RAF 144 Squadron’s first WW2 attack on a German land objective was on 6 March 1940. It involved attacking the German minelaying and seaplane base at Hornum, on the island of Sylt. Just over two months later, 10 May 1940, Germany invaded the Low Countries and France and on that same day, Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. RAF Squadron 144 shared in another notable “first” bombing attack on the German mainland. The squadron bombed the exits (outskirts) of München-Gladbach on 11 May 1940. They were attempting to interdict German troop movements on roads, intersections, and rail lines, especially at the city’s railyards. Only half of the thirty-six twin-engine RAF bombers sent on this bombing operation managed to hit their targets, three were shot down.
On the night of 5/6 September 1940, Handley Page Hampden HP52 Mk.I P1172 (PL-J) of RAF 144 Squadron took off at 2200 hours from RAF Hemswell, east of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. The mission was to bomb Hamburg in Germany.
At 0456 hours, P1172 reported that it was in difficulty and requested a bearing for home. The aircraft was asked for a call-sign, but that was the last contact from P1172, the signal faded out and then ceased. They are believed to have crashed in the North Sea.
The crew of Handley Page Hampden P1172:
Pilot Officer John Edward Newton–Clare RAF (33492) pilot, age 20
Sergeant Charles Owen Clarke RAFVR (745257), age 20
Sergeant William Thomson RAF (637247) wireless operator, age 18
Sergeant William Leslie Powell RAF (641379), age 19
William Thomson was the son of Thomas and Jessie Mitchell Thomson of 9 Dupplin Brae, Perth. He joined the RAF, six months before the outbreak of war. He was employed with the motor engineers, Frew & Co, Ltd, Princess Street, Perth.
Sergeant Thomson was survived by both his parents and all four of his siblings. At the time of his passing, Sergeant Thomson’s parents were living at 9 Dupplin Brae, Perth. Sergeant Thomson is commemorated on a memorial in St Matthew’s Church (formerly West Church), Tay Street, Perth and commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, Panel 20.
There was one glimmer of hope raised, in the Summary of Events form of RAF 144 Squadron, for September 1940. The entry for Hamden P1172 was scored out, marked as cancelled and in the left margin the Squadron Adjutant marked: Advice of “Rescue” from Air Ministry “Proved False” 7.9.40. No bodies of any crew members or any traces of wreckage were ever found. The crew were reported as “missing believed killed; failed to return from operational flight over Germany”.
P1172 was one of two RAF 144 Squadron Hampdens that were lost on that operation: the other being P4378.
An earlier operation Sergeant Thomson took part in, was on 3 June 1940. The duty was listed as ‘widdling on the works at Wedel’. Widdling was not a standard or even non-standard term used in the RAF at the time, it was a colloquialism, a slang word best described as piddling (urinating). Wedel is located on the River Elbe in Germany, about seventeen miles West of Hamburg.
The operational report was made in the Operations Record Book, Form 541 by Pilot Officer Skehill, who was from Australia.
The Detail of Work Carried Out recorded provides an insight into a bombing operation carried out by the courageous RAF 144 Squadron crews:
Aircraft: Hampden L.4173
Crew: P/O. Bennet, P/O. Skehill, Sgt. Perritt, Sgt. Thomson
Duty: Widdling on the works at Wedel
Time Up: 21.02
Time Down: 03.20
Details of Sortie or Flight:
Aircraft L.4173 took off at 2102 hrs. on 3.6.40 and s/c (set course) from LINCOLN at 2114hrs. for SKEGNESS which was reached at 2129 hrs. From here we s/c for 55°N 6°E and turned-on E.T.A. at 2308 hrs. striking the German coast at WESTERHEVER. From this point we followed the course of the ELBE flying at 10,000’ A few searchlights greeted us here plus an odd burst of H.E. A/A
The river and little else could be seen so we followed the course of the ELBE towards the target. Innumerable searchlights and tons of A/A. came into force halfway to target and in the glare of diffused light the river disappeared. Flying on a course of 147°M we failed to pick up the river or target and so returned to the river mouth and began yet again.
On our third run we picked up the straight stretch of river between SCHLAU and DOCKENHUDEN and, from 12,000’ dropped 4 – 250’s and a container of incendiaries at the target but could not observe the results of the bombing. Time 0043 hrs. while flying towards the mouth of the ELBE on the return journey we saw, in the neighbourhood of UTERSEN (Uetersen), tracers from medium A/A which had previously been hosepiping around a high elevation, suddenly swing down to a low elevation of fire and concentrate on a point several thousand feet below us. In the middle of this concentrated fire at 0046 hrs. we saw a bright yellow gush of flames and the A/A stopped. This blaze hovered for four or five seconds and then went earthwards sending up more bursts of flame on stricking the deck. We presumed this episode to be the shooting down of an aircraft (S/Ldr. Field of Scampton ? )
We flew NW, were popped at BRUNSBUTTELKOOG and set course for Corridor B at 0115 hrs. crossed the English Coast at MABLETHORPE 0258 hrs. and landed base at 0320hrs.
(Sgd) H. A. T. Skehill P/O.
Locations for RAF 144 Squadron were:
7 May 1938- 6 September 1939: RAF Hemswell
6-9 September 1939: RAF Speke (now Liverpool John Lennon Airport)
9 September 1939) -17 July 1941: Hemswell (NB: Sgt Thomson’s Date of Death was given – see above – as 06.09.40)
Group and Duty RAF 144 Squadron:
From September 1939-April 1942 the squadron served in Bomber Squadron with No. 5 Group
RAF 144 Squadron was still equipped with Handley Page Hampden aircraft on the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, flying from Hemswell, Lincolnshire, but did not get an opportunity to do any operational work until the war was nearly three weeks old.
On 26th September 1939, its chance finally came when it was ordered to despatch 12 Hampdens to search for and attack enemy naval vessels which had been reported in the North Sea. Flying in two formations of six, the Hampdens approached to within about twelve miles of the German coast, but the only naval vessels sighted were two submarines of unknown nationality and the aircraft returned to base with their bomb loads intact.
The squadron’s next mission, another armed reconnaissance over the North Sea on 29th September. Eleven Hampdens, split into two sections – a section of five led by Wing Commander JC Cunningham, the CO, and a section of six led by Squadron Leader WJH Lindley – were detailed to search part of the Heligoland Bight to within sight of the German coast. Cunningham’s section left Hemswell at 4.50pm and was not heard from again. It has been reported that this second formation was intercepted by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters, which shot down all five Hampdens.
Lindley’s section found two enemy destroyers in the search area steaming east in line astern at 20 knots but, owing to the destroyers’ manoeuvres and “flak” umbrella, only three Hampdens were able to attack; the results were not observed, although it has been reported elsewhere that neither of the two destroyers had been hit. All six Hampdens returned safely to base.
In the ensuing months, the squadron “stood to” for shipping searches on several occasions but only once – on 14th December 1939 – was it required to operate; the mission was uneventful.
The squadron started to fly night-time leaflet dropping raids (Nickel Raids) over Germany from February 1940. The first occasion on which 144 Squadron flew over the German mainland was the night of 24th – 25th February 1940, when propaganda leaflets (or ‘Nickels’) were dropped on Hamburg. By 6th March, by which time it had ‘Nickelled’ several other German towns and by had also flown several security patrols, the leaflets being distributed were replaced by bombs after the German invasion of Norway. The squadron spent the next two years operating with Bomber Command.
The Handley Page Hampden was designed by Gustav Victor Lachmann. Lachmann served as a lieutenant in the German Army cavalry during the First World War – joining the German Flying Corps in 1917. After working in Germany with the Schneider and Albatross aircraft works, he resigned in 1926 to join the Ishikawajima Aircraft Works in Tokyo as a technical adviser. In 1929, he joined Handley Page and in 1932 was its chief designer. On the outbreak of the Second World War, Lachmann was interned as an enemy alien in Quebec, Canada, and on the Isle of Man. Under pressure from his employers, he was allowed to continue his work from the ‘Lingfield Cage’, an internment camp on Lingfield Racecourse. In 1949, he became a British citizen.
Aircraft of RAF 144 Squadron supported the Arab Northern Army in 1918 by attacking Ottoman Forces in the Middle East. The Arab Revolt which began in June 1916 received help with their strategy by T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
The Royal Air Force Historical Society has outlined, in “Journal 50”, the duties which would be undertaken by crew members such as Sgt Thomson. The Journal emphasises that a Bomber Command aircrew operated as a team. Each member, it states, was mutually dependent on the others and each had a vital part to play in ensuring that the aircraft reached its target, dropped its bombs, and safely returned to base. The crew all shared the same experiences and dangers.
Until 1942, each aircraft had two pilots and dual-role aircrew: an observer (or navigator) who also acted as bomb-aimer and a wireless operator who was also the air gunner. When the heavy bombers were introduced, a flight engineer replaced the second pilot and the other crew members were given single, specialised roles.
The wireless operator transmitted all messages to and from the aircraft to their base. He had fewer duties than the other crew members, as operations were generally conducted in wireless silence. However, he also served as the reserve gunner and addressed any minor emergencies in any part of the aircraft. If the aircraft got into difficulties, he would have to send out positional signals. Should the aircraft have to ditch into the sea, the Wireless Operator would have had to remain at his post to send out a distress signal to improve the crew’s chance of being located and rescued.
Story by Ken Bruce and Sue Gibson.
William Thomson Perthshire Advertiser 5 April 1941
ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941. (HU 53994) Oblique aerial view of RAF Hemswell, Lincolnshire, from east-south-east. The airfield, and the administrative, technical, and domestic sites (right) lie to the north of the A631, seen running westwards towards Gainsborough, with the Officers’ Mess and married quarters on the south side (lower left). At the time the photograph was taken, Hemswell was home to Nos. 61 and 144 Squadrons RAF, operating … Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205018015
Frew & Company, 14 Princess Street (corner of Canal Street/Princess Street), Perth
AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: HANDLEY PAGE HAMPDEN. (CH 1207) The instrument panel and flying controls of a Handley Page Hampden. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205209936
RAF BOMBER COMMAND (HU 106251) The crew of a Handley Page Hampden talk to their waiting ground crew after returning from the raid on the German seaplane base at Hornum on the island of Sylt, 19/20 March 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205260021
R.A.F. SQUADRON CRESTS (CH 13930) Original wartime caption: The crest of 144 Squadron. Picture issued 1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205453294