A couple of updates to the Fletcher crew page: a picture of the crew, including James White who had just finished his tour when the crew was shot down, and Ken Foster who took White’s place and very sadly was one of three crew members killed on the fatal night of 23/24 September 1943.
Many photographs survive of Bomber Command men on one or more of the various course they took on the way to becoming aircrew. Most of these photographs have no names on them, which is always frustrating for researchers.
The photograph below is one of the rare records of a course which has nearly all the information that one could want. What is even more unusual about it is that the two men on the left, Peter Marsh and Godfrey Woolf, both went on to become Pathfinders, arriving at 97 Squadron on the same day in September 1943, having been posted there from different squadrons.
Unfortunately the story does not end happily.
Godfrey Woolf came from 106 Squadron on 10 September 1943 and was killed on 1/2 January 1944 when flying with the Mooney crew. He had been a survivor of Black Thursday when the Mooney crew abandoned their aircraft and took to their parachutes (see Caterpillar Club page).
Peter Marsh came from 61 Squadron on 10 September 1943 and was killed on 21/22 January 1944 when flying with the Roberts crew. He too had been a survivor of Black Thursday, but his crew had landed their aircraft safely.
It is not known what happened to Brett and Buchanun, and whether they survived the war. Buchanun is a very uncommon name and he does not appear in CWGC records. Brett is a great deal more common and there are several possibilities in CWGC records, but unfortunately the course photograph does not give initials, which rules out being certain what happened to our Brett, the man on 54 Course.
54 Course photograph courtesy of Peter Marsh, the nephew of the wartime Peter Marsh.
It’s always wonderful to see the men who maintained the Pathfinder aircraft, and this is a particularly nice photograph of James Frances Henry with other ground crew in front of a Met Flight mosquito. James was with 1409 Met Flight from 31st March 1943 to 19th June 1944, working as an aero engine specialist.
His grandson, Michael Henry, who sent the photograph, writes:
My grandfather first joined the RFC [Royal Flying Corps, the precursor of the RAF] as ‘a boy’ and on his birthday became ‘a man’ (quite a surprise to me how this was recorded – at the time it was quite normal !) ….. then on 1st April 1918 he was in the RAF.
At the end of WWI he was placed on reserve and called up on 25th Aug 1939 at the outset of WWII.
The Henry family would be delighted if anyone knew more about their grandfather’s war service, or who the other men are in the photograph. Please let us know if you have any information you can share.
See also: How Did This Mosquito Land?
The lure of flying for people growing up in the 1920s and 1930s is hard to appreciate now when commercial flying is so commonplace. Then, flying was ultra-modern and incredibly glamorous, and airshows (as in the photograph above) fed this fascination. Many of the boys who were aeroplane-mad in those years grew up to join the RAF and the Pathfinders. For more on this see our new page on the Lure of Flying.
Bad weather killed many experienced crews, including those who were only carrying out training duties. Icing could be particularly lethal. Today we have added a page about certain aspects of ICING as it affected aircrew, sometimes lethally. A reporting system was vital, so Air Ministry orders made it a duty for a pilot who had encountered ice formation to report this when he landed.
The uniform of George Walker (usually known in the RAF as Johnny after the whisky) was recently donated to the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton by his son, Mick. They also have a copy of George’s logbook.
George remained in the RAF until 1969, and the picture below is of him shortly before his retirement, in the rank of Squadron Leader, still proudly wearing the Pathfinder badge.
More information on George Walker and the Dailey crew
Ruined or decayed wartime airfields are one of the most evocative sights in Britain. Inevitably many of them are now being built over. These pictures of Little Staughton, taken by Matt Barker in the summer of 2017, are full of atmosphere and the ghosts of the past. Little Staughton, 109 and 582 Squadrons
In 1943, E Colston Shepherd, the editor of The Aeroplane, interviewed Harris both at his office and at home, the latter being Springfields at Great Kingshill, close to High Wycombe’s Bomber Command HQ. In the subsequent article in the Picture Post, Colston Shepherd described Harris as:
broad-shouldered, bull-necked, of medium height, unsmiling and of a ruddy complexion, […] the sort of officer with whom no one takes liberties.
A caption to the photograph, above, of Harris with his wife and his daughter Jacqueline, aged 3 and a half, is captioned:
Air Chief Marshal Harris at Home: The Only Time When He Is Smiling
In 2017 Springfields was on the market for the first time since sold by the Ministry of Defence in 2002. Again, you can read this on the Daily Mail online, as long as you can ignore all the peripheral distractions. Bomber Harris Home for Sale
A couple of minor clarifications about yesterday’s post. ‘Bomber Harris is seldom equated with a sense of humour’ – we meant, of course, in the general public’s view, including that of people abroad.
The standard identikit image of Harris is of a mono-focused, stern and vengeful killer of civilians; this is not just a modern view, and Harris was well aware that many held this opinion of him during the war. The story about the sentry on the roof, as given yesterday, concluded with Harris saying that that was the one and only time, on one of the worst nights of the Blitz, that he felt vengeful against the Germans. We should have made it clearer that this comment was a direct riposte to wartime criticisms: ‘I have often been accused of being vengeful during our subsequent destruction of German cities’.
Not to go off on too much of a tangent about this, but the Blitz, not only in London but all over the country, was the catalyst for many young men and women in their decision to join the RAF. This may have been partly an impulse of revenge, but it was also the keen desire to take the war back to the Germans, a direct land assault on western Europe being out of the question until a late stage of the war.
Max Hastings’ 2010 account of the Daily Mail photographer who took the iconic picture of St Paul’s in an ocean of fire can be read (if you can stand all the adverts and general distracting junk) on the Daily Mail online: Max Hastings on Herbert Mason
Continuing our occasional series on the RAF and Bomber Command leadership, here is a priceless story told by Harris about the London Blitz in 1940. The sentry whom he describes surely has a direct lineage to Shakespeare’s clowns.
During the Blitz, Harris used to go up on the roof of the Air Ministry to watch the sight of London burning. On what was probably the night of 29/30 December 1940, he watched ‘the old city in flames […] with St Paul’s standing out in the midst of an ocean of fire – an incredible sight’. He was alone on the roof with a sentry, and in order to make conversation Harris said to the man that if his history was right, the last time London had burned had been 1666, and he told the sentry that he was looking at history.
This seemed not to make the slightest impression on him; he did not even answer beyond sucking his teeth. I asked him how long he had been there, and he said for the whole of the war, as he was over-age for active service. I asked him whether he wasn’t very bored on ordinary nights, and he said that he wasn’t because he was a student of natural history. That seemed to me a somewhat extraordinary pursuit to engage in on the roofs of Whitehall, and I asked him to explain what he meant. He said that there were some 40 to 50 cats from Government offices on the roofs at night, and that what with the fights and one thing and another there was plenty to see, especially as there was an “unexploded tom” amongst them.
Sir Arthur Harris, BOMBER OFFENSIVE (1949)
Harris wrote that watching London burn that night was the only time he ever felt vengeful against the Germans, and even then it only lasted for a moment.