The Loss of Whitley V N1380 DY-R France 1940

An article by Nigel Parker and Jerry Cockeram

Whitley V RAF Driffield
Three Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark Vs take off on a leaflet-dropping ("Nickelling") sortie from Driffield, Yorkshire. In the foreground is Whitley V, N1380 'DY-R', of No. 102 Squadron RAF, surrounded by service personnel and visiting journalists. This aircraft may have been the first aircraft to deliberately drop bombs on Germany when it took part in the important raid on Hornum on the night of 19/20 March 1940. © IWM (C 927)

Germany invades France

By the 20th May 1940 the Allied armies were fighting a desperate rear guard action to stem the German onslaught across Northern France and Belgium with Luxembourg having been occupied without a fight on 10th May during the opening moves of Operation Danzig and the Dutch Army having surrendered on the 13th May following the bombing of Rotterdam.

It was at this juncture, with the German armies attacking Arras and moving along the south through to the coast at Abbeville and Etaples, threatened to cut the British and French Armies in half that the RAF mustered its medium bomber forces to try and stem the flow of troops before the northern armies were encircled.

RAF Bomber Command into the fray

Ninety-two aircraft from Bomber Command were despatched on tactical night operations consisting of eighteen Blenheims from 2 Group which were for the first time attempting night operations following devastating losses during daylight ops at the hands of the German fighter forces, along with thirty-two Wellingtons of 3 Group, twenty-four Whitleys of 4 Group and eighteen Hampdens of 5 Group which had up until then been involved in the strategic bombing targets in Germany. A variety of targets were selected, mainly consisting of railways, road junctions and German troop concentrations around the Cambrai and Saint Quentin areas. The roads that the German troops were advancing along were to be avoided due to the presence of large numbers of French refugees who were aimlessly fleeing to nowhere but clogging the roads.

Whitley V RAF Driffield
ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1940. (C 924) An air gunner sits at the ready in the Nash and Thompson Type FN4 rear turret of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V of No.102 Squadron RAF at Driffield, Yorkshire. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212884
Whitley V Bombing Up
Whitley V Bombing Up © IWM
Whitley V Aircrew Driffield
ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1940. (C 925) The crew of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark V of No. 102 Squadron RAF study their route at Driffield, Yorkshire, prior to taking off on a leaflet-dropping (Nickelling) sortie over Germany. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212885

Whitleys from RAF Driffield

Five Whitley bombers based at Driffield, Yorkshire from 102 Squadron were detailed to attack bridges over the river Oise, at Ribemont, to the south-east of Saint-Quentin and to interfere and disorganise enemy troop movements. Each aircraft was loaded with 4x 500 lb and 6x 250 lb general purpose bombs and all had taken off by 20.30 hrs. When over the target area bombing took place from as low 1,000 feet, there being some light Flak being experienced with one aircraft returning with damage.

The loss of Whitley V N1380 DY-R for Robert

What exactly happened to Whitley V N1380 DY-R for Robert no record exists having targeted a bridge at Ribemont but it is assumed that it was hit by Flak near the target area and crashed near Hamégicourt carrying its five crew to their deaths. They were Flight Lieutenant David Owen (22), Pilot Officer Dennis Holbrook (20), Sgt Duncan Barrett, LAC Reginald Newberry (20) and AC2 Michael Dolan (19).

The target - Ribemont Bridge
The target - Ribemont Bridge
Whitley V, N1380 'DY-R', of No. 102 Squadron RAF
Whitley V, N1380 'DY-R', of No. 102 Squadron RAF
The German invasion May 1940

Unknown English Airmen

The war moved on quickly and over subsequent weeks the crash site was briefly investigated by German troops who recovered the bodies of the crew and buried them close to the wreckage and marked the graves as “Unknown English Airmen”.

Whitley N1380 DY-R crash site
Whitley N1380 DY-R crash site
Wehrmarcht Ribemont
Wehrmarcht in Ribemont
The graves of the airmen of R for Roger

The site of the Crash

The aircraft had broken up on impact with the ground and wreckage was spread over a wide area at Priestow Farm, Senercy. In 1942 a Monsieur Dubois-Briehaut, a local resident took it upon himself to investigate the site and recover the bodies from their field graves. He was unable to find any form of identification on the bodies of the four airmen but on the fifth he found a gold ring with the inscription inside “Mrs G Dolan, 15 Drayton Street, Liverpool”. Monsieur Dubois-Briehaut then constructed some coffins and moved the bodies to Hamégicourt Church Cemetery, about two miles south from the crash site, where they rest to this day. Monsieur Dubois-Briehaut was subsequently able to pass the gold ring onto the investigating RAF Officers in 1945 and the ring was passed onto Michael Dolan’s sister, his mother having died a few months previously.

Whitley ORB 102 Squadron
Operations Record Book for 102 Squadron recording the attack on the bridges.
Whitley ORB 102 Squadron
Operations Record Book for 102 Squadron - Whitley N 1380 DY-"R" for Robert fails to return.

Mission Fraternité 2020

Mission Fraternité 2020

The French organisation Mission Fraternité 2020 are planning a large commemoration on 23 May 2020 to remember the events of eighty years previously and the act of five RAF airmen who gave their lives while trying to stem the advance of the invader across France. Their aim is to invite representatives of the families of all the airmen to attend the ceremony.

Details of the ceremony will follow in due course.

The graves of the airmen of R for Robert
Images courtesy of Mission Fraternité 2020

Mission Fraternité has also discovered that two of the airmen’s ages were incorrectly recorded on the graves. The team will be in contact with CWGC to see if this can be rectified.

Flight Lieutenant David Owen (22) 
Pilot Officer Dennis Holbrook (19)
Sgt Duncan Barrett (21)  
LAC Reginald Newberry (20)
AC2 Michael Dolan (19)

We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to this  young French team for all their hard work, dedication and the considerable amount of effort  in helping to remember these brave RAF airmen who gave the ultimate sacrifice in 1940.

In addition we would like to thank Richard Ayres for his dogged perseverance in tracking down the relatives of P/O Dennis Holbrook.

London Gazette
Holbrook Casualty Verification Sheet
Casualty Verification Sheet - P/O Dennis Holbrook's mother lived in Whitchurch

About The Authors

Nigel Parker has followed a career in Engineering and for 23 years ran the Cryogenics Department at Oxford University. Having a lifelong interest in military aviation and being involved in the research and recovery of many crashed military aircraft he chose to take early retirement and follow his passion; writing a twelve volume series on the German Air Force losses over Great Britain in World War 2; “Luftwaffe Crash Archive”, followed by a three volume series entitled “Gott Strafe England”; the German air assault against Great Britain 1914 – 1918. He is now writing a book on the V1 and V2 campaign and also a revised history of the Battle of Britain. Nigel is a co-founder of the British Modern Military History Society. 

Jerry Cockeram has had a long career in IT across a range of industries including aerospace, supply chain, manufacturing and F1. Jerry has a passion for military history and is also a co-founder of the British Modern Military History Society. 

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