Black Thursday, 16/17 December 1943, came one month into the Battle of Berlin, Bomber Command’s all-out attempt to win the war by attacking the German capital and other key cities. But it was not the enemy which caused the mass RAF casualties of Black Thursday, but Bomber Command’s perennial enemy – the weather.
On the night of 16 December, the system for getting RAF bomber aircraft safely back to their bases fell apart. The survivors of the very large force of 483 Lancasters and 15 Mosquitoes which had taken part in the bombing raid on Berlin reached England safely only to find that the light mist of the afternoon had turned into a deadly peasouper of a fog, blanketing the country as far up as Yorkshire.
Black Thursday, as the day was soon called, saw the loss of twenty-five 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. 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.
97 Squadron was a three-flight squadron, meaning that it had 21 operational aircraft and a number of spares, bringing its approximate aircraft strength to 28-30 aircraft. Nine of the operational aircraft were lost on Black Thursday: one over Berlin, two to baling-out, five to crashes, and one to damage sustained on the operation and in landing.
A further nine Pathfinder Lancasters were lost on operations or due to the appalling weather. 7 Squadron had no bad weather losses, but it can have been of little consolation as they had lost four crews on the Berlin operation. 83 and 156 Squadron lost one aircraft each. 405 squadron lost three out of the thirteen Lancasters 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 for fog-related crashes were two from 83 Squadron, six from 156 Squadron, fourteen from 405 Squadron, and twenty-eight from 97 Squadron, fifty men in all.
16/17 December 1943 saw the worst bad weather landing casualties in Bomber Command for the whole of the war. They were also by far the highest losses that 97 Squadron ever experienced.