“Bombs gone!” the voice of 19 year old Francis Palmer RAFVR air bomber, crackled over the intercom.Flight Sergeant James Waldo McCausland RCAF, aged 23 from Marysville. New Brunswick, Canada reached to his right and eased the throttles forward
“Navigator here, heading 015 skipper”, said Percy Farren RAFVR, “Maintain 18 000 feet”. The pilot pushed hard on the right rudder pedal, turned the large wheel, banked over the mighty Loire River that ran through Nantes France and began the journey back to Moreton-in-Marsh the home base of 21 OTU (Operational Training Unit).
Established on 21 January 1941 as part of 6 Group RAF Bomber Command, the role of 21 OTU was to train night bomber crews. Wellington bombers were used for instruction, starting off with war weary Mk 1c aircraft, converting to the Mk III and finally the Mk X version.
Vickers Wellington IC, W5705 E for echo, responded slowly. A veteran of war built at the Vickers factory in Brooklands, Weybridge in April 1941, she was now a venerable old tutor for a bomber crew learning their trade.
In the company of five other Wellingtons on 29 January 1943, W5705 had taken off at 16h56 hours on a leaflet dropping operation over Nantes in France. Known under the code word ‘Nickel’, this kind of operation was considered as a graduation exercise carried out towards the end of the operational training course. It represented the culmination of hours of circuits and bumps, cross country navigation, bombing, gunnery, night flying, formation flying and defensive manoeuvres.
In essence a ‘nickelling raid’ was used to give student crews a reasonably low risk experience of an operational sortie over enemy territory. The propaganda war was important and leaflets were one of the few ways that the allies could communicate with citizens living under Nazi rule.
The weather was worse than forecast. Only Sgt McCausland and crew reached the target, two crews dropped their leaflets over St Brieuc, a third on the Lamballeand traget and the last crew landed at Colerne with a mechanical malfunction.
At 5 foot 8 inches the Canadian was probably more suited to the cockpit of a fighter, but already in his short time at 21OTU he had shown his skill at handling a bomber.
He had been cited earlier in the month when flying Wellington Mk Ic R1649. As he was descending towards base from 4000 feet on 26 January, the port engine exploded. Turning onto finals, he was baulked by another aircraft, which was on the flare path ahead of him. Calmly, he retracted the undercarriage and force landed alongside the other aircraft, causing minimal damage to the valuable bomber, no injuries to the crew and a promotion to Flight Sergeant.
Sgt McCausland left his job as a qualified teller with the Bank of Montreal in 1941, having started his career there as a junior clerk in 1937. He enlisted in the Canadian army on 25 April 1941, and was discharged 5 months later, with the rank of Lance Corporal, for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Initially assigned to 3 ITS (Initial Training School) Victoriaville Quebec, he began his flying training on Fleet Finch aircraft. Having passed the first stage of pilot selection he moved on to No 22 EFTS (ElementaryFlight Training School) based in Quebec City, again flying the Finch, a rugged little biplane. Fitted with a sliding canopy, as protection from the Canadian elements, this type of aircraft became a very successful elementary trainer.
The last stage of the course was at 9 FSTS (Service Flying Training Schools) at Centralia, near Exeter, Ontario. This was one of the largest training stations in Canada. Here the trainee pilots flew Avro Ansons and Harvards.
On 3 July 1942 McCausland achieved his pilot qualification and was promoted to Sergeant. He then took 2 weeks leave, probably to visit his family before he embarked on a troopship for the 10 day sea voyage to Bournmouth where he was registered as a new arrival at 3 PRC (Personnel Reception Centre) on 18 August 1942.
Nantes was an important support port for the famous submarine bases at Saint Nazaire on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Loire. The anti aircraft defences were significant.
A crew member on board a Vickers Wellington of No. 75 (New Zealand) Squadron RAF places night flares in position in the cramped rear fuselage. Note the Elsan chemical lavatory to the right.
Wellington GR Mark VIII, W5674 DF-D, of No. 221 Squadron RAF based at Limavady, County Londonderry, seen here at the Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd works at Brooklands, Surrey, following its conversion from a Mark IC aircraft by fitting ASV Mark II anti-submarine radar. This aircraft subsequently flew with No. 7 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, also based at Limavady.
Still in the turning bank the crew of W5705 were blinded by the bright white light of a searchlight followed shortly afterwards by loud explosions and the sound of shrapnel hitting the aircraft
The pilot looked around desperately, instinctively planning the evasive action and was relieved to find cover in the deep clouds that covered the city. More flak was thrown up into the clouds, but no further damage was done to the aircraft.
All the crew called in unharmed, but they could feel that things were not as they should be. The flak had damaged the starboard engine with a resulting loss of power.
Sgt McCausland called for a repeat of the heading home from Sgt Farren and read the instruments on the panel ahead of him, noting a fall in the oil pressure on the damaged engine.
By the time they crossed the French coast between Guernsey and Cherbourg, the aircraft had steadily lost height. The dicey motor was still running and the crew felt confident they could make it back to base.
Cloud cover was expected to be 10/10, with a ceiling of 1400 feet, and there was a weak southerly wind that helped them reach the shores of England.
They were flying on instruments and relying on the readings and calculations of the navigator. The altimeter was slowly unwinding and it became clear that they would need to find a landing field.
Percy Farren was sure they were close to airfields they were familiar with from their training flights. He suggested they try Aston Down and began to give directions to the pilot, calling off distance and heights.
In the darkness and swirling cloud Sgt McCausland desperately circled the area, searching for the aerodrome and losing precious height.
George Ayers made every attempt to raise the tower at Ashton Down, but it was a training base and not even an emergency field. It was too dark and dangerous to attempt a landing. The skipper called for a new heading for the next closet airfield.
They turned away from Aston Down, desperately low with no power left and only a hope of making a safe landing.
“This is the Skipper, all crew to move to crash positions, I will let you know when to brace yourselves” Sgt McCausland ordered over the radio. The gunners left their turrets and with the navigator and bombardier, they wedged themselves in the fuselage between the engines, reputedly the safest place to be in a forced landing.
The plane was steered to the new heading, flew over the Rodborough Fort and soon after turned to the port, lining up on to NE runway at Moreton Valance.
As he peered ahead James McCausland saw the square steeple of a Church ahead and very close the rooftops of a village. In a final attempt to gain some height, he pushed the throttle controlling the port engine hard against the stops and hauled back on the controls, in the vain hope they would skim over the rise and see the airfield dead head.
Ernie Watkins had not been in bed long in his Stone Cottage on Primrose Hill when he heard a commotion and shouting. He went to the window, he never slept with the black-out curtains closed. In the valley near the mill pond he saw flames and people running.
He threw on his Home Guard trousers and coat and ran down to see what was happening. There were a number of villagers watching the fire burning in the centre of the aircraft, but no one ventured close to the scene.
Howard Watkins, home on leave from the RAF, and Ernie saw that the tail had broken off the aircraft and they went down to see if they could rescue the gunner. They pulled the tail back from the rest of the wreckage, but were driven away by a series of explosion and ‘stuff flying everywhere’. Before they moved away they had realized that there was no one in the turret.
Although seemingly far from the war Stroud had a very active Home Guard. It was necessary to have a military authority handle the various incidents brought to the valleys by the conflict. On Home Guard duty that evening at 23h04 was Lance Corporals Bert Hogg and Harry Smith who witnessed the crash. They immediately reported the incident to the police and their platoon commander who ordered them to the scene.
There he found Lt A J Durn already at the site pulling out ammunition belts as other rounds exploded inside the buried part of the plane. Then NFS and the Platoon Commander arrived and cordoned off the site. The Watkins men were asked by an Air Force officer why the tail was so far back and when they related what they had done, he told them they were either brave or incredibly stupid.
Searchlights played across the woods and valley searching to see if anyone had baled out
The next day US troops were sent to recover the crew, the aircraft and to guard the site. They were made welcome by the village residents and enjoyed their hospitality when they were off duty from working in the inclement weather
A tented camp was set up on the rise opposite the pond. Attempts to use farm horses to recover the wreckage proved unsuccessful, so tractors were brought in to pull the heavy parts of the wreckage out of the soft ground. This was no easy task and at times when dragging the front fuselage and engines out of the mud the heavy tractors were in danger of being dragged down with the wreckage.
Contrary to many village rumours the bodies of all the aircrew were recovered and there is no wreckage left on the site. In more modern times the pond has been drained and the slope where W5705 crashed has been ploughed over and reshaped.
The body of Sgt McCausland was only recovered on 2 February, carried up to the farm on a sheep hurdle and then taken to the Aston Down airfield mortuary. His funeral was held at 15h00 on 6 February 1943 at the Cirencester Cemetery, a long way from Tyne Valley Prince Edward Island, where he was born on 9 September 1919.
On Sunday 31 January 1993 the Gloucestershire Branch of the RAF Regiment Comrades Association, under the chairmanship or Eric Papps, placed a plaque in the Ruscombe Chapel in memory of the crew that had died that winters night in 1943.
Instead of pushing PAMPHLETS out of the flare chutes, the chart shows how the quick release method worked.
Vast amounts of propaganda material could be delivered , reducing time over the target and yet still ensuring a good coverage of the messages being dropped on French civilians
Pilot - Flight Sergeant James Waldo McCausland, 23 yrs old RCAF R/126326 23 yrs old, Cirencester cemetery Plot 6. N.C. Row R. Grave 14
Notes and references:
Conversations and events that have been reconstructed are in italics.
T.W. Brooks, British Propaganda to France, 1940-1944: Machinery, Method and Message, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1 April 2007
Friedman SGM Herbert A. (Ret.), PSYOP LEAFLET DISSEMINATION (http://www.psywarrior.com/dissemination.html, 2008)
PROPAGANDA LEAFLETS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR (http://ww2propaganda.eu/)
Fred Aldworth AFAC Researcher
Graham Bartlett Library Information Manager Met Office Exeter
Library and Archives Canada
Eric Papps RAF Regiment Comrades Association
Royal Canadian Air Force