Wednesday 10 July 2019

Heroes and a Heroine of Charlton

Sgt. Eric Easton's grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photograph)

When I wrote recently about the Second World War aircrew buried in my local cemetery in Charlton, southeast London, I promised to tell the story behind one of the more unusual graves that I discovered there during my searches, one which appeared to hint at a double tragedy for the family concerned. It has taken a little longer than I anticipated and at the time of writing, I have still not been able to get my hand on any photographs of the individuals concerned but notwithstanding that, the story uncovered was indeed one of great heroism and warrants recounting here.

We have already heard how Sergeant Eric John Easton RAFVR was killed at the tragically young age of 19 whilst undergoing his operational training with 52 OTU at RAF Debden, when his Hurricane failed to pull out of a high speed dive and crashed in nearby Bishop's Stortford. This accident had occurred in 1941 and was most probably due to the pilot losing consciousness due to problems with his oxygen supply. 

What I hadn't revealed fully in the previous article was the fact that Eric's family grave contains a sibling who served in the Air Force, in her case the WAAF, who had also died during the Second World War in what appeared to be heroic circumstances. I needed to discover more about this double tragedy to beset the Easton family.

Section Officer Joan Marjorie Easton's grave at Charlton Cemetery (author's photo)

Joan Marjorie Easton was born in Woolwich on 30 May 1917 to parents Victoria Easton (nee Jamieson) and John W Easton and by the time of the 1939 Register being taken, she was still living with her parents who had moved to 32 Sandringham Drive in Bexley, with her occupation at that time recorded as a Shorthand Typist. It is unclear exactly when Joan enlisted into the Women's Auxiliary Air Force but given the accident that befell her younger brother in 1941, it is quite possible that it was this event that inspired her to join up.

By 1943, Joan had risen to the rank of Section Officer and was based at RAF Mepal in Cambridgeshire, the home to 75 (NZ) Squadron, Bomber Command, which at this time flew the four engine Short Stirling, the first of the Royal Air Force's four engine heavy bombers. The Stirling suffered from changes made to the wingspan during the design stage and thus always suffered from a lack of ceiling and thus at this time was already being replaced by the more capable Handley Page Halifax and especially the iconic Avro Lancaster. It was however, much liked by pilots who found it an easy aircraft to handle given its size but due to the height of the aeroplane, it was susceptible to cross winds when manoeuvring on the ground.

On 8 September 1943, the squadron had been tasked with bombing the port facilities at Boulogne and seventeen aircraft were detailed to undertake the mission. Amongst them was Stirling III serial BK809, coded 'AA-T' under the command of a 21 year old New Zealander, Flying Officer Ian Robert Menzies RNZAF, who had already accumulated 802 flying hours, 45 of which were on the Stirling and who was on his eighth operational mission. Under his command was a mixed New Zealand and British crew, whose ages ranged from 21 to 30 years of age. Each bomber was carrying the maximum bomb load it was capable of lifting, a total of 14,000 lbs or 6,350 kgs of 1,000 and 500 lb high explosive bombs.

The heavily laden bombers began to take off from the Cambridgeshire airfield from 20:45, with Flying Officer Menzies' aircraft scheduled to be amongst the last to do so but at 21:55, during take off, the huge bomber was caught by a slight gust in the crosswind and Menzies was caught slightly unawares. The aircraft veered off the runway as the pilot over-corrected and lurched to starboard, struck a fully laden fuel bowser and then ploughed through the perimeter fence into nearby houses, where it burst into flames.

Many of the residents of the houses were in bed, or were preparing to retire for the night. One of the occupants of the houses affected, a Mr. John Randall, aged 58, was killed instantly, although his wife Jessie managed to escape with cuts and burns to her feet. Other householders were trapped but were rescued through the heroic efforts of the National Fire Service, who were quickly on the scene, as were personnel from RAF Mepal, amongst whom was Section Officer Easton.

Hearing the explosions, Joan immediately ran from her billet on the airfield, as did an off-duty airman from the squadron, Flight Sergeant Peter Gerald Dobson RNZAF, 28 years old from Blenheim, New Zealand. Dobson was agonisingly close to the end of his tour, having already completed 28 missions (out of 30) when he ran to the rescue. The blazing bomber still contained a full bomb load and the prospect of these exploding must have been uppermost in the minds of the rescuers but Easton and Dobson, together with others from the base as well as members of the police and fire service managed to rescue the other occupants of the two burning houses as well as moving others to safety.

The rescuers were also trying to reach the trapped crew of the Stirling, five of whom managed to escape, or were rescued by the gallant group of helpers. Sadly, one of those rescued, the Flight Engineer, Sergeant Albert Leslie Mellor RAFVR, died from his injuries later in the day. Whilst the would-be rescuers were attempting to reach the remaining two crew members, who included the Pilot, Flying Officer Menzies and the Air Bomber, Flying Officer Norman Hathway Gale RAFVR, part of the bomb load exploded, killing the two crewmen, as well as three of the rescuers, Section Officer Easton, Flight Sergeant Dobson, as well as a Fireman from the NFS, 50 year old Albert Kirby, a local man from Sutton, Cambridgeshire.

Extract from The Scotsman of 15 January 1944 (author's collection)

In January 1944, it was announced that both Section Officer Easton and Flight Sergeant Dobson had been posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches for the bravery. The citation for the awards, rightly stated that many more lives would undoubtedly have been lost had it not been for the quick action of the rescuers.

Out of a total of 257 aircraft that took part in this operation against Boulogne, just three were lost, all of which were due to accidents during take off - none were lost due to enemy action!

Tragically, of the survivors of the crash of BK809, one of these airmen was to be killed later in the war whilst serving with 7 Squadron, when the Lancaster of which he was part of the crew, was shot down, with six of the seven crew being killed. Further details of this incident can be found on the excellent Aircrew Remembered website.

If any readers have photographs of any of the aircrew or rescuers, in particular of Joan Marjorie Easton, I would be happy and honoured to share them on this page.

Please note that all photographs used on this page are the property of the author and may not be used elsewhere without my express written permission. Offenders will be ruthlessly pursued!

The crew of Stirling BK809 as follows:

Pilot: Flying Officer Ian Robert Menzies NZ/415002 RNZAF. Age 21, killed. Son of Dougas and Violet Menzies of Gisborne, Auckland, New Zealand.
Flight Engineer: Sergeant Albert Leslie Mellor 943914 RAFVR. Age 30, killed. Son of Albert and Lucy Mellor of Buxton. Husband of Gladys Mellor of Buxton, Derbyshire.
Navigator: Pilot Officer Derek Albert Arthur Cordery 136360 RAFVR. Injured.
Air Bomber: Flying Officer Norman Hathway Gale 151013 RAFVR. Age 30, killed. Son of Thomas Redstone Gale and Millie Gale of Bristol. Husband of Elizabeth Ellen Gale of Bishopston, Bristol.
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner: Sergeant Ralph Herbert Barker NZ/417189 RNZAF. Injured.
Air Gunner: Sergeant G Bullivant 1395379 RAFVR. Injured.
Air Gunner: Sergeant Stewart Donald Muir NZ/416967 RNZAF. Age 21, injured. Son of William Thornton Muir and Lily Ellen Muir of Lyttleton, Canterbury, New Zealand. (NB - Sgt. Muir was killed on 15.16 June 1944 whilst serving with 7 Squadron.)

Those killed on the ground:

Flight Sergeant Peter Gerald Dobson MiD NZ/439022 RNZAF. Age 28. Son of Henry Bruce Dobson and Emily Daisy Houghton Dobson of Blenheim, Marlborough, New Zealand.
Section Officer Joan Marjorie Easton MiD 2986 WAAF. Age 26. Daughter of John W Easton and Victoria Easton of Bexley, Kent.
Fireman Albert Edward Kirby of the National Fire Service. Age 50. Husband of Lillian Kirby of Sutton, Ely, Cambridgeshire.
Civilian Mr John Randall. Age 58. Husband of Jessie L Randall of Sutton, Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Unpublished Sources:

75 (NZ) Squadron Operations Record Book: UK National Archives AIR 27/646/41 & 42
Ely Standard & Cambridgeshire Times 17 September 1943
Daily Record 15 January 1944
The Scotsman 15 January 1944

Internet Source:

Aircrew Remembered