Behind the numbers – John Russell Dixon – heritage number 745

To mark the 130th anniversary of the first ever game at Headingley, we recently launched a new celebration shirt which includes the names of every player that has played for the club since the establishment of the Northern Union in 1895.

The Leeds Rhinos Foundation Heritage Group traced every player who has made an appearance for the first team, and allocated them a chronological number going back to 1895. That has unearthed some fascinating stories and we are going to share some of those stories with you so you can look for the names on your shirt and realise the sacrifices those who came before us made to establish our great club.

On 10 May 1944, a bomber on a training flight hit the spire of St James’s Church in Selby and crashed into nearby Portholme Drive, killing 15 people and injuring many more.

Seven of the crew perished including two Australian Airmen, John Dixon and John Roper, (both known as Jack), who had made two appearances for Leeds.

It was difficult during the war to get enough players to fulfil fixtures, so guests from other clubs were used plus, in a few cases, servicemen who were stationed nearby.

Flight Officer John Russell Dixon, son of bank manager Joseph Eric and Mary Dixon of Eagle Junction, in the Clayfield suburb of Brisbane was born on 4 October 1918.

He was educated at Eagle Junction State School and the Brisbane Grammar School and joined the Prudential Insurance Company on 1 April 1935 and was the first male clerk appointed when the Queensland Branch was opened. 

In October 1939, he enlisted in the AIF as a private and on 5 May 1940 sailed for England with the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment of the 6th Division. 

After a brief period here, he arrived in the Middle East on Christmas Eve 1940, and served there followed by some months in Colombo, returning to Australia in August 1942. 

He transferred to the RAAF on 3 January 1943 and trained at Narrandera and Evans Head, receiving his Air Gunner wing and Commission on 16 September 1943 and a few days later left Australia once more for England. 

He did well on his combat course and won the course trophy at Lossiemouth, Scotland in January 1944.

A rugby union player with the GPS club in Brisbane, Dixon and Roper were met by RL Secretary John Wilson in Leeds on Friday afternoon, having no idea of the standard they were playing, and were in the side to face Wigan in the Challenge Cup semi final second leg at Central Park the next day, 10 April 1944, when Evans, Brough and Owen were ruled out.

They were hastily taught the play-the-ball and Dixon said: “We’d have been happier if we’d had been in regular training. We enjoyed it although we were stiff as pokers. 

“We’d both have been more pleased if we had been in trim to do better for the club.” 

Dixon was a friend of Tom Gorman, the first Queenslander to captain Australia and who had come over on the 1929 tour, and was introduced to the Loiners by Sydney journalist Claude Corbett who had been over to England with three Kangaroo sides.

Leeds, after winning the first leg 10-5 at Headingley, lost the game 11-4 when Wigan centre Billy Belshaw kicked a last minute penalty, and thus the tie 16-14 on aggregate. 

The pair then played against Hull at the Boulevard on the 22 April, losing 11-10, guest Gus Risman kicking one of the Leeds goals. 

In both games Dixon played on the left wing and Roper, who was from Randwick RU club in Sydney, in the second row. 

Neither scored in either game and 18 days later they perished.

Their Halifax JB789, operated by 1658 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) took off from RAF Riccall, three miles north east of Selby for night training circuits and landings exercise. 

The aircraft climbed normally but it crashed two minutes later at 0102am, when it struck the spire of the church of St James the Apostle and crashed in the street. 

It caught fire on impact and all on board, five Australian RAAF and two RAF personnel, died. The aircraft also demolished four properties and at least 14 civilians were killed or seriously injured.

Later evidence submitted at the Coroners hearing heard that the pilot was under instruction and had already completed three satisfactory circuits and landings out of five. 

Eyewitnesses said that the bomber appeared to be flying normally but was extremely low. The court ruled that, ‘the exact cause of the crash will never be known, but may sadly suggest that pilot error was probable in this instance.’

The church was rebuilt with just a square tower, the spire was not replaced and within it there is a memorial plaque situated on a wall that bears the names of all those who died. 

St James’ also had an excellent visual display of photographs and copies of witness accounts and the coroner’s report of the crash. 

Dixon’s younger brother James, who was a doctor, was a WWII Gunner, prisoner of war and Thai–Burma railway survivor, and his older brother Les represented Queensland at both cricket and rugby union, and was also an airman and a POW in Germany.

Both Dixon and Roper are buried in the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Harrogate (Stonefall) on Wetherby Road.