This crew flew on BLACK THURSDAY in Lancaster, JA908-OF-N, N-Nan. They landed safely at Downham Market after a heroic feat of flying which earned the pilot an immediate DFM.
Pilot: Sgt William Darby, known as Bill Coates
Flight Engineer: Sgt Bertram Horace Nicholas
Navigator: Sgt Stanley Nuttall
Bomb Aimer: P/O John Moody Baldwin (RCAF)
W/Op: Sgt William Chapman
Mid-Upper Gunner: Sgt William Lambert York
Rear Gunner: Sgt Frank Thompson
N-Nan landed at Downham Market at half past one in the morning, 17th December 1943, the very last 97 Squadron plane to land that night. The crew’s survival was due to an astounding feat of flying by their twenty year old skipper. Their Lancaster, N-Nan, had been hit by a friendly aircraft’s incendiaries, dropped down from the skies above them during the raid. Hit on the port wing, turret and amidships, N-Nan burst into flames. Ordering his crew to put on their parachutes, Coates threw the aircraft into a violent dive to try to shake off the incendiaries. This toppled the D.R. compass gyro, upsetting all the instruments connected to it, but fortunately the fires were completely extinguished and N-Nan climbed back to a safe height of 21,000 feet.
Shortly afterwards, in an entirely separate incident, the Lancaster was hit by flak. The propeller tips of the starboard inner engine were broken, and one large fragment flew off, slashing through the fuselage of the aircraft and severing the hydraulic pipelines. A second fragment shot off backwards and damaged the tail plane. The starboard outer engine was also badly hit, and both starboard engines had to be shut down. By now N-Nan was so badly crippled that it looked impossible that the crew would ever make it home. Losing height constantly, they limped back over Occupied Europe, and by a miracle made it to Denmark and set course for home.
Twenty miles past the Danish coast, N-Nan began losing height so rapidly that Coates told the crew to take up ditching stations. A SOS was sent, but the chances of survival in the freezing waves of the North Sea were so minimal that no one would have wanted to take the ditching option. Somehow Coates and his Welsh flight engineer, Bertram Nicholas, managed to coax the aircraft into maintaining a height of 5,000 feet if they flew a steady speed of 120 knots. In time the SOS was cancelled, and eventually, to the most profound relief of everyone on board, N-Nan made it back to England.
Even here there was an additional problem to surmount, for the crew were first carelessly directed to Marham, which then sent them on to the FIDO installation at Downham Market.
Like other airfields Downham Market was suffering from the weather, and, though cloud base was higher than Bourn’s at 400 feet, visibility was still very poor. The aerodrome was suffering from very serious congestion-at one point there were thirty-six aircraft waiting to land. Even damaged aircraft were forced to wait, such as that flown by Pilot Officer Crombie of 514 Squadron which had lost one of its port engines. (On requesting priority to land, Crombie was told by Control that others below him had bigger problems. He was eventually to get down safely with, as his flight engineer put it, “just about enough fuel to fill a cigarette lighter”.)
Most of the instruments on N-Nan were unusable. The undercarriage had to be lowered using the emergency air system. After the very harassing and tense five hours that the crew had experienced, they must have been extremely nervous as they approached the airfield through the all-enclosing blackness. Then the unrelieved gloom began to gave way to a pinkish diffused glow like the dawn, and suddenly they could see the FIDO flarepath burning brightly along all sides of the runway. Negotiating the bucketing turbulence caused by the rising hot air, Coates came down over the flames and landed the aircraft perfectly without any further damage after eight and a half hours in the air.
It is said that the crew carried him from N-Nan on their shoulders like a conquering hero. Doubtless that is exactly how they felt about him, but the real reason why they carried their skipper was because he could no longer walk; his feet had been jammed against the rudder bar for so long that for the moment Bill couldn’t even stand up.
Airey and Dunnicliffe, the Station Commander and Acting CO, recommended Bill Coates for the immediate award of the Distinguished Flying Medal, a very great honour for such a junior pilot. On 22nd December, Dunnicliffe wrote a glowing report of the heroic flight home after incendiaries and flak had crippled the Lancaster, N-Nan. “By his devotion to duty, prompt obedience of orders and superb captaincy, Flight Sergeant Coates saved his aircraft and crew.” This opinion which was seconded by Airey. “This NCO put up an outstanding show which thoroughly deserves the award recommended by his Squadron Commander.”
The recommendation was accepted and cited in the London Gazette three weeks later, on 7th January, the account of the award concluding “In harassing circumstances, this airman displayed great skill, coolness, and resolution”. The DFM ribbon would be pinned on Bill Coates by Bennett himself in front of the entire squadron.
The crew would get through the many horrendous weeks of operations which followed Black Thursday, when the most dreadful toll was being exacted of Bomber Command. They were a good close team, and must have at last begun to hope that they might be one of the lucky crews who would finish their tour. But their luck finally ran out on Saturday, 25th March 1944. Their aircraft was shot down on the homeward journey from Berlin, at about half past twelve at night, near Luyksgestel, 12 miles from Eindhoven, close to the Dutch/Belgium border. The crash was so violent that it was impossible to identify individual remains, and the crew were buried together in a common grave at Woensel General Cemetery.
The aircraft’s identity would be confirmed in August 1946 by the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, basing their findings on the meagre evidence surviving – a number on the starboard fin and a single signet ring which had belonged to a member of the crew. The Air Ministry breaking this dreadful news to Coates’s parents (they had lost their oldest son, Gordon, at sea in October 1943 when his ship HMS Charybdis was torpedoed) wrote, “It is hoped that the knowledge of your son’s resting place and that he lies in friendly soil may be of some comfort to you in your great loss”.