|During the war the RASC operated a training facility at Mersea for motor boat crews. The following is an excerpt from their records relating to an incident where 4 airmen were drowned after baling out when their Handley Page Halifax bomber, LW 280, crashed on the marshes in 1943.
At 05.55 hrs on 17th December 1943, Handley Page Halifax LW280 crashed on the salt marshes, half a mile south of Pennyhole Flats [Old Hall Marshes, between Salcott Creek and Tollesbury Creek]. No. 1 Motor Boat Coy was alerted to search for wreckage and survivors. A former crewman recollected the incident as follows:
'Our boat H.202 was detailed to search Tollesbury creek. Visibility was very poor - half light and mist - only
about twenty yards, no more. The tide was with us as we crept slowly up the creek, reaching perhaps half way up
the 'Tolly', when a large round object loomed up out of the mist - starboard bow. Taking no chances as we had
been warned, a quick reverse and 'hedge' anchor over. We drifted back, was it a bomb or mine? It was one of the
aircraft's wheels stuck in the bank. On the opposite bank was a large gorge in the mud, the undercarriage must
have been down on impact. As I had my 'sea boots' on, we decided to check the port side first although the main
body of the plane would be on the wheel side, if that was correct at least we could inform the R.A.F. where to
look. John moved '202' into the port side bank and I clambered over for a look. It was obvious that this plane
had not been carrying bombs. There was ammunition of various types scattered around along with gelignite packs etc. I could not see any of the crew - live or otherwise - but struggling back to the boat I spotted in the mud a container which had split open spilling small red booklets about 6"x 4" in size. They were sabotage instructions detailing how to blow up this and that printed in French. I thought one would fit in my pocket nicely, you never know. We returned to West Mersea with haste as survivors - if any - would be on the Peldon side presumably. The R.A.F. had to be alerted where to look. John and I had just time to grab some breakfast before the Military and Civil Intelligence boys arrived. They very quickly read out the riot act to John and I in no uncertain terms. Needless to say I lost my 'red book' and got a rollicking to boot. What happened afterwards was a 'closed shop' for us at No. 1 Motor Boat Company. We assumed the plane was tackled from the Tollesbury and Peldon area.'
The Halifax was returning from an aborted mission to supply the French Resistance when it ran out of fuel. The
crew of eight baled out of which four survived. Later that day the remains of the fuselage were dragged on to
the 'Hard' under strict security and transported off the Island. The four that survived parachuted onto Mersea
and 3 bodies were recovered near the crashed plane. The corpses were landed at Brightlingsea and were found to
be wearing civilian clothes by Surgeon-Lieutenant Nixon, which led to the belief they were Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents.
However, a search of 138 Squadron records & the SOE "Roll of Honour" does not highlight any agents being
killed that night. Also, there were no corresponding burials at Brightlingsea nor at Colchester. The bodies of
the other 4 members of the crew were recovered and buried in cemeteries near their homes , it is probable that
the mysterious bodies were in fact the remaining members of the crew.
J. P. Foynes in his books see below
138 SQUADRON RAF ROLL OF HONOUR SHOWS
The Squadron was based at Tempsford & on the 16/17 December 1943 - 138 Squadron - Halifax LW280 - NF-K Crew were forced to bale out, aircraft crashed into the sea off Harwich. Operation MARC 1, France. They were airborne 2005 on the 16th from Tempsford. Unable to land on return due to fog bound airfields the crew was ordered to abandon the aircraft crashing into the sea off Harwich. Four lives were lost and four bodies ultimately recovered.
The 4 members of the crew, who lost their lives were :-
HANNAH James Johnstone Sergeant 1553397, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. Died Friday 17th December 1943. Age 20. Son of Thomas Wilson Hannah and Marion Hannah, of Glasgow. CATHCART CEMETERY, Renfrewshire. Compt. 2E. Linn Extension. Grave 1163.
HAWKES Tom Bailey Sergeant 1872798, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Flt. Engineer. Died Friday 17th December 1943. Age 21. Son of Tom Lewis Hawkes and Lena Hawkes, of Luton. Buried LUTON GENERAL CEMETERY, Bedfordshire. Grave 9798.
LYNCH John Sergeant 1561219, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Died Friday 17th December 1943. Age 20. Son of John Stevenson Lynch and Martha Lynch, of Hamilton. Buried HAMILTON WEST CEMETERY, Lanarkshire. Sec. F. Grave 481.
MARSHALL Robert Sergeant 1550307, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Died Friday 17th December 1943. Age 31. Son of William and Mary Marshall, of Larkhall. Buried LARKHALL CEMETERY, Lanarkshire. Div. 2. Grave 2058.
A FRENCH SECRET AGENT
In 2019 Julian Foynes wrote an article for the Brightlingsea Museum Newsletter. The SOE Records in the National Archives were available by then and he could tell the story of the bodies recovered from the River.
There were four. Three of the dead were members of the RAF crew from the plane. The last - a middle-aged man in civilian clothes was washed up on the beach at Brightlingsea at high tide. The papers on him suggested he was a War Correspondent - but this was a cover. He was Lieutenant (or Resistance Commandant) Henri Drouilh and none other than the director of operations for the British-based French section of SOE. In addition to the four crew members who baled out over Mersea, it had not been revealed that two SOE members also successfully baled out.
Because of ice and fog all the aircraft involved in the mission had turned back and several had then crashed.
The Battle of the East Coast (1939-1945) by J.P. Foynes ISBN 0-95215555-2-4
"Under the White Ensign - Brightlingsea and the Sea War 1939-1945 " J.P. Foynes ISBN 0-9521555-0-8
Mersea Island and the RASC Motor Boat Companies
A History of RAF Tempsford Airfield