12(B) Squadron Staff Ride to the Low Countries

Recently ten members of 12(B) Sqn and the Station Warrant Officer set off on the long drive to Belgium via the Channel Tunnel to visit the target area attacked on the 12 May 1940 by 12(B) Sqn, which resulted in the posthumous awarding of the first two Victoria Crosses to the RAF in WWII.

On arrival Cpl Bentley and SAC Walker delivered informative stands on the Blitzkrieg into Belgium by the German forces in May 1940 and how the British Expeditionary Force attempted to counter the push. The role 12(B) Sqn had in slowing the German advance was discussed and these briefs provided the background for the second days stands.

On Day Two the group visited the Albert Canal, a massive canal that runs from Liege to Antwerp. The bridges that cross the canal to the west of Maastricht were of strategic importance to the German Army as they were necessary for allowing all the vehicles and logistics to move into Belgium. The allied forces attempted to disrupt the travel across the bridges by destroying them. One of the bridges was destroyed by the Belgium Army before the Germans could stop it, however, the others were left intact. Several attempts were made to bomb the bridges and on 12 May 1940, 12(B) Sqn were tasked with destroying the northernmost bridge, Veldwezelt. In all, six Fairey Battle aircraft were sent of which only five made it to the bridge due to a mechanical issue hindering number 6. These five were split into two sections, one of which flew high altitude at 6,000ft and the other went low altitude over the trees. The section that flew low was led by Flying Officer Garland, Sergeant Gray and LAC Reynolds and they made it to the bridge. However, on attacking the bridge they were met by 300 guns and in releasing their ordnance they were shot down, killing all three. F/O Garland and Sgt Gray were awarded the first Victoria Crosses in World War 2 for their bravery, yet LAC Reynolds received no commendation. Both of the other aircraft in the section crashed, killing one crew and the other crew were taken as Prisoners of War.

At the memorial to the crew of P2204 a cross was laid and a moments silence was held to reflect on the bravery and sacrifice of the members of 12(B) Sqn. From here the group moved south back to Kanne and visited a Belgian war cemetery, an aircraft crash site and a memorial to the crash, placed by Warrant Officer Roberts when he was based in Belgium. In all the day involved around 15 miles of walking so a good meal was enjoyed by everyone in the evening!

The next day the group visited the Eben-Emael Fort south of Kanne which lies on the Albert Canal overlooking the Belgian and Dutch border. It was a huge underground fortress which covered around 70 football pitches in area. It was designed to be impenetrable and should have protected Belgium from any attack from Germany. This was because it was protected by machine guns, several huge cannons and they all provided cross-cover of each other’s position, however, the fort was built with a land advance from the east in mind. The German’s attacked the fort asymmetrically, using paradrops and gliders to put paratroopers behind the fort. They were able to take the fort with around 85 men, compared to the 1300 defending the fort, in 2 days. The German division had the element of surprise and they attacked in a way that wasn’t predicted by the Belgians. The group that attacked had also practiced thoroughly for this one objective and had a replica in Germany that had been used for this practice. The tour around the fort was fascinating and the insight provided by the tour guide was great.

After the visit to the fort we drove back into Holland to visit Margraten Cemetery which is the only US cemetery in Holland. The cemetery was pristine and was a fitting tribute to the American personnel who are laid to rest there. A stand was delivered which discussed the sacrifice of Bomber Command and the casualties felt by both the Allies and Germans.

On Thursday we set off to Leuven in Belgium where we visited, in a quiet town to the north of Leuven, a site dedicated to a crashed 12(B) Sqn Lancaster in which the all Sgt crew perished. SAC(T) Bradley conducted the stand for this site and read a moving letter from one of the crashed airmen to his wife on the day before he died. After paying our respects we moved into Leuven, where Commandant Peubez insisted on lunch after missing out the day before! After lunch we visited Heverlee Cemetery which is a Commonwealth Graves Cemetery and is where the crew of the 12(B) Sqn Lancaster and the crew of F/O Garland’s aircraft are buried. Here, SAC Welling delivered an excellent stand on the Commonwealth Graves Commission and their work around the world. This was voted the best stand from the group during the week. With the help of the SWO we endeavoured to find the members of 12(B) Sqn and a cross was placed next to each of the past members graves. Before leaving, a wreath was laid by the cross and a minute’s silence held.

A good night was had in Leuven, the birthplace of Stella Artois, before travelling home on Friday. On the journey back a stop was made at La Couple, which is an ex German V2 base and has been turned into a museum showing the design and effects of the V2 and V1. It also contained a museum showing the devastating effects of World War II on the Normandy citizens. After waiting for Cpl Allsopp who had become engrossed in one of the museum exhibits we set off to Marham following what had been a great week.

Overall, an informative week was had by all with everyone’s knowledge of World War II improved. The links between the past and the present were highlighted especially with regards to air power and how we can and have learnt from previous mistakes and successes. Several stops were made to visit 12(B) Sqn memorials and the sacrifice made by previous members of the Sqn and the rest of the RAF was commemorated. The week ran very well and a lot of credit and thanks goes to the SWO, Warrant Officer Roberts, whose knowledge and insight significantly enhanced the staff ride.

Early May also saw the officers of the Sqn hold a Dining In Night to welcome several new members of the Squadron, as well as taking the opportunity to say goodbye to Flt Lt’s Fusco and Ramsden, and Sqn Ldr Margrett. We all would like to thank them for their hard work during their time serving with both II(AC) and 12(B) Sqn and wish them all the very best for their future careers, both in and out of the RAF.

Finally, the Sqn would like to offer our thoughts to Sgt Evans, who is recovering well after his motorcycle accident at the end of April. We all wish you a speedy recovery and look forward to having you back in work.