Tag Archives: Westhampnett

Back to David Denchfield

I read an article in West Sussex Today that stated that the authors of Westhampnett at War had discovered David Denchfield after stumbling across a piece in the newspaper.

Although a direct search on The Telegraph didn’t initially yield any matches, I picked my way through a few forum threads and think that I have now found the original article. It’s a good read and adds some additional information to the account published in the book:

Britain at War: Taken prisoner by the Germans after crashing my plane

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The lesser evil

Cologne in 1945

 

 

The next series of posts will relate to the outcomes of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive in Europe. I’ve segmented the analysis into three topics: How did they do it- both in the moral and the operational sense? What were the results? How is it remembered and recorded?

In the early phases of the war, all raids were directed against military targets. As it became increasingly apparent that it was not possible to attack such specific destinations with precision, the campaign was shifted to area bombing.

Operation Millennium

In 1942 , Sir Arthur Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt. He approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city.

Final orders were ready on 26 May with the full moon approaching. The force stood ready, waiting for the weather. His first choice of target was Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany and a great port. But the weather over Germany was unfavourable for three days running and, on 30 May, Harris decided to send the bombers to his second target choice – Cologne, the third largest city in Germany. Soon after noon on that day, the order to attack Cologne went out to the groups and squadrons and the raid took place that night.

The moral reckoning

The raid was deemed a great success, with devastating fires and casualties fueling the Allied propaganda machine. But not all agreed…

A report was sent to the Air Ministry analysing a sample of civilian letters opened by the censor after the raid: “There are those who are pleased, and those who regret that so much suffering should have to be inflicted.” (Hastings 216).

Distinguished military thinker Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote a private reflection (219):

“It will be ironical if the defenders of civilization depend for victory upon the most barbaric, and unskilled, way of winning a war that the modern world has seen…it should be a sobering thought that but for Hitler’s folly in attacking Russia we and the Germans would now be ‘Cologning’ each other’s cities with the advantage on Germany’s side, in this mad competition in mutual devastation…”

Many of Britain’s churchmen supported the bomber offensive. The Archbishop of York wrote in 1943 “Often in life, there is no clear choice between absolute right and wrong; frequently the choice has to be made of the lesser of two evils, and it is a lesser evil to bomb a war-loving Germany than to sacrifice the lives of our fellow country-men who long for peace, and to delay delivering millions now held in slavery”.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (in the heart of 11 Group Territory and only a few miles from Westhampnett, where our story began) was unable to accept this compromise. He addressed the House of Lords in 1944:

“The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is ‘Law’. It is of supreme importance that we, who, with our Allies, are the Liberators of Europe, should so use power that it is always under the control of law.”

Revd. John Collins was Chaplain at Bomber Command. He was also a permanent thorn in the side of authority. After the war he wrote:

“Bomber Command Headquarters was perhaps the most soul-destroying, the most depressing of the places…which I had been to serve. For there, in contrast with the natural beauty of the surroundings, the evil…policy of the carpet bombing of German cities was planned.”

How to navigate this moral battlefield?  In so many ways, little seems to have changed. The news this evening leads with more strategic air strikes on Libya. After months of highly technical precision bombing and enforcement of the ‘no fly zone’, Quadafi remains in power. And there is dismay that the airforce hasn’t yet finished the job.

History now seems uncertain about how to understand what happened from 1942 and how to reconcile the moral disgrace of the destruction with the youthful, extraordinarily brave aircrew. It explains why there are still so many people passionately campaigning for a permanent memorial- and why one has yet to be created.

A view looking up

The last word on this thought goes to Germany.

Klaus Schmit recorded the stories of Darmstadt, a town ferrociously bombed towards the end of war:

“At the turn of the century, I travelled through Germany’s towns, and each one had its own soul and face. Shortly before the war I ventured again through the same towns, and it seemed that their souls and faces were gone, as if they were dead in themselves. Now, as I walk through the ruins of the same towns, I am overcome by the terrible awareness that they have fulfilled the promise that was made before the war. Instead of living corpses they have become truly dead ones.”


Holding course

Looking back at the original post, where I define our objective as understanding more about the unspoken history of our Grandfather’s role in the War, we seem to have strayed a rather long way off topic.

To use a flying analogy (sorry), I’d like to think that we are circling over the target rather than veering hopelessly off course.

Before I could start to really think about Grandpa, we needed to gather more context. How could we understand his circumstances without first gaining a broader understanding of the wider picture?

The Battle of Britain marks the first major air-engagement for England and was a logical starting point. As previously noted, to gather the widest view, we’ve been looking at histories, biographies, visiting airfields etc.

This early effort has started to build up the knowledge base, but it then opened up a new question: how does one record history?

If I was a history academic, this question would have been exposed and dealt with during an undergraduate degree (thanks to all those post-modernists), but as an amateur, it’s a troubling matter.

How do you get to the core meaning of any event? Surely facts alone can’t tell a story (look, for example at Westhampnett at War. It gives a list of Squadrons who were based there, but the meaning of the book comes from the long letter of a veteran written many decades later).

This tension is well-represented by Park and Leigh-Mallory. Park, unrecorded in the official history of the Battle, had a bronze statue unveiled in his honour 70 years later. Leigh-Mallory, celebrated and promoted in his short life-time now stands as a political climber who misplayed his hand.

The challenge will come in both interpreting the information we find and in transcribing the facts into our own history.


Letter from Sergeant David Denchfield

A letter, written by Sergeant David Denchfield of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, is the heart of Westhampnett at War.

Denchfield describes life at Weshampnett and his crash and capture on 5 February 1941. The letter is too long to quote fully, but a few excerpts offer the atmosphere:

“I was on readiness, when mid-morning the Commanding Officer popped his head into ‘B’ flight to say ‘released from 13:00 to 9:00 tomorrow morning’. As we all gave vent to various sounds of appreciation, he then smiled and said ‘that’s after we get back from St.Omer. Take off at 12:00’.

***

There followed a fairly basic briefing. We would follow 302 to Rye, climb up through the 10/10th cloud to about 15, 000 ft and join up with the 7 other fighter squadrons, where we would be top but one (having Tangermere’s 65 above us). The whole shooting match would then escort 12 Blenheims to St Omer, where they would cause great alarm and despondency with their 250lb bombs.

***

We broke into brilliant sunshine and climbed to our angels 15, by which time we were orbiting Rye and waiting for the off. The strange thing was, I could see no aircraft above us. Weirdly the cloud over England ended at the coast in an almost vertical cliff edge, leaving the skies over the Channel and France completely cloudless.  The Channel to the east looked ridiculously narrow and the skies over the snow clad French landscape were broodingly ominous. As usual, the sun glare out of the clear blue made looking to the southeast difficult. God only knows what nasties were moving into its hidey-hole and as we circled Rye for a good 5 minutes at least, we certainly gave them plenty of time to get ready for us. I guess, like me, that the others had their gun sights switched ‘on’, their gun firing buttons turned to ‘fire’ and their hoods slid back for better visibility…and I bet they were sweating cobs too.”

The story continues with an attack that riddles his Spitfire with bullets, mangling the port wingtip and draining the fuel tank. He drops to 6,000 feet, sees the Channel and watches the retreating Blenheims pass overhead, on their way home and “going like the Devil.” He realises that he won’t make it back to England and with the cockpit full of fuel, it’s impossible to put the plane down. He bales out, losing his boot in the process and ends up in a coverless field in France. Within moments, he is confronted by German officers:

“…as I stood up the one with the gun said ‘For you the war is over’ (and I thought they only said that in things like ‘Hotspur’ and ‘Magnet’. We live and learn.)

It was all very friendly and we walked as a small group down to the opening they’d come through…We got into the Ford V8 they’d arrived in and drove, perhaps 400 yard to where the remains of my poor ‘P’ were smoking.

…we drove to the airfield at St Omer [where] a load of about 12 Luftwaffe pilots came to attention in front of me and then saluted. Of course I had to reciprocate. At that time there was a fair degree of mutual respect between us, mirroring WWI.

Anyway, I was treated with extreme courtesy…I was introduced to the pilot who had shot me down, Major Oeseau, who became one of the top scoring pilots before losing his life in 1944. We spoke for a couple of minutes and then I signed his cigarette case for him to have engraved over.”

He then relates his transfer to a Polish POW camp for the remainder of the war and sadly recalls that of his immediate friends, none lasted past September 1941.

Denchfield himself survived. His family returns to France every year to visit the grave of his friend, Billy Raine, who was killed only 5 miles from where his own Spitfire went down.

The book includes a photo of Denchfield in 2009, neatly dressed in a cardigan, walking stick in hand, leaning on the wing of Goodwood’s Harvard. He looks quite tough and like a bit of a trouble maker- somebody’s slightly cantankerous grandfather.

After all that happened, not only does he willingly record it in a letter for publication but happily re-visits the airfield and gets back into a plane. I wonder what makes the difference between a war story that is re-told a thousand times and one that is never spoken.


Westhampnett at War

Westhampnett at War is researched and written by three current pilots who fly out of Goodwood.

It’s an attentively compiled book with good, original sources. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of several pilots’ letters, which I’ll quote in a separate entry.

The authors’ review of the airfield is mainly delivered through descriptions of key squadrons who were based there. This provides detailed information, but perhaps lacks the narrative drive of an account delivered by a professional writer. There were a few instances where I was desperate to grab a red pen and thrash a bit of life into the copy.

As a reference point though, it’s very useful for painting a picture of Goodwood’s transformation from a graceful country estate into a mucky airfield.

I was struck by the level of discomfort that they lived in (camping out in barns in the middle of winter and struggling through mud and snow to attend to their planes).

The list of references and websites give helpful leads for anyone wishing to delve further (particularly into the famous 610 Squadron).

This is an earnestly written book, which is surely driven by keen interest and a wish to ensure that “the contribution made by those who worked and flew from here should never be forgotten” (143).  I admire the effort of the authors and recommend the book- although if possible, read the book first and then visit Goodwood. With a bit of knowledge in hand, the remaining landmarks and existing airfield take on a whole new life.


Goodwood to Westhampnett

Having gathered an excellent oversight of the Battle of Britain from Bungay, I decided to unpick particular threads from the story and look at them from different angles, including:

  • Biographies (of pilots, commanders-in chief etc)
  • Locations and individual squadrons (particular airfields)
  • Autobiographies
I settled on an investigation of 11 Group.
11 Group’s most famous period was during the Battle of Britain when, due to its position along the south coast, it  bore the brunt of the German aerial assault. Their sectors stretched from Debden (North East of London) to just beyond Portsmouth in the West.
During the ‘Phoney War’ (the months following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany  in September 1939 and preceding the Battle of France in May 1940) it was figured that 12 Group (whose territory covered England’s East coast) would face the most difficult fight. Once France had fallen and the Luftwaffe had established themselves in the North of the country, the route to London and many other important targets, instead took the battle directly to 11 Group. Pilots posted to these squadrons knew that they would be sent into certain action.
In contemplating this fragment of history, I started with a particular airfield.
Westhampnett in West Sussex began as an emergency landing field for the sector station at Tangmere. It became an important airfield in its own right and was a base for 41 permanent squadrons between 1940 and 1946.
Although not the most famous airfield, it has a very unique attribute, which couldn’t help but catch my attention: it still exists. So many former airfields are now boarded up, sold off or converted into museums- but Westhampnett is populated with a buzzing, active aerodrome. Part of the lovely Goodwood Estate, the sky is full of planes and pilots. New aviators gain their wings through the Flying School and hangarage and maintenance are provided for many aircraft.
Of course they are there under very different auspices from 1940, but it’s marvelous to contemplate the neatly kept grass runways , to listen to the rattle of props firing up, to watch a succession of planes departing out across the Channel. I’m trying to figure it out definitively, but by my reckoning, it is the only active Battle of Britain airfield that remains on the south coast.
A bit of imagination brings the past to life and that makes Goodwood such a fascinating stop on this journey.