Sibling Tragedy

 

By Dave O’Malley

The obscenely violent cataclysm we call the Second World War reached deep into the hearts of many social structures and tore from them the very best young boys and men from a generation of sons born to survivors of the First World War. In that unfair fact alone, it was a terrible price to exact from those who believed that they had survived the War to End All Wars. As the war ground its way through humankind’s hopeful future like some bloody crop or tragic renewable resource, many families were to place one or more of their sons on, as Abraham Lincoln called it, the altar of freedom. Those sacrifices ranged from extraordinary familial distress, to the loss of the best years of a son or daughter’s life, to mental breakdowns and physical injury and finally to death.

Sacrifice was not a catchphrase or a trending social media “meme”; it was a fact of life and a hardship that visited every family in every country in every culture. The entire progress of the world, save for the burgeoning of the military industrial complex, was not just put on hold, but began to retrograde, caught in a vortex of depravation, despair and death. In this maelstrom, each of the millions of deaths was no more than a barely audible click of the odometer of suffering. There are some individual stories of familial sacrifice that, by virtue of some poignant fact, unlucky sequence or strange coincidence, seem to be draped in some special and more tragic curtains of sorrow—young men being shot down and killed on their birthday, their last mission, their first mission, the mission after their wedding or the one mission they didn’t have to do. The story of the Woods-Scawen brothers is one such tragedy.

Patrick Phillip, the eldest son of accountant Phillip Neri Woods-Scawen, was born in Karachi, India (now Pakistan) in 1916 at the height of the First World War. A year and a half later, his brother Charles Anthony was also born in that one-time British colonial city. The two boys travelled home to England by ship with their parents in 1924 when their mother became ill. They took up residence in the traditional family community of Farnborough, Hampshire. Both boys attended Farnborough’s Salesian College boys school where at first they boarded. Following the death of their mother from a long illness, they returned home to York Road, Farnborough to live with their aunt.

After entering the job market, both Patrick and Tony were employed in rather uninspiring jobs, Phillip as a store keeper and Tony as a clerk. The boys themselves were known as rambunctious lads, popular with the girls and taken to speeding about Farnborough on their motorcycles. One such young girl, by the name of Una Lawrence, had captured the interest of both Patrick and Tony. Despite both being desperately in love with her, they never fought over her. 

The city of Farnborough, on the northeast corner of Hampshire in South England, was home to the legendary Royal Air Force Aircraft Establishment, where aircraft and weapons systems were developed and tested for the RAF. Growing up in such an environment, the two young lads, addicted to speed as they were, soon began to consider a career with the Royal Air Force.

Patrick, being the oldest, was the first to join the RAF in 1937 at the age of 21. After enlistment, he journeyed north to Prestwick, Scotland to attend No. 12 Elementary Flying Training School where he soloed on the de Havilland Tiger Moth. From Prestwick, he went on to No. 11 Flying Training School at RAF Wittering. Shortly after his arrival, he and the school moved to RAF Shawbury. No. 11 FTS, at this time, was flying Hawker Harts, Furies and Audaxes as well as Bristol Blenheims and Fairey Battles. As an airman destined to become a single-engine fighter pilot, Patrick would have likely trained on the Hawker biplanes. 

While his younger brother Tony was anxious to follow him into the RAF, he was sidelined with tuberculosis, the result of which was a permanent impairment of his eyesight. One of the side effects of tuberculosis is to cause ocular morbidity, visual impairment and blindness. Young Tony could not finish his education with a School Certificate, but he was lucky to regain what he did of his eyesight. Despite his seriously impaired eyesight, Tony did enlist in the RAF and was accepted on a short service commission. Incredibly, and according to a possibly apocryphal legend, he had passed the RAF physical assessment process by memorizing a typical eye chart and spouting the letters as if he could actually see them.

Photos of Pilot Officer Patrick Phillip Woods-Scawen are even harder to come by on the web. At left, Weasel (or Woody as he was also called) is seen smiling and wearing his recently awarded Distinguished Flying Cross. In the photo at right, Woody is second from the left, with a Guinness in hand likely outside the squadron mess. Photo RAF

There are but a few images of the Woods-Scawen brothers available on the internet, all of which are rather poor quality. Nicknamed “Wombat” by his 43 Squadron mates, Tony Woods-Scawen was described by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend as “brave as a lion and blind as a bat”. His poor eyesight, so seemingly obvious in these photographs, may have been the reason he was shot down four times. Photos, clockwise from right: Alchetron; IntoTheSwarm.blogspot; Cieldegloire.com

As Patrick was earning his wings at Shawbury, Tony was posted to RAF Woodley to the civilian elementary flying school operated by the Phillips and Powis Company (which became Miles Aircraft) to prepare pilots for the RAF. Tony compensated for his poor eyesight by having prescription lenses built into his goggles. He must have been a persistent fellow, for he passed this stage of flying and was posted to No. 6 Flying Training School at RAF Netheravon, Wiltshire in the late spring of 1938. Here he would have also flown Hawker Audaxes, Harts and Furies. These powerful biplane fighters and light bombers of the pre-war period were relegated to advanced training as the RAF committed to monoplane fighters like the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire and Fairey Battle. 

Patrick Woods-Scawen received his wings and was posted to 85 Squadron, the Flying Foxes, at RAF Debden on 20 August 1938. Four months later, his younger brother Tony had his wings and was posted to 43 Squadron, the Fighting Cocks, at RAF Tangmere. Both boys were now fully-fledged fighter pilots and began to fit into their squadrons. In less than nine months, the war would change everything. With their penchant for playboy antics and love of speed, they immediately fit into squadron life. 

At 43 Squadron, Tony earned himself the nickname “Wombat” because, like the beady-eyed marsupial of Australia, his eyesight was obviously poor. One would think this would result in being taken off squadron, but his skills and likeability were obviously great. Later, following the Battle of Britain and his death, one of his squadron mates would sum it up very well: “He was brave as a lion and blind as a bat.” Meanwhile, at 85 Squadron, Patrick was known as “Woody” or sometimes “Weasel” because of his slight stature and pointed physical features. Throughout the year leading to the declaration of war against Germany, the two brothers continued to correspond with Una Lawrence who they called “Bunny” and sometimes “Bun-Bun”. Both young men requested and received photographs from her and in the case of Patrick, a half-joking promise to marry him should he be made a Squadron Leader.

Patrick’s 85 Squadron was moved to France following the declaration of war. But instead of being tested in battle, the pilots’ patience was tested instead. The months-long “Phony War” and a particularly cold French winter left many frustrated and miserable. At one point during this period, Patrick was granted leave and returned to Farnborough. He and Una Lawrence drove to RAF Tangmere to visit Tony. Despite the triangular nature of their relationships, each of the two brothers did not seem to mind that the other was also in love with Bunny.

While the winter of the Phony War in France was cold, boring and frustrating for Weasel Woods-Scawen and the pilots of 85 Squadron, they all turned out smartly on 6 December 1939 for a visit by King George VI (in light coloured coat riding boots and jodhpurs), Prince Henry, the Duke of Gloucester and Field Marshal Vereker Viscount Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), to their airfield at Lille-Seclin. The first three two-bladed Hurricanes are from 85 Squadron while the other three are from 87 Squadron. The hexagonal marking, seen here on the tails of the 85 Squadron “Hurries”, was adopted by the unit in the First World War. On the other side of the ramp sits a Bristol Blenheim and two Gloster Gladiators from 615 Squadron. Photo: Imperial War Museum

On 10 May 1940, the German war machine unleashed their Blitzkrieg attack on France and the Low Countries that, within less than a month, resulted in the British Expeditionary Force being driven from continental Europe and the French capitulating. During this period, the squadron was locked in a bitter struggle with the Luftwaffe and though had accounted for more than 90 enemy aircraft shot down, had been decimated itself. Two pilots had been killed, six wounded and nine were missing in action. In the opening weeks of the month-long fight, much of which was covering a retreat to the sea, Weasel Woods-Scawen proved just how good he was, shooting down four Messerschmitt Bf 109s and a Henschel Hs 126. He also shared in the destruction of Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 88. May 19th was particularly auspicious for Weasel, as on that day alone he shot down three confirmed Messerschmitt Bf 109s and a probable. However, he was also shot down himself, bailing out of his Hurricane and landing two miles from the Lille-Seclin aerodrome. During his descent, he was shot at by nervous French troops. The very next day, with the imminent threat of being overrun at Lille-Seclin, Weasel and other pilots of 85 Squadron were withdrawn by air transport to England for rest and re-equipping, followed two days later by the rest of the squadron. In that two-day period, they lost their brand new Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Michael Fitzwilliam Peacock, DFC. He had been with the squadron for just two days. The squadron would not be ready to fight in the skies over the BEF’s withdrawal at Dunkirk, but Phillip’s brother Tony and 43 Squadron were there.

85 Squadron Hurricane Is and their pilots and ground crew await orders to scramble at Lille-Seclin, France in May of 1940. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Defence of Scapa Flow. A boyish Pilot Officer Charles Anthony Woods-Scawen (second from left) poses in front of a Hawker Hurricane Mk I at RAF Wick, Scotland in 1940 for an RAF promotional photograph with other pilots of D-Flight, 43 Squadron, the Fighting Cocks. Left to right in this group: Sergeant James A. Buck, Pilot Officer Woods-Scawen, Flight Lieutenant Caesar B. Hull (soon to be Squadron Leader), Pilot Officer Wilkinson, Sergeant Geoffrey A. Garton. Photo: RAF

Another photograph taken at the same time as the previous photo reveals a squinting Charles Anthony “Tony” Woods-Scawen second from left. Known as “Wombat” to his fellow pilots for his poor eyesight, Woods-Scawen had reportedly memorized the eye examination chart in order to pass his medical. Photo: RAF

Following Weasel’s and 85 Squadron’s arrived at RAF Debden, the unit met its new commander two days later—the legendary RAF ace and leader, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, DSO, DFC and Bar. Townsend had just come from Tony Woods-Scawen’s 43 Squadron after their return from Scotland. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, No. 43 Squadron had moved north for defensive duties near Scapa Flow operating from RAF Wick. They were recalled to RAF Tangmere at the end of May 1940 for patrols over the Dunkirk beaches. Starting at the very end of May, the 43 Squadron Fighting Cocks and their “blind as a bat” Wombat Woods-Scawen began flying Combat Air Patrol over the flotilla of British ships, ferries and yachts that was rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. On that first day, he was in the thick of it, damaging one Messerschmitt, but being hit himself in the process. Despite his radiator being shot away and an oil-obscured windshield, he managed to get his damaged Hurricane back to Tangmere where he survived a difficult landing. The next day, on 1 June, at the height of Operation DYNAMO and the Battle of Dunkirk, Wombat Woods-Scawen mixed it up with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and recorded a “possible” destruction of the aircraft as well as another on 7 June. Unfortunately for Wombat, he was, because of his poor eyesight, not always aware that he was in danger of imminent attack.

On an evening patrol on 7 June, he made to attack a formation of Bf 110s near Amiens-Abbeville on the French coast. As he was following his leader, Squadron Leader Lott, his aircraft was hammered by cannon fire from behind and burst into flames. He instantly knew he was doomed, so pulled back the canopy and hit the silk, landing safely near LeTreport. It was the second time he was shot down. He collected his parachute and walked 20 miles through German occupied territory before hooking up with a band of retreating British soldiers. He managed to avoid repeated bombing attacks by the Germans and finally joined up with evacuating pilots of 73 Squadron. Nearly a week after being shot down, he showed up at the 43 Squadron mess at Tangmere, parachute still in hand and a wide smile. When asked why he had carried his parachute the entire time, he explained that he knew it worked and that he might need it again. Prophetic words.

Through June, both 85 and 43 Squadron regrouped and prepared for what they knew would be a coming invasion of some sort. On 4 June, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stirred the British people with his now famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. On 18 June, he again spoke words to steel the backs of a nation on the ropes with the words of his famous Finest Hour speech “… the Battle of France is over… the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” On 22 June, the French finally surrendered, and nothing stood between Hitler and England, save the English Channel and young men like Wombat and Weasel. It was one of the only battles in history which had a name before it was fought.

On 25 June, Patrick was “gazetted” with an announcement in the London Gazette that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation accompanying his medal read “During May 1940, this officer destroyed six enemy aircraft, and assisted in the destruction of others. On one occasion, although heavily outnumbered, he attacked without hesitation a large formation of enemy aircraft, shooting down two of them. His own aircraft was hit by a cannon shell and he was slightly wounded, but succeeded in escaping by parachute and rejoined his unit. He has displayed great courage, endurance and leadership.”

Throughout the month, the boys’ squadrons were active in the defence of convoys operating in the English Channel, but little activity included direct combat with the enemy.

The Battle of Britain began in earnest on 10 July 1940 when the Luftwaffe attacked port facilities and convoys in an attempt to disrupt supplies and force the Royal Air Force to fight it out with German fighters. Patrick was the first of the two brothers to claim a victory in the Battle of Britain. On 29 June, he broke formation with his flight and engaged a lone Dornier Do 17 over the sea, causing considerable damage. The stricken aircraft was heading for a crash in the North Sea, when Weasel saw a formation of Luftwaffe fighters approaching for an attack. He made for the coast and eventual safety, but because no one witnessed the attack and even he did not see the crash, it was called a “probable”.

An 85 Squadron pilot grabs his parachute and helmet from the tailplane of his Hurricane Mk I as his ground crewman leaps into the cockpit to fire up its Merlin. The scene, set up for a promotional photograph, was at RAF Castle Camps where “Woody” Woods-Scawen and 85 Squadron had a detachment until the middle of August 1940, after which the entire squadron moved there… but for just three days! Photo: Imperial War Museum

Hawker Hurricane Mk Is of 85 Squadron, on patrol during the Battle of Britain, October of 1940. Though this photo shows the Hurricanes at squadron strength, Weasel Woods-Scawen would not have been one of the pilots, as he had died the month before. Photo: Imperial War Museum

Tragic grouping—six 85 Squadron fighter pilots and a medical officer relaxed and happy outside the RAF Debden mess in the summer of 1940, each with a mug of Guinness in hand. Left to right: New Zealander Pilot Officer John Laurence Bickerdyke (killed shortly after this photo was taken); Pilot Officer Patrick Phillip Woods-Scawen (killed a couple of months later); Flying Officer James Lockhart (who would be shot down by a Japanese fighter and killed in 1942 in Ceylon); the redoubtable Flight Lieutenant Richard “Dickie” Lee, DSO (killed in action a few weeks after this photo was taken); Sergeant Leonard Jowitt (killed just days after this photo was taken. In this photo, his head is shaved, having lost a bet during another boisterous squadron party); Flight Lieutenant “Monty” Bieber, Medical Officer; and Sergeant Earnest Reggie Webster, the only Hurricane pilot in this photograph to survive the war. Photo RAF

Both Woods-Scawen brothers participated in Battle of Britain combat during July and into August. On 8 August, Tony and the rest of the 43 Squadron Fighting Cocks were scrambled to meet a Luftwaffe force of 80 Stuka dive bombers and nearly 70 defending Messerschmitt Bf 109s and 110s which were about to attack a convoy of 29 merchant and escort ships near the Isle of Wight. In the ensuing melee, the sight-impaired Wombat managed a superb showing, shooting down one Messerschmitt Bf 110 and sending three Stukas down smoking. The final fate of the three dive bombers was not witnessed, so they were accredited to Tony as “probables” only. Wombat was then attacked by an enemy fighter and forced to retreat. His aircraft was severely damaged and he himself was lightly wounded in the legs by shell fragments. 

A 43 Squadron Hawker Hurricane Mk II.

Following a short leave to see Una Lawrence and, like his brother, ask her to marry him, he returned to Tangmere and was in combat again on 12 August, damaging a Heinkel He 111. Over the next four days (August , the blind Wombat shot down two Junkers Ju 88, two Junkers Ju 87 Stukas and another Heinkel He 111. In a few cases he was not actually able to tell whether he had shot down a Ju 88 or a He 111, his sight being so poor. These were confirmed by others. In the action on 13 August, the day known as Adler Tag (Eagle Day) to the Germans, Tony’s aircraft was once again heavily damaged and he crash landed near Midhurst. The time was just 7:30 AM. He was driven back to Tangmere and was back in combat that afternoon. 

Pilots of 43 Squadron Fighting Cocks at RAF Tangmere in the summer of 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain. Charles Anthony “Wombat” Woods-Scawen is at centre front. Left to right: Sergeant Mills, Pilot Officer Gray, Wombat Woods-Scawen, Sergeant Jefferys, Sergeant Deller and Australian Flight Lieutenant Richard Carew Reynell. Jefferys was killed two weeks before Woods-Scawen (in Hurricane V7442). Reynell was killed a week before Jefferys along with the South African Caesar Hull.

A 43 Squadron Hurricane after a wheels-up landing. Tony Woods-Scawen would make several similar emergency landings of his damaged Hurricane in his short career. Photo via Pinterest

On 16 August, Tony, leading his Yellow Section, tore into a formation of bombers and fighters destined to bomb his home aerodrome at Tangmere. In this dogfight, Tony shot down two Stukas. Returning to base after the fight, he was attacked by four Messerschmitt Bf 109s. With his engine damaged and about to pack it in, he dove away towards the Isle of Wight, where he crash landed in a rough field near Horsebridge Hill, Parkhurst. He lost a few teeth when his face slammed against the instrument panel. It was the fourth time he was shot down. He made the ferry for Southampton that same day and spent the night at a hotel. 

Mid-month, the Royal Air Force awarded Tony the Distinguished Flying Cross, citing his efforts to get home after being shot down in the Battle of France and the fact that he had so far been shot down six times (this must include returning to base in a damaged condition). Following this, Una Lawrence, perhaps warmed by Tony’s recent heroics, agreed to marry him, telling Patrick the sad news a few days later. Crushed but happy for his little brother, Patrick withdrew from the amorous dogfight to focus on combat flying. Throughout the month of August, the two boys had increased their tallies, with Patrick getting a “probable” and a shared kill on a Dornier Do 17 in the last week of August. 

With his wounded heart in tatters, Patrick seems to have taken it out on the Germans, for in the last three days of August, he went on an aerial rampage, shooting down another Bf 109 into the sea off Dymchurch, followed by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on the 30th of the month. On this same day, brother Tony shot down a 109. On 31 August, having been bombed by the Luftwaffe whilst taking off at RAF Croydon in the morning, Weasel Woods-Scawen led his B Flight into an attack on a large gaggle of enemy bombers and fighters. In the ensuing fight, he shot down two more 109s, bringing his tally to 12 enemy aircraft, most of which were fighters. Later that evening they were scrambled for the third time with Patrick adding a third Messerschmitt Bf 109 to his one-day tally. It was also his 13th victory, and as it turns out, the squadron’s and Patrick’s luck turned bad over the next couple of days.

The next day, 1 September 1940, 85 Squadron scrambled eleven Hurricanes in the afternoon to intercept a Luftwaffe bombing raid heading for airfields south of London. In the ensuing dogfight, the squadron lost five of their eleven aircraft—those of pilots Sammy Allard (safe), Arthur Gowers (injured), Glen Booth (later dying of his injuries), and Lewis (uninjured). The fifth and last aircraft that did not return was flown by Flying Officer Patrick Woods-Scawen. The 85 Squadron Flying Foxes were devastated by their losses. The next day, Patrick’s Hurricane was found near RAF Kenley. On close inspection, it was clear that the cockpit did not contain a pilot. There was still some hope that Weasel had bailed out and was missing in action, possibly injured or unconscious somewhere. 

At the around the same time the next morning that the remains of Patrick’s Hurricane were found, Tony, not yet knowing that his brother was missing, climbed aboard 43 Squadron Hawker Hurricane V7420 and fired up its Merlin. Scrambling to get airborne, Tony and his Yellow Section made to intercept a large gaggle of Luftwaffe bombers approaching the coast near Maidstone. In the ensuing dogfight, Patrick’s Hurricane was shot up and set afire. The younger Woods-Scawen desperately sought to get his aircraft on the ground, but was forced to evacuate the burning aircraft. Witnesses on the ground said that Tony’s parachute failed to open and being at such a low altitude, he fell to his death. He hit the ground near Ivychurch, about six kilometres in from the coast of the Strait of Dover and was killed instantly. His body was removed to a nearby church and his unit was contacted. That night, the elder Phillip Woods-Scawen, still reeling from the news that his older son was missing in action, learned the fate of his younger son. One can only imagine the sorrow felt in their Farnborough home that night. 

Friends, family and squadron mates attended Tony’s funeral in Folkstone three days later. The very next day, 6 September 1940, Patrick’s body was finally discovered in an overgrown garden on Kenley Lane in a suburb of London. It was clear that his parachute had also failed to deploy. Sadly, and despite being in a well inhabited area of Kenley, no one had witnessed his last plummet to the ground. After six days in the hot September sun, there is no doubt as to why his body was finally found.

In the end, Una “Bunny” Lawrence would not have to marry either of the two young brothers she had made promises to. The truth was that two of her best friends were now gone, sacrificed to the war in less than 24 hours. The next summer, Una, the boys’ father and their cousin Gerald, himself a newly-minted Spitfire pilot, travelled to London to receive the DFCs for Tony and Patrick. The ceremony was at Buckingham Palace and the medals were presented to a still-grieving father by none other than the King. A short piece in the Gloucestershire Echo on June 12, 1941 stated: “Mr Philip Woods-Scawen, at Buckingham Palace this week, received two DFCs from The King, won by his two sons, both pilots of Fighter Command, who were killed on successive days. Pilot Officer Anthony Woods-Scawen had shot down six enemy planes.  His brother, Flying Officer Patrick Woods-Scawen was killed when he bailed out for the seventh time after an engagement with the enemy. Miss Lawrence, Anthony's fiancee, accompanied his father to The Palace.” Una was seen wearing a ring on her wedding ring finger, likely Tony's engagement ring. 

Four months after the presentation at Buckingham, Sergeant Gerald Woods-Scawen was himself shot down and killed off the coast of Holland. Death and war cared little about who they destroyed.

A year following the deaths of his two sons, Phillip Woods-Scawen looks defeated as he accepts their Distinguished Flying Crosses from King George himself at Buckingham Palace. Accompanying him to the ceremony was Una Lawrence, the boys’ heart throb and their cousin, 18-year-old Sergeant Gerald Edgar Francis Woods-Scawen, a 92 Squadron Spitfire pilot. It is hard to tell in this photograph exactly what the tragic Woods-Scawen is holding, but the inset photo shows the case and medal from the photo. It is interesting to note that Una, known as Bun-Bun or Bunny to the two lost brothers, is at this time wearing a wedding or engagement ring. In a particularly tragic epilogue to this story, cousin Gerald was shot down over the sea and killed four months later on 3 October 1941 by Hauptmann Johannes “Hannes” Seifert, commander of 1/26 Jagdgeschwader. It was Seifert’s 21st victory of 57. Woods-Scawen had just turned 19 years old. His body washed up on the beach near Noordwijk, Holland in mid-October. Photo via intothestorm.blogspot.ca

Together throughout life; sixty miles apart for eternity. The Royal Air Force headstones for Weasel and Wombat. Tony is buried at Hawkinge Cemetery in the County of Kent. Patrick is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Caterham on the Hill, Surrey. Across the North Sea in Zuid-Scharwoude, Holland lies the body of their cousin Gerald in Noordwijk General Cemetery.

 

This story relied on imformation extracted from various websites and published books. They are:

Battle of Britain London Monument — bbm.org.uk

Imperial War Museum — iwm.org.uk

Blog of historian Christppher Yoeman — intothestorm.blogspot.ca

Aviation Safety Network — Aviation-Safety.net

Their Finest Hour—Stories of the men who won the Battle of Britain by Nick Thomas

The excellent forum.keypublishing.com

The Most Dangerous Enemy—A History of the Battle of Britain by Stephen Bunhay

The London Gazette  https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34898/page/4362

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission    www.cwgc.org

The Fallen Few of the Battle of Britain  By Nigel McCrery and Norman Franks

Aces high—A Tribute to the most notable fighter pilots of the British and Commonwealth forces in WWII   By Christopher Shores and Clive Williams

www.Ejection-History.org.uk

wikipedia.com

aircrewremembered.com

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