Pilot Officer John McLaren was the pilot of RAF 166 Squadron, Avro Lancaster III, JB644, AS-A2 on the night of 12 July 1944. They were recalled before reaching their target and were attacked on the way back and shot down by a German night-fighter.
Taking off at 21.20 hours from RAF Kirmington, the operation they were tasked with was the bombing rail facilities at Révigny -sur-Ornain in support of the Normandy Landings (6 June 1944). (RAF Kirmington is about 12 miles east of Grimbsy and is nowadays Humberside Airport.)
Allied aircraft flying in support of D-Day operations in July 1944 carried out three bombing raids on the railway junction and marshalling yards at Révigny, 200 km due east of Paris. Révigny lies on the banks of the river L’Ornain in the district of Marne. The railway running through Révigny runs from the Ruhr in Germany to north-eastern France, the Germans were making full use of the railways to supply the battle zone.
The marshalling yards at Révigny was a strategic target that had to be destroyed, and one which was going to prove easier said than done. It should have been destroyed at the first attempt but extremely bad weather, and the defending Luftwaffe saw to it that a heavy price in allied planes and men would have to be paid until the job was completed.
Just 15 miles south from the target was Saint-Dizier airfield, home to an experienced night fighter unit who were going to make things very difficult. During three operations to Révigny at this time, 41 Avro Lancaster’s were lost, and of the 287 aircrew, 231 were killed and only 56 managed to bale-out to be captured or assisted to evade by the French resistance fighters.
The crew of Lancaster JB644:
Pilot Officer John McLaren RAFVR (171644) – Pilot
Sergeant D. R. Summers RAF (1862059) – Flight Engineer – evaded capture
Flying Office Steven Peter Broad RAF (152211) – Air Bomber – evaded capture
Sergeant David Ferguson Paton RAF (1566514) – Wireless Operator
Flying Officer Lancelot Herbert Ellerker RAFVR (152950) – Navigator
Sergeant Frederick James Collins RAFVR (1896249) – Mid Upper Gunner
Sergeant Jeffrey Thomas Ernest Chalk RCAF (R/209550) – Air Gunner
The crew who died in the crash are buried at Chevillon Communal Cemetery, Haute-Marne, France Chevillon is a village 46 kilometres north of Chaumont, and 16 kilometres south-east of St Dizier. Chevillon Communal Cemetery is on the western side of the village, on the road to Rachecourt-sur-Marne.
Called up at the start of World War Two, John McLaren served with the Black Watch. In 1941 he transferred to the Royal Air Force. John McLaren then learned to fly with the RAF in Southern Rhodesia. On his way back to the UK, his ship was torpedoed, and he was interred in French West Africa (Vichy French). He was released after the allied landings in North Africa took place in November 1942 (Operation Torch – Morocco and Algeria). Pilot Officer John McLaren was next posted to RAF 166 Squadron on 3 May 1944 and undertook many bombing missions over the next year.
Pilot Officer John McLaren was the son of Alexander McLaren and of Elizabeth McLaren (Nee Reid), husband of Elizabeth Mary McLaren (Nee Adam), Park View Birnam, Perthshire. John McLaren was a staff member of the Bank of Scotland branch in Dunkeld. His parents and wife moved to Fairholm, Dunnotar Avenue in Stonehaven, Kincardineshire.
There are two collective graves at Chevillion, each containing the remains of five aircrew. This suggests that the men were recovered from catastrophic crashes and their remains could not be distinguished. Both the crew graves are from Avro Lancaster bomber RAF 166 Squadron (JB644) lost on 13th July 1944 and the other from RAF 460 Squadron lost two days later on the 15th July 1944. Based on the dates, the aircraft were probably flying in support of D Day operations, most likely in daylight, hitting transport hubs.
At the time of the bombing attack on Révigny, Saint-Dizier airfield was the base for Nachtjagdgeschwader 5 (NJG 5) (4 May–August 1944) flying Messerschmitt Bf 110’s.
Also based at Saint-Dizier was Kampfgeschwader 101 (KG 101) (10 June–July 1944) flying Junkers Ju 88A-4, and Mistel (German for Mistletoe) composite aircraft. The Mistel was the larger, unmanned component of a composite aircraft configuration developed in Germany during the later stages of World War II. The composite comprised a small, piloted control aircraft mounted above a large explosives-carrying drone aircraft. The Mistel and drone was referred to as the Huckepack (“Piggyback”) and was also known as the Beethoven-Gerät (“Beethoven Device”) and also as the Vati und Sohn (“Daddy and Son”).
A Mistel may have targeted the hulk of the old French battleship FFS Courbet, which had been included as a component of the D-Day operation Mulberry artificial harbours at Arromanches (off Sword Beach). The FFS Courbet was specially dressed up as a decoy by the Allies. During 1943-44, testing of the Barnes Wallis ‘Highball’s’ (anti-ship weapon) was carried out by de Havilland Mosquito’s on Loch Striven, just north of Rothesay against the anchored former French Battleship FFS Courbet and later the Battleship HMS Malaya.
French West Africa (Afrique-Occidentale française, AOF) was a federation of eight French colonial territories in West Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. The federation existed from 1895 until 1958.
The treatment of British survivors in French West Africa was raised in the Westminster Parliament – from Handsard record – FRENCH WEST AFRICA (BRITISH SURVIVORS, TREATMENT).
HC Deb 22 October 1941 vol 374 cc1755-61755
Mr. Wedgwood asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he is aware of the treatment meted out to 42 British survivors of a bombed ship, who got to West Africa, by the officials of the Vichy Government; whether any protest has been made; and whether His Majesty’s Government will treat the Vichy Government as hostile and occupy Obok, instead of immobilising considerable Allied Forces for the protection of French and Italians in that part of the world? 1756
Mr. Eden His Majesty’s Government have received a number of disquieting reports of the treatment of the survivors of British ships who have been landed in French West Africa. The matter has been taken up with the French High Commissioner at Dakar, and the United States Consul there is making inquiries on our behalf. When their result is known, His Majesty’s Government will consider what further action should be taken. As regards the last part of the Question, I have nothing to add to my reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Berwick and Haddington (Captain McEwen) on 15th October.
Mr. Wedgwood “How long, O Lord,” shall we continue to turn the other cheek?
Obok or Obock is a seaport on the north shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura (Tajura) in Djibouti (pre-WW2, French Somaliland) at the western end of the Gulf of Aden, the southern entrance to the Red Sea. During WW2 the colony was then ruled by the pro-Axis Vichy (French) government. The British blockaded the port of Djibouti City, but it could not prevent local French from providing information on the passing ship convoys. In 1942, about 4,000 British troops occupied the city.