In Memoriam: John George Pickard

Friday, February 8, 2008 2:51 | Filed in Life, Local Interest, The Pickards

I never knew John George Pickard. He died quite some time before I was born.

So why should I write an ‘in memoriam’ to someone I never really knew, and only know the barest facts about? There’s three main reasons. Firstly, while I might not know much about him, no-one has ever tried to tell his story before, at most simply listing the details of his death. Secondly, thanks to a relative coming across a lot of photos, newspaper clippings and the like, remembering I was interested and giving them to me, I now have enough information to tell at least part of his story.

And thirdly, whilst neither I nor my father ever knew him (he died 8 years before my father was born), he would have been my Dad’s uncle, and my Dad was named ‘John’ after him.

John George Pickard

John George Pickard was born in either late 1918 or early 1919 to Andrew Richardson Pickard (my father’s father’s father) and Ellen Pickard (née Kennedy). He would have been about four years older than my grandfather. His association with the RAF‘s 83 Squadron had already begun prior to the outbreak of the second world war; I have a Christmas Menu from the 49 (B) Squadron and 83 (B) Squadron Station Headquarters in 1938, when the food on offer included choices such as:

  • Crab cup
  • Lemon Sole. Egg & Lemon Sauce
  • Roast turkey sausage stuffing
  • Sherry marzipan & fruit trifle, jelly & blanc mange

Rather in contrast to todays choice of “coffee and mints” or equivalent, to finish their meal the airmen were encourages to have “beer, minerals, coffee and cigarettes”.

John George Pickard beside Hampden aircraft

At some point, then, he’d joined up with 83 Squadron, who flew the Handley Page Hampden planes between November 1938 and January 1942, so I’m guessing that for John’s brief stint, these were probably the planes he was around all the time.

I can’t say for sure whether the plane he is stood beside in the photograph is a Hampden — there’s simply not enough of it visible to be sure. However from other photographs he sent home, I can certainly clearly see the Hampden aircraft, so they were certainly in use at RAF Scampton at the time.

Unfortunately however, when returning from a bombing raid on the Ruhr on the 15th of May 1940, Hampden L4069 of 83 Sqdn met with an accident which led to the death of all of the crew, including Leading Aircraftman John George Pickard.

The loss of R4069 of 83 Squadron on 14/15 May 1940 came about in most mysterious circumstances. The aircraft had taken off from Scampton at 2229 hours and was back over Lincolnshire at 0210, less than four hours later, so it appears to have been returning with some sort of problem, possibly engine trouble.

“At 0210 L4069 was challenged by an anti-aircraft battery. The correct answer was given, after which the aircraft suddenly changed course, made a sharp circle, gained speed and dived into the ground and blew up near Louth, Lincs.”

The crew of L4069 were all killed. A word of explanation about the “challenge” from the anti-aircraft battery. There was a code of recognition signals, which were made in the form of single letters flashed in morse; it was indeed a sort of aerial password. In answer to the code challenge letter the aircraft replied with the correct reply letter. All very simple.

p60-61, The Hampden File (Moyle, Harry)

funeral notice of John George Pickard

I’m not sure whether or not I have this story correctly, as I think it’s something my Dad said to me a number of years back — and I don’t think he will have heard it first hand, either — but I understand that John had at the time not told his family (or maybe just his mother?) that he was part of a bomber crew, and for some time she had believed that his flights were concerned solely with things such as propaganda drops.

It’s difficult for me now to understand what it must have been like to go up in a plane, attempting to bomb factories and buildings below you, knowing that people are going to get caught up in it. Today, we’d take a broader view and we’d understand that these people were husbands, fathers, wives, mothers and so on, just trying to struggle by in their own way: I guess living through Nazism can’t have been easy for a lot of Germans either. But maybe that was the case back then too. Did John see what he was doing as a necessary evil — something he wasn’t exactly proud of but thought needed to be done?

But we have to remember that society too was different then.

Condolences message from King George

Back then, you asked what you could do for your country. Not what your country could do for you. Back then, you served King and country because you believed it was right; you were taught it was right. And when you died on a freezing hillside in Lincolnshire, your parents would receive a message telling them that:

The Queen and I offer you our heartfelt sympathy in your great sorrow.

We pray that your country’s gratitude for a life given so nobly in its service may bring you some small measure of consolation

Note received from Buckingham Palace

And it probably would be a small measure of consolation. Everyone knew that Nazism needed to be fought; it was a cause worth standing against. But knowing that your loved ones had been lost — particularly so early in the war when it might have seemed for nothing — would have been hard indeed.

John George Pickard's War Service Medals

Of course, after the war, when Britain could breathe again, and take time to honour those that had died, John’s family received medals that he’d paid so dearly for.

They received the “1939-45 Star”, the “Aircrew Europe Star” and the “War Medal”, all bundled together in a small cardboard box, along with a slip of paper marked with an ‘X’ to indicate which medals you had received (presumably in case you’d been sent the wrong one by mistake?) and another note of condolence, this time from the Under-Secretary of State for Air by Command of the Air Council:

The Council share your sorrow that
in respect of whose service these awards are granted did not live to receive themNote from the Under-Secretary of State for Air

You’d think that giving your life for your country in the attempt to stop Nazism sweeping across Europe would be enough to see you remembered with dignity and respect, wouldn’t you?

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case. In 1986, the Gateshead Post reported that:

Gateshead Post story on desecrated war graves

One Gateshead family, making a special Remembrance Sunday visit to pay tribute to their much-loved brother who was killed during World War Two, was horrified to discover that vandals had desecrated his grave…

“…the headstone had been pulled out of the ground. The flowers that my brother had left their earlier in the week had been pulled out and trampled into the ground.”

The grave, in Gateshead East cemetary, has been well cared for by the family since 1940, when their brother, a wireless operator in the airforce, was killed at the age of 21.”

Gateshead Post, 13th November 1986

The article does go on to say that the damage was reported to the War Graves Commission who would put the damage right as soon as possible.

I would perhaps have said that I don’t understand the senseless vandalism (even though it happened over 20 years ago, and I’d never even heard of it before today) but the trouble is that perhaps while I don’t understand the senseless vandalism, I do understand that to teenagers in the 1980s — and no doubt teenagers today — the graves of people who have died forty years earlier will seem to hold little relevance.

They don’t know the people involved. They didn’t personally experience losses in the war; they never had family members ripped away from them, cut down early in life who they wanted to remember by visiting a memorial. In the 1980s, the events of the World War II meant nothing to me.

It was something you saw only on films — usually with a bad German accent — not something that had any personal meaning. And that’s what looking at this detail of my great-uncle does; it gives it some personal meaning. I can understand some of what his family must have been through, rather than just viewing the Second World War through the eyes of Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen.

And just thinking of the people that John George Pickard’s death touched; the death of one man carrying so much personal meaning, makes me wonder if I can ever really comprehend the enormity of the sixty million deaths estimated in World War Two.

Sixty million is too big a number; it’s impossible for us to get our heads around that sort of scale. But I feel if I remember just one man; if sixty-eight years after his death I can continue to remember John George Pickard, then I’m at least trying.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.“For the Fallen”, Laurence Binyon

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31 Comments to In Memoriam: John George Pickard

  1. Mike says:

    February 8th, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for posting this Jack – if you’re able to send (copies?) of any of it my way for my own Family Tree file that would be appreciated. I’d like our antipodean descendents to know where they came from too – one day. :)

  2. Samantha Pickard says:

    February 8th, 2008 at 12:49 pm

    This was really interesting to read, I have passed all info onto my dad and I’m sure he will enjoy reading it too !! If possible can you send me copies too ???? :)

  3. Holly says:

    February 8th, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    This is a very interesting story, and how terrible that the grave was vandalised-there is a distinct lack of respect for both life and death these days.

    I believe that children in secondary schools should spend time researching their family trees – maybe then they would see a connection between history and their own families. To many young people, the World Wars are just stories in a book/on film/in an xbox game, and they don’t realise that, had it not been for those involved, they would not have the freedoms that they have today.

  4. Gary Mennell says:

    February 29th, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    I can confirm that the aircraft behind John is indeed a Hampden.

  5. joseph t. pickard says:

    March 26th, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    I had both an uncle and a brother named john g. pickard. my uncle was a company commander in ww 1 and my brother was a squadron commander in the usaaf in world war11, reaching the rank of colonel. our family was originally from the bradford area of yourshire.

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    I have a book that belongs to J.G Pickard leading aircraftman 539009 83 squadron it is his flying log book oct/nov 1938 to april 1940 when he was killed in action also 2 photos one of his grave one of the same on your page standing by his plane and royal air force route card dated feb15 1939 ,a meteorological report card 09/08/1939 and a coningsby parish church 05/10/1980 83 squadron dedication of memorial chapel.Thesecame to me from a friend who found them when clearing out her step fathers home I think these belong to his family so if you would like to contact me i will be very happy to send them home to you where they belong

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