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[Home] [Profiles 103 Sqn N to Z] [Arthur Shields RAFVR]

.Arthur Shields RAFVR – 18 Squadron / 103 Squadron / 214 Squadron – 1939 to 1945

Compiled and Written By Derek Dye.

103 Squadron Shields at ITW and HCU

Arthur Shields at ITW and HCU

Enlistment and Training

Arthur Shields, a Grammar School boy from north London, must have volunteered in late 1939 or early 1940 because his medical examination was dated March 1940. On the day he reported to Uxbridge, the Recruit  Receiving Centre, his service date seems to have been postponed, presumably because he was deemed suitable for aircrew training, and at this stage of the war there was a bottleneck in the training organisation. His RAF Form 2150 is annotated A.C.2. u/t Pilot (A.C.). His education and background probably marked him out as suitable. Basic training in June 1940 was usually at small units stationed in vacated seaside hotels along the south coast and places such as Scarborough and Blackpool. There is a picture of him labelled “Paignton” in September 1940 and of him and his fellows at N0.4 I.T.W (Initial Training Wing) at Paignton dated October 1940. Most of the cadets wear the white flash denoting Aircrew Cadets Under Training on their Forage Caps. I wonder how many of these men survived their training, which claimed many lives, and the operational tours that followed.

From Paignton he seems to have moved to Desford in Leicestershire. This was a basic flying training school which makes me suspect that he received some pilot training. He may have been deemed more suitable for navigator training (see below) or he may have lacked the aptitude for pilot training, alternatively he may have had some pilot training to enable him to take over the controls in an emergency. Up until 1940 the RAF provided two pilots in heavy bombers but it became increasingly obvious that this was very wasteful of trained manpower and other crew members were sometimes given some basic training, so that they could take over in an emergency. These would often be Observers or Navigators. Later the newly introduced Flight Engineers took over the role.

His later training was typical of the period for Observers. At this stage of the war the RAF were still training Observers; later on they trained specialist Navigators. The term “Observer” dates from the First World War when the second crew member was expected to “observe” the fall of shot for the artillery. By the 1930’s these men were multi-role in smaller aircraft and were expected to man defensive guns, work the radio, aim the bombs and, of course, navigate, the latter skill being the most difficult to acquire.  It is possible that he started to train as a pilot (see above) but navigators (especially good ones) were hard to come by and many a promising pilot was sidetracked onto a navigators or observer’s course. He started his observer’s training in February 1941 at No. 11 Air Observers Navigation School at RAF Watchfield, a wartime airfield with grass runways near Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire, flying in Avro Ansons. The Anson was designed as a coastal reconnaissance aircraft. It had two engines and was the very first RAF machine to have a retractable undercarriage. Already obsolete by 1939, it was extensively used as a training machine throughout the war. There was a high failure rate at Navigation School and those who failed to make the grade were usually trained as Air Gunners or Wireless Operator/Air-gunners.

In May 1941, with a little over 80 hours flying time, having passed his Navigation Exams and practical exercises, he moved on to No. 10 Bombing & Gunnery School at Dumfries, where he received training in air-gunnery and bomb aiming. At this school he flew in Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys (an obsolescent twin engine night bomber) and  Fairey Battles (an obsolete single engine day bomber). At some time he must also have had training in W/T (wireless-telegraphy, ie., sending and receiving messages in Morse code). He completed this course on the 24 April 1941.

Avro Anson and Personnel

Early WW2 Avro Anson navigation trainer with pilots, instructors and pupil navigators

In mid May 1941, after some leave, he moved on to an Operational Conversion Unit, No.17 at Upwood in Cambridgeshire. Another grass airfield, it housed Anson and Blenheim aircraft. The Bristol Blenheim was “state of the art” when first introduced into service in 1937 but was already out of date by 1939 and downright obsolete by 1941. The RAF was still using it operationally for lack of anything to replace it. It was mainly used in less demanding overseas environments after 1941. The Navigator’s compartment, where he would have been positioned, was located in the nose of the aeroplane, it was a death trap in case of fire on crash landings because the emergency exit was in the floor and if the aircraft landed wheels up it could not be used. I spoke to a Blenheim Navigator back in the 1960s and he told me that a loaded revolver was wired to the side of the fuselage. This was officially to fight one’s way to freedom if shot down behind enemy lines. The actual purpose was to shoot oneself if trapped in a burning aircraft. They were brave men.

Bristol Blenheim IV V6083 13 OTU

Bristol Blenheim IV V6083. This example is a 13 OTU machine

18 Squadron

After passing out from 17 OTU in September 1941 with some 170 hrs flying experience, the now Sergeant Shields was posted as a navigator to 18 Sqn. at Horsham St. Faith (now Norwich Airport). This was a Day Bomber squadron operating Blenheim Mk IV aircraft. The Blenheim had a crew of 3, a pilot, navigator/bomb-aimer and a wireless operator /air-gunner. The Blenheim, with a defensive armament of a single machine gun in a dorsal turret, was completely outclassed by modern fighter aircraft but the RAF had nothing else. The previous month it was an aircraft from this squadron that dropped a replacement leg for Douglas Bader, the legless fighter pilot, to the Germans at St. Omer airfield.

Bristol Blenheim 18 Squadron Great Massingham

Bristol Blenheim IV 18 Squadron Great Massingham

He flew on 3 operations in Europe, probably northern France, before the squadron was sent overseas in December 1941, initially to Malta via Gibraltar. It took several attempts before the final leg of the flight from Gibraltar could be achieved owing to serviceability problems. He must have been one of the “Ace” Navigators of the squadron because his aircraft was the leader of a formation of 5 for the flight to Malta.

By late 1941 Malta was under heavy attack by both the Italian Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe. Conditions were grim, with fuel, ammunition, spares, food and water shortages, not to mention frequent bombing raids. He carried out some operational sorties from Malta and several more from North African Landing Grounds, where living conditions would have been basic, before moving to Helwan in Egypt. This was a permanent RAF base with good facilities. It must have seemed like heaven after Malta and North Africa. By this time he had flown over a hundred hours with 18 Sqn of which about ninety were operational. This seems to represent about 20 operational sorties but the log-book is not totally clear to me. Some flights may have been ferry flights, merely positioning the aircraft for subsequent operations.

In April 1942 he flew to India via Iraq (with the same pilot so presumably whole crew, but was this a single aircraft, a detached flight or whole squadron deployment?).  His flying in India seems to have been non-operational, mostly escorting formations of single engine aircraft, which carried no navigator. This would not have been without hazards because the Blenheim was, by this stage of the war, a far from reliable aircraft. His last flight in India was at the end of May 1942. The next flights in the logbook are dated April 1943. It is not clear when he returned to England or what he was doing during the period June ’42 to April ’43. During the years 1942-4 the Battle of the Atlantic was raging and the voyage home, via the Cape of Good Hope, would have been hazardous.

Heavy Bomber Training

By early 1943 the night bombing campaign in Europe was increasing in intensity. His training and experience in night navigation would have been inadequate for a posting to a heavy bomber unit and he was sent for further training at No.5 Air Observers School at Jurby in the Isle of Man. Here he completed an Air Navigators course, on which he would have been brought up to speed on new navigation aids, before moving to an Operational Training Unit at Hixon in Staffordshire in June 1943, flying in Vickers Wellington bombers. They were nearing the end of their operational lives but continued to be used extensively for training.

When aircrew arrived at an OTU they were formed into “crews” which would then normally stay together for the whole of their operational tour; usually 30 operations in Bomber Command at this stage of the war. The process of “crewing up” involved all the aircrew on the course being assembled in an aircraft hanger and told to form themselves into crews. This process was found to be the best way to assemble compatible men into a working crew. This would have comprised six people for a Wellington, a pilot (always the captain of the aircraft irrespective of rank), a flight engineer (who replaced the second pilot carried earlier in the war), a navigator, a wireless operator, a nose gunner/bomb-aimer and a tail-gunner. The new heavy bombers, the Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster all required a third air-gunner for the mid-upper turret and this crew member usually joined the crews at the Heavy Conversion Units (HCU) where the crews were “converted” to the newer four engine heavy bombers. During his two months in OTU he would have been introduced to all the latest electronic navigation aids.

At the end of August 1943 Shields moved to the HCU at Blyton near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where he flew in Handley Page Halifax four engine heavy bombers. Less well known than the Avro Lancaster, in which he also flew at Blyton, the early marks of the Halifax were prone to “rudder stalling” which could occur in asymmetric flight (ie. with an engine failure) and could render the aircraft uncontrollable. This caused many losses, which were largely unaccounted for until S/L Leonard Cheshire test flew one, induced the problem, analysed it, got out of the resulting spin and, most importantly, lived to tell the tale. After this the type was withdrawn from operational service until the problem could be cured with a redesigned fins and rudders.  Luckily for Shields, 103 Sqn. at Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, to which he was posted in November 1943, had converted to Lancasters a year prior to his arrival.

103 Squadron Young L crew HCU Blyton 1943

103 Squadron Len Young crew HCU Blyton 1943

103 Squadron

When he commenced operations with 103 Sqn he had only 39 hrs night flying experience, of which only 10 involved electronic aids. Frightening!

His first operation was a raid on Berlin on the night of the 18/19 November 1943. This was very much “in at the deep end”. At this stage of the war the squadrons simply did not have the luxury of giving new crews an “easy” target for their first op. His crew were lucky to get away with “slight” flak damage. “Flak” incidentally is derived from the German term “Flieger Abwehr Kanone, ie. anti-aircraft artillery. The raid of 18/19th November was the first of a series, which culminated in the attack of 24/25th April 1944. The raids were the brainchild of Air Marshall Sir Shields (Bomber) Harris and were supposed to bring Berlin to its knees (they didn’t!). They became known as the “Battle of Berlin”. Raids on Berlin involved a round trip of over 1000 miles; this required a maximum fuel load so the aircraft were very heavily laden on take-off. Accidents were frequent and usually fatal. Once airborne they would have struggled to gain altitude, putting a huge strain on their engines, which might then fail. Shields’s log book makes several references to engines becoming u/s (eg. “S/O u/s = starboard outer unserviceable).

It would be very hazardous to press on across enemy occupied Europe with a dead engine, although the Lancaster could make it home on two, albeit slowly. The long flight to Berlin exposed crews to flak and fighter attack for seven hours or more (depending on evasive routing and weather conditions) and Berlin itself was the most heavily defended city in the Reich. To survive, crews had to be both good and lucky. Each crew was only as good as it’s weakest member. It was no use having a first-rate pilot and ace navigator if the rear gunner was not a good shot (and alert!). Standard Lancaster rear turrets housed four .303 machine guns (the mid upper had two) and these accounted for many German night fighters, but since the latter were armed with 20 mm cannon they could do fatal damage if they got in first. Some were armed with obliquely mounted cannon, which the Germans called “Schraege musik”, their term for jazz but literally “oblique music”. This enabled them to sneak up beneath British bombers in their blind spot. The only defence against this was a belly turret and only the Mk II Lancaster was so equipped; it was produced only in small numbers and even these aircraft were prey to “Schraege musik” because it was very difficult to spot night fighters against the dark background of blacked-out ground. It came as a surprise to the RAF; it shouldn’t have, because the Royal Naval Air Service used Sopwith Strutters armed with obliquely aimed machine guns to attack Zeppelin airships in 1916.

103 Squadron Young L and crew with JB555

103 Squadron Len Young and crew with Lancaster  JB555

Berlin presented a formidable target. Spoofs and evasive routing could not disguise the intended target and for the last 200 miles it was obvious where the bombers were headed. Fighters were able to concentrate on the bomber stream. Navigation was difficult because weather over northern Europe in winter is often dreadful. Weather forecasts could be very inaccurate so using forecast winds was not reliable for “dead reckoning” navigation and Berlin was beyond the range of electronic navigation aids, nor did it show up well on H2S bombing radar. The city was often cloud covered making conventional bomb aiming impossible. Often the crews had to bomb on “sky markers” (parachute flare target indicators, dropped by Pathfinder aircraft). The city housed many important government buildings and factories such as the Daimler-Benz works which manufactured aero-engines, tanks and artillery tractors, Lorenz, making blind flying equipment and radar, AEG, making diesel engines and cables and Siemens making oxygen equipment and U-boat parts, but they were widely dispersed. Hitting these in the prevailing conditions was like trying to hit a needle in a haystack.

Losses were horrendous. The overall loss rate in 1943 was 5.4% per sortie. The  Berlin raid of 23/24 March 1944, on which Shields flew, was the worst. Unpredicted strong winds (actually a “jet stream”) led to navigation problems and many aircraft strayed over heavily defended areas with many being shot down and many arriving late on target, thus giving the defence an advantage. He clearly worked out the correct winds en route because his flight time of 7 hrs and 5 minutes is about normal for the trip. There were 72 losses according to Max Hastings (Shields says 73 in a pencil entry in his log-book), a loss rate of 9.1%. Most of these were lost to Flak. The raid on Leipzig on the night 19/20th February was even worse with 79 missing (Hasting says 78; either way it amounts to 9.5%). How did they keep going against such dreadful odds?

He also took part in the Nurnberg raid of the 30/31 March 1944. This involved a round trip of 1,580 miles, a flight of 8 hours. His navigation note-book has the forecast winds for this raid. They are fearsome, as high as 90 mph at 25,000ft (the Lancaster’s operational ceiling) and varied considerably across Europe, being higher (and less accurately predictable) further east. Bear in mind that the cruising speed of the Lancaster was about 250 mph. The night was disastrous for Bomber Command. Bad tactical planning and routing left the Germans in little doubt about the intended target and clear skies gave the night fighters the advantage.

Officially 95 aircraft were lost (the logbook says 94 and Hastings 96). A loss rate of nearly 12% with a further 9% seriously damaged. This was the worst loss rate that Bomber Command suffered during the whole of the night bombing campaign, although some tactical air-force squadrons had greater loss rates in day raids during the German “Blitz-krieg” of May 1940. One wing of Fairey Battles lost 40 out of 72 aircraft and 18 Sqn. lost 11 of 12 in a single raid.

In April 1944 Bomber Command began to attack transport targets in western Germany and France in the run-up to D Day. Shields participated in one on Aulnoye marshalling yards near the Belgian border in northern France on the 10 April. He records a loss rate of 10%. This is unusually high for a French target but I have been unable to confirm it. It is possible that this comment refers only to 103 Sqn. who may have been particularly unlucky. In any event it was his last operation on this tour because the one his crew attempted on the 11 April was aborted because of an engine failure. He left the squadron on or after the 25 April.

By mid May he was flying as a “screened navigator” with 83 OTU at Peplow in Shropshire, presumably after the two weeks leave normally granted on completing a tour of duty. He made only seven flights in a little over a month after which his logbook shows no flying until January 1945. What was he doing in the meantime? From his subsequent activities I suspect that he was receiving specialised and highly secret training in radio/radar countermeasures.

103 Squadron Young L air and ground crew

103 Squadron Len Young air and ground crew. At a guess that was taken at the end of their tour

B 17s and 214 Squadron

In January ’45 he was flying at 1699 Conversion Unit at Oulton in Boeing B17’s, known in the RAF as “Fortresses”. These were used by the United States Army Air Force as heavy day bombers. They carried a heavy defensive armament of 0.5 calibre machine guns (they needed it!) but a relatively light bomb load, for which reason the RAF deemed them unsuitable for night bombing. They were used by Coastal Command and by some specialised units in 100 Group Bomber Command. These units were highly secret and flew radio/radar countermeasures operations. Some flew with an extra crew member who was a German speaker and who would tune in to Luftwaffe night fighter controllers and either issue false instructions or simply transmit noise on the wave-length to “jam” the signals. German airborne and ground radar was also jammed. The Fortress was very suitable for these duties and by 1945 214 Sqn which Shields joined at the end of January 1945, was operating them, also from Oulton. It was sensible to house the squadron at the same airfield as the OTU since security considerations meant that it was better not to base the units on standard bomber airfields. I notice in his notebook a reference to RAF Enstone in Oxfordshire with its lat/long coordinates. This coincidentally is the airfield from which I fly and in 1945 it housed a 100 Group Lancaster Squadron so it would have had enhanced security and hence have been a suitable diversion airfield for these highly secret specialised aircraft with their distinctive radio aerials.

Shields refers to these operations as “S.D” or special duties patrols. The S.D aircraft would have mingled with the bomber stream and operations were just as hazardous as standard operations. He flew his last operational sortie on 4 April 1945, having completed 14 with 214 Sqn.

B17 214 Squadron

B17 214 Squadron

Shields A commissioned in 1945

Arthur Shields as a P/O late in war or after.

His tally of operations is a testimony to his and his crew’s skill and dedication. They must have been good to survive, and lucky too! I wish I had met him. It has been a privilege to see his log book.

This item was compiled and written by Derek Dye from Arthur Shields’ log book. Photos from the Shields family, my own archive and WWP



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