Sergeant William Niven  -  431 Squadron  
   

Sergeant William Mackenzie Niven -RCAF

 

 Sergeant William Mackenzie Niven was serving as Mid Upper Gunner on board Halifax Mk.III NA-550 coded SE-U during an operation to bomb Hamburg on the night July 28/29 1944. The aircraft was attacked during its run up to the target and forced to jettison its bomb load. A JU-88 nightfighter damaged the aircraft and sent it into a violent dive during which time the pilot gave the order to bale out. The Bomb Aimer and Sgt Niven  successfully baled out of the aircraft after which the pilot managed to regain control. The navigator was in the act of baling out minus his helmet and didn’t hear the pilot cancel the order to abandon the aircraft.

 A verbal check was then made. On receiving no reply from the gunners, the Flight Engineer went back into the aircraft and found Mid Upper Gunner (Sgt Niven) had also baled out and the rear gunner was wounded and dazed. A recipricocal course was set due West for home with the Halifax landing at Strubby at 03.35 hours.

Sgt Clay was to be awarded the D.F.C. which was presented by King George on the 13th July 1947,as although being severely wounded, he crawled to the nose of the aircraft to help F/O Holden navigate the plane back to England. Only when they had safely landed, did Sgt Clay request an ambulance to meet the bomber and he was taken to hospital.

F/O Holden was awarded the DSO for his bravery in getting the bomber back to England.

Sgt Niven, F/O Johnstone and F/O Cameron all becam prisoners of war.

The crew consisted of:

Name

Service

Trade

F/O Robert Holden

RCAF

Pilot

Sgt C C Newton

RAFVR

Flight Engineer

F/O A L Cameron - POW

RCAF

Navigator

F/O George Johnstone - POW

RCAF

Bomb Aimer

F/O E.Dawson

RCAF

W/Op/AG

Sgt William Niven - POW

RCAF

M/U Gunner

F/Sgt Francis Clay

RCAF

Rear Gunner

 Bill Niven in his wartime diary has written his own personal account of that night and the events leading up to his baling out of the Halifax and his seven hours in the sea-

 "July 28th 1944,Friday evening at 22.30 hours. The W/C phoned me and asked me if I would take a mid-upper gunner’s place (I was flying as a spare Gunner so naturally I had to). The gunner had something wrong with his appendix. However when take off time arrived, I donned my electric equipment, etc.About 10 minutes, we were moving around the track. After getting a green light we took off on our mission. I had no idea what target we were going to, as I did not have a chance to go to a briefing. After we had left the English coast, I asked the Skipper where we were going and he said Hamburg. 

Gerry Quinlan, Pilot, 431 Squadron on the left and Bill Niven

 Before we took off on our mission I had a feeling that something was going to happen, so I told one of my room mates how I felt. He had just come back off of leave so he didn’t have to go on this op. I had a kit bag with a camera and chocolate, nine hundred and fifty cigarettes in it. I told him if I did not come back he could have it. Then we were crossing the North Sea and the planes were flying in formation, what a feeling to see on either side of us the dark forms of the bombers, with not so much a flicker of light coming from them-and all you could hear was the drone of the four motors. Every once in a while the Navigator gave the Pilot the course to take and the air speed. In no time at all, we were crossing the German coast, then all of a sudden it happened. There was a big flash of light that came up behind my turret. The plane went into a dive and I heard the pilot give the order to bale out. Somehow I managed to release my seat, I got out of the turret and left my helmet dangling by the oxygen tube and intercom wire. I got my parachute from the rack, hooked it on, then I went to the entrance hatch. The metal by the door had been hit by flak and it was bent over the door, but after giving the door a good pull, I got it open. 

 By this time I had broken out in a cold sweat, eventually I sat down on the step and pushed my feet out into the open. As soon as the slip stream came in contact with my boots, it pulled them off. I pushed myself off the step and the next thing I knew, I was floating down to mother earth. The cloud base was right down to the deck that night and I could see the search lights shining through the clouds. It was quite an experience being the first time I had ever jumped. We had practised quite a bit at O.T.U. and Conversion unit, but never in the air. It was a queer feeling to look up and see the big pocket of silk above my head. When I finally got down, pretty close to the earth, there was a burst of sparks directly below me, at first I thought it was flak, then to my surprise, my head went under the water. When I had collected my senses, it was a mad rush to release my parachute and inflate my Mae West. My wristwatch stopped at 1.20.a.m. I floated around in the ice cold water, everything was running over in my mind. 

 One thing I appreciated and that was that my boots had been pulled off by the slip stream, because it aided me in so much as if I had them on they would have filled with water and probably pulled me under. I floated around for quite a while, I kept trying to get to the coast, but the more I tried, the more tiresome it became-the waves were strong and they were washing me further out to sea. I could see the search lights go on every time another wave of Bombers came over. So I waited till everything had quietened down, then I blew my whistle, that was attached to the collar of my battle dress. I did this every so often, and I kept getting a mouthful of Sulphur and salt water. The Sulphur was in a pad form connected to my Mae West by a long cord. this is what caused the sparks when I hit the water (it is used to attract the attention of a rescue party as it throws off a light green colour on the water). 

 After hours of floating around it started to become light, it was a misty grey morning as I looked around the water. Right at the mouth of the Bay, I saw what I thought were three buoys in the water and I seemed to be floating towards them. As they got nearer I could see little red and green lights on them. When one of them came within a few yards of me, I could see it was a freighter, I sounded the whistle then I yelled for help. The boat slowed down, then it turned around and pulled up along side of me. By this time, another destroyer and gun boat pulled up a few yards from the freighter. They started flashing messages to each other. Then the destroyer sent out a small motor launch to pick me up. They took me to the destroyer, into a small room and made me take off my clothes and then put me in a small shower room where I had a hot shower. The doctor was there and kept taking my pulse, he spoke perfect English. I asked him what time it was and he told me it was about 8.40 which meant that I was approximately seven hours in the water. After the shower they gave me a towel and blanket to put round me and then took me back to the room again. The Captain asked me a few questions which I would not answer. He gave me five Bucharest cigarettes and a few moments later, a little boy aged about fourteen brought me a cup of black coffee and some slices of bread and jam. which I appreciated as I was so hungry. When I had finished they brought me in some more. The boy came back into the room again, carrying my clothes over his arm which were warm when I put them on so I thought that they must have dried them in the boiler room. Then they brought my personal belongings and my wrist watch, which was completely ruined. The next thing I knew, two Luftwaffe officers were being ushered into my room. They told me that I would have to go with them. 

 Before leaving the boat, I thanked the Captain for all he had done for me, they were really good to me. I told the Air force officers that I had no shoes, but they said that was all right. They said they had a car waiting by the harbour. 

 We started walking and I asked them where the car was and he pointed down the street. The reason being, there was an air raid that same morning and the bricks and glass were strewn all over the place. We finally reached the car, where there was a chauffeur waiting for us. I asked the officer which city we were in, he said "Wilhelmshaven." Boy, what a mess it was in! Our Air force had really hit it!"

 

POW Movements

 Sgt Niven was taken to Luftwaffe H.Q. at Wilhelmshaven

 On July 30th 1944,he was taken to the Interrogation Camp at Oberursel till August 2nd and then on to Witzler transit camp till August 3rd. He arrived at Stalag 7 at Bankau, Silesia. On August 5th and was to remain there till January 19th, when with the advance of the Russian’s, the German’s were evacuating all the POW’s from the Camps and forcing them to march to other Camps.

POW Papers

 On January 19th 1945, Sgt Niven and another 1,500 POW’s were marched out of Stalag 7. The weather was atrocious, snowing heavily and bitterly cold with no food or shelter.

 He and his fellow POW’s reached Luckenwalde (Stalag 3A),a Camp already holding 20,000 POW’s, at 16.00 hours on February 8th 1945

 They then reached Schonebeck, American Camp at 16.30 on May 7th,staying till 9.00 a.m. on May 11th when at 4.15 he and some of his fellow POW’s were flown from the American Airfield at Hildesheim to Brussels, Belgium. They arrived safely in Bournemouth, England on May 15th at 1.00 a.m.

 For Sgt Niven and his fellow POW’s who had endured the forced march through such appalling conditions, the war was finally over and he was able to return to Canada.

Sgt William Mackenzie Niven RAFVR known as "Bill" was born in on November 21st 1920.His parents, Thomas Mackenzie Niven and Jane Isabel (Wales) were two Scottish Immigrants who came to Montreal in about 1911. He was born in Croydon (St.Hubert), Quebec and had one brother and two sisters.

Record of Service

July 9th1940-joined Hussars

July 4th1941-joined the RCAF

January 9th1942-Toronto for start of training

January 1942-May 1942 Training at St.Thomas,Ontario

May 1942-March 1943-Training at Belleville(Mountain View)

March 11th 1943-Ships out from Halifax for the U.K.

March 16th 1943-Arrives in the U.K.

December 12th 1943 to 26th February 1944-Bombing & Gunnery at. Stormy Downs, South Wales

March 31st 1944 to 11th May 1944-Wellesbourne,22 O.T.U.

June 9th 1944 to 22nd June 1944-Topcliffe 1659 H.C.U.

June 25th 1944- Posted to 431 Squadron at Croft

July 28th 1944-reported missing

6th September 1944-German Red Cross broadcasts that he is a POW & uninjured

14th May 1945-arrived safely back in England.

Bill Niven married Marguerite Sarah (Grainger) on November 17th 1945 and followed the family tradition of working as a lithographer and they had two children, a son, Ronald McKenzie and a daughter Wilma Joyce. He passed away on 9th February 1987 from a heart attack while clearing snow in his driveway in Greenfield Park, Quebec.

.

Bill's Logbook

 

Photos and journal courtesy of Ronald Niven, research by Linda Ibrom with special thanks to Bill Heron.