Eric Ronald Harper

Eric Ronald Harper

My great uncle served in World War Two as an Air Observer (Navigator) with 207 Squadron, 5 Group, Bomber Command, Royal Air Force (Volunteer Reserve).
Eric enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on the 14th May 1940, twelve days after his 18th birthday. His first port of call was the No.1 Recruiting Centre at Penarth and Melksham and on the 20th of May No.4 Recruiting Centre at Bridgnorth, Shropshire.
On the 7th of June he transferred to Linton and joined No.5 Initial Training Wing on the 10th at Hastings. On the 28th June No.5 I.T.W. moved from Hastings to Torquay where Eric would stay until the end of October.

This is a letter from Eric to his mother when he was at Torquay.

925454 L.A.C Harper
D Flight 3 Squadron
5 I.T.W. RAF
Elfordleigh
Torquay
Dear Mum,
The money was a bit late this week and your letter was four days late. I expect that they were held up in the air-raids at London. You’ve had it pretty hot there lately haven’t you. One of our corporals was in London when they raided it on Saturday night and he gave a graphic account of dodging from door to door with bombs dropping all around, news of houses collapsing, bombs falling in the road and two lorries smashing head-on and goods from shops scattered all over the show to say nothing of numerous fires etc. So I know what you must have been through.
It’s been pretty peaceful down here though. I went up to Exeter for a short time last Sunday when I got a pass but there was hardly anything doing.
We’ve got a route march coming up shortly so we have – “something to look forward to”.
Well there is nothing much more I can say now.
So cheers.
Love Eric xxxx.
P.s. I will write to the others tomorrow.

This is another letter written at Torquay from Eric to his mother while he had been there for some time.

925454 L.A.C Harper
D Flight Room 54
3 Squadron 5 I.T.W.
RAF Elfordleigh
Torquay
Dear Mum,
You need not send a registered envelope each week now. I can easily afford that anyhow, besides every little helps. But thanks all the same.
Well we are still in Torquay and no notice of posting has come through yet. All the chaps are getting fed up.
We had some fun the other day when two of D Flight went out about half past two in the morning and climbed up a high telegraph pole in the road just outside the hotel and tied a cracked lavatory pan on top and left it there. As we all parade outside the hotel in the morning the whole squadron had a good laugh at it. The trouble was that the police complained and had to take it down. The chaps owned up however and got off with only having a Sunday late pass stopped, as they had not put one in they were not affected.
Another squadron who have also been waiting a long time threw down there rifles when they had to parade for rifle drill and just cleared off. Nothing was done about however and they were told they would be posted as quickly as possible. So you can tell how fed up we are getting with this wing.
Still some are being remustered as pilots and the longer we are here the more chance we get. So there is a brighter side.
Well Cheers for the time being.
Love Eric. xx

Eric left for South Africa on 31st October 1940 destined for No.45 Air School where he would train to be an Air Observer. He travelled on the ‘Union-Castle’ vessel ‘Warwick Castle’ and arrived in Cape Town on the 30th November.

This letter was written on board the ‘Warwick Castle’ on the 27th November 1940.

27/11/40
925454 L.A.C HARPER
No.1 A.O.N.S.
R.A.F.
SOUTH AFRICA
Dear Mum
I am afraid it has been impossible to write before as there has been no oppurtunity to post any letters. I hope you got my last letter alright as I had to trust it to a girl in Scotland to post, it should have been posted on the first of the month.
Although I give the address on first page, we are still at sea while I write this although we are nearing the end of the voyage. It has been fine on board, the only trouble is that there is so little to do the only entertainments being an occasional game of cards on deck games and reading.
Love Eric.

When they arrived at Cape Town there was then a lengthy train journey to Oudtshoorn where he would be on No.2 Course which began on 2nd December. Eric had been at Oudtshoorn for three and a half months when he was part of a party that visited the coastal town of Kynsna. On the return journey back to base the large lorry they were travelling in overturned with a number of airmen injured, some seriously. Luckily Eric escaped with only slight bruising though three airmen nearly lost there life. Shortly before he left 45 Air School everyone was confined to base due to the right wing Ossewabrandwag party protesting in the area. They were opposed to South Africa fighting on the side of the British and even formed their own armed unit based on the German SS. Eric was at Oudtshoorn for three months where they used Avro Anson aircraft until he and the rest of his course were posted to other Air Schools to continue there training. Eric was transferred to No.42 Air School on the 14th March 1941 at Port Elizabeth and completed the No.1 Bombing and Gunnery Course using Fairey Battle aircraft on the 30th May 1941 passing out as a Sergeant Air Observer with 77 percent. He immedately left for Cape Town by train en route to England. On the return journey from South Africa Eric briefly visited Canada but did not undertake any training in North America.

When he finally returned to England he sent a telegram home from Liverpool on the 8th July 1941. Eric had been away for eight months abroud and arrived at the No.3 Personnel Reception Centre in Bournemouth. Soon he moved to RAF Finningley, Yorkshire and joined the No.25 Operational Training Unit on the 20th July where they operated Vickers Wellingtons, Handley-Page Hampdens and Avro Manchesters. He spent about three months there starting a Conversion Course flying with Flight Sergeant Basil Courtney Wescombe before being transferred to his operational squadron.

Eric’s record with 25 Operational Training Unit at RAF Finningley.
Conversion Course

Thursday 23rd October 1941
Avro Manchester L7430
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Harper
Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Bell
Sgt. Howe

As part of their conversion course at Finningley F/Sgt. Wescombe and Sgt. Sieve had a number of flights conducting Dual Control and Landings with the pilots Pilot Officer Hughes and Flight Lieutenant Stewart in control. This flight with a larger crew is named Raid 2 in F/Sgt. Wescombe’s log book.
Eric became a member of 207 Squadron at RAF Waddington on Friday 3rd November 1941. He was with the squadron for 72 days operating from RAF Waddington and RAF Bottesford flying in Avro Manchester aircraft. 207 Squadron was a training squadron at the outbreak of war and lost it’s identity in April 1940. Re-formed in 5 Group in November 1940 for the introduction of the Avro Manchester and commenced operations in February 1941. It served in 5 Group for the remainder of the war, converting to Lancasters in March 1942.
Eric’s Operational Record in 207 Squadron.

RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.
Two days after Eric arrived at Waddington he wrote this letter to his mother.

5-11-41
925454 Sgt. Harper
c/o Sgts. Mess
“C” Unit.
R.A.F.
Waddington.
Lincolnshire
Dear Mum,
We moved out of Finningley on Monday just as I thought we would, and arrived here on Monday evening. We will be moving to another drome shortly however. We shall probably get cracking soon. The place where we are billetted is terrible at the moment but we’re getting different billetts, probably in the mess as soon as they can arrange it. What a time we had on Monday, we were told we were moving only about 2 hours before we went and I had a hell of a job collecting all my gear from Rossington and all over the camp to get away on time. Well I haven’t got any more to say just now so Cheers for the time being.
With Love
Eric
xxxx

Wednesday 12th November 1941
Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Harper
Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
The crew took off at 15.15 and conducted local flying and beam approaches training.

Saturday 15th November 1941 – Emden
Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
Sgt. Harper
Sgt. Van Puyenbroek
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Walker

207 Squadron detailed two ‘freshman’ crews to attack the the railway station in Emden. The crew apart from Sgt. Van Puyenbroek conducted a ‘Night Flying Test'(N.F.T.) at 14.30. Eric and the rest of the crew took off for Emden at 17.50. This was their first mission apart from Sergeant Van Puyenbroek who had had fifteen previous missions. He was unaware that this was their first trip and has said since that he would have been terrified if he had knwon. There wasn’t any flak on this trip and they bombed on E.T.A. (Estimated Time of Arrival). When they reached the target three bursts were observed and before leaving the target a large fire was seen reflected on low cloud. On return from this operation they were terribly lost and Sergeant Thomas the second pilot asked Sergeant Van Puyenbroek to turn on the squeeker which alerted crews to the presence of barrage balloons. The sound in Van Puyenbroek ears was deafening and they quickly discovered they were in the middle of the Southampton balloon barrage. The plane was soon illuminated by searchlights but luckily were not fired upon. They returned to Waddington at 23.59 and experienced more complications on landing. They touched down and bounced 15ft in the air, Flight Sergeant Wescombe quickly opened the throttle and went round again for another attempted landing. 49 aircraft were on the raid with no bombing results observed due to cloud with 4 Wellingtons lost. The next morning Sergeant Van Puyenbroek went back to the aircraft to look for his torch, as you didn’t receive a replacement if it was lost. As the ground crew opened the bomb-bay he looked up in horror to see 3x1000lb bombs still hooked up.
RAF Bottesford, Leicestershire
At 10.00 on Monday 17th November 207 Squadron’s fifteen servicable Manchesters took off from Waddington, overflew the station in salute, and made for Bottesford where they landed a few minutes afterwards.

Sunday 23rd November 1941 – Lorient
Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Nixon
Sgt. Harper
Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
Sgt. Walker

The squadron had organised itself to a sufficient extent that it was once more in a position to mount operations after moving from Waddington to Bottesford. Two inexperienced crews (F/Sgt B.C. Wescombe and F/L W.D.B Ruth DFC) were required for a shallow penetration raid to Lorient docks in search of U-boats in their pens. Basil Wescombe had just begun his second tour, but because it was customary to fly a complete tour as second pilot before becoming a captain on ‘heavies’ he was still considered a ‘freshman’. Eric’s crew were flying in L7432 EM:J which was considered 207 Squadron’s ‘lucky’ Manchester as it had been nursed back from Berlin on one engine the previous August to earn it’s pilot a DSO. Crews carried out night flying tests during the day with the crew conducting their’s at 11.50. 51 Hampdens and the 2 207 squadron Manchesters were on the raid. EM:J took off at 17.00 and the crew reported that the target was located in good visibility but the bursts were not seen due to heavy flak. The conditions over the target were cloudless allowing the dock installations to be indentified easily. After dropping ten 500lb bombs in the area both crews returned to make a landing at 22.05 at RAF Coningsby. Fires were seen in the vicinity of the docks with no losses. On the journey back to the French coast 8 packages of nickels (propaganda leaflets) were dropped.

Sunday 30th November 1941 – Emden
Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
Sgt. Harper
Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
Sgt. Walker

Two 207 Squadron crews attacked Emden and were about to lose their ‘freshman’ status. The crew set off at 17.15 and recorded excellent visibility, slight haze and target point “B” located and bombed on heading 340 degrees at 19.34 from 12,000ft. They released five 1000lb bombs and saw them burst with two large fires being started. At 19.50 at 11,000ft five ships, one thought to be a warship, were heading south between Nordnerney and the mainland. The other ships appeared smaller and the crew were unsure of their character. They returned to Bottesford at 22.15. 50 aircraft attacked the target with good bombing results claimed. 1 Wellington and 1 Whitley were lost.

Saturday 27th December 1941 – Dusseldorf
Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
F/Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Harper (Obs)

5 Group cancelled daylight formation flying and instead specified 207 Squadron to prepare 12 Manchesters for a night operation to Dusseldorf in what was only the third Manchester operation of the month. Later in the day 5 Group cancelled five of the 12. The remaining seven joined a total force of 132 aircraft including 66 Wellingtons, 30 Hampdens and 29 Whitleys. Eric set off at 17.21 headed for the marshalling yards in Dusseldorf. The crew reported 3/10 cloud cover at 2000ft with good visibility. They identified the target by the river and the railway concentration and dropped five 1000lb bombs from a height of 10,000ft at 20.04. There were no bursts observed but a large fire was seen after the target had been left. They dropped sixteen bundles of nickels to the South West of the target area. A line of lights with a rotating beacon at each end were seen in the mouth of Osterschelds. Only five of the 207 Squadron planes reached the target where the visibility was good. All aircraft landed at Horsham St Faith, the hydraulic system in Eric’s Manchester failing in the process at 22.50. Although 96 aircraft claimed to attack the city the records reveal that only 32 high explosives and 3 cans of incendiaries fell in the built up area which caused very slight damage and no casualties. 5 Whitleys and 2 Wellingtons were lost.

Friday 2nd January 1942 – St Nazaire
Avro Manchester L7378 EM:A
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
F/Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Harper (Navigator)

January 1942 began with poor weather but on the 2nd twelve 207 Manchesters were detailed for operations, but two were later cancelled owing to the aircraft becoming unservicable. The remaining ten took off for St Nazaire. Eric’s crew left Bottesford at 17.34 with the primary target being the docks and submarines. They attacked the target at 20.02 and at 12,000ft. 3/10 cumulus cloud cover at 2,000ft hid the target but it was picked up by the river and canal North of the target area. The bomb bursts were obscured but 6x1000lb bombs were thought to have fallen in the target area. They dropped eight bundles of Nickels on land en route to the target area. On the return back home at 20.32 whilst at 12,000ft five small boats, believed to be fishing smacks, were seen at 45 degrees, 08 minutes North and 02 degrees West. Eric and the rest of his crew arrived back at Bottesford at 23.12. Of the whole 207 force four aircraft were unable to locate the target, four found and bombed it and two attacked alternative targets at Cherbourg and Brest. The crews bombing Cherbourg reported that the flak gave them a “warm time”. On the homeward journey two Manchesters landed at Exeter and one at Shrewton on Salisbury Plain. 15 Whitleys and 12 Manchesters attacked the target with only 8 aircraft bombing the primary target and no aircraft lost.Monday 5th January 1942 – Brest

Avro Manchester L7432 EM:J
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
F/Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Howe
Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Harper (Obs)

The weather at Bottesford that day was fair and 11 aircraft were detailed for operations, but one failed to take off. The take-off time was 04.34 with the primary target being the docks. Eric’s crew reported that 9/10 cloud cover hid the town, but a few gaps revealed the dock area. The full moon that night helped in locating the target. They dropped three 2000lb bombs in the dock area from 12,000ft where a large fire was seen in the centre of the town on arrival at target area. 154 aircraft took off consisting of 89 Wellingtons and 65 of other types. 87 of the crews were ordered to bomb the ships the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the remainder being given the naval docks generally as their target. A smoke-screen prevented accurate bombing but large fires were claimed without the loss of any aircraft. Of the 10 207 Squadron Manchesters 9 bombed the primary target with the tenth reporting that the target was obscured by cloud and did not drop any bombs. The crew arrived back at Bottesford at 08.41.

Saturday 10th January 1942 – Wilhelmshaven
Avro Manchester L7378 EM:A
F/Sgt. Wescombe
Sgt. Thomas
Sgt. Harper
F/Sgt. Sieve
Sgt. Westbury
Sgt. Walker
Sgt. Howe

EM:A set off at 16.53 with the aiming point being the main railway station, but with the intention of causing resultant damage in the port area. The town of Wilhelmshaven should have been an easy target to locate in good weather, lying as it does on the shores of the Jade Bay. Three 207 crews succeeded in bombing the railway station and two found the secondary target. Eric navigated his plane EM:A down the Jade Bay coastline to release their bombs from 16,000ft at 19.30. They pin-pointed the impact position at one mile north east of the railway station and the crew saw the 4,000lb ‘Cookie’ explode. The crew reported two fires were left burning with seven bundles of nickels being dropped in the target area. They were diverted on the return journey and landed at RAF Coningsby at 23.18. The bombing results from Wilhelmshaven, bore little resemblance to the optimistic claims of returning crews. Although a total of 124 aircraft were dispatched the German defenders recognised this as only a light attack with only six civilians injured.

Eric was killed along with the rest of the crew on Wednesday 14th January 1942 when his Avro Manchester bomber L7523 EM:M piloted by Flight Sergeant Basil Courtney Wescombe crashed and burnt at Mill Hill near Cliff House Farm, Holmpton, Nr Withernsea, E. Yorkshire (now Humberside).
The aircraft L7523 was an Avro Manchester MkIA fitted with 33′-0″ span tail and twin fins, delivered to 207 Squadron on Friday 31st October 1941. It was part of a production batch of 200 aircraft order from A.V.Roe & Co. Ltd. Manchester, to Air Ministry Specification 19/37 under Contract No. B648770/37 dated 12-37, and covered Works Order No. 5723. The first 157 aircraft (L7276-L7325, L7373-L7402, L7415-L7434, L7453-L7497, L7515-L7526) were completed as Manchester Mk.I’s and IAs (the latter from L7420), the remaining 43 as Lancasters. Deliveries commenced to the RAF on Wednesday 31st July 1940.

Wednesday 14th January 1942 – Hamburg
Avro Manchester L7523 EM:M
523056 Flight Sergeant (Pilot) Basil Courtney Wescombe. RAF. Age:25
1111152 Flight Sergeant (Pilot) Frederick Edward Thomas. RAF. Age:26
925454 Sergeant (Air Observer) Eric Ronald Harper. RAF(VR). Age: 19
902414 Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) Leonard Sieve. RAF(VR). Age: 23
961733 Sergeant (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) Claude Raymond Westbury. RAF(VR). Age: 21
1194389 Sergeant (Air Gunner) John Thomas (Jack) Howe. RAF(VR). Age: 20
641700 Sergeant (Air Gunner) Maurice Robert Walker. RAF. Age:19

Although 1942 had started quietly due to operational restrictions losses rose sharply during the raid on Wilhelmshaven on the 10th of January. Hamburg was chosen for two consecutive night raids in the middle of January. On Wednesday 14th January 1942 207 Squadron had been stood down for three days, and despite the first fall of snow, it was called upon to join an attack on Hamburg. L7523 EM:M was part of a force of 95 aircraft tasked to attack Hamburg. 48 aircraft claimed to have bombed the target and local reports state approximately 12 fires were started and the Altona railway station was hit with 6 people killed and 22 injured. 5 aircraft, 5.26 percent of the force were lost these being 1 Manchester, 2 Wellingtons and 2 Hampdens.
L7523 took off from RAF Bottesford, Leicestershire fifteen minutes late after suffering an unknown technical problem. At briefing the crews were informed of a new tactic to be employed for the first time. Instead of taking off at irregular intervals and making their own way to the target by whatever route the captain and navigator favoured, the aircraft were to take off in a close-spaced procession and fly exactly the same route and speed, joining up with other units to form what came to be known as the bomber stream. The condensed take-off sequence went smoothly until the last aircraft in line. Wooldridge 17.07, Birch 17.08, Dawkins 17.09, Hathersich 17.10, Coles 17.11, Leland 17.12, Green 17.18 and Wescombe 17.35. They were destined for a raid on the dockyards and nearby Blohm and Voss aircraft factory near Hamburg. As it was, the North Sea was covered by a thick layer of cloud, and many aircraft were unable to locate the target.
The aircraft took off at 17.35 and was airborne for 3 hours and 10 minutes, given the cruising speed of an Avro-Manchester was 185mph and that they returned with an engine on fire it is not possible for the crew to have reached Hamburg and unlikely that they came under enemy fire. At 20.45 the elder of three Misses Walker was sitting in the kitchen of Cliff House Farm in the hamlet of Holmpton on the Yorkshire coast. She heard a loud popping sound of a throttled back aero engine at low altitude and rushed outside to see the plane pass low to the south, with flames apparently coming from the rear. Seconds later the plane hit the ground and there was a flash and explosion. The source of the fire is unknown, but possibly an uncontrollable fire in the port Vulture engine would have given the same appearance to a ground observer. The Home Guard were soon on the scene arriving from a nearby Observation Post on the cliff-top. It took the Withernsea Police and the Auxiliary Fire Service over an hour to reach the crash site. They found a deep crater filled with wreckage, and propaganda leaflets (nickels) printed in German were being blown about in the stiff breeze. Amongst the debris were also three bodies. The Fireman returned to their depot at 01.55 and by 02.46 it was established that the wreck was that of a British bomber. The Home Guard carried the remains of the crew to Cliff House Farm where they remained overnight in one of the farm buildings. The next morning farm workers found a sorry sight. Soldiers were already guarding the impact point and the tail unit had been thrown over a nearby hedge. Small fragments of airframe were spread over a wide area, with apparently the bomb load already been jettisoned. A freezing rain was falling from a leadened sky and within a short period the farm workers’ clothes were frozen stiff. Later that morning the bodies were conveyed by RAF ambulances to RAF Catfoss (2 Coastal Operational Training Unit) near Hornsea.

Another witness of the crash was a 14 year-old boy who was looking out of the window of his house in Holmpton. He saw the plane travelling North away from the River Humber parrallel to the coast. The plane had flames pouring from it and ultimately crashed on the crest of Mill Hill approximately half a mile from the Rocket House in Holmpton. He places the time of the crash much later at about 23.00 and was at the scene within minutes, but could not approach the aircraft because of the intense fire and bullets firing in all directions as the stored ammunition exploded.
The ‘Loss Card’ held at the archives in the RAF Museum at Hendon contains very little detail and the cause of the crash is listed as ‘not known’. There is no mention of the crash in the AVIA division of documents in the National Archives despite the plane crashing in Yorkshire. The subsequent inquest held at the farm established that L7523 had jettisoned her warload out to sea, and concluded that the aircraft had probably been damaged by enemy action as there was a suggestion of battle damage on the aircraft, forcing an early return and culminating in the crash. An equally likely explanation given the engine fire and the poor record of the Vulture engines on Avro Manchesters was that failure of one of the Vultures, possibly due to severe icing, had forced F/Sgt Wescombe to turn back.

An hypothetical account of the mystery surrounding the crash is given by Vince Holyoak 1992, author of ‘On the Wings of the Morning’ a book about RAF Bottesford.
Could the crew, already behind schedule, have pressed onwards only to find at some point over the North Sea that there was a difficulty with the port engine, perhaps running rough or the temperature rising alarmingly? Now even further behind, and with a failing aircraft, possibly they had no alternative but to jettison their bombs and set a course for home. Perhaps the engine was feathered and switched off, but as they neared the coast, maybe their height had dropped so much that the engine had to be restarted. Could it be that this time it seized up, immediately bursting into flames?

Eric is buried with his mother in Grave 305, Block 9, Streatham Cemetery, Tooting where his family were living after moving from Lowestoft earlier in the war. In 2009 a memorial was dedicated in Holmpton at St. Nicholas Church and the service was attended by the families of the crew members, representatives of No.207 Squadron, No.207 Squadron Assoociation, RAFA, RAF Holmpton and local residents.

 

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