This entry is courtesy of David Winterbottom.As are all photos
Harry Exley was born in Royton on March 31st 1921, his parents were Joseph & Elsie. He had a younger sister, Joan.
As a young man he was a Draughtsman, employed in the Drawing Office of A V Roe at Chadderton, and was a great enthusiast for anything to do with flying. He attended No 3 Reserve Centre at Padgate, Warrington on 14th July 1941 and was officially classified as a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, service no. 1506936, in the rank of Aircraftsman 2nd Class the following day. He then returned home to await notice to attend Aircrew Selection. In the meantime he was given the rank of Aircraftsman 2nd Class on 31st December 1941.
He joined Royton ATC and was entered on the Squadron Register as Cadet No 68. His first Parade Night was March 2nd 1942 and continued until he was notified of a date to travel for Aircrew Selection for the Royal Air Force, leaving the Squadron on 27th May 1942.
On 16th March 1942 he attended No 1 Aircrew Reception Centre at Lords Cricket Ground, London, where he was assessed for aircrew duties, followed by a move on the 4th April 1942 to the Air Crew Dispersal Wing, there to await a posting to commence Recruit Training. This was to be at 3 Initial Training Wing based at the St James’s Hotel, Victoria Parade, Torquay from the 25th April 1942, where along with others he undertook Basic Training, prior to him commencing his Navigation Course at No 1 Elementary Air Navigation School Eastbourne on 22nd August 1942.
No 1 Elementary Air Navigation School was Headquartered at the Sandhurst Hotel on Grand Parade in Eastbourne, and had the use of five other hotels in the resort as well as classrooms at Eastbourne College.
On 22nd November 1942 continuation of his practical training in Air Navigation was undertaken on the Avro Anson aircraft used throughout the RAF during this period, in this case at 9 Observers Advanced Flying Unit, RAF Penhros in North Wales along with its satellite airfield at Llandwrog. Whilst there on the 31st December 1942 he was reclassified as Leading Aircraftsman.
On 4th March 1943 experience of bombers was introduced with a move to 12 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. The unit had a variety of aircraft types but to introduce the environment of bomber operations they used the Wellington III aircraft of which there were five aircraft of the type on strength. The Wellington was built by Vickers Armstrong using a form of manufacture known as Geodetic construction designed by the legendary Barnes Wallis later to become famous for devising the infamous Dams Raid in the Rhur carried out by 617 Squadron.
The Operational Training Unit was to provide an environment of the type of role undertaken by bombers, in terms of speed, equipment and crew co-ordination. In addition it was here at the OTU that Harry was to meet the other members of his crew for the first time. The Crew of which Harry was to become a part comprised the Pilot, Sergeant William FC Knight, a native of Worcester. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 1st August 1943 and subsequently gained a Commission being promoted to Pilot Officer the following month.
The Wireless Operator, Sergeant Alfred C Petrie, the Bomb Aimer was Flying Officer Stanley J H Verney initially the only Officer among the crew whilst the Flight Engineer was Sergeant Andrew S Haxton. The Midupper Gunner was Sergeant William R Bray and the Reargunner was Flight Sergeant Bruce D Winders of the Royal Canadian Air Force one of many Canadians who crossed the Atlantic to serve their mother country, leaving his home and family in Ingersoll, Ontario.
In the case of bomb aimers training was given in accomplishing this most exacting of tasks in the often very difficult operational conditions which would be experienced. Following completion of familiarisation at the Unit, specific training of aircraft type was then followed with a posting from 27th May 1943, to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit based at RAF Stradishall some 7 miles from Haverhill, in Suffolk.
The role of 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit was to give familiarisation to all RAF aircrew destined to fly the Short Stirling bomber, comprising five aircraft, of which two were Mark 1s, two of Mark III and 1 Mark IV version.
The Short Stirling was built by Short Bros of Rochester and Belfast it was designed as a heavy bomber to a specification specified by the Air Ministry, and the prototype first flew on May 14th 1939. It was well respected by the crews who flew it and was the first four engined bomber to enter service with the Royal Air Force. It had a wingspan of 99ft 1in (30.2m), an overall length of 87ft 3in (26.59m) and a height of 22ft 9in (6.93m), its empty weight was 46900lbs with a maximum take off weight of 70000lbs.
Powered by four 1500 hp Bristol Hercules XI air- cooled radial engines with a maximum speed of 255mph it had an absolute altitude of 16900ft with maximum load. Its attainable altitude was noticeably lower than the later Lancaster and Halifax aircraft due to its initial specification and this was to lead to its withdrawal from bombing operations by the end of 1943.
Upon completion of the course at RAF Stradishall, Harry Exley was then posted, with effect from 28th June 1943 to his Operational Squadron No 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron based at RAF Downham Market, part of No 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command headed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris.RAF Downham Market stands two miles north east of the town of the same name and is bordered by the A10 road, some 10 miles south of Kings Lynn.It had three concrete runways, the longest some 5700ft in length and accommodated some 2050 personnel.
Harry's medals - 1939-45 Star, Air Crew Europe Star & War Medal
Service:Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Date of Death:27/09/1943
Cemetery:Hanover War Cemetery
218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was formed on April 24th 1918 at Dover, Kent in the remaining months of the Great War and following the Armistice was disbanded during the scaling back, post war. It was reformed on 16th March 1936 and on December 5th 1938 King George VI formally signed the Squadron Crest. “In Time” refers to the fact its original formation was just in time to see service in the Great War. In June 1943 the Squadron was Commanded by Wing Commander D T Seville DSO DFC, who was succeeded on the 28th July 1943 by Wing Commander W O Oldbury DFC, delegating responsibility for A Flight to its Commander, Sqn Ldr H L Saunders.
At the time of Harry Exleys arrival on the Squadron, assigned to A Flight, it had recently been re-equipped with the improved Stirling III aircraft. It had the uprated Bristol Hercules engines and at 270 mph were some 15mph faster than its predecessor carrying its crew of seven. The crew first flew together on the 4th July 1943 carrying out mining operations in aircraft BF446 with the same operational task on the 9th July 1943 this time in aircraft EH884.
On the 13th July 1943, they carried out their first bombing operation over enemy territory, flying to Aachen in EH 923. Their report stated they bombed on Red Target Indicator (TI) markers from 14000ft and witnessed many scattered fires. On 24th July the target was Hamburg this time in aircraft EF 825, bombing from 14500ft. Whilst the aiming point was not identified a good concentration of fires was witnessed south of the markers.
The following night in the same aircraft they flew to Essen, this time bombing from 15500ft on theTI makers, witnessing fires and smoke very well concentrated.
On 27th July flying EF825, Hamburg was once again the target bombing this time on Green TI markers from 15500ft witnessing much smoke, with an identical operation on the 29th July this time in aircraft BF440. On the 30th, Remscheid was visited in BF440 this time bombing from 1500ft on Red TI markers. They reported much concentration of fires with a few scattered to the Northeast. The marker on which the crews released their bomb load were laid just ahead of the main force bombers by the aircraft of the RAF Pathfinder force commanded by the highly respected Air Vice Marshal Don “Pathfinder” Bennett. Their elite crews were tasked with finding the target and laying highly visible incendiaries to aid the crews of the main force the “colours of the day” dictating the TI colours, were decided a few hours prior to take off and advised to the crews at their briefing.
On the 2nd August they returned to Hamburg, bombing south west of the target in heavy rain and cloud resulting in scattered fires. This was the first time the crews had flown their permanent allotted aircraft namely Stirling III no. EE937 carrying the Squadron markings HA-S delivered brand new to the Squadron on the 29th June from the Shorts factory powered by the improved Hercules VI engines. On the 10th August the Squadron target was Nuremburg bombing on Green TI markers from 15000ft seeing large fires albeit rather scattered.
On the 12th August a more unusual target for the crews of 218 Squadron was the Fiat works at Turin in Northern Italy. The crew of EE937 bombed from 14800ft on Red TI markers and returned to base at Downham Market, but the experience of one of their fellow aircraft was to make the Squadron highly prolific.Stirling III EF452 captained by Flight Sergeant Louis Aaron, was damaged to the extent three of the four engines, and two of the three gun turrets were out of action as well as damage to the control cables. Flt Sgt Aaron was very badly injured including a broken right arm but persisted in continuing to fly the damaged aircraft. As return over the Alps was now impossible, the aircraft headed for North Africa resulting in a lengthy flight. His seat was taken by the Bomb- aimer following hand-written instructions from the gallant Captain using his left hand. Five hours after leaving Turin, Bone airfield was sighted and with Aaron assisting as best he could, though very weak, the aircraft landed on the fifth attempt. Sadly, some nine hours later Flight Sergeant Louis Aaron died of wounds from which he might have recovered had he rested. In recognition of his selfless devotion to his colleagues, he was posthumously awarded the Country’s highest wartime honour, namely the Victoria Cross. Sgt Exley and crew returned to Turin on the 16th August and reported the uneventful trip merely as “duty carried out”
The next operation to Berlin was to prove significant for the crew, and is best summed up by the report submitted by their Pilot, Flt Sgt William Knight.
“On the night of 23/24th August 1943 at 23.48 hrs, 30 miles SE of Berlin. Air Bomber (F/O Verney) sighted a twin engined enemy aircraft with single fin 800 yards range starboard bow below. Our aircraft was already corkscrewing and continued to do so. Air Bomber opened fire at 600 yards with a short burst: Enemy aircraft opened fire at 400 yards and scored hits on starboard side of our aircraft holing no. 5 tank feed to Mid-Upper turret rendering it u/s as well as various holes on the starboard side of the fuselage below and aft of the main spar. Enemy aircraft broke away to starboard quarter and was not seen again. During the combat another Stirling caught up and passed our aircraft firing long bursts at enemy aircraft as it passed”.
This report was to say the least very modest and conceals the facts of what happened subsequently, which by the time the events were recognised some weeks later, Flt Sgt Cyril Knight was commissioned in the rank of Pilot Officer. As in most cases recognition, whilst awarded to the Captain of the aircraft, reflects the actions and bravery of every member of the crew.
The following Citation was announced later in the London Gazette:
“One night in August 1943 this Officer piloted an aircraft to attack Berlin. Just before reaching the target area whilst evading a fighter (see report) Pilot Officer Knight saw another bomber being attacked by an enemy fighter. Displaying commendable resource he dived to attack and his front gunner drove off the enemy, thus enabling the second bomber to continue its mission.Pilot Officer Knight has taken part in many sorties against well- defended targets and pressed home his attacks with great determination. He has displayed devotion to duty”.
Pilot Officer William Francis Cyril Knight had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A week later on the 30th August the crew went to Mönchengladbach, bombing from 14500ft on Red TI markers they witnessed a good concentration of fires around the markers with many fighters seen over the target.
The squadron visited Montlucon on the 15th September 1943 bombing from 5900ft on Green TI markers but with no results sighted. The following night, no results were seen whilst on operations to Modane bombing from 14500ft on Green markers.
On the 22nd September the target was Hanover using Green TI markers the crew bombed from 16000ft in good visibility and noted some significant fires. The crew was accompanied on this flight by a 2nd Pilot, S/Ldr Prior. The following night the crew took a different aircraft - EE884 – to Mannheim, bombing from 15000ft, reporting the area as a mass of concentrated fires.
On the 27th September once again in their “own” aircraft the crew were briefed for operations against Hanover. EE 937 took off at 1945 hrs and followed the route detailed at their briefing which was basically a straight line from Downham Market to Hanover, once having completed the run over the target a turn to the left would return them on the outbound track, their bomb load that night was 22 Incendiary Bombs. The distance would be in excess of 500 miles in total .The area bombed was the Brink District of Hanover. The area was completely flattened, the remarkable figure of 130 tons of bombs per square mile being achieved, the accuracy and tonnage was the best of the war. 678 aircraft were on the raid - 312 Lancasters, 231 Halifaxes, 111 Stirlings, 24 Wellingtons. 5 USAAF B-17s also took part. 38 Bomber Command aircraft - 17 Halifaxes, 10 Lancasters, 10 Stirlings, 1 Wellington - were lost, 5.6 per cent of the force along with 1 B-17. The use by the Pathfinder aircraft of faulty forecast winds saved the centre of Hannover and brought the bombs down on Brink instead.
Sadly, EE-937 was one of the 2 Stirlings from 218 Squadron that did not return from the raid on Hanover, it is believed the aircraft was shot down by a Luftwaffe nightfighter operating in the area that night. The aircraft and crew fell on the small town of Eldagsen some twenty miles south of Hanover, which implies they had completed their mission and were returning home.
The crew were buried together in the local Cemetery, and as in many cases after the cessation of hostilities, were relocated to Hanover War Cemetery in 1947. The crew are side by side, their graves in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The other men:
Pilot Officer - WFC Knight - 2 brothers also KIA. 28 years old. Awarded DFC.
AS Haxton - Flt Engineer. 19 years old. From Forfar
Stanley Verney - Flying Officer (Bomb Aimer)
Alfred Petre - Sgt.-Air Gunner. 20 years old
William Bray - Sgt. Air Gunner. From Cornwall
Bruce Winders - RCAF - Flight Sergt. Air Gunner. From Ingersoll, Ontario
Harry Exley and the rest of the crew of EE 937 at RAF Downham Market