During June and July 1944, Dennis Jones and his ground crew team looked after Lancaster HK558, JN-D, also known as “Dog” and the immediate predecessor to HK601.
The aircraft’s regular crew at the time was that of F/Sgt Colin George Nairne RNZAF.
George Nairne (born 8 April 1922) came from Taihape in New Zealand, where pre-war he had worked as a tractor driver on Te Haroa Station, Hihitahi.
George enlisted at Blenheim on 12 January 1942. It was while training at Blenheim that he met Betty and they were married on 22 Aug 1942 at St Alban’s Church, Appleby, Nelson.
George was then posted to ITW, Rotorua, 3 EFTS Harewood, and 2 SFTS Wigram to complete his training as a pilot, before embarking for England via Canada on the 29th of May 1943.
A daughter Gloria Heather was born on the 8th of December 1943 at Palmerston North.
Meanwhile George was undergoing advanced (14 (P) AFU) and operational (11 OTU) training in England.
On the night of the 18/19 April, while at 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, Stradishall (the same HCU that the JN-Dog boys trained at), George and his crew had a terrible experience.
Practicing night circuits and landings, their Stirling EJ108 was taking off from Stradishall with an instructor pilot when it struck and killed three American airmen who were illegally cycling across the runway. Shortly afterwards the pilot received instructions to land at Woodbridge crash drome to check for damage but before he could do so, a loud noise was heard and the plane began to climb steeply out of control. The seven trainees on board were ordered to bail out; the captain and flight engineer (both instructors) stayed with the aircraft and were killed when it crashed shortly afterwards. The trainee flight engineer was also killed because of a badly adjusted parachute harness.
During the collision the Stirling’s wing had been damaged and the emergency dinghy released, wrapping itself around the tail and resulting in loss of control.
By coincidence, EJ108 was an ex-75(NZ) Squadron Stirling, the aircraft flown by the Eric Witting crew when it was attacked by a night fighter on 4/5 November 1943, killing the RNZAF rear gunner, F/Sgt Walter Hurdle.
George and two of the other RNZAF survivors, Lyndon Perry and Phillip Falkiner, formed a new crew, completed their heavy and Lancaster conversion training, and were posted to 75(NZ) Squadron, arriving on the 29th of May 1944.
The Nairne crew flew 23 op’s in an incredibly short span of time; just eight weeks.
Dennis, Dog’s engine mechanic, remembered George in a letter written in 1999:
George was a wonderful fellow. He always showed his appreciation for what we had done, and treated us as equals, and was a thorough gentleman. Late on the previous day (Saturday) I was just knocking off work when he asked me what I was doing that evening, when I said “Nothing special” he asked me to go around to his billet as he had a parcel from home, some cake & some ‘goodies’. It was then he showed me a photo of his wife and the daughter who was born after he left New Zealand. What English Officer would extend such an invitation to a mere ‘Erk’ – a hand of friendship from a real gentleman, whom I will never forget.
Sadly, the following day, the 30th of July 1944, George and his crew flew an op’ to Amay-sur-Suelles but failed to return. HK558 is thought to have collided with another Lancaster over the English Channel in low, heavy cloud, as witnessed by the crew on a nearby minesweeper HMS Hannaray. George and all his crew were killed, with only the body of the RAF Air Bomber recovered and buried at sea.
I was not on duty for their take-off but I well remember waiting for them coming back and when my ‘kite’ didn’t come back I asked the other aircrews if they had seen anything but nobody had. I made enquiries as to whether they had put down on one of the prang dromes but again no information. I remember sitting for hours on the end of the runway, I cried my eyes out.
George had been promoted to Pilot Officer just two days before he went missing.
Dennis never forgot the little girl in the photo, nor the loss of his friend, and many years later he was able to follow up on those memories.
In 1999 Dennis contributed photos and words to two books about the bombing of Walcheren Island, by Dutch researcher and author Paul Crucq. By now Dennis was 74 and retired. He mentioned the story to Paul who contacted a fellow researcher in New Zealand, Arthur Arculus. Arthur wrote to Dennis and placed notices in the NZ Bomber Command Association (NZBCA) and Returned Services Assn (RSA) newsletters.
In October 1999 Arthur received a response from NZBCA member, former 75(NZ) Sqdn wireless operator and ex-President of the 75 Sqdn RAF/RNZAF Assn, Randal Springer – George Nairne was his wife June’s cousin!
Unfortunately, and despite June’s efforts, the family had over time lost contact with George’s widow Betty, who had re-married. June did provide two precious photos however; one of George and his wife Betty, and one of George and his mother Alice.
Then the RSA newsletter (February 2000 issue) produced an even more exciting outcome, with Arthur receiving a phone call on 19 February from Gloria Heather Donnithorne of Stoke, near Nelson – the little girl in the photo!
Gloria was very pleased to make the contact, and keen to talk to Dennis. Arthur called Dennis to give him the exciting news, and then sent the information he had gathered up about George to Gloria.
Gloria then called Dennis, and later wrote to him with photos of her family – she had married Lester at age 21 and had four children, her oldest son bearing a strong resemblance to her father George. By the time she talked to Dennis she had 11 grandchildren!
Her mother had re-married when she was only six, so Gloria had learned very little of her father and was very excited to talk to someone who knew him. She was also very pleased to find out that her father had known of her birth and seen a photo of her before he was killed – she didn’t know that, having been given the wrong date for his death.
She revealed that George had sent Betty a piece of heather, and that was where her middle name came from. Her mother had taken George’s death very hard.
Gloria and her husband had tracked down George’s brother and had a nice reunion with him and his wife, but sadly George’s mother Alice had passed away by then. Apparently George’s mother had said that one day Gloria will come home …
In 2003 after his wife Joyce had passed away, Dennis finally got to fulfill a longtime wish and travelled to New Zealand. In what must have been quite an emotional reunion, he met Gloria, stayed with her and Lester and was able to spend time talking about her father and those special memories.
Sadly Gloria died not long after Dennis visited her.
P/O Colin George Nairne, RNZAF NZ42117 and his crew are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
Ake ake kia kaha
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Glynis Bakker, for her input, and permission to reproduce photos and material from the Dennis Jones collection. Personal correspondence, Dennis Jones with Arthur Arculus, 1999. Thanks to Paul Crucq, NZ researcher (the late) Arthur Arculus, and 75 veteran and ex-75 NZ Sqdn Assn President, (the late) Randal Springer and his wife June, for their help in Dennis’s search for Gloria. Also to Keith Springer for permission to reproduce photos of Colin George Nairne.
– If any of Gloria’s family find this, Dennis’s daughter Glynis would love to re-establish contact – please email us at the address below.
In one of the many coincidences we discovered in the JN-Dog story, George Nairne’s Taihape friend Max Spooner (photo at top) went on to serve as a wireless operator on 75(NZ) Squadron, in the Kiwi Amohanga crew. They flew four op’s together in March 1945 before their skipper Kiwi was hospitalised after being hit over the head with a beer bottle by an American in a pub!
The crew were sidelined from op’s for about three weeks, but did fly one more, with P/O Eric “Buzz” Butler, Johnny Wood’s friend, who took them to Bremen on the 22nd of April. It was Buzz’s first trip back on operations after his own spell in hospital.
– More about the Buzz mystery here.