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Library Reference Number: 183

Wartime Landing In Fog-Bound Britain

Jim Vallance, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

After my initial RAF training in UK I was sent over to Canada like many others, to undertake further flying training free from interruptions by enemy aircraft. I eventually qualified as a Navigator at Air Navigation School. On returning to UK, no time was wasted in becoming involved in operational flying and I flew in Wellington and Lancaster aircraft, undertaking bombing operations over Germany.

It gives some indication of the density of fog-bound Britain, when London was frequently referred to colloquially as “The Big Smoke” and it was no exaggeration to say a person could sometimes not see his hand at the end of an outstretched arm. It therefore takes little imagination to understand the difficulty of tired and exhausted aircrew returning to UK, and attempting to land safely when they could not even see or locate the runway. During World War Two, the clean air legislation had not been introduced and fog encountered by returning aircrews was costing lives. While flying with 90 Squadron, a system known as FIDO was brought into use.

Before the introduction of FIDO, fog had been responsible for losses of a number of aircraft returning from operations. Often large areas of the UK would be simultaneously fog-bound and it was recommended procedure in these situations for the pilot to point the aircraft towards the sea and then, while still over land, for the crew to bail-out by parachute, leaving the aircraft to subsequently crash in the sea. With raids often consisting of several hundred aircraft, this could amount to a large loss of bombers. This situation was also wasteful in terms of losing trained, experienced aircrew, where a successful parachute landing was not always completed without injury.

FIDO stood for “Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation” or sometimes referred to as “Fog Intense Dispersal Operation” and came into operation when fog prevented Allied aircraft from landing safely. The device consisted of two pipelines situated along both sides of the runway and through which a fuel, usually, petrol from the airfield's own fuel supply, was pumped along and then out through burner jets positioned at intervals along the pipelines. It had been known for kerosene to have also been used. The vapours were lit from a series of burners, producing walls of flame. The FIDO installation usually stored its fuel in four circular upright tanks built at the edge of the airfield with a low brick bound wall in case of leakage. The tanks were usually encased in ordinary brickwork as protection from bomb splinters or cannon fire.

The system worked by igniting the petrol so that the heat generated dispersed the fog. It allowed aircraft to land in fog and snow but used enormous amounts of fuel. The system contained 500,000 gallons of petrol when full.

When lit in a combined wind, low stratus and drizzle situation, FIDO was capable of clearing the runway up to 300 feet, with the wind carrying the clearance zone out into the approach. With FIDO, pilots could land safely in these bad conditions but were required to fly an oval orbit and beam approach procedure.

While flying Lancasters with No.90 Squadron based at RAF Tuddenham, Suffolk, we had ample experience of the FIDO system. Even in poor visibility, the massive glow from the flames could be seen many miles away and was a comforting sight. We were guided down individually into the installation, and when touching down it was like entering a well-lit tunnel, even if the visibility outside was almost nil. It was certainly much preferable to abandoning one's aircraft by parachute as had been the old solution of dense fog obscuring the runway at base.

One unrehearsed incident occurred towards the end of 1944, when one of our aircraft was about to take-off on an operation. For no apparent reason other than human error, it swung across the runway, trundling over the FIDO equipment, coming to a full stop off the runway with ambulances and fire tenders in full pursuit. The crew was immediately given another aircraft, with the task of catching up with the others who by this time had set off and were well on course. The crew was fortunate that the FIDO system had not been in flame-burning mode.

The post-war Clean Air Act made a huge difference in post-war Britain, but before this, air pollution, fog and smog had been the cause of many accidents on roads. This also had disastrous effect on returning Allied aircraft with perhaps tired and injured aircrew, attempting to find a runway sometimes with a badly damaged plane.

No. 90 Squadron had been disbanded in February 1942, but re-formed in November 1942, as a heavy-bomber squadron equipped with Stirlings, and subsequently made a significant contribution to the Battle of the Ruhr, the missions over Hamburg and the famous raid on Peenemunde. It also did a great deal of minelaying. In May/June 1944, No.90 exchanged its Stirlings for Lancasters and with these continued to play a prominent part in Bomber Command's offensive until late April 1945. Between January 1943 (when changing to Stirlings) and 22nd April 1945, members of No.90 Squadron earned 6 DSOs; 123 DFCs; one bar to a DFC; 1 CGM; 1 AFC and 33 DFMs.

No.90 Squadron's last operational mission in World War Two was on 22nd April 1945 when 12 Lancasters bombed Bremen. After flying operations with Nos. 90 and 207 Squadrons, I took part in a different type of last mission before VE Day, when on 7th may 1945 17 Lancasters dropped supplies to Dutch people at The Hague. An estimated 20,000 people had died of starvation in Holland at this time, some trying to survive on eating tulip bulbs and other substitutes such as sugar beet. Only recently (2009), along with others who took part, I received a medal and “Liberation Certificate” as a mark of gratitude awarded to participating aircrew members.

Our base at RAF Tuddenham in Suffolk had been one of the many set up all over Britain as a wartime facility essential to house the large number of operational aircraft required.. The base opened in October 1943. The first squadron to arrive was No. 90 Squadron flying Stirling bombers. They converted to Lancasters in May 1944 and were to remain at this base for the remainder of the war.

In October 1944 No.186 Squadron reformed at Tuddenham, leaving for Stradishall in December 1944. At that time No.138 Squadron moved here from Tempsford and converted to Lancasters, remaining until November 1946. During the war, 17 Stirlings and 36 Lancasters were lost on operations from RAF Tuddenham.

This was an interesting move for No.!38 Squadron, as Tempsford had been the most secret RAF Airfield in UK, and had been home to No.138 which dropped Special Operations (SOE) agents and supplies into occupied Europe. This in itself was some indication of hostilities in Europe finally coming to an end.

At end of the war in Europe, we flew POWs from France and Italy. This was followed by training named “Tiger Force” intended for reinforcing the Allies still fighting in the Far East. Due to the dropping of “the bomb” Japan at last decided to surrender, and our efforts were not required. The World had thus been spared from a further lengthy period of bloodshed, as the Japanese reputation for “fighting to the last man” had been overcome.

I then took part in Air Photography over Europe while based at RAF Benson. My final duties with the RAF included a post as Flying Control Officer at RAF Station, Moreton-in-Marsh.

Tuddenham itself, although only surviving for a short period, had an interesting history with all the above-named WW2 movements. It did not end there, however, as even from December 1954 until July 1959 Tuddenham was used by USAF as a satellite for Pickenham, and by No.107 Squadron until July 1963 with Thor missiles.

All military activity eventually ended for Tuddenham during the 1970s when the control tower was demolished, and the area was returned to agricultural use.

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