Those Left Behind - A Widow of Bomber Command  
 

 Webmaster's Notes: It should never be forgotten that the high price paid by the aircrews of Bomber Command had ramifications that reached far beyond the military. For every airman killed or missing on operations there were many loved ones and family members that suffered in silence as their lives were shattered by grief. The following letter written by Esme Fern illustrates the emotional torment felt by those left behind as they tried to come to terms with their loss.

This tribute  is dedicated to all of the widows of airmen that were lost while serving with Bomber Command.


 
 

Esme Fern

Background

 Esme met "John" Fern at a dance in London, when he was posted to England aged about nineteen to serve in the Air force. Before the war he had worked at Prince Albert National Park in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. John had a keen interest in aviation, apparently the first time that he saw a plane he told his father "I am going to be a pilot".

 Esme and John met approximately every six weeks when he had leave, usually in London, as Esme lived in Acton. Esme gave up her secretarial position to join the WAAFs at age 22, a decision that John wasn't too happy with as he thought they had a bit of a reputation and was also concerned about her being in London during the bombing. Nevertheless, Esme was posted as a continuity girl at Pinewood studios who were busy making war films. 

 The couple were married on December 12th 1944 at St.Dunstans Church, East Acton, Middlesex. John was 25 and stationed at Dishforth at the time and Esme was 23. The best man was the crew's mid-upper gunner, Gibson "Scottie" Scott, Ben Marceau the rear gunner also attended. 

 Thomas "Don" Donovan Copeland, the crews bomb aimer, also got married on the same day, to another English girl, Vivienne Thomkins from Twickenham. George Rowe, the crew's navigator served as their best man. 

  On March 11, 1945 John and his crew were lost on an operation to Essen. Esme was first told the news of John and his crew by her mother and sister, who broke the news to her at Pinewood studios. She was so devastated that she  spent several weeks under sedation as a result. 

 Months were spent hoping against hope that John had become a POW. Esme began visiting and writing to the Air Ministry as well as squadron headquarters at Croft hoping it would yield some news that he was still alive.

Raymond "John" Fern and Esme

 Gradually she began to accept that John  had in fact been killed along with six of the crew (Ben Marceau being the only survivor). Following the war she traveled to Canada and met John's widowed father at his Saskatchewan farm and in a final act of closure made a personal trip to the war cemetery at Reichswald to find her husbands grave.

Wedding Photo : Best Man Gibson Scott left of groom, F/L George Halcro at far right.


 The following letter was written by Esme Fern to Mrs. Jones, the  wife of William Jones, the crew's Flight Engineer.

Thursday 25/6/1945

 Dear Mrs. Jones,  

              I am terribly sorry not to have replied to your letter before now, but much has happened in the past few weeks-hence the delay in writing. I know just exactly how you feel and what you have been through and offer my deepest sympathy.

 John had spoken often of your husband and as you probably know, he was the only English boy in the crew, but I never did manage to meet him. Had I known your address, I would have written long ago. Strangely enough, my father-in-law in Canada received a list of all crew and next of kin whereas I did not receive any notification whatsoever. As I am in the services, your letter had to be forwarded, which caused some delay-but after receiving the following news, I was sent home 2 weeks ago, and have been under the doctor since. 

 I am at a loss to know how to word this and only wish I could have written before and so have prepared you for the letter you must have received yesterday from the Air Ministry-the same as myself. Mrs. Copeland-the wife of one of John's crew heard from her in-laws in Canada that Ben, one of the crew, was safe and after her father had made extensive enquiries, he eventually learned that the rear gunner was in hospital at East Sheen. After making a fruitless journey to the hospital only to find Ben had gone out and that he had been in hospital approximately 7 weeks. Ben called on Mr. Tomkins later in the week and explained what happened. 

 Apparently they were flying at 17,000 feet after going over the target, clouds were very low and they were on the return journey home when they unexpectedly ran into A. A. barrage and the flak caught the  front of the kite-the force of the explosion blowing Ben out at the rear of the plane. Fortunately he had a 'chute that  opened automatically and his injuries were the loss of an eye and his jaw broken in 3 places. I have not seen him but understand he had been very badly shaken as I can well imagine. Until I heard from A.M. yesterday I was still convinced that despite Ben saying there was no hope for the  others a miracle would happen and that somewhere our dear ones would be safe. But the A.M. have now put it in black and white and according to them a German officer told Ben he was the only survivor though he (Ben) did not mention this to Mr.Tomkins. 

 I just cannot believe its true-there are so many questions I should like answered-but they will forever be unanswered. Life is hard and fate plays terrible tricks but we must try and bear up-though for me personally the future looks very black, without having the one person I love with me and it must be so with you.

 John and I had been married exactly 3 months when the news came through and were keenly looking forward to our leave in Scotland-he had been in this country over 3 years and practically every leave we tried to make bonny Scotland, but at the last minute something always prevented us. It seemed we were fated not to go. If only all the boys could have baled out as Ben managed to-why it had to be John's kite is beyond me-they had been on so many trips and had been in many tight corners-it just doesn't seem fair that they should have been taken, especially when they had almost finished their second tour.  This cursed war, it takes so many young lives, always it seems the finest and best of boys. 

 John's brother has recently arrived in this country and has been spending leave here-and I am hoping to go to Canada in the near future. John and I had made so many plans-that is something I shall never do again. I will give you Ben's address, in case you feel like writing-maybe there are some things you would still like to know. I am so sorry I have written this in rather a crude manner, I only hope you can understand the above. If there is any consolation to be found, it is in the knowledge that death was instantaneous-they could not have suffered at all. Ben's address is-J19723 F/O Marceau, RCAF Wing. Queen Victoria cottage hospital, East Grinstead, Sussex. 

 It is hard to understand that Marceau had been in hospital so many weeks without letting any of us know what happened-maybe he just couldn't face it, not having any good news for us, poor chappy, he must feel pretty awful. I had also made many trips to CROFT HQ and AM but always the same answer "no news" when all the time they knew Marceau was in hospital. I shall always be pleased to hear from you anytime and though it is easy to say "be brave" we must all try to cherish the many happy memories each of us must have of our loved ones, with my deepest sympathy.

Yours very sincerely,

Esme Fern


 

 This deeply evocative and moving letter sums up the anguish that wives of missing aircrew went through, especially if they were newly married, they were sometimes last to know. Details were often sketchy of their loved ones fate and all the plans so happily made for "after the war" never materialized.

 Author's Notes:

 There is a granite memorial to Raymond John Fern erected by his father, at Christopher Lake Cemetery, Saskatchewan. Esme Fern has never forgotten John but later married Jim Wilson, a veteran of Coastal Command. Many thanks to Harry Jones (son of W.Jones, Flight Engineer) Margaret Temple (England), Bettie Currie for the photos and  special thanks to Esme for allowing her letter to be transcribed.

 Research by Linda Ibrom cathogs2000@tiscali.co.uk