Article: “A Very Black Thursday”

by DOUG CURTIS, DFC (Billing crew)

16 December 1943 started out much the same as any other day.  Our crew crawled out of the sack in mid-morning and made our way to the mess.  A quick look at the board told us that we were on for later that night.

 

billing crew

L-R: Jimmy Billing, Jock Campbell, Bud Findlay, Mort Moriarty,  Doug Curtis, Erwin Osler – missing from the photo is Tommy Hope – for full details of crew that night, see BILLING CREW

We’d had a good long lay-off of two weeks as a result of problems encountered on a trip to Berlin on 2 December.  For that matter we had not even seen the inside of a Lancaster since that trip.  It was unfortunate in a way that our layabout could not have lasted one more day as the op that we were up for turned out to be one of the most hair-raising of the war.  Only the raid on Nuremburg would prove to be a bigger disaster for the Air Force.

97 Squadron had scheduled 21 crews for this target which we learned at briefing was to be Berlin.  I was a tail gunner in Lancaster X-X-Ray, and a member of one of those crews.

The very name Berlin could raise the hair on the back of your neck.  Nothing, however, was mentioned at briefing that would lead one to believe that this trip would be any worse than any of the four previous jaunts that we had made to that target.  In retrospect we should have had at least an inkling that all was “not right in Denmark” as our Met man spent an inordinate amount of time detailing the various weather conditions that we would encounter, not so much on the way to the target but rather that there may be fog on our return.  However, it was not forecast until hours after our return.

What we didn’t know was that the Met people had apparently suggested, as they could not be certain what conditions might be like six hours or so hence, the raid should be scrubbed.  In any event, off we went.

With hindsight it was determined that there were a number of factors that would impact on this night’s effort.  In addition to the possible fog hazard, there was also a full moon that night.  And, as if that were not enough, our route was a straight line directly to Berlin.  No attempt was made to try and bluff Jerry into thinking that we had some other target in mind.  The raid started out badly.  At Elsham Wolds, two Lancs crashed into each other shortly after take-off, killing all 14 aboard.  It seemed to be an omen of worse things to come.

We had “X-X-Ray” airborne at 16:50 hrs and headed to the assembly point over the North Sea.  As we came through the cloud layer we beheld a beautiful sight as the sun was slowly sinking into the multi-coloured clouds directly behind us.  As the minutes passed, it began to grow darker.  It was a comforting thought to watch the hundreds of aircraft slowly making their way through the clouds reaching for operating altitude.

It was dark as we reached the enemy coastline and it soon became obvious that the welcome mat was out for us.  The enemy fighters quickly determined our flight path and began to lay down a string of flares which reached eventually all the way to Berlin.  A dozen or more bombers were shot down even before we crossed into Germany.

Fighters followed us all the way to the target where more were waiting to take over.  F/L Pelletier was attacked by a Ju-88 which his gunners beat off and were able to claim one damaged.  F/L Brill was shot down and, as was sometimes the case, he was carrying a second dickie with him.  Of the 483 aircraft scheduled for this op, 25 were lost as a result of enemy action.

The worst part of this night’s horror was waiting for us back in England.

It was obvious as soon as we neared the coast of England that we were in trouble.  A blanket of fog extended as far as the eye could see.  The whole country was covered.  The only clear airfields were too far away for anyone to reach as most aircraft were almost out of fuel.  Aircraft began to stack up over the area that they assumed was base and waited for instruction from the ground.

We were number three or four so were told to orbit and wait our turn.  Preference was given to those with wounded on board or those about to run out of fuel.  While orbiting we listened in to two of our crews, P/O Smith and F/O Mooney, who had pushed their fuel to the limit and now had no option but to point toward the North Sea and jump for it.  All 14 landed safely and were soon rounded up by the Home Guard.

As for us, we could do nothing but continue to orbit until at last we heard the welcome words, “X-X-Ray, you may pancake.”  We prayed that we could do just that.  Jimmy began a very slow, painful let-down.  Mort read off the elevation as we kept dropping while the rest of us peered through the muck hoping to see the ground or anything recognizable before it hit us too hard.  It was like sitting in a giant ball of cotton batting.

Even though Mort was calling off the altitude, we all knew that it didn’t take much of a variance to put us into the turf but it gave him something to do.  After what seemed like an eternity as we got closer to being either down or dead, Jimmy spotted the deck and dropped the kite straight down with a hell of a wallop.  We were down but rolling into Lord knows what.

X-X-Ray bounced violently so we knew that we were not on tarmac, it felt more like a ploughed field.  At last we came to a halt and in less time than it takes to tell we were out on the ground alive, something that only a short time before we felt might not come to pass.  It took several minutes for the thought to sink in that we had actually come through that pea soup and were standing on terra firma.

We soon became aware of two reddish glows reflecting on the fog that we assumed were prangs, and in fact they were.  Suddenly a Lanc roared directly over our heads, so close that we were able to make out his starboard green as it dipped, hit the ground and cartwheeled off into the fog in a flash of flame.  You knew in that split second that seven men had died.  “There but for the grace of God go I.”

After a short while we made out a slight glow moving in our directions.  All seven of us blew on our whistles to direct the truck our way.  We were so relieved at arriving back in one piece that we hopped on board not really caring where we ended up.  The WAAF driver a few moments later dropped us off at the interrogation room.  She must have had a built-in compass to be able to navigate in those conditions.

As we entered the interrogation room, two other crews, none of whom we recognized, were being interrogated.  We assumed that they had touched down at Bourn and you can imagine our surprise when we were told that we were the visitors, having landed at Graveley.  After that flight, we would have been happy to have landed anywhere.  Graveley had had a full list out that night and were not against taking in the odd stray.  As a matter of fact three of our crews managed to touch down at Graveley and were bloody glad to have done so.

Following our session with the intelligence officer we were pointed toward our eggs and bacon, and a spare cot where we were able to log a much needed 40 winks.  Later in the morning we were given a few gallons of fuel, and made our way back to Bourn.  There we were apprised of just how costly the raid had been.  Our squadron had taken a dreadful beating.  F/L Brill had been knocked down over enemy territory.  P/O Smith’s and F/O Mooney’s crews had bailed out over the U.K. when they ran out of fuel.

The list went on – S/L MacKenzie had crashed on the edge of the airfield at Bourn, killing him, F/O Colson and P/O Pratt.  I had flown with that crew back in early October.  F/O Thackway had crashed near Bourn killing everyone on board except Sgts Mack and Laver.  S/L Deverill crashed near Graveley killing all but W/O Benbow.  F/S Scott also crashed near Graveley killing all aboard.  P/O Kirkwood and crew were killed when they crashed near Gransden.

When the final tally came in it looked as though we had lost at least 32 aircraft in England.  28 had crashed and 4 had been abandoned.  Although the total numbers remained a bit of a mystery the count was something like 127 killed, with another 30 injured.  Our squadron, No. 97, suffered the highest losses with 28 killed, 7 injured, plus Brill’s crew lost over the continent.  A total of 8 aircraft of the 21 dispatched were destroyed on this night’s raid.

To all of those involved it will always be remembered as Black Thursday.

 

Doug Curtis of Nanaimo, BC, was a tail gunner with 97 Squadron.  He regrets his lack of good wartime photos, and explains that he lost his camera when he bet three queens, only to be beaten by a full house.

Billing - Doug Curtis

Article originally published in Airforce magazine, winter 1998

Black Thursday – 97 Squadron Aircrew Flying: Full List

This is the full list of 97 Squadron aircrew flying on 16/17 December 1943. Five crews were involved in serious crashes, in which most or all of the crew were killed (28 fatalities altogether). Other crews were shot down at a later date, and that date can be seen in the Loss Date column. (If viewing this page in column view, please click on the TITLE or PHOTOGRAPH to see the full width of the spreadsheet.) 

There was an abnormally high death rate for this particular group of crews – 94 men out of 151 died either on Black Thursday or in subsequent months, thus close to 2 out of 3 of the men in the Briefing Room on 16 December would not make it through the war.

Trade Surname Name Rank Airforce Home Dets Fate Loss Date
Capt Billing James Pymar, “Jimmy” P/O Scottish
F/E Hope Thomas William, “Tommy” Sgt KIA 12/06/1944
Nav Moriarty James Edward, “Mort” P/O RCAF Canadian
A/B Osler Erwin (or Earl E?) P/O RCAF Canadian
W/Op Campbell James Monroe,”Jock” Sgt Scottish
M/G Curtis Robert Douglas, “Doug” W/O RCAF Canadian
R/G Findlay James Bruce, “Bud” F/S RCAF Canadian
Capt Brill David James F/L KIA 16/12/1943
2nd Pilot Handley Rowland Ernest, “Tommy” F/L KIA 16/12/1943
F/E Stone John Sgt KIA 16/12/1943
Nav McIntyre Norman Gregor, “Norm” P/O RAAF Australian KIA 16/12/1943
A/B Butler Robert P/O KIA 16/12/1943
W/Op Chappell Harry Sgt KIA 16/12/1943
M/G Little Gordon James P/O RCAF Canadian KIA 16/12/1943
R/G Battle Ernest John F/S RAAF Australian KIA 16/12/1943
Capt Cawdery EF S/L
2nd Pilot Clarke Ernest Sumner F/L KIA 30/01/1944
F/E Pearsons J A Sgt
Nav Swale Ken Sgt KIA 15/01/1945
A/B Peden C F/O RCAF Canadian
W/Op Tindall AJ Sgt
M/G McGregor James Harvey Sgt KIA 31/05/1944
R/G Hanson EH F/S RAAF Australian
Capt Coates William Darby Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
F/E Nicholas Bertram Horace Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
Nav Nuttall Stanley Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
A/B Baldwin John Moody P/O RCAF Canadian KIA 25/03/1944
W/Op Chapman William Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
M/G York William Lambert Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
R/G Thompson Frank Sgt KIA 25/03/1944
Capt de Wesselow Peter F/L
F/E Bamlett William, “Bill” F/S
Nav Ingalls RB S/L RCAF Canadian
A/B Cooper Gordon F/O
W/Op White Fred F/S
M/G Muckart Grant W/O KIA 21/04/1944
R/G Saynor James P/O
Capt Deverill Ernest Alfred S/L KIA – C 17/12/1943
F/E Russell Alexander F/S KIA – C 17/12/1943
Nav Brown John Thomas P/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
A/B Farr Francis Roy F/S KIA – C 17/12/1943
W/Op Crossgrove Ralph F/S RNZAF Nzealander KIA – C 17/12/1943
M/G Benbow James W/O S INJ 17/12/1943
R/G Penfold Donald Jamieson W/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
Capt Flack Victor Samuel P/O KIA 06/01/1944
2nd Pilot Emerson Rodrick Stanley F/L KIA – C 21/02/1944
F/E Hare John Alfred Sgt KIA 06/01/1944
Nav Rand Kenneth Peter F/O KIA 06/01/1944
A/B Boston RG F/O PoW 06/01/1944
W/Op Ferguson Robert Sgt KIA 06/01/1944
M/G Dunnett Harry Norman F/S RCAF Canadian KIA 06/01/1944
R/G Wood Geoffrey Walter F/Sgt KIA 21/02/1944
Capt Kirkwood James P/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
F/E Hubbard Edward George, “Ted” F/S KIA – C 17/12/1943
Nav Stewart Robert Charles, “Bob” Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
A/B Wigley George Alexander F/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
W/Op Cleeve Ronald George, possibly known as “Reg” Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
M/G Madeley Leonard, “Len” Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
R/G Killen John Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
Capt Mackenzie Donald Forbes S/L KIA – C 17/12/1943
F/E Pratt John Towler P/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
Nav Marshall Robert, “Bob” F/S S INJ 17/12/1943
A/B Colson William Alfred F/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
W/Op Hunter Anthony Ivor Gwynne, “Tony” F/S KIA 10/04/1944
M/G Lang William Robert, “Ron” F/S INJ 17/12/1943
R/G Kirby Keith F/S S INJ 17/12/1943
Capt Mansbridge Donald William F/L KIA 20/04/1944
F/E Palmer Albert Stanley F/S KIA 20/04/1944
Nav Cruwys Gerald Herbert, “Gerry” F/O KIA 20/04/1944
A/B White William Courtney F/S KIA 20/04/1944
W/Op Hanson John Richard W/O KIA 20/04/1944
M/G Hambling Ernest F/S KIA 20/04/1944
R/G Walder Percival Ashford F/S
Capt Mooney Robert Leo F/O KIA 02/01/1944
F/E Grey Felix Bernard Sgt KIA 02/01/1944
Nav Johnson George Albert Sgt KIA 02/01/1944
A/B Worsdale Jack F/S KIA 02/01/1944
W/Op Cameron Norman Davidson Sgt KIA 02/01/1944
M/G Woolf Godfrey F/S RAAF Australian KIA 02/01/1944
R/G Smith George Edward F/S KIA 02/01/1944
Capt Nicholls J H. “Johnny” F/O RAAF Australian PoW 31/03/1944
F/E Smith S A, “Sid” Sgt PoW 31/03/1944
Nav Easson R, “Ron” F/O PoW 31/03/1944
A/B Jolley Kenroy Alfred, “Bombdoors” F/S RAAF Australian KIA 31/03/1944
W/Op Gardner Jack Sgt PoW 31/03/1944
M/G Ogilvie W D. “Oggy” Sgt PoW 31/03/1944
R/G Whitehead Alfred, “Alf” Sgt KIA 31/03/1944
Capt Owen Charles Blundell F/L
F/E Lacey D E, “Dizzy” Sgt
Nav Shires William, “Bill” F/O
A/B Leak Thomas, “Nigel” Sgt
W/Op Knowles D, Duggie Sgt
M/G Forrest K, “Ken” or “Woody” Sgt
R/G Thomas F B, “Tom” Sgt
Capt Pelletier J W, “Geoff” F/L RAAF Australian
2nd Pilot Henson Leslie FO
F/E Dunning Guy Ernest F/S KIA 06/06/1944
Nav Conley Ronald John F/O RAAF Australian KIA 06/06/1944
A/B Lowick PM F/L
W/Op Burnell Aubrey William Alexander F/S KIA 21/07/1944
M/G Watson Frank Raymond F/S KIA 06/06/1944
R/G Polson G F/O
Capt Riches Wilfrid Cyril F/L KIA 06/07/1944
F/E Winter G Sgt
Nav Watts Henry Wager Dixon P/O KIA 06/07/1944
A/B Pack EH F/S
W/Op Wrigley J F/S
M/G Lowe Robert William Sgt KIA 06/07/1944
R/G Booth LW F/O
Capt Roberts Frank James F/L KIA 21/01/1944
F/E Arter S R P/O KIA
Nav Dudley Ronald F/S KIA 21/01/1944
A/B Young George F/S KIA 21/01/1944
W/Op Blower H J F/S KIA
M/G Marsh Peter Andrew Sgt RAAF Australian KIA 21/01/1944
R/G Parsley William Alfred, “Bill” FS RCAF Canadian KIA 21/01/1944
Capt Scott Ian Macdonald F/S RAAF Australian KIA – C 17/12/1943
F/E Collishaw Charles William Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
Nav Peek Samuel Joseph Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
A/B Irvine Douglas Raymond Sgt RCAF Canadian KIA – C 17/12/1943
W/Op Parrott Sidney George Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
M/G Foxcroft Kenneth Edgar Sgt RAAF Australian KIA – C 17/12/1943
R/G Hope Clifford Lionel Sgt RCAF Canadian KIA – C 17/12/1943
Capt Smith “Smithy” P/O
F/E Durn Maurice Sgt KIA – C 23/06/1944
Nav Arthurson John, “Joe” P/O
A/B Wilson JA F/S RAAF Australian
W/Op Townend Gordon Sgt
M/G Stewart Harold, “Harry” Sgt KIA 25/04/1944
R/G Bradshaw Cliff Sgt
Capt Snell CR P/O RCAF Canadian
F/E Harman Leslie Thomas Sgt KIA 06/07/1944
Nav Lintott L P/O
A/B Smith NJ P/O RCAF Canadian
W/Op Grieve J Sgt
M/G Green CJ Sgt
R/G Wood OD Sgt
Capt Thackway Edward, “Ted” F/O KIA – C 17/12/1943
F/E Grundy George Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
Nav Powell Jack Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
A/B Grant Leslie Kenneth Alexander, “Sandy” P/O RCAF Canadian KIA – C 17/12/1943
W/Op Mack Peter Hughes, “Joe” Sgt S INJ 17/12/1943
M/G Lawrence Robert Anthony, “Tony” Sgt KIA – C 17/12/1943
R/G Laver Leslie Norman John, “Les” Sgt KIA 14/01/1944
Capt Wilson Charles Thomas F/L KIA 29/01/1944
F/E Smith Terence Walter Sgt KIA 29/01/1944
Nav Borthwick George Wilson Syme F/O KIA 29/01/1944
A/B Watling George Alfred F/O KIA 29/01/1944
W/Op Jones Lawrence George Sgt KIA 29/01/1944
M/G Harper Geffrey Kelvin Sgt KIA 29/01/1944
R/G Pleydell Horace John Sgt KIA 29/01/1944

97 Squadron Aircrew Flying on Black Thursday: Outcome

21 Lancasters flew from RAF Station Bourn at around 5 o’clock on the evening of 16 December 1943. This is what happened to the crews.

Lost on the Berlin Operation

Brill crew – lost over Berlin

Crashed on Return to England

Deverill crew – crashed on Graveley airfield

Kirkwood crew – crashed near Gransden Lodge

Mackenzie crew – crashed on the edge of Bourn airfield

Scott crew – crashed near Graveley

Thackway crew – crashed a mile from Bourn

Bravery Award to Sidney Mathews for Rescue of Thackway Crew members

 

Baled out

Mooney crew

Smith crew

 

Immediate Decoration

Coates crew

 

Also Flying

Billing crew

Cawdery crew

De Wesselow crew

Flack crew

Mansbridge crew

Nicholls crew

Owen crew

Pelletier crew

Riches crew

Roberts crew

Snell crew

Wilson crew