Fifty years ago the pubs of Pocklington resounded with many unfamiliar accents as blue-clad young men and women from all parts of the English speaking world serving at RAF Pocklington lived life to the full in their off duty hours. Much of the real work of 102 Squadron crews was veiled in secrecy. A local policeman was known to see off Pocklington teenagers who tried to watch too closely the daily work of the Squadron from the edge of the airfield. Locals might have thought that life for these crews was one long party.
The 'Ruhr Valey Express' - A Halifax of the Canadian 405 Sqn which flew from Pocklington in 1942 (the Wolds can be seen in the background)
Friendships were formed. In 1943 Arthur Brown, who now lives in Warrington, arrived in Pocklington to join the ground crew of one of the Halifax bombers of 102 Squadron. He later was to marry a young lady from Pocklington. He now lives back in Warrington, as do his two daughters and four grandchildren. On the night of 28th March 1943 Arthur was in the Black Bull in Pocklington. In wartime Pocklington 'Mable's Bar' was a popular venue for airmen. There he met a 20 year old South African, Myles Squiers, who was the Rear Gunner in another aircraft, 'G-George'.
Like many of the friendships formed at that time, it was to be short-lived. For on the very next night Arthur was to watch 'G-George' crash into the West Green on its way to Berlin, killing Sgt. Squiers and the other six crew members. The inscription on Sgt Squiers' gravestone in Barmby Moor churchyard reads 'Ave Atque Vale' - Hail and Farewell. Both crew and aircraft had only begun operational duties in Pocklington within the previous month. The aircraft, a Halifax B/GR Mk 2 Series 1, was newly despatched from the English Electric factory in Preston when delivered to Pocklington.
The crew of 'G-George' was drawn from a diversity of backgrounds, and had something of an international character. From the prairies of North Dakota came the 27 year old Pilot, Bill Comrie. In March 1941 he had crossed the Canadian border into neighbouring Manitoba to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force. This was nine months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought his own country into the war. There was also a connection with the US A through Myles Squiers whose father was an American diplomat working in South Africa. From the slipways of the Clyde came the 23 year old Flight Engineer Jock McGrath. The home of Bomb Aimer, William Jenkins, was in Birmingham but he was born in Pembroke. At the age of 34 he was by far the oldest and one of only a handful of airmen in 102 Sqn over the age of 30. More typical in age was the Navigator, Douglas Harper, who was 22. He came from the village of Oadby in Leicestershire. Originally from the East End of London, the 21 year old Mid Upper Gunner, John King, had more recently been serving in the Hampshire Police Force. From Brighton came the 23 year old Wireless Operator, Frank Dorrington. So the crew consisted of an American, a South African, a Scotsman a Welshman and three Englishmen. Like most pilots and navigators Bill Comrie
and Douglas Harper did their initial aircrew training in Canada. Bill Comrie received his pilot's wings in December 1941. At the end of his navigator training in Edmonton, Douglas Harper passed out as the station's top cadet. He received his wings from the Lieutenant-Gover-nor of Alberta in the presence of senior officers from the RAF, RCAF and US Army Air Corps. To commemorate the occasion Canadian Airways presented him with an engraved gold bracelet. He was commissioned in July 1942 and promoted to Flying Officer in January 1943.
The crew of 'G-George' was first formed in late 1942 at 10 OTU (Operational Training Unit) in Abingdon. At this stage it had only the five members shown in the group photograph. When the crew upgraded to four engined aircraft, a Flight Engineer and Mid Upper Gunner were added to their number. It was at this point that Jock McGrath and John King joined the crew.
At the start of 1943 four engined bomber training was done in Conversion Flights attached to operational squadrons. 102 Squadron took over from the Canadian 405 Squadron at Pocklington in August 1942. It was to the 102 Squadron Conversion Flight that the crew arrived for heavy conversion training in January 1943.
Before the War, Douglas Harper had been well known in Leicestershire Scout circles and had been selected to receive, on behalf of the county, a pennant from the Duke of Kent who was killed in 1942 while serving with the RAF. Shortly after arriving in Pocklington he bumped into someone he had not seen for quite a while. LAC Stan Jeffrey was in the ground crew of 'E-Easy' and came from the same village, Oadby. They had known each other in the Scouts in 1931. By further coincidence Stan was to be on duty on that fateful day at his dispersal point, known as 'the piggeries' because it was next door to a pig farm on the main road into Pocklington. From there he was to watch Douglas Harper's aircraft crash onto West Green.
In January 1943 Bill Comrie and his crew came to Pocklington where 102 Sqn had a Conversion Flight which instructed crews on four engined bombers after their earlier training on two engined aircraft. This Conversion Flight was to be disbanded on 10 March 1943, when the practice of having Conversion Flights within operations squadrons changed to that of separate Heavy Conversion Units.
Bill Comrie was taken through Heavy Conversion Training by the Flight Commander, W J (Wally) Lashbrook DFC, AFC, DFM, MBE, who has been rated as one of the most experienced Halifax pilots in Bomber Command. In his book Terror by Night' Michael Renaut, DFC, includes an account of Wally Lashbrook's remarkable escape after being forced to bale out over Czechoslovakia. By night he walked alone through Germany and into France. From there, with the aid of the 'Rabbit Run' escape organisation, he reached Lisbon where he read in a copy of "The Times' the notice "Squadron Leader Lashbrook, DFC, missing believed killed". When 102 Sqn Conversion Flight was disbanded, Wally Lashbrook went to the new 1663 Conversion Unit at Rufforth but later went back to Pocklington as C Flight Commander. Although he also operated from Dishforth, Topcliffe, Dalton, Leconfield, Driffield, Marston Moor, Linton-on-Ouse and Rufforth he said: "I always considered Pocklington as my main airfield". Wally Lashbrook wrote: "I remember Comrie and was very favourably impressed with his abilities".
The Crew help with the harvest in the down time
When the crew had finished their training at Pocklington in early March 1943, the phase of the War known as the 'Battle of the Ruhr' was beginning. It was primarily in this campaign that Bill Comrie and his crew were to be engaged during their time here. The crew would not know it as the 'Battle of the Ruhr'; it was only with hindsight that Sir Arthur (Bomber) Harris, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, was to so name it. In the previous five months the tide of the War had turned in the Allies' favour with victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad. However the D Day landings were still 15 months away and in March 1943 it was still only the strategic bombing launched from Pocklington and other airfields which was carrying the war to Germany itself. Bomber Harris was to call the period from spring 1943 to spring 1944 his 'main offensive'.
The Battle of the Ruhr was to last from March to July 1943. It included the famous Dams Raid of May 1943. Less glamorous were the regular night bombing raids on the cities of Germany's industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley - towns such as Essen with its Krupps armaments factories and Duisberg with its docks.
This was not of course the first time that attacks had been launched on the Ruhr from Pocklington. In fact the crew of a Canadian Halifax of 405 Squadron based at Pocklington had styled itself the 'Ruhr Valley Express' in the previous year (see picture). These attacks were skirmishes by comparison with the attacks which were about to take place. During these three months 58,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Germany, more than the RAF dropped in the whole of 1942.
These vital targets were heavily defended. The Ruhr was sometimes referred to by crews as 'Happy Valley'. As we will see, Bill Comrie and his crew were to experience the ferocity of the wall of flak which surrounded these towns.
The exact date of the start of the Battle of the Ruhr was 5th March 1943. On that night 442 aircraft from Bomber Command attacked the Krupps armaments factories in Essen. The raid was very successful. 160 acres and 53 separate buildings in the Krupps armaments works were laid waste. 12 Halifaxes from Pocklington took part in this raid. The crew of Flying Officer Barnes reported seeing fires burning in Essen from as far away as Amsterdam on their return journey to Pocklington.
Bill Comrie was not yet ready for operational duties on March 5th. On that day he was on his last training flight with WallyLashbrook. When Essen was attacked again on Mach 12th it was the turn of Bill Comrie and his crew to do their first operational raid from Pocklington. They were with 10 other Pocklington Halifaxes. Weather and visibility were both good.
Night bombing raids generally set off shortly after dusk, with some account being taken of the distance to the target. On this night they set off at 7.27pm. They bombed from 18,000 feet on the red target indicator laid by the Pathfinders. They sustained a few small flak holes in the fuselage, but returned safely to Pocklington just after midnight. Three of the other Pocklington aircraft failed to return. The Rear Gunner in another aircraft was wounded by an attacking German aircraft, and the pilot had to land away to get him to hospital. The raid generally was successful and it was assessed that the Krupps factory received 30 per cent more damage than in the raid of 5th March.
There were no raids from Pocklington for another fortnight On the night of 26th March the target was Duisberg. Bill Comrie's crew took part in the raid with 12 other Pocklington Halifaxes. They took off from Pocklington at 7.52pm. The raid was one of the few failures in the battle of the Ruhr, mainly because it was a cloudy night and five of the Pathfinder Mosquito aircraft which were to have placed sky markers had to turn back owing to technical problems. There was 10/10 cloud over Duisberg. William Jenkins managed to get a red sky marker in his bomb sight and bombed the primary target. But then it was found that two of the 1000 bombs had hung up and these were jettisoned at 10.09pm a few miles west of the target. Another Pocklington aircraft had the same problem and had to jettison a lOOOlb bomb. Although Bill Comrie 's crew noted that the searchlights were not penetrating the clouds, the flak certainly was. One wing had a small hole and so also did the oil tank on the other wing. They returned to Pocklington just after 1pm.
Not all targets during these months were exclusively in the Ruhr Valley. On 9th March for instance nine aircraft from Pocklington had made the long haul to Munich, a round trip of over eight hours. Targets outside the Ruhr were attacked in order to avoid the concentration of German defences in one area. On the night of 27 March the target was Berlin. The proper Battle of Berlin was not to begin until the winter of that year. Berlin was much further away than the towns of the Ruhr. In a direct line from Pocklington, Berlin was a distance of nearly 600 miles, compared with just over 300 miles to the Ruhr. Evenbeforethetargetforthe night was officially made known to aircrews, ground crews could often guess from the unusually large amount of fuel they were asked to load that the likely target was 'the Big City'.
Berlin had seemed such a difficult target that, Goering had promised its inhabitants that if any enemy bombers penetrated that far into Germany then he was a Dutchman. The first RAF raid on Berlin was on 25th August 1940 and cynical Berliners were to come to know Goering as 'the fat little Dutchman'. On 30 January 1943 Mosquito aircraft were bombing Berlin in daylight as Goebbels and Goering addressed a rally to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Hitler regime. The raid on 27th March was to be the 59th RAF visit to Berlin. Senior officers in RAF Squadrons did not have their own aircraft, but some would from time to time take, return to flying duties for a single raid. On that night it was not to be Bill Comries who captained 'G-George' on its first trip to Berlin, but no less than Wing Commander George Holden DFC, who had been the Squadron Commander since October 1942 (the Station Commander at that time was the famous Gus Walker, the RAF's youngest Air Commodore). Bill Comrie was stood down that night, as was Myles Squiers. A Pilot Officer Such and a Flight Sergeant Clark also joined the crew for the one night, making the crew number up to eight.
There was no cloud on this night. "G-George' set off for Berlin with eight other Halifaxes from Pocklington at 8.01pm and returned at 2.40am. Once more their aircraft was holed by flak, but this time it was a single burst which hit Douglas Harper's maps and cut his finger.
The next night, March 28th, the crew were stood down, as were most of those crews on the Berlin raid. Seven other aircraft from Pocklington took part in a raid on the U Boat pens and harbour at St. Nazaire. A sister of Arthur Brown's bride-to-be in Pocklington was also to marry an airman of 102 Squadron. Arthur's brother-in-law-to-be, Sgt Wilf Bell, did his first trip from Pocklington on this night in the crew of the New Zealand pilot, Arthur Carey.