Chapter 7: 'Yours in memory'
On the Wings of the Morning
For several weeks 5 Group crews had been practising low level formation flying for what was to be another of Bomber Command’s forays into daylight operations. Section Officer Marie Cooper flew with the crews on training flights whenever the opportunity arose, and her unofficial logbook records an entry which casts an interesting light on the preparations for the raid. The entry, headed ‘Low Level Formation Flying Practice’ reads:
4.05 Hours with Flight Lieutenant Ings. Very lively. Birds fell off trees, ducks ran into ponds etc,
Flight Lieutenant S.E. ‘Pat’ Pattinson recalled:
The most terrible briefing we had was 11th July 1942 – we were told we were going on a daylight raid. We went into the crew room to wait for the briefing – we thought we would pull a few legs you see! We put in a course to Hamburg in daylight, we thought that would shake the boys, all sitting back rather complacently, The Duty Officer came in and said ‘Who’s the optimist?’. It was actually Danzig!
The planned attack on the U-Boat yards at Danzig in Poland would entail a round trip of 1,500 miles, the deepest penetration yet undertaken by Bomber Command and, because of the short summer nights, it was obvious that the raid could not be made in darkness. The plan therefore called for the aircraft to take off in daylight, form up in ‘Vee’ formation, and set course over the North Sea at low level. In this way they would not appear on German radar until the last possible minute, and if attacked, would be better able to protect each other. Predicted cloud over Denmark would shield them as they gained height for the final leg of the journey and began their runs. Around five o’clock that Saturday afternoon ten Lancasters led by Wing Commander Jeffs took off in quick succession and, circling overhead, formed up and set course eastwards. Unfortunately, before long cloud and drizzle began to make formation flying difficult, and afraid of collisions, they went their separate ways, anxiously straining their eyes in the gloom. Sergeant Peter Rae, the 21- year-old Glaswegian mid-upper gunner on Arthur Read’s crew vividly remembered flying for hours in the ‘clag’ before suddenly emerging into a vast amphitheatre between cloud banks. Briefly, he saw another Lancaster ahead of them in the distance before it disappeared into a magnificent white wall of cloud. This was the only other aircraft they had seen, and since they had lost their leader and were unsure of their position they decided to turn back, as did four others, Frank Roper, flying EM-H recalled:
Formation flying was impossible.’ We started out with ten aircraft flying low, below 10,000 feet, and out over the North Sea we got down to 100 feet or less, But it was just impossible to fly formation at that level with miserable weather and miserable visibility, so the formation just kind of broke up, I elected to go up to a higher altitude to see if we could get above it. By the time we got to Denmark we were at something like between 10-12,000 feet, and all of a sudden everything opened up, there was a big clear area, and we could clearly see the airport at Flensburg, and .. could see fighters taking of! At that point we headed for Sweden, and on the way joined a five plane V-formation from another squadron. Very shortly we ran into a cloud bank, and when we came out the other side we were in the No. 2 position on the left instead of the No. 5 position on the right! That was enollgll to tell us there was no sense trying to fly any kind of formation …
Bobby Weatherall wrote in his diary:
Had dinner and am told we are doing a daylight raid. Briefed at two, and what a trip! Formed up and away we went. Plenty of cloud at first and then bright sunshine. About half an hour out we really ran into it, Rain and thunderstorms came our way from then on. Hit our target in bright sunshine, and then it happened. Ran in at 6,000 feet and they really shot hell out of uS. I thought my time had come. Dropped our bomb load smack on them, and then put the nose down to the tune of 330 mph. Same trip back – rain and lightning. Got back at 2.30 am. We were up for a stretch of ten hours, One crew is missing, although four of us got to the target from here. Had supper, then down to my bunk to thank God for a safe return.
As Weatherall remarked, the flak had been murderous, but despite the fierce opposition only two of the 44 Lancasters taking part were lost, both over the target area. One of them was 207’s Z-Zebra piloted by 26-year-old Flight Sergeant George Duke. As a postscript to this raid, a party had been organized in the Sergeants’ Mess for that Saturday evening, and knowledge of this prompted Peter Rae and fellow crew members to exhort their skipper to ‘stuff the nose down’ to get back in time for the festivities. They landed at 2121, and following debriefing hurried up to the Mess still in flying boots, only to discover that the party was all but over. Their disappointment was slightly tempered by the fact that the female guests seemed to find their attire appealing, and they were soon surrounded by eager WAAFs!
The early hours of July 22nd 1942 saw the first of three raids in quick succession on Duisberg in the Ruhr Valley. The crews were again briefed for Duisberg on the afternoon of the 23rd, take-off being set for the early hours of the following morning. However, Duisberg was shielded by cloud and the bombing poor, Five aircraft failed to return out of the 215 taking part, only two of them Lancasters, both ironically from 207 Squadron. Even more ironic was the fact that they were flown by two very good friends, ‘Mac’ McCarthy and George Hawes. McCarthy’s R5867 T-Tommy crashed at Baerl on the Dutch-German border and the crew were buried together at Krefeld. Just days before, McCarthy’s mid-upper gunner Flight Sergeant ‘Roger’ Rowland had made a special trip back to his home town, Leicester, to collect the engagement ring which he had intended to give to his girlfriend.
George Hawes’s R5632 N-Nuts was never seen again. Six of the crew are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. The seventh, the 33-year-old Canadian bomb aimer Flight Sergeant T.C. Blair was washed ashore near Amsterdam on October 12th. ‘Bill’ Blair’s sense of humour made him an extremely popular man, and he became a good friend of the Doubleday family in Bottesford village. He was a teetotaller and liked to sit with the Doubledays quietly reading, finding that this helped to ease the homesickness. Arthur Doubleday was the village builder and undertaker and the Hawes crew joined him in worship at the Methodist church whenever possible. They were also honoured guests at the wedding of his son. The poignant last letter written by Bill Blair to his family was characteristically simply but eloquently put:
Dear ones at home,
This letter I will leave in my locker and will only be posted if I don’t come back from one of these raids … At home there are all of you, thinking, working and praying that this war will end and that Gilbert and I will both come home to you. You are all playing as great a part as we are in this struggle of humane against the inhuman. When here, so far away from home and with considerable leisure time, one lives as much in the past as possible and as little in the future. In times like these I am very glad Mother for having been raised in a good Christian home and I am more than glad for my temperate habits. When I go out on these trips I think of what Dad said when he was at the end of his journey – ‘Don’t cry boys, take good care of your mother and Alice’, To this I add, your wives and wee ones; and remember whatever price I pay, I gladly pay, so that you may be happy and free.
Yours in memory, Clayton.
As a tragic footnote Bill’s brother Gilbert was killed a year later in the Italian campaign. Bobby Weatherall’s own flight that night with ‘Pat’ Pattinson had been cancelled due to magneto trouble. When he learned that his friends ‘Mac’ McCarthy, Bill Blair and George Hawes had failed to return he was devastated. He wrote in his diary:
24th July. Woke at 6 and saw George wasn’t back, After that I slept fitfully until 11 when the Station Police woke me and told me that George and Mac had not come back. I was stunned by the news; it coudn’t be. All my pals wiped out in on night. Gathered up George’s personal belongings. Went lip to the Mess and had dinner but couldn’t eat. I prayed to God that they are safe and sound. I’ll pay them back twice over for this.
25th July. I’d like to leave this page blank in memory of some great fellows, George, Bill and Mac, who all lived with me at some time or another. And to Percy (Hooper) and Leo (La Salle) and the rest of the fellows who I was proud to call my friends. We can only hope that you are prisoners, but in either case I’ll carry on and do my best to drop enough bombs to wreck Jerry for a long time … So cheerio fellows and keep plugging …
Bobby Weatherall went on to complete a second tour before being killed in 1944, aged just 23. He left a wife in Canada whom he had not seen since he embarked for England in 1941. The fate of these four friends epitomises the sacrifices of those from the ‘Dominions’.
Although August 1942 was a terrible month for casualties, Wednesday /Thursday 5/6th stood out as the worst single night. The veteran Ings crew were shot down by a nightfighter over Holland whilst returning from an attack on Essen. Ings had had a lucky escape when forced to ditch a Lancaster back in June, but in the meantime he had married, and Marie Cooper remembered being given the task of going to the hotel where he and his bride were staying in order to break the unhappy news that he was required for ‘ops’ that night. Her guilt for disturbing the happy couple was doubled when Ings was killed.
However, this was not all. Whilst some crews were on the Essen raid, several others new to the squadron were engaged in practice flights in the circuit. At five minutes past midnight on the morning of August 6th, Lancaster R5550 flown by Sergeant ES. Akerman landed, and because of repairs being undertaken on the perimeter track, was ordered by Flying Control to taxi back down the runway in use. Meanwhile, thinking that Akerman was already clear, permission was given for Manchester L7385 to land on the same runway. The two aircraft met head-on, there was an explosion, and although both the ambulance and fire tender raced to the scene, four aircrew had died instantly. A fifth died minutes later in the arms of the Medical Officer, Alan Ambrey-Smith. Amongst the dead were Frederick Akerman, pilot of the Lancaster and his flight engineer, who were both buried at St. Mary’s, Bottesford.
Miraculously, five crewmen had escaped from the collision alive, although with varying degrees of injury. The pilot of the Manchester, 20-year-old Sergeant Arthur Pearson, was admitted to the Burns Unit at the RAFhospital at Rauceby. He later returned to flying, but not operationally. Flight Sergeant Dick Ikin, sitting in the rear turret of the Lancaster suffered shock and concussion. His only recollection of the accident was of waking up briefly in the ambulance and seeing another airmen whose face was covered in blood, at which point he passed out again. Sent home to Brighton to convalesce, he stayed out later than usual one night and decided to catch a bus home. Unfortunately the driver was having none of it, and declared ‘This bus is for war-workers only!’, Dick lkin’s reply is not recorded …
By rights, Sergeant ‘Scotty’ Scott should have been with Dick lkin on board the Lancaster that night. He had joined 207 in November 1940 as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, and having lost his original crew early on, had flown as a ‘spare’· before being re-crewed with Akerman in July. However, since Akerman’s bomb aimer Sergeant Smart had originally trained as a wireless operator himself, he and Scotty decided that they would take it in turns to fly when on local exercises. With a night off, Scotty therefore got on his bicycle and rode off to Newark for the evening. He knew nothing of the incident until the next morning, when entering the ‘C’ Flight office to see if he was needed, Thos Murray looked up, surprised, and exclaimed, ‘What the hell are you doing here? You should be dead!’, Scotty has often reflected since what a wonderful greeting that was!
Five nights after the collision on the runways Flying Officer Speir and crew were lost without trace whilst carrying out a gardening sortie in the Kattegat. On the 12/13th the aircraft of Flight Sergeant Kane and Sergeant Fry failed to return. Four nights later it was Pilot Officer Southwell and Flight Sergeant Sutherland who went missing. Southwell in R5616 EM-J was shot down by a fighter off the coast of Denmark. One crew member, Sergeant Read, was brought ashore injured but the other six were killed. Anthony Southwell’s pregnant wife lived in rented accommodation in Bottesford village, a practice which was officially discouraged but widespread. It was a peculiarity of the bomber campaign that airmen often cycled to their aerodromes after lunch, exchanging their wives, homes and normality for a few hours’ war. Like the villagers, wives would listen for the rumble of the returning aircraft in the early hours. To them the biggest dread was a knock at the door.
Bad weather characterized the end of August, with the result that the number of last minute ‘scrubs’ began to rise again, However, local training could continue, and it was on one such flight that 207 Squadron suffered what were to be its last casualties at the unpopular aerodrome. In the early hours of August 19th, Flight Sergeant Fordwych was practising three engined overshoots when his Lancaster stalled at low level and hit the ground on the edge of Normanton, just beyond the threshold of the main runway. Wreckage littered the main road of the hamlet, and although there were miraculously no civilian casualties, all six crewmen were killed outright. Fordwych, aged 21, had come from Singapore to join the RAF, and he and his Australian engineer, John Murphy, were buried in the expanding Squadron plot at St. Mary’s.
By now it was obvious that the situation with regard to resurfacing and repairs could not continue. On August 15th six aircraft had operated from Swinderby because the only runway into the wind was unserviceable. On the 23rd the Squadron’s aircraft were officially detached to Syerston, whilst the conversion flight were sent to Swinderby. When by mid September there was still little progress with the runway repairs, Wing Commander Jeffs and Group Captain Swain decided that building work at Langar should be pushed ahead so that 207 could take up residence there as soon as possible. They arrived on the 20th, having flown 17 operations whilst at Syerston with a loss of four crews, and flew their first operation from Langar on the 23rd.