Mr. Robert Mather Etchells.
Hero of Ditched Bomber
Dies at 58
(Sheffield Telegraph Thursday 24/5/79)
A war hero Lancaster bomber pilot from Sheffield has died, aged 58. He piloted a bomber which ditched in the North Sea and spent four days adrift in a dinghy with his crew. For his actions with the Pathfinders Mr Robert Mather Etchells, of Parkhead Crescent, Parkhead, was awarded the DSO. He was the blind marker for 56 squadron, staking out targets for other bombers.
His Lancaster ditched when three engines were shot away as he returned from a raid over Kiel. After four days in the water, the crew were picked up by a Danish fishing boat which they then commandeered and took back to Hull. Mr Etchells was also awarded the DFC for completing two tours of operations in Lancasters.
Born in county Durham, he was studying at Sheffield University for an English degree when the war broke out. He returned to complete his studies and later taught at schools throughout Sheffield.
He leaves a widow, Margaret, and daughter Beth. The funeral service will be at Ecclesall parish church tomorrow morning, followed by cremation at Hutcliffe Wood Crematorium.
Bob Etchells had the unenviable task of teaching me English in 1954/56. During this time there was a school trip to the Old Vic to see Julius Caesar, which was the set play for the up-coming GCE exams. On the train, I was reading Paul Brickhill’s book “The Dam Busters” which was also the subject of a major film at the time, detailing the famous raid by Lancasters of 617 Squadron on reservoirs in the Ruhr valley.
Bob showed a keen interest in this, but did not explain why. It was only when I read his obituary on the omnes amici site that I finally understood his interest. I decided to do some research into his war record, and it is impressive. However there is an error in the Obituary which misled me for a while. 56 Squadron was a fighter squadron equipped with Hurricanes, not a Lancaster bomber squadron. Bob was actually with 156 Squadron, No 8 Pathfinder Group from 15/3/44 to 26/8/44. During this short time he completed no less than 38 missions. Normally a Bomber Command tour of duty was 30 missions, but the Pathfinder force had to do more than this because their exceptional skills were in great demand.
The role of the Pathfinders was to locate the target using early radio navigation systems (Gee, Oboe and H2S) and drop marker flares four or five minutes before several hundred other Lancasters dropped their bomb loads over a 20 minute period. This meant that the Pathfinder aircraft had to keep to a strict timetable otherwise they risked being hit by their own bombers. It was no use marking earlier as the Germans were very adept at simulating the coloured marker flares in open fields to deflect the raid if they were given any time to do this.
The best website covering Bob’s record is www.156squadron.com. This gives all his missions, fellow crew members and his Distinguished Service Order citation. It is interesting to note that the Junkers 88 nightfighter which attacked them on their last mission to Keil was itself destroyed by the return fire from Bob’s aircraft.
As luck would have it, during my own RAF service in Bomber Command in the late 1950s, I served on an Oboe ground station located a few kilometres from the Iron Curtain in Germany during the Cold War. During this time I developed a huge respect for the men who, night after night flew these missions, especially when you consider that the loss rates were about 5% per mission - after 20 missions you were living on borrowed time. Very brave.
City Grammar School 1951-56