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  • Writer's pictureJessica Feinstein

A burial at Botley: the story of Frederick David Johnson


Today we visited the grave of Flight Sergeant Frederick David Johnson at Botley Cemetery.


He died in 1943, at the age of twenty-two, when his plane, a Vickers Wellington III, which had taken off from RAF Pershore on the 17th of August, crashed near Wymeswold Airfield, Leicestershire, during a night training exercise. His mother, Ethel, was informed two days later.


Who was he, and why had he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force?


His service record tells us that he was born in Lethbridge, Alberta, and he enjoyed playing hockey and baseball. He was described as “a quiet and unassuming NCO who was a steady average pilot. He handled his crew well and showed promise of being a good captain”.


Also killed in the accident were air gunner Robert Hilliard Chisnell (19), air bomber Gordon William Holditch (20), 2nd pilot Allan Thomas Duke (23), wireless operator James Arthur Vanlint (21) and air gunner Joseph Taylor (22). According to the International Bomber Command Centre Losses Database, the “aircraft took off at 2052hrs on special night exercise. The aircraft was carrying 4 x 500lb general purpose bombs, IFF, GEE and a camera. In the vicinity of Wymeswold the aircraft dived into the ground crashing at 2302hrs. At the time of the crash the aircraft was 22 miles off track.”


An account of the 23 Operational Training Unit at Pershore, written by Vernon White, is online at https://www.427squadron.com/book_file/white/four_years_pershere.html. He writes:


“By now I had been at Pershore for several weeks and I must say I wasn't enjoying the place very much. It was cold, wet and foggy and our only source of warmth was the small stove in our hut that seemed to give off more smoke than heat. The Sergeant’s Mess had a sort of lounge where we could read magazines and hear some of the NHL hockey games – they were pre-recorded. Best of all I was getting letters from home again and several parcels came all at once from friends and relatives. I remember in one of them was some maple sugar and I shared it with the English guys in my crew. I told them it came out of trees and one of them in disbelief said, ‘Oh you Canadians are always joshing’.”


“When we were on leave there were more fatal crashes involving Pershore aircrews. From our own course Joe Cornfield and his crew (five in all) were killed on a night cross-country flight. At the time it was said that they flew over a prohibited area on the east coast of England and were shot down by one of our own night fighters. Postwar records simply show that the aircraft broke up in the air so I'm not sure what really happened. … Ten others died when two Wellingtons collided in broad daylight over the bombing range. They were on the course behind us. Such loss of life was tragic, and we weren’t anywhere near Germany yet.”


(The accident in which Joe Cornfield died was in January 1943.)


Frederick David’s father was Frederick Johnson (deceased), from Belper in Derbyshire, and his mother was born Ethel May Brooks, in Wirksworth. Frederick senior had died just a few days before his son was born, after an appendectomy operation, and Ethel remarried a few years later.


Ethel May Brooks had left Wirksworth on 3 February 1917, aged twenty-five, to sail to New York. The passenger list for the SS Laconia says that she is “going to be married”, and she did indeed marry Fred Johnson in New York on the day that she arrived. I like to think that they had met back in Derbyshire when Fred was home for a visit, but perhaps it had just been arranged by their families. They then went on to Canada, where Fred had been farming, and had two children, Kathleen in 1917 (mentioned on the gravestone above) and Frederick David in 1921.


Ethel left behind a daughter, Phyllis Evelyn, who had been born in 1907. She stayed with her grandparents, Ethel’s parents Elizabeth Brewell and David Brooks.


Going back further, Ethel’s grandparents were John Brewell and Ann Pearson, and John’s mother was Ari’s 5x great-grandmother, Ann Land.


Ann Land had been born on 17 July 1799 in Wirksworth. She married a calico weaver, Benjamin Beck, in 1820, and had two children with him before he died at the age of just twenty-three. She then married the chimney sweep Joseph Brewell, and had eight more children. Ann died on 13 March 1869, from morbus cordis (heart disease) and dropsy, and was buried in the churchyard at Wirksworth.


Ari, this is how you are related to Ann Land and Frederick David Johnson:



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