Flight Lieutenant Bernard Fitch DFC
Born 13 May 1920.
Educated at Stationers School, Hornsey, London N8. A keen sportsman, he received his colours at cricket and football.
He completed a tour of operations with 61 Squadron during the winter of 1943/44.
During the winter of 1943/44, whilst serving on 61 squadron, he completed 28 bombing operations. At this particular time during WW11 Bomber Command losses were extremely high.
61 lost 22 crews during the 8 months he was with the unit. He flew his last mission during April 1944 and was the first to complete a lst tour with 61 since the end of August 1943.
He recalls "On one Berlin raid, approaching the target at 26000 ft my rear gunner suddenly called out
"FIGHTER CORKSCREW PORT"
"As I swung the aircraft into a port corkscrew, instead of concentrating on my instrument panel, I glanced over my shoulder to see if there was any incoming tracer, greatly overbanked and plummeted earthwards in a spiral dive. We lost 8000 ft but had managed to lose the enemy fighter. Just as well as by now our guns were frozen solid. Recovery from the dive was slow, but with careful use of trim I assumed a climb back to height.
......We didn't know that German fighter pilots were well aware of the standard RAF bomber corkscrew, and would stand off, then after a climb back to height to deliver the bombload, they would renew their attack when the bomber pilot (often exhausted) resumed normal flight.......
Suddenly a battery of predicted flak burst out a short distance ahead, the height was so accurate that with a small turn to port we flew through the pattern within a few seconds. I then just managed to avoid a blue master searchlight as it swung in tight circles trying to feel us out. Without doubt had it been successful we would have been immediately coned by a group of searchlights and then been an easy target for enemy fighters.
"TWO MORE LUCKY ESCAPES".
Bernard was of the opinion that his luckiest escape happened during another night operation.
He recalled: " Suddenly straight ahead I fleetingly but clearly saw the dimly illuminated face of a German fighter pilot as his plane flashed by, perhaps about 20 feet above us. My mid-upper-gunner later told me that the JU88 did a 180 turn and flew for several minutes level with us on our starboard side just out of range of our 303s. He could have picked us off as easy as pie, instead, he just flew away. I have always wondered
"WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE HIM DECIDE TO CALL IT A DAY"?
Below: Home at last, what a relief. Good old "Sheila".
After completing his tour of operations Bernard instructed at 5 LFS for a year, he then returned to 61 squadron as a pilot instructor. He then crewed up for Tiger Force. He then flew on Dodge operations.
In 1946 he was posted to EAAS Manby as 2nd pilot on Mission crew..
During 1946; now at RAF Waddington with 61, he was one of the pilots who helped convert the squadron from Lancaster bomber aircraft to the heavier Lincoln bomber.
He graduated CFS 1950.
Instructed on Meteors at two AFS units until his discharge from the RAF in 1950.
On leaving the RAF he joined Air Charter, Freddy Laker's first company.
Wartime damage to his middle ear ended his flying career in 1956.
Bernard and Sheila first met at a tennis club in Felixstowe. They got married at the St. Andrew's Church in Bedford on November 20th 1943 -- the day after he had returned from perilous mission over Germany.
While Bernard trained pilots and flew missions in Lancasters with the RAF during the war. Sheila intially worked as a teacher at Worthing, and became a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music through her expertise on the piano.
In 1942, she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, and it was a year later, in the summer of 1943, the couple agreed to marry. But their plans nearly came apart when the aerial Battle of Berlin opened on November 18th, 1943, with Bernard's leave confirmed less than 24 hours before he was due to set off to the church.
Of the 28 operations that he flew with 61 Squadron, Bernard said "I was one of the few very lucky ones to survive a tour of operations that winter"
Twenty-two crews were lost in the eight months he was with the unit, and he was awarded the Ditinquished Flying Cross in March 1944.
Nine months after Bernard flew his last mission in April 1944 , the couple's first child was born, Janice, followed by Peter, in 1947. They now have four grown up grandchildren.
Bernard left the RAF in 1954 and Sheila became an L.T.A. professional tennis coach, trained by BBC commentator, the late Dan Maskell.
The pair's tennis interests also led them to officiate at matches at the Wimbleton championships where Bernard confessed to incorrectly calling a foot fault during a match played by John MaEnroe,"My appologies Mr McEnroe, I made a mistake", he hastily admitted, just escaping a verbal scalding from the hot tempered American.
2006 50/61 Reunion
Bernard and James Flowers
James Flowers. Jamie Barr DFC. Bernard Fitch DFC. Reg Payne. DFC.
A few words about Bernard by his nephew Stephen Cockayne
I have written a few words about Bernard and what he meant to me.
I always looked up to Bernard when I was young, well I had to, he was much taller than me.
As a kid going over to Sheering to play and ’find the ball I just hit’ outside the tennis court they had there,
I was fascinated by all things RAF and flying machines. Bernard never talked much about his wartime experiences to anyone until fairly recently. I just used to pour over all his old aircraft books as I used to build most of them as Airfix kits. My bedroom ceiling was a constant swirl of dogfighting WWII aircraft with the odd modern freighter caught up in the melee.
My favourite was a 50 50 split between the Spitfire and the Lancaster. The Lanc just edged it as it had more guns!
Imagine my joy when I found out he actually flew one! Back then in the 1960s and 70s all service personnel were bound by the official secrets act and no-one said much about anything. There were few documentaries much for the same reason, so these books were gold dust to me.
If you search on the internet you can find something on Bernard, such as the website for 50 and 61 squadron.
There are many pictures of Bernard at various reunions dating from 2006 to this year which were held at Skellingthorpe near Lincoln, where he was based during 1944. The airfield is long gone but a memorial has been set up in the village and is a focus for reunions and marchpasts of Lanc crew heroes past and Air cadets present.
Before that (2006 not 1944) Bernard never really went to any, as far as I can gather, and never spoke about his RAF experiences to many, so these are quite rare occasions.
Incidentally, the model Lancaster you can see in some of the photos, I made for his 70th birthday. My Airfix skills coming back there. For weeks before I pestered him about seeing the photos that had come to light of him and his crew in front of his aircraft. He reluctantly showed me them and I secretly borrowed them.
If you look closely, I had it painted it in the livery of his own Lancaster Aircraft LLL 777 QR-S (Sheila) together with the nose art of a hand of cards and a 'slim chance' motto. There are pictures of him and his crew at the end of a tour (9 or 10 sorties I think) up against the aircraft. The actual model is still at his home but has been 'pranged' ,not by enemy action but by Bernard hoovering. Its now unfortunately needing a few ground hours and spares to get it serviceable again. I shall be the ‘ERK’ and do this at some point.
That 'slim chance' lasted over 90 odd years, over 50 in peacetime, of which both he and thousands upon thousands of his fellow aircrew contributed to.
He actually finished serving with his crew intact, although he did not know it until a few years ago.
Few bomber crews survived the war, let alone until now, the losses during the war were enormous in Bomber Command.
He must have been a very safe driver (not a ‘slim chance’ at all) but did have the odd prang or flamer! I am not so sure about his car driving as his car will bear witness, but he never bombed anything in that, so that’s all right then!
Back in the cockpit of his Lanc, on one occasion, he dumped his crew out of the aircraft in their parachutes all over Lincoln somewhere when an engine caught fire and he struggled on with it alone, but eventually landed it safely, minus crew. He was commended by the ground staff but sworn at by the crew who ended up all over the place, in fields, trees, brambles etc. I know this for a fact as I met some of them and they were STILL talking about it 50 years on.!"
Well, you can’t please everyone can you?.
Since then he has created a wonderful family around him and Sheila. Both considerable achievements.
He had his faults and flaws like most aircraft and required constant ground maintenance from my very dear Auntie Sheila, but he always flew straight and level as far as I was concerned.
I always looked up to him, even when I was as tall.
I wish his spirit a calm and clear sky to fly off into.
Bernard, is not in the next room, as that great poem suggests, he in the next cloud in the sky.
When I look up at them I will think of him.
You were a hero to me and many others.
Bernard, wherever you are, I dearly loved you, I still do, as do all of the people gathered here, in their own way.
With a great deal of love and a huge amount of respect to a great man, a father, a grandfather, a fantastic Uncle, a decorated ex pilot in the Royal Air Force and a hero
of the nation, we all salute you.
Your Nephew Stephen.
Despite advancing years and the great distance from his home to Skellingthorpe he remained an enthusiastic member of our Association to the end.
He will be sadly missed.
Many lives will have been enriched by the knowing of him.
Below is a copy of the card that I produced and attached to the Association wreath.