Enlistment and early training
I enlisted in April 1942 as an 18-year-old and was selected for aircrew training. For the first month, we did flight theory in Edinburgh and having passed that we were sent to Booker in Buckinghamshire for initial flight training on Tiger Moths.
My first flight was on 30 May with F/O Maguire and I went solo a week later on 6th June after 13 dual flights and 7 hours 45 minutes total time. I then did several more flights both dual and solo and on June 11 had my final check flight with the CFI F/LT Mitchell.
The whole group was then sent on leave for a week with orders to report to Manchester on 19th June. When I arrived we were shepherded onto a large parade ground and all 500 of us were lined up in some sort of order. Then someone important stood up at the front and started calling our names. It soon became apparent that this was a process of sorting people into groups of those selected for further flying training, as navigators, engineers or air gunners. For most of this process, I had no idea what was going on however towards the end as my name had still not been called and I started to recognise a couple of other people still on parade as being among the better people who were with me at Booker, it dawned on me that the ones who were left were to be the pilots.
In the end, only 50 of us were left and sure enough, we were then told that we had been selected for further flying training. We were ordered to report to Glasgow and a few days later we sailed on the Leticia escorted by three destroyers to Halifax in NE Canada. There were 1,200 trainee pilots on board and the voyage took four days sailing at 20 knots in fairly calm seas. From Halifax, we boarded a train which went via Chicago to Ponca City in Oklahoma – a trip lasting a bit over two days.
We then started our advanced flying training in P17 Steermans and my first flight was with Mr Merris on 10 August 1942. The instructors were all civilians but of a very high standard. We also did Link training (a flight simulator) to practice blind flying. My first solo on the P17 was on 27 August after six hours dual.
We were at Ponca City for six months and later flew Harvard AT6s. My last flight in the States was on 4th February 1943 and I then had a total of 210 hours with about 100 hours on each of the P17 and the AT6. This included 24 hours of night flying of which only 10 hours were solo.
The local people were just wonderful and every Sunday there was a line of cars outside our base waiting to pick us up and take us home for a Sunday lunch or picnic. I will never forget their hospitality and kindness.
Having completed our training we then learned whether we were to be recommended for a commission or were to become Sgt Pilots. I came second out of our class of 35 in flying and 4/35 in theory. They only selected about 12 people for commissions and I noticed that one of those had come 34/35 so I assumed that commissions must have had something to do with what school you went to! It was not until I was flying with 197 Sqd in late 1944 that our then CO Dickie Curwin realised that there were a number of Sgt Pilots who had nearly a completed tour with far more experience than newly arrived Flying Officers and he arranged for half a dozen of us to get our commissions.
We then travelled to New York by train, boarded the Queen Elizabeth and sailed from NY without escort and in broad daylight on 9th February 1943. The QE could cruise at 32 knots and hence it was felt she did not need an escort and was also so large (so we were told) that she was incapable of being sunk by torpedoes. Fortunately, this was not put to the test. Our route back to England was unusual in that we sailed southeast to a point south of the equator off the African coast and then due north to go around the west coast of Ireland into Glasgow. The trip took just four days even whilst sailing a 20-degree zig-zag pattern.
Advanced training and OTU (Operational Training Unit)
When we arrived in England there was a surplus of pilots so we were all sent on a couple of months leave. On 25 April 1943, I was ordered to report to the Advanced Training Unit at Peterborough and did my first flight in a twin-engine Anson on 1st May and on 6th May on a Miles Master II which was a single-engine two-seat advanced trainer with a 600 hp engine.
My time at Peterborough lasted until the end of May when I was posted to Annan in southwest Scotland for OTU training, arriving there on 11th June and having my first flight in a Hurricane on June 15th. I stayed at Annan until mid-August and whilst there did 55 hours on Hurricane IIs.
I was then sent on leave for a couple of months after which I was posted to No 1 CTW (Combat Training Wing) in Dundee in northeast Scotland, again flying Hurricanes and doing practice bombing, low-level flying, air-to-air work and “rhubarb” or low-level bombing training. I was in Dundee until 24th November when I was posted to my first operational squadron.
56 “Punjab” Squadron and the Typhoon
I first arrived at 56 Sqn, then based at Martlesham Heath (in Suffolk northeast of London) in early December 1943. It was known as Punjab because it was formed in WWI and first flew in India. It became famous because it was the only Air Force squadron to receive two VCs in WWI.
I had my first flight on the 10th of December in a Hurricane and then on 27th of December 1943, I had my first flight in a Typhoon.
The Typhoon was a brute of an aircraft. It had a 2400 horsepower Napier Sabre engine and weighed over five tons empty with a maximum take-off weight of over seven tons. It had the highest straight and level speed of any aircraft on either side of the war (until the Tempest came along) of just over 300 mph with a top diving speed of over 550 mph. The Tempest was about 20 mph faster straight and level. The Typhoon’s operational efficiency was up to 15,000 ft but above that, it lost a lot of manoeuvrability and was no match at altitude for Messerschmitt 109s or the Focke-Wulf 190.
The entire aircraft had a constant high-frequency vibration, the cockpit was very hot and the cockpit fumes were so bad and dangerous that after a few fatalities, it became mandatory for pilots to wear oxygen from engine start-up. To add insult to injury it looked uncannily like a Focke-Wulf 190 in the air and several were shot down by Spitfire pilots in their early days of operation. Early models had some airframe weaknesses but these had been sorted out by late 1943. However, as good as the engine was, it was prone to stop without warning and this problem was never fully resolved even by the end of the war. On the other hand, it was an excellent weapons platform and was able to absorb a lot of punishment and still keep flying.
At the time I joined 56 Sqn, the squadron was being rested from front-line duty and for the first few months, I was mainly doing air training exercises and the odd coastal patrol. This was very beneficial for me as it allowed me to get a lot of time on the aircraft before being thrown into heavy action. In all likelihood, this saved my life as did starting operations when I did rather than just six months earlier where the chance of survival was much reduced.
From Martlesham Heath the Squadron moved first to Acklington and then to Newchurch in Dungeness on 5th May 1944 when the Typhoons were taken away and we were given Spitfire IX’s. The Typhoons were needed for 146 Group which was to be amongst the first fighter units to operate from Normandy handling close army support work. I didn’t know it then but I would be joining 146 Group in a further three months time.
In the lead-up to D-Day 56 Sqn was daily carrying out coastal patrols and reporting on and occasionally attacking enemy shipping. On D-Day itself, I did an early morning shipping reco flight at 6 a.m. and was able to see the enormous armada crossing the Channel. Later in the day at 7 p.m., we flew as escort to a huge glider train that was around 200 miles in length. The gliders were being towed by Sterling bombers and we did two flights back and forth across the channel to the side of the fleet. The two laps were due to the Typhoon’s superior speed plus the length of the stream of aircraft involved in the operation. The gliders were being released and landing just behind the German lines on Sword and Juno beaches at the northern end of the Normandy invasion coast.
The V1 Attacks
Then on the 15th June, the Germans started launching the V1 flying bombs from the Calais region. They were directed towards London and had a timer which turned the motor off when it was estimated they had reached the London area. They were not totally reliable and their speed varied from around 300 mph to the planned speed of 420 mph. Many fell short, but a handful progressed over London and reached as far as Luton where my family lived.
56 Sqn was directed to attacking the bombs, known as “doodlebugs”. However, due to their lower top straight and level speed, the Spitfires were not operationally ideal. So on 28th June, 56 Sqn was supplied with Tempests and I had my first flight later that day. Because of its new technology, we were not allowed to fly the Tempest over or beyond the coast of England as they did not want one to be shot down and fall into German hands.
Operations against the V1s were conducted by flying constant patrols of two aircraft which were vectored into attacks by our radar facilities. We generally patrolled at 10,000 feet and were able to dive to 550 mph behind the V1s which were flying at 4,000 feet and travelling at around 420 mph.
That was the theory at least. In fact, they were very difficult to see, being quite small with only a 15 ft wingspan and having only 12 minutes flying time from the coast to London. However, by far the biggest problem, at least in the first few weeks, was the American pilots known to us as “free flyers” who were operating on different radio channels and who were prone to attack from any angle whilst completely ignoring what we were trying to do. It was just open season! Over the course of the next two months, I was able to shoot one down myself and share another two with Flight Sergeant Eric Langley, another of our pilots.
My last Tempest flight and with 56 Sqd was on 10 August 1944 and I then was briefly posted to the Group Support unit at Thruxton where over the next few days I again flew Typhoons with a couple of Anson flights thrown in.
I was posted to 197 Squadron, part of 146 Group, (and still as a Flight Sergeant) on 28th August 1944 while the Squadron was based at St Croix in Normandy, also known as Airfield B3. At the time of my posting to 197 Sqn, I had 98 hours on operations, however, very little of that operational time had been spent on Typhoons. I was then 21 years old.
During my time with 197, the Squadron was almost entirely involved in close support of Canadian Army operations, tactical target destruction and “ramrod” raids where transport infrastructure and equipment were attacked.
Most flights were of less than one hour in duration and the majority of flights involved two flights of four aircraft flying in formation. The mission’s leader took the lead and in his group of four was positioned in second from the right. The leader’s No. 2 was to his right and his Nos. 3 and 4 were to his left. The second flight of four aircraft was similarly configured but in mirror reverse and flew to the right of the leader’s group and slightly behind. Significant targets were attacked in full squadron strength of 12 aircraft and occasionally for larger strategic targets, the entire wing comprising of four squadrons was involved.
Army support operations
Six weeks after I joined 197 we were then based in Belgium at Derne, which was Antwerp’s main airport, operating in close support to the Canadian Army in Arnhem. We had moved there on 2 October. Two Army intelligence officers were attached to our wing and their job was to help coordinate our operations.
The Canadian Army was advancing towards the town of Arnhem itself but on 13th October 1944 had been held up by German forces located in a group of houses adjacent to the main Rotterdam Arnhem railway line. Their defensive position was being enhanced by the railway itself which was raised about 30 feet above the surrounding countryside on an earthen embankment. The railway line ran in an east/west direction and the German forces were located on the northern side of the railway line.
The operation required the Squadron to send eight aircraft to attack this German force. The mission was led by Flight Lieutenant Dickie Curwin and I was to lead the second flight of four aircraft. Dickie Curwin was later to take over as Squadron Leader of 197 immediately after Squadron Leader Allan Smith from New Zealand was shot down and taken POW on New Year’s Day 1945. Other pilots on this mission included Paddy Byrne, Jock Ellis, Bobby Farmiloe and Pete Mason. We were to carry two 500lb bombs given that houses were the primary target and as was always the case, the bombs were fitted with 11-second delay fuses.
We got airborne at 3 p.m. on a fine autumn afternoon. Dickie Curwin led off the first pair and following him, his No. 3 and 4 were also underway. I accelerated down the sealed runway immediately behind them with my No. 2 on my right-hand side. Dickie and his group of four did one circuit of the airfield and then all eight of us formed up into two flights abreast at 1,500 feet.
Flight time to the target was only 15 minutes however, as we needed to cross the Rhine River which was held on the northern side by German forces who had extensive anti-aircraft placements along the river, we climbed rapidly at 2,000 feet a minute and 3600 rpm so that we could cross the river at 8,000 feet. The reason for choosing this altitude meant that we were above the effective range of the 20mm anti-aircraft “flack” and well below the effective height of the heavier 88mm flack which was most effective in the 12,000 to 18,000 feet range.
Once we had crossed the Rhine, the leader’s focus was on identifying the target whilst the rest of us were on constant lookout for enemy aircraft. Up until this point there had been minimal radio chatter.
The procedure for conducting such attacks was to approach the target in a straight line but leave the target on our left-hand side. The leader had to first observe the target disappearing under his left-hand leading edge between the fuselage and the left inner cannon. In the Typhoon, the pilot sat in the cockpit aligned with the trailing edge of the wing. Once the target appeared behind the trailing edge, the leader then gave a radio call “Escalon Starboard” which required the aircraft in each flight who were to the left of the leader to slide across to the leader’s right-hand side.
Dickie made the Escalon Starboard call and a few seconds later executed a steep turn to the left coming around 180º and pushing forward into a 60º dive towards the target with speed rapidly increasing to beyond 500 mph.
Following Dickie’s No. 4 pilot I led my flight in line astern behind them with each aircraft being separated by about 500 feet.
At 3,000 feet I pulled back on the control column to raise the nose slightly and then pressed the bomb release button which is located on the left-hand side of the “spade” shaped grip on the control column and then moved my thumb to the right-hand 20mm cannon button to spray the target with cannon fire during the pullout. As soon as the bomb had been released, I pulled hard back on the stick so as not to descend below 1,500 feet in case any light flack was situated around the target. To achieve this it required pulling 8 Gs during the pull-out.
With in excess of 500 mph at the bottom of the dive the Typhoon rapidly climbed away to above 5,000 feet with the speed slowly bleeding back to around 280 mph. During the pull-up, each pilot deviated randomly either left or right of the leader by up to 20º of the leader’s flight path to create a visual separation between the aircraft to help confuse the AA crews. Also during the pull-up, it was standard practice to apply a hard left or right rudder to yaw the aircraft during the pull-up. The purpose of this was to give the impression that the aircraft was flying in the direction in which it was pointing and making the job harder for any AA gunners. Of course, merely yawing an aircraft does not change the direction it is travelling in.
On this particular mission, we were lucky that there was no flack and none of the aircraft were damaged. At 5,000 feet all eight aircraft reformed into two groups of four aircraft and we pulled the nose up to climb at full power back up to 8,000 feet to recross the Rhine. As we approached Antwerp we commenced a gentle descent and near the airport, we broke into four pairs of aircraft just before entering the downwind leg of the circuit at 1,000 feet. The engine was throttled back to 1,000 rpm. As speed came below 180 mph the undercarriage had been extended and at 120 mph as the aircraft was turning finals, the flaps were lowered.
On the downwind leg each flight leader gave a downwind radio call and then the four pairs of aircraft turned finals and landed abreast back at Antwerp. Once safely landed, the aircraft were taxied back to their various disbursal points and the engine shut down.
We then attended a post-flight debriefing with the intelligence officers. We learned later that the mission had been successful with the Canadian troops being able to cross the rail embankment and take what remained of the houses on the other side of the line immediately after the bombing run.
In Australia after the War, I employed a Dutch carpenter by the name of Burt Rurrich who had lived near the railway line and who clearly remembered his family’s liberation by Canadian troops shortly after the Typhoon attack.
In early 1945 a new type of target emerged for 197 Sqn. These were German headquarters that ranged from makeshift locations when the military was on the move to more substantial facilities usually housed in large villas sometimes located in built-up areas and sometimes out in the countryside. I flew the first of these missions on 8th February 1945 and flew many more in the next two months until the end of my tour.
The intelligence came to us from a mix of aerial reconnaissance but more frequently from the resistance movement. This information was not always without its faults and on one very sad occasion we were directed to attack a specific house in a village in East Belgium which was, we were told, a Gestapo HQ. The operation was carried out to perfection, however, we later discovered that the information was wrong. The house we should have attacked was three doors away and the one we had so accurately flattened was an old people’s home and there had been many fatalities amongst staff and residents.
It immediately became apparent that our normal method of attack was not ideal for these targets. The presence of many Typhoons above and near these HQs was easily detected and this gave the very people we were after time to head into air raid shelters. It was the senior personnel we were after, not the buildings. Also, these locations were heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns and proved to be difficult to attack, often resulting in lost aircraft.
And so a new method of attacking these types of targets was developed. In April there was an attack on General Student’s HQ which involved our Wing’s four Sqds each with 12 aircraft so that maximum damage was inflicted. It was learned after the war that four staff officers, thirty officers of lesser ranks and over two hundred soldiers were killed in this attack.
These large force operations however were exceptions and only used on major targets. The operations usually comprised an attacking force of 12 aircraft – three flights of four.
A tactic was devised of dividing the attacking force into two groups one of four aircraft and the other of eight. The tactic used was to have the larger force fly at 8000 feet in the vicinity of the target so that it could be observed but not so close as to signal that it was intended as a target. The other four aircraft then attacked from a very low level and at high speed coming in from a completely different direction to maximise surprise. Once these aircraft had cleared the target the higher aircraft then turned and dive-bombed in the conventional way.
There were a number of benefits to such a strategy. The approaching low-level aircraft were flying at a near maximum speed of over 500 mph, at or below tree-top height, and so there was very little, if any, warning both to the occupants and the flack crews. The 11-second delay fuses used in the bombs allowed the attacking aircraft to clear the target before the bombs detonated but as soon as they did the eight aircraft at altitude immediately started their attack runs with the flack gunners hopefully distracted with other problems and in other directions.
On 10th February, just two days after my first HQ attack, 197 Sqn was directed to attack an HQ just outside the town of Goch north of Dusseldorf and just across the Rhine River in Germany. I was to be “Red Three” in the low-level force and we would attack from the south while the high-level aircraft would be positioned to the north east of the target so that they were well away from the heavy flack placements along the Rhine itself. Dickie Curwin led the attack and he was “Red One”.
Our aim was to approach the target with Red 1 and 2 line abreast and with Red 3 and 4 about 200 feet behind Red 1 and 2 such that I was to Dicky’s right and behind, and my No. 2 was to the right of and behind Red Two. I was excited but rather tense having never before used this tactic in battle. About eight miles from the target and to the south we started our dive to our maximum speed of 550 mph and reached tree top height about five miles out. We had previously checked carefully to ensure there were no high-tension wires in the area of our attack run. This allowed us to confidently push lower between stands of trees to further blank off the sound and sight of our approach.
Arial photos had shown us that to the immediate south of the building was a long driveway leading to a road which was lined with trees and to the south of the road were farm fields for half a mile or more. Up ahead I could see the roof of the target and the trees along the roadway as the countryside flashed past in an alarming manner. As we approached the field before the roadway Dicky lead us down even lower to below the tree line for the few seconds it took to cover the distance. I had my thumb firmly placed on the bomb release button. Then we eased up before the trees and burst over them still travelling at more than 500 mph. We had only a couple of seconds before bomb release and the aim was to put our bombs through the front door of the building.
In these situations, time compresses so that even fractions of a second seem capable of careful dissection. Just as I released my bombs my eyes widened when I saw that one of Dickie’s bombs had obviously hit something hard – possibly the driveway to the house – and had bounced upwards to almost our height. It was comfortably behind Dicky’s aircraft but it was alarmingly close to mine albeit to my left-hand side. Slowly (so it seemed) the bomb started to descend and I actually saw it cannon into the side of the building.
Then in a flash, we were over the house and out of the corner of my eye I could see flack starting to open up in our direction. We kept low down for several more seconds before starting our pull-up and feeding in rudder as we did so as to yaw the aircraft half sideways and put off the aim of the flack crews.
As we came back to cruising speed about three or four miles from the target I turned to see the last of the other 197 aircraft finish its bomb run whilst trailing smoke. Obviously, the flack crews had not been completely confused and typically this last aircraft was the most vulnerable target.
This operation was deemed to be a success in that the building had certainly been destroyed although, typically, we never learned whether any high-profile officers had been in the building at the time.
The method of attack was also deemed a success and the Wing used it for future operations of this type. I took part in several more such attacks over the next couple of months usually being chosen to fly in the low-level group. I never did see another bomb bounce like Dickie’s had on that first operation but these operations never failed to provide an action-packed few minutes as we approached the target.
Plt Off Dennis E.F. “Red” Matthews
? – June 9 2012
Flying Officer Dennis Matthews DFC finished his tour of combat on April 8, 1945, with 197 Squadron and having completed 191 combat hours. In July of 1945, he was awarded the DFC for his actions with 197 Squadron.
At the completion of his tour, Dickie Curwin approached Dennis and asked if he would like to “tear two pages out of his log book” and be promoted to Flight Lieutenant to lead B flight in the Squadron. Dennis declined this offer but in any event, the war ended within a couple of weeks. In hindsight, he agrees that he should have accepted Dickie’s offer.
Dennis eventually left the RAF in mid-1947 after an interesting period of flying Spitfire 21s in Italy as the RAF “showed the flag” to Tito’s Yugoslavia. In 1949 he immigrated to Australia with many of his wife’s family where he built a successful engineering business.
Dennis had his first gliding experience shortly after the war when he flew primary gliders in Lubeck in Northern Germany. In 1969 he took up gliding in Australia where he logged over 2,500 hours in the following 30 years. In the early 1970s Dennis introduced his two sons Paul and Peter to the sport and in 1989 he sent his oldest grandson James solo in gliders. James is now a Jetstar A320 Training Captain. Dennis also took much pride in seeing his daughter Janet join the RAAF where she rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
Flying Officer Dennis Matthews DFC (written with assistance from his eldest son Paul Matthews)