Through adversity to the stars


RAF Northolt, the Royal Air Force base closest to Greenford, marked its centenary this year. Within earshot of its helicopters, as they pass over the area, are the graves of twenty men who served with the United Kingdom’s air force, including one who belonged to an earlier incarnation. Between them they give an insight into the huge task undertaken by the UK during the two world wars, both in defending itself and gaining the advantage over the enemy.

The earliest of these Commonwealth war graves is that of Corporal George Willans who died in October 1917 at the age of thirty-seven. George had been a carpenter, living in Hanwell with his wife and daughter, but by the time of his death at Chester War Hospital he was based at a Recruits Depot. Chester is near Hooton Park, where the Royal Flying Corps had moved into hangars built by the War Department to set up No. 4 Training Depot Station. British, American and Canadian pilots trained there on Sopwith and Avro biplanes which were probably at the cutting edge of air warfare at that time. I haven’t been able to find out what George’s role was but he died after developing what is now known as pulmonary fibrosis and his death may have been a result of his pre-war employment. Years of exposure to wood dust may have left him vulnerable to it.

Sidney Leawood was a member of the newly formed Royal Air Force in November 1918. Born in Ashby-de-la-Zouche in Leicestershire, he died sixteen days after the signing of the armistice. He had been a ship’s steward and a hotel porter, amongst other things, but in 1918 he was an Air Mechanic 3rd Class at the 2nd Balloon Training Depot in Richmond Park. Earlier that year the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service split off from the army and navy to merge and become the RAF. Balloons had become important as observation platforms in the field, the artillery acting on the information provided by photographs which were taken and processed as quickly as possible to create maps. The information was so valuable that the craft themselves became targets. Even before they reached the front the men of a balloon section risked injury during training as they learned to handle them, particularly in windy weather. Failing to let go of a rope in time or getting tangled up in one could result in their being carried away. The problem then became how long they could hold on for. Barrage balloons were used to protect particularly important sites from air raids and London was protected by around fifty miles of them, including clusters of balloons and steel cables which formed “nets”.

Barrage balloons also played a part in defence during the next world war and two of those buried at Greenford Park cemetery were members of squadrons that managed them. There were forty-four of these squadrons at the outbreak of the war and over a hundred by 1944. Aircraftman 1st Class Alfred Osbon belonged to 904 Balloon Squadron, based in Surrey. Leading Aircraftman Douglas Reynolds was based with 948 Balloon Squadron in Rosyth, where they helped to defend the dockyards. Rosyth had been the site of the first attack on the UK by the Luftwaffe. Photographs taken from balloons positioned there can today be viewed online. Barrage balloons were developed that would collapse onto enemy aircraft that snagged them but German bombers were eventually fitted with cutters to sever the cables holding them in place. It’s hard to imagine seeing them everywhere now but they must have become a part of the landscape by the end of the war.

It came as a shock, while carrying out research, to realise just how many airmen must have died as a result of accidents during this period, particularly during training. A range of schools and units were set up during the course of the war to train individuals and crews. Operational training units (OTU) prepared them to fly particular aircraft, such as Lancasters, or to use them for different purposes such as night raids. Heavy conversion units (HCU) trained crews working with medium bombers to work with heavy bombers before moving to an OTU and then onto actual operations. Several of Greenford’s war dead were with these training units at the time of their deaths.

Sergeant Stanley James Slade, is buried in the churchyard of Holy Cross church in Ferrymead Gardens. He was based at No. 54 Operational Training Unit, the first night fighter OTU, set up at RAF Church Fenton, North Yorkshire, in 1940. In April 1942 he was part of a Blenheim crew on a night time exercise when it flew into high tension cables near Crockey Hill, between York and Selby. All three of them were killed. In recent years evidence of the crash has been found by those researching its location in the form of fragments of the wreckage. Another casualty of night training was Sergeant Sidney Wise, based at RAF Stradishall’s 1657 HCU. In January 1944 he was a member of a crew flying a Stirling which experienced difficulties from the moment it took off. It managed to become airborne but dropped, crashing into a bomb storage area. Only one of the eight man crew survived.

Pilot Officer Harold Waite, was an Observer on an Anson when it crashed in August 1941 on Little Garvoun, Glen Avon, in the Cairngorms while he was with No. 20 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Lossiemouth, formed to train crews in the use of Wellington bombers. He was one of eight people on board, all of whom were killed. The crash site is so remote that the debris was never cleared and can be seen by those willing to walk to it. I found the photographs of it unsettling as it looks as though it happened seven years rather than seven decades ago.

Another of Greenford Park’s war dead, Sergeant Leslie Alfred Knight, also died in an Anson. He was with No. 6 Air Observers School in March 1943 when he and two others were killed after it dived into the ground at Quedgeley in Gloucestershire shortly after take-off. The Wellington carrying Sergeant Francis Sims in June 1942 went into a dive after the dinghy (part of its survival kit) worked loose and fouled the controls. He was training with No. 23 OTU, at RAF Pershore in Worcestershire.

The fact that so many of the units that these RAF personnel were associated with were engaged in training (and retraining) crews shows what advances were being made in the desperate effort to win the war, as one type of aircraft was replaced with another. It’s easy to lose sight of the dangers involved in flying the iconic bombers of this era because of the romance that surrounds their crews. In reality it was exhausting, cold and distinctly unromantic work. Hours were spent crammed into awkward spaces travelling to and from raids. It must have been boring, noisy and desperately uncomfortable much of the time but despite that every crew member was required to concentrate fully because they all depended on each others efforts. Crew members were often very young and knew that their chances of survival were poor. Around half of those who were part of Bomber Command died, yet they had already survived hazardous training exercises.

They weren’t just up against the enemy. The weather could pose enormous difficulties. In the case of twenty year old Pilot Officer Joseph Thompson DFM the Lancaster he was flying had to be diverted to land elsewhere as it returned from a raid on Berlin in November 1943. It was very foggy and the first attempt to land was aborted. During the second attempt the plane clipped some trees and it crashed, killing two civilians on the ground as well as five of its seven crew. Joseph was recorded as “deceased” when his Distinguished Flying Medal was announced, an award made for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy.”

One man buried at Greenford Park did live to see the end of hostilities and collect his medals, but only by a few months. Flying Officer David Bone was awarded the DFC and the DFM during his career with the RAF and was a member of a squadron with an impressive collection of such awards. According to the RAF’s website, “In the autumn of 1944 No. 15 became one of the few specialised squadrons to undertake daylight precision bombing through cloud with the aid of the airborne radar equipment known as G-H. The squadron flew its last wartime bombing mission on 22nd April 1945, when it attacked Bremen, but before the Germans finally surrendered it dropped food supplies over Holland. In seven days prior to VE Day it dropped sufficient rations for 26,000 people.”

Several of those buried at Greenford Park carried out essential, if less glamorous, support roles. Anyone taking an interest in the RAF during WW2 soon becomes aware of how many airfields were built at the time. This was the work of the Airfield Construction Branch which, by the end of the war, had over twenty squadrons. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pilcher was a member of 5019 Airfield Construction Squadron. Ready made “advanced landing grounds” were provided by the Airfield Construction Branch who built twenty-three of them ahead of D Day in June 1944. In the field these allowed for casualty evacuation and the transfer of supplies, Operation Overlord wouldn’t have got far without their help. The ACB was also responsible for maintaining existing airfields and their facilities. After the war these responsibilities were carried out by the Royal Engineers.

Until the Normandy landings took place the transport of supplies and equipment within the UK was a task carried out by pilots such as Warrant Officer George Reynolds of 271 Squadron. If a fighter squadron moved to a different airfield their kit had to go with them. From 1942 the development of airborne forces such as the Parachute Regiment provided the squadron with a different role and George may have taken part in training flights. They largely flew Dakotas by 1944 but they also had a fleet of Harrows which they used as air ambulances.

I haven’t been able to establish the roles and fates of all those buried at Greenford Park but I would be surprised if some of them weren’t involved with the maintenance of aircraft during WW2. While bomber aircrews faced enormous dangers on their missions their ground crews had to maintain aircraft to the highest standards despite being at risk of attack themselves.

In my opinion all those listed below, the RAF/RFC personnel buried in Greenford, were heroes. They lived in frightening times and I think it’s impossible to truly understand what it must have been like to be part of a conflict that wasn’t just happening in a far off country but was also threatening those they loved at home. Greenford had a number of civilian casualties and its factories and proximity to RAF Northolt made it a target. According to Bombsight, the website that has mapped some of the bombing of London, five hundred and sixty-three high explosive bombs and three parachute mines were dropped on the London Borough of Ealing between 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 (North Greenford ward 35 HEB, Greenford Green 25 HEB, Greenford Broadway 18 HEB). It must have been frustrating and deeply worrying to be on active service miles away knowing that wives and families in Greenford were coping with the Blitz.

It’s surprising, and sad, that so many war dead lie in suburban cemeteries, where local residents are unaware of them and their histories. I hope that the people of Greenford will take a moment to pay their respects to these men and to others at Greenford Park Cemetery and Holy Cross churchyard who lost their lives while wearing the uniforms of the UK’s armed forces.

DFM: Distinguished Flying Medal; DFC: Distinguished Flying Cross; RAF: Royal Air Force; RAFVR: Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; RFC: Royal Flying Corps.

BONE, DAVID THOMAS, D F C, D F M, 12/10/1945, Flying Officer, RAFVR, ‘171664’.
COX, EDWARD JAMES, 27/11/1942, Corporal, RAFVR, ‘1041025’.
CRESWICK, REGINALD JOHN, 20/02/1943, Aircraftman 2nd Class, RAFVR,’1318575′.
CRITCHLOW, LESLIE JOHN, 20/12/1941, Corporal, RAFVR, ‘1283451’.
DELL, JOHN WILLIAM GEORGE, 15/08/1940, Leading Aircraftman, RAF, 111 Sqdn.,’610506′
HIRST, CYRIL GORDON, 18/07/1943, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘1320056’.
KNIGHT, LESLIE ALFRED, 14/03/1943, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘1375667’.
LEAWOOD, SIDNEY, 27/11/1918, Air Mechanic 3rd Class, RAF, 2nd Balloon Training Depot, ‘75357’.
OSBON, ALFRED THOMAS, 01/02/1941, Aircraftman 1st Class, RAFVR, 904 Balloon Sqdn., ‘928210’.
PAGE, RONALD ARTHUR, 07/05/1943, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘1390505’.
PILCHER, ARTHUR EDWARD, 10/02/1944, Leading Aircraftman, RAFVR, 5019 Airfield Construction Sqdn., ‘1422507’.
REYNOLDS, DOUGLAS HEWITSON, 04/05/1941, Leading Aircraftman, RAF, 948 Balloon, ‘629581’.
REYNOLDS, GEORGE WALTER JOSEPH, 28/03/1944, Warrant Officer, RAFVR, 271 Sqdn., ‘1181755’.
SHEAD, WILLIAM FREDERICK, 25/12/1941, Leading Aircraftman, RAFVR, ‘1240674’.
SIMS, FRANCIS WILLIAM, 24/06/1942, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘1117538’.
SLADE, STANLEY JAMES, 12/04/1941, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘903494’.
THOMPSON, JOSEPH WATSON, D F M, 27/11/1943, Pilot Officer, RAFVR, 50 Sqdn., ‘160916’.
WAITE, HAROLD ERNEST, 07/08/1941, Pilot Officer, RAFVR, ‘102551’.
WEST, DEREK NORMAN, 22/12/1942, Aircraftman 2nd Class, RAFVR, ‘1605842’.
WILLANS, GEORGE HUMPHRIES, 11/10/1917, Corporal, RFC, Recruits Depot, ‘34392’.
WISE, SIDNEY FREDERICK, 20/01/1944, Sergeant, RAFVR, ‘1397932’.

This post is dedicated to W/Op/Air/Gnr: Flt/Sgt. Alf “Chalky” V. White RAFVR (better known to my partner as Grampy White) and the crew of “TARFU”, RF154 (AS-B).

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quote. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright. At the author’s request this blog site has been excluded from Internet Archive.

I owe much of the information used in this post, and leads to it, to the dedication of those who volunteer their time to research and share information on a range of sites, as well as those who have written and published books. They’ve made it really easy for lightweights like me. If you can add anything to the information in this post or feel there needs to be a correction please leave a comment below.

My partner, Martin, for sharing his knowledge of the subject.
Jackie Kenny for the information about pulmonary fibrosis.
Tanya Britton: “Greenford and Perivale War Dead 1914-1918 and an overview of the war dead 1939-1945” (adrianabooks, ISBN: 9780992939014)
Peter G Cooksley: The Royal Flying Corps Handbook 1914-1918 (Sutton History Handbooks, ISBN 9780750921695)
Census records 1911

To find these casualties enter the name of the cemetery or individual into the relevant search box on the Commonweath War Graves Commission website.

Greenford Park Cemetery, Windmill Lane, Greenford.
Holycross church, Ferrymead Gardens, Greenford, Middlesex UB6 9NF.