“Five aircraft failed to return”

The twin engined Manchester was the predecessor to the hugely successful Lancaster bomber.

In early 1942 RAF Bomber Command was still reliant on a mix of old obsolete aircraft, a growing number of the new four engined bombers, and a number of relatively untried machines that wartime conditions saw pressed into service.

Amongst these was the Avro Manchester. This was a twin engined bomber built to an Air Ministry specification. Unfortunately it used Vulture engines, which proved to be unreliable. Out of 193 Manchesters that were operational, 45 were lost in accidents, 30 of these to engine fires. Only when the aircraft was redesigned to take four engines and the Merlin engine introduced was the aircraft transformed into the Avro Lancaster.

On 14th No 207 Squadron from RAF Bomber Command based at Bottesford, Leicestershire were selected to take part in a raid on Hamburg – the target was the dockyards and the nearby Blohm and Voss aircraft factory. One aircraft was fifteen minutes late in taking after suffering an unknown technical problem.

Wednesday 14th January 1942 – Hamburg

Avro Manchester L7523 EM:M

523056 Flight Sergeant (Pilot) Basil Courtney Wescombe. RAF. Age:25
1111152 Flight Sergeant (Pilot) Frederick Edward Thomas. RAF. Age:26
925454 Sergeant (Air Observer) Eric Ronald Harper. RAF(VR). Age: 19
902414 Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) Leonard Sieve. RAF(VR). Age: 23
961733 Sergeant (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) Claude Raymond Westbury. RAF(VR). Age: 21
1194389 Sergeant (Air Gunner) John Thomas (Jack) Howe. RAF(VR). Age: 20
641700 Sergeant (Air Gunner) Maurice Robert Walker. RAF. Age:19

On Wednesday 14th January 1942 207 Squadron had been stood down for three days, and despite the first fall of snow, it was called upon to join an attack on Hamburg. L7523 EM:M was part of a force of 95 aircraft tasked to attack Hamburg. 48 aircraft claimed to have bombed the target and local reports state approximately 12 fires were started and the Altona railway station was hit with 6 people killed and 22 injured. 5 aircraft, 5.26 percent of the force were lost these being 1 Manchester, 2 Wellingtons and 2 Hampdens.

The aircraft took off at 17.35 and was airborne for 3 hours and 10 minutes, given the cruising speed of an Avro-Manchester was 185mph and that they returned with an engine on fire it is not possible for the crew to have reached Hamburg and unlikely that they came under enemy fire.

At 20.45 the elder of three Misses Walker was sitting in the kitchen of Cliff House Farm in the hamlet of Holmpton on the Yorkshire coast. She heard a loud popping sound of a throttled back aero engine at low altitude and rushed outside to see the plane pass low to the south, with flames apparently coming from the rear. Seconds later the plane hit the ground and there was a flash and explosion. The source of the fire is unknown, but possibly an uncontrollable fire in the port Vulture engine would have given the same appearance to a ground observer.

The Home Guard were soon on the scene arriving from a nearby Observation Post on the cliff-top. It took the Withernsea Police and the Auxiliary Fire Service over an hour to reach the crash site. They found a deep crater filled with wreckage, and propaganda leaflets (nickels) printed in German were being blown about in the stiff breeze. Amongst the debris were also three bodies. The firemen returned to their depot at 01.55 and by 02.46 it was established that the wreck was that of a British bomber.

The Home Guard carried the remains of the crew to Cliff House Farm where they remained overnight in one of the farm buildings. The next morning farm workers found a sorry sight. Soldiers were already guarding the impact point and the tail unit had been thrown over a nearby hedge. Small fragments of airframe were spread over a wide area, with apparently the bomb load already been jettisoned. A freezing rain was falling from a leadened sky and within a short period the farm workers’ clothes were frozen stiff. Later that morning the bodies were conveyed by RAF ambulances to RAF Catfoss (2 Coastal Operational Training Unit) near Hornsea.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War. See also Lost Bombers and Lancaster Archive.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Earlier in the war:

Later in the war: