31 – A Last Goodbye at Melton

In my last blog 30 – Melton Airmen killed in Mediterranean bomber crash we looked at the story of a New Zealand airman who was tragically killed when his Wellington bomber crashed in the Mediterranean Sea on a Ferry Trip to the Middle East.

In this blog, we look at another tragic accident involving a RAF airman with links to Melton Mowbray.

Catherine Drummond had been stationed in Oban, Argyll, as a wireless operator in the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force when she met Sergeant John Boyd who was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and they eventually married in Catherine’s hometown of Bridge of Allan in October 1943.

Boston in ‘desert’ camo

RAF Melton Mowbray was completing the despatch of Boston Mk IIIs as part of Commitment 73 during May 1944. Many of the Boston Mk IIIs that were ferried out had already been with Squadrons in the UK either in either night fighter or intruder versions.

John & Catherine’s last treasured moments were shared in a B&B near his base at RAF Melton Mowbray. John left RAF Melton Mowbray on 25th May 1944 with his plane dipping its wings as a final goodbye to her as he flew off to Europe.

It may well be that John Boyd was with one of these squadrons in 1943 when he met Catherine and went through Melton Mowbray in May 1944 as part of a “refors“ crew taking a “redundant” Boston Mk III to the Mediterranean where he arrived eventually at 114 Squadron which then converted to Mk IVs.

There were two kinds of crew – reinforcement or “refors” and Ferry. By 1944 the majority of the crews were specialist Ferry Crews who carried out their deliveries and returned to Britain.

At the beginning of the war most crews had been “refors” and they had stayed with the aircraft at the squadron overseas. In that case both crew and aircraft were reinforcements. John Boyd appears to have been part of a reinforcement crew which stayed together with 114 Squadron once they had been assigned after arriving in the Mediterranean.

No 114 squadron

No 114 Sqn was moved to Blida in Algeria in November 1942 as part of No 326 Wing tasked with supporting the British First Army.  The Sqn was equipped with the Bristol Bisley, the ground attack version of the Blenheim.  It had poor performance and was vulnerable to fighter attack, and the Sqn was therefore largely confined to night bombing. Bisley losses continued to be high.

In January 1943 the squadron relinquished its Bisley aircraft to No 614 Squadron, and waited for new aircraft, receiving more Bisleys in February and returning to operations. In March the squadron finally received more modern equipment, replacing its Bisleys with Douglas Boston light bombers and returned to operation with its new aircraft on 21st April 1943.

The squadron then operated from Sicily and Italy, having been re-equipped with Douglas Boston aircraft.

On the 25th of August 1944 John was serving with 114 Sqn and crewed up with W/O Dowland pilot and F/Sgt Potter AG when their Boston Mk IV BZ465 developed engine failure and went down in waters just across from Elba, in Tuscany.

The ORB says that on that night BZ465 took off at 2.18am and landed at 5.23am. Then on 25th August W/O Dowland crashed in the sea off Piombino Point in Tuscany while on an air test. Nobody knows how the accident happened. The report came through that a Boston had been seen losing height over the sea. Unfortunately a New Zealand soldier on rest from the front line was also in the aircraft. All in the aircraft were killed”.

A day or so later -“The dinghy and two helmets were recovered from the scene of the crash of our aircraft on 25thAug. This is all that has been found so far.” Only two of the four crews bodies were recovered and John and his plane remained at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Catherine had written to John to tell him she was pregnant and he was overjoyed but just before her daughter’s birth in September she was informed he was missing in action. She prayed that he was a prisoner of war and despite receiving a telegram informing her he was almost certainly killed, without his body she failed to believe it and lived in hope he would return to her.

Catherine said: “His body hadn’t been found so I never gave up hope until all the prisoners of war were home. I was down for a long time. I missed him very much and I kept wondering, why me?” Her prayers remained unanswered and five years later, without even a covering letter, the MoD sent her John’s flight logbook. Its lists of sorties to France and Italy come to an abrupt stop with the words, “presumed dead”. “It seemed so final and it was such a shock to see that book suddenly arrive with his handwriting all over it.”

John is commemorated by name on panel 14 of the CWGC Malta Memorial along with the 2,298 Commonwealth aircrew who lost their lives in the various World War II air sorties and battles around the Mediterranean and who have no known grave.

RAF Memorial Malta

30 – Melton Airmen killed in Mediterranean bomber crash.

For those who are not familiar with the role of RAF Melton Mowbray during World War Two, it was a base within Transport Command and was used for ferrying aircraft to overseas bases. More information can be seen in my previous blog 15 – RAF Melton Mowbray.

One airman based at Melton with No 1 Ferry Crew Pool was Flt Sgt Kenneth Hansen of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). 

Flt Sgt Kenneth Hansen RNZAF

Kenneth was born on the 21st September 1921 to Hans Helge Wagner Hansen, and Isabel Hansen (nee Swetman, later Sardelich). He was educated at Northcote Intermediate School, and became a farmer on the property of Mr. D. Christie near Te Awamutu.

Prior to joining the RNZAF, he served for four and a half years in the New Zealand Territorial Army with the 15th North Auckland Regiment. He joined the RNZAF on the 6th of May 1942 at Ohakea as an Aircraft hand (General Duties).

On the 6th of June 1942 Kenneth started training at the Initial Training Wing, RNZAF Station Levin, and on the 15th of that month he officially remustered to become a Wireless Operator-Air Gunner under training.

Kenneth embarked for Canada on the 20th of July 1942, and was attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force on the 18th of August 1942. The following day he arrived at No. 1 M Depot to await a course, and on the 30th of that month he was posted to No. 3 Wireless School at Winnipeg, Manitoba.  After passing his wireless training, Kenneth was posted to No. 8 Bombing and Gunnery School, at Lethbridge, Alberta, on the 17th of April 1943.

On the 31st of May 1943 Kenneth passed out of training, being awarded his Air Gunner’s badge, and being promoted to Sergeant. He was also remustered to officially be part of the trade as a Wireless Operator-Air Gunner.

Kenneth was posted next on the 12th of June 1943 to No. 36 Operational Training Unit, RAF, which was flying Lockheed Hudsons from Greenwood, Nova Scotia. After three months he proceeded on the 11th of September to No. 1 Y Depot, Halifax to await a troopship to England. He was now attached to the Royal Air Force and set sail for the UK on the 13th of September 1943.

Following his arrival in the UK, seven days after leaving Halifax, Kenneth was posted to No. 12 Personnel Dispatch & Reception Centre at Brighton, where he awaited the next course. This came on the 2nd of November 1943 when he reported to No. 104 Operational Training Unit to gain experience on Vickers Wellingtons.

On the 21st of December 1943 Kenneth was posted to No. 44 Group, Transport Command and on the 11th of January 1944 he became a member of No. 1 Ferry Crew Pool (FCP) based at RAF Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.

No 1 FCP had just arrived at Melton in January 44 from RAF Lyneham. The FCP was a group of ferry crews which worked with Ferry Training Units to provide specialist ferry crews whenever they were needed. No 1 FCP had 160 crew members available and were trained to fly several aircraft types including the Wellington, Beaufighter, Hudson, Boston, Blenheim, Halifax, Spitfire, Mosquito and Beaufort.

Royal Air Force Transport Command

Whilst assigned to No 1 FCP, Kenneth would be used by No. 1 Overseas Aircraft Despatch Unit, part of Transport Command, to act as Wireless Operator aboard aircraft being ferried from Britain to overseas stations.

Ferry crews normally did 3 or 4 trips a month. The return trip could be a source of delays for the crews as they had to hitch rides back to the UK and had to wait for an aircraft coming back with the necessary space to accommodate them.

On the 6th of February 1944 Kenneth was part of a crew that ferried a Vickers Wellington bomber to to Staging Post 70 at Rabat Sale in Morocco, returning to Britain aboard a Consolidated Liberator on the 11th of February.

A few weeks later, on the 6th March 1944, Kenneth was part of the crew aboard another Wellington X, serial number LP199, piloted by Flying Officer George Ballard, RAAF. They took off from RAF Portreath, Cornwall, at 02.25hrs and headed south, well out to sea away from enemy fighter cover. The other crew members aboard LP199 for the ferry trip were: Flying Officer Peter Bradley, Flying Officer Ronald Gee and Sergeant Francis Marchant.

The crew of a Vickers Wellington Mk II board their aircraft. © IWM HU 107785

As they were making their final approach to Gibraltar (Staging Post 73), and were only two miles out, when the aircraft stalled just 40 feet off the water, and crashed into the sea. It is believed that the airspeed was inadvertently allowed to drop too low while the pilot concentrated on his approach to the aerodrome in poor weather.

Kenneth and his crew mates died on the 6th of March 1944, in the sea off Gibraltar, and are commemorated on The Runnymede Memorial.

Flt Sgt Kenneth Hansen is commemorated on Panel 264 of the Runnymede Memorial.

Fg Off George Jamess (Dood) Ballard 425417 Royal Australian Air Force was the son of James William Ashby Ballard, and of Elizabeth Beatrice Ballard of Tooting, Queensland Australia. George Ballard is commemortated on Panel 257 of the Runnymede Memorial.

Fg Off Peter Bradley is commemorated on Panel 204 of the Runnymede Memorial.

Fg Off Ronald Gee was the youngest son of George and Georgina Gee of Wheeldon Avenue Derby. Ronald joined the RAF(VR) in January 1942 and completed his training in Canada where he received his commission. Prior to joining up, he worked for Rolls Royce Ltd at Derby. His brother George, was killed in January 1942 whilst serving in the RAF as a pilot. They were both Old Bemrosians. Ronald is commemorated on Panel 206 of the Runneymede Memorial.

Fg Off Ronald Gee

Sgt Francis Marchant is the son of Harry and Winifred Marchant of King’s Stanley, Gloucestershire. Francis is commemorated on Panel 234 of the Runnymede Memorial.

Runnymede Air Forces Memorial

The Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede was designed by Sir Edward Maufe with sculpture by Vernon Hill. The Memorial was unveiled by HM The Queen Elizabeth II on 17th October 1953.

It has engraved glass and painted ceilings designed by John Hutton and the words from the 139th Psalm, sometimes referred to as the Airman’s Psalm engraved on the gallery window was written by Paul H Scott.

If I climb up into
Heaven, thou art there;
If I go to hell,
Thou art there also.
If I take the wings of the
Morning and remain in the
Uttermost parts of the
Sea, even there also
Shall thy hand lead
Me; and thy right
Hand shall hold me

It soon became the best known of the Commission’s memorials in England. Maufe shunned the grandiose of the Commission’s tradition as he was determined to use the drama of the site both internally and by exploiting its broad views from Coopers Hill on on the banks of the River Thames sweeping down towards Heathrow and Windsor.

The site is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and commemorates over 20,000 men and women of the air forces by name, who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves

They served in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands, and came from all parts of the Commonwealth. Some were from countries in continental Europe which had been overrun but whose airmen continued to fight in the ranks of the Royal Air Force.