Yesterday morning dawned bright and clear across most of Britain and Ireland, but apparently not in deepest darkest Lincolnshire. This must have caused great despondency amongst the planners at the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby because yesterday, Saturday 6 September, was the first day in a weekend which had been scheduled for months to be the one of the busiest for the world’s last two flying Lancaster bombers. One of these (nicknamed Thumper) belongs to the BBMF and lives at Coningsby, the other (Vera) is owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and has been over in Britain for the last month visiting its cousin and participating in a number of joint displays. Crowds up and down the country have oohed and aahed as the pair have swooped low over wartime airfields. Black tie dinners have been held under their wings. Grown men have been seen in tears.
But yesterday, all flying had to be cancelled as it was far too foggy and wet for the pair to be allowed to take off. Much consternation up and down the land. Twitter was abuzz. Facebook was full of queries.
Fortunately, there is nothing that our chaps in the services like more than a challenge. Could they shoehorn most of the BBMF’s scheduled appearances over two days into one busier-than-ever Sunday? Well, of course they could. Here is a map showing just how much of northern England, southern Scotland and northern Ireland the elderly pair covered just this afternoon. Bear in mind they had done a similar loop between 0900 and 1300 this morning.
From my point of view, I was particularly pleased that the hour taken to fly the two Lancasters and their Spitfire escorts across the Irish Sea to display to a huge crowd on Portrush Strand had remained in the schedule. This was the only chance that anyone living on the island of Ireland would have to see them – and their appearance this side of the water was a fitting tribute to the hundreds of aircrew from north and south who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. One of these was a native of Derry, rear gunner Richard Bolitho, who took part in the Dams Raid and was killed when his aircraft, piloted by Bill Astell, collided with a pylon near Marbeck in Germany, en route to the Möhne Dam.
Richard Bolitho on the left, pictured with colleagues during his gunnery training. [Pic: Bate family]
Was it worth the 300 mile round trip to spend 15 minutes on a beachfront staring into the sky at two aircraft built some 70 years ago? Like hell it was. It was a chance to connect with my family’s history as well as that of the nation, and to reflect on both. The Lancaster bomber has rightly become a symbol of the triumph of freedom over tyranny in a war whose shared memory is now fading from view, as those who fought in it – or even recall it – pass on. Long may this elderly pair soar in the skies – above our islands, and also above the vast Canadian plains and mountains. It was a privilege to see them both on this day, 7 September 2014, and many thanks are due to all those who made it possible.
More pictures from today at Airwaves Portrush from the organisers, Coleraine Borough Council.
Richard Bolitho on left, with two other air gunners, Sgt Adams (centre) and Sgt Julian Bracegirdle (right). Photograph probably taken while at Air Gunnery School, summer of 1942. [Pic: Bate family]
Sgt R Bolitho
Lancaster serial number: ED864/G
Call sign: AJ-B
First wave. Crashed on outward flight.
Richard Bolitho was born on 19 January 1920 in Derry city, in Ireland*. His father William Bolitho was a commercial traveller in the seed business, originally from Cornwall. He had stayed on in Ireland after meeting and marrying a local woman, Jane Cuthbertson, the daughter of a land steward. Richard was an only child.
In 1927 the family moved to England, first to Roose in Cumberland, where Richard attended the local school. The family then bought a hotel in Kimberley, Nottinghamshire. Richard moved in with his aunt Emily, who owned a fruit and vegetable shop in the town. He was educated at the local Church Hill School and then won a scholarship to the nearby Heanor Secondary School (later Heanor Grammar School) in 1931. He joined the RAF in 1940, but wasn’t selected for aircrew training until early in 1942
After qualifying as an air gunner, he was posted to an operational training unit, where he crewed up with Max Stephenson, Floyd Wile, Don Hopkinson and Albert Garshowitz. The five were then selected for heavy bomber training and John Kinnear and Frank Garbas were added to the crew.
Their first posting to 9 Squadron was cut short when Stephenson was killed while flying with another crew, and the remaining six were sent on to 57 Squadron at Scampton, and assigned to Bill Astell. They first flew together on 13 February 1942, but some six weeks later they were all posted to the new 617 Squadron.
Bolitho spent his last leave before the Dams Raid at his home in Kimberley. He brought two of his Canadian colleagues, Floyd Wile and Albert Garshowitz, and the Scot John Kinnear along as his guests.
All would die together near Marbeck in Germany just a few days later, in the early hours of Monday 17 May 1943, and they lie together in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, having been reinterred after the war from their original graves in Borken.
In 1946, three years after his death, his parents returned to Northern Ireland where they lived in the coastal resort of Portrush, and they lived out their days there.
Richard Bolitho remembered on the war memorial from Heanor Grammar School, now relocated to Marpool Church, Nottinghamshire. [Pic: Heanor & District History Local History Society.]
* Bolitho’s birth predates the partition of Ireland in 1921 into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast & Arthur Thorning, Dam Busters: Failed to Return, Fighting High, 2013
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.
Further information about Richard Bolitho and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.
Lynne Wilde has kindly sent me three more photos of Richard Bolitho, rear gunner in Bill Astell’s AJ-B on the Dams Raid, and now buried alongside his comrades after their aircraft was shot down near Dorsten in Germany early in the morning of 17 May 1943.
Lynne’s father was Flt Lt Geoffrey Bate DFC.
At the time these pictures were taken, in February/March 1943, he was a Sergeant air gunner in 61 Squadron, stationed at RAF Syerston. It is thought that all the other four shown here were also gunners in the same squadron. [Update, November 2013: It now seems more likely that all five were on the same Air Gunnery course in the summer of 1942, and the photographs were wrongly captioned after the war.]
Bate Bracegirdle Bolitho
Adams (Chopper) Billington
The second is captioned:
Billington Adams Bolitho
‘2 B’s and an A’
The third is captioned:
Bolitho Adams Bracegirdle
‘Still 2 B’s and an A’
Sgt Julian Bracegirdle was killed in action in 1944, while serving with 101 Squadron. If anyone can shed a light on the full names and subsequent fates of Sgts Billington and Adams, please get in touch.