My Grandfather was shot down and killed in action on this date. The official action report reads as follows:
Part of 214 Squadron, on the night of 24-25 June 1943 they took off on a raid along with 640 other aircraft of Bomber Command. They were flying a Stirling Mk III EE883 bomber – code letters BU-t. The target was Wuppurtal in the Ruhr Valley. They were a crew of seven under command of pilot Sgt C.K. Miller. The other crew members were: Sgt J A Hitchens, Sgt P D Straton, Sgt R G Akers, Sgt R A H Smith, Sgt T Jones and Sgt S Seward.
They took off from their base at Chedburgh, Sufffolk at 23:30 and were reported to have been shot down by a combination of flak and night fighters, crashing into the sea at 03:09 off the Dutch coastal town of Noordwijk aan Zee. There were no survivors.
Five of the crew have no known graves but Sgt Jones rests in a cemetery in Noordwijk, my Grandfather is interred in Bergen.
And there basically the story ends. My Grandmother was left pregnant with my Mother who she raised on her own. A few years ago I started to dig a deeper into my Grandfather’s story. He was from Battle Harbor, which was already in decline by the war years. Now it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and pretty much abandoned except as a museum. To be honest looking at pictures of the place from the forties, I wonder how my Grandmother would have fared?
My Grandparents met when my Grandfather was posted to 10 Bombing and Gunnery School which was in the town of Dumfries, Scotland. The original site of the school has since been turned into a museum. Once he was finished with gunnery school he was forwarded to 214 Squadron as a tail gunner. Anybody who has ever read about the RAF Bomber Command in WWII knows that tail gunners had a very low survival rate. My Grandfather did not beat those odds.
I’m currently reading a book on Bomber Command that deals with 1943 specifically. It was a year of brutal attrition for Bomber Command. The Germans had developed an effective Night Fighter response to the Nightly raids and crews and aircraft were being lost at alarming rates with little to show for it on the ground.
Unlike ground combat, air combat is both personal and detached. It’s detached because it’s one machine against another, personal because there are men inside those machines. Also unlike ground combat, precise records are kept of missions, though up until a few days ago, I had no idea how precise. The book I’m reading discussed how during the Berlin Bombing campaign Bomber Command chose a direct route away from the target over The Netherlands. They got away with it the first time but on subsequent missions, the Night fighter activity was brutal.
I had the night my Grandfather went down. I had the location of the initial crash and where he and the pilot were recovered (76 miles apart). The question was what were the operational Night Fighter Units in the area and were there any documents related to German operations on the night in question. Turns out the internet is a powerful tool in this case. Somebody actually took the time to convert the microfiche files of the Luftwaffe Kill Records for the entire war, region by region, front by front, year by year and the Germans were very thorough. More thorough than the Allied records I’ve read. Not only were the records broken down by day, month and year. They were also broken down by target. The German tactic was to direct fighters into the bomber stream be it going to the target or returning from the target. The thinking of Bomber Command was to direct the bombers past the majority of the German defenses (though Berlin was a target with three rings of defense to get through) and then on the route out the lighter aircraft was more agile. More agile and flying into a wolves den.
But like I said, complete and accurate records and there it was in black and white, the name of the man who more than likely shot down my Grandfather’s plane. Of course it took a bit more digging and some other confirmations coming from different sources. The Pilot in question was a man named Hauptman Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and if you go to his Wiki you get a pretty good idea of how good he was at his job.
Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 (Night Fighter Unit) was based in Ostend, Belgium, not far from Noordwijk aan Zee where my Grandfather’s Sterling went in. It turns out that the night in question was a notable one for him. He would claim four bombers shot down that night. One Lancaster, Two Sterlings and a Halifax. This would earn him The Knight’s Cross of The Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. You see the Bf110 he would have been flying that night was unserviceable so he took a Ju88C up instead. The Bf110 was equipped with the upward facing canon called Shrage Musik. These canon could rake a plane from tail to nose from underneath without the crew ever even knowing what was knocking them from the sky. The Ju88C was equipped however with forward facing canon. I get the feeling Sayn-Wittgenstein preferred it this way because he never went back to the Bf110, he stuck with the Ju88 until his death the following year.
I read a lot of history, on occasion I’ve come across things my family have been involved in but it’s weird to actually put a name to a face of a man who actively was involved in the death of your kin.