The Blackest Day in 421 Squadron History

Until September 2004 there was an aura of mystery surrounding the death of Wing Commander Lloyd Vernon Chadburn. Chadburn was the much-decorated and much-revered wing leader of RCAF 127 Wing. On Tuesday 13 June 1944, Chadburn's Spitfire collided with a Spitfire flown by Frank Clark of 421 Squadron. For a long while I found the official records to be contradictory.

Wing Commander Lloyd Vernon Chadburn,
DSO and bar, DFC, C de G, L d'H
of Oshawa and Aurora Ontario, was 25 when he died.

(DND PL15079)

Flight Lieutenant Frank Joel Clark
of Montreal, Quebec, was 23 when he died.
(DND PL29567)

Let us set the stage:

Advanced bases for the three RCAF Spitfire wings in Normandy were located at B.2 (127 Wing under Chadburn), B.3 (144 Wing under Johnson) and B.4 (126 Wing under Keefer). The locations of these bases are shown below. In all there were eventually over thirty grass field bases scattered about the beachheads -- see ALGs in Normandy. The area covered by the whole map below is the 'Eastern Assault Area.' Note the relative positions of Bayeux and Caen.

WHAT HAVE OTHERS SAID? Anyone who has written a book about the RCAF in Europe in World War II has referred to the death of Lloyd Chadburn. Every reference uses the term 'collided', and most say 'mid-air collision.' But as to where, one says it occurred on take-off, one says it occurred over the beaches, one says north of Caen, and another says over Cherbourg. Regarding altitude, one says it was at 3,000 feet, another barely off the ground, another at 12,000 feet. Two sources state the collision occurred while executing a turn. A biography of Lloyd Chadburn, written by Robert W. Forbes, and entitled Gone is the Angel (Brown Book Company, Toronto, 1997) states that the collision occurred at 5:30 pm and that "Chadburn's plane plummeted to the ground." Seriously injured, he died an hour later. All of these assertions are untrue or misleading. An accurate description of what happened can be found here.

WHAT DO THE OFFICIAL RECORDS SAY? The official records kept by the squadrons are called 'Operations Record Books.' Copies are available from the National Archives of Canada. Here is what they say:*

127 Wing Headquarters was in transit between Tangmere and B.2 at the time, and make no mention of the collision. The first reference is "June 16,... The wing is now led by W/C R. A. Buckham DFC, successor to the late Wing Commander L.V.Chadburn, DSO, DFC, killed in action June 13th. W/C Chadburn's grave has been found, and the Sector, it is understood, are placing a cross on the grave. ..."

421 ORB 540 "June 13 -- Unlucky thirteen. This held very true in the case of 421 Squadron as it proved to be a black day in squadron history as well as for the Wing itself. On the first patrol of the day F/O R.W.Murray reported over the R/T that his engine had cut out and that he was going down. This happened in operation 127/41 approximately eight miles out in the channel. It is not known definitely whether he baled out or whether he went down in the aircraft. His body was, however, seen floating face down in the Channel and his parachute was open. Then on the third patrol of the day, F/L F.J.Clark collided with W/C L.V.Chadbourne (sic), DSO and bar, DFC and F/L Clark was seen to go down in flames at map reference Grid U.0975. Both are presumed lost and that leaves us without a W/C/F. The squadron score since D-Day stands: Our losses -- 4 aircraft, Enemy losses -- Nil. This is a bad show."

NOTE (1): "last patrol" was scrubbed out and replaced by "third patrol" per a letter from RCAFHQ 9 July indicating changes to ORBs for the month of June: "13th -- Amend F.540 to state that F/L Clark was killed on the third patrol of the day")
NOTE (2): Paul Johnston -- an ex-421 Squadron intelligence officer -- tells me he has confirmed that the reference was to a 1 km-by-1km sector located in the Benouville area near Pegasus Bridge.

421 ORB 541 "June 13, 1944 'A' Flight -- S/L W G Conrad MK472, F/O R G Driver NH344, F/O G L Mayson MJ870, F/L P G Johnson MK809, F/O G M Smith MJ820, F/O R C McRoberts MJ855, F/O L F Curry NH217, 'B' Flight -- F/L F J Clark NH415, F/L H P Zary MJ920, F/O R W Murray MJ235, F/L R C Wilson MK994, F/O J Hamm MK199.
Duty: Patrol No. 1 Time: 0730 to 0955 127/Patrol No. 1. F/O R W Murray turned back with engine trouble and on route crashed into the sea. He was accompanied by two other pilots who after orbiting saw his body floating in the water, and returned to base. Other nine aircraft landed at B.5 landing strip. Weather 7 to 10/10ths, cloud base 2000 feet.
Duty: Patrol No. 2 Time: 1110 to 1130 Patrol No. 2 Movement of squadron from B.5 to B.2 landing strip France. Weather 7 to 10/10ths.
Duty: Patrol No. 3 Time: 1200 to 1345 Patrol No. 3 Patrol of A. A. Aircraft flown by F/L F.J.Clark collided with aircraft flown by W/C L.V.Chadbourne(sic). Both aircraft destroyed both pilots killed. Weathr 7 to 10/10ths
Duty: Patrol No. 4 Time: 1645 to 1830 Patrol No. 4 Patrol from base over assault area landing at B.2 landing strip, uneventful. Weather 7 to 10/10ths. Visibility poor.
Duty: Patrol No. 5 Time: 1945 to 2015 Patrol No. 5 Take-off from B.2 landing strip short uneventful patrol of the assault area. Weather 7 to 10/10ths. Visibility slightly improved."

416 ORB 540 "June 13 -- Squadron made their first landing on our Advanced Landing strip in France. F/L Don Hayworth brought back a German Officer's hat today and it was the centre of interest for a while. The RCAF and 127 Wing lost a Great Pilot today when W/C L.V.Chadburn, DSO and bar, DFC collided in mid-air with one of the other pilots of the wing. Both aircraft were destroyed and both pilots met instant death. He certainly will be missed."

416 ORB 541 "June 13 1944 F/LD F Prentice MJ953, P/O D C Blackstone MK835, F/L J L Campbell MJ872, F/S W L Saunders ML292, F/L D W Hayworth NH268, F/O M R Sharun MJ787, F/O A C Borland MJ575, F/L R D Forbes-Roberts MK207, F/L W F Mason MJ987, F/L D R Cuthbertson MJ611, F/O W J Simpson MJ828, F/L G R Patterson MJ770.
Duty: Patrol No. 1 Time: 0730 to 0930 Patrolled Western Assault Area. Landed at B.2 Landing strip. Weather -- showers, visibility good.
Duty: Patrol from B.2 Time: 1220 to 1400 Patrolled Eastern Assault Area. Patrolled as ordered. One aircraft Cat, "B" (F/S W. L. Saunders) aircraft crash-landed at B.2 when engine cut. Pilot was uninjured.
Duty: Patrol from B.2 Time: 1645 to 1745 Patrolled Eastern Assault Area. Trip uneventful. W/C L.V.Chadburn DSO and bar, DFC, (missing believed killed) collided with another aircraft in mid-air."

* National Archives of Canada records for 127 Wing are found on reel C-12425, 421 Squadron on reel C-12294 and C-12295, 403 Squadron on reel C-12268 and 416 Squadron on reel C-12268.

If we try to summarize this data it might look like this:

 421 SQ 416 SQ
patrol 10730-0955patrol 10730-0930
patrol 21110-1130  
patrol 31200-1340patrol 21220-1400
patrol 41645-1830patrol 31645-1745
patrol 51945-2015  

Add this information: (a) Many times when the W/C(F) flew with a squadron, he was listed with that squadron's flight log. All agree Chadburn flew with 416 Squadron that day, but he was not listed. (b) It appears Chadburn was flying Freddie Green's aircraft MJ824 on the books of 416 Squadron. (c) Patterson of 416 had engine trouble and returned shortly after his 0730 take-off (d) Murray of 421 had engine trouble 20 minutes after take-off and when he turned to go back, Wilson and Hamm of 421 went with him. Murray died in the Channel. (e) 416 ORB states it landed at B.2 while 421 ORB states it landed at B.5 (f) 421 ORB states the second patrol was a ferry from B.5 to B.2. (g) 421 ORB shows Clark killed in a collision after take-off at 1200 noon. (h) 416 ORB shows Saunders crash-landed at 1330 at B.2. (i) 416 ORB indicates Chadburn collided sometime between 1645 and 1745.

CLARIFICATION OF THE RECORDS The ORBs were kept by the adjutants who were back in England and reported what they were told. RCAFHQ must have gone to the 416 ORB -- expecting it to most accurately record Chadburn's death, saw that it showed Chadburn collided about 1700 hours in the third patrol of the day, and ordered 421 Squadron to correct their report accordingly from "last patrol" to "third patrol."

Wally Conrad squadron commander of 421, was probably consulted and he undoubtedly agreed that it was the third patrol. His personal log confirmed this. Hence the trouble -- had RCAFHQ consulted a few flight logs of the pilots involved they would have found a few other facts: Chadburn hadn't made any entries in his log since the end of May. Wally Conrad's log reveals that they landed at B.2 not B.5, that Frank Clark was flying Conrad's No.2 (flying a mere 200 feet from Conrad). Combined with the log of F/L W.Mason of 416 (who records the second patrol as being a "scramble"), the picture changes quite significantly.

 421 SQ 416 SQConradMason
patrol 10730-0955patrol 10730-09302hr35min2hr0min
patrol 21110-1130  0hr50min0hr25min
patrol 31200-1345patrol 21220-14001hr45min1hr40min
patrol 41645-1830patrol 31645-17451hr0min1hr0min
patrol 51945-2015  0hr45min0hr40min

  • The wing took off with Chadburn leading 24 aircraft. He was not flying his usual aircraft ML380 with the coding "LV-C". One early return and the departure of Murray and his two helpers left them flying 11 in 416 and 9 in 421.
  • The weather in France was extremely cloudy -- somewhere between 70% and 100% cloud cover at all times with occasional rain. They probably made the usual landfall at Porte-en-Bessin and patrolled the WAA to Cherbourg, repeating several circuits and landing at B.2. 421 must have made one more circuit of the WAA because it landed 25 minutes after 416.
  • Some time around 1100 hours a "scramble" was called and both squadrons took off (they didn't want to be caught on the ground). The scrambled aircraft found no Huns (Conrad's note in his log is, "Patrol B.2 - F/A")
  • At noon both squadrons took off to patrol the EAA between Porte-en-Bessin and Cabourg, and inland as far as Caen. Saunders crash-landed upon returning from this sortie.
  • On the third patrol of the day the two squadrons took off at 1700 hours. According to Mason, Ground Control reported the presence of some bogeys and Chad led 416 to investigate while 421 continued the patrol.
  • Chadburn returned flying in an easterly direction just under the 1200 feet cloud base. Conrad was flying west with Frank Clark only 200 feet or so off his wing. 416 Squadron were upon 421 before anyone knew it -- the ground control in France at the time was a disaster. Conrad turned slightly to the port to avoid Chadburn and if Clark followed his leader, that brought him into Chadburn's path. The two banked steeply to starboard and collided head-on. Wally Conrad's log entry reads "W/C Chadburn collided with F/Lt Frank Clarke(sic)[Lovebird Two] over Caen. Both killed."
  • There was a big explosion in which Clark's aircraft shed a wing, experienced fire in the cockpit and dove straight down the 1200 feet where it crashed and blew up. Chadburn's aircraft "disintegrated in the air". The most accurate accounts use these words suggesting that Chadburns body must have fallen to earth in a shower of wreckage. Clark's aircraft was just an ember that likely crashed in the same area.
  • Chadburn was still alive after landing, but died within an hour. Clark and Chadburn were buried near Benouville and soon after were moved across the bridge and re-interred in the British Ranville Cemetery. Chadburn's grave is section V row F grave 2.
  • By early August the site of the second Canadian Cemetery in Normandy had been selected, and Clark was exhumed and re-interred in Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery section XXIV row C grave 5.
  • Flight time from Normandy to southern England was over a half-hour, so 'Patrol 5' was likely a ferry flight to return to Tangmere. Conrad's log records 1:45 for a patrol and return to Tangmere so I split it into the two components.

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last updated 22 December 2006 in sunny Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.