RAF Upwood Control Tower
Memories of stories my father told me of his part in World War 2.
RAF 1561001 Sergeant Milne R. (Robert), known as ‘Jock’.
The earlier part of the war he spent as an air raid
warden in Hamilton, a part which included the Glasgow blitz. In June 1942
he volunteered for flying duties in the RAF. Although at this point he was
almost 40 years old, he was passed medically as A1 for flying duties.
I believe he trained as a radar op. for night fighters (Beaufighters) and though he never actually went operational, mainly due to his age and the decreasing need for night fighters, he eventually spent most of the war as an airfield controller at RAF Upwood with the rank of sergeant. This post was normally filled by ex flying crew. The other two AFCs were called Mack from West Kilbride and Freddy from London. I never knew their real names.
The first incident has been recorded elsewhere and because of this I know the exact date. It was on 9-9-1944 after an abortive daylight raid on Le Havre. A fully loaded Lancaster ND978, ‘T’ of 156 Squadron, skippered by the unit CO. Wing Commander Bingham-Hall, DFC, had returned, having sustained some Flak damage. After being taken from the aircraft, the bombs, (inc. a 4,000lb cookie) exploded while on the trolleys, killing and injuring many people, including the flight engineer, Norman Piercy, who lost a leg. The strange thing about this is that Dad should have been next to where the explosion occurred. It happened thus. There were three runways at Upwood, a long one and two shorter ones in a sort of crossed triangle. The wind was roughly halfway between the longer and one of the shorter runways and Dad had got the order from the watch office to move from the longer to the other runway and fly the aircraft from it. Being the person on the spot, he always had the right to veto an order, if he felt it was in the best interests of flying safety. Normally he obeyed without question, but on this one and only occasion he decided to stay for another 30 minutes, giving as his reason that this runway had better approaches and the pilots preferred it. 20 minutes later the explosion occurred only yards from where the caravan would have been. In fact he had already unplugged the landlines, power and phone, in readiness to move. The watch office meanwhile thought he had moved and were most relieved when he phoned into say he was all right. He described the blast as in the form of a very shallow cone radiating from the blast centre. Above, destroyed and swept away while below was untouched. Everything cut through as if with a giant scythe, no doubt belonging to the grim reaper himself. On this and other occasions he believed a kindly providence, or guardian angel was hard at work, sometimes referred to as luck.
The caravan was a fairly large four wheeled type with drawbar, usually moved by a tractor. It was painted in large checks, black or red and white. On top was a Perspex astrodome, though on Dad’s version it was more like a miniature greenhouse. This was where he worked, ate and slept for at least a third of each day during the war.
He usually kept watch from outside the caravan with long leads for the Aldis lamp and phone. The following explains why. He was sitting in the greenhouse controlling aircraft landing after a raid, with various other folk inside the van, making tea and watching. A Lancaster limping towards the airfield, obviously damaged, having difficulty reaching the runway, far too low, it struck the inner marker beacon, by which time there was no-one else in the caravan. Dad realised there was now no time to get clear, so continued the commentary to the watch office. “He’s on the deck – sliding towards the ‘van --- it’s OK, he’s stopped,” just yards from the ‘van as it turned out. Dad leaped from the caravan to see if he could help. He remembered one of the gunners jumping out and calling to him. “Hi Jock, don’t worry, the jerrys,ll never get me.” They say he had gypsy blood and ‘knew things.’ His comment to Dad was only too prophetic as he was killed shortly after by his own aircraft. Having to bale out, he was struck by the tailplane. The rest of the crew survived. Many crew died flying with 156 squadron, but that was the only time Dad could remember the station being in a sort of mourning. He’d been a popular and likeable lad.
There were two squadrons on the base, 156 (We light the Way) flying Lancasters and 139 Mosquitoes, both Pathfinders and part of Group Captain Bennett’s 8 group. Anyway, that’s why he preferred to stay outside the caravan whenever possible.
Another time Dad saved a Lancaster from almost certain destruction; he was quite proud of that. It was during the winter and the ground was covered with snow. Even though there was no flying he was still on duty at the end of the runway. He was idly watching a Lancaster flying round and wondering why it was there, when he noticed a red very light fired from it. Realising that it was in trouble and probably lost, he banged off two greens in quick succession, then ran for the ‘money buckets’ which were empty 50 gallon drums containing paraffin soaked rags. He lit one either side of the runway, then ran up the side of the runway lighting as many as he could. By the time he reached the third, the Lancaster was lining up for the approach – on only two engines. As it touched down, the remaining engines banged a few times then cut out as well. The aircraft rolled to a halt with no power at all, but intact and undamaged. It had simply run out of petrol. The crew should have gone directly to de-briefing, but instead came over to the caravan to say thankyou. They had been lost and that was their last red very. Rapidly running low on fuel, they were about to bale out, leaving the aircraft on auto-pilot and pointing towards the sea, which it would almost certainly not have reached. Then they had seen Dad’s green verys. So as well as saving the crew, there was the aircraft and whatever and whoever it would have crashed on. The crew were the only ones who said thankyou, but then to Dad, they were the only ones who mattered. Mum always felt that it should’ve been officially recognised. Dad reckoned that many heroic acts went un-noticed, but to the crews, their coveted pathfinder wings were enough; maybe so, but a little national gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.
Then there was the Lancaster master bomber flying over the target, but below the main bombing force in an area where the flak was coming up and the bombs were coming down. A 4,000lb cookie passed through the fuselage between the mid upper turret and the tail, severing all power to the rear turret, but fortunately leaving the flying controls intact. The rear gunner was now trapped in his turret, which wagged all the way home. On landing the whole tail assembly broke off, cartwheeling up the runway with the gunner still inside. Amazingly he suffered nothing worse than cuts, bruises and a bad case of ‘the runs’. The rest of the crew also survived.
A Mosquito crashed on takeoff, carrying a 4,000lb blast bomb. It came to rest without anything exploding or catching fire. As the bomb was highly dangerous and difficult to get at, they released it and jacked up the plane, which they took away, leaving the bomb lying on the remains of the bomb bay doors and a pile of earth. Everyone except the bomb disposal team and the AFCs were cleared from the area. It was close enough for Dad to see them working on the bomb – and, stopping for the occasional cigarette.
Another incident entailed burning petrol from a crashed aircraft slowly creeping downhill towards the bomb dump. Luckily it was extinguished in time.
Allot of his memories were of a lighter nature, like the time he and some other lads were running for a bus. One of them, Welsh (Taffy) shouted at Dad, “Come on Jock; get the lead out of your boots.” Dad replied, “It’s OK for you, but I’m old enough to be your father.” Whereupon Taffy fell about laughing, “Don’t be daft, my Dad’s nearly 40.” Dad didn’t reply. He was 41 by then.
Group Captain, later Air Vice Marshall, Bennett often visited the airfield. He used a Percival Proctor light aircraft as his personal transport. Dad remembered one of the other AFCs being severely reprimanded by him for allowing him to land when there were operational aircraft in the circuit. Mindful of this, Dad would always give him a red, if there were any other aircraft near. He always obeyed, thought there was one occasion when he simply side slipped and landed on the grass at the side of the runway. Maybe he was short of fuel, or time – who knows, he was the CO, just a couple of rungs down from God.
Eventually the war came to a close and VE day was announced. That night Dad was on duty as usual with the blackout in force. At the neighbouring American Air Force base they were apparently using up all their spare very flares. It was if everyone on the base was lining the perimeter track and firing them into the centre of the airfield. Talking of blackout, I believe the pathfinders landed and took off on a runway indicated by a series of 60 watt bulbs in boxes with a hole measuring 38mm by 25mm. This was to preserve their night vision.
John R H Milne.
Control tower in mid to late 1950s Type 343/43
Control tower in the early 1950s
Control tower in the early 1950s
THE DUCHESS OF GLOUCESTER in 1966 with the control tower in the background
Control tower close up in 1966
Picture taken in 2006 showing where the control tower use to stand.
The words below were taken from the newspaper cutting (date unknown)
THE DEMOLITION of the old control tower at R.A.F. Upwood marks the final end of a flying era which began as far back as 1917.
Royal Air Force Upwood
where the R.A.F. School of Education is currently situated, was first established in 1917 when the airfield was used for the training of aircrew destined for night flying duties at the Western Front. With the end of World War I, the airfield reverted to agricultural use until the expansion of the Royal Air Force in 1937.
Throughout World War II, Upwood was a station of Bomber Command. Until May 1943 its role was the training of aircrew to fly Blenheims; then, after a short period of reconstruction during which the concrete runways were laid, it became the base for two Pathfinders Squadrons, equipped with Mosquitoes and Lancasters.
Apart from a few months in Transport Command in 1946, when the Station was concerned with air trooping, Upwood continued its association with Bomber Command in peace time. The four squadrons of Lincolns based here operated successfully in several trouble spots of the world until they were replaced by two squadrons of Canberras.
After these disbanded in 1960 and 1961, the Station went through an unsettled phase under first Signals and then Transport Command; during this period it housed three R.A.F. Regiment squadrons and several smaller units for short periods.
In March 1964 the Station finally severed its direct connection with operational Commands and transferred to No. 22 Group, Technical Training Command, to become, as it is now, the R.A.F. School of Administration.
During July 1964 the R.A.F. School of Education and the R.A.F. Central Library and Book Depot came to Upwood as a separate unit.
With the formation of Training Command in 1968, R.A.F. Upwood was transferred to No. 24 Group, but functional and administrative control ,of the R.A.F. School of Education was retained by H.Q. Training Command, apart from those departments of the School that are functionally controlled by M.O.D. (A.F.D.).
If you have any pictures of RAF Upwood's control tower, please let me know,
thanks Sean Edwards