RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Four

I wrote a previous article about the, sadly, rather typical loss of an Avro Lancaster of 103 Squadron, based at Elsham Wolds. The aircraft took off from north Lincolnshire at precisely one minute past midnight on February 20th 1944. It was on its way to bomb Leipzig, a very, very long trip lasting eight hours, most of it over the Third Reich itself. This raid involved more than 900 aircraft with the highest losses of the war so far, 78 aircraft destroyed, a loss rate of 9.55 %.  The previous worst total was the 58 aircraft lost over Magdeburg on January 21st-22nd 1943:

300px-Royal_Air_Force_Bomber_Command,_1942-1945__C5083

I was saddened to see however, during my researches into the fate of PM-I, JB745, that, on that very night, an even more tragic incident had occurred, not over Germany, but over the airfield itself. As they returned unscathed from this rather unsuccessful raid on Leipzig, therefore, two Lancasters collided with each other.
One was the Avro Lancaster Mk III, JB530, PM-F. The aircraft had taken off at 11:22 pm., and was preparing to land. Given the timings of the raid, this incident must have taken place at around 7.00-8.00 am. I would have thought that, at this time of year, it cannot have been absolutely pitch black, and, even though it was February, there must surely have been some light. Lancaster JB530 was heavily damaged in the collision with the other Lancaster, but the pilot, Flight Sergeant H.Gumbrell used all of his skills to bring the aircraft down without serious damage to the members of the crew. These were Sergeant T.V.Shaw, Flying Officer H.J. Hearn, Sergeant F.Osborne, Flight Sergeant J.Seward, Sergeant D.W.Evans and Sergeant R.A.Boulton.
The second Lancaster Mk III, ND334, PM- unknown, did not fare quite so well. This aircraft had taken off a little later at 11:50 pm., and was also preparing to land.  The pilot, Warrant Officer JC Warnes escaped with injuries, as did the Mid-Upper Gunner, Sergeant S.Clapham, but everybody else was killed. These included the Flight Engineer, Sergeant D.H.J.Cunningham, the Navigator, Flying Officer R.H.Fuller, the Bomb Aimer, Flight Sergeant C.Bagshaw,  the Wireless Operator, Sergeant E.S.Gunn and the Rear Gunner, Sergeant A.O.Haines:

halifax wreck
Searching in more detail on the Internet, I found the following information on an archived page from the older of presumably two, DCBoard Forums of “RAF Commands”. It was written, from what I can make out, by “Greg” a guest on the forum in December 2003. Clearly, Greg has been able to access the official accident report:

“JB530 was struck in mid-air by ND334. The report is a little unclear, but it looks like permission by the Flying Control Officer (FCO) was given to JB530 to land first, and then permission was given for the other aircraft,ND334, to land, BEFORE JB530 had actually touched down on the runway. The Court of Inquiry suggests that this was due to a lack of flying discipline at the airfield, and also added that crews must keep a better lookout. The report also has the Air Officer Commanding’s comments, to the effect that Flying Control Officers must not depart from the normal procedure for landings. The report states that the accident was caused by the Flying Control Officer departing from the normal procedure.”

If this is true, then it is, quite simply, disgraceful. Five young men lost their lives because of a careless mistake. This wasn’t the fog of war. This was what should have been standard procedure for the Flying Control Officer.
In the early days when my Dad was first in the RAF, he told me that, when he had looked at the idea of becoming an Officer, the first question he was asked was “What school did you go to?” He said to me that “As soon as I said ‘Woodville Secondary Modern” (where all the pupils had to leave at thirteen) I knew I was wasting my time.”

wvilleupper

If only my Dad had been able to say “Eton” or “Harrow”, they might have promoted him:

eton-college xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

All I can say is that I just hope the Flying Control Officer in question did not get his job because of who his father was or which university he was educated at. To me, a mistake as basic as giving two different aircraft permission to land on the same runway at the same time is just stupid incompetence. And yes, I know that “these things happen in war”, but only if you give crucial jobs to people who are incapable of doing them.
Sergeant Donald Henry James Cunningham was aged only 19 when he was killed and his death must have been a catastrophic blow to his parents, Mr Geoffrey Joseph and Mrs Alice Maud Cunningham. The family all lived in Hounslow, Middlesex. Donald was buried in Brigg Cemetery, only four miles from the airfield:

brfigg cemetery
Sergeant Anthony Oliver Haines was 26 years of age when he was killed. His grieving parents were Mr Francis Henry Claudian Haines and Mrs Florence Ethel Haines, who lived in Bristol. Young Anthony was also buried in Brigg Cemetery, along with Donald Cunningham and 48 other young casualties of war.
Flying Officer Ronald Harry Fuller was only 22 years old when he was killed. He was the much loved son of Mr Henry James Fuller and Mrs Florence Fuller. The family all lived in Marylebone in London. Young Ronald was buried in Cambridge City Cemetery where 1,007 other young casualties of the two World Wars all lie:cambrigde vity cem

Flight Sergeant Charles Bagshaw was also only 22 years old when he was killed. He was the beloved son of Mr Charles Garrett Bagshaw and Mrs Sarah Bagshaw, of Urmston, a small town in Trafford, Greater Manchester. He is buried in his hometown cemetery where his grave bears the inscription, “He died that others might live”. He is with 59 other casualties of the two World Wars in this little town of only 41,000 people.
Sergeant Edward Sandilands Gunn was only 21 years old when he was killed. His parents were Mr Edward Sandilands Gunn and Mrs Bessie Gunn of Glasgow. Their son was returned to Scotland and now lies in the Glasgow Western Necropolis with 479 other young casualties of the two conflicts:

cemet

Edward’s brother David Sandilands Gunn was also in the RAF as a member of 612 Squadron, operating as a General Reconnaissance unit within RAF Coastal Command. David was killed on March 26th 1941, while flying an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley:

Armstrong_Whitworth_Whitley_in_flight_c1940

You may wonder about the name “Sandilands”. As far as I can ascertain, this was a Scottish clan name, here used as a first name.

Two things to finish, firstly a question. Was this the only catastrophic collision of two Lancaster bombers from 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds? Well, what do you think?

And then one final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book arrived, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

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13 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal, Politics

13 responses to “RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Four

  1. It’s shocking stuff but Bomber Command more than any other RAF command suffered appallingly high accident rates. The lack of a protracted and thorough training regime was to blame. Harris wanted planes in the air – end of story

    • Yes, I think you are probably right. There is more to come on training accidents, and the attitude of the people in charge seems to be, at best, appallingly callous. Completely different is the fact that the exit door from a Lancaster was so damned small. A Halifax door was just a few inches wider and lots more men survived trying to bale out of them.

  2. Be interesting to see if there were any other incidents like this. Collisions were relatively frequent around bases, often training missions with inexperienced crews or returning to base badly damaged / poor weather and the like. Such a sad way to end a life. An interesting follow up.

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    I like how you write your WW II stories. The message gets across.

    • You are very kind. It’s very easy to get morbid about these things. A week touring the battlefields and graveyards of the Western Front in the Great War can be both upsetting and harrowing. On the other hand we need to remember the sacrifices young men and women made, so that at least some people nowadays realise that those strange piles of rubble next to the A15 road used to be the home of 103 Squadron.

  4. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget and commented:
    Safe return from hell?

  5. Somber and interesting. I will check out W.R. Chorley’s work.

  6. Paul Dawson

    Hello John,

    Don’t know whether you’ll remember me from our days at Emma, but your name rang a very large bell for me when your blog was mentioned on a Facebook page devoted to 103/576 squadrons. I’m very much enjoying your articles on Elsham Wolds. My late father-in-law completed a full tour in 576 in early 1944, and consequently I found myself making a similar pilgrimage to Elsham a year or two ago, experiencing emotions very similar to yours. (I didn’t venture as far onto the tarmac as you did though!). I’m not clear from what you’ve written so far whether you’re aware of the museum and memorial garden for the two squadrons which is actually located on the water board premises. You have to arrange in advance (I could give the contact if you’re interested) but it’s well worth a visit and in fact is more 103 Sqn oriented.

    • Hi there! It’s nice to hear from you after all these years. I’m glad that you are enjoying what I’ve written. I knew that there was a museum and memorial garden but it seemed rather a kerfuffle to have to make arrangements to see it. We were happy just wandering around in the sunshine, although it still managed, as my Dad often said, to be a rather cold and windy place!

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