30/31st March1944 578 Squadron Halifax LK797 LK-E F/O. Barton VC
Date: 30/31st March 1944 (Thursday/Friday)
Unit: No. 578 Squadron (motto: 'Accuracy')
Type: Halifax III
Code: LK-E (Excalibur)
Location: Ryhope Village Colliery, Co. Durham
Pilot: P/O. Cyril Joe Barton VC 168669 RAFVR Age 22. Killed.
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Maurice Edward Trousdale DFM 1676395 RAFVR Injured
Nav: Sgt. Leonard Lambert 1563537 RAFVR PoW No: 3459 Stalag Luft Heydekrug / Stalag Kopernikus
W/Op/Air/Gnr: P/O. James Rodney Kay 117036 RAFVR PoW No: 4147 Stalag Luft Barth Vogelsang
Air/Bmr: F/O. Gerald Watson Crate J/22053 RCAF PoW. No: 4137 Stalag Luft Barth Vogelsang
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Harold Clifford Herbert Dudley Wood DFM 1409549 RAFVR Injured
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Frederick Charles Brice DFM 1850681 RAFVR Injured
Civilian: Mr George Dodds Heads Age 58. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
Took off at 22:14 hrs. from RAF Burn, to attack the city of Nuremburg. Part of a massive force of 795 aircraft - 572 Lancasters, 214 Halifaxes and 9 Mosquitoes. The most disastrous night of the war for Bomber Command, with the loss of 95 bombers. Halifax LK797 which the crew had named Excalibur was some 70 miles short of the target when attacked by a Ju88.
The first burst of fire from the enemy made the intercommunication system useless. One engine was damaged when a Me410 joined in the fight. The bomber’s machine guns were out of action and the gunners were unable to return the fire.
The fighters continued to attack the aircraft as it approached the target area and, in the confusion caused by the failure of the communications system at the height of the battle, a signal was misinterpreted and the navigator, air bomber and wireless operator baled out of the aircraft.
P/O Barton faced a situation of dire peril. His aircraft was damaged, his navigational team had gone and he could not communicate with the remainder of the crew. If he continued his mission he would be at the mercy of hostile fighters when silhouetted against the fires in the target area and if he survived he would have to make a 4 1/2 hours journey home on three engines across heavily - defended territory. Determined to press home his attack at all costs, he flew on and, reaching the target, released the bombs himself. As P/O. Barton turned for home the propeller of the damaged engine, which was vibrating badly, flew off. It was also discovered that two of the petrol tanks had suffered damage and were leaking. P/O. Barton held to his course and, without navigational aids and in spite of strong head winds, successfully avoided the most dangerous defence areas on his route.
Eventually he crossed the English coast only 90 miles north of his base. By this time the petrol supply was nearly exhausted. Before a suitable landing place could be found, the port engine stopped and the aircraft was now too low to be abandoned successfully. P/O. Barton therefore ordered the three remaining members of his crew to take up their crash positions, behind the main spar. Then, with only one engine working, he made a gallant attempt to land clear of the houses over which he was flying. On the decent despite strenuous efforts F/O Barton was unable to avoid an end of a row of cottages, one was demolished and the other slightly damaged. The Halifax crashed into the yard of Ryhope Colliery, on impact the rear fuselage broke off and landed in a deep railway cutting with the three crewmen inside.
P/O. Barton died of his injuries, but as a result of his selfless actions, the three crewmen survived. Tragically a local miner Mr. George Heads, was killed on his way to work hit by flying debris.
In gallantly completing his last mission in the face of almost impossible odds, P/O Cyril Joe Barton displayed unsurpassed courage and devotion to duty. On 27th June 1944 he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the only Halifax pilot so honoured.
F/O. Barton’s crew: left standing, Sgt. Kay, wireless operator; F/O. Crate, bomb aimer; F/O. Barton, pilot, Sgt. Lambert, navigator; and Sgt. Trousdale, flight engineer. At the front are Sgt. Bryce, rear gunner, and Sgt. Wood, mid-upper gunner. (courtesy Brian J Rapier)
The wreckage of LK797 - Excalibur, in the yard of Ryhope Colliery. (Courtesy Chris Blanchett)
F/O Cyril Joe Barton VC. Kingston-Upon-Thames Cemetery. Class C. (Cons,) Grave 6700. Born on the 05th June 1921 at Elveden, Suffolk, the son of Frederick J. Barton and Ethel Barton, of New Malden, England.
Civilian. Mr George Dodds Heads. Sunderland Rural District, Durham, England. Husband of Margaret Heads, of 8 South View, Ryhope. Killed in gangway leading to Ryhope Colliery.
Researched by Mike Harrison. Image of F/O. Cyril Joe Barton VC (Courtesy Paul F. Wilson) With thanks to the following: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses', Chris Blanchett 'From Hull Hell and Halifax', Brian J. Rapier 'Halifax at War, Kate Tame Archives, the work of the CWGC.
Left: Image discovered on Ebay in July 2014 - signed by some members of the crew. Right: Newspaper article: Kate Tame Archive