Albemarles at Arnhem

The Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle was one of the RAF’s least well-known aeroplanes. With a tricycle undercarriage and large ‘dive-bomber’ flaps it was quite a contrast to its predecessor, the well-tried but out-of-date AW Whitley. Like the Whitley, it was one of the “redundant bombers” which Winston Churchill urged his Air Staff to provide for his orphan child, the Airborne Forces.

– Photo of an Albemarle (taken probably at RAF Brize Norton) –
– Collection Kenneth FRERE –

    The Albemarle was under-powered, but it had one advantage for glider towing. Its tricycle undercarriage put it into a flying attitude even before it began to roll. The nose-wheel allowed full power to be applied rapidly because there was no torque to offset. It also prevented an over-enthusiastic glider pilot from putting the tug into a nose-down attitude on the runway if the glider went into high-tow before the Albemarle was airborne. Its jump-hole in the floor was almost as bad for the noses of parachutists as that in the Whitley.

    Albemarles from 38 Group took part in Operations Husky (the invasion of Sicily) and Elaborate (gliders to North Africa) and four Albemarle squadrons played an important role in Operation Overlord (D-Day). As more “redundant” Stirlings and Halifaxes were released by Bomber Command two of these squadrons converted to Stirlings. Soon after D-Day only two squadrons (296 and 297) still had their Albemarles.

    I joined No 296 Squadron at Brize Norton in August 1944 and spent the month practicing mass glider tows, parachute dropping and navigational exercises with gliders. 38 Group squadrons were based in the southern counties of England where they were well placed for operations into France, including the support for the SAS and for the French Resistance which was another part of 38 Group’s tasks. However, when the front line moved into Belgium and beyond it was out of range for Albemarles towing loaded gliders. From 2 September onwards we spent our time moving Horsa gliders over to Manston, as near to Holland as it was possible to get. On 15 September the Albemarle squadrons were all relocated at Manston in readiness for Operation Market, the airborne element of Market Garden.

    There were not enough aircraft to fly the entire Garden force into Arnhem on one day. At 1025 on 17 September Stirlings from 38 Group took off to drop pathfinder parachutists to mark the dropping zones and landings zones. The slower glider combinations had begun taking off at 0940, towing 304 Horsas, 13 Hamilcars and 4 Hadrians. Albemarles from Manston towed 56 of the Horsas. The weather was unkind and of the 321 gliders which were towed off 26 parted company with their tugs either over England, over the sea or over Holland.

    The second lift on 18 September was held up for nearly five hours because of fog in England. Albemarles which took off from Manston that day towed 42 of the 275 Horsas: of these 257 reached the landing zones. From the astrodome my navigator could see only a part of the glider train which stretched out behind us and ahead of us. Other 38 Group squadrons towed 15 Hamilcars, 14 of which made it to Arnhem in spite of much more flak and small arms fire from the German forces along the route.

    There was a third lift on 19 September made up of 36 Horsas, plus 7 Horsas and a Hamilcar whose flights had been aborted during the two previous days. Flak was even heavier and 2 Horsas were shot down, 11 had broken towropes and 2 returned to base because of engine failures in the tug aircraft. There were no Albemarles in the third lift and, because of the aircraft’s poor freight capability, 296 and 297 squadrons played no part in the heroic re-supply operations during the rest of the Arnhem battle. 25 members of 38 Group lost their lives during the glider operations and a further 77 during the next four days of the re-supply flights.

    After Arnhem the 38 Group squadrons went back on to individual supply-dropping flights into Northern Europe, and it was on one of these (Operation Harry 41) that S/L Emblem and his crew were shot down on 28 July 1944 (see the Muneville Graves report). At the end of September we began moving gliders into Essex. This took the glider force nearer to Germany as a preparation for what became Operation Varsity, the Rhine crossing, in March 1945. Meanwhile, during October 1944, the two remaining Albemarle squadrons moved to Earls Colne in Essex and we began the conversion to Halifaxes. Early in November we started flying our Albemarles to Peplow, in Cheshire, “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no Albemarle returns” (as Hamlet nearly put it). It was the end of the line for an interesting, but essentially unsatisfactory aircraft. It was no good as a bomber, never used as a dive bomber, underpowered as a tug aircraft, awkward for parachute dropping, hopeless as a load carrier and hard work on long flights because George (the automatic pilot) refused to fly it straight and narrow. But it was fun to fly, it looked good and I am sorry that not a single example remains with us today.

Kenneth FRERE

Next page: The Last Flight of LL406