Keith Doncaster took off on his last mission with 166 Squadron at 18:12 hours on October 22nd 1943 from RAF Kirmington, 11 miles south west of Grimsby in Lincolnshire. Here’s what RAF Kirmington looks like today:
Keith was in “Z-Zebra”, an Avro Lancaster Mk III with the serial number EE196 and the squadron letters AS-Z . During the course of the war, because of the astonishing levels of bomber losses, nine different aircraft in 166 Squadron were to carry those letters of AS-Z, “Z-Zebra”. That means, over time, 63 different young men as crew, of whom a minimum of 54 would have experienced disaster of some kind, up to, and including, their own deaths.
There were also nine different aircraft for AS-E, “E-Edward”, (63 more young men’s lives risked) and for AS-F, “F-Freddy”, (63 more) and for AS-N, “N-Nuts”, (63 more) and for AS-S, “S-Sugar”, (63 more). Those five different letters, then, E, F, N, S and Z, accounted for 45 Lancaster bombers and 315 young men all put into extreme danger.
In an Avro Lancaster, if the aircraft was shot down, only one man of the seven crew, on average, escaped with his life. That makes 54 young men killed in the nine different aircraft which carried the letter “Z”. And overall, those five different letters, E, F, N, S and Z, accounted for 270 young men, all of them in all probability, killed.
The members of the crew all had a financial value and cost. The Head of Bomber Command was Arthur Harris, aka Bomber Harris, aka Butcher Harris (to his men). Harris always used to reckon that to train just one member of a Lancaster crew cost as much as sending six men to Oxford or Cambridge for three years. Whether that is true or not, we do know that the actual figure was £10,000, although the website did say that that total is expressed in 1943 prices. Allowing for inflation, in today’s money, the cost becomes £500,000 per man. And the crews of those five different letters, E, F, N, S and Z, therefore, were trained at a cost of around £135,000,000.
That all created some startling casualty figures for Bomber Command. A total of 51% of all bomber crew were killed on operations, 12% were killed or wounded in non-operational accidents and 13% became prisoners of war. Just 24% survived.
“What is the cost of just one of those aircrew to the RAF?”
“What is the value of just one of those aircrew to his family?”
Tonight, the target was Kassel, a city to the northeast of Frankfurt. No satellites in those days meant that accurate weather forecasts were very rare and the bombers frequently encountered unforeseen meteorological difficulties.
And so it was on this occasion, when 569 bombers, including 322 Lancasters and 247 Halifaxes, set off for Kassel. Twenty of them encountered heavy rain, ice formed on the aircraft and they were forced to turn back. Other various problems forced 39 more bombers to turn back. Eventually, 444 aircraft arrived at the target, 78% of the original force.
Kassel was a prime target because of the Fieseler aircraft factory, the Henschel & Sohn factories producing Tiger tanks, an engine factory, a motor vehicle factory, and the headquarters of the organisation responsible for all railway and road construction in central Germany as well as two military headquarters and the regional supreme court. Kassel housed the headquarters of Military District 9 and the local satellite camp of Dachau provided slave labourers for the Henschel factories.
The 444 survivors from that original force dropped 2,000 tons of bombs and an amazing 460,000 incendiaries. Native speakers were used, broadcasting from special Lancasters, to give the German night fighter pilots incorrect orders over the radio or to countermand their previously given orders. A diversionary raid on Frankfurt, by 28 Lancasters and eight Mosquitoes caused further confusion.
The main target was marked exceptionally well and the bombs fell extremely accurately, creating a minor firestorm, made all the more severe when the main telephone exchange and the city’s water supply were put out of action.
4,349 blocks of flats containing 26,782 individual family flats were demolished. The bombers damaged 6,743 more blocks, containing 26,463 individual units. 120,000 people became homeless. There were 1,600 major fires and a thousand smaller ones. Overall, 160 industrial premises were flattened, along with 140 government buildings. At this time Henschel were manufacturing V-1 missiles, so this severe damage impacted hugely on the date of the first launchings against England. Two German spectators watch the spectacle :
Kassel was devastated and burned for seven more days. Casualties were dug out of the hot rubble for weeks. 5,600 people were killed and 3,300 just disappeared, cremated in the firestorm and its week long aftermath. After the previous raid of October 3rd-4th 1943, up to 90% of the city centre was now destroyed. There were only two more significant raids on Kassel during the rest of the war. One on the Henschel motor transport plant, and the RAF’s final farewell on March 8th-9th 1945. The RAF really had done an enormous amount of damage:
All of this success had its price though. That night, 241 men were killed as 25 Halifaxes and 18 Lancasters were destroyed. On the way to Kassel anti-aircraft fire accounted for three bombers, and night-fighters claimed a couple more. The anti-aircraft fire at Kassel, aided by 70 searchlights, brought down five more bombers. Searchlights could be a formidable opponent, especially if they had a cathedral to defend:
The night-fighters then struck as they returned home. No 10 Squadron lost 21 men, with further losses from No 12 Squadron (eight men), 35 Squadron (two men), 49 Squadron (nine men), 50 Squadron (one man), 51 Squadron (seven men), 57 Squadron (ten men), 61 Squadron (six men), 76 Squadron (eight men), 77 Squadron (ten men), 78 Squadron (six men), 100 Squadron (five men), 102 Squadron (eight men), 103 Squadron (19 men), 158 Squadron (14 men), 166 Squadron (12 men), 207 Squadron (nine men), 408 Squadron (seven men), 419 Squadron (five men), 427 Squadron (26 men), 428 Squadron (one man), 429 Squadron (11 men), 431 Squadron (seven men), 434 Squadron (22 men) and 467 Squadron (seven men).
In addition to these 241 men killed, 71 became prisoners of war. This constituted a completely unsustainable loss rate of 7.6 %. In other words, at that rate, nobody would live to carry out more than fourteen missions.
Not many of the young men in this photograph will be over thirty:
19 responses to “The Sandiacre Screw Company (6)”
We should remember them but we don’t.We should always be reminded of those very brave young men but we aren’t.
Sent by a boy (many years ago)who attended Woodville Junior School.
Stunning facts of which I was unaware. Puts some kind of perspective on what the Russians are doing at the moment
It certainly does. The big diffrenece between 1943 and 2023, though, is that Bomber Command carried out their destruction mainly because they were ordered to by the government, but the technology they had was so hit-and-miss that they would have been wasting their lives trying to hit military targets rather than large areas of housing. Nowadays the Russians, though, have weapons capable of being put through an upstairs window as opposed to the front door, without any problems whatosever. They are deciding to kill children in schools or patients in hospitals because that is the kind of armed forces they are.
Your post with its details is so powerful that I hate to ask a question that seems trivial, but I will. In the post, you wrote “In an Avro Lancaster, if the aircraft was shot down, only one man of the seven crew, on average, escaped with his life.” Was there one particular crew position whose occupant most often survived?
It was more often a question of the position where death was more or less guaranteed, such as the rear gunner, the navigator or perhaps the mid-upper gunner. Personally, I would say tht the pilot quite often seems to have survived, although a great many of them died because they stayed at their post until all the others had got out (which didn’t happen too often)
I asked that question because I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to crawl through the interiors of both a B-17 and a B-24. Never having had the opportunity to do the same with a Lancaster, I have no idea of how hard it might have been for the crew to escape.
The most important thing was that the US crews had their parachutes either on their backs or very close to them. The RAF had to find their parachutes first and then try to find the exit. That cost many, many lives.
Don’t forget too that it was night time during RAF raids but daytime for the B-17s and B-24s.
The inside of the Lancaster was extremely cramped and extremely difficult to get out of. The main problem was the main spar which was level with the wings and about three feet high. Men had to crawl / climb / scramble over that, and I am told that even now, in daylight, that is not an easy task. The rear gunner was an exception. He had to rotate his turret backwards, and exit through what had previously been his entrance door. Then he fell out backwards. All of this was almost impossible in an emergency and most of the rear gunners died.
The losses in respect to cost for training are bad enough, but the cost to their families – incalculable.
Absolutely. A brother or son or father or uncle or nephew are beyond value. Aircraft can always be replaced but, clearly, nobody can replace a human being.
It brings to the surface one undying thought: I wonder how I would have acted if I had been there at the time.
And your comment about the difference between then and the Russians now is horrifying.
The only thing I can say about how you would have reacted is that 99% of them, including my Dad, carried out their duty despite their intense fear because they didn’t want to let down the rest of the crew, their mates. Very few of them had breakdowns and couldn’t carry on, although a huge percentage relied on superstition to protect them and strong drink to dull the psychological pain.
I don’t understand what you are saying about my comment about area bombing in WW2 and the actions of the Russians today. I chose my words carefully and they are all factually correct as far as I know. I was very forcibly struck by how similar the pictures of bombed cities in the Ukraine were to bombed cities in Germany in 1945.
When put into pure statistics it makes for horrible reading. Adding that perspective makes you realise just what it cost in both monetary terms and more importantly, human loss. We often forget that each aircraft had a crew of seven or so, even more in the US cases.
Absolutely. Every single death of the 55, 573 in Bomber Command caused ripples across the pond, with so many people affected.
For the small town of Sandiacre (like St Neots or Huntingdon in size), Keith’s death was a total disaster as the whole town looked for employment in the huge factory that his grandfather owned. Even now, much of the land it occupied is unused waste land with just weeds and cinders
How very sad John.
It took a rare kind of courage to fly in Bomber Command knowing, as they must have done, that the odds of their ultimate survival were little better than a half. It makes harrowing reading, even more so now that after an interlude of just over 75 years we once again have war in Europe – something I never thought I would see in my lifetime.
I asked my Dad about fear and he said that it was a question of conquering it sufficiently to get into the lorry that took you to the aircraft. You didn’t want to let your mates down by chickening out, and you didn’t want anybody to think you were a coward, the dreaded “Lack of Moral Fibre” or LMF.
I agree with you about war in Europe. although there was a war in the Balkans in the 1990s, and, of course Ukraine v Russia is just a “special military operation” rather than a proper war. I can see some of the Russian motivation, but overall, Putin needs to abandon the politics of the 1980s.
Thank you for sharing!!.. no conflict is a good conflict and believe the men and women of the military, and civilian, showed a great deal of courage “Heroes are made by the paths they choose, not the powers they are graced with.” (Brodi Ashton)… 🙂
That being said, the men and women of Bomber Command (and the rest of British military and civilians) used what tools and knowledge that were available to defend their country… Russia is under some grand illusion and simply trying to bomb the Ukraine into submission and I feel that Russia miscalulated the determination of the Ukraine people… 🙂
Until we meet again..
May your troubles be less
Your blessings be more
And nothing but happiness
Come through your door
I fully agree with your opinions about the Russians in the Ukraine. The world just doesn’t need this kind of thing in the middle of Covid. And as you say, Putin was deluded about the determination of the Ukrainian people, and he could be there for years trying to subhdue them. More proof of what you said..” no conflict is a good conflict”.