Operation: Operation ‘Tonga’, France
Date: 5th/6th June 1944 (Tuesday/Wednesday)
Unit No: 620 Squadron, 38 Group, 2nd Tactical Air Force
Type: Stirling IV
Location: Château de Grangues, Grangues, France
Base: RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire
Pilot: Sqn Ldr. Wilmot Reginald ‘Bill’ Pettit OBE, DFC, J15517 RCAF Age 32. KiA
Flt Eng: Sgt. Geoffrey Albert Maund 1851161 RAFVR Age 19. KiA
Nav: Fg Off. Richard George Watkins 135746 RAFVR Age 23. KiA
Bomb Aimer: Flt Sgt. Edward Harry Frederick Atkinson 424961 RNZAF Age 22. KiA
WOp: Flt Sgt. Robert Frederick Kebbell 1295606 RAFVR Age 23. Injured/PoW * (1)
Air Gnr (Rear): Sgt. Albert Ernest ‘Bert’ Pryce 1314446 RAFVR Age? Injured/PoW ** (1)
* Stalag 3a, Luckenwalde, Brandenburg, Germany
** Unknown PoW camp
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the night of the 5th June 1944, in preparation for the D-day landings, twenty-three Stirlings were detailed for operations over the Caen area, and successfully dropped elements of the 6th Airborne Division and their equipment.
Stirling IV EF295 took off from RAF Fairford at 23:45 hrs on the 5th June 1944. On this night two Stirlings from 620 Sqn, EJ116 and EF295, were detailed to drop men from parachute units to secure the area around the Orne and Caen Canal bridges. EF295 carried a troop of fifteen soldiers from 591 (Antrim) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE), whose job was to clear wooden poles and obstructions from areas designated as landing zones for the forces to follow on D-day. Also aboard was Lt. John Shinner and his assistant, both from HQ Royal Engineers (RE).
Before reaching its despatch point EF295 was hit by flak setting two engines ablaze which also set fire to the plastic explosive carried by one of the soldiers which burned fiercely. Four paratroopers managed to bail out before the aircraft lost too much altitude which then crashed in the grounds of Château de Grangues. Four of the crew were killed and two were badly injured. Three Paratroopers were also killed in the crash.
One of the four who managed to bail out was Maj. Philip Andrew Wood 41207, Royal Engineers, PoW No. 395, Oflag 79, Braunschweig, Germany.
The names of the other three who bailed out are unknown.
Lt. Shinner survived the the crash along with eight of the men from the aircraft. The other ranks were were taken to a stable block in the Château grounds by German soldiers who had arrived on the scene and Lt. Shinner was taken away for interrogation.
Lt. John S. Shinner 233373, PoW No. 379, Oflag 79, Braunschweig, Germany. It was here that he later met up with Maj Wood.
(1) Both Flt Sgt. Kebbell and Sgt. Pryce were badly injured but survived the war as PoWs. Their stories have been published on pages 78-81 of the book “STIRLINGS in action with the Airborne Forces” by Dennis Williams (ISBN: 9-781844-156481). Flt Sgt. Kebbell was reported to have still been at Stalag 3a on 8th May 1945.
EF295 was one of three aircraft that failed to return:
Stirling IV EJ116 QS:U - Shot down by flak near Château de Grangues. The crew of five and all aboard from the 7th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, 6th Airborne Reconnaissance Regiment and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) totalling 25 were killed. All are buried in a collective grave at the Ranville War Cemetery.
Stirling IV EF268 QS:R - Shot down by flak, and crashed near Château de Grangues. The crew of five and all aboard from the Parachute Regiment were killed. All are buried at the La Delivrande War Cemetery, Douvres.
One of the Horsa gliders in a third wave of aircraft, piloted by S/Sgt. Duncan Frank Wright crashed landed in the hilly region around Château de Grangue. S/Sgt. Wright was captured and locked in the stables along with the other captured soldiers. His co-pilot Sgt. Barry Powell was killed in the crash. The names and fates of the soldiers aboard the glider are not known.
Sgt. Barry Powell 5184835. Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corp, 1st Wing. Ranville War Cemetery IVA.J.20.
Just after 02:00 hrs on 6th June, eight of the soldiers held in the stables were led outside and made to lie on the ground face down and were shot.
The following day on the 7th June, L/Cpl. John Reardon-Parker who was still in the stable block died from his injuries.
A British Court of Inquiry was convened at the Château de Grangues on the 10th March 1945 at 09:30 hrs to gather evidence into the circumstances leading to the deaths of the eight soldiers.
The following is a summary of the evidence gathered by the Court of Inquiry:
Early in 1944 a German troop detachment of the Regimental headquarters (HQ) of the Grenadier-Regiment 744, 771.Infanteriedivision arrived at Château de Grangues. The Grenadier-Regiment 744 was responsible for the sector spanning Douville to Dives-sur-Mer.
On the night of the 5th/6th June 1944, prior to the Allied Expeditionary Force D-day landings, airborne troops landed in the vicinity of Dives-sur-Mer.
At about 02:00 hrs on the morning of the 6th June 1944, a witness saw eight British soldiers lying near the edge of the road immediately opposite the stables on the grounds of the Château de Grangues. The soldiers were in uniform, unarmed, unresisting and under the control of an armed German guard. There was at least one other armed German in the immediate vicinity.
At 08:00 hrs another witness was told by Stabsfeldwebel (M/Sgt) Hermann Vieseler that he had shot the prisoners on the road about 100 metres north of the stables and opposite a shallow excavation which the Germans had previously prepared for some intended construction purposes.
Stabsfeldwebel (M/Sgt) Hermann Vieseler had twenty-five personnel under his command, some of whom were Polish. The duties of his detachment was to care for the horses of the Regimental HQ. The detachment was not a fighting unit and were only armed with pistols and rifles.
At 12:00 hrs that day the Comte de Noblet, after being informed of the killings, challenged Veiseler asking him why he had shot the unarmed prisoners in direct contradiction to the Geneva Convention. Veiselerclaimed that the prisoners, having said they had no weapons, did in fact have a number of grenades and a "Tommygun" and that is why he shot them. He then claimed that the leader of the prisoners tried to escape and that he then shot the seven remaining prisoners before pursuing the escaping soldier and shooting him. Neither of these reasons appeared to be credible and did not justify shooting the prisoners in cold blood.
On the 8th and 9th March 1945 eighteen bodies were exhumed from two graves in the grounds of the Château de Grangues at a location identified by the Comte.
Each of the eight bodies exhumed from one of the two graves bore a single gun shot wound only, which was in each instance the cause of death. Each of the eight was clothed in British battledress, seven bearing the Airborne insignia.
A pathologist reported that each bullet wound was above the waist and in a vital spot, and in five instances the point of entry of the bullet was from the rear. The bullet wound in each case was from the same weapon and not one of the eight bodies bore signs of battle injuries prior to being shot.
The ten remaining bodies bore no evidence of gun shot wounds and all had been buried on the 7th June 1944 and following days. They were from amongst other British airborne troops fatally injured in aircraft and glider crashes on or about the 6th June.
The Court of Inquiry concluded that the eight British soldiers were murdered by the German armed forces on the 6th June 1944. It was determined that the German troops immediately responsible for the murders included Stabsfeldwebel Hermann Vieseler and/or others of the detachment of the Regimental HQ of the Grenadier-Regiment 744.
The Inquiry also considered the unsubstantiated possibility that responsibility as accessories to the murders may lie with Vieseler’s superior officers.
The recommendation of the Court of Inquiry was that Stabsfeldwebel Hermann Vieseler be tried for the murder of the eight soldiers. Additionally all steps were to be taken to question Unterfeldwebel (Sgt) Wilhelm Nieburg, two Unteroffiziers (Cpls) known as Fritz and Ricard, and a Polish national named George Koureck, who was a cook of unknown rank, all of whom were serving in the HQ detachment of the Grenadier-Regiment 744.
Despite a concerted effort after the war to find Vieseler he was never traced. No record of his death has been found in German army records, his name did not appear in lists of Allied PoWs and he never returned to his home town in Germany.
Normandy was in chaos for months after D-day so it was possible that he was killed in the fighting and could not be identified. Alternatively he could have taken the identity, a common practice by those seeking to disappear, of someone else and slipped away into obscurity.
Of the other named individual’s, Koureck was reported to have deserted the German forces and surrendered himself to British forces on the 21st August 1944 at La Forge Moisy but it is unknown what further action was taken.
It has been speculated that the shootings may have been as a result of the Kommandobefehl (Commando Order) issued by Hitler on 18th October 1942, exactly two weeks after Operation "Basalt".
Operation “Basalt” - On the night of 3rd/4th October 1942, ten men of the British Small Scale Raiding Force and No. 12 Commando made an offensive raid on the Isle of Sark, to reconnoitre, and take some prisoners. Five prisoners were taken and had their hands bound to minimise the task of guarding them. One allegedly started shouting to attract attention and was shot dead. En route to the beach three of the prisoners escaped and in the ensuing fighting two were shot and one stabbed to death. The remaining prisoner was conveyed safely to England.
German propaganda made much of the capture and the killing of the German soldiers and claimed that they still had their hands bound when they were found. This together with a copy of an operational order, illegally carried and dropped by a Canadian senior officer, discovered on the beach after the Dieppe Raid on the 19th August 1942 formed the rationale for Hitler’s Kommandobefehl.
It should be noted that the operational order concerning the 'binding' of prisoners was directed at Canadian forces participating in the raid and not the British commandos.
The order which was issued as Secret stated, in summary, that all Allied commandos encountered by German forces in Europe and Africa should be killed immediately without trial, even in proper uniforms or if they attempted to surrender. Any commando or small group of commandos or a similar unit, agents, and saboteurs not in proper uniforms, who fell into the hands of the German military forces by some means other than direct combat (through the police in occupied territories, for instance) were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD = Security Service).
Except for Spr. Albert E. Austin the following were reinterred at the Ranville War Cemetery on the 10th August 1945.
Above grave markers for left, Sqn Ldr. Pettit and right, Sgt. Maund. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
Sqn Ldr. Wilmot Reginald Pettit, OBE, DFC. Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Inscription reads: “LOVINGLY REMEMBERED BY FATHER, MOTHER, SISTERS AND BROTHERS”. Born on the 3rd April 1912 in Brantford, Ontario. Son of Harry A. and Kathleen (née Kitchen) Pettit of Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Fiancé to Miss Florence Spencer.
Acting Flt Lt. Pettit was awarded the DFC whilst with 199 Sqn for operations which are believed to have been on or before the 31st August/1st September 1943. Gazetted on the 15th October 1943. The citation reads:
“As pilot, this officer has participated in many attacks on important enemy targets and has displayed great skill and determination. On a recent occasion, whilst over Berlin, his aircraft was hit by fire from the ground defences but he continued his bombing run to execute a successful attack. Shortly afterwards the bomber was again hit, this time by fire from an enemy fighter. The rear turret was rendered unserviceable, most of the electrical system was shot away, while the control wires of two petrol tanks were severed. Coolly and skilfully, Fight Lieutenant Pettit evaded the attacker and afterwards flew the bomber to base. This officer displayed great courage and determination throughout”.
Acting Sqn Ldr. Pettit DFC was appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) on the 26th May 1944. Gazetted on the 23rd May 1944. The citation reads:
“One night in February 1944, Squadron Leader Pettit was the officer-in-charge of night flying at an RAF Station, when an aircraft, whilst attempting an emergency landing, overshot the end of the runway and overturned in the middle of some very swampy ground. The aircraft immediately caught fire. Squadron Leader Pettit rushed to the spot and with the assistance of the fire party lead by Leading Aircraftman Wray, quickly released two members of the crew who had been trapped in the fuselage. Squadron Leader Pettit then found the rear gunner was seriously injured and trapped upside down in his turret. By this time the aircraft was burning furiously and the petrol tanks had started to explode. In spite of this and of the further danger from exploding ammunition and pyrotechnics, Squadron Leader Pettit decided to attempt the extremely difficult task of removing the rear turret completely from the fuselage as all other attempts to reach the trapped gunner had failed. By strenuous efforts he was ultimately able to get into the turret while a party, headed by Leading Aircraftman Wray, wrenched at it from outside. Eventually the gunner was extricated alive and without any addition to the severe injuries which he had sustained in the crash. Squadron Leader Pettit’s coolness, courage and initiative and Leading Aircraftman Wray’s determination and devotion to duty in dangerous circumstances, were of a very high order and were instrumental in saving lives of three of the crew of the aircraft”.
Leading Aircraftman Joseph Therwell Wray, 944525, was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for his roll in the rescue. The citation reads as above.
The aircraft is believed to be Lancaster I, ED383, LS:? out of RAF Mildenhall from 15 Sqn. On returning from an operation over Augsburg on the 26th February 1944, the aircraft attempted to land at nearby RAF Lakenheath, but overshot the runway, overturned and caught fire. Four of the crew were killed and three injured crew members were rescued. The rear gunner, 19 year old, Sgt William Ernest Harbidge died from his injuries on the 27th February.
Sgt. Geoffrey Albert Maund. Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Inscription reads: “ALL THAT THEY HOPED FOR, ALL THAT THEY HAD, THEY GAVE”. Son of Albert Wilfrid and Gwendolen Annie Maund, of Putley, Ledbury, Herefordshire, England.
Above grave markers for left, Fg Off. Watkins and right, Flt Sgt. Atkinson. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
Fg Off. Richard George Watkins. Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Born 2nd quarter of 1921 in Craswall, Herefordshire. Son of George and Margaret Ann (née Gane) Watkins and husband of Doris Mary (née Mason) Watkins of Rainham, Essex, England.
Flt Sgt. Edward Harry Frederick Atkinson. Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Born in 1922. Son of Thomas Edward and Mary Ann Atkinson, of Kaponga, Taranaki. Husband of Maurien C. Atkinson of Upper Hutt, Wellington, New Zealand.
Paratroopers killed in the crash.
Spr. Albert Edwin Austin 14404888. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Bayeux War Cemetery XXVIII.H.21. Inscription reads: “YEARS PASS SWIFTLY BY BUT YOUR MEMORY WILL NEVER DIE. LOVINGLY REMEMBERED BY MAM”. Foster-son and nephew of Betsy Clowes, of Stoke-on-Trent, England.
Above grave markers for left, Spr. Evans and right, Spr. Youell. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
Spr. John Joseph Evans 2116526. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Inscription reads: “WE NEVER HAD A CHANCE TO SAY GOOD-BYE BUT IN MY HEART YOU WILL NEVER DIE”. Born in 1920. Son of Joseph and Lily Evans, of Holmes, Rotherham, Yorkshire, England.
Spr. John Youell 1877562. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Collective Grave VA.D.3-8. Inscription reads: “LOVING & TREASURED MEMORIES ALWAYS. MUM, DAD, SISTERS AND BROTHERS”. Born in 1924 in Whitechapel, Middlesex. Son of Walter John and Maude Beatrice (née Southall) Youell, of Sparkhill, Birmingham, England.
Died on the 7th June of injuries sustained in the crash.
Above grave marker L/Cpl. Reardon-Parker. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
L/Cpl. John Reardon-Parker. 14550031. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave VA.D.2. Inscription reads: ”HE IS BEYOND ALL SHOW OF HUMAN PRIDE WHO LOVED OUR ENGLAND AND FOR HER DIED”. Son of Vera Reardon-Parker; husband of Madeline Reardon-Parker, of Chadwell Heath, Essex, England.
Although not proven conclusively, it has been widely reported that he was likely the former Sub Lt. John Reardon-Parker who had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) but after his commission had been terminated he joined the Parachute Regiment.
Above grave markers for left, S/Sgt. Wright and right, Cpl. Kelly. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
S/Sgt. Duncan Frank Wright. 15090818. Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corp, 1st Wing. Reinterred at the Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IIIA.B.2. Inscription reads: "IN PROUD & LOVING MEMORY. HUSBAND OF MARY, SON OF R. AND E. WRIGHT "GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN"". Born in 3rd Quarter 1918 in Kent. Son of Russell and Elsie (née Cockerton) Wright; husband of Mary (née Boyes) Wright of Wallingford, Berkshire, England.
Cpl. William Alexander Kelly. 1944972. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IIIA.F.2. Inscription reads: "DEEP IN OUR HEARTS A MEMORY IS KEPT OF ONE THAT WE LOVED AND WILL NEVER FORGET". Son of Henry and Helen Gold Kelly; husband of Audrey Joan Kelly, of Ely, Cambridgeshire, England.
Above grave markers for left, L/Cpl. Branston and right, L/Cpl. Fraser. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
L/Cpl. Kenneth William Branston. 1878189. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IVA.D.20. Inscription reads: “TO THOSE WHO LOVED AND LOST YOU YOUR MEMORY WILL NEVER GROW OLD”. Son of William Pettifer Branston and Louie Branston, of Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.
L/Cpl. Thomas Andrew Fraser. 882124. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IIIA.D.2. Inscription reads: “HE ANSWERED THE CALL IN THE DARKEST HOUR, MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE IN VICTORY”. Son of Richard B. G. and Janet S. S. Fraser, of Glasgow, Scotland.
Above grave markers for left, Spr. Wolfe and right, Spr. Wheeler. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
Spr. Frank “Trotsky” Wolfe. 14422902. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IIIA.C.2. Born in the 1st Quarter 1921 in Nottingham. Son on Frank Marchant and Elsie Grace (née Highfield) Wolfe from Nottingham, England.
Spr. David Henry Wheeler. 14527569. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IIIA.E.2. Hailed from Newport. Born in about 1923. No further details.
Above grave markers for left, Spr. Guard and right, Dvr. Thomson. (Courtesy of Carol Pollard - FindAGrave)
Spr. Peter Guard. 1876309. HQ 6th Airborne Div, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave IVB.B.20. Inscription reads: “FOR EVER ENGLAND”. Son of Harold and Marie Guard, of Streatham, London, England.
Dvr. George Thomson. 14283438. 591 (Antrim Territorial Army) Parachute Sqn, Royal Engineers (RE). Ranville War Cemetery, Grave VA.C.20. Inscription reads: “UNTIL THE DAY BREAK AND THE SHADOWS FLEE AWAY”. Son of George R. and Bertha E. Thomson, of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew and paratroopers with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.
RS & TV 02.09.2022 - Addition of grave markers
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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