We have recently been sent a number of very interesting photographs of the Montgomery crew (97 Squadron) which we will display on the website shortly. However, one particular detail on one of the photographs immediately jumped out in view of our recent posts on carrier pigeons. This photograph was taken at Woodhall Spa prior to the La Spezia operation on 13 April 1943. The crew are waiting to board the aircraft and with them are two boxes for carrier pigeons. This answers some of the questions posed on our page A Lancaster is Going to Germany.
Pathfinder and Main Force Lancasters had identifying squadron codes and individual letters which made them easy to recognise in the air. For example, OF-D stood for 97 Squadron aircraft D-Dog (D-Donald at a later date). For a list of PFF squadron codes, see Pathfinder Squadrons by Type. For the individual letters (and one of our all-time favourite ground crew and Lancaster photographs), see our new page: Aircraft Codes & Letters
The explanation for the mix-up about nationality is now explained. As John’s son-in-law explains:
The Seychelles used to be French , but we won them as “spoils of war “ at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The locals speak a version of French (especially the old ones like John) when ever they get together. We have comments from 97 Squadron mates who say he cut a swathe through the local ladies of Cambridge with his “French “ accent !!! Say no more.
John Sauvage, one of 97 Squadron’s most distinguished pilots, is 100 years old this weekend. The main image on this post is of John with his crew discussing arcane matters next to their Lancaster at Bourn in the summer of 1943. He can also be seen below with his ground crew in front of his 97 Squadron aircraft.
We were told years ago that John was French. In fact, we have learned this morning that he is Seychellois (from the Seychelles), which was a British possession from 1814 under the Treaty of Paris, and became a Crown Colony. He is now a naturalised British citizen.
In the ground crew photo John looks every inch the dashing young pilot. Below the photograph can be found the link to his citation for the Distinguished Service Order in the London Gazette of 30 November 1943 (second column, third down), which makes particular mention of his leadership qualities which inspired others to follow his high standard. We all join in wishing John the very best wishes for his birthday on Saturday.
Charles Owen, who flew with 97 Squadron during the war and was one of the crews on Black Thursday, went on to have a distinguished career in the RAF. Here is some footage posted by AP Archive of when he was commanding a Victor squadron (10 Squadron at Cottesmore). He is wearing his Pathfinder badge on his immaculate uniform. At one point he says:
The Lanc was a wonderful airplane, but it was very cold, very noisy, and it was really quite hard work. Nowadays … we can really go to war in comfort …
Tonight is the 75th anniversary of the death of Leslie Laver, ‘Les’, who was my father’s rear gunner before the Thackway crew was broken up by death and injury. He died with most of the Steven crew on the Dutch island of Texel.
In remembering the aircrew who were lost in the war, we should also remember the immense cost to their families. Though she lived to be 89, Leslie’s mother never fully recovered from his death. She had six other children, but he had been the youngest and the pet of the family, and she missed him for the rest of her long life. LESLIE LAVER AND HIS MOTHER.
On 24 December in the late afternoon, volunteers from the Aeronautical and War Museum on Texel, the Netherlands, placed candles on all the war graves at Den Burg Cemetery. This enchanting and poignant ceremony of Remembrance was led by Bram van Dijk and Jan Nieuwenhuis. Their helpers included school children with their parents.
This was a very touching tribute to the war dead who are buried there, who include my father’s rear gunner, Leslie Laver, and four other members of the Steven crew, who had flown from 97 Squadron’s base at Bourn on 14 January 1944.
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.
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.
Charles Owen kept an operations diary, and one of the most interesting pages is the one he wrote for Black Thursday.
This particular entry has often been quoted but there is nothing like seeing the actual handwriting. One of the critical phrases is ‘landed without permission in appalling conditions’. To read the full story of this unauthorised landing, see Tom Leak’s story on the Owen crew page.