On the night of 27/28 April 1944, flying from the secret RAF Tempsford Airfield in England a Mark V-LL356 NFU Halifax bomber of No. 138 ‘Special Duties’ (SD) Squadron carrying its seven man crew, headed for its secret ‘Drop Zone’ (DZ) in German-occupied Belgium. The Commonwealth crew was typical of that time in RAF Bomber Command, having a mixed RAAF, RAF and RCAF crew.
(standing L to R) SGT G Croad RAF Flight Engineer, FLTSGT J Smythe RCAF Despatcher, SGT H Benbow RAF WO/AG, W/O Class 1 A Barnes RCAF Observer. (seated L to R) FLTSGT G Williamson RAAF Pilot, FLTSGT H Dootson RAF Navigator, FLTSGT E Clayworth RAAF Tail Gunner.
Role of the RAF Tempsford SD Squadrons
These RAF and USAAF Special Duties Squadrons were tasked with delivering Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents and supplies to waiting Resistance forces in German-occupied Europe. Their night time clandestine flights attempted to avoid detection by enemy radar, Flak and German night fighters, to and from their appointed secret DZs. This involved nerves of steel and breathtaking airmanship and navigation at low levels. Casualties were heavy.
Halifax LL356 NFU was on its 13th Operation. It was carrying no agents that night, only supplies (parachute-able cannisters and bales of supplies, including probably pigeons). It never reached its DZ, no word was heard from the aircraft or crew and it was listed as ‘Missing on Operations’. Families of the seven airmen were blocked from discovering its actual fate by the intense secrecy surrounding RAF Tempsford. Sadly some parents died believing their son may still be alive.
On 16th June 1944, the body of the Australian pilot washed up on the Dutch Island of Terschelling. He lies there today in a Commonwealth War Grave. None of the other bodies nor the aircraft were ever recovered.
Following a visit to the pilot’s grave in 2000, the author and his wife resolved to search for the families of the other six lost airmen. Over the next 3 years, using Commonwealth War Grave Commission internet records, postal, internet and telephone searching and RAF Historical, Special Operation Executive (SOE), and Australian War Archives, all six families were found. Heart-warming international contacts and assistance occurred.
It was possible from all these sources combined, plus UK historical meteorology records, to deduce the likely exact fate of Halifax LL356 on that night’s Operation ‘OSRIC 59’. This meant a great deal to all seven families. Because of a remarkable fortuitous direct observation, actually recorded in Freddie Clark’s good book, ‘Agents by Moonlight’, and made by a Norwegian pilot also in a Halifax flying out of Tempsford on that same night on a separate operation, George Williamson’s Halifax was observed to be being attacked by and hit by German Flak over Einthoven in southern Holland, while en route to its DZ.
No mid-air explosion was seen, heard or subsequently recorded and no wireless communication was received by anyone from the aircraft. Whether the wireless was destroyed and/or the WO/AG or whoever else in the crew (even the pilot?) were injured or dead, and/or whether the aircraft became unworthy, we shall never know. Obviously no land crash occurred.
It would appear that the crew aborted their mission and attempted to turn back to Tempsford, but did not make it. They either crashed or ditched into the North Sea. The weather that night was rough. Under such circumstances no “soft” landing would have been possible, even if they were still in control of the aircraft. Advice from a Canadian Search and Rescue Squadron Leader of that time as to the capabilities of a Halifax under such conditions (which in fact were better than the Lancaster) stated that ditching or crashing into such a sea was just like hitting a brick wall and survival was unlikely even with uninjured crew.
A range of commemorations in the UK and Canada followed, involving all the families, either directly or indirectly. The families agreed to co-operate in the writing of a self-published book telling the story of this crew and also to some extent the passed-over military history of the SD Squadrons of RAF Tempsford (A Delayed Salute). Subsequently, to record the remarkable voluntary assistance and kindness rendered to them during their search, a small self-published sequel was also written (The Search).
Present Tempsford Ceremonies in the UK
With the recent awakening of knowledge about the gallantry and sacrifice of the Tempsford airmen during World War II, Memorial Ceremonies now occur twice annually on the old Tempsford Airfield. These grow in attendance numbers yearly. The author is exploring the possibility of a regular Australian activity.
Contact John Williamson about this article.