Operation: Forward deployment to Russia
Date: 5th September 1942 (Saturday)
Unit: 455 Squadron RAAF, Coastal Command
Type: Hampden TB.I
Serial No: AT109
Location: Malvik beach, Varengerfjord, near Vardø, Norway
Base: RAF Leuchers, Fife, Scotland
Pilot: Sqn Ldr. James ‘Jimmy’ Catanach DFC, MiD 400364 RAAF Age 23. PoW No. 702 */Murdered (5)
Nav/Bomb Aimer: Fg Off. George Robert Anderson 400316 RAAF Age 32. PoW No. 698 * (1)
WOp/Air Gnr: Flt Sgt. Cecil William Francis Cameron 404632 RAAF Age 27. PoW No. 27134 * (2)
WOp/Air Gnr: Sgt. John Richard Hayes 404462 RAAF Age 22. PoW No. 3023 ** (3)
Grd Crew: Flt Sgt. John Donald ‘Don’ Davidson 5372 RAAF Age 36. PoW No. 3022 **/Died (4)
* Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria)
** Stalag 344, Lamsdorf (now called Łambinowice) in Silesia
Above: RAF Leuchars, Scotland. Circa April 1942. A group portrait of aircrew members of 455 Sqn RAAF, who all come from Victoria Australia. (Courtesy of the Australian War Museum).
Left to right: 400610 Plt Off. W.W. Wilson, Nav "B"; 400316 Fg Off. G.R. Anderson, Nav "B"; 400842 Sgt. E.J. Smart, pilot; 400473 Plt Off. M.S. Humphrey, pilot; 400364 Acting Sqn Ldr. J. Catanach DFC, pilot; 400349 Sgt. V.W. Miller, Wireless operator/air gunner; 400964 Plt Off. A.H.G. Clarke, pilot.
Identification of the airmen in the photograph:
Plt Off. William Walter Wilson DFC
DFC awarded as a Flt Lt. with 455 Sqn, RAAF. London Gazette 12th November 1943.
Citation: “Flight Lieutenant Wilson is a very reliable navigator and a sound torpedo officer and has completed a fine tour of operational duty. This has included transit flights to North Russia, daylight search for major enemy units in the Barents Sea and successful sweeps north of Trondheim in search of German battleships. On several occasions this officer has located enemy merchant vessels. Flight Lieutenant Wilson’s navigational ability is of high order and he always displayed marked determinations and courage.”
Survived the war and returned to Australia. He was demobilised as a Flt Lt. on the the 30th January 1946. William Walter Wilson passed away in 2010 in British Columbia, Canada aged 92.
Plt Off. Malcolm Sydenham Humphrey DFC
DFC awarded whilst with 455 Sqn, RAAF. London Gazette 27th April 1943. Citation: “Flying Officer Malcolm Sydenham HUMPHREY (400473), Royal Australian Air Force, No. 455 (RAAF) Squadron. In April, 1943, this officer captained an aircraft engaged on a patrol off the Norwegian coast. Although the weather was bad and visibility was poor, a medium sized merchant ship escorted by an armed ship was sighted. Despite interference by an enemy aircraft. Flying Officer Humphrey flew in to attack the merchant vessel, being met by intense and accurate anti-aircraft fire from both ships. He was wounded in both knees and in the thigh, while his aircraft was hit in many places, including both engines; the instrument panel and the port aileron control were damaged and the navigator was injured in the shoulder when oxygen bottles exploded. In spite of his injuries, Flying Officer Humphrey pressed home his attack, releasing his torpedo. Displaying great skill and determination he succeeded in flying the damaged aircraft to base. This officer, who has completed 25 operational missions, has invariably displayed great courage and devotion to duty.”
Survived the war and returned to Australia. Malcolm Sydenham Humphrey passed away in 2008 in Melbourne, Australia aged 92.
Sgt. Victor William Miller
Survived the war and returned to Australia. He was demobilised as a Flt Lt. on the 7th March 1946. Victor William Miller passed away in 1991 in Victoria, Australia aged 69.
Plt Off. Aleck Hugh Gelston Clarke DFC
DFC awarded as an acting Sqn Ldr. with 455 Sqn, RAAF. London Gazette 12th November 1943. Citation: “Squadron Leader Clark commenced his operational career in April, 1942, with three successful sorties in Bomber Command. His squadron was subsequently transferred to Coastal Command and he has since participated in numerous shipping searches. In January, 1943, he located an enemy submarine and attacked it though his aircraft sustained from machine gun fire from the U-Boat. In June, 1943, this officer delivered telling attacks on enemy merchant vessels off the coast of Norway in the face of heavy and accurate opposition. His aircraft was severely damaged on this occasion but he succeeded and returned safely to base. Squadron Leader Clark’s attacks have invariably been pressed home with the utmost determination and he has displayed courage and leadership of a very high order.”
Survived the war and returned to Australia. He was demobilised as a Sqn Ldr. on the 26th September 1945. Aleck Hugh Gelston Clarke passed away in 1968 at Kew, Victoria, Australia aged 48.
REASON FOR LOSS:
In September 1942 the squadron was tasked to deploy to Vaenga, Murmansk in northern Russia as part of Operation ‘Orator’, which was intended to provide air cover to Convoy PQ-19 between Scotland and Murmansk.
Seventeen Hampdens took off from RAF Leuchers on the 2nd September 1942, between 09:30 and 10:20 hrs and proceeded to a forward operating base at RAF Sumburgh on the Shetland Isles. One aircraft was not required for the operation which returned to RAF Leuchers the next day.
On the night of the 4th September sixteen Hampdens took off from RAF Sumburgh between 19:55 and 21:00 hrs and proceeded to Afrikanda in the Murmansk Oblast. Eleven of the Hampdens landed safely at Afrikanda between 03:15 and 04:50 hrs:
Hampden P5523 UB:L failed to find the airfield and running low on petrol was forced landed 8 km west of Kandalsca. The crew were unhurt and were picked up by Russian troops, but the aircraft was written-off;
P1287 was intercepted by Russian Hurricanes and escorted to Monchigersh;
X3131 was intercepted by Russian Aerocobras and escorted to Murrachi;
P5304 UB:H and AT109 UB:C failed to reach Afrikanda.
P5304 UB:H crashed into Mount Arvestuottar, north of Arjeplog in Sweden. The crew, Sgt. Edward John Smart 400842 RAAF; Flt Sgt. Thomas Graham Nicholls 400331 RAAF; Flt Sgt. Louis Arthur Biggin 1358006 RAFVR; Sgt. John Macenzie Oberlin Harris 408129 RAAF and Cpl. Donald Henry Nelson 6707 RAAF died in the crash.
Later that day the Hampdens at Afrikanda proceeded to Vaenga and were joined there by P1287 and X3131 which were escorted to the airfield by Russian fighters.
When letting down through clouds to determine their position AT109 encountered a great deal of flak as it crossed the Norwegian coast in atrocious weather conditions. The aircraft was already low on petrol and with the damage inflicted by flak the pilot trimmed the aircraft right back for a slow flight across Varengerfjord with the intention, given the first opportunity, to ditch in the water.
Varengerfjord is located the the extreme north of Norway and about 160 km NW of Murmansk in Russia.
However, with the sudden appearance of heather adjacent to a beach Sqn Ldr. Catanach made a forced landing on Malvik beach, Varengerfjord, near Vardø, Norway. The aircraft touched down safely on the beach albeit with an understandably rough and bumpy landing.
Whilst the crew attempted to destroy the Hampden by setting it ablaze German soldiers appeared on the high ground overlooking the beach and opened fire on them as did a patrol boat which had edged nearer to the beach. The situation was hopeless and in a matter of minutes the five crew had been taken prisoners. The aircraft was captured intact but it is not known what, if any, use it was to the German forces.
Sgt. Hayes’ service record reports that after they had been captured they were held for 3 days at Stalag 322, Elvenes in Sør-Varanger, Norway, which was primarily a Russian PoW Camp. They were then transferred to Dulag Luft arriving there on the 12th September 1943.
(1) Fg Off. Anderson was initially held at Oflag XXIb at Szubin before being transferred to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan-Silesia. He was promoted to Flt Lt. with effect 11th April 1943. After being liberated and repatriated to Australia he was discharged from the RAAF on the 19th November 1945.
(2) Flt Sgt. Cameron was commissioned and promoted to Plt Off. with effect 29th June 1942, to Fg Off. with effect 29th December 1943 and to Flt Lt. with effect 29th June 1944. Originally Flt Sgt. Cameron was held at Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf but after being commissioned he was transferred to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan-Silesia. After being liberated and repatriated to Australia he was discharged from the RAAF on the 3rd November 1945.
(3) Sgt. Hayes was at Dulag Luft from the 12th September 1942 to the 3rd October 1942 and at Stalag 344 from the 3rd October 1942 to the 20th January 1945. On the 4th April 1945 he was part of a forced march but was liberated by US Forces on the 11th April 1945. Whilst a PoW he was promoted to Flt Sgt. with effect 1st May 1943 and to WO with effect 1st May 1944. He was repatriated to Australia and was discharged from the RAAF on the 24th October 1945.
(4) The Sqn Operational Record Book (ORB) lists Flt Sgt. Davidson as ground crew and a passenger aboard AT109.
Above: Cpl. Davidson (Courtesy of Geoff Raebel)
His service record details that he was trained as a Flight Rigger (Airframe Fitter) and re-mustered as an Air Gunner. He undertook his Air Gunner training at RAAF Base Williamstown, Richmond between the 27th June 1940 and 10th August 1940. Appointed as an Air Gunner and awarded his Air Gunner brevet with effect 23rd August 1940. He was promoted to Cpl. on the 1st October 1940 but relinquished his appointment as a part-time Air Gunner on the 15th May 1941 for unknown reasons. He was posted to 455 Sqn on the 2nd September 1941 as a Sgt. and was promoted to Flt Sgt. on the 1st January 1942.
It has been reported that Flt Sgt. Davidson fell by the wayside during the forced march from Stalag 344, Lamsdorf and taken to Stalag 9c Mühlhausen near Bad Sulza, probably to the attached Reserve-Lazarett (Hospital). He was suffering from Dysentery and Malnutrition which caused his death on the 17th March 1945. It was reported that he was buried by a chaplain, the Rev. McIntyre, at the Bad Sulza Cemetery on 20th March 1945.
To date details of the chaplain, the Rev. McIntyre, have not been found.
After hostilities ceased Bad Sulza fell within the Russian Zone of Occupation. Consequently the British Grave Registration Service (GRS) could not access Bad Sulza to identify his grave. As result he has been commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
(5) Sqn Ldr. Catanach is not named as being involved in the Escape Organisation and there is no record that describes his role in assisting in the execution of the plan. However, six-hundred PoWs had been engaged on work connected with the tunnel and two-hundred of them were chosen to escape so it is safe to assume that he was involved in some capacity. It is known that he spoke fluent German.
Sqn Ldr. Bushell was made the head of the Escape Committee and he was known as "Big X". His plan was to cause the maximum amount of disruption to the Germans in organising a breakout by 200 PoWs. His plan was to commence digging three tunnels which were named "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry" under the premise that should one of the three be discovered the Germans would unlikely think that another was being dug let alone two.
Some 600 PoWs were involved in the planning, preparation of escape materials and construction of the tunnels. On the 8th September 1943 “Tom” was discovered and activity on the other two tunnels was shut down for two months to eliminate the risk of being discovered. When work was to recommence “Dick” was shut down because of the clearance for a new compound made unlikely that this tunnel would ever be completed and all efforts were redirected into completing “Harry”.
On the night of the 24th-25th March 1944, 76 officers escaped via “Harry” from the north compound which, at that time, held between 1000 and 1500 RAF PoWs. At about 05:00 hrs on the 25th March the 77th PoW was spotted by guards as he emerged from the tunnel.
An overview of the German response to the escape and the subsequent British prosecution of those responsible for the murder of fifty of the escapees is summarised in the report entitled “The Fifty - The Great Escape”.
At 22:30 hrs Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Flt Lt. Valenta, Sqn Ldr. Bushell, Lt. Scheidhauer, Lt. Stevens, Lt. Gouws, Flt Lt. Plunktett and Flt Lt. Dvorak left the tunnel. They made their way to the Sagan railway station.
Sgt. Espelid and Lt. Fuglesang together with Fg Off. Tobolski, Wg Cdr. Day, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen caught the Berlin express at 03:15 hrs.
Early on the 25th March Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen arrived in Berlin. From here they made their way to the Danish border at Flensburg. Here their luck ran out when a policeman became suspicious after inspecting their papers and their adapted 'civilian’ greatcoats, which failed to stand up to close scrutiny. They were arrested and handed over to the Kripo at Flensburg.
Kripo = Kriminalpolizei (Criminal Police).
The circumstances surrounding the death of Sgt. Espelid were established during the first of two British Military Courts which was convened at the Curiohaus, Hamburg between the 1st July and 3rd September 1947. This was the trial of Max Wielen and 17 others where they were charged on nine counts.
All of the accused were named on the first two counts. These counts were charges of conspiracy against Max Ernst Gustav Friedrich Wielen, the Kripo and Gestapo police chief of Breslau with the rank of SS-Obergruppenführer, together with SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, Head of the Gestapo (Amt IV of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt) (believed to have been killed or committed suicide) and SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, Head of the Kripo (Amt V of the RSHA) (Executed after the attempt on Hitler’s life) in the participation of the killing of the 50 officers.
In counts three to nine, six groups of accused were each charged with the killing of one or several officers. Every accused with the exception of Max Wielen figures in one of these counts and no accused figures in more than one.
On the seventh and eighth counts two groups of former members of the Kiel Gestapo were accused of killing Sgt. Espelid, Lt. Fuglesang, Sqn Ldr. Catanach and Flt Lt. Christensen in the vicinity of Roter Hahn on or about the 29th March 1944.
On the seventh count the accused were Johannes Post, Hans Kähler and Artur Denkmann. On the eighth count the accused were Oskar Schmidt, Walter Jacobs and Wilhelm Struve.
Johannes Robert Adolf Post was a former Kriminalkommissar (Detective Inspector or Superintendent) and an SS-Obersturmführer or SS-Hauptsturmführer (1st Lt or Capt);
Hans Kähler was a former Kriminalinspektor (Detective Inspector) and an SS-Obersturmführer (1st Lt);
The position and ranks of the remaining four accused have not been established.
The court heard that on the 29th March 1944 Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, who was the Commanding Officer (CO) of the regional Gestapo headquarters (HQ) in Kiel, summoned the six accused to his office. He told them that four prisoners, who were being held by the Kripo at Flensburg, had been condemned to death and were to be shot at a location determined by him.
He told Post to go to Flensburg and interrogate the prisoners after which he was to take them to a pre-arranged location and shoot them. Friedrich Schmidt told Post that he was in charge and responsible for carrying out his orders. He ordered Oskar Schmidt to arrange for the cremation of the bodies taking into account the relevant formalities.
He instructed that service pistols were to be used to shoot the prisoners. Additionally, should the prisoners escape service rifles were to be used as pistols would not be sufficient. The drivers, Denkmann and Struve, were instructed to keep the road clear of curious passers-by.
The party then set off to Flensburg to interrogate the four prisoners. Post then ordered that each member of the party was to shoot the prisoner that he had interrogated. When they left Flensburg, Post and Kahler were in one car driven by Denkmann, with Sqn Ldr. Catanach as the only prisoner. During the journey this car became separated from the other and was the first to arrive at the pre-arranged place of execution. Sqn Ldr. Catanach was taken out of the car and led through a gate into a field where he was shot and killed. Post stated that Kahler’s rifle had misfired, and he had to give the prisoner the coup de grâce himself. However, Kahler denied having fired at all. Denkmann stood by the car.
Shortly thereafter the other car arrived with the remaining three prisoners. Oskar Schmidt was in charge, with Jacobs as an escort and Struve as the driver. Post was waiting for them at the gate. Sgt. Espelid, Flt Lt. Christensen and Lt. Fuglesang were led into the same field and shot. Post and Jacobs admitted having fired the shots at them, and Post stated that Oskar Schmidt also fired which he denied. Struve remained with his car.
They then all drove back and Post reported to Friedrich Schmidt. At some later date their report had to be re-written and it was suggested by Friedrich Schmidt and Post that the report should say that Denkmann and Struve each shot one prisoner as they tried to run away, but both refused to sign.
In their defence Post and Jacobs claimed that they had been misled by Friedrich Schmidt as to the identity of the four prisoners as spies and saboteurs. However, they admitted that when Sqn Ldr. Catanach was interrogated he stated that he had been in the RAF.
Kahler’s defence was that he hung back as Post and the prisoner left the car and never fired at all. Oskar Schmidt claimed in his testimony that he never fired and that he had been reported by Post to Friedrich Schmidt for failing to obey orders, and was rebuked.
In their defence, Denkmann and Struve, claimed that they had been conscripted into the Gestapo and were not members, and that they had nothing to do with the whole affair and were merely driving the cars. Struve admitted having been at the CO’s conference whereas Denkmann was the only one of the six accused who denied being at the conference.
The court found Post, Kähler, Schmidt and Jacobs guilty of their respective charges and sentenced them to death. They were executed by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by RSM Richard A. O'Neill, on the 26th February 1948 at Hameln prison between 09:54 hrs and 10:50 hrs.
The court found Denkmann and Struve guilty of their involvement in the killings and sentenced both to 10 years imprisonment. The final dispositions of their sentences are unknown.
Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt was not before the court for his involvement in the killings as it appears from unsubstantiated reports that at the end of April/beginning of May 1945 he obtained false papers and fled across the Bavarian - Austrian border. However:
On the 11th November 1961 Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, alias Schütte, and his Nazi past was uncovered. He eventually lost his job at Hamburg-Mannheimer (Insurance Company) and in 1962 was sentenced by the Munich District Court to three months in prison for "false certification, making a false affidavit and offences under the passport law", but he did not have to serve the sentence. He continued to live under the name Schmidt-Schütte.
On the 18th December 1963 he was arrested and remanded in custody on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by the Kiel District Court. The background to this was investigations into crimes committed and specifically his responsibility for the murders of the four Allied officers on the 29th March 1944, which were committed on his instructions.
Schmidt-Schütte was released from pre-trial detention in 1965 because he was unfit to be imprisoned and was able to resume his employment. On the 20th May 1968 Schmidt-Schütte was sentenced by the Kiel District Court to two years imprisonment for aiding and abetting the murder of the four Allied officers. The sentence was confirmed by the Federal Court of Justice on the 14th January 1969. However, his sentence was deemed to have been served through pre-trial detention.
Memorial to “The Fifty” near to Żagań (Courtesy: CSvBibra - Own work, Public Domain)
Above Sqn Ldr. Catanach, left (Courtesy of the Australian War Museum) middle grave marker (Credit: TWGPP) right believed to be after he was captured (none attributed)
Sqn Ldr. James Catanach. DFC, MiD. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, Collective Grave 9.A. Born on the 28th November 1921 in Melbourne, Australia. Son of William Mercer and Ruby Catanach of Malvern, Melbourne, Australia.
Sqn Ldr. Catanach was awarded the DFC whilst with 455 Sqn. London Gazette 26th June 1942. Citation: “Joined 455 Squadron December 1941. Previously completed nine operational sorites for RAF Squadron. On 3 occasions despite severe damage aircraft returned to base safely. Has made successful attacks on Hamburg, Essen, Cologne, Lorient and Lubeck”.
Sqn Ldr. Catanach was Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) recognizing his conspicuous bravery as a PoW because none of the other relevant decorations then available could be awarded posthumously. Promulgated in the London Gazette on the 8th June 1944.
Above:Flt Sgt. Davidson, left from his service record, right Runnymede Panel 284 (Courtesy of Amanda West - FindAGrave)
Flt Sgt. John Donald Davidson. Runnymede Memorial Panel 284. Born on the 25th April 1909 in Horsham, Victoria. Son of James and Catherine Mary (née Mintern) Davidson, of Horsham, Victoria, Australia.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this pilot with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. Update to Flt Sgt. Davidson details (Mar 2022). Thanks to Geoff Raebel for permission to use the image of Cpl. Davidson (Mar 2022).
Thanks to ‘The War Graves Photographic Project (TWGPP)’ for their great work.
Other sources as quoted below:
RS & TV 30.08.2022 - Addition of new images for Sqn Ldr. Catanach
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