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Archive Report: Allied Forces

Compiled from official National Archive and Service sources, contemporary press reports, personal logbooks, diaries and correspondence, reference books, other sources, and interviews.
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405 Squadron
15/16.03.1945 405 (Vancouver) Squadron RCAF, Lancaster III NE119, Flt Lt. Leslie Norman Laing MiD

Operation: Misburg (Deurag Oil Refinery), Germany

Date: 15th/16th March 1945 (Thursday/Friday)

Unit No: 405 (Vancouver) Squadron RCAF, 8 (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command

Type: Lancaster III

Serial: NE119

Code: LQ:P

Base: RAF Gransden Lodge, Cambridgeshire

Location: Bad Grund, Germany

Pilot: Flt Lt. Leslie Norman Laing MiD J26053 RCAF Age 25. Killed

Flt Eng: Sgt Robert Morris 3020201 RAFVR Age 20. Murdered (1)

Nav: Fg Off. Ian Wesley Bonter J35906 RCAF Age 29. PoW *

Bomb Aimer: Fg Off. Donald George 'Don’ Smith MiD J35778 RCAF Age 22. Murdered (1)

WOp/Air Gnr: Fg Off. Raymond M. Hyde J40210 RCAF Age? PoW *

Air Gnr (Mid Upp): Flt Sgt. Francis Joseph Marsh MiD R266317 RCAF Age 28. Murdered (1)

Air Gnr (Rear): Flt Sgt. James R. Crisp R217630 RCAF Age? PoW *

* Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, today situated in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.

Above: From their service records. Left to right: Flt Lt. Laing, Fg Off. Smith, Flt Sgt. Marsh

REASON FOR LOSS:

NE119 took off from RAF Gransden at 17:59 hrs on the 15th March 1945 on a Path Finder Force (PFF) mission to mark the Deurag refinery at Misburg, on the outskirts of Hannover.

Of the 257 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes that bombed the refinery four Lancasters and a Fortress III (B-17 Radar jamming aircraft) were lost during the raid. Only two of these losses were due to German defences while two Lancasters were lost in a collision near Hannover and another Lancaster seems to have had an engine failure. (Nachtjagd Combat Archive (1 January 1945 - 3 May 1945) Part 6 - Theo Boiten).

The two aircraft downed by German defences were claimed by Hptm Ernst-Georg Drünkler from 1./NJG5, his 34th and 35th Abschüsse.

The two aircraft were:

550 Sqn Lancaster I NG287 3km south of the Breidenback/Wilnsdorf-Hartenrod area at 3.000m at 22:16 hrs (5 KiA, 1 PoW, 1 Evd);

214 Sqn Fortress III HB803 1km NW of the Mayen/Waldbreitbach-Neuwied area at 2.800 m at 22:46 hrs (8 Safe, 2 KiA).

From the available evidence it appears that 153 Sqn Lancaster I NG488 and 405 Sqn Lancaster III PB516 were the two aircraft that collided in mid-air. This left NE119 as the Lancaster with the potential engine failure.

It should be noted, albeit coincidently, that on the 11th March 1945, on take off the port outer engine of NE119 overheated, caught fire and was feathered. The fire was extinguished and Flt Lt. Laing continued on to the target on three engines returning safely.

An investigation conducted by No. 23 Section, No. 4 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit (MREU) on the 30th December 1946 (Ref 1) determined that on the night of the 15th March 1945 at approximately 21:15 hrs several witnesses observed a large aircraft approaching the village of Bad Grund flying in a WSW direction. Just before reaching the village it banked sharply to the left and crashed 1km to the east of Bad Grund.

Several witnesses agreed that there was no large explosion on impact indicating the probability that there were no bombs still aboard the aircraft. Since no one had heard any gunfire or other aircraft it was assumed that the crash of the aircraft was caused by flak damage.

The wreckage, which was spread over a large area burnt for a considerable time and no attempt was made to extinguish the flames. One of the four engines was found some distance from the main wreckage so it appears to have detached from the aircraft prior to the crash. Parts of the other three engines were found in the remains of the wreckage.

It became apparent during the course of the investigation that all of the crew had bailed out of the stricken aircraft between the villages of Clausthal-Zellerfeld and Bad Grund prior to the crash.

At Bad Grund the body of an airman, which was subsequently identified as that of Flt Lt. Laing, was found at the foot of a tree about 1 km (¾ ml) from the scene of the crash. The cords of his parachute had been cut with the canopy found in the tree some 30 ft from the ground. The only injuries visible were two broken legs and no one could state the exact cause of death. On the 18th March 1945 he was placed in a coffin and interred at the village cemetery in grave #634. A ceremony was performed by the Luftwaffe with no pastor being present.

Two other members of the crew were take prisoner in the area and were taken to Bad Grund however the only information found was that they were taken to Goslar airfield. These two airmen have been identified as Fg Off. Hyde and Flt Sgt. Crisp.

Goslar Airfield was located 40 km SSW of Braunschweig, 1½ km NE of the town of Goslar and 17½ km NE of Bad Grund.

At about 21:15 hrs an airman was seen to descend on a parachute and land 2 km (1¼ mls) SW of Wildemann. This airman was identified as Fg Off. Bonter. The next afternoon he was collected by Luftwaffe personnel from Goslar airfield.

Wildemann is situated between the town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld and the village of Bad Grund.

(1) A General Military Court was convened in Hamburg between the 17th and 26th September 1947 to determine the circumstances leading to the deaths of three Canadian airmen.

Three German nationals were charged with committing a war crime in that they at Altenau, Germany, on or about the 16th March 1945 were concerned in the killing of Flt Lt. D. Smith, Sgt. J. Marsh and Sgt. R. Morris, all of the Royal Canadian Air Force, PoWs.

The three accused were:

Otto Fricke, who was a member of the NSDAP (Nazi party), NSV (National Socialist People's Welfare organisation) and the NSKK (National Socialist Motor Corps);

Christoph Wilhelm Hartwig, who was a member of the NSDAP (Nazi party) and of the DAF (National Socialist German Labour Front);

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Pfeiffer, who was the Kreisleiter (Nazi district leader) of Goslar but was not before the court on this charge.

It appears possible that the British didn't see any sense in spending money on extradition procedures after Pfeiffer was found guilty of 4 of the 6 charges in the American case No.12-1077 in 1947. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and records show that he was one of the last prisoners to be paroled in April 1957.

On the day in question it was reported to Fricke that an enemy bomber had crashed in the vicinity of Altenau. He telephoned Pfeiffer who ordered him to report to his office immediately in the car. Pfeiffer and one other were driven to the scene of the crash by Fricke, where they found the aircraft wreckage burning.

The next morning it was reported from the town of Clausthal-Zellerfeld that three Allied airmen had been captured on the northern outskirts of the town and were being held to the local police station.

Pfeiffer called Fricke into his office and ordered him to drive with Hartwig to Clausthal-Zellerfeld and to shoot the airmen there. Fricke in his statements told that Pfeiffer had reiterated this order on numerous occasions at conferences of Ortsgruppenleiters (Local Group leaders) with words to the effect that the airmen should be shot from behind in order to give the impression that they had been shot whilst escaping.

Fricke then collected Hartwig from his office and relayed Pfeiffer’s instructions to which Hartwig apparently did not object. On the way to Clausthal-Zellerfeld they tested their sidearms and found that Hartwig’s pistol did not work.

Arriving at the Clausthal-Zellerfeld police station they demanded the prisoners to be handed over but Oberleutnant (1st Lt) Schulze, who was in charge, refused to do so and informed them that the capture of the airmen had already been reported to the Luftwaffe at the Goslar airbase and they were sending someone to collect them.

Fricke insisted that he had strict instructions to take the airmen away but Schulze still refused so Fricke telephoned Deputy Bürgermeister (Mayor) Mahn who ordered the Oberleutnant to hand over the airmen.

According to Fricke the next task was to obtain a pistol for Hartwig. He knew that Mahn had one at his home so he went to him home and asked Frau Mahn to lend them her husband’s pistol. She handed over the weapon after telephoning her husband.

According to Fricke they then drove off with the three airmen sitting in the back of his car to the Polster valley and passed the small "Zechengasthaus”, some 5 km (3 mls) to the east of Clausthal-Zellerfeld.

The Polster valley is believed to refer to a wooded valley which is some 5¼ km (3½ mls) from Clausthal-Zellerfeld and to the south of the Altenau road.

The Zechenhaus used to be the administrative building cum toolshed cum living quarters for the men working at the Polster valley stamp mill. The boss of the mill was allowed to keep an inn (Gasthaus) for the workers, hence the term “Zechengasthaus”.

The car was halted about 150-200 metres beyond the Zechengasthaus where Fricke and Hartwig ordered the prisoners to get out and walk in front of them. After walking about 400-500 metres one of the two gave a signal and they both fired simultaneously at the two outside prisoners. As they fell, both accused turned their pistols on the remaining prisoner and shot him. All three were shot through the head and were killed instantly.

Hartwig’s statement to the interrogating officer which was given in evidence by the prosecution, throws a very different light on the events as far as he was concerned. He claimed that he was about to proceed to Clausthal-Zellerfeld by train on the morning of the 16th March but that Fricke offered to give him a lift in the car.

He accepted the lift and was with Fricke when he arrived at the police station. He was also with him in the car when they left the police station with the prisoners. He denies having any knowledge of any order to shoot the prisoners and he says he in fact left the car at the Clausthal-Zellerfeld police station and took no part in the killing of the three prisoners. He claimed that the whole story was a wicked invention by Fricke to get him into trouble.

At about 17:00 hrs a teacher named Herr Langerhagen saw the bodies of three airmen in flying clothes lying face down on the crown of the Clausthal-Zellerfeld to Altenau road about 5 km (3 mls) from Clausthal-Zellerfeld.

He searched the airmen’s pockets but found them empty and from his inspection of the men he could not determine the nature of their injuries. He then informed the police and when Schulze arrived he initially thought that these bodies were further victims of the crashed aircraft.

Mahn arranged for the removal of the bodies to the local cemetery and it was not until later that Schulze heard that the three dead men were the prisoners who were previously in his custody. The grave digger who saw the bodies said that two two had been shot in the back of the head and one in the temple. The bodies were interred in a communal grave in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld cemetery on the 18th March, no coffins being provided and no Christian rites or military honours accorded.

The only evidence against Hartwig was from Fricke and in the absence of any other evidence the court refused to convict Hartwig and he was found not guilty.

Fricke was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging and was executed at Hameln prison by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by RSM Richard A. O'Neill and Edwin J. Roper on the 29th January 1948.

Burial details:

Above: Grave markers for Fg Off. Laing and Sgt. Morris (Courtesy of BobB - FindaGrave)

Fg Off. Leslie Norman Laing MiD. Hanover War Cemetery 2.G.13. Grave Inscription: "HE DIED THAT OTHERS MIGHT LIVE. REMEMBERED BY HIS FAMILY". Born on the 25th September 1919 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Son of Frederick Stephen and Louisa (née Smith) Laing, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

His Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) was promulgated in the London Gazette 13th June 1946.

Sgt. Robert Morris. Hanover War Cemetery 2.G.10. Grave Inscription: "MEMORIES OF ONE SO DEAR, WE CHERISH STILL WITH LOVE SINCERE. MUM & FAMILY". Son of Martha Morris, of Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland.

Above: Grave markers for Fg Off. Smith and Flt Sgt. Marsh (Courtesy of BobB - FindaGrave)

Fg Off. Donald George Smith MiD. Hanover War Cemetery 2.G.11. Grave Inscription: "SON OF GEORGE R. AND IDA B. SMITH". Born on the 28th May 1922 in Saint John, New Brunswick. Son of George Richard and Ida Belle (née Pineo) Smith, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

His Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) was promulgated in the London Gazette 13th June 1946.

Flt Sgt. Francis Joseph Marsh MiD. Hanover War Cemetery 2.G.12. Born on the 19th December 1917 in Creigton Mine, Ontario. Son of John Joseph and Margaret (née Tessier) Marsh (his mother predeceased him) of Western, Ontario, Canada.

His Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) was promulgated in the London Gazette 13th June 1946.

Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew with thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’. Update to loss information (Jun 2022). Reviewed and updated with trial information (Feb 2024).

Other sources list below:

References:

1. No. 23 Section, No. 4 MREU - 1119/31/2P 3 - dated 30th December 1946.

RS & TV 02.02.2024 - Reviewed and updated with trial information

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Acknowledgements
Sources used by us in compiling Archive Reports include: Bill Chorley - 'Bomber Command Losses Vols. 1-9, plus ongoing revisions', Dr. Theo E.W. Boiten and Mr. Roderick J. Mackenzie - 'Nightfighter War Diaries Vols. 1 and 2', Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt - 'Bomber Command War Diaries', Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Tom Kracker - Kracker Luftwaffe Archives, Michel Beckers, Major Fred Paradie (RCAF) and MWO François Dutil (RCAF) - Paradie Archive (on this site), Jean Schadskaje, Major Jack O'Connor USAF (Retd.), Robert Gretzyngier, Wojtek Matusiak, Waldemar Wójcik and Józef Zieliński - 'Ku Czci Połeglyçh Lotnikow 1939-1945', Archiwum - Polish Air Force Archive (on this site), Anna Krzystek, Tadeusz Krzystek - 'Polskie Siły Powietrzne w Wielkiej Brytanii', Franek Grabowski, Norman L.R. Franks 'Fighter Command Losses', Stan D. Bishop, John A. Hey MBE, Gerrie Franken and Maco Cillessen - Losses of the US 8th and 9th Air Forces, Vols 1-6, Dr. Theo E.W. Boiton - Nachtjagd Combat Archives, Vols 1-13. Aircrew Remembered Databases and our own archives. We are grateful for the support and encouragement of CWGC, UK Imperial War Museum, Australian War Memorial, Australian National Archives, New Zealand National Archives, UK National Archives and Fold3 and countless dedicated friends and researchers across the world.
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