03.05.1943 No 487 (New Zealand) Squadron Ventura AE916 EG-C Fl/Lt. Arthur Victor Duffill DFC
Operation: Ramrod 16
Date: 03 May 1943 (Monday)
Unit: No. 487 (New Zealand) Squadron. Motto: "Ki te mutunga" - "Through to the end".
Badge: A tekoteko holding a bomb. The grotesque Moon figure depicted holding a bomb is not only an indication of the squadron's activities but also true to Maori legend. The whare-whakairo, or meeting house of the tribe, was usually ornamented by grotesque but beautifully executed carvings, the tekoteko usually appearing at the apex of the gable above the entrance in an attitude of defiance and generally brandishing a weapon as a challenge to all comers.
Type: Lockheed Ventura II
Base: RAF Methwold, Norfolk
Location: Crash landed at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk
Pilot: Fl/Lt. Arthur Victor Duffill 86398 RAFVR Age 23 - Safe (1)
Nav/Air/Bmr: F/O. Frederick John (Johnnie) Starkie 118630 RAFVR - Safe (2)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Alan William Turnbull 1290249 RAFVR Age 22 - Safe but wounded (3)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Laurence Henry Neill 1461821 RAFVR - Safe but wounded (4)
In February 2016 Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock wrote his account of Squadron Leader Leonard Trent's ill-fated raid of 3 May 1943 on the Amsterdam power station. He concentrated on the circumstances surrounding the loss of 10 of the 11 Venturas and the demise of their crews, whilst making only a somewhat passing reference to the lone Ventura, piloted by Fl/Lt. Vic Duffill, which against all odds, managed to make it back to England. In recognition of the tremendous courage shown by each of them under the most desperate of circumstances the four crew members were all subsequently decorated.
So when Laurence Turnbull, son of the Wireless Operator of AG916, contacted the Aircrew Remembered helpdesk on 2 August this year with the offer of further details of the four crewmen's ordeal, Roy resolved to rectify his previous oversight and using information kindly provided by Laurence Turnbull and No. 487 Squadron records, compiled this comprehensive account of their part in the raid and their desperate struggle to survive and eventually reach home.
REASON FOR LOSS
On Monday 3 May 1943 12 Lockheed Ventura crews of 487 (New Zealand) Squadron were briefed for a late afternoon raid on a power station situated on the northern outskirts of Amsterdam. Fighter protection for the 12 light bombers was to be provided by 3 squadrons of Spitfire Mark Vs flying as close support with 2 squadrons of Spitfire Mark IXs flying as top cover. Such operations involving a small number of bombers escorted by a large number of fighters with the intention of destroying ground targets were code named Ramrod; this one being the sixteenth such operation by the RAF, hence Ramrod 16.
The plan was to cross the North Sea at 100 feet to keep beneath the German radar until they were 10 minutes from the Dutch coast when they were to climb to 10000 feet before racing to the target to maintain an element of surprise.
Crews were told to expect heavy opposition but whatever the opposition they had to press on with their attacks as a means to encourage Dutch workmen in their resistance to German pressure. The 12 Venturas took off from RAF Methwold at 16:43 hours in sunshine, with Squadron Leader Leonard Trent flying AJ209 EG-V on his 24th sortie leading the first 6 in a tight box formation, followed by the second six flying in a similar formation, led by Yorkshireman Flight Lieutenant Arthur Victor Duffill in AE916 EG-C. One of the Venturas of Sqn/Ldr. Trent's flight was soon forced to return to base due to a loose escape hatch that on landing approach at RAF Methwold, broke away and lodged in the rudder.
The Spitfires flying as top cover however, took off early, climbed too soon and lost the element of surprise. With not enough fuel to wait for the bombers they were recalled but the Germans had been alerted and immediately took action.
When the remaining 11 Venturas made their climb to altitude, the close escort lost position and fell behind with one squadron losing touch altogether. It seemed that events were conspiring against the bombers and it was not to end there.
That very day was the day that the Nazi governor of Holland had chosen to make a formal visit to Haarlem and as a result was being provided with fighter cover. And to complete the demise of the bombers an exceptional number of experienced German fighter pilots were gathered at Schiphol Airport for a conference.
By the time the Venturas were approaching the Dutch coast no less than 69 Focke Wulfe Fw190 and Messerschmitt Me109 fighters had been scrambled and flying in four formations immediately attacked. While the Fw190s of 11./JG1 dealt with the escort the Me109s of 2./JG27 went for the bombers.
Escort Wing Leader, Wing Commander Blatchford, vainly attempted to recall the bombers but they were already hemmed in by the fighters.
To read the rest of Roy's original account of the raid and the fate of the 10 Venturas that failed to return click here
In 1960 the Sunday Pictorial ran a war-story contest entitled "I Was There" with a prize of £10 for each story published and £1000 for the outright winner, the equivalent of about £80000 today. Air gunner Lawrence Neill entered the competition with the story of the crew of Ventura AE916 and its part in the Amsterdam raid.
His story, published on 21 February 1960 is reproduced below.
Only One Came Back
by Lawrence Neill - who won a DFM on this raid
Our aircraft were waiting, all bombed-up for the big raid. Four times it was called off - and nobody liked that very much. Most aircrew lived on their nerves anyway, and we began to get very depressed. Then, at last, we were given the signal. The raid was on. It was a special raid that we in 487 Squadron RAF had been briefed for - Operation Ramrod, one of the historic raids of the war. Fourteen planes were to bomb a power station in the heart of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam on that Monday, May 3, 1943. We clambered aboard our aircraft, a Lockheed Ventura, and I packed myself in the gun-turret.
Up there, under that transparent egg-shell I had a view of everything - too much of a view I felt at times. There were three others in the crew. The pilot was Flight-Lieutenant Arthur Duffill, a young Yorkshire-man. Navigator and bomber was Flying Officer Johnnie Starkie, Wireless Operator was Sergeant Alan Turnbull. The twin engines were ticking over. The hatch slammed home with an air of finality, and I sat awaiting the take off, envying the ground crews standing in grouped round the aircraft. Three by three the planes roared across the airfield at Methwold in Norfolk and lumbered into the air.
Now all tension had gone. The squadron looked beautiful, flying in tight formation, flying into battle. I was very proud of the RAF, I've never met a man who wasn't. This moment made everything worthwhile. On we raced, skimming over the flat Norfolk landscape, over the marshes and out to sea. We started our climb just off the Dutch coast, went to 12000 ft then levelled off. In the clear blue above our fighter escort wove gay patterns.
Then the enemy! Hell, what a sight. They came in at 12000ft. - the Luftwaffe in all its deadly glory, a battle fleet, eighty strong of screaming cannon and armour-plate. I got ready to fight. Guns cocked? Check. Fire and safe to fire? Check. Reflector sight on? Check.
Sweat streamed down my cheek, my stomach turned to water and my scalp contracted. Great wads of cannon shell raked through the squadron. We were already hit. No. 2 below me had become an incandescent ball of flame. I knew every one of its crew. C-for-Charlie shuddered under the impact of explosions. Slivers of metal rose up and were torn away in the slipstream. Now No. 3 was out. It disintegrated into a cloud of flying debris. But the squadron flew on.
The German FW190s were coming in at us astern. We were being massacred - our little Brownings against their cannon, our perspex against their armour plate. Our fighter escort was hopelessly outnumbered. The Nazi bastards wouldn't stay in my sight-ring. It had all seemed so easy back in Training Command. All you had to do was to estimate the wingspan of the enemy, find his range, allow for defection and fire. My thumb found the button, the Brownings crackled into life, the stink of hot oil and cordite filled the turret and the sight-ring danced crazily about.
Then something seemed to snatch my feet away. Warm sticky blood trickled down my legs into my flying boots. The Germans were swooping in for the kill. But they were over-confident and one broke away from formation and recklessly came up on my starboard beam, flying a parallel course. This was more like it! A no-deflection shot at point-blank range is an air gunner's dream. He came in, his cannons winking along his wing edge and wads of shell sliding away over my turret. Then he was at point-blank range; a beautiful duck-egg blue underbelly.
My two Brownings belched into action. A stream of lead gashed into his belly, he shuddered and staggered on the end of my tracers. My guns streamed and stank, the sun burned into the turret, sweat mingled with blood.
I don't think he ever knew what hit him. The earth just clawed him out of the sky, down, down, down into the murk 12000 feet below. I felt no hate: just sick and tired.
But now we also were almost out of the fight. Our aircraft was wallowing about like a wounded pig. Concentrated gunfire sliced a large hole below me. My turret caught fire and filled my eggshell with fumes of blazing rubber.
It was time to leave. My legs were beginning to throb but I was too scared to find out how badly I was wounded.
Dropping into the body of the aircraft I found a shocking mess. Control cables were snarled up like loose hair in a comb, oil was spraying from punctured pipes. Worse, a red glow and acrid smoke showed that a fire was getting well under way in the tail end. Groping around I found a fire extinguisher and hammered it against the turret support. But the damned thing only dribbled and I flung it away. I was panicking, and I realised that was fatal. So, gathering my wits I made for the other extinguisher. Then I sank to the floor and studied the instructions printed on its side.
Outside the battle still raged. A row of holes suddenly ragged across the side of the fuselage and my arm was snatched back. I felt that warm, sticky trickle again, this time down my arm. At last I got the extinguisher going and under its spray the red glow died. I staggered forward and met Alan the wireless operator. His ankle had been gashed by a cannon shell and he was losing a lot of blood. Johnnie, the navigator, joined me and between us we got Alan into a corner, and foraged around for the first aid kit. While the plane bucked and tossed, we managed to get a tourniquet on his leg and inject morphia.
Then we saw that although the bomb-bay doors were open, our 500 pounder was still there hanging ugly and dangerous amid the chewed-up release mechanism. We knew we must get rid of this deadly load, so we tried to poke it free with a cleaning rod. But it was a hopeless task.
I went back to Alan and released his tourniquet. The blood pumped out of his ankle and sprayed over my face and clothing. I felt sick and was beginning to weaken. I hadn't the strength to move much now, and slid to the floor. But it is unpleasant being in an aircraft without being able to see out so at last I stumbled out of the hatch and peered out.
The battle had receded. Pilot Arthur Duffill was heading back home, hoping the burning plane would make it, hoping he would be able to land with both engines hit and the flaps not working. And of course, with that bomb still hanging from the belly of the plane.
So we came back the only plane left of our squadron. Circling several times Arthur fired off his remaining Very cartridges to indicate distress and then began dropping. The aircraft floundered down. The ugly bomb swung in its belly.
I saw the grass rushing up to meet us. Crunch! If that bomb went off, I thought, people would come and look at a hole in the grass runway. The plane slid a little then she came to an abrupt halt. My heart leaped. We had come home.
They lifted me and Alan out and popped us in the ambulance. Arthur Duffill and Johnnie Starkie were miraculously unhurt. At the station they were waiting for the return of 487 Squadron.
The tables were laid and they were cooking eggs and bacon for fifty-six hungry aircrew. But only two men, the pilot and navigator of the only aircraft to return came back to eat that meal. Some were dead, some were prisoners and Alan and I were in hospital.
IT WAS THE END OF 487 SQUADRON AS WE HAD KNOWN IT.
* * * * *
Indeed it was and in the Squadron Operations Record Book for 3 May 1943, the following:
'12 machines detailed to attack Amsterdam. One returned 5 minutes after take-off having lost his escape hatch'.
'Only one machine returned. "C" badly shot up landed at Feltwell. Pilot and Navigator unhurt. WO/AG and AG badly wounded. Removed to Ely Hospital'.
'No further news of any of the others. From reports there were 80+ snappers and the Squadron must have had a very uncomfortable time of it'.
Vic Duffill is recorded as having put his Ventura down at 18.55 hours, he and the rest of the crew having endured what was probably the hardest two hours of their careers. And the ORB Summary of Events reveals an almost disbelief at the sheer scale of the loss:
'Fourteen aircraft detailed to attack Amsterdam. Twelve took off at 16.43 but one returned 5 minutes later with a lost escape hatch, and sorry to say it was the only one that did return with the exception of Fl/Lt. Duffill and crew, who were badly shot up by fighters and both his W/Op/AG and AG were badly wounded - both were removed to RAF Hospital, Ely. Ten of our machines did not return nor has any further news been heard of them. This is a very black day in the Squadron History. Crews like S/Ldr. Trent's, F/O. Peryman's, Andy Coutt's, Tom Baynton's, F/O. Foster, F/O. McGowan, P/O. Terry Taylor, Len Richbell, Stanley Coshall, Rupert North and many others all short. A better set of boys could not be met in 30 years. Everybody is still feeling dazed by the news'.
There was better news the following day but nonetheless it was still a devastating loss.
'Just heard from the fighter boys that seven chaps were seen to bale out over Holland so there is just a gleam of hope for some of them'.
Exactly one week after the Amsterdam raid on 10 May news was received by the Squadron that the entire crew of Ventura AE916 had been decorated. Fl/Lt. Vic Duffill and F/O. Johnnie Starkie were awarded the DFC whilst Sgt. Alan Turnbull and Sgt, Laurie Neill were awarded the DFM. The awards were promulgated in the London Gazette of 25 May 1943; the citation read:
Early in May, 1943, Flight Lieutenant Duffill, Flying Officer Starkie and Sergeants Turnbull and Neill, were pilot, navigator, wireless operator/air gunner and air gunner respectively of one of a formation of aircraft detailed to attack a target in Holland. Whilst crossing the enemy coast the formation was intercepted by a large force of enemy fighters. In the combats which followed, Sergeant Turnbull coolly gave a commentary on the attacker's movements and later manned a position until he was seriously wounded. Sergeant Neill used his guns effectively but was wounded in the legs by the enemy's fire, which also caused a fire to break out in the rear of the fuselage. Flying Officer Starkie, acting with great promptitude, quickly extinguished the flames. This accomplished, he tended his wounded comrade, Sergeant Turnbull, and rendered efficient first aid after carrying him across a gaping hole, which had been torn in the fuselage. Meanwhile, Flight Lieutenant Duffill was taking skilful evading action, while Sergeant Neill despite his injuries continued to engage the enemy until all attacks ceased. Flight Lieutenant Duffill, displaying superb airmanship, eventually flew the badly damaged bomber to base. In extremely harassing circumstances, these members of aircraft crew displayed courage, fortitude and determination of a high order.
On the 11 June news was received that 9 crew members were PoWs. Eventually it would be learned that a total of 12 had been taken prisoner. But 28 crew had lost their lives, a staggering 58% of the 48 who set out on the ill-fated mission.
Laurence Turnbull recalled that his father rarely spoke about the war and even less about that day in May 1943. He offered this insight into the unassuming man who was his father.
"He was a quiet guy anyway but I think it really affected him, either that specific experience on that day or the war in general. He remembered more the people he knew that didn’t come back I think.
So as a family, we had our mother who was always willing to talk about the war, she was in Radar and was involved in Atlantic Patrol initially based in Islay and then looking for the V2s being launched out of Peenemunde - I think from Ventnor. For her it was a thrilling adventure that changed her life, got her out of a strict home in the Welsh Liverpool community, she met her husband to be etc., etc. Conversely, he was always very reserved and clearly was uncomfortable talking about those days, and though he did meet up with Vic Duffill later in life [I have] no idea what they said to each other, so cannot throw more light on that.
Only other thing I found out from my Mum was that Dad was “hurt” I suppose when they did get back to their billet after being in hospital to find that most of their personal belongings had been stolen or scavenged. I suppose that happened - they didn’t expect them to be coming back.
I think what I realized in doing some research more recently, seeing the stories on Aircrew Remembered as example, is that it seems like a very long time ago, but for these guys, and I could sometimes see with my father when we watched a documentary or something, some of it was like yesterday. The madness of getting into what will become [a] freezing cold, draughty, slow, noisy tin can, possibly a coffin with wings, flying off on a summers day from green England to go and do battle over enemy territory with a force of often better equipped, more numerous and faster fighters, and know you have a less than X chance of coming back that day alive, (and if you didn’t come back - were likely to suffer some horrible painful, burning, high speed impact death on the way) - well this would make me a bit quiet as well. I often wondered if I could have had that type of raw courage that these guys in bombers showed.
My father was [perhaps] holding his hands behind his back as his right hand would probably have been bandaged as he had to have some sort of reconstructive surgery, whatever that was at that time.
He was hit, injured in the right hand and the leg - between knee and ankle. I remember as kids he let us put our hands on his leg so we could feel the lumps where he said bits of the bullets were still lodged. I guess must have been the case as it was very lumpy! His hand was apparently quite shattered I don’t know how they did things then. All the fingers worked but it was like a solid and quite cold lump in the palm, it didn’t seem to trouble him.
The only other thing that I did find out - more a passing comment when I spoke with him last year, was that later in the war when he was not on active duty but training others in gunnery, he was stationed somewhere on the coast - maybe Lancashire way - not sure, and when they were returning from an exercise over the sea, the pilot misjudged the approach and took all the undercarriage off on the sea wall which was the perimeter of the airport. So the plane - a Wellington we think crashed on the airfield there. Of course, he was getting used to landing with no wheels so his only concern he mentioned to me was for the poor Polish pilot who got a severe reprimand.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) Wg/Cdr. Arthur Victor Duffill OBE, DFC, was born at Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire on 18 August 1919 the son of Arthur J. Duffill and Dorothy E. Duffill nee Edis. He had two elder brothers Roy J. Duffill born in 1916 and Guy Duffill born in 1918.
754489 Sgt. V.A. Duffill was commissioned as a Pilot officer on probation for the duration of hostilities on 5 October 1940 (London Gazette 5 November 1940), promoted to Flying Officer (war subs) on 20 August 1941 (London Gazette 9 December 1941) and promoted to Flight Lieutenant (war subs) on 20 August 1942 (London Gazette 15 September 1942). He was later promoted to Squadron Leader.
In 1944 he married Joyce E Miller at Lothingland, Suffolk. They went on to have four children: Jennifer Susan Duffill born 1944, Judith Y. Duffill born 1946, Janet A Duffill born 1950 and Christopher H Duffill born 1954.
On 5 June 1947, as the representative of Beverley ex-servicemen he was presented with the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Beverley
On 23 June 1947 was commissioned as a Flying Officer in the reconstituted Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (London Gazette 16 September 1952) and on 12 June 1952 he was appointed to commission in the reconstituted Royal Auxiliary Air Force as Squadron Leader (four years and five years on the reserve) and to command No. 3505 (East Riding) Fighter Control Unit. (Seniority 20 August 1951) (London Gazette 16 September 1952)
On 31 December 1960 he was appointed by the Queen as an Ordinary Officer of the Military Division of the said Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (London Gazette 27 December 1960.
He relinquished his commission on 12 June 1965 retaining the rank of Wing Commander (London Gazette 15 June 1965)
He married his second wife, Maureen M. North at Beverley in 1976.
Wing Commander Arthur Victor Duffill OBE, DFC, died on 23 July 2019 aged 99
(2) Fl/Lt. Frederick John (Johnnie) Starkie DFC was probably born 2 March 1917 at Leigh, Lancashire the son of Frederick John Starkie and Sarah Elizabeth Starkie nee Hailwood. He had two older siblings Edith Starkie born 1903 and Richard William Starkie born 1907.
657126 Corporal Frederick John Starkie was commissioned as a pilot officer (emergency) on 14 March 1942 (London Gazette 9 June 1942), promoted to Flying Officer on probation (war subs) on 1 October 1942 (London Gazette 18 December 1942) and to Flight Lieutenant on 14 March 1944 (London Gazette 31 March 1944).
Frederick John Starkie died at Portsmouth in 1997 aged 80.
(3) W/O. Alan William Turnbull DFM was born in 1921 at Dartford, Kent the son of William Phillip Turnbull and Lilian Maude Turnbull nee Osborne. His sister Betty L. Turnbull was also born at Dartford in 1926.
He married Beatrice Jane A. Frost at Stoke Newington in 1942. Their son John Turnbull was born at Dartford in 1946.
In 1954 he married Dilys Williams at Chatham, Kent. There were six children of the marriage.
Alan Turnbull died on Monday 26 June 2016 at 7.43 pm aged 95. In a letter to Vic Duffill informing him of the death of his old friend, Alan's daughter Sarah made the observation that on a 24 hour clock 7.43 pm was 1943 the year that on 3 May Vic had saved his crew's lives by bringing them home safely.
His funeral took place on 1 July 2016.
(4) Sgt. Laurence Henry Neill DFM was born on 3 September 1911 at Kingston, Surrey the son of Alexander Lennon Neill (a waistcoat tailor) and Henrietta Beatrice Neill nee Matthews. Laurence had three siblings, Dennis Alexander Neill born 1905, Eileen Emily Neill born 1908 and Harold Stanley Neill born 1906. In 1911 the family lived at 12 Rita Road, Kennington, London.
He married Elisa Speed at Surrey in 1938: there were no known children of the marriage.
Photograph courtesy Belinda Copson
Laurence Henry Neill front centre. Behind left to right: Alexander Lennon Neill, Harold Stanley Neill, Eileen Emily Neill and Dennis Alexander Neil and Henrietta Beatrice Neill.
Laurence Henry Neill died at Camden, London on 7 April 1981 aged 69. The Probate Calendar entry records that he lived at 10 Aldred Road, London NW6.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for the family of Alan Turnbull and all the other relatives and friends of the members of this crew - September 2016
With gratitude to Laurence Turnbull for his most welcome contributions of the Sunday Pictorial newspaper article, other documents, photographs and personal recollections of his father.
Thanks also to the sources quoted below