Pilot Officer John Bennett Underwood
Pilot 61 Squadron
Pilot Officer John Bennett Underwood aka Jack was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire in 1917 to his parents John Norbury and Elizabeth Annie who he was living with at the time of his entry into the RAF in 1940 at “Banbury” 112, Mayplace Road in Bexleyheath. This house is still there.
Jack went to school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Erith and then on to Dartford Grammar School. He was a member of the grammar school’s Officers Training Corps and after leaving school joined Vickers Armstrong Limited on 6 May 1939 as an engineering pupil.
His father, John Norbury Underwood, also worked at Vickers for almost 20 years but died suddenly aged 47 in January 1938. He had been invalided out of the army in WW1 as a result of gassing and severe wounds received whilst on active service in France with Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry.
Jack joined the Civil Air Guard and volunteered to join the RAF in 1940 getting his wings on 27 September of that year.
He gained a good number of hours on the Avro Manchester two engined bomber before converting to the larger bomber of the day, the four engined Avro Lancaster, in March 1942.
During his flying career he had a number of near misses and crashes that was fairly typical during training and Operations (Ops) for all pilots.
On one such Operation to Bremen in February 1942 in Avro Manchester R5834 on the way home flak damage caused the loss of one engine over Germany but Jack managed to reach England on the remaining engine, crash landing across a dyke near Horsham St Faith in Norfolk with fortunately no casualties when the fuel ran out.
He and his crew (three amongst them from that Bremen incident) took part in the first 1,000 bomber raid that Sir Arthur (“Bomber”) Harris organised but the city of Cologne they attacked was apparently not the first choice due to “weather conditions” (Hamburg was the original target but this is likely to have been a security ruse).
His logbooks held in Local Studies ironically show this was his thirteenth mission of bombing raids when Jack and his crew of six failed to return from this raid on Cologne on the night of 30/31 May 1942.
Records also indicate perhaps their Lancaster was shot down by a Junkers Ju-88 night fighter from 7/NJG2 squadron possibly flown by Ob. Heinz Struning and crashing with no survivors at Niederaussem, Germany.
Their Avro Lancaster Mk 1 R5561 had taken off from Syerston at 00.40 in Nottinghamshire on this mission and Jack and his crew are buried in Rheinberg War Cemetery in Germany.
Jack is buried in a joint grave (cross) with the epitaph “Greater love, Hath no man than this, That a man lay down His life for his friends.”
P/O Pilot – Jack (John) Bennett Underwood (25),
P/O Pilot - Benson Usher (25) RNZAF,
P/O and Air Gunner- John Douglas Patey (21) RCAF,
Air Observer- Sergeant Antony Williamson (26) RAFVR,
F/O Wireless Operator and Air Gunner - Peter Frederick Barlow Bluett (32),
Fl. Sergeant Wireless Operator and Air Gunner - Robert Gordon Fawkes (20) ,
Fl.Sergeant Air Gunner – John Hamilton Charles (22)
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Jack had flown Lancasters for just around 5-6 weeks prior to going on Operations (Ops.) indicating the huge intensity all bomber crews were put under during this time.
The pressure must have been even more intense during the build up to this the first 1,000 bomber raid that Air Marshal Arthur T. (Bomber) Harris planned in endeavouring to get 1,000 actual serviceable bombers together in a short time frame.
These aeroplanes would have been drawn from every available unit including training commands.
Bomber Command records indicate only one Lancaster was lost on this first 1,000 bomber operation and this was Jack’s aeroplane.
How tragic that this was the case for our local pilot and his crew but it became another very brave statistic among many brave statistics of this war.
1. R5561 Lancaster Mk1 was built at Chadderton, Oldham and assembled and flown from Woodford, Stockport - both towns are in Greater Manchester.
2. This aeroplane was delivered for 61 squadron service on 27 April 1942 and had flown a total of 37 hours by the time of it being shot down.
3. Jack had flown in Lancasters 33 times according to his log books either as first or second pilot or crew and amassed 51 odd hours flying time before his fatal raid on this type.
4. Jack flew (out of his total hours in Lancasters before the last raid) a total of 14 and half hours in this actual Lancaster.
5. He actually flew this plane for an hour the day of the raid.
6. Of 7,377 Lancasters built 3,498 or 47% were lost on Operations.
7. Records indicate that of the total force that took off (1,046 planes) 70 were Lancasters from 5 Group
8. Jack flew at least 10 aircraft types during his aviation career.
9. Jack’s Lancaster was the second one that 61 Squadron lost, the first crashed on landing on 1 May 1942