by John J. Chalmers
442 Reeves Crest
Edmonton AB T6R 2A3
(Photo gallery and related links at end of article)
Lancaster bomber of World War II. The “SR” marking on the fuselage indicates RAF 101 Squadron.
Of all Lancasters built during the war, only 26 survive today. Only two are in flying condition,
one of which is in Canada at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Hamilton International Airport
Present-day squadron crest is shown below.
Motto, “Mens Agitat Molem,” translates as “Mind Over Matter.”
At 2130 hours on August 29, 1944, Avro Lancaster bomber number LM479 lifted off from the airfield at Ludford Magna in England, some 20 kilometers northeast of Lincoln and about the same distance west of the North Sea coast. Aboard the aircraft was a crew of eight, four from the RAF and four Canadians from the RCAF.
The bomber was one of 403 Lancasters on a bombing mission to Stettin, Germany, a supply port city about 55 kilometers south of the Baltic Sea at Pomeranian Bay. Stettin was also the site of shipbuilding yards, an oil refinery and a rubber factory. Likely, all these made the city a target for bombing raids.
Lancaster LM479, built by A.V. Roe & Co. Ltd. in Yeadon, Yorkshire, was from the Royal Air Force 101 Squadron, formed as a bomber squadron in 1917 during the first World War. The squadron is still active today, with a long and distinguished military history.
Shot down over Denmark on its return flight, about three hours from its home base, Lancaster LM479 never returned, one of two dozen Lancasters brought down that night. It was one of those coded “ABC” for Airborne Cigar. The ABC designation was use to identify such aircraft as being specially equipped with three receiving antenna and one transmitter to jam German aircraft radio messages. In order to use the ABC equipment, an eighth crew member, who could speak German, was added to the normal complement of seven. The special equipment operator was 20-year old P/O Cyril Cousin of the RAF, the youngest of the crew. The average age of a bomber crew was only 22.
Other British crew included Flight Engineer Sgt. George Gibson, and Air Gunners W/O William Owen and Sgt. Andrew Stewart. Canadians aboard the ill-fated “Lanc” included 21-year old pilot F/O Tom Foster, Wireless Operator and Air Gunner P/O Hubert Linn, and Air Bomber F/O Samuel Mackenzie.
The fourth Canadian crew member was the Navigator, twenty-three year old F/S Alfred Reid Chalmers, a native of Virden, Manitoba and an uncle I never had a chance to know. Alfred was the youngest of four boys born to his parents, James Henderson Chalmers and Eva West Chalmers. Of three girls also born to the same parents, none lived to be more than two years of age. Alfred’s father, James, was a lawyer in Virden who served as a town councilor for four years from 1917-20 and as mayor in 1922.
My father, John West Chalmers, oldest of the boys, carried the loss of his brother Alfred with him for the rest of his life. Shortly before he died in April 1998, Dad commented that, “When I die I will be the last person who knew my youngest brother when he was a little boy.” But he never had the opportunity to see his brother’s grave.
In August 2003 my wife, Linda, and I flew to Moscow to begin a two-week tour to six cities in eastern Europe. The trip provided a chance to stop in Denmark en route to visit the grave of my uncle and his fellow crew. On the return flight from Germany, sometime after midnight in the early hours of August 30, 1944 their Lancaster was shot down over western Denmark by a German night fighter near the town of Dejbjerg (pronounced Dy-bee-ah). None of the airmen survived.
In 1992, my father wrote to the town and received a response from Erik Engholm, who provided some of the details about the loss of the crew. They were buried by occupying German forces near the crash site, but this was not acceptable to the Danes. Two weeks later, on September 14, they defied German orders and held a proper funeral at the Dejbjerg church and reinterred the airmen in the cemetery beside the church.
In a show of support and remembrance, some 400-500 people came out to attend the funeral for the airmen, the largest one ever seen in the town. Many had learned about it in a BBC radio broadcast from London. Following the funeral, the church minister, Hans Pedersen, and two members of the parish council, Laurids Sandager and Jeppe Kongensholm, were arrested by German forces, then released after two or three days without further punishment.
A huge stone, some seven feet high, was moved from near the crash site to become a monument bearing the names of all airmen. On Christmas Day, 1945 the crew of the Lancaster were honoured again with the unveiling of that monument. About 1950, Great Britain provided four standard military headstones for the gravesite. Each stone bears two names, one of the RCAF and one of the RAF, plus the crests of the two air forces.
In this cemetery, if a plot is not used within 30 years, the headstones are removed and placed on display at the side of the cemetery and the plots are then re-used. In the case of the eight airmen, local people care for the grave in perpetuity. In a land far from home, eight brave airmen who made the supreme sacrifice for their countries sixty years ago rest in a land where they will never be forgotten.
Ross Wiens of Edmonton, Alberta, was a F/O pilot of RCAF 405 Pathfinder Squadron, also shot down over Denmark, two weeks before my uncle was brought down, but Ross’s story has a happier ending. The crew of seven all left a burning aircraft and six parachuted to safety. One crewman did not survive. Two were captured and taken prisoner, while Ross and three others were sheltered by Danes who smuggled them out to Sweden, from where they returned safely to their base in England.
Lyle James of Sarnia, Ontario was a 27-year old F/L pilot of a Special Ops Lancaster of RAF 101 Squadron. He was posted to the squadron in September 1944 and his crew took over the Lanc that had been piloted by former well-known Member of Parliament, Eric Neilsen, as that crew had just completed a tour of duty. Lyle says that he and his crew were posted to 101 Squadron the day after my uncle and crew were lost, possibly as a replacement for them. Incidentally, Eric’s younger brother, actor Leslie Neilsen, attended school in Edmonton and joined the RCAF near the end of the war serving for a year as an aerial gunner but the war ended before he went overseas.
Like my uncle’s aircraft, Lyle’s had a mixed RAF and RCAF crew, three Brits and five Canucks, including the Special Operator, code-named “Felix” for security reasons. Of German-Jewish background, Felix had fled Germany and until Lyle put a stop to it, dropped an eleven and a half pound practice bomb from the Lanc on each mission as a personal statement toward the Germans!
That practice is described by the late Ray Ollis in his book 101 Nights, published in London in 1957. Ollis, of the Royal Australian Air Force, also flew with 101 Squadron and after the war wrote his true historic fiction account based on exploits of that Special Ops squadron. The book is out of print, but copies can be found for sale on the internet.
Lyle James says that no one could enjoy bombing, but he has no bitter memories of the war, and says not a day goes by when he doesn’t have at least one flashback to his days with 101 Squadron. He says that the base at Ludford Magna, so the story goes, was put up in a farmer’s field in 30 days, and not a single building was permanent, with Quonset huts used for the living quarters.
Lyle also has great respect for the mighty Lancaster, and recounts that, “I’ve flown it in corkscrews with enemy aircraft on my tail when you could be dead in seconds, which is a great incentive to get away from an enemy fighter! At times like that, the Lanc flew like a Spitfire. In a corkscrew it could beat any German fighter. When the gunners gave me the command, “Corkscrew left, go!” we would make a 30-degree dive to port and reach speeds up to 400 miles per hour, eventually pulling out at about 125, close to stalling speed of 110, and fighters would overshoot us.” On one hair-raising night that left Lyle James’ legs shaking from their work on the rudder pedals, his gunners shot down two German fighters in the space of three or four minutes.
But Lyle first came under fire from shotgun blasts by humorless duck hunters when he and his instructor made a low pass over them and their decoys on a Canadian lake while flying a Tiger Moth in his early pilot training at Windsor, Ontario. That account of an early adventure appears as “Flak Over The River Canard,” at http://www.lancastermuseum.ca/s,canard.html on the internet.
Ten times F/L James brought back his aircraft damaged, but none of the crew was ever killed or injured. He, his navigator and bomb aimer were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. “I’ve always said that the crew got the DFC, but they let me wear it,” he says, and adds, “Of all the aircraft I have flown, I never had an engine failure, and for that the ground crew deserves the credit.” It was said by some that his Lanc should have been called M for Magnetic because it attracted so much flack!
My uncle, F/S Alfred Chalmers had enlisted in February 1941 and at the time of his death had served three and a half years. His brothers Jack (my father) and Herb served in the RCAF in Canada during the war. Jack was a Navigator instructor in Edmonton and Herb was a Flight Engineer in Gander. The fourth brother, Fred, signed up with the air force radar unit and was asked not to enlist as he was a supervisor in what was considered an “essential function” in business, working with Canada Packers in Edmonton.
In the summer of 2003 I wrote to Erik Engholm of Dejbjerg, not knowing if he still lived there or if my letter would reach him. He is still a resident of the small town of some 200 people and responded by e-mail promptly after receiving my letter, saying he and his wife, Jette, would be pleased to take us to the cemetery.
Immediately after arriving in Copenhagen my wife and I took a train from the airport across Denmark to Tarm, a town that offered accommodation not available in Dejbjerg. We had only a short one-block walk from the train station to the Bechs Hotel, where a message was waiting for me to call Erik. But first, a one-hour nap after some 26 hours of travel was needed! Then, less than half an hour after I called Erik, he and Jette arrived to take us for the drive.
Seeing the grave of my young uncle and his fellow airmen was an emotional and yet fulfilling experience. I expect I felt some of thoughts experienced by war veterans when they attend reunions at battle sites in Europe and visit military cemeteries holding their fallen comrades. At last I was able to stand at the grave on foreign soil, facing the monument and salute the military headstones to express respect and gratitude personally of my father and myself, and on behalf of the Chalmers family.
I could not help but feel that perhaps there was even a little bit of destiny in this, as it was August 29, and I was there on the 59th anniversary of the eve of the last flight, the last mission that these eight airmen would ever make. Their last target, Stettin, Germany, became part of Poland shortly after the war with the revision of boundaries, and is known today as the city of Szczecin.
Today, the skies over Denmark are peaceful. There are no squadrons of hundreds of aircraft making low passes over the land towards targets in Germany. Throughout western Denmark where the men are buried, on tall white columns, wind turbines with giant three-bladed vanes like huge propellers face westward toward the winds off the North Sea. The turbines, shaped like the engine nacelles of Lancaster bombers, are not weapons of war but instruments of peace, used to generate some 20% of Denmark’s electrical power.
The townspeople of Dejbjerg have been caring for the grave of the crew of Lancaster LM479 since giving the airmen a dignified funeral and burying them in the local church cemetery in 1944.
It is now nearly 60 years since local townspeople buried the crew of Lancaster LM479 and have been tending their grave ever since. The airplane’s base at Ludford Magna, sometimes referred to as “Mudford Magna” due to its muddy runways, closed in 1963. RAF Squadron 101 survived the war, even though it suffered the highest number of casualties of any squadron, and Bomber Command itself suffered huge losses. After being equipped with various aircraft, today the squadron is based at Brize Norton and flies Vickers VC-10s in air-to-air refueling.
Of 7,377 Lancaster bombers built during World War II, only 26 remain and of those, only two are in flying condition. One is in Canada at the Canadian War Plane Heritage Museum at the Hamilton International Airport. The other is in England. A restored Lanc in Alberta, although not flying, is at the Nanton Lancaster Society Air Museum. There are plans to fire up one its engines in 2005, Alberta’s centennial year.
The average number of missions flown by a Lancaster was 21, and LM479 had logged only 256 hours by the time it was brought down. The Lancasters have flown into history, but the men who flew them, like the aircraft, are not forgotten. Far from home the names of four RAF and four RCAF servicemen of Lancaster LM479 will always be remembered in the cemetery of a small town in Denmark.
My father, who was an accomplished writer, historian and scholar, remembered his youngest brother in thoughts and poetry. In the spring of 2003, I edited and published a book of 60 of my father’s poems, spanning six decades of his writing. The book is called Silk Trains and Other Poems. Proceeds from sales of that book will be donated to the cemetery in Denmark towards the maintenance of the gravesite of Alfred Chalmers and his fellow airmen, along with donations from family members.
Copies of Silk Trains and Other Poems may be obtained for $8.00 each, including postage (personal cheques accepted) by ordering from John J. Chalmers at 442 Reeves Crest, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6R 2A3. Overseas orders are $9.00 each, including postage. Any recollections of those who remember Alfred Chalmers, or any of the Chalmers family, are also welcome. Contact may also be made by e-mail to email@example.com to order books or to send information.
Those who have lost friends or family members in the war can find information at the internet web site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. That site at http://www.cwgc.org/cwgcinternet/search.aspx lists 1.7 million men and women who died in two world wars, as well as 67,000 civilians who died as a result of enemy action in World War II.
The internet abounds with military historical information. For example, one site is http://www.lancaster-archive.com/homeindex.htm developed by Larry Wright of Calgary and is devoted to the Lancaster. Len Smith of England maintains a web site dedicated to reuniting old RAF comrades and finding information about them: F/S Chalmers is listed there at http://www.worldwar2exraf.co.uk/Aircrewnoticeboard6.html. A link at the bottom will take you to the home page of the site.
A must-see site is http://www.lancaster-archive.com/Garbett.html which provides a first-hand account by Flight Engineer Bill Garbett. He recounts in detail the eight-hour return flight for a Lancaster bombing run from Ludford Magna to Stettin, the same base and target for Alfred Chalmers and crew. Check also the site and links of the Nanton Lancaster Society and Air Museum at http://www.lancastermuseum.ca/. At that site be sure to click on the link to Bomber Command. There are many links worth exploring at the Nanton museum site. Scroll down, click on the links and enjoy your visit. See also the site at http://www.lancasterfm159.freeservers.com/index.html, maintained by Canadian Lancaster historian Peter Whitfield, which in turn provides more links.
From a computer at home, one can explore the worldwide riches of the internet and reach back into history. For anyone seeking historical information or hoping to locate former comrades, the ‘net is an unmatched resource that has been embraced by military historians, organizations and individuals seeking and sharing information, and learning about those who gave their lives in the service of their country.
Author note: John J. Chalmers is an Edmonton writer, grateful for the assistance of those who have helped in providing details used in this article. John’s own air force service in the 1950s and 1960s consisted of one year in Air Cadets with 12 Squadron in Edmonton, two years as an airman with RCAF 418 Reserve Squadron in Edmonton, and four years with the University of Alberta RCAF squadron. Upon graduation, he received the rank of Flying Officer.
Following are two poems by Jack Chalmers from the book, Silk Trains and Other Poems. “Eyes Wet With Tears” was written by Jack in memory of his brother Alfred. “Remembrance Day” was written as a poem for veterans of wars.
Eyes Wet with Tears
Many years ago
an aircraft fell from the sky,
and so my brother died.
He and all that valiant crew
lie beneath a great stone
His girl long grieved for him,
then married another man.
I wonder if she still thinks
of the young airman who so loved her.
I know I do.
Sometimes I dream of him,
and when I wake,
my eyes are wet with tears.
Photo above is Alfred and his friend Ann Wade, taken September 4, 1943. They had planned to marry. When Alfred was lost in the war, Ann married Sidney MacDonald in 1949. Sidney had spent seven years in the army, serving in England. Ann and Sidney had three sons and they lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Sidney worked for the railroad. He also worked two months of the year as a lobster fisherman, but drowned at sea while fishing in 1958. Ann never remarried.
One of the exciting things that happened in working on this story is that I was successful in locating Ann, now 82 and living in Kingston, Ontario. On Remembrance Day 2003, I spoke to her by phone for an hour. She described Alfred as a “perfect gentleman.”
My father, who wrote these two poems here, is shown below, circa 1943.
On Remembrance Day
veterans of all the half-forgotten wars
march to the service at the Cenotaph,
looking so old.
As a boy, I used to wonder why
the young men never were sent off to fight.
Formalities concluded, they adjourn
to Legion halls and endless rounds of beer,
old raucous songs and oft-told ribald tales,
until at last they stagger home
to wives who scold,
“You could at least have phoned.”
How can they tell those who were not there
that carouse they must
or weep for pals and brothers
dead and gone to hell?
Only the young go forth to war.
Only old men return.
It has now been 12 months since I visited the grave of my Uncle Alfred and the seven airmen who died with him. It has been 60 years that Danish people have been caring for the gravesite of the eight crew members of Lancaster LM479 of RAF 101 Squadron. The 60th annual reunion of 101 Squadron will be held in Lincolnshire in September 2004.
In November 2003 a version of this story appeared in my local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal. In that same month I put up the first web edition on the Internet. In Spring 2004, Airforce, the magazine of the Air Force Association of Canada, published a version of this story.
All three versions have resulted in contact with air force veterans in Canada and England. I am grateful to have met them in person, by mail, by telephone and by e-mail. Likewise I am very grateful to have learned the stories that some of them have taken time to record. Besides communicating with them and reading books about air force involvement in the war, I have visited eight aviation museums in the past year, four in Canada and three in Australia. All of them contribute to preserving our wartime heritage and honor those who flew for their country.
During the past year, I have been in contact with family members of two of Alfred’s crewmates, Hubert Linn and Tom Foster. We have shared photos and documents and over time I hope to connect with family members of the other airmen who are remembered in Denmark. Any help in this regard is most welcome.
We in Canada owe a great debt to our fellow Canadians and our allies who served in wars. Perhaps by helping veterans to record their stories to share them with others we can recognize and honor their contribution to the war effort and the sacrifices they have made.
For further reading…
The internet has been an invaluable resource for research in writing this article. In fact, were it not for the ‘net, much of the factual information would not be here. Following are some of the relevant internet sites you might like to visit.
There are also many others, and you may wish to undertake a search of your own. However, below are several other sites that provide additional information related to the flight of Lancaster LM479, RAF Squadron 101 and its base at Ludford Magna in England. I did not feel that it was necessary to extract information from these sites to include in this account, when all you need to do is click on the link to see the information yourself. Of course, these links themselves will lead to other sites on the world wide web.
1. Paintings by Philip West:
These two sites show thumbnails of West’s aircraft paintings, including Lancasters. Click on an image to see a larger picture of it plus a description. “Operations On” and “Maximum Effort” depict Lancasters of RAF Squadron 101 at Ludford Magna. Other paintings showing Lancasters are “Heading Home,” “Outward Bound,” “Primary Target” and “Preparing for the Tirpitz.”
2. This site is based on the war experience of Bert Pinner, an airman with 101 Squadron. From here, link also to details about his flying from Ludford Magna, and descriptions of various missions he flew.
4. For other maps showing the 45 airfields in Lincolnshire, and to click on links about the RAF in Lincolnshire, go here.
5. The Parish Church of St. Mary and St. Peter at Ludford, home of the 101 Squadron Roll of Honour and location of an annual 101 Squadron annual reunion on the first Sunday of each September.
6. Aerial view of Ludford Magna airfield site
7. Lincolnshire airfield memorials. Click on Ludford Magna at top of page.
8. Royal Air Force Bomber Command Squadron Histories. Click on the appropriate buttons for 101 Squadron for a history of the squadron. Use the “Menu Options” button for access to other information.
9. Description of Ludford Magna station
10. RAF 101 Squadron today
11. History of 101 Squadron
This photo shows Alfred Chalmers, kneeling, second from left in the front row. Date and location are unknown,
as are names of other airmen in the picture. This was likely taken shortly after enlistment, as none of the
men are yet wearing LAC insignia. Any information on this photo would be appreciated.
F/S Alfred R. Chalmers, circa The four Chalmers brothers: Fred, Herb, Jack, Alfred. Herb is already
1941, prior to earning his commissioned, as shown by his officer’s cap. Jack has not yet received
Navigator wing. his commission. He and Alfred are both airmen with the rank of
LAC, Leading Air Craftsman. The white flashes in their wedge caps
indicate air crew in training. This photo was taken the last time the
brothers were together, possibly 1942.
On Christmas Day, 1945, Hans Pedersen, minister at the church in in Dejbjerg, Denmark
(background) officiates at the unveiling of the memorial stone (left) honoring the eight
crew members of the RAF Lancaster who are buried in the church cemetery. The huge
stone bears the names of all men and is part of the gravesite honoring them.
At left are Erik and Jette Engholm of Dejbjerg, Denmark, who very kindly took the author and
his wife to the cemetery where the airmen are buried, and for a tour of the area. At right is
the Dejbjerg church were the funeral service was held for the airmen.
A German bunker on the shore of Ringkobing Fjord near the west coast Denmark,
close to Dejbjerg, where Alfred and the crew are buried. The bunkers were used in
watching for aircraft and shipping activity.
The four caskets containing the remains of the eight airmen, September 14, 1944. Alfred is shown at right,
still an LAC, possibly in Quebec before being posted overseas.
Today, over western Denmark where Lancaster bombers once flew, the wind turbines,
three-bladed like the propellers on Lancasters, capture the wind off the North Sea for
generation of electrical power.
John J. Chalmers at the grave of Alfred Chalmers and crew of Lancaster bomber LM479 in the cemetery
at Dejbjerg, Denmark. The church is shown in the background and the stone from near the crash site is
behind the graves. At the time of the crash, the Lancaster had logged 256 hours.
The graves of the eight airmen, with two names on each military headstone. Alfred’s name is at the top
of the far left stone. Alfred’s grave marker is shown at right, bearing the insignia of the RCAF and RAF.
P/O Cyril Cousin is the other name on this headstone.
The names of all crew members are on the large rock behind the graves.