Flt Lt W F Martin DFC

W F Martin DFC Stone

Flt Lt W F Martin DFC – Story Behind the Stone

“On the night of 21 June 1944, Lancaster Mk III ND 471 “A-Able” of No 57 Squadron took off from RAF East Kirkby at 2302 as part of a raid on an oil plant at Wesseling, Germany.  It did not return, although its crew did, being forced to ditch in the North Sea in the early hours of 22 June, having completed their mission and taken flak returning over the Dutch Coast, which holed the fuel tanks and steadily cut the engines.  The Navigator was Flying Officer William Fisher Martin who, for his actions on this and other missions, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.  The raid on Wesseling was one of 32 operational missions he completed with 57 Sqn, based at RAF East Kirkby. Having completed this operational tour he went on to be the Navigation Leader for 617 Sqn, based at RAF Woodhall Spa, and deployed to the Far East in early 1945 as part the Tiger Force effort preparing for War with Japan.

These are his memories of the night they ditched:

We huddled together in the rocking dinghy, seven very scared, very wet and very much at sea airmen.  We watched with a sense of loss the large starboard wing of good old A for Able sinking lower in the water.  She had carried us safely through our last 15 ops and she was now going down into the depths of the North Sea, leaving us on the surface, crouched miserably in our all too small dinghy, still only half realising our predicament.  It had all happened very quickly. One minute we were happily wending our way homewards, 5,000 ft, 175 on the clock and the contented feeling of another ‘job’ successfully completed”. 

“It had been a tough one, with four separate attacks by a rocket-firing night fighter and we had been very very thankful when we crossed, safely as we thought, the Dutch coast, and headed out to sea. Suddenly, for no accountable reason, A for Able swung round in a semi-circle and headed East again.”

The fuel tanks had been holed and both starboard engines had stopped.  The Flight Engineer soon found that fuel tanks which should have contained more than 200 gallons were now empty.  The port inner engine had also stopped and the last remaining engine was coughing badly.

“The Skipper’s voice came quietly to us over the intercom. “Prepare to ditch.” A few minutes while everyone collected their remaining wits about them and made their respective preparations.  I hastily fixed our position and passed it in message form to the Wireless Operator, who had immediately commenced distress signals.”

“All too soon came the dreaded order “Ditching stations!”  We took off our harnesses, inflated our Mae Wests and scrambled back to our crash positions.  “Escape hatches off!” “1000 feet”, “500 feet”, “200 feet”, “Prepare for impact!” – we braced ourselves for the crash – and then oblivion!”

“When I scrambled to my feet the water was up to my knees and ‘Snow’ the Bomb Aimer was thrusting the dinghy packs into my hands.  Automatically in pitch blackness I stumbled to the upper escape hatch and thrust them up to the awaiting hands – dinghy and radio followed and then I scrambled up through the hatch and breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the Skipper crawling along the top of the cabin – good old Nick – were we all out then?  A quick scramble on to the wing – already awash – and then into the dinghy, steadying it to help Nick aboard (she was already floating) “all present?” “Jack?” “Geoff?” “Johnny?” – all correct! “OK, cut the line” – momentary panic as A for Able keeled over on her nose and stood threateningly above us, a huge mass in the darkness. “Paddle! Paddle for God’s sake!” It seemed hours until we worked our way by pushing on the wing and thrusting off from the clear wing tip and then we were left, watching her go down – our trusty old kite – damn Jerry anyway”.

“Slowly we quieted ourselves and tried to take stock.  The Skipper’s face was a mess, he was bleeding freely and was a bit dazed.  Someone fumbled in the darkness for the first aid kit.  Then we realised there was more water in the dinghy than we would like.  Snowy tore off his flying boot and we began to bale.  Eventually we got organised, rigging the mast for the portable radio transmitter and turning the handle, which gave us a ray of hope.  The occasional wave broke over us and soon we were cold and miserable and feeling very sorry for ourselves.  Dawn came slowly, after we had been in the water for nearly 3 hours”.

“At about 8 o’clock, we were roused by the sound of engines and saw, low and well to the South, a couple of aircraft speeding Eastwards, probably off to photograph the damage we had done the previous night.  Time dragged by until we heard engines again and saw a large aircraft below cloud and well to the South.  Miserably we watched it turn away and disappear.  Later we heard it again and I took the flare pistol from my battle dress.  As it turned some distance from us I fired off a cartridge. It carried on.  They hadn’t seen it!”

“Shortly before noon it reappeared and I waited until it seemed near enough and fired off another cartridge.  Again it turned away and we sat back, our hopes dashed.  Then it turned and, this time, seemed to head straight for us.  I reloaded hastily and fired again, and this time there was no mistake.  They had spotted us!  Scrambling to our feet we cheered and waved as they banked and flew over us. A bigger dinghy was dropped and inflated on impact. We paddled over to it and climbed aboard.  It was wonderful, the lift in morale, once we felt safe”.

“The aircraft kept station above us and signalled that help was on its way. Sometime later it headed away East, then swung round towards us again and soon after we saw the bow waves of a naval launch approaching. When it arrived we were helped aboard, given dry clothing and a large mug of naval rum. Never had a drink been more appreciated, and I remember little else until we docked at Yarmouth later, having been in a deep sleep”. 

“The Skipper and I spent a couple of nights in a naval hospital and then we were driven to the nearest airfield and flown back to East Kirkby, where the rest of the crew had already arrived. We learned that the base had lost 11 aircraft that night and morale was low, so that our arrival had brought a great boost to the Station as a whole, and I can well appreciate the hopes raised by our return”. 

Downed at 0210, and spotted by an Air Sea Rescue aircraft around midday, when they boarded the rescue launch they had been afloat for 12 hours.  An investigation revealed that their emergency calls had not been heard and that they had been lucky to have been rescued so soon.  The aircraft that spotted them was on a separate mission looking for dinghies that had been dropped the previous day, but once they were seen the air-sea rescue system swung quickly into action.

On the afternoon of the flight, the crew had carried out the usual pre-ops check flight, a short trip to make sure that everything was working correctly and flown early enough to allow the engineers to fix any snags.  It was a bright, sunny day, and the trip was uneventful.  After they had made their way back to their parking spot, the pilot made an unusual decision that was to prove vital to their survival that night.  He decided they should practice their ditching drill. Ignoring the hoots of derision from their colleagues and groundcrew in the June sunshine, they went through the ditching routine, even extracting the dinghy from the fuselage and carrying it out onto the wing.  The Skipper could not explain why he decided to run the drill but, when debriefed, the crew attributed their safe escape to the fact that they had just practiced for the event.  It was a message quickly passed to other bomber units.

The Wesseling raid itself was a disaster for 5 Group; of 133 aircraft that were airborne that night, 37 were lost, mainly due to night fighters that intercepted the bomber stream over Holland.  200 men lost their lives, 44 became prisoners of war and 9 evaded capture.  RAF East Kirby alone lost 11 aircraft that night;  A-Able’s crew was the only one of those to return.

Flt Lt William Fisher Martin’s DFC citation reads as follows:

This officer has participated in many operational sorties against a variety of targets. He has proved himself a most efficient navigator, and has always displayed outstanding courage and determination throughout his operational tour. His fine technical skill has largely contributed to the success of many  missions. In April 1944 his aircraft was detailed to attack Schweinfurt. On the outward flight it was attacked and damaged by an enemy fighter. The rear gunner was wounded and the inter-communication system and the elevator were damaged, both turrets also being rendered unserviceable. Flying Officer Martin calmly navigated the damaged aircraft to the target, which was bombed, and safely back to this country, where a successful landing was accomplished. Again, in June 1944, during an attack on a target in West Germany, his aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and the petrol tank was holed. On the return flight, owing to lack of fuel, the bomber was forced down on to the sea. After more than twelve hours in the dinghy, the crew were rescued. Despite slight head injuries, Flying Officer Martin’s cool courage and cheerfulness were a source of inspiration to the rest of the crew”. 

Happily, Bill Martin survived the War and, although he died not long after retirement in 1980, he was able to meet up with the rest of his crew in 1979 at the first reunion of 57 and 630 Squadrons. He had 3 daughters, Margaret, Sheena and Alex. His granddaughter Wendy joined the RAF in 1991 and is still serving today (2022).

“In June 1944, my Mother Mary was six months pregnant with me.  Safe at home on her parents’ farm in Scotland her world was shattered on 22nd June by the arrival of a telegram advising that my Dad was missing following operations on the night of 21st June.  The thought that he may never return nor see his first child must have been devastating.  On 23rd June however, a second telegram arrived bearing the joyful news that Dad had been safely rescued at sea.

I arrived on 1st December, 1944 and it was several months before we met due to his continuing wartime service.  From the time that he was demobbed until his death in 1980 we enjoyed a loving and special father and daughter relationship.  He was indeed a remarkable man and he taught me much about the natural world, patience and kinship.”  Margaret Rothery née Martin

“My Dad was my hero. Not because he was a war hero, just because he was my Dad. He WAS a DFC, MiD, Goldfish Club war hero, but we heard little about that growing up as, like so many other survivors, he didn’t talk much about his wartime service. However, I knew there was something important about him, that he had a medal –  once, when I was about 9 or 10, I “borrowed” his DFC & took it to school for show & tell, but didn’t tell anyone. Of course, my mother chose that day to clean the china cabinet ………. !

Growing up, he was just like every other good dad – our mentor,  our teacher.  He taught me about the night sky, without me realising at the time that was how he had navigated his Lancaster Bombers. He once got me up, again in the night, to see the Northern Lights on a rare occasion they were visible where we lived.

My dad passed away when I was 26 & pregnant with my first child, so he never met my children. But I KNOW he has watched over them. My first born regaled us with tales of his “dreams” until he was in his early teens. In those dreams, my father came to play with him & took him in his plane, showed him his navigator’s station (and my son described it in accurate detail, which even I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw it for myself in Just Jane some 30 years later).

To us he was, and will always remain, quite simply our much loved, always missed, ever-present hero dad.”  Sheena Cowan née Martin

“I arrived in 1964 when my dad was 50!  I only had him in my life for a very short 16 years…never had him walk me down the aisle.  So my memories of my hero my dad are short and limited however he was the most lovely caring softly spoken Scotsman that I will never forget.” Alex Martin

“I was just 12 when my Grandfather died in 1980, but was fortunate enough to be present with my parents the previous year at East Kirkby at the inaugural gathering of the 57/630 Squadrons Association when he was reunited with the other 6 members of his crew. I recall there was a lot of laughter that weekend as memories were recounted and stories told of derring do.  Although I did not know then that I would join the RAF some years later, I remember thinking what a marvellous organisation it must be! The horrors that my Grandfather’s Crew endured would only become apparent many years later as I researched their 32 operational missions.  The stories my Grandfather told undoubtedly left their mark and provided the inspiration for me to follow in his footsteps and join the RAF, and here I am more than 30 years later. I have been attending the annual 57 and 630 Squadron Association reunions annually since 2010 and have been fortunate to have met many of the men and women who served at East Kirkby at the same time as my Grandfather: heroes one and all. Per Ardua ad Astra.” Air Commodore Wendy Rothery 

Re-United after 77 Years!

On the 11th April 1944 Sgt Eddie Humes and the crew of Lancaster LL639 set off from their 514 Squadron base at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.

The crew’s target that night was Aachen.  After completing their mission they turned to head back home.  At around 23.15 hours a Messerschmitt flown by Unteroffizer Hans Fischer of 12/NJG1 attacked.  Eddie recalls one of the engines caught fire and soon spread along the port wing.  The order was given to prepare to abandon the aircraft.  The crew tried for a few more minutes to extinguish the blaze but the port wing tip fell away followed by the port outer engine.  The pilot could no longer keep control of the aircraft so the instruction to “Abandon Aircraft” was given.

Eddie was the only survivor.  He was badly injured and taken to hospital in occupied Belgium and then onto a German military hospital to undergo surgery.  He was eventually moved to a Prisoner of War camp for the remainder of the war, enduring the ‘long march’ from Poland to Austria before being flown home by Lancaster Bomber.

On the 1st January this year Eddie celebrated his 100th birthday and got a very unusual present.  Linda Driessen, a member of the family who own the land in Molenbeersel where his plane had crashed 77 years ago, had found a piece of metal which they thought might be part of the plane.  They asked if Eddie might know what it was.  Eddie who was the Navigator knew immediately what it was……it was the metal part of Eddies own parallel ruler he used during that flight.  The wood had rotted away many years ago but the metal part was exactly as Eddie had last seen it 77 years ago.  Linda sent the piece to be reunited with Eddie for his 100th birthday.  A very special and unique present indeed.

Eddie’s crew are buried at Haverlee War Cemetery and there is a local memorial erected by the villagers in Molenbeersel.


Susanne Pescott, IBCC Volunteer

William Meyer DFC

William Meyer was born in London in 1910.   His background was very unusual, his birth certificate is in the name of Wilhelm-Alex Meyer-Braselmann, his parents were German.   The family company were importers and agents for a variety of industrial hardware, mostly from Germany.  Their agencies included Primus, well known for their Primus stoves and associated equipment.    After the death of his father in 1939 William, known as Bill, took over the running of the company.   Despite being in an essential occupation Bill organised a reliable team to manage the company and, once they were in place in 1941, he volunteered.  Facing the RAF Selection Board, he managed to persuade them to recommend him for pilot training despite his age of 31, the cut off for acceptance for pilot training.

In October 1941 Bill was sent to the USA for initial training at the Polaris Flight Academy at the aptly named War Eagle Field.  Following that he completed his training at RAF Forres in the north of Scotland.   He was then posted in December 1942, together with his newly formed crew, to join RAF IX (B) Squadron based first at RAF Waddington before moving to RAF Bardney.  From January to June 1943, he flew numerous sorties to targets usually in what was known as ‘Happy Valley’, the heavily defended industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley.    He and his crew became known for the accuracy of their bombing earning special mentions in the squadron monthly reports.  They also had an unusual success when, having been attacked by a Me 109 during a sortie to St Nazaire, they managed to shoot it down and returned unscathed.

Having completed a successful tour of 30 sorties Bill was awarded a DFC his recommendation reads:

This officer has carried out 30 sorties against enemy targets, involving 175 hours flying.  He has at all times displayed the greatest determination to carry out his tasks to the best of his ability.  His courage and leadership have made his crew extremely successful, and his tenacity has produced good results in the number of night photographs he has obtained of his targets.  He is strongly recommended for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

As was usual Bill was then ‘rested’ from operational flying for six months and sent to help train new crews at No. 82 Operational Training Unit, at Ossington.  Here he survived a training accident that destroyed the Wellington that he had been instructing on.  Following the crash the aircraft caught fire and he was lucky to escape with burns.

After he had recovered from his burns, he then volunteered to become a Pathfinder, the elite force that led the bomber stream and marked the targets accurately for the main force.  A more dangerous role as not only did the Germans target the leading bombers but Pathfinder aircraft were unable to ‘weave’ over the target to enable the gunners to spot night fighters approaching underneath them as they had to fly straight and level in order to mark the targets with the utmost accuracy.

Bill joined 97 (Straits Settlements) Squadron in December 1943 and, now flying Lancasters again, flew throughout the winter of 1943/44.   This was during the ‘Battle of Berlin’ when Bomber Command was sent repeatedly to Berlin.   Bill, and those like him, now faced ever mounting losses during the long, icy nights in skies filled with flak, searchlights and fighters.    On the night of 15/16 March 1944 Bill was the first to take off from RAF Bourn on a sortie to Stuttgart.   The route lead over France before turning north near Lake Constance.   There a German fighter Ju 88C flown by a German fighter ace, Hauptmann Horst Heinz Hissbach, picked him up on his radar.   The Lancaster was raked with cannon shells setting the port engine on fire.   The fire rapidly spread and there was an explosion.  The aircraft broke up and crashed on the outskirts of a small hamlet, Zillhausen, in Germany.  There were no survivors.

William Meyer was my father’s greatest friend, a name remembered from my childhood.    Many years later, on coming across his photo and plaque in my parents’ effects, my husband and I decided to research Bill’s wartime history.   It was the start of a lengthy search full of surprises.  Bill’s German ancestry was a huge shock, when I told one of his first crew, he refused to believe it insisting that Bill was a typical English gentleman.   Another surprise was finding a witness of the crash in Germany.   Kurt Schneider, only fourteen at the time, had never forgotten that night and was able to tell us about it in great detail.   Thanks to the support of local people and the Mayor of the nearest large town, Balingen, we were able to erect a memorial to William Meyer and his 97 Squadron crew on the site of the crash in Zillhausen.   The unveiling ceremony was attended by men from IX (B) Squadron and two Tornados.

William’s entry on the IBCC Losses Database can be found here

The Great Escape Tunnel

Untouched for almost seven decades, the tunnel used in the Great Escape has finally been unearthed. The 111-yard passage nicknamed ‘Harry’ by Allied prisoners was sealed by the Germans after the audacious break-out from the POW camp Stalag Luft III in western Poland. Despite huge interest in the subject, encouraged by the film starring Steve McQueen, the tunnel undisturbed over the decades because it was behind the Iron Curtain and the Soviet had no interest in its significance.

But at last British archaeologists have excavated it, and discovered its remarkable secrets.

Many of the bed boards which had been joined together to stop it collapsing were still in position. And the ventilation shaft, ingeniously crafted from used powdered milk containers known as Klim Tins, remained in working order. Scattered throughout the tunnel, which is 30ft below ground, were bits of old metal buckets, hammers and crowbars which were used to hollow out the route. A total of 600 prisoners worked on three tunnels at the same time. They were nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry and were just 2 ft. square for most of their length. It was on the night of March 24 and 25, 1944, that 76 Allied airmen escaped through Harry.

Barely a third of the 200 prisoners, many in fake German uniforms and civilian outfits and carrying false identity papers, who were meant to slip away managed to leave before the alarm was raised when escapee number 77 was spotted.

Only three made it back to Britain. Another 50 were executed by firing squad on the orders of Adolf Hitler, who was furious after learning of the breach of security. In all, 90 boards from bunk beds, 62 tables, 34 chairs and 76 benches, as well as thousands of items including knives, spoons, forks, towels and blankets, were squirreled away by the Allied prisoners to aid the escape plan under the noses of their captors.

Although the Hollywood movie suggested otherwise, NO Americans were involved in the operation. Most were British, and the others were from Canada, (all the tunnelers were Canadian personnel with backgrounds in mining) Poland, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.

The latest dig, over three weeks in August, located the entrance to Harry, which was originally concealed under a stove in Hut 104. The team also found another tunnel, called George, whose exact position had not been charted. It was never used as the 2,000 prisoners were forced to march to other camps as the Red Army approached in January 1945. Watching the excavation was Gordie King, 91, an RAF radio operator, who was 140th in line to use Harry and therefore missed out. ‘This brings back such bitter-sweet memories’, he said as he wiped away tears. ‘I’m amazed by what they’ve found. ’

Escape from WWII POW Camps

Starting in 1940, an increasing number of British and Canadian Airmen found themselves as the involuntary guests of the Third Reich, and the Crown was casting about for ways and means to facilitate their escape. Now obviously, one of the most helpful aids to that end is a useful and accurate map, one showing not only where stuff was, but also showing the locations of ‘safe houses’ where a POW on-the-lam could go for food and shelter.

Paper maps had some real drawbacks — they make a lot of noise when you open and fold them, they wear out rapidly, and if they get wet, they turn into mush.

Someone in MI-5 (similar to America’s OSS) got the idea of printing escape maps on silk. It’s durable, can be scrunched-up into tiny wads and, unfolded as many times as needed and, makes no noise whatsoever.

At that time, there was only one manufacturer in Great Britain that had perfected the technology of printing on silk, and that was John Waddington Ltd When approached by the government, the firm was only too happy to do its bit for the war effort.

By pure coincidence, Waddington was also the U.K. Licensee for the popular American board game Monopoly. As it happened, ‘games and pastimes’ was a category of item qualified for insertion into ‘CARE packages’, dispatched by the International Red Cross to prisoners of war.

Under the strictest of secrecy, in a securely guarded and inaccessible old workshop on the grounds of Waddington’s, a group of sworn-to-secrecy employees began mass-producing escape maps, keyed to each region of Germany, Italy, and France or wherever Allied POW camps were located. When processed, these maps could be folded into such tiny dots that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece. While they were at it, the clever workmen at Waddington’s also managed to add:

1 A playing token, containing a small magnetic compass
2. A two-part metal file that could easily be screwed together
3. Useful amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of Monopoly money!

British and American air crews were advised, before taking off on their first mission, how to identify a ‘rigged’ Monopoly set – by means of a tiny red dot, one cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, located in the corner of the Free Parking square.

Of the estimated 35,000 Allied POWS who successfully escaped, an estimated one-third were aided in their flight by the rigged Monopoly sets. Everyone who did so was sworn to secrecy indefinitely, since the British Government might want to use this highly successful ruse in still another, future war.

The story wasn’t declassified until 2007, when the surviving craftsmen from Waddington’s, as well as the firm itself, were finally honoured in a public ceremony. It’s always nice when you can play that ‘Get Out of Jail’ Free’ card!

Lancaster PB812 AR-Y

Lancaster PB812 AR-Y 460 Sqn RAAF 10th February 1945.

On the IBCC Ribbons Of Remembrance are a series of Stones which are dedicated to the memory of a crew from 460 Sqn RAAF who were based at RAF Binbrook. Very close to the Chadwick Centre in Block 1, we have a Ribbon for a Bomb Aimer Arnold Kloeden, then in Block 2 are six Ribbons for the crew of a Lancaster PB812 which crashed at Caythorpe near Grantham on the 10th February 1945.

This was a very close knit crew, as many of them had travelled across to England on the same troopship from Australia. They first crewed up in August 1944, whilst undergoing their Operational Training at RAF Hixon, flying the Wellington Bomber. Then in December 1944 they were posted to No 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Lindholme, to convert onto the Lancaster. Here they were joined by an Englishman, called Freddie Nesbit-Bell who hailed from Bristol and was the flight engineer.  Why was he flying with an all Australian crew?

With the introduction of the heavy bombers and the decision to go to one pilot operation, the new trade of flight engineer was introduced. He would assist the pilot with throttles, monitor fuel and hydraulics, and carry out any immediate action drills in the case of engine fires or failures. Freddie was a pilot in his own right, having trained in Canada, but he retrained as a flight engineer, because of shortages. Many RAF personnel were transferred to this new trade, which is why you often found them flying with other nationalities. But Freddie did not need to join the war effort, as he had a reserved occupation, he was a Police Constable in Bristol. Eight Police Constables from Bristol volunteered for the Services, Freddie was the only one not to return home when the war finished.

Having completed the HCU the crew were posted to No 460 Sqn. The crew, five of them even owned a car together, so they could explore the Lincolnshire Wolds. The crew were rarely apart in their leisure hours and Arnold Kloeden said they worked in a greater harmony than any other crew he had seen.

On the morning of Saturday 10th February 1945, Pilot Officer Dick Miller took off from Binbrook on a crew training sortie (Navex) with five members of his crew. The Bomb Aimer’s position was empty because Arnold Kloeden had been ill and was just being released from hospital, so didn’t have time to prepare for the flight. The crew were flying a Navigation Exercise and whilst on the leg from Luton to Scunthorpe, a catastrophic accident occurred. At 15:50 hrs the Lancaster was witnessed by some local schoolboys in a vertical dive over the village of Caythorpe and crashed near Love Lane close to the railway station. None of the crew survived the crash, there was speculation that problems with the autopilot may have contributed to the accident, as this had caused problems on a previous flight.

The deceased crew’s remains were placed in one coffin and they were buried at Cambridge City Cemetery. The parents and sister of Tony Robinson, the air gunner attended, along with family members belonging to Freddie Nisbet-Bell. The Chief Constable of Bristol also came and paid his respects. Arnold Kloeden represented all those Australian families who were unable to attend.

After the war, Arnold Kloeden returned to Australia and eventually died in 2003. On the 10th September 2016 a memorial service was organised by Linda Pope, the niece of Rhod Pope, which was held at St Vincent’s Church in Caythorpe. This was attended by family members of the deceased crew and two plaques were laid. One is located at the church, the other is on Love Lane close to the crash site.

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Porokoru Patapu Pohe – 51 Squadron

51 Squadron is one of our local units here in Lincolnshire, and currently operates out of RAF Waddington, just a few miles south of the International Bomber Command Centre, flying the ‘Rivet Joint RC135W’ aircraft.

During the war it was a Bomber Command Unit assigned to No 4 Group and operating out of various airfields in Yorkshire, including RAF Linton-on-Ouse, RAF Dishforth and RAF Snaith, flying the Whitley and then the Halifax Bomber.

Born on the 10th December 1914, Porokoru Patapu Pohe, (known as John or Johnny) grew up on his parents farm in Taihape, New Zealand.  After finishing school he worked on the family farm and served two years in the Territorial Army with the Manawatu Mounted Rifles. In 1939 he volunteered to join the RNZAF, and was eventually accepted for pilot training. On the 18th January 1941 Porokoru was awarded his flying brevet, and thus became the first Maori pilot in the New Zealand Air Force. Like many of his compatriots he travelled to Canada to undergo advanced training under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, before finally arriving at No 10 OTU at RAF Abingdon in May 1941, to convert onto the Whitley.

It was whilst flying a Whitley on the 21st July 1941, on a bombing raid near Paris, that he earned the distinction of being the first Maori to bomb a target in occupied Europe. On the 24th August 1941 Porokoru was posted to 51 Squadron and was promoted to Flight Sergeant in October that year. The following February he piloted a Whitley which dropped paratroopers on a radar station near Le Havre. This daring raid called Operation Biting or perhaps better know as the Bruneval Raid, was mounted to try and capture and dismantle a German radar called  ‘Würzburg’. This radar controlled anti aircraft and searchlight batteries, whilst also directing nightfighters into the bomber streams, so any countermeasures that could neutralise it, would be very useful. So the aim of the raid was to return sections of the radar, including some of the electronics back to the scientists in Britain, so they could get a better understanding of the inner workings of the system, and advances in German Radar technology. To help with this, they also brought back a German Radar Technician, all the equipment was taken down to the local beach where a Royal Navy landing craft collected the assault teams, transferred them to motor gunboats for the journey back across the Channel.

On completion of his operational tour Porokoru was posted as an instructor to No 24 OTU at RAF Honeybourne flying the Wellington. In March 1943 he survived a crash when the wing of his Wellington caught fire. Requesting a transfer back to operational flying, he converted to the Halifax bomber at No 1663 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Rufforth, before he and his crew rejoined No 51 Sqn, which was now based at RAF Snaith. Within two days of joining his old squadron, he was tasked to fly against Hannover. On the night of 22nd September 1943, in aircraft JN901, they were hit twice by anti aircraft fire over the target area and had to limp for home. Such was the damage to the aircraft that they were forced to ditch in the English Channel, but at least all the crew survived. For two days they huddled in the dinghies before a German spotter plane sighted them and directed a German vessel to pick them up, thus Porokoru and his crew became Prisoners Of War.

Porokoru eventually arrived at Stalag Luft III near Sagan in October, but by 1944 he was actively helping to construct tunnel ‘Harry’,  that would shortly see prisoners try to make a bid for freedom, in what is famously called ‘The Great Escape’.

On the night of 24/25th March 1944 in the depths of a real bad winter, seventy six POWs managed to escape through tunnel ‘Harry’ before a guard patrolling outside the perimeter fence noticed the next man attempting to emerge from the tunnel. When the Germans discovered the escape, they put into action a well rehearsed manhunt. Porokoru and his companion Al Hake, an Australian Spitfire pilot, who were both suffering with frostbite in their feet, were captured by a local patrol and handed over to the Gestapo at Görlitz prison. On the 30th March, Gestapo officers collected six prisoners including Al Hake and Porokoru, they were driven away and never seen again. On Hitler’s orders fifty of the escapees were executed, they were chosen from different nationalities to send a chilling message back to the camps. Of the original seventy six to escape, fifty were executed, twenty three were returned to POW camps and just three managed to escape, one landed in England, two managed to seek refuge in Sweden.

Originally cremated and buried at Sagan, Porokoru is now buried in Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery. At Sagan close to the where Stalag Luft III was located, there is a memorial to ‘The Fifty’. Post war investigations saw a number of those guilty for the murders, tracked down arrested and tried for their crimes.

Flying Officer Porokoru Patapu Pohe RNZAF was Mentioned in Dispatches with the citation “In recognition of distinguished service and devotion to duty”. He is remembered on Panel 227 of the Memorial Walls here at the International Bomber Command Centre. Below is an entry from Fg Off JSB Tyrie’s Stalag Luft III diary, which remembers those executed during ‘The Great Escape’

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Pilot Officer Ernest Tansley

Seventy-seven years ago today, the 2nd of December 1943, the loss of just one Lancaster from 57 Squadron, East Kirkby, left behind eight broken families when their loved ones failed to return home.

There were mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, a new young wife and a fiancée with her wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe and a mother with a young son and daughter and a baby yet to arrive in this war torn world. But the eight young men involved had a war to fight and had set off on yet another operation to Berlin.

The weather was against them on this particular Thursday afternoon and over 200 aircraft had already been grounded, but 57 Squadron despatched 14 crews from East Kirkby. Two didn’t return.

In one of the crews on this occasion, were two new faces. There was a young flight engineer who had only recently joined 57 Squadron and another who was on his very first trip as a second pilot to gain experience before flying with a crew of his own.

The crew of JB 529 DX-P (Peter), captained by Ernie Tansley, ran into extremely bad weather with unexpected strong winds and, like many other aircraft, was blown off target and found themselves to the south of Berlin.

They were spotted by eyewitnesses, flying low over the small town of Trebbin, possibly having already suffered from earlier damage. They were quickly attacked by a Junker 88 from nearby Juterbog airfield and there was an exchange of fire between the two aircraft. P-Peter exploded, bursting into flames with parts of the fuselage falling away along with the starboard wing and engines.

Six of the crew had either fallen or jumped from the blazing aircraft but sadly they were too low to use their parachutes. Eyewitnesses watched as Ernie, remaining in the cockpit, despite the flames emanating from the front, attempted to steer the badly damaged and burning Lancaster away from a row of houses below him. This, he just managed to achieve before it crashed into an adjacent rye field.

Although parts of the ‘plane fell into gardens and caused various amounts of damage to the houses, he had avoided any loss of life to the residents. One found twin machine guns hanging through the ceiling of her kitchen, another had the corner of their home knocked away.

Sadly, none of this brave crew survived. The rear gunner had been shot and killed earlier so was still in his turret and Ernie of course had remained in the cockpit of his beloved Lancaster. He was unable to be officially identified until after the war so was buried as ‘unknown’.

I can’t imagine what his thoughts must have been in those last moments.

These young airmen were taken to the nearby ‘Old Cemetery’ in Trebbin where they were initially buried in a communal grave after being carefully wrapped in a tarpaulin. A cross was erected to mark the spot. They were behind a tiny chapel at the far end of the churchyard and the grave was well tended by the cemetery gardener until the end of the war when they were exhumed. They were then re-buried in the Berlin War Cemetery, Charlottenburg where they now lie side by side once more.

These were the eight young men…

Sergeant Ivor Groves was the wireless operator and only 20 years old and he left behind his parents and three brothers. Two of whom were in the army, the third, like Ivor, also in the RAF. This happy, likeable young man was well thought of amongst the crew and came from a kind and loving family. They lived just outside Birmingham.

Flight Sgt, Harold Moad, rear gunner aged 23. He came from Clanwilliam in Manitoba, Canada and besides his parents, there were eight siblings, one of whom was a POW. Because this young man was unable to go home when on leave, the family of Ivor Groves welcomed him into theirs.

Pilot Officer Ernest Patrick was the bomb aimer, aged 25, from London. Besides his parents he had a young brother Alan aged fifteen who never really came to terms with the loss of his big brother.

Pilot Officer Roy Lewis, the mid-upper gunner was aged 21 and lived in the Manchester area with his parents. He was an only and much loved son. He had only recently married a lovely young girl named Moya. Sadly, they were to have only four months together. The best man at their wedding had been Douglas, the navigator.

Pilot Officer Douglas Park was the navigator, only 20 years old. He was one of six children and lived in Hull, Yorkshire. This was another very kind family and when Douglas became engaged to a young lady named Mary, they took her to their hearts. When Douglas was lost it was just days away from their marriage and Mary was left with her wedding dress hanging in her wardrobe, awaiting the big day that never arrived.

We don’t know very much about the two new faces in the crew….

Sergeant Leonard Brown was the new Flight Engineer, another young man aged only 20 years. He lived in Bermondsey, London with his parents and a younger brother, Victor. It couldn’t have been easy for him flying with a new crew for the first time.

Pilot Officer Jack Dalton was flying as a ‘second dickie’ to gain experience before taking charge of his own crew. He was 22 years old, had a sister Jean and lived with his parents in Burnley, Lancashire. Sadly, he didn’t get the chance to fly again.

The last crew member was the pilot. Pilot Officer Ernest Tansley was the eldest of the crew, aged 29. He had been sent to America to undertake his pilot training, leaving behind his wife and young family. A son Peter aged five and an eighteen-month-old daughter, Anne. They lived in Thundersley, Essex. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his other baby son who was born three months after his death.

On this day, we would also like to remember the second crew who were lost from 57 Squadron that night. They were never discovered as it is believed that they ditched over Holland in the IJsselmeer on their return journey:

F/O John Alfred Williams was the Pilot of JB372 DX-R. He was the son of David Mason and Ada Ethel Withers from Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Age 22

Sgt. Eric Hibbert was the Flight Engineer, and his parents were John and Frances Hibbert of Hasland, Derbyshire. He was only 20 years old.

F/O Alan Thomas Hook was an Air Gunner. He was the son of Thomas and Mabel Hook of Toronto, Ontario, Canada and had two sisters named Mabel born 1912 and Evelyn born 1915.  He was 22 years old.

F/O Bernard Paul Duval the Navigator was born in Hastings, Sussex the son of Henry Fernand and Lucienne of Upper Tooting, London.  He was 32 years old and married to Joyce.

F/S Balder Thomasberg was 21 years old and was the Bomb aimer. He was the son of George and Hilda of Norwood, Manitoba.

Sgt. Edward William Graves was the Mid-upper Gunner and the son of Norman and Esther (nee Gilbert). He was married to Brenda Townsend and a son Edward Robert was born a few months after his death. They lived in Eastbourne

Sgt. Jack Harvey Chambers was a 21-year-old Wop/AG. He was the son of Edward and Edith Chambers from Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire.

……….nor the years condemn…

Your bravery and sacrifice will never be forgotten

Love and miss you Dad and God Bless you all – Anne Doward

For more information on these crews please use our Losses Database

Billy’s Story – Part 6

Just after the Gunner B story was posted, a researcher for Bomber Command Forum asked if I could send her the full story along with the images that gave it life. She, in turn, passed it all onto the International Bomber Command Centre. They described it as “Gold Dust”. Flight Sergeant Bill Begbie is now on their site under “Billy’s Story”, complete with pictures and full story.

He is now assured to enter the archives of the IBBC for the benefit of future generations and mankind, according to IBBC. I checked it out and it’s a great historical institution.

When I first embarked upon this venture, I had no idea how I was going to shape it.

I had next to no info regarding his life before I knew him, apart from when he told me that he had been on the Sharnhorst attack during the second world war. He had also shown me some souvenirs from his time in the RAF when I was very young lad, around 55 years ago,

Now! It seems like my old man suddenly comes out of the blue nearly 47 years after he passed away and spirits me away on a wee sojourn that I never expected at my age.

So now that I’m thinking that this story needs some closure, for me personally, I’m going to go with my imagination again. I’m remembering that when I was writing Part 1, I had to embellish his juvenile days with visions of the 1930’s, as I had only the 6 images of young Billy’s Life at 14 years old and a skeleton of family rumours that came from my sister, Trish………….

I think I need to use my imagination again.

So one night I sat down in this chair I’m sitting in now, in the dining room, at this computer which is set up in the corner and I leant back into the chair and closed my eyes.

I sat there in the warmth of the room with the remaining scents of the supper I had cooked for Elaine and I lingering on. She had retired to her garden room which is now part of the dining room and was absorbed in her quest for perfection in water colour painting, she’s good. There are only a couple of small lamps on in here at this time of the evening and the light from them is quite subtle and subdued. Sometimes she has scented candles flickering away in the shadows and the atmosphere in here is delicately imbued by Jasmine or whatever else is ‘scent of the day’.

With my eyes still closed my imagination gradually takes over………..

I’m standing on the edge of a huge concrete pathway and a few yards in front of me there is nothing but a light grey mist. I seem to be there for quite a lengthy time when I realise there is a soft swirling motion in the centre of the mist. I see a vague shadow starting to emerge from the soft white light and a man appears. He is dressed in pewter gray flannels, a navy-blue blazer, white shirt and neatly knotted, black tie. He is wearing his favourite shiny, black leather brogues. I can now see the Guinea Pig badge, pinned to his left lapel, just a couple of inches away from the shoulder wound that I know is concealed beneath his attire.

We stand there on the concrete pathway for a couple of minutes just staring at each other.

I know who he is, but he is squinting through unsure eyes. Then he smiles under that familiar moustache and with wink and a nod over his shoulder, he turns and shambles off back into the mist.

I want to walk faster and catch up to him, but my legs feel like lead and I remain a few feet behind him, just barely able to see his form ahead. I would call to him, but I have no voice. I would swear I can smell his Brylcreem, his Old Spice and the unmistakable Capstan Full Strength cigarettes….

As we continue through the mist, I can see images forming like small screens. One on the left is depicting a young lad in dungarees standing between two large Horses with an infectious smile on his face.

I look over to the right, there’s an older lad in a uniform with sergeant’s stripes sitting, proudly in the middle of a squadron of men in front of a large aircraft.

There’s another scene where he is on top of the aircraft along with two other men, working on a quartet of machine guns that poke through a glass dome.

Then there are black and white aerial shots of massive battle ships moored in a harbour, that seem to appear through clouds.

As I continue to follow his shape, he appears to look straight ahead, whilst I cannot prevent myself from taking in everything that is flowing into my head….memories, photographs, telegrams, but they’re not mine. They all belong to him.

Then we’re outside the mist. I look up into a blue, cloudless sky that accompanies this perfect, English summer’s morning. The large concrete pathway on which I still stand, now sits in the middle of a massive flat, green area like a deserted public park. There are around twenty or so, small wooden huts and various other metal buildings to one side. A huge concrete building with a large tower, topped with glass and aerials, sits much farther away, on the other side.

I count around 15 monolithic bomber aircraft, all painted in brown and green camouflage, each sporting identity numbers, lined up on the grass, either side of what I now recognise as a runway.

There’s a great deal of activity going on underneath the aircraft, with men in olive green overalls pulling trolleys stacked with equipment, vintage vehicles are slowly driving between the aircraft and the larger of the hangar-like buildings farther out. It’s all quite hectic but organized.

A siren starts to blare and out of the huts, men in battledress, leather flying jackets- helmets-Life jackets and parachutes harnessed to their backs, start to hurry outside and head for the aircraft.

Most of them are smoking whilst they banter with each other and there’s a lot of hand shaking and back slapping going on, as if they might not be expecting to see each other for a while. There’s a sense of urgency in their stride, as they part into smaller groups and each head for their respective aircraft. Some of them jump into old Austin Utility vehicles and are driven off down the runway. Fifteen aircraft, seven men each, over one hundred men.

One by one the monoliths fire up each of their four Merlin engines and flood the airfield with a pungent, mechanical aroma of exhaust and petrol. This beautiful summer’s morning is now overcome by the mighty roar of the Merlins and I can feel the vibrations coming up through my feet.

One by one, in two minute intervals, a Halifax bomber charges down the runway and lifts majestically into the air until they are all gone and on their way to France. How many will return, I am left to wonder.

When I look to my left, Gunner B is gone. I turn slowly and the mist is back. He stands before it looking over my shoulder into the distance and then smiles at me again. With a curt nod of his head and a wink, he turns and walks back into the mist……….

Back in my chair, I open my eyes and stare at this page on my screen. I can hear Elaine filling her glass with some wine in the kitchen as I reach for the keyboard and whisper to myself.

‘Ok, Gunner. Let’s get this story written’.

Begbie Jnr.


John Pearl

Had I not been thrown off my seat, the top of my head would have been sliced off like a breakfast boiled egg.

Hit by flak on a daylight raid over Leipzig Sergeant John Pearl – aged 19 in 1945 when he served with No 207 Squadron based at RAF Spilsby, Lincs.

‘Pathfinder marker flares were going down as we began moving across the target – the railway yards at Leipzig. Some light flak appeared ahead of us but it was spread thinly around the sky and did not look too formidable. However, black puffs of smoke from the bursting shells of predicted heavy flak seemed dangerously close and as we continued our run across the target it was one of these shells that exploded alongside, between the two starboard motors.

It shook the plane, throwing us around the sky, causing me to slip off the little hammock that served as a seat in the mid-upper turret. I fell backwards on to the floor of the aircraft. I lay there for a few seconds as shrapnel ripped through the aircraft, sounding like hail stones on a tin roof. The skipper steadied the aircraft and I climbed back to my turret to find it badly holed with most of the cupola Perspex blown away. A lot of the metal framework which had been supporting the Perspex was twisted and mangled and I sat there like a World War I air gunner with my head out in the fresh air. Had I not been thrown off my seat, the top of my head would have been sliced of like a breakfast boiled egg.

It was freezing in the shattered turret now and it could only be rotated by the winding handle as the hydraulics had been shot away. My guns did not work either, so I was reduced to the role of lookout.

Both starboard engines were damaged, losing oil, and had to be feathered but after a quick discussion amongst the crew as to what we should do, we continued on two engines and bombed the target from 14,000 feet. Leaving the target area, we were hit by flak on the port side. Ninety, limping minutes later, oil pressure began dropping fast on the port inner engine and the pilot told us to prepare for baling out.”

The crew baled out successfully, except for the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Peter ‘Andy’ Anderson, who was killed when the aircraft crashed near the village of Burgbrohl. The rest of the crew were picked up by American GIs and quickly repatriated.’

From Beneath the Bombs

Herr Klaus Schwerk was sixteen in February 1945. Before the war his father was a doctor in Bautzen, 50 km east of Dresden, and had been conscripted to be a medical officer in the Wehrmacht. In February 1945 he was serving in Italy and his wife and five sons (of which Klaus was the eldest) were still in Bautzen. As the Russian Army approached, and the guns could be heard, the family decided to move westward towards Dresden.

Mother and the four younger boys were there staying with friends when the firebombs started dropping. Klaus had cycled further westward that day, before the attack started, to find the next stopping point for the family, as they wanted to continue their journey. The fires could be seen from where he was, some 20 km to the west of Dresden, and he returned to find his family still alive at around 10am the next day. Then the high explosive attacks by the Americans started and they all repaired to the basement of the house where they were staying. Soon smoke became a problem for them, and Klaus ventured into the street above to see whether he could find a way out.

In the event, he did, and the whole family were lucky enough to be led by him to comparative safety outside the bombing zone and eventually they were able to walk away to the west.

Having left his bicycle behind, two days later he returned to Dresden to look for it and found it in exactly the same place as he had left it. He then saw the full effects of the devastation.

He kept a diary and has written down his experiences, a copy of which he gave me. All the family survived the war, and the father went back to his medical practice in Bautzen. There was not a sign of recrimination against the British or Americans, and at least two of the brothers have lived for many years in the US. Klaus himself studied architecture, but has been an aid worker for some time in India, which is where he learned to speak English. He is now retired in Berlin, and uses his architectural skills to design, for instance, an organ which he plays in his house, and he does other DIY work.

Billy’s Story – Part 5

Part 5

The Aftermath.

On his return to Stanton Harcourt, Gunner B was rushed to hospital at Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, then onto the RAF hospital in Halton.

He had already lost a lot of blood when his crew discovered him slumped and unconscious in his turret.

Him and the mid upper gunner would have been feverishly, yelling instructions at each other over the intercom, directing each other towards German fighters that would be hurtling in from different angles. German flack shells were bursting all around them, leaving a heavy stink of cordite in their turrets. It is reported that they had taken on a couple of German Messerschmitt 109 fighters and shot one down. There were 31 German fighters waiting for them in La Rochelle that day. These fighters attacked our aircraft relentlessly and with hardened determination, on the run up to the bomb drop. They were trying to protect Germany’s most valuable and dangerous naval asset. I can just imagine Gunner B roaring and spitting all sorts of profanities as he fired back with his four 303 Brownings. He really was that sort of man, fearless and determined also. The noise from his guns, the constant drone and vibrations from the 4 Merlins, Flack bursting all around them and fighter bullets raking their fuselage must have been horrendous. It is little wonder that his hearing was impaired later on in life.

Unfortunately, German fighters managed to hit the target and put two bullets clean through Gunner B’s plexi-glass turret and right through his left shoulder. A few inches lower and it would have been his chest….No hope.

The flight home must have taken around 3 hours or so. That’s a hellish long time to be up there with his shoulder almost blown off and his life’s blood draining out of him. I would expect his crew would have dragged him farther back into the aircraft to administer first aid and plug the bleeding wounds, both front and back. Whether or not he was given morphine by his crew is unclear, but I sincerely hope that that was the case.

The next day, on the 25th of July, his wife Nell received a telegraph from the RAF telling her that her husband had been shot in action and had shoulder wounds, but not critical. Later that day, she got another telegraph, this time from Gunner B himself, telling her, ‘not to worry, it’s only a scratch’.   He must have been in terrible pain when he organised this telegraph, but he would’ve known the RAF would already have informed her and she’d be frantic with worry.

Gunner B was later transferred again, to the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead on the 1st of December.

This would be where he came under the specialist care of the famous and pioneering, plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, who had been appointed Consultant in Plastic Surgery to the RAF.

Gunner B, I believe, became one of the 1st hundred men to receive the pioneering plastic surgery during WW11.  For this he received the Flying Guinea Pig Badge

I am pleased to say at this point, that this badge along with Gunner B’s Fur collar, complete with his dried blood and bullet holes is in the safe hands of his Grandson, retired RAF Warrant Officer, John Brough. The son of Helen (Begbie) Brough. John, and now two of his sons, David Brough and Jake Brough have followed in their great grandfather’s footsteps. David and Jake are both Senior Aircraftsmen in the RAF and who knows where they can go from there. (Per Ardua Ad Astra).

The collar shown in the picture, complete with his dried blood and bullet holes, buttoned on to Gunner B’s leather flying jacket. I remember, as a young lad, slipping my index finger through a bullet hole. A German bullet from an ME109 fighter and was surprised at how small it was. I also remember studying the actual bullets, there were two. One was a bit bent and the other was straight. I looked at Gunner B with some confusion in my eyes. He grinned as he told me that his crew had dug the bullets out of the backrest of his seat in the bullet ridden turret. They later presented them to him in his hospital bed. They had taken them to a local jeweller first and that’s why I saw his name etched upon the straight one…….. W Begbie.

Upon leaving the RAF, Gunner B came home to Kirkcaldy to re-join his wife, Nell and his baby girl Helen, named after her mother. Her Sister, Patricia (Trish) came along a little later and me a few years later still. He went on to have successful career as a Chief Engineer with the National Coal Board (Aye, doon the pits), Alexander’s Bus Garage, and finally Thomas Nicol Salvage in Kirkcaldy.

During his time at Thomas Nicol he worked as an engineer on a salvage vessel that the firm had bought, in order to salvage German warships that had been scuttled by their own commanders at Scapa Flow in 1918.  How ironic that in the very early 1970’s he was involved in raising German warships, when in 1941 he was trying to sink them.

Flight Sergeant William Begbie died in 1974 aged 59. He had been troubled with blood clotting and heart problems since the death of his beloved wife, Nell.

It is with a heavy heart that I conclude this story with this thought.

The respect I have for this man and all his comrades who fought for this country, goes beyond the realms of respect, pride and sincerity.

I would once again, like to take this opportunity to thank my wonderful sister, Pat (Begbie) Croll, for taking care of the family pictures and Gunner B’s medals, badges,etc.

Author ……Bill Begbie Jnr.

Billy’s Story – Part 4

Part 4

 Attack on the Sharnhorst.

 The date is 24th of July 1941

This is a likely sequence of events, up to the point where the attack took place…..

The crews of RAF squadrons 35 and 76 are likely to have worked through the night, preparing the aircraft for the mission.

Breaks throughout the night would have filled them up with porridge followed by bacon, egg, sausage and fried bread and chips. Maybe some toast, marmalade and a few cups of hot sweet tea and followed by a few cigarettes. A good chance for a blether and time to discuss any fears or faults that may have arisen.

They would have visited the squadron gunnery section and been briefed on the day`s intended activities. It is my understanding that all inward and outward-bound telephone calls to friends or family was forbidden at this time and indeed, telephone kiosks were under lock and key. Mission secrecy assured.

Next, a visit to the Squadron Armoury to be issued with a set of 8 x .303 Browning machine guns. 4 for the tail gunner and 4 for the upper mid turret gunner. A registry was kept on each and every visit gunners made to the armoury. Gunners were trained and needed to maintain the weapons and carry out stringent checks on all weapons to ensure they were in perfect working condition.

Their lives may depend on it.

Leading up to take off, crews would assemble in the locker room to get dressed for the flight ahead. The standard attire for the day was silk/wool Long Johns, woollen socks, an electric body suit. This suit, which connected to electrical plug points in the aircraft would ultimately be their survival suit. Finally, the standard battle-dress trousers tucked into heavy fleece lined flying boots and topped with a thick jersey and leather flying jacket with fur collar. Last but not least, was the Mae West life jacket and a parachute. The word encumbered springs to mind. However, I understand that the temperature could fall to -30 on some of these missions, especially at night.

(I wore a parachute during training flights when I was a wee lad in the ATC, 13 years old. I remember walking like a duck, bent over, at 45 Degrees from the backside up, over the grass towards the aircraft and 2 airmen lifting me up on to the wing to get me in. I felt like I was wrapped in a Python).

In the very early hours of that morning, Gunner B and his crew boarded Aircraft No L. 9531 at RAF Middleton St George and flew South to RAF Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire to take on extra fuel. Their target lay a farther 200 miles away more than the Halifax normal fuel load could carry them.  The crew that day was Sgt Drummond, Sgt Hutchin, Sgt Dawson, Sgt Fraser, Sgt Barret, Sgt Wood, and Flight Sgt Begbie.  He would have made his way along the narrow fuselage towards the rear of the aircraft and into the tail gunner turret. He would have felt isolated and a long way from the rest of his crew.

Once settled in, he would carry out a series of important checks on the equipment.  He would plug in the intercom connection, oxygen and power supply to his electric suit. He would then confirm communications open with the pilot and the rest of the crew. (Interestingly, Gunners and Pilots only, were on full oxygen from take off to landing. Crew didn`t need to until they reached a ceiling of 10,000 feet).

The 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines came to life, one by one with a roar and the whole aircraft vibrated with a life of its own. This must have been a foreboding experience for a lad that had been guiding a couple of Clydesdale horses, pulling a large wooden, two wheeled cart along Scottish dirt paths in order to go to work, not that long before.

Gunner B could now test the hydraulics that allowed him to swivel the turret to port and starboard. Gun sights would be set, and the guns would be swung up and down, as far as they could go before the turret was locked down again, ready for take-off.

This small, isolated, cold and exposed space, which had open apertures for the guns to be raised and lowered, would be his domain for the next seven and a half hours. Gunner B settled into his seat and tried not to think about his new wife, Nell and his baby daughter, Helen.

The sudden roar of all 4 Merlins must have jolted him back into reality as the huge aircraft began to motor down the runway. Seconds later, he is travelling backwards at over a 100 mph and he can feel his stomach drop as the Halifax lifts herself from the safety of home and onto La Rochelle in France and the Sharnhorst.

This report/excerpt from RAF Operations Record Books recorded that Gunner B`s “Aircraft attacked the German battleship “Sharnhorst” and bursts were seen slightly short of the jetty with the end of stick (bombs dropped) very close alongside and astern. One yellow explosion was seen. The aircraft was damaged by Ack Ack fire and German fighters. One enemy fighter was claimed, destroyed. There was intense damage to own aircraft (the Halifax). Weather over the target was very hazy. Aircraft took off at 10.35am and returned to Stanton Harcourt safely” at 17.45.

Other reports claimed that the two British squadrons that attacked the Sharnhorst had hit her with five armour piercing bombs along her starboard side

Three 1000lb bombs and two 500lb tore through her decks and caused significant damage. Two bombs failed to detonate. The other three exploded and caused major flooding of the ship. She developed an 8-degree list to her starboard and was left sitting a metre farther down in the water. Two German sailors were killed and fifteen injured.

On our side there was one Halifax from 35 Squadron and 3 from 76 Squadron shot down.

Four of the 31 ME109`s that had ferociously attacked our bombers were shot down

The operation was a success but Billy had been hit.

To be continued in Part 5

Billy’s Story – Part 3

Billy’s Story

Part 3

Part 2 can be read here

After many hours of research, I have pieced together a pathway through the life of Gunner B, or William (Bill) Begbie.

I know that he flew on several missions before his last, which we will read about in the next chapter. There are some rather sketchy MOD records on a couple of missions he was part of but I reckon it would take too much time and probably get a bit tedious for the readers to go through it all. I do believe he took part in around 10 missions. I remember looking at his Record of Service book many years ago and I know it was into double figures. His Campaign Medals also back this memory up.

His last mission is what makes this story a bit more interesting. Due to the historical value of it and the importance laid upon it by the RAF and Mr Churchill.

Early July 1941, Germany’s largest battleship/destroyer was spotted in a harbour called La Rochelle, in France. A Spitfire had taken pictures over the port and there she was.

This ship was Germany’s most famous and powerful naval Battleship to date and a top target for Britain. She was launched in 1936 after she took less than 2 years to build, a mammoth achievement. She operated together with another large German battleship called the Gneisenau (pronounced “Nize n now” with a silent G). The Gneisenau was laid down and built in 18 months. When you look at the pictures, it’s nothing less than astonishing that a ship as complex as this could be built in such a short time.

Together they wreaked havoc in the Atlantic during the early part of the war. Destroying any Merchant shipping they came across, leaving the crews to drown or float around in a lifeboat for days and weeks. Some of these crewmen were only 14 years old and others as old as 70. I just discovered that abandonment was standard practice by the enemy. All that mattered in the destruction of an enemy ship was the removal of the asset. The crews’ mortality didn’t matter a jot. This may have applied to the German Navy only but somehow, I doubt that.

Even so, some discoveries such as this leave the writer with a heavy heart.

In 1940, both German ships were involved in a battle with the Royal Navy off the coast of Norway. The British battlecruiser, HMS Renown and the aircraft carrier, HMS Glorious were to suffer heavy defeats by the German Navy’s best. The Glorious was sunk along with her two escort destroyers, Acasta and Ardent. During that battle, it was reported that Germany’s famous battleship achieved the longest-range naval gunfire hit on a target at sea. The destroyer was called the Scharnhorst.

Now that the RAF knew that the Sharnhorst and Gneisenau were in La Rochelle moored to the jetty, there was a mad rush on. They needed to plan a bombing raid and quickly destroy them before they could leave La Rochelle. Apparently, there was 30,000 Canadian troops ready to sail from the other side of the Atlantic. Tensions were high in Bomber Command. If the Sharnhorst and Co were able to get out of La Rochelle and into the Atlantic….It was a hellish thought to entertain.

I would imagine that trying to hit a warship that was steaming at 33 knots from 19,000ft was almost impossible.  Especially when the aircraft was going at 200mph or more, trying to stay in the air with cargo of 58,000lbs of bombs. It would make sense to attack the German ships whilst they were berthed.

The decision was made to attack them immediately. “Strike while the iron is hot”.

Two RAF squadrons were faced with the complicated task of bombing both targets in a daylight raid.  Squadron 35 and Squadron 76 were elected to carry out that strike.

Between them there would be 15 Halifax Bombers carrying thousands of pounds of bombs.

As I wrote this, I thought to myself, that’s 60 Merlin engines…. 120 x 303 Browning machine guns and around 435 tons of explosives and………..Gunner B was flying with Squadron 76 as Tail Gunner.

To be continued in Part 4

Billy’s Story Part 2

Billy’s Story

Part 2

Part 1 can be found here

The year is 1937

Billy has joined the R.A.F. The images with the story show that he was issued with his uniform and kit on the day of 27/7/37. He is 22.

There is a period of around 4 years before Billy surfaces again. According to my research, during this time period it is believed that he was initially trained as an aircraft mechanic after passing many exams.

In 1940 decisions were being made by the Air Ministry, regarding the need for Flight Engineers.  Specialist, trained men to service and repair the planned 4-engined bombers, such as the Halifax which was about to enter service.

The Halifax was a new Bomber Aircraft, built by Handley Page and had 4 Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Capable of 265 to 285mph at 17,500 ft, it could carry around 5,800 lbs of bombs and had a range of 1,860 miles.

It was recognised that the Pilots of these larger aircraft would require assistance as there were no Co-Pilots. Should the Pilot get injured or killed during ops, there was no-one to fly the aircraft. Flight Engineers were introduced in order to reduce their workload. Personally, I do not see the sense in losing such a large and expensive aircraft along with 7 highly trained crew because nobody else could stand in for a disabled Pilot.

Flight Engineers were to be trained in all aspects of the aircrafts mechanical characteristics, fuel systems and gunnery systems.

Flight Engineers were also to be used as replacement gunners during active service. This didn`t go down well with the Squadron Leaders. It took a few years to train Engineers and they regarded this directive as an unnecessary risk. It would have a diminishing effect on the amount of highly trained Engineers at each squadron.

As it happens, there came about many stories about acts of heroism, post war.  Flight Engineers were a rare and tenacious breed, performing unbelievable acts of heroism in flight when the proverbial hit the fan. Taking over the controls of aircraft whilst the Pilot had either been killed or injured, bring the aircraft back to base and even landing the aircraft.

Here is an excerpt from a document I found on the Internet whilst doing my research.  This truly defines the words “awesome and tenacious” and it seems that some of the old black and white movies got it right….

Typical awards:

DFM to Sgt Robert Currie of 199 Sqn: “This airman was the Flight Engineer of an aircraft detailed to attack Berlin one night in August 1943. Whilst over the target area, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and, whilst illuminated by the searchlights, was attacked by an enemy fighter. The controls which regulated the petrol supply from 2 of the tanks were severed. Sergeant Currie, displaying much resource, cut an aperture in the fuselage by means of an axe and then crawled into the wing to turn on the petrol supply so essential for the completion of the return flight. His coolness and resource set a very fine example.”

CGM to Sgt James Norris of 61 Sqn: “This airman was the Flight Engineer of an aircraft detailed to attack Dusseldorf. Soon after crossing the enemy coast, the aircraft was attacked by a fighter and sustained damage. A few minutes later another fighter attacked. The bomber was struck by a hail of bullets. The windscreen was broken, the wireless apparatus and other important equipment were destroyed and the oxygen system, was rendered useless. The Pilot, the Wireless Operator and the Flight Engineer were wounded, and the Navigator was killed. The aircraft became difficult to control but, despite this, the Pilot continued to the target, being greatly assisted by Sergeant Norris, whose strenuous efforts were invaluable. Shortly after the target had been successfully attacked, the Pilot collapsed owing to his wounds. Sergeant Norris took over the controls and, at times aided by another member of the crew succeeded in flying the damaged bomber back to Britain. When an airfield was sighted, Sergeant Norris and his comrade succeeded in rallying the semi-conscious Pilot sufficiently to take-over and land the aircraft safely. Not until then, did Sergeant Norris disclose that he had been wounded in the arm. In circumstances, fraught with great danger, this airman displayed courage, fortitude and determination of the highest order.

It’s now 1941.  He is 26 years old.

Billy has been through all the extra training and courses including gunnery and is now a Flight Sergeant / Engineer.

Billy has opted for Tail Gunner during active service. It may be that Tail Gunners got paid an extra shilling day. I think he told me that, but I can`t be sure. But knowing him, he was going to be exactly where he chose to be…Where there was doubt he could, and he would engage directly with the enemy.

Billy is now known as Flight Sergeant Bill Begbie…Gunner B.

To be continued in part 3…….

Billy’s Story Part 1

Billy’s Story

It is a true story with a few embellishments in this chapter only. There are no accurate records of this period in Billy`s life.

“Gunner B” A Fifer

The year is 1929, Billy is 14 years old.

It`s 5 o clock in the morning.  It’s dark, it’s freezing and it’s December. Billy snuggles deeper into the old wooden cot that his Uncle Jim made for him. An old oak outhouse door and wooden props nicked from the pit. Nail it all together and there you have it, a bed.

The mattress is a starched, linen sheet that his Ma stitched together to make, what looks like a huge pillowcase. It’s stuffed with old wool. Wool that was blown across the fields during the shearing season, a few summers ago. His Ma and his sisters would all go searching the fields around Fife during the summer, hunting for that precious wool to turn into pillows, cushions and mattresses. They’d share some of it with their friends and neighbours, or barter it for herring, tatties and coal. On a good day. they might even get a rabbit or a hare. Food was scarce.

As usual, his Pop is already up and Billy can hear him throwing some more coal on the fire in the kitchen, getting it ready for his wife, Annie, to come through and make the porridge and tea for the men of the house, before they faced another 12 hour day of toil at the bridge. Coal that Billy had riddled out of the dross that came up from the Milton Mine on his only day off, which was a Sunday.  Sunday was a “lie in” day and Billy would snuggle under a wool blanket and a big pile of coats that belonged to his sisters. Thank Christ his parents didn’t attend the Kirk. A day of rest? Aye sure.

It’s the start of another week and if Billy doesn’t shift his backside and get up quickly, his Pop will come through and roar at him from the bedroom door. Maybe chuck a lump of coal at him. He was like that, or so I was told.

Having left the school just a few weeks ago, at the start of the summer, Billy, like most other lads in the village was immediately pressed into employment. He joined Pop and his crew and went off to build bridges and sea walls. Most of his pals and classmates were either sent down the coal pits or were working on local farms for a shilling a day. 12-hour days. A penny an hour. Billy didn`t fancy either for a full-time job and that’s why he persuaded his Pop to let him work in the family firm. There wasn’t going to be any pits or farms for Billy. Wages amounted to the same, a shilling a day and free digs. Billy had to learn to pay his way.

His Pop was a well-known construction engineer and bridge builder who travelled all over Fife, building small, stone, iron and wooden bridges over streams and burns, mostly in the countryside.

Billy had already worked with his Pop and the crew ever since he was allowed to wear long trousers. At 12 years old, weekends and school holidays meant Billy would be up at the same time as Pop, 5 am. It felt like it was the middle of the night, but he loved working outdoors, especially in the countryside. It was a welcome change from school and the crew continuously wound him up, kidding him on every chance they got.

Pop was a hard boss. He was mostly a blustery old beggar and ranted at the men for the smallest infringements. Billy was regularly cuffed around the earhole or had his backside kicked for not paying enough attention.

His Pop had always drummed it into him that he must “stick in and pay attention” at his lessons at school or he could end up like the others,  “doon the pit”, or worse.

Even at 14 years old, Billy was into everything that the crew were doing, and they would let him take part in building the stonework on the bridges or digging foundations. He was a strong wee lad and full of confidence. One of his first jobs was to look after the two Clydesdale Horses that pulled the firm’s wagon. They were housed in an old shed at the back of the house in the Milton. Billy and his sisters would take turns to feed, brush and groom them. Pop would come out and make sure the horses were being looked after properly. God help anyone who veered from his strict instructions.

Without the horses, there would be no work.

Billy was a fast learner and even though he was a nuisance sometimes, the crew relished having him around. He had a “face full of cheek”, as they would say in Fife. But he was a comical distraction at times, especially at “piece time”, when the men would tuck into cheese bannocks that were toasted over the fire, each man had an old tin full of scalding tea which young Billy had brewed over a fire in a charcoal black kettle earlier. Sometimes the men would send Billy into the surrounding fields to pinch a few big potatoes that went into the fire an hour or so before piece time.

Billy would regale them with stories of what he got up to at school with his pals. He always had a big smile when he told his tales, and they were received with some scepticism and wry smiles.

Aye, Billy was a grand wee lad.

In the years that followed, the firm found steady work and were building sea walls as well as bridges.  Where there was water, there was work.

Billy grew into a strong, clever and extremely driven young man. He was a team player and judging by the photographs that accompany this chapter, it`s fairly obvious that he was accepted as one of the crew, even though he was the boss’s son.

It is rumoured that the relationship between Billy and his Pop became quite fractious as time went on. Billy may have come up with better ways to engineer the bridges. He had a natural capacity for engineering.

At some point in Billy`s teenage years, his Pop forced a job on him that meant, Billy getting into an old Atmospheric diving suit and being submerged into deep water at a work-site, maybe a sea wall.

One can only imagine what a terrifying experience that may have been for a young lad.  No training, no health and safety and probably very little knowledge on diving.

This story was passed on through the family for many years after and it may have been a turning point in the waning relationship that Billy had with his Pop.

At school, Billy had excelled in arithmetic, maths and English and kept up with his studies long after leaving school. He couldn’t see himself as working in his father’s shadow for long and, furthermore, he wanted to work with mechanical engineering and possibly engines. Billy had dreams. He wanted to be a proper engineer. He wanted to fly, literally.

Whilst still in his teenage years, we don’t know exactly when, Billy disappeared. He left his job, family and home in the Milton.

To be continued in part 2



RCAF  J/108843

His full name was George Robert Ian Taylor but he was always known to family and friends as Ian.  By the time he joined the RCAF he was a well-travelled young man. He was born on News Year Eve 1918, in Kingston, Jamaica, to Marguerite and William Robert, who worked for the Cuban Sugar Corporation, allowing him Cuban nationality. He survived typhoid at the age of eight.  After having moved to the USA he went on to be educated in Atlanta, Georgia.  He was living in Alabama when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on 17 June 1941. He trained in Canada before arriving in England in May 1942 and had completed his training with 23 Operational Training Unit (OTU) by July 1942.

Two months later, in September 1942, he was posted to 420 Squadron before being moved to 405 (Vancouver) Squadron, where he was lost just three weeks later, aged just 23 years old, on 29 November 1942.

405 (Vancouver) Squadron was in the process of moving from RAF Topcliff for detachment at Beaulie (Hampshire), when Halifax DT576 was lost. Possibly overloaded with equipment including bicycles and eight extra passengers, they took off at 10.05, possibly realising something was wrong, the pilot turned the aircraft back towards to the airfield. The aircraft was seen to roll onto its back at 300ft before stalling due to low altitude and crashed, killing all 15 on board.

It was one of the worst non-operational accidents of the war.  Sergeant ‘Ian’ Taylor was buried in Dishforth Cemetery, Harrogate, North Yorkshire – Grave #43.

Crew/Passengers of HALIFAX DT576:

GROUND CREW                Cpl Joseph Victor Beaudry                              R/74134                IBCC Panel 129

AIR BOMBER                      PO Allen Catto Bradley                                    J/18602                 IBCC Panel 134

OBSERVER                           PO Samuel Stewart Clark                               J/19450                 IBCC Panel 145

WIRELESS OP                     FL Benjamin Hugo Enns                                J/10008                IBCC Panel 161

PILOT                                    WO1 Stephen Frederic Gannon                     R/56406                IBCC Panel 168

AIR GUNNER                      SGT  Orlando Delmar Hamel                         R/117309               IBCC Panel 175

GROUND STAFF                SGT Francis Hooton                                         1381953                 IBCC Panel 184

FLIGHT ENGINEER          SGT Joseph Jones                                             R/62366               IBCC Panel 191

AIR GUNNER                      FS William Michael Kostenuk                        R/121565              IBCC Panel 195

FLIGHT ENGINEER          SGT Earl Lewis McGillivray                            R/61819                IBCC Panel 208

AIR GUNNER                      FS Ralph Elliott Milliken                                 R/128672             IBCC Panel 212

WIRELESS OP                     FS William Stanley Milne                                R/107580             IBCC Panel 213

PILOT                                    FS Norman Wilbur Ross                                  R/99245                IBCC Panel 235

AIR GUNNER                      FS Melvin James Stanley                                 R/67711                IBCC Panel 246

NAVIGATOR                       SGT George ‘Ian’ Taylor                                    R/108843             IBCC Panel 251



FS Norman Ross was born in Moncton, New Brunswick. Before signing up he had been a scoutmaster and a bank clerk. He enlisted on 15 May 1941 and was awarded his pilot’s badge on 27 February 1942, arriving in the UK a month later to complete his training at 23 OTU and 405 Conversion flight before being posted to 405 Squadron on 14 October 1942.


FS Ralph Milliken was born on 21 December 1919 in Vancouver, British-Columbia and had worked as a boat builder before the war.  He enlisted on 29 August 1941 and was awarded his Air Gunners badge 15 February 1942. He was posted immediately to the UK and completed his training with & AGS and 23 OTU before posting with 405 Squadron on the same day as Norman Ross.


PO Allen Bradley was born on Christmas Day 1912 in Saskatchewan and lived close to Last Mountain Lake. He married Galdys Gwilliam in July 1940 and was working as the Principal of Duval Consolidated  School when in enlisted with the RCAF in Regina in July 1941. He trained in Canada as an observer, which he completed in February 1942. His training in the UK was with 9 (O)AFU and 23 OTU but switched to an air bomber with 420 Squadron in September 1942. His conversion training for the Halifax at 405 Conversion Unit and then 1659 Heavy Conversion Unit and was post to 405 Squadron on 8 November 1942.

Sergeant Earl McGillivary was born 12 October 1918 in Saskatchewan and grew up on a farm, but wanted to attend aeronautical school which he succeeded in 1937 in Moose Jaw. He enlisted with the RCAF in July 1940 for ground duties as an engine mechanic. He arrived in the UK February 1942 and was posted to 416 Squadron, which flew fighters. Bomber Command needed more Flight Engineers, so Earl retained at No.4 Technical School and was awarded his badge 23 September 1942 and after completing his training was posted to 405 Squadron on 8 November 1942.


Sergeant Orlando Hamel was born on 17 November 1915 in Sault Ste, Ontario. He married Kathleen Kearns in 1937 and worked in a gold mind and then in a nickel mine before enlisting with the RCAF in August 1941. He was awarded his air gunner’s badge 31 July 1942 and was in the UK soon after where he trained with 7 AGS, 405 GF and 1659 HCU and along with the rest of the crew was posted to 405 Squadron on 8 November 1942.


Born on Mid Summers Day 1921, FS Melville Stanley enlisted straight out of school on 16 September 1940. He trained in Canada and was awarded his air gunners badge on 24 November 1941. In the UK, he finished his training before being posted to 420 Squadron and later to 405 Squadron Conversion Flight on 13 October 1942 before joining the squadron on 8 November 1942.


FL Benjamin Enns was born 8 May 1916 in Manitoba but attended school in Texas and Kansas before returning to Canada after his father’s death. He enlisted with the RCAF in March 1941, receiving his air gunners badge February 1942 and leaving for the UK. Where in May 1942 he trained at  No. 1 Signal School and 23 OTU before posting to 405 Squadron Conversion and being posted to the squadron on 14 October 1942. During his training he had married ACW Helen Hunter. She was a Scottish native and he is buried in Airth, Scotland upon her wishes.



RAF Mountain Rescue Service

How the RAF Mountain Rescue Service began

By Sergeant J. R. Lees 1927 – 2002 (N.C.O. i/c Mountain Rescue Team, RAF Valley)

Sergeant Johnnie Lees GM, who was well-known in civilian climbing circles in this country, was a member of the R.A.F Mountaineering Association’s Expedition to the Himalayas in the summer of 1955.  Here he gives a brief outline of the development of the RAF’s mountain rescue teams, with special reference to those in North Wales written circa 1956 – Johnnie passed away in 2002

Early in the last war Royal Air Force stations near mountainous areas made their own arrangements for the organization of search parties and used whatever equipment was available.  In North Wales there was one of these parties at RAF Llandwrog and it was here in 1942, that the Senior Medical Officer (SMO), Flight Lieutenant FW Graham, started training volunteers, drawn mainly from the station sick quarters.  Later several vehicles, usually Jeeps and Humbers, were made available for mountain rescue.

A Llandwrog diary, now at Valley, reads:  “This log of the Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) vehicles was opened on July 6, 1943, on which date they were first used together fully equipped to attend an aircraft crash.”  On that date a search exercise had begun at 04.45 hours on The Rivals (Yr Eifil, North Wales).  Three hours later a message was received through the Humber Wireless and the walkie-talkies that an aircraft had crashed at Llangerniew; the mountain rescue team went there at top speed, but all the aircraft’s crew were dead.

Within a fortnight, however, the Llandwrog team had brought its first survivor in:  he was an Oxford pilot who had belly-landed his aircraft at Tal y Cafn and he was picked up, shaken, from the nearby police station.  A month later, after a four-and-a-half hour search, a crashed crew of five was found, relatively uninjured, 3,000 feet up on Foel Fras, in the Carneddau Mountains; they were evacuated safely.  Before the end of 1943, by which time 33 survivors had been rescued from 22 crashes, the medical staff at the Headquarters of No. 25 Group and Flying Training Command had taken some interest and promised an increase in establishment of an N.C.O. nursing orderly and N.C.O. driver.  At three other stations in the Command “rescue units” were formed and special equipment began to appear.  Early in 1944 responsibility for the organization of the mountain rescue service was placed at Air Ministry level (Now MoD), where it rests today with the Director of Operations (M and Nav.) [Meteorology & Navigation?]

It also began to be appreciated in 1943 that proper nailed boots were required, that neither Wellington Boots nor standard RAF boots were of any use, and that a local shepherd’s advice on the direction of base from the top of Mynydd Perfedd, at night in a wet gale, could not be relied upon, whereas the compass could.

Snowstorm search

At midday on December 1, 1943, news was received at Llandwrog that an Anson had crashed on the Carneddau the previous evening and that two of the crew of four had walked to Bethesda police station.  Apart from facial injuries they were unhurt, but could give no helpful information about the position of the crash.  In snowstorms and poor visibility an extensive area was searched.  Then, at 11.00 hours the following day, a third survivor arrived at Bethesda and, on interrogation, it seemed that Foel Grach was the most likely area of the crash.  The search was continued and the fourth man was found, with a fractured foot, at 16.30 hours on December 2, sleeping, wrapped in parachutes, in the rear of the fuselage.  On being offered rum by the M.O., he refused, saying that he “never touched the stuff”!

Early in 1944 a party of officers from Montrose visited the mountain rescue unit at Llandwrog to gather information to help start a similar unit in Scotland.  And about this time a comparative trial between General Service (GS) stretchers and sledge stretchers, designed by Mr D. G. Duff, M.C., F.R.C.S., was made near Llyn Ogwen by medical representatives from Air Ministry, Flying Training Command, and members of the Llandwrog rescue team.  The following April the team began a fortnight’s course of intensive training under a senior N.C.O. instructor from the 52nd Mountain Division.  The course included navigation and elementary rock climbing, using ropes.

An unusual rescue – in a thunderstorm – was made one night in June, 1944, when a Llandwrog aircraft overshot and crashed in the sea a mile offshore.  A dinghy was commandeered from an aircraft near the beach and the Medical Officer, (Flight Lieutenant Scudamore), the mountain rescue driver, and two other volunteers paddled in the direction of the crash.  They met the five uninjured crew, already in a dinghy, and towed them back to the, by then, well lit shore, before the Air/Sea Rescue boat arrived from Fort Belan.

The girl who disappeared

Later that month came the first call out for a civilian in distress in the mountains.  It was a girl and she was stranded on the cliffs of Cader Idris; local civilian climbers and police had been unable to rescue her.  After some rock climbing Flight Lieutenant J. Lloyd and Corporal G. McTigue (later awarded a B.E.M. for his mountain rescue services) gained the ledge where she was reported to be trapped, only to find that she had gone;  having been there for three hours, she had managed to extricate herself unaided.

The recovery of four bodies from the wreckage of an American C-47 transport aircraft found in November, 1944, over a week after it had crashed on Craig Dulyn, provided, the Llandwrog diary records, “the nearest approach to rock climbing of any crash so far … all wearing nailed boots … not a nice place for wellingtons and rubber soled boots”.

Flight Lieutenant Scudamore and the mountain rescue centre were, in June, 1945, posted to Llanbedr on the closing of R.A.F. Llandwrog.  (In September, 1949, the North Wales team moved to Valley where it is based today.)  With the war ended there was a rapid decline in the number of aircraft crashes in the mountains and, throughout 1946, the only break from weekly training exercises was in September, when a prisoner-of-war from Dolgelley, climbing on Cader Idris with a friend, fell and was killed.  After an all-night search his body was recovered.

During the next three years the mountain rescue organization was extended.  By 1949 there were nine teams covering Great Britain and Northern Ireland, each with a permanent staff of N.C.O. i/c, two drivers, a wireless operator and up to 30 part-time volunteers.  And to each team a three ton load carrier was available – permanently loaded – in addition to two Humbers (signals and ambulance) and a Jeep or two.  Mountain rescue sections had also become separate sections, with their own equipment, including a great deal for the part-time team members.

Wednesday afternoon exercises and evening lectures were instigated “to hasten the welding of a fully trained Mountain Rescue Team” Yet, it is probable that, at this stage, the mountaineering ability of the teams, never particularly high, had reached a new low.

Walkie-talkies and sleeping bags

As the teams gained in experience, new equipment was approved for their use – Commando jackets instead of gas capes, sleeping bags in lieu of blankets, type 46 walkie-talkies in place of the old 38s.  But there was, as yet, no liaison between the few really skilled mountaineers in the Royal Air Force and the mountain rescue teams.  As a result, the latter suffered and remained walkers who avoided steep places and who, through lack of mountaineering knowledge, found any slopes under snow dangerous.

A more enlightened attitude which brought about closer liaison with the mountaineers available in the R.A.F., through the Royal Air Force Mountaineering Association (RAFMA), resulted from several incidents.  One was in the north of Scotland, where lack of experience in climbing in bad snow conditions defeated a team attempting to reach a crashed Lancaster on Beinn Eighe (3,309 feet).  In an effort to prevent a repetition of this sort of thing the technical standard of training was raised with the introduction of biannual training courses – summer rock climbing and winter snow and ice climbing – with RAF Mountaineering Association instructors who taught one or two members of each team how to instruct in these aspects of mountaincraft.  Some of the mountain rescue team officers and N.C.O.s attended these courses so that some degree of standardization in training resulted in better co-operation between teams.

Training rescue leaders

The post of Inspector of Mountain Rescue was established at Air Ministry, part-time, and Group Captain R. E. G. Brittain, who had some mountaineering experience, mainly in Asia, was appointed.  He recommended the training of more expert S.N.C.Os i/c teams, to replace some of those who were filling the post of “sergeants of any trade”, and the P.T. branch was asked to provide volunteers.  I had been a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) myself, and the first course began at Valley, under my instruction, in November 1952.  By the time the training finished at Kinloss, with the winter course in February 1953, only three PTI pupils were left, out of the eight who started.  Several more courses followed in 1954 and 1955, but then, as now, few P.T.Is can be found with the necessary interest and qualifications, so that the mountain rescue training situation is still not ideal.

Meanwhile, the assistant honorary secretary of the RAFMA, Mr M. Holton, was attached to Air Ministry A. D. Rescue (Air Ministry Assistant Director Rescue) to write a training manual for mountain rescue teams, which finally appeared as A.M.P. 299 in May, 1953.  Thus ropes, ice axes, karabiners, and tricouni nails became familiar official terms and not just the mysterious names that the pioneer teams had heard other climbers talking knowledgeably about.

Because the civilian climbing fraternity has increased a hundredfold since the war and the number of aircraft mountain crashes has decreased, the position today is that teams are rarely called to an aircraft crash but are often asked for assistance at the scene of mountaineering accidents;  this participation in civilian rescues has been approved by Air Ministry as good training.

Civilians expect too much

The higher technical standards introduced through training courses after the war and the competence of some of our Service climbers, especially Flight Lieutenants J. S. Berkeley and M. Mason and Flying Officer D. D. Stewart, who were already well known in civilian circles, led to a greater recognition of the teams by civilian mountaineers.  Now the pendulum has gone a little too far and the younger generation of climbers often expects the still mainly part-time R.A.F. teams to be composed of ace climbers who are expert at whisking civilians, dead or injured, off inaccessible crags and faces while they sit back, watch – and sometimes criticize!

Group Captain Brittain’s successor, Squadron Leader D. Dattner, did a lot towards arresting these wrong ideas when, as Office i/c M.R.T, Kinloss, he addressed members of the Scottish Mountaineering Club at its annual meeting and dinner.  More recently still Squadron Leader A. R. Gordon-Cumming, the present Inspector of Mountain rescue, has written an article on R.A.F mountain rescue teams in the quarterly journal of the British Mountaineering Council, Mountaineering, which would well bear reproduction in some of the other journals likely to be read by those who climb for a hobby.

The equipment still improves: once, three primus stoves, and a blanket each;  now, petrol stoves with ovens, £16 (£338 in todays money) parkas, and sleeping bags.  Thus the total value of personal equipment on loan to each volunteer is in the region of £60 (£1270 in todays money).  The men who deserved this, the men who started it all in Llandwrog in 1943, must think the present day teams less hardy.  Austrian ice axes and karabiners, nylon ropes, and Thomas sledge stretchers are all provided, and tests for an even better boot are still continuing.

Certainly, nowadays, aircrew who crash in mountainous country, either in Great Britain or in Cyprus, no matter what the time of year, may have every confidence in the mountain rescue teams ready to go to their aid.





HUDSON FK790 MA-6, 161 SQUADRON, 5/6 JULY 1944

Gibraltar Farm, known as RAF Tempsford was home to the Special Operations Squadrons, including those who were part of the Dutch BBO (Bureau Special Assignment. From here they could drop in supplies and persons to help the local resistance in the occupied Low Countries.

A month on from the D-Day landings in Normandy, resistance groups across Europe were busy with any means to assist the Allies and hinder the German forces. Special Operation FIVES 1 was to parachute four Dutch agents, in teams of two, behind enemy lines and join the local resistance.

It was bright moonlight when Hudson FK7901 MA-R flew low to avoid radar over the North Sea towards Nijkerk, Holland. Radio silence was observed on the journey, but the Germans knew they were coming. A miscommunication meant that the night fighters in the area never got the order not to shoot the aircraft down; the German hierarchy wanted the agents alive to question about their activities and connections. It is not known how the Germans knew of the aircraft and its cargo. The aircraft crashed at Ijsselmeer, near Makkum, Holland.  All the crew and agents were killed.

Crew and passengers: (see more on the Losses Database)

NAVIGATOR                       FO  Kenneth Bunney                                      136328                    IBCC Panel 138

REAR GUNNER                  SGT Eric Eliot                                                 771810                      IBCC Panel 160

PILOT                                    FL  John Menzies DFC                                    108868                  IBCC Panel 211

WIRELESS OP                     SGT Dennis Withers                                        1737508                 IBCC Panel 268

AGENT                                  Jan Bockham (Codename Halma)                                                IBCC Panel 132

AGENT                                  Pluen Verhoef   (Codename Raquet)                                            IBCC Panel 257

AGENT                                  Pieter Jacob Kwint (Codename Fives)                                         IBCC Panel 195

AGENT                                  Johannes Walter  Bockma (Codename Bowls)                           IBCC Panel 259

Pilot, FL John Menzies was the son of John Menzies, of the business empire of that names. He was aged 28 when he was lost, and his body wasn’t found until 1997 and upon identification he was buried with the rest of the crew.

Sergeant Dennis Withers was the youngest member of the aircrew and been married just three weeks previous.

FO Kenneth Bunney was born 1913 in Lewisham, south London. He had already completed two tours (62 sorties) and served with Air-Sea Rescue when he was lost.

Sgt Eric Eliot, at 32, was the oldest member of the crew and had an eight-year-old son. He had served at RAF Karachi, before being posted back to England.

Agent Johannes Walter was born in East Java, Indonesia and had served in the Dutch Navy before joining the Dutch BBO. He was married and his wife was expecting when he was killed.

Agent Pluen Verhoef had escaped Holland when it became an occupied territory and had made his way to England. He served in the Dutch Army before joining Special Operations and then Dutch BBO.

Agent Pieter Kwint had escaped Holland after refusing to swear a German oath of loyalty. He travelled via Paris and France, but was arrested in Spain, only being released in March 1944. The Dutch Consulate put him on a boat bound for Liverpool.  He was interrogated and asked to join SOE, and to return to his home country. After completing his training, he was given the rank of Second LT, just three days before his death.

Agent Jan Bockma was the son of a resistance leader. He had travelled to England in 1942 via Spain and the French Foreign Legion. He had served in the Dutch Navy before joining SOE.

(All photos courtesy of 161-squadron.org)

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The Last Flight

Crew photo
The last flight is the story of Avro Lancaster LM621 (HW-C) of 100 Sqn. Sent in by Mark Hanson
At 21:00 on 30th June 1944, Pilot Officer Bill Kay and his crew took off from RAF Grimsby (Waltham) to attack the railyards at Vierzon. This was a major junction for German reinforcements heading for Normandy to counter attack the invasion. It never got there. About 40 miles from the target near Vouzon it was attacked by a night fighter, possibly Rudolf Morenz (5./NJG 2) in a Ju88 with upward firing cannon called Schrage Music. A fire was started in the port wing and quickly moved to the fuselage. Bill gave the order to bail out. The Flight Engineer, Sgt Harry Dale (my Grandad), stayed with the pilot. He helped Bill out of his seat and they both jumped. The last to jump was the Wireless Operator, Ernie Harrop, surrounded by fire.
The mid-upper gunner, John Sharpley, had just returned to the crew after being given a few days leave. He had met his best mate in Ormskirk, who was on leave from the Navy called Hearn. At the end of the meeting, Hearn cheerily said “see you in three months”. Ominously, John replied “I’ll be dead by then”. Unfortunately, he was right. He was severely injured in the attack. It is unknown whether he managed to jump or went down with the aircraft, but villagers found him and helped him, but unfortunately to no avail. John died of his injuries just a few days after his fateful words. He is buried in Vouzon Communal Cemetery in Military Plot 1. The only military casualty in the cemetery.
Of the six that managed to survive the crash, Dale was captured the next day near Orleans. Harrop had injured himself in the landing and was hidden by the locals in a hut in the woods. During this time he was brought part of the scalp of John, where he identified his crewmate. After 5 days in the hut, he moved into a farmhouse and stayed there until 17th August when he developed appendicitis. He was rushed to Allied lines, operated on, and transported back to the UK.
The other four were picked up by the Resistance over the next few days and transported to the Maquis resistance HQ where they stayed until 11th July. They asked to be involved in the sabotage operations, but were refused. On the 11th July they decided to head off and find their way home. The rear gunner Bill Struck and bomb aimer, Jimmy Frink decided to head towards Normandy. Bill Kay and navigator, Fred Fulsher headed toward Paris.
Struck and Frink managed to reach Le Mans where they split up, Frink meeting up with the Allies soon after. He begged to be allowed to go back to Le Mans and get Struck, but was refused. Struck was picked up later and the two were reunited.
Kay and Fulsher reached Paris with the help of the resistance. On 19th July they were taken out of Paris, but were betrayed by a double agent (possibly Jaques Desoubrie), and handed over to the Gestapo. They were interned in Fresnes Prison along with 166 other airmen. The Gestapo labelled them “Terrorfliegers” – Terror Flyers, and were not treated as Prisoners of War. On 15th August, the 168 airmen were transported in overcrowded cattle trains to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. They would become known as the “Lost Airmen of Buchenwald”. They identified Squadron Leader Phil Lamason as their senior commander and behaved like the military they were, which seriously upset the camp guards. They managed to sneak a letter out of the camp to the local Luftwaffe office detailing their fate. This letter went up to the highest levels of the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe were furious that airmen had been treated like this and ordered their release. Unfortunately 2 airmen, one RAF and one USAAF died in Buchenwald due to sickness. The other 166, including the two from this aircraft, were released on 21st October into the care of the Luftwaffe, three days before they were due to be executed by the Gestapo. They were transferred to Stalag Luft III (famous for the great escape).
Crew photo – Left to right – P/O W Kay (Pilot), Sgt H Dale (Flt Eng), Flt Sgt FH Fulsher (Nav – RCAF), Flight Officer JD Frink (Bomb Aimer – USAAF), Flt Sgt JE Sharpley (Mid-Upper Gunner), Sgt W Struck (Rear Gunner – RCAF).
John Sharpley with his family
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Francis Reginald Law

Francis Reginald Law – The Story Behind the Stone

Born in Chadwell Heath, Romford Essex on the 10th December 1911, the oldest of 3 children, a brother Richard served with the Transport Police and a sister Nancy who served as a driver with the ATS.

Francis married in 1937 to Dorothy Chasney, they had no children and on the outbreak of war Dorothy returned to her home village of Rock near Kidderminster

Francis enlisted on 10th July 1940. After all the initial training he joined 14 OTU at RAF Cottesmore on the 14th July 1941. From there he was posted as an AG/W-Op to 50 Squadron at Swinderby on the 13th October 1941.

He flew his first Op with pilot, Ivor Mapp, on the 20th October 1941, his first 7 Ops were as AG all with Ivor Mapp – though other crew members were changed. On the 30th November for his 8th Op he moved to the W/Op seat for a bombing run to Hamburg, the crew for this op was Mapp, Webber Law and Lane and this was the crew for the next 6 ops – taking Francis to 13 ops

The 14th Op, 21st February 1942 saw another crew change – Ivor Mapp as pilot, Hector Thompson as navigator – his first op with 50 Sqn having been posted from RAF Wigsley, Francis flew as Wireless Op and Philip Sydney Ballard flew as Air Gunner – his 12th Op, he was posted from 16 OTU RAF Upper Heyford on the 29th October 1941.

Flying in Hampden AE394 (for the first time) They took off from RAF Skellingthorpe at 18.40 on a bombing op to the Rhine Valley, Coblenz.

The run to target was trouble free and weather conditions good. Problems started on the return journey – the navigator fell ill and the pilot set the course for home. As they approached the English Coast the icing conditions got bad and one engine cut from lack of fuel. Unable to find an airfield and as the second engine cut the pilot gave the order to bale out.

Philip Ballard left the aircraft but his parachute failed – he died near the Haxby Road York and is buried at Chartham in Kent

Ivor Mapp baled and made a safe landing – he survived a second tour and the war.

Hampden AE394 crashed on Haleys Terrace York at about 2.20am on 22nd February 1942, Hector Thompson and Francis Law were still on board and died in the crash.

They rest in a joint grave at St Germaine Thurlby – just a couple of miles east of Swinderby

Francis is remembered on the memorial at Rock (on the A456)as Frank Law

Francis was my mothers brother – killed before I was born. I grew up knowing that he had died – but nothing else was said.

I started my search for more details when CWGC went online in 1996 but searches for the crash site were unsuccessful until I discovered the online ORBs at the National Archive – this gave me the aircraft serial number and led me to the crash site. On the journey to find these details I acquired a lot of general knowledge about Bomber Command and this included the work of the IBCC – which I visited in October 2016, 75 years since the date Francis joined 50 Squadron. A permanent stone at the IBCC seemed a good marker for his life.

It reads “Sgt FR Law – 50 Squadron – Lest We Forget”

The family inscription on his grave reads – “He Gave His Life For Freedom”


Air Ministry Squadron Operations Records

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WW2 Rationing

World War II rationing began with bacon, butter and sugar on 8 January 1940, and lasted until 4 July 1954, when restrictions on meat and bacon were finally lifted. Fourteen years of making do and becoming inventive with the food, that was available.

The government realised that they were importing 50 million tons of food by marine conveys. This dropped to 12 million as the German U-Boats (the Wolf Packs) began attacking the Atlantic conveys with great loss of life and goods. Food shortages were to become the norm for the population.

National registration began with everybody being issued with identity cards and ration books.

BUFF                     Adults

GREEN                  Pregnant or nursing women, and children under the age of five. (These groups got first choice on food supplies)

BLUE                      Children aged 5 to 16. (Made sure they got fruit, a full meat ration and half pint of milk daily).

A typical weekly allowance (for an adult):

Bacon/Ham                                                        4oz

Other meat or two chops

Butter                                                                   2oz

Cheese                                                                 2oz

Margarine                                                           4oz

Cooking Fat                                                         4oz

Milk                                                                       3 Pints

Sugar                                                                     8oz

Preserves                                                              1lb (every two months)

Tea                                                                         2oz

Eggs                                                                       1 fresh (and dried egg)

Sweets                                                                   12oz  (every four weeks)

Imagine trying cooking with these ingredients. Thankfully, bread was not rationed. Neither were fruit and vegetables. Many people grew their own in back yards and on allotments, as well as keeping rabbits and chickens for extra meat. Much public land was used for the use of growing of these, including parks and cricket pitches.  People were encouraged to ‘Dig For Victory.’

People had to register with local shops, there were no supermarkets at this time, only small individual shops. So queueing and shortages were common and a part of wartime life as people travelled between shops searching for their allowances. Once they had collected their goods, the items would be crossed off by staff or ripped out of the ration book, so that they couldn’t be used again.

Tinned goods, dried fruit, cereals and biscuits could all be obtained via a points system. People living in rural areas found it easier to obtain items such as eggs and butter.

Because of shortages, people ate out if they could afford it. There was no rationing but the menu could be a bit limited. Workers often ate in the works canteen for the same reason.

Rationing allowed everybody to have equal amounts in a time of restriction. It allowed those of lower income to be able to get food, and to stop the practice of hoarding. Even so there was a well-used Black Market for those who wished to use it.

Items such as clothes, soap and petrol were also rationed for most of the war. People accepted what was required of them, and though they missed much. There was food and they became very resourceful and inventive. Recipes can still be found online or in books.

If you would like to try your hand at some wartime recipes, look at our book, Dig For Victory




Wartime Childhood

The 1940s were a very different and difficult time for children. It was a childhood without the distraction of social media or 24/7 television. So many-a-day was spent trying to entertain themselves, but all this changed when World War 2 broke out and transformed their lives forever.

Even before war was officially declared on 3 September 1939, children were aware of the world changing around them. They had begun air raid practices at school and knew to carry their gas mask with them at all times. Many of these masks had Mickey Mouse or a cartoon character on them to make them a little less scary.

By the end of August 1939, the British government issued orders for children to be evacuated from the dangers of the cities and into the relative safety of the countryside. Operation Pied Piper became the mass movement of almost two million children. Most went to the countryside, though many were sent to the Commonwealth such as Canada, South Africa Australia and New Zealand.

They arrived at the nominated departure points wearing their name and details on a tag about their necks, and also pinned on. Most had no idea whether they would stay together with their siblings or where any of them would end up. For their journey and new home, they were allowed to take their gas masks, a change of underclothes, night clothes, plimsolls and slippers, socks, a comb, soap, toothbrush, basic clothes and a warm coat.

Away from the noise and bustle of the city and the only home and way of life many had known; homesickness was common and often lonely with only an occasional letter from home. It was all new to them. Many came from the poorer inner city areas; with a father away on service and a mother now conscripted to work. Urban poverty often resulted in bad nutrition and hygiene from poor amenities, sharing a bed with siblings or the whole family, and even old world diseases such as rickets.

Life in the country away from the urban sprawl they were used to could be a big adventure, for some it was not. Farms were things they had heard of but never seen. They were often isolated and without amenities, and the children often had to work for their keep, but at least they were away from the dangers of the bombing. During the Blitz, 7739 children were killed.

By January 1940, about 60 percent of the children had returned to their homes in the cities due to the ‘Phoney War’. The start of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz saw evacuation begin again. When the V1 and V2 weapons began to target the home counties, another 100,000 children, women and elderly moved out of the range.

School became disrupted because of air raids, and the loss of teachers and staff. Classes could be held outside, but soon there was a decline in attendance. School buildings became requisitioned for military use and supplies became scarce.

Most children left school aged 14, and until the age of 17 boys could join the Home Guard. They also worked in agriculture, manufacturing and farming. From 1941, boys aged between 16 to 18 could do National Service before being ‘officially’ called up for military service. It was not uncommon for boys to lie about their age so that could serve King and Country. They understood it was their duty and did it with pride.

Six months after the end of the war over 5,000 children were still living in the countryside. Despite all the dangers and rationing, especially the sweet rationing, the fear and separation from family in this country and those serving overseas for six years, children survived. Six years that must have felt like a lifetime to those so young. They have carried those memories and stories through the generations that have followed. Their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren have stories of a time they can only imagine.

Stories that have been written and filmed.

Books:  When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Films:    Hope And Glory

Goodnight Mr Tom

The Book Thief

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The Blitz

“It was Hitler’s belief that the war from the air would terrorise London into defeat. He was wrong. The city’s inhabitants on the contrary; took a perverse and particular pleasure from being the frontline of the war: ‘We can take it’ became the catchphrase of the blitz.”

Jon. E. Lewis: London – The Autobiography

7 September 1940 was a warm late summer’s afternoon that saw the end of the wartime life that people had become accustomed to.

At 4pm, German bombers flying in a formation that was 20 miles wide, crossed the English Channel. Their approach was plotted by Fighter Command at Bentley Priory and the fighters were scrambled to meet the enemy. It was the middle of the Battle of Britain, but this time the Luftwaffe turned away from the airfields and headed towards to London. It was to become the first night of the Blitz.

After months of watching dogfights over their city, Londoners came out onto the streets at the sound of the engines of the approaching aircraft. Many watched in disbelief and listened as the first air raid siren sounded. There had been warnings before, but this time the bombers had appeared.

348 German bombers came in the first wave following the River Thames towards the ‘U-shaped’ bend that marked their target.  The docks were London’s economic lifeblood and were surrounded by the heavily populated East End. People watched as the bombs fell on the docks and the surrounding industries. Soon the sky turned orange and began to fill with thick black smoke blotting out the day.

Soon the docks were alight with 200 acres of timber burning out of control at Surrey Docks. 1000 pumps were brought in from as far away as Birmingham, Bristol and Brighton. Sadly 20 firefighters, known as ‘Heroes with grimy faces’ were killed in the firestorm that erupted.

Just after 6pm, the all-clear was sounded and people emerged from the shelters to a scene of destruction with fires still raging. But it was the lull before the storm, as the sirens sounded again two hours later, and the second wave of bombers approached led on by the fires from the first attack

300 bombers dropped high explosives and incendiary devices onto the already devastated East End and docks. During this time, Fighter Command shot down 60 German aircraft with the loss of 30 fighters and 15 pilots.  Many of them had flown multiple operations on this day and were exhausted by the size of the attacks.  The Luftwaffe was able to bomb with a sense of freedom.

To people in the shelters, hiding under the bridges, down the underground or in an Anderson shelter in their back garden the night must have seemed terrifying and never-ending. London had seemed safe until this night.

1000 people were sheltering in Columbia Road, Bethnal Green, east London when a bomb went straight down the air shaft and exploded killing 40 people. The Keeton Road School in Bermondsey was struck killing 38 people – half of whom were children. Whole families were lost.

Buildings collapsed. Windows shattered, exploding as the skyline lit up as bright as the sunrise that was still hours away. The noise was deafening. Dust filled people’s eyes and nose making sight hard and breathing difficult. The terror of the Blitz had begun.

By 4.30am the all-clear finally sounded and there was a silence as the population began to emerge from their hiding places shocked to find their city devastated and knowing that this night wouldn’t be the last.

430 people had been killed, and nine fires were still burning. The sky glowed in the aftermath visible up to ten miles away.

The bombing of London was a massive turning point in the war. The Luftwaffe and the German leaders wanted to bomb Britain into submission.

“From the flames rose a defiance and determination not to bow before the enemy – which helped Britain win the war.”

In turning their aircraft away from the fighters and their airfields, Germany gave Britain the space, time and opportunity to rebuild the RAF, and thus began to turn the tables.

By the end of September, 5300 tonnes of high explosives had been dropped and a third of the capital lay in ruins.

The Blitz saw London bombed every night and day (except one) for eleven weeks. Other cities felt the force of the Luftwaffe bombers including Coventry. On the 14 November 1940, it saw the biggest raid resulting in 4330 houses being destroyed, 200 fires and 554 people being killed.

The last night of the Blitz was 10-11 May 1941, but it was also the worse. The whole of London was in the German bombers sights as they used the river and the full moon to find their targets including the House of Commons and Westminster Abbey both of which were badly damaged. It was one of the most destructive raids but still the city was still standing and defiant.

The raid lasted seven hours from 10pm through to the all-clear at 5.50am. The raid was the last major raid of the Blitz and saw the highest number of casualties with 1436 Londoners killed.

For now, the worst of the raids were over as Germany turned its forces east towards Russia and the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Few who were there and survived would forget the 244 days and nights that saw their city defy the odds and rise again.

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