Notes about a memorial to the John Wenham crash

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Title

Notes about a memorial to the John Wenham crash

Description

Notes produced for a service at North Marston church where a memorial was to be sited.

Date

2005-01-04

Temporal Coverage

Coverage

Language

Type

Format

Three typewritten sheets

Publisher

IBCC Digital Archive

Rights

This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

Contributor

Identifier

SWenhamJW1894709v10002-0001, SWenhamJW1894709v10002-0002, SWenhamJW1894709v10002-0003

Transcription

Joy

NORTH MARSTON MEMORIAL SERVICE 4TH JANUARY 2015

Seventy years ago today, towards the end of the Second World War, six young men tragically lost their lives when their plane crashed in North Marston. The men, based at Westcott Airfield (between Aylesbury and Bicester), belonged to No 11 Operational Training Unit and they were finishing their training for Bomber Command.

That evening of 4th January 1945 they climbed into their Vickers Wellington plane for a routine night navigation exercise. The two-engined Wellington was widely used to train air crews before they moved on to the larger four-engined Lancaster bomber.

The crew on board Wellington HE740 that night comprised three members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and three members of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve: six young recruits who, on arrival at Westcott on 17th October 1944 (just 2 and a half months earlier) would have formed their own team comprising a pilot, a navigator, a wireless operator, a bomb-aimer, and two air gunners. Four of the crew had already done initial training in Canada.

The crew from New Zealand were: the pilot, Flight Sergeant [underlined] Michael Reece [/underlined] aged 21; the wireless operator, Flight Sergeant [underlined] Donald McLennan [/underlined] aged 21; and the air bomber, Flight Sergeant [underlined] Alexander Bolger [/underlined] aged 23.

The three British lads were the plane's navigator, Sergeant [underlined] Ian Smith [/underlined] aged 22 from Beckenham in Kent, and the two young air gunners, both aged 19: Sergeant [underlined] John Wenham [/underlined] from Maidstone in Kent and Sergeant [underlined] Reginald Price [/underlined] from Brighton in Sussex.

During their first couple of months together as a team we know (from letters written home by Alex Bolger) that they got on well. He says,

"I'm in a crew, 3 NZ and 3 English boys, a pretty good lot so it's fun and games…..it's Saturday evening and everything is quiet in the hut. The navigator is doing a spot of mending, very keen type, and the pilot is amusing himself rolling smokes out of my weed...at present our rear gunner is holding the floor and he is a wizard and I am splitting my sides laughing at him". He thanks his mother for the cake she has sent but prefers the ginger snaps as they fit more easily in his pocket!

[page break]

The war had already had a personal impact on some of this young crew; Don McLennan's brother Angus had tragically been killed in 1941 when the ship on which he was a POW was torpedoed; Michael Reece's brother, also in the RNZAF, was at that time "missing in action" (and, unknown to Michael, was in fact in Stalag Luft 3 as a POW but fortunately survived); Alex Bolger was fearful for his brother in the RNZAF in the Pacific.

So, at 7.10pm on 4th January 1945, this group of young men took off from Westcott in Wellington HE740 (Alex probably with his pockets stuffed full of ginger snaps!) The night was bitterly cold and there was considerable cloud.

In North Marston just 7 miles away the villagers would have been used to hearing bombers flying overhead as another airfield, Little Horwood, was also close by, but to the people of North Marston that evening this plane sounded different; it was very low and it appeared to be in trouble. Many villagers heard the plane crash that night and four in particular often recounted their memories about it. Clifford Cheshire was out with his father helping to deliver groceries at Hogshaw. Eveline Parker was in the back yard of her cottage in Quainton Road (now Dudley Close) and Chris Holden with his friend Tommy Cray were at Tommy's cottage near The Bell (now The Pilgrim).

Wellington HE740 crashed into the field near Brook Farm at the bottom of Quainton Road just ten minutes after it had taken off from Westcott. Tommy and Chris heard the explosion from the top of the High Street; Clifford and his father, in order to get back to the village, had to pass right by the field where the plane had sadly crashed. Clifford remembers part of the road being on fire.

All six young men had perished. All but John Wenham were buried in Botley Cemetery, Oxford just eight days later on 12th January. John was taken home to Maidstone Cemetery.

Two of those witnesses to the crash, Eveline and Chris, have now passed away, but Tommy is here in church today. During his lifetime, Chris Holden had always expressed sadness that there was no memorial in the village to these young men. With the 70th Anniversary of the crash approaching, it seemed a fitting time to put this right and NMHC set about planning for a memorial to be erected in the church. Jayne, Chris's daughter, offered the donations given at her father's funeral towards the cost. Chris would have been delighted. We have also been overwhelmed by the kind generosity of so many others, both in the village and outside, who have supported us in our venture.

Although the memorial itself is not yet in place, a facsimile of it can be seen on the rear wall where it will officially be unveiled at another service on 25th April.

[page break]

During the last five months we have succeeded (with the help of war records, local newspapers and modern technology) in tracing the relatives of all six of the young crew, Jayne herself making the initial contacts in NZ back in August.

When our booklet was written we had all but given up hope of finding any relatives of Ian Smith and Reginald Price (and therefore no photos of them could be included) but we are thrilled to have now succeeded, and we are truly delighted to welcome to church this morning relatives of Ian Smith, John Wenham and Michael Reece (and I would like to mention one of them especially: Joy Colbeck, John Wenham's sister, who is now in her nineties). We are honoured to have you all here and know that many of you have travelled quite a distance, so thank you. We do hope that we will see you again in April when we will also be welcoming more relatives from NZ (who have, we know, already booked their flights!)

All of us who have been involved in investigating this tragic crash and tracing the families of the boys who died have found it extremely rewarding but also very poignant. We have been pleased to have been able to clarify some of the details of that night and have been heartened that the families now know of each other. We have met through email and in person some wonderful people and the photographs, letters and family stories we have been sent have proved very touching.

It has been an honour to find out the stories behind the young men so tragically killed here that night in 1945.

Collection

Citation

“Notes about a memorial to the John Wenham crash,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 28, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/24711.

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