Wednesday, 18 July 2007

RAF Tempsford Summer Reunion 2007

I was privileged to receive an invitation to attend the RAF Tempsford Summer Reunion on Saturday 14th July. The reunion was held at Tempsford airfield which is on private land owned by the Erroll Estate and is not normally open to the public. Reunions are held twice a year (in the summer and on Remembrance Sunday) and entry is restricted to veterans and relatives of those who served at Tempsford in World War II. I have a close connection with Tempsford as my uncle, Gerald Herbert Cruwys, was a navigator in the RAF and served with both 138 and 161 Squadrons at Tempsford. RAF Tempsford was the centre of the Resistance and SOE operations during the war. 138 and 161 Squadrons were known as the 'moonlight' or 'cloak and dagger' squadrons because of the clandestine nature of their work which was always carried out in the five or so days either side of the full moon. The work was so secret that the villagers knew nothing of what was going on until after the war was over. Everyone working at the base had to sign the Official Secrets Act and they were forbidden to discuss their work with family and friends. Gerry was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palme, but the reason for the award was kept secret at the time and it was only after the war, when my grandparents went to the French Embassy to collect the medal on Gerry's behalf, that they learned he was being honoured for his work with the Resistance.

Gerry joined 138 Squadron at Tempsford on 28th November 1941. 138 Squadron was responsible for dropping and picking up agents, supplies, leaflets and equipment in occupied Europe. He transferred to 161 Squadron on 8th March 1942. 161 Squadron performed similar duties to 138 Squadron and was formed from a nucleus of personnel who had already gained experience with 138 Squadron.

I am very fortunate that Bob Body in Crete has kindly sent me digital copies of all of Gerry's ops with 161 Squadron from the ops books, the battle order books and the pilots' debriefing notes. From these I have now learnt that Gerry completed a full tour of duty with 161 Squadron flying ops mostly over France, but also in Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Gibraltar. A tour normally consists of 30 missions, but Gerry's name is included in 33 missions. The records are however incomplete and in some cases the missions were possibly cancelled at the last minute which could account for the discrepancy. Gerry flew on the despatch missions, dropping passengers and supplies in occupied Europe. From June 1942 the Squadron also embarked on a number of bombing ventures. When Gerry first transferred to 161 Squadron all his ops were carried out in Whitleys, but from December 1942 they flew in a Halifax V.

The records provide a fascinating insight into the nature of the work and the dangers involved. Gerry must have had exceptional navigational skills to enable the pilot to reach his target and drop the passengers and equipment in a remote field with only the moonlight to guide them. The reception party usually consisted of nothing more than three people shining torches, and signalling a pre-arranged letter in Morse code. Sometimes there was only one person to greet them. On one mission on the night of 27th/28th August 1942 Gerry was the navigator on a Whitley captained by Wing Commander Edward 'Mouse' Fielden, the former royal pilot, who later that year took command of Tempsford. The mission was a combination of two operations - Turquoise and Syringa XIV. Fielden reported afterwards that there were no reception lights but "there was a man flashing a small white torch". The unnamed passenger "jumped when told" and was "quite happy".

Sometimes the records raise intriguing questions. Gerry was the navigator on a Whitley flown by Pilot Officer Wynne on Operation Lucky Shot 7 combined with Operation Secundo on the night of 24th/25th September 1942. This is the night when Lise de Baissac and Andrée Borrel became the first two female agents to be dropped into occupied France. There were however four planes which took off from Tempsford that night, and I have not been able to establish in which planes they flew.

The photograph below of Gerry and the other members of his Halifax V crew was probably taken in around January 1943. The picture shows Pilot Officer Gerry Cruwys, observer (top left), Pilot Officer Herbert Lloyd Wynne, Captain (top centre), Pilot Officer Thomas William Challoner, Rear Gunner (top right), Sergeant Shearer, Wireless Operator (bottom left) and Sergeant Thomas Bell Colwell, Flight Engineer (bottom right).

Sergeant Hugh Shearer was one of two Tempsford men from 161 Squadron who died on 15th March 1943 on Operation Director 34. Their Halifax, piloted by Flying Officer G A Osborn, was on its way to France when the engine failed. The plane crashed at Fawley, Buckinghamshire, and the wreckage caught fire. Osborn miraculously survived and managed to pull four of his injured crewmates off the plane. Shearer and the seventh crew member, Sergeant Barrie Lincoln Crane, could not be saved. Osborn was subsequently awarded the George Medal for his gallantry. Shearer is buried at Falmouth Cemetery in Cornwall.

Wynne, Challoner and Colwell were killed on the night of 19th/20th March 1943. They were flying in a Halifax on Operation Vega 3 to Norway. The plane did not return, and the crew were all lost without a trace. Their names are recorded on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede which commemorates those airmen who died in World War II who have no known grave.

Gerry left Tempsford at the end of January 1943 and was sent to the Officers' Training Unit at Honeybourne in Worcestershire. He would no doubt have heard the news of the loss of his crewmates and this is perhaps the reason why, rather than return to Tempsford, he transferred to Bomber Command where he joined the elite Pathfinder Force, serving firstly with 97 Squadron at Bourn in Cambridgeshire and then with the newly formed 635 Squadron at Downham Market in Norfolk. He sadly died at the age of 22 on the night of 20th/21st April 1944 when his Lancaster was shot down over Belgium by a German nightfighter. I have written a brief biography of Gerry's life for Jennie Gray's 97 Squadron website which can be seen here.

Gerry was very much in my thoughts on Saturday during the visit to Tempsford. I was unable to persuade any of my family to attend, but fortunately Derek and Daphne Eliot came to my rescue, giving me a lift there and back, and making me feel very much at home. Derek was only eight years old when his father, Sergeant Eric Marshall Eliot, an air gunner, was killed on an operation in Holland on the night of 5th/6th July 1944. The pilot on this mission was Flight Lieutenant John Watherston (Ian) Menzies. His nephew, Bob Body, has written a book ''Taking the Wings of the Morning" about the final flight of the Hudson FK790 in which they were flying, and the dramatic story of the recovery of the wreckage. Further details are provided on Bob's website.

When we arrived at Tempsford we headed for the memorial barn (pictured below), which has become the focal point of the reunions. Tempsford airfield was built on land belonging to Gibraltar Farm, which was requisitioned by the RAF during the war. The barn was one of the original farm buildings and was used as a storage room for the agents' equipment and supplies. The agents gathered here on moonlit nights before their missions, and the planes would taxi up to the barn to collect their passengers. Most of the farm buildings have long since been demolished but the barn has been lovingly restored and today stands in lonely isolation among the corn fields as a proud monument to all the Tempsford men and women who lost their lives during the war.Inside the barn the shelves are no longer filled with parachutes, poison pills and other paraphernalia. Instead the barn has become a repository for an informal collection of newspaper cuttings and other memorabilia left by visitors over the years. Poignantly the paper poppy wreaths from last year's Remembrance Service are still on display. The following plaque is displayed on the wall:Edwin Bryce, the organiser of the reunion, had advised us all to bring along our cameras for a surprise. We were not disappointed as we were treated to a flying display by a Lysander, the only airworthy Lysander left in the world, which is part of the Shuttleworth Collection at the nearby Old Warden Airfield. Unfortunately my attempts at capturing the plane on film were not particularly successful as can be seen below.After the display we had the chance to look round the makeshift museum near the main entrance. The museum has an interesting collection of newspaper cuttings, photographs, plans and models. Unfortunately, it is housed in a somewhat dilapidated building and, being on private land, there are very few opportunities for members of the public to visit. I hope that one day a more permanent and easily accessible home might be found for the collection. We then drove back to Tempsford village for a brief but moving service at St Peter's Church, which was followed by lunch at The Wheatsheaf, where I had the opportunity to get to know Derek's sister Fay and brother-in-law Peter. I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of 161 veteran Tommy Thompson, who regaled us with some remarkable stories of his wartime exploits. Tommy was an air gunner on the mail pick-up operations. During his time at Tempsford he flew on Lysanders, Hudsons and Halifaxes. For the mail pick-ups the Lysanders would hover dangerously about thirty feet off the ground. Tommy had a bamboo cane with a hook on it with which he had to snare the mail bags. It was also a privilege to meet a remarkable lady called Yvonne, who worked for the Resistance in France and was responsible for identifying suitable terrains for the moonlight landings.

After lunch the group dispersed and we all made our way home. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to be present on such a special day.

5 comments:

Steve Harris said...

Debbie,
So pleased you could come on the 14th July and experience a little of the "Tempsford spirit" Although you might not have managed to get the Lysander on film, I did and all the photos I took on the day are now on the Tempsford Airfield website at www.tempsford.20m.com/2007summer.html
Regards, Steve Harris

Anonymous said...

Hi

I am researching my late uncle's service in the RAF, he was part of 161 Squadron. He was killed on 19 March 1943 on Operation Vega 3.

I came across your Tempsford reunion site and was intrigued by the photo, and particluarly the unnamed wireless operator. I am fairly certain he is my late uncle Sgt James C Insole.

I've been to RAF Hendon and obatined a copy of his log book, and soon off to Kew and the National Archives.. Any information on Vega 3?

Rgdd

Keith Insole

Debbie Kennett said...

Hi Keith

The wireless operator in my photo is in fact Sgt Shearer. The only information I have on Operation Vega is from Freddie Clark's book Agents by Moonlight (page 143) in which he says: "This night [19th/20th March 1943] a 161 Squadron Halifax DG244 piloted by F/O H L Wynne DFM was flying an SIS Operation VEGA 3 to Norway. Tragically he and his crew were lost without trace."

My uncle apparently told his family a story that he was due to go on an operation and had to pull out at the last minute because of illness. On that night some of his regular flying mates were killed which rather spooked him. I think this might have been the operation he had in mind.

I don't have any references to James Insole in my files. Have you been in touch with Bob Body? He has photographed all the 161 ops books at TNA. If you e-mail me via the link on my blog I'll pass on his e-mail address or you can contact Bob via his website:

http://www.tempsford-squadrons.info

Jill Humphreys said...

Hi Debbie

Was just looking through some details and found your site..My uncle features on the photograph of 161 Squadron members Pilot Officer Thomas William Challoner..I have the exact same photograph. My family have never known the exact cause of his disappearance that night and your site has given me so much information..his last sister..my dear mother died a year ago..and I have been clearing out the original family home whereby many of his belongings are..It is a very emotional finding on your site to see him in full uniform along with the other members of 161 who were sadly killed that night..

I thank you for your information provided and although we have never had a grave to commemorate his life Runnymede was visited by his mother my grandmother Mrs Lucy Challoner and my mother often..his death caused my grandfather much pain and he died of a broken heart..my grandmother lived till she was 92 and his eldest sister my mother peggy lived to 96 still living in the original house where her and Thomas were brought up..I now reside in this house..which is full of pictures and memories of my dear uncle Thomas..

Thanks for the details..

Yours sincerely

Jill Humphreys

Debbie Kennett said...

Jill, Thank you so much for getting in touch. I have much more information than I've published on my blog. Do contact me by e-mail so that I can share some of it with you. The crew do have a gravestone in Heverlee in Belgium which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I have some photos. The village in Belgium where the crew's plane crashed have made a special film for the 70th anniversary and would like relatives to attend.