Monthly Archives: November 2011

We will remember them

Bev comes from Grimsby and after the trip down to Cambridgeshire for the reunion we need to find some time for her family. Her grandparents are buried at Scartho cemetery and it’s a chance for Bev to go to the graves, leave new flowers and tidy the plots. Probably because of where my head is at the moment I leave her and wander off to have a look at the war graves section of the cemetery. I work on a fairly simple basis of looking for RNZAF stones, which in hindsight was a rather crude approach. Getting home I do a search through Aircrew Remembrance Society and discover that not only are two of the boys in the cemetery 75(NZ), but in fact they were in the same aircraft.

Sgt David Leo Nola RNZAF NZ39930 Pilot. Age 25.
Buried Grimsby (Scartho Road) Cemetery Lincolnshire England.

Sgt Alexander Coutts Mee RNZAF NZ40656 2nd Pilot.
Buried Grimsby (Scartho Road) Cemetery Lincolnshire England.

Sgt Craven RAFVR Air Gunner. Injured

Sgt John Hall RAFVR 988980 WOAG.  Age 20.
Buried Hull Northern Cemetery, England.

P/O Clifford Frederick Page RAFVR 60780 Observer. Age 22.
Buried Great Yarmouth (Caister) Cemetery England.

Sgt Walter Russell RAFVR 949560 WOAG. Age 23.
Buried West Bromwich Churchyard Staffordshire England.

From Aircrew Remembrance Society;
Took off from Feltwell, Norfolk to attack Hamburg. 115 aircraft took part including 50 Wellington’s, 31 Whitley’s, 27 Hampden’s, 4 Manchester’s and 3 Stirling’s. Due to poor visibility few aircraft failed to identify the targets. Only 12 bomb loads hit the target area and all aircraft returned.

On the return trip Wellington R3169 crossed the East coast of England and collided with barrage balloon cables. The Wellington crashed out of control in the River Humber near Trinity Sands.

Sgt. Alexander Mee had previously escaped in another incident on the 19th March 1941 when he parachuted from a 75 Squadron Wellington IC T2736 Which later crashed at Ryhill, near Leeds. All the crew escaped by parachuting, sadly Sgt Gilmore’s failed to open and he was the only fatality.

Two things touch me – firstly that David and Alexander are laying thousands of miles from home, whilst all the other boys that were killed were able to be bought home by family and loved ones. Secondly that the RAF record system is a bloody nonsense – if you die, you are an accessible record, survive and people might never even know your Christian name.

A Sleepless Night…….

Dad, front row left, his pilot, Vernon John Zinzan and navigator James George Sydney Coote. Middle row Sgt. H. Hutchinson, Mid Upper Gunner. Back row from left Sgt. A. Ackroyd, Flight Engineer and Sgt. M. Parr, Wireless Operator.

I went to bed last night with my mind turning like a washing machine regarding the photos I received from Helen. I don’t know how the brain works when you are asleep, but obviously I was doing some sort of processing. I woke at about 4.00am with the sudden realisation that Vernon at least is in the group photograph with the Lancaster in it.

Out of bed, into the studio and turn the computer on – Vernon’s heavy brow is very distinct and I swear to god there is a chap near Bob in the photo with the same heavy brow – to be honest I am not sure I consciously remember seeing this individual, but I wake up sure that I have, maybe I haven’t properly woken up – at this point, I have no idea, other than a belief that he is there……

I open up the group picture and the crew photo I got from Peter with his Dad in it – I don’t even have to zoom – next door but one to Bob in the front row is Vernon, so obviously that I can’t believe I didn’t see it straight away.

Zooming into the group shot to get a better look at Vernon and it’s as if a light has suddenly been turned on. It is Vernon, there’s no question – and next to him is James the navigator. Before I have time to take this in I realise that stood in the 2 rows behind Dad, Vernon and James are Sergeants Hutchinson, Ackroyd and Parr!?!

I grunt with pleased satisfaction, get up and stagger off back to bed. Noisily positioning myself under the covers causes Bev to suddenly wake…

‘Where have you been? What’s happened? Have you been up?
‘yeah….just found the boys in that photo…Dad and Vernon and the rest….there all the bloody time……sods…….’
You’ve been where? What photo?

I am reliably informed at the point of expected reply, I am again, fast asleep…..

Scanning the pictures from Helen

The new scanner is set up in the studio, so I decide to scan the group photos from Helen in. The results are astonishing. Setting a high scan resolution blows the images up on screen way beyond their existing physical size and the detail is amazing. I allow my self a wry grin – its ironic I think, that in this age of digital technology, the pictures are set at the resolution there were created at – these images 70 years old, in some cases provide a resolution impossible today.

Operational Record Book

Despite a rather complicated ordering process (which led me to believe they would come as a digital download), the Operational Record Books (ORB’s) for 1945, 1944 and 1943 arrive on 3 CD’s from the National Archives at Kew this morning. A quick reformat to pdf, and a saving as a single document for each year allows me to transfer them to my iPad for easier reading. It feels fortuitous that they arrive so quickly after Wayne sending me the March ’45 crew list to Dortmund.

These documents are incredible.

I am not sure what I was expecting, despite the general advice and recommendations from the guys on the LAF – the documents seem remarkably detailed and cover not only the individual raids (including crew lists, up and down times and to varying degrees aircraft numbers), but also a daily diary and more interestingly a record of crew movements in and out of the Squadron. Closer viewing shows that there were certainly changes in approach to this documentation – the 1943 record seems far more accurate and detailed regarding the movements and promotions of the individuals than the equivalent records for 1945.
I get out a pad, a pen and start searching for Bob……..

The pictures from Helen arrive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bev doesn’t contact me at work to tell me the pictures have arrived…….

I get back in the evening and she nods at the kitchen table where an A4 manilla card backed envelope sits – it feels like Christmas morning – I pray its the equivalent of a PlayStation and not new socks. I try to calmly open the envelope, but its difficult – I’m desperate to see what has been sent – simultaneously I am hoping it will be something, but at the same time I am trying to tell myself not to be disappointed if it isn’t – what this ‘something’ is or isn’t, I have no idea……..

The envelope doesn’t disappoint. All of the photographs are large group shots. One must clearly have been taken at Mepal (I assume) a group of about 70 individuals in front of a Lancaster – beautiful. The others (again, I assume) are photographs from stages of Dad’s training – uniforms are different – some have white details in cap or belts, which I already know from others shows that the individual is a cadet.

One image is a group infront of a big ‘B’ I assume on a hanger – I have seen in Bob’s logbook that he was in ‘B’ flight in 1945, but I cannot see Vernon in the picture, so I wonder if this is somewhere else…….

Out of the blue…….

I get a phone call from Sandra this evening – I assume just to see how we are after the weekend. Out of the blue she says she has just got off the phone to Helen. I am surprised enough because of the coincidence of my thought to phone Helen myself before the weekend. I am surprised enough by this in fact to not really hear what Sandra says next – I think I hear what she says ‘Helen has found some pictures of Dad from the war’ – but that’s too ridiculous…….

‘What did you say about Helen? What’s she got?’

‘Pictures – she says she has pictures of Dad – from the war’………

I literally have to sit down – my mind is racing. I start questioning Sandra, but of course she doesn’t know what the pictures are of – chance is that Helen doesn’t either. But I need to check. I get off the phone and ring Helen straight away.

The photos were sent by Bob to his mother. When his mother passed away the photographs went to Bobs eldest sister Agnes. When Agnes died, the photos were rescued by Helen when they were cleaning Agnes’ possessions up. Helen doesn’t know anything about the pictures, other than one is in front of an aircraft. Most have a positioning for Bob written on the back.
Helen promises to put them in the post tomorrow morning. As we are finishing the phone call she pauses and says I am to keep the photographs when they arrive, I insist she has them back, but she refuses telling me its more important I have them – I need them.

I put the phone down and litterally sit and wait for them to arrive…..


Dad’s Ashes

We have had ‘Dad’ since September. Bev very quickly got over her slight initial reservations about having him to stay. There is a certain awkwardness still to handling the urn – not quite like handling an unexploded bomb – more as one might handle the ashes of a guest to your hotel, respectful, but slightly at arms length. Sitting on the edge of the bed this morning, looking at the cardboard tube on the bedroom dresser it feels quite strange to think that we will be leaving this evening without (half of) him. At the moment I feel OK about this. Having been to Mepal , looked up into his sky and stood in the garden of remembrance it all feels very fitting and I am glad of this.

We give Marshal and Carol a lift to Mepal, the conversation is friendly and questioning on both sides – this is the first time we have spoken properly apart from a phone call the week before. We swing round the corner and I am to be honest, thrown by the large number of people already at the garden – Bob would be pleased at the turnout, even if all but 4 of us are actually here for the main event after his committal.

Marshal begins to explain to me the order of service for the scattering of Bob’s ashes and suddenly I begin to get cold feet – it feels terrible to say, but I don’t want to do it – I don’t know why not, but I don’t want to do it. I call Sandra and I must confess manage to imply that I don’t want her to feel that she is being cut out of the proceedings – she should scatter his ashes. Sandra looks like she is not that bothered about ‘being cut out of the proceedings’, but given the offer I have just made, also knows I have her over a barrel  – she (I must confess I think reluctantly) agrees. At the end of the talk through Marshal remarks in his Irish lilt;

‘Oh and mind it’ll pour for an awful long time – much longer than you think – just to warn ya……’

I think Sandra and I are simultaneously hit with a similar thought (and expression) roughly equivalent jumping out of a plane with a parachute to hear the instructor say – ‘they nearly always open……’

There is a call for silence and the service begins. At the appropriate point Marshal nods to Sandra and she turns to me – of course I go with and walk round the rose beds as we pour Dad onto the soil. I can hear Bob’s laughter after what feels like an eternity, the urn seems no emptier. Sandra, I am unsure whether through the wish to share the occasion with me, or arm ache passes Dad to me. I take the urn and continue round the beds, a steady pour of ashes silently landing on the rich brown soil…..

I become acutely aware that I am in imminent danger of having to do another circuit of the rose beds and perhaps tilt a little more steeply than etiquette might require………..Suddenly I am holding an empty container and dad has left me.

The remembrance service begins and at the point where the last post is played I find myself stood behind Sandra and Bev with an arm round each of their waists, the tears running freely down our faces.

As the assembled crowd move onto the village cenotaph, I find myself lingering at the garden – I want to stay and not bother with the rest of the ceremonies – just to sit with Dad and talk – on our own, but I can’t because that is probably selfish and unfair to the girls…….I pause for a moment, on my own and then follow the procession up the road.

75(NZ) Winter Reunion

Ah, suddenly I remember what it feels like to be your first day at a new school. The irony also strikes me that despite numerous emails and the efforts involved in arranging a plaque for Bob, I don’t even know what Kevin looks like. Bev and I get down to the bar early and have a quick glass of Dutch courage. The room begins to fill slowly with people – they are clearly reunion attendees – I can hear antipodean accents. I go into that classic turmoil…..should I get up and introduce myself? Should I sit and wait to be introduced ? Why will someone introduce me? – nobody knows who I am…..What if I walk up to someone and discover they are not here for the reunion? Mercifully Sandra saves me further wondering as she promptly gets up and starts talking to a chap with glasses and a moustache – its Kevin.

It’s a wonderful evening – the food is fantastic and the company even better – we all sat on what feels like the Headmasters table – Kevin and his wife Dawn and John De Hoop (WOP 1944-45) and his lovely wife Helen. Needless to say nobody there knew Bob – I mention his name to John ( a contemporary) and he pulls that sort of face that says; ‘Oh….Bob Sommerville…… yesssssss … ..possibly… is familiar…..’  – I say the same when I have no idea but don’t want to offend the person asking – so I don’t blame John for being polite, its probably not the first time he has been asked such a question I am sure…….


It was with strange feelings that Bev and I set off down to Mepal in Cambridgeshire for the Friends of 75(NZ) Squadron Association winter reunion. Initially I felt very excited, sure that I would meet someone that had know or knew of Bob. We arrived in Mepal at about noon and stopped at The 3 Pickerals pub (mentioned in Harry Yates ‘Luck and a Lancaster) – I expected to be transported into a mini time warp that would take me back to the war – nothing, not even a single picture to act as a reminder of the ‘regulars’ from the 40’s. Sat in the pub, I am on tenterhooks – a few old chaps sit across from us and I am convinced they must be here for the reunion……

Leaving the bar for a cigarette I found myself staring into the sky – this was the sky Dad flew in all those years ago with so many other brave boys – I didn’t feel sad, but I felt something for sure……..

1945 crew list from Wayne

I receive an email from Wayne today – it lists a full crew for 1945. The list is as follows;

12 March 1945.

Lancaster I RF127 AA.W  Up 13:01 Down 18:16
F/O Zinzan, V. NZ425314 Captain
W/O Coote, J. Nav
F/O Sommerville, R. A/B
Sgt Parr, M. WO/Air
Sgt Ackroyd, A. F/Eng
Sgt Hutchinson, H. MU/Gnr
W/O Torbitt, M. R/Gnr

Bomb Load 1 x 4,000 lb H.C, 13 x 500 lb ANM.
Primary Target – Dortmund.
Tracking error of .02 large on G.H. H2S on at 16:50 on run to the target.

It feels as if I am slowly putting a picture together now. It also feels slightly as if my loyalties feel split – its almost as if Bob had 2 ‘families’ – one in 1943 and one in1945 – where should I begin? I don’t want to ignore one of them, but at the same time I don’t want to go off on a wild goose chase looking for stuff that might not be there, if its at the cost of finding other information………

I need to see the ORB’s to learn more about the crew….

Need to talk to Helen

It occurs to me in one of those random thoughts when you are having a cigarette that I need to talk to Dad’s sister, Helen.

Its been bothering me for a while now who Dad spent the time between tours – even factoring his time at No.3 L.F.S and No.1 A.A.S, there is still a big gap. Mum and Dad hadn’t met and then it dawns on me – he would have gone back home to Scotland – Helen might know something. We are too close to travelling down to Cambridgeshire for the weekend, so I will wait till I get back.