The night of 16th/17th December 1943, or Black Thursday as the day was soon called, saw the loss of twenty-five Bomber Command Lancasters during the Berlin operation but a further thirty-one lost due to the fog over England, crashed or abandoned when their crews baled out, or in the case of two unfortunate crews collided over Lincolnshire. Other aircraft —Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lysanders, variously on gardening, training or Special Duties flights — also crashed due to the fog.
In total, Bomber Command suffered 327 deaths and lost 70 aircraft on this day. Chorley’s masterly reference work, RAF Bomber Command Losses (1943 volume), lists ten pages of horrendous crashes, deaths, injuries, and amazing escapes for 16th/17th December. The death toll for the bad weather crashes in England was close to 150, not counting those who later died of their injuries. 97 Squadron’s losses were the heaviest of all.
Altogether, twelve Pathfinder Lancasters were lost because of the appalling weather. Only 7 Squadron had no bad weather losses, though it can have been of little consolation as they had lost four crews on the Berlin raid. 83 and 156 Squadron lost one aircraft each; 405 squadron lost three out of the thirteen aircraft flying that night, one near Marham (where three of the squadron’s other Lancasters landed safely) and the other two at Graveley.
The PFF dead were one from 83 Squadron, six from 156 Squadron, fourteen from 405 Squadron, and twenty-eight from 97 Squadron, forty-nine men in all.
Black Thursday saw the worst bad weather landing casualties in Bomber Command for the whole of the war. They were also by far the worst that 97 Squadron ever experienced. The official details are recorded in Bourn’s ORB, and, although studiously dry and matter-of-fact, the account makes upsetting reading:
21 a/c detailed to attack BERLIN. Good concentration of bombing in early stages falling off later. No results seen only reddish glow […] Many fighter flares and scarecrow flares […] One a/c F/Lt Brill and crew failed to return—no news heard since. On returning to base a/c encountered bad visibility over England and the Squadron had a disastrous night in a/c losses and 28 aircrew being killed.
The following is a brief summary of the return. 8 a/c landed safely at Bourn, and 3 at Gravely [sic]. 1 a/c landed at Wyton. F/S Coates, after being hit by another aircraft’s incendiaries and having two engines put out of action on the same side by flak, put out a ditching signal when not far from the Danish coast. With great skill he flew the a/c back on the two engines and landed safely without further damage at Downham Market.
Two crews, P/O Smith and F/O Mooney the captains, baled out over Ely and Wyton. All the crews were uninjured but one a/c is missing and untraced.
S/L Mackenzie DFC crashed at Bourn on the edge of the airfield. Three were killed, S/L Mackenzie, F/O Colson, P/O Pratt, the remainder are either in hospital or sick quarters.
F/O Thackway and crew crashed near Bourn airfield, killing all except Sgt Mack who is in hospital and Sgt Laver who escaped uninjured.
S/L Deverill DFC DFM and crew crashed at Gravely all being killed except for W/O Benbow who is in Ely hospital.
F/S Scott and crew crashed at Gravely all being killed
P/O Kirkwood and crew crashed near Gransden all being killed.
Total loss of aircraft 8. Airmen killed 28. Injured 7.
With the as yet unconfirmed deaths of all Brill’s crew, 97 Squadron had lost over a quarter of the 151 men who had flown out that night.