Tag Archives: Leipzig

RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Four

I wrote a previous article about the, sadly, rather typical loss of an Avro Lancaster of 103 Squadron, based at Elsham Wolds. The aircraft took off from north Lincolnshire at precisely one minute past midnight on February 20th 1944. It was on its way to bomb Leipzig, a very, very long trip lasting eight hours, most of it over the Third Reich itself. This raid involved more than 900 aircraft with the highest losses of the war so far, 78 aircraft destroyed, a loss rate of 9.55 %.  The previous worst total was the 58 aircraft lost over Magdeburg on January 21st-22nd 1943:

300px-Royal_Air_Force_Bomber_Command,_1942-1945__C5083

I was saddened to see however, during my researches into the fate of PM-I, JB745, that, on that very night, an even more tragic incident had occurred, not over Germany, but over the airfield itself. As they returned unscathed from this rather unsuccessful raid on Leipzig, therefore, two Lancasters collided with each other.
One was the Avro Lancaster Mk III, JB530, PM-F. The aircraft had taken off at 11:22 pm., and was preparing to land. Given the timings of the raid, this incident must have taken place at around 7.00-8.00 am. I would have thought that, at this time of year, it cannot have been absolutely pitch black, and, even though it was February, there must surely have been some light. Lancaster JB530 was heavily damaged in the collision with the other Lancaster, but the pilot, Flight Sergeant H.Gumbrell used all of his skills to bring the aircraft down without serious damage to the members of the crew. These were Sergeant T.V.Shaw, Flying Officer H.J. Hearn, Sergeant F.Osborne, Flight Sergeant J.Seward, Sergeant D.W.Evans and Sergeant R.A.Boulton.
The second Lancaster Mk III, ND334, PM- unknown, did not fare quite so well. This aircraft had taken off a little later at 11:50 pm., and was also preparing to land.  The pilot, Warrant Officer JC Warnes escaped with injuries, as did the Mid-Upper Gunner, Sergeant S.Clapham, but everybody else was killed. These included 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
Searching in more detail on the Internet, I found the following information on an archived page from the older of presumably two, DCBoard Forums of “RAF Commands”. It was written, from what I can make out, by “Greg” a guest on the forum in December 2003. Clearly, Greg has been able to access the official accident report:

“JB530 was struck in mid-air by ND334. The report is a little unclear, but it looks like permission by the Flying Control Officer (FCO) was given to JB530 to land first, and then permission was given for the other aircraft,ND334, to land, BEFORE JB530 had actually touched down on the runway. The Court of Inquiry suggests that this was due to a lack of flying discipline at the airfield, and also added that crews must keep a better lookout. The report also has the Air Officer Commanding’s comments, to the effect that Flying Control Officers must not depart from the normal procedure for landings. The report states that the accident was caused by the Flying Control Officer departing from the normal procedure.”

If this is true, then it is, quite simply, disgraceful. Five young men lost their lives because of a careless mistake. This wasn’t the fog of war. This was what should have been standard procedure for the Flying Control Officer.
In the early days when my Dad was first in the RAF, he told me that, when he had looked at the idea of becoming an Officer, the first question he was asked was “What school did you go to?” He said to me that “As soon as I said ‘Woodville Secondary Modern” (where all the pupils had to leave at thirteen) I knew I was wasting my time.”

wvilleupper

If only my Dad had been able to say “Eton” or “Harrow”, they might have promoted him:

eton-college xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

All I can say is that I just hope the Flying Control Officer in question did not get his job because of who his father was or which university he was educated at. To me, a mistake as basic as giving two different aircraft permission to land on the same runway at the same time is just stupid incompetence. And yes, I know that “these things happen in war”, but only if you give crucial jobs to people who are incapable of doing them.
Sergeant Donald Henry James Cunningham was aged only 19 when he was killed and his death must have been a catastrophic blow to his parents, Mr Geoffrey Joseph and Mrs Alice Maud Cunningham. The family all lived in Hounslow, Middlesex. Donald was buried in Brigg Cemetery, only four miles from the airfield:

brfigg cemetery
Sergeant Anthony Oliver Haines was 26 years of age when he was killed. His grieving parents were Mr Francis Henry Claudian Haines and Mrs Florence Ethel Haines, who lived in Bristol. Young Anthony was also buried in Brigg Cemetery, along with Donald Cunningham and 48 other young casualties of war.
Flying Officer Ronald Harry Fuller was only 22 years old when he was killed. He was the much loved son of Mr Henry James Fuller and Mrs Florence Fuller. The family all lived in Marylebone in London. Young Ronald was buried in Cambridge City Cemetery where 1,007 other young casualties of the two World Wars all lie:cambrigde vity cem

Flight Sergeant Charles Bagshaw was also only 22 years old when he was killed. He was the beloved son of Mr Charles Garrett Bagshaw and Mrs Sarah Bagshaw, of Urmston, a small town in Trafford, Greater Manchester. He is buried in his hometown cemetery where his grave bears the inscription, “He died that others might live”. He is with 59 other casualties of the two World Wars in this little town of only 41,000 people.
Sergeant Edward Sandilands Gunn was only 21 years old when he was killed. His parents were Mr Edward Sandilands Gunn and Mrs Bessie Gunn of Glasgow. Their son was returned to Scotland and now lies in the Glasgow Western Necropolis with 479 other young casualties of the two conflicts:

cemet

Edward’s brother David Sandilands Gunn was also in the RAF as a member of 612 Squadron, operating as a General Reconnaissance unit within RAF Coastal Command. David was killed on March 26th 1941, while flying an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley:

Armstrong_Whitworth_Whitley_in_flight_c1940

You may wonder about the name “Sandilands”. As far as I can ascertain, this was a Scottish clan name, here used as a first name.

Two things to finish, firstly a question. Was this the only catastrophic collision of two Lancaster bombers from 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds? Well, what do you think?

And then 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 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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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, Canada, History, Personal