Lost Off Iceland, 1944: The Last Flight of RAF Hudson FK752

Flight from Reykjavik, 9 November 1944

Lockheed Hudson aircraft on a reconnaissance patrol by Royal Air Force official photographer Royal Air Force official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Lockheed Hudson aircraft on a reconnaissance patrol by Royal Air Force official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At midday on November 9, 1944, a Lockheed Hudson light bomber of the RAF 251 Squadron lifted off from the Royal Air Force station at Reykjavik, Iceland, on a routine meteorological recon patrol.

The young crew – three RAF men and two Australians – reported clear icing conditions on the outward leg, and again on the homeward leg of the flight.

With over eight hours in the air behind them, headed home, the aircraft sent out an SOS call.

A few minutes later, the aircraft key was held down and the station was able to get a bearing: Hudson FK 752 was over the North Sea, just 75 miles from Reykjavik.

But there was no further communication.  The aircraft failed to return. The wreckage of Hudson FK 752, and the remains of the five young airmen aboard, were never found.

The Lost Men

Air Crew of Hudson FK 752

RAF photographer's portrait of the officers of the ill-fated Hudson FK 752

Left to right: RAAF Flight Sergeant Ronald Alfred Smith; RAF F/Sgt (Observer) believed to be Henry Jeffrey Elisha Syms (a.k.a. Chouchoux); RAF Flying Officer Bernard Francis Lambert; and RAAF F/Sgt John Desmond Jenner. The fifth member of the Hudson’s crew, not in this photo, was Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Ian Buchanan Martin, RAF.

This photograph (location unknown) is believed to be an RAF photographer’s portrait of the officers of the ill-fated Hudson FK 752. The date of the photograph is unknown, but it have been taken at some time between October 1943 and November 1944.

The identity of the aircraft in the picture is uncertain, and no notes have been preserved with the original photograph, but three of the four men shown here have been identified for certain and the fourth man’s identity is probable. We haven’t yet been able to track down a picture of the fifth member of the air crew.

The names of those young lost airmen are written on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Air Force Memorial at Runnymede, UK, and in the memories of those who knew them – but those who remember grow fewer with each passing year.

During the Second World War, some enlisted men and women died in the service of their countries and the Commonwealth.  In commemorating the story of these five lost airmen, we seek to honour all who served.

Coastal Command

1942 British film gives a glimpse of the RAF Coastal Command’s Role in World War II

This film, Coastal Command, was made for the British Ministry of Information in 1942 and distributed by RKO. It would have been seen by many cinema audiences during the middle and late war years. To our modern eyes and ears, this is now very much a quaint period piece – a piece of wartime propaganda, intended to highlight (and perhaps glamorize) the work of the Royal Air Force in the North Atlantic theatre for a war-weary public, to raise morale and no doubt to boost enlistment.

As well as being a frankly dramatized view of the RAF Coastal Command’s role and wartime activities, the film is also quite long – almost an hour in running time. However, I think it’s well worth sharing with my fellow “history buffs” here, as it is not only interesting in its own right but also includes some fascinating real footage of Iceland-based Hudson and Halifax bombers attacking an enemy ship. History teachers may find it a useful video to discuss in class, as well.

RAF 251 Squadron

Map of Europe showing the location of Iceland, by Theeuro at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Stationed at Reykjavik, Iceland

During the Second World war, Britain controversially occupied Iceland and the Royal Air Force (Coastal Command) created an air base at Reykjavik.

One can only imagine the disruption to the small island nation of the sudden invasion of British and Commonwealth military personnel, followed by an influx of American servicemen, vastly outnumbering the Icelandic male population, and, more critically, compromising the future republic’s official position of neutrality in the conflict – but that is a story for another day.

The Meteorological Service

The Role of the Weather Watchers in World War II

The Royal Air Force 251 Squadron was primarily a meteorological reconnaissance outfit, as reflected in 251 Squadron’s motto “However Wind Blows” and the weathercock on its badge. Two of the squadron’s Hudson aircraft were fitted out with lifeboats for air-sea rescue work, as well, and no doubt the observers also provided a valuable service in spotting enemy activity in the shipping lanes.

Personnel made regular flights from Reykjavik to the southwest, taking readings every 50 minutes over the North Sea off the western coast of the United Kingdom.

Even the Birds Were Walking: The Story of Wartime Meteorological ReconnaissanceThe utility is clear – weather systems tend to travel in a west-to-east direction, so the Iceland-based service could give advance warning of weather conditions to the bombers and fighters flying missions over occupied Europe, as well as to troops on the ground.

It was extremely hazardous work, due to the harsh conditions, and the young men of 251 Squadron must have been acutely aware that each flight could be their last… especially as winter drew near and the weather was often so bad that, as the saying went, “even the birds were walking.”

(Even the Birds Were Walking is the definitive work on the WW2 met recon service, but the book had a small print run so you’ll be lucky to find a used copy!)

The Aircraft

RAF Lockheed Hudson FK 752

The Lockheed Hudson was an American light bomber also used in coastal reconnaisance and met recon work, as well as occasionally in air-sea rescue, as noted. The specific Hudson IIIA designated FK 752 was built in the US, given the USAAF serial number 47308, and transferred to the Royal Air Force under the terms of the somewhat controversial Lend-Lease Act by which the United States supported the allied war effort before itself entering the conflict in an active role.

Lockheed Hudson in World War II by Andrew HendrieI’m not sure of the exact date on which this particular aircraft (FK 752) was transferred to the RAF, however, or anything of its history before its use by the RAF meteorological service 251 Squadron out of Reykjavik and subsequent loss in the North Sea off the coast of Iceland.

If it is the Hudson aircraft itself that interests you, and its role in wartime operations, there is no more complete and reliable source than Lockheed Hudson in World War II by Andrew Hendrie by Andrew Hendrie.

And this video, Forgotten Aircraft – Lockheed Hudson Bomber, gives a brief history of the aircraft through a combination of onscreen text and WWII archival footage:

The Final Flight of RAF Hudson FK 752

Why Fly in Clear Icing Conditions?

According the Australian War Memorial records,

Hudson FK 752 of 251 Sqn RAF took off from RAF Station Reykjavik, Iceland, at 1230 hours on 9 November 1944, to carry out a normal meteorological flight. Clear icing conditions were encountered on the outward leg. The return journey was carried out under similar conditions, until an SOS was received at 2057 hours when the aircraft was approx 75 miles south west of Reykjavik. The trouble being encountered was not stated. At 2105 hours the aircraft key was held down enabling the D/F station to get a bearing.

The report continues:

After that there was no further contact with the aircraft which did not return to base. / Considerable air and sea searches were carried out but no trace of the missing aircraft or crew was found. It was believed that the aircraft had become loaded with ice to such an extent that it was forced down into the sea. 

(Perhaps we’ll write more, one of these days, about the aircraft’s Morse telegraph key – also known as the “bathtub” key – which was held down to send a continuous signal, enabling the nearest base to get a bearing on the location of an aircraft in distress.)

Why did the aircraft set out on its regular flight (or not turn back, at least), if clear icing conditions were evident already on the outward leg?

It was a long flight (upwards of eight hours, according to the records) and the Hudson, as with other aircraft of the World War II era, was vulnerable to icing up. Clear hard ice built up on the gear could compromise the airplane’s ability to adjust altitude or change direction, while ice on the leading edge of the wings could compromise its lift and send it down.

Clearly, the hazard associated with flight in icing conditions is dependent on the exposure time. In general, icing conditions are more prevalent at lower altitudes. Propeller-driven airplanes generally cruise at altitudes conducive to icing conditions. Furthermore, they have limited excess power to enable them to climb out of icing conditions, should the need arise,
according to The Adverse Aerodynamic Effects of Inflight Icing on Airplane Operation, published by Transport Canada.

It seems most likely, with the press of the war in Europe to drive the retreating German forces back and “mop up” in France, five months after D-Day, that the timely submission of met data was as important as ever – if not even more so.

In short, it would appear that the mission was judged worth the risk.

And that is perhaps all we will ever know.

In Memoriam

Photo: Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, UK by Simon Davison [CC BY 2.0] on Flickr

Ian Buchanan Martin

RAF Leading Aircraftman

Very little is known to us of Leading Aircraftman Ian Buchanan Martin, and no photograph has yet been located.

We do know from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records that LAC I B Martin (a member of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve with service number 924725) was the son of John Buchanan Martin and Phyllis Lilian G. Martin. The family came from the market town of Ashford, Kent, UK.

On November 9, 1944, the day that Hudson FK 752 failed to return to its base, LAC Martin was among the crew. He left a widow, Mary Patricia Martin, when he died at the age of 23 years.

His name is inscribed on Panel 242 of the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, Surrey, UK.

Henry Jeffrey Elisha Syms / Chouchoux

Henry Jeffrey Elisha Syms / Chouchoux  RAF Flight SergeantRAF Flight Sergeant

The airman wearing the observer’s O-brevet is thought to be F/Sgt Henry Jeffrey Elisha Syms (a.k.a. H J E Chouchoux), of Mauritius. Syms was an alias – the name by which Chouchoux chose to be known when he served in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve’s 251 Squadron. His service number was 1396371.

It is not known why he chose to use the maiden name of his mother, Frances Elizabeth Marie (nee Syms), rather than Chouchoux, the surname of his father. (Jules Xavier Chouchoux, Esq., Supervisor of Customs for Mauritius, in 1950 was named Ordinary Member of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire.)

F/Sgt Syms (or Chouchoux) died at the age of 27 years.

His name is recorded on Panel 216 of the Runnymede Memorial, in Surrey, UK.

John Desmond Jenner

John Desmond Jenner  RAAF Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator Air)RAAF Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator Air)

Flight Sergeant John Desmond Jenner of Manly, New South Wales, Australia, was the son of Reuben Herbert John Wesley Jenner and Victoria Elizabeth Jenner. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on June 20, 1942, and was assigned the service number 423132.

He trained in Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme (also known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Program) and attached to the Royal Air Force. When he joined 251 Squadron in Iceland, he was the only Australian in the unit at that time.

F/Sgt Jenner died at 22 years of age.

His name is recorded on Panel 260 of the the Runnymede Memorial, UK, and on Panel 124 in the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial.

Photo [public domain]: This informal portrait of Flight Sergeant John Desmond Jenner, RAAF, from Sydney, NSW, Australia, was taken in Canada in January 1944.

Ronald Alfred Smith

Ronald Alfred Smith RAAF Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator Air)RAAF Flight Sergeant (Wireless Operator Air)

Flight Sergeant Ronald Alfred Smith was the son of Alfred Smith and Maude Matilda Rosaleen Smith, of East Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

He enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on June 20, 1942, and his service number was 423365. After training in Canada under the EATS program (BCATP), he was posted to RAF 251 Squadron at Reykjavic, Iceland.

F/Sgt Smith was 21 years old when he died.

His name is commemorated on Panel 261 of the Runnymede Memorial, UK, and on Panel 130 in the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial.

Photo: courtesy of Australian War Memorial [public domain]. Three RAAF airmen on the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) were photographed in Nova Scotia, Canada, in October 1943. Left to right: Flight Sergeant Ronald Alfred Smith, Warrant Officer George Pearton, and WO Roy Owen Baker.

Bernard Francis Lambert

Bernard Francis Lambert RAF Flying Officer (Pilot)RAF Flying Officer (Pilot)

Flying Officer Bernard Francis Lambert was the captain (pilot) of Hudson FK 752 when, on November 9, 1944, the aircraft failed to return to its base at Reykjavik from a routine weather reconnaissance flight, presumed to have iced up and gone down in the North Sea.

F/O Bernard Lambert was the son of Francis John Lambert and Hilda Lambert, of West Norwood, London.

He died at 22 years of age.

Author

likes to make and do and think and explore and share what is discovered. She is also incurably curious. If you are, too, you can find her posting as Flycatcher...r...r on Twitter and Google Plus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *