Lost Over Hamburg

Sixty-seven years ago, the German port city of Hamburg was “reaping the whirlwind” as hundreds of Bomber Command aircraft launched a week-long series of bombing missions designed to neutralise the city. This operation, codenamed Gomorrah, created a horrific series of firestorms, as a freak heatwave combined with the bombings to incinerate the populace and the city. Thousands died, both civilians and aircrew, in one of the darker episodes of the bomber offensive.

The ruins of Hamburg following the July 1943 raids

One of those casualties was a Llanishen man, Donald Edward Croft, who had lived on Fidlas Road in the village. He was a Sergeant/Air Gunner in 97 Squadron, Royal Air Force, which at the time of Operation Gomorrah was based at RAF Bourn in Cambridgeshire. Sergeant Croft was the rear gunner on the Lancaster IIIs flown by his aircrew –  one of the much-maligned “tail-end charlies”. In his freezing rear turret Sergeant Croft manned four .303-inch Browning machine-guns, the heaviest defensive armament on the Lancaster.

The aircrew that flew with Sergeant Croft were a varied bunch. The pilot was a Canadian – 27-year old Pilot Officer Clifford Shnier from Winnipeg, while two of the other crewmembers were Rhodesian. They had flown on several missions together before the Hamburg raids, including a long-range attack on the city of Turin in northern Italy, which was reported as successful. In total, before they took off on the fateful night of 29th/30th July 1943, they had flown seven raids for little over month.

On the 29th July Operation Gomorrah was coming to a close. 97 Squadron had been in the heart of the action and was to be called upon again. Sergeant Croft and his crew had rested up the previous night before rejoining the squadron. At around 10pm, they boarded Lancaster EE172, which was loaded with six target indicator flares (97 Squadron formed part of Bomber Command’s elite Pathfinder force) one 4,000lb bomb and three 1,000lb bombs. It took off at 10:45pm, and was never seen again. At some point during the mission, either before or after they had attacked the city, Lancaster EE172 was attacked by a German night-fighter and crashed near Wohnste, about 10 kilometres south-west of Hamburg. All the crew perished in the crash, including Sergeant Croft. He was 21. They now rest at Becklingen War Cemetery in Germany, which overlooks Luneburg Heath where the Western Allies finally signed the peace with Germany.

A Lancaster silhouetted above Hamburg, 1943

In Memoriam –

Crew of Lancaster EE172, KIA nr. Hamburg, 30/7/1943

PILOT:

Clifford Shnier, Pilot Officer, Royal Canadian Air Force

Winnipeg, Canada

Age 27

FLIGHT ENGINEER

Alfred Norman Gibbons, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Bilston, Staffordshire

Age 23

NAVIGATOR:

Geoffrey John Homersham, Flying Officer/Navigator, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – Rhodesian

BOMB AIMER

Paul de Villiers, Flying Officer, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – Rhodesian

WIRELESS OPERATOR

Peter Charles Evans, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Coventry

Age 22

MID-UPPER GUNNER

Benjamin Gabriel Knoesen, Pilot Officer/Air Gunner, Royal Air Force

Age and Home unknown – possibly Rhodesian.

REAR GUNNER

Donald Edward Croft, Sergeant, Royal Air Force

Llanishen, Cardiff

Age 21

-JK

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