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Germany and Poland Trip. Part One – Rheinberg War Cemetery – The Cost

Wednesday 20th March 2024 – Rheinberg War Cemetery.

When I interviewed Pathfinder pilot Desmond Pelly he told me, ‘My feeling has always been that I was extremely privileged to be allowed by the Royal Air Force to captain a four-engine aircraft, with a crew of eight, at the age of 21. We had some wonderful times together as a crew.’

Desmond Pelly

Today I had the chance to visit the resting place of three of Desmond’s crew at the Rheinberg War Cemetery. Having initially started with No. 100 Squadron, Desmond joined No. 156 Squadron in October 1944. His full story appears in the first ‘Bomber Command Failed to Return’ book, which includes his account of what happened on the night of 20/21 February 1945.

‘I was Deputy Master Bomber. Everything had gone perfectly smoothly until we were approaching the target and I realized there was a certain amount of fighter activity. I saw one, if not two other aircraft shot down. We actually had our bomb doors open and I was under the direction of the bomb aimer. We only had about fifteen seconds or so to go before we had to drop our bombs. I saw a German fighter and warned the gunners: ‘There’s a fighter right underneath us now.’ The words were hardly out of my mouth and up came the cannon shells, right across all our petrol tanks. Immediately I could see there was no way I was going to get the fire out of the petrol tanks and I gave the orders to abandon the aircraft; the fires were right across the tanks. Fortunately the fighter had not hit any of our bombs. I think that was on purpose – if he had hit one of the bombs it might have blown him out of the sky as well as us.

‘I kept the aircraft flying. The bomb aimer was right down in the nose, I knew he would have got out. I saw my two navigators go past me and my engineer had gone. They’d had enough time to get out so I reckoned the radio operator and two gunners would have had time to get out of the back. On the other hand I was pretty certain at that stage that the rear gunner had been killed. The aircraft was very badly damaged. My navigator went out and for some reason his parachute didn’t open. The mid-upper gunner panicked before he got out and opened his parachute in the aircraft. He jumped with it and it got caught on the tail plane and he went down with the aircraft.

‘When I was satisfied all who survived had got out I dived out of the forward hatch. The last I saw of the altimeter we were down to around 10,000 feet. The aircraft was going down pretty quickly. I hadn’t got much control and it was going down in a bit of a spiral. Eventually the parachute opened and I floated peacefully down, landing in a German field. My radio operator, who got out before me, told me afterwards that he saw the aircraft blow up shortly after we had got out.’

Desmond’s navigator and air gunners now rest in plot 11 at the Rheinberg War Cemetery


Eric Bangs, air gunner. (Epitaph- WE THINK OF YOU ALWAYS, MUM, DAD AND FAMILY)

Thomas Carr, air gunner.

In the picture below of five of Desmond’s crew, Desmond is in the middle and far left is Thomas Carr, and second from left is David Sinfield. (I’m afraid I don’t have a photo of Eric Bangs.)

In addition to Desmond’s friends, I took the opportunity to pay my respects at the graves of two further airmen who have featured in our Failed to Return series and their pictures are herewith.

Jack Tootal lost his life in a No. 462 Squadron Halifax on the night of 24/25 February 1945 (story written by Sean Feast). His epitaph reads ‘IN EVER LOVING MEMORY OF DARLING JACK. NEVER FORGOTTEN BY HIS LOVED ONES’.

Robert Mooney was lost in a No. 97 Squadron Lancaster on the Berlin raid of 1/2 January 1944 (story written by Dr Robert Owen). Robert’s epitaph reads ‘THE SPIRIT’S FLAME UNTARNISHED STAYS THROUGH ALL ETERNITY.’

I left the cemetery with some regret. I would have preferred more time to walk along the rows and rows of aircrew. I’ll return one day. I interrupted one of the gardeners on the way out. He was concentrating on trimming the grass edge. He took his ear protectors off. I said ‘thank you – for what you do’.

Rheinberg Cemetery contains the graves of 3,334 individuals, mostly aircrew.

(Next – Neheim and the Möhne Dam.)

Published inBomber CommandGeneral