516 COMBINED OPERATIONS SQUADRON
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
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 to 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."
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 below).
The flight was to be trained in all aspects of air co-operation involving
fighter support and control, smoke laying, close support bombing and front gun
recognition of assault ships, landing craft and H.M. ships. In those early days
the establishment aircraft amounted to 2 Ansons, 2 Lysanders and a Tiger Moth. A
lone Mustang joined the flight during Feb 42 followed by another Mustang and a
Mk1 Hurricane in August and, in September, a second Hurricane Mk1. Both the
Hurricanes were "well used" and, as if to prove the point, W9187 was written off
in Sept 42 when, the then F/O (Flying Officer) Rymer, crash-landed at Firnock
near Inverkip in the Clyde. Engine failure caused by a fractured camshaft in the
Merlin 3 engine was later found to be the cause.
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
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. W/O J E Stephen, RAF, was 24
and Fl/Lt A J Woodgate, RNZAF, was just 21 years of age when they died.
See also 'Correspondence' below. [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
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
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.
Squadrons Attached to 516 Squadron
The First four as 1441 Flight
Abbotsinch, Glasgow, the fifth as 1441 Flight at Dundonald and the remainder as
516 Squadron RAF at Dundonald.
Training and Operations
2/5/42 to 14/5/42
Mustang Mk 1s
Training in Tactical
Reconnaissance. In June 42 commenced ground attack
and tactical reconnaissance sorties over France
13/5/42 to 15/5/42
No training as such
at Abbotsinch but used Dundonald as a staging post
on the way back from the Middle East to Ayr.
Mostly Malta based. Arrived Algeria Nov 42 and was
involved in N Africa (Op Torch) mainly on bombing
13/5/42 to 21/5/42
Hurricanes & Mustang
Training in Tactical
Served in N Africa
(Op Torch) on tactical reconnaissance for 1st Army
20/5/42 to 22/5/42
Took part in Exercise Schuyt 3.
On the 6/12/42 the Sqdron's first
operation took place when 17 Blenheims bombed
the Phillips factory at the Dutch city of
Eindhoven during daylight.
11/3/44 to 24/3/44
Trained in naval
bombardment spotting for D-Day landings + aerial
photography of German coastal defences in France.
27/2/44 to ?
Provided air support for the
calibration of radar and other aids onboard Fighter
Direction Tenders. The squadron was a night fighter unit and
in May 44 became part of 2nd Tactical Air Force (T.A.F.)
becoming fully involved in intruder missions and flying
night cover over the Normandy beachhead.
28/2/44 to 11/3/44
Trained in tactical reconnaissance in preparation for
Overlord. The Squadron joined 2nd T.A.F. on its formation
and was engaged in reconnaissance as its main role but also
took part in offensive patrols over France. As D-day
approached 414 began to build up coverage of enemy defence
positions. The unit later converted to Spitfires.
26/3/44 to 8/4/44
Trained in Naval Bombardment
In June 1943 268
Squadron joined the newly formed 2nd T.A.F. in preparation
for the invasion of Europe after being given a course in
spotting for naval bombardment in the Clyde. A task the unit
undertook during D-day.
9/4/44 to 21/4/44
Training in providing landing
and battle ships with directions. Improved technology
resulted in two equipment changes and the allocation of
Spitfires rather than Hurricanes by D-Day. They flew many
sorties spotting for the naval guns bombarding shore
10/4/44 to 21/4/44
Trained in naval gun spotting. Spitfires were used over
Normandy reverting to Mustangs later.
~ Fleet Air Arm
Squadrons on detachment to R.A.F. Dundonald 43/44 ~
24/4/43 to 1/5/43
Participated in Naval Exercise at Dundonald and left for
Stretton. Took part in the Salerno landings. On return to
the U.K in Feb 44, 879 Squadron formed part of the 4th Naval
Fighter Wing absorbing the aircraft and some crew of 886 Sqd.
6/4/44 to 12/4/44
Calibration trials of Radar Equipment on newly equipped
Fighter Direction Tenders which later provided sea borne
radar, communications and beacon cover off Normandy for
about 3 weeks in June 1944.
22/4/44 to 6/5/44
Trained in bombardment, spotting & target reconnaissance. In
May the unit was attached to No 34 Recce Wing of 2nd T.A.F.
By the time of Normandy the squadron was equipped with
Seafires and put its training to good use.
22/4/44 to 6/5/44
Trained in bombardment spotting and escort work.. Formed
part of the Air Spotting Pool of 34 Recon Wg 2nd T.A.F.
providing Bombardment Spotting and Escort's for the Invasion
Fleet. In July 44 885 Squadron absorbed the remnants of 886
and 897 F.A.A.Sqdn's.
6/5/44 to 21/5/44
Training in tactical reconnaissance and bombardment spotting
work. On D-Day 897 was responsible for shooting down an Me
109 and damaging a midget submarine.
13/5/44 to 20/5/44
Trained in Bombardment Spotting and Target Reconnaissance
Training. From D-day 886 operated as part of the Air
Spotting Pool of No 34 Recce Wg 2nd T.A.F. undertaking
bombardment spotting, offensive sweeps, escort and
anti-submarine patrols In July 44 it was absorbed into 885
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.
A notice to disband
after the 2nd Dec was received and by 31st Dec 44, 516 Sqd no longer existed.
It had been a living, vibrant community for 20 months and now there was nothing
left. Personnel were posted to other units and Bogside, the location of so much
frenetic activity, was placed on a care and maintenance basis with the objective
of keeping the airfield in good working order for possible future operations and
as a emergency landing ground.
The Royal Navy returned to Bogside in
March 45 to test a target glider and the airfield served as an emergency landing
ground on several prior occasions. The army's 22nd Beach Signals Unit used the
station for accommodation purposes during May 45; but all this activity was of
an ad hoc nature and was unable to secure the future of the airfield which
officially closed on 1st Aug 1945. The Army retained control of the site until
it was derequisitioned in1952 when it was returned to farmland. Fifty years on
the second runway can still be seen in places as can the airfield drainage and
the concrete foundation of one of the windsocks. These remnants are all that
remain as evidence of the vital role R.A.F. Dundonald, and 516 Combined
Operations Squadron, played in the preparations for D-Day.
There are over 200 books
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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
plaque, commemorating Warrant Officer John Stephen, was unveiled on 18th August
2008, close to the spot on the Isle of Coll where his Hurricane plane crashed in
1944. Relatives travelled from London and a great nephew flew from Hong Kong to
be present. They were joined by some islanders to witness the unveiling of the
plaque which was draped with a Union flag. A thin drizzle slightly marred the
It was mainly as a
result of police Sergeant Neil Owen’s efforts that the event took place. Owen
(seen crouched next to the plaque) had researched and written about the 1944
event, i.e. the flight of three Hurricanes from Oban’s Connel airfield.
The relatives met the islander who, as a young lad, had heard the crash but then
had difficulty convincing adults of the situation. After the unveiling, they saw
some of the few remains of the plane and were given a tour of the island.
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.