Category Archives: Aviation

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 Jim Durnie may be the Jim Durnie who moved from Annbank United Junior Football Club to Glasgow Rangers but I have not been able to find any dates for this, so I am not totally certain.  Glasgow Rangers were a huge team at the time. Here is their massive stadium, Ibrox:

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

To bale out or not to bale out? (3)

My last two posts have involved an RAF Bomber Command raid on Mannheim during the night of September 5th-6th, 1943. And as the titles have suggested, there was more than a little emphasis on the idea of baling out. Is it better to stick it out inside a damaged aircraft? But then, you might have huge problems in trying to land safely. Is it worth it to risk finishing up in the River Trent?

Or is it better to jump out into the unknown? Perhaps into the freezing North Sea, or into one of the hundreds of minefields strewn down the eastern coast of England. Both decisions involve unknown consequences, and in the case of Bomber Command in 1943, they often involved, literally, a step in the dark:

During that same raid on Mannheim that accounted for Lancaster serial number DV 232 and squadron letters QR-K, in a second Lancaster, the pilot, Flying Officer B.C. Fitch, found that his own aircraft, Lancaster LM360, was steadily losing height. He was totally unable to gain any altitude to improve the situation. In addition, the mid-upper turret was not working. The crew made the decision to turn back for home. Not a popular thing to have to do, as it meant the operation did not count towards the magical 30 raids which would take them off combat flying.  This particular night they were carrying, among other things, a 4,000lb Cookie, which the pilot dropped into the North Sea at position 54 21 North, 01 40 East:

And then they carried on, lighter but still slowly losing height as they made their way westwards. Within a short time, according to Murphy’s Law, one of the engines caught fire. The pilot, Flying Officer Fitch, extinguished the blaze and feathered the propeller. On they went, but it wasn’t looking good. Fitch decided to give the order to bale out as they were now over land. All of the crew duly did this, and they all survived without a problem except for the odd bruises and twists associated with a parachute escape. Flying Officer Fitch flew on alone. On and on, with the plane apparently feeling better and better about the whole idea:

So Fitch decided to attempt a landing at RAF Winthorpe. Wonder of Wonders!  Not a problem and he ate all the bacon and eggs prepared for the rest of the crew as they sat on very slow moving buses travelling at a snail’s place towards King’s Lynn.

The crew was:

Flying Officer B.C. Fitch, (pilot)

Sergeant T.W. Taylor, (flight engineer)

Flying Officer S.A. Jennings, (navigator)

Pilot Officer A.Lyons, (bomb aimer)

Sergeant G. Kershaw, (wireless operator / air gunner)

Flight Sergeant H.W. Pronger, (mid-upper gunner)

Sergeant L.W. Cromarty, (rear gunner)

Sergeant Livesy, (2nd wireless operator / air gunner)

Harold William Pronger, the mid-upper gunner, was a 33 year old Australian whose parents lived in Bundaberg in Queensland:

His parents were called William Charles Pronger and Helena Pronger. Sadly, despite his life being saved by his parachute, Harold was disappointed not to become a member of the Caterpillar Club, an organisation which is open to people who have successfully used a parachute to escape from a disabled aircraft.  They receive a membership certificate and a very attractive lapel pin:

Sadly, Harold had used the wrong brand of parachute! He had, apparently, a GQ Obs. type parachute, made by the GQ Parachute Company Limited of Woking. Harold did receive though, for his bravery, a GQ Club Badge, No.181.

All of the crew of Lancaster LM360 survived the war as far as I can ascertain…except one. There are, though, a lot of men called Livesey, rather than Livesy, just in case an error has been made. And at least half a dozen of these Liveseys were killed while serving in the RAF.

We’ll look at the one man who did not survive the war next time.





Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

To bale out or not to bale out? (2)

The last RAF post was about an Avro Lancaster III of 61 Squadron, serial number DV 232, squadron letters QR-K which went for a swim in the River Trent near East Stoke on September 6th 1943:

They had taken off, one of many, at 2015 on September 5th 1943 from RAF Syerston to go and bomb Mannheim. This was a huge operation and involved 605 aircraft including 299 Lancasters, 195 Halifaxes and 111 Stirlings. Of the 605 aircraft, 34 were lost, some 5.6% of the attacking force. The trip to Mannheim was a very, very, costly one for the young men of Bomber Command:

9 Squadron  (14 killed)
10 Squadron (7 killed )
12 Squadron (2 killed)
44 Squadron (7 killed)
49 Squadron (5 killed)
51 Squadron (5 killed )
73 Squadron (4 killed )
76 Squadron (6 killed)
77 Squadron (12 killed )
78 Squadron (19 killed )
83 Squadron (7 killed)
90 Squadron (7 killed)
101 Squadron (1 killed )
106 Squadron (13 killed)
149 Squadron (12 killed )
156 Squadron (2 killed)
196 Squadron (6 killed)
405 Squadron (3 killed )
419 Squadron (13 killed )
427 Squadron (7 killed )
619 Squadron (6 killed )
620 Squadron (4 killed )

The people in Mannheim weren’t exactly dancing in the shattered streets either. The Pathfinders did their job perfectly, marking a target completely free of clouds as if it were a training exercise. The bombs fell exactly where they were scheduled to fall. We have very few facts and figures about the exact damage done. This was because the raid was so severe that the report gathering and recording process broke down completely. Indeed the German records use only one word about this night. That word is “catastrophe”.

Around six months later, during the night of March 24th-25th 1944, pretty much the same men who had been the crew of QR-K in the River Trent, but were now part of 97 Squadron, were compelled to ditch into the Channel after their 16th trip to Berlin. Fortunately for them, they were picked up by a German E-boat and became prisoners. Only poor Sergeant Robson, the flight engineer, still only 20 years old, perished. He was drowned in the very severe impact and his body was never found. The crew that day was Todd, Robson, Fuller, Duvall, Housley, McCloskey, Cartwright:

One man lost a leg and several of them were quite badly injured. But as far as my researches tell me, they all survived the war.
I don’t know though, about some of the others….people who made just occasional appearances in the crew’s line up, such as Patrick , or Debnam, for example. I have no initials and too many dead Debnams to make even a wild guess about him.

I might have found a match, though, with Frederick Cyril Shergold of 207 Squadron. On September 22nd 1943, at the age of only 21, Frederick was killed during a raid on Hannover. Like the Shergold on September 6th 1943, he too, was a navigator, so I strongly suspect he may have been the same man who went into the River Trent on that “All’s Well that Ends Well” night . Alas! More than one man called Shergold was killed in the RAF during this greedy war to be totally, absolutely certain.


Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History