Tag Archives: Battle of Berlin

RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Six: a few loose ends

While I was doing the researches for these sad and grim tales of Bomber Command, I came across a number of interesting details which I would like to share. Perhaps one or two loose ends might be tied up.
The first is only loosely connected with the collision of the two unfortunate Lancasters returning from Leipzig on February 20th 1944.  I noticed that one of the casualties, Flying Officer Ronald Harry Fuller, was buried in Cambridge City Cemetery. Given that Cambridge is not particularly close to Marylebone in London, where Ronald lived, I decided to look up the details of this cemetery on the Internet. I was genuinely shocked by what I found about the war casualties there. Their names and most basic of details occupy fully an unbelievable 68 pages on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. Just enter the words “Cambridge City Cemetery” in the line marked “Cemetery or memorial” and press “Search”:

cambrigde vity cem

The very last page is grimly ironic. It lists four Australians, all of them obviously interred a long, long way from home.
One is from the Great War, George Ernest Young of Camberwell, Victoria, Australia. He was aged 28 and died only 12 days from the end of the conflict. The other three interments are all Second World War flyers:

images7I5GV8Z5
Flight Sergeant George Louis Yensen was a Mid Upper Gunner aged just 20. He was killed on August 31st 1943 in a Short Stirling I of No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit of Bomber Command, Serial Number N6005,Squadron Letters probably F-D2. Here is a flight of three Stirlings:

Three_Stirling_bombers_zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The name of George’s unit means he must have perished well before his training for heavy bombers was even complete. George died along with eight other young trainees on board this aircraft. Two of them were from the Republic of Ireland. Apparently the plane took off from Downham Market near Cambridge at 9.30 pm. presumably just as the daylight was beginning to fade. Suddenly, ten minutes after takeoff, for no apparent reason, the aircraft banked steeply and then spun into the ground just a mile or so north of Shippea Hill on the Cambridgeshire-Suffolk border, and around seven miles from Ely. The orange arrow marks the crash site:

yensen
The next Australian, Alan Geoffry (sic) Young was 21 years old when he was killed. A member of the RAAF’s 460 Squadron, he was returning from a bombing raid on Stuttgart. His Lancaster was caught in a blizzard and crashed some ten miles south of Grantham at North Witham. All seven members of the crew were killed. By coincidence, young Alan perished on February 21st 1944, the very next day after the Leipzig raid which inspired the first of these articles:

lanc crash
Flight Sergeant Ian Bailey Yorkston was killed in an accident on March 4th 1945, flying in a Lancaster  I, Serial Number PD431,Squadron Letters H4-V. Ian was in No. 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit RAF, and he was just 25 years of age. His parents were Christian missionaries and had worked in China where Ian grew up. Seven other young men perished in the crash. The plane had taken off from North Luffenham for a cross-country training flight at 11.30 in the morning, and returned to base at 4.00 pm. As the aircraft landed, it bounced quite severely. The pilot increased the power and prepared to go round for a second landing attempt. As it climbed away, the aircraft’s undercarriage hit an obstruction and then ploughed into the tops of several trees. It finally crashed near the village of Edith Weston, just four miles south east of Oakham in Rutland. The orange arrow marks the crash site:

yorkston
This was not Ian Yorkston’s first crash. On August 18th 1944, with “D” Flight of No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit he was flying in a Short Stirling III, Serial Number LK519, Squadron Letters QQ-O. Taking off on a night exercise from Wratting Common at three minutes to ten the previous evening, the crew were returning at six minutes past two. They requested, and were given, permission to land, but then there were problems with the Stirling’s immensely lofty and complicated undercarriage:

_giant_Stirling_modzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

For forty minutes, a tense dialogue took place between the aircraft and Flying Control. At three minutes to three, a garbled  message came from the aircraft which was heard to contain the phrase “crash land”. The Stirling came in at tree top level, flying towards No 4 runway which already had a second Stirling parked on it, having suffered a burst tyre. In the resulting collision, the Trainee Pilot, Flight Sergeant Alan Woodbridge (aged 23) was killed. He was buried in his native village Up Nately, in Hampshire. Alan had himself already been in an accident on July 26th when a slightly misjudged landing resulted in part of the Stirling’s undercarriage being ripped off. Three weeks later, as we have seen, he was dead.
Ian Yorkston’s brother, Flying Officer Gordon Cameron Yorkston, was also killed, not in training though, but in combat with No. 251 Squadron. He was only 21 years of age when he perished on March 17th 1945, in the icy waters off Iceland. The squadron was tasked with carrying out Air Sea Rescue and Meteorological Flights out of Reykjavik This was only 13 days after his elder brother, Ian, had been killed. Gordon’s remains were never found and his sacrifice is commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede near Egham in Surrey. This memorial is dedicated to RAF personnel who died in World War II and who have no known grave anywhere in the world.  Many were lost without trace. There are an amazing 20, 310 names on the memorial:

runny
I actually found a website which listed all of the brothers who had died in service with the RAAF in World War Two. There were at least fifty pairs and included three Sandilands, three Eddisons and four brothers called Bernard. What a sacrifice to be asked to make!

The second final, grim, point concerns the unfortunate collision witnessed by Driver Marie Harris. This took place on December 16th 1943, as the two aircraft took off to bomb Berlin.
What I found really quite shocking was that there is another memorial very close by in what is actually only a very small area of Lincolnshire. It pays tribute to yet another crashed Lancaster, a plane from No 12 Squadron at RAF Wickenby, which was shot down by a German night intruder just before half past midnight in the early hours of March 4th 1945.

_ulce 2 zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

This was Lancaster PB476, Squadron letters PH-Y, and the brave young men remembered were the Flying Officer Nicholas Ansdell (Pilot, 21 years old, from Churt in Surrey), Flying Officer Alexander Hunter (Navigator, age 33, from Dunfermline, Scotland), Flying Officer Freddie Heath (Bombaimer, aged 22, from New Malden, Surrey), Sergeant Ronald Schafer, (Flight Engineer, aged 23 of Earley in Berkshire), Sergeant Robert Parry, (Wireless Operator, aged only 19 from Dagenham, Essex), Sergeant Arthur Walker, (Mid – Upper Gunner, aged only 20, of Risley, Derbyshire) and Sergeant William Mellor (Rear Gunner, aged just 19,from Hatherton, a hamlet in Cheshire.)

Here is the lane next to the field where the aircraft crashed and the monument on the left:

yulceby cross

They were victims of a German night fighter initiative called “Unternehmen Gisela” or “Operation Gisela
This involved large numbers of twin engined German night fighters, armed with Lichtenstein radar:

bf 110

The aircraft left the Continent and flew across the North Sea to England in an effort to destroy as many of the vulnerable bombers as possible as they arrived back from Berlin:

Junkers_Ju88

The fighters flew at low level, under a storm front and in heavy rain, to remain under the British radar defences. They were then able to attack over a wide area, looking for RAF navigation lights and then flying underneath the bomber to make use of their upward pointing Schräge Musik twin cannons. In this case, the cannon are just behind the cockpit, clearly offset for some reason:

Junkers_Ju_88G-6

 

Around 25 Lancasters or other bombers were either destroyed or severely damaged in this operation. A total of 78 aircrew were killed and 17 civilians perished. The Germans lost 45 airmen.

One final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book arrived, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

 

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RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Five

In a previous article I wrote about the tragic collision of two Avro Lancaster bombers, both of them from 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. The two aircraft were both trying to land at the same time, after permission to do so had been given to each of them by the Flying Control Officer. A subsequent Court of Inquiry found that “the accident was caused by the Flying Control Officer departing from the normal procedure.” They recommended that “Flying Control Officers must not depart from the normal procedure for landings”.
In the accident, therefore, Lancaster ND334, PM-unknown, was struck in mid-air by a second Lancaster Mk III, JB530, PM-F. That careless act, caused by the unfortunate decision of a still unnamed Flying Control Officer resulted in the deaths of five young men, namely the Flight Engineer Sergeant D.H.J.Cunningham, the Navigator Flying Officer R.H.Fuller, the Bomb Aimer Flight Sergeant C.Bagshaw,  the Wireless Operator Sergeant E.S.Gunn and the Rear Gunner Sergeant A.O.Haines:

halifax wreck
Sadly, this collision was not the first accident of this type to have occurred at Elsham Wolds. Searching on the Internet, I found a website detailing a collision which took place on December 16th 1943, as both aircraft took off to bomb Berlin. The accident involved one aircraft of 103 Squadron and one from 576 Squadron who were also based at the same airfield.
Apparently, low cloud was present and this was thought to provide a potential source of danger for the aircraft as they took off. At the pre-raid briefing, therefore, all of the crews were clearly told to climb away “into the climbing pattern” as soon as they left off the ground, and then to continue climbing until they reached the correct height to set off with the bomber stream across the North Sea to the target. Great stress was put on the problems which were possible with the low cloud base and that everyone should stick, therefore, “to the instructions”.
The first of the two doomed bombers to take off, at 4.36 p.m., was Flight Sergeant F.R.Scott of the Royal Australian Air Force in Lancaster LM332, UL-B2 of 576 Squadron. It was the crew’s very first mission:

takeogff

They were followed, at 4.37 p.m., by the second doomed aircraft, Lancaster JB670, PM-unknown, of 103 Squadron. The pilot was Flight Sergeant Richter and the crew were a last minute mixture of men from the two squadrons. This was fairly unusual, but I cannot see why it would have made any difference to events:

takoff

As JB670 climbed away from the runway, LM332 came out of the clouds and there was a head-on collision, more or less directly over the village of Ulceby. As you might expect, nobody survived and the lives of fourteen young men came to a very abrupt end. Certainly, it would have been so quick that many of the crew may well have known very little about it. Wreckage was littered everywhere:

piy

Nowadays a plaque has been set up at the site of the War Memorial, remembering all fourteen men:

Plaque_at_Ulceby_War_Memorial

On board the Lancaster JB670, PM-unknown, of 103 Squadron, the pilot was Flight Sergeant Valentine “Val” Richter, aged 22, of Chingford, Essex. He was a member of 576 Squadron.
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Frederick Stanley Copping, aged 21, of Walthamstow, Essex. The navigator was Flying Officer Charles Reginald Jaques, aged 30, of Winterton, Lincolnshire, also a member of 576 Squadron.
The Bomb Aimer was Flight Sergeant Thomas Leslie Hobson Kay of the RAAF, aged 22, and from Redhead, New South Wales, Australia.

The Wireless Operator was Sergeant Peter Coopman. He was aged 21, and came from Cropthorne, Worcestershire.
Sergeant Cyril Walter Plampton was one of the two gunners. He was a member of 576 Squadron.

The other gunner was Sergeant Francis Andrew Furrie.  Young Sergeant Furrie was taken back to Scotland, to be interred in the New Stevenston (St Patrick’s) Roman Catholic Cemetery in Glasgow:

glasgow

He was the only member of the crew not to be buried in Cambridge City Cemetery:

cambrigde vity cem

For the Avro Lancaster III, LM332, UL-B2 of 576 Squadron, the pilot was Flight Sergeant Frederick Roy Scott of the RAAF. He was 24 years of age and came from Cabramatta, New South Wales, Australia. Here are the shops in Cabramatta nowadays:

Cabramatta_shops
The navigator was Sergeant George Gordon Critchley. Apparently his father was a miner in St Helens in Lancashire. The family lived in a tiny terraced house but both sons, George and his brother Harold won scholarships to a Catholic Grammar School called De La Salle in the West Park area of the town. It was run by the Jesuits, and allowed Gordon to avoid the coal mine like his father, in favour of the much cushier Civil Service in London.
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Stanley Victor Cull. He was aged only 18 and was possibly the youngest casualty in Bomber Command in 1943. He came from Windsor in Berkshire.
The Wireless Operator was Sergeant John Hamilton Caldwell . He was 21 years of age and came from Glasgow.
The Bombaimer was Flight Sergeant Peter Martin Crowle Ellis. He was the beloved son of the Reverend Crowle Ellis, B.A. and Mrs Crowle Ellis, of The Rectory, Northfield in Birmingham.
One of the gunners was Flight Sergeant Brian Price Wicks of the RAAF.

images7I5GV8Z5

Brian was only 20 years of age and came from Highgate in South Australia. He was a clerk before he joined up.
The other gunner was Sergeant Joseph William Ross. He was also only 20 years of age and came from Westminster in London.

On the website which has supplied a good deal of the information I have used for this article, the collision is actually described by an eye witness, Marie Harris. Here is a very much abridged version of her words. I would strongly urge you to follow the link and read the full story for yourself. There are also a number of photographs of crewmembers on the site. They will give you a good idea of just how young these men were when they lost their lives so tragically:

I was a driver at Goxhill Haven in 1943. Most of the RAF were Air Crew and you would dance with one or two, and have a great night. Next evening you would ask “where’s Alec, Bob and Bill?” A shrug of the shoulders and you knew and felt very sad.

As I drove around you would see the Bombers going off and up into the clouds and away, up into one circle, two circles and third circle away on their mission.

Around 4.30 I was driving past a farm, it was very low cloud and the Lancasters were taking off into the circles, up and away. They were so low and so near.

One went into this low cloud and I was thinking it’s a wonder they don’t crash they are so close together, when in a split second as it came out of the cloud, God, it was a head on crash with another Lancaster, one almighty explosion and all Hell was let loose. It was awful, I couldn’t believe what had happened practically over my head, just over the farmer’s field. I was so stunned, streaks of fire shooting all over the road. In no time at all the fire engines were arriving. I still couldn’t believe what had happened. I pulled up at the Guard House. I was rooted to my seat and couldn’t stop crying, thinking of the Bobs, Alecs and Bills just blown to bits. It was awful and still is.
They took me into the Mess and gave me a cup of hot strong tea
When I went to bed I couldn’t shut my eyes, this terrific explosion flashed before me every time. I was like this for quite a few nights. I can’t bear even to this day to watch a film with planes crashing. I shut my eyes or go out of the cinema.

Driver Marie Harris W/44133 ATS.

This raid on Berlin seems to have been a complete disaster. My own researches show that, unless I have made some grotesque error in my counting, around 58 Lancasters were destroyed and not far short of 300 young aircrew were killed.

A total of 483 Lancasters had set off for Berlin along with 15 Mosquitoes. Some 25 Lancasters were destroyed during the raid itself as they overflew the target, attacked by anti-aircraft fire and night fighters.

On the return journey to England, a minimum of 29 Lancasters were destroyed between Berlin and home:

Avro_Lancaster_B_Mk_II_ExCC

Some of this was down to the persistent German night fighters, but the greatest problems seem to have come when the  bombers all arrived back at their respective bases. That very same low cloud which had caused the collision at Elsham Wolds was still there. It had not dissipated at all since the bombers had taken off at the beginning of the night, with catastrophic results for many aircraft:

CrashedLanc

There is a slight difference in overall totals which I cannot readily explain, other than some aircraft may have crashed in England and then been repairable. Whatever the explanation, that is still a lot of young men to lose in just one cloud covered night.

One final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book of the series arrived, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

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RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Three

I have now written two articles about RAF Elsham Wolds. I intend to carry on with this series of articles by firstly looking at the fate of just one single aircraft, an Avro Lancaster Mk III with the squadron letters “PM-I” and the serial number “JB745”. It took off from Elsham Wolds at precisely one minute past midnight on February 20th 1944. It was going to bomb Leipzig, which was a very, very long way involving an eight hour round trip, much of it over the Fatherland. Lancaster “JB745” was far from being a lone bomber, and the setting-up of this raid shows just what enormous levels of organisation and man power were involved in bombing a city more than 800 miles away:

A_Lancaster_Mk_III_of_N

A total of 823 aircraft set off, comprising 561 Avro Lancasters, 255 Handley Page Halifaxes and  seven De Havilland Mosquitoes.  A diversionary attack was arranged, with 45 Short Stirlings on a mine laying raid on Kiel with four Handley Page Halifaxes as Pathfinders marking their targets for them. This is a Halifax, with its square tailfins and wings and its radial engines:

Halifax-mk3xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

In addition to these aircraft, 15 Mosquitoes attacked Berlin, 16 Mosquitoes equipped with Oboe attacked German night fighter bases and 12 Mosquito patrols went out over Germany using Serrate to find and shoot down German night fighters. Three more Mosquitoes attacked Aachen as a diversion and three more Mosquitoes attacked flying bomb sites in France:

Mosquito_Fighter-bomber

This was a total effort of 921 aircraft over Germany. Every single one of these bombers needed a huge number of people to fill it with fuel, load the bombs, replenish the ammunition in the gun turrets. and so on. The fuel and bombs can certainly be seen in this picture. Even what appears to be the refreshment van can be seen at the top right:

_the_personnel_required_

The losses on this particular raid over Leipzig were the highest of the whole war so far, with 78 aircraft lost out of the total of 921, a completely unsustainable loss rate of 9.55 %.  The previous worst total had been the 58 aircraft destroyed while bombing Magdeburg on January 21st-22nd 1943.
Some 44 Avro Lancasters were lost along with 34 Handley Page Halifaxes. The main problems were that the Germans were not fooled by the mine laying raid on Kiel. Only a very few night fighters were sent out there, and those that had been were soon summoned back to attack the real bomber stream. The bombers had been detected by German radar, operating as part of the famous Kammhüber Line, as soon as they crossed the Dutch coast. Here is the Great Man, Nachtjagdgeneraal Josef Kammhüber:

Josef Kammhuber

The very capable operators in the Luftwaffe control rooms were extremely efficient, and quickly summoned large numbers of fighters to attack the bombers. In actual fact, the RAF bombers were under continuous attack every single second of the 1500 + miles of the round trip between the enemy coast and Leipzig.

In those days, meteorological forecasting was in its infancy, and unexpected high winds meant that many bombers arrived too early over Leipzig. They then had to wait for the exact targets to be marked by the Pathfinders. As they circled around waiting for the Pathfinders to arrive, around twenty of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. A further four aircraft were lost in collisions with other circling bombers. The city of Leipzig was wreathed in cloud and the Pathfinders were forced to drop their flares by parachute, the so-called Wanganui method. Given that some aircraft would have found the target using the Oboe radar device, then they were actually using “Musical Wanganui”.
That arrangement worked all right in the beginning but gradually bombs became increasingly widely spread across a huge area:

Attack_on_Hamburg

Few details of the results of the bombing are known, even today. There was no immediate reconnaissance, so very little was ever discovered about the effects of this particular raid. The Germans, of course, said nothing about their losses.
At some point in the operation, Lancaster “JB745” was shot down. Nobody knows if this was by a night fighter, or by anti-aircraft fire (“flak”), or whether it collided with another aircraft. Nobody survived and the crew members, fittingly perhaps, are all buried together in Hannover War Cemetery.
Sergeant William Leslie Bradley was the pilot. He was just 24 years of age and like so many others, had originally served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. From Selby in Yorkshire, his Service Number was 1129431 and he was the much loved son of Mr Wilson W. S. and Mrs Beatrice Bradley. William would never have the chance to lament the lack of shoppers in the modern Selby:

selby
The Flight Engineer was Sergeant Francis James Taylor, a youngster of only 21 years of age. He too had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was the much loved son of Mr Francis James Taylor and Mrs Cathrine (sic) Taylor, of Bolton, Lancashire. His Service Number was 2202861. He would never live to see the modern Bolton, Gateway to the North West:

Bolton modern

The navigator was a little older than that, at 24 years of age. He was Flight Sergeant Thomas Frederick  Johnston who, like many of his colleagues had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.  His Service Number was 1387379 and he was the much loved son of Thomas Frederick and Julia Johnston. They all lived in Coulsdon in Surrey, just to the south of London. Without the Leipzig raid, he would have been in his fifties when this photo of the High Street of his local town was taken:

Coulsdon_in_1983 in fifties

The bomb aimer was Flight Sergeant Jack Luck, who was just 22 years of age. He was a native of Newmarket, which is in Ontario in Canada. Young Jack was a member therefore, of the Royal Canadian Air Force:

220px-Join_the_Team_RCAF

Jack’s Service Number was R/105215 and he was the much loved son of Mr Harold John and Mrs Charlotte Luck. Here is the town hall in Newmarket:

NewmarketO town hall
The wireless operator was Sergeant Ernest Walter Hamilton. His flying had started in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and his Service Number was 1238004. Strangely the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has no further details that I can find about Sergeant Hamilton.
The two gunners are both named. I suspect that Pilot Officer Arthur Stevens was the mid-upper turret gunner. He was by far the oldest of the crew at an almost ancient 37 years of age. His Service Number was 87717, a lowish number which probably shows more years in the RAF than the rest of the crew. Arthur was the son of Mr Herbert Frank and Mrs Ethel Mary Stevens. He had a wife, Celia Frances Stevens and the family all lived in Richmond in Surrey. Arthur at least though, would not be taking any more books out of the library, or watching any more humorous plays at the local theatre:

Richmond_Theatre_libraryzzzzzz

The young man named last in the crew list, and most probably therefore, the rear gunner, was Sergeant Frederick George Francis Osborne. Frederick was only 19 years old when he was killed. Like many of his fellow members of the crew, he had been in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. His Service Number was 1395421 and he was the much loved young son of Mr and Mrs Frederick Osborne, of Kendrick Mews, South Kensington, in the City of London:

_Kensington_mews

I tried to find out some background details about these seven young men who so willingly laid down their young lives to defeat the scourge of Hitler’s Germany. I would have to say that I was not particularly successful except for the following extract, which captures brilliantly well why so many people even nowadays, some seventy years later, still want to find out about the wartime heroes in their family.

I would not normally quote somebody else at length in an article, but I think you will see why I have done so when you read it. This is taken from a website entitled “The Wartime Memories Project – RAF Elsham Wold during the Second World War”. It contains a page about Elsham Wolds and another one about 103 Squadron. If you have any information to give Mr Osborne, you can do it via this link here. Anyway, here’s what he wrote:

“Freddie Osbourne was a member of Sergeant W.L.Bradley’s crew, Lancaster 111, JB745 PM-1,shot down en route to Leipzig. He was only 19, whereas his other gunner colleague was 37. Sadly, I have no photograph of him or his aircraft. As a young lad, I used to go out with his Father, Fred Osborne, helping him with his flower deliveries on a Saturday morning, but neither he, nor my Aunt Grace, would ever talk of him, and it has taken a lifetime to find details of him via a good friend with splendid connections, who handed me many details. It appears that both Aunt and Uncle were too grief stricken to ever mention their only child to anyone, even family. If anyone surviving 103 squadron could give me some idea what Freddie was like as a lad of 19 doing a man’s job, and what he was like at the tail end of a gun, and how many German planes did he shoot down? I would love to know, as I am immensely proud of him. If anybody knows of a picture of him, I will gladly pay for a copy and all expenses. He died on the 20th.February, 1944 and I consider it my duty to pay his grave a visit in Hanover, as a mark of respect to him and the other members of the crew.
Sadly, bad health has held me back for some time, but I will get there somehow. Thank you in anticipation.
Terence Osborne”

You may think that this was the worst thing to happen to one of 103 Squadron’s Lancasters during  the Leipzig raid, but you would be wrong. Sadly and tragically, very, very wrong.

One final word. All of the websites I have used can be reached through the links above. I could not have produced this article, however, without recourse to the superb books by W.R.Chorley. Their detail is almost unbelievable and I would urge anyone interested by the bomber war to think seriously of purchasing at least one of them. The books bring home just how many young men were killed in Bomber Command during the Second World War. When the first book in the series arrived at our home, my daughter thought it contained all the casualties for the whole war, but, alas, it was just 1944.

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RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Two

In a previous article, I wrote of how I had visited the RAF airbase where my Dad, Fred, had served during the Second World War, RAF Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire. Look for the orange arrow:

small scale

Not much of the original airfield was left, just a single aircraft hangar, which looked like a very large Nissen hut and was now painted white.
Very little else remained of 103 Squadron’s old home, beyond various stretches of derelict runway, now mostly covered in huge piles of builder’s rubble. Half of one runway has Severn Trent Water Authority buildings standing on it. The other end has a metal fence built over it. A second runway has a major road, the A15, constructed more or less right on top of it:

the new road
If you knew where to look, and could recognise what they were, there were still quite a number of disused dispersal points. Overall, it seemed a very long time indeed since those dark painted bombers had taken off, every single one of them straining their Merlin engines for altitude as they passed low over the village of Elsham. Within just a few miles of Elsham is Reed’s Island, a distinctively shaped land mass, situated in the estuary of the River Humber. Look for the orange arrow. When they were flying back to base, like all the other members of the squadron, the pilot of Fred’s aircraft used it as a rough and ready aid to navigation. Note Elsham village in the bottom right of the map:

reads island

Fifty years later, I myself was to visit Reed’s Island, not as a wireless operator / air gunner, but as a birdwatcher / twitcher, to see a rare Kentish Plover, which was spending the winter there:

K-Plover

In Fred’s time, the man in charge of Bomber Command was Arthur Harris:

Bomber-Harris-595x781
According to Fred, Harris, who was usually known to his men not so much as “Bomber”, but rather as “Butcher” or “Butch” Harris, was an absolute tartar. Whenever he came across a bomber which was not in service, he wanted to know why it was still being repaired, why it was not yet back in action, and when would it be possible for it to return to dropping bombs on the Germans.

Despite much encouragement from members of his own staff, Harris did not often visit airbases, because he felt that all the painting and decorating which would be carried out for his arrival was something which would inevitably interrupt the much more important business of killing the enemy.
Fred always used to say that he had actually seen Harris, though, and my subsequent researches have revealed that the great man did in actual fact visit Elsham Wolds, on September 16th 1943 to speak to 103 Squadron. He was greeted with sustained cheering by everyone present, and I presume that this must have been the occasion when Fred saw him.

And sure enough, Harris spent much of his time at Elsham Wolds trying to find out why aircraft were being repaired, how long the work would take, and exactly when they would be back on strength, ready to drop bombs on the Germans.
In actual fact, Fred had been very lucky to have seen Harris. Despite those constant urgings by his fellow officers, he was only ever to make around six visits to Bomber Command airbases during the whole time that he was the head of that formidable organisation.
Fred never mentioned to me any of the men he met during his time at operational bomber airfields, although I do remember that he once mentioned the presence of a Jamaican pilot with 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds, presumably because this man was black, which would have been unusual in Bomber Command at the time.
Years later, totally by coincidence, I was surprised to see in “Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War”, that on February 15th 1944, a Lancaster Mk III, ND 363, with the squadron letters PM-A of 103 Squadron, took off from Elsham at 17.10 to bomb Berlin. The plane was shot down by a night fighter two minutes before eleven o’clock, crashing into the sea near the island of Texel in Holland. The entire crew was killed. Among them was Squadron Leader Harold Lester Lindo who, although he was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, was actually from Sligoville in Jamaica. Lindo was not, however, a pilot but a navigator. Another Caribbean navigator was Cy Grant, who came from British Guiana and arrived in England to join the RAF in 1941. After undergoing initial training, he too was posted in 1943, to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds, as one of the seven-man crew of an Avro Lancaster bomber. Here he is:

grant

I have mentioned before the risks of bombing Germany, statistically four times more dangerous than attacking anywhere else in the rest of occupied Europe. In 1943, for example, in some squadrons, losses in the Battle of Berlin sometimes ran as high as twenty per cent. At Elsham Wolds, 103 Squadron had the lowest losses in 1 Group but they still lost 31 Lancasters in the Battle of Berlin, with, perhaps, 217 men killed. At the time, Bomber Command pilots, of course, received the princely sum of £5 per week for their efforts, with other members of the crew paid correspondingly less.
During his time at Elsham Wolds, Fred conceivably came across the record holding Lancaster in Bomber Command, although I do know that he never flew in it on an operation. ED888 was to carry out an unprecedented 140 bombing raids over enemy territory:

db_Mike_Squared_Flying1

This legendary Lancaster began its operational career on the night of May 4th 1943, initially in B Flight of 103 squadron, where she was known as “M-Mother”. In November 1943, to mark its fiftieth operation, the aircraft was awarded her very own Distinguished Flying Cross. When she then passed into Elsham’s second squadron, 576 squadron, she became known as “Mike Squared”. To commemorate her completion of one hundred sorties, the aircraft duly received a Distinguished Service Order. By now she had returned to 103 squadron and was known unofficially as “M-Mother-of-them-all”. Eventually to complete 140 operations with two Luftwaffe fighters shot down, ED888 finally received a Bar to her Distinguished Flying Cross:

ED888M

The aircraft was struck off charge on January 8, 1947 and scrapped without the slightest thought of preservation in a museum. Yet she was the greatest Lancaster of them all.
The only part of “M-Mother” which remains nowadays is, in fact, her bomb release cable, which was taken off the aircraft in 1947 by Flight Lieutenant John Henry, one of three Australian brothers, who were all in 103 squadron and who did, on one particular operation, all fly together to bomb Cologne. Flight Lieutenant Henry flew “M-Mother” on its very last trip down to the Maintenance Unit at RAF Tollerton in Nottinghamshire, where it was finally broken up:

mike squared

Not everything was hearts and flowers in Bomber Command though. My Dad once had a trick played on him by men who perhaps should have known better, but who could be forgiven a lot for finding any way whatsoever of dealing with some appalling events.

One day, on an unknown airfield in an unknown year, probably towards the beginning of his air force career and possibly at Elsham Wolds, the young Fred was approached by one of his superiors, perhaps a Flight Sergeant. Fred was told that he had to come and help get the Squadron Leader back from the runway. He innocently thought that it would merely be a matter of going out and telling the man, politely, that he was now needed to come inside. Fred did wonder, however, about the strange objects they were carrying out there onto the vast expanse of tarmac:

tipped on xxxxxx

Fred could not see anybody at all as he stepped out onto the runway. They walked further and further. Suddenly Fred realised why they were equipped with a sack and a shovel. The Squadron Leader was out on the runway, but was, unfortunately, no longer a living, recognisable, human being.
The poor man had been the victim of a crash as he came in to land, and was now just a collection of smears of what Fred described to me years later as “lumps of hairy strawberry jam”. He was picked up with the shovel, put into the sack, and then the two young men went back to their own lives.
As I found out in later life from various books I had read, this term, “strawberry jam”, was frequently used by members of Bomber Command to refer to the residue remaining after what might nowadays be termed “catastrophic and large scale injuries to personnel”.
The phrase typifies the kind of outcome one can expect when the human body is placed in a heavy metal machine travelling at hundreds of miles an hour, and there are then sudden and calamitous problems:

hali

Perhaps Fred himself was familiar from his own father, Will, with the Great War equivalent of this Second World War expression. The Great War was fought with big guns, huge artillery pieces, and most men were killed when a shell landed and blew them to smithereens, “knocked to spots” as the soldiers of the day grimly called it:

gun
It has been suggested elsewhere, of course, that this use of slang to describe being killed, in what were frequently the most horrendous of fashions, was a sub-conscious means of reducing the natural fears of these brave young men of Bomber Command. If, therefore, you “got the chop”, “went for a beer”, “went for a burton”, “your number came up”, “you met the Reaper”, or as the Americans in the Eighth Air Force used to say, “bought a farm”, the expressions became events no more sinister than the other famous slang expressions of the RAF, such as Wizzo” or “Wizard”, “Crackerjack”, “ops” “kites”, “props”, “sprogs” and the one which has come down all those years to our own time, “Gremlins”.

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A trip around my Dad’s past: RAF Elsham Wolds

My Dad, Fred, used to tell me many tales of his years in the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, and, as I grew older, stimulated perhaps by the increased interest generally in the Second World War, I made great efforts to find out the exact details of where he had served and what exactly he had done. This proved quite a challenge. Here he is with a few of his unduly optimistic friends during basic training:FRED WAS

I do know that Fred served with 103 Squadron, probably in late 1943 and/or early 1944. This was the time of the Battle of Berlin which lasted from November 1943 to March 1944. My Dad did not take part in this titanic, and ultimately losing, struggle where 2,690 aircrew were killed in action and nearly a thousand became Prisoners of War. Bomber losses ran at 5.8% which is generally considered unsustainable. Crew morale was extremely low because of these huge casualties over “The Big City” as it was called, and luckily for him, Fred was never asked to bomb Berlin. Fred considered this to be the sole reason that he survived the war.

Here is the badge of 103 Squadron. The motto means “Don’t touch me”:

badge

Fred spent his time with 103 Squadron at RAF Elsham Wolds which is between Scunthorpe and Grimsby, two places neither of which have ever been described as the Paris of the North, shall we say?  Indeed, at the end of the conflict, one of my Dad’s great resentments, whatever he achieved against such a mad and bad enemy as the Germans were at that time, was that, like all the young men of Bomber Command, he knew damn well that they had all been forced to waste the best years of their lives, all of their youth, not pursuing pretty young girls at the village dance, but sitting in a Nissen hut in the middle of nowhere, feeling freezing cold and scared to death of a dangerous and precarious future. Fred’s twenty-first birthday, for example, had been celebrated, or rather, not celebrated, on a lonely, cold airfield in the middle of nowhere, far from his family. A definition which certainly would fit Elsham Wolds.
Here is Elsham Wolds on June 26th 1943, seen from about 10,000 feet up. Look for the three runways forming a huge triangle in the middle of the photo, and, on the right, five of the many circular dispersal points where the Lancaster bombers would wait impatiently for night to fall :

June 26 1943

And here is a Nissen hut, named after Mr Nissen:

nissen

Today, very little remains of RAF Elsham Wolds. A major road, the A15, has been built more or less right through the middle of it, and on top of the majority of one runway. There is a single hangar left, apparently a J-type. Look for the orange arrow, pointing to the hangar:

elsham

It’s a funny feeling, though, to see a wartime building that your Dad would have known and no doubt loved when he was just nineteen or twenty years of age:

P1300101 xxxxxxx J type

Here I have made gallant attempts to match up the aerial photograph of RAF Elsham Wolds in 1943 with the present countryside. The orange arrow still marks the J-type hangar. One runway has obviously disappeared under the A15. On the Ordnance Survey Map look for the number “78” and then the irregularly shaped four sided area to the left of it. It is bordered with yellow minor roads. You may be able to pick this distinctive shape out on the 1943 photograph:

 

This is half of the runway which, on the Ordnance Survey map, has the radio mast symbol on it. The buildings have something to do with the Severn Trent Water Authority, but were seemed to be  unoccupied during our visit:

severn trent

This is the runway which runs more or less west to east, if you refer back to the Ordnance Survey map. It has now become a dumping ground for builders’ rubble:

tipped on xxxxxx

This is the Perimeter Track, or “Peri-track” running toward the start of the runway. When they set off on a mission, all the bombers would taxi slowly along the “Peri-track” to the start of whichever runway they were using that night:

peri track

The laws of trespass are quite different in England to many countries. Here, more or less, you can go wherever you want, provided you leave when you are asked to. Only too easy then, to take a Volvo saloon off the road, over ten yards of gravel, on to the old “Peri-track” and then round and off to the start of the runway. Here is where the bombers waited to take off:

wait to take off xxxxxxxxxxxx

Unfortunately, some idiot vandal builder has built a metal fence to stop me attempting a proper take-off so I have to stop the car and just drink in the scenery:

take off xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Nevertheless, let’s give it a go!

And I certainly knew what to do in my Lancaster. Accelerate as hard as possible. Keep your eye on the speed.  When it reaches 130 mph, a gentle dab on the brakes and then, lift off. You’re on your way. Seriously though, it was good to think that I might have been doing exactly what Dear Old Dad had done 60 plus years ago. In a Lancaster, of course, not a Volvo:

010BD127_5056_A318_A8C78A0799237BD9

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