41 – Courageous Duty Done in Love, He Serves His Pilot Now Above

“Courageous Duty Done In Love, He Serves His Pilot Now Above”, is the personal inscription or epitaph, written on the Commonwealth War Grave headstone of Victoria Cross recipient Flight Sergeant John Hannah, who is buried at Birstall St James the Great Churchyard in Leicester.  What is Courageous Duty?

CWGC Headstone of Flt Sgt John Hannah VC at Birstall St James Churchyard

John, although a V.C. winner, is so typical of many veterans that I have come across in my career with the Royal Air Force and also in my time as a welfare caseworker with the Royal Air Forces Association, the charity that supports the RAF Family. 

Many service personnel are too proud to ask for help and try and resolve their issues via their own means, sadly at times, only asking for help when it is too late.  John was a prime example.

Sergeant John Hannah VC

Being a shy and reserved character, John was not a fan of all the publicity he was receiving following his award of the V.C. and disliked having to go on tours giving public speeches.

In this blog, I try and tell the story of John, not only for his heroic deeds when he showed ‘valour in the presence of the enemy’ which earned him the V.C., but also his bravery and courage in fighting his life debilitating illness and the courage he showed in overcoming his shyness in giving talks to provide a means of income to support his family. I also look at his widow and three daughters and how they showed bravery and courage to fight through their daily struggles following his death.

John Hannah was born on 27th November 1921 in Paisley, Glasgow, to his parents, James a dock crane foreman with the Clyde Navigation Trust and his wife.  John was educated at Bankhead Elementary School and Victoria Drive Secondary School in Glasgow, and he was also a member of the 237th Glasgow (Knightswood Church) Boys’ Brigade Company and played football for the local team.  After leaving school he took up employment as a salesman in a local boot company.

Victoria Drive Secondary School

He has an elder brother James, aged 25 who served in the Green Howards.  There was also a younger brother Charlie, who described John as having a reserved disposition.

On the 15th August 1939, just 3 weeks before Britain declares war on Germany, John aged only 17 enlists in the Royal Air Force on a 6 year engagement.  Following completion of his initial training at RAF Cardington, he was posted on the 14th September 1939 to the No 2 Electrical and Wireless Training School at RAF Yatesbury to train as a wireless operator.

John and his fellow students would have attended classes from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week to learn the theory of wireless and how to maintain and operate various types of wireless sets including the Marconi R1155 receiver and the T1154 transmitter.

They were instructed in morse code and how to transmit and receive messages. A competitive system was set up between the students where they would strive to achieve a standard of six words per minute in the sending and receiving of morse code.

A class of trainee Wireless Operators receiving instruction in morse code IWM CH 002040

After meeting the criteria of six words per minute, they moved on to another table that demanded eight words per minute and worked their way up to the required standard of twelve words per minute.  In addition to learning about wireless transmitters and morse, the students were also taught the use of the Aldis signalling lamp for visual communication in morse code.

Once his ground training was completed, John would have then undertaken aerial training as part of his wireless course. The aerial training would have consisted of a series of air experience flights in De Havilland Dominie aircraft operated by the “Yatesbury Wireless Flight”, piloted by civilian employees of the Bristol Aircraft Company. During the air experience flights, John would have been introduced to radio receiver training consisting of sending and receiving messages from base and practicing the art of transmitter tuning by calibration and back tuning to the transmitter.

De Havilland Dominie aircraft operated by the “Yatesbury Wireless Flight”

After completing his training at Yatesbury, John was next posted to the No 4 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAF West Freugh for a short course in air gunnery.  After successfully finishing his course in air gunnery, he was next assigned to No 16 Operational Training Unit at RAF Upper Heyford on 18th May 1940 for the final part of his training before qualifying as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (WOp/AG).

After successfully completing his WOp/AG training, he was promoted to Sergeant and posted on the 1st July 1940 to his first front line unit as what is known as a “Rooki”, serving with 106 Squadron at RAF Thornaby in Yorkshire who operated Handley Page Hampden bombers.

Hampden bombers

John didn’t serve on 106 Sqn for long as on the 11th August he was posted to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to join 83 Sqn who again operated the Hampden bomber.

83 Squadron crest (IBCC Archive)

83 Sqn was one of the few Bomber Command units that went into action on the first day of the Second World War by carrying out a bomber sweep over the North Sea searching for German warships. The Sqn continued with daylight ‘precision’ raids against German naval and coastal targets throughout 39/40, but as the daylight operations became more costly, they switched to night operations. 

The summer of 1940 has become famous in RAF history for the actions during the Battle of Britain where RAF Fighter Command pilots became known as “The Few”.

Whilst Fighter Command were heavily engaged in defending the skies above Britain intercepting the German Luftwaffe, Bomber Command units were sent out night after night to attack the naval forces that Hitler was amassing as part of his preparations for the seaborne invasion of Britain known as Operation Sea Lion. 

Huge numbers of barges had been observed making their way down the River Rhine as well as other European rivers to congregate in the Channel ports like Antwerp.  No 83 Sqn had been flying against concentrations of invasion shipping in the Channel Ports and Germany during the late summer and autumn of 1940.

On Sunday 15th September 1940, the Luftwaffe launched its largest and most concentrated attack against London in the hope of drawing out the RAF into a battle of annihilation in order to destroy its airpower before Operation Sea Lion could be commenced.  Around 1,500 aircraft took part in the air battles which lasted until dusk.  The action was the climax of the Battle of Britain with the RAF Fighter Command defeating the German raids and the day is now known as Battle of Britain day.

Battle of Britain Day painting by Gary Eason

During the daylight hours on the 15th, Bomber Command dispatched 12 Blenheim bombers on sea and coastal sweeps, but all bombing sorties were abandoned due to ‘too-clear’ weather.

Bomber Command were in action again during the night of the 15th/16th September with 155 aircraft taking part in operations against Channel ports and various targets in Germany against the barges and naval forces Hitler was amassing.  No 83 Sqn dispatched 15 Hampdens as part of this force to attack target “Z11” at Antwerp.

German invasion barges being loaded with supplies for Operation Sea Lion

All 15 of 83 Sqn’s Hampdens were detailed to attack barges in selected basins at target ID Z11.  Eight successfully attacked the target, one aircraft attacked Antwerp in error, two aircraft successfully bombed the secondary target at Flushing (CC2), one aircraft had temporary engine trouble and had to jettison its bombs.  One aircraft experienced electrical issues which prevented it from releasing its bombs when attacking the target and another returned to base with its bomb load. Another a/c failed to identify either the primary or secondary targets but attacked a ship in Dunkirk roads on its return leg to base.

John Hannah took part in this Op as the WOp/AG on Hampden P1355 OL-W. His pilot was Pilot Officer Clare Arthur Connor, with Sergeant Douglas A E Hayhurst as the Navigator and Leading Aircraftman George James as Rear Gunner.

83 Squadron Hampden P1355 OL-W

During the first run over the target, the approach was inaccurate, and no bombs were dropped so the pilot went round again.  In the second approach at 2,000 feet, the aircraft was subject to intense fire from the ground, but the attack was pressed home successfully.  During the attack the bomb compartment was shattered by anti-aircraft fire and the port wing and tail boom were also damaged.

Fire soon broke out in the fuselage, enveloping both the wireless operators and rear gunners’ cockpits.  Both port and starboard fuel tanks had been pierced by shrapnel giving risk to the fire spreading. Hannah forced his way through the flames only to discover that the rear gunner had left the aircraft.

Illustrated London News 10th Oct 1940

He said in a letter to his parents “I am very lucky to be alive.  When we got into a terrible ack-ack barrage, the plane caught fire and my whiskers were singed.  It looked as if the plane would blow up.  We made for our parachutes, but mine was on fire.  By that time, the navigator and gunner had bailed out.  The plane was a blazing mess and a perfect target for the ack-ack, which was still batting away. I did some quick thinking and started throwing out parts.  During this time, the ammunition on the kite was going off at ten a penny and the heat was terrific.”

Thousands of rounds of ammunition was exploding all around Hannah and he was almost blinded by the intense heat. Air being admitted into the fuselage via the holes made by the ack-ack made the compartment an inferno with all the aluminium sheeting on the floor having melted away.

Using his oxygen mask plus returning to his WOp/AG cockpit for fresh air, he managed to fight the fire for 10 minutes using two extinguishers.  Once they had run out, he used his log books and bare hands to successfully put the fire out. He then crawled forward and found that the navigator had also left the aircraft, and passed his log books and maps to the pilot.

On landing at Scampton, the true extent of the damage to the aircraft and the actions of the crew became apparent.   The pilot, Canadian Pilot Officer Clare Connor was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), the navigator Sergeant Douglas A E Hayhurst was recommended for a Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) and the WOp/AG Sergeant John Hannah was recommended for the Victoria Cross.  Unfortunately, the rear gunner, Leading Aircraftman George James didn’t receive any recommendations.

VC Recommendation

The Air Ministry announced on the 1st October 1940:-

“The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned airman, in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:-

652918 Sergeant John Hannah

On the night of 15th September, 1940, Sergeant Hannah was the wireless operator/air gunner in an aircraft engaged in a successful attack on enemy barge concentrations at Antwerp.  It was then subjected to intense anti-aircraft fire and received a direct hit from a projectile of an explosive and incendiary nature, which apparently burst inside the bomb compartment.  A fire started which quickly enveloped the wireless operator’s and rear gunner’s cockpits, and as both the port and starboard petrol tanks had been pierced there was grave risk of fire spreading.  Sergeant Hannah forced his way through the fire to obtain two extinguishers and discovered that the rear gunner had had to leave the aircraft.  He could have done acted likewise, through the bottom escape hatch or forward through the navigator’s hatch, but remained and fought the fire for ten minutes with the extinguishers, beating the flames with his log books when these were empty.  During this time, thousands of rounds of ammunition exploded in all directions and he was almost blinded by the intense heat and fumes, but had the presence of mind to obtain relief by turning on his oxygen supply.  Air admitted through the large holes caused by the projectile made the bomb compartment an inferno and all the aluminium sheet metal floor of this airman’s cockpit was melted away, leaving only the cross bearers.  Working under these conditions, which caused burns to his face and eyes, Sergeant Hannah succeeded in extinguishing the fire.  He then crawled forward, ascertained that the navigator had left the aircraft, and passed the latter’s log and maps to the pilot.

This airman displayed courage, coolness and devotion to duty of the highest order and, by his action in remaining and successfully extinguishing the fire under conditions of the greatest danger and difficulty, enabled the pilot to bring the aircraft safely to its base.”

His V.C. Award was Gazetted in the London Gazette Issue 34958 page 5788/5789 dated 1st October 1940.

It also became apparent how serious the injuries were to Johns hands and face and he was immediately dispatched to the nearby RAF hospital at RAF Rauceby, just 5 miles South of RAF Cranwell.

John was in Rauceby hospital undergoing treatment for about 3 weeks and whilst there, he said in a letter to his parents “I have had so many C.O’s and big shots visit me that I feel I’m a big shot too.”  He goes on to say “Apparently, it was the first time a fire has been put out in the air. My pilot got a DFC, so I expect that I will be getting something too.  But if you feel the way I do you will be quite thankful that I am alive without worrying what I am getting or am going to look like.  They were worrying about shock when I came in, but I seem to be OK.  The only snag I have is that I cannot eat.  My skin is all frizzled up.  You won’t likely know me when you see me.  I have gone thin already and if they change my face, I hope I don’t get lost looking for my home”.

Sergeant Hannah VC writing home in hospital. IWM CH 1378
A letter John wrote to his brother whilst in RAF Rauceby Hospital (RAF Museum)
Sergeant Hannah, VC with some of his ward companions. IWM CH 1379

It was whilst a patient at Rauceby that he found out about his award.  He was discharged from the hospital on 7th October, and on the 10th he accompanied Pilot Officer Clare Connnor to Buckingham Palace where they received their V.C. & DFC awards from the King.

Sergeant John Hannah and Pilot Officer Clare Connnor at Buckingham Palace

Sergeant Douglas Hayhurst didn’t receive his award of the DFM as he and the rear gunner Leading Aircraftman George James were now both prisoners of war due to bailing out over enemy territory and imprisoned in Stalag 357 Kopernikus. Both were to survive the war and return to England in late 1945.

Many years later, Douglas Hayhurst was the branch manager of the Eagle Star Insurance Company in Coventry and in 1966 there was an article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph about an annual reunion with a friend from Bristol that began in a POW camp.  He recalled the incident when he bailed out “I bailed out, so did the rear gunner.  We were taken to a prisoner of war camp.  Two weeks later when new prisoners were brought into the camp, we learned that Hannah had won the V.C.  We had thought the aircraft crashed. They told us that Hannah’s chute was burnt and he could not get out and the pilot stayed with him.”

On the 2nd November, the Strathearn Herald published a poem “A Schoolgirl’s Appreciation of Sergeant John Hannah V.C.”

O noble John Hannah, how much we admire you,
With your wonderful coolness and courage so true,
When you stayed in that ‘plane all riddled with bullets,
And fought with the flames which were eating it through.

O what did you feel in that terrible air-flight,
When the gas and the smoke must have blinded your sight?
Or were you benumbered by the sense of great danger?
And did you just do what you thought to be right?

O how joyful and proud will your dear mother be,
When she hears how you gallantly won the V.C.,
Her Brave son in safety she’s longing to see.

                                                                        S.M.C.D.

Following his discharge from hospital, John didn’t return to operational flying and on the 4th November 1940, he was posted to No 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Cottesmore as an instructor.

Before he was posted to 14 OTU, he had public duties to perform as the Guest of Honour to Lord Hamilton of Dalzell.  He had been invited along with his younger brother and their parents to the official opening of the German Junkers 88 exhibit at Motherwell to raise money for their Spitfire fund.

In March 41, more public duties followed when John was presented to the workers of an aircraft factory by the aircraft designer Mr Frederick Handley Page.  It was reported that when he met the staff in the lunchtime break, they wanted him to speak and all he could say was “Thank you. I am very glad to be with all you boys and girls” due to being scared of the audience.

John Hannah and another V.C. winner from Scampton, Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd of 49 Sqn, were honoured in a ceremony at the Scampton Base.  As both men had won their V.C.s whilst operating as crew members on the Handley Page Hampden bomber, the aircraft designer Mr Frederick Handley Page, commissioned Mr Frank O Salisbury to paint their portraits. 

Sergeant John Hannah VC & Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd VC with Mr Frederick Handley Page

The paintings were presented to the two men at a ceremony at Scampton by Mr Frederick Handley Page on 21st June 1941.  At the ceremony, both airmen immediately handed the painting over to the Station Commander for safe keeping.  Among those present at the ceremony were Air Vice-Marshal Arthur T Harris and Air Vice-Marshal Norman Bottomley who were both later to become Air Officer Commanding In Chief Bomber Command.

Painting of Sgt John Hannah VC by Mr Frank O Salisbury

This wasn’t the first time he had had his portrait painted as back in October, shortly after his award of the V.C., his portrait was painted by the official war artist Eric Kennington.

Sergeant J Hannah, VCby Eric Kennignton (Art.IWM ART LD 638)

Whilst at Cottesmore, John started a relationship with a local girl from Oakham by the name of Janet Beaver whose father was awarded the Military Medal whilst serving with the 5th Leicestershire Regiment during the First World War. 

On Saturday 21st June 1941, Janet and John got married in secret at Oakham Register Office.  The Sunday Mirror on the 22nd June published a feature on their wedding and a photo of the happy couple.  It stated “Sergeant John Hannah V.C., nineteen-year-old RAF, bomber hero, was shy over his decoration, but shyer still over his wedding yesterday.  He married Miss Janet Beaver, of Oakham, at the register office in that town and he had made careful plans to keep his romance secret.”

Janet and John wedding photo Sunday Mirror 22 June 1941

The Wednesday after his wedding, John was undertaking more public duties when he attended the Headquarters of the Market Harborough and District Air Training Corps where he and Squadron Leader J E C G E Gyll-Murray met the district flights of Market Harborough and Kibworth at the County Grammar School and made speeches to the cadets.  After the speeches, there was great competition between the cadets to obtain the autographs of the two airmen, who duly obliged.

John stayed at Cottesmore until September 41 when he was promoted to Flight Sergeant and posted from 14OTU to No 4 Signals School at RAF Yatesbury as an instructor.

Flight Sergeant John Hannah V.C. instructing WOp/AG students at RAF Yatesbury (IWM CH 3926)

In November 1942, John was medically discharged from the RAF with a full pension as a result of being to unfit to serve due to his health deteriorating and the onset of Tuberculosis (TB) brought on from his injuries sustained in the fire. 

John and his wife Janet and their children set up home in Birstall on the outskirts of Leicester.  It was around this time that John had joined the Leicester Branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.  On Friday 15th January 1943, John attended a ball held at the Palais de Danse in Leicester for “warriors of the present battles of the skies” sponsored by the old pilots and observers of the Royal Flying Corps on behalf of the Leicester branch of RAFA.

RAF Association Leicester branch Warriors of the present battles of the skies ball at Leicester Palais de Danse 1943

The Daily Record reported on 23rd January 1943 that he had been discharged from the RAF and the article went on to quote him as saying “I have been given a pension for a year. It will be reviewed at the end of that time after I have been before a medical board.  I have a 100% pension, just now – £3 7s. 3d. a week for himself, his wife and his child.”

Asked why he is in Leicester, he pointed out that his wife was from Oakham and had worked in Leicester.  He went on to say “I am here, also, because of the official attitude in Glasgow towards me.  When I won the V.C., they had the bands out for me, but little has been done for me since.  The people of Leicester have done more for me in a week or two than Glasgow has done for me in a long time. Dances and other functions are being organised for a testimonial fund for me, and I much appreciate what the people here are doing for me – so different from Glasgow.”

The Lord Provost of Glasgow, Mr John Riggar, expressed great surprise that Sergeant John Hannah V.C. should criticise official Glasgow.  He stated “I have heard nothing of Mr Hannah from the time before I took office.  That was over a year ago, when I believe, he was being recommended for a commission.  We have not heard anything from him at all, and did not know where he was.”

Another article a few days later in the Daily Mirror quoted him as saying “I long to be back in the Royal Air Force again and to fly with the boys.  After getting my V.C. I had two serious crashes and had to come off flying.  My nerve gave way and I could not carry on, and was discharged.  I love being home with my wife and daughter, but I should prefer to be behind my gun in the air.  The medical authorities have told me I must not work for six months.  I am now taking life easy and passing time giving short talks on flying, as I cannot forget the RAF.  Everyone has been very kind to me, both at my home town in Glasgow, and here in Leicester.”.

Sergeant John Hannah behind his guns in his Hampden WOp/AG cockpit

Since being discharged from the RAF, he had returned to Glasgow to look at businesses in the area and had numerous offers of employment from various people in Leicester, but he had turned them all down as he wanted to concentrate on improving his health.

However, due to his much-reduced income, he had decided to take to the stage and his first appearance would be at the Hippodrome Theatre in Ipswich starting on Monday 15th February 1943.  His stage manager was comedian Len Childs who introduced him to the audience. 

Ipswich Hippodrome Theatre

His turn came about halfway through the show, just after a knockabout turn by the Tracey Brothers and O’Leary.  The curtain went down on O’Leary singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” and swung up again on Len Childs singing “Lords of the Air”.

After his opening song, Childs went on to say: “I would Like to pay tribute to the Air Force, of which I was a member in the last war”. With that and amid cheering, Hannah walked on stage wearing his RAF Flight Sergeant uniform with his Air Gunner’s badge and V.C. ribbon. 

Hannah told the audience a funny story about when he was a ‘Rookie’, another about his first flight and then about the flight during which he won the V.C. for batting out the flames with his bare hands over Antwerp. Afterwards he saluted the audience and marched off to whistle and applause to autograph the photos of himself which were being sold for 2s each in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund.

After his debut, he told the Daily Mirror “I have a wife and kiddie in Leicester, and I need the money.  My pension is £3 7s. 3d. a week and I have been living on the £70 I saved while I was in hospital.  I am receiving treatment for tuberculosis, and I cannot make a regular stage contract because I do not know how I shall feel”.

The first few nights of his shows he appeared on stage wearing his RAF Uniform, but after the show on Friday, he was approached by an RAF Officer accompanied by a Police Officer who told him it was illegal for him to wear his Flight Sergeant uniform and that he would be prosecuted if he continued to do so.  After the show, he went with the officers to the Police Station where the regulations were read out to him.

On the Saturday, he appeared on stage wearing civilian clothes without his V.C. ribbon.  Instead, he wore the badges of the British Legion and Royal Air Forces Association on his jacket lapels.

Even though he said he cannot make a regular stage contract due to his ongoing treatment, he still undertook public duties as the week after his Ipswich stage shows, he was touring Munitions factories on behalf of the Ministry of Information.

The dispute over Glasgow’s support towards John continued throughout 43 and in March 44, Johns father, James wrote to the Sunday Post “To the Editor of the Sunday Post.  I am the proud father of John Hannah, first and youngest V.C. of this war.  I read your article on Carluke doing its V.C’s proud.  There are many conflicting rumours about Glasgow’s recognition of my son.  It has been said that he got £500 from Glasgow, and even as much as £1000.  I would like to make it known that he received £25 in War Savings Certificates from the people of Knightswood and a wallet containing £12 from the personnel of Victoria Drive School. That was all, apart from a few personal gifts.  I hope this letter will put an end to the rumours. James Hannah.”

Over the next couple of years, John took up employment as a taxi driver when he and a friend purchased two cars and started the taxi business.  It was a struggle for them and the business was wound up in early 1945. 

In January 1945, John branched out and opened his own cycle shop in Leicester.

Unfortunately, by 1947, his health had deteriorated to such a state that he became bed ridden in January 1947.  By this time, Janet & John now had three daughters: Josephine, Jacqueline and Jennifer.

In January, Mr A E Carr, of Victoria Street London, who was a Cpl Instructor with John at Yatesbury in 1943 put out a call to the public to subscribe to a fund to send him to Switzerland for treatment. 

Mr Carr told a reporter “if the Government at this late date cannot see their way clear to do what I am sure all air crew and indeed the whole of the Royal Air Force, believe to be their duty, then I think we members of the public, who are now being thanks for raising £7000 for China relief in cinema collections over the last few days should demand that a similar appeal be made immediately.”

Mr Carr goes on to say “Shy and reserved, he was persuaded to travel the country giving talks in aircraft factories and other war plants. We knew he hated this duty, but it was probably that experience which gave him the courage to go on music hall stages to try and earn sufficient money, not only to maintain his wife and children but to pay the expense of his treatment.”

As a result of the appeal being launched, a Government official from the Ministry of Pensions was instructed to visit John and his family to find out what help he needed.  They had heard that he had to be fed on milk, brandy and eggs and that his wife was struggling to make ends meet.  The People newspaper published on 27th January 1947 reported that they had been informed by a Ministry official “We are looking into his case immediately to see if we can give extra aid through the King’s Fund, and, possibly, an increase to his pension.”

The recent newspaper reports about Johns deterioration in his health also stimulated another former RAF airmen into trying to provide help and assistance.  Mr Norman Dodds, who was an ex-ranker, was the MP for Dartford and the President of the Dartford branch of the Royal Air Forces Association had been in touch with his Czech friends in London who were in discussions with their Government in Prague about getting an invitation for John to go to one of their sanitoria and that the Association were prepared to pay the costs.  However, John didn’t want any of this as his response was “I appreciate what Mr Dods and my old RAF friends are doing.  I don’t want to seem ungracious, but I have always tried to stand on my own feet.  If I go anywhere, I prefer Switzerland.”

John told a newspaper reporter that “I have had offers to go to Switzerland, but my doctors are against me taking the risk of making a journey to Switzerland or Czechoslovakia.  I would prefer to go to the Swiss mountains but if I did so, I would have to accept the responsibility.  It is heartening to know so many people are willing to help, and I hope they will not think I am ungrateful if I say I would like to go under my own steam.  I have been advised to enter a local sanatorium, where I can build up my strength, but I believe I can do that by resting at home.  There the matter must rest at the moment.”

When advised of Johns views, Norman Dodds replied “The offer remains open, and if at any time he is able to accept, Mr Hannah’s old colleagues of the RAF will be only too happy to render every assistance possible.  I hope to visit Leicester shortly, and will state our views personally to him.”  Mr Dodds mentioned that for some time, negotiations had been in progress between representatives of the Czech Government and Squadron Leader A J O Warner, Secretary of the RAF Association, for sick RAF men to visit Czechoslovakia for medical treatment.

A few days later, Norman Dodds visited John in his Birstall home and reported that John was frank about his attitude.  He does not seek charity nor want it, and he cannot rid his mind of the thought that in some way he would be accepting charity by taking advantage of the offers made.  Norman went on to say that “The Leicester Branch of the RAF Association are in close touch with the position, and in view of the several requests made to me to convey help to the V.C., I point out that Flying Officer W F Watson, Chairman of the Leicester RAF Association, will deal with these if made direct to him at the branch headquarters, Charles Street, Leicester.”

John was admitted to Markfield Sanitorium on 31st January 1947 after being seriously ill in bed at home for several weeks.  His wife Janet, as well as looking after their three daughters, had also been his nurse at home. 

Markfield Sanitorium & Isolation Hospital

The Markfield Sanitorium or Markfield Hospital was the County Sanitorium and Isolation hospital on Ratby Lane and was opened in September 1932 by Sir George Newman, the Chief Medical Officer to the Ministry of Health.

It had 203 beds in six wards, with isolation for fever patients and a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis (TB). Fever patients were usually children, with fevers including diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid, smallpox and meningitis. Those with TB were mostly between aged 17 and 26 or were older people.

Stays were often lengthy, with TB patients there for up to two years. This was before more effective medicines became available, with the main treatment for TB being lots of bed rest, good food grown on the hospital farm and fresh air – patients were exposed to the Markfield winter air and snow too! Medical treatment for TB included PAS, an unpleasant medicine taken four times daily, streptomycin injections and air treatment for the lungs.

She had been overwhelmed by the large numbers of telephone enquiries and offers of assistance she had received at their home in Stonehill Avenue Birstall.  “My husband’s illness has brought in its train inquiries and offers of practical help, not only from neighbours and friends, but from well-wishers in all parts of the country.  The number has been legion, and it is beyond my powers to answer each one individually.  I do hope that through the Evening Mail, many of them will learn of my heartfelt appreciation of their kindness.”

Mr Neil McKinnon Willmot, a veteran of Alamein and who was now a farmer in the Cape Province region of South Africa offered his home to the Hannah family.  He said that if Hannah could be brought out to South Africa, he, as well as his family, could remain at his farm until he got better.  He felt certain the South African climate together with plenty of good food would cure the RAF hero.

The Leicester Evening Mail on the 7th June 1947 reported that John had passed away in Markfield Sanitorium.  Johns wife Janet, told one of their reporters “he was too proud to accept anything that had the appearance of charity.  He had lived to regret having the V.C..  It meant nothing to him.  All he wanted was good health and a chance of happiness with the children.”  John was receiving full disability pension of £4 5s. a week for himself and his family and was in the process of buying the family home through a building society when he died.  His wife Janet went on to say “It will be a struggle and I’m worried about the children’s education, but I’m not able to think of anything at the moment, except that I shall never see John again.”

On hearing the news of Johns death, Flying Officer W F Watson, Chairman of the Leicester RAF Association conveyed to Janet, on behalf of the whole of the membership of the Association, their deepest sympathy in her loss.

The funeral service was arranged for Wednesday 10th June, ironically, the day of his daughter Jacqueline third birthday.  The service would be held at St James the Great Church in Birstall commencing at 1:30pm followed by the internment in the church cemetery. 

St James the Great Church Birstall

The service was officiated by the Reverends Francis Pratt, the vicar of St James the Greater and Reverend Charles A Turner, Rector of Broughton Astley and Padre to the Leicester Branch of the RAF Association.  The funeral arrangements were discussed with the Air Ministry, local units of the Royal Air Force and Air Training Corps.

At his funeral, the coffin was draped in the RAF Ensign and carried by a bearer party of RAF personnel from nearby RAF Wymeswold.  The station also provided a firing party under the command of Squadron Leader C Wright from the base.  The Leicester Air Training Corps Squadron provided drummers and trumpeters who sounded the Last Post.  A contingent of RAF personnel also attended from RAF Leicester East airfield.

The family mourners were: Mrs Hannah, widow; Mr and Mrs James Hannah, parents; Mr James Hannah, brother; Mr Hugh McColl and Mr John Hannah, uncles; and Mr and Mrs Arthur Beaver, father-in-law and mother-in-law.

Among those present were Mr Montague Turnor, Mr Craston White, Mr Dick Kerr, Miss Henson representing SSAFA, Group Captain A P Ellis, representing the RAF Benevolent Fund; Mr R D Buxton, hon. Secretary and members of the Leicester Branch of the RAF Association, Mr J P Moore, chairman; Mr C Williams, vice-chairman; and members of the Birstall branch of the British Legion and Flying Officer W F Watson, representing the Leicester ATC.

The Nottingham Journal published an article on the 10th June “Immediate Pension for V.C.’s widow.  Because it was first thought that her husband was a Sergeant (instead of Flight Sergeant) the Ministry of Pensions announced yesterday that Mrs Hannah, widow of Britain’s youngest RAF V.C., who died in Markfield Sanatorium (Leics.) on Saturday, would receive personal allowance of 37s.  She will in fact get 38s. a week.  In addition, she will receive 11s. for each of her three daughters and another 5 s. for each of the younger two.  This makes a total of £4 1s. compared to the nearly £7 a week which John Hannah received while alive.”

Children’s Education but Mrs Hannah will be eligible for a rent allowance (maximum 15s. a week) and can also apply for educational allowances for the children.  “Mrs Hannah has already filled in the necessary application forms” said a Ministry of Pensions official “and we shall make her a provisional allowance to help her and the children until such a time as the procedure is completed and then make any necessary adjustments.”

Following John’s death, a fund had been opened in Leicester to support Janet and her children.  Money was donated from various things and in July the Fleckney British Legion Women’s Section donated £4 from the proceeds of a whist drive that they held in the school.

The setting up of this local fund had caused questions to be asked in the House of Commons.  Air Commodore Arthur V Harvey, MP for Macclesfield, asked the Minister of Pensions, Mr J B Hynd, after he had announced the amount awarded to Janet “Do you consider that the pension is suitable for a man who served his country so conspicuously?”

Mr Hynd said that the pension and allowances amounted in all to £3 17/- a week.  In addition, the normal family allowance of 10/- weekly was being paid.  Mrs Hannah had been invited to apply for an education grant.  The pension was the maximum payable under the Royal Warrant.

Mr Barnet Janner, (Soc Leister W.) asked – “Are you aware that owing to the very serious condition in which the widow and children find themselves, a public subscription list has been opened in Leicester and will you do what you can to see that this very deserving case is looked into quickly?”  Mr Hynd said he was not aware of the circumstances being so hard as suggested.

John Hannah is commemorated in different ways.  As mentioned at the start, at the head of his grave at St James the Greater churchyard, is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone showing the V.C. medal.  He is also commemorated on the Birstall war memorial at St James’.

Birstall War Memorial
Birstall War Memorial with plaque showing Johns name

There are also a couple of other memorials to him in Birstall, the first being a row of shops being named Hannah Parade and there you will find a memorial plaque with his V.C. citation.

Hannah Parade in Birstall
Hannah VC Citation plaque

On the 15th September 2016, a green plaque was unveiled at the Royal British Legion in Birstall.

John Hannah VC Green Plaque at Birstall Royal British Legion

In 2007, a new memorial stone commemorating the Victoria Crioss recipients from Paisley was unveiled and dedicated in Hawkhead Cemetery. The meorial contains the names of 5 Paisley men who won the VC, 2 from the Crimean War, 2 from WW1 and John from WW2.

Victoria Cross Stone of Remembrance at Hawkhead Cemmetery Paisley. (IWM WMR 57780)

On VE Day 2020, Johns relatives attended the dedication of five memorial trees and plaques commemorating members of the Army, Royal Navy and RAF that were unveiled at the veterans’ monument in Knightswood, Glasgow.

John Hannah VC Plaque at the veterans’ monument in Knightswood, Glasgow

A Rose Garden has been dedicated with special roses in memory of JOhn at the St John the Baptist Church Scampton.

St John the Baptist Church Scampton Rose Garden
St John the Baptist Church Scampton Rose Garden Plaque

Inside St John the Baptist Church Scampton there is the Honours and Awards Memorial Board from RAF Scampton on which John is name as one of the VC winners along with Flt Lt Learoyd & Wg Cdr Guy Gibson.

RAF Scampton Honours & Awards Memorial Board St John the Baptist Church Scampton
RAF Scampton Honours & Awards Memorial Board St John the Baptist Church Scampton

At RAF Swinderby, one of the accommodation blocks was named ‘Hannah’ in honour of John.

Hannah Block RAF Swinderby

The RAF also named a rescue boat Sgt John Hannah at West Freugh near Stranraer in Scotland.

Paisley Daily Express 30 November 1988

A trophy, initiated by Ron Durran, a former Cadet Airmen who was instructed by John at Yatesbury has been introduced at John’s old school, the Victoria Drive Secondary in Scotstoun, Glasgow for the ‘most distinguished pupil’.

At the RAF Museum in Hendon, there is a dispolay of a few of Johns items. As mentioned poreviously there is a letter he wrote to his brother whiolst in hospital. The dispaly also included his Flying Helmet and Goifggles and intercomm/mic tel lead plus his VC Medal that his wife Janet donated to 83 Squadron.

John Hannah VC display at RAF Museum
Close up of Johns helmet and goggles at RAF Museum
Johns mic tel/intercom lead at RAF Museum
Johns VC Medal at the TRAF Museum

In 1953, John’s widow, Janet was allocated one of the four seats at Westminster Abbey for the Coronations of Queen Elizabeth II.  The four seats had been reserved for widows of United Kingdom V.C.’s through the Ministry of Pensions who provided accommodation in London and provided transport to take her to the Abbey.

The Leicester Illustrated Chronicle published an article in January 1956 about Janet and the three girls. “Sergeant John Hannah who won the V.C. at the age of 18 and died at 25, was a modest man. But he would be proud of today.  Proud of the wife and family he left at 87 Stonehill Avenue, Birstall. Proud of their courage, their ambitions – and their happiness.”  In the article, Janet says how life was grim after his death and she had to sink or swim.  She supplemented her pension of about £4 by doing hairdressing for friends.  The Leicester Mercury organised a fund to help make life easier for the fatherless family “And the Ministry of Pensions and the RAF Association have been good to me” she said.  The article finishes by saying “But his widow, who has so squarely faced the challenge to her own bravery, and those three fine children carry on the Hannah reputation for courage.” To read the full article click here: Leicester Chronicle 28 January 1956

On Tuesday 26th June 1956, Janet joined in with the ceremony where 300 V.C. recipients paraded in Hyde Park.  The ceremony was an echo of the great parade that took place 99 years previous when Queen Victoria, accompanied by the prince Consort, rode to Hyde Park to present the V.C. to 62 men which she instituted.

Also, at Hyde Park with Janet were six V.C. winners from Leicestershire: Lt-Col John Cridland Barrett V.C.; Captain Tom Steel V.C.; Captain Robert Gee V.C.; The Rev Arthur Proctor V.C.; Robert Edward Cruikshank V.C. and Richard Burton V.C.

At the same time as the Queen made her speech, a poppy wreath was laid on John’s grave in Birstall.  The Queen said “Today, I am proud to stand here, with men and women from all parts of the Commonwealth, to do honour to the successors of that gallant band, to the 300 brave men who are present and to those who can be with us only in spirit, or in the memory of family and friends.”

By 1962, Janet was looking at trying to stand on her own two feet instead of relying on charity and she was considering selling her husbands V.C. in the hope that it would raise £1,000 so that she could start her own hairdressing business.  Her daughter, Josephine who was now 19 and married, told the Daily Herald “She’s had a tremendously hard fight bringing us up. Now all she wants is security.  She’s grateful for the help she has received but she wants to make her own way now”.  Officials from the RAF Association contacted Janet in the hope that the association’s financial aid may persuade her not to part with the V.C.

Janet had received offers around £1,000 for the medal from all over the UK including the Imperial War Museum.  She had even turned down an offer of nearly £1,750 from an individual in New York plus offers from Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe.

“I want to make sure it goes to the right place.  I don’t want to cash in on the medal. I simply want to raise enough money to start a hairdressing business and preserve my independence.  The money will be shared with my three daughters.  They have agreed this is the right thing to do.  The second eldest wants to train as a hairdresser.  I have been a widow for 15 years and it has been a struggle to make ends meet. I could go on another 15 years and still be in the same position.  Without immediate capital, I could not start a business and selling the medal is the only way I can raise it. My husband was a practical man and I am sure he would have approved.”

An unexpected offer of help came in from a former World War One pilot meant that she may not have to sell the V.C.  Mr S Burgess of Worcester was the principal of the Worcester School of Hairdressing and offered to give Janet as long a refresher course in hairdressing as she needed and providing her with accommodation during training.  At the same time, his friend, Mr W Calway who was a manufacturing chemist had offered to provide her with £1,000 worth of hairdressing equipment. Mr Calway stated “We felt full of compassion for her in having to sell the V.C. and considered something should be done to help her in her predicament.  There are no strings attached to these offers and Mrs Hannah may pay for the equipment whenever she can without the addition of any interest.”

Janet and her three daughters agreed not to sell the V.C. stating “I’m tired to death of all the worry and publicity my family has received.  It was never intended this way.  All I wanted was security for myself and family.”

After declining many offers for her husband’s medal, she eventually decided to give it away free by presenting it to John’s old Squadron, No 83 Squadron who had reformed and were back at RAF Scampton operating the Vulcan bomber.  She said “Naturally, there were times when I was tempted to sell the medal.  I’m glad I kept it, and I feel I am doing the correct thing in donating the V.C. to John’s old Squadron.  I think they should have it for safe keeping.”

Johns Victoria Cross medal and several of hid belonging including his flying helmet, mic-tel lead and goggles plus a letter he wrote to his brother are now on display in the RAF Museum at Hendon.

In the Illustrated London News published on 1st September 1979, they published an article by John Winton titled “The high price of valour” – The qualities that make a man a hero in war do not necessarily fit him for a successful life in times of peace.  The author looks at the sad histories of some winners of the Victoria Cross.

The article looks at various V.C. winners and how they coped after leaving the military and John Hannah is one of those mentioned.

“Suicide rates among VCs have dropped drastically since the horrific levels of 100 years ago; the last were two first World War VCs, in the 1950s.  But memories are notoriously short (only a few years after the Armistice Boy Cornwell’s grave was found overgrown and neglected) and even in modern times life has not been easy for some VC’s.  Officers seem generally to have prospered; Sir Tasker Watkins is a judge and Leonard Cheshire found a second fame as a philanthropist.  

But for some, other ranks the going has been much harder. Private Speakman, the Korean War VC, found it extremely difficult to settle down in civilian in life.  John Hannah, the 18 year old RAF Sergeant who won a VC for putting out a fire in a Hampden bomber over Antwerp in 1940, was hard pressed to support his young family after the war and died in a sanatorium aged 25. 

Leading Seaman Magennis, the ‘frogman VC’, was the only Ulster VC winner of the Second World War and he was naturally feted when he went home to Belfast.  But he and his wife soon spent the money raised for them and Magennis sold his Cross for £75. “We are simple people” his wife said. “We were forced into the limelight” Ian Fraser, Magennis’s captain, who also won the VC in the same exploit, put the problem in a nutshell: “A man is trained for the task that might win him the VC.  He is not trained to cope with what follows.”

Going back to the question in the opening paragraph –“What is Courageous Duty?” Does it only apply to you while serving and something you carry out as part of a task that you have been trained for, or does it apply after you leave the service and apply to your duties of supporting your family?

I think that following his injuries, John and his wife both showed courage in their duties fighting Johns illness and supporting their family, especially Janet when she was having to nurse John and later bring up the three daughters all on her own with very little income.

At the grave of John Hannah VC in St James Churchyard Birstall. Leicester RAF Association Standard Bearer Roy Rudham and Branch Chairman Barry Smart with Sgt Bhav Chouhan and Cadets form 1947 Birstall Squadron ATC. Photo taken 2018

40 – Melton Officer Dies in a Nazi Camp

“Melton Officer Dies in a Nazi Camp” was the headline of the news article published in the Leicester Evening Mail on 11th January 1943.  The officer in question was Peter Anthony Lovegrove.

Leicester Evening Mail 11 January 1943

Peter was born in Melton Mowbray on the 3rd March 1920 as the middle child of 3.  His parents were the late Edward Tyler Lovegrove and his wife Hilda, of Thorpe Arnold.  Peter’s elder brother Vernon was born Sept 1917 and his younger sister Joyce in Dec 1921.

Within a few years of the children being born, their father Edward, died on 16th May 1922 at their home in Thorpe Arnold.  His death was put down to War Related Sickness”…a victim of consumption [pulmonary tuberculosis], primarily contracted through War service.”

Edward had served with the Royal Army Service Corps during the First World War.  He was given a commission in the ASC in 1915 as a Lieutenant when he proceeded to France in the December 1915.  He was promoted to Captain whilst serving with the 55th Division until the summer of 1918 when he was invalided out of the service with a Silver War Badge suffering from the effects of being gassed and having 2 attacks of pleurisy.

Peter, aged 8 was sent for schooling at the Oakham School from 1929 starting off in the Junior House, followed by the School House which he left in 1936.  Whilst at school he had the following achievements

  • Relay Race (under 13): won with team B – Spring 1930.
  • Form 1 Arithmetic Prize: Summer 1930.
  • Scouts: in the Fox patrol – Summer 1932.
  • Cricket under 14: awarded Colours – Summer 1933.
  • Form 4 Trustees’ Prize: Winter 1933.
  • Drama: played Blanch of Spain in the Form 5 production of King John – Spring 1936.
  • Fives: Captain – Winter 1936.
  • O.T.C.: Certificate ‘A’ – Winter 1936.

After leaving school, he trained as a chartered surveyor and on the 24th May 1939, the Nottingham Journal published a list of ‘local candidates’ who had passed their professional examinations of the Chartered Surveyors Institute. Peter was one of those listed that had passed Intermediate Examination Part One.

Fg Off Peter Anthony Lovegrove RAF (VR) (Photo: The Oflag 64 Record website )

Peter volunteered for the Royal Air Force (Volunteer Reserve) in November 1939 and was enlisted in 1940 as a Leading Aircraftman and allocated service number 1164992. According to the London Gazette, he was granted a commission for the duration of hostilities as a Pilot Officer on probation wef 9th March 1941 and allocated service number 62324.

After being commissioned, he trained as a pilot and earnt his wings.  He spent some time at RAF Cottesmore and whilst there he visited his old school in Oakham on several occasions.

At some point in his military career, Peter was posted onto No 83 Sqn based at RAF Scampton.

83 Sqn Crest

On the 8th April 1942, No 83 Sqn had been tasked with a bombing raid on Hamburg with their target being the Blohm & Voss shipyard.  Five aircraft from No 83 sqn were involved from the total of 272 aircraft made up of 177 Wellingtons, 41 Hampdens, 22 Stirlings, 13 Manchesters (of which 5 were from 83 Sqn), 12 Halifaxes and 7 Lancasters.

The 83 Sqn Manchesters involved in the raid were: L7484, L7385; R5833; R5838 and L7427 and all equipped with a bomb load of 6 x 1,000lb general purpose bombs.

According to the Bomber Command War Diaries, the raid on Hamburg was not a success.  Icing and electrical storms were encountered and out of the 272 aircraft involved in the raid, only 188 reported bombing in the area.

Later records from Hamburg reported that the equivalent of 14 aircraft loads fell on the city causing 8 fires of which 3 were large.  There was no particular reference to property damage and 17 people were killed and a further 199 injured.

Bremen reported a load of incendiaries were dropped very accurately on the Vulkan shipyard which caused damaged to 4 U-boats under construction plus several surrounding buildings.

In addition to the Hamburg raid, Bomber Command were also carrying out smaller minor operations involving 13 Wellingtons to Le Havre, 3 Blenheims intruding over Holland, 24 aircraft minelaying near Heligoland and 16 aircraft on leaflet flights to Belgium and France.

It was these leaflet raids that 83 Sqn provided 2 Manchesters R5837 and R5873 to carry out a nickel raid on Paris.

From a total if 328 aircraft involved in the two Ops that night, 6 aircraft were lost, 5 from the Hamburg raid and 1 from the leaflet drops.

Bomber Command Report on Night Operations 8th April 1942 Pg 1
Bomber Command Report on Night Operations 8th April 1942 Pg 2

R5837 that took part in the leaflet raid on Paris, took off from Scampton at 21:01Hrs and the crew were: Plt Off Proule; Plt Off Renvoize; Sgt Fitchett; Fg Off Goodman; Plt Off Dickinson; Sgt Neary and Sgt Porter. In addition, the Sqn Intelligence Officer Plt Off R J Dyer had accompanied the crew to gain an insight into operational flying.

On the outbound leg of the sortie, the aircraft was hit by flak in the Starboard engine.  Unable to maintain height, they ditched their leaflets near Calais and started an early run home.  The aircraft ditched in the sea off Manston and only the pilot (Plt Off Proule ) managed to make it to the dingy. The W/Op followed correct procedure and gave a fix which enabled the pilot to be found by the Search and Rescue unit after 14½ hours.  Sadly, the rest of the crew didn’t make it and within a couple of days, the bodies of Plt Off Renvoize and Sgt Fitchett were washed ashore and taken for burial at Thundersley St Peter Churchyard in Essex and Vlieland General Cemetery in the Dutch Friesian Islands respectively.  The rest of the crew have no known grave and are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

Manchester L7427 OL-Q 83 Sqn

Peter Lovegrove was the 2nd pilot on Manchester L7427 OL-Q for Queenie tasked with the raid on Hamburg.  His crew mates were:

  • 67046 Pilot Officer Jack Heathcote Morphett RAFVR – 1st Pilot
  • NZ/402188 Flight Sergeant Geoffrey Douglas Hutchinson RNZAF – Navigator
  • 647009 Flt Sgt Albert Henry Salter RAF – Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
  • 923926 Sergeant Reginald Stanley Williams RAFVR – Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
  • R.66159 Sgt George Charles Fisk RCAF – Air Gunner
  • R.69897 Sgt Charles Dewitt Gellatly RCAF – Air Gunner

According to the 83 Sqn Operational Record Book, they left Scampton at 22:15Hrs and were reported ‘missing without trace’.  Further information has since come to light that L7427 was last heard on wireless transmission at 00.10 hours, at which time it was believed to be in the Lastrup area of Germany.

It was later reported to have crashed in the small town Ermke near Lastrup-Cloppenburg.  It was claimed to have been shot down by Fw Gerhard Goerke 1/NJG3 – West of Lastrup South East of Cloppenburg at 00:49Hrs and also claimed by Flak of 1/schw Res Flak Abt 603 (unknown type) near Lastrup, Cloppenburg at 00:45Hrs.

Sadly, all the crew died in this incident, apart from Peter Lovegrove who as mentioned previously was the 2nd Pilot.

The crew who died on the 9th April were originally interred at the Russian Vechta Cemetery but later they were exhumed and re-buried on the 12th June 47 at the Sage War Cemetery.  Most of the 816 casualties buried in the Sage cemetery were airmen lost in bombing raids over northern Europe whose graves were brought in from cemeteries in the Frisian Islands and other parts of north-west Germany.

There is an interesting story on the ‘Short Stirling & RAF Bomber Command Forum’ website posted by a user relating to this aircraft and the sortie on the 8th April.

“I am doing some research into the earliest use of the radar system H2S first used officially by Bomber Command in January 1943.
The reason is my wife’s uncle was 21 year old commanding Pilot Officer Jack Heathcote Morphett who died on the 9th April 1942 in a raid over Germany.
The story in the family goes that Jack had completed 30 successful missions and was on leave in Wales, R&R when he got a call from his commanding officer at Scrampton.
Two Avo Manchesters were to take part in a raid over Hamburg and the nominated Pilot Officer was regarded as not being sufficiently experienced, and the mission was an important one.
This plane was fitted with some experimental equipment- he told his sister but could not say more, -and it was essential an experienced pilot ensured that if the plane was in difficulty
and had to crash, that the equipment did not fall into the hands of the Germans.The plane left RAF Scrampton at 22.15h.
The last signal was received at 1am over the Lastrup area of Germany, and the plane crashed NE of Cloppenburg.
My mother in law was told by the RAF that Jack managed to get his co-pilot free who bailed out but the plane lost control and he had to ensure that the secret equipment was totally destroyed.
The reference was L7427-01-Q.
Sadly Pilot Officer Lovegrove who bailed out was captured and died in November 1942 in Pozen Old Garrison Prison, Poland.
Does anyone know if this plane might have been fitted with a test rig of H2S? the first operation use was 30th January 1943, and on the 2/3 February a Sterling Pathfinder crashed without destroying
the H2S equipment and Telefunken developed within 6 months a detector of the equipment from the crashed plane.
Surely, before the system went into full operation there must have been some trials?
Any thoughts or advice on where to research this would be much appreciated.
Stephenph.

There is no mention in the record books that Jack Morphett was recalled from leave nor any mention of any special equipment being fitted to L7427.  However, the chat forum goes on to say;

“Two RAF officers came and consoled Barbara Morphett his sister,(later Lady Barbara Lawrence, wife of the Senior Master and Queen’s Remberencer) whom he had taught to fly. They gave her the impression that he may have been forced to crash the plane to destroy certain vital secret equipment.”

Another member of the forum called Volker takes the discussion further:

“I know the crash site exactly. I have located the crash site and explored with a metal detector. I have found many small parts of this Manchester.
For me, a long time it was not clear which aircraft crashed on this pasture. The records in the village chronicles were totally wrong. A difficult case. In the last year I have a found a witness. He is 86 years old and in good health. We talked a long time and he said to me he remembered a name. The name was Palagref.
This crew member was injured taken at night by his family. After a short time I knew that it was the co. pilot P.A. Lovegrove. Now I am in very good contact with the nephew of Peter Anthony Lovegrove. His name is Peter Lovegrove. Peter comes to Germany on 23.April with his family and visit the crash site. We have full support of the community and authoritis. Near the crash site we built a memorial (rockstone with a plaque and a wooden cross) in Memoriam for the crew.
The story is very interesting and I hope other members of the crew see this report. Maybe additional contacts incur.
For any further assistance, I am very grateful. There are many pictures of this aircraft. Unfortunately, there seems to be no pictures of the crew. To date I have only a picture of P. A. Lovegrove.”

As confirmed in the eyewitness account above, Peter was injured and taken in by a German family.  The Leicester Evening Mail on the 10th June 1942 states he had slight injuries to his forearm.  At some point he must have either been captured or handed over to the German authorities as he became a prisoner of war (POW No 778).

He was initially held in Dulag Luft (Lazarett Hohe Mark), from 9th April 1942 until he was transferred to Stalag Luft III (Sagan) on 28th May 1942, then again transferred to Oflag XX1-B (Schubin) on 17th September 1942.

The Leicester Evening Mail and Leicester Chronicle reported in their newspapers on the 10th & 13th June 42 that Pilot Officer Lovegrove, son of the late Captain E T Lovegrove has been promoted to Flying Officer.

It was whilst he was at Oflag XX1-B that he died.  According to a telegram that his mother received from the Geneva Red Cross, dated 23rd November 1942, stating that, according to official German information, he had died in the camp hospital on 12th November 1942 from injuries received as a result of falling accidentally from a high window.

Telegram from the International Red Cross notifying Peter’s mother of his death

He was alone, and it was believed he had been surveying the surrounding countryside with a view to escaping, but lost his balance and was killed instantly when he fell on his head at 2.45pm onto the pavement at the hospital entrance, fracturing his skull.

Oflug Stalag XXI B

This story is recalled in the book “Moonless Night: The Second World War Escape Epic” by B A Jimmy James. “Another tragedy struck soon after.  A young flying officer called Lovegrove fell off the top of the big white house, used as a hospital, to crash to his death three stories below on the concrete path at the entrance.  He was a member of the mapping intelligence department, and a desire to get a good view for his survey had toppled him to his death.”

The last photograph of Peter, taken in the camp just 24 hours before his tragic death. Group portrait of prisoners of war (POWs) at Oflag XXIb in Poland, a German POW internment camp for officers. Left to right: back row: Bromiley, Leetham, John Dicker, unidentified serviceman and Organ. Front row: Lovegrove, Svenson and an unidentified serviceman (Photo Australian War Memorial)

His funeral service and burial at the Szubin Cemetery was described by the Red Cross in a letter to his Mother, on 23rd March 1943, as having taken place with full military honours at 10.30 on 14th November 1942.

Peters funeral

A Chaplain of the Forces conducted the Service where 30 Officers were in attendance, the ‘Last Post’ and ‘Reveille’ were sounded by a British soldier, and 3 volleys fired by a German firing party.  Six wreaths were sent, 4 from his comrades, 1 from the RAF PoWs at Stalag Luft III, and 1 from the German Kommandatur (Military Government Headquarters).

Army bugler

The Oflag 64 Record website recalls a letter from Senior British Officer Wing Commander Harry Day (dated 20th November 1942) which describes in detail all the tragic circumstances of Peter’s death:

“I am a Senior British Officer at this camp and I am writing to tell you how very distressed we all are over the terrible and unexpected accident which overtook your good looking and brave son. I have known him since his first arrival at Stalag Luft 3 and since hence I have a very high opinion of him. I have called a strict investigation to be undertaken by S/L Tench, who knew your son in England and it appears that your son climbed out of the top of 3rd storey window in the hospital building at 2:45 in the afternoon he either became giddy of slipped and fell onto the pavement at the entrance of the hospital. The two British Medical Officers were actually on the scene and attended to your son, but your son must have been killed instantly as he fell on his head. The reason your son climbed out onto the window ledge is not absolutely clear but as there was no one with him, but it can be put down to his keenness to escape. The window being good vantage point to see the countryside. As you probably know your son made one unsuccessful attempt to escape with a man of his spirit I am certain he was planning another”.

Leicester Evening Mail 18 December 1942

The Leicester Evening Mail 18th December 1942 “PRISONER’S FATE A letter the Red Cross has been received by Mrs E T. Lovegrove of Thorpe Arnold stating that her son Pilot Officer Peter Lovegrove RAF a prisoner of war has died through an accident. No cause of death is given. The letter that states that confirmation from the Air Ministry will follow.  This has not come through and enquiries are being made. A few days ago Mrs Lovegrove received a letter from her son stating that he was well set up for the winter in a new camp. and had met old school friends.”

On the 8th October 1948, his body was exhumed from the Szubin cemetery and re-buried in the CWGC Poznan British Military Cemetery (now Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery), Plot 5, Row J, Grave 14.

Following the loss of Manchester L7427 OL-Q for Queenie, the next aircraft on 83 Squadron to be allocated the code ‘Q for Queenie ‘ was Avro Lancaster R5868 OL-Q which was delivered to No 83 Sqn on 29th June 1942.

Lancaster R4868 OL-Q in May 43 whilst with 83 Sqn (Photo Ton-Up Lancs)
Lancaster R5868 OL-Q Groundcrew 83 Squadron (Photo: Ton-up Lancs)

Lancaster R5868 is probably the most famous Lancaster as the one credited with the highest number of ‘ops’ to survive to the present day, completing 137 known operations whilst serving with 83 Sqn, 467 RAAF Sqn, 207 (Leicesters Own) Sqn and back to 467 RAAF Sqn.

The aircraft is now on display in the RAF Museum at Hendon wearing the codes PO-S for Sugar that she wore whilst serving with No 467 RAAF Sqn.

Peter is commemorated on his parents grave at Thorpe Arnold.

35 – Meltons ‘Barnstormer’ and Pioneer Aviator.

Samuel Summerfield was born in Osmaston in South Derbyshire in 1894.  Records show by his sixth birthday his parents Samuel and Alice Summerfield had arrived and were living in the small community of Sysonby near Melton, they set up as graziers and produced meat for the local market.

Samuel junior was one of eight children and their second son. Ten years on the family were established in their own butchers shop and young Samuel seemed already obsessed with the idea of flight‘.  When not working as a clerk at the Gas works in town, the majority of his spare time and money was directed towards his hobby.

As a young teenager Samuel is recorded as supplying aviation materials by mail order from an address in Sherrard Street. Surrounded by the materials he needed to construct a rudimentary flying machine, it was not long before he was able, at the age of 15 – from eyewitness accounts given by local inhabitants, to glide aboard home-made machines at around the time of Bleriot‘s great achievement.

The Flight magazine published 4th March 1911 published the following:

“Catalogue: Model and Full size aeroplanes, Engines and Accessories. S Summerfield, Sherrard Street, Melton Mowbray. Price 3d.”

In September 1912, Sams enthusiasm and focus shown as a youth, together with a series of flying lessons as a teenager had paid off. Samuel Summerfield was awarded a prestigious Aviators Certificate; No. 292 from the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom having passed the necessary test on a Bristol biplane.

Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates
Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificate No 292

The Melton Mowbray Mercury and Oakham and Uppingham News reported on the 31 July 1913 “A large company assembled on the Nottingham Road ground on Saturday to witness an exhibition by Mr Sam Summerfield, of Melton Mowbray, on his Bleriot monoplane.  Considerable delay was occasioned by a mishap to the machine, and when eventually the local airman attempted a flight, he was caught by a gust of wind directly after leaving the ground and ran with considerable force into a hedge.  The machine was partially wrecked but Mr Summerfield escaped with slight injuries.  In the evening, Mr F Manley made a very successful parachute descent.

Sam Summerfield and Bleriot at Melton Mowbray

Sam sorted out each problem as it arrived and he was known to use two or three different fields, all reasonably close the edge of the town, with possibly ‘his first choice being the Polo ground which lies just south of the railway line that passes the village of Brentingby. Long used as a sports venue, it was an unobstructed and level area of grassland that would have suited his needs adequately.

His second choice was likely to have been the large field that stretched between Nottingham Road, at the junction next to Sysonby Lodge Farm and the rear of the Wymondham Grammar School Farm on Scalford Road. This was a venue which was later to be used by the Government during the period of the Great War by the fledgling members of the new Royal Flying Corps.

Much later, during the 1920‘s, Sam would use the new landing field which was then situated at what is now Norfolk Drive, which runs between Sandy Lane and the Burton Road, but this was at a time when the phenomenon of flying an aeroplane had lost some of its pioneering zeal and a club had been started in Melton for the many new recruits and enthusiasts.

The Flight magazine of 20th December 1913 contained the following article: Mr. Summerfield at Melton Mowbray. In anything but ideal weather Mr. S. Summerfield made a fine flight on his Bleriot machine at Melton Mowbray last Saturday. For most of the time he kept about 1,000 feet up and came down by a splendid spiral vol plane’. There was one apprehensive moment when the machine side-slipped, but the pilot skilfully corrected that in good time.

Shortly afterwards, on the 26th June, the magazine reported ―Mr. Summerfield, of Melton Mowbray, who has recently been flying the Watson rocking wing machine at Buc, had a narrow escape whilst flying his Bleriot monoplane recently. He was coming down in a steep spiral, and, when trying to flatten out at a height of about 50 ft., found that one of his rudder control wires had come adrift, thus rendering the rudder useless. Taking his feet off the rudder bar and placing them on the tank he awaited the smash. The machine struck the ground with great force and was totally wrecked, but Mr. Summerfield escaped practically unhurt. He is of the opinion that had he kept his feet on the rudder bar he would have broken his legs.

Samuel Summerfield Certified Aviator – No 292 – On the Watson Rocking Wing Aeroplane at Buc aerodrome, France.

In 1914 as the world was engaged in the Great War, the Summerfield family were affected, just like many others across the country.  On the Melton Mowbray war memorial, there is a S Summerfield listed and it is often thought to be Sam.   

Sam was the Chief Flying Instructor at the Bournemouth Flying School which had been established by the Bournemouth Aviation Company on farmland at Talbot Village. It was used to train prospective Royal Flying Corps (RFC) pilots and, although it was wartime, flights were also available to the public at a cost of £3.

The school was equipped initially with three Caudron type Biplanes of 35,45 & 60 Horsepower and , under the instruction of the chief instructor ,Mr S Summerfield,the pupils built another similar machine.By August 1916 there were 4 aircraft and an additional instructor – Mr E Brynildsen.

Bournemouth Flying School 1916

There was avid public interest in flying and at weekends numerous spectators gathered to watch the aircraft.
A (weekly) report from Flight (May 25 1916) stated…..

” Bournemouth School. Pupils rolling alone last week: Messrs. Kennedy, Barlow, Brandon, Pritt, Scaramanga, Daniel, GreenTurner, Hammersley, and Minchliff.
Straights alone: Messrs. Morley, J. Wilson, O. Wilson, Morris, A damson, Smith, Gordinne, and Barlow.
Figures of eight and circuits alone : Messrs. Frank Simpson and Morley.
Instructors: Messrs. S. Summerfield and Brynildten. 35-45 and 60 h.p. Caudrons in use.
Certificate was taken by Mr. Frank Simpson, who attained a height of 1,300 feet, vol plane’d down, landing right on the mark. His flying was exceedingly good.
On Wednesday Mr. Summerfield gave various exhibition flights before a fair-sized crowd, his steep dives being a feature.
The usual number of visitors were again present on Saturday, and witnessed some fine steep banks and spirals by the same pilot. On one flight he attained a height of 3,000 feet, indulging in all sorts of evolutions with engine off.
Towards the evening, two passengers were taken up, one of whom was Mr. C. Hudson, of Birmingham, who had the pleasure of enjoying several stunts performed by Mr. Summerfield at an altitude of 2,000 feet; afterwards, he spiralled down to earth.”

The school moved to nearby Ensbury Park in 1917 and the site reverted to farming.

Ensbury Park, then on the northern outskirts of Bournemouth, took over from Talbot Woods at the beginning of 1917. Although still a civilian flying school, the Bournemouth Aviation Company continued to train pilots for both the RFC and Royal Naval Air Service, as well as Belgians and Canadians. It claimed to be the best -equipped flying school outside London. Aircraft used included Caudron, Curtiss JN-3s and Avro 504s. On 1 April 1918 the Royal Air Force was formed and the site became RAF Winton.

Sam served in the RFC/RAF during the First World War and survived.  However, the name of the casualty on the memorial is actually that of his younger brother Sidney who was serving with the 8th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment.

On Friday October 13th 1916 The Melton Mowbray Times & Vale of Belvoir Gazette published the following article under the heading. “MELTON AND THE WAR.” – MELTON SOLDIER’S KILLED. During the past week news has reached Melton Mowbray of the death of several more local soldiers. On Sunday morning Mr. S. Summerfield, butcher, Nottingham-street, received the following letter:- “3rd October, 1916. Dear Mr. Summerfield, – It is our painful duty to write and let you know that poor Sid was instantly killed by a shell on the night of the 24th September. Unfortunately neither of us was near him at the time, so his officer took his papers, and was afterwards wounded. We, being great friends of Sid, can sympathise deeply with you in your great loss. If there is anything further you would like to know, we shall be only too pleased to do anything in our power on hearing from you. Yours sincerely, W. G. Butteriss, E. Simpkins.”
The following letter was received by Mr. Summerfield on Tuesday:- “B.E.F., October 5th. Dear Mr. Summerfield, – I write to you with much regret of the sad news of your son Sidney in the recent action that took place on the 24th September, this being my first opportunity of writing. I hardly know how to write such sad news. Though I was not actually with him at the time, I learn from those who were by his side at the time that a wiz-bang shell bursted against him and caused instant death. having been a great chum of Sidney’s for many years, we always made it understood that whatever happened to either of us, one should break the news if possible, and believe me, I am awfully upset to have to write such heart broken news, yet one never knows out here when your turn may come. I saw Sidney only a few hours before he went into the line, and he was the same as he always has been – very cheerful up to the time I left him. I am sure it is very hard for me to write such sad news, but I think it my duty to tell you the truth. It’s lucky for myself that I am able to do so. Sidney being much liked amongst platoon, and always having a good heart, is very much missed by us, and those who have once more returned along with myself, wish me to send you and family their deepest sympathy. I now close my letter, this being our wish made between us to write home who ever got through safely. I remain, yours truly, Pte. H. Warner.
Pte. Sid Summerfield was the third son of Mr. S. Summerfield, and was 20 years of age. He was educated at Melton Mowbray Grammar School, where he took a foremost place in sports and athletics, and won a number of prizes. Afterwards he played for Egerton Park C.C., and in several matches made big scores, always batting in splendid style and seldom failing to punish home balls. Deceased also became a member of Melton Rugby Football Club, for whom he played half-back, and was also a member of the Young Men’s Institute. At the outbreak of the war he was employed at the Great Northern Railway Station, and at once enlisted in the Leicester’s with his friends, Butteriss, Dixon and Simpkins. It will be remembered that some years ago Pte. Sid Summerfield and his brother Alfred nearly lost their lives on the river at Sysonby, at the time their parents resided at Sysonby House, now known as the Riverside Colony. After a frost they were sliding on the river, when the ice broke, and let them in. Mrs. Summerfield and her two daughters bravely rescued them at the risk of their own lives by forming a human chain, and were afterwards awarded life saving certificates. One of the deceased’s brothers is serving with the forces at Salonika, while another is chief flying instructor at the Bournemouth School. It will be noted from the first letter that Sergt. Simpkins, who was last week stated to have been killed, is still safe.

Sids body was never found and he is commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in France.

In addition to the Thiepval Memorial, Sid is also commemorated locally on the King Edward VII Grammar School War memorial at Sage Cross church, the WW1 tryptych at St Marys Church, the WW1 tablet at the RBL Keswick House and the Egerton Lodge War Memorial.

Melton Mowbray King Edward VII Grammar School War Memorial

After serving in the RFC/Royal Air Force during the Great War, Sam earnt a living ‘barnstorming’ and providing leisure flights with a travelling air circus. He also served in the Reserve of Air Force Officers (RAFO) where his promotion to Pilot Officer was ‘Gazetted’ on 23rd March 1926. He held this rank until he relinquished his commission in the RAFO on the 23rd March 1931.

London Gazette 1926

In the summer of 1926, Sam was a pilot working for the Northern Aviation Company taking passengers on pleasure flights. On one occasion, he was the pilot of one such trip with Pearson Hardcastle of Colne Bridge near Huddersfield and Margaret Mercer of Heysham in Lancashire were passengers on a pleasure trip around the Morecambe area.

Shortly after takeoff, Sam noticed an unusual draft around the back of his neck. Almost at the same time as the other passenger touch him on the shoulder, he turned around and saw Pearson Hardcastle in the 2nd seat behind the pilot standing up with his hands above his head.  In a flash, the man had disappeared over the side of the plane falling to his death.  The inquest into the incident concluded that the man had suffered a sudden heart failure resulting in him falling from the aircraft and no blame was attributed to Sam as the pilot.

Sam, aged 40, made a life-changing commitment when he left England on the 2nd November 1934 aboard the P&O Electric Ship Strathnaver, The first of five Strath Sisters was specifically designed for the UK-Suez-Bombay-Australia run.

A painting of Strathnaver on the Suez Canal Egypt by artist Roger H. Middlebrook

He travelled to Brisbane in Australia with another pilot, 28 year old Maurice Brunton whom he lived with at 13 Lewin Road Lambeth, London SW16.  The two pilots travelled 3rd/Tourist class.

Sam had had been flying planes in England and western Europe since before World War One. He had been barnstorming around Queensland and the Northern Territory when he flew into the new Tennant Creek goldfield, being the first plane to ever arrive at the new settlement.

His plane was blown away by a dust storm, and damaged beyond repair. So he stayed on at Tennant Creek as a prospector, owning the Mary Lane lease for 30 years.

The trip ‘down under’ was only intended to be a six months return trip working to earn a few shillings in the ‘off’ season.  However, it became a one-way migration when, after a very short period of flying his plans were shattered.  He was diagnosed with a hearing defect which had been traced back to his exposure to an explosion in the early days of hostilities of the First World War.  The Australian authorities deemed this sufficient enough to prevent him from obtaining a commercial pilot’s licence in Australia which meant that he was never to fly again.

Sam Summerfield

He stopped prospecting in 1966 after falling and breaking a hip, then died the following year on the 2nd April aged 73. He is buried in the small mining town of Tennant Creek.

25 – Tragic Accident or A Case of Mistaken Identity?

As you wander around the Leicester Gilroes cemetery, you can’t fail to notice the Cross of Sacrifice outside of the main crematorium building. In front of the Cross is a screen wall containing the names of 31 casualties from all 3 branches of the services, Army Navy and RAF plus the Home Guard.  All of whom died during WW2 and their bodies were cremated.

Gilroes Crematorium Cross of Sacrifice and Screen Wall

Also, scattered around the cemetery are the graves of a further 272 military personnel from both WW1 and WW2.  The majority of the graves have the standard CWGC headstone made out of either Portland, Stancliffe or Botticino stone, whilst others have a private memorial stone erected by the family.

As you meander around the site, looking at the graves, you will also see headstones that mention individuals that were killed on military service and are buried elsewhere.  These are actually classed as war memorials as they commemorate a deceased service person who as previously mention is buried at another location.

One example was the Browne family headstone, and as usual it was the inscription that grabbed my attention as it referred to the individual being Killed on Active Service in Malta.

Browne family headstone at Gilroes Cemetery
In
Loving Memory of
Percy
Beloved Husband of
Beatrice Browne
Died July 14th 1927 Aged 53
Also of
LAC Cyril Browne RAF
Beloved Son of the Above
Killed on Active Service at Malta
Dec 17th 1942 Aged 38
Also of Beatrice Julia
Beloved Wife of
Percy Browne
Died January 22nd 1948 Aged 74
“Re-United”
Also of
William James
Beloved Son of the Above
Died July 1st 1977

A quick check of the CWGC casualty database soon confirmed that indeed the individual was buried in Plot F. Coll. grave 18. of the Prot. Sec. (Men’s). in the Cappucini Naval Cemetery in Malta and not in Gilroes Cemetery.

The Grave Registration Report Form can be viewed and downloaded from the CWGC casualty record and this shows several personnel from 138 Sqn who were killed on the 17th Dec 42 and are buried in Cappucini Naval Cemetery.

But who was Cyril Browne and what happened to him?

As we have already gathered from the inscription on the headstone, Cyril Browne was the son of Percy and Beatrice Browne.  He was born on 5th June 1906 in Blaby district of Leicester.  He had 3 elder brothers, 1 younger brother and 2 younger sisters.

When the 1911 census was carried out, Cyrils father Percy was listed as a Provision Merchant and was recorded as living with his family at Roseleigh, Fox Lane, Kirby Muxloe, Leicester. Listed on the census return along with Percy, was his wife, Beatrice and their children Willie (11), Archie (10), George (7), Cyril (4) and Charles (1).

At the start of the First World War, the family were residing at 371 Fosse Road South in Leicester, but by 1918, they had moved to 44 Glenfield Road.  Within a couple of years, they had moved a few doors down the road to No 23 Glenfield Road.

By 1930, the family had moved from Glenfield Road and were now residing at Glen-Haven on Narborough Road. At the time of the 1939 register, Cyril was listed as living at Glen-Haven, Leicester Road, Blaby with his mother Beatrice, his younger brother Charles, and their younger sisters Beatrice and Kathleen.  Cyril’s occupation was listed as Grocer and Fruit Salesperson.

Following the outbreak of War, Cyril enlisted into the Royal Air Force (Volunteer Reserve) as a Mechanised Transport Driver, undergoing training at RAF Padgate and allocated service number 1069726.

After completing his training, Cyril was serving with No 21 Personnel Transit Centre at RAF Kasfareet, part of No. 216 Group, Royal Air Force Middle East Command in Egypt.

On the 17th December 1942 he was returning to the UK, departing Cairo and staging via Malta and Gibraltar.  He was a passenger aboard a Handley Page Halifax Mk2 DT542 NF-Q of 138 (Special Duties) Squadron. 

The crew of the Halifax were all Polish Air Force serving in the Royal Air Force with the exception of the Flight Engineer:
Flying Officer (Porucznik) Krzysztof Leon Dobromirski, (Pilot)
Flying Officer (Porucznik) Zbigniew Idzikowski, (Observer)
Flying Officer (Porucznik) Stanislaw Pankiewicz, (Pilot)
Sergeant (Sierzant) Alfred Edmund Kleniewski, (WOp/AG)
Sergeant (Sierzant) Roman Wysocki, (Wop/AG)
Flight Sergeant (Starzy Sierzant) Oskar Franciszek Zielinski (Gunner)
Sergeant Alexander Clubb Watt (Flt Eng)

In addition to Cyril and the above crew members, the following personnel were also passengers onboard the aircraft:
Maj Allen Algernon Bathurst. (Lord Apsley) DSO, MC, TD. 1 Royal Gloucester Hussars Royal Armoured Car and MP
Maj Arthur David Curtis Millar. Indian Army
Sqn Ldr Jefferson Heywood Wedgwood DFC. Pilot, RAF 92 Sqn
Fl Lt Peter Earle. RAF air Gunner, 76 Sqn. Ex 462 Sqn
Fl Lt Leonard Arthur Vaughan. DSO, DFC. RAF Air Gunner, 40 Sqn
Sgt Dennis Spibey. RAF. Fitter Grade 2 (Engines), 138 Sqn
Cpl Douglas Sidney Hounslow. RAFVR. Fitter Grade 2 (Airframes) 138 Sqn
LAC Richard Clegg. RAFVR. Flight Mechanic (Engines) 138 Sqn
AC1 Stanley Edward Kelly. RAFVR. Clerk/General Duties, 244 Wing Middle East Command

After it had been refuelled, DT542 NF-Q took off from RAF Luqa Airfield in the dark at around 04:00hrs to continue its journey to England via Gibraltar.

Shortly after it was airborne, the aircraft passed over Zeitun when a loud explosion was heard, and it crashed onto fields between Il-Bajjada and Ta’San Girgor, limits of Zejtun 04:05hrs and caught fire. Tragically all the crew and the passengers were killed in the crash.

There are conflicting stories that the aircraft suffered engine trouble just after take-off from Luqa and was returning when it crashed.

The Island’s defenders would certainly have been wary of any aircraft, as it was not until 20th November 1942 that the siege of Malta could be considered as over. Enemy air attacks continued for some time, albeit only sporadically and on a much reduced scale. The cost to both sides had been high, with well over 1,000 aircraft written off and thousands of military personnel and civilians killed and injured.

At least one account claims that the Halifax was mistakenly identified as an enemy aircraft and shot down by Anti Aircraft fire. 

It is not clear what the aircraft was doing out in Egypt as there is no record of any sortie for the crew around that date other than an entry for the 17th listing the crew names and stating “Killed on Operations”.

The Operational Record Book of 40 squadron which Flt Lt Leonard Vaughan DSO DFC belonged to merely states that the aircraft “crashed on landing after being recalled”.

Cyril is buried in the Cappucini Naval Cemetery Malta (Protestant Section Men’s Plot F Collective Grave 18. He is also remembered on the memorial at St Johns Church, Enderby plus on his parents gravestone at Leicester Gilroes Cemetery.

Grave Marker of LAC Cyril Browne at Cappucinni Cemetery Malta (Photo Jo Hart)
Cappucini Naval Cemetery Malta

I suppose we will never know the true answer as to whether it was a tragic accident or a case of mistaken identity, but according to the aircraft accident card, there was no mention of enemy action and certainly ne mention of a friendly fire incident.

Proudly and Thankfully We Will Remember Them

14 – RAF Beaufighter crash at Kirby Bellars

On the 1st May 1944, No 304 Ferry Training Unit based at RAF Melton Mowbray, dispatched Beaufighter MkVI KW199 on a fuel consumption test flight.  The pilot was 25 year old Glaswegian Sgt John Joseph Bruce and the Navigator was 23 year old Yorkshireman Flt Sgt Cyril Woolfenden.

After attempting to make a landing at Melton they overshot the runway where the pilot, Sgt Bruce attempted to take the aircraft around again for another attempt.  However, the aircraft didn’t make it as on climbing away from the airfield, one of the engines cut out after stalling, the aircraft subsequently spun out of control and crashed two miles from the airfield, near Kirby Bellars, sadly killing both crew.

RAF Melton Mowbray with road at top LH leading from airfield towards Melton and Kirby Bellars would be to the left.

Sgt Bruce was the Son of Joseph Robert and Elizebeth Bruce, of Glasgow and is buried in Section 8, Grave 109 of the Glasgow (St Kentigern’s) Roman Catholic Cemetery. For more information about his grave, visit his CWGC casualty record.

Flt Sgt Woolfenden was the Son of Allan and Evelyn Mary (Corcoran) Woolfenden, of Leeds, Yorkshire and was the youngest of 3 children with elder brother Allen and sister Dorothy. 

Cyril is buried in Section W Grave 4170 of the Melton Mowbray Thorpe Road Cemetery. For more information about his grave, visit his CWGC casualty record.

CWGC Headstone of Flt Sgt Cyril Woolfenden

Roy Beeken was a dispatch rider for the Melton Fire Station and was one of the first on the scene due to travelling the crash site on his motorcycle.

Melton Mowbray Fire Service with Roy Beeken seated front row 2nd from left.

When I spoke to Roy a few years ago, he told me that once the crews bodies were recovered from the aircraft, they were brought back to Melton in an ambulance accompanied in the back by Roy and his motorcycle as it had run out of fuel!

05 – Flt Lt Richard Arthur Branson

Sgt Richard Arthur Branson

Richard was the son of Frederick Hartridge Branson, and Muriel Virginia Branson, he was born in Leeds and was the youngest of 3 siblings.  The eldest sibling was Eileen Constance, born 18 Feb 1913, followed by Peter Orchard born 25 Jul 1916, then Richard on 8th May 1918.

At the time of the 1939 Register being taken, Richard was living at home at Kenilworth, Allwoodley Lane, Leeds with his parents and brother and sister.

His father Frederick was listed as the Managing Director & Chairman Wholesale Drug & Surgical Company Limited. His mother Muriel was listed as Unpaid Domestic Duties with Eileen listed as a Qualified Dispenser on Medicines and both Peter and Richard listed as Electrical Instrument makers.  The register also noted that Peter was an ARP and Richard was in the RAF but not yet called up.

On the 1st May 1940, the Eastbourne Gazette reported a motoring fine “Excessive Speed – For exceeding the speed limit with a motor car in Willingdon Road on 6 April Sergt-Pilot Robert H Pinkerton was fined £1 at the Police Court on Monday. His licence was endorsed. For exceeding the speed limit with a motor cycle in Seaside on April 6 Sergt-Pilot Richard A Branson was fined £1.”

In May 1941 Richard was serving as a Sergeant Pilot with No 261 Squadron based at RAF Hal Far in Malta.  Shortly before midday on the 6th, four HE111s of II./KG26 approached the island escorted by elements of both III./JG27 and 7./JG26 consisting of 30 – 40 Me109s.

Richard Branson and his colleagues from C Flight were scrambled to intercept them.  He was involved in an aerial combat with Luftwaffe Ace Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg of The Red Hearts 7 Staffel/Jagdgeschwader 26, known as 7./JG 26 or the Staffe.

Müncheberg claimed his 43rd victory by shooting down Hurricane II Z3059 piloted by Branson.  Branson’s aircraft was lost about 1KM SW of Hal Far, but he managed to escape from his Hurricane. Hid suffer minor burn injuries to his right leg but managed to bail out successfully and landed in the sea and was back on the Squadron later that day.

Following service with 261 Sqn, Richard also served with 185 Sqn and the Malta Night Fighter Unit (MNFU).

The picture shows Richard as a Warrant Officer and wearing the Malta Night Fighter Unit “Maltese Cross” silver badge. 

These badges were locally manufactured during the siege of Malta and only given to RAF personnel who flew in defence of the island.

Engraved on the obverse with MNFU  (one letter on each arm of the cross) and on the reverse with the owners initials RAB.

The 185 Sqn diary recorded the following event: “Sgt Branson, ex-185, now in the MNFU, did some very low flying along the Sliema front for the benefit of a Girlfriend. Unfortunately, the AOC was also an interested spectator and decided that Branson could do some more low flying – along the banks of the River Nile. Apart from the injustice of the punishment, it puts ideas into people’s heads – if you want to get off the island, low fly along the Sliema front!”

The MNFU was formed in July 41 and led by former Battle of Britain flight commander Flt Lt George Powell-Sheddon. The unit was based at Ta Qali and operated a special fleet of 8 Hurricanes painted all in black.

The London Gazette published on 25 January 1944 recorded his promotion to Plt Off  (on probation) for 754270 Richard Arthur Branson (162939) 4th July 1943.

His promotion to Flying Officer was recorded in the London Gazette published 19 May 1944 “R A Branson (162939) 4th Jan 44”.

This was followed by a further promotion to Flight Lieutenant on 4th July 1945 which was published in the London Gazette on 7th July 1945.

On 31st August 1945, Flt Lt Richard Branson and Fg Off Harry Batcheler were part of No 12 Ferry Unit RAF Melton Mowbray and were tasked with a ferry flight onboard Beaufighter RD725.

As they were taking off, the starboard engine cut out resulting in the aircraft going out of control and crashing 1 mile South West of Little Dalby, sadly with the loss of both crew members.

His death was reported in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 0m 07 September 1945.

“Leeds RAF Man Killed – Flight Lieutenant Richard Arthur Branson (27), son of Mr. and Mrs. F Hartridge Branson, Winsterica Ghyll Head, Windermere (late of Alwoodley, Leeds), has been killed in a flying accident in Melton Mowbray.  An old boy of Roundhay School, he was junior director of Reynolds and Branson Ltd, wholesale chemists, Briggate Leeds, and had served in the RAF for more than six years.”

Richard is buried in Sec. W. Grave 4174, Thorpe Road cemetery, Melton Mowbray.

CWGC Headstone of Flt Lt Richard Arthur Branson

“THERE IS AN OLD BELIEF THAT ON SOME SOLEMN SHORE BEYOND THE SPHERE OF GRIEF DEAR FRIENDS SHALL MEET ONCE MORE”

His crew mate in the Beaufighter was Fg Off Harry George Walter Batcheler, 190812, serving as a Navigator with 12 Ferry Unit at RAF Melton Mowbray

Harry was born in July 1910 and was the son of Harry Thomas Batcheler and Olive Edith Batcheler, of Earlsfield, London; husband of Marie Louise Batcheler, of Wolverhampton.  father Harry worked for the London County Council as an Electric Tram Car Conductor.

Harry married Marie Louise Walters in 1935 in Wolverhampton.  He later joined the RAF in the NCO ranks and made his way to Warrant Officer.  He was subsequently commissioned on 24th November 1944 when his promotion to Plt Off on probation (emergency) was ‘gazetted’ on 13th March 1945.

Harry is buried in Plot H/3. Grave 106 at the Oxford (Botley) Cemetery.

CWGC headstone of Fg Off H G W Batcheler at Botley Cemetery

“IN SACRED MEMORY OF HARRY BELOVED HUSBAND OF MARIE

FOLD HIM IN THINE ARMS O LORD, TILL WE MEET AGAIN”

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