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Lancaster Bomber ED603

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Missing Airmen Memorial
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

We will remember them.
- Ode of Remembrance

In the early hours of 13 June, 1943, a Pathfinder Lancaster Bomber, ED603, was shot down into the IJsselmeer1 off the Dutch coast. All seven men, belonging to 83 Pathfinder Squadron, died. Four bodies washed ashore within the next two weeks and three airmen's bodies were lost.

In the mid-1990s the location of this aircraft was discovered. In September 2023 the Dutch Government began a €1 million programme to excavate the remains of the aircraft from the IJsselmeer as part of the Netherlands National Programme for Aircraft Recovery under the direction of the municipality Súdwest-Fryslân and the Royal Netherlands Air Force. They invited the crews' families to attend a special programme to commemorate the crew based around the recovery operation for a two-day event on 13 and 14 September.

Avro Lancaster

The Avro Lancaster was Britain's best heavy bomber of the Second World War. It was powered by four Rolls Royce Merlin engines, the same engine as the Spitfire. It had the largest bomb bay and could carry the most bombs of any bomber used in the conflict, including the heaviest bombs, the 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam earthquake bombs. It was also capable of precision bombing, famously being used to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz as well as taking part in the Bouncing Bomb Dambusters raid. Despite over 7,300 being built, only 17 are known to survive today.

Actions taken during wartime cannot really be judged after 80 years of peace. As the war in Europe progressed and air raids against Britain worsened, Britain's head of Bomber Command, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, believed that Lancaster bombers could end the war. He used nighttime raids both to destroy Germany's ability to fight the war, by destroying its war industry, and to break the German people's morale, by destroying homes, in the hopes that this would lead to Germany's surrender. While with hindsight we know that the Allied invasion of D-Day turned the tide of war, at the time the most recent attempts at a seaborne invasion, Gallipoli and Dieppe, had both been catastrophic failures. It was a commonly held view that only an intensive bombing campaign had the chance of ending the war. After all, following the German bombing of Warsaw in September 1939, Poland surrendered two days later and in May 1940 when German bombers destroyed Rotterdam, the Dutch government surrendered the following day. While the death toll on both sides was immense, with bomber crew losses expected to be 5% per mission, the war and heavy bombing raids continued.

Bomber Command crews suffered the highest casualty rate of any Allied force in the Second World War, with 55,573 killed - a 44.4% death rate. Not to mention the further 8,403 men seriously wounded in action and 9,838 prisoners of war. Essentially the odds of getting through the war unscathed were very much stacked against them, and after the war their bravery and sacrifice was at best forgotten, if not considered abhorrent. The men of Bomber Command are still considered an anathema as, while the bombing campaigns achieved the destruction of German industry and tipped the balance in the Allies favour, the imprecise nature of bombing campaigns at the time meant that 350,000-500,000 German civilians were killed by Allied bombing.


One of the problems needing addressing was how to improve bombing's accuracy. The most experienced and best crews were invited to form an elite force, known as Pathfinders. They would fly to the target first and highlight it, using Target Indicators (flares) and incendiary bombs to cause fires that the main bombing force following could see and use as a beacon for where to drop their own weapons. Through the help of the Pathfinder force and radar system OBOE2, RAF bombers' accuracy increased dramatically.

One of our Aircraft is Missing

On the night of 12-13 June, 1943, brand-new straight out the factory Lancaster ED603 was crewed by an elite Pathfinder crew on a mission to Bochum, a city famed for its coal mines and steel industry. This was part of the Battle of the Ruhr, where the RAF were determined to destroy Germany's industrial heartland, and had stopped having moral qualms if industrial workers and their families were injured or killed in the process. This raid consisted of 430 aircraft, including 12 Lancasters acting as Pathfinders. There were 24 losses including 14 Lancasters, which equates to 4.8% and so under the accepted loss rate of 5%. The raid was judged to be a success - despite cloud cover, the bombs were dropped accurately due to the work of the Pathfinders. On the return flight Lancaster ED603 was detected by German radar and the highly skilled and decorated German air ace Rudolf Sigmund successfully shot the Lancaster down from his Messerschmitt Bf-110 as his 17th confirmed kill3.

ED603 was over the IJsselmeer (Zuider Zee) at the time of the crash. On hitting the water the impact made the aircraft flip onto its back and sink. The Lancaster had a crew of seven and none survived, but as only 10% of aircrew survived bailing out of a Lancaster, that was all-too-common when an aircraft was downed. The first body washed ashore a week later on 20 June near Workum, wearing the uniform of a Canadian Flight-Sergeant and Bomb Aimer, but his identity remained unknown until 1947 when he was identified by dental records. Two days later three more bodies washed ashore, and each man was buried in the cemetery closest to where his body landed. Pilot Eric Tilbury is buried in Stavoren's St Nicholas Church, Harold Howsam is also buried in Workum and Gordon Sugar is buried in St Gertrudis Church in Hindeloopen. The bodies of three of the crew were not found, believed to still be on the aircraft.

The Crew

  • Pilot: Flight Officer Eric Arthur Tilbury
    Born: Chadwell Heath, London, October 1917. Completed 51 operations. Buried: Stavoren Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery.
  • Flight Engineer: Pilot Officer4 Arthur Bertram Smart DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal)
    Born: Darjeeling, India, January 1914. Completed 45 ops. Body never recovered
  • Navigator: Pilot Officer Harold Elvin Howsam
    Born: Bigby5 outside Barnetby, Lincolnshire, March 1961. Completed 42 ops. Buried: Workum Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
  • Bomb Aimer: RCAF Flight Sergeant Arthur Gordon Fletcher
    Born: Ridgetown, Canada, June 1922. Completed 30 ops. Buried: Workum Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
  • Radio Operator/Air Gunner: Flight Sergeant Raymond Edward Moore DFM
    Born London, January 1922, married 1941, son Graham born 1942. Completed 40 missions. Body never recovered.
  • Air Gunner: Pilot Officer Gordon Robert Sugar
    Born: Barton Mills, Suffolk, July 1921. Completed 40 ops. Buried: Hindeloopen Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery
  • Dorsal Air Gunner: Pilot Officer Charles Frederick John Sprack DFM
    Born: Brading, Isle of Wight, September 1919. Completed 55 missions. Body never recovered.

The four airmen from ED603 whose bodies washed ashore were buried in local churchyards that are now classed as Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Workum cemetery.

Since its founding by Royal Charter in 1917, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission works on behalf of the Governments of Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom to commemorate over 1.7 million men and women from the Commonwealth who lost their lives in both World Wars. They look after 23,000 cemeteries in over 150 different countries6. The principle is that every man or woman of the British Empire who fell in the Great War, and later Second World War, on land and at sea should be commemorated equally. Some of the 23,000 cemeteries worldwide are vast, others are only a small number of graves within an existing graveyard.

Whereas other nations, such as the United States, returned their war dead to their homeland, the British Empire had a problem in that, even during the Second World War, the British Empire still consisted of a quarter of Earth's population and a fifth of its land mass. Returning the fallen to their homeland was considered logistically impossible for the government when conceivably someone British could not only be from Britain but also Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India, much of Africa, or many other nations, islands or territories around the world. There was also a worry that if the government did not pay to return the bodies of the fallen, then mourning would become divisive and unfair along class lines; the rich would pay for their lost ones to be repatriated and reburied in their homelands while the poor would either be unable to afford to, or the vulnerable in society such as widows would bankrupt themselves in order to pay for their loved ones' repatriation. So the decision was made that everyone irrespective of class, birthplace or background would be buried equally in the place where they fell, or nearest appropriate graveyard, despite the world's differences in religion, burial customs and alphabets.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also does not conduct DNA tests as readily as other nations to prove the identities of the fallen or ensure body parts belong to the same corpse. This is because they believe that war dead should, as far as possible, be allowed to rest in peace and not be disturbed. The level of proof required to formally identify a war casualty is very high and it is not always possible to name individuals found.

Navigator HE Howsam and Bomb Aimer AG Fletcher of the Royal Canadian Air Force are buried at Workum (Spoordyk) General Cemetery. Pilot Officer Sugar is buried at the Grote Kerk's cemetery in Hindeloopen with Flight Officer Eric Arthur Tilbury buried in Stavoren cemetery outside St Nicholas Church.

Discovery to Recovery

Cofferdam work island

In 1995 the crew of fishing vessel VD-64 unexpectedly found an aircraft engine in their nets. After removing the engine's identification plate they threw it back into the sea. The plate, when studied, revealed that it was from the left outer engine of Lancaster ED603. There followed a period in which amateur divers discovered the aircraft's remains, which were spread over an area 40m×40m wide, and often travelled to the site to take souvenirs7. Some of the finds taken from the aircraft at this time are now displayed at the Air War Museum at Fort Veldhuis.

In 2006 it was reported that human remains had been found and were present at the crash site. Since then the Stichting Missing Airmen Memorial Foundation (SMAMF) have been actively engaged in supporting the official recovery of this aircraft and those believed onboard, rather than leaving it to souvenir-hunters. In both 2007 and 2008 their requests for the municipal government of Súdwest-Fryslân to fund the aircraft's recovery were rejected due to the cost.

In 2018 the National Programme for Aircraft Recovery was launched in the hope of discovering at least some of the 220 missing Allied airmen believed to be in the IJsselmeer with 40 air wrecks whose positions are believed to be known in the Netherlands. This had a centrally-funded sum of €15 million. As ED603 was believed to contain human remains, it was considered a priority.

Frankly My Dear I Don't Cofferdam


In early September 2023 the recovery of the aircraft was begun. A cofferdam was erected around the location of ED603. This was a steel box built in the middle of the body of water that allows the 6 cubic metres of water inside to be pumped out, revealing the dry bed beneath. This cofferdam had walls 30×30m and was vibrated down into place around the 80-year-old airwreck.

The process of recovery took about seven weeks. After being underwater for 80 years, and having been attacked by souvenir-hunters for 30 years, much of the aeroplane's remains were essentially scrap: twisted, sharp-edged and jagged metal lumps that once were an aircraft. Some identifiable parts may be put in a museum. As the bomber had flipped over, what was visible was the bottom of the wing, though where the landing gear and wheels would have been were visible too.

Around the cofferdam a number of barges had been anchored containing offices, skips, diggers and other equipment. This was known as the 'work island'. After the water inside a cofferdam is pumped out, a layer of sand is scraped away, sieved thoroughly and investigated for parts of the aircraft and human remains. The sand is checked with a Geiger counter and then stored in barges so that when the recovery is finished the sand can be returned to its original location before the cofferdam is dismantled and water is allowed back on site.

As the aircraft was used in night raids, and having lights on would have made it an easy target, it was standard for RAF dials to use radium to glow in the dark, as the bombing raids were done in otherwise total blackness. Radium dials are safe if kept intact in their original condition, but as the aircraft crashed and has been under the sea for 80 years, no chances were taken. Radium is potentially dangerous if accidentally inhaled or digested.

The pathologist scours the sand on a conveyor, which moves very slowly, for signs of human remains. At the time of the recovery operation remains had been found, but the process of dealing with them continued and was due to take months.

On the day that relatives of the crew were invited to visit, a Remembrance Service took place, in English and Dutch. The service included politicians and military figures from both Britain and the Netherlands, many of whom laid a wreath against the cofferdam wall. There were seven wreaths in total - one each for each of the men who died on the aeroplane. This was followed by the Last Post and a minute's silence, then the Ode of Remembrance. After the service the Dutch Air Force's Beechcraft Model 18 D18S did a flyby, circling the cofferdam several times.

Beechcraft flyby

Martin's Just Zis Guy, You Know?

The quest to recover a Lancaster Bomber had generated a degree of press interest, both at home in the UK and locally in the Netherlands. North One TV, a British television company specialising in sport coverage and documentary programmes broadcast by British television channels and internationally, were making a documentary that would mention Lancaster Bomber ED603. The intention overall was to make a 90-minute documentary about the Pathfinders, the elite force to which the crew of ED603 belonged.

The documentary was being hosted by lorry mechanic, motorbike racer and daredevil Guy Martin. He has previously hosted documentaries about Lancaster Bombers, having been born and raised in bomber country, and he has also said that he was named 'Guy' after Guy Gibson, the leader of the Dambusters raid.

Information Market

ED603's Merlin engine.

As the recovery was underway an 'Information Market' was set up. This was an area where parts of the aircraft that had been salvaged were placed, and was where members of the press and other interested parties were taken. This contained one of the Lancaster's Rolls Royce Merlin engines8. Sadly this was displayed upside down on the back of a lorry, but looked unmistakeable despite having spent 80 years under the sea. Also having spent 80 years under the sea was one of the bomber's giant rubber tyres, which had also been salvaged, and it still smelled like it had spent 80 years under the sea.

Other recovered parts of the Lancaster included the remains of a radio, a bomb rack, fire extinguishers, a piston and the film cassette for the bombing camera with the film still in it. The camera lens and bomb-aiming optic, an aerial radio reel, a rotary transformer, a wooden stool (only the pilot had a chair) and the parachute from a target indicator flare, were also found. The parachute was so well preserved that the parachute string appeared in as good as new condition, patterned just like shoelaces. There was also .303 ammunition.

There were members of the armed services, including the forensic pathologist team in charge of the hunt for human remains, there on the day that relatives and the press were invited, and they talked about what had been found.

A 36-page booklet on the history of the Lancaster ED603 written by the SMAMF had also been made.

Remains of the Day

In November 2023 it was reported that the Dutch Army's Recovery and Identification Unit (RIU) had completed their laboratory analysis, confirming that the remains recovered from the wreckage of Lancaster ED603 belong to the three missing airmen. P/O Charles Sprack, P/O Arthur Smart and F/Sgt Edward Moore were finally officially accounted for. Identification was aided by the finding of two monogrammed silver cigarette cases belonging to Smart and Moore, but no further personal effects of the aircrew of Lancaster ED603 were found.

The UK's Ministry of Defence Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (MOD JCCC) was notified of the RIU's initial findings but it was announced that it would take a period of months before the RIU's full and final case report would be ready to be presented to the JCCC, after which point it would be exclusively up to the JCCC and Commonwealth War Graves Commission to decide where and when the remains of the three airmen would be re-interred.

Further Reading

1Former Zuider Zee (Southern Sea), this has been dammed and is now technically a very large lake.2Observer Bombing Over Enemy.3A recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, he would earn a total of 28 kills to his name before tragically being killed on 4 October after being accidentally hit by German anti-aircraft guns.4A commissioned rank in the RAF below Flying Officer: this does not mean someone with that rank was a pilot.5There is a memorial plaque to the aircraft in All Saints Church, Bigby.6Including in Gaza City.7This was not illegal at the time, but is now. Many have considered this activity to be tomb-raiding.8During the Second World War the Merlin not only powered British aircraft such as the Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane, to name just three, but also American Mustang and Kittyhawk aircraft. There was even a tank variant, the Meteor.

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