Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How a London Lad Ended up in the Royal Australian Air Force

Douglas Frederick Wooldridge, Halifax Flight Engineer, Royal Australian Air Force, 1944

Two of my friends from across the pond, John and Richard Havers, share my enthusiasm for aviation and World War Two history. John has written several books on the history of civil aviation in Britain and Richard has written on a variety of subjects.

Bettina Wooldridge (now Havers), Douglas Wooldridge, and their parents, early 1944

John's wife (Richard's mother) Bettina, has a brother by the name of Douglas Frederick Wooldridge. During World War Two, Douglas was the only Englishman on an Australian crew. John writes, "Until the advent of the Short Stirling, Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster four-engine bombers there had not been a need for Flight Engineers and training for these was given in the UK. Many Australians received their training at home or in other Commonwealth counties such as Canada or in Africa but this did not include Flight Engineers and so it meant that the FE would mostly be an Englishman."

Richard picks up the story here, writing: "My Uncle was a Flight Engineer, a Sergeant, with 466 Squadron, a Royal Australian Air Force unit that flew Halifaxes; this despite the fact that he had been born in South London and was English through and through. Between 15 February 1944 and 18 March 1944 he and his fellow crewmembers, who were all Australian, flew four missions against targets in France and Germany. The other six members of the crew were Flight Sergeants with the exception of the Wireless Operator/Gunner who was a Warrant Officer. On their first mission they bombed Augsburg, in Germany, they took off at 2103 and landed again at 0514 hours – meaning that they were airborne for over eight hours.

Their fourth mission on the night of 18/19 March was as part of a raid against Frankfurt – Twelve Halifaxes from 466 Squadron got airborne that night although two returned early due to hydraulic trouble. Seven of the remaining ten aircraft bombed the primary target and returned safely, three failed to return including my Uncle’s aircraft.

A German fighter attacked HX231 killing the mid‑upper gunner Noel Lees and probably the other gunners, Jack Dansie and George De Fraine. With the fuselage a mass of flames the Captain told the crew to bail out, which Bill Bray. Ken Wilson and Doug Wooldridge all did. The Captain, Johnny Richards, pushed Doug Wooldridge out of the aircraft causing him to strike the tall, which knocked him out and broke his teeth. He came to in a snowdrift covered by his parachute, which in view of the very cold conditions undoubtedly saved his life. He was eventually discovered by German troops and admitted to a hospital run by Sister's of Mercy; Johnny Richards went down with the aircraft. Ironically the news bulletins the following day said that the bombers “met fewer fighters than usual”. All three men who bailed out became POWs and separately passed through the Luftwaffe interrogation centre at Oberursel, near Frankfurt‑on‑Main before moving on to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in south east Germany where they were reunited. They were later moved to Stalag Luft 6 at Heydekrug, East Prussia before being marched back west in the wake of the advancing Red Army; they were found by Allied troops. The four men that died, including the pilot, were all twenty-one years old with the exception of Jack Dansie who was just twenty; they are buried at Rheinberg War Cemetery in the Ruhr. My uncle, Doug Wooldridge, was a month shy of his twenty third birthday - today at eighty-four he still enjoys playing golf and travels the world. He is just one example that illustrates the random nature of survival in Bomber Command; the same can be said in every aspect of war."
Douglas Frederick Wooldridge, Halifax airman and former Prisoner of War, in 2004

In this painting by aviation artist Nicholas Trudgian, a squadron of Royal Australian Air Force Halifaxes heads over the Lincolnshire Coast bound for Germany in 1942.


Richard Havers said...

Rob, you've done Uncle Doug proud! I've passed along the link to my cousin Carol who is currently in Sicily learning Italian, and cousins Christina and Ian who will greatly appreciate what you've done here. Doug apparently is suffering from 'computer malfunction' but I'm sure once he's up and running again will be tickled to see himself on the web.

Thanks again!

r morris said...

It was an honor. I salute him.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just wanted to say thank you so much for featuring my dad on your site. An unsung hero as no doubt many of that generation and the best ever dad. Best, Carol

r morris said...

The pleasure was all mine, Carol. Hats off to your dad.