No 86 Squadron and RAF Tain.

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Extracts from Memories of No 86 Squadron and RAF Tain by Peter D F Drummond-Hay.

We (86 Squadron) arrived at RAF Tain in July 1944 and continued with more training on the navigation instruments, radar system and the Leigh Light.  This also included joining a WW1 submarine to witness a simulated attack by a Liberator using the Leigh Light, very dramatic.  Finally, in December 1944 we started operational sorties, mainly at night.  On the 30th of December, we had an unconfirmed Oscar strike against a U-Boat.  The Oscar was a self-homing torpedo which circled in decreasing circles for 20 minutes before exploding.  After the explosion, the wreckage was seen, but the strike was not confirmed by Coastal Command HQ.  We also had a narrow escape on one sortie, the weather was foul and flying at 300ft over the Hebrides, Jack Merivale (who had long legs) accidentally knocked the guard off the magneto switches which caused all four engines to lose power.  We dropped about 150ft before regaining the engines and were able to climb enough to narrowly miss Rockall, an uninhabitable granite Islet.

The Maritime Patrols included Air-Sea Rescue and Reconnaissance missions. These aircraft were modified for very long-range (VLR) sorties lasting for 16 hours and equipped with ASV Mark II Sea-Surface Search Radar (the first aircraft-mounted radar).  Also with the Leigh Light Searchlight (22 million Candela) along with the radar was very effective in the positive identification of U-Boats that had surfaced during the night.  So much so that the U-Boats switched to the surface during the daylight hours so that could engage aircraft that may be attacking them.

Tain Airfield is on the south side of the Dornoch Firth, located some 3 miles to the east of Tain Village.  The airfield was very spread out and our first billet was the usual Nissan Hut, we all had bicycles as it was about a mile from the Ablutions to the various mess halls.  The food in the mess was excellent because we had two chefs from Prague who had come over with the Czechoslovakian squadron.  They were very good with the rations and could also scrounge extras.  The relationship between some of the Canadians and the Czechoslovakians wasn’t too good but otherwise, the social side was good especially as we had to make our own entertainment.  We dressed the anterooms in various themes, such as Arabs, Chinese, and U-Boat Pen.  Over the Christmas period of 1944, we had a large Christmas Tree installed and rigged up a replica U-Boat using a lot of German bits and uniforms.  

On Christmas Eve we invited lots of RN Wrens from Fleet Air Arm Fearn Operational Training Unit (about 5 miles away) and we had a great party.  On Christmas Day, our crew were on Operations and weren’t allowed to drink alcohol; however, with a crew of 10, some were allowed a few drinks before being airborne at 01:00hrs on 26th December.

We had a good relationship with the people of Tain, the Lord Mayor did us proud as well as the MacGreen family who ran the Newsagents. On New Year’s Eve, we did a traditional Hogmanay tour of the houses in Tain, guided by Scot’s girl who ran the Newsagents with much whisky abound.  The Golf course at Tain was closed, but the old wooden clubhouse was open for drinks.

Our crew were given leave on the 22nd of April 1945 and I was in London with my parents when Victory Europe (VE) Day was declared on the 7th of May. I was able to celebrate in the West End with some good natures and energetic characters.

Flying resumed for us on 11th May and we were tasked with escorting U-Boats and their surrendered crews to various Scottish ports.  The U-Boats had to remain on the surface and were ordered to jettison their ammunition and torpedoes.  However, and this was never publicised, a Liberator flown by an Australian crew, at 500ft, flew over a U-Boat at right angles whilst the U-Boat crew were cleaning the decks.  The aircraft turned around and, on another approach, the U-Boat crew opened fire with their deck-mounted Anti-Aircraft gun but missed.  The Liberator returned and using their depth charges sunk the U-Boat!

A humanitarian task given to us was to drop large boxes of food and confectionary on various remote school playgrounds in Norway. Some of the approaches were a bit hairy in some of the Fjords, but it was worth it to see children running to the containers and waving to us.

Another episode after VE Day.  The powers to be had designed an ‘Airborne Lifeboat’, it was about 12-15ft long with a built-up bow with a canvas-covered cubby.  There was only about a 9-inch draft, had a crude sail with mast and oars.  Also, an outboard petrol engine was mounted inboard in front of the tiller, so you inhaled the fumes when the wind was coming from behind.  This boat was carried in the bomb-bay of a Warwick aircraft (a modified Wellington aircraft).  We had a ‘volunteer crew’ of two pilots, a navigator, and me with the Officer In-charge (OIC) from Air Sea Rescue, Wick.  We flew from Tain to Wick, having stayed overnight, the next morning it was high winds with low clouds.  The boat was moored in Wick Harbour and all the fishing fleet were in because of the weather.  We checked the boat over and much to the amusement of the local fishermen which turned to surprise as we cast off into the raging sea outside the harbour, but we couldn’t lose face! 

We had a battery radio, and the plan was that an Oxford twin-engine aircraft would fly over us every three hours or so.  But with the low cloud base and a not-very-good radio, we still ventured into the North Sea, we achieved about 4 miles before the engine packed in as the fuel pipe was blocked.  I had to suck it out and I was sick.  The next time it packed in, one of the pilots had a go at sucking out and was also sick!  The OIC was seasick as was the navigator, the only one not sick was the Canadian pilot who had never been to sea before.  We had a go at sailing, but this was hopeless.  We could hear the Oxford aircraft but couldn’t see it.  There was no question of eating our rations as we had to hang on the one hand to something.  

Eventually, later in the afternoon, we sighted land and made for Lybster, a very small fishing village 18-miles south of Wick.  The harbour is very small, and we were greeted by a lot of the villagers who thought that we had ‘ditched’ from an aircraft.  Luckily there was an RAF Warrant Officer (who had been invalided out of the RAF a few months before VE Day) who arranged sleeping accommodation for us.  He told us that there were two pubs up the hill, one was having a funeral wake, the other a wedding reception.  He said the best pub to go to was the one hosting the Wake!  Later there was a barn-dance in the village with some villagers in full Highland Dress including pipes and there were two fiddlers. We had been somewhat tired when we arrived but soon pepped up in the evening with the entertainment.  

Although the weather was better the next day, it was a resounding ‘thumbs down’ to the airborne lifeboat.

We also had quite a few days off, Jack bought a coach-built Morris 12 (which had been laid up in a local garage with fuel) and we were to do some local travelling.

On the 10th June 1945, the Sqn was transferred to the newly formed RAF Transport Command and we left Tain for RAF Oakington.  

A notable event with 86 Sqn whilst at RAF Tain

On 5 May 1945, U-534, along with two Type U-3523 and U-3503 were in a convoy sailing north on the surface of the Kattegat Sea in an area too shallow for crash-diving.  Two RAF Liberator aircraft, G for George, 86 Sqn Tain, and E for Edward, 547 Sqn Leuchars attacked U-534.  E for Edward was shot down by the U-boat crew, with a loss of 5 of the 6 crew. G for George depth charges scored a direct hit and began to take on water as a result of damage to her aft section by the engine room and sank northeast off Anholt.  U-534 had a crew of 52 men of which 49 survived to be rescued.

The G for George aircraft Captain, Warrant Officer John Nicol, was awarded the DFC.

In 1986, the U-boat was discovered and raised to the surface in 1993.  Many artefacts were in good condition including phonograph records that were still playable after conversation.  The U-boat was transported to Birkenhead, Wirral in 1996 and was put on display as the ‘U-boat Story’ exhibition from 10 Feb 2009 until the exhibition was closed on 24 Oct 2021.  

Peter had the opportunity to visit the U-boat in May 2012 with his wife, Peggy, whom he met in 1946.  Peggy had been an RAF WAAF MT driver taking crews back and forth from their aircraft.

As for U-3523, this was sunk on the 6 May 1945 by a Liberator from 86 Sqn north of the Skagen Horn in the Skagerrak.  All 58 crewmen were lost.

U-3503 was scuttled on 8 May 1945 west of Gothenburg, Sweden after being attacked by a Liberator from 86 Sqn.  All the crew survived.