Keith McRae SMITH


SMITH, Keith McRae

Service Number: 413145
Enlisted: 13 September 1941, Sydney, New South Wales
Last Rank: Flight Sergeant
Last Unit: No. 226 Squadron (RAF)
Born: Coonamble, New South Wales, 21 July 1922
Home Town: Coonamble, Coonamble, New South Wales
Schooling: Urungie Provincial School
Occupation: Station hand
Died: Killed in Action (flying battle), France, 8 November 1943, aged 21 years
Cemetery: Calais Canadian Cemetery, France
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
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World War 2 Service

13 Sep 1941: Enlisted Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 413145, Sydney, New South Wales
14 Sep 1941: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Aircraftman 2 (WW2), SN 413145, Empire Air Training Scheme
24 Apr 1942: Embarked Royal Australian Air Force, Leading Aircraftman, SN 413145, SS President Munroe, Sydney (Disembarked San Francisco 15 May 1942)
8 Nov 1943: Involvement Royal Australian Air Force, Flight Sergeant, SN 413145, No. 226 Squadron (RAF), Air War NW Europe 1939-45

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Biography contributed by Anthony Vine

Flight Sergeant Keith McRae Smith

Keith Smith applied to enlist in the RAAF as aircrew in October 1940; he was accepted into the Reserve in March 1941 and called up for service on 13 September 1941. Keith was born in 1922, the thirteenth and second-last child of Colin and Mary Smith, at Flodden Field, a sheep station near Coonamble, NSW. Keith had a hard upbringing. His mother was forty-two when he was born and his father almost fifty; Mary Smith passed away in 1935 and Colin in 1939 at the age of sixty-six.

Keith was educated at Urungie Provincial School near Gilgooma, north-east of Coonamble, between 1933 and 1937. He sat his intermediate examinations in 1937, and obtained passes in maths, geography and English but failed history and maths 2. He did not receive his certificate.

On leaving school, he worked as a general labourer and station hand. When he applied to the RAAF in 1940, Keith admitted that he had previously tried to join the service while he was still underage. He had apparently been rejected. He gave his older brother Colin Smith as his next of kin on his application. Another older brother Donald[1] joined the RAAF in April 1941.

After his initial training at Bradfield Park, Keith posted to 5 EFTS at Narromine on 11 December 1941. He completed his initial pilot training on 20 February. After a period of refresher training in March, he embarked in Sydney on 24 April 1942 on the SS President Monroe bound for San Francisco. He travelled by train to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where he spent three weeks being processed before proceeding to 10 SFTS in Dauphin, Manitoba. There, he completed his flying training on the twin-engine Cessna Crane and learnt the intricacies of flying and navigating a multi-engine aircraft day and night in a range of weather conditions.

On 19 September, the men were advised of their postings. Keith was selected to train on the Ventura medium bomber in Canada. On 25 September 1942, Keith was awarded his wings and promoted to the rank of sergeant. In early October, along with Laurie Penn, Jacky Barrell, Colin Halliday and Grant Suttie, he travelled to 34 OTU in Pennfield Ridge, New Brunswick to learn to fly the Ventura Bomber.

Whilst at Pennfield Ridge, Keith exhibited a little too much Australian exuberance. In early December, he was arrested by the service police and charged with being drunk and creating a disturbance ‘in the Roseland Dance Hall at St George’,[2] for which the Station Commander reprimanded him.

At this time, a high percentage of the aircrew arriving at 34 OTU were Canadians. Keith selected as his crew three RCAF airmen: Carl Berg (N),[3] John Cowieson (WO/AG)[4] and Joe Grenier (AG).[5] It was with these three men that Keith would fly on operations. In mid-February 1943, Keith and his crew travelled from Halifax, Nova Scotia to New York to await transport to the United Kingdom. He travelled on the RMS Queen Elizabeth and eventually arrived at 11 PDRC in Bournemouth on 19 March. By the time the crews arrived in the United Kingdom, it was clear that the operational life of the Ventura in Europe was limited. Instead of posting to squadrons, the men were redirected to 13 OTU at RAF Bicester to retrain on the Mitchell bomber, a more durable aircraft than the Ventura.

In Bicester, Keith would again find himself on a charge and again be reprimanded, this time for losing his identity card – a serious offence in the security-conscious United Kingdom.

On 28 August 1943, Keith was posted to No. 226 Squadron RAF, based at Swanton Morley, Norfolk. He began flying with the squadron on 1 September 1943. From then until 15 September, he flew training flights. On 16 September 1943, he flew his first operational mission with 226 Squadron – the bombing of a power station five kilometres south-west of Rouen.

Throughout October of 1943, Keith took part in a number of air-sea rescue sweeps along the UK coast and undertook further training flights. On 8 November 1943, Keith’s crew, along with other crews of 226 Squadron, were detailed to carry out a low-level bombing raid on a construction site at Mimoyecques, Pas-de-Calais.

The target was what is now known as the Fortress of Mimoyecques, an underground military complex built by the Germans to house a battery of V3 cannons aimed at London. It consisted of a network of tunnels dug under a chalk hill, linked to five inclined shafts in which there were twenty-five V3 guns, each capable of firing ten dart-like explosive projectiles a minute. The site had recently been identified as a possible V2 ballistic missile site (the Allies were unaware of the development of the V3) and had already been bombed on 5 November, resulting in the Germans moving additional anti-aircraft weapons to the area.

The attack was carried out an hour after sunrise. The aircraft flew in a box formation of six aircraft at around 1000 feet. Keith Smith and his crew were in Mitchell FV927 and were the No. 3 aircraft in the box, positioned to the rear of the formation leader’s aircraft. As the formation approached the target, Keith’s aircraft received a direct hit from an anti-aircraft shell on the port engine and wing, burst into flames and immediately spiralled to the ground. Crews of other aircraft in the formation reported that they saw two, possibly three, parachutes appear from the Mitchell. The following day, Keith’s commanding officer, W Cdr Tait, RAF,[6] wrote to Colin Smith, giving him false hope that his brother Keith may have survived.[7]

Alas, Keith and his entire crew had been killed. The bodies of Keith, Joe Grenier and Carl Berg were all located at the crash site. John Cowieson’s remains were found some distance away. French citizens reported that he had been shot while descending to the ground in his parachute. The men were buried in the churchyard of the French village of Marquise within hours of the crash. Their remains were disturbed almost immediately, however, by the Germans, who exhumed them to pilfer their flying boots.

In January 1944, the Germans, through the International Red Cross, reported that Keith was dead. The information was conveyed to Colin by letter. Keith, Joe Grenier and Carl Berg were buried in a single coffin, probably an indication that they had received severe trauma in the crash. John Cowieson was in a second coffin alongside them.

In 1946 the US Graves Registration Unit exhumed the remains of US personnel from the Marquise village cemetery. They were closely followed by a Canadian Cemetery construction team who then exhumed all bodies identified as being Canadian personnel. This, and an incorrect identification during the original burial of John Cowieson’s body, resulted in it being three years after the war before a positive identification was made of each man. The bodies were reinterred in Calais.

Flight Sergeant Keith McRae Smith, RAAF and his crew are buried in the Calais Canadian War Cemetery in France.

[1] LAC Donald Cathro Smith, RAAF; b. Coonamble, NSW, 6 Jan 1909.
[2] National Archives of Australia: A9301, 413145.
[3] F-Sgt Carl Martin Berg, R/121885, RCAF; student of Lougheed, Alberta, Canada; b. Sedgewick, Alberta, Canada, 26 Jun 1920; KIA 8 Nov 1943.
[4] F-Sgt John Harrison Cowieson, R/122979, RCAF; butcher of Brantford, Ontario, Canada; b. Queensville, Ontario, Canada, 10 Jun 1916; KIA 8 Nov 1943.
[5] F-Sgt Joseph Amedee Grenier, R/145806, RCAF; pulp and paper worker of Smooth Rock Falls, Ontario, Canada; b. St Adelaide Quebec, Canada, 30 Apr 19; KIA 8 Nov 43.
[6] W-Cdr Charles Edward Ramsay Tait, OBE, DFC, 371262, RAF, b. 1916. Tait served on exchange with the RAAF in 1950.
[7] National Archives of Australia: A705, 166/38/329, Folio 46.


Reference: High in a Sunlit Silence Vivid Publishing - CMDR Tony Vine - Submitted by Author