Originally formed during the Great War, No. 35 Squadron RAF was an elite squadron within No. 8 (Pathfinder) Group RAF. Along with Nos 79, 98, 99, 234, and 264 Squadrons RAF, No. 35 Squadron RAF was known as ‘Madras Presidency’ as the funding for the squadrons came from the Madras Province, then an administrative subdivision of British India. Equipped with cutting-edge navigation aids and flares, the Pathfinders were charged with providing target marking ahead of (and during) bombing missions.
Trained at RAF Perth in 1941, Flying Officer Ernie Holmes was a pilot with RAF 35 Squadron. He was shot down over Holland in May 1944. At 10:47 hours, on Monday, 22 May 1944, Holmes’s Avro Lancaster Mk III (ND762) lifted off from RAF Graveley, Cambridgeshire. It was equipped with state-of-the-art technology including Gee, Nav Aid Y (H2S – airborne ground-scanning radar system developed during the Second World War that remained in use until 1993), IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe), GPI (Ground Position Indicator), Fishpond (display unit) and Carpet, and carried 2 x LB TI (Target Indicator coloured sky marking flare) Green, 2 x TI Green, and 6 x 1,000-pound, 2 x 500 pound and 1 x 4,000-pound munitions. Its designated Pathfinder role was as a ‘Visual Centrer’ offering back-up targeting within the main bomber stream.
That night, 361 Lancaster’s and 14 Mosquitos of 1, 3, 6 and 8 Groups, were carrying out the first large raid on Dortmund (and Brunswick) for over a year and the last until after D-Day. The route was to Flamborough, 5315N 0330E, 5307N 0445E, 5212N 0715E, Target, 5110N 0734E, 5100N 0625E, 5143N 0450E, Orfordness. The raid concentrated on the south-eastern residential districts of Dortmund.
Eighteen Avro Lancaster’s were lost on the Dortmund raid, about 5 per cent of the total bombing force including that piloted by Holmes. On board ND762 was an 8-man crew, which had flown many missions together, always in the spirit of the squadron’s motto, ‘Uno Animo Agimus’ (‘We Act with One Accord’):
• 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, age 21- air gunner.
• Alistair Stuart McLaren (37) – air gunner (a former Metropolitan Police officer).
• John Robert Cursiter (20) – flight engineer.
The standard Avro Lancaster Mk III 7-man crew was complemented by a ‘spare bod’, Flying Officer Harold Thomas Maskell (35) – reserve air bomber and wireless operator.
The Lancaster was homeward bound, flying at 16,000 feet, when it was engaged by a German night fighter. A brief attack ended at 01:29 hours when the Lancaster exploded, killing 5 of the crew members, throwing out 3 of the crew with their parachutes, all of whom reached the ground alive. The debris from the bomber fell between Middelbeers (Noord Brabant) and Vessem, 14 km west of the centre of Eindhoven in Holland killing the 5 other crew members.
Luftwaffe night fighter pilot, Oberleutnant Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer claimed that he shot down 4-engine ND762 3 km northwest of Eindhoven at 01:15 hours. Schnaufer, known as the ‘Spook of St. Trond’ after his unit’s Belgian headquarters, became the most successful night fighter pilot of all time. In total, he claimed 121 shot down during the Second World War – most of his kills were RAF 4-engine bombers.
Holmes and Coleman initially evaded capture and aided by Dutch locals went underground. They were both captured in Antwerp on 17 June 1944, interrogated by the Gestapo and confined in a POW camp until the end of the war.
Warrant Officer Frank Tudor, the other survivor, collided with a tree during his descent suffering concussion and a broken leg, which necessitated urgent medical assistance. Tudor, whose DFM had been gazetted on 15 February 1944, received treatment at Oirschot. Subsequently, he surrendered to the police post in Middelbeers and thereafter was transferred (the same day) to the Feldgendarmerie (military police unit) in Eindhoven. From Eindhoven he was taken to the Luftwaffe hospital in Amsterdam where he was nursed until 31 May 1944 before being interned in a POW camp.
As the Allies and the Red Army advanced into Axis held territories, prisoners were force marched to other POW camps. In the bitter cold winter of 1944, Holmes and his fellow prisoners were made to walk hundreds of miles. In their ‘Liberation Questionnaires’, which were completed as part of the POW repatriation process at 106 Personnel Reception Centre (RAF Cosford) in 1945, Holmes and Coleman shared the following information:
• E. Holmes/D. E. Colman
• Evaded – 22.5.1944 to 17.6.1944 – betrayed.
• Captured – Antwerp 17.6.1944.
• Imprisoned – Stalag Luft III, Sagan July 1944-January 1945.
• Imprisoned – Marlag und Milag Nord, Westertimke (Tarmstedt) February 1945-April 1945.
• Repatriated – May 1945.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission records detail that the remains of Stewart, Maskell, Cox, McLaren, and Cursiter were concentrated (reinterred) at Eindhoven (Woensel) General Cemetery:
• McLaren, Alistair Stuart – Sergeant (1891777) – plot KK, grave 55.
• Cox, Albert William – Flight Sergeant (1314241) – plot KK, grave 56.
• Stewart, John Kennedy – Flight Lieutenant (129742) – plot KK, grave 57.
• Maskell, Harold Thomas – Flying Officer (139295)– plot KK, grave 58.
• Cursiter, John Robert – Sergeant (1570690) plot KK, grave 70.
Ernie flew two tours (2 x 30 (usually) missions) with RAF 76 Squadron on the Handley Page Halifax. He piloted on many bombing missions including the famous 18 August 1943 attack on the Peenemünde Army Research Centre (Heeresversuchsanstalt Peenemünde), run by the HVP organisation, headed by its technical director, Wernher von Braun. This operation was known as Operation Hydra and was the first attack of Operation Crossbow.
On 31 March 1944, Ernie took part in another important bombing attack, “The Nuremburg Raid”. It was a night of clear skies and a full moon which turned out to be costly in terms of aircraft losses for the RAF. Of the 795 RAF bombers assigned to the mission, 572 were Avro Lancaster’s, 214 Handley Page Halifax’s and 9 were de Havilland Mosquito’s. During the raid 96 bombers were lost and a further 10 were written off after landing.
After the war, Ernie became a flying instructor and miraculously survived two further aircraft crashes. (Ernie survived aircraft crashes every 10 years, in 1944, 1954 and 1964)
Ernie and his pupil Cadet Pilot J. Mustarde from Campbelltown “bailed out” by parachute of a Chipmunk aircraft on 23 September 1954. The aircraft crashed in a field near Errol. It came down with such force much of it was buried. An eyewitness and first on the scene, was a 29-year-old German dairyman, Wolfgang Kosanetzki, oddly, he was a former Luftwaffe pilot during WW2.
Ernie was the instructor on 24 June 1964 in a twin-engine Cessna 310, which crashed shortly after take-off from Scone. Two trainee Iraq pupils were on-board – Kamil Aljarrah and Rayadh al-Freeig. The aircraft skimmed over the airfield boundary fence and ploughed into a field containing prize bulls. Ernie was admitted to Bridge of Earn Hospital with severe burns to face and hand. His condition was said to be “only fair”. The others “fairly comfortable”.
During Holmes’s training at RAF Perth, he met a local woman, Irene Spinks. The couple married at the West Church (today St Matthew’s Church) in 1946. The early years of their married life were spent on various RAF bases. They returned to Perth in 1954 when Holmes became a flight instructor for the University of Glasgow Air Squadron, and later joined the air squadron of the University of St Andrews. Holmes left the RAF in 1962 to join Airwork Services at Scone Aerodrome as a civilian flight instructor, after which he and his wife moved to Nairobi, Kenya (and then Soroti, Uganda), where Holmes worked for East African Airways.
During this time, Holmes started having significant troubles with his vision and had to give up flying. On returning to Perth, he qualified as a social worker working, in the main, in HMP Perth. Irene became Registrar of the Aberdeen Angus Association. The platinum wedding anniversary couple moved into Kincarrathie House (residential care home), Perth, in 2016. Despite being registered as blind due to his deteriorating eyesight, a week after moving into the care home, Holmes was treated to a flight from Scone Aerodrome by Donal Foley, a former student.
Ernie’s DFC (= Distinguished Flying Cross) was awarded to him the day before his last bombing mission in 1944.
Ernie was awarded, Membership as a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, this was given on his 99th Birthday.
Ernie passed away in November 2021 at the age of 100 years.
Research by Ken Bruce
Holmes’s nickname, ‘Sherl-E’ was a Sherlock Holmes reference, a compliment to his ‘pathfinding’ skills. The addition of the ‘E’ was required to differentiate him from someone else who had the moniker ‘Sherl’.
Ernie was an Avro Lancaster pilot during WW2. Not just any pilot, he was one of the best, an elite Pathfinder in RAF 35 Squadron and he is immensely proud of that accomplishment. Pathfinders located and marked the targets with flares, guiding in the main bomber force. They were also later referred to as the “master bomber”. Ernie’s nickname was “Sherl-E” (Sherlock Holmes), this was given to him as a compliment to his skill in finding the target.
Stalag Luft III where he was a POW, is the same camp that had the earlier Great and the Wooden Horse Escapes. Sandy Gunn from Auchterarder was also there, (killed by the Gestapo after the Great Escape) and Bill Reid VC from Crieff was imprisoned there as well.
Sergeant Alistair Stuart McLaren, who was Ernie’s Air Gunner on Avro Lancaster ND762 and killed that day in 1944, was born at 14 Robertson’s Buildings, Dunkeld Road, Perth (opposite the Police Station), the son of John and Margaret Mclaren.
Sergeant Alistair Stuart McLaren – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Ernie visited the McLaren family I believe sometime after the war. Also a Mrs J McLaren, 14 Robertson’s Buildings, Perth was the grandmother of Wing Commander Edward Peter William Hutton:
Wing Commander Edward Peter William Hutton – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Ernie was so very proud that he was one of an elite group of Pathfinders. They were a significant group of experienced airmen who made a such a big difference during World War Two. They transformed the effectiveness of Bomber Command’s campaign during World War Two, turning it into a powerful force that could accurately hit the target anywhere in Western Europe.
Ernie was so good that he was given the nickname, ‘Sherl-E’, a reference to his Sherlock Holmes like ability to pathfinder lead the way to the target and drop markers for the rest of the bomber force to accurately aim and destroy.
The Pathfinders of RAF 8 Group were described by their Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice Marshal Don C T Bennett as ‘….serious, studious, meticulous – and gallant. Their contribution to victory was unique’.
In the tribute, I am trying to emphasise the true importance of the contribution the Pathfinders made to the bombing campaign. Back in 1941, it was noted that by the time the bombers reached the Ruhr in Germany, only one in 10 flew within five miles of the target, half the bombs remained un-dropped and only 1% fell in the vicinity of the target. The first action of the Pathfinder Force was in August 1942 and as experience was gained so did their success. From then on, they led almost every raid over occupied Europe.
The volunteers who were ‘cherry picked’, poached, from their squadrons to be Pathfinders, already had a significant number of operations under their belt. Initially this crème of the bomber crews, who had the necessary skills, committed themselves to another 60 demanding and extremely dangerous operations. As the number of bomber operations increased so did their chances of survival. During WW2, of every 100 airmen in Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded and 8 became, as in Ernie’s case, prisoners of war. A total of 57,205 members of RAF Bomber Command or airmen flying on attachment to RAF Bomber Command were killed or posted missing in World War II.