Keith Wilson Smith

78 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command.

Killed in action 20th December, 1943, aged 22.


Keith Smith was raised at 16 Shirburn Road, Leek, and was the older brother of the respected former Funeral Director, Norman Smith. He found work at Wardle and Davenports mill before joining the Royal Air Force in 1939. He was then stationed with a squadron in France, as a member of the ground crew, but was evacuated back to England when France fell in 1940. Keith had by then set his heart on flying duties and was accepted for training as an air gunner. By 1942, he had gained his ‘wings’.

By 1943, Sergeant Keith Smith was a rear gunner on Halifax bombers with 78 Squadron based at Breighton, near York. He was soon in the thick of flying operations and completed missions to the Ruhr, Leipzig, Berlin and other major German cities. In the summer of 1943, his aircraft was shot down into the sea near the English coast. Keith and the crew survived but the aircraft’s inflatable dinghy was unusable. Fortunately, the flyers were eventually rescued by a naval patrol boat and each mentioned in despatches for their courage. The crew also qualified as members of the RAF’s ‘Goldfish Club’ , an unofficial privilege bestowed on those who had survived a forced landing in the sea.

On 20th December 1943, Keith Smith flew on his final mission. That day, a force of 390 Lancaster bombers, 257 Halifax bombers and 3 Mosquitos lifted from their bases on the east coast to bomb Frankfurt. Keith’s Halifax took off at 4.29pm and made for the rendezvous with the main bomber stream. Despite a diversionary attack on another German city, the Germans were not fooled and plotted the bombers on their long flight to Frankfurt. Before long, the Lancasters and Halifaxes were being harried by night-fighters and suffered numerous losses. Most got through to the target, however, and Frankfurt was heavily damaged. The cost to Bomber Command was heavy – 41 aircraft were lost, including Keith Smith’s. The only survivor to get out of the stricken Halifax was the Flight Engineer who went on to survive the war as a prisoner of the Germans.

78 Squadron suffered the worst losses of any Halifax squadron during the war, losing a total of 158 aircraft. The Halifax, like the Lancaster, was a four engined heavy bomber capable of carrying large bomb loads deep into Germany. The Halifax, generally regarded as the workhorse of Bomber Command, had a poorer performance in terms of speed and height compared to the Lancaster, making it more vulnerable to anti-aircaft fire and night-fighters.

The Germans kept meticulous records of damage and casualties suffered during air raids. The following can be found in records of the Frankfurt raid: 466 houses completely destroyed and nearly 2,000 damaged. 64 people killed and nearly 23,000 made homeless. Other buildings hit included industrial premises, public buildings, schools, the hospital, the library and the cathedral. One bomb hit a train killing 14 people.

Keith is buried at Rheinburg War Cemetery, Germany.