In Memoriam

In Memoriam

Details of the Crew members of R5689 who lost their lives September 1942


George William Marshall Harrison
Service number : 400517
Rank : Flying Officer
Unit : No. 50 Squadron (RAF)
Service : Royal Australian Air Force
Date of Death : 19 September 1942
Buried at St Germain Churchyard, Thurlby, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom


Sidney Charles Garrett (22 yrs)
Service number : 651255
Rank : Flight Engineer
Unit : No. 50 Squadron (RAF)
Service : Royal Air Force
Date of Death : 19 September 1942
Buried at Bournemouth East Cemetery, Dorset, United Kingdom


Sgt Harry Male (30 yrs)
Service number : 953414
Rank :
Unit : No. 50 Squadron (RAF)
Service : Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Date of Death : 19 September 1942
Buried at Halesowen Cemetery, United Kingdom


Sgt James Reginald Gibbons RCAF (age 24)

Service number : R/91886
Rank : Air Gunner
Unit : No. 50 Squadron (RAF)
Service : Royal Canadian Air Force
Date of Death : 19 September 1942
Buried at Newark Upon Trent Cemetery, Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom



The following poignant account was written by Tony Rennell for the Mail Online (

Every night, just as the sun was setting and Allied airmen were waiting to board their bombers for yet another gut-wrenching raid on Hitler’s Germany, a farmer would stand by the end of the runway at RAF East Kirkby in the Lincolnshire flatlands and wish them well.  Some of the boys — for, in truth, that was all many of them were — hummed and whistled, retreating into their own worlds in the calm before the storm. A few, for luck or out of sheer terror, relieved themselves against the undercarriage.   But 19-year-old Bob Pierson, a tail-gunner in a Lancaster, liked to share a cigarette with the farmer and his pretty daughter.


‘We’d talk about the weather, the harvest, normal things,’ a white-haired Mr Pierson told me six decades later, ‘anything but where I was going with my crew that night.  ‘In some ways that was the hardest part. One minute you were leading an ordinary life. Then we were off to drop bombs on Berlin or the Ruhr valley in the middle of the night, and knowing we might never come back.   ‘There must have been many times when that farmer chatted to men he never saw again. But he never asked what happened to them, never mentioned it. No one did.’   

That was what it meant to fight in Bomber Command in the World War II. Very much alive one minute, in the prime of life; very dead the next, shot down, wiped out, obliterated. The courage needed was breath-taking.   ‘You came back from a raid,’ Mr Pierson recalled, ‘and seven beds in your hut were empty. Seven friends gone — an entire crew — men you had been laughing and joking with a few hours earlier.    ‘The unfinished game of Monopoly still lay on the table, but half the players had not returned.’


And yet if you were one of those who managed to survive your wind-buffeted round-trip to the skies over the Third Reich, drop your seven tons of bombs and make it home through the flak and the enemy fighters, then there was tomorrow night — when you would have to do it all over again.   Thirty or 40 times, if you were lucky. Only with that number of missions under your belt — that number of brushes with death and destruction — would you be stood down.   Most did not make it that far. Between 1939 and 1945, the RAF’s Bomber Command lost 55,573 airmen in battle, more than half its entire force.    Its casualty rate was higher than any other section of the British armed services.   In one night alone, 670 Bomber Command aircrew died in a matter of hours, caught by a Luftwaffe ambush in the glare of a full moon on their way to Nuremberg in southern Germany.
Of the close-on 800 aircraft that took off from 39 airfields in eastern England that night in 1944, nearly a hundred — 64 Lancasters and 31 Halifaxes — never came back.    At some squadrons, those who did return were stunned to see the names of a quarter of their mates wiped off the operations blackboard.     There was an aching silence in the mess that night, one RAF pilot recalled. ‘We had lost so many good chaps, the cream of our youth.’

Such sacrifice will at long last receive the awe, gratitude and respect it deserves when later this month the Queen unveils the official memorial to the men of Bomber Command in London’s Green Park. An old debt will at least have been acknowledged. It can never be repaid.   Controversies over some former airmen not being invited to the ceremony should not overshadow the fact that what the pilots, navigators, wireless operators, bomb aimers and gunners went through to take the war to Hitler’s backyard was — to use a word much overused these days — epic.    From the retreat at Dunkirk in 1940 to the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, their determined attacks on the German war machine and on the German people themselves were the nation’s sole hammer chipping away at the Nazi regime and its supporters.   When Europe lay at Hitler’s feet, Bomber Command’s was the single voice taking the defiant message of ‘no surrender’ to the Germans. Then, from 1944 to 1945, its pounding of the Fatherland played a huge part in forcing Germany to the point of defeat.

Though some historians and peace campaigners still question this, there is no doubt in my mind that the war could not have been won and the Nazi tyranny destroyed without the relentless bombing campaign masterminded by Bomber Command’s much-maligned commander-in-chief, Sir Arthur Harris.  His men flew a staggering 360,000 sorties to hundreds of targets, most of them protected by rings of anti-aircraft guns and squadrons of Messerschmitt fighters. More than 8,000 bombers were blown out of the sky or crash-landed.   And what every man jack of them knew as they soared off into the skies was that, if your plane was hit, your chances of survival ranged from slim to zero. For every man who was able to parachute to safety (and usually into captivity, in itself not a desirable state), four didn’t make it out of their stricken planes.
It took incredible guts for Bomber Command crews to keep going, time after time, when the odds were so heavily stacked against them. The stress it caused was hard to disguise.

A doctor who dealt with thousands of combat airmen was haunted by ‘their pallor, the hollows in their cheeks and beneath their eyes, and the utter fatigue’. They were young, but their faces wore ‘the mask of age’.    Don’t believe any airman who says he wasn’t scared out of his wits on each and every raid, I was told by veterans. The true courage — demonstrated by the men of Bomber Command over five long years — was in controlling their fear.   


Going to war in a bomber was a uniquely hazardous experience. The Lancaster which, to the Queen’s obvious delight, flew over Buckingham Palace during the Jubilee celebrations last week showed us the aircraft’s grace and majesty, but gave no impression of its creaking vulnerability as a war machine.    For those on the inside, a Lancaster heading across the North Sea and grinding on against a head wind towards Cologne, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Dresden, was a flimsy, rattling death trap, filled to the brim with aviation fuel and high explosives. Above, below and to left and right were hundreds of other flying death traps, too close for comfort.  Tail-gunner Bob Pierson’s domain was a tiny Perspex-encased coffin in which his head touched the top and his shoulders brushed the sides. There was only enough room in front to get his hands round the triggers of the four Browning machine guns.   He sat here unable to move for as long as eight hours at a time — and freezing half to death. The canopy tended to frost up or smear with dirt and oil, so one sheet of Perspex at eye-level was removed, leaving his face exposed to the slipstream.  ‘In temperatures of minus-30, my breath froze into an icicle in front of me. I waited until it was three or four inches long before breaking it off.’

All the while, he strained through the blackness of the night for a glimpse of an enemy fighter. Confusingly — fatally — it could be a flash of light or the very opposite, a black shape darker than the night sky around it.  ‘You see something. Your heart jumps. But you can’t just blaze away. If you fire, the tracer will give your position away to the enemy for sure. And, anyway, you might hit another Lancaster. Plenty of planes were knocked out by someone on their own side panicking.   ‘So you wait. And it gets closer, until you can make out a head and shoulders in the cockpit. Is he going to keep coming? Is he going to start firing?  ‘Sometimes he peels away out of sight, and that’s the worst moment of all. All you can do is pray that he hasn’t dived below you and is coming back underneath with his guns blazing.  ‘The horror was waiting and not knowing, wondering if you were about to die.   ‘If an attack came, the skipper would throw the Lanc into a steep dive. The wings go down, the tail comes hurtling up. You go up, too, and then you plunge back down as the skipper pulls back on the stick and the plane climbs steeply in the opposite direction.  ‘The G-force clamps on your head like a ton of concrete. Your chin is pressed hard into your chest. And all the time you are still trying to fire at the enemy fighter on your tail.’
Approaching the bombing target, things got even hairier. Forced to fly straight and level with their bomb doors open, they were like fish in a barrel for the enemy defences below.  Being ‘coned’ in searchlights was terrifying. ‘One moment you’re in a complete blackout and the next you are caught by beams of intense light,’ Pierson recalled. ‘One thought floods your mind — that you’re the one, that you’ve been picked out of all the other aircraft around you.  ‘And you know what happens next because you’ve looked out and seen it all before — seen other planes suddenly illuminated, then hit by shells from the ground. Balls of flame come from the engine, then from the fuselage, and you see it going down and down until it disappears into total blackness again.’
Facing concentrated flak was like flying into a curtain of high explosive. ‘All of a sudden there would be red fire-flashes and orange explosions on either side of me, lighting up the inside of the turret. It comes horribly close and there is nothing you can do to protect yourself.’   A direct hit by a shell would destroy a plane in mid-air, but most damage was caused by shrapnel slicing into the aircraft’s fuel and hydraulic lines, oil system or engines. And into its crew.


Each time the plane was hit there was a huge, hollow bang. I can still hear that sound now. It was as if you were in a runaway car with people throwing stones at you — smashing against the windscreen, making holes in the side and shaking it so violently you thought you could never survive. I had three-quarters of my turret blown away by shellfire over Dortmund. After we limped home, I counted 200 holes in the aircraft.’   Over the target, the plane would slow to what seemed like a crawl as the bomb aimer called his instructions to the pilot — ‘Steady, skipper, hold her straight’ — and shells burst all around.   They hung there for an eternity, or so it seemed, desperate to hear the cry of ‘Bombs gone!’ and feel the Lancaster, thousands of pounds lighter in an instant, leap up and away. In the relief of that moment of release, as they swung round and headed homewards, the job done, some thought about the poor devils below. One airman looked down on Cologne one night and saw with sadness and compassion ‘the whole town like one obscene boiling mass beneath us. Men, women, children, babies, cats, dogs, rats, mice; nothing would live down there. All would be incinerated, the ashes covered by the falling buildings’.

It was this aspect of the bomber war — the devastation of its victims, many of them inevitably civilians — that led to the vilification of Bomber Command in the decades afterwards. The strategic bombing campaign was aimed at munitions and aircraft factories, oil plants and transport links. But it was also intended to break the spirit of the German people.
Half a million died in air raids — 40,000 alone in a fire storm in Hamburg in 1943, as many again in Dresden in 1945.   Throughout the conflict, there were those Britons who opposed the bombing as an immoral way of waging war. It is to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s shame that, having ignored those protesters and backed Harris to the hilt, he then back-tracked once the worst was done.  In 1945, Churchill publicly disowned the policy he had pressed for and approved of. In his victory address to the nation, he conspicuously made no mention of Bomber Command’s contribution.  The great man’s hypocritical volte face started a trend of moral indignation towards those who took part in the bombing war that proved unstoppable for years after.  From the mid-Fifties, creeping guilt rather than unalloyed pride became Britain’s default position about World War II. Some Germans even accused us of being war criminals, and we seemed to take that slur lying down.   Bomber Command took the flak again, as their crews had done back in the 1940, with Harris a hate figure for the Left. When a statue was erected to him in London in 1992, pacifists smeared it with red paint.  Meanwhile, the men themselves — the quiet heroes that they always were — just kept their heads down, baffled and not a little hurt by the hate being directed at them for simply doing their duty.   We were all depicted as butchers,’ said one former pilot. ‘It was trial by modern liberal conscience, with no right for the defence to call its witnesses.’  Now, at last, the tide has turned in favour of these elderly men. Their bravery is being publicly recognised. Better late than never.

Not many of them remain. Bob Pierson won’t be at the unveiling ceremony. He died a few years ago. He was never a gung-ho warrior. He had no illusions about what he had been part of. His conscience was both troubled and clear at the same time.   ‘The results of what I did still prey on my mind,’ he told me. ‘When I think about those bombing missions I went on, I wonder why it had to be like that. It can never be right to kill and maim. And then I remember what would have happened to this country and to all those countries that Germany had conquered if I had not done what I did.’  The rights and wrongs of the Allies’ bombing campaign against Germany are still fiercely debated — was it fair, was it right, was it effective? To my mind, the rights far outweigh the wrongs.    The clinching argument for me was contained in a letter a Dutch housewife sent to the RAF when the war was over. During the occupation of her homeland by the Nazis, she wrote, ‘the throb of your bombers overhead at night sounded like music in our ears. It was an anchor to which we clung in the dark days’.

That was Bomber Command’s achievement. That is what we now commemorate with pride and gratitude.

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