The Final Flight of Hampden TB.I AD729

This article was researched and written by request of Gareth Evans whose great uncle was Pilot Officer William Rees.

In the closing hours of January 11th 1943, a formation of bombers grumbled their way towards the Scottish coast. They were twelve Handley Page Hampdens of the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron attached to RAF Costal Command and based at RAF Leuchars, Fife. The aircraft were returning from a late afternoon anti-shipping operation off the Norwegian coast using the early darkness of winter to cover their escape back to Britain. No.455 Squadron was a veteran unit having a wealth of experience on the Hampden that ranged from minelaying to attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The previous year the squadron had also deployed to Russia to support the arctic convoys before training Russian crews on how to operate the aircraft.

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No.455 Squadron Hampden (ADF-Signals)

By this stage in the war the Hampden was becoming increasingly obsolete. During the early operations, like much of Bomber Command’s aircraft it suffered horrendous losses at the hands of German fighters forcing them to switch almost exclusively to night operations. The exceptionally narrow fuselage and slab sided cabin earned it the affectionate nickname “The Flying Suitcase”. As more powerful and capable designs flooded Bomber Command’s ranks the Hampden saw increasing use by other services such as Coastal Command for maritime operations where the fighter threat was not perceived to be as great as over mainland Europe. Maritime duties had their own dangers however such as severe weather and the difficulty of navigating over large areas of sometimes featureless ocean.

Although an Australian squadron, like most British Commonwealth units there were a number of nationalities that made up the ranks of No.455 Squadron and this was typified by the crew of Hampden TB.I AD792/UB-P that wintry night. The only two actual Australians were wireless operator Sergeant Reginald Smithers and gunner Sergeant R.K. Spohn. At the controls was 22-year-old Flying Officer Phillip J. Hill from Gloucestershire who had joined the reserves before being called to active duty when war broke out and then posted to No.455 Squadron.

The navigator/bombardier was Pilot Officer William Rees who hailed from Abercarn in South Wales. Having attained a degree in Latin and Greek from Cardiff University, Rees had begun teaching shortly before the war broke out and decided to enlist in the RAF. He was soon made Sergeant (Aircrew) and having gained operational experience with Bomber Command was granted a commission and sent to Canada to train as a navigator as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (please take time to visit Pierre Lagacé’s blog about this program by clicking here). Upon completion of his training he was posted to No.455 Squadron which was fresh from its Russian endeavour. The night of January 11th 1943 was to be his first mission with the squadron.

At 2213hrs, the aircraft was instructed to turn on to a QDM (magnetic bearing) of 218 degrees to start the next leg of the return flight to Leuchars. Ground radio stations heard a brief response by Sergeant Smithers but it ended abruptly. After waiting for the aircraft to signal again they tried to re-establish contact but nothing came back. During the course of Smithers’ transmission, Hampden TB.I AD792 crashed in to a blackened Scottish hillside in Kincardeshire. Poor weather had obscured the view from the aircraft until it was too late and responding to the course change the aircraft came upon the sloping hillside which struck the Hampden under the nose.

Being in the forward section of the aircraft, Hill and Rees were both killed on impact. The two Australians survived the crash but while Spohn was able to clamber out of the wreckage, Smithers was in a bad way and couldn’t be moved.  Spohn was left with the agonising decision of either remaining with his comrade and hope they were found soon or leaving him there and trying to find help. He chose the latter and set off in to the night walking for several hours before he was finally able to contact Leuchars and get help for Smithers. Smithers was rescued in the early hours of the morning and rushed to hospital but sadly his injuries were too severe and exactly a week later he succumb to them and died.

Flying Officer Phillip Hill was buried in Fettercairn cemetery while Sergeant Reginald Smithers was buried at Leuchars. Pilot Officer William Rees’ body was returned to Abercarn in Wales and Spohn travelled down to attend his funeral and meet his family. Spohn himself returned to flight operations and survived the war, returning home to Australia where he lived out his life until he passed away in 1995.

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Douglas Dakota ZA947 flypast during No.29 Squadron Families Day 2015

A collection of images of Douglas Dakota ZA947 from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight performing a flypast of the crowd during No.29 Squadron’s Families Day in 2015.

All photos kindly contributed to Defence of the Realm by Jim Knowles.


For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries section or follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

Supermarine Spitfire Vb AB910 SH-F of the BBMF

A collection of images of Supermarine Spitfire Vb AB910 SH-F of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight taken at RAF Coningsby in July 2016.

Built in 1941, Spitfire Mk Vb AB910 flew 143 operational missions in a remarkable wartime ‘career’ that spanned almost 3 years on ‘ops’. On 14 February 1945, whilst at Hibaldstow, ‘AB’ famously flew with a girl on the tail! LACW Margaret Horton, a WAAF ground-crew fitter, was sitting on the tail whilst the aircraft taxied out to the take-off point (as was standard practice in rough weather) without the pilot, Flt Lt Neil Cox DFC, realising her presence. He then took off with Margaret still there. The combination of her weight on the tail and her grip on the elevator very nearly had disastrous results but fortunately Neil was able to maintain control and one circuit later he landed with a considerably shaken WAAF still wrapped around the fin! (Source BBMF)

All photos kindly contributed to Defence of the Realm by Jim Knowles.


For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries section or follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC LF363 JX-B of the BBMF

A collection of images of Hawker Hurricane Mk.IIC LF363 of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight taken at RAF Coningsby in July 2016. LF363 was built at the Hawker factory at Langley near Slough. It first flew in January 1944 and is believed to be the last Hurricane to enter service with the RAF. The aircraft served with No 63 Squadron at Turnhouse, No 309 (Polish) Squadron at Drem, where it was used on shipping protection patrols off the east coast of Scotland, and No 26 Squadron with whom it flew naval artillery spotting and reconnaissance sorties before the end of the War (source BBMF).

All photos kindly contributed to Defence of the Realm by Jim Knowles.


Alongside Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IIa EB-G P7350

For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries section or follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

Extra Curricular Activity – 5 Remarkable Stories Of Deception In World War II

Top 5s.jpg

Hello everyone,

Recently I have been working with the admin team of Top5s.co.uk to put my experience with Defence of the Realm to use to help them produce more of their fascinating lists. I have been following the original Top 5s YouTube channel for well over a year and when the website was launched I put my name forward to be a contributor with an emphasis on military topics.

This week that came to fruition with the publishing of my list 5 Remarkable Stories Of Deception In World War II.

Some of you long time followers of Defence of the Realm will recognise No.1 as I covered it in an early article you can view here (I recommend checking out the list first then come back).

For those of you who like fascinating facts, paranormal stories or the mysterious in general I highly recommend you check out the site and the YouTube channel.

All the best.

-Tony Wilkins

 

 

A Request For Information

LMF Hampden

Hello everybody,

I was recently asked to help research the details surrounding the death of a reader’s grandparent lost during World War II while flying operationally. The operation in question concerns No.455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force attached to RAF Coastal Command flying Hampden TB.Is and took place on January 11th 1943.

The information I have is as follows;

  • The attack involved 12 aircraft which took off from RAF Leuchars at 1556hrs.
  • Their target was enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast.
  • All 12 aircraft returned to the UK but one aircraft, Hampden AD792/UB-P, crashed in the Scottish highlands attempting to return to base.
  • Two of the crew (Flying Officer P J Hill 122499 RAF and Pilot Officer WJ Rees 123457 RAF) were killed instantly. One (Sergeant R A Smithers 411656 RAAF) died a week later from his injuries. The last crewmember,  Sergeant R K Spohn 412208 RAAF, survived and died in 1995.

What I am looking for are details of the mission itself – location of the enemy ships, details of the attack such as were any of the vessels hit/sunk and anything else of importance. Additionally, I would like any details regarding the crash. As far as I can determine on my own the crash would appear to have been an accident but I need to know if this was entirely the case e.g. was the aircraft damaged by enemy action or was the weather poor since it was early January?

Any and all help would be greatly appreciated. You can either comment below or if you prefer you can email me at defenceoftherealm@gmail.com

Thank you in advance

Tony Wilkins

Austin K2/Y Heavy Ambulance

Austin K2 Y Ambulance 1

Austin K2/Y Heavy Ambulance in France, 1940 (commons.wikimedia)

For every combat vehicle that captures the so-called “glory” of war there are countless other supporting vehicles that rarely get the recognition they deserve yet perform just as important a role in keeping an army fighting. For centuries a wounded soldier would find himself more in the hands of God rather than a medically-trained comrade but as combat medicine advanced, particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the chances of his survival began to increase. This was important for an army since many wounds could now be treated, healed and the soldier return to the battlefield thus keeping the number of experienced fighting men on the frontlines as high as possible.

Before that however, he needed to be moved to a field hospital and that required ambulances. As had long been the tradition of the British Army the answer was initially horse-drawn carriages but by the outbreak of the Great War motorised ambulances were becoming more and more prevalent. Known as Field Ambulances, the vehicles provided the link between regimental aid stations near the frontlines and the field hospital located (ideally) out of range of enemy artillery. The ambulances of the Great War were crude and often agonizing to ride in for a wounded soldier but was often the difference between dying in a trench or having a fighting chance of survival.

During the interwar years a number of vehicles fulfilled the military ambulance role and more often than not these were simply military adaptions of civilian trucks. As the 1930s drew to a close and war seemed inevitable once more the British military underwent a massive rearmament and modernisation program. In 1939 a requirement was drafted for a new military ambulance capable of carrying up to four stretchers and Austin Motor Company Ltd offered a modified version of their civilian K30 1.5ton truck.

Austin K30 1.5ton lorry truck

Austin K30 (Trucksplanet)

Based at Longbridge in Birmingham, Austin had only just begrudgingly returned to the truck manufacturing business in January 1939 following instructions from the government who no doubt sensed the oncoming storm and was gearing British industry up for war. In the 1930s the company enjoyed more success than most other motor car manufacturers in Britain even signing a deal with the Japanese company Datsun (now Nissan) who built Austins under license for the Far East. Among the new trucks produced by Austin were 2-ton and 3-ton capacity vehicles known as the K2 and K3 respectively. The K30 was added to the range when a requirement for an intermediary vehicle (1.5 ton) was drawn up shortly after production began.

To ease the manufacturing process all three vehicles shared many of the same technical qualities. The vehicles were powered by an Austin-designed 3.5litre, six-cylinder petrol engine linked to a 4-speed manual transmission. The engine was capable of producing 60bhp which was enough to pull the truck along at 50mph when empty on a flat stretch of road. The vehicle rode along on coiled suspension while hydraulically operated brakes to bring the truck to a stop. One noticeable quirk of the truck was that the gears were quite widely spaced and required some getting used to on the part of the driver.

Austin K2 Y Ambulance 2

Nurses loading K2/Ys (commons.wikimedia)

To meet the requirement for a military ambulance, a rear compartment was developed for the truck by Mann Eagerton Ltd based in Norwich and designed in conjunction with the Royal Army Medical Corps. The compartment provided a workspace 2.6m x 2.0m x 1.7m for the patients and attendants which translated in to four stretchers or ten sitting casualties (casualties with minor wounds or were able to walk). The four stretchers could be loaded on to bases that wound up and down the sides of the vehicle so that the top patient could be more easily loaded onboard. In terms of equipment the vehicle only featured the most basic medical tools since the vehicle was primarily for transport purposes rather than providing medical treatment. Patients could be loaded in to the ambulance compartment via two large doors at the rear. Another, smaller door at the front of the compartment allowed access to and from the driver’s cab.

In general configuration the driver’s cab differed little from its civilian K30 forebear except that the classically smooth curving roof was replaced with a more angular one thanks to the overhang of the ambulance compartment. The most noticeable difference however was the lack of proper doors which were replaced by canvas coverings which could be pulled over to protect the driver from the rain and wind. In a European winter these hardly made driving a comfortable experience but in the deserts of North Africa they helped significantly with ventilating the vehicle. Finally, a spare wheel was included in the cab behind the driver which was positioned in such a way so as to keep the door to the rear compartment clear that it protruded out from the side of the vehicle. To protect the wheel as it stuck out of the side of the cab, a distinctive metal covering was placed over it and this would catch-out more than a few unfortunate drivers who failed to leave enough space for an oncoming vehicle to pass.

In 1939, Austin received their first orders for the new military ambulance which was given the designation K2/Y. This designation gave rise to the affectionate name “Katy” by those who operated them. When the war broke out, Longbridge virtually ceased all car production and instead began churning out munitions however the manufacturing of trucks for the armed forces continued and this included the K2/Y military ambulance. With the tooling at the plant already configured for the K30, production rates were high and it was not long before the vehicle began to be fielded by Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).

The so-called “Phoney War” – a period of relative inaction between Germany and the western powers of Britain and France between September 1939 and May 1940 – allowed British ambulance units of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to establish the vehicle in service. When the Germans finally struck west in May 1940, British and French forces found themselves totally unprepared for the Blitzkrieg style of war the Germans employed expecting instead to fight another static war as had been the case in World War I. The BEF and their French allies found themselves in full retreat until the BEF had to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk where like so many other British vehicles the K2/Ys were burned by their former owners to prevent them from falling in to German hands. Nevertheless, the Germans did acquire a handful of examples during their French campaign although they saw little use with them.

Austin K2 Y Ambulance 3

Austin K2/Y in North Africa (commons.wikimedia)

Longbridge weathered the Battle of Britain churning out more and more ammunition and vehicles and were able to quickly replace the K2/Ys lost by the BEF. The K2/Y was soon being fielded by all branches of the British armed forces and also the armed forces of the British Commonwealth with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all receiving large numbers of examples. The Austin K2/Ys would end up serving in almost every theatre of war including North Africa, the Far East and mainland Europe. During one notable incident in North Africa, an RAMC driver managed to get a staggering 27 casualties on to his vehicle by getting them to clamber over every available space in and out of the ambulance.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 saw Britain sending large numbers of military equipment to the Soviets and this included the K2/Y. The arrival of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in the UK in 1942 saw the K2/Y gain yet another operator. In order to ease the burden on the supply chain across the Atlantic the USAAF employed a number of British vehicles such as the K2/Y to support airfield operations and evacuate wounded airmen to hospital. Perhaps the most famous user of the K2/Y was the future Queen Elizabeth II who trained to drive them as part of her duties with the   Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

As well as military units, the K2/Y saw service with Civil Defence groups who used them to evacuate injured civilians caught up in the German “Blitz”. They were also utilised by the American Ambulance, Great Britain (AAGB); an organization established in 1940 by Americans living in London with the intention of providing British cities with additional ambulances crewed by American and British volunteers. This incredible organization was funded by donations from the United States and would eventually swell to include over 300 ambulances many of which were Austin K2/Ys.

The basic K2/Y changed very little during the course of the war although some improvements did make it in to production vehicles. A number of wooden components were replaced by much stronger metal ones as the availability of strategic metals improved. From 1944 the headlights were repositioned to the bumper while the exhaust pipe was extended up to the roof to limit the ingestion of fumes in to the cab. The spare wheel was also repositioned further in to the cab thus reducing the size of its distinctive protruding cover.

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Guernsey Police K2/Y in the 1970s (tech-designz)

The end of the war saw production of the K2/Y suspended by which time the Longbridge plant had produced 13,102 examples. This was far from the end of the ambulance’s useful life however. While British forces retained the vehicle in the immediate post war years, vast numbers of surplus K2/Ys were released for other users to take on charge. The armies of Denmark, Finland, France and Norway all received various K2/Ys for use in the post-war years to quickly shore up their own medical units. British examples would see action again as the decolonisation process was beginning and even saw war service in Korea. The final examples were retained by second-line units until the mid-1960s when they were finally sold-off or scrapped but some served on with civilian organizations for much longer. One K2/Y ambulance built in 1943 was acquired by the States of Guernsey Police in 1969 and used as an incident command post as late as 1975!

SPECIFICATIONS

  • Engine: Austin 3462cc 6-cylinder petrol engine
  • Horsepower: 60hp at 3000rpm
  • Torque: 153 lb/ft at 1200rpm
  • Wheel Configuration: 2×4
  • Weight: 3 tons
  • Length: 18ft (5.49 m)
  • Width: 7ft 5in (2.26 m)
  • Height: 9ft 2in (2.79 m)
  • Payload: 4x stretchers / 10x walking wounded