Robert McKerlie CROFT

Poppy

CROFT, Robert McKerlie

Service Number: 407199
Enlisted: 20 July 1940, Adelaide
Last Rank: Flying Officer
Last Unit: No. 463 Squadron (RAAF)
Born: Evandale, Norwood Payneham St Peters - South Australia, Australia, 16 December 1916
Home Town: Cherryville, Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Schooling: Cherryville Public School
Occupation: Orchardist
Died: Aircraft (Lancaster JO-J LL882 of No. 463 Squadron) shot down at Langemark Belgium by a nightfighter during night bombing raid - Lille (Fr) , Langemaark, Belgium, 11 May 1944, aged 27 years
Cemetery: Wevelgem Communal Cemetery
Grave E. 469 Headstone Inscription "HIS DUTY NOBLY DONE"
Memorials: Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Cherryville WW2 Pictorial Honour Roll
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World War 2 Service

20 Jul 1940: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 407199, Aircrew Training Units, Adelaide
18 Aug 1940: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 407199, No. 1 Wireless Air Gunners School (Ballarat, Victoria), Empire Air Training Scheme
12 Dec 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Sergeant, SN 407199, No. 458 Squadron (RAAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45
11 May 1944: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flying Officer, SN 407199, No. 463 Squadron (RAAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45

Aftermath - the Langemark Lancaster

The End of Lancaster LM882, Call Sign Jo_J 463 Squadron

The end of a 463 Bomber Squadron RAAF Lancaster crew on the 11th of May 1944 at early dawn at Langemark, Hagebos, near Ypres ( IEPER ) in Belgium.
A witness account by Antoon Dumoulin ( * Langemark 26.04.1924 + Ieper 01.11.2009 ), Nieuwe Kalsijde 5B, 8920 Langemark, Belgium

It was less than calm that night, the 11th of May 1944. Scores of bombers, flying back and forth from their base in England. That night the target was Lille in France, situated some 30 kilometers from our Langemark village.

After the war we learned that these 1944 bombing operations were in preparation to the Normandy landings. The target being the railway junctions and marshalling yards of Courtrai/Kortrijk and Lille/Rijsel.

Around 00:15 could be heard, the drone of a low flying heavy aircraft. A short salvo of gunfire was followed by a big explosion.

At early dawn the doorbell rang. It was the local constable Marichal, who came to tell us that an airplane had crashed in the clay pit, in the grounds of the brickworks at Hagebos, which belonged to our family. He also said that there was total chaos at the crash site and many dead bodies. Joseph, my father, alerted me and we took our bicycles and rode over there, the crash site being halfway between Langemark and Boezinge villages.

It was a terrible sight. Close to brickwork warden’s house Callewaert a fuel tank had landed. On the left side of the house a motor, still smoking, lay buried in the ground, while to the right a part of a wing lay.

We went over to the machine shed, where the bricks were made, and saw the heavily deformed body of one of the crew, who had fallen through the roof.
In between the sheds, where the clay bricks were put to dry, we saw the pilot, lying still fastened in his chair, with his head driven into the ground. Further on at the corner of the clay pit, on the property of D’Herck lay part of the tail of the plane. In it we could see the body of the tail gunner, wedged between his machine guns.

Everywhere lay small pieces of wreckage. I myself was at that time on the run from the Germans, being sought by them after having been listed for and refused to go for labour work in Germany. I was particularly afraid of the Gestapo who were searching the wreckage on the other site of the clay pit. The pit was three hectares large, and I felt reasonably safe. They were more interested in what had happened than with the crowd at the site. To the right of the brick works near the railway line, there was another piece of wreckage and another two bodies.

When we arrived back at the machine shed, we noticed another hole in the roof. A folded dingy with a sail and oxygen bottle had dropped through it.
The same day the bodies were removed and put into coffins by the Germans. My friend Pieter Van Hoorne and I stayed in the area to look around.

The major part of the bomber plane had crashed into the clay pit, which was full of water. Since 1940 my father had stopped making bricks so they wouldn’t be used by the German occupation. The Germans were suspicious because they had only recovered six bodies of crew members. They thought there were more in the wreckage. To be sure of that they ordered my father to drain the pit. The brick works however had not been used for four years and we needed time to get the pumps working. He also obtained permission from the Germans to buy coal so that we could start up the boiler and pressure for the pump. Only by the 30th of May pumping the pit was started. This took two full days and nights.

At first only the upper gun turret was visible. Early in the morning of the third day the plane came completely visible. My friend and I decided to be the first to go and have a look in the wreckage. With the German Airforce guard we went over to the wreckage and got as close as some 10 meters to it. The soldier however, who had no suspicion towards me as I was the owner’s son, refused to go any further as his boots were now getting dirty in the wet clay.

The airplane lay in the deepest part of the pit, which still contained some water and slough. The nearest point in which it was possible to enter the wreckage was via the wing. I had to wade through the slough over a distance of 5 meters, after which I had to clamber on top of the wing and could than enter the main body of the plane via an opening. Inside I saw some crew’s jackets hung up, a first aid box, the control board with different built in instruments, and all sorts of things floating around. I then stepped on something big, which I found to be the body of a missing crew member.

The Germans also became curious, although they were not eager to get their uniform dirty. When we told them that another body had been found, they ordered me to help them to recover it. They brought along a rope and an axe. We made a hole in the fuselage, tied the rope around the body and lifted it while the soldiers pulled the rope while standing on the bank. That way they could pull the body on the bank, where they put it onto a stretcher and took it away. An officer joined them, he took out the papers and personal belongings from the pockets and put them into a bag. The body was put into a coffin and afterwards taken away.

Later some five soldiers from a Luftwaffe technical engineering unit came and dismantled the wreckage, while Vancoillie, a neighbouring farmer, pulled the bigger sections out of the water with his horses. Certain bolts and other specific parts were salvaged and put in specially adapted cardboards.

A lot of locals came to look at the Lancaster bomber. In the courtyard of the brick works a heap of destroyed pieces of wreckage was collected. The Germans also added the remains of two other planes. After the guards left, the process of pilfering the wreckage began. During that period of scarcity, everything that was usable was taken away. Luckily I was able to keep the rear wheel of the plane and a silk survival scarf with a print of a map of France and Spain. Sometime later the Germans removed the remaining wreckage. The reason that the wreckage stayed here without a guard being mounted over it, is probably due to the uncertainty at the time of the Normandy landings, which followed in June 1944.

In 1975 the parents of Powell came to visit the crash site where their son lost his life. My father and I could then give our witness statement to them after which they went with Mr Michel de Vinck to the cemetery in Wevelgem where the seven crew members were buried.

The photographs taken at the time immediately after the crash, were taken by young Michel de Vinck, son of Baron de Vinck of Zillebeke. He at that time visited the places where planes had crashed and took pictures that would later help to identify airplane numbers and fatal casualties.


Antoon Dumoulin. Provided by his son Koenrad Dumoulin 2020




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Bad night over Lille - 10/11 May 1944

Lille is a major rail hub in northern France close to the Belgian border and a major junction between Paris, to the south, Calais to the west and Brussels (Belgium) to the north. It was a key target in the run up to D Day in June 1944 when a major bombing offensive called the Transportation Plan, was directed at transport infrastructure, to impede the provision of reinforcements to the intended battlefront - the location of which was, of course, top secret at this point in time.

On the night of 10/11 May 1944 a large fleet of bombers were despatched to bomb a series of rail yards in northern France, at Lille, Lens (further south), Courtrai, Ghent (further north in Belgium) and Dieppe on the Atlantic coast. Over 500 aircraft were involved; the majority were Lancasters but also Halifaxes and some fast and nimble Mosquitos performing a Pathfinder and Target marking role.

Both 463 and 467 Squadrons RAAF were scheduled to take part in the Lille raid on the evening of 10/11 May. It was to be the worst night of the war for the two Waddington squadrons. Of 31 aircraft despatched between them, six failed to return. The total losses of the raid were 12 so the two RAAF squadrons represented 50% of the total losses. A total of 42 men were missing the next morning. This represented a loss rate of 20%. The impact of the empty seats at breakfast would have been devastating.

This was followed the next night by the loss of 467 Squadron's CO, decorated Pacific veteran GPCAPT John 'Sam' Balmer OBE DFC and his crew, leading another Transportation Plan raid.

There was only one survivor from the six Australian aircraft. Squadron Leader Phil Smith, DFC, flying B for Baker in 467 Squadron was thrown clear of his exploding aircraft, and managed to parachute to safety minus a flying boot and then spent four months evading the Germans. B for Baker exploded as it was dropping its bombs; it may have suffered a similar fate to JO-J in 463 Squadron - been destroyed by a German night fighter attacking from below (but unlikely given they were directly over the target where the risk from flak and falling bombs tended to discourage night fighter attack), been hit by flak or most likely, it may have collided with another aircraft

The story of JO-J's loss from 463 Squadron, provides an insight as to the fate that befell a number of aircraft that night and the cause of losses that was only identified the following month when a German nightfighter fitted with upward firing cannon, was captured after it landed at an occupied airfield by mistake. JOJ was shot down on its way home, by Lt Hans Schmitz flying a Messerschmitt Bf110G night fighter variant with upward firing cannon, nick-named 'Schrage Musik' by the Germans. The aircraft positioned itself in a blind spot under the Lancaster, before unleashing a hail of 20mm cannon fire into the underside of the bigger plane. The effect was often catastrophic as was the case with JOJ, which broke up in mid-air and rained wreckage in and around the Dumoulin quarry near Langemark in northern Belgium. There were no survivors.

LL881 - 22/03/44 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-E: 11 Missions.
The first on 22/23-Mar-1944 to Frankfurt.
The 9th mission on 10/11-May-1944 to Lille when LL881 was listed as missing.

418915 FSGT John Henry BROWN RAAF WOP 31 HELLEMMES
427445 FSGT George Martin DANN RAAF RGNR 30 FOREST/MARQUE
430019 FSGT Colin Henry EASTGATE RAAF MUG 29 FOREST/MARQUE
410493 FLGOFF George Oswald JONES RAAF NAV 23 FOREST/MARQUE
10119 POFFR William John LEWIS RAAF FENG 32 FOREST/MARQUE
416443 WOFF Alan Richard MacKENZIE RAAF BAim 26 FOREST/MARQUE
420413 FLGOFF Dudley Francis WARD RAAF PILOT 24 FOREST/MARQUE
8 missions were flown by this crew.

LL-882 - 463 Sqn. 24/03/44 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-J 'The Langemark Lancaster - see related story.
There were 15 missions recorded in the Operational Record with the first in March 25/26 1944 to Aulnoye.

407199 FLOFF Robert McKerlie CROFT RAAF MUG 27 WEVELGUM
407821 FLOFF David Payne CROSTON RAAF RGNR 32 WEVELGUM
1443752 FSGT Bertram FRASER RAF BAim 22 WEVELGUM
134697 FLOFF Ronald JACQUES RAF NAV ? WEVELGUM
1802369 SGT Harry Law MOLYNEUX RAF FENG 21 WEVELGUM
422817 SQNLDR Mervyn POWELL RAAF PILOT 29 WEVELGUM
406700 FLTLT William Neil READ RAAF WOP 22 WEVELGUM

HK535 - 463 Sqn.
20/12/43 to 10/05/44, Callsign JO-N 11 Missions.
First mission to Frankfurt 20/21-Dec-1943. This was their 11th Mission

24519 FSGT Richard William ASH RAAF MUG 20 HELLEMMES
1609134 SGT Raymond Herbert BOULTON RAF FENG 19 HELLEMMES
422414 FSGT Ivan CHAPPLE RAAF NAV 24 HELLEMMES
423878 POFF Walter Thomas PETERS RAAF BAim 24 HELLEMMES
1459044 SGT Leonard Edgard PRINGLE RAF WOP ? HELLEMMES
425226 FLTLT Eric Mc Laren SCOTT RAAF PILOT 22 FOREST/MARQUE
424888 WO William Allen SLADE RAF RGNR 23 MISSING

No. 467 Squadron RAAF

LM475 Callsign PO-B for 'Baker'. A very experienced crew. First mission Dec 1943 See blog link in Sidebar. This was their 20th Mission and the last for Phil Smith to complete his second Tour.

1352851 SGT Eric Reginald HILL RAF MUG 22 LEZENNES
425413 FSGT Alistair Dale JOHNSTON RAAF WOP 24 LEZENNES
658844 FSGT Jeremiah PARKER RAF BAim 30 LEZENNES
423311 FSGT Gilbert Firth PATE RAAF RGNR 27 LEZENNES
412686 WOFF Royston William PURCELL RAAF NAV 22 LEZENNES
400495 SQNLDR Donald Phillip Smeed SMITH RAAF PILOT EVADE the only survivor from 12 aircraft
1850279 SGT Kenneth Harold TABOR RAF FENG LEZENNES

LL788 Callsign PO-G
2221020 SGT Charles Arthur NASH RAF MUG 23 FOREST/MARQUE
424914 FSGT Herbert William Reid FERGUSON RAAF RGNR 28 HELLEMMES
417176 FSGT Brian Gordon GRASBY RAAF WOP 21 HELLEMMES
422506 FSGT William Stanley HANCOCK RAAF BAim 22 HELLEMMES
1431527 SGT Cyril DUTHOIT RAF FENG LEZENNES
420870 POFF William Eldred FELSTEAD RAAF PILOT 22 LEZENNES
1580333 SGT John MELLOR RAF NAV 30 LEZENNES

EE143 Callsign PO-J
427870 FSGT Bernard Francis CODY RAAF MUG 23 ANNAPPES
2220133 SGT George BENNETT RAF RGNR 27 HELLEMMES
419298 FLOFF Harry Ronald CROUT RAAF BAim 29 HELLEMMES
414997 POFF Douglas HISLOP RAAF PILOT 23 HELLEMMES
1891298 SGT Bertram Stephen LONGHURST RAF FENG 37 HELLEMMES
25243 FLOFF John Francis TUCKER RAAF WOP 25 HELLEMMES
424239 FSGT Kevin Campbell WAIGHT RAAF NAV 20 HELLEMMES

Three other Australians were lost in other aircraft on the raid;

414761 POFF Hugh DonaldD CAMPBELL RAAF PILOT 23 9 Sqn LM528 WS-D HELLEMMES
423359 FLOFF Albert Edward TYNE RAAF BAim 33 9 Sqn LM528 WS-D FOREST/MARQUE
425794 FSGT Walter James WHITE RAAF AG 23 9 Sqn LM520 WS-X FOREST/MARQUE

This remains a work in progress

We are tracking images of these men; if you can help, Register and join over 20,000 people who have contributed material to the site.

Thanks to ADF Serials website for this detail, and to the researchers of 'Aircrew Remembered' to which links have been posted.
Thanks also to Conrad Dumoulin, Belgium for providing assistance in the preparation of this article and that of the 'Langemark Lancaster' to which his father was a witness.

Thanks to Adam Purcell, his excellent blog @somethingverybig.com and the story of 'B for Baker' of No. 467 Squadron
CWGC websites and cemetery pages
WW2 Nominal Roll
AWM Roll of Honour

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Showing 2 of 2 stories

Biography contributed by Steve Larkins

Flying Officer Bob Croft (1916-1944)

Bob Croft called the Adelaide Hills village of Cherryville home, when he enlisted into the RAAF in 1940.  Cherryville was and still, as its name might suggest, home to many orchards.

He was born in Evandale, an eastern suburb of Adelaide,  the son of William Henry and Margaret CROFT, on 16 December 1916.  His father had served in the 4th Imperial Bushmen in the Boer War.

He was an early enlistee in the Empire Air Training scheme.  After Basic Training he was posted to No. 1 Wirelesss Air Gunnery School at Ballarat, training as a Wireless operator / Air Gunner.  He then embarked for the UK, completing the aircrew training continuum in HEavy Conversion and Operational Training Units (OTU).  Having been 'Crewed up' at the OTU,  he and his colleagues were then mustered into a night bomber (No. 458) Squadron in England where the accompanying photograph was taken in December 1941.  No. 458 later deployed to the Mediterranean theatre but we have yet to establish if Bob Croft did so as well.

Two and a half years on he was flying with No. 463 Squadron, an RAAF unit equipped with the Avro Lancaster, and sharing a base with No. 467 Squadon RAAF at Waddington in Lincolnshire.  By 10th May this crew had completed half of their 30 mission tour.  For Bob it was his second tour.   He appears to have flown as the rear gunner on Lancaster squadron callsign JO-J, manufacturer No. LL881 on the 10/11 May 1944.  They were engaged in a raid into France via Belgium to bomb transport centres and troop concentrations in the lead up to D Day, in what were called 'Transportation Plan' raids.   Their particular target was Lille in northern France. 

JO-J had completed their bombing run.  Ten aircraft had already been lost over the target, five of them Australian and two from No. 463 Squadron, and whether the crew of JO-J had seen any of their colleagues lost over the target is not recorded.   They were clear of the target area and heading north for the coast, homeward bound, when they were intercepted and shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 110G night fighter flown by Lt Hans Schmitz. 

The wreckage of their aircraft impacted the ground in pieces in a dis-used brickworks near the town of Langemark.  Bob Croft's body was found in his turret, which were notoriously difficult to escape from when the need arose.  Another Lancaster was lost in almost identical circumstances just a few kilometres away, taking the total losses to 12, of 85 involved in the raid.

It was the worst night of the war for the two RAAF squadrons at Waddington.  Next morning there were 42 empty seats at breakfast.  Only one man of 85 (12 Lancasters each carrying 7 men although one had an 8th, a 'rookie'  second pilot gaining experience) survived.  

Bob Croft is commemorated on a community memorial in Cherryville, South Australia, the SA Wall of Remembrance in Adelaide and the Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Canberra.

His story and that of the other RAAF crew killed that night is the subject of an ongoing research project.

Compiled by Steve Larkins Feb 20

 

 

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