Monday, 9 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 1

Airco DH9
Six weeks before and fifty miles to the south of where the dying Elsie Inglis landed at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, No. 107 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed at Catterick airfield. Although not supplied with aircraft until May of 1918, by which time the RFC had become the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Airco DH.9s of the squadron were busy as day bombers attacking enemy airfields, railways and, spectacularly in July, a large ammunition dump west of Reims. In 1919, the squadron was disbanded, but it reformed in 1936 as a light bomber squadron.
When the Second World War broke out, 107 Squadron was immediately involved, undertaking the RAFs first raid of the hostilities when four Blenheim bombers of the unit attacked German shipping in Wilhelmshaven on September 4th. The raid was not a success, with three of the planes shot down and one returning without being able to drop its bombs. The squadron also provided the first British prisoner of war when Sergeant George Booth’s plane was shot down on the same day.
In 1942, the faster, sturdier Boston’s replaced the Blenheim bombers and the squadron went on several daring missions over occupied Europe, including bombing shore batteries in support of the failed Dieppe Raid in August. On December 6, twelve Bostons of 107 Squadron took part in Operation Oyster.
The huge Philips Radio Works in the occupied Netherlands was supplying sophisticated radio and radar parts for much of the German army. Putting it out of commission would be a major blow to the Germans, but it would be a difficult task. The Philips works were a large target, but the two factories were in the middle of the city of Eindhoven. To ensure accuracy and minimize civilian casualties, the plan was to launch a low-level daylight raid using 93 aircraft of various types (36 Bostons, 47 Lockheed Venturas and 10 of the new Mosquitos).
Boston bombers on Operation Oyster
RAF cameramen on the raid produced stunning footage of the aircraft flashing over the north sea and the Dutch countryside at less than 50 feet, being fired at and firing on the anti-aircraft guns on top of the Philips complex, and of bombs exploding in the factories.
The first hazards of the raid were from panicked birds which rose in flocks at the sound of the low-flying planes and several aircraft returned with the remains of gulls, ducks and, in one case, a heron smeared over them. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, the planes precision-bombed their target at 12:30, leaving many of the factory buildings in ruins under the thick cloud of smoke from the many fires.
Turning for home, the bombers had to run the gauntlet of the Focke-Wulf FW190 fighters that had been scrambled from nearby Schipol airfield. Pilot Officer Jack Peppiatt dramatically described what it was like: “…we were all down hugging the ground for comfort…as FW190s appeared…10 or 20 aircraft were screaming along, full throttle in a loose mass; no one wanted to be at the back where the Focke-Wulfs were coming in to attack and wheeling away for another go… I distinctly saw cannon shells hitting plowed fields in front of me…at one point a fighter slid past us and just sat to my right as he slowed—so close I could stare at the pilot…I was sliding and diving constantly. The astonishing thing was that we didn’t collide, as aircraft constantly criss-crossed in front of each other.”
Wing Commander Dutton
The raid was a success and the Philips factory did not resume full production until six months later. Because of the low level of the attack (between 1,000 and 1,500 feet), the bombing was for the most part very accurate; however, several bombs fell short, killing over a hundred civilians. Of the 93 aircraft involved, 13 failed to return. No. 107 Squadron lost three Bostons to Focke-Wulfs on the return trip. The last to be shot down was aircraft AH740, which crashed at 12:59 three miles off the Dutch coast killing all four crew. Their bodies were never found. 
AH740 was piloted by the Squadron Commander, Peter Hiley Dutton. He was twenty-nine-years old and left a young wife, Marjorie, and two infant daughters, Jane and Felicity. Marjorie and her girls spent the rest of the war in rural Scotland with her older sister, Eveleen Victoria Marguerite Wilson, my mother.

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