Monthly Archives: March 2016

John David Fletcher: Part 4

I recently wrote about the collision of two Lancasters from 97 Squadron on June 23rd 1944 in the sky above Crowland in south west Lincolnshire, as they practiced formation flying.

Seventy years later, on June 23rd 2014, a ceremony was held to commemorate the sacrifice of these young lives.

A memorial service took place in a field behind Bank’s Farm and a plaque was unveiled on a farm building near the crash site:plaque 5

It is on the metal wall of a barn:

plaque 1

Here it is in close up:

palque 2zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The events of this commemoration were all scheduled to begin at three thirty in the afternoon, more or less the exact time the two huge bombers collided all those years ago. Should anyone wish to visit the site, the directions I have are to “Go into Crowland, find Cloot Drove, travel down about 2 miles where you’ll see the farm buildings on the right, the plaque is facing the road and the postcode is PE6 0JL.”

Years ago, a simple wooden cross stood alone in the middle of a field to mark the exact site of the crash, but by 2014, it was long gone.

Fortunately, members of Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group (LARG) had decided, initially in 1979, to attempt to recover the wreckage of the two Lancasters. Here is their workshop, with other remains that they have found:

Avro_Lancaster_Mk_1_ExCC

Their researches have ensured that the exact location of the old wooden cross, marking the crash site, was rediscovered.
The wreckage they recovered is now on display at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, the home of LARG.

Needless to say, as I was not a witness to all of these dreadful events, this article could not have been written without using the series of excellent books by W.R.Chorley, and a number of other websites.

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John David Fletcher: Part 3

Flight Lieutenant John David Fletcher was buried in Cambridge City Cemetery on the Newmarket Road. As well as John Fletcher, four other casualties were buried in this cemetery, the rest being taken back to the cemeteries near to their homes.

The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Henry Stewart van Raalte of the Royal Australian Air Force was one of the four to be buried in Cambridge City Cemetery. Aged just 31, he was the beloved son of Henri Benedictus Salman van Raalte and Katherine Lyell van Raalte. He was the much loved young husband of Mrs Mary Ellen van Raalte. They all lived together in Albany in Western Australia:

van rxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Here is Jimmy’s funeral in Cambridge Cemetery. His brother is labelled in the foreground:

van

Flight Sergeant Maurice Durn, the Flight Engineer, is buried in the churchyard of St Bartholomew’s Church in Marsden. He was only 21 years of age, the beloved son of Norman and Clara Durn, of Marsden, and the much loved husband of Mrs Dorothy Durn, who lived in the same village in West Yorkshire, seven miles west of Huddersfield.

Pilot Officer David Gethin Williams was the navigator. He was the beloved son of Gwilym and Dorcas Ann Williams, of Blaengwynfi, a village in the Port Talbot area of South Wales. He is buried in Plot T, in unconsecrated ground, in Rhondda (Treorchy) Cemetery.

David Williams’ nephew can still remember him:

“My uncle David Gethin Williams was the navigator in Van Raalte’s airplane. My father who was 14 when his brother was killed remembers that it was a sealed coffin that was returned home for burial as they could not be sure if it was David Gethin that was in it. My grandmother was always haunted by that. My father remembers the Van Raalte brothers coming home to Treorchy with David Gethin when they were on leave. The rear gunner Royston George Davies was also from Treorchy and both gravestones are in sight of each other which is very poignant!”

rhonfdd cemete

The Bomb Aimer, Warrant Officer Alfred Leonard Lambert of the Royal Australian Air Force was 25 years old when he died. He was the much loved son of John Leo and Rhoda Lambert and the beloved husband of Stella Irene Case Lambert, of Eastwood in New South Wales, Australia.

lambert

His daughter, later to marry and become Maree Pollard, was only eleven months old when her father was killed. She said:

“It has always been a big black hole in my life. I personally feel that LARG have done a fantastic job and I just can’t thank them enough. I find it very humbling.”

Maree never met her father, because she was living in Australia when he died. Alfred is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery:laambert

Flying Officer Alan Arnold was the Second Bomb Aimer, He was also a member of the Royal Australian Air Force and was aged just 26 at the time of his death. Alan was the much loved son of Edward and Lillian Evelyn Agnes Arnold, of Pascoe Vale South, Victoria, Australia. He was apparently flying as a visual air bomber. He too is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

arnold

Flight Sergeant Eric Henry Peace was just 21 years of age. He was the wireless operator, the beloved son of Ernest and Ethel Maud Peace of York. He too is buried in Cambridge City Cemetery.

The mid-upper gunner was Royston George Davies, aged just 22, and the much loved son of Gerildis and Gwenlian Davies, of Treorchy. He was the husband of Phyllis Mary Davies, and they lived in Cwmparc, Treorchy. Just like the navigator, David Gethin Williams, Royston is buried in Rhondda (Treorchy) Cemetery, both graves in sight of each other.

The other Lancaster involved in the catastrophe was ND981, also of 97 Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Edward Leslie John Perkins:

third time livcky

His friend Patrick Turner, the flight engineer in another Lancaster in 97 Squadron, recounted how the men enjoyed time to let off steam:

“One of the pilots, Flt Lt Perkins, had a small car and the whole of the flight lifted this car onto the top of an air raid shelter. After the accident we had the job of getting it down.”

Only one man was to escape alive from this horrendous collision, everybody else being killed.

Flight Lieutenant Perkins, the pilot, was buried in Cambridge Cemetery, but I have been unable to trace any further details whatsoever about him.

The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Frank Ernest Coxhead, aged 20, of Somercotes in Derbyshire. He was the much loved son of Frank Percy and Martha Coxhead. Frank is buried in Lea Brooks Cemetery in Alfreton, Derbyshire.

The Navigator was Flight Lieutenant William James Hunt who was only 22 years old. He was the beloved son of Sydney Herbert and Maud Adeline Margaret Hunt, of Romford, in Essex . The inscription on his grave in Romford Cemetery reads, “Tranquil you lie, Your memory hallowed, In the land you love.”

The bomb aimer was Flight Sergeant John Fairbairn, aged 30, the much loved son of Frank and Ada Fairbairn, of Knottingley in West Yorkshire. John was the husband of Ivy Fairbairn, of Ferrybridge near Knottingley. He is buried in the cemetery at Knottingley. He had had a lovely wedding, perhaps at the very same Northern church:

fairnbairn%20wedding%20day

The wireless operator was Flight Sergeant Coman, with the first name John or Joseph, depending on where you look. Of him, more later.

The mid upper gunner was Warrant Officer Denis Gilbert Partos. He was 23 years old, and the much loved son of Francis Ferdinand and Pauline Partos, of Southgate, Middlesex. John is buried in Southgate Cemetery. Denis died without knowing that he had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal. The news only came through in the London Gazette on June 27th.

This death may have been the final moment of despair for Francis Ferdinand and Pauline Partos, of Southgate, Middlesex. Their other son, John Emil Partos, a Bomb Aimer with 427 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, had already been killed on February 27th 1943:002810029-vickers-wellington-iii

He was flying in a Vickers Wellington bomber which had taken off from RAF Croft at 1848 hours. This was ZL-C with the serial number BK268, piloted by Flight Sergeant  George Taylor. They were one of seven Wellingtons sent to bomb Cologne. Five aircraft returned safely. Flight Sergeant Taylor bombed successfully, but on the way home he crashed at R.A.F. North Luffenham, near Woolfax Lodge, and he, and four of his crew, were killed, including John Partos. Flight Sergeant William Harwood and his crew were also posted missing from this raid. The whole story can be found on the website of the Canadian 6th Group:

What makes these events, back at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, even more tragic and twisted is that Denis Partos was not even a normal member of the crew of this doomed Lancaster. The normal mid-upper gunner was Flight Sergeant M.H.McBride, but he could not fly on this particular day because he was on a charge and had been grounded for his bad behaviour.  So too was the other gunner in the crew, Flight Sergeant J.K.Russell. Flight Sergeant M.H.McBride went on to survive the conflict as far as I can trace. So too did Flight Sergeant Russell. They must have thought, though, that they had used up all of their good luck for the entire rest of the war! Here is the Operations Room of 97 Squadron

opr room

I cannot trace a rear gunner for ND981 on this particular occasion. Some sources give it as John David Fletcher but that is clearly an error. Perhaps the aircraft flew with just six crew members.

The only man to survive the crash was Flight Sergeant Coman who was the wireless operator of Flight Lieutenant Perkins’ Lancaster. Coman jumped out of the stricken bomber as it broke up and managed to get his parachute open. He was badly burned by parachuting down almost into the burning wreckage of the two aircraft. He owed his survival, it is thought, to the fact that he was conceivably blown upwards by the force of the explosion of the burning wreckage on the ground and was, therefore, able to open his parachute and come down safely.

After his almost miraculous escape, poor Flight Sergeant Coman left the squadron and, in actual fact, was to die of tuberculosis not too long after he left the RAF. According to at least one website, he was so traumatised that he was never flew again after the tragic events of Friday, June 23rd 1944. (not surprisingly, you might think).

Old Nottinghamian, John David Fletcher had intended to make his living by farming poultry when he left the RAF.

Sixty years after the tragedy,  at a commemorative ceremony, Roy Sturman, from the Nottinghamshire country village of Collingham, spoke about his feelings all those years ago. He was only ten when his brother-in-law, John David Fletcher, was killed in the crash. He said:

“I thought he was great. He was a hero to me. I’m so glad I came along to the ceremony, because this is history and it needs to be remembered.”

This stained glass window is dedicated to the memory of the brave young men of 97 Squadron:

97 msq windowxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Needless to say, as I was not a witness to all of these dreadful events, this article could not have been written without using the series of excellent books by W.R.Chorley, and a number of other websites.

The final part of this sad tale to follow in the near future.

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John David Fletcher: Part Two

John David Fletcher was the beloved son of John Tabberer Fletcher and Dorothy Fletcher when he was killed at that tragically early age of 24. John was old enough to be have a pretty, young wife, however. He was the beloved young husband of Joyce Loretta Fletcher. This lady, his widow, in actual fact, was to die only in 2001, almost sixty years afterwards.

When the tragedy occurred back in 1944, the men’s relatives were told little about the completely avoidable accident. Thirty five years later though, in 1979, a group of aviation enthusiasts researched the crash and recovered parts of the wreckage in what they called “an epic three-year recovery project”. They were all members of LARG, the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group:

Avro_Lancaster_Mk_1_ExCC

They spoke to eyewitnesses both on the ground and in the air and gradually pieced together exactly what had happened. Unusually for Bomber Command, therefore, the circumstances of this catastrophe are very well documented.

Young John Fletcher was flying in an Avro Lancaster III, ME625, piloted by an Australian officer, Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Van Raalte when a catastrophic training accident resulted in the deaths of 13 brave young men. It is perhaps worth pointing out that of the 55,573 casualties in Bomber Command during World War Two, one sixth occurred during training. Here is Jimmy Van Raalte:

van rxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The Operational Records Book for 97 Squadron reported the incident as follows:

“More formation flying this afternoon with calamitous results.  Two of our aircraft piloted by F/Lt Perkins and F/Lt Van Raalte RAAF were flying in formation.  Whilst attempting a gentle turn F/Lt Van Raalte’s aircraft sideslipped over F/Lt Perkins’ aircraft and dropped suddenly, removing the entire tail from F/Lt Perkins’ aircraft and smashing the nose of his own. Both planes immediately spun to earth out of control. All of the occupants in both aircraft were killed with the exception of Sgt Coman, who managed to bale out when his aircraft broke in two at 1000 ft”

Here is Flight Lieutenant Perkins:

third time livcky

Here is Flight Lieutenant Van Raalte’s crew, showing five of the seven highly trained men:

van raalte crew

And here is Flight Lieutenant Perkins’ crew:

perkins%20crewxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

The two aircraft spun out of control and both of them crashed in flames at Cloot House Farm on Deeping Fen.

Here is Jimmy Van Raalte’s grave in Cambridge Cemetery:

van raalte grave

In typical wartime RAF style, bombing operations that night went ahead regardless:

“Operations tonight were against the railway yards at Limoges for which 10 of our aircraft were detailed.  The flares were dropped accurately over the target area and on time.  Mosquito marker aircraft dropped a Red Spot Fire which the Controller assessed as being exactly on the Aiming Point.  It was quickly backed up with red and green TIs and RSFs.  At 0159 the marking was completed and the Main Force were ordered to commence bombing.  Bombing was extremely concentrated and sticks were seen to fall in the “yards”.  At 0202 hours an ammunition train exploded with an enormous explosion. Intermittent explosions continued throughout the attack.  A very successful raid.  There was no fighter opposition, and no flak.  All of our planes returned safely.”

A slightly fuller description of the crash is given in the book, “Riding in the Shadow of Death

shad death

This wonderful book is the story of Lancaster Bomber pilot, Bill North, and although I have not read it yet, I certainly will be doing so soon, given that it has 15 reviews of five stars and no other lower ones:

“During the book launch, various eye-witness accounts were read out, and we were reminded of the horrific crash that Dad witnessed. This occurred on 23rd June 1944 during a daytime flying formation exercise, Dad being piloted by Bill Reid. Six Lancasters from 97 Squadron were flying in two V formations of three. Whilst attempting a gentle turn Van Raalte’s aircraft sideslipped over Perkins’ aircraft and dropped suddenly, removing the entire tail from Perkins’ aircraft and smashing the nose of its own, pieces of wreckage narrowly missed Dad’s plane. Both planes immediately spun out of control and all of the occupants in both aircraft were killed with the exception of one, Sgt Coman, who managed to bale out. Sadly, he was later posted off the station as LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre). Unsurprisingly he had lost his nerve and was unable to fly again.  What a horrific experience for all of these brave men who, just a few hours later the surviving crews were up again on a raid to Limoges.”

I may be alone in this, but I cannot really see why a competent Commanding Officer would have risked all these lives by ordering formation flying involving six aircraft and, more importantly, a total of more than forty men. All of them were seasoned veterans who had already carried out several raids on the Third Reich. And we know that:

“Formation flying was absolutely terrible because the Lancaster was not designed for it. It was a night time bomber.”

Lancasters, in combat, used to fly in a loose “bomber stream”:

250px-Avro_Lancasters_flying_in_loose_formation

They did not ever fly in formation.
One eyewitness, Patrick Turner, the flight engineer in the leading Lancaster, said the exact reason for the catastrophe was that:

“The Lancaster immediately behind the lead plane became trapped in its slipstream. This caused the Lancaster to collide with the plane flying beside it and both spun to the ground. It was just a ball of fire on the ground. Myself and my crew knew extremely well the men on the two flights which collided. We thought it was going to be a normal training flight and didn’t think there were going to be any adverse circumstances.”

Flight Sergeant Percy Cannings, holder of the Distinguished Flying Medal, and a mid-upper gunner, was in the third aircraft of the formation during the training sortie and witnessed the crash. He described the experience as devastating and said:

“We were very lucky that our aircraft didn’t get caught up in the slipstream and get taken out ourselves. We were told to execute a turn and something went wrong and the first plane got into the slipstream of the plane ahead of it, which sent it straight up in the air and back down again, narrowly missing us. We had to go out on operations the same night. It’s something you had to be prepared for.”

On the ground, the crash was witnessed by villagers attending a fete in the Lincolnshire village of Crowland:

250px-Avro_Lancasters_flying_in_loose_formation

They looked up to see six Lancasters practising flying in formation, but one aircraft accidentally caught the tail of another. Ron Burton said:

“It happened at about 4pm because I remember everyone was coming home. I saw only two planes. One knocked into the other and knocked a fin off. It was dreadful.”

William Smedley, of Postland Road, was called to the crash scene as a St John Ambulance volunteer.
He said:

“I was at a Red Cross fete at the time. We were ordered to sit behind a heap for a quarter of an hour while the bullets exploded.”

Here is some of the wreckage, seventy years later:

wreckage

Needless to say, as I was not a witness to all of these dreadful events, this article could not have been written without using the series of excellent books by W.R.Chorley, and a number of other websites.

Part Three to follow in the near future.

 

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John David Fletcher: Part One

John David Fletcher entered the High School on September 17th 1931. He was born on March 22nd 1920. He was eleven years old. His father was John Fletcher, a Captain in the Royal Artillery Reserve who lived at 16, Edingley Avenue in Sherwood, Nottingham.

Edingley Avenue is just a brisk ten minute walk from where I sit now, drinking coffee and eating biscuits. John Fletcher left the High School in December 1936:

nhsxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Young John Fletcher was yet another Old Nottinghamian to answer the “Call of the Skies” when the Second World War broke out. Initially, like so many others, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, but he soon progressed to an active squadron, namely 97 (Straits Settlements) Squadron. Here is their badge:

badge

97 Squadron operated Avro Lancaster B.Is and B.IIIs at Coningsby in Lincolnshire.  Here is one of their aircraft, bearing the squadron letter, “E-Elizabeth”:

elizabeth 97 sq

By April 1943, they had become a Pathfinder Force squadron, tasked with using flares to mark targets for the rest of the bombers. By now, John was Flight Lieutenant Fletcher, serving as a Rear Gunner on a number of raids over both France and Germany.

In actual fact, John made a very promising start to his career as a rear gunner, a “tail end charlie”, one of the most dangerous jobs in any armed force during World War Two. At one point, there was a life expectancy on active service of a mere four operations, or perhaps two weeks, for every Rear Gunner.

A search through the Operations Book for 97 Squadron shows what he did in terms of operations. He was involved mostly in bombing communications targets in France to prevent the Germans moving troops to oppose the D-Day landings.

I have transcribed the Operations Book more or less intact, so you might need a dictionary:

3 May 1944 — Mailly-Le-Camp

ND346O  Up 2204  Down 0343.
6 clusters 7” flares, 8 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” flares.  Very slight haze, nil cloud, vis good.  RSFs seen on target.  Original Oboe marker wide, then one RSF dropped on aiming point; this was backed up by more RSFs.  Early bombing was wide but later improved and sticks were seen to burst across the RSFs.  Bombing on whole very successful and two definite areas of fire resulted.

300px-Royal_Air_Force_Bomber_Command,_1942-1945__C5083

7-8 May 1944 – Tours Airfield

ND452S  Up 0040  Down 0517.
6 x 7” cluster flares, 8 x TI RSF, 3 x 4.5” reco flares.  Weather and identification as above.  Two first RSF were on aiming point but just off the hangars at 0250 hours.  Ordered to back this up and out own fires were seen to fall right on hangar buildings.  Other backers up well placed but one slightly undershot.  Most of bombing very accurate.  Some explosions seen, one appeared to be a fuel dump.

10-11 May 1944 – Lille

ND452S  Up 2204  Down 0104.
6 x 7” clusters, 1 x 4000lb HC, 8 x 500lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares.  Weather over Lille – cloud, vis moderate.  Target located by RSFs.  Flares down on time.  RSF obscured at time of bombing.  Only one message heard

A_Lancaster_Mk_III_of_N

19/20 May 1944 – Amiens

ND346T  Up 2316  Down 0255.
11 x 7” clusters, 3 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares.  Located target by flares and RSF through 8-9/10ths cloud.  First run, one or two RSF near target.  Flares scattered.  Yellow markers not seen.  Glow seen through cloud only.  Identified target on second run.  No spot fires at all.  Raid called off 0125 hours.  Gee faded out at enemy coast until re-crossing on return journey.

22/23 May 1944 – Brunswick

ND346T  Up 2251  Down 0257.
12 x 7” flares, 1 x 2000lb HC.  Gee u/s after 3 degrees east at 2347 hours.  Icing experienced in very thivk cumulus 5217N 0121E, 2316 hours, 6,000’.  Endeavoured unsuccessfully to avoid; late at enemy coast, crossed at 12,000’, got off track, ran in to large belt of searchlights, lost 30-40 minutes trying to break through and decided too late to reach target in time to bomb anywhere near H-hour, so decided to return to base.  Soon afterwards, Bomb Aimer found unconscious.  Navigator took over H2S and soon discovered correct position.  Gee came in again at 0209, thence plotted on Gee.  Bomb Aimer still in complete daze when aircraft landed at base.

Avro_Lancaster_B_Mk_II_ExCC

24/25 May 1944 – Eindhoven (Phillips Works)

NE625O  Up 2256  Down 0218.
12 x 7” clusters, 2 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares.  Received orders to abandon exercise 0038 hours on VHF.  Confirmed by W/T at 0039 hours.

27/28 May 1944 – St Valery-en-Caux

ME625O Up 2357  Down 0301.
12 x 7 x 4.5” clusters, 2 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5 reco flares.  Slight ground haze.  Target identified by Gee.  First flares dropped about ¾ mile west of town. Two minutes later more flares called for, which fell over town;  RSF then put down.  At 0145 hours, VHF order and two red verey cancelled.  At 0153 ordered to bomb on or near RSF.  Appeared very good attack.

3/4 June 1944 – Ferme D’Urville

A small but important wireless station just south east of the Cherbourg Peninsula.

ME625O  Up 2307  Down 0241.
9 x TI Green No 23, 1 x TI Green No 16, 2 x TI Yellow No 16, 1 x 4000lb HC, 2 x 500lb MC.  Weather clear, visibility good.  Target identified by red and green TI.  On arrival aircraft was too close to make accurate run on first red TI (down at 0058.18 hours).  So made second run and backed up green TI with bombs because Controller said marking was okay, so third run was unnecessary.  Only one backing up wave was requested or needed.  Second Oboe TI red fell at 0059 hours.  First red was on target and second to north of it.  Green TIs covered whole target area between red TIs and Main Force bombing almost obliterated first marker, so aircraft actually bombed second red TI.  Target disappeared under smoke and bomb flashes.  One or two bombs fell in sea but concentration appeared good and accurate.  No wind correction was necessary;   Controller appeared satisfied from the start though no assessment was heard.  No second backing up wave requested.

Avro_Lancaster_Mk_1_ExCC

5/6 June 1944 – La Peanelle (in conjunction with 83 Sq

ME625O  Up 2228  Down 0356
10 x TI green No 16, 4 x 1000lb MC.  7/10ths cloud at two layers at 10,000’ and 5,000’.  Visibility fair.  Located target by red TI.  Oboe marker could not be seen, aircraft orbited and as it was 13 minutes late on run, dropped bombs on green TI, backing up green TI adjacent to two red TIs which had previously given out.  Stood off awaiting instructions from Controller who had stopped bombing just after aircraft had released.  Bombing appeared inaccurate, some sticks a few miles south, some out to sea, possibly due to cloud layer.  Illuminating flares poor.

6/7 June 1944 – Argentan

ME625O  Up 2332  Down 0326.
9 x 7 x 4.5” clusters, 6 x 500lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares.  Target Argentan, northern aiming point, tops 8,500’, 6,000’ base.  Haze below.  Located by markers.  Flares (which we were only to drop on order) not needed.  Target marked with RSF assessed as 40 yards/360 from aiming point.  Ordered to bomb 0132.5 hours.  Bombing seemed excellent although target very smoky.

9/10 June 1944 – Etampes

Up 2157  Down 0209.
9 x 7” flares, 7 x 500lb MC, 2 x 500lb MC (LD), 3 x reco flares.  10/10ths cloud, base 7,500’.  Slight haze below.  Location by markers.  First flares released on Oboe.  heard over VHF at 0001 hours, also on W/T (same time).  Ordered to bomb most easterly green with 200 yards under shoot at 0011 hours, after target had been re-marked.  Green in bomb sight and a RSF beyond it further east with another green west of green bombed.  Unable to assess attack owing to smoke.

12/13 June 1944 – Poitiers

ND625O  Up 2232  Down 0431.
9 x 7” clusters, 1 x 1000lb TI red, 1 x 1000lb MC, 4 reco flares.  Sky patchy, thin stratus, some haze.  Identified target by markers.  Over target marking flare run, Controller asked Backer 1 (0142.5 hours) to drop red TI on aiming point west of RSF already down.  Position as described by Controller was two RSF in line with green TI between slightly nearer most north-easterly RSF, all three being in line along direction of railway but on easterly side of it.  Our marker assessed as 40 yards west of aiming point (0148 hours).  Instructions for bombing followed immediately.  Further flares cancelled.  Own run for MC bombs okay.  Bombing appeared very successful.  A few sticks fell exceptionally wide in centre of town.  Controller assessed quickly and accurately.

By Friday, June 23rd 1944, young Flight Lieutenant Fletcher was becoming quite a veteran with twelve “ops” behind him, a commendable total for a rear gunner. That afternoon though, between half past three and four, he was killed, not in action over Germany, but practicing close formation flying with five other Lancasters over Deeping Fen in quiet, rural Cambridgeshire. John was just twenty-four years of age:

cambrigde vity cem

Needless to say, as I was not a witness to all of these dreadful events, this article could not have been written without using the series of excellent books by W.R.Chorley, and a number of other websites.

Part Two to follow in the near future.

 

 

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Where did those three “merles” come from? Part Four

Last time, we had left Sir John More, the pious and God fearing father of England’s second Catholic martyr, making his choice about what coat of arms to have, now that he had come up in the world, and become first a lawyer and then a judge.  He was offered a completely free choice of design. He had no doubt been told of the possibility of having a visual pun on his shield. There is an heraldic bird called a moorcock, which is based on the male black grouse, a bird of the moors, and is characterized in heraldry by its two projecting tail feathers. Eventually, Sir John made his decision:

arm oooooooooooooooooooooo0000000oooo

A quite amazing result. Clearly, a direct hommage to Thomas à Becket, better known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury. There is no way that pious Sir John would have been ignorant of the Becket arms. He may even have been on a pilgrimage there himself.  Here is the coat of arms of the first Saint Thomas:

Becket-arms

Clearly, Dame Agnes too had felt the same attraction to those three black birds. For some still unknown reason, three black birds were beginning to have very strong connections with Catholic piety and Catholic saints.

Hanging Thomas à Becket’s choughs over the mantelpiece would not have been a problem in the early days of the sixteenth century when England was Roman Catholic, and owed its ultimate allegiance to the Pope in Rome. With the coming of the Reformation, however, things suddenly became very different. The Head of the now Protestant Church was now the King himself.

Henry VIII would not have wanted any reminders whatsoever about a prominent member of the now hated Catholic Church, who was murdered at the behest of a king called Henry, but who, eventually, was destined to triumph over him. Only three and a half years after the dirty deed, on July 12th 1174, the other Henry, Henry II, had had to carry out a public penance at Becket’s tomb and at the nearby church of St. Dunstan’s. The two churches became the most popular sites for pilgrims in the whole of England. King Henry VIII would have wanted absolutely nothing like this in his own reign.

And, clearly, he must have been scared stiff of exactly the same thing happening. And with good reason after the amazing coincidence of Sir Thomas More, a second prominent and pious Catholic done to death by a wilful monster of a king called Henry. The last thing Henry VIII would have wanted would have been the beginning of a new martyr cult among the overwhelmingly Catholic  population of England:

thomas more

Dame Agnes’ favourite coat of arms would now have become much more of a problem, not for Dame Agnes herself, because she had died well before 1527, the year when Henry first asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Instead, it would have been the fledgling school which might have faced problems. After all, those three black birds are a bit of a giveaway. Nobody was ever going to be mistaken about whose coat of arms they really were.

hery

Over the years, I think that the red legs and red beaks of Becket’s three choughs would probably have been allowed slowly and gradually to be forgotten, most likely once Dame Agnes herself had passed away, in probably April or possibly May, of 1514. In an area where choughs have probably never nested, namely the East Midlands, local people may not have considered their bright red legs and beak to be particularly important. Furthermore, in many cases, the birds would have been seen in a grayscale context where bright colours were totally absent, such as a carving in stone on a wall, or a drawing in pen and ink on a manuscript.

Certainly, in Heraldry, it has never been particularly difficult for birds’ legs to disappear. In actual fact, there has always been a black bird which has no feet or lower legs. It is called a “martlet” and is, more or less, the heraldic version of the barn swallow. And here is a barn swallow:

550px-Barn_Swallow

It is never represented with feet, the legs terminating in the feathers which cover the upper parts of the leg. Furthermore, many heraldry books also state that the “martlet” has no obvious beak, a useful detail if you are trying to tone down a large long bright red one.
Interestingly, some experts in Heraldry see a family tree which fits in quite neatly with my argument. In French heraldry, therefore, a blackbird may be a “merle” because that is the ordinary French word, even nowadays, for a blackbird. When the bird on the shield loses various bits of its body, it is called by a diminutive form, namely “merlette” and this then  becomes the “martlet” of English heraldry. The martlet in fact became commoner and commoner as it was used to indicate the arms of  the fourth son of any particular nobleman.
Here is just one “martlet”:

MartletSable

And here is a small flock of them:

522px-Argent_chevron_azure_three_martlets_sable_crescents_Or_svg

In French Heraldry the “merlette” has become an even stranger bird.  Although closely connected to the English martlet, it is always depicted with a swan-neck but without a beak, wings, feet or forked tail. It looks, in fact, worryingly like a duck in a car crash:

merlette3
For me, this may be where the confusion between “Mellers” and “merles” has
arisen. The choughs of Thomas à Becket have, over hundreds of years  on a wall a long way from Canterbury, gradually lost their bright beaks and legs and people have thought that they must be “martlets”.
As a word, of course, “martlet” is not a million miles from “merlette”, and “merlette” is not a million miles from “merle”. “Merle” is not a million miles from Mellers. It is this pure and total coincidence which has led people, always looking for logical explanations, to invent the story about the “merles” representing Mrs Mellers, creating an explanation that is historically and heraldically impossible. There have never been any “merles” in English Heraldry, either in this century or in the sixteenth.

badge

Months and months after I wrote these words, I found an online auction where a High School “Silver and Enamel Badge”, dating from 1935 was for sale. Interestingly enough, the three so-called “merles” on the badge have all been depicted with forked tails. In other words, they are not blackbirds, but black birds. And these black birds are clearly, because of their tails, martlets. This motorists’ badge must hark back to a mid-way period in the heraldic evolution from Becket’s chough to the erroneous, “merle”:

martlet badge

A very similar badge is in evidence in the Wills Cigarette card series of 1906, which depicts the coats of arms of England’s top public schools. I have always had visions of eleven and twelve year olds all smoking forty cigarettes a day just to get the complete set of cards. Anyway, here is the High School card, with the requisite “three Blackbirds rising proper”. Again, they have a forked tail:

three merles.jpg aaaaaa

Finally, here is a photograph of the old Stoney Street school, possibly the only one still extant:

stoney st

Look at the coat of arms (four o’clock from the word “stationer”). It doesn’t look very much like the present day badge. It is perhaps closer to being the missing link between Thomas à Becket’s choughs, martlets, merlettes and merles:

stoney st enlarged

The beauty about my ramblings is that they do explain away, quite effectively, a completely unrelated incident which has puzzled an admittedly tiny and fairly sad group of people over the last few decades.

In the school archives, there remains an account of how a long forgotten Old Nottinghamian discovered what appeared to him to be Dame Agnes Mellers’ coat of arms, carved on the roof of the cloisters at Durham Cathedral.

Durham_Cathedral_

This was the only coat of arms in the whole cathedral which the local experts in the north east had failed to identify. The only link of any kind which could be established between Durham Cathedral and Nottingham was the fact that Richard Barnes, Bishop-Suffragen of Nottingham in 1537, eventually became the Bishop of Durham. No connection whatsoever was discovered though, between Richard Barnes and Dame Agnes Mellers.
My supposition is that whoever carved the mystery coat of arms in the late twelfth century when the cloisters at Durham Cathedral were being constructed, was displaying his own allegiance to St Thomas à Becket. Certainly, from a historical viewpoint, the timing is just about right. Thomas à Becket was martyred in Canterbury Cathedral on December 20th 1170. Precisely the time when the cloisters  were being built, namely the latter part of the twelfth century. Perhaps the coat of arms was carved as an act of ecclesiastical defiance against King Henry II, rather like the people who chalked letter “V”s on walls in Nazi-occupied Europe. I couldn’t find a picture of that, so here is the next best thing:

Churchill_V_sign_HU_55521

And as a conclusion, let me add that, during their investigations on behalf of Durham Cathedral, the Heralds’ College could not find any indication whatsoever that either Richard or Agnes Mellers had ever used those particular arms with the three birds, the ones which the Old Boy had immediately recognised as those on his blazer pocket all those years ago.. The ones he had himself seen, carved on that stone fireplace, by someone, another lifetime before that:

badge cccccccc c

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