Dambuster of the Day No. 78: Vernon Byers

vernon-byers-dambusters-rafbf-449

Pic: Fighting High

Plt Off V W Byers
Pilot

Lancaster serial number: ED934/G

Call sign: AJ-K

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

Vernon William Byers was born in Star City, Saskatchewan on 24 September 1919. He was a keen sportsman at school. When he left, he worked on a farm, in construction and then as a miner in the interestingly named town of Flin Flon, Manitoba.
In March 1941 he enrolled with the Canadian Army, where he was assessed as ‘a healthy appearing young man desirous of transferring for active service with the RCAF’. He managed this transfer on 8 May 1941, enlisting with the RCAF in Winnipeg. 
He was determined to become a pilot, and received his wings in March 1942, with his final report concluding that he was a ‘dependable average pilot in all phases of work.’

He arrived in the UK in May 1942 and finished his training over the next few months. The final stage was at 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley, which he joined on 8 December 1942. Here he built up a full crew, of whom four would later take part in the Dams Raid. These were Sgt Alastair Taylor, flight engineer; Plt Off James Warner, navigator; Sgt John Wilkinson, wireless operator, and Flt Sgt James McDowell, air gunner, the only other Canadian in the crew. Along with bomb aimer Sgt John McKee and air gunner Sgt Robert Haslam they were transferred to 467 Squadron at RAF Bottesford on 5 February 1943 to begin active operational duties.
467 Squadron was notionally an Australian squadron under RAF command. However its personnel came from all parts of the Commonwealth, as well as Britain. It had been founded in November 1942, but its first operational flying took place on 2 January 1943. One of the squadron’s new crews was piloted by Sgt Henry Vine, and it contained Arthur Whitaker as bomb aimer and Charles Jarvie as mid-upper gunner. The Vine crew had undertaken a handful of operations by the time the Byers crew arrived in February at which time, for some reason, these two swapped with McKee and Haslam. This was a bad move for McKee and Haslam as exactly a fortnight after they had arrived at Bottesford they were lost when Vine’s aircraft was shot down on an operation targetting Wilhelmshaven. According to the Vlieland website (scroll down) they were probably the victims of a German nightfighter pilot, and crashed into the North Sea ironically not far from the coastal island of Texel where Byers and his crew would be shot down three months later.

Meanwhile, Byers and his crew were preparing for their first operation as a crew. In preparation, Byers himself flew as ‘second dickey’ on two operations with other crews. On 28 February, he flew with Flg Off Graeme Mant to bomb St Nazaire and on 5 March he accompanied Flt Lt ‘Jimmy’ Thiele to Essen. 
On 9 March, Byers and his crew took off on their first operation. As was customary at the time, this was a mine-laying sortie (‘gardening’ as it was called) in the Silverthorne area. Two nights later, the crew was sent on its first bombing operation, to Stuttgart. Twenty miles away from the target the rear turret lost power, meaning that James McDowell could only operate the swivelling mechanism by hand. Despite this, Byers pressed on and successfully dropped his bombs from 16,000 feet. A few days later, on 22 March, the crew carried out their third and final operation in 467 Squadron, bombing St Nazaire. 

At around this time, 467 Squadron’s CO, Wing Cdr Cosme Gomm, must have been asked to nominate a crew for the new as yet unnamed squadron to be set up at Scampton for a top secret mission. The memo sent to the AOC 5 Group on 17 March said that the operation for which they would be training would not, ‘it is thought, prove particularly dangerous, but will undoubtedly require skilled crews.’
However it appears that Byers was not the first choice. Gomm first offered the place to Sgt Frank Heavery, whose crew had at the time completed 12 operations. He gave him 24 hours to think about it until Heavery had talked it over with his crew. The crew were split evenly – three for, three against, so Heavery had the casting vote and he decided to stay. Gomm had talked to Heavery about keeping his experienced crews to help the new crews who would be arriving soon, and that he could use this as an argument with Cochrane should he object. Cochrane must have accepted this argument, and Vernon Byers was selected instead. (Tony Redding, Flying for Freedom, Mulberry 2008, p1.)

Heavery and his crew survived the war, so you could argue that he made the right decision. Meanwhile, Byers and his crew, with their record of just three operations, plus Byers’s two second dickey trips, would shortly find themselves en route to Scampton, and a place in history. Their transfer is noted in the 467 Squadron Operations Records Book on 24 March 1943.

Byers may not have had much experience as a pilot, but he obviously had a ‘press-on’ attitude and this along with the skills he exhibited during training must have impressed Guy Gibson. On 17 April he was recommended for a commission, with Gibson noting that he was: ‘A good type of NCO who is fully capable of holding down a commission. He keeps his crew in order, is punctual, and understands discipline. Recommended.’
The commission came through a few days before the Dams Raid.
And so the new Pilot Officer Byers lined up Lancaster ED934/G, code number AJ-K, as he prepared for take off a minute after Les Munro. Everything seems to have gone smoothly and he left Scampton at 2130 but then, as the official records recorded at the time, nothing more was heard from him.

Crew members in Munro’s aircraft, ahead of Byers, and in Geoff Rice’s, a minute behind, both appear to have witnessed Byers’s last moments. Jimmy Clay saw an aircraft on its starboard side, heading towards Texel island, rather than Vlieland, the prescribed route. Having crossed the island, he then seemed to climb to about 450 feet, according to a post war Dutch report. Rice’s crew saw an aircraft shot down by flak at 300 feet ‘off Texel’ at 2257.
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 he was very unlucky. The German guns could not depress low enough in order to hit an approaching aircraft flying at just 100 feet but having crossed the island Byers rose a little and it must have been a speculative shot from behind which did for AJ-K, 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 3/Marine Flak 246 unit on the western end of Vlieland which was responsible. (Ward, Lee and Wachtel, Dambusters: Definitive History, Red Kite 2003, p64.)

Byers and his crew were the first to be lost on the Dams Raid and, like the Barlow crew, died before midnight on 16 May 1943.
The bodies of Byers and five of his crew have never been found. That of rear gunner James McDowell must have been detached from the wreckage at some time as it was found floating in the Waddenzee, in the Vliestrom channel, south of Terschelling near buoy No. 2 on 22 June 1943. He was buried the next day in Harlingen General Cemetery, and remains there today. 

After the war, this fact allowed a final memorandum to be added to Vernon Byers’s file. ‘As the body of F/S McDowell was washed ashore off the Coast of Holland it is assumed that the aircraft was shot down over the sea. Classified. Lost at Sea. Case Closed.’ 
Vernon Byers and his five comrades are all commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

Note: Some sources have wrong information about Byers. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that he was 32 years old. In some books he is said to have already completed a full tour of operations before being transferred to 617 Squadron. The author Steve Darlow, however, has examined his personnel file from the Canadian National Archives and verified his date of birth and service record. As indicated above, his only operations as pilot were the three mentioned above, all undertaken in 467 Squadron in March 1943. (Dambusters: Failed to Return, pp.20-29.)

Thanks to Max Williams for help with this article.

More about Byers online:
Listing at Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Page about Byers crew on Aircrew Remembered website

KIA 16.05.1943.

Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources:
Robert Owen, Steve Darlow, Sean Feast and Arthur Thorning, Dambusters: Failed to Return, Fighting High 2013.
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.