Located six miles north-west of Grantham in Lincolnshire, the construction of RAF Bottesford, which began in November 1940, was undertaken by George Wimpey & Co. Ltd. The airfield was built to the Class A standard set by the Air Ministry, the main feature of which was a set of three converging runways each containing a concrete runway for takeoffs and landings, optimally placed at sixty degree angles to each other in a triangular pattern.
Bottesford became operational in November 1941 with the arrival, from RAF Waddington, of 207 Squadron, part of Bomber Command’s No.5 Group. This squadron had the honour of being the first to be equipped with the Avro Manchester.
Seldom in history has the marriage between a new airframe and new engines been a happy one, and the Avro Manchester was certainly no exception. Designed to Air Ministry Specification P.13/36 as a twin-engine medium bomber with the new Rolls-Royce Vulture 24-cylinder, the first of the type’s two prototypes flew on 25 July 1939. It was the Vulture engines that were the Manchester’s most troublesome feature, as the crews of 207 Squadron were about to found out.
The first mission from Bottesford was undertaken on the evening of Sunday, 23 November 1941, when a force of fifty-one Handley Page Hampdens and a pair of 207 Squadron’s Manchesters were tasked to attack the docks and naval facilities (and the U-boats based there) at Lorient. Conditions over the port allowed for clear identification of the targets and the bomber crews departed having observed fires in the vicinity of the harbour; the two Manchesters had safely delivered their ten 500lb bombs. Despite the fact that all of the aircraft involved returned safely, earlier on the 23rd 207 Squadron had already suffered its first loss.
Pilot Officer A.W. Hills, at the controls of Manchester Mk.I L7300, EM-F, had taken off from Bottesford to fly the short distance to Waddington. As well as his crew, on board were three passengers (one officer who was en route to join a course and two air traffic controllers), a total of nine. As soon as he was airborne, Hills set course to follow the Lincoln-Boston canal and railway line at an altitude of 500 feet.
Everything seemed well with the aircraft until, without warning, the port Vulture engine simply stopped and the bomber yawed to starboard. Whilst the Vulture engine was renowned for its inability to deliver its designed power, reliability issues could be far worse — as those in L7300 had discovered to their cost. Whilst the nearby airfield at Cranwell was considered as a suitable diversion, Hills opted to press on.
At this point disaster struck when the second engine packed up. As John Hamlin details in Always Prepared, the story of 207 Squadron, «with too little altitude it was not long before the Manchester hit the ground, breaking apart before plunging at some speed into Fiskerton Lake, some eight miles east of Lincoln».
The force of the impact had torn the tail section from the Manchester. As the rest of the bomber splashed to a halt in the lake, watched by a number of anglers around the water’s edge, those on board were able to clamber out through the open fuselage at the rear or the escape hatch in the roof of the cockpit.
Thankfully, injuries were generally of a minor nature. The copilot, Pilot Officer Plaistowe, who had been standing at the time of impact, suffered the worst injuries in the form of a fractured skull. In his account, John Hamlin went on to reveal how the injuries affected Plaistowe:
«Charles Smith, the Wop/AG, took him to nearby Applegarth Cottage, where the occupants dried him and wrapped in a rug to await the arrival of an ambulance from Lincoln. When after nearly an hour it had not arrived, one of the anglers offered to take him and one of the air traffic controllers to hospital by car … As the car turned into Lincoln High Street, Pilot Officer Plaistowe opened the door and, minus rug, ran naked down the street!»
Completely bare, with his body covered in blood, Plaistowe only covered a short distance before being stopped by a Policeman. At this point an ambulance was finally found and the injured airman delivered to Lincoln hospital.
This image shows personnel from 58 Maintenance Unit beginning the salvage of L7300 on 4 December 1941, following its unplanned immersion.
Interestingly, one of the passengers involved in the crash was Pilot Officer F.A. Roper, who suffered minor injuries. Roper was an American serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force who, following the events of 23 November 1941, went on to complete a full tour of operations with Bomber Command — the first US national to do so. He subsequently transferred to the USAAF and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.