This crew flew without mishap on BLACK THURSDAY in Lancaster JB659-OF-J, J-JIG. The crew were all killed on 20th April 1944 when flying with 635 Squadron, and are buried at Heverlee War Cemetery, except for Percival Walder who had left operational flying by then and survived the war.
CREW ON BLACK THURSDAY
Pilot: F/L Donald William Mansbridge
Flight Engineer: F/S Albert Stanley Palmer
Navigator: F/O Gerald Herbert Cruwys
Bomb Aimer: F/S William Courtney White
W/Op: W/O John Richard Hanson
Mid-Upper Gunner: F/S Ernest Hambling
Rear Gunner: F/S Percival Ashford Walder – survived the war
Above, from left to right
Pilot-Squadron Leader Donald William Mansbridge – AFC
Navigator Flying Officer Gerald Herbert Cruwys (Croix de Guerre Avec Palm)
Bomb Aimer-Warrant Officer William Courtney ‘Whitey’ White – DFM.
Wireless Operator-Warrant Officer John Richard “Happy” Hanson
Mid-Upper-Flight Sergeant Ernest “Butch” Hambling – DFM,
Rear Gunner-Flight Sergeant Ernest Rowe Newton Barrell
Flight Engineer-Warrant Officer Albert Stanley ‘Tich’ Palmer – DFM
Gerald Herbert Cruwys, by Debbie Kennett
Gerald Herbert Cruwys was born on 8th October 1921 at 1 Warburton Villas, The Lough, Cork, Ireland. He was the second eldest of four sons born to Herbert Frederick Cruwys and Edith Florence Wiggins. His parents were both English but had settled in Cork shortly after their marriage. His father was a master tailor with a shop at 34 Princes Street. Gerry attended St Fin Barre’s School in Cork and was a chorister at St Fin Barre’s Anglican Cathedral. He had a mischievous temperament and as a young boy he was always misbehaving and getting into fights with the Irish lads. He had bright ginger hair and in the few family photographs of Gerry as a child his hair is always unruly and dishevelled. In 1934 when Gerry was 13 years old he and his family moved back to England to live in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Gerry attended St Paul’s Practising School, Cheltenham, and then went on to study at the North Gloucestershire Technical College. After leaving college in June 1937 he found employment as a draughtsman at Dowty Equipment Ltd, a company which manufactured various aircraft components. Dowty’s designed and manufactured the landing gear and hydraulics for the Lancaster Bombers and also made the landing gear for the Halifaxes. During his service with the RAF Gerry was later to fly on both these planes.
Gerry was a talented sportsman and a very fast runner. He played rugby for the Technical College and then for Dowty’s, playing in the three-quarter position. He was also a keen boxer, and was a member of the St Stephen’s Church Lads’ Brigade.
When war broke out Gerry volunteered for service with the RAF and was officially enlisted on 23rd August 1940. He had set his heart on being a pilot and was recommended for training as a pilot/wireless operator/air gunner. He trained at Prestwick in Ayrshire, Scotland, and the photograph (above left) was taken during this period. However, Gerry was devastated when he failed his pilot’s exam on 5th February 1941. Only 30% of those who took the exam passed and they were not allowed a second chance. Gerry wrote to advise his parents of the bad news:
Everything has been against us up here, bad weather, the place was burnt down last Tuesday, we had a big fire – and everything was disorganised, but still that’s beside the point.
The whole thing amounts to this that they have not got time to teach you if you are a bit slow in your reactions in the air. If the course was longer (it’s six weeks, was three months before the war) I could do it. I can fly the plane but they don’t think that we can do it well enough, so it’s no use arguing.
After such a disappointment Gerry considered leaving the RAF and returning to his former job at Dowty’s but he was eventually persuaded to train as an observer/navigator instead. After completing his training he went up to Yorkshire to join 58 Squadron on 4th November 1941. This squadron played a prominent part in the night-bombing offensive. On 28th November 1941 Gerry moved to 138 (Special Duties) Squadron at Newmarket, Suffolk. 138 Squadron was formed in August 1941 and was the transport organisation for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). They were responsible for the SOE’s sabotage missions and “cloak and dagger” moonlight operations to drop agents, equipment and propaganda leaflets in occupied territory. In January 1942 138 Squadron moved to Stradishall, Suffolk. Two months later they moved to Tempsford Airfield in Bedfordshire where they were joined by the newly formed 161 Squadron. The Special Duties were now split between the two Squadrons with 138 Squadron taking responsibility for parachuting supplies and agents, and 161 Squadron in charge of landing and pick-up operations.
Gerry was transferred to 161 Squadron on 8th March 1942, receiving his commission as Pilot Officer (Navigator) on 6th October 1942. Like all the residents at RAF Tempsford he had to sign the Official Secrets Act and was forbidden from talking about his work with his family and friends. He would have received special training to get accustomed to the low-level night flying. Pinpoint accuracy was required from the navigators to enable them to locate the targets for the drops which were often nothing more than discreet torch signals flashed up from hastily prepared landing sites in fields. The operations were always carried out at night and were restricted to the “moon period” – the 14 to 16 days either side of a full moon. 161 Squadron’s Operations Record Book shows that Gerry participated in 38 operations between April 1942 and January 1943 flying in Whitley V Bombers. He was honoured to act as navigator for Group Captain Edward “Mouse” Fielden for three of these operations. Most of Gerry’s ops were in France but there were two ops in Belgium, one in Holland, one in Czechoslovakia and one in Gibraltar. The records for the latter part of his time with 161 Squadron have not yet been searched.
On 20th May 1943 it was announced that Flying Officer Gerald Cruwys and Wing Commander T J Gunn, DFC, a pilot with 161 Squadron, were to be awarded the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palme by General de Gaulle for “services rendered in certain secret operations”. The investiture was to be performed personally by General de Gaulle in London but had to be postponed at the last minute. In the meantime they were given permission to wear their ribbons.
At the end of June 1943 Gerry had a brief spell as a navigational instructor with 19 O.T.U. (Officer Training Unit) at RAF Kinloss in Scotland before moving to RAF Bourn in Cambridgeshire to join 97 Squadron (Pathfinder 8) on 25th October 1943. The details of his 12 ops with 97 Squadron are shown below. On 5th February 1944 Gerry was awarded the coveted Pathfinder Force Badge. On 20th March 1944 Gerry, along with the rest of his crew from 97 Squadron, moved to the newly formed 635 Squadron (Pathfinder Force 8) based at Downham Market in Norfolk flying Avro Lancaster bombers. The crew had probably only taken part in a few operations with their new squadron when on the night of 20th April they set off on Operation Ottignies on a mission to bomb the rail installations in Belgium. Their Lancaster failed to return to Downham Market and the crew were reported missing. Gerry’s parents faced an anguished nine-month wait for further news, not knowing if their son was alive or dead. In January 1945 they received a letter from the Casualty Branch of the Air Ministry with the news they had been dreading:
The Allied Liaison Officer attached to the 2nd Tactical Air Force has reported that he has received information that a British bomber aircraft was shot down by a night fighter in the Bois de Chauwères near Wavre, during March or April, and that the bodies of its crew were interred in the churchyard at Beauvechain. He was given a number of articles which he understood had been recovered from the bodies, and amongst them was a piece of tunic bearing your son’s name.
Gerry and his crew were initially buried in a communal grave in Le Culot Military Cemetery, Belgium, before being transferred to their permanent resting place at Heverlee Cemetery in Louvain, Belgium.
On the afternoon of 7th January 1946 Gerry’s proud parents went to the French Embassy in London and were presented with the Croix de Guerre on behalf of their son. The citation certificate reads as follows:
Pilote navigant d’une rare habileté, a procédé à de nombreux atterrissages en France au cours de mission dangereuses, pour aider au mouvement de résistance contre l’ennemi. Cette Citation comporte l’attribution de la Croix de Guerre avec palme de Bronze.
(A pilot/navigator possessed with a rare ability has taken part in numerous landings in France in the course of dangerous missions to help the Resistance movement against the enemy. This citation comprises the attribution for the Croix de Guerre with Bronze Palme.)
To this day Gerry’s family do not know the details of the “dangerous missions” which merited the award and all enquiries have drawn a complete blank.