At thirteen minutes to eleven on the night of Monday May 22 1944, Avro Lancaster Mk III registration number ND762 lifted off from RAF Graveley near Cambridge, England. The bomber ND762 belonged to the 35th Pathfinder squadron of the United KIngdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF). On board was a young 8 man crew and 9 bombs – 2 five hundred pounders, 6 one thousand pounders, and one massive four thousand pounder.
The crew comprised:
Ernie “Sherl-E” Holmes, 22, Pilot
John Kennedy Stewart, 33, Navigator;
Derrick Ernest Coleman, 19, Air Bomber
Frank Joseph Tudor, 21, Wireless Operator
Albert William Cox, 21, Air Gunner
Alistair Stuart McLaren, 37, Air Gunner
John Robert Cursiter, 20, Flight Engineer
This standard 7 man crew was complemented by:
Harold Thomas Maskell, 35, Reserve Air Bomber/Wireless Operator.
The pilot’s nickname was “Sherl-E”, Sherl as a reference to the famous detective Sherlock Holmes and surely a complement to his pathfinding talents. The E is to distinguish him from a colleague who was also known as “Sherl”.
In March 1944, a few weeks before the fatal attack, the 35th Squadron upgraded to fly Lancasters instead of Halifaxes. The 35th was a founding unit of the elite Pathfinder Force which would typically fly ahead of the main bomber attack and, equipped with the latest navigation aids, would locate and mark the targets with flares for the stream of bombers following.
Until 22 May 1944, Pilot Holmes had flown many missions to Germany. The majority of the crew on the fateful evening were no strangers to him. They had often taken to the air together and always in the spirit of the 35th Squadron “Uno Animo Agimus” – “We act with one accord”
The London News and De Stem of London reported that the air war in Western was pursued as usual that night despite poor weather with the day and night assault of over one thousand bombers of the RAF and USAF (United States Air Force). On this fateful Monday night more than one thousand bombers of the RAF attacked Dortmund, and smaller formations attacked Brunswijk and air strips near Orléans and Le Mans in France. Mosquito’s attacked targets in Ludwigshaven. New mines were sown. The Germans dispatched their night fighters and fired their anti-aircraft guns. The German resistance was formidable and 35 allied airplanes were reported as not returning to their home bases that night.
Shot down over Molenbroek
Lancaster ND762 is one of 16 aircraft of the 35th that took part in the attack on Dortmund on the night of Monday 22 May. The route brought the eight man crew from Flamborough over the Ijsselmeer to the target and then, returning home, towards Orfordness.
Flying at five thousand metres over Brabant they were surprised by a night fighter. Around 01:30 in the mornings they were shot down in flames. ND762 exploded in the air and three of the crew were thrown out with parachutes, while the five others died.
Fragments of the bomber and the bodies of the crew fell to earth in the Molenbroek area between Vessem and Middelbeers, some 14 kilometers west of Eindhoven. In the days following the bodies were brought to the “Algemeen Begraafplaats” in Woensel for burial.
On 23 May RAF Bomber Command, the UK Air Ministry, and the RAF Records Office were informed that the aircraft and crew were missing. The customary procedure of the RAF was set in motion: close relatives of every member of the crew received a telegram followed by a letter a few days later. Equally routinely, the personal possessions of the missing were removed from lockers and recorded. Equipment was returned to the stores and the personal possessions deposited in the central store of the RAF. The families remained uncertain of the fates of their loved ones for a long time.
Cox, Cursiter, Maskell, McLaren and Stewart were buried in the general cemetery in Woensel, marked with a simple wooden cross. The body of Cursiter was found later than the others in a boggy part of the Molenbroek. In the fifties the familiar stones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were installed with a personal message from the families of the deceased. Additionally the motto of the RAF “Per ardua ad astra” – “through adversity to the stars” - is engraved on every stone
The survivors – prisoners of war
Ernie, Derrick and Frank survived the shooting down of the plane but were captured, interrogated and confined for the duration of the war. After their release from confinement they were, as normal, questioned by the RAF and their experiences recorded as they told.
Ernie and Derrick went underground on 23 May until they were both betrayed in Antwerp before the month was out, on 17 June 1944.
Ernie was helped by Fons van der Heyden from Netersel in particular, while Derrick came quickly into contact with Teunis Haneveld, a medical student who was living underground in De Rimboe on the Kromvensdijk between Middelbeers and Westelbeers. After 14 days sharing Teunis’ hiding place, Derrick made his way to Moergestel After the war Teunis would be honoured by both the British and the American governments for his bravery.
Derrick Coleman was subsequently helped by several people to reach Antwerp where he fell victim to treachery, picked out by two men in civilian clothes who were German policemen. He was held in a military gaol for 11 days before being handed over to the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). Ernie Holmes met the same fate as Derrick on his arrival in Antwerp. Both Ernie Holmes and Derrick Coleman were interrogated by the Gestapo and threatened with death in an attempt to learn information about the Resistance.
Ernie and Derrick were to remain together for the duration of the war. First they were imprisoned in Stalag Luft III near Sagan for six months. This camp was intended for captured aircrew. In February 1945 they were moved to an overcrowded Marlag und Mirlag near Westertimke (Naval Detention Camp) before being liberated and repatriated in May 1945..
The third survivor, Frank Tudor, crashed into a tree. He suffered concussion and a broken leg and needed urgent medical help. He surrendered himself to the police post in Middelbeers and was transferred the same day to the Feldgendarmerie in Eindhoven. From Eindhoven he was taken to the Luftwaffe hospital in Amsterdam where he was nursed until 31 May. Subsequently Frank was imprisoned in Stalag Luft VII in Bankau, Upper Silesia until January 1945. As the Allies and the Russians advanced, the prisoners were moved in the final days of the war. Frank was marched hundreds of kilometers in the bitter winter cold to the already overcrowded Stalag III-A in Luckenwalde. Fortunately Frank’s stay was short and he too was repatriated in May 1945.
For an extensive interview with Frank Tudor, please visit the website of the Imperial War Museum
After repatriation to Britain in May 1945 the survivors could resume the trades that had marked them out before the war began – Holmes as a painter/decorator, Coleman as a clerk, and Tudor as a butcher. Ordinary men in extra-ordinary times doing extra-ordinary deeds.
Holmes and Stewart were decorated as officers with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Tudor was decorated with the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM), an equivalent medal which in the United Kingdom was granted to non-officers. The medals were awarded for acts of valour, courage, or devotion to duty while flying in active operations against the enemy. In 1993 the two medals were merged into the same medal for everybody - the DFC.
The eight youngsters who crashed to earth on May 23 1944 in the Molenbroek form part of a remarkable story. Over 55.000 ‘bomber boys’ of the RAF and 25000 of the USAF lost their lives in Northern Europe conducting bombing attacks that proved decisive in achieving victory over Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.
Remembering the events of 22/23 May, Pilot Ernie Homes wrote the opening lines to his poem ‘I will remember’,
When the sun sets, and darkness falls. I will remember.
When the sun rises, and another day is born. I will remember.