Posts Tagged ‘RAF’

‘Es war ein Ereignis geradezu apokalyptische‘n Ausmaßes, das Kassel im Zweiten Weltkrieg heimsuchte: das Flächenbombardement vom 22. Oktober 1943.’

‘It was an event of almost apocalyptic proportion that visited Kasssel in the Second World War: the carpet bombing of 22 October 1943.’

Remembrance Day is nearly upon us. I was wondering what I should write. I’ve written many stories about Grisdales who fought, and often died, in the many meaningless wars over the centuries – with, I hope, much respect. My own father served and fought with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Other close relatives lost their lives serving with the RAF. But at least WW2 had some meaning. Finally I decided to write a story about RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Charles Leslie Grisdale, but not really. I won’t try to reconstruct Charles’s war or his life after the war when he settled down with his family on the Wirral in Cheshire. You will see what I mean.

Charles Leslie Grisdale was born n 1911 in Birkenhead, Liverpool. He was the second son of clerk William Walter Grisdale and Sarah Corless. I won’t tell the family history here, though there is much to tell.

Without getting Charles’s RAF records, I don’t know exactly when he joined the RAF or what he did in his first few years of service. So let me jump to 1943, by when Charles was a Flight Lieutenant flying Lancaster bombers with 103 Squadron out of RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire.

This was a time when the RAF was undertaking the mass carpet bombing of German cities instigated by Air Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris. As you can see from the squadron crew list below for August to October 1943, Charles’s crew bombed Mannheim, Nurnberg, Milan, Peenemunde, Berlin, Hannover, Bochum, Hagen and Munich. The attack on Peenemunde was to try to disrupt the production of Wernher von Braun’s V2 rocket. Von Braun of course would later surrender to the Americans, and he and his team of German scientists would go on to put the Americans on the moon.


Then on 22 October at 17.58 Charles and his crew, with included a Squadron Leader called Clifford Wood, took off from RAF Elsham Wolds in Lancaster JB276, code PM-F, to join hundreds of other bombers. They never made it back. The target this time was the beautiful medieval city of Kassel.

A force of 569 heavy bombers dropped 1,800 tons on the Kassel. This included nearly 0.5 million magnesium incendiary fire sticks designed to ignite fires. Hitting specific targets at night was virtually impossible so the RAF set out to destroy the city and largely succeeded. Damage to the city’s water system made it difficult to fight the fires. Among the civilian casualties were large numbers of wounded soldiers recovering in several hospitals. About 10,000 people were killed. Estimates suggest that about half the city’s population were made homeless.

The city of Kassel, in the region of Hesse, in west-central Germany, was subjected to an ongoing bombing campaign that began in early 1942 and went on almost until the end of WWII in 1945. During the heaviest and most intense bombing raid, on the night of 22-23 October 1943, the British Royal Air Force deployed 569 bombers over Kassel’s city centre. The concentrated explosion of 1,800 tons of bombs – incendiaries among them – resulted in a lethal firestorm. At least 10,000 people died in the explosions and ensuing fires, and the flames were still burning seven days later. The city was targeted so vehemently largely because of its important military-industrial sites: the Fieseler aircraft plant, Henschel tank-making facilities, railway works and engine works were all based there. When the Americans liberated Kassel in April 1945, there were only 50,000 inhabitants; in 1939 there had been 236,000.

As this report says the ostensible aim of the raid was to attack two important armament factories, but really the aim was to destroy the city by fire.


Kassel after the fire bombing

In the rather restrained words of Kassel’s own website (my translation):

It was an event of almost apocalyptic proportion that visited Kasssel in the Second World War: the carpet bombing of 22 October 1943.


Fire-storm in Kassel

At 20.17 the sirens warned the 225,000 people of the town, only a few minutes later the allied air forces attacked. Within one and a half hours the bombers dropped more than 400,000 fire bombs – that amounted to two bombs per square metre in some areas of the old town. The massive firestorm during the night could be seen from 50 kilometres away. It would burn for several days to come.

After this attack Kassel was no longer the same town: 85 percent of the houses and 65 percent of the industrial areas were destroyed. In the medieval Old Town a fire storm broke out that annihilated 97 percent of the houses. The victims were estimated to have been 10,000 dead plus numberless injured. The extent of the bodily and spiritual suffering in that single night of bombing is unimaginable from the perspective of today… Almost everyone who survived the bombardment had lost relatives or friends. For the greater part of the population the bombs had left them with nothing. ‘The town was a pile of debris and most of what the people loved about Kassel was no longer there.’

When I lived and worked in Germany I visited Kassel. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, but everything you see is new, even if it looks old! The whole city had to be rebuilt from the ground up after this terrible night. So on Remembrance Day when I fall silent for a minute to remember the victims of two world wars, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, I will remember too the dead citizens of Kassel consumed by fire unleashed from above.

For the RAF this raid was one of its most costly. Out of 569 aircraft taking part 48 failed to return, including three Lancasters from 103 Squadron, one of which was Charles Grisdale’s.

I don’t know the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Lancaster Charles was flying, it was pretty obviously hit by flak or shot down by a German nigh- fighter; although during this raid the RAF began ‘Operation Corona’ to jam German night-fighter communications.

Lancaster crew 103 Squadron, RAF Elsham Wolds 1943

Five members of the crew of Lancaster JB276 were killed: Sqn-Ldr C. S. F. Wood MiD, F/Sgt W. R. Brown, F/Sgt J. F. Craig DFM, Sgt C. Kershaw and Sgt H. R. Wilson. They are buried in the Hanover War Cemetery. Having no doubt bailed out, two members of the crew survived the crash, Flight Lieutenants W. H. Hopkins and Charles Grisdale. They were taken prisoner and soon sent to the POW Camp called Stalag Luft 1.


POWs marched through Barth to Stalag Luft 1

Stalag Luft I consisted of a strip of barren land jutting into the Baltic Sea about 105 miles northwest of Berlin.  Two miles south of the main gate a massive Lutheran church marked the northern outskirts of the village of Barth.  A large pine forest bordered the west side of the camp and, to the east and north, the waters of Barth Harbour slashed against the shore less than a mile from the barbed wire fence.

Enclosing the camp there stretched miles of barbed wire, in two rows four feet apart, attached to 10-foot posts.  Every hundred yards, a Guard Tower mounting a machine gun and a pair of spotlights provided constant vigilance and permitted an unobstructed view of all within the confines of the enclosure.

The Stalag was divided into five separate areas, called compounds.  There were four for prison compounds: South or West, North 1, North 2 and North 3.  The fifth area consisted of the German buildings, in the centre, well constructed buildings, green grass, and attractive shrubbery, “The Oasis” as the prisoners called this area, was in sharp contrast to the prison compounds.


Charles lived in the South compound, in Barrack 5, Room 20. He was, it seems, the Choirmaster of the camp, or at least of the compound. While Stalag Luft 1 was a pretty grim place there were distractions such as theatre groups, choral events, sports and a lot of writing of poetry – in between escape attempts. One anonymous poem I like written when Charles was there reads:


Barbed Wire! Barbed Wire! Barbed Wire!
To the North, South, West and East
Will it always hold me captive
Without hope or joy or peace

Must I ever curve this eager flame
That burns within my chest
Or know once more the joy of home
With pleasant hours of rest

Such questions to my mind do crowd
When deep in thought I sit
But ever with it comes the cry
It won’t be long, don’t quit

And so it goes from day to day
A never changing scene
But someday soon I will leave it all
As though it were a dream.

I won’t attempt to describe the POWs’ life in Stalag Luft 1, there are many fine works that do that on the internet. But as the war was nearing its end the Red Army was closing in on the camp from the east. Here is what happened:

555In late April, 1945 as the war in Europe was nearing its end, the Russians were approaching from the east and the British and Americans from the West in a race to get to Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin.  Stalag Luft I was north of Berlin, so it was unsure at first which of the Allied fronts would reach them first.  As the reports came in and the fighting got closer and closer to Barth, they soon realized that the Russians would be the ones liberating them.  They soon began to hear the heavy cannon fire sounds of the Russian artillery getting closer and closer to them.

At night the POWs would lay in their darkened barracks and there would be shouts of “Come On Joe” (for Joseph Stalin – the Russian leader) coming from all over the camp.   At this time it became apparent to the German Commandant and the guards at Stalag Luft I that the Russians were at their doorstep and they must make a move. So they approached the Senior Allied POW Officer of the camp, Col. Hub Zemke, and told him to prepare his fellow prisoners to march in an effort to escape the approaching Russians.  Col. Zemke refused to do so.

He informed the Commandant that even though there were over 200 of them with guns, that there were 9,000 POWs and they were prepared to fight rather than march.  He told the commandant that he realized this may cause high losses among the POWs but ultimately they would overcome the Germans and with the Russian allies so close he knew this was an acceptable risk.

The German command evidently realized that the end of Germany was near and so he accepted this decision by Col. Zemke.  The German command then informed Col. Zemke that he and the guards would be leaving the camp at midnight that night (April 30, 1945).  Col. Zemke had made plans in case such a scenario arose to take over the camp, as it was evident to him that as Senior Allied Officer he would be responsible for of the safe return of the POWs to Allied control.  He had already organized a group of hand selected men which he called the “Field Force” to help him keep the camp in order until they were all safely back in Allied hands.


Russians at Stalag Luft 1

So when the POWs at Stalag Luft I awoke on May 1, 1945 they looked around and noticed that all the Germans were gone and now there were POWs with armbands that said “FF” manning the guard towers.  Col. Zemke explained that the POWs could not just start leaving the camp on their own, as there was a war going on all around them and they could be shot.  He felt it best to keep the camp secure in an effort to protect the POWs.  (You can imagine not many of the POWs liked this idea, they were tired of being imprisoned behind barbed wire!)

Col. Zemke sent a scouting party out to meet the approaching Russians to inform them that there was a POW camp of Allies located in the area, so the Russians would not be shelling them!  Later in the day the Russian commander entered Stalag Luft I and meet with Col. Zemke and the British Senior Officer.  The Russian commander did not like the idea of the Allied POWs still being behind barbed wire, so he ordered that Col. Zemke have the fences torn down.  Zemke refused at first, but was later convinced (some say by force, with a gun) to tear down the fences.  The POWs enthusiastically tore them down.   Many POWs then left camp and went into Barth and the surrounding areas.  Some of them (approximately 700) took off on their own to make their way to the approaching British lines (my Dad being one of those!).  In the ensuing confusion of a war still in progress all around them some of the POWs were accidentally killed.

It was the 2nd White Russian Front of the Red Army that entered Barth on May 1, 1945 and liberated the prisoners of war at Stalag Luft I.   After the fences were down the Russians then learning of the meagre food supply the POWs had been existing on soon rounded up several hundred cows and herded them into the camp for the hungry POWs to slaughter and eat.  This they did immediately.   At night they entertained the POWs with their “USO” type variety show that travelled with them.   There was much joy and celebration among the newly freed POWs and the Russian soldiers.

The Russian Army stayed in Barth for only a couple of weeks.  After the POWs were evacuated from Barth, the Soviet Military Administration (SMAD) took over the empty barracks at Stalag Luft I and used them for a repatriation camp for their countrymen that had been used as slave labour by the Germans.  Those slave workers that were in the territory occupied by the Western Allies were transferred to the territory occupied by the Soviets.  They came into repatriation camps where they were interrogated by the Soviet Secret Service (GPU) and this organization decided whether the former slave workers were sent home to their families or into stalinistic camps (Gulags) to do slave work in coal mines in Siberia or somewhere else.  Even some of the newly freed concentration camp survivors which were Soviet citizens were transferred into Gulags because they had been forced to work in the German warfare industry, like in Barth where they were forced to work in the Heinkel plane factory and were imprisoned in the small concentration camp at the territory of the Barth airfield.


Also what the Russians did

Actually one British officer described the Soviets as “drunken barbarians”. When we think of what the Russian soldiers inflicted on the women of Germany we can well imagine – and shudder. We should remember these women too. But the Russians were of course better disposed to the English-speaking airmen in the POW camps.

One Soviet officer who was there for the liberation of the camp, Vasily Bezugly, recently wrote:

Yes, I’m a live witness of the events of those days. As I remember today, it was May of 1945 on the coast of the Baltic Sea in Barth. We had a great fraternization with the English and American POWs there. At first time in my life I saw a chocolate bar. It was a big box of chocolate with the sign of the Red Cross and Half-moon.  I think that was English or American POWs (I don’t no actually but it was nearly 9000 of POWs in Stalag Luft 1). We exchanged our addresses. One of the POWs (his name was Tobby or Bobby but I don’t remember now) gave me his one, but I lost it – I was very young (at least 19 years old boy).   After that all of us – Soviet, American and English – three great nations – sang famous Russian song “Katyusha”. At the end I remember big airliner which took all POWs on its board.

It all sounds very amicable, but “the Russians wanted the prisoners transported by land to Odessa, a port on the Black Sea, then by ship to the United Kingdom and then on to the United States, but the idea was rejected and further negotiations followed. Much to the disappointment of almost 9,000 liberated POWs, it took almost two weeks to repatriate the prisoners by air”. And so May 12,13 & 14, 1945 approximately ‘9,000 prisoners of war at Stalag Luft I were flown out of Barth, Germany and back into Allied control.  Royal Air Force POWs were flown back to England and the American POWs were flown to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Harve, France, where they were processed and waited for a liberty ship to return to the states’, including Flight Lieutenant Charles Grisdale. Amazingly there is even some film footage of the POWs departing for home, one part of which is below.

After Charles arrived back in England he returned to his wife and young children in Wallasey. He had been in some ways lucky. His brother and father were less so. His brother Donald was an RAF Flight Lieutenant and bomber pilot as well, with 254 Squadron. But in February 1945, just weeks before Charles was liberated by the Russians, Donald was killed in action aged just 26. He is buried in Runnymede Memorial Part VII. Charles father’s was a clerk in Wallasey, but during the war he was a Fire Warden and was killed in a bombing raid on Liverpool in 1941. Charles other brother, William Herbert Grisdale, was to die in 1948 in interesting circumstances in Sierra Leone in Africa. But these are other stories for another time.

Charles Grisdale died on the Wirral in 1972 aged 61.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam


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


“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:



I hope I will be forgiven for writing here about a young RAF pilot called Bill Lewis. He was the grandson of Penrith-born Agnes Grisdale and her husband Frederick Lewis – my great grandparents. My father used to tell me about his cousin Bill who had died in the Second World War serving in the RAF. I never knew how and where he died. This is part of Bill’s story. I hope I’ll be able to tell more in the future.

William Lewis Commissioned Gunner, Royal Navy in 1928

William Lewis Commissioned Gunner, Royal Navy in 1928

William ‘Bill’ Lewis was born in Dover, Kent in 1922. He was the second son of Royal Navy ‘Commissioned Gunner’ William Lewis. William Senior had joined the Royal Navy as a rating in 1903. When the Great War came he was commissioned and served as a gunnery and torpedo officer throughout the war and beyond. After having a son called Frederick in 1911, William lost his first wife Mary in 1914. He remarried Ethel Teresa Leeming in 1916 in Dover, and the couple’s only son Bill was born there while William was serving on the cruiser HMS Caledon.

As a child Bill spent much of his time with his mother and older half-brother Frederick, while father William was away at sea. The family eventually settled near the Royal Navy’s dockyard in Chatham in Kent. William Senior was by all accounts a rather old-style disciplinarian and, I have been told, rather dreaded by his family. What his relationship with his two sons was like I don’t know.

Young Bill attended St Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School in Rochester, probably until he was 18 in 1940. He then worked as an ‘accountant’ in Chatham Royal Navy Dockyard. The family story was that Bill had fought and died in the Battle of Britain, this is not true. Bill joined the RAFVR on 29 January 1941 and was immediately chosen for pilot training. He gained his ‘wings’ on 18 February 1942 and then was sent to 54 OTU at RAF Church Fenton in Kent for night fighter training, before joining the Beaufighter night-fighter 29 Squadron at RAF West Malling in July 1942 where he became a Flight Sergeant in January 1943. He was granted a commission and became a Pilot Officer in March 1943 (with effect from January) and was then transferred to 255 Squadron which was then serving at Maison Blanche in Algeria.

29 Squadron Bristol Beaufighter

29 Squadron Bristol Beaufighter

A Beaufighter Mk 6 in 255 markings as at Bo Rizzo in Sicily in August 1943

A Beaufighter Mk 6 in 255 markings as at Bo Rizzo in Sicily in August 1943

Here in a nutshell is 255 squadron’s war history:

The squadron (255) was reformed on 23 November 1940 and was equipped with the Boulton Paul Defiant. This turret armed fighter had been proved inadequate as a day fighter, and its lack of radar meant it wasn’t particularly successful as a night fighter either. In July 1941 the squadron received the Beaufighter, a much more effective night fighter, and these aircraft were used as part of the air defence of the Midlands from then until late in 1942.

In November 1942 the squadron was deployed to North Africa to take part in the invasion of North Africa. It was used to provide defensive cover at night over the Allied bases in Algeria, which were vulnerable to German attack from Tunisia. At first the squadron had to operate without its airborne radar, which was removed for security reasons, but in early December the radar was restored, and the night defences became rather more effective.

In August 1943 the squadron moved to Sicily and in November to Italy. Its role now changed, and it went onto the offensive, flying intruder missions over the Balkans (including attacks on river traffic on the Danube). The Beaufighters were replaced with Mosquitoes at the start of 1945 and these aircraft were used until the end of the war. After the end of hostilities the squadron moved to Malta, and then to Egypt, before being disbanded on 30 April 1946.

255 Squadron. Ad Auroram 'To the break of dawn'

255 Squadron. Ad Auroram ‘To the break of dawn’

When the squadron left for Africa from RAF Honiley on 13 November 1942, the squadron’s diarist wrote:

A great send off was arranged & the entire staff of controllers etc etc had manned the roof & verandah of the control tower armed with very pistols. Rockets, red lights, green lights, all sailed into the air as each three machines started their ‘take-off’… A few minutes before the ‘take-off’ began the following message was received:

‘ Both present and past Air Officers commanding No 9 Group and entire Group Staff wish to thank 255 Squadron for their willing efforts, excellent cooperation and first class work in the Group and now congratulate 255 on being given further opportunities of showing their worth and wish them the very best of luck and good hunting.’

Pilots of 255 Squadron at Maison Blanche, Algeria 1943

Pilots of 255 Squadron at Maison Blanche, Algeria 1943

Travelling via Gibraltar the squadron arrived in North Africa. At first the Beaufighters of 255 Squadron were based at Maison Blanche and Setif airfields in Algeria before moving to Tunisia and operating out of various airfields there: such as Monastir, Bone, Paddington (Souk El Khemis) and La Sebala. They conducted regular defensive and offensive night patrols and shot down many Italian and German aircraft, while also losing many of their own pilots.

Pilot Officer William Lewis only joined the squadron at Maison Blanche on 28 April 1943, as we have seen having transferred from 29 Squadron. His first patrol was from Bone airfield on the night of 4-5 May. A few days later  on the night of 8-9 May, Bill, with his radio navigator P/O S. A. Hurley:

Took off at 23.05 from Monastir landed 02.00 Monastir. Freelance patrol east and north of Cap Bon 20/30 miles out at 2,000’. Flames and flares seen to west. Investigated lights on the sea, thought to be naval units shelling the coast. Flow over Pantellara on return. R.D.F sweeping followed Beaufighter some way down to Monastir.

During May and June the squadron, including Bill, continued their nightly patrols while the allied forces in North Africa prepared for the invasion of Sicily – Operation Husky. On the 17th June, Bill, together with the rest of the squadron, had what the squadron diarist called a ‘red letter day’: ‘The whole squadron paraded at Sebala 1 to welcome the King.’

An Italian Cant Z 1007 bis medium bomber

An Italian Cant Z 1007 bis medium bomber

The British and Americans landed in Sicily on the night of 9-10 July 1943. And on that very night we can read of another patrol by Bill Lewis and his long-time radio navigator P/O S. A. Hurley. They took off in a Beaufighter Mark 6 F at 01.25. from La Sebala airfield in Tunisia:

Carried out practice interceptions under mixture control North of Bizerta until 02.30 hours. Afterwards on patrol in the same area. At 03.05 a Bogey was reported 20 miles N. E. Of Bizerta at 14,000ft going N.W. Mixture instructed pilot to increase height to 14,000ft and at an airspeed of 230 MPH IAS gave various vectors ranging from northerly to westerly ones. At 03.12 contact was obtained at 9,000ft range hard to port well below.

Turned in towards it and throttled back with a few corrections of course the Beaufighter lost height to 11,000ft. The pilot then saw an A/C on port side at 2,000ft range and below, crossing from port to starboard, burning navigation lights. The Beaufighter got beneath the E/A and at 100 yards range the pilot could clearly see three twin bright exhausts and twin tail against the starlit sky. The aircraft was identified as a Cant. Z. 1007 Mod. The navigation lights were no longer on. At 03.20 now approx 50/60 miles NN. E of Bizerta fire was opened with all guns at 100 yards range. After a two seconds burst the centre motor burst into flames. Small pieces of burning wreckage hit or passed over the Beaufighter without causing damage.

Another two second burst put the starboard engine on fire. The E/A lost height in a diving turn to port. Coming down 5,000ft the crew of the Beaufighter saw the blazing A/C hit the sea and burn there for a few minutes. Only slight evasive action taken and there was no return fire. No one seen to bale out. The Beaufighter returned to base after the combat. CLAIM: – One Cant. Z. 1007 Bis (Mod) destroyed.

Bill Lewis had shot down a three-engined Italian medium bomber over the Mediterranean off Tunisia and the unfortunate Italian crew had been killed. The squadron’s diarist wrote: ‘Congratulations also go to P/Os Lewis and Hurley on their success in shooting down a Cant. 1007 B.’

The allied armies fought their way through Sicily, which the Germans evacuated in late August. While this was happening, 255 Squadron Leader Eliot “flew to Sicily” on July 27th “to give the ‘dromes’ the ‘once over’”. On the same evening back at La Sebala ‘the 2nd airmans’ dance was held’. ‘Cpl. Johnston … enlivened the proceedings by endeavouring to teach the French lassies the highland fling.’

'Bo Rizzo' Airfield, Sicily - 1943

‘Bo Rizzo’ Airfield, Sicily – 1943

In late August Bill’s squadron moved to Sicily, soon basing themselves at ‘Bo Rizzo’ airfield (the present-day Aeroporto di Trapani-Chinisia). Night offensive and intrusion patrols continued in support of the allied invasion of Italy. By November the squadron could move to the Italian mainland near Naples. Here they operated from the airfields of Grottaglie and Pomigliano.

On 27 November 1943, the promotion of P/O (Pilot Officer) W. Lewis to F/O (Flying Officer) was announced, ‘with effect from 20. 7. 43’.

A month later on 28 December, Bill and his navigator Hurley took off from Pomigliano at 04.10:

On patrol west of Naples at 10,000ft. At 05.25 port engine failed. Set course for base. Attempted to feather airscrew, not sufficient oil pressure to feather. Prepared to bale out. Height now 4,000ft. When a west of Ischia, propeller fell off. Then able to maintain height at 4,000ft. Made safe landing at base. ATOM and Chaperona gave every assistance to home the aircraft.

In the New Year Bill flew a few more patrols in Italy, his last being a ‘defensive patrol’ from Grottaglie on the 12th of January. On the 28th of January, Flying Officer W. Lewis (Pilot) and Flying Officer S. A. Hurley (Navigator Radio), their ‘tour expired’, were ‘posted to 144 M.U. for test duties’.

144 Maintenance Unit Maison Blanche

144 Maintenance Unit Maison Blanche

Bill had been sent to 144 Maintenance Unit based at Maison Blanche airfield in Algeria – the same place where 255 had first been based in North Africa. As its name implies such Maintenance Units repaired and maintained aircraft, both of the RAF and the USAF. After his last operational tour Bill, together with his navigator Hurley, were there to test fly repaired aircraft to ascertain if they were fit to re-enter service. The 144 M. U. records state that Flying Officer W. Lewis had been ‘posted from 255 Squadron for Beaufighter testing duties’. During February and March 1943, this is what Bill Lewis did.

But then, on the 1st April 1944, 21 year-old Bill was killed. The records say:

April 1st. F/O W.Lewis (139419) (sic) was killed when Mosquito MM.472 crashed into the ground near Rivet, Algeria and caught on fire.

The RAF Historical Branch wrote to me as follows:

I can tell you that Fg Off Lewis was serving with 144 Maintenance Unit and was engaged on a non operational ferry flight at the time of his death. He took off from Blida airfield at about 5.6 pm on 1 April 1944 in Mosquito MM472; the aircraft was seen to be flying straight and level at about 7000 feet when it commenced aerobatic manoeuvres in the form of slow rolls. These rolls were performed at least twice before the aircraft went into a steep dive resulting in a spin.

The aircraft crashed near Rivet, Algeria about 20 miles South East of Algiers. Fg Off Lewis died in the crash and was buried on 3 April 1944 in the cemetery at Deli Ibrihim. The service was conducted by Squadron Leader The reverend J L Douglas Padre of 1 Base Personnel Depot

When at a height of 500-1000 feet Fg Off Lewis tried to gain regain control of the aircraft by using his engines but was unsuccessful. The evidence presented to the Court of Inquiry (we hold no copy the report produced by this Inquiry) showed that the accident was due to loss of control while attempting aerobatics in a type of aircraft unsuitable for the purpose and was against regulations.

I have to say that as a pilot I find this report a little puzzling but I’ll leave it for now.

Flying Officer William Lewis RAF (VR) of ‘255 Squadron, Service Number 139418”, aged just 21, was buried in Dely Ibrahim War Cemetery (4. F. 18) in Algeria. (photo)

Flight Sergeant Bill Lewis aged 19 in 1941 before he became an officer

Flight Sergeant Bill Lewis aged 20 in 1942 before he became an officer

All RAF pilots had to write a will. When Bill’s was proved on 13 September 1944, giving his address as 32 Balfour Road, Chatham, he left his small estate of £537. 13s. 1d to his father William Lewis ‘retired commissioned gunner R.N.’.

So this was the fate of ‘Cousin Bill’, a story my father never told me, or never knew.

It’s strange really but only a few months ago I was with my family in Naples and we climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius. If I had known I could have seen from there the airfields from which Bill flew his night patrols in 1943 and the island of Ischia where he had lost an engine. So many times we cross the paths our ancestors crossed, and never know it.






Rochester School Memorial includes William Lewis

Rochester School Memorial includes William Lewis