Munster Viaduct 21st March, 1945 – The final operational losses for 75(NZ) Squadron

IMG_5223 cropped to munster

The route for the Munster Viaduct Op
courtesy Steve Smith

My previous post about Robert William ‘Boby’ West, Wireless Operator with the Barr crew, one of 3 Lancasters to be lost from 75(NZ) Squadron, on the Munster Viaduct Op of the 21st March 1945, started a bit of a research activity, to try to understand what happened that afternoon.

I must confess, when normally doing a post, I will assemble a starting crew list and then trawl through Form 541 of the Squadron Operational Record Books to assemble a raid history for the crew. Sadly, in many cases, the terminating Op of this list results in the loss of that crew – the word ‘missing‘, instead of a down time is enough of an epitaph for the boys as far as Form 541 is concerned.

In email correspondence with Malcolm, Margaret’s husband, he alluded to a question over the reason for the loss of Boby and his crew mates and it perhaps slightly shames to me to admit that it was only at this point that I actually began to read the notes for this Op – expanding my attention beyond the word ‘missing’

In advance of the rest of this post, I’d like to thank Margaret and Malcolm, Kevin and especially Steve for helping me piece together information that sheds a few more perhaps fractured beams of light on the events of that March afternoon.

I would also like to stress that in no way does the following post look to apportion responsibility for what happened that day – there are too many gaps to be definitive, I have simply tried to gather information and present it in a logical order. Having said this, this is perhaps the most difficult post I have put together, including those dealing with the loss of my father.

Form 541 of 75(NZ) Squadron contains a consistent series of observations regarding the events of that afternoon………

P/O John O’Malley RA510 AA-E – ‘Bombing was upset when bombs from another formation fell through – it appeared as though the leader overshot the tracking pulse.’

S/L Jack Wright EF190 AA-F‘Converging aircraft dropped bombs from above us. Attempted to swing off in effort to avoid bombs.’

F/O Trevor Cox PB418 AA-C – ‘Should have followed JN-Z but as he was weaving considerably it was found better to go ahead and bomb on AA-F, following was very difficult owing to the fact that another squadron was bombing from height up.’

W/O Fred Bader LM276 AA-S‘Impossible to assess owing to bombs falling from above and need for evasive action.’

F/S Tom Good HK561 AA-Y‘Bombed in steep turn when cookie fell 10 feet to port.’

F/L Russ Banks RF129 AA-M‘Leader overshot target and bought Squadron over other Aiming Point where bombs were falling all around aircraft and had to S turn to come over Aiming Point.’

F/O Duncan Stevenson PP663 JN-Z‘G.H. went u/s just before the final run to target. Attempted a visual run on the railway lines east of the viaduct, but bomb aimer had not time to reset the time interval after swerving to avoid bombs from aircraft from another Squadron at about 20,000 ft. ‘

F/O Les Sinclair NG322 JN-F‘Leader lost when formation was broken by bombs falling from above.’

F/O Wi Rangiuaia HK563 JN-W‘Formation broken by falling aircraft and bombs from aircraft above.’

F/L Bill Alexander HK593 JN-X‘Found difficulty in following original leader JN-F as he was constantly weaving and forced out of formation by slip -stream and on final run up so connected with nearest available aircraft JN-D.’

Loss of G-H tracking
G-H was the final development of transmitter based navigation systems used by Bomber Command and it would appear, particularly 3 Group, to guide aircraft to a target and also to set and synchronise the release of bombs over the target. A ‘G-H Leader’ would bomb on a transmitted signal from the UK, with usually another 2 aircraft following in close formation would then release their bomb load at the same time. This process would then be repeated a number of times with the following aircraft and their respective G-H leaders.

RAF Waterbeach Station ORB Records“GH run was short by aircraft off track” 

No.3 Group ORB (Air25/54) – Weather Clear Good Vis. – ‘Although some good results were achieved this attack was a bit of a shambles. GH co-ordinates for the two aiming points were reversed and the main weight of the attack fell on the smaller of the two. Two aircraft were destroyed by flak and one by falling bombs.’

The G-H leaders, so far identified, for 75(NZ) on that Op were;
F/O Sinclair JN-F
F/O Eggleston AA-U
S/Ldr Wright  AA-F (G-H u/s)

Twenty one aircraft took off from Mepal – this would suggest based on 3 G-H leaders, that the aircraft were split into 3 groups of seven – the ‘uneven’ 7th, or 1st, being the G-H leader at the front of each group, the others in the group either flying in line or in a ‘v’, 3 aircraft on either side of the Leader. As noted in the comments by Chris, smaller figures would normally format behind a G-H Leader, so it strongly suggest that within the 21 aircraft, there were other, as yet unidentifed G-H Leaders

Sinclair’s and Egglestone’s comments are perhaps relevant based on this possible ordering;
F/O Les Sinclair NG322 JN-F‘Leader lost when formation was broken by bombs falling from above.’
F/O Val Egglestone PB427 AA-U‘Poor lead in and bombs appeared to fall south of Aiming Point.’

These comments seem to feel like a comment regarding another leading aircraft and by simple elimination, this suggests S/Ldr Wright (simply because at this point he is the only other identified G-H leader), may have been the LEAD, lead aircraft for the Squadron that day. The note that the G-H was u/s (unserviceable) adds a terrifying immanency to the events that were to unfold as the Squadron approached the target……

The note from No.3 Group ORB (Air25/54) –
GH co-ordinates for the two aiming points were reversed and the main weight of the attack fell on the smaller of the two.
perhaps suggests that the overshoot was a result of the G-H coordinates ‘swapping around’, thus causing the overshoot as a result. Though perhaps what is not clear is whether this affected all aircraft in the Op or just those of 75(NZ). Clearly, at the point the error was realised, action had to be taken to try to get the Squadron back on course, relative to the primary aiming point.

F/L Russ Banks RF129 AA-M‘Leader overshot target and bought Squadron over other Aiming Point where bombs were falling all around aircraft and had to S turn to come over Aiming Point.’

No.218 Squadron ORB (No.31 Base) F/Lt. Les Harlow DFC who flew a number of Base Leader operations makes an interesting comment – ‘Formation was fairly compact but stream ahead was well off track and the Base ahead was scattered.’

F/O Arthur ‘Tiny’ Humphries (Navigator NG449 AA-T – Jack Plummer crew)
“On this daylight raid to Munster things went reasonably well until we were almost coming up to the target, flying in formation. But something went wrong with the leading aircraft and we overshot the turning point and flew on for quite some distance. Then we turned onto the target but now on the wrong heading and in fact, under-flew another squadron bombing from above. At that stage the flak was very, very heavy. We didn’t get hit by falling bombs, although there were bombs falling all around us. We were hit by flak, in one engine which went on fire and another engine got hit on the other side.”
(page 156 ‘Forever Strong, The story of 75 Squadron RNZAF 1916-1990. Norman Franks, Random Century)

It would seem that 75(NZ) were due to bomb first – with this final error and desperate need for correction, the delay and advancing Squadrons meant the outcome was almost enevitable………

Bombed from above
No.195 Squadron ORB (No.31 Base) –
‘Some aircraft bombed from below our height at 18,000ft.’

Arthur Robson, Wireless Operator with Alfred Brown’s crew :-
“A bomb or bombs hit the front of the aircraft. One knocked the nose right off, taking (James) Wood with it as he huddled over his bomb sight. ‘The was a massive explosion and the Window the Flight Engineer was throwing out was whirling through the aircraft’. Robson had already seen what he thinks was the third 75 Lancaster going down – ‘the one in which they were all killed – It was all buckled up, hit right in the bloody middle’………..”
(page 494 ‘Night after Night – New Zealanders in Bomber Command, Max Lambert, Harper Collins)

Arthur’s description ‘hit in the bloody middle’ is ambiguous – though if applied to a hit by flak, the likelihood of seeing the aircraft ‘all buckled up’ is dubious – it would have almost certainly exploded if the strike was prior to the dropping of its payload. His description of the subsequent events in his own aircraft make it clear that a bomb strike from above in the center of a Lancaster- even without detonation –  would certainly have resulted in a catastrophic structural failiure.

The ensuing loads on the remaining airframe and the effects on the aircrew tend to suggest little chance of survival. Interestingly, the only body recovered was that of Alwyn Amos, the Rear Gunner. I do not know if he was found within wreckage or clear of wreckage, but it would suggest a pattern evidenced before regarding survivors in the Squadron, where the rear portion became detached and the occupant was able to exit the broken end (Jack Hayden, Roberts crew, Berlin Op – was sent to rear of a/c to check rear gunner after fighter attack. The aircraft then exploded and he fell out of the open end of the fuselage. John Gray, rear gunner with the McCartin crew, Homberg Op. The aircraft exploded and he came round in the detached rear portion of the fuselage).

I will observe before anybody else does that these 2 examples are both the result of explosions not falling bombs, however, I think I am trying to identify a structural failure (probably at the incomplete cross section at the mid upper turret) which might at least allow the back of a bomber, Stirling or Lancaster a separation from a much heavier mass within the rest of the aircraft.

The ensuing forces on the occupants of an aircraft in rapid decent would have made escape impossible. The final impact, if still with a full bomb load would have been utter.

The only losses on the Munster Op were the 3 Lancasters from Mepal.

They were the Squadron’s last operational losses of the war.

Ake Ake Kia Kaha

10 thoughts on “Munster Viaduct 21st March, 1945 – The final operational losses for 75(NZ) Squadron

  1. Chris Newey

    Thanks Simon, very, very interesting.
    Colin Emslie, Navigator with the Ware crew on the Bad Oldesloe op’, another daylight which took place one month after the Munster op’, records: “0711: Airborne and fly to assembly area to complete formation of five flights of four aircraft headed by the leader for the day. Our aircraft Lancaster NE181 JN-M was the lead aircraft for formation No 5.” I wonder if there were more than three G-H Leaders over Munster?

    Like

    Reply
    1. 75nzsquadron Post author

      Hi Chris
      To be honest, I have no idea. I’m very grateful to Steve for being able to find the names of these 3 – You’d have thought that something like this would have been logged somewhere – I assume it might be given that Steve was able to supply the names he did – but unless they are almost hidden in ‘plain view’ within the ORB’s, I don’t know. Certainly, the figures you describe seem to be more workable…..

      Like

      Reply
      1. smudger623

        Gents,

        Please consider that of the three missing crews, one or perhaps two could have been G-H Leaders. Sadly the documents I have in my collection only give the details on those who returned. Another point to consider is, No.75(NZ) crews may have formed up on G-H Leaders from another squadron. This definitely happened on No.31 & No.32 Base, No.218 (Gold Coast) often lead crews of No.195 and No.186 Squadrons on raids.

        Like

  2. 75nzsquadron Post author

    Hi Smudger
    All fair points – I suspect that certainly Jack Plummer could have been another of the G-H leaders given their closeness to being screened. Trevor Cox notes that he should have been following JN-Z – Duncan Stevenson’s a/c, but because of weaving, instead followed JN-F – Les Sinclair (one of the listed G-H leaders_

    I am sure somewhere in my notes I have seen it says that 75(NZ) were first in to target – I’ll have to try to find out where I found this piece of information…….

    Also, I have just had a look back through the ORB and 3 a/c were carrying 1×250 Smoke Puff Blue – Wright, Stevenson and Rangiuaia – not sure if this helps to identify Duncan and Wi as G-H leaders, given that Egglestone and SInclair weren’t……….

    Like

    Reply
  3. Janice Peagam

    A horrific turn of events. Your heart goes out to all of our brave lads and their families.
    My dad Raymond Williams was with Len Hannans crew in 75nz squadron and I was wondering if there was any news of his ops or if anyone remembers him?

    Like

    Reply
  4. Janice Peagam

    Fabulous, thank you so much for this. The records paint a colourful picture of life in Lancaster’s, something of which my dad said very little.
    When it says bombed on special equipment, what was this please?
    With kindest regards,
    Janice

    Like

    Reply
    1. 75nzsquadron Post author

      The special equipment referred to is ‘G-H’ a modification to the original’G’ system that was used to help navigate the aircraft. The G-H system allowed a specific point in 3 dimensional space to be set – allowing all aircraft to essentially automatically release their bombs when over a common target point in the air.

      Like

      Reply
  5. Adelia Hallett

    Hi Simon
    You might remember that I am Jack Plummer’s niece. I would really like to talk to you and some of the people who have commented above – about that day. I have a copy of Jack’s logbook for that day, but of course he didn’t return to fill it in. Easiest way to contact me is email – adelia@futuramedia.co.nz
    Adelia

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s