John David Fletcher entered the High School on September 17th 1931. He was born on March 22nd 1920. He was eleven years old. His father was John Fletcher, a Captain in the Royal Artillery Reserve who lived at 16, Edingley Avenue in Sherwood, Nottingham.
Edingley Avenue is just a brisk ten minute walk from where I sit now, drinking coffee and eating biscuits. John Fletcher left the High School in December 1936:
Young John Fletcher was yet another Old Nottinghamian to answer the “Call of the Skies” when the Second World War broke out. Initially, like so many others, he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, but he soon progressed to an active squadron, namely 97 (Straits Settlements) Squadron. Here is their badge:
97 Squadron operated Avro Lancaster B.Is and B.IIIs at Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Here is one of their aircraft, bearing the squadron letter, “E-Elizabeth”:
By April 1943, they had become a Pathfinder Force squadron, tasked with using flares to mark targets for the rest of the bombers. By now, John was Flight Lieutenant Fletcher, serving as a Rear Gunner on a number of raids over both France and Germany.
In actual fact, John made a very promising start to his career as a rear gunner, a “tail end charlie”, one of the most dangerous jobs in any armed force during World War Two. At one point, there was a life expectancy on active service of a mere four operations, or perhaps two weeks, for every Rear Gunner.
A search through the Operations Book for 97 Squadron shows what he did in terms of operations. He was involved mostly in bombing communications targets in France to prevent the Germans moving troops to oppose the D-Day landings.
I have transcribed the Operations Book more or less intact, so you might need a dictionary:
3 May 1944 — Mailly-Le-Camp
ND346O Up 2204 Down 0343.
6 clusters 7” flares, 8 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” flares. Very slight haze, nil cloud, vis good. RSFs seen on target. Original Oboe marker wide, then one RSF dropped on aiming point; this was backed up by more RSFs. Early bombing was wide but later improved and sticks were seen to burst across the RSFs. Bombing on whole very successful and two definite areas of fire resulted.
7-8 May 1944 – Tours Airfield
ND452S Up 0040 Down 0517.
6 x 7” cluster flares, 8 x TI RSF, 3 x 4.5” reco flares. Weather and identification as above. Two first RSF were on aiming point but just off the hangars at 0250 hours. Ordered to back this up and out own fires were seen to fall right on hangar buildings. Other backers up well placed but one slightly undershot. Most of bombing very accurate. Some explosions seen, one appeared to be a fuel dump.
10-11 May 1944 – Lille
ND452S Up 2204 Down 0104.
6 x 7” clusters, 1 x 4000lb HC, 8 x 500lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares. Weather over Lille – cloud, vis moderate. Target located by RSFs. Flares down on time. RSF obscured at time of bombing. Only one message heard
19/20 May 1944 – Amiens
ND346T Up 2316 Down 0255.
11 x 7” clusters, 3 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares. Located target by flares and RSF through 8-9/10ths cloud. First run, one or two RSF near target. Flares scattered. Yellow markers not seen. Glow seen through cloud only. Identified target on second run. No spot fires at all. Raid called off 0125 hours. Gee faded out at enemy coast until re-crossing on return journey.
22/23 May 1944 – Brunswick
ND346T Up 2251 Down 0257.
12 x 7” flares, 1 x 2000lb HC. Gee u/s after 3 degrees east at 2347 hours. Icing experienced in very thivk cumulus 5217N 0121E, 2316 hours, 6,000’. Endeavoured unsuccessfully to avoid; late at enemy coast, crossed at 12,000’, got off track, ran in to large belt of searchlights, lost 30-40 minutes trying to break through and decided too late to reach target in time to bomb anywhere near H-hour, so decided to return to base. Soon afterwards, Bomb Aimer found unconscious. Navigator took over H2S and soon discovered correct position. Gee came in again at 0209, thence plotted on Gee. Bomb Aimer still in complete daze when aircraft landed at base.
24/25 May 1944 – Eindhoven (Phillips Works)
NE625O Up 2256 Down 0218.
12 x 7” clusters, 2 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares. Received orders to abandon exercise 0038 hours on VHF. Confirmed by W/T at 0039 hours.
27/28 May 1944 – St Valery-en-Caux
ME625O Up 2357 Down 0301.
12 x 7 x 4.5” clusters, 2 x 1000lb MC, 3 x 4.5 reco flares. Slight ground haze. Target identified by Gee. First flares dropped about ¾ mile west of town. Two minutes later more flares called for, which fell over town; RSF then put down. At 0145 hours, VHF order and two red verey cancelled. At 0153 ordered to bomb on or near RSF. Appeared very good attack.
3/4 June 1944 – Ferme D’Urville
A small but important wireless station just south east of the Cherbourg Peninsula.
ME625O Up 2307 Down 0241.
9 x TI Green No 23, 1 x TI Green No 16, 2 x TI Yellow No 16, 1 x 4000lb HC, 2 x 500lb MC. Weather clear, visibility good. Target identified by red and green TI. On arrival aircraft was too close to make accurate run on first red TI (down at 0058.18 hours). So made second run and backed up green TI with bombs because Controller said marking was okay, so third run was unnecessary. Only one backing up wave was requested or needed. Second Oboe TI red fell at 0059 hours. First red was on target and second to north of it. Green TIs covered whole target area between red TIs and Main Force bombing almost obliterated first marker, so aircraft actually bombed second red TI. Target disappeared under smoke and bomb flashes. One or two bombs fell in sea but concentration appeared good and accurate. No wind correction was necessary; Controller appeared satisfied from the start though no assessment was heard. No second backing up wave requested.
5/6 June 1944 – La Peanelle (in conjunction with 83 Sq
ME625O Up 2228 Down 0356
10 x TI green No 16, 4 x 1000lb MC. 7/10ths cloud at two layers at 10,000’ and 5,000’. Visibility fair. Located target by red TI. Oboe marker could not be seen, aircraft orbited and as it was 13 minutes late on run, dropped bombs on green TI, backing up green TI adjacent to two red TIs which had previously given out. Stood off awaiting instructions from Controller who had stopped bombing just after aircraft had released. Bombing appeared inaccurate, some sticks a few miles south, some out to sea, possibly due to cloud layer. Illuminating flares poor.
6/7 June 1944 – Argentan
ME625O Up 2332 Down 0326.
9 x 7 x 4.5” clusters, 6 x 500lb MC, 3 x 4.5” reco flares. Target Argentan, northern aiming point, tops 8,500’, 6,000’ base. Haze below. Located by markers. Flares (which we were only to drop on order) not needed. Target marked with RSF assessed as 40 yards/360 from aiming point. Ordered to bomb 0132.5 hours. Bombing seemed excellent although target very smoky.
9/10 June 1944 – Etampes
Up 2157 Down 0209.
9 x 7” flares, 7 x 500lb MC, 2 x 500lb MC (LD), 3 x reco flares. 10/10ths cloud, base 7,500’. Slight haze below. Location by markers. First flares released on Oboe. heard over VHF at 0001 hours, also on W/T (same time). Ordered to bomb most easterly green with 200 yards under shoot at 0011 hours, after target had been re-marked. Green in bomb sight and a RSF beyond it further east with another green west of green bombed. Unable to assess attack owing to smoke.
12/13 June 1944 – Poitiers
ND625O Up 2232 Down 0431.
9 x 7” clusters, 1 x 1000lb TI red, 1 x 1000lb MC, 4 reco flares. Sky patchy, thin stratus, some haze. Identified target by markers. Over target marking flare run, Controller asked Backer 1 (0142.5 hours) to drop red TI on aiming point west of RSF already down. Position as described by Controller was two RSF in line with green TI between slightly nearer most north-easterly RSF, all three being in line along direction of railway but on easterly side of it. Our marker assessed as 40 yards west of aiming point (0148 hours). Instructions for bombing followed immediately. Further flares cancelled. Own run for MC bombs okay. Bombing appeared very successful. A few sticks fell exceptionally wide in centre of town. Controller assessed quickly and accurately.
By Friday, June 23rd 1944, young Flight Lieutenant Fletcher was becoming quite a veteran with twelve “ops” behind him, a commendable total for a rear gunner. That afternoon though, between half past three and four, he was killed, not in action over Germany, but practicing close formation flying with five other Lancasters over Deeping Fen in quiet, rural Cambridgeshire. John was just twenty-four years of age:
Needless to say, as I was not a witness to all of these dreadful events, this article could not have been written without using the series of excellent books by W.R.Chorley, and a number of other websites.
Part Two to follow in the near future.