One Night in December

One night map December 1944

One Night in December by Adrian Woolrich-Burt

Our project stemmed from Pete Chicken finding an original Navigator’s route map in an auction house in Wiltshire; interesting in itself, however a handwritten note on the top of the sheet showed that it came from his old Squadron, 57, and that it had been the chart used on the raid that night. Somewhat naively he and I thought we might spend a morning looking on google and finding its provenance. Seven years later, with the project expanding almost daily, all three of us are constantly intrigued and humbled by what and how much we have uncovered. All of our initial findings, and most of our presuppositions, have been proved wrong !

To some extent the operations on the night of the 17/18th of December 1944 were routine for Bomber Command, three raids, one to Duisberg, one to Ulm and one to Munich – around 1100 sorties in total. Losses and results were pretty typical for the period, with the Ulm raid encountering the most resistance. 57 Sqn lost two aircraft that night, one captained by an enigmatic Norwegian, Captain Evensen (who we initially thought might be South African) but appears to have been quite a character; and an experienced ex 106 Sqn crew led by FO Alf Donkin, with a second pilot FO Noel Culpan from the RNZAF on his first trip. This loss, although incidental to the crew who used the map and the central thrust of our research, has occupied a lot of our time. I read Culpan’s diary from cover to cover and was moved greatly. Pete has visited the crash site in France and built a very warm relationship with a nearby village. This culminated in a dedicated service at the crash site arranged by the local mayor and attended by junior pilots from the current 57 Sqn. Relatives of all but one of the eight aircrew on board managed to join in too. A lovely thing to have put together.

That said, our project is not specifically one of remembrance – there is a lot of that on the internet already – rather it is something that has tried to uncover the context, and almost superhuman technical challenges these young people had to face, and put them in perspective. Consequently some of our posts are a bit more nerdy than the average; the ones on spherical trigonometry or radio homing theory were a bit of an ask, yet our followers – or rather colleagues – as so many people chip in to help – don’t seem to be deterred at all. In fact, although we were quite prepared to bore our listeners, the podcasts on radio theory, sea survival, and a long one on ‘why there was not a German Lancaster’ have proved to be the most popular.

Some of the early podcasts are a bit ropey, especially the first one … but they do improve ! Bryan Wardell was a joy to interview, and has since become a close friend. As was George Keeling, an ex Halifax engine fitter, who tells his story magnificently. Most of the other podcasts are Pete, Rob, or myself, all ex RAF Aircrew of various categories and roles (Hercules, Puma, Phantom, VC10 and Nimrod), drinking a beer and chatting through what we have found. Rob and I are also current airline Captains flying the Boeing 737, so that helps in understanding how things have changed – or rather not changed – over the years.

We didn’t set out to gain a huge following, in fact rather the opposite, just a few like minded collaborators would be perfect. This was very much a voyage of discovery, not vanity.  There is still a huge amount to uncover on this one cold and windy routine night. As we say several times in the podcast, just unremarkable people doing some quite astonishing things. The truth is always so much more impressive than the Hollywood version.

To find out more about this project, please click here

If you can help Pete, Adrian and Rob with the project please click here

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