18.07.1944 No. 115 Squadron Lancaster III LM616 KO-J P/O. Sydney A. Letts
Operation: Emieville (Operation Goodwood) (1)
Date: 18th July 1944 (Tuesday)
Unit: No. 115 Squadron
Type: Lancaster III
Base: RAF Witchford
Location: West End Farm, Great Offley, Hertfordshire
Pilot: P/O. Sydney Albert Letts 173763 RAFVR Age 31. Killed
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Donald Carpenter Clark 1717615 RAFVR Age 20. Killed
Nav: Sgt. Keith John Smith 1603697 RAFVR Age 21. Killed
Air/Bmr: P/O. William John Kennedy J/88743 RCAF Age 28. Killed (2)
W/Op/Mech: F/O. Thomas Richardson 157884 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Isaac Morris 1544587 RAFVR Age 21. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Earl Douglas White R/200964 RCAF Age 21. Killed
Alice Handley Age 67. Killed
Mary Agnes Handley Age 36. Killed
Pte. Elsie Handley W/83086 ATS Age 28. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
At 04:20 hrs Pilot officer Sydney Albert Letts opened up the throttles of his Lancaster Bomber and roared down the runway at RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire. This was the seventh time Letts and his crew had taken off from Witchford on an operation since arriving at the Fenland airfield in June 1944. The purpose of this operation was to bomb various targets in the Normandy area in support of the British Second Army troops (armoured division) - attacking various fortified villages in the area East of Caen. The raids took place at dawn in clear conditions with a force of 942 aircraft (Excluding USAAF aircraft) A total of 800 tons of bombs were dropped (5,000 by Bomber Command).
The results were classed as very successful against the 16th Luftwaffe Field division and the 21st Panzer division. Bombing was made between 5 and 9,000 ft. British and Naval and Army artillery made many of the flak batteries inoperable and the Luftwaffe did not have much effect on the raid.
Above a visit by the King and Queen - July 1944 - P/O. Lett is peering over left shoulder of Princess Elizabeth. Less than a month later many of the aircrew shown were lost!
P/O. Letts’ aircraft was KO-J LM616 which had also arrived new at Witchford in June and was now on its’ 10th operation, an operation that neither aircraft nor crew would return from. P/O. Letts’ aircraft was one of twenty five Lancasters that 115 Squadron were contributing to an operation to bomb enemy positions concealed in woods at Emieville. The last of the Witchford Lancasters left the runway at 0440 hrs. The total bomb load of the twenty five Lancasters was 275 x 1,000lb and 100 x 500lb. On arrival over the target the crews dropped their bombs from heights ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 feet onto the wooded area. Many fires were seen until smoke and dust obscured further visual observation. With all bombs dropped, the Lancasters turned for home and the safety of their respective airfields.
It is not known if P/O. Letts’ aircraft suffered any damage or mechanical failure over the target or on the return journey, but the next time the aircraft was seen was circling over the village of Great Offley, Hertfordshire, on what was a very misty morning. Eyewitnesses at the time thought that one engine was on fire, and the pilot was looking for somewhere to put the aircraft down.
The Lancaster had arrived from the direction of Hitchin just after 7am, going west towards Great Offley, a village that stood on much higher ground.
At West End Farm, Great Offley, George Handley and his two sons were in the cow shed carrying out the early morning milking. Georges’ wife Alice and their two daughters Mary and Elsie were in the house when a terrible chain of events started to unfold. At 07:10 hrs it is probable that P/O. Letts decided to try to crash land the aircraft unsure of what the terrain was like below the mist. At a spot called Eagles Nest the aircraft clipped some trees taking several branches with it; continuing on, the Lancaster cut two furrows across a field and swept up two large water tanks before careering into the farm house at West End Farm. The house, although extremely well built, was totally destroyed; the fuel tanks of the Lancaster ruptured and exploded creating a terrible inferno from which no one could escape. Villagers and the National Fire Service came to help, but could do no more than prevent the fire spreading to other farm buildings. More help arrived with fire appliances from Luton and Letchworth to help bring the fire under control.
George Handley and his two sons had escaped the disaster as the cow shed was not damaged in the crash. George, unable to cope with the loss of his wife and daughters, took his own life in 1949.
Georges’ youngest daughter Elsie, who was a private in the ATS had only arrived home the previous evening for a few hours leave from a gun site where she was stationed.
P/O. Letts and crew all perished in the crash and ensuing fireball.
(1) Operation Goodwood was a Second World War British offensive that took place between 18th and 20th July 1944. British VIII Corps, with three armoured divisions, launched the attack aiming to seize the German-held Bourguébus Ridge, along with the area between Bretteville-sur-Laize and Vimont, while also destroying as many German tanks as possible. Goodwood was preceded by preliminary attacks dubbed the Second Battle of the Odon. On 18 July, British I Corps conducted an advance to secure a series of villages and the eastern flank of VIII Corps. On VIII Corps's western flank, Canadian II Corps launched a coordinated attack - codenamed Operation Atlantic - aimed at capturing the remaining German-held sections of the city of Caen south of the Orne River. When Operation Goodwood ended on the 20th July, the armoured divisions had broken through the initial German defences and had advanced seven miles before coming to a halt in front of the Bourguébus Ridge, with armoured cars having penetrated even further south and over the ridge. The objective of the operation was a limited attack to secure Caen and the Bourguébus Ridge beyond, pinning German formations in the eastern region of the Normandy beachhead. This prevented German forces disengaging and moving south to confront US forces in their breakout operation, Operation Cobra, which began on the 25th July. At least one historian has called the operation the largest tank battle that the British Army has ever fought. (info courtesy Wikipedia)
(2) Kennedy Hill, east of Nueltin Laki in Manitoba renamed after P/O. William John Kennedy in 1995.
P/O. Sydney Albert Letts. Cambridge City Cemetery Grave 13769. Son of Sydney and Mabel Letts, of Leicester; husband of Dorothy Letts, of Leicester.
Sgt. Donald Carpenter Clark. Hitchin Cemetery. South Sec. Grave 16A. Son of Benjamin George Arthur and Winifred Emma Clark, of East Barnet.
Sgt. Keith John Smith. Cambridge City Cemetery Grave 13969. Son of Frank John Leage Smith and Gwendolin Grace Smith, of Purley, Surrey.
P/O. William John Kennedy. Brookwood Military Cemetery 52.F.7. Son of William Dugald and Mary Ann Kennedy, of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
F/O. Thomas Richardson. New Seaham (Christ Church) Churchyard Row G. Grave 3. Son of John and Susan Richardson. of Seaton.
Sgt. Isaac Morris. Staveley (St. James) Churchyard, Over Staveley. New ground Joint grave 554. Son of Joseph and Jessie Morris, of Staveley.
Sgt. Earl Douglas White. Brookwood Military Cemetery 52.F.8. Son of Menno Peter and Rose Rebecca White, of Fort Erie North, Ontario, Canada.
Other Casualty burial details:
Alice Handley. Hitchin Rural District Cemetery. Wife of George Handley, of West End Farm, Offley
Mary Agnes Handley. Hitchin Rural District Cemetery. Daughter of George Handley, of West End Farm, Offley, and of Alice Handley.
Pte. Elsie Handley. Offley (St. Mary Magdalene) Churchyard New Part. Row 3. Grave 19
Researched with the assistance of Paul Strickland. Also to Ian Letts - nephew of P/O. Sydney Letts who provided additional information to Aircrew Remembered - October 2016. With thanks also to British Schools Museum in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.