This article was researched and written by request of Gareth Evans whose great uncle was Pilot Officer William Rees.
In the closing hours of January 11th 1943, a formation of bombers grumbled their way towards the Scottish coast. They were twelve Handley Page Hampdens of the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron attached to RAF Costal Command and based at RAF Leuchars, Fife. The aircraft were returning from a late afternoon anti-shipping operation off the Norwegian coast using the early darkness of winter to cover their escape back to Britain. No.455 Squadron was a veteran unit having a wealth of experience on the Hampden that ranged from minelaying to attacks on the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The previous year the squadron had also deployed to Russia to support the arctic convoys before training Russian crews on how to operate the aircraft.
By this stage in the war the Hampden was becoming increasingly obsolete. During the early operations, like much of Bomber Command’s aircraft it suffered horrendous losses at the hands of German fighters forcing them to switch almost exclusively to night operations. The exceptionally narrow fuselage and slab sided cabin earned it the affectionate nickname “The Flying Suitcase”. As more powerful and capable designs flooded Bomber Command’s ranks the Hampden saw increasing use by other services such as Coastal Command for maritime operations where the fighter threat was not perceived to be as great as over mainland Europe. Maritime duties had their own dangers however such as severe weather and the difficulty of navigating over large areas of sometimes featureless ocean.
Although an Australian squadron, like most British Commonwealth units there were a number of nationalities that made up the ranks of No.455 Squadron and this was typified by the crew of Hampden TB.I AD792/UB-P that wintry night. The only two actual Australians were wireless operator Sergeant Reginald Smithers and gunner Sergeant R.K. Spohn. At the controls was 22-year-old Flying Officer Phillip J. Hill from Gloucestershire who had joined the reserves before being called to active duty when war broke out and then posted to No.455 Squadron.
The navigator/bombardier was Pilot Officer William Rees who hailed from Abercarn in South Wales. Having attained a degree in Latin and Greek from Cardiff University, Rees had begun teaching shortly before the war broke out and decided to enlist in the RAF. He was soon made Sergeant (Aircrew) and having gained operational experience with Bomber Command was granted a commission and sent to Canada to train as a navigator as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (please take time to visit Pierre Lagacé’s blog about this program by clicking here). Upon completion of his training he was posted to No.455 Squadron which was fresh from its Russian endeavour. The night of January 11th 1943 was to be his first mission with the squadron.
At 2213hrs, the aircraft was instructed to turn on to a QDM (magnetic bearing) of 218 degrees to start the next leg of the return flight to Leuchars. Ground radio stations heard a brief response by Sergeant Smithers but it ended abruptly. After waiting for the aircraft to signal again they tried to re-establish contact but nothing came back. During the course of Smithers’ transmission, Hampden TB.I AD792 crashed in to a blackened Scottish hillside in Kincardeshire. Poor weather had obscured the view from the aircraft until it was too late and responding to the course change the aircraft came upon the sloping hillside which struck the Hampden under the nose.
Being in the forward section of the aircraft, Hill and Rees were both killed on impact. The two Australians survived the crash but while Spohn was able to clamber out of the wreckage, Smithers was in a bad way and couldn’t be moved. Spohn was left with the agonising decision of either remaining with his comrade and hope they were found soon or leaving him there and trying to find help. He chose the latter and set off in to the night walking for several hours before he was finally able to contact Leuchars and get help for Smithers. Smithers was rescued in the early hours of the morning and rushed to hospital but sadly his injuries were too severe and exactly a week later he succumb to them and died.
Flying Officer Phillip Hill was buried in Fettercairn cemetery while Sergeant Reginald Smithers was buried at Leuchars. Pilot Officer William Rees’ body was returned to Abercarn in Wales and Spohn travelled down to attend his funeral and meet his family. Spohn himself returned to flight operations and survived the war, returning home to Australia where he lived out his life until he passed away in 1995.