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Archive Report: Allied Forces

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51 Squadron crest
12/13.05.1943 No. 51 Squadron Halifax II DT645 MH-B Fl/Sgt. Smith

Operation: Duisberg

Date: 12/13th May 1943 (Wednesday/Thursday)

Unit: No. 51 Squadron (motto: 'Swift And Sure')

Type: Halifax II

Serial: DT645

Code: MH-B

Base: RAF Snaith, Yorkshire.

Location: Franekeradeel, Barradeel and WonseradeeL (See report)

Pilot: Fl/Sgt. David Crofton Smith 1239555 RAFVR Age 21. Killed

Fl/Eng: Sgt. Edward Frederick Kinerman 1213091 RAFVR Age 21. Killed

Nav: Sgt. Eric Wilson Thomson 1313414 RAFVR Age 22. Killed

Air/Bmr: Sgt. Barnard Angus Bunting 1384948 RAFVR Age 20. Killed

W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Charles Lionel King 1382661 RAFVR Age 32. Killed

Air/Gnr: Sgt. Murray Hudley Nesbitt R/70337 RCAF Age 23. Killed

Air/Gnr: Sgt. William John Merrigan 1398030 RAFVR Age 22. Killed


This special comprehensive report has been made available to us by Johnny de Groot:

In the early hours of May 13th 1943, a British bomber crashed near Harlingen, Holland. The plane, a four-engined Halifax, was shot down by a German night-fighter. All of the seven crew members of the Halifax were killed. One of them was Murray Nesbitt, a 23 year old Canadian. Murray Nesbitt was born on January 4th, 1920 in Toronto, Canada. After he had finished High School he had several jobs: lecturer, salesman and punch-press operator. His hobbies were photography, canoeing, hockey, baseball, basketball, tennis and finally rugby. In August 1940, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was trained as an Air Engineer. After he had finished the course he was posted to England. He travelled by air and arrived in Great Britain on April 5th 1941 where he was assigned to the ground staff of 402 Squadron, a Canadian unit which flew the Hawker Hurricane fighter.

In January 1943 Murray Nesbitt thought it was about time to take part more directly in the war and requested training as an Air Gunner. He successfully completed the seven weeks course which earned him his ‘AG’ wings and he was promoted to Sergeant. Nesbitt was then posted to 1658 Heavy Conversion Unit based at Riccall, Yorkshire. There he was assigned as a Mid Upper Gunner to the crew of David C. Smith, a 21 year old Pilot from Tibshelf in Derbyshire. At the 1658 HCU the crew of seven learned all about the Halifax and it was there that they made their first operational flight.

On April 10th, 1943 they were transferred to 51 Squadron, a front line unit based at Snaith in Yorkshire. During the next weeks David Smith and his crew flew several operations above enemy territory.

12/13 May, 1943. Around midnight a fleet of 572 bombers took to the air for a raid on the important German industrial town of Duisburg. 51 Squadron joined this operation with 19 bombers. One of these was the Handley Page Halifax B Mk2 ‘Special’ DT645. This plane was built in November 1942 under license by English Electric in Preston and used to be attached to 77 Squadron at Elvington before it moved to 51 Squadron.

At 23:30 hrs Halifax DT645 MH ‘B’ took off from Snaith with the following crew: DT645 carried two bombs of 450 kg, 48 incendiary bombs of 14 kg each, and 630 incendiary bombs of 1.5 kg. According to the ‘Operational Order No 46, 12/13th May’ the route was from Snaith to Hornsea, a place on the east-coast of England, then over the North Sea to Egmond and then to a point above Winterswijk, and finally onto a southerly heading for Duisburg. The route back was directly to Snaith. DT645 however never arrived over Duisburg. The Halifax was many miles off course when it flew over the northern part of the Netherlands and was picked up by a German radar station. A Messerschmitt Bf110 night-fighter from Leeuwarden was vectored towards the British bomber and intercepted it.

Memorial to the crew erected in 2007. Some of the text has since been modified we understand (courtesy Johnny De Groot)

At approximately 6000 metres above the village of Herbaijum, Pilot Oberleutnant Lothar Linke, (1) Commander of the 12 Staffel-Nachtjagdgeschwader 1, opened fire with his 20 and 30 mm cannons on the enemy plane. Some of the elevator and rudder control surfaces on the tail of the British bomber, were shot off. These parts, along with several metres of thin steel cable attached to them, were found the next morning close to the village of Herbaijum.

The now uncontrollable Halifax went into a high speed ‘screaming’ dive which terrified many people on the ground. As it dived, the Halifax went into a spin and the G-forces created, made it impossible for any of the crew to bail out. Just before it hit the ground, the Halifax broke up into many pieces and was scattered around a large area two kms south-east from the centre of Harlingen. None of the crew survived. One of the heavy bombs had plunged into a canal and exploded, covering a farmhouse and nearby cattle in mud. Part of the aircraft had struck the ground a few hundred metres east of the farm of the Sjaarda family and burnt for quite some time.

The Air Guard lookout, stationed on the roof of the town hall in Harlingen, reported at 02:03 hours: ‘A flash of light’ and at 02:05 hours: ‘Aircraft crashed S.E. of town.’ The Fire Department also wrote down their perceptions: ‘Wednesday 12th May 1943. We passed the evening by playing cards. 23:30 hrs. we had something to eat and decided to get some rest. 01:45, we were called by Mr. Fontein and he asked if we had seen anything special because of the noise in the air.

At that moment we couldn’t see anything, but at about 02:00 hours we heard the sound of gunfire which was probably a dogfight. We went outside and saw a fire burning in the South East. It was probably the plane which we heard coming down. We saw and heard shells exploding from the plane which lasted for almost half an hour. At 04:30 it was still burning. Nothing further was seen or heard throughout the night.’

Despite the heavy fire caused by the large number of incendiary bombs, the Fire Department took no action, for it could only do so with the authorisation of the German commander in Harlingen. The next morning five bodies were counted. Murray Nesbitt was found near the farm of the De Bruin family. The person who first saw him, noticed the Royal Canadian Air Force badge on the uniform of the deceased airman. Later on during the day, two more crew members were found hidden amongst the high plant growth. In the afternoon the seven bodies of the British airmen were examined by a German doctor from the Luftwaffe airbase in Leeuwarden. After that, they were put in a coffin and taken to the General Cemetery in Harlingen and were buried two days later on Saturday 15th May 1943.

The wreckage of DT645 had come down in three different municipalities. The report of constable Jan Idsinga tells the following: ‘When I arrived at the scene I established a closer search. The fuselage section, which was totally burnt out, crashed down in the municipality Franekeradeel. Another part of the aircraft, the tail, was laying in a field under Almenum, municipality Barradeel, while other wreckage, along with some bombs were laying in the municipality Wonseradeel. German soldiers were looking for bombs.’

Duisburg was heavily hit that night. There were many casualties and the town with his many factories suffered a great deal of damage. Of the 572 bombers, 34 were lost. At least 15 bombers came down in the Netherlands. Two of them collided with each other and crashed in the IJsselmeer. Both planes, the Stirling BF523 and Lancaster W4762, were recovered in 1972 by the Aircraft Recovery Team of the Royal Netherlands Air Force under the command of Gerrit J. Zwanenburg, who was born in Harlingen. The raid on Duisburg was a disaster for 51 Squadron. Four of the 19 planes which took off did not return and one other had to make a crash-landing at Snaith.

Crew grave markers taken in May 1945 (courtesy Johnny De Groot)

The remaining parts of the Halifax were transported to the docks in Harlingen and placed on a train to be taken to a specialised breakers yard for wrecked aircraft in Utrecht. Here the salvaged parts became further dismantled so that the material valuable to German industry could be re-used such as aluminium, rubber and copper.

Since 1945 the town of Harlingen has expanded considerably. The crash site of Halifax DT645 is just outside today’s built-up area of Harlingen. In the late 90’s plans were published to create a new residential quarter in the area where the British bomber had crashed and its crew of seven had been killed. In September 2000 a study was done by the Aircraft Recovery Team of the Royal Netherlands Air Force concerned with the possibility of explosive and flammable material from Halifax DT645. A relatively small area, where the fire had taken place in 1943, was inspected, only small items presenting some danger were found.

(1) Halifax DT645 was Lothar Linke’s 25th victory. The next evening he was again in the air and he shot down two British bombers. Lancaster ED589 at 23:22 and Lancaster W4981 at 23:51 hours. The crews of both aircraft were killed. Three hours later Lothar Linke was flying over the south of Friesland when one of the engines of his Messerschmitt caught fire. He and his radio/radar operator Walter Czybulka had to abandon the aircraft. Next morning his body was found not far from the wreck of his airplane. It is believed that he was hit by the tail unit of his plane just after he had bailed out. Walter Czybulka landed safely by parachute. He was wounded and taken to a hospital in Leeuwarden. Lothar Linke, a 33 year old veteran who had participated in the ‘Battle of Britain’, was buried at the Noorder Begraafplaats in Leeuwarden. After the war his remains were re-buried at Ysselsteyn in the south of Holland.

Burial details:

Fl/Sgt. David Crofton Smith. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 3. Grave 11. Son of Harry Watson Smith and Olive Watson Smith, of Tibshelf, Derbyshire, England. Fourth Son Of Mr. & Mrs. H. Watson Smith Tibshelf, England. Grave inscription: 'In Gratitude & Sacred Love'.

Sgt. Edward Frederick Kinerman. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 3. Grave 13. Son of Frederick and Louisa Maud Kinerman (née Mansfield), of Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England Grave inscription: 'Our Dear Son. Time Passes But His Memory Lives For Ever'.

Sgt. Eric Wilson Thomson. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 4. Joint grave 9-10. Son of Richard Sangster Thomson and Dorothy Elizabeth Thomson, of Dorset, Ontario, Canada. Grave inscription: 'He Restoreth My Soul: He Leadeth Me In The Paths Of Righteousness'.

Sgt. Barnard Angus Bunting. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 4. Joint grave 9-10. Son of Angus and Beatrice A. Bunting, husband of Margaret Bunting, of Southall, Middlesex, England. Grave inscription: 'Loved Long Since, And Lost Awhile'.

Sgt. Charles Lionel King. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 3. Grave 12. From Tiverton, Devon, England. Next of kin details currently not available - are you able to assist completion of these and any other information?

Sgt. Murray Hudley Nesbitt. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 3. Grave 14. Born 4th January 1920, from Toronto, Canada. Next of kin details currently not available - are you able to assist completion of these and any other information?

Sgt. William John Merrigan. Harlingen General Cemetery. Plot E. Row 3. Grave 15. Son of James Merrigan, and of Hannah Merrigan, of West Ealing, Middlesex, England. Grave inscription: 'Many A Lonely Heartache But Always A Beautiful Memory Of One We Loved So Dear'.

Researched by Johnny de Groot for Aircrew Remembered. Johnny also used to run a fine website, sadly it has disappeared, neither is his email address we have on record active?

KTY Updated 16.11.2019

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