Thursday, 9 May 2019

The aircrew on my doorstep


The grave of Flight Lieut FJ Kemp at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

This piece was originally posted in January 2017 and concentrated on just one grave that I had discovered at Charlton Cemetery. Since then, I have now researched all of the aircrew buried at this cemetery and thought it would make sense to update the article so as to pay tribute to all of the RAF boys on my doorstep. As always, the photos used to accompany this article are credited accordingly and none may be used without my express written permission.

When I wrote the original piece in 2017, it was very much the result of some accidental researching that came about whilst engaged on an unrelated project for a paying client. Following on from my recent exploration of All Saints' Churchyard in Carshalton which I wrote about here in January 2019, it seemed a sensible progression to come back to my own local cemetery in order to look at the RAF aircrew buried here, especially as one of the Charlton buried aircrew had a coincidental Carshalton connection which linked the two projects nicely.

Charlton Cemetery in Southeast London contains 114 burials commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, of which 55 are from the Second World War. I was aware of these and indeed had already written about a member of the Home Guard buried there in the May 2015 edition of this blog. The headstone that had caught my eye in 2017 was that of a Royal Air Force pilot, Flight Lieutenant Frederick John Kemp, who had died in July 1944. 

30 year old Frederick Kemp was born in Greenwich in 1914 and had married his wife Ellen in 1938, settling in the Charlton area of Southeast London. The 1939 Register shows Fred living with his wife in what must have been crowded conditions with his parents at 27 Mascalls Road, although they were later to move to a house of their own at 35 Eastcombe Avenue.

Upon the outbreak of war in September 1939, Frederick had joined the Royal Air Force, eventually qualifying as a pilot in 1941. By 1944, he had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was serving with 68 Squadron at RAF Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire, flying the De Havilland Mosquito NF XVII, which was a night-fighter variant of the sleek and versatile 'Wooden Wonder' as it was frequently referred to at the time.

Flying Officer James Donald Farrar (Aircrew Remembered)

His navigator was the 20 year old James Farrar from Carshalton, Surrey. James obviously had aviation in his family's blood, as his elder brother was the aeronautical engineer David Farrar. James had been called up in February 1942 and received his commission as a Pilot Officer the following year, serving with 68 Squadron. James was also an accomplished poet and had an anthology of his work, entitled "Unreturning Spring" published posthumously in 1950. He had been a pupil of Sutton Grammar School and his talent as a writer was described by Alwyn Trubshaw, his former English teacher who said of him "I say taught English but it would be truer to say that I taught English in his presence only. He had no need of my teaching. He was a natural born writer."

By July 1944, London was once again under German bombardment, not this time from manned bombers but from the V-1 Flying Bomb, known to Londoners as the Doodlebug or Buzz Bomb. These fearsome weapons were launched mainly from fixed sites in the Pas-de-Calais region and were programmed for their engine to cut out when over the London area. Thus, they were the first, albeit crude form of Cruise Missile, technologically advanced in their propulsion and guidance but aimed only in the general direction of London, falling indiscriminately on their target, whether factory, house or hospital.

James Farrar remembered at Runnymede Memorial (Author's Photo)

At first, the V-1 caused havoc amongst the war weary Londoners. The first one fell on 13 June 1944, barely a week after D-Day and at a time when the British people could have been forgiven for thinking that the end of the war was finally in sight. The British defences were quickly re-organised; the anti-aircraft guns located in and around London were quickly re-located to form a defensive strip around the Kent and Sussex coasts, where the majority of the missiles crossed on their steady course. Inland of the guns, the barrage balloons were re-deployed and behind these, RAF Fighter Command was given free reign to shoot down any of the Buzz Bombs that had not been brought down by the first two layers of this new and hastily improvised defence. The new arrangements proved extremely effective; the anti-aircraft guns with their proximity shells and radar guidance shot down the most, eventually gaining a success ratio of one V-1 for every hundred shells fired. The Barrage Balloons were less successful but were still thought to have been responsible for bringing down about three hundred missiles. The RAF shot down 1,954 of them, with the Hawker Tempest being the most successful with 638 'kills' and with other types such as the Mosquito taking 623, Spitfire 303 and Mustang 238, with other types accounting for the remainder, including the then new Meteor jet fighter, which gave the people of Kent and Sussex an early vision of the jet age. Overall, out of 9,250 Doodlebugs aimed at England, only some 2,400 reached their target, which represents a remarkable change in fortunes.

The extract from 68 Squadron's Operational Record Book (author's image)

The RAF nicknamed their flights against the V-1s as Anti-Diver Patrols and it is was on these missions that Flt. Lieut. Kemp and Flying Officer Farrar were employed in July 1944. As the threat from these weapons was of a round the clock nature, 24 hour patrols were maintained, with the fighters being vectored onto the Divers by radar. On the night of 25 July 1944, ten Mosquitos of 68 Squadron were on patrol, with Kemp and Farrar flying in aircraft serial number MM679 with a callsign of "Ferro 19". Shortly before midnight, they were vectored to intercept a Diver over the Thames Estuary. They replied to say that whilst they could see the V-1, they were out of position and that another aircraft of 219 Squadron was better placed to intercept. Shortly after making this transmission, they sent a further message to say that the Diver had exploded. At 04:12, they were given a new vector by control to intercept but did not respond to the message. Despite repeated efforts to contact Ferro 19, they could not be raised and had to be considered as missing.

Frederick Kemp's body was later washed ashore in the Thames Estuary but there was no trace of either the Mosquito or James Farrar, who is today commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede. Fred Kemp left a wife (who never remarried) two daughters and a son.

The grave of LAC Ronald Brooks at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

The above mentioned incident occurred whilst an experienced crew were on an operational flight but as can be imagined, the vast majority of those aircrew who are buried in local cemeteries such as Charlton were killed as a result of some sort of training accident. In Bomber Command alone, some 8,195 aircrew were killed in flying or ground training accidents and the following casualties interred in the cemetery reflect this.

On my return to the cemetery, the first RAF grave that I discovered was that of a young pilot under training, Leading Aircraftman Ronald Edward Brooks, who lived with his parents in Tallis Grove, Greenwich. So far, it has not been possible to discover much about this family but young Ronald, who had doubtless volunteered to fly on the strength of the then recent events of the Battle of Britain, died on 10 October 1940 when the Magister training aircraft in which he was a pupil pilot, crashed shortly after taking off from RAF Woodley on what should have been a routine stage in his training.

The circumstances of the accident are not recorded but when rescuers reached the stricken aircraft, both Brooks and his instructor, 24 year old Pilot Officer Ivor List were both seriously injured, and sadly died shortly after admission to hospital. Ronald Brooks was just 19 years of age and the news of his death whilst still under training would have been a heartbreaking blow to his parents

Sgt. HR Jennings grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

The next grave I investigated was not of the usual CWGC style and had obviously been erected privately as a family plot as it commemorated several members of the Jennings household. The person I was interested in was Sgt. Henry Rupert Jennings, who had died whilst serving in RAF Coastal Command as part of the crew of a Liberator bomber, used extensively on maritime patrol duties.

Henry had been born on 10 Jun 1918 to parents Henry Hough Jennings and Eva Florence Jennings who lived at 6 Church Street, Greenwich. The 1939 Register describes Henry junior as a 'Cycle and Tool Shop Manager' but shortly after this time, in common with many other young men across the country, he had volunteered to serve as aircrew. In his case, Henry qualified as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and was posted to 224 Squadron in Coastal Command, which had recently converted to fly the Consolidated Liberator, a large four engine bomber, which was to prove a game-changer in the Battle of The Atlantic.

Until the advent of the Liberator, Coastal Command had had to make do with the ever reliable Short Sunderland flying boat, a fine aircraft which could carry a formidable weapon load and which was a proven U-Boat killer but which did not have sufficient range to close the "air gap" between the United States east coast, Iceland and the UK in the North Atlantic. Other aircraft such as the Catalina and Lockheed Hudson also failed to meet this criteria and the Air Officer Commanding Bomber Command, the formidable Sir Arthur Harris refused to release any of his precious Lancasters for the task. The VLR or Very Long Range Liberator was the answer to this problem and these aircraft began to be introduced in penny numbers from December 1941 but did not appear in greater numbers until the spring of 1943.

The Liberator of which Henry Jennings was a crew member took off from RAF Beaulieu at 08:49 on Saturday 7 November 1942 under the command of 31 year old Flight Sergeant Kenneth Crabtree for an anti-shipping patrol over the Bay of Biscay. As far as is known, all had proceeded according to plan when the aircraft returned to Beaulieu at 19:30 that evening. The squadron's Operational Record Book does not state whether or not the aircraft was in a damaged condition when it attempted to land but merely states that the aircraft crashed on landing and subsequently exploded, with the loss of the entire crew of seven. Henry was just 24 years of age.

The grave of Sgt JV Hay at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

The next grave that I came across was that of Sergeant James Vincent Hay, aged 28 who had been born on 15 April 1916 and was recorded in the 1939 Register as being a Constable in the Metropolitan Police Force, based at Blackheath Section House. He had also recently married Madge Patricia Sheldsick but had not at that time set up home together as Madge was recorded as still living with her parents at Maidenstone Hill in Greenwich.

James would have no doubt served in the Metropolitan Police throughout the worst of the London Blitz and V-1 campaign but in common with many younger police officers, would have been released when things became a little quieter and had enlisted in the RAF towards the middle part of 1944. Sadly, it would appear that he never saw operational service with the RAF, for whilst he was training at No. 3 (Observer) Advanced Training Unit, based at RAF Halfpenny Green, Wolverhampton, his Avro Anson aircraft serial AX538, which was piloted by a Canadian, Sgt. John Mervyn Penonzek,  was involved in a mid-air collision with another similar aircraft over the Isle of Man. The second aircraft was able to make a forced landing nearby but sadly, AX538 crashed at Ballacurphy Farm with the loss of all four crew members on board. In addition to his wife Madge, John left a four year old son, a year old daughter and would also be a father to another daughter that he would never see, born in the third quarter of 1945.

Sgt. JH Atkinson's grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

Sgt. Jack Holder Atkinson was born on 20 February 1910 and is recorded in the 1939 Register as living at 15 Balloch Road, Lewisham, with a recorded occupation as a Motor Dealer. He had married Thelma Shutt during the fourth quarter of 1941 and had settled in the Charlton area of Southeast London. Jack had enlisted into the RAF during the second half of 1942 and by January 1943, he had completed his basic and operational training to be posted to serve in Bomber Command as an Air Bomber (Bomb Aimer). The large four engine heavy bombers such as the Stirling, Lancaster and Halifax were now coming on stream in steadily increasing numbers and so "Heavy Conversion Units" or HCUs were formed in order to mould the crews into the units required to man these large (and for the time) technically advanced aircraft. 

On 2 January 1943, Sgt. Atkinson formed part of  a crew of a Halifax bomber, serial R9388. The Halifax normally carried a crew of seven but for the purposes of this exercise was carrying a depleted crew of four, having dispensed with the services of a Navigator, Wireless Operator and an Air Gunner. The aircraft took off from the base of 1658 HCU at RAF Riccall in North Yorkshire just after 10:00 on a morning that was described in the Operational Record Book as "Fine, becoming cloudy with strong wintry showers". At around 10:20, the aircraft was seen from the ground as flying with one engine stopped and the propeller feathered, when it suddenly began to climb very steeply before it stalled and plummeted into the ground at Cawood, near Tile Bridge. Of the four man crew, there was just one survivor, Sgt. Gordon Maxwell Lipsett of New Brunswick Canada. He had been the tail gunner and was recovered from the wrecked aircraft suffering from extensive injuries. He was taken to nearby Selby Cottage Hospital and later transferred to the RAF Hospital at Rauceby. Fortunately, he recovered and survived the war, only to pass away at the young age of 53 in Winnipeg in 1974.

Sadly, the remaining crew members did not survive the crash and Jack Atkinson was returned to his young widow to be buried at Charlton Cemetery.

Sgt WH Lacey's grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

After a bit more exploration of this large cemetery, I came across another CWGC headstone which contained the grave of yet another RAF aircrew member who was sadly killed whilst undergoing his training.

Sergeant William Haylett Lacey was born on 3 August 1922 and was the only child of William Haylett Lacey (Senior) and Nora Lacey of 6 Ormiston Road, Plumstead. Young William's occupation in the 1939 Register was recorded as a Junior Clerk in a Gas Company but along with many thousands of others, he volunteered to serve in the RAF as aircrew and joined the service in late 1941. By April 1942, he had completed his basic training and had qualified as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner and had already completed the "crewing up" process at 23 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Pershore in Worcestershire. He and his crew mates were nearing the end of their operational training and would no doubt have shortly been posted to an operational squadron, when on 8 April 1942 at 15:37, the Wellington serial R1597 in which he was flying, crashed at Llangammarch Wells in Breconshire. In addition to the embryo crew, there were two instructors also killed in the accident.

Pilot Officer Barton-Smith's grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

Our next grave revealed only the second officer to be found here at Charlton Cemetery and was yet another airman killed whilst undergoing training at a Heavy Conversion Unit, in this case 1654 HCU based at RAF Wigsley in Nottinghamshire. Reginald Lionel Barton-Smith of Charlton was the husband of Irene Miriam Barton-Smith and was aged 22 at the time of his death.

On 11 November 1943 at 17:30, Lancaster I serial W4902 piloted by Barton-Smith, took off from RAF Wigsley on a long cross-country flight which was to be the final conversion exercise for this crew prior to their being posted to an operational squadron. By 22:45 they were close to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire in poor visibility when suddenly, the pilot had to manoeuvre sharply to avoid a collision with a Wellington aircraft. As a result of this, the collision was averted but the pilot lost control and the Lancaster crashed at Hackthorne, about one mile from Scampton. Of the seven man crew, there were four survivors, Sgt JF Snedker, the Flight Engineer, Sgt. CSW Wilkes, the Air Bomber and two Air Gunners, Sgts. WB Crawford and FW Murphy, both of the Royal Australian Air Force. The first three were taken to the RAF Hospital at Rauceby, whilst Murphy, who had a fractured left femur was admitted to Lincoln Military Hospital. All of these men subsequently survived the war. Sadly, the remaining three aircrew did not survive.


The next headstone revealed another officer and on this occasion, although his death was accidental, it occurred during an operational mission, rather than during training and is arguably the most tragic of all of the various incidences recalled above.

Geoffrey Richard Davis was born on 12 June 1922 to Maxwell Charles and Lilian Davis of 77 Maze Hill, Greenwich. Maxwell was a wholesale tobacco merchant according to the 1939 Register but so far, we have not been able to ascertain Geoffrey's peacetime occupation. He had volunteered to serve with the RAF as aircrew and had qualified as a Sergeant Pilot, having been posted to 98 Squadron of 2 Group flying the twin engine Mitchell bomber. The squadron had by this time passed from Bomber Command to be part of the new Second Tactical Air Force as part of the prelude to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe in June 1944.

The squadron was based at RAF Dunsfold in Surrey, which gave the squadron easier access to it's intended targets within the invasion area of Northern France. In late April, Davis had been commissioned to the rank of Pilot Officer but the promotion hadn't been officially recognised in the squadron's Operational Record Book, when at 12:24 on 20 April 1944, the Mitchells of the squadron took off on a daylight bombing raid  on targets in Croisette, France. Unfortunately, Davis's Mitchell had been seen to crash shortly after take-off, about three miles from the airfield. There were no survivors amongst the four man crew.

What makes this loss particularly tragic is that Davis had been married just a month or so earlier, perhaps in anticipation of his impending promotion. He had tied the knot with Irene Marjorie Noble in North Bucks., and at the time of his death, were still living with Geoffrey's parents in Maze Hill. The headstone has the heartbreaking inscription "Forever In My Thoughts".



Our final aircrew grave at Charlton reverted to type with a Sergeant being killed whilst undergoing training as a fighter pilot but which does have a fascinating, albeit tragic link with another member of the same family. Eric John Easton was just 19 years of age at the time of his death and little is known about his early life. He shares a grave at Charlton with his grandmother, Margaret Easton, so perhaps this suggests that he lost his parents at an early age.

Whatever the circumstances, Eric had volunteered to serve as aircrew in the RAF, no doubt in his case spurred on by the recent events of the Battle of Britain. He had qualified as a pilot and was undertaking his operational training at 52 OTU at RAF Debden in Essex, where he was in the latter stages of learning how to fly the Hawker Hurricane fighter.

Sadly, on 30 April 1941, his aircraft failed to pull out of a high speed dive and crashed off Danocoys Lane, Bishop's Stortford. He was undergoing an oxygen test at the time of the crash and it was thought that oxygen supply problems was the main contributory cause of the crash.

As mentioned earlier, the Easton family grave contains another family member from the Royal Air Force who gave her life in heroic circumstances later in the war and her story will be recounted in the next edition of this blog.

In the meantime, if any of our readers have connections with any of the families mentioned in the above piece and can obtain photographs of any of the people mentioned, I would be delighted and honoured to share these, so please leave a comment below and I will get back to you with my contact details, or you can leave a message via the contact page on my main website.

In Memoriam:

68 Squadron De Havilland Mosquito NF XVII serial MM679

Flight Lieutenant FJ Kemp RAFVR (Pilot) of Charlton, London
Flying Officer JD Farrar RAFVR (Navigator) of Carshalton, Surrey

8 EFTS Miles Magister I serial R1891

Pilot Officer IH List RAFVR (Pilot, Instructor) of Stoke on Trent, Staffs
Leading Aircraftman RE Brooks RAFVR (Pilot, Under Training) of Charlton, London

224 Squadron Consolidated Liberator III 'XB-C' serial FK245

Flight Sergeant K Crabtree RAFVR (Pilot) of Bingley, Yorkshire
Sergeant RS Horsley RAFVR (Pilot) of Old Coulsdon, Surrey
Sergeant KE Hunt RAFVR (Flight Engineer) of Lewisham, London
Sergeant AW Colston RAFVR (Navigator) of Southville, Bristol
Flight Sergeant ES Bayley RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner) of Higher Crumpsall, Manchester
Sergeant RWJ Harrison RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner) of Burnley, Lancashire
Sergeant HR Jennings RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner) of Charlton, London

3 (O) Advanced Flying Unit Avro Anson I serial AX538

Flight Sergeant JM Penonzek RCAF (Pilot) of Rossburn, Manitoba, Canada
Sergeant EC Comer (Observer) of North Finchley, London
Sergeant JV Hay (Air Bomber) of Greenwich, London
Flight Sergeant AJ Bell (W/Op Air Gunner) of Wellingborough, Northants

1658 Heavy Conversion Unit Handley Page Halifax II serial R9388

Sergeant TD Watson RAFVR (Pilot) of Lanark, Scotland
Sergeant WF Hewitt RAFVR (Flight Engineer) of Wellington, Somerset
Sergeant JH Atkinson RAFVR (Air Bomber) of Charlton, London

23 OTU Vickers Wellington Ic serial R1597

Sergeant JM Kennedy RCAF (Pilot) of Red Lake, Ontario, Canada
Sergeant WM Lomax RAFVR (Observer) of Liverpool
Sergeant W Smith RAFVR (Observer) of Wallasey, Cheshire
Sergeant FT Ellingham RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner) of Morden, Surrey
Sergeant WH Lacey RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner) of Plumstead, London
Sergeant N Griffin RAFVR (W/Op Air Gunner/Instructor) of Palmers Green, Middlesex
Sergeant DW Dowling RAFVR (Air Gunner) of Salisbury, Wiltshire

1654 HCU Avro Lancaster I 'UG-Q' serial W4902

Pilot Officer RL Barton-Smith RAFVR (Pilot) of Charlton, London
Sergeant DH Ryder RAFVR (Navigator) of Leeds, West Yorkshire
Sergeant RJ Huish RAFVR  (W/Op Air Gunner) of Weston super Mare, Somerset

98 Squadron North American Mitchell II 'OE-J' serial FL182

Pilot Officer GR Davis RAFVR (Pilot) of East Greenwich, London
Sergeant G Aldridge RAFVR (Navigator) of Grays, Essex
Flying Officer JP Diversi RAAF (W/Op Air Gunner of Wavell Heights, Queensland, Australia
Sergeant T Shehan RAFVR (Air Gunner) of Cwmburla, Swansea

52 OTU Hawker Hurricane serial P3864

Sergeant EJ Easton RAFVR (Pilot) of Eltham, London


Unpublished Sources - Operational Record Books held at The National Archives, Kew:
 
68 Squadron - AIR 27/604 
8 EFTS - AIR 29/618/1
224 Squadron - AIR 27/1387/20
3 (O) AFU - AIR 29/544
RAF Jurby - AIR 29/545
1658 HCU - AIR 29/613/5
23 OTU - AIR 29/667
1654 HCU - AIR 29/613/1
98 Squadron - AIR 27/783/7 - 8
52 OTU - AIR 29/681/1
Published Sources:
Bomber Command War Diaries 1939-1945 - Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt, Pen & Sword 2014

8 comments:

  1. Hi - thank you for this article. Fred Kemp was my grandfather. He didn’t leave three daughters, but two daughters and a son, my father. Lovely to see someone writing about him.

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    1. Hi Michael - thanks for the comment and I have duly corrected the piece above. Apologies for the delay in responding. Regards Steve

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    2. Hi Michael - further to your kind comments left last year, I was wondering whether you had a photograph of Fred Kemp that you'd be prepared to share. If you could let me know, I can send you a contact email address. Thanks in advance, Steve

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  2. Hello. I am Fred Kemp's nephew and was born 13 years after he was killed. He was my Mum's oldest brother. When I was growing up each of the sisters, there were four of them, had the same framed photo of Uncle Fred in their homes. I now have my mum's copy after she diec in 2013. Interesting article. Many thanks.

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    1. Hello. Thanks for the kind remarks and for the interesting information. If you'd care to share the photograph of Uncle Fred, I'd be happy to post it on the blog post in an update. You can contact me via this link and then I will email you https://www.blitzwalkers.co.uk/contact

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    2. Hello again. Unfortunately, I don't know who you are but you mentioned back in November about having a photograph of Fred Kemp - if you could let me have your email address (it won't be published on here) I'd very much like to see it and with your permission, share on my blog? Thanks, Steve

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  3. Hi,

    It was lovely to stumble across this - what an interesting read. I just wanted to suggest a quick amendment. Reginald Lionel Barton-Smith was not the son of Irene Miriam, but the husband (Irene is my grandmother).
    Many thanks,
    Emily

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    1. Hi Emily - Thanks so much for contacting me and for pointing out the error. This was my fault, as I'd misread the information on the CWGC website. I've now corrected this. If you or your grandmother have a photograph of Reginald that you'd be prepared to allow me to share on the blog, I'd be happy and honoured to do so. My email address is steve@blitzwalkers.co.uk - thanks & regards, Steve

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