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Stories of survival from airmen
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, John Edward Dowlthwaite, just 16, joined the Local Defence Volunteers.
This later became the Home Guard. He spent two years in the ranks of the Idle Platoon.
At the age of 18 he volunteered to join the RAF, was accepted and gained his pilot’s Wings in 1944. He was sent to Cape Province, South Africa, to train bomb-aimers and aircraft navigators.They flew Tiger Moths and Ansons.
At the end of the war in Europe, Flight Lieutenant Dowlthwaite was sent back to England where he married his Bradford sweetheart, Irene. He was stationed with an Advanced Flying Unit near Stafford.
On December 28, 1945, John was detailed with two others to go on a map-reading exercise in a twin-engined Airspeed Oxford – an Oxbox as they were called – above Derbyshire’s Peak District.
What happened next later made the pages of Picture Post, was the subject of a book about aeroplane crashes in the Peak District, a BBC Look North report in 1983 and was almost included in a This Is Your Life TV programme about Ted Croker, chief executive of the Football Association.
He was one of the three men aboard HN 594 when, at about 2.30pm that December afternoon, it smashed into the snowy heights of Kinderscout. The other man was observer Robbie Robinson. He had taken over the controls from John shortly before the crash.
John recalled: “We ploughed into Brown Knoll at 140 knots. Ted had two injured ankles. Robinson and myself were in a bad way. The cold stopped blood loss.
“When I woke up, Ted was lying beside me. I said, ‘Is this real or a dream?’ He said, ‘It’s real’.”
The aeroplane, a twisted tangle of metal and wire, had bounced and scudded 150 yards from the point of impact.
Robbie and John were unable to extricate themselves from the wreckage. Robinson’s jaw was smashed in seven places and he had internal injuries. John’s left leg was so badly smashed he could see the shin bone poking through his torn trousers.
Ted had no choice but to go for help. Choosing a direction in that snowy desolation was as much a matter of luck as judgement. He set off, crawling on all fours. Back at the crash site, John and Robbie wrapped themselves in parachute silk to mitigate the cold.
After hauling himself through a field of sheep, he reached a house and was taken in by its resident, a Mrs Shirt. She gave him a bowl of hot water for his feet, then set off to walk a mile down the valley to Edale where she raised the alarm.
Mountain rescue volunteers set out to look for the men in two American jeeps. RAF spotter planes searched Kinderscout, but the two injured men were not seen until 10.30am the next day.
John said: “They took us to hospital just outside Manchester. I had to have a transfusion of eight pints of blood. For three years I was in and out of hospital in Wilmslow, Wolverhampton and Plymouth. I didn’t fly again, although to this day I am in the Volunteer Reserve.”
John’s father Harold, the owner of a box-making company in Bradford, read about the crash in the Sunday papers. He went to Irene’s family home near Bradford Moor Park, then drove her to the emergency hospital in Wilmslow. Her most vivid memory of that time is the boiled ham she was given for breakfast, lunch and tea.
In 1985, John, Robbie and Ted had a reunion at the site of the crash.
Today, John and Irene live in a comfortable house in Thackley , surrounded by pictures of family and books about their friend David Hockney . John’s family used to live a few doors down from the Hockney family home in Hutton Terrace, Eccleshill .
Les escaped bomber tragedy
In July, 1945, Les Joy returned from two days’ leave to RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire, looking forward to meeting up again with the six Australian members of his four-engined Lancaster bomber.
Together, they went on many missions to Dortmund, Duisberg and Kassel, along the heavily-industrialised and protected Ruhr Valley. Much heavy industry connected to the German war effort was concentrated there.
Les was returning from a couple of days with his wife Elsie. Born in March, 1923, he left school at the age of 14. For three years he supplemented his basic education by attending classes at night school twice a week from 1938 into 1942.
“The war had been on for three years and at 19, I would be called up to serve my country and do my bit for the war effort. I wanted to fly with the RAF, and being in the Air Training Corps would surely help.
“It was tough; full time work, two nights a week at night school and another night with the ATC, but I put in the hard work and loved every minute,” Les writes in his online memoir The Dairy Of An RAF Lancaster Bomber Pilot.
In 1942, he was accepted for aircrew recruitment and eventually sent to Canada for six months’ intensive training in day and night flying. He came back to England in 1944 and, after a spell in Scotland, returned South for active service with 460 Squadron.
Back at Binbrook, Les learned that in his absence, his crew had been on a practice bombing exercise on the Lincolnshire coast, during which a practice bomb had exploded in the bomb bay.
“The Lancaster immediately caught fire and the wireless operator was killed instantly, the bomb aimer and the flight engineer bailed out successfully.
“The navigator’s chute harness got caught somehow and he was sadly killed too, the rear gunner bailed out, but landed in a water-filled quarry and drowned.
“The pilot got out but was burned as he had left it as long as possible in order to see the crew safe – a very brave man. The mid-upper gunner was not involved as he was not on the flight.
“This was the first time we had not flown together since we crewed up. I was really affected by news of this terrible event in my absence.
“I felt extreme loneliness and this made me reflect on the irony that fate had dealt such a cruel blow to my comrades with whom I had flown so many hours on dangerous operations over enemy territory. Somehow one can’t help wondering, ‘if I had been there? Why did I escape?’ “This had a profound effect on me. Looking back, it may also have contributed to my decision about the RAF post-war... I was demobbed after completing 618 flying hours and exactly four years in the RAF as 1684799 Joy L Warrant Officer Pilot in October 1946.”
In May last year, Les was invited to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, with his two sons to see the last flying Lancaster in Britain, and the team from The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF) who keep this historic aircraft flying. Lancaster PA474, is one of two still in operation. The other is in Canada.
“The icing on the cake came when the Lancaster was pulled out onto the Tarmac and I was allowed up into cockpit again while the four Merlin engines were run-up and tested. This made the day a great success and my sincere thanks goes out to the staff at BBMF.
“We sometimes have to learn lessons in life the hard way, but then it tempers us as it does steel. I survived, and was lucky when I chose Elsie as my life companion, and even luckier that she chose me. I have two good sons and at 88 years old, I am still trundling along.”