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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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419 (Moose) Squadron
04/05.07.1944 419 (Moose) Squadron, RCAF, Lancaster X KB727 Fg Off. Joel M. Stevenson

Operation: Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, France

Date: 4th/5th July 1944 (Tuesday/Wednesday)

Unit No: 419 (Moose) Squadron, RCAF, 6 Group, Bomber Command

Type: Lancaster X

Serial: KB727

Code: VR:H

Base: RAF Middleton St. George, County Durham

Location: 1 km NE of Chartainvillers (Eure-et-Loir), France

Pilot: Fg Off. Joel Matthew ‘Tex’ Stevenson, Croix de Guerre (French), MiD. C27788 RCAF Age 21. Evader (1)

Flt Eng: Sgt. Frederick Samuel Vinecombe 1179317 RAFVR Age 29. Id No. 78377 *, PoW No. 8117 ** (2 & 3)

Nav: Fg Off. James Ewart ‘Pep’ Prudham J29527 RCAF Age 31. Id No. 78374 *, PoW No.8063 ** (2 & 4)

Bomb Aimer: Fg Off. James Alan Smith J29387 RCAF Age 22. Id No. 78428 *, PoW No.8067 ** (2 & 3)

WOp/Air Gnr: WO1. Leslie Frank Head R126601 RCAF Age 30. Id No. 78430 *, PoW No. 8121 ** (2 & 3)

Air Gnr (Mid Upp): Sgt. James Thomas Pett R220749 RCAF Age 18. PoW No. 403 ** (4)

Air Gnr (Rear): Sgt. William Russell Gibson R252323 RCAF Age 18. Id No. 78394 *, PoW No. 8090 ** (2 & 4)

* Buchenwald concentration camp established on Ettersberg hill near Weimar, Germany in July 1937.

** Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).

*** Stalag Luft 7 Bankau nr. Kreuzburg O.S." (O.S. standing for Oberschlesien, Upper Silesia). Today called Bąków nr. Kluczbork (Poland).

REASON FOR LOSS:

On the 4th July 1944 15 aircraft from the squadron were tasked on a mission to bomb the railway yards at Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in the southern suburbs of Paris, France. Very heavy opposition was encountered, both from Flak and German night-fighters with the result that KB727 was one of 3 aircraft from the squadron that failed to return.

Fg Off. Stevenson reported that his Lancaster crashed at 01:31 hrs about 1 km NE of Chartainvillers (Eure-et-Loir), about 14 km (8¾ mls) NNE of Chartres, after a head-on attack by a twin-engine German night fighter. However, no German night fighter claim for KB727 has been found although there were a number of claims for this raid that were filed which did not identify a particular bomber.

One such claim was submitted by Oblt. Adolf Kaiser, his 12th Abschuss, from 1./NJG2 for a Lancaster 60 to 80 km (37¼ to 50 mls) north of Châteaudun at 1400 m. at 01:41 hrs. (Nachtjagd Combat Archive (12 May 1944 - 23 July 1944) Part 3 - Theo Boiten). Note: The Bordmechaniker (Flight Engineer/Mechanic) described this attack as being from astern.

Additionally, Fg Off. Stevenson’s reported crash site of 1 km NE of Chartainvillers is about 56 km (34¾ mls) almost due north of Châteaudun.

To further confuse the circumstances leading to the loss of the aircraft, there is a claim that KB727 was hit by Flak from 4./lei. Flak Abt. 342 and 3. F.F.A.S West 31 resulting in the aircraft crashing 1-2 km NE of Clevilliers at 01:31 hrs. (Nachtjagd Combat Archive (12 May 1944 - 23 July 1944) Part 3 - Theo Boiten).

To date the actual circumstances leading to the loss of KB727 have not been determined.

The other two aircraft that failed to return were:

Lancaster X KB718 VR:J (3 PoW, 4 Evd);

Lancaster X KB723 VR:U (3 KiA, 1 PoW, 3 Evd).

(1) Fg Off. Stevenson’s escape and evasion report describes the circumstances leading to the capture of himself, 5 of his crew and a number of other airmen, their imprisonment and his escape during the transport of prisoners from the Fresnes prison in Paris to the Buchenwald Concentration camp:

“We left Middleton St. George in a Lancaster aircraft about 20:00 hrs on 4th July 1944. All the members of the crew baled out safely, landing in neighbourhood of Chartres in the early hours of 5th July 1944.

Having buried my parachute in a wheat field, I set off with my tail-gunner, Sgt. Gibson, walking NW for about 29 km (18 mls). As it got light we hid in a wheat field and slept until noon. I got rid of my revolver and ammunition, but was still wearing uniform. About 17:00 hrs I approached a French farmer who brought us some food, and later took us to his house for a few hours. In the evening this farmer led us to another farm house, where we spent the night.

Next day the first man brought my wireless operator, WO1. Head into the farm, and also provided food and civilian clothes for us.

On 6th July 1944 Flt Sgt. Grenon, mid-upper gunner of Flt Lt. Yunker’s crew arrived, and told us that we were in the care of the underground movement. He advised us to await further instructions. I understood that he had been shot down the same night as we were”.

Flt Lt. Yunker was the pilot of 433 (Porcupine) Sqn, RCAF Halifax III LW120 BM:E (2 KiA, 4 PoW, 1 Evd).

“On 10th July 1944 we were taken to another farmhouse where we met our navigator, Fg Off. Prudham, also Fg Off. Hetherington the bomb aimer and Flt Sgt. Grenon from Flt Lt. Yunker’s crew. The next day Plt Off. Harvie, of Fg Off. Baird’s crew was brought in”.

Fg Off. Baird was the pilot of 433 (Porcupine) Sqn, RCAF Halifax III LW123 BM:W (6 KiA, 1 PoW).

“On 12th July the six of us were taken to Paris in a car driven by the son of a French doctor. We stayed the night in an empty house with a member of the movement. Next day we were split into groups, Sgt. Gibson and WO1. Head together, and Fg Off. Prudham with me. We two were taken to a hotel on the outskirts of Paris, and there told how we should proceed through Spain.

During the afternoon of 14th July 1944 we were visited by an American who said he had just arrived from Barcelona. He asked questions about our Air Force, and we became immediately suspicious. I had been told by Head that an American who stated that he came from Pasadena, had tried to get information from him, so I refused to talk.

Later in the afternoon the four of us were driven to Gestapo Headquarters by the same driver who had driven us to Paris. Here I was asked questions about my civilian employment, age, religion and my feelings towards the Russians. We were taken in a police wagon to Fresnes prison, outside Paris”.

Fresnes prison was located to the south of Paris and was where French political prisoners were held and ordinarily Allied airmen, after questioning, were moved to a PoW Camp. In the summer of 1944, with the Allies closing in and about to liberate Paris, the Gestapo guards started reducing the prison population by execution, and then relocating surviving prisoners to various concentration camps east of France.

“Fg Off. Baird and Fg Off. Hetherington and Flt Sgt. Grenon from Plt Off. Yunker’s crew, were also in the wagon with us. In prison we were deprived of everything except our underwear, shirts, and trousers. While in Fresnes I tried to escape by cutting the bars with my escape saw, but someone reported the attempt to a German officer.

On the 15th August 1944 we were taken by truck from the prison to Gare de L’Est and there loaded into box cars, 70 men to a car. In the car were all the people I had previously travelled with, including Plt Off. Scullion, Sgt. Watmough and Flt Sgt. Grenon from Plt Off. Yunker’s crew, also Plt Off. Harvie, Fg Off. Prudham, Fg Off. Smith, WO1. Head, Sgt. Gibson, Sgt. Vinecombe, and the Wireless Operator, Sgt. David High of Fg Off. Frame’s crew. Also Fg Off. Watson and Fg Off. Hoffman from Fg Off. Vickerman’s crew. On the second day 20 more men were put into the car. We were given one loaf of bread every three days, but the Swiss and French Red Cross provided us with extra food”.

Note: Gare de L’Est was more likely to have been Gare de Pantin, which was a station where usually cattle was loaded on and off box cars.

Fg Off. Vickerman was the pilot of 423 (Leaside) Sqn, RCAF Halifax III LW582 QO:N (1 KiA, 2 PoW, 4 Evd).(Insert Link)

Fg Off. Frame was the pilot of 419 (Moose) Sqn, RCAF Lancaster X KB718 VR:J (3 PoW, 4 Evd). (Insert Link)

These airmen were amongst 169 Allied PoWs and hundreds of French men and women who were packed into a freight train and transported to Buchenwald concentration camp on a journey lasting five days.

“I sawed a hole through the floor and on the morning of 18th August 1944 I dropped out while the train was travelling at about 25 miles per hour. It was about 02:40 hours when we left the train, and we were about 40 km (24¾ mls) east of Paris at the time I think”.

Note: Fg Off. Stevenson’s recollections about how far he was from Paris is somewhat short of the mark. After travelling about 70 km (43¼ mls) from Paris the train entered into a long tunnel at Nanteuil-Saâcy where it was forced to stop. Beyond the tunnel lay a rail bridge over the shallow river Marne, but both the bridge and the exit from the tunnel had been destroyed by the Resistance in a last-ditch effort to halt the train. However, Fg Off. Stevenson’s recollection was that the damage to the bridge was as a result of Allied bombing.

The prisoners were forced to carry all items of baggage, the guards packs and other stores across the remains of the bridge to another train on the other side of the river. Setting off again after the prisoners were loaded onto the wagons the train left the river Marne behind.

In Fg Off. Stevenson’s wagon a handful of men prised up a loose floorboard and an adjacent one. When the train was travelling slowly up an incline and under cover of darkness he, Sgt. Dave High and a number of desperate Frenchmen slipped out. Unfortunately one of these men was spotted by an alert guard and shot down by a wildly spraying machine-gun fire. The train shuddered to a halt and pandemonium erupted.

Sgt. Dave High R93636 RCAF was the WOp/Air Gnr from 419 (Moose) Sqn, RCAF Lancaster X KB716 VR:J. (4 PoW, 4 Evd) (Insert Link)

A squad of German guards was despatched to round up the escapees, while the rest of the guard stood watch along the tracks, ready for any further escapes. The majority of the escapees, including Sgt. High, were soon rounded up and dragged back to the train, but Fg Off. Stevenson eluded the search. (Ref 2 pp. 103-108)

“Two French officers escaped with me, and we made for the undergrowth. We walked to Mézy-Moulins and I spent the next two nights in a house there. The two Frenchmen went back to Paris. The owner of the house fetched a woman who arranged for me to go to Château-Thierry, and I hid above a shop until the Americans arrived on the 28th August. I was interrogated by IS9 and returned to the UK on the 4th September 1944”.

Mézy-Moulins is some 23 km (14 mls) from the Nanteuil-Saâcy tunnel and bridge and some 87 km (54 mls) ENE of Paris as the crow flies.

Fg Off. Stevenson was awarded the Croix de Guerre (French) on the 19th October 1945.

Citation reads:

“Flying Officer Stevenson took part in nine attacks on German installations in France prior to being shot down on the night of 4th July, 1944. During the time when he was operating with the Maquis, this officer showed great bravery and daring. Flying Officer Stevenson has at all times shown a keen, aggressive spirit and devotion to duty far above the average. As captain of aircraft his work has resulted in many successful sorties against vital German installations”.

Flt Lt. Stevenson was Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) which was promulgated in the London Gazette on the 1st January 1946.

(2) Fg Off. Prudham, Fg Off. Smith, WO1. Head, Sgt. Gibson, Sgt. Vinecombe and the remainder of the 168 airmen continued onto the Buchenwald Concentration camp, which was located 8 km (5 mls) north of Weimar, in the German province of Thüringen. It was established and administered by the Schutzstaffel (SS).

Sqn Ldr. Lamason and Fg Off. Chapman succeeded in getting all but two of the Allied PoWs transferred to Stalag Luft 3. Two airmen, 1st Lt. Levitt Clinton Beck Jr. O-736945, US AAF and Fg Off. Philip Derek Hemmens, 152583 RAFVR, died in the sick barrack.

Recognition:

For decades the International Red Cross (IRC) had stated that there were no military personnel in Buchenwald despite the overwhelming documentary and anecdotal evidence. It was not until 1988 that the IRC eventually confirmed the airmen were illegally held at Buchenwald.

The Australian, New Zealand and Canadian governments also consistently denied that any of their service personnel were ever held in concentration camps and refused to investigate the claims made by a 'mere’ handful of men.

Reparations were made to the British airmen who had been illegally held at Buchenwald in 1965. Eventually in 1988 the Australian, New Zealand and it is believed the Canadian governments acknowledged that their airmen had been illegally held in concentration camps.

American airmen were among those receiving compensation and the US Air force have acknowledged the Buchenwald airmen with an exhibit at the Air Force Museum, albeit the airmen are shown in uniform rather than in civilian attire. Furthermore, there is no mention of decades-long denial of their experiences by other branches of the government.

They were transferred to Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia over the period 15th to 20th August 1944.

On the night of the 27th January 1945, with Soviet troops only 26 km (16 mls) away, orders were received to evacuate the PoWs to Spremberg which is to the West in Germany. The PoW’s were informed of the evacuation, which was on foot, at about 22:00 hrs the same night and were given 30 mins to pack and prepare everything for the march. The weather conditions were very difficult, with freezing temperatures, and it was snowing accompanied by strong winds. There was 15 cm (6 in) of snow and 2000 PoWs were assigned to clear the road ahead of the main groups.

After a 55 km (34 mls) march, the PoWs arrived in Bad Muskau where they rested for 30 hours. The PoWs were then marched the remaining 26 km (16 mls) to Spremberg where they were housed in empty garages, storerooms and in military barracks. There they were provided with warm soup and bread.

After arriving at Spremberg during the following days PoWs were divided up according to Compounds, and they were led to railway sidings and loaded into tightly packed carriages.

(3) Sgt. Vinecombe, Fg Off. Smith and WO1. Head were force-marched to the Marlag-Milag Nord PoW camp arriving there on the 4th/5th February 1945.

Malag = Marinelager (naval prisoner of war camp) and Milag = Marine-Internierten-Lager (naval internment camp), Nord (North). Located at a former Luftwaffe (German Air Force) barracks near Westertimke NE of Bremen in Germany.

On the 2nd April 1945 the camp commandant ordered that the PoWs were to leave the camp with most of the guards. However, that afternoon a detachment of more than 100 SS-Feldgendarmerie entered the camp and gathered some 3000 of the PoWs and marched them out heading east.

The column was attacked by RAF aircraft resulting in the deaths of two PoWs and injuries to several others. The Senior British Naval Officer (SBNO), Capt. J. Thornton was one of the two who were killed.

Of the three only WO1. Head was named on the PoW list and it is also believed that he had escaped the column. Additionally is believed that Sgt. Vinecombe and Fg Off. Smith were also part of this column, however, the list is not comprehensive as only has around 200 names. The column finally arrived at Lübeck, on the Baltic coast, on the 28th April 1945. They were liberated by a Spearhead of the 11th Armoured Division around noon of the 1st May 1945.

At the Marlag-Milag Nord camp the guards fled on 9th April 1945 and were replaced by elderly civilian guards. Those remaining at the camp were liberated by the British Guards Armoured Division on the 27th April 1945.

Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun, dated 5th June 1945


Frederick Samuel Vinecombe was born on the 16th December 1914 in Plymouth and lived to the grand age of 106. He passed away on the 27th January 2021.

When he heard that from a friend at his care home that women were able to fly with the RAF he said he would love to meet a female pilot. His family then got in touch with local Flt Lt. Kerry Bennet, who agreed to meet Frederick at the care home in Plymouth, Devon.


(4) It is assumed that Sgt. Pett was probably captured fairly quickly after he baled out because he was not swept up with his fellow crew members whilst evading. What is known is that he was sent to Stalag Luft 3 Sagan-Silesia and that he was appointed to a commission and promoted to J92349 Plt Off, whilst there. He joined the forced march out of Stalag Luft 3.

Sgt. Pett, Fg Off. Prudham and Sgt. Gibson were amongst the PoWs from the West Compound that were transferred to Stalag 3A, Luckenwalde.

As of 1st January 1945, it housed 45,942 PoWs, Finally, as the Russians approached the guards fled the camp leaving the prisoners to be liberated by the Red Army on the 22nd April 1945.

Burial details:

None - all crew survived

Researched by Ralph Snape for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this crew.

Other sources listed below:

Reference:

1. Burgess, Colin. Destination Buchenwald: The astonishing survival story of Australian and New Zealand airmen in a Nazi death camp. Simon & Schuster Australia. Kindle Edition





RS 27.02.2024 - Initial upload
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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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