On the night of 12th July, Lancaster LM311, better known as L Lizbeth, lumbered into the air from Bottesford airfield in England. She had apparently acquired her name from the fiancée of one the crew, she served as a WAAF on the base, another version of the story is that she was named after the mum of the youngest crew member,Sgt Patrick Donlevy, a 19-year-old Wireless Operator from the small village of Pathhead near Dalkeith in Midlothian.
The aircraft although ‘Australian’ was mainly crewed by Scotsmen, the pilot Sgt Cedric Chapman was the only Aussie onboard, the others were Sgt Norman Smith, Bomb Aimer (21) from Edinburgh, Sgt Jack Greenwood, Flt Engineer (25) from Yorkshire, Sgt William Buchanan, Gunner (20) from Glasgow, Sgt Albert Edwards, Navigator (20) from Glasgow, Sgt William Bruce, Gunner (22) from Renfrewshire and Pat Donlevy.
The target for tonight was a distant one, the Italian city of Turin it was their 14th sortie with the Squadron and their first to Italy, the rest had been against heavily defended German cities such as Dusseldorf, Cologne, Dortmund and Essen.
The flight to Turin was fairly uneventful, however on the bombing run itself ‘Liz’beth’ took a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun which caused damage to the tail section. After checks were made, the pilot decided that he could fly the damaged plane back to England. Back at Bottesford the aircraft appeared back at base one by one, X-Ray, Able and Yorker flew back in rapid succession until all were back bar L-Liz’beth.
Just as dawn was breaking, a voice was heard over the intercom in the Ops Room at Bottlesford, it was Cedric Chapman, “Liz’beth to Bedrock, over.” The operator responded “Liz,beth aerodrome 1,000 over” – “Liz’beth to aerodrome, 1,000, I have no elevator control, am flying on trimmer, over”
This was a serious problem, it meant the pilot had very little control of his height. Chapman gave his crew the option to bail out, but they had already decided to stay together as a crew, it was the RAF way.
The pilot decided that despite the damage he could land the Lancaster at Bottesford, it was really his only option anyway, as he was down to the last 15 minutes of fuel.
The tension in the control tower could be cut with a knife, Chapman asked for permission to ‘pancake’ or land. He received the reply “Bedrock to Liz’beth , you may pancake, over” Chapman responded “Liz’beth to Bedrock, Roger thanks. Out”
It would be the last words he would utter, as the Lanc lined up on the runway Chapman went through all his pre landing drill, everything seemed fine, Wheels-check, Gyro – check, Mixture – Check, Flaps – Check. Just as the flaps lowered a shudder went through the aircraft and to their horror, they felt the tail of the plane break off, sending it into a vertical dive from a few hundred feet, a parachute was seen to come out the tail just as she struck the ground, it was too late.
L-Liz’beth struck the ground and exploded in a massive fireball. The crash alarm screamed out across the base and fire engines descended on the burning plane, sadly it was obvious no one could have survived the impact or the fire. After the fire was doused the bodies of the men were recovered and sent home for burial.
One of those men, Patrick Donlevy,(19), was my mum’s cousin, an only child, his parents never got over his death.
Patrick was buried with full military honours in Dalkeith Cemetery where he lies at rest.
His story is typical of so many young Bomber Command airmen, who risked their lives night after night over occupied Europe, and died before their life had barely begun.
Patrick and the rest of his crew are remembered at Bottesford where this picture of them hangs in in the Council Chambers.
Pat is on the left side of the front row.