Squadron Leader J.C. Roberts War History

JCR

Using JC’s service record, I’ve been able to trace the history of the units that he served with throughout WWII. Most of the information comes from the National Archives, backed up with some Internet research.

December 1941 to May 1943 – 39 Squadron

JC’s first posting, at the age of 31, was to the Middle East where after a short spell at RAF Middle East HQ in Cairo he was assigned to 39 Squadron as Equipment Officer.

The RAF in the Middle East was led at that time by Air Marshall Arthur Tedder who oversaw the build-up of the air arm in the Western Desert and the development of new operational and administrative policies. He is credited with turning the RAF in the Middle East into a highly effective force which was key to the eventual Allied victory in North Africa.

39 squadron was based at “Landing Ground 86” which was just outside Alexandria. Life there was very basic with accommodation consisting mainly of tents. There was an officers mess tent and one for the “other ranks”. Entertainment was limited with the occasional trip into “Alex” a highlight. Swimming in the Med was also a popular leisure activity.

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Alexandria in 1942

In late 1941, when JC joined them, 39 Squadron was flying a small number of Bristol Beaufort bombers. These were mainly used to mount torpedo attacks on enemy ships in the Mediterranean. Each aircraft, with its four-man crew, could carry a single torpedo. The planes would take off from L.G.86 and fly for a couple of hours to a forward air-strip nearer the front-line to refuel, before heading out into the Med to locate their targets.

The pilots had to fly at full-speed and at only 200ft above the sea to evade enemy fighters, often for many hours. The next challenge was to locate the target. Many sorties were abandoned with no target found. The pilots and navigators were reliant on information from reconnaissance aircraft that were responsible for spotting enemy shipping and relaying their positions by radio.

39 Squadron Beaufort image
39 Squadron Beaufort having a torpedo loaded

This information was often out-of-date or inaccurate and convoys would suddenly change course to evade aerial attack. It was a needle-in-a-haystack process. Once the target was found the Beaufort’s would fly directly towards the enemy ship, at zero altitude, until they were close enough to drop their torpedoes.  All the time they would be under heavy fire from the target merchantmen and their destroyer escorts.

Attacks were usually composed of groups of 3 aircraft attacking in formation to increase the chances of success. It was not uncommon for some or all of the aircraft to be shot down during the attack. To get a feel of how dangerous it was, this footage taken from a German ship in 1942 shows a group of Beaufort’s going into attack.

http://www.military.com/video/operations-and-strategy/second-world-war/ww2-raf-bristol-beaufort-torpedo-bombers/660940710001

Even though JC was only responsible for keeping the aircraft in the air and properly equipped it must have been awful to see so many young men leave on missions never to return. Many were killed but quite a few also ended up as POW’s after ditching in the sea. Day-to-day life for JC in the desert revolved around getting planes fixed and airworthy. The environment was very harsh for the engines and aircraft would frequently crash on landing after sorties having sustained damage during an attack. It was a real test of ingenuity to keep the squadron running in such difficult conditions.

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JC in the desert – 4th from the left standing

During the first part of 1942 a detachment from the squadron was based on Malta (and in August 1942 that detachment merged with ones from Nos.86 and 217 Squadrons to form a complete squadron. The squadron remained on Malta until February 1943 (apart from a brief period back in Egypt in October-November 1942). Malta was not a place you wanted to be in 1942. It was under almost constant bombardment from Axis aircraft and had been effectively under siege for two years meaning that food and supplies were very scarce.

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39 Squadron Beaufort in Malta in 1943

However, luckily for him, JC remained in Egypt during this period as the main base for 39 Squadron moved around from one Egyptian airfield to another.

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The Officers of 39 Squadron October 1942 – JC 3rd from right standing

There’s an entry in the Operational Service Record for 39 Squadron which shows JC being responsible for the complete move of the squadron to Gianaclis in February 1943.

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All these movements reflected the developments in the war in North Africa. At first the RAF were forced to retreat further away from the front line to avoid enemy air raids and then as things started to go in the Allies favour, squadrons were being moved to suit the immediate needs of the campaign.

Fighting in North Africa started to wind down in April and May 1943 as the Allies completed their victory over the German and Italian forces. The RAF had played a major role in this victory. At the end of April ’43 JC left 39 Squadron after 16 eventful months in the desert. The squadron OSR shows him being posted to RAF Station Shallufa on the 27th of April but then his record shows his attachment to something called “3 Brick (RAF Comp)” a few weeks later.

There are two excellent books written about the activities of 39 Squadron and their colleagues in 217 Squadron, who also operated the Beaufort torpedo bomber. These are:

  • Torpedo Leader by Patrick Gibbs who was to become Commanding Officer of 39 Squadron during JC’s time with them.
  • The Last Torpedo Flyers by Arthur Aldridge of 217 Squadron who worked closely with Gibbs and the rest of 39 Squadron in Malta.

May 1943 to November 1943 – 33 Beach Brick RAF Component – Middle East

The next stage in the Allied campaign was to be the invasion of Sicily shortly followed by the invasion of mainland Italy in operations “Husky” and “Baytown”. Based on the experiences gained in the invasion of North Africa it was decided to change the way the so-called “Beach Bricks”, who worked alongside the main invasion assault force, would be put together for both these operations. An infantry battalion would now be included as the backbone of a Beach Brick and a more substantial RAF team would be added.

The Bricks would land at around the same time as the main force to set up logistics on the beach. Clearly this made it a very dangerous place to be. As far as possible, personnel were all volunteers and, due to the arduous nature of the work, had to be of a strong physique and meet the fitness standards required for combined operations’ training. They were kitted out with Army khaki battledress, but retained RAF blue headdress when not wearing their helmets.

The officer commanding the RAF Beach Units and their sections were usually drawn from the RAF Equipment Branch, which JC was part of. Each unit had quite a broad responsibility which included: controlling the landing of RAF personnel, vehicles and stores; their assembly on shore and despatch to forward areas; to establish small dumps of supplies and stores; to provide labour, traffic control and provost services and to salvage and repair ‘drowned’ vehicles.

The core of each Beach Brick was an infantry battalion. Along with the Royal Navy Beach Party and specialised units from the Royal Engineers, Royal Army Signal Corps, the Ordnance Corps, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Medical Corps plus pioneers, anti-aircraft gunners, signals personnel and the RAF component, this took the total number of men in each Brick towards 3,000. The RAF Component had an establishment of 5 officers and 35 other ranks.

JC joined “3 Brick” on May 20th ’43. The unit was then renamed 33 Beach Brick. The infantry battalion in overall control of the unit was the 1st Argyll and Southern Highlanders and JC was with them for both the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy. The records of the A&SH mention that they were joined on 21st of May in Aartouz by Squadron Leader Davies and two other RAF officers to reinforce the RAF component of the Brick. Aartouz was close to Damascus in Syria.

The unit then took part in a major training exercise called “Topsail” where they got to do a dry-run for a full-scale beach invasion. This involved practise with landing craft and the set-up of the beach logistics operations they would be carrying out in the “main event”. In June the unit moved, first to Hadera (in modern day Israel) and then on to Egypt to make final preparations for the invasion, ending up in Port Said in late June with the ships that would take them into action. All there was to do then was wait for the order to embark. The men wouldn’t have known yet that their destination was to be Sicily. To keep them busy a canoeing competition was arranged, as this lovely entry in the 33 Brick war diary from the 4th of July ’43 shows.

canoe

On July 5th they set sail for Sicily. After an uneventful few days at sea, in the early morning of July 10th the invasion began. The map below shows the disposition of the invasion forces for Husky. 33 Brick was with the 5th Brigade assault force of the 8th Army.

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Operation Husky Landings

Operation Husky’s landing force consisted of seven divisions – it was bigger than that employed on D-Day in 1944, which had five divisions. The invasion was also the largest amphibious operation of World War II. Some 2,700 ships and landing craft arrived in Sicily on the morning of 10 July. Starting at dawn, more than 160,000 men landed along with hundreds of vehicles on the 105-mile-long stretch of coast between the Gulf of Gela and the Gulf of Noto. The first elements of 33 Brick landed at 03:30 on “George Beach” which was about 10 miles south of the town of Syracuse. The rest of 33 Brick landed on the beach over the course of the day, set up their HQ and started to land equipment and supplies. The beach remained under attack by Axis aircraft over the next few days with many casualties amongst Brick personnel. Sporadic air attacks continued for most of July but with little damage and few further casualties.

As the Allied forces moved north under Generals Montgomery and Patton things became quieter on the beach but they continued to use it for landing supplies. The beach was better suited to this than the port at Syracuse which was quite small and had very narrow roads.

Eventually on the 17th of August the German and Italian forces were driven from the island at Messina and Operation Husky was at an end. The battle had been much fiercer than the Allies had imagined it would be with as many as 25,000 men lost, but this operation marked the beginning of the end of the war in Europe.

We can’t be sure exactly what JC was doing as the fighting on Sicily drew to a close but here’s a picture he took in Messina in August 1943.

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The picture has a wonderful caption hand written on the back. “This is an Axis ship pranged by the RAF in Messina. The town and port were very badly knocked about. Sicily Aug 1943”

At the end of July, the 1st Argyll and Sutherland regiment had been reformed as a fighting unit and the running of 33 Brick’s beach was handed over to the 1st Welsh Regiment. However, it was decided on the 8th August that the original structure of 33 Brick was to be recreated for the invasion of Italy, with the A&SH back in control. Personnel of the A&SH and the other elements of the Brick, including the RAF component, started to move to their new location in Sicily and prepare for the next invasion.

The 85 officers and 1300 men of 33 Brick assembled in Catania, Sicily on the 1st of September and set sail for Italy in the early hours of September 3rd. It was a short passage across the Straits of Messina to the landing area near the town of Reggio. The area was under heavy bombardment from Allied artillery and resistance turned out to be quite light. There were a few air-raids on the beach but little damage and no serious casualties. Stores continued to be unloaded on the beach but on September 8th the Italians surrendered unconditionally and the campaign was effectively over. 33 Brick was disbanded soon after and the personnel dispersed.

There’s a bit of a gap in JC’s service at this point. He could well have stayed in Italy and worked with one of the other Beach units. From the 7th of November he’s listed with 68 Beach Unit which had also seen action in Sicily and Italy. In November ‘43 JC and the other members of 68 Beach Unit headed back to the UK. It was probably the first time JC had been in the UK for almost two years. They were posted to RAF West Kirby in Birkenhead so it wouldn’t have been far from home for JC. West Kirby was mostly a basic training camp for new RAF recruits but it was there that JC and his colleagues started the preparations for the Normandy landings as part of a new outfit called Number 4 Beach Unit.

If you want to read more about the details of Operation Husky then this book is excellent:

Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily 1943 by Carlo D’Este

January 1944 – September 1944 Number 4 Beach Unit/Squadron

Although it was the last of the four beach units to be created for the invasion of Normandy it was formed from the most experienced personnel. It was made up of men who had been with Nos. 31, 32, 33 and 35 Middle East Beach Bricks and Nos. 81 and 82 Auxiliary Embarkation Units.

The Commanding Officer was Wing Commander J.E.T. Murphy who, as a Squadron Leader had been the C.O. of No. 35 Beach Brick, R.A.F. Component. The commander of 107 Beach Section was Squadron Leader H.M. Butler and the 108 Beach Section commander was Squadron Leader C.W. Lovatt, who had previously been the Commanding Officer of 33 Beach Brick, and presumably JC’s boss. JC got a promotion to Flight Lieutenant when he joined No. 4 Beach Unit.

Having been formed at West Kirby the different branches of the unit (equipment, munitions, petrol etc.) went off for specialist training in different parts of the UK. I’m not sure exactly what JC was involved with, probably equipment but the records are not specific. The team gradually made their way south and ended up in Hampshire for the final preparations for the D-Day landings. It’s possible JC was based briefly at Hursley Park near Winchester which is now IBM’s UK R&D facility.

No. 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron

On 17th April 1944, the 2nd Tactical Air Force beach units were officially renamed, so that No. 4 RAF Beach Unit became No. 4 RAF Beach Squadron and its Beach Sections (Nos. 107 and 108) became Beach Flights. This was a change of name only and made no practical difference to the unit.

At the end of April came Exercise “FABIUS II”. This was a full-scale exercise at Hayling Island. The exercise began on 30th April and finished on the 4th or 5th May. The Squadron Operations Record Book reports “Owing to adverse weather conditions many personnel on LST’s were unable to land and returned to Southampton. Some personnel were given a week’s embarkation leave and when they came back it was time to move to final marshalling areas.”

No. 4 Beach Squadron in Operation “OVERLORD”

No. 4 R.A.F. Beach Squadron was part of the Army’s 104 Beach Sub Area, operating in the GOLD Assault Area. On D-Day, the advanced parties of No. 107 Beach Flight and No. 108 Beach Flight landed on KING and JIG beaches alongside the initial assault forces at around 06:30. These beaches were near the town of Arromanches towards the western end of the British Army landing zone.

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The bulk of No. 4 Beach Squadron including the Headquarters, arrived 2nd Tide. Squadron Headquarters with Wing Commander Murphy and the Signals Section came ashore at H + 19½ hours (03 :00 on 7th June). Headquarters were set up in a house near Ver-sur-Mer. The author of the Squadron Operations Record Book wrote, “Accommodation was not satisfactory and provided little protection, but was the best available at that stage of the assault.”

Nearly 25,000 men of the British 50th Division landed on Gold beach on D-Day. Their objectives were to capture the town of Bayeux and the Caen-Bayeux road, and to link up with the Americans at Omaha Beach. High winds caused the tide to rise more quickly than expected, concealing the beach obstacles underwater. But unlike on Omaha, the air and naval bombardment had succeeded in softening German coastal defences. By the end of the day, British troops had advanced about six miles inland and joined with troops from the Canadian 3rd Division, who had landed on Juno beach to the east.

From 7th June to 20th July 1944, No. 4 RAF Beach Squadron oversaw the discharge of 2,784 tons of R.A.F ammunition, 2,900 tons of RAF petrol, oil and lubricants and 296 tons of general stores. The only specific mention of JC is in the records for June 13th when he visits 89 Embarkation Unit to arrange for petrol supplies to be redirected from Port-en-Bessin. On July 20th the work of No. 4 Beach Squadron was effectively complete.

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Men of No. 4 Beach Squadron on Gold Beach

A few weeks later, on August 28th, the Squadron left Normandy aboard a returning landing craft, arriving back in the UK at Newhaven at 04.30 on the 29th. They then travelled to Redhill, which was a base for the RAF’s No. 83 Group. There they were disbanded, most of the men being posted to other units in the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

One of the clearest references to the significance of the Beach Squadron’s work during Overlord can be seen in the despatch submitted to the Supreme Allied Commander by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) in November 1944:

The statistics of the average daily consumption and wastage of P.O.L and ammunition also reveal something of the supply organisation. During July, A.E.A.F expended daily 750 tons of bombs and more than 200,000 rounds of ammunition. The fuel consumption of A.E.A.F in July reached approximately 30,000,000 gallons of petrol, almost 1,000,000 gallons per day. A large part of this fuel and ammunition had to be transported into the beach-head and up to forward airfields. In this connection the work of Air Force beach squadrons deserves special mention. These parties went in with the follow-up troops on D-Day and due in no small measure to their efforts, the first airfields were stocked ready for operations in the beach-head on D+3.

There’s an excellent book on D-Day from the perspective of the RAF Beach Squadron written in 1944 shortly after the events themselves. It’s called “First Tide” and was written by Alan Melville, a West End producer in peacetime, who served in the RAF as a war correspondent. He was with one of the Beach Squadrons for D-Day. His account of what happened in the days after the initial invasion is both moving and at times hilarious. It’s out of print but second-hand copies are available online.

September 1944-February 1946 – Various Air Disarmament Duties

Having returned to the UK in late August 1944 JC is quite quickly assigned to something called “SDL” in his service record. This stands for Special Duties List and was meant to indicate activities that were outside of the usual RAF command structure. It was quite tricky to work out what JC was doing on these “special duties” as there were very few clues. However, by working backwards from a later entry in his record for 8701 Wing I was able to work it out with a bit of help from a specialist researcher and a book with the unlikely title of “Dissolution of the Luftwaffe”.

As the Allies continued to drive the German forces out of France and the Low Countries the problem of what to do with all the ammunition, equipment, aircraft, buildings etc. left behind by the retreating enemy started to emerge. The Allies developed a disarmament plan to deal with this issue and the RAF was made responsible for the dissolution of the Luftwaffe. The plan involved creating specialist Air Disarmament units that would deal with all the Luftwaffe related sites in a given territory. Visits would be made to each site to assess what was there and to deal with it appropriately. A lot of the material consisted of bombs and ammunition and so each RAF Air Disarmament unit worked with a dedicated bomb disposal team. Other items like radar, aircraft and equipment were either salvaged or destroyed.

In September 1944 JC was assigned to one of the first AD units No. 312 Air Disarmament Mobile Detachment. They were based at RAF West Malling in Kent. For the rest of the 1944 and the early part of 1945 they remained in the UK getting specialist training in disarmament matters and taking German lessons! From the records of 312 ADMD it looks like it was a fairly relaxed environment, which must have been a welcome change for men like JC who had seen action in three D-Day operations.

In February 1945 JC is appointed Commanding Officer of 300 Air Disarmament Mobile Detachment. At this point he was promoted to acting Squadron Leader. 300 ADMD was based in Belgium at that time so JC headed out to a small town called Terlanen, about twenty miles south-east of Brussels. The unit was based in a building that later became a hotel and may have been before the war. I found an old postcard of La Lasne from the 1960’s which probably didn’t look at lot different from when JC was there.

La Lasne Terlanen Belgium
La Lasne – Terlanen Belgium – JC’s HQ

During March and April, the unit continue to visit known Luftwaffe locations throughout Belgium as well as factories and towns and villages where war material might be found. It’s fair to say that they didn’t turn up a huge quantity of items. This is a typical entry in the squadron record for 30th of April 1945:

OSR April 30th

At the end of April there was a change in the organisational structure for the AD activities. A new unit called 8701 AD Wing was created and took over the responsibility for 300 ADMD and the other AD units. JC’s outfit was renamed “A” Squadron, 8701 Wing. The roles and activities of the unit didn’t change, just the name and reporting.

One lighter item was the celebration of VE Day on May 8th when the unit had a couple of days off. JC remarks in the records that “Squadron HQ was illuminated with captured G.A.F. equipment”. I can only imagine what that looked like!

The German forces in Holland had finally surrendered on May 4th and on May 10th 8701 Wing decided to move JC’s unit from Belgium to Holland. Holland had more Luftwaffe sites than any other occupied country so there would be plenty for JC and his team to do. On the 15th of May JC went to the Apeldoorn area to look for a new HQ for “A” Squadron. He decided to base the unit at Teuge Airfield, not far from the town.

It’s hard to imagine now what Holland must have been like in the period immediately following the end of hostilities. The country had been very badly affected by the fighting with large numbers of buildings destroyed. There was a chronic shortage of food and people were starving. The Allies arranged special air drops of food over Holland in Operations Manna and Chowhound. Around 11,000 tons of food were dropped in the final week of April and the first week of May, around the time JC moved there.

For the next few months the routine continued as before. Known Luftwaffe sites were visited, all over Holland, and any material disposed of. JC and his team must have got to know the country very well over the course of 1945. A lot of their work involved liaison with the Dutch authorities and JC got an invitation from the Mayor of Apeldoorn to represent the RAF at the Birthday celebrations for Queen Wilhelmina at the end of August. Members of the Dutch Royal Family had returned to Holland in early August and landed at Teuge Airfield where JC was based. There’s no mention of this in the squadron records but I like to think JC was amongst the crowd celebrating their return. This film was taken on the day at Teuge. The first part shows the general state of the area after the fighting and then we see the Royals landing at the airfield.

https://youtu.be/G-l3rAkpFOs

In October as their activities start to wind down JC and his team moved to Tilburg in Holland to be with other parts of 8701 Wing. The command structure was simplified with “A” squadron ceasing to exist. It’s not very clear what JC was up to at this time but visits continued to potential G.A.F. sites in Holland. In February 1946 the whole wing was disbanded as their work was over with the Dutch taking on responsibility. I think JC was then moved to 2002 Wing which was doing Air Disarmament work in Germany.

JC next pops up in Dortmund on March 25th 1946 in the records of 2001 Air Disarmament Wing which he joins from 2002 Wing. On the 9th of May he ends his RAF career with a posting to 100 PDC for a “Class A” release. The PDC was a Personnel Deployment Camp which dealt with release from the service. On the 13th of May 1946 he officially left the RAF.

The official account of all the Air Disarmament work is contained in the two-volume epic “Dissolution of the Luftwaffe” which was originally published by HMSO in 1947 and then re-issued in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Copies of it are available online and it has some interesting observations about the work that are very much of their time. For example, this entry is lovely:

The industry and dedication to duty of all personnel employed on disarmament left little to be desired. In many cases officers and men were employed in jobs outside their true trade but all co-operated in a full spirit of comradeship. It has always been held that the British “Tommy” is Britain’s best ambassador and the behaviour of the RAF disarmament personnel supports that theory. When dealing with a defeated enemy who is completely in your power, it is easy to be spiteful and inconsiderate, in fact one might be misled into believing that one of the duties of a conqueror is to exercise his authority on every possible occasion. None of these failings, or misconceived ideas, appeared in the RAF disarmament units who did their job well, showing no overbearing or inconsiderate tendencies but always being firm and just and not only letting their ex-enemies know that they were victors but setting an excellent example by their personal behaviour and conduct for the misled Nazis to follow.

They all sound like saints!

Conclusion

JC spent over 4 years in an environment that must have been incredibly intense and challenging but at times also very exciting. I can see how difficult it must have been for  him and many others who had served in the conflict to adjust back to life as a bank clerk or shop manager. We’ll never know what he really felt about it but I feel a little bit closer to understanding what it may have been like.

 

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Mike Fenton, whose own father served in one of the RAF Beach Units on D-Day, for all his assistance in figuring out JC’s story. Some of the text on this blog about the beach units is borrowed from Mike’s excellent website: www.rafbeachunits.info/index.html

Thanks also to Alan Bowgen the National Archives research specialist who put in a few hours work in the archives to uncover much of the latter part of JC’s war history. His rates are very reasonable if you fancy doing your own research. Contact him through his website: www.archive-researcher.co.uk/

 

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