Sunday, 17 January 2016

Another Aircrew Remembered

Apart from guiding walks and tours, the main focus of my activities as an historian is research. Without this, no walk or tour would ever get off the ground but as well as researching for future walks, another part of the interest in history stems from being able to solve minor mysteries that have lain unanswered for many years and which form part of the history of local institutions and clubs.

The postcard that started it all (author's photograph)

Regular readers of this blog may remember that in some of the very earliest editions of this blog to appear, we told the story of the men who feature on the Memorial of Ickenham Cricket Club, of which I am proud to be a member. Starting in May 2010 in which we concentrated on the story of Pilot Officer Dennis Stephen James and in November 2012, followed this up with the story of Warrant Officer Pete Godfrey, who lost his life during Operation Market Garden in September 1944

The Ickenham Cricket Club Memorial (author's photo)

In due course, we will tell the stories of the other men remembered on the memorial plaque but for some years now, this writer has been in possession of a simple postcard, shown at the top of this page, which was found in the archives of the now defunct Southall Cricket Club. The postcard makes heart rending reading and is a simple message of thanks from the parents of 21 year old Sergeant Raymond Bowyer RAFVR, who had been posted missing from an Operational Flight over Germany on the night of 29/30 July 1943. Ray's grieving parents had obviously been overwhelmed with messages of sympathy and support from the members of the cricket club of which too had been a playing member in peacetime and in those dark days, a simple 'thank you' postcard was the best method of conveying gratitude.

The details on the card were for reasons of wartime security, scant and it is likely that Ray's parents would have been told nothing more than they had shared on the card but with the benefit of modern day research, we have been able to learn a little more about Ray's final mission.

Ray Bowyer was a Bomb Aimer (Equivalent of Bombardier in the USAAF) in RAF Bomber Command and in the position, also doubled up as the Front Gunner. He was a member of 7 Squadron based at RAF Oakington in Cambridgeshire, which at this point in the war was flying the RAF's first four engined heavy bomber, the Short Stirling, although the squadron was on the verge of converting to the more modern Avro Lancaster, arguably the finest heavy bomber of the Second World War. The Squadron motto is "Per Diem Per Noctem" which translates into "By Day By Night" and it would be fair to say that by July 1943, it was the "Per Noctem" part of the motto which was relevant to 7 Squadron's activities and indeed, to Bomber Command as a whole. 7 Squadron formed part of Number 8 Group, the elite Pathfinder Force, under the overall command of Air Vice Marshall Don Bennett. It was the Pathfinder Force's job to reach any target first, often under heavy fire and mark the target accurately with marker flares of various colours, known as Target Indicators or 'T.I.s'. The Main Force, following up, would be briefed beforehand to know what each of the different colour T.I.s referred to and therefore, which ones to aim at. Despite the initial misgivings of Bomber Command's Commander in Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, the system began to pay dividends and bombing accuracy did begin to improve.

7 Squadron crest
By July 1943, Bomber Command were beginning to hit German cities hard and Harris felt the time was right to provide another demonstration of the awesome hitting power of his Command by effectively wiping one German city from the map, thus showing the citizens of the Third Reich that there was no effective defence against the RAF's heavy bombers and that it was only a matter of time before all the major cities and centres and war production went the same way. The great Hanseatic port city of Hamburg was chosen as the target for the raids, codenamed 'Gomorrah' and for the first time, the USAAF was to join the party in a series of co-ordinated 'round the clock' raids that would give the citizens and workers no respite and which would reduce this once great city to a smouldering ruin. 

The first raid came on the night of 24/25 July 1943 when 791 British heavy bombers set off from their bases. Confusion amongst the German defenders was heightened by the British use of 'Window' for the first time. This was strips of aluminium foil, cut to the same length of the wavelength used by the German radar and which effectively 'blinded' the defender's radar system. The RAF dropped 2,300 tons of bombs, both High Explosive and Incendiary, mostly on the western and north western side of the city. The raid was compressed into just about an hour, which would have provided a terrifying amount of bombs to fall in such a short amount of time. The Americans followed up the same day and although the raid was much lighter than their British allies, it would have meant that fire crews and civilians alike, dog tired from the night previously, would have no respite. 

The following night saw a 'nuisance' raid by six RAF Mosquito light bombers, which would have set nerves further on edge. A further USAAF raid followed on the harbour district during the 26 July, follwed by a further 'nuisance' raid by RAF Mosquitos the following night. The daytime of 27 July must have been a day of panic in Hamburg, as successive false alarms set off the Air Raid Sirens and nerves would have been jangling by the time the sirens sounded again at 23:40 that evening, for what was to prove the knockout blow.

787 RAF heavy bombers left their bases from 22:00 that evening and this time it was the eastern side of the city, home to many of the poorer, working class citizens, that was to suffer. Once again, the raid was compressed into less than an hour, with a tremendous concentration of bombs falling in the suburbs of Hammerbrook, Borgefelde and Hamm. Soon, a firestorm, caused by the fires lit by the incendiary bombs sucking in the vast amounts of oxygen needed to maintain the fires, was raging and the winds created by the man-made phenomenon were so strong that people were lifted bodily into the flames and those that were strong enough to resist it, could only crawl along on their hands and knees. It must truly have been a hellish spectacle for anyone fortunate enough to survive it.

The following day, the Nazi Gauleiter of Hamburg, Klaus Kaufmann ordered the evacuation of all women and children from the city and almost one million people began their exodus into the countryside and eventually to other parts of Germany, some never to return to their old neighbourhoods.

Extract from 7 Squadron Operational Record Book (author's image)

A further nuisance raid by Mosquitos followed on the night of 28/29 July before a further massed raid set off for Hamburg on the night of 29/30 July, which included Ray Bowyer and his fellow crew members of 7 Squadron and which formed part of a greater force of 777 aircraft.

Ray was part of the crew of Stirling EF364, code letters MG-X under the command of Flying Officer Allan Forbes, a 20 year old Canadian from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. The Navigator was also a Canadian, Flying Officer Dale Pushor, from East Coulee, Alberta, with the remaining crew members all from various parts of England - in other words, a typical mixed Bomber Command crew, who would have 'crewed up' at their Operational Training Unit and who would no doubt have stayed together for their subsequent tour of duty, which for the Pathfinder Force comprised 45 missions. Ray and his crew were on their ninth operational flight but had quite possibly flown together prior to joining the Pathfinders.

A visit to the National Archives at Kew easily unearthed the 7 Squadron Operational Record Book and apart from providing the details of Ray's Stirling bomber and crew, this document also told us that it departed Oakington at 22:12 and was carrying 5 x 500 lb HE bombs, as well as 1 x Red Target Indicator, 5 x Green Target Indicators and 1 x Red Flare.

The exact fate of Stirling EF364 was unknown and the aircraft is merely reported as 'missing' in the Squadron Records. No trace was ever found of Ray Bowyer or his fellow crewmembers, so one can only surmise that they were probably shot down by a night fighter over the sea on their northerly approach to the city. This aircraft was one of 31 lost on this raid, with 176 air crew killed or missing, with a further 17 being taken prisoner. The raid itself caused another firestorm, this time centred on the north eastern suburb of Barmbek and once again, the raid was concentrated into around forty five minutes.

There was one further raid, on the night of 2/3 August, when a further 740 RAF bombers looked to hit Hamburg another massive blow. This time, the weather intervened and a massive thunderstorm scattered the attack all across northern Germany. Some bombs did fall on Hamburg but the raid was disorganised by previous standards and little further damage was caused. The all clear sounded at 03:30 and for those few people remaining behind, the task of extinguishing the fires, recovering the thousands of dead and tidying the rubble laid ahead.

Hamburg was a shadow of its former self and would not recover until many years after the war had ended. Following the short series of raids by the RAF and USAAF, some 42,000 of it's citizens were dead and many more wounded or mentally scarred by their experiences. The RAF had dropped approximately 7,800 tons of bombs on the city and out of a total of 3,095 aircraft that had attacked (many went on more than one of the raids), some 87 were lost. When one compares the tonnage of bombs dropped in four raids to those dropped on London (18,291 tons) in the entire war, and the London casualties for the same period (approximately 30,000), the Hamburg statistics make grim reading indeed.

Ray and his crewmates form part of the statistics but thanks to some basic research on my part and the follow up provided by Kelvin Youngs and his website Aircrew Remembered, at least one further RAF crew have been commemorated.

The crew of Stirling EF364 are listed below:

Flying Officer Allan Leighton Forbes RCAF (Pilot & Capt) - Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, Canada
Flying Officer Dale Ernest Pushor RCAF (Navigator) - East Coulee, Alberta, Canada
Pilot Officer Douglas Leonard Arthur Pool RAFVR (Wireless Operator) - Surbiton, Surrey
Sergeant Frederick Herbert Webb RAFVR (Flight Engineer) - Fetcham, Surrey
Sergeant Raymond Marshall Bowyer RAFVR (Bomb Aimer) - Norwood Green, Middlesex
Sergeant Eric Arthur Charles RAFVR (Mid Upper Gunner) - unknown location at this time
Flying Officer Arthur Pyrah RAFVR (Rear Gunner) - Tingley, Yorkshire

Sadly, no photographs seem to survive of Ray Bowyer and his crewmates but perhaps someone reading this will know of such an image, or will know the home town of Sergeant Eric Charles. Bomber Command suffered a staggering 55,573 killed during the war, which was the highest loss rate of any single arm of the British Armed Forces during that conflict. This particular crew are commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey that is dedicated to the 20,456 men and women from the British and Commonwealth Air Forces who were lost during the Second World War and who have no known grave.

We should remember them all, from the bomber crews and those on the ground and fervently wish that we shall never again see the like of Operation Gomorrah.

Published Sources:

The Battle of Hamburg - Martin Middlebrook - Allan Lane, 1980 
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe - Penguin Viking, 2007

Unpublished Sources:

7 Squadron Operational Records - National Archives Document AIR 27/100/13