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Failed to Return


The Gaven Henry crew, in which Stoney Mitchell was navigator, had not been able to fly since the end of January 1945 because Gaven had broken his wrist while cranking Stoney’s car on a cold night. Although Gaven Henry was posted to duties at 13 Base, Elsham Wolds, on 2 February, the other 6 crew were not immediately deployed for operations with other pilots. From mid-February onwards, Gaven’s crew members were assigned as “spare bodies” to complete other Lancaster crews in 103 Squadron.

Rear Gunner Jack Grice flew six sorties as a “spare bod”, the last of which was a daylight raid on 1 March 1945 when 17 Lancasters from 103 Squadron were detailed for a bombing operation to Mannheim.  Only Lancaster PD272, flown by F/O A. S. Thomson with a crew of 8 men that night, failed to return.  The Flight Engineer survived, but Jack Grice and 6 other crewmen died. Also see In Memoriam.

Five days after Jack Grice failed to return from Mannheim, Stoney Mitchell wrote one of his regular letters to his twin sister Kath in Australia.  The following excerpt from that letter, written 6 March 1945 and the last correspondence home before Stoney likewise failed to return from an operation, must have seemed uncannily prescient to his family in Australia as it describes the emotions of those who are not on operations on a given night but wait for the returns of those who are on sorties.

In camp life is vastly different.  There is a common interest which keeps us as body.  We soon get to know each other, and with the common danger among aircrew, a camaraderie exists which is truly admirable.  At my normal work, during the day if there is anything on each one is too busy about his own work to give much time to others.  But on the quieter days one easily converses with the boys, swapping yarns, or telling tales of the “last op” many of these being rather tall.

You can quite easily understand that while we might all be going to the same target on the same night, each of us has different experiences.  One chappie might get flak near him, or even hit him, another might only see it at a distance.  One might see or be engaged by a fighter, another might not even see one or any action by one.  One might have this internal trouble in the aircraft, another might have a quiet trip with nothing eventful at all.  They all make occasion for swapping yarns and often these are highly coloured.  But even the tallest ones are accepted in a spirit of fun.

Now that I am not operating for a while, I see a different aspect or it.  Instead of being one of the boys getting off, I watch them all go.  See the aircraft pass by and say Oh that’s Johnny, or Al or whoever it is.  Watch them rev up and move down the runway eventually taking off and climbing.  Wishing them all silently good luck and then wondering what their experiences will be this time.  Then comes the time when they are due home.  If it is light you watch them come in, and when you identify the aircraft say Ah here’s Jack or Shorty, Good show.  Then you count the number and find it one short, and there is anxiety as to what has happened.  Maybe he had some trouble and landed somewhere else.  Everyone asks if there is any news until it is past the time for that.  If there is nothing then the talk is about the boys in the crew, who they are, when you were last talking to them, how good they were at their work, what nice chaps they were and so on.

Knowing that any day one cannot tell who it might be but inwardly realizing each one has the same chance or risk, work goes on, and when it is to be done you have too much in hand to even give a thought to the others.  You are thinking of yourself and what you have to do.


The day after Stoney Mitchell wrote the above, Wireless Operator Keith McGinn, another member of the usual Gaven Henry crew, flew a second op as a “spare bod” on a bombing sortie to Dessau on the night of 07/08 March 1945.  Three of 14 bombers from 103 Squadron failed to return that night.  Four crew on Lancaster NF913, including Keith McGinn and Pilot S.L. Saxe, died.  Also see In Memoriam.

A few days later, on 12 March 1945, Stoney Mitchell was himself part of a crew that failed to return from a minelaying sortie to Denmark on the night of 12/13 March.  The two Gunners, Harvey Porter and Donald Morris, died; Stoney Mitchell and the other 4 crewmen survived and evaded to Sweden. Also see In Memoriam.