November 9, 2019. On October 12, 2019, the day of the unveiling of the memorial panel Netherlands to honour WW2 pilot Flight Sgt Elmer Bagnall MUTTART and the crew of Halifax L9561 arrived, with a series of events organized by the Stichting Missing Airmen Memorial Foundation, a non-profit volunteer organization based in the province of Friesland. (See Unveiling of the Memorial Panel for Downed WW2 Plane Halifax L9561 in Wons) In the last posting, our group visited the Het Hannemahuis museum for lunch and presentations. (See On The War Memorial Trail…..The Presentations At Het Hannemahuis in Harlingen)
An excellent presentation by Alexander Tuinhout and Douwe Drijver of the Missing Airmen Memorial Foundation gave everyone an idea of the events that led up to the crash on October 12, 1941 and what happened to the surviving crew members.
In the presentation, Alexander Tuinhout explained that “The story of this Halifax begins at the aerodrome of Middleton Saint George, which is about 3 miles east of Darlington in the county of Durham. The airbase was the most northern of Bomber Command during the Second World War….”
“Middleton became the home base of 78 Squadron, flying with twin-engine Whitley bombers in April 1941 and three months later, in June, 76 Squadron also commenced flying operations from Middleton Saint George. It was no coincidence that 76 Squadron became stationed at the airfield as the Squadron was the second in the RAF flying with the new Handley Page Halifax bombers. These modern planes were so heavy that they required long and paved runways for their takeoffs, runways that were present at Middleton. ”
One of the pilots who switched from flying Whitleys to Halifax bombers and from 78 Squadron to 76 Squadron was Elmer Muttart, who received a promotion from Sgt to Flight Sgt in October 1941, shortly before his last flight on October 12, 1941. Muttart’s story has been extensively covered in this blog as he was one of the names on the Cenotaph outside the Borden-Carleton Legion. (See The Elmer Bagnall Muttart Story)
Of the crew members who were on the Halifax L9561, only Sgt Reg ALEXANDER had flown with Muttart before, as his navigator. Tuinhout explained further that “Sergeant Reg Alexander, an Observer who had already flown 12 missions with Elmer Muttart, also switched from 78 to 76 Squadron. Alexander had volunteered for the Royal Air Force in the spring of 1939. He was born in 1919 in Finchley, near London, but the family moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland before the war.”
The October 12, 1941 crew of Halifax L9561 was composed of:
- Pilot Flight Sgt Elmer Bagnall MUTTART
- Co-Pilot Flight Sgt Norman Frank TRAYLER
- Flight Engineer Sgt David COTSELL
- Flight Engineer Sgt Leslie Albert ROBERTS
- Navigator Sgt Reg ALEXANDER
- Wireless Operator Sgt William Herbert HUNT
- Gunner Sgt George Henry PATTERSON
- Gunner Sgt John William DUFFIELD.
Tuinhout continued his report on the Halifax L9561 crew… “Sitting in the seat next to Muttart was the 21 year old Co-pilot Norman Frank TRAYLER, a married man from Basingstoke. He was an accountancy clerk before the war but volunteered, like so many young men in those days, for the Royal Air Force in July 1940.” Trayler’s son Robert had been in touch with us last year, and shared information about his father, which was summarized in a blog posting. (See Family of Crew Member of WWII Pilot Elmer Muttart’s Final Flight Found)
The roll call of crew members continued in Tuinhout’s presentation…. “Bill HUNT, the plane’s first Wireless Operator and Air Gunner, had enlisted in January 1940. He was born in Dublin in 1919, but lived in Mitcham, Surrey when he entered the service...”
Tuinhout’s presentation continued…. “Hunt’s backup was George Henry PATTERSON from Doncaster, the second Wireless Operator and Air Gunner. Patterson had worked as a gas and electricity repairman before he entered the RAF in November 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war….”
Next, Tuinhout mentioned the two Flight Engineers…. “Both of the Flight Engineers of L9561 had long careers in the Royal Air Force. Sergeant Leslie Albert ROBERTS from Romford, Essex, became an apprentice in 1931, at the age of 15. The second Flight Engineer, David COTSELL from Chatham, Kent, was also the same age when he joined in 1935.”
Tuinhout then discussed the last crew member… “The last man on board Halifax L9561 was 20 year old John William DUFFIELD from Oxford, who manned the tail guns.” Like Trayler, family of Duffield had been in contact with Pieter, and several letters about the events that happened on October 12 were shared. (See On the War Memorial Trail ….. At The Politiek Farm In Wons and On the War Memorial Trail ….. At Harlingen General Cemetery) Duffield had written that the plane had three extra people – himself, Roberts, and Hunt – to help with the flight as the Wireless Operator, Engineer, and Rear Gunner were inexperienced. He also noted that, unfortunately, a key position was left unmanned – a gunner in the front turret – and he always wondered if events would have turned out differently had this position been filled.
Tuinhout then related details of the flight of Halifax L9561 on October 12, 1941…. “Shortly after 7 o’clock on the evening of the 12th of October, five of 76 Squadron Halifax bombers set course to the east. Four planes flew to Nuremburg and took part in an air raid against the Siemens factory. L9561 left the runway of Middleton Saint George just after half past seven and was the only plane of the Squadron that flew a more northerly route towards Bremen.”
Unfortunately, that evening RAF planes were observed by a night fighter base in Leeuwarden. Halifax L9561 was one of 4 bombers that were shot down. Tuinhout explained that “Two Wellingtons crashed near Blankenham and Westergeest and a Hampden was lost over the IJsselmeer.” The fourth plane was Halifax L9561.
Tuinhout quoted a description made by Co-pilot Norman Trayler, about “what happened shortly after the aircraft passed the Dutch coast. He said that ‘We were unfortunate enough to bump into a couple of night fighters. They immediately opened up at us with all they had, and I can say their aim was good – too good for my liking.’ Muttart’s plane was intercepted at an altitude of 3200 metres and attacked twice.” (For more on the night fighter attack see Halifax L9561 Flight Mentioned In ‘The Night Hunter’s Prey’ and On the War Memorial Trail ….. At Harlingen General Cemetery)
Muttart gave the order for the crew to evacuate and all were able to parachute out, except for Muttart himself. During a meet and greet on October 11, 2019, family members of some of the British crew members explained that the order to leave the plane struck the crew with terror as they had never jumped out of a plane before, let alone one that was on fire, under enemy attack, and in the dark in an unknown country! Their only practice had been to jump from the roof of a building in England.
Tuinhout explained that “As befits a good Captain, Elmer Muttart stayed at the controls of the crippled Halifax. Norman Trayler said ‘Elmer was still at the controls when the last chap went through the hatch. He must have tried a crash landing then…The machine must have been well on fire by this time and Elmer was either burned to death or killed when the machine blew up. He was a gallant captain and he died that we might live. It was only his efforts that kept the disabled machine from crashing with all of us inside.’ At about 10:15 pm, local people witnessed a bright red glow in the cloudy sky. The Halifax approached the village of Wons sliding and zigzagging when bombs came down in a meadow. The plane lost a wing and eventually crashed about 100 metres past the farm of Johannes Politiek and his family….” (For an eyewitness account from the 9 year old son of Johannes Politiek, see On the War Memorial Trail ….. At The Politiek Farm In Wons)
All of the surviving crew members spent the rest of the war years, in difficult conditions, in prisoner of war camps before returning to Great Britain to pick up their interrupted lives. Tuinhout explained that on October 13, 1941, Elmer Muttart’s “body was brought to the nearby town of Harlingen, where a German physician could easily identify him, because his Royal Canadian Air Force identity papers were still in his pocket. Muttart was laid to rest, with military honours, in the Harlingen General Cemetery on Thursday, the 16th of October.”
Present at these commemoration events were family members of British crew members Reg Alexander, David Cotsell, Bill Hunt, and Leslie Roberts. With an introduction to all crew members, we next made our way to Wons, for the unveiling of the memorial panel.
If you have stories or photos to share about the crew or the events of October 12, 2019, please contact Pieter at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on the blog.
© Daria Valkenburg