Harold Whittington crew 1944

The Whittington crew. Back Row: F/S Andrew Crawford Fletcher, RNZAF, Rear Gunner; F/O Philip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR, Wireless Operator; Sgt Don W Gore, RAFVR, Flight Engineer; Sgt Alfred Alexander Simpson, RNZAF, Bomb Aimer. Front Row: F/L Joseph Stevens, RAFVR, Navigator; P/O Harold (Dick) Whittington, RNZAF, Pilot; Sgt Ronald John Morton Batty, RAFVR, Mid Upper Gunner.
Photo from Graham Nicholson.

Many thanks to Chris and all those involved in gathering information for this post!

On the 20th/ 21st of July 1944, 75 (NZ) Squadron RAF suffered one of its worst disasters, the loss of seven Lancasters and their crews in the attack on an oil refinery at Homberg. This the story of one of those crews.

Pilot Harold Whittington, from Hamilton, NZ, initially crewed up at No. 11 OTU, Westcott, Buckinghamshire, while training on Vickers Wellingtons.

11 OTU graduation photo, Course 66, 1944 – cropped version below to identify crew members: Back Row: 9th from left – Andrew Crawford Fletcher. Middle Row: 2nd, 3rd and 4th from left – Don W Gore, Alfred Alexander Simpson and Harold Whittington. Front Row: 1st and 2nd from left – Philip E Tompkins, Joseph Stevens and on the end Ronald John Morton Batty.
Photo from Graham Nicholson.

During April the full seven man crew, two Kiwis and four Englishmen, converted to Stirling bombers at 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, RAF Stradishall, Suffolk. They then spent about a week at Lancaster Finishing School, RAF Feltwell.

 The Whittington crew was posted to No. 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal, Cambridgeshire, arriving on the 12th of June 1944, to report for operational duties.

The crew was:
F/S Harold “Dick” Whittington, RNZAF NZ42488 – Pilot.
F/O Joseph Stevens, RAFVR 125607 – Navigator.
Sgt. Alfred Alexander Simpson, RNZAF NZ425112 – Air Bomber.
F/O Phillip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR 157922 – Wireless Operator .
Sgt. Don W. Gore, RAFVR 1624691 – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Ronald John Morton Batty, RAFVR 548542 – Mid Upper Gunner.
F/S Andrew Crawford Fletcher, RNZAF NZ42675 – Rear Gunner.

As part of his preparation for operations, Whittington flew a second dickie trip to Le Havre on the 14th of June with the McRae crew in Lancaster ND752, AA-O “Oboe”.

ND752 was at the time starring in a short film being made at Mepal, “Maximum Effort”, featuring Eric Witting’s crew.

Then the crew flew their first op’ together on the night of the 15th/16th of June, an attack on the Marshalling Yards at Valenciennes in France.

15/16.6.1944 – Attack Against Valenciennes
Lancaster Mk.III ND756, AA-M
F/S Harold Whittington, RNZAF NZ42488 – Pilot.
F/O Joseph Stevens, RAFVR 125607 – Navigator.
Sgt. Alfred Alexander Simpson, RNZAF NZ425112 – Air Bomber.
F/O Phillip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR 157922 – Wireless Operator .
Sgt. Don W. Gore, RAFVR 1624691 – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Ronald John Morton Batty, RAFVR 548542 – Mid Upper Gunner.
F/S Andrew Crawford Fletcher, RNZAF NZ42675 – Rear Gunner.

The crew flew eight more op’s over France, in support of the Normandy invasion, and attacking V1 rocket launching sites:

17.6.44 – ND756, AA-M – Montdidier.
 Jettisoned bombs in the Channel after combat with a Fw190 – claimed as possibly destroyed.

 24/25.6.44 – ND747, AA-T – Rimeux.

 27/28.6.44 – ME691, AA-R – Biennais
The Form 541 says that F/S David Fox RNZAF NZ426065 replaced Andrew Fletcher as R/Gnr for this operation.

2.7.44 – ME691, AA-R – Beauvoir.
Harold Whittington promotion – now listed as W/O.

12.7.44 – ND747, AA-T – Vaires.

15/16.7.44 – ND747, AA-T –  Chalons Sur Marne.

17.7.44 HK562, AA-L – Vaires.
Recalled, refuelled and placed on standby.

18.7.44 HK562, AA-L Cagny.

18/19.7.44 HK562, AA-L Aulnoye.

See the crew’s full operational history here: https://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com/h-whittington-crew-15-6-44/

Then came the fateful Homberg operation on the night of the 20th/21st of July.

A force of 147 Lancasters, including 26 from 75 (NZ) Squadron, and 11 Mosquito’s of 1, 3 and 8 Groups, were dispatched to attack the synthetic oil plant at Homberg (8 mls NE of Düsseldorf). Although the refinery was severely damaged in this attack, aircraft losses were heavy. German night-fighters wrought havoc on the bombers, shooting down 20 aircraft – 13.6 per cent of the attacking force.

20/07/1944 – Attack Against Homberg
Twenty six aircraft took off, as detailed, to attack the oil refinery at Homberg. Nineteen aircraft were successful in bombing the target, with the aid of markers, which seemed well concentrated. Two good explosions were seen and smoke came up from the target area. Heavy A.A. fire was moderate, but fighters were very active, eight combats taking place. Seven aircraft failed to return, the captains were AUS22776 W/O. Gilmour, H., NZ428819 F/S. Howell, E., NZ421829 F/S. Mackay, K., NZ422057 F/S. Davidson, N., NZ42488 W/O. Whittington, H., NZ413219 F/S. Roche, G. & NZ414560 P/O. Burtt, H.

Lancaster Mk.I ME691 AA-R

W/O Harold Whittington, RNZAF NZ42488 – Pilot.
F/O Joseph Stevens, RAFVR 125607 – Navigator.
Sgt. Alfred Alexander Simpson, RNZAF NZ425112 – Air Bomber.
P/O Phillip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR 157922 – Wireless Operator .
Sgt. D. W. Gore, RAFVR 1624691 – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Ronald John Morton Batty*, RAFVR 548542 – Mid Upper Gunner.
* ORB for this Op lists Sgt. Leslie De’Lungo, RAFVR as Mid Upper Gunner, however the recorded loss of Sgt. Batty clearly identifies this as an error.
F/S Andrew Crawford Fletcher, RNZAF NZ42675 – Rear Gunner.

Take Off 23:35 – Landed –
Flight Time Missing

Lancaster Mk.I ME691 AA-R was brought down by an enemy aircraft at 01:33hrs beside a road near Veghel (Noord Brabant), 4 miles South West of Uden. All but the flight engineer perished in the crash and were buried in the local War Cemetery, Uden. Sgt Gore, the flight engineer, survived but was taken as a P.o.W.

P/O Harold Whittington, RNZAF NZ42488 – Pilot.
Killed age 26.
Son of John Richard and Minnie Whittington, of Hamilton, Auckland, New Zealand.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 3. I. 2. 203

F/L Joseph Stevens, RAFVR 125607 – Navigator.
Killed age 32.
Son of Joseph and Hilda Stevens, of Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. M.Sc.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 5. A. 8. 103
‘Greater love Hath no man than this,
That a man lay down
His life for his friends’

F/S Alfred Alexander Simpson, RNZAF NZ425212 – Air Bomber.
Killed age 28.
Son of Frederick John and Jessie Ann Simpson, of Gisborne, Auckland, New Zealand; husband of Gladys Simpson, of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 3. I. 4. 205

F/O Phillip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR 157922 – Wireless Operator.
Killed age 21.
Son of Edwin George and Gladys Elizabeth Tompkins; of Merton Park, Surrey; husband of Joan Grace Tompkins, of Merton Park.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 5. A. 10. 105
‘Father, In Thy gracious keeping
Leave we now
Thy servant sleeping’

Sgt. Donald W. Gore, RAFVR 1624691 – Flight Engineer.
P.o.W
Prisoner of War Number: 455
Prison Camps: Dulag Luft, Stalag Luft VII
Date of return to United Kingdom: not known

Sgt. Ronald John Morton Batty, RAF 549542 – Mid Upper Gunner.
Killed age 26.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 5. A. 9. 104

F/S Andrew Crawford Fletcher, RNZAF NZ42675 – Rear Gunner.
Killed age 24.
Son of Daniel Fletcher and of Jeanie Fletcher (nee McNeill), of Devonport, Auckland, New Zealand; husband of Dorothy May Fletcher, of Devonport, Auckland.
Buried Uden War Cemetery, Holland.     .
Grave location – 5. A. 1. 101

Back in New Zealand, Harold Whittington, Alfred Simpson and Andrew Fletcher were listed as missing.
photos from the Weekly News, via AWMM Online Cenotaph.

It is incredibly sad to note that at least three of  the crew left behind young widows.

Dave Homewood has put together a wonderful record of Andrew Fletcher’s life and full service history on his Wings Over Cambridge website:  http://www.cambridgeairforce.org.nz/Andrew%20Fletcher.htm

F/O Philip Edwin Tompkins, RAFVR, Wireless Operator.
Photo from Graham Nicholson.

Wireless Operator Philip Tompkins was 21, and had married the girl next door, Joan, only two months earlier.

Later, she re-married, and it is her second husband, Graham Nicholson, that we have to thank for these photos of Philip and his crew. Graham (86 at the time) posted about Lancaster ME691 on the Wings Over New Zealand forum a couple of years back, and he and I briefly corresponded by email. He was very keen to share the photos, to make sure that the crew is remembered.

A further postscript can now be added to the story, as the same WONZ thread recently led to contact with Dutch researcher Adrian van Zantvoort. Adrian has long been interested in crash sites in the area where he lives, the South East of The Netherlands.

In 2005, he spotted an article in a local newspaper, the Udens Weekblad, about the discovery of a wartime photo album. This is Adrian’s translation:

Herman du Maine, a citizen from Haarlem, found a shelter from November 1943 until the liberation in September 1944 in a farm at Maria-Heide (a village east of Veghel).  After his death his daughter, Willie Bloks-du Maine, discovered a pile of letters and documents about the war period, and also a photo album with never published pictures.

It took some to getting used to but the stay of Herman went very well. He started with buying postcards and also he got a photo camera and a few rolls of film to take pictures of certain events in his neighbourhood. The pics he took were printed by Johan van Eerd, a photographer from Veghel. Herman started with taking some pics of his fellow hiding comrades. In the night of 20/21 July 1944, a Lancaster bomber crashed on the edge of Maria-Heide village. The cockpit touched the farmhouse which was belonging to the Family A. Vissers. The remainder of the aircraft fell around the farm in a field. Six crew members where killed and buried at Uden War Cemetery. One crew member managed to bale out, but was arrested later and became a POW. Willie Bloks-du Maine said “as soon as he got the chance my Father Herman made a pic of the damaged farm with in front a part of the aircraft”. 

The article was published alongside Herman’s photo of the crash site. Adrian contacted his daughter Willie, and has obtained a copy:

ME691 crash site, with the Vissers family and their damaged farmhouse, 1944. Piece of Lancaster wreckage at left.
Photo from Mr H.F.du Maine, via his Daughter Mrs Willie Bloks-du Maine, and Adrian van Zantvoort.

Adrian is very keen to visit the crash site, although Willie says that the original farmhouse is currently being demolished to make way for a new one. Apparently Mr du Maine only took the one photo, but Mrs Bloks-du Maine has provided a map.

The photo has revealed another piece of fascinating information. The aircraft wreckage lying on the ground at left of the photo is part of the fuselage, from just below the cockpit where the Pilot would be sitting, and there are faint bomb markings and clear writing on it – evidence of nose art and probably a name that was applied to ME691.

The visible lettering is “.. RGAN GRINDER’S SWING”, probably “Organ Grinder’s Swing”. This was a popular song of the 30s and 40s (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organ_Grinder’s_Swing) and perhaps there is also a humorous reference to the place where the (street entertainer) organ grinder’s monkey sat, ie., the guy who is not really the boss at all.

Referring back to the operational history of the aircraft, Avro Lancaster ME691, AA-R (https://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com/me691/), her first five op’s were flown by W/O Des HORGAN and his crew! So the nose art was probably applied by or for them.

In fact, Des Horgan & crew flew all of their last seven op’s in ME691 before ending their tour (https://75nzsquadron.wordpress.com/horgan-crew-27-8-43-empty/).

There may be more to add to this story, as Adrian continues his research, as I try and track down Andrew Fletcher’s family (he came from Devonport where I live), and as we try and learn about Flight Engineer Don Gore’s POW exploits. Hopefully, someone will see this post and be able to contribute more about the other crew members.

However, in the meantime it is very satisfying to put together the pieces that we do have, in memory of Harold Whittington, Philip Tompkins, Andrew Fletcher and the rest of the crew of Lancaster ME691.

Ake Ake Kia Kaha!

Special thanks to Graham Nicholson, Adrian van Zantvoort, Mrs Willie Bloks-du Maine. Thanks also to Dave Homewood and the fantastic resources and community that he has created and fostered at Wings Over New Zealand and Wings Over Cambridge.

 

8 thoughts on “Harold Whittington crew 1944

  1. James Barr

    It’s amazing that even after all these years, we are still getting more solid evidence of our brave lads last flights

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  2. Margaret Hale-owens

    I too have been fascinated to read this posting & respect this crew. I so wish I could have shared it with my Aunt! I am about to take Flight Sergeant Andrew Crawford Fletcher’s last personal effects to The Auckland War Museum. They were held in her safe keeping by his wife for seventy years until she passed in 2014. Their marriage certificate informs me that Flying Officer Philip Edwin Tomkins was his Best Man & Witness at their marriage. Andrew & Dorothy were married for just 55 days.
    Lest we forget- Andrew will Home on 7th March 2018
    God Daughter & next of kin of Andrew’s wife, Dorothy.

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  3. JN-Dog

    As a sequel to the above, the Auckland War Memorial Museum is opening a new Bomber Command display on the 10th of February 2020 featuring Flight Sergeant Andrew Crawford Fletcher’s story and the treasures kept by his widow Dorothy, as mentioned by Margaret.
    I am hoping to have more information to add to the story, from Andrew’s family here in New Zealand.
    Cheers, Chris

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    1. margaret hale-owens

      I have just returned today from the Uden War Cemetery to pay my respects to my late God Mother’s husband Andrew Crawford Fletcher, we also visited the graves of Whittington Crew there & other RNZAF officers buried in the Cemetery. It is pleasing to see that people who live around the area still pause & remember them as they pass. It is a well tended resting place. They are not forgotten!

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      1. margaret hale-owens

        My Aunt took over ten years to begin her recovery after the bereavement. Once in a better place mentally & physically she chose to close that part of her pain to others. My Mother was her devoted friend for over 70 years & had told me about her heartbreak & how the friends were concerned she would never ever be the same bright girl again.
        Auntie Dorothy never discussed this time of her life with me over my childhood or adulthood. It was when she passed that we found Andrew’s personal effects & letters. The patina & folding on these letters alone were the clear indicator that in private moments she had revisited his words throughout her lifetime. Although she married again it was on the understanding there would be no children, I am positive this too was out of respect to her first husband. Perhaps this is why she was such an exceptional God Mother, I became a child she & Andrew were denied.
        It has been a privilege to research The Whittington Crew & I only wish that I could have shared the wonders of the internet with my Aunt. It was only when her second husband passed three years after she had gone I felt able to take it all to The Auckland War Museum & I felt home. Our trip to Uden was delayed by health issues but I am delighted to have completed the cycle. We shared our story with several local residents we met & a gentleman who visits Uden regularly & they without hesitation said they would go & say a prayer when passing by. We lit a candle at a nearby convent for all the New Zealanders laying so far from home & the other crew members. On this visit we were unable to establish conclusively the priest’s garden where the bodies were protected till the cemetery was established.
        We also did not manage to find any relatives whilst we were in Auckland, but did see where my Aunt had worked whilst there in 1947-49

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      2. JN-Dog

        What a sad story, I had wondered how she fared, moving to NZ by herself and eventually returning to England. I spoke to Andrew’s nephew by email and phone 2 years ago and am trying to re-establish contact. He was living not far from me and we made plans to meet but that fell through. Please email me on chris@foodworks.co.nz if you would like me to pass on his details. Kind regards, Chris

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