Just something I wrote for the village magazine, hope you might find it of interest.
The Airman in the Churchyard
Due to recent events of which we are all aware, I’ve taken more notice of the things about me that previously paid little attention. For example, the churchyard. My dog is not shy of demanding more walks than she can usefully employ, and as often as not, these usually cross the graveyard where there seems to be a healthy colony of squirrels.
It was while on one of these walks that I noticed again a gravestone I had seen often before, of a young RAF sergeant. It has the following inscription.
Royal Air Force
17th June 1943 Age 23
‘’Thy will be done’’
When I thought about it before, I probably thought it had something to do with the nearby RAF Babdown Farm airfield, which as a training airfield, had more than its share of accidents. But something didn’t fit. An air gunner usually denotes someone with the particular skill of operating a turret on a heavy bomber, and our nearby airfield was as best I can tell, almost exclusively for training aircraft and fighters, like the Spitfire. So, with that in mind I thought it would be an interesting mental exercise to try and figure out how this unfortunate young man died, and what he is doing in our Churchyard.
Finding out why he is here was fairly easily determined. I first looked on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, usually the best place to determine the history of any grave. First of all, it revealed his full name, Michael Raymond Jack Arthurs. As it turned out, he was a local to the village, son of Alfred Daniel and Elsie May Arthurs of Calcott. It would seem Beverston was the nearest logical location to that village.
Quite how he died was harder to determine. There is no obvious indication on the stone, other than ‘Thy will be done’, which looking back seems to be an indication of an accident. It was only looking on the Commonwealth War graves Commission website that the Graves Registration report form gave an indication of his unit. ‘1656 C.U. RAF’.
That one had me stumped for a while, till I found a book in my collection listing all the units of the RAF in its history, and it was revealed as 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit, a training unit for heavy bomber crews based at RAF Lindholme in South Yorkshire.
It seemed likely to me then that it was probably a crash into a nearby hillside that killed our young airman, but the more I searched, the more it became evident that there were no crashes on that date in South Yorkshire. It was only when searching online for the date he died and 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit that a hint popped up on a search engine of a collision between an Avro Lancaster ED381 and Wellington Bomber Serial BJ845. And it was from that the whole tragic tale unfolded.
Both the Lancaster and the Wellington were bombers, built to attack targets in Germany as part of the strategic bombing campaign. Being vulnerable to attack from fighters and anti-aircraft guns, the RAF early in the war transitioned to night bombing, something that was very difficult to learn and could only be learned by practicing it. Which was the reason why in the early hours of 17th June 1943 both crews found themselves in the skies above West Oxfordshire.
The Lancaster carried a 7-man crew.
Sergeant Michael Raymond Jack Arthurs, Air Gunner, 23.
Sergeant Mathew Parkinson Brown, Pilot, 21.
Sergeant Michael Gardner, Bombardier, 21.
Sergeant Alexander John Mackenzie, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, 22.
Sergeant Eric Peter Stewart, Flight Engineer, 19.
Sergeant Alan Michael Terrence David Temple-Murray, Navigator, 20
Sergeant John Smith Whitehead, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, 21.
The Pilot of the Wellington was Flight Sergeant Mervyn Byron Fettell, 27, from Earlwood, Sydney Australia. Australian and Commonwealth aircrew were very common in RAF Bomber Command. In fact, 2 of the other members of the crew were also Australians, Flight Sgt Reg Bennett and Flight Sgt Bob Hilliard. The other members of the crew were British, three RAF airmen, Sergeants Morrison (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner), Watt (Air Gunner) and Niel Shapley (Air Gunner).
The Wellington was from 27 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Litchfield, and was on a training flight just like the Lancaster Crew. For the Wellington crew, this was their first, but don’t think that they made a mistake. The Skies were crowded over England, and collisions were not uncommon even among highly experienced operational crews. The methods we have today deconflicting aircraft, simply didn’t exist then. The blackout made discovering where the crews were flying very difficult to determine. Sometimes even RAF aircraft were fired on by AA gunners who mistook them for Germans. It was a very, very dangerous time to fly, particularly so to train. It had to be, there was simply no other way to learn to operate the aircraft.
The only account I have found of what happened was from a crewman from Flight Sergeant Fettell’s crew, they being the only survivors. Apparently, the Wellington was flying on a triangular route from Lichfield to Norfolk then Bristol and back to Lichfield again at 10000 feet. Visibility was reportedly good over the Brize Norton section, but neither aircraft seem to have seen each other. At 1.15am both aircraft collided. For the Lancaster it was seemingly almost immediately fatal, and seems to have crashed near Brize Norton. For the Wellington it wasn’t immediately so. The Wellington had a unique form of construction called geodetic. Anyone whom has seen the crash of the Hindenburg will be familiar with the kind of framework of an airship. The Wellington was built exactly the same way, with a covering of canvas to keep it all aerodynamic. The reason for this was the Designer, Barnes Wallis, the famous designer of the bouncing bomb, who also designed one of Britain’s largest airships, the R100. It was a fairly strange form of construction for an aircraft but one that was light, easy to construct, and incredibly strong.
Despite this, the Wellington was fatally damaged, with one engine almost ripped off its mounting and useless, the other badly damaged and failing. For Mervyn Fettell there was an even worse problem, his parachute was missing, probably through a hole in the side of the aircraft. Bob Hillard takes up the story.
At the time of the crash I had started to come forward when Bennett told me to fasten my parachute and bale [sic] out. However, I went back to view the damage. The starboard engine was nearly out of its mountings and there was a big gap in the fuselage. Flight Sergeant Fettell asked me to make another search for his parachute. The spare gunner and myself searched with torches but were unable to find the parachute, which had obviously fallen out. He told the gunner to leave but before doing so inspected his rip-cord and straps. The gunner then baled [sic] out. I stayed with Mervyn several more minutes, shining torches on the instrument panel in an endeavour to help. But as we were losing height rapidly and both engines had now cut out, he told me to bale [sic] out. I asked what he intended doing and he replied he would try and make a landing somewhere. There was nothing left for me to do and I said ‘Good luck Merv’. To which he replied ‘I’ll need it’. It was just like him and before I left the aircraft, he insisted I shine the torch on my parachute and make certain of its security. As I pulled the ripcord one of the engines flew past me. Then the aircraft followed in a steep glide. There was not one second of panic from the first moment of the crash which was entirely due to Flight Sergeant Fettell’s complete control of the situation. I know we owe our lives to the courage and control of Merv. He was a grand chap and I personally feel that I have lost not only a wizard pilot but a wizard pal.
I’ve been unable to find on what airfield Flight Sergeant Fettell tried to put down his stricken Wellington, but it seems most likely it was RAF Brize Norton. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful, overshooting the runway and, lacking any engine power to go around and try again, crashed into some trees at the end of the runway and was killed. But his sacrifice wasn’t in vain. All the crew who bailed out, all bar one survived the second world war. Niel Shapley died on operations with No 40 squadron, one of the nearly 58000 who died in Bomber Command in WW2. And that’s apparently not counting all those who died in training, which were thousands more.
As for Sergeant Arthurs and his crew, they were recovered from the wreckage by the RAF and from best I can tell, at least some of them taken to Swindon, presumably to RAF Wroughton. It’s not clear any tried to escape, but for Sgt Arthurs, as he was a gunner, the chances were always poor. The turrets were too small to wear a parachute, and had to be hung up inside the aircraft. With an aircraft fatally damaged, there was often no time to recover the parachute, put it on and bail out. That is assuming they were not pinned in the aircraft by a spin. Hopefully they all died instantly.
The crew was released either to their family, or, where that wasn’t practical or there wasn’t one, retained by the RAF and buried near an RAF Airfield, presumably so they could form a guard of honour. Sgt Brown is buried at Black Bourton Churchyard, 2 miles south of Carterton near RAF Brize Norton. Sgt Gardner was buried at Little Rissington, also near an RAF airfield. Sergeant McKenzie was buried at New Kilpatrick Cemetery, Dunbartonshire. Sergeant Stewart was buried at Charing Cemetery in Kent. Sergeant Temple Murray was buried in Bournemouth East Cemetery. Sergeant Whitehead was buried at Brynithal Cemetery, in Aberbeeg, Monmouthshire. And of course, Sergeant Arthurs was buried with us in Beverston, where his grave was cared for for many years by the Late Mr Ken Turner, himself an RAF man. Flight Sergeant Fettell never went home, and was buried in Cirencester Churchyard. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the inscription on his grave reads ‘He laid down his life for his Friends, his duty nobly done’.