516 COMBINED OPS SQUADRON RAF
MEMORIES OF A PILOT
New Zealander Douglas Shears served with 516 Combined Operations Squadron from 17/7/44 to late Dec 44.
These often humorous anecdotes are based upon an exchange of letters between
Doug and Phillip C Jones in the mid 90s when Phill was researching the squadron.
See 516 Combined Ops Squadron for a brief history of
the Squadron. Doug's Commanding Officer (CO) was Squadron Leader I.G.
Posting to Dundonald
My transfer to 516 Combined Operations Squadron at Dundonald in Ayrshire, Scotland was more to do with gaining a
commission as it was to do with operational needs! This is what happened. I had been at the Coastal Command Station at St Eval, near Newquay,
Cornwall since September 1943. A few weeks before D-Day I was interviewed by the Group Captain for a commission. There were three
applicants; an Englishman, a Canadian and myself. At the time I was 21 years of age and had been in the Air Force for nearly 3 years. We covered
the usual points and then the questions turned to my university education. I explained that I had not attended university having joined the RNZAF in 1940 when I was just 18 years of
age. Despite these mitigating circumstances the Group Captain held firmly to his belief that all RAF
Officers should have a degree. It was no surprise that the successful candidate was a former naval architect with a university degree!
The Orderly Sergeant at St Eval suggested that I should write to the Air Commodore in charge of the RNZAF in Britain
and ask for time off to attend University. About 10 days later I found myself standing in his London office. He didn't mince his words and
suggested that I put my future in his hands to which I readily agreed. He would post me to another unit and within 6 months I'd be recommended
for a commission by another Commanding Officer. In the event that this did not happen he would grant me a commission himself.
In a matter of weeks I was posted to Dundonald and after 6 months I reported to the Group Captain at Prestwick for an
interview about a commission. Word soon spread and the general feedback was that my chances of success were zero. I was told that the Group Captain
"was too tough
and doesn't give out commissions unless he knows the applicant personally." When I marched into the "great man's" presence he kept me
standing at attention for a while and then told me to drag up a chair and sit down. He asked a few questions but we mostly talked about New
Zealand. He had served with our RNZAF Commodore in the same Bomber Squadron and was very pleased to recommend me for a commission! I have many
fond memories of my time at Dundonald and some of these are reproduced below. (Photo; the Author 1945 RNZAF).
I was most impressed with John's flying ability. His prowess in Hurricanes left me well
behind but I was a bomber driver although I did fly both Blenheims and Hurricanes at Dundonald. John, I believe, was an Oxford Graduate and his parents were well
known and respected. As an ordinary 'Kiwi' I was impressed with his English attitude to life down to
his favoured drink of whisky and soda.
[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017].
His flying career apart John claimed a place in the memory of those of us who were at Dundonald when 516
Squadron was gradually closing down. It was towards the end of 1944 that the CO suggested that we have a big farewell party for Officers, Other
Ranks and Airmen. John was detailed to organise the event and he gave the greatest priority to
the purchase of the beer. He asked me how
much one person would drink in a night. I suggested 4 or 5 pints would be ample. He thanked me and carried on. He stopped a couple of airmen and asked them how much beer
they could drink in a night. They thought a gallon each would suffice. Throwing caution to the wind he
ordered one gallon per person which amounted to a substantial order for 200 gallons. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your point of view, about half the personnel were posted
to other commands before the day of the party. We had a great time with as much beer as we could drink and next morning an unknown amount of beer,
possibly not a lot, was returned to the brewery!
There was a cat called 'Tito' at Dundonald. He was a 'moocher par excellence' and an accomplished mouse catcher.
He put these qualities to good effect each Friday morning after breakfast had been served. Before the men left the Sergeant's Mess he would
strategically place half a dozen mice in the middle of the main exit so that nobody could fail to notice them. With what looked like a
self-satisfied smirk on his face he accepted the congratulations of his captive audience but was particularly grateful to those who gave him a
tiny portion of their Friday chocolate ration. How did he know to put on this performance on chocolate ration day? We'll never know but his
qualities had not gone unnoticed by the person who named him. His namesake, Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, was a great organiser and made the most
of opportunities while he had the chance!
The main training beaches on Loch Fyne were some 50 miles north of Dundonald. They, and others in the area, were used for simulated landings of troops, mainly combined Army, Navy, and Air Force,
swivel and sighting practice for anti aircraft gunners etc. To achieve realistic attacks the safety envelope was on occasions stretched to the
limit. On one occasion Bob (Vivian) Thomas, flying a Blenheim in a group of 2 Blenheims and 3 Hurricanes, had his attention distracted by a
warning over the R/T (radio transmitter) just as he was making a very low level 'attack' on a landing craft. In the second or two it took to
check for nearby aircraft he found himself too close to avoid colliding with the
landing craft's mast. He managed to pull the nose up but the underside was ripped open, the bombing doors and rear landing wheel lost and the
main spar fractured. As he returned to Dundonald we heard him report his position on several occasions and it was
clear his plane had sustained some serious damage. I was acting controller when Bob appeared on the circuit and we saw bits falling off the
aircraft as it passed overhead. When he landed
safely, and the emergency was over, we were able to examine the machine. Because the Blenheims were, by this time, no longer in operational use
it was decided to regard it as a write off.
It was the 21st of October 1944 and there was little air traffic between Dundonald and Loch Fyne. I was in the
process of reporting the day's work to the CO when a very low flying B17g
bomber appeared at the downwind end of our runway. To our consternation it appeared to be attempting a landing on our very short
'Somerfelt' landing strip. I loaded a 'verey' pistol and fired a red
signal into the sky - a last resort warning to the crew not to land, but the American pilots ignored it. I tried to fire another one but it was a dud and by this time the plane had landed.
Take off from our relatively short runways was not a sensible option and I believe the aircraft was dismantled and transported by road to
Prestwick. The plane had flown in from Newfoundland and in poor visibility the crew had mistaken Dundonald for nearby Prestwick.
There was a photographic department at Dundonald and once a month a planned series of overlap aerial photographs
were taken from an altitude of 10,000 ft. It was a cold February morning when I took off in an Anson on my first photographic mission over the Prestwick area.
On this occasion I was
accompanied by Flight Sergeant Millard as photographer. The camera was mounted under the nose of the aircraft with the hatch removed. This had the
effect of reducing
the temperature inside the aircraft to below freezing at the operating height. Near the completion of the last run we drifted out of range which
necessitated another run over Prestwick. This we did but, much to our annoyance, we once more drifted off target near the end of the run.
By this time we were frozen to the marrow so we decided to return to base. We didn't want to admit our failure so
I suggested that we should report that the area was clouded over and that photography had been impossible. When we landed we discovered that we
had been transmitting our conversations without a break for more than an hour!... I had inadvertently switched on the transmitter with my elbow.
Our cover story was well and truly blown but there were worse ramifications to follow... much worse While we had been on the air 8 Hurricanes were on exercise over Loch Fyne
using the same radio frequency. Their exercise had to be aborted because we were blocking the frequency!
Embarrassingly for us we had been singing and telling stories some a bit risqué. We landed at Dundonald just ahead
of the Hurricanes returning from Loch Fyne. I couldn't imagine a worse situation to be in but there was more bad news - the CO was leading them!
My instinct was to hide but since there was nowhere to go I stood in front of the control tower to await my fate. Fortunately the CO had a great sense of fun and enjoyed a good story. As he approached he said "What a
performance you two put on! Many of the stories were new to me but for God's sake next time turn off your transmitter! You ruined our operation
and it's lucky that the Air Ministry bods weren't listening in. By the way
you'll have to do it all again if your mission was not successful." We kept our
fingers crossed and all was well in the end.
While I was waiting to
return to New Zealand, after three years service in the
UK, I stayed on at Dundonald which was in the process of running down. It fell to me to fly our three Blenheims back to the Filton factory near
Bristol. The planes were stripped of everything except essential equipment and instruments leaving me with a turn and bank indicator, a compass
and not much more to fly with. At the start of the first trip I decided to buzz the Sergeants' Mess so I climbed up to about 3000ft and approached the building at about 275mph in a shallow dive. I
was just about to roar over the roof when a large seagull knocked out the front perspex panel which disappeared in a splatter of blood and
feathers. It was like hitting a brick wall! The punishment for my little bit of bravado was to fly the 400 miles to Bristol with a blast of cold
air blowing through the fuselage. It was more than just uncomfortable and I nearly succumbed to the extreme cold. (Photo; 516 Sqd
Blenheim laying smoke on Loch Fyne).
With my pilot's parachute over my shoulder and my haversack on my back I made the return trip to Dundonald via
London, Glasgow and Kilmarnock. On the second trip I ran into low cloud and, as I was short of a radio and many instruments, I landed somewhere in
Cumberland where I stayed the night. I was cleared for Bristol the next day and then made the increasingly familiar journey back to Scotland.
After a day's rest I found myself, for the third and final time, en route to Bristol. On return to Dundonald the CO gave me a 48 hour pass for rest and recuperation but instead I went to Glasgow to see the sights!
I Flew like a Bird!
A spare part was needed for Tiger Moth DH 82 and I found myself on the 80 mile trip from Dundonald to an Elementary Flying Training
School (EFTS) field just north of Carlisle. It should have been straightforward but when the field came into view it was clear, from the length
of the grass strip, that it was designed for Tigers only. I throttled back on the final approach but couldn't get the speed under 100
knots when a normal landing was half that speed. I glanced out of the port side window and realised that there was a big difference between the Air
Speed Indicator (ASI) and the passing scenery! Clearly the ASI had stuck at 100 Knots and the plane was just about stalling at 25 Knots. (Photo; Avro Anson).
I had a rude
awakening since my attention had drifted and immediately realised that I had been reducing power well below safe limits. However, the wonderful
old Anson did not let me down and I landed in less than half the length of the field. The CO of the EFTS was dubious about the Anson taking off
on such a short runway but I had no doubts. After we stowed the spare part, I requested the assistance of 6 airmen to hold the tail of the Anson
in a flying attitude until I had both engines at about 3/4 power. I then signalled them to let go and throttled up. I knew that the Anson would almost fly like a
helicopter and I lifted her off the ground about half way down the grass strip and climbed at about 30 Knots. I then gave her full flap and she
rose like a bird clearing trees along the airfield boundary by at least 100 ft. The CO, and his pupils learning to fly Tigers, must have been
impressed. Little did they know that the faithful Anson was one in a million and anyone could have achieved the same spectacular performance.
The 2 Ansons based at Dundonald had been in the Fleet Arm (Navy) at one time and the airspeed was in knots not MPH. Ansons in general were the safest aircraft I
flew and this particular one stalled at 25 knots and, even then, it was so docile that it just floated gently downwards. At 26 knots it tried to
fly in a normal attitude again! Because of the lack of stalling characteristics we flew this Anson into quite short airfields so, apart from the
faulty ASI, I had no concerns about landing at Carlisle.
Navy Exercises at Troon
We were to provide trainee Navy Ack Ack crews with simulated attacks in preparation for their posting
to the Far East. To be effective these simulations had to be realistic and there had been some criticism from the Admiral that, in
the past, the altitude of the attacking planes had been too high and the speed too low. The CO was, not surprisingly, somewhat disgruntled at the criticism of his pilots
so he led this
particular flight himself. He briefed his pilots to fly at high speed at an altitude of just a few feet over the
target area. This was achieved but with tragic results. One soldier stood up and was fatally wounded by a propeller. These realistic simulated
exercises were not war games and needed to be treated with great care and respect particularly so when live ammunition and cardboard bombs, which could kill within a range of a few yards, were used.
Dr Jack Reid
Doctor Jack Reid was the Medical Officer in charge of accidents, coughs and colds and all things related to
health matters - he also loved flying as a passenger. Whenever possible he would accompany me on official flights around the UK. This was
the case on a flight to Hendon, London. Doc Reid checked that his orderly could handle the daily sick parade which amounted to just 6 patients with
routine conditions. We left Dundonald just after 8 am in an Anson and the flight itself was uneventful. When we returned to Dundonald at about 6 pm there
was an urgent message for Doc Reid from the CO. He received a real dressing down because one of our airmen had broken his leg while we were joy
riding over the south of England. Matters were made all the worse since the CO had to call on the services of the Navy doctor! Doc Reid's wings were clipped
after this event - all future flights he undertook had to be authorised by the CO himself! I was to meet Doc Reid again in the 1950s when he
visited us at our home in New Zealand. He later settled in Auckland in the Eastern Bays district and I was in touch with him for many years.
The Smoke Screen
We were scheduled to lay a smoke screen along some 'landing beaches' on Loch Fyne while mock landing exercises
were taking place. The weather conditions were unsuitable so we were stood down. Since we had loaded the 3 Blenheims with the smoke canisters the
CO ordered us to "Put the smoke down on our field and let's see how good you are at your
first Blenheim pilot laid the smoke right on target which unfortunately included a parked double-decker bus! I was next about 5 minutes later and as I flew
in front of the same bus I just had time to see him shake his fist before he disappeared from view for the second time. I was just landing when
Blenheim put the third and final smoke screen on the ground just as the bus was about clear of my screen. The bus driver was no doubt unimpressed
but the CO was more than satisfied with our efforts! That
evening in a Kilmarnock pub we heard someone remark that during the afternoon it suddenly and unexpectedly became overcast in the Dundonald area!
We listened attentively but maintained a discreet silence!
The Day We Shot-Up Troon!
We had 3 Blenheims and 6 Hurricanes in the air on this occasion. The target was situated in the centre of the
business area of Troon in Ayrshire. We had instructions to "shoot up" a gun emplacement which was positioned in a derelict building that had been
burnt out some years before. The engagement had to be fast and furious and we attacked them
from all sides. They were out-gunned and had it been a real attack they would have been wiped out. It must have been an unusual sight to see so
many planes targetting the middle of the town.
In these operating conditions it was vital to keep a good watch on what was happening around you. To reduce
the risk of collision on this occasions we kept turning the same way. Later that day the CO received a signal from the Admiral congratulating the
RAF on the fine example of flying and attack which he thought were just what his men needed. We achieved
surprise and the 3 Blenheims, fitted with sirens, created realistic battle conditions. On the ground pandemonium prevailed which was ideal
training for men due for posting in the far east where the Japanese were likely to attack
at any time without warning.
Doug had seen service with 428 RCAF Squadron flying Wellington bombers on operational duties and at RAF St Eval
prior to joining 516 Squadron. His tour of duty was close to four years at the end of which he was just 22 years old.
On return to New
Zealand after the war he started a company with some colleagues called Helicopters (NZ) Limited. He took advantage of an opportunity to learn to
fly helicopters in America and became the first Kiwi to fly commercially in the U.S.A. in 1955. In June 1960 he was appointed a companion of the Royal
Aeronautical Society. (Photo; the Author circa 2000).
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516 Squadron on this website
Airfield Focus - No. 35 Dundonald by Phil Jones. Published by GMS Enterprises, 67 Pyhill, Peterborough,
PE3 8QQ in 1998. 34 Pages. ISBN1 870384 66 0 £4.95.
Damn my Two Left Feet....and how I Flew with Them by Doug Shears. Published 2001 by Jeff Mill &
Associates 4/8 Nile Street, Timaru, New Zealand.
516 Combined Operations
Squadron - Memories of a Pilot' are the memories of New Zealand pilot Douglas
Shears They are based upon an exchange of letters between Doug and Phillip C
Jones in the mid 90s and we're grateful to both for allowing us to use the
If you have any information or book
recommendations about 516 Squadron please contact us.