29th December 1944 – Disaster at RAF Waterbeach

Christmas and New Year doesn’t stop for war, and the inevitable battle of the Second World War continued on with air and ground crews across Britain carrying out their duties as normal, perhaps looking forward to a rest in the following days. December 29th 1944 was one such day.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

514 Squadron RAF 1944. Photo taken at Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum, August 2017

It was a hazy morning with a severe winter frost laying across the ground, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst for those non-operational crews it would be H2S and G.H. training. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster PD325 ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The resultant explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall some 23 miles away,  had repercussions right across the airfield, damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, five of them simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day in case time delayed bombs on other aircraft exploded. The bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft bomb bays. New Year at RAF Waterbeach would be very solemn in 1944.

Those that lost their lives that day were all members of 514 Sqn:

Leading Aircraftman Derrick Gordon Bichard (RAFVR) Radar Mechanic (s/n: 1870102)

Leading Aircraftman Samuel Bolton (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1639785) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Aircraftman 2nd Class Donald Victor Brewer (RAFVR) Armament Assistant (s/n: 1893614)

Leading Aircraftman Ronald Davies (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1128796)

Leading Aircraftman Geoffrey Graham Haydn (RAFVR) Radar Mechanic (s/n: 1863381)

Aircraftman 1st Class Harry George Leach (RAFVR) Electrician (s/n: 1429200) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Leading Aircraftman Laurence Smales (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1621436) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Leading Aircraftman Frederick Charles Watson (RAFVR) Flight Mechanic (s/n: 1169390) – Commemorated at Runnymede

Corporal John Westgarth (RAF) Armourer (s/n: 552023) – Commemorated at Runnymede


15 thoughts on “29th December 1944 – Disaster at RAF Waterbeach

  1. My Dad was Peter Thompson,one of the injured ground crew ,age 21. I tried to find a photograph on line,to no avail. I suppose there’s no one who would remember him.I found researching people around the incident, the surgeon who might have been the one to save his life for example ,extraordinary. How much we all owe to them all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Susan it’s very good to hear from you and thank you for sharing that with us. Sadly ground crews don’t seem to get as much ‘coverage’ as air crews, yet many suffered greatly. Have you tried contacting the curators at the ‘museum’ at Waterbeach? They may just have a photo of your father. It’s a good little museum and may be able to help. There’s a link to it at the bottom of Trail 11, I can’t attach it as I’m on my phone I’m afraid but it might be worth a try.


  2. Thank you. He lived until 2013 and met my daughter when she was a few months old. He had debris buried in his leg all his life, and lost several of his friends that day. However, he had a happy marriage to my grandmother.

    Liked by 2 people

    • How wonderful that he lived through it and managed to meet your daughter. Having debris buried in ha leg must have caused him some discomfort, and the emotional challenges he faced after losing friends like that, must have been difficult. I’m glad he was happy.


    • Hi, it’s always interesting to know of personal experiences, thanks for letting me know about your grandfather. I hope he recovered from his injuries, going on to live for many years. It certainly was a very tragic accident with terrible consequences for many of those involved.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, it’s always interesting to know of personal experiences, thanks for letting me know. I hope your grandfather recovered from his injuries, it certainly was a very tragic accident with terrible consequences.


  3. I am surprised it didn’t happen more often. Must have been especially likely with cold hands, numb fingers and tiredness. I have always felt that the Ground Crews were very much the unsung heroes. I suppose that is because arming, bombing up, fuelling and servicing are not as glamourous in the public imagination as combat flying is. They may technically have been non-combatants, but the Grim Reaper was always “at readiness”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sort of incident was by no means rare. I read about one at Elsham Wolds and there was definitely a similar incident on November 25th 1943 which involved personnel from 35 Squadron, with two killed and three injured. This was at RAF Graveley around 5 miles to the south of Huntingdon.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Just goes to show, although many thought the ground crews of Bomber Command had it ‘cushy’, death was never far away for any of them. Let alone the endless hours working to get aircraft ready for the next raid, keeping the squadrons airworthy in conditions that would make modern health and safety shudder in disbelief. A touching tribute.

    Liked by 3 people

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