The Story of the Avro Lancaster LM650 KM-T
I became interested in this story last year, when a reader named Niall left a comment about this rather odd item for sale on Ebay:
What was the story of this piece of an aircraft, suddenly available for sale for a mere £26, seventy years after the crash? The answer took me down a rabbit hole of World War II. Of course real life has no start and no finish but I’ve done my best to try to find a beginning and an end for the story of the Avro Lancaster LM 650.
The Avro Lancaster is a British built, four-engined, heavy bomber designed by Avro for the Royal Air Force for use in World War Two. In terms of design, it is a mid-wing cantilever monoplane. The cantilever wing was pioneered by Hugo Junkers in 1915, when aircraft were mostly biplanes. On a biplane, the airflow around one wing negatively affects the other, which is why wires and struts are required to brace the wings, which reduces speed and increases fuel consumption. Junkers goal was to remove all external bracing members and designed an all-metal monoplane with cantilever wing panels. This is now the most common wing design.
The Lancaster wing was constructed in five pieces and the fuselage in five separate sections. All of these were built separately and fitted with equipment before being brought together for final assembly. The Lancaster had four Rolls Royce Merlin piston engines, retractable main landing gear, a fixed tail wheel and twin elliptical fins and rudders in the tail.
With a long unobstructed bomb bay, the Lancaster was able to take the largest bombs used by the RAF. It became the most successful Second World War night bomber.
The crew of the Lancaster started with the bomb aimer, who lay flat on the floor in the nose. The pilot and the flight engineer sat side-by-side on the roof of the bomb bay; British and German bombers usually had only a single pilot, as opposed to the US bombers which generally required two pilots (or at least had two pilot seats). A curtain behind the pilot and flight engineer blocked the light from the navigator’s position at the chart table. Towards the rear of the aircraft was the wireless operator. Behind him, at the end of the bomb bay was the mid-upper gunner’s turret. At the rear of the aircraft (past the toilet) sat the rear gunner in the tail turret. Both of the gunners had to wear heated suits as the turrets weren’t heated.
The aviation unit which introduced the Lancaster to the Royal Air Force was the No. 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron. The 44 Squadron was formed in July 1917 as a part of the London Air Defence Area. They were based at Hainault Farm in Essex and flew Sopwith Camels which had been diverted from the front line to better defend against the night raids.
The squadron disbanded after the war but reformed in March 1937 where they initially were equipped with Hawker Hinds and Bristol Blenheims before changing to Handley Page Hampdens later in the year.
It was in 1941 when the squadron was renamed to include Rhodesia: 25% of the ground and air crew were from Southern Rhodesia and there was a desire to honour the colony’s contribution to Britain’s war effort. The squadron seal shows an elephant to symbolise their heavy attacks.
On Christmas Eve in 1941, the 44 Squadron received the first three production Avro Lancasters. They became the first squadron to convert completely to Lancasters. They had a total of 4,362 sorties in the Lancaster and lost 149 aircraft in battle, along with 22 destroyed in crashes.
The first quarter of 1942 passed quickly as the 44 Squadron learned more about the Lancaster, documenting the handling characteristics, fuel consumption, servicing and arming. Although they spent almost three months becoming operational, their tests of the Lancaster were of benefit to the rest of the airmen over the course of the war.
February marked the first loss of a Lancaster in a training accident (L7542). The first daylight mission of the Avro Lancaster was set for the 17th of April, 1942. RAF Bomber Command planned a daring daylight bombing mission against the factory in Augsburg in Southern Germany where half of Germany’s U-Boat engines were being produced.
From 5 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record by Chris Ward
Briefings for Augsburg took place on the morning of the 17th, the crews incredulous at the prospect of such a deep penetration foray into enemy territory by daylight. Take-off was timed for shortly after 3pm, 44 Squadron from Waddington led by S/L Nettleton, and 97 Squadron from Woodhall Spa led by L/L Sherwood, each element proceeding independently to the target, and, although only a few miles apart, out of sight of each other.
S/L Nettleton of the 44 Squadron was John Dering Nettleton. As the six Lancasters of the 44 Squadron crossed over the French coast, they were spotted by German fighters returning to their base from a diversionary raid. They attacked the 44 Squadron.
From 5 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record by Chris Ward
The first to attract the fighters’ attention was W/O Beckett’s L7565, which had an unserviceable rear turret and was in the rear formation. On fire from stern to stern, the Lancaster sank into the ground, and exploded into a clump of trees with no survivors. L7548 was the next to go, its port wing in flames, W/O Crum ordered the bomb load to be jettison, and in a masterly display of airmanship, he brought the stricken Lancaster down on its belly in a meadow. The crew members emerged unscathed from the wreckage, and were eventually taken into captivity. Shortly afterwards, R5506 ploughed into the ground with all four engines ablaze, killing F/L Sandford and his crew.
Now that the rear vic had been wiped out, the fighters advanced on the remaining three Lancasters, focusing first on L7536 which, in its death throes, reared upwards before stalling and diving in, taking with it to their deaths Sgt Rhodes and his crew. Both Nettleton and F/O Garwell, in R5508 and R5510 respectively, came under repeated attack, and their aircraft sustained damage before the fighters were forced to withdraw through lack of fuel and ammunition.
Despite the fact that four of the six Lancasters had been shot down, Squadron Leader Nettleton and Flying Officer Garwell continued with the last two Lancasters to Augsburg, where they successfully bombed the factory ‘from chimney height’ with support from Squadron 97. Garwell’s Lancaster was hit by light flak and caught fire, leaving them no choice but to land in enemy territory. Shortly thereafter they were picked up as prisoners of war.
Squadron 44’s last surviving Lancaster of the raid, under the command of Nettleton, flew west as night fell, hoping to make it back to base. At half past midnight, unsure of their position and running low on fuel, the crew took the chance of making a distress call. It worked. They were directed towards Blackpool and half an hour later, ten hours after they’d taken-off from Waddington, they landed at Squires Gate.
Nettleton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the face of the enemy. He travelled with his flight crew to the Lancaster factory to see where the bombers were made. Footage from this visit used in the filmreel Lancaster Bombers – First Pictures (1942) which was shown in cinemas across the UK.
Men and women beating panels, assembling fuselage, riveting and so on. Squadron Leader John Nettleton VC takes a look around the factory with his crew from the Ausburg Raid, to see the place where their Lancaster was made. He talks to the women workers and signs a photograph for one of them.
You can see Nettleton “and his Augsburg crew” from 04:30 to 05:15. By now, the No. 44 Squadron was considered the star of Bomber Command and the Lancaster was the darling of the British public.
But this research on the 44 Squadron and their first Lancasters wasn’t getting me any closer to the LM650 with a piece for sale on Ebay. To get there, we need to fast forward to meet Flight Sergeant Stanley William Walters of the 44 Squadron.
On the 1st of November 1944, 226 Lancasters and 16 Mosquitos flew to Homberg for a raid on the Meerbeck oil plant. The Avro Lancaster LM 560 KM-T had almost 309 hours at the time and held seven crew for the Homberg raid: a Pilot, a Flight Engineer, a Navigator, a Bomb Aimer, a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, a Mid Upper gunner and a Rear Gunner.
The flight crew was as follows:
- F/O J.H.T.Haworth KIA
- Sgt F.M.Seiler KIA
- Sgt J.B.Saunders
- F/S S.W.Walters
- F/S G.W.Gardner
- Sgt T.Mackay
- Sgt A.W.McKallister
Flight Sergeant Walters, the bomb aimer, had only eight operations to his name at the time of the raid. The Lancaster was still twenty miles from the target when it was struck by flak, shattering the cockpit area, killing the pilot and severely wounding the flight engineer.
F/S Walters was lying on the floor of the nose of the aircraft, where he could access the bombsight controls and the bombsight computer. As the aircraft pitched down, he rushed to the cockpit where he and the navigator pulled the dead pilot out of the way. He’d never flown a heavy bomber before but there was no one else. He took over the controls, initially just hoping to get the aircraft stable enough that the remaining crew could bale out. Once he got it straight and level, he decided to attempt to make it back to the UK rather than ditch in enemy territory.
One of the engines had died and two more (of the original four) were operating on low power and vibrating alarmingly.
He jettisoned the bombs over the North Sea but the hydraulics had also been damaged and it was not possible to to close the bomb doors. The aircraft limped towards the English coast with only one engine with full power. They made it as far as Hastings in Sussex. A few miles northwest, the aircraft began circling to drop the crew. A group of schoolboys saw the air crew parachuting out of the aircraft, including the dead pilot.
One of those schoolboys, Ray Avann, is now a curator at the Robertsbridge Aviation Society, a private aviation museum who hold various memorabilia related to the Lancaster.
I found an account from a visitor to the Robertsbridge Aviation Society who described the scene as remembered by Mr Avann.
The pilot was ejected from the aircraft on a static line in what one must assume was a kind gesture by his loyal crew to preserve his body for a proper burial or maybe they thought he wasn’t dead.
The ‘circling’ manoeuvre of the Lancaster is best explained by the course that it was seen to fly from the ground. All the schoolboys saw it come cross country from the direction of Kent – parallel to the coast. It was flying West. It then started to do a huge right hand bank to the North and then continued back towards Bodiam in the East and then back West again towards Robertsbridge – so it did one and a half circuits – all the while the crew were parachuting out. There is a vivid oil painting in the RAS by one of the ex-curators which shows the last few seconds of LM650 with Sgt Seiler getting out but parachuting too late and too close to the ground.
F/S Walters waited until all the crew had bailed out before pointing the aircraft towards the sea and then jumping out himself. The aircraft crashed at 17:45 on the boundary lines of two farms, near the John Cross Inn just outside of Robertbridge. The school boys cycled to the crash site.
The surviving crew were all recovered except for the pilot, Flying Officer John Hereward Titley Haworth, who was killed over Homberg and the flight engineer, Sergeant Frederick Seiler, who landed with fatal injuries.
Flight Sergeant Walters was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal (CGM) which was awarded for gallantry in action against the enemy at sea or in the air.
The London Gazette published the following on the 2nd of January 1945:
580298 Flight Sergeant Stanley William WALTERS, R.A.F.V.R., 44 Sqn.
This airman has participated in a number of sorties, including attacks on Karlsruhe, Nuremburg and Munchen Gladbach. In November, 1944. he was air bomber in an- aircraft detailed to attack Homberg. In the vicinity of the target the aircraft came under heavy fire and was struck by high explosive shells. The cockpit was shattered. The pilot was killed and the flight engineer was badly wounded. Flight Sergeant Walters promptly assisted another member of the crew to remove his dead comrade from the pilot’s seat and then took over the controls. The aircraft had sustained severe damage. One engine had been put out of action, whilst a second and a third were reduced in power and vibrating badly. The hydraulic system was damaged and the flaps had edged down. Despite this. Flight Sergeant Walters, though lesser experienced than a regular pilot, brought the aircraft to an even keel and headed for home. Although only one engine was giving full power he reached an airfield near the English coast. The aircraft was too badly damaged for Flight Sergeant Walters to attempt to bring it down safely. He gave orders to the crew to release their dead captain by parachute and then to abandon the aircraft themselves. Not until his comrades were all clear and he was satisfied that the aircraft was headed out to sea did this gallant air bomber leave himself. His cool courage, outstanding resource and determination set an example of the highest order.
The Lancaster LM 650 was the only aircraft lost on the Homberg raid.
This post about Flying Officer Haworth on the South-East History Boards may explain why a piece of the Lancaster LM 650 suddenly appeared on eBay.
The actual point of impact is split between two different farmers properties. One has allowed the [Robertsbridge Aviation Society] to excavate and the other has not – therefore there is a distinct possibility that there is still some of LM650 ‘in-situ’ , the site is less than a mile from the RAS.
Presuming, of course, that it is in fact from LM 650. The piece had already sold by the time I saw the eBay listing but I’d like to think that it ended up at the Robertsbridge Aviation Society. Hopefully one day I’ll get the chance to visit myself and find out.
- 5 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record by Chris Ward
- Bravery Awards for Aerial Combat by Alan W. Cooper
- Sussex History Forum
- Bomber Command Campaign Diary November 1944
- 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron
- Lancaster ME699 – A Bomber crew at war