A Wartime Station, RAF Station Bourn

Bourncontroltower
RAF Station Bourn Control Tower, 1942. Prince George, Duke of Kent, is third from the left. He was killed in an air crash on 25 August 1942.

In the rainy twilight of a winter’s afternoon in 1943-44, RAF Station Bourn could not have looked a very attractive sight It was a typical wartime airfield, constructed of many temporary buildings, clustered in different dispersed sites around the airfield. Some 2,500 people were living and working in this makeshift town, pieced together from concrete, corrugated iron, and wood.


The most solidly constructed building was the Control Tower, the central nucleus around which the station revolved. It dominated the skyline on the edge of the airfield in the perfect position to oversee the three concrete runways.


Numerous one-storey prefab huts clustered behind it, some with pitched roofs, some with rounded, whilst down at the bottom of the airfield the tall narrow shape of Bourn Grange heralded yet another extensive huddle of Nissen huts, amongst them those of Station Sick Quarters with its hospital, ambulance garage, and mortuary. 

bourn the grange
The Grange in springtime 1997

 

RAF Station Bourn had only been in existence since 1941.  It was sited on the extensive lands of Bourn Grange, between the Grange itself and what little remained of the buildings of the home farm, Grange Farm.

Ruins of the Sergeants’ Mess in the 1980s. The photograph at the top of the page shows similar buildings around ten years later, in 1997, gradually dropping to pieces at the very bottom of what used to be RAF Station Bourn.

 

BOWSERS
Erks with their petrol bowsers outside one of the Grange Farm barns. Walter Bushby, an electrician, is thought to be third from the left. The bowser on the right has its name ‘Big Ben’ painted above the windscreen. The bowser on the left also has a name, which appears to be ‘Popeye’ after the cartoon character.

The prevailing winds at the airfield were south-westerly. It was therefore seldom that the Lancasters of 97 squadron would take off using the shortest runway of all, NW.-SE., which meant that just after becoming airborne they would pass over Highfields and Hardwick, close to St Mary’s Church. When they did so, it was an awesome experience for the village folk. A local man, Bob Plane, recalled the Lancasters straining and labouring to gain height as they came directly over Hardwick:

“They used to come over the tops of the houses, laden with bombs, and one would think ‘Please God, let them get over’. You would be sitting there with a cup of tea, and when they had gone over the saucer was full of tea and the cup was only half full because of the vibrations.”

The bombers would all conglomerate overhead, gathering together before they headed off for Germany, “it was a hell of a noise”. Together with the roar of Bourn’s aircraft taking off, there would be the distant growl of others taking off from neighbouring airfields, and then the huge pack would set out into the gathering darkness, the roar of their great engines gradually receding.

Bourn runway NE-SW
The NE-SW runway in 2014, looking up to what used to be the Grange Farm site, marked here by a crane.

 

 

 

Ground Crew: Sidney Mathews – a portrait

Sidney Mathews was a flight mechanic at RAF Station Bourn, who in the early hours of 17 December 1943 was instrumental in saving the life of Joe Mack, the wireless operator of the Thackway crew. Sidney was cycling back from Cambridge when he came across the crash of Thackway’s aircraft, which had caught fire immediately after landing. Together with Leslie Laver, the rear gunner of the crew, who was unhurt, Sidney managed to get Joe out of the burning wreck.

He would later be awarded a medal for bravery. The details for the citation would have been noted down on the same day as the crash, or very soon afterwards, by Sidney’s commanding officer, and then forwarded on to the appropriate authority with a recommendation for the medal.

It is even possible that it was Bennett himself, the Commanding Officer of the Pathfinders, who insisted that Sidney’s’ name should be put forward for the medal despite the fact that Sidney had been breaking Standing Orders (by being off base without permission) when he came across the crash. Bennett, who went to the crash with a group of his senior officers, would have been well aware of the circumstances of Joe Mack’s rescue. Bennett was not a man to let bureaucratic red tape interfere with how he felt the Path Finder Force should be run and who should be rewarded for extraordinary acts of courage.

sidneyedit

Gazette 14 March 1944 p1 (2)

Gazette 14 March 1944 page 3 (4)

 

SIDNEY MATHEWS, “SID”

Information supplied by his son, Leon Mathews, who also provided the photographs

Sidney Mathews was born on the 10th May 1920 and grew up in Elephant and Castle, a very poor area of South London. On the birth certificate, his parents are registered at 91 East Street, Walworth Road, Southwark, but he always spoke of growing up at 15 Delverton Road, Elephant and Castle. This was very close to the birthplace of Leslie Laver, the rear gunner of the Thackway crew, and they thus shared a similar background.

Sidney’s father was a newspaper vendor, ex-Army, and Sidney had two sisters, one older and one younger than himself, named Eileen and Violet.

When Sidney was 15 years old, a piece of metal is thought to have flicked up from a passing car whilst he was cycling (it is quite extraordinary how many pivotal moments in Sidney’s life occurred whilst he was riding a bicycle) and caused such severe injury to his right eye that it was irreparably damaged. He had a realistic glass eye instead, but this injury and the poor eyesight in the remaining eye (he wore glasses) meant that he could not fulfil his ambition to become a pilot when he joined the RAF. He became instead a flight mechanic, learning first on the Wellington, the ‘Wimpy’, before moving on to Lancasters – he always kept a soft spot for the Wimpy.

Whenever he could, he would wangle (illegal) rides on the Lancasters for he loved to fly. Among other stories of his time in the RAF, he would tell his son Leon of the Dresden raid where one could hear, inside the bombers flying above the city, the horrific winds whistling through the ruins in the firestorm. It is possible that he was on the Dresden raid himself.

Des Evans, who was also a flight mechanic with 97 Squadron, writes of this possibility: ‘This may sound far-fetched but incidents like that did happen. There are recorded LACs who did fly on ops and one such case is in Max Hastings’ book Bomber Command. As a RAFVR airman myself, when I had passed my Flight Mechanics Course and was at Bourn, a small number of us were informed that due to shortage of Flight Engineers, we could be called to stand by for ops. Our Engine Course was a much longer and more detailed course than the Flight Engineers, and our trade was Group 1. We therefore had more knowledge of engine work. From that point of view we were very suitable candidates. Our problem would have been the Flying Drill. However, we were not called upon…’

Leon wrote: ‘Dad’s knowledge of instrumentation and flying the Lanc was amazing, and whilst he spoke of the Flight Engineers’ duties and the demands that were placed on them, it was always in my mind that he was one of them.’

Sidney married his first wife, Celia, during the war. He was eighteen years old when he first met her – cycling near Elephant and Castle he accidentally knocked her down, apologetically picked her up, they got talking, one thing led to another, and eventually they married. Celia was to be seriously injured in the London Blitz, her mother being killed by the same bomb, and she suffered such serious burns to her face that it seemed she might lose her good looks forever. But Sidney married her all the same, ‘long before the surgeons had finished – which means love, and faith’ as the newspaper report of him receiving the British Empire Medal at Buckingham Palace put it.

It was Celia, still at that stage his girlfriend, whom he was visiting when he went AWOL on the night of the Thackway crew’s crash. And, of course, at the time of the crash Sidney was once again riding a bicycle.

The newspaper account quotes Sidney as saying of the crash, ‘You can imagine how I felt when I saw it was the very plane I serviced as a fitter. I knew the crew like brothers.’

Sidney would later tell his son Leon stories of his time in the RAF but unfortunately they were never written down and only fragments of stories survive, such as that concerning a Lancaster of 97 Squadron which was flipped over by flak and ended up upside-down with a full bomb load, and such was the strain on the frame as the pilot strove to right the aircraft that it popped 50,000 rivets.

Sidney suffered multiple shrapnel wounds from another (unknown) Lancaster which blew up in 1944 and these injuries resulted in numerous skin cancers later in his life.

Another of his RAF stories concerned a crew member whose bowels let go without fail whenever the crew took off for operations.

His son Leon writes: ‘He also had a great sympathy for the mid-upper gunner as he was half in the fuselage and half in the turret – as Dad said, it must have been freezing sitting up there at night, especially at 24,000 feet.’

He spoke at length once about the cylinder barrels of the Merlin engine whereby the way it was designed had plenty of problems, but he found a modification which worked, trained the lads, and they had a better reliability resulting from it, but due to the rules and the instructor that oversaw them, he got into a lot of trouble from it. It was understood he lost rank because of it, from Sergeant to Corporal.

He also spoke of the countless numbers of bombers that had to circle above before they left for an operation whereby the ‘poor buggers’ sometimes collided up there.

After the war, like so many others, Sidney found civilian life a huge anti-climax, and he could not settle back to a humdrum existence. He and Celia were eventually to have three children – Lyn, Raymond (who, as his second son Leon writes, ‘is handicapped but has a tremendous amount of compassion and love’) and Celia, named after her mother. But the marriage was not a happy one because of the difference in outlook between the couple. Sidney wanted passionately to better himself, to start a new life, to have a house and a garden rather than just a poky London flat. When the opportunity came up in 1949 to go to South Africa to seek his fortune, he could not miss this precious chance.

Celia preferred not go with him to South Africa. Later he asked her to come out, but still she refused, not wishing to leave London. (Leon adds, ‘I can’t verify that and will be in hot water with the rest of the family if not true’.) They eventually divorced.

Before the war Sidney had been a sheet metal worker, and he worked at this for a time in South Africa, and then did a number of odd jobs, one being a boiler-maker. He also worked as a draughtsman, but generally drifted and had a good time. One of his favourite pastimes was riding a motorbike. (He was always mad on motorbikes and had one from the age of 14 onwards, and he would not give them up until the age of 74.)

But at last he married again at the age of 40. At the time of the wedding, he had just £40 in his pocket and no job. His new wife, Leah Morris, a South African, was a very determined woman. They later had one son, Leon, and as Leon laughingly puts it, ‘When he married my mother, all the nonsense stopped and she put him in his place’. He settled his mind to studying Mechanical Engineering and received his Government Certificate in Mechanical Engineering. This was work that he loved, and he became very successful at it.

Leon says of his father, ‘He was a man who always had a goal in life, and always did the best he could. He tried hard and was not deterred by criticism. It was always as though he lived his life by the 97 Squadron motto, “Achieve your Aim”‘.

Later when Leah died (they were married for 28 years), he made one last marriage in 1997 to Sandra Fraser who is the surviving spouse. He died on the 17th February 2005, aged 84. He was a very popular and inspirational man, and there were many friends at his memorial.

Sidney’s ashes were dispersed in the wind below Sir Lowry’s Pass on a beautiful part of the Helderberg Mountains near Gordons Bay in Cape Town where his home was.

Woodhall Spa

Woodhall Spa was a satellite station of Coningsby. The Officers’ Mess was the Petwood Hotel, a large Tudor-style building of some comfort and style which had been requisitioned for the duration of the war.

Petwood Hotel from the rear gardens
Hind Archive

Kirkwood-Hackett
Walter Bonar Kirkwood-Hackett, known as Ben, outside the hotel, probably 1942

It was from Woodhall Spa that 97 Squadron flew on the famous Augsburg Raid, which was described at the time as “the most daring raid of the war”. Ernest Alfred Deverill, who was killed on Black Thursday, was one of the stars of this raid. Deverill page.

Ernest Deverill
Ernest Alfred Deverill, from a group photograph after the Augsburg raid. 1942