19/20.09.1942 No. 148 Squadron Wellington 1C HF840 -B Sgt. Harold Leonard Curtois
Operation: Tobruk Harbour, Libya
Date: 19/20 September 1942 (Saturday/Sunday)
Unit: No. 148 Squadron - Motto: Trusty
Badge: Two battle axes in saltire. The battle axes were selected as being well-tried and formidable weapons. Authority: King George VI, February, 1938.
Type: Wellington 1C
Base: Landing Ground 237 (Kilo 40) some 25 miles North West of Cairo, Egypt
Location: 80 miles South of Mersa Matruh, Egypt.
Pilot: Sgt. Harold Leonard Curtois MiD 1260232 RAFVR Age 31 PoW in Italy no further details 1)
2nd Pilot: Sgt. Brynmor Thomas Prosser 655148 Age 29 - PoW No. 27219 Camp: Stalag Lamsdorf - 344 (2)
Obs: Sgt. Arthur Kenneth Newnes de Souza MiD 926093 RAFVR Age 25 - PoW in Italy no further details (3)
1st W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Alan Thomas Coles 1068103 Age 22 - PoW No. 27228 Camp: Stalag Lamsdorf - 344 (4)
2nd W/Op/Air/Gnr (F): Sgt. Alfred Ernest Thomas Christopher Frampton MM 1282960 Age 34 - Evaded and returned to unit. (5)
Air/Gnr (R): Sgt. James Herbert Tanswell Bullock Aus/404572 RAAF Age 25 - PoW No. 27206 Camp: Stalag Lamsdorf - 344 (6)
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Following the fall of Tobruk to Rommels forces on 20 June 1942 the Allies were pushed back into Egypt as far as El Alamein where they halted the German advance. At the same time General Auckinleck was replaced by Lieutenant General Alexander as Commander in Chief Middle East and Lieutenant General Montgomery took command of the 8th Army.
A stalemate then ensued as both sides paused to draw breath and consolidate their forces.
On 31 August Rommel attacked again but was stopped at Alam Haifa. By 3 September it was clear that he had failed and four days later with his withdrawal complete he was back where he started.
Meanwhile, bombers of the RAF had engaged in sorties over the battle area in search of targets of oportunity but from 6 September their attention was turned to the bombing of Tobruk and the disruption of Rommel's lines of supply. By 18 September 148 Squadron made 75 sorties against Tobruck.
On the night of 19/20 September, 8 Wellington 1Cs of No. 148 Squadron were detailed for an attack on Tobruk harbour.
The Curtois crew was one of those detailed for the operation, their fourth such sortie in two weeks.
REASON FOR LOSS
Shortly after 2000 hours, an hour or so after sunset, the 8 Wellingtons of 148 Squadron began taking off from Landing Ground 237 aka Kilo 40.
Harold Curtois flying Wellington HF840 took off seventh in line at 2031 hours in good weather and visibility and set course for Tobruk some 500 miles west. His aircraft had a bomb load on board of 5 x 500 lb General Purpose Time Delay bombs and carried 684 gallons of fuel.
At 0026 on 20 September an SOS was received from the aircraft at a positon 70 to 80 miles south of Mersa Matruh some 275 miles west of Kilo 40.
The following account of what happened after take-off is based on a report on the interrogation of Sgt. Alfred Frampton on his return to his squadron by Flight Lieutenant R.J. Legrand, Senior Intelligence Officer of No. 236 Wing.
After take-off all went well until the aircraft reached the Sallum area. Flying second dickey, Bryn Prosser was at the controls when about 0001 hours (20 September) the port engine began to cut out and caught fire. The Captain, Harold Curtois, immediately took over and at once jettisoned the bombs and turned for home and with the aircraft rapidly losing height he ordered that all guns, flares and other movable equipment be also jettisoned from the aircraft. Using the extinguisher Harold put out the fire in the port engine and shut it down. At about 0020 the captain ordered Wireless Operator Alan Coles to send an SOS.
About 15 minutes later with the Wellington having descended to 2000 feet Harold Curtois told the others "It's no good chaps. We're still losing height. We'll have to get out quick".
First out was Rear Gunner James Bullock. Next to go was the Observer, Arthur Souza, carrying maps and other equipment followed by Second Pilot Bryn Prosser and then Wireless Operator Alan Coles. As Alfred Frampton jumped he saw the aircraft fly away over him and immediately pulled the rip cord. He made a safe landing albeit bumpy and on his back but fortunately unhurt. In the darkness he heard other crew members calling to each other, probably Coles, de Souza and Prosser, but in the clear night distances were hard to determine and whether they made contact he does not know but he never saw them again. He had seen the parachutes of those three open but had seen no sign of that of rear gunner James Bullock or Harold Curtois who was still flying the aircraft when he had left.
Alfred estimated that he had landed at about 0040 hours. Having left his escape kit in the aircraft all he had with him was a water bottle slung round his neck and a few scraps of paper in his pockets he carefully tore up and buried before rolling himself up in his parachute and going to sleep.
Waking before dawn he cut up his parachute from which he fashioned a hat and with the sun rising on his left set off walking South estimating that he must be somewhere South East of Mersa Matruh.[HF840 had in fact crashed about 80 miles South of Mersa Matruh]
Having walked all day and at about 1900 hours, he found HF840 which appeared to have belly-landed. Apart from the starboard propeller having been wrenched off and the bottom of the fuselage ripped up on the rough ground the Wellington looked to be in fairly good condition, so much so that Alfred considered that anyone aboard the aircraft when it crashed, would have stood a good chance of escaping injury.
Lying beside the aircraft was a parachute and harness with Harold Curtois' name on it and a ladder, leaning against the fuselage and leading up to the cockpit the windows of which were open. It seemed that Harold had found the aircraft before him.
Climbing inside Alfred found the interior understandably a mess. He tested the wireless and found that the receiver was serviceable but not the transmitter.
He was unable to find his escape kit nor any food but he did find some first aid items consisting of morphia, aspirins, No. 9 pills (laxatives) and chalk and opium pills. He also found de Souza's kit bag, a revolver and ten rounds of ammunition and two signal strips to augment his head covering but alas no hand bearing compass which he presumed had been taken by the Observer. He filled his water bottle from the container and put some in the green bag which normally held the ground strips; in all he had about three pints of water. Outside the aircraft he had found an Irvine Jacket, presumably Harold's, which he also took with him.
Setting off once more he continued South and reached the edge of the Qattara Depression near Qaret El Tarfaya. Here the going so bad and rocky that Alfred decided to go down into the depression where he also knew there was little likelihood of encountering enemy troops. Being impassable by most heavy vehicles due to its salt lakes, high cliffs, escarpments and fine sand the only small units of Afrika Korps and British Long Range Desert Group were to be found within the 7500 square miles of the depression.
However climbing down was no easy task due to the treacherous and brittle surface, but with difficulty Alfred reached the bottom and amongst green shrubbery. Turning east he reached the nearby salt springs where there were also a few palm trees.
He was no doubt somewhat surprised to find six airmen already there. It transpired that they were the crew of Wellington Z9044 of No. 70 Squadron that had force landed on the night of 13/14 September.
They were the Captain, P/O. Robert Bryan Muirhead, 2nd Pilot, F/O. Peter Dennis Short 22, Observer, WO. Maurice William Gilding 31, Wireless Operator, Sgt. Thomas Arnold Oldale 22, Front Gunner, Sgt. Phillip Gordon Burrell 22 and Rear Gunner, Sgt. Clifford Owens 21. Also with them was a South African native soldier who had escaped from Tobruk.
Having been walking for six days or so they were all in a very exhausted state apart from the South African who seemed fitter than the others, but more importantly they had maps, a hand bearing compass and six small compasses.
By now it was dark and as the others had been resting by day and walking by night they were preparing to move off. Alfred however was preparing to rest for the night before continuing but decided it might be more advantageous to join them. They were using the aircraft's ladder to carry the water container though this was now only full of salt water with which they moistened themselves from time to time [see note 1]. Albert immediately divided up his supply of fresh water among them as they had had none for two days.
They walked through the night and rested again the following day (21 September) and that night set out again at 2100 hours. The Observer told them that there was a fresh water hole 16 miles due east and sure enough at dawn they found it. Ahead of them was a peak which according to the Observer would provide shade and water so after resting for two hours they struck out again. After travelling all night they were already very weak and this continuing exertion in the full heat of the sun proved too much for the two gunners, Sergeants Burrell and Owens who collapsed and had to be left behind.
The going was very bad, consisting mainly of saucer shaped depressions filled up with encrusted salt through which the foot would occasionally break through to expose a sharp cutting edge, whilst underneath lay cold salt water and bog.
Finally reaching the peak at about 2200 hours they did indeed find the promised shade but alas, no water.
They rested in the shade throughout the day and about 1900 hours started walking due east once more still hoping to find the water hole which they never did.
Alfred had no idea how the Observer (WO. Gilding) was so confident that there was water ahead but he was certainly very weak by this time and perhaps not entirely responsible.
During the night WO Gilding collapsed and in an attempt to help him to carry on they broke open the compass bowl and gave him some of the alcohol. Briefly revived he was able to carry on but soon collapsed again and nothing more could be done for him.
At some stage the South African had left the main party having refused to travel at night except when the moon was up due to his belief that evil spirits made the journey dangerous. He was also able to travel in the heat of the day and for a while kept overtaking the main party and being overtaken by them at night but eventually drew ahead and they lost sight of him [see note 2]
It was now the early hours of 22 September and the remainder of the party F/O. Short, P/O. Muirhead, Sgts Oldale and Alfred Frampton carried on until dawn and as the sun rose they found some shrubbery and lay down to rest for the day in its shade.
They had planned to set off again at 1800 hours but at the appointed time F/O. Short and P/O. Muirhead felt so weak that departure was delayed for an hour but at 1900 hours they both declared that they were unable to move. The two sergeants left them behind and set out again. P/O. Muirhead had his revolver and 16 rounds and before leaving, Alfred Frampton gave the two officers his morphia.
They walked all that night and at dawn on the 23 September rested in the shade of some rocks. During the day their thirst had been so great that they boiled their own urine and drank it.
At 1900 hours they set off again heading east and walked until dawn, rested throughout the day (24 September) and resumed walking at 1900 hours. Shortly after leaving they noticed a small red glow that they initially thought was the reflection of the setting sun but as the sun finally went down the glow grew brighter and they realised that it was the glow of a fire and probably a sign of a human habitation of some kind.
Making for they fire they found an Arab shepherd who gave them water and rice. They then lay down by the fire and slept.
When they awoke on the morning of 25 September the Arab had gone. Whilst searching for the water hole from which the Arab had obtained the water that he gave them the previous night they spotted a tent eight or ten camels some two or three hundred yards away.
There they found the Arab and showed him the ghoolie chit [see note 3] but he was unable to read it. However they managed to explain that they needed food and water and wanted to get to Lake Maghra [Moghra]. The Arab gave them rice, eggs and goats milk and agreed to take them by camel after sundown to Lake Maghra.
During the day Alfred endeared himself to the Arab's family which consisted of his wife a small boy and little girl. He drew pictures on a piece of paper to the great delight of the children and gave the boy an old leather wallet. He gave the little girl a pewter ring that he had bought in Tel Aviv but the little girl showed it to her mother who kept it and put it on her own finger.
At dusk they set out by camel and reached El Maghra about 8.30 on the morning of the 27th.
The beauty of the surroundings surprised Alfred who had never seen anything so much like the Highlands as this lake, even down to the mist floating on the water.
There were many signs that British troops had occupied the district - lorry tracks, fire blackened sites and discarded cigarette packets. Alfred and Thomas persuaded the Arab to take them north to find British troops. The Arab agreed to do so and the two sergeants then lay down and went to sleep.
At 12.30 they were awakened by four Me 109s ground strafing British troops due north of them and as Sgt. Oldale got up to look the Arab pushed him back under cover. Alfred however got up for other reasons, more personal and more urgent and pushed his way past the Arab.
Whilst outside Alfred saw a staff car arrive albeit some way off, and two men emerge and his first thought was that the British had moved out and these were Germans reconnoitring the area prior to taking it over.
But having gone back inside and discussed the situation with Thomas Oldale they decided to take the risk of attracting the two men who turned out to be two officers of Advanced Air Headquarters Western Desert.
It was explained to the Arab that a reward would be coming the next day if he waited and they then departed for Burg el Arab which they reached about midnight. From Burg el Arab they were sent to Landing Ground 99 from where No. 3 SAAF Squadron flew them to Abu Sueir, Sgt. Oldale's home station.
Alfred finally reached Kilo 40 at 1800 hours on 30 September after having been away for 11 days.
On 26 January 1943, in recognition of gallant and distinguished service, Sgt. Alfred Frampton and Thomas Oldale were both awarded the Military Medal as promulgated in the Second Supplement of the London Gazette of the same date.
Sgt. Thomas Arnold Oldale's 4 medals (Military Medal, G.VI.R. (1360001 Sgt., R.A.F.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; War Medal, nearly extremely fine were sold for £1950 in 2001.
Thomas Oldale died at Sheffield, South Yorkshire, on 20 July 1978 aged 58
Note 1 The citation for the award of the Military Medal to Sgt. Oldale says that the night after they were joined by Alfred "three members of the party drank, or poured over their heads, all the remaining water with the exception of half a bottle."
In his report Alfred makes no reference to this incident, only mentioning that the container was full of salt water. It would seem therefore that the incident probably occurred prior to Albert joining up with them.
Note 2 The South African was picked up two days before Oldale and Frampton
Note 3 A notice carried by military personnel and addressed to any civilians who may come across an armed-services member – such as a shot-down pilot – in difficulties. As well as identifying the force to which the bearer belongs as friendly, the notice displays a message requesting that the service member be rendered every assistance.
The other crew members of Wellington HF840 were all captured and became prisoners of war: Harold Curtois and Arthur Newnes de Souza in Italy whilst Brynmor Prosser, Alan Coles and James Bullock were all imprisoned at Stalag 344 Lamsdorf in Poland.
The circumstances of their capture and subsequent incarceration are unknown.
If you have any information about this or anything else concerning the crew please contact us via the helpdesk
Nothing was ever heard again of the other five crew members of Wellington Z9044 and were therefore commemorated on the Alamein Memorial.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) Fl/Sgt. Harold Leonard Curtois MiD was born 16 March 1911 at Hornsey, Middlesex the son of Joseph Samuel Curtois (a Precious Stone Exporter and Licensed Valuer) and Alice Mary Curtois nee Howard. He had a brother Leslie Howard Curtois (1908-1991).
In 1934 he married Violet J. Chown at Edmonton, Middlesex and they lived at 40 The Meadway, Enfield, Essex. Their daughter Janice L. Curtois was born in 1937.
At the time of the 1939 census Harold was staying with his parents at 38 Bevan Road, East Barnet and was employed as an Insurance Official whilst his wife and daughter were living in Devon.
On 1 January 1945 it was announced in the London Gazette that Fl/Sgt. H. L. Curtois had been Mentioned in Despatches.
Harold Leonard Curtois died at Hillingdon, Middlesex in 1970 aged 59
(2) Sgt. Brynmor Thomas Prosser was born on 19 March 1913 at Pontypridd, Glamorgan, Wales the son of Thomas Prosser (a Butcher) and Nora Maria Prosser nee David. He had siblings Evan Harold Prosser born 1904, Charles David Prosser born 1907 and Glynne Prosser born 1915.
In 1939 lived at 20 Park Avenue, Barry, Glamorgan. Brynmor Prosser's occupation is recorded as a Public Health Dept Clerk but at a later stage changed to "Sapper 38 Div RA 247 Coy Headquarters Section". It seems that Bryn Prosser had initially joined the army and later transferred to the air force. His service number confirms that he had indeed transferred to the air force from the army.
In 1958 he married Alice M. Parsons at East Glamorgan.
Brynmor Thomas Prosser died at East Glamorgan in 1960
(3) F/O. Arthur Kenneth Newnes de Souza MiD was born in 1917 at Eton Buckinghamshire the son of Frank Newnes de Souza (a School Master, Lecturer, Author and Inn Keeper) and Hilda Newnes de Souza. In 1939 they lived at 60 Pine Vale Crescent Bournemouth, Hampshire.
In 1939 he married Edith L.Q. Head at Bournemouth. A son, Ian P. Newnes de Souza, was born in 1955. They lived at 83 Pine Vale Crescent Bournemouth and later at 26 Coronation Avenue Bournemouth
926093 Warrant Officer Arthur Kenneth Newnes de Souza was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) serial 177987 on 23 May 1944 (London Gazette 8 August 1944) confirmed in this appointment and promoted to Flying Officer (war subs) on 23 November 1944 (London Gazette 22 December 1944). On 1 January 1945 it was announced in the London Gazette that he had been Mentioned in Despatches.
(4) Sgt. Alan Thomas Coles was born in 1920 at Llandovery, Carmarthenshire, Wales the son of Thomas B Coles (Railway Goods Guard) and Elwina Coles nee Reece. He had a sister Dorothy E. Coles born in 1915.
In 1939 his parents lived at 16 New Road Melbourne, Llandovery.
Alan Thomas Coles is thought to have died at Wembley, Greater London on 2 October 2011 aged 91
(5) Sgt. Alfred Ernest Thomas Christopher Frampton MM was born on 7 April 1908 at Camberwell, Surrey the son of Alfred Charles Frampton (a Boot and Shoe Warehouseman) and Daisy Elizabeth Frampton nee Jefferies. He had four siblings: Stella Frampton born (1906-1984), Ellen Amy Frampton (1912-1930, Bertha Florence Frampton (1915-2007) and Christine Frampton (1919-1991). In 1939 the family lived at 40 Havil Street Camberwell.
Before joining the Air Force, Alfred was an Assistant Boot and Shoe Buyer
In 1931 he married Kathleen Florence Sarah Sims at Camberwell who in 1942 lived at 58 High Road Rochester Kent.
On 26 January 1943 Alfred Frampton and Thomas Oldale were both awarded the Military Medal in recognition of gallant and distinguished service.
Alfred Ernest Thomas Christopher Frampton died at Leicester in 1997
(6) WO. James Herbert Tanswell Bullock was born on 19 July 1917 at Brisbane, Queensland, Australia the son of Jesse Alexander Bullock (a Refrigeration Technician) and Annie Bullock nee Tanswell of Curd Street, Greenslopes, Queensland and later at "Kentvilla" Edgar Street East Brisbane, Queensland.
He had a sister, Betty Tanswell Bullock who died in 1925 and three other sisters, details not known.
He enlisted at Brisbane in July 1940. His promotion to Flight Sergeant was wef 5 February 1942 and to Warrant Officer on 1 May 1943
After being taken prisoner he was first sent to Dulag Luft and by 11 November 1942 he was
held at Stalag VIIIB (later renumbered as Stalag 344).
After liberation WO Bullock arrived at RAAF Depot Brighton in the UK on 9 April 1945 and
embarked for Australia on 18 June 1945
BURIAL DETAILS, MEMORIALS AND EPITAPHS
None- all the crew survived the war
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - November 2018
With thanks to the sources quoted below.