Notes from Flight Officer Gilbert Wild
In August 1944 I was a member of 68 Night-Fighter Squadron flying Mosquito aircraft and based at Castle Camps, near Cambridge. The squadron was operating against flying bombs, which came across the Channel from the Pas de Calais area.
A number of day-fighter squadrons had converted to Tempest V's, then the fastest fighter, and it proved to be very successful indeed against the flying bombs. It was then decided to operate Tempest V's at night against the flying bomb and 501 Squadron was selected for this role. As there were few, if any, pilots with night operational experience, it was decided to call for "volunteers" to transfer to 501. "Horry" Hansen and I merelyasked a few questions, but we found ourselves at Manston.
Here, we were greeted by the Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Joe Berry DFC and two Bars, who had already destroyed 62 Flying Bombs, mostly at night, and our Flight Commander "Jackson" Robb, another ace. The boys in the crew room made us very welcome, and were very bright and cheerful, despite the number of recent losses.
"Jackson" had given me a copy of the Pilot's Notes; after a quick persual, he took me out to a Tempest, and sat me in the cockpit. After a quick check of the cockpit drill, came the order: "Off you go, three circuits and bumps. Hard left rudder on take-off and landing, otherwise you'll swing like a bitch! And don't bend it --- we're short!"
This was my first single since the Tiger Moth at EFTS, and the Proctor at 38 Group; all my other flying was twin-engines. So naturally, this aircraft seemed a little strange. Sitting in the cockpit on the ground was rather like being in the cab of the Flying Scotsman, one could see nothing dead ahead, and it meant "crabbing" on taxying. Heavy left rudder kept it straight on take-off; the acceleration was marvellous; wheels and flaps came up in seconds, and then it really travelled. The circuits and bumps went off without any trouble. Taxying had to be done slowly.
The Tempest also had some new fuel: 150 octane petrol, yes 150 octane; it was, in fact, 100 octane with extra tetra-ethyl-lead, to give extra boost. This allowed us to take-off at +24 boost, and use this setting for hight speed when necessary. The snag was that the engine had to be cleared at full throttle and maximum revs about every fifteen minutes, otherwise the plugs would soon get fouled up. Doing this at night for the first time gave one quite a shock: sparks would cascade from the exhausts, giving the impression of being on fire!
The spaks would also affect one's night vision: I remembered once reading in the Hornby magazine the trick by the old steam engine drivers -- they closed one eye when looking at the fire, closing this one when looking out of the cab, and opening the other. It worked for me in the Tempest.
We shared Manston with the then new Meteor Squadron, 616, but did not see much of them. We operated at night, they by day, and in the event, this aircraft was then highly classified. In mid-September 501 moved to Bradwell Bay. Patrols most nights kept us busy: flying bombs were coming in at all times. we were patrolling in the Thames estuary and the Channel about 90° to their anticipated line of flight, and usually about 2000 to 3000 feet above them; this would give us time to "bounce" them with enough speed to overtake them.
In October the Flying Bombs came on another tack: the Allied troups had captured most of the launching site in the Pas de Calais, and the Luftwaffe used Heinkel 111 to carry the bombs across the North Sea at about 300 feet, rising to 1000 feet, and launching the bombs towards London. The Mosquitos had the job of stopping the Heinkels: very difficult -- the flying speed of the Heinkel at 100 mph was less than the stalling speed of the Mosqiuto at 140 mph.
Joe Berry, 501 Squadron Commander, decided to mount a raid on the Heinkel base in Holland; on October 1st he and two other pilots attacked the airfield at dawn. Joe was hit by small arms fire at fifty feet, the two others returned. And so, 501 lost an outstanding pilot and Commanding Officer. With the Tempest now off the secret list, the Squadron had a visit from the famous photographer Charles E Brown, and a number of excellent photographs were taken (series 6024-6) one of which is in the front of the Tempest in the RAF Museum.
During this period, 501 lost a number of pilots apart from Joe Berry. Winston Churchill commented on the Squadron's important role:
"So great is the threat, particularly at night, of the new V1 menace, that No 501 Squadron must consider itself expendable."
What was rather puzzling at the time, was the tendency for some engines to cut shortly after take off. The cockpit drill stated that we should take off on wing tanks, and switch to the main tank, when airborne. On 23 September, I was on patrol, and when diving after a flying bomb, the engine cut. I was lucky: I was able to bale out, and land near Colchester. (See EJ603) Two of my friends did not make it: Paddy Faraday and Thornton.
Perhaps the mystery was eventually explained when I visited the Biggin Hill Air Fair in 1987. On one of the souvenir stalls I bought a copy of the Pilot's Notes for the Tempest. The stallholder aksed me why I wanted one. When I told him I used to fly Tempests, and had baled out at night, he couldn't believe. He siad I was living on borrowed time! It turned out that he was a fitter on a Tempest squadron; they too suffered from engines cutting; the fault was eventually traced to an air lock occuring when the tanks were switched over.