Sunday, March 29, 2020

Plymouth Emigrant Depot

Even if they don't realise it, Australians have a strong connection to the English port of Plymouth, dating from the date of the First Fleet. Later, hundreds of thousands of our ancestors left from Plymouth to sail to Australia.

In 2018 my sister Cathy and I spent a week in Cornwall, treading in the footsteps of our Dennis forebears from the Land's End area. We wanted to see the point where they said goodbye to their homeland. They would have travelled by train from Penzance in Cornwall to Plymouth, in the neighbouring county of Devon, but what happened then?

A bit of Googling uncovered the existence of an assembly point described and illustrated beautifully in an article headed ‘The Colonial Government Emigrant Depot, Plymouth’ and published in the Illustrated Sydney News, Sat 10 May 1884, pp 3 & 10, with a full page of illustrations on page 8. This depot had a long history, described here, but as my Cornish relatives arrived in Sydney in 1874 the article published in 1884 serves as a useful guide to their experiences:
The interest evinced throughout all the colonies regarding emigration from England to the colonies has given rise to a number of debates in all our Legislatures, resulting in many changes beneficial to all concerned.
In order to make our readers conversant with the present arrangements for giving effect to the annual vote for immigration purposes, the proprietors of this journal have been at the expense of commissioning a London artist to visit Plymouth, and by pen and pencil to supply the requisite information.
The depot system had its origin in the want which made itself strongly felt many years ago of a home in which to assemble emigrants who were collected from all parts of England, Ireland, and Scotland, whether sent out free, or assisted only, for embarkation in vessels specially chartered by the Government for their conveyance since it was found that agricultural labourers and others coming from a distance, as strangers, were frequently allured into low lodging houses by crimps, always on the look out for them, and plundered of what few means they possessed, besides being liable to incur infection in badly-drained and ill-ventilated courts, where they were brought into contact with disease before being put on board ship.
It was felt that a stay of three or four days in a clean well-ordered home, with good food, and under the gentle discipline of well-considered depot rules, would enable the people to embark in health and comfort, medical examination having meanwhile eliminated any doubtful or suspicious cases which would otherwise have been a source of danger to the whole community on the vessel.
Plymouth has always been the leading port for Government emigration, its position being unrivalled as a point of departure. The vessels which are specially chartered for emigrants as a rule take their cargo on board in London, and the berths are there fitted, the finishing arrangements being made during the passage down the channel, so that, on the embarkation at Plymouth no delay occurs in getting clear away to sea, an advantage which is well understood by captains of vessels, while the emigrants are spared all the delay and risk of collision in the often tedious passage from the Thames to the Lizard.
The Emigrant Depot at Plymouth is the only establishment of its kind on any considerable scale in the kingdom, and is admirably adapted for its purposes. It consists of a huge pile of buildings and exercise grounds, occupying the site of the old Royal Naval Victualling Yard, in use before the new and well-known buildings were erected at Devonport by the British Government. The premises being no longer required for Government use were sold in the time of George IV and subsequently passed into the hands of the present owners, by whom they have been fitted up and gradually extended for emigration purposes until they have reached their present condition.
Plymouth Emigrant Depot
The buildings forming the Emigrant Depot are situated at the end of Commercial Road, immediately under the Citadel, and close to the Point known as Fisher's Nose. They have a fine sea frontage of 450 feet, looking out on Sutton Harbour, the Catwater, and a portion of the Sound, with convenient steps for loading luggage into barges and embarking emigrants by steam tender.
The recent addition made to the Depot Buildings now raise the number of fixed berths in the dormitories to- single men, 372 statute adults; single women, 402 statute adults; married couples and children, 344 statute adults; total 1,118; and, by occupying other rooms usually kept in reserve, and not fitted with permanent berths, a considerable number in addition can be provided for, by the use of iron folding beds, a supply of which is always kept in readiness, with bedding, &c, &c, in case of special need arising.
Large and well-warmed and ventilated mess-rooms are appropriated for the use of emigrants in the day time, the single women having their own special day rooms (entirely apart from the married people and single men), and also dormitories specially approached from their own rooms only, and provided with lavatories and constant water supply.
Separate lavatories are provided for men, and lavatories and wash-houses for women and children, with a supply of hot water and washing trays to enable them to wash necessary articles during their stay.
The following are the dimensions of some of the principal day rooms for the use of the emigrants:-Single women mess room, 58 feet by 43 feet ; married people's and men's room, 50 feet by 41 feet; lavatory for men, 24 feet by 31 feet ; women's wash-house, 26 feet by 11 feet ; kitchen, 38 feet by 34 feet.
Emigrants are admitted to the Depot at any hour of the day or night on production of their Embarkation Orders, issued by the Agents-General ; and on the days upon which emigrants are due to arrive servants from the Depot meet all trains at the several stations, and the various steamboats from Scotland and Ireland, in order to direct the people to the Depot, and to instruct them as to the luggage, for the conveyance of which, free of cost, service of vans has been organised under arrangement with the Agents-General.
On arrival at the Depot the people hand in to the Depot Master their Embarkation Orders as his warrant for receiving them. The Depot Master satisfies himself that the emigrants correspond, as to number and ages, with orders presented, enters their names in his arrival book, and if they appear to be in good health, passes them on to the mess room where the mess man gives them their tables and makes them at once at home. The single women are shown to their own special mess-rooms, into which no men are admitted, and where they are in charge of the matron.
The luggage is taken into the large luggage stores for protection, and before being placed on the luggage barge for shipment each box and package is opened by the emigrants, and the contents shown to experienced servants, specially detailed for this duty, in order to guard against the taking on shipboard of prohibited articles which might be a source of danger, such as feather beds or pillows, fire arms, offensive weapons, gunpowder, percussion caps, matches, beer, spirits, or articles of food of a perishable nature.
The usual day for assembly at Plymouth is Monday, and in that case emigrants embark on the Wednesday or Thursday of the same week, the interval being devoted to verification of the people by the Government dispatching officer, to medical examination by the ship's doctor, to the arranging of messes, and issue of various requisites for use on board, to examination of clothing and luggage, and to final muster and passing by the Board of Trade at the time of departure.
Printed rules, which have been sanctioned by the Agents-General for the Colonies, and to which their signatures are appended, are exhibited for regulating the conduct of emigrants during their stay in the depot, in order to ensure cleanliness and order.
Conspicuous notices are also exhibited desiring any emigrant who may have cause of complaint of the working of any depot rules, or of the conduct of any depot servant, to lay his case at once before the Agent-General himself, or before his dispatching officer, who is all day long at the depot, in order that investigation may be made at the time ; but such complaints are extremely rare, and every effort is made to render the people cheerful and happy during their short stay before embarkation.
A small free library of books is available for those who desire to read. The mess-room walls are hung with illustrations of colonial life and scenery, most of which have been kindly presented by the Agents-General for the several colonies, and cheerfulness and content are the rule among the people.
Among almost every ship's complement of emigrants are to be found those who play upon the violin or some other instrument, and around whom are found groups of emigrants  who greatly appreciate the music thus afforded them, and not unfrequently indulge in an accompanying reel or other dance.
The depot establishment is under the charge of a resident depot master and matron, who, with a sufficient staff of servants, manage and carry out the work of the establishment.
The cubic space allowed in fitting up may be judged of by the following dimensions of the principal dormitories; and the day-rooms are in fully equal proportions:- Dormitory for married people, fitted for 104 S.A., 49 feet 3 inches by 30 feet 5 inches; 14 feet 9 inches high; Dormitory for single men, fitted for 64 S. A., 35 feet 9 inches, by 24 feet 5 inches; 12 feet 4 inches high; Dormitory for single women, fitted for 248 S. A., 74 feet 10 inches, by 43 feet 3 inches; 15 feet high.
The berths for single men and single women are ranged in rows, giving a width of 21 to 24 inches for each person, and a separate bed and blankets for each. The beds are of cocoa fibre, which, properly dressed and made up, forms an excellent stuffing, and possesses the great advantage that no vermin will ever harbour in it. Each bed has an extra loose linen cover to admit of frequent washing, and the blankets are changed frequently, and always kept in a state to invite careful inspection.
Dormitories for Single Persons
The married people's berths are constructed in the form of enclosed bunks, 3 feet 6 inches to 4 feet in width, and 9 feet long, the ends projecting about a yard, and provided with curtains to be drawn by the occupants when in use, to ensure perfect privacy.
Left, Single Women's Mess accessed via stairs. Right, Married People's Berths
Baths for women or for men are available at a moment's notice for hot or cold water. A hot air chamber for cleansing, fumigating, and disinfecting purposes is provided, which can be heated to any degree required in a few minutes by a peculiar application of Bunsen's burners.
It is the practice to use limewhite for all the walls after every ship, and to well scrub every berth and all the floors with soft soap and: disinfectants, in order that the rooms may be perfectly clean for the use of the next arrivals. The mess utensils are also well cleaned and scalded after use on every occasion.
The kitchen is a very large stone-paved room, with apparatus arranged for baking and boiling (without any inconvenience) food for 1000 people at once. The meat is cut into joints of 7½  lbs. each for a mess of 10 S.A., and served in large earthenware dishes, divided for meat on one side and potatoes on the other. Soup is made for the children from the boiled meat left, and is much appreciated as an addition to their diet.
Kitchen, Plymouth Emigrant Depot
When the emigrants have taken their places at the mess tables on the sounding of the bell, the captain of each mess proceeds to the kitchen and receives the dinner for his table in exchange for a dinner ticket given to the cook. Thus the distribution is made quickly, and without any confusion, and so also at breakfast and tea time a similar plan is carried out, the captain of each mess and an assistant taking the large teapot and the provisions for the supply of his own table. The dietary scale is liberal, and the food carefully inspected and selected.
The recent addition to the depot by the purchase of the adjoining premises, has added largely to the open-air yard space available for exercise and amusement, and has also given several large rooms on the level of the yard, entirely open at one end, in which people can amuse themselves under shelter in wet weather.
Among the arrangements made by the Agents-General for the Colonial Governments during the stay in the depot it may be mentioned that from among the emigrants the matron selects a sub-matron to assist her on the voyage, and the dispatching officer selects a schoolmaster for the voyage, to teach the children, and constables to act under the doctor in carrying out beneficial regulations and preserve order on board ship.
Linen bags are issued to each emigrant, in which to keep his mess utensils, &c, for use on the vessel. Boxes and other property can be insured at the depot for the voyage. Savings' Bank receipts are given in exchange for any money the emigrants may desire to deposit for safe custody, payable at sight, without any charge, on arrival in the colony.
Specially reduced fares from London and many of the principal towns in all parts of England and Scotland have been arranged with most of the Railway Companies for the conveyance of emigrants to Plymouth, available by all trains, and allowing an extra amount of luggage, thus cheapening and facilitating the journey to the port.
When the stay of people in the depot extends over Sunday, emigrants are encouraged to go to whatever place of worship they please, and when a Sunday does not form part of their stay it is always arranged, when practicable, that a chaplain attends one evening and holds a service for those who desire to be present; a Catholic priest also administering (in a separate part of the building) religious advice and service to members of his faith.
As far as possible it is arranged that only the emigrants for one ship at a time are summoned but as it will occasionally happen that the arrangements of the several Agents-General do not admit of carrying out this rule, the recent additions have been so planned that, when necessary, two ships' people are received at once and entirely kept apart, duplicate offices, mess rooms, dormitories, and yard space being available, so that the people for one ship or colony are not brought into contact with those for another, and the work of each dispatching officer goes on simultaneously without clashing. This arrangement is specially valuable in the case of any unforeseen detention of a vessel through accident or stress of weather.
On the embarkation of the people a final muster is made, and the emigrants pass in succession before the officer of the Board of Trade, the medical officer of the port; and the dispatching officer of the Colonial Government, the names being ticked off as the emigrants pass into the steamer alongside the depot wall, which steamer conveys them direct on board the emigrant vessel in the Sound ; and the work of "messing" the people having been performed during their stay at the depot, they readily find their way on board to the berths provided for each person and family by the numbers on the berths corresponding with the mess cards taken with them. 
My sister and I wanted to see this amazing place in its current guise. Early on a Sunday morning we walked all round the old port area of Plymouth. We walked under the Mayflower archway and stood on the Mayflower Steps, where that famous group of settlers had left for America four centuries earlier.
The Mayflower Steps, Plymouth

The Mayflower Memorial Gate, Plymouth
We imagined our Cornish ancestors walking down a similar set of steps in 1873, full of hope for a bright new future on the other side of the world.

We took photos of historic plaques, including one for the First Fleet ships 'Friendship' and 'Charlotte', which loaded their convict passengers aboard at Plymouth in 1787.
Plaque Honouring First Fleet at Plymouth
There was even a plaque remembering the Cornish migrants who went to South Australia.
South Australia's Acknowledgment of its Cornish Pioneers
We asked people about the Plymouth Emigrant Depot. We asked at the Tourist Information Office, once it opened. No-one could tell us where the Depot was. The Tourist Office was very helpful and eventually located a reference in a book and pointed us to the right spot.
Location of Plymouth Emigrant Depot
It was a disappointing destination - a car park, the Elphinstone Long Stay Car Park to be precise, located centre foreground in the above aerial photo.
Elphinstone Long Stay Car park, Plymouth
The Citadel Looms above the Car Park
The car park offered a good vantage point for fishing, and for looking straight out to sea into the western reaches of the English Channel.
Looking Towards the Entrance to Plymouth Harbour
Only one building, near the entrance to the car park, appears to survive from the Plymouth Emigrant Depot days.
Vestiges of the Plymouth Emigrant Depot
We departed somewhat mystified and disappointed. Had we really found the right spot for a place so significant in Australian history? Plymouth is missing a major tourism opportunity by not erecting an instructive story board in this spot.
  • Read more about the depot in a similar article here
  • A wag with a sense of humour describes it here
  • Read more about my Dennis forebears in From Buryan to Bondi, covering a history dating from the 1650s in St Buryan, Cornwall to Bondi Beach in the early 1900s, the sinking of the Emden in 1914 and the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge..

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Echoes from a Valiant Past, Part 2

My mother’s ‘Pathfinder’ cousin Stewart Dennis died in Germany in August 1944, during the conflagration of WW2. That is where matters for my part of the family rested for more than 70 years from war’s end. We never expected a new chapter to open in Stewart's story, a valiant new story connected to the past.

To recap briefly on Part 1 of this story, Stewart was the navigator on the Lancaster PB209 of 156 Pathfinders Squadron, flying from RAF Upwood. In August 1944 a large raid was planned on the Opel plant at Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt, about 700 kilometres away. For the Opel raid the bomber force comprised 15 Pathfinder aircraft and 282 heavy bombers. (1) 

PB209 took off at 22.01 on Saturday 12 August 1944, carrying red and green marker flares plus some incendiary bombs to light up the target for following aircraft as Pathfinder aircraft did not normally carry high explosive bombs.(2)  The seven crew members included four Australians:
  • RAAF  407529 Flt Lt J N McDonald, DFM Captain (Pilot)
  • RAF     Sgt E W Hunter (Flight Engineer)
  • RAAF  403914 Flt Lt S L Dennis DFC (Navigator)
  • RAAF  403983 FO L L Deed DFC (Air Bomber)
  • RAF     WO W T Alsbury (Wireless Air Gunner)
  • RAAF  406522 FO D W Dunham (Mid Upper Gunner)
  • RAF     Flt Sgt R H Valencia (Rear Gunner)
Crew Positions in a Lancaster, Source
One source says: ‘The Lancaster bomber was the most effective British bomber of World War 2 …but suffered … the highest losses by any single type of aircraft throughout the war’.(3)  The seven men on Lancaster PB209 were numbered among these losses and never returned home.

They died too young but they have lived on in our memories. Donald William Dunham’s medals were passed on to his niece Jean Stallwood by her grandmother and Jean had them framed. Donald was important to her as she grew up with her mother and grandmother often talking about him. Likewise, Stewart Dennis was a favourite cousin of my mother Julia Dennis and my sisters and I, and our Dennis cousins, grew up hearing about Stewart although we never knew him.

Now we have some touching details for what happened in Germany after that crash.


The Red Cross, through its ‘Missing Research and Enquiry Services’ operating in Germany, reported German eye witness accounts in 1944 that the ‘aircraft commenced to break up in the air shortly before it struck the ground and that the bodies of Warrant Officer Alsbury and Flight Sergeant Valencia were thrown clear’.(4)

By December 1944 the Australian authorities knew that Alsbury and Valencia and three unknown crew were buried in the Cemetery at Wasserliesch.(5)  This picturesque small town is near the confluence of the Saar and Mosel (Moselle) Rivers in Rheinland-Pfalz in the West of Germany near the Luxembourg border, the nearest city being Trier across the Mosel to the North-East.

After the war, it was stated in McDonald’s file that all seven crew were now located, two having been thrown clear of the crash, but now five bodies were unidentifiable and were buried together. That might mean that the first locals on the scene did not locate all the body parts scattered on impact until after the first and perhaps only report of the crash went to the German authorities in mid-August 1944.

In 2016 an Australian nephew of Donald Dunham (a man who wishes to remain anonymous) began to make enquiries in Germany and eventually a local newspaper Trierischer Volksfreund published an article on 12 November 2016 asking for information on the fate of the Lancaster PB209.

Once their attention was drawn to the crash, local residents recalled that the aircraft parts lying on the surface had been removed successively after the end of the war, and ‘the crash site fell into oblivion for a long time’.(6)  They said ‘We decided to take the seven crew members - who lost their lives so tragically - and the place of the crash out of oblivion’.(7)

The Research team 

A research team formed, with four key members: Mr Burg (who visited the crash area as a child), Manfred Metzdorf (the lead researcher), Egon Claes (with stories from his father), and Rainer Clemens (from Wasserliesch).
German Research Team with some of the PB209 wreckage,
l to r Mr Burg, Manfred Metzdorf, Egon Claes, Rainer Clemens,
photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
Through late 2016 and the first half of 2017 the amazing work of the research team was reported back to Australia by Michael Naunheim, the Media Officer for the local government area of Konz. He speaks good English and played his own important role in publicising the project locally via Facebook and the local newspaper, taking photographs and seeking assistance from the public. He also contacted the mayor of Wasserliesch (Mr. Thomas Thelen) who offered to help by asking people and by publishing a story in the weekly newsletter distributed in Wasserliesch.

Locating the Crash Site 

After the newspaper story was published Naunheim was contacted by Egon Claes. Aged 53 and born in Konen, his father had told him that in 1944 local people took everything from the plane they could make use of. ‘The children carved rings out of the plexiglass panes and shoe soles were made from the rear wheel’, says Claes. His father also told him that the aircraft navigator still had the pencil in his hand - his hand had probably cramped’.(8)

Claes wanted to pass on to Naunheim the places where the plane had come down and he drew a map with three crosses: ‘one for the rear and one for the bow of the plane - the third indicates a cross that is said to have been set up for the victims of the crash’.(9)
Provisional Locations of Aircraft Sections and Cross,
Area close to confluence of Saar & Moselle Rivers, known as 'Herrenbusch' 
Armed with his map and a video camera, on a cold winter’s day in early December 2016 Michael Naunheim took a hike from the Rosenberg in Könen to the Herrenbüsch forest in Wasserliesch.
Michael Naunheim with his video camera
When Naunheim arrives in a wooded area, he looks for a crater or holes that testify where the bow of the machine has hit. But all traces have disappeared: no holes, no remains. The cross also seems to be lost. But it stands on the edge of an abandoned pasture, several hundred meters from the crash site, hidden behind trees.(10) 
The Cross placed by local people near the crash site in 1944 remains there and is marked on official maps as a permanent geographical feature.
Commemorative Cross, almost overgrown by vegetation,
Source Michael Naunheim video
A Mr Burg who visited the site as a child told everyone where to look for the crash site and the search continued:
On December 4, 2016, 72 years after the crash, the first aircraft parts of Lancaster PB209 could be located. The place where PB209 crashed was found. Aluminum parts from the fuselage or the wings, fragments of instruments, lines with distributing pieces were only a few centimeters below the foliage [vegetation]. Perspex parts from the pulpits [cockpits], partly burned, also came to light. Around the discovery site, you can still clearly recognize the traces of fire in the earth.(11) 

The Dig 

The following photos taken in March 2017 show the search team and some of the artefacts uncovered, most being fragments for the reasons already outlined.
The Search Team, photo by courtesy Michael Naunheim
Hunting for Metal, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
Found something, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
Some of the Remnants, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
More Items, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
An English Manufacturer, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
Distinctive Part, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim

Target reached 

Thanks to the German research team, we now know more about the results of the bombing mission involving 297 aircraft. The target was the Opel car factory, at that time being used for the manufacture of the fuselage and wings for flying bombs such as V1 and V2 which were blitzing London and surrounding areas.(12)  The Pathfinders including PB209:
arrived shortly before midnight at the supposed destination and set flare markings. Unfortunately, something went wrong that night. The markings were not in the factory ground but in “Königstädten” (town 6 kilometers away) and put some barns on fire. The following bombers detected the burning barns as a target dropping area (Report from the book "Bombennacht Königstädten 13 August 1944").(13) 
British records tell us that normal Pathfinder marking methods were used but:
The motor factory was only slightly damaged; the local report states that the tyre and dispatch departments and the powerhouse were hit but most of the bombs fell in open countryside south of the target.(14)
Map of Operation


PB209 was returning home from this mission when the aircraft was attacked at 00.48 on Sunday 13 August at an altitude of approx. 4,300 metres by the German night-fighter ‘ace’ Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer. As well as PB209, his 90th ‘kill’ of the war, he downed three other Lancasters that night: PD230, LM180 and ND694. His total tally for the war was 121 aircraft but their stories are for others to tell. A tail fin of his Messerschmitt is exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Schnaufer’s preferred strategy was to approach a bomber from behind and below and fire a few 20mm cannon rounds into the fuel tank on the right wing of his target, which usually caused the aircraft to catch fire or explode.(15) Graphic imagery of the outcome for these unfortunate Lancaster bombers has since been created by the Polish digital artist Piotr Forkasiewicz.
Lancaster Bomber on Fire

The crash 

The crew of the crippled PB209 had no time to implement emergency evacuation procedures. The German research team has now pieced together what happened next.
Parts of the tailgate broke off and crashed to the ground at the end of the town. The aircraft then quickly lost altitude and flew towards Wasserliesch. Contemporary witnesses from Könen and Wasserliesch reported that the aircraft was seen burning in the night sky. The machine of Major Schnaufer turned away after the attack on the Lancaster and flew over Wasserliesch in the direction of Luxembourg. Pilot McDonald probably tried to keep the plane on course heading direction Luxembourg/Belgium. The severely damaged Lancaster broke further apart. The plane got into a spin, and the rear part with the attached rear turret torned [tore] off from the plane just before the stabilizer fins. Flying Officer Alsbury and Flight Sergeant Valencia were thrown out of the open rear part of the aircraft and fell to the ground with half-opened parachutes. Then the remaining part of the aircraft crashed into the mountain slope above the landmark “Herrenbüsch”. The airplane pulled a deep trail through the forest. The crash caused a violent fire, extinguished by the Wasserliesch fire brigade.(16) 
From Strike to Crash

The research team concluded that ‘the main impact point of the aircraft could not be determined unequivocally’. They believe that the fragmentary nature of the PB209 wreckage and the wide area in which it was found is due to events after August 1944. Early in 1945 the US Army advanced through the Saar/Moselle triangle area at Trier and broke Germany’s Siegfried Line of defence at this point, with heavy shelling. The PB209 crash site in the forest might have been heavily shelled if it was mistaken for German positions.(17)

Eye Witness Reports, Wasserliesch, Aug 1944 

The main fuselage ended up at Wasserliesch. Several witnesses who were children or teenagers at the time either saw the aircraft coming down, on fire, or they visited the site in the following days. Michael Naunheim wrote:
One very nice lady contacted me as a result of my research. She has written a book about Wasserliesch history (Wasser zerreibt Steine) mentioning the crash in August 1944 on page 239. This confirms that the plane crashed in the district “Herrenbüsch”. Her older sisters– against advice of their mother - ran into the forest to see what happened. After seeing what happened (burned out plane, two dead bodies hanging in parachutes), they were scared afterwards when in darkness or in the cellar and had to check every corner for “Boahpes” (a local scary phantasy figure… sort of bogey). Unfortunately one of the sisters died last year – the other one is suffering from dementia and is not able to remember anything.(18) 
Wasser zerreibt Steine (Water Grinds Stones) is an autobiography by Brigitte Thelen and Michael Naunhein quoted a passage from it, describing the crash:
In August there was a deafening bang after a burning Allied plane was flying low over the village. Clouds of black smoke were visible over the Herrenbüsch district. When the Wasserliescher fire department arrived, they found a crashed, burned-out plane and nearby two dead soldiers still hanging from parachutes. The forest that had caught fire was quickly extinguished and they still had to recover burned bodies from the burned-out plane.(19) 
Water Breaks Stones
In another email, Michael Naunheim wrote:
I got a call from Mrs. Ziegler out of Wasserliesch – at that time she was 15 years old. She saw the plane burning and flying over the river Mosel that night – coming from direction Igel (the other side of the river) flying over the Reinigerstraße into the direction of Rosenberg/Herrenbüsch. She ran to the crash site next day and saw a severed swollen arm lying there. A picture she never forgot.(20) 
Of more than ten contemporary witnesses who came forward, Egon Claes knew the most important of them, Artur Peters aged eighty.
He wrote the Könen Chronicle and he knows exactly what he is talking about. Because he even has photo evidence of the crash. In the picture he can be seen at the age of eight together with his sister Karin and his brother Edgar as they stand on the stern of the crashed bomber. Peters still knows exactly where his uncle Matthias Holbach took the picture on the Rosenberg. ‘You saw the hole at the crash site for a long time’ … He no longer knows exactly on which day the picture was taken - at least shortly after the crash. A dead man was lying next to the machine.(21) 
Crashed PB209, l to r, Edgar, Karin and Artur Peters, 13 or 14 August 1944, Source Michael Naunheim video

Initial gravesite 

The remains of the crew were treated with great respect and they were initially interred in the Old Cemetery of St. Aper Church at Wasserliesch.
St Aper Church, Wasserliesch, Source Wikipedia

Second raid on Russelsheim 

Soon after, given the lack of results from the first bombing raid on Russelsheim, a second raid on the Opel target by 412 aircraft took place on the night of 25/26 August. British records refer:
The Pathfinder marking was accurate and the raid was successfully completed in 10 minutes. An official German report. says that the forge and the gearbox assembly departments were put out of action for several weeks, but 90 per cent of the machine tools in other departments escaped damage. The assembly line and part of the pressworks were able to recommence work 2 days later and lorry assembly was unaffected because of considerable stocks of ready-made parts.(22) 
The local population was so fearful, upset, angry and distraught at the bombing that they took their revenge on some American prisoners passing through the town and not part of the bombing raid. Six Americans were killed in the Russelsheim massacre of 26 August 1944 and, after a war-crime trial later initiated by the US Army, six German men were executed and two women went to gaol for 30 years.


After the war on 11 June 1948 the remains of the PB209 crew were removed from Wasserliesch to Rheinberg British War Cemetery about 250 km north of the crash site. The remains of pilot McDonald were subsequently repatriated from a common grave at Rheinberg to the North Road Cemetery, Adelaide so we must assume that he could somehow be identified.(23)

Sunday 13 August 2017 – Opening of Memorial 

It is very touching that a ‘resting place’ or place of reflection has now been created very close to the crash site, with a bench and a memorial plaque fixed on a rock in memory of the PB209 crew. This resulted from a private initiative by Mr. Metzdorf, Mr. Clemens and other local people. A small public commemoration ceremony led by the mayor of Wasserliesch (Mr. Thomas Thelen) was held on Sunday 13 August 2017, exactly 73 years after this tragic event. About 50 interested people turned up. Unfortunately, Mr Metzdorf was unwell on the day and was unable to attend.

Although there had been much co-operation between the Australian relatives and German residents during the research process, the official opening ceremony was clearly seen as a personal moment for the Germans, as they reflected on the history of their country.
Crowd at Unveiling, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
Story Board, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
In Memory Of ...., photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim
The Resting Place, for Reflection, photo by courtesy of Michael Naunheim

Thank you 

All family members of the crew of Lancaster PB209 wish to thank the splendid group of local researchers in Germany who voluntarily unearthed a large volume of documentary and physical evidence relating to an event more than 70 years earlier. Their sustained effort and dedication is much appreciated.

Particular thanks are due to Michael Naunheim who organised so much publicity for the cause, was so active in documenting the search and so humble at its conclusion: ‘We do hope that we could help you with everything we have done. As a reminder - and to give again a face to the key people that never gave up on this case and led finally to these results.’

Family members would also like to thank the key researcher, Manfred Metzdorf, who compiled the final report and organised the ‘resting place’ memorial along with Rainer Clemens.

Family members are particularly impressed at how the people from the Wasserliesch region acted in August 1944, putting up a wooden cross.

Descendants of the PB209 crew who are travelling in Europe are encouraged to visit Wasserliesch, about 250 km south-west of Frankfurt and about 35 km from Luxembourg. It's a place where former enemies can forgive and not forget but remember with kindness.

P.S. You are invited to 'Like' Louise Wilson, Author on Facebook.


[1] German Report (Crash of an Avro Lancaster III at Wasserliesch (District of Trier-Saarburg) on August 13th 1944 at 00:48m, Registration: PB209, English version of a Report by Manfred Metzdorf and others, August 2017, emailed by Michael Naunheim to Dunham nephew, 10 Aug 2017)
[2] Letter to Mrs J McDonald from Secretary, Dept of Air, 9 Mar 1949, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A705, 166/26/544, Item Barcode 1073262
[4] Letter to Mrs J McDonald from Secretary, Dept of Air, 9 Mar 1949, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A705, 166/26/544, Item Barcode 1073262
[5] James Neil McDonald, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A705, 166/26/544, Item Barcode 1073262
[6] German Report, op cit
[7] German Report, op cit
[8] Email from Michael Naunheim to Dunham nephew, 24 Nov 2016
[9] Volksfreund article, 6 Jan 2017 (English translation of an online story in German newspaper Volksfreund, (Video) ‘Bomber crashed at Wasserliesch in 1944 - Australian wants to know more about his dead uncle’, 6 Jan 2017,,4578897&prev=search)
[10] Ibid
[11] German Report, op cit
[12] Email from Michael Naunheim to Dunham nephew, 14 Nov 2016
[13] German Report, op cit
[14] Bomber Command website, archived on UK National Archives website
[16] German Report, op cit
[17] German Report, op cit
[18] Email from Michael Naunheim to Dunham nephew, 14 Nov 2016
[19] Volksfreund article, op cit
[20] Email from Michael Naunheim to Dunham nephew, 24 Nov 2016
[21] Volksfreund article, op cit
[22] Bomber Command website, op cit
[23] Dunham nephew’s email to Louise Wilson, 23 April 2017

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Echoes from a Valiant Past - Stewart Leigh Dennis, D.F.C.

Today at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, a ceremony will be held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of RAAF aircrew joining the RAF's Bomber Command in England, in which more than ten thousand Australians eventually served. Altogether around 55,000 aircrew in Bomber Command lost their lives, including up to half of our own brave airmen. Here's one man's story.

Stewart Leigh Dennis was born at 20 Kelso Street in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Enfield, NSW, on 31 October 1920, the second son of Spenser Dennis and Florence Martin. Stewart’s given names honoured his mother’s Scottish forebears and a brother of his father, a baby who had died young. Stewart was raised in Kelso Street with his older brother Ivan, older sister Peggy, and younger sister Leith.

Dennis Children, c 1927.
Source: Ward/Hamburger/Pope Family Tree on
His father was a Designing Engineer on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and over his distinguished career he was involved in the design of 700 bridges in NSW. Around the corner from Stewart lived his grandfather James Dennis, who’d learned to read by the light of a miner’s lamp in Cornwall, arrived in Sydney in 1874, aged fourteen, and retired in 1925 as an Inspector of Schools in NSW. Stewart had a great deal of contact with his Dennis grandparents during their retirement years. (Their stories are told more fully in my book From Buryan to Bondi.)

Other family connections were also fostered. Stewart was very friendly with his slightly older cousin Alec Campbell and loved visiting the Campbell farm at Rothbury in the Hunter Valley. He was also a great favourite of his younger cousin Julia Dennis who, with her four brothers, met up regularly with Stewart’s family at Dee Why Beach on Saturdays.

He attended Fort Street Boys High School and then enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University, passing Psychology 1 late in 1938 and the deferred exam in Economics 1 (Faculty of Economics) early in 1939. His younger sister Leith says that he abandoned his course in Third Year because of the war and by 8 August 1940, when he enlisted for the war service reserve at the No 2 Recruiting Station in Sydney, he was a clerk working for the oil company Shell at Pyrmont. A family photo taken at this time shows that Stewart was a tall man … 6’2” according to Leith.

Stewart Dennis, his sister Peggy, father Spenser, mother Flo, sister Leith, brother Ivan, c 1940
Photo by courtesy of Gillian Baird
Aged twenty, his service record shows he was called up for active service in the RAAF on 21 April 1941, service number 403914. His family have no photos of him once he completed his initial aircrew training in Australia and have to be content with the following image:

Stewart Leigh Dennis, RAAF Australia, c May 1941
Source: NAA: A9300, DENNIS S L
He embarked for overseas service on 13 June 1941. At the time he was engaged to a girl who lived in his street, but he broke it off, much to her distress.

First stop was Vancouver in Canada and he spent approximately 6 months in that country under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, commanded by the Royal Canadian Air Force. He followed the standard pathway for training as a navigator, in his case beginning with No 2 Air Observer School at Edmonton, Alberta for 8 weeks, acquiring the basic navigation techniques of WW2. As listed by Wikipedia, these were dead reckoning and visual pilotage, the calculation tools being the aeronautical chart, magnetic compass, watch, trip log, pencil, Douglas protractor and a form of circular slide rule. He moved on to No 2 Bombing & Gunnery School at Mossbank, Saskatchewan for 1 month of training in bomb aiming and aerial machine gunnery; and finished up at No 1 Air Navigation School at Rivers, Manitoba for 1 month of training in astronavigation. By 8 November 1941 he was being paid as a Temporary Sergeant with Air Obs Special Group and by 9 December he was on the books of No 1 “Y” Depot, Halifax, Nova Scotia, the holding unit for airmen on the move to their next posting. He left for England on 8 January 1942.

In wintry England he passed through No 3 Personnel Reception Centre (PRC) on 20 January, en route to No 2 Air Observers School at Millom in Cumbria on 12 February and then No 2 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit for two weeks. In this period he was taught the fine points of navigating in the weather and terrain conditions of England and Europe, very different from Canada’s. Then he moved on to No 15 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Harwell, Berkshire on 17 March, where night bomber crews were trained on the Vickers Wellington bombers. By 8 May 1942 he was a Temporary Flight Sergeant.

From the middle of 1942 he was part of the Middle East Command, with No 2 Middle East Training School on 21 June and then No 40 Squadron from 30 June, operating in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. (Bomber Command records attest that flying Wellingtons from bases in the Middle East, No 40 Squadron bombed targets in North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Rhodes, Crete, Greece, Pantellaria, Lampedusa and Italy.) His file indicates he served with this squadron for almost six months.

On 14 December 1942 he was with No 23 Personnel Transit Centre (PTC) at Helwan, in southern Cairo, as a Flight Sergeant recommended for promotion, and on 4 January 1943 with No 22 PTC at Almaza in north-eastern Cairo. His service record shows a four month posting to Defence Head Quarters, Pretoria on 17 January 1943, where the South African Air Force was headquartered. It seems likely that he was employed here in a training instructor role.

During this period he became ill with an infection and was hospitalised in Johannesburg, a city around 50km from Pretoria. (The family believes it was the Baragwanath Hospital.) He and his nurse Muriel Alberta Van Zyl fell in love and they soon married, at Johannesburg’s St George's Anglican Church on 26 April 1943. Coincidentally, in 1942 Muriel’s mother had also married an Australian-born husband living in South Africa, having divorced Muriel’s father in 1931. Photos of Stewart & Muriel at this time do not survive but family members have provided several photos of Muriel taken later, in Australia.

Leith Dennis (left) & Muriel Dennis, c 1945
Photo by courtesy of Leith Williams
Muriel, c 1954
Photo by courtesy of her daughter
Stewart was promoted as Temporary Warrant Officer on 8 May 1943, the highest non-commissioned rank, was back with Middle East Command on 20 May 1943 for three weeks, then on 12 June he was again with No 23 PTC, awaiting his next posting.

This was back in England, attached to No 1 Personnel Despatch Centre (PDC) on 3 July. No doubt well aware of the grim fate which likely awaited him as an airman in this theatre of war, with his young wife Muriel still living in South Africa (at 11 Medusa St, Kensington, Johannesburg), he wrote a will on 3 August 1943. The specific catalyst for this action may have been a recurrence of illness, because five days later he was a patient at the RAF’s Halton Hospital at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. His posting to No 27 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Lichfield in Staffordshire came through on 20 August. Here RAAF crew were being trained on Vickers Wellingtons and he seems to have been one of the instructors. Technicalities meant that his appointment to Commissioned Rank saw him discharged from the RAAF on 17 October 1943 and formally attached to the RAF as a Pilot Officer in the Flight Training Wing, still at Lichfield in No 27 OTU.

Rather confusingly, his service records show him after this date as Warrant Officer for the Officer in Charge of N E Unit at Uxbridge, on 30 October 1943. This date appears to be an error as it comes out of sequence, but further delving into RAF records systems discloses (on the WW2Talk website) that this was likely to be a paper transfer only, for accounting purposes because he was Non Effective (sick). Symptoms and causes are not stated on his service record but whatever infection he’d picked up in Africa may have been troubling him again. Most likely he’d never left Lichfield.

By 10 January 1944, when he left No 27 OTU at Lichfield, he’d flown 760 hours 45 mins as a member of an aircrew, including 44 hours 25 mins in the last six months despite working as a Navigator Instructor. His superior officer reported that he’d served satisfactorily in this unit and he was of temperate habits (perhaps to be expected when he’d been raised as a Presbyterian).

He now moved to No 11 Base at Lindholme in Lincolnshire, a training base for the Lancaster bombers, and on 30 March he joined No 156 Squadron at Upwood in Cambridgeshire as Navigator. This unit of the famous Pathfinder force of Bomber Command had earlier been hived off from No 40 Squadron. No 156 Squadron was part of the No 8 Pathfinder Group (commanded by the outstanding Australian pilot Air Vice-Marshal, D.C.T. Bennett).

Pathfinders were crewed by an elite corps of men with high navigational ability. Their dangerous task involved leading the main heavy bombing squadrons, dropping flares and incendiary bombs to light up the target for the following aircraft. Hence the motto of No 156 Squadron: ‘We Light the Way’. Several quirky details of No 156 Squadron are mentioned on this blog. Many pictures of the iconic Lancaster bombers, their size and seven-man crews, can be viewed online.

156 Squadron, Bomber Command
Bomber Command crews self-selected the other men they trusted with their lives and wished to fly with. Information now available shows that four of the men in Stewart’s crew were Australians, the other three being the pilot James Neil McDonald from South Australia, formerly a sales assistant, the Air Bomber Leonard Lawrence Deed from Newcastle, NSW, formerly a photographer, and the Mid Upper Gunner Donald William Dunham from Western Australia, formerly an audit clerk. As part of No 156 Squadron they flew together on a number of missions over Europe in ten different Lancaster bombers (indicated by their Rego numbers in the table which follows). The four Australians always stuck together, with minor variations in the names of the three RAF crewmen aboard. On the date of his first bombing mission with No 156 Squadron, to Rouen on 18 April 1944, Stewart was promoted from Pilot Officer to Flying Officer.

Missions flown by S L Dennis in No 156 Squadron
James Neil McDonald
Source AWM UK0150
Leonard Lawrence Deed
Source: NAA: A9300, DEED L L
Donald William Dunham
Source: NAA: A9300, DUNHAM D W
Before, during and after 6 June, Bomber Command played a key role in the successful operation known as D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied Europe. On the night before the Normandy landing, No 156 Squadron had to mark as the target the huge German battery at Longues, on the headland between the landing beaches of Omaha and Gold. Unfortunately the 1,500 tons of bombs dropped by the following aircraft mostly missed the actual target and fell on the nearby village. One of these intimidating shoreline battery sites was made famous at the end of the classic war movie ‘D-Day, the Sixth of June’.

It’s not surprising that by 26 July 1944 Stewart had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, although his actual Citation for the DFC was not promulgated until 15 September 1944 (in the Supplement to the London Gazette, page 4272). As a General Citation, no details of specific deeds were published in the Gazette, but his service records on file say ‘Flying Officer Dennis has completed many successful operations during which he has displayed high skill, fortitude and devotion to duty.’

Flying Officer S. L. Dennis, D.F.C. (403914) was granted the acting (unpaid) rank of ‘Flight Lieutenant whilst occupying Flight Lieutenant post’, to take effect from 26 July 1944. (Commonwealth Gazette No. 223., p 2525, 9 November, 1944)

Winston Churchill’s famous tribute in a wartime speech of 1940 during the Battle for Britain …“Never was so much owed by so many to so few” …still stirs the soul when one thinks about the numbers of young ‘flyboys’ whose lives were decimated in the Second World War. On their 28th mission together, the odds by now definitely stacked against them, Stewart and his fellow crew members failed to return to base. He was reported as ‘Missing from Air Operations’ on 13 August 1944 and a later entry in his service record for that day says ‘Presumed Dead’. He was twenty-three years old. The huge amount of time, effort and money invested in the training aimed at protecting his dangerous life in the air was snuffed out.

Family members of this Lancaster PB209 crew immediately received telegrams from military authorities, reporting their loved ones as missing after they failed to return from a mission to attack a target at Russelsheim near Frankfurt, Germany. Australian newspapers soon published their names as missing. Stewart’s sister Leith, aged nineteen at the time, said in 2017 that her sister-in-law Muriel was on a ship heading to Australia when the news came through. Twenty-year-old Muriel was warmly welcomed by her new Australian family, with everyone anxious about Stewart’s fate. The family feared the worst but for quite a while lived on hope - that the crew had safely parachuted or crash-landed and were either in the hands of the Secret Army helping crashed airmen escape from Occupied Europe or were German prisoners of war.

Hope was dashed in December 1944, when German authorities reported through Red Cross channels the burial of five of the seven crew members from PB209. Two were identifiable as RAF airmen (they were found some distance from the crash) and three were unidentified. The fate of two other missing men remained unknown. All five unidentified men remained classified, officially, as ‘missing’.

Stewart was not officially publicised by the RAAF as ‘presumed dead’ until November 1945, six months after the end of World War 2 in Europe (and several months after the Japanese surrendered). It was then that his father commenced action as Executor of Stewart’s will:
IN the Will of STEWART LEIGH DENNIS late of Enfield Sydney In the State of New South Wales Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Air Force deceased Application will be made after 14 days from the publication hereof that Probate of the last Will dated 3rd August 1943 of the abovenamed deceased may be granted to Spenser Dennis the Executor named in the said Will And all creditors in the said Estate are hereby required to send in particulars of their claims to the undermentioned address And all notices may be served at the undermentioned address. Spenser Dennis 22 [sic] Kelso Street Enfield. (SMH, Fri 21 Dec 1945, p 9 col f)
NSW Probate for Stewart Leigh Dennis, date of death 13 August 1944, was eventually granted on 4 November 1946.

Three years after his death, his young widow married Henry Dudley Ward. As a Christian Scientist and conscientious objector, Dudley had joined the Royal Australian Navy’s Volunteer Reserve and worked as a naval clerk in Sydney during the war, not resigning from the RANVR until 1964. After their marriage on 27 June 1947 in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Vaucluse, Dudley and Muriel had two daughters. Stewart’s sister Leith says that her mother maintained contact with Muriel and newly-married Leith remembers meeting Muriel’s children once when they were babies, just before her own children were born. Muriel died prematurely in January 1972 and her personal effects from her early life and her wartime correspondence, if any, were disposed of by relatives. Her daughters mourn their loss as a potential source of their personal family history. Dudley later remarried and died in 2016, aged 97.

In 1949 the Department of Air advised that the Missing Research and Enquiry Services operating in Germany had now accounted for all members of the crew. German eye witnesses had reported that the plane began to break up shortly before it hit the ground and two of the men had been thrown clear. All seven crewmen had been buried in 1944 near the crash site.

On exhumation, five of the sets of remains could not be separately identified before they were moved to the Rheinberg War Cemetery, around 30km north of Düsseldorf in Germany, where the official graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission mostly commemorate WW2 airmen.

The five unidentifiable crew of PB209 were laid to permanent rest together, in Row 8H, collective Graves 9 to 13.
Stewart's Grave, Rheinberg War Cemetery
Stewart left no descendants, just grieving parents, siblings, wife and other family members, some of whom have visited Stewart’s gravestone. His extended family still pays tribute to the memory of his short but honourable life, as far as they knew it up until 2017.

What happened next, more than 70 years later, is told in Part 2 of this story coming from Germany.

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