The Airmen of Newburgh

Originally Published in The Newburgh Parish Magazine (Nov 2012 edition)

 

Local Heroes (The Airmen of Newburgh)

By Alan J Barrow

 

Armistice Day approaches and once again, in towns and villages all over the country, parades will be held and wreaths will be laid in memory of the fallen. First hand accounts from soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Great War have all now passed from living memory, and in the next two decades we will be able to say the same for those who served in the second world war, but can we allow those names that are carved in stone on our village memorials to become just names, that we may know something of, or may not? Each and every one of those names tells a fascinating tale and the beginning of one such story linking three of the names on the Newburgh village war memorial was told to me some years ago by an old neighbour from Moss Bridge, Joe Fitzpatrick. After much research, the story is now complete and I feel duty bound to pass it on.

Many people who lived in post war 20th century West Lancashire will remember Joe as the no-nonsense proprietor of the electrical shop in Parbold. I lived most of my life as a neighbour of Joe at Moss Bridge, Lathom. In my adult life, after he became a widower we got to be good pals and we often had a chat, a moan and a laugh about life, work and people in general.

I already knew that Joe had served in the RAF as an aircraft electrician during WWII, serving in the North African and Mediterranean theatres of war. He worked on all types of aircraft, keeping them operational in appalling conditions. In his retirement years he discovered a talent for watercolour paintings and in my opinion one of the best and most evocative pictures he painted was of a vivid and terrifying memory that he held of being crouched in a barely adequate slit trench cut into the desert sand of a North African RAF base as they were strafed by two German fighter/bombers on Christmas day 1943.

Much to his annoyance and distress Joe’s health deteriorated in the early 21st century so he had to leave Moss Bridge and move to sheltered accommodation in Standish. One afternoon I went up to visit him taking with me some recently completed research into the story of a wartime bomber crew as a bit of interesting reading for him… Joe was amazed by the story and told me he had no idea that I was able to research these matters in such depth… he then asked me if I could do him a favour… and he told me his story!

Spending his late teens around Newburgh, Parbold and Burscough, Joe used to be pals with a group of local lads who all shared a passion for motorbikes, he gave me three names; Wilfred Wilkinson, Bruce Horrocks and Noel Green, all of whom I immediately recognised as names inscribed on the Newburgh war memorial. Joe told me with great sadness that at the outbreak of World War Two all four of them had volunteered for aircrew together, the other three were eventually accepted for flying training but as a qualified electrician Joe was told to his bitter disappointment that he was too useful on the ground and would not be able to fly. Joe returned from service overseas at the end of the war to discover that his three pals had all been killed in action, only he had survived, most likely because his trade had prevented him from operational flying.

With much regret, Joe confessed that after the war he had never gone to visit the families of his old pals, or even find out how and where they had died, he just cut it from his mind and got on with life, as did so many of his generation, dealing with such widespread loss. Clearly this weighed heavily on his shoulders and probably the reason he did not openly discuss his service with many, but now in the twilight of his life he wanted to know exactly what happened and could I help???

The short answer was yes, and a few weeks later I visited him with a summary of how two of the three had died, Noel Green however, proved to be a more complex mystery that has only recently been fully resolved. Sadly, Joe passed away shortly afterwards but I learned that the information I did manage to find for him remained at the top of his reading pile…and how proud he was of his old pals!

All three of Joe’s friends died as operational aircrew on Avro Lancaster bombers, their respective fates are briefly summarized as follows;

In November 1943, Pilot Officer Wilfred Wilkinson DFC was the flight engineer on the all commissioned, all decorated crew of the flight commander of 156 Squadron, an elite crew from an elite Pathfinder squadron, whose duty was to identify and mark the target with flares on which the main force would bomb, Their Lancaster was brought down in flames to the west of the “target for tonight” Berlin, by a likely combination of night fighter attack and ground anti-aircraft fire. All seven of the crew were killed with only the bodies of the pilot and the two gunners recoverable from the wreckage. Wilf Wilkinson has no known grave.

In May 1944 Rear-Gunner Sergeant Noel Green and his crew from 576 Squadron were part of a large, main force detailed to attack the railway marshalling yards at Aachen. This raid was planned in support of the upcoming D-day landings due in a couple of weeks time as Aachen was a key point for handling supplies and reinforcements on the rail network between the German Reich and the Normandy coast. Their Lancaster was torn apart by cannon fire from an attacking German night fighter, none of the crew managed to jump and the aircraft went down in flames crashing near the German/Belgian border, only the bodies of the two gunners were recoverable from the wreckage. Noel Green lies alongside his fellow gunner and crewmate in the Rheinberg War Cemetery to the west of the industrial Ruhr. Twenty seven other bombers were lost on this raid, each with a crew of seven or eight men.

In August 1944 Flight Sergeant Bruce Horrocks was the mid-upper gunner on a 218 Squadron Lancaster shot down over Belgium whilst on a mission to attack the Opel Engineering works in Russelsheim. This was the crew’s first operational trip in an Avro Lancaster, the squadron having just converted from Short Stirling’s, this was also the first operational loss of a Lancaster for 218 Squadron. The aircraft was crippled by an attacking night fighter and the skipper gave the order to bail out. The pilot and navigator went down with the aircraft, but the other five crewmen managed to jump and were captured on the ground.

Sadly, both Bruce Horrocks and the wireless operator had been mortally wounded in the attack and died later the following day as prisoners in a Belgian hospital. Bruce Horrocks was at first interred near to where he died, but at the end of hostilities was re-interred at the Hotton War cemetery also in Belgium. The crew’s regular rear gunner had been taken off flying duties due to a serious eye infection and another gunner sent in his place, the following morning he received the devastating news that his friends had “failed to return.”

Joe also told me that his lasting memory of Noel Green was a boisterous exchange of banter across the platform of Parbold railway station early on in their RAF careers, as one was coming home on leave and the other returning to station, they never saw each other again.

All three men left young widows to grieve.

 

Joe’s pals were just another three of the 55,573 British and Commonwealth Bomber Command airmen, all volunteers, our brightest and best, young men who died violent, terrifying and dramatic deaths in the name of the freedom that we have reaped. Remember them, remember their deeds, know how they died and where they lie, pass on their stories down the generations so as they don’t become just meaningless names carved in stone…..after all, they were Newburgh lads.

“They shall not grow old”

Alan J Barrow

 

 

 

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