A Spot of Gardening in the North Sea

The Avro Manchester twin engine bomber was the lesser known forerunner of the famous Lancaster four engine aircraft, which came to be rightly regarded as the backbone of the Bomber Command fleet throughout WW2. The Manchester was not so good, just the opposite in fact. The Rolls Royce Vulture engines should have been both powerful and efficient, but they were neither. Worse still were they were very unreliable. Problems with the liquid cooling systems meant that they were prone to overheat and loose power, or even seize up and self destruct. Bearing failures and engine fires were also a common occurrence. There were other deficiencies with the hydraulic and electrical systems. Morale among Manchester crews was never good.

This is just one tale of a brave crew’s struggles with the aircraft. Had the engines been more reliable they may well have returned from this trip unscathed. They could have kept low over the sea on the return journey and escaped detection. The pilot was forced to take the gamble because he did not feel that he could trust his engines.

Flight Sergeant Willett took off from Skellingthorpe at 21:42 on the 29th of April 1942 with his crew in an Avro Manchester IA serial number L7516 as part of a sortie to lay mines near the Frisian Islands, in an area codenamed Forgetmenot in the mouth of the Kiel Canal. Mine laying was codenamed ‘Gardening’ by the RAF, and while not as dangerous an undertaking as flying long distances over hostile territory it still carried risks. Flying low, usually 300 – 500 feet above a dark sea on a dark night with no visible horizon called for constant attention to the aircraft’s instruments. The aeroplane was always less than one second from hitting the sea at those heights.

They had planted their ‘Vegatables’ and were returning over the Danish coast, the pilot, Willett, had climbed to 10,000 feet to give them a larger safety factor in case of engine troubles when the navigator, Hannah, said that he thought one of the mines had not fallen clear and was ‘hung up’. He went to the forward end of the bomb bay while McDonald, one of the Radio Operators, shone a torch through the rear observation port. While they were doing this a Bf110 night-fighter flown by Oblt Gunter Kuberich of 11./NJG3 opened fire from below and behind scoring multiple hits along the whole of the rear fuselage. MacDonald went to check on the rear gunner, Williams, but it was clear from his lack of response and the extent of the damage to the aircraft that he was already dead. This was when the follow up attack occurred, and this time the Manchester’s fate was sealed. Both engines were now set on fire and the wing fuel tanks leaking badly. With the Manchester steeply banked over taking what evading action Willett could still perform the upper gunner, Miners, managed to get a good burst of fire down into the cockpit area of the Messerschmitt and it broke off the attack.

Now Willett, knowing that they had lost much of the height that they had gained and believing them to be over land, gave the order to bale out. The Mid-Upper Gunner Scott and Flight Engineer Packard quickly got the escape hatch in the aircraft’s floor open, and Scott jumped through. Packard was now sat on the edge of the hatch when Willett cancelled the abandon order as he could now see that they were both too low and over water. Ditching would be their only option. But the ditching did not go well, the water was far too shallow and they came to a violent halt on a sandbank. Packard was trapped half way out of the lower hatch with his legs folded back under the belly of the Manchester.

The remaining four able bodied crew members all exited through the top escape hatch and gathered on one wing as far from the flames as possible. They were considering their very precarious position and how to rescue Packard. Both engines were still ablaze, fuel was leaking from the damaged tanks, there were fires quite close to large amounts of ammunition and the remaining mine hung up in the bomb bay could explode at any moment. The emergency inflatable dingy, which was stored in the wing root near the fuselage, could not be reached due to the severity of the fire.

Suddenly Packard was seen struggling on the surface of the water near the wing. He had somehow managed to get himself free. They pulled him up onto the wing, barely alive and with badly injured legs. The five men decided it would be better to try to wade to shore, but it was hard going in the dark while also supporting the injured Packard. They found that the shallow water over the sandbanks was criss-crossed with deeper tidal channels, and in one of these they discovered Scott’s body floating in the water. His Mae West was inflated, but his parachute was missing. They eventually had no other option than to return to the aircraft. They were picked up not long afterwards by some German troops using a small inflatable boat who had come to investigate the burning wreck. Later they learned that in the second pass that the Bf110 made on the Manchester, the Mid-upper gunner, Miners, had killed the German rear gunner and badly damaged the night fighter.

That was not quite the end of this tale. The Germans knew that the unexploded mine still hung up in the Manchester was of a new type designed to be difficult to ‘sweep’, and would be well worth recovering for examination. While they were attempting to remove it on the day after the crash, the thing exploded. All of the recovery party were killed and the mine kept its secrets just a little longer.

The crew were:-

Pilot – Flight Sergeant Stanley Willett DFM who became a Prisoner of War.

2nd Pilot – Flight Sergeant S E Packard Also became a Prisoner of War.

Navigator – Pilot Officer Neil Hannah Also became a Prisoner of War.

1st Wireless Operator – Flight Sergeant Hector S. McDonald Also a Prisoner of War confined in hospital due to severe injuries to one hand. He was repatriated in October 1943.

2nd Wireless Operator – Sergeant Clarence Alfred Miners RAAF Also became a Prisoner of War.

Rear Gunner – Sergeant David Alexander Williams died in the initial attack. He was the son of Vivian Vasey Woodthorpe Williams and Dorothy Maybury Williams, of Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia. He is buried in Kiel War Cemetery.

Mid-Upper Gunner – Cecil John Scott was the only one to have escaped from the aircraft before it ditched. It is not clear whether he drowned or was killed when his parachute detached itself. It is possible that he may even have left the aircraft without it. He was the son of William Frank Scott and Elsie Kate Snook of Amesbury and is buried in Kiel War Cemetery.


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