60 Years After

 

The early morning hours of July 29, 2004 marked the 60th anniversary of what proved to be the most costly night of the Second World War for Number 6 Group Bomber Command and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Among the 22 crews lost that night (154 men) was one from 431 Iroquois squadron, one could say it was a crew that was fully representative of the type of young men that took to the skies in four engine bombers that evening.

July 28, 1944

Nestled in the Yorkshire moors were a handful of airbases that were the home to Canada's contribution to RAF Bomber Command, they housed fourteen squadrons collectively known as 6 Group. A few minutes before 10pm on July 28, 1944 at RCAF Station Croft, seven airmen are strapped in at their positions in a massive Halifax bomber, this will be their 18th operation against the enemy.

The crew has two members that are only nineteen years of age, including the pilot or skipper as he is known to his crew, Flying Officer Joseph Collver of Fort William, Ontario. Collver is one of the youngest pilots the Air Force, but a natural leader. He  has a great deal of responsibility to shoulder at a young age, as he is tasked with bringing home his crew safely. At the tail end of the Halifax, keeping a sharp lookout for enemy night fighters, is a dark haired nineteen year old from Orillia, Ontario named Norman Jermey. Twenty feet or so behind the youngster Jermey, is the Mid Upper Gunner from Nanton, Alberta, Robert Leman. A cattle rancher before the war, the twenty-one year old had hoped to earn his pilot's wings but became a gunner when colour blindness kept him out of flight school. Seated behind the pilot, assisting in the management of the aircraft's many  systems is William Desborough of the Royal Air Force, the Flight Engineer.

 In the nose of the aircraft sits  twenty-three year old Matthew MacFarlane of Vancouver, British Columbia, a last minute replacement for  Bomb Aimer Ray White. White had been battling sickness for weeks and was hospitalized with pneumonia after the crew's last operation to Stuttgart, an operation during which the popular leader of 431 squadron, Wing Commander Hank Dow, failed to return. This operation would be MacFarlane's sixth, he and his crew had just joined the squadron only a few weeks earlier.

Seated behind Matthew MacFarlane is the oldest member of the crew and Navigator, Norman Bailey. Originally from Montreal, the twenty-eight year old left behind a wife and toddler son in Toronto when he came overseas. Bailey is a very skilled Navigator, working closely with pilot Joseph Collver, his courses have always got the crew home. Seated behind the Navigator is a former telegraph operator with CN Railway, the lean, blonde haired Wireless Operator/Air Gunner or WAG as they were known, has flown with Bailey since their Advanced Flying Unit days in Wales. Surrounded by radio equipment, the Nakina, Ontario native puts his strong knowledge of Morse code to work. He  will turn 22 in two days and has a sweetheart back home, but Sergeant.William Gerald Sorel will not live long enough to see either his birthday or his fiancée again.

Darkness has settled into the Yorkshire countryside and the crew has had a wearisome past few days. They are just 2 nights removed from the harrowing trip to Stuttgart that saw their Commanding Officer and four aircraft in total from their squadron fail to return. Low on fuel, they landed at a base other than their own and flew back home the following morning. After a day's rest, they are summoned in the morning and told they will participate in a daylight operation to occupied France. The new Commanding officer is Wing Commander Eric Mitchell, at some point that morning Headquarters notifies him that the daytime trip is off, a night mission to Hamburg is on. Around noon the crews are told the operation has been cancelled and to get some sleep, they will be going to the heart of Nazi Germany instead.

The target is not a popular one, Hamburg was virtually annihilated a year ago to the day when a massive firestorm swept through the city, this time they are being sent back to bomb the submarine works along the waterfront.  The crew sits inside their Halifax Mk BIII waiting for their turn to take off, they may not have  their regular Bomb Aimer but they at least have their usual aircraft, MZ-589. The thunderous roar of the one hundred and thirty six engines belonging to thirty four Halifax bombers scattered across the base  shatters the stillness of a quiet Yorkshire evening.

They have been together for 6 months and endured the rigors of training, the perpetual dampness of Yorkshire winters, loneliness, classes and lectures as well as dances in the mess hall, all together. Each crewmember knows he can count on the other but there is one factor they cannot count on, the meteorological forecast. The cloud cover they have been promised for the trip home will not materialize and they are about to become sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe night fighter squadrons. 

One by one the bombers take to the sky, Flight Lieutenant Badgery and his veteran crew have already taken off. At last it is MZ-589's turn, the roar of the four 1700hp engines is deafening inside the aircraft. The aircraft moves slowly at first past the faithful ground crews always present to cheer them on but then accelerates quickly down the runway and takes to the air. A clerk inside the control tower takes note of the time of take off, 10:15pm.

Five and a half hours later the bombers begin to reappear, the ground crews anxiously await the return of their aircraft and crews, one by one they limp home. The crews that have landed begin to convey how treacherous the trip has been, enemy night fighters were everywhere and relentless in their attacks. Shortly after 3:30AM, Flight Lieutenant Badgery and his crew arrive safely back at Croft, but their aircraft is a testament to how difficult the trip was, it was shot up badly after a duel with a Ju-88 night fighter. 

As dawn breaks, the ground crews are forced to realize that some of their crews will not be returning to Croft, their squadron dispatched seventeen aircraft but so far only 12 have returned. They pray that they have diverted to bases elsewhere but there has been no word from any of them since take off.  A day later their worst fears are confirmed,  five aircraft and thirty five men are missing in action, among them is the crew of Halifax MZ-589.

The Aftermath

In the days that followed telegrams were sent to various families scattered across Canada and England, tragically many families were shattered seemingly beyond repair over the loss of their young sons, husbands, brothers  and fathers. There was still some hope for the families however as the crew was officially listed as missing. Over the next year hope would fade as none of the crew would turn up on the lists of POWs provided to the International Red Cross, the crew was officially listed as lost without a trace. 

A few months after their disappearance it is announced that Sergeant William Gerald Sorel, Flight Sergeant Norman Jermey and Sergeant Robert Leman have been commissioned as Officers in the Royal Canadian Air Force, retroactive to July 21, 1944, ironically, one week before their disappearance. Soon personal effects and awards trickle home, all crewmembers receive numerous campaign medals as well their Operational Wings which were awarded to crews that had completed their tour of operations. The mothers of the RCAF airmen are issued Memorial Crosses to commemorate the loss of their sons. Flying Officer Ray White, who escaped certain death with his crew due to illness, survives the war and returns to Canada, making his home in British Columbia.

In 1952, the families receive telegrams from the RCAF Casualties Officer indicating that no further information can be found about their sons and that it must tragically be accepted that they have no known grave. The names of their sons will be inscribed on the Runnymede Memorial, a memorial dedicated strictly to Commonwealth Airmen that have no known grave.

The families are now cleared to have their sons declared legally dead so their estates can be settled, a final act of closure to a heartbreaking ordeal, at last freeing the families to get on with life as best that they can. 

Joseph Collver  19

Norman Bailey 28 

Matthew Macfarlane     23

William Gerald Sorel 21

Robert Leman 21

Norman Jermey 19

Pilot Navigator Bomb Aimer Wireless Air Gunner Mid Upper Gunner Rear Gunner

The crew of Halifax MZ-589 Lest We Forget      (Absent Sgt William Desborough RAF)

November 11, 2004

It is now sixty years later, what do we know?

The fate of the crew is still unknown but there are some facts from which a probable scenario can be constructed..

The best eyewitness account of the operation came from Russell McKay, a pilot from 420 Snowy Owl squadron that was making his 36th operational flight that night. In his book One of the Many, McKay describes the events of that evening from his logbook:

"Weather cleared as we approached Hamburg . Climbed to bombing height of twenty thousand feet. Hamburg defenses welcomed us with a tremendous barrage of heavy flak from their famous eighty-eight mm guns. Fighters numerous in the target area. Aircraft in balls of flame in front, starboard and port sides. Fires and dense pall of black smoke rose from the city. Harbour area seemed hard hit. I put the nose down and came out of the target at two hundred and thirty mph losing height to two thousand feet. Many of our aircraft remained high above us. Fighters were taking a high toll. Many fights were reported by my gunners and our bombers took a beating as fire licked at their aircraft as they plummeted to the sea in a fiery grave. The fighters took a high score well out to sea."

De-classified British Night Raid reports also give some indication as to what happened that night. The main bombing force was due over the target 1:10 AM, the forecasted weather was for heavy cloud as high up as 20 000 feet. Clearly from Russell McKay's account we can see that the forecast did not hold up. The reported weather from the attack indicates that the clouds were thin strato cumulus clouds that topped out at 10 000 feet, coverage was approximately 7/10ths and the moon was at its half stage. This provided an ideal predatory environment for night fighters as the bombers above them were plainly visible in the moonlight.

The reports also suggest that nearly 300 night fighters were operating that night, 1/3 of which were active in intercepting the Hamburg force. That night Bomber Command also reported the highest number of enemy aircraft claimed as shot down since the war began. Estimates indicate that five aircraft were lost to flak, only one of which is known to be a Halifax Mk BIII,   the type that the crew was flying. The lone Halifax in question belonged to Pilot Officer G. Baumann, also of 431 squadron. His aircraft exploded after being hit by flak, amazingly one of the crew members, Sgt.G. Cuffe was thrown clear and parachuted to safety and was later captured, his after action report confirms what happened.

Although this does not completely rule out the possibility of the crew being shot down by flak, the amount of night fighters present and the fact that no wreckage from the aircraft or trace of the crew has ever been found would point to them falling victim to an attack on the return trip over the North Sea.  It is important to point out that this cannot be verified and that other explanations are still possible, but the de-classified report below and the number of Luftwaffe claims that night make it a very high probability.

Declassified British Night Raid Report

The above diagram indicates the inbound route to Hamburg (solid black line) and the outbound route (dashed black line). The boxed area outlined in red indicates reported enemy fighter attacks and combats that took place on the outbound leg. As can be clearly seen, most night fighter attacks occurred over water near the island of Heligoland (yellow dot).

The table below contains the time, location and name of Luftwaffe pilots that claimed Halifax bombers in victories during the outbound leg of the Hamburg raid. In establishing the framework of a timeline the time up and time down of another 431 crew, that of Flight Lieutenant Badgery's was utilized. Badgery departed a few minutes before the crew of MZ-589 at 10:03pm and returned at 3:40AM. With H-hour (the time of the main force over the target) set for 1:10 AM the crew most likely would be somewhere in the red rectangle where the majority of attacks occurred on their return leg.

Time Pilot Height Location
01.11 Oblt. Dietrich Schmidt 5.800 m. W. Obj. Hambürg
01.16 Fw. Richter 5.200 m 20 km. N.E. Hambürg
01.18 Fw. Klaus Möller 5.200 m 40 km. W. Hambürg
01.23 Ltn. Rolf Ebhardt 5.500 m 50 km. N.W. Obj. Hambürg
01.27 Fw. Stähler 4.500 m N.W. Hambürg
01.29 Ltn. Rolf Ebhardt 5.000 m 100 km. N.W. Obj. Hambürg
01.37 Hptm. Eduard Schröder 4.200 m See-Raum Helgoland
01.37 Ltn. Rolf Ebhardt 3.400 m 50 km. E. Helgoland
01.50 Oblt. Dietrich Schmidt 3.800 m 10 km. N.W. Helgoland
01.51 Uffz. Ultsch 4.500 m. 10-20 km. N.E. Helgoland
01.53-54 Ofw. Kramer - 10-30 km. N.W. Helgoland
02.00 Ofw. Kramer 2.900 m 40-70 km. N.W. Helgoland
02.06 Fw. Koch 4.500 m. 30 km. S.W. Helgoland

 Many factors can influence this hypothesis not the least of which would be the speed attained during the inbound leg when the aircraft had a moderate tailwind, but it is quite likely that one of the German pilots in the table above shot down Halifax MZ-589.