Empty chairs and empty tables – Operation Fuller – 12 February 1942 ‘the Channel Dash’

A major event in the Battle of the Atlantic took place on the 12 February 1942. An account from the bomber command perspective is recorded that the Bomber Command War diaries for 1939 to 45.

the story is taken up as follows… The ‘Channel Dash’ took place where the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the light cruiser Prinz Eugen set sail from Brest to move to Germany through the English Channel in a carefully prepared and well executed operation. Though the move had been anticipated the Germans gained surprise using bad weather. Despite best efforts of the Allies, the Germans suceeded and it was a national embarrasment that this had been achieved in ‘home waters’. The full story is recounted elsewhere. It was however, a significant tipping point as these ships did not sail again into the Atlantic and destroy shipping bringing supplies to the beleagured Great Britain.

Aircraft from North Luffenham were sent to the attack, although their departure was delayed until the afternoon as they had been on standby with armoured piercing bombs, which needed some height to use. Since the cloudbase was about 600 feet in the channel, the bomb load was switched to high explosive bombs, and this took time and I am sure a lot of groundcrew sweat powered by expletives.

My story links to this is when I served at RAF North Luffenham. When the station closed in 1998 I was present when a veteran called Jock Kennedy presented a painting to the last Station Commander, Group Capt Benstead. The painting had been hung in a corridor and showed Hampdens attacking battleships.

We gathered around for the presentation in the corridor leading into the dining room. The presentation was made and the veteran described why the presentation was in the corridor.

On 12 February 1942, 61 Squadron and 144 Squadron launched sorties (I do not know how many but this will be recorded in the operational record books) and that day 144 Squadron lost 2 aircraft. He said after having breakfast in the dining room with everyone, at the evening meal he had lost some friends and there were some empty seats at the table.

This stuck with me, having walked through that door many times. It is not easy to capture an event in time and space when the witnesses have gone or unless you were there. How can you capture these moments without witness testimony? Also also these events fade in time do people really care?

In the recent past I took the now ex chief executive of Rutland County Council to that spot and explained what had happened. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that she did not ‘get it’. It is highly likely that if MOD leave then the Officers Mess will be levelled and turned into houses.

The 2 aircraft lost were Hampdens AE141 and AT 175. With the loss of these two aircraft six men were killed including Wing Commander Simond (MID) the Officer Commanding 144 Squadron. Whilst AT 175 was lost without trace, with five crew members, AE141 was hit with flak managed to make an emergency landing at Norwich. Sgt Nightingale brought it home and died in hospital. Sgt Ivo Nightingale was from Kenya. He was awarded the distinguished flying medal (DFM) and is buried in Norwich cemetery. Further information on Sgt Nightingale is at Aircrew Remembered http://aircrewremembered.com/nightingale-ernest.html

Op Fuller Hamden losses
Entry from Bomber Command Losses 1942 – Op Fuller

I’m not sure how we can commemorate the sacrifice but perhaps by naming the main road within the Officers Mess complex Simond Road and Nightingale Road we might just forge a tenuous link to the past, the Channel Dash and commemorate their sacrifice.

On 12 February Bomber Command had dispatched 242 aircraft comprising 92 Wellingtons, 64 Hampdens, 37 Blenheims, 15 Manchesters, 13 Halifaxes, 11 Stirling’s and 10 Boston bombers. A large percentage of the aircraft crews never sighted the battleships due to the weather. 16 aircraft failed to return with the loss of 68 aircrew and five aircrew being captured becoming prisoners of war. You can read more about the Dash in wikepedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel_Dash

It may be that the mine laying by 61 and 144 Sqaudron prior to the breakout may have contributed to the damage sustained by the battleships entering German waters. Later missions were also launched to bomb them in harbour. At this time of the war, once again the nation’s food supply was being sunk by German U Boats. Due to the mine and bomb damage and on going bomb damage the battelships stayed in port.

Resting in North Luffenham churchyard

Bomber Command Memorial in London

There are 40 Commonwealth Wargrave headstones in North Luffenham churchyard and the graves fall into 4 time periods:

World War 1 – 2 Army Privates – Adams and Steel – details not recorded in this blog.

World War 2, RAF, RNZAF, RAAF, RCAF – 18 graves.

Cold war – Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) – 11 graves.

Remainder Other Royal Air Force and Services graves, all post war.

This post provides details about the 18 World War 2 graves: 16 aircrew. 7 RAF (including an Irishman), 6 Canadian, 4 New Zealand, 1 Australian and 2 RAF groundcrew. This is minor fraction of men killed – see post the butchers bill this blog. Also men killed in crashes – were often sent home to be buried in their home parishes. Youngest man buried in North Luffenham was F/sgt Campbell at 19 years old and oldest was Sgt Douglas at 30 years old. The average being about 23 years old.

This is what I have found out about the men so far. Most of the information comes from the books Royal Air Force – Bomber Command Losses – 1941, 1942 and Volume 7 Operational Training Units (OTU) by W.R. Chorley. Also the Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt provide information about the wider effort on a particular day.

7.9.41 Sgt Eric Horton RAF 943238 Wireless Operator/air gunner. 144 Sqn RAF. One of four crew killed in a crash of Hampden AD936 on takeoff for Berlin at 20:52. Crashed on the Empingham to Ketton road. I don’t know where the rest of the crew is buried.

The raid that night consisted of 197 aircraft and 15 aircraft were lost – 8 Wellingtons, 2 Hampdens (including AD936), 2 Whitleys, 2 Stirlings and 1 Manchester.

Sgt E Horton

20.9.41 Sgt Harold Douglas Weaver RCAF R62250 Air Observer. 144 Sqn RAF. One of four crew killed in a crash of Hampden K3030 on approach to land after an operation to Frankfurt at 22:05. Crashed into high tension cables alongside the Mortcott to Uppingham Road some 2 miles SE of the airfield. I don’t know where the rest of the crew is buried.

K3030 was one of 34 aircraft sent to Frankfurt but they were recalled because of worsening weather, some did bomb Frankfurt, no aircaft were lost but 3, including K3030 crashed in England. On the main raid to Berlin of 74 aircraft, none reached Berlin and 3 Wellingtons and 1 Whitley failed to return and 12 more aircraft crashed in the UK! Bad weather leading to many casualties, including Sgt Weaver.

Sgt Weaver RCAF

9.11.41 Aircraftsman 1st Class – George Roberts RAF and Aircraftsman 2nd Class – Frederick George Malin. RAF. These 2 ground airmen were killed in the airfield control caravan by an aircaft landing which ‘swung’ into the caravan. The 2 airmen were killed and another injured.

The Hampden (AE311) had been on operations to Hamburg and crashed at 23:43. The crew were not recorded as being injured. There were 106 aircraft on the raid and 1 Welligton was lost.

AC1 G Roberts RAF
AC 2 F G Malin

25.1.42 Sgt Albert Barclay Wright RAF Wireless Operator/air gunner. 408 Sqn RCAF. One of four crew killed in a crash of Hampden AD782 on takeoff for Brest to bomb the German capital ships at 1737. Crashed after stalling at 1500 feet and eye witnesses said it dived straight into the ground near the Lyndon to Wing Road. Cause unknown. I don’t know where the rest of the crew is buried.

The Bomber Command War Diaries say that 61 aircraft were dispatched and no aircraft were lost. ( I have yet to cross check this with other records)

Sgt A B Wright RAF

9.3.42 Flight Sergeant Fernand Fagan Mackinnon RCAF. Wireless Operator/air gunner. and Sgt William Douglas Morris RAF Wireless Operator/air gunner. Three crew killed in a crash of 408 Sqn RCAF Hampden AD842 on takeoff to go ‘gardening’ i.e laying an anti shipping mine at 01:52. Target area was the Friesian Islands, north Germany. The Bomber Command War Diaries say that no aircraft were lost which does not tally with this loss.

Sgt Morris’s headstone also records the loss of his brother, Thomas, lost at sea 14 Oct 41. Engine Room Artificer 4th Class – on HMS Fleur-de-Lys -Thomas Cope Morris aged 32.

Stalled after takeoff and struck an ‘armadillo’ on the airfield and burnt. The pilot escaped with injuries. (wikepedia says an Armadillo was an extemporised armoured fighting vehicle produced in Britain during the invasion crisis of 1940-1941. Based on a number of standard lorry (truck) chassis, it comprised a wooden fighting compartment protected by a layer of gravel and a driver’s cab protected by mild steel plates. Armadillos were used by the RAF Regiment to protect aerodromes and by the Home Guard.[1] )

Flt Sgt F F Mackinnon RCAF

Sgt W D Morris

12.4.42 Flt Sgt David Lloyd Carnegy Liddell RNZAF. Crash of 144 Sqn Hampden AT155 on an air test at 1540 – crashed at Ridlington – 2 killed.

29.9.42 Sgt Ronald George Walters RCAF. 29 OTU training accident. Wellington DV834. Swung on take-off and crashed and burnt. It was thought that the pilot’s slender build was a contributory factor in the accident. Flt Sgt L. L Jones RCAF was killed and the other crew injured. Sgt Walters died the day after of his injuries. Flt Sgt L L Jones was born in Toronto Canada – however, after the accident he was ‘claimed’ by Cornish relatives and he is buried in St Just Cornwall.

Sgt R G Walters

7.2.43 Sgt Leonard Francis Croker 413031 Air bomber RNZAF and Sgt Tom Lindley Pilot RNZAF

Crash of Wellington N2761 From 11 OTU from RAF Westcott, Buckinghamshire on a training flight. Crashed at Fletcher Field near Ashley 5 miles WNW of Corby – 3 killed and 2 buried at North Luffeham. Luffenham must have been the closest RAF base and therefore, recovered the men.

RAF North Luffenham

27.2.43 Flt Sgt Richard Hubert Lewis – Air Gunner RCAF and Flt Sgt Keith Lauchlan Cambell – Navigator RCAF

Killed in Wellinton BK268 of 427 Sqn from RAF Croft. Crashed on Ops to Koln, Crashed while returning to Croft with one engine on fire. Crashed near Woolfox Lodge – 5 killed 1 injured. That night 427 aircraft were dispatched and 4 Wellingtons, 3 Lancasters, 2 Halifaxes and 1 Stirling were lost.

RAF North Luffenham
Flt Sgt R H Lewis RCAF
RAF North Luffenham
Flt Sgt K L Campbell

5.3.43 Sgt Brendan Francis Mullet RAF – Wireless operator/air gunner and Sgt Kenneth Hughes Long – Pilot RAF

Killed in 29 OTU Wellington BK390 on a training flight – took off at 0159 from North Luffenham and crashed into houses in North Coates, Cambridgeshire, 4 killed and 1 injured. Sgt Mullet was one of the Irish Volunteer Legion. One of up to 200,000 Irish Volunteers serving in armed forces in World War 2.

Sgt B F Mullet . Irish Volunteer Legion

Sgt K H Long RAF

12.5.43 Sgt John Angus Douglas RAAF. 29 OTU from RAF North Luffenham – killed in crash of Wellington BK123. Tookoff at 1215 on training . Crashed at 1240 at Scottlethorpe – 5 miles SSW of Sunthorpe – 3 killed.

2.5.42 Flt Sgt J R Young RCAF – Pilot and Sgt H Morrison RNZAF Observer. Killed in the crash of Belnheim L9206 from 13 OTU. Took off from RAF Bicester on a navigation exercise and crashed at 11:35, 3 miles east of Billesdon – 8 miles SSE of Leicester. Dived into ground and exploded killing all 3 crew.

Flt Sgt Young RCAF

Sgt H Morrison RNZAF

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM.

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