30 May – 15 July 1944: RAF Chipping Warden, and RAF Edgehill, No. 12 OTU, No. 91 Group, “B” Flight
On the 30th of May 1944, just a week before D-Day, a new batch of trainee airmen arrived at RAF Chipping Warden, 6 miles North East of Banbury in England.
Pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators and gunners. It was here at No.12 Operational Training Unit that they would form into six-man crews and begin ‘heavy’ bomber training, initially on the twin-engine Wellington. Each crew would pick up a seventh member, a Flight Engineer, later on during four-engine bomber training.
The men were from all corners of the British Commonwealth and beyond – Englishmen, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders.
The first couple of weeks were ground school, which would have included familiarisation with the Vickers Wellington and its systems.
Then they were “crewed up” – airmen of the different trades were put in a large room or hangar and allowed to sort themselves into permanent six man crews (with a Flight Engineer to join each one later).
Among the newcomers were two New Zealanders who already knew each other from Initial Training back in New Zealand, navigator Jack Pauling, and wireless operator Gerry Newey. These two probably joined forces and went looking for a pilot.
Somehow they sorted themselves into a crew: pilot F/S Johnny Wood from Dargaville, New Zealand; navigator Jack Pauling from Wellington, NZ; bomb aimer Jim Hooper from Bury St Edmunds, England; wireless operator Gerry Newey from Greenhithe, NZ; mid upper gunner Jack Cash from Maymont, Saskatchewan, Canada; and rear gunner Ralph Sparrow from Fort Rouge, Winnipeg, Canada.
The Wood crew were placed in “B” Flight, training on Mark III Wellingtons, flying out of RAF Chipping Warden and RAF Edgehill, a nearby satellite airfield.
Flying training for this first four weeks included circuits and landings (C&L – aka. ‘circuits & bumps’ – C&B), first day, then night, followed by high level bombing practice (HLB), and Cine Camera Gun exercises (CCG).
High level bombing involved both dropping practice bombs on nearby Shotteswell bombing range, and simulated bombing using a camera.
CCG camera gun exercises involved gunners “defending” the aircraft with cine camera guns against fighters from nearby stations simulating attacks, while the pilot put the aircraft through corkscrew evasive action. The pupils would be supervised by experienced, “screened” gunners (ie., who had already completed a tour of operations). The fighters used their cameras as well, and films were compared afterwards for effectiveness on both sides.
There were 15 crews on their course – six of them crashed.
While flying night circuits and landings with a Canadian instructor pilot, their aircraft, Wellington BJ622, JP-R, crashed just after half-past midnight, on the night of 11/12th of July:
”12/07/1944: Wellington III, serial no. BJ622 of 12 OTU belly landed at Chipping Warden. Sgt J C Ridley RCAF and crew were unhurt.”
According to the crash report:
“Took off at 23:05 RAF Chipping Warden for night circuit training. The aircraft landed at 00:30, wheels still retracted and destroyed in the fire that followed. As a consequence of this accident, six of the unit’s aircraft which were engaged in night flying had to be diverted to other airfields.”
Crashes at OTU were common; a combination of rookie crews, worn-out Wellingtons that had already seen hard active service, and sometimes treacherous weather conditions. Edgehill reputedly had the highest weather-related accident record for any RAF base in Britain during World War 2.
Over the four weeks they flew 22 times, a total of 40 hrs day and 10 hrs night flying.
16 July – 24 August 1944: RAF Chipping Warden, No. 12 OTU, No. 91 Group, “D” Flight.
The second, month-long phase of their OTU training emphasised long night cross-countries (XC), fighter affiliation (FA), and special exercises with their own searchlight and night fighter defences, called “Bullseyes”. A Bullseye included a proper briefing and was as close as possible to conditions over enemy territory.
During this they were flying later model Mark X Wellingtons.
They worked up to carrying fully-laden “war loads” on their high level night bombing practices (using sand-filled dummy bombs), and did a “Flashlight” (F/Light) night bombing simulation amongst searchlights.
On 18 August, the crew flew on a “Bullseye” that took them over the battlefront, flying Wellington X, JP-B, to Caen Bayeux in France, as part of a diversionary sweep of 139 training bombers, while the main bomber forces attacked Bremen and other targets in Germany and Belgium.
The city of Caen had been taken by Allied forces only a month before in the Battle of Normandy, immediately following the D-Day landings. The Battle of the Falaise Pocket was still being fought nearby, with 12,000 soldiers killed and heavy casualties among fleeing refugees, as the German forces attempted to retreat towards Paris.
Over the four weeks they flew 16 times, for totals of 20 hrs day and 26 hrs night.
The Johnny Wood crew graduated from 12 OTU on 24th August 1944.
The boys were given two weeks’ leave from 26 August to 8 September.