In the early hours of February 16 1944, the seven-man crew of a Halifax bomber suffered cruel luck when their aircraft made a successful forced landing on the coastal cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay – and then slid to destruction over the rocky precipice that lay in its path.
The aircraft, which belonged to No.640 Squadron, based at Leconfield, near Beverley, was returning from a mass raid on Berlin.
Heavily protected by night-fighters, flak and, at that time of the year, an almost continuous layer of 10/10 cloud, Berlin was always hard; always testing. Prior to the attack on February 15-16, Bomber Command had already launched some 2,600 four-engine bombers in four raids against the German capital since the year began. The cost had been high: 171 aircraft had failed to return and 1,197 aircrew had been lost.
The raid that took place on February 15-16 was the fifth attack in three weeks. The combined effect of night-fighters and heavy flak in the target area accounted for 43 of the 891 bombers detailed for the raid. This was an improvement on previous loss rates, but it still represented 300 aircrew as casualties of war.
Flying Officer H. Barkley and the crew of the 640 Squadron Halifax C8-P (Peter) had survived that particular carnage but the re-crossing of the North Sea posed its own challenges: the Germans were disrupting the Allied ‘Gee’ navigation system that was being used to ensure that returning crews could always ‘fix’ their geographical position relative to their base. Like a number of returning crews, Barkley was not sure where he was in relation to his airfield. He was not the only one.
Mervyn Harris, wireless operator of Halifax C8-Y-Yoke (pilot Sergeant Roy Crockett), later recalled that his own navigator also had some difficulties on that return trip from Berlin. At one point the navigator had informed his pilot that they were possibly 50 miles from base but that he could not give him a course to steer because Jerry was jamming the Gee signals. Harris had then immediately used the ‘Darkie’ channel to request a ‘QDM’. Darkie was a short range aid to navigation that allowed a ‘lost’ aircraft to make radio contact with its base (or a ‘Tracking’ station) to obtain the appropriate course to steer (the QDM).
“I called up and got an instant reply and the course to steer. As I gave the ‘Message Received’ signal, bedlam broke out: almost every aircraft was calling. I heard one very faint call sign which did not get much of a chance of a reply because he was drowned out by closer aircraft. I believe that it was Flying Officer Barkley’s aircraft. I knew the wireless operator (Jock Smart) quite well.”
As luck would have it, Barkley made landfall near Ravenscar - shortly before 01.30am and nearly an hour after the other crews had landed. It was dark and the weather was not good: there was cloud down to 1,500 feet and the generally poor visibility was reduced still further by occasional showers. It was not the best combination to ensure a satisfactory outcome but an additional complication was that Barkley still did not really know where he was. By that time, his wireless operator was using the ‘Darkie’ channel.
Vic Dagnall was living in Scarborough when I met him in the late 1990s. But in February 1944 he was a wireless mechanic at the RAF’s Radio Tracking station at Ravenscar: he was probably the last person to communicate with P-Peter before it crashed. Fifty years on, he recalled what happened that night:
“I was on watch and listening in when the set came into action and the pilot asked me for his position. I immediately switched over to ‘transmit’ and gave him ‘312º. 10 miles Scarborough’ (I think it was 312º, but I can’t now fully recollect), which was all that we were allowed to say. I kept switching over from ‘transmit’ to ‘receive’, but there was nothing. It was stone dead from his end. I kept repeating ‘312º. 10 miles Scarborough’, all the time. Then I heard an explosion, and I knew what it was. He’d been circling before that. It must have been about five minutes from getting the first call to the time he actually crashed.”
At 01.30am, Barkley’s Halifax came down behind Browside, a rocky precipice above the Scarborough-Whitby railway line, some three miles north-west of Ravenscar. Seemingly anxious to find a landing space (perhaps because he was short of fuel), Barkley had for some reason turned the Halifax on to a West-East direction and had made a wheels-up landing in a field some distance behind the outcrop – but the distance proved to be not far enough. The plane’s momentum drove it through four stone walls before the disintegrating bomber reached the precipice. Then it temporarily became airborne before crashing down on to the land just behind Stoupe Brow Farm, then the home of Mr Hayes Duck and his wife, Gertrude.
The wheels and engines took an erratic course down the slope and, amazingly, missed the farmhouse by a few feet. However, they demolished the walls and gateways at the south side of the building as they plunged down towards the sea. One engine ended up on the Scarborough-Whitby railway line below Browside.
There were no survivors.
Hayes Duck was the first man on the scene. His wife stayed indoors and went about heating water for first aid purposes. He found six bodies strewn across their yard and one a bit further down the hill. He, with other men to help him, gathered up the dead fliers and carried them to a shed beside his house and then he went indoors to tell his wife that first aid was not necessary.
Vic Dagnall told me just how close Barkley had come to succeeding:
‘People said that had there been another ten or twenty yards to spare he would have stopped before the precipice. But there wasn’t - and he went over the top.’
Details of Bill Norman’s book Halifax Squadron (the wartime bombing operations of No.640 Squadron, Leconfield) can be found at www.billnorman.co.uk. Email firstname.lastname@example.org