07/08.08.1944 No 70 Squadron Wellington X LN751 T F/O. 'Jamie' James
Operation: Szombathely Airfield
Date: 07/08th August 1944 (Monday/Tuesday)
Unit: No. 70 Squadron
Type: Wellington X
Base: RAF Tortorella, Foggia No. 2, Italy
Location: I km north of Jakabhaza, Hungary
Pilot: F/O. ‘Jamie’ Haydn Walter James 128898 RAFVR Age 22. Killed
Obs: F/O. ‘Herbie’ H.J. Rudman J/25031 RCAF PoW
W/Op/Air/Gnr: F/O. ‘Stowie’ Frederick George Stowell NZ/427340 RNZAF Age 24. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. ‘Doug’ Douglas E. Newhouse 1399548 RAFVR PoW
Air/Gnr: Sgt. ‘Harry’ Henry Whittaker 1580758 RAFVR PoW
REASON FOR LOSS:
Forty-seven Wellingtons, nineteen Liberators, and eight Halifaxes were despatched to attack the airfield at Szombathely. All the aircraft identified the target without difficulty in excellent illumination, and numerous sticks of bombs were seen to cover the landing ground. Direct hits followed by fires were claimed on a hangar, other fires were started in the north-eastern dispersal area and on the landing ground. Photo reconnaissance confirmed these claims, showing the landing ground completely unserviceable due to cratering, and damaged hangars. Four aircraft failed to return.
We heard from the daughter of Harry Whittaker in February 2016. Jillian has carried out a great del of research into this loss and the history of her father. We decided to place her research, in its entirety within the page. As described, he also wrote many poems, some of which we have included within our Poetry Section.
“He was respected and loved, this special, quiet, gentleman, who drew so much comfort and pleasure from just sitting and thinking. From those thoughts came creative poems and stories, a legacy to his deep sensitive feelings about life and its meaning....
We remember too his stoical courage through life’s trials and tragedies. ....The love and understanding he shared with my mother was the source of mutual support, and an example to us all.
I am proud to have had such a father. He lives on in me, and through me also to the next generations. Our lives are enriched by the character and values of this man, and we will not go far wrong if we remember him as an example by which to measure our own lives.”
The above is an extract from the eulogy I gave at my father’s funeral. This was my Dad, I am truly proud that it is so, though yes, I know very well that every Daddy’s girl thinks her dad is exceptionally wonderful!
Ah, but ... mine truly was.
However, this is not a story about him per se. It is a narrative about what happened to him in the war. Just another war story? True, there are thousands of remarkable war experiences worthy of relating. This is one of them, and no less impressive or emotive through being “just one of many”. I will not attempt to express this sentiment in stronger terms as I do not wish to detract in any way from the merit and courage demonstrated by the thousands of men and women who suffered in the wars. Suffice to say, considering what my Dad experienced, it is remarkable that I exist.
Born to Maria Whittaker, a seamstress, on the 3rd February 1907, my Dad was christened Henry, he had a sister Ann Frances, born on the 3rd July 1900, and a father whose identity was never confirmed, but is assumed to have been his mother’s Scottish employer, married to someone else.
Henry, more commonly known as Harry, joined the RAF in May 1943 at the age of 36. Older men were being accepted by then, as the war dragged on and younger men had been killed, or were too badly injured to fight on.
He became an Air Gunner. At over six feet in height, it was possibly not the most sensible assignment, the rear gunner turrets being cramped even for men shorter than my Dad - a fact that played a small and poignant role in what was to come. I do not believe it was volition on his part that led him into that pointedly militant role, for there was little room for the luxury of choice. However, he would not have questioned it - his upright, honourable character embedded into him a deep sense of duty, so that he was more than ready to ‘do his bit’ in spite of his abhorrence of killing of any living thing. (I remember his moan of dismay when he witnessed anyone killing a fly or spider, rather than catching it and setting it free outside).
As I try to portray the horror of what he went through, I am desperately aware that I can never truly come close to knowing the reality of the depth of his suffering. I can only relate the facts of his story, as related by him, and backed by the provenance of history, and of original records in my possession. It is painful even to pause to consider a hint of the depth of his mental scars, evident by the fact that up until he died aged 96, he still had nightmares of the terror and inhumane suffering he underwent.
Harry Whittaker joined the RAF on 26th May 1943, and qualified as an Air Gunner on the 27th November 1943, attaining a 79.5% pass, alongside the remark “a keen and hardworking cadet whose results are satisfactory. Should make an efficient air gunner with further training and experience.”
He joined No. 70 Squadron, which was a heavy bomber squadron. In December 1943 No. 70 Squadron moved to the Foggia area of Italy, remaining there until October 1945. During WWII the Squadron operated twin-engined medium bomber aircraft, the Vickers Wellington III and X. The Wellingtons remained in use until the start of 1945, when they were replaced by the long range Consolidated Liberator.
Harry’s flying log book bears his signature dated the25th February 1944 beneath the following declaration: “Certified that I have been instructed and practised in parachute and dinghy drill with my crew, and am satisfied as to their competency in these drills”.
Presumably it refers to the same crew pictured in a photo I have of them in front of their plane. Written on the back are the names they were known by to their friends:
Jamie (pilot, England) Herbie (navigator, US), Stowie (bomb aimer, NZ), Doug (wireless operator, England) Harry (rear gunner, England).
The first pages of the log book record him undergoing 15 dinghy drill sessions, of which we can note that only two were ‘wet’, one was ‘night’ and the rest were ‘dry’. He had 10 parachute drills, two of which were at night. It is a little disconcerting to see that most of these drills took place in February - whereas he had already started active air gunner service in January!
30 pages of entries show numerous regular outings, continuously - until the final entry, which has been made on a new page in faint red pencil:-
“7.8.44 Aircraft LN 751, Pilot FO James, Zombathely airfield bombed (4000 lb) and shot down”.
On the night of 7/8 August 1944, forty-seven Wellingtons, nineteen Liberators, and eight Halifaxes were despatched to attack the airfield at Zombathely. All the aircraft identified the target without difficulty in excellent illumination, and numerous sticks of bombs were seen to cover the landing ground. Direct hits followed by fires were claimed on a hangar, and other fires were started in the north-eastern dispersal area and on the landing ground. Photo reconnaissance confirmed these claims, showing the landing ground completely unserviceable due to cratering, and damaged hangars. Four aircraft failed to return. Harry was in one of those four, a Wellington X LN751/T.
What happened to them that night? The answer is recorded in the book ‘Into The Silk’ by Ian Mackersey. The book contains true stories of people who were members of the Caterpillar Club.
The Caterpillar Club was created in 1922 by Leslie Irvin, the American parachute pioneer who invented the ripcord-operated chute. Irvin pledged that he would donate a caterpillar pin to every person, anywhere in the world, who saved his or her life in an emergency with a parachute of his design. The club, he said, would have no social premises, charge no entrance fee, no subscription. The only class of membership would be life, the only privilege, ‘its continued enjoyment.’ The club would have no committee, patron or president - just an honorary secretary. That role over the years has been performed by various members of the staff of the company Irvin formed - the Irving Air Chute Company (the ‘g’ was mistakenly added to his name on registration and he couldn’t at that time afford to change it).
In the late 1950s Ian Mackersey set out to read each of the then 30,000 files of the club’s European branch at the Irving Air Chute factory at Letchworth in Hertfordshire. He traced and interviewed many of the survivors for the 70 or so stories that became the substance of the book. They included successful leaps into the silk from as low as fifty feet; others from great heights with descents taking half an hour and more. Escapes in which men shared their chutes with another who lacked one. Extraordinary events in which aircrew, flung out of their aircraft without parachutes, providentially caught hold of other men in mid-air. Even more remarkable were descents by individuals who could not be admitted to the club and receive its famous gold caterpillar pin because they had survived plunges to earth without a chute.
I have inherited my father’s Caterpillar pin and three copies of Into The Silk, all of which fall open to page 98, where Harry’s story begins.
By this time they were little above 100 feet. F/O. James, just 23 years old, kept the plane airborne as long as possible, the other three crew members having already bailed out. Chances of survival for pilot and rear gunner were nearly negligible. Harry had taken what little control over his fate that he could, by rejecting imminent pain of death by burning, and grasping instead at a slim chance of survival if he jumped.
Missing in Action:
At this point, I pause to think about what it was like for family back home during the war. I am a parent and my thoughts are never far distant from my two children, particularly when they are away from the city we all call home. I have had my share of life’s battles, and am proud that I am still standing - yet I cannot find the courage to imagine what I would feel if either of my children were away at war. I just do not want my mind to go there. So much harder then to imagine how my Granny Whittaker would have felt on 11th August 1944, when she was handed this telegram:
"From Air Ministry 73 Oxford St. W 1 Pc909 11/8 Regret To Inform You That Your Son 1580758 Sergeant Whittaker Is Reported Missing As The Result Of Air Operations On Night Of 7/8 August Stop Enquiries Are Being Made Through The International Red Cross Committee And Any Further Information Received Will Be Communicated To You Immediately Stop Should News Of Him Reach You From Any Other Source Please Advise This Department Stop His Sister Is Being Informed Stop Letter Follows Shortly Stop Pending Its Receipt No Information Should Be Given To The Press."
Followed next day by this letter, from the Wing Commander of No. 70 Squadron in the Royal Air Force, Central Mediterranean Forces:
Dear Mrs Whittaker, It is with the greatest regret that I have to inform you that your son, Sergeant H. Whittaker, was missing from an operational flight on the night of 7/8 August, 1944. I am afraid there is little news I can give you. He was rear gunner of an aircraft detailed to take part in a very important operation against the enemy in Hungary. No wireless messages were received from the aircraft after it had taken off from base and no further information has since come to hand. Your son was a most efficient rear gunner, and his courage and cheerfulness, combined with his exceptional keenness, has left a gap in the Squadron not easily filled. His kit is being looked after by the Standing Committee of Adjustment, from whom you will be hearing in due course. If there is anything I can do to help, do not hesitate to let me know and rest assured that if I receive any more news, you shall hear immediately. The Squadron wishes to join me in expressing our heartfelt sympathy in your anxiety. Yours ...
Two things strike me particularly about the above letter. Firstly, how touching it is, considering how many such letters would have been written, to write at such length and so sympathetically. The second thing that struck me is the use of the past tense, but then I suppose most of the men missing in action were never seen alive again.
My Granny Whittaker was a strong woman, having borne and raised two children as an unmarried mother - quite a stigma in the early 20th century. Somehow, she held her head high and was respected in Preston where she lived much of her life. I remember visiting her in Preston, and can recall her being very upright and pretty, but I did not get to know her very well. She died when I was 10 years old.
During the war she lived in Birmingham. Harry joined the Birmingham police force in 1932, aged 25, and then his mother moved down to live with him for some years. (She was still there some years later when my mother Nancy moved in. How they cohabited under the same roof I cannot imagine - but that is not part of this story).
I’m sure she would have kept hope alive in her heart, helped by support from family and friends. I have a letter written from one of those friends, Uncle Mac, to Granny Whittaker. Mac was a good friend of my Dad’s from the police force, not my real uncle. He had joined the Royal Marines, and somehow had received news of Harry being shot down. On 21st August 1944 he wrote:
Dear Mrs Whittaker, I cannot tell you in words how sorry I am to hear the news that Harry has been posted “missing”. I know that being his mother, you are bound to be feeling it very much, but try to keep your chin up, and hope for the best.Knowing him as I did, I cannot help but feel that he is safe, and let us hope that in a few weeks we shall have word to that effect. I know that you haven’t seen very much of me since you came to Birmingham, but Harry and I were very close friends. I hope that I am not asking too much, if I ask you to let me know if you have any further news. It will be a dreary time for him, but let us pray that he is a prisoner of war.Sincerely yours, Mac.
“......let us pray that he is a prisoner of war”. There were times when my father thought death would have been preferable!
I don’t know how long it was before family and friends discovered that Harry was still alive. We do have the account in Into The Silk about what happened next after Harry’s dramatic and courageous bailout from the burning plane, and it did not include a speedy return to his family. In fact the worse torment was just beginning.
Prisoner of War:
Being a PoW was never a subject he would talk freely about, and much of the horror remained buried in his mind, surfacing only in the nightmares which haunted him for the rest of his life. Harry’s personal details in the following report of the next months is basically as he recounted it in 1991 for a newspaper article. More general information about the Black March is taken from Wikipedia.
Initially, life behind bars wasn’t too bad. Harry was taken to Budapest Jail, where his interrogator greeted him with the reassuring words: “I’m a German hotel keeper in a German officer’s uniform”.
In the months to come Harry often wished he had been shot or hanged in Budapest as he came to endure what he called “sheer hell on earth”.
In the autumn of 1944 he was transferred to Stalag Luft IV prisoner of war camp in a place called Gross Tychow, near the port of Stettin in Poland.
The camp was opened in May 1944. In July of that year a military report was released which described such problems as inadequate shower facilities, unfit distribution of Red Cross parcels, and that prisoners complained about the food situation often. Two letters and four postcards were permitted per month. These letters were harshly censored forcing prisoners to tell families that they were being treated well and that there were no problems whatsoever.
A report by the International Red Cross in October 1944 described camp conditions as generally bad. PoW’s slept in huts in 3-tier bunks, if they were lucky - many slept on the floor. None of the huts were heated, with only five small iron stoves in the whole camp.
Latrines were open-air, and there were no proper washing facilities. Medical facilities, and supplies of food and clothing were also inadequate.
“We spent a miserable Christmas there. It was way below freezing, we had no warm clothes and there was precious little food.” Worse, however, was to come.
As the Soviet army was advancing on Poland, the Nazis made the decision to evacuate the PoW camps to prevent the liberation of the prisoners by the Russians. During this period, also hundreds of thousands of German civilians, most of them women and children, as well as civilians of other nationalities, were making their way westward in the snow and freezing weather and many died. January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the twentieth century, with blizzards and temperatures as low as -25 °C, even until the middle of March temperatures were well below -18 °C.
In February 1945 all the prisoners at Gross Tychow, some 8,000 men, Harry amongst them, were made to embark on what Churchill later dubbed the Black March. A forced march from Stettin to Pomerania, Hanover and ultimately Berlin.
The march from Gross Tychow lasted approximately 86 days. They were forced to march under guard about 15–20 miles (24–32 km) per day. The prisoners were given the remaining Red Cross parcels, allowed to carry what they could.
The treatment was very bad. The sick were mistreated when dysentery and diarrhoea set in. Shelter was either a barn or under the stars, in the rain, snow, or whatever happened to be. As for the food, the Red Cross parcels did not go far to fuel thousands of marching men. Often just steamed potatoes for a barn full of men was the best received at the end of a day. As long as they lasted, cigarettes, watches, rings or whatever they had was traded with the farmers along the way.
The German government provided no clothing. Clothing was gathered from what they could find, usually no more than what they stood up in. They initially carried two blankets, and an overcoat for bedding. If their strength gave out, then others would strive to help carry their load in addition to their own...as long as they could.
Water was generally available, though was often contaminated, sometimes taken from ditches beside the road, or they ate snow when available. They ate charcoal when they could to help stop dysentery, and every PoW became infected with lice. Pneumonia, diphtheria, pellagra, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis and other diseases ran rampant among the PoW’s. Blisters, abscesses, and frostbite also became epidemic. Injuries often turned gangrenous. Medical care remained essentially non-existent.
“Towards the end maggots were crawling out of my body, which was wracked by gastro enteritis”
Acts of heroism were widespread, the stronger helped the weaker.
“I owed my life to the friendship and courage of a fellow prisoner called Doug. Doug was only 19 but he was very mature for his years. We kept each other going on this march during which many of our colleagues died. “
(I believe this to be the same Doug who was the wireless operator on the plane which was shot down. Doug Newhouse remained friends with my father, was best man at my parents’ wedding, and was godfather to my brother. Doug died in 1994.)
Those fortunate enough to have a coat shared it with others. The Germans sometimes provided a wagon for the sick. However there seldom were horses available, so teams of PoW’s pulled the wagons through the snow. When a wagon was not available and a PoW fell out along the road, a German guard would drop back and a shot would be heard. The guard would then come back into formation alone.
The last three weeks or so of the 3-month march were just as harsh as previously, except for the treatment by the Germans, which was somewhat better. There was still little or no food available, and the pace was much slower, advancing 4-5 miles a day. “I could only concentrate on the next step, I knew I was dying; and then I collapsed.”
Luckily, with the end of the war looming, Harry was not left to die. The Germans were looking to the future and they took him, now no more than a bag of bones, to a guest house in Neuhaus on the Elbe where he recuperated. On the morning of 2nd May 1945 the remaining PoW’s were all sitting in a ditch next to the River Elbe near Lauenburg, Germany, when the British arrived and liberated the "camp".
We will remember them:
Behind that final brief paragraph from the book lies unimaginable horror and grief. Harry did return to the police force, (which he left in 1957 after 25 years’ service), but the war was not yet done with him, nor he with it. Unsurprisingly, both his physical and mental state were far from stable or whole. As ever, Harry attempted to give release to his deepest feelings by writing poetry, such as the disquieting poem (shown in the Poetry Section): “We who came back”.
Yet his thoughts were also with others, those who had died. The loss of two crew members, the pilot F/O. Haydn James, and bomb aimer F/O. Frederick Stowell weighed heavily on his mind.
He wrote to F/O. James’ young widow, and F/O. Stowell’s mother. In July 1946 he received an airmail letter in reply, from New Zealand, from Vida Stowell:
Dear Harry, I wish to thank you very sincerely for the lovely photo and letter which I received quite safe today. I will always treasure it as a very dear and devoted friend of my beloved son’s. I am sure Doug will be very pleased to have one. I had a letter from him last week and he is still in bed poor boy, how my heart goes out to him. I do hope that it will not be too long before he gets out of hospital as I suggested for him to take a health trip out to N/Z which he said he will consider very serious. I would love to have him come out and that also goes for you Harry if ever you make up your mind to come to N/Z.I would give anything to be able to go to England and to see all you good people.Well Harry there is one thing that I would like to ask you. You may think that I am silly. Could you tell me if you can remember about where in Hungary was it you bailed out. The plane must have crashed not too far from where you bailed out. I know where you went to bomb the target. The reason I would like to know is that it would give me some idea of my son’s last resting place. As you were the oldest member of the crew and the last to bail out. Believe me I loved my son very dearly and his loss will always leave a wound which I am afraid will never heal, as time goes on I miss (him) more and more. I am sending a photo of Fred to you, it was taken when he was in Scotland but it will be as you knew him. Yes I see by the papers that you have been having a very wet summer. We have had a lot of wet weather but we are in winter so must expect it. Yes it must be very hard to settle down to civilian life especially when one has been in the services so long. Well Harry I must close now. With love and best wishes for the future. Sincerely Vida A Stowell.
Harry already knew that he had to try and find out where exactly the plane crashed, and - more importantly - what happened to the bodies.
Meanwhile, life went on as it must. Harry met my mother Nancy in June 1947, and married her 16 weeks later in October 1947 - he aged 40 and she aged 22. Nancy moved into the council house in Birmingham where Harry and his mother were living. My brother was born in November the following year, and I completed the family in May 1950. Granny Whittaker returned to Preston some time after Nancy moved in.
In April 1948, it was a letter he wrote to the Air Ministry in London which brought the response answering Harry’s questions:
Sir, I am directed to refer to your letter of 26th March 1948, and to inform you that the Royal Air Force Missing Research and Enquiry Services have ascertained that your aircraft crashed one kilometre north of Jakabhaza, in Western Hungary. The wreckage, which had been removed to a yard in Szentgotthard, 31⁄2 miles South West of Jakabhaza and 25 miles South West of Szombathely, was examined, and identification was clearly established by means of the engine numbers. The body of your pilot was found in the wreckage and laid to rest in the cemetery at Jakabhaza, but that of Flying Officer Stowell was found in some woods 1⁄2 kilometre from the scene of the crash three weeks later, and was buried in the cemetery at Felsoronok, 11⁄2 miles East of Jakabhaza. It would appear that Flying Officer Stowell had bailed out, and that, unhappily, his parachute had failed to open on account of insufficient height. Both are now re-interred in the Budapest British Military Cemetery, Flying Officer James in Grave No. 9 and Flying Officer Stowell in Grave No. 10 in Row A of Plot 3. This cemetery is placed in the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission who will ensure that it is properly cared for in perpetuity. The Department has no information on enemy aircraft shot down in the vicinity of Jakabhaza on the day in question. It seems clear, however, that if two bodies were indeed found in the wrecked aircraft shown you by the Hungarians it could obviously not be regarded as your own. I am, Sir, Your obedient Servant, O.W Livingston (signature unclear)
I am uncertain what the last paragraph alludes to. It seems that the Hungarians had, for whatever reason, tried to convince Harry that they had located his plane wreckage.
F/O. James was just 23 years old, recently married, and with everything to live for. My father held him in his heart and mind for evermore.
Life goes on:
After my parents had both retired, they moved up to York in 1982, to a place called Huntington. Harry became a member of the York branch of the Air Gunners Association, eventually becoming the oldest Branch member and Branch Vice President. The gentlemen I met there whenever I visited York were always admirably praising of my Dad. He was regarded as a very smart and upright figure, an intelligent, somewhat quiet, wise man, with a sharp wit, and who liked to express himself in verse. He wrote the poem “Air Gunners” which attracts the attention of the visitors to the AG’s Memorial Room of the York Air Museum in Elvington. It was Harry who proudly opened the Memorial Room as part of the celebrations of the annual Air Gunners Day in 1997.
My father died on Saturday the 20th September 2003, aged 96.
He loved to go for walks, appreciated nature’s beauty, and found it in his surroundings wherever they may be. He was relatively fit and healthy up until the last couple of years of his life, when his balance became too shaky to risk walking far, and his short term memory started to deteriorate. He might not know if it was time for breakfast or dinner, but he could still recite poems he had committed to memory over the years, and list the US presidents, the British monarchs, and chunks of the Gettysburg address, and ... he still had nightmares.
I cannot attempt to describe how much I miss him. I still go for walks with him (though my son smilingly told me I should be careful how many people I say that to!).
I have recently retired. Having plenty of time on my hands, and with some trepidation and a few packs of tissues, I finally got around to sorting out the contents of a massive 19th century wooden trunk I have in my flat. It holds hundreds of family items: documents, photos, poems, letters, newspaper cuttings, birth and death certificates, etc. It was an emotional journey, which took all the longer for the careful reading and eye-wiping. Now it has been sorted into several labelled boxes, including one labelled “WW II”. Much of the content of that box, including originals of letters reproduced here, has fed into this narrative, references have been made where applicable.
After reading the letter from the Air Ministry, dated in April 1948, explaining the whereabouts of the plane wreckage and two bodies, I decided to visit Budapest. I have obtained email confirmation from the British Embassy in Budapest that the cemetery mentioned in that letter still exists, in a small town called Solymar, just outside Budapest. It is maintained, and is open for visitors, free of charge. They also confirmed that F/O. James and F/O. Stowell are indeed in graves 9 and 10 in Row A of plot 3. I will go there in June this year. I will walk through the cemetery and humbly bow my head in front of F/O. James’ and F/O. Stowell’s graves. My father will come on that walk with me, and we will remember them and give thanks.
Jillian Stephanie Hattersley-Whittaker February 2016, Berne, Switzerland
F/O. Haydn Walter James. Budapest War Cemetery. Grave III.A.9. Son of Walter and Florence James, husband of Patricia Eileen James, of North Harrow, Middlesex, England.
F/O. Frederick George Stowell. Budapest War Cemetery. Grave III.A.10. Son of Frederick Charles and Vida Annie Stowell, of Masterton, Wellington, New Zealand. He had completed 25 operations with a total of 406 hours logged.
With many thanks to Jillian, proud daughter of the rear gunner who has shared some of her precious memories. With thanks to Charles Biller (Find A Grave) for grave photographs. For further details our thanks to the sources shown below.