The light bomber squadrons' Bostons and Mitchells moved out to the Continent as the allied forces advance continued, and were replaced by three Mosquito squadrons of 138 Wing.
On the 2nd 305 Squadron Mosquitos mounted their first attack inside Germany when they went into action against the railway system. This was followed on the following day when on a similar operation a train was located and attacked. Eric Atkins recalled the night mission, when flying in their Mosquito 'M', that took them behind enemy lines to just south of Cologne. He said "It was a bit dicey getting to the target this time with flak and enemy fighters about, but we evaded them. This time it was a juicy railway junction with the glow of the train spotted from low level and confirmed by our flares. We made three attacks on it and got a bit back in return, but no problems. The 3am train from Cologne would not now be running!.
Eric Atkins, 305 Squadron told me ... "We were on another night mission in the same aircraft , our faithful Mosquito 'M'. We returned to our happy hunting ground of West Rhur, Krefeld and Dusseldorf and the weather was appalling, severe gales with winds up to 60mph and increasing in intensity. We noted the huge seas breaking over the piers and harbour walls as we sped past. The cloud clung desperately to us, and we to it, as the aircraft seemed to be picked up by a giant invisible hand and then flung down again. I struggled with the control column as the giro compass needle danced in the panel in front of me. Over the target at Krefeld we had to put up with flak and searchlights as well as the awful weather and I felt like turning round and going home. "Then I remembered that in August 1939 I had been the guest of the Hitler Youth ( an exchange Boy Scout visit) at their Krefeld Headquarters. They had been extremely sarcastic to me. 'What can you do?' asked one of their officials 'We've signed a pact with Russia and shared Poland up between us' - that was the first that we had heard of it! At the time I couldn't do anything, but now ... I pressed our attack home on some vaguely-seen lights, but we should really have called it a day then. However, on the basis that hitting anything in Germany had to be a good thing for the war effort, we let the bombs go and gave a good burst with the cannons too. They replied in no small manner , but I think they were aiming blind as we had done and there was more guess and hope than science in both our attacks. The journey home was really bad with the gales making things difficult." 305 Squadron lost two Mosquitos on this mission.
Two more Mosquito squadrons had arrived at the a airfield being 605 and 418. Flying the heavily armed MkVI version they continued to work up to operational status throughout the month. Their aircraft carried 4x Hispanio Suiza 50mm cannon under the nose and 4xBrowning .303 machine guns located in the aircraft nose. In addition they were able to carry 2x500lb bombs under the wings, which made this aircraft a very formidable fighting machine. They would typically fly at very low level at night, often down to 100 feet, and many that failed to return from missions had hit objects on the ground such as bridges and church spires etc. Very few of these aircraft were actually shot down by the enemy due to their very high operating speed and the element of surprise this produced. It was not unusual for the aircraft to reach the target with the first indication to the enemy being the bomb bursts or withering fire power smashing into them as the aircraft passed very low over their heads. F/Lt P Middleton, of 605 Squadron, recalled that on the 31st December both squadrons were involved in their first operations from the airfield when they were despatched to strafe targets in the Ardennes. They were briefed to disrupt communications, to bomb troop build-ups and generally cause as much disruption as possible to the Germans. The intention was to support our troops and Allies as they took part in the 'Battle of the Bulge'. Since the middle of the month the German Army had mounted a counter attack westwards in the Ardennes to the north of Luxembourg and by the end of the month their armour had penetrated some 70 miles. He remembers " I was called back on the 24th from two days Christmas leave in the 'Big Smoke' as the weather had unexpectedly cleared to allow support operations into the Ardennes. "The difficulty was to establish on arrival at night exactly which were Allied troops and which were the enemy. The battle moved so fast that the bomb line given at the briefing prior to take-off might be very different from the position we found on our arrival over the target area, when we reached it some hours later. We always had a dread that we might be attacking our own troops. Since the Bulge was only about 20miles wide it took less than 5 minutes from one side to the other in our aircraft. "Fortunately there was no Luftwaffe opposition, reducing the chances of our being shot down by our own side. "This bombing, strafing and general destruction went on for about three weeks, by which time the 'Bulge' was sealed up at the mouth, like a balloon, and the remaining contents of the enemy troops either surrendered or were eradicated. There were 100,000 German troops killed , wounded or captured in the battle and it was the American troops that had taken the main brunt of the battle. By the middle of January the original front was to be restored and Hitler's last gamble would be seen to fail."
F/O Wally Midwood of 418 Squadron flew on the 'Bulge' attacks and recalls one for a strange reason. "On the 4th I flew through 10/10 cloud at 500 feet in severe icing conditions between Givet in France and the bomb line. We flew into Cumulus cloud which tossed the aircraft out of control. We finally managed to get the aircraft settled down and decided to return to base. My Navigator was sick and had slight concussion after being hit on the head by parts of the Gee set, due to the very severe turbulence. We jettisoned our 500lb bombs in the Channel and were thankful to land back at base at 01.35hrs in one piece". So it wasn't just enemy action that had to be contended with!
418 Squadron was again in action on the 6th when they mounted a raid to bomb St.Vith on instruments. There was no flak and the town was to be virtually destroyed. It was situated on one of the main roads being used by the enemy and once attacked became a bottleneck for their troops as the town was flattened and buildings collapsed into the streets. One of the main routes being used by the Germans had therefore been completely blocked. Sadly, one aircraft failed to return from this operation. Another aircraft being crewed by F/O Redeker and F/O Zimmer was able to attack a flying bomb and had the satisfaction of watching it crash on impact with the ground. By the 10th the weather had worsened at Blackbushe with heavy snow showers leaving a covering 4 inches deep over the airfield. Flying did continue but with some difficulty as the runway had to be marked by flags and patches of cleared snow. A B17 Flying Fortress diverted in on the 13th and was one of a number of different types doing so throughout the month due to bad weather at their home bases. Also on the 13th 418 Squadron were sent with twelve aircraft to attack a pocket of resistance in the Bastogne area of the Ardennes, where they attacked among other targets a barracks and lights seen coming out of a wood which was a hiding place for enemy troops. This was followed on the next day by a similar raid carried out by 16 aircraft , unfortunately with the loss of another crew, F/O L J Berry and his Navigator F/O W Brown. Wally Midwood recalled that they flew on the 15th on a night patrol. "We took off from base at 20.55hrs to look out for road movements in the Ardennes. The weather was generally good on this occasion over the whole route but there was some low cloud over our target area. No movement was seen but we strafed two stationary lights and a rotating beacon! We bombed them visually though and returned to land back at base at 00.40hrs - having seen no flak." The sight of an enemy jet fighter was reported by a 605 Squadron pilot. Jet aircraft, which were just being delivered, were a rarity at the time. 418 Squadron were having a particularly bad time as four of their crew members lost their lives during the rest of the month. The loss of another Mosquito and an accident involving an Airspeed Oxford in Wales were the causes. A busy time indeed.
The pressure on the squadrons continued as more and more attacks were mounted in the Ardennes area. On the 17th, 418 Squadron were operating in the Arochen area bombing any transport target they could find. The following day a further night mission was carried out by 418 squadron as they were sent out to bomb and attack three towns in the Munchen Gladbach area close to Dusseldorf. One of the towns was bombed by the light of flares. Five of the squadron aircraft took it in turn to drop the flares which the others then bombed on. Fourteen aircraft of 418 Squadron attacked targets in the Munster, Wesel and Haltern area. It should be noted that 605 Squadron, and many other squadrons from other bases, were similarly supporting our own and Allied troops as the Ardennes fighting continued.
As the end of the month approached, bad weather again closed in on the airfield with freezing rain, sleet and heavy snow returning. Base personnel, however, managed to keep the airfield open and it was possible for 15 Halifaxes to divert in to land on the 29th. These were 427 Squadron aircraft of 6 Group normally based at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire. Shortly afterwards they were followed in by a USAAF Liberator. All were to remain for two days as the weather was so bad that it was not felt advisable to attempt to return to their home bases. A further Halifax from RAF Lisset, also in Yorkshire, made an emergency landing owing to fuel shortage, as did a USAAF Liberator of the 492nd Bomb Group. When a large number of aircraft arrived on diversion there was often a requirement to house and feed large numbers of crew at short notice overnight. This often stretched resources to the maximum. Targets in the Cologne area were attacked on the 29th as yet again 418 Squadron were able to get airborne again. They continued to attack enemy strong points which were impeding the advance of the US 9th Army into Cologne itself. January had proved a difficult month with bad weather playing a significant part. Snow and severe icing had made movements a risky business and the base personnel had worked long hours in atrocious conditions keeping the runways and taxiways clear of snow and ice so far as possible. Flags were used on occasions to indicate the sides of the runways, as it was not easy for the crews to see the edges due to the depth of snow cover. The airfield did, however, remain open for the entire month. In addition, personnel organised sports and social activities which were of great benefit to all those at the station.
A W/Cdr Collins and three other officers visited the airfield for important meetings regarding the future of the airfield. He was interested in the airfield being used for Transport Command purposes in the future. Meanwhile support attacks in the 'Bulge' continued. F/O Thomas and his crew damaged a train as 418 Squadron continued operations in the Osnabruck area. On the 2nd it was 418 Squadrons crews that were again sent on a raid - this time to Hengelo in Holland. Of the fourteen aircraft that set out, thirteen returned with damage. A VI flying bomb near Zutphen in Holland was attacked by F/Lt G Hackett and F/O Brittain, who were rewarded by seeing it crash shortly afterwards. The 3rd saw fifteen crews of 418 Squadron set out to attack targets in the Cologne area. As we in the main follow the exploits of 418 Squadron ( mainly because I was able to speak to and follow their history from the logbook of one of their pilots -Ed) it should not be forgotten that 605 Squadron were carrying out their own support operations from the airfield. Attacks were continuing almost daily, with the crews getting whatever rest they could grab as the opportunity was presented. The object of these raids continued to be to harass the enemy as they continued their retreat towards the Rhine. F/Lt Middleton of 605 Squadron flew on the last 'Bulge' patrol on the 7th . The flight time was 3hrs 25minutes and involved strafing a railway signal box and bombing a factory. As the 'Bulge' patrols were coming to an end normal operations continued leaving little respite for the hard worked aircrews and ground crews that kept their aircraft ready to operate when required. As the month progressed there were a number of visits by high-ranking officers in connection with the proposed change of use of the airfield from Fighter Command to 110 Wing, Transport Command, which was due to take place in mid-March. Operational flights continued but in a brief change in direction, on the 21st a party from Wellington College Combined Cadet Force visited the airfield. Flights for the cadets in the 300mph Mosquito were arranged, as were some in the more sedate Dominie. Flights lasted for about 30 minutes.
OPERATION CLARION - February 22nd 1945. This was a huge operation with a reported 7000 Allied aircraft participating in an attack on transport targets throughout Holland and North West Germany as far away as Hanover and Hamburg. 136 Wing flew 39 sorties throughout the day and dropped 56x500lb bombs on barges, buildings, transport and military installations. It was however, a tragic day for the Wing as they lost 8 of their Mosquitos. W/Cdr Witchett, the Commander of 418 Squadron, was one of those that crashed that day. He and his Navigator, F/O Jessop, were captured after their aircraft came down in flames near Oldenberg. The crew were immediately taken to Oberursel prisoner of war camp. F/Lt Hackett and his Navigator , F/O W Brittain, were also taken prisoner as their aircraft crash-landed. Gordon McClatchie of 418 Squadron remembered the day: "The Squadron participated in the operation when it was reported that 7000 Allied aircraft would be ranging over the Continent to disrupt all manner of movement by the Germans on roads, railway and canals. As it turned out this was to be the only daylight operation we were to be involved in, all the others were at night. Thirteen Mosquitos took off at 11.15hrs that day , each with a particular target to search out and destroy. My Navigator F/O Anthony Timpson, and I were sent off as a spare crew and we flew number thirteen in an echelon starboard formation very low over the North Sea, across the Fresian Islands and into Holland. We watched as all the wing tanks were jettisoned from the other twelve aircraft before making landfall,. Our machine (TH.J) had not been fitted with these tanks. "We were being led on this operation by our C/O W/Cdr Witchett and his Navigator, F/O Jessop. They suddenly broke radio silence soon after crossing the coast and calmly said 'We are going down'. " We had been briefed to take out a bridge at Haren on the River Ems just inside Germany. At 13.07hrs we made a diving attack on the target with eleven-second delayed bombs and were able to watch the structure collapse as we made a climbing turn away from the location. Our remaining fuel was such that we were obliged to land and pick up fuel at RAF Bradwell Bay on the east coast of England on our way back to Blackbushe." F/O Brittain also recalled the day and wrote to me: "At a designated point each aircraft broke formation, fanned out and flew on to bomb designated targets (for us this was two railway stations)and then to strafe targets of opportunity. Like the C/O we were shot down. We were hit when we were in the Dortmund-Ems Canal area and although we made it back to the coast with a wing on fire we came down in the sea between the Dutch coast and Terschelling Island. While even today I enjoy sea swimming, I don't recommend the North Sea in February!" In addition to the aircraft and crews lost that day there were also a number of aircraft damaged when they hit ducks while flying low over flooded Holland. On the 23rd S/Ldr Annan took command of 418 Squadron as gloom about the previous day's events spread throughout the airfield. In addition, a further loss was added to those of the previous day when F/Lt L McLeod and his Navigator F/O G Morrison failed to return from a bombing raid. Morale was at an all time low. Further targets were attacked until the end of the month. When I asked what he recalled about the airfield at this time F/O Brittain answered: "My stay at Hartford Bridge was only three months. Even when I revisited the airfield in 1960 I was disorientated by the changes and could barely trace anything recognisable - except the pubs in Yateley and Hartley Wintney. Yateley was nearest to our squadron's domestic area, where two or three crews shared a nissen hut. The sole heating was a black 'backwoods' type stove in the centre and for which anything burnable, within reason, was scrounged that winter." Their stay was a short and cold one.
At the beginning of the month 605 Squadron were busy on operations against enemy targets, as they had been in previous months. F/Lt Middleton flew on five patrols between the 1st and 12th of the month. As the enemy retreated further into Germany the patrols lasted longer, with flight times being between 3hrs 30minutes and 4hrs 50minutes. River barges, a means of transport increasingly being used by the enemy as a means to move troops, equipment and arms, received particular attention, as did railway stock and railway lines in general. Meanwhile 418 squadron were also very active as they too attacked targets in the Eefde area. Wayne Jones, a former Navigator with 418 Squadron wrote to tell me: " Early in the month there was a strange sight on the airfield - 418 Squadron were detailed to take up motorcycle riding! There was sound reasoning behind the idea as it was felt that if the squadron were moved to the Continent and the Germans succeeded in a swift counter-attack, as in the case of the 'Bulge', it might be necessary for squadron personnel to beat a hurried retreat to escape. A few motorcycles might have to be borrowed for the purpose! There was no formal training given but after a few very basic instructions those taking part were each required to ride once around the airfield perimeter. The sight of the machine weaving its way around the airfield was of some concern to anyone in the local vicinity. The crews who participated thought it nearly as dicy as going on some operations!" Twelve Bomber Command Halifaxes diverted in following operations and their crews were accommodated overnight on the 6th. On the same day a Warwick,BV296, flown by F/Lt Heinz made a belly-landing following a double engine failure. On the 8th a further thirteen Halifaxes made diversionary arrivals following operations. Between the 10th and 15th there was a cross - Channel shuttle of aircraft as the squadrons prepared to move to a new base at Coxyde in Belgium to be nearer the action as the battle front moved further and further into Germany.
Both Mosquito squadrons moved out to Coxyde in Belgium as 136 Wing departed the airfield on the 15th. In all 40 of the Wing's aircraft departed, with personnel and equipment being moved by sixteen Dakotas that arrived from RAF Bradwell Bay for the purpose. At the same time the 9th TCC (Flight Section) USAAF, which had run a continuous service with Dakotas to and from the battle zone with equipment and passengers, also moved out, leaving an airfield with few aircraft remaining.
Blackbushe Airport was handed over to 46, Group, Transport Command, on the 20th of the month. Work was quickly put in hand to construct suitable facilities for the new transport role. There were signs of change as the advanced working party of 167 Squadron personnel arrived from RAF Holmsley South in Hampshire in preparation for the arrival of the squadron of Warwick aircraft. On the 23rd Halifax NA631 arrived, having diverted into the field short of fuel. The diversion of aircraft in emergency arriving at the airfield was becoming quite frequent and the airfield ground and emergency crews were well drilled to handle anything that might arise. A section of the Casualty Air Evacuation Unit (Canadian), arrived from Farnborough to undertake the reception of casualties evacuated by air from the Continent who arrived at the airfield. This Unit comprised one officer and thirty other ranks. Transport aircraft began to take up residence as a number of Anson light transport aircraft flew in. These were followed in by twenty-five Warwicks of 167 Squadron on the 27th. This was the first move the squadron had made since it formed at RAF Holmsley South in Hampshire in October 1944. As part of 110 Wing, the squadron had been operating passenger and freight services to the Continent. A total of 55 officers and 158 other ranks arrived in the main party. Designed initially to complement the Wellington bomber, the Warwick Mk C1 and Mk C3 aircraft flown by the squadron were dispersed to the south of the A30 and flight briefings took place in the passenger or freight buildings. Problems with the delayed delivery of engines had meant that the aircraft were too late to enter service as bombers and they had subsequently been converted to carry airborne lifeboats and then designated as ASR1s. In 1942 an order for a number of Warwick transport aircraft had been placed by British Overseas Airways Corporation who used them on the Middle East routes as the Mk C1, lacking all military equipment. These were the aircraft that had been handed over to 167 Squadron in 1944. The Mk3 was similar to the Mk1 except that it had a large pannier under the fuselage. At the end of the month news came through that W/Cdr Wickett, of 418 Squadron, had been released from German detention while on a forced route march. They had by chance met an advancing unit of American troops going in the opposite direction! Although no longer at Blackbushe as the squadron was now on the Continent the news was welcomed by airfield personnel who well remembered the Wing Commander. On the 28th G/Capt Makowski, Command Polish Liaison Officer, visited in connection with the arrival and reception of 301 (Polish) Squadron. A Flying Fortress (46937) from RAF Molesworth in Huntingdonshire, landed, after having experienced engine trouble on an operational flight. G/Capt Constable-Roberts, Air Officer Commanding 110 Wing, visited the station. During the month the airfield had remained open and operational despite the upheaval during the departure of 136 Wing and the subsequent arrival of 167 Squadron. All flying units had been very busy and some 635 visiting aircraft had been serviced by the Station Flight. Other lodger units, including 416 and 417, Aircraft Repair Flights had also contributed to this impressive total.