The disastrous night of 16/17 December 1943 came just one month into the Battle of Berlin, Bomber Command’s all-out attempt to win the war by attacking the German capital and other key cities. But it was not the Germans who were responsible for the majority of RAF casualties that night but Bomber Command’s most formidable enemy – the weather.
The survivors of the large force of 483 Lancasters and 15 Mosquitoes which had taken part in the bombing raid on Berlin reached England around 11 p.m., only to find that the light mist of the afternoon had turned into a thick fog, blanketing the country as far up as Yorkshire. As the night wore on, the low cloud cover closed down towards the fog, dangerously reducing visibility.
At the adjacent Pathfinder stations of Bourn and Gransden Lodge, conditions were amongst the worst in the country. By midnight, visibility was down to 300 yards or less, and it took about 1,000 yards to stop a Lancaster. By the early hours of the morning, cloud base at Gransden Lodge would be at 100 feet and the fog would be meeting up with it. 405 Squadron, which was based at Gransden Lodge, managed to land only five of its thirteen aircraft operating that night at their home station.
Three 405 Squadron crews crashed with heavy loss of life, including the very experienced crew of Burns Alexander McLennan. They had gone to try their luck at RAF Station Graveley, at which the landing aid FIDO was installed. All the crew died except Clair Nutting, the rear gunner, who was thrown clear.
The McLennan Crew, photograph taken by Walter Sheppard, the navigator. L-R: Buck (not on the fatal trip), Cornwell, McLennan, Morrie Martin (not on the fatal trip), Halliwell, Schneider. Courtesy of Colin Stocker.
Memorial to the McLennan crew, 405 Squadron, lost near RAF Station Graveley on 17 December 1943. This memorial was erected by Colin Stocker, who as a young boy saw the aftermath of the crash.
16/17 December 1943 was soon dubbed Black Thursday. It saw the loss of twenty-five Lancasters during the Berlin operation but a further thirty-one lost due to the fog over England, crashed or abandoned when their crews baled out, or in the case of two unfortunate crews collided over Lincolnshire. Other aircraft—Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lysanders, variously on gardening, training or Special Duties flights—also crashed due to the fog.
In total, Bomber Command suffered 327 deaths and lost 70 aircraft on this day. The death toll for the bad weather crashes in England was close to 150, not counting those who later died of their injuries.
405 Squadron mass funeral at Cambridge City Cemetery. Courtesy of Jane Pilling-Cormick and Bill Bessent, whose twin brother Bob Bessent was buried that day, 22 December 1943.
The Pathfinder dead for fog-related crashes were two from 83 Squadron, six from 156 Squadron, fourteen from 405 Squadron, and twenty-eight from 97 Squadron, fifty men in all.
97 Squadron had its worst night of the war. It lost not only twenty-eight men killed in Britain but also the eight-man crew of James Brill whose Lancaster was hit by flak over Berlin. In addition, seven men were badly injured in the crashes, some of whom would never fly operationally again.
Significant 97 Squadron losses occurred at or close to RAF Station Graveley, where aircraft had diverted in the hope of using FIDO. The outstanding pilot Ernest Deverill lost his life here. Five of his crew died, the only survivor being James Benbow who was badly burned.
Late 1942 photograph of Deverill crew, taken at Woodhall Spa. Deverill, 5th from left. Known crew members are L-R, Ralph Crossgrove (RNZAF), James Benbow; 2nd from right, Francis Roy Farr. RAF Pathfinders Archive.
16/17 December 1943 saw the worst bad weather landing casualties in Bomber Command for the whole of the war. In terms of lives and aircraft lost, this was the worst night in British aviation history.