by John Albrecht
Among my childhood memories is an image of my grandmother standing in our backyard, yelling and waving her garden hoe at a formation of Lancaster bombers. The planes were en route to Royal Canadian Air Force Base Comox, B.C., a half mile to the southeast, and as the aircraft thundered by they caused the windows on our house to rattle. My grandmother was angry that day, but—as I discovered much later in life—her bitterness wasn’t directed at the aircrews but at the visual reminder the planes presented. Her youngest son, you see, had been killed during a bombing mission to Berlin in March 1944.
My uncle, John “Jack” David Owen, joined the RCAF in April 1942 despite the protestations from his parents. After his initial flight training on Tiger Moths at the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan school at High River, Alta., he was selected as a bomber pilot. He underwent multi-engine training on Cessna Cranes and by November 1942 had logged 240 hours of flying time. He went overseas and underwent operational training at Tilstock, England.
His wartime service was with 625 Squadron, Royal Air Force, and his crew in 1944 was a mixed bag, symbolic of the incredible Commonwealth war effort. Besides the pilot, Warrant Officer 2nd Class John Owen, 24, of the RCAF, there was Flight Sergeant Frank “Spanky” B. Magee, 25, bomb aimer, RCAF; Sgt. John “Tony” Lavender, 20, navigator, Royal Air Force; Sgt. Harry “Al” W. Nixon, age not known, mid-upper gunner, RCAF; Sgt. Percival “Casanova” H. Simpkin, 22, signal officer/gunner, RAF; Sgt. William “Hugam” Clark, 22, rear gunner, RAF; Sgt. Wilfred “Bill” H. Broadmore, 21, flight engineer, RAF.
A review of my uncle’s logbook shows 23 red-inked operational flights to enemy targets. Five of these trips had to be aborted due to equipment problems, including engine trouble, oxygen failure and rear turret malfunction. Ten trips, including the last one, were to the Big City—Berlin.
The crew’s longest mission, which lasted nine hours, was to Stetten in southern Germany. The last entry in the logbook is for March 24-25, 1944, and refers to a trip to Berlin. Under the book’s Remarks column are three haunting words: “Missing. Nothing heard.”
It took awhile for me to learn more about my uncle’s life and how he died. I knew that on March 27, 1944, my grandfather received a telegram from the RCAF casualties officer that stated: “Regret to advise that your son…John David Owen is reported missing after air operations overseas on March 25. Stop. Letter follows.”
In early August 1944, the RCAF sent another letter that stated “…advice has been received from the International Red Cross Society, quoting official German information which states that your son, Warrant Officer 2nd Class John David Owen was buried on March 27, 1944, in the cemetery at Tubbergen, Row 1, Grave 3. Tubbergen is located 10 miles northeast of Almelo, Holland. As this is official German information, presumption of death action is being instituted by the Air Ministry and when your son’s death has been officially presumed you will be so advised by registered mail. May I offer you and the members of your family my deepest sympathy.”
Shortly after the war, my grandfather, Percy Owen, received another letter, this one from the crew’s bomb aimer, Frank Magee of Salmon Arm, B.C. The letter served to describe the final moments of the flight. It stated: “We set course from base about 20:00 hours and headed for target—Berlin. One of our navigational aids failed about an hour out, but we still had to carry on. The winds during the whole trip were a way different from what we had been told on leaving base. We were in the first wave and as the wind was more or less behind us we arrived and overshot the target, no markers having been dropped as yet.
“We had a 100-mile per hour gale to contend with heading back towards the target. We never did reach the target as it was time for all the bombers to head home. So, we just dumped our load and headed for home. We dodged flak and searchlights…and were way off track, and I think about an hour late. It was a clear night and I believe I saw the coast of Holland when the navigator called up to the engineer and asked him if we had enough fuel for an hour’s flying, as it would take that long to reach England.
“The engineer said we were very low (on fuel), and doubted if we would make it. Just then we heard shells tearing through the kite, and as they came from exactly below we presumed it was flak. The plane was full of smoke and Jack opened the bomb doors to drop anything that might have stuck up and been on fire. However, everything was gone and the draft cleared away the smoke. The mid-upper gunner suggested that we do evasive action in case it happened again. Jack said OK. He just started to do this when we were hit. I could see tracer bullets flying past the nose so we all knew then that it was a fighter.
“The plane immediately went into an almost vertical dive, and Jack shouted that he couldn’t control the kite, and shouted for the engineer to help him. I couldn’t get the escape hatch open during the dive, but…Jack and the engineer…managed to pull the plane out for a second or two. I flung open the hatch just as the inter-communication was cut. I could hear nothing over it. The engineer shouted my name and I saw him reaching for his chute, so I jumped. I went down OK and landed in a small field just inside the Dutch frontier. I received immediate assistance from the Dutch underground and was down in Belgium when Allied troops liberated the country.
“Two days after I landed, the Dutch told me they had found the plane with five bodies in it. Apparently the Germans had found the sixth. I would just like to tell you how much I thought of Jack. He was a darn fine fellow, and a good pilot.”
Needless to say, this undated letter has become valuable part of our family’s history.
My parents married in August 1944 and I entered the picture in January 1946. I was named John in memory of my uncle. During my childhood and formative years, I often wondered about the whereabouts and welfare of Frank Magee.
It was not until I had completed university that I had time and resources to start a search.
In 1974 I posted queries to the air historical branch and public record office in London, England. Hugh Tours of the public record office rewarded me with handwritten notes from 625 Sqdn. The notes were taken after crew debriefings. This information augmented the details from my uncle’s logbook, but gave no indication of the whereabouts of Frank Magee.
Between 1982 and 1987, my efforts waned and the trail grew cold. Then during a visit to my parents house in the summer of 1987 I perused my father’s copy of Legion Magazine. This led to a last ditch effort to find Frank Magee. I placed a small written request for any information on Magee’s whereabouts in the magazine’s Lost Trails section.
The notice appeared in the July/August issue, the same issue featuring a story on Lieutenant Hampton Gray’s Aug. 9, 1945, attack on Japanese warships in Onagawa Bay. Gray, who died in the attack and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, used bombs from his Royal Navy Corsair to sink the heavily-armed destroyer escort Amakusa.
My Lost Trail item was very brief, but to the point: “Magee, WO F.B.—Bomb aimer(?), RCAF, Salmon Arm, B.C. Sole survivor Lancaster III, ND 641, 625 Sqdn., Berlin, 24/03/44. J. Albrecht, 5870 Braemar Ave., Burnaby, BC,
Soon after the notice appeared, I received a letter in unfamiliar handwriting. My heart raced—for I knew this was the missing link in my quest for more information. Sure enough the letter was from a Chuck Laidlaw of Kamloops, B.C.
Laidlaw wrote that he was a boyhood chum of Frank Magee’s. The information that followed was a little vague, but it proved invaluable. He told me that his last contact with Magee was in 1965-67. He said Magee worked at the municipal hall in Mission, B.C., or some other Fraser Valley town.
I acted immediately on this information and from the telephone directory assistance operator I obtained the only listing for a Frank Magee. He was in Abbotsford, near Vancouver. My fingers trembled as I dialed the number. Intuition told me that if a man answered the phone I would be able to tell if I had finally succeeded. To the best of my recollection, the conversation went like this:
“Is this Frank Magee?”
“Is this Warrant Officer Frank Magee, RCAF retired?”
“Yes.” The man’s voice sounded suspicious.
“Did you fly with 625 Squadron in March 1944 with a pilot named Jack Owen?”
After identifying myself and describing my tangential association through my uncle the tension between us melted away, but I still had trouble controlling my tremor.
After all those years, Frank Magee was alive and living almost in my backyard.
Two weeks later I met Frank and his effervescent wife Vera at their home. Over lunch I learned that after he had bailed out of the aircraft, Frank parachuted to safety between Almelo and Hengelo near the Dutch-German border. Frank was immediately taken in by the Dutch resistance and spent several days on a farm where a young Dutchman named Henk van Guens worked and hid to avoid slave labour in Germany.
Frank was moved to Hengelo by two members of the Dutch resistance and sometime later was transferred, along with several other Allied airmen, to Belgium.
After six months in Belgium, Frank was liberated when the town he was in was overrun by the Allies. On returning to England his first task was an unpleasant one: He had to tell Vera that her husband of three months, Percy Simpkin, had not survived the plane crash.
After the war in Europe ended, Frank Magee returned to Canada. Vera followed two years later and the couple married in 1947. They have been soulmates ever since, raising their family in the splendour of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. In appreciation of his heroic assistance, Frank Magee sponsored Henk van Guens in his move to the Okanagan Valley after the war. Their friendship flourished for many years until Henk died of a heart attack at age 78 in 1998.
After meeting with Frank Magee I was left with two relatively simple tasks. The first was to visit the graves of my uncle and his crew in Tubbergen, Netherlands. My wish was to pay my respects 50 years after their last flight. With my adventuresome wife Ruth, I struck off in April 1994 on a cross-country trek from Amsterdam. The weather was horrific with blistering wind, pelting rain, driving sleet and even snow flurries. After several hours of driving through what can only be described as a meteorological cauldron, we found the Roman Catholic church in Tubbergen.
And thanks to a tip from Frank Magee, we located Bertus Derksen who gave us a personal tour and narration during our visit. Fifty years earlier he had been first on the crash site of Lancaster ND 641, and fortunately his memory had not been eroded by the passage of time. During our visit the incredible happened. The rain stopped, the clouds parted and the sun shone on the village and the cemetery. It was as if the resting souls knew we were there and that we had come to visit their graves.
This well-timed respite in the weather gave Ruth and I time to appreciate how well kept the graves and headstones were. As we left the cemetery the sun retreated and the storm returned with a vengeance for our journey back to Amsterdam.
In April 1996, Ruth and I visited London and after a trip to the Bomber Command Hall of Fame at RAF Hendon Museum, located in a suburb of London, I was in the mood for another cross-country journey. This time we travelled by rail and our destination was Grimsby in the Lincolnshire Wolds. The taxi driver raised his eyes in bewilderment when this strange couple from Canada asked for a lift to Kelstern, south of Grimsby on the North Sea coast. Kelstern had been home for 625 Sqdn. and our driver, a part-time treasure hunter, was familiar with it. He showed us some ancient Roman coins he had found in the locale of the old air force base.
We set off and after a few erroneous zigs instead of zags we located the commemorative cairn that features a head-on profile of a Lancaster. We also noticed several crosses and poppies positioned around the cairn. The only other reminders of the once-bustling wartime bomber base were the dilapidated concrete buildings relegated to farm storage barns and the ever-
present bone-chilling wind. But at last, our journey was complete, albeit in reverse order.
It is now over a decade since I located the sole survivor of Lancaster ND 641. During that time the friendship between our families has blossomed with visits, phone calls and Christmas cards. Each Remembrance Day now has a special meaning and it is not complete without a call or visit to Frank and Vera to confirm their well-being.
I am indebted to Frank and Vera and to Legion Magazine for its Lost Trails section. It was a journey worth taking.
I learned a lot about my uncle and I will never forget what he and others did during the war.