As I’ve written previously, hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed whilst serving with Bomber Command during the Second World War. Many of them were shot down over France, Belgium and Holland, and indeed Germany, particularly during the vast Strategic Bombing Offensive from 1942 onwards.
Given the huge numbers of bombers going out almost every night, and the German defences of flak guns, night fighters and searchlights. Over time, the odds of survival were rather frightening indeed. And unsurprisingly, more than a few men found themselves parachuting out over occupied Europe, or surviving air crashes. Men who found themselves on the run faced varying treatment – hidden by patriots in the occupied countries, evading via the escape lines, captured by the Germans, or, in the worst case, murdered by German civilians or the authorities.
By rights, RAF crew in uniform should have been afforded the rights of lawful combatants under the Geneva Convention. However, as with the Kommando order and the Laconia Order, Hitler considered that international law need not apply, and ordered that ‘spies’ were to be shot, and civilians were not to be prevented from murdering downed aircrew. There are stories, sadly, of allied airmen being murdered by pitchfork wielding farmhands.
Given that several hundred men from Portsmouth died in downed Bombers, the sad likelihood is that some of them may have faced treatment that would constitute a war crime. It is hard to find out too much about which might have been murdered, as the Bomber Command loss records do not necessarily contain information about what happened.
But I have recently been contacted by a relative of Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, who was killed when his Lancaster PB148 ‘MG-C’ of 7 Squadron RAF crashed on the night of 18/19 August 1944. They were on a mission to bomb Sterkrade, the synthetic oil processing plant in Oberhausen, the Ruhr. And by coincidence, MG-C is the only aircraft lost during the war to have contained two Portsmouth men – also onboard was Pilot Officer Alan Hargrave.
The Bomber Command Loss records only record that MG-C took off from RAF Oakington at 2304. No other information is available, apart from that the men are all buried in Bergen General Cemetery, Holland. The entire crew were:
F/L P.G.McCarthy DFC KIA (Pilot)
F/O K.S.Carr KIA (Air Bomber)
P/O A.B.Hargrave KIA (Navigator)
P/O F.C.Allford KIA (Wireless Operator)
P/O B.F.Blatchford KIA (Air Gunner)
F/S M.S.Layton-Smith KIA (Air Bomber)
F/S J.C.Gay KIA (Flight Engineer)
F/S E.A.Batterbee KIA (Air Gunner)
Notice that there are eight crewmembers. Most Lancasters only had seven. The McCarthy family believe that the crew may have been murdered, as the germans suspected that the extra man was a spy. Apparently the aircraft had crashed near Alkmaar in Holland, very near Bergen. Apart from that, I have no other information. Looking at their roles onboard, the extra man seems to have been one of the air bombers, Carr or Layton-Smith, who might have been flying as an observer or ‘second-dicky’ for the experience. A look at the Squadron Operations Book should show who the regular crew members were. It looks like the Germans mistook the extra man for a spy.
After the war, however, the British Army in Germany investigated reports of War Crimes that took place in its area – including Belgium and Holland. And there are quite a few records in the National Archives in series WO309 about investigations into incidents. On my next trip to Kew I hope to have a look at 7 Squadron’s Operations Record Book, and then sift through the war crimes reports to see what I can find out, and see if I can solve the puzzle of what happened to MG-C.