A German historical research group is hoping someone in Nova Scotia can help them track down descendants of Royal Canadian Air Force members who died when their plane went down in Germany 73 years ago, during the Second World War.
One of the crew members was Flying Officer Reginald Bertram Smith of Sydney. He was one of seven crew members of a 408 Squadron Halifax bomber that crashed on the night of Feb. 21, 1945, near Leistadt, about 100 kilometres southwest of Frankfurt.
Erik Wieman says his group, Historical Research Community Rhineland-Palatinate, has found the crash site of the plane on a hillside near the village and plans to install a memorial.
Wieman said in an email that the bomber — NP711 — was destined for the city of Worms when it went down.
The aircraft was one of more than 300 bombers taking part in the mission to weaken a German army strongpoint on the western side of the Rhine River in advance of an Allied crossing, targeting a railyard and chemical plants.
Wieman’s group has located six other crash sites, and is in the pre-planning stage of looking for 16 others. He said he located this one after hearing about the crash and appealing for information in the local newspaper. Several eyewitnesses helped him pinpoint the site of the crash in November.
He said the eyewitnesses told him the aircraft exploded on impact and caused a large fire. The seven crew members were buried at the Leistadt cemetery, and exhumed in 1948 and moved to a Commonwealth war cemetery in Rheinberg.
Wieman said parts of incendiary bombs found at the crash site and the eyewitness
account indicate the aircraft still carried at least part of its payload on impact.
He said several items were found on the surface of the relatively steep hillside, and his group has applied for an excavation permit. After the excavation, they will place a memorial stone in memory of the crew but they hope to track down descendants before that.
“Because of us searching, finding these sites we can tell (descendants) exactly what happened,” he said. “And when we find personal belongings of their family, or artifacts relating to their family members — for example, there is only one navigator aboard an aircraft, finding a navigational (component) or parts of it brings this person closer.
“To give them to the family is a special moment for them.”
He said there are several hundred crash sites in the Palatinate area of both Axis and Allied planes, and he wants to find and memorialize as many as possible.
“Apart from finding the site and new insights into what happened, we hope to find something personal of the crew we can return to the descendants,” he said. “I know this is very important to them. Big parts of an aircraft is one thing, but the power often lies in the small, personal parts. It can finally bring closure to the families.”
He said those lost all had families and should not be forgotten.
“They paid the highest price for their country,whatever nationality. And they all had families.They should not be forgotten.
These places are historical, fateful sites. Not normal sites. Everyone walking by should see this.”
He said passersby at the sites his group works at are often astonished when told about the history of the field.
“They walk by several times a week, never knew, and cannot imagine what we tell them when they ask what we are doing there. They are usually very interested.”
Smith, who was reported to be an accountant, was the son of Thomas B. Smith and Catherine Monica Smith of Sydney. The rest of the NP711 crew included: Flight Lt. Donald McWilliam Sanderson; Pilot Officer Nels Peter Helin Anderson, son of Hans Peter and Hulda Anderson, of Woodside, Man.; Flying Officer William James Gilmore, son of Wiliam James Gilmore and Faith Clark Gilmore, and husband of Helen Neal Gilmore; Flight Sgt. Donald Edison Sherman; and flight engineer Sgt. James Wilson, son of Thomas Wilson and Janet K. Wilson, of Douglas, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the only non-RCAF member of the crew.
Wieman’s group has been able to locate family members of Pilot Officer William Wallace Wagner of Napanee, Ont.
“Descendants often do not know what happened exactly, and where,” Wieman wrote. “We want to inform them about our find, our plans to excavate the site in 2018, keep them up to date about our proceedings and inform them about our final goal, a memorial.”
Mel Crowe, president of the Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, said he knows several groups over the years have been excavating crash sites from the war.
“This is a significant thing when you can give (more) closure to family members,” he said. “And it has historical value in the fact that these remains of this plane were found and they can now get documentation . . . that we know where it was and that sort of thing.”
He said many family members during the war may have only known that their loved ones were killed in action, without knowing exactly where.
“Now there is more information and more closure for family members who are still around,” Crowe said. “I think it’s significant that these people are there and they’re doing that kind of work to make sure that we don’t forget. This is a part of history that no one wants to forget.”
The Halifax aircraft was the primary bomber used by RCAF during the Second World War, says Chris Colton, the executive director of the National Air Force Museum at CFB Trenton.
The plane components were built at various factories in England during the war before being assembled there, he said. The planes remained based in England except for five to 10 that flew to Canada in 1943 or 1944 for a demonstration, although what the exact purpose was is unknown.
He said they were eventually either destroyed, disassembled or flown back to England, and didn’t fly operationally while here.