SIXTY YEARS LATER FAMILIES REUNITE FOR THE CREW OF SEVEN BRAVE YOUNG MEN

Press release: June 11, 2005


On June 11 2005, the families and friends of the crew of Lancaster 1 - ME846, PG-C  will gather together at the Newark Air Museum in Nottinghamshire, England  to unveil a plaque dedicated to seven brave young men.

On the night of  June 21/22 1944 this dedicated crew of seven took off from Dunholme Lodge in Lincolnshire on their eighth mission.  Their seventh had been on June 6 to Caen, on D-Day.  They were all so young, not one over 21 years of age.  An enormous responsibility rested on their young shoulders.  Committed to their mission and to each other they flew  through the skies on the longest day of the year.  Suddenly at  1.20 a.m. BST, as the plane approached the Belgium/Dutch border their plane was hit by ground fire and lives were changed forever. The pilot, 20- year-old Pilot Officer Mark Anthony Hamilton Davis, immediately assumed the full responsibility for his aircraft and crew.  Flight Sergeant, Peter Knox - A418433 RAAF - Bomb Aimer would write many years later:

"there was the sound of a muffled explosion and a jolt" our plane had been hit by the ack-ack and one of the starboard engines was on fire..  (Captain Davis) reverted to the language  drilled into us in the many hours of practice for just such an emergency.. he clearly recognized that the fire was out of control.  In a calm clipped voice he said "abandon aircraft--emergency jump jump..."we each had to confirm over the inter-com that we were jumping.  As I had to lift up the escape hatch I responded first "air-bomber jumping". I heard the others confirm that they were going. There was no shouting, no calls for help... the sky stretched out below...all this time the pilot was holding the plane steady.  ...I could hear the droning of the Lancasters above as they pushed on towards the target.  Within a very short space of time I saw the explosion as our plane plummeted into the ground.  I wondered if the others had got out and I shouted out the name of "George", our mid-upper gunner.  I thought he might have jumped about the same time as me.  My voice seemed to be lost in the vast dark space around me and I realized there was no possibility of making any form of human contact"


THE STORY EMERGES

Peter Knox was lucky. Landing in a Belgium field and helped by the Resistance and courageous Belgian farmers, he escaped capture. Sergeant, Thomas. A. Newberry - 1602063 RAF - Wireless Operator; Sergeant, W. Dennis "Geordie" Belshaw - 1808996 RAF - Flight Engineer, and  Flight Sergeant, Leslie E. J. "Tagger" Taylor - 1585057 RAF - Navigator were captured and sent to Stalag Luft 3.   Despite Knox's belief that "George" was behind him,  tragically this was not the case as Pilot Officer, Mark Anthony Hamilton "Dave" Davis - 174023 RAFVR - the brave Pilot, Sergeant, George Harry Moggridge - 1896779 RAFVR - Mid-Upper Gunner and Pilot Officer, John Ernest Ralph "Porky" Bowering - J/88199 RCAF - Rear Gunner, did not survive.

Knox  passed away in 1998 and a family website was made in his honour.  To their amazement, within three years the Knox family was contacted by nephews, nieces, grandchildren and cousins of the crew of Lancaster ME846.  The story of that very long dark night in 1944 following the longest day had been imprinted on the hearts and minds of  the families of that ill-fated Lancaster ME846.  Although sixty years have gone by, and at least three of the surviving four crew members have passed on, the families are  still united, following what was  undoubtedly the most important night in the lives of those young men.

The most compelling story of all was the thirty year search by the nephew of that brave Captain - Pilot Officer, Mark Anthony Hamilton "Dave" Davis - 174023 RAFVR.  This gave the website a whole new mission.  The bodies of Moggridge and Bowering had been recovered and are now resting in Schoonselhof Cemetery in Antwerp, but the body of Captain Davis has never been found. The Lancaster ME846 has never been recovered either.  In October 2003, the families had their first reunion and instant friendships were made. Now there was a new mission - "Find Captain Davis".

The most difficult problem was to resolve where the plane may have crashed.  Here the families pooled all their resources from written accounts by Knox and Taylor and expert help from the great resource of aviation historians and buffs.  It was determined the aircraft must have come down near Postel.  Christmas 2004 bought an email from a Belgian historian, scholar and author, Kamiel Mertens, who had researched the War years in Balen.  He kindly took it upon himself to interview everyone who might have recollections of that night.   A Parish Priest serving the neighbourhood of Postel Abbey, Father E. Vandenbergh,  wrote of that night where a "plane exploded in the air" and how two men were dead before the plane fell to the ground, he also described the parachutes.  In this account the crash location was 2-3 kilometres NE of the Abbey in the Bladel Woods on the Belgian side of the border with Holland.

But "Operation - Looking for Captain Davis" has become a race against time.  It is important for all the families to  bid a formal thank you and  farewell to this courageous man who put the safety and survival of his crew first.  He was only 20 but it is thanks to Captain Davis that Belshaw, Knox and Taylor survived, and perhaps, too, Newberry whom we know was captured and taken prisoner.   Their descendants should never forget how this one man made their existence possible by keeping the "plane steady".

END NOTES:

For photos, bios and further information please contact:
Jane Knox-Kiepura at jane@janeknox.com

50 Church Street
Littleton New Hampshire 03561
USA

Tel: 603-444-0290
Mobile: 603-616-9370
Fax: 603-444-3033



Photo of the crew

(click to enlarge)


Crew

The crew at RAF Winthorpe, 1661 Conversion Unit, in early March 1944 in front of their Short's Stirling.
This was the first station where all the crew first flew together.

From left to right:

Flight Sergeant, Peter Edmund KnoxA418433 RAAFBomb Aimer
Sergeant, Thomas. A. Newberry1602063 RAF Wireless Operator
Sergeant, W. Dennis "Geordie" Belshaw1808996 RAFFlight Engineer
Pilot Officer, Mark Anthony Hamilton "Dave" Davis174023 RAFVRPilot
Flight Sergeant, Leslie E. J. "Tagger" Taylor1585057 RAFNavigator
Sergeant, George Harry Moggridge1896779 RAFVRMid-Upper Gunner
Pilot Officer, John Ernest Ralph "Porky" BoweringJ/88199 RCAFRear Gunner



A NEPHEW TELLS HIS STORY

The above photograph and several letters from the pilot have lain in my family's papers for many years, a poignant reminder of a relation's part in the conflict that took place from 1939 to 1945.

Until recently all I knew of the person in the centre of the picture was that he was my mother's younger brother Anthony Davis, he was a Pilot Officer in 619 Squadron and that he had been killed in action on the night of 21st/22nd June 1944 when his Lancaster bomber was hit, caught fire and crashed, but except for one crew member, I knew little of the fate of rest of the crew, whether they had escaped or why Anthony's body was never recovered. He, like the other 20,400 other airmen and women who have no known grave, is commemorated at the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede.

One of the crew however had survived and soon after hostilities had finished, he visited my grandmother to explain the circumstances of that fateful night.  He told of how her son Anthony, or Captain Dave as he was known to the crew, had stayed at the controls after the aircraft was hit, holding the crippled aircraft steady, in order that all the crew had a chance of escape.

So, in 2002 I decided to try to find out a little more history behind the faces in the photograph. At the Society of Genealogists I was able to obtain the names of the all the crew from the RAF lists and who had and had not survived that night. Regrettably the rear gunner, Pilot Officer Bowering, and the upper gunner, Sergeant Moggridge, had perished, although under what circumstances is still not clear. They were initially buried in the small village of Deurne in Belgium, but after the war their bodies were brought to Antwerp and re-interred at the Schoonselhof Cemetery. The remainder of the crew, except Anthony, escaped from the burning aircraft, one evading capture and the other three, Sergeant Newbury, Sergeant Belshaw and Flight Sergeant Taylor, spending the rest of the war as prisoners. 

Armed now with the aircraft's unique identification number "ME846", I completed a search on the internet and located a message left on the bulletin board of an aircraft museum in Canada from a Neil Webster in the UK who was making enquiries on behalf of his partner's mother, who knew two of the crew during the war and she was able to identify some of the crew in the photograph.  Neil added that he had a shoulder brevet belonging to one of them, a Peter Knox.

Using Peter Knox as a search name, I immediately located a site on the internet and to my astonishment there was the very same photograph of the crew. This excellent family web site has been generated and is maintained by Jane Kiepura (nee Knox) the daughter of Peter Knox, now living with her husband Marjan in New Hampshire in the States. She had also been contacted by the families of two other crew members and together we started to pool our small but significant pieces of information, built up over the years, about each of the crew. What really hit home was the age of those who had died. The two gunners were only 19. The pilot, my uncle, was 20. Considering their ages, the responsibilities those and the other members of the crew were shouldering were huge.

Several other contacts were made and we were able to identify all of the crew, the type of aircraft and where and when the photograph had been taken, but unfortunately we have not been able to locate any of the family of Sergeant Newbury, the wireless-operator.

In October 2003, Jane and her husband, Marjan Kiepura,  were in the UK and they arranged a celebration of remembrances for the crew. Many of the Knox family were present and a toast was proposed by Marjan to the crew and in particular to Captain Dave for "holding the plane steady". For me this was a very moving experience as many of those present that evening may not have been present but for Dave's actions.

It transpired that it was Peter Knox who, evading capture and arriving back in the UK ahead of the release of POWs, visited my grandmother and also the immediate families of the other two crew members lost that night, not just those in the UK but also one in Canada, to explain the circumstances. His generosity in taking the time and trouble to visit our family has never been forgotten and was greatly appreciated at the time. It was from his subsequent writings of his involvement, that much of the information of what happened that night is clearer.

We now know that on 21 June 1944, the shortest night of the year, 619 Squadron was included in a task force to attack the oil and fuel dumps at Wesseling close to Cologne. This was considered a tough target and new crews were not included. They crossed the European coast over the Dutch island of Walcheren, close to the Belgium border and headed for Germany. A short while later Peter reported seeing flashes from antiČaircraft guns on the ground and in accordance with established routines Dave started to weave the aircraft. Then there was the sound of a muffled explosion and a jolt. The plane had been hit by the ack-ack and the starboard outer engine was on fire. Apart from a momentary expletive, Dave quickly reverted to the language drilled into him in the many hours of practice for just such an emergency. In a very few seconds he clearly recognised that the fire was out of control and in a calm clipped voice said "abandon aircraft-emergency, jump, jump."

The crew now went into the automatic response stage. Peter, as bomber aimer, was lying over the front exit through which he had to make his escape, together with the navigator, the wireless-operator, the flight-engineer and lastly the pilot. The two gunners had escape routes at the rear of the aircraft. When Dave gave the order to abandon the plane, each had to confirm over the inter-com that they were jumping. As Peter had to lift up the escape hatch, he responded first "air-bomber jumping." He heard the others starting to confirm that they were going too. There was no shouting, no calls for help and in a numbed state, he moved into the escape routine. Scrambling to his feet, he grabbed and fixed the parachute onto the harness by clips in front of his chest and sneaked a quick look at the fire engulfing the starboard wing. He disconnected the inter-com, but since they were at close to 20,000 feet, he had to keep using oxygen until the very last second. Each member of the crew had their own supply. He undid the clips of the escape hatch and lifted it for jettisoning. The force of the rush of air twisted it as it dropped vertically through the hatch. For a horrible second it was jamming the escape route, but he kicked it clear and saw the gaping hole with a sense of enormous relief as he disconnected his oxygen and rolled out head first.

All this time Dave had been holding the plane as steadily as possible. What happened next is not entirely clear. The navigator, the wireless-operator and the flight-engineer left the aircraft after Peter, but Dave did not follow and it would appear the two gunners never made it from their exit before the aircraft exploded a short while later. Nothing to identify the aircraft has ever been recovered.  

Peter unfortunately died in 1998, but I am so grateful to him for his recollections of that night on which the above detail is based and grateful also to his daughter Jane who has been marvellous in her determination to find out still more information about the crew and to bring the relations together. Without her fortitude, we would not know as much as we do at present.

And the shoulder brevet that once belonged to Jane's father? Neil Webster who has kept this safely for the past 60 years has now passed this to her.

We know that the crew who escaped from the burning aircraft, came down near Balen in Belgium, which was right on track for the eventual target that night. We also know that two of the crew were buried at Deurne, a small village 18kms south of Balen. With a starboard engine on fire, it is entirely possible for the aircraft to stray off course to the south before crashing. But where did this happen? For my family, the closure would be the recovery of Anthony's remains for burial. However, this seems highly unlikely as the records held by the RAF confirm the total disintegration of the aircraft, a not uncommon occurrence for an aircraft fully laden with fuel and bombs that is also crippled by fire.



L Whiteley, Secretary of the 619 Squadron Association confirmed  the operation history on Lancaster ME 846 stating that "crew were posted as "missing" on the Wesseling operation on June 21 1944, he listed the eight operations carried out by ME 846 in the period 19 May to 21 June 1944. They were:

19 May             Amiens
21 May             Duisburg (operation abandoned as radio was unserviceable)
22 May             Brunswick        
27 May             Cherbourg
31 May             Maisy
02 June             Wimereux
06 June             Caen (Normandy - D-Day)
21 June             Wesseling

He added that "21 June 1944 was the blackest day in the history of 619 Squadron. Sixteen Lancasters took part in the Wesseling operation and seven aircraft failed to return."






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