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

John Wilkinson remembered in home village of Antrobus

Above: A new blue plaque in Antrobus Village Hall commemorating John Wilkinson.

The small Cheshire village of Antrobus was the birthplace and home of Sgt John Wilkinson, wireless operator in Vernon Byers’s AJ-K on the Dams Raid. The village held a special weekend of commemorative events on 6 and 7 May including a display at the War Memorial in the church, exhibitions about John Wilkinson, the Dambusters and Farming in the War. A special blue plaque was unveiled in the Village Hall.

Highlights included a special Flypast by a Dakota from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight to salute John Wilkinson and a display of model aircraft including an 11 foot Lancaster Bomber by the Liverpool Model Aircraft Society. The events also raised £1000 for the RAF Benevolent Fund.

Above: The BBMF Dakota performing a flyover salute to the commemorations

The newly re-formed 617 Squadron sent a special message to the organisers: ‘We’d like to offer the Squadron’s thanks [to the Village] for celebrating John’s life and remembering his sacrifice. 617 Squadron is very proud of its history and it’s so good to see others doing such good work to keep it alive.’

Many of Wilkinson’s relatives still live in the area. June Morris, Wilkinson’s niece, said on their behalf: ‘It was a very lovely fitting tribute to our late uncle.’

Below: Susan Sinagola of Antrobus presents a photograph of John Wilkinson to Mrs Phoenix of Antrobus Village School.

Dambuster of the Day No. 81: John Wilkinson

Wilkinson J
Pic: Wilkinson family

Sgt J Wilkinson
Wireless operator

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

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

John Wilkinson was born on 2 May 1922 in the village of Antrobus, near Northwich in Cheshire. His father Thomas was a farmer, and he had an older brother and sister. His mother Ethel died of TB when he was only one year old. He went to Antrobus School, and left at 14 to work on the family farm.

He joined the RAF as soon as he turned 18. His older brother signed up for the army but was refused because, as a farmer, he was in a reserved occupation.

Wilkinson qualified as a wireless operator/air gunner in the summer of 1942. He was posted to 29 OTU in September, where he appears to have met up with pilot Vernon Byers and others in his crew. Together, they went to finish their training in 1654 Conversion Unit in December 1942 and were posted to 467 Squadron in February 1943.

Byers flew on two operations as second pilot, but the crew’s first operation together was “Gardening” in the Silverthorne area on 9 March, and they would undertake just two further operations before transferring to 617 Squadron on 24 March. Towards the end of the training period in 617 Squadron the crew was given some leave, and Wilkinson travelled home to the family farm in Antrobus in time to celebrate his 21st birthday on 2 May. The two Canadians in his crew, pilot Vernon Byers and rear gunner James McDowell, who presumably had no close family in the UK who they could visit, went with him.

Exactly two weeks after this birthday, on Sunday 16 May 1943, Wilkinson was in his seat in the body of AJ-K when a lucky shot fired from behind brought it down just after it had crossed the island of Texel on the Dutch coast. John Wilkinson’s body was never found and he is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial, along with five of his colleagues.

Thanks to June Morris for help with this article.

More about Wilkinson online:
Entry on Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Memorial in Arbutus Church
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 John Wilkinson 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.

John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson
John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson was the wireless operator in Vernon Byers’s aircraft, AJ-K, on the Dams Raid. This was the third aircraft to take off on the night of 16 May, and the first to be lost. Off course, it crossed the Dutch coast at Texel Island, a well known flak position, and was shot down.
This photograph was sent to me by John Cotterill, whose father was a good friend of John Wilkinson’s. It was given to him in 1993 by John Wilkinson’s brother, Tom, when the two met up for the first time in 43 years. I have also posted details on a new page on the Breaking the Dams website, which you can find here.