The Luckiest Man in the World (3)

In a previous post, I told in the barest of details how Jack Sweeney was killed in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V when he took off from RAF Tilstock on January 31st 1944:

During my researches I found a video on the Internet, uploaded by someone called “1tothirtysix”, which is an interesting walk around the crash site and puts together all the various details to produce a coherent account of what occurred.

In March 1989, the land was still owned by the farmer at the time of the accident, Mr Challenor. He could remember coming to the crash site immediately after the impact, which took place around 8.30 in the morning. He found a sheet which obviously covered a body, and lifted it to see the blackened and burnt features of one of the aircrew. There was one survivor, Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman who made his way along the hedge and then downwards to the mine which was operating then, although is now closed down. This is Foxfield Colliery which may be the mine referred to in the account. The tower like structure is modern:

Once Flight Sergeant Weightman told the miners the news, they raised the alarm, although it was far too late by now. Indeed, the three other crew members were already dead even as Weightman climbed out of the crashed aeroplane. The bomber had first hit high up on the hill, half way between the two woods near the mine. Having hit this field near a pond, the aircraft careered across it, then smashed through a hedge and skidded, nose first, down the very, very steep slope to the good sized stream at the bottom. The Whitley finally came to a stop, smashed to smithereens with its nose almost in the water. The three dead crew members were still on board and when fire broke out, the bodies were all burned to a greater or lesser extent. This is a crashed Whitley:

There were, of course, many, many crashes in this North Midlands area. The aircraft were extremely varied with 7 Wellingtons, 3 Whitleys, 2 Blenheims and 2 Halifaxes, but also 4 Thunderbolt P-47s, and single B-17s, Martin Baltimores, Fairey Battles and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles. A majority of the aircraft were operated by either 27 OTU or 42 OTU. Here is an Albemarle:

And here is a Martin Baltimore, used widely in North Africa and very popular with its crews:

Jack Sweeney was killed in January 1944. A brief look at all the OTUs in Britain during this month  reveals that every single fatality listed came in Wellingtons, a sorry state of affairs…January 1st (1 dead), January 2nd (6 dead), 3rd (7), 4th (5), 9th (2), 11th (5), 17th (2), 20th (5), 21st (10), 23rd (6), 24th (3), 25th(6), 27th (16), 29th (4), 30th (7).

After leaving an OTU, the next step for everybody was an HCU, a Heavy Conversion Unit. Here, trainees tried their hand at four engined bombers, usually Stirlings and Halifaxes. The deaths in January 1944 were, in Halifaxes… January 3rd (7 dead), January 10th (7 dead), 13th (6), 18th (6), 21st (7), 22nd (3), 23rd (9) and the 31st (6). In Stirlings, it was January 4th (5 dead), 14th (8), 20th (14), 21st (2), 26th (8), 29th (8) and 31st (5).

Quite a toll. In the OTUs, in just one month in 1944, a total of 85 men died.

In the HCUs, a total of 51 died in Halifaxes and 50 in Stirlings.

Not that far short of 200 dead without ever seeing a German.

A couple of pictures will show you why so many were killed. Here is a crashed Halifax:

And here is a crashed Stirling:

After further research, I was also surprised to see that Dilhorne where Jack Sweeney crashed was pretty much the local “Magnet of Death”, surrounded by higher ground and relatively close to a number of OTU airfields.

On January 30th 1943, a Wellington, R1538 of 28 OTU, crashed there after leaving RAF Wymeswold near Loughborough. Sergeant Thomas Butterly from Portsmouth and Sergeant Allan Priest from Reading were killed. On March 27th 1953, a jet bomber crashed at Dilhorne. It was a Canberra WH669 of No 10 Squadron. This resulted in the death of the Pilot, Flying Officer Patrick Esmond Reeve, the Navigator / Plotter, Pilot Officer John Golden Woods and the Navigator / (Set Operator), Vivian Owen.

Here’s a Canberra:

Who died with Jack Sweeney?
Well, Flying Officer John Frederick Cusworth was the Navigator. He was the son of Harry Cusworth and Clara Cusworth, born in 1912 at North Bierley in the West Riding, 2 miles south east of Bradford. After a few years, the family moved to Pudsey, a market town now incorporated into the City of Leeds. John was 31 years of age and he was married to Grace Edna Bowen at Strood in Kent in 1940. The couple lived in Pudsey. John was cremated and his sacrifice is commemorated at Leeds (Lawnswood) Crematorium along with 73 others. His name is just visible on this side of the special column:

Sergeant George Victor Bourne was the Bomb Aimer. He was the son of Albert Ernest Bourne and Maude Penelope Bourne from East Ham in the London Borough of Newham. East Ham is right next to West Ham. George was only 21. Did he go to the football? Did he shout “Up the ‘ammers!!” every fortnight? Like John Cusworth, he would have had a strong accent. Did they joke to each other about the way they talked? George was buried close to the airfield, at Whitchurch, a small town in Shropshire near the Welsh border. There are 14 other Commonwealth casualties buried there, but also 52 Poles and Czechs because the No 4 Polish General Hospital was at Iscoyal Park, four miles to the west. This is the West Ham United badge:

Andrew Harkes Robertson was the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner. He was 30 years old. He was the son of George Robertson and Lizzie Robertson from Edinburgh. Andrew was buried in Inveresk Parish Churchyard. Inveresk is a small village in East Lothian to the south of Musselburgh. It is so pretty that it has been a conservation area for the last 50 years or so. There are 72 casualties buried in the churchyard at St.Michael’s Church. Here it is:


Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman, as we have seen, survived his crash. I will tell you about him next time. He is the man who has given me the title of this series of blog posts. You will find out exactly why next time.

I could not have written these posts without help from here and here and here.

 

 

 

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15 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

15 responses to “The Luckiest Man in the World (3)

  1. A frightening stack of names and figures. To die before combat, I feel, was so much worse.

    • Yes, it was. I deliberately included the names and figures so that the reader might recognise that so many people were dying all the time, and that every single one of them was important to somebody. In many cases the somebody grieved until they themselves passed away.

      • Sadly that’s what we forget. Numbers become just that, numbers, and we forget that someone has lost a son, father, brother etc. Each and everyone of them were no doubt greatly missed.

  2. A roll call of honour! Interesting posts John, my dad would have enjoyed them!

  3. Quite detailed, John, it’s like being there to have these stories of history to learn. Thanks.

    • Thank you. I had a reply to one of my posts where I was told that when her brother was killed, his mother and father lost their whole world. They would never speak of him again and they both changed as people. The rest of their lives were completely empty. It made me realise just how much is lost when one single person dies like that. We’ve recently read of the tragic deaths of US Marines in two separate incidents, and I’m sure that their parents will be as deeply affected.

  4. More impressive research, John. I haven’t heard ‘smashed to smithereens’ for years

    • And reading a World War One book, I recently came across a very similar expression which applied to the men who were killed when a shell landed and blew them to pieces. It was “knocked to spots” which I presume may have given us our modern expression of “knock spots off” something.

  5. That is quite a toll John. Certainly by today’s standards, but I suspect even 70 or more years ago, this number of deaths was considered exceptional. It is important to highlight the bravery of these crews who gave their lives in times of war.

    • Yes, it is a toll. During WW2, communication between different bases was virtually non-existent and I get the impression that men thought that their own base was having an exceptionally bad time of it but did not ever realise that such a high rate of casualties was in fact the norm. What I don’t know is whether they looked back at the First World War and thought that they were getting off l lightly. Thank goodness that wars nowadays seem to generate much lower casualty rates. Even one death, though, is one too many.

  6. I admire your research. Interesting topic, John. Well done.

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