When Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock contacted Leigh Lawson requesting information about her late father, Flight Lieutenant Leslie Speller, he got much more than he had bargained for. Not only did Leigh provide details from her father's letters home, sound recordings of interviews with him and many photographs from her private collection but also an old newspaper clipping that quite strangely did not even mention her father. Sent purely as a matter of interest the clipping was a brief account of an incident that involved her husband's uncle, Flight Lieutenant Ronald Neil Lawson, in which one of his crew, having fallen from the aircraft, grimly hung outside suspended by his harness and endured freezing temperatures for three hundred and fifty miles.
Roy was keen to write the story for Aircrew Remembered but though Leigh and her husband remembered Uncle Neil telling them the dramatic tale many years earlier they could not remember the detail nor did they know anything of his service record or the squadron in which he served.
However after further enquiries by Leigh, it came to light that in 1989 Neil had written a memoir for his daughter Angela recounting his time in the RAF. Furthermore the memoir included details of a second serious incident that had befallen Neil and his crew.
Aircrew Remembered is privileged to have been granted permission by the Personal Representatives of the late Angela Lawson to reproduce the contents of the memoir and other documents relating to Neil Lawson. We are also extremely grateful for the enormous help given to us by Neil Lawson's sister Olive Larrington and Leigh Lawson without whom this story may never have been told.
Though the results of further research by Roy Wilcock and the inclusion of family and other photographs have been used to enhance the story the main essence of it remains very much the content of Neil's memoir which he called quite simply "Flying and Other Logs".
Here then is the story of one of countless ordinary pilots and one of countless ordinary crews who displayed extraordinary courage during the Second World War.
* * *
Ronald Neil Lawson was born at Bournemouth, Hampshire on 13 July 1916 the son of Maurice Bertie Lawson and Lilian Lawson nee Swaine. He had an elder brother Howard Maurice Lawson also born at Bournemouth on 22 May 1914 and a younger sister Olive Mary Lawson born on 9 June 1921 at Lewisham.
The two boys were born at "Butley Dene", a beautiful 10 roomed detached villa in Christchurch Road, Bournemouth and the home of their grandparents George Joseph and Charlotte Lawson with whom their mother was living whilst her husband was serving in the army.
Neil Lawson was born into a family of some local note. His grandfather George Joseph Lawson, was a Builder and Architect in Boscombe, Bournemouth and designed several Congregational churches in the town. He also owned the Carleton Hotel and later bought Camberley Court Hotel in Surrey where he employed a manager to run the business. In 1900 he had served as Mayor of Bournemouth.
After the end of the Great War, Neil's father Maurice Bertie Lawson, also an Architect, took his wife and family to live at 5 Allenby Road, Forest Hill where his daughter Olive was born in 1921. Maurice later designed their house, 'Firlands Glen', built in the extensive grounds of the Camberley Court Hotel, together with another house close by and a further estate of houses. When war again broke out in 1939, Maurice sold the house and the family moved into the hotel which was then run by his wife and their daughter-in-law Doreen Lawson (the wife of their son Howard Lawson)
Both Maurice Bertie Lawson and his son Howard Maurice Lawson played county cricket for Hampshire (MBL 1907-1919 and HML 1935-37)
As a teenager, Neil became interested in radios and developed into a keen 'ham', a hobby that remained with him all his life. His father created a room in the eaves of the attic for Neil to use and he was one of the many 'hams' who were so useful in passing information at the start of the war. His interest in radio prompted him to apply for work at the BBC but alas he was unsuccessful.
At some stage he had befriended Clifford William Allin, a relationship that was to bring him good fortune on at least two counts. Firstly his friendship with Clifford Allin brought him into contact with Frances Allin, his sister with whom Neil would later enjoy 46 years of marriage. Secondly, Clifford's father George Edward Allin was well connected with the firm of Redler Conveyors, eventually becoming Chairman of the company and in due course Neil was employed by Redlers as a Business Representative.
He also taught himself to play the concertina, accordion and harmonica and was also very keen on carpentry, an interest that he continued in later life. When his grandfather died on 27 May 1936 Neil inherited his tool chest. This was a huge and beautiful affair filled with a vast array of the finest quality tools available all neatly laid out within it. Howard Lawson incidentally, was left money by his grandfather with which he bought himself an old MG sports car - which he later crashed!
On 8 July 1939 Neil married Frances Maude Allin at Stroud in Gloucestershire and the following year Frances gave birth to their daughter Angela Mary.
With the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, Lord's Cricket Ground was requisitioned and became No.1 RAF Aircrew Receiving Centre (ARC). It was to here in September 1941 that 1337851 Aircraftsman 2nd Class Ronald Neil Lawson was initially posted. Issued with his uniform, complete with forage cap bearing the frontal white flash indicative of his new found status as an aircrew cadet he was assigned to No. 2 Flight, 4 Squadron.
He was billeted in a likewise requisitioned but uncompleted block of flats in nearby Bentinck Close, Prince Albert Road, overlooking Regent's Park. At the time work on the flats had been halted but today they are very superior apartments commanding prices of two million pounds and upwards.
So began Neil's career in the RAF that led to the continuation of a love affair with flying, the flames of which had been lit one Sunday afternoon some 14 years earlier.
FLYING AND OTHER LOGS
Ronald Neil Lawson
In the late twenties, while visiting Runnymede on the Thames with my parents and brother and sister, interest in flying was first kindled when Father persuaded a lone pilot to take my brother and I for a flip for 7/6d [37½p] for the two of us instead of the 5/- [25p] for one. So with him in the basket chair in the rear of the cockpit and me on the board just in front of him, the old Morris [Sic] Farman took off from the field, climbed and circled widely over the river, and with people looking so tiny, did a second circuit, to land comfortably, all with much noise from the engine and the wind tugging at our hair, and the singing wires when throttled back on the approach; all over in a few precious minutes, but still walking excitedly back to Mum and Dad and Sis, bursting with pride and exhilaration, which lived in our minds for many a day.
And vividly recalled many years later at Shellingford in Berkshire in Tiger Moths on a wartime Grading Course [at No. 3 Elementary Flight Training School (E.F.T.S.) RAF Shellingford from 19 May to 9 June 1942]; then a few months later at Bowden E.F.T.S. near Innisfall, Alberta [16 August to 12 October 1942] in those lovely American Stearman Biplanes which were so nice to fly. Just right for A.C. plonks, u/t pilots [Aircraftsman 2nd Class, under training pilots], hopefully on their way to being awarded, eventually after many trials and tribulations, spins and air sickness, those coveted and honourable Wings; a great day, with sadly too many miles from our loved ones for them to be present.
So they could not see and marvel at those wonderful Harvards whose only viciousness occurred when doing a tight turn to port, and deliberately inducing a spin, the starboard wing was first to stall, resulting in a sudden and violent flip-over, when I could never avoid my head banging on the canopy side.
Full opposite rudder, stick fully forward, and wait a turn and a half for response and the spin to stop, but quickly centralise controls before she went into an opposite spin; then ease back on the stick when airspeed OK, to pull out hundreds of feet lower, hopefully clear of the ground every time. [Neil Lawson was posted to No. 37 Service Flying Training School, Calgary, Alberta from 12 October 1943 and from then until 5 February 1943 he flew the North American Aviation Harvard Mark II]
But not all were so fortunate, several funeral parades in the early service flying training days were a sad and grim reminder of some of the hazards we all faced, and decided me to seek Confirmation, in the beautiful Cathedral in Calgary - what a wonderful Padre.
So what now, at 27 too old for fighters? But wait, perhaps Spitfires on PRU [Photographic Reconnaissance Unit] in England; but three aspirants for two postings left me opting for flying over the sea; thus on to a Nav[igation] course on the beautiful Prince Edward Island to fortunately qualify and become a G.R. [General Reconnaissance] Pilot, on dear old Ansons - winding up the undercart really made you sweat even in the depths of winter, but what kites would we end up on?
[Neil trained on Avro Ansons at No. 31 General Reconnaissance School, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island from 19 February 1943 until April 1943.
LAC 1337851 Ronald Neil Lawson was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 5 February 1943 (London Gazette 11 May 1943. He was confirmed in this appointment and promoted to Flying Officer on probation (war subs) on 5 August 1943 (London Gazette 3 September 1943)]
First homeward bound on a fast passenger liner, so arrived unmolested in England again. Then some wonderful leave topped up with a bit of extra time before a posting came through to Silloth. Where is that? What planes? Soon discovering it was Wimpies and near Carlisle, but again yours truly missed the course as too many arrived; but what luck, put onto No. 3 Squadron [No.3 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Lulsgate Bottom, Somerset 1 July 1943 to 1 August 1943] on Oxfords flying single handed, two hour stints, morning and afternoon, flying three Wireless Op/Air Gunners on Wireless exercises, we decided where to go. A coast crawl was best, north to Ailsa Craig in the morning and south to Blackpool in the afternoon; and what nice chaps for passengers. Those extra flying hours were a real bonus to me, learning the lie of the land and useful map-reading of England, before trying to cope with a heavy aircraft as well as the main features in the countryside, as viewed from above.
So with nearly 300 hours in the Flying Log, training began in earnest.
[Neil was posted onto Course No. 29 at No. 6 (Coastal) OTU at RAF Silloth, Cumbria from 2 August to 19 October 1943 flying Vickers Wellingtons]
SECOND LOG - G5ZK
Another kind of Log had figured largely in my life, and still does after some sixty years, and this stemmed from schoolboy enthusiasm for short wave radio culminating with Dad's support in a licence to transmit approved messages on strictly limited frequencies with experimental equipment, full details of these experiments and twelve words per minute Morse code secured the well tried call sign G5ZK still audible occasionally and so nice to send - and especially to receive from the ends of the earth.
This hobby was a great boon and ideal for [an] unexpected situation arising shortly after marrying a wonderful lady, Frances, who tragically contracted M.S. which she fought so courageously for forty five years, never complaining, always a smile, and a wonderful gift of a beautiful daughter - praise be. But dear Angela who has to carry the terrible burden of virtually total deafness from birth, always such a joy to us, and so smiling and happy, to strengthen us and lighten our days.
Two truths have become crystal clear to me in more recent years - HE never imposes burdens which are too heavy to bear provided we are willing to shoulder them, and you don't know what you can do until you try. Proved many times by dear Frances. So shed no tears for me, as I had a wonderful time looking after them; rather spare a thought for their earlier predicament, a mother's call to her infant must go unheeded and the infant's call to her mother could only bring anguish, with such restricted mobility. In the wider sense, mastery of the special hand controls in her car gave much pleasure to many; how brave to tackle such a formidable undertaking.
THIRD LOG - Business Rep.
Which brings me to the third log, which recorded business journeys as a rep., into the most fascinating places, to meet a host of fine people, mostly engineers, concerned with the movement of bulk materials, in almost every industry in the U.K - though sometimes with unexpected outcome!
4-1260-38 - a lifetime!
There were often unexpected outcomes in the trips recorded in the Flying Log, and though covering only some four years, 1260 hours and 38 Ops, were enough to last a lifetime, nearly a year as second dickie on Halifaxes of 58 Squadron serving Harry Burroughs, an extraordinarily splendid skipper and pilot, so well deserving his D.F.C., who had himself served almost a year as second dickie, but who alas departed for higher places some years ago. We met at H.C.U. [Heavy Conversion Unit] Longtown [Cumbria] in November 43 and he went on rest in December 44, after skippering 25 Ops, most in the Bay of Biscay and French ports from St. David's, the remainder off Norway from Stornoway. Including a ditching at night midway between Scillies and Lands End on 27 April 1944 after a long patrol round the Bay; the previous sortie having carried out an excellent low level attack on a U Boat also at night; believed damaged. [Per log book 20 April 1944]
This being his sixth patrol was also my baptism of fire, but the U Boat's tracers were passing beneath us, so we went unscathed on that occasion.
More flak was encountered some hours prior to ditching, but was directed at a Wellington, later said to be from the brave Polish Squadron, seen flying right through the mass of tracers about half a mile on our starboard bow; but we heard he got home safely.
The core of the crew had got together at No. 6 (C) OTU RAF Silloth first flying together as the six man crew of a Vickers Wellington on 20 September 1943. Then later on November 25 on his first flight at 1674 HCU at Longtown, Neil Lawson had been teamed with Harry Burroughs as second pilots training on Handley Page Halifax bombers, an association that was to last for the next twelve months. In due course the rest of the crew joined Neil and Harry; however the crew of a Halifax needed two extra members, a Flight Engineer and a Wireless Operator Mechanic (WOM) the positions being filled respectively by Welshman Sergeant Ken Magness (Taffy) and Londoner, Warrant Officer Bob Harniman. They were posted to No. 58 sqaudron at RAF St. David's, Pembrokeshire on 27 January 1944 and their first operational flight was on 3 March.
Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner Sergeant Robert (Bobbie) Burns being ill his place on the crew for the Anti-Submarine Patrol of 26/27 April 1944 was taken by another Welshman Sergeant Thomas Howell Brian Griffiths (Taff).
The eight man crew of Halifax II JD176 BY-W that took off from RAF St. David's Pembrokeshire at 20:44 on the night of Wednesday 26 April 1944 on the Anti-Submarine Patrol was therefore:
Pilot: F/O. Harry West Burroughs 125446
2nd Pilot: F/O. Ronald Neil Lawson 151125 Age 28
Fl/Eng: Sgt. William Kenneth L. Magness (Taffy) 1708167 Age 19
Nav: F/Sgt. Colin Henry Kohler Aus/416769 RAAF Age 27
WOM (Wireless Operator Mechanic): W/O. Robert J. (Bob) Harniman 632810 Age 24
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. John Francis Smith 1528259
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Fred C. Yeandle 1339920 Age 19
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Thomas Howell Brian Griffiths (Taff) 1317894 Age 22
The first part of the operation passed off with relatively little incident but that was soon about to change. Neil's vivid account takes the reader on board the stricken Halifax where all hell broke loose.
DITCHING AT NIGHT
About halfway round our patrol, we changed both engines to outer wing tanks; ok on port side, but on starboard side much oscillation of fuel gauge needles and loss of fuel pressure, so had to revert, temporarily, while reviewing the situation. It seemed we had somehow lost 200 gallons from the starboard outer tank holding 270 full. But it seemed long enough to get good supplies from bomb bay tank to inner tanks in starboard wing; but these were not enough to get us to England. Flying on both port engines, with both starboard props feathered, was not to be recommended at night, leaving only one course of action available - ditching.
At 05:15 hours on April 27th, it was still dark in those latitudes but being a clear still night, I noticed a thin streak of light on the horizon, so when we were at ditching stations Harry turned east towards it, and afterwards told us it was just enough to enable him to detect the surface of the sea. On the port rest seat facing forward, plugged into intercom to Harry, his warning of impact enabled us to brace ourselves after my arm waving signal, with so much noise with all escape hatches jettisoned previously, and the first impact was not too horrific but the sea rushed in through the nose and went over us. Then chaps started to move but had to brace again on my shout to wait for the second impact, as per well impressed dinghy drill. Horror of horrors, instead of second impact there was a tremendous whoosh through the fuselage, and we were on fire. Must get out first to help them from above, ladder only at after escape hatch, so leapt up to middle hatch and immediately got stuck with revolver holster wrong side of hatch frame; being pushed mightily from below, flames around me, next thing I knew was being in heaven, or so it seemed. Just lying on my back floating so quiet and peaceful and cool, when it dawned on me I was in the water twenty or more feet down, so kicked out hopefully for the surface when a flying boot came off and I turned to retrieve it, but immediately forgot that, and some moments later broke surface in the clear, a few feet from port wing trailing edge. Fire blazing out of escape hatches lit up shadowy figure who helped me on to wing, to look for three bods missing. Into water several times to douse burning clothes; out of question to go back on board, then heard shouts from somewhere. Meantime our stalwart engineer was persuading the dinghy pack to emerge from the wing, only partly inflated, so pump by hand, get it into the water and get aboard and paddle away. By which time we thought the shouts came from the starboard side, so paddled round nose, using bits of driftwood. Luckily the plane was still floating on a calm sea, so we quickly located our Aussie navigator, Colin Kohler, and our WOP/AG Frank Smith, both badly burnt; but still no sign of our other missing bod, Taffy Griffiths - so sadly mourned all these intervening year.
So with all aboard, we paddled clear of the burning Halifax, with ammo going off, and as she began to settle slowly, in the gloom we saw a whale! No, it was the top of a smooth rock, just awash, so pull away quickly for fear of damage to the dinghy; then, getting more daylight, about forty minutes after ditching, the valiant plane dipped her nose and slowly slid under with fire still burning; so we stood, the two of us and Taffy Magness saluted and said goodbye Taff, and we said a prayer for him. Bob Harniman said that a heavy object whizzed past him and he thought struck Taffy Griffiths a severe blow, so hopefully he did not suffer.
Cradling Colin in my lap as best I could to keep him warm we could not help his burnt hands as no first aid kit so did our best to comfort him in his pain and together watched the sunrise in the clear sky, saw a lighthouse some miles away so paddled that way but it soon disappeared in a haze and our only sight of land was gone. Saw other Hallies no doubt looking for us but too far away and later we learned they saw the yellow scum left by our jettisoned DCs [depth charges], also being near dawn our SOS which Fred had sent out gave a fix but was incorrect due to distortion by sunrise. The 1" very and two red cartridges from the dinghy pack were kept near, but time went by and no sign of any more planes. I suppose that was when we were posted missing and our families informed.
HE MUST SEE IT!
About five hours after the ditching we suddenly spotted a Warwick Rescue plane coming from the east practically overhead so fired the first red very as we felt sure in a place where the pilot must see it but no, on it went so we fired the other when we thought the rear gunner would see it but it still continued straight on - just as we thought we were lost, he dipped his wings and came round again and then spotted us, later we learned the rear gunner saw the smoke trail form the verey silhouetted against the sea bright from the sun's reflection and yelled to his skipper. This evoked a big cheer from us and soon he was dropping his Lindholme Dinghy* on three parachutes landing only 50 yards away, perfect drop.
*[This is a rare error by Neil, the Lindholme was an inflatable air dropped dinghy. As can be seen in the photographs and mentioned in Frank Smith's recollections below, the Warwick actually dropped a rigid airborne lifeboat]
So we paddled with our bits of driftwood and got alongside, and aboard, and Taffy soon had the two small motors going. So we started according to the Warwick's course and in minutes a Spit was heading our way to home us in the right direction, then the ASR [Air Sea Rescue] Launch came up and we clambered aboard helping Colin and Frank who received first aid from the crew and we all went below to change into dry clothes and then on deck to have a fag.
It all seemed unreal but the Launch Skipper and Crew were real enough and were marvellous. Next day they took us for a ride round St. Mary's in the launch except Colin and Frank who were in hospital, several weeks for Colin including treatment by Sir Archibald McIndoe. But with Bobbie Burns who had got a lift down in the Sunderland sent to take us back to Milford Haven, Bobbie had been unable to fly with us that trip so it was good to see him again. Only a few months ago a copy of the photo of us in the launch reached me via Frank Smith - so nice to have. Frank flew with us again from July 7th and Colin from August 3rd. And the survivors leave; was marvellous to be home again for a little while, and they kindly bought me things to replace those lost like a scarf and other items.
The rock we nearly ran the dinghy onto was one of the Seven Stones.
At some time during the above I became aware of the revolver in its holster dangling by its lanyard from my neck, I guess when we had got aboard the launch, and looking at the thick brass pins one inserts onto the pockets of the belt, two were almost straight so what a tremendous force they pushed me with out of the hatch, no wonder they were momentarily in hell. But thank you to a wonderful crew. Being sat most of each trip next to the skipper I was the ideal one to carry the firearm in case we had to come down in France. I don't remember what happened to the gun. Probably I have forgotten many things I should have remembered in this narrative so I hope I will be forgiven. But a thick brass ring was to figure later in an amazing escape and survival of Frank Smith.
But remember all through the ditching and rescue Harry was quietly helping and comforting us, and so he continued to do through all the flak and other hazards which were yet to come.
Wireless Operator Frank Smith not only provided the photo of the crew members on the trip aboard the launch but also the following account of the ditching.
On returning from the A/S patrol in Halifax JD176W piloted by Flying Officer Burroughs, on the night of April 26/27 1944, off the French Coast, during which we had contacts and experienced flak, we made to turn over to our reserve fuel tanks but to our horror discovered they were registering empty. As our normal tanks were registering almost zero we decided that the only way left was to make a powered ditching rather than wait to make a forced ditching. We all took up our ditching positions and the pilot made a near perfect ditching (position 045 degrees Scillies, time 0541). Unfortunately, there was one big whoosh of water, then flames as the aircraft caught fire. I remember the whole aircraft was a mass of flame and of climbing up the wire ladder out of the middle of the aircraft. The next thing I remember is being on the wing opposite to the one I should have been on. Colin, our Navigator, was in the water and I helped him onto the wing.
It still being dark, I thought that we were the only ones, but it appears the other members of the crew got out on the other side with the exception of one, who I regret was lost, we being unable to get back into the aircraft as it was still on fire.
The dinghy did not come out on its own and 'Taffy', our Flight Engineer, had to break the plastic cover in the wing to release [it]. They then boarded the dinghy and on seeing us on the other wing, paddled round and picked us up. By now it was daylight and we just took stock and paddled. We managed to get out a "Mayday" before we ditched and we hoped our position had been noted. We could see a lighthouse in the distance, (Bishop Rock?) and at one time had to paddle away from a series of rocks (Seven Sisters?). After a while we could hear an aircraft and after firing off our very pistol, the Warwick sighted us. It then proceeded to drop us an airborne lifeboat which we retrieved and boarded. It appears the Warwick must have informed our position to a Spitfire which in turn guided an Air Sea Rescue Launch to us by flying straight and level up and down. The Air Sea Rescue launch took us to St. Mary's, where Colin and I were sent to hospital. The other crew members were OK.
He also added:
My squadron was 58 and based at St. David's in West Wales from January '44 until Sept. '44 on anti-submarine patrols. From Sept'44 we were transferred to Stornoway in the Hebrides from where we operated anti-shipping patrols off Norway and Skagerrak and Kattegat.
As regards my stay at St. Mary's Hospital, I can remember very little. I think we were there two, maybe three days and were then transferred to RAF St. Athan's Hospital. I do remember we were treated very well and given special attention by the nurses!
Yes it could have been a Hurricane that guided the rescue launch to us; at the time we presumed it was a Spit.
We carried a crew of 8: Pilot, Second Pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer, WOM/AG and 3 WOP/AG. The WOM/AG and three WOP/AGs would interchange positions - Mid upper gun-turret, Rear Turret, Wireless and Radar positions.
Harry Burrows [sic] was our Skipper until Dec. '44 when he finished his tour of operations - then Neil Lawson took over.
The rest of the crew had a trip on the Air Sea Rescue Launch the next day - hence your photo. Bob Burns, (who was ill and did not fly on the operation) appears on the photo as he managed to get a lift on the Sunderland that was flown down to pick up the crew.
It is creditable that Neil's recollection of events written almost fifty years after the event, apart from a few minor errors or omissions, are remarkably accurate as borne out by the following details taken from the Flying Accident Investigation Report of the ditching.
Description of accident by F/O. H.W. Burroughs
Forced landing was due indirectly to a leakage in the petrol feed of the starboard Nos 5 & 6 tanks, from which approximately 200 gals. was lost - this leakage not being apparent until the tanks were put into use at the bottom of the patrol - and directly to feed failure when the main balance cock was used to feed the starboard engine from the port side. When it was decided to ditch, there was approximately 15 gals. in starboard side No. 1, all other tanks having been drained.
Report of the investigation 2 May 1944
When tanks 5 and 6 were put on (5-5½ hours after take-off) the gauges for the starboard tanks began to show abnormal consumption. The aircraft was then at the most southerly part of the patrol. On the return it became evident that a serious leak had developed and when 5 and 6 tanks ran out the engineer [tried] to feed the starboard engine from the port wing tanks.
This was attempted three times; on the first the engine began to cut and on the other two the red warning light (indicating low fuel pressure) showed so the cocks were changed back. The Captain decided to ditch while he still had petrol for four engines and S.O.S. was transmitted.
The aircraft was well put down on the water but flames shot through the inside of the fuselage and the crew had to leave in a hurry. By the time it was realised that one of the crew had not got out it was impossible to search for him inside owing to the fire.
Factors leading to ditching (i) leakage from petrol tanks (ii) failure to transfer petrol from port to starboard wing.
These are being investigated by Chief Technical Officer.
The ditching has been investigated by Group A.S.R. Officer.
The Captain could have flown further on two engines but he was within reasonable distance of land and had received bearings. It was obvious[ly] preferable to ditch with four engines rather than with two on one side and he decided to ditch rather than attempt to make an approach to an aerodrome.
An order has been given that during run-up before flight one engine should be run from petrol from the other wing and similar procedure adopted in the air on air tests. It will shortly be known if the red warning light comes on temporarily and the feed is resumed before the engine cuts.
Captains have been instructed to practice two engined flying and glide approach (with four live engines) so that they may assess their capabilities.
Dinghy drill will be reviewed in the light of any findings by the A.S.R. Officer
Colin Kohler was hospitalised at St. Mary's Emergency Medical Services on 27 April where he remained on the seriously ill list until 2 May. On 6 May he was transferred to the RAF Hospital at St Athan, Glamorganshire where he remained until 6 July. After a month's sick leave he returned to St Athan's for further treatment before being finally discharged on 14 July and on 3 August 1944 resumed flying duties with the crew. As mentioned earlier Frank Smith rejoined the crew on operations on 7 July 1944 after treatment for his burns.
NEIL LAWSON'S MEMOIR CONTINUES
On resuming Ops the Flying Log shows several patrols apparently uneventful and then some shipping strikes, one of which to the Isle de Croix [8 August 1944] was in daylight and with three kites going in separately we were all easy targets, yet all returned safely, despite the light, medium and heavy flak encountered from three batteries where only one was thought to be manned. And sitting in the second dickie's seat I had a grandstand view of the reception area, most shells bursting fairly close with black puffs of smoke, but some much nearer which could be heard exploding, not really a pretty sight. Yet back at base we could only find three holes in the aircraft, each about the size of a penny - in those days a similar size to the 50p coin.
But we reckoned a near miss on a sperrbrecher* (destroyer) anchored in the lea of the island. Anyway, as the Ile de Croix lies at the mouth by Lorient where the U boat pens were, we hope our little effort gave them food for thought.
A couple of weeks later we made a similar strike to the mouth of the Gironde with similar results but being further from base stretched us a bit.
*[Sperrbrecher: literally meaning "minefield breaker", a type of German minesweeper that sailed ahead of other vessels through minefields, with the intention of detonating any mines in their path. Also used as anti-aircraft ships]
Then in late August '44 we moved lock stock and barrel to Stornoway to initially cover the N.W. approaches instead of the S.W. and several long patrols of ten or eleven hours over the Atlantic with little apparent result, so the next few trips were across to the west coast of Norway, looking for Jerry U Boats, ships or anything else of interest and again some eleven hours, which if the pre-flight meal and preparation and post flight debriefing and ops meal are added meant we were busy for 18 or more hours at a stretch, so we needed no rocking when we finally fell into our beds.
The next phase involved searching at night for surface vessels in the Skaggerak and Kattegat, the seas between Denmark and Norway, and Denmark and Sweden. The coastal lights of neutral Sweden were a comfort and so was the moon, for when we located a vessel we could approach carefully and gain the vital element of surprise which made our task much lighter, and any opposition less persistent. But as success accumulated so the number of escort vessels grew and it was not unusual to find three escorts to one ship. All this at night when the flak looked much more menacing and things like flaming onions came up at you and hurtled past with a noise like an express train, like yellow Catherine wheels. And later when I had the honour to become skipper of this wonderful crew, you could feel the bursts of flak on the elevator controls and getting nearer as dear old Jonah, alone in the rear turret watching those frightening displays, explained to all and sundry in no uncertain terms. But yet again our guardian angel was formatting on us.
[Neil's Flying Log Book shows that he and the crew flew their last operational flight with now Flight Lieutenant Harry Burroughs on 11 December 1944. Harry was awarded the DFC for one of their last operations together on 30 November 1944 - see biographical details below]
SPLENDID GROUND CREW
So Christmas '44 saw much local flying at Stornoway as several second dickies did their conversion to first pilot, with 2 sessions on Christmas Day and finally day solo on December 28th, followed by a very busy programme of flying exercises which included night solo and culminated in our first Ops trip on March 8th. Of all things to happen the starboard tyre burst an hour after clearing Dunscansby Head en route again for Norway, at first the cause of the bang was not known until a big piece of rubber came into view as the wheel rotated slowly so that was that - jettison the bomb load and hare off back to base. No thank you they did not want us to attempt a landing there for fear of damage to runway or worse and sent us to Carnaby. Where is that? So co-ordinates being given, off we went in high dudgeon all round the coast with odd ack-ack pooping off at us. Arrived about eleven p.m. and given permission to land with undercart down, so with plenty of boost on the outer engine to help counteract the swing it went ok and only turned through some twenty degrees before coming to rest. Then immediate and splendid action by those marvellous men on the ground without whose unswerving support and terribly hard work outside in all weathers and all hours of the day and night we would have been lost, and all this resulted in the aircraft being off the runway in minutes and by eight a.m. next day she was ready for us to take back to base, good as new.
So we were off again next night and were able to get in an attack on some vessels but unable to assess any damage. And again on 13th and on 20th and again on 26th and 30th and on April 2nd and 5th. Meantime, we had carefully plotted Carnaby, a special relief drome for damaged bombers, and found it was the nearest drome in England to our patrol area which was soon to be a vital factor in our survival.
[RAF Carnaby was an emergency landing strip that offered crippled bombers a safe place to land near the English coast. It was situated 2.0 miles southwest of Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire]
[On 5 February 1945 Flying Officer Ronald Neil Lawson had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant war subs (London Gazette 2 March 1945)]
On 8 April 1945 Halifax III PN425 BY-E took off at 21:15 hours from RAF Stornoway for Norway on an anti-shipping patrol. Captained by Fl/Lt. Neil Lawson his crew included four of those that endured the ditching of Halifax JD176 and was:
Pilot: Fl/Lt. Ronald Neil Lawson
2nd Pilot: F/Sgt. Jimmy Ricketts
Flight Engineer: F/Sgt. William Kenneth L Magness
Navigator: F/O. Colin Henry Kohler
W/Op/Air/Gnr: W/O. Ronald E Blades
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/Sgt. Fred C. Yeandle
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/O. Walter Smith
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/Sgt. John Francis Smith
Air/Gnr (Rear): F/O. V Jones (Jonah)
A BIG BANG
For on the 8/9th April after going all round the Kat and Skag looking at various contacts and again facing the Junkers 88 night fighters by flying manually at one to two hundred feet - all together in all our trips at night we saw 3 times a JU88 pass overhead, thanks be - very rarely is it totally dark - all very demanding on all the crew members, a good big contact revealed itself as a good sized merchant ship not far off the coast of southern Norway. So we prepared to attack. All went smoothly and no opposition or flak, bombs gone, hold straight and level, counting the seconds for the photo when BANG (or even louder than that) the whole aircraft seemed to be bodily lifted in its tracks - Colin our redoubtable navigator said later his whole body, still lying at full length, was at least a foot off the floor - then bedlam on the intercom, but wait let's check all the engines, yes, all fanning nicely so maintain height just in case, check instruments, seemed ok but NO the DR compass not right, and the plane was quite sluggish to control and airspeed down, so open throttles to get 140 kts, good now see how the bods are. They all answered ok, only mid upper gunner reported parts of perspex turret missing but no response from Smithy. So ask Taffy our Engineer to go and very cautiously look; hopefully to see Smithy. Alas no sign but a large hole had been blown in the floor aft of after spar - and part of a parachute canopy was wrapped round the mid upper turret support legs with the shroud lines disappearing out through the large hole. Poor old Smithy, he had been resting in the midships position when it happened so we were forced to the awful conclusion that he had fallen out completely and so was beyond our help. Poor old friend, how awful for him, but there was much to do and to check if we were to get home in one piece. All agreed we should make for Carnaby and not take Group's advice to head for Leuchars [near the north east coast of Fife, Scotland] which was at least 20 minutes more flying time. So, on a clear and cloudless night at around 3,800 feet and temp[erature] just above zero we took stock of our position and found 140 kts could be maintained with boost and throttles just inside the cruising setting, so we stood a good chance of getting there. Taff again had a careful look for Smithy with a torch but must not reveal our presence as we were still not clear of the enemy fighters' range.
Being a clear night, we could set up the astro compass on Polaris and get a good course for home as given by Colin. About an hour and a half later we could see 10/10ths cloud below us which persisted all the rest of the way. When we considered we were nearing Carnaby we called up with a short call on the R/T, getting an immediate response but the bad news they were completely closed in by a thick blanket of fog and gave us a diversion. By now fuel gauges were on the zero marks so thank God on hearing our tale of woe they said they would try FIDO.
And lo and behold they were about two or three miles away. So undercart down - after an age green lights showed the gear was locked down, and what about some flap Taff? Not on your Nelly skip, they could easily be badly damaged, so we must put it down safely on the first attempt. Approaching at 140 kts and touching down nicely in the middle of enormous jets of flame she rolled ok then kept straight as the tail touched and we braked to a halt. And the flames were immediately extinguished so there we were in thick fog with no idea which way to go; but flying control quickly re-assured us that a jeep was out searching for us. In a few minutes this arrived and led us to the hard standing, so now to shut down the engines which had purred so steadily all those hours and saved our necks. Just as that job was completed a great shout went up from the crew who had got out of the aircraft, "Gee, (or words to that effect) here's Smithy...........!"
So out we scrambled to see dear old Frank smiling, but perished with the cold and unable even to kneel up without help, and soon enjoying a quick drag. Thank heaven he and all of us were safe and sound. Off they went with Frank with us following close behind to see that he was made comfortable on a bed and with a blanket like a tent down the bed and several orange heater lamps alongside him to try and get him warm. There were warm drinks for him, and such good care and attention.
Extract from No. 58 Squadron Operations Record Book
Extract from Flying Control Liason and Station Reports - April 1945
HOW THE PRESS REPORTED IT
AND NOT FORGETTING THE ONE THAT STARTED IT ALL
(The clipping sent to Roy Wilcock by Leigh Lawson)
What a miracle he survived. Believe it or not, the reason that he did was that the D-ring on his parachute harness (used to secure a one man dinghy pack) hooked itself over a lug or bracket in the bomb bay frame which secured one end of a vertical strut which was blown off by the explosion leaving the lug clear for the D-ring to hook on to it. He had then, by some superhuman effort in the 140kt gale got his arms and legs wrapped round some other spars and so hung on grimly all the way. And when we examined the D-ring we found that it had elongated at least 50% with the weight and strain of its unusual load. That guardian angel was sure on overtime that night.
And for the third time Frank came back flying with us in May and before 58 was disbanded. What quiet courage and bravery was shown by him and many others too, without proper reward, if such existed. A mere gong seemed so inadequate. But we were in one piece, if a bit frayed at the edges, and that was the greatest privilege of all - to come home again to our families and friends.
[No. 58 Squadron was disbanded on 25 May 1945 and on 2 June Neil was posted to No. 86 Squadron at RAF Tain on the Moray Firth, Scotland for training on Liberators and on to No. 59 Squadron at RAF Ballykelly in County Londonderry from 14 June. He commenced operational flying as a transport pilot on Liberators with No. 59 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire on 18 October 1945. The last entry in his log book was dated 14 November 1945 when he piloted a Liberator from Bordeaux to Waterbeach]
YOU WILL UNDERSTAND......
You will understand why I said I had the honour to skipper that crew, Jimmy Ricketts, Second Dickie; Colin Kohler, Navigator; Ken Magness; Engineer; Frank Smith, WOP/AG; Fred Yeandle, WOP/AG; Bobbie Burns, WOP/AG; Ron Blades, WOP/AG; Wally Smith, WOP/AG, and Jonah,[F/O. V Jones] Gunner in the tail usually. And from time to time, F/Sgts. Dave Laffy and Eddie Lack.
We still keep in touch. The known survivors are Taffy, Ken Magness of Usk, Fred Yeandle of Taunton, Frank Smith of Cleethorpes and me.
That marvellous Halifax III E/58, No. PN425 never flew again as it was a write-off, but it served us well to the limit of our capabilities.
Of those other Logs I mentioned before, more anon, but in the meantime I have tried to put on record some of the quiet bravery among the aircrews which went unsung and unknown and can only hope that there are not too many errors.
HAPPY LANDINGS ALWAYS TO YOU ALL
The quiet bravery among the aircrews certainly went unsung and unknown and there are I am sure, not too many errors in Neil's recollections; but alas, despite his promise, he wrote no more of the other Logs. What wonderful stories he might have told!
On leaving the RAF Neil returned to work as the Business Representative for Redler Conveyors where he spent the rest of his working life.
After retiring he and Angela went on an annual pilgrimage to Scilly (his sister Olive thinks to St Mary's) the scene of his wartime 'ditching'. The locals still remembered the event and the rescue.
Neil's wife Frances sadly succumbed to the ravages of MS in 1985.
At some time after Frances died Neil and their daughter Angela went to Norway to visit friends he had made during the war.
In 1989 he married family friend Betty Kathleen Cowburn and now in his 70s he enrolled along with Betty, in a woodworking class at the local polytechnic.
Neil and Betty also went to York several times to visit The Yorkshire Air Museum based on the site of former RAF Elvington to see the Halifax bomber that was being restored there.
He enjoyed 12 years of marriage to Betty before her death in 2001.
Fl/Lt Ronald Neil Lawson died on 10 December 2009 at Wythenshawe Hospital aged 93 years. He was cremated at Altrincham Crematorium on 30th December 2009 and his cremated remains were placed in section 1 of the Conifer Garden in the Gardens of Remembrance at the Crematorium.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE OTHERS
Fl/Lt. Harry West Burroughs was born in 1911 at Ormskirk, Lancashire the son of Arthur Ernest J Burroughs and Evelyn Patti Burroughs nee West. LAC 1032067 H. W. Burroughs was commissioned a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 3 July 1942 (London Gazetted 25 December 1942). He was promoted to Flying Officer (war subs) on 3 January 1943 (London Gazette 14 May 1943) and to Flight Lieutenant (war subs) on 3 July 1944 (London Gazette 1 August 1944).
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as announced in the London Gazette of 19 January 1945. The citation was as follows:
This officer has completed many sorties, including a number of successful attacks on enemy shipping. In November, 1944, he pressed home a most determined and accurate attack on a medium sized vessel in enemy waters. Two of the bombs from his aircraft struck the ship. From amidships a great column of smoke arose. Only a few minutes later a sheet of flame came from the vessel of which nothing could afterwards be seen. The success obtained reflects the greatest credit on the skill and resolution of this pilot.
He relinquished his commission with effect from 1 May 1956 under the provisions of the Navy, Army and Air Force Reserves Act, 1954, and was granted permission to retain the rank of Flight Lieutenant. (London Gazette 24 July 1956)
F/Sgt. William Kenneth L. Magness (Taffy) was born in 1924 at Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales the son of William Magness and Elizabeth Magness nee Stephens. In 1989 he was living at Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales.
F/O. Colin Henry Kohler was born on 11 May 1916 at Parkside, Unley, Adelaide, South Australia, the son of John Grant Kohler. The family lives at 88a Young Street, Parkside and after leaving school Colin worked as a House Painter
When he enlisted at Adelaide on 11 September 1941 he was described as being 5' 10" weighing 134 lbs with a medium complexion, brown eyes and light brown hair. After Initial Training School at RAAF Pearce and pilot training at RAAF stations Cunderdin and Geraldton all in Western Australia, Colin was remustered for Air Observer training at RAAF stations Mount Gambior and Port Pirie South Australia and Nhill in Victoria where he recieved his Observers Badge on 12 November 1942. On 12 September 1942 he had married Audrey Mary Gibbs. In Colin's next of kin records her address was given as 27 Grandwich Grove, Toorak Gardens, South Australia.
He took a short course on Astro Navigation which he passes on 10 December 1942 and after embarkation leave he left Melbourne on 15 January 1943 for Canada where he disembarked on 31 January 1943. After further training at RCAF Summerside on Prince Edward Island he embarked for the UK on 28 May 1943 and disembarked on 3 June. On 17 August 1943 he was posted from PDRC to No. 6 (Observer) Operational Training Unit at RAF Silloth in Cumbria where he first met Neil Lawson on Course 29.
Just when Colin received the news is unknown but he became a father on 9 October 1943 when his wife Audrey gave birth to their son Christopher John.
After training at 1674 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Longtown, Cumbria joined 58 Squadron on 26 January 1944.
On 25 September 1944 Colin was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and on 25 March 1945 promoted to Flying Officer.
Between 29 January 1944 and 25 May 1945 Colin flew 37 operational sorties all with 58 squadron. He returned home to Australia disembarking there on 28 October 1945 and was demobilised on 22 January 1946.
He died on 15 June 1996 at Glengowrie, South Australia aged 80. He was cremated and his remains interred on, 19 June 1996 at Centennial Park Cemetery Pasadena Mitcham City, South Australia. Plot: Services Family, Rose Bed 13, Position 98.
W/O. Robert J. (Bob) Harniman was born in 1919 at Edmonton, London.
Sgt. Thomas Howell Brian Griffiths (Taff) was born in 1922 at Pontardaw, Breconshire, Wales the son of William Pryse Griffiths and Caroline Griffiths nee Lewis. The family lived at Cwmtwrch for a time. After Brian Griffiths left the elementary school he attended Lladovery College and later joined the staff of Brynhenllys Colliery at Swansea as an accountant. Having no known grave he is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial - Panel 230.
F/Sgt. John Francis Smith was living at Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire in 1989. Nothing further known, can you help?
Sgt. Fred C. Yeandle was born in 1924 at Taunton, Somerset the son of William R. Yeandle and Beatrice A. Yeandle nee Bellamy. In 1989 he was living at Taunton, Somerset.
F/Sgt James Ricketts - Nothing further known, can you help?
W/O. Ronald E. Blades - Nothing further known, can you help?
F/O. Walter Smith - Nothing further known, can you help?
F/O. V. Jones (Jonah) - Nothing further known, can you help?
F/Sgt. Robert Burns - Nothing further known, can you help?
F/Sgt. Dave Laffy was probably born 1921 at at Hampstead, London the son of James O. Laffy and Norah Laffy nee Kelly.
F/Sgt. Eddie Lack - Nothing further known, can you help?
If you can provide any further information about any of the above crew members please contact our HELPDESK
Compiled and edited by Senior Research Editor Roy Wilcock - July 2016
On behalf of Aircrew Remembered, Roy Wilcock would like to thank the following without whose help this story would never have been written:
The Personal Representatives of the late Angela Mary Lawson for permission to use the memoir, Flying and Other Logs by Ronald Neil Lawson, details from his Flying Log Book, and crew photographs.
Olive Larrington (Neil Lawson's sister) for extensive and invaluable personal information and photographs relating to the Lawson family.
Leigh Lawson for bringing the story to our attention, providing family background information and photographs, liaising with family members, seeking answers to my incessant questions without complaint and giving her encouragement to the project throughout.
John Francis Smith for his account of his experiences during the ditching and aftermath.
Thanks also to the following sources: National Archives of Australia, Imperial War Museum and No. 58 Squadron records.