Lancaster Silhouette

In the early hours of 18 June 1944, ten Mk I and four Mk III Avro Lancaster bombers of 115 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command, based at Witchford in Cambridgeshire, undertook an operation to attack railway installations at Montdidier (Somme) in northern France. Each aircraft carried eighteen 500lb general purpose bombs. All but one returned safely, the casualty being Mk I Lancaster, serial number HK559 and identifying code A4-H (painted on the sides, split by the RAF roundels). HK559 was apparently hit by anti-aircraft fire near to the target and crashed just outside the village of Gannes (Oise), a few kilometres to the south west, with the loss of all seven crew. According to the Gannes stationmaster, who witnessed the crash, the aircraft exploded and burst into flames on impact, with a further bomb explosion triggered by the fire several hours later. The crash may have been on the outward or return journey, as cloud conditions at the target caused the instruction to be given for all aircraft to return without dropping their bombs.

Bomber Command suffered huge casualties in World War II, with over 8000 aircraft destroyed and more than 55,000 aircrew killed, but HK559 was its only operational loss on that date.

The remains of the crew were buried in a collective grave in the village cemetery, where there are now individual Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones, and where several official commemoration ceremonies have been held. The wireless operator, Peter Duff, was my uncle.

The account which follows has been developed from information supplied by, among others, relatives of all seven crewmen and by French people in Gannes and nearby. It is based on material first assembled by Dominique Lecomte of Erquery (Oise), augmented as and when extra documents and photographs came to light.

In addition to formal commemoration ceremonies, there have been numerous visits to Gannes by family members. Until 2007, these events were distinct but since then there has been some overlap, as can be seen here on the forum Picardie 1939-1945.

There are separate pages on this site devoted to events on the 50th, 60th, 65th and 70th anniversaries.

On each of the four occasions on which I have been to Gannes, I have been shown great hospitality by all those whom I have met. The memory of the first visit in 1964 is still fresh. As a trainee telephone engineer, I was working in France that summer on an exchange visit to the PTT, and one Sunday took the train from Paris to Gannes. At the station I asked a porter for directions to the cemetery. Asking me to wait, he made a phone call and in due course a car arrived with two young men, the son of the mayor and a friend. They took me to the cemetery for photography and quiet reflection, then to the mayor’s house for lunch, then back to the station for the Paris train. Naturally, on my return home I mentioned these events, to be told by my father that he had had substantially the same experience sixteen years before on his visit to his brother’s grave. It seems likely that the station staff had standing orders on what to do if an obvious foreigner arrived and asked for the cemetery.

My thanks go to everyone who has contributed and so helped to perpetuate the memory of the crew of HK559. As well as individual people in Australia, Canada, France and the UK, the following organisations were of great assistance, either by supplying material or by helping to put me in touch with surviving relatives:

Finsbury Park Cycling Club
Harrogate Advertiser
Odd Bods UK Association
Ossett Historical Society
RAF Halton Aircraft Apprentices Association
Tottenham, Wood Green and Edmonton Journal

Ian Duff
North Berwick, UK

Last updated on 12 July 2014