Burpee and Arthur families at AJ-S memorial unveiling

Lewis Burpee Jr unveiling the memorial to the crew of AJ-S, killed on the Dams Raid, on 17 May 1943. 

A memorial to the Dams Raid crew piloted by the Canadian Lewis Burpee was unveiled on Friday near the site where they crashed at Gilze Rijen airfield in the Netherlands. It was attended by a number of local dignitaries and representatives of the RAF, as well as members of the families of Lewis Burpee himself and of his bomb aimer, James Arthur. The BBMF Lancaster PA474 flew over the memorial before landing at the airfield as part of its goodwill tour of the Netherlands.

Burpee was a Canadian, born in Ottawa on 5 March 1918. He had two other Canadians in his crew, rear gunner Gordon Brady from Ponoka, Alberta, and bomb aimer James Arthur from Toronto. Arthur had only joined Burpee’s crew in his previous squadron in March 1943, and had flown on just one operation with his skipper. He was one of the four children of the Rev Alfred and Dora Arthur. His father was an Anglican priest, with a parish in the Toronto suburbs.

The memorial is made up of a large piece of crankshaft from one of the crashed Lancaster’s engines. It has seven pistons, once for each of the AJ-S crew, and is faced with an engraved plaque. It was unveiled on Friday by Burpee’s son, also called Lewis Burpee, who was born on Christmas Eve 1943, seven months after his father’s death.

After the unveiling this group gathered near PA474, seen in the background. Above, left to right: Sander van der Hall, organiser of the memorial appeal; Maureen Burpee; Lewis Burpee Jr; Rev Dom Luke Bell, nephew of James Arthur; Sqn Ldr Andy Millikin, OC BBMF; Air Cdre Chris Lorraine, retired RAF officer; Jonathan Bell and Julian Bell, nephews of James Arthur.

More details on the memorial’s Facebook page.

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Dutch group seeking funds for memorial at AJ-S crash site

The crew of AJ-S. Left to right: Lewis Burpee (pilot), Guy Pegler (flight engineer), Thomas Jaye (navigator), Leonard Weller (wireless operator), James Arthur (bomb aimer), William Long (front gunner), Gordon Brady (rear gunner). 

At 0011 on 17 May 1943, the night of the Dams Raid, Plt Off Lewis Burpee and his crew left RAF Scampton at 0011, but never made it as far as the German border. While still over Holland, and approaching the gap between the heavily defended airfields at Gilze Rijen and Eindhoven, the aircraft strayed off course. It climbed slightly, probably in an effort to determine its exact position, but was then caught in searchlights and hit by flak. At 0200, it crashed on the edge of Gilze Rijen airfield, six miles south west of Tilburg. Its mine exploded on impact, demolishing a large number of buildings and doing damage estimated at 1.5 million guilders.

The demise of the Burpee crew was seen by both Stefan Oancia, bomb aimer in AJ-F, a minute or so behind, and Douglas Webb, still further back in the front turret of AJ-O. Their last minutes were also seen by a German witness, a Luftwaffe airman based at Gilze Rijen called Herbert Scholl, interviewed after the war by the author Helmuth Euler. He was of the opinion that AJ-S was in fact not hit by flak at all, but was dazzled by a searchlight beam hitting it horizontally. The pilot tried to fly even lower, and then hit some trees.

The next morning, Scholl went to the crash site and saw that it was a total wreck. Only the rear turret and tail unit were intact, and he saw rear gunner Gordon Brady’s body, which didn’t appear to have any sign of injury. He noticed that Brady was scantily dressed, wearing thin uniform trousers and lace up shoes with holes in the soles. (Helmuth Euler, The Dams Raid through the Lens, After the Battle, 2001, p.106.)

After the crash, only the bodies of Burpee, Brady and Weller were positively identified. The other four were buried in a communal grave. They were interred by the Germans at Zuylen Cemetery, Prinsenhage. After the war, all seven bodies were transferred to the War Cemetery at Bergen-op-Zoom.

For many years, the crash site has been barred to the public, as Gilze Rijen airfield is still in active use by the Royal Netherlands Air Force. However, a local group, headed by local campaigner Sander van der Hall, has now secured permission to build a memorial, and are seeking crowd-funding to help with the project.

The memorial will be unveiled on 4 May, and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Lancaster, PA474, will perform a flypast.

Please help the campaign group by making a donation at its crowd-funding page. (Please note that the organisers are changing the picture on this page, which shows another crew!) Further information on this page (mainly in Dutch).

Dambuster of the Day No. 110: James Arthur

617 arthurPic: Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Wrt Off J L Arthur
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED865/G

Call sign: AJ-S

Third wave. Crashed on outward flight.

James Lamb Arthur was born in Toronto, Canada, on 3 July 1917, the second of the four children of Rev Alfred and Dora Arthur. His father was an Anglican clergyman with a parish in the city.
Arthur was educated at Dennis Avenue School and York Memorial College, where he did well in maths. When he left school he went to work in the Bank of Toronto. He had a great interest in flying, and his youngest sister can still recall the excitement of seeing him, his brother and their father flying overhead in a small aircraft, and using a bedsheet to wave to them. He also had a great love of classical music and took his younger sisters to concerts.
He enlisted in the RCAF in 1941. After first being selected for pilot training he was then remustered as an observer, and qualified in May 1942. After arriving in the UK he then went on to qualify as a bomb aimer on heavy bombers.
Arthur was posted to 106 Squadron to begin operations in February 1943, but it wasn’t until 12 March that he flew on his first operation. Lew Burpee’s bomb aimer George Goodings had come to the end of his tour, so the chance of joining an experienced crew with two other Canadians probably looked like a good choice. Their trip took them to Essen, which they bombed successfully from 19,000ft. They reported very heavy flak and “scores of searchlights”.
Arthur’s first operation turned out to be the last that Burpee and his crew would fly in 106 Squadron, and it was therefore the only time that the complete Dams Raid crew would fly together before the raid itself. Fewer than three weeks later they were at RAF Scampton, training for the secret mission which would prove fatal for them.
In training, the focus quickly fell on the inexperienced bomb aimer, who may well have been the only one to fly on the Dams Raid with just one operation under his belt. Nevertheless the AJ-S crew came through the training successfully and took their place in the mobile reserve for the operation.
Sadly, AJ-S was shot down some two hours after take-off, and everybody on board was killed instantly. The Germans could not individually identify the bodies of Guy Pegler, Bill Long, Tom Jaye and James Arthur, so they were buried in a communal grave in Zuylen Cemetery, Prinsenhage, next to the individual graves of Lewis Burpee, Gordon Brady and Leonard Weller. After the war the bodies of all seven were exhumed and reburied in Bergen-op-Zoom War Cemetery.

Thanks to Frances Houlston and Clive Smith for help with his article.

More about Arthur online:
Entry at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Aircrew Remembered page about Burpee crew

KIA 17.05.43

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
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.