When I first moved to the North Lincolnshire village in which I now reside, a small discreet plaque behind the war memorial caught my attention and piqued my interest. I decided to investigate it.
I conducted research, and sought out eye witnesses, now living in other parts of the country. Using their first-hand accounts I was able to tell their story.
During World War Two a collision was something feared most of all by every bomber crew. While quick-witted pilots were able to perform clever manoeuvres to evade enemy fighters or flak, few crew survived the nightmare of a mid-air collision.
Given the high concentration of craft in a small area of air space, as at the height of bomber command’s campaign on Europe, it could be considered that collisions between aircraft were inevitable. The inevitable did happen – with tragic regularity. One such tragedy occurred near Ulceby in North Lincolnshire in the late afternoon of Thursday, 16th December, 1943.
The busy A15 trunk road running north to the Humber Bridge bisects what was the main runway of Elsham Wold airbase where Lancaster and Wellington bombers prepared to take off. Elsham was an ideal site for a bomber base. Operational from July, 1941 it was one of bomber command’s busiest.
In December 1943 two squadrons operated out of Elsham: 103 and 576. 103 Squadron, one of No. 1 Group’s founder units, had been reformed in the summer of 1940 from the remnants of the Advanced Air Strike Force, returned from the disasters that had befallen it in France. In November 1943, 103’s ‘C’ Flight had been dispatched to form the nucleus of 576 Squadron. They were to be together at Elsham for the following eleven months.
As well as home to two Lancaster bomber squadrons, Elsham was at various times also used by a Heavy Conversion Unit. This was in addition to its role as a relief landing ground for the training group based at Blyton. It is little wonder then that the skies around Elsham were rarely quiet. In fact, some nights as many as forty aircraft were operating from the base. Losses were high.
The mission briefing given on December 16 promised an ‘easy trip’. Bad weather forecasts for enemy territory led planners to predict that enemy fighters would be fog-bound on their bases across northern Europe. To capitalise on this foreseen situation, a thousand bomber raid was planned.
Conditions for take-off were poor, with low cloud blanketing the area. At their briefing, aircrews were instructed to climb away from the airfield and were not, under any circumstances, to fly back across it. In conditions such as those craft flew in such close formation they were often buffeted by another’s slipstream.
All crews could do was hope that everyone else was flying straight and level.
Among the aircraft taking off for the eight hour round trip to Berlin that night were JB-670 of 103 Squadron and LM-332 of 576 Squadron. They were piloted by Flight Sergeants V. Richter and F.R. Scott. It was to be the second operation for Richter, and the first for Scott.
Unusually, Richter and two of his crew were shown as being on the strength of 576 Squadron yet were to fly on the 103 Battle-Order in a 103 aircraft. It must be assumed that to capitalise on available aircraft for this heavy raid on the enemy capital, a scratch crew had been formed. This, too, was unusual.
F/S Scott took off into dense, low cloud at 16:36. Richter followed a minute later.
Fitter/Armourer Geoff Howells and two comrades had just completed bombing up their allotted ‘A’ Flight Lancasters and were on their way back to the main hangar for further orders when something made them stop and look to the skies. In so doing they were horrified to see one of the two aircraft suddenly appear out of the cloud directly in the path of the second as it climbed away from the runway.
As Flight Sergeant Richter was taking to the sky in his Lancaster, ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) driver Marie Harris, who was based at Goxhill’s anti-aircraft battery, was approaching Ulceby on her way to Elsham with a load of supplies when she heard the bombers. She later recalled:
‘It was very low cloud – this ‘ops’ should never have taken off.’
Like everyone else in this part of Lincolnshire at that time, Marie was used to the sight of heavy bombers and she would often watch the large aircraft lift into the sky, where they would circle once or twice before flying off on their missions. Often she would stand and salute them, wishing them luck.
Today, however, she would watch a tragedy unfold.
‘It was very low cloud and the Lancasters were taking off into the circles, up and away … they were so low and so near I felt I could nearly touch them.
One went into this low cloud and I was thinking “it’s a wonder they don’t crash, they’re so close together”, when in a split second as it came out of the cloud – God, it was a head-on crash with another Lancaster.’
The two aircraft collided above a field almost directly over Marie’s wagon. She was horrified. Streaks of fire and burning debris began to fall onto her truck and the surrounding road. Quickly, she halted the vehicle and leapt for the safety of a roadside ditch.
Both Lancasters had been fully laden with bombs and fuel for the mission. It was a miracle that the impact occurred over fields and not Ulceby village itself.
Marie’s immediate thoughts were for the aircrews.
‘Thinking some of the crew could be saved I ran up past the farmer’s house, bits and pieces flying all over.
[I was] just passing a barn and someone caught hold of me from behind and wouldn’t let go … kept saying “no lass, no lass – there’ll be nothing.” In no time at all the fire engines were arriving.’
Despite having just witnessed a shocking catastrophe, she dutifully climbed into her truck and continued to the base with her delivery of supplies.
‘When I pulled up to the guard-room I was rooted to my seat and couldn’t stop crying – thinking of the Bobs, Alecs and Bills, just blown to bits. It was awful – and still is.’
From the condition of her vehicle it was quickly apparent to the duty guard and his sergeant that Marie had been under the colliding aircraft. They kindly took her to the mess where she was given a mug of hot, strong tea.
The collision was the first of many disasters that occurred that ‘Black Thursday’ night. Regrettably, mission planners were wrong in their predictions and enemy fighters were airborne and ready to intercept the bombers. They succeeded in shooting down twenty-one aircraft. A further four were lost in collisions over Berlin.
For those crews who managed to make it back to friendly skies, their ordeal was far from over. Mist had formed during the evening and blanketed the area, shrouding the airfields.
The tragic consequences were to make it a busy night for the crash crews as a further eleven aircraft were lost in crashes and in collisions on or around their bases.
Including the Ulceby tragedy, these collisions and crashes alone claimed the lives of fifty-six men.
Comrades seeking solace for the loss of their friends would have to look further than the official reports of the night’s mission. Group 1’s grim summary concluded:
‘Conditions were vile and unexpected yet 136 aircraft landed safely. We must continue to strive for better airmanship and more effective ground control.’
This brief and dispassionate statement serves to illustrate the true nature of war, in which the war-makers bemoan the loss of machines but not a tear is shed for the souls lost with them.