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The RAF in Spitsbergen and North Russia, 1942
By Ernest Schofield, Roy Conyers Nesbit
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Ernest Schofield & Roy Conyers Nesbit
All rights reserved.
Many Royal Air Force (RAF) aircrews were required to fly on hazardous missions during the war. Some were aimed at specific and important targets with precise objectives, such flights normally being part of a squadron effort in which many aircrews took part. Occasionally, however, some tasks had to be carried out as lone operations, with little advance preparation. I was a member of an aircrew required to undertake such a series of flights, one of which probably ranks as among the most unusual of the war - a reconnaissance flight to the North Pole.
At a time when advances in technology have brought precision to air navigation and airlines make regular scheduled flights at high latitudes, such a task may now seem fairly inconsequential. However, for a squadron aircrew to be singled out and expected to tackle such a project in the circumstances of 1942 was unprecedented, especially since we ourselves were required to solve all the problems that were entailed.
The polar flight was associated with a Norwegian expedition from Britain to Spitsbergen. The original intention was that Coastal Command would play only an ancillary role in the operation. In the event, however, our aircrew became directly involved and other squadron aircrews also had to take part. These flights, and the impact that they made on the operation, constitute the main events in this narrative.
Immediately after the adventures in Spitsbergen and the attempt at the polar flight, a detachment of the squadron moved to North Russia to take part in an operation to protect convoys taking military supplies to our Allies on the Eastern Front. These Russian sorties provided further experience of Arctic flying and led to the tragedy that befell our aircrew.
All these northern patrols were long flights, many of them over twenty-four hours in duration, crossing the apparently endless expanses of Arctic seas in flying conditions that tested human endurance to the limit. In themselves, they are worthy of being placed on record. But of even greater significance is the recognition deserved by the men who made them possible.
The polar flight and the Spitsbergen sorties were exceptional, as was the captain chosen to undertake them. It was my privilege to be the navigator of his crew. This resulted partly from selection, but it could also be attributed to some accidents of fate. In fact, my position in the aircrew was somewhat anomalous since, although I volunteered for flying duties, it was expediency which prompted me rather than a wish to see action in the air.
I was born in 1916 of Yorkshire parents, Benjamin and Alice Schofield, in the moorland town of Penistone. Four years later, my family moved to Derby where I followed my elder brother to the municipal secondary school, which was later renamed Bemrose School. My strongest subject in the lower school was mathematics, but by the time I entered the sixth form geography occupied first place. This brought a scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge, where I changed my preference once again and read economics, gaining an honours degree in due course.
Cambridge provided an environment where hard work could be combined with a very enjoyable life style. Two hours rowing on the Cam every afternoon improved physical fitness. This offset the strain of grappling with the theories of John Maynard Keynes, the most eminent economist of the time. Listening to such great masters enlarged my appreciation of what seemed to be the unlimited capacity of some human intellects. We learned how to tackle the unknown and gained confidence in our ability to achieve results from logical analysis. The subject matter was to have little bearing on wartime activities, but it is probable that these studies engendered an attitude of mind which helped me in subsequent events.
It was extremely difficult to find a job in the inter-war years of depression. My solution was to stay on for a fourth year at Cambridge, reading history, until I was old enough to take the competitive entrance examinations for the Civil Service. I took up my first post in January 1939, in the Department of Inland Revenue. This turned out to be an occupation which, on the outbreak of war eight months later, carried 'reservation' from military service. This was no embarrassment to me. I was sure that I possessed no latent military talent, and I would have been quite content to make my contribution to the war effort as a civilian.
The rapid advance of the Wehrmacht across Europe changed my status. 'Dereservation' of my occupation brought the option of waiting for conscription or volunteering for the service of my choice. The Army did not appeal at all, for it carried the stigma of trench warfare in my estimation. The Royal Navy was also a non-starter, for I suffered from sea-sickness. On the other hand, the aircrew branch of the RAF seemed to offer some attractive features. New recruits could not be expected to know much about flying, so there would have to be a good training scheme. This might bring into play the only skill I had to offer the armed services: the ability to study and pass examinations. It also occurred to me that an aircrew was a small unit in which each member might exert some control over his own destiny. Another factor was the influence of the recruitment posters. They had a somewhat civilised look about them, for even the humblest airman wore a collar and tie. Perhaps there would be less unnecessary and irksome discipline.
There was no point in applying to train as a pilot. I had never owned a car or a motor bike and the internal combustion engine was an uninteresting mystery to me. I knew nothing about navigation either, but it might call for the sort of calculations that had appealed to me in the past. Thus, on 9 July 1940, I joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), seeking to become an air observer, which was the title given to the navigator in the recruitment literature.
After three days of examinations, interviews and inoculations, the Board Chairman at Cardington Reception Centre announced my fate. I was to be trained as a pilot! The Chairman seemed to expect an enthusiastic response. Instead, I tried to point out that there had been a mistake. The reaction was short and specific. There were to be no questions and no explanations. I was now in the Royal Air Force.
'Right turn, quick march!'
Once I had been selected for pilot training, everything happened at speed. The first step was to Babbacombe, to be kitted out. From there, we recruits moved a few miles along the coast to No. 5 Initial Training Wing at Torquay. We received elementary training in ground subjects, while physical training was high on the list of priorities. We ate well and put on healthy tissue.
From Torquay, our group of trainees were posted to an Elementary Flying Training School at Cambridge, where we began flying in Tiger Moths. The pressure was on and the rejection rate was high. One had to learn quickly or fall by the wayside, sometimes for reasons outside our control. Bad weather restricted the total number of hours available to the course, so that fewer trainees could reach the required number. Although my prowess in ground subjects gave cause for praise, my skill in the air did not develop sufficiently quickly. I was one of the last to be 'scrubbed'. It so happened that the casualty rate among that group of trainees was extremely high during the next two years, so that I can now look back with mixed feelings on that week of bad weather in the middle of October 1940.
So many ex-pupil pilots were queuing up at Babbacombe for training as air observers that a temporary ban was imposed on such remustering, but the Chief Instructor at Cambridge listened sympathetically to my pleas and turned a blind eye to the regulations. Fortunately, no one at Babbacombe raised any objections when I arrived, so that at last the RAF and I were not at odds about how I might best help the war effort.
Suspension from pilot training also brought my first opportunity to apply for leave. Only forty-eight hours were granted but that was enough for me; I married my wife Hattie on 19 October 1940. The honeymoon had to be delayed for a fortnight, but then Hattie joined me at the hotel in Babbacombe where I was billeted; this was another example of the war effort being helped by the turning of an official blind eye.
There were four stages in the training of air observers: Navigation School, Bombing and Gunnery School, Operation Training Unit, and finally training on an operational squadron. I was one of a group of trainees who were posted to No. 6 Air Observer Navigation School at Staverton, near Gloucester, on 9 December 1940. Classroom instruction was provided by former members of the Merchant Navy. They did their best, but to someone accustomed to university and Civil Service standards of instruction, there seemed to be scope for improvement. We were taught rule-of-thumb methods, without much reference to underlying principles. I had an innate objection to doing anything that someone told me was the correct method, without adequate explanation. The long and dark evenings gave me plenty of opportunity for private study to supplement the formal lectures. I delved quite deeply into most aspects of the course, to the amazement and even the disgust of those trainees who preferred the attractions of the canteen. When the course ended on 29 March 1941, I felt that I had acquired a good understanding of the principles of air navigation, as well as associated subjects such as maps and charts, meteorology, signalling and air photography. But I had little confidence in my ability to navigate an aircraft, even in daylight. Our training flights, in Avro Ansons, had usually ended over the required township, but I attributed that accuracy more to the pilot's knowledge of the terrain than to our navigational skill. We had become more accomplished at map-reading than dead-reckoning navigation. Most of my fellow-trainees went to Bomber Command, where proficiency in map-reading must have been particularly important at that stage of the war.
To my dismay, I learnt something else at Staverton. Even before take-off, the smell of an Avro Anson made me feel sick. Soon after we took off, that feeling became a reality, all too often. There was a handle beside the pilot's seat, which we had to wind at great speed to raise or lower the undercarriage. When it was my turn to carry out that chore, the effect on my stomach was usually disastrous. The RAF turned out to have a disadvantage comparable to that of the Royal Navy, with the saving grace that aircraft returned to base after shorter time intervals. It was possible that operational aircraft did not have the same pungent smell; I could only hope for the best.
The next stage of our training was No. 10 Bombing and Gunnery School, at Dumfries in Scotland. The Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley Mark IIs, from which we practised air gunnery, were too sedate to upset even my sensitive stomach, but the same could not be said of the Fairey Battles, which were used for bomb aiming. I could only claim credit for containing myself until we returned to the runway. I never dropped bombs in an operational squadron and only fired a machine gun on two occasions, so that little need be said about the course itself. An entry in my flying log book records my performance as 'Above average in theoretical knowledge. Requires more air firing practice.' My bomb aiming could have been described as abysmally poor, but some of the other trainees seemed little better.
The conclusion of this course, on 23 May 1941, brought the award of the observer's brevet and promotion, either to the rank of sergeant or commissioning as a pilot officer. There were thirty trainees on the course, nine of whom had been to public school and one, myself, to university. We expected about a third of us to become commissioned officers. In those days, schooling had a very strong bearing on selection. I was delighted to be the first called for interview by the squadron leader responsible for making the recommendations. However, I was very surprised to be greeted with a brusque accusation on entering his room.
'You're not fit to be a navigator!' 'Scandalous.' 'Outrageous.' 'It should be a court martial offence.'
These were just a few of the expressions which punctuated the ensuing tirade. I was too bewildered to guess what misdemeanour I had committed. When in trouble, say nothing. So I waited in silence, hoping for divine intervention.
Eventually, a chance remark from the adjutant, who had been standing behind the squadron leader, revealed the cause of the furore. It transpired that my medical record card, completed in Cardington three days after I had joined the RAF, designated that I was medically unfit to be an air observer. The card had been filed away and not re-examined until I was considered for a commission. A lot of effort and expense had been wasted in training me for a job that I was officially unfit to perform.
A lull in the storm enabled me to mention that King's Regulations forbade any airman from knowing the contents of his own medical record, and that up to then I had no knowledge of any medical defect. A heavy silence fell on the room, followed by smiles and sweet reasonableness.
'You've made a good point ... it would seem to let you off the hook ... unfortunately, it puts someone else right on it. ... we'll have to do something about it, shan't we?'
We had suddenly been united by a common purpose, and my respect for my commanding officer took a sharp upward turn. It was explained that the fault lay with my eyesight. I had known for a long time that I had an astigmatism in one eye, but presumed that this was so slight as to be of no significance. It was not bad enough to debar me as a pilot but it brought me just below the standard required for an air observer, who needed especially good eyesight to pick out landfalls and bomb targets. At last, my selection for training as a pilot rather than as an air observer could be explained.
The other members of the course were posted to Bomber Command Operational Training Units. I stayed behind, while the wheels of the RAF administration slowly turned. A long series of medical examinations then followed, at increasing levels of authority: bombing and gunnery school, station, group, command, and finally Adastral House in London, where a senior eye specialist held court. Yes, my eyesight was below the required standard, but only just. The standard itself was currently under review and might soon be amended. It would be a pity to waste all that training, at a time when qualified aircrew were so urgently needed. If I was still keen to fly ...
The medical officer took out his pen, deleted the letters 'un', and stamped and initialled the amendment. The record then read 'Fit pilot and fit air observer'. He said he hoped I wouldn't mind if he added a rider that it would be as well not to send me on night bomber raids, where a slight defect in the bomb aimer's vision might detract from the effectiveness of the mission. I had no objection whatsoever.
Back I went to Dumfries, to be commissioned and to await posting. That came a fortnight later. It was to No. 4 Coastal Command Operational Training Unit, at Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, in Scotland. It was a base for flying boats which, in those days, many airmen regarded as the aristocrats of the air. This type of operational flying certainly appealed to me as a budding air navigator.
There was a further reason why other trainees might have envied my good fortune. The statistics for aircrew losses (as shown later in a table sent to the Air Member for Personnel on 16 November 1942) showed that aircrew on Catalina flying boats had a 77.16 per cent chance of surviving a tour of operational flying. This was the highest survival rate in all types of aircraft. Comparable figures for the other trainees leaving Dumfries were 44 per cent for those posted to heavy bomber squadrons and only 25.2per cent on light bomber squadrons. Needless to say, the figures for two tours were correspondingly far less.
Before leaving Dumfries, on 7 July 1941, I was given a certified copy of Form 657, stating that I was medically classified to serve as both a pilot and an air observer. It was thought that such a certificate might help allay concern if other members of the crew saw me wearing spectacles. It was never necessary for me to produce the form, since only one eye was needed for drift measurements while binoculars could be used quite effectively as a spyglass. However, I have kept the document as a memento of the kindness of fate, for my guardian angel must have been working diligently on my behalf.
I found that I was one of ten air observers posted to Invergordon for operational training. We trained on two types of flying boat, an old Short Singapore and Saunders-Roe Lerwicks. The other nine trainees were Canadians and Australians, whose previous courses had included astro navigation. A special astro course could not be laid on just for me. I was given the appropriate manual, with instructions to read it up myself and to refer to the others if I needed any help. I required assistance only in the practical use of sextants. Most of my astro observations were taken from the ground, and I found that I regularly fixed the position of Invergordon to the east or west of its correct longitude. I soon realised that it was my watch which was inadequate. It was essential to have a service wristwatch which recorded Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) precisely; every second of timing error resulted in misplacing Invergordon by one eighth of a mile.
Excerpted from Arctic Airmen by Ernest Schofield, Roy Conyers Nesbit. Copyright © 2014 Ernest Schofield & Roy Conyers Nesbit. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Foreword by Sir Alexander Glen, KBE, DSC,
1 Reluctant Volunteer,
2 Sullom Voe,
4 On Our Own,
5 Operation Fritham,
6 Catalina 'P for Peter',
7 Turning Point,
8 Operation Gearbox,
10 The North Pole,
11 Operation Orator,
I Correspondence with Headquarters, Coastal Command,
II The Flight Made by Flight Lieutenant G.G. Potier,
III Polar Navigation,
Bibliography and Sources,