DENIS Beecroft was only 19 when he volunteered to join the war effort in 1944. He signed up for the RAF and along with hundreds of other fresh-faced recruits was taken on a 28- day voyage across the Atlantic to train in Canada.
After passing all his assessments, Mr Beecroft returned to the UK and was assigned to Bomber Command Squadron 576 based in Lincolnshire. He went on to carry out a total of 31 missions with his Lancaster crew and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).
His role was officially as a bomb aimer, but Mr Beecroft worked where he was needed on each mission.
“Bomb aimer covered a multitude of things; front gunner, part navigator and general factotum,” he recalls. And looking at an original photograph of the full sevenman crew, Mr Beecroft remarks that he was the shortest which is probably what led to him being the one chosen to crawl into the narrow Lancaster turrets.
He says: “As an air bomber you were regularly down on the front and you lay down carefully keeping your parachute packed over your vital organs. Lying on your stomach you felt very vulnerable.”
Squadron 576 worked on diverse range of bombing operations and amazingly Mr Beecroft’s original RCAF flight log book survived the war and the following six decades.
Written in meticulously neat writing with colour-coded entries, the words may be unremarkable but the feats behind them are anything but.
Oil plants attacked, a battleship sunk, and, the entry for Operation 11 which reads: “Sept 24. Calais. Troops on fortifications.
Dennis Beecroft as an airman during the war
Bombed under 2,000 – Many hits by light flak. Mac and nav. hit. Mac died three days later. Landed at Spanhoe (USAAF) on three engines.”
Mac was the one member of Mr Beecroft’s crew that did not survive the mission. The flight navigator who was also shot during Operation 11 lived to tell the tale with a bullet hole in his backside. “We got scared,”
Mr Beecroft reflects. “Occasionally there would be a wall of bursting shells in the air and you thought ‘What the heck, how are we going to manage?’. But more often than not you were too busy getting things organised.
“Your life depended on camaraderie. We survived because we were a good crew, we had one backslider but we got rid of him early on, we swapped him for somebody better and we just did the job really. We did it well.”
Denis Beecroft and his crew certainly did well. Survival among Bomber Command crew members was rare once a plane had been hit as the heavy artillery and fuel onboard made for an explosive combination ripe for instant ignition.
Of the 125,000 Bomber Command crewmen operating during the Second World War, 50,000 lost their lives and 10,000 were taken prisoner by the Nazis.
When you consider that the average age of a Bomber Command crewman was only 22, it makes their contribution to the war effort all the more remarkable. And even though the operation was regarded as a blunt instrument by many military professionals, history professor Richard Overy gives the squadrons the recognition they deserve: “It was a strategy that had a long and painful learning curve,” he says. “But for all its deficiencies the 125,000 men and women of Bomber Command made a larger contribution to victory in Europe than any other element of Britain’s armed services.”
Although Mr Beecroft has no direct personal connection to the Memorial Lancaster visiting Durham Tees Valley Airport on August 28, or to Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski, he says he is very much looking forward to seeing a Canadian Lancaster on British soil once again.
It is one of only two remaining airworthy Lancasters in the world and is visiting the UK to join part of the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
The craft pays homage to the heroism shown by Andrew Mynarski who flew from the Middleton St George RCAF base – now Durham Tees Valley Airport. He lost his life trying to save a comrade after their plane was shot down and a permanent memorial statue has been placed at the former base.
Denis Beecroft, third left, with his air crew
A range of activities are planned to celebrate the Mynarski Lancaster’s arrival.
And Mr Beecroft, who is now 90 and lives in a quiet village near Darlington, is certainly hoping to be among the crowds; an unassuming spectator to whom we owe so much.