Operation: Special Operations Executive (SOE) Container Drop
Date: 22/23 July 1944 (Saturday/Sunday)
Unit: No.620 RAF Squadron
Type: Short Stirling IV
Base: Fairford, Gloucestershire
Location: 4km east of Brillac at Pleuvit, France
Pilot: F/O Ernest Cameron Oke, J/25965 RCAF Age 22. Killed
Flt. Eng: Sgt. Ronald Alfred Wilkins, 1818642 RAFVR Age 20 Killed
Navigator: F/Sgt. Thomas Michael Galvon, R/178884 RCAF Age 22 Killed
Air Bmr: F/Sgt. Luke Anthony Higgins R/154170 RCAF Age 27 Killed
W. Op: F/O Angus Sutherland Middleton, 53253 RAF Age 25 Killed
Air/Gnr: F/Sgt. Robert George Carrothers, J/197348 RCAF Age 19 Killed
REASON FOR LOSS
Taking off at 23:06 hours, Flying Officer Oke and crew were en route for Drop Zone 117, located at 45° 59’ N, 00° 53’ E near Montrollet, Charente department, France on their third operational trip.
Stirling LJ864 would be one of ten of the squadron’s twenty six aircraft to be detailed to drop supplies over France that night. However, only five aircraft would accomplish their mission due to low cloud obscuring the target areas.
While the exact nature of the cause of the crash of LJ864 is unknown, squadron records show that returning crews from similar targets that night reported that they had encountered flak at Le Harve and that it is possible LJ864 was hit as they crossed the French coast. In addition one other aircraft was attacked by two Ju 88 night fighters but managed to evade the enemy and escape without damage.
In the case of LJ864, it would seem unlikely though, that they would continue to fly almost another 400 kilometers further south before crashing due to flak damage or an encounter with enemy night fighters.
Many times Special Operations crews were required to fly at very low altitudes in total darkness and often in bad weather searching for remote drop zones in order to re-supply members of the French Resistance and Special Air Service (SAS) working behind enemy lines.
Although flak or other enemy action may have been a contributing factor, it is more than probable that the actual cause of the crash was by flying into high ground due to the reported heavy cloud base or some mechanical difficulty while approaching the target at low altitude.
A witness to the crash, 17 year old Edmond Nyst, was a member of the Maquis Foch resistance group in 1944. In 2004, Mr.Nyst wrote a letter to Jim Oke describing the events that took place that night:
"In July 1944 I was seventeen and a member of the Maquis Foch in Charente France. One night I was on parachute duty again. We heard the plane coming but before we could light the fires the plane hit the ground and exploded. There was nothing we could do. We were the first to attend the crash site of the plane. The plane was on its way to parachute supplies and crashed in a clearing not far from Brillac. It hit the ground and exploded. For quite a while we could not get near it. There were a lot of subsequent explosions and bullets exploding. After daylight although the fuselage was still burning we were able to get closer. There were three crews more or less intact. Their parachutes were deployed but they had come down with the plane. One of the crew's bodies was visibly burning inside the wrecked fuselage and another one had been blown to pieces. There were parachute containers all over the place. I was there for the rest of the day picking up the debris and what weapons and munitions we could salvage. A few days later my group and other Maquis from around the area attended the funerals in the Brillac cemetery. It was an elaborate affair. Other companies of Maquis attended as well. There must have been three or four hundred men there. Forty five years later, during a holiday in France, I returned to Brillac with my wife to pay my respects to these five poor devils who had given their life to supply us with our needs."
The Crew of Stirling LJ864
Pilot F/O Ernest Cameron Oke
Ernest Cameron Oke was born in Toronto, Canada on 23 July 1922, where his father operated an electrical contracting
business. He was the son of Ernest Wakefield Oke and Olive Elizabeth Clark. In 1939 the family moved to the town of Cochrane in Northern Ontario where Ernest Oke became the manager of the town public utilities such as the electricity and water supply. Cochrane is located about 700 kilometers north of Toronto and is a forest industry and railway centre.
Cameron Oke attended Cochrane High School and stayed in school for an extra term to qualify for RCAF pilot training. While at school he worked part time at the local post office. On 9 March 1942, he traveled to North Bay, Onatrio and enrolled in the RCAF. He began his military career in April 1942 at No.5 Manning Depot in Lachine, Quebec and had a fairly typical experience in the Commonwealth Air Training Plan which was fully functional by that stage of the war. He attended No.5 Initial Training School in Belleville, Ontario from July to October 1942 and then began flying training on 11 October at No.10 Elementary Flying Training School in Pendleton, Ontario which used the DH-82C Tiger Moth aircraft. From there he moved, in late December 1942, to No.5 Service Flying Training School in Brantford, Ontario which operated Avro Anson aircraft. He was awarded his pilot wings on 29 April 1943 and promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer soon afterwards. After a short period of home leave he embarked at Halifax on 26 June 1943 for England.
On arrival in England, P/O Oke went first to the RCAF No.3 Personnel Reception Centre (3 PRC) located at Bournemouth on the South Coast of England while awaiting assignment to operational flying duties. He went to No.14 (Pilot) Advanced Flying Unit later that summer at RAF Ossington and then in November reported to No.19 Operational Training Unit at RAF Forres, Scotland and a satellite base of RAF Kinloss to fly the Whitley aircraft. While stationed there, his service record shows that he spent several days at RAF No.10 (O) AFU Dumfries at the end of January 1944 after making a forced landing but gives no further details as to the reason. On 11 February 1944 he moved on to No.81 OTU at RAF Sleap in Shropshire, a satellite of RAF Tilstock, to continue flying the Whitley aircraft. Now part of 38 Group, crews were being trained on the Whitley's as tugs for Horsa gliders in preparation for the coming invasion on the 6 of June. It was at one of these locations that he most likely encountered fellow Canadian RCAF members Sgt. Tom Galvon, navigator, Sgt. Luke Higgings, air bombardier, and Sgt. Bob Carrothers, air gunner, and in the method of the time "crewed up" and formed a crew that would proceed on operations. In March of 1944, F/O Oke and his crew (he had been promoted again in November 1943) arrived at No. 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Tilstock to begin flying the Stirling aircraft. The Stirling was larger and more complex and required a flight engineer and at this time they were probably joined by RAF members, Sgt. Ron Wilkins, flight engineer and F/O Angus Middleton, wireless operator.
The Stirling was designed before the War as a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft and served in that role for the first few years of the war but improvements in German defenses and the advent of improved aircraft such as the Halifax and Lancaster had caused the withdrawal of the Stirling from the bombing campaign in late 1943. It was decided to reallocate some of the existing Stirling aircraft and Squadrons to the Allied Expeditionary Air Force which was being prepared to support the planned invasion of Europe in the coming months. The existing Mk III bomber aircraft were able to drop supplies in lieu of bombs and were used in this role. However, a new variant the Stirling IV was introduced that was able to tow gliders and drop paratroops as well as stores from the normal bomb bay which was retained. The dorsal and nose guns were removed and a clear nose section installed.
620 Squadron had operated as part of RAF Bomber Command but in early 1944 it was reassigned to 38 Group and continued to operate Stirling III aircraft in the new role of support to resistance forces in France. The Squadron soon converted to the Stirling IV and practiced glider towing operations in preparation for the invasion of France. During the D-Day invasion of Normandy, 620 Squadron was active in towing gliders and dropping supplies as part of Operation Overlord. There were several aircraft lost and F/O Oke and his crew were sent to the Squadron, located at RAF Fairford as replacements.
Upon joining 620 Squadron, Cameron Oke would have continued with local training flights to prepare him and his crew for operational employment. There is an indication he went on an operational mission with an experienced crew on the night of 21 June as a second pilot to observe actual operational flying. He and his crew flew a supply drop mission on the night of 23 June and then a mission listed as "airborne operations over Normandy."
Cameron Oke was just about to celebrate his 22nd birthday at the time of his death.
The Special Operations role presented difficult and challenging missions
requiring careful navigation to a precise rendezvous point or drop zone at night
while subject to the usual dangers of weather, mechanical failures and enemy
action. There was no opportunity for mutual support such as was available to the
bomber Squadrons operating as part of a main bomber force. Due to the
circumstances of the crash, it is not possible to state with certainty the cause
of the crash of Stirling LJ864. Reports from local residents indicate the
aircraft contacted the roof of a small building in an area known as Pluevi a few
kilometers east of Brillac. It then reported burst into flames and cashed into
an adjoining field. The possibility of prior technical failure or damage due to
enemy action cannot be discounted or the aircraft may simply have flown too low
in deteriorating weather conditions whilst attempting to reach the assigned drop
zone for the evening.
F/O E.C. Oke's name appeared in a casualty list on 25 Aug 1944 in the Globe
and Mail newspaper printed in Toronto, Ontario as was normal RCAF practice at
the time. A further casualty list that appeared on 11 Sep 1945 (list number
1,266) listed Personnel Previously Missing, Believed Killed, Now Officially
OKE, Ernest Cameron, F.O., (NOK) E.E.W. Oke,
(father) Cochrane, Ont.
Because of wartime secrecy and the need to protect the nature of the Special
Operations behind enemy lines and the remoteness of the mishap, F/O Oke's family
was not made aware of the circumstances of their loss loss until well after the
war was over.
The people of the village of Brillac have provided careful care of grave of
the crew members of Stirling LJ864 who rest in the village cemetery. A Service
of Remembrance was held in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the
Contributed by Jim Oke, Stony Mountain, MB
Ian Hall’s mother, the former Kathleen Penney, was engaged to be married to Cameron Oke before he left for the UK. Ian writes:
“My Mother was in Toronto in the summer of '44 completing Teacher's College after graduating from Queen's in the spring. She received notification from her mother in a letter. Apparently, she did not take the news well.
Her first teaching assignment was in the fall of '44 back home in Cochrane where Tim Horton was one of her Grade 9 English students.”
Navigator F/Sgt. Thomas Michael Galvon
After working as a teller for the Treasury Branch of the Government of Alberta, Thomas enlisted in Edmonton, Alberta, on 11 August 1942. He was always interested in flying and trained at No.7 Initial Training School, Saskatoon and then at No.2 Air Observers School, Edmonton, graduating as a navigator in July, 1943. Embarking at New York on 3 August 1943, he arrived in the UK nine days later
spending six weeks at 3 PRC, Bournemouth before being posted to No.9 (O) Advanced Flying Unit at Llandwrog, Wales on 21 September 1943. At the end of his course there on 1 November 1943, he was posted to No.19 Operational Training Unit (OTU), Kinloss, Scotland until being posted to No.81 OTU at Tilstock, Shropshire on 14 February 1944. From No.81 OTU he was posted to No.1665 Heavy Conversion Unit also based at Tilstock,
where he completed his training before joining 620 Squadron early in June. His final remarks and assessment stated: “An above average navigator, who has worked very hard at this unit. Uses all navigational aids to his best advantage. Log and chart work above average. Should prove an asset to his squadron.”
Air Bomber F/Sgt. Luke Anthony Higgins
An order clerk with International Paints in Montreal, F/Sgt. Higgins enlisted in the RCAF Special Reserve at Montreal on 11 March 1942 and completed his basic training at No.5 Manning Depot, Lachine, Quebec that September. The next three months was
spent at No.2 Service Flying School at Uplands, Ontario after which he was taken on strength at No. 6 Initial Training School, Toronto until March, 1943 He was selected for training as an air bomber and was posted to No.4 Bombing & Gunnery School atFingal, Ontario until June 1943. From there, he was attached to No.4 Air Observers School (Bombers Course) London, Ontario gaining his Air Bomber badge on 23 July 1943. Embarking at Halifax on 26 August 1943 he arrived at Gourock, Scotland on 1 September 1943. Later that month he was posted from No.3 PRC to No.6 (O) Advanced Flying Unit at Moreton Valence, Gloucestershire. In November he was posted to No.19 OTU and then to 81 OTU on 11 February, 1944. From No.81 OTU he was posted to No.1665 Heavy Conversion Unit at Tilstock, Shropshire where he completed his training before joining 620 Squadron on 7 June 1944. Whilst at No.4 B & G School, F/Sgt Higgins luckily escaped with only minor burns when, on 3 June 1943, Bolingbroke 10018 crash landed at the airfield and immediately burst into flames during a training exercise.
F/Sgt. Higgins nephew Jim writes:
was the sixth out of eight children (3 girls and 5 boys) born to Thomas
and Elizabeth (nee Richmond) Higgins. His parents emigrated to
Montreal, Canada in 1911 from their home in Preston, England. Luke’s
brothers and sisters ended up giving him 22 nieces and nephews, some of
whom (such as myself) were not yet born at the time of Uncle Luke’s
death. My father, James, was 5 years younger than Luke. Perhaps not
surprisingly, based on the picture of Luke in the web page, my father
looked exactly like him at the same age.
Over the years, there have been a number of different understandings of
the nature of the mission the squadron was carrying out that evening
and what caused the plane to crash. My Mother, who just turned 100 years
young this past March remembers Luke very well. She also remembers that
Luke had a fiancé whose name was “Mickey” and who lived, as we all did,
in the Notre-Dame-de- Grace area of Montreal."
Air Gunner F/Sgt. Robert Carrothers
Robert Carrothers worked as a sheet metal worker at Central Aircraft at London, Ontario repairing Fleet Finch aircraft before enlisting on 30 October 1942 for aircrew duty. From the Recruiting Centre at London Robert was posted to Manning Depots at Lachine, Quebec, Souris and Brandon, Manitoba. After a short stay at No.2 Bombing & Gunnery School, Mossbank, Saskatchewan, he was taken on strength at No.1 Air Gunners Ground Training School in Quebec City on 12 June 1943. Temporarily formed in March 1943 due to a severe shortage of air gunners overseas, recruits completed a six week course in the use, care and maintenance of machine guns used on aircraft as well as drill, physical training and small arms training. Following this, he attended No.9 Bombing & Gunnery School at
Mount Joli, Quebec, gaining his air gunners badge on 3 September 1943. Embarking in New York, he arrived at No.3 PRC Bournemouth on 17 October 1943 subsequently being posted to No.19 OTU at Kinloss until being posted to 81 OTU in February, 1944. At the end of March, Robert was transferred to 1665 HCU to complete his training on Stirlings before joining 620 Squadron on the 7th of June 1944.
Roberts older brother Blake recalls: "Robert was following in my footsteps as I enlisted first and after my initial training I was completing my own training as a flight engineer on Canso
flying boats at Patricia Bay, British Columbia before being posted to
RCAF 160 Squadron for anti submarine patrols off the east coast of Canada. I never saw Bob again."
Flight Engineer Sgt. Ronald Alfred Wilkins RAF
Unfortunately due to the RAF policy of not releasing service records to those other than direct family members, very little is known of Sgt. Wilkins. We can gain though, a sense of the lack of information at the time and the anxiety felt by loved ones from a letter written by his mother found in the file of F/Sgt. Higgins.
Wireless Operator F/O Angus Sutherland Middleton RAF
After The Crash
The aircraft continued to burn for hours after the crash fueled by what remained of the 1820 gallons of petrol pumped into the Stirlings tanks prior to take off. Without any means to quell the flames, the Maquis could do nothing until it burned itself out and cooled down enough the following day to retreive the bodies and what was left of the cargo of weapons and ammunition.
To prevent any German troops stationed in the area from investigating the smoke from the fire, the Maquis cordoned off the entire scene to allow the burned out hulk and all of the debris to be gathered together and hidden from prying eyes.
Members of the Maquis and local inhabitants collected all of the human remains that could be found, placed them in bags and took them into the village of Brillac.
Two days after the crash a funeral was held in the cemetery at Brillac. Six coffins were laid to rest at a ceremony attended by several hundred members of the Maquis and many of the villagers.
While the family members of the crew were notified that they were “missing after air operations”, within a week after the crash, their ultimate fate and resting place was unknown.
It was not until that December that the families would be advised that a report had been received stating that an aircraft had crashed on the night in question near Liverdun, seven miles north west of Nancy. Further, it stated that eight bodies had been recovered only one of which had been identified, that of F/O Middleton. At that point Middleton was listed as “missing presumed killed” awaiting confirmation.
For months afterwards the families believed that they had crashed near Liverdun and could not understand why their bodies or grave sites had not been located.
It would not be until February, 1946 that the airforce notified the next of kin that the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit (MREU) had located the crash site and graves in Brillac.
Much confusion surrounded the investigation in part due to the secrecy of the operation and whether they were carrying an agent or agents which would account for the report of additional bodies being recovered. In addition, the original report of the crash location was given as being at Map Ref. 7818 on the map of the time, which corresponded to the Foret de Haye near Nancy. According to the MREU report at the time Map Ref. 7818 can also be interpreted as being at a location approximately two miles south west of Brillac.
It is interesting to note that, although, information was given to the MREU in August 1945 by way of a letter from Lt. Olivier Vivent of the Maquis identifying the crew members and the place of burial, the families would not be informed until six more months had passed.
Rather curiously, Lt. Vivents letter also stated how the funeral was paid for:
“. . . an imposing funeral was arranged and carried out by the local Maquis at a cost of 28000 francs, this sum being compulsorily obtained from a person who had refused to give any flowers for the graves.”
Although some personal effects were recovered from the crash scene which positively identified the names of the crew
members, much of the actual method of identifying the remains during the exhumation process was from scraps of clothing, insignia and by a process of elimination. What became of the personal effects is unknown except for the dog tag of Flt.Sgt. Luke Higgins.
The Maquis Foch (attached to the Armée Secrète - A.S.)
This maquis of some 750 men was formed in July 1944 by the merger of several Resistance groups in the north of the Charente : the Ruffec group (with Colonel DEGUA then COTTU), Confolens (with A. STIVIL, M. GARY, then AUGER), Chenon-Aunac (with COUTANT), Champagne-Mouton (PASCAL and PASQUET) and Saint-Coutant (BURET).
The main area of the Confolens maquis was originally around Alloue, about 15 kilometres to the west of Confolens. But this maquis became very mobile due to the proximity of German reprisal columns.
Many leaders succeeded one another at the head of the different groups including M. GARY, AUGIER and AUGER but the unification of the maquis only took place under the Commandant WAGNER following the Liberation.
The FOCH group took part in the fighting at Ambernac on 27th July 1944 where nearly 700 maquisards held out against a strong German repression column. It was followed by a long retreat which took the maquis about forty kilometres from its initial bases.
After taking part in the Liberation of the north of the Charente from 13th August onwards - Liberation of Champagne-Mouton, then Ruffec (2nd September 1944) - these groups, having become a "Battalion" and then a "Regiment", continued the combat on the Atlantic front in the sector of La Rochelle.
Edmond Nyst joined the Maquis in 1943 at the age of 16. He participated in many resistance operations throughout the duration of the war in Europe and later as an army officer fighting the Japanese in the Far East. In 2007 he wrote a book “The Old Fellows War” detailing his military experiences in which he devoted a chapter to the crash of LJ864. After the war he settled in Australia and became a barrister of the Supreme Court of Queensland and the High Court of Australia.
F/O Ernest Cameron Oke, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 1. Son of Ernest E. W. Oke and Olive E. Oke, of Cochrane, Ontario, Canada. Brother of Forrester.
Sgt. Ronald Alfred Wilkins, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 6. Son of Alfred J. and Edith (nee Dubock) Wilkins of Coventry, Warwickshire.
F/Sgt. Thomas Michael Galvon, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 2. Son of Frank and Elizabeth Galvon, of Blairmore, Alberta, Canada.
F/Sgt.Luke Anthony Higgins, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 3. Son of Thomas Higgins, and of Elizabeth Ann Higgins (nee Richmond), of Montreal, Province of Quebec Canada.
F/Sgt. Angus Sutherland Middleton, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 4. Son of Mr. and Mrs. George Clarke Middleton and stepson of Janet Munro Middleton, of Watten, Caithness-shire.
F/Sgt. Robert George Carrothers, Brillac Communal Cemetery, Charente, France Grave 2. Son of John and Vera (nee Prier) Carrothers of Aylmer, Ontario, Canada.
Aircrew Remembered would like to thank the following relatives and friends who generously contributed much of their own personal research material, family photographs and memories for this memorial page.
William J. (Jim) Oke RCAF/CF Retd cousin of F/O E. Cameron Oke
Ian Hall and his mother Kathleen Hall the former fiance of F/O Oke
Jim Higgins nephew of F/Sgt. Luke Higgins
Blake Carrothers, brother of F/Sgt. Robert Carrothers
Tracy Carrothers neice of F/Sgt. Robert Carrothers
Chris Nyst son of the late Edmond Nyst
Photo and additional credits:
F/O Ernest C. Oke portrait and Brillac grave photo's courtesy Ian Hall
F/Sgt. Thomas Galvon & F/Sgt. Luke Higgins portraits, Library & Archives Canada
F/Sgt. Robert Carrothers portrait courtesy Tracy & Blake Carrothers
Edmond Nyst portrait courtesy Chris Nyst
F/Sgt. Higgins dog tag photo courtesy Jim Higgins
Village of Brillac for original funeral photographs via Jim Oke
Library and Archives Canada (LAC)
Researched and compiled by Colin Bamford for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the families of the crew of Stirling LJ864.