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Archive Report: Allied Forces

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
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No 9 Squadron
21/22.12.1940 9 Squadron Vickers Wellington 1C L7799 WS:D Sgt. Harrison

Operation: Porto Marghera, Venice, Italy

Date: 21st/22nd December 1940 (Saturday/Sunday)

Unit: 9 Squadron

Type: Vickers Wellington 1C

Serial: L7799

Code: WS:D

Base: RAF. Honington, Suffolk

Location: Lullington Court, near Alfriston, Sussex

Pilot: Sgt. Robert Norman Harrison. 741615. RAFVR Age 33. Killed

2nd Pilot: Sgt. James Frederick 'Jimmy' Gapp. 745876. RAFVR Age 23. Killed

Nav/Obs: Sgt. Leslie William Nichols. 902486. RAFVR Age 32. Killed (2)

WOp/Air Gnr: Sgt. Maurice Holker. 968318. RAFVR Age 19. Killed

WOp/Air Gnr: Sgt. William Riley. 966315. RAFVR Age 21. Killed

Air Gnr (Rear): Sgt. John Docker. 938826. RAFVR Age 30. Killed

REASON FOR LOSS:

Wellington L7799 took off from RAF Honington at 20:15hrs for an operation on the industrial area of Porto Marghera, Venice.

The aircraft was returning to its base at RAF Honington when it crashed at Lullington Court, SE of Alfreston, Sussex. The cause of this accident is not known. The aircraft may have run out of fuel, been hit by flak or attacked by an enemy night fighter.

The following is a description of the raid by the Commanding Officer of 9 Squadron, believed to be Wg Cdr. Ernest Alton Healy 16053 RAF: (Courtesy of Aaron Brown)

At two-thirty on the afternoon before this raid which I am going to describe, the squadron was called together. I called out the names of the pilots and this is briefly what I told them: "We are on Italy tonight. The primary target is the oil refinery and storage tank at Porto Marghera, Venice. This is one of the most important targets in Italy and it is our job to blot it out. The distance is about seven hundred miles each way allowing for no strays, and as you know, it means crossing the Alps at 17,000 feet. The vital part of the target the refinery itself, is comparatively small and is situated on a small peninsula. The amount of petrol you will carry will be enough to get you there and back with a good margin in hand, but watch your petrol consumption carefully. On your return there is likely to be fog at base and you may have to be diverted to aerodromes rather further away. You will be returning at dawn.

"Take all these things into account and decide for yourselves how low you can allow to come down to bomb over the other side of the Alps, remembering the lower you go the higher you've got to climb to get back over them on your return, with resultant higher petrol consumption. I want to stress that the target is a vital one and it is going to be a terrible waste of effort if we fly all that distance and then don't make absolutely certain of getting it."

That, as I said, is briefly what I told my squadron at two-thirty that afternoon. The short account of the trip that I'm now going to give you is told merely as one of the pilots who took part in the raid and something very like it might equally well have been given by anyone of the others. At nine o'clock I was sitting in my aircraft warming up the engine when an order was received to shut off engines and stand by for further instructions. I thought: "Well, that's as far as we shall go on this trip. Here am I all dressed up like a Christmas tree and nowhere to go." But about fifteen minutes later, the order came through that we were to go, so we started the engines again and eventually took off. Conditions then were rather bad. We got on to our course and climbed steadily until we got above the clouds over the English Channel. We saw no ground at all until we crossed the Rhine Valley. Here the clouds had cleared and with an almost full moon and snow on the ground it was as bright as day and we could see the peaks of the Alps many miles ahead of us. We began to climb using oxygen now of course until we reached 17,000 feet where the rarefied air was so clear that one could almost see from one end to the other of the Alpine range. It was a rather awe-inspiring sight with the valleys all filled with fog and those great jagged snow-covered peaks sticking out; like a popular conception perhaps of Antarctica, made more realistic by the intense cold.

As we came over the Alps the fog seemed to stretch away into the Lombardy plains and I began to wonder whether our flight was going to be a fruitless one. However, the fog gradually gave way to haze, and the haze, as we went on, gave way to glorious visibility. I was losing height all this time until we were 6,000 feet, at which height we picked up the Adriatic, and there was Venice on our right with the Lido stretching away beyond it. It was the most perfect night imaginable and I must say that, as a night bomber pilot, accustomed to the cover of darkness, I felt terribly naked but not ashamed, and sailed sedately along in almost daylight conditions in our monster aircraft.

We flew round the area for five or ten minutes and then I decided that a low-level attack was indicated. We came down almost to ground level to the north-east of the target and flew towards it, passing just to the side of a largish fort where two sentries fired at us with rifles. On the way down I had given orders to my two gunners that they were to open fire on anyone who opened fire on us. I only hope those two sentries went to ground very quickly. We flew straight over the centre of Mestre the town which lies at the far end of the causeway leading to Venice and next to Porto Marghera. We were flying just above the rooftops. The streets were empty save for a few people. We heaved the aircraft up over a line of factory chimneys and there was the target in front of us. I climbed rapidly to 700 feet; the bomb aimer selected the biggest bomb we had, a really huge one, and let it go at the right place. The result was terrific. The aircraft was thrown bodily upwards and I thought we had got a direct hit from a shell. I enquired quickly whether there was any of the aircraft left and an excited reply from the rear gunner told me that it was our bomb going off. He said it had gone off immediately beside the large pumping station which we had been aiming for and that a colossal belt of smoke and flame had come up to more than half the height of the aircraft and there was a tremendous blaze.

The whole of this time tracer from the ground defences was whizzing past us in all directions. Looking back, it seems amazing that we weren't hit, but there wasn't a single bullet-hole in the aircraft when it was examined the following day. Both gunners were busy the whole time replying to this fire from the ground and, I hope, giving better than we got. We came round a second time to drop the remainder of our load. The bombs fell on or beside the fires started by the first bomb: there were more violent explosions and the fire was increased by half again.

We came straight down nearly to ground level again, and picked up the railway leading to Padua, which is about twenty miles away, where I knew there was an aerodrome. We flew alongside three goods trains, all the drivers of which leaned out to look at us in the brilliant moonlight. One waved, another spat, and the third, I thought, looked anxious. We did not fire at them.

Padua appeared. We whistled in and out of the tall spires which seemed to abound there, threw out leaflets then went on to the aerodrome. We swept the hangars and barracks with machine-gun fire. It must have been an extraordinary sight to see our great black bomber only twenty feet off the ground, clearly visible against the moon and snow, roaring and bucketing across the aerodrome at about 200 miles an hour with twin streams of gunfire pouring from nose and tail. The aerodrome defences were ready for us and opened fire with everything they had. I kept as low as I dared, making use of every bit of available tree cover. The tracer hopped along beside us parallel to the ground, but again we were not hit.

And that was the end of the fun. We climbed up steeply to cross the Alps again. Fog and cloud were by now widespread and apart from the mountain range, little was seen of the ground until we crossed the Belgian coast. Dawn was just breaking when we landed in mist at our own aerodrome.

The remainder of the squadron returned at intervals within the next hour. My tale is merely the tale of them all. They had all bombed from a low level. They had all scored direct hits. They had not wasted a single bomb. The long flight had been worth while. Only one aircraft failed to return.

The aircraft that failed to return was L7799 WS-D which crashed at the Hamlet of Lullington Court near Alfriston. All members of the crew were killed. It is not known whether the aircraft was on its outward or return flight when it crashed.

(Above) L7799 with a Code of WS:Y prior to it being re-designated as WS:D. (Courtesy of Mike Bull whose late grandfather was ground crew with 9 Squadron for a period of time. The image was amongst his possessions as a negative)

Above: Sgt. William Riley (Courtesy of Aaron Brown)

Above: Sgt. Jimmy Gapp. (courtesy of David Gapp)

Above: 1st from the right Sgt. Jimmy Gapp. (courtesy of David Gapp) Are you able to identify the other two airmen?

Burial details:

Above: Sgt. R.N. Harrison (courtesy Iain MacFarlaine) Sgt. J. Docker, Carlisle (Upperby) Cemetery (courtesy CWGC)

Above: Grave markers for Sgt. Gapp and Sgt. Nichols (courtesy Geoffrey Gillon)

Above: Grave markers for Sgt. Holker and Sgt. Riley (courtesy Beverly Lewis)

Sgt. Robert Norman Harrison. Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium, London. Grave Ref: Sec. 1.9 Grave 50868. Born in 1917. Son of Herbert Norman Harrison and Bertha Augusta Alice Harrison.

Sgt. Harrison was on his 21st flying operation with 9 Squadron when he lost his life. At the time of his death Robert's address was 5 Spencer Drive, Finchley, Middlesex

Sgt. James Frederick 'Jimmy' Gapp. St. Mary Cray Cemetery, Kent. Grave Ref: Plot E. Div. 3. Grave 124. Inscription reads: “YOU PASSED OUT OF OUR LIVES BUT YOU WILL BE FOREVER IN OUR THOUGHTS”. Son of George Percy and Mary Gapp of Le Havre, France

Sgt. Leslie William Nichols. Willesborough Cemetery, Kent. Grave Ref: Sec. T. Grave 2330. Inscription reads: “GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN”. Son of John James William and Ellen Emma Nichols. Husband of Marjorie Nichols of Ashford, Kent.

At the time of his death Leslie's address was 319 Hythe Road, Ashford, Kent

Sgt. Maurice Holker. Deane (St. Mary) Churchyard, Lancashire. Grave Ref: Sec. K. Grave 6X. Inscription reads: “DUTY NOBLY DONE”. Son of Edwin William and Elizabeth Holker of Bolton, England.

Sgt. William Riley. Oystermouth Cemetery, Glamorgnshire. Grave Ref: Sec. M. Grave 188. Grave Inscription: “TO THE MEMORY OF MY BRAVE SON WILLIAM TILL WE MEET AGAIN, MOTHER”. Son of William Riley and of Gertrude Mary Riley of Newton, Mumbles, Wales.

Dedicated page at Mumbles War Memorials.

Above: Grave marker for Sgt. John Docker. (courtesy of Barry Docker)

Sgt. John Docker. Carlisle (Upperby) Cemetery, Cumberland. Grave Ref: Ward 5. Sec. A. Grave 17. Inscription reads: “TO LIVE IN THE HEARTS OF THOSE WE LOVE IS NOT TO DIE”. Son of Frederick and Maggie Docker of Carlisle. Husband of Anne Docker of Aspatria.

Researched by Kate Tame Aircrew Remembered and for all the relatives and friends of the crew. Thanks to Beverly Lewis, Peter Lucas, Iain MacFarlaine and Barry Docker. Also to David Gapp, the nephew of Jimmy Gapp who contacted us in December 2016. Thanks to John Powell for the link to the Mumbles War Memorial for Sgt. W. Riley. Thanks to Aaron Brown for the photograph of Sgt. William Riley, his great cousin, and also for the description of the raid.(Feb 2022).

Other sources as quoted below:

RS 02.05.2020 - Addition of image for the aircraft

Pages of Outstanding Interest
History Airborne Forces •  Soviet Night Witches •  Bomber Command Memories •  Abbreviations •  Gardening Codenames
CWGC: Your Relative's Grave Explained •  USA Flygirls •  Axis Awards Descriptions •  'Lack Of Moral Fibre'
Concept of Colonial Discrimination  •  Unauthorised First Long Range Mustang Attack
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Acknowledgements
Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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