Two tactical air forces were given the role of providing air support to the invasion of Europe in 1944. The task was split between the 2nd Tactical Air Force RAF and the 9th United States Army Air Force. Due to its proximity to the coast Stoney Cross was transferred to the 9th USAAF and was redesignated American Air Field 452 and became home to the 367th Fighter Group. The 367th Fighter Group was one of many fighter groups raised specifically for the D Day invasion and beyond. It became known as the ‘Dynamite Gang’ after their air traffic controller ‘Dynamite Donavan’ who guided in many a damaged aircraft and wounded pilot.
The Group was formed in mid July at Hamilton Field in the San Francisco Bay area of California. In early March 1944 the 367th set off by train to New York to embark on the “Duchess of Bedford” a Canadian Pacific Liner converted to a troop ship for the voyage across the Atlantic. At this time their destination was unknown as was the type of aircraft they would fly. The “Drunken Duchess” as the ship was known berthed at Greenock in Scotland on April 3 1944. There the group boarded a train for the journey south arriving at Ashurst station where they were picked up by trucks and taken to Stoney Cross.
On the way to Stoney Cross the pilots learnt that they were to fly the twin engine Lockheed P38 Lightning rather than the hoped for Mustang. So far all their flying experience had been with single engine aircraft and they had less than one month to be ready for combat missions in their new planes, or “ships” as they called them. The ground crew were equally unimpressed as some of the aircraft were very tired having been passed on from other units and required engine changes as did the brand new planes which had been flown across the Atlantic. It was hardly ideal preparation for the biggest seaborne invasion in world history.
The ground crew worked night and day to prepare the aircraft and utilised the packing cases from the glider factory, which was based on the airfield, to built wooden huts to live in close to the aircraft dispersal bays. Some of these were magnificent and better than the Nissen huts!
After every engine change and upgrade each plane was test flown by an experienced pilot. On April 11 1944 a week after arriving at Stoney Cross, Jimmy Peck took a P38 up on test flight. On coming in to land one of his engines cut out and his plane stalled crashing into the perimeter track on the Fritham side of the airfield. He didn’t survive the crash and morale among the pilots slumped.
Jimmy Peck had originally applied to join the US Army Air Corps but was considered to be unsuitable and rejected. Following this rejection he crossed the border into Canada and was accepted by the RAF for pilot training. Following postings to Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons in the UK he was sent to Malta where he was awarded the DFC. When the USA joined the war he was transferred to the USAAF in North Africa also flying Spitfires. There he met Jack Reed who became his closest friend. A copy of Major Jack Reed’s diary covering his time at Stoney Cross can be viewed by clicking here – it is perhaps the most definitive account of events at the airfield both before and after D Day.
Two more aircraft were lost on landing during the following days after Peck’s crash and confidence in the aircraft dropped. However, Lockheed’s chief test pilot Tony Levier was in the UK and he agreed to give a flying display over Stoney Cross in the latest version of the P38. On the 24 April He did a display over the aerodrome putting the P38 through every possible manoeuvre and then did it again on only one engine! The pilots’ morale soared and they all wanted to fly like Tony!
In the few weeks leading up to D Day the Group lost a further five pilots. Although the actual date of the invasion was kept secret it was fairly obvious by all the activity within the New Forest that it was imminent. On June 3 1944, pots of black and white paint arrived and the ground crew were instructed to paint black and white stripes on the aircraft. These are known as D Day Stripes and were to aid ground gunners in identifying friendly aircraft.
The morning of D Day, 6 June 1944, started off no differently from others. The ground crew who had worked non stop for well over 24 hours, slept through the continuous hum of Allied invasion aircraft passing overhead from other airfields which seemed never ending. The commanding officer at Stoney Cross subsequently wrote of the night of June 6 1944, “This was the day we had all been waiting for – planes by the hundreds took off and landed at our field from dusk until dawn”. The 367th carried out patrols giving air cover to the ground troops on the Normandy beaches for the first few days and then on June 10 commenced air attacks on strategic targets on the Normandy peninsula. Their luck held for the first few days but on the 17 June they lost two pilots in a dogfight.
On June 18 the Fighter Group had a VIP visit from Air Vice Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory. He came to thank the Dynamite Gang for the low level air support they had given during the Invasion. The P38 was used extensively for low level missions as its distinctive shape was easily identified by allied anti aircraft gunners. But the down side was the same ease of identification applied to the Germans too!
The worst mission they flew during their time at Stoney Cross was on the 22 June. Forty eight planes set off to attack Cherbourg which was being held by the Germans at all costs. Of the 48 aircraft only 13 remained capable of flying at the end of the day and seven pilots were killed. The 367th were stood down the following day to enable repairs to be done. On the 24 June, 73 aircraft took off again on two separate raids.
As the Allies pushed on through France the various air force units needed to be closer to the front. On 6 July 1944 the Dynamite Gang moved to nearby Ibsley airfield in the New Forest for a few weeks allowing Stoney Cross to host three bomber squadrons. The 367th moved to France on the 22 July. They were in action for exactly 365 days and lost 77 pilots which averaged one every 4½ days.