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.

Names to be commemorated in any development – work in progress

RAF North Luffenham and RAF Woolfox Lodge are battlefields. When a development takes place we will need to name significant buildings, roads (roadsigns to have QR codes telling the story) and areas. See the St Georges master plan https://www.stgeorgesrutland.co.uk/the-masterplan/ Further research is required on medals and awards made.

So Names will all be related to the history of the battlefield. This is my rolling list. The list is far from finished.

Names.

Valentine . RAF Leader. 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.

Barrett. RAF Leader. 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.

Conti. Canadian cold war flyer – representing the Sabre aircrew lost in the Cold War – he has no known grave. Royal Canadian Air Force graves in North Luffenham Churchyard 1952, 1953 and 1954

Dickson. Royal Canadian Air Force Leader. Squadron Leader James Donald Dickson RCAF. DFC. AFC. DFM. CD . WW2, Korea – bomber, transport and Sabre pilot

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

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

Stevens/Hein. The identity stolen by the only German jew (Hein) to fly for the RAF. Example of escaper and the great escape. Squadron Leader Peter Stevens MC – a remarkable story – a German jew flying for the RAF

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

Mullet. Irish volunteer. Resting in North Luffenham churchyard

Thompson. Survivor from Op Gisela attack. Operation Gisela. Succesful German night fighter attack Woolfox Lodge – night of 3-4 March 1945

Malin. Airman representing the other ranks of groundcrew and support staff – aged 20 killed by a Hampden landing back at base after ops hitting the airfield control cabin. Resting in North Luffenham churchyard

Simond. Wg Cdr G F Simond.(MID.) OC 144 Squadron killed during Operation Fuller 12 Feb 42 – the Channel Dash. No known grave – lost with 4 others. Empty chairs and empty tables – Operation Fuller – 12 February 1942 ‘the Channel Dash’

Nightingale. Sgt E I Nightingale DFM. killed during Operation Fuller 12 Feb 42 – the Channel Dash. Crashed crippled Hampden bomber at Norwich and died. The rest of the crew survived. Sgt Ivo Nightingale was from Kenya. Empty chairs and empty tables – Operation Fuller – 12 February 1942 ‘the Channel Dash’

More work required to find representatives –

Royal Australian Air Force. Representing the RAAF – to be found.

Royal New Zealand Air Force. Representing the RNZAF – to be found

South Africa. To be found.

Rhodesia. To be found.

Other Commonwealth/Dominion/Allied names. To be found.

Aircraft names.

Hampden, Manchester, Wellington, Lancaster, Horsa, Stirling, Tiger Moth, Hamilcar, Whitley, Albermarle, Halifax, Dakota, Valetta, Devon, Anson, Vampire?, Meteor, Harvard, Sabre, Balliol, Brigand, Hunter, Thor, Bloodhound, Rapier

Army.

Dog handlers killed on service in Afghanistan. Others? Details to be added

Current Street names to be respected and relocated as required.

Woolfox Lodgespecific names. TBD

References on the web about RAF North Luffenham and Woolfox Lodge

The Wikepedia reference for RAF North Luffenham is attached – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_North_Luffenham#CITEREFJefford1988

The Wikepedia reference for RAF Woolfox Lodge is attached – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Woolfox_Lodge

The Statement of significance for St Georges Barracks /RAF North Luffenham is attached https://www.stgeorgesrutland.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/St-Georges-Barracks-Statement-of-Historic-Significance.pdf

218 Gold Coast Squadron – photos of Woolfox Lodge https://218squadron.wordpress.com/raf-station-woolfox-lodge-pundit-code-wl/

Northern Radar at North Luffenhamhttps://atchistory.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/midland-radar-raf-atcru-north-luffenham/

Thor missile complex on Historic England’s Website https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1400806 Map of Thor site: https://mapservices.historicengland.org.uk/printwebservicehle/StatutoryPrint.svc/463753/HLE_A4L_Grade%7CHLE_A3L_Grade.pdf

Thor – history of Project Emily . Great summary entry on Wikepdia of the history of the Thor programme in the cold war. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Emily

St Georges Barracks new Town masterplan for the development: https://www.stgeorgesrutland.co.uk/the-masterplan/

Facbook pages dedicated to RAF North Luffenham – interested people/community comment https://www.facebook.com/pages/RAF-North-Luffenham/144819725532310

Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust website entry on RAF North Luffenham. Very useful if you would like to scroll over the airfield and see what is where. https://www.abct.org.uk/airfields/airfield-finder/north-luffenham/

Operation Gisela. Succesful German night fighter attack Woolfox Lodge – night of 3-4 March 1945

In early 1945 the Luffwaffe had lost air battle over German soil. However, the application of air power can result in local impacts. On the night of 3/4 March (the 2000th night of the war) approximately 200 Junkers JU88 night fighters were sent to follow the bombers back to England. This offensive action took the British defences by surprise and 20 bombers were shot down, including 5 training aircraft. The 5 training aircraft had been on a diversion flight consisiting of 95 aircraft on a ‘diversionary’ sweep. This was a mock raid designed to deceive the German air defences and increase the mission success of the main force attack. Wikepedia catalogues the British and German losses (see link in references).

Two of the losses were 1651 Operational Conversion Unit’s (OCU) Lancasters flying from RAF Woolfox Lodge. So whilst still in training to become operational crews, they were shot down by a JU88 nightfighter.

Of the 2 crews of 7 men, there was only one survivor only Sgt Thompson. Lancaster ND387 was shot down at 0115 and crashed at Stretton and Lancaster JB699 was shot down at 0135 and crashed near Cottesmore. It is clear that the RAF were not expecting the attack as RAF aircraft were flying with navigation lights on, until warnings were received over the radio. Also airfield lights were on and only doused when warning was received.

The conversion unit had 13 Lancasters on strength in March 1945 and to lose 2 crews within sight of the airfield must have been devastating to the unit. It is difficult to imagine the impact. The risk of being shot down on operations must have been known, but to see your fellow crews being shot down as they close the base circuit, must have been tough for those left behind.

In addition to the Woolfox casualties, 1654 OCU flying from RAF Wigsley, (Nottinghamshire) lost 2 Lancasters (losing 8 killed out of 14 crew) and 1664 OCU flying from RAF Dishforth (Yorkshire) lost 1 Lancaster and all 7 crew were killed.

This all happenend when perhaps the end of the war in Europe was in sight? The Allies had been on German soil since September 1944, the Battle of the Bulge was over, and the Allies were on the way to cross the Rhine. Germany surrendered on 7 May 1945.

The Woolfox casualties were buried at various cemeteries, 6 in Cambridge City Cemetery, others in Scotland and Bradford. It is not known where the 2 New Zealanders and the Australian from the crews are buried. The casualties are listed in Bomber Command Losses 1945 – see below and more detail is provided in Volume 8 – see lower down the page:

1651 OCU casualties night 3/4 Mar 45 (as recorded in Bomber Command Losses Volume 6 – 1945 – pages 212

That night the Bomber Command effort was split between 3 missions:

  • Kamen. 234 aircraft (201 Halifaxes, 21 Lancasters and 12 Mosquitos) to attack the synthetic oil refinery at Bergkamen. The target was destroyed and no aircraft were lost over Germany.
  • Dortmund-Ems canal. 212 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitos attacked the Ladbergen viaduct, whichwas breached in 2 places and put out of action. 7 Lancasters were lost.
  • Support and Minor Operations. 95 aircraft in a diversionary sweep. 64 Mosquitos to Berlin and 32 to Wurzberg. 61 radio counter measure sorties. 29 Mosquito patrols. 31 Lancasters minelaying in Kattegatand Oslo fjord. 17 aircraft on resistance support missions. The Mosquito patrols I assume were doing what the Germans were doing and looking for night fighters, it is unknown what sucess they had.
  • Summary – 785 sorties. 8 aircraft lost over Germany and the sea, 20 aircraft shot down by intruders over England, a total casualty rate of 3.6 percent. 15 Halifaxes and 12 Lancasters (crews of 7 = 189 crew airborne). Wikepedia entry also lists 3 USAAF Flying Fortresses and an RAF Hudson shot down or damaged?
  • The Luffwafe lost 25 night fighters and the following night (4/5 March) a smaller effort was launched, but it was ineffective.
RAF Woolfox Lodge
Entry in Bomber Command Losses – Heavy Conversion Units Volume 8

References: Bomber Command Losses 1945 V6 by W R Chorley. Bomber Command Losses Heavy Conversion Units V8 by W R Chorley. Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt. Wings over Rutland by John Rennison. Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Gisela

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.

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.