RAF MILDENHALL, England --
Eighty years ago today, shortly after the start of World War II, 24 Wellington bombers took to the skies from RAF Mildenhall, RAF Feltwell and RAF Honington, together forming a combined force which carried out daylight bombing raids on German ships in Heligoland Bight, Germany. It was Dec. 18, 1939, and the engagement lasted less than one hour – woefully resulting in the Royal Air Force losing 12 aircraft and 57 Airmen.
The attack took place during what was the coldest winter in 45 years, and the losses were felt from 149 Squadron, RAF Mildenhall; 37 Squadron, RAF Feltwell; and IX Squadron, RAF Honington. The Luftwaffe lost just two Airmen, since the British bombers were seen by an experimental German Freya radar and attacked by fighter aircraft.
The Battle of Heligoland Bight was the first named air battle of World War II, and the lead aircraft – flown by Wing Commander Richard Kellett – launched from RAF Mildenhall.
Eight decades later, almost to the day, Kellett’s niece, Rachel, along with other family members of veterans who also participated in the mission, visited the base from where her uncle led the historic raid. They were given a tour of the heritage trail on RAF Mildenhall, seeing for themselves the buildings where orders were given, missions were planned and where enlisted and officers spent some of what little down time they had.
“I got to know Richard in the last three to four years of his life – we got on really well and it was like getting to know my father,” recalled Rachel, explaining that her father died when she was 3.
“During the war he was in the Stalag Luft IV camp (a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp) as a senior British officer, and afterwards had pretty ill health, so he retired from the Royal Air Force and took a boat down the canals of France before eventually settling in Majorca,” she said. “I didn’t really know him until he came back to England, though I did meet him a few times when he came to visit before that. We would meet in the RAF club in Piccadilly; he wasn’t very talkative but he was enormously generous and he had a definite presence.”
Rachel described how she got to know her uncle better when he moved into an RAF benevolent-funded care home in Bexhill-on-Sea, England.
“I was with him when he died in 1991, which was very peacefully in the home,” she said. “He’d had an extraordinary flying life – the first thing he did was a long-range flight from Egypt to Australia in 1936, and that’s when he became a wing commander. The RAF were preparing for war with the bombers, but instead of carrying bombs they carried water while flying in formation and testing the long-range distance the aircraft were capable of doing.”
The guests were also given a tour of a CV-22 Osprey, giving them an insight into the airpower of today over the Wellington bombers of the past. The Heligoland 39 Project was launched in March 2018 to bring together the living relatives of all the RAF and Luftwaffe Airmen who participated in the Battle of Heligoland Bight.
Visiting RAF Mildenhall provided Kellett’s niece the opportunity to see for herself where her uncle once worked and spent a large part of his active-duty career. The place which had the most impact on her was the 100th Air Refueling Wing headquarters building, formerly the RAF Bomber Command’s headquarters.
“The staircase absolutely did it for me – it was so iconic 1930s, and it was very moving to see,” remarked Rachel. “The outside of these buildings are sturdy, strong and practical, but when you get inside, then I really felt a connection!”
Also part of the HB-39 project and visit was Tim Harris, son of Pilot Officer Paul Ivor Harris, who was second-in-command to Kellett during the raid in 1939.
“It was based on Churchill’s direct order that the air force was ‘to do’ something, and this is what they did,” Tim said. “My father learned to fly in 1932 at RAF Digby, and I have his log books from the very first day he started flying. The only thing he really knew was how to fly in formation – he trained his crew in formation flying, which on that day was the thing which saved their lives.
“The Wellington has a fore and aft gun, but it doesn’t turn to a full 180 degrees, so if you were flying alone then the fighter could come up and cut you in half! But if you flew in a box of five aircraft, you could just about defend the sky,” he explained. “That’s how he managed to preserve all but one of his aircraft and get them back to England. The official war record still repeats the lie that Kellett led too fast, but my father said, ‘No – it’s because the other crews haven’t been trained in formation flying and they didn’t know how to form off the lead aircraft. However, he did because he’d flown with Kellett before.”
The heritage trail tour included visits to the former Sergeants’ Mess (now the base library) and viewing the outside of several other buildings from the days of World War II, including former barracks, Airmen’s Mess, crew room and aircraft shed.
“This was an important tour to do because of the historical significance to the RAF from that mission, as they learned a number of lessons – both good and bad – on how it would conduct itself during the rest of the Second World War,” said Sqdn. Ldr Paul Graham, RAF Commander RAF Mildenhall. “I think for the guests today it was all about them being able to reach out and touch parts of RAF Mildenhall that were here then where their relatives lived, worked and experienced during their time here in the air force in 1939.”