Author Guest Post: Dilip Sarkar MBE
The Battle of Britain, Bibury, Bombs – and ‘Canslaw’…
Never does it cease to amaze how the Battle of Britain, that epic sixteen-week long aerial conflict fought during the summer and autumn of 1940, can reach out from the most unlikely places – and how sometimes serendipity places an unexpected part…
South Wales, of course, is home to the ports of Cardiff and Swansea, and the West Country of England was home in 1940 to several aircraft factories, including the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, the Parnall Aircraft Company at Yate, and Westlands at Yeovil – all important targets requiring protection. So it was that on 18 June 1940, the Spitfires of 92 Squadron left Hornchurch in Essex to operate from Pembrey in South Wales, from where it was to cover South Wales, the Bristol Channel and the West Country.
The daylight air fighting associated with the Battle of Britain began on 2 July 1940, although the official start-date is 10 July 1940, and 92 Squadron took a toll of German reconnaissance bombers and nuisance raiders. As the tempo of battle increased, however, it became clear that more support was required, and so, on 7 August 1940, Flight Lieutenant Ian ‘Widge’ Gleed DFC led the Hurricanes of his ‘A’ Flight of 87 Squadron from Exeter to ‘Bibury Farm’ – or more precisely RAF Bibury located at Ablington, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds – for night-flying duties. Built in 1939 as a relief landing ground for No 3 Service Flying Training School at nearby South Cerney, Bibury – a Cotswold beauty spot – was an unlikely scene for derring-do.
When Gleed’s Hurricanes arrived at Bibury, facilities were scant: a dispersal hut and several Nissen huts had been erected on the north-eastern side of the airfield, which became 87 Squadron’s dispersal area. Groundcrews were accommodated in bell tents, whilst the more fortunate pilots found officers billeted at Walton House in Northleach, sergeant-pilots at the ‘Red Lion’. Despite the tranquil setting, 87 Squadron soon had action, when on ‘A’ Flight’s first night at Bibury Pilot Officer Peter Comely claimed a He 111 destroyed.
Amongst 87 Squadron’s pilots were a couple of keen amateur photographers, including Sergeant Laurence ‘Rubber’ Thorogood, who took a number of unique snapshots at Bibury during 87 Squadron’s short time there – perhaps the most poignant being a photograph of Flight Lieutenant Gleed and for other pilots outside Bibury’s famous Swan Hotel – including Pilot Officer Comely, who was killed in action in a huge air battle over Portland and Weymouth Bay on 15 August 1940 – the Battle of Britain’s greatest day.
On the afternoon of 18 August 1940 – another hard-fought day over southern England – ‘A’ Flight of 92 Squadron, commanded by Flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcome, relieved 87 Squadron at Bibury.
At 1500 hrs the following day, a Ju 88 bomber attacked Bibury, machine-gunning and dive-bombing the airfield, aiming for the dispersal area. Spitfire L1080 was seriously damaged, and three more of 92 Squadron’s aircraft slightly so. One airman ‘on defensive duties’ was killed: Aircraftman 2nd Class Arfon Jones, who, so the story goes, whilst everyone else dived for cover, ran to a mounted Bren gun and returned the enemy’s fire, only to become the focus of the Ju 88’s next strafing attack. The son of Owen and Elizabeth Jones of Bodorgan, Anglesey, the brave Welsh teenaged airman was buried at Dylais Higher (Brynbedd) Cemetery in Glamorgan.
The raid was, however, not exactly planned. Following heavy losses to lone raiders early in the Battle of Britain, by order of Reichsmarschall Göring himself such harrassing attacks by lone aircraft – known as Störflug – were only to be undertaken by experienced crews having made a detailed study of their target. In a report of ‘Erfolgemeldungen’ (literally translated as ‘success stories’) from Fliegerkorps V to the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL), the Luftwaffe high command, we know that the actual target of the Ju 88 involved, which belonged to III/KG51 ‘Edelweiss’, based at Etampes-Mondésir, South of Paris, was not Bibury airfield – but the established aerodrome and RAF station at Little Rissington, ten miles to the north-east. That Little Rissington was selected as the target for this raid, however, is simply further evidence of poor Luftwaffe air intelligence, which contributed greatly to the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain. The objective was to destroy Fighter Command – but Little Rissington was unconnected with Britain’s air defences, simply being a flying training school. Having mistaken Bibury for their intended target, this enemy crew got lucky, given that RAF fighters were operating from this minor airfield. That ‘luck’, however, would be their downfall.
As the Ju 88, fuselage codes 9K + FR, was attacking, at 1500 hrs 92 Squadron’s Flying Officer James Paterson, a New Zealander, Yellow 1, and Pilot Officer Trevor ‘Wimpy’ Wade, Yellow 2, scrambled in the Spitfires and gave chase. Paterson later reported that: –
‘Yellow 1 and 2 went in a southerly direction following enemy aircraft (E/A) until lost in cloud. Sometime later when near Southampton they got a vector from Filton which took them towards Anti-Aircraft fire from Southampton Docks. Ju 88 was first sighted flying south-east, down the Solent. Yellow 1 did a beam attack on the starboard from underneath from 200 yards. Coming round to a stern attack firing short bursts at various angles of deflection. Thick smoke poured from port engine and top two guns could be seen hanging down the sides of the E/A. As I pilled away having expended all my ammunition I noticed the port engine had stopped and was on fire, and E/A was losing height rapidly. I saw Yellow 2 take up the attack from astern and expend all his ammunition. E/A now flew low over the sea in SE direction for a few minutes and then turned and flew parallel with the coast, and then was seen to turn inland. Immediately it turned I saw E/A dive into the sea and disappear’.
Feldwebels Moser, Haak and Schachtner, and Unteroffizier Bachauer, were all killed.
This was not quite the end of the story, however: Pilot Officer Wade’s Spitfire, R6703, had been hit by return fire from the Ju 88 and so badly damaged that he struggled to regain the coast. Fortunately he did, and having landed, wheels-up, in a field near Selsey Bill, even luckier was that fact that immediately Wade had got clear of the aircraft it exploded. Wade survived the war but was killed test-flying in 1951. Pilot Officer Paterson, however, would not survive the Battle of Britain: on 27 September 1940 he was shot down in flames and killed.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and my research work led me to contact 87 Squadron’s Squadron Leader Thorogood DFC – as he became – who so kindly shared with me his wonderful memories and photographs. Similarly, I talked of Bibury days with both Group Captain Kingcome DSO DFC, and a certain Squadron Leader Geoffrey ‘Boy’ Wellum DFC, who was amongst ‘Kingpin’s’ pilots at Bibury and at eighteen one of the youngest of The Few. Sadly, ‘Widge’ Gleed – the ‘Wizard Midget’ – was killed whilst leading a Spitfire wing in Tunisia – but left behind his memoir, first published in 1942, entitled ‘Arise to Conquer’. In 2021, we at Pen & Sword released a new version of this excellent first-hand account, with extra historical detail from me completing Gleed’s story – and including ‘Rubber’ Thorogood’s 87 Squadron snapshots, including those taken at Bibury. And then serendipity stepped in.
Today, the former Bibury airfield has largely returned to the plough – although situated at what was one the base’s main gate is now the ‘Classic Motor Hub’, an impressive classic car sales, storage and collection concern owned by Martin Chisholm – who shares a great interest in Bibury’s august past. By sheer coincidence our neighbour, retired Major Stephen Clark MBE was formerly Martin’s long-time Operations Manager. Stephen shares a love of military history and knowing of my interest in RAF Bibury, made the introduction. Simultaneously, by sheer coincidence, Martin Mace, my Commissioning Editor at Pen & Sword and great friend, came by several unique snapshots of delayed action bombs exploding at Bibury after the raid on 19 August 1940! Indeed, one of those photographs, since colorised, has found its way onto the cover of the fifth of the eight volume official history of the Battle of Britain I am currently working on for the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust and National Memorial for The Few, to be published by Pen & Sword over the next several years.
Thanks to Martin Chisholm and Martin Mace’s photographs, Stephen and I were able to locate exactly where ‘Rubber’ Thorogood’s snapshots were taken and match up our own ‘then and now’ shots. Metal detecting has yet to produce a find from the period, because the whole area is littered with what is amusingly described on the excellent MacKenzie Crook Detectorists series as ‘Canslaw’, meaning metallic debris of no interest – but we live in hope.
On 1 and 2 July 2023, there will be a Club Weekend at the Classic Motor Hub, at which I will be presenting on the former airfield’s Battle of Britain history, and doing a book signing or two, featuring Arise to Conquer and my new photographic book Faces of The Few, and my close friend Scott Booth will be exhibiting the inspirational ‘Laguna’s Spitfire Legacy Project’. This promises to be a great weekend on an actual former Battle of Britain airfield – so please contact the Classic Motor Hub for more information.
What would really finish off this story is a memorial to all those who lost their lives at RAF Bibury during the Second World War – in connection with which we would welcome contact with the family of the AC2 Arfon Jones mentioned in this article.
Dilip Sarkar MBE FRHistS, 27 February 2023
Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs Dilip Sarkar Archive.
Dilip Sarkar’s website.
Dilip Sarkar’s YouTube Channel.
The Classic Motor Hub.