75th anniversary memorial prompts hunt for dead airman's Flintshire family

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

DURING the spring and summer of 1943, RAF Bomber Command engaged in a series of raids against German industrial towns and cities which became known as the ‘Battle of the Ruhr’.

Nicknamed ‘Happy Valley’ by aircrew, the Rhur area featured coke plants, steelworks and oil plants among its many targets with the aim of the raids being to severely disrupt German production and devastate the Nazi’s armaments industry.

On the night of June 25, 1943, 457 RAF heavy bombers flew from England’s east cost and attacked the German town of Gelsenkirchen, a town noted for its oil refineries.

Joining the battle was Grimsby-based 100 Squadron which provided 18 Lancasters for the raid including one with the serial number ED988.

Seven crew manned the Lancaster, including Flight Engineer Cyril Connah, the son of Thomas and Hildah Connah from Pontblyddyn in Flintshire. He was just 22 years old.

“We don’t know an awful lot about Cyril,” says Greg Harrison, 100 Squadron Association historian.

“We know he arrived at 100 Squadron in May 1943 after qualifying as a flight engineer the previous year.

“He started his tour of operations and had completed eight successful raids to various targets in Germany including Dortmund and Dusseldorf.”

Sadly Cyril’s ninth flight was to be his last. At approaching 1am local time, while flying to the target, Cyril and his crew were attacked and shot down by a German nightfighter, captained by Oberfeldwebel Karl-Heinz Scherfling.

He was an ace fighter pilot with the German 10./NJG1 nightfighter unit based at Venlo and this was his 14th victory. The aircraft came down in a the Dutch district of Beemster, some 20km north of Amsterdam, and all the crew were killed.

“Local Dutch civilians managed to extricate the bodies of three of the aircrew, but three hours after the crash the bomb load exploded with such force that no further remains were able to be identified,” says Greg, whose grandfather also served with 100 Squadron.

Today Cyril is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial to RAF servicemen with no known grave but 75 years after his death the villagers of Beemster are determined that a more personal tribute is offered to the Welshman and his six comrades, Flt/Sgt Leslie Naile, Sgt Ronald Mepsted, Flying Officer Charles Reynolds, Sgt John Dillon, Flt/Sgt Lawrence Porritt and Sgt Leonard Bennett.

Greg says: “The local historical society in Beemster, where the aircraft came down, contacted us to say they’re planning to install a memorial in the town in memory of the seven airmen who died fighting for their liberation.

“The Dutch are well-known for their efforts to remember Commonwealth airmen who died in crashes in their country in the Second World War, and there are hundreds of memorials to RAF Bomber Command crews across the length and breadth of the country. June 26 this year marks the 75th anniversary of the crash, and the Beemster Historical Society have chosen this date to dedicate and unveil the memorial.”

Greg now hopes he can find any surviving members of Cyril’s family and invite them to the service later.

“The association serves as a focal point for squadron old boys but also for the families who served with the squadron,” explains Greg.

“We are quite often contacted by people in relation to memorials to aircraft which crashed during the war to see if we have contact details for the families of the airmen.

“Sadly nine times out of 10 the answer is ‘no’ just because we only have about 250 members and we lost 106 Lancasters during the Second World War. Just over 600 men were killed and about 80 survived as prisoners of war and another 20 or so managed to evade capture and made it back to the UK.

“The Dutch and the French are always very keen the sacrifices of Bomber Command are not forgotten and we maintain links with a good number of history societies across Europe who have erected memorials to 100 Squadron.”

The scale and intensity of the offensive was an appalling trial to the German people and the attacks profoundly shook the Nazi leadership. But today, the indiscriminate nature of the bombing and the heavy civilian casualties and damage is often criticised by historians and the achievements of the aircrews relatively forgotten when compared to those who served in the Battle of Britain.

“The cost to Bomber Command aircrews in the Sec was a heavy one,” agrees Greg.

“Of the 125,000 young men who served in Bomber Command between 1939 and 1945, 55,573 were killed. A further 30,000 were either prisoners of war, or so horrifically injured on operations that they never flew again.

“Post-war, the huge efforts and sacrifices made by Bomber Command aircrews went largely unacknowledged, and the families they left behind have often had little or no idea of what became of their sons, their brothers, and their fathers who had been lost in the bombing campaign against Germany.

“I think the treatment and remembrance many of the crews have received is nothing short of shoddy. There is a sense of embarrassment about how the bombing campaign was conducted but they were committed to an air war which would stop a land invasion.

“Head of Bomber Command, Robert Harris had served in the First World War and he had seen the terrible losses on the Western Front and so was keen to avoid a similar slaughter.

“It’s also worth remembering we only really had one way to strike at Germany and that was from the air and at night.”

Greg is now hoping some of Cyril’s surviving relatives may still be in Flintshire or someone may know their whereabouts so they can get in touch and help the rest of 100 Squadron pay tribute to his war-time deeds.

“It would be absolutely brilliant,” adds Greg.

“For me personally to see another crew from 100 Squadron remembered and honoured would be a fantastic feeling and one I would struggle to put into words.

“If any of Cyril’s surviving relatives can be found and we can get them out to the village where their loved one died fighting for the liberty of Europe would be amazing and a chance for them to come to the place where he made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom we have all enjoyed ever since.”

If you are related to Cyril Connah or know the whereabouts of the Connah family please contact jamie.bowman@nwn.co.uk or call 01352 707781.

Email:

jamie.bowman@nwn.co.uk

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