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.
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.
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.
This tattered object is Bobby Bear. He can perhaps be seen as an emblem of the few who survived the crashes on Black Thursday but were seriously injured.
He was the childhood toy of Joe Mack, of the Thackway crew, 97 Squadron, and sometime in the late 40s or early 50s Joe’s devoted mother Kathleen made him an RAF uniform of sorts together with a row of Joe’s medal ribbons. The yellow stripe on Bobby Bear’s left sleeve is a wound stripe, reflecting the serious injuries suffered by Joe in the Thackway crash in the early hours of the morning of 17 December 1943.
Bobby Bear can currently be seen at the Pathfinder Collection at RAF Wyton as part of the Black Thursday display.
In 1944 the Mack family contributed a new font cover to their local church, Christ Church at Radlett, in gratitude for Joe’s survival. All that survives of this now is the handsome drawing in the Hertfordshire records office. In the sixties, the vicar took a dislike to it and had it removed to the lumber shed, where it was eaten by woodworm and eventually burnt.
Joe never fully recovered from the crash and in the last years of his life suffered serious problems from his badly healed leg as well as from traumatic memories.
He can be seen below as a very young man in the summer of 1944, recovering from the loss of all his crew and coming to terms with his own miraculous survival. The Pathfinder badge can be seen on his breast pocket.
Arrangements are firming up for the Black Thursday 75th Anniversary commemorations at the Pathfinder Collection, RAF Wyton. There will be a considerable change to the existing display and some new storyboards.
In addition, we are delighted that Charles Owen’s family have placed on loan his impressive set of medals, his logbook, pilot’s wings, and Pathfinder badge. Owen’s ops diary is held at the Imperial War Museum in London. The photo with this post shows the logbook open on the 16/17 December 1943 page.
There were only a limited number of places for the lunch and tour of the Collection on 16 December this year, and unfortunately these have all gone. However, if anyone wishes to attend the memorial service in the morning, probably to be held at 11 o’clock (we are not yet been able to confirm the timing due to complicated Station arrangements), please let us know.
There will be a gathering at RAF Wyton on 16 December this year to honour the 75th anniversary of Black Thursday, and of the death of Ernest Alfred Deverill and so many other fine aircrew.
The exact details and timings are being finalised but it is planned that there will be a memorial service in the morning, lunch, and then an extended tour round the Pathfinder Collection at the Heritage Centre, including viewing the Deverill Collection.
The RAF Pathfinders Archive bought the very expensive (but, in terms of true value, priceless) Deverill Collection at the end of 2017. By purchasing it, we have ensured its future as a single Collection when today similar collections are being broken up to gain the maximum commercial value. We still need to raise another £11,000 to fund the purchase, which was made possible by means of interest-free loans from supporters.
Before the 75th Anniversary, we will be publishing “Ernest Alfred Deverill, the Pathfinders, and Black Thursday”, which will be available in November. All profits from this publication will go towards settling the outstanding loans. The price will be £10 plus postage.
Numbers for the 75th Anniversary gathering are strictly limited, so please notify us as soon as possible of your interest. If you would like to attend the gathering, preorder “Ernest Alfred Deverill, the Pathfinders, and Black Thursday”, or make a donation, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Support Us Page
Please note, the Heritage Centre is inside the Wyton base, which operates at a high security level. For further details see OUR PARTNERS
Further to our post yesterday about Billy Colson, on Black Thursday he had taken the place of Ivor Glyn Stephens as bomb aimer on the Mackenzie crew. Stephens would survive the war, as would Keith Kirby, who had been in the aircraft with Billy Colson when it crashed. Severely injured, he seems to have made a full recovery. He married in a double wedding in which Glyn married Keith’s sister and Keith married her best friend.