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FLETCHER, DENNIS HOWARD
Inscribed incorrectly on the Banstead War memorial as D J Fletcher.*

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Dennis Howard FletcherSergeant (Obs.) 1252492

Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

Died 31st May 1942 aged 21

Upon the outbreak of war, Dennis Fletcher was just one of thousands of young men keen to fly with the Royal Air Force. As a volunteer, Dennis joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.


At the end of a lengthy assessment of his physical fitness and mental aptitude, Dennis Fletcher was selected for aircrew. When he was killed, it was as a Sergeant 'Observer' a category that was subsequently split into two main trades - Navigator and Air Bomber (bomb aimer). It is possible that he was originally selected for pilot training but after being evaluated was transferred into Observer school.

After completing his specialist training and receiving his Observer 'Wings', Dennis was posted to RAF Lichfield in early 1942 as part of 27 OTU (Operational Training Unit) which also operated from a satellite airfield at Tattenhall. Here, he was crewed with four others to make up the standard crew of the RAF's main twin-engined bomber of the time, the Vickers Wellington.

27 OTU's purpose was specifically to train crews for RAF Bomber Command's night offensive. Here they would fly practise missions; navigation exercises and generally to get to know their aircraft, their functions and to work as a close-knit team. When fully proficient they would be posted to an operational Wellington Squadron.

However, fate was to take a hand and Dennis and his crew would never complete their training.

Sir Arthur Harris had taken over as Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942. This controversial figure had no qualms about taking the war to Germany and knew that in Bomber Command he controlled the only substantial military force then capable of going onto the offensive.

There was considerable doubt as to whether the strategic bomber was a worthwhile weapon at this point and he was determined to reverse the ineffective performance that the bomber force had delivered up to that point in the war. He knew that concentrating bombs on a target was the only way to cause meaningful destruction of the target area and began his tenure by targeting the cities of Lubeck and Rostock on the Baltic coast. Easily found and identifiable by their coastal location, these old cities with a high proportion of wooden buildings were destroyed more comprehensively than any previous targets. The British Press at last had something to report and opinions within the war cabinet were turning in his favour.


Bomber Harris courtesy of Wikipedia

But Harris knew that the future of Bomber Command was still in doubt and he approached both Winston Churchill and Sir Charles Portal with the bold idea of assembling a force of 1,000 bombers and sending them out in one massive raid on a German city. Churchill and Portal were both impressed and they agreed.

Although Harris had only a little over 400 aircraft with trained crews which were regularly used for front-line operational work, he did have a considerable number of further aircraft in the conversion units attached to groups with four-engined aircraft and in Bomber Command's own operational training units within 91 and 92 Groups. This secondary Bomber Command strength could be crewed by a combination of instructors, many of them ex-operational, and by men in the later stages of their training.

To complete the 1,000 aircraft required, Harris asked for the help of his fellow commanders in chief in Coastal Command and Flying Training Command. Both officers were willing to help. Sir Philip Joubert of Coastal Command immediately offered to provide 250 bombers, many of them being from squadrons which had once served in Bomber Command. Flying Training Command offered fifty aircraft but many of these were later found to be insufficiently equipped for night bombing and only four Wellingtons were eventually provided from this source.

Bad weather over Hamburg, the first choice target, caused Harris to select Cologne as the target, the third largest German city. 'Operation Millennium' was scheduled for May 30th 1942.

The crews still in the Operational Training Units were evaluated in order to assess their suitability for participation in the raid. The crew of Warrant Officer W/O Frederick ‘Freddie’ Hillyer were one of the crews selected. The crew were made up of W/O F.G.Hillyer (Pilot), P/O A.C.White (Bomb aimer/Observer), Sgt D.S.B.Vincent (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner), Sgt H.L.Smith (Air Gunner) and Sgt Dennis H.Fletcher (Observer). They were nearing the end of their training and this was to be their first operation.

However, due to the secrecy of ‘Operation Millenium’, notice given to the Squadrons and OTU’s was very short. Freddie Hillyer and his crew were actually on leave when then were contacted to be told that their leave was cancelled with immediate effect and that they were to report without delay to RAF Wing, the home of 26 OTU, near Milton Keynes.


Wellington, LR132 WG-V of 26 OTU

Photographs of 26 OTU aircraft are hard to find. The unit's aircraft used three different unit fuselage codes - EU, PB and WG, almost certainly to differentiate between flights, or aircraft based at the satelite airfield of Little Horwood.

This Wellington, LR132 WG-V of 26 OTU was based at RAF Wing.
source - RAF Bomber Airfields of WW2 by Jonathan Falconer


Upon their arrival at RAF Wing, the crew discovered that were to fly their first operation as a crew but in a Wellington of 26 OTU, which had two ‘spare’ aircraft without crews, whereas 27 OTU had a surplus of aircrew.

This is a typical example of the measures taken to put up what became known in RAF parlance as a ‘Maximum effort’ and in fact this first 1,000 bomber raid resulted in several Squadrons putting up record numbers of aircraft, never surpassed for the rest of the war. Number 12 Squadron for example sent 28 Wellingtons to Cologne, the largest number of aircraft ever sortied by this unit.

Harris was ultimately able to assemble a force of 1,047 for ‘Operation Millenium’ although only 868 were ultimately to bomb the main target. However, this still represented a massive increase over bombing capacity up to that point in the war. Of the 1,047 total, some 600 were Wellingtons and 496 of those actually bombed the target. No fewer than 228 of the bombers were provided by the OTU’s.

The Wellingtons from 26 OTU flew to RAF Gravely in Huntingdon. This airfield was in the process of being upgraded from a special duties base to a standard bomber airfield. By August, 35 Squadron would operate from the airfield as part of the new 'Pathfinder' force. At Gravely they were closer to the operational bases and this was vital to ensure a compact bomber stream on the way to the target, in order to ‘swamp’ the German defences.

At 23.05 in the late evening of May 30th 1942, Wellington 1C - serial DV740, coded EU-O, piloted by Warrant Officer F.G Hillyer, took off from RAF Gravely and headed out over the North Sea towards occupied Europe. The operational career of the crew was to be almost as short as was possible. German radar detected the unusually large force approaching and the Luftwaffe scrambled its night fighters to wait for the incoming bombers.

Venlo airfield near Limburg in the Netherlands, guarded the approaches to the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. It was the base for the Luftwaffe Night Fighters of I/NJG1 (the first Gruppe, Night fighter group 1).
Shortly before midnight, elements of the Gruppe, flying Messerschmitt BF110 twin-engined fighters took off to intercept the incoming raiders. Hauptman Werner Streib one of the Luftwaffe's leading Nightfighter aces with over 25 victories to his name, was piloting an early Lichtenstein (Radar) equipped BF110.

At this stage in the war, individual nightfighters were assigned to patrol an individual patrol area or ‘box’. These overlapping boxes made up what was known as the ‘Himmelbett’ (Four-poster bed) system’, the defence system then adopted by the German defences.

‘Four-poster bed’ referred to the four defensive elements used in the boxes – namely, radar, searchlights, anti-aircraft artillery (Flak) and nightfighters. Collectively the boxes were known as the Kammhuber Line.


Hauptmann Horst Patuschka - picture from Simon Parry - Red Kite Publications Hauptman Werner Streib one of the Luftwaffe's leading Nightfighter aces
Horst Patuschka.

Patrolling Box 5C, Streib and his radar operator Fw Ruscher detected an incoming bomber which they identified as an RAF Whitley. The bomber was shot down at 00.56; it was in fact a Wellington, serial BJ674 of 9 Squadron.

North of Cologne, above the Rhine, Wellington DV740 approached the target with Freddie Hillyer at the controls. Hillyer later recalled that they were able to see the glow of Cologne ahead of them as fires were already established and parts of the inner city were burning fiercely.

German anti-aircraft fire - ‘Flak’ was deadly throughout the war and now the crew of DV740 were buffeted as accurate Flak burst all around them, the Wellington jumping and juddering as it approached the city below.

Most of the Wellingtons bombed from between 12-14,000 ft, an altitude which made them vulnerable to the German defences.

Perhaps the most feared anti-aircraft weapon of the war, was the German 88mm Flak gun which could fire a 20lb high explosive shell to an altitude of 35,000 ft at a velocity of 2,755 ft/second. A competent gun crew could fire between 12 and 15 rounds per minute.

With predictive radar, searchlights and a good crew, aircraft flying ‘straight and level’ on approach to the target, were relatively easy targets for Flak gunners.

The port engine of DV740 started racing, whether through Flak damage or mechanical failure is not known, but approaching the target the crew continued with their preparations for bombing. The young Bomb Aimer, Arthur Cyril White, just 22 years old successfully dropped the bombs on target and Freddie Hillyer pulled the struggling Wellington around and headed North West; Dave Vincent gave his pilot a course of 310 degrees.
Cyril White left his prone ‘bomb-aimer’s’ position in the nose of the Wellington and entered the front turret of the aircraft for the flight home. By now the damaged engine was failing badly and the airspeed dropped markedly.

Cologne was ablaze and returning crews later reported that the city was still visible at 10,000ft above the Dutch coast.

By now, DV740 was just one of hundreds of bombers trying to get home. The compact nature of the bomber stream was no longer as effective as it had been on the outbound journey. The positions of aircraft ‘off track’ was now magnified and many aircraft were damaged resulting in a variety of aircraft travelling at different speeds and at different altitudes.

Comparatively few outbound bombers were shot down because of the compact nature of the bomber stream heading to Cologne, but many more were to be lost on the return trip home.

At 02.05, still patrolling Box 5C above Maasisland, near Alem, Werner Streib was alerted to the presence of a slow flying bomber by his Radar Operator Fw Ruscher. He latched onto the bomber which he again mis-identified as a Whitley. The bomber was actually Wellington DV740 of 26 OTU, numbering Sergeant Dennis Fletcher among its crew.

Pulling astern of the bomber, Streib opened fire, his cannon shells tearing into the Wellington.

Freddie Hillyer was later to recall that with the port engine stopped, the rear fuselage of the aircraft and the cockpit full of smoke, he gave the order to bail out. He received no response from any of the crew on the intercom but could see that the front turret containing Cyril White, was pointing to the side. The hydraulics for the turret were powered by the dead port engine meaning that White was trapped.

Hillyer left the cockpit and grabbed the handle for the doors of the front turret beneath him. The door was jammed and despite banging, he could hear nothing from White inside the turret. Forced to assume that White was dead, Hillyer exited the doomed Wellington and parachuted to safety landing on one side of the River Maas at Noord-Brabant. He landed hard and passed out.

Werner Streib’s 27th Victory, DV740 exploded at the Middelwaard in Alem at 2.05am on the opposite side of the River Maas. Debris was spread out over the meadows and the bodies of Cyril White, Dennis Fletcher, Dave Vincent and Les Smith lay amongst the wreckage.

Arrested by the Dutch Military Police and locked up in the Town Hall in Lith, Freddie Hillyer was turned over to the Germans, from where he would go to Utrecht for questioning before being taken to Amsterdam. First though, his captors took him to the crash site, where he saw the wreckage of his Wellington and the bodies of his fallen crew-members, a profound and heart-rending experience.

Freddie Hillyer was subsequently interned as a Prisoner of War (PoW). He spent time in Sagan (Poland, Stalag Luft III), Heydekrug (Lithuania, Stalag Luft VI) and Gross Tychow (Poland, Stalag Luft IV). His PoW number was 508. He finally regained his freedom in 1945.


Wellington Crew Freddie Hillyer died suddenly on March 6th 1993. Amongst his possessions his family found a photo of his crew. He had kept the photo without anyone knowing about it.

The restored photograph of the crew shown here appears to be the same image and was sourced from the Pope family who were cousins of Dennis Fletcher.Horst Patuschka.


D H Fletcher CWGC Headstone

UDEN War Cemetery in the Netherlands.

 

As for Operation Millenium, it cost Bomber Command 41 bombers, an acceptable' 3.9% of the force dispatched.

Of those, four Wellingtons, DV740, DV707, DV709 and WS704 were all lost from 26 OTU.

Dennis Fletcher had played a minor role in the first 1,000 bomber raid of the war. It was sadly his first and last operation.


Grave/Memorial Reference: 4. A. 7.
Cemetery: UDEN WAR CEMETERY

Sources :

Wellington Units of Bomber Command – Michael Napier – Pub; Osprey 2020
Nachtjagd Combat Archive (Early Years Part 3) – Theo Boiten – Pub; Red Kite 2019
German Nightfighter aces of WW2 - Jerry Scutts
Lostbombers.co.uk
RAF.org online history - Bomber Command
Bomber Command - Max Hastings
Notes of men killed during the War from the Banstead British Legion
Our grateful thanks to two Dutch researchers,  Ronny van Hoften and Heidi van Houten  who have conducted extensive research on DV740 and its crew.
Whole story compiled and written by Mark Stanley of the Banstead History Research Group
Bomber Harris photo from Wikipedia
Family History research and portrait photo by Christine Kent.


D5740 Crew burials

Dennis lies with the other crewmen killed on that mission.

From left to right:

P/O A C White, Sgt. D H Fletcher, Sgt, H L Smith and Sgt, D S B Vincent

Photograph courtesy of Ronny Van Hoften.

LAST UPDATED: 16 Aug 2020 ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... Back to WWll panels

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