17/18.08.1941 50 Squadron Hampden I AE185 P/O. Eric C. Maskell
Date: 17/18th August 1941 (Sunday/Monday)
Unit: No. 50 Squadron
Type: Hampden I
Base: RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire
Location: Paterswoldsemeer, Netherlands
Pilot: P/O. Eric Cyril Maskell 89353 RAF Age ? PoW No: 3738 Camp: Stalag Luft Sagan and Belaria.
Nav: P/O. Henry Law 61297 RAFVR Age 26. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. George Albert Cowell 923093 RAFVR Age 21. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Peter Francis Barclay Orwin 551839 RAF Age 19. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the night of 17th and 18th August 1941 RAF Bomber Command targeted the German cities of Duisburg and Cologne. A diversion attack was launched at the city of Bremen. Among the aircraft that was used for the attack on Bremen was Handley Page Hampden I AE185 of 50 Squadron.
Right: Key to locations marked on main map shown above. Dirk Munk, who researched this loss, provided locations on Google Earth link which is far more accurate, however due to possible reader restrictions we have used Google maps.
The aircraft ascended from RAF Swinderbury in Lincolshire on August 17th at 22:55 hrs. The route took it to the city of Enkhuizen (Netherlands), and from there to Bremen. Unfortunately it would never reach its target. Over the city of Groningen the Hampden was attacked by a German Dornier Do 215 B-5 night fighter equiped with a FuG 202 (Funk-Gerät) Lichtenstein B/C radar. The fighter belonged to 4./NJG1 (4th Staffel) of the 1st night fighter wing (Nachtjagdgeschwader)) based at Deelen-Arnhem airbase. The pilot was Lieutenant (Oberleutnant) Ludwig Becker.
Left: Oberleutnant Ludwig Becker
Ludwig Becker was a Luftwaffe ace, but not just any Luftwaffe ace. After his 25th victory his was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on July 1st 1942. He was an important developer of the German night fighter tactics, and he also designed a piece of night fighting equipment. After his 46th victory (all at night) he was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross on February 26th 1943. At the same day he left for his 165th sortie. However this time it was a daylight attack with a Messerschmitt Bf 110G-4 on a group of American Boeing B-17 bombers. The Me110, Ludwig Becker, and his radar operator sergeant (Oberfeldwebel) Josef Straub were reported missing in action over the North Sea, north of the island of Schiermonnikoog. The portrait shows Ludwig Becker with the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross. That picture is a bit of an enigma, because it was made in Munich! How that could have been made there on the same day the medal was awarded, and knowing that he was shot down at that day 700 kilometres to the north is a bit of a mystery! He was posthumously promoted to captain (Hauptmann) of the reserve. (See Kracker Luftwaffe Archive on this site.)
The Hampden was a rather small aircraft, as we can read in a quote from Wilfred John 'Mike' Lewis on rafbombercommand.com:
“I did my first flight and first tour on Hampdens. A beautiful aeroplane to fly, terrible to fly in! Cramped, no heat, no facilities where you could relieve yourself. You got in there and you were stuck there. The aeroplane was like a fighter. It was only 3 feet wide on the outside of the fuselage and the pilot was a very busy person. There were 111 items for the pilot to take care of because on the original aircraft he had not only to find the instruments, the engine and all that, but also he had all the bomb switches to hold the bombs.”
Left: The cockpit of the Handley Page Hampden. It shows how narrow and cramped the aircraft was, and why it rightfully deserved its nickname "The Flying Suitcase".
The pilot had a sliding plexiglas cowl over his seat, so for him it was relatively easy to bail out if the plane came crashing down. For the others, it was much more difficult, maybe even almost impossible. That can explain why the pilot survived, and the other crew members unfortunately perished in the crash.
To understand the final moments of the Hamden before the crash, it is important to know it was flying westward, and no longer eastward. It was also still more or less flying in its last moments. If it would have dived nose down into the ground, it would have completely disappeared in the very soft peaty soil.
A few eyewitness reports of the crash exist. The exact dates of these reports are unknown but most likely they will have been written down around 1965. One of the eye witnesses was Mr. Frits Kuiper. At the time he was 21, and he was living in hiding for the Germans near the Paterswolder (these days Paterswoldse) Meer lake. It was between midnight and 01:00 hrs. in the morning, as he witnessed the Hampdens flying over the city of Groningen. It was the night of Saturday on Sunday, and all weekend campers had left the shore of the lake. He heard gunfire, and at a certain moment he saw a fire in the air. There was a dogfight going on! Then he saw a flash of light, presumably caused by exploding fuel tanks. The aircraft came screaming down, “We were looking at it, and we had no idea it would crash so near to us” Mr. Kuiper tells, “It sheared over our heads, the engines flew on for quite a distance, they still must be in the lake somewhere. The pieces of the plane were everywhere, parts came down on the summer cottage of the Smit family close to the lake, it burned down to the ground. The larger pieces, a wing and a part of the fuselage, were on Mr. Lok's land, about 200 meters from the lake”.
Mr. Lok himself was a farmer, and his farm was at Meerweg 132, about 700 meters east from the crash site. He heard the dogfight, and he even heard bullets splashing in the nearby canal. Then he heard a loud bang, however he didn't really take notice of it since the air was filled with bangs and shooting, and he also heard bangs at the lake. He had gone upstairs to look out of the window, but he hadn't seen anything at first. It was only after he opened the door of the cowshed that he saw the fire at the lake, and when he looked aside he saw the fuselage of the aircraft at about 8 meters from the door.
To recapitulate, there was the apparent explosion of a fuel tank, and two major parts of the fuselage were found about 500 meters apart from each other. To understand what may have happened we should look at the construction of the Hampden. The fuselage was so narrow, that it would have been very difficult to mount all the equipment if the fuselage would have been made in one piece. Instead the fuselage was made in a left and a right half, all the equipment was fitted in both halves. When that was done the left and right half of the fuselage were more or less bolted together. The Hampden had fuel tanks in the outer wings, close to the engines, and a big fuel tank in the centre part of the wing, so inside of the fuselage. The fuel tanks were not self healing, so once a fuel tank had been penetrated by bullets, the fuel would leak out of them. What may have happened is that the central fuel tank was hit by bullets from the Dornier, and that the fuel exploded. The explosion may have split the two halves of the upper fuselage, one half landed at Mr. Lok's farm, and the other half 500 meters further on near the shore of the lake.
It is reported that the Hampden was flying at an altitude of 3200 meters, over the city of Groningen, or a bit more to the south. That is about 4 to 5 kilometers north of the crash site. That means the aircraft made a right hand turn, and dived down. At a distance of between 1.5 to 2 kilometres north- east of the crash site the pilot Eric Cyril Maskell bailed out. We can determine this based on the position where his glove was found, and the south-south-western wind that was blowing that evening, and the pilot also landed east of the Hoornsche Diep canal. The bombs that the plane was carrying landed near the farm of the Onnes family at the Meerweg. They set fire to a crumbling shed, and caused a lot of roof tiles to fall of the farm. It may be that the pilot released the bombs, or that the bombs were released by the exploding fuel tank that was positioned exactly over the bomb bay. Anyway, it appears that the aircraft pulled its nose up after loosing its bomb load, since it did not dive into the lake, but landed almost horizontally in the lake.
After bailing out, the pilot, Eric Cyril Maskell, landed in the pastures east of the Hoornsche Diep canal. From there he must have walked through the fields or over the dike along the canal to the polder mill “De Helper”, about 2.5 kilometres north of the crash site. “De Helper” is a windmill that was used to pump water out of the polder Helpman, east of the canal. At the time it was located directly at the eastern bank of the canal. However in the 1960's it was no longer in use and was broken down, also because it was right in the way of the new highway A35. Later the mill was completely restored and rebuild near the lake, approximately 1 kilometre north of the crash site. So the mill still exists, but not at its original location.
The pilot must have seen the characteristic shape of the mill against the sky, so it makes sense he walked up to it. The miller, Mr. Tuinman, had seen the explosion of the plane from his bedroom window that was facing to the south. At about 3 o'clock in the morning he had heard some noises around the house, but he didn't dare to look what was going on. At five o'clock he got out of his bed, he was going to help a farmer with milking the cows. When he got behind the house he saw a man with his hands up in the air, who said “English”. The man was about 24 years of age, with dark blond or black hair, and he was wearing a grey aviation overall with fur lined boots. Mr. Tuinman asked himself what on earth he should do with the man, but at first he and his wife gave him something to eat and a warm drink.
Mr. Tuinman was inclined to hide the pilot, but he didn't know where. The Germans would surely be looking for the aircrew by now (the other members hadn't been found yet), and most probably farmers already had seen the pilot. Not knowing what else to do he went to the police station of the Helpman district of the city of Groningen, about a kilometre north-east of his mill. There he talked to the policeman on duty, who happened to be “good”. In the language of those days, “good” meant not collaborating with the Germans. The policeman reached the same conclusion as Mr. Tuinman. Under the given circumstances it would be nearly impossible to hide an Allied pilot, and therefor the best thing would be to have him picked up by the police and handed over to the Germans. And sure enough, later on the Germans came and searched all of the mill for other crew members, even though Mr. Tuinman explained to them that they were too late, the pilot had already been handed over to the police.
Immediately after the crash, Mr. Frits Kuiper and his friend Mr. Nico van Oosten searched the crash site, they could do so because the Germans didn't arrive until after 3 o'clock. Despite the fact that most of the aircraft was in the lake, many parts were spread all over the shore of the lake. Mr. Kuiper 'rescued' a machine gun, and he found big packets of pamphlets in German, and some strange devices that turned out to be the tubes for the reconnoissance flare-chutes. Near a small creek he also found one of the crew members, half in the water, and half on shore. He pulled him out, only to discover that the man was already dead. Later on this turned out to be the body of the navigator, the 24 year old Canadian pilot officer Henry Law.
On Saturday August 23th the body of the second crew member surfaced on the lake. It was the body of the aft lower gunner, the 19 year old Flight Sergeant Peter Francis Barclay Orwin. Despite his tender age, he was already married and left a widow, Jean Patricia Garnett Orwin.
On Monday 25th the body of the last crew member surfaced. It belonged to the wireless operator, the 21 year old sergeant George Albert Cowell. The police report describes his body as “badly mutilated”. Given his position in the aircraft, it may be that he was hit by bullets of the Dornier. If the Dornier came diving down from behind, he would have been in the line of fire if the central fuel tank was hit.
The bodies of the three killed crew members were buried with full military honours at the beautiful park-like “Eshof” cemetery in Haren. The story goes that a member of the Orange committee, in morning dress, was waiting outside of the cemetery for the Germans to leave after the last funeral had taken place. After they had left he entered the cemetery and laid a wreath on the graves. (The Orange committee organises festivities in connection with the royal family of the Netherlands, the House of Orange).
At first simple white wooden crosses were placed on the graves, later to be replaced by standard Commonwealth headstones. Very soon after the war a stone with the text of a poem was also placed. The poem was found in the overall of the wireless operator, George Albert Cowell.
The full text of the poem, with the lines on the stone in bold:
Dear! of all happy in the hour, most blest
He who has found our hid security,
Assured in the dark tides of the world that rest,
And heard our word, 'Who is so safe as we?'
We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,
And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.
We have built a house that is not for Time's throwing.
We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.
War knows no power. Safe shall be my going,
Secretly armed against all death's endeavour;
Safe though all safety's lost; safe where men fall;
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.
Above: picture shows the stone at the foot of the four graves. It contains the text of the four last lines of War Sonnet II - Safety, written by the war poet Rupert Brooke (RNVR, 1887 - 1915).
The four commonwealth graves at the "Eshof" general cemetery in Haren. At the far left is the grave of New Zealand Spitfire pilot F/O. 427048 Donald Graeme Lane Taylor, age 21. Killed February 8th 1945 when his Spitfire crashed into a house. He had nothing to do with the Hampden crash. The next three detailed pictures of the headstones of the Hampden crew also show the sequence in which they are placed.
P/O. Henry Law. Haren General Cemetery. Plot 1. Row G. Grave 3. Son of Robert Brown Law and Ruby M. Law, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Sgt. George Albert Cowell. Haren General Cemetery. Plot 1. Row G. Grave 5. Son of George Ernest and Mildred Violet Cowell, of Shepherds Bush, London, England.
Fl/Sgt. Peter Francis Barclay Orwin. Haren General Cemetery. Plot 1. Row G. Grave 4. Son of John Barclay Orwin and Vivienne Orwin, husband of Jean Patricia Garnett Orwin, of St. Marylebone, London, England.
Researched by Mr. Dirk Munk for Aircrew Remembered - October 2015. Further information may be added to this page in time as research continues.