Squadron Leader Gavin Strang Smith


Squadron Leader Gavin Strang Smith (pilot) and his crew onboard Avro Lancaster ME840, call sign BQ-V from RAF 550 Squadron took off from RAF North Killinghome at 23.05 on 16 June 1944 for a raid to Sterkrade, Oberhausen in Germany. Nineteen aircraft from the squadron took off without incident, but one aircraft was forced to abandon the mission when the port inner engine became unserviceable. The night was cloudy, and some icing problems were encountered. 

Ahead of the main bomber force, Pathfinder aircraft had dropped markers (target illuminators). Anti-Aircraft Flak at the target was moderate to intense and night fighters were active in the area.  

Lancaster ME840 was late leaving the target and fell behind the rest of the bomber stream, losing any mutual protection from concentrated gunfire of the other aircraft, but also became exposed to enemy radar by losing the protection of ‘window’ dropped by other bombers. Somewhere near the Netherlands/German border, Lancaster ME840 was hit by a burst from a night fighter which hit their No 2 engine and petrol tank. No 1 petrol tank then caught fire. Flying Officer Kay, the flight engineer,  jettisoned the forward escape hatch, stopped No 2 engine and operated the extinguishers in vain. Smith ordered the crew to put on their parachutes, but before they could, the petrol tank exploded. The aircraft came down near Varssveld, north west of Aalten in The Netherlands. It had lost a tailpiece and part of a wing.  

At 01.30 am, Kay was standing next to Smith when he was blown out of the aircraft. The next thing Kay knew was that he was falling. Regaining consciousness, he managed to pull his ripcord and open his parachute. Lancaster ME840 had exploded, he was the only survivor.  

When he landed in an enclosed field, Kay was bleeding a bit from superficial wounds in the left arm and knee and his right boot had fallen off.  Thinking he had landed further west than he did, he headed south, back towards the German border. On the morning of the 19th he met a farmer who gave him food and put him in touch with the Dutch underground movement. He was then moved to The Hague where he stayed for 40 days before being transferred to the Belgian underground. Here he stayed until 19 September 1944 when the Americans overran the area. 

Night fighter ace, Oberleutnant Josef Nabrich (3./NJG1) flying a Heinkel He 219 Uhu (‘Eagle-Owl’), from Venlo Airfield, claimed a four-engine aircraft flying at a height of 6,000 m at 01.49 am. This would be his 14th kill of 17. Josef Nabrich, then Staffelkapitän of 3./NJG 1, was killed on 27 November 1944 when he was hit in the head by strafing fighter-bombers of  RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) whilst driving near Münster-Handorf airfield. Oberleutnant Josef Nabrich was buried at Münster-Lauheide war cemetery. 

The crew of Avro Lancaster ME840: 

Squadron Leader Gavin Strang Smith DFC, RAFVR (108543) – pilot, age 22 (KIA) 

Flying Officer Roy Kay RAF (53358) – flight engineer, born 14 January 1921, (Evader) (died 23 March 2009) 

Flying Officer John Joseph Berg DFC RAFVR (129551) – navigator, age 23 (KIA) 

Flying Officer Leslie Pulfrey RAFVR (148869) – air bomber, age 29 (KIA) 

Flight Sergeant Ralph Townsend DFM RAFVR (1078579 – wireless operator/air gunner (KIA) 

Flight Lieutenant St. John Tizard RAFVR (112026) – air gunner, age unknown (KIA) 

Flying Officer James Heath RCAF (J/20002) – air gunner, age 35 (KIA) 

 The crew who were killed in action are buried in Wisch (Varsseveld) General Cemetery, The Netherlands 

Smith’s DFC was gazetted 29 December 1942 for service in RAF 142 Squadron. Berg’s DFC was gazetted 12 November 1943 for service with RAF 100 Squadron and  Townsend’s DFM was gazetted 10 December 1943 for service on RAF 460 Squadron. 

Smith was the son of Robert and Marion Leiper Smith of Drumearn, Kincarrathie Crescent, Perth. He was educated at Sharp’s Institution and Perth Academy. He enlisted in the RAFVR whilst serving his apprenticeship as a solicitor with Messers McCash & Hunter, Perth. After training in Canada under the Joint Air Training Plan, he was commissioned in September 1941. 

Flying Officer Berg, DFC, the navigator in the crew was married just three weeks before the fatal crash. Tizard was the squadron’s gunnery leader. The crew were very experienced, most, if not all were on their second operational tour (30+ missions). 

Perthshire Advertiser, 30 December 1942: 

In describing his exploits, the official statement says: As captain of aircraft Flying Officer Smith is always undeterred by the strongest enemy defences or adverse weather. By his fine offensive spirit this officer has inspired a high standard of morale in the squadron. 

The statement also describes how, on one occasion, F/O Smith was detailed to make an attack on a factory in Northern France. On his first run over the target, technical trouble developed with the bombing panel. This was repaired and, although severely harassed by searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, he descended to 1500 feet before releasing his bombs. 

 Sterkrade is just north of Duisburg and Essen in the Ruhr area of Germany. The Ruhrchemie AG synthetic oil plant was an important bombing target whose bombing helped shorten the war by denying the Germans fuel to power their war machine. There were 14 synthetic oil plants and 13 oil refineries in Germany and the occupied countries during the Second World War. 

Of the 321 bombers that went to Sterkrade synthetic oil plant on 16/17 June 1944, 31 were shot down, nearly all by night fighters. RAF 550 Squadron from RAF North Killinghome lost three out of 18 Lancaster’s. 

RAF North Killinghome in North Lincolnshire opened in November of 1943, it became fully operational in January 1944 when RAF 550 Squadron moved there from RAF Waltham. They flew their first mission to Brunswick on 14th January 1944. Squadron Statistics: 194 raids, 3,485 take offs, 122 early returns, 188 ‘Ordered to Return’, 3,175 successful sorties, 4,271 night operational hours flown, 4,988 day operational hours flown, 9,259 total operational hours flown, 16,195 tons of bombs dropped, 56 aircraft and crews ‘missing’, 14 aircraft crashed. 

The Pathfinders were normally the first to receive the new blind bombing equipment, like Gee, Oboe and the H2S radar. 

The German night fighters each defended a section in the so-called ‘Kammhuber Line’, a belt of anti-aircraft lights and night-hunting aircraft airfields stretching from Norway to FranceEach zone or cell had a control centre known as a Himmelbett (canopy bed)The night fighters were supported by radar technology at the beginning of 1942. 

Canada produced more than 130,000 aircrew during the Second World War. 

The Heinkel He 219 Uhu was Germany’s most effective night fighter of the war. It was one of the few aircraft capable of engaging the de Havilland Mosquito on equal terms. It was armed with up to 4 × 20 mm MG 151 cannons in a detachable fairing under the fuselage, 300 rpg (rounds per gun), 2 × 20 mm MG 151s in wing roots, 300 rpg and 2 × 30 mm (1.18 in) MK 108 cannons, Schräge Musik (oriented 65° above horizontal), 100 rpgSchräge Musik was the German term for upward-firing autocannon. The A-2 version from the summer of 1944 featured an updated, 90 MHz VHF-band Telefunken FuG 220 Lichtenstein SN-2 radar system, complete with high-drag 4 × 2-dipole element Hirschgeweih aerial. Had the Heinkel He 219 Uhu been produced in enough numbers it would have played a significant effect on the strategic bombing offensive of the Royal Air Force. The Uhu pilots claimed to have destroyed 20 RAF bombers during their initial six-night missions, Gruppen Kommandeur Major Werner Streib in a single sortie on the night of 11 June 1944, shot down five RAF Lancaster bombers. Streib was officially credited with shooting down 68 enemy aircraft, with 67 claimed at night. 

Gavin Strang Smith, Perthshire Advertiser 30 December 1942

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (CH 14187) Avro Lancaster B Mark III, ED905 ‘BQ-F’ ‘Press on regardless’, of No. 550 Squadron RAF awaits the starting signal on the main runway at North Killinghome, Lincolnshire, before taking off on its 100th operational sortie, a night bombing raid to Bochum, Germany, flown by Flight Lieutenant D A Shaw and crew. ED905, having already served with Nos. 103 and 661 Squadrons RAF, survived operations, only … Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212733

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BOMBER COMMAND (CH 14855) Crew members of Lancaster PA995/BQ-V of No 550 Squadron board their aircraft at North Killingholme for its 100th operation on 5 March 1945. Left to right are: Sergeant J Nicolson (mid-upper gunner), Flight Sergeant Jack Bold (bomb aimer) and Sergeant M McCutcheon (rear gunner). Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205218874

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (CE 121) The rear section of Avro Lancaster B Mark I, DV305 ‘BQ-O’, No. 550 Squadron RAF based at North Killingholme, Lincolnshire, seen at Woodbridge Emergency Landing Ground, Suffolk, after the severely-damaged aircraft crash-landed there following an attack by a German night fighter over Berlin on the night of 30/31 January 1944. In the course of the attack both the rear gunner and the mid-upper gunner … Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205090441

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (CH 17852) The crew of Avro Lancaster B Mark III, ED905 ‘BQ-F’ ‘Press on regardless’, of No. 550 Squadron RAF, pose on their aircraft after it had completed 70 operational sorties, at North Killinghome, Yorkshire. They were to fly ED905’s hundredth successful sortie on 4 November 1944. The crew consisted of: captain and pilot, Flight Lieutenant D A Shaw; navigator, Sergeant R Harris; engineer, Pilot Officer … Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210630

BADGES OF AIR FORCE SQUADRONS (CH 16575) Original wartime caption: Badge of No.550 Squadron, R.A.F. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205455615