Originally designed as a passenger aircraft in 1933 before being redesigned for military reconnaissance, by the outbreak of war in 1939 the Avro Anson was obsolete, slow and inadequately armed in comparison with the latest machines. This, of course, was not a problem as the Anson was a reconnaissance aircraft; it was not built for aerial combat. That was, writes Robin J. Brooks, before 500 Squadron got its hands on them.
It was early in 1939 that 500 (County of Kent) Squadron, part of the Auxiliary Air Force, exchanged its single-engine Hawker Hinds for Avro Anson Mk.ls. Powered by two Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah radial engines and fitted with fixed pitch propellers, the Anson had a capacity for carrying a 360lb bomb load and was armed with one fixed .303-inch Browning machine-gun firing forward and a Vickers K machine-gun in the dorsal turret.
Following the squadron’s conversion to the Anson it revealed its aircraft at the last Empire Air Day held on Saturday, 20 May 1939. August saw the squadron at RAF Detling and, with the prospect of war becoming ever more likely, all the auxiliary squadrons were embodied into the RAF and placed on active service.
On Sunday, 3 September 1939, the men and women of the squadron heard the Prime Minister state that the country was at war with Germany. Thirty minutes after the broadcast two Ansons took off to patrol the immediate area.
Just two days later the squadron carried out its first attack when a pair of its Ansons was undertaking a Channel patrol. As one of the two aircraft dropped down below the cloud, a member of its crew, Flying Officer Keppel, spotted a German U-boat, apparently stationary, on the surface. Keppel quickly called out to the pilot, Squadron Leader Crockart, at which point the Anson dived and dropped its bombs in the vicinity of the vessel. By the time the captain had turned round for a machine-gun attack, the submarine was fast submerging. Flying Officer Green, the captain of the second Anson, began to position for a run-in but it was too late. No further sight of the U-boat was observed.
November saw 500 Squadron maintain a routine of photographing shipping, bombing enemy harbours and undertake drifting mine spotting off the South Coast. At the same time, the enemy became curious about the activities of the Ansons seen over the Channel and occasionally came within the range of the guns. One advantage with the Anson with its slow speed was that the enemy fighters often underestimated just how slow it was and shot past, allowing the gunner to get in some shots; rarely though did these hit the enemy.
The winter of 1939/40 was one of the worst in living memory with snow and ice covering most of the country. Squadron Leader W. LeMay arrived to command the squadron at a time when his command had the additional task of escorting leave boats from France. The squadron gunnery officer at this time was Flying Officer Harold Jones. For some time Flying Officer Jones had been concerned with the ineffectiveness of the Anson in combat and was determined to do something about it.
An example of the limited defensive armament can be understood from a combat report of Anson MK-B on 15 May 1940: «When making a square search for minesweepers, to become aerial escort, attacked … at 07.35 hours, by Heinkel He.111k while flying at 600 feet above MK-B. E.A. attempted to get into position directly above MK-B so as to release bombs.
«As MK-B dived to sea level, E.A., released several bombs. These fell about 50 yards behind MK-B. E.A. then dived behind MK-B carrying out front gun attack. As E.A. came alongside, it turned away to the left and climbed steeply, thus giving his rear gunner a target. Rear gunner of MK-B then released 50-60 rounds. E.A. then carried out a second attack by diving and using front gun, and repeating the climbing turn. While in this position rear gunner of MK-B got in a broadside attack, this time releasing another 50-60 rounds.
It is thought that E.A. was hit as he made off at top speed.»
It was clear that the Anson needed considerably more firepower. So, after obtaining the permission of his new CO, Flying Officer Jones got the squadron’s armourers to mount two additional .303-inch machine-guns in the Ansons, both of which were to fire from the windows along the fuselage. This extra fire-power was further supplemented at a later date, as will be seen, by the fixing of a cannon to fire through the fuselage floor.
Several of the Anson crews took part in Operation Dynamo. Having taken off from Detling at 17.31 hours on 25 May 1940, Anson MK-U (N9731), in company with two others, carried out a dive bombing attack on a pair of enemy torpedo boats at 19.12 hours. Having failed to sink the Kriegsmarine vessels, the Ansons launched a machine-gun attack during which MK-U was hit in the port engine. Height could not be maintained and this prompted Pilot Officer Grisenthwaite to ditch his aircraft fifteen miles off Texel, Holland. After taking to the dinghy, he and his crew were safely picked up by the destroyer HMS Javelin and returned to Dover.
Not so lucky was the crew of Anson MK-L (N5227) which all perished at sea on 29 May 1940. Flown by Pilot Officer I.S. Wheelwright, the Anson was last seen on the surface off the Dutch coast. All four on board were lost.
A couple of days later the crew of Anson MK-N (N5065) had a lucky escape as the navigator, Flight Lieutenant Richard Rodgers, recalled: «Dunkirk had fallen toward the end of the month and we were covering the evacuation. Several times we managed to avoid being shot down and got back home, but on the 30th we were attacked by a number of enemy fighters at low level. The fuel tanks caught fire and we were pounded with bullets. Sergeant Jack Hoskins, the pilot, pancaked the aircraft onto the sea during which I was thrown forward on impact and broke my left collar-bone and left shoulder.
«We came down in the sea about seven miles off the coast at 18.20 hours. The sun was shining and the sea was calm. Sergeant Hoskins, under heavy attack, skillfully bought the aircraft down not far from one of the many small ships that were bringing home the soldiers from the beaches. We were fortunate to be picked up by a tug which was already full with troops.
«Watching the old Anson slowly slip beneath the waves, I realised I was in considerable pain and also suffering from shock. A kindly Petty Officer strapped up my shoulder and gave me some rum to drink. During the night we were transferred to a paddle steamer, The Royal Daffodil, and the following morning we arrived at Ramsgate. From there I was taken to Farnborough hospital where I remained for six and a half weeks. I had completed 35 operational patrols during the month. I later learnt that my W/T SOS had been received by the powerful receivers at Manston and I was extremely pleased to hear this as when one is transmitting under attack, it is difficult to concentrate.»
The month of May ended with both tragedy and gallantry. On the night of 30/31 May 1940, several Ansons had taken off to bomb enemy-held harbours in France. Anson MK-W (R3389) failed to release its bombs and turned back for Detling. As the weather had closed in from the start, the crew looked desperately for a break in the cloud to denote just where they were. Crossing the South Coast one of the Anson’s engines began to splutter and it became doubtful whether or not they would make Detling.
However, with a break in the cloud, the crew saw they were just crossing the Thames estuary and a few miles from touchdown. Approaching on the final run-in, the stalled engine suddenly burst into flame at the same time as the other spluttered through lack of fuel. Warning the crew, Pilot Officer David Bond dropped the Anson down on to the grass just as the fire from the engine began to spread. With a rending of metaf the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft slid on its belly along the wet grass, by now almost totally enveloped in flames.
To Corporal Daphne Joan Pearson, lying on her bunk in the WAAF quarters, it was not unusual to hear the Ansons splutter a bit when returning from a raid. On this particular night however, she heard and saw something that was terrifying and ominous. Serving in the Medical Section, Pearson quickly pulled on her clothes and Wellington boots, seized her tin hat and ran out of the building towards the aircraft.
A huge glow indicated the scene of the disaster as she scrambled over a hedge, fell down an incline and over a slight bank until she arrived at the burning wreckage. There she saw two men staggering around in a dazed condition. «There are two still in the aircraft» one shouted as they made their way to the newly arrived ambulance. Too shaken to attempt to get the two airmen still in the Anson out themselves, they barely noticed the slim form of Daphne run past them towards the stricken aircraft.
There Pearson saw that the two pilots were still strapped in their seats.
Having established that the co-pilot was already dead, she released the other man from his harness and dragged him clear of the burning fuselage. Regaining consciousness for a moment, Pilot Officer Bond murmured something about the bombs still on board. Daphne then realised that at any moment the Anson would explode.
With all her strength, she pulled Bond away from the aircraft and up the nearby ridge that she had previously fallen over. Laying him on the ground on the far side she removed her tin hat, placed it upon his and covered him with her body. He pointed to his face where she saw blood and a tooth protruding from a large gash. She reassured him about his face and was about to pull the tooth out when the Anson blew up in a tremendous explosion. But for the ridge protecting them from the splinters of metal and the shock wave, they would both have perished. So great was the blast that several helpers rushing to assist were blown over.
Only when she was satisfied that she could do nothing more did Daphne leave the scene of carnage. Completely unawed by her heroic deed, she wrote to her mother in Cornwall stating that she had been involved ‘in a little something». «My name has been sent to the King,» she added, «but I hope nothing will be done about it. When I read of the things our boys did at Dunkirk and what our crews are doing here my little bit is nothing at all.» The authorities, however, had different thoughts on the courage of this brave WAAF and Daphne Pearson was awarded the George Cross.
Throughout the hectic month of May 1940, 500 Squadron had clocked up 1,286 flying hours. This frantic period of activity looked set to continue; indeed, 1 June 1940 dawned in a dramatic fashion.
That morning Pilot Officer «Pete» Peters was ordered to lead a section of three Ansons to Dunkirk with instructions to patrol the evacuation beaches. At about 10.40 hours, whilst flying at fifty feet above the sea near Ostend, his copilot, Sergeant D. Spencer, spotted a gaggle of nine Messerschmitt Bf 109s diving down to attack.
Seeing the other two Ansons take the brunt of the attack, Peters ordered them to return to Detling whilst he dropped even lower in order for the attacking fighters to overtake him. As Spencer and LAC Pepper moved to man the extra machine-guns that were fitted to fire through the windows of the «greenhouse» cabin, Peters throttled back. The subsequent combat report describes what followed: «Anson was attacked by 3 Me 109s, one coming [from] astern and two from two points on the starboard quarter.
«Anson took violent avoiding action and successfully turned and twisted, not presenting a steady target at any time to the enemy aircraft. During the engagement the Pilot and Air Gunner accounted for two ME. 109s, it has definitely been established that they dived into the sea and sank. Two other ME. 109s received heavy bursts of machine gun fire and must have been seriously disabled. These bursts were from the front and amidships guns of the Anson. Tracer bullets were seen to enter both ME. 109s.
«The engagement continued for about 15/20 miles out to sea, when the enemy aircraft made a last concerted attack with no effect.» A third aircraft swiftly left the area having seen what happened to his comrades.
A jubilant crew headed back to Detling where news of the affray had already become known. When the ground crew inspected the Anson a bullet hole was found going through the front cabin but no bullet was found. Sometime later when Pilot Officer Peters was having his parachute re-packed, the bullet was found embedded in the silk. The incident led to the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross to Pilot Officer Peters, whilst Distinguished Flying Medals were awarded to Sergeant Spencer, the newly-promoted Corporal Smith and LAC Cunningham.
Another loss for 500 Squadron came during the night of 13/14 June 1940, when Anson MK-M (N5225) and its crew failed to return from a convoy escort duty. A similar loss occurred on 28 June when MK-E (N5226) also failed to return from escorting another convoy. The one bright incident was when Sergeant Prentice, the gunner in MK-N, shot a Bf 109 down into the Channel during an escort patrol.
July 1940 was to prove equally costly. On the night of 10/11 July three aircraft were detailed for a night time Dundee patrol — this being the codename for patrols of the enemy coast between Dunkirk and Dieppe. The weather was at its worst and although doubt had been expressed as to the suitability of the conditions for flying, two Ansons took off successfully. Disaster then struck when the third, MK-F (N5228), lost control as it lifted off from the wet grass. The aircraft crashed into Civily Woods about half a mile from the airfield. All on board were killed. With the appalling weather, their bodies were not found until the next morning although a search party led by Squadron Leader C.D. Pain found the charred remains of the aircraft that night.
«With regard to Sergeant Wilson’s crash in MK-F, I remember the occasion very well as I was the Orderly Officer that night,» he later recalled. «The woods in the area of the crash were covered in fuel which kept igniting. The bombs had exploded on impact and we could find no recognisable parts of the Anson and certainly not the crew. Realising we could do no more due to the weather, we returned to base and at first light, when the weather had improved, returned to the scene of the accident. We found the remains of the crew with two of them in a kneeling position amongst the scorched trees and grass. It was a dreadful sight and one I shall always remember».
That same night Anson MK-D (N5220), on a North Sea patrol, crashed at 23.30 hours south-west of Den Brielle in Holland after being attacked by Heinkel He 111s. Flying Officer A.W. Whitehead,
Pilot Officer A.R. Mathias and AC1 W.C. Hubbard perished in the crash, whilst Sergeant H.J. Smith survived and became a PoW.
Late July saw several enemy aircraft fall to the extra guns of the Ansons. At around this time some of the mountings that the guns were placed upon were beginning to work loose with the constant vibration and recoil. A local Maidstone company, Tilling-Stevens Ltd, manufactured a more substantial mounting and presented several to the squadron.
With Channel patrols and convoy protection continuing, the blackest day in the history of Detling airfield was about to dawn. The station diarist recorded the following of Tuesday, 13 August 1940: «Grouse shooting began yesterday. Detling shooting began today».
The station had been relatively quiet all day. Several air raid warnings were issued with colour codings but none lasted long. That was until 15.53 hours when it turned red. Minutes later a force of Junkers Ju 87s appeared over the airfield and began to drop bombs. The attackers, from Luftflotte II, were led by Hauptmann von Brauchitsch.
Diving down from the cloud, the Stukas achieved the measure of surprise they needed. Although the Observer Corps had tracked the enemy aircraft since they had crossed the coast, the local post had tried in vain to call Detling to warn them that a raid was imminent but, due to the fact that the airfield only had two telephone lines and at that precise time both were engaged, they were unable to do so.
Many of the base’s personnel were taking tea when the first bombs fell.
The accuracy of the raid was good with much of the grass landing area becoming full of craters — there were also several direct hits on the hangar which contained some of the Ansons. In the fires that followed, many of the aircraft inside were destroyed. A direct hit on the semi-sunk operations room caused this bombproof building to collapse. The Station Commander, Group Captain Edward Davis, a former tennis champion, fell dead with a piece of jagged concrete driven straight through his skull.
Casualty Clearing Officer and local undertaker Wallace Beale plus personnel from the local ARP services sped to the airfield. Of the sixty-seven people killed, many needed only the five-foot long coffins reserved for unidentified remains. A further ninety-four were seriously injured and were taken to Preston Hall hospital in Aylesford by a fleet of ambulances.
Clearance work went on all through the night and during the next few days but at no time did RAF Detling become non-operational. A mass funeral was held at Maidstone cemetery for the majority of the dead.
With operations back to normal at the end of the month, a special mounting was designed and constructed which would enable the Ansons to carry a cannon. Consequently, it is reputed that 500 Squadron became the only squadron in the RAF to fly aircraft fitted with a free-mounted cannon that fired through the spars in the floor. It was said that when it was fired rearwards, the recoil added another five knots to the Anson’s speed!
Over the next few months several enemy aircraft were claimed to have fallen to the added fire-power of 500 Squadron’s Ansons.
On 1 April 1943, to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the RAF, King George VI instituted Squadron Standards. These fringed and tasselled silken banners, in the centre of which is the squadron badge surrounded by white scrolls inscribed with the required battle honours, are mounted on a pike surmounted by a golden eagle.
Though 500 Squadron was to earn six more battle honours, foremost on the standard is «Channel and North Sea -1939-41». Hanging high above the nave in All Saints’ Church — the parish church of Maidstone in Kent — this standard is testimony to a squadron that turned an ageing machine into a formidable weapon.