William John, known to family and friends as Liam Lawn was an Irish man serving in RAF Bomber Command. Like many Irish nationalists who fought alongside the Allies, Lawn rarely spoke of his exploits. Of course, many servicemen saw unspeakable horrors during the war and choose not to dwell.
Even during The Great War of 1914-1918, stories of Irish and British fighting together were rarely told. Then, Ireland was a nation in flux. The complicated history between the island and Britain would lead to tensions for many years.
Many of those who volunteered for service came from the border counties. Liam Lawn was no different. The Donegal man served with both 44 and 50 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. On his return to Ireland, tales of action were told in hushed tones. After the war, Ireland did its best to forget.
Growing up, I was always aware that he had served in the RAF during the war, but details of what he did were scant. Like many of his generation, he chose not to discuss his experiences. My picture of Liam Lawn’s war in the skies over Europe comprised snippets of family folklore, never fully substantiated, and spoken of in furtive conversations when he was not present.
Declan Lawn writing for BBC Northern Ireland – November 2014
Liam Lawn’s time in the RAF
Lawn travelled from Donegal to Belfast in 1943 in search of work. This practise was common across Ulster. Also in vogue at the time were military recruitment teams. Often they would frequent bars, buying drinks for young men. After a drink or two they would promise men like Liam Lawn a life of adventure and excitement.
An RAF recruitment team did just that as Liam enjoyed a drink with friends in a Belfast pub. Soon after, he had signed up and was on his way to training in England.
Liam Lawn became a flight engineer with the Royal Air Force in the last two years of the conflict. He flew dozens of raids with Bomber Command over France and Germany.
The death rate in RAF’s Bomber Command was a staggering 44%. Many planes and airmen never returned from their missions.
The Lancaster Bomber Crash
On 19th – 20th May 1944, the Royal Air Force launched a daring attack on the railroad systems throughout France. The aim was to break up communications and supply routes in the run-up to D-Day.
Lawn’s plane, a Mark III Avro Lancaster took off from RAF Skellingthorpe at 2215hrs. Raids took place that night across Amiens, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Le-Mans, Orleans, and Tours.
RAF 50 Squadron made up part of a fleet of 113 Avro Lancasters and 4 Mosquitos. They departed for Tours in a bid to destroy the railroad yards on the outskirts of the city. The raid lasted longer and was more intense than expected. Enemy planes were never engaged and targets were destroyed although some bombs fell to the west of the city. The Avro Lancaster Mark III ND989-VN of Liam Lawn was the only plane not to make it home.
This plane had been one of a delivery of 600 Avro Lancaster Mark III, with Merlin 38 engines dispatched from AV Roe (Chadderton) between December 1943 and May 1944. ND989-VN arrived with RAF 50 Squadron on 2nd April 1944. It first took part in a raid on Lille on the 10th-11th May 1944 flown by Wing Commander AW Heward. At the time of the crash, the plane had completed 42 hours in the air.
Lawn amongst the survivors
On returning from the mission, Lawn’s plane was due to land at Benson Airfield. It crashed into a barn at 0420hrs on the morning of the 20th May 1944. The crash site was near Crowmarsh, Gifford in the UK to the east by south-east of Wallingford in Oxfordshire.
Three of the crew died outright. Those lost included Pilot Officer JR Irving, Flight Sergeant FD Jewell and Sergeant FI Drever. The remaining four, including Sergeant Lawn, Flight Sergeant L Phillips, Sergeant J Redekopp and Sergeant OJ Jones of the Royal Canadian Air Force suffering serious injuries. All the men who lost their lives were buried in their home towns for burial.
Liam Lawn spent several months undergoing treatment in hospital. Undeterred, he was back in the skies by December 1944. Before the end of the war, he would go on to complete many more missions.
Ireland after the war
After returning home in 1945, Liam Lawn married and settled in Donegal. As sectarian tensions mounted, men like Liam spoke less and less of their involvement in the war. Their service in the British military was seen by many as controversial. Liam and many others like him did not even apply to receive the war medals for which they were eligible.
Political, social, and other issues account for the silence surrounding the involvement of Irish men in both World Wars. Post-traumatic stress, or shell-shock as it was then known, also played a part. In the run-up to World War One, Nationalist politicians and even the Catholic Church supported Irish involvement.
Some political and social factors and stigma still exist more than seventy years on. Today though, it is important we remember the bravery and service of these men who fought for freedom alongside the Allied forces.