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Thursday, November 12, 2015



“No point in standing here and shivering.” Jack Irvine broke the silence. Shouldering our parachutes, we moved towards the squat waist of the Halifax. I took a quick look at the crew as they clambered into the aircraft. There was Jack, the skipper, moving easily despite his bulk. Then there was the other Canadian, Jack Nixon, the veteran navigator. The mid upper gunner, engineer, wireless operator and bomber aimer were all seasoned hands. But I felt sorry for the tail gunner. He was nineteen, and on his first operation. There’s nothing quite like a first operation to put the fear of death into you.

Halifax III from Bomber Command
Our story began several weeks ago around the Thanksgiving dining table when talk once again drifted around to family military participation. Brother in law, Bruce Searle, casually mentioned that he had an uncle in the Royal Air Force that had survived two bomber crashes. He went on to explain that his uncle, Arthur, survived both and had been taken prisoner by Russians and that his aircraft had struck another aircraft and was involved in special operations. I mentioned that I hadn’t heard that story previously and was quite intrigued about it. I believe I also stated that this was the type of story books are written about. So not sooner had sister, Sally and Bruce departed for home, then I begun researching any possible matches for this story. Fortunately there are a number of “bomber command” websites that assisted greatly. As usual once one significant fact is found, it leads to others being located. Soon I had found not only the aircraft involved put pieced together the entire mission and its story. Although we don’t know a great deal about Arthur, we have been able to positively identify him as the Tail gunner in Halifax III NR180 an aircraft flying in 192 Squadron on March 5/6. 192 Squadron operated specially modified Vickers Wellingtons and de Havilland Mosquitos with the task to identify German radar patterns and wavelengths. It also carried out similar missions over the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean.[1] In April 1943 the squadron moved to RAF Feltwell. At the end of 1943, the squadron moved again to RAF Foulsham to operate with 100 (Bomber Support) Group. During this period, the Squadron operated Halifax Mk. III heavy bombers and Mk.XVI Mosquito medium bombers. During bomber raids the aircraft would provide countermeasures to German radars and carried special and highly secret equipment.

Arthur Searle's crash at RAF Foulsham
The  Handley Page Mk. III Halifax was a four, rotary Bristol engine heavy bomber model operated by the British Royal Air Force during the later years of World War II. The Halifax remained in service until the end of the war, performing a variety of duties in addition to bombing. It was a contemporary of the Avro LancasterDefensive firepower was provided by a four gun Boulton Paul Type E turret in the year with four Browning .303 inch machine guns, a single Vickers K gun in the nose and a four gun Paul Type A upper turret, each carrying four .303 inch machine guns.

Handley Page Halifax B Mark III, MZ817 'DT-O', of No. 192 Squadron RAF after crash-landing while taking off from Foulsham, Norfolk, on a radar surveillance sortie in the evening of 9 December 1944. 22 mission symbols are visible by the "Pete the Penguin" insignia on the nose.
Halifax tail gunner
Halifax NR180 was participating March 5/6 in the last night of Operation Thunderclap, a bombing mission on the Eastern German industrial city of Chemnitz. This was an operation which the Air Ministry had, for several months, been considering a series of particularly heavy area raids on German cities with a view to causing such confusion and consternation that the hard-stretched German war machine and civil administration would break down and the war would end. The general name given to this plan was Operation Thunderclap, but it had been decided not to implement it until the military situation in Germany was critical. That moment appeared to be at hand. Russian forces had made a rapid advance across Poland in the second half of January and crossed the eastern frontier of Germany. The Germans were thus fighting hard inside their own territory on two fronts, with the situation in the East being particularly critical. It was considered that Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz - all just behind the German lines on the Eastern Front now - would be suitable targets as they were all vital communications and supply centres for the Eastern Front. There was the intention of preventing the Germans from moving reinforcements from the West to face the successful Russian advance. The Air Ministry issued a directive to Bomber Command at the end of January. On 4 February, at the Yalta Conference, the Russians asked for attacks of this kind to take place, but their involvement in the process only came after the plans had been issued. So, Bomber Command was specifically requested by the Air Ministry, with Churchill's encouragement, to carry out heavy raids on Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig. The Americans were also asked to help and agreed to do so. The campaign should have begun with an American raid on Dresden on 13 February but bad weather over Europe prevented any American operations. It thus fell to Bomber Command to carry out the first massive raid February 13 on Dresden annihilated the city and its population.
Halifax III tail gun

So on the night of March 5/6 mission on Chemnitz; 760 aircraft - 498 Lancasters, 256 Halifaxes, 6 Mosquitos - to continue Operation Thunderclap. The operation started badly when 9 aircraft of No 6 Group crashed near their bases soon after taking off in icy conditions. No 426 Squadron, at Linton-on-Ouse, lost 3 out of their 14 Halifaxes taking part in the raid in this way, with only 1 man surviving. 1 of the Halifaxes crashed in York, killing some civilians. 22 further aircraft were lost in the main operation - 14 Lancasters and 8 Halifaxes.

We actually found on a RAF Forum on-line a report on the operations by the pilot, Flight Lieutenant N. (Jack) Irvine upon his return to England. His report is very comprehensive and follows here:
“5/6 March 1945

192 Sqdn Halifax NR180 - crash-landed near Kentei (Kety?), SW of Krakow, Poland.
This Halifax was involved in a mid-air collision with 434 Sqdn Lancaster KB842 over the target - Chemnitz - while being attacked by a Ju88 night fighter. Suffering from severe damage, the pilot headed east towards Russian lines where a crash-landing was made. The 434 Sqdn Lancaster made a crash-landing in the UK and was subsequently struck-off-charge as uneconomical to repair. F/L Irvine, the pilot of the Halifax, reported upon return to the UK in Apr 45:

"Take off from base (Foulsham Norfork) climb to height and the trip to target was uneventful.
We were briefed to be over the target at 21.47 hours and actually arrived at 21.49 hours. The target (Chemnitz) was well ablaze by this time and made a bright patch on the under cast. Own bombs were dropped as ordered and at the moment the tail gunner spotted a Ju88 on the port quarter. There was no flak. A few seconds later the tail gunner gave me a corkscrew to port. This I did, on instruments. At the bottom of the dive to port, and just after the start of the climb to starboard I instinctively looked up to the belly and tail of what I think was another Halifax directly above me and about thirty feet away. There was no time to avoid a collision and the nose of my aircraft struck the tail turret of the other aircraft. The impact took about five feet of the nose of my aircraft completely off. The other aircraft did not appear to be seriously damaged. The Ju88 had followed us into the corkscrew and at this point opened fire, scoring hits on the port wing. As the aircraft was vibrating very badly I gave the order to put on parachutes. This order I later countermanded when I found the aircraft would still fly fairly well, although it was very port wing heavy. The Ju88 again attacked but this time we lost it for good by a corkscrew to starboard, given by the mid-upper gunner. We proceeded south of the target to our first turning point. It was there that I decided to make for the Russian lines. This decision was made for two reasons, first, that I had lost all of the instruments on my flying panel, and second, that I would never be able to stand the intense cold of the four or five hours trip to England. My feet and hands were already quite numb.
It was impossible to stand in the nose of the aircraft so I ordered all the crew except the two gunners to the rest position, in order to keep warm as possible.
I flew east for four and a half until we figured we were well behind the lines of the Russian front, at the same time I descended to try and lessen the cold. By this time both my legs were numb from the hips down. My left hand was also completely numb. My right hand I kept warmed by sitting on it.
At this point we ran into a snow storm and had to turn back to the west. Soon afterwards I spotted the lights of a small town which I began to circle. I then told the crew to bale out. It was then that both escape hatches were found to be jammed. Two of the crew used the aircraft's axes to chop open the fuselage door. This operation took about twenty minutes.
When the door was finally opened I gave the order to bale out. This was done quickly and efficiently.
I knew I could not jump because of the condition of my legs and hands so I had to attempt a crash landing. It was still quite dark, but luckily I spotted a road with vehicles headlamps moving along it. I descended over this to about fifty feet with landing light on. By use of the light I found what seemed to be a descent field. I circled it twice then dropped the flaps, which I had had the engineer de-isolate before he jumped, and came in for a belly landing. In doing so the aircraft took the chimney off a house and cut down two telephone poles which I didn't see.
The landing was okay but I was knocked out by the impact. When I came to the aircraft was sitting in a field and had not caught fire. It took me some time to get the straps undone and as I couldn't stand up I fell from my sat and crawled on my hands and knees to the nose of the aircraft and out through the hole. At this point I fainted. When I came to I crawled to the road about a hundred yards away. Here I was stopped by a Russian sentry; who took me before some officer, to whom I satisfactorily established my identity.
I did try to destroy the navigational aids and special equipment in the aircraft, but could do nothing because of my hands and legs, which were useless.
The Russians would not let me return to the aircraft at any time. The next morning I was driven to the neighbouring town of Myslenice Poland. The aircraft is at Kentei (Kety?)Poland, south west of Kracow, and I was never allowed to return to it.
The crew which jumped are as follows:-
F/Lt   John E. (Jack) Nixon RCAF - Navigator - Missing
F/O   D. E. Banks RCAF - Returning to England
W/O   J. A.  Martin RCAF - " "
F/Sgt  Arthur C. Searle RCAF - " "
Sgt   L. A. Howard RAF - " "
F/Sgt   W. J. McCullough RCAF - Shot by a Russian Sentry, in a Polish hospital
W.O. 1    R. F. (Scotty) Young RAF - Missing
F/Lt   N. (Jack) Irvine RCAF – Pilot - Returning to England
N. Irvine F/Lt.
Pilot RCAF"

So the aircraft that Halifax NR180 collided with was “a Canadian Lancaster piloted by P/O J. Kitchen RCAF and crew from 434 Squadron, flying Lancaster KB-842 coded WL-L, were hit by a Halifax that had just been shot down, the rear turret was severely damaged. The JU-88 which had shot down the Halifax now turned its attention to their Lancaster. Both gunners fired and hits were seen on the JU-88 which fell away. The Lancaster was seriously damaged; the starboard elevator, wing, starboard inner nacelle, fuel tanks, tire and hydraulics were hit. 
Sgt C. Corbett RAF
F/Sgt F. Reid RCAF
F/O G. Fiori RCAF
P/O J. Rebman RCAF
F/Sgt G. Heisler RCAF
F/Sgt R. Higgs RCAF
They crash landed at Carnaby with no injuries to the crew. “
Here is their operation record:
Airborne 1635 5Mar45 from Croft. Yorkshire. Bombed from 16,500 feet at 2154 and was almost immediately involved in a mid-air collision with a Halifax that was in the process of being shot down by a Ju88. The night-fighter crew then turned their attention to the Lancaster, causing much damage to the hydraulic system and starboard wing. Accurate return fire, however, succeeded in driving away the enemy fighter, possibly damaged, and P/O Kitchen succeeded in getting his badly mauled aircraft back to Carnaby in Yorkshire where it was written off in the ensuing emergency landing. No injuries. P/O J.Kitchen RCAF. As usual with Canadian Record-keeping. No surviving crew names, with the exception of the Captain, were recorded. "

So that is pretty much the story of Halifax NR180. We don’t know precisely what classified instruments or equipment it was carrying or what special operations it was employed in save for the bombs it carried and dropped.
After the war, Arthur Searle married Anita Emily Usher, moved to North York and had sons Mark, Jeff and Peter. He found employment with the Toronto Fire Department rising to the position of District Fire Chief. While fighting a lumberyard fire in 1977 Arthur suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 52. This courageous man is  buried in York Cemetery, Bruce recalled that Arthur may have been involved in another crash prior to the night of 5/6 March. Confirming my suspicions, there was a book written by one of the crew focused mainly on the Russian escapades of Warrant Officer 1 R.F. (Scotty) Young and F/Lt. John E. Nixon, the aircraft navigator. The book, written by Young is titled Descent Into Danger. It was originally published Allan Wingate Ltd., London, 1954. It can be found in both hardcover and pocketbook editions. However, other than the two principals, it does not mention the other crew members by name. There is a great U Tube video showing the capture of Chemnitz, POW’s, Germans and the damage from the bombing. Follow this link:  Nor does it give credit to Flight Sergeant Arthur C. Searle,  the young nineteen –year old tail gunner who occupied the most dangerous and difficult position in the aircraft.

Bob Richardson
(416) 434-7784

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