No. 644 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

No. 644 Squadron (RAF): Second World War

No. 644 Squadron (RAF) during the Second World War

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No. 644 Squadron was formed around a nucleus from No. 298 Squadron on 23 February 1944, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. In the months before D-Day it carried out a mix of glider-towing practice and supply-drop flights over occupied Europe.

On the morning of D-Day No.644 Squadron towed three gliders in the force that attacked the coastal gun batteries before the main landings, and seventeen gliders for the main assault. It also provided twenty aircraft on the first day at Arnhem and thirty for the crossing of the Rhine. The squadron also carried out supply dropping missions over Norway. During 1945 it was also used to carry out tactical bombing strikes in advance of the Allies armies. At the end of the war the squadron was used to carry troops to Norway to accept the German surrender, and to return POWs to Britain.

March 1944 to December 1944: Handley Page Halifax A.Mk V
August 1944 to November 1945: Handley Page Halifax A.Mk III
March 1945 to September 1946: Handley Page Halifax A.Mk VII
August-September 1946: Handley Page Halifax A.Mk IX

25 February 1944 to November 1945: Tarrant Rushton
November 1945 to 1 September 1946: Qastina, Palestine

Squadron Codes: 9U, 2P

February 1944 to September 1946: Glider tug squadron with No. 38 Group, Allied Expeditionary Air Force


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Station History

Situated five miles south west of Newark, this was one of a series of additional bomber stations that were built under the second phase of the RAF “Expansion Scheme” that occurred in the latter half of the 1930′s, as a result of the happenings in Nazi Germany. Because time was running short as the Second World War approached the station finished up with a mixture of permanent buildings, married quarters etc. but its two main hangars were the more austere J types.

Being a late starter, it was the 1st of December 1940 before the station opened under the control of No. 1 Group of Bomber Command. During the following days Nos. 304 & 305 Squadrons moved in with their Vickers Wellington bombers, both Squadrons being manned by Polish airman who had managed to escape to England. These aircraft were new to them and it took until April to work up before engaging in their first night bombing mission to Rotterdam. In January 1941 King George VI and the Queen mother visited the station.

Many more night operations were performed before both of the Polish Squadrons departed to Lindholme on the 20th July 1941, to be replaced by No. 408 Squadron, who came in the opposite direction with its Handley Page Hampdens. Once again, this was not manned by the RAF, but by Canadians. They wasted no time in conducting bombing operations from Syerston but had to move to the satellite airfield at Balderton on the 8th December 1941 to allow runways to be constructed.

Over the next five months, three concrete runways were laid and two more T2 hangars were erected. During this time certain parts of the airfield were used for circuits by Oxford training aircraft based at RAF Newton.

Members 106 Sqn gather in front of Lancaster, ED593 ‘ZN-Y’ “Admiral Prune II”, the aircraft flown by the Commanding Officer of the Squadron, Wing Commander G P Gibson (standing 14th from the left), to mark the completion of his tour of operations at Syerston.

On re-opening on 5th May 1942, the station became part of No. 5 Group, with No. 61 Squadron taking up residence. They had come here to convert onto the new Lancaster bomber and for the first few months kept company by two other Conversion Flights belonging to other No. 5 Group squadrons, who were also receiving their new Lancasters..

Wg Cdr Guy Gibson (Centre) at RAF Syerston.

By August No. 61 Squadron was ready for normal night bombing operations, and in the following month were joined by No. 106 Squadron similarly equipped with Lancasters and commanded by Guy Gibson. Regular bombing operations were thereafter performed two or three times a week, weather permitting. The two Lancaster squadrons flying against the Peenemunde Air Research and Development Station where the German VI and V2 rockets were being developed. The V2 was the predecessor of the American Saturn rocket programme that took part in the 1969 Moon Landing. German scientists worked for the allies after the war.

On one particular night in October a fully loaded Lancaster crash landed on the airfield and started to burn. The Station Commander was Gus Walker, who dashed into the blaze to try and rescue the crew, but a bomb exploded and severed his arm. He lived to become an Air Chief Marshall in the 1960s, his disability never being allowed to interfere with his ability to pilot an aircraft.

In early 1943, No. 61 Squadron changed to radial engined Lancaster Mk 2′s. It was one of their pilots, Flt Lt Bill Reid, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for pressing on with his mission after his aircraft was damaged by enemy fighters, which caused injuries to himself and the loss of his navigator.

On the 17th November 1943, the operational squadrons departed, when the role of the station changed to bomber crew training. Initially No. 1668

A crowd waves off Plt Off W Eager RCAF and his crew in Lancaster W4236 ‘QR-K’, of 61 Sqn, as they begin their take-off run from the now Runway 33, for a night raid on Hamburg, Germany. This was W4236′s 74th mission, from which it returned safely: it was lost, however, during a raid on Mannheim on 10 August 1943.

Heavy Conversion Unit was present, engaged in training new bomber crews on Halifax and Lancasters, but due to the shortage of Lancasters it was retitled No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School in January 1944. This was a stop gap measure where crews were trained on Stirlings or Halifaxes at other HCU’s then came to Syerston for their final week to get used to operating with Lancasters.

From November to July 1944, there was also a Bombing and Gunnery Training Flight in attendance with several Wellingtons, Spitfires, Hurricanes, plus a few Martinet tug aircraft, all employed in brushing up the skills of No. 5 Groups air gunners on air to air exercises.

On the 1st April 1945, the requirement for crew training was coming to a close, so No. 5 LFS disbanded, its place taken by No. 49 Squadron who arrived from Fulbeck on the 22nd April. With the war almost at an end only one bombing operation was performed before the squadron kicked its heels until transferring to Mepal on the 28th September 1945.

On the 25th October 1945, the station became part of Transport Command, when No. 1333 Conversion Unit arrived from Leicester East with its Dakota and Halifax tugs plus Horsa gliders. However, the glider aspect was slowly running down, after which crews would be trained purely in the air transport aspect. In December 1946 the above unit transferred to North Luffenham but part of it stayed behind and formed into No. 1331 Heavy Conversion Unit that was chiefly equipped with Dakotas although it also possessed a few Wellingtons. It remained here until disbanding on the 5th of January 1948, when its few remaining trainees transferred to Dishforth.

Syerston’s Control Tower in the 1950′s

Syerston was taken over by Flying Training Command on the 1st of February 1948 when No. 22 Flying Training School (FTS) arrived from Ouston.

This school specialised in training pilots for the Fleet Air Arm and employed both Tiger Moths and Harvards. By 1950 Prentice aircraft had replaced the Tiger Moths but in November 1953 the new Percival Provost had replaced the other types. Take offs and

landings were the main part of the syllabus and to help relieve the pressure on Syerston circuit, first Tollerton, then Newton and finally Wymswold were used as Relief landing Grounds over the period 1948 to 1970.

VX770 breaking up during its fly past at the 1958 airshow.

On the 1st of May 1955 the above school was retitled No. 1 FTS, but to the outsider nothing changed, as it was still Provosts that were in use for the training of FAA student pilots. In early November 1957 this school left for a more acceptable airfield at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, but in its place came No. 2 FTS on the 18th of the month. So yet again nothing changed other than the fact it was RAF and not FAA pilots that were under training.

On 20 September 1958 during the annual Battle of Britain Air show tragedy came to the Airfield. Avro Vulcan B1 VX770 being used by Rolls Royce for engine tests was giving a display. During a high speed run the aircraft broke up and crashed killing all the crew.

A common sight at training bases during the era! Here is JP ‘XM364′ after sliding off the runway at Syerston.

In 1959 the new Jet Provost replaced the piston engined counterpart, and these continued to pound the circuit for another ten years until the requirement for new pilots decreased in 1969, which resulted in this FTS disbanding on the 16th January 1970.

RAF Syerston circa 1961. Photo taken from the pan with the old ‘Hangar 8′ visible in the background.

In 1964 at a special meeting of the Borough of Newark on Trent the Freedom of the Borough was granted to RAF Syerston. A parade was duly held to mark the occasion.

From 1970 to 1975 the station lay vacant and began to rapidly deteriorate, but in January 1975 the airfield aspect started to be used by the Central Gliding School (who had moved from RAF Spitalgate), whose headquarters was at Newton.

Today the airfield is still used by the RAF Central Gliding School, but is joined by 643 & 644 Volunteer Gliding Squadrons. The airfield is extremely active and is used seven days a week for the training of Gliding Instructors and Cadets.

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This brief history tells how the RAF Air Cadets was formed. As an essential part of the RAF, supplying better-trained and experienced personnel during times of war, it has evolved into the largest air cadet organisation in the world.

The first cadets

In 1859 several schools around the country began forming armed, uniformed units of adults and older boys with the purpose of protecting Britain in the event of an attack from overseas. By the turn of the century there were units in more than 100 schools and, in 1908, the units were re-titled the Officer Training Corps (OTC). Many ex-cadets and officers served with distinction during the First World War.

By the 1930s the beginnings of today&rsquos CCF (RAF) appeared in the form of OTC Air Sections. In Army uniform, but with an RAF armband, they trained very much like today.

Air Commodore Chamier, the Air League and the ADCC

It was a simple enough idea. The Second World War was on the horizon and if aircraft were to be used as a major combat strength, then the RAF would need a serious amount of combat-ready pilots and competent support crew to keep them in the air.

That idea came from Air Commodore J A Chamier, now known as the father of the air cadets. He served in the army, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF in 1919 (not long after it formed). With his love for aviation, he was determined to get British people aware of the RAF and its vital role in any future war. He wanted to establish an air cadet corps, encouraging young people to consider a career in aviation - pretty exciting at a time when very few people ever got the chance to fly. His experience in World War I, where training time was very limited, convinced him that the sooner training began the better prepared and experienced a person would be in combat.

So, in 1938 the Air Defence Cadet Corps (ADCC) was founded by Air Commodore Chamier who was then Secretary-General of the Air League &ndash an organisation made up of people who wanted to make the British public aware of the importance of military aviation.

Demand for places was high and squadrons were set up in as many towns around the UK as possible. Local people ran them and each squadron aimed to prepare cadets for joining the RAF or the Fleet Air Arm (the Royal Navy's aircraft division). They also helped form the diverse programme of activities that our cadets enjoy today.

During World War II, with many instructors being drafted into the RAF and squadron buildings being used by the military, cadets were sent to work on RAF stations. They carried messages, handled aircraft and moved equipment. They filled thousands of sandbags and loaded miles of belts of ammunition. They were invaluable.

By the end of the war, in just 7 years since the formation of the ADCC, almost 100,000 cadets had joined the RAF.

The ATC and CCF

Towards the end of 1940, the government realised the value of the cadet force and took control of the ADCC. It reorganised and renamed it, and on the 5th February 1941 the Air Training Corps was officially established with King George VI as the Air Commodore-in-Chief.

Today&rsquos Air League

The founding organisation of the ATC is today a sector leading aviation and aerospace charity focused on changing lives through aviation. Its core purpose is to inspire people into the aviation industry from all backgrounds and to champion the British Aviation and Aerospace Industry. Each year many hundreds of people from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from Air League support to help them start a career, builds self-esteem and well-being, make them feel valued and realise what they can achieve.

The Air League aims to break down the perceived barriers to the aviation industry and through scholarships and outreach programmes create a life-long impact on beneficiaries, many of which stay involved throughout their careers.

During World War ll, the school-based OTC Air Sections were absorbed into the ATC. In 1948, the OTC was renamed the Combined Cadet Force and most of the original OTC Air Sections became CCF (RAF) units. This is the structure that exists today with some CCF (RAF) sections boasting a history of nearly 150 years of service!

The organisation has gone from strength to strength over the last few decades. Girls were able to join from the early 1980s, helping to bring more people together to enjoy everything that Air Cadet life has to offer.

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