Pilot - P/O Thomas Benzie Forbes - 148437


Link to Commonwealth War Graves Record of Commemoration ©

On 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.

My 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.

On 6th 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.

The Lend-Lease 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 to Britain.

Whilst 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.

Also 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 '42).

On gaining 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.

The Lancaster 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.

After 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.

Tom had 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 them.

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.

Disaster 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.

Four 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.

It has 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.

Through 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.

I would 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.

This website is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents:

Thomas Benzie Forbes 1912 - 1943
Jessie Louise Forbes 1916 - 2004