A Bomber Command Navigator, 80 Years On – Aborted “Gardening” 17th May 1942/Mannheim, 19th May 1942

Having been shot down on his 15th operation (5th May 1942) in a “friendly fire” incident involving an RAF Hurricane/Havoc combination from Tangmere, Alan undertook his next 2 missions with 218 Squadron on 17th and 19th May 1942.  As recorded in his logbook, the 12 days between these operations included 5 air test/local flying sorties. Four of these trips were onboard Q7530, the replacement for the Stirling (R9313) which Alan and his crew had baled out of on 5th May 1942. Built at Austin Motors in Birmingham, Q7530 was a brand-new Stirling, which had only arrived at Marham on 8th May 1942. It was soon commandeered by S/Ldr Ashworth and given the code HA-Q previously allocated to R9313, HA being the designator for 218 Squadron.

Extracts from Alan’s Logbook (May 1942) – Source: S. Green

Reference to the 218 Squadron Operations Record Book (ORB) below suggests that the weather was intermittently poor during this period, “associated with the depression moving east over North France”, which would explain why only local training operations had been carried out until 17th May 1942.

Despite the conditions, “fair with thundery showers this afternoon”, on 17th May 1942, “gardening was the order of the night” for 218 Squadron. As a result, 11 aircraft were despatched from Marham, as part of a major minelaying (Gardening) operation in the “Daffodils” area to the south of Copenhagen, involving 32 Stirlings and 28 Wellingtons from No. 3 Group Bomber Command. While the ORB states that “the majority of the planters sowed their seeds in the allotted position” and “63,000lbs bombs were dropped”, fierce defences resulted in the loss of 7 aircraft with 28 crew dead and 19 taken prisoner.

One was a 218 Squadron Stirling (N6071, HA-G) under the command of the New Zealander, F/L Arthur Humphrey DFC, who was on his second tour, having flown an incredible 57 missions, starting in April 1940 with 75 (NZ) Squadron. The ORB report states that “nothing was heard of this machine was heard after take-off”, since it was shot down enroute to the Danish coast by a Bf110 of 2/NJG2, piloted by Oblt Rudof Schoenert. Although all 7 crew successfully baled out, the 27-year-old Navigator, P/O Barnfather, who was an Australian lawyer in civilian life, was found dead under his parachute with severe stomach wounds; later reports suggested his parachute had failed to open. The surviving crew spent the rest of the war as POWs, while Barnfather was laid to rest in a cemetery in Esberg on 23rd May 1942.

Meanwhile, Alan commenced his 16th mission on board the new Stirling W7530, captained by S/Ldr Ashworth, which departed Marham at 2230 and immediately suffered failure of the port outer engine, as noted in his logbook, “port outer failed on takeoff – returned”. According to the ORB, W7530’s payload of four mines and two 500lb bombs was promptly “jettisoned safe at 2250 hrs., from 900ft, owing to engine trouble”. Take-off is a critical phase of flight for any aircraft, but it was particularly challenging in these heavily laden bombers in WW2, so S/Ldr Ashworth clearly did an excellent job landing safely on this occasion.

218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) – Source: National Archives

Another rather famous aircraft was also lost on this operation, namely W7531 LS-F from 15 Squadron at RAF Wyton, known as “MacRobert’s Reply” after Lady MacRobert, who had donated £25000 for the purchase of a Stirling Bomber in memory of her 3 sons, Iain, Roderick and Alistair, all 3 of whom had died on active RAF service. When writing the cheque, she is reported as saying “it is my wish to make a mother’s immediate reply in a way that I know would be my boys’ reply -attacking, striking sharply, straight to the mark.” On 10th October 1941, Stirling N6086, with the family coat of arms painted on the nose, was handed over to 15 Squadron in the presence of Lady MacRobert.  It went on to complete 12 missions, before being written off in an accident on 7th February and was replaced by W7531, which entered service in March 1942.  W7531 was subject to sustained ground fire and subsequently crashed near Middlefart in Denmark, killing 8 of its 9 crew members, one of whom was a visitor from another squadron who had joined the mission at the last minute. The sole survivor, Sgt Donald Jeffs, suffered serious injury, but survived the war as a POW. The MacRobert family also paid for 4 Hurricanes, 3 of which were named after their sons, while the naming tradition was revived by 15 Squadron in 1982, continuing until 25 January 2018, when its MacRobert’s Reply Tornado completed its last flight.

The Crew of MacRobert’s Reply (N6086) – Source: IWM

Prior to embarking on his 17th operation at 2240 on 19th May 1942 in Stirling P6078, Alan and his crew carried out an air test in the same aircraft earlier that day.  The switch to P6078 had no doubt been necessitated by the engine failure on take-off suffered by W7530 on the previous mission. Interestingly, the day before Alan had been taken up in a Tiger Moth (W6418) by S/Ldr Ashworth, perhaps for some impromptu flying instruction in the local area!

On this night, 218 Squadron was back to bombing with 2 different targets selected. Seven aircraft were tasked with attacking the German city of Mannheim, which was an important industrial centre and inland port on the river Rhine. For P/O Ball, who was “on his freshman trip”, commanding Stirling W7502, the target was the docks at St Nazaire in France.  Overall, 197 aircraft were tasked with taking on Mannheim, of which 70 Wellingtons and Stirlings came from 3 Group squadrons, who also provided another 30 machines for the St. Nazaire raid.

Although N3722, captained by F/Sgt Johnston, was withdrawn due to last minute technical issues, the 218 Squadron ORB below states that Mannheim “was successfully attacked” and fires were “blazing in the target area”.  In their specific ORB report, Alan’s crew noted “red fire due west of town and also a fire north west, probably a dummy”. Regarding the St Nazaire attack, “more flak was encountered than expected” and “active searchlight coning was also experienced”, but “the docks were located and bombed”. 

While “53000Ibs of bombs were dropped during the operation” against both targets, subsequent inspection of photographs taken over Mannheim at the time revealed only 4 to be within 5 miles of the aiming point, with much of the bombing taking place well west of the city. The apparent failure of this mission was further compounded by the loss of 11 aircraft, resulting in the death of 46 crew members and 23 taken prisoner. Of these losses, one was a 218 Squadron Stirling (DJ977 HA-F), commanded by Sgt Stanley Coggin, from which “nothing was heard from this aircraft after take-off” from Marham at 2316. According to W R Chorley, the aircraft was “lost without trace” with the loss of all 8 crew, who are commemorated on the RAF Memorial at Runnymede.  More recent research by the Squadron Historian, Steve Smith, suggests the bomber was possibly shot down by Ofw Heinz Struning of 7./NJG2.

218 Squadron Operations Record Book (May 1942) – Source: National Archives


AIR 27/1350 218 Squadron, May 1942

Chorley, William, RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War 1942 (Leicester, Midland Counties Publications, 1994)

Smith, Steve, From St Vith to Victory, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany (Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, 2015)

Smith, Steve, Courage Was Not Enough, No. 218 (Bomber) Squadron, Weston-super-Mare’s Own 1936-42 (Merthr Tydfil, Mention the War Ltd., 2020)

Lecturer in Air Transport Management at Buckinghamshire New University, Module Leader in Aviation Sustainability Management. Experienced Airbus/Boeing Captain.

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