Operation: Montdidier, France. (Rail installations)
Date: 18th June 1944 (Sunday)
Unit: No.115 Squadron
Type: Lancaster I
Base: RAF Witchford, Cambridgeshire
Location: Gannes, France
Pilot: P/O. John Alan Traill AUS/423186 RAAF Age 21. Killed
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Douglas Albert Dawson 574270 RAF Age 22. Killed
Nav: Fl/Sgt. Ian Harrison Smith AUS/423913 RAAF Age 21. Killed
Air/Bmr: Fl/Sgt. John William Van Cooten AUS/426716 RAAF Age 22. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Peter Duff 1059197 RAFVR Age 34. Killed
Air/Gnr(Mid upper): Sgt. Ernest Edwin Stapley 1896471 RAFVR Age 35. Killed
Air/Gnr(Rear): Sgt. Kenneth Edgar Laxton 1816757 RAFVR Age 20. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
In the early hours of 18th June 1944, (HK559 - 01:02 hrs) ten Mk I and four Mk III Avro Lancaster bombers of 115 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, based at Witchford in Cambridgeshire, undertook an operation to attack railway installations at Montdidier (Somme) in northern France. Each aircraft carried eighteen 500lb general purpose bombs. All but one returned safely, the casualty being Mk I Lancaster, serial number HK559 and identifying code A4-H (painted on the sides, split by the RAF roundels). HK559 was apparently hit by anti-aircraft fire near to the target and crashed just outside the village of Gannes (Oise), a few kilometres to the south west, with the loss of all seven crew. According to the Gannes stationmaster, who witnessed the crash, the aircraft exploded and burst into flames on impact, with a further bomb explosion triggered by the fire several hours later. The crash may have been on the outward or return journey, as cloud conditions at the target caused the instruction to be given for all aircraft to return without dropping their bombs.
Crew L-R: P/O. John Traill, Sgt. Douglas Dawson, Fl/Sgt. Ian Smith, Fl/Sgt. John Van Cooten, Fl/Sgt. Peter Duff and Sgt. Ernest Stapley (courtesy Ian Duff)
Above L-R: Sgt. Kenneth Laxton, Fl/Sgt. Ian Smith and Fl/Sgt. Peter Duff (courtesy Ian Duff)
Bomber Command suffered huge casualties in World War II, with over 8000 aircraft destroyed and more than 55,000 aircrew killed, but HK559 was its only operational loss on that date.
The remains of the crew were buried in a collective grave in the village cemetery. There are now individual Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones on the grave, and there were official commemoration ceremonies in 1994 - 50th anniversary, 2004 - 60th anniversary, 2009 - 65th anniversary, 2014 - 70th anniversary.
The account which follows has been developed from information supplied by, among others, relatives of all seven crewmen and by French people in Gannes and nearby. It is based on material first assembled by Dominique Lecomte of Erquery (Oise), augmented as and when extra documents and photographs came to light.
Lancaster crews were formed in two stages during the training programme:
At an Operational Training Unit, all but the flight engineer came together. The process is sometimes described as all the trainees being put in a hangar, and by drifting around for part of a day, self-selecting into congenial teams of six specialists. In reality, it could take longer and some direction from above could be given.
At the subsequent Heavy Conversion Unit, a flight engineer, who had taken a separate course of training, was attached to the established crew. In the case of the seven who died at Gannes there was a further distinction between the flight engineer and the others - while the rest were wartime enlistees in the RAF or RAAF, Douglas Dawson had chosen the RAF as a career in 1938 when he enrolled as an airframe apprentice, aged 16. His ambition to fly was realised only in the later stages of the war when four-engined bombers required a flight engineer in the crew.
However they came together, the crew who died at Gannes were posted in late May 1944 to 115 Squadron at Witchford, by this time equipped only with Lancasters, and flew operations from there. Remarkably, there was another Sergeant Douglas Dawson flying with 115 Squadron at the same time, this one a member of the RCAF.
He was a rear gunner who also flew to Montdidier on 17/18 June. He and the rest of his crew were killed three months later on 17 September during an operation to Moerdijk in Holland, and are buried in the nearby village of Strijen, about 30 kilometres to the south of Rotterdam. Tracking this other Douglas Dawson’s history was made harder by his being commissioned some time between the Montdidier and Moerdijk operations - he was a Pilot Officer with a new service number at the time of his death. And there was another Canadian air gunner called Dawson at Witchford in 1944, this one too killed in action later in the year with the rest of his crew.
It sometimes happened that new pilots flew a mission as Second Pilot, displacing the flight engineer from his collapsible seat, to see how experienced crews worked together. There is no record that John Traill did so. What is shown in 115 Squadron’s Operations Record Book (ORB) of the time, now in the UK National Archives, is that for him and his crew the Montdidier raid was their fifth operation:
30/31 May - Boulogne - ND913 A4-M - all 10 aircraft returned
2/3 June - Wissant - ND760 A4-K - all 15 aircraft returned
14/15 June - Le Havre - ND913 A4-M - all 22 aircraft returned
15/16 June - Valenciennes - ND913 A4-M - 1 lost from 20
18 June - Montdidier - HK559 A4-H - 1 lost from 14
This detailed official record disagrees with a statement in the brief account of Douglas Dawson’s life which appeared in a local (Ossett) newspaper when he was reported missing, and again when he was presumed killed in action. According to the statement, he flew to Caen on D-Day, 6 June 1944, presumably this being told to his family when he was on leave with them sometime after the event.
The ORB shows no operations carried out by Douglas’s regular crew other than those listed above, nor any with him as a member of another crew, though there was an operation with 24 aircraft from 115 Squadron to Ouistreham, the port of Caen, on the night of 5/6 June. It is possible that he flew on this as a stand-in flight engineer for another crew, maybe at the last minute, and for some reason, human error being most likely, this was not properly recorded.
ORBs are known to be less than 100% accurate, but typically this means an error in an aircraft’s serial number or an airman’s name spelt wrongly. Completely omitting an aircraft and crew from the account of an operation seems highly unlikely.
P/O. John Alan Traill. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of Dr. Alan James and Katharine Mary, of Burwood, New South Wales, Australia.
Sgt. Douglas Albert Dawson. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of Albert and Alice of Ossett, Yorkshire, England.
Fl/Sgt. Ian Harrison Smith. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of William Harrison and Clyda Ann of North Bondi, New South Wales, Australia.
Fl/Sgt. John William Van Cooten. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of William John Fraser and Lucy , of South Brisbane, Queensland. Australia.
Fl/Sgt. Peter Duff. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of Alexander and Margaret, of Dundee, Scotland.
Sgt. Ernest Edwin Stapley. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of Frank Stuart and Frances Sarah, husband of Dorothy Rose, Wood Green, Middlesex, England.
Sgt. Kenneth Edgar Laxton. Gannes Communal Cemetery. Collective grave. Son of John William and Lizzie, of Hall Green, Birmingham, England.
Many letters were written by and to the families. Two, involving Alan and Katharine Traill, the pilot’s parents, are shown below, one partly and one in full. On 25 January 1946, Alan Traill wrote to the Casualty Section of the Department of Air in Melbourne, asking about John’s death.
In reply to your request for full details concerning the circumstances of your son’s death, it is advised that the casualty was investigated by two organisations and their reports have been received in this Department.
The report received through the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiry states that:-
“On the 18 June 1944 a four-engined British plane crashed at GANNES (Oise). It was in flames before crashing and exploded. Plane and crew were torn to pieces and could not be identified or counted. All remains were put in two coffins and buried in one grave by the French in the Communal Cemetery of Gannes (Oise)”.
The report received from the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, Paris, states that the officer investigating the tragedy proceeded to Gannes and the Station Master took him to the scene of the crash. The officer states:-
“This aircraft appears to have gone in almost vertically and at a great speed as all four engines are deeply buried in the ground. The Station Master states the engines made a terrific noise as the machine was diving, followed by a loud explosion. The larger part of the wreckage was cleared by the Germans, the remaining pieces are scattered over a wide area.”
It seems that John Traill’s mother formed the idea that he had been burned to death, and eventually she wrote to M. Feuilloy, the Gannes stationmaster, with her concern. This is the text of his reply:
20th October 1948
Madame K.M. Traill
Dear Madame Traill,
Received your letter of the 28th September, translated in French by Mr. Brial.
Your friend, Mrs. Estell, will be welcomed by my daughter, as you yourself were at Gannes. By corresponding with my daughter [… illegible …] visit.
In case of need , I am again giving you hereunder my daughter’s address:-
Mr. & Mme. Houdant S.N.C.F. Gannes (Oise)
With reference to the question you have asked me, there has been obviously some wrong interpretation of the account given to you by my daughter. An explosion took place, in effect six hours after your son’s plane crashed but it was the explosion of a bomb which did not occur immediately after the fall of the plane. The explosion took place afterwards, the bomb having ignited by the heat of the burning plane. You may relieve your mind about the fear of your son having been trapped alive in the plane. As I could not give you many details of the occurrence during the brief time I saw you at Gannes, I will now give you the exact description as I saw it.
On the 18th June, 1944, at about two o’clock in the morning bombers were continually passing over the station (at Gannes). The weather was bleak and a strong wind was blowing. Feeling anxious about the fate of the aviators in such bad weather or upset by some presentiment, I got out of bed and looked in the dark through the window of my bedroom. I was at the window for a little while when fearing some catastrophe I was appalled by the deafening noise of the engines of a plane gradually getting nearer. During these few seconds I could not see anything in the sky until the plane exploded as it crashed at a distance of about one hundred yards in front of me. I can therefore testify as the only eyewitness of this unfortunate disaster that the plane was not in flames before it crashed on the ground as stated by the Aviation report, but that the plane exploded as it hit the ground, throwing out all its occupants off the burning plane. I immediately went to the site of the catastrophe where I was alone and to my dismay I could only ascertain that all the occupants of the plane were dead.
There, Madame, is a brief but sincere account of that drama which was all over in a few seconds but which has so cruelly struck you. As for myself I will always see this horrible vision with all the sorrow that I then shared.
May these few lines, as cruel as they are yet for you, appease somehow your immense grief and that the fear that you entertained about your son being burned alive in the plane will be dispelled off your mind for ever. I pray you to believe, Madame, to the assurance of my devoted sentiments.
Signed G. Feuilloy.
It is apparent that M. Feuilloy was at pains to allay Mrs Traill’s concern about the nature of her son’s death. At this stage it is not possible to be certain whether or not the aircraft was in flames during its descent, but nor is it clear why he claimed so confidently to be the only eyewitness if what he said was not true. Certainly, four years after the crash, he would have known long since if there had been any other witnesses with a different opinion, who could therefore contradict him in statements to further family representatives, like Katharine Traill's friend Mrs Estell referred to in the letter, whose visit presumably was expected soon. And given that she would certainly be seeing him, he would have to be prepared to maintain the fiction face to face, if that is what it was.
There are further points of interest in the two letters. In the one to Alan Traill, the statement “This aircraft appears to have gone in almost vertically” can be queried – a glance at the 2007 aerial photograph shows that a fairly shallow dive would have been required for HK559 to take the roof off the house and then to crash where it did to the east. In M.Feuilloy’s letter, his estimate of the distance from the station to the crash site is considerable below the true figure of about 250 yards, and his explanation of the explosion several hours after the crash having been due to the heat of the fire may have been mistaken, as it was common to use delayed-action bombs.
Returning to the doubt about whether or not HK559 was in flames before crashing, this is an extract of a letter of 1952 to his family from Bill Smith, Ian’s brother, about his recent visit to Gannes:
He [the stationmaster – it was not said if this was still M. Feuilloy] took me to a pub where a girl could speak a little English so after a while I had quite a crowd telling me the whole story of the crash, two of them had actually seen it. The story I got was that the plane was on fire when it passed over Gannes, it made a circle and came in fairly flatly narrowly missing the station and a shed and burst into flames when it hit the ground from the petrol and burnt out the fields all around … six or seven hours later there was a great explosion from the bomb load. From the description it appears that they were trying to make a crash landing.
Does the reference to the flatness of the dive, matching what can be deduced from the 2007 photograph, give credence to the statement about the aircraft being on fire before crashing? Did M. Feuilloy’s wish to give comfort cause him to say that which he knew to be untrue? Certainly, no definitive answers to these questions can be got now.
Information and photographs supplied by Ian Duff - nephew of Peter Duff (Wireless Operator) killed on this aircraft. With thanks to the sources as quoted below. Further information on anniversary events covered here.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember
them. - Laurence
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