With the introduction of the Avro Lancaster into RAF service in December 1941, No 44 Squadron at RAF Waddington had no further need for their aging fleet of Handley Page Hampden bombers – however as with most things in wartime, these aircraft were not scrapped but pressed into service with a newly arrived Canadian Squadron.
No 420 Sqn RCAF arrived at Waddington in December 1941 and, with the assistance of a cadre of aircrew left by 44 Sqn, were operational within just five weeks. By now, the Hampden was beginning to show its age and with targets extending further into Germany thanks to the new longer-range RAF bombers such as the Stirling and the Halifax, the Hampdens were often relegated to the highly dangerous task of mine laying, or “Gardening” as it was known.
One of the 44 Sqn aircrew left behind to form 420 Sqn was pilot Robert Kee, and on the night of 18/19th February 1942 he was tasked to lay a mine in the sea channels between the Friesian Islands that lay just off the Dutch/Danish coast. The weather was cold – so cold in fact that unbeknown to the planners, the stretch of water that had been allocated to receive Kee’s mine had frozen and to make identification of the target even worse, snow had fallen onto the ice completely changing the appearance of the target area. Approaching the target in broken cloud, Kee and his Observer, Sgt Rutledge, were convinced that they were looking at the Dutch coastline rather than the Islands – they thought that they had missed the Friesians in the poor weather and darkness. After fruitlessly retracing his route, Kee became totally lost and overflew a German flak position on the islands. The inevitable happened, and Hampden AD915, PT-F, was soon hit by accurate ground fire and crashed onto a frozen Dutch Beach.
Kee’s two gunners, Sgts Baker and Adams were both killed in the crash, and Rutledge was badly injured. Kee himself managed to scramble out of the cockpit, but was soon under rifle fire from German troops approaching from further down the beach. He quickly surrendered and became a prisoner of war.
Two days later, the pigeon from Robert Kee’s aircraft was found in an exhausted state close to the Lincolnshire coast. Billy had flown over 250 miles into strong winds carrying sleet and snow and had just managed to reach land before his strength finally faded. Attached to pigeon Billy’s leg was a short message giving a latitude and longitude position, and in the margin were the letters “OZO”. The Hampden’s crew were not in any position to have written the message and despatched the pigeon, so it is likely that Billy had escaped from the crash and had been picked up by the Dutch Resistance who sent on the message – OZO was the logo of one of the resistance groups. Waddington sent out Hampdens to look around the area given by the coordinates but nothing was seen. It is one of those little facts about Bomber Command that few remember, but a pigeon was routinely carried on each operational aircraft until November 1943 – it would be used by the crew to send a message back to their home station if they had come down and were in need of assistance. In Waddington’s case, the local pigeon loft was run by Mr Joe Greenwood who’s loft, like all others in the country, had been requisitioned by the military at the start of the War. The Bomber Command pigeons gave the aircrew that morale boosting hope that they would be discovered should they ditch at night into the North Sea, but in reality, only two crews were rescued due to their pigeons’ help.
It was not until an American VHF Radio set was found to fit into the crew survival dinghy that the pigeons were finally withdrawn. In 1945, Pigeon Billy was rewarded for his endurance by receiving a Dickin Medal, known as the animal VC, which had just been introduced. Only 35 pigeons were awarded the medal during the War, and Billy has his unique position on the RAF Waddington Honours and Awards Board in Stn Ops. As for Robert Kee – despite several escape attempts, he remained a prisoner of war for the duration.
After the War he became an author and journalist and is perhaps most famous for being one of the Gang of Five together with Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Angela Ripon and Anna Ford, who set up the UK’s first breakfast television program “TV-AM” in 1983.