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Remembering Pilot Officer Henry Allen Litherland (1921–44)

2021 marks the centenary of one of the most courageous members of staff ever to work at the John Rylands Library: Henry Allen Litherland (1921–44), DFC and bar.

The annual reports of the John Rylands Library during the Second World War reveal how the Library adapted to wartime conditions, including air-raid precautions, the evacuation of many of its treasures to country houses and the reduction in staffing due to military service. The report for 1943 records that amongst eight members of staff currently on active service, Henry Litherland, a pilot officer in the RAF, had received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and had made thirteen bombing missions over Germany. This bald statement of exemplary service prompted my curiosity to find out more.

Online genealogical sites show that Henry Allen Litherland was born in the Manchester suburb of Chorlton on 16 November 1921, the son of Samuel Litherland (1895-1954), a stereotyper in the printing industry, and his wife Harriet May (1895-1959). The Library’s own archives reveal that he joined the John Rylands Library just before his seventeenth birthday, on 1 November 1938, as an assistant on a salary of £52 (per year). Wages book JRL/3/1/2 records his address as 102 Old Moat Lane, Withington.

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Avro Lancaster heavy bombers of No. 50 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe, 1942. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Litherland appears to have been called up in October 1941, when he was put on half-pay by the Library. He served as a bomber pilot with 50 Squadron based at Skellingthorpe near Lincoln. Casualties in Bomber Command were the highest of any branch of the British armed forces during the Second World War, and the life expectancy of bomber crews was appallingly short. An indication of what the crews faced night after night is provided by an article in the Manchester Guardian on 24 August 1943, which describes in detail a mission against the I G Farben chemical plant at Leverkusen near Cologne two days earlier.[1] The article notes that one Lancaster, piloted by Sergeant H. A. Litherland, survived encounters with three enemy fighters within the space of a few minutes. The bomb-aimer, Sergeant M. [Martin] Hartley, managed to hit one fighter with a five-second burst from his machine-gun. Five bombers were reported missing.

Litherland was promoted to Pilot Officer soon after this raid. Remarkably he was not yet twenty-two. In September 1943 he and his crew were engaged in further heroic action for which he was awarded the DFC. His citation in the London Gazette records: ‘In September, 1943, Pilot Officer Litherland was captain of an aircraft detailed to attack Mannheim. Shortly after the bombs had been released over the target, the bomber was extensively damaged when a violent explosion occurred in close proximity. The aircraft temporarily went out of control. Considerable height was lost but Pilot Officer Litherland succeeded in regaining control and afterwards flew the crippled bomber to base. In most trying circumstances, this officer displayed superb skill, great coolness and determination.’[2]

The crew’s luck ran out on the night of 15/16 February 1944, when they took part in the RAF’s largest ever bombing raid (involving almost 900 aircraft) against Berlin, the most heavily defended of German cities.[3] Litherland’s aircraft, a Lancaster Mk 1 no. DV376, took off from Skellingthorpe as dusk fell on 15 February, but nothing further was heard from them. They never returned to base and the crew were posted as missing. Although the crash site is unknown, they evidently reached their target, or close to it, since Litherland and his navigator, Flying Officer Roy Anthony Chilcott, DFC, are buried in the Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery, while Sergeant Martin Hartley is buried in the village of Retzow, west of Berlin.[4] The other four members of the crew are recorded on the Runnymede Memorial.[5] The average age of the crew was just twenty-three. Litherland was awarded a posthumous bar to his DFC in December 1945.[6]

The Library’s annual report for 1944 recorded sombrely: ‘In March it was reported that H. Litherland, a Pilot Officer in the R.A.F. was reported missing a few months after being promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer, when he was also decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross for a meritorious feat of courage on an operation flight. His death has not yet been presumed, but we fear there is little prospect of his return to duty. Litherland was married [to Hilda May Renshaw] on his last leave, and we offer to the young wife and to his parents our deepest sympathy with them in their anxious vigil.’

The last entry in the wages book, in June 1945, records that he (or rather his widow) was paid £4 5s. Below is written ‘Killed in Action’.

While the effectiveness and morality of the allied bombing campaign against German cities continue to be debated, no-one can doubt the astonishing courage of young men such as Henry Allen Litherland and the 55,572 other members of Bomber Command who lost their lives during the war.

Grave of Henry Allen Litherland, Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/18404090/henry-allen-litherland

I am most grateful to my colleague David Goulding for his assistance with the archival research for this article.


[1] ‘Rhineland War Plant Bombed: R.A.F. Report Big Explosion’, Manchester Guardian, 24 August 1943, p. 2: https://manchester.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.manchester.idm.oclc.org/historical-newspapers/rhineland-war-plant-bombed/docview/485046582/se-2?accountid=12253 [accessed 14 February 2021].

[2] The London Gazette, Supplement 36215, 15 October 1943, p. 4618: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/36215/data.pdf [accessed 14 February 2021].

[3] Bomber Command campaign diary, February 1944. The National Archives:  https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070706054557/http://www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/feb44.html [accessed 14 February 2021].

[4] Commonwealth War Graves Commission, War Dead Database: https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/2201908/HENRY%20ALLEN%20LITHERLAND/, https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/2079017/ROY%20ANTHONY%20CHILCOTT/, https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/1799581/MARTIN%20HARTLEY/ [accessed 14 February 2021].

[5] Royal Air Force Commands website: http://www.rafcommands.com/database/wardead/details.php?qnum=27159 [accessed 14 February 2021].

[6] The London Gazette, Supplement 37412, 18 December 1945, p. 289: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/37399/data.pdf [accessed 14 February 2021].

1 comment on “Remembering Pilot Officer Henry Allen Litherland (1921–44)

  1. Geoffrey Wood

    Many thanks for this splendid story. These young men did not hesitate to battle with the brutal enemies
    of democracy. We should ALL be eternally grateful to them.

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