In October 1942, after much political wrangling, a unique Canadian bomber force was formed. Canada had demanded a RCAF group within Bomber Command, but many a senior British Officer, including "Bomber" Harris, was strongly opposed. Nevertheless, on the
1st. January 1943, No. 6 Group (RCAF), composed of eight squadrons, which grew to fourteen, became operational. Its establishment was an important symbol of an independent Canada, but as the airmen were to discover, symbols do not win wars.
The inexperienced young squadron leaders and aircrew were thrust into battle before they were ready and many paid the cost with their lives and serious injuries. No. 6 Group (RCAF) acquired a sorry reputation in Bomber Command as a 'chop group,' its losses consistently higher than those of other groups. Canadian airmen were dying because Number 6 Group (RCAF) had been hastily assembled: its new squadrons brought into being by robbing its older units of their experienced crews.
The story that follows is just one account of an inexperienced Canadian air crew, who was part of No. 6 Group (RCAF), whose bravery and sacrifice built a reputation for the Group, which subsequently grew to become a force, Sir Arthur T.'Bomber' Harris, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, rated as "amongst the very best".
It is an account of one of many tragic accidents and acts of bravery, in ensuring, as 'Bomber' Harris quoted:
that Germany having "sown the wind, would now reap the whirlwind".
During 1944 the war was carried deep into Germany by the heavy four engine aircraft of Bomber Command. The crews of twin engine bombers, joined by an extra two men, were posted to Heavy Conversion Units to train on four engine aircraft before joining operational squadrons.
Before going to an operational squadron, trainee 'sprog' crews undertook various exercises designed to prepare them for the realities of operational flying. Example's being: 'bulls-eyes,' that were trips over London and other British cities in which they learned how tricky it was to evade searchlights and night fighters.
Such crews also flew 'nickels' in which they were required to find a target, usually in France, sometimes in Germany, and drop leaflets. Nickels were the culmination of most crews training diversionary ops. designed to take the defender's attention away from the main bomber attack although some HCU crews took part in minor raids.
Even if you were not involved in a major raid, these 'nickels' could be deadly.
The Yorkshire village of Dishforth, to the east of the A1 Great North
Road, gave its name to the nearby airfield that, in 1944, was the 'home'
of the Canadian 1664 Heavy Conversion Unit, equipped with four engined
On the evening of the 21 March 1944, a Halifax Bomber aircraft LK930,
formerly on charge (loan) to the 428 and 429 Squadrons of the Royal
Canadian Air Force, climbed into the night sky at the start of a long
cross country training flight. This veteran bomber (LK930) had been
relegated to training duties.
This may not have been its true mission, because it had been on a
'nickel' operation, 'window dropping' over occupied France. This
operation involved dropping little strips of silver paper from the
aircraft that floated in the air and confused the enemy radar
systems. Leaflets were also dropped.
The day had been cloudy with intermittent light rain: visibility
was moderate to good: wind's light and variable.
The crew on board, who had almost completed their training, were Sergeant Ray Collver number R.157490, the pilot, Ralph Pilkington navigator, Russ Pym flight engineer, Russell Peel bomb aimer, Wally Loucks wireless operator, William Arthur Roland "Bill" Andrew, mid upper gunner,
number R.201503 and Arley Carlisle "Carl" Starnes rear gunner, number R.198952.
This crew had been involved in a crash on landing a few days prior to
this evening. On that occasion the incident was a ground loop, which
destroyed that particular aircraft, but the crew had suffered only minor
injuries consisting of cuts and bruises. Hence, one can imagine
their apprehension as they set off on this flight!
Oldest member of the crew aboard LK930 that night was Bomb Aimer Russell Peel who, at the age of 31, and sporting just a few flecks of grey hair, qualified for the title of 'Pop' by the rest of the crew.
The crew had been together for eighteen weeks prior to this evening but had never flown the route before.
Ralph Pilkington believed the crew had not been briefed (instructed or directed) as to the purpose of the flight. He had a clear recollection of preparing for "a nickel", which was diversion (minor)
operations undertaken to divert the enemy's attention from the main bomber attack.
Crews nearing the point of readiness for operations were routed into either France or the low countries to drop "leaflets" and "windows" to draw enemy fighters from the main bomber stream.
"Windows" were strips of metal dropped from planes to create a false image of many aircraft on the radar. It was called "chaff" by the Americans.
He recalled they were entering France "when we were recalled to base". They were very close to the correct route - "track" in navigator's language.
Ralph Pilkington was the only commissioned officer in the crew. This had a tendency through "mess and quarters" to make it difficult to become close buddies in the short time the crew had been together. Subsequently, he did become close buddies with a new crew, with whom he flew the major part of his tour of operations.
Wally Loucks, the Wireless Operator, who had grown up on an Indian reservation, near Peterborough, Ontario, recalled "near the French coast, a radio message recalled the aircraft," but as they turned back "something went violently wrong with the starboard outer engine." He recalled "we had a runaway prop, but whether it was caused by mechanical trouble or enemy action no one was sure."
Also he recalled "near the coast of France before we turned back, the Bomb aimer and gunners saw flashes below that could have been flack from a Flack ship as we had been briefed for a Nickel operation to drop Leaflets but this was changed to a Bulls eye - a fake raid to get the German fighters away from the main forces".
Russell Peel remembered the trip had been fairly routine and at last over the area of Mansfield they were heading back to Dishforth, about seventy miles to the North. All being well they would be down in about twenty minutes.
The first indication all was not well was the discussion between the Pilot and Flight Engineer, which was heard over the intercom by other members of the crew, about trouble with one of the engines.
There is no valid proof as to the problem with the aircraft. It could have been mechanical failure or as a result of enemy action.
Ralph Pilkington theorised they had been hit by enemy shrapnel from anti-aircraft fire.
He remembers fragments of metal dropping onto his navigator's table in the aircraft's nose as Sergeant Pilot Ray Collver struggled with the controls.
Suddenly the engine went wild, causing vibrations that Russell Peel recalled "caused the paint on the inside of the aircraft to fall like flakes of snow."
Wally Loucks recalled "The noises inside were like I imagined several large animals - dinosaurs fighting for their lives. The aluminum was falling like snow and I could hear Ray's (Ray Collver) voice yelling for us to hurry and get out".
The Skipper then gave the order "bale out". Ralph Pilkington pulled the front flap and out he went followed by the Navigator and Wireless Operator. They ejected through the nose hatch. It was a dark rainy night.
By the time they had gone, the aircraft was too low for anyone else to jump, even if their escape route had been clear!
Before any of the three parachutists had landed, their stricken aircraft was down to tree top height circling the flat countryside between Hillstown, Palterton and Scarcliffe.
Sergeant Ray Collver was a strong farm boy with well developed muscles and these physical attributes were invaluable as he struggled to maintain control of the aircraft. His intention was both to avoid a built up area below and to save his crew.
In the pitch darkness Sergeant Pilot Ray Collver, unable to see anything but the bank of illuminated dials inside the cockpit, would have known that he was dangerously low. As a result of his inability to maintain altitude, he rode the aircraft to the ground in an attempt to protect the remaining members of his crew.
For the Flight Engineer and two Gunners still on board the aircraft, there would be little they could do except prepare for the inevitable crash.
Ray Collver almost managed a miraculous forced landing with the blazing aircraft. He landed the big Halifax bomber, wheels still retracted, travelling fast and 'belly flopped' over a field, before crossing the road where it crashed into the road side bank (hillock). It was even more unfortunate the bank on the opposite side of the road had been higher than at the near side, otherwise the aircraft may have continued across the next field.
The impact threw Ray Collver clear, but three of the crew, Carl Starnes, Russell Pym and "Bill" Andrews were still inside, trapped in the burning Halifax bomber.
From the eyewitness accounts that follow the full horror of the scene is revealed.
At the time, the author (I) was in bed asleep at his home in Ten Row, Palterton. However, his grandmother (Mrs Fanny Richards formerly Hardy), heard the sound of the low aircraft and went to her bedroom window, which looked out towards the north-east, to see the aircraft "low in the sky and on fire". She always maintained that she could hear shouts for help coming from the aircraft as it passed.
Mrs Ruth Audis, who lived near Mrs Fanny Richards, also heard the sound of this crippled aeroplane. She is now an elderly lady in the village, but still remembers hearing loud bangs coming from the direction of Scarcliffe, similar to fireworks being let off, but it was war time and there were no fireworks. Shortly after 7 a.m. that morning she visited the scene of this crash and realised the loud bangs were in fact ammunition exploding. She saw a discarded airman's gauntlet lying close to the crash, but onlookers were not allowed to touch anything.
Meanwhile, Mrs Rimmington, in bed at her home in Main Street, Scarcliffe was awakened by the noise of a heavy plane circling round and got up to look out of the bedroom window. Outside in the darkness everything was now silent - the plane appeared to have flown away.
Suddenly a huge shape thundered over from behind the house at chimney pot height, trailing flames Mrs Rimmington could only estimate as yards long. "Oh God, the young lads up there," was the half thought, half prayer passing through her mind as she watched the flames disappear from view.
George Cooper finished his shift at Ramcroft Colliery at midnight and was now cycling along, almost at home in Hillstown. He reckoned it was about a quarter to one when he heard the sound of aircraft engines in the darkness over to his left. As the approaching roar grew deafening, he suddenly realised the plane was about to come down on top of him. Apprehension gave way to intense relief as the engines passed over and into the distance.
A blinding flash lit up the surrounding fields and hedgerows in an eerie light before darkness closed in again. The softish crump of the aircraft hitting the ground was not as loud as George would have expected.
Some miles to the east Russell Peel, still hanging in his parachute, saw the same flash just before he hit the ground. Mrs Rimmington, still standing by the bedroom window, heard the loud bang she had been dreading.
Ralph Pilkington parachuted to safety. His landing point resulted in him being suspended from a lamp-post. Old timers still refer to this street (Station Road) in Langwith Junction as "Parachute Street".
He had quite an adventure with an old policeman who had been recalled to the police service due to the war. He could not determine where a parachutist featured in his "rules and regulations". Some of the curious onlookers suspected Ralph Pilkington was a German paratrooper!
Already awakened by the screaming of the circling bomber, people in Palterton and Scarcliffe quickly dressed and hurried towards the flames. Desperate shouts for help added to their sense of urgency.
Midway between Palterton and Scarcliffe, near to the site of the Two Trees, the rear half of the fuselage with two huge tail fins, blocked the road; the burning forward half rested in the field beyond the roadside hedge. Still in one piece, the fuselage had cracked open near the top turret on the final impact against the bank. The plane had been flying from north to south at the time.
Shouts from inside the front of the plane, heard above the crackling of the fire and exploding ammunition, prompted the first men on the scene to scramble up the shallow bank and through the hedge to the nose of the
Trying to break into the aircraft by hammering against the tough bullet proof perspex with bare fists, had seemed to one man as effective as trying to break down a brick wall with bare hands. Fifty years later that man still regrets he lacked the foresight to carry either a large hammer or axe with him, as he rushed from his home to the scene.
Mrs Clara Elliot, a nurse, hurrying to the burning aircraft had seen an airman lying on the roadside grass and stopped with him. This man, the pilot, seemed to be in shock and in need of medical attention. Together they had talked about his fiancée while arrangements were made to find a car to take him to Mansfield Hospital.
George Rolston Calow and his brother Albert Groves Calow, had been asleep at their home in Orchard Terrace, Palterton when they were awakened by the crash of the Halifax bomber. They could see the stricken plane burning furiously half a mile away. Dressing hurriedly, George ran to the scene, whilst Albert went for his car and further assistance. He knocked up his neighbour, Mr Fred West, a trained Ambulance man.
The plane was across the main Palterton to Scarcliffe road and had broken its back. It was blazing furiously and the heat was intense. Members of the crew could be heard shouting for help. George, who could see one of the crew trapped in the nose of the plane, gained entry through a small hatch, readily endangering his own life. The inside was like a furnace, with overpowering fumes from burning cordite. Ammunition belts were exploding and bullets were flying about. The wings and engines had broken off the fuselage and were littered across the field, where the doomed aircraft had 'belly flopped.'
George crawled to the airman, who was trapped by his feet, his clothes a mass of flames. He could not release him and was almost exhausted when he was joined by his brother, who had entered the plane through a crack in the top of the fuselage, where the plane had broken its back.
By the time Albert Groves Calow arrived at the scene, the burning aircraft and exploding ammunition had forced people back to a safer distance. Told that his brother George was inside the fuselage, Albert ran forward to climb to the top of the plane and drop through the large crack near the top turret.
Inside, Albert found his brother struggling to beat out the burning clothing on an airman trapped by his flying boots in the twisted metal. With their caps they beat out the flames near him. Cordite fumes, smoke and intense heat had been proving too much for the loan efforts of George; but together the two brothers extinguished the worst of the flames and set about freeing the airman. At one stage, looking around to take stock of the situation, Albert noticed the face of the local policeman peering through the crack in the fuselage.
Suffering severe burns as they pulled and pushed at the almost red hot metal and wincing every time exploding ammunition sent fragments of metal rattling round the inside of the plane, the two men finally released the airman. Together they pulled him back towards the tail and out through a hatch in the bottom. A third Calow brother, Eric, remembers this man was a Canadian and on his flying jacket was the name 'Carl Starnes'.
Outside they stripped him of his smouldering clothing. Both brothers were severely burnt about the hands and arms but Albert drove the airman to Dr. Mc Kay's house at Bolsover, where he was treated. In fact this doctor sent for his colleague Dr. Lane, the latter being more experienced in dealing with burns. Subsequently, the airman was taken to Chesterfield Royal Hospital, where he later succumbed to his injuries. The doctors treated the Calow brothers, whose hands and forearms were very badly burned. Months of treatment followed.
Meanwhile, the distant clanging of bells announced the emergency services were on their way. Soon an ambulance and fire tenders pulled up close to the plane and the flames were extinguished. The bodies of two airmen were later recovered from the aircraft.
Later, as dawn was breaking, people began to drift away from the crash scene. George Cooper had stayed to search the field where the Halifax first struck the ground, for anything that may be dangerous. Told by the police to touch nothing, he pushed lengths of wood and sticks into the earth to mark the places where he found either ammunition or anything he wasn't sure about.
Looking back as he was leaving, he remembered the rear turret moving in the wind and a large inflated dingy resting amongst the trail of wreckage where the bomber had ploughed across the field.
At first light, Russell Peel got everything together and with parachute in one hand was striking off for civilisation after spending a wet night on a 'pasture bluff'. After landing at what he thought was about 1.a.m. he heard the whistle of a distant train and the sounds of road traffic, but a deep creek between him and the sounds persuaded him to stay put until daylight.
After a confrontation with a cyclist who "pedalled away like mad" because he thought the young airman was a German, Russell was picked up by a pit bus. They gave him a Woodbine cigarette and dropped him off at Warsop Police Station, where the resident family gave him breakfast and let him have a wash and brush up.
The Navigator and Wireless Operator, picked up some time before, were already at King's Mill Hospital, Mansfield, which was then an American Military Hospital.
Bomb Aimer Peel, who now lives in Alberta, Canada remembered with affection the good hearted Warsop family who took him in.
The second man out - Navigator Ralph Pilkington - had a bumpy landing at Langwith Junction when he hit the hard tarmac and his parachute tangled in a lamp- post. He too was mistaken for a German, and was surrounded by railwaymen at the Langwith Junction sidings.
Wireless Operator Wally Loucks was the last man out, opening his parachute as soon as he left the escape hatch because he guessed that the aircraft by now was very low. He recalled "I knew I was close to the ground and when the tail light passed my head I pulled the chute, swung about twice and could not bear to look at the burning airplane. I hit the ground and landed real hard".
He took two steps directly away but found he was on a hill. He then decided to come down over two fences and into a lane.
In the darkness Wally found an isolated cottage, close to Grange Farm, Scarcliffe, but the only occupant was a woman, in bed, who refused to come downstairs. Instead she directed him to a nearby permanently manned Home Guard post. He wandered off in search of the post and found an "armed man"!
Wally Loucks recalled, "I was in a lane and saw a small house". I knocked on the door, the lady opened the window and I tried to convince her I was Canadian. No way. I was directed to a small hut at the end of the lane where I had an old Rusty Ross Rifle pointed at me and a nice fellow, about 80 years old, a Home Guard saying never happened to him before and wondered what he could do. He looked warm but he was shaking a little and the gun was still pointed at me but I was not entirely sure and neither was he. He had a crank 'phone and I asked him to call the Airforce, no Number, Miltary no answer or busy. Finally just call the Police and the chief came out picked me up. He asked where my 'chute was and next day he walked straight to the spot".
Wally and his wife visited the area in 1985 but could not find the cottage and the woman had died. The old building, a garage at the time and used as an A.R.P. post had been demolished.
Wally stated that "Ray Collver was a superb Pilot and only a strong Farm boy with well developed muscles could have brought us back".
Back at Scarcliffe it was 6.a.m. when Wilfred Hardwick mounted his cycle and set off for work at Glapwell Colliery. Arriving at the end of Palterton Road, he was surprised to see a "sentry" on duty; and even more surprised when told a plane had come down in the night blocking the road. Wilf was allowed through and remembers there was just enough room to squeeze himself and the bike between the hedge and the rear turret of the deserted plane.
Later that morning young Eric Calow telephoned Chesterfield Hospital to enquire about the condition of the airman his brothers had pulled from the plane. He thought he made one or two calls before being told the airman had succumbed to his injuries.
Clara Elliot, remembering the injured pilot, made the journey to Mansfield General Hospital, to see how he was progressing. She found him propped up in bed his face covered in abrasions.
Constantly he asked her for details of what had happened when the plane had crashed. Mrs Elliot, thinking it best not to tell him at that time, evaded his questions and tried to steer the conversation back to more pleasant topics. Many years later, recalling the visit, she thought how awkward she must have seemed trying to change the subject every time he asked a question.
Many local people visited the scene and several children from the two villages took an unofficial day off school. Later that same morning before the Authorities arrived to conduct their enquiries and arrange stricter security, several of the village youths, including the author descended on the scene.
The aircraft was across the Palterton to Scarcliffe road, completely blocking the road. The plane had broken its back and the nose part of the fuselage was resting just inside the south field (right hand side) whilst there was scattered debris from the stricken plane in the north field (left hand side) for a distance of at least one hundred yards.
Wally Loucks recalled, "I woke up the next morning with the mumps in the Mansfield Hospital, then sent to a private health care place. I stayed 2 or 3 weeks. I was the only patient and was spoiled rotten by the nurses even the head nurse was not that hard on me when I walked on the cold floor to the bathroom but I did get a Sermon and was closely watched after that. Obviously it did not hamper my masculinity.
Meanwhile, my friends and I managed to acquire some bullets from the badly damaged and burnt out shell of the aircraft.
The noses of the bullets were painted different colours to denote either armour piercing or tracer, etc. We took the blue coloured bullets because they were full of cordite strips. Sam 'Rusty' Whitt, another of my village pals, recalls he knocked the heads off his bullets with a hammer little realising what would have happened if he had hit the other end of the bullet!
For the next couple of weeks we created mischief by playing with the cordite strips. The consequences of what might have happened had an accident occurred, does not bear thinking about.
Today a hardly noticeable depression in the roadside grass bank marks the spot where Halifax LK930 slammed to a stop.
The spot where Flight Engineer Jeff Pym of Liverpool, Air Gunner William Arthur Roland (Bill) Andrew of Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and rear gunner Carl Starnes lost their lives.
Where George Rolston Calow, almost overcome by the heat, smoke and fumes persisted with the rescue attempt because he had no doubts that his brother Albert would join him as soon as he got to the crash scene.
The spot where Air Gunner Carl Starnes of Doe River, British Columbia, had told the Calow's not to bother with him, but to look after my mates. Several times during the struggle to free him he was to ask, how are my mates?
Of the three men who baled out Russell Peel recalls that he reported two cracked teeth on his arrival at hospital, one of the others had "chute rope burns" and one, he thought, a sprained ankle. Soon all three men were back in action with Operational Squadrons.
Sergeant Pilot Ray Collver, after a long convalescence, also returned to the fray with 427 Squadron.
All four men survived the war to return safely home to Canada.
The pilot, now the Reverend Ray Collver, returned to the area several years ago. He visited the crash site. He met Albert Calow whose brother had died in the mean time. The Reverend Collver also spoke to several people in the area about the crash and he preached a service at a
Mansfield Woodhouse church.
Meanwhile, George Rolston Calow and his brother Albert Groves Calow, both of Orchard Terrace, Palterton were awarded the BEM - British Empire Medal for gallantry and on Tuesday, 23 October 1945, they were both decorated by King George V1 at a Buckingham Palace Investiture.
Subsequently, as a crewless navigator, Ralph Pilkington's career was delayed until a crew at Tholthorpe, Yorkshire - 420 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force had a misfortune in that their navigator went L.M.F. (lack of moral fibre or a lack of courage), on their first operation. They had a terrible time to return from Europe to their base.
However, Ralph Pilkington was fortunate to be delegated to join that crew (his words) and completed a tour with them on 420 Sqdn. His tour consisted of 32 sorties over Europe and this new crew was fortunate they received only minor anti-aircraft damage on any sortie and were able to escape any fighter attacks by the superb flying skill of his pilot.
He often recalled the night of 21/22 March 1944 and said he was "ashamed that I have made no effort to contact George and Albert Calow who received the BEM for attempting to rescue the members of my first crew from the burning wreck". He had no knowledge of their bravery "until November 1984".
Wally Loucks completed he latter stages of his tour at Middleton St. George 419 squadron.
The site of this crash has remained unmarked and has never been officially recognised, though many older local people have always remembered this accident.
However, as an update to this story, I can now record that a local man, whose identity is known but who wishes to remain anonymous, has in March 2000, erected a stone post with a brass plaque attached.
A report of this incident appeared in the Derbyshire Daily Telegraph dated Wednesday, 28 June 1944.BROTHERS SAVE AIRMAN
The British Empire Medal has been awarded to two brothers, Albert Groves Calow and George Rolston Calow, of Palterton, near Chesterfield, for rescuing a
man from a blazing aircraft. George was first on the scene when the aircraft crashed and caught fire, and later, when Albert arrived, they succeeded
in bringing a man from the nose of the aeroplane. The man's clothing was on fire, but they smothered flames and dragged him through a hole underneath
the aeroplane. Before doing so, however, they had to remove ammunition belts which were exploding inside the machine. The Calow brothers were
Please refer to page two for the remainder of this story.
Halifax LK930 Remembered
A tale of two Palterton village
by Jack Richards - page One
Created 2 December 2001
Last updated: 4 June 2012