An airman’s first and last operational flight

Sergeant Donald Kibbe from Massachusetts, a U.S. citizen, volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force in order to get into the war.

RAF Bomber Command’s objectives now included support for the Russians, by attacking targets that might hinder the German war effort in the east. This included the German Baltic port of Stettin, an important stage in the supply route for German troops in Russia.

Stettin was also attacked on two nights. On both occasions the weather was favourable and the total of 112 tons of H.E. bombs, supplemented by 11,000 incendiaries, resulted in many large and small fires in the dock area and in the city. A warehouse was demolished, two ships in the waterway were set on fire and several bursts were seen near the railway station.

From the Air Situation Report for the week as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB/66/19/4

Stettin was at the limit of range for the RAF bomber fleet including the aged Whitley bomber. Casualties from these raids came not just from the German defences near the target, but from the test of endurance that they represented for the aircraft and their crews. One of these aircraft was Whitley Z6871, flying from Topcliffe, Yorkshire in the north of England:

On the night of the 29th September 1941, ten 102 Squadron aircraft took off from Topcliffe to bomb Stettin railway station, this particular Whitley took off at 18.53hrs. The weather over the target was described as “clear with ground haze and flak was moderate to heavy”. This aircraft was first from the squadron to bomb and attacked from 12,000 feet, flashes were seen in the area which was already burning on the ground. In total 95 aircraft of a force of 139 aircraft of various types bombed around four aiming points in Stettin, over all good bombing was reported. Stettin was pretty much at the range that Whitleys could reach with standard fuel tanks.

During the early morning of the 30th of September 1941 the crew were well into their return leg of the flight and was more or less on course for their home base at Topcliffe. They crossed the Yorkshire coast at around 03.30hrs in the Middlesbrough area and a course was set for base at Topcliffe, at a height of 2000 feet to avoid striking the high ground they would have to cross over. There were no problems upto then in the flight.

A few minutes later at 03.55hrs the aircraft flew into the ground on the North Yorkshire Moors above Danby, in the region of Danby Head (or Fryup Head). The front end of the aircraft was badly damaged in the impact but it did not catch fire, when the aircraft finally came to a halt the crew were able to scramble out, all but the second pilot that is, he was sadly killed in the impact, he was on his first trip and was thrown from the aircraft in the impact.

The observer, who was uninjured and the other pilot, who had a slight cut to the head decided they would go for help, not knowing where they were they made their way off the moor and eventually found a farm some hours later, the farmer then took them to up to Danby Beacon Chain Home station for help. Some time later the airmen along with the help finally arrived back at the crash site, following a long walk from the nearest road where their lorry had parked.

It was not until 13.00hrs until all airmen were back at the lorry at the nearest road. They finally arrived back at Topcliffe four hours later, where upon they found that their lockers had already been cleared out on the assumption they would not be returning.

The crash was put down to the pilot falling asleep at the controls, because of this the aircraft had descended and crashed into the high ground which it was flying over.

This was an all too common occurrence. Of the 55,500 fatal casualties from Bomber Command in the war, 8,195 were killed in flying accidents or ground accidents.

One site that remembers these men is Yorkshire Aircraft which has kindly provided these details. The fatal casualty in this case was 2nd Pilot – Sgt Donald K Kibbe RCAF (R/56344), aged 23, of Westfield, Massachusetts, USA. He was one of a number of United States citizens who had volunteered to join the war by enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Although several American trained pilots had joined the RAF directly and eventually formed the Eagle Squadrons, the contribution of Americans who came via Canada at this stage of the war is less well recognised.

Richard Allenby’s very comprehensively researched Yorkshire Aircraft site maintains a fine memorial to these men.

Postscript

Some months after writing this entry I heard from Jerry Kibbe, younger brother of Donald. He kindly supplied the photograph above and was able to supply a little more detail about him:

Don was my oldest brother and his death was a crushing blow to our family.

I remember as a lad of ten, Don explaining to a group of neighbors gathered in our kitchen, why he would leave his own country to fight in England. We were not at war and many in our town thought we should stay out of the fight. Don patiently explained it was a conflict we could not avoid and that very soon we would all be involved.

My brother Bob, as a tribute to his brother, resigned his appointment to The United States Merchant Marine Academy and enlisted in The United States Army Air Corps. He was killed in a training accident midair one week before his squadron was shipped overseas.

It is an honour to have the privilege of remembering the extraordinary sacrifice of the Kibbe family.

The crew of a Whitley bomber preparing for an operation. The Whitley was the backbone of RAF Bomber Command until more modern four engined bombers came into service.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Philip Trehearn December 9, 2012 at 9:23 pm

My father was Len Trehearn, who was the Observer referred to in the above comments about the Whitely aircraft in which Sgt Donald Keebe sadly died when it crashed in Yorkshire on 30th September, 1941. Regrettably, my father was himself killed on the 14th April, 1942 when the Halifax the crew were in crashed during a air test near Baldersby, Thirsk, Yorkshire. I was 6 weeks old at the time.

I have not been to the sites of the accidents, but intend to pay a visit to North Yorkshire in 2013.

Kind regards

Phil Trehearn

Chris June 6, 2012 at 2:33 am

Don K Kibbe was my uncle – my fathers (Gerald M Kibbe) oldest brother. My father will soon be uploading a photo of Don as he was entering cadet school.

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