“A Gallant Gentleman” – Ernest Williams

20 Mar

March 20th 2014 is the 71st anniversary of the death of Llandudno man and RAF navigator Sergeant William Ernest Williams.  He enlisted in the RAF in 1941 after leaving his job as manager of Llandudno based furnishers, Dicken & Son of Vaughan Street; a company he had worked for since joining as an apprentice aged just 17.  He was a founding member of Deganwy’s TocH Club and on enlisting was sent to the United States for six months training.  After a great deal of operational flying with Coastal Command over the Bay of Biscay, France, he joined 101 Squadron of Bomber Command.

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On Valentine’s night, 14th February 1943, a Lancaster bomber with a crew including navigator Sergeant William Williams took off from Holme-on-Spalding in Yorkshire and took part in an operational sortie to attack the northern Italian city of Milan.  After successfully bombing the target from 11,000 feet, they were attacked by an enemy fighter – a CR 42 biplane – at 200 yards range.  The Fiat fighter got in a burst of machine gun fire and ignited 4 x 30lb incendiary devices still in the bomb bay of the Lancaster.  As the Italian aircraft turned away it was hit by return fire from the rear gunner, Sergeant Airey and the mid-upper gunner, Flight Sergeant George Dove.  The Fiat went down in flames and was destroyed.  In all the gunners fired over 300 rounds between them.

 

The Lancaster was severely damaged as the machine gun bullets had not only exploded the incendiaries, leaving a large hole in the fuselage floor but numerous bullets had penetrated the starboard engine petrol tank and damaged the intercom.  The rear gunner had been hit in the legs during the attack and also received facial burns.  Hearing over the inter-com that his comrade had been wounded, Flight Sergeant Dove got down from his position and fought through the flames and made his way to the rear turret.  Despite his own injuries and the inferno behind him he succeeded in extricating the rear-gunner from his turret and treated his injuries.  For his actions Dove received the Distinguished Flying Medal.

 

In the meantime, Pilot Officer Moffatt, the bomb aimer, had misheard the pilot’s instructions and baled out by parachute rather than the actual orders which were to prepare to evacuate the plane.  Seconds later the port engine caught fire and the pilot put the aircraft into a steep dive to extinguish the flames, levelling out at 800 feet above the Italian countryside.  With the rear gunner being wounded, abandoning the Lancaster was now out of the question so the pilot decided to try and make a forced landing somewhere.   Fortunately Sergeant Williams, with the help of the others, succeeded in putting out the fuselage fire, and as the pilot had blown out the other engine fire, he decided to try and get the aircraft and themselves home rather than making an emergency landing.

 

The pilot, Sergeant Ivan Hazard, managed to haul the crippled bomber up to 15,500 feet to cross the Alps, but then further problems arose with the starboard outer engine and he was forced to lose altitude and steer through the peaks rather than fly over them.  Navigator Williams did not receive any wireless aid until he reached the English Channel and for a period of over five hours he navigated solely by astro readings.  So as not to violate Swiss territory, he deliberately navigated around the neutral country and for his incredible skill he was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.  Only 112 airmen were awarded this decoration in World War 2.

 

Sergeant Hazard managed to safely land the stricken bomber at Tangmere Airfield, Sussex, in spite of having no hydraulics.  A report on their Lancaster by the A. V. Roe Company stated, “It was the severest fire damage ever seen to one of our aircraft, and the ‘Skipper’ had to be praised on his skill in getting it back”.

 

On returning to the RAF after special leave, Sergeant Hazard was assigned a new bomber and on 20th March 1943, he took it up on a test flight.  He made a low pass over Hornsea beach, but on pulling up at the end of his run, the tail wheel struck a concrete pill-box on the beach.  The impact caused the Lancaster to break up.  The forward section crashed into the cliffs and blew up while the tail section fell on the beach below.  There were ten men aboard including Sergeant William Ernest Williams and all were killed instantly.  He was buried on the Great Orme in Llandudno with full military honours.  His Commanding Officer described him “as a gallant gentleman”.

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One Response to ““A Gallant Gentleman” – Ernest Williams”

  1. liverpoolblitz March 24, 2014 at 11:35 pm #

    A very sad and yet heroic tale, thanks for sharing it. I think its amazing that they were bombing Milan from the UK at that stage in the war, that was one heck of a flight! No longer than some of the other missions to Eastern Europe perhaps, but even so, amazing.

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