14/15.08.1941 102 (Ceylon) Squadron Whitley V Z6829 DY-F Sgt. Gerald Keith Powell
Operation: Hannover factory district, Germany
Date: 14/15 August 1941 (Thursday/Friday)
Unit: 102 (Ceylon) Squadron - Motto: Tentate et Perficite (Attempt and achieve)
Squadron Badge: On a demi-terrestrial globe a lion rampant guardant holding in the forepaws a bomb
Type: Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk.V
Base: RAF Topcliffe, North Riding of Yorkshire
Location: Terschelling, Netherlands
Pilot: Sgt. Gerald Keith (Gerry) Powell 920529 RAFVR Age 21 - Killed (1)
2nd Pilot: Sgt. Frank Walace Penn Aus/40025 Age 19 - PoW 39317. Camps: Stalag IX-C Nov 1941, Stalag Luft 3 20 July 42, left for Stalag Luft VI 18 June 1943 later known from about Jan 44 as Stalag Luft 3 Lagen A. (2)
Obs: P/O. Wadja * Wellesley (Wadie) Bell-Towers Aus/400010 RAAF Age 32 - Killed (3)
W/Op: Sgt. Richard Thomas Philp 997009 RAFVR Age 20 - Killed (4)
W/Op: Fl/Sgt. Louis Edward David (Ted) Lindsay 905091 RAFVR Age 21 - Killed (5)
Air/Gnr (R): Sgt. Thomas Albert (Tom) Vermiglio 1053112 RAFVR aged 20 - PoW No. 128. Camp: Stalag Kopernikus - 357 (6)
*In February 2022 we were contacted by Cate Bell-Towers, who informed us that, notwithstanding his RAAF service record recording her grandfather's name as Wadya, his name was in fact, Wadja, meaning 'child' in the language of the indigenous Australian people. All references to him in this account have, therefore, been amended accordingly.
We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our Helpdesk
It was just a week after he turned 21 that Canadian pilot Gerry Powell flew on his first operation. Flying Whitley T4330 as second pilot under the captaincy of Sgt. A. Davis they were one of 13 crews despatched by 102 Squadron for the night raid on Bremen of 27/28 June 1941, on which the RAF suffered its heaviest night loss of the war so far, with 11 Whitleys out of 35 lost. 4 of the 13 despatched by 102 Squadron failed to return.
Flying as second pilot with various captains, further operations followed: 4 July with Sgt. H. E. Benfield against the Prinz Eugen at Brest, 6 July with Fl/Lt. J. G. Walker to Dortmund and on 9 July with Sgt. Davis again to Aachen.
On 20 July he flew his first operation as captain - a raid on Cologne Marshalling Yards. Other operations followed regularly with constantly changing crews - 23 July was La Pallice: 25 July, Hannover: 3 August, Frankfurt Marshalling Yards and 6 August, Frankfurt Railway Station.
On 14 August 1941 he was one of 18 pilots of 102 Squadron detailed for a raid on the Hannover factory district.
Most of his crew were unknown to him, three of them having only been posted to the Squadron in the previous two or three days.
His second pilot was Sgt, Frank Penn, a 19 year old Aussie from Melbourne who had enlisted barely 12 months earlier. He had been posted to the Squadron two days earlier from 19 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Forres in Scotland. The observer, another Aussie, and the only officer of the crew, was P/O. Wadja (Wadie) Bell-Towers. Aged 32 and married with a young son, he was certainly the old man of the crew in every respect. He had arrived at RAF Topcliffe the previous day, also posted from 19 OTU. 20 year old Scouser, Sgt. Tom Vermiglio, was the rear gunner. He was of Italian descent and his parents ran a fish and chip shop in Liverpool. He had been posted to 102 Squadron from 10 OTU at RAF Abbingdon in Oxfordshire and had arrived at Topcliffe just three days earlier on 11 August. It is unlikely that any of the three expected to be detailed for ops so soon after arriving at Topcliffe, but perhaps the sooner the better.
Having been posted to 102 Squadron on 7 July, the wireless operator/air gunner, Sgt. Richard Philp, had already flown 3 operations, the latest with the Gerry Powell crew to Frankfurt on 6 August. Richard was 20 and one of the many thousands of men from the Irish Republic who risked the wrath of their fellow citizens and indeed the Irish Government by volunteering to join the British armed forces during the war.
Completing the crew was Sgt. Ted Lindsay, also a wireless operator/air gunner. Ted was by far the most experienced crew member. Having joined 102 Squadron in late 1940 he had flown his first operation on 15 December 1940 under the captaincy of Sqd. Ldr. Owen Aubrey Morris, a raid on an armaments factory in Berlin. On return the Whitley had run out of petrol and was forced to ditch in the sea. The crew were uninjured and picked up by the RAF Marine Section based at Bridlington - an inauspicious start for the then young 20 year old from Sussex. Since then he had completed 26 operations with one other aborted and three more where his aircraft became bogged down and therefore could not take off. He had previously flown three operations with Gerald Powell.
REASON FOR LOSS
Take off commenced at 21.51, led away by Squadron Leader J. G. Walker, the other 17 followed in his wake one after the other until all were airborne by 22.21.
Gerry Powell in Z6829 got away at 22.18, carrying a bomb load of 2 x 500lb and 6 x 250lb GP plus 360/4lb incendiaries.
It was a clear evening as the bomber force of 96 Wellingtons, 55 Whitleys and a lone Stirling made its way over the North Sea and crossed the Dutch coast on the 1000 mile round trip to the target and back.
According to the 102 Squadron ORB, there was 'some haze over the target' and the attackers were faced with 'moderate heavy accurate flak and some light flak. Numerous searchlights concentrating into a cone over [the] town'
Whitley Z6829, having apparently bombed the target and turned for home, had reached the Dutch coast when it was attacked by a night fighter. In his Liberation Statement made on 8 June 1945 at 11 PDRC Brighton, Frank Penn describes what happen next:
'Aircraft attacked by Me110. First attack wounded myself (five bullets in my right foot), second attack started fire near escape hatch and I extinguished it. Third attack destroyed all controls and captain gave order to bale out. I heard no acknowledgement from rear-gunner, but was told by him later that he baled out immediately. Rear gunner's name was Vermiglio (Sgt). I do not know the height at which I baled out. Aircraft was on fire again and out of control making a diving turn to left. Members of crew in aircraft when I baled were: Sgt. Powell (Captain), P/O. Bell-Towers (Observer), Two W/Op AGs - Names forgotten.
Aircraft crashed near Texel and the last mentioned four members crashed with the aircraft.'
It later transpired that the night fighter that attacked and shot down the Whitley, was Dornier Do 215 B-5 G9+NM of 4./NJG1 based at Leeuwarden airfield and flown by Ofw. Paul Gildner and his crew of Fw. Müller and Uffz. Poppelmeyer. In his Combat Report he describes the attack:
'At approximately 4.35 hrs., following a fruitless pursuit, ground control directed me to an opponent that was flying away at a heading of 300 degrees and at a height of 3,400 m. Within a distance of 15 km to the opponent I received 2 course corrections to the left and I recognized the enemy machine at 100 m to my left ahead of me, 50 m higher, since I was flying 300 m below the ordered altitude. I identified the target as a Whitley and started my attack, aiming my first burst at it from below and behind. Because I almost collided with my opponent, I banked away whereupon the Whitley dived and tried to escape further attacks by taking evasive action. Nevertheless, I still retained visual contact, and resumed my attack. I pulled up and opened fire. The opponent throttled sharply back, flying at a speed of about 150 km/h, so I could only fire a short burst and sped past the target. Diving steeper down, the Whitley reached an altitude of 2,500 m, where I shot its right engine on fire from below and behind. The Whitley continued to fly straight for a moment, flipped forward and fell down. I watched it crashing on land, followed by a big explosion where the burning machine could be seen for some time'. For further information about Paul Gildner see biographical details (7) below.
Other sources say that the aircraft crashed in the Waddenzee 8 km wsw of Terschelling.
The remains of Sgt. Powell, P/O. Bell-Towers and the two W.Op/AGs were found in the wreckage of the aircraft and were buried at Terschelling (West Terschelling) General Cemetery, Netherlands.
5 Wellingtons and 4 Whitleys failed to return from the operation.
Three of the Whitleys lost were from 102 Squadron, and a fourth crashed on return to base, the details are as follows.
Whitley Z6842 Fl/Lt. D.N. Sampson and crew - crashed at Terwispal (Friesland). All 5 crew survived to be made prisoners of war.
Whitley Z6877 Sgt. A. W. Hawkes and crew - crashed near Sögel in the Emsland district of Lower Saxony, Germany. Four of the crew survived to be made prisoners of war whilst wireless operator/air gunner, Sgt. Douglas Erle James Hampson R/54019 RCAF, was killed and lies in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Nordrhein-Westfalen.
Whitley Z6746 Sgt. J. Reid and crew - overshot and crashed on return to base. All the crew survived uninjured.
Frank Penn was picked up by German search party soon after coming down. He records having five bullet wounds in his right foot.
According to his Liberation Statement he was hospitalised at Hohemark Hospital (which served Dulag Luft at Frankfurt) from 21 August until 21 October when he was transferred to Stadtroda Hospital (which served Stalag IXC) at Thuringia.
However a note in his service file of an Extract from German Official List No. 43 (Air Transit Camp) [i.e Dulag Luft] states
'Departed on 30.9.41 to Reserve Hospital for Prisoners of War Stratrod [sic]'
On 21 December he was transferred to one of the Stalag IXC sub camps (probably at Mühlhausen) where he remained until 21 April 1942 when he was transferred to the newly opened Stalag Luft III at Sagan in Lower Silesia. Whilst there he made contact with Sgt. Vermiglio.
The following is a transcript of a letter which he wrote to the International Red Cross a month after arriving at Stalag Luft III.
'Date: 21.5.42, Camp: Stalag-Luft 3, POW No. 39317, Army No. 400233, Unit: RAAF.
Dear Sirs, In reply to yours of 2nd March, "I beg to state that since being shot down I have lost over two stone in weight, and apart from frequent head colds my health and condition is still good. The wounds in my foot have healed, and apart from a slight limp and occasional pains I am not troubles. Thanking you for your attention. I remain yours sincerely, Frank W. Penn, Sgt.'
His time at Sagan was short lived and in July 1942 he was transferred to Stalag Luft 6 near the town of Heydekrug, Memelland (now Šilutė in Lithuania). It was the northernmost PoW camp within the confines of the German Reich. He was to be held there for the next 14 months until September 1943 before being transferred to Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel in Lower Saxony, in north-western Germany.
It seems that Frank Penn was one of the 12000 British PoWs who were evacuated from the camp in the face of the Allied advance in early April 1945 and marched east in columns of 2000. He was finally liberated by the Allied 2nd Army near Ratzeburg some 40 miles east of Hamburg.
By 8 May 1945 he was safely back in the UK at 11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton looking forward to early repatriation to Australia.
And on 24 July 1945 he disembarked at Sydney, finally setting foot on home soil for the first time in almost 5 years.
Tom Vermiglio also survived and became a prisoner of war at Stalag Kopernikus. If you have any further information please contact our helpdesk
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) Sgt. Gerald Keith Powell was born on 20 June 1920 in Quebec, Canada the son of Jamaican born Walter Bertram Powell and South Africa born Helena Gwendolyn (Jane) Powell nee Thompson.
He had four siblings: John Alexander (Jack) Powell (1909-1944), Richard Elgin Powell born 1911, Geoffrey Trevor Wynne-Powell (1915-2004) and Edward Bertram Powell (1918-2001).
On 25 September 1933, John William Powell of 9 Montpelier Terrace Swansea arrived at Avonmouth on board the SS Ariguani from the Kingston Jamaica. He had made a round trip and with him on the return journey were Gerald Keith Powell aged 13 and his brother John Alexander Powell aged 24 who was a member of the RAF. Gerald and John gave their proposed addresses as Beggars Bush, S, Brent, Devon.
Helena, Trevor aged 15 and Edward Bertram aged 11 had arrived in 1930 and their proposed address was c/o J Powell RAF 56 Sqn N Weald Essex
Gerald is later recorded as arriving at Avonmouth on the SS Bayano in September 1937 when he was described as a Student living at The Lodge Uppingham Rutland and aged 17
Walter and Helena Powell divorced in 1939
Group Captain John Alexander (Jack) Powell DSO OBE, born 1909, was killed on 18 August 1944 whilst serving with 19 SAAF Squadron (Cdg 254 Wing), and is buried at Belgrade War Cemetery Serbia.
Geoffrey Trevor Wynne-Powell entered the RAF in 1935. He was awarded the Air Efficiency Award 1942 and the DFC. Station Commander Kaula Lumpa 1951 and Cottesmore 1954. He retired from the RAF on 4 March 1958. He died at Droxford, Hampshire in 2004 aged 89
Edward Bertram Powell served in the RAFVR as a wireless operator and rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He died at Ottawa, Canada in 2001 aged 83.
(2) WO. Frank Walace Penn was born on 28 September 1921 at Surrey Hills, Melbourne, Victoria Australia the son of Lawrence Lionel Penn (a Salesman) and Rose Lillian Penn nee Hayes.
He had three siblings: Norman Lionel Penn (1911-1997), Claire Lillian Penn born 1913 and Enid Ruth Penn (1916-2010). The family lived at 26 Laing Street Mont Albert Melbourne Victoria
Frank was educated at Mont Albert Central School 1930-34, Box Hill High School 1936-37 and Students Metriculation academy 1938.
He was then employed as a Warehouseman for 1 year and then as a Junior Clerk at Hemingway and Robertson from 1939 to enlisting.
He enjoyed playing Tennis, Hiking and Physical Culture
When he enlisted at Melbourne on 21 July 1940 he was described as being 5' 9½" tall weighing 146 lbs with a fair complexion, hazel eyes and medium hair
After training at 2 Initial Training School at RAAF Somers in Victoria and 5 Elementary Flying Training School at RAAF Narromine, New South Wales he embarked at Sydney for Canada on 28 November 1940.
Disembarking in Canada on 23 December he was posted to 3 Service Flying Training School at RCAF Calgary. On 19 February he was posted to M Depot at RCAF Delbert, Nova Scotia.
Awarded his Flying Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 10 April 1941 he embarked for the UK 9 days later and on arrival on 19 May was posted to 3 PRC at RAF Uxbridge in Middlesex.
He was posted to 19 OTU at RAF Kinloss, Scotland on 24 May and to 102 Squadron at RAF Topcliffe in the North Riding of Yorkshire on 12 August 1941
Whilst a prisoner of war he was promoted to Flight sergeant on 1 May 1943 and to Warrant Officer on 1 May 1944.
By 8 May he was safely back in the UK at 11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton and looking forward to early repatriation to Australia.
After arriving back in Australia on 24 July 1945 he was posted to 2 Personnel Depot based at Sydney until being demobilised on 24 January 1946. Before being demobilised he wasted no time in marrying his fiancée, Lesley Betty Seed.
Frank Walace Penn died at Mitcham, La Trobe, Victoria 9 September 2005 just 19 days short of his 84th birthday.
(3) P/O. Wadja Wellesley Bell-Towers was born on 17 August 1908 at Clifton Hill, Victoria Australia the son of Henry Linacre Bell-Towers and Isabel Marion Bell-Towers nee Bruce. He had three siblings: Isabelle Marta Alice Bell-Towers (1912-1919), Lindsay Marion Bell-Towers (1914-1914) and Arthur Wellesley Bell-Towers (1922-2014).
On 17 April 1939 he married Merla Quinn of Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. Their son, Ian Bruce Bell-Towers, was born on 14 November 1940. The family lived at 325 Glenferrie Road Hawthorn Melbourne.
Prior to enlisting he was a Hotel Manager at the MCG Hotel, Wellington Parade, East Melbourne.
When he enlisted at Melbourne on 28 April 1940 he was described as being 5' 8¼" tall, weighing 172 lbs with a dark complexion, hazel eyes and black hair.
After training at 1 Air Observer School at RAAF Cootamunra, New South Wales, 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAAF Evans Head, New South Wales and 1 Air Navigation School at RAAF Parkes, New South Wales he was awarded his Air Observers Badge on 12 December 1940.
He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 17 January 1941.
He embarked at Melbourne for the UK on 23 February 1941 disembarking in the UK on 15 May 1941. He was posted to 3 Personnel Reception Centre at Uxbridge, Middlesex wef 23 February 1941, to 19 OTU at RAF Kinloss in Scotland on 23 May 1941 and to 102 Squadron at RAF Topcliffe in the North Riding of Yorkshire on 13 August 1941
The above photograph shows Wadja Bell-Towers 1st left, back row. It has been determined from their service records that neither Laurence Samuel Clayton (next to Wadja) nor Peter Malcolm Edgar (middle, front row), were in the UK at the same time as Wadja. Thus the photogragh must have been taken whilst training in Australia in 1940.
(4) Sgt. Richard Thomas Philp was born in 1921 at Waterford, Ireland the son of William Frederick Philp and Elizabeth Philp, of Bray, Co. Wicklow, Irish Republic.
His father was named as his next of kin and of 8 Newcourt Villas, Vevay [Road], Bray Eire
(5) Sgt. Louis Edward David Lindsay was born on 3 June 1920 at Uckfield, Sussex the son of Edward Louis Herbert Lindsay and Emily Elizabeth Lilliace Lindsay nee Branch later of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
He had four siblings: Betty Irene Lilliace Lindsay (1923-1999), Margaret Jane Eleanor Lindsay (1925-1998), Kathleen May Lindsay born 1929 and Ronal Mark Samuel Lindsay (1938-1989)
He is commemorated on the Uckfield Parish Church War Memorial, Sussex
(6) WO. Thomas Albert Vermiglio was born in 1921 at West Derby, Lancashire the son of Albert Edward Vermiglio and Elizabeth Ellen Vermiglio nee Boyle. He had five siblings: Lawrence Vermiglio (1922-1986), Albert E. Vermiglio (1924-1986), Olive Lill Vermiglio 1930-1931), Louise Vermiglio born 1935 and Anne Vermiglio born 1938.
In 1939 Albert and Elizabeth Vermiglio were proprietors of a Fish and Chip Shop at 17 Fitzclarence Street in Liverpool.
Thomas Albert Vermiglio died on 1 August 2016 at Liverpool
(7) Oblt. Paul Gildner was born 1 February 1914 at Nimptsch, Silesia. He joined the Army in 1933, later transferring to the Luftwaffe and on the outbreak of war in September 1939 was a Messerschmitt pilot with Zerstörergeschwader 1 (ZG) with the rank of Oberfeldwebel. During 1940 he flew intensively in the European campaign and during the early stages of the Battle of Britain. After training in night flying he was transferred to 4./Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (4./NJG 1) in August 1940. He had his first victory on 3 September 1940 and continued to score regularly thereafter. He was commissioned as a Leutnant on 1 August 1941 and promoted to Oberleutnant on 1 April 1942.
He died aged 29 when his Messerschmitt Bf 110 G-4 crashed following engine failure and fire near Gilze en Rijen in the Netherlands on the night of 24/25 February 1943. His radio operator Unteroffizier Huhn managed to escape and bailed out. He was buried at Ysselsteyn German War Cemetery, Netherlands.
During his career he scored 48 abschüsse and received the following awards.
Flugzeugführerabzeichen (Pilots Badge), Ehrenpokal der Luftwaffe (Honour Goblet), Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe, Iron Cross (1939) 2nd and 1st Class, German Cross in Gold, Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Knight's Cross, 196th Oak Leaves. Mentioned four times in the Wehrmachtbericht (The daily Wehrmacht High Command mass-media communiqué)
BURIAL DETAILS, MEMORIALS AND EPITAPHS
(1) Sgt. Gerald Keith Powell was buried at Terschelling (West Terschelling) General Cemetery, Netherlands - Joint Grave 32.
His epitaph reads
"A little while,
And ye shall not see me:
And again a little while,
And ye shall see me"
(3) P/O. P/O. Wadja Wellesley Bell-Towers was buried at Terschelling (West Terschelling) General Cemetery, Netherlands - Grave 30.
(4) Sgt. Richard Thomas Philp was buried at Terschelling (West Terschelling) General Cemetery, Netherlands - Joint Grave 32.
His epitaph reads
"Until the day break"
(5) Sgt. Louis Edward David Lindsay was buried at Terschelling (West Terschelling) General Cemetery, Netherlands - Grave 31.
His epitaph reads:
Yet ever near
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for Moira MacKinnon, Cate Bell-Towers and all relatives and friends of the members of this crew - January 2021
With thanks to the sources quoted below.