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

Dambuster of the Day No. 79: Alastair Taylor

sgt.-alastair-james-taylor crop

Pic: Taylor family/Aircrew Remembered

Sgt A J Taylor
Flight engineer

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

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

Alastair James Taylor was born in Alves, Morayshire on 19 December 1922. He was the eldest of the five children of Stephen and Sarah Taylor. His brother Charles also served as a flight engineer in the RAF, and his sister Phyllis was in the WAAF. His home village of Kirkhill was just a few miles from two locations – Kinloss and Lossiemouth – which would become very familiar to the personnel of Bomber Command in the war years. He went to Elgin Academy.

He joined the RAF as an apprentice at RAF Halton in January 1939, and served in ground crew until selected for flight engineer training at No 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan in the summer of 1942. After qualification, he was posted to 1654 Conversion Unit in December 1942, where he crewed up with Vernon Byers and his colleagues.
The crew arrived at Bottesford to join 467 Squadron on 3 February 1943, and had flown on just three operations by the time they were posted to 617 Squadron at the end of March.

The rigours of life in the new squadron didn’t prevent Taylor persuading his pilot to fly low over his family home when they flew to Morayshire on a training run in early May. He wrote to his mother shortly after: ‘I hope we didn’t scare you too much last Monday. I saw you and Aunt Julia just in front of the house but I could not pick dad out anywhere, so thought he would probably be at a pig sale.’

‘Beating up’ family houses was quite common in wartime. If they had a close relative in the RAF the occupants would listen out for aircraft. They would then rush outside if one flew over very low. It was usually a sign from the relative that everything was OK.

The wave from the cockpit was probably the last time that Taylor and his mother saw each other. A few days later AJ-K set off on its fateful flight on the Dams Raid, and was shot down even before it reached the Dutch coast.
Like five of his colleagues, Alastair Taylor has no known grave, and is commemorated instead on the Runnymede Memorial.

More about Taylor online:
Entry on Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Page about Byers crew on Aircrew Remembered website

KIA 16.05.1943.

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

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.

Further information about Alastair Taylor and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.