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First and Second World War

First World War

By that time the Great War had been fought for two years and air raids by German Zeppelins on East Anglia caused the Parish Council to write to the Chief Constable to ‘ask for permission to receive notice of air raids whenever threatened’.

By the end of the war in 1918 thirteen local servicemen had lost their lives. Privates William Alien, George Cuthbert, Christopher Gagen, Stanley Goodchild, Oliver Ling, Peter H. Mortlock, Alfred Osborne, George W. Pledger, Stoker Thomas Pledger R.N., Privates O Thomas Rogers, Benjamin Starling, Charles Taylor and Joseph Taylor have their names inscribed on the War Memorial which was subsequently erected in the churchyard in 1937 at the behest of the local branch of the Royal British Legion at a cost of £15.

In 191S ex-servicemen who had returned to the parish were offered a six-roomed house with ? an acre of land by the West Suffolk County Council and during the following years the Clare Rural District Council started building houses in the vil­lage.

In 1935 the parish celebrated King George V’s Jubilee Year at the school and the Parish Council debated whether a Parish Hall should be built. The same Council requested that white lines be painted on the road surface ‘at all corners in the parish owing to excessive traffic to and from the aerodrome’ as work on building Hundon airfield had commenced. This became known as Stradishall Airfield to prevent any confusion between Hundon, Hunsdon and Hendon.

Second World War

The impact on Hundon of the presence of the air­field had such a great local effect that the story of the airfield, the men, women, aeroplanes and their exploits is best told at length by Mr. Jock Whitehouse of 23 Windmill Rise, Hundon. A well known authority on the subject I leave the telling to him.


Royal Air Force Stradishall was one of few East Anglian stations which remained under RAF con­trol for all of its service life. Its history is complex, for in its thirty-two years, it hosted at least thirty-eight flying units and operated thirty-five types of aircraft within Bomber, Transport, Flighter or Training Commands.

Many permanent well-appointed bases were built in the United Kingdom during the 1930’s, the majority down the eastern side of the country. Their need was clear cut, for after years of hesitan­cy and reluctance to recognise the growing threat in Europe, suitable airfields were required for the modern aircraft of both home defence fighter squadrons, especially near to London , and of the then long-range day bomber squadrons attacking European targets.

RAF Stradishall, on its plateau of heavy clay opened in February 1938 as a two-squadron, heavy-bomber base in No. 3 Group Bomber Command, although the neglected state of the Air Force was reflected in the aircraft flown by the two squadrons which took up residence. No.9 Squadron was equipped with the obsolete Handley-Page Heyford, a twin-engined bi-plane bomber whose three crew were open to the ele­ments. No. 148 Squadron flew the single-engine monoplane Vickers Wellesley, with enclosed crew positions, a reasonable performance but a miser­able bomb load. Any form of bombing or naviga­tional aids were completely unknown at this time. Although 3 Group patiently awaited the arrival of the new Vickers Wellington it flew and trained hard in its outdated aircraft. 9 Squadron received their Wellingtons in February 1939 then in July moved to RAF Honington-a similar base to Stradishall, but built on light free-draining soil. After a spell with Heyfords, 148 Squadron convert­ed to the Wellington in March 1939 and remained at Stradishall until the outbreak of war, when it moved out to Harwell.

No. 75 Squadron made the return journey from Honington, arriving at Stradishall in July 1939 hav­ing just re-equipped with the Wellington , and also moved to Harwell on the outbreak of war.

During the so-called ‘Phoney War’, Stradishall was relatively inactive apart from the formation of two Blenheim fighter squadrons- Nos.236 and 254, in October 1939, but not of 3 Group, they moved out to Martlesham Heath and Sutton Bridge respectively to undertake coastal defence duties. The reality of outdated policies was tragically learned in Deceniber 1939 when Wellington squadrons, including No.9, suffered disastrous loss­es of aircraft and crews on unescorted daylight operations against German shipping. . Bomber Command then had to resort to night operations for which it was totally unprepared.

Work continued at Stradishall to bring it up to operational readiness – a main priority being the provision of concrete runways and dispersals, experience having shown that heavy wet clay did not lend itself to operating heavy bombers!

With the stage set for a night bomber offen­sive with all its unknowns, RAF Stradishall truly entered the war when No.214 Squadron, a Wellington unit, arrived from Methwold in February 1940. As the base was still not yet opera­tionally ready, 214 squadron crews regularly oper­ated with 9 Squadron from Honington, but in June, 214 flew its first operations from Stradishall attacking troop concentrations in the Black Forest area of Germany .

During May and June 1940 when the country prepared for possible invasion, pale blue or even pink-painted Spitfires would slip into Stradishall to top up their fuel tanks. These were some of the first unarmed photo-rece. aircraft which flew at high-altitude gathering valuable information on the enemy. Apart from the actual re-fuelling – nec­essary to maximise range – details of the sortie being flown were not discussed! A less glamorous arrival were the Fairey Battles of 150 Squadron, whose battered remnants escaped the debacle taking place in France . In spite of this, the squadron was put on immediate combat readiness. When the scare subsided, 150 Squadron moved to Newton to rest and re-equip with the Wellington .

214 Squadron continued attacking a variety of targets, and while Fighter Command was engaged in the Battle of Britain, Bomber Command inflicted heavy losses amongst the fleet of invasion barges deployed and ready in Channel ports. The squadron made its first attack on Berlin in August but sadly also lost its first crew on operations.

Personnel at Stradishall had a chance to ‘meet’ the enemy in August when a Dornier, damaged by ground fire near Duxford, crash-landed near Wickhambrook and its four-man crew were brought to the station for safe keeping.

The Germans were also experts in high-altitude photography and on 3 September, whilst the fight­er battle raged, a high-flying JU86, in complete safety, continued the coverage of eastern England returning home with superbly detailed images of RAF Stradishall and the surrounding countryside.

Stradishall then housed a most unusual unit controlled not by 3 Group HQ, but by Air Ministry. In September 1940 a Whitley bomber arrived unexpectedly heralding the setting up of a clan­destine transport unit, tasked with delivering SOE personnel and supplies to the Resistance move­ment in occupied Europe . Four-engined Halifaxes , with their better capacity and longer range were also used as were the unique Lysanders which nipped in and out of French fields delivering and collecting agents(male and female). The Whitleys were converted for dropping parachutists or sup­plies. No.419 Flight (Special Duties) was re-num­bered 1419 Flight and later became No. 138 Squadron. It moved between Stradishall and Newmarket until 1942 when the whole operation transferred to RAF Tempsford.

Another special unit which operated from Stradishall was a radio investigation Flight from No. 109 Squadron which sent out single Wellingtons over Europe , often accompanying the bomber stream, to try and detect and identify enemy radio transmissions. This was the start of the new science of Electronic Counter Measures which was to play such a vital role in future night offensives. By this time several navigational and bombing aids were being developed and at Stradishall in 1942, 109 Squadron personnel, against all odds, undertook the testing of ‘Oboe’, a new bombing aid. After rejecting the Lancaster and a high-altitude version of the Wellington , the team successfully installed the equipment into the new Mosquito. 109 Squadron’s detachments then concentrated at Wyton as part of the new Pathfinder Force.

No doubt as a result of the aerial survey, the Luftwaffe knew where RAF Stradishall was! At teatime on Sunday 3 November 1940, two very low-flying JuSB’s appeared out of the gloom, dropped their bombs, machine-gunned the station and left. One man was killed, several buildings were damaged, and No.2 hangar was wrecked. A second attack was made in December, the station escaped but two soldiers were killed when their billet in Steeplechase was hit.

214 Squadron flew doggedly on throughout 1940, 1941 and into 1942. The crews were often faced with appalling weather conditions over northern Europe but rarely turned back in spite of having no reliable technical help on board. The cost was high in terms of crews lost.

Although the Wellington had, and would con­tinue to perform well, Bomber Command was changing into a ‘heavy-bomber’ force, and its squadrons were quickly converting to the Lancaster, Halifax , or in the case of 3 Group, the Stirling , all four-engined heavy bombers.

214 converted to the mighty Stirling at Stradishall in April/May 1942, and after only a few operations, flew on the first 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne on May 30/31. 3 Group Stirlings flew ahead of the main force successfully illuminating the target with incendiaries for the following bombers. Further operations were to all the main targets plus mine-laying sorties off the enemy coast. Losses continued, mainly over Europe but one badly damaged aircraft with a dead rear-gun­ner, just managed to crash-land on the airfield, whilst another was not so lucky and crashed behind Bears Farm. Six crew members were killed but ironically, this time it was the rear gunner who survived.

The rapid expansion of Bomber Command plus the high loss rate of crews, now required specialist units geared to turning out qualified heavy-bomber crews for the operational squadrons. Stradishall with its excellent facilities was selected for one such unit in 3 Group, and in October 1942, 214 Squadron moved to Chedburgh, a hastily built and very spartan satellite which itself reflected the need for more and more bomber airfields. No. 1657. Heavy Conversion Unit formed at Stradishall with 30 Stirlings and a target of 30 bomber crews per month. Many of the instructors were ex-opera­tional crews —‘resting’, but the flying programme was heavy and quite dangerous and a number of fatal accidents occurred.. However, until the HCU closed in December 1944 its target was regularly exceeded. 1657 HCU was replaced by No. 186 Squadron, an operational Lancaster unit. Stradishall was back in the war.

As the Allies advanced toward Germany in early 1945, Bomber Command undertook a more tactical role, hitting specific targets such as roads, railways, troop movements and oil/fuel depots. Our increasing air superiority over Europe enabled more daylight sorties to take place and 186 Squadron flew continuously in this role making only a limited number of night raids. Many aircrew were experienced ‘second-tour’ men and this, plus the use of G-H, an excellent system of target find­ing, produced good results. Three squadrons (the ‘Clutch of Three’) were controlled by Stradishall in its role as 31 Base HQ: its own No. 186, No. 195 from Wratting Common, and No.218ftom Chedburgh.

By April 1945 the end was near, and Stradishall’s last offensive operation was on April 24 when its Lancasters attacked and destroyed the railway yards of Bad Oldesloe in north Germany . However, there was still work to be done. Operation ‘Manna’ was set up to drop desperately needed food and supplies to the starving Dutch people in north-west Holland and Operation ‘Exodus’ saw the fleets of redundant bombers used to bring back vast numbers of liberated ex-prison­ers of war. Both Bomber Command and the American Eighth Air Force took part in these oper­ations which gave immense satisfaction to the air­crews.

The involvement of Bomber Command in the continuing Far Eastern conflict did not finally materialise. 186 Squadron flew a variety of train­ing sorties plus a series of radar investigation flights, but in July 1945, with many other squadrons, it disbanded, its personnel dispersed and its war-weary aircraft flown out for storage and eventual scrapping.

The final cessation of all hostilities presented a huge transport problem, especially in the Far East where there was an urgent need to replace long-serving personnel re-supply and to bring home ex-prisoners of war and the wounded. To boost air-supply capability some squadrons quickly changed from a bomber to a transport role. Nos. 51 and 158 (both Yorkshire-based Halifax squadrons) quickly converted to the transport versions of the Stirling, moved to Stradishall in June 1945 and began the long-haul business to and from India via Libya . After 158 Squadron disbanded. No. 51 con­tinued the work but after converting to the Avro York it moved to Waterbeach in August 1946.

Bomber Command returned to Stradishall in 1946, when four squadrons arrived with white-painted Lancasters . Nos. 115 and 149 were both ex-3 Group, No. 35 had been a Pathfinder unit at Graveley, and although No. 207 came in from Tuddenham, it had been Lincolnshire-based in the war. This was a frustrating period for a much depleted Bomber Command equipped with old aircraft and suffering a desperate shortage of trained personnel. The squadrons had to be ‘pooled’ to produce an effective force, but they flew and trained hard and gradually things improved and morale rose. The larger Avro Lincoln, and a number of Boeing B.29’s helped Bomber Command as it prepared for the age of the jet-bomber( Canberra ) but not at Stradishall. Its four squadrons retained their Lancasters until early 1949 when they all departed for greater things. Bomber Command had severed its links with RAF Stradishall for the last time.

Thus began the period of the ‘Cold War’ when Russia and the West—allies in the recent conflict, became potential aggressors and by necessity became involved in a crippling arms race made more deadly nuclear capability. Conflicts, as in Korea , had illustrated the real danger, and the need to increase the number of operational jet-fighter squadrons especially for home defence was quickly recognised.

Stradishall’s new role reflected that of the Heavy Conversion Unit in WW2, but this time it had to turn out jet-fighter pilots trained to opera­tional standard. Fighter Command had arrived. No.226 Operational Conversion Unit was equipped mainly with the two-engined single-seat Gloster Meteor(Mks 4 and 8) which, with the De Havilland Vampire was our primary front-line fighter, although Vampire training played only a minor part at Stradishall. Freshly qualified pilots under­went an intensive flying, gunnery and ground instruction course after which the successful ones now regarded as ‘operationally -ready’ would be posted out to front-line units. Flying was demand­ing and pushed young men to the limits—there was no room for error in combat— and inevitably a price was paid with several fatal accidents. The instructors were of the highest quality, many were ex-WW2 fighter-pilots-some even of Battle of Britain vintage, but their experience produced the results needed and 226 OCU enjoyed an excellent reputation.

Perhaps as some kind of Thank you’, when the OCU moved out in June 1955, RAF Stradishall returned to the ‘sharp end’ and for a few exciting years hosted a glorious mix of fighter units tasked with day and night home defence, Meteors, Venoms, Javelins and Hunters(fighter and ground attack versions) gracing Stradishall’s tarmac.

Nos. 125,253,245,152, 89,85,263,208,43, 56,111,1 and 54 Squadrons all ‘passed through’ and at times up to five units were operating simul­taneously, different aircraft, different roles, night and day! Both the Venom night-fighter and the Javelin all-weather fighters were two-seaters, the presence of a navigator reflecting the future reduction of single-seat fighter operations in the RAF, and it was this resulting need for more navi­gators which dictated the next and last role for Royal Air Force Stradishall.

After the Hunter FCA9’s left in 1961, and until closure in 1970 Stradishall operated within Training Command, hosting No. 1 Air Navigation School, (motto: ‘Seek the Way’) Specialist units were needed to satisfy the ever increasing need for navigators in both the ‘high-fast’ (fighters) and ‘low slow’ (transport) roles and once again

Stradishall’s facilities proved ideal. Initially the back seat of old Meteor NF12’s and 14’s provided the ‘fast’ element plus a facility to familiarise offi­cers returning to operational units from desk or staff appointments, and the Varsity (a direct descendant from the Wellington) provided a spa­cious flying ‘classroom’ for students. The arrival of the superb twin-jet ‘Dominie’, the high perform­ance military version of the US 12 5 executive jet­liner increased markedly the flow of ‘fast-jet’ navi­gators for ‘Phantom’ and Tornado’ units. Further re-organisation of the Air Force required fewer stations, and in 1970 RAF Stradishall was declared surplus to requirements’. The Varsity had finished its career, the Dominies moved to Finningley and currently serve today as a navigational trainer at RAF Cranwell.

Royal Air Force Stradishall finally closed in late 1970 and could look back on thirty-two years of dedicated service. Apart from its military role, the influence of the station filtered out into the com­munity and many stories ( perhaps not all!) can be told of the varied relationships which developed across the ‘boundary fence’. Hundon certainly had a special place as the majority of the airfield lay within our parish. When the village expanded in the late 1960’s, a garden competition for the new arrivals was judged by the wife of the Station Commander. No. 1 ANS also presented us with a superb aerial photograph of the village (Famerie Readjust starting).

Many Stradishall personnel lived in and around the village (‘I used to stand in the garden and wave to him as his aircraft went over’) and some return. They might visit St.Margaret’s Church Stradishall to see the Memorial Window and Book of Remembrance containing the names of 650 who died from RAF Stradishall, go up to see the fine memorial outside ‘Stirling Household Officers’ Mess) or come down into the village to see our own memorial which commemorates those service­men and women who died within our parish (list­ed in the Rolls of Honour in the church and the vil­lage hall but not all from RAF Stradishall) and explains the reason for the aircraft symbol on the village sign! Jock Whitehouse.’

The existence of the airfield in Hundon was apparent to all, unlike the secrecy that surrounded the selection, training and missions of agents of the Special Operations Executive and Auxiliary Units at Bachelors Hall, Babel Green. Events there did not become known until long after the war. Mrs. Jennifer Montague, now resident at Bachelors Hall, has kindly provided an account of some of the nature of the hidden war time history sur­rounding the unobtrusive house tucked away in a quiet country lane

‘When we purchased Bachelors Hall in 1991 it was known from legal enquiries that the house had been requisitioned by the army during the Second World War, but were totally oblivious of its very secret past until a Mr. Arthur Gabbitas con­tacted me in 1991 to explain the part that Bachelors Hall had played.

We are there forever indebted to Mr. Gabbitas who over the years has been so very generous with his time in keeping us updated with informa­tion and annual events and for allowing us so many documents, letters and photographs. It is in his memory that I dedicate the following as very sadly Mr. Gabbitas passed away in May 1999.

Second World War

The British Resistance Organisation 1940-1944.

The need to organise civilian resistance to a German invasion was recognised in Great Britain as early as 1938, and although no funds were made available a small Foreign Office sub-section began investigating guerrilla tactics and weaponry.

Early recruits to the nascent British Resistance were initially selected by a Major Gubbins but progress was delayed when he was selected for other duties in Poland . After the outbreak of war explosives and other stores were dumped around Britain but there was still very little effective co­ordination.

Thankfully Gubbins, now a Colonel, returned from Norway . He immediately began work on an underground army of resistance fighters. He answered directly to the Commander in Chief at GHQ Home Forces – Field Marshall Ironside – and the enterprise caught the imagination of Winston Churchill himself, and is said to have inspired the famous ‘We will fight them on the beaches…’ speech.

Auxiliary Units, the cover-name given to the organisation, consisted of two parts. The first con­sisted of specially selected civilians with a good knowledge of their local area and a high standard of physical fitness. The second was a smaller and less publicised half of Auxiliary Units comprising around 100 men and officers of the Royal Signals and 43 women of the A.T.S.

Serious selection and training began in 1940 and following this a number of radio ‘hams’ were detailed to design a radio telephony set, simple to use, able to withstand damp, operating on ultra high frequency and powered by large 6 volt accu­mulator batteries.

The Signals HQ was established at Bachelors Hall where the sets were constructed in wooden cases. Signals personnel were trained here in the operation and maintenance of the sets, and from Bachelors Hall three-man units were established in key positions around the coast from Scotland to Wales , manned by two wireless operators and one instrument mechanic.

In 1942 and 1943 ninety three women, many of them in the A.T.S., were quietly asked to volunteer for an interesting and possibly dangerous assign­ment. Those who volunteered were told to report for an interview in, of all places, the public lounge on the 4th floor of Harrods in Knightsbridge.

At the interviews the women were never told about the work they were being considered for, what special qualifications or qualities it demand­ed or anything else. Their interviewer was ‘a pret­ty A.T.S. Major who on some occasions wore a tar­tan skirt with her uniform’. She was Beatrice Temple, the niece of the newly enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury.

Some women heard nothing but many received formal orders from the War Office to proceed by train to Marks Tey in Essex . There they changed to the Cambridge line, got off at Haverhill and crossed the road to the Rose and Crown public house. An army car with the number ‘490’ in a white and red formation plaque on its wing col­lected them and they were taken through narrow winding lanes to a large house set back from a lonely lane on the outskirts of a village.

In the house the women were given slips of paper by a Royal Corps of Signals Officer who, with no explanation at all, asked them to read into a microphone. When the women had done this, and still no wiser, they were driven back to Haverhill and told to return to their units.

For some of the women the mystery remained a mystery, but for the others, only after they had signed the Official Secrets Act, were they told that they had been enrolled in the most secret part of Britain ’s most secret wartime organisation -Auxiliary Units.

When Auxiliary Units were disbanded in November 1944 Royal Signals personnel returned to Catterick for re-training. Most were then allo­cated to other theatres of war. Since that time lit­tle was revealed. Many took their secrets to the grave and only recently were survivors willing to talk. Such security also meant that they were never officially recorded and therefore never recognised. So while others were hailed as heroes, Britain ’s Secret Army was not.

Time immemorial has yielded so many unsung heroes. I feel very fortunate to have known, albeit briefly, Mr. Gabbitas and that our paths crossed in peacetime. Jennifer Montague.’

Major Colin Gubbins served in MI{R) – Military Intelligence Research – and was knowledgeable in guerrilla tactics. His trip to Poland was to help to organise Polish and Czech resistance to a Nazi invasion and he did similar work in France and Norway before returning home and creating the Auxiliary Units here. He later became Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins.

The first part of these Units referred to by Mrs. Montague were men trained by soldiers with ini­tiative who had been gamekeepers, wild-fowlers, experienced hikers and mountaineers, men who could find their way around the country. The men they recruited were poachers, farmers, miners, par­sons, physicians, local councillors, blacksmiths, pub­licans and so on, those who could keep a secret whilst going about their normal jobs. Their ages ranged from 17 to 70 and they were put in the Home Guard which was a cover for their training. Sworn to secrecy most of their wives knew nothing of what they were really about and one farm worker’s wife thought that during the war her husband had spent several nights a week with another woman.

Organised in patrols each Unit had under­ground hide-outs with caches of arms, ammunition and food and they were the first to be given ‘plas­tic’ explosives. In the event of a German invasion they were expected to use the guerrilla tactics they had been taught against the enemy. Fortunately this didn’t become necessary.

Mrs. Ursula Pennell of Church Street also gives an account in this book of her role as a recruited member of the Auxiliary Units. Her function would have been to provide intelligence of the enemy should they have invaded in Norfolk .

Of course men and women of the parish served in the armed forces during the war as well as some who were required to remain in reserved occupa­tions. One of these was to continue producing food for the nation since this became in short sup­ply and was rationed due to lack of imports. In time they were assisted by Land Army women and Prisoners of War on local farms. Local men who died in the services and are also commemorated on the war memorial in the churchyard are Leonard Gridley, Leslie Mallion, George Mansfield, Jack Missen and Donald Smith.

Also remembered are the many service men and women who died in the parish between 1938 and 1970 on a memorial which was dedicated on the 14th May 1995. This is placed in front of the village sign which was erected in 1984 having been designed and organised by the ladies of Hundon Women’s Institute.