Chris Ottewell writes:
My Dad John Ottewell has wanted to fly for as long as he remembers (and he’s now 93 years old). Indeed, one of his earliest memories is of being caught jumping off the porch roof with an umbrella to use as a parachute!
So whilst WW2 was a tragedy, it was also his opportunity. He joined the Royal Air Force just as soon as he reached the minimum age and was sent on his basic training. Even those very first weeks opened his eyes to the horrors of war. As he was doing PT exercises on the beach at Babbacombe, he looked up to see an FW190 fighter bomber flying straight towards him, releasing a bomb from under each wing. Whilst they missed him, one destroyed a nearby Sunday School meeting, killing many people, and the other hit his room in the hotel where he was billeted, destroying the kit he had just been issued.
Later on, he and his fellow cadets were sent to clear up the wreckage from the Sunday School bomb – a sobering experience for teenagers about to be sent to war. This event was significant enough to be reported in the Daily Telegraph in May 1943.
Dad went on to complete his Navigator training and was eventually sent to a Squadron where he became part of a seven-man Lancaster Bomber crew. He was particularly friendly with the rear gunner or “Tail End Charlie” who was appropriately called Charlie Sergeant. When not on Ops, they would often cycle to nearest town for who knows what adventures. The mid upper gunner, Charlie Shepherd would also join them.
Soon they had “their own Lancaster” which they decided to name after whichever horse won the 1944 St Ledger horse race. (I still find it amazing that horse racing continued throughout the war!) Thus the aircraft became christened “Tehran”.
Having miraculously survived their first tour of duty, during which Dad and Charlie Sergeant were awarded the DFM, most of the crew volunteered to go directly on to a second tour, this time in the elite Pathfinder Force. They somehow survived that ordeal as well and were training for “The Tiger Force” which was being readied to aid the assault on Japan when the dropping of the atom bombs ended the war, saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Most of the crew were transferred to Transport Command, flying York transports, but as there was now no need for gunners, they were deployed elsewhere. Dad didn’t see the two Charlies after that but would talk about them from time to time thereafter.
After a long career in aviation, Dad retired nearly 30 years ago but with the renewed interest in WW2, he would occasionally wonder what had happened to the two Charlies. Still, 60 or 70 years on, they were probably both dead, weren’t they?
Facebook was invented and I joined and quite soon found various groups, including a group called “Project Propeller” which specialises in getting WW2 aircrew together for an annual reunion. In 2015, I persuaded Dad (who is not a natural man for reunions) to go along. He had a great time (much to his surprise I think!) and was keen to go again.
Then on 2nd March 2016 a lady called Helen Edwards posted a photograph of a Lancaster on Facebook – I took one look and thought, “That’s Dad’s old Lanc”. Even though the aircraft serial number confirmed this, I couldn’t quite believe it. Then I read what Helen had written “I’ve got this photo from Dad, Charles James Sergeant, DFM. It’s his Lancaster which they called Tehran … & cookie, which I think is the bombs?? It was taken in September 1944.”
I immediately contacted Helen and we started exchanging a lot of information and told our respective Dads news of the other. Naturally they were both delighted to find the other alive and well. Finally Helen told us that it was Charlie’s 93rd birthday on Tuesday 16th January 2018 and said that she intended to take him out to lunch in Cardiff. We soon plotted a meeting and that morning I took Dad over the bridge from Bristol to Cardiff to wait in the Mount Stuart Pub in Cardiff Bay until they arrived.
As soon as Charlie arrived, he sat down, and the two of them started chatting as though they had last been together 72 hours ago, not 72 years ago. It was quite amazing.
We spent a couple of hours just listening as they talked about old times, and what had happened to the rest of the crew.
Now we are hoping for a “part 2” to this story in which Charlie, John, Helen, and I go to Project Propeller 2018 and meet Mellissa Sheppard, daughter of the other Charlie, Charlie Sheppard, to hear her part of the story.