Archive for May, 2014

467 Postblog: Final Wrap

The idea of writing a ‘real time’ project following the crew of B for Baker first came to me in late 2012. I’d realised the significance of 2014 as the 70th anniversary of the loss of the crew, and wanted to mark it in an appropriate way. A few weeks later I took the first steps in sorting through and assessing what information I had.

A year and a half, 102 posts and more than 81,000 words later, what has come out of the project? In pure blogging terms, I’ve seen a 50% increase in traffic – average daily views – since this series began. This is not to say that my traffic has ever been particularly high to begin with (let’s face it, it is a fairly niche subject), but I’ve been happy to see the level of interest increase as I’ve gone deeper into the story. Comments received through the blog have also been excellent and have produced some good contacts. It turns out there are more people interested in the Lille raid than I previously thought!

As I said right at the beginning, digital publishing is ideally suited to a project of this nature. 80,000 words is almost a book in itself, but I wouldn’t want to read all of these posts in one hit. Each post, by design, is really a stand-alone article (though it helps to have some idea of the back story to follow the thread). Publishing the story in chunks spreads out the effort of reading all that detail at once and, I hope, keeps the interest going.

The other advantage of digital publishing, of course, is that revisions can be made if and when new information becomes known. My copy of the ORBs in particular is sometimes not very clear to read and there are errors dotted throughout the original documents… and sometimes I’ve simply mistyped in either transcription or writing. In particular I am indebted to Graham Wallace of the Bomber Command History Forum who sent numerous corrections through as the project progressed. Thanks are also due to Chris Dean of the RAF Waddington Heritage Centre, who reminded me of the existence of the excellent ‘Waddington Collection’ of photos that follow the history of the squadrons on that airfield. Among others, the highly atmospheric photo of the bombers taking off from Waddington for Munich on 24 April 1944 came from that collection.

All in all, I think this was a very worthwhile exercise. I’ve researched and produced what is probably the biggest single piece of work I’ve ever written. I’ve gained a reasonably detailed knowledge of what those seven men were doing while they were on the squadron. I’ve been able to share the story of the crew, seven decades to the day since the events described, with a whole host of interested people, from all around the world.

And that was the main aim. While people know about them, the memory of those seven men will live on. If I’ve contributed to that in some way, I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve.

 

© 2014 Adam Purcell

467 Postblog LXXXV: The End

Phil Smith’s safe return to the United Kingdom was arguably the final direct act in the story of the crew of B for Baker, and hence is where we leave this 467 Postblog series. Before we sign off however, there are a few loose threads to tie up.

After Lille and Mailly-le-Camp it was becoming clear that French targets could be just as heavily defended as the big German cities. As we saw on 20 April and 3 May, the aircrew had begun to protest in their post-raid interrogations after some of the ‘hotter’ operations such as La Chapelle and Mailly-le-Camp about being credited with just one-third of an operation for French trips. In early May someone at Bomber Command Headquarters evidently realised that the policy was perhaps a little unreasonable. There is a document at the Australian War Memorial[1] which, while it is incomplete, comes from the 467 Squadron Orderly Room and contains aircrew names against a list of their operations. Critically, it includes a ‘running total’ of operational sorties against each trip. While the longer flights to French targets like St-Medard-en-Jalles and Toulouse were awarded a full trip from the outset, the operations to Tours on 10 April and La Chapelle on 20 April were each been credited with only one-third of a sortie. But from 8 May, French targets (like Brest on the 8th, Lille on the 10th and Tours on the 19th) were given full sorties. So somewhere in May, the policy evidently changed.

What is interesting, however, is that some of the records show evidence of having been changed retrospectively. The trips to Mailly-le-Camp on 3 May, Louailles on 6 May and Tours on 7 May were all originally given only one-third credit each, but at some stage these were all amended to full trips. And it appears that Mailly-le-Camp was the catalyst. The airmen got their wish and, finally, French operations from the beginning of May 1944 onwards were given the credit they deserved.

[After Mailly-le-Camp and Lille] there was no more talk of French targets counting a third of an ‘op’. These were two exceptionally bad nights, but they were a tough reminder of what the Luftwaffe could still do, give the chance. Lingering around a target for accurate visual marking could be fatal.[2]

Between 1 January and 11 May 1944 a total of 1091 operational sorties were flown from Waddington. The Squadrons operated on 40 out of 132 nights, attacking 26 different targets. In the course of these operations 38 bombers were lost, seventeen from 467 Squadron and 21 from 463. One Lancaster failed to return to Waddington approximately every 29 sorties. 268 airmen failed to return with the missing aircraft. The majority of these – 241 airmen – were killed in action. Twenty were taken prisoner of war and just seven became evaders.[3] If you were on one of the aircraft that went missing, you had an almost 90% chance of being killed.

Five aircraft were lost on the 30 January 1944 raid on Berlin, and this number of missing aircraft would be seen again after the period covered by the 467 Postblog on Prouville, 25 June 1944, and Konigsberg, 29 August 1944. But the Lille raid, with six missing aircraft, remained the worst night of the war for 463 and 467 Squadrons. The Battle of Berlin period is generally considered one of the more dangerous times to have been flying in Bomber Command – of course the Nuremberg raid also fell in this period, with a total of 94 losses across Bomber Command (467 Squadron lost two) – and there is no doubt that losses dropped off as French targets became the norm throughout April and May. But, as graphically demonstrated at both Mailly-le-Camp and Lille, on occasion things for the attackers could go very, very wrong and loss rates could climb dramatically.

And so the crew of B for Baker found themselves flying to Lille on 10 May 1944. They were just seven out of an estimated 125,000 airmen who flew in Bomber Command. Just six out of 55,573 killed. Just one out of some 2,500 evaders. Their stories are of entirely ordinary men, living an extraordinary existence and doing extraordinary things. I can only hope that, over the last four and a half months, 102 posts and more than 81,000 words, I’ve managed to capture and convey a little of what it was like for these seven men as they played their parts in the most dramatic period of 20th Century history.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

 [1] NAA: AWM64, 1/434

[2] Hastings, Max 1979, p.342

[3] All stats in this paragraph compiled from the 463 and 467 Squadron Operational Record Books by Christopher Dean, RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

467 Postblog LXXXIV: Phil Smith’s Return

Bill Purcell, one of Jack’s nephews, used to stay at his aunt Clare’s place near Wollongong after school every day. He remembered well the day that news arrived that his uncle Jack – Clare’s brother – had been posted missing. The whole family, he said, had gathered at Clare’s and were huddled around the kitchen table.[1]

Everyone was almost whispering.

Official telegrams contained so few clues about what had happened besides the stark fact that the airman concerned had been posted missing and, though Bill Brill’s letters were on the way with a little more detail, these would not reach the families in Australia until the middle of July. In the meantime there was little definite information available. Don Smith, therefore, sprang into action. He wrote to the Air Force at the end of May to request addresses of the other Australian next-of-kin, which the Air Force then provided. He also sent letters to the Air Force for onwards delivery to the three British next-of-kin.[2] So developed a significant body of correspondence between the families. Happily, Mr Smith was a careful type who neatly filed almost all of the letters in three big folders, all of which have survived. Similar, if not quite so comprehensive, archives also survive for Jerry Parker and Gilbert Pate. Hence we know that the families exchanged many letters over the course of the next few years. Mr Smith would carefully transcribe anything of note on his typewriter. Photographs and newspaper articles were also shared, and commiserations expressed when news broke on 4 August that first Gilbert Pate and then, three days later, Jerry Parker had been declared dead based on information from the International Red Cross.[3] “Regret no news of your son Squadron Leader Donald Philip Smeed Smith D.F.C. or remainder of crew,” said the telegram sent to the Smith home in Sydney.

Sadly, as we now know most of the rest of the crew had also been killed when B for Baker came down. But Phil Smith was most definitely still alive, being sheltered by the Mely family in Caudry. And in early September the town was liberated when invasion forces reached it. On 3 September, Monsieur Mely took Phil to the Town Hall where he was received and celebrated by members of the Resistance and the local population.[4] Some time over the next couple of days he made himself known to Allied military authorities so that, on 5 September, he hitchhiked[5] to Beauvais, north of Paris, and was flown back to Northolt in England in a DC-3 via the Normandy beachhead.[6]

The Air Force notification system ground its way into action once more, but on this occasion it was beaten by private means. The news was broken unwittingly by Cis Smith in a telegram, which was telephoned through to the Smiths at 4.45pm on 8 September:[7]

THANK HEAVEN PHILIPS IN ENGLAND

CIS SMITH

A day later came an equally short and cryptic message from the man himself:

SAFE AND SOUND

PHILIP SMITH

Finally, on 11 September came official confirmation from the Air Force, who also sent telegrams to the three other Australian next-of-kin. Messages immediately flew between the families:[8]

GLAD TO HEAR OF YOUR GOOD NEWS

GRACE PATE

HEARTIEST CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SONS SAFE RETURN TO BASE

JOHNSON [sic]

What a relief to you!

Sydney Pate

Phil was given a complete medical (which “confimed that I am as fit as I feel – my only trouble being my teeth”[9]), then sent on three weeks’ survivor’s leave. He spent some time with his uncle Jack and then to his uncle Harold in March, Cambridgeshire, which is where Cis caught up with him. Her airgraph to his parents, written on 13 September,[10] contained the first real account of what actually happened to Phil on the night of the Lille raid.

…he must have had a miraculous escape as he doesn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing. Then he found himself below the fierce flames + took a risk + pulled his rip cord…

From his uncle’s house, Phil set out to find the addresses of the next-of-kin of the three English members of the crew, and then went to visit them. This must have been one of his toughest missions during his time in the Air Force.

After his survivor’s leave, Phil spent a further month in the UK before embarking for home, via the US. He arrived back in Australia on 16 January 1945, having been overseas for three and a half years. The Lille raid was his 51st operation and he returned having received a Mention in Dispatches in 1943 and a Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944. (News of the latter came through while he was evading in France). Following a stint in an RAAF hospital in Sydney while recovering from a bad case of peritonitis, Phil was posted to RAAF Bundaberg, Queensland, where he commanded 88 Operational Base Unit while awaiting demobilisation. He was finally discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force on 13 December 1945.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Purcell, Bill, in interview with Kerry Tarleton, approx. 2001

[2] Correspondence on these matters is in A705, 166/38/524

[3] Telegram advising the Johnstons of these facts are in NAA: A705, 166/20/131, encl. 16a and 18a

[4] Grand Outidien du Nord de la France, 22MAY47. Translated transcript, in the collection of Mollie Smith

[5] Related in a letter, Cis Smith to Don Smith, 13SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith.

[6] This flight is in Phil’s logbook as a passenger.

[7] Original telegrams are part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[8] Telegrams from Grace Pate (12 September) and Charles Johnston (14 September) and letter from Sydney Pate (13 September), all part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[9] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 09SEP44. Part of the collection of Mollie Smith

[10] This letter forms part of the collection of Mollie Smith

467 Postblog LXXXIII: What happened to the rest of the crew

NOTE: This post contains detail which some readers may find distressing.

In the days after the Lille raid, while Phil Smith was attempting to put as much distance between himself and the crash site as possible, the burials of his comrades were taking place. As we saw on the 11th, 22 bodies were buried at Forest-sur-Marque on the night of 11-12 May. One more would be found and buried there a few days later. Meanwhile it appears that the wreck of B for Baker was found in Lezennes on 11 May with the bodies of Jerry Parker, Eric Hill and Jack Purcell nearby. Ken Tabor and Dale Johnston were found under the wreck of the aircraft itself a short time later.[1] It is unclear where or when the body of Gilbert Pate was found. Three more bodies of 467 Squadron airmen were also found in Lezennes – those of Pilot Officer Bill Felstead and his flight engineer, Sergeant Cyril Duthoit, and navigator, Sergeant John Mellor. The nine airmen were buried in the Lezennes cemetery on 12 May 1944, though at this early stage Tabor and Johnston had not yet been identified. Amazingly, a French civilian took clandestine photographs of the funeral procession (though he is reported to have said that he needed to be careful that the Germans did not see him).[2] In time these would be sent via the Air Force to various next-of-kin of the crew. This copy, reproduced here courtesy Gil Thew, was sent to Gilbert Pate’s family:

Funeral Procession, Lezennes, 12 May 1944

Funeral Procession, Lezennes, 12 May 1944

Felstead’s aircraft – LL788 – exploded over the target and crashed on the road separating the communes of Annappes and Hellemmes. Elements of the crew were therefore buried in three distinct cemeteries. While three were interred at Lezennes three other members of his crew – Flight Sergeants Bill Ferguson, Brian Grasby and Bill Hancock – were among the 25 airmen buried at nearby Hellemmes on 15 May. This burial, the Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES) reported in their Casualty Inquiry No. 157[3], was attended by large numbers of civilians who left the graves covered in flowers. Testament to the violence of the explosion which had brought down their aircraft, the sole remaining airman from Felstead’s crew – mid-upper gunner Sergeant Charlie Nash – had apparently been dismembered and remains were buried in graves in both Hellemmes and Forest-sur-Marque. The MRES would eventually re-inter both at the latter.

At the time of the funerals seven of the bodies at Hellemmes were unidentified. By July 1947[4] MRES had exhumed and examined the questionable ones and all bar one had been matched with missing airmen. The identity of the airman buried in this single grave remains unknown today.

When he took command of 467 Squadron on 12 May 1944, of course, all Wing Commander Bill Brill – or anyone else in England for that matter – knew was that seventeen Lancasters had taken off from Waddington for Lille two nights ago, but only fourteen came back. Officially a signal needed to be sent from the Squadrons to the Air Ministry when an aircraft was one hour overdue.[5] For units based in the UK it was then the responsibility of the unit’s Commanding Officer to ensure a telegram was sent to notify next-of-kin resident in that country that their airman had been posted missing. Jerry Parker’s wife, Ethel, for example, lived in Leyland in Lancashire. She would have been among the first to be told that B for Baker and her crew failed to return from Lille. The telegram she received is dated 11 May 1944 and, as such, would have been one of the last things that Wing Commander Balmer organised before he took part in the Bourg Leopold raid from which he himself failed to return.

Like these things are, the hand-written telegram is brutally simple and to the point:[6]

Regret to inform you that your husband Sgt Jeremiah Parker is missing as the result of air operations on the night of 10/11 May 44 letter follows. Any further information received will be immediately communicated to you pending receipt of written notification from the Air Ministry. No information should be given to the press. O.C. 467 Squadron R.A.A.F.

The letter Balmer referred to was dated 12 May and as such was signed by Bill Brill. It would have been one of his first duties on taking over the squadron. Similar letters of condolence were sent to the next of kin of a total of 28 aircrew: 21 resulting from the Lille raid and seven more from Bourg Leopold (one of whom was Balmer, the man Brill had replaced).

Notifying the next of kin of the Australians on the crew, however, was a longer process. On receipt of the first signal from Waddington, the British Air Ministry in turn advised RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne. Copies of this signal, dated 12 May 1944, survive in the casualty files of all four of the Australians[7] who were on board B for Baker when it went missing, including the names of recorded next of kin and whether they had been informed yet or not. The distance to Australia meant that it took longer for the information to reach the families. It would appear that late on 15 May the Air Force dispatched telegrams to all four families. At 09:20 the next morning, the delivery boy knocked on the door at 25 Victory Street, Belmore. Grace Pate – Gilbert’s wife – was not available so the telegram was given to her mother instead.[8] At 09:40, Eustace Purcell, Jack’s brother, received a similar message in nearby Enfield, and ten minutes after that the news reached Jack’s eldest brother, Edward, in Thirroul.[9] An attempted delivery to the Smiths in Mosman failed at 10:00 and Phil’s father, Don, needed to go to the post office later in the afternoon to receive the message.[10] It is likely that at the same time he picked up another telegram, one from his brother Jack Smeed. Living in England (and indeed Phil had spent some of his leaves from the Squadron staying with his uncle at Denham) meant that Jack had received notification earlier than the Australians. “HAD THE NEWS YESTERDAY”, he wrote on May 13. “MAKING ENQUIRIES WILL LET YOU KNOW ANY RESULT LOVE TO ALL JACK SMEED”[11] The telegram is stamped 15 May and Don Smith’s handwriting next to the stamp notes that he received it on the 16th.

Meanwhile, notifying Dale Johnston’s family was taking a little longer still.[12] It appears they had moved from Proston, north of Toowoomba in Queensland, to Dayboro, 100 miles away near Brisbane, without telling the Air Force. The Proston Postmaster sent a return telegram notifying the Air Force of this on 16 May, and they forwarded another copy of the casualty notification to Dayboro. Charles Johnston – Dale’s father – received it at 10:15 the next day.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] MRES Casualty Enquiry No. 157, in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 57D

[2] Ibid.

[3] Copy in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 57. Details in this paragraph are all sourced from this document.

[4] MRES Casualty Enquiry No. 157, in NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 56A

[5] Hadaway, Stuart 2012 p.161

[6] Telegram, OC 467 Squadron R.A.A.F. to Mrs Ethel Parker, 11 May 1944. Original in the collection of Freda Hamer

[7] Such as that of Jack Purcell: NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Enc. 1A

[8] NAA: A705, 166/32/380 Encl. 4a

[9] NAA: A705, 166/33/163 Encl. 3a and 4a

[10] NAA: A705, 166/38/524 Encl. 6a

[11] Telegram, Jack Smeed to Don Smith, 13MAY44. Original in the collection of Mollie Smith

[12] NAA: A705, 166/20/131. Encl. 3-6

467 Postblog LXXXII: Phil Smith’s evasion

Phil Smith spent a little over a week attempting to walk to Switzerland. He walked mostly at night, hiding during the day in either fields or farmers’ barns. In the early morning two days after his aeroplane crashed, Phil made it to a town called Orchies (some eleven miles south of Lezennes as the crow flies), but he was running out of food and still had no boots. He knew he now needed to seek help from local civilians. An elderly woman he approached could be of no direct assistance but pointed him towards a farmhouse not far away, whose inhabitants provided food but asked that he hide in the fields during the day and come back after dark. This he did and, after being well fed he was shown to a hayloft where he could sleep for the night.

I did not volunteer to leave and the next 24 hours followed the same pattern.[1]

After a few days hiding in the hayloft in Orchies, his shelterers told Phil that, as a German garrison was about to be billeted in the area it was too dangerous for him to stay. They gave Phil food, drink, an old pair of sandshoes and a hessian sack for a blanket and sent him on his way. In turn Phil wrote his Australian address on the back of one of the spare passport photos carried by aircrew on operations and left it with the family.

For the next few hours Phil avoided roads, walking cross-country to minimise the chances of encountering people. But it was hard going with a number of drains – mostly dry but some not – to be crossed. So when he stumbled onto a road going in roughly the right direction later in the night, Phil abandoned his cross-country policy. Following the road, he passed several small cemeteries which he thought probably contained graves from the Great War.

I saw a faint light in the distance at the side of the road. I assumed it to be a guard post and approached the area with the utmost caution. However my caution was quite unnecessary as the light turned out to be a glow-worm, the only one I saw in my night walking.

Phil kept walking by night and hiding by day. At one stage he saw a Spitfire making several low passes nearby. “I had fantasies of being seen and picked up and flown home which made me feel a little homesick,” he would later write. Apart from an incident where he was asked for the time by a group of young men and responded with the British Double Summer Time to which his watch was still set, the most dangerous encounter he had occurred when crossing a bridge one night over a large canal, possibly the Canal de la Sensee a few miles north of Cambrai. Exhausted after about a week on foot he was trudging slowly on when, about half-way across, he was challenged from a guard post which he had just passed without noticing.

I did not understand what was said but was able to respond immediately with a tired “bon soir’ and walked slowly on with no hesitation. The guard must have taken me for a drunk as he took no action…

The timeline in his Recollections document is somewhat vague but it was probably around 19 or 20 May when Phil walked through Cambrai itself and, seven or eight miles further east, came to the small village of Caudry. Just after that he could see some big farming establishments in a settlement called Audencourt and he decided to hide for the approaching day in one of the big sheds.

So ended my attempt to walk across France.

The Allied invasion of the Continent was imminent and, because it was considered too dangerous for Phil to continue on his own because of his lack of fluency in French, for the next three and a half months he was looked after by locals:

With the absolute need for secrecy, hiding in the small town of Caudry was, in some aspects, like being in prison. However, in all other ways I was cared for as a member of a husband and wife family.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Quote, and most of the detail in this section, comes from Phil Smith’s Recollections of 1939-1945 War typescript.

467 Postblog LXXXI: Thursday 11 May, 1944

Waddington awoke in shock. Last night, 31 Lancasters had taken off for a ‘milk run’ operation to Lille. This morning, though, there were six empty spaces at the dispersals – and 42 empty beds.

But war waits for no man. Ops were on again tonight. Preparations were put into place for 25 Lancasters to attack a military camp at Bourg Leopold in Belgium. They began taking off just before 22:00.[1] But incorrect forecast winds delayed the marking over the target and thick haze compounded the issue so, after about half the bombers had bombed the leader called the attack off and ordered remaining crews to take their bombs home.

The Bourg Leopold raid was the biggest of the night, with 190 Lancasters and three Mosquitos taking part. Elsewhere marshalling yards were attacked at Hasselt (north-eastern Belgium), Louvain (near Rennes) and Boulogne. Coastal batteries were hit at Trouville (south of Le Havre) and Colline Beaumont (near Le Touquet). “Only at Louvain was any widespread damage caused,” said the Night Raid report.[2]

There was some excitement on arrival at Waddington involving Flight Sergeant John Waugh and crew, flying DV277. One of those crews who had not bombed, they were crossing the enemy coast on the way home when they became involved in a combat with a “fighter and Lancaster.” Jettisoning the 4,000lb ‘cookie’ to reduce weight they successfully escaped but not without damage: when they were ordered to dump their remaining bombs in the sea, the bomb bay doors would not open. When it was also discovered that their undercarriage would not lock down and a crash landing with most of the bomb load still on board was now inevitable, the entire crew except for the pilot and flight engineer baled out a few miles south of Waddington. Then Waugh began his approach. Hearts were in mouths as he bounced high on his first attempt but the undercarriage held and Waugh heard the emergency air system activate, locking the wheels down. The second touchdown was much more controlled and all ended well. “The Officer i/c Night Flying,” notes the Operational Record Book dryly, “then had a cross-country trip in a car trying to locate the members who had baled out.”[3]

But in a cruel blow to 467 Squadron, a night after losing a Flight Commander (Phil Smith) and two other pilots and all of their crews, another bomber failed to return from operations. And amongst this crew were some extremely experienced and capable men. LL792 was being flown by Sam Balmer, the 467 Squadron Commanding Officer who was on his final trip with the Squadron before going to a new posting and who (though apparently he did not know it) had just been promoted to Wing Commander. Among his ‘scratch crew’ was navigator Flying Officer Peter Hammond, a second-tour man who had arrived at Waddington five days ago with the new ‘B’ Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Lloyd Deignan. And on the final trip of his first tour was Flight Lieutenant WR Norden-Hare, the Squadron’s Gunnery Leader. Along with four other RAF men, all were killed when the aircraft crashed near Antwerp after being attacked by a nightfighter on their bombing run.[4]

In happier news for 467 Squadron, though, it had been calculated that their venerable Lancaster R5868 S for Sugar achieved on the Bourg Leopold trip its 100th operational sortie. But not without a scare. Flown for the occasion by Pilot Officer Tom Scholefield, the crew were continuously attacked by a pair of Ju 88s for nearly ten minutes. But some good cooperation between the gunners and the wireless operator, who was directing them via the Monica early warning system, managed to drive off “9 or 10 determined and skilful attacks.”[5] They did not bomb – jettisoning their ‘cookie’ over the sea on the way home – and returned safely.

Flying Officer Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar's 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

Tom Scholefield (far left) with his crew after what was reputedly S-Sugar’s 100th operation. From the Waddington Collection, courtesy RAF Waddington Heritage Centre

The next day photographers and press appeared “from everywhere”, according to the Operational Record Book. “I think the B.B.C. even asked the aircraft to say a few words.”

Meanwhile in and around Lille French civilians and the German occupiers were discovering the extent of the damage wrought by the previous night’s chaos. The railways were clearly out of commission for the time being. But the bombing had also spread east of the target and residential property was badly damaged in that area. More than one thousand houses were destroyed, many by fire, and about 150 French civilians were killed with some 57 injuries recorded.[6] Adding to the destruction was the wreckage of ten Lancasters which had crashed in and around the target area. And those ten Lancasters contained ten crews, a total of seventy men.

During the day on 11 May bodies of airmen were discovered in and around the target area. Some were found close to where their aircraft had crashed. At least one was stuck up a tree.[7] Late in the evening of 11 May the burials began. Around 9pm 22 bodies were brought to Forest-sur-Marque, near where at least three Lancasters are thought to have crashed. The burials were carried out under difficult conditions. The Germans ordered the townspeople to dig one long common grave and that the dead were to be buried “by 8am.”[8] The Germans supplied no crosses or coffins.

Burials would continue throughout the area over the next few days. But unknown to anyone else, one of the 70 men shot down near Lille was still alive. Phil Smith had passed the day hiding out in a wood in northern France, sleeping on and off and hearing no sound bar the occasional train passing some distance away.

In the dawn hours it was pretty cold and I missed the raincoat which I had worn on all recent operations – this one was to be pretty short and the weather was warming up.[9]

Sustenance came from some malted milk tablets and a small tube of condensed milk from his escape kit, but though there was a plastic pouch and some water sterilising tablets there was nothing to drink. “It was clear,” he wrote later, “that I would have to get help from French people by next dawn as I would need food and drink if I were to make any further progress.”

When it became dark, Phil began to walk again. Along the way he found an animal trough with which to fill his water pouch and, with the aid of the sterilising tablets he was able to get all the drink he needed.

Phil continued on towards the south-east and, he hoped, Switzerland.

 

This post is part of a series called 467 Postblog, posted in real time to mark the 70th anniversary of the crew of B for Baker while they were on operational service with 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] 463 Squadron Operational Record Book

[2] Night Raid Report No. 603

[3] Waugh’s story related in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[4] Storr, 2006

[5] 467 Squadron Operational Record Book

[6] LeClercq, J 2002; citing several files from the Archives Départementales du Nord in Lille

[7] This was Sergeant Roland Becherel, the wireless operator in the Mason crew of 97 Squadron. Info from Joss le Clercq and NAA: A705, 166/33/163 encl. 56 and 57

[8] Ibid.

[9]This section relies heavily on Smith, Phil, Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.26

467 Postblog LXXXc: Wednesday 10 May, 1944

Phil Smith was falling.

He was still strapped into the pilot’s seat of B for Baker, having a moment ago been preparing for the jolt that usually accompanied the release of the bomb load from a Lancaster. But then something extraordinarily and suddenly violent had happened, and now he could feel no aeroplane around him.

He quickly came to the obvious conclusion:

I immediately released my seat belts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately.[1]

Looking up, he could see that one of the two risers from which he was hanging had been half cut through in the blast, so he hung on above the break with both hands until he landed on a large grassy field.

I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. There was no indication that I had been seen.

His left wrist and hand were somewhat sore but otherwise he felt unharmed. Gathering up his parachute, he crept off in a direction away from some nearby houses in order to find somewhere to hide it.

Apart from the two Lancasters which came down in Flanders on the way home, there is little surviving evidence to show exactly which fate befell the remaining ten aircraft that failed to return from Lille that night. Richard Jozefiak shows that all ten crashed within about five miles of the target. Out of these, the night raid report suggests that four had been seen to go down in combat with fighters and two had collided. There was perhaps one more victim of a collision (the aircraft which hit Pilot Officer Dear in ND896), which leaves three lost to entirely unknown causes. It appears unlikely, however, that sufficient evidence has or will ever come to light to be able to make a determination, with any degree of confidence, of what happened to these aircraft, and by extension, of what exactly caused the crash of B for Baker. Even Phil Smith himself never knew for certain. “All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it,” he wrote to his parents shortly following his liberation a few months later.[2] Theories abounded. “He must have had a miraculous escape,” wrote his aunt Cis to her brother, Phil’s father Don Smith.[3] “He didn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded, as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing.” In November 1944 the Air Force sent an extract from Phil’s official evasion report to the family of his rear gunner, Gilbert Pate:[4]

…while bombs were falling from the aircraft it was hit either by flak or by enemy aircraft and exploded in mid air

Later still, Phil wrote a letter which he sent to the Air Force for onwards transmission to the family of his wireless operator, Dale Johnston:[5]

We had a straightforward trip up to the time when the bombs were falling away from the aircraft when something hit us and the aero-plane exploded. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the crew or the remains of the aircraft – after seeing flame in front of my eyes I did not see or feel anything solid until my parachute opened.

And three years after the Lille raid, Phil’s father told him of a letter received from Fannie Johnston. She had been to France, it seems, and spoke to a local who suggested the aircraft had been involved in a collision. “I suppose they found the remains of two aircraft together”, Phil guessed[6]. “A collision is as likely as any other cause…”

Collision? Own bombs? Flak? Nightfighter? Even when my own family spoke with Phil a few years before he died, he was still unclear on exactly what caused the loss of his aeroplane.

All that was some time off, though. Right now he had far more pressing matters to deal with. Squadron Leader Phil Smith was on the ground, alone, in enemy-occupied territory. He did not know it yet, but out of the 84 aircrew on board the twelve Lancasters which had failed to return from Lille, he was the only man still alive. After gathering up his parachute, Phil began heading roughly south-east, navigating roughly by the North Star.[7] His vague plan was to walk to Switzerland, which he considered a better prospect than trying to escape via Spain. He hid his parachute and mae-west lifevest in a pile of roadbuilding stones and carried on, soon coming to a big barbed wire fence. This, he supposed, was probably the Luftwaffe airfield which he knew was south-east of the target. He decided that walking across the airfield would be easier than going around it and looked for a gap in the wire. But then he heard gun shots.

I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind and immediately crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction.

Planning to avoid contact with any people and to get as far from the crash site as he could on the first night, Phil walked on. Having lost one fur-lined flying boot in the explosion, he now found his remaining boot soaking up dew from the ground. It became too heavy and he was forced to abandon it.

I was then committed to walking cross-country in my socks.

After wading across a narrow canal of some sort (”an unpleasant process”, he wrote in his usual understated way), he found himself walking up steadily rising, wooded ground.

By this time I was tiring, there were signs of dawn and the cover seemed quite good for lying up during daylight.

Phil picked a likely-looking spot, hid himself as best he could, and fell into a fitful sleep.

 

This post – published at 23:45 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since the last known message was sent from B for Baker – is part of a series called 467 Postblog. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell

Sources:

[1] Smith, Phil, undated. Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.24

[2] Smith, Phil, letter to parents, 09SEP44

[3] Smith, Cis, letter to Don Smith, 13SEP44. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[4] Air Force to Kathleen Pate, letter, 12NOV44. From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew

[5] Smith, Phil, letter to Fannie Johnston, 13APR45. Transcript from NAA: A705, 166/20/131

[6] Smith, Phil, letter to father, 16MAY48. From the collection of Mollie Smith

[7] The description of Phil’s attempt to walk across France, and quotes in this section, are from his Recollections typescript