We have recently received a haunting image of Eric Skinner of the Burns crew who was captured by the Germans on 31 August 1943. All but one of the crew had baled out of the aircraft when, according to the Bomber Command loss card, the aircraft blew up at 18,000 feet with the full load of bombs. Of the crew of seven, two died and Burns, the skipper, was so badly wounded that he would be repatriated. For the full image of Eric Skinner and details of the Burns crew, see: Burns Crew
We have recently been working with the logbook, prisoner of war log, and other papers of John Henry O’Neill, a bomb aimer with 405 Squadron, who was shot down on 3 June 1944. There is a great deal of interest in these papers, but one small item caught my eye today. Tucked into the prisoner of war log is a yellowing newspaper clipping, describing the end of the last Lancaster on active duty on 20 October 1956. Also tucked into the logbook is the card of the Lancaster included on this post. Clearly, the aircraft was of great significance to John O’Neill. There is also a drawing of a Lancaster in his prisoner of war log.
Further to our recent post about Frank Smith and Patch the Dog, Frank’s son-in-law has kindly sent a copy of Frank’s logbook and there is a very interesting entry on 4th May 1945 which reads:
13.10 Base to Juvincourt
and then on the next line:
17.15 Juvincourt to Dunsfold, evacuation of 23 ex P.O.Ws
The flight from Juvincourt took one hour and forty-five minutes, and the Harrison crew returned from Dunsfold to base (Coningsby) on the same very eventful day.
It is thought that this may very well be the day that Patch was brought back from the Continent.
Juvincourt was one of the largest Luftwaffe airfields in Northern France before it was seized by the Allies after the Normandy invasion. It is some distance from the Belgian border, but family history recounts that Patch came from Belgium. Given the very short timeframe, it seems unlikely that the crew had time to go to Belgium, so perhaps one of the ex-POWs had him and gave him to the crew, and in particular to Frank Smith, for safe-keeping. The POW would have been entering the extensive programme of care for ex-POWs which was waiting for them when they came home, and the chances of being able to keep the dog were minimal.
For details of Operation Exodus, the evacuation of POWs, see this page.
Ralph Cecil Saunders, a navigator with 97 Squadron, was one of only two survivors of the crew of Kenneth Painter, which was shot down on 20 October 1943. The other survivor was Tom Andrews, the wireless operator.
Saunders spent the rest of the war at Stalag IVB at Mülhberg, south-west of Berlin. This was liberated by the Red Army on 23 April 1945; however, the bulk of the prisoners were not released by the Russians until around 22 May. (See Footsteps on the Sands of Time, by Oliver Clutton-Brock.)
Although we have not yet traced official records, it appears that a number of Soviet prisoners were also kept at Mülhberg, one of them being Alex Polewoj. Generally speaking, Soviet prisoners were kept separately from British prisoners, and treated abysmally. Saunders made friends with Alex Polewoj through the wire, and in gratitude the Soviet soldier gave him the cigarette box.
Despite the appalling conditions in which the Soviet prisoners were held, Saunders would later recall potatoes (presumably cooked and therefore edible) being thrown through his window by them when he was in the “cooler”.
There will be more on Ralph Saunders and Tom Andrews on another post.
With thanks to Peter Saunders.