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Note: this entry, originally from June 2005, is re-posted as part of Mudville's Memorial Day 2006 salute to the fallen.
This isn't my story, let's set that straight right away. This one was sent to me by Jules Crittenden, a friend of Mudville and a reporter for the Boston Herald. But Jules didn't write it either, it's by his brother, an Army SNCO stationed here in Germany. It's their family's story, though by giving me permission to post it here I suppose it's everybody's story now. It transcends time and place, spans generations and continents, and I'm proud to be able to share it with you. I'm posting it in two parts. This first installment is background, and an amazing story of discovery. Like so many families who lost relatives in that distant time and place the Crittendens knew little more than a few basic facts; they had an uncle who was killed when his plane was shot down over Europe in 1941, and that's about it. I'm of the same age, so I grew up knowing little enough about details too. I could look through my parents' war time High School yearbooks and find tribute pages to those recent graduates who had fallen in Europe or Africa or somewhere in the Pacific. It was a small school, too, but a surprising number of names were on those lists.
"What happened to him?"
"Oh, he was killed in the war"
And that was that.
It was a small school, everyone knew everyone.
Repeat several hundred thousand times, and you have several hundred thousand stories, all worth telling, few ever told. Some can still be retrieved. It's never too late, as SFC Peter Crittenden is about to explain.
P. J. Crittenden
When I was very young my Dad told my brothers and I about our Uncle Philip who had died in the war in Europe. This meant nothing to me at the time, I was too young to understand the meaning of it all. It was just another of Life's mysteries; Uncle Philip died in the war. He was shot down. We accepted it and asked no further questions.
When I was a little older, as I began to develop a grasp of the great World War II, I asked my father what type of airplane Uncle Phil flew. "A Wellington bomber," he told me. I had never heard of a Wellington. Spitfires and Mustangs and B-17 Flying Fortresses I knew of, but I'd never heard of a Wellington. I looked it up in my big brother's book of world aircraft. It was an ugly looking thing, an ungainly behemoth. It looked like a sitting duck for a Messerschmidt; which, I later learned, was exactly what it was.
The Wellington was a pre-war model; a wooden frame covered in canvas, one of the precursors of modern aircraft design. By the time Uncle Phil was shot down in 1941 the Wellington already belonged in a museum.
In 1974 our family visited Canberra. At the Imperial War Museum my younger brother Jules located Uncle Phil's name inscribed within the dome. Years on, when I was living with my Grandfather in Melbourne, I came across Uncle Phil's wings, and the telegraph informing that he'd died in the war. It surprised me to see that his wings were Canadian Air Force insignia; I later learned that he'd trained in Saskatchewan before shipping over to Britain.
That's as much as we ever knew. The older generation never talked about it. It was the War, the Big One. A lot of people died, a lot of families lost more than we. Uncle Phil died in Europe, it was over; that was it.
Then last December an email arrived from brother Jules. He had put an ad on an R.A.F. Bomber Command website, seeking information. The reply was from a young man in Britain, James Fitzmaurice, the grandson of the sole survivor of the shootdown of Uncle Phil's plane. SGT P.G.E.A. Brown has since passed away, but he'd left behind a treasure trove of information.
We never knew there were any survivors; it never crossed our minds to even wonder. The fact that Uncle Phil had died so far away from home was a tremendous loss, overwhelming in and of itself. No questions were ever asked; we were just told about the telegraph, and accepted the lack of detail as part of the fog of war.
James Fitzmaurice sent us photos and diagrams scanned from the journal. There were maps of where the camps had been located, near Frankfurt, then northwest of Berlin, then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, and finally near Hamburg. There was a photo of a Wellington IV and a photo of a Messerschmidt BF-110, the twin-engined nightfighter that shot down Uncle Phil's plane. There was even the name of the aircraft, the FU-D - "Wimpy IV", and their outfit; Royal Australian Air Force Squadron 458. It was a Commonwealth composite crew, an R.A.A.F. aircraft filled out with R.A.F. crewmen. Of course by this time it was more than Uncle Phil's plane; there were the names of the crew:
PILOT: Sergeant Peter John Maxwell Hamilton, R.A.F. (Killed In Action), age 22
CREW: Sergeant Philip George Crittenden R.A.A.F. (Killed In Action), age 20
Pilot/Officer David Kimber Fawkes, Observer, R.A.F. (Killed In Action), age 25
Sergeant Thomas Jackson, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, R.A.F. (Killed In Action), age 26
Sergeant Andrew Young Condie, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, R.A.F. (Killed In Action), age 23
Sergeant P.G.E.A. Brown, Air Gunner, R.A.F. (Prisoner of War)
There were photos of the crewmembers graves, in Belgium. There were photos of SGT Brown with the crew, standing by the tail gun of the Wellington, as he described shooting down a Messerschmidt ME-109 the previous night. Looking at this last photograph, on the screen of my laptop, was like looking through a time portal. I tried to distinguish which one was my Uncle Phil but I couldn't; they are all wearing the 1940s aviator's helmets, with their goggles up.
We're not sure if this is the crew of the FU-D - Uncle Phil's plane - or SGT Brown's previous crew, because he was just assigned to the FU-D the day they before they were shot down. Likewise, we don't know if the jacket insignia - "SATAN RIDES TONIGHT" - was the FU-D's nose art, or that of Brown's previous bomber. It really doesn't matter - these are relics directly from the event. What was significant was that we finally had the story, and the sensation was overwhelming.
On the evening of 20 October, 1941, at 1829 hours (6:29 pm), Wellington IV FU-D took off from R.A.F. Base Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, Yorkshire. It was 458 Squadron's first operation, a part of a larger air raid; the target was possibly Bremen, or perhaps Antwerp. The flight consisted of 82 Hampden's, 48 Wellington's, 15 Stirlings and 8 Manchester's. FU-D's target was Mont-sur-Marchienne, directly south of Charleroi, Belgium.
Six hours later, at around 0030 hours in the morning, 21 October, 1941, Wellington IV FU-D was shot down by a German Messerschmidt BF-110 nightfighter.
Fitzmaurice's grandfather, Sergeant P.G.E.A. Brown, was the tailgunner. Because of his position in the tail he was able to escape by turning the turret around to the right, and with the door facing outside he jumped and "hit the silk".
The rest of the crew didn't make it; they are buried in Charleroi, Belgium. SGT Crittenden had the dubious distinction of being the first Australian serving in Bomber Command to be killed flying with an R.A.A.F. squadron.
SGT Brown landed safely although the exact location is not known. He was picked up by the free French (French resistance) and was dressed up as a mute Belgian Farmer, and was passed through the French resistance until he was turned in at the last post to German forces.
SGT Brown went on to establish a career as a POW escape artist; he escaped five or six times, each time being re-captured within a couple of days and sent to camps further east, in (now) Czech Republic, Poland, and Lithuania. During the time he was a POW, Brown kept a journal, which he somehow managed to hang on to throughout his entire three-year ordeal.
P. J. Crittenden
31 May 2005
Greyhawk here: That was part one of the story, part two will follow tomorrow. Reading it led me to seek out more information on the Wellington Bomber.
Here's a picture of one, pre-mission:
Here's one flying a mission:
And here's one on the ground, its mission done:
As SFC Crittenden said: The Wellington was a pre-war model; a wooden frame covered in canvas, one of the precursors of modern aircraft design. By the time Uncle Phil was shot down in 1941 the Wellington already belonged in a museum.
But they kept 'em flying. Mostly. Here's a story of another from 1941 (source of the photo above). Here's one from 1942, and here's one from 1943. The Wellington was used until the end of the war, and actually only two survive in museums today.
Canvas stretched on a frame, thousands of feet above Germany, through flak from below and Messerschmidts from above. A far cry from today's endless discussion of the Army's failure to armor every Humvee.
(Part two of this story is here)
I served on the Honor Guard for the American Legion, Sunday in Mowata, LA. We honored the 49 men from that community who served in WWII. 7 were KIA, only two bodies recovered. And James Bollich was a POW in the Phillipines, survived the Battan Death March but had two brothers and one cousin KIA. Picked up the flags from the veterans tombs in Iota, LA yesterday. One third of all the tombs had a flag. And that doesn't count the dozen MIA/KIA buried overseas. Small towns paid a large price.Posted by Bullshark at June 2, 2005 11:02 PM Hide Comments | Show/Add Comments in Popup Window(1) | (Note: You must refresh main page to view newly posted comments here)