Sometimes, remarkable stories just fall into place by chance.
In my part-time job, I get to work with all sorts of interesting people, from all types of background and walks of life. The beauty of civic life is that it’s an annual revolving door of characters and personalities, and that’s how I met Harry.
We vaguely knew each other through the civic world, but now I had the opportunity to get to know him a bit better. He’s a man of 82, with an interesting background. However, this story isn’t really about Harry, more about the story of his father and a journey of discovery that happened to us in the run up to Remembrance Sunday. A time for reflection, brought about by the memory of a remarkable generation, and a tragic set of circumstances.
Harry had mentioned the war service of his father, and that he’d been lost on flying operations in October 1942; but also that in the ten days or so before this year’s armistice event he’d finally come into possession of his father’s medals after his wife had arranged for them to be delivered from the family of Harry’s half brother, where they’d been kept since the war.
When you come across stories like these, you quickly realise that you are on sensitive ground dealing with deep seated emotions, but Harry seemed happy to discuss his father and soon he’d sent me a letter from the Ministry of Defence dated 1983. The family had obviously made an effort to interpret the service of Harry’s father, and this document contained an outline of what he’d done. There is however, a much more personal story behind all this, because Harry, born in 1939, had lost his mother early in 1940 when he was just eight months old. This blog is not the place to discuss the intensely private circumstances of Harry’s family life, and from here on we concentrate on Sidney Frederick Taylor.
Sidney had been born in West Ham, London, in February 1915, baptised at St Luke’s near the Royal Victoria Docks and by 1938 had married Ivy, three years his younger. By trade, Sidney was recorded in the 1939 General Register as a labourer at the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery in Silvertown in London’s docklands. He was recorded as living in Baron Road in Canning Town, off the Barking Road. This part of East London has its own place in history because of the suffering meted upon it by the Luftwaffe during the blitz, and the consequences of it feature in the subsequent events.
We next see that Ivy’s death was registered in January 1940, having succumbed to pneumonia, leaving Harry as a babe in arms. As a consequence, Harry was soon adopted within the family by an aunt; Sidney remarried and as a result, Harry gained a half brother and sister. Harry had explained that the effects of the blitz meant that his wider family was displaced with entire streets erased from the east London landscape.
Sidney Taylor would have been acutely aware of the call to arms as a 25yr old, and at some point during 1940 enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. We don’t know how long he had to wait to be called forward for service, but on 3rd January 1941 he was at 2 Recruit Centre at RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire. Given the service number 1383375, Sidney began his career as Aircrafthand 2nd class and began selection training as wireless operator or air gunner. Trades would be selected by aptitude and ability, so testing began almost immediately to identify which path he would take.
By 14th February he was at 13 Operational Training Unit at RAF Bicester, a Blenheim light bomber training unit. 11th April saw him at 10 Signals Recruit Centre located at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, where he underwent a wireless operator training component.
On 3rd July 1941 he was promoted to Aircrafthand 1st class and was on the muster list as “Aircrafthand under training Air Gunner” as of 7th July. Clearly his path was set.
From there he was sent to the Ground Defence Gunnery School at Ronaldsway, Isle of Man on 11th July, then on 13th September to 8 Air Gunnery School at RAF Evanton in Scotland where he would have begun his flying career.
Promoted to Leading Aircraftsman on 22nd September, having passed out from his basic training and mustered as “Air Gunner” on 18th October, he was promoted Temporary Sergeant on that date. He moved again to 20 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lossiemouth on 18th November. 20 OTU was a training unit for the Vickers Wellington medium bomber, training in night bombing. The OTUs were dangerous places in themselves. Inexperienced crews and old aircraft made for a risky mix flying at night, and thousands of new airmen perished in this fledgling phase of their careers.
He moved again on 25th March 1942 to 27 OTU at RAF Lichfield, then to 23 OTU at RAF Pershore near Worcester. I’ve not researched for records of Sidney in his time on Wellingtons ramping up to readiness, but on 31st August 1942 he was with his first operational unit, 149 Squadron at RAF Mildenhall.
149 had been formed in the closing months of the Royal Flying Corps in 1918 as a specialist night bomber squadron, and had operated Wellingtons in the early part of the second world war, but by now were using the Short Stirling heavy bomber; by the time Sidney joined they were using the satellite airfield at RAF Lakenheath. These enormous aircraft with a crew of seven, were the mainstay of RAF operations at this stage of the war. The squadron motto Fortis Nocte “Strong by Night” encapsulated their mission.
In reality, Sidney would have been presented to 149 Squadron Conversion Flight (later 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit) to transfer his skills from the Wellington to the Stirling. New crews would be forged here and become operation-ready as a group, but equally trainee aircrew could individually be called forward to fill in gaps with experienced crews.
In my research on Sidney, I began looking at the Operations Record Books to try and identify his progression with the squadron. Airmen signed up for 30 missions or 200 flying hours, but the stark reality was very much different
Aircrew were first committed to a tour of thirty operational flights, not exceeding 200 actual flying hours, which could last for any period from four months to a year. Pathfinder crews flew forty-five. A six-month break – usually spent as instructors with training units – was followed by a second and final tour. Operational flying was perilous. Chances of survival varied during a tour, depending on factors such as inexperience, fatigue, type of aircraft flown and target. The most dangerous were the first and last five trips. During the whole war, 51% of aircrew were killed on operations, 12% were killed or wounded in non-operational accidents and 13% became prisoners of war or evaders. Only 24% survived the war unscathed.
I don’t know if Sidney had seen the recruitment film “Target for Tonight” which was filmed at Mildenhall, but the glamour was about to become extremely real.
“Target for Tonight” can be watched here:
The squadron records held by the National Archives under AIR27/1002 show that Sidneys first sortie was on the night of 14th September. Flying from the satellite airfield at RAF Lakenheath at 1950hrs, in Stirling callsign OJ-G BF312 piloted by F.Lt (Squadron Leader) William Greenslade AFC DFC. 202 aircraft of 5 types attacked the port of Wilhelmshaven, with only two losses. Sidney was listed as mid upper gunner. The raid was described as a success. Contemporary reports suggest 77 fatalities on the ground. OJ-G returned to Lakenheath at 0025hrs.
As a stark reminder of the risk and short life expectancy of crews, William Greenslade and his crew were lost on 2nd October over the Netherlands.
The beginning of the tactic of ‘Area Bombing’ was announced in the press.
October 13th saw Sidney fly his second sortie as rear gunner on Stirling OJ-G BK598, piloted by Sgt A A Siwak, Royal Canadian Air Force. Adolph Siwak was 22 years old, and had joined 149 Squadron at a similar time to Sidney. Taking off at 1832hrs with seven other aircraft from Lakenheath, they were part of a 288 mixed aircraft force attacking Kiel. Some of the force was diverted by decoy fires, and others attacked Hamburg. 41 fatalities and 101 casualties were recorded on the ground. OJ-G returned to Lakenheath at 0039hrs.
Forty eight hours later on October 15th, Sidney was back in action. 289 aircraft attacked Cologne, but the raid was not successful, with the pathfinder force being inaccurate and little damage caused. Sidney was rear gunner on Stirling OJ-H BF372, again piloted by Sgt A A Siwak in a ten aircraft group leaving Lakenheath at 1921hrs, returning at 2324. Incidentally, BF372 was the aircraft in which Sgt Ron Middleton would win the Victoria Cross little over a month later:
Rawdon H “Ron” Middleton VC: http://www.vconline.org.uk/rawdon-h-ron-middleton-vc/4587641960
Researching combat reports for named individuals for this period held by the National Archives under AIR50/219/29 revealed the following document. It describes Sidney in action as a gunner during an attack by a Messerschmitt Me110 at 2053hrs while en route to their target.
Sidney would not fly again until 23rd October, in what would prove to be his fourth and final mission.
October 1942 had seen the intensification of operations in preparation for ‘Operation Torch’ – the landing of forces in North Africa and the opening of the Battle of El Alamein on 23rd October. RAF missions were carried out against the Italian ports to preoccupy and damage resources as a precursor to the African operations, in particular the port of Genoa. A raid took place on 22nd, and again on 23rd.
122 aircraft took part in this second raid, including 9 Stirlings from Lakenheath. Sidney was again rear gunner in Stirling callsign OJ-B W7628, again piloted by Adolph Siwak, taking off at 1836hrs.
What happened in Italy can only be described as a failure. The target area was blanketed in heavy cloud, and the town of Savona 30 miles further along the coast bore the brunt as the bomber force failed to find its original target.
Contemporary reports describe the raid of the 22nd as successful, but there is less information about the raid of the 23rd.
Italian reports suggest a different outcome on the ground, including reports of a stampede by the already terrorised civilian population using an air raid shelter in which at least 354 casualties died. None of this would have been in the knowledge of the bomber crews of course, who in completing a mission of 1200 miles over enemy airspace, would be entirely focused on finding their way home.
We know little from the logs about whether Adolph Siwak and his crew knew whether they had been accurate, or even exactly where they were; but we know that night bombing in WW2 was notoriously inaccurate. Their mission was complete and their challenge was now one of survival.
The tragedy that unfolded comes from how close they were from home when disaster struck. Having navigated to the limits of their endurance, OJ-B found themselves over Kent low on fuel. Aircrews could never relax due to the risk of lurking Luftwaffe intruders, and the equally high risk of mechanical failure, and they would work as a team to ensure their safety all the way back to base. Indeed, actually finding their home station and landing at night was an extremely risky phase of a mission.
But on this occasion, low fuel was their concern. It seems they were looking to put down on the Kent coast when searchlight batteries appear to have become aware of their plight. I have read speculation that in attempts to direct the aircraft by searchlight they may have confused Adolph Siwak. Equally, they may have simply run out of fuel. In any case, at 0308hrs on October 24th, OJ-B collided with cottages at Rye Street, in the village of Cliffe-At- Hoo.
The entire crew were lost, along with a young mother on the ground, 21 year old Lilian McPherson. Remarkably, her 10 week old daughter Diana survived because her crib was sheltered by a chimney breast.
A memorial now marks the site.
The crew of Stirling OJ-B were as follows:
Sgt Adolph Antonio SIWAK, 22yrs, R/86398 (Pilot) RCAF
F/O Frank Kinder RANDALL, 33yrs, 116536 (Navigator) RAFVR
Sgt Ernest Edward Charles HOLMES, 903163 (Flight Engineer) RAFVR
Sgt Douglas Joseph BOWDEN, 22yrs, 1291430 (Front Air Gunner) RAFVR Sgt Reginald Alfred BLAKE, 27yrs, 1284072 (W/Operator) RAFVR
Sgt Leonard Joseph BARNARD, 117579 (M/Upper Air Gunner) RCAF
Sgt Sidney Frederick TAYLOR, 27yrs,1383375 (Rear Air Gunner) RAFVR.
As I said at the beginning, sometimes remarkable stories just fall into your lap. A 3 year old Harry carried memories of his fathers funeral including a gun salute and a baby in arms who would have been his half sister, but time and separation had blurred the facts. In later life, Harry had visited the memorial to his fathers crew in Kent, and met the woman who had been that 10 month old survivor. I can’t help but be struck by the symmetry of their situations as tiny children. It was through the coincidence of a mutual interest in this military history and chatting that it became apparent that those medals meant so much, for so many conflicting reasons.
Sometimes, all we have of someone is a collection of faded memories and disparate facts hidden in archives. Occasionally, we can pull all these things together to weave a picture of someone so as to make their story come to life in such a way that we are transported back in time. Harry, and his siblings are proud of the memory of their father.
Sidney never got to wear the medals issued in his name, but because of his memory and the love of his family, Harry finally got to wear them on Remembrance Sunday. Only a few of us got to see the look on his face when we handed them over, but it felt as if something that was broken on a dark October night seventy nine years ago was finally mended, if only for a moment or two. You don’t forget things like that. And even if Sidney and the boys from OJ-B didn’t make it back, his medals finally found their way home at last.
Per Ardua Ad Astra; to the 55,573 of Bomber Command who gave their all.
Stirling images © IWM TR 135