Sergeant Douglas Albert Dawson, 57420, Flight Engineer, 115 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
Douglas Albert Dawson was born in the Goole Registration District in 1922, the son of Albert and Alice (Mary) Dawson (nee Dealtry), of Ossett, Yorkshire, who had married in Goole in 1921. At some time the family moved to live in Ossett and Douglas had two siblings: Mary P. Dawson, born in 1924 and Edwin F. Dawson, born in 1925, both in the Wakefield Registration District.
Douglas Dawson chose the RAF as a career when he enrolled as an airframe apprentice, aged 16 years in 1938. His ambition to fly was realised only in the later stages of the war when four engined bombers such as the Lancaster required a flight engineer as part of the crew.
At an Operational Training Unit, all but the flight engineer came together. The process is sometimes described as all the trainees being put in a hangar, and by drifting around for part of a day, self-selecting into congenial teams of six specialists. In reality, it could take longer and some direction from above could be given. For example, Bruce Johnston, another pilot on the Montdidier operation, described in his diary of the time how he acquired his navigator, wireless operator, bomb aimer and mid-upper gunner over several days, and was allocated his rear gunner nearly a month later.1
At the subsequent Heavy Conversion Unit, a flight engineer, who had taken a separate course of training, was attached to the established crew. As well as the geographical spread, the wartime enlistees had a wide variation in what they had been doing immediately before:
- John Traill was a Trooper in the Australian Army, which he had joined straight from school.
- Ian Smith was a trainee engineer with the Sydney Water Board, while taking a degree in Civil Engineering.
- John Van Cooten was the head teacher of the small state school in Pelican, near Chinchilla, Queensland.
- Peter Duff was a clerk in the jute business of James Scott and Sons in Dundee.
- Ernest Stapley worked for the London Fire Service.
- Kenneth Laxton worked for the family dairy business in Hall Green, Birmingham.
However they did come together, now with the addition Douglas Dawson, the flight engineer. The crew who died at Gannes were posted in late May 1944 to 115 Squadron at Witchford, by this time equipped only with Lancasters, and flew operations from there.
In the early hours of the 18th June 1944, ten Mk. 1 and 4 Mk. III Avro Lancaster bombers of 115 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command based at RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire, undertook an operation to attack railway installations at Montdidier in the Somme region of Northern France. Each aircraft carried eighteen 500lb general purpose bombs. All but one Lancaster returned safely, the casualty being Mk. 1 Lancaster HK559, with identifying code A4-H painted on two the sides, split by RAF roundels.
Approaching the town, the weather was bad and the wind was strong. The target, obscured by clouds, was invisible. Bombing was impossible. German anti-aircraft defence joined the action. The Lancaster HK-559, severely hit, quickly became unmanageable. The heavy four-engined aircraft burst into flames, still carrying its payload of bombs. Inexorably losing altitude, it spiralled over the village of Gannes, giving the seven crew members no chance to evacuate the aircraft.
Around 2:00 am, it struck the ground, having torn the roof off a house near the small station of Gannes. The aircraft exploded and all seven airmen perished. Miraculously, that night, nobody was inside the house usually occupied by a family evacuated from Le Havre because of the bombing.
The crash may have been on the inward or outward journey since cloud conditions at the target caused the instruction to be given for all aircraft to return without them dropping their bombs.
The remains of the seven crew were buried in a collective grave at the village cemetery. The crew of HK559 was as follows:
- Pilot Officer John Alan Traill, aged 21 years, Pilot, Royal Australian Air Force.
- Flight Sergeant Ian Harrison Smith, aged 21 years, Navigator, Royal Australian Air Force.
- Sergeant Douglas Albert Dawson, aged 22 years, Flight Engineer, Royal Air Force.
- Flight Sergeant John William Van Cooten, aged 22 years, Air Bomber, Royal Australian Air Force.
- Sergeant Peter Duff, aged 34 years, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, Royal Air Force.
- Sergeant Ernest Stanley Stapley, aged 35 years, Mid-Upper Air Gunner, Royal Air Force.
- Sergeant Kenneth Edgar Laxton, aged 20 years, Rear Air Gunner, Royal Air Force.
The Montdidier raid was the fifth operational sortie for the crew and they had previously completed the following:
- 30/31st May 1944 - Boulogne - ND913 A4-M - All 10 aircraft returned.
- 2/3rd June 1944 - Wissant - ND760 A4-K - All 15 aircraft returned.
- 14/15th June 1944 - Le Havre - ND913 A4-M - All 22 aircraft returned.
- 15/16th June 1944 - Valenciennes - ND913 A4-M - 1 lost from 20 aircraft.
- 18th June 1944 - Montdidier - HK559 A4-H - the only plane lost from 14 that set off.
Above: Lancaster Bomber.
The detailed official record disagrees with a statement in the brief account of Douglas Dawson's life, which appeared in the "Ossett Observer" when he was reported missing and again when he was presumed dead or killed in action. According to the statement, he flew to Caen on D-Day, 6th June 1944, presumably this being told to his family when he was on leave with them sometime before his death.
There is no record of operations carried out by Douglas Dawson's crew other than those listed above, nor with any of him as a member of another crew, although there was an operation with 24 aircraft from 115 Squadron to Ouisterham, the port of Caen, on the night of the 5th/6th June 1944. It is possible that Dawson flew on this operation as a stand-in flight engineer for another crew, maybe at the last minute? Perhaps for some reason, possibly human error, it wasn't recorded properly.
It was not until April 1945 that the fate of the crew of HK559 was confirmed, when an identity disc belonging to one of the aircrew was handed in to British authorities by a French farmer in Oise. Subsequent investigation showed that HK559 had plunged, in flames, almost vertically into the ground, exploding on impact and scattering debris over a wide area. There were no survivors.2
Above: The crash site of Lancaster bomber HK559 near Gannes in Northern France.
The "Ossett Observer" had this report for Sergeant Dawson:
"OSSETT AIRMAN MISSING - Information has now been received that Sergeant Engineer Douglas Albert Dawson (22) RAF is missing after an operational flight over enemy territory. A son of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Dawson, 66 Sowood Avenue, Ossett, he was educated at South Ossett C. of E. School and Dewsbury Technical College, and after being employed for a short time at Sykes' Athletic Works, Horbury Bridge, joined the RAF six years ago under a scheme for training youths in ground staff work. Subsequently, he went through a course for flying duties and on D-Day, took part in a bombing raid over Caen, France. He came home on a week's leave, returning the following Monday, and was missing from an operational flight over France on Thursday night June 16-17th 1944, nothing having been heard of him since. A member of South Ossett Parish Church Choir, he was formerly attached to the South Ossett Boy Scouts and was well-known and respected in the locality. His brother (Frank), who is 19, was an Air Force cadet, and joined the RAF about a week after notification that his brother was missing. His sister (Mary) is serving in the Land Army on the North-East coast. His father served throughout the last war."
Sergeant Dawson died on the 18th June 1944 aged 22 years and is buried in a collective grave with his other crew members at Gannes Communal Cemetery, Oise, France.
Gannes is a village 28 kilometres north-east of Beauvais and 5 kilometres north of St Just-en-Chaussee. The Cemetery lies on the northern outskirts of the village, which is reached via the St Just-en-Chaussee to Gannes road. In the right hand corner from the entrance gate is the collective grave of 7 Commonwealth airmen.4
1. Gannes 1944: The Loss of Lancaster HK559 by Ian Duff, nephew of crew member Peter Duff.
2. Association des Saveuteurs d'Aviateurs Alliés web page with details of the HK559 crash in Gannes.
3. "Ossett Observer", Saturday, 23rd September 1944.