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. 82: Neville Whitaker

whitaker lores
Pic: Whitaker family

Plt Off A N Whitaker
Bomb aimer

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

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

Arthur Neville Whitaker, known to his family as Neville, was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 8 September 1909, the son of James and Edith Whitaker. He went to Blackburn Grammar School and then studied accountancy. After qualifying as a chartered accountant, he went to work for a firm of musical instrument dealers in Blackpool.


When the war started, shortly before his 30th birthday, he enlisted in the army, joining the local Blackpool Regiment but then in May 1941 he switched to the RAF. After training at Air Observers School he qualified as a bomb aimer. He was posted to 467 Squadron about the time of its formation in early November 1942 and was crewed up with pilot Sgt Herbert Vine. Charles Jarvie was also allocated to this crew. Sgt Vine appears to have had a somewhat chequered career, and had been cautioned for low flying. On one occasion, ground crew had to remove foliage from his undercarriage.

The Vine crew’s first operation was the usual “gardening” (mine-laying) operation in the Deodars area on 12 January 1943. Whitaker flew with Vine that night and on five further missions, the last being the bombing of Lorient on 16 February. 
At that point, a straight swap of two crew members between Vine’s crew and the newly arrived crew of Vernon Byers took place. Bomb aimer Whitaker and mid upper gunner Jarvie were exchanged for Sgt John McKee and Sgt Robert Haslam repectively. Why this happened remains something of a mystery. It was a bad move for McKee and Haslam since on their very first operation with Vine, on 19 February, they fell victim to a German night fighter and crashed into the North Sea.
Conversely, it bought a few months more for Whitaker, and he went on to fly with the Byers crew on the three operations which they flew in 467 Squadron on 9, 11 and 22 March. On 28 March, they were posted as a complete crew to 617 Squadron. 


The Byers crew seemed to have impressed in training for the Dams Raid, and were selected to attack the Sorpe. At the briefing for bomb aimers and navigators on the afternoon of Sunday 16 May 1943, Whitaker wrote down some of the key route co-ordinates on the back of an envelope, perhaps before transferring them to an official log for the flight. The envelope was found in his personal effects when they were sent to the family after his death.

Whitaker letter composite lores
Neville Whitaker’s notes written on the day of the Dams Raid. [Pic: Whitaker family]

Neville Whitaker died when AJ-K was hit by flak just after it had passed over Texel island on the Dutch coast. Like five of his colleagues, his body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
Thanks to Gary Whitaker for help with this article.

More about Whitaker 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.
Sources:
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 Neville Whitaker 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.