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Recalling the first war casualty

PUBLISHED: 09:38 13 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:13 06 July 2010

THIS week the country joined together to remember those who have died in battle for their country. As everyone united to pay tribute to those brave people BOB COLLIS, of the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum, tells the story of the first Lowestoft man in the RAF to lose his life in the second world war.

THIS week the country joined together to remember those who have died in battle for their country. As everyone united to pay tribute to those brave people BOB COLLIS, of the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum, tells the story of the first Lowestoft man in the RAF to lose his life in the second world war.

YOUNG AC 2 (Aircraftsman 2nd class) William Henry Dye died on his 19th birthday.

At the outbreak of the second world war, Billy, the son of William Youngs and Alice Dye, of St Peter's Street, was an aircraft groundcrew mechanic with No 38 Squadron, Bomber Command, based at RAF Marham, near King's Lynn.

The aircraft he helped to maintain were Vickers Wellingtons, one of the most famous British bombers of the early war years.

Despite the 38 Squadron crews having being briefed several times, and their aircraft bombed-up ready for searches over the North Sea for German warships, they had yet to complete a successful operation against the enemy by early November 1939.

The biggest fear in 1939 was that the German Luftwaffe would commence mass daylight bombing raids against British military installations and industry. To avoid the complete destruction of all their aircraft on the ground in the event of such an attack, the RAF took to dispersing aircraft not only around their bases, but also flying some to other nearby airfields, including civilian airports and small flying club aerodromes.

Four miles from Marham was a grass satellite dispersal airfield named Barton Bendish. It had none of the hangars or facilities available at Marham and when operations were “on” the aircraft would be flown back to base, fuelled, armed and readied there, and then dispersed back to Barton Bendish at the end of the day.

On November 5, 1939, the squadron stood by ready for attacks on the German fleet. At 1.45pm the orders came for yet another “stand down” and the ground crews began the onerous task of unloading the bombs.

It was a regular feature of the short flights to dispersal airfields that some members of the ground crew would fly in the aircraft they serviced, to carry out any minor maintenance and picket the Wellingtons whilst there.

That day, Billy and five other airmen climbed aboard Wellington I L4239 for the short flight to Barton Bendish. Their pilot was Sgt Eddie "Slim" Summers AFM, one of the most experienced NCO pilots on the squadron.

At 3.35pm, observers on the ground near the village of Boughton saw a low-flying Wellington making very steep turns close to the ground.

According to the official 38 Squadron operations record book: “Low flying practice was being carried out."

Disaster struck as the aircraft made another very low banking turn and then struck the top of an oak tree, tearing off part of the tailplane.

The stricken Wellington climbed steeply then dived nose first into a field at Marks Farm, where it disintegrated and burst into flames.

Soldiers and airmen taking part in an inter-service football match nearby rushed to the scene but there was little that could be done. Six of the seven men aboard the Wellington had been killed in the crash. The occupant of the tail turret, AC 1 Watson, was still alive when rescuers reached the crash, but he died from his injuries.

The squadron was stunned by the crash and the loss of life by accident, at this early stage of the war. It was the first fatal crash suffered by 38 Squadron since it reformed in 1935.

By a sad coincidence, the crash also cost the life of another young Suffolk airman, AC 1 John Bailey, from Beccles.

During the 1980s I was able to pinpoint the field where the Wellington crashed at Boughton and a search revealed some small pieces in the topsoil. It is hoped to form a new exhibition containing the pieces and the story of Billy at the Lowestoft War Memorial Museum.

Many more Lowestoft servicemen and women would lose their lives in the RAF before the conflict finally ended in September 1945, but Billy was one of the first of more than 55,500 fatalities suffered by Bomber Command.

The real tragedy of the young airman's death, now 70 years ago, is contained in the inscription on the family headstone: "Born Nov 5th 1920. Killed by accident Nov 5th 1939".


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