Welshman Eric Grisdale was born in Caernarvon in 1920. He started work as a clerk but when the war came Eric joined the RAF and became a bomber pilot. In the early hours of 23 May 1944 Eric was piloting a Lancaster bomber of 626 Squadron as part of a massive incendiary attack on Dortmund. Despite severe engine problems en-route the Lancaster delivered it load of fire and death on Dortmund. But while on the way home Eric’s Lancaster, now running on ‘two and a half engines’ was suddenly attacked and shot down by a German night fighter near Eindhoven in Holland. Four of the crew of seven managed to bail out safely but the other three died. With the help of the courageous Dutch Underground and Flemish partisans, Eric managed to evade capture and spent nearly four months in hiding, constantly moving around. Eventually he met up with the advancing U.S. Army and made it home.

This is Eric’s story. Actually many years after the war he wrote his own story in a short book called One of the Few. Despite my best efforts I have yet to obtain a copy (I since have click here). However from the accounts of others who talked with Eric, the squadron’s operational logs and the official RAF ‘Evasion Report’ I think we can reconstruct Eric’s Lancaster flight and his subsequent evasion.

But first let me extremely briefly tell how Eric’s very English forebears (with the Norse name) had come from Matterdale to Wales. They weren’t the only Grisdale family to do so and they certainly weren’t the first.

Llanbeblig Church, Caernavon

Llanbeblig Church, Caernavon

Like countless others I have written about on this blog, Eric Grisdale was descended from seventeenth-century Matterdale couple Joseph Grisdale (1687-1750) and his wife Jane Martin (1687-1769). We could of course go even further back. To cut a long story short, Joseph’s grandson Thomas Grisdale (1772-1841) had moved in the 1790s with some of his brothers from Matterdale to the Lancashire cotton mill town of Bolton. The whole family became cotton weavers and I have told of many of them and their descendants before. One of Thomas’s grandsons was called Elijah, born in Bolton in 1836. His father George (1807-1887) was a ‘Power Loom Weaver’. For reasons I don’t know twenty-three year-old Elijah married Llanbeblig girl Margaret Cowburne Howells in Caernarvon in 1859. The family was very poor and Elijah died in Caernarvon’s workhouse in 1878. To skip a couple of generations, RAF pilot Eric Grisdale was the great grandson of this Elijah who first brought the family to Wales. If you would like more detail please contact me.

Let’s now fast-forward to the Second World War. Eric joined the RAF on 28 February 1941. He trained with No. 26 OTU (Operational Training Unit) and did his bomber conversion with No. 1653 Conversion Unit. I haven’t got Eric’s full RAF record so I’ll just say that he was most probably a founder member of Lancaster 626 Squadron when it was formed at RAF Wickenby in Lincolnshire in November 1943. The squadron undertook many bombing missions over enemy territory and Flight Sergeant Eric Grisdale was one of their pilots.

Sixteen 626 Squadron crews at RAF Wickenby in January 1944

Sixteen 626 Squadron crews at RAF Wickenby in January 1944

On the 22 May 1944 a huge bombing raid took place – the destination was Dortmund. Among the 361 RAF Lancasters there were fourteen from 626 squadron, one of which, with the markings UM-U, was captained by Eric.  On board were most of his usual crew: Sgt R. A. Sindall RAF, Flight Engineer; Fg Off J. B. Morritt RCAF, Navigator; Flt Sgt R. H. Punter RCAF, Bomb Aimer; Sgt I. A. Prestwell RAF, Wireless Operator; Sgt R. J. Turtle RAF, Mid Upper Gunner and Sgt R. W. Richardson RAF, Rear Gunner. Canadian navigator Morrit had replaced Eric’s usual Canadian navigator G. A. Pierce.

Eric Grisdale and his crew at RAF Wickenby

Eric Grisdale and his crew at RAF Wickenby

The aircraft carried a 400lb high explosive ‘Cookie’ and 7920 lbs of incendiary bombs. It took off from RAF Wickenby at 10.30 in the evening. I am indebted for what follows concerning the flight to Tony Beeton.

‘As the aircraft crossed the Dutch coast the port outer engine started to give trouble and ran very roughly. After awhile it ran smoothly again so the decision was made to continue onto the target. The crew had an uneventful trip to the target and began their bombing run just a little behind the allotted time. As the pilot held the aircraft steady, following the bomb aimers instructions a piece of flak shrapnel hits the starboard inner engine with a loud bang but the pilot held his course until the call “Bombs Gone” when he banked to starboard and headed for home.

By now the starboard inner had lost its oil pressure requiring that it be shut down. At almost the same time the port outer engine started to give trouble again and the Lancaster was flying on two and a half engines, slowly losing height.

Lancasters being attacked by German night fighters

Lancasters being attacked by German night fighters

At about 02.00 hours whilst flying at about 19,000 ft over Holland, the Lancaster was suddenly raked by bullets from an enemy night fighter all along the port side. The port fuel tank was ruptured and the port wing caught fire and was burning furiously. The Pilot called to the crew over the intercom and found the Wireless Operator and Navigator had been killed by the burst of gunfire. He realised that the position was hopeless and as the aircraft was becoming difficult to handle, gave the order “Abandon Aircraft”.

The only response he received was from the Rear Gunner who said calmly “Do you mean now”. The pilot replied “Yes”. As the Pilot made his way down to the escape hatch in the Bomb Aimers position there was a violent explosion within the aircraft, followed a few seconds later by another. The next recollection the Pilot had was being free from the aircraft and falling towards the ground. He managed to open his parachute and watched as his burning Lancaster fell past him and crashed onto the ground. There were no signs of the other crew members.’

It sadly turned out that Sergeants  Morrit, Prestwell and Richardson had been killed, but the other four crew members, including Eric, had made it safely to the ground, where they found themselves near Asten outside Eindhoven in German-occupied Holland. Sindall and Turtle were soon captured and became POWs. Here we can read Eric’s own words, taken from the official RAF ‘Evasion Report’ written after an interview by M.I.9 at RAF Hendon on 15 September 1944, two days after Eric had flown home from Brussels. I’ll quote it in full as it’s quite brief.

23 May 44, Baled out near Eindhoven.

I was the pilot of a Lancaster aircraft which took off from Wickenby at 2230 hrs on 22 May 44. We were shot down by a night fighter, and baled out at 0115 hrs on 23 May 44. On landing I looked for other members of the crew and hid my parachute. I could see no one, so started walking South West.

After walking some distance I was stopped by a party of civilians, one of whom spoke very good English. They took me to a doctor, who treated my broken hand and cuts and bruises on my face. I was then taken to a farm about two miles from Someren… a small village South East of Eindhoven.

Next morning I was joined by F/Sgt, Punter… and we stayed at this farm for seven days.

Till 7 Jul 33, Camp near Eindhoven.

From here we moved to a camp run by the Dutch underground movement in woods near Eindhoven where we met F/Sgt. Gardner and F/Sgt. Sparkes. We were later joined by F/Sgt. Tend, R.A.F F/O Walker, R.A.F., F/O Walker, R.A.F., Sgt. Simmons, R.A.F., Sgt. Kinney, U.S.A.A.F., and Lt. Cooper, U.S.A.A.F. We remained in the camp until 7 Jul, when we moved to a farm for one night.

Crossed into Belgium.

Next morning we went by train from Venraij to Sittard. Here we lived in a private house in the town for three weeks. We were then moved to another house, near Roggel. We stayed there for two nights and then moved to a hut in the woods, where we stayed for ten days. From here we moved to a hut in an orchard near Kempen and, after two days, to a farm near Hunsel. Four days later we were taken over the border with Belgium.

We spent three nights on a farm near Kinroy. As the Germans were active in this part, we moved into the woods. After thirteen days we moved to another wood near Eelen, where we met some Belgian Partisans. We stayed with them for five days.

12 Sep 44, Contact with U.S. Troops.

The Allied lines were rumoured to be very near, and the Partisans foregathered in a wood near Rotem. We spent four days with them, but had to leave on account of an attack by the Germans. We headed. W. Towards the Allied lines.

On 12 Sep we were told by a farmer that Allied tanks were in the vicinity, and that evening we met an advanced unit of U.S. Troops.

Dutch Resistance group in 1944

Dutch Resistance group in 1944

I’m sure Eric’s own book provides many more details and observations, but for now I’ll leave the story here. The day after Eric and the others had met the Americans he was flown home from Brussels to RAF Hendon.

Eric had spent nearly four months avoiding capture but only succeeded with the help of many courageous Dutch and Flemish people; I’m sure he was always grateful to them.

In 1946 Eric married Enid Jones in Caernarvon, he died in 1991.

slaughterhouse-five-by-kurt-vonnegutBut let’s not forget the countless thousands of German civilians who died horrific deaths in cities all over Germany which were subjected to Allied fire-bombing and subsequent firestorms, as was Dortmund on this night of 22/23 May 1944.

The great American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who was a POW in Dresden and dug corpses from the rubble following a massive incendiary raid on that city in February 1945, later wrote:

You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

I do recommend you read Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, unless that is it is still banned in parts of the United States as it once was.

‘A firestorm is caused when hundreds of smaller fires join in one vast conflagration. Huge masses of air are sucked in to feed the inferno, causing an artificial tornado. Those persons unlucky enough to be caught in the rush of wind are hurled down entire streets into the flames. Those who seek refuge underground often suffocate as oxygen is pulled from the air to feed the blaze, or they perish in a blast of white heat–heat intense enough to melt human flesh.’

Survivors of such raids told how:

The detonation shook the cellar walls. The sound of the explosions mingled with a new, stranger sound which seemed to come closer and closer, the sound of a thundering waterfall; it was the sound of the mighty tornado howling in the inner city.

As the heat intensified people ‘either disintegrated into cinders or melted into a thick liquid–often three or four feet deep in spots’.

The results of incendiary bombing

The results of incendiary bombing

Enough of that! On a less strident note I’ll end, as I often do, with two poems:

My brief sweet life is over,

My eyes no longer see,

No Christmas trees,

No summer walks

No pretty girls for me,

I’ve got the chop, I’ve had it

My nightly Ops are done,

Yet in another hundred years

I’ll still be twenty one.

R.W Gilbert

And:

“Darky” Call by Pip Beck

Through the static

Loud in my earphone

I heard your cry for aid

Your scared boy’s voice conveyed

Your fear and danger;

Ether-borne, my voice

Went out to you

As lost and in the dark you flew

We tried so hard to help you,

In your crippled plane –

I called again

But you did not hear

You had crashed in flame

At the runway’s end

With none to tend

You in your dying …

from “A WAAF in Bomber Command”

Eric's Lancaster was the only one of 626 squadron not to return that night. See above

Eric’s Lancaster was the only one of 626 squadron not to return that night. See above

So the Grisdales of Matterdale became not only Canadians, Americans, Australians and even South Africans, some, God help us, became Welsh too. I’m only joking – have a look at my name. But some Canadian Grisdale men married French Canadian women and became ‘French’ – now that’s truly beyond the pale!

Oh and it’s nice to find the Dutch still remember Grisdale’s Lancaster crew: https://www.bhic.nl/lancaster-bij-het-ven

 

 

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Comments
  1. chmjr2 says:

    I can recall when Slaughterhouse Five was published. I however do not recall it being banned in the United States. Some schools or public libraries may not have put it on their shelves, but they were in the minority. However anyone who wished to purchase the book was free to do so. I am proud to say books do not get banned the United States. They may fail to sell which for the author is far worst. In fact books that have this type of negative publicity tend to sell a little better.

    I enjoyed your post and it served as a reminder the “War is Hell” and we all should do what is needed to avoid it. However that seems to be above our power. May we never see another world war. The small ones are bad enough.

  2. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post. If you wish, you can read more of Eric Grisdale’s experiences online athttps://oneofmanyraf.wordpress.com

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