No 350 SQN AND No 6350 SERVICING ECHELON, 1944-45
In late 1941 Fighter Command withdrew most of the ground crew from its squadrons and organised them into autonomous units known as Serving Echelons (SE) which were individually numbered within the 3000-series. In the spring of 1944, in preparation for the mobile warfare that was expected to follow the invasion of France, ADGB revised the system which was also adopted by 2nd TAF. Their SEs were numbered in a new 6000-series and now reflected the identity of the squadron which they supported, preceded by ‘600’, ‘60’ or ‘6’ as appropriate for squadrons with one-, two- or three-digit numbers. Thus No 6003 SE supported No 3 Sqn while the ground crews that looked after No 247 Sqn’s Typhoons formed No 6247 SE. Where practicable, an SE continued to support the unit with which it identified but when circumstances dictated, an SE might be required to work on the aeroplanes of any squadron.
Two days before D-Day Fg Off Donald Leslie ‘Slim’ Rowell was appointed OC 6350 SE which was then stationed at Friston maintaining the Spitfires of the Belgian-manned No 350 Sqn. He remained in post until October 1946 when the Belgian element of the RAF was reconstituted as La Force Aérienne Belge, its core being represented by the Spitfires of Nos 349 and 350 Sqns. Fg Off Rowell remained in Germany until 1948, now maintaining the Tempests of No 26 Sqn. The account that follows was found among his papers. Unfortunately, it is unsigned but it is handwritten and clearly the work of a member of No 6350 SE, not all of whom were Belgians. Although the prose is a little stilted, it has been only lightly edited in order to retain its immediacy.
An account of conditions when mobile and the eventual change to being static.
On June 6th 1944 350 Sqn and 6350 Echelon were stationed at Friston in the South Sussex Downs serving ADGB. At dawn the squadron was over the beachhead in Normandy doing support work. The squadron was equipped with Spit VBs which had clipped wings and cropped blowers. The youngest aircraft was nearly 400 flying hours old. The eldest well over 700 flying hours. Consequently the aircraft were known as clipped, cropped and clapped.
Ground crews were working over 100 hours per week, there being many glycol leaks, block changes and 14 engine changes in the short time we were there. Aircrews were doing three and sometimes four sorties daily, commencing before dawn and finishing after dark.
After a fortnight at Friston the order to move came through. Although having only a few hours in which to have all aircraft serviceable, all ground equipment packed in lorries, all men’s kit to be packed, tents to be taken down and packed, we were ready to move at the appointed hour – in teeming rain. We were thankful for one thing; there were plenty of trucks. More trucks that we’d had on previous moves and, as it turned out, many more than we received and accompanied further moves.
Our move was to Westhampnett where support and escort work were carried out by the squadron. We did not stay at Westhampnett long, but we changed our aircraft for Spit IXs. This was shortly before we moved. Our next move was to Hawkinge where we changed aircraft again. This time we were equipped with Spit XIVBs. Hardly had they been brought up to operational standard when we were equipped with Spit XIVEs. This latter change was due to the fact that the squadron were chasing flying bombs and the firepower of the XIVE being stronger and better suited than the XIVB. We did not keep the new XIVEs long for 130 Sqn took them away, over to the continent. This transference brought another move, this time to Lympne, where we were equipped with old worn out XIVBs and XIVEs.
At Lympne we were brought to the scale of 2nd TAF and entered 2nd TAF for we were due for a change of climate. Our departure was held up for six weeks. During the six weeks the squadron were on escort work, everything was packed ready to move at two hours’ notice, but the aircraft had to be serviced and kept flying, which they successfully were.
The day came however when we had to proceed to Tilbury and there some of us saw our first German soldiers. These were a dirty, bedraggled, smelling and mostly dejected looking bunch of Prisoners of War. It was a grand sight for the Belgians, for they knew that the enemy had been kicked out of their country, and were not they on their way to knock them further back still? And what a morale builder, if this was all there was to contend with, none of the fanatical Nazi about these, and super men – never!
From Tilbury to Ostend we went by LCT having to stand off shore for a few hours awaiting permission to enter the harbour. We entered in darkness and left |Ostend for Brussels. On arrival there we went to Evere (B56) and eventually laid down to sleep at 0400 hrs. Our beds were one groundsheet, three blankets and a hangar floor.
6350 Echelon were attached to 127 Canadian Wing, whilst 350 Sqn, still in England, did long range escort work, flying to Evere for inspections. Eventually the whole squadron moved over and were there in time to spend Xmas in Brussels. A good time was had by all at Xmas, despite the German boast, that being that they would be in Brussels on Xmas Day. Although a good time was had, there was still work to do, even though it was Xmas Day. The squadron at that time were providing air cover for our ground forces in the Ardennes push. The allied forces had much confidence in their armies and laughed at the thought of the Germans breaking through. The Belgian civilians did not display this same confidence; they fully expected to be under German domination once again. Maybe these thoughts were brought about by parachute scares and Germans being picked up in Brussels in American officers uniforms. After five or six weeks of Brussels we w ere moved again, from a land of p0lenty to a barren, open, bitter moorland.
We made the move in two parties and joined our parent unit, 125 Wing. A Party went to Y32, an American airstrip, on the borders of Belgium and Holland and not far from the German border. At that time we were only eight miles behind the front line, and were practically due west of Aachen. The first party, ie A Party, arrived two days before the New Year. On Dec 31st bombs were dropped in the vicinity, killing two soldiers. No one else was hurt, and only one house was damaged. The bombs had no effect on the New Year’s Eve festivities of either service personnel of civilians.
New Year’s Day dawned, a bright, clear and sunny morning. The atmosphere was exhilarating and it felt good to be alive. Most of the men were trench-digging, thoughts of the proximity of the front line causing this activity. Although the Americans laughed at us we went on digging. Our digging was not in vain – we laughed last. At approximately 0900 hrs, out of the peaceful skies, and unnoticed until on top of us, appeared between twenty and thirty |German aircraft. We jumped, not up, but down. One unfortunate F/Sgt had to jump into a trench that he had previously used as a lavatory; he received some of his own back.
We had eight aircraft on the ground. When ‘Jerry’ went away we had one serviceable and two which could be made serviceable after much hard work. I have never seen trenches made so quickly as were made by the Americans when Jerry kindly left us. Other damage was slight and there were three men wounded on the whole strip. We had no casualties. Our B Party at Evere were not so fortunate; they had two men wounded, both receiving leg wounds. They were drawn up on the tarmac in convoy, being briefed, just prior to moving off. They were held up by a few burst tyres but pushed on immediately the wheels were changed. They went to Diest but joined A Party on the strip a few days later.
The conditions at Y32 were pretty grim. The winter seemed to strike in January in full fury. Frosts were as thick a snow and for a fourteen day period the highest temperature recorded was 16ºF, the lowest -1ºF. These conditions made it pretty hard for the ground crews. They had to work out in the open, changing engines, repairing damaged aircraft and carrying out inspections. Pre-heater vans were used to warm men, machines and tools. The guards had to sleep in tents on the strip and do their rounds in the bitter cold. They had a lot of rum to keep them warm; small comfort, but better than none at all.
Tents were erected and used as offices where, even with heating lamps installed, ink froze on the pen as one attempted to write. Eventually a canvas hangar was erected. Advantages being , the keeping off of the wind and extension of working hours for R&I until 2100 hrs.
The roads, due to falls of snow and hard frosts, were like glass. It was a nightmare to drivers and several minor crashes occurred. Due to obliteration of tracks on the strip, and the glassiness of the surfaces a petrol bowser overturned and landed in a ditch; fortunately no one was hurt.
Living conditions were also grim. The men slept in a camp, complete with barbed wire encirclement, that had been used to house slave workers employed in a nearby coalmine. Beds were wooden frames with wooden battens, two-tier type. These beds housed the hardest biting bugs in Christendom and any amount of bug killer seemed to make them thrive, but not writhe. The SNCOs and officers were billeted in a nearby school and were in a much more comfortable position than the men, even though the officers were paid $/- per diem for sleeping in camp beds.
It was here that initiative was shown, so much so that American officers commented on it thus; ‘You guys amaze us. If you haven’t a thing, you just get organised and make-do. Our boys, if they haven’t a thing just sit on their fannies and bitch until they get it. They show no initiative like you fellers.’ This was apparent by the number of trucks used by the Americans, in comparison to the number used by the British. To move units of equal size. When the Yanks came in they brought a bed for every man, many had mattresses, huts and many other comforts. They even laid on a hot water system. To move an R&I consisting of 44 men, the British supplied three trucks to move the men, their kit and the aircraft servicing equipment. It was managed, but how I don’t know.
Apart from the hardships there were two little things to amuse us, such as snipers having a crack at the boys returning from bathing in the pit-head baths, about one mile from the camp. There was the odd spy around, two being caught dressed as Russian officers. Three German soldiers were caught near the airfield attempting to steal an army truck.
The squadron during the four of five weeks we were at Y32 covered the northern British front in Holland.
Again we were on the road, this time to Eindhoven. Arriving there we found a rather badly battered ‘drome, with bad roads. Due to severe frosts they had broken up. The SNCOs had to move from their mess, a nunnery (there was much conjecture as to the amount of Holy Water that would be needed to cleanse the air in and around the nunnery for the officers used a part of it) due to bad roads.
At Eindhoven there was quite a lot of flying, in consequence quite a lot of work. There was nearly as much sand there as there was in the Western Desert; that did not improve engines. The work was not in vain for the squadron was at last mixing it with ‘Jerry’ and were proving themselves and their machines superior to the enemy. Conditions were far better than those of Y32. We found the Dutch quite amiable and they made us welcome.
The Dutch were very short of food and there was a bad black market. There was tension in the atmosphere of Eindhoven. Was it war strain, or the odd V1? Or was it the number of convoys on their way south (building up for the offensive) which passed through Eindhoven that produced this tension? Was it due to the hate of the Dutch for the German, or was it the state in which the populace had been left? Whatever it was, maybe a little of each, the tension charged atmosphere could be felt. This was more noticeable and emphasised when, after three weeks at Eindhoven, we went to England. This time we went by air and it was the quickest move we had yet done.
We went to England, Warmwell, primarily for air-firing, but unofficially for a rest. It was good to be in England with spring in the air and the freedom which could be felt. The heavy, oppressive war-charged atmosphere was not to be found here. On the contrary, there was a gaiety, a freedom, and the war is over atmosphere. The complacent manner in which the Rhine crossing was greeted seemed to prove that those at home were quite content to let the lads over there keep on keeping on, so long as they were not brought in. The lads were putting up a magnificent show. Whilst in England we all had a 48 hour pass and the squadron managed to put in 70 hours flying more than any previous squadron. Trust them! On April 2nd we returned to Eindhoven by air.
Back at Eindhoven we found a A Party from the wing had crossed the Rhine in the wake of the Army, passing through burning Wesel to Rheine. Our aircraft helped to cover further Rhine crossings and to keep the Hun away from the Rhine. As there were only skeleton crews left to service other squadron’s aircraft (for A Party were on their own for 10 days) we helped to service these squadrons. After ten days we were again on the move, this time to Enschede, north of Arnhem and just inside Holland. We were the first RAF personnel in this area and we were heartily cheered by large crowds in several villages and towns.
To get to Twente (the name of the airfield) we had to cross the Rhine, enter Germany and then proceed into Holland. Some of the parties accomplished the Rhine crossing at night, thereby passing through bomb and shell battered Rees, Kalkar, Goch, Isselburg in darkness. Rather a weird experience according to some; it was their first trip into enemy territory and they knew not what to expect. They reached Twente quite safely, all their fears allayed. The first RAF boys to go into Enschede were taken for Germans, due to a similarity of uniform and had quite a hard job explaining that they were British. They were unmolested but only just. We were always looked upon suspiciously and were only there a week before further moving. This time we were going into enemy territory, to the most advanced airfield at that time, Celle.
We left Twente in the early hours of the morning, arriving at Celle in the evening. The armoured cars which were supposed to accompany us on moves in enemy territory were conspicuous by their absence. The trip through Germany was quite pleasant, the day being warm and sunny. There were white flags all over the place and evidence of skirmishes denoted by graves at the wayside. Evidence of tank movements shown by tracks in fields and an old tank or car bunt out or wrecked beyond repair. SS troops were being burnt out pf the woods as we passed through/
Our first day at Celle was greeted by five air raid alarms, plenty of ack-ack, the odd Hun, but no bombs. There was evidence, by the number of aircraft found intact, an others wilfully damaged, of the shortage of oil and petrol and of hurried evacuation of the German forces. Most of the aircraft were camouflaged in the woods around the aerodrome. Belsen was not far away and it was whilst we were at Celle that it was discovered.
The wing – now reduced to three squadrons – put up 133 sorties in one day. They shot down many German aircraft, forty-two in three days and brought the April total to 93 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 19 on the ground. All this was apart from damaged trucks, railway engines, trains and tanks whilst on armed recces. The last enemy aircraft of the war was shot down from Celle, 130 Sqn being the squadron; this was at 0750hrs on the day of cessation of hostilities in our area.[i] The squadron brought their total of enemy aircraft destroyed to 54, not bad considering they did not have many chances ‒ until the last fortnight ‒ of encountering the enemy. When they did meet they always proved themselves good fighter pilots and were always on top.
From Celle we moved to this beloved camp, Fassberg, on May 6th 1945. 125 Wing proceeded to Copenhagen and we joined 122 Wing. We celebrated the end of the war here and a reversion to peacetime activity was introduced immediately. However, we were not destined to remain here for long. 122 Wing went to Copenhagen and we rejoined 125 Wing at Husum. Our billets there were good; Germans were put out of their houses to make room for the victorious air force. Not long was spent in Husum where 125 Wing was disbanded, and once again we were on the road. This time to Wunstorf to join 123 Wing and to meet up with our younger sister squadron – 349. The rumours were as thick as flies in Fassberg, the outstanding one being that the Belgians were to form their own wing. Early in Dec we moved to Fassberg, where we have remained, forming our own wing in the style of the RAF and forming on static lines.
Being static is, in many ways, far better than being mobile, at least from our point of view of comfort and work. There is a decent room to sleep in, a decent bed – no Sommerfeld tracking converted into something resembling a bed. Working hours are better, weekends of and Weds afternoons for sport. There may be parades, which were absent in days of mobility but a parade is better.
When a squadron moves there is plenty of time and transport allowed, in order to carry out the move. No early morning moves; no middle of the might moves; no moves if a fair distance to be done in a day to be ready to receive aircraft the next day, carrying out operational duties with skeleton crews employed.
Due to being static, amusements and sport are organised, liberty runs to nearby towns. Not so in the days of mobility; there wasn’t time. Now there are gift shops, clubs and officers shops, etc nearby. One had to be lucky, when mobile, to be near these places and they were not near them for long.
The piping days of peace with their static airfields are far better than the broiling, toiling days of war, with mobility as the slogan.
[i] This was a Si204 shot down on 5 May (reportedly at 0630hrs) by a pair of No 130 Sqn’s Spitfires patrolling over Hamburg.