Battle of Britain London Monument – F/O L G H Kells

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Privacy Statement The Airmen’s Stories – F/O L G H Kells

 

Lionel George Hosford Kells, known to all as ‘Peter’, was provisionally granted a commission in the Reserve of Air Force Officers, and began his initial training with No.4 Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School at Brough on 23rd September 1937. With this completed, he went to No.1 RAF Depot at Uxbridge on 24th November for the short disciplinary course and while there was commissioned Acting P/O on probation with effect from 24th November.

Kells did not join No.8 Course at 8 FTS Montrose until 6th January 1938. The reason is not known but the delay may have been due to ill-health.

At the end of No.8 Course on 9th July 1938 Kells was posted to No.29 (F) Squadron at Debden, a permanent station two miles south-east of Saffron Walden in Essex. No.29 Squadron, commanded by S/Ldr. RC Jonas, was equipped with the Hawker Demon (Turret) which carried an air gunner, and shared the aerodrome with 85 and 87 Squadrons, both with Gloster Gladiators. 87 Squadron, however, was just beginning to re-equip with the Hawker Hurricane Mk I and 85 Squadron followed suit in September.

On 23rd September Kells came to the end of his year of service in the RAFO but was offered a short service commission and retained on the strength of 29 Squadron.

On 24th November S/Ldr. MWS Robinson took over command of 29 Squadron, which in December began to re-equip with the Bristol Blenheim Mk If, while on 22nd January 1939 Kells’ short service commission was formally granted with the rank of P/O. S/Ldr. Robinson did not remain long with 29 Squadron, however, being replaced by S/Ldr. PS Gomez in February. Conversion to the Blenheim took about three months to complete, and the next few weeks were spent in becoming familiar with these machines. The Squadron participated in the annual Home Defence Exercises between 8th and 11th August, and then later that month the Squadron was informed that it was to re-equip with Hurricanes, these were collected by the pilots from the Hawker factory at Brooklands aerodrome in Surrey.

Within two hours of the declaration of war on 3rd September the whole of 29 Squadron was scrambled to intercept a raid reported approaching the East Anglian coast, but the report proved to be false and they were recalled. A few days later the Squadron began operating a flight from Wattisham, a Blenheim bomber base nine miles north-west of Ipswich in Suffolk, with the two flights of the squadron rotating on this duty each day.

 

Kells boarding a Blenheim I for a night sortie

 

On 9th September 85 and 87 Squadrons moved to France and 17 Squadron, also equipped with Hurricanes, moved in to Debden. Towards the end of the month 29 Squadron was informed it was to change to a night fighter role and its Hurricanes were transferred to 17 Squadron while Blenheim Mk I’s were taken on charge again. These, however, had not yet been provided with a gun pack under the fuselage, and for a while the Squadron was non-operational while these were fitted. With loss of its Hurricanes however morale on 29 Squadron slumped.

On 9th October the Hurricanes of 504 Squadron moved into Debden, and soon afterwards 29 Squadron began flying convoy escort patrols over the North Sea by day, while training after dark for its new role. This consisted in the main of patrolling over a pattern of flares laid out over a distance of some twenty-five miles, and from which the patrolling aircraft was directed by ground control on a course to attempt to intercept another Blenheim acting as a target. This system, however, was rendered impotent whenever there was low cloud or mist. It was also found that searchlights would soon lose a target aircraft and turn their attention to the pursuing fighter, blinding both the pilot and the air gunner.

As the Squadron became operational at night it began to use Martlesham Heath, one and a half miles south-west of Woodbridge in Suffolk, as a forward base for dusk and dawn patrols. From mid-December 17 and 504 Squadrons also began to use Martlesham, being stationed there alternately for periods of about a week before returning to Debden.

This routine continued until 4th April 1940 when 29 Squadron was posted to Drem, a temporary aerodrome four miles north-west of Haddington in East Lothian, and near the south bank of the Firth of Forth. Two Spitfire squadrons – 602 and 609 – were already based at Drem for daytime defence, while 29 Squadron was to provide dusk, night and dawn patrols for shipping moving in and out of the Firth of Forth. Within a few days much of this shipping consisted of troop convoys destined for Norway, which was invaded by German forces on 9th April. At about the same time S/Ldr. Gomez was posted away and S/Ldr. JS McLean took command of 29 Squadron.

On 14th April 602 Squadron moved out of Drem but was replaced the same day by 603 Squadron, also equipped with Spitfires. Then this unit moved out on 5th May, leaving 29 Squadron to share Drem with 609 Squadron.

29 Squadron returned to Debden on 10th May, the day German forces invaded the Low Countries and France. By this time 504 Squadron was the only unit stationed at Debden, but while 29 Squadron resumed its night training and placing forward detachments at Martlesham Heath, 504 Squadron moved to France on 12th May. 29 Squadron remained the sole occupants of Debden until 504 Squadron’s few Hurricanes returned from France on 21st May. On the following day, however, 504 Squadron went north for a rest, while 17 Squadron returned to Debden from Hawkinge on the Kent coast and 87 Squadron arrived from France. On 23rd May 85 Squadron also returned from France and next day 87 Squadron was posted to Yorkshire to recuperate. Then 17 Squadron moved to Kenley in Surrey on 25th May, leaving 29 and 85 Squadrons together at Debden.

Shortly afterwards 29 Squadron received its first few Blenheims equipped with Airborne Interception (AI) sets for detecting aircraft at night and began training with these, but serviceability was poor with the sets often failing soon after take-off.

On the night of 18-19th June 29 Squadron intercepted enemy aircraft for the first time when two bombers were shot down over the East Anglian coast by the Martlesham Heath detachment, one by F/O J Barnwell, the other by P/O JD Humphreys. While continuing his patrol, however, Barnwell then went missing over the North Sea, apparently shot down by another enemy aircraft. Neither Blenheim involved in these attacks carried AI sets.

17 Squadron returned to Debden on 19th June, having been in France to cover the last operations there before the final withdrawal of British troops. On the night of 25-26th June the first bombs fell on the aerodrome when an enemy raider used as a target the flarepath, which was illuminated for a Blenheim of 29 Squadron which was landing at the time. Little damage was done.

On 27th June 29 Squadron moved to Digby, a permanent station ten miles south-east of Lincoln, from where it was to defend the Midlands against the growing night attacks on this region. Digby was already occupied by 46 Squadron with Hurricanes and 611 Squadron with Spitfires, but 46 Squadron was still recovering following its operations in Norway and the loss of many pilots when the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was sunk while bringing the squadron back to Scotland.

On the night of 30th June –1st July 29 Squadron suffered another loss when the Blenheim crewed by P/O P Sisman and Sgt. A Reed crashed near Nottingham, having been caught in a searchlight beam while attacking an enemy aircraft. On 8th July S/Ldr. McLean relinquished command of 29 Squadron and S/Ldr. ER Bitmead took over as a temporary measure. Another Blenheim was damaged in the early hours of 12th July when it force-landed at Digby with undercarriage failure, but neither the pilot, P/O JRD Braham, nor the observer, Sgt. WJ Gregory, were hurt. S/Ldr. Bitmead left 29 Squadron on 14th July and two days later S/Ldr. SC Widdows arrived to take command. Morale on the Squadron was still poor and indiscipline so serious that Fighter Command had considered disbanding it but instead Widdows was posted in to restore the Squadron’s spirit.

29 Squadron moved to Digby’s satellite aerodrome at Wellingore, ten and half miles south of Lincoln, on 27th July. There, with no other units in residence, 29 Squadron was able to concentrate on night operations while leaving Digby clear for day patrols. Major maintenance of the Blenheims was still carried out at Digby, however. Wellingore Grange, a mansion of Jacobean origins, was taken over as the officers’ mess.

On the last day of July, 29 Squadron suffered another loss when a Blenheim on detachment to St.Athan, Glamorganshire, for AI tests collided over the Bristol Channel with a Blenheim of 25 Squadron. Sgt.s E Waite and CJ Richardson and a technician from No.32 Maintenance Unit were all lost. That same day a Blenheim was damaged while landing at Wellingore, the pilot having forgotten to lower the undercarriage, but neither of the crew were hurt.

From early August 29 Squadron began to maintain a detachment of two Blenheims at Ternhill, a permanent station in Shropshire, to cover the industrial North-West by night. At the same time 611 Squadron began maintaining a detachment there by day.

It was from Ternhill that 29 Squadron had its first success since June when P/O RA Rhodes, with Sgt. WJ Gregory, shot down a He111 off the Lincolnshire coast early in 18th August after a two-hour chase. Again, the Blenheim involved carried no AI set.

Kells was promoted to Flying Officer on 22nd August, and that same day a Blenheim crewed by Sgt. AJA Roberts and P/O PA Tomlinson was struck by lightning while on an afternoon AI test. The aircraft was able to return to Wellingore and neither of the crew were hurt.

Without the assistance of AI, P/O Braham and Sgt. AA Wilsdon destroyed a Dornier Do17 over the Humber area on the night of 24-25th August but later on the following evening an AI-equipped Blenheim, L1330, crashed into the sea off Lincolnshire while on patrol and P/O RA Rhodes, Sgt. RJ Gouldstone and AC2 N Jacobson were all lost.

At Digby 29 Squadron received its first Bristol Beaufighter Mk If on 2nd September. This was also equipped with AI, and after a couple of weeks of test-flying this aircraft, S/Ldr. Widdows took it on its first operational patrol on the night of 17th September. Five days earlier 29 Squadron had also begun to maintain a detachment at Collyweston, three miles south-west of Stamford, Northamptonshire, to guard the approaches to Birmingham and Coventry.

On 21st September a Blenheim struck a floodlight when landing at Ternhill after a dusk patrol but neither Sgt. VH Skillen nor Sgt. DW Isherwood were injured. A week later, on the evening of 28th September, P/O J Buchanan and Sgt. GA Waller escaped injury and returned to base after their Blenheim was hit by anti-aircraft fire while on patrol. By this time the Squadron had received a few more Beaufighters, but most operations were still being carried out with Blenheims.

P/O Buchanan had another escape on the afternoon of 12th October when an engine on his Blenheim failed soon after taking off from Wellingore for an air test and he crash-landed. Early on the evening of 13th October two AI-equipped Blenheims were airborne from Ternhill when they were mistakenly attacked by Hurricanes of 312 (Czechoslovakian) Squadron. The Blenheim crewed by Sgt. RE Stevens, Sgt. OK Sly and AC2 A Jackson was shot down into Morecambe Bay and all three men were lost. The aircraft piloted by F/O JD Humphreys only suffered slight damage and returned to Ternhill with no injuries to the crew.

Two evenings later a Do17 dropped a single large bomb on Ternhill aerodrome. It struck a hangar, demolishing it and destroying one of 29 Squadron’s Blenheims inside and slightly damaged another. F/O Humphreys was again involved when the Blenheim he was piloting crashed when landing, but neither he, the air gunner, nor the AI operator were hurt. On the evening of 29th October Sgt. AJA Roberts hit a tree when taking off from Digby for an air test in a Blenheim and forced-landed near the aerodrome without injury.

On the night of 1st November a Blenheim flown by F/Lt. AM Campbell, ‘B’ Flight commander, was fired on by the Birmingham anti-aircraft defences while that city was under attack; the Blenheim was thrown about by some near misses but was not hit, and returned safely.

Early in November the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, concerned about the lack of success by the night fighters, appealed to Bomber Command for some experienced pilots to be transferred on loan to Fighter Command. As a result, on the afternoon of 13th November F/Lt. GP Gibson (who later as Wing Commander Guy Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross on 24th May 1943 for his leadership during an attack on the Mohne and Eder dams) arrived at Wellingore Grange to replace the commander of ‘A,’ Flight. Feeling insulted by these circumstances, several officers refused to acknowledge Gibson and the most extreme reaction was by Kells who walked out and slammed the door.

On the night of 14th November the German Air Force launched a massive attack on Coventry by some 450 bombers, but only two were intercepted by night fighters. One of these was attacked by Kells, flying a Blenheim from Collyweston; he saw an He111 pass beneath him near Swaffham, Norfolk, at 23.55 hours and gave chase as it flew towards the coast, opened fire when within range but saw no results before the Heinkel disappeared.

While on patrol on the night of 17th November, S/Ldr. Widdows’ Beaufighter suffered engine failure and he forced-landed near Sleaford without injury to himself or P/O LD Wilson, the AI operator. On the following night Sgt. S Stokoe had just landed when his Blenheim caught fire, but he and his crew were able to get out unharmed before the aircraft was burnt out.

Soon afterwards Kells was posted from 29 Squadron to 248 (Coastal Fighter) Squadron at Sumburgh, a temporary station one and half miles north-west of Sumburgh Head on the Shetland Islands. The aerodrome, which was bordered by the sea on the north, east and south sides, was controlled by No. 18 Group, Coastal Command, under which 248 Squadron operated with the Blenheim Mk IVf, mainly on reconnaissance patrols off the Norwegian coast.

On 13th December seven Blenheims of 248 Squadron took off from Sumburgh to establish a detachment at Wick, on the Caithness coast. As they joined formation the aircraft piloted by P/O JD Dodd and Sgt. JS Hamilton collided and crashed into the sea with the loss of both crews and four groundcrews being carried as passengers. Three days later another Blenheim was written off when it hit an obstruction when landing at Dyce.

A detachment of Hurricanes from 3 Squadron arrived at Sumburgh on 2nd January 1941, but four days later 248 Squadron moved to Dyce, a requisitioned civil aerodrome five miles north-west of Aberdeen. Two other units were based at Dyce, 111 Squadron with Hurricanes, and 612 Squadron of Coastal Command, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk V’s. Remaining under 18 Group, 248 Squadron’s main role continued to be patrols off the Norwegian coast. On 10th January a Blenheim was damaged beyond repair when it crashed at Dyce, and a month later, on 10th February, a Blenheim and its crew failed to return from a patrol over the North Sea.

At some point in December Kells was posted as a test pilot to Boscombe Down. Whether this was at his own instigation is not known.

On 21st February 1941 he took off in Hurricane Mk II Z2398 for a high-altitude test flight, connected with petrol-heating trials. It seems that the aircraft must have vanished, perhaps going into the sea, as Kells was posted ‘Missing’. He is commemorated on Panel 30 of the Runnymede Memorial.

 

Bruce Burton 2003

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