On 16 November 1944, Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, Mk. III, HB787, call-sign BU-J of RAF 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron took off at 22.30 hours on ‘Special Duty’ from RAF Oulton, three miles west of Aylsham, Norfolk. RAF Bomber Command had tasked a mission to bomb Düren, Jülich and Heinsburg in Germany with just under 1,200 bombers. HB787 was tasked with a ‘Window Drop’ mission. Nowadays called Chaff, Window was a radar countermeasure in which aircraft spread a cloud of thin strips of aluminium which appeared as a cluster of targets on radar screens.
Flying Fortress HB787 was a Mark III version which was delivered to the squadron that month. The squadron had been converted in January 1944 to a special operations unit. They had joined RAF No 100 Group Support and Radio Counter Measures (RCM) operations (electronic countermeasures). Their role was to support the main bombing operations by jamming enemy radio and radar.
The optimum cruising speed of the Flying Fortress was slightly slower (10 knots) than the Avro Lancaster’s and Handley Page Halifax’s. To keep up would mean using more fuel which would reduce the range of the aircraft. Being able to stay in the RAF bomber stream would have been difficult, however they were well armed and ideally suited to the role of electronic countermeasures. The jamming system electronic devices fitted on the aircraft were given code names such as ‘Jostle’, ‘Airborne Cigar’, ‘Mandrel’, ‘Airborne Grocer’ and ‘Piperack’. RAF No 100 Group also transmitted fake radio transmissions using German speaking personnel, codenamed ‘Corona’ they transmitted these messages for spoof controlling of German night fighters.
The squadron carried out spoof raids in which the aircraft would head for a target hopefully drawing the attention of German night fighters and anti-aircraft flak batteries. They would drop ‘WINDOW’ and then withdraw under its cover. They might repeat this manoeuvre several times, all designed to confuse the German defences. The real attack of the RAF bombers would then emerge from behind the cover they had constructed, hopefully on a course that the Germans had not expected.
Poor visibility forced Flying Fortress HB787 to be diverted to RAF Foulsham. On approach at 04.36 hours the visibility was still poor with cloud down to 100 feet and a faulty radio transmitter did not forewarn them of a crosswind. The Fortress bounced and climbed back into the cloud, stalled and came down in a wheat stubble field several miles south west of Foulsham airfield, Norfolk – eight miles west of their home base. None of the ten crew survived.
Date of loss: 16 November 1944, the crew:
Flight Sergeant Colin James Ashworth RNZAF (427492) pilot, age 22
Flight Sergeant Ernest Robert Armstrong RNZAF (427084) wireless operator/air gunner, age 20
Sergeant Peter Edward Durman RAFVR (1389300) air Bbomber, age unknown
Sergeant Gilbert Leslie Hislop RAFVR (1594952, Flight Engineer, age 32
Flight Sergeant William Alistair McLaren RAFVR (1672260) navigator, age 21
Flying Officer Archibald Havill Leitch RCAF (J/44328) navigator, age 21
Flight Sergeant Terence Francis McCormack RNZAF (429183) air gunner, age 24
Flight Sergeant Alexander McLaughlin RNZAF (422972) air gunner, age 27
Sgt Richard Edmond Mooney RCAF (R/261225) air gunner, age unknown
Sergeant Charles Gordon Mackay Ogilvie RAFVR (621667) air gunner, age 28
McLaren was the son of William and Margaret McLaren, Murthly. He is buried in Caputh Cemetery.
Research by Ken Bruce
Extract from the War Cabinet, Summary of Operations of Bomber Command for Four Weeks Ending 3rd December 1944:
- Result of Operations.
- German Towns.
At the request of the United States armies, the fortified area of Düren, Jülich and Heinsburg were heavily attacked on the 16th November. Almost the entire built-up area of Düren was destroyed except for a small area due west of the marshalling yard At Jülich, the destruction was on an even greater scale and the entire built-up area was destroyed.
97% of Jülich was destroyed that day, the ruined city was then subject to heavy fighting for several months. In the city there is a memorial plaque to the bombing of 16 November 1944 which states: “On this day, Jülich sank to rubble.” The raid on Jülich was particularly fierce as the U.S. and French military maps showed it as a fortress, it had ceased to be back in 1860. An estimated 4,000 civilians and soldiers were killed.
Bombs dropped on Jülich 16 November 1944:
75 x 4,000 lb
361 x 2,000 lb
1,945 x 1,0000 lb
1,613 x 500 lb
123,518 x incendiary’s
‘WINDOW’ comprised metallised strips, 30 cm long and 1.5 cm wide. They were dropped from the RAF aircraft in bundles. The thousands of slowly descending strips would confuse the German Würzburg (German Radar system) operators. A force of 700 bombers dropping ‘WINDO'” would look like a force of 11,000. The entire German radar system was severely disrupted. The dropping of ‘WINDOW’ on every operation over Germany became routine from its first use on 24/25 July 1943 until the end of the war. One million strips of ‘WINDOW’ were manufactured every month in the UK from mid-1943 to the end of the war. Winston Churchill called the race for electronic superiority the ‘Wizard War’.
The Federated Malay States was a federation of four protected states in the Malay Peninsula, Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. It was established by the British government in 1895, it lasted until 1946. The motto of RAF 214 (Malay Federated States) was: ‘Ultor in umbris’ (‘Avenging in the shadows’).
The Boeing Flying Fortress was fitted with four, very reliable, 9-cylinder Wright Cyclone engines as opposed to the 12-cylinder Merlin’s and 14-cylinder Hercules engines of the British bombers. Some RAF 214 Squadron Flying Fortress aircraft were fitted for long trips with so-called Tokyo Tanks giving and endurance of just under ten hours’ flying time.
The ‘spoof’ raids became much more hazardous by early 1945 as the Germans changed tactics to counter them – many aircraft were shot down as they landed back at RAF Oulton.
During an operation on 9 March 1945, nine crew members bailed out over territory enemy from Boeing B-17G Mk. III, HB779 of RAF 214 Squadron. Most were them when captured were taken to the village of Huchenfeld, south of Pforzheim. That night they were dragged out and hauled along the street by a gang of young men. Their captors were dressed in ordinary civilian clothes. Three of the crew burst free of the captors and ran. Four of them were then murdered by the angry mob – shot in a churchyard. Two of the crew were later recaptured and became POWs. A fifth crewman had made a run for it but was caught later in a neighbouring village where a mob hauled him out of the police station, beat him half to death, and then shot him in the head. The pilot managed to fly the crippled B-17 back. He landed it safely at an unfamiliar aerodrome with his port landing wheel shot away.
A year later, in June 1946, the two POWs returned to Germany as witnesses in the war crimes trial against 22 men and youths who had taken part in the killings. It turned out local Nazi leaders had ordered a lynch-mob of Hitler Youth to dress in civilian clothes, posing as outraged villagers. They were to assault the schoolhouse where the RAF men were being held and take them to their deaths. Seventeen were convicted. Three were hanged and others were imprisoned. The town Burgermeister died later in prison (1951), while serving a sentence for his part in what happened.
War Grave of Flight Sergeant William Alistair McLaren, Caputh Cemetery