516 Combined Operations Squadron provided air support for Combined Operations training exercises in amphibious landings. As the landing craft approached the training beaches to discharge their troops, elements from the squadron would lay smoke and/or strafe the area to simulate the conditions the troops would encounter on enemy held shores. The Squadron also helped to calibrate the radar of the newly commissioned Fighter Direction Tenders. Much of the training and the squadron were located in the west of Scotland.
On the 27th October 1941 a reluctant Lord Louis Mountbatten was urgently recalled from Pearl Harbour to London by Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Mountbatten had taken time out while his beloved ship, HMS Illustrious, was undergoing repairs in Norfolk, Virginia. After a thorough briefing by Churchill at Chequers, Mountbatten took over the position of Adviser and Commodore of Combined Operations (A.C.O.) from Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Keyes. Mountbatten's primary task was to develop a strategy for invasion against the enemy in entrenched positions on the coast of mainland Europe. This included the acquisition and development of equipment and the recruitment and training of personnel. Above all Churchill wanted Mountbatten to think offensively while the three services where rightly preoccupied with the defence of the country.
Personnel from all 3 Services were at his disposal through the good offices of the respective Chiefs of Staff. The servicemen needed realistic training to work together as a single unified force. In the process the men would develop new techniques particularly in the important area of amphibious landings. To provide air support for these complex training operations and in calibrating and testing new equipment such as radar, an Air Staff with aircraft appropriate to the task, were needed for Combined Operations.
During the first meeting of the Combined Operations Policy Committee on the 6th November 1941, the question of the Air Staff needed by the A.C.O. was deferred to an Ad Hoc Committee. This was chaired by the Assistant Adviser on Combined Operations (Air) G/Capt Willetts, who was the most senior RAF Officer on the A.C.O.'s staff at the time. A number of important decisions were taken. The Air Staff would form part of the Combined Training Centre at Inveraray and would be commanded by a rank equivalent to Navy & Army ranks and that a composite or heterogeneous air squadron was needed for experimental purposes.
An exchange of letters followed between the A.C.O. and the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal. In his reply of the 8th Nov, Portal agreed to go ahead with the provision of a nucleus staff but he made no mention of the experimental squadron. On the 9th of November A.V.M.W.F.Dickson, Director of Plans at the Air Ministry, instructed the Director General of Organisation to establish the Air Staff but, once again, there was no decision on the formation of an Air Force Unit. On the 14th of January 1942 the Air Ministry at RAF Abbotsinch (now Glasgow Airport), announced the formation of the long awaited Air Force Unit. It was designated No. 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight and was to operate within No 17 Group at Abbotsinch until the emergency landing ground at Dundonald was ready.
LAC Ernie Saunders remembers his time at Abbotsinch with affection. "We were stationed at Abbotsinch for nearly a year and I regard it as one of the better places I visited. We were billeted in a Roman Catholic convent school on the Renfrew Road. It was quite unlike an RAF base as we lived a mainly alfresco existence with a complete absence of bull. We were issued with bicycles to go to and from the aerodrome and I can't recollect having a parade the whole time we were there. We used to call at the corner canteen on the way back from work and we were fed lovely fry ups by the local W.V.S. (Woman's Voluntary Service) ladies. Then back to our billet to prepare for a few pints at the Station Bar, then the Templars dance hall filled with all the local lovelies. There were reputed to be nine females to every male in Paisley at that time. Bliss! I was only 18!" Ernie was an ex Halton apprentice who joined the RAF in 1938. He was later promoted to Cpl. and was discharged from the RAF in 1948. He now lives in Swindon. The flight continued to operate at Abbotsinch until the 19th October 1942 when 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight completed their move to RAF Dundonald (Bogside) with 6 Officers & 90 Airmen.
A number of locations had been considered as the permanent base for the Air Force Unit including Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre. However, Dundonald in Ayrshire had a number of advantages in terms of proximity to the area of operations and better weather conditions. Dundonald had very humble origins. In October 1939 Bogside Farm was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for use as an emergency landing ground. The land was prepared and turf laid by local workers and, on completion, a simple cross was laid out on the turf as an aid landing. The airfield was immediately brought into use as a reserve landing ground for No 12 Elementary Flying Training School based at nearby Prestwick - an arrangement which endured until the unit disbanded in March 1941. RAF Dundonald soon became known affectionately by its local name of "Bogside."
RAF Dundonald (pre formation of 516 Squadron)
RAF Dundonald was located some miles inland from the Ayrshire coastal town of Troon. Before it could become the operational base for 1441 Flight new strengthened runways were needed. The ground was mossy so birch trees were cut down to provide a base for spoil taken from the nearby Hillhouse Quarry. On top of this Hessian material and a wire mesh were laid and secured by steel pickets driven into the ground. In this manner two runways were laid - No 1 being the longer at 1480 x 50 yards positioned to take advantage of the prevailing westerly wind and No 2 at 900 x 50 yards used as the secondary runway. There was also a small grass airstrip at the Dundonald Barrasie golf club which was used as an interim measure. (Photo; Dankeith House, courtesy Jim Rolt).
were formed from pressed steel planking (P.S.P.) which were later to be used
extensively in France after D-Day. Airfield buildings and accommodation were
quickly erected and officers were billeted at nearby Dankeith House with other
accommodation being provided at Auchengate Camp were all 3 Services shared
accommodation. Auchengate was later renamed Dundonald Camp because of its
association with the airfield. When the Navy arrived it became known as HMS
Dundonald. Airmen and N.C.Os (Non-Commissioned Officers) were billeted along
the Drybridge Road in Nissen Huts. Some of the officers had living out passes
and rented houses in the locality with their wives. The Bogside farm buildings
were used as the administration centre for the airfield (see photo above).
The suitability of the aircraft allocated to the flight was raised at an early stage with the C.C.O. In particular it was pointed out that the obsolescent Ansons & Lysanders not only hindered the development of doctrine and tactics, but was bound to have a bad psychological effect on Combined Operations personnel. It was not unreasonable to assume that the air aspect of Combined Operations was not worthy of a few modern machines such as Hurricane Mk l's.
The Combined Operations Policy Committee met to address some of these concerns. The flight was designated a "Development" unit with the mission to become expert in all air aspects of Combined Operations by evolving the best techniques appropriate to their tasks. Other operational squadrons were, periodically, to be affiliated to Combined Operations Command for exercises with the Army & Navy in the Dundonald area.
Sqd/Ldr Drinkwater took up command of 1441 Combined Operations Development Flight on the 28th Jan 1942. There were a number of VIP visits including one by Air Commodore F.W.Walker, Commander of the newly formed Air Staff at Inveraray. As the flight became operational, various squadrons (listed below) were attached for Combined Operations Training. Amongst the first were 239 Sqd., who were at Abbotsinch from May 2 - May 14, 21 Sqd. and 225 Sqd. The latter took part in the North African campaign (Torch) in Nov 42 where it flew tactical reconnaissance support for the 1st Army.
No 105 Wing, late of 71
Sqd, was established on the 28th Feb 1943 at Dankeith House. As Wing
Headquarters they carried out administrative work for all air staff located at
the various C.T.C. (Combined Training Centres) bases on the west coast of
Scotland under the Command of G/Capt Geoff Wood, O.B.E., D.F.C. This newly
formed wing also looked after 1441 C.O. Flight. HQ 105 Wing itself came under
the direct command of Air Commodore Orlebar at Combined Ops HQ at Richmond
Terrace, London. It also administered units at Inveraray Castle, Toward, Troon,
Skelmorlie, Arran and Largs. Air Commodore Orlebar was famous for his daring
exploits in the Schneider Trophy (high speed racing with powerful sea-planes)
when he flew a Super-marine S6 - the forerunner of the Spitfire.
On the 27th April
1943 1441 FIt. was disbanded and became 516 Combined Operations
Sqd. All personnel and equipment were signed over to 516 Sqd on the 28th
As the build-up of manpower and equipment accelerated the need to upgrade from the smaller flight to squadron strength was essential to meet increased demands for training. The roles given to 516 Sqdn were many and varied including smoke screen, laying attacks on naval shipping, tactical reconnaissance and attacks on ground forces practising the art of amphibious beach landings from landing craft. In all cases the involvement of the squadron had to be realistic and in many cases live ordnance was used. The job required some very low flying and accidents and fatalities were suffered in both aircrews and ground forces alike.
On the 6th of February 1944 three hurricanes from 516 Squadron took off from RAF Connell for a training exercise in the Kentra Bay area on the NE corner of the Ardnamurchan Peninsular (map opposite). Their task was to undertake mock, low flying attacks on amphibious landings. Their mission completed, they set course for RAF Connell but found themselves enveloped by thick cloud and mist that rolled in from the west at sea level. They split up and tried to reach any base they could. W/O Stephen made for RAF Tiree, Flt Lt Woodgate took a sea level route to RAF Connel via the Sound of Mull and P/O Larry Figgis climbed above the cloud ceiling at over 6000 ft on an easterly course. Not sure of his position, and running low on fuel, he was on the point of baling out when a small break in the cloud appeared below him. He dived through it to a successful belly landing in a field on Carse Farm near Stirling. The other two were not so lucky.
It was 3 days later on the 9th of February that police on the island of Coll reported finding W/O (Warrant Officer) Stephen's crashed Hurricane and the following day that of Fl/Lt Woodgate was found on the side of Beinn na Seilg near Ghleamn Locha Kilchoan Bay on Ardnamurchan. In 1995, at the instigation of Phillip Jones, a plaque dedicated to the memory of the pilots was secured to a granite boulder from which both crash sites were visible (see above). W/O J E Stephen RAF was 24 and Fl/Lt A J Woodgate RNZAF was just 21 years of age when they died. [Photos; top left W/O J E Stephen, bottom left Fl/Lt A J Woodgate with details of memorial plaque opposite right].
Tragically a month later Sgt Robert Rhodes lost his life when his Hurricane struck the ramp of a landing craft. His plane was never recovered from the sea and he is therefore remembered on the Runnymede Memorial. There were casualties too among the servicemen involved in the landing exercises - proof, if it were needed, of the realistic nature of these training exercises. In a very real sense the sacrifices of the few brave men who lost their lives during training exercises saved countless lives just over a year later. The success of the anticipated invasion would largely depend on the three services working together as a unified force. The combined training stood all concerned in good stead for the day that was to become etched in the minds of generations to come - D Day 6th June 1944.
Most of 516 Sqdn's flying was concentrated around Loch Fyne and along the Firth of Clyde from Barassie to Largs. When fighter aircraft were used in more distant places such as the Ardnamurchan Peninsular they used forward landing grounds, such as R.A.F. Connel near Oban and R.A.F. Tiree in the Inner Hebrides, for refuelling. Bomber aircraft could fly much greater distances and were not subject to these refuelling constraints.
Many other Sqds from both the R.A.F. and Fleet Air Arm were detached to Bogside for Combined Operations Training and other supporting roles. One such example was in the provision of air support in the calibration of radar and other electronic equipment on the three Fighter Direction Tenders in the River Clyde. Sea trials started on the 27th February 1944 and aircraft were provided by 29 Squadron RAF, 409 Sqd. RCAF and 516 Combined Operations Sqd. RAF, all flying from RAF Dundonald.
516 had a mixed bag of
aircraft including Hurricanes, Mustangs, Lysanders, Blenlheims, Ansons, a Miles
Master, a Tiger Moth and a Proctor. This allowed the unit to fulfil their
commitments to the other services but often under great pressure. As operation
Overlord approached the pace of activity at Bogside increased dramatically and
continued well after the event as exercises with units of the Fleet Air Arm were
undertaken. However, as the nature of the conflict in France changed the demand
for Combined Operations training diminished. This change of status was
recognised with the receipt of a signal on the 15th Aug 1944 from H.Q.105 Wing
at Dankeith - 516 Sqd was to move from 26 Grp Bomber Command to 44 Grp Transport
Command and would be administered from Prestwick.
516 Squadron - Memories of a Pilot - humorous recollections of New Zealander Douglas Shears who served as a pilot with 516 Combined Operations Squadron from 17/7/44 to late Dec 44.
Airfield Focus - No. 35 Dundonald by Phil Jones. Published by GMS Enterprises, 67 Pyhill, Peterborough, PE3 8QQ in 1998. 34 Pages. ISBN1 870384 66 0 £4.95
Damn my Two Left Feet....and how I Flew with Them by Doug Shears. Published 2001 by Jeff Mill & Associates 4/8 Nile Street, Timaru, NEW Zealand. Doug was a pilot with 516 and the book includes a chapter on his experiences with them.
If you have any information or book recommendations about 516 Combined Operations Squadron please contact us.
This account of 516 Combined Operations Squadron was based on research material provided by Phillip C Jones. Phill gratefully acknowledges the willing help of ex squadron members in the provision of photographs, illustrations and reminiscences.
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