THE OTHER ENEMY
The Luftwaffe was not the only enemy as the so-called ‘Phoney War’ continued into the new year; the weather also wrought havoc this winter in England’s northeast.
The first serious snows had fallen in November 1939, which made flying difficult. After one particularly heavy dumping, snow ploughs were brought out and every available hand at the station was issued a spade or similar tool and put to work clearing a usable landing strip. After much sweat and effort, a single runway was cleared, which was lined with large mounds of shovelled snow. It was intersected at various points with entry and exit paths leading to the perimeter track and dispersals areas.
It was a bitterly cold winter throughout the United Kingdom and at the beginning of January 1940 the country experienced its coldest conditions since 1894, the thermometer falling below 0°F in many places. The Thames froze over at Kingston, lochs froze up in Scotland, and ice covered stretches of the Humber, Mersey and Severn. The southeast suffered its heaviest snowfall for forty years.
On the Continent, the icy conditions stretched from Scandinavia to Italy. France reported it was their coldest winter since 1917 and several people died of the cold in Italy, the temperature falling in Milan in late January 1940 to 14°F. Even on the other side of the Atlantic, Washington DC bemoaned the fall of 15 inches of snow, whilst Richmond, Virginia, experienced the heaviest snowfall in over 30 years.
RAF Catterick, too, was hit with heavy snows in late January. Seven inches were dumped on the aerodrome on the 22nd of the month, and more snowfall followed on the 26th and 27th. As a result, the airfield was closed on 27 January, and all operations were cancelled until the end of the month.
Plt Off ‘Wally’ Wallens recalled the difficulties facing him and his fellow pilots in the snow;
“It was a very dodgy operation, taking off and landing in such conditions, particularly with the Spitfires having such restricted visibility when taxying [sic], ploughing about in clouds of snow, pilots not knowing whether they were on or off the runway.
[…] Landing on packed snow in bright sunlight could be very tricky as, like landing an amphibian on still, glassy water, one’s judgement of height could be so affected that one might hold off much too high or virtually fly into the deck with a resounding thump.”(1)
On 29 January, two runways were cleared for emergency flying by 400 men from the Catterick Army Camp and, on 1 February, 219 Squadron’s Blenheims were permitted to fly again; permission for 41 Squadron’s Spitfires followed a day later. The weather did not, however, improve a great deal into the first weeks of February and flying was kept to a minimum. Flt Sgt ‘Shippy’ Shipman recalled the monotony of this lack of activity,
“There were many long hours of waiting and thinking. One read books and played cards until one was sick of both. Boredom was the immediate enemy, and sleep was often the result. We had one young pilot officer who became so irritable, angry and tensed up that he did nothing but pace up and down by himself; he was almost a nervous wreck. Another pilot went down with an ulcer.”(2)
[Excerpt from my “Blood, Sweat and Courage” (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission.
Quotes: (1) "Flying Made My Arms Ache"; Sqn Ldr R. W. ‘Wally’ Wallens, DFC, retd., 1990, Self Publishing Association Ltd; (2) "One of ‘The Few’; The Memoirs of Wing Commander Ted ‘Shippy’ Shipman AFC", John Shipman, 2008, Pen & Sword. Image © Swanwick family.]
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