I wonder what occupied the thoughts of nineteen year old Bert Thomson as he strapped himself into position as the ‘Rear Gunner’ in Lancaster Bomber LL 118 BQJ aka “Bad Penny II” on the night of 5th June 1944?
550 Squadron had been give their orders, for what at the outset seemed a relatively routine trip, the target was a gun battery on the Clifftops at Arromanches on the Normandy coastline. They were armed with 14 x 1,000lb bombs. It took just under 2 hours to reach their target destination and drop to 8,000ft, the height at which the pathfinders markings for the gun emplacements would have been visible. However in the words of Navigator ‘Ward Thomas:
“When we got there we couldn’t find it, it was dark. It wasn’t until they made the mistake of shooting at us that we could see them….”
Although they were ahead of schedule, pilot Flying Officer Kenyon Bowen-Bravery resolved to drop the bombs anyway. Unbeknown to the young crew that decision was to earn them a place in the history books.
Bombs despatched at 11.24pm the plane had turned and was heading for home when the most extraordinary sight became visible in the bright moonlight. The sea was simply covered in boats, hundreds and hundreds of them as far as the eye could see. The enormity of what was about to happen hit home -D-Day had arrived!
The “Bad Penny II” and her crew made it safely back to base at 1.18am to the news they had dropped the opening salvo of bombs to start ‘Operation Overlord’, later heralded, “a triumph of deception, secrecy and logistics” and “The greatest liberating armada in military history”. That night, 1,012 aircraft - 551 Lancasters, 412 Halifaxes and 49 Mosquitos - followed ‘Bad Penny II’ into D-Day.
The crew of J for Jig “The Bad Penny II” at the time of their famous D-Day raid were:
They were collectively awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French Government, although the Citation listed every one of the crew individually as being honoured for ‘services rendered in this great event in history’. This rankled the Flight Engineer Len Thompson who began a lengthy campaign with the French Government to no avail. In 1995 a Belgian lady acquired a brass copy from a specialist medal shop in France. Len was delighted but felt sorry for the rest of the crew and set about acquiring copies for all of them, with the exception of J P Fyffe, (ironically the bomb aimer) with whom they had lost contact and could find no trace.
Bert, who flew a total of 32 bombing raids in a Lancaster and a further 16 in an American Mitchell, finally received his medal in appreciation of the actiontaken that famous that night in 1944, through the post in the summer of 1996 - in excess of 50 years later!
Bert was baptised 'Robert Redpath Thomson' at Eckford in 1924 and in 1944 he married his childhood sweetheart Elspeth Bell Brown. Post war he returned to his job as rabbit catcher, before later becoming a lorry driver. Throughout his life Bert was well known for his cheerful disposition and ‘can do’ attitude. He passed away on 25th November 2000 aged 76.
There are two points that strike me about Bert that have not been mentioned anywhere to date:
Firstly as a Rear Gunner he would never have seen where the plane was going, only where it had been!.
Secondly and more importantly, every record I can find relating to Bert, even the C de G award certificate itself has misspelt his name! It was Thomson without a ‘P’!
It would be nice to think someone, somewhere could rectify this problem with a note to the records so future generations wishing to read about his exploits that night can actually find him!
You can find much more information and pictures relating to 550 Squadron here: