AJ-K memorial ceremony postponed

The grave of Flt Sgt James McDowell in Harlingen Cemetery in the Netherlands. His was the only body recovered after AJ-K was shot down on the Dams Raid, and the memorial to the whole crew will be placed near his grave. [Pic: 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation]

News from Jan van Dalen in the Netherlands:
“Due to the current situation, we have made the difficult decision to postpone the unveiling of the memorial plaque to the crew of Avro Lancaster AJ-K, on June 23 in Harlingen. For some time organisational and practical preparations have been unable to take place in a responsible manner within the measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and it is unclear how long this situation will last.

However, we have been able to finance the stone from the donations received, which has now been delivered to the stonemason and is ready for further finishing. The order and delivery of the bronze plaque is still uncertain due to the measures.

As soon as we have news about a new date, we will let you know as soon as possible.”

This is not a surprising development, and has obviously been taken in the best interests of everyone involved. Someday, as in the words used by a recent notable broadcaster, “we will meet again”, and we will all be able to commemorate the lives of the seven brave men who lost their lives late in the evening of 16 May 1943.

As Jan said above, enough funds have now been raised to order the stone block for the memorial. However, further money is needed to pay for a bronze plaque and other material, so if you would like to contribute please go to the 617 Squadron Netherlands Aircrew Memorial Foundation GoFundMe page.

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