Lancaster of 622 Squadron commanded by Flight Lieutenant J. Watson

Back on the night of 27/28 April 1944 Lancaster R ND 781/G of 622 Squadron RAF out of Mildenhall, England commanded by F/L Watson RCAF, was on a bombing mission to Friedrichshafen Germany, when it was attacked and was under continuous fire from enemy fighters, being shot down in flames. The pilot kept the aircraft aloft so that the rest of the crew could bailout. There were 323 aircraft on this mission, 15 from 622 Squadron and 18 Lancasters were shot down that fateful night on that mission. The crew consisted of seven personnel, three being Royal Air Force (RAF) and four being Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)

This story is from notes of my father Ron Hayes, who was a member of this crew, as Mid-Upper Gunner (MUG).

On the 27th of April 1944, 622 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command was detailed to attack Fredrichshafen, Germany, flying at about 20,000 feet and bombing the target with high explosives. The aircraft was approaching our turning point before the run into the target when it was attacked from dead astern under. The attack was a complete surprise, there was no moon, just complete darkness. The aircraft was equipped with H2S radar equipment which transmits pulses and the crew and Intelligence was not aware at the time that the Germans were able to home in on the signal. The first attack came from dead astern and under the tail, by three Junkers 88’s night fighters.

As the aircraft was attacked, from the rear thuds were heard at the rear and flashes and the port elevator was badly buckled. The rear gunner was out of communications and could not direct the pilot on evasive maneuvers, so the Mid-Upper Gunner took control of directing the pilot with evasive direction. From the bursts of fire, they were under attack by at least two attacking aircraft and the gunner could not see them, so he decided to have the aircraft keep on course, rather than attempting to dive away from the attacking aircraft, which was what the attackers would be expecting. A second attack from dead astern upper, hit the starboard elevator and starboard inner undercarriage which burst into flames. As the attacking aircraft was coming in closing in from the starboard quarter level and at about 350 yards the pilot was directed to corkscrew to starboard. The immediate evasive action by the pilot, even with the badly buckled port elevator showed that this experienced pilot had the aircraft under full control. His response to evasive direction was magnificent, but the aircraft was hit about the starboard inner engine and a second later this portion of the wing burst into flames. The first impression was that the starboard inner engine was on fire but from dialogue between crew members in the cockpit, it was determined that the fire extinguisher system had been activated. The pilot was in full control of the aircraft, but the fire did not die out as was hoped for by the crew. The danger of flames was increasing all the time and the captain side slipped the aircraft to keep them away as much as possible, as the aircraft kept losing height at the same time.

Lancaster being shot down by JU-88.

The flames were causing the seam aft of the starboard inner engine to melt and the pilot was informed of this, who then ordered everyone to collect their parachutes. The aircraft continued to lose height and the flames had enveloped most of the wing and half of the seam had melted, the pilot was informed of this and he ordered everyone to bale out. I then plugged into the intercom system and informed the pilot that he was bailing out and that the rear gunner was still in his turret and he would let him know we were getting out. The captain’s last words to me were “Yes, OK, but hurry, we’re at 4,500 feet, if he’s not hit he might make it. So long Ron, good luck.”

I then opened the bulkhead door leading to the rear turret and saw the rear gunner turn his head towards me, I patted my parachute to indicate that we were bailing out and he understood. The aircraft was now at about 4,000 feet when I bailed out. The pilot had the aircraft under perfect control, it was still losing height in a sinking fashion and the flames had enveloped the fuselage alongside the burning wing.

I landed hard in an open field, landing on my right foot and fell or was pulled onto my right side; and dragged some distance by my open parachute canopy until it collapsed. This hard landing can perhaps be explained by the low level bale-out from the disabled aircraft, the delay in the spontaneous deployment of my parachute (due to infrequent servicing) and the lack of instruction in the use of a parachute. (no training) The action with the German fighter aircraft, the difficulty in evacuating our aircraft and the bale-out and hard landing in the dark were very stressful experiences, and the right side of my body and lower back was aching. I experienced some dizziness, so I rested for a few hours where I had landed, out in the open. With daylight approaching, I stood up to walk in search of a hiding place, for a wood or an isolated barn, but experienced disabling pain and only managed to make it to a nearby ditch, where I was discovered, by a man, an Alsacian and taken to a village, Guermar, it was about 0100 hours on the 28th of April 1944. At this village I was interviewed by a young girl who could speak a little English and I was then taken to the village hall.

Here I met a French Schoolmistress, Mme. Lousie Strohl, who gave me tea, biscuits and tobacco, then she told me that Flight Lt. Watson had been found dead at the controls of the aircraft. She went to some length in describing him, even saying he was a Canadian and that he had two stripes on his epaulettes. This lady was sympathetic and wanted to cheer me up and make me feel at home, even though she could not help me escape. The village hall had become crowded with the local inhabitants who might have helped me escape if it was not for their fears of the Gestapo. From here, I was taken by two Luftwaffe Intelligence Officers to Colmar, where I was interrogated. After the usual questions, I was asked if I could help them in identifying the belongings of a dead pilot. The items were those of Flight Lieutenant Watson in an envelope, consisting of his identification bracelet and a ring. I knew that the ring had been given to Jimmy Watson by his father. The Germans said that they had taken the articles from a dead pilot, who was found dead in the pilot’s seat of a Lancaster. I said nothing to them for fear that it might be the beginning of a long interrogation and I also knew that the identity bracelet was sufficient.

At Colmar, I thought about it and formed the opinion that the pilot, had died in an attempt to save the rear gunner and had attempted to execute a crash landing. At Colmar, I saw Russel, Ransom and Eames, from the crew, but they did not speak to each other thinking that the German’s might be listening. Eames and I were taken to Stalag Luft 6, while Ransom and Russel, being officers, were separated and there was no opportunity to talk in quiet. On way to Stalag Luft 6, I learned from Eames, the Engineer, that he had seen MacKinnon the rear gunner arrive the day before and had received quite a shock because both of us thought that he had also been killed in the aircraft.

In dad’s log book on Friedrichshafen operation is a Note of:

“FAILED TO RETURN”

As a POW, Ron was promoted to Flight Sergeant and then in April of 1945, he was liberated and returned to England. During his time as a POW he was in 4 different POW Camps, turned 20 years of age, celebrated Christmas to name but a few of his experiences. He was promoted to Warrant Officer and demobilized by the end of the year 1945, returning to civilian life.

In 1946 and 1947, five members of the crew put forward recommendations for the Victoria Cross to be awarded to Flight Lieutenant James Watson but he ended up with a Mention in Dispatches only. In 1951 dad moved to Canada, mainly because of his wonderful experiences with his Canadian crew mates, especially James Watson the old man of the crew at twenty-one years of age. Sometime in the early 1950’s dad visited James Watson’s parents in Hamilton Ontario.

Many years later in 2004 in the small town of St Hippolyte France, the father and son team of Gerard and Alban Bagy, were gathering information for the 65th anniversary of the ending of WW2 and specifically of the shooting down of the Lancaster on the night of 27/28 April 1944. They managed to first contact William McKee, who was the Bombaimer in London Ontario who travelled to this small town in 2006 and was introduced to the town mayor. Discussions of a monument began and the marble plaque was made and engraved in 2007, in anticipation of a Monument dedication to be held in 2009 to mark the 65th Anniversary of the end of European hostilities.

A call had gone out to find members of the crew and/or families and Barry Ward, my uncle in England, found this notification on the Internet and forwarded it to mom back in 2007. We started corresponding with the team in France and making plans to attend whenever the event would occur.

In Turret: M. MacKinnon (R Gnr)
L-R: S. Berry (Nav), Ron Hayes (MUG), Jimmy Watson (Pilot), Roy Eames (Flt Eng)

In April of 2009, just after my return from Afghanistan, we finally got notification that the monument would be dedicated on 8 May 2009 in St Hippolyte, France and we made arrangements to attend this event. As we arrived in France for the dedication we meet Roy Eames who was the Flight Engineer on that fateful trip back in 1944 and some of his family. At the dedication there were two nieces of James Watson, four members of the Eames family and five Hayes family members. Prior to the monument dedication the Bagy’s took us up to Koenigsbourg castle which overlooks the valley, describing that fateful night with the Lancaster on fire twisting through the valley below, avoiding towns and allowing the crew to bailout, until it finally crashed in a field, killing James Watson. His sacrifice not only saved his crew but probably many people on the ground from being hit by a burning aircraft as it crashed.

There have now been members of 4 different families of the 7 members of this crew who have been to St Hippolyte and the site of the Lancaster crash, which is now the site of the monument since 2006, which in itself is remarkable. This monument dedication was the beginning of a quest for information on my dad’s WW2 history as he was only 19 years of age when shot down all those years ago. Unfortunately dad was long gone by this time, as he would have been the best source of information, if we had only written everything down years ago.

Monument with Roy Eames (Flight Engineer)

As I continued my research, his RAF days were becoming relatively easy to get info as was his time as a POW, but his time in the Merchant Navy and Home Guard prior to joining the RAF, were a different story and the lack of headway had me put everything on the back burner until early in 2012. In early 2012 there was an article on Sun news TV in Canada about veterans, that had photo of my mom holding dad’s photo in RAF uniform from article after the 2009 monument dedication and this got me to start looking again. The item that was holding me up had been finding what I thought was a little boat that he served on to get troops out of Dunkirk, which was actually a Steam Ship and this error had caused me frustration and to put things on hold, Ron was only 15 at the time. Finding this subtle difference allowed information to start flying in and I found the Mildenhall Registry in the spring of 2012, starting corresponding with them. I found out that a reunion was slated for May 2012 and I made arrangements to attend this reunion with Daniel our youngest son, who had also been to the monument dedication in 2009 and was 19 at the time of the reunion, the same age dad was when he was shot down.

At the reunion at RAF Mildenhall and since a wonderful amount of information has continued flowing in on dad’s RAF and POW time and ideas on moving forward on Merchant Navy and Home Guard history has started filling in the gaps. This research will eventually lead to the publishing of a book on dad’s WW2 history as a teenager from Liverpool who really never had the chance to be a teenager because World War 2 got in the way. The wonderful assistance from Howard Sandall the historian of 622 Squadron has been invaluable in my quest.

Flight Lieutenant James Andrew Watson RCAF, died on 28 April 1944 at the age of 21 and is buried at Choloy War Cemetery at Meurthe-et-Moselle France, 1A B23. Son of Robert Scott Watson MC and Mary Kathleen Watson of Hamilton Ontario Canada.

Because of James Watson’s sacrifice six families have been able to have had three generation’s that they never would have had if he had not kept the aircraft aloft that fateful night so long ago.

Photograph and details by volunteer: David Milborrow

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