To bale out or not to bale out? (8)

Last time, I  told the story of how, on November 3rd 1943, Lancaster LM360, O for Oscar, took off from its base at RAF Syerston, piloted by 21 year old Flight Lieutenant William Reid. He and his crew were intending to bomb industrial facilities near Düsseldorf.

During the operation they were attacked at first by a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 night fighter:

And then a Focke Wulf Fw 190 single seat, single engined night fighter:

During the latter attack, Flight Sergeant John Alan Jeffreys, the Navigator, was killed outright.

As I told you, for his bravery, Bill Reid received the Victoria Cross. Here is the citation which I hope will not upset too many people by my quoting it, albeit in shortened form:

“Air Ministry, 14th December, 1943.

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Acting Flight Lieutenant William REID, No. 61 Squadron.

On the night of November 3rd, 1943, Reid was pilot of a Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack Dusseldorf.
Shortly after crossing the Dutch coast, the pilot’s windscreen was shattered by fire from a Messerschmitt 110. The rear gunner’s hands were too cold for him to open fire immediately but after a brief delay he managed to return fire and the Messerschmitt was driven off.
During the fight, Reid was wounded in the head, shoulders and hands. The elevator trimming tabs of the aircraft were damaged and it became difficult to control. The rear turret was badly damaged and the communications system and compasses were out of action. Reid ascertained that his crew  were unscathed and, saying nothing about his own injuries, he continued his mission.
Soon afterwards, the Lancaster was attacked by a Focke Wulf 190. The enemy’s fire raked the bomber from stem to stern. The rear gunner replied the state of his turret made accurate aiming impossible. The navigator and the wireless operator were killed. The mid-upper turret was hit and the oxygen system put out of action. Reid was again wounded and the flight engineer, though wounded, supplied him with oxygen from a portable supply.
Reid refused to turn back and Dusseldorf was reached some 50 minutes later. Reid had memorised his course continued in such a normal manner that the bomb-aimer knew nothing of his captain’s injuries. Photographs show that, when the bombs were released, the aircraft was right over the centre of the target.
Steering by the pole star and the moon, Reid set course for home. Weak from loss of blood, the oxygen supply had given out. With the windscreen shattered, the cold was intense. He became semiconscious. The flight engineer and the bomb-aimer kept the Lancaster in the air despite heavy anti-aircraft fire over the Dutch coast.
The North Sea was crossed and an airfield was sighted. The captain recovered, resumed control and prepared to land. Ground mist obscured the runway lights and he had lots of blood getting into his eyes. He made a safe landing although one leg of the damaged undercarriage collapsed.
Wounded twice, without oxygen, suffering severely from cold, his navigator and wireless operator dead, the aircraft crippled, Reid showed superb courage and leadership in penetrating 200 miles into enemy territory to attack such a strongly defended target, every mile increasing the hazards of the long and dangerous journey home. His tenacity and devotion to duty were beyond praise.”

On July 31st 1944, Bill was busy on a different mission, flying with his crew at 12,000 ft over the target, a V-weapon storage facility at Rilly-la-Montagne, not too far from Rheims. He was in an Avro Lancaster Serial Number ME557, Squadron Letters KC-S. At this point, Bill had left 61 Squadron and was flying with the glamorous 617 “Dambusters” Squadron. On this occasion, they were using Tallboy, 12,000 lb, bombs. Here’s one I photographed earlier:

Suddenly, Bill’s bomber was hit by another Tallboy bomb, released by an aircraft some 6,000 feet above him. It hit his Lancaster in the fuselage, causing catastrophic damage. Bill gave the order to bale out. That was not a straight forward action for Bill as the G-forces initially pinned him down in his seat. Just in the nick of time, he baled out, but because of the low altitude, he hit the ground with some force and broke his arm. A group of German soldiers had seen the whole thing, including the Lancaster’s spectacular splitting in two in mid-air, and they took Bill prisoner.

Not everybody escaped the Grim Reaper, however:

Flight Sergeant Donald George William Stewart, the Flight Engineer, was buried in Germaine Communal Cemetery some 25 miles north west of Chalons en Champagne. This was close to where the aircraft fell. Donald was just 27 years old and before the war, he had worked for Southern Railways, cleaning locomotives. He too, though, had answered the Call of the Skies, being a keen member of Redhill Flying Club.

The navigator, Flying Officer Joseph Ovila Peltier, a French Canadian was 26 years old. He was the son of René and Emilie Renaud Peltier from Windsor in Ontario and the husband of Lillian Ilene Peltier also from Windsor. He was buried in Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery at Hautot-Sur-Mer.

The bomb aimer, Pilot Officer Leslie George Rolton was the son of Olander Rolton, and of Elizabeth Rolton from Romford in Essex. He was only 22 years old, and was buried in Clichy Northern Cemetery on the northern periphery of Paris:

The wireless operator, Flying Officer David Luker became a prisoner of war in two different camps, Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria, the same camps as Bill Reid.

The mid-upper gunner, Flight Sergeant Albert Arthur Holt was 31 years of age and the son of Henry Holt and Florence Elizabeth Holt. He was the husband of Gladys Maude Holt from Douglas on the Isle of Man. He was buried at Clichy, in the same plot as Leslie Rolton but not absolutely next to him as far as I can ascertain.

The rear gunner, Warrant Officer John William Hutton was also buried in Clichy Northern Cemetery. His grave is next to that of Albert Holt.

Bill Reid died in 2001. His family sold his medals at auction where they realised a record price for a Victoria Cross of £335,000. They included a 1939-1945 Star, an Air Crew Europe Star, a War Medal, a 1953 Coronation Medal and a 1977 Jubilee Medal:




Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

23 responses to “To bale out or not to bale out? (8)

  1. I wonder who bought the medals and what value they put on them? Historical, Emotional or Financial?

    • Andy Jones

      It would be nice to think that they were bought and then displayed somewhere appropriate. Sort of thing you’d do if you won the Lottery…

      • Andy Jones

        Ah… following the link in John’s article we learn:
        The medal will stay in the country. Collector Melissa John said she had bought it in memory of her brother, Christopher who died last year aged only 47.

        Miss John, from Wales, sobbed as she added: ‘I collected medals with him. He always wanted a VC.

    • The most well known collector is Lord Ashcroft whose website is here at
      It sounds as if you can visit his medals at the Imperial War Museum. This website
      “When Lord Ashcroft bought his first VC in 1986, he intended the purchase to be a one-off. However, after taking possession of the medal, he realised that collecting VCs would become a lifetime’s passion. Lord Ashcroft and other VC collectors find it hard to express to those who have no interest in medals quite what it means to own one. In short, however, he values each VC because it is the tangible relic of an individual’s service and bravery – a wonderful tribute to someone who has risked his life for his comrades, his monarch or whatever motivates him in the heat of battle. Some years ago, as the collection grew and grew, a trust was set up to care for and protect the medals. Today there are more than 140s VCs in the collection and most are accompanied by other service medals awarded to the recipient along with a host of related memorabilia.”

      • An interesting hobby.
        Where does the bronze come from to make the medals, is it Russian or Chinese?
        I always like the end of the film ZULU when Richard Burton reads out the names of the VC recipients. Interestingly one of these was awarded a year after all of the others to Ferdinand Schiess of the Natal Native Contingent and I read that he was the first non British to get the award?

        REPLY As far as I know it comes from captured Russian cannons in the Crimean War. Presumably it will get added to if stocks begin to get low.

      • It does from the cannons and I suspect one day it will run out but for the moment due to the small amount awarded it does not seem to be a concern.

      • It’s nice to know he’s providing them to the museum.

        REPLY : Apparently he owns “160 VCs, which is well over a tenth of all the medals in existence”. The Imperial War Museum already have some of their own as well. This article about Australian VCs might interest you:

  2. Andy Jones

    These stories get to me every time. So young, so brave.

    • Bravery is a very strange phenomenon. I’ve read a couple of books about it, but I still don’t really understand it. Bravest of the brave for me are those who know very well what may happen, such as pilots like Bill Reid or say, members of the French Resistance. I would presume that the longer the situation lasts, the braver you must be.

  3. I can not imagine selling those medals, especially after reading the Victoria Cross commendation. I’m telling you, John, the more I learn about that generation, the more totally amazed I become!!

    • The big problem, I think, is that an ordinary person is faced with how to protect from theft an object as big as a child’s hand which is worth $438,000. And for a lot of ordinary people, two other problems often provoke a sale. One is the dilemna of which child to leave it to, which can cause very serious issues in a family. The second is that lots of those medal winners were ordinary working men who would rather their families had the money and benefited from something they had done.
      I agree with you though, the bravery of our fathers’ generation was often quite amazing!

  4. Almost forgot (please chalk it up to old age), about the British Armed Forces Day. Are any special events happening for it in your area?

  5. John, these stories are so important and I’m so glad you are researching and putting together the truth of what happened. The extent of bravery these men displayed …. leaves me in awe. I cannot understand how family could sell those medals for that to me would be something you would want to hand down from one generation to the next. Yes war stories are difficult for many of us to read or listen to but they must be known. Such young men fought and so many lost their lives. Thank you for honoring their story.

    • My pleasure, Amy. The answer I gave to GP Cox covers at least some of the reasons that families sell their deceased relatives’ medals after his or her death. I think that overall, the medals are probably better off in a museum for people to see rather than in a secure bank vault where even the owner may only visit once every few months.
      At the moment I’m still spending most of my time working on the 106 young men from the school where I used to teach who died in WW2. Hopefully, that will at the very least put their stories on record once and for all. It does begin to get to you after a while though. Young men in their twenties being killed in such numbers, day after day after day. We really need to begin to settle our quarrels in a better way.

      • John, you know how hard it is for me to read these stories because I’ve told you. Yet I read them because these young men deserve to be recognized for their supreme acts of bravery. I cannot even imagine how terrified they were before the action began.

  6. What a brave young man he was to keep it all to himself presumably so as to not take away the confidence of the crew and get the job done. I’ve heard of several cases like this, where they have fought on to the bitter end. Truly a different generation.

    • Never underestimate the stubbornness of an Englishman! I think that the crews of the various bombers saw themselves as a seven brother family and nobody wanted to let anybody else down. And the people inside the plane would have been very reluctant to bale out because they knew how risky it was. There wouldn’t have been a Caterpillar Club if the company had had to give away thousands of expensive badges all the time. And finally, every man in that Lancaster crew knew that death was something that happened to somebody else.

      • I think you are so right. It was a family and no one wanted to let the others down. Your chances in a badly damaged aircraft were probably far better than on the ground, I certainly know which one I’d choose!

  7. I’ve read about this recently inspired by your earlier posts. It kind of takes your breath away and I was happy to hear that he survived although some comrades did not. There are many Air Force Victoria Cross citations that end with the recipient being taken underground after the landing and passing away within 48 hours from their substantial wounds.

    • Yes, a lot of the winners of Victoria Crosses have not lived to collect their medal. It would be nice if, one day, some trained psychologist tried to evaluate why some people are brave and others are not .I’ve always wondered!

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