In de nacht van 22 op 23 juni 1943 stortte in Maarn een Britse bommenwerper brandend neer. De viermotorige Lancaster van de RAF was op de weg terug naar huis. Het had deelgenomen aan een nachtelijk bombardement op de oorlogsindustrie in Mülheim. Het toestel werd onderschept en geraakt door een Duitse nachtjager. Het vloog in brand, verloor cirkelend boven Maarn onderdelen en boorde zich uiteindelijk in een heideveld naast boerderij Aarendal. De zeven inzittenden kwamen om het leven.
Sinds 14 april 2012 herinnert een gedenksteen op De Pol, vlakbij de plek waar vroeger Aarendal stond aan deze trieste gebeurtenis uit de Tweede Wereldoorlog.
William Patrick Smith
William Patrick Smith (Bill) was born in Leeds, an industrial city in the north of England, on 10th April 1913. He was the third child of Charles and Mary Smith who had moved to the city from Manchester for Charles, a glass bottle blower by trade, to secure work.
The Smiths were a close-knit working class family of Irish descent, and Bill grew up in a lively household with his siblings Mary (born 1909), Joseph (born 1911), Leo (born 1916), Winnie (born 1919), Kathleen (born 1922) and Nelly (born 1929).
A legacy of their Irish heritage, the family were Roman Catholic and the Church played a significant role in their lives. Bill and his siblings all attended the local Roman Catholic school, St Joseph’s, and Kathleen recalls that in the mid 1930s Bill volunteered to help out with the painting and decorating of the church. She has a memory of calling in to the church on her way home from school to see him busy at work.
From an early age he demonstrated a talent for art and on leaving school, Bill won a scholarship to the Leeds College of Art. From there, he secured work as a commercial artist designing adverts for everyday products for publication in newspapers, magazines and on posters, working for commercial firms in Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland where he took lodgings.
In 1937 Bill met his future wife, 24-year-old seamstress Johannah Byrne (Joan) in St Joseph’s Catholic club in Leeds. Joan had moved to Leeds from Ireland in 1928 along with her mother, her four siblings and one of her cousins. Their relationship continued and they were welcomed into each other’s families. In later life, Joan often spoke about how much she enjoyed going back to the Smith family home after a night out with the Smith siblings. They would invite their friends back to the house and laugh and joke and socialise in the kitchen until the early hours of the morning. The Smith household was clearly a warm and welcoming place.
In the early days of their courtship, however, Bill was working in Manchester where he boarded with his mother’s sister. Joan would travel by train to visit him every other Sunday afternoon, arriving home in the early hours of Monday morning.
War is declared
When war broke out in September 1939, Bill was working as a commercial artist for the Gaumont- British Picture Corporation, designing, drawing and painting cinema posters to advertise forthcoming films. Many of these posters survived until the 1960s when unfortunately they had to be destroyed following a house move. Only a few sketches and drawings survive today, having been slipped inside old books and discovered by chance many years later in the 1980s.
Family members recall that Bill was forever drawing. He would sketch his mother preparing the family meals in the kitchen and ‘doodle’ on the inside covers of reading books. Every scrap of paper would be used.
Within days of Britain declaring war on Germany, Bill and his brothers volunteered to join the forces. Leo went into the Royal Navy, Joe to become a Physical Trainer in the Royal Air Force and Bill volunteered for the Royal Air Force (Voluntary Reserve).
According to Joan, Bill took the view that joining the British Army or the Royal Navy would mean spending lengthy periods of time abroad with very little opportunity to see his family. As the RAF were predominantly stationed in Britain, however, he calculated that he would be able to get home to Leeds relatively easily whenever he had leave if he went into the air force.
Joan also commented that Bill preferred the air force blues to the uniforms worn by the soldiers and sailors and it was a combination of these factors, rather than any particular desire to fly, which determined which of the services he would join. Whilst this may seem strange to us today, other men who joined up at the outbreak of war later recalled that other reasons to join the RAF rather than the army or navy was that the RAF provided sheets with the standard issue blanket and a pair of shoes as well as a pair of service boots rather than simply two pairs of boots. This may seem trivial to us now, but it would seem that for non-military men, convenience, comfort and style may have been the deciding factor when choosing which of the forces to enlist with, the significant decision having already been made – that of enlisting.
We have no way of knowing what motivated the Smith siblings to join up immediately at the outbreak of war, but can only imagine that it was a strong sense of collective and social responsibility to others and a desire to serve their country that prompted the decision.
The family as a whole appears to have possessed an inate sense of duty to others. We know for example that Bill was prepared to volunteer his time for the church and its community. Furthermore, Joe’s daughters recall that as children they would often find that their father had invited strangers who were down on their luck to share their family meals and after the war Joe went on to become a teacher, choosing to specialise in teaching children with special needs.
As young men and women there may of course have been an element of personal adventure involved in the decision to enlist, but at its heart must have been a desire to contribute to what they perceived to be the greater good and a sense that they were part of something much bigger than themselves.
Of course, their mother worried endlessly about the risks that they would face, and was distraught when Bill’s younger sister Winnie broke the news that she, too, had joined up and become part of the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Air Force, working as a wireless operator for the RAF.
Winnie recalled visiting a photographer’s studio in Leeds with her brothers to have a family photograph taken in their uniforms around this time. She remembered Bill pulling faces at her, using his teeth to make her laugh, much to the annoyance of the photographer who was trying to get the job done and didn’t appreciate the distraction. Winnie was still chuckling when she recalled the incident more than 60 years later shortly before her death, and remarked upon how much fun the family used to have when they were together.
The early years of World War II
Having enlisted with the RAF on 8 September 1939 ‘for the duration of the present emergency’ Bill arrived at RAF Cardington in Bedford to begin his training as a new recruit. Here he would have been subjected to arduous foot and rifle drill and taught the discipline of the Armed Forces before being allocated a trade to train for. Accordingly, his service records show that Bill was sent to RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire in October 1939 to be trained as a Wireless Operator at Number 2 Electrical and Wireless School.
It is clear from his records, however, that Bill never attained his wing as a Wireless Operator and it can only be surmised that he failed to complete the course, either because he was unsuited to its requirements or because his services were needed elsewhere at that particular point of the war.
It was whilst stationed at RAF Yatesbury that Bill ran into trouble for being found to be absent without the correct permission after sneaking off base to meet Joan. He would probably have got away with it, had his sister Winnie not decided to put a call out for him whilst working on the radios. As part of her role in the WAAF she was able to connect to different air bases across the country and thought it would be fun to put a call out to Bill, only for it to be discovered that he was missing from base! The incident is recorded in his service records on 6 November 1939 as time forfeited for absence.
Bill and Joan continued to see each other whenever he was home on leave. Joan recalled day trips to Otley, a Yorkshire market town, where Bill would always eat for free if he was in his uniform.
It was whilst Bill was home on leave that the couple were married on 26th of December 1939, Boxing Day, at St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Leeds. The marriage certificate confirms that at the time of his marriage he was residing in Hut 37 as part of 73 Squadron.
Joan was lucky to have a traditional full-length wedding dress for the ceremony as the majority of wartime brides could not get access to the material needed to make a wedding dress. Working in the tailoring industry, however, Joan’s employer was able to acquire a supply of white velvet and Joan, an accomplished seamstress, had all the necessary skills to make the dress herself. The wedding dress went on to serve the Smith family well as several of Bill’s sisters borrowed the dress to wear at their own wartime weddings, as it was impossible to get hold of a wedding dress as the war progressed, most brides wearing day suits to get married in.
Less than 2 months after their marriage, Bill was transferred to RAF Locking in Weston-Super-Mare where initially he carried out general duties and worked as an aircraft hand on the base. This involved all manner of jobs across all sections of the base including ground defence and telephone operating. Whilst these general duties required no specific technical skills, they were nevertheless vital in keeping the base running smoothly.
RAF Locking was a Technical Training School and it was here that Bill underwent parachute packing training. He was promoted from the entry rank of Air Craftsmen 2nd Class (AC2) to Air Craftsman 1st Class (AC1) in April 1940 and it would seem from his service records that during this time, he also spent a brief period with Balloon Command at the Number 2 Balloon Centre in Hook, Surrey. This was a barrage balloon depot providing balloons for defence against possible Luftwaffe air strikes in Britain. During the invasion of Poland in 1939 the Luftwaffe had deliberately bombed civilian houses over a two and a half week period in order to force refugees onto the road to create chaos, quickly leading to the surrender of Warsaw. It was anticipated that similar tactics would be used against the British people and domestic defence and evacuation was therefore seen as an urgent priority at that time.
Air strikes begin in the Ruhr
By April 1940, the British military leaders had determined that, in the event of German aggression against Holland and Belgium, air strikes would be carried out against key industrial targets in the Ruhr by Main Force heavy bombers. Accordingly, following the Luftwaffe carpet bombing of Rotterdam and the Nazi invasions of May 1940, the air strikes against the Ruhr began.
The Ruhr, consisting of the Ruhr and Wupper Valley regions, was the industrialised heartland of Germany. Here was the highest concentration of coal mines, Coke ovens, synthetic oil plants, ironworks, steelworks and engineering companies in the country, all of them vital to the German war effort. Indeed, the area produced more than 70% Germany’s coking coal and over 60% of the country’s steel and pig iron.
The Ruhr town of Essen was also the seat of the Krupps armaments empire, established in 1819 and the largest manufacturer of weapons in the world at that time, leading to the Ruhr becoming known by the Air Ministry as the ”weapon-smithy of the Reich.”
We now know that the early bombing campaigns were of limited success with a significant proportion of bombs failing to reach their intended target. Statistics from July 1941 show that only 10% of the bombs dropped over the Ruhr were within 5 miles of their target and little damage was inflicted on German industrial production. However, the men and women on active service and the British public as a whole were unaware of these difficulties, having been led to believe that the bombing campaign was playing an effective and influential role in bringing about defeat for Nazi Germany. Sadly, this was not in fact the case.
During this period of early bombing in the Ruhr, Bill continued to carry out ground duties on base. He was subsequently transferred to RAF Leconfield in East Yorkshire where he was promoted, initially to the rank of leading aircraftsman in October 1940, but later to the rank of Temporary Corporal in March 1941.
It is believed that he was working as a parachute packer at this time, which his sister Kathleen recalls he found endlessly frustrating. She remembers him visiting his parents whilst home on leave and complaining that the girls packing the parachutes were spending too much time laughing and talking instead of concentrating on the job and ensuring that the parachutes were packed correctly. He had remonstrated with them about how important the parachutes were to the aircrews who depended upon them if forced to bale out of their aircraft. By this stage Bomber Command was suffering significant losses and Bill would have been only too aware of the crews that failed to return to base following a mission.
In September 1941, Bill was transferred to RAF Hutton Cranswick where the Polish squadrons were based. He continued in his role as aircraft hand and parachute packer for a further year and was stationed here when his son Gerald Charles Smith was born in Leeds on 21st of December 1941, shortly before Christmas. It was following the birth of his son that he drew his ‘Thumbs up for 1942’ cartoon showing Gerald flying a British warplane which has survived to this day.
His brother Leo also recalled that during the war Bill would use his artistic skills to decorate some of the aircraft on base. This was very popular during World War II and would be carried out at the request of the bomber crews who liked to have their planes decorated with their own distinctive designs. The practise was seen as a way to boost morale by uniting the bomber crews and personalising their planes. Former American aircrew have recalled how art work on their planes gave them something to pat before and after each mission and Bill’s artistic skills would have been very much in demand on base.
Like most service men at that time, Bill saw little of his family but would meet Joan and Gerald when he was on leave. Joan recalled bringing the young Gerald down to meet Bill by train on several occasions. On one of those journeys Bill was so unhappy to discover his son with long blond curls that he got off the train at the very next station to have Gerald’s hair-cut.
Amongst the personal effects returned to Joan in 1943 was a photograph of Gerald upon which Bill had written ‘Gerald at 6 months’ which had been kept in his locker. On the back, in pencil, are the names of a number of servicemen although unfortunately we have no way of knowing their relevance to him at that time. Also with his effects were his wedding photograph and a prayer card.
The war continues
In 1942 things changed for Bill. Joan recalled that he was no longer satisfied with his role on the ground and felt that he should do more when others were flying into occupied Europe night after night. He therefore took the difficult decision to abandon the relative safety of his position on the base and voluntarily put himself forward for aircrew.
Many would consider it a reckless move for a married man with a young child to volunteer for one of the most dangerous occupations of the Second World War. However, although Bill would have understood that the role was dangerous, it is only now that we have the actual statistics which show that in 1942 there was a less than 50% chance of surviving a first tour which had reduced to less than 17% by 1943. Furthermore, whilst 20% could expect to survive a second tour in 1942, by 1943 this had plummeted to only 2 ½ %.
By 1944, the prospects of survival had increased slightly, but one airman recalled that upon joining 101 Squadron in 1944 at the age of 19 he and his colleagues were advised by his Intelligence Officer to make out their last will and testament as they had a life expectancy of only 6 weeks. It is likely that Bill will have received similar advice on joining 101 Squadron in 1943.
We will never know what ultimately drove his decision to volunteer for air crew. Perhaps, having initially felt confident that the Nazis would be defeated within a short period, he realised that after three years of war the Allied forces were no nearer victory. He may therefore have considered that it was only right that he take his turn in the air, and make the same contribution as the air crews on base who were already taking this more active role in bringing the war into the heart of Nazi Germany.
Indeed, becoming a father may have brought with it a new perspective, born out of fear for his child’s future in the event of the Nazi invasion of Britain and Hitler’s threatened supremacy across the whole of Europe. Certainly, he will have felt a personal responsibility to his family. For him, however, this may have manifested in the need to contribute to the collective war effort, believing that he could be of greater service to his family by risking his own personal safety in the hope that a safer future could be secured for all. In short, he may have considered it better for his family that he died for their freedom and the freedom of all, rather than survive the war but live with his family under Nazi tyranny.
Training for Air Crew
Whatever his motivation, Bill’s records show that he was admitted to the Air Crew Receiving Centre at Abbey Lodge in 1942. This was a luxury block of flats near Regent’s Park, London, which had been requisitioned as sick quarters for the intensive medical examination of prospective aircrew.
He was then sent to 14 Initial Training Wing (ITW) in the commandeered Spa Royal Hall at Bridlington as documented in his service records. This is where he would have learned Morse code and aircraft recognition before taking written and oral examinations in signals, armaments, RAF law, hygiene and discipline. From here Bill was transferred to 2 Air Gunnery school in Dalcross, near Inverness, Scotland and from 1st November 1942 he became an Air Gunner under training.
The training that Bill received at Air Gunnery school was much more specialised than any training previously received. Training was initially carried out on the ground using the AML type Bombing Teacher and Turret training system inside. This was situated in an aircraft hangar and images of moving aircraft would be projected onto a screen to be aimed at. Airborne gunnery practice would then follow in an AVRO, with a drogue pulled by another aircraft used as a target.
Bill would have learned to operate, assemble and disassemble 0.303 Browning machine guns, sometimes blindfolded, to emulate night flying conditions. He would also have perfected his aircraft recognition, map reading skills and knowledge of armament types before sitting a three-day examination.
As with all crew positions, the Air Gunners had a critical role to play. Seated in Perspex turrets in the most exposed and dangerous positions on the plane, they had only their Browning machine guns to defend the Lancaster. The 0.303s were no match for the 20 mm and 30 mm cannon of the Luftwaffe fighters and for this reason the Air Gunners were taught in training never to engage with enemy aircraft unless under attack. Instead, they were to shout to the pilot to implement the corkscrew, a defensive manoeuvre consisting of a dramatic 1000 foot spiral drop before climbing back up again, in order to shake off the night fighter.
On 22 March 1943 Bill gained his Air Gunner wing, following which he was transferred to RAF Binbrook, a Conversion Unit based in Lincolnshire, to await selection for a crew. It took seven men to crew a Lancaster bomber, each performing a different but vital role. The men were expected to sort themselves out into a crew within the confines of one large hangar, almost like an elaborate party game. They would then have the opportunity to practice flying as a full Lancaster crew of seven before receiving their individual posting to a squadron.
It was at RAF Binbrook that Bill would have been kitted out for night flying. This would have included a heated electric suit specifically issued to air gunners as the turrets in a Lancaster could be -20°C at 20,000 feet.
Bill’s records show that on 29th of April 1943, shortly after his 30th birthday, he was posted to 101 Squadron who were based at Home-on-Spalding Moor. After a brief period of only three weeks, during which no record of any missions being completed can be found, he was transferred to 156 Squadron, the Path Finder Force, without any operational experience whatsoever.
The Path Finder Force
Concerns regarding the ineffective bombing campaigns earlier in the war had led to the introduction of the elite Path Finder Force in August 1942. This had greatly improved the accuracy and therefore the effectiveness of targeted bombing.
Flying ahead of the Main Force of heavy bombers, it was the job of the Pathfinders to accurately identify and then illuminate the target to be bombed with a series of incendiaries in successive waves for the benefit of the Main Force flying behind. The Pathfinder mosquitoes would lead the way, marking with red target indicators (TIs) followed closely by the Pathfinder Lancasters dropping yellow TIs to guide the Main Force and aiming green target indicators and high explosives in salvos at the red.
Given the immensely hazardous duties faced by the Pathfinders, all Pathfinder crews were volunteers and the pilots and navigators in particular would often have distinguished themselves in a previous tour of duty with the Main Force squadron. The Pathfinder force was central to the success of bomber command, leading almost every raid over occupied Europe and spearheading its campaigns in exceptionally dangerous circumstances.
By 1943, partly due to the success of the Path Finder Force, Bomber Command was at last in a position to carry out a strategic campaign of bombing across the Ruhr Valley.
The Battle of the Ruhr 1943
The Battle of the Ruhr raged in the skies above Holland and Germany between March and July 1943, claiming the lives of almost 3000 airmen and resulting in the loss of 640 aircraft, but ultimately succeeding in its aim, namely the maximum destruction and decimation of the industrial heartlands of Germany.
By 1943, the Ruhr was the most heavily defended area in Germany. It was fiercely protected by heavy guns, flak and searchlight batteries which swept the skies continuously. In addition, German night fighters patrolled the skies, many stationed along the occupied Dutch coastline.
It is of little surprise to learn that the operational targets most greatly feared by air crew were those within the Ruhr and Wupper Valleys, the Ruhr becoming known variously as ‘Happy Valley’ ‘the RAF graveyard’ and ‘the land of no return.’ Indeed, the Battle of the Ruhr has been likened to the First World War battles of the Somme or Passchendaele where soldiers repeatedly went ‘over the top,’ with little chance of survival.
Interviews with returning crewmen and those who survived the war confirm that it was often the enemy searchlights that caused the most terror among crews who would be dazzled and disorientated as they were ‘coned’ in the beams of up to 30 separate searchlights, brightly illuminating them for the benefit of the attacking night fighters and anti-aircraft guns below.
The crews would witness, time and time again, aircraft being coned, hit by flak and bursting into flames. They would watch the stricken aircraft’s spinning descent down through the sky until it disappeared into the darkness or simply exploded, taking others with it, knowing that a similar fate could be theirs. Each aircraft was packed full of bombs, high octane fuel, oxygen tanks and thousands of rounds of ammunition making it vulnerable to explosion at any point.
If the aircraft didn’t explode, the negative G-Force of the spin was likely to trap the crew inside and prevent them from bailing out in any event. This was particularly true of the Air Gunners who were positioned in extremely cramped conditions within their turrets which were very difficult to exit under ordinary conditions but virtually impossible in an emergency situation.
Despite this terror, the men of Bomber Command would go into the sky over occupied territory night after night until they themselves were either blown out of the sky or managed to complete the required 30 ‘ops’ in order to qualify for a break before beginning a further 20 ‘ops.’ In the case of the Path Finder Force, however, a total of 45 continuous ops were required to fulfil the tour of duty.
In reality, however, very few aircrew would survive a second tour as the statistics demonstrate. Those that did survive a second tour could consider themselves to be exceptionally fortunate.
Bochum 12th June 1943
From his service records it would appear that Bill’s first op took place on the night of 12th June 1943 when he joined the crew of Lancaster ED885 piloted by Flight Officer JA Marson of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. The crew were tasked with the bombing of Bochum in the Ruhr Valley. With him on the mission were Sergeant GAP Edwards (Navigator), Sergeant JA Ottey (Wireless Operator), Sergeant EA Bowman (Flight Engineer), Sergeant FJ Willett (Second Navigator) and Sergeant GW Brown (Air Gunner).
As one of the Air Gunners, Bill would have had to remain alert for the duration of the mission, keeping a sharp look out for enemy night fighters intent on blowing the Lancaster out of the sky.
Eye witness accounts of the raid report a spectacular display of Northern Lights over the skies of Europe and moderate to intense levels of flak with significant searchlight activity. The mission was deemed a success, with the industrial output from Bochum being reduced by 45% as a result of this night raid.
This was Bill’s only mission with the Marson crew who were subsequently shot down and killed on ops to Krefeld 9 days later, only 24 hours before Bill too was killed over Maarn. The comments on the mission details following the bombing of Krefeld on 21st June 2018 confirm that the Marson crew were lost without trace but “earlier in the month, during the Bochum raid, this crew put up a particularly fine show after being severely mauled by a night fighter.”
Thus it would seem that Bill’s first op over Bochum was a baptism of fire.
Cologne 16th June 1943
Four days after Bochum, Bill joined the crew of Lancaster ED856 piloted by 21 year old Flight Sergeant John Trevor Winterbon of the Royal Australian Air Force. Despite the fact that Bomber Command was an international affair comprising aircrew from across the world including not only the member countries of the former British Empire but also Nazi occupied countries within Europe and Scandinavia, the crew of Xx-ray was predominantly British. In fact, whilst the Royal Australian Air Force pilot was indeed from New South Wales Australia, his family were English emigrants who had arrived in Australia in 1928 when he was just six years old.
As with the majority of Lancaster crews, the Winterbon crew comprised seven men; the pilot John Trevor Winterbon (age 21), the flight engineer Edmund Alexis Duchene (age 22), the navigator Eric George Grove (age 23), the bomb aimer Wilson Hebenton Gordon (age 22), the wireless operator/air gunner John William Bembridge (age 20), the mid-upper gunner William Patrick Smith (age 30) and the rear gunner John Sydney Francis Victor Crawley (age 22).
Without access to the individual service records of each crew member, sadly we have very little background information regarding each of these men. However, British civil registration records and limited entries contained within Bomber Command’s records confirm that Grove was born in 1920 to his parents George and Florence in Norbury, Croydon. Before the war he worked as a Post Office engineer and in 1942 he married Peggy Lucy Ethel Prior in Bromley. Crawley, the son of John and Harriette of Southbourne in Dorset, was also a married man.
Duchene’s grandfather Joseph was born in Syria in 1862 and worked in London as both a stock broker and a foreign correspondent. His son Albert was working as a bank clerk in London in 1911 before marrying Dora Stewart, Duchene’s mother. By 1943 the family were living in Cornwall where Albert, his father, appears to have died in 1962 at the age of 71. Duchene was a single man.
Further records confirm that Bembridge was the son of William and Ada of Hove, Sussex and Gordon was the son of John and Cecelia Hebenton Gordon of Gourock in Scotland. Regrettably, no further information is known about either man but both were known to be unmarried.
It would appear that all seven crew members were transferred to 156 Squadron from 101 Squadron, presumably together, where Winterbon at least had been involved in several ops on the strength of 101 Squadron. This included the bombing of Essen on 30th April 1943, Dortmund on 4th May 1943 and Bochum on 13th May 1943.
On the night of 16th June 1943, the crew were tasked with the bombing of Cologne. It is unclear from the Squadron mission details, however, whether the crew were actually able to take off that night as no departure or return times have been logged.
Krefeld 21st June 1943
With the exception of Bembridge who was replaced by James (Paddy) McCrum on this particular flight, the crew flew their second op together with the target of Krefeld, code name ‘Mahseer.’ The records confirm that this was to be McCrum’s very last flight after which he became tour expired and managed to defy the odds by actually surviving the war.
On this occasion the crew flew in Lancaster ED599 X for Xray. Whilst many of the 705 despatched planes were forced to abort, the attack was nevertheless deemed a success with 6 months engineering production and 10 months textile production lost in Krefeld as a result of the raid.
Eye witness accounts confirm very heavy flak at the beginning of the raid although only 4 aircraft were lost due to flak. Unfortunately, 30 further aircraft were lost, shot down by nightfighters. The Marson crew were one of those crews who failed to return.
Mulheim 22nd June 1943
Bill’s final op with the Winterbon crew took place on the night of 22nd June 1943 with the target of Mulheim, code-named ‘Steelhead.’ This was the first time that the town had been attacked despite its foundries, furnaces, engine workshops and rolling-mills.
Again, the mission was declared a success as the main railway station was destroyed along with five large steelworks. One newspaper headline the next day read “Mulheim. Mutilated.”
It was whilst returning from this raid that Lancaster X for Xray was hit by a German night fighter and shot down over Maarn, killing all 7 members of the crew. This was the 24 year old Luftwaffe pilot Werner Baake’s 6th victory in a career which earned him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross by the end of the war with a total of 41 ‘kills.’
Initially Bill and the rest of the Winterbon crew were posted as missing when their Lancaster failed to return. For almost 2 years the fate of the crew was unknown which was very hard for the families. Bill’s sister Kathleen recalls that the family were desperate for news and were prepared to go to extreme lengths in the hope of discovering where Bill was and whether he was alive or dead. Besides the official channels, this also included visiting clairvoyants and spiritualists.
Eventually, the family were notified by telegram that Bill had most certainly been killed in action and confirmation was subsequently received from the Red Cross that the crew had been buried by the Dutch people in Amersfoort, Holland.
Bill’s obituary was published in the Yorkshire Evening Post, as was custom at that time, to confirm that his death was now official. The original article survives today, owing to Bill’s brother Leo carrying the clipping safely in his wallet for more than 40 years, passing it on to Bill’s granddaughter shortly before he died.
After the war
Bill’s family and his widow Joan struggled to come to terms with their loss just like thousands of other bereaved families across the country. Bill’s brothers Leo and Joe were lucky to survive the war and return home to their families, but both had developed crippling health problems during their war service. Their mother would lament that she had sent three healthy sons to war – two were returned to her disabled and the other failed to return altogether. Bill’s only surviving sister Kathleen recently commented that the family never recovered from losing Bill and even today she is unable to talk about him without crying.
Joan was comforted to be told that the German officer who had control over the Maarn district at the time of the crash had allowed the bodies of the aircrew to be recovered from the wreckage and surrounding area to be buried appropriately. She was advised that not all deceased aircrews were treated with such dignity and for this she was grateful. She was also pleased to know that the local people were caring for Bill’s grave and those of his fellow crew.
As a widow with a young child and an elderly mother to support, Joan had no alternative but to find full time work in the tailoring industry. Consequently, Gerald was largely brought up by his grandmother who lived with them in Leeds until her death in 1961. Fortunately, Joan’s three brothers all returned safely from the war and it was Gerald’s uncles who provided a male presence in Gerald’s life as Joan never remarried.
In the years that followed Bill’s death, Joan received correspondence and photographs from Sergeant Dijkstra in Amersfoort to confirm progress in relation to the provision of a temporary cross to mark Bill’s grave which was later replaced with a headstone. In the 1950s she was able to travel to Amersfoort with Bill’s eldest sister Mary to visit Bill’s grave. Since then, several of his nieces and also his granddaughter have been able to visit to pay their respects.
Sadly, none of Bill’s crew have family to remember the sacrifice that they made. Whilst the navigator Eric Grove had a wife, Peggy, they had no children. Following Grove’s death Peggy remarried in 1945 and emigrated with her second husband to Melbourne, Australia to begin a new life. Similarly, Air Gunner John Crawley left behind his 22 year old widow who also went on to remarry in December 1947 and have children with her second husband. There is no record of any earlier children with Crawley.
The remaining crew members were all unmarried and to date it has not been possible to trace any siblings, nieces or nephews. It would seem that whilst Winterbon had a younger brother, Brian, he too was tragically killed in World War II whilst serving in the Australian Air Force at the age of only 19. He is buried in Malaysia.
Gerald grew up to be a bright and capable student and won a scholarship to the local Roman Catholic Grammar School for boys, St Michael’s. He later qualified as a Chartered Structural Engineer and on 11th October 1969 he married Josephine Field (Jo) at St Urban’s Roman Catholic Church in Leeds.
The couple went on to have two children, Joanne, a lawyer, born in 1972 and David, a Senior Lecturer at City University London, born in 1975. Joan spent most Sundays with Gerald and Jo at their home in Leeds, until her death at the age of 91 in December 2004. Sadly she did not live to see the birth of her great-grandchildren, Joanne’s daughter Katie (born 2006) and her son William (born 2008), but would be satisfied to know that she and Bill have left a lasting footprint, with generations still to come, despite their relatively brief period of married life together.
The family were delighted to discover, quite by chance, that the people of Maarn had been able to identify the site of the plane crash and that in 2012 a monument had been erected to honour the crew of Lancaster ED599 X xray. The eye witness account of the crash provided by a local resident, together with confirmation that the bodies of the crew were all recovered and identified before burial, provided a sense of closure after so many years of uncertainty as to what really became of the crew.
The monument, like so many other monuments and memorials erected since World War II, now serves as a focal point for collective remembrance and will ensure that the sacrifices made by an entire generation of men and women who fought against the Nazi regime for the freedom of future generations are not forgotten.