Thanks as always to Chris for this follow up post about the Williamson crew and their unexpected landing in France…….
When we first came across the above photo we didn’t know the story behind it; an intriguing shot, apparently of a 75 (NZ) Sqdn Lancaster in a location that didn’t look like an RAF airfield, and a crew in high spirits.
But responses from blog followers soon identified the famous incident, recorded by an Army photographer, the first landing of an Allied heavy bomber in France after the D-Day landings in 1944, by 75 (NZ) Squadron “C” Flight Commander S/L “Nick” Williamson DFC and his crew.
They in the middle of a daylight bombing attack on Villers-Bocage, in support of ground forces in Normandy, France, not long after the D-Day landings, when their Flight Engineer was seriously wounded. In a great piece of airmanship, Williamson managed to land the Lancaster on a forward fighter landing strip, to seek urgent medical help.
Subsequently, author Rex Bunn and various Williamson family members and friends provided us with some more amazing detail. Rex in particular has researched the event in depth for his book, “The King’s Crew”, the Unit History of 14 Squadron (City of Gisborne) Air Training Corps, for which Nick Williamson served as CO from 1953 to 1960.
Meanwhile, we have found an account of the incident written by Nick himself in 1947, in a letter submitted for consideration by the people writing New Zealand’s official war history. In it, he refers to an interview he did with the BBC’s “War Report” at the time, and to the newspaper article below, which appears to be largely based on a transcript of the BBC radio interview:
AIRMEN IN FRANCE
FIRST BOMBER LANDS
A GISBORNE PILOT KISSED IN ESTAMINET
(Special Correspondent) (Reed. 5.35 p.m.) LONDON, July 5.
The first bomber to make a landing on an airfield in Normandy was a Lancaster piloted by Squadron-Leader N. A. Williamson, D.F.C., of Gisborne. These airfields, with only a landing strip, are really meant for fighters. In a broadcast, Squadron-Leader Williamson said: “Our Lancaster was hit by shell fragments during an attack on Villers-Bocage, and shrapnel tore away the flight-engineer’s kneecap. He did not even murmur until we finished bombing German tanks and troops. Then I noticed he was in distress and losing so much blood that I decided to risk a landing.
Aircraft In Wheat Field
“We had seen a landing-strip while en route to the target and soon found it again. We landed down wind and ran off the strip into a wheat field. A waiting ambulance rushed the engineer to hospital. We went to be interrogated and, as we left, the Lancaster was already being checked by ground maintenance personnel. We had an excellent meal and then set off to see the front line in a jeep.
“We met troops who had seen our attack, which they said was a wonderful show. Immediately they heard we belonged to the attacking force they clustered round to shake hands and clap our backs. Cups of tea appeared as if by magic from foxholes, slit trenches and from behind hedges. Their spirit was truly amazing considering the guns were blazing away, and even as we spoke we were sprayed with earth kicked up by the shells.
An Estaminet Incident
“Later we went to Bayeux, which seemed scarcely touched by the war, and visited our flight-engineer, who was in a mobile field hospital. He had just had a blood transfusion and was in high spirits. “On the way back we stopped at an estaminet, but madame coolly told us she had no wine left, until an Army officer whispered. ‘Aviator Anglais.’ To my embarrassment, she threw her arms round me, kissed me repeatedly and cried, ‘Bon, bon.’ Most important of all, she produced bottles of wine. “When we returned to the landing strip we found the weather had cleared and that the ground crew had done a grand job. although they were used to fighters and not bombers.”
And here is the letter that Nick submitted to the editor of the NZ War History project:
P.O. Box 103,
3rd July, 1947.
The Editor in Chief, N.Z. War Histories,
Prime Minister’s Dept.,
I wish to submit the following information concerning one of the “FIRSTS” which may be of some interest in connection with the N.Z. War Histories you are at present compiling.
This, as the newspaper cutting discloses, is about the landing of the first four engined bomber on a fighter airstrip in Normandy shortly after D-Day and was the subject of a B.B.C. broadcast.
As a Flight Commander of 75 (N.Z.) Squadron at Mepal, England, I made my first trip of my second operational tour and my first trip in a Lancaster to Villers-Bocage, not long after D-Day, in the raid described as the first stage of Monty’s left hook, which eventually lead to the Falais Pocket.
Just as we were about to make our bomb run the Flight engineer F/Sgt McDevitt was severely wounded and was in great distress requiring immediate medical attention. As soon as we had completed our bombing run, I decided to risk an emergency landing on a fighter air strip near the beach head and immediately dived the aircraft down towards this strip. The landing had to be made down wind as the circuit was over enemy lines, but fortunately was made without mishap and McDevett was very soon in an ambulance and on the way to medical care, we on our way to the Officers’ Mess.
The paper cutting [newspaper article above] covers many of our activities while we were on the strip, and on the second day we visited our plucky engineer, who now did not require his leg amputated and was feeling much better.
On the third day the weather, which had been bad, showed signs of lifting and we decided to take off. Petrol could not reasonably be obtained from the strip tankers as it would have taken several of them quite some time and the high octane petrol was required for the grand fighter boys on the strip, quite a few of them being New Zealanders. For the take off an extra high run was made into a wheat field, and not realising the danger from swing during take off, Army vehicles of all shapes and sizes had lined the strip two and three deep each side, and even at the far end, to wave us an enthusiastic farewell. The four Merlins, however, and good luck, took us off without mishap and not having our Engineer I hoped I had turned all the petrol cocks on correctly. Our escort of Spitfires and Mustangs led us 100 feet over Mulberry Harbour and to many waves from tanks and ships, we made for home.
Visibility was bad and we first had to make a landing near Manston, but later managed to get permission to make for our home drome, where we received a great welcome from the Station Commander G/Capt. Campbell, W/C Leslie D.S.O., A.F.C. and almost the whole station, as we had been reported as missing, seeing that we had been unable to contact Command until the end of the second day, and two crews had reported seeing my aircraft diving towards the ground over the target area. Even the Committee of Adjustment had packed away our personal belongings, but once these were released from bondage, the Red wine we had located flowed freely and all was well. The greatest welcome I received was from my 6 months old Labrador pup “Rex” who had refused to eat during my absence, and 2 1/2 hours before the aircraft landed at Mepal had become wildly excited, and was waiting out at “C” Flight Dispersal area and refused to leave where my aircraft was usually parked. Next day I went to the B.B.C. Studios at Bedford and made a short broadcast.
If this material is of some interest, more information could be supplied, such as the fact that the Bomb Aimer, F/Sgt. Graham Coull had his 22nd birthday while we were there and of course we celebrated correctly, and each member of the crew presented him with a highly smelling “Camembert” cheese as a birthday gift. An Army reporter took an excellent photo of the presenting of the cheeses in a Jeep and is an ideal photo for reproduction if the more human side of the war is required to be portrayed.
Nick passed on even more information about the incident after the war. Although a veteran Stirling pilot, it had been his first op’ in a Lancaster, and without the usual assistance of ground crew and equipment back at base, he had to wait for Flight Engineer McDevitt to recover sufficiently to pass on the engine start-up protocol. Between that and the weather, they were on the ground for three days.
The air strip (probably ALG B7 according to Rex Bunn) was near Martragny, not far from all the shooting, and in range of German artillery, so the Lancaster had to be moved around during their stay to avoid being hit. The crew treated their unplanned stopover in France as a great adventure, and after accompanying McDevett to a field hospital, made a day-trip to Bayeux, which was largely untouched by the fighting. Photos survive of this visit. They were also keen to experience the war on the ground, arming themselves and joining in the shooting for a time!
Eventually the technical issues were sorted, and with the weather cooperating, the boys loaded the aircraft with French souvenirs for the trip back to England, including cheeses, wine, cognac, a swastika flag, a German Mauser rifle, and a machine gun!
– Read more about the events of 30 June – 3 July 1944 here : (comments below the post),
– and more here: (comments below the post)
– See the full Williamson crew operational history here:
References – Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand, and Archives New Zealand – “Personal account by Wing Commander H.A. Williamson of operations with No. 75 Squadron”, ADQA 17358 AIR167/2/9.
Thanks to Reg Mulder, Peter Williamson, Nickie Omer, Rex Bunn, Andrew Cale, Rob Ramsey, Dennis Graves and others (comments contributed on this website), and to the NZ Bomber Command Assn and Williamson family for permission to reproduce these photos.