Halifax B. Mk. II, Serial No. W7710, LQ-R, Ruhr Valley Express, 405 Squadron RCAF, a sister squadron aircraft to K-King, the Halifax that crashed into the town of Pocklington. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
The 24th of July 1942 was dawning cool and clear, the first faint light on the horizon welcomed by the lilting song of a lone
skylark. As night grudgingly gave way to day, the semi-darkness began to slowly fill with the rising thunder of Merlin engines,
which heralded 405 Squadron’s return. A few short hours before, the young aircrews had been over the inferno of Duisburg,
and now a silent, collective prayer was offered up for their safe deliverance. Black specks against the pale eastern sky, the
Halifaxes were coming home, and for once, it seemed as if the Reaper was searching elsewhere for his victims.
SUSPICION QUICKLY FELL ON THE PORT OUTER ENGINE, WHERE EVIDENCE
OF A MAJOR COOLANT LEAK WAS FOUND.
Tragedy Came To Pocklington
Halifax “K-King has crashed!”by Peter Allam
Witness to tragedy. The National School in New Street, Pocklington, where K-King came to rest. POCKLINGTONHISTORY.COM
Wing Commander Bill Swetman DFC, the
watch tower officer when K-King crashed.
GLOBE & MAIL
bomber squadrons, and were already seasoned airmen. The baby of the crew at just 21 years was Air Gunner Thomas Owens from Westmount, Quebec. Although tender in years, the young Sergeant was himself no stranger to bomber operations, having previously served on 10 Squadron at Leeming in Yorkshire.
The accident investigation complete, the wreckage of Halifax K-King was assessed as Category E2/FB (a write off – suitable
only for scrap) and was struck off charge on 28 July 1942, the aircraft’s flying life having lasted exactly 20 days. The families of F/Sgt. Hexter and Sgts. Western and Colloton requested that the remains of their loved ones be sent for burial elsewhere within the UK, and three days after the crash and under a leaden grey sky, 405 Squadron bade farewell to the other five crew members of aircraft K-King. The Operations Record Book recorded that squadron personnel joined with relatives and friends “... to pay tribute to those valiant men who went to their deaths for the cause of freedom. The bodies of F/Sgt. Albright, P/O Strong, F/Sgt. Thurlow, Sgt. Owens and Sgt. Apperson, draped with the national colours and covered with flowers were escorted by officers and men of the squadron, along with relatives and friends of the deceased, to the little churchyard of Barmby-on-the-Moor where full service honours were accorded before laying them to rest.” In death as in life, the gallant young crew of Halifax K-King lie side by side with 49 other young airmen who also lost their lives at RAF Pocklington in World War II. May their sacrifice be ever remembered.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Robert Albright’s step-daughter, Beth Hutchison, in the compilation
of this article.
The seven men’s individual paths finally met when they were posted into No. 405 (Vancouver) RCAF Squadron. Initially formed within 4 Group at Driffield in April 1941, the squadron moved to Pocklington in June from where it flew the RCAF’s very first bombing operation on June 12/13.
At the time of the loss of K-King, 405
Squadron’s Commanding Officer was the highly experienced and respected Wing Commander “Johnny” Fauquier, later to gain fame with Pathfinder Force and as CO of 617 Squadron. Of the airmen who ultimately became the final crew of aircraft K-King, the first to become operational on 405 was William Colloton who flew to
On that night, and for the first time under the captaincy of Albright himself, the crew took A-Apple on Operation Millenium,
the historic first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne. Perhaps not surprisingly, A-Apple became Albright’s favourite aircraft and he
flew it on most of his ops on 405. Although still with Albright as skipper, the crew lineup varied somewhat over the next few
operations. On July 21st, Pilot George Strong, a 23-year-old from Vancouver, flew with the crew as “Second Dickey”, in order to
gain operational experience before captaining his own crew. The following night, on the fateful trip to Duisburg, Thomas Owens
became the last airman to join the crew and consequently was tragically killed on his first operation with 405 Squadron.
near the rest bunks in between the wing spars. The Merlins were also rather prone to glycol leaks, identified by puffs of white smoke by day or fat white sparks by night. In the event of a serious leak, one was supposed to stop the engine and feather the prop, but to follow that rule, one would have sometimes been left flying a four-engined glider! Often we carried on and hoped for the best.”
On the veranda of the watch office, Flight Lieutenant Bill Swetman checked his watch - it showed 4:50 am. A 405 Squadron
pilot himself and the officer in charge of night flying, Swetman was carefully watching the squadron’s return, each squeal of tyres announcing another safe landing. First home was Sgt. Smith in U-Uniform, and the next two arrivals were already in the circuit, the first of which had already been given permission to land. The third aircraft K-King had been instructed to make another circuit and was doing so when, without warning, Swetman saw a long trail of flame erupt from one of the left-hand engines. Moments later, the Tannoy loudspeaker in the watch office crackled into life and the voice of K-King’s skipper, Flight Sergeant Bob Albright, filled the room - “Standby for crash landing!”
LOSS OF A CREW IN A CIRCUMSTANCE SUCH AS THIS, WHEN ALMOST SAFELY HOME AND WITH THE
WELCOMING LIGHTS OF THE RUNWAY IN VIEW, SEEMED SOMEHOW PARTICULARLY BRUTAL AND TRAGIC.
air raid shelter under which he was sleeping. The town fire brigade soon had the blaze under control and the sun rose on a grim scene of destruction, the still smouldering wreckage of the Halifax lying blackened and shattered in the narrow street.
The loss on operations of any crew members was always heartbreaking, yet the
loss of a crew in a circumstance such as this, when almost safely home and with the welcoming lights of the runway in view, seemed somehow particularly brutal and tragic. Just who were the young men who perished that summer morning within touching distance of safety and what could have caused such an accident to happen?
The crew of K-King were a very typical mix of nationalities. Already an experienced
bomber pilot, and at 26 the oldest member of the crew, skipper Robert “Bob” Albright was a New Brunswick native. He had joined up in September 1940, and after successfully completing flying training, received his wings on 27 July 1941. Just two days later he was married, and after a painfully short wartime honeymoon, Robert embarked on a troopship bound for the UK. In January 1942, he started his first tour of operations flying Whitleys in 58 Squadron, before being posted in early April to a Halifax Heavy Conversion Unit. Also from Canada were Toronto native Navigator William Thurlow, and Wireless Operator Robert Hexter from London. Both 22- year-old Flight Sergeants had served previously on other
Sgt. Robert “Bob” Albright and Ella Mary Hull on their wedding day 29 July 1941. Bob Albright was the pilot of K-King when it was tragically lost on 24 July 1942.
RAF Pocklington’s Station Engineer Officer began his
investigation by examining the aircraft’s accident records.
Halifax Mk. II Series 1 W7769 had been built by Handley
Page Ltd. at their Radlett factory and was released for service
on 4 July 1942. Taken on charge by 405 Squadron and
assigned the squadron codes LQ-K (K-King), at the time of
the crash the aircraft had flown less than 20 hours.
The investigation at the accident site found that the Halifax
had struck two houses in New Street, a corner of the roof
of No. 24 having been demolished by the impact. The rear
fuselage had broken off in the process, coming to rest against
the side of the house, and part of a wing was found lying
against the side of No. 22. The aircraft had come to rest with
its nose buried in the road, hard up against the railings of the
Pocklington National School. The undercarriage was found
to be still retracted, right rudder trim was set and perhaps most tellingly, none of the propellers had been feathered.
Suspicion quickly fell on the port outer engine, where evidence of a major coolant leak was found. Both cylinder blocks were seriously overheated and burned and one exhaust valve had completely broken free. The Station Engineer Officer recorded his belief that because of the probable high leak rate, the coolant level would have dropped below the temperature sending unit in the engine’s coolant header tank, before a significant rise in temperature was indicated on the cockpit gauge, thus giving the crew little or no warning of an impending engine failure.
The RCAF did not train any heavy bomber flight engineers, so as was usual in Canadian squadrons, the crew’s Flight Engineer
came from the UK. Sergeant Maxwell Apperson was born in 1918 in the town of Newtownards near Belfast in present day
Northern Ireland, and he was married to an English girl. Also hailing from the UK was 23-year-old Bomb Aimer Sergeant William
Colloton from Birkenhead, Cheshire, and Air Gunner Sergeant Albert Western, born in 1917 in the tiny south Devon hamlet
of Brampford Speke.
Instead of continuing its turn in the circuit, K-King flew
eastwards until, and when overhead the nearby town of
Pocklington, Swetman heard the engine noise abruptly cease.
To his horror, he saw the Halifax stall and roll onto its back.
From the aircraft’s low height, he knew there could be no
chance of recovery or escape, and seconds later a fireball
and column of thick black smoke signalled the end of the
Halifax and her young crew. With a heavy heart, Bill
Swetman turned to the staff inside the watch office and
shouted “K-King has crashed!”
Having also witnessed the final moments of the Halifax, Police Constable Lewis Falkingham was one of the first on the scene of the crash in New Street. Although the remains of the aircraft were still burning furiously, miraculously there had been no serious casualties on the ground. A young boy named John Fowler escaped virtually unharmed after a Merlin engine fell through the roof of his house and crashed onto the dining room floor, next to the Morrison
The Following article appeared in the CWHM May/June newsletter and is
re-published here with the kind permission of its author, Peter Allam
About The Author
Investigating Officer Wing Commander Leonard Young recorded that the primary cause of the crash had been a rapid loss of coolant from the port outer engine leading to overheating, failure and fire. Tragically, examination of the aircraft wreckage also indicated that the Flight Engineer, possibly believing that the failure of the port outer engine was caused by a fuel supply problem may have then accidentally miss-set the wing tank fuel cocks, causing the previously unaffected port inner engine to fail as well. With both left-hand engines failed, W/C Young stated his belief that “The Pilot would have been unable to prevent the aircraft swinging over and spinning in.”
Halifax crews were unfortunately only too familiar with engine coolant leaks and the poor layout of the fuel cocks, as recalled by the author’s father, Bert Allam, from his own experiences of flying Mk. II, “The controls were mostly easy at hand, apart from the main engine fuel cocks, which were reached over the pilot’s shoulder, the fuel tank change cocks, which were located at the bottom of the Flight Engineer’s panel, and the fuel tank transfer cocks, which were situated
Le Havre in Wellington P-Peter on 12 April 1942 as part of Sgt. McFarlane’s crew.
Robert Hexter followed two days later
on a raid to Dortmund flying in the
crew of F/Sgt Hill. Shortly afterwards
and no doubt accompanied by a sigh
of relief all round, the squadron finally
exchanged its venerable but warweary
Merlin-powered Wellington Mk. IIs for Halifaxes. Consequently during the changeover period, the squadron
didn’t fly any operations, and the
Albright crew’s next appearance on the
Order of Battle was on the penultimate
day of May.
405 Sqn Halifax Mk. II W7708 LQ-H bombing up at Pocklington, June 1942. Shot down by a night fighter just days after this photograph was taken, remarkably the whole crew survived to become POWs.
THE THIRD AIRCRAFT K-KING HAD BEEN INSTRUCTED TO MAKE ANOTHER CIRCUIT AND WAS DOING SO WHEN,
WITHOUT WARNING, SWETMAN SAW A LONG TRAIL OF FLAME ERUPT FROM ONE OF THE LEFT-HAND ENGINES.
THE GALLANT YOUNG CREW OF HALIFAX K-KING LIE SIDE BY SIDE WITH 49 OTHER YOUNG AIRMEN
Peter Allam was born in England in 1967 and entered the aviation industry in 1983, since then he had worked mostly as a mechanic with a variety of airlines at Gatwick and Heathrow.
He emigrated to Canada ten years ago and for the last five has been a Fleet Engineer with Cargojet Airlines based at Hamilton, ON.
His father was a Lancaster pilot in WW2 and growing up listening to his stories imbued him with an abiding interest in aviation history, particularly the military side.
Over the years Peter has researched and written a number of articles which have been published by organisations such as the Canadian Warplane Heritage and Vintage Wings.
Counting them home. A scene in the watch office at RAF Snaith, very much like the one at Pocklington on the morning of K-King’s loss. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
Fitters servicing the port Mk. XX Merlin engines of a 35 Squadron Halifax Mk. II in the summer of 1942. The large coolant header tankof the port inner engine is clearly visible. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM
405 Squadron Commanding Officer W/C J. E. Fauquier at the controls of a Halifax in 1942.
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