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Jack Lawrence

Jack LawrenceSergeant Jack Lawrence, 533877, 83 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Jack Lawrence was born in early 1919 in the Dewsbury area, the only son of Ossett born couple Thomas Hebden Lawrence (born 1875) and Anne Elizabeth Allerton (born 13th May 1878), who married at St. Peter’s Church, Earlsheaton on the 26th November 1898.

Thomas, a rag grinder was living at Queen Street, Ossett and Anne Elizabeth, a weaver, had her home at Walker Street, Earlsheaton. Thomas spent his early life living on Storrs Hill, Ossett, but moved to Dewsbury in the 1890s.

By 1911 Thomas, aged 35 years, and Anne Elizabeth, aged 33 years, were living at Prospect Villas, Wakefield Road, Dewsbury. The couple who had been married for twelve years had no children. Thomas was working as a rag grinder and Anne Elizabeth was employed as a cloth weaver. The couple had their first child, a daughter, Madge Lawrence, born in the Dewsbury area on the 8th June 1914.

Tom Lawrence died in Spring 1939 aged 63 years, and, in September 1939 his widow, Anne Elizabeth was living at 120, Headfield Road, Dewsbury with her married daughter, Madge Walker and her husband, Herbert Walker, a foreman rag and wool dyer and piecener.

Jack Lawrence joined the RAF in 1936 and served in 61 Squadron at RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire, completing 38 operational flights, before signing on with 83 Squadron at RAF Scampton for a second operational tour, which was almost suicidal considering the 50% attrition rate suffered by Bomber Command crews.

He recounts his early years in the RAF as follows:1

"I joined the RAF in 1936 and after attending the cenotaph in the Guard of Honour, I went to Cranwell on the wireless operator’s course. On completion I joined 61 Squadron as W/op/AG and did one trip in a Hawker Audax followed by Ansons, Blenheims and finally Hampdens, under the C.O. Squadron Leader C. Brill.

I apologise for the lack of detail, but my flying log book was destroyed in a fire while stationed at Biggin Hill in 1946. However, I completed seventeen operations; my pilot was F/O Ken James, but fortunately or unfortunately I missed the 18th trip having burnt both my hands in a small fire in the aircraft, and they were shot down and the chap who took my place lost his left arm!

I then joined a new crew, with a pilot called Oakley, who couldn’t fly a Hampden, but went on to win the DSO, DFC and Bar and was promoted to Wing Commander. The first operation I flew with him, we crashed just off Stoneham on Sea promenade. Actually, I was in twelve crashes before completing 37 operations and was posted on rest.

After a couple of months I volunteered to go back on operations, and I joined a Squadron Leader Wilcox on 83 Squadron, who had just got married. Unfortunately we were shot down on our 6th operation; Squadron Leader Wilcox being killed in the fighter attack."

The "Ossett Observer" reported that Sergeant Jack Lawrence was missing:2

"Ossett Airman Missing - Official information has been received that Flight Sergeant Jack Lawrence, son of Mrs. T.H. Lawrence and the late Mr. Tom Lawrence is missing. His mother, whose present address is Clement Terrace, Savile Town, Dewsbury, formerly lived in Nettleton Street, off Wesley Street, Ossett.

Sergeant Lawrence, who is 24 years of age joined the RAF before the war and has seen a good deal of active service. He was educated at Holy Trinity C of E School and Ossett Grammar School and had a wide circle of friends in the town, with whom he was very popular. He was a member of Ossett Liberal Club and a familiar figure on the Sunnyside Tennis Courts. He is the only son and deepest sympathy is felt with his mother and sister in their anxiety."

Lawrence's 83 Squadron, Hampden AD912, OL-Y was shot down by a night fighter near Meijil, north-east of Weert, at 00:31 hours on the 1st September 1941 whilst on a bombing raid to Cologne. The pilot, Squadron Leader Eric P. Willcox, DFC was killed in the crash. All the other crew members were taken as prisoners of war.

Here is Sergeant Lawrence's account of the dogfight and his subsequent capture by the Germans:3

"One of the survivors, Wireless Operator, Sergeant Jack Lawrence was very unfortunate, but not only did he have to abandon the aircraft over enemy territory, he was unlucky enough to parachute down and land inside the barbed wire compound of a German PoW camp. He recalled 'I joined C Flight, 83 Squadron in May 1941 to start my second tour, having completed 37 operations with 61 Squadron at Hemswell, which I joined in 1938. On the night in question, we decided to go in order to take a pilot and an air gunner (Pilot Office D.B. Organ and Sergeant H.C. Gabbitas) on their first operational flight. Although the target was Cologne, we just couldn't find it because of low cloud, so we made the fateful mistake of just orbiting around. We then, without warning, received a long burst of fire from a Me110 night fighter, which completely gutted the port wing, set the engine on fire. I am not sure if the pilot Squadron Leader Wilcox was hit, but one of the bullets removed the earpiece from my flying helmet. The wing was about to break off, and the pilot gave the order to bale out. I baled out at about 15,000ft and landed in something of a labour camp with lots of barbed wire and was quickly captured and taken to the guard room. Here I was presented with a large tin of Woodbine cigarettes and told the usual phrase "For you the war is over." After a couple of hours, I was collected by the Luftwaffe and taken to my crashed Hampden, or what was left of it, and then to night fighter HQ where I spent the night in hospital. Here I was visited by the German night fighter pilot, Uffz Pohler, who had shot our aircraft down.

The following day I was interrogated by the Luftwaffe General who did not like my answers and he sent me to a prison camp in Venio, and then on to Amsterdam, then the usual channels to Dulag Luft and Lansdorf. Here I changed identity with a New Zealand army private and escaped three times.

I escaped after a couple of months but was caught when getting very near to the Swiss border. On my way back to Lansdorf, I was put in a room three floors down and left for two weeks, then one Sunday morning I was taken out and put in front of a firing Squad and informed that I had been court martialled and sentenced to be shot. This was because after the great escape at Luft III and the shooting of 70 officers, Hitler had ordered that anyone caught escaping was to be shot, a good job I didn’t know that.

After standing in front of the firing squad for 3 hours, a Luftwaffe officer arrived, shouted at everybody that I was a "terror fleiger" and he grabbed me and took me away. I was now a gibbering idiot and happy to get back to Landsdorf in solitary confinement, and I have never found out why they didn’t shoot me.

The second time, I was caught in an air raid trying to steal an aircraft from an aerodrome in Gorlitz. The third escape in 1945 was successful, and whilst on the long march I escaped again, got through the German lines and reached a Canadian tank unit. They supplied me with a car and petrol and I drove westwards until I found an aerodrome from where I was flown to the UK.."

Sergeant Jack Lawrence was held in Stalag 357, Kopernikus-Oerbke, Poland in 1945 as PoW 9528 and it was from here that he escaped whilst being marched away. Jack Lawrence continued serving in the Royal Air Force after WW2, and reached the rank of Squadron Leader. He was still alive in 2014 at the ripe old age of 95 years.

Hampden Bomber

Above: A Hampden Bomber and crew 1941.

References:

1. Squadron Leader Jack Lawrence

2. "Ossett Observer", Saturday, 13th September 1941.

3. 83 Squadron 1917-1969, Low and Harper, ISBN 1 900604 05 1