1st Lt. Raymond Harney and 2nd Lt. Warren French – 349th BS, 100th BG

Lt Raymond Harney (Photo courtesy of Tsymond Harney JR.)*1

A few years ago a story came to light that not only brought home the brutality of war but also the compassion found in war. It was of two American airmen whose World War II story finally come to a close 70 years after their death.

The two airmen, U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Raymond Harney (s/n O-523208) and U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Warren French, (s/n O-2056584) of the 349th BS, 100th BG, were in a B17G (44-6306) over Germany on September 28th 1944, when they were hit by flak whilst on a mission to Merseberg. This would be their eighth and final mission.

Mission 652 involved a total of 342 B-17s which were sent to bomb the Merseburg/Leuna oil refinery and any additional targets of opportunity. During the operation, 10 B-17s were lost, 4 were damaged beyond repair and 251 damaged but repairable. Escort for the mission was provided by 212 P-51s of the USAAF.

B-17 ‘#44-6306’, was delivered to Kearney airbase on 28th June 1944,  then moved to Grenier airbase, New Hampshire on 9th July 1944, for onward transport to the United Kingdom.  It was assigned to the 349th Bomb Squadron, of the 100th Bomb Group, given the code ‘XR-G’, and based at RAF Thorpe Abbotts from the 12th July 1944.

The crew of #44-6306, assigned on the 28th August 1944, was: (Pilot) 1st Lt. Raymond E.Harney (Co-pilot); 2nd Lt. William R.Kimball (Navigator); 2nd Lt. Charles M.Hamrick (Bombardier); 2nd Lt. Warren.M.French (Top Turret/Engineer); Cpl. Thadeus L.Gotz (Radio Operator/Gunner); Cpl. Hubert J.Burleigh,Jr. (Ball Turret); Cpl. Melvin F.Cordray (Waist Gunner); Cpl. Robert C.Minear (Waist Gunner); Cpl James J.Sorenson, and (tail Gunner) Cpl. John H. Bundner. However, for reasons unknown at this time, for this particular mission, Gotz was not aboard, and instead S/Sgt. Jack D.Francisco flew as tail gunner and Cpl. Robert C.Minear flew as the Flight Engineer.

At 12:10, whilst over the target, the B-17 was hit in the number 2 engine by anti-aircraft flak. As a result, the engine caught fire, the aircraft withdrew from the protection of the formation, joining another formation further back, but began to fall back again when the number 4 engine was also feathered. Harney continued to fly the crippled B-17 for two hours after being hit, before finally deciding enough was enough and he ordered the crew to bail out. Being determined to save his friend and the aircraft, he also decided that he and the injured French, would remain and try to land the aircraft.

Outside of the village of Schwickershausen, to the north of another major target, Schweinfurt, Germany, they attempted a belly landing bringing the aircraft down in a turnip field. The B-17 slid across the ground, ripping off the port wing, causing a tremendous fire. Neither Harney nor French sadly survived the subsequent fireball.

Although he managed to get the crew to leave the aircraft, their safety was not guaranteed and sadly, three were killed by local police in the following days. An event not uncommon in Nazi Germany. Only two of the gunners, Cpl. Melvin F.Cordray, and Cpl. Robert C.Minear, survived as POWs.

What makes this story more significant than usual, is what followed after the crash.

The local people made a wooden cross in remembrance of the crew and they kept it hidden away in the local church for over 70 years.

The cross kept secret for so many years.*2

The large wooden cross, had the words “Hier ruhen in Gott! 2 amer. Flieger,” or “Here rests in God 2 American flyers,” engraved on it, along with details of the aircraft crash. On the 70th anniversary of the crash, 28th September 2014, a memorial service was held in the village of Schwickershausen. Following this, on 5th October, the cross was flown over to England in an American KC-135 Stratotanker from RAF Mildenhall, with two Luftwaffe Tornadoes escorting them over Germany. The cross was donated to the ‘Bloody 100th’ museum at Thorpe Abbots for safe keeping. A certificate was also handed over along with the cross signifying not only the now peaceful and co-operative alliance between the two nations, but the final closing of a chapter of the history of two crew members of the “Bloody Hundredth.”

The cross being transported in the Boom pod of a KC-135 Stratotanker. October 2014.*4

This is a remarkable story, and one that certainly stands out amongst the horrors and heroism of the Second World War.

2Lt Warren M French

Warren French’s memorial stone in Belgium*3

Lt. Raymond E. Harney’s Gravestone is at Ft. Snelling Cemetery in Minnesota, his remains are in the graveyard at Gemeindefriedhof Schwickershausen. Warren French’s headstone is in the Ardennes, Neuville-en-Cond, in Belgium.

Thorpe Abbotts airfield and museum is featured in Trail 12

Sources:

*1 photo the Bloody 100th Foundation.

*2 Photo from RAF Mildenhall news

*3 Photo from ‘Find a Grave

*4 Photo from RAF Mildenhall News

This story first appeared in the RAF Mildenhall News report October 20th 2014.

July 11th 1945 – Last B-24 leaves the U.K.

As the war drew to a close, encircled German troops, took to flooding the fields of western Holland, forcing the local Dutch people down to starvation levels. In an attempt to help them, Allied operational bombing missions turned to mercy missions. Operations  ‘Manna‘  and ‘Chow Hound’  involved Allied bombers flying low-level to drop supplies of food and other provisions to these people.  They would fly aircraft along mutually agreed routes  to dropping points at the Hague and other sites around Rotterdam.

The first of these RAF operations occurred at the end of April into the early days of May, followed by the USAAF between the 1st and 8th of May 1945. On this first operation, 396 B-17s flew from their bases in East Anglia to unload some 700 tons of provisions over the affected area. Over the next few days similar flights would also take place, which would in total provide some 11,000 tons of food to the starving population. During one of these missions on May 7th, B-17G  #44- 8640 of the 95th BG, 334th BS, was believed to have been hit by ground fire over Ijmuiden,  The aircraft, engine ablaze, ditched in the North Sea. Rescue efforts were mounted to recover the crewmen and observers, but only two survived – eleven were lost. It is believed to be last combat casualty of 8th Air Force in World War 2.

Also during this time, ‘Trolley runs‘ began in which around 10,000 ground crew and other personnel, were given the opportunity to see first hand, the destruction caused by the relentless allied bombing campaign of the previous years. Many were shocked to see the extent of the damage having lived in the relative safety of their airfields back home.

Whilst some crews enjoyed the ‘sight seeing tours’ others were involved in ‘Revival‘ flights, bringing home the many thousands of Allied prisoners of war and displaced persons interned in camps as far away as Austria.

Gradually even these missions began to slow. Squadrons and airfields were wound down, and eyes began to turn to the Pacific. An American force consisting of three P-51 and nine B-17 groups would remain in Europe, the rest of the Eighth  Air force would return home for rest or training and eventual posting to the Pacific.

In the third week of May 1945, the huge operation began, the first B-24 left the U.K. for American shores, a flight that would begin seven weeks of flights across the Atlantic routes. In total some 41,500 men and 2,118 aircraft would depart the U.K. for home, most through either Prestwick in Scotland, or Valley in Wales.

Valley airfield became known as “Happy Valley”, and would see about 90% of the returning aircraft leave from here. Each of the aircraft leaving would carry its crew and 10 passengers, along with sacks of mail for home.

On July 11th 1945, 1st Lt. Gean (or Gene) Williams climbed aboard his B-24, started its engines and pulled off the runway at Valley; the last B-24 the leave the U.K, and with it began the slow demise of Britain’s wartime airfields.

The ‘New York Times’ Published a report on the last Liberator to leave the U.K. on July 12th 1945.

June 16th 1942 loss of Stirling LS-X.

On June 16th, 1942, Stirling LS-X #N6088, took off from RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, on a routine training flight. On board that day were: (Pilot) P/O. M. Scansie (RNZAF); Sgt. E. Morris; Flt/Sgt. J. Tomlinson; Sgt. D. Robinson; Sgt. J. Smith; Sgt. R. Broadbridge; Flt/Sgt. H. Johnson (RCAF) and Sgt. R. Le Blanc.

At 15:25 the aircraft, a Stirling MK.I of ‘C’ Flight 1651 Conversion Unit (CU), left Waterbeach heading north-westerly. It was to be a routine cross country navigation exercise.

Around forty-five minutes later, the aircraft was seen on fire, and falling in a spiral toward the ground with its port wing detached, outside of the outboard engine. The bomber hit the ground on the Great North Road near to Barnby Moor.

The crew flying the aircraft that day were a young crew, the pilot being 24 years of age, whilst Sgt. Ernest Morris was 19, Sgt. David Robinson – 21, Sgt. Roland Broadbridge – 20, Flt/Sgt. Harry Johnson – 26 and Sgt. R. Le Blanc. the oldest at 27 years of age.

What also made this particular accident more significant was that the Stirling, a veteran of European Operations, had flown for nearly 250 hours on twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

The Stirling would prove to be a poor bomber. Designed to Air Ministry Specification B.12/36 (the very reason it was to be poor), it had to have a reduced wingspan to enable it to fit inside the currently available hangars. This reduction gave poor lift qualities, barely able to achieve more than 17,000 feet when fully loaded. Another restrictive feature was the bomb bay design. Being sectioned it could not accommodate the larger bombs being brought into production as the war progressed, thus it underachieved compared to its stable mates the Halifax and Lancaster. The original specification set out such requirements, and so the design was flawed from the start. It did however, have good low altitude handling capabilities, but this wasn’t enough to secure its future as a long term investment in Bomber Command.

As a bomber, casualties in Stirlings were high, and toward the end of the war it was reduced to secondary operations, an area where it more than proved its worth as both a glider tug, mine layer and paratroop transport aircraft.

Apart from Sgt. Robinson, all of the crew are buried at Finningley, St. Oswalds Church. Sgt. Robinson is buried in his home town Bedlay Cemetery, Lanark.

RAF Waterbeach appears in Trail 11.

Sources and Further Reading.

The crew’s interment along with photos of Raymond Le Blanc are available on the Compagnons de la Libération du Havre website.

Chorley. W., “Bomber Command Losses Heavy Conversion Units and Miscellaneous Units 1939-1947 ” Midland Publishing, 2003.

 

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 5)

After Part 4, in this, the final part, we see how Sculthorpe has fared, and what has happened to it now. As a major Cold War player its future is uncertain, but definitely not yet over!

Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to both missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was eventually placed in care and maintenance once more, held open by only a small detachment of support staff. However, all was not yet lost, for later in that same decade, Sculthorpe saw yet another reprieve, when the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This temporarily brought new life back to Sculthorpe, with American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s operating from here. The RAF, needing a similar facility, also used Sculthorpe as a temporary base, Coltishall for example, basing their Jaguars here temporarily. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.

Eventually all this too ceased and before the final farewell the site was used to store North American Sabres prior to them being scrapped and disposed of.

 

Airmens huts

‘Hut 380’, a Second World War remnant.

Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gave thought as to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, the Army Air Corps and the USAF using it for manoeuvres, seeing such diverse models as the V-22 Osprey tilt wing aircraft, using it for paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s had also been seen operating here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops, something that continues in part to this day.

The rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War had secured the immediate post-war future of Sculthorpe. Not only were atomic weapons stored here ready, but a wide range of US aircraft that would otherwise not have been seen on British soil, were also based here. The demise of world peace had been the saviour of Sculthorpe’s future.

Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cattle on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older original buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands, such ownership does prevent some access but a good deal of the site is visible from permissible points.

The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.

Reunion 'memorial'

In remembrance of the 47th BW, 50th anniversary reunion, 2002.

The post war ‘All Ranks Club’ houses a small exhibition of artefacts and information about Sculthorpe, depicting its post war life, and includes many interesting photos. The exhibition is open at certain times throughout the year allowing visitors to view them and talk to the volunteers some of which actually served here at the base.

Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, it was home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, and a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments; a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life once again.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Sources and further information.

*1 National Archives – AIR 27/1924/17

*2 Gunn, P.B., “Flying Lives – with a Norfolk Theme“, Peter Gunn, 2010

*3, *5 Cahill, W. “The Unseen Fight: USAAF radio counter-measure operations in Europe, 1943 to 1945” Journal of Aeronautical History Paper, 2020/06

*4 21 Sqn ORB Summary of Events 1943 Oct 01 – 1943 Nov 30, AIR 27/264/19

*5 Cahill, W., “The Unseen Fight: USAAF radio counter-measure operations in
Europe, 1943 to 1945” Journal of Aeronautical History, Paper 2020/06

*6 The Spyflight Website which gives considerable detail into the flights.

National Archives: AIR 27/1924/19; AIR 27/1935/19; AIR 27/1326

Photos of Sculthorpe in its heyday can be seen on the Sculthorpe  Air Base website.

Further information and personal stories can be found on the 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron website.

Gunn, P., “Sculthorpe – Secrecy and Stealth, A Norfolk Airfield in the Cold War“, 2014, The History Press.

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 4)

In Part 3, Sculthorpe had been through he war, and was now being developed ready for the arrival of B-29s on 90 day rotations. Their arrival though, was not as easy as they had hoped.

The arrival of the aircraft did not all go to plan though, as on July 21st 1949, whilst transferring across from the US, one of the B-29s #44-62191 ‘suffered problems’ 2 miles east of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. The aircraft, a Boeing B-29A-65-BN, had a crew of twelve on board, but it soon became clear that they were not going to make it, and so decided to abandon the aircraft and leave it to its fate.

All twelve of the crew successfully departed the aircraft landing nearby, but in doing so, two of them sustained serious, but not thought to have been life threatening, injuries after exiting. The worst, suffered by the pilot, was a possible fractured skull, whilst the second crewman suffered a fractured leg; it is believed both airmen made full recoveries. The aircraft itself ultimately crashed, landing in a field east of the small Fenland market town. The remains were quickly retrieved and some parts have since ended up in the local Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum located in Wisbech.

The lack of constant use however, meant that much of the accommodation at Sculthorpe had deteriorated to an unacceptable level. Damp and rot had set in and more work was now needed to bring it back up to standard before further deployments could take place. Even as this was being carried out though, bombs and other supplies were quickly beginning to arrive, and soon Sculthorpe was ready to allow an American foothold on British soil once more.

Further temporary deployments included both the 92nd and 98th BGs, each also flying B-29s that were capable of dropping atomic weapons should the need arise, thankfully, this requirement wasn’t needed and at the end of each deployment the units moved on to other theatres or their home bases back in the United States.

These regular ninety day duty rotations became a bit of a saviour for Sculthorpe, with other aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ and the North American B-45 ‘Tornado’ finding themselves located here. Acting as the front-line bombers designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK, they became a major deterrent in the dramatic face off between East and West.

Blister Hangar

Sculthorpe’s remaining Blister hangar in a low setting sun.

Further cold war tensions saw in 1952, the deployment of the 47th Bomb Wing (formally the 47th BG) of the Strategic Air Command from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refuelling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Sqn. These units operated a number of aircraft types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.

The 47th was activated on March 12th 1951, initially as the 47th Bombardment Wing (BW) but with just two squadrons – the 84th and 85th. As a new unit, it had the honour of being not only the first, but the only jet powered medium bomber Wing in the US Air Force. With NATO becoming more established and nuclear weapons arsenals expanding at a great rate of knots, the 47th were posted to Sculthorpe to provide an airborne nuclear strike force in support of NATO forces  who would be operating on the ground in any future conflict.

A year later, a third squadron would arrive to join the Group, that of the 422nd BS. Within a month or two of its arrival though, the unit was re-designated as the 86th BS a move that brought it in line with its two sister squadrons. For three years the 47th would operate out of Sculthorpe acting as a nuclear support unit for NATO forces in Europe.

Coinciding with the arrival of the US Wing in 1952, was the formation of the ‘Special Duties Flight Sculthorpe’. This was a British unit, led by Squadron Leader John Crampton (who replaced the initial choice Sqn. Ldr. Micky Martin of the ‘Dambusters’ fame, as he had failed a high altitude medical examination)  and was designed to perform deep penetration flights into Soviet airspace carrying out reconnaissance missions for Britain’s planned ‘V’ Bomber force. This was also used as a cover for covert US operations. Only two such flights were made, each with three aircraft; the first on 17th/18th April 1952, and the second on 28th/29th April 1954*6. These flights were performed by British crews flying American RB-45Cs with their US markings replaced by British roundels. A political ‘loop-hole’ that prevented US aircraft flying over Soviet territory allowed British aircraft to do so. These flights took place under Operation ‘Ju-jitsu‘, with four aircraft which were leased from the US 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Initially three routes were chosen, one of which took the aircraft close to Moscow. To ‘protect’ crews, they were issued with false papers and maps, and told, if caught, to explain  that rather implausibly, they had simply become incredibly lost!

After these flights, which weren’t totally without mishap, the crews were congratulated by General LeMay, and the unit was then disbanded. However, it was reformed again, also at Sculthorpe, in 1954 (after a second such temporary reformation in September 1952) and a second flight was made. This time the Soviets were ready for them, after having evaluated their air defence network they were far better prepared and the crews were at a much greater level of danger than during their initial flights.

It has since been revealed that Soviet aircraft were instructed to ram the RB-45Cs as they had no suitable radar with which to track the intruders. However, no such contact was made, and whilst flak was now the problem, it was generally ineffective, but sufficient to make the crews on board make a hasty return to the West where they received more fuel before returning to Sculthorpe.

The unit was then again disbanded and all flights by them ceased. The RB-45Cs now being outdated, were too slow and obsolete to perform such high risk flights over soviet territory.

Control Tower

The watch office in a setting sun

Meanwhile at Sculthorpe, the operations of the 47th BW were gradually being taken over by other branches of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC), this take over reached such a point that inevitably the 47th were withdrawn and transferred home to the US. Once here, they were dissolved, and on February 8th 1955, the wing was removed from the US military inventory and their remarkable achievements condemned to the history books.

After this, political talks and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil, and so further deployments on this scale would not be seen again in the UK.

As the Cold War subsides, Sculthorpe’s future become uncertain, but it is definitely not yet over. In the last part we see how Sculthorpe has fared and look at what the future holds now.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Sgt. Norman Cyril Jackson VC. RAF Metheringham.

On April 26th 1944, the RAF sent 206 Lancasters and 11 Mosquitoes from No. 5 Group, along with 9 Lancasters from No. 1 Group, to attack the notorious ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt in Bavaria.

Schweinfurt, had since August 1943, struck fear into the the hearts of allied airmen, ever since the USAAF’s attack on the city resulted in a disaster in which 230 unescorted B-17s were cut to pieces by German defences. Subsequent raids, whilst not as disastrous, had also proven costly, and it was a target that Bomber Command’s Commander in Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, so vividly wanted to avoid.

The attention Schweinfurt was getting from the Allies, gave the German authorities sufficient concern to force them into spreading their ball-bearing production far and wide across Germany. This aligned with the fact that the Swiss and Swedes were supplying large quantities of ball-bearings to the Germans, led Harris to believe it was a target for the American forces to deal with, and not Bomber Command.

Norman Cyril Jackson 106 Sqn RAF Metheringham (photo via Wikipedia)

Much against his wishes, an order under the ‘Point-blank’   directive was given, and Harris sent his men to attack the factories. With smoke screens surrounding the area, it proved difficult to hit, as the attack in February proved.

In April, they were to go again, this time using a new low-level target marking technique devised by the then Wing Co. Leonard Cheshire. It would be in this mission that the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known.

At RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, sixteen Lancasters completed their ground checks, started their engines and began the taxi along to the runway’s threshold. For around fifteen minutes between 21:30 and 21:45, the heavily laden aircraft took off and headed along the first long unbroken leg 130 miles into enemy held territory.

In Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ #ME669 were: F/O. F Miffin DFC (Pilot); Sgt. N Jackson (Flt. Eng.); Flt. Sgt. F. Higgins (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. M. Toft (Bomb Aim.); Flt. Sgt. E. Sandelands (W/Op); Sgt. W. Smith (M.Up. Gunner) and Flt. Sgt. N. Johnson (Rear Gun.) on the penultimate operation of their tour of duty. The plan was for two groups to attack the city from different directions, bombing on a series of markers dropped by the pathfinders.

On approach to the target the formation encountered strong headwinds and no cloud. With a new moon, they were going to be easy targets for the Nachtjägers. These winds blew markers off track, and repeated efforts by the master bomber to relay instructions to the crews failed, primarily due to faulty radio equipment.

Throughout the run-in over the city, attacks were fierce and consistent. Confused by poor messages and inaccurately placed markers, bombs fell well away from their intended targets. By now fourteen aircraft had already been lost to the fighters, many of them the ghostly Schräge Musik, upward firing fighters.

After bombing from 21,500 feet, Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ was hit several times by a night fighter, starting a fire started in the inner starboard wing section next to the upper fuel tank.  Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. In doing so, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft at speed and altitude, was no easy task, and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire now spreading, began to burn his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.

Norman Cyril Jackson VC

Sgt. Jackson’s Grave. He died almost 50 years to the day after his brave attempt to save teh aircraft and crew. (Photo Paul Cannon)

The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson, both failing to survive.

Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross, his actions being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.

25 year old Sgt. Jackson from London, had been with the crew since training at Wigsley, and had completed his tour of duty. He volunteered for the Schweinfurt mission so he could be with his own crew as they completed their own tour of duty, before all going to join the Pathfinders. Earlier that same day, Sgt. Jackson had received news that he was now a father too.

Sgt. Jackson spent ten months in hospital before eventually being repatriated. He received his VC at the same time as the then, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, would receive his. Cheshire asking for Jackson to receive his first, citing his selfless act of bravery as going far beyond anything he had achieved himself.

Sgt. Jackson’s citation reads:

This airman’s attempt to extinguish [sic] the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when  travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his, parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.

Sources.

RAF Metheringham features in Trail 1.

The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.

National Archives. AIR 27/834/8

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 3)

In Part 2, we left with the winter of 1942-43 arriving along with a special visitor.

The harsh winter of 1943-44 would see a special visitor come to Sculthorpe. Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire arrived to discuss, with Pickard, the plausibility of dropping food and clothing to his brother in Sagan (Salag Luft III) using the Mosquito. Cheshire knowing Pickard’s vast experience, thought he was the ideal person to speak to. Whether this was a personal effort to provide comfort to his brother or whether Cheshire was considering the Mosquito for low level precision attacks is not known, but the latter befell the Wing not long after Cheshire’s visit.

The December of 1943 would bring major changes here at Sculthorpe. On New Year’s Eve, the Wing, along with Pickard and all three Mosquito squadrons, would leave the Norfolk site, taking their Mosquito VIs to RAF Hunsdon. A much smaller airfield, where the overcrowding experienced at Sculthorpe must have been considerably worse. It was from Hunsdon that Pickard would famously make his last flight.

A story goes that Pickard had left his dog ‘Ming’ at Sculthorpe to be looked after whilst he was away. On the day he was shot down, 18th February 1944, on the Amien raid, the dog fell gravely ill. Pickard’s wife, Dorothy, went to get him and sensed that Pickard had been killed after seeing the state of the animal. It took months for Ming to recover, and some years later whilst living in Rhodesia, Ming went outside, looked up to the sky as he always did when Pickard was flying, heard a whistle, collapsed and died.*2

The departure of the Wing effectively left Sculthorpe with no operational units, until on January 6th 1944, when a new and very different squadron began to move in.

Crews from 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron based under 3 Group at Downham Market, arrived in two waves, the initial group coming across in early January 1944, whilst the main body continued  operations flying their Stirling bombers. Those that arrived here quickly settled in, but a lack of decent paths meant that initial training was mixed with the unenviable task of digging and laying of new paths. Whilst attending lectures and link training were the primary tasks for the pilots and Flight Engineers, the gunners and other aircrew were given the more ‘practical’ task of constructing the new paths ready for the remainder of the squadron’s arrival.

Then on the 25th, the remaining crews and staff of the squadron departed Downham Market, thus ending their link with 3 Group. Once here, flying circuits and more lectures became the order of the day. Additional training on ‘Monica‘ equipment, fighter affiliation tasks and local cross countries then took the squadron to late spring at which point operations began to take place.

The arrival of 214 Sqn heralded more than just a new bomber squadron though, for they would not be flying the Stirling as they had been; instead, they were set up as part of 100 Group, becoming an official member in mid January 1944. Their arrival here would not only see them change Groups but would also see them convert to the American built B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’.

Now designated 214 (BS) Sqn,  214 Sqn’s  arrival would bring a major change to Sculthorpe, a change that would continue for the next five months. Operating in the Electronic Warfare role within 100 Group, they would carry out radio jamming operations, an early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). The urgency of the conversion, led to the unit taking on fourteen UK based B17-Fs , their ordered ‘G’ models being used as a trade off*3.

The British B-17 (designated Fortress I, II and III) crews were joined by personnel from various U.S. units. Their role was to train and support the air and ground crews in both flying and maintaining the new aircraft, a role they performed well, right into the early summer of 1944. The set up was so successful that American personnel were soon posted in to fly alongside the RAF crews, thus expanding the influence of the Group.

Technical site buildings

A large part of Sculthorpe has been left to rot, piece by piece.

Flying along side other bomber formations, 214 squadron would use systems including ‘Monica‘ to track or jam enemy radar, they performed ‘spoof’ missions to entice enemy fighters up to them rather than the main force that was attacking targets elsewhere; a rouse that worked well initially. Other operations flown by the Group, included: jamming or swamping German radio communications, jamming navigation aids and searching for new signals that may suggest new or improved German radar.*3

The successes of 100 Group, prompted the setting up of the U.S. 803rd (Prov) BS (H) in March that year, a US Group who would learn from and perform in the same role as 214 Sqn. Initially taking six veteran crews, all having reached 25 missions, from 96th BG at Snetterton Heath combined with those already at Sculthorpe, they would soon build up to a strength of twelve aircraft all based here at the Norfolk airfield.

Of these initial six all but one were fitted with Carpet and Mandrel jamming equipment, whilst the sixth (B-17G) had jammers and search equipment in the form of SCR-587 and Hallicrafters S-27 VHF signals intelligence receivers (SIGINT) to track Luftwaffe radar and radio transmissions.*5

The initial set up of the unit was seen as ‘messy’ and disorganised with no real focus. This led to delays in preparation, organisation and training. As D-day appeared over the horizon, the U.S. group was distinctly lacking in preparation and action was needed fast.

To assist in the training and operations of the Fortress, a new separate unit was also set up here at Sculthorpe. From April 24th 1944, 1699 (Fortress Training) Flight who operated each of the Fortress I, II and III, carried out the conversion and training role for these crews, and to speed the process up, they also used the B-24 Liberator along with some smaller examples such as the Avro Anson and Air Speed Oxford.

Then, five months after their arrival, both 214 Sqn and the 803rd were both posted out to RAF Oulton, (May 1944), where they continued with their ECM roles. The 803rd, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Clayton Scott, began to work on the support of Operation Overlord, and even as late as June 5th, equipment was still being fitted to the aircraft.

The Fortress Training Flight moved with the two ECM units and in October it was disbanded and immediately reformed as 1699 (Bomber Support) Conversion Unit, a designation it used for a year before being renamed once more.

The departure of the three squadrons (along with the resident non-flying units) was not a coincidence, for Sculthorpe had been earmarked for redevelopment into a Very Heavy Bomber base (VHB). As soon as the personnel had moved out, workmen moved in, taking up residence in the now empty nissen huts.

Accomodation Block

Barrack Block

There then followed a period of sustained redevelopment. This included the removal and reinstatement of longer runways along with the construction of twelve very heavy bomber hardstands. Surrounding public roads were also diverted and further properties were demolished to make way for the airfield’s new expansion. The driving force behind this move was the anticipated deployment of the enormous Boeing B-29 “Superfortress”, but when the war in Europe came to an end a year later, further development of Sculthorpe ceased and the B-29s never arrived as permanent residents.

For the next 3 years or so, the station was basically closed, it was placed into care and maintenance with only occasional use keeping it alive; one such operator being the 1510 Beam Approach Beacon System Flight (BABS) based at nearby Bircham Newton. However, four years after the war’s end, between May and August of 1949, the airfield got a reprieve, when the 344th BS, 98th BG, USAAF did bring B-29s to Sculthorpe for the first of a number of several 90 day deployments. The first of these temporary postings were in response to the growing Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe. Identified as one of only a few sites suitable for the heavy bomber, the reprieve led to further development of the site with new storage facilities being constructed. The focus of these buildings were specifically to house and prepare atomic bombs ready for use should Anglo-Soviet relations deteriorate to a war status.

In Part 4, as the Cold War warms up, Sculthorpe becomes a major player in the front line of a potential European war.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Sculthorpe was developed in the mid war years but had not lived up to expectations. Two squadrons were about to move in, 464 and 487 neither of whom were overly impressed by its lack of comfort!

487 were the first to transfer. On the 19th, the advance party left Methwold followed in the early afternoon of the 20th by the main road party. The aircraft and crews then transferred over an hour or so after that.  On the 21st the aircraft of 464 Sqn also departed Methwold, the departure tinged with sadness as many were sorry to be leaving what had been a good home. The weather typical as it is, once again closed in, and several aircraft had to try two or three times before finally getting down safely at Sculthorpe. Fortunately there were no mishaps and all crews and aircraft arrived safely. By the evening all were unpacked and settling down for the night.

The lack of buildings became quickly evident though, a fact made worse by the lack of bicycles, Sculthorpe being so widespread that it meant it was difficult to get around without transport. As a result, more bikes were needed and an order was placed with an urgent request. Coinciding with this, was a memo informing staff, of the impending move to form a new headquarters here, a move which would see both new recruits along with an increase in staffing levels. This was a further worry as there was still insufficient accommodation for those already here.

Bomb store

Sculthorpe’s bomb store.

The month ended on a better note however, with good weather, night sorties and training on new equipment gave a hint of things to come. A new station Commander also arrived at this time, in the form of Group Captain P.C.  Pickard DSO, DFC, once again hopes for the two squadrons were rising.

Pickard’s arrival was by no means a coincidence – a new Wing was being formed and he had been chosen to lead it. Pickard’s record as a leader was outstanding, and he had been hand picked, for the role, by none other than Air Vice Marshall Basil Embry.

Pickard’s role here at Sculthorpe was to set up and command 140 Wing, a new unit consisting of three Mosquito squadrons, under the control of 2 Group of the Second Tactical Air Force headed by Embry himself.

Even while the new Wing was being formed, training continued for those already here at Sculthorpe. On August 18th, whilst on one such flight, one of the Venturas (AE668) of 464 Sqn crashed into a Welsh hillside at Llandwrog, with the loss of all four crewmen. What was unusual, and concerning, was why the aircraft was so far off course at the time; the Welsh mountains not being where it should have been. It was not known why the aircraft crashed nor indeed whether the deviation of course was a factor in the accident, but it was a heart felt tragedy and the squadron’s first accident whilst at Sculthorpe.

Three days after this, on August 21st, the first of the new replacement aircraft arrived, two DH Mosquitoes, a milestone that coincided the following day with the setting up of a Mosquito Conversion Flight. The purpose of the Flight was to convert Ventura aircrew from both 464 and 487 Sqns over to the Mosquito.

Flying was slow to start with, as appalling weather prevented any chance of taking off, even in the day-time; a situation that would prevail for some time. By now, the new postings for the surplus gunners of both units had begun to filter through, and gradually, one by one, they trickled out of Sculthorpe to their new respective squadrons elsewhere.

It wasn’t  just the aircrew that were being posted out either, a number of tradesmen were also posted out, but oddly enough, they were not being replaced. The distinct lack of skilled technical personnel soon raised alarm bells amongst the units, for as a Mosquito squadron,  487 had no carpenters, and other skilled workers were becoming distinctly lacking.

By early September Mosquito numbers had reached well into double figures, the lack of manpower was now the issue which was being made worse by the lack of spares, a situation that led to many aircraft being classed as unserviceable. A common problem seemed to be the undercarriages, repairs taking longer than usual keeping aircraft annoyingly grounded.

The 15th September 1943 saw another turn in the status of Sculthorpe, seeing it gain its own independence and becoming an operational airfield in its own right. With this, Sculthorpe had finally grown up.

On the 28th, the numbers of aircraft on the books had reached over 70 when another squadron (21) arrived to join both 464 and 487 thus completing the formation of the Wing. The ORB for 464 Sqn stating that the airfield was not built for three squadrons (and a conversion flight) and that overcrowding was now a major issue for those based here at a cold and wet Sculthorpe.

21 Sqn was another Ventura unit, themselves having a history as far back as 1915, and very soon after their arrival, they too, would begin to receive the Mosquito. As with 464 and 487 Sqns, pilots were quickly placed on the conversion course flying with the Conversion Flight at Sculthorpe. The transformation from Ventura to Mosquito being expedited with all speed. By the 4th October, virtually all pilots had converted and completed cross country solo flights at low level. Only the incident on the 1st, when Ft.  Lt. Henderson suffered engine trouble and subsequent fire, marred the otherwise rapid and clean transfer across. In the incident, Fl. Lt. Henderson managed to bring the aircraft down safely at RAF Attlebridge.

Other good news for the unit was that those in the administration offices were now able to move from their cold and unsuitable temporary accommodation block to a new permanent building, this new block being the ‘best they had experienced since leaving RAF Oulton‘.

Meanwhile 464 and 487 Sqn had both been flying operationally, October 9th being the blackest day yet for the New Zealanders, when twelve Mosquitoes were dispatched for the first operations over occupied territory. An attack on Metz was planned but owing to bad weather only one or two aircraft managed to find the target. After dropping their bombs it wasn’t clear whether the target was hit or not, but worse news was yet to come.

The formation, which had been dispersed due to poor weather, was being led by Wing Commander Alan G. Wilson DFC along with his navigator F.O. Donald C. F. Bridgman of 487 Sqn. During the attack the formation encountered severe anti-aircraft fire, and Wilson’s aircraft (HX965) was repeatedly hit. The navigator sustained mortal wounds and the aircraft was set on fire. In a desperate attempt to clear the fire, Wing Commander Wilson had to douse the flames with his hands causing extensive burning and injury. He managed to eject the now smouldering materials from the aircraft, but considerable damage had by now been done. Now flying on his own with his mortally wounded companion beside him, Wilson showed extreme courage and determination, flying the stricken aircraft back to England where he made a successful crash landing at RAF Manston in Kent.

Accomodation blck adjacent to the guard room

Blocks adjacent to the Guard Room.

A second aircraft (HX912), flown by Flt. Lt. Phillip C. C. Kerr and F.O. Bernard J. E. Hannan (464 Sqn) – were less lucky, both being killed when the aircraft dropped its bombs at low level. It is believed the subsequent explosion also blew up the Mosquito.

On a separate operation to attack the aircraft engine factory at Woippy in France, Mosquito  HX938 piloted by Sqn. Ldr. Walter F. Wallington DFC and navigator P.O.  James H. Fawdrraf, dropped its bombs by accident  and crashed. This time, both airmen managed to bail out, but some thirty people on the ground were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Wallington managed to evade capture but P.O. Fawdrraf was not so lucky and was picked up by German ground forces. The same fate did not befall two more 487 Sqn airmen that day. Flt. Lt. Edgar W. P. Court and Flt. Lt. Jack B. Sands were both killed when their Mosquito (HX937) blew up whilst flying on one engine near to Antwerp.

It had been a very sad day for the Wing, and the loss of several ‘good’ men would be deeply felt by both squadrons.

More rain and strong winds eventually turned Sculthorpe into something that resembled a “seaplane base”, by the end of the month, the entire site was waterlogged. The winds were so severe they were reported to have lifted hut roofs off their mountings causing even more problems for those inside. The foul weather broke momentarily on the 22nd – 23rd October and allowed for some bombing practice to take place. On return, one of the 464 Sqn Mosquitoes overshot and crashed onto a hedge at the end of the runway. On the 23rd, one of 487’s Mosquitoes ‘T’ for Tommy, did exactly the same thing, coming to rest only feet from the wreck that was previously a Mosquito. As if that was not remarkable enough, a few minutes later one of 21 Sqn’s aircraft also overshot, landing directly on top of the 464 Sqn aircraft!

Miraculously no one was hurt in any of these incidents, but according to 21 Sqn’s ORB “considerable loss of public property sustained“, presumably referring to the pile of wood chippings now sitting at the end of the runway.*4 The fact that no one was hurt was a miracle in itself, and all the cockpits remaining intact was a sight that gave the personnel at Sculthorpe a great belief in the strength of the Wooden Wonder!

By October’s end, the crews of all squadrons were now fully conversant with the new Mosquito, and the supporting Conversion Flight was disbanded; specific training units taking on the role elsewhere.

In Part 3, the harsh winter of 1943-44 arrives and so does a special visitor. Does it mean something new for Sculthorpe?

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

 

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 1)

In the heart of Norfolk, lies an airfield that had its origins in the Second World War, but its legacy is more of a Cold War monster that was a key player in what could have been the world’s demise.

In the second part of Trail 21, we return to that relic of the Cold War – RAF Sculthorpe.

RAF Sculthorpe 

Sculthorpe airfield is located a few miles to the north-west of the town of Fakenham in Norfolk, in a parish that has links as far back as the Romans and even pre-historic eras. The airfield itself however, has its origins more recently, in the latter part of the Second World War, but it has a much larger claim to fame one that it still retains to this day.

A once busy shop

A once busy shop now derelict and forgotten.

Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe had three runways, one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, and all made of concrete. By the end of its life, it had enormous technical and administration sites and was capable of housing up to 10,000 personnel, giving Sculthorpe the ability to boast being one of the biggest airbases in Western Europe, an honour it retains to this day. Built by a collection of major companies including: Bovis Ltd, John Laing & Sons, and Constable Hart & Co. Ltd; it would boast as many as five major hangars, one B1 and four T2s, along with several blister hangars all located around the site.

Although built in the Second World War, Sculthorpe had a limited War life, being opened quite late, in January 1943. Operating under the control of 2 Group, the first users were those of the 11 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section along with 2 Heavy Glider Maintenance Unit, who both moved in as soon as it opened. As non-flying units they prepared, repaired and maintained Horsa gliders, many of which would have been used the following year in the Normandy invasion. These units remained in situ at Sculthorpe for almost a year, departing in mid March 1944.

Following an initial year’s development and growth, Sculthorpe finally opened operationally with Boston IIIAs of 342 (Lorraine) Squadron on May 15th 1943.

342 Sqn had originally been set up as a Free French squadron in September 1941, operating in the Middle East with French crews. Their time there had not been good though, with many losses as a result of flying what were now considered ‘out of date’ aircraft – the Blenheim. It was then decided, after talks between the RAF and General Valin, the Commander of the Free French Air Force, to bring these men back and retrain them on more modern aircraft, and so in September 1942, orders from the UK directed many of these airmen back to the UK. Sadly however, during their return voyage, two of the four ships that were used to transport them, were sunk by German U-boats and many of the  personnel were lost as a result.

Once in the UK, refresher courses were undertaken with 342 Sqn being officially re-formed, on April 1st 1943, using these French personnel at nearby RAF West Raynham . Once formed, training continued, followed not long after by the first loss, when one of the aircraft attempted an emergency landing after running out of fuel. That aside, the Boston IIIa, or A20, they were now using, was considered a much improved model compared to the Blenheim, with both greater power and better armament, it was far more suited to the role it was about to perform.

Following further training, the squadron finally transferred over to Sculthorpe on May 15th 1943, where crews attended lectures on “evasive action and fighter control”. Two further crashes would cost the squadron several more airmen, some of whom were highly experienced and valued members of the unit.  The move of the squadron also signified a change for Sculthorpe itself, as at this time, it ceased to be a satellite of West Raynham – the move to total independence was now a step nearer, albeit temporarily.

RAF Sculthorpe

One of many buildings on site today.

As the saying goes, any port in a storm, and Sculthorpe provided that port. On May 19th, an American B-17 was forced to make an emergency landing at the airfield. On board the aircraft were three injured crewmen, the ball turret gunner, and the two waist gunners. The Ball Turret Gunner was given urgent medical assistance, but unfortunately he later died from those injuries, whilst the two waist gunners, both with frost bite to their hands and ears, thankfully survived. A second B-17 landed some time after the landing and collected the crewmen, transferring them back to their own base where they received further medical assistance.

There then came yet another change at Sculthorpe, as the Free French unit was combined with two other squadrons, 88 and 107 to form the new 137 Wing; a Wing made up of both French and British units.  On June 12th 1943, under the new Wing, 342 Sqn’s first operational flight took place, a ‘circus’ raid undertaken in conjunction with 107 Sqn. These types of operations would become the norm for the next month, and whilst there were some losses, they were thankfully light. In mid July, orders came through for the unit to depart Sculthorpe and move to nearby RAF Great Massingham, a move that was well organised and one that went smoothly. By the evening of July 19th all but two aircraft had departed Sculthorpe, and crews were settling in well to their new home.

There was no let up at Sculthorpe though, as over the next two days two more squadrons would move in to the now vacant premises.

Orders for the transfer of both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Squadrons were received with mixed emotions though. To make things worse, the transfer of both men and machinery did not go totally to plan and only happened following a change in operations and planning.

Both Squadrons had been flying from  RAF Methwold, an airfield not far from Sculthorpe, as light bomber units with Lockheed’s Venturas. They regularly attacked targets in western Europe, often without fighter escort, which resulted in some heavy losses for the units. It was whilst at Methwold that Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent would perform so bravely receiving the Victoria Cross for his actions on May 3rd, 1943, with 487 (RNZAF) Sqn.

The whole process began in mid June with an initial order requiring 464 (RAAF) Sqn, to move to Dunsfold, however, that move never materialised, the order being cancelled on July 4th. This meant that preparations would stop, and the squadron would remain here at Methwold. They then entered a period of training, the weather having curtailed many operational flights for both this unit and others across the UK.

Then on July 10th, the weather broke just enough for an operational flight to be carried out by 464, attacking targets at St. Omer. These were hit with great success; the 487 squadron commander commenting “a wizard piece of bombing”,  but still the squadron awaited, with anticipation, news of its next posting. Then two days later, whilst a contingent of the Australian press where visiting, news came through that the two units were to change its aircraft for Mosquitoes, and that the pilots would be fully trained within 6 weeks. The swap although not what was expected, was generally accepted well by the squadrons, but it brought disappointment for both the wireless operators and air gunners of each unit, who would have no place on board the two-seat ‘Mossie’,  and would have to be transferred out.

Following further training, the long awaited news finally arrived. For 487 Sqn it arrived on July 16th, noted as ‘Panic day’, and on July 17th for 464 Sqn. Both squadrons would now transfer over to Sculthorpe. In preparation, 464 Sqn’s station adjutant visited the new airfield on the 19th to assess its condition, but he was not impressed! He reported that “there was very little of it to work in comfort and everything is drastically dispersed.”*1 His aggrieved feelings about the site were further exasperated by a lack of office space, the only silver lining to the whole move, being that more accommodation was apparently ‘in the pipeline’.

In Part 2 we see how both 464 and 487 Sqns get on at this dispersed, lacking in comfort site.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

Born in New Delhi in 1922, Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser, (66542) posthumously earned himself the Victoria Cross for an act of bravery in his Avro Manchester, over Cologne on the night of May 30th, 1942.

manser
Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

As a young child, he moved with his family to Radlett, Hertfordshire, England, was educated at St. Faith’s, Cambridge and Cox’s House Aldenham, Hertfordshire. Following this, he decided to join the Armed Forces. Attempts to enlist in both the Army and Royal Navy were unsuccessful, however, in August 1940, he approached the Royal Air Force and was quickly accepted.

Manser was commissioned as a pilot officer in May the following year and after further training, was posted on 27th August to 50 Sqn at RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire, operating Hampdens.

His first experience of war, came very quickly. As a copilot, he was to join over 100 other aircraft in the Frankfurt raid only two days after his arrival. Further action saw him fly over prestigious targets such as Berlin, Hamburg and Karlsruhe before being posted twice to Finningly and then back to Swinderby, this time as an instructor.

Following a brief service with No. 420 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn, again on Hampdens,  Manser returned to 50 Sqn, this time operating from Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire. It was here that he experienced for the first time, the ill-liked Heavy Bomber, the Avro Manchester. Manser flew a number of missions on this type including a leaflet drop over occupied Paris on April 8th. His skill as a pilot soon earned him promotion to the rank of Flying Officer just five days before his 20th birthday on May 6th 1944.

With high losses and increasing ‘failures’, bomber command was coming in for its own criticism and despite some success, Harris was making enemies at home as well as overseas. It was now that he created his master plan “The Thousand Plan” code named ‘Operation Millennium’. This would involve over 1,000 British bombers, attacking one major German city in a single night. Churchill, impressed with the idea, gave Harris full support and the wheels of Operation Millenium were put in motion. Aircraft and crews were pulled from every available source, many being taken from training units where crews were only partially trained and inexperienced.

Orders were finalised on 26th May, and an initial date for the attack set for the night of the 27/28th May, the target would be Bremen. However, continued unfavourable weather conditions made Harris’s first choice unsuitable and then at midday on the 30th May, 1942, Harris issued the order to strike, that night, against his second choice of target – Cologne.

The immense armada, which consisted of: Whitleys, Wellingtons and Hampdens, Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters made up a force of 1,046 bomber aircraft along with an assortment of night fighters in support.

On the morning of 30th, Manser and another pilot were instructed to collect two Manchesters from Coningsby, Lincolnshire. As many of these aircraft were drawn from reserves and training squadrons, it was inevitable that many would be in poor condition. Manser’s was no exception, it had no mid upper turret and a sealed escape hatch.

50 sqn

When the order came and Manser took off, his aircraft L7301 ‘D’ Dog, an Avro Manchester Mk1, with a full bomb load of incendiaries, was now difficult to manoeuvre and he was unable to reach an altitude of more than about 7,000 ft. Hoping the main bomber force would attract the greater concentration of  flak, he decided to continue on.

They soon arrived over the target area and being lower, they were subjected to an immense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Many of these shells struck the aircraft causing fires within the fuselage and the port engine. Careful nursing and a cool head by Manser, enabled them to eventually extinguish the fire which had now spread along the entire wing.

Struggling to maintain any height and keep the aircraft airborne, the crew threw out whatever they could to lighten the load. with little power, the aircraft lost considerable height and Manser finally ordered the crew to bail out. Knowing his crew would not survive jumping as the aircraft swung and moved awkwardly, he fought to maintain level flight for as long as possible. Refusing his own parachute over his crew’s safety, he held it just long enough for them to get out. The bomber finally crashed a few miles from the Dutch border near to Bree 13 mi (21 km) north-east of Genk in Belgium and burst into flames with Manser at the controls, he was just 20 years old. Manser’s bravery came out following debriefing of the crew members, five of the six having made it home through the resistance network.

Manser’s crew on that flight were:

Sergeant Baveystock (2nd Pilot)
Pilot Officer Horsley (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Naylor (Rear Gunner)
Flying Officer ‘Bang On’ Barnes (Navigator / Bomb Aimer – Captured following jumping at low-level)
Sergeant King (Second Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Mills (Front Gunner)

Leslie Manser’s courage and self-sacrifice led to him being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On 23rd October 1942. The citation for the VC read:

“In pressing home his attack in the face of strong opposition, in striving, against heavy odds, to bring back his aircraft and crew and, finally, when in extreme peril, thinking only of the safety of his comrades, Flying Officer Manser displayed determination and valour of the highest order.”

Other members of the crew:  Barnes, Horsley,  Baveystock, Mills and Naylor all received immediate awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal.

Today Manser’s memory lives on. A Primary School (The Leslie Manser Primary School) was opened in 1981 on what was the old RAF Skellingthorpe airfield. On 31st June 2004, a Memorial to F/Off. Leslie Manser was unveiled in  Stamprooierbroek near Molenbeersel, Kinrooi in the north-east of Belgium. He is buried at Heverlee War Cemetery Leuven, Flemish Brabant (Vlaams-Brabant), Belgium. Plot: 7.G.1.

Manser’s VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The following personal message from Sir Arthur Harris was sent to Leslie Manser’s Father:

“Sir,

Accept from me personally and on behalf of my Command and my Service, Salutations upon the signal honour, so well indeed merited, which his Majesty the King has seen fit to confer upon your gallant son. No Victoria Cross has been more gallantly earned. I cannot offer you and yours condolence in personal loss in circumstances wherein your son’s death and the manner of his passing must so far surmount, by reason of the great services he rendered this country and the last service to his crew, all considerations of personal grief. His shining example of unsurpassed courage and staunchness to death will remain an inspiration to his Service and to him an imperishable memorial.

Arthur T. Harris Air Marshal R.A.F.”