2010 Articles

JUN 06 2010
Exercise Halifax Shadow

I was posted onto 78 Sqn (Merlins) at RAF Benson in October 2009. Keen to seek out a fresh challenge and, having more than just a passing interest in military aviation history, I "foolishly" made the fatal military error (i.e. never EVER volunteer for anything!) of, er - volunteering for the role of the 78 Sqn History Officer...

Since 78 Sqn reformed back in the UK in December 2007 (for the fifth time in our 94 year long history) ongoing operations in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan have prevented anyone from having the time or dedication to establish a permanent display of the Sqn's History. So my spare time was quickly taken up with sorting through boxes of archive material which were gathering dust in all corners of the Sqn Hangar.

An unrelated incident was shortly to provide the inspiration for a major 78 Sqn event. Within weeks of accepting the role of voluntary history officer, I received a forwarded email from the RAF Benson PRO. The original email was an enquiry from a lady seeking any information regarding her uncle who had been killed in action serving as a Flight Engineer on a 78 Sqn Halifax on 24th October 1942. A quick check of the archives plus an hour or so surfing the web provided me with more information which was duly passed on. The subsequent reply which I received surprised me greatly as her entire family now knew more about their relative than they had previously imagined.

This thought remained in the back of my mind for a week or so, as I wondered just how many other relatives might be in a similar position and, closer to home, how many of the personnel serving on the present 78 Sqn knew anything about our past exploits, and so an idea was born.

Having gained the "green light" from the 78 Sqn hierarchy, the plan quickly snowballed into what was to become Exercise Halifax Shadow. The naming of this project was deliberate; 'Halifax' as this was the primary platform operated by 78 Sqn during WWII and 'Shadow' as it is usually behind you and "always there".

This then, was the driving force behind Halifax Shadow which although originally planned by myself eventually became a Sqn wide event. The basic aim would allow the relatives and families of those personnel killed or missing in action the chance to not only honour their relatives but actually visit the airfields they flew from (some never to return) and, of equal importance, allow the current personnel the opportunity to learn more about our history, and to honour both our fallen comrades and surviving veterans. Finally it would also allow 78 Sqn attendance at our own Sqn reunion for the first time in 62 years!

78 Sqn was first formed on 1st November 1916 as an Air Defence Unit protecting South East England against the ever present aerial threat of both long range German Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers. However, it is 78 Sqn's contribution during WWII which was the prime area for long overdue recognition. During WWII, 78 Sqn were part of No 4 Group Bomber Command which covered East and North Yorkshire. It was therefore decided to hold the events in this geographical area to acknowledge this memorable chapter in the Sqn's past.

On Friday 4th June 2010 over thirty personnel deployed by both air and road to RAF Linton on Ouse - itself a former base of 78 Sqn (twice) during WWII. The two Merlins suitably using the formation callsign of "Halifax 1 & 2" also arrived in time to conduct a formation flypast over the Officers' Mess as part of a 1 FTS Wings Graduation Ceremony, with the lead aircraft being flown by OC78 trailing the RAF Ensign for the benefit of those gathered below.

Saturday 5th June saw 78 Sqn personnel rendezvous at the Yorkshire Air Museum, Elvington. The two Merlins landed on the vast apron and remained on static display for veterans, their families and other invited guests along with members of the public who just happened to be visiting the site by coincidence! The entire 78 Sqn archive along with 78 Sqn merchandise was not only in evidence but of great interest to all. The undoubted highlight for many was the rare chance to not only view, but to also get inside Elvington's resident Halifax bomber as flown by 78 Sqn from 1942 - 1945. For several veterans, not only was this clearly relished but achieved with sprightly ease given their age!

Sunday 6th June commenced with a church service dedicated to 78 Sqn at All Saints Church, Bubwith near Selby, led by the Padre of RAF Linton on Ouse. This was followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the 78 Sqn Memorial Stone in the churchyard, in the presence of the 78 Sqn and RAFA Standards. The Last Post & Reveille were sounded by a bugler from the RAF Regiment Band whilst all present honoured two minutes silence to the memory of the 979 aircrew lost in WWII and the 30 plus personnel lost in flying accidents since the end of the war. Sadly, the very poor weather prevented a flypast by a BBMF Spitfire, however flypasts by a Leconfield based "E" Flt 202 Sqn Sea King and a Merlin, again trailing the RAF Ensign, did go ahead.

Two miles south of Bubwith lies the airfield of Breighton, which, from June 1943 to September 1945, was the main base for 78 Sqn during WWII. Poignantly a 78 Sqn aircraft landed back at its spiritual wartime "home" for the first time in 65 years. During the afternoon current 78 Sqn personnel, veterans, families and friends were the guests of the Real Aeroplane Company who, as perfect hosts, provided good food and Yorkshire hospitality to all. Finally when the weather improved, they conducted several air displays in our honour. Re-enactors in period WWII uniforms added to the unique atmosphere of the event.

It was during the afternoon's celebrations that an extremely unique event was witnessed by all attending. For a few brief minutes and, to the great delight of both the individuals and the assembled photographers alike, a "line-up" of decorated veterans was arranged. Present "On Parade" were; Larry Taylor DFC (78 Sqn WOP/AG), George Duffee DFC (78 Sqn Pilot), Freddie Johnson DFC (78 Sqn MUG) and John Brennan DFC (78 Sqn Nav). Also present were; Flt Lt Michelle Goodman DFC from the current 78 Sqn and Mr Michael Bowen, the proud son of the late of Sqn Ldr "Johnny" Bowen DFC & Bar (78 Sqn Pilot). Finally, and representing the Bomber Command Association, was Sqn Ldr Tony Iveson DFC - who as a former Battle of Britain Fighter Pilot as well as a former Lancaster pilot is clearly having a busy year! A grand total of eight DFCs in one place is a sight sadly unlikely to be repeated in the future.

On the morning of Monday 7th, whilst veterans and their guests visited the Memorial Room at Linton on Ouse, the two Merlins departed the base to return to Benson. However the final part of the weekend's plan was still to be conducted. On their return flight, "Halifax 1 & 2" overflew the five former wartime bases of 78 Sqn, namely (and in order) Linton on Ouse, Dishforth, Croft, Middleton St George (now known as Durham Tees Valley) and once again Breighton. Remarkably, given the passage of time, four still remain in use as airfields, whilst the fifth site at Croft near Darlington is now better known as the site of an international rally cross circuit. Yet its wartime links are not forgotten as a memorial to 78 Sqn (and additional RCAF squadrons) stands in the nearby village of Dalton on Tees.

This was the first official 78 Sqn reunion in eleven years and, in addition to the 30 members of the current Sqn, over 180 veterans, and the relatives and families of those personnel KIA/MIA serving with 78 Sqn attended from across the UK, Norway, The Netherlands and Canada. Finally, and not to be outdone by those veterans from the WWII era, we were also delighted to meet the equally proud veterans from the Suez and Aden campaigns and more recently from the 21 years service that 78 Sqn gave in the South Atlantic.

Concurrent to our return to Breighton, the Real Aeroplane Company have also been busy honouring our past - unusually with the help of the residents of a town in The Netherlands.

At 2205 on 24th May 1944, a 78 Sqn Halifax Mk III - LV905/EY-W departed RAF Breighton to attack railway marshalling yards at Aachen, Germany. On its return flight, the aircraft was shot down by a Luftwaffe Night Fighter. The aircraft crashed in flames near the Dutch village of Hank. All the crew were killed. Two thrown clear on impact were buried locally shortly afterwards. The five remaining crew remained entombed in the wreckage which sunk deep into a Dutch Polder.

The men of RAF Bomber Command are to this day held in high regard by the Dutch nation. Three years ago the local community of Werkendam not only raised funds in order to allow the Aircraft Recovery Unit of the Konniklijke Luchtmacht (Royal Netherlands Air Force) to finally excavate this aircraft, but also to ensure the five remaining crew were finally officially laid to rest. All seven crew now lie together at peace in the Jonkerbos War Cemetery, Nijmegen.

The Dutch principality of Werkendam kindly gifted the No 3 engine from LV905/EY-W back to the Real Aeroplane Company. Somewhat appropriately, it finally returned to Breighton airfield 66 years, 11 days and almost four hours after it originally left - and just in time for Exercise Halifax Shadow.

The members of the Real Aeroplane Company now plan to erect a memorial incorporating the No 3 engine from LV905/EY-W to the memory of not just this particular crew but to all the 78 Sqn aircrew who made the ultimate sacrifice operating from RAF Breighton during WWII.

With 78 Sqn approaching their 95th Anniversary on 1st Nov 2011, planning of a future event at RAF Benson to mark this important milestone in 78 Sqn's history is already underway.

Sgt Tony Hibberd
SNCO i/c 78 Sqn Operations
(Voluntary 78 Sqn History Officer)

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