In November of 1999, a retired farmer of Staunton-in-the-Vale, Nottinghamshire, asked a friend if she could investigate and aircraft accident he witnessed in possibly 1942. He thought it was a Wellington bomber, it had an engine on fire and disappeared into a valley and he next heard a loud bang. After much research it was found to be Avro Lancaster Mk I, W4270 (QR-T) that had crashed.
On 18 February 1943, the crew of the Lancaster from RAF 61 Squadron took off from RAF Syerston on a cross country training flight. After six hours and 45 minutes of flying, at 22.56 hours, a con-rod broke and smashed out of the starboard inner engine. This caused a fire and despite their best efforts it could not be put out. In addition, the aircraft landing gear and flaps were down, ready for a landing. They were diverted to land at the nearby RAF Bottesford. Their low altitude, the loss of control and it is possible that a fuel tank exploded, caused them to crash one mile from Staunton-in-the-Vale and about two miles from the airfield. None of the crew survived.
The crew of Avro Lancaster W4270:
Sergeant Thomas Herbert Warne RCAF (R/102085), pilot, age 23 (later a Warrant Officer Class II)
Sergeant George Arthur Hitchon RAF (576765), flight engineer, age 19
Sergeant Robert John Preece RAFVR (1174086), observer, age 22
Sergeant Thomas Raine Newton RAFVR (1119116), wireless operator/air gunner, age 21
Sergeant James Milton Whitehead RAFVR (975551), wireless operator/air gunner, age 22
Sergeant Edward John Loverock RAFVR (950159), air gunner, age 21
Sergeant John Coaker RAFVR (1276786), air gunner, age 22.
Whitehead was born in Cambusnethan on 7 September 1920. He had two younger sisters. In September 1939, he attended an aircrew selection board and joined the RAFVR as a wireless operator. He first served in a Hawker Hurricane fighter squadron before moving on to aircrew in Bomber Command for further training as a wireless operator. In mid-1941, he retrained as an observer but failed the course. He finally passed out as a wireless operator/air gunner and joined Sergeant Warne’s crew.
Avro Lancaster W4270 was delivered to RAF 61 Squadron in October 1942. These are the operations that the aircraft previously took part in:
Kiel 13/14 October 1942
Genoa 22 October 1942
Milan 24 October 1942
Genoa 7/8 November 1942
Genoa 13/14 November 1942
Gardening* 17/18 November 1942
Turin 18/19 November 1942
Turin 28/29 November 1942
Turin 8/9 December 1942
Gardening* 14/15 December 1942
Duisburg 20/21 December 1942, aborted
Essen 7 January 1943
Berlin 16/17 January 1943
Essen 21 January 1943
Dusseldorf 23 January 1943
Hamburg 30/31 January 1943
Note: * Gardening = dropping mines into the sea
Whitehead was the son of Willie and Janet Reid Whitehead, Greenshields Whitehead of Riddrie, Glasgow. At the time, they were resident at HMP Perth Prison village and James had been educated in Peterhead and Perth Academy. (Riddrie is the area in Glasgow were HMP Barlinnie Prison is located.) Whitehead played for the Perth City boys’ football team, Southend. He was buried in Cambusnethan Cemetery, Wishaw, Lanarkshire, the place where he was born.
Perthshire Advertiser, 3rd March 1943
‘CITY AND COUNTY CASUALTIES
KILLED IN FLYING ACCIDENT
Official intimation has been received by Mr and Mrs W. Whitehead, H.M. Prison, Perth, that their only son, Sergeant-Observer James Whitehead, R.A.F., has been killed in a flying accident.
Sgt. Whitehead, who was 22½ years of age, had been in the R.A.F. for 3½ years. He received his education at Peterhead and Perth Academies, and prior to joining up he was employed temporarily in a Perth railway office.’
RAF Syerston, their home base, was about seven miles north west of the crash site.
Warrant Officer Class II Warne was the oldest and most experienced member of the crew despite only having 15 hours of night flying experience on the Lancaster.
Acting Flight Lieutenant Reid, who retired to live in Crieff, of RAF 61 Squadron, won a Victoria Cross on a mission flown from RAF Syerston.
Sergeant James Milton Whitehead, Perthshire Advertiser 03 March 1943
ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (CH 10714) The crew of an Avro Lancaster B Mark I of No. 61 Squadron RAF walk towards their aircraft at Syerston, Nottinghamshire, before taking off for a raid on Hamburg, Germany. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210422
AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: AVRO 683 LANCASTER (ATP 12118C) Lancaster Mark II, DS604 ?QR-W?, of No. 61 Squadron RAF, on the ground at Syerston, Nottinghamshire. DS604 later joined No. 115 Squadron RAF and was lost over Frankfurt on 10/11 April 1943 Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205126743
ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND (HU 91243) Photograph looking back over the starboard wing of a Lancaster of No 61 Squadron, Bomber Command, after an attack on U-751 in the Bay of Biscay, 17 July 1942. The U-boat had been attacked and crippled by a Whitley of No 502 Squadron earlier, before being finally sunk by depth charges dropped by the Lancaster. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205217911