Last updated: 18 February 2018, 22:05
Background to the loss of MM838
Beaufighter Mk.VIf serial MM838 was shot down on the night of 31st August / 1st September 1944 with the loss of both crew members, 127208 James Summers, Pilot, and 140887 Cecil John Sanders, Navigator/Radar Operator. It is the only aircraft of No.255 Squadron known to have been brought down by flak. This page of the website records the background to 255’s intruder missions over Yugoslavia and sets the stage for an expedition to the crash site in Serbia, scheduled for 21-26 April 2018.
History, Geography and Geology of the navigation channel
Approximate position of km posts
The sketchmap reproduced here illustrates the Danube Waterway from Smederevo in Serbia (formerly part of Yugoslavia) to Bazias in Romania. North is to the right (thus West is at the top) and the flow of the river is top to bottom.
The Danube had, for many years before WW2, been designated an International Waterway, since 1856 under the control of the Commissions of the Danube. That body was created by The Treaty of Paris at the end of the Crimean War. The Commissions and its successors first addressed the huge hazards to navigation that existed in the Danube Delta. It was not until 1918 that work on improving navigation further upstream commenced.
One consequence of the internationalisation was the creation of a continuous run of marker posts at 1km intervals, starting at the Black Sea and extending upstream to the head of navigation. Note that, uniquely amongst European rivers, the Danube is calibrated with the 0km point at the mouth of the river on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, not at the source.
Each 10km these marker posts show on the sketchmap displayed here, most labelled with just the last two digits of their full number. The one of interest to us is labelled "80" (actually 1080) and ringed in orange. Note that it is fully 20km downstream of Dubravica (Дубравица), which the Mare Nostrum report from the month of July tells us was supposed to be the downstream limit of the Squadron’s operations. Whether those orders had or had not been amended in the intervening weeks is unknown.
Since the crash of MM838 in 1944, the water level has been raised by typically 5 metres. This is attributed to the hydro-electric dam "Iron Gate 1" ("Đerdap 1") built 1964–1972 and located near the bottom end of the gorge. Consequent changes both in the natural course of the river and in the dredged channel have brought about repositioning of many of the marker posts, in some instances posts being replaced by bouys. Full details of these changes, including data adjustments of historic surveys to correct to WGS84 Datum, have been supplied by the Department of Transport of the Republic of Serbia. This a major contribution on their part for which 255 Squadron Association is immensely grateful.
A significant percentage of the area to the north of the river is “Karst” (natural limestone pavement), much of which in 1944 would have been dry and wooded. Such terrain had favourable implications in terms of opportunities for the Partisans to spirit away the bodies of the casualties before the Germans arrived. However, since the general rise in water level much of the land adjacent to the river has become marshy and overgrown, with few opportunities for landing.
Daily reports of river levels are available online from the Romanian monitoring station at Bazias
, just a few kilometres downstream.
The timeline of the search for MM838
Finding details of what happened back in 1944 proved to be especially difficult in this case, in part due to what your scribe regards as obsessive secrecy regarding WW2 RAF casualties. Both as a matter of general interest and as a guide to other researchers, the details are set out here.
When this website’s Roll-of-Honour page was being created, Air Historical Branch were approached and asked for details of the incident in the Danube Basin. Little new was disclosed, save for the fact that the bodies had been recovered by Partisans rather than the Germans and buried at Kovin, only later to be exhumed and re-buried in the CWGC cemetery in Belgrade.
The next development was an approach from Peter Kaššák in 2016 during research for his book Gardening by Moonlight. Peter’s initial request was for previously unpublished photographs of 255 aircrew, which Chris Eley gladly supplied from his late father’s personal collection. Almost as an aside, the correspondence also led to discovery of the relevant KTB entry in the top-level Kriegsmarine records.
Kriegsmarine KTB account of the shooting-down of MM838
The image below reproduces a US Navy Intelligence translation of the Kriegsmarine KTB for the first half of September 1944. The vital clue to the loss of MM838 is to be found in the final paragraph on Page 21: “In the night of 31 Aug the Danube flotilla brought down one enemy bomber at km indicator 1080”.
Allied records show no bomber losses in the Balkan theatre of operations that night and post-war investigations by the RAF’s Missing Research and Enquiry Service (MRES) identified the two bodies recovered from the wreckage by Partisans as being those of Sanders and Summers. This had not previously been added to the public record.
Extract from US Navy translation of captured Kriegsmarine records.
Still missing was precise detail of the location of the crash and the identity of the vessel or vessels involved. The obvious place to look next was the lower-ranking KTBs, perhaps those of the Donauflottille or even individual vessels within that flotilla, on the presumption that they would show greater detail. But all advice received suggested these KTBs had not survived the war, so enquiries were diverted elsewhere, examining British intelligence records and suchlike.
RAF activity in the Danube Basin - extract from the Mare Nostrum report
Submitted by Shaun Stewart, son of the late Squadron CO at the time. Official reference of the document is missing/required. Undated in the original extract (this being pp.10-11 of the original), the draft was probably written in mid-July 1944. Full moon was 06.July.1944. It describes in greater detail than the ORB the background against which 255’s missions took place in the following moon periods.
S E C R E T
This account of 255 Squadron Intruder Operations in the last moon period, prepared by the Squadron, is more complete than the accounts prepared from the daily Operations Summaries and is reprinted as written.
During the 10 day moon period 12 successful patrols were flown over the Danube basin area on 6 nights and on a bad weather night in the Belgrade area two Beaufighters flew up the Dalmatian coast as far as the Istrian Peninsular. On 4 nights out of the ten the intruders had to turn back owing to cloud banks and valley mists obscuring the entire Danube Basin. The average round trip was 900 miles and our aircraft climbed to 10,000' safety height over the Yugoslav mountains before coming down to 1,000' at their pinpoint in a bend of the Sava River 315 miles from Foggia. The primary purpose of the missions was to attack river craft with cannon fire which, in conjunction with mine-laying activities by Wellingtons and Liberators, was designed to pulverise barge traffic. Trains and MT [Motor Transport] were also to be counted as fair game, although aircraft were in no circumstances to be attacked. Our patrols covered the Sava River, from Bos. Samac (4504N 1828E) approximately 190 miles eastwards to its confluence with the Danube, and the Danube from Baja in the North (4612N 1858E) approximately 250 miles downstream to Bubravica (2103E 4443N) [sic, read as "Dubravica (Дубравица) 44°43'N 21°03'E"].
The pioneer aircraft to make the first night strafing attacks on 29/30 June met with immediate success, for an attack on one barge cluster at N. Slankament [sic, read as Stari Slankamen. Novi Slankamen does not front the river] resulted in terrific orange and red explosions and fires as the 200' oil barges blew up. A mounting pall of oil smoke had reached 1,000' in 15 seconds and 10 hulks could be seen burning fiercely down to the water line from 45 miles away. Four other barges and a tug were well shot up on the same night, all without any opposition from ground defences. This attack was reported by German Radio as “a medium bomber raid causing some slight damage”. The roads and railways in the intruder area were all completely deserted and remained so throughout the moon period. Little was known of the country before this first trip. One pilot describes it as for the most part rich farming territory and unfavourable for escape and evasion purposes owing to the open nature of the fields, frequent habitation, the fact that the woods shown on the map are mostly only scrub and very boggy and also because of the large natural barriers presented by the rivers which run through the many ox-bow lakes and marshy country.
On the night 30 June / 1 July the aircraft turned back due to overcast over the target area obscuring the moon, but on the following two nights a very good bag was obtained, varying degrees of damage being inflicted on forty-five 1,000 ton Rhine-type barges, three tugs, and nine smaller craft. In addition a large vessel 300' long by 60' beam with superstructure, which was seen jutting out from its mooring into the stream, was attacked heavily with three long bursts of cannon fire and left severely damaged. After the first night’s successes a certain re-organisation seemed to have taken place in the Hun’s ground defences, and AA opposition progressively increased from now on. Also on night 1/2 July two Beaufighters were illuminated at low level suddenly and accurately by searchlights on either side of the river and as no flak opened up simultaneously, it was presumed the searchlights were radar controlled and being used as directional aids to night fighters. It was heard later that the Hun had identified our aircraft as Marauders following the searchlight exposure. There was found to be a balloon barage at 1,000' over Zemun (Belgrade) in addition to the one known to exist at Novi Sad.
During the next four nights only one aircraft intruded over the Danube area, damaging a 300' barge. Weather conditions during this time obliged other intruders to turn back as they could not find their pinpoints on the Sava in 10/10ths cloud and river mist. As an alternative on 5/6 July two aircraft set off up the Dalmatian coast to make for Trieste, via Fiume and the Istrian peninsula. The trip proved rather too long, but on the coastal strip of Yugoslavia three motor transports (including one 3-tonner) were destroyed and one damaged and three very determined attacks on a 200' steamer underway off Rab Island left it glowing and smoking and later it appeared to be beached in a small bay. A 200' barge was damaged near Fiume. Considerable accurate 40mm flak was encountered from the Southern tip of the Istrian Peninsula especially in the neighbourhood of Pola where several flak ships opened up.
For the last two nights the intruders reverted to the Danube Basin area, in four sorties damaging one tug, eighteen 200' Rhine Barges (1,000 tons), and six 100' barges. The assumption that the enemy was using nightfigthers in the area was confirmed, for a probable nightfighter was sighted at long range for the second time and at Shbac [sic, probably an error for Šabac 44°45'N 19°42'E] two of our aircraft saw green rockets which passed close on either side of one Beaufighter flying at 1,500' and exploded ahead with greenish white puffs after passing in level flight. A further point of interest is that our aircraft could hear themselves being swept by enemy radar over the R/T whilst in the intruder area and judging by the strength of the pulses the radar station was probably situated on high ground South of Belgrade (not thought to be either the Brod or Vukovar installations).
In all at least eight big oil barges and their cargoes were destroyed and varying degrees of damage inflicted on 102 other waterborne craft representing something like 100,000 tons of river transport. A naval specialist estimated that a 20mm cannon shell would make an appreciable hole (approximately 9 inches in diameter) in the thin stressed plating of a 200' Rhine (1,000 tons) type barge, putting it out of commission for a time and overloading repair yard facilities. In most cases where damage is claimed chunks were seen to fly off, and momentary glows started in the barges.
Over approximately the same period as these operations the Squadron has destroyed 2 Ju-88 low flying recces, 7 Ju-87s over Ancona and damaged a further Ju-87. All these successes have been accomplished without loss, added to which the Squadron did not have a single accident in June.
|DESTROYED:-||8 Rhine type 200' oil carrying barges with cargo|
| ||3 M/T (including one 3-tonner)|
| || |
|SERIOUSLY DAMAGED:-||1 300' x 60' vessel|
| ||1 300' barge|
| ||1 200' coaster|
| ||7 200' Rhine type barges|
| ||1 large raft|
| ||2 50' lighters.|
| || |
|DAMAGED:-||2 300' barges|
| ||65 200' Rhine-type barges|
| ||1 150' barge|
| ||10 100' barges|
| ||5 tugs|
| ||6 lighters|
| ||1 M/T.|
Intelligence Reports relating to the area around the crash site
National Archives file reference "AIR51/243/4164 - Yugoslavia: Smederevo" confirms that in the summer of 1944 Smederevo had a functioning oil refinery, albeit one of modest size. This facility was the subject of photo-reconnaissance by No.682 Squadron done with the objective of determining the effectiveness of bombing sorties targetting the refinery. Less that 100 hours after the loss of MM838, such a sortie by No.682 Squadron took place, but the photographs that survive show only the refinery itself, not the river banks as far afield as Ram some 35km distant.
Archive indexes suggest that the river port of Bazias was photographed in January 1945. This complete photo-set survives in the NCAP archive in Edinburgh, but present indications are that the crash site of MM838 is about 2km off the western edge of the area photographed. Access to the originals is rather expensive, so enquiries there are on hold pending us coming up with a more accurate location of possible wreckage.
Weather on the night
Here is the Synoptic Chart for 00:00Z 01.Sep.1944, courtesy of the archives of Metcheck.com.
Working up our own forecast for the Danube Basin that night suggests the following: Surface wind between Calm and South-Westerly Beaufort Force 2 (a "Light Breeze", just sufficient to move weather vanes), occasional mist patches in local inversions, no precipitation and a freezing level of about 12,000ft. At most a scattering of high cirrus cloud.
Phases of the moon were also studied
Meaningful low-level night operations could only be carried out during a 10-night window of opportunity centered on each full moon. The moon was full on:
Moonrise over target, 31.August.1944: 16:00z, 18:00 local daylight saving time, bearing 118°.
Moon transit, night of 31/8 to 01/9: 20:49z, 22:49 local daylight saving time. Due South and at greatest elevation.
Moonset over target, 01 September.1944: 01:44z, 03:44 local daylight saving time, bearing 244°.
92% of the all-time maximum visible disc was illuminated on the night in question. Furthermore this was a "supermoon", the earth-moon distance at Full Moon on 02 September 1944 being 357,308km as against a theoretical minimum (Perigee) of 356,355km over a five thousand year period, resulting in this Moon Period delivering some of the brightest moonlit nights of the century. Anything less than 367,607km is generally classified as a Supermoon. Calculated brightness is 1.157:1 (15.7%) brighter than a Full Moon at the Moon’s mean distance and 1.293:1 (29.3%) brighter than a Full Moon at Apogee.
Primary data sources: US Navy online calculator
programmed for Dubravica (Дубравица
), 44°43'N, 21°03'E. Supermoon data derived from Full Moon Perigee (Super Moon) Table courtesy of Fred Espenak, www.Astropixels.com
Old charts of the river
A chart was submitted by the Republic of Serbia Dept of Transport suggesting the existence of aircraft wreckage on the NW shore of the island of Čibuklija. This information conflicts with later discoveries, but may still be relevant.
Dredging chart showing the position of known aircraft wreckage. Smederevo Port Authority, date unknown
but before construction of the Iron Gate 1 dam. Image courtesy of Republic of Serbia Dept of Transport.
Calendar of events in the strategic situation
No single event in a war exists in isolation. In order to appreciate what was happening in the immediate vicinity of the town of Ram at the end of August 1944, it is necessary to bear in mind the following:
20-29 August 1944 : The "Jassy–Kishinev Operation", a major breakthrough by the Soviet army that effectively wiped out the German 6th Army in Eastern Romania and initiated the German withdrawal from the whole of the Balkans.
Night of 23/24 August 1944 : The "Royal Coup", led by King Michael. Romania changed sides in the war.
30 August 1944 : Soviet army entered Bucharest, the capital of Romania.
The Danube nevertheless remained open for navigation until the following week, when passage was blocked at Prahovo by the scuttling of approximately 130 to 200 vessels (reports vary) that the Germans were no longer able to return upstream through the Danube Gorge to the Fatherland. Most notable of these was the Military Hospital Ship BAMBERG, sunk 07.September.1944.
"Whodunnit?" – Several possibilities explored...
Suspicion initially fell upon two German Schnellboot
, S86 and S89. These were heavily armed high-speed craft with planing hulls, often mis-labelled E-Boats in English documentation. Back in November 1943, Admiral Dönitz had ordered that six S-Boats were to be sent to the Black Sea to bolster the German naval forces present in this theatre. The Führer der S-Boote (FdS), Kommodore Petersen, had objected to this, arguing that it would weaken his North Sea and Channel forces. Eventually four older craft, S86, S89, S92 and S98, made the mammoth journey by river and overland from the Baltic to the lower Danube. In those days there was no through route by canal.
A German Schnellboot (Sister ship, S65). Photographer unknown.
By the 20th August 1944, S86 and S 89 were somewhere on the middle Danube where, apparently on the initiative of their own commanders, they joined with the German’s Danube Flotilla to assist in the rearguard fighting and delaying actions aimed at frustrating the Jassy–Kishinev advance. This activity came to a halt on the 28th August when S86 was damaged by a mine just south of the km 950 mark. The damage was not too serious and the decision was taken to return both boats to Linz where S86 could be repaired.
Given their heavy armament and known presence in the vicinity, suspicion fell on S86 and/or S89 as being responsible for the shooting-down of MM838. However, more a detailed investigation into the whereabouts of the S-Boats suggests that they passed the Romania-Yugoslavia border at Ram at 20:45 on 28 August and at the time of the strike on MM838 they were anchored along with the tug "Cosmos" at km post 1217, over 100km upstream.
Suspicion next fell upon a more sedate but also well-armed craft, Sperrbrecher-192. This vessel was built in Regensburg, Germany, with twin 200hp MAN diesel engines. Launched in 1924 and originally named named Kepler, according to ship lists of the Bavarian Lloyds Register (in an extract compiled by Heribert Heilmeier of the Schifffahrtsmuseum Regensburg) this displacement-hull vessel was originally 61 metres LOA, 8.1 metres beam and 2.5 metres draft. In 1942/43 the cargo-carrier was converted to a minesweeper and anti-aircraft gun platform. In military configuration, she had a ship’s complement of 40, a top speed of a modest 10 knots and had gained 2 metres in length. Reported figures for displacement tonnage vary.
|Sperrbrecher-192. Isometric view of model and photograph of foredeck (camera on wheelhouse roof).
Image credit: KMW2 Verlag (German modelmakers)
Image credit: Bundesarchiv
The cruciform protrusions are components of the Italian-designed CAM (Canona Antimagnetica) minesweeping system, effective at 40 metres range when used to detonate the type of magnetic mine being dropped by 205 Group in this area.
Great care needs to be taken with the identity of this vessel. More than one civilian craft previously named 'Kepler' was requisitioned and converted to join the Sperrbrecher fleet. Another became Sperrbrecher-177, a seagoing vessel that operated in the vicinity of Keil.
Entries in newly-discovered KTBs
For a while it was assumed that flak from Sperrbrecher-192 brought down MM838. The vessel’s KTB (if it ever had one of its own) appears not to have survived the war although the craft itself did, eventually being scrapped in 1969. But then came the breakthrough. Correspondence generated by a post to the online discussion group forum.axishistory.com
resulted in an e-mail to your scribe attaching copies of the missing KTBs, sent by a researcher using a Nom-de-Plume
. These copies did not come directly from the originals, but from properly cited microfilm copies languishing, untranslated, in the National Archives of the USA. In view of the huge importance of this documentation to the enquiries into the loss of MM838, the relevant entries are reproduced here in full, as images of the original German followed by the English translation. The English version has been prepared by a context-aware human; it is not autotranslation.
Evidence source: US National Archives : NARA roll T1022-4290, PG-31603, Kriegstagebuch und Anlagen des Chefs der Donauflottille, 01.09.1944–15.09.1944.
Colloquial translation: "Iron Gates Group: Uta and Bechelaren shot down one low-flying enemy aircraft (Type Vickers Wellington) near km 1080, hit the ground and exploded. Stormtroop unit sent out. It could not be recovered."
Opportunity for further research: One possible interpretation of the German word "Bereitschaft" is "on standby". Thus the KTB entry made 01.Sep.1943 and imaged above might indicate that the vessel Uta remained at Ram. That in turn may indicate that it was already at Ram before the shoot-down. It may, therefore, be relevant to obtain the KTB for the second half of August, with a view to tracing the previous movements of both Uta and Bechelaren as a way of determining exactly where they were when they fired at MM838.
The same incident was also documented by the Inspectorate of Mine Clearance. Evidently word did not reach them until 16:50 on the 1st. Beware of the consistent mis-spelling of Bechlaren/Bechelaren in their records.
Evidence source: US National Archives : NARA roll T1022-2585, PG-46123, KTB des Inspekteurs des Minenräumdienstes Donau 01.09.1944–15.09.1944.
Colloquial translation, with name error corrected: "16:50 - Iron Gates Group: At 22:30 on 31.8.1944 the vessels Uta and Bechelaren shot down one low-flying enemy aircraft (Wellington Bomber)". Crashed on land NW of Km 1080. No dropping of mines observed."
Opportunity for further research: As above.
How was it that a Beaufighter was mistaken for a Wellington?
It is a well-recognised problem with witness testimony that people tend to report what they expected to see, not what they were actually looking at. The mine-laying aircraft of No.205 Group were Wellingtons. So when a twin-engine Allied aircraft turned up in the dark, there would have been a natural tendency to label it a Wellington. The gun crews of vessels of the Donauflottille may never previously have seen a Beaufighter, thus failing to distinguish the two by reference to the much longer "nose" of the Wellington, even allowing for the "thimble" nose cone on a 255 Squadron Beaufighter concealing its centimetric radar.
At night some attention may have been paid to engine noise. It is know for certain that MM838 had Bristol Hercules radial engines. So did Mk.X Wellingtons. Subject to verification, it is believed that Wellingtons used to mine the Danube were Mk.X's, the similar sound then adding to the confusion.
Detail about the vessels Uta and Bechelaren
is described by the website historisches-marinearchiv.de
as a “Werkstattschiffe”, a workshop ship. Apparently built in 1940 specifically for military use on the Danube as a mobile repair and support facility for the Donauflottille, the only image so far traced is this 1:1250 scale model, apparently 3D-printed from plans:
Scale model of Werkstattschiffe Uta. Trident models, 2016.
Link is slow to load, be patient! Image ©Sammelhafen.de.
The Bechelaren was commissioned in 1932 as the President Masaryk, a river monitor of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Armed with four 66-millimetre (2.6 in) guns in two twin turrets, it was Czechoslovakia’s most powerful warship of the 1930s and flagship of the Czechoslovakian river flotilla. After the German occupation in 1939, the ship was taken into the German military under the name Bechelaren, initially based at Linz.
The President Masaryk as she was when the flagship of the Czechoslovak Navy, 1932–1939.
In 1943 the vessel returned to Linz and underwent extensive modernization. The hull was lengthened by 30 centimetres, the shape of the stern was changed and new machinery was installed, with the boilers and steam turbine engines replaced with two MAN submarine diesel engines having an output of 1,800 horsepower each. The funnels were removed and replaced with exhaust pipes on the sides of the vessel. The single rudder was replaced with two. Using space freed up by the changes in propulsion machinery, a quadruple mount with four 20mm flak guns was installed. A separate 20mm cannon on the stern was replaced with a 37mm flak gun, and the machine gun turret at the front was removed.
The Bechelaren after modifications in 1943/44.
Early in 1944 the Bechelaren was returned to duty on the lower Danube. The modifications proved to be less than satisfactory; the new rudders gave poor control and the vessel, when propelled at its increased top speed, created a large bow wave that damaged the river banks.
A second refit was attempted, during which its four 66-millimetre (2.6 in) guns were replaced with two 88-millimetre guns with light shields.
The Bechelaren survived the war and was returned to Czech control minus its armament. It was scrapped in 1978.
The field of fire
At this point in our situation analysis, things inevitably become a bit more speculative. It is presumed that the Wehrmacht had no heavy weaponry on the North bank of the river between Dubovac and the Romanian border. Why would they, when the bluff upon which stands the ancient Ram Fortress gives a commanding view over the area? Furthermore, the modest quayside at Ram offered an opportunity for river craft of the Kriegsmarine to moor up, maybe even refuel, clear of the recognised channel and without being next door to an obvious fixed target such as the refinery at Smederevo.
Given the contemporaneous records in two KTBs that vessels Uta and Bechelaren of the Danube Flotilla brought the aircraft down, we can safely rule out action by the Heer (the German army) sitting high up on the bluff. By way of a gun platform, that leaves just these possibilities: One or both vessels alongside the quay at Ram, one or both vessels alongside at Bazias, and one or both vessels moored or anchored clear of the shipping channel. Night navigation on the Danube being extremely hazardous, it is improbable that either vessel was under way.
One thing for the "to do" list during the expedition: Judge by eye the arcs of fire available. These will be restricted by the high ground each side of the river. At the point where the river enters the gorge, the terrain rises more than 200 metres above the river level on both sides. Unknown – and unknowable in the absence of eyewitnesses – is the height at which the aircraft was flying before the flak ships opened fire. Thus it is not possible to determine whether the aircraft was lit up by the moon, or flying in the shadow of the hills that guard the entrance to the gorge.
Extract from the US Army Map Service series M501, Sheet NL 34-11 Beograd.
Archived by Perry-Castañeda Library (University of Texas), 101 East 21st Street, Austin, TX 78713, USA.
Original scale 1:250,000. Date Sep.1960 (Copyright expired). Projection: Transverse Mercator.
Scale as reproduced here: 10km between horizontal (Latitude) grid lines. Do not scale between lines of Longitude.
Current estimate of crash position: Grid Square EQ2-6 on the northern (left) bank of the main channel, opposite
the island of Čibuklija.
Recovery of the bodies and initial burial by Partisans
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