|The postcard that started it all (author's photograph)
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)
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
|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.
|Extract from 7 Squadron Operational Record Book (author's image)
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.
|Eric Charles's final letter home (Wayne & Jane Buck)
|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.
The Bomber Command War Diaries - Martin Middlebrook & Chris Everitt - Pen & Sword, 2014
15 Squadron Operational Record Books - UK National Archives Documents AIR 27/203/17 - 56