Operation: Training - formation flying practice
Date: 23 June 1944 (Friday)
Unit: No. 97 Squadron. Motto: "Achieve your aim."
Badge: An ogress pierced by an arrow, point downwards. The badge is indicative of accurate aim. Authority: King George VI, January 1937.
Type: Avro Lancaster Mark III
Base: RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire
Location: Near Cloot House Farm, Crowland, Lincolnshire.
Pilot: Fl/Lt. Henry Stewart (Aus Jim) Van Raalte Aus/415220 RAAF Age 31 - Killed (1)
Fl/Eng: F/Sgt. Maurice Durn 1622745 RAFVR Age 21 - Killed (2)
Nav: P/O. David Gethin Williams 78568 RAFVR Age 22 - Killed (3)
Air/Bmr: W/O. Alfred Leonard Lambert Aus/409318 RAAF Age 25 - Killed (4)
Vis.Air/Bmr: F/O. Alan Arnold Aus/410136 RAAF Age 26 - Killed (5)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/Sgt. Eric Henry Peace 1434302 RAFVR Age 22 - Killed (6)
Air/Gnr (MU): F/Sgt. Royston George Davies 1315090 RAFVR Age 22 - Killed (7)
Air/Gnr (R): Fl/Lt. John David Fletcher 115198 RAFVR Age 24 - Killed (8)
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Aus Jim Raalte, David Williams, Alfred Lambert, Eric Peace and Royston Davies had been together almost from the beginning, most likely having crewed up at OTU along with rear gunner Lionel Laurie and flight engineer Sgt. R.P. Smith. They joined No. 97, a Pathfinder Force Squadron on 30 November 1943.
The crew's first operational mission with the squadron was on 14/15 January 1944 to Brunswick which they negotiated safely. They then completed another three operations without mishap but on 28/29 January on a raid to Berlin they met considerable flak opposition over Kiel and their aircraft (Lancaster LM360 OF-O) sustained severe damage. F/Sgt Laurie, the rear gunner received severe shrapnel wounds to the head from which he died with the aircraft having to return to base on 3 engines.
The rear gunner's position was filled by Sgt. W. Benfell and in late March flight engineer Maurice Durn¹ joined the crew.
This remained the composition of the crew until the raid on Amiens on 19/20 May when Alan Arnold, a visual air bomber, became an additional eighth crew member and a few days later David Fletcher² joined the crew as rear gunner for the raid on the Phillip's Works at Eindhoven of 24/25 May.
By the end of May, Jim Raalte and the four remaining members of his original crew had completed 17 operations.
¹Maurice Durn had just returned to the squadron after an absence of 3 months. He had been badly affected by a traumatic two weeks in December 1943. Firstly he had been wounded by flak and then on the very next night 3/4 December the other members of his crew had been lost during a raid to Leipzig. On his recovery he joined another crew but on 16 December whilst returning from a raid on Berlin lost and low on fuel the crew were forced to abandon the aircraft and bale out in fog over Ely.
²David Fletcher had joined the squadron on 17 March and had flown five operational missions with two other crews.
The Squadron Operations Record Book entry for 3/4 June 1944 perhaps gives an insight into the quality of the crew.
"Although the whole Squadron stood by to operate tonight, only one crew was eventually detailed. It was a crew captained by F/L Van Raalte RAAF and specially trained in the use of the Semi-Automatic Bomb Sight Mark IIA. This bomb sight is the latest production model – gyroscopically stabilised in all planes, and is probably the most accurate bomb sight in use in Britain to date. The night’s target was a small but important wireless station at Ferme D’Urville just south east of Cherbourg Peninsula. The target was primarily marked by an Oboe red TI. The Controller in a Lancaster assessed this TI as being on the target. It was immediately backed up by green TIs dropped by F/L Van Raalte and another specially trained crew from 83 Squadron. Main Force bombing was excellent and the target was obliterated. There was no fighter opposition, flak was light and visibility perfect. A most successful attack."
The crew fulfilled a similar role again on D-Day along with another specially trained crew from 83 Squadron, the two Pathfinder crews leading the attack on the battery at La Peanelle.
The following week saw the crew take part in raids on Argentan, Etampes and Poitiers followed on 16 June by the welcome respite of 7 days leave.
Jim Raalte and the four remaining members of his original crew had completed 22 operations.
On 23 June, with their leave already just a memory, the crew members returned to duty at RAF Coningsby where they learned that the squadron's last participation in operations had been on 16 June. For the previous three days the crews had been engaged in formation flying practice and that afternoon there was to be more of the same.
In the afternoon of 23 June 1944 six Lancasters of No. 97 Squadron were detailed for formation flying practice. Flying in two V formations and whilst attempting a gentle turn Jim Raalte's Lancaster (ME625) flying immediately behind the lead plane became trapped in its slipstream and side slipped over Lancaster ND981 flown by Fl/Lt. Edward Perkins and dropped suddenly, removing the entire tail of Fl/Lt Perkins' aircraft and smashing the nose of his own. Both aircraft immediately spun to earth out of control. Lancaster ND981 broke in two at 1000 ft. and at that moment one of the crew, Sgt. Coman managed to bale out. He landed safely but the rest of the crew perished as the aircraft crashed in flames.
Jim Raalte's Lancaster ME625 crashed two miles away from that of Fl/Lt. Perkins. The cypher of 25 June from the Air Ministry to RAAF Headquarters in Melbourne reporting the loss of ME625 states that the crash occurred "between Marcus Harvey Farm and Cloot House Farm near Crowland confirmed by Observer Corps. No parachute. 16.45 hours DBST [Double British Summer Time] 23 June"
On the ground, the crash was witnessed by villagers attending a fete in the Lincolnshire village of Crowland. They watched in horror as the two aircraft spun to the ground and crashed in flames.
The mid-upper gunner on the fourth aircraft of the six was Percy Cannings (see below). He said:
“We were told to execute a turn and something went wrong and the first plane got into the slipstream of the plane ahead of it, which sent it straight up in the air and back down again, narrowly missing us".
Lancaster ND981 captained by Fl/Lt Perkins, carried a crew of six. Sgt. Joseph Coman baled out safely. The bodies of the other five were recovered and later buried.
Lancaster ME625 piloted by Van Raalte crashed some 2 miles away from that of Fl/Lt. Perkins. Nobody was seen to bale out and there was no evidence to indicate that any of the occupants had left the plane. The aircraft had embedded itself into the side of a dyke"
The crashes occurred near RAF Wittering who, in consequence undertook recovery of the bodies and dispatch in accordance with the wishes of the relatives.
The funerals of Jim Raalte, Alfred Lambert, Alan Arnold, Eric Peace and David Fletcher took place at Cambridge City Cemetery at 15.45 hours on Friday 30 June 1944 with full military honours.
Maurice Durn was returned to his native West Riding of Yorkshire where he was buried in St. Bartholomew's Churchyard, Marsden near Huddersfield.
David Williams and Royston Davies, the two Welshmen, were buried in graves close by each other at Treorchy Cemetery, Mid-Glamorgan Wales.
For details of the crew of Lancaster ND981 click here.
In 1979 the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group (LARG) decided to attempt to recover the wreckage of the two Lancasters. The wreckage recovered can be seen on display at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirby, Spilsby, Lincolnshire PE23 4DE. For further information visit www.lincsaviation.co.uk/
On Monday 23 June 2014, the 70th anniversary of the crash, relatives from as far away as Australia gathered for a memorial service and unveiling of a permanent memorial in the form of a plaque at Cloot House Farm. One of those actively involved in organising the ceremony, Julian Hall, kindly provided the following details of how the event came about.
In 2013 the author Chris Keltie visited Bomber Command veteran Percy Cannings whilst researching his book 'Riding In The Shadow of Death', and as he was leaving a volume of W.R. Chorley's 'RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War' dropped open, on the page of the van Raalte air accident. Percy commented he witnessed the accident; as a mid-upper gunner in another aircraft in the same flight he had an uninterrupted view as the tragedy unfolded. Back they went for a longer chat.
Then in June 2013 Percy, his wife Bet and one of his daughters Sandy attended the book launch, and on their way home decided to try and find the crash site and the wooden cross memorial placed there in 2004 by the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group [LARG]. Although unsuccessful, at the time Sandy was on Twitter with friend and fellow aviation history enthusiast Di Ablewhite; by an amazing coincidence they realised that a propeller used on a memorial Di had worked to create had come from the van Raalte crash.
Sandy's sister Sharon Cannings then proposed creating a new more permanent memorial, and trying to contact the relatives of as many of the crews involved as possible; this so that they would know what happened to their relative if they were not already aware, and enable them to participate in commemoration of their loss. Having worked together on a previous project to locate any surviving members of Percy's wartime crews or their relatives, Sandy, Di and Sharon enlisted the help of friends Julian Hall and Julia Parker.
Then commenced months of research to find the relatives with everyone pitching in. A memorial plaque had to be designed and sourced - having created a rough design which was approved of, Julian carried on developing it to the completed design which now exists at Cloot Farm, Crowland in Lincolnshire, on whose land the aircraft crashed. A copy of the plaque is on display with some of the wreckage previously recovered by LARG, at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre [LAHC] at East Kirkby. Di, Julia and Julian collaborated on searching for the relatives, whilst Sandy and Sharon carried out the vital work of making sure that once the relatives were located and the plaque purchased, there would actually be somewhere to display it, and somewhere to hold a memorial service.
Finally, once as many relatives as possible were found in the time available, on 23rd June 2014, the group met with the relatives at RAF Wyton, wartime HQ of Bomber Command's Pathfinder Force, to which 97 Squadron belonged, and a very fitting place to commemorate their loss. Following the service everyone journeyed to Cloot Farm for the unveiling of the plaque. The following day everyone reconvened at the LAHC, home of 'Just Jane', an Avro Lancaster currently restored to taxying condition, with plans to make her only the third surviving Lancaster in the world in flying condition. This gave everyone the opportunity to get inside and see for themselves where their relatives had fought their war.
(1) Fl/Lt. Henry Stewart Van Raalte was born on 21 January 1913 at Guildford, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia the son of Henri Benedictus Salman van Raalte and Katherine Lyell van Raalte nee Symers. He had two known brothers both of whom served in the RAAF - David Joel Van Raalte born 10 May 1918 and Robert Benedictus Van Raalte born 16 February 1925. The family lived at 25 Angove Street, North Perth.
Henry was educated at Second Valley High School and Queens College Adelaide. He then worked for a time as a Farm Labourer and later as a Metal Rigger. On 9 May 1936 he married Mary Ellen Fisher who later that year gave birth to a son James Henry van Raalte. The family lived at Subiaco, Perth and later at 11 Cuthbert Street, Albany and 18 Duke Street Albany Western Australia.
When he enlisted at Perth on 12 August 1941 he was described as being 5 ft 6½" tall weighing 120lbs with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.
After training at No. 4 Initial Training School at RAAF Mount Breckan, at Victor Harbor in South Australia, No. 9 Elementary Flying Training School at RAAF Cunderdin, Western Australia and No. 4 Service Flying Training School at RAAF Geraldton, Western Australia he was awarded his Flying Badge on 14 April 1942 and six days later his wife presented him with his second son Stewart Lyell van Raalte.
On 28 May 1942 he was promoted to sergeant and the following day posted to No. 5 Embarkation Depot at RAAF Perth. Three months later on 24 August he embarked for the UK where he arrived on 18 November and was posted to No 3 Personnel Reception Centre. On 29 November he was promoted to Flight Sergeant. On 23 March 1943 he was posted to No.20 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Kidlington, Oxfordshire followed on 1 June with a posting to No 14 Operational Training Unit at RAF Cottesmore, Rutland. On 8 September he was posted to No. 1654 Conversion Unit at RAF Wigsley, Nottinghamshire for training on the Avro Lancaster Bomber. On 29 September 1943 he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and posted to No. 97 Pathfinder Squadron at RAF Bourn, Cambridgeshire on 30 November 1943.
On 29 March 1944 he was promoted to Flying Officer and on 28 April to Acting Flight Lieutenant
He is commemorated on the Albany War Memorial and the Australian War Memorial Panel 131, Canberra
(2) F/Sgt. Maurice Durn was born in 1923 at Marsden, Huddersfield, West Riding of Yorkshire the son of Norman Durn and Clara Durn nee Bentley. He had a sister Gladys May Durn born 1914 and he married Dorothy Slocombe at Huddersfield in 1943.
He is commemorated on the Marsden War Memorial, Kirklees MBC West Yorkshire.
(3) P/O. David Gethin Williams was born on 22 June 1922 the son of Gwilym and Dorcas Ann Williams nee Jones, of Blaengwynfi (Neath Port Talbot area) South Wales He had a sister Eirlys Mair Williams born 1924 died 1933 and a brother Alun Jones Williams born 1930 died 2003.
(4) W/O. Alfred Leonard Lambert was born 2 January 1919 at Carlton, Victoria, Australia son of John Leo and Rhoda Lambert nee Appleby.
He was educated in Melbourne at Box Hill High School (1931-32) Auburn Central School (1932-33) and Swinburn Technical School, Hawthorne (1933-34). After leaving school he studied Commercial Art at night school and worked in the Textile Industry as a Foreman Cutter and Designer of Underclothing. He enjoyed Rowing, Cycling, Tennis and Fishing.
When he enlisted at Melbourne 17 May 1941 he was 5' 8" tall weighing 140 lbs with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and fair hair.
After training at No. 4 Initial Training School at RAAF Mount Breckan, Victor Harbor South Australia, No. 1 Wireless Air Gunners School at RAAF Ballarat Victoria, No. 1 Initial Training School at RAAF Somers Victoria No. 2 Air Observer School at RAAF Mount Gambier South Australia, No. 2 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAAF Port Pirie South Australia and No. 2 Air Navigation School at RAAF Nhill Victoria he was awarded his Observers Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 12 November 1942.
On 16 November 1942 whilst on pre-embarkation leave, he married Stella Irene Case Hinds at St Mark's Church Camberwell, Victoria and they had a daughter Maree born in 1943.
His wife and daughter lived at 2 Wells Street Deepdene Melbourne and later at Eastwood, New South Wales, Australia.
On 15 January 1942 he embarked at Melbourne for Canada where he arrived on 31 January. On 9 March he embarked for the UK where after arrival he was posted to No. 11 Personnel Dispatch and Reception Centre at RAF Brighton on 18 March. On 3 May he was posted to No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Penrhos in Caernarvonshire followed four weeks later with a posting to No. 14 Operational Training Unit at RAF Cottesmore, in Rutland where he crewed up Jim Raalte and the others. On 8 September the crew was posted to No. 1654 Conversion Unit at RAF Wigsley in Nottinghamshire for training on the Avro Lancaster. The crew was posted to No. 97 Pathfinder Squadron at RAF Bourn, Cambridgeshire on 30 November 1943.
He is commemorated on the City of Camberwell War Memorial, Victoria and the Australian War Memorial Panel 125 at Canberra
(5) F/O. Alan Arnold was born on 7 June 1918 at 95 Bent Street, Northcote, Victoria, Australia the only son of Edward and Lillian Evelyn Agnes Arnold, of Milton Street, Pascoe Vale South, Victoria, Australia and twin brother of Iris.
He enlisted at Melbourne
He is commemorated on the Coburg, Melbourne, War Memorial and the Australian War Memorial Panel 118, Canberra.
(6) F/Sgt. Eric Henry Peace was born at Edmonton, London in 1922 the son of Ernest Peace and Ethel Maud Peace nee Howard later of York. His sister Mary Peace was born in 1924.
(7) F/Sgt. Royston George Davies was born in 1921 at Treorchy, Glamorgan, Wales the son of Giraldus Davies (Haulier in a mine) and Gwenllian Davies nee James, of 55 Clarke Street Treorchy. He had siblings, Cecilia Jane Davies born 1909 and Mildred Davies born 1910.
He married Phyllis M. Thomas at Pontypridd, Glamorgan in 1943.
(8) Fl/Lt. John David Fletcher, known as David, was born 22 March 1920 the son of John Tabberer Fletcher and Dorothy Fletcher nee Henderson
He married Joyce Loretta Sturman at Cambridge in 1940. They had a son John A. Fletcher born in 1940 at Southwell, Nottinghamshire but he is thought to have died whilst very young. He was admitted to Nottingham High School on 17 September 1931 aged 11 and left in December 1936 after the 5th form and went into Poultry Farming.(Details courtesy Nottingham High School Archives)
He is believed to have volunteered for the air force possibly as early as 1940 initially as ground crew. He was promoted to Leading Aircraftsman on 15 November 1941 and at some time after this re-mustered as aircrew. He joined 97 Squadron on the 17/03/44 from 83 OTU (RAF Peplow).
937564 LAC John David Fletcher was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 15 November 1941 (London Gazette 17 February 1942) promoted to Flying Officer (war subs) on 1 October 1942 (London Gazette 4 December 1942) and to Flight Lieutenant (war subs) on 15 November 1943 (London Gazette 19 November 1943)
He is commemorated on the Nottingham High School War Memorial and the war memorial at Sutton on Trent Parish Church
Photograph of plaque at Sutton on Trent Church: courtesy Bryan Sturman
(1) Fl/Lt. Henry Stewart Van Raalte was buried at Cambridge City Cemetery Grave No. 13766
His epitaph reads:
A good husband
A thoughtful father
A fearless warrior at rest
(2) F/Sgt. Maurice Durn was buried at Marsden (St. Bartholomew's) Churchyard near Huddersfield, West Riding of Yorkshire - Row 7. Grave 17
His epitaph reads:
In loving memory
(3) P/O. David Gethin Williams was buried at Treorchy Cemetery, Mid-Glamorgan, Wales - Plot T Uncons. Grave 168
His epitaph reads
(4) W/O. Alfred Leonard Lambert was buried at Cambridge City Cemetery - Grave No. 14166
His epitaph reads:
For ever remembered
(5) F/O. Alan Arnold was buried at Cambridge City Cemetery - Grave No. 13966
His epitaph reads:
His duty fearlessly
And nobly done.
(6) F/Sgt. Eric Henry Peace was buried at Cambridge City Cemetery - Grave No. 14366
His epitaph reads:
Grieve not for me,
I shall be one
With flowers and grass
And wind and sun
(7) F/Sgt. Royston George Davies was buried at Treorchy Cemetery, Mid-Glamorgan, Wales - Row R.1. Uncons. Grave 17
His epitaph reads:
He died that we might live
(8) Fl/Lt. John David Fletcher was buried at Cambridge City Cemetery - Grave No. 14566
His epitaph reads:
The Lord is my shepherd
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for Nottingham High School and all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - June 2017
With thanks also to the sources quoted below.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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