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).