Operation: Gelsenkirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
Date: 13 September 1944 (Wednesday)
Unit: No. 158 Squadron, Motto: "Strength in unity".
Badge: A circular chain of seven links. The chain is indicative of the combined strength and co-operation of aircrews. Authority: King George VI, October 1944.
Type: Handley Page Halifax III
Base: RAF Lissett, East Riding of Yorkshire
Location: Near Kirchhellen, Bottrop, Germany
Pilot: F/O. Robert Lorne Sleeth J/86169 RCAF Age 22 - Killed (1)
Fl/Eng: Sgt. John Hargrave Boocock 1686264 RAFVR Age 29 - Killed (2)
Nav: F/O. Ernest William Henry Barker 156282 RAFVR Age 31 - Killed (3)
Air/Bmr: F/O. Richard Henry Fox 153715 RAFVR - PoW No. ? Camp: Stalag Luft Barth Vogelsang - L1 (4)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/Sgt. Ainsworth Laing Aus/429583 RAAF Age 20 - Killed (5)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. James Lewis Mitchell 1388627 RAFVR - Killed (6)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Thomas William Roberts 1595067 RAFVR - PoW No. 812 - Camp: Stalag Luft Bankau - L7 (7)
We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK
A force comprising 102 Halifaxes, 28 Lancasters and 10 Mosquitoes was despatched on this operation to bomb the Nordstern synthetic oil plant at Gelsenkirchen, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. Large explosions were seen through the smoke screen.
2 Halifaxes of 640 Squadron developed engine faults and failed to take off: there were no casualties. A third Halifax MZ912 CB-Y of 640 Squadron, piloted by Sqn/Ldr. Harry Arthur Murrell Woodhatch DFC, crashed at Bottrop with the loss of all the crew save the pilot who became a prisoner of war. The only other loss was Halifax MZ337 NP-A.
With the slightly built Canadian pilot, F/O. Lorne Sleeth at the controls, Halifax MZ337 NP-A took off from RAF Lissett at 15:52 on 13 September 1944 carrying a bomb load of thirteen 500 lb Medium Capacity bombs. Apart from the bomb load the aircraft also carried just over 4 tons of fuel, 1558 gallons to be precise and sufficient for approximately 6½ hours flying time: more than enough for the 600 mile round trip to Gelsenkirchen barring any serious problems. Special equipment on board was H2S and Fishpond (see abbreviations)
The briefed route took them more or less due south to Peterborough then turning roughly SSE, crossed the coast at Orford Ness, Suffolk from where it was almost due east to the target. (Route: Peterborough, Orford Ness - 5140N/0340E - 5150N/0720E - Target - 5140N/0640E - 5140N/0340E - Orford Ness - Peterborough)
Lorne Sleeth had been flying operationally for only four weeks but had already completed 9 missions and even more importantly, without mishaps.
The only source of information regarding the fate of MZ337 is found in undated but post war questionnaires completed for the Royal Canadian Air Force Casualty Branch by the two surviving crew members, Air Bomber F/O Fox and Rear Gunner Sgt. Roberts after being liberated from German prisoner of war camps.
In his questionnaire F/O. Fox says that Navigator F/O. Barker, baled out before him and he saw him coming down with his chute open. He had later been informed by German Interrogators that Ernest Barker having been wounded by flak, died 1½ hours later in hospital. With regard to the other crew members he said that they were all still in the aircraft when he left and had probably been killed when the plane blew up at 18000 feet. F/O. Sleeth had been positively identified later, near the scene of the crash, by rear gunner Sgt. W. Roberts.
Sgt. Roberts added that the aircraft had crashed approximately 20 miles south west of Essen.
Interviewed by the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit in 1948 the then Sqn/Ldr. Fox said that Sgt. Roberts had actually been able to speak to F/O. Lorne Sleeth for a few minutes before he died and that he had lost both his legs in the crash.
F/O. Fox was sent to Stalag Luft Barth Vogelsang in Western Pomerania, Germany and Sgt. Roberts was sent to Stalag Luft Bankau in Silesia, Germany (now Bąków, Opole Voivodeship, Poland.
The only other information regarding the crash and its aftermath is contained within the report of No. 4 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit by Sqn/Ldr. W.H. Armstrong dated 11 July 1948. In his report he says that "The A.S.C. from Gemeinde Alt-Schirmbeck in Landkreis [District] Recklinghausen reports that an English flyer crashed at Koelmann on 13 September 1944 and was buried at Holsterhausen grave No. 21. A further report from Alt-Schirmbeck states that the airman's name was Barker. A casualty notification form from Amt [Office] Hervest, Dorsten is held in our files which states that Engl. Flyer Barker was killed in a crash on 13 September 1944 and died as a result of 'Sprengung des Beckenringes mit Symphsensprengungen, steissbeinbruch, Darmzerreissung' [Breaking of the pelvic ring with symphysis, fracture of the leg, tearing of the intestine. Symphysis probably refers to Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) i.e. a condition that causes excessive movement of the pubic symphysis, either anterior or lateral, as well as associated pain, possibly because of a misalignment of the pelvis]. Further states that the body was buried at Holsterhausen in grave 21 of the Ehrenfriedhof [Cemetery]. We also hold an official military death card which states that Barker 1602201 [his serial number prior to being commissioned] C.E. died on 13 September 1944 at 22.30 hours in the Reserve Lazarett Dorsten i.Westf., i.e. a hospital near Holsterhausen. We also hold some information not yet confirmed which was obtained on an initial information sweep of the area which states that the airman in question was nursed by Frau Elfrieds Diespenbruck, Holsterhausen, Luisenstr. 110."
On exhumation it was found that a collar band on the body bore F/O. Barker's name and later serial number of 156282 in Indian ink.
It transpired that the other four crew members were buried at Kirchhellen and German death cards record that a Halifax crashed at Kirchhellen at 19.00 hours on 13 September 1944.
On exhumation the bodies were positively identified as being those of F/O. Sleeth, Sgt. Boocock, F/Sgt. Laing and Sgt. Mitchell and were re-interred at the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.
(1) F/O. Robert Lorne Sleeth was born on 3 July 1922 at Gravenhurst, Ontario the only child of Chartered Accountant, Robert John Sleeth and Lilian Pearl Sleeth nee Scott. Known as Lorne he was educated at Gravenhurst Public School (1929-1936) and Gravenhurst High School (1936-1940). His hobbies were radio (transmitting and receiving) and the designing and building of radio controlled model aircraft. A slightly built young man he nevertheless played football extensively as well as enjoying skiing, shooting and playing baseball, rugby and hockey all moderately.
Shortly after leaving school the 18 years old Lorne Sleeth enlisted at Toronto on 8 January 1941: he was 5' 4½", weighed 117 lbs with a fair complexion, blue eyes and blond hair. He was posted for Initial Training to RCAF Picton and later to RCAF Toronto but on 23 July 1941 having become unfit for further training due to Blepharitis [chronic inflammation of the eyelids) he was discharged.
On 1 January 1942 he was employed by the Amalgamated Electric Corporation as a student Electrical Technician and a Book-keeper but after a year he left to undertake a Commercial Flying Course at Leavens Bros Air Services at Barker Field, Toronto and after 11½ hours instruction and 75 hours solo he was granted a pilot's licence for flying in war work only.
On 2 July 1942 he re-enlisted in the RCAF and after initial training was posted to No. 12 Elementary Flying School, at Goderich, Ontario followed by a posting to No. 9 Service Flying Training School at RCAF Centralia near Exeter Ontario. He was awarded his Pilot's Flying Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 14 May 1943 and on 1 July embarked for the UK where he was later posted to No. 11 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Condor in Shropshire on 2 August.
On 18 January 1944 he was posted to No. 20 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland for training on Wellingtons until 5 June 1944 when he was posted to 1652 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Marston Moor in the North Riding of Yorkshire for conversion training to the Handley Page Halifax bomber. He had been commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 27 April and promoted to Flying officer on 15 August and on the same day posted to 158 Squadron at RAF Lissett for operational flying.
Lorne Sleeth is commemorated on the Gravenhurst War Memorial, Ontario, Canada.
The memory of Flying Officer Robert Lorne Sleeth was honoured by the Province of Ontario with the naming of Sleeth Island Parry Sound, Ontario.(Details kindly provided by our Colin Bamford)
(2) Sgt. John Hargrave Boocock was born on 8 September 1915 at Pudsey, West Riding of Yorkshire the son of Frank Boocock and Harriet Boocock nee Waggott. He married Olive Louie Young at Mount Zion Methodist Church on 11 June 1938 and they had two children Joan Boocock born 1939 and John Mark Boocock born 1944. They lived in the Stanningley district of Pudsey and John Hargrave Boocock is commemorated on the Pudsey War Memorial.
(3) F/O. Ernest William Henry Barker was born in 1913 at Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the son of Ernest and Grace Lily Barker nee Brewster. In 1939 he married Mary Elisabeth Croft, on the Isle of Wight and later lived at Worthing, Sussex.
1602201 LAC Ernest William Henry Barker was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 11 September 1943 (London Gazette 21 December 1943). The appointment was confirmed and he was promoted to Flying Officer (wars subs) on 11 March 1944 (London Gazette 31 March 1944)
He is commemorated on the War Memorial at St Peter's Parish Church, Stonesby, Leicestershire and on the War memorial of the County Grammar School of King Edward VII at Melton Mowbray.
(4) Sqn/Ldr. Richard Henry Fox
LAC 1395697 Richard Henry Fox was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on probation (emergency) on 1 October 1943 (London Gazette 30 November 1943) confirmed in this appointment on 1 April 1944 and promoted to Flying officer (war subs) (London Gazette 5 May 1944). On 8 May 1947 transferred to Provost Branch service extended by 4 years on the active list as Flying Officer (London Gazette 8 July 1947) He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant (war subs0 on 1 January 1949 (London Gazette 31 December 1948) and to Squadron Leader on 1 January 1954 (London Gazette 1 January 1954)
(5) F/Sgt. Ainsworth Laing was born on 6 May 1924 at Dalby, Queensland, Australia the son of Ainsworth Gaydon Laing and Annie May Laing nee Patterson. One known sibling Mona Imelda Laing born and died 1909. He was educated at Dalby State School 1936-1937 and Dalby High school 1938-1939 he later worked as a Clerk in the Government Statisticians Office compiling statistics. When he enlisted at Brisbane on 9 October 1942 he was 5' 5" tall weighing 119 lbs with a medium complexion, dark Brown Hair and Brown Eyes. He participated in football, tennis, cricket and athletics.
After training at No. 3 Wireless and Gunnery School, at RAAF Maryborough, Queensland and No 1 Bombing and Gunnery School at RAAF Evans Head, New South Wales he was awarded his Air Gunners Badge and promoted to Sergeant on 24 June 1943. He embarked at Brisbane for the UK on 7 July and after a month at 11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at RAF Brighton was posted to No. 6 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit on 14 September. He was posted to 27 Operational Training Unit at RAF Lichfield, Staffordshire on 4 January 1944 and after a posting to a Heavy Conversion Unit he joined 51 Squadron on 27 June 1944 for operational flying. On 21 July he was slightly injured when his aircraft Halifax III MZ581 piloted by F/O. Henry Anthony Jowett was damaged by flak over Bottrop and crashed on return near RAF Woodbridge. The pilot and two more crew members were killed. On 28 August 1944 he joined 158 Squadron.
(6) Sgt. James Lewis Mitchell - nothing further known, if you have any information please contact our helpdesk
(7) Sgt. Thomas William Roberts - nothing further known, if you have any information please contact our helpdesk
(1) F/O. Robert Lorne Sleeth was initially buried at Kirchhellen Cemetery, Bottrop, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and re-interred on 13 May 1947 at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Lower Rhine, Germany - Grave reference Plot 20. Row F. Grave 4
(2) Sgt. John Hargrave Boocock was initially buried at Kirchhellen Cemetery, Bottrop, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and re-interred on 13 May 1947 at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Lower Rhine, Germany - Grave reference Plot 20. Row F. Grave 5
Of Olive Louie Boocock
"In heavenly love abiding"
(3) F/O. Ernest William Henry Barker was intially buried at Holsterhausen Cemetery, Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and re-interred on 21 April 1947 at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Lower Rhine, Germany - Grave reference Plot 17. Row D. Grave 1
"How sleep the brave,
Who sink to rest,
By all their country's
Wishes blest!"(5) F/Sgt. Ainsworth Laing was initially buried at Kirchhellen Cemetery, Bottrop, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and re-interred on 13 May 1947 at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Lower Rhine, Germany - Grave reference Plot 20. Row F. Grave 3
(6) Sgt. James Lewis Mitchell was initially buried at Kirchhellen Cemetery, Bottrop, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany and re-interred on 13 May 1947 at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, Lower Rhine, Germany - Grave reference Plot 20. Row F. Grave 2
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - December 2016
With thanks to the sources quoted below.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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