“Lancaster 739:” 60 Minutes, Crashes and Cover-Ups

Australian investigative journalism program 60 Minutes last night broadcast a very interesting story about a 97 Squadron navigator called Ron Conley, who went missing on a raid on the Pointe du Hoc gun emplacements, very early on D-Day morning, 6 June 1944. The report, called “Lancaster 739”, followed the story of Conley’s crew who were presumed lost at sea. The reporter, Michael Usher, suggested that there had been an official cover-up about the circumstances of the crash, and that a ‘top secret’ radar system that was on board might have had something to do with it. As always, I like to think cock-up before I think conspiracy, so on hearing this bit my ears pricked up. I thought I would do a little digging.

Conveniently, Conley’s Casualty File[1] is available to view at the National Archives of Australia website. It contains a letter written after the crew failed to return by the new 97 Squadron Officer Commanding to the RAF Air Ministry. It’s a poor-quality photostat and is rather difficult to read, but it does appear to report the circumstances of the loss of Lancaster LD739 ND739 (Edit September 2014: see comments below). There was an extra man in the crew – the eighth member being named in this letter as a Special Air Bomber. Pathfinder crews regularly had extra men on board to operate some of the special navigational equipment they carried – in this case possibly the Oboe blind-bombing aid. Ground defences were “inactive”, the letter says, but “a few fighters were known to be over the target area”. Critically, the pilot of this aircraft, W/C EJ (Jimmy) Carter, DFC, who was the 97 Squadron CO until he failed to return from this trip, had been nominated Deputy Controller for the operation and so was required to keep in radio communication with the rest of his force over the target, relaying orders from the Master Bomber who was flying a Mosquito. Carter’s voice was heard but apparently “ceased in the middle of a sentence” just after 5am and no further signals were received from the aircraft. “It is believed,” wrote the replacement CO to Conley’s father, “that an enemy fighter must have intercepted the aircraft while over the target, but although one or two of our aircraft were seen to be shot down, nothing much could be identified owing to a certain amount of cloud.”

Also in the Casualty File is a copy of an internal signal dated 22 December 1944 sent from London to the RAAF in Melbourne advising that enquiries made to the International Red Cross Committee in Geneva had failed to turn up any news of Conley or the rest of his crew. This shows that the RAAF had made efforts to trace the missing crew. But in the absence of any further word, in March 1945 they wrote to Mr Conley again advising that “it has now become necessary to consider the question whether in these circumstances an official presumption of your son’s death should be made.” I’ve seen very similar letters in the files of many of my great uncle Jack’s crew as well. In May 1945 Conley was officially presumed dead.

In 1949, the Air Force explained (and this letter was quoted in the report). “All efforts to find any trace of your son’s aircraft or to establish whether the bodies of any of the crew were ever recovered for burial have proved unsuccessful. In view of this complete lack of evidence, it is now concluded that your son and his comrades were lost at sea. It is proposed, therefore, to commemorate your son by including his name on a memorial which will be erected at a later date by the Imperial War Graves Commission, to the memory of those deceased members who have no known grave.” Ron Conley’s name, and those of the rest of his crew, are now on the Runnymede memorial in England.

So far, all of this is very much like so many other stories about Bomber Command airmen. The 60 Minutes team interviewed cousins of Ron Conley and found family of other members of the crew as well. What sets this story apart just a little, however, is that an English aviation archaeologist named Tony Graves has only recently found the remains of the aircraft – not in the English Channel as was officially presumed, but in a field on an abandoned farm in Normandy. The wreck was positively identified on the basis of a gold wedding ring engraved with the initials “A.C.” and with the words “Love Vera” on the inside. This was traced to F/L Albert Chambers, the wireless operator on the crew, whose wife was named Vera. They also showed a small fragment of a uniform with the remains of a Distinguished Flying Medal ribbon still sewn on. Three members of the crew had received that particular decoration. (In fact this was a highly experienced and decorated crew. As well as the Squadron Commander, W/C Carter, it also carried the Gunnery and Signals Leaders. Six of the eight had already been awarded DFMs or DFCs, and Conley himself would be posthumously given a DFC as well.) Though smashed into almost unrecognisable fragments from the force of the impact of the crash, what remained had been preserved remarkably well, with paper maps and charts that would have been from Conley’s nav bag recovered from the wreckage. How Graves knew that the wreck was there was not explained beyond a reference to “enough evidence and eyewitness accounts,” but congratulations are due to him for making the discovery and following the story up to the extent that he has.

The report was, I thought, going well up to this point. But then they started talking about the “new, secret” radar called “HS2” that was on this “customised” Lancaster.

Oh dear.

By the middle of 1944, H2S (note not ‘HS2’) was well-established as a ground-mapping radar system. So while it was still nominally a ‘secret’, it certainly was not a brand-new piece of equipment and was in general use by the Main Force throughout the Battle of Berlin period (November 1943 – March 1944). It’s mentioned many times in the Night Raid Reports[2] of this period, being fitted to both heavy bombers and Mosquitos. In fact, the interrogation of German nightfighter commander Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid after the war confirmed that as early as November 1943 the Germans were using the emissions from the H2S sets to home in on the bomber stream.[3] In short, it was by no means an unusual thing to find on a Lancaster at that time, and cannot therefore be used as a reason for a potential cover-up.

Also appearing in the report was Keith Dunning, the son of P/O Guy Dunning, the flight engineer on ND739. He remembered a visit to his family, after the war, by an RAF airman who said he was on the same trip and had seen the aircraft go down over land. The RAF had, Keith said, later written to Dunning’s family to say that this had been a “mistake” and the airman had later withdrawn his testimony. This was presented in the 60 Minutes report as further evidence of a cover-up. However, as was written in the CO’s letter to Conley’s father I quoted earlier, cloud prevented the exact identification of any of the aircraft that were seen to be shot down. There is also the fact that the raid took place half an hour or so before dawn so light levels would have been low. It’s difficult to say, in the face of that, that the airman was definitively correct in his original identification of the crashing aircraft, and with no further evidence to support the theory coming to light after the event, the Air Force appears to have acted quite reasonably in discounting his report.

The logbook belonging to Guy Dunning was featured, with some pages apparently removed covering the operation on which the crew went missing. Keith Dunning said other logbooks that he has seen from the same crew showed the same pages missing. Again, 60 Minutes called this evidence of a cover-up. But the final pages would have been filled in by someone at the squadron after the crew failed to return, not by the aircrew themselves (who were dead by this stage). Jack Purcell’s logbook records the wrong aircraft for his final flight,  and squadron Operational Record Books are littered with similar clerical errors. It’s quite possible that whoever wrote the last entry in the logbooks made a mistake and decided to remove the pages and start again.

Finally, there is the fact that no bodies were found when the aircraft was excavated. No-one appears to know where the bodies are, or who might have moved them. “Eight bodies don’t vanish”, said Dunning. 60 Minutes, by now predictably, again called it a cover-up. But an understanding of RAF Missing Research and Enquiry Service methods would suggest that, more likely, the investigators simply couldn’t find anyone who could tell them what happened. Tony Graves apparently found reports by eyewitnesses to the crash but perhaps any witnesses to the burial did not survive the fairly intense fighting that occurred in the general area in the immediate aftermath of the invasion (as happened to a young Dutch girl who witnessed a Tempest crash in March 1945). There would have been considerable confusion in the area in the following weeks and months and if any records were made of the burials, they could well have simply disappeared in the fog of war. There are, according to the report, some graves marked as ‘unknown airmen’ in the local cemetery and there is of course a possibility that these hold the crew of ND739. But two 97 Squadron aircraft were lost on this raid so they could also belong to the other crew. The MRES could well have been aware of these graves and opened them up (though no MRES report appears in Conley’s A705 file), but perhaps were unable to make a positive identification of the airmen buried there. There was some talk on the program, if the required documents could be found, of identifying the men in the graves and giving names to the headstones, but as the crew are already appropriately commemorated elsewhere (at Runnymede), this is not something that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would approve.

So most of the evidence that 60 Minutes used to decide there had been a cover-up could, and in my view probably does, have a far less sinister explanation. On the positive side, I’m happy to see some Bomber Command coverage on a high-rating television program in the lead-up to ANZAC Day. Another crash site has been identified, and, though graves have not been found, some more families now have a little more closure on what really happened to their lost airmen. It’s a fascinating story. But that’s just the point. It’s a fascinating story in its own right, and it does not need to be sensationalised.

 

Further information about the Conley crew can be found here:  http://www.97squadron.co.uk/Coningsby%20crew%20Carter.html

Sources:

[1] NAA: A705, 166/8/495. CONLEY, Ronald John – (Flight Lieutenant); Service Number – 425606; File type – Casualty – Repatriation; Aircraft – Lancaster LD739; Place – Cherbourg, France; Date – 6 June 1944

[2] The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), AIR 14/3411, B.C. (O.R.S.) Final Reports on operations, Night Raids Nos. 416-620, September 1943 to May 1944, vol. 4

[3] Isby, David C (2003) p.104: Fighting the Bombers: the Luftwaffe’s Struggle against the Allied Bomber Offensive, Greenhill Books 2003, Lionel Leventhal Limited, Park House, 1 RussellGardens, London, NM11 9NN. ISBN 1-85367-532-6

© 2013 Adam Purcell

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4 Responses to ““Lancaster 739:” 60 Minutes, Crashes and Cover-Ups”


  1. 1 Andy Wright February 5, 2014 at 06:57

    A well written study, Adam. I was keen to watch this report as well as I’d been following the investigation in to this crew and experiencing the same frustration as to where the bodies were particularly as so much clothing and personal gear had been recovered. The frustration only grew with the 60 Minutes investigation and pretty much reached a peak with the mention of “HS2”! As you say, though, it was wonderful to see a Bomber Command story feature during prime time.
    Cheers

    Andy Wright

    • 2 Adam Purcell February 5, 2014 at 22:38

      Thanks for the comment, Andy. This post caused my biggest day ever for page views on this blog – and then again the following Sunday night when 60 Minutes did their ‘Mailbag’ thing and people started googling again!!
      Adam

  2. 3 Trevor A. Williams. September 22, 2014 at 17:47

    Just to add to the confusion, the Lancaster is referred to as being LD739 when it was in fact ND739 -Z. Zebra…………………..

    • 4 Adam Purcell September 22, 2014 at 21:07

      Good pick-up Trevor, and I reckon you’re right. It appears that the source of the error was the original casualty notification (it’s in Conley’s A705 file) which clearly shows L. The title of the file in the NAA database therefore also includes the L, and so that’s probably where the producers of the programme (and me, for that matter) got the L from. The circumstantial report into the loss is smudged and when I wrote the post I thought it was an L but, now I look at it a bit closer, it’s more likely an N. I don’t have the 97 Sqn ORB but I’ve just checked in Bruce Robertson’s ‘Lancaster – the Story of a Famous Bomber’ and it does not show any serial numbers beginning with the prefix LD.
      Funny how this confusion happens, ain’t it? I’ve amended the text of my post accordingly.
      Adam


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