THE SECRET OPS AFTER THE WAR HAD ENDED
By former Flt. Lt. William Dow BSc (Hons) MA, FRAS




Although he did not know it at the time, Bill later found that he had had a most bizarre career in the RAF.   When still only 17, he was caught up in the summer of 1941 and enrolled in a little known scheme called "the Hankey Radio Project".  This was a Government scheme to train potential University undergraduates in Physics to become experts in RDF, later called Radar.  They were given quite large state grants to become BScs in 2 years.   They all served with operational squadrons - in Bill’s case, serving with No.68 Mosquito Fighter Squadron at Castle Camps just north of London.   By the time of the end of the war with Japan in August 1945, Bill was at the Empire Air Navigation School at Shawbury, where the Research and Development Section was researching improvements to Pressure Pattern Flying. This was in preparation for use by Bomber Command which was to be transferred to the Kamchatka peninsula to bomb northern Japan.   Of course, it never happened because the war suddenly stopped when the 2 atom bombs were dropped and Japan did the unthinkable
- it surrendered !

 
  The 'forgotten' 14th Army

But Britain had a "Forgotten Army" which had been taken out by ships to India and then on to Burma in preparation for the anticipated (and dreaded) land invasion of the Japanese home islands. The war was suddenly over, but there was now a massive shortage of ships, which presented a big problem - How do we bring the forgotten 14th Army home?   
Enter - the most secret RAF Station, RAF Tempsford.

During the war America had lent a large number of B-24 (“Liberators”) to RAF Coastal Command under the Lease Lend Scheme.  Because of their long range, these B-24s were fitted with ASV radars, making them very good submarine hunters.  From their bases in Northern Ireland and Scotland, they had been able to "close the gap" in the middle of the Atlantic, where the German U-Boats had previously operated unimpeded. But now that the war was over, they were no longer needed and should have been returned…. but they weren't.

The RAF’s British built bomber aircraft, (the Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings) all had narrow bodies and could not be converted into troop carriers, but the B-24s all had wide bodies and some were built by the makers specifically as 26-seater troop transports. The real advantage of using B24s as troop transports was that they had full dual control for 2 pilots sitting side-by-side in proper seats. All the British aircraft had a single pilot seat and a "contraption" called a folding seat which the flight engineer could use to assist his pilot, but no full set of controls. Considering the passengers had no parachutes this was an important safety concern. No. 426 Canadian Squadron at Tempsford had such aircraft. So in September 1945, Flt. Lt. Bill Dow was suddenly posted to Tempsford and informed that he was the new Station Radar Officer and that in addition, he was in charge of the Conversion Gang.




Photo taken of the radar section of the ‘Conversion Gang’ outside “the Kremlin” in September 1945 (Bill is seated in the centre with the forage cap on)

The Kremlin (alias the Radar workshop) was quite close to Gibraltar Farm on the eastern side of the airfield, but the main squad was based in the south western part of the airfield - just to the south of the one surviving hanger - in PG's Cottage. 

The Liberators were flown into Tempsford.  They were stripped of their armament and all their radar except IFF was removed.  A floor was put in, 26 passenger seats were fitted, oxygen masks were provided, extra oxygen cylinders were fitted, along with emergency lighting and various other refinements.  Two large petrol fuelled heaters occupied a central place in the main cabin.  Just behind the pilots was a 10 channel Rebecca Interogator and its 10 channel receiver.  Of course their aerials had to be fitted and wired up.  Despite all kinds of pleas to Transport Command for drawings for these conversions, no drawings ever materialised, so they simply went over to the Technical Site area on the airfield and took down a detailed copy of one of the 426 Squadron aircraft, as it was being serviced.

 

“Unfortunately, the Coastal Command Liberators were supplied in batches and no two batches were ever identical, so we found at least 5 variants !”  All the converted aircraft flew superbly after servicing at the Tech Site by Wing Commander Furner’s mechanics.  W/C Furner was RAF Tempsford's Chief Technical Officer.  Squadron Leader Terry Helfer was Tempsford's S Ad O (Senior Administrative Officer). No-one in high places ever confessed to knowing anything about this Conversion Program.
“As far as Transport Command was concerned we might just as well never have existed.   The aircraft kept on coming in, Scottish Aviation at Prestwick kept on phoning to say that the next batches of seats were ready for collection - we collected them (by flying a stripped B24 up to get them, 3 or 4 sets at a time)” recalls Bill. The Birmingham firm that made the heaters, kept delivering them in batches; the oxygen and radar sets kept coming through RAF channels and, most mysteriously of all, the last of all the components arrived just as the last B-24 flew in.  “Somebody, somewhere knew exactly what was going on, but it certainly wasn't us - we were just the workers - and it certainly wasn't the Baker Street Boys who proved to be quite an informative lot, with whom we still had dealings”


Inside a B-24 "Liberator"

Changing the basic function of an aircraft was not the sort of servicing that was carried out on airfields. Modifications of this complexity were carried out by devising a contract and sending the aircraft to a factory equipped to carry out the contract. Hence, in hindsight, assembling a gang of around 180 fitters, riggers, electricians and radar mechanics to serve under a junior Radar officer, and do the job on an operational airfield, was to say the least strange, if not positively weird. So the strange Tempsford wartime aircraft operations may have largely ceased, but the somewhat shady atmosphere surrounding what went on at the station was alive and well right to the end.

A very laudable venture...

The aircraft went to Stradishall, Waterbeach, Bourne, Lyneham and Brize Norton where they formed a ferry service to Singapore.   The most frequent route was England, Istres, Tripoli, Cairo, Habbaniyah or Shibah, Gwadar, Karachi, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore.   The aircraft stopped only for re-fuelling, being taken on by a new crew. 

1. Istres, France

2. Tripoli, Libya

3. Cairo, Egypt

4. Shibah, Iraq

5. Gwadar, Pakistan

6. Karachi, Pakistan

7. Delhi, India

8. Culcutta (Kolkata), India

9. Rangoon, Burma

10. Singapore

Hence the passengers travelled fast, but the aircrews took about 3 weeks to do a return trip.   “What was it that we were doing, that even now, 65 odd years on, no-one wants to know anything about it ?  Bringing back a forgotten army strikes me as a very laudable venture.  But what I feel is worth stressing is that even alongside the incredible carnage and cruelty of war there existed expertise, a care for the injured and wounded and a desire at the end to "clean up" and start afresh, profiting and learning from past errors and mistakes”.

  Bill and his team had the pleasure of becoming "wanted" again when in April 1946, they moved with all their equipment to RAF Honington (Suffolk) to take over the servicing of transport aircraft mainly Avro Yorks. Within one week of arrival at RAF Honington, the officers all received a personal invitation to a reception at Euston Hall, given to welcome them to the station. “Nothing like this ever happened at Tempsford !” In complete contrast, Bill does remember buying a duck and getting it skinned and cleaned at the farmhouse just south of PG's Cottage at Chrismas 1945. Bill’s mother kept asking for more ducks, eggs etc which Bill brought home on the Prestwick trips. They were very welcome in the even stricter post-war rationing.  He also took back a few bottles of Barrie's Lemonade made with water straight off the melting snow of the Grampians - many preferred it to champagne! ..... Such was the peace!



William Dow (former RAF Flight Lieutenant at Tempsford 1945 - 46)

FOOTNOTE BY EDITOR:

On the War cemetary in Kohima (N.E. India) is the famous inscription saying "When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today". General "Bill" Slim is attributed to have stated an alternative as far as the "forgotten" 14th army was concerned, by saying "When you go home don't worry about what to tell your loved ones and friends about service in Asia. No one will know where you were, or where it is if you do. You are, and will remain "The Forgotten Army."

 





This is intended to be a purely non-commercial website about the area we live in. If I have made any factual errors or unintentionally breached any copyright in creating this page, please send me an e-mail and I shall correct/remove the item. Please also remember that Tempsford Airfield is private property and is not open to the public. Anyone wishing to visit the airfield MUST obtain prior permission from the landowner.