LANCASTER JA708 OF- P
Shot down 23rd/24th September 1943
Pilot: F/O Bob Fletcher
Flight Engineer: F/S Joe Nelson
Navigator: S/L Ken Foster – killed
Bomb Aimer: F/S Jack Beesley
W/OP: W/O Wally Layne
Mid-Upper Gunner: S/L Robert “Red” McKinna – killed
Rear gunner: F/S Harry Page – killed
On 23rd/24th September 1943, Bourn’s crews were briefed for two separate attacks, against Mannheim and Darnstadt. Flight Lieutenant Fletcher’s crew were one of those listed for the Mannheim trip.
Squadron Leader Ken Foster took the place of the regular navigator and Squadron Leader McKinna, the Squadron’s Gunnery Leader, replaced James White (who had just finished his tour) as Mid-Upper Gunner. Robert McKinna, nicknamed “Red” by his chums owing to his distinctive hair colour, had arrived at Bourn at the beginning of July from the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit at Upwood.
There was a mix-up in the targeting of the raid and the small town of Frankenthal, just north of Mannheim, together with the neighbouring town of Ludwigshaven, was the place which received the bomb loads. The little town was devastated and the historic town centre totally destroyed. Bob Fletcher’s crew did not know of this mistake as it was not common knowledge until many years after the war, and as James White writes, “The sad thing is that our crew was shot down being unaware until their dying day that, along with the rest, they had failed to bomb the correct target”.
Five minutes after dropping the bombs the crew were picked up by the blue-tinged radar-controlled searchlight master beam and immediately coned. Bob put the aircraft into a tight corkscrew rapid descent and eventually got free. He then started to climb again to regain lost height. It was then that a night fighter that had apparently followed them down attacked and set the aircraft on fire. Bob ordered “bale out” and seeing the Bomb Aimer and the Flight Engineer exit through the forward hatch and checking over the intercom that no one was left, believed that the rest had left via the rear escape hatch and baled out himself.
Unfortunately he did not know that Wally Layne had gone down the fuselage to check on the two gunners. Finding them both dead in their turrets, Layne returned to the front of the aircraft, passed the dead body of Squadron Leader Foster, to discover that he was alone in a blazing aircraft. In his own words, he said the shortest prayer possible and jumped.
All four of the crew who baled out survived to become prisoners of war, although Wally Layne remained on the run for ten days before being captured.
For a fabulous wealth of information concerning Wally Layne’s time in the RAF and as a prisoner of war, see Wally’s War at: http://wallyswar.wordpress.com/