From Lincolnshire to New Zealand – the tragic story of a Lancaster bomber crew
Vic Jay uncovers the fascinating history of his father’s wartime comrades.
My story began in April 2012, with a taxi run in Lancaster NX611 across the airfield at East Kirkby. As I gazed out of the leaky cockpit, and listened at close quarters to the roar of its four Rolls Royce Merlin engines, I was suddenly aware of how little I knew of my dad’s role in that iconic aircraft. As the rain streamed down the perspex and over the flight engineer’s panel, I decided it was time to find out more.
All I had to start my quest was his log book, a couple of photographs and the name of his pilot, Bill Mallon. Their crew had only been operational for the last two months of the war, from March to May 1945, so my expectations were modest, and I thought the story would be completed within weeks. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Sadly, my dad, Bob Jay, the son of a Lincolnshire cobbler, had died in 1974 at the age of 55, so was unable to share in the remarkable four-and-a-half-year journey that followed. I gradually unearthed a series of tragedies that I still find almost unbelievable, with hardly a month passing without some new heartbreaking story emerging.
I set about recording my findings in a blog, but by the beginning of 2016 the collection of stories was so remarkable that I was persuaded to turn the disjointed episodes into a book. By the end of the year, I had published The Mallon Crew, a tribute to my dad’s comrades and all the other members of Bomber Command.
Bill Mallon was from New Zealand, and he and his two older brothers, Tom and Jack, teenagers in the 1930s, would cycle to their local airfield every Sunday to watch Gipsy Moths taking off and landing. All three developed a passion for flying, and Jack soon gained his pilot’s licence and applied successfully for a commission in the RAF.
He arrived in England in July 1939, two months before war was declared, and was eventually posted to No 53 Squadron. He took part in numerous operations against the German army as it advanced across Belgium and France, including support for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, in May and June 1940.
On 8th October, Jack and his two crew members were killed during an attack on shipping at Gravelines, in northern France, when their Bristol Blenheim was brought down by flak. The circumstances of Jack’s death did not emerge until many years after the war, and there were aspects that left the family feeling very bitter indeed. He was just 24.
Undeterred, Bill and Tom were more determined than ever to follow in Jack’s footsteps and become pilots. Tom progressed rapidly, completing his training in Canada before arriving in England in May 1944, where he joined No 488 (New Zealand) Squadron. Bill, on the other hand, encountered a series of delays that meant he didn’t complete assembling his own crew until December 1944, when my dad joined him as flight engineer.
When Bill had selected his bomb aimer, Ken Philp, a few months earlier, he was unaware that they had more in common than both being from New Zealand. Ken’s youngest brother Gibson had also trained as a pilot, joining No 486 (NZ) Squadron in September 1943.
On 14th January, 1944, Gibson was involved in an operation to destroy German flying bomb sites near Fruges, also in northern France. His Hawker Typhoon was hit by flak whilst flying at low altitude, and he was killed instantly. He was 23 years old and left a young wife, Nancy, back in New Zealand.
Of course, Bill and Ken were far too preoccupied to dwell on their respective losses, as they continued to prepare for operational flying. Navigator Jim Haworth, another Kiwi, was the next to join the crew. At 34, Jim was the oldest and the only one with children, two little girls whom he’d left behind two years earlier. His eldest daughter, Ruth, allowed me to read the many letters he’d written home during their long separation, and they provided some fascinating insights and added enormously to the humanity of the story.
The final Kiwi to join the crew was wireless operator Frank Symes, whose tragedies struck before and after the war. His mother had died when he was 5, and then, in 1941, when he was still only 16, his father also died. Frank decided to enlist almost immediately, and, in July 1942, he signed up with the RNZAF, later confiding in his new comrades that he had only done so because the Air Force offered more excitement than labouring on his Uncle Bert’s farm.
After the war, Frank and his wife, Winnie, had seven children, and twenty-six grandchildren. Sadly, he had limited time to enjoy his growing family, as he died in 1979, aged 55; coincidentally the same age at which my dad had died, five years earlier. Frank’s family was touched by tragedy yet again in 2012 – just as I was about to start my project – when his eldest son Stuart was killed in a car accident, aged 56.
During the Battle of Britain, in the long hot summer of 1940, 15-year-old Denis Eynstone had been mesmerised by the aerial duels being fought in the sky above him near his home town of Oxford. He couldn’t wait to play his part, and four years later joined the Mallon crew as their rear gunner – the youngest of the crew at just 19. He was soon to see a very different side to aerial warfare.
Denis had also been brought up by only one parent. His father George had died in 1927, when Denis was only 2, the result of exposure to gas more than ten years earlier during the Battle of the Somme. Denis’s experiences as a ‘tail-end Charlie’, including a couple of near misses during the crew’s short tour, came back to haunt him many times as he approached the end of his life.
The Mallon crew, with its final member, mid-upper gunner Don Cook, was posted to No 75 (NZ) Squadron at RAF Mepal, in Cambridgeshire, on 6th March 1945. They commenced operations over Germany three days later.
The following week, Bill received the shocking news that his eldest brother Tom, who by this time was flying from an advanced base in the Netherlands, had been killed when his Mosquito had crashed inexplicably shortly after take-off. The family’s anguish resurfaced in 2017, when they discovered disturbing details of the possible cause of the crash.
As well as these deaths in combat, I was surprised to discover so many heartbreaking stories that were not linked directly to the war. The death, for example, of the wife of one of the Kiwis when he was 11,000 miles away from home, and the death of ‘Mac’ Baigent, the CO of 75 (NZ) Squadron, who at 21 was the youngest CO in Bomber Command when he was appointed in January 1945.
‘Mac’ had completed more than fifty operations when he welcomed the Mallon crew to Mepal, yet he died eight years later, at the age of 30, cancer succeeding where flak and night fighters had failed. And the first name that appears in my dad’s log book, Alban Chipling, the highly experienced and decorated pilot who took my dad up in an aircraft for the first time, was killed in a flying accident just three months later, two weeks before the end of the war in Europe.
Later on in my journey, I was horrified by the Rolls of Honour of the schools the crew had attended. New Plymouth Boys’ High School, the Mallon brothers’ school, lost 227 old boys, sixty-two of them aircrew, and Jim Haworth’s school, Christchurch Boys’ High School, also lost over 200. I also discovered a pilot with No 75 (NZ) Squadron who had lost two brothers before he too was killed.
This scale of loss is difficult to comprehend, each death causing unimaginable pain to the bereaved families. As that generation dwindles, and our memories start to fade, steps are being taken to ensure that we do not forget. The International Bomber Command Memorial on Canwick Hill, Lincoln will bear the names of every one of the 55,573 members of Bomber Command who lost their lives. We will remember them.
Thankfully, after discovering so much misfortune, my story ended on a positive note. Just before the book was published last year, I received an email: ‘Hi there, I have a friend who is mentioned in your blog. His name is Charles Frederick Green DFC. I am trying to find out how I might get a copy of his citation for the DFC.’
Charles, a mid-under gunner, had flown with the Mallon crew on three occasions, and six weeks later we had an emotional meeting on yet another rainy day, this time in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire. My story had come full circle.