December 17 – Roll of Honour

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Menin Gate at Ypres. Today’s Roll includes three RAF aircrew who died on Black Thursday in 1943 in pathfinders and bombers. Their war graves are in Carnmoney, Dundonald, and Denmark.

Representing their comrades who died on this day

1915

+HUGHES, Edward
Royal Munster Fusiliers, 7th Btn. Private.1307. Died 17/12/1915. Aged 30. Born about 1885 near Coalisland. The family was living at Derry, Tullyniskane, Tyrone. Son of James and Rebecca Hughes; husband of Maggie Hughes, of 67 Parkhead Rows, Bellshill. Bothwell Park Cemetery, Lanarkshire. Bellshill WM

+SMYLIE, William McAlister
Royal Irish Rifles, 12th Btn. Private. 6310. Died 17/12/1915. Larne. St. Ouen Communal Cemetery, Somme, France

1939

+McGRILLIS, James
Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Bn. Fusilier. 6979143. Died 17/12/1939. Son of Thomas and Mary McGrillis, of Long Commons, Coleraine. Madras War Cemetery, Chennai, India

1940

+HARVEY, James
RN. Chief Stoker. C/308315. Died 17/12/1940. Age 52. HM Boom vessel Thomas Connolly. Served in WW1. Had been in the Corps of Commissionaires at Belfast Ropeworks. Member of British Legion Naval Club. Cregagh, Husband to Margaret Harvey, Belfast. Son of Thomas James and Ellen Harvey. Chatham Naval Memorial, Panel 37. Family memorial, Milltown Cemetery, Belfast BB49B

+McKERNAN, William Hugh Johnston
HMS Caroline. Chief Stoker. Served 1903 – 1924. Somaliland 1906, Persian Gulf, and Bosphorous. Shipwrecked twice. From 1924 – 39 he was the caretaker of Ballymena YMCA. After recall, he served six months in Devonport before posting to HMS Caroline. Died 17/12/1940. From Gracehill, Ballymena Methodist Church RH WW1. Glynn churchyard.

+PRICE, Ernest Edward
RN. Leading Stoker. P/KX 78405. Date of Death: 17/12/1940. Age: 31. HMS Acheron. Son of Alfred George and Emma Jane Price; husband of Sarah Josephine Price, Loughinisland. Haslar Royal Naval Cemetery.

1942

+BROWNE, Leonard
RN. Able Seaman. D/SSX 20108. HMS Firedrake. Died 17/12/1942. Age 22. On the night of 16/12/1942, HMS Firedrake, an ‘F’ class Destroyer, was the escort leader to convoy ON153, with 43 ships bound for Canada. HMS Firedrake tracked a contact to about 5 miles south of the convoy, when at 2010 hrs she was hit by a torpedo fired by U-boat U211. The ship broke in two. The bow section sank immediately, with the stern just managing to stay afloat. HMS Sunflower, a Flower class Corvette, came as close as possible to HMS Firedrake in order to get the survivors off, but the weather was so bad and the sea too rough. There were 60 foot waves breaking over the two ships, which were bobbing about like corks, so the commanding officer of HMS Sunflower decided to stand by and hope the weather would get better. At about 0040 hrs on the 17th December, the weather worsened and HMS Firedrake’s bulkheads started to give way under the tremendous battering. The stern of HMS Firedrake started to sink, so the men had no option but to take to the water, and at 0045hr the stern sank. There were 168 of the Firedrake’s crew lost. 27 were rescued. Son of William John and Kathleen Browne, Waterside, Londonderry. Plymouth Naval Memorial, Panel 64

1943 RAF BLACK THURSDAY

+BROWN, John Thomas
RAF. Flying Officer.156611. Died 17/12/1943. Aged 22. The RAF suffered heavy losses on the night of 16th-17th December 1943, known as “Black Thursday”.

Belfast-born John Thomas Brown was one of many losses. He was a navigator with RAF 97 (Pathfinder) Squadron on board Avro Lancaster JB243 OF-P. The London Gazette on 20th May 1943 listed Brown as a Pilot Officer on probation to be called up in an emergency. By 20/11/1943, he had received a promotion to Flying Officer.

Brown’s plane came down near RAF Gravely, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire on the return leg of a pathfinder mission to Berlin, Germany. Severe weather across much of England, with heavy fog over airfields, resulted in many losses for the Royal Air Force. As well as the crew of which Brown was part, 4 other crews from RAF 97 Squadron resulted in 28 fatalities. All had taken off from RAF Bourn, Cambridgeshire bound for Berlin.

The other losses from RAF 97 Squadron that night were Duncan Forbes McKenzie’s crew in JB119, James Kirkwood’s crew in JB219, Ian Macdonald Scott’s crew in JB117, and Edward Thackway’s crew in JB176. Poor weather had closed in around Cambridgeshire so that landing at RAF Bourn was almost impossible. The RAF employed many techniques to get the bombers down safely. Still, they were unable to shift the fog or sufficiently illuminate runways. Some planes diverted to other nearby bases while others decided to wait out the weather.

JB243 was one of those that decided to wait. The plane ran out of fuel as they circled the airfield under the command of an extremely experienced pilot Ernest Alfred Deverill. On colliding with the ground, the plane burst into flames, leaving the sole survivor with severe burns. Son of Robert and Elsie May  Brown of 51 Wandsworth Road, Belfast. Dundonald Cemetery

+GRAY, Stanley Nicholson
RAFVR. Flight Lieutenant. 125739. Died 17/12/1943. Aged 24. 161 Sqdn. 17/12/1943 was referred to in Bomber Command as “Black Thursday” due to the number of lives lost.

Gray and his crew were on a Special Operations Executive sanctioned mission to France. Special Operations Executive flew several clandestine missions that night making use of RAF 138 Squadron and RAF 161 Squadron. Missions over occupied territory included dropping supplies and agents behind enemy lines. Gray was pilot of Mark V Handley Page Halifax DK206 MA-V. His crew was part of a Special Operations Executive sortie, Operation Wheelwright 50.

They took off from RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire. The destination was Angoulême, France. The crew returned early from the sortie due to high patchy rain, and thick ground fog over the target area. In the poor weather, the crew received no responses from Eureka beacons on the onboard Rebecca set. The fog hid signal lights and no S-Phone contacts were made.

Bound for a landing at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk, the bomber came down at Tangham Forest near Capel St. Andrew, Suffolk at 0505hrs on 17th December 1943. Gray had attempted to take the plane beneath the cloud base, which had dropped to only 200 feet.

Of the 8 people on board, 3 died in the resulting crash. On board were 2 French Agents, both of whom escaped. Bofors gun operators at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk reported the crash near the south-east of the airfield.

Son of Hugh H. Gray and Martha Gray of Cooldarragh Pk., Belfast. Hugh was a linen manufacturer. Carnmoney Cemetery

+HEWITT, Samuel Tweedy
RAFVR. Flying Officer. Died 17/12/1942.103 Sqdn. This squadron saw service over occupied Europe and it was in the course of one such mission that he died. Born in Lurgan on 18/03/1919. Son of Samuel Hewitt of Portadown Road. He was a pupil at Lurgan College from 01/09/1931 until 30/07/1937. One of his contributions to the school – the attractive mural of school life that used to adorn the wall of the History Room. Aabenraa Cemetery, Denmark. Lurgan College RH.

1942

+HESLOP, Thomas
New Zealand Infantry, 21st Btn. Private. 64178. Died 17/12/1942. Aged 30. Son of Alexander Heslop and of Rachel Heslop (nee Truman) of Dungannon. Thomas was born on 16/07/1912 in the district of Dungannon. He was one of at least six children, all born in the Clonavaddy area. They were farming in Aghintober. Thomas emigrated to New Zealand. Prior to enlistment, Thomas was a farmer living at Cambridge Road, Tauranga, New Zealand. Tripoli War Cemetery, Libya

VETERAN

ALLISON, William Walter
RAMC. Captain. Campbell College. QUB MB 1914. BCh, BAO. Lieutenant RAMC 01/06/1917. Captain 01/06/1918. Born 09/02/1887. Medical practitioner post-war. Son of Rev Robert and Louisa Allison, Kilbride Manse, Doagh. Died 17/12/1953.

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