A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – “Friendly Fire” Shootdown, 4/5th May 1942

Having successfully completed his 14th mission on 2nd/3rd May 1942, carrying out minelaying duties (“Gardening”), Alan embarked on his 15th operation on the 4th/5th May 1942, which proved to be a very eventful night for his crew and the whole Squadron.

Extracts from the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) Source: National Archives

According to the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB) entry above for 4/5th May 1942, “eleven crews were detailed and briefed for operations tonight”. For 6 aircraft, the target once again was “the Skoda Works at Pilsen”, as part of “Operation Canonbury” and although “one was withdrawn, two attacked last resort targets at Manheim and Mainz”, while “two others succeeded in bombing the primary target, where a fire was started”.

WW2 Map of France

Unlike the first “Canonbury” mission (on 25/26th April 1942 which Alan took part in), this raid did not have guidance from Czech Resistance on the ground and yet it was arguably more successful, as 2 bombers managed to find the target, whereas only one had done so on the previous occasion. Meanwhile, “four other aircraft were detailed to attack Stuttgart”, while Alan and his crew were again scheduled to fly on Stirling R9313, but on a less challenging task, “a Nickel raid over Lyon”. “Nickel” was the code name for leaflet dropping and, like “Gardening”, it was considered less risky than normal bombing operations.

Such flights were carried out by both sides in WW2, mostly with the intention of disseminating propaganda. Stirling R9313, under the command of S/Ldr Ashworth, took off at 2230 to drop 600 bundles of leaflets (654,000 in total!) from the US and UK governments over Vichy France, the aim of which was to raise the morale of the French people by reassuring them that they would eventually be liberated (see below).

Leaflets Dropped by the Crew of R9313 – Source: psywar.org

It’s clear from the ORB that it was a difficult night for the Squadron with two aircraft being shot down and 3 aircraft badly damaged and subsequently written off. The crew of W7469, under the command of S/Ldr Oldroyd, reported being “shot up over target, by heavy accurate concentrated flak”, then “held in a cone of searchlights in the Rhine area” and “intercepted by a Ju88 which was fought for about 20 minutes, before it flew off”, finally diverting to Manston “owing to low fuel supply”. In the case of W7521, captained by Sgt McAauley, the “port outer engine failed, much flak was then experienced from the French coast and the aircraft was badly damaged” and “crash landed at Norwich when 3 engines failed due to an airlock in the petrol system”. Rather chillingly for N6070, “nothing was heard  of this aircraft after leaving base”, since the Stirling had been hit by flak on the  way back from Pilsen and crashed in Frankfurt with only survivor, the Canadian mid upper gunner, Sgt MacAfee, who ended up as a POW. It was especially unfortunate for the Captain, F/Sgt Gregg, who had completed over 30 missions and would have expected to have been stood down from further operations after the flight. 

Extracts from the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) Source: National Archives

Meanwhile, Alan and his crew in R9313 had finished dropping leaflets over southern France and were on their way back home trying to avoid enemy fighters, when they were intercepted by one of the RAF’s new night fighting units based at Tangmere in Sussex, comprising a Hawker Hurricane from No.1 Squadron and a twin engine Douglas Havoc of 1455 Flight, which was fitted with basic radar and a powerful searchlight (Turbinlite) in the nose for illuminating the target. Having identified targets, the Havoc crew would direct the accompanying Hurricane onto the enemy aircraft, using their own radar equipment and guidance from ground radar; the target would then be illuminated by the Havoc and shot down by the Hurricane.

Depiction of the Turbinlite – Source: weaponsandwarfare.com

Unfortunately, on this occasion, Stirling R9313 was mistaken for an enemy Focke-Wulf Condor by the Havoc, piloted by S/Ldr Budd, and soon under fire from the powerful 20 mm cannons fitted to Hurricane BD770, flown by P/O Murray. According to the ORB below, “the aircraft was shot at by our own fighters” and “caught fire and was soon fiercely burning”, although “the crew baled out and all landed without serious injury”.

The ORB Report for Alan’s Stirling 5th May 1942 – Source: National Archives
A Luftwaffe FW Condor (Source: airvectors.net) and Stirling Mk1 (Source: aircrewremembered)

Having kept the crippled aircraft airborne long enough for his crew to bale out, S/Ldr Ashworth vacated the Stirling, which eventually crashed at around 0430 in a field adjacent to Gatehouse Farm in Lurgashall, Sussex. On landing back at Tangmere, Budd and Murray were said to be jubilant at the prospect of shooting down an “enemy” aircraft. Their excitement was short-lived, as the base Intelligence Officer soon confirmed that that they had in fact shot down one of their own! Although this is duly noted in the ORB for 1455 Flight below, the equivalent report for P/O Murray states “Nothing to Report”, while Alan’s logbook entry merely says “Baled out near Tangmere”, somewhat downplaying what must have been a rather traumatic experience for the entire crew!

1455 Operations Record Book, 5th May 1942 – Source: National Archives
Alan’s Logbook Entry – 4/5th May 1942- Source: S Green
RAF Bomber Command Losses 1942 – Source: W.R Chorley

Interestingly, the Police and ARP (Air Raid Precautions) reports for the 5th May 1942 (shown below) mistakenly refer to a Wellington bomber at first, before confirming that it was a Stirling involved in the crash, the time/location of which is recorded as “0415 Lurgashall, (Gatehouse Farm)”. They then give details of the search for the missing 8 airmen, finally noting “seventh airman found uninjured, Sgt Mulroy” and “Tangmere informed”.

Police and ARP Reports, 5th May 1942 – Source: A. Saunders:

Once the Stirling crew had been rounded up, they were stupidly taken to Tangmere, base of the Hurricane/Havoc combination, where “there was a near riot” when the crews came across each other. Research suggests the shooting down of Stirling R9313 was the Turbinlite’s only “success” and that it was abandoned soon after. Ten years ago, there was an excavation of the crash site, which was the subject of a documentary called “War Digs” with Harry Harris. The programme was shown on Discovery History Channel, one of a series, unearthing lost aviation relics from WW2. While the other episodes told much of the human stories behind each crash site, the Stirling edition only referred to the circumstances of the “friendly fire”, without mentioning the crew at all. Two years ago, I was kindly given pieces of engine cowling from R9313 which had been recovered from the crash site. On 5th May 2022, courtesy of the Petworth Estate, I finally managed to visit the field next to Gatehouse Farm, where my father’s Stirling crashed exactly 80 years ago!

Photos of the Field in Lurgashall where R9313 Crashed – 80 years on
Hurricane MK IIC BE581 of 1 Squadron – Source: IWM
Douglas Turbinlite (Havoc) – Source:218 Squadron Association
Pieces of Engine Casing from Stirling R9313 – Source: S. Green


AIR 27/1350 218 Squadron, May 1942

AIR 27/2004/1 1455 Flight, May 1942

Chorley, William, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War 1942 (Leicester, Midland Counties Publications, 1994)

Falconer, Jonathan, Short Stirling, 1939-48 (all marks) Owner’s Workshop Manual (Yeovil, Haynes Publishing, 2015)

Smith, Steve, From St Vith to Victory, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany (Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2015)

Smith, Steve, Courage Was Not Enough, No. 218 (Bomber) Squadron, Weston-super-Mare’s Own 1936-42 (Merthr Tydfil, Mention the War Ltd., 2020)

Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Buckinghamshire New University, Module Leader in Aviation Sustainability Management. Experienced Airbus/Boeing Captain.

4 Replies to “A Bomber Command Navigator 80 Years On – “Friendly Fire” Shootdown, 4/5th May 1942

  1. Hi, I was one of the members of the digging team with War Digs when we were making the series for the TV series. Excellent dig where we recovered lots of ‘bits’ and three engines. Great shame we did not meet you.
    Peter Dimond

    1. Thanks Peter – Andy S said the same thing! He did put me in touch with the estate office and sent me the police report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *