The Wingco and His Crew
Over the course of Bomber Command's heavy bombing campaign against Germany many changes were prevalent in tactics, equipment, strategy and personnel. This tribute examines some of those changes which took place during the last eighteen months of the war and culminated in the spring of 1945.
The Wing Commander
In January of 1945 W/C Ralph Davenport became the Commanding Officer of 431 Squadron, taking over from W/C Eric Mitchell who had been screened from operations. Davenport had spent the majority of the war serving as the Chief Flying Instructor for a number of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) schools and ultimately as the School Commandant for No.7 SFTS (Service Flight Training School) in Fort Macleod, Alberta. Having joined the RCAF in 1935, on the surface it would appear logical that peacetime officers would have been the first to be sent overseas. However, the demands of the BCATP required instructors to train the thousands of aircrew needed in the coming years as well as officers to run the many establishments to be built across Canada. As a result, many of the peacetime officers were to serve the entire war as Instructors, Commandants or Administrators in the massive aircrew training scheme.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) held the view that Instructors were a more difficult commodity to find than personnel to send overseas and as a result prevented many peacetime officers from ever going overseas. Another common practice was to take the top airmen in their class and turn them into to instructors, hundreds of these men also found themselves spending the entire war at BCATP schools. Sadly, they were often looked down upon for not having gone overseas and were never officially recognized for their service to the war effort, even though many of their jobs were also fraught with danger.
By mid-1943 the RCAF had a reliable system in place to replenish their pool of instructors and subsequently allowed some of their officers the opportunity to go overseas. By that time Ralph Davenport had risen to the impressive rank of Group Captain, in order to go overseas to an operational squadron he reverted back to the rank of Wing Commander and found himself in Yorkshire in late 1944.
Ralph Frederick Davenport was born in Edmunston, New Brunswick, the son of George and Sadie Davenport, on June 17th 1912. He later moved with his family to nearby Fredericton and grew up there. After completing high school he attended the University of New Brunswick and in 1934 graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Following graduation he began studying for his teaching certificate but received word that he had been accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot trainee and reported to Camp Borden for basic officer training.
Once he received his commission and wings, he was posted to Rockcliffe in Ottawa and then to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for further training on seaplanes. In May of 1938 he was posted to Trenton, Ontario, where he received his flying instructors qualifications. In 1939 he married Marion Proctor of Belleville, Ontario, a community only a few minutes from the base at Trenton.
Following this, he spent much of his time between Trenton and Borden, until in 1940, he was made a Staff Officer in the Flying Training Division at Air Force H.Q. in Ottawa and given the responsibility of overseeing the policy of Flying Training Schools, later returning to various training stations (Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Fort Macleod,Alberta, St.Hubert,Quebec.) as Chief Instructor and then as Commanding Officer. He also attended the R.A.F. Staff College in Britain and later helped organize the RCAF Staff College in Toronto. He amassed an impressive total of hours in his pilot's logbook on numerous types of aircraft in the RCAF inventory.
On May 18th 1942 in Fort Macleod, Ralph and Marion welcomed their daughter Joan into the world. At the age of 32 Ralph began his career as Commanding Officer of a heavy bomber unit with 431 Squadron at RCAF Station Croft in Yorkshire after posting in from East Moor.
In many cases, the crew of a squadron's Commanding Officer consisted of airmen that were either decorated, were serving a second tour of operations or both. The importance of the Wing Commander as the leader of the Squadron meant that only experienced airmen would fly as members of his crew, usually they were commissioned as well.
The crew consisting of Davenport, Hector, Rink, Fraser, Dompe, Lecky and Pettifor were all posted to 431 Squadron on January 12th 1945 from 432 Squadron at East Moor. Their first sortie together was on February 7th 1945 in Lancaster X Serial KB853, coded SE-A their target was Goch. All aircraft on this sortie from 431 Sqn were told to abort as there was heavy cloud over the target and returned safely to base.
The following are sorties flown by Wing Commander Davenport while with 431 Squadron. (crew changes are noted where applicable).
*P/O P. Repsys was killed 15/3/1945 during an operation to Hagen.
* Sgt. B. Dompe flew the Essen raid as part of the Heaven crew, he was later posted to 424 sqn.
Flying Officer Donal K.J. Hector, RCAF, was a graduate of the University of Toronto and served with 432 Squadron prior to joining 431 Squadron. The twenty-four year old came from Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Flying Officer Wendelin Rink, RCAF, was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who settled in the Canadian prairie town of Kendal, Saskatchewan. The sixth child of nine, he grew up quickly after his mother was widowed when he was only six years old. Prior to the war he worked at the nickel mines in Sudbury, Ontario and was an avid reader and loved to play ice hockey in his spare time. He enlisted in the RCAF with the goal of becoming a pilot but was unsuccessful and trained as a Bomb Aimer instead. He was posted to 432 sqn prior to joining 431 sqn.
Three of Wendelin's brothers also served in the war, Joe and Anton served in the Canadian army, brothers Daniel and Bernard also in the RCAF. Bernard served in Bomber Command with 576 sqn in F/Lt Crowther's crew, he was in the air for the Essen raid and eerily bore witness to the events involving Wendelin.
Mid Upper Gunner
Pilot Officer Hubert "Bertie" George Bishop was the Mid Upper gunner, he was posted to 431 sqn in August of 1944 and completed a number of operations serving as mid-under gunner in the short lived Preston Green turret on the squadron's Halifax MKIIIs. He also flew as a rear gunner with various crews including W/C Davenport's predecessor, W/C Mitchell.
The native of Catalina, Newfoundland was recognized for his courage and composure despite being only 22 years of age, W/C Mitchell recommended him for the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) on December 12, 1944. W/C Davenport made a second recommendation on February 24, 1945 for a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), this award was issued on May 10, 1945. The citation reads:
Hubert came from a close family who attended the Salvation Army. He was the son of Mr. & Mrs Edward Bishop of Catalina, Newfoundland, Brother of William, Charles, Laura, Bert, Johnny & Rachel. Wife, Rose of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.
His brother Charles was stationed in Halifax and served in the Canadian Army.
Pilot Officer Clarence Lecky was the Rear gunner, he was 28 years of age and the eldest of four boys from Fort William, Ontario. He worked at Kam Motors in Fort William up to the time of his enlistment. He enjoyed playing baseball and hockey as well as music and ballroom dancing. He was also an avid outdoorsman and angler and hunter. Prior to going overseas he married Norma Elizabeth Nash of Port Arthur, Ontario, they spent only one week together before his departure.
Flying Officer Charles William Fraser, age 24, of Windsor, Ontario was posted to the squadron from 432 sqn and served as the crew's Wireless Operator.
Pilot Officer Arthur Clifford Pettifor, age 29, of Beaver Mines, Alberta was posted to the squadron from 432 sqn and served as the crew's Flight Engineer.
Things were also changing on the various bomber stations throughout Yorkshire in the winter of 1944. 431 Squadron had converted from the reliable, but vulnerable Handley Page Halifax to the most effective tool in Bomber Command's arsenal, the Avro Lancaster Mk.X. The fact that these particular Lancasters were built in Canada was also a source of great pride to all the Canadian airmen that flew them. The skies over Germany had also changed, with forward operating bases for fighter escort having been established in France, Bomber Command began to fly some of its ops during daylight hours with a fighter escorts to and from the target. This was a tactic Bomber Command aborted early in the war when it suffered staggering losses, however, the German Luftwaffe had been decimated by late 1944 and although still deadly, it operated at a vastly reduced strength.
Lancaster mk.BX KB 853 "SE-:A"
The crew took off at 11.42 from Croft on a daylight raid to bomb Essen, this would prove to be the last Bomber Command attack on this already heavily bombed city. Most of the city lay in ruins,7000 people were killed in air raids and the population of 648,000 had fallen to 310,000 by the end of April 1945. It was the largest number of aircraft ever dispatched to concentrate on one target, comprising of 1079 bombers (750 Lancasters, 293 Halifaxís & 36 Mosquitoes). 4661 tons of bombs were dropped on Oboe-directed sky markers through complete cloud cover. The attack was accurate and virtually paralyzed Essen until the American ground troops entered the city later .
During the operation W/C Davenport's Lancaster was observed to plummet to the ground in the target area, none of the crew were able to egress from the aircraft, all were killed. The cause of the crash was never determined but was believed to be enemy flak. Two photographs captured the final moments of Lancaster KB853.
Ironically Bernard Rink, the brother of Bomb Aimer Wendellin Rink was also participating in the Essen op with his 576 sqn crew and witnessed the destruction of his brother's aircraft.
There were only two other crews lost apart from the Davenport crew. The Fern crew of 434 Squadron and the Gibbins crew (NG 201) of 153 Squadron
The crew were buried at after the crash Sud West Friedhof Cemetery in Germany. As the telegrams began to trickle home to the families of the Davenport crew, command of 431 Squadron was passed to S/L Smith until W/C William McKinnon (DFC) took over for the remainder of the war in Europe.
The crew was re-interred at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Germany with he exception of P/O Clarence Lecky who was exhumed by an American graves inspection team and re-interred at the Venray War Cemetery.
The wife of P/O Hubert Bishop received his Distinguished Flying Cross February 12, 1946, the award was approved May 10, 1945.
Wendelin Rink has a lake named after him in the Province of Saskatchewan, Rink Lake is located at 55 Degrees 35 min, 104 deg 06 min.
F/O Donal Hector is commemorated in the University of Toronto Memorial Book Second World War 1939-1945
All crew members were posthumously awarded their Operational Wings and campaign medals.
Grateful thanks to the following people who helped make this tribute possible.
The widow & daughter & family of Ralph Davenport.
The family of Clarence Lecky.
The family of Wendelin Rink-in particular Ms. Richardiena Delwo for her assistance.
The family of Hubert Bishop.
Kathy Parks of the University of Toronto for the photo of Donal Hector.
(From the University of Toronto Memorial Book Second World War 1939-1945.Published by the Soldiers Tower Committee.)
Richard Koval for crew photo.
Mike Garbett & Brian Goulding for permission to reproduce from their book (Lancaster at War 3)
Nanton Lancaster Museum.
Bill Heron. For assistance with 431 information & photo.
London Gazette Archives.
Thanks to D.N.D. Canada for photos of Ralph Davenport & G.Kercher.
Hans Ooms (Netherlands) for the grave photos of this crew.
Lost bombers-World War Two Lost bombers website.
Written by Linda Ibrom