Sergeant Ronald Critchley RAF. 103 Sqdn
Ronald Critchley was born in 1920 and came from St Helens, Lancashire, England. As a boy he attended the Holy Cross School and on leaving he became a compositor apprentice at a local printing firm.
He joined the RAF in 1938 where he trained as a Wireless Operator / Air Gunner and in December 1939 was transferred to 103 Squadron who were then stationed in France as part of the Advanced Air Strike Force. At this time the Squadron were equipped with the single engined Fairey Battle bomber. The war on this front was, at that time, in a quiet phase and the Squadron were mostly engaged on routine reconnaissance and training.
On the 10th May 1940 the Germans launched their major offensive against France. On the 12th May 1940 Ronald flew on his first operation with Pilot Officer Hayter, a daylight low level attack on enemy bridges. During this attack they were chased by 3 German Bf 110s but managed to escape. The Fairey Battle squadrons were taking very heavy losses and the aircraft was clearly vulnerable to enemy fighters and flak. Inspite of this they continued to fly operations in a desperate attempt to stem the advancing German forces and Ronald was continually flying operations against heavily defended troop concentrations and airfields.
On the 12th June 1940 he flew again with Pilot Officer Hayter in an attack on a German bridge North East of Paris. During this operation they were attacked by a Henschel 126. Ronald fired 50 rounds at the attacking aircraft and believed he had shot it down.
With the situation in France clearly hopeless and the collapse of France imminent 103 Squadron were ordered back to Abingdon in England on the 15th June 1940.
The Squadron moved to Newton on the 3rd July 1940 and undertook a period of further training. On the 7th September 1940 Ronald flew his last operation on Battles with S/L Tait DFC when they were part of a force that attacked shipping and the port facilities at Calais.
In October 1940 the Squadron converted to the Vickers Wellington twin engined bomber and a further period of training followed. Ronald flew his first operation on Wellingtons on the night of the 28/29th December 1940 as front gunner in the crew of F/O Crawford. The target was oil storage facilities at Rotterdam.
Throughout the winter and spring of 1940/41 Ronald flew many operations against heavily defended targets in Western Europe as front gunner and latterly wireless operator.
On the 13th June 1941 he was part of an all volunteer crew led by P/O Anderson, a New Zealander, which took part in an extremely dangerous glide bombing night attack against German warships and port facilities at Brest.
This was accomplished successfully in spite of very heavy flak and searchlight activity. The Wellington bombed from 3000 feet but had to take very violent evasive action and was forced down to 900 feet.
Soon afterwards Ronald was offered a promotion to Flight Sergeant and a transfer to a training unit in Scotland.
He went to see the Squadron Leader and turned it down preferring to wait for a posting nearer home.
On the 24th July 1941 Ronald was wireless operator in the crew led by Sgt J S Bucknole which was to take part in a daylight attack on the German battleship Gneisenau in Brest harbour.
The crew were as follows :-
Sgt J S Bucknole RAF
Sgt G J Beckwith RAF
F/O R Shaw RAF
F/S F Barker RAF
Sgt R Critchley RAF
Sgt E C McDonald RNZAF
The target was very heavily defended by flak and fighters and this was a very dangerous operation for the crews in their slow and poorly armed Wellingtons which were to make their attack from 15000 feet. There was to be no fighter escort as the target was beyond the range of single engined fighters at that time.
103 Squadron detailed 6 Wellingtons and crew for this operation which would fly in 2 formations of 3 aircraft each. On approach to the target both formations were attacked by German Bf109s. The Wellington of Sgt Bucknole was hit in the starboard engine which caught fire. It slowly fell out of formation and the enemy fighters concentrated on this aircraft. The engine fire was seen to go out but the Wellington was unable to regain height.
It was last seen at 8000 feet when the rear gunner shot down one of the attacking fighters which was seen to spin down and crash into the sea.
Sgt Bucknole’s Wellington crashed into the sea and sadly there were no survivors from this crew. The body of Sgt Beckwith was later found and is buried at Kerfautros Cemetery. The remaining crew members, including Sgt R Critchley, have no known grave and are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
This was the only Wellington lost by 103 Squadron on this raid. The returning gunners claimed 3 enemy fighters shot down. Bombing was concentrated in and around the target area.
Ronald was killed the day before his 21st birthday.
Item written by David Fell