Saturday 30 September 2023

RAF Harrowbeer 1940's Weekend - Yelverton

A few weeks ago Carolyn happened to spot a notice on the web advertising a local 1940’s gathering at the former WWII RAF airfield of Harrowbeer on the 19th -20th August and so we decided, in the company of my eldest son Tom and friend Steve M., to take a trip out to Yelverton on the southern edge of Dartmoor and just north of Plymouth, to see what this was all about.

At the beginning of the Second World War it was thought that the city of Plymouth and its important naval base was too far away from Germany to likely need defending from German bombers, but in May 1940 and the subsequent attacks during the Battle of Britain and then the following year with the German night blitz bombing offensive the need for local air defence had changed dramatically and this situation would only be challenged in 1942-43 with the Germans switching to low-level tip and run attacks by FW-190 fighter bombers along the length of the British south coast.

A 247 Squadron Gladiator based at Roborough, Plymouth, the squadron credited with damaging a Heinkel III on August 13th 1940, and reequipping with Hurricanes in 1940 prior to Harrowbeer being built the following year.

At the start of the war Plymouth relied on Roborough airfield situated on a hill overlooking the city, but its short runways, because of the limited circumference of the plateau on which the airfield was constructed, meant that the only fighter cover that could operate from there were the three obsolete Gloster Gladiator biplanes of 247 Squadron from August to December 1940.

Harrowbeer, is nine miles north-north east of Plymouth and like Roborough was not without its own issues subject as it was to the changeable weather conditions that affect the high ground of Dartmoor, particularly fog, which is not good for flying; but the airfield was ready for operations in August 1941 and the first aircraft to land there was a Blenheim 1F nightfighter of 500 Squadron.

Westland Whirlwind twin-engine fighter with 263 Squadron

During its operational period through WWII Harrowbeer would be home to the Spitfire II’s of 130 Squadron, Spitfire V’s with Polish 302 Squadron followed by those of Czech 312 Squadron in 1942 and Typhoons of 193 Squadron followed by Whirlwind’s of 263 Squadron.

My own oblique relationship to Harrowbeer is linked to it when it became home to 193 Squadron flying Typhoons in December 1942, becoming a vital asset to No.10 Group tasked with defending this part of the South West from German tip and run raiders, with my Mum a WAAF plotter at RAF Exminster likely instrumental in directing their efforts in defence of the area and covered in my post from 2015, Mum’s War.

Typhoons of 193 Squadron at Harrowbeer

Additionally, with my working career seeing me doing a lot of driving in the area, I had been past the Harrowbeer site many many times and realised it had some wartime remains on it but had never previously taken the time to explore further and so our visit was an opportunity to get a better idea of this interesting former forward fighter base.

Of course on the day of our visit to the show large areas of the former base were just that, a show with plenty of traders and exhibitions surrounded by the public, enjoying the friendly atmosphere and soaking up the nostalgia.

But when we arrived, there was still lots of places to park and so I took the opportunity to check out the former blast pens whilst leaving the car in one of them.

I always enjoy seeing and chatting to military reenactors, seeing it as an important part of the historical understanding that includes the other aspects of history reading, exploring military sites and of course our own hobby of historical wargaming, and there is something enjoyable sharing the passion for a subject with folks who obviously have a deep understanding of the subject matter they are portraying.

The US Engineer, seen below, was doing an excellent job explaining about the different types of German mines that Allied troops in WWII might expect to come across, from the Riegel RMI 43 bar mine seen at the back, that I had seen the results of on a Churchill tank wreck at the Overloon War Museum in 2017, link below, to the box and glass mine booby-traps, designed to defeat mine detectors and with the wooden box able to be placed under things or wired up to doors to maim or kill the unwary.

A marvellous display of German mines used in WWII presented by a reenactor from the US 4th Division engineers

The unit represented at the show were US engineers supporting the US 4th (Ivy) Division that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day and whose engineers were encamped prior to the landings in Phear Park in Exmouth, which added a nice link to home.

The results of driving over a Riegel RMI 43 bar mine could be seen on the Churchill tank 'Jackal' that I photographed back in 2017 at the excellent Overloon War Museum
JJ's Wargames - Overloon War Museum, Holland 2017

Likewise, this part of Devon and Dartmoor would have been very familiar to the men of the 4th and 29th (Blue and Grey) Divisions who trained regularly on Dartmoor, and practiced beach landings close by at Slapton Sands and further to the north of the county at Woolacombe and Saunton Sands.

Also, noteworthy, the box and glass mine booby-traps, seen above the yellow 'Achtung! Minen! warning sign, designed to defeat mine detectors and with the wooden box able to be placed under things or wired up to doors to maim or kill the unwary and the dastardly glass mine, designed to break when trodden on with a sickening crunch, as the foot of the unfortunate victim pressed down on the detonator and explosive charge, with the glass fragments likely propelled into the body, much harder to detect and remove than the more conventional shards of metal.

Close by was a very interesting display of French post war small arms from the French colonial struggles that typified their attempts to hold on to pre-war territories, with a light machinegun I had never come across before that looked like a mash up of an MG42 and a Bren.

A French AA52 Light machine gun on its tripod, sustained fire mount

From the WWII land war, my attention was drawn to the air war with an interesting display depicting the exploits of 617 Squadron, better known as 'The Dambusters' and I had fun getting to try out the replica bomb-aimer's wooden hand held triangulation sight that was used to line up on the towers of the dams to confirm a dropping point for the bomb in conjunction with the twin spot lights pointing on to the surface of the lake water, which, when the beams conjoined indicated the best release point.

The replica ops-board, seen below, was a moving tribute to the crews who took part in the attack on the dams and attracted plenty of folks who really appreciated the freedoms we enjoy today are due in no small part to the tremendous courage and bravery of the young lads that flew that night in 1943.

The history of the airfield itself was also well represented with a covered display of maps and photographs capturing the layout of Harrowbeer in the war and the squadrons that operated from it, including 193 Squadron and their Typhoon fighter-bombers.

In one of the dispersal areas a former air raid shelter was open to public display and whilst we were there we were entertained with the running up of an Armstrong-Siddeley Cheetah radial engine used to power the Avro Ansons of 276 Squadron.

Royal Air Force Fighter Command - Personnel and aircraft of No. 276 Squadron RAF assembled at Harrowbeer, with aircraft operated by them with an Avro Anson centre-front, Supermarine Spitfire right-rear and a Supermarine Walrus floatplane left-rear.

Armstrong-Siddeley Cheetah radial engine used to power the Avro Ansons of 276 Squadron

The home front was well represented by the ladies at the top of the post who very kindly slipped off their 'comfey' modern shoes to don their more functional wartime footwear to pose for my picture, whilst pointing out the groceries of the time together with a reminder of the trauma for little ones, as children were forced to leave their homes in the city and relocate to stay with strangers in the safer parts of the country like rural Devon, complete with small suitcase, teddy-bear, toothpaste and a picture of mum.

I had to smile when I saw the groceries on display as I immediately remembered the family photograph of Dad taken during the war, sat with pals among boxes of Kellogg's Wheat Flakes, OXO stock cubes and other assorted goodies in some NAFFI store room.

Sergeant H.F. Jones R.A. , centre, with pals amid the stores, preparing for his post war career in grocery sales

Making our way past other displays, we were treated to presentations of the weapons and equipment of the regular British Army in WWII and the not so regular members of the Home Guard and Auxiliary and Special Duty Units, the latter a shadowy formation created under the threat of imminent German invasion, and a force whose very existence and purpose only came to light at the end of the nineties with the lifting of official secret restrictions in 1998.

The late war British Regular Army was well illustrated with these displays of the troops in Italy.

Similarly we were treated to a nice portrayal of WWII British Airborne forces.

It was great to see this presentation covering the role of Britain's secret forces in the shape of the Auxiliary Units, a subject matter that I covered here on JJ's in 2018 with my post covering the activities of the East Devon Units, link below.

JJ's Wargames - Churchill's Secret Army, Auxiliary and Special Duty Units

With the threat of invasion over and the need for specialist troops for service in Europe, many of these chaps from the Auxiliary Units would end up using their undoubted skills for service with the SAS, operating behind German lines in support of resistance units.

Likewise the important role of the Home Guard, treated with a comical slant in the 1970's television series, 'Dad's Army', but playing an serious important complimentary role to the regular forces, particularly in the dark days following the fall of France in May 1940 when the threat of invasion was at its height, with these men freeing up regular forces from guard and patrol duties in forward areas and able to round up German aircrew shot down during the Battle of Britain.

The improvised weaponry forced on these part-time soldiers saw a level of innovation and ingenuity that was quite impressive at times and down right scary for the operators of such equipment at others and I was very impressed to hear about the production of the homemade mortar seen below and designed as per the Home-Guard descriptions from the period.

Before moving across the airfield to the vehicle displays, we all partook of the amazing bacon rolls that were on offer at one of the the food stalls of which there were plenty to choose from, before checking out the vintage car and bike displays, with some vehicles beautifully restored and cared for but slightly disturbing as some were vehicles from my youth, which must say something about me!

Carolyn and I travelled up to the Norfolk Broads, before we were married, in one of these, a red 850cc Mini that I couldn't do anything to stop being overtaken by lorries on the motorway! That said we both have very fond memories of courting in a vehicle just like this.

My Mum used to take me to school in one of these back in the early sixties, before she went out and got a much more modern Ford Anglia  - Happy Days!

So with my trip down memory-lane complete, I was keen to see the wonderful WWII vehicles and equipment on display on the other side of the food tents and started off the late morning with a good look at the ubiquitous M2A1 US 105mm howitzer complete with ammunition display, with these weapons forming the backbone of artillery support for US divisions landing in Normandy, akin to the 25-pounder batteries that supported British divisions.

M2A1 Howitzer in action in France 1944

American soft-skins were well represented starting with this US Two and a half ton six wheel M35 Cargo truck decked out in this case in the markings of the US Navy Seabeas Construction Engineers.

Many of these heavy-lift trucks were used to create the Red Ball Express, tasked from August 25th 1944 with delivery of supplies to Allied troops in Europe from the beaches of Normandy, until the Allies were able to shorten their supply lines with the opening of the port of Antwerp in Belgium.

An M35 truck of the Red Ball Express stuck in deep mud in 1944

At one stage during the peak of operations The Red Ball Express staffed mainly by African-American soldiers operated 5958 similar vehicles that carried 12,500 tons of supplies each day often having to brave the fire from German troops bypassed by rapidly advancing forward elements of the Allied armies.

Another US two and half tonner, possibly an International design M-5H-6 variant

Alongside the large six wheelers, The US Army Quartermaster Corps developed a full and largely standardised line of tactical trucks ranging from the Willys/Ford quarter ton Jeep to the one and a half ton Chevrolet G506 Cargo truck with the intermediary half to three-quarter ton Dodge WC (Weapons Carrier) series, nicknamed 'Beeps' seen below.

Alongside their use as a transport and cargo vehicle these versatile little trucks were also used in the command, reconnaissance, radio, gun portee and ambulance role.

When it came to reconnaissance the M3 Scout Car, seen below, known as the White Scout Car in British and Commonwealth forces was a very handy, lightly armoured, reasonably fast and mobile four wheel drive vehicle used by all the Allied forces including the Russians, with just under 21,000 produced during WWII and just under 7,000 supplied to British and Commonwealth troops under lend-lease.

The Harley-Davidson WLA Motorcycle, 740cc, nicknamed the Liberator, was used by US forces during WWII with some 70,000 being produced by the company, used mainly for police, escort, courier and scouting duties.

The Ben Hur Trailer was the nickname for the US Army one-ton two-wheeled cargo trailer, seen below, that could also come in a 250-gallon water tank version as well as an electric generator carrier and was designed to be towed by the one and a half ton Chevrolet G506 Cargo truck and the Dodge Weapon Carrier.

The BSA British Folding Paratroopers Bike seen below were designed to be dropped with Paratroops to be unfolded on the ground to provide them with increased mobility, seeing 60,000 produced between 1942-45 but now incredibly rare; these bikes were used by troops including Commandoes landing at Sword Beach on D-Day to rapidly move inland to support the airborne troops around Pegasus Bridge as well as being used by 1st Airborne Division during the Arnhem operation.

British troops moving inland from Sword Beach with their folding bikes

Finally the M29 Studebaker Weasel was showing what it could do by offering rides to the public. I've included a short video clip below illustrating what a 'nippy' little tracked carrier this was.

The idea for the Weasel was the work of British inventor Geoffrey Pyke who came up with the idea of a fast light tracked vehicle for use in snow to support the commandoes of the 1st Special Service Force and a proposed operation in Norway, codename 'Project Plough', to attack Axis forces and industrial sites supporting the German nuclear weapons programme.

Nothing came of Project Plough but the Weasel continued in development and the M29 would see service with US forces in the Pacific and Europe principally as an all terrain cargo carrier with buoyancy floats added to the M29C in the Pacific to make the vehicle amphibious.

M29 Weasel in Normandy - 'St Lo Special'

In Europe the M29 would go ashore in Normandy with US troops and would be active during the breakout from St Lo through to the Battle of the Bulge and the mud of the operations to cross the Ruhr and Rhine rivers.

I must congratulate the organising team for the RAF Harrowbeer Weekend for putting on a marvellous show and would recommend checking it out on future occasions should the opportunity present.

Our visit gave Carolyn, Steve, Tom and myself a perfect excuse for driving out to the Old Inn at Widecombe in the Moor for a very pleasant lunch and associated refreshments before enjoying a leisurely drive back over the moor to Exmouth.

Next up, I'm off to the Naval Wargames Society gathering at Yeovilton to run the Bantry Bay Scenario with friends on the Sunday, so will aim to put together an AAR of our day, plus I have a book review to do and Mr Steve and I have been out exploring battlefields from the English Civil War, Wars of the Roses and before.

More anon

P.S. Continuing the WWII theme, whilst preparing this post this week we have been treated to the annual appearance of our 'Summer Spitfire' that flies from the old Fighter Command base of Exeter Airport, and bases itself in our part of the world at this time each year.

The deep sound of the Merlin engine is unmistakeable and always causes me to stop and look up, whilst out on the daily walk, and I finally managed a picture, if not exactly a close up, but the elliptical wings of, in my opinion, the most beautiful of aircraft are, like the Merlin, unmistakeable.

Such a very special sight!