We would like to identify the crew members whose photograph appeared in yesterday’s post, there not being time to do so yesterday. They were from the Kirkwood crew, who sadly were all killed when their aircraft crashed close to the 405 Squadron base of Gransden Lodge on the edge of Hayley Wood.
Many grateful thanks to John Clifford who organised the revamp to the Black Thursday exhibition at the Pathfinder Collection, Heritage Centre, RAF Wyton, pictures of which can be seen here.
John also showed us round yesterday. He was on top form as the guide to what is basically a Pathfinders Aladdin’s Cave, containing countless riches connected with 8 Group’s history.
He was ably assisted by the hugely knowledgeable Carl Thomas. There was also the lovely surprise of a lighting visit by Peter Stanley, who began the original Pathfinder Collection in 1995, the basis of everything which can be seen today. Pete received a well-merited round of applause.
It was exceptionally good weather yesterday morning for the service of Remembrance for Black Thursday, 16/17 December 1943, and for the laying of the wreath and flowers at the memorial afterwards. The very fine memorial window to the Pathfinders formed a dramatic backdrop to the service.
We are most grateful to everyone at RAF Wyton who helped organise the day. Our particular thanks are due to Sergeant Chris McCormick, OIC at the Heritage Centre, and the Station Commander Wing Commander R L Dixon, who attended the service and the lunch afterwards, not to mention the top guys at the Heritage Centre who we will be thanking in the updates on the Pathfinder Collection later today.
On the way to RAF Wyton for the Commemorations of 16/17 December 1943. Will be posting tomorrow on the new exhibition and on the day’s events.
JENNIE MACK GRAY
In December 1943, the only real facilities available to land in weather conditions of extremely poor visibility were FIDO and a system known as SBA (Standard Beam Approach).
FIDO, the Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation, was at that time only installed at three airfields:— the PFF stations RAF Graveley and RAF Downham Market, and RAF Fiskerton close to Lincoln.
On 16 December, Graveley was stood down for operations, but due to the terrible conditions elsewhere a number of aircraft converged there hoping to land using FIDO. READ MORE
There must have been many quiet acts of courage at the scenes of the crashes on the night of 16/17 December 1943. Most would have gone unnoticed except by those present, and we are not aware of any other medals for bravery than the one described here. This was the British Empire Medal, awarded to a member of ground crew at RAF Station Bourn for the rescue of the wireless operator Joe Mack, who featured in our 11 December post
for further info on Sidney Mathews see Sidney Mathews: A Portrait
Numerically speaking, 97 Squadron was the Pathfinder squadron most seriously affected by the disaster of Black Thursday. However, 405 Squadron
was also hit particularly hard. It was often called the Canadian squadron despite Bennett’s insistence that its aircrew were only 50% Canadian (see Bennett and the Canadians). A large number of the Pathfinder aircrew lost on Black Thursday were Canadian, 13 out of the total of 50 Pathfinder deaths and 10 of these being from 405 Squadron. 405 Squadron and Black Thursday.
Amongst those killed was one of two identical twins, Bob Bessent. The heart-breaking photographs of the funerals of Bob and his fellow Canadians at Cambridge City Cemetery on 22 December 1943 were preserved by Bob’s family, and in them can be seen his identical twin brother Bill attending Bob to his final resting place. In the photograph below, he can be seen marching at the rear of the group of mourners from 405 Squadron.
The story of the Bessent twins and the 405 and 97 Squadron funerals at Cambridge can be found in our commemorative booklet, THE MASS RAF FUNERALS AT CAMBRIDGE, 22 DECEMBER 1943: 75th Anniversary of Black Thursday Publications.
This tattered object is Bobby Bear. He can perhaps be seen as an emblem of the few who survived the crashes on Black Thursday but were seriously injured.
He was the childhood toy of Joe Mack, of the Thackway crew, 97 Squadron, and sometime in the late 40s or early 50s Joe’s devoted mother Kathleen made him an RAF uniform of sorts together with a row of Joe’s medal ribbons. The yellow stripe on Bobby Bear’s left sleeve is a wound stripe, reflecting the serious injuries suffered by Joe in the Thackway crash in the early hours of the morning of 17 December 1943.
Bobby Bear can currently be seen at the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton as part of the Black Thursday display.
In 1944 the Mack family contributed a new font cover to their local church, Christ Church at Radlett, in gratitude for Joe’s survival. All that survives of this now is the handsome drawing in the Hertfordshire records office. In the sixties, the vicar took a dislike to it and had it removed to the lumber shed, where it was eaten by woodworm and eventually burnt.
Joe never fully recovered from the crash and in the last years of his life suffered serious problems from his badly healed leg as well as from traumatic memories.
He can be seen below as a very young man in the summer of 1944, recovering from the loss of all his crew and coming to terms with his own miraculous survival. The Pathfinder badge can be seen on his breast pocket.
Charles Owen kept an operations diary, and one of the most interesting pages is the one he wrote for Black Thursday.
This particular entry has often been quoted but there is nothing like seeing the actual handwriting. One of the critical phrases is ‘landed without permission in appalling conditions’. To read the full story of this unauthorised landing, see Tom Leak’s story on the Owen crew page.
For the next seven days we will be posting about aspects of the terrible night of 16/17 December 1943. There will be a commemoration at RAF Wyton next Sunday, details of which have already been given on this website, but also at Thorpe Camp, kindly organised by Mark Howard of the 97 Squadron Association. This will consist of a wreath-laying at 1pm at the propeller memorial at Thorpe Camp, as the 97 (Straits Settlements) Squadron memorial is in the process of refurbishment during the winter. 97 Squadron, of course, suffered the greatest losses of any squadron that night. For details of this event, please see the 97 Squadron Association website.