16/17.04.1943 No. 51 Squadron Halifax HR784 P/O. Stewart
Date: 16/17th April 1943 (Friday/Saturday)
Unit: No. 51 Squadron 4 Group (motto" 'Swift and Sure')
Base: RAF Snaith, Yorkshire
Location: Eppeville, France
Pilot: P/O. Ronald Henry Stewart J/17100 RCAF Age 21. Killed
Fl/Eng: P/O. William Robert McBriar 51909 RAF Age 23. Killed
Nav: Sgt. William Reid Kiernan DFM. 519422 RAFVR PoW No: 14 Camp: Stalag Kopernikus (Fallingbostel) - 357
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Dennis Axtell DFM. 626794 RAF Age 22. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/O. Thomas Collis Robinson 120669 RAF Age 33. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Donald Harold Reid 1316069 RAFVR Age ? Killed
Air/Gnr: P/O. Frank Malcolm Thompson 144266 RAFVR Age 34. Killed
Page prepared by the author, Simon Muggleton - January 2019 for Aircrew Remembered
REASON FOR LOSS:
Being part of the crew of a four engined heavy bomber flying over Europe during WW2 was an extremely dangerous occupation. During this war, Bomber Command lost over 55,000 airmen either due to enemy action or accidents whilst over occupied territory. Having first survived take-off with full tanks of petrol, combined with a heavy bomb load of thousands of pounds, the crew were firstly subjected to searchlight/flak batteries en route, followed by consistent attacks from enemy fighter aircraft, intent on shooting them down. Then having dropped their bombs over the specified target they would then have to undergo all this again on their route home. From the moment of take-off to actually landing safely back in the UK the aircrews were kept on constant vigilance, some of them ‘doubling up’ on their official duties, as in the case of wireless operators, some who were also qualified in the role of an air-gunner.
Dennis Axtell was one of these, and whose luck ran out on the 17th April 1943, when their aircraft succumbed to a German night fighter, when they were shot down over France, on route home from a target in Czechoslovakia.
Born on the 26th May 1920 in Worcester Park, Epsom Surrey, Dennis spent the first five years of his life with his parents Alan and Vera Axtell, along with his sister Barbara (born in 1924) in Surrey. In 1925 the family moved to the Isle of Wight, first living at ‘The Briars’ St Helens (close to Bembridge), before moving in 1929 to number 2 Alena, St Michael’s Close, St Helens.
In 1933 the family moved again to 16 Station Road, St Helens, probably due to the family needing a larger house as Vera Axtell gave birth to a further girl, who was named Margaret. Dennis attended the local schools in St Helen’s before volunteering to join the RAF as an Aircraftsman 2nd Class on the 15th November 1938, aged 18 years, earning 2 shillings a day!
Having completed his twelve week initial training at RAF Cardington which consisted of ‘square bashing’, physical training, education, handling aircraft and weapon training, he elected to become a wireless operator and was sent to 2 Wing No 2 Electrical and Wireless School at RAF Cranwell on the 2nd February 1939.
Here he learned the rudiments of electricity and wireless receivers, along with morse code. The course lasted for seven months and two weeks, by which time war had been declared against Nazi Germany. Dennis was then posted to 78 (Training) Squadron based at Dishforth North Yorkshire, which were equipped with Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers. In October 1939 Dennis then went on a months course at No 7 Air Observer’s School based at RAF Perth. On the 28th November Denis was posted to 77 Squadron for further training, which alternated in the early months of 1940 to also being attached to 102 Squadron at RAF Driffield, East Yorkshire. On the 28th May Dennis was permanently attached to 102 which also flew Whitley aircraft, having by then qualified as a wireless operator/air gunner.
Dennis’s first operation was on the 9th June 1940 in Whitley DY-M Number N1499 bombing road bridges at 5000 feet across the Somme at St Valery, Abbeville East and West. His pay went up to 5 shillings a day plus air crew pay of 6d a day. His wife to be, Agnes would later receive a family allowance of 17 shillings a week.
The crew on this mission was RNZAF pilot Pilot Officer Hugh ’Lofty’ Long DFC, the 2nd ‘Dickey’ Pilot Officer G.L Cheshire, Observer Sgt. L.A Brain, Air Gunner Sgt. G.O Maughan, and Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Sgt. D. Axtell. (Whitleys always flew with two pilots, the novices would be assigned to experienced captains before given crews of their own)
Pilot Officer Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire was just 22 years old when he joined 102, and of course would become one of the most famous pilots in Bomber Command, being awarded the Victoria Cross in 1944. Cheshire was lucky to fly with Long who gave him the controls whilst over enemy territory, which other 2nd pilots were denied.
Just less than a year later on the 13th March 1941 25 year old, Fl/Lt. Frank Hugh Long lost his life on an operation to Berlin. Flying Whitley V T4326 DY-E when they were hit by anti-aircraft fire. 3 other crew were killed with one other taken PoW, but sadly died of diphtheria a few weeks later. The loss of 'lofty' Long deeply affected Cheshire.
Dennis Axtell would fly on a further nine ‘ops’ in France and Germany with Long and Cheshire, attacking communications and oil installations throughout June 1940, before Cheshire would be given his own crew within 102 Squadron.
Webmaster note: Simon Muggleton co-authored four books with Norman Franks,
My Golden Flying Years: ISBN: 9781906502805 The true story of Wing Commander D'Arcy Greig DFC. AFC. 288 pages and published in 2010.
Flying Among Heroes: The Story Of Squadron Leader T C S Cooke DFC. AFC. DFM. AE. ISBN-13: 978-0752480428 208 Pages published in 2012.
A Fighter Pilot's Call to Arms: Defending Britain and France Against the Luftwaffe, 1940-1942. ISBN-13: 978-1906502768 224 pages and published in 2010.
Raw Courage: The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of Four RAF Brothers in Arms. ISBN-13: 978-1908117137 224 pages and published in 2011.
After the fall of France in June 1940 the bombing offensive turned towards Germany. Dennis’s first four sorties were against enemy targets in France, the next five were over Germany, followed by another eight in July. 102 Squadron moved to Leeming in August, and was stood down from the bombing campaign in September and loaned to Coastal Command for convoy duties based at Prestwick in Scotland. In October 102 resumed its bombing role, moving to Linton-on-Ouse. In November the squadron moved again, this time to Topcliffe, and on the 16th February 1941 Sergeant Axtell left the squadron having completed a full tour of 28 bombing sorties along with four convoy escorts with Coastal Command.
He was posted to No 19 Operational Training Unit (OTU) based at RAF Forres in Scotland to undertake the duty of a trainer for other Whitley crews. During one of his home leave periods he proposed to his Irish girlfriend Agnes (nee Smyth) and a wedding took place on the 13th December 1941 at St Helen’s Church, in St Helen’s on the Isle of Wight. The local paper reported that Dennis was in RAF uniform whilst the bride wore a two-piece ensemble of turquoise blue, trimmed with fur with a small hat to match, along with wine coloured gloves and shoes. Both Dennis’s two sisters acted as bridesmaids. Artificer Alan Coombs acted as best man as Leading Aircraftsman Tony Davis RAF was unable to get leave.
Twenty guests attended the reception with over 70 presents being given to the bride and groom, after which they left for a honeymoon in London.
Dennis left No 19 OTU on the 31st August 1942, and was posted to 57 Squadron based at Feltwell for a five week period before moving on to No 10 OTU at RAF Abingdon on the 7th October 1942, for just a week. Dennis was then posted to No 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) at RAF Marston Moor, and 1658 HCU at RAF Riccall, both units based in Yorkshire. It was here that Dennis would be trained up to fly in the Handley Page ‘Halifax’ aircraft and meet up with a new crew before they were all posted to 51 Squadron at Snaith in Yorkshire on the 26th November 1942.
His new crew were Flight Sergeant Ronald Henry Stewart a RCAF pilot, Flying Officer Arthur George Wingrove, Navigator, Sgt Horace Alfred Briggs, Bomb Aimer, Sgt William Robert McBriar, Flight Engineer, Sgt Donald Harold Reid, Mid Upper Gunner, Sgt Frank Malcolm Thompson, Rear Gunner.
Their first op together as a new crew was on the 9th January 1943 dropping sea mines along the Frisian Islands located just off the Dutch and German coasts. This first soft ‘op’ was given the code name of ‘Gardening’ with the area defined as Nectarine II. The next ‘op’ was on the 14th bombing U-Boats at Lorient. Three days later they would be really tested, this time it was an eight hour return trip to Berlin. This was the first raid on Berlin for 14 months by 201 four engined aircraft but was deemed a failure due to the scattering of bombs off target, due to thick cloud and haze. On the plus side, flak was light, due to half the personnel being away on training courses, resulting in only one Lancaster being lost. On the 27th January a five hour round trip to Dusseldorf was undertaken by 162 aircraft which proved successful, bombs finding their targets due to the Pathfinder Mosquitoes using Oboe (radio signals guiding them in dropping marking flares accurately). A devastating attack was again made on Lorient on the 7th February, followed a week later by a trip to Cologne. Like the earlier op to Berlin this was not a success, out of the 243 aircraft sent, only 50 of them managed to hit the target.
On the 22nd February Wing Commander Sawyer made a recommendation for the award of a Distinguished Flying Medal to be conferred upon Flight Sergeant Axtell, having by then completed 34 bombing sorties:-
Flight Sergeant Axtell has carried out 34 bombing sorties and 4 convoy Escort patrols and is on his second tour of operations.
He has always shown consistent keenness and his work as Wireless Operator has contributed largely to the successful operations carried out by the aircraft in which he has flown. Flight Sergeants Axtell’s strong sense of duty and determination has inspired a high standard of morale in the crew in which he is a Wireless Operator. Throughout both his tours of operations he has displayed unusual initiative and his resourcefulness and skill has proved a big asset to the completion of many successful sorties. His cheerful courage, unselfishness, and sacrifice well deserves recognition by the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal.
This was endorsed by the Station Commander at Snaith that same day who wrote the following:-
"An outstanding wireless Operator, who’s courage, skill and determination have been an inspiration to his crew.He has set a fine example to the rest of the Squadron.I recommend that his good work be recognised by the award of the DFM".
Four days later Air Vice Marshal CR Carr AOC 4 Group added his remarks:-
"This N.C.O has now started his second tour and has proved that he is a fearless and skilful Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. I strongly recommend the award of the DFM".
It would take another two months before the award was published in the London Gazette on the 20th April 1943.
Another bombing failure would occur during the attack on Hamburg by 417 aircraft on the 3rd March 1943, most of the bombs falling 13 miles away due to a mistake by the Pathfinders.
The crew were flying in Halifax DT 580 piloted by Acting Squadron Leader Dennis Moore DFM on this mission, suffering a glycol leak and heavy flak damage to the port outer engine over the target area. S/L Moore managed to get the aircraft back safely landing at RAF Burn at 00.13 hrs. Their next trip two days later on the 5th was to bomb Essen. F/Sgt Ronald Stewart was the pilot taking off from Snaith airfield at 1900 hrs to join 441 other aircraft in the three wave attack. Over the target they were again hit by flak,but like S/L Moore on the previous mission, Stewart managed to get the aircraft home safely landing at 23.42 hrs.
The crew must have started to worry if their luck was starting to run out during this Battle of the Ruhr?
The whole crew were then given leave returning to ‘ops’ on the 22nd March to bomb the port of St Nazaire, 357 aircraft taking part in this successful operation. Duisburg was the next target on the 26th when 455 aircraft took part, but it was deemed a failure due to cloud over the target. On the 27th March another eight hour round trip to Berlin by a total 396 aircraft taking part. The raid was basically a failure, again by poor making by the Pathfinders resulting in many bombs finding targets some 5 to 17 miles away from the city, with a lot of the bombs proving to be ‘duds’.
Because of this failure Berlin was chosen again two days later with 329 aircraft taking part. Again the majority of bombs fell 6 miles short south east of the city. 577 aircraft were sent to bomb Kiel on the 4th April, the largest ‘non 1000 bomber’ raid of the war so far. It was reported that many decoy fires may have drawn away the force from the main target. On this trip they carried a second pilot from the Advanced Flying Unit, Sgt W.F Anderson.
On the 8th April Sgt. Anderson again flew with them on an op to bomb Duisberg from a height of 18,000 feet. The Pathfinders were once again hampered by thick cloud and minimal damage was inflicted on the city.
One week later on the night of 16/17th April Stewart’s usual crew would take off at 2042 hrs from Snaith in Halifax HR 784 on a mission to bomb the Skoda works at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia.This was given the operational name of ‘Frothblower’
Luckily for Sgt. Anderson he would not be acting as second ‘dickey’ on this trip, as for the rest of the crew, (apart from W/O. Kiernan DFM) they would all perish on their return trip over France. The percentage loss among the Halifax squadrons amounted to almost 14%, and in particular 51 Squadron who lost 17 aircraft.
The forecast for the raid was a moonlit night, where the main force was briefed to identify the works visually, only using the Pathfinders as a rough guide. Confusion with the marking led to most of the 691 tons of bombs falling on an asylum some 7 miles away. 36 of the attacking bombers were brought down, making it the most expensive single night to date for Bomber Command.
Somehow Sergeant Stewart and his crew made it though the hell fire of the flak units over the target, but the fell victim to a night fighter Me 110 flown by Hauptmann Hans-Karl Kamp of 7/NJG 4, en route home, flying low level, over France at 04:36 hrs.
The author Peter Wilson Cunliffe wrote a book ‘A Shaky Do’ and combined with other official reports it gives an account of what occurred to Sergeant Stewart and his crew on that mission.
'A Shaky Do': The Skoda Works Raid 16/17th April 1943: ISBN-13: 978-0955795725. 265 pages published in 2011.
‘At 4.36 Halifax HR784 was flying low level and approaching the town of Ham (Somme area) when it was shot down in flames, breaking up into three major portions, coming down over the communes of Eppeville and St Sulpice (witnessed by Gendarme Roger Viola). The navigator, Warrant Officer Keirnan DFM, was the only member of the crew to successfully escape by parachute, albeit suffering with a broken hip bone on landing. He was taken to a Hospital at Amiens where he was treated by Dr. Auguste Puche until the 3rd June when he was transferred to a Hospital at Dulag Luft near Frankfurt.
On the 26th June Kiernan was interned at Stalag Luft 6 at Heydekrug where he stayed for a year until transferring to Stalag Luft 357 at Fallingbostel Lower Saxony, until the end of the war. He had joined the RAF in 1935 and awarded the DFM in 1940.
Warrant Officer Kiernan sent a letter to RCAF HQ in Ottawa on the 23rd October 1944 stating that the wireless operator Axtell had told him that Stewart was killed outright by machine gun fire from the enemy aircraft, before they both abandoned the aircraft.**(so did Axtell die as a result of his parachute not deploying correctly?). Four crew bodies were quickly discovered, with another found in the marshes on the 18th, and the last one on the 22nd. In the same RCAF file (Canadian Archives 24 Vol 28736 page 2) is a letter from a Lt Col in the 21st Army Group dated 1946, forwarding the following items found by M. Paul Martineau in the crashed aircraft:- Reid’s identity disc No 1316069, Stewart’s service and pay book, address book, bomb aimer’s selector switch list, and order of leaving aircraft emergency plan. Arrangements were made to bury the bodies in the communal cemetery, but as soon as it became known to the Germans that a ‘sympathetic demonstration’ was to be made by the people of Hamm, they placed the coffins in a wagon and supposedly took them to Lihons.
It wasn’t until the end of the war that the RAF M.R.E.U. team found the graves at Maucourt French military Cemetery, where they remain to this day.
Wing Commander Sawyer, the officer commanding 51 Squadron wrote letters on the 17th April to the next of kin regarding the crew failing to return from the mission to Pilsen. He offered his deepest sympathy, with hope that they may be prisoners of war, also informing the next of kin that their relations belonging’s had been collected by the Squadron Padre and forwarded to the Central Repository.
Hauptmann Hans-Karl Kamp would continue bringing down allied aircraft with a final score of 23, before being KIA himself flying a Me109G, on 31st December 1944 just north of Hamburg, shot down by a P-51 Mustang. He was awarded the German Cross in Gold, the Luftwaffe Honour Goblet, Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the Night Fighter Clasp, along with a black wound badge.
Mrs Agnes Axtell received the usual condolence letter once Dennis’s death was officially confirmed, and later his Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) contained in a small white cardboard box, along with his campaign medals contained in a small brown box.
His official medal entitlement being confirmed as:-
The Distinguished Flying Medal, the 1939/45 Star, the Aircrew Europe Star, and 1939/45 War Medal.
*It is interesting to note that Leonard Cheshire’s group of medals displays an Atlantic bar on the ribbon of his Air Crew Europe Star, obviously for the missions that were undertaken when 102 Squadron was attached to Coastal Command in 1940. The bar is omitted from Dennis Axtell’s group, and not shown on his service record, even though he flew with Cheshire on the same Coastal Convoy Patrols.
P/O. Ronald Henry Stewart. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 3. Son of Alvin Claude and Dorothy Jane Stewart, of Welland, Ontario, Canada. Grave inscription reads: "A Gallant Son"
P/O. William Robert McBriar. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 5. Son of William James Norwood Owens McBriar and Cathrine Stewart McBriar, of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Grave inscription reads: "Till WeMeet Again".
Sgt. Dennis Axtell DFM. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 1. Son of Allan and Vera Axtell and husband of Agnes Axtell, of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Also commemorated on the St Helen’s War Memorial within the church, and Ryde Borough War Memorial on the Isle of Wight.
F/O. Thomas Collis Robinson. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 4. Son of Thomas Frederick and Kate Robinson and husband of Muriel Constance Robinson, of Brislington, Bristol, England. Grave inscription reads: "His Life A Beautiful Memory, His Absence A Silent Grief. In God's Keeping".
Sgt. Donald Harold Reid. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 2. No further details - are you able to assist?
P/O. Frank Malcolm Thompson. Maucourt French National Cemetery. Grave 6. Son of Fredrick Thompson, and of Molly Thompson (née Payne) and husband of Frances Violet Thompson, of East Barnet, Hertfordshire, England. Grave inscription reads: "In Everloving Memory Of My Dear Frank. Too Dearly Loved To Be Forgotten".
Fl/Lt. Frank Hugh Long DFC. Denekamp Protestant Cemetery. Collective grave 1-4. Son of William Hugh and Amy Amelia (née Reid) Long of Masterton. New Zealand. No grave inscription - please see our page on 'Your Relatives Grave Explained' for explanation.
Simon Muggleton January 2019
With grateful thanks to the following:- Peter Wilson Cunliffe - Author ‘A Shaky Do’, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, RAF Cranwell Disclosures Unit, FlyPast Magazine, National Archives ORB’s 102 and 51 Squadron, MI9 Report of W/O Kiernan, Richard Priest-Parish Clerk St Helen’s IOW, Paul Baillie - Researcher. Also Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everett authors of The Bomber Command War Diaries.