16.03.1945 49 Squadron Lancaster I NG352 Fg Off. John B. Gibson
Operation: Würzburg, Germany
Date: 16th March 1945 (Friday)
Unit: 49 Squadron, 5 Group
Type: Lancaster I
Base: RAF Fulbeck, Nottinghamshire
Location: In the vicinity of Würzburg, Germany
Pilot: Fg Off. John Buchanan Gibson 54900 RAF Age? PoW *
Flt Eng: Sgt. G. Peter Roberts 1596082 RAFVR Age? PoW **
Nav: Fg Off. David Edwards 164576 RAFVR Age? PoW *
Bomb Aimer: Flt Sgt. R.M. Henderson R204987 RCAF Age? PoW *
WOp/Air Gnr: Flt Sgt. John Donald Hughes 1873494 RAFVR Age 20. Survived (1 & 2)
Air Gnr (Mid Upp): Sgt. Austin Finnerty 2225471 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Air Gnr (Rear): Sgt. J. Evan 596311 RAFVR Age? PoW *
* Unknown PoW camp
**Stalag 5a Ludwigsberg, Germany
REASON FOR LOSS:
Lancaster NG352 took off from RAF Fulbeck at 16:02 hrs on a mission to Würzburg, Germany. The aircraft was attacked by a night fighter over the target and was one of two Lancasters lost by 49 Sqn this day.
In the Nachtjagd War Diaries Volume 2 (April 1944 - May 1945) (Dr Theo E.W. Boiten & Roderick J. Mackenzie) PD352 was listed as one of five Lancasters recorded as a probable claim by the following two German night-fighter pilots:
The other four Lancasters were; 61 Sqn Lancaster I RF176, 467 Sqn Lancaster I PD231, 619 Sqn Lancaster I NG503 and 630 Sqn Lancaster I LM260.
Hptm. Wilhelm Johnen, his 33rd Abschuss, from Stab III./NJG6, SW of Würzburg at 21:43 hrs;
Oblt. Erich Jung, his 27th Abschuss, from 5./NJG2, over Würzburg between 21:43 and 21:45 hrs.
Sgt. Finnerty perished aboard the aircraft and the remaining six crew members managed to bail out of the crashing aircraft and land safely.
(1) The circumstances leading to Flt Sgt. Hughes’ death were unknown until two Military Courts, one British and one American, were convened.
The British Military Court was convened in Iserlohn, Germany from the 11th to 13th June 1946.
Two German nationals were charged with committing a war crime in that they at Sommershausen, Germany, on or about the 18th March 1945, in violation of the laws and usages of war, were concerned with the killing of Serjt (Sgt) Donald J. Hughes, Royal Air Force, a PoW.
Those charged were: Josef Axt and Johann Weber who was a former Kriminalsekretär (Detective Inspector) in the Würzburg Kriminalpolizei (Criminal police) and Johann Weber who was also a former Kriminalsekretär in the Würzburg Kriminalpolizei.
In the book “Beware of the Dog at War” 49 Sqn History by the late John Ward he described that:
Flt Sgt. Hughes landed by the banks of the river Main. The following morning he was found by two clergymen hiding in the Church Sacristy of Eibelstadt. They handed him over to a doctor, who in turn took him to the town hall where he was interrogated. On the morning of 18th March 1945 at 07:30 hrs, after two days in custody, Flt Sgt. Hughes was taken from the police cells by Axt and Weber. They marched him to the river Main where Axt shot him in the back and threw his body into the river. The body was recovered the following morning.
The court found both guilty of the charge. Axt was sentenced to death and Weber was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
The sentences were confirmed on the 3rd August 1946 and Axt was executed at the Werl, shooting range, along Neheimer Straße, on the 23th August 1946 at 08:15 hrs. Weber was held in Werl prison but the final disposition of his sentence is unknown.
(2) An American General Military Government Court was held at Dachau, Germany, from 17th September 1947 to 10th October 1947.
A number of German nationals were charged on four separate counts. On the 4th count two German Nationals where charged in that they did at or near Sommershausen, Germany, on or about 18th March 1945, wrongfully, encourage, aid, abet, and participate in the killing of a member of the British Royal Air Force, who was then unarmed and a surrendered PoW in the custody of the then German Reich.
Those charged were; Kurt Hans who was a former SA-Hauptsturmführer (Capt.) and the Kriminalrat (detective superintendent) of the Kriminalpolizei (Criminal police) at Würzburg and Dr. Richard Schulze who was a former SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lt Col.), the Chef der Gestapo (head of the Gestapo) in Darmstadt and Oberregierungs-und Kriminalrat (Lt Col.) in the Berlin office.
The court heard that on about the 18th March 1945, a British airman whose name was probably Hoges (actual name was Hughes), bailed out near Sommershausen and was taken into custody by a man named Reinhardt, believed to be a member of the police.
Reinhardt testified that Johann Weber told him that Hans had ordered the killing of the airman who should be considered a spy. Weber stated that the order was received by Hans through official channels. A man named Josef Axt stated that Hans had ordered the pursuit detail (Jagdkommando) to shoot captured airmen.
Weber and Axt acting on the orders of Hans took custody of the captured airman from Reinhardt at about 13:00 hrs on the day in question and took him to the bank of the nearby river Main and shot him. Axt fired one shot at the airman who then collapsed. Weber and Axt then threw the airman into the river followed by Axt firing one or more shots at the airman. Axt then reported the killing to Hans who allegedly indicated his approval.
Weber and Axt were not before the court because they had been tried by a British Government court (see 1 above).
The justification for these murders stemmed from the summer of 1944 when a regular meeting of police leaders was held and at which Kurt Hans was a guest speaker. The gist of the speech was that enemy airmen had bombed non-military targets and that the airmen were therefore outside the protection of international law.
The original orders had been for police to apprehend downed airmen and take them to the nearest Luftwaffe airbase or if that was not possible, to notify the Wehrmacht. Hans told those at the meeting that weapons were to be used immediately when “Terrorflieger” (Terror flyers) attempted to escape but no action could be taken if the military authorities had been informed.
He also informed the meeting that a “Jagdkommando” (a hunting team comprised of Kriminalpolizei, Gestapo, SS and Nazi party members) was available for apprehending any downed airmen and that the presence of downed airmen in the district was to be reported to the Kriminalpolizei. The “Jagdkommando”, was an agency supervised by Schulze, and it was alleged to have orders to shoot all Allied airmen that it apprehended.
Hans and Schulze were found guilty on this charge and the 1st charge and were sentenced to death by hanging. Both had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and then reduced to 27 years for Hans and 33 years for Schulze. Hans and Schulze were paroled in September 1954 and December 1956 respectively.
Addendum: A book published in 2020 by Schulze‘s grandson (Ref 1) points out that the only evidence which connects Dr. Richard Schulze with the airmen murders, as detailed in charge numbers 1 to 4, is the witness Kömm who testified that Schulze allegedly issued that killing order to the assembled participants of the meeting at Berlin. However Kömm was the only participant of the meeting who claims to have heard this order issued. Eight other men present, high-ranking CID officers from Düsseldorf, Kiel, Bochum, Recklinghausen, Flensburg, Bremen and Frankfurt, according to their post-trial sworn statements, testified that Schulze had said nothing of the sort but rather the contrary.
Grave markers for Flt Sgt. Hughes and Sgt. Finnerty. Courtesy of the The Photographic War Graves Project (TWGPP))
Flt Sgt. Donald John Hughes. Dürnbach War Cemetery 1.K.18. Inscription: "HE WENT DOWN TO THE RIVER AND THE TRUMPETS SOUNDED FOR HIM ON THE OTHER SIDE". Born in July 1925. Son of John William and Constance Louie Hughes, of Thundersley, Essex, England.
Sgt. Austin Finnerty. Dürnbach War Cemetery 6.C.24. Inscription: "SACRED HEART OF JESUS HAVE MERCY ON HIS SOUL. OUR LADY OF FATIMA, PRAY FOR HIM. R.I.P." Born 1922. Son of Augustine and Rose Finnerty, of Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.
1. Torsten Meyer, In schwierigen Zeiten. Annäherung an den Großvater, Norderstedt 2020, ISBN 9 783750 478275