Three war crimes, two Sunderlands and one Ashley Wilkes (7)

Last time I related how the crews of two Sunderland flying boats, having spent the entire war without seeing a single U-boat, found two German submarines on their way to surrender and sank both of them. I used two pictures borrowed from the Internet. One was a beautiful painting:

And the second was a genuine black and white photograph:

The Coastal Command airmen that Fred had met in the pub, probably in north Scotland, explained to him that they sank the two U-boats because they had spent so many hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of their young lives out on dreary patrols over the cold grey waters of the Atlantic. They had risked their lives in the pursuit of an enemy that they had never ever seen, as he hid in the cold grey metal waters of the Atlantic and emerged only at night. In similar fashion, Fred himself had never ever seen a German aircraft in combat during any of his nineteen missions. And even if they never saw a submarine, flying for ten hours over the cold grey featureless ocean is not without its dangers:


Most of all, these young men knew that they had wasted their youth, the best years of their lives, pursuing not pretty young girls at the village dance, but elusive submarines in the featureless cold grey seascape of the Atlantic Ocean. And it was revenge for this irreparable loss of their youth that they sought. If the RAF lads had a six or seven year gap in their young lives, then the Germans, who had now started their second major global war in twenty years, would not be allowed to have the rest of their own lives, certainly if the RAF had anything to do with it:

Sinking a U-boat which was on its way to surrender, after the end of hostilities,  was, of course, a war crime.

“Thou shalt not kill” the Good Book says, although the original words of the Torah, “לֹא תִּרְצָח”, should really be translated as “Thou shalt not murder” rather than our rather wishy washy “Thou shalt not kill”. And this was indubitably murder, so it was a war crime, although in many ways it was an understandable one.

It was the waste of so many years of their short lives that had finally got to them. Fred himself very much resented the years that he had spent “stuck in a Nissen hut in the middle of nowhere.” He was stationed at one stage at Elsham Wolds which was not a particularly beautiful or interesting place. It must have provoked great boredom and frustration among the hundreds, if not thousands of young men who were all forced to be there. Here’s the old runway, with its present-day green half and its grey half:

severn trent

Yet despite their boredom and their frustration, these young men would all have felt raw naked fear for much of the time. They knew that they were laying their own young lives on the line pretty much every single day.

My Dad told me that the only things that got him into that Lancaster were the fear of being thought a coward, and the fact that the crew all depended on each other and were all in it together:

Because of his never ending fear, like thousands of other combattants, Fred also despised the comfortable lives of many of the older people in the area where he was born and where he spent the majority of his leaves. They lived out their humdrum existences without any risk whatsoever, while young men in their early twenties were killed in large numbers every time there was a raid. The contempt Fred felt was, of course, just a measure of his own fear, at the possibility of having to fly over burning Berlin, or some other heavily defended Bomber Command target:

Having joined the RAF as a volunteer on September 29th 1941 at the age of nineteen, Fred expected to return home in May 1945. Alas, he wasted yet more time after the end of the war.

Fred was eventually discharged from the RAF well after the date when his favourite team, Derby County, whom he followed for more than seventy years, won the FA Cup for the only time in their history. Fred missed the game as he was “busy, doing nothing” with the RAF:

Fred eventually left the Second World War on November 19th 1946, after just over five years. Not much in a lifetime of over eighty years, but as he himself was never slow to explain in later life, these were potentially “the best years of my life”.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Criminology, History, Personal, Politics

15 responses to “Three war crimes, two Sunderlands and one Ashley Wilkes (7)

  1. A sensitive post, John. My Dad also stayed in until 1946.

    • Thank you, Derrick. Over the years, people have not really seen sensitivity as one of my strong points.
      I think that the armed forces just thought that they would be able to catch a bus home on May 9th 1945. My Dad, like all of Bomber Command, a volunteer, certainly though so, World War 1 seems to have been exactly the same. My Grandad got back home in late May 1919.
      Canadian troops would not accept it:

      “On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops had rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops.
      Five brave Canadians were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason.”

  2. Chris Waller

    I love that painting of the Sunderland. It makes it look more agile than I imagine it was in reality. The front of the aircraft looks like a face with a grim smile on it.

    You write of the ‘irreparable loss of their youth’. I saw this in my dad, who spent his best years doing 12-hour shifts in a munitions factory while also doing turns on a Bofers gun crew on Boulton Lane in Derby when he was to have been at night-school training as an electrical engineer. He never recovered those lost years and carried a lot of anger about it to the end of his days.

    One can understand the actions of the crew of that Sunderland, though that is not to condone it – but neither condemn it.

    • Yes, I can understand how your Dad must have felt. To that can be added the fact that all the people who had skived anything at all to do with the war often found themselves promoted to fill the gaps left by the people who had joined the forces. And then in 1946, jobs became scarce and the forces people all had the wrong skills.
      My favourite story concerns an unemployed RAF master bomber who goes to the Labour Exchange and the man behind the desk says:
      ” What skills do you have?” and he replies:
      ” Well, given the right group of men to help me, I can destroy a medium sized town in twenty minutes.”

  3. It is common for the men to look back at that horrible time and say it was the best. My own father was so eager to get home, he left the Army Air Corps in Jan. 1946 AND he regretted that decision right up until he died.

    • Yes, that’s the other side of the coin. In the RAF men were racked with fear most of the time because they saw how many empty places there were at breakfast after a raid, or how many beds had not been slept in. At the same time, though, there was always the comradeship of a bomber crew, men whose lives all depended on each other.
      My Dad always said what a fabulous life the peacetime RAF was….very little real work, two hours for lunch and so on, but I don’t think he was ever tempted. His memories, for example, were enough for him to want to get as far away from the RAF as possible when the time came.

  4. Pierre Lagacé

    Quite a moving post John. It shows us how many veterans felt after the war and about the fear they had to endure during the best years of their lives.

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    On another note… I just love the Sunderland!

  6. Their actions at the wars end was perhaps understandable in some ways. At the wars end there were many attacks / deaths / injuries which were not necessary, indeed the last shots fired on ‘home ground’ were by two U-boats in the Forth, not far from where the first Luftwaffe aircraft came down. Two ships went down as a result – both with loss of life, the U-boats then sailed home to surrender. I wonder if these two were the same in your post, wouldn’t that then justify their actions?

    • If the two U-boats which were sunk by the Sunderland were the two who had previously been involved in sinking the two ships, then, in my opinion, those two U-boats deserved what they got.
      It may be that the two sunk by the Sunderland were just on their way back to Norway to surrender, which, to me, would mean that they should have been flying the Black Flag of surrender. If they were doing this, then sinking them either before or after May 8th “was perhaps understandable in some ways” to use your words but should not have been done.
      One extra factor which might be relevant is that a lot of U-boats were asked to surrender in Loch Eriboll in north west Scotland and the two that were sunk could have been going there. Again, sinking them either before or after May 8th “was perhaps understandable in some ways” but not good!

      • I agree with you there. Certainly the circumstances of the sinking(s) need careful consideration and neither side should have needlessly wasted the lives of those on board.

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