Spitfire Pilots: New Zealanders on Tour!
Over the past 10 years of operating at our home airfield, Goodwood Aerodrome, we have had the great pleasure of getting to know a number of wartime pilots and groundcrew. Two of which had been flying Spitfires with 485 (NZ) Squadron. Firstly, Wing Commander Owen Leslie Hardy DFC and Bar AFC who we had the great pleasure of flying in our Spitfire TR9 and secondly, Chief Technician Joe Roddis who had served as groundcrew with the squadron from its inception to the end of the war. Sadly, both have since passed away. However, they left us all with fond and happy memories of their time with us during which they also shared their experiences. 79 years ago this year, the squadron flew their Mark V Spitfires into our home, then known as RAF Westhampnett, where they operated for several months.
Joe was a great friend to Spitfires.com, sharing his knowledge of the Spitfire and Merlin engine with our team. He had worked on a number of marks, having started with the Mk I and on through the Battle of Britain to his last few months of service with 485 Squadron on the Mk XVI Spitfire. He shared his thoughts of his time on the South Coast with us.
Flying In A Spitfire
We headed South to this satellite of RAF Tangmere in January 1943 and the squadron was quickly operational within hours of arriving. We lived in huts a fair distance from the dispersal, but all facilities and food were good and plenty to do in Chichester any time we got off. I remember though that we would have to go to nearby RAF Tangmere for supplies or if the aircraft needed major work, but also for a shower now and then. We had some small blister hangars and one T2 hangar, but we could have 3 squadrons on the airfield at any one-time and space was at a premium. We were at Goodwood for a number of months, and it was a busy time for us. The pubs in the local area were good and we used to travel into Chichester or Bognor for local dances. We were to return again to the South Coast in 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, operating our MK IX Spitfires from grass advanced landing grounds such as Funtington and Selsey.
RAF Westhampnett in 11 Group, was on land belonging to Frederick Charles Gordon Lennox, The Duke of Richmond and Gordon. As the skies darkened with the threat of war, the flat land was requisitioned by the Air Ministry. Not initially with the idea of making it into a fully operational airfield but playing second fiddle to RAF Tangmere up the road, in the capacity of an emergency landing ground. At this stage, it was literally just a field with no purpose-built facilities. This was in 1938.
It changed its status just prior to the Battle of Britain when it was upgraded to a satellite airfield with some basic facilities including a watch office but essentially, it was just a grass field with a windsock. During the Battle of Britain, 145 Squadron, under the command of Squadron Leader John Peel, was the first unit to arrive with Hurricanes. The ground crew were billeted in cow sheds, dog kennels, at the racecourse and in tented accommodation.
In the winter of 1940/1941, the airfield was badly waterlogged and a decision was made to put in a perimeter track and start erecting some blister hangars so that maintenance did not have to be carried out in the open. Even when 610 (County of Chester) Squadron moved in during the latter part of 1940, aircraft were still being taken through gaps in the hedges to an adjacent barn to be maintained! Most famously, Douglas Bader flew his last operational trip from RAF Westhampnett whilst flying Spitfires with 610 and 616 Squadrons in August 1941.
485 was posted to RAF Westhampnett on the 1st of January, 1943 for a six-month period to the 30th of June, 1943 when the squadron was posted away to Biggin Hill. The Commanding Officer, when the squadron moved in, was Reginald Grant. He joined the RNZAF in 1939 and completed his training in the UK followed by a posting to 145 Squadron in 1941 (145 had been at Westhampnett in 1940). He had a successful early career, shooting down three Bf 109s in 1941 and subsequently being awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal prior to his posting to 485. He also went on to be awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross later on in the war.
Reg’s brother Ian also served with 485 at RAF Westhampnett. Both took part in an operation in early February, 1943 with Reg leading. They were bounced by Fw 190s and one of the aggressors latched onto Ian and he was shot down. Reg witnessed the action and pursued the attacker, finally claiming him. Ian was sadly not to return and was ‘Killed in Action’. Reg Grant was posted out of the squadron in March, 1943 and he received a bar to his DFC soon after. His luck was to run out in 1944. While leading a wing, during a take-off, his aircraft suffered engine failure and he crashed, Reg had bailed out but his parachute failed to open.
One of the squadron pilots at the time was Doug Brown who shared his memories of the time flying Spitfires at Goodwood Aerodrome with our Head of Operations.
The Spitfire squadron was fully involved in operational duties and more often than not, pilots were involved in two or more operations a day. We carried out a number of top, close and withdrawal covers for RAF Medium Bombers, principally Marauders and Mitchells, also US Flying Fortresses. Rodeos, Circuses and Balboas were also the order of the day.
As this was a period when Fw 190s were making low level raids on South Coast towns, the wing had a constant patrol operating from dawn to dusk.
I was deputy Flight Commander when on dawn readiness on the 11th of April, 1943, my number 2 and I were scrambled to cover the return of a damaged Stirling Bomber. We located the aircraft, which was forced to make a landing in the sea a mile or so off Shoreham. All the crew except one had managed to clamber into the rubber dinghy.
One crew member in his Mae West was drifting out to sea and I considered I could drop him my dinghy. I dropped the speed to 120mph, put down my flaps and with much difficulty managed to remove the dinghy from my parachute pack, which I was sitting on.
I released the dinghy but forgot it had a lead attached and it caught the rudder area. Fortunately, the air pressure broke the cord as I had almost stalled due to the low speed. Regretfully it did not hit the target anyway, but a Walrus was soon on the scene and made the rescue.
Prior to moving to Biggin Hill, twelve members of 485, including myself were trained to perform “deck landings”. We completed four landings each on the aircraft carrier HMS Argus. The philosophy behind this was that when the invasion was carried out, Spitfires may not have the range to complete operations over France and it was thought that a large platform would be anchored off the Cherbourg coast. It was sensibly discarded, and auxiliary fuel tanks were a natural substitute”
The Mermaid Hotel about halfway from the aerodrome to Chichester was well patronised by 485. Arthur King the proprietor was a very generous host not only to 485 but all RAF squadrons. The squadron also utilised the services of the Kings Beach Hotel at Pagham. In the main we entertained our “friends “at Fishers Cottage
The Squadron was fully involved in operational duties and more often than not pilots were involved in two or more operations a day.
One of the other duties that 485 Squadron were undertaking whilst at Westhampnett was fighter night exercises. These were not popular amongst Spitfire pilots as they contested that it was not a great aircraft to fly at night. In April, Johnnie Houltonn, another 485 pilot departed Westhampnett to fly circular patrols around a searchlight beam near Reading. Not just one Spitfire but twelve stacked up at 500 ft intervals! He moved from one beam to another but eventually when the patrol time was complete, he was not sure of his position. With no moon to guide him, he let down through broken cloud but was to receive a rude awakening when he flew into the Portsmouth Balloon Barrage! However, he did safely make it back to Westhampnett.
One of the advantages of being at Westhampnett at the time was that the squadron pilots were allowed a small ration of petrol to get about. To this end, a number of the pilots had cars and motorbikes. In particular, Johnnie used to get around to the local villages and pubs with his future wife on his BSA. Other sorties consisted of Air Sea Rescue, Weather and Shipping Reconnaissance, Convoy and Interception Patrols.
On completion of its stay at Westhampnett, 485 then did a short move to nearby RAF Merston, just to the South of Chichester but this was followed shortly after by a relocation to RAF Biggin Hill in July 1943 where they picked up the MK IX Spitfires.
Joe left a lasting impression on all of us here, at Spitfires.com. He reminded us of the importance of what we do in memory of all of his friends and colleagues who served at RAF Westhampnett, many of whom sadly did not survive to return home to their families.
It is great to be able to give our guests a taste of wartime flying with our Spitfires and to be able to pass on some of the experiences of many veterans who have visited us over the years.
Do you have what it takes to fly in a Spitfire?
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