06/07.04.1945 18 Squadron Boston IV BZ489 -O W/O. Robert Neville James Whitwell
Operation: Pontelagoscuro Ferry Terminals, Italy
Date: 6/7 April 1945 (Friday/Saturday)
Unit: 18 Squadron - Motto: Animo et fide (With courage and faith)
Squadron Badge: A Pegasus rampant. The Pegasus was chosen to commemorate the unit being the first to co-operate with the Cavalry Corps on the Somme in the First World War. Authority: King Edward VIII, May, 1936.
Type: Douglas Boston IV
Code: Call sign O
Base: Forli, Italy
Location: Adriatic Sea off the coastal area about Porto Garibaldi, Italy
Pilot: W/O. Robert Neville James Whitwell 1317900 RAFVR Age 24 - Safe but injured (1)
Nav/Air/Bmr: Sgt. Harold George Lake 1392540 RAFVR Age 21 - Missing believed killed (2)
W/Op/Air/Gnr: W/O. John Garnet Shearer Aus/428510 RAAF Age 20 - Missing believed killed (3)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. James Cowe 993799 RAFVR Age 21 - Missing believed killed (4)
We appeal to anyone with further information and/or photographs to please contact us via our HELPDESK
The Allies launched their last big offensive on the Gothic Line in August 1944 and though they managed to breach its formidable defences they failed to break into the Po Valley before the winter weather made further progress impossible. The Allied forward formations spent the rest of the winter in highly inhospitable conditions while preparations were made for a spring offensive in 1945.
The 1945 spring offensive, codenamed Operation Grapeshot, commenced on 6 April 1945 with 20 divisions, or about 850,000 combat troops, organized under US 5th Army and British 8th Army attacking into the Lombardy Plain.
One of the various supporting roles of the RAF bomber squadrons was to inhibit the supply and reinforcement of the Axis forces and to this end 10 Bostons of 18 Squadron were detailed to attack the Ferry Terminals of Pontelagoscuro on the night of Friday/Saturday, 6/7 April 1945. Pontelagoscuro was the industrial area of the municipality of Ferrara located in a mostly flat area about 7 kilometres from the city on the right bank of the River Po, at the point of the narrowest width of the river, where the railway and road bridges were located.
The attack was to be carried out in two separate raids each employing 5 aircraft with the first five timed to take off at 2300 hours on 6 April and the second five at about 0330 on 7 April.
REASON FOR LOSS
It took just six minutes for the first five Bostons to get airborne and en route to the target some 65 miles north of Forli. Skippered by Robert Whitwell, Boston BZ489 was away at 2304 and all things being equal the pilot expected to be back at base in a little over 90 minutes time, having duly delivered his bomb load.
The other four Bostons bombed the target from between 3000 and 3800 feet and duly returned safely to base, landing between 0020 hours and 0056 hours, three of them also having carried out leaflet drops.
Robert Whitwell flying BZ489 reached and bombed the target successfully and turned for base. Nearing Porto Garibaldi however, a considerable amount of flak was encountered and in order to avoid it the pilot flew out to sea experiencing flak all the way. Shortly afterwards an explosion occurred in the aircraft and it immediately crashed into the sea from 1000ft at 0020 hours.
On impact, the hatch of the pilot's cockpit flew off and he was able to climb out. He swam round to the tail of the aircraft, only part of which was visible, the remainder of the aircraft being under water. At that moment the dinghy inflated and he climbed in, by which time the aircraft had sunk.
Robert Whitwell was adrift in the dinghy for more than 24 hours until the early hours of Sunday morning. At 0230 on 8 April he found that he was within swimming distance of land and eventually waded ashore assisted by some local Allied army personnel and was taken to S.B.Q [Sick Bay Quarters] Headquarters, 324 Wing subsequently being transferred to 22 Mobile Field Hospital. There was news or trace of the other members of the crew after the aircraft had crashed at 0020 hours on 7 April 1945
The second five Bostons of 8 Squadron successfully bombed the target and all five aircraft and crews returned safely to Fiori about 0530 hours on 7 April. The following entries relating to the raid are taken from the Squadron Operations Record Book:
'6 April 1945 10 Bostons were briefed to attack the Ferry Terminals of Pontelagoscuro.
This was done in two raids of five aircraft. The bombing results observed were good, all the bombs falling in the target area, and several small fires were started. Unfortunately one aircraft from the first raid failed to return, the crew being:- Pilot - W/O. R. N. J. Whitwell, Nav. - Sgt. H. G. Lake, W/Air. W/O.J.C. Shearer, A/G. - Sgt. J Cowe
News came through this evening that the Pilot of the aircraft which was missing last night, W/O. R.N.J. Whitwell, has been picked up after spending twenty four hours in a dinghy. There is no further news of the other members of the crew.'
A report of 14 June 1948 from 5 Missing Research and Enquiry Unit stated that:
'Extensive investigations were carried out in the Porto Garibaldi and coastal area by Searcher Parties, but no remains were discovered which could possibly be linked with this Enquiry'
BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS OF THE CREW
(1) W/O. Robert Neville James Whitwell was born on 9 November 1920 at Madras, India the son of Percy Norman James Whitwell and Polly Whitwell nee Davies.
In 1939 he was a Student living with his mother and his aunt Jane Hendy Davies (an Incapacitated Teacher) at Hermon House, Harris View, Mountain Ash Glamorganshire
He married Gladys Marion Eyles in October 1943 at Peterborough, Northamptonshire. They had two daughters.
Robert Neville James Whitwell died at Cardiff on 11 June 2004 aged 83.
(2) Sgt. Harold George Lake was born on 1924 at Christchurch, Dorset the son of George F. Lake (a retired Civil Service Clerk and War Disability Pensioner) and Elsie M. Lake nee Barney of 62 0swald Road Bournemouth, Hampshire.
He had one sibling: Margaret A. Lake born in 1930.
(3) W/O. John Garnet Shearer was born on 6 July 1924 at Richmond, Victoria Australia the son of John Arthur Shearer and Josephine Frances Shearer nee Cellar. The family lived at 1225 Hoddle Street East Melbourne, Victoria.
He was educated at Yarra Park State School 1936-1938 and Melbourne Technical School 1938-1941.
His sporting interests were football, cricket, tennis, swimming and ice skating. After leaving school in 1941 he worked as a Laboratory Assistant.
He was enrolled at 1 Cadet Wing HQ Air Training Corps, Melbourne on 15 May 1942 aged 17 and served with 1 Squadron, Prahran.
On his 18th birthday, 6 July 1942 he applied for air crew and exactly 4 months later on 6 November 1942 he enlisted at 1 RC 104 Russell St Melbourne. On enlistment he was 5' 6¼" tall with fair hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion
After training at 4 ITS RAAF Victor Harbour South Australia, 1 ITS RAAF Somers Victoria
1 Wireless and Gunnery School (Course 35) at RAAF Ballarat, Victoria and 3 Bombing and Gunnery School (Course 35) at RAAF West Sale Victoria he was awarded his Wireless Badge 22 July 1943 and on 19 August he was awarded his Air Gunners Badge and promoted to Sergeant
Following 14 days embarkation leave he embarked at Brisbane on 10 September and disembarked in the UK on 19 October 1943. The following day he was posted to 11 Personnel Despatch and Reception Centre at Brighton and from 17 November to 14 December to an NCO Course at Whitley Bay Northumberland. He returned to 11 PDRC and on 11 January 1944 was posted to Staff Pilot Training Unit where he was promoted to Flight Sergeant on 19 Feb 1944 and to Warrant Officer on the same date.
On 16 March he was posted to 5 Personnel Despatch Centre at RAF Heaton Park Manchester prior to embarking for Egypt where he disembarked on 13 April 1944. Posted to RAF Shandur, Egypt on 22 July, to 22 PTC (Personnel Transit Centre), Almaza, Egypt on 8 October and MAAF (Mediterranean Allied Air Forces) (3BPD) on 16 October he joined 18 Squadron at RAF Falconara on 30 October. On 7 March 1945 18 Squadron relocated to RAF Forli 7 March 1945
He is commemorated on the Melbourne War Memorial and the Australian National War Memorial at Canberra - Panel No. 130
(4) Sgt. James Cowe was born on 29 April 1923 at Aberdeen, Scotland the only child of James Knight Donald Cowe and Mary Cowe nee Campbell.
His next of kin was recorded as Mrs Cowe, mother, 95 Westburn Road Aberdeen Scotland and also to be informed was Mrs J. A. Cowe 21 Wallfield Place Aberdeen
He is commemorated on the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle
BURIAL DETAILS, MEMORIALS AND EPITAPHS
(2) Sgt. Harold George Lake. Having no known grave, he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 18, Column 2.
(3) W/O. John Garnet Shearer. Having no known grave, he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 19, Column 2.
(4) Sgt. James Cowe. Having no known grave, he is commemorated on the Malta Memorial Panel 18, Column 2.
Researched by Aircrew Remembered researcher Roy Wilcock for all the relatives and friends of the members of this crew - May 2020
With thanks to the sources quoted below.