Allies together forever
An ancient farm, fighting men from three nations and a worn out bomber were linked forever on 19 April 1943.
William de Stabulo was the founder of what was to become Staple farm, when in 1285 he was granted ½ a hide from the Bishop of Worcester’s Withington manor. As expected it passed through a number of hands and it is presumed that is was among the estates ‘that John Elwes of Colesbourne acquired, for his second son John Meggot Elwes. By 1830 it belonged to John Elwes's eldest son Henry;and it has remained part of the family's Colesbourne Estate.
The Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, Sir Henry Elwes KCVO, farmed most of the estate during the 1970s and 1980s, taking particular interest in forestry on the estate and in the Arboretum planted by his great-grandfather, Henry John Elwes. He became The Queen's representative, the Lord-Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, in 1992.
His wife Lady Carolyn Elwes, with the aid Herbert Ransom and Richard Nutt, identified snowdrops that had managed to survive from Henry John Elwes' original collection. The collection developed rapidly under her care and there are now over 200 different varieties within the Colesbourne snowdrop collection, open to visitors for the first time in 1997.
Vickers Wellington III serial DF743 coded LT:L was a bomber that had served its time on the front line and had been assigned to the important duty of training new bomber crews who would go on to serve on the famous four engine aircraft that pounded Germany on a nightly basis. This aircraft from the batch DF664 – DF709 was one of 150 Mk.111 versions delivered by Vickers Squires Gate between August and September 1942. After service in combat, the aircraft was assigned to 22 OTU (Operational Training Unit), based at RAF Bomber Command, Wellesbourne.
An OTU (Operational Training Unit) was the final stage of aircrew training, where the various elements of a crew were formed and then trained together to a point where they were skilled enough to be assigned to combat duties. When a new intake arrived they were left to form themselves into crews, in the belief that this would form more cohesive units and therefore more efficient crews. In most cases crews became very close knit.
The training was to a large extent conducted on the Wellington bomber, and included circuits, cross country navigation, bombing, gunnery, night flying, formation flying and defensive manoeuvres. Typically a crew would fly leaflet or nickel raids, trips to soft targets in the occupied territories such as France, to drop propaganda leaflets. Pressure to turn out crews meant intensified training and flying accidents were very frequent, with the resultant loss of life and aircraft. Wellesbourne lost 96 Wellingtons in operational and training accidents, 80 airmen were injured and 315 killed, the majority, 243, were Canadians.
The threat of war and then the invasion of their land led to Belgians fleeing Europe to the UK, Canada and the USA. Roughly a hundred of these volunteered to serve in the first company of Belgian Paratroopers which was officially installed at Malvern Wells Worcestershire, on the 8th of May 1942 by Mr Henry Rolin, Belgian under-Secretary of Defence. It was made up of A Company 2nd Battalion Belgian Fusiliers, a Battalion mainly made up of volunteers from South and North America assembled from January 1941, a platoon of the 1st Battalion Belgian Fusiliers with some qualified parachutists and volunteers from other units of the Belgian Forces who had escaped from occupied Belgium via France, Spain and Gibraltar.
In 1942 the unit obtained its paratrooper qualification at the Ringway Parachute Training School, Manchester. This was the wartime base for No.1 Parachute Training School RAF, which was charged with the initial training of all allied paratroopers trained in Europe. The Belgian paratroopers came from all walks of life, just like every other military unit in World War II. There were lawyers, lumberjacks, aristocracy, a bicycling champion, a professional wrestler, a circus acrobat, engineers and the OC, Captain Eddy Blondeel, was a dentist.
In June 1943 the company was attached for some time to the 8th British Parachute Battalion. The company continued to train for night jumps and by January 1944 the 1st Belgian Independent Parachute Company had became the 1st Belgian SAS Squadron and was integrated into the British SAS Brigade.
On 27 July 1944, the Squadron saw action for the first time and they were parachuted behind enemy lines in France, east of Falaise to carry out reconnaissance and interference missions. They were to be the first Allied troops to enter Belgium and the first to cross the Siegfried line into Germany.
The crew of Wellington DF743 had been briefed to fly to Stert Flats Somerset and return to base, to practice flying a war loaded aircraft . The crew, with the exception of the wireless operator who was RAF VR, were all RCAF. The weather was drizzling with the cloud base at 1200 feet and visibility of 4 miles.Two trainee Belgian paratroopers were aboard DF743 to become familiar with an operational aircraft and to determine their susceptibility to air sickness.
Etienne Bataille (3427) 22 left his home town of Wevelgem without telling his family and friends. He spent 22 months travelling through France and Algeria. His parents were relieved to here from him when he joined up in the UK.
Private Florent Depauw pictured right (3434) was 28 and had, with great difficulty escaped Belgium and managed to make it to the UK where he signed on for paratroop training.
At the controls of the Wellington on the morning of 19 April was 19 year old Flight Sergeant John Oswald Munro (R/125923) of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Pictured right lower. He had accumulated 158 hours flight time with 19 hours on Wellingtons.hhttps://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2451124
John Cripps was a student in London down on holiday with his family near Staple Farm, when he and his father ‘heard the loud roar of engines and then a terrific bump’. They went outside and saw a large plume of smoke. When they arrived at the crash scene John recognised the type of aircraft because of the large pieces of geodetic structure. The main wreckages was facing south east, the wings of the aircraft had come off and there was more wreckage lying well forward up a steep slope. Some of the crew had been flung hundreds of yards away and their bodies lay on the far side of the farm buildings.
We will never really know what caused the crash. Could it have been the power lines nearby as speculated by John Cripps, heavy icing, loss of control in heavy cloud or engine failure?
The operational records show that the navigator had, on the previous flights, followed procedure and had carefully recorded minimum heights and reported these to Munro. Could they have come down through the clouds to check their position over RAF Chedworth, which is situated on the boundary of Staple Farm?
This airfield was opened in in spring 1942 as a satellite station to RAF Aston Down. It was the home of 12 Group Tactical Exercise Unit and 55 OUT.In 2002 it was the inspiration for a music album, see below.
22 OTU lost a number aircraft due to engine problems. Being a twin engined aircraft, the loss of one on the Wellington imposed an extra burden on the pilot even if he was experienced. For an OTU pilot, control of the aircraft would have represented a high work load for him and his navigator especially in the weather conditions of the day. It was wartime and no further in depth investigation was felt necessary, the crash of DF743 was for official purposes simply a tragic training accident, and for the families a devastating cost of war.
On 9th April 1998, 55 years after DF743 went down, a memorial plaque was unveiled by Sir Henry Elwes KCVO in St Michael & All Angels, Withington. It was reported in the Perth Courier, Canada that the ceremony was attended by over 20 Belgians, some of whom were relatives of the paratroopers ‘who had perished in the crash.’
IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO DIED AT STAPLE FARM, WITHINGTON ON 19TH APRIL 1943.
IN A VICKERS WELLINGTON AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE.
Flight Sergeant J.O.Munro. Pilot-Royal Canadian Air Force.
Flying Officer H.B.Elliott. Navigator-Royal Canadian Air Force.
Sergeant W.C.Scott. Air Bomber-Royal Canadian Air Force.
Warrant Officer L.E.Lightheart. Rear Gunner-Royal Canadian Air Force.
Sergeant A.A.Chambers. Wireless Operator-Royal Air Force V.R.
Private E.Battaille. Special Air Service-Belgian Army.
Private F.Depauw. Special Air Service-Belgian Army.
THEY SHALL GROW NOT OLD, AS WE THAT ARE LEFT GROW OLD: AGE SHALL NOT WEARY
What is a hide
A hide is a very old unit of land area used in England and dating back to possibly the seventh century. It represented the amount of land that could be cultivated by a single ploughman’s and thus the amount of land necessary to support a family. It could vary from 60 to 120 old acres, (30 modern acres or 24 to 72 hectares) depending on the quality of the land. Over time a hide was standardised as 120 acres (48.6 hectares) after the Norman conquest of 1066. Staple Farm was initially then 24 hectares.
July Skies - Album 'The Englsih Cold' track Lost Airmen
It was finding the remains of RAF Chedworth in Gloucester that was the start of the inspiration for ‘The English Cold’.
Whilst walking the old runway, I met by chance a chap called ‘Lance’, the game warden for the estate. We chatted for hours. He showed me the old hangers, took me down to the battle HQ bunker, and we watched the afternoon streams of sunlight filter through the ivy curling around the observation gaps in the bunker. Whilst watching the streams of light my mind wondered…..who sat here sixty years ago?….what conversations happened down here in the bunker….how did the airmen react to the beautiful countryside around them and the airfield during the day when night after night they were so far away over Europe in freezing conditions….the sight of the fields and hedgerows, memories of better days, sweethearts….innocence…..childhood, possibly the countryside taking the mind so far away from the horrors of war.
As published in http://www.pennyblackmusic.co.uk
References and acknowledgments
Thank you to
Sir Henry Elwes KCVO for his input and helpful response to my email
Lynne de Motte Withington and Dowdeswell Parish Clerk for forwarding my mail to people in the parish
Richard Hoyle who responded to the email from the parish
Guy Jefferson Aviation historian who generously provides airfield histories on his site http://www.jeff53.fsnet.co.uk/index.html.htm
Jean-Louis Marichal of www.brigade-piron.be for allowing me to reference his site
Gerald Salmon for his ongoing research and help. Alan White for his generous access to his work on wartime crash sites.
Members of Key Publishing forum - always a great source of knowledge.
The staff at the Gloucestershire Archives - always so helpful.