THE ROYAL AIR FORCE CAREER OF
HARRY LESLIE DUCKWORTH
(14 March 1939-16 July 1942)
(Research by John Johnston, Author of Strong By Night)
THE ROYAL AIR FORCE CAREER OF
Harry Duckworth was born of English Methodist parents on the first of November 1911 in Preston, Lancashire, one of five boys. After completing school Harry worked as a company secretary for a firm called Harry Dyson Ltd in his home town. At 20 years of age Harry decided to get married, and as he was under-age he would have needed his parents’ permission. To further complicate things his would-be bride, Theresa Craven, was Roman Catholic. As the Catholic Church wouldn’t marry her to a non-Catholic, Harry converted to Catholicism. While things have changed since then, in pre-war Britain there was considerable bias of one religion against another, and so Harry’s family ostracized him. They were married on Boxing Day, the 26th of December 1931.
He and his wife Theresa had a baby boy on the 25th of June, 1936 who they called Arthur Peter. Arthur was their second son, their first being stillborn in 1932. While the war clouds were already overhead in early 1939, although it was still peace time Harry decided to join the regular RAF, enlisting for 6 years, and arriving at Cranwell Recruit Depot on the 14th of March to begin his new career. That meant leaving his young wife and two year old son behind, and as Harry was already well into his 27th year, there must have been some compelling driving force behind his decision.
Up to this point, Harry’s life had been a clerical one of files and paperwork, but he decided that he needed a change in life, and in reviewing the many trades available he decided to be an aircraft engine fitter, Grade II. This was a Group I trade and as a qualified tradesman Harry would have received the highest rate in pay. Cranwell was the home of several trade schools, so as an aircraftsman second class, Group V, the lowest paid in the RAF, after receiving the typical introductory shots and being kitted out, there followed several weeks of basic training. Harry probably received his basic training at Cranwell. While in training he would earn two shillings a day plus sixpence per day later as war pay, but the RAF would whittle that down by deductions. His wife would receive a family allowance directly, plus a little extra for one dependent.
After completing his training satisfactorily, he passed the necessary trade examinations on the 28th of February 1940, and qualified as a Fitter, Grade II, aero engines, Group I on the pay scale. His daily pay would now jump up to four shillings and three pence. While Harry was in training, war had been declared with Germany, and by the time he qualified, Britain had already been at war for six months.
On the 1st of March Harry was posted to No 83 Squadron at Scampton in Lincolnshire, which was in No 5 Group, Bomber Command, and which at that time was equipped with Handley Page Hampden twin engine bombers. This gave him radial engine Hercules Pegasus engines to keep in good working order. To start and run the engines up for testing, Harry would need to take over the pilot’s seat. The Hampden was incredibly narrow, so there was no room for anyone else in there beside him, and it became a ‘one man show
Handley page Hampden Bristol Pegasus
When Harry arrived at Scampton there was a young pilot with the squadron who had been flying on operations with No 83 squadron from the day that war had begun. He had already distinguished himself, and who remained with the squadron through the summer of 1940.
That was Flying Officer Guy Gibson, who always flew Hampden L4070 and would later, as Wing Commander Gibson, win the Victoria Cross leading the famous Dams raid with No 617 squadron and Lancasters, also flying from Scampton. He would become the most famous RAF pilot of World War II.
Flying Officer Guy Gibson boarding a No 83 Squadron Hampden
So there is a chance that Harry would have met Guy Gibson in his everyday work with the squadron, being flight line crew, with that strong wartime connection that always existed between air crew and their flight line ground crew, and perhaps he may even have been responsible for the engines of L4070.
On the 6th of November Harry was posted, still in No 5 Group, but to No 207 Squadron at Waddington, equipped with the new twin engine Avro Manchesters. Now it was the 24 cylinder most troublesome in-line Rolls Royce Vulture engine. This engine would seize up very easily, resulting in very high accident rates especially over enemy territory, adding to the considerable losses by enemy action. Eventually the Manchester was withdrawn, and redesigned as the four engine Avro Lancaster. But Harry would struggle with the Vulture engine until the end of 1941.
With time and experience Harry was ready to take another trade test which he did on the 12th of December 1940, and which he passed, promoting him to Leading Aircraftsman, the highest qualification that the RAF gives for its trades. Any other promotion is administrative. For this his pay jumped to five shillings a day.
On the 13th of January 1941 Harry was sent on a one week course to Duxford given by Rolls Royce, no doubt further indoctrination on their Vulture engine. He took a further course at Cosford, this one beginning the 15th of May, 1941 lasting three weeks, which covered both the Bristol Pegasus XVIII and the Rolls Royce Vulture engines, and on completion, he returned to 207 Squadron.
The reason for this course, which included both the Pegasus and the Vulture engines could well have been the troublesome Vulture engine. It was causing so much trouble that the serviceable squadron aircraft were being thinned down badly. There must have been thoughts of pulling No 207 Squadron out of the line into non-operational status. But to keep it going, Hampdens were ‘borrowed’ in July to bring the number of squadron aircraft up to fighting strength again. No 207 squadron crews were very familiar with the Hampden which they flew before receiving their Manchesters. So this course was probably in preparation for the change, to bring the engine fitters to readiness to handle either engine as need be.
Bomber Command was now moving from twin engine to four engine bombers, beginning with the Short Stirling, with the Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster not far behind. This step-up now called for an added aircrew member, the flight engineer, who would tend the four engines and fuel system in flight, taking the responsibility away from the pilot, who with a four engine bomber to fly, already had his hands full. These flight engineers were needed in quantity and in a hurry. Who better qualified to be flight engineers than engine fitters.
With this need, it would be very logical to assume that in late 1941, following a directive from Bomber Command Headquarters, Harry was receiving some pressure from his superiors to transfer to air crew as a flight engineer. So on the 3rd of January, 1942 Harry wound up at No 10 Aircrew Grading School to go through the necessary physical and mental qualifications as to his suitability for aircrew in general, and as flight engineer in particular.
Harry was already well qualified in aircraft engine care and maintenance and no doubt his training was considerably trimmed short because of it. So in February he was sent to No 1651 Conversion Unit in No 3 Group at Waterbeach, which was flying Short Stirlings, where he would receive the necessary extra training that he needed, and also be selected as a permanent member of a seven man crew. This flight engineer’s course included a one week course at the Technical School of Bristol Aero Engines to learn all that he needed to know about the Bristol Hercules engine of the Short Stirling. Somewhere along this journey Harry would be considered a qualified flight engineer and be awarded his flight engineer’s ‘E’ half-wing plus his sergeant’s stripes, now getting ten shillings and sixpence a day, plus hazardous duty pay later when he would go on operations.
On the 8th of May 1942, on the completion of training together at Waterbeach, the seven airmen were posted as an aircraft crew to Lakenheath to become part of No 149 Squadron in No 3 Group, which had not long converted from Vickers Wellingtons to Short Stirling Mk Is, in November 1941, the third squadron in Bomber Command to fly this new bomber. It is to be noted that Harry was now 30, and that was quite old for operational aircrew.
Short Stirling OJ-A with No 149 Squadron Bristol Hercules
Sadly, Harry’s service with No 149 Squadron, and his life, was cut short when three Stirlings of No 149 Squadron, Harry’s Stirling being OJ-A, took part in a 21 Stirling raid on the night of the 16th of July, 1942 as part of ‘Operation Pandemonium’, which were the attacks on German U-boat and U-boat engine manufacturers. Their target was Lubecker Fundlundeweke AG at Herrenwyke near Lubeck. They were hit by anti-aircraft fire and shot down near the target area, crashing at Steinfeld in Germany, Harry and one other crew member, Sergeant Shepherd, being killed, Harry leaving a young wife and a son who never really had a chance to know his father.
Flight engineer at work-Short Stirling
by John Johnston.