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Lancaster pilot recalls first operation 73 years later

Lancaster LM227 I-Item above clouds in September 1944
RAF Lancaster LM227 I-Item in September 1944

Colchester, 3 April 2018

This is a picture I made a while ago – almost exactly a year, in fact – but I'm returning to it after a fascinating e-mail exchange.

The picture originally showed RAF Avro Lancaster LM227 which carried the codes UL-I2 "Item" of 576 Squadron based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire.

I wanted to depict a Lancaster in daylight, as if returning from an operation perhaps. As you probably know by now, I usually try to make my Flight Artworks about actual events or at least actual aircraft.

Any aircraft is going to have serial numbers on it, and they are going to relate to a real airframe, and that is going to have had real people on board, who went on actual operations, and so on.

I settled on this one because there were a few old photographs in existence of the original, from which I could discern various details: what type of pitot static tube, what aerials were or were not fitted, whether it had an H2S radome, 'window' chute, etc.

Once I had published my picture I was contacted by the son of one of the aircraft's mid-upper gunners, Sgt Kevin Oliver, who said it was a pity I hadn't shown it in its colours from the autumn of 1944 by which time it carried rather striking nose art showing a ringed planet and some stars.

As a result, I made a version that includes that artwork – acknowledging its creator, engine fitter Norman Bryan, who was part of LM227's regular ground crew. I chose to imagine it returning from an operation to Calais on 27 September 1944. This was the Oliver crew's first trip in it.

BAPTISM OF FIRE

Fast forward to the other day when another e-mail arrived – from none other than the pilot of the Lancaster that I had depicted, Derek Till, now aged 95 and living in Massachusetts, USA.

"We added 28 sorties to 'Item' and completed our 35 op tour on 576 Squadron," he told me.

I asked if he could remember any more about that operation, so I could add it to the information accompanying my picture.

"Our first trip was supposed to be a Calais raid on September 24th, but 'Item' blew a tyre as we were taxiing out for take-off and we had to abort," he told me.

"Thus we were anxious to go on the 27th. Calais promised to be a short and relatively simple trip for our baptism of fire, nonetheless we took off nervous and bit scared!

"Fortunately, the adrenaline kicked in as we approached the target and saw the bomb bursts from the Lancs ahead of us. As we had hoped, we saw no fighters, the flack was relatively light and we dropped our bombs according to plan.

"We returned to Elsham in good weather, very happy and relieved after our 3½-hour trip. (Incidentally, the average time for the 35 ops of our tour was 6½ hours.)"

LOST TOUCH

Derek Till said he was "brought up short" when I mentioned the connection with his air gunner, Kevin Oliver.

When his crew completed their tour of operations they celebrated in the pubs of Lincoln then went on two weeks' leave.

He was recalled after one week, however, and put on a troopship for India. He learned later that he was destined to become part of the so-called Tiger Force being established to bomb Japan from Okinawa – which, in the event, never happened.

As a result he never saw his old crew again to exchange addresses and completely lost touch with all but one of them (the flight engineer, Derek Holland).

So I was pleased to be able to put him in touch with Sgt Oliver's son, Gordon.

If anyone has any information on the others, I am sure he would love to hear it and I will be delighted to pass it on.

THE CREW

Pilot: F/O Derek Till

Flight engineer: Sgt Derek Holland

Bomb aimer: F/O John Shorthouse

Navigator: F/O Charles Bray

Wireless operator: F/O Geoff Griggs RAAF

Mid-upper gunner: Sgt Kevin Oliver

Rear gunner: Sgt Bob Hamilton

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To buy prints of any of my works please visit www.flightartworks.com.

As well as commercial assignments I also do private commissions, for individual aircraft or bigger scenes.  To get in touch visit the Contact page on my website. Find Flight Artworks on Facebook, on Twitter @flightartworks, and on Instagram @flight.artworks.

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