by Eric Brown
This is the third and final article in a three-part series on the life of Second World War veteran Peter Biddlecombe.
Was Peter now a better pilot? Reading the comments of his trainers at the various schools he attended after completion of basic training gives the impression of a young man of average academic ability, enthusiastic about flying but who found the theoretical and academic subjects difficult. Several of his instructors thought him lazy but this could have related to him being overwhelmed by the challenging academic subjects. His over confident demeanor could have been a way to hide his shortcomings.
The bombing instructor at No. 34 Operational Training Unit [OTU] noted Peter “belittles the value of ground instruction” and this was “associated with his relatively poor standing in ground training. Bombing results, however, showed a consistent improvement.” Indeed, his marks were not noteworthy: ground training subjects earned him 67%, flying only 66% – a “good average”. The chief ground instructor at 34 OTU, however was more encouraging, writing that Peter was “[k]een and has ability, but believes his way of doing a job is best. Sgt Biddlecombe has improved considerably during his time at this unit. He is very keen on gunnery.’ This opinion was supported by the OTU’s Chief Instructor. In his comments, he rated Peter as “[a] good average pilot, has taken intelligent interest in his course.” The training establishments in Canada had done all they could to prepare Temporary Sergeant Biddlecombe for the next level of his training and eventual assignment to an operational bomber squadron in England.
Peter now followed the established route for airmen en route to the war in Europe. From 34 OTU he was taken on strength [TOS] at 1 “Y” Depot in Halifax on 2 October to await orders sending him by rail to New York City. “Y” was a holding or gathering establishment for BCATP graduates from bases across Canada to assemble prior to starting their journey to England.
Peter sailed on the 9 October 1943, arriving in Greenock, Scotland, on 16 October after an uneventful crossing. From Greenock he travelled south by train to Bournemouth and was TOS at No. 3 Personnel Reception Centre [3 PRC], RAF Bournemouth. All arriving RCAF personnel passed through here to be issued new uniforms, flying kit and identification cards.[i] The kit included battledress jacket and trousers, flying suits, fleece-lined boots, helmets and goggles and chamois-lined leather gloves. New arrivals could spend two or three months at 3 PRC waiting to be assigned for additional training. This was not entirely a holiday-break as there were still many things to be learnt before going on operations. At the end of November Peter was sent to RAF Whitley Bay to attend the four week Aircrew Non-Commissioned Officer School. Staffed by the RAF Regiment, candidates were taught survival and escape techniques, duties of an NCO and refreshed on the use of small arms. He left Whitley Bay on 22 December, 1943, and returned to Bournemouth having achieved only 43% as his final grade. There is nothing on his file to explain the dismal results, but he did keep his stripes and continued with his training.
On 5 January 1944, Peter posted from 3PRC to RAF Wheaton Aston in Staffordshire. Six specialized training units were based here and two of them, No. 21 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit [No. 21 (P)AFU] and No. 1511 Beam Approach Training Flight [1511BAT], were the last hurdles to pass before his final OTU training and assignment to an operational squadron. But first he had to be trained on a new aircraft, the Airspeed Oxford. This aircraft and the Avro Anson did not differ significantly in size, weight and performance, and both were fitted with the same engines so the transition was not difficult.[ii] However, flying conditions over the British Isles were unlike clear Canadian skies. Training continued under atrocious weather conditions such as fog and mist. Navigation and night flying, which featured prominently in a pilot’s regime, could be unnerving because of black-out conditions. City lights had been extinguished, the hilly terrain and the roads and rivers were unfamiliar; to the uninitiated it was like flying in a coal mine. Peter made it through this phase attaining a score of 57%. Once again, he earned faint praise: “[a]n average pilot who seems a little slow and under confident.” In spite of all the poor assessments over the past two years, Peter was promoted to Temporary Flight Sergeant on the 11 March. No doubt this was a big boost to his self confidence and esteem.
Still flying Airspeed Oxfords, Peter moved on to 1511 BAT Flight and instrument flying. He was introduced to the Beam Approach Beacon System [BABS], the predecessor of present day instrument landing aids. BABS was not complicated. Its purpose was to aid pilots landing in conditions of poor visibility. This was accomplished by a beacon at the end of the runway which transmitted a constant narrow signal which the pilot heard as he approached the runway threshold. If the aircraft was to the left or right of the beam the pilot heard dots or dashes and corrected his position until he heard a steady tone. He also listened for other distinct signals which indicated how far he was from a safe touchdown.[iii] He passed BABS and the instrument flying course with 56%. The commanding officer of 1511 BAT flight rated Peter as “Rather a slow and dim type who lacks confidence in himself. his (sic) flying needs to be polished up before it is average standard.” He was now ready for the last stage before going on operations.
On 28 March, 1944, Peter reported to 13 OTU at RAF Bicester in Oxfordshire. This OTU was dedicated to training pilots and aircrew for North American Aviation’s B-25D medium bomber, known as the Mitchell in the RAF. A versatile, rugged aircraft of all metal construction, and an effective day or night bomber, the B-25 could deliver up to 1,361 kg. of bombs over a distance of 4,265 kilometers at speeds of approximately 450km/h.[iv] The RAFs version, Mitchell II, mounted one .303 inch machine gun in each wing whilst the dorsal and ventral turrets were fitted with a pair of 0.5 inch machine guns. At 13 OTU the aircrews exercised and improved upon all of the skills they had acquired to date – night and instrument flying, bombing, gunnery tactics and navigation. Temporary Flight Sergeant (P) Biddlecombe was rated as fit for operations and left the OTU on posting to 226 Squadron (RAF) on 8 May 1944. The chief instructor rated Peter as “[a]n average pilot. Has been rather rough and careless during his day flying, but at night was good. Suggest his flying is watched carefully at his squadron.”
226 Squadron [226 Sqn], based at Hartford Bridge, Hampshire, was part of the RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force [2TAF] flying the Mitchell Mk. II.[v] 2TAF’s role in the forthcoming invasion (Operation Overlord) was the provision of air support to the invading Allied armies. Pre-invasion, D-day the 6th of June, the medium bomber squadrons were tasked with the destruction of German airfields, supply and ammunition dumps, artillery and V-weapon emplacements, barracks – anything to make living and fighting debilitating and deadly for the Wehrmacht.
We do not know when Peter made his first operational flight, but we can reasonably assume the squadron wanted the new crews to gain as much experience as possible before D-Day. Weather permitting, it is likely all crews were airborne every day; there were no days off for the air forces. Ground crews were busy too, ensuring the maximum number of bombers were ready for the tasks ahead.
There was much activity on all of the 2TAF airfields and 226 Sqn.[vi] Experienced and newly arrived aircrews were learning the tactics to be employed during the invasion, improving their ground attack and bombing skills, and brushing up on the drills for ditching at sea. The pilots and navigators were learning how to use the newly installed navigation aid known as Gee. The system made it much easier for the navigator to accurately establish the bomber’s position in relation to the target, especially when bombing at night or through cloud cover. The great advantage of Gee in its early operational life, before the Germans devised counter-measures, was the passive role of the aircraft – it received the signal from ground stations in England but did not transmit any signals in reply. An added benefit of Gee was its use as a guide to aircraft returning home after a raid. Navigators used the incoming signal to plot a route home.[vii]
On D-Day and the days immediately following, the 2TAF squadrons’ most important functions were to prevent the movement of Wehrmacht infantry and armoured formations to the invasion beaches and keep the Luftwaffe out of the skies over Normandy. Biddlecombe and his crew, Sgt. R.W.T. Uhlens, RCAF, [air gunner], F/Sgt. D.G. Badgery, Royal Australian Air Force, [navigator] and F/Sgt. D.A.J. Ahearn, RAF, [wireless operator/air gunner], and four other 226 Sqn Mitchells were given orders for a flare dropping mission over the invasion area. This was Peter’s twenty-second operation. The squadron’s Operations Record Book [ORB] records the mission:
June 18- Reporting after lunch, an operation was laid on for early evening. More flak was encountered than has been for some time. 5 crews were detailed during the night for flare dropping patrols, from which Sgt. Biddlecombe and crew reported missing.[viii]
Flare dropping operations were laid on in conjunction with night interdiction raids conducted by Mosquito fighter-bombers. “Bombed up with bundles of reconnaisance flares, 56 to a bundle and each flare with an intensity of several thousand candle power,… the Mitchell would fly to the target area at about 8-10,000 feet while a pair of Mosquitos would come in at low level. When all aircraft were in position the Mosquito pilots would call for a light. The Mitchell crew would then carry out a bombing run and drop the flares, by the light of which the Mossies would attack with cannon and bombs and rockets….”[ix] The loads for each of the Mosquitos varied so they could deal with whatever sort of target presented itself in the flare light; for instance, rockets for armoured vehicles, cannons for trucks or bombs against bunkers.
It happened often – an aircraft and crew lost without a trace. No Mayday call was heard, no explosion in the sky was seen. The loss could be due to anti-aircraft fire (flak), night-fighters, or perhaps the aircraft broke apart in flight due to sustained damage. No one in the other Mitchells saw Biddlecombe’s aircraft disappear. The squadron launched two sorties on the morning of the 19th to search for the missing airmen:
At 0700 hours, two a/c took off on a sea search for Sgt. Biddlecombe and crew off the Channel Islands without success, the same crews taking off again at 1350 hours but still no dinghy sighted…[x]
The searchers retraced the route the missing aircraft was supposed to follow back to the home base, keeping a sharp eye over the water and land in hopes of finding some sign of the crew or aircraft. In this case, nothing was seen.
However, Peter Biddlecombe’s story does not end with his disappearance. As many readers may know, the Channel Islands, Guernsey, Jersey, Herm, Sark and Alderney, were occupied by the Germans on 1 July 1940. The Germans, Wehrmacht, Kreigsmarine, Luftwaffe and Organization Todt, remained in place until surrendering to the liberating British forces on 9 May, 1945. The garrison at this time was about 27,000 strong.[xi] Five weeks later the badly decomposed body of an airman washed ashore on Guernsey. The civilian police report states: “Canadian Airman, Supposed. Unidentified, Body not seen by Police or local officials, said to have been found on the rocks at Fort George in a very decomposed conditioned. Buried in the Military Cemetery, Fort George at 11 a.m. 26.7.44.”[xii]
That same day The Guernsey Evening Press printed a short article about the airman’s burial: “Funeral of Airman. The funeral of an Allied airman took place at the Military Cemetery, Fort George at 11 o’clock this morning.” The funeral was attended by seven officials of the Guernsey government and two German officers.[xiii] How his body was identified is not known, but could have been done by markings on his uniform or the identification discs worn around his neck. The grave was not opened after the war to verify his identity.[xiv]
F/Sgt. Peter Biddlecombe lies in grave number 34, next to an RAF sergeant and an unknown RAF airman. Peter is the only Canadian serviceman buried in the Channel Islands. The airmen’s graves overlook those of 111 German soldiers, sailors and merchant seamen who died on Guernsey during the Occupation.[xvi] F/Sgt. Ahearn’s body was recovered from the sea by the Germans and buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Bayeux, France. While they are commemorated on the RAF’s Runnymede Memorial near Egham, Surrey, England, the bodies of F/Sgt. Badgery and Sgt. Uhlen are still yet to be found.
[i] Spencer Dunmore, Reap The Whirlwind. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. 1991). Pp. 49-50. Also Peden, Murray. A Thousand Shall Fall. (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd. 1988). Pp. 110-12.
[ii] Airspeed Oxford. www.bombercommandmuseum.ca
[iii] BABS Mk1C. www.rafmuseum.uk/research/archive-exhibitions/worth-a-thousand-words-air-diagrams/babs-mk1c.
[iv] Charles A. Medenhall, Deadly Duo. The B-25 B-26 in WW-II. (Osceola. 1981). P. 144.
[v] David Ian Hall, “Creating the 2nd Tactical Air Force RAF” Canadian Military Journal 3, no. 4 (2003): 39-45. and Hugh A. Halliday, “Mitchell Men: Medium Bombers At War: Air Force, Part 56” Legion Magazine, April 2013.
[vi] Jerry Scutts, B-25 Mitchell at war. Pp. 95-106 describes the activities of the RAF’s 2 Group and 226 Squadron in June 1944.
[vii] Robin Neillands, The Bomber War. (New York: The Overlook Press. 2001). Pp. 68-9.
[viii] Operations Record Book, 226 Squadron, RAF, 1-30 June 1944. The National Archives, Kew, UK. Air 27/1407/11.
[ix] Scutts. Pp. 98-9.
[x] ORB. 226 Sqn.
[xi] Charles Cruikshank. The German Occupation of the Channel Islands – The Official History of the Occupation Years. (The Guernsey Press for the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum. Guernsey. 7th ed. 1988). P. 306.
[xiii] Island Archives, States of Guernsey Policy Council. PC 175-05 November 1943 – November 1945. Occupation Files – Servicemen Washed Ashore (PR/2/1D). Copy courtesy of the Channel Islands Occupation Society, St. Peterport, Guernsey.
[xiv] “Funeral of Airman.” Guernsey Evening Press, Wednesday, July 26, 1944.
[xv] Number 1 MREU RAF Report 1MREU/S.8/XF1320/Air, 8 October 1946.
[xvi] George Forty, Channel Islands at War – A German Perspective. (Shepperton: Ian Allen Publishing. 1999). p. 221.