AJ-K crew to get new Dutch memorial

The crew of AJ-K, shot down on the Dams Raid. L-R: Vernon Byers, Alastair Taylor, James Warner, John Wilkinson, Neville Whitaker, Charles Jarvie, James McDowell. 

Vernon Byers and his crew took off on the Dams Raid from Scampton in AJ-K at 2130 on 16 May 1943, as part of the second wave tasked with attacking the Sorpe Dam. Everything seems to have gone smoothly at first but then, as the official record says, nothing more was heard from him. However, crew members in both Les Munro’s aircraft, a minute ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Munro’s bomb aimer Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on his starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300ft ‘off Texel’ at 2257. A post-war Dutch report also stated that an aircraft was seen climbing to about 450ft, having crossed the island.

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 Byers was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100ft but because AJ-K had risen a little in height it must have been a speculative shot from behind which hit it 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 that 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland was responsible.

Byers and his crew were thus the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and died before midnight on 16 May 1943. Six bodies have never been found, but that of rear gunner Flt Sgt James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage some time later as on 22 June 1943 it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No 2. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery. McDowell’s six comrades are all listed on the Runnymede Memorial. They are the only ones of the 53 men lost on the Dams Raid who do not have their own graves and, because AJ-K went down over the sea, there is no land-based plaque to commemorate them.

The 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation would like to rectify this by unveiling a memorial plaque in Harlingen General Cemetery on 23 June 2020. This will be placed near the grave of James McDowell and unveiled on the 77th anniversary of his funeral, as a tribute to all seven crew members of Avro Lancaster AJ-K. It will be a stone with bronze plaque, similar to the AJ-A memorial in nearby Castricum-aan-Zee, which was also erected by the Foundation . For more information about the AJ-A memorial visit the Foundation website.

The goal is to raise €6,000, to include the memorial stone, a bronze plaque, a bronze 617 Squadron badge, placement of the memorial, foundation and stones around the memorial.

A Go Fund Me page has been set up to make it easy for readers to support this very worthwhile cause. This can be found here.

Pic: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation

10 thoughts on “AJ-K crew to get new Dutch memorial

  1. Gerald F Rivett January 28, 2020 / 2:32 pm

    My sincere thanks for the most recent Blog about AJ-K. John Wilkinson was a resident of Antrobus in Cheshire and last year the Village Committee organised an excellent 2 day exhibition and memorial time to John where they displayed many personal items along with some more insight to John and his few years of life. I was invited to display some of my Dams Raid material and we invited several model Lancaster owners to display as well. Full credit has to go to a very well organised and excellent Village Committee in a very tight knit community who have never forgotten.

    Trust this is of interest – Gerald F. Rivett

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  2. George Ewing January 28, 2020 / 2:42 pm

    I know Alastair Taylors brother Colin Taylor who is still alive and stays not far from me I will inform him of this memorial to his brothers crew Kind Regards

    • charlesfoster January 28, 2020 / 2:45 pm

      Thanks, George. Nice to hear from you! Best wishes.

    • Ann Taylor April 23, 2020 / 1:21 pm

      Alistair Taylor’s brother George is my Dad, now sadly passed, but Alistair was never forgotten and we are all very proud of his huge sacrfice. So young. I was booked to return to Scotland next week but sadly now cancelled. Hopefully next year and I am going to Holland to pay my respects to Alastair and his fellow crew.

      • charlesfoster April 23, 2020 / 1:24 pm

        Thanks, Ann. Good to hear from you. Hope to meet up with you next year. Best wishes Charles

  3. Gary Whitaker February 18, 2020 / 8:19 pm

    Many thanks Charles for bringing this to the attention of my brother and me. We are very proud of our Uncle, Neville (Arthur) Whitaker and would be honoured to attend in the memory of him and his crew mates. We are also extremely grateful for the efforts of the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation.

  4. Cas Straatman October 25, 2020 / 8:04 pm

    A diary, written by a young man from Texel, is giving totally different information about the route.

    Cas Straatman , The Netherlands

    • Cas Straatman October 25, 2020 / 8:47 pm

      Somebody who wants a translation of the Dutch diary can mail me. I am 100% convinced that Byers was shot down close to Den Helder.

      • charlesfoster October 25, 2020 / 8:54 pm

        Dear Cas
        Thanks for the various comments on this item. Please send me the full translation. As you say, it has always been thought that the aircraft came down in the Waddenzee.

  5. Cas Straatman November 7, 2020 / 9:39 am

    Dear all,

    Probably you know the theory of Andreas Wachtel: the airplane flew very low, 100 feet, above Vlieland, but Byers didn’t know exactly where he was, so he changed his height to 400 feet. Then he was shot down above the Waddenzee and crashed east of Vlieland.( books.google.nl/books?redir_esc=y&hl=nl&id=jfrLDwAAQBAJ&q=Vlieland#v=snippet&q=Vlieland&f=false)

    RAF crew, flying one minute before and after Byer, saw him flying in the direction of Texel, more south than planned. (Other pilots in Belgium had the same problem, caused by the northern wind that was stronger than RAF thought)

    Fishermen from Den Helder saw a crash in the water between Texel and Den Helder. That water has approximately the same ‘size’ as the water between Vlieland and Texel.
    Byers was confused and navigated one island ‘too southern’, I think, and that theory is completely supported by the diary of Piet Bremer.

    Vlieland is my holiday island, and because of my interest in history I try to find stories. The batteries of Texel cooperated with the battery of West-Vlieland, so I often check the diary.

    Piet Bremer was a local guy on Texel and he collected information. He listened to the BBC-radio, read papers and wrote things that other people told him. He’s not always an eye witness, because of the big ‘Sperrgebiet’ (land that was forbidden to enter for inhabitants of Texel), but on the island the news/gossip is quickly spread.

    Irene Maas, from Texel, writes a lot about local history, and bought the diary after the war. She typed it, and uploaded it on her website. The Dutch text you can find to click on the the link. Here is the translation:
    ‘17-5-1943. M. Don’t praise Sunday until evening. Last night at 11 am a Thommy came low from the sea over pole 9 to Den Helder. I get out. In the searchlight. Shoot fiercely. Shoot back. A moment later it burst apart and one minute fierce fire on the ground, with a high column of smoke. Then back to bed. This is how man is on May 16, 1943. It was too late to argue with each other, who saw it first.’ (Irenemaas.nl/pages/Verhalen/Bremer/1943.htm)
    -Pole 9 is on the beach, near Den Hoorn, in the south east of the island. Byers flew to Den Helder, to the water.
    -11 am is only ten minutes ‘wrong’.
    -I don’t know how Andreas Wachtel knows that Byers flew extremely low, 100 feet, to avoid the fire of the batteries, but I suppose he got it from other RAF crews.
    Let’s assume that Wachtel is right. The batteries -north and south got ‘acknowledgement’ from their superiors- could not hit the plane in the front. Byers was confused and decided , according to Wachtel, to rise a little, till 400 feet; he could navigate better. The batteries hit the plane ‘ in the back’ while it already crossed the island (Byers was above the Waddenzee) and ‘a moment later’ it burned ‘on the ground’.
    The ‘ground’ is a guess of Piet Bremer. He lived in Den Burg, close enough to see a lot in the sky in the dark nights, but he couldn’t know the exact crash scene.
    Probably he thought that the plane was shot above the North Sea, like all other incidents started.
    His conclusion that the crash was on the ground was very logical, because he saw the plane burning after ‘a short time’.

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