Dambuster of the Day No. 78: Vernon Byers

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Pic: Fighting High

Plt Off V W Byers
Pilot

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

Second wave. Shot down on outward flight and crashed into sea.

Vernon William Byers was born in Star City, Saskatchewan on 24 September 1919. He was a keen sportsman at school. When he left, he worked on a farm, in construction and then as a miner in the interestingly named town of Flin Flon, Manitoba.
In March 1941 he enrolled with the Canadian Army, where he was assessed as ‘a healthy appearing young man desirous of transferring for active service with the RCAF’. He managed this transfer on 8 May 1941, enlisting with the RCAF in Winnipeg. 
He was determined to become a pilot, and received his wings in March 1942, with his final report concluding that he was a ‘dependable average pilot in all phases of work.’

He arrived in the UK in May 1942 and finished his training over the next few months. The final stage was at 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley, which he joined on 8 December 1942. Here he built up a full crew, of whom four would later take part in the Dams Raid. These were Sgt Alastair Taylor, flight engineer; Plt Off James Warner, navigator; Sgt John Wilkinson, wireless operator, and Flt Sgt James McDowell, air gunner, the only other Canadian in the crew. Along with bomb aimer Sgt John McKee and air gunner Sgt Robert Haslam they were transferred to 467 Squadron at RAF Bottesford on 5 February 1943 to begin active operational duties.
467 Squadron was notionally an Australian squadron under RAF command. However its personnel came from all parts of the Commonwealth, as well as Britain. It had been founded in November 1942, but its first operational flying took place on 2 January 1943. One of the squadron’s new crews was piloted by Sgt Henry Vine, and it contained Arthur Whitaker as bomb aimer and Charles Jarvie as mid-upper gunner. The Vine crew had undertaken a handful of operations by the time the Byers crew arrived in February at which time, for some reason, these two swapped with McKee and Haslam. This was a bad move for McKee and Haslam as exactly a fortnight after they had arrived at Bottesford they were lost when Vine’s aircraft was shot down on an operation targetting Wilhelmshaven. According to the Vlieland website (scroll down) they were probably the victims of a German nightfighter pilot, and crashed into the North Sea ironically not far from the coastal island of Texel where Byers and his crew would be shot down three months later.

Meanwhile, Byers and his crew were preparing for their first operation as a crew. In preparation, Byers himself flew as ‘second dickey’ on two operations with other crews. On 28 February, he flew with Flg Off Graeme Mant to bomb St Nazaire and on 5 March he accompanied Flt Lt ‘Jimmy’ Thiele to Essen. 
On 9 March, Byers and his crew took off on their first operation. As was customary at the time, this was a mine-laying sortie (‘gardening’ as it was called) in the Silverthorne area. Two nights later, the crew was sent on its first bombing operation, to Stuttgart. Twenty miles away from the target the rear turret lost power, meaning that James McDowell could only operate the swivelling mechanism by hand. Despite this, Byers pressed on and successfully dropped his bombs from 16,000 feet. A few days later, on 22 March, the crew carried out their third and final operation in 467 Squadron, bombing St Nazaire. 

At around this time, 467 Squadron’s CO, Wing Cdr Cosme Gomm, must have been asked to nominate a crew for the new as yet unnamed squadron to be set up at Scampton for a top secret mission. The memo sent to the AOC 5 Group on 17 March said that the operation for which they would be training would not, ‘it is thought, prove particularly dangerous, but will undoubtedly require skilled crews.’
However it appears that Byers was not the first choice. Gomm first offered the place to Sgt Frank Heavery, whose crew had at the time completed 12 operations. He gave him 24 hours to think about it until Heavery had talked it over with his crew. The crew were split evenly – three for, three against, so Heavery had the casting vote and he decided to stay. Gomm had talked to Heavery about keeping his experienced crews to help the new crews who would be arriving soon, and that he could use this as an argument with Cochrane should he object. Cochrane must have accepted this argument, and Vernon Byers was selected instead. (Tony Redding, Flying for Freedom, Mulberry 2008, p1.)

Heavery and his crew survived the war, so you could argue that he made the right decision. Meanwhile, Byers and his crew, with their record of just three operations, plus Byers’s two second dickey trips, would shortly find themselves en route to Scampton, and a place in history. Their transfer is noted in the 467 Squadron Operations Records Book on 24 March 1943.

Byers may not have had much experience as a pilot, but he obviously had a ‘press-on’ attitude and this along with the skills he exhibited during training must have impressed Guy Gibson. On 17 April he was recommended for a commission, with Gibson noting that he was: ‘A good type of NCO who is fully capable of holding down a commission. He keeps his crew in order, is punctual, and understands discipline. Recommended.’
The commission came through a few days before the Dams Raid.
And so the new Pilot Officer Byers lined up Lancaster ED934/G, code number AJ-K, as he prepared for take off a minute after Les Munro. Everything seems to have gone smoothly and he left Scampton at 2130 but then, as the official records recorded at the time, nothing more was heard from him.

Crew members in Munro’s aircraft, ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, both appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on its starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Having crossed the island, he then seemed to climb to about 450 feet, according to a post war Dutch report. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300 feet ‘off Texel’ at 2257.
Despite the fact that he was off course, and had crossed Texel which had more anti-aircraft defences than its neighbour Vlieland, it seems that he was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, and sent it down into the Waddenzee, 18 miles west of Harlingen. Two German units stationed on Texel were credited with the kill. This point is disputed by author Andreas Wachtel, who thinks that it was more likely 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland which was responsible. (Ward, Lee and Wachtel, Dambusters: Definitive History, Red Kite 2003, p64.)

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and, like the Barlow crew, died before midnight on 16 May 1943.
The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No. 2 on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today. 

After the war, this fact allowed a final memorandum to be added to Vernon Byers’s file. ‘As the body of F/S McDowell was washed ashore off the Coast of Holland it is assumed that the aircraft was shot down over the sea. Classified. Lost at Sea. Case Closed.’ 
Vernon Byers and his five comrades are all commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Note: Some sources have wrong information about Byers. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that he was 32 years old. In some books he is said to have already completed a full tour of operations before being transferred to 617 Squadron. The author Steve Darlow, however, has examined his personnel file from the Canadian National Archives and verified his date of birth and service record. As indicated above, his only operations as pilot were the three mentioned above, all undertaken in 467 Squadron in March 1943. (Dambusters: Failed to Return, pp.20-29.)

Thanks to Max Williams for help with this article.

More about Byers online:
Listing at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Page about Byers crew on Aircrew Remembered website

KIA 16.05.1943.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast and Arthur Thorning, Dambusters: Failed to Return, Fighting High 2013.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed above, and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

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Gibson last letter on show in Coventry

Exhibn Gibson portrait
Copy of portrait of Gibson by William Rothenstein, with a personal inscription for Michael Gibson.

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the death of Guy Gibson, killed on active service near Steenbergen in Holland. Edwina Towson has kindly sent me some pictures taken at a small exhibition of Gibson family material which is running for another few days in the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. If you are in the area, you might want to look in and see it. The items have been in the possession of Gibson’s brother Alick, his wife Ruth and their son Michael.
Exhibn Gibson cufflinks
Gibson’s cufflinks, given to him by his parents when he joined the RAF.

The most interesting items are three letters all of which would appear to have been written in late 1944. The final one is dated 18 September, the day before he died, and could have been the last personal letter he wrote.
Exhibn Gibson letter2

The letter reads:

54 Base
RAF
Coningsby
Lincs

18/9 [18.09.1944]

My Dear Old Alick
I haven’t heard from you for ages now and think it is about time we knocked back a can of beer together.
if you could give me the name of your nearest airfield I would try to get down.
I’m pretty busy at the moment doing the odd op – and planning others but wish to hell I were in France.
Are you a Lt. Col. yet?
Drop me a line old timer.
Yours Aye
Guy

The knowledge that this might be the last personal letter he ever wrote adds a degree of poignancy to the somewhat banal words. The old timer and his young brother would never meet again.
The exhibition runs until Wednesday 1 October.
[All photos © Edwina Towson]

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One more thing

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Pic: Phil Charlton

A final reminder of what a pleasure it has been for the UK to host the Canadian “Mynarski” Lancaster over the last few weeks. Photographer Chas Stoddard somehow managed to secure an “access all areas” ticket when it visited the old RAF Middleton St George RAF station (now Durham Tees Valley airport), and has posted an evocative photo essay online.
Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski was stationed with RCAF 419 Squadron at Middleton St George when he lost his life in the incident for which he was awarded the VC on 12 June 1944. There is a statue of him outside what used to be the Officers Mess at the airport, and a memorial plaque to all the men of 419, 420 and 428 Squadrons who lost their lives.

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Goodbye and good luck

BBMF Derwent
Pic: BBMF

A little later this morning the Mynarski Lancaster, affectionately known as VeRA, will take off from RAF Coningsby and begin the long journey home to Hamilton, Ontario. Its stay in the UK is over, but it has left an indelible memory with its many appearances alongside its cousin from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The last six weeks have seen the world’s only two flying Avro Lancasters make stately progress through the skies at airshows and other events up and down the land. The public has responded by turning out in their thousands at each event, thrilled to see the pair and experience at first hand the roar of eight Merlin engines.
Where better to make a final appearance together than flying down the Derwent valley in Derbyshire? In the spring and early summer of 1943, the Ladybower Dam was one of those used by the newly formed 617 Squadron as it practised low flying over water for the Dams Raid. It has become a traditional place for salutes to those who took part in the Dams Raid and the other aircrew of Bomber Command, 55,000 of whom were to die during the Second World War. They hailed from all parts of the UK, and from many other countries both inside and out of the Commonwealth. Chief amongst these were the Canadians, who provided 30 of the 133 aircrew who flew on the Dams Raid.
Last Sunday afternoon, the pair flew down the valley together and made three passes over the dam. Flying as a passenger in VeRA was 90 year old Sydney Marshall, a wartime member of 103 Squadron, who is a volunteer guide at the BBMF. A report about his experience is on the BBC website, here. There was also good coverage in the Telegraph and the Mail.
Most remarkable of all, is this video, shot from inside the BBMF Lancaster by Tim Dunlop (one of the flight’s Lancaster pilots), and also available on Youtube:

Have a safe journey home, VeRA, and many thanks for taking the trouble to visit and provide so many people with so many memories this wonderful late summer season.

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New Doug Webb pictures of Pamela Green and Just Jane

01_Douglas_Webb lores
Yahya El-Droubie has kindly sent me some more pictures from the Douglas Webb collection. These were taken at Biggin Hill, probably in 1967, and show Lancaster NX611 sometime after it arrived back from Australia. This is the aircraft which is now known as Just Jane, the centrepiece of the Panton family collection at East Kirkby in Lincolnshire.
NX611 was built at the Longbridge works in Birmingham by Austin Motors in April 1945, and was scheduled to join the RAF Tiger Force in the Far East against the Japanese. However, these operations were cancelled and after several years in storage it was one of 54 Lancasters sold to the French government in 1952 for maritime reconnaissance. After ten years of flying over the Atlantic it was then flown out to the Far East and based in the French colony of New Caledonia.
In the mid 1960s, it was purchased by the UK Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) and brought back to Britain, landing at Biggin Hill on 13 May 1965. Some of the stages on this 12,000 mile journey were painted onto its side, under the cockpit.
At this point it was repainted and rebadged, and given the code letters HA-P – an authentic Second World War code used by 218 Squadron, which also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named ‘Guy Gibson’ and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6 May 1967.
It must have been some time shortly after this date that these photographs were taken because by the following March it was relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk.
Doug Webb was the front gunner in Bill Townsend’s AJ-O on the Dams Raid, and received the DFM for his part in the operation. He became a successful photographer after the war, working mainly in the film and glamour industries. One of his most famous models was Pamela Green. They later became partners, although they never married, and they retired together to the Isle of Wight in the 1990s.
These pictures are from a series of transparencies taken on a visit to Biggin Hill, probably in the summer of 1967. The brilliant colours are very typical of the Kodachrome process which was probably used to develop the slides. Some of the shots show Pamela Green as well as Douglas’s mother:
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The HA-P code can be seen on this side view. Note that the lettering is rather thinner than that used in wartime.
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These names are probably of organisations who helped in the aircraft’s restoration:
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This close up of the front shows quite clearly that the barrels of the guns have been removed, and possibly the whole guns. It is interesting that the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre say that the guns weren’t completely removed until NX611 was at Blackpool, in October 1971. This obviously needs to be checked.
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All in all, a fascinating set of photos. All pictures © Douglas Webb collection, about which there is more information on the Pamela Green tribute website. (Warning: contains nudity!). Many thanks to Yahya.
Information about NX611 from On Target Aviation. Thanks guys!

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Lancaster duo a double hit

Portrush5 crop
Yesterday morning dawned bright and clear across most of Britain and Ireland, but apparently not in deepest darkest Lincolnshire. This must have caused great despondency amongst the planners at the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby because yesterday, Saturday 6 September, was the first day in a weekend which had been scheduled for months to be the one of the busiest for the world’s last two flying Lancaster bombers. One of these (nicknamed Thumper) belongs to the BBMF and lives at Coningsby, the other (Vera) is owned by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, and has been over in Britain for the last month visiting its cousin and participating in a number of joint displays. Crowds up and down the country have oohed and aahed as the pair have swooped low over wartime airfields. Black tie dinners have been held under their wings. Grown men have been seen in tears.
But yesterday, all flying had to be cancelled as it was far too foggy and wet for the pair to be allowed to take off. Much consternation up and down the land. Twitter was abuzz. Facebook was full of queries.
Fortunately, there is nothing that our chaps in the services like more than a challenge. Could they shoehorn most of the BBMF’s scheduled appearances over two days into one busier-than-ever Sunday? Well, of course they could. Here is a map showing just how much of northern England, southern Scotland and northern Ireland the elderly pair covered just this afternoon. Bear in mind they had done a similar loop between 0900 and 1300 this morning.
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From my point of view, I was particularly pleased that the hour taken to fly the two Lancasters and their Spitfire escorts across the Irish Sea to display to a huge crowd on Portrush Strand had remained in the schedule. This was the only chance that anyone living on the island of Ireland would have to see them – and their appearance this side of the water was a fitting tribute to the hundreds of aircrew from north and south who had served in the RAF during the Second World War. One of these was a native of Portrush itself, rear gunner Richard Bolitho, who took part in the Dams Raid and was killed when his aircraft, piloted by Bill Astell, collided with a pylon near Marbeck in Germany, en route to the Möhne Dam.
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Richard Bolitho on the left, pictured with colleagues during his gunnery training. [Pic: Bate family]
Was it worth the 300 mile round trip to spend 15 minutes on a beachfront staring into the sky at two aircraft built some 70 years ago? Like hell it was. It was a chance to connect with my family’s history as well as that of the nation, and to reflect on both. The Lancaster bomber has rightly become a symbol of the triumph of freedom over tyranny in a war whose shared memory is now fading from view, as those who fought in it – or even recall it – pass on. Long may this elderly pair soar in the skies – above our islands, and also above the vast Canadian plains and mountains. It was a privilege to see them both on this day, 7 September 2014, and many thanks are due to all those who made it possible.
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More pictures from today at Airwaves Portrush from the organisers, Coleraine Borough Council.

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Don Cheney DFC, 1922-2014

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Pic: Toronto Globe and Mail

Pilot Don Cheney (bottom row, centre) with the crew of his Lancaster before their ill-fated 1944 mission to bomb Nazi submarine pens on the coast of occupied France. Top row, left to right: Wireless Operator Reg Pool, Flight Engineer Jim Rosher, Rear Gunner Noel Wait, Mid Upper Gunner Mac McRostie. Bottom row: Navigator Roy Welch, Pilot Don Cheney, Bomb Aimer Len Curtis. Only four members of the Lancaster’s crew survived after the plane was downed by German anti-aircraft fire: Pool, Wait and Welch parachuted from the Lancaster, but died of their injuries. All three were buried in France.

Don Cheney DFC, one of the best known 617 Squadron pilots from the 1944 period, has died at his home in Ottawa, Canada. He was posted to the squadron in February 1944 having completed 22 operations in 106 and 630 Squadrons. He flew on another 15 in the next few months, and became accomplished in the dropping of the 12,000lb Tallboys which had recently become available.
His final wartime mission on 5 August 1944, where he baled out of a blazing aircraft into the sea and was rescued by the French Resistance, was well described by his great nephew, the Canadian journalist Peter Cheney, in an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2011:

Don took off on his 40th mission. Against all odds, he had suffered only a single injury so far, when a tiny, red-hot fragment of German shrapnel ripped through the Lancaster’s aluminum skin and hit him in the ankle, knocking his foot off the rudder pedal as he flew. Don said it felt like a bad bee sting. Don always made it back.
Now his luck was about to change. The mission that day was to drop a Tallboy on the Nazi U-boat pens at Brest, on the coast of occupied France. As they made their final approach to the target, the air was filled with flak shells that exploded around them like giant black cauliflowers with flaming centres. Don gritted his teeth and followed the bombardier’s instructions – to hit the submarine pens, they had to go straight through the worst of it.
Their bomb hit the target, but Don’s Lancaster took at least half a dozen direct hits. One of the engines blew up. The wings were filled with holes, and the fuel tanks were on fire. The airplane nosed over into a dive. Don knew that the wings would probably rip off soon, their structure eaten by fire. Or the entire plane might go up in a final ball of fire.
He ordered the crew to bail out. The tail gunner called over the intercom, “Wait for me!” He needed time to escape. Don fought with the controls, and kept the Lancaster flying at it fell apart. One of the hatches jammed, but five of the crew got out. But radio operator Reg Pool was stuck in his compartment, critically injured by flak. Don left the cockpit to help Reg. But as he pushed Reg toward the door, the bomber started plunging into a steep dive. Don climbed back into the cockpit and pulled the plane’s nose back up. Then he returned to Reg, put Reg’s hand on the ripcord, and pushed him out the door.
The Lancaster was dropping into another dive. Don climbed back to the cockpit yet again. Now he was alone. The instrument panel was starting to melt, and a tornado of wind ripped through the disintegrating plane. Don squeezed through a tiny hatch in the top of the cockpit and flashed by the Lancaster’s tail into open air. He deployed his parachute and landed in the ocean, where he had to dodge Nazi machine gun fire. The French Resistance pulled him out of the water.
For the next three months, he was hidden in the home of Resistance leader Aristide Quebriac. Don showed me photos of Quebriac, who later was given the Croix de Guerre by Charles DeGaulle. Don and Quebriac stayed in touch for the next 55 years, until Quebriac’s death 10 years ago.


[Hat tip: Susan Paxton]
Death announcement in Toronto Globe and Mail.
Article in Ottawa Citizen about the wartime portrait of Cheney taken by the famous photographer Karsh.
Transcript of interview with Don Cheney, Canadian War Museum Memory Project.
2012 obituary of Flt Sgt Jim Rosher, Flight Engineer in the Cheney crew. (See page 21 of PDF)

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