The War Career of RAF Flight Sergeant Leonard Isherwood

The badge of the Royal Air Force

In my previous article Researching WWII RAF Bomber Crew – The Tragic Story of Leonard Isherwood (familyhistory.car.blog/2021/04/20/researching-wwii-raf-bomber-crew-the-tragic-story-of-leonard-isherwood/) I explained how I had gone about researching the life and war career of my relation Leonard Isherwood despite not being entitled to have access to his service record. This article tells Leonard’s story…

Introduction

Leonard Isherwood was born in the late summer of 1919 in Stockton Heath, Cheshire, a village on the outskirts of the Lancashire industrial town of Warrington. He was the third of three children to parents, Daniel Isherwood and Alice Maud Salmon. Dan and Alice married in November 1915, after discovering that Alice was pregnant with their first child. This was late in life for both of them, Dan being thirty-eight and Alice forty-one.

Dan had had an active younger life, working by day as a joiner and carpenter, but in the evenings and weekends he was a leading light in the Warrington Rugby League side. He played three quarter back for Warrington, known as “The Wire” after the town’s wire-making industry, from the late 1890s. In the middle of the next decade Dan and his team ascended to the very top of the game, playing four Challenge Cup finals and winning two, in 1905 and 1907. On the back of his rugby career, Dan became something of a minor local celebrity.

Dan and Alice had their first child, Amy, in March 1916. Dan was in his civilian job at the time of Amy’s baptism in April 1916, though he must have known that call up to the army was highly likely. In September 1916, his call up papers arrived, and he joined the army alongside his five younger brothers, all of whom were already serving. Alice, left behind in Stockton Heath with baby Amy, was again pregnant. Son Freddie was born in March 1917.

There’s no evidence that Dan served on the front lines during his army service. However, in December 1917 he was transferred from the army to the Royal Flying Corps, where he served as an Aero Rigger – a much more suitable use of his carpentry skills for the war effort than any mere soldiery. He was on the muster the day that the RAF was formed on 1st April 1918 from the merging of the RFC and the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) and saw out the remainder of the war in the new service.

Dan was demobbed in February 1919 and came home to Alice, Amy and Freddie in Stockton Heath, resuming his peacetime profession as a joiner and carpenter. Leonard came along in the late summer of that year, completing their family.

Boyhood

A whole generation of boys grew up in the 1920s and 30s with an abiding interest in aeroplanes and flying. Aeroplanes were something of a novelty at the time and were highly romanticised in Boy’s Own stories and the adventures of Biggles, by Captain W.E. Johns. Perhaps spurred on by his father’s stories of service in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force in the Great War, albeit as ground crew, Leonard’s imagination was fired. Len wanted to fly!

A reproduction of the dust jacket of the first Biggles book – The Camels Are Coming by W.E. Johns, 1932.
Image source: The Camels are Coming – The First Edition (biggles.info)

In 1936 the British Government took the decision to expand all the armed forces, especially the RAF, in response to the aggressive policies and rapid rearmament of Nazi Germany. RAF recruitment was highly selective, and decisions were often made based on class rather than aptitude. Being recruited as a pilot only happened to the rich – Len was from a working-class family and would have to find another route to meet his ambition. However, there was a route into flying that was open to bright, diligent working-class lads: they could join as “Tradesmen Aircrew”. Under the new RAF expansion scheme, after reaching the rank of Leading Aircraftsman or after two years’ service, whichever came sooner, they could remuster as a Sergeant Pilot or Air Observer. This was Len’s chance, and he took it.

On leaving school, Len applied to join the RAF as Tradesmen Aircrew and was accepted. Being under eighteen he would have needed his parents’ permission to join up. Despite their fears for his safety – and after his Great War service, his father can have had few illusions –  they agreed to support his ambition. He left Stockton Heath behind and travelled to RAF Cranwell for basic training.

Leonard’s Pre-War RAF Service – The Record Gap

It is at this point in the story that my research into Leonard’s service would have most benefited from access to his RAF service record. I would’ve been able to see his exact date of joining, how speedily he moved through the ranks and when he remustered into a flying role. Unfortunately, these details are unavailable to me at present. However, by the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939, as Leonard had just turned twenty, he had achieved the rank of Flight Sergeant and was serving as an Air Observer in 58 Squadron of Bomber Command, which was equipped with Whitley bombers.

Pre-War Expectations of the Air War

In the early 1930s, expectations were that a future war would primarily be an air war. Given that bomber technology was advancing rapidly, more rapidly than fighter technology at the time, the orthodox view was that a determined bomber force simply could not be stopped from dropping large bomb loads onto military, industrial and civilian targets. This view was most memorably summed up by Stanley Baldwin on 10th November 1932 in a speech to Parliament titled A Fear for the Future in which he used the phrase “The bomber will always get through.”

Stanley Baldwin in 1920.
Image source: Stanley Baldwin – Wikipedia

Baldwin’s view was echoed in many popular films and novels of the era, including Olaf Stapleton’s 1930 novel Last and First Men, H.G. Wells 1936 film Things To Come, and Nevil Shute’s 1939 novel What Happened to the Corbetts. Such theories led military experts, such as Basil Liddell Hart for example, to speculate that Britain could be subjected to 250,000 casualties in the first week of war. Fear of an all-out air offensive against Britain was so high that Harold Macmillan, writing in 1956, confided that he and others around him “thought of air warfare in 1938 rather as people think of nuclear war today”.

“The bomber will always get through” came to characterise contemporary views and official policy on what to expect from, and how to conduct, the coming war in the air.

Being in Bomber Command at this crucial time, in a squadron equipped with night-flying heavy bombers, Leonard knew – for better or worse – that he was going to be very much on the front line of this new form of warfare.

Bomber Command on the Eve of War

At the outbreak of war in early September 1939 Bomber Command was organised into six groups. The first five groups were each equipped with a different type of bomber. 6 Group was equipped with several of each bomber type and was designated as the training centre, providing qualified aircrew to the other five.

GroupBomber TypeManufacturerNo. available at outbreak of warRole
1BattleFairey80Light Bomber
2BlenheimBristol231Light Bomber
3WellingtonVickers160Medium Bomber
4WhitleyArmstrong-Whitworth169Heavy Bomber
5HampdenHandley-Page140Medium Bomber
TOTAL780
Disposition of operational Bomber Command groups on 3rd September 1939

Bomber Command was unsure of the challenges that war would bring to the bomber force, so spread its net wide in the commissioning and assessment of many different types of aircraft:

  • The Fairey Battle was a light bomber with a three-man crew. powered by a single Rolls-Royce Merlin engine (also used in Spitfires). When loaded with bombs it was both heavy and slow, so it was vulnerable to enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. The Battles took heavy operational losses in the first year of the war and were withdrawn from front line service by the end of 1940.
The Fairey Battle light bomber.
Image source: Fairey Battle – Wikipedia
  • The Bristol Blenheim, also a light bomber, was a twin-engined aircraft. For its time it was both high powered and fast, faster than most fighters of the late 1930s. However, the new monoplane fighters developed in the final months before the war were a sufficient step forward in power and speed to be able to catch it, making it mostly obsolete by the outbreak of war. In January 1941, the Air Staff classified the Blenheim as inadequate for current operations in terms of performance and armament and it was mostly withdrawn from Bomber Command as newer, more advanced bombers became available.
A Bristol Blenheim Mk 1 in flight.
Image source: Bristol Blenheim – Wikipedia
  • The Vickers Wellington was a twin-engined medium bomber designed for long-range daytime operations. When used as a night bomber, the Wellington was a success and stayed in service until 1943, when it was superseded by the larger four-engined heavy bombers such as the Avro Lancaster. It remained in service in secondary roles through to the end of the war.
Vickers Wellington B Mark 1A.
Image source: Vickers Wellington – Wikipedia
  • The Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley was, like the Vickers Wellington, a twin-engined long-range bomber. Unlike the Wellington, it was designated a heavy bomber and designed specifically for use at night – the only British bomber designated to this role at the outset of the war. It was superseded by the larger four-engined heavy bombers, such as the Avro Lancaster, in 1942.
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley in flight c.1940.
Image source: Armstrong Whitworth Whitley – Wikipedia
  • The Handley-Page Hampden was, like the Wellington and Whitley, a twin-engined long-range bomber. Designed as a daylight bomber due to its speed and manoeuvrability, the RAF learned the hard way that they were no match for German fighters. From December 1939, Hampdens were switched to night bombing activities. They were withdrawn from Bomber Command in September 1942 to be replaced by the new four engined heavy bombers coming on stream.
A Handley Page Hampden Mark 1 in flight c.1942.
Image source: Handley Page Hampden – Wikipedia

Despite the pre-war rhetoric about the bomber force, these aircraft were all compromises to some degree and would be fiercely challenged by the German Luftwaffe and ground-based air defences. They pale in comparison to the large four engined bombers that would come later in the war. But Leonard and his comrades simply had to fight with what they had at their disposal, whatever the odds against them.

58 Squadron

58 squadron was formed during the First World War. First mustered in mid-1916, it acted as a training unit initially, then a bomber squadron, carrying bombing operations over Belgium in 1918 before being disbanded in 1919. It was reformed in 1924, at which time it was commanded by Squadron Leader Arthur Harris, who went on to be the Air Marshall in overall charge of Bomber Command in the latter half of the Second World War. It had a variety of different home stations during the inter-war years, including RAF Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, RAF Driffield in Yorkshire and to RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. While serving at Boscombe Down in 1937 the squadron was equipped with the new Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers.

By the start of the war in early September 1939 the squadron was based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, situated 10 miles north-west of York, equipped with Whitley IIIs, with an expectation of upgrading to Whitley Vs within a year.

A modern map showing the location of Linton-on-Ouse in relation to Harrogate, Wetherby and York.
Image Source: http://www.google.com/maps

58 squadron was one of six squadrons of Whitley bombers belonging to 4 Group, spread across three airfields in Yorkshire. 10 and 78 Squadron were stationed at RAF Dishforth near Ripon, 77 and 102 squadrons were stationed at RAF Driffield, 30 miles east of York, and 58 squadron shared facilities at Linton-on-Ouse with 51 Squadron and 4 Group Headquarters. Although the squadron was the key operational unit, there was much interchange of personnel between the squadrons and everyone had pals from their training days, usually referred to as “Oppos”, at each of the other airfields. Linton was something of a plumb posting for young airmen as it was within easy reach of the bright lights of York, where the famous Betty’s Tea Shop was the favoured RAF hang out.

Whitley Bomber Crew Roles

There were five crew roles in the Whitley bomber:

  • Pilot
    Flew the aircraft and was the captain of the aircraft, in direct command of the rest of the crew.
  • Co-Pilot
    Responsible for assisting the pilot with flying the aircraft and maintaining air worthiness.
  • Air Observer
    Responsible for navigation to and from target (using astral navigation, map reading and wireless position fixes) and bomb aiming and bomb release over the target. He sat “up front” with the pilots. This was arguably the most important role on the aircraft after the pilot as they were responsible for getting the aircraft to the right place at the right time and then dropping the bombs on target. All other activity on the aircraft was effectively in support of this role. Other air forces, including the Polish and French, often made the Air Observer the captain of the aircraft in recognition of the importance of the role.
  • Wireless Operator / Air Gunner
    Usually shortened to “WOP/AG”, had the dual duties of maintaining radio communication and manning the belly gun, which was armed with twin Browning .303 machine guns.
  • Tail Gunner
    Responsible for keeping a permanent visual watch for enemy aircraft and engaging them when attacked. A lucky tail gunner would also loose of his Browning .303s at ground targets when doing low level bomb runs. When the Whitley upgraded to version V, the tail gunner’s turret was upgraded to four Browning .303s, an improvement met with glee by all tail gunners.

Leonard was the Air Observer in his aircraft. He wore a special badge – a single-winged flying badge with a wreath containing the letter “O” – on his tunic above his left breast pocket to denote his trade specialism.

RAF Observer Trade Specialism Badge
Image source: Raf Aircrew Brevet (britairforce.com)

Prior to the war, crews were assigned together in a haphazard fashion, so rarely got the chance to work smoothly together as a well-oiled team. From the start of the war, this practice changed to regular crews who came to know and trust each other as brothers.

The Eve of War at RAF Linton-on-Ouse

Ever since the Munich Conference in late September 1938 it was clear that war in Europe was coming sooner or later. The agreement allowed Germany to annexe the Sudetenland, that part of Czechoslovakia bordering Germany in which 3 million mostly ethnic Germans lived. When Germany invaded the remaining rump of the Czech half of the country on 15th March 1939 it was clear that war was inevitable, and probably before the end of the year.

Armed forces in Britain and France went over to a high state of preparedness. They rapidly expanded the numbers of trained servicemen, calling for vast numbers of part-timers to join up and commence training (i.e. Territorial Army, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve).

Training intensified. In Bomber Command all airmen were brushing up on their flying, navigation, bombing and gunnery skills. Night flight training and searchlight cooperation were the new skills that the bomber arm were having to master that summer.

In August, van Ribbentrop, the German foreign minister, began negotiations with the Soviet Union, resulting in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. This was surely the prelude to all out war. The world held its breath.

The partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, 1939.
Image source: Bandera, Ukraine & the Holocaust Part II: 1939-1943 | All About History (historyanswers.co.uk)

On 1st September 1939 Germany commenced the invasion of Poland. The public knew that this was probably it – the balloon was going up for sure this time. They were glued to their wireless sets, waiting to hear the latest developments. The armed forces sprang into action – mobilisation orders were issued to all arms. Territorial soldiers and volunteer reserve airmen and sailors were immediately issued with call up papers and plans were prepared for the first actions of all military arms on the declaration of war, whenever that might come.

At Linton-on-Ouse, orders were received to mobilise to war establishment. The base was at once sealed off, surrounded by armed guards. The aircraft were dispersed across the airfield and to other nearby airfields to minimise the risk of their being caught on the ground en-masse by a surprise enemy attack. Steel helmets and gas masks were issued to all personnel and were henceforth to be carried at all times. Black out screens were fitted to windows. Masks were fitted to the headlights of motor vehicles. Tannoy speakers were fitted into the barrack blocks, offices and strategic posts so that orders could be issued and responded to instantly. Aircraft recognition posters for German and Allied aircraft were put up in crew rooms. The wireless/transmitter sets on the aircraft, usually called “W/T sets”, were all recalibrated. Guns were oiled. Every conceivable aircraft system was checked, double-checked and triple-checked.

On the 2nd of September a decision was taken to move nine aircraft and their crews of 58 Squadron from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, which was undergoing building works, to RAF Leconfield, just north of Hull. This was the be the forward operating in the event of hostilities. Len and his pals made the move that same day, no doubt with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

At 11:15am on Sunday the 3rd of September the base personnel huddled around the available wireless sets and listened to the special announcement from the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the BBC. War had been declared. This was it!

Neville Chamberlain broadcast the news to the nation.
Image source: BBC ON THIS DAY | 3 | 1939: Britain and France declare war on Germany

Shortly after the announcement of hostilities, war crew lists were posted on the notice boards. Leonard was to be crewed with Squadron Leader Sutton. This was a significant recognition of Leonard’s skills as navigator and bomb aimer. Quite naturally, Sutton would want a highly skilled crew in his own aircraft so that he could set an example to the rest of the squadron. Who wants to follow a Squadron Leader who can’t find the target or, when he does find it, misses it by a mile!

Immediately afterwards, the first flight orders were received by the new crews. Incredibly, the orders were for that very night, the first night of the war. Target: Germany!

Next Time

Join me next time as we follow Len into action over Germany and delve into the hair-raising exploits of 58 Squadron in the first months of the war.


Documentary Sources

  • Service Records (Air Force). England. War Office (Great Britain). RAF Service Record. 1918. ISHERWOOD, Daniel. Service Number: 108386. TNA Reference: AIR79/973. Collection: UK, Royal Air Force Airmen Records, 1918-1940. http://www.ancestry.co.uk.
  • Marriage index (CR). England. Runcorn, Cheshire. Dec 1915. ISHERWOOD, Daniel and SALMON, Alice Maud. Volume 8A, Page 587.
  • Baptisms (PR). England. St Thomas, Stockton Heath, Cheshire. 20 Apr 1916. ISHERWOOD, Amy. Baptism Register, Page 166, No. 1323. http://www.findmypast.com
  • Baptisms (PR). England. St Thomas, Stockton Heath, Cheshire. 11 Jun 1917. ISHERWOOD, Frederick. Baptism Register, Page 180, No. 1440. http://www.findmypast.com
  • Birth index (CR). England. Runcorn, Cheshire. Sep 1919. ISHERWOOD, Leonard. Volume 8A, Page 296.
  • Operations Record Book (Air Force). England. War Office (Great Britain). 58 Squadron, Royal Air Force. September 1939. TNA Reference: AIR 27/543/2, The National Archives (Great Britain), http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Contextual Sources

Published by Phil Isherwood

Phil has studied genealogy with Pharos Tutors and the Society of Genealogists, completing their year-long intermediate programme with a distinction. He is a Family History Advisor for the Oxfordshire Family History Society and enjoys working on the knotty genealogy problems brought to him by the general public. He has a special interest in genealogical methodology, military ancestors and sources for north-west England. Twitter: @isherwood_phil

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