November 27. St. Symphorien received first and last WW1 UK fatalities. Roll of Honour

The first and last British casualties of WW1 were buried at St Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons where there are British, Empire and German graves. In 1941 a Nazi spy was arrested in Dublin. In 1943 38(Irish) Brigade including the London Irish Rifles crossed the Sangro river in Italy. On this day in 1940, 1941 and 1944 the remains of three RAF men were brought home for burial in Belfast and Omagh. Today’s veterans are both medics from Draperstown Manse and Castlerock, former students at Campbell College and Queens.

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  1. On take off, Lancaster Q-Queenie in which Sgt Billy McClune was the bomb-aimer was climbing for about eleven minutes. At 1,000 feet the bomber was beginning a turn when disaster struck. It was on a wrong heading and too low and tore through a hillside of fields and hedges, before a massive explosion collapsed the Lanc into a disintegrating inferno.
    The tail gunner, Sgt Ricky Dyson, was knocked unconscious. When he came round he found himself still sitting in his turret which, with a section of the aircraft’s fuselage, had been ripped off and catapulted away from the burning wreckage. Once conscious Dyson quickly realised what had occurred.With full fuel tanks and a full bomb load Q-Queenie had crashed into high ground, exploded and burst into flames.
    Part of the fuselage behind Dyson’s turret was also on fire, blocking any escape
    that way. He struggled out of his flying suit, grabbed an axe held in the turret for that very situation and hacked at the perspex, breathing in smoke and flames
    that were engulfing it from behind. His first strokes only chipped at the toughened perspex until ever despairing blows broke open a small opening. He scrambled through, fell to the ground on to his back, then ran into the dark while behind him his gun-turret filled with roaring flames. In his headlong dash for safety Dyson collapsed into a hedge.
    Looking back at the burning Lancaster and hearing cries for help, Dyson instinctively rushed to see if he could rescue any of the other crew members. He found the pilot, Presland, still trapped in his cockpit, one leg severed below the knee, flames licking at his body. Amidst the smoke, fire and exploding ordnance, Dyson managed to pull Presland free and dragged him some way from the aircraft.
    Going back again, he beat at the flames and pulled out, first, the bomb-aimer, Sergeant Billy McClune. Next he found the navigator, Sergeant Alan Probert, who was seriously injured with his clothing on fire, about fifteen yards from the aircraft. Dyson put out the flames with just his hands. Dyson tried but failed to rescue mid-upper gunner Jack Fender. He was himself found by the rescue parties wandering around, suffering from shock. The pilot, Doug Presland, and mid-upper gunner Jack Fender, had severe burns and other serious injuries, whereas Dyson’s ‘were only slight. The horror of that night was printed on my mind for ever’.
    Fender was freed by firemen; both he and Presland survived after prolonged hospital care. All other crew members died of their injuries. Dyson received extensive treatment for burns to his face and hands, followed by extensive medical treatment, before being sent on recuperative leave. In addition to clinical care, psychological assessment would follow.


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