England East Anglia Aerial Lighthouse
The Caravan Role in World War II, The "Gypsy Wagon"
By James H. Graham (458th)
Submitted By Marion C. Hoffman, 323rd Sqdn, 91st Bmb Grp, 8th AF, USAAF
With a lot of yellowing papers in my file I ran across this, "The Gypsy Wagon".
Caravan: Webster's definition is as (1) a company of travelers journeying together, (2) a single file of vehicles or animals, or (3) a large covered vehicle (chiefly British):
Leave it to the British to name one of the most significant life-saving devices of world war ii after the third preference definitions of a word most often associated with camels and camel drivers!
Actually it was much better described over a pint or two by lt. Bob Quinlivan, who told me it was more like the lifeguard tower at a crowded beach - a place where alert and caring people could help to rescue the tired, the torn and the terrified. And Bob was one to know having - been all three one time or another.
Another flier may have said it better when he told me, "I don't know who decided to paint those damn things in black and white checkerboard pattern - but they knew what they were doing because, just like the race cars, you knew when you passed that baby, that you knew you were a "winner"!!!
The RAF invented the caravan because, of the typical lousy British weather. It was impossible to maintain any kind of visual contact with their aircraft from the control towers, so it became necessary to establish a frontline outpost to handle traffic control no matter what the conditions and when, as it often happened, radio contact simply was not doing the job.
Every RAF base had a caravan, so did every u. S. Base. And as the U.S.A.A.C. Began activating eighth air force bases (usually a simple matter of the u. S. Army engineers laying in runways on existing British aerodromes to accomodate American heavy bombers). Ours was the 458th bomb group of the 2nd air division of the eighth air force at Horsham St. Faith. We were just outside Norwich, East Anglia and 18 miles from the English Channel.
Caravan crews were made up of two teams of two non-commissioned officers. The teams alternated 24 hour shifts and non-coms were Louis Freiberg, Jim Graham, Wesley Huntress and James Smith.
The caravan at Horsham St. Faith was a truly unwielding beast constructed of heavy gauge steel with a tubular trailer hitch which we hooked up to a truck or a jeep to be towed to wherever the activated runway was on that day. Sometime it was moved during combat landings when a damaged b-24 made the primary runway unusable. This gave the caravan team a heart-stopping, high speed trip to an alternate runway while fuel starved bombers circled the field and two non-coms held on to the radios and the signal lamps for dear life.
The caravan communications equipment consisted of a telephone line to the tower, a very basic radio (to be used only when the tower radio was inoperative or in trouble), a big supply of aldes (signal) lamps and a bigger supply of very pistols (flare guns) and magnesium flares in red, yellow and green.
Why all this staff at the working end of the active runway? Very simple! The control tower, for all intents and purposes, was blind!!! When the weather didn't close out visual contact for the tower, then a very distinct hill in the very center of our field made two out of three runways very nearly invisible.
Whenever the heat was on, or the weather was horrible (which was most of the time), the big brass joined the non-coms at the caravan. It was often the only way to see the b-24's off, or to be the first to see them come home.
So, what did the caravan crew do? Perhaps most importantly, they had the power of override!! If the tower had radioed an okay to land and the caravan could see a problem, then red aldes lamp in the pilot's eyes or a red flare told the b-24, "don't land!!! Go around again, we'll try to clear you on the next approach!!!!"
The caravan was also a place of innovation. Anything to get them safely on the "checkerboard" caravan ground was thought of and tried. Flight control officer, Capt. Bob Sellers invented the gutters along the runway filled with burning gasoline to make a flare path (Curator's note, this was called FIDO). He topped that with the truly innovative signal flare relay system. He stationed three airmen beyond the approach end of the runway and had them fire sequential arcs of yellow flares, leading the fuel-starved liberators to the beginning of the runway where two criss-crossing green flares said, "cut your gun - you're home!"
The caravan crew enjoyed moments of sheer exultation, as when the tower told the leader of a squadron of polish RAF fighters to be guided by the visual signals from the caravan in landing his battle- scarred planes. He was the only one who spoke English, and his squadron was on fumes and couldn't make it back to their base. Everyone got in safely; including the squadron leader whose hurricane coughed its last gasp of petrol as his wheels touched down.
And there was moments of sheer terror, as in the dark of night trying to land a flight of British mosquito bombers and knowing that the flashing lights on final approach were the muzzle blasts of the luftwaffe fighters machine guns chasing British planes in.
Was there heroism? I guess the brass didn't think so - no medals were ever awarded!
But was there courage? Oh yes! The same kind of courage that compelled a bomber crew to fly straight and steady through withering fire to get the job done. So it was with the caravan crews - the kind of courage that kept you in place directing a disoriented b-24 to the runway until seconds before its landing gear tore the 18 foot radio mast from the roof of the caravan. The kind of courage that kept you directing b-24's out of danger on the taxi strip after the pathfinder plane was going up in flames from an accidentally discharged flare gun - when every instinct said to get the hell out of there before the tanks blew. And the kind of courage to stay in place and do your job when hitler's v1's and v2's were rumbling over the horizon just prior to a major landing.
Do caravans deserve a place in U. S. Army Air Corp history? Just ask any pilot or any member of a WWII bomber crew who signaled thumbs up as they touched down safely - thanks to the caravan.
Submitted by ----- Marion C. Hoffman
Marion C. Hoffman, 323rd Sqdn, 91st Bmb Grp, 8th AF, USAAF
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