Working on the post yesterday on the condolence letter to Jespersen’s father reminded me of another condolence letter, this time written on the Pathfinder station at Oakington in December 1943. It concerned a friend, Bob Butler, who was stationed with 97 Squadron at Bourn. The condolence letter was addressed to his mother, Ellen Butler.
Ernest Deverill, the much-decorated 97 Squadron pilot killed on Black Thursday, whose medals, logbooks and other memorabilia are on display at RAF Wyton, is buried at St Mary’s, Docking, Norfolk. The epitaph on his gravestone comes from the same hymn as the one for Arthur North, of the 105 Squadron crew buried at Bergen, Norway, who were mentioned on yesterday’s post. For details of the epitaphs on these gravestones and of the hymn from which they were taken, see O Valiant Hearts.
The Thackway crash, referred to in our post just now, has a tiny echo in the uniform of the moth-eaten bear, known as Bobby Bear, who until recently was on display in the Black Thursday cabinet at RAF Wyton. The RAF uniform which the bear wears has a wound stripe – see the little flash of yellow on the sleeve in the image below.
The wound stripe, which was an unusual emblem on RAF uniforms (the Pathfinder Collection has an authentic RAF uniform on display which has such a stripe) reflects the serious injuries suffered by the owner of the bear, Joe Mack of the Thackway crew, on the night of the crash, 17 December 1943. The uniform, which is a toy approximation of Joe’s uniform, was made for the bear by Joe’s mother, Kathleen, some time in the four or five years after the crash.
Bobby Bear has left the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton for the time being as he has been selected for the BBC programme The Repair Shop, on which expert craftsmen pool their talents and resources to restore heirlooms and treasured antiques. Filming on Bobby Bear’s rejuvenation starts this week.
Hopefully he will be back at the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton later on this year. We will keep you up to date with what happens with Bobby Bear and the programme. (Below, Bobby Bear, beneath the photograph of Ernest Deverill, at RAF Wyton last year.)
We have been very interested to find out that there is a Millennium Walk which allows walkers to get close to the site of the Thackway crew’s crash (on what was known as The Hay) on 17 December 1943. http://www.hardwick-cambs.org.uk/footpaths-walks/ This is significant because the crash site is on private land, well away from other public footpaths. See this description on the link:
Turn left and follow the public bridleway east to Hardwick Wood, then north to the junction at TL 357 583. From this point an optional diversion may be taken along a pleasant path to TL 361 591 (this point is close to the site of the plane crash on The Hay, on the night 16th/17th December 1943.), but it is necessary to return the same way, as there is no right of way past here.
18 years ago, the Thackway crew were the original inspiration for a website about 97 Squadron and the Pathfinders, which website eventually grew into the one you are looking at today.
A number of key pieces of the aircraft wreckage are now on display at the Pathfinder Collection at Wyton, including the piece of metal with the Lancaster’s engine number, proving beyond all doubt that this was the Thackway aircraft.
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.
JENNIE MACK GRAY
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.