Flight Lieutenant D W Finlay DFC and crew - 103 Squadron
Flying Officer Finlay and his crew were posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds on the 16th April 1943 from 1662 Heavy Conversion Unit at Blyton, Lincolnshire. They were given little time to settle in and were detailed for operations on the night of the 18/19th April 1943. The target was the dockyard at the Italian port and naval base of La Spezia which involved a long gruelling flight.
Finlay’s crew consisted of :-
F/O D W Finlay RAFVR - British - Pilot
Sgt R H J Rowe RAFVR - British - Flight Engineer
Sgt J H MacFarlane RAFVR- British - Navigator
Sgt I D Fletcher RAFVR - British - Air Bomber.
Sgt H S Wheeler RAFVR - British - Wireless Operator.
Sgt R J F Vivers RAAF - from Red Hill, Queensland, Australia - Air Gunner.
Sgt W C C Gillespie RCAF - Canadian - Air Gunner.
They bombed the target from 8,000ft and successfully made it back to Elsham Wolds after a flight of over 9 hours.
The RAF Bomber Command offensive against German industrial targets in the Ruhr valley was well underway and the crew flew 5 operations in May 1943 to targets this region. “Happy Valley” as it was known to the crews was particularly heavily defended and opposition was always fierce and well co-ordinated. The raid to Dortmund on the night of the 23/24th May 1943 proved very damaging. The Pathfinders were able to mark in clear weather and the attack developed well. On the 29/30th May the crew took part in a raid to Wuppertal but had to return early due to a hydraulics failure to the rear turret.
The crew’s first operation in June, on the night of the 11/12th, was also aborted. The port outer engine caught fire and had to be feathered but they returned to base successfully. They flew again the next night on a raid to Bochum which was completed without incident. 2 nights later they flew again, this time to Oberhausen, and encountered further trouble with the rear turret. This was repaired by Sgt Rowe, the Flight Engineer, and the operation was completed. 2 more operations were completed in June without incident. That to Krefeld on the night of the 21/22nd June 1943 was devastating. The Pathfinders marked accurately in clear weather and over 600 bombers followed up dropping 2306 tons of bombs on the unfortunate city.
F/O Finlay and his crew flew 6 more operations in July 1943, 5 to German targets and 1 to Turin in Italy.
During this month Flying Officer Finlay was promoted to Flight Lieutenant. The last raid they flew during July was against Essen on the 25/26th July 43. Several days before Bomber Command had introduced “Window” which was thin strips of paper backed with aluminium foil. The bombers dropped large quantities of these strips on the way to and from the target. The effect was to swamp the German radar equipment with thousands of false returns rendering them useless. The raid on Essen was the second time Window was used and the attack proved a complete success. The massive Krupps industrial complex was subjected to it’s most damaging attack of the war.
The crew completed 7 raids in August 1943 including 3 to Italian targets without mishap. The raid on Peenemunde on the night of the 17/18th August was especially significant. Peenemunde was the German V weapon research and development centre and it was considered of vital importance that this was destroyed and as many of the scientists and workers killed as possible to substantially delay the introduction of these potentially war winning weapons. The attack was made in good visibility and bombing took place from 9,000ft. The raid was thought to be a success although losses were heavy with 40 bombers missing. This was judged to be an acceptable price to pay for a successful attack on such an important target.
Their final operation of August was to be on the night of the 23/24th with a raid on Berlin. The crew drove to their Lancaster, ED767 PM-H, at it’s dispersal on the Northern side of the airfield. After they had completed their pre flight checks and started the engines the bomb load on the Lancaster at the next dispersal dropped to the ground under the aircraft. The incendiaries started to burn and their was great danger of the 4,000lb bomb exploding. F/L
Finlay decided to taxi his Lancaster away from the danger but as they were taxying past the burning Lancaster the “Cookie” exploded. The wireless operator, Harry Wheeler, ( pictured below at the back ) was killed by flying shrapnel and ED767 was badly damaged. Sgt Wheeler was buried at Camberwell Cemetery, London. ED767 was later repaired and flown by 576 Squadron. It was scrapped in 1947.
Sgt W H MacDonald was transferred to the crew as a replacement wireless operator. He was a married man and came from East Croydon, Surrey, England. At 36 years old he was well above the average age for aircrew.
The crew resumed operations on the night of the 22/23rd September successfully taking part in an attack on Hannover. By this time they had completed 23 operations with 2 more early returns and were well on the way to the end of their tour. During their time with the Squadron F/L Finlay had been recommended for a DFC and F/S Rowe and F/S Fletcher recommended for DFM’s. All decorations were later confirmed and Gazetted.
On the night of the 23/24th September 1943 F/L Finlay and his crew took part in a raid on Berlin, their first to the “Big City.” For most of the trip they were in the first wave but fell behind. The crew always aimed to be over the target in the first minutes as they thought that it was safer. The navigator, Sgt MacFarlane, worked out they were going to be 10 minutes late. The pilot and flight engineer managed to raise the speed by 10 mph which made up some ground but Sgt MacFarlane was still not satisfied. He suggested that they trade some height for a further increase in speed but F/L Finlay vetoed this idea preferring to keep to the present altitude now that they were back in the first wave and in their allotted position.
As they approached the target they were attacked by a night fighter which made 1 devastating pass. The fuel tanks in the left wing were soon ablaze and the incendiaries in the bomb bay caught fire. John MacFarlane later commented that their blazing aircraft must have been visible for miles. He was relieved that the fighter did not make another attack to finish them off quickly. F/L Finlay and the flight engineer briefly discussed their situation but it was clear that the Lancaster was only capable of flying on for a few more minutes and the pilot gave the order to bale out. 5 of the crew managed to get out in time but sadly F/S MacDonald and P/O Vivers were unable to escape. Both now rest in the Rheinerg War Cemetery.
The 5 who baled out were taken prisoner. At first they were taken to the Luftwaffe Interrogation Centre near Frankfurt. Whilst their Frankfurt was subjected to a heavy night raid by Bomber Command. An American Air Force prisoner was watching the raid through the window of their hut. As the raid progressed he commented on the “ Pretty fireworks” which were slowly descending on the camp. The RAF men rushed to the window were horrified to see green target indicators falling nearby. They sat in the corridor of their flimsy wooden huts expecting bombs to fall at any minute and prayed. Fortunately the markers must have been strays and no bombs followed.
All 5 were sent to a prisoner of war camp and were eventually liberated at the end of the war. Unfortunately Doug Finlay was killed in 1947 whilst flying a Tiger Moth trainer of the Cambridge University Air Squadron. John MacFarlane moved to Australia and then to the USA where he worked for the Sikorsky company.
In his later years he decided to trace the German night fighter crew who had shot them down and wrote to the German Night Fighter Aircrew Association. An item was published in their newsletter and this brought a response from Siegfried Buegel who had been a radar operator in the war. In September 1943 he was serving with 4/NJG 1 flying Bf 110 G-4 night fighters. His pilot was Oberleutnant Lenz Finster who had shot down 10 bombers and was killed in December 1943 when he in turn was shot down by an RAF night fighter. Siegfried Buegel consulted his log and the details of the time and place of the combat coincided exactly with the loss of F/L Finlay’s aircraft. He remembered the incident clearly and confirmed that they had made just 1 attack and then stood off and watched the blazing bomber fly on for several minutes before observing 4 or 5 men bale out. John MacFarlane was always thankful that the night fighter had not finished them off quickly by attacking a second time thus giving them a chance to get out of the aircraft. He was sorry he could not thank the pilot but visited Germany in 1976 and was able to meet and thank Siegfried Buegel in person. The visit went very well and the 2 men became good friends kept in touch for many years.
Acknowledgements Rene Romainville for the copy of the Jagerblatt newsletter with some of the information, details of the German night fighter crew.