Category Archives: Bomber Command

And here is the news (3)……

In my Last Post, I told you what I had been up to of late. I have always been very impressed by a fellow teacher and friend of mine, Simon Williams, who has researched at very great length the young men from the High School killed in the First World War:

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I decided that I would have a look at the war dead from the Second World War and I have been working for the last 18 months, two years, on researching those particular individuals.

I have been sadly surprised at just how many of them there were. I started with 82 from the official list but I have now pushed it up to at least 105 with probably quite a few more to come. The reason for this is that if Frederick Cyril Smith of 189, Station Road, Beeston, attended the High School from May 10th 1901 onwards, there is no way of being 100% certain whether or not he is the same Frederick Cyril Smith who was Able Seaman Frederick Cyril Smith, killed on May 23rd 1941 on HMS Zulu, particularly if there are no details of either his age, home address or parents’ names recorded on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website:

And so far, I have found around 150 such cases, all of which are possible matches. They won’t all be ex-High School pupils, but if only one of them is an Old Nottinghamian then I don’t want to miss him.
And there is absolutely no way of guessing. One Old Nottinghamian was called Albert Frederick Aylott, born 1911, lived at 96 Glapton Road. Is he the same Albert Frederick Aylott as the Albert Frederick Aylott killed on March 31st 1945 in northern Germany ? In actual fact, probably not, but who would have thought so with such an unusual name?

On average, I’m producing around 4,000-5,000 words per person, listing his school record fully, his adult life before the war if possible and then his career in the forces with, hopefully, the reasons why he was where he was when he was killed. And if possible, the name of the man who pulled the trigger or pushed the button. The casualties took place everywhere, from Arnhem to Yugoslavia, with one ex-pupil who lived in Zimbabwe but was killed, probably, in Ethiopia.

Some more details next time.

 

 

 

 

 

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The High School Hell’s Angels, Chapter 3

One fascinating thing which I found recently were all those old books which have been transcribed onto DVDs. They are sold on ebay in their hundreds. Some are not necessarily what I would want to read “Masonic Library, 430 Freemasons Books”, “Ukulele & Banjo, 29 Rare Vintage Books” and “Taxidermy, Vintage books on DVD – Stuffing and Mounting Animals, Birds, Insects and Fish”
I was happy to buy though, “76 Books, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Mickleover, Headon, History Genealogy DVD”. It contains a lot about the history of Nottingham although the rest was not of much interest to me. That DVD, and another very similar one about Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, have provided me with a lot of information about the past. Above all, they have allowed me access to a number of different directories of Nottingham. So far I have, for example, the Pigot’s Directory for Nottingham for 1828 and 1841, the White’s Directory for 1832, 1864 and 1885, the MacDonald’s Directory for 1931, Slater’s for 1847, Wright’s for 1879 and Kelly’s for 1881, 1891, 1904 and 1928:

They are interesting in that they all tend to contain slightly different things, but basically they list all of the tradespeople in Nottingham, all of the business premises in the city, and the names of the occupants of all the different houses in all the streets of Nottingham.

So you might find a list of the city’s streets in alphabetical order, or all the people similarly listed, while other directories will provide the names of all the engineers, all the grocers. all the bicycle repairers and so on. It means that if you know Uncle George was a restaurant owner, you can often find out both where his business was and where he lived. And that may point you to the right place in a census. Very useful if you’re trying to trace your ancestors.
The directories also enable you to trace some of the changes in the use of individual buildings, buildings that you may walk past every day but don’t know the history of. One example would be the two premises on Derby Road, up near Canning Circus. One is called “Quality 4 Students” with the slogan “Top 365 Student Homes” :

Next door, painted all white, there is what is now the “Park Hair Salon”. Here’s a view from further back:

In 1928, the Park Hair Salon used to be the Headquarters of the Robin Hood Rifles, a local infantry regiment:

They used to have some wild, wild parties:

After that the building was derelict for a while and then it became “Butcher Brothers, House Furnishers”.

By 1928, both buildings had become the shop of AR Warren & Son, Grocers. I find all that fairly fascinating but more to the point perhaps, the directories also enabled me to uncover the humble beginnings of Alfred Highfield Warren, who was the “& Son” of “AR Warren & Son” mentioned above.  Alfred was an ex-pupil of Nottingham High School, and thanks to the High School, he was to move from being the son of a grocer to being the holder of an Open Exhibition at Worcester College, Oxford, a Nottingham City Scholarship to Oxford University of £50 per annum, and from the High School, a Sir Thomas White Senior Exhibition.

On Mansfield Road, there is nowadays the “A & D Dental Practice Ltd” and the “City Chicken Cafe”. In front of the Dental Practice is a bus stop used by hundreds and hundreds of High School boys every day…

And here is the City Chicken Café, sworn enemies of Dixy Chicken just two doors away and probably not too much in love with the Istanbul Off Licence next door.

But in 1928, these two businesses, the “A & D Dental Practice Ltd” and the “City Chicken Cafe”, were the premises of LW King, a Draper who lived there with his family. That family included his son William King, a High School pupil, who became a pilot in the RAF in World War II. Alas, poor William was to die, with all his colleagues, in a catastrophic air crash in a Handley Page Hampden. Here is ‘Before’:

And here, far too often I’m afraid, is ‘After’

How many times have I walked or driven past those two businesses, but without realising they were previously the home of a young war hero? And how often do we do that in our everyday lives?

 

 

 

 

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The Luckiest Man in the World (4)

Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman, as we have seen, survived the crash at Dilhorne described in my last post The Luckiest Man in the World (3). Tom is listed as an Air Gunner. I suspect that he was the tail gunner and that is why he was not killed. The impact he had to endure was much less forceful at the back of the aircraft. Furthermore, he was further from any fire than the rest of the crew. And so, he survived. By this time he must have felt that he was extremely lucky. Perhaps he even experienced “survivor guilt”:

Let’s finish on a positive note. And one that explains the title of the post. After his fortunate escape, Tom Weightman joined 644 Squadron who flew Halifaxes and transported supplies for Special Operations Executive operatives, usually to Norway and Denmark:

On April 23rd 1945, probably without the dog, Tom flew off to Scandinavia in a Halifax Mark VII, serial number NA337, squadron letters 2P-X. It was Operation Crop 17, tasked with supplying the Norwegian resistance, the Ling, with 13 containers and 2 packages containing rifles, food, and clothes. These were successfully dropped but the aircraft flew off course by accident and was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. The pilot had to land somewhere, so he ditched the stricken plane in Lake Mjøsa which was the only flat area around:

The dinghy should have deployed automatically but it failed to do so. I presume that the members of the crew, as the cold, cold waters rose around them, must have decided to try to swim to shore. They could not have known that this was the largest lake in Norway. Alas, they all died from hypothermia. Flight Engineer Goronwy Amman Bassett (34) from Swansea. Wireless Operator Alec Naylor (22) from Oakenshaw in Yorkshire. Navigator Walter Reginald Mitchell (23) from East Dulwich in London. Bomb Aimer Gordon Russell Tuckett (23) from Cardiff and Pilot Alexander Turnbull (27) from Edinburgh.

The Tail Gunner and “The RAF’s Luckiest Man”, Tom Weightman, meanwhile, had by now recovered consciousness after being knocked out by the impact of the aircraft hitting the surface of the lake. He awakened to find all of his colleagues had gone. Water was still rising inside the Halifax so he climbed out through the upper escape hatch and walked out onto the wing. The dinghy was still in its special cupboard in the wing so he climbed back into the aircraft and released it manually with a winch. He then set off paddling across the cold waters of the lake trying to find the rest of his crew. This is the only picture I could find of a deployed dinghy:

There were no replies, though, to Tom’s shouts and it was far too dark to see anybody in the ice cold water. When it got light, the locals found Thomas in his dinghy and looked after him and made sure he was in good health. And then, quite rightly, they handed him over to the German Army because they feared, quite rightly, appalling reprisals to their families if they harboured an RAF flyer. And after just 14 days of captivity, the war ended and Tom Weightman was a free man. He was to have 62 more years of life than his colleagues in the 644 Squadron Halifax and 63 more years of life than Jack Sweeney.

Even his plane was lucky. It lay sleeping peacefully at the bottom of the lake for 50 years. And then somebody’s sonar turned up a very strange fish:

And then the Halifax Aircraft Association dived down, found it, rescued it, restored it in magnificent fashion, took it to the RCAF Memorial Museum at Trenton in Ontario and there it remains to this very day. If you ever manage to see it, make sure you look carefully at the rear turret and wonder what made the man in it so special.:

The Norwegian lake is still there. In winter it freezes over and recently it played host to some of the events in the Winter Olympics:

I could not have written this blog post without recourse to this website.

 

 

 

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The Luckiest Man in the World (3)

In a previous post, I told in the barest of details how Jack Sweeney was killed in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V when he took off from RAF Tilstock on January 31st 1944:

During my researches I found a video on the Internet, uploaded by someone called “1tothirtysix”, which is an interesting walk around the crash site and puts together all the various details to produce a coherent account of what occurred.

In March 1989, the land was still owned by the farmer at the time of the accident, Mr Challenor. He could remember coming to the crash site immediately after the impact, which took place around 8.30 in the morning. He found a sheet which obviously covered a body, and lifted it to see the blackened and burnt features of one of the aircrew. There was one survivor, Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman who made his way along the hedge and then downwards to the mine which was operating then, although is now closed down. This is Foxfield Colliery which may be the mine referred to in the account. The tower like structure is modern:

Once Flight Sergeant Weightman told the miners the news, they raised the alarm, although it was far too late by now. Indeed, the three other crew members were already dead even as Weightman climbed out of the crashed aeroplane. The bomber had first hit high up on the hill, half way between the two woods near the mine. Having hit this field near a pond, the aircraft careered across it, then smashed through a hedge and skidded, nose first, down the very, very steep slope to the good sized stream at the bottom. The Whitley finally came to a stop, smashed to smithereens with its nose almost in the water. The three dead crew members were still on board and when fire broke out, the bodies were all burned to a greater or lesser extent. This is a crashed Whitley:

There were, of course, many, many crashes in this North Midlands area. The aircraft were extremely varied with 7 Wellingtons, 3 Whitleys, 2 Blenheims and 2 Halifaxes, but also 4 Thunderbolt P-47s, and single B-17s, Martin Baltimores, Fairey Battles and Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles. A majority of the aircraft were operated by either 27 OTU or 42 OTU. Here is an Albemarle:

And here is a Martin Baltimore, used widely in North Africa and very popular with its crews:

Jack Sweeney was killed in January 1944. A brief look at all the OTUs in Britain during this month  reveals that every single fatality listed came in Wellingtons, a sorry state of affairs…January 1st (1 dead), January 2nd (6 dead), 3rd (7), 4th (5), 9th (2), 11th (5), 17th (2), 20th (5), 21st (10), 23rd (6), 24th (3), 25th(6), 27th (16), 29th (4), 30th (7).

After leaving an OTU, the next step for everybody was an HCU, a Heavy Conversion Unit. Here, trainees tried their hand at four engined bombers, usually Stirlings and Halifaxes. The deaths in January 1944 were, in Halifaxes… January 3rd (7 dead), January 10th (7 dead), 13th (6), 18th (6), 21st (7), 22nd (3), 23rd (9) and the 31st (6). In Stirlings, it was January 4th (5 dead), 14th (8), 20th (14), 21st (2), 26th (8), 29th (8) and 31st (5).

Quite a toll. In the OTUs, in just one month in 1944, a total of 85 men died.

In the HCUs, a total of 51 died in Halifaxes and 50 in Stirlings.

Not that far short of 200 dead without ever seeing a German.

A couple of pictures will show you why so many were killed. Here is a crashed Halifax:

And here is a crashed Stirling:

After further research, I was also surprised to see that Dilhorne where Jack Sweeney crashed was pretty much the local “Magnet of Death”, surrounded by higher ground and relatively close to a number of OTU airfields.

On January 30th 1943, a Wellington, R1538 of 28 OTU, crashed there after leaving RAF Wymeswold near Loughborough. Sergeant Thomas Butterly from Portsmouth and Sergeant Allan Priest from Reading were killed. On March 27th 1953, a jet bomber crashed at Dilhorne. It was a Canberra WH669 of No 10 Squadron. This resulted in the death of the Pilot, Flying Officer Patrick Esmond Reeve, the Navigator / Plotter, Pilot Officer John Golden Woods and the Navigator / (Set Operator), Vivian Owen.

Here’s a Canberra:

Who died with Jack Sweeney?
Well, Flying Officer John Frederick Cusworth was the Navigator. He was the son of Harry Cusworth and Clara Cusworth, born in 1912 at North Bierley in the West Riding, 2 miles south east of Bradford. After a few years, the family moved to Pudsey, a market town now incorporated into the City of Leeds. John was 31 years of age and he was married to Grace Edna Bowen at Strood in Kent in 1940. The couple lived in Pudsey. John was cremated and his sacrifice is commemorated at Leeds (Lawnswood) Crematorium along with 73 others. His name is just visible on this side of the special column:

Sergeant George Victor Bourne was the Bomb Aimer. He was the son of Albert Ernest Bourne and Maude Penelope Bourne from East Ham in the London Borough of Newham. East Ham is right next to West Ham. George was only 21. Did he go to the football? Did he shout “Up the ‘ammers!!” every fortnight? Like John Cusworth, he would have had a strong accent. Did they joke to each other about the way they talked? George was buried close to the airfield, at Whitchurch, a small town in Shropshire near the Welsh border. There are 14 other Commonwealth casualties buried there, but also 52 Poles and Czechs because the No 4 Polish General Hospital was at Iscoyal Park, four miles to the west. This is the West Ham United badge:

Andrew Harkes Robertson was the Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner. He was 30 years old. He was the son of George Robertson and Lizzie Robertson from Edinburgh. Andrew was buried in Inveresk Parish Churchyard. Inveresk is a small village in East Lothian to the south of Musselburgh. It is so pretty that it has been a conservation area for the last 50 years or so. There are 72 casualties buried in the churchyard at St.Michael’s Church. Here it is:


Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman, as we have seen, survived his crash. I will tell you about him next time. He is the man who has given me the title of this series of blog posts. You will find out exactly why next time.

I could not have written these posts without help from here and here and here.

 

 

 

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The Luckiest Man in the World (2)

In the previous post, I explained how the aircraft being used for training by Bomber Command were often very poor machines from the pilots’ point of view and in a very poor state:

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Poor aircraft then, and, from Old Nottinghamian, Jack Sweeney’s point of view, it had also been a very poor decision when Ashbourne in Derbyshire was selected as the place to construct the airbase where he was to do his training in 81 OTU.

In the first place, the building of RAF Ashbourne was actually against regulations as it was higher than the ceiling height for the construction of airfields:

And everyone was well aware of the prevailing weather around Ashbourne. Driving rain, rain, sleet, snow, drizzle, fog and mist. As I write now, even the tripadvisor website, trying to attract tourists to Ashbourne, offers “Stunning walks & scenery – whatever the weather”:

And the 1940s had a lot worse weather than we experience nowadays.

Ashbourne, of course, has the nickname “the Gateway to the Peak District”. And that says it all. If you have lots of peaks, you should be thinking about whether that is the best place to allow inexperienced young men to fly around, often at night, in aircraft without radar aids of any kind, and only the most rudimentary of weather forecasting.

Only two or three miles north of the airfield there are steep slopes, rising up to extensive high land masses around Fenny Bentley and Kniveton. Given how many foggy nights used to occur in that area, such countryside is just not acceptable for pilot training.
Jack Sweeney was killed on January 31st 1944. Ironically he wasn’t flying from Ashbourne but from a satellite airfield nearby called RAF Tilstock. Like so many of the hundreds of airfields constructed in Britain at this time, Tilstock has been rather neglected over the past and could do with a little light weeding perhaps:

In the notes I made during my researches, I described the countryside around Tilstock as “quite hilly country, very variable, lots of steep slopes”, so it’s not too different from the nearby Ashbourne area.
Sergeant Sweeney took off from RAF Tilstock in an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V, serial number LA 765:

He crashed about 30 miles away near Hardiwick between Caverswall and Dilhorne, a tiny village situated in what looks to me to be quite a hilly landscape, perhaps 7 or 8 miles north east of Blythe Bridge. When our family all settled into our 1959 Ford Anglia saloon for the long trip from Derby to Wigan in the pre-motorway years of the early 1960s, Blythe Bridge was a familiar and exciting landmark for all of us, It meant that we were a third of the way there and only had 70 miles to go, unless, of course, in those pre-motorway years, we got lost:

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The Luckiest Man in the World (1)

In his later years, my Dad, Fred, always used to say that training to fly in bombers was infinitely more perilous than flying on combat missions. He did his training with 20 OTU at Lossiemouth in north east Scotland. And certainly, casualty rates on the training airbases in Scotland were always extremely high.
No matter where their OTU was, though, everyone soon became well aware just how dangerous their young lives were. The apparently modern aircraft, pictures of which would previously have filled publications for young boys such as “The Wonder Book of the RAF”, were in reality often second rate, or extremely dated, and were certainly not good enough to be front line combat aircraft. The mechanics too, being often extremely inexperienced, were frequently incapable of servicing the aircraft properly. The book looks exciting though:

The aircraft types used included the Handley Page Hampden, which had a variety of nicknames  including the Flying Suitcase, the Flying Panhandle and the Flying Tadpole. Nobody liked it very much then!

The very best of all the training bombers was the Vickers Wellington.


Overall, though, the problem was that crews were by definition inexperienced, and unlikely to be able to respond to any given emergency either sufficiently quickly or in the appropriate manner. They were more liable to make mistakes, and then to compound those initial errors by making even more mistakes. Indeed, statistically, it remains a fact that around 15% of Bomber Command’s fatalities during the Second World War occurred through crashes and accidents in training situations. In some O.T.U.s. casualty rates reached 25%. The situation was perhaps best summed up by the airman who said that the problem was “dodgy crews in dodgy aircraft.”

Here’s an example. It’s taken from the research I am currently doing about the Old Nottinghamians, Old Boys of the High School, who perished in the Second World War.

“…Jack was called to join 81 OTU and was listed to train as a bomber pilot. 81 OTU was formed in July 1942 and they were based at RAF Ashbourne training aircrews for night bombing using the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley:

This aircraft was obsolete by the time the war broke out. It had a small bomb load, it would not fly on just one engine and when it did fly, it had a most peculiar nose down attitude. This was caused by the angle of the wings which was very high to ensure a good performance when taking off or landing. But when cruising, there was an enormous amount of drag, restricting the aircraft’s fuel economy and forcing many pilots and their crews to ditch in the North Sea when they could not get all the way back to their airfield. The crews who did survive joked that the Whitley was “slow as a funeral” and called it the “Flying Wardrobe”, or, on a bad day, the “Flying Coffin”.

We’ll see why in more detail next time.

 

 

 

 

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Attack the Tirpitz!! In a Halifax??

You are so lucky! You are going to see three photographs of a relatively rare aircraft, a Halifax Mark II, taken in the almost funereal gloom of the RAF Museum at Hendon. I apologise for the quality but in their efforts to preserve the original paint on the aircraft, the museum lights are kept very low indeed. For this particular aircraft, do not be put off by the fact that it seems apparently to have grown two enormous circular fins in the middle of its back. That is an Indian Air Force B-24 Liberator:

this one

The Halifax was the second British four-engined bomber to enter service in World War Two but it became the first to bomb Germany during a raid on Hamburg on the night of March 12th-13th 1941. Subsequent increasing losses on operations over Germany caused Halifax bombers to be used on less hazardous targets from September 1943.

The Halifax made over 75,000 bombing sorties and dropped almost a quarter of a million tons of bombs on Germany.

The Halifax continued in service with Coastal and Transport Commands after the war and the last operational flight was made by a Coastal Command aircraft in March 1952 from Gibraltar.
This s a Halifax B Mk II, Series I, with the serial number W1048. It was built by English Electric in 1942 at their factory near Samlesbury near Preston in Lancashire as part of a contract for 200 Halifaxes. This a similar aeroplane:

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On March 27th 1942 it joined 102 Squadron at Dalton in North Yorkshire as “DY-S”.  The squadron was in the process of converting from the old Whitley Mark Vs
On April 9th 1942, six aircraft from 102 Squadron were exchanged with six aircraft from 35 Squadron because they were fitted with Gee radio navigation aid and could not be risked on a raid beyond the range of Gee stations  W1048 now became “TL-S” of 35 Squadron.
On April 15th the aircraft was taken on a training flight around Filey Bay followed by some low level practice bombing at Strenshall. Just over a week later, it  flew with ten other Halifaxes to RAF Kinloss in Scotland as an advance base for the raid on the German battleship, the Tirpitz.
It took off on April 27th 1942 at 2030 hours, the bomber’s first operational mission. “DY-S” was the  seventh of eleven bombers to depart and it was never heard of again. Until, that is, it was restored to the RAF Museum at Hendon;

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The crew was Pilot Officer Don P MacIntyre who was 24 years old and came from Canada. The busy bee in the crew was Pilot Officer Ian Hewitt who was the observer, bomb aimer and navigator. He  later won a DFC. After the war, he moved to quieter pursuits and became a chartered accountant, dying peacefully at home in bed in June 2015, aged 94.
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Vic Stevens and the first WOP/AG  was Sergeant Dave Perry
The mid upper gunner was another Canadian, Sergeant Pierre Blanchet.
The tail gunner was Sergeant Ron Wilson who in later life was to become a London cabby.
The aircraft was carrying four spherical mines of the Royal Navy type 19N. They each weighed a ton and their shape and size meant that the the bomb doors could not be closed.
The cunning plan was to roll the four mines down the steep mountainside into the gap between the ship and the shore.  They would then sink the ship because the underside was thinner and therefore more vulnerable.
At half past midnight, the eighth aircraft to attack, Don McIntyre followed by his friend Reg Lane set off to release their mines. McIntyre was first. As they had arranged, they descended to 200 feet but “DY-S” was hit by flak and too badly damaged to get back to Yorkshire or even to Sweden.
They were forced to land on the frozen surface of Lake Hoklingen, twenty five miles east of Trondheim.

Here is the starboard inner engine nowadays in the museum:

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Vic Stevens broke his ankle and was eventually taken to hospital by the Germans. The other six came into contact with the Ling, the Norwegian underground and were helped to Sweden. Ian Hewitt and Don McIntyre returned to England after a few weeks, and Dave Perry,  Pierre Blanchet and Ron Wilson after a year. By this time Ron Wilson had rented a flat, found a job and made a start on a new life.
The poor old Halifax sank through the ice in the southern corner of the lake just twelve hours after the crash.
In 1971 the remains were found by local divers and in September 1972 by the RAF Sub Aqua Club. Everything was still there except for the starboard outer engine and one or two bits and pieces taken by souvenir hunters in the past.

Here is a photograph which is admittedly very similar to one of the others. I am quite proud of it, though, because my Idiots’ Guide to Photoshop has enabled me to turn a pretty well completely black picture into something understandable. Slight tinges of red are apparently the chemical which inhibits any further deterioration in the fresh air. Do they make that for humans?

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By the end of June 1973, the Halifax had been retrieved from the lake, and after a lot of restoration, it was ready for the public by the end of 1982. Apparently a second Halifax from the same squadron and the same operation was discovered at the bottom of a nearby fjord in 2014. This exciting discovery was made by the Marine Technology Centre from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The wreckage is around 600 feet down, and is thought to be W7656 and to contain the remains of Sergeants Evans and Columbine, the wireless operator/gunner and the navigator respectively. I do not know if this will make any difference to plans to raise the aircraft and to restore it.

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