No. 51 Squadron, RFC, was formed at Thetford, Norfolk, in 1916 as a Home Defence Squadron, also responsible for training pilots in night flying. Disbanded in 1919, No. 51 was re-formed in 1937 as a night-bomber squadron and when war broke out in September 1939, it was flying Whitleys with the Yorkshire-based No. 4 Group.
On the first night of the war - 3rd/4th September 1939 - three of the squadron's Whitleys, operating from Leconfield, were part of the first Nickel or leaflet raid over Germany. This was the first occasion that RAF aircraft penetrated into Germany during the Second World War. In 1940, No. 51 began to drop bombs as well as leaflets on the enemy and during the year shared in several notable Bomber Command "firsts", including the first attack on a land target (the mine-laying seaplane base at Hornum on the island of Sylt, 19/20th March), the first big attack on the German mainland (the exits of Monchengladbach, 11/12th May), the first attack on Italy (primary target Fiat works at Turin, 11/12th June), and the first area bombing attack on a German industrial centre (Mannheim, 16/17th December).
In addition to its bombing offensive, No 51 Squadron participated in Operation Colossus on 10/11th February 1941, when paratroops destroyed an aqueduct in southern Italy and Operation Biting on 27/28th February 1942, when a raiding party captured a complete Wurzburg radar installation at Bruneval, near Le Havre.
From May to October 1942, No. 51 Squadron was attached to Coastal Command and during this period flew anti-submarine patrols from a station in Devon. On returning to Bomber Command and Yorkshire the squadron was re-equipped with Halifaxes and it continued with aircraft of this type for the remainder of the European war before being transferred to Transport Command on 7 May 1945. Airfields No. 51 Squadron RAF flew from.
- RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire. from 3rd September 1939 to 24th Nov 1939
- RAF Kinloss, Morayshire.(Coastal Command) from 24th Nov 1939 to 9th Dec 1939
- RAF Dishforth, Yorkshire. from 9th Dec 1939 to 6th May 1942
- RAF Chivenor, Devon. (Coastal Command) from 6th May 1942 to 27th Oct 1942
- RAF Snaith, Yorkshire. from 27th Oct 1942 to 20th Apr 1945
- RAF Leconfield, Yorkshire. from 20th Apr 1945
Captain Alan Leach RAF PO 185864 (Pilot) 1939 – 1945
Alan Leach was born in Coppull 25th March 1921 the eldest son of Sylvester and Emma. He was a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve at the age of 17 and a member of 51 squadron. He received his wings at the age of nineteen.
This is the story of his final, fateful flight:
This was the largest raid on the city since 1943 with 664 aircraft taking part - 14 Mosquitoes, 340 Halifaxes and 310 Lancasters. The bombing was reported as widespread over the city with 3,605 apartments/flats destroyed, 250 people killed on the ground. The fatalities included 229 foreigners or prisoners of war. Over 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped.
The aircraft he was flying on 5th January 1945 was a Halifax LV952, call sign MH-F. detailed to bomb the rail network at Hannover, Germany, from RAF Snaith. The flight did not begin well. Sgt Thomsett noted there had been a magneto drop on the Halifax and as the time for F-Freddie to move to dispersal and join the growling queue along the perimeter track the ground crew were still working on it. It was fixed in time for P.O. Leach to join the tail end of the squadron.
Sgt Thomsett recalled:
“Prior to taking off, one of the crew, don't know who, had been courting a local girl. The end of one of the runways goes up by a road and, just as they were taxiing to take off someone on the plane spotted the girl with one of her friends. Apparently they had come to see the planes taking off. I radioed the crew and Alan brought the plane up close to the fence and before starting his take off he "blew the engines”, which resulted in the girls being blown over! They laughed about it as they were taking off. 3 hours later everything changed”.
It eventually took off at 16.47 hours, ten minutes after the last aircraft navigation lights had faded from the circuit. “We flew to the south coast to join the bomber stream and quickly reached 16,000ft, which on previous occasions had been a drag, but on this day she made the climb easily” Sgt Thomsett remembered, “The stream of planes was very tight, there was a Lancaster sitting right on our tail at our height and another close to our post side”.
Less than three hours later they were over the target where yellow and blue tracer was criss-crossing above the arena of crimson bomb bursts lighting up the cloud below. The quick red glare of heavy flak was interspersed with the telltale downward trails of yellow and orange flame which marked the final journey of aircraft and crews. Three had already fallen to Hauptmann Georg Greiner, the ace commander of 1V/NJG1, when his radar operator gave him another contact and he approached to tuck his Schrage Musik equipped Me110 beneath the port wing of P.O. Leach’s Halifax.
Sgt Thomsett recorded: “Suddenly our mid-upper gunner was on the intercom saying ‘fighter to port’. He could not engage as his tail fin inhibitors had put his guns to ‘non-fire’. I saw the Me110 so close that I could see the dark outline of the pilot. My sight with the Me110 illuminated in it also gave me a Lancaster at 100 yards. I gave the order to ‘corkscrew to port’ to give me a better firing angle , and our plane dropped out of the sky violently”.
By now Greiner was tucked beneath the Halifax’s wing with the angled sight to his cannon between the two port engines and followed P.O. Leach downward. “ I can remember being very surprised that a heavy bomber like a Halifax was capable of such daring and dangerous manoeuvres”, he later recorded. “Only because of my obliquely directed weaponry was I in the position to keep my relatively close distance, as with this armament – visor vertical above me – I could not lose the opponent”.
Sgt Thomsett later wrote: “ There was a terrific explosion. I thought we had hit another plane in the stream. The skipper gave the jump call. I tried to line up my turret with the fuselage, but the power had gone. I had to mechanically turn the turret. Opening the door I saw fire rushing through the fuselage. On finding my parachute I banged it on, tipped my backwards and went out through the turret. One thing I forgot to do was to unplug my intercom; the wire could have broken my neck. Fortunately I was upside down and my helmet was pulled straight off”.
As his chute snapped open Sgt Thomsett looked down straight into the target.
“There were planes above, bombs coming down and flak going up. The smell of cordite was overpowering. I could hear the silk of the parachute making a crackling noise and I spent most of my time on the journey down trying to lay back to see if the chute was on fire, then the roofs came up so quickly that my boots caught the apex of a house. The chute slackened and I fell, landing in front of an apartment block in Hannover-Herreshausen”.
Shot down at 19.22hrs. the plane crashed 19.27 in Stockener Street, Heimatweg, Leinhausen-Soeckern. It was also claimed by flak bigade 8 and to have crashed at 18.45 hrs, although it was reported by returning crews that it had been attacked by a night fighter and that they observed a single parachute leaving the aircraft.
51 Squadron lost two other aircraft during this operation:
Halifax III MZ767 MH-D piloted by F/O. Gilbert Ian Hodgson of the R.N.Z.A.F, killed with 2 other crew, 4 taken pow. Halifax III MX918 MH-U piloted by P/O. Eric George Stevens R.A.F.V.R., killed with 4 other crew, 2 taken pow.
Donald Thomsett became a POW for the last 4 or 5 months of the war. The rest of his crew, including the unlucky F/O Wilson, had not survived.
His story is re-told by his grandson Ben:
Donald Thomsett was my Grandad. He flew as an RAF rear gunner during the whole of the war, moving from varying heavy bombers including the Wellington but settled for the majority of the war as a rear gunner in Halifax bombers based at RAF Snaith with 51 Sqn. My Grandad’s operations lasted until January of 1945 before being shot down during a night raid on Hannover. Donald was on a night bombing mission over Hannover which took place on the night of the 5th of January 1945. He remembered sitting in the rear turret as usual when out of the darkness, and in heavy flak, he saw two German night fighters approaching the plane from the rear, one high and one below. He managed to shoot at the higher aircraft and thought he had shot it down as it turned away very quickly and looked to be out of control.
Next, another fighter appeared to the rear and slightly below the plane. He moved the guns downwards and saw the German pilots face illuminated by the lights by his instrument panel below him. The guns wouldn't reach to a position to fire on the fighter plane. As the Halifax was being engaged, Pilot Leach had gone into a wide sweeping manouvre to make attack from the fighter more difficult - a sort of large u shape, rolling the controls right, then left. Donald watched as the German fighter continued to match the Halifax and flew underneath it. He heard a loud explosion and felt the plane shudder, then it changed direction steeply heading towards the ground. Realising that the plane was going to crash he pressed for the turret to turn to bail out but found the hydraulics had failed as had the communications. He had to manually wind the turret round so he could bale out. My Grandad said he was supposed to keep his parachute in the turret with him but always slung it just into the bulk inside the fusilage. The angle of the plane meant he thought it would have slid down the length of the plane out of his reach, but it had snagged on something and he managed to grab it and put it on and immediately baled out through the turret.
He landed on the roof of a house and sprained his ankle while falling into the garden below. There was snow everywhere and it was freezing. The local residents came out and started to beat him with pieces whatever they could get their hands on - brooms, sticks, feet - until, then some soldiers arrived and took him to a local police station through the streets. From there he was transferred to Dulag.
They had removed his flying boots and made him limp in the snow with his damaged ankle. Donald said he remembered this taking a couple of days, but thinks there was some transport at some point too. Along the route to Dulag he said he saw the bodies of allied airmen hung on lamp posts, killed by the local populace, or German soldiers.
At Dulag interrogation centre he was hung up by his hands and all his possessions taken from him. He was tortured with a knife being run up and down his back - he had scars on his back that I remember seeing, long lines. He was kept in solitary for a couple of weeks. By that time he had frostbite on his feet and the Germans repeatedly made the room very hot, then cold in an attempt to extract information from him. They put another British prisoner in the room with him. Grandad wasn't telling them anything in interrogation, but he spoke with the room mate. It turned out that the room mate was a German plant and he told them everything he had been told by my grandad, where he was from, his girlfriend's name, the name of my grandmother, etc.
From Dulag he was taken to a train station and loaded into large cattle trucks with lots of other POWs. There they spent a couple of days including one frightening night in Berlin station, locked in their trucks as the allies bombed Berlin. He was initially taken to Sargen camp, but was soon transferred out to what he called Stalag luft 3b. He spent from February until May 1945 there and witnessed some horrific things, including the shooting of an attempted escapee. He said the german guards were a bit like "dad's army" and he bore no ill will towards them, even though they had little food. He also mentioned that the Russian POWs, who were kept in a separate compound being treated "like dogs".
In May, and with the camp on the verge of being over-run by Soviet troops, my Grandad, an American airman and a Canadian airman, escaped by going over the wire and running into the countryside. They happened on a car that had been disabled on purpose but were able to get it going, driving across Germany westwards. They had no food. He told me they managed to meet a German family in a small village who offered them food and somewhere to stay. It was while staying there that the Soviet troops came into the area. My Grandad and his two friends hid in the cellar of the German family's house as they were unsure of what the intention of the soldiers was and I remember him telling me that he witnessed "chinese” looking men coming into the cellar and eating raw sugar out of sacks with their bare hands like they hadn't been fed for weeks." The Russian soldiers took the family's 11 year old girl into the woods and she was never seen again. They didn't discover my grandad or his two friends.
When the Soviet troops left, they made their way towards the west and eventually they made it to just outside Berlin and literally walked into the city were picked up by some American troops in the area, in early June (or late May). He was treated well by the Americans and given food and fags and some money. He arrived back in the UK about three weeks later and couldn't speak for weeks. He learned that he was the only survivor from his plane that night and blamed himself for the deaths of his friends because he had failed to shoot down the second fighter that night. He walked with a slight limp for the rest of his life, received no counselling, compensation, or anything to help him get over what he had seen.
The war stayed with him for the rest of his life. But it wasn't to end there.
Nearly 50 years later and in his seventies, a local historian had found out who had shot down my grandad’s plane, one Hermann Greiner - a WW2 ace - who had claimed the “kill”. Herr Greiner was still alive and the historian arranged for the two of them to write to each other. Eventually, after some soul searching and correspondence, my Grandad went over to Germany to meet him. Hermann remembered that night, and told my Grandad that an experimental type of gun was on his night fighter (it pointed upwards from behind the cockpit) meaning that there was nothing my Grandad could have done to save his six friends, as he flew under the Halifax and merely shot up into the fuel tanks as it attempted its defensive maneuvers’.
My Grandad was able to meet the face he had seen 50 years previously on that fateful night when his life changed forever. He bore no grudge and Herr Greiner gave him his Iron Cross, with Oak Leaf, medal as a token of their friendship and in reconcilliation. Hermann Greiner had around 50 "kills" as a night fighter ace and was one of the luftwaffe "stars".
My Grandad’s story was one he hardly ever spoke of and he never really got over his experiences until the day he died. Towards the end of his life he began to talk more and more about the war, eventually dying of cancer in 2000 His ashes were scattered at the memorial site of his old, now long forgotten, RAF base at Pollington, Yorkshire. The war had affected the rest of his life and if it hadn't been for his courage and bravery I wouldn't even be writing this, as his young wife (My Grandmother) gave birth to my father a year after he got home. That war destroyed him. But he was brave as anyone I've ever met.
The regular wireless operator was a Sgt. Eddie Hilton. He had completed seven operations in the crew of P.O. Alan Leach, by the beginning of January 1945, but was grounded because he had a severe head cold. He was replaced by PO Wilson L A, who had already completed his tour. Sgt Hilton discovered the next day that his crew was missing and how lucky he had been. For the rest of the war he had to operate as a ‘spare bod’, filling in for missing members of different crews. His last operation took place in the middle of March.
Eddie Hilton, regular wireless operator
Eddie Hilton wrote his story: "I had developed a heavy cold and the medical officer decided that I was not fit to fly and grounded me for 24 hours. A wireless operator/air gunner from the Royal Australian Air Force named Wilson took my place and I believe he only needed to complete that one trip to earn a spell of leave. "Sadly, they were shot down over Hanover and are buried together in Hanover War Cemetery, except for Don Thomsett, who was the rear gunner and managed to bail out and became a prisoner of war. I didn't know the plane's fate until I went into the sergeants' mess the next day. "Other air crews were there and knew the flight crew had been reported missing. When they saw me, they thought they were looking at a ghost. They didn't know I had missed the raid because I had a cold”. I joined the RAF in February 1943. I had actually volunteered six months earlier, but was turned down as I was only 17-and-a-half and had to wait until I was 18. After initial training took part in a number of bombing runs over industrial targets in the Ruhr Valley. From the time of losing my crew I acted as 'spare bod' with any crew who required a replacement and, as I recall, sometimes it was a 'little hair-raising'. At the end of the war in Europe I was transferred to Transport Command, flying Stirlings to bring troops, including members of the 14th Army who had been fighting in Burma, back to Britain, via Iraq, Palestine and North Africa. I was de-mobbed in 1947 when I joined Rochdale Corporation's planning and architects' department, earning a town planning degree before retiring as assistant borough planning officer 21 years ago. After the war I was doing some some research about Luftwaffe night fighter aces and came across the name of Hauptman George Hermann Greiner, who had destroyed four heavy bombers during the night of 5 January 1945, including the Halifax he had been due to fly on. Many years later Don Thomsett, the rear gunner who had bailed out, met Mr Greiner at his home on Lake Constance, where he was treated with great hospitality and friendship. "After all, Greiner had only been doing his job, as we all did."
Eddie was also a popular band leader, playing at such venues as the Carlton with Freddie Platt and his orchestra, and when wasn’t making music, Eddie could be found playing at Rochdale Golf Club. Eddie began his musical life in Heywood at age 13 when his mother, on a weaver's wage, paid for accordion lessons at two shillings and sixpence a week. He went on to learn alto saxophone and clarinet and aged 16 joined the Stan Bates band, playing the Co-op on Lord St. At the end of the war his commanding officer asked him to form a band, and at just 21 Eddie had his first taste of band leadership, an eight-piece with four fully professional musicians. He then formed his own band in 1948 and for years was in demand throughout the North, with fellow musicians including trumpeter Ronnie Butterworth. Eddie performed on 51 consecutive New Year's Eves. He played in venues all around the borough including Rochdale's most famous club, The Carlton.
Eddie, sadly passed away in December 2013.
Halifax Crew LV952:
- RAF PO 185864 Captain A. Leach (Pilot): R.A.F.V.R. Age 23. Son of Sylvester and Emma Leach and brother to Fred. Born in Coppull, Lancashire 25th March 1921. Awarded his wings at 19 and received the following medals: 1934-45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-1945. Killed. Buried Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.7-7A.
- Sgt. Peter Neale 1896808 R.A.F.V.R. Age 20. Son of Mr. and Mrs. R. F. Neale, of Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, England. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Grave2.F.14.
- RAF Flt Sgt Jack Sidney Staples (Navigator): 1801787 R.A.F.V.R. Age ? No further information available as yet. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Grave 2.F.8.
- RAF Flt Sgt William Gerwyn Bowen (Air Bomber) 1313633 R.A.F.V.R. Age 22. Son of William John and Elizabeth Ann Bowen, of Kentish Town, London, England. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Grave 2.F.5-6. Shared grave with P/O. Eric George Stevens and Fl/Sgt. John Rigby Whitmore - 51 Squadron
- PO Wilson Lionel Adolphus (Wireless Operator / Air Gunner): 403167 R.A.A.F. Age 32. Son of Adolphus Henry and Alice Tobatha Wilson, of Mayfield, New South Wales, Australia, husband of Beatrice Jean Victoria Wilson, of Mayfield, New South Wales Australia. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.7-7A.
- RAF Flt Sgt Walter Matthew Burton (Air Gunner) 642138 R.A.F. Age 24. Son of Charles George and Lily Burton; husband of Irene Burton, of Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.2-3. Shared grave with Sgt. John Hubert Yearsley - 51 Squadron.
- The surviving crew member was RAF Sgt D E F Thomsett (Air Gunner) P.O.W. No: 150023. Camp: Luckenwalde, Brandenburg Liberated by the Red Army in April 1945.
Those who were killed where initially taken to Hannover-Seelhorst Plot 19f for burial. After the War the bodies were exhumed and taken to Hannover War Cemetery at Hannover-Ahlem.
Georg-Hermann Greiner (born 2 January 1920) was a German Luftwaffe night fighter ace, recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and a squadron commander in the prestigious Nachtjagdgeschwader 1, translated in English as the "1st Night Fighter Wing", the most successful Night Air Superiority unit of any nation during World War II. The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves was the fourth grade of Nazi Germany's highest award for military galantry and was awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery and successful military leadership. Greiner primarily engaged British RAF crews in their bombing campaigns over greater Germany and was credited with 51 aerial victories over allied aircraft, having destroyed four American bombers during daylight hours and 47 British bombers at night.
Following the conclusion of the War, Greiner and close friend Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer were arrested illegally crossing the German-Swiss border attempting an escape to Argentina. Both Greiner and Schnaufer were detained in an Allied prisoner of war camp and released in 1947. Greiner went on to study law and also worked as a textile salesman before returning to service in the Bundesluftwaffe in 1957, retiring with the rank of Oberstleutnant in 1972.
Alan Leach (Born in Coppull 25th March 1921) The eldest son of Sylvester and Emma. He was a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve at the age of 17 and a member of 51 squadron. He was awarded his wings at the age of 19.
He and five of the crew were killed and are buried in Hannover War Cemetery, Niedersachsen, Germany.
Halifax Serial number: LV 952 Radio call sign: MH – F Unit: ATTD 51 SQN RAF Crew: RAF PO 185864 Captain A. Leach (Pilot): RAF Sgt P Neale (Flight Engineer) RAF Flt Sgt J S Staples (Navigator): RAF Flt Sgt W G Bowen (Air Bomber) RAAF 403167 PO Wilson L A (Wireless Operator Air): RAF Flt Sgt W M Burton (Air Gunner) The surviving crew member was RAF Sgt D E F Thomsett (Air Gunner)
He received the following medals: 1934/45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War medal 1939-1945.
Alan Leach is buried (Grave 2,F,7-7A) 
Pilot: P/O. Alan Leach 185864 R.A.F.V.R. Age 23. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.7-7A. Son of Sylvester and Emma Leach and brother to Fred. Born in Coppull, Lancashire 25th March 1921. Awarded his wings at 19 and received the following medals: 1934-45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-1945.
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Peter Neale 1896808 R.A.F.V.R. Age 20. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Grave 2.F.14. Son of Mr. and Mrs. R. F. Neale, of Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey, England.
Nav: Fl/Sgt. Jack Sidney Staples 1801787 R.A.F.V.R. Age ? Killed Hannover War Cemetery Grave 2.F.8. No further information available as yet.
Air/Bmr: Fl/Sgt. William Gerwyn Bowen 1313633 R.A.F.V.R. Age 22. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Coll. Grave 2.F.5-6. (4) Son of William John and Elizabeth Ann Bowen, of Kentish Town, London, England.
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/O. Lionel Adolphus Wilson 403167 R.A.A.F. Age 32. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.7-7A. Son of Adolphus Henry and Alice Tobatha Wilson, of Mayfield, New South Wales, Australia, husband of Beatrice Jean Victoria Wilson, of Mayfield, New South Wales Australia.
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Walter Matthew Burton 642138 R.A.F. Age 24. Killed Hannover War Cemetery Joint Grave 2.F.2-3. (5) Son of Charles George and Lily Burton; husband of Irene Burton, of Wakefield, Yorkshire, England.
Air/Gnr: Sgt. D.E.F. Thomsett P.O.W. No: 150023. Camp: Luckenwalde, Brandenburg (1)
(4) Shared grave with P/O. Eric George Stevens and Fl/Sgt. John Rigby Whitmore - 51 Squadron Researched with information supplied by Alan Leach, nephew of the pilot. (5) Shared grave with Sgt. John Hubert Yearsley - 51 Squadron.
Information courtesy of Aircrew Remembrance Society