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Broken Wings, Immortal Glory - The Story of 214 Squadron
RAF Bomber Command

 

Saturday, June 26 1993 was the 50th anniversary of the death of John Frederick Tritton and four other members of 214 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, who were killed when their Stirling aircraft crashed in Holland.  Paul Tritton has researched John's brief flying career and his selfless action during the last moments of the bomber's flight.

 

JOHN was the eldest child of Frederick James and Grace Emily (nee Webb) Tritton. He lived with his parents, brother Frank and sister Freda at No. 5 Thurlestone Road, London SE27. He was a 7 x grandson of Henry Tritton of Wickhambreaux and a great-grandson of one of five brothers who moved from Wingham, Kent, to London in the early 19th century.



John, while
training in Canada in 1942
 (Photo
by courtesy of Freda Hodgson)

Frederick Tritton was a process etcher on the Daily Express in Fleet Street. John served an apprenticeship as a process artist on the Daily Sketch and was called-up for service with the Royal Engineers on June 13, 1940. His military service records state that he was 5 ft 5 in. tall, with dark brown hair, hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. In 1942 he was trans­ferred to the RAF and qualified as a bomb aimer.

He returned home a few days before Christmas, having been given a temporary commision and promoted to the rank of pilot officer. Freda, who was 18 at the time, told us: "He came home laden with presents for all of us — Frank still has his, a superb leather sponge case with an oiled silk lining. I had real silk stockings — unheard of in wartime — and a gorgeous pair of pink satin pyjamas. He was a very home-loving chap. I cannot remember him losing his temper with anyone.

 

"He was nine years my senior so I was always regarded as the little sister.' I loved him dearly but didn't know him that well. How­ever I know he had many friends — of both sexes. He was such an easy going sort of fellow. Always very well dressed; very fussy about clean shoes and tidiness. His uniforms were always immaculate."

Frank Tritton, who was 21 years old when he saw John for the last time, has similarly happy memories of him: "I can't recall him ever being angry in spite of having to contend with two young siblings! He was a very good swimmer and on many weekends took me to Streatham baths and also quite regularly to the skating rink. He played tennis frequently and was treasurer of our local club. Wireless was another of his hobbies. He built our first valve set and made the cabinet for it.

 

Their 'drop zone' was near Heligoland Bay. At 02.12 hrs John flicked a switch on the control panel in his compartment in the nose of the aircraft and released his mines. At 04.40 the crew landed safely at Chedburgh and that evening probably went to the 'Marquis of Cornwallis' pub opposite the airfield to celebrate John's birthday.

On Wednesday, June 24, Church's crew was part of a force of 630 bombers that raided Wuppertal-Elberfeld. They took off at 22.30 with 1,080 41b incendiaries and 88 301b incendiaries.  Near Cologne their aircraft was hit by flak but no-one was injured.  Over the target, John did the job he had been trained to doC calling out course corrections to the pilot, releasing the bombs, and operating the camera that all bombers carried to photograph the results of their sortie. Then, no doubt he shouted over the inter­com the words that all bomber crews longed to hear at this moment during an 'op' 'Photograph taken. Let's get the hell out of here.' They arrived back  at Chedburgh at 0415.

 

John was 'on ops' again with Bernard Church's crew the following night (June 25/26), for a raid on Gelsenkirchen. The aircraft they had flown on their earlier 'ops' was out of service, due to damage sustained the previous night, so they were allocated a brand-new aircraft, BK767. Their wireless operator, Sgt W.C. Thomas, reported sick shortly before take-off so the squadron's signals leader, Flying Officer Keith Neilson, took his place.

Sunset that night was at 22.22 — one hour later than it will be on June 25 this year since DBST provided an extra hour of daylight in the evening. BK767 took off at 23.48. Reports written imme­diately after the raid merely state: 'Nothing was heard of this air­craft, which is missing.' However, thanks to eye-witness accounts and recent research in Britain and Holland, we now have an almost complete story of BK767's last moments.

At Aalten, near the German border, Air Raid Precautions wardens saw 'a burning aeroplane crashing in the south west direc­tion' at 01.23 hrs. Two minutes later it disintegrated on a farm at IJzerlo, 5.5 km from Aalten. Chief warden Jacob Tilbusscher repor­ted: "The !plane came down on farmland belonging to Gerrit H. Jan ter Horst and Gerrit van Lochem. Five occupants of the airplane died in the crash." The aircraft, which had evidently been hit by 'flak' and then shot down by an ME110 nightfighter piloted by Oberleutnant Ludwig Meister, was later identified as BK767. The men who died were Bernard Church, John Tritton, Sgt William Harris Thompson (flight engineer) and air gunners William Thomas Davis and Frederick Mills. Sgt E.G. Taylor (the navigator) and Keith Neilson parachuted to safety but were captured by the Germans.

John and his comrades were buried in Berkenhove Cemetery, Aalten, on June 29. Next day a wreath was secretly laid beside their graves, bearing the words 'Broken wings, immortal glory. From the Dutch people'. Soon afterwards it was removed by the German authorities.
 

 

 

Mr ter Horst and Mr vanLochen, who saw the bomber crash, have given me eye-witness accounts of the incident and the devastation it caused, and it is obvious that no one who was still in the 'plane during its final moments had any chance at all of surviving.Freda remembers how news of the tragedy was received at their home: "When we had news that John was missing we hoped that he had been sent to another camp for officers, as news had filtered through that the rear gunner [sic] and other members were PoWs. My mother lived in hopes, which were dashed of course in time, when he was presumed killed. After the war John's medals were sent to us — four in all — the 1939/45 Star, the Air Crew Europe Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939-45 War Medal.

 

When he was repatriated in 1945, Sgt Taylor gave an account of the crash, for Bomber Com­mand's records. This reveals that, after the aircraft was hit, Neilson and Thompson were the first to bale out. Taylor was the third to go. As he made his way to the escape hatch (situated immediately behind John's compartment in the nose of the aircraft) Church jumped out of his seat and followed him to the hatch. When Taylor jumped. John was holding the hatch cover open and Church was behind Taylor.

 

There seems to be little doubt that, by selflessly staying on board the 'plane and holding the hatch open for his crewmates, John gave Neilson and Taylor their chance to escape but left himself no time in which to bale out. Although Thompson managed to jump, his parachute failed to open. John and the other casualties died as the 'plane hit the ground.

 

In Berkenhove Cemetery, about half a mile north of Aalten, their graves are impeccably maintained by Oorlogsgraven-stichting for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Every year, on May 4 (Dutch Liberation Day) the people of  Aalten place flowers there.

 

At IJzerlo, no evidence of the crash is visible but older residents can point out where it happened. Some of the incendiaries that John had intended to drop on Gelsen-kirchen were scattered in a stream on the farm. For many years after the war, when the water level in the stream dropped during dry summers, the bombs became ex­posed to the air and spontaneously ignited.Mr ter Horst has a very special souvenir — the folding ladder that the crew used when they climbed into their bomber soon after 11 pm on June 25, 1943, and stowed under the mid upper gun turret. After the Germans had removed the wreckage of the 'plane, the ladder was found in some bushes and used by fugitives who hid in the ter Horst family's farmhouse during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The ladder was presumed to be the only piece of wreckage from BK767 that had survived, but in March 1993 a Dutch researcher, Peter Rhebergen, went to the site of the crash and, with the aid of a metal detector, found fragments of metal and Perspex from the plane.

On January 12, 1943, he was posted to No. 26 Operational Training Unit where he joined a crew captained by a newly quali­fied pilot, Sgt Bernard Church. John was now 27, whereas the rest of the crew were 20 or 21. "Being the 'old man' on the'plane would not have worried him at all," said Freda. "He would have got on so well with all of them, I'm sure. He was a reliable, dependable sort of chap—great to have on your side.

 

Church's crew was posted to RAF Stradishall and trained to fly Stirling bombers. In May John was promoted to the rank of flying officer and on June 12 he and the rest of the crew arrived at RAF Chedburgh, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, to join 214 Squadron, then making nightly raids on the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland and laying mines in sealanes used by German ships. On the night of Monday, June 22 the crew flew on their first 'op', taking off at five minutes past midnight DBST (Double British Slimmer Time) on June 23 — John's 28th birthday.

 

The graves, adorned with floral tributes from local people, photographed soon after the funeral. Bernard Church's grave is nearest the camera; behind it are those of John Tritton, William Davis, Frederick Mills and William Thompson. (Photo by courtesy of Peter Rhebergen)

 


Tritton Family History