Flying Grisdales – Flying Officer Robert James Grisdale RCAF

Posted: March 6, 2013 in Pilots
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In early 1944 young Flying Officer Robert James Grisdale from Winnipeg was still undergoing flying training in Canada. Becoming a pilot in the RCAF was only for a select few. A later squadron colleague of Robert called Cameron Clare Campbell, who became an Air Gunner, wrote that after basic training ‘there were tests in math, morse code and then we had to appear before a Selection Board where they determined whether you were to train as pilots, navigators, wireless operators or gunners. By this time in the war, your chances of going through for a pilot were very slim unless you were outstanding in math and science, which I was not. The majority of the group were classed as straight air-gunners, including me’. Robert Grisdale was selected for pilot training.

RCAF Recruiting PosterHaving successfully qualified as a RCAF pilot he was shipped to England to convert to bombers at RAF Wombleton in North Yorkshire. Training, with No 1666 Heavy Conversion Unit, took several months.  ‘Aircrew who were originally trained on twin-engined aircraft such as Wellingtons or Whitleys received conversion training on heavy four-engined bombers such as the Halifax or Lancaster.’

Aircrews were formed here that would often stay together. Robert was a pilot and his crew at Wombleton comprised: Flight Engineer – Sergeant Walter Alfred James Thurston RAFVR of Southwark, London; Navigator – Flying Officer Isaac Buck Zierler RCAF of Sarnia, Ontario; Bomb Aimer – Flying Officer – William Gordon McLeod RCAF of Port Arthur, Ontario; Wireless Operator/Air Gunner – P/O Joseph Michael Hirak RCAF of Elphinstone, Manitoba; Air Gunner – P/O Francis Gerald Seeley RCAF of Trenton, Canada and Air Gunner – P/O David William Roberts RCAF.

Towards the end of their bomber training we hear of an incident involving this crew flying Halifax LL131, piloted by Robert Grisdale:

On 27th November 1944 this Halifax was landing at Wombleton airfield in bad weather and it missed the runway. On touching down it slewed sideways onto a dispersal pan and, possibly after the undercarriage collapsed, it came to a halt, the aircraft was damaged but the crew escaped injury.

Lancaster of 433 Squadron at Skipton on Swale

Lancaster of 433 Squadron at Skipton on Swale

Despite this mishap the crew all completed their training and were ready to become operational. They were posted together to 433 Squadron based at Skipton-on-Swale, near Thirsk in Yorkshire.

No. 433 (Porcupine) Squadron was formed at Skipton-on-Swale on 25 September 1943, with a nucleus of 5 crews from 429 Squadron. Their Motto was “Qui s’y frotte s’y pique” meaning “Who opposes gets hurt”. Throughout 1943 no 433 Squadron was continuously operational flying Halifaxes over the Continent by night. In January 1945, 433 Squadron was re-equipped with Avro Lancaster Mk Is.

It’s likely that Robert and his crew first flew Halifaxes and then converted to the heavier Lancasters. Campbell wrote in his diary: ‘On the 13th of March 1945 we began converting to Lancasters and by the 18th we were again operational.’ On that day the squadron took part in a diversionary raid over France. March 20 saw their first raid; they bombed an oil installation in Germany near the Danish border called ‘The Heide’. Over the next two weeks the squadron made several more bombing trips to Germany. Of the raid on 8 April Campbell tells us:

On 8 April 1945, we bombed Hamburg and this was probably our scariest raid. All went well until we were almost over the target on our bomb run. Just as we were about to drop I looked up above our plane and there was a Halifax with his doors open and as I watched he let his bombs go. They dropped one by one and missed the rear turret by a few feet short. He then dropped down and almost collided with our plane but must have seen us at the last minute and flew parallel with us for a couple of minutes. He was that close that I could see their tail gunner not more than one hundred feet away. On the way into the target the fighters had dropped the flares that hung on parachutes on either side of our route. The main fighters would stooge above the flares and dive down and pick off bombers almost at random. As we were leaving the target, I saw a Ju 88 dive down and chase a bomber slightly to our left, we were very pleased to get out of there unscathed.

Mosquitos of 105 Squadron 'Return from Leipzig' by Anthony Saunders

Mosquitos of 105 Squadron ‘Return from Leipzig’ by Anthony Saunders

Just two days later on 10 April 433 Squadron was back in the air. They were part of a huge formation of 134 Lancasters from eight squadrons and 90 Halifaxes from six other squadrons, accompanied by 6 Mosquitos from 105 Squadron at RAF Marham. The target was the railway marshalling yards at Engelsdorf and Mochau, near Leipzig. Robert Grisdale, with his usual crew, was flying Lancaster P3-903 with the markings BM-F (or ‘Freddy’).

The weather on their day flight from Skipton was, we are told, good. Approaching the target the bombers were taking a lot of flak. They went over the target at between 15,500 and 19,000 feet and released 1.5 million pounds of high explosive bombs, causing, reports say, ‘severe damage’. But Robert Grisdale and his crew didn’t quite make it. Almost over the target their Lancaster was hit by flak. The RCAF says: ‘According to witnesses, this Lancaster was hit by flak, the starboard inner (engine) was seen to be feathered. Then a small explosion was seen, the aircraft flipped onto its back and spiralled to the ground. No parachutes were seen.’

Leipzig Railwayy Yards being Bombed 10 April 1945

Leipzig Railway Yards being Bombed 10 April 1945

Campbell tells us a little more:

On the 10th April 1945 we did a day light raid on Leipzig. This was a good raid but we were towards the rear of the formation and took a dreadful pounding from slip streams all the way to the target. There was heavy predicted flak close to the target. With predicted flak, the Germans would fire a burst and from observing the blast could make a correction on the next shot which would be closer, then make a correction on the second burst and usually the third burst had your number on it. The secret was to change your height or heading after the first blast.

Just as we were about to drop our bombs, I heard Chris ask the bomb-aimer who was flying F Freddy because he was on fire. Just as Plaskett answered him telling him it was Grisdale’s crew, the bombs and the plane blew up. I never saw the explosion as it was slightly ahead of us and to the right but we felt the blast and saw the debris as we passed.

RCAF Graves in Berlin War Cemetery

RCAF Graves in Berlin War Cemetery

All the crew of Grisdale’s ‘Freddy’ died; they were the only Lancaster of 433 Squadron not to return that day. They are buried in the Berlin War Cemetery. RIP.

Who was Robert James Grisdale? He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1923, the son of real estate agent and salesman Robert Chaplin Grisdale and Alice Mary Fraser. His paternal grandfather was none other than the Bolton cotton-bleacher who had become a Canadian Bishop – John Grisdale – who I wrote about in another article.

  1. Shirley E Lancaster says:

    Hello Stephen. I read with interest your latest article. My late husband, Lionel Shelby Lancaster, was a Navigator in one of the 143 Lancasters to fly over Leipzig on 10 Apr 1945. I have his Target Token. As well, I am also interested in your articles as our Lancaster family and the Grisdale family from Hudson, Vaudreuil, Quebec are related through many branches. This morning I was reading the March issue of Family Tree Magazine (British) and read your article published in it. Keep up the good work, you are a great writer. Shirley Lancaster.

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Thank you Shirley, I’m glad you found the article(s) interesting. Actually the links between the Lancasters and the Grisdales are many and go back to Cumberland in the seventeenth century. Please drop me an email I’d love to be in touch.

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