15/16.08.1943 No. 61 Squadron Lancaster III W5002 QR-L Sgt. P. Victor Matthews
Date: 15/16th August 1943 (Sunday/Monday)
Unit: No. 61 Squadron
Type: Lancaster III
Base: RAF Syerston
Location: Rugles, France
Pilot: Sgt. P. Victor Matthews 658607 RAFVR Evaded (1)
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Kenneth Thomas Brentnall 1477508 RAFVR Age 21. Killed
Nav: F/O. Tom Downing 131604 RAFVR Age 21. Missing - believed killed
Air/Bmr: P/O. Conrad Larnach 149693 RAFVR Age 22. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Gordon Arthur Angwin 1386110 RAFVR Age 21. Missing - believed killed
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. John Edward Walden AUS/425386 RAAF Age 27. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. James John Griffin 1153700 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Wednesday 22nd March 2017 - we have just been informed that sadly Victor Mathews has passed away.
Page placed by the nephew of the Navigator who researched this loss over many years.
Update: May 2017 amazing new photographs and information added - thanks to Gary Kostka.
REASON FOR LOSS:
This is a record of the loss in action of my late uncle, Flying Officer Tom Downing, RAFVR. The actual circumstances of his loss were always something of a mystery and a source of great wonderment for me as I grew up in post-war Hull. Although I was born almost eight months after he was reported missing, some of my earliest memories are of a loving family desperate to believe he might somehow return one day. I have shared in these thoughts and feelings, with an enigmatic affinity that has remained with me over the years, though diminishing as time has passed.
There were no remains or identification ever found for Tom Downing (or Sgt. Andy Angwin, the Wireless Operator/Gunner), and they are simply commemorated on the Royal Air Force Memorial, Runnymede, for aircrew having no known graves. I was taken on a to visit to the new Memorial by my maternal Grandparents when I was eight years old, and I am sure this has had a profound and lasting effect on me.
My father Herbert served as a Corporal with the RAF Police during the war. After the pilot’s safe return to the UK in November 1943, my father had somehow managed to contact him. They had a brief meeting, but the pilot was unable to provide any further information at the time, other than that which he had officially reported. He told of how he had been rendered unconscious on baling-out of the burning aircraft, and had no knowledge of his crew’s fate.
My Grandmother Eliza, was heartbroken. She never seemed to recover from the loss of their youngest son, and died in 1949. From as young as I can remember, until about ten years old, I spent almost every weekend with my Grandparents. I slept in Tom’s old room, with many little reminders of him; photographs and books, even one or two of his old toys remained in the cupboard over the stairs. I treasured these, especially a delicate silk-covered model aircraft, which I was allowed to handle, with the greatest care.
In 1986, I wrote to the RAF, Air Historical Branch 5, at the Ministry of Defence, to inquire if there were any RAF records kept, which might provide some information to help me understand what had happened more than forty years earlier. I received a very polite reply confirming the identities of the aircrew, the location of the crash site and the aircraft number, W5002, coded QR-L with 61 Squadron, RAF.
Further enquiries resulted in correspondence with RAF Air Historical Branch 3, which erroneously listed Tom as the Bomb Aimer. (This was later corrected). They confirmed the location of the graves of the four crew buried at Rugles, France. I was advised to contact RAF Personnel Management Centre at Gloucester for any further information and for a copy of Tom’s Service Record.
Whilst awaiting a reply from Gloucester, my Mother-in-law told me of a letter published in the Hull Daily Mail dated 27 September 1990, from a Monsieur Albert Lecocq of Rugles, France, and she sent me a cutting. The compilation of these records and communications are a direct result of that chance letter reaching me, 200miles away, in Berwick upon Tweed.
In April 1991, I had the opportunity to meet Victor Matthews, the pilot, for myself. He and his wife Rosemary visited us in Berwick upon Tweed, following further correspondence with Albert Lecocq. Later that year, my wife Pat and I accompanied them to Rugles, for a formal reception by the civic authority, and to place an engraved plaque at the graves. It was a very poignant and moving time for all concerned. I felt privileged to have had the chance to visit the site of the crash, and to talk with the local people, who had not only witnessed the events of August 1943, but had survived to tell others. Recently, my researches concluded with the confirmation of the loss of Lancaster W5002 (QR-L) being credited to Leutnant Detlef Grössfuss, (see notes) DKG, of 2/JG2 Richthofen Geschwader. I believe he was wounded in action on 5th July 1944, but survived the war, as Oberleutnant, leading 9/JG2. He is credited with 30 victories, and was awarded the DKG (German Cross, in Gold), the Ehrenpokal and Iron Cross First Class.
Originally, my intention was simply to arrange this information into an appropriate format, which could be retained within the family for posterity. I now feel satisfied that I have finally been able to eliminate all doubts concerning my Uncle Tom’s loss, and I have prepared the following narrative, drawing directly on the official records and my experiences in France. The records and transcripts are appended.
Flying Officer Tom Downing RAFVR:
Tom was born in Hull, East Yorkshire, on 19th October 1921, the youngest son of Herbert and Eliza Downing, and younger brother to my father, Herbert. There had been three earlier children, but they had all died in infancy. He was always known as Tommy, and was educated at Malet Lambert High School, having attained a scholarship there, and entered the Police Service as a cadet in 1940.
After attending No.5 Aircrew Selection Board, he was recommended for training as Observer/Pilot and he joined the Royal Air Force on 20th July 1941, aged 18. Tommy reported to No.1 Aircrew Reception Centre on 27th October for initial kitting, preliminary drill instruction and his introduction to service life. Posting to No.1 ITW (Initial Training Wing) followed on 29th November, for basic flying theory, service protocol, etc.
Promoted to LAC on 23rd January 1942, he continued to No.1 (EAOS) (Elementary Air Observer School) on 14th February. On 17th May he embarked for Canada, to join No.32 Advanced Navigation School at RAF Charlottetown, where he qualified as an Observer/Navigator. (Until 1942, observer training, comprised of the four disciplines of navigation, wireless, gunnery and bomb aiming. After 1942, training was confined to the individual ‘trades’.) This advanced course earned him the qualification of the coveted “Flying O” brevet, and an appointment to a commission in the rank of Flying Officer, effective from 24th September 1942, as a Navigator.
Then it was on to No.33 Advanced Navigation School, followed by parachute training, finally returning to No.4 Air Observer School before embarking for the UK to arrive at No.19 Operational Training Unit, RAF Kinloss. Posting to No.1661 HCU (Lancaster Heavy Conversion Unit) at RAF Winthorpe, Lincolnshire (A satellite of RAF Swinderby) followed on 12th May 1943. It was at this stage of training that the process of ‘crewing-up’ would start. A given number of individual trades would be assembled in a hanger to voluntarily form up into a specific number of crews. On completion of this course, Tom was posted to No.61 Squadron at RAF Syerston, Nottinghamshire, to commence operational flying on 24th June 1943. It was the culmination of almost two years intensive training.
The records show the other members of the crew, (all NCO’s), were also posted in to 61Squadron on 24th June 1943 from 1661 HCU, and presumably the seven had formed up as a crew there, prior to their first operational posting. Sgt Matthews first flew as U/T pilot (under training) with Plt.Off. W.C. Parsons as Captain (pilot in command) to Gelsenkirchen on 25/26 June. On 28/29 June he had his own command for a raid on Cologne, with his new crew and Sgt.Dudley as navigator. On 1/2 July, the same crew flew a minelaying operation, but with F/O. H.L. Hewitt as navigator. Two nights later, on 3/4 July, and a further raid on Cologne, but again with a different navigator, Sgt. S.G. Palk (2) this time. A short break of four days, then on 8/9 July an operation (unspecified) with yet another navigator, Sgt.J.K.Forrest. The next night, 9/10 July, saw a return to Gelsenkirchen, again with another navigator, Sgt. L.R. Lovett.
For the first time operationally, on 2/3 August, the ‘full crew’ of Sgt Matthews (captain and pilot), Sgt. Brentnell (flight engineer), Sgt. Larnach (bomb aimer), Sgt. Angwin (WT/ air gunner), Sgt. Waldren (air gunner), Sgt. Griffin (air gunner) and Tom as navigator, flew on an operation to Mannheim in Lancaster W5002 (Q-RL). The next night (10/11 August) they again flew together, in the same aircraft, raiding Nurnberg. A one-day break, then on 12/13 August, (again in what they then considered to be ‘their’ aircraft, now named ‘London Pride’), for the long haul of eight and a half hours to Milan and back. The reason for Tom not being with the other members of the crew for their first five trips together is not known.
On the night of 15/16 August, the crew were briefed for a repeat raid on Milan, flying exactly the same route, Syerston - Selsey Bill - Cabourg - Lac du Bourget – Milan. The bomb load comprised of 1 x 4000lb ‘Cookie’, 3 x 150 x 4lb Incendiary bombs and 2 x 16 x 30lb incendiaries. The Lancaster BIII took off from Syerston at about 2230 hours in good weather and a full moon. Course was set at 2300 hours and the Pilot climbed on track to the English coast. The French coast was crossed at 16,500 ft., at Caen, dead on track and time.
Just after crossing the coast the Rear Gunner reported an unidentified aircraft on the starboard quarter. The Pilot executed a steep diving turn to starboard and the aircraft passed to port and was identified as a Beaufighter. During this incident Monica, set to give warning at 600 yards, functioned perfectly. The pips increasing in speed as the fighter approached and decreasing in speed as she overtook. The Rear Gunner remarked on the excellence of the device.
Sgt. Matthews then turned back on to course and two or three minutes later, without any warning from Monica or either Gunner, the Lancaster was attacked by a fighter with cannon and machine gun fire. The attack appeared to come from astern and red flashes, which may have been tracer, filled the cockpit. There was a tearing sound in the fuselage, the whole aircraft vibrated violently and Sgt. Matthews could hear shells impacting and exploding behind him. He immediately executed a very steep diving turn to starboard.
Three or four seconds later a wall of red flame shot up from the vicinity of the forward escape hatch and enveloped the Pilot and the Flight Engineer who was sitting beside him. Sgt. Matthews pulled down his goggles and then tried to regain control, but the cockpit was now filled with thick white smoke, which blotted out everything and he was quite unable to see his instruments.
The Lancaster now appeared to turn on its back as Sgt. Matthews has a strong recollection of being thrown against his safety harness. He had heard nothing from any other member of the crew and knowing that he had little hope of regaining control he gave the order to bale out.
Left: Lt. Detlev Grossfuss 2./JG2 (courtesy Gary Konska)
Flames were still coming up into the cockpit and realising that he had little chance of reaching the hatch, Sgt. Matthews, who was wearing a seat type parachute, opened the cabin window on the port side. At that moment, the aircraft turned over on its back. He then undid his safety harness and believes that he was immediately thrown against the roof, and the aircraft was in an inverted spin. One arm, however, was through the open window and he managed to grasp the frame and got his head through. He then placed his foot against the arm of the Pilot’s seat and grasping the window frame on both sides with his hands managed to force himself through.
As soon as he fell free he pulled the ripcord and when his parachute opened he lost his left boot. He has a vague memory of floating down through cloud and seeing the incendiary load burning on the ground, but no sign of the Lancaster. He then lost consciousness and only recovered when he hit the ground. He was lying in a field some 3km west of Rugles, about 25 miles S.W. of Evreux. The Lancaster was by then burning furiously about 400 yards away. Sgt. Matthews had been wearing two pairs of gloves and the outer of these was completely burned. So were his helmet and oxygen mask, which he had not removed, and he had considerable burns on his face.
The next day Sgt. Matthews was told that the Germans had given out that they had found five bodies in the wreckage. A few days later he was told that the bomb aimer had been found by the Germans, some distance away, with his parachute open but very seriously wounded. They had shot him, placed the body in the wreckage and announced that six bodies had been found. Local people who had been the first on the scene of the crash, and two carpenters who were later to make up the coffins, reported human remains being found in the field nearby. Being unrecognisable as anything other than fragments, they had buried them, out of respect (and to prevent them being found by dogs and birds). There had also been other remains found within the aircraft fuselage.
Four of the crew were given a formal military funeral and buried at the Communal Cemetery of Rugles, but local people were forbidden by the Germans to attend. Amazingly, the following day the graves were completely covered in flowers, left by the locals, who had clearly braved the curfew to pay their respects overnight.
Above: Lt. Detlev Grossfuss of 2./JG2 on extreme right (courtesy Gary Konska)
M. Robert de Villain, who was only in his teens at the time, related how he had watched a German Luftwaffe officer at the crash site in the early morning, over the next few days, standing quietly to attention before saluting and then moving away.
Sgt. Matthews reported, on his safe return to the UK, of how he recovered himself, bundled-up his parachute and walked to a nearby wood. He pushed the parachute under some bracken and covered it with his Mae West and twigs. His face was badly burned and he said he felt like giving myself up to get medical attention. On hearing some shouting nearby, which sounded like German, he decided then that he would not surrender without a struggle. He had lost one boot and walked to the best of his ability away from the voices, keeping in the shadow of hedges. Within half an hour he saw some farm buildings and, on closer inspection, discovered a haystack under a barn roof, which seemed to offer the possibility of a hide-out. This was the farm of Château La Chaise, at St. Antonin.
He hid here throughout the day of 16th August. Having observed the people in the farm and decided that they would probably be friendly (he could hear the BBC news in French), he finally decided to make his identity known. He was given food and shelter and allowed to remain overnight. On the 18th August one of the farmer’s sons, Andre Aubrie, brought a woman to see him, who was from some nearby village or farm. She brought a dictionary and appeared prepared to help him. She gave him one or two suggestions about the best route to follow through France to get away through Spain.
On the morning of Friday 20th August, a man appeared who seemed to have been informed that Sgt. Matthews was there, and from this point on, he was helped on his way by the French Resistance. He returned to the UK early in November, 1943.
Also lost during the same operation from 61 Squadron:
Lancaster III DV186 Flown by 21 year old, P/O. Ronald Steer 147998 RAFVR from Keynsham, Somerset, England - killed with all 7 crew.
Lancaster III ED722 Flown by 21 year old, P/O. James Henry Miller 155221 RAFVR from Tottenham, Middlesex, England killed with 4 other crew, 2 taken PoW with one other evading capture.
(1) Arrived back in UK at RAF Tangmere on a Lysander - Operation ‘Oriel’. 12th November 1943. Lysander flown by Fl/Lt. R.W.J. Hooper DFC. The ‘Oriel’ operation was to land 3 Lysanders - dropping off ‘ agents’ and picking up evaders. Due to very muddy conditions only 1 Lysander was able to make the landing - dropping off 2 agents - eventually the skilled pilot managed to take off with 2 French Officers and Sgt. Mathews on board - landing back in the UK in the early hours. During the evasion Sgt Mathews had in fact been helped by M. Fiquet who had taken him to Paris on the 20th August where he had to remain in several 'safe houses’.
(2) P/O. Stanley George Palk 155927 RAFVR from Merton, Surrey, England was posted as ‘missing’ on the 18th August 1943 - Lancaster I ED661 lost on an operation to Peenemünde with all 8 crew.
Notes: This was the 3rd claim by Lt. Detlev Grossfuss of 2./JG2 - 3 on this operation alone - Lancaster DV186 also from 61 Squadron and Lancaster ED498 from 207 Squadron. It is understood that he shot W5002 down whilst at 4,000 mtrs at 23:20 hrs. He survived the war despite being shot down by P-47’s on the 5th July 1944 at St. Andre. 7 Night kills with a further 13 during day operations.
Sgt. Kenneth Thomas Brentnall. Rugles Communal Cemetery. Grave 2. Son of Cyril F. B. Brentnall and Ethel M. Brentnall, of Rangemore, Staffordshire, England.
F/O. Tom Downing. Runnymede Memorial. Panel 124. Born on the 19th October 1921 at Hull, the son of Herbert and Eliza Downing, of 5 Whitby Avenue, Whitby Street, Hull, England.
P/O. Conrad Larnach. Rugles Communal Cemetery. Grave 3. Son of Conrad and Elizabeth Ann Larnach, of Willington, Co. Durham, England.
Sgt. Gordon Arthur Angwin. Runnymede Memorial. Panel 140. Son of Ernest and Maude Blanche Angwin, of Westminster, London, England.
Fl/Sgt. John Edward Walden. Rugles Communal Cemetery. Grave 4. Born on the 22nd August 1915 at Burketown, Queensland, Australia, the son of Robert John and Kathaleen Annie Walden, of ‘Derveen’, Woombye, Queensland, Australia. Prior to service worked as a Cane Farmer. Enlisted in Brisbane.
Sgt. James John Griffin. Rugles Communal Cemetery. Grave 1. Son of Llewellyn and Florence Annie Griffin, of Bath, Somerset, England.
Researched and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Brian Downing who carried out extensive research into this loss and submitted it to Aircrew Remembered in August 2016. Any relatives who would like copies of this page - plus the extensive other research material sent to Aircrew Remembered are invited to contact Brian Downing - please contact us where your details will then be forwarded. Also, a great many thanks to Gary Kostka for further information and photographs submitted May 2017. Gary is in contact with Karren French - daughter of the sister of Sgt. P/O. Conrad Larnach. Also thanks to Denis Matthews, brother of the pilot who contacted us in May 2017.