Lancaster PB678 (23/12/1944)

Lancaster PB678 was one of ten No. 35 Squadron aircraft detailed to attack the Gremburg Marshalling Yards (Cologne) on the morning of 23rd December 1944.

It was carrying 11 x 1000lb MC.

Its seven-man crew comprised:

  • Richard Joseph Clarke (Pilot)
  • Donald Russell Currie (Navigator)
  • Joseph William Webb (Air Bomber)
  • Robert Keith Norsworthy (Wireless Operator)
  • James McGee (Air Gunner)
  • Thomas Eugene Craddock (Air Gunner)
  • John Charles Mays (Flight Engineer)

The route was Base, 5030N 0500E, 5036N 0620E, Target, 5110N 0400E, Southwold, Base

PB678 failed to return and the squadron’s Operations Record Book shows “This aircraft is missing; it is reported to have collided with No. 35 Squadron aircraft PB683 at 51.07N 01.34E at 11.33 hours at 10,000ft”.

Air Sea Rescue Operation

No. 27 Air Sea Rescue /Marine Craft Unit’s Operations Record Book shows that launches 180, 189 and 2549 were sent out to search the area of North and South Foreland at 12.00 hrs on the 23rd December 1944.

Launch 2549 returned with 4 bodies. Launch 180 intercepted the Shepperton Ferry and received 2 bodies from that vessel. Wreckage was seen at ‘130 degrees, S.Fld, 11 mls’.

2 Spitfires and 1 Walrus were also involved in the search.

It is understood that three of the recovered bodies were formally identified at Ramsgate Mortuary as those of DR Currie, JC Mays and JW Webb. The others were from the crew of PB683.

Wartime activities relating to the loss

On 23rd December 1944 the squadron informed Bomber Command, the Air Ministry and the RAF Records Office that the aircraft and crew were missing.

A telegram, along with a follow up letter from the Commanding Officer, was sent to the next of kin of each crew member advising them that he was “missing as the result of air operations on 23rd December 1944”.

Extract from letter sent to the family of J McGee

The crew’s kit and personal belongings were removed from their lockers and catalogued; kit was returned to stores and personal belongings sent to the RAF Central Depository at RAF Colnbrook.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) records show the following burial information for DR Currie, JW Webb and JC Mays:

  • MAYS, JOHN CHARLES Sergeant ‘1867597’ HARROW WEALD CEMETERY Sec. C. Grave 43.

The Air Ministry Casualty Branch, which was responsible for investigating, monitoring and reporting on the status of missing aircraft and airmen, subsequently published the following information regarding the crew:

  • Air Ministry Casualty Communique No. 499 (Flight 03/05/1945) reported JC Mays, J Webb and DR Currie as “killed in action”; also RJ Clarke, TE Craddock, RK Norsworthy and J McGee as “missing”
  • Air Ministry Casualty Communique No. 592 (Flight 11/07/1946) reported TE Craddock “previously reported missing” as “now presumed killed in action”

Note: Presumption of death enabled a death certificate to be issued; personal belongings could then be sent to next of kin, along with any monies due.

Post War Search for the missing crew members

After the war, an investigation officer from the Royal Air Force Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES) was tasked with locating the remains of the missing crew member(s).

Original German documents, burial records and eye witness accounts were utilised to establish the location of the crash site, the cause of the loss and the initial fate of the crew; information was recorded in a MRES Investigation Report.

As part of the process, any remains that were located were exhumed, identified (wherever possible) and concentrated (reinterred) at one of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) Cemeteries in the country that they fell, in accordance with Government policy at the time.

Graves were marked with a simple wooden cross, which was replaced by the familiar CWGC headstone during the 1950’s.

Missing airmen who could not be found, or formally identified, had their names commemorated on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, which was unveiled in 1953.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) records show that the remains of RJ Clarke, RK Norsworthy, TE Craddock and J McGee were not located, or could not be formally identified and, as such, their names are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial as follows:

  • CLARKE, RICHARD JOSEPH Pilot Officer ‘56445’  Panel 210.
  • NORSWORTHY, ROBERT KEITH Pilot Officer ‘417875’  Panel 258.
  • CRADDOCK, THOMAS EUGENE Pilot Officer ‘411869’  Panel 258.
  • McGEE, JAMES Pilot Officer ‘J/95373’  Panel 251.


AM Form 1180

In flight, collided with Lancaster PB683 and both aircraft crashed. 10 parachutes seen to open. Aircraft had developed aileron and elevator trouble on previous flights

“Heroic Endeavour -The Remarkable Story of One Pathfinder Force Attack, a Victoria Cross and 206 Brave Men” by Sean Feast.

The complete story of the attack on Gremberg Marshalling Yards on 23rd December 1944 (190 pages)

Notes in J McGee’s Service Record

  • Aircraft was engaged in an operational flight involving formation flying. Whilst over the Channel, in a position when close formation should not have been attempted, the higher of the two aircraft was observed to dive and collide with the lower. Aircraft fell apparently fairly under control as 10(?) parachutes were seen.
  • It is not clear why the higher aircraft made the dive, it is suggested that the slipstream of a leading aircraft affected it.
  • Lancaster PB683 was known to have intercomm. trouble before take off. If this got worse, it is possible that, if it was the lower aircraft, other members of the crew were unable to warn the pilot.
  • Neither pilot was particularly experienced in formation flying
  • Lancaster PB678 had developed aileron and elevator troubles on several previous flights.
  • Although formation practice is carried out as often as is possible in an operational Squadron, greater emphasis will be laid on this aspect of training.