625 Squadron Lancaster III PB126 CF-T Fl/Lt. Elmhirst-Baxter
Date: 30/01st July 1944 (Friday/Saturday)
Unit: No. 625 Squadron (1 Group)
Type: Lancaster III
Base: RAF Kelstern, Lincolnshire
Location: Lutz-en-Dunois, France
Pilot: Fl/Lt. John Charles Elmhirst-Baxter 119545 RAFVR Age 30. Evaded capture
Fl/Eng: Fl/Sgt Jack Blakey 1582692 RAFVR Age 29. Evaded capture (1)
Nav: W/O. Wilfred John Edgar King AUS/417084 RAAF Age 30. Evaded capture
Air/Bmr: Fl/Sgt. Alfred James Foley 658426 RAFVR Age 26. Evaded capture (See news extract at end of page)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Francis Owen Evans AUS/417950 RAAF Age 21. Evaded capture
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. William Jeffrey Adcock AUS/426856 RAAF Age 25. Missing - believed killed
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Robert Gledstone 1378355 RAFVR Age 32. Missing - believed killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
Information submitted to Aircrew Remembered by Jack Albrecht - February 2018, with great assistance from Nic Lewis and Scott Raymond and John Elmhirst. Also to Mick Blakey author of Escadrille 69.
"The year was 2004 and in the city of Derby, England Melvyn Wheatley was looking round the house he had recently purchased. In the attic amongst other items left by the previous owner, he found a battered French 100-franc note. On closer inspection he noticed that the note was covered in signatures....."
Above: 100 franc note (Photo. Mr Melvyn Wheatley)
The air element of the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944 included the ‘Transportation Plan’. Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) together with his advisor Professor Solly Zuckerman, devised this plan. It called for the use of the French road and railway system to be completely denied to the German Army in order to stop them reinforcing their troops in Normandy.
From the outset it was realised that the light bombers and fighter-bombers of the AEAF would not be able to accomplish this task alone. For the operation to be successful, they would need to be supported by the strategic bombers of RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF 8th Air Force.
The officers commanding these two Air Forces were against the use of their resources in this way, but the commanders of the invasion forces won the day. Elements in the railway system were then placed on the target list for the attention of the British and American heavy bombers
Amongst the targets visited by our heavy bombers on the night of 30th June/1st July were the railway yards at Vierzon, south of Orleans in Central France
Above: L-R Rear - W/O. Wilfred John Edgar King, Fl/Sgt. William Jeffrey Adcock, Fl/Sgt. Frank Percy Adams, Fl/Sgt. Francis Owen Evans. Front: Fl/Sgt. Alfred J. Foley, P/O. Rex Glasson, Sgt Jack Blakey.
No 1 Group Bomber Command provided 118 aircraft for this raid.
At RAF Kelstern, near Louth in Lincolnshire, 625 Squadron commanded by W/Cdr D.D. Haigh DFC put up 19 Lancasters as their contribution.
The target was marked by 1 Group’s own Target Marking Flight. Returning aircraft reported successful strikes on the railway yards, but noted that the defending anti-aircraft fire over the target was the heaviest they had encountered in the region to date.
It was felt that this was one of the reasons that 14 of the Group’s aircraft failed to return from this mission. Three of those failing to return were from 625 Squadron.
Lancaster ND459 CF-M piloted by F/O. Eric Wright 159508 RAFVR crashed near Genouilly. Lancaster JB743 CF-C pilot P/O. Harry Hale AUS/415944 RAAF was brought down at Saint-Pierre-de-Jards. All fourteen airmen aboard these two aircraft perished. (webmaster note; some publications have these aircraft as belonging to 626 Squadron)
The third aircraft failing to return to Kelstern that night did not however fall victim to the flak over the target. Fl/Lt. Elmhirst-Baxter piloted Lancaster PB126 CF-T. He and his crew were on their seventeenth mission with the squadron.
After successfully bombing the target they were thirty minutes into the return journey when the bomb aimer Fl/Sgt. Foley warned of a Ju88 nightfighter turning in for a frontal attack.
The pilot quickly dived the bomber to starboard, cannon fire from the attacker passed down the port side missing its intended target.
If the crew thought their ordeal were over, they were sadly mistaken. Several minutes passed and then, suddenly, the beam of a searchlight illuminated them. Elmhirst-Baxter shouted on the intercom to the bomb aimer to fire at the offending light. A short burst of fire from the front turret and the light went out.
Seconds later, the night fighter attacked from the rear. This time he was more successful. Cannon fire raked the port wing, setting fire to the port outer engine and puncturing the No.3 fuel tank.
The flight engineer, Sgt. Blakey, quickly feathered the propeller on the damaged engine, activated the fire extinguisher and the fire subsided. However a shower of sparks was now issuing from the ruptured fuel tank.
A second attack by the Ju88 from the rear saw cannon shells strike along the fuselage starting a fire amidships and this time hitting the starboard inner engine.
With the situation looking hopeless, the pilot ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft.
Fl/Sgt. Foley, Sgt. Blakey, the navigator Australian W/O. King and another Australian F/Sgt. Evans the wireless operator, clipped on their parachutes and moved to the forward escape hatch. As they did so, they noticed the rear gunner Fl/Sgt Gledstone emerging from his turret. By this time the fire was spreading rapidly through the rear of the aircraft.
One by one, they dropped though the hatch into the dark night below. Fl/Lt. Elmhirst- Baxter was the last to leave the aircraft.
The bodies of Fl/Sgt Gladstone and the mid upper gunner Fl/Sgt Adcock were found in the remains of the stricken bomber the next morning. (Further research continues with this)
The parachutes of the five airmen to successfully leave the aircraft all opened correctly, but the return to Mother Earth was accomplished with varying degrees of success.
Fl/Lt. Elmhirst-Baxter landed in a cornfield and using his penknife he quickly scarped a shallow hole in the earth and buried his parachute and Mae West. Taking out his compass, he noted that the remains of his aircraft were burning on the ground to the south. In order to put as much distance between him and the wreckage he began to walk in a northerly direction.
After what he considered to be a far enough distance between him and the burning Lancaster, he changed directions, now walking eastwards. Eventually he hit a railway line, which he calculated to be the line from Châteaudun to Bonneval. Following this line towards Bonneval, he took shelter under a tree when it started to rain. It was now light.
From here, he watched as two Ju88 aircraft circled round the area at low level. He assumed they were searching for signs of parachutes.
He stayed hidden under the tree until 08:00 hrs, when he continued on walking north. After a couple of hours, he came across a man working in a field. Explaining to the man that he was English and in the RAF, he asked where he was. The man confirmed that he was walking towards Bonneval, but advised that he go no further because of German troops there.
Taking him to his farmhouse, he told him to stay there whilst he fetched someone who could help him.
Sgt. Blakey also landed in a cornfield. He also followed procedures, burying his parachute and other equipment before walking to the north like his skipper. He had only walked approximately three miles, avoiding a village and several farms, before he stopped, needing to rest. He had twisted his back during his landing and this was beginning to hurt.
Finding a thicket he hid in the bushes and settled down to wait for morning. He had not been there long when he heard someone shouting the names of the crew. Answering these shouts he found it was Fl/Sgt. Foley.
Together, they walked to the north hoping to find someone to help them, stopping briefly in a cornfield when it started to rain. With the rain abating they continued to walk northwards. It was now 08:00 hrs. Eventually, they came across a teenage boy tending sheep. They explained that they were English and needed food and something to drink. The boy indicated that they were to remain where they were and left them.
After about two hours, six or seven Frenchmen arrived and after handshakes all round, the airmen were given cigarettes. They were then taken to a nearby farmhouse.
Fl/Sgt. Evans landed in a field on the edge of a wood and quickly set about burying his parachute in the dense undergrowth. Not knowing where he was, he decided to wait in the woods until daybreak. Falling asleep, he was awoken about 05:30hrs by the sound of low flying aircraft. Seeing that they were two Ju88’s, he remained under cover until they had left the area.
Coming out of the woods, he walked north along what he thought was a main road until he came upon three girls standing at the door of a house. Explaining who he was, he asked if they had anything to eat. They took him to a barn at the rear of the house and brought him some food.
Later that night they returned with civilian clothes and a member of the local resistance group. This man took him to a nearby farm where he met Jack Blakey and Fred Foley.
W/O. King landed heavily in a field of oats and in doings so badly twisted his ankle. Using silk from his parachute he bandaged his ankle as best he could, burying the rest of the chute with his mae west. He noted that it was 02:15hrs. It was the 1st July.
He began to walk away from his landing spot, but after only a mile and a half he was forced to stop because of the pain from his damaged ankle. Finding a clump of bushes, he hid under them as best he could until about 20:00hrs the following night, when a farmer and two boys found him. Telling him to stay where he was they left to return later with food. During the next few hours four or five different men visited him telling him they would take him to join other members of his crew.
They came back for him about 23:00hrs. As he could not walk, they put him on a bicycle and pushed him to a farm where he was reunited with Jack Blakey, Francis Evans and Fred Foley.
After landing on French soil, the next hours had followed a similar pattern for all five airmen. Walking northwards to put as much distance as possible between themselves and their crashed Lancaster, they had all made contact with the local populace. Without hesitation these people with little or no thought for their own safety had contacted the local resistance group.
Right L-R: Madame Pénot, Jeanne, Monsieur Pénot. The French family that risked their lives to assist.
After satisfying themselves that these were genuine British airmen, this group had then contacted members of the Comet Escape Line who now took over responsibility for them.
The normal procedure would be for them now to be passed from group to group gradually making their way down mainland France over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Then to Gibraltar where a passage backs to England would be found for them.
However, following the Allied landings, MI9, the British government department responsible for overseeing the escape of allied servicemen from Nazi occupied territory mindful of several recent atrocities committed by the occupying army, ordered a stop to the passage of evaders along the normal route. It was felt that it would be safer to hide them in large groups in the French countryside to await the arrival of the liberating forces.
Three camps were set up in densely wooded areas around France under ‘Operation Marathon’. One of these was in the Foret de Freteval near Châteaudun and was codenamed ‘Sherwood’. Situated in a part of the forest consisting of dense undergrowth, the existence of the camp was never suspected by the Germans, despite the fact that they had constructed a number of their ammunition dumps in the same area.
Our five survivors from Lancaster PB126 were destined for Sherwood.
For several days they were escorted from one house to another until they arrived at the camp in the second week of July. Wilf King was the last of the five to arrive, due to his injured ankle, he travelled in a variety of unusual transports, including a cart, a lorry and finally a trailer pulled by two bicycles!
At ‘Sherwood’ camp, they met a mixture of evaders, predominately British and American aircrew but also a small number of allied ground troops who had been cut off from their parent units in the fierce fighting after the June 6th landings.
Situated in a part of the forest with dense undergrowth the existence of the camp was never suspected by the German forces even though they had constructed a number of their ammunition dumps in the area.
Living in tents the evaders cooked the food supplied by the French using charcoal, which produced no smoke; they never talked with raised voices and camouflaged the tents every day using newly cut branches. It was vital that they could not be detected from the air or from ground level.
They ran the camp along military lines even giving themselves the name ‘Escadrille 69’ and a unit flag, using the Gauloise cigarettes logo a flying helmet as their unit insignia. The membership card for this group was a French 100-franc note.
With Allied troops fighting their way deep into Central France, this was an anxious time. Eventually, on 12th August, Airey Neave from MI9 (Webmaster - see notes 2) arrived at the camp in a SAS jeep and on the 13th elements of the US 3rd Army arrived. ‘Sherwood’ and its inmates had been liberated.
At the time of the liberation there were over one hundred and fifty evaders there, so many that a second camp had been established in the same forest 10km away from the original.
82 British and Commonwealth aircrew, 55 of the USAAF, 1 Polish Air Force pilot, approximately 6 US ground troops and 2 members of the South African Army had all lived under the noses of the German Army and evaded capture.
Some of the camp members had formed strong bonds and before they left the camp to return to the UK to carry on the fight, they signed each other’s Escadrille 69 membership cards, a french 100-franc note.
Many of the names on the note found in the house in Derby by Melvyn Wheatley are illegible, however the signatures of Jack Blakey (top right hand corner second signature down) and Wilf King (bottom centre left at 45 deg. angle) are clear to see, no doubt those of John Elmhirst-Baxter, Francis Evans and Fred Foley are there waiting to be deciphered.
Several other notes have been found. This one is in the possession of the family of Sgt John Sandulak of Sperling, Manitoba, Canada. Sgt Sandulak was the rear gunner of a Lancaster bomber of 428 Sqdn RCAF. (Webmaster note - more can be found on his story here)
Notes 1: Fl/Lt. John Charles Elmhirst-Baxter was from Ealing, London and survived the war. Fl/Sgt Jack Blakey also survived the war in Europe, but went missing on the 23rd August 1945 - body later recovered in 2009, the full story can be read here. W/O. Wilfred John Edgar King from Adelaide, Australia survived the war but sadly passed away on the 20th July 1975 age just 61. Fl/Sgt. Alfred James Foley from Dudley, Worcestershire also survived the war, passed away in October 2008 age 90. Fl/Sgt. Francis Owen Evans from Peterborough, Australia returned to Australia in January 1945.
Some of this crew escaped injury during an earlier incident just a few weeks earlier on Sunday 11th June. Flying Lancaster I ND995 CF-F when the rear turret became detached during a landing on return from an operation to Achères.
For acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty: Suggested decorations, Fl/Lt. John Charles Elmhirst-Baxter 119545 RAFVR - DFC. Evader, eyewitness account. Fl/Sgt. William Jeffrey Adcock AUS/426856 RAAF - DFM. MIA, eyewitness account. Fl/Sgt. Robert Gledstone 1378355 RAFVR - DFM. MIA, eyewitness account.
Fl/Sgt. William Jeffrey Adcock. Runnymede Memorial. Panel 259. Born on the 22nd August 1918 at Bundaberg , the son of Jeff and Alice Maud Adcock, of North Kolan, via Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia. Prior to service worked as a Farmhand.
Fl/Sgt. Robert Gledstone. Runnymede Memorial. Panel 218. Son of William Dodsworth Gledstone and Clara Gledstone and husband of Anne Elizabeth Gledstone.
(1) Other mentioned within the page:
Fl/Sgt Jack Blakey. Kuala Lumpur Civil Cemetery (Cheras Road). Row 13. Grave 853. Son of Mr. and Mrs. F. Blakey of Boston, Lincolnshire, England.
Researched and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Jack Albrecht, Scott Raymond, 'The Comet Network', 'Malaya History Group'. Theo Boiten, Roderick Mackenzie, Mick Blakey the author of Escadrille 69 and other sources as quoted below.
Notes 2: Airey Middleton Sheffield Neave, DSO OBE MC TD (23 January 1916 – 30 March 1979) was a British army officer, barrister and politician. During World War II, Neave was the first British officer to successfully escape from the German prisoner-of-war camp Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle, and later worked for MI9. After the war he served with the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremberg Trials. He later became Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Abingdon.
Airey Neave was killed on the 30th March 1979, when a magnetic car bomb fitted with a ball bearing tilt-switch exploded under his new Vauxhall Cavalier at 14:58 as he drove out of the Palace of Westminster car park. He lost his right leg below the knee and his left was hanging on by a flap of skin. Neave died in Westminster Hospital an hour after being freed from the wreckage without having regained consciousness. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), an Irish republican paramilitary group, claimed responsibility for the killing.
2018 - no one has been brought to justice - there are the several conspiracy theories behind his killing.
Extract from the Birmingham Post & Mail Ltd - October 2008:
A Midland pensioner who devoted his life to playing and promoting cricket collapsed and died at an event arranged in his honour.
Widower Alf Foley, aged 90, who had terminal cancer, had just delivered a memorable 10-minute speech to up to 50 relatives, past and present players and fellow members of Dudley-based Netherton Cricket Club, for whom he was president, when he dropped dead.
Mr Foley was among the best known characters in Midlands cricket circles and had lifelong association with the game as a player and promoter of the sport, particularly among the youth. Today Colin Brookes, who was among club members to pay tribute to him, said: "I have never seen anything like it. He stood up and made the most wonderful speech, sat down and died. "He said everything he needed to say and saw almost all the people he needed to see before it happened. It was so tragic and yet so fitting that so many people who cared and loved him were with him."
The tribute event and buffet lunch was arranged at short notice to honour Mr Foley for his services.
The former leading batsman, who was diagnosed with cancer in April and had moved to his son David's home in Peterborough, had been too ill to visit the club for his birthday in August, when a game was to have been staged to mark his special day. A former plumber, he had been a past player and member of the club for over 50 years and its president for 20 years. He was also chairman of the North Worcestershire Youth League for many years and in 2004, won the Clubman of the Year award offered by the organisation for Midlands cricket clubs.
Mr Foley had also served with the RAF during World War II as a navigator bomb-aimer on Lancasters, completing his training in Rhodesia with Max Bygraves. He became a distinguished member of the "caterpillar club" after parachuting to safety and making his way back to England after being shot down in Eastern France.
Netherton Cricket Club secretary Dennis Lewis, who was also at Sunday's luncheon, said the club was in total shock. "We had not seen Alf since May but in phone conversations in recent weeks it was clear he wanted to come back and see everyone," he said.