Life & Culture

The war hero in my family

Stephen Adler's uncle Max Addess, a pilot with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, was killed in action on April 12 1942, almost 70 years ago. It was only his second operational flight. This is as much of his story as we know.


At 8.15am on April 12 1942, Sergeant Maxwell Addess and his observer, Sergeant B.A.T. Lane took off from North Coates airfield in Lincolnshire on a reconnaissance mission over the coast of Holland. 236 Squadron, to which Max belonged, was tasked primarily with shipping reconnaissance and escort duties. In some ways, this was just a routine mission. Addess and Lane had carried out a similar task only a week before on April 5, described nonchalantly in the Squadron's Operational Log as follows:

"Recco carried out from the Hook of Holland to Terschelling at a height of 200 feet, without sighting any movements of enemy shipping and void of any incidents".

Max refers to this mission in a letter to one of his sisters, Hettie, dated April 8 1942:

"As you know, I have been waiting quite a long time to get a new crew and start flying again. A few days ago, for some reason I haven't bothered to discover, one of the observers on this squadron (presumably Sergeant Lane) was going around loose. I was recalled, teamed up with him, and made overnight into an operational pilot. The following day I flew, the first time for about five or six weeks, and on the very next day did my first operational trip. It was not extremely exciting, but not every one is, you can well imagine."

They were flying a Mk IC Bristol Beaufighter, serial number Z4746, which had been modified to the requirements of Coastal Command duties by the addition of extra fuel tanks and a navigator's table and direction-finding equipment, essential for long range duties over the sea. After take-off, they would have turned east and headed out over the North Sea towards the Dutch coast.

Exactly what happened to them is unknown.

Sergeants Addess and Lane were part of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), which was formed in 1936 to train civilians recruited from the neighbourhood around Reserve Flying Schools. They were composed mainly of extremely young men aged usually between 18- and 25-years old who had been accepted for part-time training as pilots, observers or navigators. By the start of the war the RAFVR was the main entry route for civilian volunteers for the RAF.

Aircraft-mad Max was determined to be a pilot, says one of his best friends, Morris Beckman, who wrote a book, The Hackney Crucible, about growing up as a young Jew in London's East End. Only four weeks after Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany, Max dragged his friend Morris to the RAF recruitment office in Kingsway, central Londnon, saying: "Just think, we'll learn to fly".

According to Morris, Max was batted away by a bad-tempered corporal who told him to "P*** off and go back to school" because "It takes brains to fly a plane".

An enraged Max retorted: "I do so agree. That must explain why a moron like you is behind that desk".

Morris goes on to say: "Max was adamant. It was flying. Nothing else would do".

Later on, Max got his wish and started pilot training, eventually being attached to 236 Squadron, Coastal Command, based at Wattisham in Suffolk. Morris, perhaps fortunately for him, instead joined the Merchant Navy and survived the war.

The Bristol Beaufighter was a rapidly cobbled together workhorse of a fighter first flown in 1939, just as the war broke out. It was designed by the Bristol Aircraft Company as a twin-engine, two-man, heavy long distance fighter and was based partly on an earlier plane, the Beaufort.

Although versatile and powerfully armed, the Beaufighter was a bit of a beast and had a well-deserved reputation for getting its pilots into trouble at the slightest provocation. Several crashed owing to engine failure or technical malfunction.

Max understood the potential for catastrophe in this aircraft very well. In another letter to his sister Hettie dated September 17 1941, he recounted an incident where he came close to crash-landing a Beaufighter on a poor-visibility training exercise.

"I came down as low as I dared, about 150 feet and could just about see the ground. After a lot of fiddling around I managed to make the wheels touch the ground but unfortunately they did it so hard that I went up again. Of course by this time the weather was too bad for me to want to go round again so I made the best of things as they were. What with all this messing around I was half way across the aerodrome going much too fast for comfort. On went the brakes and I braced myself for the shock of hitting the far hedge. However luck must have been with me, because I came to a standstill no more than three feet away from it, and after that I just sat still not moving for about two minutes."

Max was headstrong, did not suffer fools at all gladly and possessed a corrosive sense of humour. Despite being told by the RAF recruitment Corporal that he had no brains, he was in fact very good at school. He was down to read mathematics at Cambridge had not the war intervened. Sadly the closest he got to the university was studying navigation as part of his RAF training at Pembroke College for a few weeks in December 1940 where he proudly reported getting 100 per cent in a morse code test.

His cousin, Martin, describes him as "a good-looking young man" who was the first in the family to go to the prestigious Grocer's school. Like most of his young Jewish school friends, he was a committed anti-fascist.

We will probably never know what happened on that final mission 70 years ago. As we know, Beaufighters were susceptible to engine trouble and, despite armour, vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. Max's mission the week before he died took place mainly at an altitude of only 200 feet, a height that would leave little or no time to bale-out or ditch safely. Moreover, German fighters were certainly in the area.

All we know is the laconic entry in the Operations Record Book for 236 Squadron, Wattisham, on April 12 1942: Sgt Addess pilot, and Sgt Lane observer, took off to recce the Dutch coast but unfortunately failed to return to base".

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