H S Rathbone and crew - 103 Sqn
Article from Fleigerblatt - Aircrew Association of the German Armed Forces - No. 3/2010
Following the confusion caused by a letter from England directed to the town of Görlitz seeking information on a Lancaster crash and a report in the “Saxon Newspaper” during September 2009, our member Werner Erker has asked for clarification by our association’s research department. It made further examinations of records and conducted discussions with Keith Worrall in England and with Hauptman Heinz Rökker, the last commander of the 1st Squadron of the 2nd Night Fighter Wing. The results have shed light on the fate of an English bomber crew. They also provide an insight into the selection of bomber crews by the RAF for special duties such as the Pathfinders used to mark targets on night bombing raids.
The crew of Pilot Horton Sherwin Rathbone comprising Flight Engineer P. A. Barnes, Navigator G. Turnbull, Bomb Aimer P. Hancock, Wireless Operator W. Blake and the two Air Gunners R. Roberts and J. Lyons completed the final stage of their training at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit in 1943. This unit was also where the airmen formed themselves into crews, which as far as possible flew together, and were always referred to by the pilot’s name.
Rathbone’s crew must have qualified with above average results since they were assigned to 83 Sqdn within the Pathfinder Force of 8 Group. This Group was responsible for marking the target with flares before the main attack began.
These flares were known as “Christmas Trees” by the German population. To gain experience Rathbone flew as copilot (in RAF slang “second dickey”) on a raid on Berlin (“The Big City”) on 31 August/ 2 September 1943.
Subsequently, on their first bombing raid together, Rathbone’s crew were allocated the railway station at Modane in France as their target. However the sortie was aborted before take off because of a technical failure. Their next target was the rubber factory in Mountlucon which they failed to find. After a fruitless 10 minute search they dropped their markers without precisely identifying their target. Since the RAF insisted on a firm policy that no civilian French population were to be put at risk by imprecise bombing, this inadequate performance resulted in the entire crew being posted to 103 Sqn at Elsham Wolds just a few days later.
It is interesting to note that in March 1944 the German Air Force Staff responsible for analysis of the performance of foreign air forces operating in the west wrote an invaluable study of the behaviour of RAF bomber crews. It concluded that the slightest error made by a Pathfinder crew in the course of an operation resulted in its immediate transfer to a squadron not belonging to 8 Group.
After the crew had joined 103 Sqdn Rathbone had again to fly as a co-pilot on familiarisation flights.
On the night 26/27 November 1943, P.A. Barnes the Flight Engineer flew as a member of the crew of Fg Off R.E.Pugh, DFM, in Lancaster JB 527. They were shot down during their attack on Berlin and Barnes was killed. Whenever a crew was incomplete it was usual for individual members to join other crews which had vacancies caused by death, illness or wounds. Thus it was that Sgt R.W.S. Howells came to join the Rathbone crew at about that time.
On 2/3 December this English crew flew on their first operation together with Berlin as their target. On this raid due to the extreme cold when cruising at an altitude of 7000 m, the Rear Gunner Sgt Lyons, suffered from frostbite in his hands. On 16/17 December, again with Berlin as the target, his place was therefore taken by Sgt J.W.Bateman who had belonged to another crew. However the flight was aborted before reaching the target because of an oxygen leak. They probably dropped their bomb load on an airfield in the Netherlands during their return flight. Bateman left the crew and later, on 2/3 January 1944 lost his life over German territory during an attack on Berlin whilst flying as a member of the crew of Warrant Officer E.T.Townsend in Lancaster JB 747.
The next raid in which Rathbone’s crew participated was against Frankfurt on 20/21 December 1943. Since Sgt Lyons the Tail Gunner could no longer fly with them on account of his frostbite, his place was taken by a new gunner G. Chapman.
They took off from Elsham Wolds with a further 12 Lancasters of 103 Sqdn at 1651 hrs local time. 650 aircraft participated in this raid made up of 390 Lancasters, 257 Halifaxes and 3 Mosquitos. The German Air Defence System had detected the formation as it crossed the English coast and alerted the anti-aircraft guns and night fighters to repel the attack. Rathbone’s crew were flying Lancaster JB 454 in the fourth wave of the attacking formation, towards its end. Their bomb load consisted mainly of incendiaries. After dropping their bombs they continued to fly on in an easterly direction before being shot down at 1945 hrs near Marjoss, southeast of Steinau on the Street, by Oberfeldwebel Rudolf Winn of the 1st Squadron of the 2nd Night Fighter Wing. According to survivors of the English crew of this Lancaster, their gunner Roberts had in turn shot down Winn in his JU 88 C-6, serial 750983.
It crashed at Kalbach a township between Fulda and Steinau. The German
crew were able to parachute to safety without injury. The Radio Operator was Unteroffizier Heinz Kröger and the Gunner was Oberfeldwebel Josef Rothüser. They had taken off from their squadron’s airfield at Kassel. This German crew was again shot down during one of their subsequent operations on 3 January 1944 when Rothüser parachuted into the River Weser near Elsfleth and was drowned.
During this attack of 20 December on Frankfurt and Mannheim, the RAF lost 41 aircraft representing 6.3% of the aircraft participating in the raid. About 300 crew members were killed or taken prisoner.
From the crew of Lancaster JB 454 Rathbone, Turnbull and Howells survived the crash by using their parachutes. They became prisoners of war. The four men killed in the crash rest in peace in the English War Cemetery at Durnbach in Bavaria.
Following interrogation, the three survivors were taken either to the transit prison camp at Oberursel or to the prisoner of war camp Stalag IV-B at Mülhberg/Elbe-Ester where they remained until 8 May 1945. Another source claims that Rathbone was also at Stalag Luft III in Sagen even though after the war he only mentioned Stalag IV-B. On 22 March 1944 he wrote home via The International Red Cross that they were no longer allowed any heating, the potatoes would only last another week and the parcels they had been sent only another two weeks; somehow they managed to remain alive.
Sadly, the Navigator Flt Sgt Turnbull died in captivity shortly before the end of the war, probably from tuberculosis.
RAF personnel were imprisoned all over the former Germany in POW camps known as Luftwaffen-Stammlager (Stalag Luft) specifically reserved for shot down Allied aircrew. Officers were imprisoned in Officier-Lagern (Oflag).
According to the Third Geneva Convention all POWs should have been treated in accordance with strict rules but, for various reasons, these were not always observed.
Rathbone, the Pilot, was never able to overcome his experiences in the war and had great difficulty adapting to civilian life. Sgt Howells is now 87 years old (in 2010!) and lives in an old people’s home in southern England.
Because of a mistake in recording RAF losses, the plane was erroneously supposed to have crashed in the vicinity of Neuberzdorf, west-northwest of Hagenwerder and 10km south-southeast of Görliz. Unsurprisingly, the township of Görlitz was unable to find any reference to the crash in response to an enquiry from England. As explained in the opening paragraph, the true location of the crash only came to light as a result of an article in a local Saxon newspaper.
Many thanks to Jane and Tim Nicoll for the translation and edit. DF