08.06.1943 No. 104 Squadron Wellington II W5564 EP-H P/O. Francis Earl McLaren
Operation: Pantelleria, Italy
Date: 8 June 1943 (Tuesday)
Unit: No. 104 Squadron - Motto: Strike hard
Badge: A winged thunderbolt. The device in conjunction with the motto implies the unit's formidable intentions and power.
Type: Vickers Wellington II
Code: Call sign H
Base: Kairouan/Cheria, Tunisia
Location: Mediterranean Sea about 4 miles off Pantelleria
Pilot: P/O. Francis Earl McLaren J.17371 RCAF - Safe but suffering from exposure (1)
2nd Pilot: Fl/Sgt. Leonard Reginald Brennan Aus/413161 RAAF Age 32 - Missing believed killed (2)
Nav: Sgt. Frank Edward Bobby 1183349 RAFVR Age 29 - Missing believed killed (3)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Roland Osborne Charles Harris 1117369 RAFVR Age 20 - Killed (4)
W/Op/Air/Gnr (F): Sgt. Derek James Aspinall Robson 1222115 RAFVR Age 23 - Missing believed killed (5)
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Trevor William Robert Jones Aus/407867 Age 21 - Missing believed killed (6)
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With the successful conclusion of the North African Campaign in May 1943 the Allies turned their attention to the invasion of Italy. Standing in the way of their first objective of Sicily, was the heavily fortified island of Pantelleria.
Recognising the island's strategic position in the narrow channel separating the eastern and western Mediterranean, Mussolini declared it a prohibited military zone in 1926 and in 1935 commenced the construction of an airfield, coastal fortifications and anti-aircraft batteries. By 1943 the island's defences consisted of at least 12000 Italian and 600 German troops and 112 fortified gun emplacements and 80 aircraft based on the island.
In May 1943 the aircraft of the Northwest African Air Forces were turned on Pantelleria. With 1000 aircraft at his disposal Air Marshal Tedder oversaw a continuous bombing of the island fortifications dropping some 6600 tons of bombs as a prelude to the invasion of the island planned for 11 June and Codenamed "Operation Corkscrew".
The attacks commenced on 18 May and continued until 1000 hours on 11 June. An hour later, as Allied forces approached in landing craft, the Italian defenders ran up the white flag and capitulated.
104 Squadron had been based at Gardabia [Ghardabya] near the Libyan coastal city of Sirte, since 14 February 1943 but in May 1943 was ordered to up sticks and move to Kairouen in Tunisia.
During May the Squadron had been engaged in one raid on Cape Bon in Tunisia and two against Messina in Sicily but based at Kairouan would be in a better location to participate in raids against Pantelleria and Sicily.
The move was effected on 27/28 May, the squadron being based at Cheria, one of several airfields in the Kairouan area.
On the night of 5/6 June the Squadron detailed 11 aircraft to attack the harbour and docks at Pantelleria. One returned early due to engine trouble whilst the rest all bombed the target and returned safely. Francis McLaren and his crew were not detailed for that operation but on the night of 7/8 June they were one of 9 crews detailed for a similar operation against Pantelleria harbour and docks.
REASON FOR LOSS
According to the Squadron Operations Record Book Wellington W5564 captained by the recently commissioned Canadian Pilot Officer took off at 0021 on 8 June 1943. The aircraft were not to fly in formation but operate independently of each other. In fact the first of the nine to take off was airborne at 2323 hours bombed the target and returned to base before the last of the nine even took off.
Pilot Francis McLaren set course shortly after taking off on the comparatively short 125 mile flight to the target. Beside him on the collapsible seat was 2nd dickey and Aussie, Len Brennan. Len was now 32, but in his younger days he had been a rugby league player of some note with Sydney club St. George Dragons.
Behind the two pilots was the wireless operator and youngest member of the crew, Lewisham born Roland Harris aged 20. Behind him was the navigator and Londoner Frank Bobby age 29 from a family of Market Gardeners. Second wireless operator and front gunner was Derek Robson the 23 year old son of a School Teacher and hailing from Walsall, Staffordshire.
Ensconced on his own in the rear turret and aged 21 was another Aussie, Trevor Jones. From South Australia he had been a Grazier before joining the RAAF as soon as he was 18 years old.
The following account is based closely on the Report of the Ditching by Pilot Officer Francis Earl McLaren written on 16 June 1943 to the Officer Commanding 104 Squadron.
The aircraft climbed steadily towards the target, however having reached 4500 feet and already in sight of flares going down Francis found that the refused to climb any higher and had lost 2 lbs boost. Engaging the blower he managed to encourage the aircraft to climb to 5500 feet and by then jettisoning 1 x 500 lb and 1 x 250 lb bomb to lighten the load he was able to climb some more. By now they were within five miles of the Pantelleria coast and Francis effected a climbing turn to port on completion of which they were still about four miles out to sea.
With no warning the aircraft received a severe blow amidships from one lone shot of heavy flak presumably from a flak ship below although no vessel or flash had been sighted the crew.
Derek Robson, standing in the astrodome, was badly hit and although a flare was in the flare chute Derek said it never went off. Francis immediately jettisoned all his remaining bombs and set course for Cape Bon.
Whilst Len Brennan and Frank Bobby attended to Derek, the Roland Harris the wireless operator continued to send out messages. The IFF had been on Stud 3 from the moment the shell struck. The intercom had also failed and shortly afterwards the lights went out.
As Francis fought to regain control he found that he had no rudder and the aileron controls were damaged. The whole aircraft was shuddering badly and he could not maintain height even with full boost and revs, 15 degrees of flap and 90 mph on the air speed indicator. He was forced to keep the stick full back into his stomach but the aircraft did not stall. He called out to Len to come and strap him in but by the time Len got forward it was too late and Francis told him to go back and tell the others to brace for ditching whilst he warned the rear gunner by pressing the signal button.
So that he could see his height above water, Francis flicked the landing light switch only to discover that they were not working either. Yet amidst all these mechanical problems he made a reasonable ditching with no further injuries sustained barring lacerations to his own face.
Frank Bobby pulled the flotation and dinghy release [it would seem that this was the internal release gear that he operated just prior to exiting through the astrodome]
Wireless operator Roland Harris then passed the wounded Derek Robson through the astrodome to Frank Bobby before going out himself.
Meanwhile, Francis McLaren and Len Brennan had left via the upper escape hatch in the cockpit roof. Francis inflated his Mae West and then pulled the dinghy release from the outside.
Rear gunner Trevor Jones had climbed out of his turret and after pulling his dinghy release came forward to help to support the wounded front gunner whose CO2 bottle on his Mae West had not worked so while the others held him above water Roland Harris blew up the Mae West.
Within 15 to 20 seconds the aircraft sank without any appearance of the dinghy. It had been noticed that there was no fabric on the fuselage from just forward of the astrodome to just in front of the stabiliser which was still burning as the Wellington sank.
As the five airmen held on to one another it was found that Derek Robson was badly burned about the face and could not see but they were unable to ascertain how badly he was injured.
By dawn they were all very cold and had swallowed a considerable amount of water. They hung on to one another keeping the wounded Derek Robson in the middle.
During this time Roland Harris distinguished himself by swimming round to retrieve members of the crew who were too cold to hold on.
About 8.30 it was found that Derek Robson had died and shortly afterwards Francis McLaren asked Roland Harris if he thought that he thought that he could make it to Pantelleria which they could see about ten miles away. Roland was by far the best swimmer of the crew but had lost quite a lot of his strength in bringing the stragglers back to the group. Nevertheless he thought that he could swim to Pantelleria and said that he would like to try.
Things looked pretty black and none of them thought that they were able to last much longer so Francis told him to try and save himself whilst he took over his duties of trying to keep the group together.
Roland was last seen about 0900 hours swimming for Pantelleria.
Francis then took off the dead man's Mae West and got the rest to also hang on to it - which they did until they could not hang on any longer and drifted a short way apart. Francis last spoke to them about 1100 hours, they were all alive but becoming delirious with the sun beating down on them and the salt water washing over them and in all probability Francis became delirious too.
Francis remembered little of what happened after that but was told by the Surgeon of the destroyer (HMS Lookout) which picked him up between 1330 and 1400 hours that he must have seen them as he had attracted them by blowing his whistle. The Surgeon told him that the rest of the crew, who were still with him, were dead. Just as the destroyer heaved to in order to pick him up it came under attack by Junkers Ju 88s. Francis remembered trying to scramble up the ladder onto the destroyer before losing consciousness.
The timing of the attack on the destroyer had made it impossible to recover the bodies of the other four crew members and their remains were never found.
Francis was taken to No. 45 General Hospital in Malta where he was described as being slightly injured and was clearly well enough to write his report a week later.
On 26 June the body of Roland Harris was found washed up on the island of Lampedusa some 95 miles south of Pantelleria. He had drowned whilst attempting to swim to Pantelleria and was buried in the Hospital Cemetery on Lampedusa.
On 1 December 1944 his remains were re-interred at Enfidaville War Cemetery, Tunisia.
It is not known whether Francis McLaren ever returned to operational flying but on 15 October it was promulgated in the London Gazette that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By January 1944 he had returned to Canada and having been promoted to Flying Officer was serving with No. 2 Training Command Headquarters (also known as the Air Training Command No. 2) which was based at Winnipeg, Manitoba and covered northwestern Ontario, all of Manitoba, and part of Saskatchewan. He was engaged in introducing the Aircrew Leadership Training Programme and Gen Clubs to the various training establishment within the command area. The last mention of him in this role being 24 August 1944.
By June 1944 he had been promoted to Flight Lieutenant.
After the war he remained a member of the RCAF and on completion of 12 years' service was a recipient of the Canadian Forces Decoration (CD) established on 15 December 1949 and first awarded on 7 June 1951.
By 1962 he was a squadron leader stationed at RCAF Centralia, a training base near Exeter, Ontario when a Chipmunk aircraft crashed and caught fire.
In recognition of their actions in saving one of the airmen on board Sqd Ldr. Francis McLaren and Fl/Lt. Ian Kenneth McKenzie CD (39050) were each awarded the George Medal on 9 February 1963 and promulgated in the London Gazette of 19 February 1963. The citation reads:
On the 6th April 1962, a Chipmunk aircraft crashed and caught fire at R.C.A.F. Station, Centralia. When Squadron Leader McLaren and Flight Lieutenant McKenzie reached the scene the aircraft and the ground around it were burning, the fire truck had not yet arrived and there was a grave danger of explosion. Squadron Leader McLaren and Flight Lieutenant McKenzie immediately set about extricating one of the pilots who was still alive. With great difficulty, they were able to rescue him, but not before they themselves had received painful burns. They then directed the efforts of others to extricate the body of the other pilot who had been killed by the initial impact. Squadron Leader McLaren and Flight Lieutenant McKenzie displayed leadership and courage of a very high order at grave risk to themselves, and had it not been for their action, the survivor of the crash would undoubtedly have died in the flames.
The two pilot instructors aboard the de Havilland Chipmunk DHC-1 CT-120 18050 were Flying Officer Patrick Bernard Gillette age 24 (Killed) and Flying Officer Allan William Thomson.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) Sqn Ldr. Francis Earl, McLaren DFC, GM, CD is thought to have been born in 1922.
He was awarded his pilots badge after graduating at No. 9 Service Flying Training School, RCAF Summerside, Prince Edward Island - Course 33 (July 15 - Sept 25 1941)
In 1943 he was a married man, his wife's name is unknown but at that time she was living with his parents at Suite No. 7, 705 Westminster Avenue, Winnipeg.
As noted earlier he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 15 October 1943 and the George Medal on 9 February 1963.
He is believed to have died at Langley, British Columbia, Canada in July 2001 aged 81.
It is regrettable that so little is known of the background of Francis Earl McLaren. If you have any information please contact our helpdesk.
(2) Fl/Sgt. Leonard Reginald "Len" Brennan was born on 26 February 1911 at Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia the son of Harold Richard Brennan (died 1937) and Elizabeth Cecilia Brennan nee Fallon of 13 Bowns Road, Kogarah.
Len had nine siblings; Joseph Richard Brennan (1908-1949), Mary Cecilia "Marie" Brennan (1909-2001), Harold Richard Brennan (1912-1925), Catherine Veronica "Kit" Brennan (1914-1986), Francis John Brennan (1915-2003), Patricia Mary Brennan (1916-1997), Gregory Arthur Brennan (1918-2010), Herbert Nathanial Brennan (1919-1985) and another brother, details unknown.
In the 1930s he played rugby league notably for three seasons in the first grade with Sydney club St George Dragons 1932-1934, including the 1933 Grand Final.
Len enlisted at Sydney on 16 August 1941 and embarked on 21 March 1942 probably for Canada/USA. Whilst on leave in New York the photograph below was taken.
Leonard Reginald Brennan is commemorated on the Australian War Memorial, Canberra- Panel 119.
(3) Sgt. Frank Edward Bobby was born in 1914 at Wandsworth, London the son of Edward Bobby and Eva Maud Bobby nee Godber later of Wallington, Surrey.
He had three siblings; Edward W. Bobby born 1913, Jack Bobby born 1916 and Arthur Bobby born 1920.
In 1939 the family lived at 9 Smallholdings, Little Woodcote, Carshalton, Surrey. Edward Bobby was a self-employed Market Gardener and ARP Observer.
(4) Sgt. Roland Osborne Charles Harris was born in 1922 at Lewisham, Kent the son of Captain Ernest Harris (a Sales Representative for Ford Distributers) and Hilda M. Harris nee Hodges. In 1939 the family lived at 6 Browning Road Waterloo Liverpool.
He had a sister, Heather J.E. Harris born 1926.
(5) Sgt. Derek James Aspinall Robson was born in 1920 at Walsall, Staffordshire, the son of James Alfred Robson (a Schoolmaster) and Winifred Theresa Robson nee Aspinall, of Walsall, Staffordshire. He had a sister Valerie C. Robson born 1923. The family lived at 66 Lichfield Road Walsall Staffs
(6) Fl/Sgt. Trevor William Robert Jones was born on 20 January 1922 at Auburn, South Australia the son of James Edward Jones (a Grazier) and Annie P. Jones. Trevor attended St. Peter's School (thought to be in Adelaide albeit 70 miles from Auburn) from 1936 to 1938 and later studied Advanced Arithmetic with Stott's Correspondence College from 1938 to 40. After leaving school he worked in engineering, fitting and repairs and like his father, as a Grazier.
He also played cricket, football and tennis.
When he enlisted at Adelaide on 27 June 1940 he was 5' 9½" tall weighing 142lbs with light brown hair, green eyes and a sallow complexion. After training at No 1 Initial Training School at RAAF Somers, Victoria; No 1 Wireless and Gunnery School at RAAF Ballarat, Victoria; and No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAAF Port Pirie, South Australia he was awarded his Air Gunners Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 22 August 1941.
On 18 September he embarked for Canada from where he embarked for the UK on 22 October where he was posted to No. 3 Personnel and Reception Centre at Bournemouth. He was posted to No. 7 Air Gunnery School at RAF Stormy Down, South Wales on 7 February 1942. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 22 February and on 17 March he was posted to RAF Harwell, Berkshire for training on night bomber crews on the Vickers Wellington.
Posted to No. 2 Middle East Training School on 23 September 1942 he was posted to No. 70 Squadron at Abu Sueir, Egypt on 26 October. On 1 January 1943 he was posted to No. 104 Squadron at Landing Ground 237 aka Kilo 40 near Cairo. The Squadron move briefly to Solluch in Libya and to Gardabia on 14 February 1943.
Trevor William Robert Jones is commemorated on the Australian War Memorial, Canberra - Panel No. 124
BURIAL DETAILS, MEMORIALS AND EPITAPHS
(2) Fl/Sgt. Leonard Reginald Brennan - having no known grave he
is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 11, Column 2.
(3) Sgt. Frank Edward Bobby - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 7, Column 1.
(4) Sgt. Roland Osborne Charles Harris - originally buried at the Hospital Cemetery on Lampedusa was re-interred on 1 December 1944 at Enfidaville War Cemetery, Tunisia Grave Ref: 5.B.31
(5) Sgt. Derek James Aspinall Robson - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 9, Column 1.
6) Fl/Sgt. Trevor William Robert Jones - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 11, Column 2.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - October 2018
With thanks to the sources quoted below.