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RAF Career of Cecil de Courcy - A Story About Hampden Bombersicon for Recommended story

by Donard de Cogan

Contributed by 
Donard de Cogan
People in story: 
de Courcy, Kingston, Lüth
Location of story: 
German Friesland islands
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4076138
Contributed on: 
16 May 2005

Until recently the family of R.C.W de Courcy knew little of his career in the RAF. A Dubliner, he had been a navigator in a Hampden bomber which was shot down in the Heligoland Bight in February 1942. The officer who visited his family in to return his effects gave them a Squadron picture and commented on the number of people from that Squadron who had also been lost; he had plenty of company. His name was on the Runnymede stone, a copy of his service record could be requested by the family, but that was all then ever knew until fairly recently

The 1942 volume of RAF Bomber Command Losses in World War II contains the following details for 7 February 1942
"Hampden AE392 PL- ( F/L W.J.W Kingston, Sgt R.C.W de Courcy, Sgt Gibson, Sgt J.A Tobin and Sgt A. Fulton) took off from North Luffenham (on Gardening Operation). Shot down in the target area."
The mention of an earlier accident was curious. The report continues
"F/L Kingston and Sgt de Courcy both came from the Republic of Ireland (sic) and both, along with Sgts Gibson and Tobin, had been involved in a crash near Langham on 14 - 15 January."
The family had no knowledge of this. He never spoke of it, but his sister had long talked of his being home on leave during the previous weeks. We can probably assume that he was home on rehabilitation leave.

These events prompted a line of research which has included the posting of questions on the RAF and Luftwaffe web-sites together with follow-up correspondence with those who are involved in similar searches. The sections below will attempt to set the scene by describing the aircraft and the war-time circumstances in which Hampden AE392 was shot down.

The aircraft
The Handley Page Hampden bomber is not one of the legendary aircraft of the second world war, and yet it was the day-to-day work-horse of bomber command until it was replaced by the Wellington and Lancaster. It was a two engine aircraft that has been described as "heaven to fly, hell to fly in". Owing to its shape it was called "The Frying Pan" or "The Flying Tadpole". It had a complement of four, pilot, navigator/bombardier, top-rear gunner and lower rear gunner. The top-rear gunner was also the radio telegraph officer. An inspection of any pictures of the Hampden indicates how cramped it was. The navigator had to crawl through a tunnel between the pilot's legs in order to get to his station.

Guy Gibson, who is best known for his activities in Lancasters and Mosquitoes started his career in Hampdens and his book "Enemy Coast Ahead" contains much details of the aircraft and its operations and he had been involved in laying the first sea mines dropped from a Hampden. He described this as a special weapon weighing about 1700lbs which was virtually sweep-proof. Known as a 'vegetable' it was intended to be dropped in deep water. It contained a lot of explosive, so that even if a ship were some way off, the force of an explosion would lift it out of the water.

Gibson mentioned that the Hampden had a weak-spot. Even if they flew in very close formation so as to bring as much defensive armament as possible to bear on incoming fighters, he says that the Germans were no fools and found that there was a blind area on either side which was not covered by the gunners. Messerschmitt 110 fighters had one gun that could fire sideways. Their mode of attack was to fly in formation with the Hampdens, perhaps 50 yards out and slightly to the front and pick off the outside men with their one gun aiming with a non-deflection shot at the pilot. The bomber boys could do nothing about it; they just had to sit there and wait to be shot down. If they broke away they were immediately pounced on by three Messerschmitt 109s waiting in the background. If they stayed the pilot received a machine-gun serenade in his face. One by one they were hacked down from the wing man inwards. Because of the very narrow fuselage (to reduce drag) it was virtually impossible to remove a wounded pilot from his seat so that another crew member could take over the controls. Even when the Hampden was used for mine laying and a relief pilot was carried, changing seats called for a display of extreme dexterity.

The crew
The crew was an important nucleus of operations and where possible they started together and stayed together. When one member was killed or injured and had to be replaced there was always a suspicion "will the new man fit in or will he bring us bad luck?" This was certainly the case here. The major players were W.J.W. Kingston and R.C.W. de Courcy from Ireland. On 20 September 1941, 144 Squadron took off for operations over Frankfurt. Hampden AD 923 was piloted by F/O Kingston with Sgt de Courcy as navigator. They had wireless operators/gunners Sgts Tod and Tobin. Weather conditions that night were not good. Cloud obscured the target but meant that there were no night fighters and little anti-aircraft fire. Whilst over Europe fog had blanketed itself over much of England and this created great problems. Two Hampdens came to grief due to poor visibility. At 0420 a third (AD922), piloted by Sgt E.C.W. Turner ran out of fuel and crashed at Foulsham. The pilot was killed by the three crew had baled out. It was now 0430. AD923 having lost their way after being diverted to RAF Dishforth and almost out of fuel made a perfect crash-landing at Hutton Moor, North Yorkshire, all the crew survived with only a few bumps and bruises. After a tiring walk to the nearest village they were soon picked up and taken back to base. Shortly afterwards Kingston was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and given command of Hampden AE441.

Following this event Sgt Tod left the crew and joined AE238. Nothing is known of his subsequent career. He was replaced by Sgt A. Gibson. On Hampden AE441, while returning from a bombing raid on Hamburg, they were out of fuel and trying to land at RAF Langham in North Norfolk when they hit a chimney stack at Field Dalling, just short of the runway. The plane was a write-off but they all escaped serious injury.

The last flight
On the night of 7 February 1942 F/Lt Kingston took his third Hampden (AE392) on a mine laying operation. There was an additional crew member, Sgt A. Foulton (given as W/T operator/gunner, but more likely to have been the relief pilot). The book "Hell on High Ground" (page 28, 29) is perhaps a little misleading as it places the operation to the west of the island of Terschelling. It also quotes it as a night operation while "Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses (1942)" give the take-off time as 1130. In any event, the weather at that time of year was very foggy and in fact no fighter interception was expected.

A more detailed, and perhaps more accurate account of events can be derived from Rob van Niewendijk, the author of several books on the air war over the Netherlands. He says that:

The British suspected that the German battleships, moored at Brest, would try to escape any time by now (See Churchill's memoires). Because of this Hampdens were ordered to lay mines on the main and expected sea routes the German battleships (Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen) were likely to take. The seawaters off the German Bright (Deutsche Bucht) was very interesting, because these gave the ships the open way to German waters.

Hampdens did not take part in many daylight operations. Almost a year after the debacle of 12 April 1940 the bombers again took part in daylight operations once again against the German warships. On 24 July 41 they attacked Brest. Two Hampdens did not return. Later the Hampdens laid mines off Brest during daylight hours and in Feb 42 off the German Bight.

On 7 Feb 42 32 Hampdens were detailed to lay mines in the (German) Frisians. These operations were named Gardening. The German reaction to these raids was few. Me 109's of the 1./JG 1 were stationed in the German Bight area. Lieutenant Grosser claimed one Hampden and Oberfeldwebel Gerhardt a probable. The 4./JG 1, stationed at Leeuwarden, received that very morning orders to transfer to Haamstede because of the planned escape of the German battleships.

The Staffelkapitän (commander) of 4./JG 1 was Oberleutnant R. Olejnik and he and his unit had carried out numerous tests with a nearby radar station ("Riesengerät", which was used actually by German nightfighters only!) in order to intercept allied aircraft in bad weather. Normally the German dayfighters did not try to intercept when weather was unfavourable.

Just before the transfer from Leeuwarden to Haamstede was put into effect Oberfeldwebel Lüth of the 4./JG 1 (was) in a position to claim three allied aircraft within almost one hour. The first at 15.02, the second at 15.09 and the last at 16.04 hour. These were claims number 419 - 421 of the II./JG 1 and the first victories of this unit since the return from the eastern front. The next day the German broadcast mentioned the success of Lüth, without mentioning his name. These claims were Lüths 27-29.

Many Hampdens were intercepted during this operation. The Hampden P5331 of 144 squadron took off at 11.15 hours and reached the drop position at estimated time of arrival when they sighted a convoy with fighter escort. Two Me 109's closed in to attack from astern in turn. Pilot Officer Frow climbed steeply doing a slow turn to right. First e/a shot the tail plane partly away, and the upper rear gunner saw his bursts enter the e/a's fuselage. Second e/a closed in to attack when the P5331 entered low cloud - bursts mainly went into the starboard wing and engine. Frow requested SOS fixes immediately as they were losing large quantities of petrol and oil, and the a/c was difficuly to control owing to port aileron being u/s. This Hampden returned safely at the homebase at 17.20 hours (local time).

The P1151 sighted a Me 109 at 6 miles north of Baltrum island at 1,000 feet, but saw no more after this Hampden climbed into the clouds. Hampden AD832 saw another Hampden shot up by fighter. (source: Public Record Office, AIR 27/982 Operational Record Book 144 squadron).

Six Hampdens of 50 squadron were briefed for operations, detailed to plant vegetables in the nectarine area. They took off from Skellingthorpe at about midday. The majority reported insufficient cloud cover over target area. Two a/c planted vegetables in alternative positions and one a/c failed to return. One a/c reported enemy fighters (AIR 27/487 Operational Record Book 50 squadron).

50 Squadron lost AE306, which was shot down by Lüth off Terschelling. The entire crew of four is still missing in action. 144 squadron lost two Hampdens. Hampden AD824 was shot down by Lüth off the (German ?) Frisians. This Hampden had a crew of five aboard. Sgt R.F. Thompson (KIA), F/Sgt R.N. Thompson (KIA), Sgt Duce (MIA), Sgt Bow (MIA) and Sgt Rowell (MIA)
(KIA = killed in action, body was found, MIA = missing in action, body not found). R.F. Thompson is buried in the Nes General Cemetery on Ameland, while R.N. Thompson is in West Terschelling General Cemetery. (These figures don't quite tally. If the first kill was west of Terchelling at 15.02 it is unlikely that the next could have in the German Friesian islands, a distance of at least 90 miles some seven minutes later).

Hampden AE392 of 144 Squadron was shot down by Lüth off the North German coast (his 29th kill). F/Lt Kingston (MIA), Sgt R. de Courcy (MIA), Sgt J. Tobin (MIA), Sgt A. Gibson (KIA) and Sgt A. Fulton (MIA).

The body of Sgt Gibson was recovered and he was buried at Wangerooge. He was exhumed on 10 June 1942 and is now buried in the Sage War Cemetery (on the other hand, RAF Bomber Command Losses 1942 says that Gibson was buried on 10 June 1942 at Wangerooge and later transferred to the Sage War Cemetery)

All of this suggests that there still remains some confusion. The tidal flows may have something to do with where someone is found, but the two Thompsons of Hampden AE824 are buried in neighbouring islands in the Dutch Frisians. Maybe this was the aircraft that was lost west of Terschelling. The distance between these locations is approximately 30 miles. The distance between Baltrum and Wangerooge where Gibson of AE392 was found is also 30 miles in the same direction of tidal flow. If AE824 and AE392 were shot down in the same area (Terschelling), then this would account for the time difference of 7 minutes between the two interceptions. This would suggest that the fighter seen 6 miles off Baltrum (100 miles east of Terschelling) was Lüth attacking or about to attack AE392 at 1604. My guess is that the target where they were to lay their mine was in the waterway 10 miles east of Wangerooge which gives access to Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven, but they were shot down somewhere in the region of Baltrum. All of this now tallies with the official report that had the plane lost in the German Bight region.

What happened to 144 Squadron afterwards
By 14/15 September 1942 Hampdens flew with Bomber Command for the last time. They acquired a new lease of life, being adapted to operate as torpedo bombers with RAF Coastal Command. 144 Squadron flew to Russian bases to attack German supply ships off the Norwegian coast north of Bergen and in the Barents sea. The outward journey proved extremely hazardous and one of the Hampdens was shot down by a Russian fighter while coming in over a prohibited area. As one of the Hampden pilots subsequently put it. They reached Russia "without wireless, in very bad weather, with very poor maps and having as our only means of identification the undercarriage which we put down as a friendly gesture when the quick-fingered Russians started to shoot". The Hampdens forced the Germans to provide both escort vessels and air cover for their convoys and after completing their operations the two Squadrons (144 and 455) handed over the fourteen remaining serviceable Hampdens to the Russians. What use the Russians made of these is unknown. 144 Squadron was re-equipped with Beaufighters at the end of 1942. 455 Squadron retained its torpedo bomber Hampdens until December 1943, when it was re-equipped with Halifax bombers and returned to Bomber Command, at which point the operation of Handley Page's first bomber monoplane finally drew to a close.

What happened to Lüth
Oberfeldwebel Detlev Lüth made a belly landing with his Focke Wulf Fw 190 at airfield Valkenburg (near Leiden) on 21 August 42 after a combat with B-17's. He was unhurt. On 11 Sep 42 his Fw 190 collided whilst taxiing at Venlo airfield with another Fw 190. Lüth was wounded. On 3 Nov 43 he bailed out his Fw 190 after combat with USA aircraft off Schiffdorf (Germany). He was unhurt. On 26 Nov 43 he had to make a belly landing at Oldenburg after combats with USA aircraft and was unhurt. At the end of '43 his score had risen to 37 victories.

Further details of Lüth's career are listed in the extraordinary three volume history of JG-1 by Eric Mombeek. His closing report is that on 6 March 1944, while attempting to intercept a stream of bombers approaching Berlin his aircraft was hit by defensive fire. He was unable to bail out before it crashed at Eydelstadt.

Final comment
A close inspection of the marine chart for the North Sea/Heligoland Bight in the vicinity of Baltrum shows a mine at (53º 49.75'N, 7º 17'E). About one mile to the east of this the chart shows wreckage lying in 16m of water. The location is just over 6 miles NW of Baltrum. Could these be the remains of Hampden AE392 and its 'fish'?

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