625 Squadron Lancaster I ED321 Fl/Sgt. John Gladstone Blackwood
Date: 3/4 November, 1943
Unit: No. 625 Squadron
Type: Lancaster I
Location: Eller, 7 km S.E. of Düsseldorf
Pilot: F/Sgt John Gladstone Blackwood 656138 RAFVR Age ? Killed (1)
Fl/Eng: Sgt Raymond Skelton 1584664 RAFVR Age ? Killed (2)
Nav: Sgt Richard Donald Yates 1545898 RAFVR Age 21 Killed (3)
Air/Bmr: Sgt Sidney Aaron Robbins 1338962 RAFVR Age ? Killed (4)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt Frederick Arthur Watkins RAFVR 1505043 Age 20 Killed (5)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. James McGregor Smith R186445 RCAF Age 21 Killed (6)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Reginald Littlehales 1268196 RAFVR Age 33 Killed (7)
On October 15, 1943, F/Sgt Blackwood and his freshly minted crew would arrive from 1667 HCU, keen and energetic to face the challenges of operational flying. Along with a contingent of twenty-eight other crews, including No. 100 Squadron’s ‘C’ Flight, an assortment of other squadrons and Heavy Conversion Units, would form the nucleus of No. 625 Squadron Kelstern. The current life expectancy of a rookie bomber crew at this time was a matter of weeks and most likely they would have been aware of this. How would they fare?
F/Sgt Blackwood would have only two days to adjust to the routines of an operational base before finding his name included on the Battle Order for October 18, as ‘second dicky’ in F/Sgt R.G. Bowden’s crew, detailed to bomb Hanover, manning Lancaster III ED814. No other members of F/Sgt Blackwood’s crew participated in this op. It was customary for an experienced Skipper to have the moral support of his regular navigator and rear gunner. After a 5 hour 30 minute uneventful trip they touched down at Base, rewarded with the deserved bacon and eggs breakfast.
This operation was the Squadron’s first, only five days after the aircraft, air and ground crews had arrived a Kelstern. It is not surprising that of the thirteen aircraft detailed, nine successfully carried out their task and the remaining four could not be bombed up in time to participate. This would never be repeated. There were no losses from this raid but it would not be long before the spell was broken.
On October 22, F/Sgt Blackwood and his crew would experience their baptism under fire when they were detailed to attack Kassel flying ED814:
Up 18.05 - Down 00.30, Target KASSEL, attacked at 21.13 hrs from a height of 19,000’. Very large concentrated fires. Considered a very successful trip and a good raid. Landed at LUDFORD MAGNA.
Lancaster ED814 would provide yeoman service, participating in ten raids for No. 97 Squadron, coded OF-D, another fourteen with 625 Squadron, as CF-K. Sadly, after transfer to No. 300 (Polish) Squadron good fortune would run out for her and the decorated crew of F/Sgt Fudali Wladyslaw. They would fail to return from the catastrophic 30-1/1-7-44 Vierzon raid, leaving no survivors. It would be no coincidence that this raid marked the apex of losses for 625 Squadron with the loss of three aircraft and four crews (ND975 SD Flight).
After a two week reprieve, on November 3, F/Sgt Blackwood and crew had the rude awakening that they would be operating again that evening, detailed to attack Düsseldorf:
Lancaster I ED321, F/Sgt Blackwood and Crew, Up 17.23 — , Target DÜSSELDORF,
aircraft “U” failed to return, no news after ‘take off’.
3.11.43 OPERATIONS. 15 Aircraft, 11 Lancaster IIIs’ and 4 Lancaster Is’ were detailed for operations, the Target chosen being DÜSSELDORF. Of these a/c 12 bombed the Target successfully. The defences seemed puzzled of the true Target and the attack was successfully carried out with cloud cover en route to the Target, and good weather on the return. A number of fires were observed within the Target area: A/C J/Captain F/S Price abandoned task due to engine failure; jettisoned incendiaries and guns to gain sufficient height to jettison 4,000 lb bomb, was unable to maintain height but landed safely at base. A/C R/Captain F/S Owen abortive due to engine failure, jettisoned bombs and landed on 3 engines. A/C U/Captain F/SGT. BLACKWOOD J.G., Navigator 1545898 SGT YATES R.D., Air Bomber 1338962 SGT ROBBINS S.A., WOP/AG 1505043 SGT WATKINS F.A., M.U.Gunner R.186445 SGT SMITH J., F.Engineer 1584644 SGT SKELTON R., and Rear Gunner 1268196 SGT LITTLEHALES R., failed to return from this operation, there being no news after take off at 1723’ hours.
REASON FOR LOSS / THE CHOP:
Lt. Erwin Ernst was operational with 6./NJG1 on the evening of November 3/4, 1943, flying Messerschmitt Bf110 G-4, DU+HF, from St. Trond (Sint-Truiden) airfield, Belgium. In the region of Reisholz-Eller, near Düsseldorf, at an altitude of 5,900 metres, he intercepted and attacked Lancaster ED321 of 625 Squadron. Ground impact was recorded at 19.51 hours.
This was to be Lt. Ernst’s fourth and final abschuss. On November 11, 1943, he would lose his life in a crash during a transit flight, due to undercarriage failure.
Telegram to Sgt. James Smith’s father from the RCAF Casualties Officer: Nov. 5
REGRET TO ADVISE THAT YOUR SON SERGEANT JAMES McGREGOR SMITH R ONE EIGHT SIX FOUR FOUR FIVE IS REPORTED MISSING AFTER AIR OPERATIONS OVERSEAS NOVEMBER THIRD STOP LETTER FOLLOWS
Royal Canadian Air Force
CERTIFICATE OF PRESUMPTION OF DEATH No. 8004
This is to certify that R186445 SERGEANT SMITH, JAMES McGREGOR R.C.A.F. has been officially reported as missing since the 3RD day of NOVEMBER, 1943, and that, full inquires having been made, there appears to be conclusive proof that he is dead. For official purposes, therefore, he is presumed to have died on or since the above mentioned date.
Dated at Ottawa, Canada, this 12TH day of JUNE, 1944.
R.C.A.F. Records Officer.
A letter from the Air Ministry in London, 1 May, 1946, to the Officer in Charge, No. 4 Missing Research & Enquiry Unit, Germany (British Zone) provides insight into the fate of this aircraft and crew:
Casualty Enquiry No. G876
Lancaster aircraft Mk. I ED321,…missing from attack on Düsseldorf on the night of 3/4 November, 1943.
656138 F/Sgt. J.G. BLACKWOOD Captain Missing
1545898 Sgt. R.D. YATES Nav. M.B.K.
1338962 Sgt. S.A. ROBBINS A/B M.B.K.
1505043 Sgt. F.A. WATKINS WO/AG Missing
1268196 Sgt. R. LITTLEHALES R/Gr M.B.K.
R186445 Sgt. J. SMITH M.U.G. M.B.K.
1584644 Sgt. R. SKELTON F/Eng Missing
3. Telegram from R.C.C. states 3/11 Lancaster six dead, Sgt. J. Smith, Sgt. Yates, Sgt. Robbins and three unknown. A subsequent telegram states that one of the unknown was identified as Sgt. Littlehales.
4. Totenliste states the dead were buried in Field IIIc, North Military, Düsseldorf:-
Sgt Smith Grave 275 buried 6.11.43
Unknown “ 276
Sgt Yates “ 277
Sgt Littlehales “ 278
Sgt Robbins “ 288 buried 7.11.43
Unknown “ 287
5. German records state that the a/c crashed at Eller 7 km. S.E. of Düsseldorf. German death cards are held for Sgt. Robbins, Sgt. Yates, Sgt. Littlehales and two unknown.
6. It would be appreciated if investigations could be made to identify the two unknown buried in graves 276 and 287, and to ascertain the fate of the remaining member of the crew.
for Director of Personal Services.
NACHTJAGD WAR DIARIES VOLUME ONE
Despite a diversionary attack on Köln the Nachtjagd fighter controllers deduced the main target early in the raid. For the first time, the controllers were able to track the stream by plotting emissions from the aircrafts’ H2S navigation radar sets. This enabled the vectoring of 24 Bf110s and one He219 into the bomber stream over the Schelde Estuary—approximately 150 km. west of Düsseldorf.
However, ground fog over Nachtjagd bases prevented many from getting airborne and the Köln diversion had the German controller sending fighters to Osnabrück, Köln, Bonn and Dortmund. Of the 18 Lancasters and Halifaxes lost, 13 were claimed by Tame Boar crews of NJG1. Wild Boar pilots hampered by cloud did not achieve a single kill.
It is coincidental that Lt. Ernst crashed on finals at St. Trond after suffering a sudden engine failure. His air gunner, Gefr. Hoffmann was severely injured—a portent of events to occur a week later.
BOMBER COMMAND WAR DIARIES
3/4 November 1943
589 aircraft - 344 Lancasters, 233 Halifaxes, 12 Mosquitoes. 18 aircraft - 11 Lancasters and 7 Halifaxes - lost, 3.1 per cent of the force.
The main weight of the raid fell in the centre and south of the city but it is difficult to obtain precise results of the outcome…The United States Bombing Survey gives a figure of 622 dead and 942 injured for the whole of the month of November; there were no more other attacks on Düsseldorf in that month.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE AIRCREW
1. F/Sgt J.G. Blackwood: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
2. Sgt R. Skelton: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
3. Sgt R.D. Yates: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
4. Sgt S.A. Robbins: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
5. Sgt F.A. Watkins: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
6. Sgt. J. Smith was born on June 12, 1922 in Hamilton, Scotland. Coincidentally at the time of enlistment he lived in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, was still a British citizen as were both his parents.
He received his education at Bennett P.S., General and Wentworth Tech., Industrial. His interests included photography and sporting activities encompassed hockey, baseball and golf.
At the time of enlistment on August 31, 1942, he was employed as a press hand.
ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE: Medical Board Examination, 29 May, 1943.
Height: 69”, Weight 148 lbs
Dark complexion, Eyes - Brown, Hair - brown
Fit category A3B.
RECORD OF SERVICE AIRMEN
1 MD Toronto 9/9/42; 1 MD Toronto 23/11/42; 5 SFTS Brantford On. 24/11/42;
5 ST Brandford 21/2/43; 9 PAE McGill U. 20/3/43; Stn Trenton 21/3/43;
Stn Trenton 1/5/43; 3 B&G MacDonald 2/5/43; 3 BG MacDonald 20/6/43;
1.Y.D. Halifax NS 21/6/43; 1 Y Halifax RAF Trainees Pool 22/6/43.
ROYAL AIR FORCE AIRMAN’S RECORD SHEET (ACTIVE SERVICE)
Emb Halifax 23.6.43; UK 1.7.43; 3 PRC 2.7.43; 30 O.T.U. 9.7.43; 1667 C.U.,11.8.43;
625 Sqdn 15.10.43; Pres. Dead 3.11.43.
Promotions: AC2 9/9/42; LAC 1/5/43; T/Sgt. 11/6/43.
7. Sgt Reginald Littlehales: We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK.
- F/Sgt John Gladstone Blackwood is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.15. Son of John and Dorothy Blackwood of Glasgow. His epitaph reads:
He will never know
The weariness of age
Nor the sadness of decline
Above left: Sgt J.G. Blackwood, early training. Right Sgt Blackwood at squadron (Courtesy of Lyn Parrot)
Above left: Memorial Window Cathcart Old Parish Church, Glasgow. Right: Bronze Memorial Plaque in family church (Courtesy of Lyn Parrot)
2. Sgt Raymond Skelton is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 7.A.11.
3. Sgt Richard Donald Yates is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.5. Son of Richard and Eleanor Constance Yates of Shifnal, Shropshire. His epitaph reads:
In proud and loving memory
4. Sgt Sidney Aaron Robbins is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.16.
5. Sgt Frederick Arthur Watkins is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.4. Son of Rhys Philip and Tydfil Watkins of Criccieth, Caernarvonshire. His epitaph reads:
Always loved by mother, Criccieth, N. Wales
6. Sgt James McGregor Smith is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.3.
Above: Sgt James McGregor Smith RCAF. (Courtesy of LAC/ancestry.ca)
7. Sgt Reginald Littlehales is buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Germany, grave 6.G.6. Son of Joseph and Annie Littlehales; husband of Kathleen Litllehales of Lydden, Kent.
Unfortunately, we do not have access to the final report of the MRES that would have included the results of the exhumations and reburial grave assignments in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, almost 100 km northwest of Düsseldorf, Germany. A note from Lyn Parrot, the pilot’s niece, indicates that recovery and identification may not have been straight forward, “Presumably his body is not actually there.” It is also noteworthy that the grave of the Flight Engineer, Sgt Skelton, is located in a different plot of the cemetery. Normally, crew members are buried together, symbolizing their camaraderie as a combat team.
DECORATION SUGGESTIONS: by author.
- F/Sgt J.G. Blackwood 656138: DFM
- Sgt R. Skelton 1584644: DFM
- Sgt R.D. Yates 1545898: DFM
- Sgt S.A. Robbins 1338962: DFM
- Sgt F.A. Watkins 1505043: DFM
- Sgt J.Mc. Smith R186445: DFM
- Sgt R. Littlehales 1268196: DFM
Many factors came into play in the theoretical equation determining a rookie bomber crew surviving their first tour on operations. Lady Luck always held and played at will the ultimate card permitting a crew to complete mission number thirty.
On first arriving at their new Base, after a stint at an Operational Training Unit and Heavy Conversion Unit, a newly minted crew would very quickly be introduced to the grim realities of operational life, in particular the potentially short span. After being informed that many of them had mere weeks to live, they were instructed to supplement their wills with a ‘goodbye’ letter to their family in the event they failed to return from a mission. The sobering fact that two out of three would not survive to fulfill their contract of thirty ops was ‘softened’ by the encouraging news that those who did would be rewarded with rapid promotion.
It is noteworthy and possibly significant that in the hustle and bustle of bringing the new Squadron up to operational status that some crews were prematurely introduced to combat. Under normal circumstances a rookie crew posted to an operational squadron would have two to three weeks to acclimatize to their new environment with cross country and night familiarization flights before their Pilot was given a ‘second dickey’ trip, usually with four of his crew mates, before setting forth on their first. F/Sgt Blackwood, without any of his crew along, had his ‘second dickey’ experience a mere three days after arriving on Squadron and within a week, he and his crew would see their names on the Battle Order for their first op to Kassel. One cannot help but wonder if these were contributive factors to their early demise.
What is truly amazing is that despite the horrific odds of a crew completing their tour, many more did not choose the option of refusing to fly operationally, to be deemed lack of moral fibre (LMF). The most likely factor contributing to this was the crew’s team spirit and camaraderie that germinated from Bomber Command’s policy of ‘crewing up’, leaving in the individual’s hands who they selected to live with, fly with, and quite possibly die with. It was an ingenious concept and it worked. Many crew members elected to fly with psychosomatic symptoms rather than let the others down. Recurrent vomiting, abdominal pain, headaches and panic attacks with hyperventilation were suppressed by a crew member and his crew mates, never reaching the attention of the Base Medical Officer.
Co-author, Maureen Hicks, has provided feedback and insight of the psychological mechanisms that aircrew resorted to in order to face the escalating stress with each sequential op:
“Something else has sprung to mind since reading John's email - I often used to speak to W/C Bell (Bomb Aimer with 617 Squadron) at Wings Museum Open Days about my uncle Leslie being a bomb aimer with 625 Squadron. W/C Bell often appears on TV WW2 programmes etc. and he said that he never worried about being killed - it never really entered his head as he had such confidence in his pilot and 2 gunners keeping them safe. Flak could be a problem but the Lancaster would keep flying even with some flak damage and wounded crew members on board. Also as bomb aimer, he was laying on top of the escape hatch and just believed if they baled out they would be helped by resistance workers or if caught would be POWs, and if the aircraft exploded then he wouldn't know anything about it anyway - so why worry!!”
Operational experience or the lack thereof was generally considered to be a predictor if a crew would reach the end of their tour. It was felt if a crew could survive their first five missions, their statistical odds of surviving were increased roughly to 50/50. However, there was no guarantee and on occasion a crew would fail to return from their thirtieth trip. The thirteenth was always viewed as an invisible barrier to a superstitious crew—and most were.
The introduction of the policy of a ‘second dicky’ op with a seasoned Skipper was invaluable in exposing a rookie crew to experience the visions and sounds from take off to landing, in particular the colours, mayhem and chaos over the target. It was customary for the new pilot to have along his regular crew, with the exception of navigator and rear gunner. This provided the experienced Captain with the emotional cushion of not getting lost or bounced by a night fighter, as he focused on the tasks at hand, including mentoring the neophyte crew members.
The phase of the war during which a crew served their tour was also a significant factor in their chances of survival. Bomber Command crews posted to operational bases between August 1943 and March 1944 drew the short survival straw, unaware of two major technical and one strategic advance that would ensure that many would not see the light of day nor have the satisfaction of entering Op #30 into their log books.
The introduction of the Schräge Musik weapon system during the August 17/18, 1943 Peenemünde raid, coupled with the development of SN-2 airborne interception radar (AI) would be implemented to introduce the strategy of Tame Sau or Tame Boar tactic.
This involved ground controllers using ground based radar to determine the bomber stream’s location, altitude, direction of flight and ultimately the intended target.
Armed with this knowledge, Nachtjagd crews orbiting strategically placed ground beacons would be vectored into the bomber stream to use their AI to locate and attack sequential bombers. This tactic would account for the majority of Bomber Command aircraft lost over the remainder of the war. Chances of a bomber crewman surviving a successful attack incorporating this method were approximately 15%!
During this nine month period of the war Bomber Command loss rates were unsustainable, varying between 5 to 10% for many of the raids deep into Germany, including Peememünde (6.7%), the eighteen trips to Berlin (5-10%) and culminating with the catastrophic Nuremberg raid (11.9%). Confronted with these sobering statistics airmen realized that their chances of surviving a tour of thirty ops would be unlikely to non-existent. Understandably, this was a time of low morale in Bomber Command squadrons. A loss rate of 3.3% would give crews an equal split of surviving their tour of ops. The lower the loss rate the greater the chances of surviving to war’s end.
After D-Day, with Allied forces occupying France, Bomber Command senior staff introduced the edict that ‘milk-run’ missions over France would count only for half an op towards the thirty to tour expire. This policy was rescinded after several weeks when two such raids, Achères and Vierzon, with loss rates of 3.8 and 12% respectively, proved that the Nachtjagd remained a potent threat. 625 Squadron would pay dearly with the loss of six aircraft and seven crews! This included three Lancs on each raid and four crews on the Vierzon raid with the loss of ND975, a Special Duties Flight aircraft, manned by the 625 Squadron crew of P/O Knowles. Coincidentally, Maureen Hick’s Uncle, F/Sgt Leslie Lloyd, was the Bomb Aimer of this crew! It is quite possible that several crews failed to return in the process of fulfilling the obligation to fly ops #29 1/2 and 30. Unfortunately, there was no turning back the clock to have half ops upgraded to a full op.
Perhaps one of the most contentious issues was that for a crew to fulfill their contract of thirty operations they had to return from a raid with a target photo verifying that they had reached and bombed the target. It was rare for a crew to complete their tour without a number of aborted ops for a variety of reasons, including mechanical malfunctions, crew illness and battle damage before reaching the target.
30.4.44. OPERATIONS. 11 aircraft were detailed for operations, the target subsequently
being MAINTENON… It was very worthy of note, that on this trip, F/L W.S. Middlemiss and Crew took part in this raid, and so enabled the Captain himself to complete 30 successful missions over enemy territory. This is the first instance in which one of the Pilots has started at this Squadron on a tour and has successfully completed his tour, without an abortive sortie also. A congratulative (sic) message was given by the Station Commander, G/C R.W. DONKIN OBE, through the medium of Station Routine Orders, complimenting him on his success. Despite many “teething” troubles during the first part of their tour, the Crew have battled along, bombing targets all over GERMANY, including 12 visits to the BIG CITY, and many other heavily defended targets. It is to be hoped that this feat will be an incentive to all crews to endeavour to at least equal this feat.
This feat could not have been attained without the camaraderie and determination of the crew, a Skipper with an abundance of combat moxie, and a dedicated and conscientious ground crew who presented them consistently an airworthy mount that would weather the ‘storm’ and bring them back to Base. In retrospect there was no set of reliable criteria that would predict who would tour expire and who would expire when Lady Luck blinked just as a crackerjack Nachtjagd crew unleashed a deadly salvo or a flak projectile exploded in the bomb bay. In the end it was the luck of the draw.
The last tour op for F/L James Virtue and his crew exemplifies just how quickly things can change, for all involved.
Sadly, the loss of this crew would leave Kathleen Littlehales a widow. We do not know if they had children. This brings to mind the loss of 625 Squadron’s NG169, F/O Ernest Frank Seer and crew, failing to return from the March 16/17, 1945, Nuremberg raid. There were no survivors and tragically, the forty-one year old Rear Gunner, Sgt. Edmund Kenneth Day, would leave behind his widow, Evelyn, to raise their five children: Kenneth age 13, Pamela 9, Jacqueline 6, Brian 3 and John 1! We note that Sgt Day was amongst the oldest members of Bomber Command to be killed in action— a matter of seven weeks before war’s end. What were the recruiters thinking???
Lyn Parrot Family Collection
625 Squadron ORB
Nachtjagd War Diaries Volume One, by Theo Boiten
Bomber Command War Diaries, by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt
Library Archives Canada/ancestry.ca: Canada, World War II Records and Service Files of War Dead, 1939-1947
Kelvin Youngs: Photo-editing
Submission by Lyn Parrot, niece of F/Sgt Blackwood, and Mike Edwards, in tribute to this young crew, their family and friends.