With 2nd Tactical Air Force
By April, the preparations for the invasion on the continent once again affected the fate of the unit. On 30th April the unit was assigned to 85 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force. With this posting they had to leave the relative comfort of a permanent RAF station and were relocated to a freshly completed Advanced Landing Ground in Deanland, five miles north east of Lewes, Sussex.
85 Group, the fourth and last Group to be formed in the 2nd TAF, consisted of a number of wings made up into one day and one night fighter squadron (Tempests and Mosquitoes) for round-the-clock protection of the planned beachhead in Europe.
However, due to the imminent German V-1 offensive on London the Tempests had to be pulled out to defend the country, and the Mosquitoes were regrouped into different sectors. This left the wing formations without any flying units, and 149 Wing, which moved from Castle Camps to Deanland in April had to mother the three Spitfire Squadrons ( 234, 64 and 611) that came there. The Wing Commander Flying was W/Cdr Powell.
The operations that followed were mainly fighter escorts to RAF Bostons and Mitchells from Hartford Bridge and Dunsfold, and the B-26 Marauders of the US 9th Air Force.
As many other ALGs, Deanland was basically only a grass field. It was also a bit of a let down for pilots who had to endure tented accommodation, basic facilities and foul latrines. Tales are told by F/O G.F.Sparrow and F/Sgt Farmiloe of poor food and the air being full of Buzz bombs.
Over the seven weeks leading up to D-Day all personnel were working to their limits, and were relieving this by pranks and tomfoolery, as recounted by F/O David Ferguson.
Operations commenced from Deanland on 2nd May 1944 when the wing accompanied a force of 72 Marauders that attacked the railway marshalling yards at Valenciennes.
Exercise Fabius followed over three days, a full dress rehearsal for the invasion., taking place on the south coast between Littlehampton and Shoreham, involving the Spitfires in early morning take-off and flying low level cover to practise their forthcoming role over the Normandy beaches.
F/Sgt Charlie Potter of No. 234 Squadron records a “minor” incident of this time when on landing there was a steering failure in his aircraft AD515 and he nearly crashed into a whole row of parked Spitfires ending up just a few feet short.
On 12th May the squadron acted as escort 39 USAAF Bostons attacking “Noball” targets (V-1 launching sites) south-west of Abbeville, and on the following day they escorted 24 Mitchells to Tourcoing to attack the marshalling yards.
A week later Spitfires of Squadrons 234 and 611 escorted Marauders to Dieppe. It is recorded that after the successful bombing raid the wing was vectored onto ‘bandits’ which turned out to be American P-47 Thunderbolts. Fortunately, both sides recognized each other, so no ’friendly fire’ resulted.
Nos. 234 and 64 squadrons also went in for ‘train busting’ , and on 21st May Sergeant Fargher recorded that he severely damaged two trains. F/Lt Mike Bernard of No. 234 Squadron experienced a close call when, pulling off from this attack he snagged a telegraph wire with his Spitfire (BL646). A length of the cable got wrapped around his aircraft, restricting his control ability, but he was able to pilot his Spitfire successfully back to base.
Train busting and dive-bombing missions were invariably coupled with considerable risks of being shot down. The Germans were notorious for the accuracy of their flak, and the Spitfire proved particularly vulnerable to this king of fire due to the location of the glycol cooler underneath the wing.
In the next days bomber escorts were flown. On 27th May the squadron was strafing goods wagons near Beauchamp, then again on the 29th May attacked rolling stock at Beauchamp in the Dieppe area, staying airborne for one hour thirty minutes.
The stage was set for the invasion of Europe.
|F/O J. Metcalfe||EN861|
|F/Sgt. T.P. Fargher||W3426|
|F/Sgt. P.J. Bell||BM992|
As is recorded, there were several days of bad weather preceding D-Day. On 3th June 1944, the squadron record book records some tension as the decision for D-Day approached.
The order to paint aircraft with the black and white recognition markings came on 4th June. These were 18-inch wide black and white stripes to be put on the wings and fuselages. To the dismay of the ground crew, a heavy rain came after soon afterwards, destroying much of the still-wet paintwork. Painting was therefore completed during the following day.
Orders were given for the D-Day invasion and on the 5th June the 234 was briefed to provide cover for Omaha and Utah beaches and to escort the tugs and gliders carrying the troops over to their drop zones. No. 234 Squadron were not the first unit of the wing to be called into action, that fell to 611 Squadron, who were landing back at Deanland by 0610 hrs, reporting no sign of the Luftwaffe. No. 234 Squadron undertook an uneventful first patrol flying from 0610 hrs. There were no signs of enemy opposition in the air, which created a sense of an anti-climax as Luftwaffe defence was anticipated by Allied intelligence and pilots.
Aerial view of the D-Day landings as seen by the pilots patrolling over the beaches.
[US National Archives]
The squadron flew more missions during the day, providing low cover over the Normandy beaches and escorting the tug and glider formations. One pilot, F/Sgt Dennis Sims (AA936) did not return perhaps hit by either flak from either the enemy or Allied AA defences. Despite special invasion markings applied, F/O Ferguson also recorded that friendly fire was still a problem with the American fighters. His Spitfire was jumped by a P-47s but fortunately the American pilot missed. This incident, although annoying, was by no means unique. Actually, most incidents recorded in the squadron ORB during the period following the invasion were of a ’friendly fire’ nature, either from the ground or in the air.
The invasion was followed by a period of very intense flying. In the days following the squadron flew over 1,000 hours. Night, or early morning, flying was the order of the day. On 14th June the Squadron carried out a patrol between Bayeux and Caen. F/Lt Johnnie Johnston (BL415 AZ-B) was forced to land on one of the temporary landing sites set up for Allied aircraft in trouble over Normandy. F/O Bill Painter and F/Sgt Joe Fargher soon also landed on the same temporary airfield. After eventful experiences with RAF superiors they cadged a flight back to England on Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory’s personal Dakota.
An operation near Caen followed, in which the squadron engaged a formation of German Bf 109Gs. A dogfight ensued with many pilots mixing with enemy aircraft. There was one Spitfire loss of F/Sgt M.K. ( Kicker ) Wilson but no victories.
On 17th June, 234 made a fighter sweep over the beachhead in the neighbourhood of Bayeaux. As they encountered heavy flak over Beachy Head, aircraft of the Red Section took violent evasive action and two fighters collided with each other. F/O Bill Painter’s aircraft spun to the ground and he was listed as missing. The second victim of the crash, F/O George Sparrow managed to nurse his damaged aircraft safely to Deanland.
As the Allied movement into Normandy advanced, additional airstrips were created in France so that aircraft could be based nearer to the frontline. The squadrons based at Deanland had to fly further south as the Germans retreated. The role of squadrons based at Deanland in direct support of the ground battle was therefore diminishing.
In this period F/Sgt Henderson experienced a glycol leak near Eddystone lighthouse and was forced to bale out just off Plymouth but, getting entangled in his parachute and being unable to swim, he drowned.
The squadron now possessed twenty four Spitfires LF Mk. Vbs all reported by the squadron engineering officer F/O Tony Creedon to be serviceable for the forthcoming move. On 19th June 1944 the unit was ordered back into 10 Group and moved to Predannack in Cornwall.
By the time of D-Day, Spitfire Mk. Vb was laregly phased out from 1st line service, but No. 234 Squadron wasn’t the only unit still using this mark.
Here a Mk. Vb used for naval gun spotting operating from Lee-on-Solent.
Some of the material included in this article has been quoted – with author’s permission – from the excellent book on the history of 234 Squadron written by Group Captain Nigel Walpole:
Dragon Rampant, The Story of No. 234 Fighter Squadron
by Group Captain Nigel Walpole OBE BA RAF
Published by Merlin Massara Publishing
Available online through publisher’s website