The following story was written by my father, Ray Mitchell, in 1995, for the newsletter of 139 Wing Association. 1995 was the 50th anniversary of VE Day, and also my parents 50th wedding anniversary. Called up in 1942, Ray had met my mother whilst working in the Air Ministry. He courted her throughout the rest of the war, until marriage in June 1945, a month after D-day. Final de-mob, and my arrival, came in 1946! 2005 will be their diamond-wedding anniversary. 139 Wing Association has now disbanded; living memory of WW2 will soon pass into history and be left to historians and others to argue about. It is important that those who were there tell their story.
Fraser Mitchell – eldest son.
“Its May 1995, and I am lying in bed, thinking of all the urgent tasks to be performed that day, such as pruning roses, and suddenly remembering where I was fifty years ago. Yes, its near VE Day, and I am suddenly Corporal Ray Mitchell – Radio Technician, working on those lean and hungry-looking B25 Mitchells at Achmer airbase, Germany.
I came to 180 Squadron at Dunsfold in mid-1944 after a rather soporific career in Training Command working on ancient Oxfords, and clapped-out Blenheims, installing and servicing, believe it or not, battery operated transmitter/receivers run on 120 volt batteries and 6 volt accumulators. Anyone going on leave with a ‘sparks’ badge on their uniform were always being stopped by RAF police in their search for disappearing HT batteries; there was a shortage everywhere in wartime. Training command were always short of airfields and were constantly sending flights of aircraft around the country to odd and empty airfields so that trainee pilots could get the hours in. Ground crews followed and from main base at Grantham I was shuttled around Harlaxton, Bottesford, Balderton, Woodvale, and finally Hawarden (near Chester) where suddenly the Orderly Room announced ‘You’re posted, chum’.
To Dunsfold and 139 Wing, my first posting to a REAL Air Force; where there was pressure and tension in the air; where everything had to work 100% first time; where Form 700 was taken very seriously! Where those B25s with their bobbing noses on tricycle undercarriages would chase you along the perimeter track if your servicing truck dawdled at 40 mph. There was no ‘scrounging’ here, everyone knew that they were an integral part of the fighting machine. Dunsfold was a noisy place in those days. With Wright Cyclone engines and two to three ops a day, and thirty-six plus Mitchells taking off there was always urgency in the air.
D-day approaches; we are now all in tents scattered in the woods around the base. On the ‘Day’, maximum effort puts 9 boxes of 6 aircraft into the air several times. The effort continues month after month, many of us are taught to drive and a few months later we are on our way to Ostend and Brussels. To Zaventum Airbase (now Brussels Airport), and that old convent, a welcoming population and a winter of ops, opera in the Theatre Monnaie, and Pouishnoff playing Chopin one evening.
So many memories; they come flooding back. The day the Luftwaffe strafed the airfield, fortunately after our aircraft had got airborne. And the days in Spring 1945, when the war seemed won. But not quite. Flying bombs started to fall around us. A lone Luftwaffe jet suddenly drops a bomb on a dispersal – an instrument mechanic working alone is dead. I had been working on a radio in that very dispersal shortly before. And now it is April, and in a final push, 139 Wing Mitchells are moved up into Germany to help finish the war, to Achmer near Osnabruck. I flew up with the advance ground crew party.
Memories again. We bank over the Achmer airbase. I hear the pilot say “how the HELL can we land there”. We orbited a few times. Down below was a lunar landscape of thousands of overlapping craters; all neatly inside the airfield boundaries. Precision bombing on a vast scale; it must have been the Yanks ! Many craters had, however, been filled in despite appearances from the air, and after a very bumpy landing we unloaded our tents and kit. Next day a large party of German civilians approach us. Our first glimpse of the “enemy”. We are worried. We put our clips into our Sten guns, but no problem. They are the civilian staff of the airbase, and expect to be taken on by the ‘new management’, which they are. First job, digging latrines. Second job, hairdresser.
Memories Fade. Did 139 Wing carry out real ops from Achmer ? It seems that only a few days after arriving there, VE Day was announced. Where’s that photo I had of us all in front of a B25? And the one of the floods after torrential rain?
VE Day and now what? No more bombing, nothing more to “do”. Achmer soon reverts to peacetime. Almost a holiday camp now! Swimming in the Ems-Weser Canal; the Malcolm Club, sunbathing, sightseeing flights over the Ruhr to see the bomb damage, leave in Brussels – and leave back home to marry a lovely London Scottish girl. Our Golden Wedding and VE Day anniversary go together.
And finally! Worries about being transferred to the Far East are over after Hiroshima. (“If only we’d had one to drop” we all agreed, we would have been home sooner.) But the Americans want their B25s back; 139 Wing is converting to Mosquitoes. Fewer ground staff will be needed, demob is in the air and so we all return to Zaventum for dispersal. Old friends and colleagues are disappearing in all directions; 139 Wing is downsizing fast
And soon I find myself alone walking into Polebrook, a silent airbase near Norman Cross on the Great North Road, and as I go into the Airmen’s Mess for the first time, American 8th Air Force notices, signs, and insignia are everywhere. I go up to the Servery. On either side are large grey boards bearing, in proud white lettering, dates and places of bombing targets of long departed Flying Fortresses. What catches my eye is of course, the lettering “Achmer” and again “Achmer” amongst the dozens of other target names.
So now I know from where those American precision bombers of Achmer had flown. What could we British and Dutch in 139 Wing have done without them? They had provided us with those superb B25s and then took the trouble to get the Luftwaffe out of Achmer for us. This is the reason why I am still pretty pro-American, and why I have made a friend and twice visited a certain Bob Maker in Idaho, who as a captain in the US Army Air Corps, navigated and piloted B25s and other aircraft in the Pacific. But that is another story”…..
139 Wing comprised RAF 98 and 180 Squadrons, and Royal Dutch Navy 320 Squadron. It was part of 2nd Tactical Airforce (RAF), tasked with supporting Allied troops prior to, and after 6th June 1944
Originally published: ‘WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar’