44 (Rhodesia) Squadron - The Kings Thunderbolts
From 24th March 1944 to 5th July 1944 my father spent his brief operational career with the famous 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron then stationed at RAF Dunholme Lodge, 5 or so miles north east of Lincoln. 44 Squadron was at that time part of 5 Group, Bomber Command.
The Squadron had an illustrious history before and after WWII before it was finally disbanded in 1982, shortly after it had taken part in the Falklands conflict, its Vulcan bombers flying from Ascension Island to attack Stanley Airport.
The squadron was formed at Hainault Farm, Essex as a Home Defence Unit on 24 July 1917, under the command of Major TOB Hubbard AFC. Equipped with Sopwith Camels, its role was the protection of London's northern approaches from German air attacks. In December 1917, the Squadron claimed its first victory when Captain GW Murlis-Green, flying a Camel for the first time in the night fighter role, destroyed a Gotha bomber.
For the final six months of the war, the Squadron was commanded by Major AT Harris who, by an ironic turn of fate, was to direct the greatest aerial assault in history as Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in World War II and become much better known as "Bomber" Harris.
Between the Wars
The Squadron was disbanded on the 31st December 1919 and it was not until the Royal Air Force began its major expansion programme in response to the growing threat of Nazi Germany in Europe that the Squadron was re-formed on 8th March 1937 at Wyton, equipped with Hawker Hinds.
The squadron first moved to Andover in but later in 1937 moved to Waddington in Lincolnshire. Here it re-equipped with Bristol Blenheims. A year later the Blenheims were replaced by Hampdens and, in June 1939, Wing Commander JN Boothman, who in 1931 had won the Schneider Trophy outright for Great Britain, was appointed Commanding Officer.
As war became inevitable the squadron undertook a period of intense training. This was completed in time for the Squadron to take part in the first offensive air operations of World War II when an attempt to attack the German Fleet in the North Sea was made on the evening of 3rd September 1939. In the early months of the war RAF aircraft were banned from flying over Germany so most of the Squadron's missions were maritime sweeps.
The first 44 Squadron casualty of the war came as the result of what would today be called a "friendly fire" incident. On the 21st December 1939 twelve 44 Squadron Hampdens accompanied by twelve more aircraft from 49 and 83 Squadrons were sent to hunt for a German pocket battleship off the Norwegian coast. Having found nothing they were returning to Lincolnshire via a refuelling stop in Scotland but due to a terrible breakdown in communications RAF fighter Squadrons were scrambled to intercept them over the Firth of Forth.
The Hampden was often confused with the German Dornier 17 and on this occasion two of the 44 Squadron Hampdens were shot down by Spitfires of 602 Squadron before the mistake was realised. LAC "Titch" Gibbin became the first of many casualties for 44 Squadron while the other downed crew took to rafts and were rescued.
In January 1940, the Squadron flew over Germany for the first time to drop leaflets on Hamburg and in March participated in the first real attack against the enemy when the seaplane base at Hornum was bombed.
On the 8th of April 1940 the "phony" war ended with the invasion of Denmark and Norway by German troops. On the 13th April Squadron Leader J J Watts led seven 44 Squadron Hampdens and five more from 50 Squadron to attack enemy warships reported off Kristiansand. This was part of the biggest air operation of the war so far, eighty three aircraft attacking enemy shipping off Stavanger, Norway.
Watts spotted two enemy cruisers and ordered his aircraft to attack in three sections from line astern using their 500lb bombs. Unfortunately this tactic, allowing the anti-aircraft gunners from the ships to get the range, and the arrival of a gaggle of ME109 fighters, led to the decimation of the attacking force. Waddington lost six aircraft that day and it signalled the last major daylight raid for the Hampdens.
The invasion of France and the Low Countries changed the rules of engagement again for Bomber command and 44 Squadron aircraft took part in the first of many attacks on industrial targets on the Ruhr on the 15th May 1940. After the retreat from Dunkirk were the dark days of the war when invasion looked imminent but the RAF fighters held off the Luftwaffe and on the 24th August bombs were dropped on London for the first time. Churchill ordered a retaliatory raid on Berlin and again 44 Squadron were involved, the Hampden pushed to its limits. The raid was barely a pinprick on Berlin but enraged Hitler into unleashing the Blitz on London which ironically left time and space for Fighter Command to regroup and repair its airfields, possibly the decisive moment of the Battle of Britain.
During the Autumn of 1940 44 Squadron lost 10 crews in two months with the Hampdens straining at the very edge of their range to make it to Berlin and back. Throughout 1941 the casualties mounted for the Squadron, including at Waddington when a German raid on the base saw ten killed including seven women from the Naafi which was destroyed.
In 1941, the Air Ministry gave authority for the Squadron to be known as No 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron in recognition of that country's generous contribution to the Commonwealth war effort. This was particularly appropriate as about a quarter of the Squadron's personnel came from Southern Rhodesia.
The association is preserved in the Squadron's crest which includes an elephant and the inscription "FULMINA REGIS IUSTA" (The King's Thunderbolts are Righteous). The elephant has a double significance. It symbolises the weight and heaviness of the Squadron's attacks against the enemy and it was incorporated in the seal presented by Queen Victoria to King Lobengula of Matabeleland in 1895. King Lobengula was a very loyal subject of HM the Queen and called himself “Her Majesty's Thunderbolt of Matabeleland" and claimed that he and his followers were "righteous" in their loyalty to the Crown.
The Squadron pressed on with the Hampdens, losing twelve more crews in August and September 1941 but good news arrived at last that the squadron would be re-equipped with the new Lancasters. 44 Squadron were shown the prototype on the 15th of September and must have been counting down to the arrival of the new machines while they battled on in the Hampden. The last crew lost in the old aircraft was when PO Kaschula, a Rhodesian, failed to return to Waddington on the 17th December 1941.
The Lancs Arrive
The Squadron was originally going to be re-equipped with two engined Manchesters but following some disastrous early problems with the aircraft in other Squadrons it was redesigned to have four Merlin engines, and renamed the Lancaster. At last in December 1941 the squadron's Hampdens were withdrawn and shining new Lancasters arrived at Waddington.
44 Squadron became the first squadron to convert completely to Lancasters and was fully operational with the new aircraft by March 1942. It quickly made this aircraft's vastly increased striking power felt by the enemy. These aircraft were used for mine-laying and night operations against German targets for the remainder of the war.
The Augsberg Raid and beyond
At the start of WWII conventional wisdom had been that a tight formation of bombers could defend itself against fighters during daylight attacks. This theory had quickly been proven wrong and the RAF had to switch to bombing at night to limit losses.
With the new aircraft now available it was decided to attempt the tactic again using the Lancasters and on the 17th April 1942 a memorable low-level unescorted daylight raid on the MAN Diesel factory at Augsburg in Southern Bavaria was attempted. The raid saw six Lancasters from 44 Squadron and six from 97 Squadron fly at low level across occupied Europe and into Germany.
Four of the aircraft were shot down en-route to the target and three more near Augsberg. The eight crews which reached the factory did carry out accurate bombing but the damage was limited and the losses so high that the experiment of daylight bombing was consigned to the shelf once more. The commander of the raid, Squadron Leader JD Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his outstanding leadership during the mission. For a brief period the squadron enjoyed the distinction of having on its strength two recipients of the supreme award for valour, since the CO at this time was Wing Commander RAB "Babe" Learoyd VC. The raid was a PR success though and the British newspapers were full of stories of the mission afterwards.
Learoyd moved on to take command of 25 OTU soon after and Wing Commander P.W. Lynch-Blosse took command of 44 Squadron on the 8th May 1942. That night he led seven 44 Squadron Lancasters, part of a total force of 198 aircraft, on a raid on the Heinkel factory at Warnemunde. They found the target heavily defended with search lights and flak. Nineteen aircraft were lost on the raid, four from 44 Squadron, including the new CO.
The loss of seven crews in the Augsberg and Warnemunde raids was a huge blow and there were suggestions that the Squadron should stand down until it could be brought back to strength, Instead for a while the Squadron split into one operational flight and one training flight until the gaps in experience could be filled.
Despite the gaps in the ranks the Squadron put up thirteen aircraft for the first of Bomber Harris's 1,000 bomber raids, on Cologne on the night of 30th and 31st May 1942. All returned safely from this operation, reporting that the flames from Cologne could be seen 80 miles away. Two more 1,000 bomber raids followed on Essen and Bremen and again 44 Squadron suffered no losses on these. The Squadron was back on the front line.
In early 1943 Harris launched the "Battle of the Ruhr", a series of devastating raids on the German industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. With new technical advances leading the way to more accurate attacks, including H2S and specialist "Pathfinder" aircraft it was believed that sustained accurate attacks could bring German production to its knees.
44 Squadron put up seven Lancasters in the opening raid of the battle on Essen on the 5th March 1943. Although all returned from that raid, losses were experienced in subsequent raids against Pilsen and Wuppertal.
In May 1943 the squadron moved to Dunholme Lodge airfield originally while Waddington's grass runways were tarmaced. The Squadron never returned though, and during the next sixteen-months period of operating from Dunholme Lodge, the squadron lost 461 aircrew on operational missions.
Shortly after the move the Squadron lost another CO, Wing Commander Nettleton VC, veteran of Augsberg, shot down on the 12th July 1943 on the way back from the "easy" trip to Turin. Later in July, 44 Squadron took part on the raids on Hamburg that devastated the city and then lost another CO when Wing Commander E A Williamson did not return from his first operation with the Squadron in a raid on Remscheid.
On the night of 17th August, 44 Squadron were in the last group of aircraft to attack the V1 and V2 weapons development centre at Peenemunde. Three of the Squadron's aircraft were lost as night fighters got amongst the late comers, forty aircraft lost in all on the raid.
The next phase of the air war saw Bomber Harris turn his sights on "The Big City", Berlin. After his success in Hamburg he looked to destroy the German capital from the air in the "Battle of Berlin". This time though it wasn't to be such a success. Berlin was a much longer journey and tougher to find that the port of Hamburg and the lower flying Halifax and Stirling bombers took the brunt of the pounding that the defenders dished out. In the first three raids of the Battle of Berlin the RAF lost 125 aircraft, including three from 44 Squadron.
As the winter went on Harris pressed on, attacking Berlin 16 times as well as other major cities. 44 Squadron lost 29 aircraft over this period, 13 of them in raids on Berlin. During the battle the RAF flew 9,000 sorties on the German capital and dropped 30,000 bombs, losing 500 aircraft. The city was devastated but the Germans were not brought to their knees as had been hoped.
The battle ended with a raid on Nuremberg on the night of the 30th and 31st of March. This was my Father's first operation with 44 Squadron which he had joined a week earlier. The attack was a disaster, mainly due to poor weather forecasting and a good guess on the route of the incoming bombers by German fighter controllers.
Expecting clear weather at the target and cloud all the way instead the attackers got the opposite and flew in bright moonlight with vapour trails showing at the proscribed altitude they had been given. Eighty two aircraft were shot down before they reached their target and another thirteen lost on the way home as the RAF suffered its biggest single night losses of the war. Luckily only two 44 Squadron aircraft were lost on a night that saw 535 aircrew die and another 180 taken prisoner.
After Nuremburg the RAF turned its attentions to preparing the way for the D-Day landings in June. Targets were now rail links, ammunition dumps and latterly coastal gun emplacements. These were considered "easy" targets until a raid on the HQ of the 21st Panzer Division near Mailly-le-Camp went badly wrong on the night of the 3rd of May 1944. The target was marked by 617 Squadron but the attackers could not be ordered in due to radio interference from US forces. While the attacking force circled, waiting to be told to attack, fighters attacked downing forty two aircraft including one from 44 Squadron. Once ordered in the attack was accurate and devastating.
In June the Squadron faced a brief return to "Happy Valley" the Ruhr when it put up sixteen aircraft in a raid on the synthetic oil plant at Wesseling on the night of 21st June 1944. Of the 133 aircraft dispatched 37 were lost in the raid including six from 44 Squadron who lost 37 men, the biggest single raid loss of life for the unit. The 207 Squadron Association website carries narratives from some of the 44 Squadron survivors and a Roll of Honour for the crewmen lost by the Squadron on the raid.
The next priority for Bomber Command was the V1 menace in "Operation Crossbow". Raids were carried out on V1 launch sites across northern and central France as the "Doodlebugs" rained down on Southern England. Two 44 Squadron aircraft were lost on a raid on a V1 site at Pommerèval in late June then three more, including my Father's aircraft, on two attacks on a V1 storage area at St Leu d'Esserent on the night of the 4th/5th of July and three nights later.
In September 1944 Dunholme Lodge was allocated to No 1 Group and 44 Squadron was again moved to Spilsby airfield, near Horncastle.
The Squadron continued to be at the front of operations against Germany as Allied forces pushed across Europe following the D-Day invasion and was involved in the infamous raid on Dresden on the night of 13th February 1945 when like Hamburg in 1943, a firestorm devastated the city. By now targets were running thin and heavy losses becoming much rarer. The last 44 Squadron crew lost in WWII was on the 10th of April 1945 when one of only two aircraft lost on a raid on the rail yards in Leipzig was the 44 Squadron Lancaster commanded by FO Kennedy.
The Squadron took part on raids on Hitler's "Eagles Nest" at Berchtesgaden in late April and flew on the last day of the war as they had on the first, flying POW's home from Europe. In the five years and eight months of WWII they had the highest Lancaster losses of any unit in Bomber Command, and the highest losses in 5 Group. In all it lost over 200 aircraft and nearly 1,100 men. The Squadron was one of just two that remained operational with Bomber Command for the whole of the war, the other being 149 Squadron.
Following the end of hostilities, the Squadron settled down to its peacetime role, and in 1946 was re-equipped with Lincoln aircraft and moved to Wyton.
The period 1950-57 saw the Squadron re-equipped with Washingtons and Canberras and based in turn at Marham, Coningsby and Cottesmore. In 1956 it took part in attacks against Egyptian airfields from its temporary base in Cyprus. Less than a year later, in July 1957, disbandment followed after more than twenty years continuous existence.
On the 10th August 1960, the Squadron was once again re-formed at Waddington, equipped with Vulcan Mk 1 aircraft as part of the Medium Bomber Force. In June 1967, the Squadron received its Standard from HRH Princess Marina. Re-equipment with Vulcan Mk 2 aircraft was completed in November 1967. In 1971, the Squadron was chosen to fly HRH The Prince of Wales on a Vulcan familiarisation flight, and in July 1977 the Squadron proudly celebrated its Diamond Jubilee.
In early April 1982, two aircraft and one crew of 44 Squadron formed part of a training flight of eight aircraft and five crews from RAF Waddington to fly air operations in the South Atlantic. The flight was commanded by Wing Commander SA Baldwin, OC 44 Squadron. Flight Commander, Squadron Leader AC Montgomery and his crew were first to deploy to Ascension Island where he commanded the Vulcan detachment.
44 Squadron’s Vulcan XM607 flew three ‘Black Buck’ bombing missions against Stanley airfield. Squadron Leader Montgomery’s crew flew the airborne reserve aircraft in five of the six ‘Black Buck’ missions.
When the conflict ended in June 1982, 44 Squadron reformed with eight aircraft and crews, capable of redeploying to the South Atlantic. This task lasted for a further six months and 44 Squadron was finally disbanded on 21 December 1982.
44 (Rhodesia) Squadron Association
The Squadron Association was born in January 1983 with an initial membership of 209. It has since grown to about 460 and is still enrolling new members. The Association publishes a regular newsletter and holds a three day reunion each year in the Lincoln / Waddington area.
Many thanks to Henry Horscroft of the Association for permission to use much of the information on this page, and for his assistance in finding information about my father's operational career.
WWII Operational Performance
5 Group Hampdens – 246 bombing, 81 mine laying, 7 leaflet, 4 ’night-fighter’ over English cities.
5 Group Lancasters – 272 bombing, 27 mine laying.
Totals : 518 bombing, 108 mine laying, 7 leaflet, 4 ‘night-fighter’ = 637 raids
Sorties and Losses:
5 Group Hampdens – 2,043 sorties, 43 aircraft lost (2.1 percent)
5 Group Lancasters – 4,362 sorties, 149 aircraft lost (3.4 percent)
Total : 6,405 sorties, 192 aircraft lost (3.0 percent)
21 Lancasters were destroyed in crashes.
(source: Larry Wright's Bomber Command pages)
Pictures of memorials that have been raised to 44 Squadron can be found here.
The wartime Commanding Officers of 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron were:
W/Cdr J.N. Boothman 09/39
W/Cdr W.J.M. Ackerman 12/39
W/Cdr D.W. Reid 03/40
W/Cdr S.T. Misselbrook 03/41
W/Cdr R.A.B. Learoyd 12/41
W/Cdr P.W. Lynch-Blosse 05/42
W/Cdr K.P. Smales 05/42
W/Cdr J.D. Nettleton 02/43
W/Cdr E.A. Williamson 07/43
W/Cdr R.L. Bowes 08/43
W/Cdr F.W. Thompson 02/44
W/Cdr R.A. Newmarch 11/44
W/Cdr S.E. Flett 04/45