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by Peter Broadmore

When Lancaster ND641 CF-T of No. 625 Squadron was shot down over the Netherlands in March 1944 all of the crew apart from Canadian Air Bomber, Frank Magee, perished in the crash. Among the many relatives and friends left to mourn the sad loss of the six other airmen was Peter Broadmore, the eight-month-old son of the Flight Engineer Bill Broadmore. Memento Mori is his tribute to the Dad he never knew.

Roy Wilcock - Aircrew Remembered

The Early Years

1923 was a year of natural disasters and man-made mischief. There was neither Sybil nor soothsayer to read the runes, but they were the portents of things to come. Not surprisingly, Wilfred Henry Broadmore had no idea they would affect him so directly. He had only just been born.

A few weeks before his arrival into the world, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was conjured into existence in Moscow. Perhaps it was a coincidence that almost immediately, earthquakes shuddered along Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. They were felt as far away as America’s Pacific Coast.

During the summer that followed, Britain ended a 21-year alliance with Japan out of concern for the aggressive militarism of its Meiji oligarchs. A few weeks later, Tokyo and Yokohama were almost levelled by a massive seismic disturbance. The earthquakes began at mid-day, starting massive fires that killed almost 150,000 people. A 10-metre tsunami damaged shorelines as far away as Hawaii and California.

In Rome, Benito Mussolini seized the reins of power. After years of political and economic chaos in Italy, his Black Shirts finally marched on the capital, demanding control of the government. King Victor Emmanuel III meekly obliged. The new Prime Minister immediately styled himself ‘Il Duce’ and demanded emergency powers that virtually guaranteed his eventual dictatorship. In the following spring, he decreed that opposition to his Fascist Party would be henceforth punishable by imprisonment without trial. Mount Etna promptly erupted, destroying scores of villages, sending their inhabitants fleeing and leaving 60,000 dead.

In Germany, frustration, rage, and despair were the order of the day. In Berlin, communists clashed with fascists in vicious street brawls and in Munich, an obscure self-styled ‘National Socialist’ was thrown into jail after an abortive attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria.

With a minimum of fuss and only the most private of fanfares, Wilfred Henry Broadmore’s arrival went largely unnoticed in the alarming flurry of events. An entry in London’s Registry of Births and Deaths records that a child was born to Ada and Morton James William Broadmore in the first quarter of 1923 but neglects to offer either a name or a precise date. His widow thought it was February 27 but “wouldn’t swear to it” but his RAF service records give his date of birth as December 29, 1922. The discrepancy may be explained by the fact that many under-age volunteers lied about their age so that they could enlist before their 18th birthday.

If there is any uncertainty about the date of his arrival, there is none at all about his departure.

Shortly after midnight on March 25 1944, he was killed in action while returning from a bombing raid on Berlin. If nothing else, he died alongside his friends and comrades. They had helped him celebrate his 21st birthday a few weeks before in the skies over Berlin.

To his Mum, he would always be ‘our Wilf’ but to almost everyone else, he was simply ‘Bill’. Brown-eyed and slight in stature, he was the Flight Engineer on RAF 625 Squadron’s ND641. It was almost the last of the 1,200 or so RAF aircraft brought down in the bombing campaign referred to by RAF planners as the “Battle of Berlin”.

Thanks to a letter written by the sole survivor, more is known about the events surrounding his death than the vast majority of those who lost their lives during the 6-month campaign. Thanks to another letter written almost seventy years later, we also know a little about his adolescent years. By then, almost everyone else who might have shared their memories of him was long gone.

By whichever name he will be remembered or whenever his birthday was celebrated, Wilf was the second of three children born to James and Ada Broadmore in London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Bill spent his earliest years there, not far from the little corner shop his mother ran just off the Cromwell Road. When his sister Dora arrived a few years later, the family moved to larger quarters in what Bill would later describe as “the sweet and quaint village of East Ham”. The family lived there, at 93 Masterman Road, for the rest of their lives.

Wilf’s dad was often away from home during his children’s early years. As a young footman just out of school, James had decided that he wanted something more exciting than a life “in service”. In 1909, just turned 18, he joined the Royal Navy.

According to the Royal Navy Registers of Seamen's Services, James Broadmore initially served as a ‘Stoker’ but even then, that term was a bit misleading. Stokers may once have had the thankless task of shovelling coal but with the advent of oil-fired ships, their duties shifted towards the field of engineering in general. His training would have covered a variety of tasks related not only to naval propulsion systems but also to hydraulics, electrical and firefighting systems. By the beginning of The Great War, ‘Stoker’ was the umbrella term for marine engineering technicians in general. He spent the next twenty years practising his trade in a succession of vessels including the battleships Majestic, Royal Oak, and Royal Sovereign.

When war was declared, Jim was between ships at HMS Vivid, the naval barracks in Portsmouth.

A few weeks later he was posted to the Navy’s 1st Cruiser Squadron in HMS Duke of Edinburgh. Like the other ships of the Squadron, ‘The Duke’ was an ageing Armoured Cruiser laid down at the turn of the century. When he reported for duty, its 6-inch guns were in the process of being remounted on each side of the vessel’s main deck in preparation for service with Britain’s Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow.

When the German High Seas Fleet came out to do battle the following year, the Cruiser Squadron’s mission was to screen the Grand Fleet while scouting the enemy’s line of battle. Inevitable, the task meant that the ships were exposed to fire from far superior vessels. It was a risky business for such lightly-armed vessels and what came of them as the two great fleets approached is explained by naval historian Arthur J. Marder.

“… The two leading ships of the squadron, HMS Defence and HMS Warrior, spotted the German II Scouting Group and opened fire. Their shells fell short and the two ships turned to port in pursuit, cutting in front of the battle cruiser HMS Lion, which was forced to turn sharply to avoid a collision. HMS Duke of Edinburgh, following close behind, was also forced to turn away and fell out of the column of cruisers.

Straddled by the 12 and 14–inch guns of no less than 5 powerful German battleships, Defence was sunk almost instantly, taking most of its crew with it. Warrior somehow managed to limp away from the battle but was mortally wounded. Riddled with shell holes, its engine-room crew reduced to just three ratings and its decks littered with wounded and dying men, it was taken in tow by a British seaplane tender. By then, however, the ship was too badly damaged to be saved and the relentless sea finished the job started by the German battleships. As soon as the last of its crew was taken off, the helpless ship was abandoned to the waves.

Not long afterwards, Black Prince, which had followed Duke of Edinburgh after the near collision with Lion, was also sunk while searching for its sister-ships. In the darkness, it had mistaken German ships for its own squadron. It went down fighting, trying to launch torpedoes even as it was being blown to pieces at close range. Of the ship’s 875 officers and men, there was not a single survivor.

If she had not changed course when she did it’s entirely likely that Duke of Edinburgh and its crew would have met the same fate and Wilfred Henry Broadmore might never have been born. Miraculously, however, the ship emerged from the battle unscathed and a few weeks later was assigned to convoy duty in the North Atlantic. By then, Bill’s father had been posted to the battleship Royal Oak.

He stayed on in the navy after the war and finally retired just before Christmas in 1928. With the Great Depression underway and double-digit unemployment, it was a difficult time but James’ service record earned him a place in His Majesty’s Customs & Excise service. He spent the rest of his working life inspecting cargoes in London’s sprawling docklands.

Through the decade that followed, he and Ada quietly got on with their lives, paying their bills, raising their three children and waiting patiently for the light. Like so many of their contemporaries, they had kept calm and carried on through the horrors of a war they had been promised would end all wars.

Their children went off to school and spent their spare time playing games like Buccaneer, Snakes and Ladders and Monopoly which, when it was introduced in 1936, had taken Britain by storm. They played “footie” with their pals, rode their bicycles in London’s leafy parks, and went to the pictures at their local cinema whenever they could scrounge ‘thruppence’ for a ticket. They must have watched the newsreels but would have had no idea that the developments they reported would one day exact a terrible price.

The Resumption of Hostilities… 1939

Not long before Hitler provoked the outbreak of war with his stage-managed invasion of Poland, Wilf started his first job, apprenticing as a Clerk with the British New Zealand Meat Company. Operating out of London’s great Smithfield Market, the firm was a pioneer in refrigerated shipping and a major exporter of lamb and mutton to the British Isles. New Zealand’s politicians proudly hailed the company as ‘a cornerstone of the economy’ and Bill saw a bright future for himself. He told his family that, after the war was over, he had been promised a job at the firm’s head offices in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the meantime, however, he was eager to enlist. In a letter to his boyhood friend, Ernie Turner, he wrote “… after thinking what this sodding war has done to mates like us, I’m only too anxious to get in there and do something”.

Ernie eventually forwarded a copy of the letter to the family after finally learning the real reason why his friend had dropped out of sight. In 2009, while revisiting East Ham, Ernie discovered “Wilf’s name in the Town’s Book of Memory”. He somehow discovered that his widow had remarried and immigrated to Canada and eventually managed to track her down in London, Ontario. Ironically, Ernie wrote, he had also joined the RAF. He was selected as a pilot trainee but finished the war as a radar operator while his friend ‘Wilf’ had joined as an aircraft mechanic but wound up as a Flight Engineer.

‘Wilf’s’ decision to “do something” in the RAF, rather than following his father into the Navy, may have been influenced by the uncle for whom he had been named, his Dad’s brother Wilfred. In the spring of 1918 “Uncle Wilf” had transferred from the Royal Navy to the newly-created Royal Air Force. He served as an Aircraft Fitter for the rest of the war and re-enlisted after the Armistice.

Wilf’s undated letter to Ernie was likely written in May 1941. “I went to Croydon and volunteered for the RAF… he wrote. “I had my medical and about a week later I was sent to Cardington to have my Attestation and a test to see what I would be best for. I’m in as a Flight Mechanic. His service records confirm that he enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve at the beginning of April 1941. He had told the recruiters that he had turned 18 three months earlier.

Like most of the young men accepted into the RAF’s Volunteer Reserve, he went back to work while he awaited further instructions. His orders to attend the RAF’s No. 2 School of Technical Training came in June, along with travel warrants for Blackpool.

‘Aircraftman Second Class’ may not be the highest rank in the RAF but a few weeks later, Wilf posed in his new uniform as proudly as if he had been knighted. He had even grown a moustache to celebrate the completion of basic training. It was something of an RAF tradition.

At first blush, Blackpool seems to be a hugely unsuitable site for a military training establishment.

For almost a century, the town had been a hugely popular seaside resort. Overlooking the Irish Sea on Lancashire’s breezy Fylde coast, the town attracted visitors year-round from the industrial cities of the Midlands, Northern Counties and Scottish Lowlands. They came to stroll its golden ‘sands’ and paddle their feet in the cold, grey sea. They danced in its vast, gilded ballrooms, gawked at the iconic ‘Tower’, rode the roller coasters at its famous Pleasure Beach and scribbled cheeky postcards to send home to their ‘mates’. It was the world’s first affordable holiday resort for working-class families.

Once the war began, however, RAF planners realized that the town’s transportation hubs, plentiful accommodations, and large public venues also made the town ideal for some kind of military role. The fact that it also happened to have one of Britain’s largest concentrations of drinking establishments might have weighed in RAF deliberations but if so, the official histories are understandably discreet.

Even before the war began, Neville Chamberlain’s government had realized that Britain would be unable to develop the full spectrum of training and operational resources needed for aerial warfare. At the same time, it was acutely aware of the vulnerability of RAF airfields to enemy attack. Britain turned to its Dominions and Commonwealth allies for help.

Among them, Canada was uniquely qualified to provide assistance. Its proximity to the British Isles (relative to the rest of the Commonwealth) made for the easier transportation of equipment, men and munitions. It had a strong flying tradition, a well-established industrial base that could be swiftly re-tooled for aircraft production, and access to a supply chain that spanned the entire North American continent. Most important of all, it had a visionary leader who saw Britain’s challenge as Canada’s opportunity.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King believed the plan he proposed would be “the most essential military action that Canada could undertake”. It represented a strategic commitment to the war effort but “without repeating the dark legacies of the First World War”.

There was no appetite among Canadians for the reintroduction of forced conscription or the possibility of endless trench warfare. As King saw it, his proposed British Commonwealth Air Training Plan would keep RCAF volunteers in Canada, training volunteers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand while keeping his promise to Canadians that they would not be forced into overseas service.

As conceived by “the plan”, Britain’s role would be to create the massive technical training programs essential to aerial warfare. In all, training would be required in more than 100 different disciplines, from weapons and engine maintenance to radio repair, navigation, and communications. When RAF Training Command’s Blackpool operations became fully operational they represented the largest technical training establishment in the world. The town continued to welcome day-trippers, holiday-makers, and servicemen on leave but after 1940, they were joined by a constant stream of RAF recruits, who arrived for training 50,000 at a time. By VE Day, almost a million Allied airmen had completed some form of instruction at one of the Fylde region’s RAF Technical Schools.

It was a truly multinational project. The RAF would train not only British recruits but volunteers from various parts of the Empire and exiles from German-occupied Europe. Volunteers came from as far away as Argentina and Brazil as well as Norway, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Poland.

After Pearl Harbor, they were also joined by a large contingent of American fliers from the 8th US Army Air Force. More than 10,000 ‘Yanks’ were stationed at RAF Wharton alone and thousands more at nearby RAF Weeton. When they finally went home their new skills weren’t all they took with them. Many were accompanied by their English ‘war brides’. Peggy Harrington, soon to become Bill’s sister-in-law, would be one of the first.

Eventually, a total of five RAF stations would operate in the region as well as dozens of temporarily requisitioned facilities serving as classrooms and workshops. Local theatres were pressed into service as lecture halls during daylight hours. The Pleasure Beach amusement park manufactured machine-gun turrets and even the workroom of the town’s largest tailor was pressed into service. Its over-sized cutting tables were a perfect place to grade tests and sort service records.

The town’s municipal airport at Squires Gate played the triple role of operations, training and aircraft production. A ‘shadow facility’ had been commissioned there in anticipation of hostilities. It was part of a plan to disperse aircraft production across multiple locations, making it more difficult for German bombers to target the vital industry.

Operated by Vickers-Armstrong, the Squires Gate factory produced Wellington medium bombers.

Using temporary ‘Bellman hangars’ it managed to deliver more than 3,000 aircraft before V-E Day. It was also home to the fighter squadrons tasked with defending the great port of Liverpool less than 30 miles down the coast.

Even the town’s beloved Stanley Park, famous for its ornate Italian Gardens and Boating Lake, was given a role to play. The ink was barely wet on the declaration of war when its small flying club was taken over by RAF Training Command as a site for one of its Technical Training Schools. Its trainees learned their craft by overhauling and rebuilding Bristol Beaufighters and ageing Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bombers.

It was there that A/C Broadmore was introduced to the arcane mysteries of the Rolls-Royce Merlin Mark XX. The superbly designed engine was used to power many aircraft, including both the iconic Spitfire and the Vickers Wellington medium bomber he trained on. Affectionately known as the ‘Wimpy’, it served with distinction throughout the war even after the introduction of heavier long-range bombers.

It was in Blackpool that Wilf would meet the young woman he would later describe to his friends as ‘the girl of his dreams’. By then, he had also decided he preferred to be called ‘Bill’ rather than ‘Wilf’.

Joan – “The girl of his dreams”

Winifred Joan Harrington had been born in Yorkshire but arrived in Blackpool with the rest of her family just about the time Bill was finishing his Engineering training. Like the man she would marry, she preferred ‘Joan’ over the old-fashioned Christian name she had been given.

The Harringtons had moved to Blackpool mainly because their home in Sheffield had been destroyed during the ‘blitz’ of 1940. Known to Luftwaffe planners as ‘Schmelztiegel’ (Crucible) the operation killed more than 700 people in raids on the 13th and 15th of December 1940. The city’s famous steelworks and munitions factories were heavily damaged and more than 40,000 people were left homeless.

The family was evacuated to other quarters in the area and Joan started work as an “usherette” at one of the city’s many cinemas. The job didn’t last very long because a few months later, the British Government began conscripting women for ‘war work’. Within weeks, Joan was drafted by the English Steel Forge and Engineering Corporation. She was taught how to operate a turret lathe and was soon machining the brass casings for artillery shells. When she left the firm to move to Blackpool, her reference letter noted that “she performed all duties satisfactorily in every respect.”

In comparison to Sheffield, Blackpool was a haven of tranquillity. Bombs occasionally fell on the town but they seemed a bit absent-minded. They were almost an afterthought rather than serious raids. The RAF station at Squires Gate was hit once or twice, but no real damage was done and Blackpool itself was spared the ‘blitz’ inflicted on other British cities. With its strategically important training establishment and multiple production facilities, historians could never explain why the town didn’t get the kind of Luftwaffe attention paid to other northern cities and towns. It certainly wasn’t a question of German capabilities. Blackpool was well within the range of Goering’s bombers. Clydebank, almost 200 miles to the north, was routinely hit throughout the war. Only a few minutes’ flying time south so were the ports of Merseyside. Residents of Lytham St Annes could easily see the glow in the sky whenever there were air raids on Liverpool and Birkenhead. No-one could explain Blackpool’s charmed life.

The puzzle wasn’t solved for more than 60 years. It wasn’t until 2009 that long-forgotten documents came to light at an old German airfield. They revealed that the Luftwaffe had been specifically ordered to spare the Fylde region. The command came from none other than Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer, it seemed, didn’t want it damaged because as soon as Britain surrendered, Blackpool would be earmarked as a holiday camp for German industrial workers and their families.

Almost as improbable as Hitler’s fantasy of a British surrender was the fact that Bill and Joan met at all. They came from totally different backgrounds in totally different parts of the country. Before the war, neither had ever been anywhere near Blackpool and though neither of them arrived by air, it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that they were brought together by bombers.

As soon as the family was settled in Blackpool, Joan’s mother found a job at Blackpool’s famous Winter Gardens. It was one of Europe’s largest entertainment complexes. As well as bars and restaurants, it included an Opera House and cinema, the huge Empress ballroom, and the Baronial Hall used to host the annual meetings of virtually every political party in Britain. In 1941, many of these facilities were requisitioned as classrooms for wireless operations, Morse code and what was called ‘Q coding’, a system of 4-character coded questions all starting with ‘Q’.

In the evenings, ‘the Garden’ reverted to its traditional role and it was there that Aircraftman Broadmore met Ida Harrington, manager of the Galleon Bar. Impressed with the young airman’s quiet demeanour, she told her daughter that she ought to meet the “nice young man” who sometimes came into her pub with his friends.

Joan, however, was meeting lots of eligible young men all on her own. With thousands of dashing young men in air force blue, Joan was having the time of her life. She loved to dance and always had her pick of partners. Her mother’s approval was not one of her criteria. Even after her mother introduced her, she was less than impressed with the shy young cockney. Only when she overheard one of his friends teasing him about finally meeting the girl he was going to marry did she decide the slightly-built young Engineer deserved a second look.

It wasn’t long before they were ‘walking out’, going to the pictures, and attending the weekend dances at the Blackpool Tower’s world-famous ballroom. Bill, she soon discovered, was a diehard movie fan. As a boy, his mother once told Joan, he would play truant to sneak into a matinee at the Palace, back in East Ham. Whenever he went home, it was the first place he went. Not that there was any shortage of cinemas in Blackpool. There were at least 5 within walking distance of the Harrington home on Cheltenham Road. Joan often spoke of seeing “Mrs Miniver” and “Casablanca” with Bill when they were courting.

After the show, they routinely stopped for fish and chips. Bill loved jellied eels and his mother always made them for him when he went home to London. Joan could never stomach the dish and couldn’t understand how he managed to get them down. “Then again”, as she fondly recalled, “he’d eat almost anything!

They had been courting for only a few weeks when Bill proposed and soon they were making plans for the future and their life together. In quieter moments, they talked about the faraway places they would see after the war. His wanderlust may have been whetted by the stream of postcards his Dad had sent home from Singapore, Suez, Sydney and other exotic ports of call. His Mum kept them in an album next to her treasured ivory dominoes. The album and the dominoes have long since disappeared but one of the few possessions returned to the family after ND641 went down was Bill’s well-worn school atlas. On its map of Europe, he had marked the various cities his aircraft had ‘visited’. Sadly, Hanover, Hamburg, and Berlin were the only ‘far away places’ he ever got to see.

As it turned out, it would be more a year before he was granted his CO’s permission to marry, apply for the Special Marriage License needed by under-age couples, and arrange leave from operational service long enough for the wedding. “Powder your nose, darling. We’re getting married on Tuesday!” said the telegram he sent a few days before he arrived. It was always one of Joan’s most treasured possessions.

“A Bright, Shining Sword”

The brief time Bill and Joan were to spend together played out like the chorus of a Greek tragedy replete with hubris, nemesis, and catharsis. It was a recurring theme for many thousands of couples flung together only to be torn apart by the demands of the war. Little has changed, it seems, since Homer and Euripides. The deus ex machina that dictated the end of their story, however, was not fate, destiny, jealous lovers or even a spiteful god. Their fate was entirely decided by a change in British strategy.

At the beginning of the war, Neville Chamberlain’s government had rejected the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, believing that it was not in keeping with the Geneva Conventions. Britons remembered all too well the Zeppelin attacks on the Great War and wanted no part of so-called ‘total warfare’. In June 1938, Chamberlain issued orders instructing the RAF’s Bomber Command to restrict its operations to purely military targets.

Winston Churchill, however, was not quite so high-minded. He was a street-fighter by nature and couldn’t wait to strike back at Germany for the attacks unleashed on Britain’s major cities. Unfortunately, when he came to power in 1940, he lacked the resources to do so. Besides, there were far more urgent problems. The Battle of France had ended at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain was about to begin.

The Germans had a clear advantage. Their bombers could fly from bases in France and the Low Countries to strike any British target virtually at will. British bombers, on the other hand, didn’t have the range to strike at strategic targets in Germany. For the time being, Churchill had to satisfy himself with raids on submarine pens, railway junctions and coastal installations in France.

The pendulum finally began to swing in Britain’s favour in 1941. By then, developments in aircraft design and manufacturing meant that bigger, more powerful bombers were rolling off Britain’s production lines in numbers large enough to enable a more aggressive aerial offensive.

Multi-engine bombers could carry bigger payloads right into Germany’s industrial heartland. Sir Arthur Harris, the chief of Bomber Command called them his “bright, shining sword.” He would use it to strike at the very heart of Germany’s industrial base.

At the same time, new radio detection and ranging technologies enabled navigators to find their targets even when visibility was poor or non-existent. This early direction-finding technique used converging radio beams to triangulate a target location for the bombers. The top-secret technology was referred to by its acronym -- RADAR.

These innovations allowed Bomber Command to assemble entire bomber fleets, a thousand at a time, to bomb Germany’s industrial cities of the Ruhr-Rhine region with pinpoint accuracy. In a sardonic reference to its relentless fighter planes and devastatingly accurate ‘flak’ batteries, Allied fliers nicknamed the region ‘Happy Valley’.

The new strategy was embodied in the innocently-named General Order No.5 (S.46368/111 D.C.A.S.). More commonly referred to as the ‘Area Bombing Directive’ it declared that Bomber Command “operations should be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular the industrial workers”. A total of fifteen cities were targeted for round-the-clock bombing, starting with the city of Essen, home to the sprawling armament and railway factories of the Krupp dynasty. The American 8th Air Force would attack by day and the RAF by night. There would be “no restrictions” in Bomber Command’s Rules of Engagement. Simply put, Churchill had embraced the indiscriminate bombing of civilians rejected earlier by Mr Chamberlain’s government.

Statistically, the men who flew these missions had the most dangerous job of the war. On a single night, Bomber Command suffered more casualties than Fighter Command had lost during the entire Battle of Britain. In the winter of 1943/44 alone, more than a thousand aircraft “failed to return” from their missions. The life expectancy of RAF crews was measured in weeks and by war’s end, overall losses exceeded 60%. Almost 125,000 men were killed and half as many again were wounded or languishing in German POW camps. Without a constant stream of replacements in men and equipment, someone calculated that the RAF’s entire bomber force would cease to exist in less a fortnight.

The brutal attrition of Bomber Command personnel soon resulted in a desperate shortage of candidates for aircrew, particularly the men who could handle hydraulic, electrical or fuel systems. Traditionally, bombers had been flown by a pilot and a co-pilot but the introduction of multiengine bombers required new and different skills in the cockpit. Instead of a co-pilot, heavy bomber crews were to include a “Flight Engineer”. He would liaise with the fitters and mechanics on the ground and control the aircraft’s mechanical and electrical systems in the air.

He was also expected to help fly the plane during take-offs and landings, take over the controls if the pilot was incapacitated, serve as the back-up bomb aimer, and keep an eye out for enemy fighters. Most critical of all, he monitored the performance of the engines, optimizing fuel consumption and pumping fuel between its five separate tanks. For those who wore the Engineer’s brevet, it was a hugely challenging and critical assignment. Bill’s training ticked all the boxes and it was probably inevitable that he would volunteer for flight duty. According to Joan, they talked about it at length. He thought the modest increase in pay that came with promotion would be good for them, particularly since Joan was already “in the family way.”

She had more than enough reason to be fearful of Bill’s decision. Enemy action was the most obvious risk faced by the crews of Bomber Command, but it wasn’t the only one. Only forty years since Kitty Hawk, flying was still inherently dangerous. The crew spaces of the Lancaster could hardly be considered safe and secure. With a full payload and its tanks brimming with high-octane aviation fuel, the aeroplane was as much a bomb as it was a bomber.

It was often described as a ‘pilot’s plane’ (because of its manoeuvrability and handling characteristics). Unfortunately, creature comforts were virtually non-existent. It was draughty, cold, and cramped. As one Lancaster navigator said of his job, “it was like being locked in a freezing cupboard under the stairs… trying to do complex calculus with the vacuum cleaner on”. At least the navigator had somewhere to sit and a table to work on. A flight engineer spent much of the 9 hour flight to Berlin on his feet and when he did sit down, he used a folding jump-seat which was as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Flying anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 feet, oxygen masks and electrically-heated flying suits were essential to protect against hypothermia and suffocation. Even so, frostbite was not unheard of and post-war studies theorized many otherwise inexplicable crashes resulted from failures in the oxygen system.

Compared to the threat of enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire, however, these hazards were mere inconveniences. As RAF fighter pilots had demonstrated during the Battle of Britain, slow-moving heavy bombers were easy prey for faster, more agile interceptors. Without a ventral ball turret in its belly, the Lancaster was particularly vulnerable to attack from below. Initially, the aircraft had been designed to include such a turret but it was removed when designers insisted that it increased drag, reduced airspeed and, in any case, didn’t work very well.

If the aircraft was damaged heavily enough to bring it down and if its fuel tanks didn’t explode on the way, surviving crew members had to negotiate a variety of obstacles in order to bale out. Ejection seats were a thing of the future and the escape hatch in the Lancaster’s nose was not easily accessible to anyone but the bomb-aimer. When even a few seconds could make the difference between life and death, it was a serious design flaw.

The tail gunner, for example, had to rotate his turret so that its hatch lined up with an opening in the fuselage before he could enter or exit. Once at his guns, he was more or less stuck to them for the entire duration of the flight. To escape in an emergency, he first had to rotate the turret so that he could get to his parachute (usually hung on hooks in the fuselage), then rotate it again until the rear hatch was open to the sky, allowing him to fall backwards out of the turret. So long as the hydraulics were intact, the procedure was technically feasible but in practice, Lancaster tail gunners had the lowest survival rate of all. If the turret lost power and had to be manually cranked into position, the gunner’s chance of escape… well, there wasn’t one.

The situation was only marginally better for the rest of the crew. To be sure, there were overhead hatches in the cockpit and fuselage, but they were definitely not for use as parachute exits. Anyone who tried to bale out through them faced the risk of hitting the aircraft’s tail assembly or getting their parachute lines fouled on it. Aside from a door on the starboard side of the fuselage, the only way for the crew to bail out was through the hatch in the bomb aimer’s station in the nose of the aircraft.

Compared to its contemporaries, the Lancaster had a dismal escape record. About half of all parachute escapes from American bombers were successful. Halifax crews survived about 25% of emergency jumps the time, but only 15% of Lancaster crews lived to tell the tale of an emergency escape in flight. Stressed to the limit by enemy action and the inherent dangers of the mission, hampered by their bulky flying suits and a parachute pack the size of a small suitcase it was virtually impossible to get to the hatch in time. The young men who flew the Lancaster deserved a medal for heroism before they even left the ground.

Joan would probably agree, even though she had no idea of just how dangerous it was to fly in a Lancaster. Joan’s fears did not dissuade her new husband. He signed up for aircrew and was posted to 625 Squadron. He arrived on base in Kelstern, Lincolnshire in October 1943.

A few months before, Joan gave birth to his son, Peter. Less than six months later, she would be a widow. The Air Ministry telegram that first brought the news told her only that his plane had “failed to return”.

The Battle of Berlin

Bill arrived in Kelstern less than a month before the series of attacks Bomber Command called the

Battle of Berlin. In hindsight, the timing couldn’t have been worse. According to Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the campaign would “would cost between 400 and 500 aircraft… but would cost Germany the war”. On both claims, he was tragically wrong.

By the time the results were tallied, actual aircraft losses during the winter of 1943/44 were more than twice as great as his estimate and thousands of RAF fliers were killed, captured or wounded. It would take another year and a few million Allied soldiers before the German capital fell into the hands of the Red Army.

As promised by Harris, however, the campaign “diverted German military resources from the land war and had an economic effect in physical damage, worker fatalities and injuries”. He glossed over the casualty estimates. In the eyes of many analysts, including Britain’s official historians, “the Battle of Berlin” was more than mere operational failure. It was a stinging defeat.

“It would be wrong to say that (the Battle) was a wasted effort… wrote Australian historian Daniel Oakman in 2004. “… the bombing brought the war to Germany at a time when it was difficult to apply pressure anywhere else”. As things were, Stalin’s armies were facing almost the entirety of Germany’s ground forces and sorely needed whatever relief Britain and America could offer. At the Tehran Conference, just before the campaign got underway, Stalin made several demands including the opening of the second front he had been advocating since 1941. The geopolitical considerations may have mitigated the abrupt change in strategy but if so, it was a token effort. Compared to millions of casualties and the sheer scale of the Soviet military effort it was a drop in the ocean. Whatever else it may have accomplished, the bombing campaign did not bring about the end of the war.

Even if Harris’ casualty estimates had proved right, Churchill should have realized that bombing Berlin was no more likely to weaken German resolve than the Luftwaffe’s blitz on London had weakened his own people’s morale. Harris was always convinced that strategic bombing alone could win the war and he clung to the theory long after it had been proven wrong.

Harris’ misjudgement, however, can never detract from the courage, tenacity, and skill of the Lancaster crews who took the fight to Hitler’s very front door. To run the gauntlet of blinding searchlights, German fighters and furious anti-aircraft fire was a terrifying experience – even once. To do so night after night, for months on end, demanded the kind of dogged, almost reckless, determination demonstrated by few warriors in human history.

The Spartans at Thermopylae would have related to it, or the troopers of the Light Brigade, but they are among the very few who faced such impossible odds as steadfastly as the gallant crews of Bomber Command.

Though it had some war production capability, Berlin’s value was largely symbolic. The Ruhr Valley was the grand prize. It was Germany’s choke-point and, in 1943, the Allied air forces had it by the throat. Without its coal mines, steel mills and armaments factories, the tools, spares, and weapons needed by Hitler’s Panzers would have slowed to a trickle. If Harris was determined to relieve pressure on the Russians, smashing the Ruhr was far more effective than dropping bombs on Berlin bureaucrats.

As Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and architect of his “production miracle” pointed out long after the war was over:

“The real importance of the air war consisted in the fact that it opened a second front long before the invasion in Europe ... Defence against air attacks required the production of thousands of anti-aircraft guns, the stockpiling of tremendous quantities of ammunition all over the country, and holding in readiness hundreds of thousands of soldiers, who in addition had to stay in position by their guns, often totally inactive, for months at a time ... No one has yet seen that this was the greatest lost battle on the German side.”

The best that can be said of Sir Arthur’s decision to target Berlin is that it was a gamble based on his inflated belief that strategic bombing alone could win the war. His aircraft and their crews gave him a strong hand, but it was by no means a sure thing. The Fuhrer was just as bloody-minded as Harris and the raids on Berlin drove him almost apoplectic with rage. He had vowed that Allied bombers would never enter German air space, much less Berlin’s. He threatened massive retaliation, hysterically demanding that every available piece of Flakartillerie available be rushed to the capital’s defence. As usual, his generals did as they were told.

The Wehrmacht had its own anti-aircraft capabilities but it fell to the Luftwaffe to defend the Fatherland against the bombers. By 1943, Goering’s Flakkorps had more than a million men manning 10,000 heavy guns and three times as many smaller-calibre weapons. The combined opposition of Germany’s detection and targeting systems, night-fighters and anti-aircraft artillery was astonishingly lethal.

From the moment they approached Europe’s coastline, Allied bombers were picked up by

German radar and handed off to a second radar network as they continued the long flight to Berlin. Air controllers in Denmark and the Netherlands used the radar sightings to direct the full strength of Germany’s night-fighter wings against the bomber stream all the way across Europe.

Once over Germany territory, the bombers were targeted by powerful searchlights many of which were equipped with acoustic direction-finders or were under radar control. Their probing beams of light over Berlin reminded one pilot of an entire “forest of flood-lit tree trunks”. Those under radar control groped across the sky until they locked on to the radar signatures of an RAF aircraft. Manually-aimed searchlights immediately switched on and joined in, trapping the unfortunate bomber in their intersecting beams like flies in a spider web. Dazzled and disoriented at the critical moment of detection, pilots often froze. The resulting hesitation was often fatal. Without immediate and violent evasive action to escape the beams, they were easy prey for the flak batteries.

The guns didn’t even have to score a direct hit. A near-miss by a high-explosive 88mm shell could easily bring down a Lancaster and even the 20mm shells of the quadruple-barrel Flakvierlings could punch holes the size of a man’s fist through its aluminium fuselage. Hundreds of the deadly guns were deployed on the rooftops of larger buildings across the city.

Early in the war, towering concrete Flakturms, more than 100 feet tall, had also been built to house anti-aircraft batteries and their searchlight crews. The towers mounted half a dozen heavy guns and as many smaller calibre weapons in their various turrets. With a 360-degree field of fire, their guns were astonishingly accurate.

The towers weren’t merely gun platforms. Like medieval castles, they were fortresses in their own right. Just as the castles along the Rhine had once done, they also offered safe haven to civilians seeking shelter from enemy attack. With concrete walls almost 10 feet thick they were among the last of Berlin’s defences to fall. The so-called Zoo Tower, in fact, was never successfully assaulted. When the Russians entered the city its dual-purpose guns switched to anti-tank mode. It held out until the very end and stealthily evacuated its garrison only in the closing hours of the final battle. When the British Corps of Engineers tried to destroy it after the war, it took three separate attempts and almost a hundred tons of dynamite to bring it down.

The men who pitted themselves and their aircraft against Berlin’s formidable layers of anti-aircraft defences may have worn the eagle’s wings of Britain’s Royal Air Force but they represented many different nations. America was not one of them. After being badly mauled in raids on the Ruhr Valley, they stood down for the Battle of Berlin. Even so, the battle wasn’t just a British effort. Of the RAF’s 126 bomber squadrons, 32 were officially non-British. Fifteen were Canadian, eight were Australian and two were contributed by New Zealand. Another four were Polish, two were Free French and there was one Czech squadron.

Many other nationalities were represented in the ranks of the British squadrons. Volunteers had made their way to England from as far afield as South American and the Caribbean and South America. Most Indian and South African fliers served under their own colours in Asia and the Middle East but they were well represented in the RAF as well.

625 Squadron was no exception. It was a Commonwealth Squadron manned by Commonwealth crews. They included Australians and Canadians as well as Brits and a sprinkling of South Africans and New Zealanders. Three of ND641’s aircrew were Canadian including the captain and pilot Warrant Officer David “Jack” Owen, bomb-aimer Frank Magee and Harry Nixon, the mid-upper air gunner. The rest of the crew were British but, according to Joan, the ground crew included at least one Australian and “Tango”, a Fitter from Argentina.

The crew of ND641:

(Top L-R) Sgt. Percival Simpkin, signal officer/gunner, Sgt. “Tony” Lavender, navigator, Sgt. “Bill” Broadmore, flight engineer.

(Middle) Sgt Harry Nixon, gunner

(Bottom L-R) Fl. Sgt. Frank Magee, Sgt. William Clark, tail gunner

(Not Shown) WO II “Jack” Owen, pilot/captain

The first aircraft to join the newly-created squadron arrived at Kelstern on October 13, 1943. According to the squadron’s Operational Records Book (ORB), it was “followed at short intervals by other aircraft from “C” Flight 100 Squadron, Grimsby, from which Flight the nucleus of 625 Squadron was formed.

Jack Owen and his crew, joined the squadron from a Heavy Conversion Unit where crews trained on smaller aircraft were qualified on heavy bombers before final posting to an operational unit. The crew flew its first mission, against the German city of Kassel, on October 23. Its factories built the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force and the fearsome King Tiger tanks. The ORB tersely records that there was “a good concentration of fires in the target area”.

They went on to fly more than 20 missions together. Their targets included Magdeburg, Brunswick,

Leipzig, and Dusseldorf as well as Berlin. The targets posted against the crew’s listings in its squadron’s Operations Review Book matched the small black crosses marked in the school atlas returned to his family after Bill’s death. Not all of their missions were successful. Some were aborted after take-off due to malfunctions of one sort or another. On one occasion, as they approached the German coastline William Clark discovered that his turret wouldn’t rotate. Pilot-captain Owen promptly returned to base. Engine failures, fuel leaks, and oxygen system malfunctions were recurring problems among the squadron’s aircraft. ND641 had its share.

“A tragic intelligence failure”

Including their final mission, the last of the 193 raids in the 6-month Battle of Berlin, Jack Owens and his crew raided the city ten times. RAF commanders told their crews that “after the first few operations things would get better”. The men of Bomber Command desperately wanted to believe that operational experience increased their chances of survival, especially when only a quarter of them managed to live through a 30-operation tour, but it was a cruel lie. The only crews that benefitted from experience were the ones manning the German guns. For them, every night was target practice. ‘Experience’ just meant they were able to knock down more Allied aircraft. Running exactly the same gauntlet night after night, without fighter cover and without a clear understanding of the odds they faced, improved no one’s chances.

The celebrated British physicist Freeman Dyson started work in the Operational Research Section (ORS) of the British Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command at more or less the same time as 625 Squadron was being organized. He was 19 years old and his assignment was to help evaluate the effectiveness of Britain’s bombing offensive. Mostly his work involved statistical analysis and it wasn’t long before he determined that experience did not reduce loss rates.

Whatever was bringing down the bombers, “it killed novice and expert crews impartially, he reported. His analysis demonstrated that the principal cause of the horrendous losses suffered in the winter of 1943/44 was “an attack that gave experienced crews no chance to either escape or defend themselves”. His findings were ignored. Perhaps if they had listened, the real reason for the Luftwaffe’s success might have been uncovered a lot sooner. As it was, RAF intelligence didn’t discover the secret until the middle of 1944, months after the Berlin campaign was abandoned.

The weapon was code-named Schräge Musik. It was a German slang term for jazz, frowned upon by the Nazis because it was ‘negro music’ and considered odd or crooked. It was also a clever play on words because schräge literally means oblique or slanted. It referred to the 60-degree angle at which a 20mm autocannon was mounted behind the cockpits of German night-fighters. The design capitalized on the fact that, without belly guns, the Lancaster was vulnerable to low-angle fighter attacks from below. From underneath, the bomber was clearly silhouetted against the sky but the attacking fighter was invisible to its crew. All a night-fighter had to do was to get beneath its hapless victim and then, in a single pass, it could rake its victim from stem to stern with automatic cannon-fire.

It was almost too easy… even without the German radar sets tuned to the frequency of the radar warning systems installed in the tail of Lancaster bombers. Code-named “Monica”, the British system had been developed by the ‘boffins’ of the RAF’s Bomber Support Development unit. It was supposed to alert Lancaster pilots and their crews to potential threats from astern. Unfortunately, in the RAF’s tightly-packed bomber formations the system often mistakenly identified following Lancasters as German fighters. “Monica’s” constant nagging could be distracting and many pilots either tuned out the annoying squeal or turned it off altogether. They had no way of knowing that turning off the system might have been their salvation. The night-fighters’ Flensburg radars guided them straight to their targets.

Bomber Command either never caught on or simply turned a blind eye to the possibility of German radar intercepts. Attacks from below were almost always identified as anti-aircraft fire despite the fact that ‘Ultra’ intelligence was already telling them otherwise. Bletchley Park had decrypted German signals revealing the new German radar systems. Analysts deduced that they were responsible for almost half the losses over Germany in the first two months of 1944. It wasn’t until a Junkers 88 equipped with the latest Lichtenstein radar landed by mistake in England – in July 1944 – that Bomber Command belatedly ordered that “Monica” be removed forthwith. It was too little, and by then, far too late. The Battle of Berlin was over and Schräge Musik had been instrumental in the destruction of thousands of aircraft. RAF commanders, it seems, were totally unaware it even existed. It was Britain’s worst intelligence failure of the war.

Oberleutnant Martin Drewes of the Luftwaffe’s Nachtjagdgeschwader most assuredly knew the secret. Flying a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf 110 equipped with Schräge Musik he scored more than 50 ‘kills’ during his career as a night fighter. Most of his victims were RAF heavy bombers -- three on the night of March 24/25 alone. The ND641 was one of them.

Curiously, Herr Drewes has his own listing in Wikipedia where he is described as an “ace”. The word conjures up images of chivalrous dogfights over the trenches of the Western Front, but nothing could be further from the truth. Under the circumstances, honouring him with the title of ‘ace’ makes about as much sense as describing Robert Ford, the man who shot the unarmed Jesse James in the back, as a “gunfighter”.

After the war, Drewes was taken prisoner and interrogated by the British. When he told them he had shot down more than 50 British aircraft, they scoffed at his claims. Even in 1945, Schräge Musik was still being pooh-poohed by RAF intelligence experts.

Though only moderate winds had been predicted at the met briefing for the night of March 24/25, they were far stronger than expected. Even worse, they kept changing direction as the flight progressed, making it difficult for the pilot to stay on course. Making matters worse, one of the navigation instruments was acting up. Once they were over the target, tailwinds were so strong that the heavily-laden bomber overshot its target and had to come around for another pass. The tailwind became a headwind, “gaining strength every minute”. It was no use trying to find the target. The Pathfinders had not dropped flares to mark it. In the end, their bombs were jettisoned somewhere over the city and ND641 turned for home. Searchlights and heavy anti-aircraft fire dogged them all the way.

They were already an hour behind schedule when the Zuider Zee loomed up on the horizon. Navigator “Tony” Lavender questioned the Lancaster’s fuel situation. Flight engineer Broadmore was not optimistic. The variable winds had forced them to fly at a lower altitude… fuel consumption had been higher than planned. He was doubtful they had enough petrol left to get them back to base.

The intercom chatter was punctuated by the sudden impact of rounds ripping through the fuselage. Frank Magee said they sounded like someone “poking a finger through a piece of paper”. Fires broke out and the aircraft filled with smoke. Pilot Jack Owen opened the bomb bay doors and gave the order to jettison flammable materials. The resulting draft from the open bomb bay sucked out most of the smoke.

Air gunner Harry Nixon in the mid-upper turret urgently warned him to get away from the searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries as quickly as possible. He may have assumed they had been hit by anti-aircraft fire. It was only when Magee saw tracer rounds streaking past his gun turret that he realized they had been attacked by a night-fighter. “Almost immediately the aircraft rolled over into a steep descent”, he wrote later.

His account makes no mention of casualties. Some of the crew may have already been dead or wounded. Magee could only recall the skipper yelling out to Bill Broadmore for help at the controls. Together, the two men managed to pull the plane out its dive long enough for Magee to strap on his parachute and get to the escape hatch. He threw it open “just as the intercom went dead”. The last thing he heard before he jumped was Bill calling his name.

According to observers on the ground, it was all over in less than a minute. The Lancaster “came down like a comet” Jimmy Broadmore wrote to his mother after visiting the site in the summer of 1945.

There had been some confusion about precisely where Bill was buried and he was anxious to clear it up. The Red Cross had been able to identify only five of the crew and Bill had not been one of them. In a letter home dated July 10, he told his parents that the Red Cross didn’t know what it was talking about and that the Dutch authorities “told me everything”. Jimmy had met “the Dutch chap who carried Wilf (Bill) out of the front of the plane and been told that it “… hit the ground in less than sixty seconds. According to him, Jimmy reported, “They were all just sitting there. They never felt a thing.

Bill was buried with the rest of the crew two days after the plane went down. Jimmy visited the cemetery and was able to describe in perfect detail where the graves were located. “They are very well kept,” he wrote, “they are the best in the whole cemetery”.

Seventy-five years later, they still are.


After Bill’s death, Joan eventually managed to recover her natural optimism and zest for life but it would be a long time before she was able to move on.

After the war ended, she met another of its survivors. His father was Irish but Terrence Berry was a ‘sandgrown’un’, the nickname for anyone born and bred along the Fylde coast. He enlisted in the Army a few months after war broke out and served initially as an anti-aircraft gunner in a unit assigned to defend RAF airfields. After D-Day, his unit was sent to Normandy to fight as infantry. He fought through Belgium and the Netherlands and was involved in the construction of a temporary camp for the newly-liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank had died.

Terry rarely spoke of his experiences and when he did, he made them seem like a romp in the country. Once he recalled running across a Belgian field with machine bullets hitting the ground just a few feet in front of him. It wasn’t until he got to the hedgerow that he realized the bullets came from the Bren Light Machine Gun he carried. When the Germans surrendered, his unit was posted to the newly-formed British Army of the Rhine, the name given to the British Occupation forces in Germany. He didn’t get home to Blackpool until the summer of 1946.

In Joan’s version of the story, it was Peter who played the role of match-maker. As she claims he often did, Peter had decided to go walk-about during an outing to Stanley Park. She kept him on reins and a harness when they went out but he was always a wanderer and often found a way to escape. It was Terry who spotted him, realized the three-year-old wasn’t supposed to be on the loose, and gently returned him to his mother. According to her, the first thing Terry ever said to her was, “Is this one yours?

He soon took Peter as his own, though acceding to Joan’s request that he be allowed to keep his father’s name.

After they were married, the three of them lived with Terry’s mother in the small house where he had grown up. However, when Joan delivered their daughter Sandra they scrambled to find a place of their own. Terry managed a small grocery store while Joan went to work on Blackpool’s famous “Golden Mile” selling confectionery, ice cream, and postcards to holiday-makers. They were the only jobs they could find.

It wasn’t a terribly prosperous lifestyle. Britain was still struggling to recover from the war. The economy was sluggish, job opportunities were few and far between, and the food and gasoline rationing imposed during the war were not lifted for several years. Things were just beginning to get better when Egypt’s President Nasser moved to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956.

The ensuing crisis and the damage inflicted on Britain’s reputation marked the end of its imperial power. Prices spiked, incomes plunged, fuel rationing was re-imposed and tourists stayed home. After six years of war, followed by ten years of struggle to make ends meet, they had finally managed to acquire a small business. It gave the family a living but was too fragile to survive the recession that followed Suez. Reluctantly, they were forced to acknowledge that life in Britain would always be an uphill battle. Like hundreds of thousands of other British families in the ’50s, they decided to emigrate. The only question was where to go?

Joan wanted to join her war-bride sister in the United States, but Terry wouldn’t hear of it. Australia was the place for him but it was much too far from home for Joan. He suggested Rhodesia, but Joan hated snakes and leopards as much as Dorothy and the Scarecrow feared ‘lions and tigers and bears’. In the end, Canada was the agreed-upon compromise and Toronto their chosen destination. In February 1957 the family set sail from Liverpool aboard Cunard’s RMS Carinthia.

Peter grew up and attended high school and university in Toronto. Sandra married and Terry would always be their beloved “Dad”. He passed away in 2006. He and Joan had been married for almost 60 years and they enjoyed a full and adventurous life together. They travelled widely before finally settling in London, Ontario.

In July 2019, just a few weeks after the 75th anniversary of ND641’s final flight, Joan quietly passed away in her sleep. She was in her 97th year.

The Harrington family stayed on in Blackpool until the mid-’60s operating a holiday boarding house they grandly described as a ‘Private Hotel’. It was their idea of marketing. One by one, their remaining children departed for Canada. First Pauline, then Ronny and finally, Tom and Ida joined Terry and Joan in Toronto. Tom died there in his 89th year, but Ida was determined to outlive the Queen Mother. She did, by almost 4 years, passing away at the age of 105.

Bill’s brother, Jimmy, returned home at the end of the war after serving in the Middlesex Regiment. He was ten years older than Bill and, according to Joan, was less than enthusiastic about her marriage to his brother. While he was waiting to be ‘de-mobilized’ in Europe, he was given compassionate leave for his visit to Tubbergen but he did not long survive the war. Whether from injuries or illness, he died a few years after he returned home. Dora (Bill and Jimmy’s sister) married after the war and settled in Putney just across the river from where she had grown up.

Frank Magee was smuggled out of Holland and was eventually turned over to American forces in Belgium. The only member of ND641’s crew to survive, he returned to British Columbia and enjoyed a long and happy life. He became friends with Dr Jack Albrecht, the nephew of ND641’s pilot, who went on to write an extremely informative article about the aircraft and its crew for the Canadian Legion magazine. It appeared in 2001 and is the source for some of the material included in this narrative.

Martin Drewes, the Luftwaffe ‘ace’ who shot down ND641 also survived the war. He immigrated to Brazil, married a Brazilian woman and lived a long and healthy life, serving as a senior executive with the Brazilian subsidiary of Volkswagen.

625 Squadron was disbanded in November 1945. Perhaps fittingly, one of its final missions was one of mercy rather than vengeance. In April of that year, thirteen of its Lancasters took part in Operation Manna, dropping food and medical supplies to the starving families of Rotterdam.


I spent most of my like wanting to know more about my father.

It’s always difficult to imagine the lives our parents led. Until we are born into it, the world doesn’t exist. Such, at least, is the egocentrism of small children and lazy adults who should know better. For some, the past is always ‘terra incognita’. In later life, most of us are able to chart a few of its reefs and shallows -- at least those most often visited in family reminiscences and our own readings of history. No matter how hard we try, however, the time before our birth is always clothed in mist and mystery.

As a young child, it seemed to me that my mother knew very little about my father. Many of my questions went unanswered and, always vague about dates, my mother seemed almost evasive at times. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized how short their time together had actually been. In less than two years, they had met, courted, married and had a child. For most of that time, my father was either involved in some form of training or away on operational duties. Indeed, it’s astonishing how much they did manage to learn about each other in their brief time together. Most of what I knew about him came from our occasional visits to London after the war. On those occasions, I was allowed to see the battered issue of “Flight” Magazine which listed him as “Missing in Action” and I was shown his photographs and his medals. I was well into my teens before I really understood what they represented.

Nature and small boys, however, abhor a vacuum. I filled in the blanks with fantasies about him, his crew, and the war they had helped to win. I pictured them as the sort of characters who populated the books and stories I read under the covers before I fell asleep. Indeed, my lifelong love of books and reading began when I first discovered “Biggles”, the gallant hero of a thousand dogfights and at least a hundred books for boys. Captain James Bigglesworth (aka Biggles) was, of course, as fictional as my daydreams but I fantasized that my father had survived the war after all and saw him adventuring on with Biggles and his trusted pals. A year or two later, when most kids my own age were still reading Nancy Drew mysteries and Roy Rogers westerns, I started to read everything I could about the two world wars, Nazi war crimes, and the Nuremberg trials. I couldn’t have been more than eleven.

By then, Mrs Broadmore had become Mrs Berry. Neither she nor my new Dad spoke too often of my birth father but they determined I should not lose touch with his family. A trip to London was a costly undertaking for the manager of a small grocery shop and a part-time department store clerk but they managed to scrape together the train fare often enough that I occasionally had a chance to see my grandparents and cousins. Even so, the entire time I spent with them probably didn’t add up to more than a few weeks before we left England forever. I never saw them again. In the days before cheap airfares and the Internet, it was difficult to stay in touch and it would be more than 20 years before I learned anything more about my father.

In 1979, I attended a business conference at the University of Leuven just outside Brussels. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity. I knew that my father was buried in a small town in the Netherlands and decided to visit the cemetery and pay my respects after the program concluded. My mother had told me the name of the town, but couldn’t remember the name of the cemetery. “Never mind... She assured me. “Just find the town hall. They’ll know where to send you.

During the meeting, I met peers and colleagues from all over Europe, including two gentlemen from Amsterdam. Over dinner on the last night of the program, one of them asked me if I was looking forward to going home. I was, I told him, but first I planned to visit the Netherlands.

“You’ll be coming to Amsterdam, then? One of them guessed. I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I simply shook my head.

“No -- I’m going to a place called Tubbergen. I finally confessed.

He gave me an old-fashioned look. From his expression, it was obvious he considered Tubbergen a strange destination for a first-time visitor. It was hardly a tourist attraction, his colleague told me, and there was very little to see. I began to feel a little embarrassed and, though it felt a little awkward to talk about something so deeply personal, I felt obliged to explain. My new friends nodded gravely, wished me well and hoped I would enjoy my stay in their country.

The next morning, I was on my way to the Dutch border in a rented Renault. I loved the drive – right until I managed to get myself thoroughly and completely lost, I loved the drive. I had the feeling that the whole country had been power-washed and newly decorated moments before I arrived. Unfortunately, somewhere near the town of Almelo, I found myself passing the same herd of well-groomed Holstein cattle for the third time. The map wasn’t much help and finally, I had no choice but to ask for directions. I would have done so sooner but my linguistic skills began and ended with ‘Goedendag’ and ‘Grolsch’. I had no idea that most of the people in the Netherlands speak fluent English.

Unfortunately, the elderly gentleman I hailed was not one of them.

With great courtesy, he motioned me to wait and promptly disappeared around the corner. I was beginning to think he had abandoned me when he returned in a small van with a young man who suggested, in impeccable English, that I simply follow him to Tubbergen. A few minutes later we reached the outskirts of the town where, with a cheerful salute, he turned back the way we had come. I didn’t even have time to thank him.

By the time I found my way to the town hall it was late afternoon. I was afraid it might be closed but, when I knocked at the door, a well-dressed lady answered. She told me, again in impressive English, that she had been “expecting” me. She pulled something out from a file on her desk and unfolded it to reveal a hand-drawn map. I would find my father at the cemetery behind a large Catholic church, she told me and pointed out the route on the map.

It wasn’t very far at all. I soon found churchyard and the little row of white headstones that mark the final resting place of my father and his comrades. I had no idea who they all were and it wasn’t until I returned to Canada that I learned that not one, but two separate Lancaster crews are buried in the quiet churchyard.

Even more of a puzzle was the simple flower arrangement on my father’s grave. I assumed my Mum must have arranged for one of the local flower shops to deliver it, just as I assumed that she or my stepfather must have called the ‘gemeentehuis’ to tell them I was coming. It was difficult in the twilight to read the card attached to the flowers but I finally made out the words “From your Dutch friends”.

Trying to separate the various strands of emotion I felt at the time is quite beyond me. The only thing I remember is how much I was moved by a single line on the headstone. It is always with me. Beneath his name and rank were simply carved, “Aged 21”. To realize that I had already lived almost twice as long as he had was like sticking my fingers into an electric outlet. For a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath. Of course, I was aware of it at some level but the reality of it had never really struck home.

I thought of all that my father had missed. He had never owned a car, built a home, or planted a tree. He never had a mortgage or a telephone and never got to see those ‘faraway places’ he dreamed about. He had been barely old enough to vote, not much older than my own child.

At the time, I was relieved that no one could see me in the gloom but I am not in the least ashamed to admit that --- in pride, sorrow, sadness, and enormous gratitude -- I wept. I wept for him and for all that he… and I… had been denied.

When I returned to my office in Toronto a couple of days later, an envelope appeared in my mailbox with a Dutch stamp and an Amsterdam postmark. It was from one of the Dutch executives I had met in Belgium. After he had returned home he had contacted a friend of his whose hobby was researching the various British aircraft shot down over Dutch territory. He had mentioned the possibility but I hadn’t really expected much to come of it. “In Holland,” his letter began, “to make a promise it to owe a debt and so I pay my debt to you.”

In a few sentences, he told me everything his friend, ‘Mr de Jong’, had learned about my father’s plane. He told me more than I could have possibly imagined. He told me the aircraft was a Mark III Lancaster from 625 Squadron, that it was the ND641 and that it had been intercepted by a German night-fighter. He told me the name of its pilot and gave me its call sign. He told me where the squadron had been based and the name of the German pilot who had downed the plane. He told me that only one crew member had survived.

I was astonished. I had never expected to learn so much. I took a deep breath and picked up the phone. “I have something to tell you, I told my mother.

I was never able to learn who sent the flowers I found on my father’s grave. There wasn’t even a florist’s name. Nor do I have any idea who contacted the lady at Tubbergen’s town hall. At first, I assumed it must have been my mother, but she told me she had nothing to do with it. I thought it might have been my Dutch colleagues but when I asked, they knew nothing about it. In the absence of anyone else, I thanked them anyway.

Perhaps it wasn’t them. Perhaps it wasn’t anyone I ever knew. I automatically assumed the flowers were from my “Dutch friends” and that the card was written for me. Maybe I’ve had it wrong all along. It’s entirely possible that the card was really addressed to my father… by his “Dutch friends”, the same anonymous souls who so lovingly tend the graves at Tubbergen and solemnly remember the sacrifices made by the young men who lie there.

I will never be able to repay their kindness.

PB 13.09.2019

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them. - Laurence Binyon

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