The Crash site!
During one of my visits to Max's brother Colin and his wife, they made mention of the fact that Max's body had been buried by locals near a town called Greven, so I sent an email of enquiry to the Greven town hall. I was delighted to receive a very informative reply.
My next task was to write a letter to the Langkamp family, I was far from sure that I would getaway response, and if I did what it would be. However I was delighted to get this in the post>
Knowing where the crash site was was absolutely a key element which opened up so many new avenues of research in trying to find out what happened that fateful night, but the Holy Grail for me was to find a bit, no matter how small, of Max's Lancaster. Maybe the young Grandfather Heinrich as an 8 year old boy would have kept a piece as a souvenir? I would have to wait several years to find out with a bitter sweet twist in store........
I also wrote to the Theismann family, again I was very happy to receive this reply:
The letter reads:
We hope to be able to help you in your research for the place where the aeroplane crashed. To our knowledge it crashed in the field marked "X". If you come to Greven, we would gladly show you the field. Please give us some notice.
Looking at the information added to the plans that I had sent to both the Langkamps and Theismanns, I was able to compile this image to the left. It really is what Vanessa had shown, the Theismann "recollection" differs only very slightly and is not as detailed. I trust Vanessa's map because it was compiled with the help of her grandfather, an eye witness albeit 60 previously whereas the farmers named in the reports at the time (I later understood) was Janner, so I assumed the Theismann family weren't there in 1945. The positions of the two bodies are later confirmed in a contemporary police report.
So I now knew where the crash had occurred, but I wanted to know what had brought this about, how had their Lancaster come to its sad and unfortunate end? I joined a couple of online Forums, such as RAF Commands where aviation enthusiasts discussed and helped each other with their research, I had many questions but how many would be answered? One important fact that I learned was that the Australian National Archives had a different philosophy about releasing historical records to the Ministry of Defence. All queries to the latter were answered with a polite refusal to disclose any details of the British crew members due to the "potentially sensitive nature of the details", but I could find out online about Rowland Ward and Colin Terras from the comfort of my armchair half a world away! This was a critical document:
This is an extract of a report from the Missing, Research and Enquiry Unit (sometimes shown as Service), which was established to locate as many bodies as possible of Allied servicemen, to exhume and identify them and to re-interre them in official wargrave cemeteries. The date of this report is 1948, it's inaccurate in that the date of death is shown as 2.3.45 instead of 3.3.45.
It confirms the identity of each crew member and their initial burial in Greven, that Ward, Terras and Chatters were together in Grave 12, Venton and Smith in 13, Drennan in 11 and Callaghan in 8. The Investigation paragraph is interesting, confirming the location of the crash at the Langkamp's farm and the statement about the stricken Lancaster on fire and circling the farm. I was sceptical about Herr Langkamp knowing that flak was responsible for the aircraft's demise, not an easy thing to establish from the ground. The report goes on to explain how the crew's remains were exhumed and identified, in this context it needs to be explained that both Rowland Ward's and Colin Terras' bodies were burned beyond recognition and were subsequently identified by dental records.
Three men and one lady were instrumental in helping me with the next stage of my research.
Dr Theo Boiten, a Dutchman and Rod MacKenzie, a New Zealander worked together to research, compile and publish a seminal work called the "Nachtjagd War Diaries". These two volumes reconcile, as far as is possible, the claims made by German night fighters and flak units for the destruction of Bomber Command and related units. I was fortunate to be able to attend the launch of these books in 2008, meeting not only Theo and Rod but also two gentlemen who flew night time operations against RAF bombers, Peter Spoden and Rolf Ebhardt.
Theo, Rod and Peter signing my copies of the NJWD, Telford 2008.
Myself, Peter and Rolf.
The entry in the NJWD for 3 March 1945 shows the following:
By that late stage of the war it was very difficult to accurately attribute the destruction of a specific bomber to an individual night fighter. The latter's logbook showed a claim, its possible type (otherwise just vier-mot, four engined) and the area in which this happened. So from the evidence it appeared that Lancaster ME453 was shot down by either Hermann Greiner near Dortmund, or Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer near Osnabruck but there were several other bombers that they could have been making a claim for, as listed.
Rod specialises in researching the latter months of the war, so I contacted him to ask his opinion about the claims that night. This is one of his first replies which started to give me an understanding of the system and the uncertainties at that time. (He also was doubtful about Herr Langkamp's assertion of flak being the cause of ME453's destruction.) Rod's "map" places ME453 just west of Ladbergen in the square, or Planquadrate, where Greiner and Schaufer both claimed victories. So far, so good!
The third chap who was pivotal in my research was Wim Govaerts from Lier in Belgium. Wim is an authority on Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer, he was given unique access to the Schnaufer family records and photo albums for the preparation of his biography on the night fighter ace called:
Translated as "The Night Ghost of St Trond", a title allegedly given to him by bomber crews because of his skill and prowess in stalking and shooting down bombers, he was never seen approaching. He operated at one point from the base at St Trond.
Wim very generously gave me a copy of the relevant page from Major Schnaufer's logbook, entries 96 and 97 showing the date, time, location and altitude of his claims. HQ in the location column is the planquadrate, or square shown in Rod's diagram above. "96" is southwest of Osnabuck, "97" north of Munster. In addition Wim let me have a copy of Schnaufer's radio operator's (Bordfunker) logbook:
...which shows that they took off at 21.30 hours and landed 81 minutes later at 22.51, claiming two Abschusse (victories).
Chatting with Wim over a coffee in Mechelen, Belgium.
The lady who proved to be so helpful was Thelma Wheeler, widow of Doug who was a navigator on 463 Squadron, 467 Squadron's sister squadron at RAF Waddington. Crucially, Doug was on this operation on 3 March and luckily had saved a lot of his navigator logs. Thelma was able to supply me with a copy:
This shows the route south taken by the Lancasters towards Reading before turning south east over the English channel into France. The bomber stream then turned north east across Belgium and the Netherlands towards the target. The route home was north north west, then west across the IJssel Meer, North Sea and England. Doug's map was accompanied by his written log which includes this poignant extract:
This states "Aircraft down on port beam" at 22.05 after points F and G, the two turning points after the target had been bombed, Doug's mid-upper gunner (facing aft) would have been looking to his right, back towards the target area. ME453 was shot down just before reaching the target so it is entirely possible, if not probable, that the aircraft seen going down was ME453. The incident is within the correct time frame for Schnaufer's claim, given probable accumulated small delays in observing and writing logs and an understandable possible error from Doug with 22.06 preceding 22.05. Much later I was able to compile two charts showing the crash sites leading to the loss of Lancasters on the route to the target:
ME453 was only 3 miles short of the target and therefore would probably been the most visible from Doug Wheeler's Lancaster.
Lancaster losses overlaid onto Doug Wheeler's map:
There is always going to be an element of speculation in these matters, but taking the available evidence into consideration it seems probable that the Lancaster seen going down by Doug's crew was ME453, and that Schnaufer was the most likely night fighter responsible.
Thelma Wheeler and myself at a Bomber Command ceremony in Canberra, Australia in 2010.