Bill Thurlow, Flight Sergeant and Warrant Officer Second Class in the Royal Canadian Air Force died in July of 1942 along with six others members of the 405 Squadron when the Halifax Bomber they were on crashed after returning from a night time bombing mission in Germany.

There are slightly different versions about what led to that crash. Two of them were recorded in the history books while a third came from a gentleman named George Hexter whose brother Bob was on the crew that died.

 

1938 KCI Senior Boy’s Basketball team. Left to right Bob Anderson, Grant Huber (Capt), John Herman, Mr. Ed Devitt (Coach) Harold Breiner, Jim Spohn, Bill Thurlow. (Courtesy: KCI)

 

RCAF training

Bill Thurlow trained with the Royal Canadian Air Force for two years in Canada and Britain before taking part in combat missions that flew out of the airfield at Pocklington Village in East Central England. Thurlow was skilled in navigating by the stars with a sextant that would guide pilots when flying in total darkness.

The airfield was so basic that there were no hangars for the aircraft and ground crew would work on the planes outside in any type of weather. Radar and UHF radio equipment wouldn’t be introduced until 1943. Landing a bomber under the shadow of moonlight proved to be challenging. Crews looked to a landmark to land their aircraft. This is one of the reasons why bombing missions were conducted under clear night skies.

The 405 squadron first trained on Lancaster bombers, had only a four-member crew, before transferring in April of 1942 to the Halifax bombers, which required a seven-member crew. By May 29, 16 of the aircraft were ready for bombing missions.

 

This appeared in the school yearbook the Grumbler. The introduction said: “This issue of the Grumbler goes to press during a crucial period of the world’s history. In this era of rapid transition, our immediate aim is of course, to preserve our mighty empire and the fine ideals for which it stands, by hurling back the barbaric forces that are striving for world domination and the subjugation of enlightened democratic peoples.” By the end of the Second World War 116 KCI graduates who enlisted lost their lives. (Courtesy:KCI)

New Street, Pocklington Village, 1942

On Thursday, July 23, at 23:50 hours, Thurlow and his crew set out on a bombing mission headed for Duisburg, Germany. The over five hour return flight would have them back to the Pocklington Air base between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m.

Something went terribly wrong just before landing.

In their book, They Shall Grow Not Old, Les Allison and Harry Hayward said Thurlow’s Halifax Bomber was returning from a bombing mission and was making a circuit prior to landing when the plane went into a spin and crashed at Pocklington Village, Yorkshire.

“One of these losses occurred on the nights of July 23 and 24th, while returning from Duisburg,” said Allison and Hayward. “The Halifax struck a house in Pocklington and bounced off into a school. All 8 crewmen perished in the subsequent explosion and fire.”

The same information is in the annals of the National Defence Imagery Library again indicating that the bomber was returning from an operational sortie and said it spun into the ground due to engine failure.

Robert Hexter’s Observers and Air Gunner’s Flying Log Book. (Courtesy:George Hexter)

Pocklington Village 1985

George Hexter recounts another story he heard during the war from a friend of his brother. It helps explain why the bomber was on second circuit before landing. Apparently another bomber coming in for a landing put Albright’s plane off course.

Hexter took a trip to Pocklington Village in 1985, 43 years after his older brother Bob was killed. He told me he spoke to a resident historian of Pocklington who had been a young man when the Halifax bomber crashed.

“He showed me where the aircraft had come across New Street striking a house,” said Hexter. “The plane swung around and the rear turret broke off hitting the side of the house he was living in.“

Hester explained the aircraft would finally land on New Street, taking out part of a house and  fence and damaging a school. The aircraft, was consumed by fire.

“Air raid wardens were on the scene instantly. But the aircraft was consumed by fire and they couldn’t get near it because of the heat,” said Hexter.

“Of course they could hear screaming voices of some crew coming from the bomber. That’s an awful way to die.”

Charles and Ruby Thurlow would have received a similar telegram informing them of Bill’s death. (Courtesy George Hexter)

The names of those who died on that bombing mission:

  • Pilot R.B. Albright
  • Flying Officer George Strong.Strong was on his first training flight and was referred to as a ‘second dickie’.
  •  Flight Sergeant and Warrant Officer Second Class William Charles Thurlow
  •  Flight Sergeant R.W. Hexter
  •  Flight Sergeant T.R. Owens
  •  Sergeant M.W. Aperson (RAF); W. Colloton (RAF); and A.J. Western (RAF) were also killed.

 

News at home

The July 28, Kitchener Daily Record headline read:

23 year old Bill Thurlow 20th Twin City War victim.

Official notification from the Chief of Air staff at Ottawa has been received by Mr. and Mrs. C.F. Thurlow, 184 Lydia Street, that their son and only child. 

Flight Sergeant William Charles Thurlow, 23, had been killed on active service July 24th.
The funeral was held in England yesterday at 6 am from Pocklington in Barmby Moore Churchyard

A private service was held at the Thurlow home the night before. Bill was to return home on furlough to be married.

 

Bill Thurlow, front page news story in the Kitchener Daily Record, July 1942. (Courtesy: Kitchener Daily Record)

Gravesite

Bill Thurlow is buried in Row D, Grave 1 at the Canadian War Cemetery which is located in the Village of Barmby-on-the-Moor in the St. Catherine parish Churchyard, Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. The Churchyard is about ten kilometres south-east of York. Thurlow is one of 54 Canadian airmen buried there.

 

Bill Thurlow’s tombstone at Barmby Moor Churchyard. (Source: archives.ca)

Footnotes

The story of Bill Thurlow was discovered during research I undertook on the former owners of my home in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Bill lived in my house from 1937 to 1939 with his parents Charles and Ruby. Charles moved his family from Toronto where he accepted a job at Schneiders Pork and Beef Packing Company in Kitchener where he worked as a chemist.

I have written previously about the quick trip to the library that turned into a five year independent research project on the 1930s home my wife and I had purchased. 16 owners came before us and I was able to find not only the historical facts and dimensions about the lot our home was built on, but was lucky enough to find photos and stories of some of the people who lived on the street from 1930 to 1958. This is just one of them.

While most of the information was discovered in the Grace Schmidt Room of the Kitchener Public Library, all war time stories came from George Hexter.  He educated me on life as a flight officer from their training process to how to properly salute.

I first made contact with George Hexter of London, Ontario, when he was in his 80s and was at a stage in his life when he was comfortable to speak about his service in the RCAF as a Flight Sergeant, the war and his family’s loss.

A photo of my visit with George Hexter where he recounted stories of his time in the RCAF during the Second World War.