Sunday 15 January 2023

W. H. PATES - Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

Walter Henry Pates (Sergeant Air Gunner No. 1152080) Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

Walter was born on March 26th, 1922 as the only child of Walter and Dorothy Pates of "Arleigh" in Boveney. He attended the village infant school from 1927 until two years later, on April 9th, 1929, he registered at Eton Porny School. He sang in the Eton Wick Church Choir and having a good singing voice he sat, and passed, the exam to become an Eton College Chorister with effect from January 1934. The Choristers had been a long-established choir at the College, and once accepted, they provided the boys with education and training. The Choristers were disbanded in 1968 and since then the College has formed its own choir from among the fee-paying boys.

Walter was popularly known as "Ponto" Pates. He was a slightly built, smart boy with a fair and freckled complexion and reddish hair. At times he appeared quiet and rather reserved, but this was perhaps deceptive because he is still remembered for his boyishly mischievous sense of humour. The change of school, different interests and the black uniform of the Choristers all served to distance Walter from many of his former Porny school friends. He had been a member of the village Wolf Cubs but by the time he changed schools he was 12 years old and no longer a Cub. About this time the family moved to No. 16 Castle View Terrace in Victoria Road, Boveney.

It has not been established what occupation Walter pursued after he left the Eton Choristers but he presumably developed an interest in the Royal Air Force and became a member of the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve. When war was declared on September 3rd, 1939 he was 17½ years old and being a member of the V.R. he would soon have been a serving airman -certainly by his 18th birthday six months later.

With no service record available it has been necessary to glean information from official archives. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission reported:

Pates, Sergeant (Air Gnr:) Walter Henry, 1152080 R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve, 408 (R. C.A.F.) Squadron. Died 15th January 1943 Age 20, Son of Walter and Dorothy Beatrice Pates of Manor Park Slough, Buckinghamshire. Grave (is] in the Guide] Communal Cemetery, Dept. of Morbihan France, Row 2, Grave No. 14.

It was not in any way uncommon for Royal Air Force personnel to be transferred to the Royal Canadian or other Commonwealth Squadrons or vice versa. The 408 (Goose Squadron) was the founder Squadron of the Canadian 6 Group, Bomber Command, formed on January 1st 1943. Other Squadrons joining 6 Group in January included 419 (Moose) Squadron, 420 (Snowy Owl), 424 (Tiger), 425 (Alouette), 426 (Thunderbird), 427 (Lion), and 428 (Ghost) Squadrons. Their various aircraft were Hampdens, Wellingtons, Manchesters, Halifaxes and Lancasters.

Research at the Public Record Office, Kew, suggests Walter served with 427 (Lion) Squadron which was formed with a nucleus of 10 crews from 419 (Moose) in November 1942. Due to a shortage of parachutes, flying clothing and stationery the Squadron did not become immediately operational.

On January 14th 1943 a directive was issued to attack the U-Boat bases on the French coast. The services and supply network around the bases was included, and this far-reaching decision obviously meant the bombing of French civilians along with the submarine pens. Lorient and St. Nazaire topped the list.

Lorient was the target for 6 Group's first raid, carried out on the night of January 14/15th 1943. 122 aircraft took part, including 33 Wellingtons. Two Wellingtons were lost in this raid. The following night, January 15/16th, 157 bombers, including 65 Wellingtons, attacked Lorient again. On this occasion one Wellington was lost.

RAF records at the Public Record Office, Kew indicate that it was during the second raid on Lorient on January 15/16th that Walter died. It was the 427 Squadron's first raid and six Wellingtons took off from Croft, County Durham within six minutes. Due to bad weather five aircraft turned back and landed at Tangmere, returning to their base at Croft on the 17th. The 6th aircraft flew on and took part in the raid on Lorient, but did not come back. The missing aircraft was BK364 and the crew are all buried in the Guidel Communal Cemetery.

Sergeant Pates flew with an all British crew in the Canadian Squadron, including Squadron Leader M.A. Williams, Pilot Officer A.R. Eckton, Pilot Officer E. Charlesworth and Sergeant H.D. Munro.

It is presumed Wellington BK364, ZL-G, crashed in or near the designated target area, as the Guidel Cemetery is approximately six miles north-west of Lorient and three miles from the coast of Brittany. It contains 116 graves of servicemen, mostly airmen who lost their lives while attacking the submarine base at Lorient. 85 of the graves are of U.K. personnel, 14 are Canadian, six Australian, two New Zealand and six are unidentified.

Unfortunately, R.A.F. records concerning individuals are only available to relatives and it has not been possible to find particulars of Walter's service between 1939 and his death in 1943. He may have been on flying operations before joining 6 Group or like many others he may have served as ground crew or administration and later re-mustered to flying duties. All aircrew were volunteers, and within the R.A.F. there was always an encouragement for servicemen to volunteer for flying duties.

Walter was single and 20 years old. He is commemorated on a special family plaque in the Eton Wick Church of St. John the Baptist, on the Village Memorial, on the Village Hall plaque and on the Eton College Choristers Memorial. The plaque in the Eton Wick Church was unveiled and dedicated at the Evensong Service held on Whit Sunday 1949.

The Crew of Wellington III BK364 ZL-G

Walter Pates' page on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

The Forces War Records websites records that Walter Henry Pates enlisted at Cardington. He joined the RAF after April 1940 and was appointed as a Class F Reservist.

This is an extract from Their Names Shall Be Carved in Stone  
and published here with grateful thanks to the author Frank Bond.

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