Last time, I spoke about Frank Corner, and how he had been killed on June 7th 1944, when his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Lison, as a huge raft of bombers tried to bomb railway lines near Coutances and bridges around Caen in preparation for D-Day.
The young pilot of Avro Lancaster Mark III, squadron letters Z-NH and serial number NE150, was Pilot Officer Merrick George Munday Warren.
The Wireless Operator/Air Gunner was Sergeant Norman Charles Vezey Rooker, the beloved son of Charles Vezey Edward and Jessie Rooker, of Bournemouth in beautiful Hampshire. He was only twenty years of age.
Sergeant Maurice Hardy Wigham was a little older at thirty three. He was the mid-upper gunner, the much loved son of Thomas N and Eleanor Wigham of Shotley Bridge near County Durham. Maurice was the loving husband of Margaret Wigham of Parkestone in Dorset.
Sergeant Ralph Lionel Puckett was the rear gunner. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website reveals, unusually, virtually nothing about this man.
Other members of the crew included the navigator, Flying Officer John Drylie who actually survived the crash and became what is classified an “evader”. This is somebody who is not captured by the enemy, but who, by one means or another, is able to return behind his own lines. In the case of Flying Officer Drylie, he was back in Britain by July 19th 1944.
The final crew member was Flight Sergeant Stanley Kevin Black of the Royal Australian Air Force:
He was the Bomb Aimer, and he was only twenty one years of age. He too survived the crash, and came out of the wreckage virtually unscathed.
I will tell the two very differing stories of these two young men in the very near future.
The five members of the Lancaster crew who died with their aircraft, including Flight Sergeant Corner, were originally buried in the cemetery of the little village of St Jean de Daye.
The brave citizens of St Jean de Daye managed to find a British flag and a Tricolore to drape over the coffins, and the five flyers were all given a full military funeral. All the little children of the village planted British flags around their grave.
There were lots of German troops around at this time, so this act by the villagers was an unbelievably brave thing to do. Had the Germans, particularly the SS, found out, they would quite simply have shot all of them without hesitation. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of French villagers massacred by the Germans between June 6th and the time the Nazi invaders all left French soil for good:
It should also be put on record that 106 Squadron lost one other Avro Lancaster III during this operation. It was ND680, ZN-P, which had also taken off from Metheringham in Lincolnshire. The runway is still there today, albeit in poor repair:
Most of the crew parachuted out of the stricken aircraft:
The pilot, Squadron Leader Eric Sprawson, the Navigator, Flying Officer Richard RC Barker and the Bomb Aimer, Flying Officer EL Hogg, were all sheltered by French families in the outskirts of Caen. When the town was liberated after a five week wait, at the end of July, they were able to rejoin their squadron. Sadly, both gunners were killed. These were Pilot Officer Philip Sydney Arnold and Sergeant Edward Ernest James Wiggins. The Flight Engineer, Sergeant K Anderton and the Wireless Operator, WD Low, became German prisoners, both in Stalag Luft 7. in Bankau, Silesia, Germany. Anderton became Prisoner 288 and Low was Prisoner 465.
This account, apparently taken from a newspaper of the time, takes up the story of the pilot, Squadron Leader Eric Sprawson DFC:
“A Lancaster bomber pilot from London, Squadron Leader E. Sprawson, D.F.C., wearing patched blue overalls and a dirty scarf told a Reuter correspondent of his adventurous introduction to the old Norman city and of his five weeks visit there with friendly French civilians before British troops arrived and threw the Germans out:
I was shot down by a fighter over Caen on D-Day. Five of us baled out, I don’t know if the two gunners made it or not. French civilians who had just got out of the centre of Caen to avoid bombing happened to be in the field where I landed. They had me out of uniform into these clothes within twenty minutes of my landing. They were very brave people with plenty of guts and determination. They had realised what would happen if I was caught, I would have been taken prisoner and they would be shot for hiding me. We went back into their house in the town and they treated me as a member of the family. I had no rations, so they insisted on sharing theirs with me. We were lucky and lived on the produce from a little allotment, the milk from a couple of cows and the very limited rations distributed daily to the townspeople. I got two square meals a day. My chief worry was to know what to do. Allied broadcasts advised us to evacuate the town, but I could see myself trickling into Switzerland by about 1946 and decided to stay where I was in the hope that our troops would arrive before long.
Another idea was to move into open country out of the way of concentrated bombing and shelling. But being British and individual, I thought I would have much more trouble concealing my identity. There was only one really bad bombing. I was right in the middle of it. I walked through Caen twice when it was full of Germans:
Though I speak French and could make myself understood I could never have passed myself off as a Frenchman. One night when we were in the cellar of the house in Rue de Moulin, jutting on to the main thoroughfare of Boulevard Des Alliés, a great deal of scuttling about by the Germans took place. They had lots of armed patrols slinking along the streets while the crowd jostled south. For the last fortnight civilians in Caen had been living for this day. We heard the Allied Soldiers were two miles away, and then one mile. But there was still no sign until this morning. A 12-year-old boy rushed in to me and said very excitedly, “Here are the Allies!” I went out and saw a British sergeant. I told him I was British, but it was difficult for him to believe me. I. showed him my identification papers and told him to put me under arrest if he had any doubts. He put me in the charge of an officer who took me to the colonel of the regiment.
My friends in Caen had spread the tale that I was a Frenchman who had lost everything and was so shocked that I was unable to speak. Until this morning other French civilians with whom I had come in contact daily did not know I was English. There were collaborationists about who would have reported me at once if they had heard me talk. Most of the French in Caen were definitely for us. They realised that the bombing was necessary, and were determined to accept it as worthwhile, although after some of the heaviest raids it was understandable they would occasionally let slip a few nasty things, And now I am longing to be in uniform again and have another smack at Jerry.”
Here is Eric Sprawson himself: