An evader from North Luffenham. It was a long way home for Sgt Albert Wright

From all the aircraft lost from RAF North Luffenham I can only find one airman who managed to evade capture and escape back to Great Britain. The airman was Sgt Albert Wright, a Canadian serving in the Royal Air Force. He was shot down in an Avro Manchester on 31 December 1942 whilst attacking Brest. He finally made it back to Greenock in Scotland on 5 October 1942. 9 months ot make it back to the UK and a journey across Europe.

There is a comprehensive record of the thousands of escapers and their escape lines in Western Europe in 1940 to 1945. This is in a book called ‘RAF Evaders’ by Oliver Clutton-Brock.

While the story of Albert Wright’s escape is in the book, it is one of those books where you can open any page and find incredible stories on every page, I am not exaggerating!. The book records the stories of the evaders but also illuminate stories of the people that ran the escape lines to return Allied airmen to the fight. Their story is also incedible.

This is what the book records about Albert Wright:

Sgt Wright was the mid upper gunner of an Avro Manchester of 61 Squadron, which lost three of its aircraft and 23 airmen on attack on the German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest, on the nights of 31 January/1st of February 1942.

14 of the 23 airmen were killed, eight taken prisoner, and only Wright evaded capture. Hit by heavy flak defending the port, Wright’s Manchester was too low for the crew to bail out. Pilot Officer J R B Parsons had no choice but to land his aircraft as best he could.

Wright survived the crash, and so too did the rear gunner, Sgt Griffiths. Griffiths had a broken leg, and though Wright helped him out of the blazing Manchester, Griffiths was taken prisoner. Wright was soon found and sheltered by local Bretons.

After several days he was told about an organisation headed by a French Canadian called O’Leary, who would soon have him on his way to England by submarine. Unfortunately, the Germans arrested those that were about to help him and he found himself trapped in Brittany. Continually moved from house to house.

In mid-March he went to the Château Trefrey, home of the Compte and Contesse de Poulpiquet, where he stayed until May, when the Contesse herself helped him get to Quimper.

Another guide, a Jewish psychiatrist, took him as far as the demarcation line (the line between Nazi and Vichy control), where a young girl saw him across. She left him at a prearranged point where he walked on alone to a car. The driver of which, waiting to take him to LaHayediscards was Dr Vourc’h, one of those who would help them earlier in Brittany. Dr Vourc’h had to make good his escape to Vichy France, when he learnt that he was a wanted man by the Gestapo. He now took Wright to Montlucon. But on failing to make contact with the next human link in the chain, he escorted him to the American consulate in Lyon.

It was still possible at that time, June 1942, for telegraphs to be sent between Vichy France and England and while he was in Lyon Wright received the wonderful news that his wife had given birth to a son. The US vice consul, George Whittingdale, saw that Wright was well looked after. Within a few days someone from the PAO line took him and Dr Vourc’hht to Marseille. Wright was introduced to Pat O’Leary himself. Taken to an apartment, Wright actually arrived wearing a dinner jacket.

In reading this account I found that O’Leary had a very interesting past, but in the end he was betrayed by a man called ‘le Neveu’. After being arrested in Toulouse on 2 March 1943 O’Leary was sent to concentration camps and he was liberated in Dachau on 29 April 1945, later he was awarded the George Cross. His betrayer was a Gestapo agent and he himself was liquidated by the French ‘maquisards’ on the liberation of France in 1944

Back to Albert Wright’s story: Wright was moved to another safe house where other airmen had been placed. On 11 May a group of airmen and four Belgians who wished to join the armed forces, were all moved down the line, Banyons on 9 June. Setting off with 2 Spanish guides, it took the 12 men two days on foot to reach Spain, on 11 June the guides taking them to within 20 km of Gerona.

The escapers now split up into pairs but Wright was caught by Spanish police on a train to Barcelona. Wright was thrown into a police cell at Barcelona, before being transferred to a Spanish concentration camp, where all his hair was shaved off. He was released from the concentration camp on 23 September and was one of those to return to Scotland on HMS Malaya a week later.

What happened to Sgt Wright from the rest of the war and after the war is not recorded in the book.

a brave and tragic story – pilot officers Matthews and Williams – 9/10 Jan 42

I find the story of what happened to a 61 Squadron Manchester which crashed on the night of the 9th and 10th of January 1942, to be particularly tragic, because of the impossible situation that the airmen found themselves in. The situation is still occurring today where equipment is rushed into service and the operators have to make do. It is perhaps something that will always happen, recent examples would be Tornado pilots in the Gulf conflict never having practised with a particular real munition, and the first time they use it is on an operation at 200 feet at night.

This story is about the Avro Manchester, the forerunner of the Lancaster, having engines that did not deliver the power, leading to consequences like this story. The story can only be seen as bravery against an impossible situation.

The story is reflected in the book by Robert Kirby called Avro Manchester, the legend behind the Lancaster. This book documents the history of the aircraft, the losses, units and individual stories of operations. 61 Squadron was based at North Luffenham, and operating from RAF Woolfox Lodge.

On the night of the 9th and 10th of January 1942, 61 Squadron launched 12 aircraft as part of an operation to attack Nazi ships in Brest and Cherbourg. One of those aircraft serial number R5789 captained by Pilot Officer DS Matthews got airborne into the pitch black night.

There were eight people on board, the two pilots: Pilot Officer DS Matthews (already had a distinguished flying medal) and pilot officer TIR Wilson. On board was a flying control officer, Flying Officer CA Giles who was along for the ride. It was his first operation. Sgt Lorimer Sgt Fryer, Pilot Officer SP Walsh (presmably the navigator), Sgt Brown and Pilot Officer Lancaster (another passenger) made up the rest of the crew.

R5789 had reached a few thousand feet over the Wiltshire Hampshire border when the starboard engine lost power and caught fire. The propeller was feathered and the fire extinguished, but their position was immediately desperate.

With a full bomb load and most of the fuel still remaining their height loss was rapid and irreversible. In the pitch darkness Matthews had no idea of their precise position and bravely elected not to jettison the bombs for fear of killing innocent civilians.

The captain first steadied the aircraft while six of the crew bailed out, having safely accomplished this, the two pilots maintained their discipline and attempted a blind forced landing. Regrettably on this cruel night fate was against them and as Matthew.s flared for landing the aircraft crashed at a shallow angle into a belt of trees at Tidworth near Wiltshire Cross at 06:20. Both pilots were killed and the aircraft burnt and later the bomb load exploded.

To their eternal credit, in forfeiting their own lives the two pilots saved six more in the crew and avoided any casualties on the ground. Crash investigators were later unable to pinpoint the specific cause of the engine failure and speculated that icing may have been a contributory factor. Flying Officer Lancaster and the remainder of the crew escaped with minor injuries.

Having spent quite a lot of time on Salisbury plain I can picture the rows of beech trees that make up long lines of massive hedges across what is mainly a barren plain.

Pilot Officer Matthews was recorded in the London Gazette 7 March 1941 as being awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM). I have yet to find the citation. Matthews also had an incident on the 15 January 1940 when he was the pilot of a Handley Page Hereford from 14 OTU at RAF Cottesmore. He took off on a bombing exercise and the aircraft had engine failure and force landed at 13:25 to the SW of Pickworth, 8 miles SSW of Sleaford Lincs. There were no injuries sustained. (source Bomber Command Losses Vol 7 – OTUs)

That is the story. I think they were unlucky to hit one of these big beech hedges. Ultimately it’s because the engines were not fit for purpose. This of course led later to Avro putting four Merlin engines on the Manchester fuselage with a redesigned wing, and the Lancaster was born.

How brave to try and land a fully loaded bomber at night, I find it tragic and this story always brings a lump to my throat.

Squadron Leader Peter Stevens MC – a remarkable story – a German jew flying for the RAF and POW escaper

Squadron leader Peter “Steve Stevens” MC (Military Cross).
Royal Air Force 144 Squadron. This an example of the amazing stories of deeds done by people who were based at North Luffenham in WW2.

Peter Stevens (born George Franz Hein) was the only German Jew known to have flown bombers in the RAF in World War II. He was sent to safety in London by his widowed mother in early 1934 when he was aged 14. Hein learned English and graduated from Regent Street Polytechnic in 1936. After a year at LSE he began working, but immaturity and bad feelings towards his mother got in the way. Gambling away the remainder of his family fortune (which had been sent to England for his care and that of his two siblings) Hein got into trouble with the law. In July 1939 he was sentenced to 3 months for petty theft. Released from prison six weeks early on September 1 (which was the day the Germans invaded Poland). Hein then committed identity theft taking the name of a dead Polytechnic classmate, Peter Stevens.

Rather than reporting to the police station as an enemy alien (which would have meant internment for the duration) Hein as Peter Stevens reported to an enlistment station and joined the Royal Air Force for training as a fighter pilot. Selected instead for bombers, he was the object of a Metropolitan police manhunt during the 18 months he trained, and for five months he was flying combat operations as a Hampden pilot from North Luffenham.

Joining 144 Squadron at North Luffenham in April 1941, Stevens flew 22 combat operations before his aircraft was damaged by flak over Berlin on September 7, 1941. He ordered his crew to bail out and one rear gunner Sgt Ivor Roderick Fraser was killed when his parachute failed to open. The other air gunner, Sgt Thomas was captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.

Stevens realised that the aircraft was marginally flyable, and made it back as far as Amsterdam before he ran out of fuel, and force landed in a farmers field. He destroyed the secret bits of the aeroplane and set fire to the wreckage before setting out cross-country with his navigator, Sgt Alan Payne. They were captured by German troops within a day.

Stevens as a POW in his own country was without protection under the Geneva Convention (as he was still a German citizen). For three years and eight months he lived with the knowledge that the Nazis could take him out of the prison camp at any time and shoot him. Nonetheless, he went on to become one of the most ardent escapers of the war. Stevens made eight escape attempts, and got outside the wire three times, but was captured each time.

In October 1941 just a month after being captured, he and a Canadian pilot Mike Lewis jumped off a Nazi prison train in a hail of bullets, and they went home to see Stephen’s mother in Hanover. They were looking for civilian clothing, food and money, they discovered instead that Stephen’s mother had committed suicide six weeks before the outbreak of hostilities. This man spent 3 years and 7 months in captivity. He was one of 11,000 Bomber Command POWs – of which 1 in 20 failed died in captivity ( for a full account of Bomber Command POWs read Olvier Clutton-Brocks book – Footprints on the sands of time).

On May 17, 1946 Stevens was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his escape activities, one of only 69 members of the Royal Air Force to receive the medal for bravery on the ground (see citation in the London Gazette below). Another of his escape attempts was characterised in a London newspaper on May 18, 1946 as the boldest escape attempt of the war. This man spent 3 years and 7 months in captivity before being liberated in April 1945.

The London Gazette. Of TUESDAY, the 14th of MAY, 1946

Military Cross

Flight Lieutenant Peter STEVENS (88219), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 144 Squadron. Flight Lieutenant Stevens was the captain of a Hampden aircraft detailed to bomb Berlin on 7th September, 1941. After the mission had been completed the aircraft was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire and had to be crash-landed subsequently, on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Flight Lieutenant Stevens set fire to the aircraft, destroyed all documents and then, in company with the navigator, commenced to walk towards Amsterdam. They met a farmer who took them to his house and gave them food, at the same time promising to put them in touch with an organisation. Both walked across country for an hour, and then hid in a hut on a football field. They were later found toy German Feldgendarmerie and taken to a Military prison, remaining therefor two days. They were then sent to the DulagLuft at Oberussel.

Flight Lieutenant Stevens was moved to Lubeck on 2Oth September, 1941. On 6th October, 1941, (he was entrained for Warburg,and during the journey he made his escape, accompanied by another officer, by crawling through a ventilator and dropping to the ground while the train was in motion. Shots were fired and the train was stopped but he and his companion managed to reach a wood where they hid until the departure of the train. Shortly afterwards they jumped on a goods train and reached Hanover on 8th October. Here Flight Lieutenant Stevens made contact with some pre-war acquaintances who provided him with food, money and civilian clothes. He, with his companion, then entrained for Frankfurt. Here they were challenged by Railway Police and arrested being subsequently sent to Oflag Vi.B. at Warburg.

On 1st December, 1941, Flight Lieutenant Stevens made a further attempt to escape by disguising himself as a German Unter-Offizier. He led a party of 10 officers disguised as orderlies, and two officers disguised as guards with dummy rifles, and all marched through the gates of the camp. They had to return however, as the sentry was not satisfied that the gate pass was correct. Flight Lieutenant Stevens marched his party back to the compound and the sentry was then quite unaware that the party was not genuine. A similar plan of escape was therefore, adopted a week later, but on this occasion the sentry was immediately suspicious and demanded of the party their pay-books. The party then had to disperse hurriedly but two of its members were arrested.

In September, 1942, Flight Lieutenant Stevens was moved to Oflag XXIB at Schubin. Here he made a fourth attempt to escape and managed to get away by means of a tunnel, carrying forged identity papers, wearing a civilian suit and carrying a converted great-coat. He took a train to Berlin, arriving there on the evening of 5th March, 1943. He bought a railway ticket to Cologne and, when on the journey to that town, he was asked for his identity card by a Gestapo official. The latter discovered that it was forged, and Flight Lieutenant Stevens was then arrested and returned to the Oflag XXIB, receiving as a punishment 14 days in the cells.

Flight Lieutenant Stevens made a further attempt on 21st April, 1943. But it was unsuccessful and he served a sentence of 7 days in the cells. He was ultimately liberated by the Russian forces whilst at Stalag IIIA on the 21st April, 1945.

Stevens was naturalised as a British citizen in 1946 and then recruited to MI6 in 1947. He served five years in MI6 as an operative against the Soviets in Germany. He emigrated to Canada in 1952, married in 1953 and had two sons. Stevens died of a heart attack brought on by chemotherapy in 1979 in Toronto. Sgt Fraser has no known grave, but he is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial. If that is not a remarkable story – what is?

The biography of Peter Stevens called ‘Escape, Evasion and Revenge was published by Pen and Sword aviation in 2009. Further information at http://aircrewremembered.com/peter-stevens-mc.html

References

The following books = provide detailed information for research:

  • The Bomber Command War Diaries – outlines day by day missions flown, by whom and where.  Of great relevance to North Luffenham was the Channel Dash 12 Feb 42 – where the 2 Nazi battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruiser Prinz Eugen dailed from Brest through the English Channel in a carefully prepared and well-executed operation. Bomber command launched 3 waves to find the ships in bad weather and low cloud, the operation was called Op FULLER. 144 Sqn from N Luff lost 2 aircraft, 1 aircraft AE141 was hit by flak and was wrecked while making an emergency landing at Norwich killing 1 crew member. Another aircraft AT175, was lost without trace – the crew of 5 included the Squadron Commander Wg Cdr Simmonds.
  • Bomber Command Losses – 1941 and 1942. This provides a day by day detail of losses and occasion chapter summaries. I have used these to collate the losses from July 1941 to April 1942 for 61, 144 and 408 Canadian Squadrons to get a picture of losses.
  • 5 Group Bomber Command – An operational record by Chris Ward. A history of the Group and detail information on the Squadrons.
  • Hampden references:
    • Hamden Special by Chaz Boyer – provides full history of the type and points of history. No pictures of North Luffenham but representative pictures 5 Group operations/squadrons, bomb loads and aerial mines.
    • Hampden Squadrons in Focus by Mark Postlethwaite. Excellent photographic record of Hampden Squadrons. Picture of 144 Squadron in front of a hangar at N Luff before the Sqn transferred to Coastal Command to re-role as torpedo carriers.
    • Handley Page Hamden and Hereford by Alan W Hall. Warpaint Series no 57. More pictures and camouflage colour schemes
  • Avro Manchester – The legend behind the Lancaster by Robert Kirby. The full story of the Manchester and its ill-fated existence. Includes detail about all Manchester losses including those lost from 61 Sqn at N Luff/Woolfox Lodge. Some very courageous and tragic stories of desperately trying to operate the aircraft, but ultimately failing due to the technology not being up the task.
  • RAF Evaders by Oliver Clutton-Brock. A fascinating book outlining the escapers and their escape lines over 1940 to 1945. This is a book you can open any page and read about amazing journeys and courage. For North Luffenham, out of all the airmen who did not return I could only find one man who was an evader – Sergeant Albert Wright – Upper Gunner in a 61 San Manchester shot down and crash landed near Brest on the night of 1 Feb 1942. He finally returned to the UK at the end of September.
  • The Strategic Air Offensive aginst Germany 1940 to 1945. This is a 3 volume reference by Sir Charles Webster and Noble Frankland published by HMSO in 1961 as the official history of the Second World War. Volume 1 ‘Preparation’ covers the background of my snapshot ( July 1941 to June 1942). By this stage of the war daylight bombing had been proven to be a lost cause due to the severe losses of Wellingtons and Hampdens in daylight to 20 mm armed fighters (Heligoland 18 Dec 39 – 10 out of 22 returned). The drift into ‘area’ bombing had happened and we find 61 and 144 Squadron at North Luffenham prosecuting raids into Germany and most sorties directed to the the battleships in port on the west coast of France and the conduct of mining sorties to support the Battle of the Atlantic. So a day bomber design was being used to operate at night and over the sea.
  • Escape, Evasion and Revenge. By Marc H Stevens. Story of a German jew called Georg Ranz Hein, who was sent by his mother to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazis. He committed identify theft to avoid be locked up as an alien in 1939 and joined the RAF. He completed 22 missions flying the Hampden bomber, but was shot down and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He became an escaper and 3 times escaped. This book plots the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the life in the RAF and in the prisoner of war camps. Amazing story.
  • Before the Storm. By Robert Jackson. The story of Bomber Command 1939 to 1942. Covers the history of the RAF bomber force from the end of the first world war and gives the context as to why the RAF entered the war with a lot of substandard tactics, aircraft and training. The bravery of the crews is not at question and the scale of some losses from tactical failures was sometimes extreme. The change from daylight bombing and massive losses to fighters and the switch to night attacks. Also traces the efforts of the French air force in the blitzkreig. This is a comprehnsive accout of the early years.

Correspondence with a family member.

4 Comments

  1. Nicholas Minns permalinkHello, I have been researching my uncle who was based at Woolfox Lodge in 61 Squadron. He was killed on the night of 6/7 April 1942 on the way to, or on the way back from Essen. Only three crew members could be identified by their tags, and a fourth tag had IV/144/IV Woolfox inscribed on it. Do you have any idea what this referred to? The Germans thought it was a crew name, and then that it might have been a dog’s name.
    Thanks,Reply
    • rutlandhampdens permalinkNicolas, Thank you for posting and discussing this. The only explanation I can think off as I have seen it used in the early 1980s in the RAF – is that ID tags used to be made of a fireproof material and everyone had 2. The details were put on the tags by using letter punches. I have sent hem used to tag piece of flying equipment such as life vests, parachutes etc as they are durable and were easy to use in this manner. Whilst your uncle was on 61 Sqn the safety equipment or other items of equipment e.g navigation may have been used in a pool in the North Luffenham/Woolfox operation. This is of course all just a theory. Many thanks of posting. If you have any other information I would be happy to post it if you are willing to do so – of course with agreement. Scanned log book entries/photos would be welcome. I will e-mail you my contact details.Reply
  2. Shaun McDermott permalinkIs this still going?My father flew his first tour from North Luffenham first on 61 Sqn then on 144 Sqn. During his time there, completing his 200+ hour fist tour, 144 Sqn lost 39 a/c on Ops. My father was awarded an immediate DFM after a daylight raid in the battleships at Brest on 24/12/41. If you need any other info just shout.Reply
    • rutlandhampdens permalinkShaun, sorry not posted recently but would like to post more. So many thanks for posting a comment. If you have any photos or his log book – I would be very interested to see these – if you would be willing to scan the pages that would be excellent and if you are content we could post them subject to you being happy about the content before it was posted etc. I will e-mail you may contact details and it would be good to have a chat if you are willing to contribute etc. Many thanks

A wake-up call – RAF Swinderby turned to dust!

This blog is about the amazing people stories and rich heritage of RAF North Luffenham and Woolfox Lodge. It is at risk. If you are short on time – read this post and then the amazing story of Steve Stevens – the only German jew to fly for the RAF (that we know of!) http://www.rafnorthluffenhamheritage.me.uk/?p=67

I was recently doing some work near Lincoln and called in to what was RAF Swinderby. The station was a pre-war station of substantial buildings. Not much remains and I was greeted with a view of a ‘familiar’ RAF station tree lined road, but with just a moonscape!  It was just an endless vista of processed brick. I was in shock.

This has made me appreciate what could happen at North Luffenham/St Georges Barracks. It could be reduced to brick dust. I have mixed feelings – as development seems inevitable, unless an alternate campus use is found.  Woolfox Lodge is also a proposed site for a town.

So facing brutal destruction I have a strong sense of loss for some reason, perhaps it is a feeling of no control.  For me it is hard to explain, but I know that brave people did amazing things here and at Woolfox – particularly in 1941 and 1942 – flying day bombers at night without the right meteorological information or night flying training or radio aids. Young men sent off 600 miles to the east with just a compass, stopwatch, map and airspeed indicator to fight. No wonder many failed to return. In an 8 month period in late 41 to spring 42 over 180 allied airmen were lost and a significant proportion have no known grave.

I will be doing more thinking and feel we need to work harder to define what our heritage at North Luffenham and Woolfox Lodge is? What we can do before, during and after development, should it occur, to respect the deeds done from and at this battlefield? In the back of my mind is also the precedent for a new town to be built at Cottesmore should the MOD leave that as well.

The Luffenham Thor site is now Grade 2 listed but the rest of the station – which is a very well preserved bomber station, due to the it usage post war, is not much changed from when it was built. What is it’s significance?  What are we suggesting we destroy and how should we view this? How do we ensure ‘heritage’ is recognised and in particular, the amazing things that the people did to add to the war effort. 

More to follow – if you have a story to add – or would like to help – please contact me. I am in need of the help of a medals expert to uncover the citations – do you know one? – please connect me. Many thanks.