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:
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:
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:
Here is Flight Lieutenant Van Raalte’s crew, showing five of the seven highly trained men:
And here is Flight Lieutenant Perkins’ crew:
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:
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”
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”:
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:
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.
“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:
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.