Life in Bomber Command was a hazardous affair. Apart from the obvious – anything the Germans could throw at them – aircrew faced many other dangers in the long road to an operational squadron. Out of more than 55,000 aircrew killed serving in Bomber Command, some 8,000 died in accidents.
In the early 1940s, the aeroplane had existed for just four decades. Equipment was still primitive – especially compared with modern aircraft. Engine and other system failures were common, particularly when pushed beyond their design limits by the realities of wartime all-weather flying. Aircraft used at Operational Training Unit level – the unit at which airmen would ‘crew up’ and learn to fight – were often older, tired-out aircraft because the priority for the best equipment understandably lay with the operational squadrons themselves.
The aircraft on which most of the eventual crew of LM475 completed their OTUs in late 1943 was the Vickers Wellington. This was the type of aircraft on which Phil Smith flew his first tour of operations with 103 Squadron from Elsham Wolds from October 1941-June 1942. Phil’s first operation was as a second pilot on 16 October 1941 to Duisberg. Due to an oil problem they shut down one engine crossing the Dutch coast on the return flight. The second engine faltered shortly after crossing into England so they sought out an emergency aerodrome and, in Phil’s memorable understatement… (B03-001-016)
“…we crash landed rather unsuccessfully…”
All got out with only cuts and bruises.
But while Phil’s first crash in a Wellington was caused by mechanical failure, accidents could also come about from somewhat more mundane problems. Chief amongst these was human error. “I have come to the conclusion since I have been flying”, wrote Phil Smith to his mother in 1941, “that the machines are much more reliable than the humans that fly them.” (A01-147-001)
While the truly unsuitable were theoretically weeded out at the elementary flying training stage, even the best could occasionally make mistakes. On first arrival at Elementary Flying Training School in Tamworth in November 1940, Phil Smith wrote to his mother: (A01-126-001)
“The discipline up here appears unpleasantly severe, partly, we are told, because there was a fatal accident not long ago due to lack of flying discipline.”
An accident in a Tiger Moth witnessed by Phil at Elementary Flying Training School at Tamworth, NSW, in January 1941 was, according to the RAAF Preliminary Report of Flying Accident, put down to (A04-072-001)
“Poor technique and lack of anticipation on the part of the instructor”.
What happened to the instructor’s career subsequently is not recorded.
Inexperience played a big role in air accidents. The pilot of the Tamworth accident that Phil saw was lucky enough to walk away – but sometimes aircrew were not that lucky. During Phil’s time at 21 OTU, Moreton-in-Marsh, between August and October 1941, he witnessed or heard about many incidents. At least four are recorded in his diary – ranging from less-serious accidents like a burst tyre in August to an aeroplane flying into a hill and killing all seven on board in early October. The cemetery on the road between the airfield and the town of Moreton-in-Marsh bears witness to the appalling loss of life both from this accident and, sadly, from many more just like it. In all 46 airmen from the OTU are buried there. In a similar way, just outside the site of the old RAF Lichfield airfield is Fradley Church. 35 airmen rest here – which, according to Chris Pointon (RAF Lichfield Association historian) are only casualties from the period prior to August 1943. To avoid taking over the church yard, he says, following that date burials took place at Chester Blacon, almost 100km to the north west of RAF Lichfield. – there are 35 more there. A further six casualties were buried at Oxford Botley, 100km south.
Even then, that is not all of Lichfield’s victims. One of the men to die at Lichfield was Sgt AH Ashwood. He was killed on 27 September 1941 after sustaining serious burns in a Wellington crash which Phil Smith witnessed while out on a training flight himself (B03-001-013):
“We went first to Lichfield which is north of Birmingham.” […] We landed and no sooner had we got out of the plane than we saw a Wimpy start to burn on the runway. A very nasty memory, these planes are certainly death traps if they catch alight.”
Sgt Ashwood was buried in Margate, Kent – which was where his parents lived during the war.
Phil, of course, was not entirely immune himself. On squadron at Elsham, he was flying night time practice circuits with another pilot in January 1942. Bad visibility hampered their efforts but all went well until Phil’s last landing. They touched down nicely, but then (B03-001-015):
“the wheels collapsed and we settled down on our belly in the middle of the runway. It looks as though I selected the wheels up instead of flaps.”
Phil received a negative endorsement in his logbook following this incident, the cause being called “faulty cockpit drill”, put down to “inexperience”.
Perhaps the saddest epitaph of them all, however, is carved into one of the headstones in Moreton-in-Marsh and has nothing to do with aeroplanes.
“Killed in a road accident”, it reads. “Thy will be done.”
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell