Whilst the Archive’s central focus is the Path Finder Force, there are many aspects of life in Bomber Command, the RAF, and the military and civilian world beyond them which set the experiences of the aircrew in context. Potentially, this is an enormous subject, so items are selected for The Wider Picture pages according to either their great importance or because they are especially interesting.
At the end of the war, Bomber Command Lancasters started flying to Brussels and other airfields to collect British prisoners of war recently liberated from the camps. 97 Squadron’s ORB contains several entries for Operation Exodus. One of the most dramatic is the following:
ORB for 10th May 1945
Sixteen aircraft carried out “Exodus” operation. Aircraft OF/Z, piloted by F/Lt C Arnot, crashed on take off from BRUSSELS airfield and was totally destroyed by fire. All occupants uninjured, except for two ex-PoW and one other passenger – slightly injured.
The best times must have been when they could bring back one of their own. This happened when Jack Beesley of the Fletcher crew came back in Lancaster PB422 – see photograph above, Beesley is second from the right, shaking hands with the pilot. This must have been one of the happiest moments of his life, and indeed of all his fellow passengers.
According to the MOD RAF website (2005 60th Anniversary site which is now apparently defunct – we will try to find another source for these figures), 469 flights were made by aircraft of Nos 1, 5, 6 and 8 Groups before the war ended and approximately 75,000 men were brought back to England by the fastest possible means.
Many thanks to Alex Bateman for the photograph.
The following aiming point cards were kindly supplied to us by Susan Charles, who found them amongst her father’s possessions after he died. Her father Lionel Boyton was one of the Kenneth Brown crew, but left them to re-train as a pilot before the tragic deaths of the entire crew.
The cards were awarded to the Brown crew whilst they were in 97 Squadron, but before 97 Squadron moved to the Pathfinders; the Squadron at that stage belonged to 5 Group. Technically, therefore, these are not Path Finder Group material, but in line with our policy of painting a general picture of life in Bomber Command they are included.
Arthur Spencer, who had a long successful tour with 97 Squadron flying with Jimmy Munro, commented upon these cards in 2008:
“These were actually certificates awarded in 5 Group when one achieved an aiming-point photograph; each member of the crew received one, and they were awarded only if the photo was right on the aiming point. We achieved five, the most prized one being Essen.”
The cards were often signed by members of the crew (though not these above). Ralph Cochrane, the AOC of 5 Group, signed the Spezia one, and here is an enlargement of his signature.
The Caterpillar Club was open to all aircrew whose lives had been saved by a parachute made of silk. It was run by Irving Air Chutes of Great Britain, who made the parachutes.
The badge and card on this page were awarded to John Arthurson of the Smith crew, who was one of fourteen 97 Squadron aircrew whose lives were saved by parachute on Black Thursday when they abandoned their Lancasters due to lack of petrol. The crews were those of Smith and Mooney.
All the men would have received these pins and cards, but sadly by the time they arrived the seven members of the Mooney crew were all dead.
F/L Hind, the Adjutant, applied for membership of the Caterpillar Club on behalf of the Smith and Mooney crews. See his letter below.
Lancasters and Mosquitoes were the main PFF aircraft. The picture above, though not specifically of a PFF Lancaster, gives some idea of the personnel needed to keep these magnificent aircraft operational.
Top row, left: petrol bowser and crew; top row, right: mobile workshop and crew.
Second row down: Corporal mechanic, four aircraftsmen (mechanics), engineer officer, fitter (armourer), three armourers, radio mechanic, two instrument repairers, three bomb handlers, fitter.
Third row from bottom: Bomb train with WAAF driver and bombing-up crew
Second row from bottom: Flight maintenance crew, from left as follows: NCO fitter, mechanic, NCO fitter, five mechanics, electrical mechanic, instrument repairer, two radio mechanics
Bottom row, from left: Flying Control officer, WAAF parachute packer, meteorological officer
And then the aircrew: pilot, navigator, air bomber, flight engineer, wireless operator/air gunner, two air gunners.
(With thanks to David Layne, who discovered this gem in Lancaster – The Story Of A Famous Bomber by Bruce Robertson, published by Harleyford in 1965.)
The following story relates to a member of 15 Squadron, which was a Main Force squadron and not in the Pathfinders.
David Layne wrote to Jennie Gray in February 2009:
“I bought this on Ebay about 10 months ago for £1.00 and have been saving it ever since. It’s a lovely ink drawing measuring 4.5” by 3.5.” The border around the picture consist of tiny flowers each individually drawn.
One cannot help but wonder what became of R. Crowe. Was his love returned? Did he survive the war? Questions I would suggest that will never be answered.”
It is perhaps inevitable that the outcome of further research uncovered a tragedy. It transpired that R Crowe had been killed, aged only 20 years old, on 25 July 1944, and these are the details recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Crowe, Robert Frederick
Cemetery: St. Desir War Cemetery
Rank: Sergeant (Air Gnr.)
Official Number: 1824369
Unit: 15 Sqdn.
Force: Royal Air Force
25th July 1944. Age 20. Son of Magnus McKay Crowe and of Mary Forbes Crowe (nee Huband) of Dundee. Coll. grave VIII. C. 1-8.
There the trail appeared to end. However, David Layne, not one to let these matters rest, carried on researching, and eventually sent another email message in July 2011:
“You will perhaps recall that a couple of years ago I sent you a valentine drawn by Robert Crowe of 15 Squadron. I am pleased to tell you that I have managed to track down Robert’s niece who lives in Canada and made her a gift of the valentine. She in return sent me a photograph of Robert that I attach.”
For the peoples of the occupied countries, the flight of Bomber Command aircraft overhead often seemed a beacon of hope that one day the Nazis would be defeated and Liberation would come. This was despite the fact that when Bomber Command aircraft were shot down over their lands there was sometimes a considerable human cost.
One such incident came in the night of 23 June 1943 when the Armstrong crew’s Lancaster was shot down over the city of Utrecht.
The photographs above, which show the aftermath of the shooting down, were taken by the Germans. They were later stolen by the Dutch as a permanent memorial to what had happened. The photographs come from the collection of Co Maarschalkerweerd, who was a very young boy at the time of the crash, living in Utrecht with his family. For most of his life Co has been gathering material about the Armstrong crew and what happened to them. These photographs appear with his kind permission.
Co Maarschalkerweerd wrote an article on the shooting down for a magazine (After the Battle, no 41, published 1983 in London). The article is a thorough account of the aftermath of the shooting down of a Lancaster over an urban area. It is a grim reminder of the cost to Dutch civilians of the RAF’s strategic air offensive.
The many photographs which illustrate the article show how close the falling remains of the aircraft came to killing numerous people. In one house, no 38 Palmstraat, the complete nose of the aircraft smashed through the roof and came to rest inches above the bed of the occupants – the ammunition from the forward gun hanging down in festoons.
In other houses, serious fires were started. Several adults and children were killed as a direct result of the Lancaster debris or the resultant fires.
The bodies of the five crew members who were killed were later found in the same area of small, neatly kept houses. Honored for their sacrifice, they were buried in the local cemetery.
97 Squadron has a fine memorial window at Coningsby in the station church, the Church of the Holy Spirit, built in 1989.
The church also contains windows for 17, 29, and 56 Squadrons, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, together with a window to the Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan.
405 Squadron, based at Gransden Lodge, which had a large Canadian contingent, has a fine memorial at Great Gransden Church.
INDIVIDUAL CREWS AND CREW MEMBERS
Clifford Chatten‘s lovely memorial window was commissioned by his family, but is dedicated to all British and Allied Aircrew during the war because Chatten, who had an illustrious flying career, was fortunate enough to survive the war.