The Fate of ME846

compiled by Paul Stevenson

nephew of Pilot Officer MAH Davis

Lancaster 1, PG-C, registration ME846
21st /22nd June 1944
On the night of 21st/22nd June 1944, the shortest night of the year, 619 Squadron was to be included in a task force to attack the oil and fuel dumps at Wesseling, to the south of Cologne. This was considered a tough target and new crews were not included. Lancaster ME846, a relatively new aircraft to the squadron, was to carry a big load of both fuel and bombs, including for the first time in the seven missions completed by the crew, a block buster (1,000lb bomb). The instructions were to bomb from 20,000 feet. From the diaries of Peter Knox, the bomb aimer; Leslie Taylor, the navigator; Dennis Belshaw, the flight engineer, and from the official report submitted by the crew of the German fighter that shot them down,  we know some of the events that took place.

A Lancaster flight-deck with the pilot’s position located on the left-hand side (click to enlarge).

It was just before midnight on Wednesday 21st June, mid-summer’s eve, that the heavily laden aircraft reluctantly left the runway of Dunholme Lodge, the Squadron’s base, rising slowly over the Lincolnshire countryside with its heavy load and the pilot, Pilot Officer MAH Davis (or “Dave” as he was known to the crew) had to struggle to join the formation and climb to the eventual bombing height.
As they flew over the Channel towards Europe, they ran into a problem. Dennis Belshaw takes up the story. “Initially the trip was quiet & uneventful, then just after the first hour had passed we started to have our first trouble. It was nothing serious just a spot of overheating in two of our engines so I, as flight engineer of the aircraft, advised the Skipper to level out, for at that time we were still climbing on course. The Skipper taking my advice, levelled out and so, for the next 15 minutes, we flew along that way. When I decided that the engines were cool enough to resume climbing, I passed on the information to the Skipper and we started once more to climb. It was through this method of climbing in slow and easy stages that we got to 18,000 feet when we crossed over the Dutch island of Walcheren, close to the Belgium border.”
A short while later Peter Knox, the bomb aimer, reported: “Fighter planes were dropping flares which lit up the sky between the Lancasters and the ground, silhouetting us for their attacks. Before we came under fire from that quarter, I reported seeing flashes from anti-­aircraft guns on the ground and in accordance with established routines we started to weave.”

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A while later, as the aircraft was approximately 20kms south west of Eindhoven and probably still below the main formation due to the earlier engine problems, it was attacked by a Messerschmitt Bf 110 G9+BC night fighter of No. 1 Night Fighter Squadron, piloted by Captain von Bonin, with navigator, Staff Sergeant Johrden and Gunner, First Private Zerbach. This aircraft has, in its armament, upward firing guns that can be used to great effect when flying beneath an enemy aircraft. The reports subsequently made by the three crew members, indicated that they took off on a night sortie at 0042 hours in “undirected tame boar” mode. (“Undirected tame boar” was a tactic used by night fighters with Liechtenstein Radar, without direction from ground radar, searching in groups and co-ordinating themselves by radio. The name derives from “Raging Boar”, a tactic used by day fighters who, when flying at night, attacked on eye sight alone without external or internal radar direction.). They soon located the bomber stream flying south-west of Eindhoven at 6,000 metres (19,700 feet) on a course of 110 degrees. At 0109 hours the radio operator identified and directed the pilot to a four engine bomber flying at 5400 metres (18,000 feet). The pilot of the Messerschmitt moved into the assault position beneath the Lancaster, he continues; “….at 0112 hours I did shoot a good laying, long salve from the fuselage to the right inner engine, the enemy plane instantly began to burn bright in the hit area….”  The Gunner also reported; “…the fire also covering the rear fuselage….”
Peter Knox comments: “… there was the sound of a muffled explosion and a jolt. The pilot was momentarily startled…. Our plane had been hit by ack-ack (he and the rest of the crew had no idea that they had in fact been targeted by an enemy aircraft) and one of the starboard engines was on fire.”
Dennis Belshaw: “We were hit in the starboard outer engine which caught fire immediately and even though I feathered the engine and then pressed the fire extinguisher button, the fire still continued to spread rapidly towards the fuel tanks.” (From his seat it is possible that he could not see that the inner engine was also on fire.)
Peter Knox: “Immediately we reverted to the language drilled into us in the many hours of practice for just such an emergency. In a very few seconds he (the Skipper) clearly recognised that the fire was out of control. In a calm clipped voice he said “abandon aircraft-emergency, jump, jump.” We now went into the automatic response stage. I was lying over the front exit through    which   the   bomb-aimer,    wireless-operator, 
flight-engineer and pilot had to make their escape. The two gunners had escape routes at the rear. As soon as the pilot gave the orders to abandon the plane, we each had to confirm over the inter-com that we were jumping. As I had to lift up the escape hatch I responded first, “air-bomber jumping”. I heard the others starting to confirm that they were going too. There was no shouting, no calls for help. In a numbed state, I moved into the escape routine. I scrambled to my feet, grabbing and fixing the parachute onto the harness by clips in front of the chest and sneaking a look at the fire engulfing the wing. I was now disconnected from the inter-com. Since we were at close to 20,000 feet, we had to keep using oxygen until the very last seconds. For this we had individual supplies. I undid the clips of the escape hatch and lifted it for jettisoning. The force of the rush of air twisted it as it dropped vertically through the hatch. For a horrible second it was jamming the escape route. I kicked it clear, saw the gaping hole with a sense of enormous relief and rolled out head first.”

The Bomb Aimer’s position with the ‘yellow-marked’ escape hatch clearly marked.

Denis Belshaw recounts that “On hearing this, (the order to abandon the aircraft) I went into a panic for a short while, but managed to calm down enough to be able to carry out my duties. I divested my helmet & oxygen mask, clipped on my parachute then handed the Skipper his parachute. By this time the navigator was pushing me from behind, hurrying me on. So seeing there was nothing else I could do and knowing that Pete the bomb aimer had already jumped, I moved down into the bomb aimer’s compartment and, after checking my ‘chute and harness, I jumped from the aircraft.”
Leslie Taylor was equally shocked and reports on hearing the instruction to abandon the aircraft “My God, I’m a dead man I thought to myself. However, I seemed to move away from my navigation table as is if it were all part of the usual routine. I clipped on my parachute pack, discarded my helmet and moved forward to the nose in readiness for the “bailing out”. From the cabin I

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could see that our starboard outer engine had gone and that we were blazing furiously aft. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and waved cheerio. Once in the nose, without losing a single second, I plunged through the escape hatch.” The wireless operator, Thomas Newbery followed Leslie.

Wireless Operators station.

Peter Knox continues: “It takes no courage to leave a burning aircraft with a load of bombs and fuel aboard. The instinct for survival is strong and the sky stretching out below represented safety. All this time the pilot was holding the plane steady. As I tumbled clear of the plane, I fumbled for the ripcord. At first my hand found the cloth strap of the parachute bag. Quickly it moved to the ripcord. I pulled it and almost instantly the parachute opened and, with a violent jerk, my fall was broken. I found myself floating. This was an environment for which there had been no rehearsal. I was no longer responding like a robot to in-built commands. The disaster which had hit us struck me and, although I have never been a hard swearer, my first conscious thought was to say …. it.” Then I recollect thanking God I had escaped and rather desperately willing that my mother and father should somehow know I was alive. I could hear the droning of the Lancasters above as they pushed on towards the target.”
Meanwhile, as the aircraft had rapidly descended out of the main stream of the formation, Dave had turned the aircraft to port and onto a reciprocal course back towards England and although uninjured had been holding the lurching plane as steadily as possible to allow all the crew to escape. What happened next is not clear. It is known that the flight engineer, the navigator and  the wireless-operator left the aircraft after the bomb aimer, but the fifth to exit, Dave, did not follow and it would appear the two gunners never made it from their exit either, despite a clear indication from the mid-upper gunner, George Moggridge, that he was jumping.
However, both Peter and Leslie were sure that the rear-gunner, Pilot Officer Bowering, already lay dead in his turret as nothing was heard from him over the intercom before they jumped.  It is therefore likely that whilst Dave stayed at the controls of the aircraft, George Moggridge, on clipping on his parachute in the rear of the plane, noticed that the rear-gunner had not left the aircraft and went to his aid, telling Dave of the problem at the same time. However, with the starboard wing and the rear of the fuselage now on fire, it is also possible that the escape exit for the gunners was blocked by these flames, as their exit was on the starboard side of the plane.
The crew of the Messerschmitt reported that after being hit, the Lancaster went into a left curve and into a steep dive, burning brightly. At the upper layer of cloud cover, 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) there was an explosion and the aircraft broke into two parts with the right wing falling away from the fuselage. The two parts crashed at 0114 hours with the impact fire seen as a sudden illumination through the thin cloud cover. They reported the wreck site as about 20-30 km south-south west of Eindhoven.
This reported “sudden illumination” must have been when the aircraft’s bomb load finally exploded, for according to RAF records, the aircraft exploded in mid-air with the crash site in the Bladel Woods on the Dutch side of the border with Belgium, but nothing to identify it has ever been recovered by the RAF. Peter Knox, Leslie Taylor & Dennis Belshaw indicated that it exploded below them whilst they were still on their parachutes and still above the cloud cover, so all they would have seen would have been the illumination of the explosion through the cloud.
Peter Knox again, whilst still descending by parachute: “Within a very short space of time I saw the explosion as our plane plummeted into the ground. I wondered if the others had got out and I shouted out the name of “George”, our mid-upper gunner. I thought he might have jumped about the same time as me. My voice seemed to be lost in the vast dark space around me and I realised there was no possibility of making any form of human contact. I calculated that it took me some 15 minutes to reach the ground. At first I found it hard to stop myself from swinging as the wind blew the parachute around and at one point I was sick. Then I entered calmer air and the descent became quite smooth.  Looking  back  I  cannot  recall  worrying about

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the landing. I knew we were over land and that our flight path had kept us clear of major cities. I passed through some clouds and before I had time to realise it I had hit the ground on the fringe of a pine forest and my parachute was snagged on a small tree. Luck was on my side. I was unhurt. The weather was fine. It was dark and I was in an isolated area.”

The cramped rear turret of a Lancaster

On leaving the aircraft, Dennis Belshaw comments, “I had no trouble whatsoever with my parachute, it opened smoothly and quickly and so I started my slow descent to the earth or the black unknown below me. On the way down I had one or two scares. First of all there was a rocket coming for me or at least so I thought, then there was Flak bursting on all sides of me, but to crown it all, fighter flares were dropping on my left and through the illumination I could see a fighter coming towards me. On seeing this I slumped in my harness as though I was dead and it seemed to work for on seeing this he banked sharply to my port and left me alive to continue down to earth. My actions may have been foolish, but it is best in my opinion to take no chances these days. I was slowly descending and at that moment I hit the cloud, which in my opinion was about at 10,000 feet. It was then that I realised I was on my own and in a rotten predicament coming down in enemy territory. For the next few minutes I forgot all about that because my descent was ending and I was about 50 feet from the ground before I realised it was so near. The next thing that happened was as I was getting ready for the impact, I felt something whipping passed me and it wasn’t until I became stationary that I realised that my parachute had caught itself in the branches of a large poplar tree and that I had been dragged through the branches. I also realised at that moment that  I  was  suspended  by  my parachute about 10 or 15 feet from the ground and ..
that though having all my weight on my harness, I could not release myself from the chute. On seeing this I started to swing about until my right foot rested on a branch and then taking my weight on my right leg, I managed to release myself from the harness and parachute. Immediately this happened I fell to the ground and after recovering from the shock of the impact, discovered I had come through all my adventures without a scratch.”
Leslie Taylor had a similar experience, “…the next thing I knew I was floating down to earth. It was an exhilarating feeling after the stuffy atmosphere of the aircraft, but the constant anti-aircraft shells bursting all around me were rather worrying, also the fact that I was over enemy occupied territory and wondering what was going to happen to me. Whilst I was still coming down, I heard a terrible explosion beneath me and when I saw the flames shooting up, I realised that it was the end of “C” Charlie, our faithful Lancaster Bomber. Through the darkness I was just able to make out some vague shadows; it looked like a wood and before I realised just what it was, I hit the ground with a bump, certainly not in the approved fashion. I picked myself up and after releasing my harness, said to myself, “You’re safe on terra firma, you lucky blighter”. When I thought of what might have happened to my crew, a lump came to my throat.”
This explosion of the aircraft is confirmed by the Parish priest from Postel who says 1944, night of 20 June; (it is thought that he has the incorrect date as no aircraft were reported lost over Postel on 20th) heavy firing from Flak to squadrons of RAF-planes flying direction Germany. A loaded bomber exploded in the air in the vicinity of the border-markers on the Bladelse weg. The explosion was so violent that all the windows of the houses were broken. Two "pilotes" (airmen) were found dead, very heavy wounded ("vermorzeld"= "crushed"?). Others were saved by parachute. One of them with a "sprained ankle" gave himself up to the Germans, after landing at "Steenovens" (a location about 4km south of the crash site. This man is thought to be the fourth crew member to escape, the wireless operator, Thomas Newbery.)  On June 23, 14 German soldiers arrived in the abbey. Their task: to clean up all the plane-wreckage in the entire region..."
From Leslie Taylor we know that the aircraft was shot down at approximately 0120 hours on 22nd June, near Postel and close to the Belgium/Dutch boarder.

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He estimated his position when he landed as 15kms southeast of Postel but to the northeast of a canal or river which blocked his movements to the west. Peter Knox, bailing out first, had landed further to the south-east, but on the southern side of this obstruction and therefore had an easier route towards the west. German reports confirm the crash site to be 4kms north of Postel.
Leslie Taylor, Thomas Newbery, and Dennis Belshaw were eventually captured and spent the next 11 months, until the end of hostilities, as prisoners of war. Peter Knox made contact with the Belgium resistance movement and eventually arrived back in England where he immediately insisted on meeting with all the families of the crew to inform them of the circumstances of that night. These families have always been most grateful to Peter for this selfless act in taking the time to explain to them what had occurred. 
The bodies of the two gunners, George Moggridge and John Bowering were recovered and were moved to Deurne and then re-buried side by side after the war at the Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp in Plot IVa, Row F, Graves 16 & 17.
But of Dave there was nothing. One year later his mother wrote to the wife of Dennis Belshaw, “My son was the pilot of the aircraft in which your son was the engineer. The Air Ministry say they can find no trace of my son and if you have any news of your son or any information as to how the aircraft was abandoned, will you please let me know? I know nothing and the suspense is beyond words! Please let me know all you can.” She died 8 years later still not knowing where her beloved son’s body lay at rest, despite the help from the surviving members of the crew.

The crew of ME846 pictured whilst training at RAF Winthorpe in March 1944 (click to enlarge) 

The closure would be the recovery of Dave’s remains for a formal burial. However, this seems highly unlikely, as the records held by the RAF confirm the total disintegration of the aircraft, a not uncommon occurrence for a plane fully laden with fuel and bombs which is also crippled by fire. Many of us live in the hope that his final resting place will eventually be found, but of one thing we are sure, the families of the crew will not forget the actions of “Dave” and all the crew that night in those vital two minutes between being hit and the aircraft eventually exploding.
Paul Stevenson, nephew of Pilot Officer Mark Anthony Hamilton (Dave) Davis (1923 – 1944)
Paul Stevenson died on December 1 2014
For further reference see:

Peter Knox in Belgium 

Zosine Lafilie's story

Read more about the crew

Contact can be made via the following emails:  

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