Operation: Donges, France
Date: 24/25 July 1944 (Monday/Tuesday)
Unit: No. 50 RAF Squadron
Type: Avro Lancaster III
Base: Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire
Location: Pontchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France
Pilot: P/O Clement Burton Haarland, J/87464 RCAF Age 21. Killed
Flt. Eng: Sgt. Robert Craig, 1823190 RAFVR Age 19. Killed
Navigator: F/Sgt. Joseph Lyle Nelson, R/170588 RCAF Age 28. Killed
Air Bmr: F/O Stafford John Sullivan, J/29382 RCAF Age 27. Killed
W. Op: Sgt. William James Bernard Doughty, 1670363 RAFVR Age Unknown Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Norman Gronbeck, R/251698 RCAF Age 24. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Gordon Frank Finch, R/200704 RCAF Age 21. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS
Eight weeks after the 'D' Day Landings a new campaign was started against enemy held oil refineries and depots in an effort to paralyze German fuel supplies.
In 1933 an oil refinery was built on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Loire River which came under the control of the occupying German forces after the French surrender in June of 1940.
Although the area had been targeted due to its proximity to the port of Saint Nazaire which had become a base for the Kriegsmarine and the U Boat pens built there, the oil refinery at Donges remained relatively unscathed.
This would change on the night of 23/24 July 1944 when a force comprised of 100 Halifaxes, 14 Lancasters and 5 Mosquitoes bombed the refinery severely damaging it as well as capsizing an attending oil tanker. No aircraft were lost on this raid.
On the following night, a second force consisting of 104 Lancasters, 9 of which were from No.50 Squadron, and 5 Mosquitoes was dispatched to complete the destruction of the refinery. In terms of success the town and refinery was completely destroyed but this time at the cost of the loss of three of the Lancasters and their crews one of which being that of Captain Haaland.
Such was the destruction of the town of Donges that after the war it was rebuilt 1km inland, the railway station being the only building that remains in its original location. The oil refinery was rebuilt in 1947 and today is the second largest in France.
Lancaster PA968 took off from RAF Skellingthorpe at 22:18 hours on the night of 24 July 1944. The weather was clear with good visibility. Upon arrival at the target area the force was met by searchlights and heavy flak. Almost immediately, Haaland's Lancaster took a direct hit, went into a steep dive and crashed to the ground exploding upon impact.
Tragically, Captain Haaland and his crew were on their first mission over enemy held territory when they were lost having just joined No.50 Squadron seven days earlier on 17 July 1944.
A first hand account of the loss was recounted in a letter to Josephine, the wife of F/O Sullivan, shortly after the war from F/O Harold "Buck" Sayeau DFC, who was the pilot of Lancaster PP214 of 106 Squadron participating in the same raid. An excerpt from the letter reads:
"Everything went fine that night Joe, until we got into the target area. The searchlights and guns of the town were just pointed to form a cone over the town, so to drop our bombs, we had to fly right through it. When I turned in for my run on the target, there was another Lancaster right beside me. Just then when my mid-gunner saw the letters on the other plane in the searchlights he yelled, "Skipper that is Sully's ship". So Joe, now you know how I know it was Sully. As I told you before, to drop our bombs we had to fly right through all the flak and were bound to get hit. Well, just before Burt dropped his bombs (Sully's Skipper) the aircraft really got hit, at least I think Burt was hit real bad because they never did drop their bombs and they only had a couple more seconds to go on their run. Old S for Sugar turned almost vertical on one wing and started diving, evidently out of control, I told my gunner to watch it. Then I finished my run and dropped my bombs. Then I pulled off and followed old S for Sugar down. It didn't go on fire but I didn't see a single parachute come out of it. The aircraft exploded when it hit the ground. It still had 14000 of bombs on, so you can imagine the rest Joe."
During the investigation by the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit (MRES) in 1946, several residents of the town of Pontchateau were interviewed in regards to the incident and aftermath.
A Monsieur Labiere stated that he was an eyewitness and was watching the bombers fly overhead that night when one was suddenly hit by flak and exploded when it hit the ground. He and his brother visited the crash site the next morning after the German forces had left the scene and found very little remained of the aircraft and the crew members. They concluded that the Germans must have been convinced that there were no survivors as they made no search as was their custom.
The mayor of Pontchateau said that at daylight when the crash scene was visited very little human remains were found and a few pieces of personal effects. Among these were the identity discs of Haaland, Sullivan and Doughty which were turned over to the Red Cross. An appeal was published in the local newspaper for anyone with information about the crash to come forward. Several letters were received and the writers interviewed but their evidence only substantiated that which was already known until one was received from a M. Robert Leroux.
M. Leroux and his wife witnessed the Lancaster being hit by flak at about 2 a.m. that night, falling from the sky and burying itself into the ground whereupon two bombs it was carrying exploded. In their possession was a piece of a flying helmet marked '644 Finch' and the initials G.F. which ascertained to the MRES team that Gordon Finch was also dead.
No other identifying evidence for crew members Craig, Nelson and Gronbeck was found but given the circumstances the MRES concluded that they too had all been killed in the crash.
The townspeople gathered up all the human remains that could be found and buried them in a collective grave at Pontchateau. The funeral service was attended by almost 2000 people and on the following Sunday a memorial service was held in the town church which was unable to hold all those that wished to attend. A permanent memorial was also erected by the town in gratitude for the supreme sacrifice of the crew in the name of freedom.
P/O Clement Burton Haaland
Clement or 'Burt' as he was known to his comrades, was born on 25 January 1923 at Watrous, Saskatchewan.
Shortly after completing his high school education at Watrous he enlisted at Saskatoon in November of 1941.
After short postings to No.2 Manning Depot at Brandon and No.5 Personnel Holding Unit at Paulson he was posted to No.7 Initial Training School, Saskatoon on 15 March 1942.
In May of 1942 he was selected to begin pilot training and posted to No. 6 Elementary Flying School at Prince Albert, Saskatchewan learning to fly Tiger Moth aircraft.
Posted to No.4 Service Flying School, Saskatoon in July 1942 Haaland would gain his wings flying the Cessna Crane on 6 November 1942.
After the customary embarkation leave, he was posted to Y Depot, Halifax from where he embarked for the UK on 12 December 1942 arriving at No.3 PRC Bournemouth seven days later.
Posted to No.14 Pilot Advanced Flying Unit, Ossington, Nottinghamshire on 6 April 1943 for 8 weeks training on Oxford aircraft.
Posted to No.10 Radio School 8 June 1943.
Posted to RAF No. 14 Operational training Unit 25 January 1944 and then 51 Base, he arrived at No.1654 Conversion Unit on 20 May 1944 for training on heavy bombers.
Posted to No.5 Lancaster Finishing School 3 July 1944 and to No.50 Squadron 17 July 1944.
Haaland Lake, Saskatchewan is named after P/O Clement Burton Haaland
Sgt. Robert Craig RAFVR
Known as Uncle Robin to the family, Robert came from a family or two sisters and three brothers.
F/Sgt. Joseph Lyle Nelson
Born 1 May 1916 Joseph was the second youngest of a family of eight brothers and sisters. He attended the University of Western
Ontario for one year before becoming a teacher and was serving as the principal of the village school at Minden, Ontario when he enlisted in June of 1942.
From No.1 Manning Depot, Toronto he was posted to No. 6 Initial Training School, Toronto 26 September 1942 and from there to No.12 Elementary Flying Training School at Goderich, Ontario in January, 1943. After two months he was assessed as being unsuitable for pilot training and recommended to be trained as a navigator.
Posted to No.4 Air Observers School at London, Ontario 3 April 1943 graduating as a Navigator with the rank of sergeant on 20 August 1943. The next he day married his wife Elma and after a short leave was posted to No.1 Y Depot, Halifax where he embarked for the UK on 13 September 1943.
Arriving at No.3 PRC Bournemouth on 20 September, Joseph was posted to No.9 Observers Advanced Training Unit at RAF Llandwrog, Wales on 9 November until 25 January 1944.
Posted to No.14 Operational Training Unit RAF Market Harborough training on Vickers Wellington bombers in preparation for conversion to heavy bomber types Joseph completed the course there on 7 April 1944.
Assigned to 51 Base at Swindersby 19 April 1944 he then was posted to No. 1654 Heavy Conversion Unit and subsequently to No. 5 Lancaster Finishing School before being posted to No.50 Squadron on 17 July 1944.
F/O Stafford John Sullivan
Born in Peterboro, Ontario on 17 September 1916, Stafford was the second eldest of two brothers and a sister. Leaving school at
the age of 15 to find work in order to help support the family. Initially enlisting in the army, Stafford re-enlisted in the air force after one month on 13 February 1942 as he felt that there was in his own words, "more action, excitement and educational possibilities".
Enlisted in Toronto on 13 February 1942 and posted to No.1 Manning Depot, Toronto 4 June that same year.
Taken on strength at No.1 Initial Training School, Toronto 13 September 1942. Whilst at No.1 ITS he married Josephine Cooper on November 9.
Selected to begin pilot training and posted to No.9 Elementary Flying Training School at St. Catherines, Ontario 28 December 1942. During his course here, it was determined that he was not suitable to be trained as a pilot and sent back to the manning depot on 24 February 1943 with the recommendation that he be trained as an air bomber.
Posted to No.4 Bombing and Gunnery School, Fingal, Ontario 18 April 1943 and subsequently to No.9 Air Observers School, St.Jean, Quebec on 11 July 1943 where he gained his Air Bomber badge and commissioned on 20 August 1943. The following comments were made by his commanding officer at his graduation:
"This man has personality to spare. He has a very winning nature and should make an excellent leader of men. He is very well liked, and has a good sense of humour. Quite a good athlete. Ground work good. Recommended for immediate commission."
Posted to No.1 'Y' Depot, Halifax 3 September and embarked New York 8 October disembarking in the UK on 16 October 1943.
Posted from No.3 PRC Bournemouth to No. 5 Air Observers School, at RAF Juby, Isle of Man 23 November 1943.
Posted to No.14 Operational Training Unit, Market Harborough 11 January 1944 and then to 51 Base 19 April 1944.
Attached to No.1654 Heavy Conversion Unit 20 May until 3 July. Posted to No.50 Squadron 17 July 1944.
Sgt. William James Bernard Doughty RAFVR
No further information.
Sgt Norman Gronbeck
Born Christmas Day 1919 at Methley, Manitoba to a family of three brothers and three sisters. Norman relocated to Ontario for
work as a sheet metal worker and machinist in 1941 and also served in the Lake Superior Regiment for a short period before enlisting with the RCAF on 29 March 1943. Needing further educational requirements to qualify for aircrew he was enrolled at Western Technical Commercial School where he passed the final examination on August 6 1943. Selected for training as an air gunner Gronbeck was posted to No.1 Air Gunners Ground Training School at Quebec City and No.9 Bombing and Gunnery School at St. Joli, Quebec where he attained his Air Gunners badge on 29 October 1943. From "Y" Depot Halifax he embarked for the UK on 24 November where he landed on 1 December 1943.
Posted from No.3 PRC to No.14 Operational Training Unit 11 January 1944.
Posted to 51 Base and 5 Group School Scampton 19 April until 20 May and then to No.1654 Heavy Conversion Unit 3 July 1944.
Posted to No.50 Squadron 17 July 1944
Gronbeck Lake northeast of Nejanilini Lake, Manitoba was named after Sgt. Norman Gronbeck in 1978.
Sgt. Gordon Frank Finch
Born 17 June 1923 in the village of Belmont, Ontario. Gordon had four brothers and two sisters. Working as a machinist he
enlisted at Hamilton on 10 November 1942 and reported to No.1 Manning Depot, Toronto on 27 May 1943.
Needing further educational requirements to qualify for aircrew he was
enrolled in the Pre-Aircrew Education Course at Danforth Technical School where he passed the
final examination on August 4 1943. Selected for training as an air
gunner Gordon was posted to No.1 Air Gunners Ground Training School at
Quebec City, 7 August and No.9 Bombing and Gunnery School at St. Joli, Quebec
where he attained his Air Gunners badge on 29 October 1943.
From "Y" Depot Halifax he embarked for the UK on 24 November where he landed on 1 December 1943.
Posted from No.3 PRC to No.14 Operational Training Unit 11 January 1944.
Posted to 51 Base and 5 Group School Scampton 19 April until 20 May and then to No.1654 Heavy Conversion Unit 3 July 144.
Posted to No.50 Squadron 17 July 1944
P/O Clement Burton Haaland. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of Boruf and Ingeborde (nee Johnson) Haaland, South Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sgt. Robert Craig. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of Hugh and Ellen Craig of Glasgow, Scotland.
F/Sgt. Joseph Lyle Nelson. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of Joseph and Lavina Alberta Nelson of Sprucedale, Ontario; husband of Elma Mary Nelson (nee Parson) of Orangeville, Ontario, Canada.
F/O Stafford John Sullivan Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave.van. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of John and Laura Sullivan of Peterboro, Ontario; husband of Josephine E. Sullivan (nee Cooper) of Peterboro, Ontario, Canada.
Sgt. Walter James Bernard Doughty. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Next of kin not known.
Sgt. Norman Gronbeck. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of Anders and Olive (nee Lorentson) Gronbeck of Hudson, Ontario, Canada.
Sgt. Gordon Frank Finch. Pontchateau Communal Cemetery, Ponchateau, Loire-Atlantique, France. Collective Grave. Son of Frank and Bessie (nee Moore) Finch of Belmont, Ontario, Canada.
Researched and compiled by Colin Bamford for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the families of the crew of Lancaster PA968.
F/O Harold Sayeau portrait kindly used by permission of Catherine Purkott, daughter of F/O Sayeau.
Pontchateau Memorial photographs courtesy of and copied from Veterans Affairs Canada website. Author unknown.
Further photographs of the memorial site can be viewed at this link: Lancaster PA968
Information on Sgt. Robert Craig courtesy Lynne Sayar - niece.