Runways to Freedom - The Special Duties Squadrons of RAF Tempsford, Robert Body

Runways to Freedom - The Special Duties Squadrons of RAF Tempsford, Robert Body

Just about every account of the exploits of SOE or the French Resistance always includes the section where the agent is dropped into Europe or landed in a dark field, or the wait for a supply drop, but the aircraft and their crews are often merely a shadowy presence. This book goes a long way to lifting those shadows, providing a very detailed history of the two squadrons that did most of this work – Nos.138 and 161 Squadrons. Perhaps because they didn’t fit into the main story of the RAF, their activities don’t generally get much coverage – Richards and St G. Saunder’s three volume history of the RAF in the war gives then less than ten pages in the entire work, and that includes a mention in the order of battle! As the author makes clear this isn’t because the squadron’s activities remained top secret for long – the RAF records were released many decades ago, SOE’s records are all at the National Archives and only the SIS archives remain secret.

This is a very detailed month-by-month account of the activities of the squadron. However unlike many similar works the overall picture isn’t lost amongst the detail. The first seventy pages or so deal with the background story – how they were formed, how the men were recruited, the detailed nature of their operations and so forth. This makes you realise just how difficult a task they had – in a period when Bomber Command sometimes struggled to find entire cities, the aircraft from these squadrons had to find an individual field!

The bulk of the book is a month-by-month account of the two squadrons’ activities – not quite day-by-day but not far off, with details of just about every lost aircraft. There are plenty of extracts from accounts written by members of the squadron, which give an impressive of how difficult their tasks could be. The same was true for the people on the ground, who had to set up quite a specific set of lights in a suitable field, while attempting to evade the attention of the Germans. An impressive amount of preparation went into each of these missions, but even so there were plenty of things that could go wrong.

This is a very valuable addition to the literature on the RAF, covering an unfamiliar topic, not something you can say all that often these days!

Formation of the Special Duties Squadrons
The men and their journey to Tempsford
Difficulties faced by the SD Squadrons
Procedure for parachuting stores and personnel
Preparations for an SOE operation
Results of operations
Tempsford to target
Parachuting of supplies
Parachuting of agents and the role of the despatcher
Landing and pick-up operations
'Ascension' operations
138 Squadron Roll of Honour 1941-42
161 Squadron Roll of Honour 1942
138 Squadron Roll of Honour 1943
161 Squadron Roll of Honour 1943
138 Squadron Roll of Honour 1944
161 Squadron Roll of Honour 1944
VE Day
138 Squadron Roll of Honour 1945
161 Squadron Roll of Honour, 1945
Ground crew
Contemporary commentaries
Did the Squadrons' work make a difference?
At Tempsford

Author: Robert Body
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 300
Year: 2016

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