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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
AIR OPERATIONS FROM R.A.F. WICK DURING WORLD WAR II
Compared with some of the outstanding and thrilling events of 1941 the year 1942 would seem to have been one long, hard slog for the R.A.F. at Wick. The Hudsons continued to be in the forefront of the action and bore the lion's share of the general reconnaissance patrols and the anti-shipping strikes. One feature of that year was the comparatively short tenure of several squadrons flying such aircraft as the Beaufort, Hampden, Wellington and Whitley. While Wick lost its prestigious Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, another unit, No. 1406 Met Flight, began meteorological calibration flights using Hampden and Spitfires. Later forming the nucle1us of No. 519 (Met) Squadron, this unit was to remain attached to Wick until November 1945, far longer than any other R.A.F. unit during the war.
The turn of the year saw the departure of Wick's P.R.U. for Leuchars in December 1941. The P.R.U. had re-equipped with the new Mosquitoes in October and each aircraft was named after a type of alcoholic drink and included "Whisky", 'Benedictine", and "Vodka". Wick's remote location caused problems involving the delayed arrival of spare parts and the difficulty of sending photographs to Photographic Reconnaissance's Headquarters in Buckinghamshire. The Mosquito's longer range over the Spitfires meant that long-range sorties over Norway could be easily operated from Leuchars rather than from Wick.
Before the end of 1941 No . 612 squadron's Whitleys and Ansons moved to Reykjavik on 15th December. (in the gallery devoted to the R.A.F. in Scotland at The Scottish' United Services Museum, Edinburgh Castle, there is a fine photograph of a Whitley Mk. VII of No. 612 Squadron setting out on patrol from Wick.) Less than a month later, on 9th January 1942, No. 220 Squadron, which distinguished itself so well in the raid on Aalesund, left for Northern Ireland to convert from Hudsons to Boeing Fortresses. This squadron was replaced by No. 608 Squadron which arrived at Wick from Thornaby in January and was equipped with Hudson Mk. Vs. Like the preceding squadron, No. 608's Hudsons disrupted enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast and on 7th January, mounted a bombing raid on Bergen. The shipping strikes in the Norwegian fjords were conducted under the codename of "Operation Bluebeard". In most cases, surface-ships were the targets but occasionally, U-boats were sighted and depth-charged.
After being based at Skitten since October 1941, the Hudsons of No. 48 Squadron were transferred to Wick and would remain there for the next nine months. This squadron consisted of approximately 24 Hudsons divided into 'A' and 'B' flights. Fulfilling their role as a General Reconnaissance squadron, the Hudson crews were mainly engaged on anti-submarine patrols, convoy patrols, shipping strikes and maritime reconnaissance in the North Sea area. Operations off the Norwegian coast were conducted at night although the long summer evenings were to afford little protection.
The early months of No. 48 Squadron's tenure were difficult ones compounded by the bad weather and the loss of nine Hudsons, including one carrying the commanding officer. Some of these losses were caused by Hudsons making heavy landings and invariably catching fire. The snowfall was so heavy that the airmen didn't bother to clear the snow but just levelled it with a steam roller and marked a soot line down the middle of the runway for the landing aircraft to sight on. Group Captain E. L. Baudoux was to recall that Wick was the only aerodrome he was stationed on where the bar was kept open twenty-four hours a day because it was needed to keep the airmen warm. Similar conditions prevailed at nearby Skitten and a Beaufort navigator, Roy Nesbit, remembered the blizzard that raged outside his wooden hut day after day. The wind blew the snow into great drifts so that the hulls of the Beauforts "stood out like stranded whales above the snow".
Sergeant AIlen Willis, R.A.A.F., wrote home about his first few operations with No. 48 Squadron saying that he was "stuck away in the north of Scotland, a bleak and desolate dump just near John o' Groats". He described vividly the thrill of flying low over the water at ten feet as the aircraft went into the attack. The pilot opened up with his front guns, the bomb doors opened and then the aircraft pulled up over the masts just as the ship was at the receiving end of a stick of bombs.
In the first three months of 1942, No. 48 Squadron lost twenty crews on operations although the Spring brought an improvement in the squadron's fortunes. On the 24th April, a 2,000 tons' motor vessel was set on fire and three days later, a German oil depot was bombed and set on fire. The following month saw more shipping being attacked with a U-boat being damaged on 23rd May. On 13th June, no fewer than four U-boats were attacked of which one was damaged. In May same Hudsons were lost after entangling with Junkers Ju.88s. On ]7th May, Hudsons from the squadron formed part of a force of fifty-four aircraft which flew to south-west Norway to attack German naval units which included the heavy cruiser "Prinz Eugen" .
At the beginning of July, patrols along the Norwegian coastline were intensified as the ill-fated PQ-17 convoy was on passage For Murmansk. The Hudson crews were detailed to give warning, lest any of the large, German naval units should leave the fjords in a bid to intercept the convoy. That month saw the loss of one of No.48 Squadron's most outstandind and experienced pilots. Flight Lieutenant V.A. (Jim) Pedersen, a New Zealander, and his crew, Sergeants George Drogue, R.C.A.F., Thomas Langoulant and Allen Willis, R.A.A.F. , were shot down over the Trondheim/Standlandet area on 15th July while flying in Hudson, FH 378. "Jim" Pedersen had flown over 1,600 hours, mostly on Hudsons, including 125 operational flights.
Other units based at Wick for fairly brief periods in 1942 included the Beauforts of No. 86 Squadron which were at the aerodrome from March until July, and a detachment of Whitley Mk. Vs from No. 58 Squadron which operated from Wick from April until August. A detachment of Hampdens from No. 489 Squadron, R.N.Z.A.F., came to Wick in July for special reconnaissance patrols over Trondheim Fjord and were joined by the remainder of the squadron from Skitten on 24th September. Just seven days earlier the squadron had made its first definite kill when, on 17th September, Flying Officer Tony Mottram found two large ships escorted by five flak ships off Egersund and successfully torpedoed the "Karpfanger", the larger of the two. The New Zealand Squadron left for Leuchars in October and by the end of the year had sunk a total of seven ships. This was no small achievement in itself since the Hampden was vulnerable in the face of enemy fighters and torpedo attacks airways involved great risks from flak; on some missions the loss rate was fifty per cent.
Since April, there had been a detachment of WelIington Mk. VIIIs. from No. 172 Squadron. On 1st September, the detachment was formed into No. 179 Squadron and continued on anti-submarine patrols until moving to Gibraltar in November. The Wellington proved to be a great success with Coastal Command and by May 1945 had accounted for fifty-one U-boats sunk or seriously damaged.
A number of squadrons were transferred from Bomber to Coastal Command and among them was No. 144 Squadron which was transferred to the latter Command on 21st April 1942, at Leuchars. A detachment of its Hampden I's was resident at Wick from April 1942 until January 1943. The mounting losses of the Hampden torpedo-bombers was giving cause for concern and a detachment of Beaufighter Mk. VIc's from No. 236 Squadron acted as escorts.
Comparable to Pilot Officer Michael Suckling's coup in 1941, when he photographed the "Bismarck" and the "Prinz Eugen", was the discovery of the German battle-cruiser "Scharnhorst" in January 1943 by a Wick aircrew. Flying Officer Edmund H. Jeffreys and his navigator, Flying Officer Robert A. lrving, of No. 236 Squadron set off from Wick in their Beaufighter on a dangerous reconnaissance mission off the Norwegian coast in a hunt for the "Scharnhorst" which was reported to have slipped out of Kiel and was heading north. In appalling weather conditions, Irving and Jeffreys spotted the battle-cruiser in the Skaw which promptly turned back to German waters. Both officers were decorated with the D. F.C. for their exploit.