AN AUDACIOUS attempt to fool the Germans in World War Two, masterminded by the Rhu-based Marine Aircraft Experimental Research Establishment, nearly came to grief.
Robin Bird, who wrote ‘Top Secret War Bird of World War Two’ about his father, photographer Bob Bird, has discovered what happened, and hopes to feature the story in a new book.
The establishment was set up by the Air Ministry in 1924 to evaluate the performance of water-based aircraft.
Originally based in Felixstowe, the onset of the Second World War led to the MAEE being classified Top Secret, and moving to Helensburgh and Rhu in 1939, to ensure its work did not attract the attention of German spy planes or bombers.
Robin says: “MAEE Helensburgh carried out a number of clandestine operations involving captured aircraft. Two Heinkel He 115 floatplanes were modified by MAEE and Scottish Aviation to fly agents into Europe.
“When returning during the early hours a lone He 115 was met by a Hampden bomber. However, they were mistaken as German by Polish Spitfire pilots, who later claimed they were not informed of the Heinkel’s true identity.
“The Heinkel was hit and forced to land within sight of Calshot. The pilot put out the fire and the Spitfires called off the attack. The repaired Heinkel was then flown to RAF Stranraer before resuming secret flights of agents into Europe.”
The Polish pilots were reprimanded for not finishing off the Heinkel.
It was not the only Heinkel used in this way. A Norwegian Squadron based at Helensburgh was made up of captured He 115s and four Norwegian 115s which escaped from Stavanger when Norway surrendered in June 1940, landed in the Orkneys where a white cross was painted over the swastikas, and then flew on to the Gareloch. The squadron was led by Commander Bugge.
Says Robin: “They intended to perform leaflet drops over Norwegian cities in the wake of the defeat. However British Intelligence then realised the potential of the Heinkel squadron as ‘spy planes’.
“At first three Norwegian Heinkels were based at MAEE Helensburgh, with new serial numbers starting BV. They were later joined by the captured aircraft.”
One of the Heinkel 115 floatplanes from Helensburgh was destroyed at Kalafrana, Malta, in 1942.
Norah G.C.Dunn, who now lives in Kilbirnie but regularly returns to the burgh where she was particularly well known as a leading country dancer, remembers the Norwegian pilots.
Mrs Dunn recalls: “At that time my parents had Kinnear House in Charlotte Street as small private hotel, and the authorities billeted the officers of these planes in the hotel. The other airman were billeted with other people in the town — I don’t know where.
“These planes did fly over Norway with leaflets every three or four nights. On one occasion one of the officers suffered a broken ankle on landing, and another was also injured. On the nights of these sorties the remaining pilots were heard tramping around the bedrooms in anxiety until they heard the planes return.
“These men were so friendly and pleasant, and must have been in the hotel for a number of weeks. It was lovely weather, and they showed their appreciation of the hotel and garden.
“Most of them had wives and families in Norway, but had no news of them and no idea how they were faring — and no way of making any contact with them.”
Mrs Dunn was told how they managed to bring the Heinkels to Scotland after the occupation began. “They managed to get some German airmen drunk in a pub, and were able to pinch the keys of the flying boats from them, then fly them to Scotland out of the blue!” she says.
MAEE also tested an Arado floatplane as fitted to warships such as the Graf Spee, Scharnhorst, Bismarck and Tirpitz. The latter warship received special attention from MAEE Helensburgh which developed the Barnes Wallis bombs that sank her.
Another Tirpitz project by MAEE was the development of Sunderland Flying Boats to carry human torpedo chariots.
MAEE also tested a hydrodynamically designed Dornier Do 18. This was of the same type as the first Luftwaffe aircraft shot down by the British in September 1939 by a Blackburn Skua from the aircraft carrier Ark Royal.
Robin’s late father was the official photographer for MAEE Helensburgh when the war against German U-Boats and battleships was at a critical height.
He says: “I continue to be amazed by the variety of specialised research and development carried out at Helensburgh.
“I have acquired some more rare photographs of MAEE’s time there including one of seaplanes at Rhu, a Spitfire fitted with floats, and a low flying Catalina fitted with the anti-submarine Leigh Light.
“My previously published book featured a MAEE Sunderland dropping a depth bomb, which was taken by my father from the aircraft. It was hard to fathom how he had taken the picture because of the angle.
“Now, after studying this latest batch of photographs and speaking to a former MAEE aircraft fitter, I know that the Sunderland involved was unique to MAEE Helensburgh by being fitted with an open cockpit on the fuselage side.”
Robin hopes also to use these photographs in the book which he is now researching. It will be based on the war against U-Boats and will feature U-534 which is currently berthed near his home on Merseyside and which his father photographed when it arrived in the Mersey in 1996.
Coincidentally, 534 was the hull number for the Queen Mary that Hitler desperately wanted U-Boats to sink during its runs between America and the Clyde.
Bob also photographed the Focke Achgelis autogiro during the war that came off the scuttled U-852, whose commander then made legal history as the only U-Boat captain executed for war crimes — machine gunning survivors in the sea.
Robin is always looking for more information about the establishment. He visited the burgh in 2005, and says he was amazed how little local people knew about it, even the water tank testing centre in Glen Fruin.
“I would like to hear from anyone who served with MAEE Helensburgh circa 1942, or people who knew Bob Bird, MAEE photographer,” he says.
The establishment returned to Felixstowe in 1945, and was finally closed down in 1956.
- The top picture from the Bob Bird Collection shows the Heinkel which was attacked by the Spitfires; the lower picture is of one converted for use by the RAF.