Last updated: 13 October 2018, 13:09
The April 2018 expedition to Serbia

Expedition Leader Tony Summers’ report

The substantive text on this page is not being updated, so as to continue to show the situation as it was believed to be at the time of our 2018 expedition. For the updated version, please return to the first page of this series. Text "greyed-out" on this page is, on the basis of more recent research, now regarded as suspect.

Dedicated to the lost aircrew of MM838


Pilot F/Lt James Summers

Navigator F/O Cecil Sanders

The story starts with Beaufighter MM838 taking off from Foggia in Italy during the early evening of 31st August 1944, piloted by F/Lt James Summers and navigated by F/O Cecil Sanders. Functioning as a fighter-bomber rather than as a night fighter, their primary targets were barges on the River Danube east of Belgrade – then Yugoslavia, now Serbia.

There is a rumour amongst members of the Sanders family that an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) operation was also being conducted, aimed at gleaning information about the frequency and coverage of Soviet radar in use by the Red Army. Soviet ground troops were expected to make rapid progress through Romania following that country changing sides in the war as a result of the "Royal Coup" the previous week, rendering previous intelligence out of date. This suggestion of a second objective has not yet been substantiated and more research is needed.

The motive for attacking the barges was to disrupt the supply of crude oil that Germany was getting at that time from Romania. This vital war resource was being shipped up the Danube to refineries in Smederevo and Bratislava; the refinery at Ploești, Romania, had already been put out of action by the USAAF. Synthetic fuels of the highest quality were being manufactured from coal within Germany, but these were prohibitively expensive and only being produced in small quantities.

255 Squadron’s actions supplemented mining of the waterway by bomber squadrons of several Allied nations.

MM838 did not return from the mission, we now know due to the Beaufighter being shot down by flak close to the upstream end of the Danube Gorge. The bodies of the two airmen were recovered by Yugoslav Partisans and were buried in the cemetery in Kovin. Photographs of children leaving flowers on the graves were published locally.

In 1946 the bodies were exhumed from Kovin and re-buried in the Commonwealth Military Cemetery in Belgrade[1]; the usual Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones were added later.

In 1966 there was a celebration at the Yugoslav Embassy in London for the families of those killed in Yugoslavia, and the wife of the pilot, Phyllis Slade (formerly Summers), who had remarried, attended. Her comments were published in national newspapers.

In 2006, Tony Summers, the son of the pilot, his wife Sybil, his sister[2] Jill Bennett and her husband John went to Belgrade, visited the graves and paid their respects for the first time. For many years it had not been possible for them to go, because of various conflicts in the Balkans including the NATO bombing of both Belgrade and the river bridge at Smederevo during the Kosovo War of 1999.

In August 2017 Tony Summers was looking at the 255 Squadron Association website and saw that a visit to the crash site in Serbia was proposed. He immediately e-mailed the website manager, Chris Eley, and said that he would be interested in joining the visit. This culminated in Chris asking Tony to arrange the trip, which had been postponed from 2017 because of political sensitivities in Vojvodina, the separatist province on the north bank of the Danube near where the plane had gone down.

This sudden revival of interest in MM838 had arisen because Peter Kaššák had co-authored a book "Gardening by Moonlight" about the mining of the Danube and Sava Rivers, which had included reference to the whereabouts of the lost Beaufighter. Peter had found and translated German naval records of the incident. These referred to a "twin-engined bomber", erroneously recorded as a Wellington, being shot down at kilometre post 1080 on the Danube, between Ram on the south shore and Dubovac on the north. There were two German boats stationed there at the time, the "Uta", a working vessel, and the "Bechelaren", a gunship.

Given that no RAF bombers were lost that night, it must have been the twin engined Beaufighter that they shot down, which also used Hercules engines and probably, to German sailors, sounded very similar to a Wellington. At this stage it was not clear whether the plane had come down in the river, or on the north or south bank and at this point the Danube is over a mile wide.

It was agreed that any visit would be postponed until 2018, with April the preferred month. Tony would again go with Sybil, Jill and John Bennett, and also his cousin, Roger Summers and his partner Sybil who would come from Australia for the visit. However, at this stage it was not known if Cecil Sanders was married or had any other relatives, so Tony and Chris started some genealogical research. Tony had already done his family tree and so, by using his knowledge and experience, he quickly found somebody who had Cecil’s parents in their tree, but there was no mention of Cecil. He contacted the tree owner, who advised that there were two sisters, but she had no knowledge of Cecil. These sisters had been married, and it happened that one of Cecil’s nephews had put his email address on a site of which she was aware.

This was Peter Kirby-Smith, so Tony contacted him and found there was another nephew, David and yet another, Michael Ricketts, descended from the other sister of Cecil. On 16th November 2017 Tony, David, Peter and Chris got together, and the form of the visit to Serbia was decided. By now we had been joined by the then squadron Commanding Officer’s son, Shaun Stewart, so that made a party of ten.

A booking was made at the Hotel Moskva (one-time HQ of the Gestapo in Belgrade) in order to visit the cemetery & museum, and then we were looking east to stay for a few days in the Kovin/Ram area. Tony had written to the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who had a translator on his staff, to find out if the church or the people of Kovin had any record of the burial, the flower placing, or, indeed, if there was anybody alive who remembered the event. He was referred on to the local bishop and thence to a local priest, but with no e-mail address advised, snail mail was brought into play. For reasons of language a telephone call to the priest was ineffective!

Discovery of a reasonable English-Serbian online autotranslator enabled Tony to write to the local priest in English, with a complete translation included. We subsequently learnt from the priest that he had received the letter.

A map provided to Chris by the Serbian Department of Transport, dating from the 1950s, documented a known obstruction to dredging on the north side of the isle of Čibuklija. Such hazards were and still are taken seriously because of the risk of unexploded munitions being present.

If this was indeed the Beaufighter, then it made more sense to charter a boat on the river from Ram (which is on the south bank) to get as close as possible to the crash site, as the area on the north bank of the Danube has no proper road.

Tony then wrote to the ferry company at Ram, to ask if it were possible to charter a boat for the purpose. Not only was there a positive answer, but the ferry owner, Živorad (Žika) Sekulić, advised that he knew where the plane was, and that he believed that there was a report of the crash in the museum in the local town of Požarevac which he would try to obtain.

With Michael Ricketts, the other nephew, now joining us, the group expanded to 11, almost all going out for five days. The Hotel Hamburg near Smederevo was booked on the south side of the Danube, and was to be our centre of operations, being about an hour from Belgrade and a similar time from Ram.

Two 255 Squadron wreaths had been ordered by Chris Eley from the Royal British Legion for a service in the Belgrade cemetery, and Tony and Chris brought some poppy crosses to leave on the graves. Shaun Stewart agreed to lead the service and the format and content was agreed.

The ferryman then advised that there had been no response from the museum, but that a local resident who was aware of the crash was still alive and was willing to meet us. He said that one of the Hercules engines from the Beaufighter was in the Military Museum in Belgrade. He also reported that the pilot and navigator were alive when pulled from the plane by fishermen from Ram, Miladin and Angelina Lazić, and that it was unlikely that we could see the plane due to the height of the Danube at this time of year.

Against the background of this extensive preparation, ten of us flew out from Heathrow to Belgrade on 21st April 2018, and had a convivial dinner on the terrace of the Hotel Moskva.

With so many diverse careers of the participants, the talk flowed freely. On the Sunday we made a late start and walked towards the Fortress in Belgrade. The intention was to get to the Military Museum early, but we found it did not open until noon, so we had ice creams and enjoyed the sunshine and the views of the Danube and Sava rivers. Although there was a fair bit of information about WW2 in the museum, there was no Beaufighter engine on display. The duty staff believed that it was in reserve storage in the basement, which could not be accessed on a Sunday. Later we found that it was supposed to be in the Air Museum at Belgrade airport, though we did not have time to retrace our steps there during this visit.

After a lazy sun-drenched afternoon, Shaun Stewart, the son of Charles Stewart (C/O of 255 Sqn. in 1944) joined us for dinner having flown in from Albania via Athens. Political sensitivities in Serbia are still such that direct travel between Albania and Serbia is somewhat difficult.

On the Monday, some walked and some took taxis to the cemetery on the outskirts of Belgrade, there meeting Lidija, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission representative, along with her team of gardeners. After photographing the two graves and the cemetery in general, we had a short service at the Cross of Sacrifice, led by Shaun Stewart, and laid the two 255 Squadron family wreaths there. We also laid individual poppy crosses by the graves. It was also an opportunity to see the graves of the crews of other aircraft that had been shot down in 1944. Some of them are grouped by crew, instead of being in the regimented lines that you see at larger war cemeteries.

That afternoon we all drove to the Hotel Hamburg near Smederevo, a modern but small establishment that we nearly booked solid. On the Wednesday morning we drove along country roads to Ram, on the Danube.

Ram is little more than a ferry crossing, operated by a very simple vessel. Before the bridge over the Danube was built near Smederevo in 1976, it would have been one of the main means of crossing the Danube east of Belgrade. Here we were met by several locals, including Žika, the ferryman who chartered a boat to us, the Deputy Mayor of the local town, two historians and Ivana Dimitrijvic, the tourist representative from Veliko Graište, the nearest large town. We also met the man, Vladimir Marković, who believed he had seen the airmen when he was 16; he is now 90. However, he spoke of three men recovered alive from the wreckage, which we now suspect was a Consolidated B-24 Liberator which also crashed in the vicinity.

We toured the river in the vicinity of the suspected crash site of MM838, sailing clockwise right around the island of Čibuklija, reportedly known by some locals as "Aircraft Island". The river level is typically five metres higher than it was in WW2, the level raised by the Đerdap dam constructed downstream during the early 1970s. In consequence the island bears an uncanny resemblence to a mangrove swamp. The marker for 1080km, the crash site reported by the German Navy, no longer exists, having been submerged by the river. A respectful silence, punctuated only by the calls of recently hatched cormorant chicks, preceded an appropriate speech by Shaun Stewart, delivered as we drifted downstream with the engine off.

After crossing the main channel to a point within sight of Bazias (the first habitation in Romania) we returned to Ram for an excellent fish lunch at the local restaurant, joined by all of those who came with us on the boat. We were then escorted up the hill to see Ram Fortress, which is being rebuilt so as to make the ruin safe for tourists to visit. Iliya, the manager in charge of the rebuild, had closed the work so that we could see the progress. He had been invaluable on the boat, being able to translate back and forth from Serbian. It so happened that the local schoolteacher and her pupil came too, making a very different sort of day for them. They share the schoolroom with the Fortress manager, as there is now only one pupil at the Ram primary school. When Ilija mentioned what was happening they elected to come as well. These folk could not have been more helpful; it was sad to leave them. Žika the ferryman has promised to put a buoy in the river at the position where the plane ditched, with details of the crash upon it. They will invite us all to return for the unveiling. With a total resident population of about 100 (not counting holiday homes), Ram is but a hamlet, so our visit was quite something for them.

Icon   On the way back to the hotel, the 255 Fuel Gremlin arose from a 75-year hibernation[3] and persuaded a petrol pump attendant to put the wrong fuel into one of our hire cars, with predictable results. Dinner was late that night!   Icon

On the Thursday we drove over the bridge that NATO destroyed in 1999, since rebuilt, to the cemetery in Kovin where the airmen had first been buried before being transferred to Belgrade. Although there was no record of the burials in the registers there, a visit to the local church found a gardener, Zoran Munchen, who spoke good English. He contacted the priest, Dušan, to whom Tony had written, and the priest did know where such bodies had been put during WW2. We therefore returned with him to the huge cemetery and inspected the area concerned.

The party returned to Smederevo for lunch followed by a visit to the Smederevo Fortress, which the Germans managed to blow up on 5th June 1941 whilst using it as an ammunition dump. The massive and presumably accidental explosion killed 2,500 locals and injured a further 5,500, leaving some of the ancient towers leaning at crazy angles.

After a last dinner at the Hotel Hamburg, we rose very early on the 26th and all travelled by air to the UK, two of the party later returning to Australia.

Research continues into a number of issues. Top of the 'wanted' list is a Serbian-language autobiography reportedly penned by a Partisan involved in recovering the Beaufighter’s crew. If a Hercules engine is in the Air Museum in Belgrade, what is its serial number? Can the Liberator reported lost close by the Beaufighter site be identified? Scrutiny of the CWGC graves in Belgrade suggested that it might have been a South African Air Force aircraft, but this does not check out with reported SAAF losses either in respect of their 'Gardening' missions or their gallant attempts at supply drops to Polish partisans trapped by the Siege of Warsaw – missions also flown from Foggia, Italy.

As and when we hear of progress regarding the marker bouy, a further expedition will be planned.

Citations and Footnotes

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1. ^ Update derives from Graves Registration Report (Army Form W 3372) number YS/RGD/2094 dated 15.May.1946, discovered in September 2018. The heading of the blank form has in this case been prominently amended in typescript to read "DIRECT CONCENTRATION", suggesting that there was no place of interim burial such as Kovin. This is reinforced by the subsequent text which, under a sub-heading amended to read "Previously buried at", lists a British Military map reference that decodes as a woodland location east of Dubovac – nowhere near Kovin (the town) but still within the boundaries of Kovin (the municipality).
2. ^ Strictly, half-sister by adoption, but the family tend not to make an issue of this. Disclosure authorised by the Bennett family – Editor.
3. ^ This is a reference to events at Gibraltar in November 1942, when a 255 Squadron Beaufughter was accidentally "refuelled" with water.

Proceed to Page 3 of 3, Photographs taken during the expedition.

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