617 Squadron’s last wartime casualties

The last wartime loss from 617 Squadron happened on 16 April 1945, when 18 Lancasters set off to attack the German cruiser Lutzow in the Kiel Canal. This was the third mission against the ship. The previous two, in the preceding days had been unsuccessful, due to poor weather conditions. Most of the aircraft attacked the ship and successfully bombed the target. (See this post from December 2009, with an account by the son of Flg Off Joe Merchant).

Even though the war was obviously nearing its end, there was strong German flak near the target. Lancaster NG228 was hit, and crashed in Karsibor woods near Swinemunde (Swinoujscie). There were no survivors.

The aircraft was piloted by Sqn Ldr John Powell, an experienced pilot, who had completed 16 operations on his second tour after joining 617 Squadron on 5 December 1944. Some of his regular crew were not available, so some spare men were added. The crew comprised:
Pilot: Sqn Ldr John Leonard Powell DFC, age 29 from Glamorgan. Joined 617 Sqn 5.12.44. Completed 16 ops of 2nd tour.
Flight engineer: Flt Sgt Henry William Felton DFM, from Teddington. Joined 617 Sqn 19.10.44; Completed 18 ops with sqn.
Navigator: Flt Lt Michael Terence Clarke DFC, age 22 from Farnham. Joined 617 Sqn 3.4.45 (2nd time). 1st op on this tour.
Bomb aimer: Flg Off Alfred Lawrence Heath, from Folkestone. Joined 617 Sqn 8.12.44. Believed to have flown on 8 ops with sqn.
Wireless operator: Plt Off Kenneth Arthur John Hewitt, from Hemel Hempstead. Joined 617 Sqn 28.1.45. Completed 7 ops with sqn.
Mid-upper gunner: Flt Sgt William Knight, from Croydon. Joined 617 Sqn 10.3.45. Completed a tour with 227 Sqn, on 1st op with 617 Sqn.
Rear gunner: Flg Off James Watson, from Peebleshire. Joined 617 Sqn 19.10.44. Completed 20 ops with sqn.

Sandra Foster (no relation of mine) is William Knight’s niece and has been researching his career over a number of years. She recently posted a number of pictures in a thread on the Lancaster Archive forum, and has kindly allowed me to reproduce them here.

Sandra told me in an email:

Will did not come from a privileged background, like many of his generation, he left school at 14. At 16 he tried his luck in Canada but could not find the opportunities and eventually got home by trying to cross into America and got deported. Apparently he was in a very sorry state when he arrived back, just the clothes he stood up in. When the war started he tried several time to join the RAF and was turned down. By this time he worked in engineering and was classed as in a reserved occupation. Eventually he succeeded. When he was lost, his wife, my Aunt Phyl, was first told he was MIA, then that he was safe and was on his way home. On the day he was expected home, she got the telegram saying it was a mistake and he had been killed.

Will had completed his missions and did not expect to fly again, he even returned his lucky rabbit’s foot to Phyl. My mum told me that on the day he was due home, the house was decked with flags and ‘Welcome Home’ banners… From what I remember from my mum, he knew he was to be made up to Pilot Officer but hadn’t told his wife as he intended surprising her when next home.

In this picture of his crew in 227 Squadron, Will is seated on the left, in the front row.

The crew was initially buried in Swinemunde, then still in Germany. It came under Polish control after the war and is now called Świnoujście. In 1949, the bodies were all disinterred and reburied in an official war cemetery in Poznan.

The local people marked the crash site with a tail fin and in the 1990s the aircraft was excavated with the assistance of the Polish Air Force who erected a more formal memorial.

Sandra and her family visited the crash site/memorial a few years ago, and also Will’s grave at Poznan. Here is her picture of the memorial in Świnoujście:

The sinking of the Lutzow

As I have said before, this blog is mainly concerned with events in 617 Squadron round about the time of the Dams Raid, but occasionally strays into other events during the war. This is another example!

Flg Off Joe Merchant joined 617 Squadron as a bomb aimer towards the end of the war, and was in the crew piloted by Flt Lt Price on one of the squadron’s last wartime operations (and the last one in which it sustained casualties). He dropped the Tallboy bomb which blew a hole in the German pocket battleship Lutzow. You can read the story, written by Joe Merchant’s son Vivian here.