644 Squadron was formed at Tarrant Rushton on the 23rd February 1944, out of a nucleus of "C" Flight, 298 Squadron, their fellow unit at the airbase. With the invasion of Normandy imminent, it was essential that the Squadron be brought up to full strength as soon as possible and that its crews were trained to the required standard. This process was soon well underway, and during March the Squadron achieved an establishment of thirty Halifax aircraft. 644 Squadron flew its first sortie on the 30th March 1944, with the dropping of arms to Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents in France. Such flights, in support of resistance forces and SAS troops already in France, became the Squadron's chief task during the following weeks; in April alone, forty-six of these sorties had been completed for the loss of a single Halifax. In between these missions the Squadron participated in numerous exercises alongside the Airborne Forces; the speciality of the powerful, four-engined Halifax aircraft being the towing of the very large Hamilcar gliders. Such exercises were naturally free from enemy interference, however they were nevertheless dangerous, and during one exercise in May a Halifax towing a glider crashed into a wood upon take-off.
The primary role of 644 Squadron during the Invasion of Normandy was to tow three of six Horsa gliders (the remainder being the responsibility of 298 Squadron) carrying the Coup de Main Force who were to assault the Bénouville and Ranville Bridges, spanning the Caen Canal and River Orne respectively. The attack, carried out by Major John Howard with a part of "B" and all of "D" Company the 2nd Battalion The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under his command, became one of the most famous actions of the War; the capture of the Bénouville Bridge has become more commonly known as Pegasus Bridge.
As these troops were to be the first men of the 6th Airborne Division to land in Normandy, the six aircraft, led by Wing Commander Duder of 298 Squadron, took off at 22:30 on the 5th June, half an hour before the pathfinder aircraft. It had been planned that the gliders would be released at six thousand feet, however low cloud forced this to be adjusted to four thousand five hundred. At 00:16, the first glider landed on its appointed zone, fifty yards from Bénouville Bridge. Due to navigational difficulties, one of the gliders landed eight miles from its objective, but the remaining five arrived intact, and their troops quickly overwhelmed the garrisons and then defended the bridges until the remainder of the 6th Airborne Division arrived to relieve them several hours later. The Halifaxes, having released the gliders, then proceeded to attack a factory in Caen with a small load of light bombs that they were carrying. The intention of this act was to disguise the presence of the Airborne troops by making it seem as if the intense aerial activity of that night heralded nothing more than a routine bombing raid.
A further seventeen aircraft from 644 Squadron participated in the landings that night, two towing Hamilcar gliders, the remainder Horsas. This first, and comparatively small glider lift, largely consisted of anti-tank guns and was timed to arrive several hours after the main force of paratroopers had landed, in order to allow enough time for the Royal Engineers of the 591st Parachute Squadron to clear two landing strips on LZ-N, near Ranville, of mined anti-glider obstacles. Two of the Squadron's seventeen charges ditched in England when their tow ropes snapped, and two more suffered the same fate several miles short of the landing zone. As most of the Halifax aircraft were towing only the comparatively light-weight Horsa, they were also able to carry a number of supply containers, which were released over the landing zone.
644 Squadron's aircrews were allowed only a few hours rest, because by 13:30 on the 6th June, they were back in the air once again, towing fifteen Hamilcar gliders and one Horsa to Normandy. The former were carrying a mixture of heavy vehicles, including the Universal Carrier and the Tetrarch light tank, used by the 6th Airborne Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment; this flight marked the first occasion in history that tanks had been flown into battle. Three aircraft were damaged by ground fire during this lift, but none were brought down. Over the coming days, several resupply flights were flown to the 6th Airborne Division, 644 Squadron participated in three of these, completing twenty-two resupply sorties in all.
Special Operations Executive
Following operations in Normandy, 644 Squadron reverted to their former role of supplying, and in some cases deploying SAS and SOE personnel behind enemy lines in France, Belgium and Holland. On the 31st August, a Halifax was lost whilst on an SOE resupply flight. During August the Squadron began to receive the new Halifax IIIA aircraft, featuring the much improved Hercules engine. At around this time, the Squadron was also involved in the occasional tactical bombing raid.
During the First Lift to Arnhem on the 17th September 1944, twenty-one of 644 Squadron's aircraft were used to tow fourteen Horsas and seven Hamilcars to their landing zones. Of these gliders, one was forced to cast off prematurely but the remainder reached their appointed zones without incident. On the following day, the Squadron brought in a further eight Horsas and seven Hamilcars; one of the latter came down in the sea but in spite of heavy ground fire in the Arnhem area the rest landed safely, though a few Halifaxes received some flak damage. On the following day, the Third and final lift, the Squadron towed ten Horsas and a Hamilcar to LZ-L, however two of the Horsas failed to reach the zone and another crashed when its tail was shot off as it neared the zone. As the Halifax aircraft was generally unsuited to the despatching of supply containers, 644 Squadron, having suffered no loss in men or aircraft, played no further part in Operation Market Garden.
The Rhine Crossing
644 Squadron returned to its SOE resupply duties. Amongst the first such missions that they undertook was "Quaver", which came in October and involved the delivery of two agents and several equipment containers to Norway. Missions over the Netherlands were still frequent, though they came at a cost, with one Halifax receiving severe damage on the 2nd October, forcing it to make a belly-landing at Woodbridge, and tanother aircraft was shot down by flak on the 10th of that month. Although these operations continued apace, there were no further losses suffered by the Squadron until the 3rd March 1945, when a Halifax returning from Norway was forced to ditch in the North Sea. In addition to these duties the Squadron was also involved in numerous tactical bombing raids during January and February, hitting targets on or close to the front line.
In March 1945, 298 and 644 Squadrons were warned that they would be required to participate in another attempt to gain a foothold across the River Rhine. On the 19th March, the two Squadrons towed sixty-eight gliders, mostly Hamilcars, to Woodbridge airfield where they were to be based for the duration of the operation. On the 24th March, out of a total of twelve Horsas and forty-eight Hamilcars, the Squadrons each towed thirty of these gliders to their landing zones around Hamminkeln. The operation was a success, but anti-aircraft fire was particularly heavy and two Halifaxes were shot down.
644 Squadron were subsequently re-equipped with the new Halifax A.VII aircraft and they returned to their role of supplying SOE operatives, though now almost exclusively to Norway and Denmark. A Halifax crew was lost in each of these countries, on the 24th and 27th April respectively.
Following the end of hostilities in Europe, 644 Squadron helped to transport the 1st Parachute Brigade to Copenhagen on the 8th May, where they were to oversee the surrender and disarmament of the German forces in Denmark. On the following day they carried the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division to Norway for similar duties.
Ever since the Normandy landings, 46 Group had been involved in a "shuttle service" of ferrying freight to the front line and removing either wounded or freed prisoners of war to Britain. Although most of the armies were more or less static now that the War was over, Transport Command's responsibilities increased, and so 38 Group received orders to assist in this capacity. In addition to the transport of freight and prisoners of war, 644 Squadron also flew service personnel to Greece, North Africa and Italy. In July, the Squadron lost a Halifax over the Pyrenees.
In November 1945, the 6th Airborne Division were despatched to Palestine to help police the worsening political crisis that was developing in the region, and 644 Squadron were ordered to lend them their support and so accompanied them to Quastina. On the 1st September 1946, the Squadron was renamed 47 Squadron.
The information contain in this history has come from the article "Airborne Forces Specialists", by Andrew Thomas. Thanks to Alan Hartley for his help.
Commanders of 644 Squadron
Squadron Leader A. G. Norman DFC
Wing Commander V. A. Pope
Wing Commander E. L. Archer AFC
Wing Commander W. H. Angle