RAF Hospital Ely, Christmas Day 1943, with patients, some of whom were probably survivors of the Black Thursday crashes. The lady at the back (to the right of the gentleman in the white shirt) is the wife of James Benbow, who had been very seriously injured in the loss of Ernest Deverill‘s aircraft at Graveley and was still too ill to attend Christmas lunch. Unfortunately we only have a very poor quality image but here is an enlarged version to show greater detail.
Last Christmas Eve, we included details of the Kenyon crew from 35 Squadron at Graveley, who crashed just after take-off on 24 December 1944. Very recently, we were sent a detailed dossier on the crash compiled by Paul Herod. Here is one particularly vivid story from the dossier, about Low Farm, Great Paxton, where one of the bombs of the wrecked Lancaster came to rest.
The loss cards for the seven 97 Squadron Lancasters which were wrecked – five in crashes and two abandoned when their crews baled out – were clearly filled in as a batch because they have the same phrasing on each one. The judgement given for the causes of the accidents was also similar and deeply unfair, blaming the pilots’ error of judgement. See the Scott card for more details. Perhaps one day these unjust verdicts can be overturned.
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.