The Runnymede Memorial at Englefield Green – overlooking the River Thames – commemorates by name more than 20.000 Commonwealth airmen who were lost in World War Two during operations from bases in North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves. Their names are engraved into the stone walls of the memorial, according to country, year of death and rank. Most of these airmen where lost without trace over sea. Such was the fate of three members of the crew of Wellington BK198. This aircraft from No.142 Squadron was lost on a so-called ‘gardening’ operation on the night of 7/8 November 1942. Although the machine crashed only kilometres from the Dutch coast and German sources mention four airmen were washed ashore the following day, only two members out of the crew of five have a known grave.
RAF Bomber Command tried to inflict damage to the axis war machine from the air. Mainly by means of strategic bombardments on industrial and military targets. But crews were often sent on "Gardening" operations as well. Bomber Command strategically placed mines to hinder German shipping. The waterways were code named using vegetable names, therefore the minelaying was code-named "Gardening". On the night of 7/8 November 1942, thirty-six Wellingtons of No.1 Group were detailed for minelaying operations in various areas from St-Nazaire (France) to Denmark. Ten of these Wellington bombers were delivered by No.142 Squadron, which was based at RAF Station Grimbsy. Six of the squadron’s aircraft were sent to the Ouessant area (France) and the other four to Texel (The Netherlands). Wellington BK198 was one of four Wellingtons sent on the Gardening mission to Texel. The aircraft carried two 1500 lb. (680kg) mines, the maximum for a Wellington bomber. These mines were to be dropped from low-level. A parachute attached at the end would facilitate entry into the water. The crew of Wellington BK198 for this gardening operation was as follows:
Pilot: Sergeant Richard Francis Hill (age unknown, British)
Navigator: Sergeant Joseph Atkinson (25 years old, British)
Bomb Aimer: Sergeant Noel Briggs Collins (age unknown, British)
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner: Sergeant Thomas Woodhouse (29 years old, Australian)
Air Gunner: Sergeant Martin Randolph Hehir (26 years old, Australian)
Woodhouse and Hehir were both from New South Wales and serving with the Royal Australian Air Force. They had embarked at Sydney for the United Kingdom on 30 March 1942. The crew was still very inexperienced in early November. This gardening operation was only their first operational sortie since they were posted to 142 Squadron. The five airmen had ‘crewed-up’ at No.27 Operational Training Unit, where they were part of No.24 Course. They received the last part of their training here at RAF Litchfield during a three month period from July till October. They were posted to 142 Squadron on 17 October 1942.
On the evening of 7 November 1942 Wellington BK198 was the third out of four aircraft of 142 Squadron detailed for the Texel area to take off from RAF Grimsby. The crew took off at 22:43 hours. Hill set course for Texel, which was a flight of just over 1,5 hours. The route recommended to and from the target was as follows: Base - 52.43N 05.18E - 52.47N 04.32E - Base. The captains of the first two 142 Squadron’ Wellingtons – Pilot Officer Chisholm (BJ768) and Sergeant Stanley Freestone (BK280) – both reported a quiet and successful trip. They had ‘planted’ their ‘vegetables in the garden’ without any difficulty or encountering anti-aircraft fire. However, the two other machines did get in trouble over the target. The German defences on the island (Flak Reserve Abteilung 3./845) opened fire on the British aircraft. Wellingtons BK198 and BK368 (Sergeant Raymond Wright) were both hit. Wright managed to keep control and escape from the area after the mines were dropped, but on return to England he had to land at RAF Coltishall because the flak had injured himself and the Navigator, Sergeant Johnston. Wellington BK198 was caught in the searchlights over the target and hit by flak. Hill lost control over the aircraft, either because of the damage inflicted by the flak or due to the intense searchlight glare which blinded him. The bomber went down and hit the water at 00:38 hours in the target area.
Bergen General Cemetery
The following day the Germans recovered the body of Flight Sergeant Thomas Woodhouse from the sea near Bergen aan Zee. German sources (Totenliste 124 and a Death card) mention three other unidentified airmen were also washed ashore at that time. They were believed to be members of the same crew. Woodhouse was buried in grave 141 at the Bergen General Cemetery. Grave 140 was eventually exhumed by the Imperial War Graves Commission and the remains identified as Sergeant Atkinson. The graves of the other two unknown mentioned in the German Totenliste could not be located anymore. As the aircraft carried a crew of five, it was impossible to make any definite statement regarding the fate of the other three crew members. It was therefore decided to include the names of Hill, Collins and Hehir on the Runnymede Memorial in Englefield Green, Egham. They are commemorated on panels 80, 85 and 111.
Nowadays Woodhouse and Atkinson rest in adjoining graves on row A of the allied plot at the general cemetery in Bergen. The plot contains 34 unknown burials, of which 31 were identified as airmen. However, the dates of death on the headstones of most unknown airmen do not correspond with the date of the crash of Wellington BK198. Whether two members of the crew rest in Bergen general cemetery will probably remain a mystery forever.
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