One of the last Jewish Bomber Command survivors of the Second World War, Flight Sergeant Henry Eric Wells, who has died aged 94, joined 101 Squadron Bomber Command, in September, 1944 as a Special Operator. It had the highest casualty rates in he RAF.
Wells, whose story was published in Fighting Back, by Martin Sugarman (Valentine Mitchell), had completed 30 missions by February, 1945. The 101 Squadron Lancasters carried a secret radio jamming device which could be used only by German-speaking Special Operators like Eric, who flew as the “8th man” in a crew.
The son of Polish-Jews, Heinz Erich Feldstein and Annie, née Kozak, Wells was barmitzvah at the Turnergasse Temple, Vienna, later destroyed on Kristallnacht. When Poland removed nationality from all Jews living abroad in 1938, Wells became “Stateless”, classified after the Anschluss as Mischling ersten Grades (mongrel first class) by the Nazis. When he was expelled from his technical school, his father took the entire family out of the Jewish faith, becoming konfessionslos — having no faith — but Quakers helped Eric reach England via Kindertransport in May, 1939. He trained on a farm for six months, stateless, with “J” stamped in his passport. Wells was not interned as an enemy alien and enlisted in the RAF in August, 1943. .
He was seconded to a Canadian crew for a raid on Stuttgart. On one raid over Cologne, they lost all their oxygen but the skipper decided to press on.
“We were badly shot up on one raid which left us with 32 holes in the aircraft and a loose bomb in the bomb bay, and we crash landed at Woodbridge in Suffolk,” he recalled.
On one daylight raid, he saw a Lancaster flying alongside hit by flak in front of the rear turret, detaching the turret from the aircraft: “I saw the rear-gunner scrambling out; somehow he missed clipping on his parachute, falling and getting smaller and smaller with the parachute following him until he disappeared.”
After completing his tour of duty, Wells was transferred to the RAF Intelligence Service and trained in London before being posted to the British Army of the Rhine in Detmold, Germany. He was tasked with the apprehension and interrogation of suspected war criminals and later the dismantling of AA-Flak sites and the collection of all cameras and binoculars from the mayors of surrounding towns and villages.
Anxious to discover his family’s fate, he was granted a travel warrant in August 1945 to fly to Vienna with the help of the US Air Force, and found his last address in 1939. His house had been destroyed by bombing but, fortunately, he recognised the wife of his former landlord searching the rubble for their belongings.
After overcoming the initial shock of an armed British serviceman approaching her, she recognised him and reassured him his family was safely living at a new, nearby location. “A joyful reunion followed,” for Wells and his family, “enhanced by the generosity of the RAF Quartermaster at the base, who thought I needed rations whilst I was staying in Vienna and loaded up the truck for me,” he said.
Wells married Mary Olivia Johnson in April, 1945 and they had four children, Peter, Nigel, Elfriede and Patricia. But he could not persuade her to come out to Germany where he had been offered a highly paid commission with the rank of Major. Instead he applied for and received a discharge from the RAF, on Jan 21, 1946.
He was one of only four survivors of nine wartime colleagues in 101 Squadron. His medals included the 1939/45 Star, the France & Germany Star, the War Medal and Defence Medal.
Wells had to take up farm work on returning to England. Then an accident on the farm resulted in the loss of his little finger, precipitating his release from agriculture. In 1994, he and Mary moved to Oakville, Ontario, Canada and ran a restaurant business for 12 years until he retired. After Mary’s death, he married Doris Choy and they had two sons, Charles and Ray.
He had attended every squadron reunion until 2015 when illness intervened. In 2012 he was invited to England for the unveiling of the Bomber Command memorial in St James’s Park. He is survived by Doris and his children.
MARTIN SUGARMAN (AJEX Archivist)
Henry Eric Wells: born June 3, 1923. Died September 2, 2017