The Ministry of Defence has completed the recovery of Lancaster ED603 on the IJsselmeer. In total, about 40% of the plane has been recovered and...Read more
The last flight of Lancaster ED603
In the late evening of 12 June 1943, 503 bombers take off from England and set course for Bochum, Germany. In the first wave of attacks, there are twelve Lancasters from No. 83 Squadron, which - as Pathfinders - are tasked with target marking. They follow a group of Mosquito fighter-bombers which, with the help of Oboe, are guided very precisely to the target and drop the first flares. The often hundreds of bombers that follow aim at the flares and fires they can detect from far.
One of the participating aircraft from No. 83 Squadron is Lancaster ED603. The aircraft has just been delivered to the squadron and, rolling down the Wyton runway at 11.01 p.m., is about to begin its maiden flight. The ED603 carries a bomb load of four Target Indicators (flares), a heavy 4,000-lb ‘cookie’, four bombs of 1,000 lbs and eight 500-lb bombs.
Under light overcast conditions, Eric Tilbury flies the ED603 from the English coast to the Dutch Wadden Island Texel, and from there navigator Harold Howsam guides the plane towards the Ruhr. The bombs are dropped over Bochum. It has a huge impact in the city, Many people die and more than 1.000 buildings are crushed due of the fire. After the bombing, according to the flight plan, the Lancaster must fly back to Texel – via Coesfeld, Enschede, Nijverdal and Zwolle – to cross the North Sea again. However, the aircraft and crew will never pass Kornwerderzand.
At RAF Wyton, crew members come and go all the time. Killed, wounded and missing airmen are constantly replaced by new crew. Occasionally, people leave the service because they have completed their tour of operations. With the Pathfinder Force, this is after 45 operational flights instead of the usual 30.
Among the new crew of ‘No. 83’ in April 1943 is experienced pilot Eric Arthur Tilbury, who by then has already completed dozens of missions with other squadrons. Although there are occasionally substitutes, six other RAF veterans are part of his regular crew from the very beginning. “This crew was one of my most experienced ones”, in the words of the squadron commander. Besides experience, luck is also needed to survive a mission. This is what the crew lacks during their flight with Lancaster ED603 on the night of 12-13 June 1943.
Click on the image or the links below for the story of each of the crewmembers
The flight of the ED603 over the Netherlands does not go unnoticed by the Germans. There are several radar installations in the country that are used to track the Allied bombers. As Eric Tilbury flies over the northern part of the IJsselmeer, his Lancaster is detected by the radar stations ‘Eisbär’ near Sondel and ‘Hering’ near Medemblik. The radar data enable German pilot Rudolf Sigmund to intercept the ED603.
Just after two o’clock in the morning, he shoots down the Lancaster with the armament of his Messerschmitt Bf-110 at an altitude of about 5,800 metres. A German log reports: “02.11 Uhr Abschuss 1 Lancaster 15 km nordostw. Oosterland ins Ysselmeer durch Nachtjäger; Schicksal der Besatzung unbekannt” (“02:11 1 Lancaster shot down by night fighter 15 km northeast of Oosterland above IJsselmeer”). The next day, it becomes clear that a tragedy must have occurred during the night. The ED603 does not return to Wyton and Wing Commander Searby, the commander of No. 83 Squadron, realizes he has lost one of his best crews. When on Sunday afternoon 13 June 1943, the lifeboat “C.A. den Tex” heads out onto the IJsselmeer from Hindeloopen, only an empty lifeboat, a pair of aviator’s gloves and some floating wreckage are found.
Tilbury and his crew are not the only ones who don’t reach their home base that morning. They are among the nearly 220 missing crew members of Allied aircraft that crashed in the IJsselmeer. For a long time, it seems that their fate will never be fully known.
'I always lived in hopes...'
A week after the crash, the horrific consequences of the night-time encounter become apparent. On 20 June 1943, the first body washes up two hundred metres from the German observation post on the IJsselmeer near Workum. From his clothing, it emerges that he must be a Canadian Flight-Sergeant and bomb aimer, but the Germans are unable to find out what his name is. It is not until 1947 that his remains, buried namelessly at Workum General Cemetery a day after being found, are identified: Arthur Gordon Fletcher. A comparison of the teeth of the until then unknown corpse with Fletcher’s dental records provides the absolute proof.
Gordon Fletcher is not the only crew member whose remains are found. On 22 June 1943, three more bodies wash up on the Frisian coast; some with their unopened parachutes still attached. Their names can be easily confirmed thanks to their identity tags. On 23 June, pilot Eric Tilbury and navigator Harold Howsam are given a final resting place in the cemeteries of Stavoren and Workum. The body of tail gunner Gordon Sugar is committed to the earth in the graveyard of St. Gertrudis Church in Hindeloopen. The bodies of Moore, Smart and Sprack do not wash up in the weeks after the crash of the ED603.
For the bereaved families, June 1943 marks the beginning of a long period of uncertainty. The airmen are initially considered missing in action by the RAF. It is not until late September 1946 that their whereabouts are confirmed after an examination of the graves, and any hope of their return is dashed. Dora Tilbury, Eric’s mother, writes to the RAF: “It’s certainly more comforting to know his last resting place, although I always lived in hopes of his someday return to me.”
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