Monthly Archives: May 2018

To bale out or not to bale out? (6)

Last time, I talked about a Lancaster from 61 Squadron, Serial Number EE176, Squadron Letters QR-M. They took off from RAF Coningsby to attack Nuremburg.

Absolutely the place to attack, the black, beating heart of Nazism:

On the way back, the Lancaster was struck by lightning and the pilot was blinded. He ordered the crew to bale out but only Len Darben and Harold Pronger, as we have seen, obeyed his order. They both perished and their sacrifice is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial:

The Grim Reaper was not happy with that kind of situation though. He is always very, very, greedy during times of war, so on June 25th 1944, he organised his best friend, Disaster, to help him seize the men who had not been killed by the lightning strike of March 29th 1944. Here they are:

Forrest. Kemish. Macfie. Newman. Wood.

Their days were numbered:

And so he put his plan into operation…….

On June 24th 1944, at 22:37, an Avro Lancaster III, serial number LM518 and squadron letters QR-C, took off from RAF Skellingthorpe to bomb V-1 flying bomb launching sites at Prouville, some 15 miles north of Abbeville in Normandy. They were attacked and shot down by a night fighter, and they crashed at Bienfay in the Somme Department. It would be nice to know who fired the bullet but there are just too many Lancasters and “4-mot. Flzg” on the list of Luftwaffe fighter victims to differentiate one from another, especially as most of them were shot down in Normandy:

The pilot, John Augustus Forrest, only 21 years old, was killed. He was the son of Matthew Augustus Campbell Forrest and Clarice Irene Preston Forrest. The family lived at Busselton in Western Australia. It has a beautiful beach and a wonderful pier to walk along:

Busselton is a city in the south west region of the state, some 140 miles south of Perth, with an estimated population of 36,285 in 2015. (Wow! Some wild guess!)

The navigator, James Rankin Stratton Wood, aged 34, was killed. He was the son of James and Jessie Wood and the nephew of Barbara G. Wood. They all came from Stonehaven in Kincardineshire in Scotland.

Edward James Kemish DFM was the wireless operator/air gunner. He was the son of Benjamin and Ellen Rose Kemish, of Enfield in Middlesex and was only 23 years of age when he was killed. On his grave his parents had inscribed:

“To the world he was just an airman, to us he was all the world. Dad and family”

Now working as a flight engineer rather than a bomb aimer, Donald Cecil Newman, aged only 22, was killed. He was the son of Cecil Newman and Kitty Newman from Bristol.

The man most probably working as a rear gunner was John Macfie. He was only 21 and he was killed. He was the son of Andrew B. Macfie and Frances Macfie, of Glasgow.

All four were buried in the Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension along with 2098 other casualties from the two World Wars. Here is quite a famous picture from its early years back in 1919:

That very same night, a second Lancaster from 61 Squadron was lost. It was also a Mark III, serial number ND987 and squadron letters QR-B. Six of the crew were killed and we have already met one of them before in this blood soaked story. He was Sergeant Norman Harold Shergold, the Flight Engineer, who was buried in the London Cemetery and Extension at Longueval, eight miles east-north-east of Albert, a town made famous in another blood soaked story:

Let us not forget, though, in the same aircraft, the sacrifice of Pilot Officer J Kramer of the RCAF, Flight Sergeant RW Burkwood, Flight Sergeant CW Greenaway, Sergeant P Donohue and Sergeant RF Coleman. Sergeant AN Avery survived and he became an evader.




Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

The End of the War in Europe and Church Gresley (2)

Last time I talked about an old single sheet football programme. It was for a match played literally one day after the war ended in Europe, on May 9th 1945. The programme was for “Gresley Rovers (Selected) v RAF”.  The top two stars in the RAF team were Raich Carter and Peter Doherty, both highly rated international players of the era, the equivalents, perhaps, of a younger Steven Gerrard and an older Kevin de Bruyne:

Here are Sergeant Carter and Flight Sergeant Doherty on the programme which is quite tatty, but does contain a large number of autographs in pencil. This is what pushed the price up at auction. Here is the RAF attack, if I can use that phrase:

I have been unable to trace either Sergeant Wilder of Tranmere Rovers or Sergeant Thompson of Bolton Wanderers.

Sergeant Durnie of the RAF cannot be the same Jim Durnie who was loaned to Annbank United Junior Football Club by Glasgow Rangers, because his son, Jim Durnie jnr, has kindly informed me that his father’s year of birth was 1935. I won’t be taking down this magnificent old picture of Ibrox Park, though. Record attendance there was 118,567 for a League game against Celtic on January 2nd 1939:

On this second picture, of the RAF defence, there are autographs for Messrs Griffiths, Horner and McDowell, but not for the rest:

Flight Sergeant Griffiths’ club has been altered to Manchester United and there is another autograph in a blueish colour reading diagonally towards the top right corner. I think it begins with George and the surname may be Hardemer or Vardemer or something very vaguely like it. It may even be George Hardwick. Of him, more later.

All in all, I have had very little luck with my detective work for this section. I have been unable to find anything for either Downing, Horner or McDowell.

Flight Sergeant Griffiths is the Jack Griffiths who played for Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton Wanderers, and Manchester United during the 1930s. His football career came to an end because of the Second World War, but he played 58 times for United during the war and also guested for Derby County, Notts County, Port Vale, Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. After the RAF he became player-coach of Hyde United. Here he is, frozen in time on an old cigarette card:

Sergeant Wright is unlikely to be Billy Wright, the England captain, because he was in the Army at the time, but it cannot be completely excluded if the team were short of RAF players. Here he is, practicing for his meeting with Puskás in seven years’ time:

Timms, the goalkeeper, I could not trace beyond the guess that he may be the W Timms who played only five times for Gresley Rovers, making his début against Bolsover Colliery in the Derbyshire Divisional Cup Final on April 8th 1939 (lost 0-5). His fifth and final game came, amazingly, just 14 days later against Quorn Methodists on the 22nd (won 5-0). “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”, as you might say!


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Derby County, Football, History, Personal

Victor Comic and me (1)

When I was just a lad in the early 1960s, I read comics at every opportunity.
To be honest, I eventually decided that a comic with only pictures in it was too quickly consumed and for that reason it didn’t give a great deal of value for money. Eventually therefore, I settled on “Wizard” as my comic of choice, because it had only text stories inside and it therefore took a lot longer to read. My favourite characters included “The Wolf of Kabul” a ripping yarn about English intervention in Afghanistan involving a man armed with a cricket bat:

Political correctness was not first and foremost in anybody’s mind in these stories, but at least they did always win:

I also recollect “The Scarlet Skull”, a series about a First World War pilot in a Bristol Fighter who was armed with a Mauser revolver and who brought German aircraft down with just one bullet through the pilot’s head:

There wasn’t anything that he couldn’t do. He inspired me. If there’d still been an RFC in 1962, I would have joined it.

This cover mentions “Wilson the Wonder Athlete” but given my attraction to ice buns and chocolate bars, I wasn’t particularly interested in stories about running around very quickly or about living in a cave on the Yorkshire moors eating nuts and berries:

Another favourite story of mine was about a tree in Kenya that was so high that it had whole tribes of people living in it. No, really, I do remember it, but nobody else seems to!
I did buy other comics with my pocket money though. I can still remember waiting impatiently for a new comic called Victor to come out on February 5th 1961. I went up to the newsagent’s in High Street, Taylors, and asked Albert Taylor to make sure he saved me one. I even returned to his  shop on several occasions to make sure that he had not forgotten what I’d asked him to do:

There was a “Super Squirt Ring” as a free gift, but I just don’t remember that:

What I do remember was the edge of the comic where a machine had cut it. It was heavily and stiffly serrated and very, very tactile as you rubbed your finger across it. Ten years later, I would have a university lecturer telling me about French novelist, Marcel Proust and his madeleine cake but this famous literary event didn’t even come close to Victor Comic around 9.30 am on February 5th 1961.
The free gift from Victor Comic, which I  do definitely remember, was the plastic wallet which would eventually contain more than 20 postcard sized pictures of the ‘Star Teams of 1961’. This is a wallet like the one I had, but I can’t find an exact match:

The Star Teams included England, Tottenham Hotspur and Ipswich and Scottish teams such as Glasgow Celtic, “The Rangers” and Kilmarnock:

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There were also Northern Irish teams such as Glenavon and Portadown whose results, in those days, were featured on BBC TV on Saturday afternoons. Rugby League was not forgotten with Wigan and St Helens. The England and Scotland Rugby Union XVs were there as well. This is Wigan:

Nowadays, the Star Teams of 1961 are almost permanently on sale on ebay, but that’s not the same thrill as going up to the newsagent to buy the comics with them in, straight after breakfast.


Filed under Aviation, Criminology, History, Humour, Literature, Personal, Writing

To bale out or not to bale out? (5)

The last post finished on a bit of a cliffhanger.
A 61 Squadron Lancaster, serial number EE176, squadron letters QR-M, had taken off from RAF Coningsby to attack Nuremburg.

During the raid, more or less everything had gone wrong for the bomber force during the costliest raid of the war. Almost 100 bombers were destroyed and around 550 RAF aircrew were killed.

When EE176 was just short of the coast of Suffolk, England on the way back, the aircraft was struck by lightning:

The pilot was blinded and the whole crew were stunned. As the aircraft plunged earthwards, thinking that they were over land, the pilot ordered his crew to bale out. Just a thousand feet from catastrophe, though, just a thousand feet from what would prove for two crew members to be a cold and watery grave, he suddenly regained some of his eyesight.  It was enough for him to stabilise the aircraft and to fly it straight and level. He turned to ask the crew if they were all OK……

Unfortunately, Harold Pronger and Leonard George Darben, the wireless operator / air gunner, thinking that it was the right thing to do, had both baled out, taking their Mae West flotation gear with them:

The rest of the crew, luckily for them, had all been too affected by the lightning strike to follow the pilot’s order. They were all, literally, stunned.

The bomber was now really quite close to the English coast, and Air Sea Rescue were immediately notified by radio about what had happened, and that there were two men in the sea who needed rescuing as soon as possible:

Despite extensive searching at first light the following day, the rescue boats failed to find the two missing men.

The water in the North Sea is too cold in late March to survive for very long and it was presumed that both men had perished. Research in 2008 showed that a body floating in the sea off Western Europe becomes a partial skeleton after a month and a complete skeleton after three months. Once the latter stage is reached, presumably the bones all disappear.

We already know the bare details of Harold Pronger’s life back in Australia, but not Len Darben. Poor Len was only 20 years old. He was the son of Joseph William Darben and Emily Darben of Walthamstow in Essex.

No cold and watery grave for the rest of the crew, though, the five men still in the aircraft. The pilot, Flying Officer John Augustus Forrest, also of the RAAF, managed to reach the English coast without difficulty and they all landed safely at RAF Little Snoring in north Norfolk at 0600 hours.

The crew of this Lancaster, EE176, was Flying Officer JA Forrest (pilot), Sergeant AH Davies, (flight engineer), Flight Sergeant JRS Wood, (navigator), Sergeant DC Newman, (bomb aimer), Sergeant LG Darben, (wireless operator/air gunner), Flight Sergeant HW Pronger, (air gunner) and Sergeant J Macfie, (air gunner).

I did not realise until long afterwards, though, that Lancaster, EE176, was a star among Lancasters, a Bette Davis or an Errol Flynn among bombers.

EE176 of 61 Squadron was in actual fact, “Mickey the Moocher”, a so-called “Ton-up Lanc” which carried out 119 missions. This section of the fuselage has been preserved:

These larger bits were probably not preserved:

In actual fact, 61 Squadron had another, second, “Ton-up Lanc”, JB138, the famous “Just Jane”, which carried out somewhere in the region of 120 missions. Here’s the original:

The Lancaster in the wonderful museum at East Kirkby is currently painted as this particular aircraft:

And subsequent research revealed others.

ED860 carried out 130 operations until it all came to an end on October 28th 1944 after a bombing raid on Bergen in Norway. Apparently, on its return, the Lancaster swung out of control on the runway and crashed. Nobody was injured. Shared with 156 Squadron, N-Nuts or N-Nan had flown almost 1032 hours before it was struck off charge on November 4th 1944 and subsequently scrapped:

LL843 or ‘Pod’ (=P=OD) was a 61 Squadron Lancaster which was also shared with 467 Squadron. It was scrapped by Messrs Cooley & Co on May 7th 1947 after carrying out 118 raids:

LM274 carried out 138 missions as QR-F for Freddie. This aircraft survived everything the Luftwaffe and the Third Reich could throw at it, but not the end of the war. It was scrapped and turned into ploughshares on April 18th 1946:

Around 35 Lancasters achieved 100 ‘ops’ or more. You can read about all of them in “Ton-up Lancs” a splendid book:


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

The End of the War in Europe and Church Gresley (1)

Near to the clay mining village of Woodville where I spent my childhood there is a very similar coal mining village called Church Gresley. From 1882-2009, Church Gresley was the home of a football team called Gresley Rovers.

Here is a small scale map of where I am talking about. The orange arrow points to Church Gresley:

Rovers managed more than 125 years of inoffensive existence until, in our new and wonderful world of money, money, money, they found they hadn’t got any money, money, money, and immediately went bankrupt.  Rovers went into receivership and disappeared for ever. Shortly afterwards they re-emerged as Gresley FC. I’m afraid I stopped bothering with them at that point. I used to go to see “Rovers” as a lad, not “Gresley FC”.

Rovers had a ground called the Moat Ground which dates back over a century:

Here is a larger scale map of the village with the orange arrow pointing to the stadium, if that is the right word:

The club played quite a big part in the life of my family. Before the First World War, my Grandad, Will, played a few games for the reserves and before the Second World War, my Dad, Fred, managed a few games for the same team. When I was still a toddler in a pushchair, my Dad used to take me up to the Moat Ground to watch Rovers play. This would have been in the 1950s. My Dad used to teach in the school in Hastings Road, only half a mile from the ground. You can find Hastings Road on the map in the top right corner. He taught many of the players and supporters over the years. The team manager and coach was the school caretaker (or janitor).

Unfortunately, or fortunately, the school isn’t there any more. Because of mining subsidence, it has had to be pulled down.

The last football match I ever attended with my Dad was the Final of the F.A.Vase. It was between Gresley Rovers and Guiseley, a team from near Leeds in Yorkshire:

The game took place at Wembley Stadium, and I left it to Fred to buy the tickets and arrange the transport down to London.  We left in one of the many, many coaches full of happy Rovers supporters which streamed out of the village on that hot, sunny Saturday 26 years ago.
Another big day in the club’s history came on May 9th 1945, when Rovers played a match to celebrate the end of the Second World War. I don’t know if they realised it at the time, but the supporters had the privilege of seeing some of the greatest players of the era. It was billed as “Gresley Rovers (Selected) v RAF”.  Last year I bought the single sheet programme for the game on ebay.

I paid far too much by the standards of people who don’t need their heads examining. In the auction I was extremely cunning. I bid “a very large sum of money I have never told my wife about” plus a penny. I won the auction by a penny.
Rovers’ opposition that joyful day were the RAF. Captain of the RAF team I believe was Raich Carter, the only man to win the FA Cup both before and after the Second World War:

He played top class football for 21 years, appearing in midfield for Sunderland (245 appearances, 118 goals), Derby County (63 appearances, 34 goals), Hull City (136 appearances, 57 goals) and Cork Athletic (9 appearances, 3 goals). He played for England in 13 matches and scored 7 times. He then became a manager with Hull City, Cork Athletic, Leeds United, Mansfield Town and Middlesbrough. He also played first class cricket for Derbyshire and Minor Counties cricket for Durham.

Carter mentions the Gresley game in his autobiography:

“One vivid memory from this period was of a team put together by Carter and Doherty which played charity matches against local sides. One such match was played at a packed Church Gresley on a May evening in 1945. The result was not important.”

What was important was the fact that the war was over, Hitler was defeated, and within weeks, all of Britain would move forward into a Golden Age.
The other great star in the RAF team was Peter Doherty who partnered Raich Carter in midfield at Derby County.

On April 27th 1946, the two of them would help Derby to beat Charlton Athletic in the FA Cup Final at Wembley.
Peter Doherty, from Northern Ireland, played for several clubs, including two Irish teams, Coleraine and Glentoran, and then Blackpool (82 appearances, 28 goals), Manchester City (119 appearances, 74 goals), Derby County (15 appearances, 7 goals),  Huddersfield Town (83 appearances, 33 goals) and Doncaster Rovers (103 appearances, 55 goals), giving a total of 200 goals in 402 appearances. He played 16 times for Northern Ireland and scored 3 goals. When he moved into management, he managed Doncaster Rovers, Northern Ireland and Bristol City. All this and he still smoked a pipe.
As Len Shackleton said:

“the genius among geniuses… the most baffling body swerve in football… all the tricks with the ball… a shot like the kick of a mule… enough football skill to stroll through a game smoking his pipe…”

We’ll look at the programme next time…


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Derby County, Football, History, Personal

To bale out or not to bale out? (4)

Last time, I talked about a Lancaster, Lancaster LM360, which apparently had a great number of mechanical problems, such that the pilot ordered the entire crew to bale out in an effort to save their lives. This they did, and they all had a jolly time making their way back to their base from Norfolk where the winds of Fate had carried them. Meanwhile, the pilot found that the plane was seemingly recovering from its funny turn and was able to carry on, such that Flying Officer Fitch was able to make a safe landing at RAF Winthorpe. Here it is today, with its fossilised runways:

One of the happy survivors this time was Harold William Pronger. He was a 33 year old married Australian from Bundaberg in Queensland and by March 29th 1944 he was still a member of 61 Squadron. In 2015, Bundaberg had a population of 70,588. It is on the River Burnett in southern Queensland and looks a lovely place to spend a summer, despite the recent floods which reached nearly 30 feet above normal. The town is nowadays famous for its rum, usually sold in special Australian sizes :

During the night of March 30th-31st 1944, Harold was again on board a 61 Squadron Lancaster, serial number EE176, squadron letters QR-M. They took off from RAF Coningsby to attack Nuremburg. This was an extremely long trip from Lincolnshire, some 700 miles at least.

The raid proved to be the biggest disaster in the history of Bomber Command. 795 bombers were sent to Nuremberg but there were very high winds to blow them off course, a clear sky without cloud cover, bright moonlight and perfect meteorological conditions for the formation of contrails:

In addition, the target was clouded over when they got there. All of these potentially disastrous problems had been revealed by a Mosquito meteorological reconnaissance flight just before the raid set off, but the top brass decided that it was best to keep calm, to ignore the evidence the Mosquito had brought back and carry on.

All of these meteorological circumstances helped the German night fighters enormously. They moved into the attack as soon as the bomber stream crossed the Belgian coast. Hardly any damage was done by the RAF to the target and a sizeable number of aircraft were more than 60 miles off course when they bombed Schweinfurt by mistake, immediately after it was target marked in error by two Mosquito pathfinders.

At one point, the bombers were losing one aircraft per minute for just under an hour. Almost 100 bombers were destroyed and around 550 RAF aircrew were killed. You would think it could not get any worse, but for Harold William Pronger, it did. On his way back, after experiencing severe sleet and hail near Hannover, suddenly, at around 0530 hours, just before they would have crossed the English coast, Lancaster EE176 met up with a huge and violent electrical storm:

The storm was too big to fly either over or around, so instead, they were obliged to plough straight through the snow, the sleet, the hail, and the torrential rain. Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, the Lancaster was struck by lightning.

All of the crew were severely stunned. The pilot and some other members of the crew were temporarily blinded. For a short period, with effectively no pilot at the controls, the aircraft careered all over the sky. The pilot, still blind, ordered everybody to bale out, thinking that they had already crossed the English coast. The aircraft continued to plunge all over the sky, but its main direction was earthwards.

When the Lancaster reached just 1,000 feet above the cold raging waters of the North Sea, the pilot suddenly regained his eyesight. Not perfection, not 20/20 vision, but enough to take over control of the aircraft.
He then started to check that everybody was OK.  They weren’t.

The rest of the story, next time.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

The End of the War in Europe and Moscow

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the end of the Second World War was celebrated by the Soviet Union in their capital city, Moscow. It was May 8th 1945.

The Soviets well remembered conquering Berlin. Flying their aircraft at will over the capital of the Evil Empire:

Everybody was friends (some more than others) :

On May 2nd 1945, the Red Army had flown their flag from the highest point in Berlin, the Reichstag building:

There was, of course, plenty of argument about who performed this iconic act. The photograph itself was taken by Yevgeny Khaldei using a flag sown together by his uncle:

Officially, the two men who carried out this dizzy feat were Meliton Kantaria and Mikhail Yegorov. Others state that the man who raised the flag was Alyosha Kovalyov. Yevgeny Khaldei, the photographer, supported this man as the actual flag raiser but aided by Abdulkhakim Ismailov and Leonid Gorychev (who is mentioned elsewhere as Aleksei Goryachev). The very same problems of identification had happened elsewhere on a previous occasion:

Back in Moscow, there were searchlights:

There were fireworks:

And in Red Square, there were vast numbers of soldiers of the Red Army on parade:

Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union rode a white horse across the slippery, wet cobbles of Red Square, without problems, thank goodness:

Red Army soldiers brought in German banners and then they threw them down on the ground in disgust and triumph:

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And just for once, just for a few weeks, until minds were re-poisoned, everybody was friends and they all smiled big smiles and saluted each other until they grew tired of it:

And then, like little children, they played on the grass in the park and drank vodka nicely together and they danced. Oh Comrade, how we danced……




Filed under History, Personal, Politics