Following my recent discovery and link to the ‘Ulceby Memories’ Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Ulcebymemories/ … I have been prompted to dust off an article I wrote and had published in Lincolnshire Life’s sister magazine, ‘The Linconshire Poacher’. I considered that the subject – that of a tragic collision of two Lancaster bombers over the village in 1943 – would be of interest to group members and, sure enough, I’ve had some interest – which is always encouraging (I find).
This piece was my first real success at having work published – ‘success’ measured by the fact that I was paid for my efforts – but, more than that, the research and writing of the piece had a profound effect on me. I managed to find two eye witnesses and interviewed them for the piece. The interviews, together with a very poignant visit to the Elsham Wold Airbase museum on a foggy November morning, resulted in my ‘bonding’ with the pilots and feeling the tragedy, despite the intervening years separating the event from the writing of it.
Reinforcing the sense of a connection with the crews was the fact that, at the time I wrote the piece, I was also reading Len Deighton’s ‘Bomber’ – an amazing novel that centres on Bomber Command’s operations over Europe and culminates with the bombing of one particular town in Germany. It was a story that highlighted the sacrifices made on both sides and served to turn my own views of those operations completely on their head. If you haven’t read ‘Bomber’ I recommend that you do.
So now, each year as the autumn fogs close in, I often find that my mind wanders to my research, and the events of December 16, 1943 – more so when these conditions are accompanied by the sound of aero-engines from nearby Kirmington airfield – and I’m affected by a melancholy that can only come from the tragic loss of that night.
I guess that, when a writer produces a piece of work that has touched him (or her) in some way, he (or she) wants to share it with a wide audience. So I’m adding it here. I hope it’s of interest.
During World War Two a collision was something feared most of all by every bomber crew. While quick-witted pilots were able to perform clever manoeuvres to evade enemy fighters or flak, few crew survived the nightmare of a mid-air collision.
Given the high concentration of craft in a small area of air space, as at the height of bomber command’s campaign on Europe, it could be considered that collisions between aircraft were inevitable. The inevitable did happen – with tragic regularity. One such tragedy occurred near Ulceby in North Lincolnshire in the late afternoon of Thursday, 16th December, 1943.
The busy A15 running north to the Humber Bridge bisects what was the main runway of Elsham Wold airbase where Lancaster and Wellington bombers prepared to take off. An ideal site for a bomber base, Elsham – operational from July, 1941 – was one of bomber command’s busiest.
In December 1943, two squadrons operated out of Elsham: 103 and 576. 103 Squadron, one of No. 1 Group’s founder units, had been reformed in the summer of 1940 from the remnants of the Advanced Air Strike Force, returned from the disasters that had befallen it in France. In November 1943, 103’s ‘C’ Flight had been despatched to form the nucleus of 576 Squadron. They were to be together at Elsham for the following eleven months.
As well as home to two Lancaster bomber squadrons, Elsham was at various times also used by a Heavy Conversion Unit, in addition to its role as a relief landing ground for the training group based at Blyton. It is little wonder then that the skies around Elsham were rarely quiet. In fact, some nights as many as forty aircraft were operating from the base. Losses were high.
The mission briefing given on December 16 promised an ‘easy trip’. Bad weather forecasts for enemy territory would, it was predicted, ensure that enemy fighters would be ‘fog-bound’ on their bases across northern Europe. To capitalise on this situation, a thousand bomber raid was planned.
Conditions for take-off were poor. Low cloud blanketed the area, and at briefing aircrews were instructed to climb away from the airfield and not, under any circumstances, to fly back across it. In conditions such as those, when craft flew so close to one another, often buffeted by another’s slipstream, all crews could do was hope that everyone else was flying straight and level.
Among the aircraft taking off for the eight hour round trip to Berlin that night were JB-670 of 103 Squadron and LM-332 of 576 Squadron. They were piloted by Flight Sergeants V. Richter and F.R. Scott. It was to be the second operation for Richter, and the first for Scott.
Unusually, Richter and two of his crew were shown as being on the strength of 576 Squadron yet were to fly on the 103 Battle Order in a 103 aircraft. It must be assumed that, to capitalise on available aircraft for this heavy raid on the enemy capital, a scratch crew had been formed. This, too, was unusual.
F/S Scott took off into dense, low cloud at 16:36. Richter followed a minute later. Fitter/ Armourer Geoff Howells and two comrades had just completed bombing up their allotted ‘A’ Flight Lancasters and were on their way back to the main hangar for further orders when something made them stop and look to the skies. They were horrified to see one of the two aircraft suddenly appear out of the cloud, directly in the path of the second as it climbed away from the runway.
As F/S Richter took to the sky in his Lancaster, ATS driver Marie Harris, based at Goxhill’s Ack-Ack site, was approaching Ulceby with a load of supplies when she heard the bombers. “It was very low cloud – this ‘ops’ should never have taken off,” she later recalled.
Like everyone else in this part of Lincolnshire at that time, Marie was used to the sight of heavy bombers and she would often watch the large aircraft lift into the sky, where they would circle once or twice before flying off on their missions. Often she would stand and salute them, wishing them luck. Today, however, she was to watch a tragedy unfold.
“It was very low cloud and the Lancasters were taking off into the circles, up and away … they were so low and so near I felt I could nearly touch them. One went into this low cloud and I was thinking ‘it’s a wonder they don’t crash, they’re so close together’, when in a split second as it came out of the cloud – God, it was a head-on crash with another Lancaster.”
The two aircraft collided above a field almost directly over Marie’s wagon. She was stunned. Streaks of fire and burning debris fell onto her truck and the road around her. Quickly, she halted the vehicle and leapt for safety into a ditch at the roadside.
Both Lancasters were fully laden with bombs and fuel for the mission. It was a miracle that the impact occurred over fields and not Ulceby village itself.
Marie’s immediate thoughts were of the aircrews. “Thinking some of the crew could be saved I ran up past the farmer’s house, bits and pieces flying all over. [I was] just passing a barn and someone caught hold of me from behind and wouldn’t let go … kept saying ‘no lass, no lass – there’ll be nothing.’ In no time at all the fire engines were arriving.”
Despite having just witnessed a shocking catastrophe, she dutifully climbed into her truck and continued to the base with her delivery of supplies. “When I pulled up to the guard-room I was rooted to my seat and couldn’t stop crying – thinking of the Bobs, Alecs and Bills, just blown to bits. It was awful – and still is.”
From the condition of her vehicle it was quickly apparent to the duty guard and his sergeant that Marie had been under the colliding aircraft. They kindly took her to the mess where she was given a mug of hot, strong tea.
The collision was the first of many disasters that occurred that ‘Black Thursday’ night. Regrettably, mission planners were wrong in their predictions and enemy fighters were airborne and ready to intercept the bombers. They succeeded in shooting down twenty-one aircraft. A further four were lost in collisions over Berlin.
For those crews who managed to make it back to friendly skies, their ordeal was far from over. Mist had formed during the evening and blanketed the area, shrouding the airfields.
The tragic consequences were to make it a busy night for the crash crews as a further eleven aircraft were lost in crashes and collisions on or around their bases. Including the Ulceby tragedy, these collisions and crashes alone claimed the lives of fifty-six men.
Comrades seeking solace for the loss of their friends would have to look further than the official reports of the night’s mission. Group 1’s summary concluded: ‘Conditions were vile and unexpected yet 136 aircraft landed safely. We must continue to strive for better airmanship and more effective ground control’.
This brief and stony statement serves to illustrate the nature of war and tragic loss of life in that period of our history.
© Stephen Wand