Several squadrons of 38 Wing Airborne Forces occupied RAF Stoney Cross from June 1943 until March 1944. Following the departure of the Army Co-operation Squadrons the airfield was assigned to the fledgling Airborne Forces specialising in paratrooper dropping and glider towing aircraft. The first of the Airborne Forces to arrive were Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle Mk1s and Mk2s of 296 Squadron in June 1943. They didn’t stay long moving to North Africa at the end of that month to take part in the invasion of Sicily. The Albemarle was an unusual aircraft being assembled by AW Hawksley Ltd from bits supplied by over 1000 subcontractors. It was intended to be a replacement for the Wellington medium bomber but never served in that role as the design was compromised by substituting steel for aluminium. However they were successful troop carrying and glider tug aircraft.
Any account of 296 Squadron must mention Squadron Leader Leonard Archer who was a flight commander during those early days at Stoney Cross. Leonard Archer survived the war with the rank of acting Wing Commander and his DSO citation stated that he had taken part in every major airborne operation that took place during the war. This was quite an achievement.
In August, No 297 Squadron moved into Stoney Cross equipped with Whitley Mk5 and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle aircraft – 296 and 297 Squadrons were the first Airborne Forces Squadrons to be formed.
The Airborne Forces personnel wore the famous Pegasus sleeve badge designed by the novelist, Daphne Du Maurier. Her husband was Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning who was the first commander of the 1st. Airborne Brigade. It is also understood that she proposed the colour maroon for the beret worn by the Airborne Forces who are still known as the ‘Red Berets’.
297 Squadron stayed at Stoney Cross until 14 March 1944. It became known as the Parachute Exercise Squadron. Their first offensive operation was with three Whitley aircraft dropping a small detachment of No.12 Commando in a raid on St Valerie in Northern France. Two of the Whitleys caused a diversion whilst the third dropped the commandos. The troops made their escape after completing their mission and crossed the Channel in a Motor Torpedo Boat.
One of the 297 Squadron pilots was Reg Trim who was a professional footballer of some note having played for AFC Bournemouth and after the war with Derby County. On being asked about his time in the RAF he always said he couldn’t remember anything as his memory had gone after spending many years ‘heading’ leather footballs!
On 21 December 1943 a training accident (Parachute drop) occurred in which an Albemarle of 297 squadron flew into a hillside during bad weather. The Station flying log book report (AIR 27/1648) for the incident stated:-
The first aircraft of 297 squadron was to drop at 03:00 hours and the other aircraft at 2 minutes intervals. The weather conditions were far from ideal – there were a number of shower clouds about – but despite this, the exercise was carried out and quite successfully considering the conditions. The moon was obscured by cloud and the navigators had difficulty pinpointing their position. Unfortunately, one aircraft pilot Flight Sgt Jubb crashed when making the run to the rendezvous (Ludgershall, near Salisbury) at a position where there was low cloud. Of the six R.A.F. personnel, all were killed outright except one who was critically injured, and eight of the ten paratroopers carried were killed, the remaining two being badly injured. Upon returning to base, the 4th aircraft crash landed on the runway, with the result that the runway had to be changed and the last aircraft did not land until nearly 05:00 hours. Consequently 110 troops of the 8th Parachute battalion were dropped in the drop zone as well as 10 troops of the independent parachute company. Night flying time – 25.40 Hours.
The special forces roll of honour lists the parachutists as Pte Capon, Cpl Firkins, Pte Hill, Pte Jones, Pte Jukes, Pte Rogers, Sgt Wilkes and Pte Wotton all of 8th Battalion parachute regiment. The Operations record book of RAF Stoney Cross (AIR 28/724) stated:-
21.12 One of the Albemarle aircraft of 297 squadron crashed into a hillside while taking part in Exercise “Try Again” . Five members of the crew, Flight Sgt Jubb G.W. (captain), Flying Officer Jones L.V. (Navigator), Sgt Drakeford C.H., Sgt Hughes J.F. and Flight Sgt Russell C, on special duty were killed.
During this early period and the build up towards D-Day the US Army built a glider assembly plant at the Ocknell end of Stoney Cross. There they assembled the Waco Hadrian glider that had been transported across the Atlantic with each glider requiring five crates. These wooden crates were later prized by the USAAF fighter bomber ground crew who used them to built huts close to the aircraft dispersals so they could take short breaks whilst working non-stop servicing aircraft during the invasion of Europe. The Hadrian Waco (pictured below) could carry 13 troops and their equipment. Cargo loads could be a quarter ton truck (Jeep), a 75 mm howitzer, or a ¼ ton trailer, loaded through the upward-hinged nose section. Once assembled these gliders were towed to other airfields.
Due to the expansion of the role of the Airborne Forces, 297 Squadron divided up with ‘A’ Flight remaining at Stoney Cross as 297 Squadron, whilst ‘B’ Flight moved to Tarrant Rushton, Dorset as the beginnings of 298 Squadron. ‘C’ Flight stayed on at Stoney Cross and became 299 Squadron. which was equipped initially with Lockheed Ventura aircraft, known affectionately as the Flying Pig because of its bulky appearance, but soon replaced by the Short Stirling GT4 aircraft which was superior for the role.
It soon became evident that Stoney Cross with its long concrete runways and 80 plus dispersals suitable for large aircraft was ideal for Airborne Forces training involving gliders. The close proximity to the Airspeed factory at Christchurch was also ideal, as Airspeed manufactured the Horsa glider which could carry 30 men or a jeep and six pounder field gun. Many exercises were carried out and some Airborne Units were billeted in camps and large houses nearby. One unit accommodated near Minstead had a Horsa fuselage on the village green to practice loading and unloading! In between training both 297 and 299 Squadrons were used to drop supplies to resistance groups in occupied Europe.
Some very early tests of the massive Hamilcar glider were carried out at Stoney Cross. These gliders could carry heavy equipment and a total of 344 were built at the staggering cost of £50,000 each. However, their success was limited as they were only used on three occasions, and only in support of British airborne forces. The gliders proved to be successful in all three operations, although their slow speed and large size made them easy targets for anti-aircraft fire, which resulted in a number of gliders being damaged or destroyed.
In March 1944 these Squadrons moved a little further inland and Stoney Cross was handed over to the 9th USAAF in readiness for D-Day.