Leading the Hunsdon Wing over Berlin during its successful foray on 16 April 1945, was a Norwegian, Lieutenant Colonel Werner Christie. This painting by Mark Postlethwaite GAvA shows Christie, at the controls of his personally-marked Mustang, KH790 “WHC”, shooting down one of the Focke-Wulf Fw 190s that the RAF long-range fighters encountered that day. This was the last occasion in the Second World War when an Ace flying an RAF Mustang was credited with an aerial victory. Note the red spinner on Christie’s aircraft. This feature, he noted, made his “aeroplane a little easier to spot and formate upon after a dogfight or ground attack”. Artist Mark Postlethwaite
The famous US fighter the North American P-51 Mustang was also adopted by the RAF for long-range operations over Germany. On one such operation, during a sweep over Berlin in April 1945, as well engaging the Luftwaffe, the RAF Mustangs also encountered their Soviet Allies for the first time.
By the early autumn of 1944 Bomber Command’s “heavies” were regularly flying daylight raids against targets in the western part of Germany. Because of the type’s long range when fitted with external tanks, the RAF’s three North American P-51 Mustang-equipped squadrons based on the Continent – Nos. 19, 65 and 122 – were transferred to the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB – as Fighter Command was then designated), for the long range escort task to which they were ideally suited.
Despite escorting many daylight raids for the rest of the war, the opportunities for RAF’s long-range escort forces to engage with the enemy were more limited than for their USAAF equivalents. This was partly due to the fact that the RAF raids did not generally penetrate as deep into German airspace and were less frequent, so consequently the number of victories claimed by the RAF’s Mustang pilots was modest.
By the start of 1945 Fighter Command fielded two Mustang-equipped Wings at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Andrews Field, both in Essex. Then, on 3 February 1945, the first three Mustang IVs arrived at RAF Biggin Hill to begin re-equipping 154 Squadron from Spitfire VIIs.
A spell of poor weather coincidentally reduced the level of operations for the rest of the month, so there was a lot of local flying to familiarise the pilots with their new mounts. At the beginning of March a new Mustang Wing, the RAF’s third, began to form when 154 moved to RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire. There 154 Squadron was joined by 611(West Lancashire) Squadron which, commanded by Squadron Leader Dunhan Seaton, was also beginning to convert to Mustangs. Dunhan Seaton was an interesting character having been a pre-war Regular Army officer who had trained at Sandhurst and had also served in one of the first Commando units.
On 8 March 1945, Lieutenant Colonel Werner Christie arrived to lead the Wing. A pilot with 154 Squadron, Flight Lieutenant Bill Fleming recalled his arrival: “The Wing Leader at Hunsdon was a Norwegian, Lieutenant Colonel W. `Cloudy’ Christie DFC. The nickname `Cloudy’ came from the fact that he had us flying on every conceivable occasion, whether we were on Ops or not, and even if the cloud was down to the deck. The story went around that Norwegian pilots, in addition to their normal pay, received a bonus for every hour flown.”
The first Mustang operation for 154 Squadron occurred on 9 March 1945, when, led by its CO, Squadron Leader Gerry Stonhill, it was tasked to escort a force of Avro Lancasters to Remlinghausen. When Stonhill was forced to return early, Flight Lieutenant Ted Andrews assumed the lead.
Further operations followed almost daily, both for 154 Squadron and the Wing as a whole, with Christie often leading whilst flying his personally-marked Mustang “WHC”. One of the unit’s few combat losses occurred on 12 March 1945. Ted Andrews, who was flying KH721, later wrote a letter describing what happened.
“I had an engine failure whilst at over 35,000 feet whilst near Dortmund which was being bombed that day,” he wrote. “We had not seen the ground since leaving London because of total cloud cover. I did get bearings on the VHF and glided west until the ground station said I must bale out and would probably then be over the Rhine in Allied occupied territory. I baled out but was still over German territory and was captured. Whilst a prisoner I was wounded by rocket-firing Typhoons – which was not an experience to be enjoyed.”
As the weather improved, operations against the rapidly shrinking Reich continued, the Allied armies gradually closing on the Rhine – the last great natural barrier in the west. Bomber escort missions, codenamed Ramrods, continued throughout the month – often to targets in the Ruhr – but usually resulted in little action for the fighters, though flak and the possibility of engine failure were a constant hazard.
The first major attack by some of the enemy’s new jets on an RAF bomber formation came during an attack by over 100 Lancasters near Bremen on 23 March 1945.
The following day the Wing was out in force to cover the airborne element of Operation Varsity, the airborne crossing of the Rhine near Wesel. Although some gliders were shot down by ground fire, there was little to report during a five-hour mission.
On 25 March, 611 Squadron mounted its first Ramrod whilst flying the Mustang when eleven fighters escorted bombers to Hannover.
On the 27th, Lieutenant Colonel Christie led the Hunsdon Wing on an escort to Hamm. Having completed their escort duties, the squadron returned to sweep the Lübeck area where the cloud dropped to about half cover, though underneath the visibility was bad. Here, the Wing encountered a number of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. Also, after the bombers were west of the Rhine a number of the 611 Squadron pilots descended and indulged in some ground strafing. Flight Lieutenant Phil Knowles of 154 Squadron recalled the ensuing melée:
“On 27th March we escorted Lancasters bombing Hamm. Climbing out through thick bumpy cloud layers was rather unpleasant. It was vital not to lose sight of your lead aircraft and this meant maintaining tight formation. It was said that our Wing Commander particularly disliked this and was, therefore, known as `Cloudy Christie’. His personal R/T call sign was `Marcus’, 154 Squadron was `Token’ later `Gala’.
“After they [the bombers] had left for home we, 154 Squadron, went on a sweep in the Brunswick-Lübeck area, where we bounced a close formation of fifteen Fw 190s, well below us. Colonel Christie was leading the squadron and destroyed two (which I saw hit the ground) and damaged one. Warrant Officer Bunting claimed one probable and Flight Lieutenant Lee and Pilot Officer Todd each one damaged. On the way down the CO congratulated his flight for sticking together.
“What he did not know was that his No. 4 had broken off and his place was taken by a Focke-Wulf, who was banging away at the No. 3, Warrant Officer Vickery, who was not seriously damaged, but had a number of shots through his fuel tanks. The self-sealing tanks were very effective, but he lost some fuel.
“In spite of this he pressed on and got home with virtually no fuel. We thought he was mad not to land and refuel in Belgium, especially since it was a five-hour twenty-five minute total trip. Apparently he was getting married that weekend and didn’t want to miss the wedding! One shot had gone through the red of the fuselage roundel and then passed between the doubled up elevator control wires, pushing them apart.”
Further escort missions were flown during the rest of the month. The 31st was 154 Squadron’s last day of operations. It was a memorable flight for the fact that a number of Messerschmitt Me 262 jets attacked the formation. Though their speed made them impossible to engage, the CO did fi re at one – more in hope than expectation!
One of the pilots on the mission was Flying Officer Bill Fleming: “My most memorable experience involving the Me 262 occurred during an escort mission with over 450 RAF `heavies’ to Hamburg attacking the Blohm and Voss U-boat building yards. South of the target I noticed some vapour trails several thousand feet above us going down in the same direction. I reported these to the CO who said that they were probably Mosquito Pathfinders, but to keep an eye on them.
“Shortly afterwards I observed several Me 262s diving through our formation from above and behind, travelling at high speed. We dropped our tanks and dived on the 262s, but before getting within range they opened fi re on the leading bombers with what looked like rocket projectiles and cannon, scoring hits on at least two of the bombers. One of the 262s, breaking away from the attack, came back under us and Red Section, led by the CO, turned on our backs and went straight down after him at high speed. We opened fi re at extreme range before he pulled away with his superior speed.”
Following this, its last operation over Germany, 154 Squadron was ordered to pass its aircraft on to 442 Squadron RCAF and disband. The pilots were dispersed to other units, four of them – Flight Lieutenant Kaye and Flying Officers Newall, Wilding and Palmer – joining 611 Squadron.
The disbandment of 154 Squadron was not a popular move, as Bill Fleming remembered: “This was, apparently, a political move as the Canadian Government wanted one of their fighter squadrons to escort the RAF daylight raids on Germany as they had a number of Canadian bomber squadrons taking part. We were very upset. 154 Squadron was apparently chosen as we had received brand new Mustang IVs earlier in the year.”
Under Squadron Leader Mitch Johnston, 442 Squadron quickly converted and it mounted its first Mustang operation on 9 April 1945. At just before 15.30 hours, and in fi ne weather, the squadron began its first operation when eight Mustangs were led by Johnston, in KH680/Y2-B (named Edmonton Special), when the Wing escorted a force of Lancasters bombing Rasburg oil refinery near Hamburg. As was usual, Christie, flying his personally marked Mustang, led the Wing.
Two of the Mustangs returned early due to technical failures, while the remainder continued to the target. Once the bombers had departed, the fighters swept the Flensburg area, uneventfully, before landing back at base after a five-hour mission. For its part, once its charges had bombed their targets at Hamburg, Squadron Leader Seaton took 611 Squadron on a sweep of the Lübeck area.
Luftwaffe jets were encountered by the RAF the following day when 200 `heavies’ from 6 Group were escorted to Leipzig – the deepest penetration into Germany to date. During the mission, 442 Squadron’s CO spotted an Me 163 Komet but it proved far too fast to allow an interception, though a quartet of Mustangs from 611 Squadron optimistically chased one!
The penetrations by Bomber Command’s daylight raids were increasing in their depth. There followed several raids against the remnants of the Kriegsmarine’s surface fleet. The hulk of the battle cruiser Gneisenau was bombed in Stettin, and the heavy cruisers Lützow and Prinz Eugen were attacked in the port of Swinemünde. Missions on the 13th and 15th were frustrated by cloud.
On 16 April 1945, Lützow, still at Swinemünde, was the target for eighteen Lancasters of 617 Squadron. The “heavies” escort included Christie leading 611 Squadron and Squadron Leader Johnston, flying KH729, at the head of his squadron’s twelve Mustangs which took off from Hunsdon soon after 14.30 hours. Also in the escort was Flying Officer Phil Knowles, formerly of 154 Squadron, who recalled that the attack was hotly opposed:
“We were a little late in making the rendezvous with them over Europe and they called up to say that if we did not meet up in five minutes they were going home! We met OK, the weather was clear over the target and they bombed successfully. The flak over the target was extremely intense and a Lanc was lost. It was a terrible sight to see such a big machine spiraling down in flames with bits falling off. We heard later that the Lützow had been sunk. Swinemünde was fairly close to the Russians and we could hear them clearly on the R/T.”
Despite the loss of one of the Lancasters, Lützow was struck by one of the “Tallboy” bombs. Several near misses had also bracketed the heavy cruiser causing it to sink in shallow water at its moorings. After seeing that their 617 Squadron charges had headed for home, Werner Christie then led 442 and 611 squadrons down towards Berlin where, at last, they found some action.
Having heard R/T chatter in Russian whilst flying over the Baltic coast, as the Mustangs approached the east of Berlin they had the RAF’s first encounter with their Soviet Allies when Warrant Officer Greenman of 442 Squadron reported some unusual aircraft.
Flight Lieutenant “Grouse” Partridge of 611 Squadron, who was at the controls of Mustang IV KH730/ FY-D, recognized their red stars and closing in identified them as a couple of Ilyushin IL-2 Stormovik fighter bombers and their Yak fighter escort.
In a radio interview the next day Partridge told the public: “We got within 100 yards of them, and as we passed we waggled out wings in greeting to our Allies. Several of us gave the `V-sign’ and the Russian pilots waved to us. It was a great experience for our squadron to have the honour of being the first to meet the Russians.”
This eventful mission had an even more dramatic turn before the Mustangs headed back to base. Flying in the vicinity of Finow airfield just to the north-east of Berlin, in a clear sky with a heat haze at about 10,000 feet, at 17.50 hours the Mustang pilots noted events: “I opened up, giving a five second burst at the leading a/c of formation of three, range 150 yards, and observed strikes on portside of engine and cockpit and also that his starboard wingtip was damaged. The a/c was then smoking badly and gliding straight ahead.
“I pulled out to port side making a second attack opening up at 200 yards, again closing in to about 50 yards, ending up dead astern. I fired several short bursts lasting about ten seconds and during the attack I observed strikes on cockpit, engine and both wings. The port wing fell off and port wheel fell down, the a/c then did 5-6 quick rolls horizontally and crashed in flames in a wood.” It was the 27-year-old Norwegian Ace’s tenth, and last, victory.
Something of a melée then ensued with pilots from 611 Squadron also engaged. In what was the latter’s last action, five other Fw 190s were destroyed. “Grouse” Partridge claimed one destroyed and another damaged.
“I attacked at 400 yards with a long burst scoring strikes first on the rudder which seemed to shatter and then on the root of the port wing where pieces fell away,” he recalled. “I closed to 150 yards and gave a short burst seeing strikes on the fuselage port side. The e/a suddenly turned very sharply to port and dived rapidly away, though I did not see it crash, Pilot Officer Ward confirms that it hit the ground.”
Now down to about 4,000 feet, Partridge then chased another enemy formation about 2,000 feet below him.
“I overhauled them fairly rapidly,” he continued. “I attacked the No. 2 at 500 yards range giving short bursts as I closed. I saw strikes first on the cockpit and then all over the fuselage and the e/a slowed down losing height over the edge of the airfield.”
Partridge claimed this aircraft as damaged. In his logbook he briefly noted: “Ramrod Swinemünde & sweep Berlin area. Escorted 25 Lancs bombing cruiser in port area. Excellent bombing; 1 Lanc hit and crashed. Headed south & made 1st acquaintance with Russian a/c – 6 Yak, 9 fighters & 2 Stormovik bombers. Afterwards spotted 10 Fw 190s in region of Finow & Eberswalde. Wing bag 6-3-1. Claim 1 destroyed & 1 damaged.”
The honours for the day went to White 1. Flying Officer George Jones had heard the report about the Fw 190s and spotted some of them at 5,000 feet: “I was dead astern of an e/a at approx 280 mph, and opened fi re giving a 5 second burst, I saw strikes on the fuselage and the e/a burst into flames, dived down and blew up on hitting the ground in a nearby wood. Pieces of the e/a flew past me and oil covered my windscreen.
“As I climbed away into sun an e/a dived past me vertically and my No. 2 (W/O Mack) had a burst as it dived straight into the ground. I then saw another e/a well below me heading towards an a/c due west. I gave chase for 3 minutes at approx 400 mph but I was unable to see forward through my windscreen owing to oil collected from the previous combat, until I was 200 yards, 10° off dead astern.
“I gave a short burst and found I was not scoring hits so went into dead astern and gave another short burst. I saw strikes on the fuselage and mainplane so continued to fi re until the e/a began to disintegrate. I followed down and saw it crash into the ground.”
At the same time White 2, Warrant Officer Mack, also attacked another Focke-Wulf, succinctly describing how he had followed his section leader, Flying Officer Jones, down over the Eberswalde: “As we pulled into sun, I saw an e/a to our port coming down on us. I was about 8,000 feet and the e/a came head on at me, I fired a 2 second burst at 400 to 250 yards range, strikes were seen and the e/a went straight by me. The e/a went straight in and crashed without further combat.”
Pilot Officer Ward attacked another Fw 190 from 350 yards. He observed his fire hit home, at which point the 190 fell away emitting black smoke, before he turned his attention to another. He was credited with one destroyed and another damaged, whilst another member of White Section, Pilot Officer Walker, who was flying KH743, attacked another Focke-Wulf. “
I closed to 100 yards and gave a prolonged burst seeing strikes on the fuselage and starboard wing,” Walker later wrote. “The e/a immediately rolled over in a gentle dive to port as fragments of the tail unit fell off.”
He noted in his logbook: “After meeting some Stormoviks and 6 Yaks, we ran into our Hun friends, 6 clobbered. Got mine finally from 70 yds dead astern. Started pouring black smoke, and rolled over to port in a dive.”
In its last combat with the Luftwaffe, 611 Squadron had claimed five destroyed with one probable and two damaged.
Mitch Johnston’s 442 Squadron had also followed Christie to the Berlin area. At around 17.45 hours it also became entangled with the Fw 190s in the hazy weather and during the subsequent fifteen-minute fight had its only combat whilst operating the Mustang. This resulted in one Focke-Wulf being shared by Flying Officers Wilson and Robillard, whilst another was probably destroyed by Flight Lieutenant Vince Shenk, an American.
Of his first combat, Len Wilson, who was flying KH647/ Y2-H, later wrote: “I was flying Yellow 1 in Ramrod 1542 sweeping Berlin area at approximately 17.50 hours. Yellow 2 (F/O Robillard) and I chased a Fw 190. Yellow 2 gave a short burst, strikes seen, but he got out of position to continue the combat. I was about 1,000 yards away, closing rapidly to 250 yards, giving a 2 second burst with 5-10° deflection, the e/a caught fi re and crashed into a small wood, exploding.”
Of the same engagement “Rocky” Robillard, who was in KH668/Y2-T, recalled: “I was flying Yellow 2 in Ramrod 1542 sweeping Berlin area at approximately 17.50 hours at 8,000 feet. I followed my No. 1 (F/O Wilson) and we chased a Fw 190. I overshot my No. 1 and found myself in a position to fire, engaging the e/a from 400-500 yards range. I gave a 2-3 second burst and saw strikes on the port wing and wing roots.
“The e/a dived to starboard as if to crash but levelled out leaving me out of position to continue the combat. My No. 1, F/O Wilson, closed to 250 yards and fi red. I saw this e/a catch fi re and dive into the woods, exploding.”
Whilst they were thus engaged Vince Shenk spotted another Fw 190 on the tail of a Mustang and forced it to break off.
At this point another long burst from the American’s guns caused the German fighter to roll onto its back and plummet upside down towards the ground.
Werner Christie then reformed his Wing and led it back to base, his pilots having claimed the last confirmed victories by both of his squadrons – these were also the last by RAF Mustangs during the Second World War. They eventually landed back at Hunsdon at 20.30 hours after their historic and eventful rendezvous over Berlin.