Life and Death in the PFF: The Cost to The Occupied Countries

For the peoples of the occupied countries, the flight of Bomber Command aircraft overhead often seemed a beacon of hope that one day the Nazis would be defeated and Liberation would come. This was despite the fact that when Bomber Command aircraft were shot down over their lands there was sometimes a considerable human cost.

One such incident came in the night of 23 June 1943 when the Armstrong crew’s Lancaster was shot down over the city of Utrecht. (For information on the crew, go to this page: Crew: Armstrong

The following photographs, which show the aftermath of the shooting down, were taken by the Germans. They were later stolen by the Dutch as a permanent memorial to what had happened. The photographs come from the collection of Co Maarschalkerweerd, who was a very young boy at the time of the crash, living in Utrecht with his family. For most of his life Co has been gathering material about the Armstrong crew and what happened to them. These photographs appear with his kind permission.

Co Maarschalkerweerd wrote an article on the shooting down for a magazine (After the Battle, no 41, published 1983 in London). The article is a thorough account of the aftermath of the shooting down of a Lancaster over an urban area. It is a grim reminder of the cost to Dutch civilians of the RAF’s strategic air offensive. The many photographs which illustrate the article show how close the falling remains of the aircraft came to killing numerous people. In one house, no 38 Palmstraat, the complete nose of the aircraft smashed through the roof and came to rest inches above the bed of the occupants – the ammunition from the forward gun hanging down in festoons. In other houses, serious fires were started. Several adults and children were killed as a direct result of the Lancaster debris or the resultant fires. The pitiful bodies of the five crew members who were killed were later found in the same area of small, neatly kept houses. Honoured for their sacrifice, they were buried in the local cemetery.

“My uncle Alexander Rutherford Laing was posted to 97 Squadron at RAF Woodhall Spa (together with the rest of his crew) on 14th March 1943 from the No 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (then based at Winthorpe in Notts).

The crew carried out the following operations

1.28/29 Mar 43 St Nazaire
2/3 Apr 43 minelaying – returned early
2.13/14 Apr 43 Spezia
From RAF Station Bourn, in Cambridgeshire
3.30 Apr/1 May 43 Essen
4.4/5 May 43 Dortmund
5.12/13 May 43 Duisburg
6.28/29 May 43 Wuppertal
7.16/17 Jun 43 Cologne
8.21/22 Jun 43 Krefeld
9.22/23 Jun 43 Mulheim

On 22nd June 1943 they took part on a mission to Mulheim during which their aircraft was attacked by a night fighter over the city of Utrecht in Holland and exploded in mid-air. Debris from the stricken bomber fell into a residential neighbourhood, causing many casualties and extensive damage to property.

My uncle and Sergeant Bellis were the only survivors of the crew. My uncle had been wounded and received first aid from a local doctor. He and Sergeant Bellis were later taken into captivity by the Germans and remained POWs for the rest of the war.

I believe my uncle was held prisoner in East Prussia and took part in the Langsdorf Death March before being liberated by the US Army and returned home to England.

I wish I could say that there was a happy ending to my uncle’s story but sadly this was not to be. His health had been seriously affected during his captivity and after a long and distressing illness he died at the tragically young age of thirty three.

I believe Edward Bellis died in 1994.

My recollections of my uncle are very vague as I was very young when he died. What I know of his story I learnt mainly from my mother. Like so many of his comrades he apparently spoke very little of his experiences, preferring, I suppose, to concentrate on getting on with life after the war.

The story does not quite end here. In 1993 my mother received a letter from a Mr J.C. Maarschalkerweerd. He had been a very young boy living in the street on which my uncle’s bomber crashed. He explained that this experience had kindled within him a life-long interest in the European air war. He sent me a copy of his article in After the Battle.”

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