1 Group RAF Bomber Command Conversion to “Heavies”

A rare picture of a Halifax II of 460 Squadron’s Conversion Flight at Breighton in late 1942.

Earlier in the year a decision had been taken at Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe to convert the all-Wellington 1 Group to heavy aircraft. By this stage of the war the first two of the RAF’s triumvirate of four-engined ‘heavies’, the Stirling and the Halifax, were already in squadron service and the third, the Lancaster, was about to make its debut. The Lancaster was a design which had emerged from Roy Chadwick’s drawing board following the enormous problems encountered by 5 Group with the twin-engined Manchester. It proved to be the greatest masterstroke of the bomber war, the Lancaster going on to become the outstanding aircraft of its generation and, eventually, the mainstay of Bomber Command. But much of this was unknown early in 1942 and there were very few Lancasters available anyway. The enormous Stirling had also proved a disappointment with poor performance and a worrying vulnerability. The Halifax, in the meantime, was judged to be better although some of the earlier variants were unforgiving to fly and could be catastrophic in the wrong hands. While the Lancaster was born great, the Halifax was only to achieve its successes later in the war when much-improved variants became available. The Halifax IIs and Vs destined for 1 Group, mainly in a training capacity, did not fall into that category.

103 Squadron at Elsham was first out of the blocks with the Halifax with the formation of the 103 Halifax Conversion Unit on June 7 1942. In charge was S/Ldr David Holford, still only 21 years old but with an impeccable record as a pilot behind him. He had already completed two tours of operations, had a DSO and DFC and Bar to his credit and, it seemed, a glittering career in the RAF ahead of him. He was to go on to become the youngest wing commander in Bomber Command history only to meet his death in tragic circumstances 18 months later.

At Elsham his two instructors were P/O Potts and W/O Reg Fulbrook and they began work as soon as the first Halifax IIs arrived and by late July 103 was declared operational as a Halifax squadron. Their first operation was scheduled for the night of August 1-2 but the day was marked by an awful incident which underlined the problems with the Halifax II. That morning 19-year-old pilot Sgt William Bagley took off on a short training flight in one of the Conversion Flight’s aircraft. He had climbed out of Elsham and was returning when both port engines began misfiring and, as the Halifax approached the airfield, it suddenly stalled and spun into the ground. On board with Sgt Bagley were 11 other aircrew from 103 and all were killed instantly when the Halifax crashed just a matter of yards from the airfield boundary. Two days earlier one of the Halifaxes on the squadron’s books had stalled and crashed between Grimsby and Louth, killing Sgt Stewart Stockford and his crew. Sudden stalls were one of the unnerving traits of the Halifax II and, no matter how experienced the pilot, they could prove lethal. That is exactly what happened to Reg Fulbrook on September 22, the senior instructor on the Conversion Flight. W/O Fulbrook, at 31 with a DFC to his name and a tour with 103 behind him, was practising three-engined landings when his aircraft suddenly stalled, turned on its back and dived into the ground killing everyone on board.

By comparison, 103’s operational debut passed almost without incident. Seven aircraft, led by S/Ldr Holford, went to Düsseldorf and all returned safely, although Holford’s aircraft sported 36 holes caused by flak. He had suffered engine problems on the way out and was unable to maintain height. He bombed from 8,000ft and then, on the way home, flew at low level over a Luftwaffe airfield while his gunners shot up a line of parked aircraft. The first operational loss came six days later when Sgt Joe Gilby’s Halifax crashed into the Humber on its return from a raid on Duisburg. There were no survivors. 103 was to lose nine more Halifaxes and the lives of 46 men on operations before the order came towards the end of October to switch to Lancasters. Amongst the casualties was S/Ldr Sid Fox, who had won a DFM with 83 Squadron, and was into his second tour.

103 Squadron was to be the only unit in 1 Group to fly the Halifax operationally and it was also among the first to receive Lancasters. No sooner had the squadron been informed of the change than the first batch of factory-fresh Lancasters arrived, four of them being lost on operations within a matter of weeks.

The Australians of 460 got a new CO early in September when W/Cmdr Keith Kaufmann, one of six brothers serving in the Australian armed forces, arrived to oversee Halifax conversion training at Breighton. The Australians lost one aircraft in a training accident at a cost of eight lives, before being told on October 20 that it was to receive Lancasters. (Kaufmann was a hugely popular figure at Breighton, legend having it that he announced his arrival by walking into the mess and announcing: ‘I hear you blokes are pretty good drinkers. Let’s get stuck in and see how good you are!’) The squadron’s conversion flight later moved to nearby Holme-on-Spalding Moor where its Halfaxes were replaced by four Lancasters and four Manchesters before returning to Breighton. There it was joined by 103’s Conversion Flight and the two units merged to become 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit and moved to Lindholme. The role of the HCU was to do exactly what the term implied, training new crews on four-engined flying. This they would do on an initial mixture of Halifaxes, Manchesters (twin-engined but with some of the characteristics of the Lancaster) and the few Lancasters available. Later, as squadrons demanded every Lancaster coming off the production line, another link in the training chain was forged with the creation of Lancaster Finishing Schools. 1 LFS was formed at Hemswell early in 1944 and was in business for most of the year, providing the final training for crews before they were sent to 1 Group Lancaster squadrons.