A lesser-known role undertaken by Stirlings was flying Special Duties sorties deep into enemy territory as Jonathan Falconer relates.
The opening months of 1944 saw four of Bomber Command's Stirling squadrons temporarily supporting the efforts of the two hard-pressed Special Duties squadrons based at RAF Tempsford in Bedfordshire by dropping personnel, weapons and equipment to Resistance groups in occupied Europe and Scandinavia. They were soon joined in this endeavour by No 38 Group's squadrons, operating the Stirling IV, who continued to fly in this role until the end of the war in addition to their primary tasking as paratroop and glider transports.
Fit Lt Bob Chappell and his 149 Squadron crew were typical of Bomber Command's contribution to Special Duties operations in 1944, which they flew in addition to minelaying and bombing sorties. Between September 1943 and September 1944 they completed 15 Special Operations Executive(SOE) "parachutages" trips to the French Resistance. Pit Off David Mitchell was the navigator in Bob Chappell’s crew, and he relates below something of their experiences on Special Operations:
"Our whole tour was fairly uneventful although we lost alot of aircraft and friends on the squadron .So we flew with a constant feeling of wondering when our turn would come, a strain which was often diluted by plenty of beer and mad sing -song parties in the mess during stand-downs. But for the most part we had no trouble, apart from icing and some hair-raising moments flying round mountain peaks in the Alps looking for our dropping sites.
"Supplying the Resistance was all low-level work, flying at 500ft across France, identifying our dropping site by a signal from a solitary figure in some remote field or plateau using a lampor torch. Once codes were exchanged successfully three more lights would spring up in a line which identified the wind direction. We would make the drop from 150 to 200ft flying into the wind.
"We were fortunate enough to find all our reception parties and, having exchanged correct signals, to drop our canisters and make our way safely home. Except once.
"It was the night of April 10, 1944. We had to fly with a substitute pilot, Fg Off Alan Bettles, and it had taken us a good four hours at 500ft to reach the dropping zone most of the way across France. Arriving bang on ETA, sure enough as always the reception was there. The three lights were already on, indicating the wind direction, but on this occasion they were signalling the wrong letter(s). There was mild panic while I hurriedly checked my charts , the chosen pinpoint and DR run. Sure enough, I confirmed to the pilot that this was for certain our dropping site. We made several circuits at a cautious 300ft but we still did not get the prearranged signal code which would have allowed us to make the drop.
"The frustration was heightened when once again I became the focus of attention. Pilot to navigator: 'Are you really certain this is our spot? ‘At this point I was beginning to doubt myself, especially since we noticed several dropping zones on the way. Many would give you a preliminary flash, hopefully. So I hurriedly rechecked everything once again. Navigator to pilot: 'This is most definitely our dropping point. Time is getting on. If they don't give us the correct letters we're getting out of here!' This was a frustrating decision to take and reluctantly we started to climb and make our way home.
"‘They’re doing it right now!' It was our rear gunner 'China' Town shouting into his mike- 'They're doing it right now, they're giving us the correct letters!' And he was right! So round we circled to make another approach. Bomb doors open. Wheels partly down and flaps partly down to reduce speed. We made our dropping approach. 200ft . . . 150ft... Suddenly all hell let loose. Two searchlights opened up straight on to us. We seemed to be under a lot of fire from at least three guns on the ground, at point-blank range.
"The bomb-aimer, George Mackie, was in his niche beside the bombsight. The flight engineer, a young, canny, over-conscientious Scot named Ian Harvie, was a little concerned about the amount of time we had spent in the target area, and was making a quick check of the fuel gauges. So, there was no one in the second pilot's seat and the pilot was screaming his head off to this no-one 'For Christ's sake give me more boost, more revs!' He was weaving as much as he could with both hands on the stick.
"It was Taffy Thomas, the WOp, who obliged. He rushed forward from his table, knocking everything flying and bruising himself black and blue on the way, and pushed the throttle levers forward - as he described it, 'pushing everything through the bloody gate'.
The Hercules engines responded with a roar. For a moment we thought they had jumped the ai rcraft, like horses at the starting gate. "During all this time 'China', the rear gunner, was taking care of the searchlights with a few accurate bursts from his guns. He said later he was reluctant to fire on the scurrying figures below who normally he knew to be our 'friendly' resistants.
"I'll say this for our pilot Bettles, he wasted no time. We were out of that danger zone like a flash. And so we made our way home, the first time we had not delivered the goods. To relieve our disappointment and frustrations we shot-up two trains and some road transport on the way home, much to the flight engineer's horror. He was still checking those fuel gauges. The total flight took 8hr 40min,so we didn't have alot of juice left. When we landed none of us was the least bit tired.
" Pit Off Den Hardwick and his crew joined 299 Squadron in No38 Group on March 3, 1944, following a tour of bomber operations with149 Squadron at Lakenheath. They were stationed at Keevil in Wiltshire and flew a number of SOE sorties deep into occupied France in the months following D-Day. Den recalls in particular the night of September 15 when they took a team of 14 SAS paratroops to a dropzone close to Strasbourg on the River Rhine:
"The weather was good until we came to the Rhine valley, where visibility on the ground was nil due to dense fog . I called the stick leader, an SAS captain, up to the front and showed him the view from the cockpit. His only question was, 'How close to the DZ can you put us down?' . After discussion with Ted Webb, my navigator, we calculated that with a direct run from where we were , based on our last positive fix, the worst error would be 20 miles, to which came the reply, 'We can walk that tonight and they won't see us in the fog'. We made our run and away went the lads.
"Some few weeks later, after 299 had moved to Wethersfield, the crew went for a night out in Chelmsford. We walked into a pub and there, believe it or not, having a beer were the lads we had last seen jumping into the fog near Strasbourg .What a night that turned out to be!
"On the night of August 31weset off on an SOE trip to southern France, somewhere north of the Pyrenees. We were flying in a virtually brand new Stirling IV, LJ971 , and this was our third trip in her. Around the DZ we lost one engine; half way across France on the return trip another engine started to overheat. By the time we reached northern France we were making very slow progress and gradually losing height, and it seemed there was no way we would make the Channel crossing .After D-Day the navigators used to draw a redline on the charts showing the latest information as to where the front line was. It was a bright moonlit night and we spotted an airstrip which, according to the chart, was on our side of the front line. We managed a two-and-a-half-engine landing on a runway with no lights, which was quite hair-raising.
“Tom White was the flight engineer in Den Hardwick's crew and he remembers the incident vividly:
"The sound of gunfire several miles away and the sight of all the mines that the Germans had left lying around, convinced us that this was no place for us to be. The Army took us to a tent and fed us on steak and boiled potatoes. We suspected there must have been a three-legged bullock in the vicinity.
"In the morning we found that another Stirling - from 196 Squadron - had also landed at B17 (Carpiquet airfield, west of Caen), and its skipper was Henry 'Chuck' Hoysted. His flight engineer and I decided that the engines of Hoysted's aircraft, ZO-D, were serviceable so they gave us a lift home to Keevil.
" Another Keevil-based crew to fly SOE supply drops during the summer of 1944 was that of FgOff Gib Goucher RCAF, also of 299 Squadron . One particular sortie caused them a few problems as Goucher's flight engineer, WO Leonard Brock, recalls:
"During August 1944 we carried out many night sorties over France but one was quite significant. On August 2 we took off in Stirling LJ919 on a night drop over France called Horace 7with 24 containers and one pannier. We met heavy flak over the Dl and returned to the UK, but we were diverted to Weston Zoyland in Somerset because our starboard elevator had been damaged by the flak. We made a successful landing and left the aircraft behind to be repaired by groundcrew, and flew back to Keevil.
"We returned to Weston Zoyland on August 4, by which time the aircraft had been repaired, and we found that all fuel tanks had been filled to capacity. We could take off all right but we could not land as we were above the all-up weight for landing. We asked permission to drop the containers but this was refused and we were told to fly over Salisbury Plain and jettison fuel from the main tanks. We dropped 1,170 gallons of 100 octane by opening valves inside the aircraft and the petrol went out in a thick black swirl. We managed to land back at Keevil and took the load back to France the following night and dropped it in the right position without opposition."