16/17.04.1943 No. 408 Squadron Halifax II JB854 EQ-D Fl/Sgt. George Chetwynd Heming
Date: 16/17th April 1943
Unit: No. 408 RCAF Squadron (Goose)
Type: Halifax II
Base: RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire.
Location: Louppy-le-Chateau, Meuse, France
Pilot: Fl/Sgt. George Chetwynd Heming R/120606 RCAF Age 21 Killed (1)
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Alexander Crawford Cantley R/73825 RCAF Age 23 Killed
Nav: W/O2. Roland Birchall R/90351 RCAF Age 20 Killed (2)
Air/Bmr: W/O2 Demetre Zaleschuk R/115908 RCAF Age 21 Killed (3)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Richard William Mason 1333188 RAF Age 21 Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Stanley Johannes Jorgensen R/149986 RCAF Age 20 Killed (4)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Steve Archie R/139949 RCAF Age 24 Killed (5)
REASON FOR LOSS
On the evening of April 16, 1943, 197 Lancasters and 130 Halifax's took off from their bases in England destined for the Skoda armament works at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. The raid was to be carried out by the light of a full moon which was intended to aid the crews in identifying the target and also avoid the prowling night fighters. Upon reaching the target area the neighbouring town of Dobrany was misidentified as Pilsen, which was twelve miles away, and a large psychiatric facility mistaken for the Skoda works. In all only six crews brought back photographs of hits which were within three miles of the factory. Not one bomb fell on the target.
The raid was a complete failure compounded by the bright moonlight making the bombers easy targets for the German fighters instead of aiding their avoidance. In all 36 aircraft and their courageous crews were lost. No.408 R.C.A.F. Moose squadron alone lost four aircraft and 28 young airmen.
It is believed that Halifax JB854 was shot down over north eastern France by a Me110 night fighter from II/NJG-4 flown by Ltn. Friedrich Tober at a height of 2500 meters at three minutes past midnight on April 17th 1943. All aboard were killed during the engagement when the aircraft crashed in flames 5 kilometres north east of Laimont.
The navigator, W/O Roland Birchall (left: courtesy Elgin Military Museum via Colin Bamford), graduated with his observer’s wing and sergeants stripes from No.1 Bombing and Gunnery School, Jarvis, Ontario on December 30, 1941 and was posted to England the following February. W/O Birchall was a graduate of the St.Thomas Collegiate Institute and a member of the second battalion, Elgin Regiment.
Ron Barnes, a school friend of Roland’s recalls. “He was a very good student and we played on the rugby football team together. When Rolly enlisted in the air force I tried to join with him but was refused on account of colour blindness. I joined the army and became a signaller/driver with the 4th. Canadian Armoured Division. By this time, he had completed his training and was posted overseas. We kept in touch and planned to meet up when I arrived in England but sadly when I got there I was notified that he had been killed a few weeks earlier. Before he left for England I met him dressed in uniform at the Y.M.C.A. He was not wearing his sergeant’s stripes and, upon asking him where they were, he said, ‘Oh, they’re in my pocket.’ That’s just the kind of unpretentious guy he was.”
Seven months earlier the Birchall family had lost their eldest son Albert who was a wireless operator air gunner with No.15 RAF Squadron, when his aircraft, Stirling W7578, was shot down during a raid on Munich.
Interestingly, a first cousin of W/O. Birchall was Sq/Ldr. Leonard Birchall who was to be named by Churchill as 'The Saviour of Ceylon' for warning the Allies of an impending attack by the Japanese fleet. Sq/Ldr. Birchall was captured by the Japanese and became a figurehead for the POW’s taking many beatings for standing up to his captors and demanding fair treatment of the prisoners.
Update: We have recently been in touch with Patricia McTaggart Wilcox, a niece of Roland and Albert Birchall, who very kindly sent some additional photographs from the family collection.
LAC Roland Birchall taken during training in 1941 probably at his parent's house on Alma Street, St.Thomas, Ontario
Left: Roland and girlfriend "Rosie". Right: A new street in the boy's hometown of St.Thomas was recently named after them
Left: Roland (standing) with crewmates. Right: Roland at the navigators' table aboard the Halifax bomber
A great photo of Roland and the crew that he flew the majority of his sorties with. Fortunately, Roland identified the men on the reverse of the picture. L - R. Sitting front, Bill Gibson, Wireless Op. & Gunner, Hamilton, Ontario. Standing Roland, Navigator, St.Thomas, Ontario. "Jess" James, Flight Engineer, Edmonton, Alberta. Charles Black, Wireless Op., Queensland, Australia. R.T. Wiggett, Bomb Aimer, Glenboro, Manitoba. Les Horn, Rear Gunner, Virden, Manitoba. Jack Carver, Pilot, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
NOTE: The above photograph would appear to be staged or prior to a training flight sometime in early 1943. Squadron ORB's show that R.T Wiggett was not a member of this crew for any of their operations against the enemy. Although Roland has identified him as a Bomb Aimer, Sgt. Russell Thomas Wiggett was in actuality an Air Gunner who flew on operations with S/L E.G. Gilmore and crew. Gilmore and the rest of his crew with the exception of Wiggett were all killed when their Halifax BB336 EQ-O was shot down over the the sea by flak during a raid on Keil, 4/5 April 1943. Tail gunner Wiggett managed to bale out and was blown inland where he was captured and spent the remainder of the war as a POW. Russell passed away in Calgary, Alberta in 2010.
P/O Jack (John Stephen) Carver, Pilot. P/O Carver survived the war and went on to become an executive with Standard Brands Food Service Company. Jack passed away in 2010 at the age of 95.
F/L Leslie Kerry (Jess) James, Flight Engineer. F/L James was posted to 431 Squadron and was killed along with all his crew members when their Lancaster KB821 was shot down during a raid on Hanau, 6/7 January 1945.
P/O Charles Noola Black, RAAF, Wireless Operator. P/O Black an Australian, joined the crew of F/L R.H.P. Gamble and was lost without trace when their Halifax HR713 failed to return from a raid on Essen, 3/4 April 1943.
Sgt. Clarence Leslie (Les) Horn, Air Gunner, joined the crew of F/Sgt. R.O. Blackhall. Their Halifax JB898 was shot down by a night fighter on 5 May 1943 over Holland during an operation against Dortmund. Three members of the crew were killed and the remainder including Sgt. Horn were captured and became POW's. Clarence passed away in 1956.
W/O2 John William (Bill) Gibson, Wireless Air Gunner, joined the crew of F/L C.O. Hatle. All were lost when their Halifax JB925 crashed into a wood near Trier, Germany while on operations against Plzen, on the night of 16/17 April 1943.
W/O2 Roland Birchall, Navigator. Roland was posted to 408 Squadron on 12 September 1942 at which time they were equipped with the obsolete Hampden bomber. His first and only mission flying in a Hampden was with crewmates Jack Carver, Charles Black and Bill Gibson on the night of 13/14 September 1942 to Bremen.
In October of 1942 the squadron began to be re-equipped with the Halifax heavy bomber and for the next three months crews trained for operations on their new aircraft.
Upon completion of training, Roland flew a further thirteen sorties before he was lost with F/Sgt. Heming and crew who were participating in the first operation against the enemy.
9/10 January - Gardening (minelaying) Nectarine, Halifax HR654
14/15 January - Lorient, Halifax HR654
2/3 February - Gardening, Silverthorns, Halifax HR654
4/5 February - Turin, Halifax DT676
24/25 February - Wilhelmshaven, Halifax DT677
26/27 February - Cologne, Halifax HR654
27/28 February - Gardening, Nectarine, Halifax HR654
1/2 March - Berlin, Halifax HR654
3/4 March - Hamburg, Halifax HR654
5/6 March - Essen, Halifax HR654
9/10 March - Munich, Halifax HR654
12/13 March - Essen - abandoned, Halifax DT679
13 March Sea search - unsuccessful
22/23 March - St. Nazaire, Halifax HR654
3/4 April - Essen
Operational sorties completed - 14
Right: Grave of Roland Birchall and Steve Archie with Canadian flag placed by Roland's nephew Richard Roland McTaggart, Spring 2006. Rick McTaggart photo
Pilot: F/Sgt. George C. Heming
Enlisted on 11 August 1941 at Brandon after finishing high school and completed initial training at No.2 ITS, Regina Saskatchewan 3 January 1942. Selected for training as a pilot and posted to No. 15 Elementary Flying School, Regina. Graduated with Pilots Badge from No.3 Service Flying Training School, Calgary 17 July 1942. Arrived No.3 PRC Bournemouth 19 August and posted to No.6 (P) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire 1 September 1942. Posted to No.23 Operational Training Unit 17 November 1942 and then to No.1659 Heavy Conversion Unit 25 March 1943 joining No.408 Squadron on 8 April 1943. F/Sgt. Heming and the rest of his crew with the exception of W/O2 Birchall, were on their first operation when lost. W/O2 Birchall had completed 14 sorties prior to being lost.
Right: F/Sgt. George Chetwynd Heming
Fl/Eng: Alexander Crawford Cantley
Born in Scotland, Alexander came to Canada as a baby and grew up in Montreal. Upon leaving school he began an apprenticeship at Canadian Vickers Aircraft Division and became qualified as an Aircraft Fitter in 1940. Enlisting at Montreal in October 1940 for Ground Duties, Alexander was posted to the School of Technical Training, St.Thomas, Ontario, and then to No.6 Repair Depot at Trenton.
Posted overseas he arrived at No.3 PRC, Bournemouth on 20 February 1942 and was attached to 3062 Service Echelon. On 6 November 1942, Alexander applied for aircrew as a Flight Engineer and was posted to RAF No.4 School of Technical Training, St.Athan, Wales.
Awarded his Flight Engineer's badge on 1 March 1943 he was posted to 1659 Conversion Unit at RAF Leeming and joined 408 Squadron on 8 April 1943. Operational sorties completed - Nil.
Alexander's brother, Lance Corporal Charles Robin Cantley, was also killed in action while serving with The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, 13 September 1944.
Air Bomber: W/O2 Demetre Zaleschuk
Demetre was working in the office of a local Ford car dealer when he enlisted in the RCAF on 12 August 1941 aged 19. Initially wanting to train as a pilot he was found to be unsuitable and posted to Composite Training School, Trenton. Reassessed for training as an air bomber
he was posted to No.8 Bombing and Gunnery School, Lethbridge, Alberta 5 July 1942 and then to No.2 Air Observers School, Edmonton here he was awarded his Air Bomber's badge 9 October 1942.
Posted to the UK Demetre arrived at No.3 PRC 6 November 1942 and then to 23 OTU Pershore, Worcestershire, later that month. Posted to 1659 Conversion Unit 25 March 1943 joining 408 Squadron on 8 April 1943. Operational sorties completed - Nil.
Wireless Op./Air Gunner: Sgt. Richard William Mason
Worked in the costing department of a printing company prior to enlisting. No further details. Operational sorties completed - Nil.
Air Gunner: Sgt. Stanley Johannes Jorgensen
Of Danish descent, Stanley grew up and worked on the family farm before enlisting at Regina on 3 February 1942.
Choosing to be trained for aircrew as a pilot Stanley was posted to No.7 Initial Training School, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan but failed the course there and was recommended to be trained as an air gunner. Posted to No.3 Bombing and Gunnery School, MacDonald, Manitoba, 30 August 1942 where he graduated with his Air Gunners badge on 20 November 1942.
Posted to the UK arriving at No.3 PRC 19 December 1942 and then to No.7 Air Gunners School, Stormy Down, Wales, 17 February 1943. Posted to 1659 OTU, 10 March joining 408 Squadron 8 April 1943. Operational sorties completed - Nil.
Air Gunner: Sgt. Steve Archie
After enlisting for Ground Crew duties on 5 December 1941 Steve remustered for Aircrew in June 1942 and was recommended for training as an air gunner by the selection board. Posted to No.8 Bombing and Gunnery School at Lethbridge on 5 July he was awarded his Air Gunners badge on 25 September 1942. Posted to the UK and arrived at No.3 PRC, Bournemouth on 5 November 1942 and from there to 23 OTU later that month. Posted to 1659 OTU 25 March 1943 and to 408 Squadron 8 April. Operational sorties completed - Nil.
Ltn. Tober and his radio operator, Konrad Rössner, were wounded in action on January 30, 1944, when their Ju 88C-6 crashed southeast of Hardenberg at Ebbenbroek in the Netherlands, after being damaged during aerial combat. Both survived the war.
A comprehensive book is available entitled 'A Shaky Do - The Skoda works raid 16/17th April 1943'
. The author, Peter Cunliffe, would like to hear from any relatives of the members of this crew. Or any other airmen or relatives thereof, who were involved in this raid. Please contact us in the first instance and we will forward the message. Please also contact us for details on how to receive a signed copy from the author.
Left: 'A Shaky Do - The Skoda works raid 16/17th April 1943'.
The following Canadian geographic features have been named in memory of these crew members:
(1) Heming Lake in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan is named after Fl/Sgt. Heming.
(2) Birchall Lake in northern Ontario is named after W/O. Birchall and his brother Albert.
(3) Zaleschuk Lake in Saskatchewan is named after W/O. Zaleschuk.
(4) Jorgensen Lake in Saskatchewan is named after Sgt. Jorgensen.
(5) Archie Lake in Saskatchewan is named after Sgt. Archie.
Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery (courtesy Colin Bamford)
Fl/Sgt. George Chetwynd Heming. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Collective Grave 3-5. Son of Dempster Henry Ratcliffe Heming and Catherine Campbell Heming, of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sgt. Alexander Crawford Cantley. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Grave 2. Son of Mr. and Mrs. T. Cantley, of Montreal, Province of Quebec, Canada.
W/O2. Roland Birchall. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Collective Grave 3-5. Son of Thomas and Emily Birchall, of St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.
W/O2 Demetre Zaleschuk. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Collective Grave 3-5. Son of John and Juliana Zaleschuk, of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sgt. Richard William Mason. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Collective Grave 3-5. Son of Joseph and Dorothy Mason, of Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England.
Sgt. Stanley Johannes Jorgensen. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Grave 1. Son of Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Jorgensen of Sceptre, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sgt. Steve Archie. Louppy-le-Chateau Communal Cemetery, Meuse, France. Collective Grave 3-5. Son of Mr. and Mrs. Mike Achtymiczuk, Wynard, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered, researcher and RCAF specialist Colin Bamford for relatives of this crew. With thanks to Mr. Ron Barnes and Mary Olde, Director of Administration, The Elgin Military Museum, St. Thomas, Ontario for their assistance in the preparation of this article. With special thanks to Patricia McTaggart Wilcox, niece of Roland and Albert Birchall for providing the family and crew photographs.