Tain Remembered

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Joe Matthews from the Royal Canadian Airforce recalls his visits to Tain during WW2

My wife’s maiden name was Ross and she of course traces her paternal ancestry to Scotland.  When I first asked where in Scotland my query elicited place names new to me, like Dornoch, Tain and Tarbat Ness, somewhere north of Inverness.  If I had then had any inkling of the future I am sure I would have attempted to pinpoint the locale of the Ross Clan more precisely and with much greater interest.

You see, I was destined later to visit Tain as a RCAF navigator on B 24 Liberators of 547 Squadron RAF.  We flew from St. Eval, Cornwall, on 25th May 1944, in a detachment of four crews and aircraft.  We were sent there to distract the enemy and cover U-boat transit off the coast of Norway.

An early visit to the town of Tain confirmed the Ross heritage.  It seemed the lettering over two of every storefront proclaimed the family name.  Another memory of Tain is the novelty of sitting outside the Nissen hut to read a newspaper at midnight.  Despite twelve-hour patrols and late evening take-offs, we logged no night flying time from Tain that May and June.

Our biggest challenge at Tain was the weather we encountered north of the Shetlands.  On one memorable trip up there we saw neither sea nor sky for over eight hours.  For all that time the drift meter, astro compass and sextant were blind and impotent.  Combine these shortcomings with fickle magnetic compass and pernicious static peculiar to the area, and navigation was reduced to little more than a hope and a prayer.  And pray I did!

On this same occasion, and unbeknownst to us, Jerry had succeeded in jamming the Gee signals upon which we depended closer to home.  According to the first transmissions I picked up we were four hundred miles west of our intended track.  Fuel remaining dictated an immediate diversion to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides – a fatal decision had we attempted to implement it from a fictitious starting point!

With a little ingenuity, a lot of faith and some luck I managed to resolve the Gee dilemma.  We held our heading and eventually reached Tain low on fuel, the crew mentally and physically exhausted. 

Gale-force winds bedevilled us another night when we were sent to escort a convoy outbound for Murmansk.  It took so long to reach the area and find the storm-battered merchantmen we stayed with them for only an hour.

Some of the fun at Tain we made for ourselves.  Our port beam gunner failed to properly secure his 5 inch gun on its ball-and-socket mounting.  When he squeezed the trigger the gun flew off in a wild whirligig that put several rounds through our own tail fin.

Early one morning a Focke-Wulf Condor crossed our path on the way to its base in Norway.  We knew the Condor was faster than the B24 but took after it anyway, engines at full boost, fuselage ringing with vibration.  Our Mark V Liberator did not have a gun turret in the nose, just a peashooter, a Browning .303, sticking through a rubber grommet in the perspex.  I fired my little gun at maximum range in a futile attempt to damage the Condor’s tail.  Alas, our prolonged push at full power was too much for our inner port engine, which chose that moment to expire.  We had no alternative but to jettison our load, turn back and limp sheepishly home on three engines.

We were recalled to St. Eval on 6th June, chagrined to learn the landings on the beaches of Normandy had been initiated while we were far from the scene.

My second visit to Tain was in the darkness of a winter night, 3rd February 1945.  We had been diverted from Leuchars when our final approach there had to be aborted in the teeth of a blinding snowstorm.  The weather at Tain was atrocious too, a combination of sleet and freezing rain.  We came in high and fast, touched down late, locked our wheels on the icy surface and careened into a field of snow off the end of the runway.  Ground crew soon arrived but did not approach the aircraft.  They stood at some distance waving lights and calling to us to walk out in our wheel tracks.  We did not see the warning signs until the next morning.  Our Lib was sitting low in the snow, like a nesting goose, in a field of anti-tank mines sown during the invasion scare.

When I think of Tain I think how lucky I have been: lucky to wed a Ross; lucky for lifelong friends on 547 Squadron; lucky to survive a tour of operations on RAF Coastal Command.

D. J. Matthews

28 June 2001