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The recovery of Lancaster DX-P for Peter

During the longest night of 1942, RAF Bomber Command launched a Lancaster-force of more than one hundred bombers towards the German town of Munich. One of the raiders which took off that evening of December 21, 1942 was Lancaster "DX-P" W4234 of 57 Squadron, stationed in Scampton. "P for Peter" was piloted by 22-year old F/O Ronald Bowles.

The force was detected at about 23.30 ET by the German coastal Freya-radars. It was the sign for the Messerschmitt 110-crews to take off and head toward the skies over Northern France and Belgium. At that stage of the war, these areas were defended by the Gruppen of the Nachtjagdgeschwadern 1 and 4. Several night fighter aces, including Hauptmann Wilhelm Herget (I./NJG 4) and Leutnant Heinz-Wolfgang Schnaufer (II./NJG 1) were searching the skies of that first winter night.Some minutes before midnight the people living in the rural area arround Lierde were awakened by short salvoes of 20mm cannons.
Only a few had the chance to see how a blowing torch roared towards the earth and ended in a tremendous explosion at the hamlet called Kakebeke at Sint-Maria-Lierde. The load "P-for-Peter" was carrying left no chance to the six airmen trapped inside. The bomber was one of the fire raisers and held hundreds of 4 lb-incendiary in her bomb bay.
It took some time time before the first farmers realised that an airmen was lying wounded further down the road. It was the rear gunner, Sgt Roden B. Pickford from New Zealand. Shocked and dazed he was taken prisoner, and once the fire was stopped in the misty morning, the occupying forces took him towards what was found of his dead comrades. Roden had formed a crew with them, which went through some very difficuld raids. Joining 57 Squadron in October 1942, they flew towards Cologne and Stuttgard. Being equipped with the Lanc, they crossed several times the Alps to bomb Turin and Genoa. There was not much Roden Pickford could do to identify his friends. Skipper Ronald Bowles and his Wop, Sgt Arthur Abraham, were buried individually at the communal cemetary of Geraardsbergen (SW of Brussels), whilst navigator F/O Alexander Mulholland (28 yrs.), bomb aimer Sgt Maurice Pearman, mid upper gunner Sgt John Drain (both 20 yrs.) and the Australian flight engineer Sgt Cecil Stubbs were put to rest in a communal grave.

communal grave

The victory over Lancaster "DX-P" was claimed both by Wilhelm Herget and Heinz Schnaufer. Berlin ordered both crews to toss. Herget won. None of them ever saw the terrible effects of their acts. Fritz Rumpelhardt, Schnaufer's radar operator, only visited the first kill they made. The sight of it made them never to return to their victims. Both Schnaufer and Herget survived the war, respectively scoring 121 and 73 victories.
The surviving rear gunner, Roden Pickford, spent the rest of his war in Stalag 344 Lamsdorf. The final weeks he was forced to march to avoid the advancing troops. Once returning to New Zealand, he started farming. He didn't talk too much about his wartime experiences. It was never clear to him as to why he was the sole survivor of his crew. The final words of his pilot to bail out were etched in his mind. Roden passed away in 1987.

In Sint-Maria-Lierde, almost nobody remembered what happened more than half a century ago. Farmer Johan Vindevogel knew that a bomber had crashed on his land. Whilst plowing the field over the years, he always found small twisted pieces of burned aluminum. Dirk De Quick, member of the local radio station Data and member of the Belgian Aviation History Association (BAHA) decided to remember the sacrifices made by this gallant crew. BAHA thought about excavating the site, in order to find out what was left of Lancaster W4234 beneath the earth. During the years, BAHA has build up a solid reputation on recovering wartime airplane wrecks, being able to give several missing airmen a final grave.
After the site was thouroughly detected by the team, led by Dany Saey, in the winter of 1998/1999, plans were made to organise a major excavation. This took place on Saturday September 11. The crater once formed was easily found.

The soil which came out of it was thouroughly sifted and searched for possible tangible items. A flare gun and a pair of compasses - wich probably were used by navigator Mulholland - were the first items found. The team had to dig towards a depth of 12 ft (4m), during which the plane's Gee-set, oxygen bottles, the pilot's fire extinghuisher and major components of the bomb bay were unearthed. Also found were several large boxes with twisted and broken .303 ammunition, which during the impact were thrown violently from the rear turret towards the front section.
During the operation, which took place under a blue clear sky, pictures were taken from a helicopter of Skyproject. In the evening the thirthy members of the team was rewarded with a fitting airshow put up by friends-pilots, stationed at the nearby airstrip of Goeferdinge, flying and roaring with a Cessna 150, Piper Cub and Pitts Special over the crater.
Several trailers were driven from the excavation site in order to start a metucilous conservation process. The presentable an recognisable objects will be put on display in the BAHA Collection (Museum for Aviation Archaeology). During May 2000, in collaboration with the local council, an expostion will be held in Sint-Maria-Lierde with artefacts of DX-P. The final flight of the bomber and the interception by the Messerschmitt will be simulated by computer, the virtual flight scheme being based on historical evidence. This way, the people of Lierde will be able to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the end of World War 2, in which the crew of Lancaster P for Peter gave their utmost to achieve this goal.

Cynrik De Decker

N.B. : The author wishes to thank Dirk De Quick and Radio Data, the council of Lierde, Richard Toon, the families Pickford, Stubbs and Drain, Johan Vindevogel, Wim Govaerts and the BAHA Recovery team.