The following story began, for me, when I picked up an old book on a second-hand bookshop. The story is The most interesting search for G.P.T.
It was cold on the morning of 18 December 1941. The sun rose at 0913 over in the South-East and the crew of Avro Manchester R5795 were all on board. For the Flight Engineer, Sgt Gwynne Thomas, the excitement was palpable – this was his first flight over enemy territory. Gwynne was in a fold down seat next to the pilot, Neville Stokes, and behind him was the Navigator, Tom Wade. These were the three Aussies.
Sitting next to Tom was John Conn the Wireless operator, and at the nose of the plane was the forward gun operated by Isaac (Ike) Hewitt. Ike was a Canadian. When the plane reached the target it was Ike’s job to leave his gun, lie down with his head in a perspex bubble on the nose and take on the role of bomb-aimer. All these fellows were quite warm in the heated cabin.
But behind were the two aft turrets; Morton Heinish, the other Canadian, was in the Mid upper turret and at the rear was the ‘tail end charlie’, George Fell. These two were well rugged up because it was going to get much colder at 19,000 feet and they didn’t have the heating that the rest of the boys had.
At exactly 0934 hrs R5795 took off from RAF Waddington and headed South West over Lincolnshire and Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and out into the Bristol Channel where the Manchesters of 97 Squadron made a rendezvous with the rest of the Bomber Group. It was now 1120 hrs.
In front of Gwynne and stuck in a gap between two instruments was a photograph of Mary. Mary Biddle was Gwynne’s sweetheart and she was a searchlight operator. As the Manchester made its way across England the fields below seemed so peaceful. It had been a mild winter so far and although there had been some snow in Scotland there was none down below. The Met Office had said; ‘Dry; Mainly Fine; Considerable fog at times.’ It was a long way from home in Tasmania and from Melbourne where he had enlisted exactly sixteen months ago, on the eighteenth of August 1940. Now it was the eighteenth of December 1941. Back home in Australia it would be hot and he could take Mary swimming down at Half Moon Bay in Black Rock. He was 26 years old and now here he was, on an aeroplane flying over England; he had come a long way, much farther than he had ever dreamed.
Gwynne could still hear her last words; “Make sure you come back. I will be here waiting.” Little did either of them know just how long that would be.
The Bomber Group turned to the South in misty weather and made for The Lizard, the most southerly point on the British mainland. As they crossed over the peninsular the weather cleared. Due South was Brest on the coast of Brittany and the harbour of the German capital ships the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst. If it was not possible to destroy them it was imperative that they not be allowed to get into the Atlantic to wreak havoc with the Atlantic conveys.
Approaching the target, Ike slid down and took up his position as the bomb-aimer, the pilot gave the orders and Tom Wade opened the bomb-bay doors. There was heavy flak and over the target they got a slight hit in the mainframe. R5795 was one of the last to clear the target and soon they were harried by Me 109s. With bombs gone they turned for home. Wade closed the bomb-bay doors and Stokes put the plane into a shallow dive to gain speed and tried to beat the German fighters as they returned after chasing the earlier bombers. R5795 and another Manchester were the last to leave France. Their fighter escorts had gone with the main part of the bomber group and they were now at the mercy of the Me 109s.
Exactly what happened then is not clear. The rear gunner, Sgt Fell and the Mid gunner, Sgt Heinish fired ceaselessly at the 109s. Hewitt in the forward turret could do nothing as the German fighters came at them from the rear and the flank. The two gunners kept yelling at Stokes to take evasive action but he was either wounded or having trouble keeping the plane flying.
The plane had been hit by flak over the target and was slowing. The 109s came in from both sides. Flames could be seen from the midships and the rear and the two guns were now out of action or the gunners had been killed. Stokes gave the order to bale out.
Tom Wade, John Conn, the wireless operator and Gwynne baled out. Ike Hewitt desperately attempted to get to George Fell in the rear turret but the flames forced him back. He then went to follow the three who had already baled out but became entangled in the escape hatch. He eventually struggled free, pulled his parachute rip cord, saw the chute deploy and noticed, horrified, that a hole had been burned in it. He therefore fell a lot more quickly that his three mates.
Stokes stayed in the plane and died when it hit the water. Gwynne, Wade and Hewitt were picked up but Conn was never found. The plane crashed 4 miles off the coast of France. Thomas Wade reported later that the pilot was calm and had control of the plane right to the end and kept it steady so that all they could clear the plane.
All three survivors were rescued by German boats and became Prisoners of War.
Gwynne Pryce Thomas was held in Stalag 383 then Offlag IIIc. He was POW number 122.
Stalag 383 was at Hohenfels, Germany.
Stalag 383 was for Non Commissioned Officers. NCOs had refused to work for the Germans and spent all their time keeping occupied. In this camp a school was established and some men actually attended classes and sat University exams under the supervision of the Red Cross.
Unfortunately Gwynne’s diary, which he kept for the whole time he was held a prisoner, has been lost but any number of internet searches of ‘Stalag 383’ will show us what he could have experienced.
One activity that is certain is that of escaping. Many soldiers believed it was their duty to attempt to escape. Most escapees were found and returned to prison. But it was considered a definite part of the war effort because every escape meant that German troops were tied up searching for them.
Gwynne escaped at least three times. On one occassion he came as close as three miles from the Swiss border before he was recaptured. To what extent this was serious we will never really understand. But when the film “The Great Escape” was released in Melbourne Gwynne was invited as a special guest at the premiere of the film.
This is a photo of the Stalag 383 , Victorian Australian Football team. Gwynne Thomas – middle row, far right.
Gwynne was captured and sent to Offlag 111c. The Germans would often send prisoners who had escaped and been recaptured to a different camp.
By April 1944 Gwynnes was in Stalag 313, in Bavaria, probably because of an earlier escape. He had been promoted from Sergeant to Warrant Officer and while there he helped in the production and layout of the ANZAC Day parade on the 25th. The committee did feel it appropriate to include the following statement in their report which Gwynne sent to his father, The Reverend W.G.Thomas. “Acknowledgments and thanks for assistance and services that contributed largely to making Anzac Day observances and activities possible under our present circumstances are due to the courtesy of the German authorities.”
Eventually the war in Europe came to an end and Gwynne returned to England. There Mary was waiting and before the year was out they were married and she accompanied him to Australia.
When they came to Australia they settled in a suburb called East Brighton in the south of Melbourne. Gwynne was struck down with Multiple Sclerosis and Mary had to go out to work to support him and the two boys Bryan and Warwick.
Finally Gwynne died in 1965 at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital, at 50 years of age.
Much of what happened then I have decided to forget, for it is not for us to know. It is for the family.
I wish to acknowledge my brother Michael, my daughter Alexandra and John Knifton without whose help I would have been very much lost.
The aeroplane shown at the top is, I believe, the actual Avro Manchester R5795 and not just a stock photograph.
(60345) P/O Neville George Stokes Aussie with RAFVR (P) missing
(AUS400298) Sgt Gwynne Pryce Thomas (P/FE) PoW
(AUS402283) Sgt Thomas Michael Wade (N) PoW
(R/64413) F/S Isaac ‘Ike’ Hewitt R/64413 RCAF (BA) PoW
+(989237) Sgt. John Robert Conn RAFVR (WOP/AG) missing
+(R/76013) Sgt. Morton Ralph Heinish RCAF (MUG) missing
+(641560) Sgt. George Gardiner Fell 641560 RAF (Rear AG) missing
The details of the time from the first flak impact, until the plane hit the sea are all taken from the actual report made by Sgt Thomas Wade during debriefing after his repatriation from POW camp.
the following is a Canadian blog that has a story about Isaac Hewitt , well worth the reading.
For Tom Wades report see there is a copy in the National Archives.
For lots of Stalag 383 photos hit this link.