Sqdn Ldr Ken Butler RAF. 103 Sqdn and Operation Manna
Kenneth Robert Butler was born in Exeter, Devon on the 21st August 1913. He learned to fly at the Bristol Flying School and gained his pilot’s licence in November 1937.
He joined the RAF and in September 1938 was transferred to the School of Army Co-operation flying the Hawker Audax bi-plane. Here his training for operational flying was extensive and varied and consisted of strategical and tactical reconnaissance, high level and dive bombing, low level strafing, vertical and oblique survey photography, artillery spotting and message communications.
In December 1938 he was posted to 28 ( AC) Squadron Ambala, India. In March 1939 the Squadron moved to Kohat on the North West Frontier. Later Ken served at Karachi, Waziristan, Miranshah, Ambala, and also in Burma and subsequently became an instructor with 1 Squadron of the Indian Air Force. In later years he was to comment that his period as an instructor in India was one of the most enjoyable in the air force.
Much of his wartime career is not known although the writer has been informed he flew “many sorties” during the Battle of Britain and over Europe. He did fly Lysander army co-operation aircraft and Wellington, Halifax as well as Lancaster bombers so he probably flew at least one tour of operations early in the war and also probably undertook spells at training duties at Operational Training Units and/or Heavy Conversion Units.
Ken was posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in 1945 with the rank of Squadron Leader and took over command of A Flight. During this time he flew 10 operations in quick succession.
Above -The Butler crew 103 Sqdn Elsham Wolds 1945. Ken Butler back row 3rd from left.
In April 1945 the RAF Bomber Command and the US Air Force were requested to make emergency food drops to the people of occupied Western Holland. The position was extremely critical due to a serious shortage of food with 1000 Dutch civilians dying every day and many more facing starvation. Ken was heavily involved in these operations which were referred to by the RAF as Operation Manna and the USAF as Operation Chowhound.
Bomber Command detailed 36 Squadrons for this duty and both 103 Squadron and 576 Squadron were wholeheartedly committed to their new role.
Between 29th April 1945 and the 8th May 1945 Bomber Command flew 124 Mosquito “drop zone marking” sorties and 2835 Lancaster food dropping sorties. 6672 tons of food was delivered to a grateful Dutch people. In 8 Manna operations 103 Squadron flew 21 sorties to Leiden and 91 to Rotterdam. 576 Squadron flew a similar number operations and sorties which included drops at Valkenberg and Delft.
The operations were all flown in daylight at low level and over half in very bad weather with low cloud and poor visibility. No opposition was encountered from the occupying German forces although no official truce had been made. As one Bomber Command veteran commented years later “ It would not have mattered because we would have gone anyway.”
At a Reunion for Manna veterans in 1990 in the Netherlands Ken recalled how the Dutch people had written “Thank You” on the ground near the drop zones in big white letters. He also commented that they were flying so low they could see the Germans at their anti aircraft guns, the barrels pointing at the sky over the River Schelde, and the barrage balloons air defences were also clearly visible.
The famine was thankfully averted and, on the surrender of the German forces, ships and road transport were able to quickly deliver more aid to the population.
Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands commented in an open letter to the Manna veterans in 1990
“It is now known that thousands of lives were saved thanks to Operation Manna. The people of the Netherlands will therefore be most grateful for their manna delivered in their darkest hour by the men of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command and the American Eighth Air Force. And they will never forget!”
The Dutch people never have forgotten and Manna veterans, and indeed all Bomber Command aircrew, are treated with great hospitality and warmth whenever they visit the Netherlands.
Ken retired from the Air Force in 1947 and, for a time, was the pilot for a middle eastern sheikh until he decided to give up flying aeroplanes and took up “ flying a desk” instead. He took immense pleasure and pride from the part he had played in Operation Manna which, for him, was his most satisfying contribution to the war effort. Several years ago he arranged for a memorial plaque to be laid at the site of the Elsham Wolds airfield to commemorate Operation Manna and this was placed next to the memorial to 103 and 576 Squadron aircrew who were lost on operations and situated on the site of the Anglian Water Authority treatment works at the end of what was the main runway.
Above - Ken Butler 3rd left with 3 Manna vets including Member John Funnell 2nd left
Ken was a very modest and compassionate man who sadly passed away on the 30th November 1998 and is fondly remembered by ex colleagues and many friends as a true officer and gentleman.
Item written by David Fell
We are most grateful to Sylvia Butler for much of the information and the photographs used in this item and also James and Sue Johnson for their help.