak from the ship, or escorts, with a high degree of determination, discipline, courage, and hope.  In the light of these facts, it is not surprising that a study undertaken in November 1942 revealed that flying a torpedo bomber was the most dangerous role in the R.A.F. at that period.  A tour was intended to last for three-hundred hours operational flying, but only 17.5% of pilots survived one tour.  If a pilot was fortunate to survive one tour, and commenced another tour, they had only a 3% chance of surviving both tours.  In comparison, a day fighter pilot had a 43% chance of surviving one tour, and an 18.5% chance of surviving two, and for a night bomber pilot, the figures were 44% and 19.5%.  The highest chance of survival came from flying Catalina flying boats, giving a pilot a 77% chance of surviving one tour, and a 60% chance of surviving two.  In spite of this, the number of cases of men refusing to fly, and being labelled as ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’, was no worse than for other types and categories of flying duties.

No. 489 Squadron, R.N.Z.A.F. was due to receive Beauforts in August 1941, at its base at R.A.F. Leuchars, but converted to Beaufighters instead.  For a short period of time, No. 415 Squadron, R.C.A.F. operated some Beauforts while stationed at R.A.F. Thorney Island from September 1941, until January 1942.  In the Middle East, No. 39 and 47 Squadrons operated Beauforts from August 1941 onwards flying from Egypt and Malta.  By June 1943, both had converted to other types of aircraft.  No. 39 Squadron had moved to Singapore from India at the outbreak of war, as a day bomber squadron.  In April 1940, it moved to Aden to support the British operations in Eritrea and Ethiopia.  In January 1941, the squadron was tasked with maritime reconnaissance, and commenced equipping with Blenheim and Maryland aircraft.  In August 1941, the squadron began to receive Beaufort torpedo bombers, acquiring aircraft and aircrews from No. 86 Squadron.

During 1942, the level of operations in the Mediterranean increased, and those in Home waters declined.  This was because of the change of priorities, and the lack of targets for U.K. based squadrons.  No torpedo hits were scored by any U.K. based Beaufort in 1942, and R.A.F. strike aircraft bombed no vessel larger than 400 tons.  Attacks by No. 22 Squadron against the Scharnhorst in July 1941 were adjudged to have failed, as were another attack in May 1942 against the Prinz Eugen, with No. 86 Squadron even failing to find the German battle cruiser.  Three of the four U.K. Beaufort squadrons were sent overseas in 1942.  The first to leave was No. 22 Squadron, which left for Ceylon in February 1942.  In June 1942, No. 42 Squadron left the U.K. bound for Ceylon, while No. 217 Squadron left in the same month for Malta.  No. 217 Squadron later moved on to join the other two squadrons in Ceylon.  No. 86 Squadron served at R.A.F. St. Eval between January and March 1942, and R.A.F. Wick from March until July 1942.  In that month, it moved to R.A.F. Thorney Island, and commenced conversion to fly Liberators.

R.A.F. Chivenor was the only Operational Training Unit serving the Beaufort squadrons based in the U.K. and abroad, from its inception as No. 3 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit in late 1940, until 16 May 1942.  It was redesignated as No. 5 (C) O.T.U. on 1 August 1941.  On 3 May, No. 5 (C) O.T.U. began its move to R.A.F. Turnberry, on the west coast of Ayrshire, which was completed on 16 May.  This ended one chapter in the history of R.A.F. Chivenor, but it allowed another to commence.  From now on, R.A.F. Chivenor was to focus on the defeat of the U-boat and play a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

R.A.F. Chivenor and No 3 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit

When war broke out in September 1939, the airfield was first closed by the Air Ministry under the emergency Regulations, and then requisitioned the site.  Although the Air Ministry requisitioned North Devon Airport immediately after the outbreak of the war, the site itself was not used by the Royal Air Force until 1940.  As originally developed, Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) Chivenor had the same boundaries on the North, South and West as it has now, but the Eastern boundary was a lane which ran South through Chivenor village to the River Taw.  This land all belonged to Sir William WILLIAMS and was farmed by the REED brothers of Chivenor Farm, which was in the village, and Marsh Farm, which stood roughly in the centre of the triangle formed by the present runways.

Building work started in May 1940 on the officers’ lines, and on 21 June 1940, the first sod was removed to inaugurate work on the runways.  The initial plans provided for three runways, each one-thousand yards long and fifty yards wide, on the alignment of the present runway layout.  The building plans when completed left the Station virtually as it is today, the only major later additions being the two airmen’s brick barrack blocks and the married quarters.  The eastern boundary of the airfield was extended in 1941 to take in the North Devon Airport, and between then and 1944 the east-west runway was progressively lengthened to its present two-thousand yards.  In 1942, the dispersal pans and taxiways on the present married quarters site were constructed.

The first Royal Air Force unit to occupy the Station was No. 3 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, administered by No. 17 Group, Coastal Command.  Flight Lieutenant (F/L) E. D. BRADFIELD arrived on Friday, 25 October 1940, from R.A.F. Mount Batten in Plymouth to take up the position of Senior Equipment Officer, accompanied by Pilot Officer (P/O) A. C. SHARPE, who was posted from R.A.F. Gosport as an Equipment Officer on the same day.  These two officers were the first personnel to be posted to the new R.A.F. Chivenor, to establish the new Operational Training Unit there.  The next day, Flying Officer (F/O) J. E. CAMPBELL arrived from Headquarters, 15 Group, to assume the appointment of Station Administration Officer, for which he received promotion to the rank of Acting Flight Lieutenant.  Wing Commander (W/C) M. V. RIDGEWAY came from Headquarters No. 15 Group to become the first Station Commander on Monday, 28 October 1940.  At the end of October, the strength of R.A.F. Chivenor was four officers, and twenty other ranks.  A plaintive note in the Operations Record Book on 21 November records that, ‘a party of seventy-seven airmen arrived on posting to his unit today without any previous warning’.

On 27 November, the unit’s first aircraft arrived from No. 1 (C) O.T.U. at R.A.F. Silloth, five Bristol Beaufort Mk I aircraft with their pilots and crew on attachment for flying duties.  On Thursday, 28 November, five Avro Anson aircraft arrived from No. 1 (C) O.T.U. flown by officers who were on attachment to R.A.F. Chivenor for flying duties.  Three of these pilots were Polish, who had arrived in the U.K. via France and joined the Royal Air Force, although remaining members of the Polish Air Force.

Friday, 29 November 1940, saw further moves in establishing the structure of the new base and operational training unit.  F/L G. C. WALKER was appointed Chief Flying Instructor, and F/L A. D. CLEUGH-FAIR appointed Chief Ground Instructor.  S/L A. T. NAISH was appointed to command ‘A’ Flight, with S/L J. W. BUCHANAN commanding ‘B’ Flight.  In addition, S/L R. G. YAXLEY of Coastal Command arrived by air from R.A.F. Northolt to discuss the formation of No. 252 Squadron at R.A.F. Chivenor.  Another forty airmen arrived at the base without prior notification.

On Saturday, 30 November, another twenty-one airmen arrived, making the strength of No. 3 (C) O.T.U. forty officers, one W.A.A.F. officer, forty-four senior non-commissioned officers, and five-hundred and fifty airmen.  Of these, four-hundred and fifty-two airmen were living on camp, with all the officers and the remainder of the airmen living in billets in the Braunton and Barnstaple districts.  The accommodation for the officers and senior non-commissioned officers had not been built by this date, and the development of the station was still very much work in progress.  Yet, it was on this date that conversion instruction of pilots to Beauforts and Ansons commenced at R.A.F. Chivenor, the first military use of the new airfield.  There were five Flights within No. 3 (C) O.T.U., allowing two courses to run concurrently for each aircraft type, and they were:
‘A’ Flt.              Bristol Beaufort
‘B’ Flt.              Bristol Beaufort
‘C’ Flt.              Avro Anson and Bristol Blenheim
‘D’ Flt.              Avro Anson and Bristol Blenheim
‘F’ Flt               Fairey Battle (later Westland Lysander) – for target towing

Most pilots were regarded as a ‘cut above’ above the other members of the crew.  At this stage of the war, the officers were either pre-war members of the R.A.F. or were university educated.  The formation of the crews was a lottery.  Although the crews would fly, fight and sometimes die together, they lived separately at R.A.F. Chivenor and other bases.  The officers lived in the Officers’ Mess, and the sergeants, flight sergeants and warrant officers lived in the Sergeants’ Mess.  No matter how close an officer was to his crew, all officers were to be addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Pilot’ if appropriate.  Not all officers adhered strictly to this, but it appears that for most crews, some degree of formality remained in place.

Most of the WOp/AGs had been together through training at Blackpool and Yatesbury, and so tended to know each other well.  They were generally working class men, often qualified in a trade, from across the U.K..  Wireless Operators/Air Gunners generally had lower educational attainment than the pilots or observers or were older and over the age limit for becoming a pilot (25 years).  They would often stick together at the O.T.U., and sometimes chose their captains rather than the other way around.  They wanted a steady driver, one most likely to ensure their survival.  They chose the men that they could care to live with, and possibly die with.

When not on-duty, some men would go swimming at Croyde, and others would do into Barnstaple drinking.  They would take a bus at about 5.00 pm, but there was no bus back, so it was the last train or walk.

By the time that they reached R.A.F. Chivenor, the four men who formed an air crew had endured several stages of selection and assessment.  This began with the initial interview and medical examination, the onwards through other training units with more exercises, tests and examinations.  Generally, the pilots streamed for Bomber and Coastal Command were seen as:

  • Being cool, steady and tenacious,
  • To have stamina,
  • To have initiative,
  • Having powers of leadership.

In terms of flying skills, they had to be reliable on the use of instruments and have a flying accuracy required to ensure efficient coordination between the pilot and navigator (observer).  At no point was it explained to the other air crew how very dangerous their operational role was going to be.  This was war, so everything was dangerous, and all the air crew were volunteers.  All they wanted to do was to get on with it.  There was no question in the minds of the young men training at Chivenor of transferring away from this role, and they had no chance to take a different direction; from the moment you joined up, you did as you were told.  There was no choice.  R.A.F. Chivenor took an official photograph of the students early in the course, as soon as they had crewed-up.  Of those in photograph of Course 7A, twenty died, one became a prisoner-of-war, four were injured and two were branded ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’ and taken off flying duties.  Only Sergeant (Sgt) Bill CARROLL was destined to survive the war unscathed.

The pilots were told that the Beaufort was very difficult to fly, but it was seen as a tough little plane and it could take some punishment.  Its twin Taurus engines were underpowered and therefore difficult to fly if one engine was knocked out.  Every fifty hours each engine would be inspected and every one-hundred hours a more rigorous inspection.  Every two to three-hundred hours, each aircraft went for a major inspection and was stripped down, checked and reassembled.

The pilot had to undertake a visual check around the aircraft, including checking to see that the cover had been removed from the pitot head, just under the nose.  This supplied the air speed indicator which calibrated the pilot’s instruments.  Each pilot had to sign the Form 700 before they could take an aircraft up.  It was also signed by the rigger and fitter, the rigger was in charge of the wings and the tail, the fitter in charge of the engines  How well they did their job could be a matter of life or death for the air crew.  The aircraft were being treated badly almost every day by pilots who had no choice or did not know better.

Pilots entered by climbing on the wing and dropping through the top hatch straight into the pilot’s seat.  They completed the cockpit check – testing flaps, throttles, fine pitch and that the hydraulic system was working.  The joystick was in front of the pilot with two handles, and the pilot would use it to move the ailerons on the wings and elevators on the tail plane, and then work the rudder by means of the foot pedals.  The ground crew had a starting battery and they primed the induction system while they were underneath the engines.  They used the electronic starter to rotate each propeller twice and switch on the starting magnetos.  They then cleared the propellers, and the pilot shouted ‘contact’, and pressed the port starter button followed by the starboard one.  The brakes were held on while the pilot tested each engine to full throttle in fine pitch, then the chocks were removed by arm signals.

The pilot would manoeuvre the aircraft by use of the engines, port to go right and starboard to go left, and make his way to the end of the runway to line up so as to take-off into the wind.  Flaps 30 was selected and both throttles opened up together, the pilot using his right hand on the throttles and keeping his left hand on the control column.  The rudder would be used to keep the aircraft straight as the torque of the engines would pull it to one side.  The take-off speed was 80 knots and it would take about 700 yards to reach that speed.  The pilot would ease back on the control column and would feel that special, subtle, sensation of being airborne.

Once airborne, the pilot would keep their right hand on the throttles and use the left hand to raise the undercarriage.  At about 700 feet, the flaps would be raised and shortly afterwards the aircraft would reach its cruising speed of 140 knots.  When landing, the Beaufort would be eased into the final approach, full flaps down, undercarriage down, so at about 80 knots a decent three-point landing could be achieved safely.

The syllabus at No. 3 (C) O.T.U. comprised three stages.  These were:

  • Weeks 1 and 2
    • Ground Instruction/Crewing Up/Familiarisation/Circuits and Landings;
  • Weeks 3 to 6
    • Ground Instruction/Basic Air Training Day & Night/Bombing/Air Firing/Cine Gun;
  • Week 7 & onwards
    • Ground Instruction/Applied Air Training/Cross Country/Advanced Navigation/Fighter Affiliation.

Elements of the training syllabus included:

  • Synthetic training:
    • Link Trainer,
    • Bombing Teacher,
    • Clay Pigeon Shooting,
    • Turret Training,
  • Gunnery:
    • Combat Manoeuvres,
    • Air-to-Sea Firing,
    • Air-to-Air Firing,
    • Fighter Affiliation,
  • Bombing:
    • Bombing Target Practice,
    • Mine Laying,
  • Navigation:
    • Dead Reckoning Navigation,
    • Cross-Country Navigation Exercises,
    • Cross-Sea Navigation Exercises,
  • Drills:
    • Ditching and Dinghy,
    • Parachute,
    • Fire,
    • Crash,
  • Operational Procedures:
    • Formation Flying,
    • Attack Profiles.

Throughout the course there were daily classroom lectures, navigational exercises, morse practice in the air and on the ground.  The first element of the training programme at No. 3 (C) O.T.U. was for the pilots to be assessed by an instructor (also known as a Screened Pilot) and passed for solo flying.  The instructors taught the pupil pilots to: ‘Always trust your instruments’, and not to rely on their instincts.  Any conflict between a pilot’s instincts and his instruments could result in spatial disorientation, particularly in cloud, and no doubt led to many aircraft stalling and crashing.  Many pilots avoided flying in cloud unless taking evasive action for this reason.

Once a pilot was passed as competent for flying solo, they would team up with an Observer (Navigator), and two Wireless Operators/Air Gunners (WOp/AG).  It was the practice of Coastal Command to train aircrew as wireless operators and air gunners to allow flexibility in their duties, so they could interchange roles on long sorties to avoid becoming stale.  The process for forming up crews was informal, with the pilots, observers and WOp/AGs all meeting up in a room and choosing their crews by discussions and then an instinctive decision.

The next stage for the crews was for the pilots to qualify for night flying.  Many did their first sorties at dusk, before being passed for solo flying.  It should be remembered that the aircraft of this period lacked many of the sophisticated flying aids fitted to modern aircraft.  Most pilots relied on their experience, judgement and luck.  Each pilot went solo at night to do an initial circuit and bumps.  In the dark, a pilot would take off and then turn to port to keep the flare path in sight while flying downwind.  It was often pitch black for the pilots, with the blackout in force on the ground.

The O.T.U. course included navigation, bombing and air-combat exercises, with one of the last elements being formation flying.  This was because the anti-shipping aircraft would usually fly and attack in ‘vics’ of three aircraft, so this skill had to be learnt.  It was a perilous climax to the course.  One pilot’s misjudgement or lapse in concentration could result in a collision with one or both aircraft crashing.

Once the training programme was completed, the course would be concluded, and the crews posted.  Most crews were posted as formed crews, although some would be split up according to operational requirements.  Some crews were posted direct to either No. 22, 42, 86, or 217 Squadrons, the four Beaufort equipped squadrons in Coastal Command at this time.  Other crews were posted to the T.T.U. at R.A.F. Abbotsinch, near Glasgow, and some were posted to prepare for deployment overseas to the Mediterranean.

The first operational squadron at Chivenor was No. 252 Squadron, equipped with Beaufighters, and initially some Blenheims.  On 4 December 1940, S/L R. G. YAXLEY reported from Headquarters Coastal Command with instructions to form this squadron at Chivenor.  This squadron was designated to be the first unit in Coastal Command to be equipped with the Beaufighter, in anticipation of service overseas.  The first Beaufighters arrived in December, but the embryonic squadron used Blenheims until April when it became fully operational.  The first fifteen Beaufighters flew out to Gibraltar on 1 May 1941, with the rest of the squadron joining them on 15 June.  The squadron was to spend the rest of the war in the Mediterranean.

During the evening of 23 December, R.A.F. Chivenor and No. 3 (C) O.T.U. suffered its first fatal air crash.  Sergeant (Sgt) James BLATCHFORD, R.A.F.V.R. had arrived at R.A.F. Chivenor from R.A.F. Silloth on 27 November, with his crew of three, flying Beaufort L.9932.  That Thursday evening, Sgt BLATCHFORD took off in Beaufort L.9943, together with Leading Aircraftman (LAC) GREENWOOD, for a night flying training sortie.  The aircraft crashed soon after take-off, killing Sgt BLATCHFORD, and seriously injuring LAC GREENWOOD.  The aircraft was destroyed. Please see:

Despite the rigours of food-rationing and wartime shortages, on the station’s first Christmas Day, six-hundred and ten airmen, and thirty-four of the 10th Bn. The Royal Berkshire Regt. (attached for airfield defence duties) were served with a Christmas dinner of turkey and Christmas pudding by the officers and senior non-commissioned officers (N.C.Os.).  Until the end of 1940, the domestic arrangements were complicated by the fact that neither the Officers’ nor the Sergeants’ messes had been completed, and all the officers and senior N.C.O.s had to be billeted out.  On 26 December, the Officers’ Mess was opened for luncheons, a sign that progress was being made.  A major event in the history of R.A.F. Chivenor occurred on 30 December 1940, when twenty pilots of No. 42 Squadron arrived to undertake a conversion course on Bristol Beauforts.  The actual course commenced the next day.

The end of the year saw the strength of R.A.F. Chivenor, including the operational training unit, as seventy-nine officers, three W.A.A.F. officers, one-hundred senior non-commissioned officers, and seven-hundred and forty-six airmen.  Of these, seven-hundred and thirteen non-commissioned officers and airmen lived on the base, all the others were living in billets in the Braunton and Barnstaple districts.

The construction programme for R.A.F. Chivenor was reaching its conclusion at the turn of 1941, marked by the opening of the Officers’ Mess on 3 January, and the Sergeants’ Mess the next day.  These were wooden huts, as were most of the buildings (other than the hangers) at R.A.F. Chivenor.  W/C RIDGEWAY and thirty-one officers moved into the Officers’ Mess, and eighty-nine senior non-commissioned officers into the Sergeants’ Mess from billets around the locality.  During the Second World War, the R.A.F. maintained a distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned aircrew, so men who flew together, fought together, and sometimes died together, could be living in separate messes at their base.

On Monday, 13 January 1941, No. 1 Course of Instruction – Beauforts, commenced, but the number of students on this course is not recorded.  It was to conclude on Sunday, 2 March 1941.  These were the first students to undertake the two-month operational training course.  A flight (or course) comprised twenty-eight men, forming seven crews.  On 16 January, a revised Establishment was issued for R.A.F. Chivenor and No. 3 (C) O.T.U. from Headquarters, Coastal Command.  This showed a considerable increased in personnel to be stationed at R.A.F. Chivenor.  With the increase in the Establishment, the status of the Commanding Officer was raised with the posting of Group Captain (G/C) J. H. SADLER from No. 9 Air Crew Selection Board to command R.A.F. Chivenor.  The change in command took place on Thursday, 23 January, when G/C J. H. SADLER took over command of the station from W/C M. V. RIDGEWAY.  W/C RIDGEWAY signed off the Operations Record Book for the last time as Commanding Officer, and assumed his new appointment as Chief Instructor at No. 3 (C) O.T.U..  S/L G. C. WALKER became the Chief Ground Instructor at the O.T.U..

The month of February began with some inclement weather.  On Sunday, 2 February, heavy snow required the activation of the Snow Plan to clear the runways for use.  On Wednesday, 5 February, the first notable V.I.P. landed at Chivenor on the B.O.A.C. service, namely Mr. Wendell WILKIE, the U.S.A. envoy.  He was received by G/C J. H. SADLER, and they were photographed walking through the snow at R.A.F. Chivenor.  After a short stay on the unit, Mr. WILKIE left by air the same day for the United States, via Lisbon, taking off during a heavy snow storm.

No. 3 (C) O.T.U. suffered its second fatality in the evening of Tuesday, 18 February 1941.  That evening, at about 21.40 hours, Sgt A. H. S. EVANS took off from R.A.F. Chivenor on a solo night flying training flight in Beaufort Mk. I L.9829.  The aircraft was seen to climb too steeply, it turned through 180 degrees, and then flew into a hill about one mile north of Chivenor, near Heanton Punchardon church.  The aircraft burst into flames on impact, but Sgt EVANS, the only occupant, was rescued alive, albeit seriously injured.  An ambulance took him to the North Devon Infirmary in Barnstaple, where he died from his injuries the next day at 16.45 hours. Please see:

On Sunday, 23 February, tragedy came to the base with the death from gunshot wounds of Pilot Officer M. A. ESPLEN.  Malcolm Alexander ESPLEN was a member of the Royal Air Force, who was granted a short service commission of four years on the active list with effect from 23 October 1939, with the rank of Acting Pilot Officer.  He was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer, on probation, with effect from 25 May 1940. At the time of his death, he was twenty-five years’ of age, and a son of Alexander and Eva C. ESPLEN.  He was buried in Grave 5587 of Section R Nonconformist, of the Southport (Duke Street) Cemetery.

Monday, 24 February 1941, was to bring further tragedy to R.A.F. Chivenor with the third fatal aircraft crash since the opening of the base.  This was just six days after the crash that ultimately claimed the life of Sgt A. H. S. EVANS.  At 20.20 hours, P/O H. MUNDY crashed while night flying, with the aircraft bursting into flames, killing the pilot and sole occupant.  His was flying Beaufort L.9858, which was one of those delivered from R.A.F. Abbotsinch in January.  The aircraft dived into the ground at Braunton Great Field, close to the airfield, for an unknown reason.  Herbert MUNDY, who was known as Bob, was a South African from Durban. Please see:

With a total strength of almost one-thousand, eight-hundred personnel now based at R.A.F. Chivenor, concern was raised about the possible of the unit suffering heavy casualties in the event of such an enemy air attack developing, and so one-hundred and fifty airmen, and soldiers, from the station were provided with dispersed sleeping quarters off the station.  Wrafton Rectory, Chivenor Cottage, St. Brannock’s Hall and the Masonic Hall, Braunton were all requisitioned by the Air Ministry to provide this dispersed accommodation.

No. 1 Beaufort Course finished on 2 March, although the next destination of the air crew concerned is not recorded.  The funeral service for P/O MUNDY was held on 1 March, at St. Augustine’s Church, at Heanton Punchardon, overlooking the airfield.  W/O LOVELL, was senior non-commissioned officer and Station Warrant Officer at R.A.F. Chivenor, paraded the funeral party at 14.30 hours at the Station Headquarters, from where the cortege left, with the coffin on a lorry, and a honour guard either side of the lorry.  At the church, other aircrew acted as bearers to take the coffin into the church, after which MUNDY was buried with full military honours in the churchyard.

There was another tragedy on 13 March, when F/O GRISENTWAITE crashed when flying Blenheim V.6098 en-route from R.A.F. Chivenor to R.A.F. St. Athan in South Wales.  The aircraft was destroyed, and the three men in the Blenheim, F/O A. GRISENTHWAITE, F/O HITCH and Sgt T. DYKES, all died instantly.  They were members of the embryonic No. 252 Squadron, then forming at R.A.F. Chivenor with Bristol Beaufighters. Please see:

On 26 March, a fatal air crash occurred that claimed the lives of Sgt D. O. DRAPER, and Sgt J. A. SIMPSON.  They were flying Anson N.9676 over Barnstaple Bay, when their aircraft entered a steep turn at a height of 800’, and plunged into the sea.  Another pilot from R.A.F. Chivenor witnessed this incident, and reported it to base.  No trace of the two aircrew was found, so they were reported ‘Missing, believed dead’. Please see:

All was quiet on 27 March, but on 28 March, the O.T.U. suffered its greatest loss of life in a single incident, when Anson L.9150 crashed into a hillside on Halsinger Down and was burnt out.  The pilot was Sgt K. KLYSZCZ, a Polish airman who had escaped from his country when it was invaded.  Also killed were four wireless operators under training who were on board. Please see:

In addition, on 28 March, Bristol Beaufort Mk. I L.4498 took off from R.A.F. Chivenor on a solo night flight, as part of his training programme.  The aircraft crashed into the sea off North Devon and was lost.  The body of the pilot, Sgt F. W. CORDER was never recovered.  Although a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Sgt CORDER came from South Africa. Please see:

On 30 March, No. 2 Beaufort Course and No. 2 Anson Course both finished on this date.  No. 4 Beaufort Course and No. 4 Anson Course both commenced on 31 March 1941.  On 30 March, an Air Raid Message Red was in force between 11.55 and 12.20 hours on 30 March, and another Message Red was declared at 20.22 hours on 31 March.  This time it was for real, in fact, the Red warning was not received until five minutes after the attack.  The two aircraft involved appeared at low altitude over Braunton and attacked the airfield from the south.  A He 111 dropped a mixed load of High Explosives and Incendiaries on the airfield and railway line, and was followed by a Ju 88 which dropped a similar load of bombs and also opened up on the buildings with machine gun fire.  Of a total of forty bombs dropped, eleven failed to explode, and the only damage and injury to the unit was caused by a bomb which exploded inside a building under construction by the side of the railway line.  Three men who were sheltering behind one wall of the building were hit by falling masonry and slightly injured.  Because of the low altitude from which they were dropped, most of the unexploded bombs failed to penetrate the surface and were lying on the ground.  It was these which caused the greatest hold-up to the activities of the station.

Tuesday, 15 April 1941, was a normal day for this period.  There was an Air Raid Warning Red alert issued between 02.55 and 04.28 hours.  Six Bristol Blenheim aircraft from No. 18 Squadron at R.A.F. Wattisham called at R.A.F. Chivenor before leaving at 13.45 hours on an operational mine laying sortie over France.  This was the first operational sortie carried out from R.A.F. Chivenor, albeit with visiting aircraft.  Five of them landed on their return from their sortie, refuelled, and then departed for their home base.  One Blenheim failed to return, R.3841, which was lost without trace.  The pilot was the Commanding Officer of the squadron, W/C C. G. HILL, R.A.F., and the other air crew were F/Sgt J. FRODSHAM, R.A.F.V.R. and F/Sgt C. D. McPHEE, R.A.F., all of whom are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

R.A.F. Chivenor was attacked on 16 April commencing at 03.00 hours.  All three runways were rendered unserviceable, and the Gas Clothing Store suffered serious fire damage.  The airfield was unserviceable for only a short time after this attack, two runways becoming serviceable again late on 17 April.  The main East to West runway was declared serviceable again on 21 April.

On 25 April 1941, a fatal crash occurred involving an aircraft from R.A.F. Chivenor, which for some reason, is not recorded in the Operations Record Book.  Beaufort L.4458 arrived at R.A.F. Chivenor on 15 January 1941, to be allocated to No. 3 (C) O.T.U..  It was being flown by Sgt C. C. N. BAILEY, with his crew of three; plus an Staff WOp/AG.  The aircraft suffered an engine failure and crash-landed at Ash Barton in the parish of Ashford, near Barnstaple, North Devon.  The crew of five survived, but one of the Wireless Operator/Air Gunners, Douglas PROUDMAN, was critically injured.  He died on 27 April 1941, at the North Devon Infirmary in Barnstaple.  F/Sgt PROUDMAN had served previously with No. 248 Squadron, and was an instructor at No. 3 (C) O.T.U..  His body was taken to his home town of Devizes in Wiltshire, where he is buried in Section N.C., Grave 94 of the town’s cemetery. Please see:

27 April 1941 was an important day for several pilots and aircrew, as No. 3 Beaufort and No. 3 Anson course both finished.  No. 5 Beaufort, and No. 5 Anson/Blenheim courses, commenced on the same day.  On 28 April, the date was marked by the loss of another pilot from No. 4 Beaufort course.  Sgt E. MORRISON took off from R.A.F. Chivenor for a solo, night flying, training sortie in Beaufort L.9933.  His aircraft crashed at a location about one mile north of Ash Barton, and two and half miles north-east of Braunton.  Sgt MORRISON, the sole occupant of the aircraft, died instantly. Please see:

On 3 May, the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. MENZIES, and party landed at R.A.F. Chivenor at 10.00 hours, in a civilian Douglas aircraft flown by Commander PARMENTIER.  The Chief Flying Instructor met the party and welcomed them to R.A.F. Chivenor.  They were given light refreshments, and a tour of the camp, before they left for Lisbon at 10.50 hours.

R.A.F. Chivenor was attacked for the third occasion at 01.25 hours on 6 May and lasted about twelve minutes.  It was a fine, fairly bright, moonlit night with cloud cover above 5,000 feet.  One unidentified aircraft, approached R.A.F. Chivenor from the East, circled the airfield at about 2,000 feet, then dived and released a stick of small bombs from approximately south to north in the centre of the airfield.  One aircraft was set alight.  Further enemy aircraft then approached from the West, straddling the aerodrome and two hangers with a stick of bombs from west to east.  Another aircraft flew over the airfield from north to south, and released three large bombs which fell just outside the station on the south side.  The height of the enemy aircraft when they released their bombs were between 1,000 and 2,000 feet.  There were no casualties.  The Air Raid Warning Red was issued at 23.25 hours, and the All Clear given at 02.08 hours.  Six Ansons and one Blenheim were damaged, but none beyond repair.

The station was attacked for the fourth time by enemy aircraft at 01.54 hours on 12 May.  The attack was mounted by only one aircraft, which approached from the North-North-East, at about 3,000 feet, crossed the aerodrome, turned towards the East, circled, and then dived towards the base dropping a stick of twelve bombs, some of which fell into the River Taw.  There were no casualties, and only very slight damage.  The All Clear was sounded at 05.04 hours.

There was another fatal accident on 15 May, with the crash of Anson N.9817 at Barnstaple.  The two pilots, Sgt D. W. ROSE and Sgt J. C. McGUFFIE, died when their Anson crashed at Pilton at 15.00 hours.  In addition, a Mr Sidney PRATT, who was a civilian mending the road was fatally injured. Please see:

17 May was an important day for R.A.F. Chivenor, as Sir Archibald SINCLAIR, the Secretary-of-State for Air, accompanied by his Parliamentary Private Secretary and his Personal Air Secretary visited the Station.  Air Commodore BOYLE, and the Station Commander, G/C SADLER, met the party for a tour and inspection of the base.  The Secretary-of-State and his party left later that day by air.  On 18 May, there was an Air Raid Red message at 04.12 hours, with the All Clear given at 05.33 hours.  Also on this date, No. 272 Squadron lost a pilot and aircraft when Sergeant Reginald Frederick TATNELL, R.A.F.V.R., crashed in Beaufighter Mk. I.C, T.3302.  Twenty-five year-old Sgt TATNELL had served with No. 272 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, and was an experienced Blenheim pilot.  He took off from R.A.F. Chivenor on a night-time, solo training sortie, but shortly afterwards the aircraft dived into the ground near Saunton Lighthouse, killing the pilot. Please see:

On Sunday, 25 May, there was an Air Raid Red warning at 14.23 hours, with the All Clear given at 14.37 hours.  It was on this date that W/C P. D. CRACROFT, A.F.C., assumed command of R.A.F. Chivenor, vice G/C J. A. SADLER.  Although the O.R.B. does not state this, W/C CRACROFT was promoted to the Acting rank of Group Captain with effect from this date.  No. 4 Course Beaufort, and No. 4 Course Anson/Blenheim finished on this date.  On Monday 26 May, No. 6 Course Beaufort and No. 6 Course Anson/Blenheim commenced on this date.

R.A.F. Chivenor, and No. 3 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit suffered another loss on 29 May.  At 07.10 hours that morning, Bristol Beaufort Mk. I, X.8916, flown by Sgt GLYDE, left off from R.A.F. Chivenor to undertake a routine navigational exercise over the sea.  On board were four young men, all members of No. 5 Beaufort Course at the O.T.U..  The aircraft did not return, and nothing was ever heard of the four air crew again.  Simply, they disappeared. Please see:

On 16 June, there was a sad loss with the shooting down of Beaufort L.9809 by a Hawker Hurricane of No. 504 Squadron at Woodend Farm, Shute, in east Devon.  The pilot, Sgt R. E. GALE, the Observer Sgt J. S. WARREN, and WOp/AG, Sgt B. R. HARRINGTON were all killed, with the other WOp/AG Sgt T. SMITH surviving, albeit injured.  A Court of Inquiry was set up at R.A.F. Exeter on 20 June 1941. Please see:

It comes as something of a surprise to read in the unit diary that on 17 June 1941, the Japanese Ambassador to Great Britain, Mr. SHINGENITAN, arrived by air at 10.00 hrs from Lisbon, and left again after a short break.  However, this was still six months before Japan’s entry into the war, and her representatives were apparently still being given the full diplomatic V.I.P. treatment.  On 23 June, No. 7 Course Anson and No. 7 Course Beaufort commenced at No. 3 (C) O.T.U..  The officers who had successfully completed Course No. 5 were posted on this date.

The intention was for No. 3 (C) O.T.U. to move towards training crews for the increasing number of Whitley and Wellington aircraft being introduced by Coastal Command, with a new No. 5 (C) O.T.U. opening at R.A.F. Turnberry in Scotland to train the Beaufort crews.  Delays in the completion of R.A.F. Turnberry led to a change of plan, with No. 3 (C) O.T.U. being redesignated as No. 5 (C) O.T.U. on 1 August 1941, to continue training personnel on the Beauforts, while a new No. 3 (C) O.T.U. opened at R.A.F. Cranwell on 29 July 1941 to train Whitley and Wellington crews for Coastal Command.  No. 3 (C) O.T.U. was actually formed at R.A.F. Silloth, in Cumberland, as detachment from No. 1 (C) O.T.U. that was based there.

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