A place to remember



A place to remember


Newspaper article about a reunion and flypast at RAF Elsham Wolds. Mentioned are Mike Stedman (I squared), pilot Anseleme Vernieuwe who had escaped from Belgium through France and Spain then Lisbon, rear-gunner Tom Quinlan, flight engineer Walter Hancock, navigator Don Charlwood, base chaplain Canon David Ratledge, Sid Finn, Don Smith, Jack Lamprell, Don Wiltshire and Ken Warner.




Temporal Coverage




One newspaper cutting from an album


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The Lancaster dips its wing in salute as former base chaplain Canon David Ratledge, blesses the gathering after prayers.

A place to remember …
Former rear-gunner Tom Quinlan (left) with his wartime “skipper” Anseleme Verievwe.

Merlin engines thundering, the long, black bulk of the Lancaster banked, wheels down, towards an anxious group on a quiet field near Elsham.
Was it Mike Stedman’s I Squared returning once more from a mission against the Ruhr, the Nazi’s industrial heartland, and all the associated dangers which caused it to be nicknamed Happy Valley.
And was the assembled group made up of flyers and ground crew who always stood by the runway to cheer comrades, limping back to the safety of the little piece of Lincolnshire?
No, it was none of these. Mike Steadman was there, of course. And so were many of the other pilots, gunners, navigators, flight engineers and ground staff who had made Elsham Wolds tick 35 years ago.
But this Lancaster was shining, looked almost new and bore none of the damage they all remembered was part and parcel of a trip down Happy Valley.
Nonetheless, the occasional eye was seen to water, and many an arm was raise a s the bomber lumbered over.
“Smashing” was the comment heard above the engines as about 200 former Elsham airmen, their wives and families, drank in the rare sight… and let the memories come flooding back.
“The sound of the Merlins was music to my ears,” said Mike Steadman, as the Lancaster pulled away after its second pass. “It was an aircraft we fell in love with and the love affair has lasted over 30 years.”
Now living in Messingham, he is the chairman of Elsham Wolds Association which brought former flyers to Saturday’s reunion from far away as Australia, Canada and Belgium.
The real treat of the day was the flypast by the last airworthy Lancaster escorted by a Hurricane and Spitfire from RAF Coningsby’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
“The Lancaster was just one of those aircraft which, like the Spitfire, only come to light now and again,” enthused Mr. Stedman.
He has good reason to know. Thirty-five times he piloted I Squared over Nazi Germany and Occupied Europe – and brought it back safely.
Unlike the 1,400 airmen who lost their lives flying out of Elsham with 103 and 576 squadrons, the crew if I Squared always came home. And several “came home again” on Saturday.

Hallowed turf
“We had our moments however,” remarked Mr Steadman, standing on the former aircraft dispersal area, which is now Anglian Water Authority’s Elsham pumping station.
Most losses came from night fighter interceptions during the tour of 1 Squared. But all crews dreaded Happy Valley, with its curtains of anti-aircraft fire and radar guided searchlights which coned, inextricably, onto the Lancs.
Elsham was the base of No.1 Group, which included satellite fields at Kirmington and Killingholme. Its crews flew deep into Germany’s industrial heart and numbered 200 during maximum operational strength at the height of activities.
Crews were drawn from throughout the world and arrived at the base from many directions. None more incredible however, than that of Belgian pilot Mr. Anseleme Vernieuwe and his two companions.
They had been flying Fairey Fox reconnaissance and Fairey Firefly fighters for the Belgian Air Force when Hitler’s panzers rolled across the border.
After a period with the Belgian underground, in which they are said to have been on the Gestapo death list, the three decided to try to make it to England…on foot.
Their journey took then across Occupied France, over the Pyrenees and through Spain to neutral Lisbon where they managed to grab a flight to Bristol.
A refresher course at Caistor, another at Lindholme and Lancaster training at Blyton, near Gainsborough, followed before the three found themselves at Elsham.
Mr. Vernieuwe, now a Brussels businessman, brought his family and friends to Elsham just to stand again on that hallowed turf and remember…
“I was shocked to see the state of affairs of the airfield” was his comment as he surveyed the house which was once the control tower and the vehicle testing station which was once a hangar.
He was joined by his former rear gunner. Mrs. Tom Quinlan. Meeting for the first time in 35 years, the two recalled the FW190 and the Me110 which Tom “bagged” in one mission.
Both also recalled tricky times, like the day they were bombarded by American anti-aircraft gunners in France, and by their own navy over the channel, after forgetting to switch on their IFF recognition equipment.
On another occasions the pair were flying low on a daylight mission, avoiding German coastal radar in France, when Mr. Vernieuwe noticed some “little black dots” to starboard.
“I asked the navigator if we were flying on course, and he told me we were. I realised we couldn’t have been and everybody knew how dangerous it was to be alone over German territory.
“I said: ‘George, will you come up here a minute and take a look?’ which he did. Then I said that those were Lancasters to the starboard, were they not?’
“To which George replied: ‘Yes those are our Lancs. But we’re right and they are all wrong’.”
Another memorable occasion for many of the crews was D Day, when they were responsible for softening up German defences in Normandy.
Former flight engineer, Mr. Walter Hancock, remembered it was just another day in which the bombers has been called out on ground attack against fling bomb sites or gun positions.
“The only difference was we were told not to report anything back on our journey until we had landed,” he explained.
“I personally got the shock of my life when they told us we had been supporting the D Day landings.”
He still has the log book which stayed with him during 1943 and 1944 when he took part in raids on Bordeaux, Munich, Stettin and on eight raids over Berlin.
Such records have proved invaluable to people like former Elsham Lancaster Don Charlwood, who wrote the now famous No Moon Tonight about life at the base.
The book is not just action. Like similar records, it tells the human side of life- and death- for the hundreds of young men and women who passed through Elsham Wood gates during the war – torn era.

Empty seats
That side of air force life is almost etched on the walls of the airmen’s favourite drinking places, that Station Hotel, at Barnetby, and the Oswald Hotel at Scunthorpe – which some say is “known throughout the world,” as a result.
Today it is difficult to picture the empty seats at the bar, left for the crews who would never return. But Saturday brought the memory back for so many.
Mike Steadman summed it up: “Clearly losses upset people, but you couldn’t afford to dwell on it. It’s always sad when you lose comrades.”
And the former base Church of England chaplain, Canon David Ratledge, recalled: “When a crew was missing, there was an air of almost personal loss. But, as time went on, you could almost become to accept it. You said I was one of those things.”
As chaplain, he was responsible for notifying relatives of losses, visiting families who lived locally, and burying the dead who returned, and of whom were interred in Brigg Cemetery.
He recalled the “humbling experience” of sitting in at briefings of crews who had returned from action, and of the wounded morale and humorous occasions that pervaded his two years at the base, when it rose from a 12-crew Wellington operation to a 200-crew Lancaster centre.
He paid tribute to those memories: “I think its something that should not be lost and we are very much in danger of losing it.
“It’s the same with Remembrance services generally. Life has become very cheap and we take things too easily, for granted, often forgetting that some people had to make sacrifices which were the greatest that could be made.”
Such sentiments were expressed by the ringing of Elsham church bells for three hours on Sunday.
And, after a roll of honour and plaques had been unveiled on Saturday, they were the reason Mike Stedman chose these words to close the ceremony: “From the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

Seamus Ruddy

Aviation writer Sid Finn Who flew from Australia for the reunion.

Treasurer of the Elsham Wolds Association, Mrs. Shirley Westrup, Welcomes Don Smith from Australia. Also in the picture, left to right, Australian Jack Lamprell. Re-union organiser, Don Wiltshire, Association chairman Mike Stedman, and Ken Warner.


Seamus Ruddy, “A place to remember,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/2532.

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