02/03.06.1944 No. 40 Squadron Wellington X LP120 BL-N Fl/Sgt. Francis Rodney (Rod) Hughes
Operation: Giurgiu, Romania
Date: 2/3 June 1944 (Friday/Saturday)
Unit: No. 40 Squadron - Motto: Hostem acolo expellere ("To drive the enemy from the sky")
Squadron Badge: A broom. The broom was chosen to immortalise the frequent exhortation of Major 'Mick' Mannock, the famous World War I pilot who served with the squadron, to "sweep the Huns from the air!"
Type: Vickers Wellington X
Base: RAF Foggia Main, Italy
Location: 10-15 miles south of Pirot, Yugoslavia (now Serbia)
Pilot: Fl/Sgt. Francis Rodney Rod) Hughes Aus/415462 RAAF Age 28 - Missing believed killed (1)
Nav: Fl/Sgt. Kenneth William Shaw 1481552 RAFVR Age 22 - PoW No. 89 Camp: Schumen, Bulgaria (2)
Air/Bmr: Fl/Sgt. Alexander Smart Millar RAFVR 1369929 Age 21 - Missing believed killed (3)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Walter Eric Samler 1393566 RAFVR Age 22 - Missing believed killed (4)
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Francis Raymond Sweeney Aus/427959 Age 20 - Missing believed killed (5)
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In 1940, 58% of Germany’s total oil imports came from the oil fields and refineries located near Ploiești in Romania. The oil was distributed by rail throughout Europe and by pipe line to the Danube ports of Giurgiu and Vârciorova and to the port of Constanța, on the Black Sea. The importance of the oil fields, refineries and the associated distribution system to the German war effort made them a crucial Allied target.
Although minor air raids had been made upon them previously by the Russians and the United States these had proved ineffective and it was not until mid-1943 that a large enough force became available to make a significant attack. Code named operation Tidal Wave, 177 heavy bombers of the United States Air Force carried out the strike on 1 August 1943 against eight refineries in the Ploiești area and though losses were extremely heavy with 54 aircraft lost and 55 damaged, refinery output was reduced by half.
In April 1944 the United States Air Force embarked upon another campaign against the oil fields including the oil distribution system that continued until 19 August and numbered 5287 sorties.
In support of the American effort the RAF also carried out 900 night sorties against the targets. The campaign was very successful and severely restricted the fuel supply to the Germans.
Following the invasion of Italy No. 40 Squadron had relocated on 16 December 1943 from Tunisia to Cerignola airfield in southern Italy. Two weeks later they moved to the nearby Foggia Main airfield and equipped with Wellington Mark X bombers, commenced operations against targets in northern Italy and the Balkans.
The Squadron had barely settled in at Foggia when Rod Hughes and his crew arrived on 7 January 1944. They had crewed up at No. 21 Operational Training Unit at Moreton-in-Marsh Gloucestershire where they had trained for night bombing on Wellington bombers.
Fellow Aussies (Francis) Rod Hughes and his rear gunner Francis Sweeney not only shared the same nationality and a Christian name but also the same birthday, 18 February, albeit eight years apart and were the eldest and youngest crew members respectively.
The navigator was Lancashire lad Kenneth Shaw aged 22, the same age as Londoner Walter Samler, the wireless operator. Completing the crew was air bomber Alexander Millar aged 21 from Greenock, Scotland.
The crew were soon flying operations regularly and by the end of May Francis Hughes had 30 operations to his credit whilst the others had flown 29.
On 2 June 1944 the Hughes crew were one of seven from No. 40 Squadron detailed to attack the oil tanks and quays at Giurgiu in Romanian.
REASON FOR LOSS
Having been allocated Wellington LP120 Rod Hughes and his crew took off fifth in line at 2141 and by 2143 they were all in the air. In just 14 minutes all seven bombers were safely airborne and heading east on the 550 mile journey to Giurgiu.
Returning crews reported seeing bombs bursting across the target, a large fire being started and visible for 90 miles. Weather was good and slight to moderate flak was encountered.
Wellington LP120 however failed to return. Nothing was heard from the aircraft after take off and returning crews were unable to offer any information regarding the fate of the aircraft or its crew.
The only record of what happened to the aircraft and crew is contained in two statements by navigator Kenneth Shaw after his liberation from captivity. He said that they were flying at 13000 feet when the pilot requested a course to base. When turning there was an explosion and both engines failed. Ordered to bale out, Shaw, Sweeney and Millar had done so but Samler and Hughes were still in aircraft when Kenneth Shaw had left. He added that Hughes was uninjured and had the aircraft under control.
Shaw stated that he had baled out over rough country about 40 miles west of Sofia [Bulgaria]. In an earlier statement he said that the aircraft crashed 10 to 15 miles south of Pirot [in Bulgarian occupied Yugoslavia].
The following morning Shaw saw two parachutes on the ground and assumed that they belonged to Miller and Sweeney. He also considered that Sweeney had a good chance of being safe and well but he neither elaborates as to why he thought this nor does he say why Millar might have not had a similar chance of being safe.
He added that the explosion that led to the crash was not due to enemy action.
Kenneth Shaw was captured and became a prisoner of war No. 89 at Shumen camp in Bulgaria. Having opened in November 1943 the camp housed 329 prisoners 291 of whom were USAAF airmen. Conditions were very bad there being no electricity or running water, meagre rations and very inadequate medical care.
On 8 September, in the face of a Russian invasion, Bulgaria declared war on Germany and the following day. All prisoners of war were freed and transferred to the city railway station where on 10 September 1944 a special train departed for Turkey.
In 1947 a searcher party of No. 5 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit conducted an investigating the fate of the missing airmen reported that:
"The local civilians informed them that four members of the crew had baled out. One of the four had been found at the scene of the crash by the Bulgarians. He was shot and then buried in a multiple grave in the civil cemetery at Krupac with the crew member who was killed in the crash". [Krupac is about 5 miles east of Pirot]
"A second member of the crew was captured at Krupac by the Bulgarians on the morning of the crash and taken to Pirot. He was reported to have been about 22 years of age, very tall and blond. From the information held here it would appear that this story relates to Fl/Sgt. Shaw, however this is now being verified".
"A third member was found by a farmer near the adjacent village of Trjani [presumably Trnjana, about 3 miles west of Krupac] on the morning after the crash. He was suspended from a tree, unconscious and wounded in the leg. The Bulgarians took him to Pirot in an ambulance. One of the local civilians stated that he had later seen this casualty in the Alexander hospital in Sofia. Efforts are now being made to establish the identity and place of burial of this crew member". [The report does not indicate what led the searcher party to believe that he was dead. It may be that his death was merely presumed after such as lapse of time]
"The fourth landed in the mountains and met up with some partisans. He lived with them for six days and was then taken to Crna Trava. From there he was taken to the district of Jablanica where there was an allied mission. The British Embassy in Belgrade have been contacted in an endeavour to ascertain the name and place of burial of this crew member". [It seems that this was another instance of death being presumed due to the lapse of time]
"The fifth was in the aircraft when it crashed. He was killed immediately and buried the multiple grave at Krupac civil cemetery together with the crew member who was shot by the Bulgarians. These remains were concentrated to Belgrade British Military Cemetery Plot 2 Row B Graves 3, 4 and 5 (multiple) on 1 April 1947. In view of the above information, obtained from the local civilians by the Searcher Party, the remains buried in these graves were exhumed. This proved that there were in fact only two bodies in these three graves. They have now been concentrated into Plot 2 Row B Graves 3 and 4 (multiple). It seems certain that one of these crew members was Fl/Sgt. Hughes since he was the pilot and would therefore be the last to leave the aircraft. However we are now trying to establish the identity of the other casualty buried in this grave, with the assistance of the War Crimes Group, South East Europe".
Despite further investigation and a check of dental records it proved impossible to positively identify the remains as being those of Fl/Sgt. Hughes and when no further information was forthcoming it was decided that it was unsafe to find that the remains in the grave were those of Rod Hughes, Walter Samler or both.
Any assumption that Hughes and Samler were in the grave was based purely on the statement by Kenneth Shaw that those two were still in the aircraft when he left. The local civilians saw four crew members bale out but there is insufficient evidence as to whether the fourth to bale out was Hughes or Samler.
It was subsequently decided that the four crew members should be recorded as having no known grave and thus commemorated on the Malta Memorial.
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) Fl/Sgt. Francis Rodney Hughes known to his family as Rod, was born on 18 February 1916 at Sydney, New South Wales, Australia the son of Dr. James Charles Hughes and Holly Irene Mary Hughes nee Coffee of 2, Lang Road Centennial Park, Sydney.
He had six siblings: James Francis Hughes (1912-1960), Desmond Charles Hughes (1914-1944), Bryan Richard Hughes (1918-1966), Warren Anthony Hughes (1921-2001) and Evelyn Mary Hope Hughes (1923-1989). Their mother died in 1929, aged 44. Dr James Charles Hughes later married Maude Dulcie Butler to whom Rod's sixth sibling, Lloyd Allen Joseph Hughes was born in 1935. Dr James Charles Hughes died in 1943.
Rod Hughes was educated at Edgecliffe Preparatory School, Sydney (1923-29) St Ignatius College, Sydney (1930-35) and at the University of Sydney (1st Year Medicine 1936-37).
He left university after the first year and was then unemployed until 1939 when he was employed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pty. Ltd., in a Theatre Management role. At the time of his application for air crew he was the Manager at the Metro Theatre, Perth under direction of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pty. Ltd., and lived at Forrest House St George's Terrace, Perth.
He participated in swimming, tennis, rowing, football and athletics.
When he enlisted in the RAAF at Sydney on 9 November 1941 he was described as being 6' tall weighing 154 lbs with a fair complexion blue eyes and fair hair.
After training at No. 2 Initial Training School at Bradfield Park New South Wales, No. 8 Elementary Flying Training School at RAAF Narrandera, New South Wales and No. 8 Service Flying Training School at RAAF Bundaberg, Queensland he was awarded his Flying Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 14 January 1943.
On 25 February 1943, whilst on embarkation leave, he married Desolie Hughes nee Derriman at St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney and lived at 605 New South Head Road Rose Bay NSW.
He embarked for the UK on 6 March and on disembarkation was posted to No. 11 (RAAF) Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton on 18 April. His father was to die two days later.
On 15 June 1943 he was posted to No. 6 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Windrush in Gloucestershire for training on the twin engine Avro Anson. After 9 weeks at RAF Windrush he was the posted 10 miles north to No. 21 Operational Training Unit at RAF Moreton-in-Marsh, where he was to form a crew to undertake night bombing training on Vickers Wellingtons.
After training at Moreton-in-Marsh he and his crew were posted to No 205 Group in North Africa on 6 December 1943 and ultimately to No. 40 Squadron in Italy on 7 January 1944.
He is commemorated on the Sydney Roll of Honour and on Panel 124 of the Australian War Memorial at Canberra.
(2) Fl/Sgt. Kenneth William Shaw was probably born in 1921 at Barton-upon-Irwell, Lancashire, the son of William E. Shaw (a Planer Miller) and Maud Shaw nee Brooks of 225 Pendlebury Road, Pendlebury near Manchester. He had one sibling: Dennis Shaw born 1926.
(3) Sgt. Alexander Smart Millar was born in 1922 at Greenock East, Scotland the son of Joseph and Annie Juner Millar nee Smart of 37 Lynedoch Street, Greenock, Scotland. He enlisted in the RAFVR in 1940
He is commemorated on the Greenock Roll of Honour published by the Corporation of the Burgh of Greenock and the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle.
(4) Sgt. Walter Eric Samler was born in 1921 at Holborn, London the son of Ephraim Samler (a Newspaper Warehouseman) and Emma E. Samler nee Baldwin of 2 Brettenham Avenue Walthamstow London E17
He had two siblings: Ephraim H. Samler born 1920 and William Samler born 1933.
(5) Sgt. Francis Raymond Sweeney was born on 18 February 1924 at Subiaco, Western Australia the son of John Francis Sweeney (a General Carrier) and Ellen Sweeney of 172 Bagot Road, Subiaco. He was educated at St Patrick's Boys School Wellington Street Perth (January 1936- December 1939)
After leaving school he worked initially as a Garage Assistant and later as a Junior Clerk. He participated in football, cricket, athletics, swimming, table tennis and surfing
He joined the Air Training Corps on formation and was a member from 3 February 1942 until enlisting at Perth on 11 October 1942 when he was described as being 5'5" tall weighing 122 lbs with a fair complexion, brown eyes and brown hair.
After training at No. 5 Initial Training School at RAAF Clontarf, Queensland, No. 1 Wireless and Gunnery School at RAAF Ballarat, Victoria and No. 3 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAAF West Sale, Victoria 3 May 1943 he was awarded his Air Gunners Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 27 May 1943.
He embarked at Melbourne for the UK on 3 July 1943, disembarking in the UK on 11 August 1943 and was posted to No. 11 (RAAF) Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton the next day. Posted to No. 21 Operational Training Unit at RAF Moreton-in-Marsh on 31 August he crewed up Aussie pilot Francis Hughes and three more airmen and undertook night bombing training on Vickers Wellingtons.
Promoted to Flight Sergeant wef 27 November 1943 he was posted with the crew to No. 205 Group in North Africa on 7 December 1943 and ultimately to No. 40 Squadron in Italy on 7 January 1944
He is also commemorated on the Subiaco Fallen Soldiers Memorial and on Panel 131 of the Australian War Memorial at Canberra.
(1) Fl/Sgt. Francis Rodney Hughes - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 16 Column 2
(3) Sgt. Alexander Smart Millar - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 14 Column 1
(4) Sgt. Walter Eric Samler - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 15 Column 2
(5) Sgt. Francis Raymond Sweeney - having no known grave he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 16 Column 2
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - February 2019
With thanks to the sources quoted below.