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Some years ago Vicky, Harry`s grand-daughter researched and chronicled an amazing amount of facts and information covering Harrys period in the RAF from 1939 up to 1941.
She did considerable research with numerous Government and RAF Departments which formed the basis for all the information recorded up to date, it is with many thanks to her dedication and hard work that the following information about her grandfather has come to light.
Most of the contacts and sources of information are listed within the following pages in case anyone wishes to make a contact.
In the summer of 1999 a number of visits were made to the Feltwell area while researchers in Norfolk made attempts to locate the actual crash site. Up to date this has not been possible and may never be.
Eventually we hope to gather further information which can be included into this short history of Harry. The problem is that 59 years have elapsed and very few survivors of 57 Squadron are around. We only know of one ground crew member and of course Chappie Chapman a surviving 57 Squadron Wellington Pilot whos anecdotes are included in our historical documents.
On the 15 July 1941 Wellington Serial Number N2784 DX N took off from RAF Feltwell Norfolk as part of an operation to disrupt the German transportation system. The railway marshalling guards at Duisburg was the nominated target and a full bomb load of 4.500 pounds of explosives and incendiaries were carried in the bomb bay.
This particular operation formed part of the RAFs task of increasing night time bombing raids to give maximum disruption to the German war machine.
The German Ruhr industrialised areas were naturally protected by numerous Anti-aircraft systems which caused the RAF extensive casualties.
After dropping the bomb load Wellington N2784 DX N attempted the return journey to Feltwell unfortunately it had been caught in the German searchlights and suffered extensive damage by Anti-aircraft fire. The port engine was out of action making the return flight extremely hazardous and they were lucky not to have been attacked by German night fighter planes.
As they were on final approach to Feltwell Airfield the remaining good engine started to fail causing sudden loss of height. At this stage the plane was out of control and was unable to reach the landing strip, instead it crashed into the tree line and burst into flames.
Of the five crew members all perished in the crash apart from Harry Lawson.No 3 Group 57 Squadron Feltwell
15-16 July 1941 Wellington 1C N2784 DX N - Ops. Duisburg
Take off 22.55 hours Feltwell, crashed 03.40 hours, 800 yards from the Drome at Feltwell Norfolk.
Crew Members (Related photographs)
Sgt. Sydney R. Rishworth 918984 Pilot
Sgt. Stuart W. Jackson 11828286 Second Pilot
Sgt. William F. Archer 961388 Navigator
Sgt. Hugh Wright Hardie 983863 Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
Sgt. James Murray Smith 993461 Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
Sgt. Harry John Lawson 1112481 Rear Gunner [only survivor]
Wellington 1C Serial N2784 DX-N T/o Feltwell with 6 crewmembers. Number 3 Group. Based at Feltwell Station Norfolk.
Caught in searchlights over Duisburg Marshalling Yards and badly hit by flak. The Wellington limped home with the port engine u/s to approx. 3 miles from the base at Feltwell, Norfolk Number 3 Group Bomber Command. During the approach the remaining engine started to splutter causing loss of height.
Investigation of the events
The Crash Card indicated that the Wellington crashed 800 yards from the runway at Brandon Land? Feltwell. Possible causes were suggested to be enemy action which was born out by Sgt. Lawson's memoirs. The Crash Card indicates that the approach was too low in bad weather and possible heavy rain on the windscreen hampered the pilot's view. However, weather reports for that night indicated that it was mild with heavy cloud, some rain and the wind moderate and southerly, which tends to indicate that the crash card is incorrect.
The result was that the Wellington undershot and hit the tops of trees crashing in flames killing all the crew apart from Harry.
Research up to date suggests it is more likely that with Flak damage, one engine totally out of action and the second engine failing a loss of height were inevitable, the Wellington would have probably starting to spin out of control with no possibility at all of regaining height.
Other information sources i.e. the listing in Bomber Command Losses page 92 of the 1941 issue quote that the aircraft crashed 800 yards from the 'Q' Site dummy airfield at Brandon. This information is considered to be incorrect inasmuch that the crash site was close to Feltwell Airfield and not the Dummy Q Site. Crash card information was not always 100% accurate.
The rest of the crew did not survive and Sgt. Lawson was hacked free of the planes burning debris. Memoirs indicated that while the rear turret was engulfed in flames Sgt. Lawson could see burning Perspex dripping on him and he found it fascinating to watch! While he was in the rear turret he thought that his end had come. There was no way that he would know what the condition was of the other Crewmembers and he said a prayer for them to be saved. This was not to be, but he was extremely fortunate that he was rescued from the plane.
Wellington MK1 N2784 DX N had accumulated 238.15 flying hours up to the fatal crash on the morning of 16 July 1941. The plane was made at Vickers Chester Works and taken on charge by 57 Sqd on 9 November 1940. Fitted with Pegasus MK XV11 engines serial numbers 185322 & 185336. After the crash the plane was listed as Category E/FB, in other words burnt out and write-off.
In a short period of time he arrived at Feltwell Station Sick Quarters in shock but with no bone injuries, Morphia was given and at 0.54 hours he was transferred to Ely Hospital with second degree burns to the head, back, thighs and hands - 45% total body area. He was in coma for some time and lost his sight for a period.
He was declared moribund and was given the Last Rites but was saved by 9.5 pints of Serum. He spent a total of 93 days in RAF General Hospital, Ely undergoing extensive skin grafts under the watchful care of W/Cdr. Simpson and Sir Archie Macindoe, Sgt. Lawson was amongst the first to try out the Saline Baths for badly burnt servicemen. He was also one of the first members of the famous "Guinea Pig Club" under the guidance of Sir Macindoe, which was formed in mid 1941.
Treatment for severe burns involved Harry being placed in Saline bags, on one occasion Macindoe requested another bag to be prepared for Harry, it was and he was placed in it. On the next ward round by Macindoe he was so incensed that the bag was not correct to his exacting standards that he took a scalpel and ripped the bag open. He then instructed the staff how it should be used. No doubt that this served to illustrate how all the staff were trying to get to grips with the new treatment techniques introduced for severe burns treatment.
One nurse was very keen to help Harry to regain the use of has hands, being badly burnt the tendons were quite useless and he had hardly any movement. The Nursing Sister in question would push Harry to exercise his hands, in fact both of them worked so hard to regain the movement that his fingers bled after the physio sessions. These were obviously extremely painful times for Harry but he and Sister persevered and it paid dividends as he was able to play the piano again. The nursing Sister was married to a Polish Aircrew member who sadly was to loose his life.
Across the road from Ely Cathedral was a large building which during the war was used as a convalescent facility for burnt aircrew, many of whom would visit a local tea room nearby and sign their name in the café visitors book reserved for RAF personnel. It is possible that Harry signed such a book but researchers have not been able to locate the book. Other less injured Air Crew from time to time took him out in Ely in a trolley to see the sights!
Harry's injuries were to trouble him through his career, during his tour of duty to India he had great problems, as he could not sweat through the numerous skin grafts carried out on him. This forced his premature return back to Norfolk.
The listing of Bomber Command Losses for 1941 does not show Harry as being a crewmember instead it shows Flt. Sgt Lane as the rear gunner lost with the rest of the crew. In actual fact Sgt. Lane was aboard Wellington MK 1X9642 of 57 Squadron on the Duisburg raid. This plane arrived safely but a German night fighter killed Sgt Lane in his turret. All the other crew arrived safe. Rear gunners were always the first targets for German Night Fighters and if engaged their life expectancy would be 20 seconds.
The records have been amended to show the 5 fatalities plus Sgt H J Lawson who they listed as 'dangerously injured'.
The fatalities of the crewmembers are detailed as follows:
We believe that Harry was on the final mission of his designated Tour of Duty when they crashed. At present we do not have his logbook which would identify the various and number of raids he had flown. We believe that it was not unusual for 25 up 30 missions flown during a single tour of duty. With the high losses during the 1941 bombing campaign of aircrew it must have been very unusual for crew to survive for a second or even third tour of duty.
The War Graves at Feltwell St Nicholas Church
In the North West corner of the old Churchyard are buried some 42 Aircrew. The site is administered by the War Graves Commission and the plot is kept neat and tidy with lawns trimmed and headstones cleaned. Hedges bound the site on all four sides and visitors are greeted by the barking of what sounds like a large dog from the garden of a house, which abuts the North side of the graveyard.
St Nicholas Church is no longer in use but is maintained by the Redundant Churches Commission, it dates from the year 660 AD and has not been used for services for many years. The Parochial Church Council during the early months of the War set aside a plot of ground specifically for the burial of Aircrew from RAF Feltwell. Of the Aircrew lying here are 19 RAF, 11 Royal Canadian Air Force, 2 Royal Australian Air Force and 10 Royal New Zealand Air Force personal.
During 1941 a few aircrew who lost their lives on UK soil are buried, they are listed below as it is more than likely that Harry Lawson would have know then during his time at Feltwell up to the crash. Amongst the aircrew here lies Sergeant Rishworth the Pilot of Harry's Wimpy.
The 1941 57 Squadron crew buried here are
Sgt John McKenzie of the RCAF, Wireless operator of Wellington T2959 DX and Pilot Officer Sgt Donald Watson who lost their lives after returning from Ops over the French port of Le Havre. Their crew mate Sgt Philip Gurd a 23 year old Canadian Pilot Sgt also lost his life, their headstones are close to each other
Pilot Officer John Watson a Canadian pilot of Wellington R1722 DX, the plane crashed returning from Hamburg, they were low on fuel but the rest of the crew survived.
Wellington X9923 burst into flames at Marham returning from Hamburg, the Air Gunner Sgt Kenneth William Clarke lost his life with others with the Pilot Sgt Witherington.
Returning from Essen Pilot Sgt William Hoskins of Wellington R1589 DX and his gunner Sgt Robert Simeon Sparks crashed, they are buried near to each other. Their plane crashed on Southery Road Feltwell with unexploded bombs in the wreckage.
Sadly Martin died in April 2003. Vicky is continuing to catalogue her grandfathers life.