The former RAF Keevil, Wiltshire, 2006
This is for exlrrp, and for all those who have 'stood in the door'
It was 23.19hrs on the night of 5th June, 1944. A Short Stirling IV aircraft of 196 Sqn, RAF slowly accelerated down this runway at RAF Keevil, and took off for Normandy. It was followed by 45 others, from both 196 and 299 Sqns (38 Group), each carrying 20 airborne troops of the 6th Airborne Division of the British Army. The heavily-laden Stirling, condemned as a bomber because of its poor altitude performance, struggled to gain height to clear the ridge to the south and east of the airfield, and set course for France.
A series of bad political and strategic decisions had left the RAF with a heavy bomber - its first four-engined one - which was badly flawed. Incapable of carrying a bomb bigger than 2,000lb (bad bomb-bay design) or operating much above 15,000ft (bad wing design) and with a complicated, overly-tall and fragile undercarriage (needed because of the angle of attack of the less-than-optimal wing) the Stirling was withdrawn from RAF Bomber Command's frontline squadrons as soon as supplies of Halifax and Lancaster bombers became adequate. It soldiered on in such places as the Heavy Conversion Units of the RAF, where new crews learned to fly four-engined bombers for the first time. Stirlings were also successfully used for mining operations in enemy coastal waters and clandestine supply drops to Resistance cells throughout Europe. Their long, multi-cell bomb bay which had restricted them to bombs of no more than 2,000lbs, was found to be ideal for the long, slim, supply canisters, which were filled with everything from Bren guns (the light machinegun of choice of the French Resistance) to medical supplies, to that most prized possession of the Resistance fighter - boots!
There were never enough transport/glider tug aircraft available. The C-47/53/Dakota was like gold dust in 1944 - everyone wanted them on every war front. The A.W. Whitley - from which the very first British combat parachute jumps had been made - was old, and relegated to training, and the A.W. Albemarle, another spectacular failure as a bomber design, was too small, and could only handle up to 10 paratroops for specialist tasks (although it could tow a Horsa glider). Not only that, but the staff of Bomber Command protested loudly whenever it was suggested that more Halifax bombers be diverted to the Airborne Forces to act as glider tugs.
It wasn't until the Airborne Forces realized, in 1944, that there were simply not going to be enough aircraft available to handle the Airborne Forces lift to Normandy, that the Stirling really came into its own. A special transport and paratroop version, the Mk IV (along with some earlier, converted aircraft) was designed to take advantage of the power of the Bristol Hercules sleeve-valve engines. It could carry a stick of 20 fully-equipped parachutists - not many for a four-engined aircraft - or 40 troops or easily tow the heaviest of Allied gliders, the massive Airspeed Hamilcar, or even tow a pair of Airspeed Horsa gliders simultaneously.
Stirlings of No 38 Group at RAF Keevil, 1944
38 Group comprised of crews from the RAF, RCAF, RAAF and RZNAF, with the Canadian and Australian contingents being particularly strong. The Stirling's low operational ceiling didn't matter, of course, when they were tasked with Airborne missions.
On the night of the 5/6th June, 1944, units such as 12th Battalion (Yorks.) Parachute Regiment, and 225th Para Field Ambulance, 5th Parachute Brigade were headed for the Ranville area, and some heavy fighting. The Stirlings would return (minus casualties), and form up in a second wave – this time towing Airspeed Horsa gliders – with a take-off time around 1800hrs.
S/Sgt R. E. White, The Glider Pilot Regt. who flew from RAF Keevil on D-Day, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for conspicuous gallantry for his actions on the 6th June, 1944. The DCM was awarded for 'distinguished conduct in the field', and, for enlisted ranks, was second only to the highest decoration of all for British and Empire forces - the Victoria Cross. Staff Sergeant White single-handedly manned a 6 pounder anti-tank gun (normally requiring a crew of three), destroyed a German self-propelled gun, and fought off several tank attacks, just one of many such acts of heroism amongst the Airborne Forces. RAF Keevil was also used to launch the abortive attack on Arnhem, Holland – Operation Market (part of Market-Garden). The whole Arnhem operation was badly organised, from the fact that the presence of a Panzer division close to the town was ignored, to the tactical situation whereby the British armoured force designated to relieve the paratroopers could only advance up one, heavily defended, road. The Stirlings of 38 Group took over 50% losses at Arnhem.
The last major action for 38 Group was Operation Varsity, part of Operation Plunder, the Rhine crossing, which was undertaken on 24th March, 1945. This turned out to be the largest airborne assault ever made in a single day.
Keevil is still as lush and green as it was on that June day in 1944, and it was a moving visit for me. Please note that the two photographs were taken from the same spot, almost exactly 62 years apart.
S/Sgt Raymond Ernest White, DCM, was killed in action, at Arnhem.