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A visit to Pathfinder Country

Discussion in 'WWII Today' started by Martin Bull, Dec 31, 2003.

  1. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    I think this is post No 4,000 so it's a bit different....

    This winter is the 60th Anniversary of Bomber Command's 'Battle of Berlin' : winter '43/'44. A battle which the German Nachtjagd and the weather conclusively won, the RAF losing 625 bombers and 2,690 aircrew killed.

    One of the squadrons to suffer the highest losses was 97(PFF), operating from Bourn, Cambs and yesterday I made a small pilgrimage up to the old airfield. As I drove up the A1, the weather closed in, with light mist and drizzle turning to sleet and snow flurries from low cloud. But in a way, this was fitting because on the night of 16/17 December 1943 ( 'Black Thursday' ) 97 lost five Lancasters around Bourn, all crashing in the fog trying to find their base.

    As I stopped the car on the remains of an old dispersal, the rain dripped onto the windscreen and even getting out of the car was a miserable prospect - what must it have been like to live in Nissen huts here ?

    Nearly all the buildings have gone - even the respirator store, still here when I last visited in the Summer, has now vanished - but the perimeter track and runways are still used for light aircraft flying.

    No flying today, though - so I walk through the open gate to the end of runway 07/25, its' full 1,960 yards still intact, to take some photos through the drizzle and to ponder on the 60 Lancasters and 24 Mosquitoes which left this runway, never to make it back 'home'.

    Back near the car, the area where the briefing rooms, flight offices and other admin functions once stood, is now thick with trees and brambles. I push through the dripping undergrowth and stumble over pathetic heaps of rubble, brick and concrete. Something white is sticking from the ground by a tree root : I pull and twist and half of an old NAAFI dinner plate appears,cracked and caked with earth. I bring it home as a souvenir of RAF Bourn.

    The last thought goes to a veteran, not of 97 but of 44 further up the road in Lincolnshire. From Martin Middlebrook's 'The Berlin Raids' , Pilot Officer John Chatterton : -

    'The Battle of Berlin that winter was my tour. My mind is full of night takeoffs, climbing through cloud, icing, Berlin flak - the sheer length and breadth of it - not of night fighters; we never saw one of those....no sitting on the grass or playing cricket with the groundcrew for us.
    We waited in the dark and cold and rain - that was our tour.'
     
  2. BratwurstDimSum

    BratwurstDimSum Member

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    Congrats on making your 4000 mate. Good, evocative post [​IMG]
     
  3. TA152

    TA152 Ace

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    GREAT post for number 4000 ! I did have one question, what is a respirator store ?

    I can only guess at the mental stress of landing a huge bomber with low fuel in the fog is like. And add to the stress is the odd Ju-88 lurking around the pattern, waiting for anouther kill.
     
  4. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    Glad you enjoyed the posting guys ; it's all true, too....

    The respirator store was one of the more unglamorous buildings ; it was where gasmasks were unpacked and hung up regularly to prevent the rubber from perishing and splitting. The only major building left at Bourn now is the combined gymnasium/chapel. I've just found a nice aerial view from the flying club's website ; -

    http://www.rfcbourn.flyer.co.uk/bourn.htm
     
  5. Stevin

    Stevin Ace

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    Great story Martin! Describes really well the remains of the war for us 'enthousiasts'. Reminded me of my own little 'battlefield tours' in the mist...And yes, comparing the relative discomfort of getting out of my car and walk around, to the tour of duty of a BC vet in those wintermonths, living n those Nissen huts and sitting on eggs in the Berlin skies...

    Congrats on your 4,000 flying hours!
     
  6. Deep Web Diver

    Deep Web Diver Member

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    Thank you for the wonderful account of your journey to Pathfinder Country, Martin.

    [ 03. January 2004, 11:47 PM: Message edited by: Crapgame ]
     
  7. Kai-Petri

    Kai-Petri Kenraali

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    Thanx Martin and congrats on the 4,000th posting!

    :D
     
  8. Onthefield

    Onthefield Member

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    Good description Martin and definetly congrats on the 4000th. ;)
     
  9. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    Not the same Squadron or airfield, but I like this anyway ; -

    ' Never Go Back - They Say '

    I went back to the old field
    At the close of an Autumn day,
    To find the tower crumbling,
    The hangars filled with hay.

    The dead leaves swirled and eddied
    And crunched beneath my foot.
    This concrete base, complete with plough,
    Was once the gunners' hut.

    What could it be, what was it
    That I had come to find ?
    Traces of my vanished youth ?
    Or was it peace of mind ?

    The shadows darkened, lengthened,
    As I slowly strolled around,
    Stood and looked and listened
    As they crept along the ground.

    And then I heard - or did I ?
    A faintly mocking laugh,
    The tinkle of a spanner,
    The chuckle of a WAAF.

    The muted sound of Merlins,
    Throttles eased by ghostly hands,
    Screech of tyres on tarmac,
    The lost coming in to land.

    For here were ghosts in plenty,
    Young ghosts of yesteryear,
    But I am young no longer
    And am not wanted here.

    I went back to the old field
    At the close of an Autumn day.
    I wish to God I'd listened,
    And I had stayed away.

    Roy Collins - Air Gunner, 90 Squadron ( Lancasters )
     
  10. Onthefield

    Onthefield Member

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    Hey Martin, I like it. It's a good feeling of what the airfields are like today. :cool:
     
  11. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    Went back to Bourn this morning for another look. ALL the buildings have now gone - including the Gymnasium/Chapel and the last aircrew huts, all swept away by the development of a 'new town' just a few hundred yards from the flying field. A new highway slices across one end of the old airfield which has now lost much of its 'remote' character. Inevitably, time marches on.....I'm glad I took many photos when I was here before.

    But I still managed to stand at the end of the old main runway, to pay silent respect to all those who took off and wanted only to make it back to this strip of concrete....but never did.

    [​IMG]
     
  12. Erich

    Erich Alte Hase

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    I'd like to ask a funny type of question so here goes. Martin have you thought about assembling your photos of the old fields and what was left of these buildings, etc. into a small booklet form ? am sure the fields have been covered at length correct ?.....after the battle series or ??
     
  13. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    'ATB' have indeed ( with Roger Freeman ) covered 8th AF and Bomber Command bases. I've certainly amassed a few photos of my own over the years for my own amusement but it's been a rather sad exercise...it's like chasing shadows, each time you go back there is a lot less to see until one day there will be.....

    .....nothing.:(
     
  14. Liberator

    Liberator Ace

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    No.97 Squadron losses 16-17 December 1943.

    Target: Berlin

    Lancaster III JA963. OF-Q
    Lancaster III JB117. OF-C. Crashed NE of Graveley airfield Huntingdonshire.
    Lancaster III JB119. OF-F. Crashed on return to base.
    Lancaster III JB176. OF-K. Crashed on return to base.
    Lancaster III JB219. OF-R. Crashed to the south of Gransden, Cambridgeshire.
    Lancaster III JB243. OF-P. Crashed near Graveley airfield Huntingdonshire.
    Lancaster III JB482. OF-S. Abandoned out of fuel, crashed North Sea.
    Lancaster III JB531. OF-Y. Abandoned, crashed 4 miles NW of Orford Ness, Suffolk.

    On their return to England many of the bombers encountered very low cloud at their bases. The Squadrons of 1, 6 and 8 Groups were particularly badly effected. 29 Lancaster's either crashed or were abandoned when their crews parachuted. The group with the heaviest losses was 1 Group with 13 aircraft lost; the squadron with the heaviest loss was No.97 Squadron.

    Bomber Command Losses. W R. Chorley / Bomber Command War Diaries. Middlebrook - Everitt.
     
  15. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    It's a terrible story, Liberator - and in fact two books have now been written about the events of that night ; Jennie Gray's marvellous 'Fire By Night' and more recently, Richard Knott's 'Black Night For Bomber Command - The Tragedy Of 16 Decemebr 1943' which I'm reading at this moment.....
     
  16. Smokie_Parrott

    Smokie_Parrott recruit

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    Hey Martin
    I know its a bit late, but congrats on the 4000!!!
    I went to the old station at Bournlast month as i was in the area and wanted to check it out. Will be up there again soon so i can have a proper look. Its very sad to see that these places are now being lost to the annals of time. I, myself, Lived at RAF Watton in the '90s. Its disheartening to see it as it stands today. What an eyesore!!!
    My great uncle Sid Parrott was based there and died on Black Thursday. He was the W/Op on Scotts crew (OF-C). Im trying to find out any info about him at the moment, but currently, not much has popped up.
    I particularly like your comparisson to getting out of the car and driving in those conditions, to how they must have felt on that fatefull night, And indeed any night for Bomber Command aircrews.
    I dont suppose you would happen to have any more photos of Bourn? It would be fantastic to see the old place as it once stood!!
    Kudos once again sir!!!
     
  17. Martin Bull

    Martin Bull Acting Wg. Cdr

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    Thank you very much indeed for reviving an ancient and favourite posting of mine ! It's just great to me that it should be read by a relative of someone who lost his life on that dreadful night. If you can manage it, you'll find a trip to the Public Records Office at Kew worthwhile. I did just that a few years ago to research the 'life' of Lancaster JB659 ( which made it back on 16/12/43 only to be lost later that winter ) and it was truly fascinating to read through the Bourn ORBs.

    There isn't actually much left to photograph these days, but a while back I digitally scanned a winter shot of the main runway which I took on 35mm film on my original visit....

    View attachment 12969

    Other remains are truly vestigial.....

    View attachment 12970

    View attachment 12971

    View attachment 12972

    View attachment 12973


    Thank you for joining and contributing to the Forum !
     

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    texson66 and Kai-Petri like this.
  18. Spitfire_XIV

    Spitfire_XIV Member

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    I'm planning to visit Bourn when I come to England, since that is where my great-uncle, Douglas Marks, took off from on July 29th 1943 and never returned.
     
  19. FalkeEins

    FalkeEins Member

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    ..a magnificent thread Martin.... nice for us 'newbies' to see old threads like this returning to the surface..
     
  20. Smokie_Parrott

    Smokie_Parrott recruit

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    Your welcome, Thank you for your advice and thanks for posting the other photos. Unfortunately i only started investigating my great uncles past a couple of years ago, so when i got round to finding out about RAF Bourn it was way too late to catch a glimpse of any buildings or anything.
    My other Great uncle, (Sids Brother) died in June '44 in North Africa serving with the RAF, and most of that side of the family are gone too, so there is very little to go on now!!!
    I am planning on going to the records Archive at Kew next week if i can get there!!! And possibly also RAF Hendon. I also hear there is a big pathfinders Museum at RAF Wyton, so will see if i can have a look there. The navigator on the 16 / 17 Dec Raid was not the regular Navigator for Scotts crew. Id love to try and find what happened to him also. Do you know if the Records offit at Kew Hold Individual information? And Photos, say, from ID cards? Because we have nothing at the moment!!!
    Thanks for your suggestions ETC. Very helpful.
     

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