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.

Tragic loss of 2 of the North Luffenham leaders – night of 2nd September 1941 . Gp Capt Barrett DSO+bar, DFC & Wg Cdr Valentine DSO and their crew.

On the night of 2 September 1941 at 2030 hours Manchester L7388 lifted off on a raid to Berlin carrying a crew of 7 men. Over Berlin the aircraft was shot down by flak and crashed in the Schronefeld district of Berlin. All crew were killed and are buried in a Berlin War Cemetry. The aircraft was carrying 2 of the handful of the stations ‘executive’ senior officers, with the loss of both 61 Squadron Commander and the Station Commander.

The raid on Berlin consisted of 49 aircraft and Valentine’s Manchester was one of 5 aircraft lost that night (1 Manchester, 2 Hampdens and 2 Halifax). The overall losses that night for targets in Berlin, Frankfurt and minor operations, consisted of 12 aircraft out of the nights total of 201 sorties. This is a 6 percent loss rate. This would involve the loss from active duty of about 70 men for that night, although some of which would become POWs.

The loss of the 61 Squadron Commander and the Station Commander must have been a serious blow. The rules were changed after the loss, to ensure that squadron and station commanders could not fly operations together without special permission. It is possible that as 61 Squadron (as with other Manchester squadrons) was struggling to get reliability out of the Manchester, that the flight was intended to show leadership from the front. The Manchester was withdrawn from service in June 1942 and was replaced by the Avro Lancaster powered by 4 reliable Merlin engines.

Group Captain J F T Barrett (DSO +bar, DFC) was 43 years old at the time of his death. I will see if I can get the medal citations for both of these commanders.

On the aircraft that night 5 other men, including another airman with a DSO – Flt Lt A B Harrison. I wonder what his citation is for? The other crew members were Sgt Dowse, Sgt Nicholson, Sgt Hamer RNZAF and Fg Off Duckworth. We will remember them.

In the book Avro Manchester by Robert Kirby, there is an account by Wg Cdr Weir DFC in the Forward. Weir replaced Valentine in command. He mentions that one night he was wounded by anti aircaft fire and was on sick leave, when he was informed that the squadron commander, Wg Cdr George Valentine was missing on a trip to Berlin, taking the station commander with him. He says “I was recalled immediately to take command of 61 squadron . At this time we did not seem to be a very effective part of the war effort. Morale was at a low level”. (in March 1942 conversion to the Lancaster started). I think this would be tough command, to lead a squadron with an aircraft that increased the chance of ‘going for a Burton’. Desperate times.

References: Bomber Command War Diaries, Bomber Command Losses, Avro Manchester by Robert Kirby. St Georges Barracks development https://www.stgeorgesrutland.co.uk/the-masterplan/

The lost and unknown graves in an 8 month period

Using the books : Bomber Command Losses 1941 and 1942 – I put togther this table and it is a source of hurt that there is a high percentage of crew with no known grave. These are recorded on the Runnymede Memorial. The Bomber Command memorial in London is a specific tribute to the members of Bomber Command. A very moving memorial.

Bomber Command memorial in Piccadilly, London

Why so many unknown graves – the missions at this time were a mix of bombing and mine laying – mostly at night and in bad weather. Some aircraft hit by flak or nightfighter cannon fire exploded when main fuel tanks or bombs were hit and even though the wreckage was on land remains were not recovered. This was at a time when night navigation was difficult and also meterology information was rudimentary at this stage of the war. No airborne radar navigation or GPS – just maps, compass, airspeed indicator and stopwatch, so 1dead reckoning’ navigation. Also the forceast and meterology were primitive by modern standards. Flying in winter and having severe icing must have also caused many casualties. Planning and dead reckoning at night must have been extremely challenging for the young men. Some radio direction finding equipment – but not sure what was available to 61 and 144 Squadron at the time we are looking at.

A table showing the figure for operations at North Luffenham and Woolfox Lodge. Killed, POW, no known grave and airframes.

There were recorded occurances of pilots and naviagtors reading the compass wrongly and compass design was changed. So a course flown 180 degrees out – meaning hundreds of miles into the Atlantic. The cross bar should be toward the red north pointer.

Bomber compass – correct orientation – the cross tag aligned to north.
Bomber compass – wrong and probably fatal setting of a compass – easy to be 180 degrees out
Aicraft compass – later design, maing it harder to set incorrectly

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.