627 Squadron in retirement









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At First Sight

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At First Sight
A View From The Ground  - Leonard E. Blake 'A' Flight

The harvest had long since been taken from the fields which surrounded the airfield at Wymeswold and the delightful rolling Leicestershire countryside was taking upon itself the mantle of late autumn and early winter. It was 1943 and I seemed to have been at Wymeswold for the whole of my service life. I had become part and parcel of the Operational Training Unit which was based at this airfield. Our aircraft were Wellington Ic’s with the Pegasus engine and I was completely at home with the nine cylinder radial. I had started my turn at Wymeswold in the Engine Repair Shop and was now working on the dispersal points of 'B' Flight in a trouble shooting role.

I think most of us felt that we were at Wymeswold "for the duration", so much so that a collection of about six of we airframe and engine fitter NCOs were planning a Christmas celebration at the home of one of our number who was fortunate enough to be stationed only a few miles from his home where he and his wife lived.

Surely the form I had filled in only some few weeks before posed no threat to our eagerly awaited festivities? On several occasions previously I had filled in these questionnaires which asked for details of aircraft and engines on which one had worked in the past. "just another piece of Air Force paper" I thought. Paper was a commodity of which there seemed to be an abundance in the Air Force.

When the form was handed to me I filled in the details honestly and fully which meant that, amongst others, I made an entry which covered my time with 264 Squadron and their night fighter version Mosquitoes.

December moved on with the prospect of spending Christmas Day in a real civilian home beckoning even more strongly with each succeeding day.

Then it happened! I was instructed to do the rounds of the station with a Clearance Chit and then to make my way to Oakington in Cambridgeshire to join 627 Squadron. One learned quickly in the Air Force that one’s home was one’s few personal possessions and that the station on which one resided this week would not necessarily be one’s base for the ensuing week.

On December 23rd I took my first meal in the Mess Hall at Oakington, the decorations around the walls failing to engender any festive spirit in me whatsoever. I now had to go through the somewhat tedious process of settling into my new unit, when, as I reflected, I had been so useful with the Pegasus engine!

At 627 Squadron I found a much more urgent and brisk atmosphere than at our some-what more leisurely Operational Training Unit. No nonsense about settling in. I could forget that.

Serviceability was everything and an aircraft which was not available for the Battle Order of that night was of little use to anyone.

Hardly noticing the difference I slipped into the new routine. I suppose the one thing that struck me most forcibly was that, when ground running a Merlin XXI in a Mosquito one had to have a firm grip on the aircraft, whereas the dear old Wellington lc would sit quite passively against its chocks almost like some friendly old carthorse.

Serving with 627 Squadron gave one the feeling of participating fully in the war effort. It was stimulating to see the high explosive bombs winched up into the bomb bays by the armourers afternoon by afternoon, and to realise that this explosive material would be delivered that night to it destination, where, all being well, it would do its bit to bring the war to an end sooner rather than later.

Winter gave way to softer weather, and with the aid of my bicycle I could not only take a look at the city of Cambridge, but by leaving the cycle at Cambridge station I could get home for a precious week-end.

By mid-April 1944 another swift change of location took place. The squadron was ordered to Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire. There followed hurried packing of personal gear and squadron gear. On the day of departure I found, to my horror that there was no provision for the transportation of a privately owned bicycle. The fates were with me. I found a very helpful driver of a ‘’Queen Mary" who agreed that I could tie my bicycle to his already laden vehicle. My spirits took a great upward leap in Grantham when I saw from the back of the truck in which I was travelling, my faithful friend still securely fixed and safely making its way to its destination of Woodhall Spa.

If Oakington was situated in flat country, then RAF Woodhall Spa was in countryside that closely resembled a Billiards Table. I took every opportunity to explore the area meticulously and from this exploration there came a great liking for this flat countryside; in no small measure because there were some excellent churches to visit. St. Botolph’s (Boston Stump) and Lincoln Cathedral both being within easy cycling distance.

The squadron settled into its new airfield and new dispersal points and I am sure that most members of the ground staff were expecting a situation very much of “business as before”.

Quite obviously, the reason for our change of airfield had not been communicated to the ground crews. Imagine the surprise with which we saw tiny practise bombs loaded onto our Mosquitoes. Mosquitoes which only a few days previously had been unloading a nightly delivery of high explosive upon the enemy.

Day by day we went through the routine of preparing the aircraft for practise bombing, all the time feeling mystified as to the reason why this strange daily routine was enacted.

Sometimes an aircraft would return with a practise bomb still on board and I recall one instance when one of these ‘‘hang-ups" dropped to the ground as the bomb doors were opened. The bomb exploded sending tiny fragments of metal upwards to puncture the portside radiator. Radiators on a Mosquito were, of course, situated in the mainplanes between fuselage and engine.

Maximum serviceability was still the watchword, so, abandoning my mid-day meal, I set to work on the fitting of a replacement radiator. Because of the location of the radiators the appropriate mainplane must be jacked to relieve the load on the securing bolts. The job was duly completed, but the daylight was starting to fade by the time the aircraft was service-able once more.

With all our frustration with practise bombing we should have realised that bigger things were afoot. Indeed they were. One afternoon we saw some strange things being loaded by the armourers; 627 Squadron was going into battle that night.

A very wise Squadron Commander called a meeting of ground crews the very next after-noon. He told us that he appreciated our frustration, but that we were destined for a more important role than a nightly delivery of explosives. We were to mark for the Pathfinders and low level target identification and marking at that!

He described to us the operation of the previous night which was against an aircraft factory. He described the action of ensuring that the desired target had been pinpointed, followed by the release of incendiary markers. Then he said the following words which moved me considerably at the time and which never fail to stir my imagination even after a period of 46 years. He said "We flew past the hanger doors to see that our markers were burning nicely’’ No further comment of mine is necessary.

The Battle Orders then came thick and fast. We NCOs became eligible for night flying duties on average one night in four. I still recall the tension which built up as the time drew near for starting the aircraft. I remember the deployment of the limited number of aircraftmen. They would hurry from aircraft to aircraft in order that the correct sequence of start-ups be achieved.

Before the starting up of the Mosquitoes I would listen to a chorus of aircraft noise stemming from the four-engined aircraft which took off from the many airfields which surrounded Woodhall Spa. This sound, just as the words of the Squadron Commander, will never be forgotten.

June 6th 1944, D Day saw the ground crews in a bout of feverish activity. The invasion markings had to be applied to the wings and fuselages of all our aircraft before June (ithcarrie to an end. By some miraculous means a seemingly never ending supply of paintbrushes appeared together with quantities of dope. Officers, NCOs and Airmen all worked together, and by the end of the day the job was complete.

Following the Allied invasion of Europe there was no respite, 627 Squadron operated most nights and some days into the winter of 1944/5. Christmas 1944 came with the squadron on stand—by for an operation in Northern France. However, thick fog restricted any air-craft movement. Confined to camp so that the operation could be mounted at short notice, the ground crews could do little but wait. On Christmas Day 1944 I walked to the Domestic Site for the Christmas lunch with my colleague, the compiler of this volume, through one of the thickest fogs I have ever seen. Hoarfrost was everywhere; flying was impossible.

Up until May 1945 I had, like other members  of the ground crews, found my time fully occupied, However, the scent of victory in Europe was in the air and there was another war in the Far East still to be won. To this end there was much training of men for this Far Eastern conflict; personnel whose release group number was high enough for them to have little chance of early demobilisation. I was attending one of these General Service Training Courses as they were known when the European war ended. The course over, I returned to Woodhall Spa feeling incredibly fit, but totally unprepared for the sense of anti—climax which I was to experience on my return to my unit.

The raison d’etre of these handsome Mosquito aircraft no longer existed. I felt deflated after the bustling and busy days of wartime operations. Worse was to come.

I did not have to wait long before the call came to take a fortnight’s embarkation leave prior to setting off to join “Tiger Force" [the name given to the Air Force which was to go to the Far East]. Whilst on leave the news was given of the dropping of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs with all that this was to mean.

The appointed day came for my departure to the Transit Centre at West Kirby on the Wirral Peninsula. I remember departing from Paddington on a Birkenhead train wondering whether I should. in fact, depart for the Far East and if so, how long before I saw England again.

By afternoon I found myself at West Kirby. A station which, just then, gave the appearance of bursting at the seams. Airmen everywhere. On each available area of grass, tents were pitched. As for obtaining meals in the mess it was almost a case of getting into the queue for the next meal soon after the previous one had been consumed. I reflected to myself that the troopship would be uncomfortably crowded to say the least.

Several days were spent parading, answering one’s name in endless roll calls and rehears-ing the order in which we were to board the troopship, which was, presumably, waiting in the docks at Liverpool. All were activities which did little to inspire one or raise0ne’s morale.

Always there was, in the background, the news from the Far Eastern theatre of war. I told myself that to send this force to the other side of the world would, in the light of Japan’s imminent capitulation, be nothing short of ridiculous, but still the marching and roll-calling went on.

It was in one of those periods when we were given a short break for a cigarette that I overheard a conversation between two of the NCOs who were in charge of the marching and roll-calling, to the effect that "Tiger Force" was cancelled. To my mind, this sort of information came under the heading of the Air Force slang: "Duff Gen". No doubt though, one could hope.

Thankfully, not many hours elapsed before we were paraded once more and an official announcement was made. ‘’Tiger Force" was indeed cancelled and we were to return to the units from whence we had come.

I like to think that, whilst serving with 627 Squadron at Woodhall Spa and before that. At Oakington, I had been, to use another piece of Air Force slang, a “Gen Man". I felt that I was at one with the Mosquito and could tackle any job. just as I had been so long ago when working on the beloved Wellington 1c with its Pegasus nine cylinder radial engines. What a shock! What a feeling of being useless! No toolkit, no need for my services. I was an embarrassment now, not a "Gen Man".

lf you have an embarrassment in the shape oaf now redundant ‘‘Gen Man" it is an excellent idea to send him on leave. At least he will be out of sight for a while. This is precisely what happened. So, back to my home in Oxfordshire, glad that I no longer had to haunt a dispersal point where I was of no further use.

Irony of ironies! Iliad hardly got into my civilian clothes when there was a telephone call from the local Police. I was told that I must return to my unit immediately.

It was Saturday evening when the bus from Boston dropped me at the guardroom of RAF Woodhall Spa. I was allocated a bed and ordered to report at quite an early hour on Sunday morning at the Sick Bay for a medical examination prior to posting overseas.

To my mind, there is no more depressing sight than an RAF station on a Sunday morning in peacetime and an even more depressing sight was waiting for me inside the Sick Bay. Seated at a table dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown was a disinterested and half—asleep medical officer. He enquired of me if I felt well. On receiving my answer in the affirmative he muttered "Fit for overseas”.

I was hustled to a waiting crew bus where, with about half a dozen others we moved off towards the railway station at Boston on the first stage of a journey which was to end in the Azores on the island of Terceira. The links with 627 Squadron and Woodhall Spa had finally been broken; a new chapter was about to begin.

There is a postscript, however. In the Bomber Command section of Hendon Museum there is a bomber version Mosquito. There was a scat nearby when I visited and hardly another living soul in that section. I sat down for some long time feasting my eyes on the gorgeous little aircraft recalling my time with 627 Squadron, remembering the names of colleagues of the dispersal point. Doubtless, for some, the call has come to serve on the air-field in the sky, and for whom 627 Squadron is no longer even a memory.

As I sat, forming pictures in my mind I recalled a question put to me by my then Commanding Officer at my interview prior to demobilisation. He asked for my impression of the Air Force in as few words as possible. My reply was "I would not have missed it for anything’’ I am most grateful that my time in the service included a period of some nineteen months with 627 Squadron.

Servicing - 'A' Flight Oakington March 1944 'C' DZ632, one of the early Cookie carriers. This was one of the modified Mosquitoes handed over to 139 Squadron the day 627 moved to Woodhall Spa, where we had no need for 4000lb bomb carrying capacity

Photograph: Brian Harris Collection

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited