to Commonwealth War Graves Record of Commemoration ©
the night of 12th July 1943 twenty Lancasters from 12 Squadron took
to the skies and headed for Turin. At the briefing that day there
was probably a mutual sigh of relief as the target was revealed; for
many a trip to Italy was seen as a soft target. The Italian defences
were not of the standard they had come to expect from dangerous flights
to the Ruhr valley, Germany's industrial heartland. However, as with
any operation or indeed training flight the risks of flying into enemy
territory were high.
grandfather, Thomas Forbes who had been posted to 12 Squadron on the
5th May, was one of the pilots that night hoping for an uncomplicated
trip but tragically it was not to be. In the early hours of the 13th,
whilst many Bomber Command Lancasters were flying low along the west
coast of France and across the Bay of Biscay, Tom's Lancaster crashed
into the sea. Tom and three of his crew died, the remaining three
surviving to become prisoners of war.
Tom was born at Maryhill, a Scottish farm near Buckie in Banffshire,
on 24th May 1912. In the early thirties he left the peaceful surroundings
of Scotland for London and in 1932 joined the Metropolitan Police
Force, stationed at Harrow Road Police Station, Paddington. There
he met and later married Jessie Dungate who worked as a clerk at Bernard
& Co, 436-438 Harrow Road, Paddington.
August 1941, after seeing the destruction that the Luftwaffe was causing
all around him, he volunteered for the RAF. This took him first to
Newquay, Cornwall where he was stationed at No. 8 Initial Training
Wing. After approximately 10 weeks of training, which included maths,
navigation and signalling, he was graded as a potential pilot and
travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to join 60 cadets on Course No.
6 at No. 2 BFTS (British Flight Training School) based at the Polaris
Flight Academy, near Lancaster in California.
agreement between Britain and America was signed in the spring of
1941 and allowed the US and Canada to provide staff and facilities
to train a large number of RAF aircrew, often employing civilian instructors.
There were 6 such BFTS schools in the US and many similar schools
in Canada, Rhodesia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - all
places with better weather and relatively empty airspace compared
in the US Tom made friends with another Tom, Thomas Fee who was from
Whitehaven in Cumbria. I have many photographs of the two of them
during their time in California, some of which were taken with other
cadets as well as the families they were staying with. A course of
flight training now began which would last approximately 20 weeks
(200 hours flying time) from December 1941 to June 1942 across the
arid Mojave Desert. Tom Fee's logbook mentions the following places:
Santa Paula, Adelanto, Inyokern and Tehachapi; all within 100 miles
of Los Angeles. During primary training the cadets flew PT13 Stearman
biplanes, then for basic/advanced training a mixture of Vultee BT13's
and North American AT6's fixed wing trainers.
enrolled in Course No. 6 was William (Bill) Reid who famously went
on to receive a Victoria Cross. During this time Japan attacked America
at Pearl Harbour (7th Dec '41) and sadly Tom's mother died (8th Feb
his 'Wings' Tom returned to Britain in the summer of 1942 to continue
training and in early 1943 was posted first to 25 then 30 Operational
Training Units (OTU) based at RAF Finningley and RAF Hixon respectively.
Here the initial crew was formed to begin training on Wellington Bombers;
Leslie Matthews from Palmers Green, London (Navigator), Reginald Sneesby
from Yorkshire (Wireless Operator), William Thomas (Bomb Aimer) and
George Deasley from London (Air Gunner). The climax of this training
was to fly a Wellington Bomber to France to drop 'Nickels' (propaganda
leaflets) and return to base in darkness. They successfully achieved
this on 23rd March 1943 by dropping leaflets over Lille, taking off
at 7pm and returning after midnight.
and Halifax heavy bombers were now being mass-produced and in April
1943 the crew left Hixon for Lindholme to join 1656 Heavy Conversion
Unit (HCU) for training on four-engined bombers. The original crew
of five was now joined by two more airmen; Alfred Hales from Birmingham
(Flight Engineer) and Ernest Southon from Manchester (Mid Upper Gunner).
During his time at Lindholme more bad news may have reached Tom; on
13th April Tom Fee died when the 100 Squadron Lancaster he was flying
developed engine trouble on take-off and crashed, killing all onboard.
four weeks of training on Halifax and Lancaster Bombers the crew were
ready for an operational squadron and on 4th May 1943 the crew joined
12 Squadron, a frontline 1 Group Lancaster Squadron based at Wickenby,
Lincolnshire. On 23rd May 1943 Tom and crew flew their first operational
mission to Dusseldorf. It was to be the heaviest attack the squadron
had carried out so far with Lancasters. Indeed, it was the heaviest
Bomber Command had carried out since the '1,000 Bomber Raids' of May
and June 1942 - in all 826 Bombers were dispatched to the Ruhr valley.
joined Bomber Command during the early stages of 'The Battle of Ruhr',
an all out fierce attack on Hitler's centre of industry. It would
be a bloody battle for both sides. To give an idea of the effort involved
in the next thirty days there were ten Bomber Command operations to
the heart of Germany that comprised of 5572 sorties for the loss of
289 aircraft (nine from 12 Squadron). Tom was involved in seven of
12 Squadron was at the forefront of this battle and the whole squadron
would have been stunned when no less than five aircraft failed to
return from the Dusseldorf operation on the 11th /12th June 1943.
During the afternoon of 25th June an aircraft crashed during a flying
test, killing all on board. The terrible events directly affected
Tom and his crew. On board, taking the place of another airman was
Tom's wireless operator, Reginald Sneesby. Tom had tried to stop the
flight taking place but was unsuccessful. This must have been an awful
time for Tom and the remainder of his crew. A tightly knit Bomber
Command crew was superstitious at the best of times and so Reg's death
would have affected them all the more deeply. Sgt Lawrence Mitchell
from Scotland took Reg's place in the wireless operator's seat.
The next operation was Turin on the 12th July; a long trip across
France but thankfully away from the 'fireworks' of the Ruhr Valley.
The assembled force for this operation was Lancaster bombers only
- 295 in all. Every mission was very risky but on this night the weather
hampered some crews. Huge electrical storms en route to and from the
target caused ice to form on the wing surfaces, making control extremely
difficult. The static also caused flying instruments to go haywire.
Some crews found they flew in constant thick cloud. Tom and his crew
managed to overcome these difficulties and bombed Turin as tasked.
struck in the early hours of the 13th. The plan for the return leg
to England was to fly low and head for the French coast near La Rochelle
and out across the Bay of Biscay. It is now impossible to find out
exactly what happened but Tom's Lancaster crashed into the sea shortly
after crossing the enemy coast. It might have been a mechanical fault
or from lack of fuel, the result of an attack by German fighters (at
least five Lancasters encountered the FW 190's of ZG1 - a German fighter
group based near Brest that brought about the downfall of Wing Commander
Nettleton VC of 44 Squadron amongst others) or flak from a coastal
battery or ship. We will never know.
of the crew tragically died; Tom Forbes, George Deasley, William Thomas
and Alfred Hales. Leslie Matthews, Lawrence Mitchell and Ernest Southon
survived to become prisoners of war.
been a very interesting and rewarding journey finding out all I can
about my grandfather and his career with Bomber Command. At times
it has been terribly saddening to realise that so many young men died
for our freedom and also that so many families suffered and still
suffer from their loss.
this website and other means I have been in touch with many other
relatives of Bomber Command airmen and also some former aircrew. I
managed to get in touch with a daughter of Tom Fee who is living in
Australia - she sent me some poignant photos of her father and lent
me his logbook. I have also been in contact with the brother of Reg
Sneesby who also sent me some photographs of Reginald and an original
'nickel', one of the propaganda leaflets they took to Lille back in
early 1943. I have recently visited Victor Wood DFC who also joined
12 Squadron in May 1943 and who, according to his logbook, was actually
in the same aircraft as my grandfather on a fighter affiliation sortie!
Victor's recollections gave a fascinating insight onto what life was
like on and off a Bomber Command base over 60 years ago.
like to offer my most sincere thanks to all those who have sent me
information, photographs and original documents and those who I have
spoken to and met whilst researching my grandfather's war career.
website is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents:
Benzie Forbes 1912 - 1943
Jessie Louise Forbes 1916 - 2004