b. 23/10/1920 Trinity Gask, Perthshire, Scotland. d. 23/01/1945 Eindhoven, Holland.
George Thompson (1920-1945), the son of a Scottish ploughman, was born on 23rd October 1920 in Borestone Cottage, in the parish of Trinity Gask, Perthshire. His early education came from the Portmoak Public School and, later, Kinross Higher Grades School, a senior secondary school; and on leaving at the age of 15, he became apprenticed to a grocer in Kinross. Serving a four year apprenticeship, he finally qualified as a certified grocer, but by then war had been declared, and his thoughts turned to military service. His first move was to join the Argyll branch of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) but in the summer of 1940 he applied to enlist in the RAF, only to be given deferred service.
Thompson, volunteered again in late 1940, and attended an aircrew selection board on 7th January 1941, but was not selected, and therefore enlisted as ground crew three days later. As a boy he had developed an interest in radio and wireless, and therefore opted for training in the RAF wireless trade. Completing his trade training in October 1941, he was posted briefly to RAF Coningsby before being sent overseas to Iraq on 11th February 1942.
For the following 18 months Thompson quietly and efficiently carried out his duties in Iraq, but was increasingly bored by what he considered to be mundane, unexciting jobs. Accordingly he again applied for flying duties, was accepted, and arrived back in England in mid-August 1943 to commence training as an air wireless operator. Graduating from No 4 Radio School as a Sergeant Wop/Air on 29th November, he next attended a short air gunnery course, and completed his training at No 8 (B) AFU.
On 2nd May 1944 he reported to No 14 Operational Training Unit (OTU), Market Harborough in order to join a bomber crew and then complete crew training prior to actual operations. At the OTU one pilot, Flying Officer Harry Denton, a farmer from New Zealand, had already enlisted his future bomb aimer, Ron Goebel, and a navigator, Ted Kneebone; and it was Kneebone who suggested to Denton that he invite George Thompson to join the crew. They then included a pair of Welshmen to finish the team – Sergeant Haydn Price and Sergeant Ernest Potts.
After 80 hours of practice flying in Wellington bombers, they went on to a heavy conversion unit to fly Short Stirlings, near Lincoln, where they “recruited” their future flight engineer, Wilf Hartshorn. They were then posted to 29 September 1944 to 9 Squadron at Bardney, Lincolnshire to commence an operational tour. The first operational sortie was flown on 6th October to Bremen. Thompson in the meantime, was promoted to Flight Sergeant from 30th November 1944.
On New Year’s Eve, the celebrations were interrupted by a briefing which told ten Lancaster crews including Denton’s that there was to be a dawn attack on the Dortmund-Ems canal. During the New Year’s Day raid, Lancaster bomber serial PD377, after releasing its bombs, was hit by two shells and a raging fire broke out. Flight Sergeant Thompson who was the wireless operator, seeing that the mid-upper gun turret was ablaze, went at once through the smoke filled fuselage into the fire and exploding ammunition in the turret to help the gunner to a place of relative safety. He extinguished his burning clothing with his bare hands and in doing so sustained serious burns to his legs, hands and face.
He then went to the rear turret which was also ablaze and again used his already burnt bare hands to beat out flames on the gunner’s clothing. Then, despite his shocking state of burns and charred clothing, he returned through the burning fuselage to report to the pilot. The crippled aircraft finally crash-landed.
The crew found help in the nearby village of Heesh, and all of the survivors received first aid from the friendly owners. Meanwhile, their fighter escort had radioed their location to base, and soon there appeared an ambulance containing two Service doctors. All were taken to the Eindhoven Catholic Hospital except Goebel who was picked up by members of an Army unit and transferred to Raunceby RAF Hospital in Lincolnshire, having lost the first joints of his fingers to frostbite. Tragically, Ernie Potts died 18 hours later; but Haydn Price, though badly burned around the head and having to have plastic surgery to repair the damage, finally made a full recovery. Hartshorn also recovered from his wounds and returned to England.
Thompson was initially transferred to No 50 Military Field Hospital where a series of penicillin injections and other treatments appeared to put him on a slow road to recovery; but he contracted pneumonia, and on 23rd January 1945, he passed away. Shortly afterwards, he was laid to rest in the Brussels Town Cemetery of Evere-les-Brizelles. On 20th February, less than a month after his death, the London Gazette announced the posthumous VC to Thompson. His medals are now in the National War Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL WAR MUSEUM OF SCOTLAND, EDINBURGH
BURIAL PLACE: BRUSSELS TOWN CEMETERY, BRUSSELS, BELGIUM.
PLOT X, ROW 27, GRAVE 45.
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Stewart May – Image of the Thompson VC Drawing at the Yorkshire Air Museum.
Thomas Stewart – Images of the Thompson VC Medal Group in Edinburgh Castle, and the three memorials at the Kinross and Loch Leven Campus, Scotland.