Crew: Riches

Wilfrid Riches sitting (2)
Wilfred Cyril Riches, the pilot. Riches’ photographs courtesy of Audrey Riches.

CREW  on Black Thursday, 16/17 December 1943
Pilot: F/L Wilfred Cyril Riches
Killed 6th July 1944
Flight Engineer: Sgt G Winter
Survived the war, not on fatal flight of 6-7-44
Navigator: P/O Henry Wager Dixon Watts
Killed 6th July 1944
Bomb Aimer: F/S Edward H Pack
Survived 6th July crash, evader, survived the war
W/Op: F/S James (Jim) Wrigley
Survived the war, not on fatal flight of 6-7-44
Mid-Upper Gunner: Sgt Robert William Lowe
Killed 6th July 1944
Rear Gunner: F/O LW Booth
Survived the war, not on fatal flight of 6-7-44

Jim Wrigley, one of the fortunate survivors, never forgot his crew. In his logbook, he kept a list of them:

Riches, Jim Wrigley's Crew in Log book 1
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Jennie Gray, email to Marilyn Wrigley, April 2016, about the crew list in the logbook:

It is very touching that Jim listed the names of his first crew in the logbook and noted where those who had been killed were buried. It seems that Jim must have been to the burial place of his skipper and Watts as he is so specific about the location, i.e. ‘in woods on outskirts of St-Omer’.  He would have gone before October 1946.

I have found the exact place, it was on the farm of Roger Deram, at Eringhem, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, between Dunkirk and Saint-Omer. The bodies were moved to their current location in Millam Churchyard in October 1946, and so were the other members of the crew who had been buried elsewhere. This means it is very unlikely that Jim would have known about the earlier details of the burials unless he had actually gone to the place himself. I find this very moving. The chaps evidently meant a great deal to him.

Riches, Ted Pack Wedding 1945 Improved Version
Wedding of Ted Pack in 1945, Jim Wrigley is fourth to the right of the bridegroom
Riches, James Wrigley, 1942
Jim Wrigley, 1942

Like many 97 Squadron crews, Riches’ crew had more than one extremely close brush with death. An incident on the Berlin operation  of 3rd/4th September 1943  was nearly fatal to the whole  crew on their 8th operation. In the event the majority of the crew survived but unfortunately there occurred one of those very rare deaths of a crew member onboard the aircraft (with the rest of the crew returning home with the body on board).

The 97 Squadron ORB notes:

3.9.43        Runways at Bourn now serviceable – all detachments returned this morning to base from Oakington, Graveley and Gransden.  Twenty aircraft detailed for operations against Berlin.  All aircraft took off and 18 aircraft attacked the target.  Weather was cloudy en route – target area was only clear gap.  Early aircraft could see red TIs in good cluster and some fires already taking hold.  The attack is considered well concentrated and fires were seen by crews homeward bound from 200 miles away.  Defences were moderate and quickly died away and then many searchlights were operating in conjunction with fighters.  Two aircraft returned early, one with oxygen supply u/s and another due to rear gunner’s oxygen supply failing, rendering him unconscious.  After jettisoning bombs, a TI exploded, causing fire in bomb bay which was eventually put out and the aircraft landed safely.  Sgt Nordhoff, the rear gunner of F/O Riches crew, was killed by cannon fire from an enemy fighter when over the target.  Rear turret and hydraulic system were rendered u/s through damage caused by the fighter.  All aircraft returned safely to base. Sgt Nordhoff’s body is resting at Oakington and will be conveyed by rail to Liverpool for private funeral.


Above, Christopher Nordhoff, who was only twenty years old when he was killed

The remaining crew, with a new rear gunner, then had another very frightening experience about seven weeks later:

The 97 Squadron ORB notes of the 23/24 November 1943 operation to Berlin:
“… Many fighter flares and fighter activity. F/S PENNY and crew failed to return. All other a/c returned safely to base encountering bad weather and gales. Minor damage was sustained by some aircraft – F/L Riches had two engines shot up over the target, but the aircraft was brought back to base safely on the two remaining engines, the third cutting while still on the runway.”

The citation for Riches’ immediate DFC reads:
RICHES, Wilfrid Cyril A/FL 121448 RAFVR LG 7.1.44
Flight Lieutenant Riches has completed many operational missions against the enemy’s most important objectives. He is a most reliable captain of aircraft. One night in November 1943 he was detailed for a leading role in the attack on Berlin. During the approach to the target, the bomber was repeatedly hit by anti-aircraft fire which caused the port inner engine to catch alight. Nevertheless, Flight Lieutenant Riches continued to his objective and completed an accurate attack. During the return flight, after flying for almost two hours on three engines, the bomber’s starboard outer engine failed. Owing to his great skill this officer succeeded in reaching base where he made a safe landing. Flight Lieutenant Riches has displayed courage and resolution of the highest order. (Bar to DFC)

The story is expanded on in Bombers over Berlin by Alan Cooper, though the date is given slightly incorrectly.

“For Flight Lieutenant Wilfred Riches and his crew from 97 Squadron, this raid on Berlin became a nightmare. It was his 23rd operation, and four of these 23 had already been on Berlin. On this night he was detailed for a leading role within the Pathfinder Force. On the approach to the target his aircraft was repeatedly hit by flak with the result that the port inner engine caught fire and had to be feathered. Despite this, Riches persisted in pressing on with his attack and continued to drop his bombs and markers accurately … On the return flight, after flying for three engines for about two hours, and when about to cross the Dutch coast, the starboard outer engine failed. At this time Riches was at 14,000 feet but despite this he managed to get back across the North Sea to his base and make a safe landing. He was immediately recommended for the DFC. On a previous occasion his aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter and the damage inflicted was severe and his rear gunner killed, but Riches avoided further attacks and made it home to base”.

riches 2
Riches with a group of fellow pilots. He is in the front row, second from right. In the back row, on the far left, is Jeff Pelletier, who flew on Black Thursday in another aircraft to that of Riches.