Flying Officer L P Oldham RAFVR and crew. 103 Sqdn
Pilot - Flying Officer Lawrence P Oldham
Lawrence Oldham was born in Birmingham, England on the 3rd May 1923 and was the youngest of 3 sons and was a very sociable and extrovert character and a fine sportsman. He enlisted in the RAF at the age of 18 and selected for pilot training. He completed his pilot training in Canada on the 17th July 1942 and on the return voyage to England his ship was torpedoed. He was rescued by an American destroyer and taken to New York and set sail for England again on the troopship Queen Mary and arrived several days later without further incident.
Lawrence was then transferred to Operational Training Unit where he commenced training for operations with Sgt Wilkins, F/O Lamb, Sgt Foster and Sgt Freeman. On completion of this phase of the training they were transferred to 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme where the crew were joined by Sgt Betts and Sgt Ingram and the final phase of training was completed flying Halifax and then Lancaster bombers.
Flight Engineer - Sgt Elmer Betts
Elmer was born in Kent, England on the 28th May 1918 and had 2 half brothers both of whom served in the RAF as aircrew. One of these was Albert Amos who flew a tour with 576 Sq later in the war. On leaving school he worked in the building trade for several years. Elmer was a very enthusiastic motor cycle grass track racer and a member of the well known Kent Motor Cycle Club. He enlisted in the RAF on the 3rd May 1939 training as an engine fitter and married his wife Marjorie in August 1940 and was subsequently transferred to Canada. This did not suit him and, such was his desire to get into the war, he returned to England and requested a transfer to aircrew duties. His mechanical background made him an ideal candidate for Flight Engineer and Elmer was accepted, and on completion of training, was posted to 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme where he joined F/O Oldham and the rest of the crew.
Air Bomber - Sgt P Eric Wilkins
Eric was born on the 1st May 1921 in Northampton, England. At the age of 14 he left school and worked for 2 years in a local solicitors office. He attended evening classes at Northampton College of Technology where he took an interest in Student Association being actively involved in both social and sporting events. He enlisted in the RAF in July 1941 and was accepted for pilot training. After pilot training in the USA he was remustered as Air Bomber and transferred to Canada for training in his new role. On return to England Eric was posted to Operational Conversion Unit where he joined the crew of F/O Oldham.
Navigator - Flying Officer Robert K Lamb
Born on the 1st June 1917 Robert came from the Hornsey district of London. At this stage little is known about his background.
Wireless Operator - Sgt Stanley Foster
Stanley was born on the 11th July 1921 and came from West Hartlepool in the North East of England and before enlisting in the RAF he was a driver by trade. On joining the RAF he trained as a Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner and married his wife Phyllis who was a member of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force. Stanley was posted to Operational Training Unit to where he became a member of the crew of F/O L P Oldham
Mid Upper Gunner - Sgt Roy Ingram
Roy was born on the 25th August 1923 in Portsmouth, England and had two sisters. After leaving school he worked in the Portsmouth naval dockyard before joining the RAF and training as an Air Gunner. He joined F/O Oldham and crew at 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit at Lindholme.
Rear Gunner - Sgt Ronald W Freeman
Ronald was born on the 19th August 1919 at Finedon near Wellingborough, England. He was one of a family of 8 children, 5 sisters and 3 brothers. On leaving school he became apprentice to a master baker and planned to join his father in the bakery and confectionery trade after the war. Illness caused him to miss some of his schooling and he continued his studies after he left school undertaking a home study course. Ronald was very interested in aviation and was saving to take flying lessons. He enlisted in the RAF in November 1940 and his first duty was that of a batman to a Wing Commander but he soon applied for aircrew duties and was accepted to train as an Air Gunner. After a period of training, which he completed successfully, he was posted to Operational Training Unit where he joined the crew of F/O Oldham. Ronald married his wife Irene on the 26th December 1942.
Flying Officer Oldham and his crew were all posted to 103 Sq at Elsham Wolds on the 15th June 1943. They undertook several further training flights before being detailed for their first operation on the night of the 3/4th July 1944.
Operation - 3/4th July 1944.
Target - Cologne. The aiming point was the part of the city situated on the East bank of the River Rhine which was an area occupied by much industry. Marking was to be carried out by Oboe equipped Mosquito aircraft and backers up. The total force committed to this attack was 653 aircraft - 293 Lancasters, 182 Halifaxes, 89 Wellingtons, 76 Stirlings and 13 Mosquitos.
23 Lancasters and crews were detailed by 103 Sq for this operation
Route - Elsham Wolds, Southwold, Knocke, 5028N/0632E, Target, Turn Right, 5047N/0723E, 5012N/0644E, 5020N/0132E, Dungeness, Elsham Wolds.
Flying Officer Oldham and crew flew Avro Lancaster PM-O W5012 which carried a bomb load of 1 x 4000 HC, 540 x 4lb ( inc 30 x type ), 48 x 30lb inc, 1 x 500lb MCLD, 3 x 500lb MCTD. They took off from Elsham Wolds at 2301 in good weather.
On the outward flight the crew had to fly over Belgium near to 2 important German night fighter airfields, St Trond, which was the home of II/NJG 1 and Florennes, which was the home of I/NJG 4. In addition the crew had also to cross the German radar detection Himmelbett Line sectors Raum 6 and 7.
During the outward flight W5012 was attacked by a Bf 110 night fighter flown by Oblt W Telge with his radio operator/gunner Fw Telsnig of II/NJG1 based at St Trond, Belgium. The Lancaster was seen on fire and flying very low towards the village of Gesves and lost a wing shortly before crashing in the fields close to the village at 0142 Belgian time.
Sadly there were no survivors. 6 members of the crew were found in the wreckage of the Lancaster and 1 member of the crew was found in the wood nearby with his parachute partially open.
The Lancaster had crashed in an area called the Bois del Hez very near the village of Gesves and on the morning of the 4th July a German Berungkommando unit arrived to remove the wreckage and the remains of the crew which were buried at the cemetery of Florennes on the 6th July.
The German authorities did not wish that the bodies be buried at Gesves because of the fact that the local people had placed flowers at the crash site and the Germans wanted no further gestures of sympathy or sorrow to the crew.
The bodies of Flying Officer Oldham and his crew still rest today in the cemetery at Florennes which is now one of many Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries on mainland Europe.
The city of Cologne was subjected to a heavy attack that night which destroyed 20 industrial premises and 2200 houses. 588 people were killed and 1000 injured with a further 72000 bombed out.
30 aircraft and crews were lost on the raid, 9 Halifaxes, 8 Lancasters, 8 Wellingtons and 5 Stirlings.
Oblt Telge was promoted to Hauptmann and took over command of V/NJG 1 in mid August 1943. He was killed on the night of the 31st August/1st September 1943 when the wing of his aircraft was damaged in a collision with the tail of a bomber which he was attacking. At the time of his death he had shot down 14 bombers and had been awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class and the Honour Cup for his operational service in the Luftwaffe.
When the war had finally come to a close the people of Gesves decided that they would very much like to honour the memory of the crew of F/O Oldham who had fallen within their village boundaries. It was decided to erect a memorial at the site of the crash as a gesture of remembrance and gratitude for the sacrifice of 7 young men from a foreign country. The splendid memorial was erected and, on the 4th July 1948, this was officially dedicated in a most moving ceremony. This was attended by all the local dignitaries, members of the council and all the local villagers. The guests of honour were the representatives of the families of the dead aircrew which could be traced in Britain and they were treated with great sympathy and wonderful hospitality throughout their visit.
The Memorial was moved slightly nearer the road several years ago to be more accessible to visitors and annually, on Armistice Day, a service of Remembrance is held at the memorial to perpetuate and honour the memory of F/O Oldham and his crew and also the Belgian, British and many other nationalities who have fallen in the 2 World Wars.
Thanks to the hard work, enthusiasm and perseverance of Rene Romainville in his research it was possible to trace many family members of F/O Oldham and his crew. In October 1998 the sisters of Eric Wilkins and Ronald Freeman were able to visit Gesves and attend a commemorative service at the memorial as guests of the people of Gesves. Later they were the guests of honour at a reception in Gesves The following day they visited the graves of the crew at Florennes to pay their respects to their late brothers and also the other members of the crew and the 2 ladies entertained in the afternoon at the local Belgian Air Force base. The hospitality and consideration received during the visit was most generous and both ladies were very grateful and moved by the experience. DF
I am most grateful to Rene Romainville for permission to use parts of his most detailed and thorough work on F/O Oldham and his crew and also the photographs and map. In addition we are also grateful to the many family members of this crew who have supplied information, documents and photographs, the newspapers and magazines and all the others who have contributed to the completion of this project. David Fell