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:

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28 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

28 responses to “To bale out or not to bale out? (5)

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    Little Snoring became RAF 23 Squadron’s base in 1944.

    • Thanks fore that, Pierre. In my birdwatching days, I drove past Little Snoring and Great Snoring many times and all I thought was “What silly names!”. I wish I’d known then what I know now and I would have stopped to explore.

  2. Another fascinating, if tragic, account

    • Thanks, Derrick. You are absolutely right. So many of these stories have a tragic ending but they deserve not to be forgotten, especially with many schools not studying WW2 any more, except for the Holocaust.

  3. A sad, but insightful story of what those men endured. What harrowing days they led.

    • The station doctor always kept a close eye on as many men as possible to see that they were as OK as they could be. He looked in particular for facial tics. That was an indicator that they needed time off if that were possible. I remember as a child around 1960 how my Dad had what I now know to be tics of that kind. I reckon it was at least 1970 before he began to lose them.
      That is why I have such admiration for the Eighth AIr Force. They faced all of the same appalling risks and incidents in daylight, where they could see clearly what might happen to them.

  4. John, the bombs painted on Mickey the Moocher are all yellow except for five which are white. What does the colour difference signify.

  5. Wow. That’s a fine survivor story–I sure could see it as a film!

    • I think it would make an excellent film, although fact might need to be twisted a little to supply the love interest. Perhaps the girl at the RAF canteen who waits after every mission for her fiancé, Brad Pitt perhaps, to return.

    • Memphis Belle went home after 25 missions and even reaching that milestone was scary enough.

      • It certainly was, Lloyd. The interesting detail is that the director, William Wyler was thought by the crew to be brave to the point of foolhardiness. They couldn’t understand why he wanted to accompany them over Germany when they themselves thought it was too dangerous to go. He also broke Air Force regulations on several occasions by filming from the turret right underneath the plane when it was landing. The rules said that that was totally forbidden because if anything went wrong, the whole plane collapsed on top of you. He still did it though!

      • That is fascinating John. I have just seen The Best Years of our Lives and of course further back Five Who Came Back on Netflix. What strikes me about his first post war film is how much it stands the test of time in terms of PTSD and service culture. This is because Wyler had served and also been medically invalided out. This informs everything about that film and shows what a personal film it was for him. While I have seen the film from 1990 I really must get around to seeing the real Memphis Belle. I’ve certainly seen the footage where he is very clearly watching men die.

        REPLY: He was a very brave man, far braver than he had to be. In the same category is James Stewart, who finished up in charge of those huge boxes of hundreds of B-17s as they bombed Germany. He was respected totally by everyone for his courage and his competence.

  6. Weapons of mass destruction. As I get older I begin to wonder if we should continue to glorify them. I don’t know?

    • Well it’s a stark decision. Do we try to remember the 55,573 young men who saved us from the utter barbarism of the Nazis or do we start to feel pity for the people who cheered in their tens of millions for their idol Hitler, who killed on average 15,000-20,000 people per day in Europe and who enthusiastically helped the Gestapo to root out socialists, gays, handicapped children and all the people who were different in any way. These were, of course, the same people who denounced their Jewish neighbours to the authorities, making their contribution to the murder of at least 6,000,000 innocent people.
      That’s the problem with war, especially war against crazies such as the Nazis, the Japanese and Islamic State. I suppose that is what makes war so terrible. Decent people have to do things that would normally be repellent to them. My Dad knew that he was killing innocent people by accident, but he said he had to steel himself to that, as there was a war to be won.
      I have just finished the best book I have ever read on the subject. It is called “Bombing Germany: The Final Phase: The Destruction of Pforzheim and the Closing Months of Bomber Command’s War”. It is by Tony Redding and it is absolutely superb, giving the thoughts of both sides and discussing in full the reasons for bombing Germany and the arguments for and against.

      • Sometimes decent people lose their way I like to think that is what happened in Germany in the 1930s.
        Was Japan an evil regime, I’m not sure. Imperialist expansionists?

  7. How sad that these aircraft survived everything the Germans threw at them only to be turned into ploughshares afterwards. What a waste.

    • My only idea is that they were all so keen to leave the terror of war and go home as fast as possible. They didn’t want to be reminded of the horrors and therefore did not try hard to preserve things that might remind them of it. I’ve just read a brilliant book on the subject of Bomber Command. I mentioned it in the reply to Andrew Petcher. You can buy it quite cheaply at https://www.naval-military-press.com/.
      He tells the story of a Lancaster right at the end of the war which was shot to bits over Germany and had to divert to an American airfield in northern Italy. They flew in on one engine but then had to wait while the Americans acquired three Merlins and put them all into the Lancaster. The crew duly flew back to Lincolnshire. By the time they got there, everybody had gone home, the squadron had been disbanded and the base was in “care and maintenance” I think it’s called.

      • Good grief how lucky they were to get that far, or perhaps a lot of skill and ingenious engineering! I think the end of the war was a time to forget and move on, why ponder of the terrible things that had happened when it can be put behind you. Sadly that’s our loss. Thanks for the link John!

  8. Sorry I must admit I’m a bit lost with this one, John. I’ve been engrossed in opening my gardens so have not been active here on WP much. But! I do thank you for the extent of research you have gone to in order to write this post! Thank you! ☺️

  9. I didn’t realise there were so many ton-up Lancasters.

    After the war we were so short of resources we had to start melting things down – even during the Korean War we were so short of zinc that the Government took it all for the war and the newly-formed Lesney company (of Matchbox toy fame) couldn’t get supplies and nearly closed down.

    Not sure that this explains why they scrapped all the Mosquitoes though…

    • Thank you very much for that idea. It hadn’t occurred to me that the aircraft had been recycled for the metals they contained. I think that the Mosquitoes, being wooden, required positive action to preserve them and this may be the reason that many of them were lost. A lot of them may have been sold on. Wikipedia reveals that 22 countries used the “Wooden Wonder” after the war.

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