Pseudo-Padres Hiding in the Lavatory: An RAF Escape Exercise, 1943

Continuing in the series of comical findings from the archives, I thought I’d relate details of an RAF Escape Exercise that took place on 16th December, 1943 at RAF Tangmere. It sounds like a mixture of the Great Escape and a Carry On film, and I like it for the way it shows the preparation and resourcefulness that continued to happen during the War.

I’ve been doing a bit of work on Tangmere (now a wonderful Military Aviation Museum), following a research project I undertook last summer funded by the University of Chichester. I’m currently working on an article based on this (looking at the secret flights that supported resistance in France), and also a shorter piece talking about the changes to the station over the course of the war.

This exercise, in December 1943, came after the base had grown in importance. Its position on the South Coast meant that it was key in Sit Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s strategy of leaning into Europe and striking back against German air power.

Exercise Tango, as it was named, is recorded in AIR 25-280 in the National Archives at Kew (all quotes from that reference). It was carried out by 91 (Nigeria) Squadron (so called because Nigeria contributed most of the funds to pay for their aircraft). They were a Spitfire Squadron and tasked at varying points with Air-Sea Rescue, Reconnaissance and Fighter Interception. This afternoon was, in essence, a diversion on a dull day, with weather too bad to fly.

91 squadron

91 Squadron Insignia – Photo taken at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum

All 20 available pilots (and 2 non-pilots) took part, and the local population (and police!) were warned in advance so as not to cause any panic. The rules, to be enforced by “a highly suspicious looking lot” of two senior officers, were:

1. No one would be set down more than 5 miles from the Camp.

2. Only 2d. and a pocket compass to be carried.

3. No vehicles to be stolen.

4. Only broken English to be spoken

5. To be considered captured by any member of the Armed Forces when challenged within 50 yards.

6. To be considered captured by Civil Police on being asked for 1250.

7. Escape successfully concluded on reaching the Intelligence Room, Tangmere Aerodrome, before 1700 hours.

That said, the day didn’t get off to a good start. The coach taking the pilots to their drop-off location broke down on the way, so they all got set out from the same spot in 5 minute intervals. The pilots were sent across “a particularly sticky piece of plough and followed by the mocking laughter of the two umpires.”

The first couple of pilots reached home after about an hour. After a brush with some RAF servicemen on the road (and cheekily sending them the wrong way when asked for directions), they stuck to the fields and crawled through various tight spots to reach Tangmere. When it looked at the last that they might be discovered, “paused to light cigarettes when they saw two airmen regarding them with suspicion. This simple act worked like a charm and no further notice was taken of them.”

The next few were captured, after pretending to be doing ‘road work’ or weaving between road and field.

Another pushed the boundary of the rules, making it back to the station safely, but then stealing a car within the station itself to get to the Information Room. The next deserves quoting in full:

“He was followed very shortly by the M. O. F/Lt. Pattrick, looking very calm and collected, and dressed as an Army Padre with the rank of Captain. He had shortly after starting, found himself in the neighbourhood of Goodwood House, and decided to pay the interior a visit in the hope of getting some clothes. He walked through several corridors and into several rooms, without any particular notice being taken of him and without finding anything to help him. He stopped an orderly and asked to see an officer, and on being taken to the Padre, asked for a few words in private with him. Once inside his room, the somewhat astounded Padre was informed that he could consider himself a dead man, as he could have been dealt with at any time in the last few minutes, and he had the situation explained to him. He co-operated to the extent of lending P/Lt. Pattrick a complete uniform which fitted him with space to spare, and the “Doc” set course for base, which he was approaching steadily when he received a shock. A cheery voice from across the road greeted him with “Hello! Hello! Old Man, I don’t think we’ve met before have we? How are you?” Rather taken aback, to put it mildly the pseudo padre found that he was being addressed by the Vicar of Boxgrove. This was rather shaking, but he rose to the occasion by replying that he had just been visiting Goodwood for the day which had some truth in it anyway. After assuring the Vicar that he couldn’t give him details of the programme for Christmas, F/Lt. Pattrick excused himself on the grounds that he was expected at Tangmere. He entered the aerodrome over the wire to the N.E. side, as he didn’t consider the chances of getting through the Main Gate were very good, and sauntered into the Intelligence Room to give S/Ldr, Griffiths his blessing at 1610 hours.”

This seems absolutely wonderful. A delicious moment when, following the false intimidation of a clergyman, another accosts the RAF man looking for details on a service. Poetic justice!

Another two unfortunate escapees were arrested by police whilst trying to hide in the gardens of a nearby cottage. They weren’t the only ones hiding there, however:

“Standing in the outside lavatory of this cottage was none other than the Intelligence Officer, who had suddenly found himself involved in the proceedings and had nipped smartly into the first door he saw. It was while he was witnessing the arrest that the lady of the house returned on her bicycle from a shopping expedition, but fortunately did not find it necessary to visit that position of the building where P/O Miller was concealed. Following this episode, the Intelligence Officer made his way through wire and ditches, and along hedges, until nearing the Control Tower, where all cover seemed to vanish. He walked the last few hundred yards in full view of all and sundry but no one took the slightest notice, and he reached the Intelligence Room at 1625 hours.”

Praise be to the unidentified cottage-dweller’s strong bladder! That lady’s now justly celebrated continence allowed the Intelligence Officer a clear run home.

Of all 22 that took part, 10 managed to evade capture. Meanwhile, the local police snagged 5, earning praise form the station for diligence. The best way to sum up the successful exercise is perhaps to leave it to the serviceman that wrote the summary:

“Over the beer in the evening everyone agreed that it had been grand fun and an afternoon well spent.”

This snapshot of an afternoon exercise in 1943 offers us nothing miraculous or hugely insightful, though it does cast a casual eye over wartime life on the South Coast. The men of 91 Squadron (relying on the support of Empire), carried out important duties in keeping Britain safe. Even when weather stopped them flying, they had time for useful exercises that could save their lives and provide a little amusement in the meantime. In times of turbulence, would that we could all offer such assessments of an afternoon well spent with a beer in hand!

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