24.12.1944 102 Squadron Halifax III, MZ871, Fg Off. Evan Roberts
Operation: Essen-Mülheim, Germany
Date: 24th December 1944 (Sunday)
Unit No: 102 (Ceylon) Squadron, 4 Group
Type: Halifax III
Serial No: MZ871
Location: Neuss, Germany
Base: RAF Pocklington, East Riding, Yorkshire, England
Pilot: Fg Off. Evan Roberts 156707 RAFVR Age 23. KiA
Flt Eng: Flt Sgt. Sidney Charles Alfred Steggall 1865807 RAFVR Age 29. PoW * (1)
Navigator: Plt Off. James Brian Lea 186443 RAFVR Age 21. PoW ** (2)
Bomb Aimer: Plt Off. John Daniel Percy Ball 183334 RAFVR Age 30. PoW *** (3)
WOp/Air Gnr: Flt Sgt. John Patrick Murphy 1421522 RAFVR Age? Unknown PoW Camp
Air Gnr (Mid Upp): Flt Sgt. John Liberty Simpson 1896343 Age 37. KiA
Air Gnr (Rear): Flt Sgt. James George Williams 1891702 RAFVR Age 23. Murdered (4)
* Stalag 3A, Luckenwalde, Brandenburg in Prussia.
** Stalag Luft 1 Barth-Vogelsang, today situated in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany.
*** Stalag 7A Moosburg in Bavaria.
REASON FOR LOSS:
MZ871 took off from RAF Pocklington at 11:53 hrs on the 24th December 1944 to join a force to attack the airfield Essen-Mülheim, thought to be in use as a forward supply point for the German Ardennes offensive.
The Essen-Mülheim airfield is located 6 km (3¾ mls) SW of Essen and about 5 km (2 mls) SE of Mülheim itself. Today the airfield is used for general aviation and business charters.
On this date the airfield was bombed by approximately half of 338 RAF Bomber Command heavy bombers that staged a daylight attack on Essen-Mülheim and Düsseldorf-Lohausen airfields. 4 x Bf109Gs from II./JG 77 were destroyed and the airfield was reported unserviceable due to severe bomb damage on the runway and taxiways. The estimated repair time was 4 weeks. (Luftwaffe Airfield 1935-45 Germany (1937 Borders) – Henry L. deZeng IV).
The aircraft came down in Neuss between Jülicher Straße and Holzheimer Weg, which today is close to the Autobahn triangle “Neuss-West”.
Note: Neuss is some 27½ km (17 mls) SSW of Mülheim and about 7 km (4¼ mls) due west of Düsseldorf.
MZ871 was one of three aircraft lost from 102 Sqn on this mission:
Halifax III LW168 DY:O which crashed near Krefeld. (5 PoW, 2 Murdered);
Halifax III MZ827 DY:? which sustained Flak damage and crash landed at an emergency airfield at RAF Carnaby in Yorkshire at 17:29 hrs. No injuries were reported.
(1) After baling out Flt Sgt. Steggell injured his hips and back upon landing. He was captured near Mülheim an der Ruhr the same day.
He was transferred to Dulag Luft, Wetzlar arriving there on the 30th December 1944 and was held in solitary confinement and for 2 days he was subjected to intimidation tactics and starvation after which the Germans relented.
On to the 3rd January 1945 he was transferred to Stalag Luft 7, Bankau near Kreuzburg, Upper Silesia arriving there on the 7th January 1945. On the 19th January 1945 he was transferred to Stalag 3A, Luckenwalde, Brandenburg in Prussia arriving there on the 8th February 1945 and where he remained until the 20th May 1945.
Between February 1945 and March 1945 he suffered from Rheumatism and Fibrositis resulting from the injuries he had sustained in baling out and exhaustion from forced marches but was afforded adequate medical treatment.
As the Russians approached Stalag 3A the guards fled leaving the prisoners to be liberated by the Red Army on the 22nd April 1945.
Sidney Steggall was a Toolmaker and Maintenance Engineer in civilian life before he enlisted in the RAFVR on the 28th December 1942.
(2) Plt Off. Lea was captured near Düsseldorf the same day and transferred to Dulag Luft, Wetzlar on the 26th December 1944. He remained there until the 10th January 1945 and was then transferred to Stalag Luft 1 at Barth-Vogelsang.
On 30 April 1945, the prisoners were ordered to evacuate the camp in the face of the advancing Soviet Red Army, but the Senior American Officer, Col. Hubert Zemke, refused to give the order. After negotiations between Zemke and Commandant Oberst (Col) Gustav Warnstedt, it was agreed that to avoid useless bloodshed the guards would go, leaving the PoWs behind. The next day, the first Soviet troops arrived.
James Lea was a School Teacher in civilian life before enlisting in the RAFVR on the 3rd October 1941.
(3) Fg Off. Ball was captured near Düsseldorf the same day and held at Stalag 6J near Krefeld for one day before being transferred to Dulag Luft, Wetzlar arriving there on the 29th December 1944.
He remained here until the 11th February 1945 before being transferred to Stalag 13D, Nuremberg arriving there on the 13th February. He remained here until the 4th April when he was transferred to Stalag 7A, Moosburg in Bavaria arriving there two days later on the 6th April.
The camp was liberated on the 29th April 1945 by elements of the US 14th Armoured Division.
John Ball served as a Police Officer in London before enlisting in the RAFVR on the 1st July 1941.
(4) The circumstances leading to the death of an unknown airman were determined by a Military Court convened in Düsseldorf on the 24th, 25th, 26th and 28th September 1946.
Note: The unknown airman was never identified during the trial. However, the circumstances, date, location and timing of the crime makes it highly probable that the victim was Flt Sgt. James George Williams.
One German national was charged with committing a War Crime in that he, at Neuss near Düsseldorf on or about the 24th December 1944 in violation of the laws and usages of war, ill-treated and killed an unknown airman, a PoW.
The accused was a Johannes Esser who was a former Kreishauptmann (District senior official) of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF) in Neuss. It was believed that he was also a Kompanieführer (Capt) in the Volkssturm (Militia).
DAF = German Labour Front which was a Nazi trade union organization.
The court heard testimony from a Wilhelm Niesen, who was a reserve policeman, that on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1944 an air-raid took place. He saw aircraft coming from a westerly direction and overfly Neuss in the direction of Westphalia. One of the aircraft was shot down and came down in Neuss. He saw two of the crew who had baled out.
He made his way to where one of the airman had landed. He pushed through a gathered crowd surrounding the airmen and took charge of him, the other had already been looked after. The airman was about 1.80 m. tall and had wavy hair and dressed in a blue-grey uniform. After he had taken the airman into custody a second man named Rath, who was a Blockleiter (Block leader) and a member of the Nazi party, assisted him.
At that moment another air-raid took place and the three sought out shelter. Niesen wanted to take the airman to the town police station after the raid finished. A man named Engel joined them and helped them keep the airman safe from the gathered hostile crowd, who wanted to kill him.
When the raid was over they made their way the town police station. On Holzheimer Weg a motor car driven by Esser stopped and asked where they were going. Rath told him that they were taking the airman to the police station to which Esser responded telling him that the airman should be taken to the Kreisleitung (District Office of the Nazi party), which they already passed.
Esser told them to remain where they were and drove a short distance down the road, turned the car round and returned. The airman, Niesen and Rath climbed aboard and Esser drove on to the Kreisleitung with Engel following on foot. Upon arrival at the Kreisleitung the airman was taken to a large room on the second floor. Niesen thought that there would be a short interrogation. However, Esser stood in front of the airman and berated him about the destruction to the city and the deaths of women and children whilst striking him several times about the head and shoulders with an open hand.
At this moment Niesen interjected and stood between the two telling Esser that the airman was a prisoner and helpless, and that he should stop hitting him. Esser, who by now was in a highly excited state, pushed Niesen aside, drew his sidearm and fired a single shot which hit the airman in the head. Niesen testified that the airman was standing perfectly still with his arms by his side when the shot was fired. He died instantly and crumpled to the ground.
Esser then ran about the room in a completely bewildered state and appeared not to know what to do in the aftermath. Esser and the deputy Kreisleiter (District leader), a man named Pfeiffer, then gave instructions for the body to be removed. Pfeiffer, Niesen, Rath and Engel removed the dead airman from the room and carried him to the basement where he was covered with a door to protect it from debris.
Note: This was the last known corroborated location of the airman’s body. However, there were local rumours about the body having later been recovered from the Rhine but no proof has been found to substantiate the rumour.
The testimonies of Rath and Engel confirmed all the salient points in Niesen’s testimony.
Esser gave evidence in his defence and tried to justify the ill-treatment of the airman because he had suffered greatly from the Allied bombing and on this occasion had lost control of himself. He claimed that he drew his sidearm after what he perceived to be some threatening movements by the airman and that the weapon was fired accidentally.
The court found Esser guilty of the crime and sentenced him to death by hanging. After confirmation the sentence was carried out at 11:02 hrs on the 23rd January 1947 at Hameln prison. The execution was carried out by Albert Pierrepoint assisted by RSM Richard A. O’Neill and Sgt. James Hunter of the RCMP.
Fg Off. Roberts and Flt Sgt. Simpson were initially buried at the Neuss cemetery. They were recovered and finally laid to rest at the Rheinberg War Cemetery on the 19th April 1947. Flt Sgt. Williams has no known grave.
Above: Grave marker for Fg Off. Evan Roberts (Courtesy of Des Philippet - FindAGrave)
Fg Off. Evan Roberts. Rheinberg War Cemetery 6.D.1. Born on the 29th October 1921 in Bedwellty, Glamorganshire. Son of Evan and Elizabeth (née Williams) Roberts Bedwellty, Glamorganshire, Wales. His father died through illness on the 9th February 1927.
Above: Grave marker for Flt Sgt. John Liberty Simpson (Courtesy of Des Philippet - FindAGrave)
Flt Sgt. John Liberty Simpson. Rheinberg War Cemetery 6.D.3. Inscription: 'ONE OF THE BEST THAT GOD COULD LEND. A LOVING HUSBAND FATHER AND FRIEND'. Born on the 17th January 1908 in West Ham, Essex. Son of Albert Edward and Florence Caroline (née Manktelow) Simpson of Maidstone, Kent. Husband of Winifred Georgina (née Cooper) Simpson of Maidstone, Kent, England.
Above The Runnymede Memorial
Flt Sgt. James George Williams. Runnymede Memorial Panel 223. Born in 4th Qtr of 1921 in Medway Kent. Son of James Frederick and Daisy Caroline (née Thorne) Williams of Chatham, Kent, England.
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’.
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