Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Mum's War and the Tip & Run Raiders

LACW Audrey Randell, Exeter 1943
Back in September 2013, I posted about a particular day in history that my Dad participated in during his service in WWII serving with Guards Armoured Division from 1943 to the end of the war.

Dad's War

Both Mum and Dad were volunteers during WWII and both played their part in the Allied victory in 1945 and it seems that women's roles in war have been very under reported and appreciated, although perhaps less so today as we move, gradually away from History to Herstory as well.

Mum, sadly passed away eighteen months ago and it had occurred to me whilst writing an email to a friend about Luftwaffe raids over southern England in 1943, as you do! that I could write a similar look back on Mum's service.

I should say that, when Mum was still alive, back in 2004, I got her to write down her memories of volunteering for the Womens Auxiliary Air Force or W.A.A.F.'s as they were more commonly known and posted her words on the BBC's "WW2 People's War" site.


Audrey (back row right) with other WAAFs at Pinhoe, Exeter

As you will see from her account on the BBC site, the WAAF plotters were a select group of women who were very much part of the RADAR backed Air Defence system that was instrumental in defeating the Luftwaffe in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. The plotting table with WAAFs using croupier poles to move friendly and enemy aircraft markers, as they received updates through their headsets telling them the position, height and estimated numbers of aircraft became one of the enduring images of Britain's air war. These updates would be not just from RADAR plots but also the visual observations made by the men and women of the Royal Observer Corps, using the mark one eyeball.

WAAF Plotters at work, The underground plotting room in 1943 was at RAF Exminster near the Black Swan pub.
By the time Mum volunteered in 1943, the air war had moved into a different stage from the dark days of 1940, when the RAF was very much on the defence. The mid war period saw the Luftwaffe stretched to its limits with an ever increasing commitment to the eastern front in Russia and units deployed to North Africa as, first the British 8th Army under Montgomery and later joined by US and British forces landing in French North Africa, drove the Germans back towards Sicily and the defence of mainland Italy.

In addition the RAF had moved over to the offence with first costly daylight incursions into France and the low countries, designed to draw the Luftwaffe fighters up to be destroyed, moving in time to the large night time bomber raids by Bomber Command.

It was the latter attacks by Bomber Command that forced the Germans into coming up with a retaliatory response, and with only a small force in Northern France of mainly fighters, they developed the use of FW 190 tip and run daylight bombing attacks, first tried out at the end of the Battle of Britain using ME 109's of 3/Erpr.Gr 210 carrying centrally mounted 250kg bombs. The raiders, usually in small groups of six to eight aircraft, would approach the English coastline low and fast to avoid radar, climbing when over the target to drop their bombs, strafe targets of opportunity and turn quickly for home.

Model of an Me109 from ErPr 210

The German raiders started their campaign in March 1942 with JG2 and JG26 making 17 tip and run attacks in Sussex and Kent and 13 attacks on Hampshire and the South West that month respectively. The first of these raids took place at 09.25 on the 7th March 1942, when four Me109's roamed unmolested in the Teignmouth - Exmouth area with houses and Teignmouth pier being machine gunned. Spitfire V's of 317 squadron from Bolt Head were ordered to intercept but they themselves were attacked on take off by two Me109s forcing Polish pilot Sergeant Kazimierz Sztramko to make a forced landing back on the field and with the raiders escaping.

The FW190 made its appearance in July 1942, proving superior in air combat with the RAF Spitfire V's and able to carry a centrally mounted 500kg bomb, soon became the mount of choice for these raiders replacing their Me109 F4/Bs. It would not be until the arrival of the Spitfire IX later in 1942 as a response to the new German fighter and the realisation that the new fighter from Hawker, the mighty Typhoon (the Tiffy) had the power and speed to be the German fighter bomber's nemesis, that suitable fighter defence would be available.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190
Supermarine Spitfire late Merlin-powered variants
Hawker Typhoon

Both Mum and Dad vividly remembered this campaign during their war time in Exeter and I remember them regaling me with the stories of the effect they had, although I was always impressed by the way they seemed to dismiss them as just another thing that was dealt with at that time.

One of these attacks affected a member of my wife's family who was living in Exmouth at that time and had her own close encounter with the Luftwaffe raiders. The account and pictures are from Chris Goss, Peter Cornwell and Bernd Rauchbach's book on these raids, "Luftwaffe Fighter Bombers over Britain"- The Tip and Run Campaign 1942-43

The attack on Exmouth on the 26th February 1943 was conducted by eight FW190's from 10/JG2 and they were targeting housing and the gas holder. Lt Leopold Wenger was the pilot who took the pictures, and his plane is pictured above.

He is quoted in the book from his record of the attack; 
"In February 1943, we could not fly very much because the weather was still bad. We could not go into action again until the 26th February. We attacked the town of Exmouth at noon. It was a very hard mission - very rarely have I encountered Flak firing so accurately. Still we taught the town a good lesson. In addition, I shot at a gasholder and set it on fire and harassed a moving train. Again, I was able to take some quite good photos. Unfortunately, we had losses in the aerial battle which followed the attack...."

The Germans were attacked by Typhoons from 266 Squadron and during a high speed low level chase across the channel, Squadron Leader Charles Green and Sergeant Richard Thompson shot down two of the German planes. The Typhoons were out of Exeter patrolling off Dartmouth when they got the call to intercept at 12.15 and they landed back at Exeter at 12.45.

A witness of the attack, Ken Randall aged 16 is quoted;

"Exmouth was hit by fighter bombers carrying bombs and firing cannons. I was a boy messenger for the General Post Office. When the sirens went, all the GPO staff went to the basement except three of us messenger boys who immediately went to the rooftop! There we saw three fighter bombers attacking our local gasometer, each in line astern. All three aircraft fired their cannons at the gasometer which did not blow up, but just caught fire and rapidly the stored gas was burnt up. The enemy aircraft then peeled off and beat a hasty retreat across the channel to France."

There is a very vivid description from Sgt. Thompson of his shooting down one of the raiders, closing in to about twenty yards and getting his spinner damaged by bits of the enemy plane as it hit the water and broke up, causing, as he puts it, his engine to run a bit rough!

My wife's aunt was coming out of Woolworths stores when the raid happened and she thought the Luftwaffe were after her personally as they screamed over head, heading up Albion Hill, to strafe the gasometer and leaving a trail of hot cannon shells as they went! At that time Mum could well have been directing the "Tyffies" on their intercept and I remember her describing them hearing the fighter pilots conversations from these battles, coming over the tannoy as they moved into combat.

The Luftwaffe air attacks ended suddenly in June 1943, principally because the fighter bombers were needed in the Mediterranean following the surrender of German forces in North Africa on the 12th of May 1943, and II Gruppe was rushed from France to Italy in the second week of June.

The Tip and Run raids on the Devon coast, showing towns attacked and principle RAF airfields and Exminster station
The raids had a far larger effect than the damage and casualties inflicted, with MP's under pressure from local constituents, raising questions in Parliament about allocation of extra assets to air defence on the south coast. The Luftwaffe only had up to 28 aircraft at any one time operating during the 15 month tip and run campaign, but with attacks along a 1,300km coastline, and insufficient antiaircraft guns for home defence; their tactics of negating the radar cover with low fast attacks, forced the RAF to mount standing patrols to counter the threat. These assets were thus unavailable for better use. However these attacks came back to haunt the Germans in the last years of the war as from 1943 onward, all RAF fighters had to have the capacity to carry bombs, and in northern Europe, the Typhoon carrying rockets or bombs became the ground attack aircraft par excellence.

It was during this time that Mum and Dad met in Exeter, when he interrupted an American GI dancing with her and then invited her for a drink at the Old Ship Inn (a favourite haunt of Sir Francis Drake when on shore leave). The rest, as they say is history!

The south west was an armed camp at that time with the US 29th Division based at Plymouth and Ivybridge and with Exmouth hosting the 4th (Ivy) US Division. The US forces had their beach landing training centre at Woolacombe in North Devon (Still used by the Royal Marines today) and Slapton Sands, between Plymouth and Torbay in the South Hams, had the notorious distinction of seeing more US casualties suffered during their training for Utah beach, than were suffered on that beach on the actual landing. 

The allied air-forces were equally very active in the surrounding countryside, with Exeter, and Dunkeswell providing bases for these aircraft and saw the launching of the US Paratroops on the eve of D Day. The men of the British 6th Airborne Division  were busy practising their attack plan for Pegasus Bridge on a bridge with similar characteristics just outside of Exeter close to RAF Exminster, a story I referred to in a post back in June 2013


Mum & Dad pictured in happier times
Today you would be hard pressed to imagine Exmouth and my home of Devon as part of the front line in World War II, but with a little bit of research and observing the various monuments about, that mark the events of just over 70 years ago, you quickly come to appreciate the understated activities of a previous generation.

If you are interested in knowing more about this little known air campaign in WWII, I cannot do better than recommend "Luftwaffe Fighter Bombers over Great Britain" by Chris Goss et al which has a comprehensive coverage of the attacks and the Luftwaffe and RAF forces deployed during that time. The text is accompanied by many pictures including the incredible combat shots taken by Wenger using his personal camera from the confines of his cockpit. It is amazing to see FW190's wheeling over South Coast towns, some of which I am very familiar, and seeing the smoke rising from their attacks.

Sources used in this post:
"Luftwaffe Fighter Bombers over Britain"- The Tip and Run Campaign 1942-43 by Chris Goss, Peter Cornwell and Bernd Rauchbach combined with family reminiscences that relate to the book.


  1. Jonathan
    Excellent post!
    Both my parents, now sadly passed, served during WWII. My mum was a WRAC, whilst my dad was a sergeant pilot in the RAF. My dad was a blue eyed blonde, and we used to joke that he actually flew for the Luftwaffe and he met my mom after she'd shot him down.
    You do your parents proud with such postings - well done.

  2. Hi Nigel, I remember you said your Dad was in the RAF when I posted on the Spitfire in Cornwall and your Mum must have known the Queen when she was in the WRAC.

    They were an amazing generation, and experienced life at a very fast pace during those years. Then, in most cases, simply came home, discarded the uniform and started a life in "civi street" as if nothing had happened, determined to put that time behind them and focus on the future. I just think it is important to remember that contribution they made that has allowed my generation to not to have to go to war, and speaking as a father of two sons, hopefully the future generations to come.

    Thanks for your comment mate, much appreciated.

  3. Great post I very much enjoyed this. Some time this week I saw a post that said "who were these remarkable women with the croupier sticks?" I will try to find it and send him your link.

    1. Thanks David, glad you enjoyed the read. Yes I would be very interested to know who posted the question.

      They were a close knit group, the WAAF plotters, I remember mum meeting another lady at a wedding reception and discovering a fellow WWII plotter. They were as "thick as theives" reminiscing over the job and having to work nights.

  4. Hi. This is a really great post. My mother-in-law, Rosemary Bradford just sadly passed away with us here in Norway, but she remembered as a 13 year old girl walking home from school with her friend and then finding themselves being straffed by the Germans forcing them to dive into a ditch and crawl to a nearby house where they watched the gasometer go up in flames. I forget the name of the school, but this was such a vivid recollection that we included this story in her memorial service.
    Thank you for sharing and we will get a copy of the book as we never knew it existed.
    Rose remained a Devon girl through and through, wherever she lived!
    Geoff and Lynne

  5. Hi Geoff and Lynne,
    Thank you, I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post and it was very moving to read your reply on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, together with the description of your mother-in-law's experience which chimed so well with our family's and others experiences remembered from those times.

    If you know the 'specialness' that is Devon, then you carry that feeling no matter where you are and I know we are very lucky to be living in this part of the world, especially during the current times.

    Thanks again and I am sure you will find Chris Goss's book a fascinating and extraordinary read combined as it is with the dramatic pictures of battle over the British South Coast taken by Lt. Wenger.