05/06.10.1942 No. 148 Squadron Wellington IC DV562 S Sgt. Willard Noel (Will) Fethers
Date: 05/06 October 1942 (Monday/Tuesday)
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: HM King George VI, February 1938.
Type: Vickers Wellington IC
Code: Call sign "S"
Base: Landing Ground 237 Kilo 40, Gebel Hamzi, Egypt (Kilo 40 refers to its distance from Cairo up the road to Alexandria)
Location: Crashed between Tobruk and Bardia, Libya
Pilot: Sgt. Willard Noel (Will) Fethers Aus/401279 RAAF Age 22 PoW No. 1316 later 2733 Camp: Sagan and Belaria - L3
2nd Pilot: Sgt. J. Murphy 656645 PoW No. 843 Camp: Sagan and Belaria - L4
Obs: Sgt. William Maskell 1124501 PoW No. 229151 Age 20 Camp: Muhlberg, Elbe - 4B
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. John Vincent 1114784 Age 20 Pow No. 229627 Camp: Muhlberg, Elbe - 4B
Air/Gnr (front): Sgt. Robert Aitchison Whitefield Age 20 1112582 PoW - details unknown
Air/Gnr (rear): Sgt. James A. Carpenter 1382804 PoW No. 1489 Camp: Barth Vogelsang - L1
We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK
Rommel's second offensive that begun on 21 January 1942 was eventually stopped by the Allies on 4 February at Gazala some 40 miles west of Tobruck, the new front extending for 50 miles in a south easterly direction from Gazala to Bir Hakheim. From then for three months there were no major engagements until 26 May when Rommel resumed his offensive. On 20 June Tobruk fell to Axis forces and 30000 men were taken prisoner. As Rommel's advance continued into Egypt the RAF bomber squadrons were charged with disrupting his lines of supply especially the port of Tobruk which was relentlessly bombed almost daily.
REASON FOR LOSS
Detailed to bomb Tobruk, Wellington DV562 took off in good weather at 19.30 hours on 5 October 1942 from Landing Ground 237 located some 25 miles north east of Cairo. Australian Captain Sgt. Will Fethers was a veteran of about 26 operational missions prior to this one, every one of them as 2nd pilot and involving a total of 196 hours flying time. This was to be his first and sadly his last mission as 1st pilot.
His aircraft was armed with 4 x 500 lb General Purpose bombs and 2 x 4.5 Flares and carried a fuel load of 750 gallons of petrol weighing just under three tons. Nothing was heard from the aircraft after 23.03 hours when a message was received "Crashing near Sollum". Sollum is a small village on the coast of Egypt near the Mediterranean Sea, east of the border with Libya, and around 145 km (90 miles) from Tobruk.
It was later learned that all six crew members had survived and had become prisoners of war. The following details of what happened to the aircraft and its crew is taken from the statement given by Sgt. Fethers to No. 11 (RAAF) Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at RAF Brighton after his release from Stalag IIIA in 1945.
"When approximately 50 miles North of Tobruk the port engine failed. I performed the routine for engine failure, but without effect. Losing height rapidly I jettisoned the bomb load and made for the coast. Still losing height I ordered the guns and all else that could be moved thrown out. I crossed the coast at 1000 feet at which stage the starboard engine caught fire and the flames spread along the wing. I ordered the crew to crash positions and force landed. 2nd pilot Sgt. Murphy RAF suffered the only injury - a burnt hand. The aircraft was well alight and nothing could be done. The landing was made between Tobruk and Bardia.
Sgt. Murphy left us on the 2nd day of walking as his burned hand required medical attention. At the time we were within sight of the coast road so it is safe to assume he was taken prisoner. The other members of my crew were all taken with me 9 days later."
According to Willard Fethers' obituary published in the Central Western Daily (Orange NSW) the crew were captured whilst trying to steal a truck from an Italian camp.
The five crew members were captured on 14 October at Sidi Barrani. By the 19th Will Fethers was at Campo PG 51* (Altamura Villa Serena) 45 km from Bari Transit Camp,Italy and by January 4 1943 he had been transferred to Campo PG75 PM3450* the PoW Transit Camp at Torre Tresca, Bari where in December he was hospitalised with Yellow Jaundice.
*PG = Prigione di Guerra i.e. Prison of War. PM = Posta Militare, i.e. the military district.
In February 1943 he was transferred to Campo PG 78 PM 3300 at at Sulmona near Rome. Notification from the international Red Cross of him being a prisoner of war however refers to him as Pilot Officer W.N. Fethers, on the face of it no more than a transcription error but on 7 October 1943, among messages from prisoners recently arrived in Germany broadcast at 4.45 p.m. from Berlin was one from "Pilot Officer W.N. Fethers to his father "Fit and well in Germany. Address later. Love to all (William)[sic]".
In August 1943 he had been transferred north to Bologna and later to Oflag VA at Weinsberg near Stuttgart and in January 1944 to Stalag Luft III. He had been originally PoW number 1316 but on 22 February 1944 notification was received that his number had been changed to 2733.
It later transpired that when Will was first taken prisoner, knowing that officers received better treatment, told his captors that he was an officer. He seems to have got away with this for quite some time. It was perhaps the discovery of this subterfuge that resulted in the change of his number. It is clear from RAAF documents that they had noticed his apparent self-promotion but presumably, in order not to place him in jeopardy, chose to ignore the fact.
In August 1943 he had been transferred north to Bologna and in October to Stalag Luft III in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan, 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin. Will described conditions in the Italian Camps as generally poor but those at Stalag Luft III were better and merited a rating of "fair" with the recreational facilities being marked as "good". Whilst the tunnels for the Great Escape were being dug Will became a "penguin" - one of many who carried sand from the tunnels in bags inside their trousers slowly allowing it to leak out as they walked about outside
He remained at Stalag Luft III until September 1944 when he was transferred to Stalag Luft 7 Bankau opened on 6 June 1944 specifically for RAF NCOs. Here as at Stalag Luft III Will described conditions as fair. On 15 January 1945 however Will was one of the 1500 prisoners marched out of the camp in bitter cold. Six days later they crossed a bridge over the river Oder and eventually reached Goldberg on 5 February where they were loaded onto a train. Will gives a brief description of appalling conditions endured by the prisoners during the three week march.
"The members of camp Luft 7 were marched in midwinter 240 kilometres from Bankau to Goldberg. During this march no medical aids were provided, transport for the sick consisted of one cart and sleeping quarters were in filthy and overcrowded barns. Very little food was provided and no Red Cross food parcels despite the fact that these could easily have been obtained."
They were taken by train to Stalag IIIA at Luckenwalde, Brandenburg, 52 kilometres south of Berlin and three months later they were liberated by Russian troops on 21 May 1945.
Three days later Will was back in the UK.
The final question on Will's Liberation Statement asked "Do you require repatriation to Australia as soon as possible after your leave?"
Will's answer - "Not necessary". On the face of it a strange answer for a man who had been away from home for almost four years, but under the circumstances very understandable.
Will had arrived in the UK in October 1941 and after training at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire he was posted to No. 27 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lichfield Staffordshire a move that was to change his life forever.
Whilst on weekend leave Will and a friend were billeted at the home of widow, Edith Beale in Burton-on-Trent. Also living with Edith were her two children, 16 year old June and Michael aged 13. Will's stay at Lichfield lasted barely three weeks before he was posted to RAF Harwell back in Oxfordshire but after leaving he and June began writing to each other. Their correspondence continued when he was posted to the Middle East and all through his incarceration in Italy and Germany. After he returned to England in 1945 he proposed to June and they were subsequently engaged to be married.
No sooner had Will and June got together than he had to return to Australia and on 9 August he sailed for Australia arriving at Sydney on 9 September and was finally discharged from the Air Force on 16 February 1946.
In December 1946 the "bride ship" Otranto arrived in Australia. On board was Will's fiancée June Beale: they were married the following month on 23 January 1947.
The other crew members were held in the following prison camps in Germany.
Sgt J. Murphy initially to Dulag Luft then Sagan and Belaria, Lower Silesia - L4
Sgt. William Maskell and Sgt. John Vincent to Muhlberg, Elbe - 4B
Sgt. Robert Aitchison Whitefield - no information
Sgt. James A. Carpenter initially to PG82 PM3200 (Laterina near Arezzo, Province of Caserta, Tuscany) to Barth Vogelsang, Western Pomerania - L1
Nothing more is known of their experiences: if you have any information please contact our helpdesk
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) W/O. Willard Noel (Will) Fethers was born on 13 February 1920 at Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia the son of Major Noel Denton Fethers, an Insurance Loss Assessor and Cora Florence Eleanora Fitzwilliam Fethers nee Terry. He had a sister Lois born in 1918 and a half-sister Lola Helen Griffith born in 1907.
Educated at Ormond State School 1932-1934 and Caulfield Grammar School 1934-1937 where he won school and house colours for tennis and house colours for cricket and football and enjoyed horse riding. After leaving school he was employed as a Clerk by General Motors - Holden's Ltd.
In January 1941 he commenced a part time Accountancy Course with the Frederick Ebbels Institute
He lived When he enlisted in the RAAF at Melbourne on 6 Jan 1941 with his father at 2 Carlingford Street Elsternwick, Melbourne.
When he enlisted in the RAAF at Melbourne on 6 Jan 1941 he was 5ft 9" tall weighing 134lb with dark hair, brown eyes and a medium complexion.
After training at No.7 Elementary Flying School, RAAF Western Junction, Tasmania on Tiger Moths and No.3 Service Flying Training School, RAAF Amberley, Queensland on Avro Ansons he was awarded his Flying Badge on 26 June 1941 and on 22 August promoted to Sergeant. He embarked for the UK on 18 September 1941 and after arrival on 23 October spent a month at no. 3 Personnel Reception Centre at RAF Bournemouth before being posted on 1 December to No. 2 Service Flying Training School at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire where he trained on Oxford Airspeeds. Thereafter followed his three weeks training at Lichfield on Wellingtons that continued at No. 15 Operational Training Unit at RAF Harwell in Oxfordshire. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 22 February 1942.
On 22 May 1942 he was transferred to Middle East Command and Training Camp RAF Almaza (originally called RAF Heliopolis), Cairo, Egypt. He joined 148 Squadron on 20 June.
He was promoted to Warrant Officer on 1 May 1943.
After his discharge from the RAAF and their subsequent marriage Will and June settled in Melbourne and as time passed by had three daughters: Carolyn, Susan and Pauline. They moved to Sydney in 1960 and after Will retired they moved to Borenore near Orange, New South Wales. June passed away in October 2010.
Willard Noel Fethers passed away two years later on Wednesday 26 December 2012 aged 92. His funeral service was held at Holy Trinity Church, Byng Street, Orange on Wednesday 9 January 2013 at 2 p.m.
(2) Sgt. J. Murphy was married and lived at 35, Dale Street, Stubbins, Ramsbottom Lancashire. He was released from Stalag 357 on the 16th April 1945 by the 8th Hussars 7th Armoured Division.
(3) Sgt. William Maskell was born in 1922 at Chorlton the son of Richard Maskell and Mary J Maskell nee Raphael of 275 Kings Road, Manchester 21. His only sibling Margaret R. Maskell was born at Chorlton in 1924.
(4) Sgt. John Vincent was born in 1922 the son of Mrs Elizabeth Vincent of 180 Blackmoorfoot Road Huddersfield
(5) Sgt. Robert Aitchison Whitefield born 1922 at Lanark the son of Mrs Whitefield of 41 Kenilworth Road, Lanark, Scotland
(6) Sgt. James A. Carpenter was married in 1940 to Alma Mary Humphreys at Hendon, Middlesex and they later lived at 54, Tetherdown, Muswell Hill, London.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - January 2017
With thanks to the sources quoted below.