Thursday, 5 April 2012

Dear Sir,

On coming back from holiday I began catching up on e-mail that had been delivered while I was away. My e-mail account isn't particularly busy so it didn't take long to go through my inbox and deal with anything needing a response and deleting e-mails from businesses and sites that I didn't need. As usual at the end of that I went to the spam box and saw some 47 items listed. I was just about to hit the clear button when one of them for some unknown reason, caught my eye. It said it was from a Dr Josef Levy and the subject was simply ‘Dear Sir’. The unknown name and dubious subject would normally immediately qualify such e-mail for the bin and I have no idea why this e-mail was different, but something made me not only hesitate but actually open it:

Dear Sir,
I am writing you to ask you for cooperation. I am from town Hranice in Czech Republic. The bomber AVRO LANCASTER B.MK.I, serial number PB 872, code indication P4-X 153. bomb squadron. crashed there on 6th March, 1945. I would like put up information panel with memory of this crash and memory of pilots on place where bomber crashed. Now there is only a small memorial.
There is a few documents and no photos related to this crash in Czech republic. I would therefore request you for some information. Can you send me some photos of crewmen or information about flight and falling? I welcome every information.
I thank you for your help.
Best regards,
Dr. Josef Levý.

Because of my father's involvement I've written extensively across the blog about his Lancaster Squadron. In 2010 I posted their 1945 daily campaign diary in real-time covering the last few months of the war. As a result the blog regularly receives visits from people looking for information about 153 Squadron or Bomber Command Squadrons and I've been contacted by the families of many men who served or were lost so long ago. To be able to answer questions that have in some cases haunted people for almost 70 years or to be able to put people in touch with someone who actually served with their relative has been a rewarding and humbling experience, one that I never dreamt of when I began to write their story. This query would bring a different and more personal twist.

I clicked across onto the blog and looked at the entry relating to the sixth of March 1945, reminding myself of the details I had written and mentally recalling the sources used for the information I'd posted. I often had more information than was in the post as I didn't want to overload the blog with detail and put visitors off reading because it was heavy and inaccessable, so I began to hunt through the library for notes and other bits and pieces. I transferred the e-mail out of spam and composed a reply saying that I would provide any information I could and would send an e-mail back as soon as I had anything. Over the next couple of days I found information relating to the aircraft manufacture and delivery to the Squadron, the aircraft crew and their previous missions and detail about the final operation. I found the aircraft had been listed as ‘missing, nothing heard since take-off’. Somewhere in my mind this started an insistent recollection.

"Nothing heard since take-off" is a phrase chillingly familiar to the men who served in bomber command in World War II, or those who worked behind at base. It was written onto operation boards when an aircraft failed to return home by the due time at the end of the mission. Usually it was the first indication that yet another aircraft and its seven man crew had been lost, either killed or hopefully - but rarely - to become prisoners of war. Another seven names added to the list of 73,700 aircrew casualties from the 125,000 who served.  "Nothing heard since take-off"  was also the name of a small book, privately published by a family member of the crew of a missing Lancaster bomber. I had found the book during my researchers for the 153 Squadron story because it related to one of their Lancasters. It was a poignant tale because not only of the tragic loss of the crew but that one of the air gunners, Bill Meechan, lived in a village near our home and was a friend of my father who had been a member of 137 (Ayr) Squadron ATC (Air Training Corps) with him before joining up.

With the help of The Lovely G, who helped me look, I found the book and was astonished to find that it was the story of exactly the same aircraft that Dr Levy was interested in researching.

Lancaster PB 872 P4-X was a Lancaster mark B1 built by A V Roe's Woodford factory in November 1944. It was fitted with four Rolls-Royce Merlin 22 engines and delivered to 153 Squadron at Scampton on 5 December 1944. The night it crashed it was exactly 3 months old and had completed 15 operations. The average life expectancy of a Lancaster in World War II was just six missions which gives an idea of just how dangerous and damaging these operations were. An operational tour for the crew was 30 missions completed.

 The crew that night were relatively inexperienced and had been with the squadron just over four weeks. Their final mission was their 6th:

William Bailey – pilot {20}
Reg Adlam – navigator {21}
Edward Morris – air bomber {22}
James Howard – flight engineer {27}
Jack Dixon – wireless operator {22}
Bill Meechan – mid  upper gunner {19}
Walter Simpson – rear gunner {18}

By March 1945, although the Germans were in retreat and under attack on the ground on German soil, bomber command was still losing many crews to the well-organised German night fighter force and anti-aircraft defence systems. On 5 March 1945, 153 Squadron’s battle order number 92 directed 13 aircraft to be sent to attack Chemnitz, including Bill Bailey’s crew who had by this time completed their five operations since late January.

L - R:  F/O. William Bailey, Sgt. James Howard, F/O. Reginald Adlam and F/O. Edward Morris

Take-off was logged from Scampton at precisely 16:40 hours. Over the next few hours ground crews passed the time waiting for the return of their particular Lancaster. In flying control rooms others were listening to radio frequencies, crash crews and medical staff were on standby in case they would be needed, transport staff stood by to collect men from returned aircraft and ferry them to the debriefing rooms for post-op intelligence gathering. Eventually about 2am there was the sound of engines as one by one Lancaster's joined a circuit around the airfield and landed, exhausted crews climbing wearily out onto solid ground, perhaps lighting a first cigarette or just breathing fresh night air. The operations board and flying control soon showed 12 aircraft had landed safely, but an unmarked space was left beside PB 872 P4-X as staff waited for confirmation of its return. Time passed slowly as anxious staff waited until the maximum possible flying time had elapsed before entering ‘missing’ in that space. Checks were quickly made to see if X – Ray had landed safely somewhere away from base on its return but all enquiries were negative.  Squadron records for the operation were duly typed up and in the column marked "details of sortie or flight" for  Lancaster PB 872 were typed the words "Failed to return. Nothing heard since take-off" 

The following day, once verification was received that X – Ray had been lost, the personal effects of each crew member and any equipment belonging to them was collected and taken to stores. Personal effects would be forwarded to a central point where they would eventually be returned to each person's next of kin. Telegrams were now sent out to the next of kin, informing them their member of the family was missing from operations on the fifth/sixth of March. A letter would follow from the commanding officer expressing great sadness but pointing out at this stage the person was missing only and that should any news be received it would be communicated to them immediately.

Sgt. Jack Dixon, Sgt. William Meechan and Sgt. Walter Simpson

The families would not find out the fate of their relatives until 1947.

Lancaster PB 872 P4-X crashed at 2130 British time on the night of 5 March 1945 just outside the town of Rossbach, now called Hranice, then in  Nazi occupied Czech territory. In all probability it had become separated from the main bomber stream in the dark, probably without even knowing it, perhaps due to the higher than forecast winds affecting navigational calculations by this relatively inexperienced crew. Once alone and isolated it would have become an obvious and easy target for night fighter attention, easily directed and guided in by their radar stations. At approximately 22:30 local time in Rossbach that night the air raid sirens were activated and soon afterwards the aircraft appeared. Witnesses remember the sound of tortured engines screaming and the aircraft in a slow descending curve, trailing flame from one wing and just missing the town before there was an explosion in the burning wing - probably the fuel tank - and the aircraft crashed in a meadow outside of town. The Fire Brigade and many local people hurried through the woods but nothing could be done and there were no survivors. The following day the crew were officially identified and buried in the town cemetery next to the church in a corner of the grounds next to some Russian prisoners of war. The details of the crash were recorded in the town police reports. One member of the crew had attempted to bail out but the altitude was too low for the parachute to open. The other crew members were still in the aircraft when it crashed, the tail-gunner still strapped in his turret, two others had managed to put on their parachutes but had not managed to exit.

We’ll almost certainly never know the whole story of  Lancaster PB 872 P4-X and what happened in their last hours and moments. Were many of the crew dead or seriously injured while still airborne? Perhaps the intercom been damaged and the crew not heard the pilots instruction to bail out?  Maybe instuments been damaged, the ground invisible in the dark until the order came too late leaving them with no time to act? Of course after all this time it's academic - but still tragic.

The book and all the information I have is now on its way to the Czech Republic. Crew photos will shortly follow supplied by 153 Squadron Association. I hope the information is useful to Dr Levy and that ultimately he is successful in increasing the information about the aircraft and crew and in completing his project to highlight the sacrifice of these young men, like so many others in Bomber Command. I'm glad too to have played a part. I think my old man would have approved. I'm glad that there are still people and places out there keen to remember and recognise what happened so long ago and willing to do something about it.

{Crew photos from aircrew remembrance society}

See you later.

Listening to:


Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Great post Alistair, as poignant as ever. It is heartwarming that many people still remember the pain and sacrifice of all these young men.

Anonymous said...

wow. it never ceases to amaze me how one life can affect so many others without ever intending to do so.

what an honorable thing you are doing, helping those to remember lives and those who served so we could have it.

coastkid said...

Good post Al, Good you could be of help with research, a sad story to be told, but should not be forgotten of their sacrifice.

Unknown said...

Another great post buddy. I'm sure your dad would be proud of you.

Alistair said...

Thanks folks. It's something that never crossed my mind when I started writing these pieces but I'm glad so much of it has stayed with me and I can recall lots of detail - when normally I can remember barely anything about other 'important' stuff it seems.

If you can't help others how can you expect others to help you when you need it is my opinion.

Thanks again.

Dad said...

Wow, I LOVE this post Al'. The fact that Dr. Josef Levý got in touch with you the way he did, how you almost deleted his "spam" email!

Fate is a funny old thing .....

DB Stewart said...

What Jono said.

Alistair said...

True Dad, True.

Cheers dbs.

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