Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
80 years ago today, on December 18, 1939, RAF Wellington bombers took off from bases including RAF Mildenhall, RAF Feltwell and RAF Honington in a mission to undertake daylight bombing raids against German ships in Heligoland Bight. The battle lasted less than an hour, with the RAF suffering the loss of 12 aircraft and 57 airmen. Heligoland was the first named air battle of the Second World War, and took place during one of the coldest winters in 45 years. The situation was made more difficult for the RAF by an experimental German Freya radar, which spotted the bombers and allowed the Luftwaffe to send fighter aircraft.
The lead aircraft of the battle was flown by Wing Commander Richard Kellett, who took off from RAF Mildenhall on that day 80 years ago. Commemorating the anniversary, family members of Commander Kellett, including his niece Rachel, accompanied members of the Heligoland 39 project on a heritage tour of Mildenhall base on December 16, to see the buildings where orders were given and missions were planned, and to learn more about the location where personnel spent their time.
Discussing the trip, Rachel Kellett explained that "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" (Rachel's 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 ... 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 ... I was with him when he died in 1991, which was very peacefully in the home. 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."
Reflecting on the tour of Mildenhall, Rachel noted the 100th Air Refueling Wing headquarters building, formerly the RAF Bomber Command’s headquarters, as a stand out moment, saying the "staircase absolutely did it for me – it was so iconic 1930s, and it was very moving to see ... The outside of these buildings are sturdy, strong and practical, but when you get inside, then I really felt a connection!"
Tim Harris, who is part of the Heligoland Bight 39 Project, and also son of Pilot Officer Paul Ivor Harris, who was second-in-command to Kellett during the raid in 1939, also took part in the visit. Looking back at the Battle, Tim explained "It was based on Churchill’s direct order that the air force was ‘to do’ something, and this is what they did ... 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. 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."
Explaining the importance of the visit, Sqdn. Ldr Paul Graham, RAF Commander RAF Mildenhall, said "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. "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."