Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Rower and bomber pilot who was a hero to the end

Rower and bomber pilot who was a hero to the end

THE bravery of a former captain of Henley Rowing Club who died during the Second World War has been revealed by an amateur historian.

Mike Willoughby, from Woodcote, researched the life of RAF bomber pilot Flight Lieutenant John Andrew Edward as part of his work to honour soldiers with Henley connections.

Mr Willoughby, who launched the Lest We Forget Project to honour those who lost their lives in the Great War, is now concentrating on those who fought in the Second World War.

Ft Lt Edward, who was known as “Johnnie”, may have even saved the life of one of the other members of his crew when their bomber was shot down by an enemy plane in 1944 and he was killed. He had already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was born in Antwerp in 1914, the son of Harold Westbrook Edward, a steamship manager of Bowden in Cheshire, and his wife Harriet Emily, who already had a daughter Margaret, who was born in 1910.

Johnnie’s birth was registered as a consular birth, or British subject.

Little is known about his early life and education apart from when as a teenage student in August 1930 he embarked at Manchester dock aboard the SS Manchester Citizen bound for Montreal, returning on September 8.

He was educated at Brambletye, Sidcup, before going to Radley College, near Abingdon, in 1928. As well as the usual subjects at school, he studied Spanish in the sixth form and was a junior sculler.

After leaving college in 1931, he was articled to Montague Spencer Ell, chartered accountant, of Northfield End, Henley.

He was elected as a member of Henley Rowing Club on June 14 that year and his address was given as care of Mr Spencer-Ell. He was elected deputy captain on July 12, 1934, by which time he had lodgings in Greys Road.

Ft Lt Edward rowed in both fours and eights at the up-river regattas as well as sculling. He was number two in the eight that won the Sagamore Challenge Cup at the 1935 Henley Town and Visitors’ Regatta along with L T Waring (bow), L Weston, R H C Goddard, R W Green, A Windham, C Horsfall, A C Waring (stroke) and J Sudgen (cox).

He was elected club captain on April 7, 1936 and served on the committee until 1939, playing an important part in the revival of the club’s fortunes.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Ft Lt Edward enlisted as Private 1543432 in the Royal Artillery Territorial Army and originally served in a light anti-aircraft unit.

He was discharged to commission on December 8, 1939 and his commission as gunner (acting sergeant) 109128 to be 2nd lieutenant under the heading of “Emergency Commissions” was gazetted the same day.

On May 4, 1943, the London Gazette showed Fl Lt John Andrew Edward 51120 Royal Artillery to be a temporary flying officer RAF (general duties branch).

After completing his flying training, initially at an elementary flying school where he achieved his first solo flight in a DH Tiger Moth, he went on to a service flying training school where he gained his “wings”, probably in an Airspeed Oxford.

Ft Lt Edward was then posted to 14 operational training unit at RAF Cottismore in Rutland and trained to fly Vickers Wellingtons.

From there he went to the 1660 heavy conversion unit at RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire to convert to four-engine aircraft.

On June 28, 1943, he was posted to 50 Squadron as flying officer (acting flight lieutenant) 51120. The squadron had been stationed at RAF Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire in May the previous year, flying Avro Lancasters.

At 9pm August 23, 1943, Ft Lt Edward was the pilot of Lancaster III W5004 which took off from RAF Skellingthorpe for a bombing attack on Berlin.

Also on board were flight engineer Sergeant R A (Bobbie) McCullough, navigator Pilot Officer L T (Lorne) Pritchard, wireless operator Sergeant G E (Gerry) Hobbs, bomb aimer Sergeant J A (Jackie) Brook, mid upper gunner Sergeant R V (Ronnie) Pooley and rear gunner Sergeant S (Sammy) Isherwood.

As they started their bombing run over the target, the crew were attacked at a range of about 800 yards by a Junkers 88 and a Focke Wolfe 190. Accurate commentary by the gunners enabled Johnnie to take the correct evasive action — a series of corkscrew manoeuvres.

The combined fire power from Sammy and Ronnie hit the JU88 and it fell away in flames while the evasive action forced the FW190 to break off its attack.

The Lancaster resumed its bombing run and successfully attacked the target from 18,200 ft at 12.13am on August 24 before returning safely to Skellingthorpe at 3.31am.

At 7.18pm on September 27, 1943, the same crew took off from the base in Lancaster W5004 for a bombing raid on Hanover.

This time they were attacked by another Junkers 88 and again they shot down the German aircraft before completing their mission successfully. However, instead of returning to base, Johnnie decided to make a precautionary landing at the nearest aerodrome, RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, due to navigational equipment and the wireless transmitter being unserviceable.

On February 15, 1944, Johnnie and the crew were posted to 617 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

They flew their first mission with the squadron on March 15, 1944 on board Lancaster III EE146 coded K. This was intended to be a bombing mission to Woippy in north-east France but for some reason it was abandoned and all the aircraft were recalled.

Johnnie flew a further 11 missions until his final one on June 29, 1944.

He took off from RAF Woodhall Spa at 4.25pm in Avro Lancaster Mk 1 serial no DV403 coded KC-G armed with a “Tallboy” — a 12,000lb bomb designed by Barnes Wallis to penetrate thick concrete — and with instructions to destroy a flying bomb launch site at Wizernes in the Pas de Calais in northern France.

His crew were Flying Officer Lieutenant Les W J King DFC (flight engineer), Flying Officer Lorne T Pritchard DFC RCAF (navigator), Flight Sergeant Jackie H Brook (bomb aimer), Flight Sergeant Gerrard H Hobbs (wireless officer) and air gunners Pilot Officer James I Johnston DFC RCAF, Warrant Officer 2 Thomas W P Price RCAF and Flight Sergeant Samuel Isherwood.

The Lancaster was hit by flak, or anti-aircraft fire, and the port wing caught fire. The bomber began to lose height, slowly at first, but then went out of control and blew up before hitting the ground at the village of Leulinghem, which is 7km south-west of St Omer in the Pas de Calais, at 4.58pm — still carrying their bomb load.

Ft Lt Edward (Johnnie), W O Price and Fl Sgt Isherwood were killed outright. FO Lt King died as a result of his injuries soon after the crash.

Fl Sgt Hobbs, Flt Sgt Brook and FO Pritchard were all taken prisoner of war. Brook was sent to Stalag Luft 7 and Pritchard to Stalag Luft 1. The camp to which Hobbs was sent is not recorded.

Hobbs had managed to bail out, although he remembered nothing about it. He could only remember coming to in a cornfield close to the village of Leulinghem, surrounded by Germans. The burning wreckage of the aircraft was not far away.

With hindsight, he believed that he must have blacked out due to the lack of oxygen and thought that Ft Lt Edward probably pushed him out of the aircraft.

Ft Lt Edward, W O Price and Fl Sgt Isherwood were buried by French locals in Leulinghem churchyard in coffins which the villagers had made themselves.

FO Lt King and Plt Off Johnston were buried in the Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery.

Ft Lt Edward flew 25 operational flights with 50 Squadron and a further 14 with 617 Squadron.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, which was gazetted on February 11, 1944 and mentioned his attacks on both Berlin and Hanover.

The official citation also stated: “He invariably presses home his attacks regardless of the enemy opposition. Both in the air and on the ground. his courage has been worthy of the highest praise.”

Mr Willoughby says Fl Lt Edward was “Henley’s unsung hero”,

He said: “There was only one man on the town hall memorial who had eluded me — J A Edward. Now, thanks to the help of Hilary Fisher and her resources, the minutes of Henley Rowing Club, the Henley Standard archives and my own research, I have been able to piece together this story.”

Mr Willoughby, who received the town medal in February in recognition of his work, added: “It had always been my intention that my research on the men of Henley and surrounding villages would continue into the Second World War, especially as this year is the 80th anniversary of the start of that war.

“To that end, research is well under way and nearly all the men on the local memorials have been identified, plus another 40 who are not recorded on any local memorial have been traced.

“It is my intention to have this information written up in time to be displayed in November.

“I also plan to once again hold drop-in sessions at Henley library so that anyone who wishes can bring information or pictures of their relatives to be included in the project.”

For more information, visit www.henley-lestweforget.co.uk

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