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Bernhard H.Holst

Early 1945 Bomber Command plane crash, Northern Germany

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Hello readers.

In   1945, between February 22 and April 19, 1945 word of mouth got around quickly in my home town of Rotenburg, northern Germany ( between Bremen and Hamburg ) that a British bomber had crashed in close proximity of the town. Of course this being of some considerable importance to us youth ( my age was 13 ) friends and I were on our way. No school for me because of enrollment in a Bremen school and having just returned from an evacuation program to Saxony where the bombardments of Dresden could be seen from a distance).

Just a small distance from town the wreckage of a four-engined bomber was located in a field. The front area was burned out with the pilot and the flight engineer still in their seats, their clothing burned away but the bodies still whole. A little distance away a dead crewmember lay. No parachute and the tan/ yellowish flight suit slightly open with the blue RAF uniform quite visible underneath. The  necktie worn struck me as odd. On impact his body had made a slight depression in the earth. Had he jumped or was he thrown from the plane before the plane hitting the ground? My memory is somewhat hazy but seems to tell me that the interior of the plane's fuselage contained another body? The rear turret was empty but the amount of ammunition visible was impressive. Our first guess of the plane's type was that it was a Lancaster which was the type of British bomber foeremost in our  minds but then it could very well have been a Halifax. Shortly after my arrival on the scene German airforce personnel arrived from the near airfield and cleared the area from spectators. The whereabouts of the remaining three or four crew members are a mystery. Did they manage to escape the plane by parachute when it had difficulties?

 I am unable to be more precise as to the date.The time span given is from the date of my return home to the date of our hometown 's occupation after three days of fighting by British troops in April . My wife recalls the incident because of her family owning some property very near by but cannot give a better date. She having been located there throughout the war recollects day- time air battles including one during which the sky seemed filled with parachutes such were the losses.

 The reference book : " The Bomber Command War diaries, An Operational Reference Book 1939 - 1945 "  by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt gives a map containing the main Bomber Command's targets and also the location of the several British War Cemeteries located in Germany, in which so many of the fallen British aircrews found their final resting places. In one of them these dead crew members are possibly located.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Hi, I am absolutely stunned to read this account just a few days after you posted it and at the very time I was thinking about 

I am 95% certain your account refers to the crash involving my uncle, Robert Webster who was a crew member on this flight which came down on 8th April 1945 in the very early hours of the morning as they were making their way home after a bombing raid on Hamburg. Does that sound about right?

Let me know if you think so. I have full details of this mission, the crew members and their fates. In fact by pure coincidence I am visiting Hamburg next week and planning to visit the cemetery where my uncle lies along with other crew members.

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Hello Flying Scot.

The April 8, 1945 could be the date. Everything points to it, unfortunately at this point in time it seems difficult to establish the exact date. However my wife will contact her brother ( stiil residing in Germany)  who visited the crash site but some short while later when already cordoned off whether he has a better date. I shall post any new information.

Middlebrook gives the losses as 3 Halifaxes and 3 Lancasters as you most likely already know. The practice by the German Airforce was to give a military burial locally.

I would be interested to learn details of the fate of the crew. I wonder if British records give any indications as to the location of the crash and the nature of it i.e. accident, A.A. or night fighter, the latter very unlikely.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Good to hear from you. I have some more details to hand now. My Uncles's flight was a Lancaster bomber from No 35 Squadron based at a small base, Graveley in Cambridgeshire UK. The aircraft was one of 8 on the raid that night and took off at 7:42pm local time on April 8th. It was the only aircraft not to return, after bombing Hamburg. The last of the others was back at base around 0100 on the 9th. The only record I have puts the time of crash at 11pm which sounds about right.

 

There were 7 crew members onboard, under the command of  a very experienced pilot, the gloriously named 31 year old Melville Max Victor Lewis Muller (sounds like some German family in there somewhere!) who was famous for other exploits earlier in the war.

At least 4 of the others on board, including my uncle Robert, were aged just 23.

Five were killed on impact, one survived the war in a POW camp and one survived the crash but died within 48 hours.

I believe, but am not certain, that my uncle was the rear gunner, hence your account of finding the empty turret and the body is extremely poignant. If indeed we have the correct crash, then you could very well have been looking at my uncle, assuming that the two survivors were already making tracks and you say two bodies inside the fuselage with mention of a possible third, that would make a deal of sense.  What was it about the necktie that struck you as odd? Was it perhaps not the regulation uniform?

I never knew my uncle as I was not born until 1952. He was one of three brothers, the other two now long dead. I do have a cousin now in her 80s who remembers him well and fondly but otherwise there are no other links with him. My father was in Asia during the war and never really spoke much at all of his lost brother.

 

I do not know where he was initially buried but by the early 50s his remains ended up in Berlingen war cemetery where Allied casualties were brought from many other graves in the region. See here: http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/2009051/BECKLINGEN%20WAR%20CEMETERY

 

As I mentioned before, by coincidence I have a couple of days business in Hamburg next week so it is my plan to hire a car and drive down to the cemetery. If I had enough time I would take in Rotenburg too, but I have no idea what or where I would be looking for.

 

regards,

 

Iain Webster

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Hello Ian.

Thank you for the additional information.

Ref. necktie in wear struck me as odd because of the possible use of it during operational flight, just something strange, why that. I am sure we all have some similar moments.

 I have just now sent an E-Mail to the townhall of Rotenburg with a request to search town records to perhaps establish the exact date and am hoping for a response.Perhaps in time for your scheduled trip so that you can still make some travel arrangements should valuable information be forthcoming. Should it be pertinent with my wife's help the location could be pinpointed

I appreciate the information about the British Military Cemetery in Berlingen.

I will stay in touch.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Thanks, Bernhard.  Full details of the crash can be found here, so you can figure out if it is the same one. I have also established that my uncle was one of the two gunners onboard and I do recall my Dad saying he was a rear gunner.

http://www.fliegerschicksale.de/fliegerschicksale/absturzorte/r/rotenburg/080445ro_en.php

 

My plan is to visit the cemetery on Monday morning. May or may not swing by Rotenburg on the way back to Hamburg but as I do not know the crash site location that would just be passing interest.

 

I only asked about the necktie as I do know my uncle was a bit 'dapper' as we say and was known as a snappy dresser so I was speculating he might have worn his own choice of neckwear. Not important!

 

Thanks for all your help.

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Hello Ian.

thank you for your post and the link. It is certainly the crash on April 8, 1945 because the crash location given as Rotenburg Waldstegen rang a loud bell when I read it. However I saw fit to confirm this with my dear wife upon her awakening this morning.:She does emphatically confirm this ( BTW: by also reciting the location of the homes of some former friends and schoolmates).

  In addition I have already received a reply from Townhall Rotenburg. I am told that town records do not contain any information regarding the crash but the person who responded is willing to research any local cemetery files in an effort to perhaps find an entry regarding the initial local burial.  My wife gave me information about the burial site on the then only town cemetery together with the exact location thereof which today is of course otherwise occupied. The lady who responded upon her request, was given the full name of your uncle and I am quite confident to hear from her soon.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Thanks, Bernhard. I have everything booked now and will drive to the region on Monday morning but I have to be back in Hamburg by early afternoon. As far as I know I am likely to be the only member of our family to have ever visited the area.

regards,

Iain

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Iain,

Just to be safe, the link you have shown is to Becklingen not Berlingen Cemetery which I drive past 3 or 4 times a week. If you are coming from Hamburg leave the A7 at Soltau Süd. Then turn right for Celle, it is about 5km down the road on the right you can't miss it.

Bernhard,

On the other thread about the British aircrewman the picture of a bomber crew grave is taken at Becklingen, wouldn't that be a coincidence if it were the same crew. I can't do links sadly.

Edited by Jock Auld

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Bernhard, just FYI I have further discovered from my cousin that Uncle Robert's usual place was as the rear gunner but on this occasion he switched places with Wilce who ended up as the sole survivor. So the empty rear turret explains that. Robert would have been in the mid-upper turret and whether or not he was still there, or was the body you saw thrown clear I guess we shall never know.

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Bernhard, just FYI I have further discovered from my cousin that Uncle Robert's usual place was as the rear gunner but on this occasion he switched places with Wilce who ended up as the sole survivor. So the empty rear turret explains that. Robert would have been in the mid-upper turret and whether or not he was still there, or was the body you saw thrown clear I guess we shall never know.

Hello Ian.,

thank you for this information. I have not yet heard from the lady who promised to review the cemetery records. But am confident to receive pertinent information so that perhaps we shall know of the dead members of the crew first resting place.

I wonder whether you ever had any information from the final, sole survivor Wilce? By the records given by the site you were kind enough to relay, that he spent his captivity in hospital. That would in my view be the one in Rotenburg. Also it has been in my mind not yet expressed here if the pilot attempted a crash landing and communicated that intention  to the crew? Where did Wice hit the ground and where the later dying F/Lt Ranalow? Then the thought occurred to me what if they would not have switched positions?

As you state mysteries shall remain however some small explanation could be had after all and perhaps some more information may yet come to light.

 Have a safe though sad trip.

Bernhard H. Holst

Edited by Bernhard H.Holst

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Yes, it has been interesting to talk with my other family members who have added things that I did not know. Wilce got in touch with my Grandmother (Robert's mother) at some point later and told her what had happened and that he had switched places with Robert. I also now know that at some point my Grandmother did visit the grave but whether it was the military cemetery or the previous one I do not know.

 

Just a little more of the back story - you can read more about the pilot's earlier missions here: http://www.swannington-norfolk.co.uk/index-page5.html

 

Also, Ranalow was the newphew of a minor figure in British history, Captain Oates, who reached the South Pole with Capt. Scott and when he (Oates) knew he was dying and might hold the others back, made the famous remark as he went outside to die "I may be gone some time".  Capt Oates had no children himself but Ranalow was his sister's son.

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Hello Ian.

Thank you for posting additional information. I wonder if the pilot Muller was not trying for a repeat return home with a damaged plane. But this time did not make it. I am glad your grandmother had the opportunity to visit your uncle's grave.

Fascinating connection of crew member Ranalow and the Scott expedition.

The Internet can be a great instrument to discover things and tie  together loose ends.

Let us hear of your trip, please.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Bernhard,

Sorry for the long delay, but I have been travelling and now I am still away. Yes, I drove down to Becklingen on Monday on a dull, grey rainy day. The cemetery was very easy to find, serene and beautifully kept. I found Robert and the rest of the crew almost at the top of the hill, all buried alongside each other. I took some photos and will upload these when I can. 

I then drove back to Hamburg going via Rotenburg, but of course I had no idea in which area the plane came down.

Since my return I have also managed to find online the son of our pilot, Melville Muller. He has given me some more information which I hope to post later with his permission.

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Ian, thank you for sharing your story and experience with the Forum.  I've been reading with interest and it is wonderful that you were able to make the visit to the cemetery.

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Hello Iain.

Thank you for the pictures and the information. It would be worthwhile to have additional information from the son of Sq/L Muller, I hope he will give his consent.

I have meanwhile received a reply from the lady at the town administration of Rotenburg which stated a fruitless search for any initial burial information concerning your uncle. She is willing to conduct a further search of possible other sites but it seems at considerable expense.

I am at a loss where else but Rotenburg would be a likely place for the initial burial. Just to think of the date of April 8, 1945 which is so shortly before the occupation by British troops,leaves the strong possibility  that records may no longer have been kept. except grave markers identifying the  persons buried there.

My brother-in law does not remember the crash but witnessed at some time a military burial at the cemetery section I described earlier.

As you state you were  passing through Rotenburg, driving  from town towards Hamburg you would most likely have taken B 75 to merge onto the Autobahn farther out of town. That would have brought you very close to the crash site. That site is narrowed by the German language version of the index/summary of the site you gave ( Fliegerschicksale or flyers fates ) as "Rotenburg Waldstegen" which to me confirmed that the date of April 8, 1945 establishing without a doubt the crash site and the plane as that of your uncle's plane.

You photos captured the prevailing weather and the locale of the cemetery very well.

Bernhard H. Holst

P.S. I am sorry I mangled your name earlier.

Edited by Bernhard H.Holst

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I received this additional information yesterday, thanks to Rod Muller,

Melville Max Victor Lewis Müller [better known as Max] was indeed my father and the pilot of Lancaster NG440 - C, which was shot down on 8 April 1945 at Rotenburg, near Hamburg.
 
I read with interest the ‘fascinating’ account, which Bernhard Holst posted on the Internet. Spooky! An eyewitness who was looking at my father sitting in his cockpit seat. Bernhard must be 83 by now. Thank you for the link.
 
My father and his crew are buried at Becklingen War Cemetery, Soltau and no doubt you found Robert at grave 11.B.13. Sad, sorry. I have also visited the cemetery.
 
From my earlier research I discovered that the plane was hit by flak, caught fire and crashed. A confidential notice, which my mother received [1945] from the Air Ministry, shows F/O R. C. Webster (173076) as mid gunner and F/S Wilce as the tail gunner.
 
I met Charles Wilce [now deceased] some years ago and he confirmed that he was the rear gunner [tail end Charlie]. He said that he was able to parachute to safety when the rear turret broke away from the plane. He had a seat parachute! So it appears that Robert was the mid upper gunner.
 
Ranalow survived the crash but later died in hospital. [interestingly he was a previous evader/escapee and used the cover name Douglas Fyrgasser].
 
A MOD letter [dated 1985] to me indicated the plane crashed 5 miles NW of Rotenburg and crew were originally buried in a local village/town cemetery. Local German records provided the evidence of NG 440, plus recovery of identifiable items from the wreckage. The final proof came in the exhumation of the bodies of the crew by MRES. I have not seen MRES records.
 
I was never able to identify the church where they were originally buried; maybe you will have better luck. Let me know if you do please. Perhaps Bernhard Holst will be able to find more detailed information.
 
I have .pdf copies of 35 Squadron’s Operations Record Book for the period Jan 1945 to April 1945. Robert is recorded on 16 missions with my father. I do not know how many he actually flew in total but you are welcome to have all the copies of these missions. They were obtained from The National Archives [TNA]. I will attach one for information.
 
You may be interested to know that in All Saints’ Church [Offord Darcy] has a corner of the chapel dedicated to those who gave their lives [35 & 635 Squadrons]. There is a Book of remembrance and also an impressive stained glass memorial window. There is a commemorative stone at the entrance to [what was] RAF Graveley.
 
My wife and I used to go to the 35 Squadron Reunion meetings held locally there. The association was wound down about 1999 [declining numbers].
 
I regret that I have little useful information about your uncle and no photographs of him.
 
Let me know if you want anything I’ve mentioned. I’ll try to help.
 
Kind regards.
 
Rod Müller

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Hello readers.

Tomorrow, April 8, 1945 is the anniversary of this Lancaster identified as NG440 and TL-C crash within the municipal boundaries of Rotenburg in the then so-called Waldstegen town area just off the main road leading to Hamburg.

I have long thought about my contradicting the location given by the son of the pilot, Squadron Leader Muller, Mr.Rod Muller which is based on official reports or statements and which can be found above together with other, additional information. I thank him for that. The crash site given as 5 miles north-west of Rotenburg must be incorrect because the German air force (  downed enemy aircraft listings) records in the summary indicate Rotenburg Waldstegen as the crash location and no other aircraft downed in the greater but local area. I can only think of a transcription error of some sort. The initial burial ground could well be the Rotenburg municipal cemetery because the  cemetery section then set aside for deceased allied personnel was and still is near a church even though no official records could be located in the town archives.

This post is meant to remind readers of the loss of practically the entire crew of this aircraft shortly before the end of hostilities in Europe. Reading about aircraft flying personnel from the opposing sides sheds some light on their accomplishments. The above is perhaps a little bit different and this writer certainly never expected an outcome such as this.

I thank Iain Webster for his most valuable contribution and the photos of the crew's final resting places. They flew together and now are still together. Iain Webster and Rod Muller  really put  human beings and their families into the blank spaces present in my first telling of an incident during the waning days of World War II now so many years ago.

Bernhard H. Holst

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Wow!!! This is one heck of a thread. The power of the internet has brought together family members and an eye witness to an event that happened all those years ago. 

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