Crew of JB176, crashed near Hardwick, Cambridgeshire, on 16/17 December 1943
TED THACKWAY, THE PILOT, killed in the crash
Ted Thackway was born on 10 January 1920, and so was 23 years old at the time of the crash. He grew up in Bilton, a northern suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire.
He had a younger brother, Jim, also in the RAF but ground crew not aircrew. After Ted’s death, Jim tried hard to find out what had happened to his brother but due to wartime secrecy learnt very little.
Ted and Jim were brought up by their mother Elsie almost entirely on her own, as her husband George was something of a wanderer. Elsie worked as a seamstress at Marshall and Snelgrove in Harrogate. As a boy Ted was very much his mother’s mainstay. Even whilst at school, he was earning extra money for the household, working as a milkman’s delivery boy to supplement the meagre family income, and his customers liked him very much, coming up the garden path every morning always cheerful, always whistling – he was proverbial for his good nature.
In the early 1930s, George came home long enough to give Elsie another son, John, before vanishing for another few years. At about this same time, Ted left Christ Church and for two years attended Harrogate Technical School, leaving at the age of fifteen. For someone of his background, the employment prospects were dismal, and so Ted became a dairy man and later a van driver.
In June 1939, at the age of nineteen, he signed up with the RAF for six years, and from then on things began to go very well for him. He began as an Aircrafthand/Flight Mechanic, but such was his natural ability that he soon transferred to pilot training and became an officer.
Ted was even-tempered, slow to anger, and very self-controlled. At the same time he was always ready to laugh, he always saw the funny side of things. Serious and ambitious enough to have qualified as a pilot and to have become an officer, no easy thing for someone of his background, at the same time he was equable, likable, and easy-going. At six foot tall, he was by far the tallest man in the crew.
GEORGE GRUNDY, THE FLIGHT ENGINEER, killed in the crash
George was, like his pilot and navigator, a Yorkshireman, and like them came from a poor working-class family. 21 years old at the time of the crash, he hailed from Eccleshill, a suburb of Bradford, about twelve miles west of Harrogate.
His parents never had much money to spend on George and his brother and sister. George was a very clever lad, always top of his class at school, but, as was so common in that era, economic necessity forced him to leave school at an early age. Just fourteen, he obtained an apprenticeship as a joiner and shop fitter, and with the scant wages he earned as an apprentice did the best he could for his family. His brother, Alan, would always remember George buying his sister Joyce a party dress that she needed and paying for her to go on school trips despite the fact that it left him with hardly any money for himself.
George volunteered for the RAF as soon as he could, joining in August 1941, at nineteen years of age, as a flight mechanic specialising in air frames. Twenty-two months later, when the RAF asked for volunteers to become flight engineers, he began to train as aircrew. The position of Flight Engineer had been set up after the RAF had decided it could no longer afford the loss of so many second pilots. The Flight Engineer sat together with the pilot in the cockpit, constantly watching the complex series of instruments in the Lancaster, monitoring the four engines and the electrical system, checking and logging the fuel supply. He also checked the course, height and airspeed, and generally acted as the pilot’s right-hand man. Lastly, he was trained in basic flying techniques ‘just in case’, and would occasionally take over the Lancaster’s controls on cross-country practice flights.
Dark-haired with grey eyes and a cheerful smiling face, George was a good-looking fellow. At five foot five, though, he was no taller than Leslie, the rear-gunner. Ted’s height must have been striking in contrast to what was in the main a very short crew.
JACK POWELL, THE NAVIGATOR, killed in the crash
Like his skipper, Jack Powell, the navigator, came from Yorkshire; he was 31 at the time of his death, old for the wartime RAF and the oldest man in the crew.Five foot nine inches, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a thoughtful, serious and determined face, Jack had spent most of his life in the large manufacturing town of Wakefield. He came from a very poor family but at some stage money became available which permitted him to escape the usual fate of gifted working class boys, for instead of having to leave school early he was able to continue his education.He became a chartered accountant working in local government, was regarded as a high flyer, and would probably have ended up as a County Council Treasurer. With his independence assured, he was able to go ahead and marry his long-time sweetheart Agnes. It was a match made against the wishes of his family, who despite their own poor origins now apparently considered that Agnes was beneath him. Agnes was extremely pretty, and a very positive, determined and strong-minded young woman who passionately wanted to better herself. They made a most handsome couple when they married on Christmas Eve 1937.When the war began, Jack was in a reserved occupation, quite safe from danger, but after a long struggle with his conscience he told Agnes he was going to volunteer, he did not want other people to fight his battles on his behalf. Poor Agnes found it very hard to accept his decision. Jack joined the RAF in 1941, and became a first-class navigator, with much of his training taking place overseas. Agnes moved back to her family in Wakefield, taking work in a munitions factory to help the war effort.
SANDY GRANT, THE BOMB AIMER, killed in the crash
Sandy Grant, the bomb aimer, was the third vital member of the PNB group which was the core of all the Lancaster crews. Sandy held the same senior rank as Ted, being a temporary Flying Officer at the end of 1943; he and Ted were the only officers on the crew.
Sandy’s full name was Leslie Kenneth Alexander Grant, but the crew always called him Sandy, an abbreviation of his third name which both reflected his hair colour and usefully distinguished him from the other Leslie on the crew. He was a small man, slight and short, with a reddish Celtic colouring and a little moustache. Born in 1920 and thus the same age as his skipper, his father was Canadian, his mother Scottish. His early childhood had been spent in Princeton, British Columbia, but at some stage the family had moved to Vancouver -the family home was at 955 Thurlow Street.
At the age of 18 Sandy joined the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, but only remained with them for six months. The occupation he took up thereafter was that of painter and interior decorator at the Ritz Apartment Hotel.
He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in June 1940, and thereafter prospered. His initial training was in navigation, always a useful skill for a bomb aimer, a large part of whose work was in assisting the navigator to plot an accurate course. He finally won his Observer Badge on 19th March 1943, then embarked for England and joined Ted’s crew.
Ted’s girlfriend Jill would always remember Ted and Sandy’s frequent appearances together, for they were something of an odd couple due to the great disparity in their sizes, Ted being very tall and dark, and Sandy very small and ginger. It was obvious, however, that the two were extremely good friends, who were always together except on the times when Ted and Jill wanted to be alone.
Sandy seemed to follow Ted like a shadow; being rather shy, he looked up to Ted and used to rely on him like a big brother. As Jill said ‘Sandy was so small that I think Ted felt responsible for him. Ted was very friendly to him. But then Ted was friendly to everyone.’
JOE MACK, THE WIRELESS OPERATOR, seriously injured
Shortly after his nineteenth birthday, Joe joined the RAF Volunteer Reserves on 24th April 1941. He first began training as a navigator, but by March of 1942 the authorities had decided that he would not make the grade and that he should retrain as a wireless operator. After many detours along the way, and two years of training, Joe finally arrived at No 17 Operational Training Unit, based at Silverstone between Banbury and Milton Keynes. This was where his real training for flying in heavy bombers would begin and where at last he would join his crew.
The crash in the early hours of the morning of 17 December 1943 caused him severe injuries, which meant that he never returned to operational flying. Ironically, it was these injuries which almost certainly saved his life, as the only other survivor of the crew, Leslie Laver, was killed on another operation within one month of the crash.
TONY LAWRENCE, THE MID-UPPER GUNNER, killed in the crash
Tony Lawrence was just 20 years old at the time of the crash. He and Joe Mack, the W/OP were very close friends, probably because they came from very similar backgrounds. Joe was very musical whilst Tony was very artistic; neither was in the least bit academic, and both came from prosperous middle-class families in business.
Tony’s mother, Peggy, had at nineteen years of age been attractive, impetuous, and headstrong. Her family lived at Heath Lodge in Shurlock Row, a village in Berkshire between Windsor and Reading. In January of 1923, William Frederick Lawrence, a builder and decorator from Sidcup in Kent, came to work on the house. This handsome 28 year old charmed the daughter of the house so effectively that she soon became pregnant with Tony, her only child. It is thought that William was bought off for £200, a huge sum of money in those days, the agreement being that he should marry Peggy and then leave her life for good.
Due to Peggy’s various jobs with horses and dogs, Tony would be mainly brought up by his grandparents, Pang and Mabel, and would live with them at Heath Lodge. It is Pang and Mabel who can be seen with Peggy at Tony’s graveside in the funeral photograph.
Pang was his grandson’s chief mentor and protector. He had a highly prized collection of valuable shotguns with which he taught his grandson to shoot. Tony soon became an absolutely lethal shot, and won competitions and certificates for his accuracy.
By the time he joined the RAF, Tony was a slim, tall and dramatically good-looking young man with auburn hair and blue-grey eyes.
Like many young men, he had been keen to get into action as soon as possible. Aged eighteen, he first enlisted in the Royal Navy in September 1942. Whether it had always been understood that he would eventually join the RAF is not known, but he was discharged from the service in mid-April 1943. Only one month later, on May 17th 1943, Tony joined the RAF as an Aircrafthand/Air Gunner. Seven months later to the day, he would be killed in the aircrash.
Joe suffered a lifetime’s grief because of the loss of his friend on Black Thursday.
LESLIE LAVER, THE REAR GUNNER – minor cuts and abrasions
At the time of the crash Leslie was just 20 years old – his birthday had been on 30th September. His mother’s name was Jenny. She and her husband, Edward Cyril Laver, were Catholics and both came from struggling working-class families. However, it is not Edward Cyril Laver on Leslie’s birth certificate but William Laver, a ‘Draper’s Carman’ (delivery man). Leslie was born at home, at 6 Calmington Road, in the poor, densely built streets of south London, between Elephant and Castle and Peckham. The address was about half a mile from the original matrimonial home of 50 Carter Street – for whatever reason, Jenny had changed partners, perhaps to a brother or cousin of her husband’s.
Later Jenny remarried and became a Mrs Crockett, but her last husband died prematurely.
The family now consisted of eight members, Jenny, the three boys, Cyril, Walter (or Wally), and Leslie, and the four sisters, Marjorie, Irene, Jessie and Dorothy. The only work Jenny could get was as a cleaner at the London theatres, and the family was extremely poor, yet they were all quite happy together. The children helped out by running errands or earning little sums of money. Brought up as Catholics, they all took turns to be the one who stayed behind on Sundays and cooked the breakfast for those returning from Communion.
Leslie grew up to be a good-looking lad, with fine features, dark brown hair, and strikingly beautiful grey-green eyes. He was very slight, just under five foot six in height, but his slimness of build would prove a great advantage when he became a rear gunner because of the appallingly cramped nature of the gun turret. Like his skipper who had also been brought up by a mother on her own, Leslie left school early, between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and began work as a milkman. Again as with Ted, the war would offer him chances otherwise not provided by his background.
Leslie joined the RAF just before his nineteenth birthday but was not called to the Volunteer Reserve until 22nd March, 1943 – he would only be in the RAF for 10 months. His first ambition had been to train as a pilot and his initial mustering is shown on his papers as Aircrafthand/Pilot.
However, at his own request he was regraded to Air Gunner after almost seven months of waiting to be called up. He had been told it would take even longer before he could commence training as a pilot and Leslie did not want to wait. His brother Wally told him he was mad, but Leslie said it would all take too long – he wanted to get into action as quickly as possible. Just over three weeks later, he commenced his training.
After the crash, Leslie was grounded for a month, but on 14th January he lost his life when flying for the first time with another crew, the skipper of which was Kenneth Munro Steven. He is the only member of the crew buried abroad, on the Dutch island of Texel.