It was a bitterly cold night, temperatures hovering around freezing, but it was the thickening fog that made the night so dangerous for flying. At dusk on Thursday 16 December 1943, nearly 500 aircraft, almost entirely Lancaster bombers, took off for Berlin. The journey was a long one – more than seven hours − and meant penetrating deep into enemy territory. The crews flew from dozens of airfields in eastern England, from north Yorkshire to southern Cambridgeshire, the first taking off soon after 4 p.m. Bombs began to fall on the German capital some four hours later. The Lancasters were expected back around midnight, mission accomplished. In the event, more than 300 airmen died that night, almost half of them when the raid should have been over, victims of the winter weather.
You wonder whether they should have flown at all that night. The Prime Minister had seemingly been unequivocal about flying in the teeth of bad weather. ‘I am not pressing you to fight the weather as well as the Germans,’ Churchill had said, ‘Never forget that”. That was how he had instructed Bomber Command’s Commander-in-Chief, Arthur Harris. In the event, it proved just fine words since the reality was that the air war could not just be conducted on nights of fine weather, where visibility was clear and the stars bright. For a start, operations to cities like Berlin needed long, dark winter nights, rather than the warm, short ones of summer.
In Yorkshire, in 1943, the December weather had been grim for days: unremitting fog and frost. In York, it was 26 degrees Fahrenheit on the 15th – six degrees of frost. By the 16th, there was great pressure to get crews airborne again and thundering east to attack the German capital: there had been no ops since 2 December. That particular Thursday was cold, sunless and misty, much as it had been for weeks. The temperature was near freezing. The weather forecast was for cloud to increase as the night wore on and the briefings made little attempt to disguise the fact that fog would be widespread. The crews’ general attitude was one of ‘If we’re going, let’s get on with it – we might even get back before the fog really clamps down.’ Many aircrew were expecting the operation to be cancelled. They were also aware of where they might be heading in the darkness and mist: 1850 gallons of aviation fuel? It had to be Berlin.
The first aircraft were due back soon after 11 pm – the round trip typically took about seven and a half hours. At Linton-on-Ouse, the home of 426 Squadron, ground crew and WAAFs were anxiously waiting for the sound of returning aircraft. By the time the thunder of engines was heard in the darkness, the fog was thick − the cloud base was desperately low, on occasions less than300 feet. A significant number of pilots encountered major problems in locating their home airfield − or indeed any aerodrome at all. Pilots grew increasingly concerned about fuel beginning to run out, and the nearby hillsides being shrouded in fog. In the event, 43 aircraft crashed that night, the victims of the weather, not the Germans. Sergeant Roger Coulombe, a Canadian pilot from 426 Squadron, survived the mayhem; he later described to me how, on a most tentative descent, he saw ‘the black tower water tank of the station appearing right off my left wing tip.’
426 Squadron had 13 aircraft on the Berlin raid that night: seven completed the raid and returned safely; two were forced to return early with mechanical problems; two more were forced to bail out; and two crashed, one at Hunsingore, not far from RAF Marston Moor, and the other at Yearsley, a hilltop village perched 550 feet above the Vale of York.
The crew’s Canadian pilot, Squadron Thomas Kneale, had been a veteran of sixteen operations (and 29 years) and was commander of the squadron’s B flight. Some months before – on 27 August 1943, Kneale and his crew had taken Sergeant Coulombe as ‘second dickey’ on a raid on Nuremberg. Now, in December, Coulombe would survive, but Kneale and all but one of his crew would die. It was a quarter to midnight when the Lancaster hit the ground, shattering the peace of this isolated spot. Later, a desk-bound officer with a hard heart had judged the crash the result of ‘E of J’ – Error of Judgement on Thomas Kneale’s part.
All of this I was aware of when I wrote Black Night for Bomber Command, an account of that grim night. But the story wasn’t over: the village held more memories than I knew. The Lancaster’s initial point of impact was a straw stack – clipped by its starboard wing. Then it careered and bounced, hitting a farm, a forge, ripping a hole in a hedge, until it came to rest against a giant ash tree. Two residents of the village – eight year olds when the accident happened − remember the crash clearly. One of them described how the fallen bomber was ‘more a collection of bits than an aircraft.’ The undercarriage was found some hundreds of yards away at the edge of a wood. I had imagined that the six who died that night had been killed instantly. In fact Squadron Leader Kneale had survived for some thirty minutes: he and the other crew members had been pulled from the wreck and taken to the nearby Wombwell Arms. Kneale died in the pub’s kitchen.
I’ve revisited the site of the crash several times this year: once on the 68th anniversary, in a period of weather reminiscent of what came to be known as ‘Black Thursday’ – a proper wintry chill. I knew that the owner of the house where the aircraft came to rest laid a wreath on the site each year on the very day, and I wanted to pay my respects. Much earlier in the year I had been there for the dedication of the plaque to the crew’s memory – it comprised a single Lancaster and the men’s names in metalled relief. It was a glorious May day of summer promise, blue sky, wonderful light, the most vibrant visibility, as if to reinforce what the air crews had had to face that grim night. It was a gala occasion: the Canadian flag flew, Kirkbymoorside Brass Band played its heart out, and some120 people squeezed into the little church. A colonel from the Canadian High Commission was there. Most moving of all were the assembled families of the men who died − they had all come over from Canada. One was the namesake of the dead pilot. We sang the Canadian national anthem.
A few weeks later I took my ex-97 Squadron father-in-law there (his pilot had been a Canadian too). We went into the church to look at the plaque and read the visitors’ book. It had recently been signed by the onetime girl friend of one of the dead crew, her mind still bright with memories of the young man she had lost. On 16 December, when I visited again, the weather was freezing, the trees bare, but I could see across the Vale of York below. Yearsley’s one street was empty and silent, although in the distance I could hear gunfire (rabbit hunting I guessed) and a single aeroplane engine. The church door was locked.
When a story seems to be over, it never truly is: there are always traps for the unwary researcher, I discovered. I knew that there had been one survivor, the rear gunner, Sergeant Charlie Fortier. It never occurred to me that he might have provided me with a potential witness to the dark events of that night. By 2011 it was too late: he had died in September 2004, at much the same time as I began work on the book that became Black Night for Bomber Command. Later, after the service, I shook hands with his daughter and we stood in a Yearsley garden drinking tea close to the spot where her father had returned from Berlin in a nightmare of fog, fire and twisted metal. The crew’s rear gunner, his survival was courtesy of the severed tail-plane which avoided the fatal collision with the ash tree. That May afternoon we could see for forty miles down across the Vale of York, bathed in the brightest of sunlight. Like many airmen, Charlie Fortier was reluctant to talk about his war. His log book entry for the night of 16 December 1943 is a model of taciturnity: ‘Ops to Berlin, seven hours, crashed in England.’ That summer afternoon in England, his daughter remembered her father and imagined him clinging to life on that wild night, while I reflected on those other men lost on Black Thursday, and how each of the other crash sites merited a similar listing of names and a community’s recognition of its past.
Richard Knott’s most recent book is ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ published in 2011 by Robert Hale. ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ was published by Pen & Sword in 2007. He is grateful to David Smith and other inhabitants of Yearsley for updating the story of Lancaster DS 837.