My uncle, John C. Pickford, served in the RAF from 1941 until 1946. Between October 1944 and the end of the war in May 1945, he flew about fifty missions over Germany as a Navigator/Bomb Aimer in Mosquitoes. With the aid of his flight logs and entries in Operations Record books, over the coming months I will provide an insight into those missions and his war-time experiences in “The Wooden Wonder”. In this second instalment, I cover his missions during November 1944, the month which saw him transfer from 128 Squadron to 142 Squadron.
Alan Pickford – Director of Finance, The People’s Mosquito
A Brief History of 142 Squadron
According to the RAF’s web-site “No. 142 Squadron, RFC, was formed at Ismailia, Egypt, on 2nd February 1918, as an army co-operation squadron. It moved to Palestine soon afterwards and took an active part in operations in that theatre until the end of the campaign. Re-numbered 55 (whilst still in Egypt) in 1920, No. 142 Squadron was re-formed in England as a bomber unit in 1934 and during 1935/36 again served in the Middle East. In the early months of the Second World War it served with the Advanced Air Striking Force in France and on 10th May 1940, the day the Germans invaded the Low Countries, it gained the distinction of being the first AASF unit to bomb the advancing enemy. Later that month No. 142 was one of the Fairey Battle squadrons which attacked the Meuse bridges in a further attempt to stem the German advance. The squadron was withdrawn to England in June 1940, and by the end of the year was converting to Wellingtons prior to engaging in the strategic night-bombing offensive.
In December 1942, No. 142 Squadron moved to North Africa and subsequently took part in the Tunisian, Sicilian and Italian campaigns.
The squadron was disbanded (in Italy) early in October 1944, but re-formed in England later that month and for the rest of the European war served as a Mosquito light-bomber unit of No. 8 (PFF) (Pathfinder Force) Group’s Light Night Striking Force. During its service with No. 8 Group, the squadron flew 1,095 operational sorties (all but 23 of which were considered successful) gaining 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s among its awards.”
The squadron actually reformed at Gransden Lodge, Bedfordshire on 25th October 1944, and was equipped with Canadian-built Mosquito B. Mk. XXV bombers. The first two aircraft (KB430 and KB460) arrived on 27th October and the first mission was flown on 29th October, with KB 430-A being flown by S/L R.S. Don with F/O G.I. Allan as his navigator/bomb aimer and KB 460-M being crewed by F/L A.W.D. James (Pilot) and F/Sgt G. Hockenhull, with Cologne being the target.
November began with John continuing his missions with F/O Allan W. Heitman (RAAF). After a short night flying training (NFT) flight in Mosquito PF401 (a Bomber Mk. XVI) on November 2nd, their first mission of the month was to Osnabruck the same night, in the same aircraft. Total flying time for the mission was just over 3½ hours. For this mission, and indeed the majority of the missions flown in November, they carried a single 4,000lb High Capacity (HC) “Cookie” bomb.
Between 1941 and 1945, over 93,000 of these bombs were dropped – over 38,000 in 1944 alone. They were originally introduced in the Wellington bomber, after Barnes Wallis had designed the necessary modifications to the aircraft, but were subsequently used by many other aircraft, including the Mosquito. It was estimated that a single “Cookie” could produce about 40% more structural damage than the equivalent weight of medium capacity bombs. It is also interesting to note that a single “Cookie” contained more than five times the amount of explosives that would have been contained in the four 500lb General Purpose (GP) bombs commonly carried by a Mosquito bomber.
On November 3rd, John again flew with F/O Allan Heitman in PF401. This time, the target was Berlin, with a total flying time of 4¾ hours. Again, the bomb load was a single 4,000lb “Cookie”. With no flying on November 4th, John and Allan returned to action on November 5th. A twenty minute NFT flight during the day in MM194 (another B Mk. XVI) was followed by a night-time mission to Stuttgart in the same aircraft. With a total flight time of just under four hours, they again carried a 4,000lb “Cookie”. The following night saw a change of aircraft, and a change of bomb load. The target on November 6th was the Norstein Synthetic Oil Plant at Gelsenkirchen, and their 3 hour 35 minute flight in KB387 (a Canadian built B Mk. XXV) saw them carrying 2 x TI (target indicators) and 2 x 500lb GP bombs.
There was no flying for the next three days, but on November 10th, John and Allan were airborne again. A forty-five minute NFT flight in PF405 (another Percival-built B Mk. XVI in service with 128 Squadron) was followed by a 4 hour 10 minute mission to Hanover in the same aircraft. This mission was followed by another three days without any flying, before John returned to the air for two short NFT flights with Allan in PF401 on the 14th and 15th. The flight on the 15th saw them carrying 4 x practice bombs.
After another few days of apparent inactivity (at least in terms of recorded flights), John returned to flying with Allan on November 20th. A forty minute NFT flight during the day was followed by another night-time raid, again to Hanover (flying time 3 hours and 40 minutes). Again, they were flying in PF401, carrying a single 4,000lb “Cookie”.
A further three days without flying (a common occurrence during November) was followed by what was to be John’s last operational sortie with 128 Squadron and with F/O Heitman. On November 24th, John and Allan flew a mission to Berlin in PF401 with a total flying time of 4 hours and 20 minutes. Again, the ordnance was a 4,000lb “Cookie”.
On November 26th, John was transferred to 142 Squadron at Gransden Lodge. Allan Heitman remained with 128 Squadron, and was sadly killed on the night of January 14th/15th, which was a bad night for the squadron. A total of four aircraft were lost that night. PF404 (M5-H) crashed shortly after taking off from Wyton en route to Berlin. The crew (F/O James Adam and F/Sgt Allan Casey) were both killed. The other three aircraft were all lost on the return from that mission, when poor visibility at Wyton prevented them from landing safely. One crew (F/O Douglas Swain and P/O Michael Bayon, in PF401) overshot on landing. The aircraft was damaged beyond repair, but the crew survived. The other two aircraft crashed after the crews were ordered by Sqn Ldr (later Air Marshal Sir) Ivor Broom to bail out as they were running out of fuel. F/O Herbert Boulter and Sgt. Chris Hart managed to bail out of PF437 before the aircraft crashed near the airfield.
Exactly what happened to Allan Heitman is not clear. His aircraft (MM194, in which he had flown a mission with John on November 5th) crashed near Chatteris, Huntingdonshire, having run out of fuel. Allan was killed, but his navigator (P/O Gould) survived. The records do not show whether Allan was unable to bail out and therefore died when the aircraft crashed, or whether he was killed having bailed out. This was not uncommon, and indeed on the same night, the pilot of MM150 (another B Mk. XVI), of 692 (Fellowship of the Bellows) Sqn based at RAF Graveley in Cambridgeshire, was killed when he struck the tailplane of his aircraft after bailing out when his aircraft also ran out of fuel.
After transferring to 142 Squadron, John had two training flights with Sqn Ldr Basil Jones in KB408 (J for John) on November 28th (NFT) and 29th. The forty-five minute flight on the 29th was a new form of training intended to prepare the squadron for daylight formation bombing. They flew their first mission together in the same aircraft on the night of November 29th. The aircraft (a Canadian-built B Mk. XXV) took off at 19:24 as part of the main force of 67 aircraft sent to bomb Hanover, carrying 4 x 500lb GP bombs. The weather was mainly clear with some stratocumulus cloud which topped out at 8,000 ft. Their bombs were dropped from a height of 23,000 feet at 21:09, with most of the bombing being concentrated on the main target. They encountered only a few searchlights, which increased in number during the attack, but no German fighters were seen. They landed safely back at base at 22:07.
The only other event of note was the arrival at Gransden Lodge on November 30th of F/O W.K. “Bill” Brown. Although John and Bill never flew any operations together, they spent a lot of non-operational time in each other’s company, and they both loved flying. At the end of the war in Europe, they formally teamed up to go to the Japanese War, but the war ended before they were posted overseas and they ended up flying together in 1409 Meteorological Flight of the Pathfinder Force from September 1945 until March 1946. That period will be the subject of a future instalment of John’s diary.
The next instalment of John’s diary will be posted soon.