Shared history of brave airmen

Last updated 12:00 08/08/2012
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SUPPLIED/JOHN WILLIAMS
FLYING RECORD: Bill Warwick with his RAF logbook.
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SUPPLIED/JOHN WILLIAMS
FIGHTING SPIRITS: Bill Warwick, third from left, during World War II with Spitfire crewmates.

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New Zealand fliers featured in one of the most disastrous air raids of World War II. Spitfire pilot Bill Warwick was a lucky one. He was on leave that day, or he would have been involved as a fighter escort. He tells Mike Crean about it.

Eleven Ventura bombers took off from England to attack a power station. One turned back with engine trouble. All the others were shot down. It was one of the grimmest days for the Royal Air Force in World War II.

Two Hawarden farmers discovered years later how close they had come to sharing this disastrous operation.

Owen Foster piloted one of 487 Squadron's Venturas in the raid on the German-controlled power station near Amsterdam on May 3, 1943. His plane was hit by German fighters and his turret gunner was killed. With one engine knocked out and his fuel tanks holed, Foster had to ditch the plane in the North Sea. He and the remainder of his crew were captured and became prisoners of war.

Bill Warwick flew Spitfire fighters. His 504 Squadron was sent to escort the slow Venturas to their target. The Spitfires arrived early, the Venturas late, so they failed to make contact. Without the Spitfire escort, the Venturas were "sitting ducks" for the Germans.

"The whole thing was badly planned," Warwick says. He was on leave that day, otherwise he would have been in the Spitfire escort. He says the botched raid was big news and he heard about it very quickly.

He and Foster did not know each other before or during the war. But after taking up farms at Hawarden, and more recently in the Christchurch Brevet Club, they met each other often. The raid was seldom discussed, says Warwick.

Another Spitfire squadron was sent to help the Venturas that day. The plan was for 485 Squadron to go ahead of the bombers, lure German fighters into the air and engage them in combat until they had to land and refuel. The Venturas would then fly safely to their target while the enemy planes were still on the ground. Again the timing was wrong. The German planes were fully fuelled when the Venturas approached and quickly took off to intercept them - with disastrous consequences for the bomber crews.

Foster, formerly from Omihi in North Canterbury, brought Olive, his English war bride, to New Zealand after the war. They settled on a farm at Hawarden. After retiring to Christchurch he met former Spitfire pilot Johnny Checketts and they shared stories. He was amazed to discover Checketts had flown in the Spitfire diversion raid for the botched attack on the power station. Checketts, a highly decorated flying ace, died in 2006.

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Warwick, who will be 92 next month, was born and raised at Hawarden. He worked in the Post Office and telephone exchange there and enlisted in the air force in 1941.

After basic training he spent nine weeks on a ship that kept breaking down, sailing through Panama to the east coast of Canada. He recalls the ship was carrying butter and cheese and, when the fridges failed at Panama, "the stink was awful". He sailed in a convoy across the Atlantic. His first operational flight in a Spitfire was with a convoy escort over the English Channel in late 1942.

"It was all go after that," Warwick says. For the next two years he flew mostly bomber raid escorts, plus air-to-ground operations (strafing the enemy), shipping reconnaissance, fighter sweeps and convoy patrols.

He missed flying on D-Day as he was sent on leave. After the invasion he flew missions over enemy territory in Europe.

Relieved from 504 Squadron after two years, he went to gunnery school and then to a gunnery camp as a staff pilot-supervisor. He was next "converted" to flying Typhoon rocket-firing fighter-bombers. However, after only 25 hours on these he returned to Spitfires with 74 Squadron, based in Holland, then Germany.

At war's end, Warwick was "converted" to the Gloster Meteor. He was one of the first New Zealanders to fly the new jet plane. Duties included ceremonial fly-pasts and victory parades.

"We were the third squadron to get jets. We thought we were the cat's pyjamas. We were just messing around. It was a waste of time really," he says.

He considered applying to stay in the RAF on a short service commission (four years) but, by 1947, was "sick of messing around". His father wanted him to take over the family farm at Hawarden, so he returned home.

Warwick never flew again but, from a hill on his farm he could easily see Foster's place, about a kilometre away.

Warwick says air force life was a "good time". He met June and they married in Essex in November 1945. So he, too, brought a British war bride home. According to the rules of the day, however, they had to travel separately on the ship Rangitata to New Zealand.

The raid on the Dutch power station was notable for other reasons. New Zealand squadron leader Leonard Trent, who was leading the Venturas, won the Victoria Cross for pushing on through enemy fire to complete his bombing run and shooting down a German fighter with his forward machinegun.

Trent's plane was then hit and broke up in mid-air. He was thrown clear and parachuted to safety. Like Foster, Trent was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Stalag Luft III.

The raid showed the deficiencies of the American Lockheed Ventura and it was withdrawn from daylight bombing raids over enemy territory.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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