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Part One - September 1939 - December 1940
P R Myers
The present Wick Airport administered by the Civil
Aviation Authority still retains much of its wartime atmosphere
when it was a strategically important R.A.F. Coastal Command base.
Two of the original three hangars which once housed aeroplanes
such as Hudsons, Whitleys, Fortresses and Liberators, still stand
and are to undergo refurbishment so that they may house a new
generation of civil aircraft which may include helicopters engaged
in transferring personnel to the North Sea oil fields. However the
present level of aircraft movements is only a shadow of the
intense wartime activity when Wick was the home of Coastal Command
General Reconnaissance squadrons, fighter squadrons, a
Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and a Meteorological Squadron.
The R.A.F. base at Wick was originally a grass airfield used by Captain E. E. Fresson's Highland Airways Ltd. (later Scottish Airways Ltd.) from 1933 until 1939 when it was taken over by the Air Ministry and reconstructed with hard runways, hangars, and other buildings. Wick, along with its satellite airfield at Skitten, became one of fourteen airfields extending from Iceland to North Yorkshire administered by No. 18 Group, R.A.F. Coastal Command with its headquarters at Pitreavie, Fife.
An army of three hundred labourers was employed in constructing the airfield which prematurely came into commission with the outbreak of War in September 1939. Until proper accommodation at the airfield could be provided, R.A.F. personnel were billeted in the town at hotels and private houses. The Air Ministry also requisitioned the newly completed North School for use as the airfield's operations centre and the Bignold Hospital for the treatment of the wounded and the sick.
The task allotted to Coastal Command was the protection of the sea lanes surrounding Britain, and the nation's lifelines for virtually every commodity across the Atlantic Ocean. This immense task was to continue every day and night until well after the end of the War in 1945. Coastal Command had already been fully mobilised a fortnight before the beginning of hostilities and on the day War was declared, many patrols were airborne covering the North Sea, the Channel and the Western Approaches.
The first R.A.F. Squadron to be based at Wick, and indeed to enjoy the longest association with the aerodrome, was No. 269 Sqn. of Coastal Command. In October 1939, No. 269's Avro Ansons moved from Montrose to Wick to begin General Reconnaissance patrols over both the Atlantic and the North Sea. The slow, but reliable and manoeuvrable Anson was the backbone of Coastal Command in its early years and was affectionately known as "Faithful Annie" by its crews. The crews of Wick's Ansons soon became well known to the isolated lighthouse keepers in the Orkneys. Newspapers and magazines were dropped to the grateful recipients who expressed their gratitude by waving their arms or displaying a large sheet with "Thank you" written on it.
The monotonous patrolling of our northern waters by the Ansons brought the occasional chance to hit back at the enemy. In 1jovember, two U-boats were attacked while a month later, on 8th December 1939, at 9.30 a.m., far to the North-West of Cape Wrath, a 269 Sqn. Anson spotted a U-boat on the surface and dropped two bombs on it. The first fell a yard to starboard of the conning-tower, the second into the swirl of air and water caused by the submarine crash diving. After a short interval the U-boat came to the surface and her bows rose at an angle which grew steeper and steeper until its hull was almost vertical. Then the submarine sank stern first and was considered to be a total loss.
During November/December 1939, a detachment of Handley Page Hampdens from Bomber Command's No. 50 Sqn. was based at Wick for operations with No.19 Group. These aircraft formed part of a force of 48 Hampdens which mounted what was to have been the biggest air strike of the War so far, against the German pocket battleship "Deutschland" which had been reported heading south of Stavanger. A search for their quarry proved fruitless and owing to navigational errors, the Hampden force thought they had over- shot the North coast of Scotland and were heading for a watery grave in the Atlantic. With fuel running low, the Hampdens finally landed at Montrose after an absence of ten hours from base.
In September 1939 the Royal Navy anchorage at Scapa Flow was lamentably ill protected to resist air attack. Although there was the Royal Naval Air Station at Hatston near Kirkwall, air cover from the Fleet Air Arm could only be provided when the Home Fleet was in. No provision had been made for immediate R.A.F. participation in the defence, and the shore Radar station, although operative, was not wholly effective. It was planned to base two R.A.F. fighter squadrons at Wick but in the aftermath of the dramatic sinking of the battleship "Royal Oak" on 21st October 1939, this number was increased to four squadrons. The first three fighter squadrons, Nos. 43, 111 and 504, all equipped with Hawker Hurricanes, arrived in February, 1940, although it was not until the Spring that it was considered safe to allow the return of the capital ships of the Home Fleet while in the meantime Scapa Flow was used as a destroyer refuelling base.
Early Luftwaffe attacks had been concentrated upon shipping off the North coast of Scotland and an early victim of these attacks was the s.s. "Giralda" of Leith which was bombed and sunk three miles south-east of Grimness, South Ronaldsay on 30th January 1940. A more fortunate ship to survive aerial bombs and machine-gun fire was the valiant 1,211 tons coastal cargo liner "Northern Coast" which was hit several times on 20th March but retaliated with her Lewis guns and succeeded in damaging one of the German bombers which was finished off by a Hurricane scrambled from Wick. The badly crippled coaster was reduced to a mere crawl but Capt. Quirk laid a course for Kirkwall some thirty miles away. A Hurricane escorted the stricken "Northern Coast" as her brave crew pumped gallons of water into the blazing holds. The haven of Kirkwall Bay was reached where Capt. Quirk received a heartening message from R.A.F. Wick: "Hearty congratulations on your courageous fight. Shout if you want us again."
By January 1940, No. 269 Sqn. was flying 150 patrol sorties a month and in February the Squadron made six attacks on U-boats, one being claimed as probably destroyed. The intensity of enemy activity is measured by the fact that patrol sorties by 269 Sqn. rose to 200 in March, a month which also saw the arrival of the first Lockheed Hudson for the Squadron and which first went on operation on 21st April. The Anson was already considered obsolescent for G.R. duties in Coastal Command and was steadily being replaced by the American built Hudson which had first entered R.A.F. service in May 1939. Throughout the War the versatile Hudson was to perform a whole variety of roles and became the Coastal Command aircraft most closely associated with Wick in the early years of the War. A vivid personal impression of a fighter pilot's life at Wick during this period is given in Group Captain Peter Townsend's autobiography "Time and Chance". He was then a flight commander with No. 43 Sqn. and recalls how the fighter pilots "stood guard throughout the long northern days and, during the bitter cold of the night, slept briefly, fitfully, under rough blankets and newspapers. Not that the hard lying was a bad thing - it made it easier to go out, face the weather and the enemy and, if need be, die".
The wooden huts offered only primitive comfort and outside the frequent storms dragged the aircraft from their pickets. Townsend describes the unbearable tension the pilots suffered as they sat in their cockpits waiting to be scrambled: "When at last the code word 'SCRAMBLE' unleashed us, we surged forward, throttle wide open, tails up like baying hounds. Only a kill could satisfy our lust for the chase." Townsend saw himself as "an agent of death" and there was plenty of prey for the Hurricane pilots of No. 43 Sqn. The day before the German invasion of Denmark and Norway, saw two Luftwaffe attacks mounted on Scapa Flow on 8th April, 1940. Hurricanes from No. 43 Sqn. were alerted and intercepted the raiders, shooting down three Heinkel He111s and damaging two others, one of which landed at Wick. The latter Heinkel had been badly damaged by anti-aircraft fire over Scapa Flow and with its fuel tanks leaking, had little chance of returning to its base in northern Germany without having to ditch in the North Sea. It was intercepted by two Hurricanes to whom the German pilot surrendered before landing his damaged bomber at Wick. Tight security surrounded the Heinkel's capture since the Luftwaffe should not learn of the seizure of the bomber's code-books which were recovered intact and could be used to intercept enemy signals. Of the four crew, two were killed and were buried in Wick cemetery while the two uninjured men were kept overnight in the cells of Wick police station before being transferred south. It is not known whether this Heinkel was evaluated by the Royal Aircraft Establishment which already possessed an airworthy Heinkel He111H which had been repaired after crash landing near Berwick in February 1940.
Three days after the German seaborne invasion of Norway, a Wellington Mk.1 bomber on loan to No. 18 Group from No. 75 (New Zealand) Sqn. took off from Wick on 12th April 1940 on a long range reconnaissance flight beyond the Arctic Circle to the German occupied port of Narvik, where two days previously, British destroyers had fought German destroyers in the first naval battle of Narvik. Poor visibility, strong gusts of wind, compass error, and an entanglement with a Junkers Ju.88 hampered the mission; but expert navigation enabled the aircraft and its exhausted crew to return safely to Wick after a flight lasting fourteen and a half hours This was the longest operational flight made by a Wellington up to that date.
The onset of the Norwegian campaign saw No. 269 Sqn.'s Hudsons in the thick of the action. They attacked shipping and U-boats in the fjords and bombed Stavanger airfield in May with the loss of one aircraft. On 11th June, twelve of the Squadron's Hudsons attacked the "Scharnhorst" in Trondhjem Fjord. They carried out a pattern bombing attack from 15,000 feet, dropping 36 250lb. armour-piercing bombs. The "Scharnhorst" was probably missed but two cruisers and a supply ship received direct hits. Two Hudsons were lost, one to anti-aircraft fire and the other to an enemy fighter.
In that same month a detachment of Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bombers from No. 42 Sqn, arrived at Wick for operations against the German Navy. On 21st June nine Beauforts from Wick, loaded with armour-piercing bombs rather than torpedoes, attacked the "Scharnhorst" at Trondhjem. Flying in a crescent formation, they dive-bombed the battle-cruiser, scoring three hits which forced the "Scharnhorst" to retire to Keil for repairs where she remained out of action for the rest of the year. The Beauforts did not get off lightly; three were shot down by Bf.109s while the rest got back safely to Wick.
With the impending fall of France, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding withdrew his precious fighter squadrons back to Britain which was against both the wishes of the French and Prime Minister Churchill. After only ten days in France, No. 3 Hurricane Squadron was transferred to Wick in May 1940. On Eagle Day, 13th August, which marked the beginning of the German offensive against Britain, No. 3 Sqn. under the command of Squadron Leader S. F. Godden, formed part of the Wick Sector Station's strength which also included No. 504 Hurricane Squadron at Castletown and No. 232 Hurricane Squadron at Sumburgh (on half-squadron basis only).
As the Battle of Britain raged above southern England, the defences of Britain were prepared for an imminent German invasion. An inspection of the island stronghold's defences was made by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke during the critical month of August. On 27th August, Brooke arrived by air at Wick where he inspected the airfield's defences and the local beaches at Reiss. Visits were also paid to Skitten airfield, to Thurso and its neighbouring beaches; and then on to Castletown airfield before flying back to Evanton near Invergordon.
In spite of its comparative remoteness from the Blitz, Wick was not entirely immune from the attentions of the Luftwaffe. On 26th October 1940, three Heinkel He111s made a surprise raid on the airfield and on the town itself. High explosive bombs were dropped on or near the airfield and one Hudson was set ablaze. Despite the bombing and machine-gun strafing, the casualty list was mercifully low with three civilians being unfortunately killed and eleven others escaped with minor injuries.
Following their attack upon the "Scharnhorst", the Beauforts of No. 42 Sqn. were grounded owing to engine problems and it was not until August that operations were resumed with mining sorties. However there was no let-up for the Hudsons of No. 269 Sqn. and in July 1940, Pilot Officer Weightman destroyed a U-boat on the 21st. Two days later, four combats were fought with Dornier Dol8 flying-boats, one being shot down. In August, one of the three U-boats attacked was destroyed; the pressure kept up with 204 sorties being flown in September. Bad weather was Coastal Command's most persistent enemy and this reduced No. 269 Sqn.'s operations in October and November. Tribute must be paid to the tireless work of the groundcrews who kept Wick's aircraft airworthy. Most of the maintenance work was carried out in the open and aircraft were only brought into the hangars for major repairs.
The closing days of 1940 saw the Wick Coastal Command squadrons on the offensive again, this time on an operation which required special pin-point bombing accuracy and which brought acclaim for the pathfinding ability of Squadron Leader Richard A. McMurtrie, D.S.O., D.F.C., who was C.O. of No. 269 Sqn. from August 1940 until July 1941, when the squadron moved to Iceland. The target was the well known sports centre of Finse in Norway which consisted of an hotel, a few mountain chalets, and a railway station. Allied Intelligence had learned that the hotel contained a large number of German officers and Norwegian quislings who were enjoying a ski-ing holiday. The two objectives were to destroy the ski-resort's railway link with Havgastol and to cause as many casualties among the Germans and Norwegian traitors as possible. As part of their briefing, the crews were shown a pre-war travel film which showed the nature and appearance of the target. Three attacks were made on 18th, 20th and 22nd December, 1940. The first raid was mounted by Lockheed Hudsons and despite heavy cloud over sea and land, McMurtrie successfully located and attacked Finse, flying up and down above the target with his navigation lights on, in order to show the way to the rest. Unfortunately several of the crews lost contact and had to abort their mission. McMurtrie led the two following raids in which Bristol Beauforts scored direct hits on the snow sheds and the railway line on the 18th, while in the third attack of the 22nd, the hotel was hit. It was later discovered that two mechanical snow- ploughs had been destroyed in the railway station and that the line was blocked for many weeks. Squadron Leader McMurtrie was awarded the D.F.C. for his exploit and later earned a D.S.O. when he had attained the rank of Wing Commander. McMurtrie finished the War with 76 operational flights to his credit.
|This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin October 1982|