Crew: Owen

In this very striking picture, Charles Owen has the DSO ribbon on his battle dress tunic, awarded after completing his last op (on 5th October 1944). The award was gazetted on 15th December 1944. Owen’s birthday had been on 5 January 1944, so he is still only 21 years old in this picture having lived a lifetime since his arrival at 97 Squadron in late 1943.

This crew flew on BLACK THURSDAY in Lancaster JB671 OF-V, V-Victor. Despite instrument failure, the crew landed safely at Bourn.

Pilot: F/L Charles Owen
Flight Engineer: Sgt DE Lacey
Navigator: F/O William, known as Bill, Shires
Bomb Aimer: Sgt Tom, known as Nigel, Leak
W/Op: Sgt Dougie Knowles
Mid-Upper Gunner: Sgt K Forrest
Rear Gunner: Sgt FB Thomas

OWEN crew
This crew photograph was taken from the cockpit of the Lancaster, almost certainly by Owen himself. The three men wearing gumboots are the ground crew for the aircraft. The man second from the left is Tom Leak, but it is not known who the other four crew members are.   The photograph is now at the Imperial War Museum with Owen’s operations diary.

Tom (known as Nigel to the crew) made a tape describing his experiences in the RAF. A large part of the tape describes the crew’s experiences on Black Thursday.

Tom first describes how there was “quite a lull” between 4th and 16th December, when they did not fly any ops due to the bad weather. He continues:

“We were often briefed for trips and then they would be scrubbed at the last moment because of the weather. I think there must have been some agitation because of the Air Force inactivity and someone had said, ‘Well, what are the RAF doing?’ and finally we would go into action on 16th December.”

Tom briefly describes the trip out, the short direct route to Berlin and the long way back via Denmark which was “usually much quieter”. Once the crew got over the North Sea on the homeward journey, they were able to feel the worst was over, get out the coffee and relax a bit. They had been told at briefing to expect that the weather would be bad on their return to base, “not ideal”, with a ceiling of 1,000 feet, but were reassured that they would be able to land safely. But when they finally reached Bourn, the cloud base was 800 feet and dropping all the time. There were several aircraft stacked up over the airfield, and they joined this group. The story continues in Tom’s words:

“There was one aircraft trying to land – F-Freddy – we could hear what was going on over the R/T, he was having difficulty in seeing the runway and he came in to land and then overshot, went round again. Meanwhile we were all stooging around anxiously, hearing what was going on. Freddy came round the second time, and again couldn’t make it, overshot. Tension was beginning to build up and cloud base beginning to drop, and we began to wonder if we ever would land.

Tom Leak

Then eventually one aircraft got down, but the runway wasn’t cleared. By this time our pilot was getting anxious and we were also wondering about the position of the petrol. So he [Charles Owen] said, “Well, look, lads, I’m going to land”. The navigator [Bill Shires] got very concerned and said, “If you land without permission, this could be a court-martial”. “Yes, and if we don’t try to land it could be a coffin for us”. So the navigator called out again, he said, “But the runway’s not clear, there’s an aircraft still on the runway”. “Oh well,” [Charles Owen] said, “we’ll have to take that chance”.

The pilot realised that this was a desperate position and that if we didn’t do something we never would get down. Meanwhile all the other aircraft were circling around and [Charles Owen] came down low and we could just see one or two of the perimeter lights at a time, but it was very difficult to see much. And he came in and the flight engineer helped him to try and pick out the flare path, and we landed with a terrific bump and shot up in the air, but it was the best landing we ever made.”

[On the tape recording at this point Tom Leak gives a small delighted chuckle.]

“There was a terrific sense of relief, and we taxied away. Meanwhile it had got so bad that no other aircraft could land and the other aircraft got diverted to airfields nearby with disastrous results … some flew into trees … It was very depressing for everybody. We ourselves had a great sense of relief, and terrific gratitude towards our pilot, we realised that without his initiative and skill we would never have survived. And instead of being scolded by the authorities, he was complemented on his skill in landing the aircraft.

We lost crew we knew personally, it was very upsetting, and there was a great deal of indignation in the squadron. Next day they assembled us altogether and the commanding officer [acting C/O, Squadron Leader Dunniclife] came in with a very serious face and did a lot of straight talking.
He said, “Well, men, I know how you are feeling about the events that happened and you’ve lost colleagues, and it was very unfortunate that the weather changed as it did and brought such tragedy”. He said, “No doubt you feel indignant about it, you feel like going out and talking about it”, but he warned us that that was the very thing the enemy would want to know, the tragedy that had happened, and we found out that 12 aircraft were lost over the target but 96 had crashed in this country trying to land with great loss of life. We were told that it was a very serious matter and that if anyone spoke about this to the public they were liable to a court-martial.

It took some time to get over this, such a great loss and a great upset, but life on the squadron had to go on of course, and four days later we set off on another trip.”

Bill Shires
Bill Shires, the navigator

V-Victor landed at five past twelve in the morning of 17th December. There were severe technical malfunctions in the transmitters and navigational aids, but the navigator, Bill Shires, and the bomb aimer, Nigel Leak, had managed to get the aircraft home. Charles Owen kept an operations diary, which is now at the Imperial War Museum, and of this night he noted laconically:

“Trip was generally quieter than usual. 10/10 cloud over the target and rather less flak than usual. W/T and “Y” and “G” packed up on way home, so homed across North Sea on D/F Loop, which luckily was not jammed. Homed onto base on SBA beam, breaking cloud at 250 feet to find fog, rain and visibility about 300 yards and deteriorating. R/T then packed up, so after circling for ten minutes at 200 feet, landed without permission in appalling conditions. Six other aircraft landed at base, three landed away, three crews bailed out when they ran out of fuel, four crashed when trying to land, and one was missing. Quite a night.”

His figures for the fate of the aircraft are not quite correct, but his last comment speaks volumes about the aircrews’ general attitude.