Flt/Sgt Peter A. Atkinson

Fl/Sgt Peter A. Atkinson. Navigator 622 Squadron

Flt Sgt Peter A Atkinson  head and shoulders in RAF uniform
Flt Sgt Peter A Atkinson

Peter served in 622 Squadron as a Navigator operating from Mildenhall, Suffolk, with an operations tour on Lancaster bombers from March to July 1944.  He married Pauline Clark on 10th February 1945.

Peter Allison Atkinson was born 7th February 1923 in Wimbledon, and from 2 years old lived in Selsdon, Surrey.  He gained work in Westminster Bank after leaving Middle Whitgift School, Croydon.  He and Pauline met at a dance in Selsdon in October 1941.  He had joined the Local Defence Volunteers and the RAF Volunteer Reserves.  On 2nd March 1942, he was called up to join the RAF for basic training at St John’s Wood then to Stratford-on-Avon for pilot training.  However, selection at Heaton Park then Hastings led to training as a Navigator, his own preference, for which he was based in Harrogate.

Pauline was working in the typing pool in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Soho Square, travelling to London from her parent’s home in Selsdon by train.

Peter was sent by sea from Clyde in The Queen Elizabeth liner for training at the Central Navigation School, Rivers, Manitoba in Canada from November 1942 to March 1943.  Here he had intensive training on Anson aircraft.  He learned to use navigation equipment and to navigate by the stars.  He built up experience of navigating during day and night flights in all weathers.  He completed 68 hours of daytime and 37 hours of night-time flying.  Passing his exams as an Air Navigator and Flight Sergeant was celebrated by a dinner and Wings Parade on 4th March 1943.  He returned after a five-day journey on a scarily overcrowded Queen Elizabeth carrying American and Canadian soldiers. The liner had to dodge a flotilla of enemy submarines before arriving on 3rd April.  A rather shaken Peter was back in barracks at Harrogate the next day.  He had a welcome fortnight’s leave from 9th April for visiting his and Pauline’s grannies and their families and friends.

He spent 5 weeks in Witney Bay with instruction on De Gaulle’s resistance ‘French Forces of the Interior’, lectures, drills, physical training and sport; rifle, Sten and Lewis gun firing and bayonet work with unarmed combat, fieldcraft, assault courses and taking down barbed wire, even experience of going through a gas chamber.

On 7th June he was based in Carlisle and started flying on De Haviland ‘Rapides’ for transferring skills to navigating in European flying conditions where he also learned Compass Swinging.  During July he moved to Penrhos in North Wales flying in Anson planes.  Here he met Flight Sergeant Walker, trainee pilot, with whom he later flew on wartime operations.   In mid-August he was at Wing near Leighton Buzzard flying 4+ hour longer distance flights around Britain in Wellington aircraft and preparing for bombing operations with 26 Operational Training Unit.   Here he was crewed up under pilot Jock Walker.

During a short leave, Peter proposed to Pauline Clark and they were engaged on 7th September 1943.

In December, Peter joined the 1651 Conversion Unit for training on Stirling aircraft at Feltwell, Norfolk for intense work on circuits and landings.  By the end of this, Peter had clocked up 150 daytime and 96 night-time flying hours.  However, Squadrons like 622 were converting to the larger, long distance Lancaster Bombers so Peter was sent back to Feltwell on 16th January 1944 for a Lancaster Finishing School.

On 2nd February 1944, Peter joined 622 Bomber Squadron at Mildenhall airfield in Suffolk for a month of crew flight tests on Lancaster bombers.  By March, the US Airforce joined attacks on Nazi positions with daytime raids, whilst the RAF mostly undertook night-time raids.  At this time, RAF Bomber Command switched much bombing to more southern cities in Germany associated with aircraft building.

Peter’s first combat night operation was to Stuttgart on 2nd March with the crew of Fl/Sgt’s “Jock” Walker: pilot (later Flying Officer), Peter Atkinson: Navigator, Bert Hodgson: bomb aimer, Peter “Tommy” Pearce: mid-upper gunner, and Sgt’s Bill “Andy” Anderton: wireless operator, Eric Brown: rear gunner and Mickey Herbert: flight engineer.

The crew were mostly together through 30 operations and one aborted one.  More often than not, they flew the same Lancaster aircraft that they first air tested on 14th April, ED474 nicknamed ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

The crew’s next early operations were challenging ones to Frankfurt on 18th and 22nd March and to Berlin 24th March.  Following heavy losses on similar raids in January and February, a new route to Berlin was chosen across Denmark north of most fighter bases, avoiding the heavily defended Ruhr to the south.  However, previously unrecorded high altitude wind speeds that night threw out navigation calculations radioed from HQ. Devastatingly, this caused many flights to veer too far south.  Peter stuck with the higher windspeeds in his calculations and stayed on the planned track and they returned safely to Mildenhall.  Leave for the crew meant they escaped other huge losses of the Nuremberg raid on 31st March.  On their return from leave, they were sent to bomb Aachen on 11th April.

Crew image set above an image of the aircraft

Letter writing between Peter and Pauline provided great support though they were also fortunate in opportunities to meet up on his leave and in some gaps caused by non-operational episodes when time off base was allowed.  Then, they enjoyed walks, meals out and visiting the cinema.

From this time, many operations were targeted away from long-distance attacks into Nazi Germany.  Instead, they were diverted to support Eisenhower’s ‘Transportation Plan’.  The idea was to bomb road and rail links in France to hinder routes Nazis were likely to use to fend off the Allies intended ‘Overlord’ invasion.  276 Lancasters including Peter’s crew were sent to Rouen on 19th April to target railyards.   Sadly, poor accuracy led to many civilian casualties and damage to historic sites.  For Peter’s crew now flying ED474, this proved a short diversion from longer distance flights: they had to journey through heavy flak and risk of fighter plane attack to Cologne on 20th, Dusseldorf on 22nd, Karlshuhe on 24th, to large armament factories in Essen on 26th and to a tank gear making factory at Freidrichshafen on 27th.

In May, the focus was changed to preparations for ‘D-Day’, starting for Peter in an attack on gun batteries at Cap Gris Nez on 8th May, though the reinforced targets were not destroyed.  On 11th May the target was marshalling yards in Louvain in Belgium.  After some leave, the next action was on 24th to Aachen, close to the border with France on the Nazi defensive Siegfried Line with important rail links into France, followed on 28th by more marshalling yards at Angers in western France.  On the next raid on 31st, rail installations at Trappes, SW of Paris, were badly damaged, which dealt a big blow to the Nazis.

Interestingly, on 2nd June Peter records a coastal map reference near Calais as the destination for a two-hour flight, probably under ‘Operation Cover’ to deceive the enemy over the location of invasion force landings.  They returned to the Calais area the next night.  On D-Day night 6th June, Peter’s crew were sent to Lisieux in Normandy where the city was severely damaged with loss of many civilian lives.  The justification was the presence of the brutal 12th Panzer division of SS troops and tanks though these were not strongly affected.  The next day, the crew were sent to Massy-Palaiseau to target more infrastructure, returning safely despite significant aircraft losses from night fighters.  On 10th, June they participated in a highly successful attack on the railway at Dreux, west of Paris.

On 12th June, GelsenKirchen, close to Essen in W Germany, was the first in a new campaign to destroy Nazi oil plants whose damage had a highly significant effect on their war effort.  A new target again on 14th June was the U-boat pens in the harbour at Le Havre where severe damage was inflicted by accompanying 617 Squadron dropping Tallboy bombs on the massive pens.  On 15th June, the more familiar target was of rail yards at Valenciennes.

Pauline wrote in her diary that the first V1 doodlebug was dropped in London on 13th June and it was on 24th June that Peter’s operation was to one of these flying bomb sites at Rimeaux.  The even more deadly V2 rocket was about to be deployed by Hitler and Peter’s raid on 5th July to Wizernes was to the vast concrete dome being prepared to house the V2.  This may have helped to delay the first V2 to fall on London that happened on 8th September 1944.  Their plane was attacked by a Ju88 fighter as they returned over the Channel but they managed to return to base.  On 9th July, the crew had their first daytime raid on a V1 construction site at Linzeux, followed by their second on the 12th to rail yards at Vaires, though this was abandoned by the Master Bomber because of total cloud cover.  18th July saw a large dawn raid on five fortified villages by nearly a thousand planes in the Caen area, through which the British Second army troops were about to make an armoured attack, ‘Operation Goodwood’.  This greatly damaged Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions and helped the Allies advance.  On the same night bombers were sent out and Peter’s crew attacked railyards in Aulnoye.  Peter’s final operation was to a synthetic oil plant at Homberg on 20th July.  This mission successfully curtailed oil production although 20 of 147 Lancasters were lost in the attack.

By the end of his tour, Peter had flown 235 hours on operations at night as well as 184 hours of daylight flying on testing and similar exercises and the two operations.

Peter and Pauline married on 10th February 1945 at St John’s Church Selsdon, friends rallying with rations, a cardboard cake, a borrowed dress, a red carnation bouquet and a black cat charm, with Peter looking stunning in his RAF uniform.

Peter Atkinson and his wife, Pauline
Peter Atkinson and his wife, Pauline

Peter continued in the RAF as a navigator trainer and was expecting a second tour to SE Asia that did not materialise due to the end of war with Japan.   Peter transferred to Transport Command, mainly flying to northern India, now Pakistan, to repatriate troops.  He was demobbed on 20th September 1946.

In 1947, Peter and Pauline purchased a plot of land in Sanderstead where her father, William Clark built them a bungalow: ‘Sandbanks’ (their honeymoon destination) 48 Church Way.  Peter returned to his career in the bank.  Tony Peter Atkinson was born on 12th September 1948 and Susan Pauline Atkinson on 18th July 1951.  Peter and Pauline continued to enjoy ballroom dancing.  Peter was a keen gardener and Pauline made clothes, knitted and was a competent cook.  They were generous hosts and often had parties in their home for the wider family.  They ran a church homegroup and church bookstall at All Saints, Sanderstead.  They were avid supporters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and won a national award for their work in the Croydon Group on sales of goods and informative slideshows.  Veteran Peter and Pauline regularly attended the annual Mildenhall Register reunion and kept in contact with others from 622 Squadron.   Peter and Pauline represented the Register on 17th May 2003 at the inauguration of the Lachalade Memorial in L’Argonne in France where 622 Squadron’s Stirling EF128 was lost on 18th November 1943, with only one survivor.  Peter and Pauline made many more friends from holidays, especially from many years visiting Scotland.

Peter died on 8th January 2005, aged 81, and many tributes were received to celebrate his life.  Pauline continued life stalwartly and a 90th birthday party at St John’s Church Selsdon was arranged in 2012 to celebrate her birthday of 15th August, allowing her to hear tributes of a well-lived life.  She lived close to 70 years at 48 Church Way, moving to be close to family to Tonbridge House Care Home three years before her death on 26th January 2022, aged 99.

For a fuller account of Peter and Pauline’s wartime experience contact atkinsoncarol@btinternet.com



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