On a clear day in July 2009, I visited the Ship Lane Cemetery in Farnborough to find the gravestone of my Great-Uncle Leonard Adlam. As I walked around the peaceful, well kept grounds I soon arrived at the site where he was buried. After resting a poppy at the headstone of the grave I spent a quiet moment reflecting on his sacrifice.
The headstone inscription told the tale of a widow who had lost her beloved husband when he was just 25 years of age and the stone flower pot nearby bore a loving message from his daughter, Delphine. Not uncommon for the time, another husband and father had been lost in 1940, in the service of his country during World War II.
With great interest I began researching the events surrounding Leonard Adlam’s death and with help from various sources I have found the following information to aid me in the telling of his last night in action. It all began on Sunday 20th October 1940.
At 1900 hours the throaty growl of two Rolls Royce Merlin X engines sounded into the evening air at Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire. The wonderful sound, unlike any other, belonged to a MK V Armstrong Whitworth Whitley of No. 58 Squadron.
As Pilot Officer Ernest H Brown from Streatham opened up the aircraft’s throttles the noise grew increasingly louder as it trundled across the grass aerodrome. In no time at all the Whitley known as O for Orange was airborne and climbing into the open sky.
So far it had already been an eventful day for the RAF who was particularly busy in the South of England fending off Luftwaffe attackers. Over 300 hundred sorties were flown by the fighter-bomber pilots of Jafu 2 throughout the day and at night their sorties continued with London and Coventry being the main targets. With No. 58 Squadron Whitleys airborne, including O for Orange, it was now Bomber Command’s turn to take the fight across the Channel.
Prior to this sortie, No. 58 Squadron has already been actively involved in an impressive number of offensive raids bombing industrial targets, usually in conjunction with No. 77 Squadron. Going back even further, it was in fact
No. 58 and No. 51 Squadron Whitleys that were the first aircraft to penetrate Germany in the Second World War, when they performed a leaflet raid in early September 1939.
On the evening of 20th October 1940, it was Pilot Officer Brown and his crew’s mission to bomb the Skoda factory at Plzen in Czechoslovakia, in their trusted aircraft Whitley T4171.
Pilot Officer Brown’s Whitley consisted of Sergeant Leonard F P Adlam, who was the second pilot, Sergeant Robert E Langfield, who was a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, Sergeant Cyril S G Green, who was the Observer and Sergeant Marcel C Caryll-Tilkin, who was also a Wireless Operator/ Air Gunner. The latter of the five-man crew had previously had a frightening ordeal just six weeks prior to this operation when the aircraft he was in over Genoa ran out of fuel and was forced to ditch off the Margate coast. Fortunately, in the early hours of the morning Caryll-Tilkin and his crewmen were rescued from their dinghy.
When Pilot Officer Brown and his crew reached their intended target they successfully bombed the Skoda factory but not without paying a price. Enemy flak hit their aircraft, presumably causing damage to the port engine as Pilot Officer Brown was hit by shrapnel and badly wounded. Unable to continue flying the aircraft, Sergeant Leonard Adlam took over the controls and turned the Whitley for home.
Feelings amongst the crew were undoubtedly tense as the Whitley boys witnessed smoke trailing from the engine hit by flak, but Sergeant Adlam continued to fly the damaged aircraft across the Channel.
Finally a small sense of relief was felt as the southern coast of England came in to view, but as the Whitley limped further north it became lost and alarmingly short of fuel. With Pilot Officer Brown injured it was decided by the crew to head for base rather than abandon the aircraft and bale out, so Adlam continued to press on through the cloudy sky.
Most likely strained and exhausted, the Whitley crew continued to work together in finding their way home to safety, but their beaten up aircraft began to lose both height and fuel. Although on course for Linton-on-Ouse, the Whitley began to rapidly descend as it approached the Yorkshire Moors until finally O for Orange tragically crashed into a hillside at approximately 0612 hours on the 21st October 1940. The crash was heard by nearby villagers and soon after police, farmers and locals were soon hurrying towards the crash site. When they arrived they found a burnt out wreckage of the Whitley aircraft.
Sadly, Pilot Officer Ernest Brown, Sergeant Leonard Adlam and Sergeant Marcel Caryll-Tilkin were killed. Sergeant Robert Langfield and Sergeant Cyril Green survived, although both were seriously injured. Unfortunately two days later, Sergeant Green died in hospital due to the serious nature of his internal injuries, leaving Sergeant Langfield as the sole survivor of the incident.
The evidence suggested that the Whitley had crashed due to running out of fuel on its return from Czechoslovakia. Even the official Accident Records Card is believed to share this opinion, but a later development uncovered another insight into the crash when a German source stated that Whitley T4171 was claimed by a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 pilot.
A Ju 88c pilot - Hauptmann Karl Hulshoff of I/NJG2 (who survived the war) was over the north of England on a specialist intruder mission (one of the first of its kind) when he apparently caught sight of the smoking Whitley of No. 58 Squadron as it attempted to return to base and shot it down.
Despite the conflicting records, the T4171wreckage at Greenhow Moor denoted that an intense blaze had occurred to burn the aircraft out. With the aircraft reported as being out of petrol it is unlikely that this was the cause of the fire but perhaps rather a consequence of falling victim to the Ju 88 night fighter.
If indeed this was the case then the loss of Brown, Adlam, Green and Caryll-Tilkin was even more tragic considering all they had been through the previous night of the crash. They had succeeded in dropping their bombs on the Skoda armament factory, used all the initiative they could muster in getting their damaged aircraft back across the Channel to the English coast and then a short distance away from base with next to no fuel they were shot down by a lone Ju 88 skulking like a predator through the north Yorkshire skies.
Aside from the loss of Brown’s Whitley two additional aircraft were also lost on this sortie but suffered no fatalities. One aircraft ditched in the River Humber and another ditched off Blackeney Point on the coast of Norfolk. Both crews were later rescued by lifeboat.
For many years to come, pieces of the dark green Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, bearing the Squadron code markings ‘GE-O’, flown by Brown and Adlam on its last sortie, would be found around the Yorkshire moor. The aircraft itself had only been at Linton-on-Ouse since 3rd October 1940, but it would always be remembered because of its brave crew, four of which valiantly lost their lives as they fought for their families at home and for the preservation of their land.
Due to the uncertainty of events surrounding O for Orange’s destruction and the conflicting reports currently available, it is impossible to state the exact reason why four men lost their lives in the early hours of the 21st October 1940. Whether it was a combination of flak damage, disorientation and bad weather over the high ground, or if it was indeed a Ju 88 night fighter that forced them into the hillside, is yet to be uncovered. What I can say for certain is that Sergeant Adlam’s death was keenly felt amongst my relatives. As a young boy my father can remember several occasions where he visited family graves with his mother. He would always marvel when they arrived at the headstone bearing the name Sergeant Leonard F P Adlam where he would gaze at the words “Through trials to the stars” – a fitting tribute to one of the ‘many’.
By Christopher Yeoman 2009