Squadron Leader Gavin Strang Smith DFC

Gavin Strang 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 (1933/1938). He served his law apprenticeship (trainee solicitor) between 1938 and 1940 with Messer’s McCash & Hunter, Perth.

Gavin enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) on 10 September 1940 at RAF 9 Recruiting Centre, Blackpool, he was given the rank of Aircraftman Second Class (AC2). On 4 January 1941 he was promoted to Leading Aircraftman (LAC). His initial flying training was at RAF No. 19 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), RAF Sealand, (northeast Wales). 19 EFTS had just opened on 21 January 1941.  On 31 September 1941 he was promoted to Temporary Sergeant. After training in Canada at RCAF 33 Flying Training School (southeast of Carberry, in the Municipality of North Cypress-Langford, Manitoba) under the Joint Air Training Plan, he was commissioned as Pilot Officer on probation on 13 September 1941 and was gazetted on 18 November 1941.

On 17 October 1941, Gavin was posted to RAF 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Upper Heyford. Training was carried out using the Handley Page H.P.52 Hampden and Handley Page H.P.53 Hereford. Upon completing that course, he was posted to RAF 142 Squadron on operational duties. Flying Vickers Wellington Mk. II and Mk. IV, they were based at what service personal and locals, referred to as Waltham, officially it was named RAF Grimbsy.

Gavin had a spell with RAF 28 OTU at RAF Wymeswold near Loughborough, from 25 May 1942, returning to RAF 142 Squadron on 18 August 1942. He was then posted on 30 November 1942 to RAF 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit as a Flying Instructor based at RAF Swinderby and RAF Wigsley. The unit’s purpose was to convert medium bomber pilots to heavy bombers and used the Avro Manchester I, Avro Lancaster 1, Handley Page Halifax II & V, and Short Stirling III. During 1942 the unit flew twelve operational sorties with the loss of two aircraft. Gavin whilst at RAF 1656 was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on 29 December 1942.

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. 

On 17 August 1943, Gavin returned to operational duties with RAF 142 Squadron who were now operating since 26 May 1943 out of RAF Kairouan, Tunisia. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 13 September 1943, gazetted on 17 September 1943.  The Squadron moved to RAF Oudna, Tunisa on 15 November 1943 and on 17 December 1943, on that same day Gavin was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted as a Flying Instructor to RAF 1 Group at RAF Lindholme. Gavin remained at Lindholme until 25 May 1944 when he was posted to RAF 550 Squadron at RAF North Killingholme.

Squadron Leader Gavin Strang Smith (pilot) and his crew onboard Avro Lancaster B Mk.I 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 targets for that night were factories creating oil products for the German war industry. When they arrived over the targets they were obscured in thick cloud. It was a cold night; some icing problems were encountered by the aircraft. 

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, northwest of Aalten in The Netherlands. It lost a tailpiece and part of a wing above Aalten and split into two pieces coming down, landing in a field behind a farm called “Oude Lieftink”, in Varsseveld, in at the time, the Wisch municipality, since 2005 the Oude IJsselstreek municipality.  

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 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) 

As the aircraft crashed Flying Officer Roy Kay jumped from the aircraft and managed to parachute safely to the ground. He escaped arrest, aided by the ‘escapelijn’ (escape line) returning to the UK in September 1944. Flying Officer Leslie Pulfrey jumped from the burning aircraft above Aalten, his body was found the next morning by a farmer. His parachute was torn, damaged possibly by shrapnel and his head had become entangled in the parachute cords.

The remaining crew’s bodies were found in the wreckage, they are all buried in Wisch (Varsseveld) General Cemetery, The Netherlands (Algemene Begraafplaats in Varsseveld). Gavin’s death is recorded on the War Memorial of St. Leonards-in-the-Field and Trinty Church, Marshall Place, Perth.

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. 

A list of the crews last sorties, D-Day was 6 June 1944:

Battery near Calais, 2-3 June 44
Crisbecq, 5-6 June 44
Flers, 9-10 June 44
Le Havre, 14 June 44
Sterkrade, 16-17 June 44

Research by Ken Bruce


On Friday 6th May 2022 at 12 noon there will be an unveiling of a memorial in Gendringen (close to the German border) to remember all (500+) casualties during WWII in the former municipalities of Gendringen and Wisch (nowadays: Oude IJsselstreek). These victims are, citizens, Dutch, Canadian, English and German soldiers and RAF victims of the nine crashes in that area. The monument features a Canadian soldier in front and a Lancaster overhead 

Unveiling of a memorial in Gendringen (close to the German border) to remember all (500+) casualties during WWII in the former municipalities of Gendringen and Wisch (nowadays: Oude IJsselstreek). These victims are, citizens, Dutch, Canadian, English and German soldiers and RAF victims of the nine crashes in that area.
The monument features a Canadian soldier in front and a Lancaster overhead

In the late 1990’s Police Sergeant Kemp of Western Division, Perth was tasked with trying to find the relatives of Gavin Strang Smith. Relatives of John Joseph Berg have been instrumental in memorialising the crew in the Netherlands. The locals in the area where Lancaster ME840 crashed have also been trying to find the relatives, they were the ones who contacted Sergeant Roy Kemp, (now retired) in the late 90’s.

From the research of Sergeant Kemp: Gavin Strang Smith was in the same year at Perth Academy as another Perth flying legend, Neil Cameron. Neil Cameron rose to the highest rank in the RAF, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, he was also Chief of Defence Staff, and later became Lord Cameron of Balhousie. Click here: Neil Cameron ~ Marshall of the RAF – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155

Mr. Robertson, 199 Bute Drive, Perth worked on Moneydie Farm during the war. The farm was owned by a relation of Gavin. Mr. Robertson stated, “that is was common for Gavin during training flights to ‘buzz’ the farm, and on one occasion just prior to his death flew so low over the farm that he lifted the hay from the stacks they were just constructing or had built and spread hay over the field.’

A Mrs Simpson from Perth was one of the Met Officers (Meteorological) on 550 Squadron. Mrs Simpson and her fellow Met officers, shifts permitting, used to cycle out to the departure end of the runway and wave to each of the crews as they departed. She cannot recall if she did so on 16 June 1944 but thinks she might have.

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). 

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. 

On 19 December 1942, RAF 142 squadron were operating from RAF Blida in Alegria. Blida had just been captured from the Vichy French on 8 November 1942 by the British 11th Infantry brigade as part of Operation Torch, the allied invasion of French North Africa. An echelon of RAF 142 Squadron was retained in the UK at RAF Kirmington.

RAF 550 Squadron RAF was formed at Waltham, near Grimsby, November 1943, as a Lancaster heavy-bomber squadron in No. 1 Group and began operations that same month. Early in the New Year it moved to RAF North Killingholme also near Grimsby. It continued to play its part in the bomber offensive until late April 1945.

On 2 March 1945, when Varsseveld was still under control of the Nazi Forces, a mass execution of 46 people took place on Rademakersbroek, a road just outside of the town. The victims had been chosen at random and had been taken from the Kruisberg prison in Doetinchem, where they had been imprisoned for numerous reasons, ranging from taking part in Resistance activities to unknowingly buying a stolen bike. The mass execution was a revenge attack in response to the earlier discovery of four dead Nazi officers in a semi-burnt vehicle near the village. Four weeks later, on 31 March 1945, the village was liberated by the English Allied Forces

Gavin Strang Smith, Perthshire Advertiser 30 December 1942

Memorial Plaque to the crew of Avro Lancaster ME840, Oude IJsselstreek, Netherlands. Credit Gary Begg, nephew of Flying Officer John Joseph Berg

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

Poster for the 55th anniversary of the crash
On 17th June 1999 the Royal Dutch Air Force presented a flypast of 4 F-16 fighters from the Airbase at Twenth and flew over the crash site and where F/O L Pulfrey was found.

The Royal Dutch Airforce flypast 4, F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft was in ‘missing man’ salute formation over the memorial in the Netherlands.
(The Missing Man formation is a tradition that dates back to World War II. The symbolic moment when a single aircraft breaks formation and soars skyward, leaving behind his comrades-in-arms.)
Photo by Joe Pinguey a relative of F/O Leslie Pulfrey
ROYAL AIR FORCE OPERATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 1939-1943. (CNA 1088) Wing Commander A A N Malan, Commanding Officer of No. 150 Squadron RAF, briefs aircrew of his Squadron and those of No. 142 Squadron RAF at Kairouan West, Tunisia, for a night bombing raid on a target in Sicily. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205209244
Photo by Joe Pinguey (nephew of F/O Pulfrey)

Lancaster ME840 wing wreckage
Photo by Gerrit-H van Eerden (via Joe Pinguey)
Photo was “.. taken on Liberation Day 1945 and the Dutch crowd are actually standing on the wing wreckage of Lancaster ME840 BQ-V. It seems that later on in the war wreckage was not removed hence the photo.”
F/O John Joseph Berg (photo possibly taken while with 100 Sqdn)
Image by Gary Berg
A memorial for Flying Officer Leslie Pulfrey who was found dead in the field behind this memorial in the early morning of June 17th 1944. Leslie had tried to save his life with a bail out of his burning Lancaster bomber.