Monday 1 June 2020

Another Aircrew Remembered

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

This piece originally appeared in January 2016 and as with all of my posts of this nature, I appealed for assistance at the end of the article, as at that time, I had no photographs of the aircrew involved. This has now been rectified thanks to the good offices of Wayne Buck, whose wife Jane's Grandfather, Eric Arthur Charles, had been the mid-upper gunner of EF364 and therefore one of the crew members who were lost on the night of 29/30 July 1943. Thanks to Wayne and Jane, we now have photographs of the entire crew, plus one or two more poignant mementos. I am indebted to them for this additional information and the photographs are now reproduced here with their kind permission.

The origins of my search for this particular Bomber Command aircrew began with the 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 he 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 aircrew of EF364 minus the pilot, Allan Forbes. Here we see (from left to right) Douglas Pool, Eric Charles, Dale Pushor, Ray Bowyer, Frederick Webb, Arthur Pyrah (Photo courtesy Wayne & Jane Buck)

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 had joined the Royal Air Force in 1942 as a volunteer for aircrew duties - throughout the war, the RAF was able to rely on an all-volunteer intake for aircrew. After his basic training, he was posted to Bomber Command as an Air Bomber (Bomb Aimer) and after his Operational Training, was posted to 1651 Conversion Unit at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire in order to become accustomed to flying as part of a seven man crew on one of the four engine heavy bombers then becoming the backbone of Bomber Command's force. It was here that he would have "crewed up" with the men that he would serve with for the rest of his life. These men would rely on each other's skills to survive and would often become lifelong friends - it is clear from the photos of the crew that these men are good mates.

The crew was formed of Flying Officer Allan Forbes (Pilot), a 20 year old Canadian from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. Another Canadian was Flying Officer Dale Pushor (Navigator) age 21, from East Coulee, Alberta, whilst the remainder of the crew were English. These were Sergeant Frederick Webb (Flight Engineer) age 22 from Fetcham, Surrey, Pilot Officer Douglas Pool (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) age 21, nicknamed "Joe" from Surbiton, Surrey, Sergeant Ray Bowyer (Air Bomber) age 21 from Norwood Green, Middlesex, Sergeant Eric Charles (Mid-Upper Gunner) age 21 from Sheffield and Flying Officer Arthur Pyrah (Rear Gunner) age 29, by far the oldest of the crew and therefore nicknamed "Pop" - from Tingley, Yorkshire.

The crew's signatures minus that of the pilot Allan Forbes and that of Eric Charles (Wayne & Jane Buck) 

On completion of their training with 1651 Conversion Unit, the crew were posted to 15 Squadron at RAF Bourn, Cambridgeshire on 30 March 1943 but would soon move with the squadron to a new base at RAF Mildenhall. Their time with 15 Squadron was to prove short-lived, as after flying just three missions, they were posted to 7 Squadron at RAF Oakington, part of the elite Pathfinder Force on 23 April 1944.

It is possible that Forbes and his crew were "poached" by a member of the Pathfinder Force, quite possibly Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, who had recently been posted out of 7 Squadron to 8 Group Headquarters after completing 58 missions and who despite his title of Group Training Inspector, was very much a "talent spotter" who would lure promising crews across to the newly formed force. A posting to the Pathfinders meant an increase in one's operational tour from 30 missions to 45 but such was the attraction of serving in what was seen as an elite force, many crews jumped at the chance.

As with the crew's previous posting, 7 Squadron was still flying the RAF's first four engine heavy bomber, the Short Stirling, although they were on the verge of converting to the more modern Avro Lancaster. The Squadron motto is "Per Diem Per Noctem" which translates into "By Day By Night" but 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. The Pathfinder Force was under the overall command of Air Vice Marshal Don Bennett, a no-nonsense Australian and it was their job to reach any target first, often under heavy fire and to 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 show a marked improvement.

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 force 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 of war production went the same way. The Hanseatic port city of Hamburg was chosen as the target for the raids, which were ominously code-named 'Gomorrah' and for the first time, the USAAF was to join the party in a series of coordinated 'round the clock' raids that would give the population no respite and which would reduce Hamburg to a smouldering ruin, with tens of thousands dead and an estimated 1.2 million refugees fleeing the city.

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 sown by the British use of a radar countermeasure known as "Window" for the first time. It comprised of aluminium foil, painted opaquely on one side and cut in strips that were the same length as the wavelength used by the German radar, which effectively 'blinded' the Luftwaffe's radar system, creating thousands of false reflections. The RAF had had this for some time but had hesitated to use it for fear of it being copied by the Luftwaffe side and thus similarly paralysing the British radar system. In fact, the Germans had also developed the same countermeasure, named by them as "Doppel" ("Double") but had also been reluctant to use it for fear of it being imitated by the British!

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. Allan Forbes and his crew mates took part in this raid, dropping their bomb load and returning to base safely. They were in action again the following night, taking part in a large raid on Essen.

It is thought that the Pilot, F/O Allan Leighton Forbes is in the centre of the front row (Wayne & Jane Buck)

The USAAF followed up in Hamburg with a daylight raid on 25 July, concentrating on the shipyards and industrial areas in the Wilhelmsburg area south of the River Elbe. Although this raid was much lighter than that of their British allies, it would have meant that fire crews and civilians alike, dog tired from the night previously, would have no respite. 

The night of the 25th saw a 'nuisance' raid by six RAF Mosquito light bombers, which would have set nerves further on edge. A further USAAF daylight raid followed on the harbour district during the 26 July, followed by another 'nuisance' raid by RAF Mosquitoes the same 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, a raid in which Forbes and his crew once again took part and from which they bombed and returned without incident.

This raid on the night of 27/28 July saw 787 RAF heavy bombers leave their bases in eastern England from 22:00 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, the fires started by the incendiary bombs began to suck in vast amounts of oxygen and created a phenomenon known as a firestorm. The winds created by this 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 some 1.2 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 again included the crew of Allan Forbes and their fellow members of 7 Squadron and which formed part of a greater force of 777 aircraft.

For this raid, they were assigned to Stirling aircraft serial number EF364, codenamed "MG-X" and the Operational Record Book for 7 Squadron tells us that they took off from Oakington at 22:12 with a load of 5 x 500 lb HE bombs, as well as 1 x Red Target Indicator, 5 x Green Target Indicators and 1 x Red Flare.

Sgt. Eric Arthur Charles (Wayne & Jane Buck)

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 the bomber or its crew, 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 crew of EF364 were flying their thirteenth operational mission with 7 Squadron, although as has been mentioned previously, they had already flown three raids with 15 Squadron prior to their posting to the Pathfinder Force.

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 and was deemed a success.

There was one further raid in the "Gomorrah" sequence, 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.

Eric Charles's final letter home (Wayne & Jane Buck)

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 the population were dead and many more were 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 sorties that had been mounted, some 87 aircraft 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.

As well as the photos of the crew, Wayne provided a copy of Eric Charles' final letter home, which makes poignant reading indeed and which is reproduced above, with permission.

Ray Bowyer remembered at Runnymede (author's photograph)

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; the bomber crews as well as the civilian victims on the ground and must fervently hope that we shall never again see the like of Operation Gomorrah.

In Memory of the crew of Stirling EF364

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 "Joe" Pool RAFVR (Wireless Operator) - Surbiton, Surrey
Sergeant Frederick Herbert Webb RAFVR (Flight Engineer) - Fetcham, Surrey
Sergeant Raymond Marshall Bowyer RAFVR (Air Bomber/Front Gunner) - Norwood Green, Middlesex
Sergeant Eric Arthur Charles RAFVR (Mid Upper Gunner) - Sheffield, Yorkshire
Flying Officer Arthur "Pop"  Pyrah RAFVR (Rear Gunner) - Tingley, Yorkshire

Published Sources:

The Battle of Hamburg - Martin Middlebrook - Allan Lane, 1980
The Bomber Command War Diaries - Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt - Pen & Sword, 2014 
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe - Penguin Viking, 2007

Unpublished Sources:

7 Squadron Operational Record Books - UK National Archives Documents AIR 27/100/1 - 13
15 Squadron Operational Record Books - UK National Archives Documents AIR 27/203/17 - 56