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Whitley V N1383 shot down by flak and crashed in Vildmosen moor on 26/4 1940.
Later he was transferred to Stalag Luft III Sagan and still later on to Stalag Luft VI Heidekrug and at the end of the war he was placed in Stalag 357 Thorn (Poland) to end up in Stalag 357 Fallingbostel.
He returned to England after the war.
A record of conversations with Warrant-Officer Vincent Barr on 28/29 November 2011
by Chris Beith (nephew of Flight-Officer Owen Horrigan RIP, pilot of Whitley N1383)
I travelled to see Vincent to talk to him about his World War II experiences as the only surviving crew member of the crew of the Royal Air Force Whitley aircraft N1383 shot down over German-occupied Northern Denmark in the early hours of 23 April 1940 on a night reconnaissance flight over Aalborg Airfield.
I had visited the Commonwealth War Dead Commission graveyard at Vadum, near Aalborg, where my uncle, Flight-Officer Owen Horrigan, and the other members of the crew are buried and was fortunate enough meet local historian and Commonwealth War Graves representative Ole Rønnest MBE who told me so much about how the event was witnessed on the ground, recorded and commemorated by the people of Aalborg and in the museums of Jutland. It was Ole also who told me about this excellent website.
Vincent Barr - some personal details
Vincent Herbert Barr was born on 4 April 1915 in Coventry and is now (in November 2011) aged 96. He was 25 years old at the time of the crash of Whitley N1383 at Aalborg. Sergeant Barr, as he was then, was Navigator and Second Pilot. He was promoted to the rank of Warrant-Officer during the five years that he spent as a PoW (prisoner-of-war).
After returning home Vincent married; his wife Mary had waited for him through the war years and his time as a PoW. He worked for an estate agent before becoming a school teacher in 1948, teaching mathematics. Mary tragically died. In 1972 he married to Ruth and in 1973 they celebrated their religious vows of marriage at Douai Abbey. He now lives in a care home near his two daughters, Marie-Thérèse and Anne-Marie, and their families. Although now physically frail Vincent is still in generally good health and walked regularly until a few years ago. He suffers from poor eyesight and attributes his poor hearing to the noise and vibration of the bombers.
He told me that he has often thought he would like to go and visit the site of the crash but has not been able to return to Denmark.
He was very interested in the prospect of attending an event planned for 28 June 2012 when the Queen will unveil a monument in Green Park, London, to the 55,573 members of Bomber Command who lost their lives in WW2. He said that he would like to be there.
I spoke to Vincent with his daughters present. We were anxious not to tire him, but in spite of his voice not being strong, Vincent was keen to share his experiences with us.
Vincent was one of 7 children. He had three brothers, Bernard, Philip and Hubert, and three sisters, Vincent’s sisters were Beatrice, Mary and Vera. Bernard, a monk at Douai Abbey, Berkshire, served with the Desert Rats in Africa and became Field Marshal Montgomery's Roman Catholic Padre. Philip had been a headmaster at a school in Southampton, making him exempt from war service. Vincent's younger brother Hubert also served in the R.A.F. Having finished operational duties, Hubert was about to go overseas to America to train up American pilots to fly Whitley bombers when he was asked to fly with a crew as stand-in (he was both a navigator and gunner), replacing a crew member who had dropped out. He never came back. He was shot down and is buried in Orlsdorf, near Hamburg. He was 18 years old.
Air crews usually stayed together. The other members of Vincent's regular crew were Owen Horrigan, John Hayes, Norman Haithwaite and Cyril Whitley.
Vincent Barr said that he did not personally notice any general social barrier between officers and crew. Owen Horrigan, the pilot, was known as ‘Skipper’ to the crew . John Hayes, the front gunner and bombardier, was a tall chap, known as ‘Lofty’. Cyril Cecil Whitley was the tail gunner and the youngest of the crew. I didn't want to press Vincent with too many questions about the crew as I was concerned not to risk causing him distress but we spoke briefly about Norman Haithwaite, the radio operator, whose R.A.F. photo had recently come to light. Vincent remembered him as a very nice young man.
Vincent's crew always flew Whitley N1383. Describing his experience of flying on the Whitley, Vincent said,
“My memory of the Merlin engine is that it was the last word in perfection. We all could rely upon them to take us everywhere. The engines were very easy to fly with as they would do everything that you wanted them to do from the control column and you felt safe with them. It wasn't so very noisy on the missions because the engines were very well encased.”
“After we got back from a run and took them into the hanger the engineers would come rushing up to take many parts off the aeroplanes to get at the engines and they started work immediately doing their individual tasks. They worked during the day and we worked at night! RAF Squadron 102 were night flyers so our job was night flying.”
“The Whitley was thought to be a bit cumbersome but it did its job.”
He added that “The meals that we were given for the missions were sweets more than food. Sweets lasted longer and the exchange rate was good!”
(The more detailed story of the Whitley air crews can be found in that excellent book, G.L. Donnelly's 'The Whitley Boys').
Generally missions early in the war were reconnaissance flights and/or leaflet drops. The crew of of N1383 took a lot of photographs and members of the crew were mentioned in despatches for their reconnaissance work Among the problems of leaflet dropping over Germany, Vincent remembers leaflets being blown all around the fuselage of the plane.
Crews were given 24 hours notice if they were on an operation. I told Vincent how in Owen Horrigan’s last letter home, dated 22 April 1940, he said how much he was looking forward to the crew's well deserved leave and how he was planning to go to the Isle of Wight for 12 days. Vincent said,
“We were about to be stood down for leave but, as often happens, that leave had to be cancelled. We were not scheduled to be on the Aalborg mission but were assigned to it as there was a problem with the planned crew or with their aeroplane.”
“The two machines took off and we needed to stay in close contact. The other Whitley was piloted by Sgt Williams. Although the record sheet said reconnaissance and attack we were not on a bombing raid that night and it was purely reconnaissance. Although a few bombs were on the aircraft, no-one knew how many or what size as they were not going to use them. The mission was to find out exactly what was going on at the Aalborg airfield and find out what other aircraft were visiting the place.”
“Williams was a friend and he later reported that he saw me bailing out and saw that I had got out safely, so this was known back at RAF Kinloss”.
Vincent described the navigation technique that was used. Navigators were provided with road maps of all the towns that they flew over. Vincent said;
“Either for reconnaissance or bombing trips we had maps in front of us. We flew on a straight path ticking off each town en route until we got to the place where we dropped the bombs or took the photos. The training for bombing was to know when and where to press the button to release the bomb.”
“As you come up to the bombing point you have the map laid out in front of you, so you just watch points that you're flying over then when you pass the one which is the point where you press the button you go straight over it and press at that point. The bomb aimer in the nose can see more clearly and has his sights on the button. He has all the info so the navigator can tell him how far away is the point when he presses the button ... he can see for himself also. The two talk to each other. One says bomb aimer, just coming, bomb, button, press and down goes the bomb. That's the dramatic bit. We always used exactly the same words”.
The plane is hit
“Our height was 5000ft at the point where our aircraft was hit. The shell hit our starboard engine and took it clean out of its nacelle, it almost left the aircraft. That's what caused the flames to leap back over the wing, as there was a tank full of petrol on each wing. There was no attempt made to put out the fire as it was too big a fire.”
“With certain engines there were procedures for certain problems but some problems were too big to do anything about. The starboard engine was hit and I was injured in the right thigh as parts came through starboard side of fuselage and hit me”.
The shrapnel would have been travelling horizontally so may well have consisted of pieces of the damaged crankcase hit by the crankshaft. Vincent observed,
“I was lucky that I didn't get hit by more. If it had been the port engine then no-one could be hurt as it is behind the armoured pilot's seat”.
Abandoning the aircraft
We discussed the parachute stowage and escape hatch diagram in the Pilot’s Notes booklet. Vincent told me,
“We were flying straight and level at time when the order came to bail out. After informing each of the crew of the order to abandon the aircraft I had to move from my seated position at the chart table facing the window on the side. I turned around across the cabin floor and walked to the cabin hatch area. John Hayes’ duty was to take and fit his own parachute from the stowed location then open the front hatch for me, the navigator, to go out. In the Whitley MkV procedure orders the navigator is detailed to exit the aeroplane first. The front gunner and bombardier John Hayes was detailed to go out next but sadly he could not be saved as there was no time. Radio operator Norman Haithwaite had his parachute stowed also and was detailed to follow John Hayes from the aircraft”.
Vincent described putting his parachute on by clipping two clasps as he was already wearing the harness, which made it a quick process. Next he stepped across the cabin and turned round in order to fall backwards through the hatch, pulling the parachute cord at the same time.
“It was easy to do. The drill was known by everyone as it was drilled into us during our training. Everyone was interlaced with each other. If the order came to abandon aircraft then everyone knew what to do”.
Vincent said that the tail gunner escape routine was altered in later aircraft. Initially Whitley Mark 5 tail gunners had to exit the hatch, fit their parachutes, and then climb up to an escape hatch in the roof of the rear of the fuselage. As a PoW he heard that later Whitleys had a turret which could be rotated so that the tail gunner could simply fall out backwards from the turret. This was a great improvement.
“Each time I have told this story I have realised that it's me that I’m talking about and I remember landing astride a barbed wire fence. My children grew up with this story and marvelled at how they were ever born! I have often talked about it and there was always an ‘O-o-o-oh!’ but it was OK as the harness, which was thick leather and passed between my legs, saved me.”
“I tried hard to bury the parachute but cannot be sure that I had done so. The more I pushed it into the wet ditch, the more it came up again.” (I subsequently learned that Vincent had packed his parachute himself ahead of the mission because it had the ‘unlucky’ number 13!)
“I remember walking through something very slushy but not particularly muddy” (possibly because the soil in the field would have been basically peat).
Vincent went on,
“The only light I had to see by en route from the crash site to the farm house was from the burning aircraft. I went east initially but only came across a barn full of cows. No good going there I thought as I wouldn’t get much information from them, so I turned west towards the farmhouse!”
The farm house and the arrest
“I got to the house at 3.20 [n.b. Vincent's watch was on U.K. time] in the morning. I tried to say to the farmer that I was a British air force person, a pilot in fact, and I asked for a drink. Neither Niels nor Ingvartine Andersen could speak English and I could not speak Danish but by sign language we could get on with each other.”
“It was clear that I had a bad shrapnel wound. Ingvartine and Niels had a daughter who lived at the farm house and she bandaged my leg. As an Englishman I was truly embarrassed with a young girl rolling up my trouser leg and dealing with my wounded thigh. The girl was sensitive to this and proceeded gently until her mother told her to ‘get on with it!’.”
“Ingvartine comforted me by saying that her daughter was ‘full knowing of the system’, meaning that she was an experienced nurse. She was obviously knowledgeable and knew what to use from the farmhouse first aid box.”
“When the Germans arrived, the first to talk to me was a doctor who spoke excellent English. He told me that he was very pleased at what the girl had done and he said that he would not touch it as she had made a perfect job of it. He also said to me that I must have been embarrassed! I said, ‘Yes, very’, and the doctor said not to worry, as he knew her to be a good nurse.”
“It was a special moment as at last I felt as if I was back at home, as I was in the hands of a nurse who knew what she was doing and it was wonderful to think and to talk to the German doctor in my native language. The German doctor knew all the idiomatic phrases of the English language”.
“We left the farmhouse at 6 p.m. (i.e. U.K. time) and I was taken to the aerodrome, where I spent the night in the administration building. It was almost a civilian atmosphere and, although there was a room for detaining people, there was a feeling of friendliness. I spent the early part of the evening talking and exchanging cigarettes with German Air Force people.”
“I had filled my case full of cigarettes before setting off from RAF Kinloss. There were about 12 cigarettes in the case but after exchanging with the German crew members who were staying in the office block with me I had 10 of theirs and only two left of my own. In fact I didn’t enjoy the German smokes but the exchange was a very sociable event.”
“That night at the airfield was the best treatment of my captivity and I found some of the German airmen very personable although I couldn't speak German”.
To Hamburg and the hotel
“The next day they flew me to Hamburg in a three engined Fokke Wolf aircraft.”
“When I arrived they took me from the aerodrome straight to a hotel. I was taken to the top room, which was barred around the windows. A guard was put with me in the room and there was another guard posted outside the door. I concluded that escape was not a possibility and dozed off.”
“In the morning a guard came and took me downstairs where I was given some breakfast. The breakfast didn’t taste very nice to me but it was a meal that the Germans certainly thought excellent.”
“From there I was put into a camp which was not an air force camp. I had not been interrogated up to this point but there were a lot of prisoners in this camp, mainly soldiers, but not many could speak English. A number of the prisoners tried to ask me about my mission and the German guards didn’t like this and tried to prevent it.”
“The food was adequate and enough to keep me going but not nice food.”
Dulag Luft Oberursel interrogation camp, near Frankfurt
“I was transferred to this interrogation camp where I was given English cigarettes from the Red Cross. There were a lot of English PoWs at Oberursel, I think about 20 in all.”
“I was kept in solitary confinement for two days. This is where I was interrogated for the first time since landing in Denmark. The German intelligence officers asked many questions in a variety of ways but I just gave my name, rank and serial number each time. They kept trying to wheedle things out of me but they gave up in the end and sent me to Stalag Luft 1”
Stalag Luft 1 Barth
Stalag Luft 1, where Vincent was sent, was at Barth on the Baltic Sea.
“I joined a group of about 10 harmonica players in this PoW camp; we called ourselves ‘Mo’s Gefangeners’ (‘Mo’s Prisoners-of-War’ in English)”.
Vincent had a photograph of the ‘Mo’s Gefangeners’ harmonica group. I asked him how he managed to keep his uniform so immaculate. He said;
“It was an important part of R.A.F. PoW discipline to remain smart and to show the senior camp commanders that the R.A.F. PoWs could look after themselves and that we were not getting out of hand and we thereby avoided unwelcome imposed control of discipline by the Germans”.
Chocolate and cigarettes were supplied by the Red Cross and were particularly valuable as a form of currency in PoW camps. Vincent told us that we would be very surprised at what they used it for!
Some months later, after an escape attempt, Vincent was moved to Stalag Luft 3.
“I attempted to escape alone in October but was caught. As a result I was sent to Stalag Luft 3 overnight following my apprehension. The move was unpleasant as I didn't feel very well and felt that I was being manipulated. It was just not a very nice situation to be in”.
Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in Poland
The move to Stalag Luft III was made in order to prevent Vincent making any further attempts to escape.
Vincent said “Escape was the duty of R.A.F. prisoners. PoWs who had attempted escapes before from other camps or had been re-captured were sent to Stalag Luft III which had been built to ensure that escape would not be possible.”
The German-speaking Sergeant James ‘Dixie’ Deans (later promoted to Warrant Officer, like Vincent), also a member of 102 Squadron and shot down in a Whitley, was one of the prisoners at Stalag Luft III.
“He was our leader and representative of the prisoners in the camp.”
“I was on the escapee list as part of ‘The Great Escape’ and was originally detailed to dig the tunnel in the exercise yard until my tunnel (one of the smaller ones) was discovered by the German guards”.
When I asked him which of the tunnels (code-named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, ‘Harry’ or ‘George’) it was, Vincent was unable to remember the name. “Mine was the tunnel that was started in a latrine and crossed the exercise yard. It was the building closest to the fence. We were all dressed up in civvies and ready to go but we heard the Jerries coming so we used our equipment to send a message to our head, Dixie Deans, and he immediately closed everything down and, of course, nobody knew anything about anything!”.
Vincent explained some of the detailed methods used by the PoWs to deceive their captors. “There were groups or cells within the PoWs and, for security, few knew what others were involved in. It was by my code name being called alone that I knew that it was my turn to do some digging.”
“After my tunnel was discovered I became a lookout for other tunnellers and used equipment [built by John Bristow] to advise Dixie Deans if ever a ‘Jerry’ search party was forming. We had to be very careful because the Germans were listening to everything that went on, especially around the barbed wire fences, so we had to act with great care.”
“Once contacted, Dixie Deans then arranged for all escape evidence to be immediately hidden. We had an amazing ability to hide important items from the Germans when they wanted to conduct a search. We could also hide items underground in our tunnels of course. We had many ‘close shaves’ but sometimes we were unlucky and we got caught”.
“John Bristow used the lake in the compound for his steam powered model boats. He was actually a very clever engineer and made many things for escape purposes including radios. It was amazing what such people as John Bristow could do”.
Vincent mentioned the names of Dixie Deans, John Bristow, known as ‘Curly’ because of his curly hair, Ginger Parkes and Tiny Bushell in conversation. These people were most highly regarded by all who knew them. A fellow prisoner-of war of Vincent's was the flying ace Douglas Bader, as were the actors Rupert Davies and Sam Kydd, with whom Vincent acted in PoW camp plays (Rupert played the lead in the 1960s ‘Maigret’ television series and Sam became a well-known character actor). Vincent kept up with Malcolm Lucas, a fellow RAF flier who had also been saved by his parachute. Malcolm was best man at Vincent’s wedding in 1972.
Vincent said that if a prisoner died either escaping or through illness, the Germans provided flowers for the funeral. He has some photos of their theatre productions in the PoW camps and also of funerals.
Vincent was released from Fallingbostal PoW camp near Hamburg on 25 April 1945, five years almost to the day after his capture in Aalborg on 26 April 1940. On his return to the UK he was hospitalised suffering from impetigo.
Vincent showed me the medals he received in recognition of his war service.
In addition, everyone saved by an Irving parachute was awarded a little pin by the company that made the parachutes. Vincent has one; it is gold-coloured, in the shape of a silk worm, and engraved with his name on the back.
Vincent was very precise in all his recollections and even recalled exact times. He was very modest and a real gentleman. It was an honour to meet him and to be able to discuss some of his fascinating wartime experiences with him. I am extremely grateful to Vincent's very kind and helpful daughters Marie-Thérèse and Anne-Marie for making the meeting possible.
Chris Beith (nephew of Flight-Officer Owen Horrigan RIP, pilot of Whitley N1383)
Pilot F/O Owen Gerard Horrigan
Observer Sgt. John Francis Hayes
W.Op./Air Gnr. Norman Haithwaite
Air gunner AC2 Cyril Cecil Whitley
The funeral 28/4 1940
The graves as seen on 16/8 1940
Memorial at the crashsite
Sources: Ole Rønnest, BCL, RL, CWGC, WO 344/18/2 246904.
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