Royal Air Force No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron

Royal Air Force No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron


(Nunquam domandi – Never to be tamed)

No. 125 Squadron (Newfoundland) was a Royal Air Force squadron active during and after the Second World War.  Like a number of Squadrons, No. 125 was initially formed during the later months of the First World War but never became operational before the Armistice.  No. 125 Squadron was reformed on 16 June 1941 at RAF Colerne in England where it was initially equipped with Boulton-Paul Defiant Mk. Is operating in a night fighter role with the Squadron Code VA on its aircraft.  The squadron became operational at the end of September covering western England and South Wales.

The squadron was raised as a result of a War Loan raised by the Newfoundland Commission on Government.  The Commission presented the British Government with $500,000 to establish the squadron with the hope that it would be manned by Newfoundlanders.

In September 1941 the squadron moved to RAF Fairwood Common and became fully operational with the Defiant proving to be a more than effective night fighter.

(IWM Photo, CH4607)

No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron, RAF, Boulton-Paul Defiant under repair by Fitters working on the fighter's 1,030 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin III, at Fairwood Common, UK, January 1942.

In 1938 and 1939 the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company, in co-operation with the Daily Mail newspaper, subsidized 29 men from Newfoundland to cross the Atlantic and join the RAF.  When the Second World War began, they became the first Newfoundland airmen to serve in the war.

(IWM Photo, HU104761)

Vickers Wellington Mk. I (Serial No. L4251) in flight, March 1940.

The first fatal casualty was F/O Philip F. Templeman of St. John’s.  He had joined the RAF in May 1937 and was shot down on 24 March 1940, while piloting a Wellington bomber of No. 37 Squadron.  At the time he was engaged in a leaflet dropping mission over northern Germany.  He died of his wounds 31 March 1940.

(IWM Photo, HU104509)

Supermarine Spitfire Mk I, coded PR-O, No. 609 Squadron, RAF, at Drem, UK, February-March 1940.  F/O George D. Ayre of St. John’s, Newfoundland, a member of the RAF since May 1938, was fatally wounded flying a Spitfire of No. 609 Squadron over Dunkirk on 30 May 1940.

Volunteers from Newfoundland and Labrador died at a higher rate while serving with the Royal Air Force (RAF) than with any other branch of the British Armed Forces during the Second World War. It is perhaps fortunate that the RAF recruited considerably fewer Newfoundlanders and Labradorians than either the Royal Navy or Artillery. Of the 713 who enlisted, some 20 per cent died before hostilities ended.

(RAF Photo)

Boulton-Paul Defiant, coded JT-S, ca. 1941.

(RAF Photo)

Boulton-Paul Defiant, coded TW-P, No. 141 Squadron, RAF, ca. 1940.

Pilot Officer Richard A. Howley of St. John’s, was shot down and killed on 19 July 1940, while piloting a Boulton-Paul Defiant fighter of No. 141 Squadron, RAF.  The retirement of the Defiant meant posting air gunners, many of whom were Newfoundlanders, to bomber and coastal squadrons, to be replaced by specialist radar operators.  During the war a total of 429 men were sent to Canada, where they trained either as aircrew or groundcrew, and were then posted overseas as members of the RAF.

(IWM Photo, CH11188)

No. 125 Squadron RAF, Bristol Beaufighter Mk. VIF (Serial No. MM849), coded VA-I, being prepared for a night sortie at Exeter, Devon as aircrews stand by.

(IWM Photo, CH11182)

The navigator/radar operator of a No. 125 Squadron Beaufighter Mk. VIF settles into his position, ready for another night patrol from Exeter, UK, 14 September 1943.

By March 1942, No. 125 Squadron started converting to the twin-engined Bristol Beaufighter Mk. IIF and later Mk. VI.

(IWM Photo, ATP10603B)

Bristol Beaufighter Mk IIF night fighter (Serial No. R2402), coded YD-G, No. 255 Squadron RAF, on the ground at Hibaldstow, Lincolnshire.  This aircraft features AI Mk. IV interception radar, and the unmodified flat tailplanes characteristic of early Beaufighter models.  Subsequently, R2402 also served with No. 410 Squadron RCAF and with No, 54 Operational Training Unit.

Newfoundlanders in Service with the RAF during the Second World War

Researched & Written by Gary J. Hebbard

Sgt. Albert (Bert) Gruchy, RAFVR, from St. John's, was killed when his Vickers Wellington Mk. III (Serial No. Z1615), coded WS-H, No. 9 Squadron RAF, was shot down on a “gardening” trip to the waters off the coast of Denmark on the night of May 15/16, 1942, Denmark then being occupied by German forces. Gardening was the RAF term for laying anti shipping mines from the air. Bert took off, with his four crew mates, from Honington airfield located about 6 miles south of Thetford in Suffolk on the night of 15-16 May 1942. They began their mine laying mission shortly after 2 a.m. near Lango Island, east of the Danish mainland. At an altitude of about 60 metres their Wellington came under fire from Obermatt (petty officer) Schmidt of Fluwa 6 (German military slang for aircraft defence). A burst of about 25 machine gun bullets peppered the aircraft in the fuselage and left engine, causing heavy damage. Bert was manning the gun turret in the nose of the airplane and, it was learned later, took a bullet through the head, killing him instantly. The rest of the crew survived the attack but the aircraft was too badly damaged to continue flying, forcing the pilot to crash land. The plane came to rest, it’s back broken and twisted, in about 3 feet of water off the beach of the island. The area was known locally as Malø Grund on the coast of Nakskov Fjord, Denmark. It was 2:21 a.m. Danish time on 16 May 1942.

The surviving crew members were rescued from their wrecked bomber by the crew of a local fishing boat and brought ashore where they were taken into custody by the Danish police. Their report, as submitted to the German garrison in the area, stated that two of the men were taken to hospital for unspecified wounds. All four were later handed over to the German authorities. Bert’s body was removed from the plane after daybreak and taken to Svino, a small village overlooking Dybso Fjord about 90 km south-south west of Copenhagen. There, on May 20th, he was laid to rest by the Danish citizens in their churchyard. He remains there today in company with 61 other airmen of varying nationalities, 8 of whom are unidentified.

In a letter to Bert’s family from the commanding officer of Bert’s squadron, the four surviving members of the crew were listed as: Sgt. (Possibly Flight Sergeant) S. Richards, pilot, service number 655171, of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk; bombardier Pilot Officer J. Simpson, service number 103578, of Liverpool; Sgt. Bill R. Todd, no service number given, of Durham, Cumberland and Sgt. Percy (Pinky) Gaum, service number R65399 of Sydney, Nova Scotia. Gaum was said to have a married sister living in Corner Brook but her name is not known.

After being taken into custody by the German authorities the four fliers were sent to Germany for internment. Records indicate they went first to a Dulag Luft or transit camp in Oberursel where they were interrogated.  Simpson and Todd were then transferred to Stalag Luft I (prison camp) in Barth. Simpson was later moved to Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia and Todd to Stalag Luft VI in Heydekrug. Richards and Gaum were initially sent to Stalag Luft III and then to Stalag Luft VI and finally to Stalag 357 at Oerbke, near Fallingbostel, east of Bremen. All were repatriated to England following the war.

An interesting aside to this story, in a report dated Friday, March 4, 1943 (nearly a year after the crash) details the woes of Danish farmer Valdemar Hansen who had the misfortune to have Bert’s plane crash on the beach bordering one of his fields. As was standard procedure when an allied plane crashed in their territory, the German forces salvaged and examined as much of the wreckage as possible. Any equipment recovered that looked new or unfamiliar was sent for study by technical experts. Remaining aluminum was sent for smelting, perhaps seeing later life as a German aircraft. All this activity meant heavy trucks trundling back and forth over farmer Hansen’s soft field, leaving deep ruts and damaging a fence. For this destruction Hansen submitted a claim for 700 Kroner which was accepted by the local German authority. No record exists to show if it was ever paid.

One month and one day later Bert’s first cousin, Pilot Officer Philip Gruchy’s Bristol Beaufighter fighter/bomber aircraft crashed during a training mission over Wales, killing him and his crew mate.

Pilot Officer (P/O) Philp Gruchy, Pilot Officer (P/O) Philip Gruchy, 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron RAFVR, service number 122929, born 1921, died 17 June 1942, age 21. Son of Philip and Mabel Gruchy of Grand Falls. Commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission  Debt of Honour register and the Book of Remembrance - Newfoundland, page 166.   Philip (Phil) Gruchy was the 1st cousin of Albert Gruchy and died just 1 month and 1 day after Albert was killed in a mine laying operation off the coast of Denmark when his bomber was shot down. Phil’s death is all the more tragic for the fact it need never have happened had circumstances been a tiny bit different.

Phil and his radar/wireless operator Sgt. Frances Whyte, service number 1175879 of Liverpool, England went up on a training flight on the morning of Wednesday, June 17, 1942 from their RAF base at Fairwood Common, Wales. They were to take part in what was known as “practice interceptions” in which they worked with another aircraft to hone their abilities to locate, intercept and engage enemy aircraft. One of the two would act as “the enemy” while the second aircraft attempted to intercept, then the roles were reversed. The Beaufighter Mk.IIF being flown by Gruchy that day did not return from this exercise.

According to eye witness Arthur Williams of Lunnon, near Parkhill, Wales not far from the airfield, he was rounding up some cattle on that morning when he suddenly spotted an aircraft spinning violently to earth, breaking into pieces as it fell. The main wreckage came down in a field just yards from a footpath which ran from the village of Lunnon to nearby Furzehill farm. The wings landed on a hedge about 100 yards distant.

Another witness, one Jack Mumby of nearby Furzeland Farm (not to be confused with the previous Furzehill) was first on the scene of the crash. He stated there were two bodies in the already smoldering wreck and he attempted to free them. But fire suddenly flared and the heat drove him back. It was never made clear if the crew was dead at this point but it is both likely and much to be hoped for. As it spread, the fire set off ammunition in the shattered fuselage, causing Mumby to flee for his life. In the process of running for a sunken portion of the walkway where he would be protected, he broke an ankle. Ironically, this was the valiant farmer’s second attempt to succor airmen in trouble. Two months previously he had helped save the life of a Czech pilot who crash-landed his Spitfire (coded BL 231) near his home.

An investigation was immediately begun into the cause of the crash by RAF authorities resulting in a report that, in typical bland military-speak, laid the blame pretty much on Gruchy’s shoulders. After noting that the aircraft was seen falling from the sky and breaking up, the report concluded:

Gruchy was “disregarding instructions in that he aerobated a non-aerobatic a/c, getting into a high speed spin and thus over stressing his a/c. The effort to recover from the spin caused (the) mainplane to break away. (A) high speed stall flick roll can happen involuntarily as well as intentionally. Finding most probably correct (although evidence slight).”  In other words, Gruchy got the plane into a maneuver that it was not capable of making, tearing the wings off in his efforts to correct it - but the incident could have been a result of inadequacies in the aircraft’s design!

In 2006 I had some e-mail correspondence with Ian Hodgkiss, a military historian in Wales who was then working on a book about the wartime crashes in that part of his country. On a visit to the Public Records Office in London he uncovered further evidence regarding the crash, apparently gathered by an investigator identified only as CI (Accidents), probably military shorthand for a crash investigator. This person added some detail to the circumstances of the incident.

Weather at the time was described as fair, slight mist, visibility 5 to 6 miles with patchy cumulus cloud, the base at 2500 feet. Such were the conditions at about 10 a.m. local time when Gruchy and Whyte, in Beaufighter R2318 and a second, unidentified, Beaufighter completed their training exercise. The pilot of the second aircraft radioed Gruchy twice but failed to get a response  so began to approach Gruchy’s aircraft, likely close enough to communicate using hand signals in the event Gruchy’s radio was not working - a common occurance. He reported getting  within 100 yards of the plane when -  “...he saw Gruchy’s aircraft turn 90 degrees to port (left) in a medium dive from 12,000 feet to approximately 9,000 feet ... level out and execute 2 rolls to starboard (right), the second roll being very rapid. The aircraft then developed a steep spiral spin which gradually flattened...”

The concluding sentences of the report reinforce the finding of pilot error without having the courage to say so outright. “At the pilot’s unit, no one, it seems, has any doubt that the roll was an intentional one,” it said. “Question to eighth (unnamed) witness:  To your knowledge, did any conversation take place referring to Pilot Officer Gruchy doing a roll? Answer: No, not immediately before the flight, but his radio operator had frequently asked him in my presence.”

An earlier observation in the report was the “temptation” offered  to young pilots watching skilled, highly trained and experienced  test pilots demonstrate maneuvers forbidden to them, calling any attempted copying of such maneuvers “a lack of flying discipline” ... surely a rather harsh assessment for spirited young men being trained in the art of aerial combat. Seeming to then contradict the previous statement, the final sentence of this section states “it is not proposed to press for any discouragement of test pilots in giving necessary (italics mine) demonstrations of aerobatics at RAF stations.

So ended the lives of two young men before they ever had the chance to put their hard won skills to the test against the enemy. Was it a case of a high spirited young pilot attempting a forbidden maneuver at the urging of a friend or were two lives sacrificed to an inadequate aircraft? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.

One further note for aircraft buffs. The plane that Philip and Francis were flying that day was something of a rare bird in that R2318 was a Beaufighter Mk IIF, a dedicated night fighter fitted with radar and Rolls Royce Merlin XX engines. All other marks of Beaufighter were powered by various designs of radial engines. The Merlins were taken from the engines allotted to the production of the Lancaster heavy bomber as there was a shortage at the time of radial engines. These engines, complete with the streamlined nacelles designed for the Lanc, were installed on the Beaufighter, giving it a slightly more aggressive look. The design was a technical success but crews never much liked it. The powerful engines gave the craft superior speed at altitude but, conversely, required a longer takeoff run before becoming airborne. While it’s heavy armament earned it the nickname “the Mighty Beau”, the Mk.IIF was soon superceded by the superior Mk.VIC  and the former night fighter was relegated to action over France and Belgium attacking primarily road and rail targets. The type soldiered on after the war years in a number of forms but was finally retired from service in 1960. Of the nearly 6,000 Beaufighters  built, only 9 whole airframes are known to survive.

(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3592489).

Hawker Hurricane Mk. XII, No. 127 (F) Squadron, RCAF, Gander, Newfoundland, May 1943.

Boulton-Paul Defiants and Hawker Hurricanes were also used to supplement the Beaufighters.  Aircrews named some of their aircraft in recognition of its Newfoundland heritage.  St. John's, Corner Brook, Deer Lake and Buchans, Harbour Grace, Grand Falls, Bell Island, Bonavista, St. George’s, Heart’s Content, Grand Bank and Botwood were some of the names used.  November 1943 saw the squadron move to RAF Valley in Wales to enable patrols to take place over the Irish Sea.

(RCAF Photo)

de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito B Mk. IV (Serial No. DK338)

With a conversion to de Havilland Mosquito Mk. XVII and later Mk. 30s in February 1944, No. 125 moved to RAF Hurn in preparation to cover the Operation Overlord landings in Normandy.

(Author Photo)

German Second World War Fieseler FZG-76/Fi-103 V-1 Flying Bomb War Prize in the Atlantic Canada Aviation Museum, near the airport for Halifax, Nova Scotia.  With the commencement of V-1 attacks on London the squadron moved to RAF Middle Wallop to assist in the City's defence and to fly patrols from RAF Bradwell Bay over the Low Countries.

(Brian O'Malley family Photo)

Two Newfoundlanders, Flight Sergeant Royal Cooper, a pilot from Trinity Bay, on the left, and his navigator, Flight Sergeant Patrick O'Malley, born in Edinburgh, trained in Canada, on the right, flew a de Havilland Mosquito. On the night of 28 July 1944, they shot down the first V-1 flying bomb claimed by No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron. They are shown here in front of their twin-engined fighter. The photo was taken by an official photographer who happened to be at the airfield when Cooper and O'Malley had just returned from a sortie. Cooper would later write a book titled Tales from a Pilot's Logbook about his flying career during and after the war. Royal Cooper later became the mayor of Gander. Patrick O'Malley and his family moved to Australia after the war. Brian, his son, provided the photo, and arranged for Royal and Patrick to be reunited in 2000, after they lost contact at the end of the war.

(Brian O'Malley family Photo)

No. 125 Squadron RAF, Flight Sergeant Pat O'Malley 3rd from the right in the front row. de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito in the background.

A move to RAF Coltishall saw the squadron defend against enemy intruders and flying bomb carriers whilst undertaking reconnaissance to locate the remainder of German shipping.  Before the war ended, the squadron destroyed some 44 enemy aircraft, and damaged 20.  Although airmen from other countries accounted for the majority of these attacks, volunteers from Newfoundland and Labrador also played their part.

Aside from the No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron, volunteers from Newfoundland and Labrador served in a variety of RAF units, and performed a wide range of tasks in every theatre of war.  Leading Aircraftsman Hubert French of Bell Island served as a gunner in India and Myanmar (then Burma).  Flight Officer Walter Vatcher was part of a fighter squadron that raided Dieppe in August 1942.

The most decorated airman from Newfoundland and Labrador was navigator Allan Ogilvie of Grand Falls, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) after completing his 50th combat mission.  Unfortunately, while returning from his 51st mission on 11 March 1943, an enemy fighter shot down Ogilvie's aircraft and forced him to parachute into German-occupied Northern France.  With help from the French Resistance, Ogilvie completed a treacherous three-month journey back to England, where the RAF awarded him the Bar to the DFC for his courage and heroism.

After the war in Europe ended in May 1945, the RAF continued to send recruits to the Pacific theatre until hostilities against Japan ceased in August.  No. 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron remained in England and spent much of the summer practice flying a new model of Mosquito aircraft over the United Kingdom and occupied Germany.  The unit disbanded on 20 November 1945, and by the end of the year, most RAF recruits from Newfoundland and Labrador had returned home.  Casualties in the unit had been high.  Between 1940 and 1945, some 135 of the country's airmen and ground staff had died on duty.  (Jenny Higgins)

After the war, No. 125 squadron was reformed with Gloster Meteor night fighters on 31 March 1955 at RAF Stradishall.

(RuthAS Photo)

Gloster Meteor NF.11, similar to those flown by No. 125 Squadron in 1955.

(RAF Photo)

de Havilland Venom FB.1.

de Havilland Venoms replaced the Meteors in late 1955 and remained with the squadron until it was disbanded on 10 May 1957.

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