‘Browny’ Hirst, Douglas Gould and the Wilmshurst crew 1942

TeArohaFlyer-AkStar8Jun42[3]

Auckland Star item, 8 June 1942.

Chris keeps the posts coming! – many thanks also to Chris Cook, Robert Davey and Athalie Davey for sharing their information, and for permission to reproduce the above photograph and letter.

An old newspaper article, a page in an old autograph book, and a frail letter found folded in the pocket of a World War I diary.

They sound like the ingredients for a good mystery, and they are! In fact, more than one mystery.

One of my early searches on Papers Past, New Zealand’s online newspaper archive, turned up an exciting account of the squadron’s first “kill” of 1942, credited to R.J.F. Hirst, Rear Gunner in the Wilmshurst crew, on the night of 2/3 June.

TE AROHA FLYER GETS HUN NIGHT FIGHTER

 Auckland Star, 8 June 1942

N.Z. BOMB SQUADRON
Thrilling Episodes On Raids Over Germany
Special Correspondent. Rec. 1 p.m. LONDON, June 7.

“The distinction of shooting down the first Nazi night fighter for the New Zealand Bomber Squadron this year was achieved by Sergeant R. J. F. Hirst, of Te Aroha. He is a freshman to the squadron and had carried out four raids in recent nights in which he accounted for a Junkers 88 on his fourth trip. He is rear gunner of the crew, which comprised Flight-Sergeant J. C. Wilmshurst, of Stratford, who was captain and has carried out 15 raids; Sergeants D. J. Gould, of Otautau, R. E. Sharp, of Matamata, and P. D. Lowther, of Auckland.
 
Sergeant Hirst said: “We were returning from a big 1000-plane raid against Essen, stooging along at 4500 feet, 30 miles from the English coast, feeling happy and singing the captain’s theme song. ‘Why Can’t We Do This More Often?’
 
While watching the moon rising over the sea behind us, Sharp, who was standing in the astrodome, reported aircraft to the starboard 1000 yards away at 1000 ft over us. I picked him out and watched him turning for an attack, so told Wilmshurst to turn to starboard. He and I both opened fire at a range of 600 yards. The Hun over-shot and went to port.
 
Hun 800 Yards Away
“The Hun then turned to reattack again. I told Wilmshurst to go to the port side. The Hun opened up but I held my fire, being still dazzled with the glare from tracer bullets. The first bursts from the Hun swept over us. Sharp and I recognised him as a Junkers 88. He disappeared for a minute, then I saw him 500 ft under us to starboard 800 yards away. He turned on his searchlight and again attacked. He opened fire when 600 yards from us. I held him in my sights until he was 200 yards away, then I gave him a three-second burst. He began to glow, banked steeply and silhouetted against the moon for a second. I put a burst in his belly. He became immediately aflame, seemed to hover for a moment, and then plunged to the sea. He hit the water in a white sheet of flame. We returned to find four holes through the tail and two in my turret.” Wing-Commander E. G. Olson complimented Sergeant Hirst and the crew during the briefing which Mr. Jordan attended.
 
Previous Narrow Escape
The crew captained by Flight- Sergeant I. J. McLachlan, D.F.M., of Wairarapa, was previously attacked by a night fighter which is thought to be the one Sergeant Hirst shot down. Flight-Sergeant McLachlan is regarded as one of the best pilots of the squadron. His crew comprises Sergeants G. E. Lewis, of Hamilton, A. G. E. Pugh, of Auckland, J. Walters, of Gisborne, and also an Englishman. They were flying at 11,000 ft over the Channel when a night fighter attacked. Sergeant McLachlan dived to 20ft above the sea, taking violent evasive action. Sergeant Pugh said: “The Hun gave up after a while. We were at about the same place as Wilmshurst was when he was attacked earlier.”

Sgt Raymond John Finlay Hirst (born Te Aroha, 5 April 1920), arrived at Feltwell on 13 May, together with his Operational Training Unit crew (possibly 12 O.T.U., Pilot P/O G.W. Horne?).

Their Pilot would have been given a 2nd Pilot role in an experienced crew, and the rest of the crew were assigned to an experienced Pilot, John Wilmshurst.

F/Sgt John Charles Wilmshurst had been at Feltwell since 24 March, and had already flown 10 op’s over a concentrated period of 3 weeks, as a 2nd Pilot with P/O J.F. Fisher and crew.

He is first mentioned in the ORB’s as skipper of his own crew on 11 May, carrying out a test flight in Wellington Mark III, X3720, AA-U, Fisher’s old aircraft.

The Wilmshurst crew flew their first op’ together on the 29th of May, to Dieppe, and were immediately in the thick of it.

On the 2nd of June, the Wilmhurst took off for their 4th Op, this time to Essen.

2/3.6.42 Attack against targets at Essen
Sixteen aircraft were detailed to attack the above target. Bomb load of 4000lbs, 500lbs, 250lbs and 4lb inc was dropped in the target area but no results were observed. A few small fires were seen near target. A.A. fire was fairly heavy and searchlights operating in cones were numerous. No enemy a/c were seen*. Weather marred the operation, there being a heavy ground have. Navigation was excellent. Well, X3408, captained by P/O Carter, failed to return.

Wellington III X3720, AA-U

F/S. John Charles Wilmshurst, RNZAF NZ411962 – Pilot
Sgt. James Douglas Gould, RNZAF NZ411233 – Navigator
Sgt. Richard Edwin Sharp, RNZAF NZ405513 – Wireless Operator
Sgt. Peter Desmond Lowther, RNZAF NZ403583 – Front Gunner
Sgt. Raymond John Finlay ‘Browny’ Hirst, RNZAF NZ404067 – Rear Gunner

Take Off 23:55 – Landed  03:55
Flight Time 04:00

*N.B. This was in fact the night that the newspaper item describes above, not the 1000 Bomber Raid of the previous night. Hirst claimed the first “kill” of the year for the squadron, and the McLachlan crew fought off a night fighter, yet ironically, all the squadron Operations Record Book Form 541 says is “No enemy a/c were seen”!

The Wilmhust flew a further 10 Ops, before their 15th Op to Dusseldorf on the 10th of July 1942.

10.7.42 Daylight sortie against Dusseldorf
Four a/c set out to attack the above target. Bomb load of 500lbs was brought back as m/c returned owing to lack of cloud cover. Well. III, X3720 (Sgt, Wilmshurst) failed to return. There was no A.A. fire or fighters. Weather was cloudy and navigation was good.

Wellington III X3720, AA-U

F/S. John Charles Wilmshurst, RNZAF NZ411962 – Pilot
Sgt. James Douglas Gould, RNZAF NZ411233 – Navigator
Sgt. Richard Edwin Sharp, RNZAF NZ405513 – Wireless Operator
Sgt. Peter Desmond Lowther, RNZAF NZ403583 – Front Gunner
Sgt. Raymond John Finlay ‘Browny’ Hirst, RNZAF NZ404067 – Rear Gunner

Take Off ~ 14:30 – MISSING

X3720, AA-U was the first of the four 75 (NZ) Sqdn aircraft detailed to carry out the attack to take off from Feltwell. They left at around 2.30 in the afternoon,  followed by the Jarman, McLachlan and Kearns crews. The four were recalled on the way to the target, near the Dutch coast, due to lack of cloud cover over the target. All but X3720 were safely back on the ground at Feltwell by 5.37pm.

The Wilmshurst Wellington came down into the sea off the German-Netherlands coast, well north of their expected route back to base. Three of the crew are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. The bodies of the wireless operator and front gunner washed ashore a few days later onto the German island of Borkum. They were buried there in the Lutheran Cemetery on the 15th, but later reinterred at Sage, 24km south of Oldenburg.

Wilmshurst-crew-missing[3]

”Missing” notices for three of the crew, as published at the time in the Auckland Weekly News.
– Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph.

Just recently, a post popped up on the 75 Squadron Assn Facebook page, from another Chris, a historian from Feltwell in the UK., who mentioned that he had in his possession an autograph book that contained the signatures of airmen who had visited Feltwell’s Blue Cafe during the war. A Mrs Steward, the owner of the cafe had kept the book, and it had been passed down to Chris.

He posted a photo of a page from the small leather-bound book to see if anyone recognised a name…..

BlueCafe-autographs-6-7-42[3]

Page from the autograph book kept by Mrs Steward in the Blue Cafe, Feltwell, signed 7 July 1942.
– Chris Cook.

One signature jumped out at me – “Browny Hirst, Te Aroha, N.Z. 6-7-42”. “Hirst” and “Te Aroha” definitely rang a bell!

Then it dawned that the other signatures on the page were his crewmates, Lowther, Gould and Sharp, and that the boys’ best wishes and thanks to Mrs Steward had been written in the book only 4 days before they were lost!

It was another one of those moments that brings home the horrible waste, and the sadness that the whole community must have lived with back then.

However it was nice to be able to make the connection with Chris, and send through a few details about the crew, and the above newspaper article.

Then another twist in the story………..

Checking the listings for the crew members on the Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph, included in James Douglas Gould’s entry, was a transcript of a letter that someone had uploaded. It had been written a few days after Douglas failed to return, by a good friend of his, Robert Brisco, a fellow Navigator with the P.J. Wilson crew – it was addressed to Gould’s mother:

N.Z.411204 SGT OFC Brisco, R.H.
Agar St,
The Strand
London

16/7/42

Dear Mrs. Gould
By now you will (know) that Douglas has been posted missing since July 10th. I put off the writing before this in the hope that something would have been heard of them by now. Nothing has turned up, however,  there is still a chance as there was a convoy in the vicinity of where they went down, and the old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” is truer even in time of war than at any other time. I will tell you all I know as to be left in doubt and wondering is not pleasant. Unfortunately I had been on a weeks leave and returned on the July 10th about 8.30pm. What a welcome!

Doug’s crew with three or four others were sent out from here on a daylight raid to the Ruhr as it was thought it was a 10/10 cloud. However they were recalled just as they got to the Dutch coast, at least the others were. Their plane “U” was the first off by 10 or 15 minutes and perhaps they were a bit further in. Two of the other crew reported being chased by fighters but lost them in the cloud which was fast breaking up, and the chances that “U” being further away had even less cloud covering and the fighters who were chasing the first lot home, turned back to Holland and found “U” streaking from cloud to cloud. There is no doubt whatever it was the fighters that got them and there was two or more. They were top-notcher’s at fighter affiliation as they proved when they got the JU88.

However it seems that they sent out a wireless message saying that they were going down into the sea 10 or 12 miles from the English Coast. Planes were sent out from here that evening and launches from Yarmouth, but they found nothing. Still there was a convoy in the vicinity and it would have to maintain a wireless silence until it reached its destination.

Well that’s all I can tell you and if its been any help in clearing matters up I’ll be glad. He was one of my best friends and we have been together ever since our first day in Levin. The crew was the finest bunch of boys one could wish to meet and except for the pilot we have all been together for seven months and living as we do one can soon find the good and bad in a man and there was nothing bad in any of them. Hoping for good news soon.

Yours Sincerely,
Robert H. Brisco

Tragically, Robert Brisco was himself shot down and killed on 29 July, only two weeks after writing this. It seems that the letter was never posted. But it did make it to New Zealand.

Robert Davey, the person who uploaded the letter, explained that it had been found only a year ago, in frail condition, folded in a pocket inside one of his great grandfather’s World War I diaries!!

I emailed Robert to offer the extra background on Douglas’s crew, to see if that could help solve the mystery of how the letter ended up in his family’s possession, and he passed me on to his grandmother, Athalie.

She was able to make the connection – ‘Browny’ Hirst had lived on a nearby farm and been a friend of the Davey family in Te Aroha. Somehow the letter addressed to Mrs Gould must have been passed to the Hirst family, and then found it’s way to neighbours, the Davey family, and somehow into one of Albert Davey’s diaries!

The next step is to try and find out if Douglas Gould’s mother ever received the information laid out in Robert Brisco’s letter, and if the Gould family knows of the letter’s existence?

Douglas came from Otautau, a farming area in Southland, not far from Invercargill, so we are trying to interest the Southland Times. If anyone else has contacts for any of the crew members’ families, please let us know.

It would be wonderful if the letter could finally be delivered after all these years …

View the Wilmhust Op HIstory in full here.

– Thanks to Chris Cook, Robert Davey and Athalie Davey for sharing their information, and for permission to reproduce the above photograph and letter.

One thought on “‘Browny’ Hirst, Douglas Gould and the Wilmshurst crew 1942

  1. Mandy Fibbes

    I was looking on line on ANZAC Day to read more comments about my Great Uncle Dick, Richard Edwin Sharp, he is greatly loved by our family and fondly remembered by my Mum, Fay Morrison who remembers him holding her before he went off to war.
    I was so touched by the care and dedication you showed in unraveling the clues and all of the new information you found about his crew, the information is treasure to our family and would be to the other men’s families, your story made me feel so close Dick and I am very grateful to you all.
    Your site has helped me find out about Dick’s flights including his last one but this information was more personal and gave me insight into the men he served with and their love for one another.
    Thanks so much,
    Mandy Fibbes and family.

    Like

    Reply

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