Group Captain Ronnie Churcher: RAF bomber pilot who worked with Guy Gibson and served in the King's Flight and Queen's Flight

 

The vanished figure of Guy Gibson VC, the Second World War Dambusters' leader, killed in action in 1944, looms over the life of Group Captain Ronnie Churcher, a fellow Mosquito pilot on the fatal sortie. A taller, less acerbic man than his former CO in 106 Squadron of the RAF's admired No 5 Group, Churcher lived on to taste the high life of the 1950s and '60s that Gibson might have relished.

The 6ft, moustached, dark-haired Churcher, like Gibson a veteran of attacks with Lancaster bombers across Western Europe, dispelled the shadows of that conflict with glittering years at peace, serving first as a pilot of the elite King's Flight, and then twice, in newly married bliss, as Britain's Air Attaché in Rome.

His exploits had won him the DSO as well as DFC and Bar, and he was one of the handful of fliers deemed skilled enough to have entrusted to their safekeeping the persons of Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret Rose, and then, after the death of George VI in 1952, when the King's Flight became the Queen's, to carry the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen herself. He flew them in a Vickers Viking fitted with the latest innovation, jet engines, and received the Queen's personal honour, membership of the Royal Victorian Order. The royals' names are recorded in one of his blue-jacketed log-books, underlined in red.

But behind the dolce vita of the elegant new era, the young husband, who was now also a father with two sons and a daughter, could never forget the horrors that had taken place less than a decade before, claiming the lives of 55,000 airmen in Bomber Command. On the raid over Rheydt in western Germany from which Gibson failed to return on 19 September 1944, Churcher was Deputy Controller and Marker Leader. The men were flying fragile wooden-framed de Havilland Mosquito two-seater fighter-bombers of the specialised target-marking 627 Squadron, and Churcher had the task of identifying enemy railway marshalling yards that were to be destroyed.

No 5 Group, as part of which Churcher also flew with 619 Squadron, is credited in official histories not only with the Dambusters raid by its specially formed 617 Squadron on 17 May 1943, but with other important ones including three between 17-24 October 1942, soon after which Churcher, then a 20-year-old Flying Officer with 106 Sqn, was awarded his first DFC, dated 27 October 1942.

They were on a low-level dusk raid on 17 October which targeted the Schneider armaments works at Le Creusot in central France, and to which 86 Lancasters flew without fighter escort; another on 22 October, which took 85 Lancasters following a Pathfinder force to Genoa; and a daylight attack on Milan on 24 October by 74 Lancasters, in which many carried 4000lb bombs. Churcher added the Bar to his first decoration on 24 December 1943 when he was Squadron Leader with 619 Sqn, soon after 15 of its Lancasters bombed Berlin.

His DSO, awarded when he was still only 22, on 13 April 1945, followed an unaided raid by No 5 Group on 23 March that drew high praise from Monty himself. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time chief of the Allied 21st Army Group, had his advancing troops poised to cross the Rhine as Nazi Germany crumbled, and recorded: "The bombing of Wesel last night was a masterpiece and was a decisive factor in making possible our entry into the town before midnight."

Churcher's four-year association with No 5 Group lasted from his joining the RAF in 1941 to the end of the war. He first flew Manchesters and Hampdens from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, then had tours based at Woodhall Spa nearby, before being posted to group HQ Operations Staff at Morton Hall an hour's drive away near Swinderby.

He then expressed a desire – as Gibson also did – to fly the much-praised Mosquito, and in July 1944 joined 627 Sqn at Woodhall Spa, taking only a couple of hours in the air with one Flt Lt Rutherford to convert his skills to piloting the "Mossie". With the Mosquito he flew operations to Nuremberg in October 1944, and Munich in November. In December, flying out of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, he marked targets for the raid that damaged the German light cruiser Koln in Oslo Fjord.

Ronald George Churcher was the eldest of four siblings from a modest background on the south coast, where he attended several grammar schools, excelling at French and German, before working at a local treasurer's office. The RAF career begun at the height of the war absorbed him for more than 30 years after it, taking him to Malaya, where he was a Station Commander during the Emergency of 1950-60, and then back home to Lyneham, Wiltshire as Commanding Officer of the first RAF Transport Command Jet Squadron of Comet T2 aircraft.

He also flew the first British jet-powered fighter aircraft, the Gloster Meteor, and worked for a spell at the Ministry of Defence. On retiring in 1977 aged 55, he did fund-raising work, made furniture, and in his seventies completed an Open University Humanities degree.

He was diffident about applying for the recently instituted Bomber Command clasp – an award considered paltry by many of those eligible, being less than a medal – but was persuaded by his wife Lyn, who, when it failed to arrive, made a special plea to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Downing Street replied to her letter, and the clasp arrived soon afterwards in July, only weeks before Churcher died.

ANNE KELENY

Ronald George Churcher, RAF bomber pilot: born Worthing, Sussex 9 May 1922; DSO, LVO (1954), DFC and Bar; married 1945 Shelagh Constance (died 1981; two sons, one daughter), 1981 Lyn Chamberlain; died Sunningdale, Berkshire 25 October 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions