Sergeant Keith Russell Baker, the story of a ‘Tail-End Charlie’ who died in Holland 76 years ago by Alison Bailey, Sue Cottrell and Wessel Scheer
Sergeant Keith Russell Baker is a name on the Chesham Bois War Memorial. He is one of the 17 men and one woman from the parish who died during WWII and whose names are read out every year at our Rememberance Day Service. Until recently we knew little about him. An emailed enquiry from Wessel Scheer, who lives close to the oat field where Sgt Baker died, has revealed his story.
At 18, Keith Russell Baker volunteered for the RAF. At 19 he had one of the war’s most dangerous jobs – a gunner on a Lancaster bomber. His chances of survival were slim – half of all Bomber Command’s aircrews perished. Sergeant Baker was a rear gunner, a “Tail End Charlie”, who, isolated from the rest of the crew during operations, was confined in his Perspex turret right at the back of the plane. Unable to move for the duration of the flight, his head would have touched the top of the turret and his shoulders brushed the sides. There was only enough room in front to grasp the triggers of the four Browning machine guns. As the turret was in the unheated section of the fuselage, temperatures could go as low as -40C and he would have worn an electrically heated flight suit. Even this did not stop his breath freezing in icicles. His job was to scan the black skies for a glimpse of enemy aircraft, to advise his pilot to take evasive action and when required, to defend the aircraft.
In Tony Rennell’s 2012 article for the Mailonline tail gunner Bob Pierson described the job as follows:
“‘You see something. Your heart jumps. But you can’t just blaze away. If you fire, the tracer will give your position away to the enemy for sure. And, anyway, you might hit another Lancaster. Plenty of planes were knocked out by someone on their own side panicking. So you wait. And it gets closer, until you can make out a head and shoulders in the cockpit. Is he going to keep coming? Is he going to start firing?’
‘Sometimes he peels away out of sight, and that’s the worst moment of all. All you can do is pray that he hasn’t dived below you and is coming back underneath with his guns blazing. The horror was waiting and not knowing, wondering if you were about to die.’
‘If an attack came, the skipper would throw the Lanc into a steep dive. The wings go down, the tail comes hurtling up. You go up, too, and then you plunge back down as the skipper pulls back on the stick and the plane climbs steeply in the opposite direction. The G-force clamps on your head like a ton of concrete. Your chin is pressed hard into your chest. And all the time you are still trying to fire at the enemy fighter on your tail.’”
If the crew had to abandon the aircraft the rear gunner was in the most difficult position. He had to open a small sliding door and move backwards out of the turret before he could put on his parachute.
In February 1944 Sgt Baker was posted to his last operational unit, 514 Squadron from 1678 Conversion Flight, a training unit to instruct airmen trained on medium bombers to operate Avro Lancasters, the heavy bombers used by the Squadron. Both units were based at RAF Waterbeach, seven miles north of Cambridge. This was a relatively modern airfield having been completed shortly before war was declared. The station had red brick barracks instead of the usual Nissen Huts with hot and cold running water which was considered a great luxury.
Operation Record Books show that Sgt Baker flew with New Zealand Pilot Officer Bernard William Windsor 22 April and 19 May. He was not with P/O Windsor on 21 May when his Lancaster bomber DS781 JI-R was shot down over the North Sea and all the crew killed in action. He now joined Pilot Officer Duncliffe and his crew in Lancaster bomber DS818, JI-Q, which bore the name Maggie painted on the engine shield but according to the article by Wing Commander Bray was probably called Queenie – for Q (Queenie for radio communication) by the crew. 6 June 1944 the D-Day Landings started, and Bomber Command had a vital role attacking artillery batteries to support the troops on the ground and bombing railways to prevent reinforcements reaching Normandy. Pilot Officer Duncliffe’s Maggie, with Sgt Baker as the tail gunner flew four missions over France from 6 to 11 June.
On the night of 12 June, the target was in Germany. As far as we know, this was Sgt Baker’s seventh operation. Estimates for the life expectancy of a WWII Lancaster rear gunner vary but are never high at around five sorties. His pilot, Joe Duncliffe from Rugby was only 21 but already a veteran with around 24 operations. At 23.11 hours, 17 Lancasters left RAF Waterbeach but four hours and 40 minutes later only 15 returned. They were part of a bombing stream of 286 Lancasters and 17 Mosquitos whose objective was to attack the Nordstein (Gelsenberg AG) oil plant at Gelsenkirchen in Germany. The raid was successful. Over 1,500 bombs hit their target and disrupted oil production for several weeks with the loss of around 1000 litres of precious aviation fuel every day. But there were heavy losses on both sides. 270 were killed on the ground and 108 airmen and 17 Lancasters were lost.
When Maggie reached the target area the crew saw enormous fires and large columns of smoke. There were searchlights combing the sky and intense anti-aircraft fire (flak). Sgt Harry Bourne from Faversham, the Bomb Aimer, released the bombs and as Pilot Officer Duncliffe from Rugby, Warwickshire turned for home the aircraft should have felt much lighter. However, at some point Maggie was damaged by flak which would have resonated through the plane as huge, hollow bangs. They now probably had to limp back at lower altitude and lower speed. This made the Lancaster an easy prey for the German night fighter who spotted it flying over farmland in central Holland and attacked. At 01.30-02.00 hours (Dutch time), Maggie crashed to the north-east of the village of Nunspeet. Three of the crew, Flight Sgt Gordon ‘Jock’ Lewis from Aberdeen (the navigator), Sgt William Steger from Walton, Derbyshire (the mid upper air gunner) and Sgt George Brown from Friockheim (Inverkeilor) (the wireless operator/air gunner) came down in the burning fuselage and could not be saved. Three had parachuted clear. Flight Engineer Sgt Peter Cooper fron Nottingham broke his leg when he landed in a tree. He was arrested by a German patrol and taken to the hospital. Bombardier Sgt Harry Bourne, was rescued but insisted on returning to the plane and was also arrested. They both survived as Prisoners of War including a 2-week Death March between camps as the war was ending. Pilot Officer Duncliffe evaded capture and was hidden by the Dutch Resistance until Holland was liberated. All three returned home safely in 1945.
The morning after the crash children on the way to school found the dead body of the seventh crew member, Sgt Keith Baker. The tail of the plane with the rear gun turret had broken away before the crash and Sgt Baker had not been able to operate his parachute. He probably died on impact when his gun turret landed in an oat field on Nagelhout farm on Oosteinderweg 70, some distance from the rest of the wreckage. Today there is a housing development, Heemskerklaan, on the site of this field.
In Nunspeet today Sgt Keith Baker and the rest of the crew are not forgotten. They lie in the beautifully kept Nunspeet-Oost (formerly Ermelo New General) Cemetery just 500 meters from the crash site. There are six Commonwealth War Graves here as two more British airmen died in the area before the end of the war. The broken propeller from a Halifax bomber that also crashed nearby has been turned into a memorial sculpture. This has been dedicated to the RAF airmen and the two airmen from the Royal Netherlands Airforce, the Koninklijke Luchtmacht, also buried in the cemetery. On 4 May, Remembrance Day in Holland, services are held all over the country. In Nunspeet the Union Jack and the Flag of the Netherlands, are at half-mast as a sign of mourning from 6pm until sundown and two minutes silence is observed at 8pm. The following day the flags are hoisted again to celebrate Liberation Day. Wreaths of poppies are also laid in the cemetery on Remembrance Sunday each November.
Local resident, Wessel Scheer, who moved to Heemskerklaan in Nunspeet a year ago is researching the lives of these airmen. On learning that Sgt Keith Russell Baker was commemorated on the Chesham Bois War Memorial and the Amersham Museum website, he emailed Amersham Museum and the Chesham Bois Parish Council for help with his research. This is what we have managed to find out so far:
Keith was born 6 March 1924 to Reginald and Edith Baker who lived in Chesham. He had a sister, Pamela, who was 2 years older. Their father had a successful business in Chesham High Street selling motorbikes, bicycles, and petrol. He was the son of Chesham shoemaker (Obadiah Baker) and grandson of the under gamekeeper at Shardeloes, the manor house of Amersham. Reginald started work as a bootmaker before getting a job in the cycle shop. He served in German East Africa during WWI where he was invalided out in 1917 with cerebral malaria, rheumatic fever and pleurisy. His 26-year-old brother, Arthur James Baker, was killed in Flanders in 1918 and is commemorated on the Chesham War Memorial. After many months in hospital in South Africa and Scotland Reginald returned to Chesham, took over the cycle business and, in 1920, married Edith in St Mary’s Church.
Edith Constance Pedder was born in Willesden, North London in 1901. Her father, George Henry Pedder was a skilled bricklayer and the family moved regularly with his building jobs between North London, Luton, and Buckinghamshire before settling in Holloway Lane Chesham Bois around the time of WWI. It is believed that George worked as a master bricklayer for the Arts and Crafts architect and builder John Harold Kennard, and was responsible for much of the fine brickwork detailing on local Kennard buildings. The family house on Holloway Lane, then known as Canton and later Mountview (now Bucklers 12 Holloway Lane) has very distinctive round windows circled with bricks and was probably built by Kennard and Pedder some years earlier. These round windows are a feature repeated in other Kennard buildings in Amersham such as the shop, Napiers (now the EE phoneshop) on the corner of Sycamore Road and Woodside Close. George Henry Pedder is listed on the Chesham Bois Roll of Honour as serving his country in WWI he died in Amersham in 1925.
George and Emily Pedder had eight children, Gwendoline, Edith, Reginald, Ernest, John, Eric (who became a policeman) and Stanley who was born at Canton in 1917. Stanley Pedder, Keith’s uncle, also served in WWII as a private (DVR) in the Royal Army Service Corps. Reported missing in 1940 it was later discovered that he was a Prisoner of War at Stalag XX-B in Malbork, Poland. He also survived the war. According to his daughter, Sue Cottrell he was instrumental in keeping the men in his hut alive throughout the war by rationing the little food they had.
To begin with Reginald and Edith prospered in Chesham. Reginald was a councillor on Chesham Urban Council for years and was very active in the town. However, he had constant ill health following the war and may still have been suffering from the effects of shell shock. In 1928 his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he resigned from the council and gave up his business. It is not known whether he was able to continue to support his young family.
In the 1939 Register Edith, Keith and Pamela are living alone in a caravan at the family home on Holloway Lane. Her mother Emily, now widowed, is the head of the household and has renamed the house Mountview. Presumably Reginald died around this time as in 1944 Edith remarried and became Mrs Ernest Hearn.
According to the 1939 register Keith, just 15 had already left school. He was working as a newspaper and bookseller assistant. Pamela was working as a draper’s assistant. In 1941 she married Desmond Gann. The following year their young son, Richard, was born in Amersham.
We would love to find out more about Keith Baker’s life and family. Please get in contact if you are able to help us.
Wessel Scheer, Read more about how Dutch villagers in central Holland are keeping the memory of two forgotten north-east airmen alive after 76 years in this recently published article in the Dundee, Angus and Aberdeen Courier
Roger Guernon, 514 Squadron Facebook page