And, just like ‘The Secret Squadron of the Eighth’ by Pat Carty – a review is on our website as well as an interview with Pat – this book is very well researched and written. It is called ‘Squadron of Deception’ and the author is Stephen Hutton. Just like Pat, he is an ordinary guy, working as an air traffic controller, with a healthy obsession for World War II history. Unlike Pat who is an Englishman through and through, Stephen is an American living in North Carolina. For us, the main thing that both books have in common is that they describe in detail the activities of US air force personnel who were based at Cheddington/Marsworth Airfield during World War II.
One difference between the two books is that, in the case of Carty’s work, there are continuous references to relationships with the local area. In contrast, Squadron of Deception contains only one chapter that refers to the communities nearby and the impressions of the American servicemen who were based at the Airfield. The rest of the book contains mountains of detail about the flying missions that would only be of interest to specialists in wartime history. Therefore this article will pick out some of the references in that chapter and relate them to what we already know about the impact on our villages during that dramatic time.
The Arrival of the Americans
First let’s recap on what we know about the use of the Airfield during the war. After a long process of clearing the site, the RAF took command in March 1942 and Cheddington Airfield became an operational training unit for British pilots. Things did not go well however. There were many more accidents than normal during training, the worst being when two airmen were killed crashing into Cheddington Hill.
It was decided that there were too many hills and obstructions for RAF training and in September 1942 the British operation was moved to Wing, the airfield being handed over to the Americans. The first Americans arrived in June 1943 and initially their main task was dropping propaganda leaflets, directed at the populations of occupied European countries. They first of all resurfaced the runways so that heavy aircraft could take off and land and improved servicing facilities.
The Squadron of Deception comes to Cheddington
The 36th Bomb Squadron RCM – the Squadron of Deception as per the book title – was formed in August 1944 and located at Cheddington. It was formed specifically to jam enemy early warning radars and telecommunications, thereby misleading the enemy into thinking that non-existent bomber formations were assembling. This was summed up by the initials after its title, standing for Radio Counter Measures. The men had an even better acronym which is the chapter heading – RAFU, Radar all fouled up (At least the book said it was ‘fouled’, I have my doubts!).
So what does the author tell us about the impressions of the Squadron and their relationships with the local communities? He reports that the airmen liked the close proximity to ‘fairly good movies’, an active Red Cross Aero Club – the book doesn’t say where – and a beer garden. For entertainment off base American personnel visited Aylesbury, Dunstable, Luton and Leighton Buzzard, the latter being called ‘in GI parlance Buzzard Gulch’. The author also comments that the attractions of London drew many to make the longer journey.
Extra Mural Activities
There is also reference to the pleasures of ‘the Pub adjacent to the barge canal’ and references elsewhere to the Ship Inn seem to indicate that this was its title (We believe that this pub was located on the canal side near the bridge in Marsworth, later to become a shop of that name). It is reported that the landlord of the pub was a source of gossip, ‘he could tell you anything that was happening or about to be happening on the base’. This apparently included troop movements, bombing runs, and ‘base scuttlebutt’. The airmen were never sure whether he was a psychic, a professional spy or had a hotline connection to the base!
There are a number of references in the book to the ‘Liberty Run’ which, as far as can be ascertained from the text, is the American wartime equivalent of a pub crawl which seems to have gone far beyond our villages. There is a memorable account of a visit to London involving an airman called Tom who became an expert at darts and performed even better as he drank more alcohol. His mates would take him to all the pubs and encourage him to ‘play the Limeys’ for a pint of ‘Mild and Bitters’. At one pub Tom challenged the local champion and major bets were made by both sides. Tom emerged supreme and the locals said they have never seen anything like him. The airmen apparently won £20, equivalent to over a thousand pounds now.
Dangers and Conflicts
Another reference to our area is the comments by one airman about the dangers of flying to and from the airfield because of the ‘rolling hills’ that they had to negotiate; these are described as the West End and South End Hills. These are clearly the obstacles that caused the RAF to move elsewhere but which they expected the Americans to negotiate. One airman’s colourful description was that it was like ‘flying between two mountains that looked like two great big women’s breasts’. That same airman commented that, even when planes crashed, they were still sent up the next day. The control tower would fire flares into the sky to help during foggy or overcast weather but these had varying degrees of success.
This chapter of the book also provides further confirmation of the presence on the site of President Roosevelt’s son, Elliott. We had already learned from our interview with Pat Carty that Elliott was present at the base and that he flew from a different site for security reasons – maybe to avoid the hills!. We learn from the book that Elliott was commander of the Photo Reconnaissance Wing and that it was established at Cheddington early in 1944.
There are also reports of internal conflict on the site during that same year when the Eighth Air Force Command Headquarters were moved there from Northern Ireland and the personnel included females from the Women’s Army Corp. This resulted in airmen being moved from comfortable barracks to Nissen Huts among much discontent. Another change was to convert the chapel into an Officers’ club and, when the Chaplain complained, he was moved to another camp. The airmen were relieved when the Headquarters was moved elsewhere in the Autumn of 1944.
There is also further information on the racial discrimination that took place on the site, another feature highlighted by Pat Carty. This book informs us that it was one specific unit – The Quartermaster Trucking Unit – that was made up entirely of black men and, to quote one of the airmen, ‘were quartered and fed away from the rest of us’.
The above insights are but a small part of Stephen Hutton’s book. The remaining chapters contain an extraordinary amount of detailed research about the activities of the 36th Bomb Squadron as they went about their activities. These were designed to ‘Foul Up’ the enemy’s radar and ‘spoof’ – that was the term they used – the Germans by laying false trails. The book also provides evidence that the activities from Cheddington Airfield involved more than dropping leaflets and made an even greater and more varied contribution to the war effort than we had previously understood.