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83 Squadron

Missing crew members from No. 83 Squadron finally found as Lancaster bomber is recovered

THE recent recovery of the remaining members of a Lancaster bomber team in the Netherlands has highlighted just how dangerous an occupation it was as RAF aircrew during World War Two, many making the ultimate sacrifice in defence of their country.

While a range of statistics have been produced over the years about the dangers of being in an operational bomber during WW2, in effect you had around a 50/50 chance of making it back to your point of departure: the more missions you flew the greater the likelihood of not returning.

The seven members of No. 83 Squadron aboard ED603 that left RAF Wyton on the evening of June 12, 1943, may have prayed for a safe return before their operation over Bochum, even during and after the mission, but fears for their own welfare didn’t stop them completing their run over the German city in the North Rhine-Westphalia.

The flak they encountered on their approach to, and departure from, Bochum didn’t stop them, but on their return over the Netherlands they were tracked before being engaged by a Messerschmitt Bf 110.

In the early hours of June 13, they were shot down over the IJsselmeer, a closed-off inland bay in the Friesland province, all seven on board killed when they crashed into the shallow expanse of water. Over the following weeks, the bodies of the pilot, Flt Lt Eric Tilbury (26), pilot officers Harold Howsam (27) and Gordon Fletcher (20), and flying officer Gordon Sugar (21) were washed up on the shores of the IJsselmeer.

For 80 years the other three crew members – Arthur Smart (27) and Charles Sprack (23) (pilot officers), and wireless operator Raymond Moore (21) – remained unaccounted for, until last month when their Avro Lancaster was recovered from the IJsselmeer.

Tests are ongoing to confirm the identities of the bodies discovered, with the descendants of all crew members of ED603 sure to mourn 80 years after their deaths, the recovery operation a combined venture between the RAF’s Joint Aircraft Recovery and Transport Squadron (JARTS) and their Dutch counterparts.

No. 83 Squadron’s role at that time during WW2 was as part of the Pathfinder Force, a marker unit for Bomber Command, pinpointing targets by dropping flares, the bombers then targeting those flares.

Evening work was nothing new for No. 83, a squadron formed on January 7, 1917 at Montrose, starting life as a night bomber unit, moving over to France in March 1918 where its missions were focused on attacking German troop concentrations.

Disbanded in December 1919, the squadron reformed at RAF Turnhouse (now Edinburgh Airport) in August 1936, operating Hawker Hinds. Joining No. 5 Group at Scampton in March 1938, the unit was equipped with Handley Page Hampdens, and on day one of WW2, they carried out a sweep over the North Sea looking to locate German warships.

83 Squadron aircrew in front of a Handley Page Hampden at RAF Scampton
(83 Squadron aircrew in front of a Handley Page Hampden at RAF Scampton)

When Bomber Command switched to night operations, No. 83 flew missions hitting shipping in the Channel ports, and in December 1941 the unit was equipped with the ill-fated Avro Manchester, the beginning of a 28-year association with Avro aircraft.

After just a few months, the Manchesters were replaced by the iconic Lancaster bomber, and in August 1942 the unit was transferred to No. 8 Group Pathfinder Force at Wyton, with operations including attacks on sites in northern Italy. Through 1943, the numbers of missions intensified, with regular raids over Germany similar to the final journey undertaken by the crew of ED603, with a particularly notable operation on August 17 and 18: a total of 15 Lancasters from No. 83 taking part in attacks on the German V-bomber experimental station at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea.

83 Squadron aircrew in front of their Lancaster R5868
(83 Squadron aircrew in front of their Lancaster R5868)

In April 1944, the squadron transferred to No. 5 Group at Coningsby, involved in missions hitting railway targets in France, Belgium and Western Germany, ahead of the Allied move to regain control of mainland Europe. It was April 1945 that No. 83 carried out their last sortie of the conflict, hitting an oil refinery at Tonsberg in Norway – in total the squadron undertook 5,117 missions during WW2.

Post war, the squadron replaced their Lancasters with Lincolns, making the short move from Coningsby to Hemswell, before a more substantial short-term switch to Singapore in September 1953. During a five-month stint in the Far East, No. 83 were involved in bombing missions against insurgents during the Malayan Emergency, returning to Lincolnshire in January 1954, remaining at Hemswell until the unit was disbanded in December 1955.

It would be an 18-month hiatus for No. 83, reforming at RAF Waddington as the RAF’s first Vulcan squadron on May 21, 1957, with five crews from the first Vulcan Operational Conversion Unit, OCU, course.

Another move across Lincolnshire occurred in August 1960, No. 83 replacing its Mk1s – taken over by No. 44 Squadron – with the Mk2 at RAF Scampton, the upgraded aircraft now armed with Yellow Sun nuclear weapons. The unit spent nine years at Scampton before it was disbanded in August 1969.

The recent work by JARTS will rekindle memories for those associated with the squadron, the work in the Netherlands part of a €15m Dutch national aircraft project aiming to retrieve numerous aircraft and crews that crashed across the country during WW2, ensuring proper burials for aircrew members missing for around 80 years.

Sergeant Parker was one of the JARTS team involved in the work, a structure called a cofferdam built above the aircraft’s resting place which allows water to be pumped out of the area around the wreckage so work can be safely carried out.

“This was a once in a lifetime, unique and engaging opportunity which was a privilege and an honour for all involved,” said Sgt Parker. “It was important to recover the aircraft and remains of the aircrew so that closure could be provided to their respective families.

“It was a sobering and tasteful reminder of those that fought and lost for our futures in the war, and provided an opportunity to pay our respects.”

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1 comment

  • Good morning, we are preparing an info board on the ED997 OL-R and should like to have some pictures of the crew and plane. There is hardly anything to find on the group that stayed in Wyton. Can you help?

    Leo Janssen

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