Flight Lieutenant Denis Cayford DFC
Flight Lieutenant Denis Cayford D.F.C.
Born: March 16th 1918 Wolverhampton. Died: August 30th 2010 Age 92
Flight Lieutenant Denis Cayford, specialist navigator in the Pathfinder Force during the Second World War; shot down and captured, he took part in the Great Escape and was near the exit of the tunnel when it was discovered.
Cayford, a veteran of the earliest bombing campaigns, joined the Stirling-equipped No 7 Squadron in January 1943 and was immediately selected as one of the first navigators to be trained on the new H2S radar navigation and bombing aid. The radar “painted” a picture of the ground below the aircraft, highlighting towns, coastlines and major inland water features. By using offsets from a prominent feature, it was possible to mark and bomb the target.
In the early months of 1943 Cayford and his crew attacked industrial targets in the Ruhr. Acting as one of the “marker” crews, they dropped flares and coloured indicators over the targets as aiming points for the bomber stream that followed. Cayford flew on the major raids that devastated Hamburg in late July 1943, when the H2S was particularly effective. The experience of the smell of burning at 17,000ft left a deep impression on him.
Cayford’s expertise was recognised by the award of the DFC, his commanding officer commenting: “He is one of the squadron’s most experienced and capable navigators; such men are the backbone of the squadron.”
On the night of August 17/18 1943, Cayford and his crew were ordered on a “shift” attack of the Peenemunde rocket research establishment on the Baltic. Flying a Lancaster, their task was to check the earlier marking and “shift” the aiming point, if necessary, by dropping new markers. When the Lancaster arrived at the target Cayford, using his H2S radar, was convinced that earlier markers were too far south. After an altercation with his bomb-aimer, Cayford’s view prevailed and the red markers were placed precisely over two production buildings, allowing the Master Bomber to give new instructions to the following bombers.
With his flight commander, Squadron Leader Charles Lofthouse, Cayford took off on the night of August 23/24 to mark Berlin. On board as the second pilot was their group captain. As they approached the target, searchlights coned the Lancaster and a night fighter attacked and set an engine on fire. Cayford offered to climb on to the wing to extinguish the fire but Lofthouse realised he had no chance and refused. The fire spread and the crew started to bail out.
All had left before Cayford returned to his compartment to retrieve a gold signet ring from his girlfriend, which he always took off when flying. He landed on the roof of a church and was soon captured and transferred to Stalag Luft III.
Berkeley Denis Cayford was born in Wolverhampton on March 16 1918 and educated at Tettenhall College. He was a county swimmer and travelled with the British swimming team to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. He took up articles with a local solicitor before joining the RAF at the beginning of 1939.
He trained as an air observer and by the end of 1939 joined No 77 Squadron, equipped with Whitley bombers.
Cayford was soon involved in searching for German shipping and dropping leaflets over Germany. On one occasion he flew to Warsaw to drop leaflets, a round trip of 10 hours in his old, unheated bomber. His pilot was Sergeant Hamish Mahaddie, (pictured right)
who later went on to be a Pathfinder leader and who would recruit Cayford to the force two years later.
After flying 30 operations, Cayford left for Canada to take a specialist navigation course, before becoming an instructor at a bomber training unit in Scotland.
On the night of November 17 1941 he was supervising a night navigation exercise in an Anson. The aircraft became badly iced up and lost power and the crew was forced to ditch in the Moray Firth. Cayford was injured and had to endure a very difficult and long night in freezing conditions in his dinghy before rescue arrived. A few months later, his bomber caught fire after a flare exploded and he was forced to bail out. In the space of a few weeks he had become eligible for membership of the Goldfish and Caterpillar Clubs.
Soon after arriving in Stalag Luft III, Cayford joined the team of “penguins”. In sacks suspended inside their trouser legs, they carried and dispersed the sand excavated from the three tunnels being dug for the Great Escape. He was allocated a place as an escaper and planned to travel across Germany to Bulgaria.
On the night of March 24/25 1944 the escape started. Cayford was well down the tunnel when a German guard discovered the exit after 76 men had escaped. Three managed to return to Britain, but 50 were executed on Hitler’s orders.
Cayford and his fellow prisoners were forced to march westwards in the bitter weather of January 1945, and he was finally liberated in May. After recovering he was seconded to BOAC and spent almost two years navigating flying boats on the Far East service.
Cayford left the RAF in May 1947 and remained with BOAC in ground appointments. He served in Shanghai and in Hong Kong before moving to Karachi. He became the manager of BOAC’s southern routes between Pakistan and the Bahamas before becoming the general manager of Bahamas Airways. He retired in 1969 to establish his own aviation consultancy business. His clients included the Saudi Royal Family and the construction company Paulings, when they were involved in constructing airfields in Oman.
A low handicap golfer, he was captain of the Aero Golfing Society in 1983. He enjoyed his garden and retained a keen interest in flying and classic cars.
Denis Cayford died on August 30. He married Christabel Robson, a WAAF officer, in 1947. She died in 1996. He is survived by their two sons and by his partner, Gill Forrester.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard.