WO Robert Gordon Douglas - Bomb Aimer - Halifax DT669 - VR-L

It was the first operation flow by Warrant Officer Smallwood's crew and Bomb Aimer Warrant Officer Douglas was in his place at the nose of the bomber looking through the bomb sight when the Halifax violently pitched over. A wave of energy from flak detonating in proximity of the bomber flipped the Halifax on its back. In this inverted position the bomber went into a dive. Smallwood was now blinded by the beams of the search lights as they penetrated the cockpit windows of the inverted aircraft. Unable to judge his height as the Halifax fell, Smallwood ordered the crew to bail out.
Within that same instant he regained control> He then quickly countermanded the bail out order. For Douglas it was too late, he had already bailed out and was drifting down to the ground to be captured and in time interned at Stalag Luft VI. Then later to be part of a tragic ending for himself and twenty nine other POWs.
Halifax DT669
WO Warren Ellwood MacKenzie - Navigator - Halifax -DT731

From available squadron records this would also appear to have been WO MacKenzie's first sortie. Mechanical problems had arisen on the Halifax shortly after take-off. The undercarriage refused to close fully the pilot F/S Hopkins and the F/E Sgt. J. Chambers were retrying and retrying the controls, the drag created by the lowered wheels. The load of petrol and bombs was also working against the attempts at gaining altitude.
Eventually the F/E managed to retract the undercarriage, but not fully as the wheels could still be seen sticking out. The decision was made to lighten the aircraft and continue on to the target by dropping the incendiary bombs. After jettisoning those bombs they managed to climb to 20,000 feet and carry on with the main bomb load to the target area.
The mechanical problems proved to be only the first of crew's worries on this sortie. After completing the bomb run and headed to point "P" on the intended return corridor to make a course change, there was suddenly an enemy night fighter flying past the nose of their Halifax, VR-M DT731 .
As the evasive action began the starboard outer engine caught fire. No tracer had been seen by the crew and the failure was later put down to mechanical problems. The Ju88 meanwhile had made course adjustments once it was past the bomber and now attacked DT731 from a new position below. The attack created so much damage to the Halifax Hopkins was no longer able to keep his aircraft airborne. Hopkins had to order a bail out, which was successfully carried out by all the crew.
Nothing can be found in the records of how WO MacKenzie was captured all that is known is that he ended up in the same Stalag Luft as Douglas. WO Douglas had never met MacKenzie while at Middleton St. George as Douglas had been shot down almost nine months before Warren MacKenzie has arrived at the base.
It can only be assumed that coming from the same squadron they did meet at the POW camp. In the coming months both he along with Douglas would become POWs who found themselves on the "March".

Orders for Prisoner Movements

The preparation of the plans for movement of prisoners was put together around mid-July of 1944, Hitler himself came up with the order masking it a part of the total defense of the Reich. The Allied prisoners for some were going to be hostages for some of the Nazi High Command, a bargaining tool to try and save themselves from war trials. Other plans had them going to be used as human shields. While others saw it as a method of retribution against the Allies especially the airmen the "terrorflieger" terror aviators.

The March

The forced march which has been given many names began in December 1944 through one of the coldest winters up till that time. Lack of food was the cause of much illness and death. Reading from a diary one of the men forced on the march, a lists the food he was issued.
January 18th- 2/3 loaf of bread, 1/5th tin of meat, 1/8 pot of honey
January 19th- Nothing-
January 20th- Nothing-
January 21st- Dog Biscuits-
January 22nd- 1/2 of a biscuit
January 23rd- 1/4 loaf of bread, 1 biscuit

His list goes on and as it does the portions become smaller and many days listed is "Nothing". All the while they are forced to march through the deep snow, poorly dressed. Some who could not go on were shot by their guards. The march for some men was 500 miles while for others it was 1,000 miles or more.

Various Routes

For MacKenzie and Douglas and the other POWs from Stalag Luft VI their march was to be the Northern route, two more routes labelled the Central and the Southern were also the scenes of long lines of prisoners all suffering the same problems of cold, famine and disease.
The two 419 Airmen started there months long ordeal from Heydekrug in East Prussia South West to Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow, then further south into the middle of Germany to Stalag XI-B and Stalag 357 at Fallingbostel. Following a roads, and forest paths always on the move away from Allied lines and freedom.
The columns of men trudged their way to Fallingbostel, where there is mention by some ex-POWs in their memoirs of Red Cross parcels being distributed.
Now for all those who had come so far South the march was then pointed back north the way they had come, with Lubeck being the destination. The long line of two columns moved towards the Elbe River, then waited for dark to cross the bridges, the men had already seen what the Allied aircraft had done to the boats and barges, they did not want to be caught by the Allied fighters while on the bridge.
It had taken two weeks for the tired and sick men to reach the river and beyond to near Gresse where it is mentioned in two accounts that American Red Cross parcels were handed out by the Swedish Red Cross to the men. By some accounts there were 12,000 POWs in the area around Gresse spread out in the fields around the village. The column was still on the move for some while others enjoyed portions of their parcels in the area surrounding the Gresse village.

April 19th -The Attack

First Eye Witness Summary-

George Spenceley recounts the events some time later:- "It must have been next day that a tragedy happened that we might have anticipated. With clear skies and Allied air forces active above, neither the high bomber formations nor low flying fighters gave us anything but joy. When some ground attack machines flew low over us we waved. It seemed impossible that our long ragged column could ever be seen as a target. Tragically, we were wrong." "Two such parallel columns of our men were approaching the village of Gresse when a flight of six British Typhoons came over and flew south again. They then returned, low and in line astern, aiming at the other column. We watched horrified as puffs of smoke came from under the wing of the first one. Five attacked with rockets, then cannon. The sixth turned off, perhaps aware of the error. The ultimate tragedy had occurred: our own air force in which we had all served, had killed and maimed their own." "Any thought of rushing over to the other column was barred by our guards who ordered us to continue, doubtless anxious to find concealment in the forest ahead. At least we were spared the sight of our fellow airmen, some prisoners of four years, killed within two weeks of release."

Second Eye Witness Summary-

From Les Davenport
Again in Davenport's account is the handing out of parcels by the Swedish Red Cross, with his group of POWs being allowed to sit and enjoy a portion of the parcel contents. Then he mentions the usual sound of RAF fighters flying above changing into a slowly accelerating and diving sound followed by the sounds of machine guns.
As he expressed it he thought he was under attack by a squadron of aircraft and he saw them fire their rockets into the column of POWs as they scrambled for cover. He too saw the men who tried their best to show they were Allied POWs, only to be killed by the fire from the low flying aircraft.
He then goes on to mention how the next aircraft he observed throttled back and climbed away without firing. Then another of the fighters wagged his wings as if to wave as he flew by.

The Aftermath

The destruction to those who were hit by the rocket attack was horrendous, the descriptions given in all the accounts need not be quoted here. The death toll was listed between 30 to 60, thirty for sure were listed by a number of sources. With hundreds also wounded many of those would also have succumb to their injuries. Among the those killed were a number of the guards who were escorting the prisoners.
The local Pastor in Gresse held services at the mass burial on the 20th.
The next day some of the POWs began to make large letters in straw, spelling out on the ground "RAF POW" . The early morning of April 21 another attack by RAF aircraft killed another RAF POW and wounded 16 others who had been quartered in one of two barns along with many other POWs.

There was at least one other 419 Airman in the March and in the area of Gresse on April 19th. and saw the devastateing damage done by the attack.
WO Patrick Murphy of Halifax HX189 witnessed the attack.

The Warren MacKenzie Report

The following from the file of R65193 Warren Elwood MacKenzie,
shot down 20 January 1944 with No.419 Squadron:

Excerpts from report dated 16 July 1947,
F/L C.W. Dufresne (No.4 Missing Research Enquiries Service, Germany) to Air Ministry:

"An investigation at Gresse reveals that twenty-nine British (Army and Air Force) and one American were buried in the local cemetery. These victims had been P.O.W.'s on the march and were shot up by British planes, just outside Gresse on 19th April 1945. They were buried in a collective grave, without coffins. Some on the 19th April, and the rest on the 20th.
"I am attaching a copy of the list of those airmen buried there, given to me by Pastor Stube of Greese, who officiated at the burial. Although there are thirty British listed, in exhumation we found only twenty-nine British and one American. The numbers of this list which are ticked off in red, are those which we identified for certain - mostly by their STALAG tags.
"It was almost impossible to tell which service some of them belonged to, by the different pieces of clothing they were wearing."

British Buried at Gresse as Listed Pastor Stube on 2 July 1947.

1/ R65193 - Warrant Officer W.E. MacKenzie - RCAF - Canadian
2/ no number - Warrant Officer G. Douglas - RCAF - Canadian
3/ 2571861 and 1094 - Lance Sergeant L.H.J. Goodfellow (no unit, identified as British)
4/ 1431168 Flight Sergeant K. Mortimer - RAF - British
5/ 1093 Sergeant E. Bardsley - RAF - British
6/ 31652 Sergeant J.S. Breytenbach - Army - South African
7/ 25505 and 15904 - Corporal Downie - The Cameronians - British
8/ 2874561 and 20385 - Corporal G. Moir (no unit, identified as British)
9/ 918030 - Corporal P.M. Paton - The Black Watch - British
10/ 430 - Warrant Officer G. Moir - RAF - British
11/ 3932 - Private R. Woodgate - Australian Forces - Australian
12/ 29815 and 25731 - no name or other information listed.
13/ A22182 - A.G. Hunt - Essex Scottish - Canadian
14/ 26387 and 3235- no name or other information listed.
15/ 3263 and 1565563 - Sergeant W.E. Lawton - RAF - British
16/ 1385572 - no name given, Royal Army Service Corps - nationality not confirmed.
17/ 3566 Flight Sergeant J. Gibbs - RAF - British.
18 2121 - Sergeant S.J. Wheadon - RAF - British
19/ no number - Warrant Officer Shierlow - RAAF - Australian
20/ 39152 and 647048 - Warrant Officer F.B. Duffield - RAF - British (there seems to be another number, 874, associated with this name).
21/ 13064 - Warrant Officer W.P.J.( or W.J.P.) Watson - RAF - British
22/ 24384 and 1388655 - Warrant Officer C.W. Heathman - RAF - British
no number or rank - Joyce - Essex Scottish - Canadian
23/ 994 and R126002 - Warrant Officer V.A. Fox - RCAF - Canadian
24/ 24510 - Sergeant L.B.H. Hope - no unit or service - New Zealander
25/ 941 - Sergeant Hawkins - no unit, service or nationality shown
26/ 3429 - Flight Sergeant D. Bouldie - RAF - British
27/ 9669 - Warrant Officer Claydon - possibly RAF
28/ 335 and 623752 - Warrant Officer G.A. Losh - RAF - British
29/ 143 - Warrant Officer Bone - no details.

There is much more on the events of the day available on the internet and are well worth reading. Especially the comment made by one of the wounded who claims to have talked to the leader of the flight of Typhoons who attacked the column.