The Last Flight of KH158 H, 31 Squadron South African Air Force

The Last Flight of KH158 H 31 Squadron South African Air Force.

The Squadron insignia is shown below. The moto ‘Absquue Metu’ is Latin for ‘Without Fear’

The war in Italy had been on going since 3rd September 1943, involving both the armies and groups of locals, who wanted a free Italy. These Partisans worked behind the front lines causing as much damage, chaos and confusion to the German occupying forces as they could. To aid these operations Britain and their Allies resupplied these Partisan groups with weapons and explosives. The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the UK were responsible for making sure that the Partisans had the materials and equipment to inflict as much damage as possible on the German Army. They had the responsibility for choosing the targets or operational dates although the Partisans also worked autonomously.

The following is an extract from the book ‘Air Lift to Warsaw the Rising of 1944’ by Neil Orpen. Recounts the events leading up to take off for 31st Squadron SAAF for a resupply mission to Partisans in Poland.

Night Ordeal

It was 1 :00 P.M. on Sunday, 13 August, when the first Liberator of 31st Squadron taxied from its dispersal bay toward the runway at Celone to await clearance for take off. Within a short time ten big aircraft were heading southwest on the flight to Brindisi, their crews still wondering where they were being sent with such heavy fuel loads. It was unusual for 31st Squadron to take off in the early afternoon, and those left behind were highly curious about what was going on. The Liberator crews were soon in the packed 148th Squadron operations room at Campo Casale airfield, where SAAF and RAF pilots exchanged some- what strained banter.

Apart from T. R. Millar, the Australian, and Gerard Greindl, the Belgian, there were twenty-four men from the United Kingdom in the SAAF crews. Flying Officer A. M. Bonney was in Gordon Lawrie’s crew, Flying Officer E. T. Ruck was with K. S. G. Hayward’s men, and Warrant Officer T. G. Davis was with R. R. Klette. There was at least one RAF sergeant flying in every South African aircraft. Many SAAF officers were similarly seconded to the RAF. They had all been working and flying together for so long that, when acquaintances from the Orange Free State or the Transvaal occasionally switched into Afrikaans, English ears heard it without surprise. with Lts. R. Franklin, R. R. Klette, and W. Norval. That would make up the ten aircraft for Brindisi. The crews would learn what it was all about when they got to the Special Operations briefing.

With the night’s crews posted on the board along with the quantity of fuel to be carried, it was no secret that the aircraft were going to fly a very long way. More than one navigator was speculating about possible targets as the men gathered their flying kits, instruments and paraphernalia for the trip down to Brindisi.

In the tent he shared with twenty-five-year-old Lt. Eric Impey, Lt. Brian Jones gathered up his canvas bag, maps, and instruments as his companion looked up from the little pad on which he had been writing. “Just some poetry,” Impey grinned, as if his efforts needed some sort of apology or at least an explanation. “Where are you off to?”
“Heaven knows. We’ve got to fly down to Brindisi to find out,” Jones explained. “See you in the morning.”
“Sure. Good luck.”

Soon the ten selected crews were climbing into the three-ton trucks for the short run out to their aircraft. They were as experienced a group of airmen as one could find in any squadron. Selwyn Urry could look back on the days when he flew Junkers bombers in East Africa for the SAAF and dropped some 36,000 rounds of ammunition to the native Shifta in their rebellion against the Italians. He was followed into a truck by Flying Officer T. R. Millar, the only Australian among the aircrews, which were heavily diluted with men from the RAF then by South African “Tjokkie ‘ Odendaal, a great hulk of strength and a farmer in peacetime. Close behind him came Gerard Greindl, a curly-haired Belgian from the Congo Force who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross in Bostons (a variant of the American designed and built A-20 Havoc twin engine medium ranger bomber) in the desert.”

This gives an insight into the preparation and briefing of the aircrews from 31 Squadron prior to the operation of 12th October 1944 which was to be the last flight of KH158 H.

Each of these re-supply missions had a code name, and the number of people who knew where and when the mission was to take place was on a need to know basis. Obviously, the Partisans needed to know where and when such re-supply drops would take place to enable them to mark the drop zone so that the pilots and crews could drop the supplies in the right area. Even the crews of the aircraft did not know where they were going to until their briefing prior to the mission. The code names that were used for the destinations were chosen so that they were not easily identifiable from intercepted radio transmissions between SOE and the Partisans.

Recently married Thomas Roberts (Bob) Millar joined the Royal Australian Air Force in May 1942. His daughter Anne was born the following year, the same day as he was commissioned. Leaving Australia by sea for San Francisco then by train across the USA to Massachusetts and on to Halifax Nova Scotia.

The troopship ‘Pasteur’

On 9th April he sailed on the unescorted troopship ‘Pasteur’ for England, arriving at the Reception Centre Bournemouth in mid-April 1943. Further training took place at Number 4 Air Observer School in Scotland before additional training at RAF Upper Hayford, RAF Swinderby and RAF Morton in the Marsh in England.

Thomas Roberts (Bob) Millar

In January 1944 Bob was posted to Italy where he joined 205 Group 104 Squadron RAF taking part in a Leading Bomb Aimer course during June/July. He was stationed at Foggia Main air base near Bari and took part in operations to Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Hungary and Romania.

August 1944 saw Bob as Leading Bomb Aimer move to 31 Squadron South African Air Force stationed at Celone air base Foggia. From here 31 Squadron flew supply drop missions to Warsaw to re-arm the partisans fighting the German forces occupying Poland. Using the American designed and built B24 Liberator Bomber flying in Royal Air Force Colours. Bob was assigned to one of these aircraft with the call sign of KH158 H.

The four engine Liberator (shown below) had a top speed of 303 miles per hour and was equipped with 11 machine guns, had a maximum load capacity of 8000 lbs of either bombs or supplies and had a crew of eight. It should remember that in this period that South Africa was part of the Commonwealth.

They had regularly flown missions to Warsaw with a flight time of 5 hours in each direction. When they arrived over their drop zones, they flew in low at between 100 and 500 feet. Over one six-week period there were no less than 186 sorties with the loss of 31 aircraft. Bob and his crew had been fortunate to survive these operational flights.

The crew of KH158 H Hon that mission were,
Pilot Officer, Major SS Urry aged 29,
Navigator Lt. G A Collard aged 19.
Air Gunner 2nd Lt P J Lordan.
Air Gunner WO1 L B Bloch.
Air Gunner Lt N W Armstrong.
2nd Pilot F/O G E Hudspith aged 29.
Air Gunner Sgt R C Fitzgerald aged 19.
Observer/Bomb aimer F/O T R Millar aged 28.

Photos of the crew of HK158 H

Shortly after dawn on Thursday 12th October 1944 the briefing of 16 Liberator crews of 31 Squadron and 4 from 34 Squadron went ahead as planned, at their air base at Foggia. It was to be another routine supply drop mission for the Partisans this time in the mountains of northern Italy. With five planes allocated to each of the four drop zones. Each Liberator had a crew of 8 men and Bob was as usual on board 31 Squadron SAAF Liberator KH158 H, which was allocated to drop zone Morris in the mountains east north east of Genoa in the area of Fontanabuona.

The blue lines represent the flight paths to the drop zones from the
airbase at Celone. Avoiding the most direct and dangerous route over
the central mountains and territory held by the German Occupying forces.

KH158 H was one of  the 20 aircraft which took off late in the afternoon with the knowledge that they would be flying into the night as they approached their drop zones. Many of the crews had reported high winds in addition to the bad weather with low cloud and poor visibility during their flight, far from ideal flying conditions. Due to the poor visibility over some of the drop zones some crews were unable to see the site fires and flares of the Partisans had lit to mark the drop zones and many of the drops were aborted.

To guide the planes into the correct positions for them to make the drops a line of fires were lit by the partisans in the mountains. For the partisans this was the most dangerous part of any re-supply mission as the fires gave away their position to the German occupying army as well as showing the re-supply planes where they needed their supplies dropped.

Most re-supply drops were done at night, which made it easier for the air crews to locate the partisans on the ground. It was dangerous for both the partisans and the air crews. The partisans could be captured, and many were shot by the German forces when they were found. The aircraft had to fly very low and there was always the risk of the aircraft flying into the side of a hill or mountain.

A night time re-supply drop to the Partisans

Day light re-supply missions were even more dangerous for both the air crews and the Partisans on the ground. The low flying bombers could easily be seen from the ground on their low altitude slow approach to the drop zones. With several aircraft in formation on their final run over the drop zone they were an easy target for both the German ground forces and fighter patrols to shoot them out of the skies.

A day light re-supply drop to the Partisans

Of the twenty planes that took off on the re-supply mission on 12th October 1944 six failed to return. Five are known to have crashed high in the mountains, one crashing near Mount Freidour near Cantalupa, one above Rora, one above Valprato another above Ala di Stura and one near Ostana. These were all small Italian alpine villages. Wreckage of the first five of these panes was eventually found but there has never been any trace of KH158 H. The crew of KH158 H were posted as missing in action and the disappearance of KH158 H has to this day never been resolved.

The following is an extract from the book ‘My War is Not Over’ reproduced with the kind permission of the authors Harry Shindler MBE and Marco Patucchi. Many of you may know Harry as ‘Our Man in Italy’.

Harry Shindler MBE

‘Liberator Mk VI KH158 H, mission of 14th /15th August 1944, take-off from Celone airport at 19.30, return at 5.50 after ten hours and twenty minutes of flight. Assignment: supplies drop over Warsaw. Along the route light cloud at an altitude of ten thousand feet, low-altitude mist and good weather conditions about ten thousand feet. Over the target, good weather conditions with low visibility due to smoke. Having reached the Vistula six miles south of Warsaw, re- ascended along the east bank, crossed a bridge and at 0.59 dropped twelve containers at the northern confine of zone A from a quota of 500 feet and at a speed of 150 miles per hour. No building identified with any certainty. One six-inch hole in the fuselage. Problems with pilot’s radio, auto-pilot, and turret interphone. No camera or film-camera taken on board. Numerous lights and signals observed over Poland. At 0.58 a plane was spotted falling at twelve hours; at 0.59 a plane was spotted falling at twelve hours; at 0.59 a plane was spotted falling to the west of the target; successive fire fight in the air followed by what appeared to be a burning plane falling’.

These missions were desperate affairs: the fate of Warsaw was practically sealed. The offensive of the resistance army, the Armia Krajova, had started on 1 August when General Komorowski, in collaboration with the Polish government exiled in London, sent its 45,000 inadequately armed men against the 50,000 soldiers of SS General Erich von dem Bach. Komorowski hoped to surprise the Nazis as the Red Army, which the citizens could see from their terraces, camped on the right bank of the Vistula, gathered in readiness at the gates of the city: in case of difficulty in battle, general ”Bor” counted precisely on help from the Soviets. History however was reserving a further blow for Poland, to be added to the Katyn massacre in spring 1940 when, for all the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Russians slaughtered thousands of Polish army officers, attempting to put the blame on their then Allies the Germans.

The first attacks in Warsaw ended in a bloodbath for the Armia Krajova, and Nazi revenge was readily extended to the civilian population: the order of the SS Supreme Commander Himmler was to kill irrespective of age, gender, or role. Help from the Red Army never arrived, partly because Stalin chose not to encourage a nationalist revolt, given his planned soviet future for Poland. The only assistance for the insurgents was the air supplies agreed to by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill under pressure from the exiled Polish Government – those in which Bob Millar was engaged. On 2 October 1944, the surrender of the National Army consigned Warsaw to the Nazis who first deported half a million people then razed the city to the ground.

Ten days later, on 12 October 1944, Millar took off on his last flight. He was aboard one of the twenty Liberators which took off from Celone in the late afternoon for a night flight towards the mountains of northern Italy, where the Italian partisans were waiting for supplies from the air. Four zones had been marked out to receive the containers and five planes would make their way towards each one. The designated zone for Millar’s SAAF Liberator went under the name of ‘Morris’ and was east-northeast of Genoa. The plane’s registration number was KH 158 H; its crew were from various points of the Commonwealth: Major S.S. Urry (pilot, aged 29, South Africa); Lieutenant G.A. Collard (air observer, aged 19, South Africa); Lieutenant P. J. Lordan (air gunner, age unknown, South Africa); L.B. Bloch (air gunner, age unknown, South Africa); Lieutenant N.W. Armstrong (gunner, age unknown, South Africa); flight officer G.E. Hudspith (2nd.pilot, aged 29, Britain); Sergeant Fitzgerald (air gunner, aged 19, Britain), and Bob Millar, aged 28, an Australian bomb-aimer.

This time the words of the Final Report on Liberator KH 158 H’s mission are few and terse: ‘Take-off 16.55 from Celone; twelve containers to drop; plane and crew lost’. The document makes no mention of weather conditions, retroactively reconstructed by meteorologist Brian Booth in the hope of supplying information which might explain the Liberator’s fate:

‘The weather map of the evening of 12 October shows a slow-moving front across the western Mediterranean, from the Balearic Islands to Nice and heading northeast across western Switzerland. The movement east was erratic and not assisted by the development of a depression south of Nice.
Conditions for the take-off from Celone were good however, with a light wind and thin fragmented layer between eight thousand and ten thousand feet. Cloud cover was total over the Apennines and remained so for most of the Operation. Flying north-northwest along the west coast of Italy the cloud mass remained at ten thousand feet in altitude, but there were clouds above the target pushing through the layers at one thousand three hundred feet, and cumulus-shaped storm banks to the west.
The plane flew above the cloud, probably at approximately one thousand five hundred feet where the wind was blowing from the southwest at fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour. The layer of cloud thickened as the plane reached the drop zone, the belly of the cloud having gone down to between five and six thousand feet. More, lower cloud made the drop zone difficult to identify, compounded by the fact of no moon, with the clouds obscuring even the light of the stars.
Above the drop zone the winds were light and variable at ground level, but at seven to ten thousand feet in altitude were probably blowing at around ten thousand miles an hour. Although the final Operation report states that the same conditions obtained for the whole return journey, observatories in Rome stated that the cloud had disappeared. Six of the twenty planes failed to return to the Celone base: four crashed in the mountains and one came down near Cantalupa, in the Piedmont. Plane wreckage and remains of the crew were found of all five planes. The sixth, Liberator KH 158 H, disappeared without trace; no eyewitness, no scrap of metal: an enormous metal bird swallowed by night and the elements.
Since then, the last trace of Bob Millar has remained the letter written to his daughter for her first birthday: a magical memory map through which Anne hopes to find a more concrete resting place for her father than the lists of the unburied dead in the Malta War Mausoleum or in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

When she came across Harry Shindler in 2005, Anne Storm had already spent some years tracking her father. Poignantly, in 1968, she had holidayed with friends in Puglia with no idea as to the importance the area had had in his life; in Poland she similarly visited Warsaw never imagining that he had helped to keep its citizens alive by drops of supplies during the hardest days of the war.

Anne has lived in Britain since 1967. She began her journey into oblivion one morning in January 2001, simply by answering the phone. It was her mother, from Australia: she had just read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on the 31st SAAF Squadron and the fateful mission of 12 October 1944. The call jump-started her and kept her energised through the many stages to come. She started by searching for the relatives of the other components of Liberator KH 158 H, at the same time collecting all the letters and postcards her father had written to her mother during the war years, censured by military intelligence to remove any information or location which could interest the secret services of the enemy. The South African and Australian authorities were then approached for any data they could contribute, after which she travelled to Liguria in search of clues or fragments of memory from the inhabitants of the small towns around “Morris”, the Liberator’s drop zone: Favale, Malvaro and Neirone. She also contacted the family her father had stayed with in Kenilworth during his period of leave; checked the records of the Genoa coast guard and of the Italian Navy’s Hydrographic Institute, ascertaining the absence of relics of Allied bombers in the Ligurian seas; travelled to Lysa Gora, in Poland, for the commemoration of a crew which had taken part in supply missions for the Warsaw partisans, and put out general requests for help through the press, radio and television networks of Britain, Australia, South Africa, Italy

So far, Anne’s wanderings have produced memories and occasional mementoes, but nothing which has brought her “face to face” with her father: just photographs, anecdotes from friends and colleagues, mention of his promotion to flight-lieutenant, cancelled out with the Liberator and its crew, and a shoe brush he used at the time of his Warsaw flights.

In October 2005 Harry contacted Anne after reading of her appeal in a specialist review. He offered his help and immediately set about activating his various sources, writing on his museum-piece typewriter, from which he is inseparable. At the end of the month he was able to inform her that another tiny spark of light had appeared in the mystery of the KH 158 H. In reconstructing its route on the 12th October 1944 mission, he had discovered that besides the Ligurian sea, the other location where the Liberator might have disappeared without trace was the Lake of Bolsena, north of Rome. This was much more than a vague suggestion, and Harry immediately followed it up, contacting the RAF, Romagna Air Finders, an Italian association of volunteers dedicated to localizing and retrieving relics of war planes. Their information confirmed the plausibility of Harry’s thesis: the lake had already given up several planes lost there during the Second World War. He then contacted the British Embassy in Rome to co-ordinate any possible lines of research. Meanwhile, in Britain, Anne began to warm to the idea that her father’s plane could indeed be in Lake Bolsena, and a whole correspondence soon began to pile up between herself and Harry. One also arrived from her elderly mother:

‘It had always seemed to me impossible that a plane as big as a Liberator could have vanished without trace (…) I want to thank you and the Air Finders for what you’re doing. With the blessing of Bob’s family, in 1951 I married my present husband and we have been happily together for fifty-four years, but I have never forgotten, and never will forget the deep love between Bob and myself.

In late March 2006, authorised by London and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the British Legation in Rome set in motion viable operational mechanisms:

The Defence Section of the British Embassy in Rome are coordinating the employment of a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) of the Salvage & Marine Operations IPT in order to try and identify an object believed to be a missing WWII Liberator bomber some 90m beneath the surface of Lake Bolsena. The operation, to the north of Rome, is scheduled to take place on 03 April 2006, weather permitting.

Commander Sean Steeds MA Royal Navy, Naval and Air Attaché

A small radio-operated submarine and camera would be sent down to reach the plane, seemingly resting on the lake bed, to attempt identification which had so far eluded other searches on account of the depth of the water. The Embassy laid down very precise limits to the operation: the site would be explored, and the identity of the plane established if feasible; the relic would not however be retrieved, and the site would remain “closed”. Anne Storm had had slightly higher expectations: if the plane in the lake was indeed the Liberator KH158 H, the bodies of crew should be retrieved and buried in the Milan War Cemetery, containing the remains of the other crews which had died in the 1944 Mission. This, unfortunately, was not the position of the British institutions. As the Embassy attaché explained:

The Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre of the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency advise that from a UK perspective any crashed aircraft with crew on board, on land or in the sea, would usually be classed as a war grave. UK MoD policy is not to disturb war graves and to discourage the disturbance of aircraft crash sites where human remains may still be present. As such UK MoD do not authorise or support excavations of such sites.

In the bright, clear light of 3 April 2006, the remote- controlled submarine went to work in Lake Bolsena, watched by Anne, Harry, and Sean Steeds, directing the entire mission; the representatives of the Viterbo Prefecture of the Carabinieri and of the Australian and South African legations, and, of course, the men of Romagna Air Finders. But two days of searches fail to resolve the mystery, partly because the ROV cable became entangled in the relic of a CH 47 helicopter of the Italian army, which had also exchanged air for water as its natural element, and was now lying on the lake bed. It was impossible to establish that the shadow perceived by the robot was that of the Liberator, local researchers maintaining that it was an American B 17 from the Second World War which had then been blown up in 1959. The British Embassy considered the operation concluded at this point, and Anne returned to Britain without hiding her disappointment, although still convinced that the truth surrounding KH 158 H will emerge.

Harry for his part is equally convinced that Bob Millar is lying with his fellow crew members on the bed of Lake Bolsena, and the thought of giving up never crosses his mind. He keeps Anne informed of all the attempts to organise further search operations, although funds are inevitably in short supply. ‘My mother is now 89’ Anne wrote in one of her many e-mails to Harry- ‘and isn’t in the best of health, but she’s waiting anxiously for any piece of news concerning the plane. We’re very grateful to you for all your help’.

Anne never knew her father: this letter is all she has to remember him by. She keeps it next to her heart, as a lucky charm, giving her strength and consolation. Not all her birthdays have been happy, -this is true of most lives – but she has always taken comfort from the words written to her by her father in the distant days of the war, his last words. The letter is published here with Anne’s blessings, and although they never met it shows the love that a father had for his daughter during those difficult times. Robin Hollamby (Editor)

My Dear Daughter,

This is the first time I have written to you and although you are as yet too young to read it perhaps mother will save it up until the time comes when you can read it yourself. In 2 days’, time it will be your first birthday anniversary – a great event for your parents. My regret is that I cannot personally be the to help you blowout your single candle but believe me lassie I will be there in spirit.

I am writing this from a place called Italy which is far away from our fair land – a place where I would not be by choice so far away separated from a wife & daughter so dear to me. But I am here, precious one, because there is a war on caused by certain people who wished to rule the world harshly and despotically, imperilling an intangible thing called democracy which your mother and I thought all decent people should fight for. You will understand as you grow up what democracy means for us & how it is an ideal way of life which we aspire to put into practice.

All I  ask of you, Anne dear, is that you stay as sweet as your mother & cling tight to the subtle thing we call Christianity, which has been the core of her way of life & her mother’s & mine I hope that you will love & respect me as I love and respect my father. That’s all young lady. Have a happy birthday _ may they all be happy birthdays. I hope to be home again one fine day. In the meantime, lots of love to you & to mother

From Dad

Bob Millar.

Anne Storm’s efforts to find KH158 H and events remembering her father and the crew.

Anne Storm whose father was F/O T R Millar has never given up in her belief that one day evidence of KH158 H and the resting place of her father will be found. Over the year’s many anniversaries have come and gone, and commemorative events have been organised to remember the members of the crew of KH158 H.

The local mayor speaks to the guests gathering for the unveiling of the memorial plaque. They include local and international dignitaries and relatives of the
crew of KH158 H. Anne Storm the daughter of Bob Millar
the Observer/Bomb Aimer on KH158 H is to the mayor’s right.

On 15th May 2011 Anne was present at the ceremony to unveil a plaque to commemorate the crew of KH158 H near the war time headquarters of the local partisans in the ‘Morris’ drop zone area in the small village of Neirone.

The English Translation of the Plaque

In Memory of the Crew of Liberator KH158
(31 Squadron South African Air Force)
Disappeared on 12th October 1944
During a supply drop Mission to Resistance forces operation in this area
Lest We Forget
Relatives laid this Plaque on 15th May 2011
Drop zone “Morris”
This is what Drop Zone Morris looks like today
It is believed that the Partisans may have used the
round building on the right of this picture during the war
The exhibits on show may have only been here for a very special
day as this area is almost inaccessible by road transport even today
Amongst the artefact’s, a re supply canister dropped in the area of
Drop Zone Morris would have floated down on its own parachute
Today this is the easy way in! But it is still very dangerous on the mountain tracks.
Back in 1944 it was only accessible by foot or on horse back.
A presentation was made to Anne for all the work she
has done trying to locate the crash site of KH158 H

The following extract is taken from the South African Air Force Associations Johannesburg Branch Newsletter APRIL 2017 and its inclusion agreed by Martin Urry

“The Alpine 44 Story” by Martin Urry

By October 1944 the Allies had pushed the German forces north of the Gothic Line running from La Spezia in the west to Rimini in the east of Italy. 2 Wing SAAF, consisting of 31 and 34 squadrons, and part of 205 (Heavy Bomber) Group RAF under Maj. Gen. Jimmy Durrant, based in Southern Italy near Foggia, was tasked with a supply dropping mission to the Partisans operating in the Po Valley north of Genoa. Four drop zones were selected, code named Morris, Dodge, Parrot and Chrysler, with 5 Liberators assigned to each. Weather conditions during the beginning of October were terrible, but the forecast for the night of the 12th was for a break, and the mission was given the go-ahead. The aircraft took off at regular intervals from about 16 00 hours, the flights would be about 8 hours, and they would be back at around midnight. At the briefing the crews were told to return to base if they hit bad weather.

The flights encountered persistent, heavy rain, low cloud, and frequent flashes of lightning. Eleven aircraft turned around, only three found their target, and six aircraft failed to return, with the loss of 48 men. The meteorologists had forecast a westerly wind, but, unbeknown to all, the wind was now blowing from the east, resulting in the aircraft being roughly 60 km west of where they should have been, with disastrous consequences. Only three Liberators were able to make their drops over their assigned Drop Zones. Five aircraft crashed into the Alps and one, KH158 H, is missing to this day, presumed to have ditched in the Ligurian Sea off Genoa.

The map above shows both the locations of the drop zones and their names
along with the known crash sites of KH154 W, KH239 S, KG874 J, KG875 D and KG999 P
and possible location of the crash site of KH158 H.

The local villagers had always known of the aircraft that had crashed nearby, and in 1999 the mayor of Ostana, the village below the crash site of flight KG874 J, decided to honour the airmen who had died that night.

They first contacted the United States Air Force, but were told that the aircraft must have belonged to the Royal Air Force. Enquiries here led them to the South African Air Force, and notices were placed in our newspapers and on the internet looking for the families of the crew. Contact was made with Barbara Brownrigg, sister of Bobby Whitelaw, crew member on flight KG874 J. Barbara and her husband, Glenn, attended the memorial service on 1 October, 2000, when a plaque was laid on the crash site as well as on the Town Hall.

In July 2002 the village of Ala di Stura, 53 km North West of Turin, held a similar commemoration service to honour the crew of KG999 P, the pilot was 21 year old Lt. Charlie Nel of Oudtshoorn. This was attended by Charles Nel, nephew of Lt. Nel, and his wife Helen, also Martin and Jean Urry, and a plaque was again laid on the crash site.

In 2008 a plaque was laid above the village of Neirone, to the North West of Genoa, in memory of the crew of KH158 H. This was the Morris drop zone, as this plane has not been found it was deemed appropriate to honour these men here. The ceremony was attended by Anne and Roy Storm and their sons; Anne is the daughter of F/O Bob Millar, also Martin Urry, nephew of the pilot, Maj. Selwyn Urry, and his wife Jean.

In 2013 a commemoration service was held at the village of Pianetto near Valprato Soana, below the crash site of KG875 D, attended by Charles Nel, Martin and Jean Urry, Anne and Roy Storm, and relatives of crew member George Anstee from the UK. The monument consists of a granite block to which is affixed the wheel strut of the Liberator, found the previous year in a valley below the crash site.

The memorial plaques for KH874 J, HG999 P, KH158 H and KG875D

Services have also been held annually at the SAAF memorial at Bays’ Hill, Pretoria, on the closest Sunday to 12th October. These have been well attended by family members and friends, members of SAAF and SAAFA, the local chapters of the Alpini and the Carabinieri, representatives of the Zonderwater Block, also the Warsaw Flights family.

The SAAF memorial at Bay’s Hill, Pretoria.

The Work of Anne Storm and Mr Ted Sergison in Stapelhurst Kent

On 12th August 2015 in the Kent village of Staplehurst a development of 6 bungalows was named after Sgt Fitzgerald the 19year old RAF Air Gunner who was one of the crew of KH158 H. The Parish Council agreed to this when it was discovered that Sgt Fitzgerald’s name had been missing from their war memorial for 67 years. Guests included members from the Fitzgerald family, the British Legion and Fegans Charity.

Staplehurst parish councillors, the Rector, Mr Sergison and Mrs Anne Storm, who had first alerted the council to the error on the war memorial. They were joined by representatives of Golding Homes and building contractors Epps. Sgt Fitzgerald’s family had donated a bench in his memory which the Rector blessed, along with the bungalows.

The bench dedicated to Sergeant Reginald Fitzgerald.

Anne Storm has been actively involved with Fitzgerald’s family to ensure that his memory lives on. She writes:

“I attended a short service on 21st August 2015 held in the Close by the local Rector. It’s only a small Close but built in remembrance of Sgt Fitzgerald.

Sergeant Reginald Fitzgerald

I had found out that before enlisting with the RAF Volunteer Reserve he had spent some of his early years in an orphanage with 3 of his 4 brothers. When he was older he worked on a local farm. I also attended the memorial service in the local church on 23rd March 2013 which was attended by a Defence Attaché, MPs and local officials.”

Parish councillor Peter Spearink said ‘This little ceremony drew a line under the Parish’s effort to make amends to his family and Sgt Fitzgerald’s memory for his name having been missed from our war memorial for 67 years. There had been a full Memorial Service held in All Saints Church 23rd March 2013’.

Poster advertising the Memorial Service for Sgt Reginald Fitzgerald
The new memorial inside All Saints Church Staplehurst
Anne Storm reads the lesson at the memorial service

The service was attended by Anne Storm and many of the villagers, there were also representatives and standards of many military veteran’s associations including the Royal British Legion.

Standard bearers make their way down the aisle after the service

We are immensely proud of all that we have done as a community to show that those who gave their lives for our future are never forgotten. Many thanks to Golding Homes for all their help in this project. Golding Homes Head of Regeneration Keith Mandy added “We are very pleased with the outcome of this scheme and appreciate the efforts of many people who have contributed here in achieving our mission to provide affordable homes. This makes a valuable local contribution as well as a significant environmental improvement for future generations of Staplehurst. I am very proud of what the team has achieved”.

The development of six two-bedroom bungalows for affordable rent were built by Epps Construction on a former garage site.

The new bungalows in Fitzgerald Close

In conclusion Robin Hollamby writes.

I first started working on this prior to meeting Anne Storm for the first time three years ago, there were several pieces all connected that had been published on the ISA website and in the magazine and I thought that it would be a good idea to bring them all together in one piece. It has been far more difficult than I envisaged and taken considerably longer than I had hoped.

The village of Staplehurst which is just a 20-minute drive from my home in Five Oak Green, and its connection to this story had more that the usual interest in me. At the time  I was also working on a World War 1 project for my own parish. Hearing about a missing aircraft, a name missing from the war memorial, a young man who had a difficult childhood and worked on a farm I knew of. It was just like a big magnet I could not get away from!

The farm that Reginald had worked on belonged to a farming family from the village of Tudeley where I had spent most of my childhood. My neighbour Mr David Lillteton is a teacher at Staplehurst Primary School, and the village of Tudeley is just two miles from where David and I now live in Five Oak Green although it is in the same parish. Some of the students in his class live in Fitzgerald Close. I was invited to the school to talk to the children about Reginald Fitzgerald and his life in what is now their community during the Summer term of 2016. In their final year at the school they study WW2 and those from the parish who took part in it in addition to local history.

Like most other men who fell in the war Sergeant Reginald Fitzgerald and the crew of KH158 H remembered on a war memorial. The air crew who were lost and never recovered during the Italian Campaign are remembered on an imposing memorial in Malta.

The memorial in Malta where the crew of KH158 H are remembered.

Considering the position of the relevant agencies and governments and military traditions if the aircraft and the bodies of the crew of KH158 H were to be found the site would be ‘Closed’ and the aircraft would be classed as a war grave. It should be remembered that the crew were a Commonwealth crew made up of five South Africans, two Britain’s and an Australian flying in an American built aircraft under the colours of the South African Airforce.

The normal accepted definition of a war grave is: The term “war grave” does not only apply to graves: ships sunk during wartime are often considered to be war graves, as are military aircraft that crash into water; this is particularly true if crewmen perished inside the vehicle. Classification of a war grave is not limited to the occupier’s death in combat but includes military personnel who die while in active service.

The crews of the KH154 W, KG874 J, KG875 D and KG999 P from 31 Squadron SAAF and KH239 S from 34 Squadron SAAF, all of which were taking part in the resupply mission which took off from their base at Celone airfield on 12th October 1944. They were reburied in the CWGC cemetery in Milan as part of the consolidation of war graves and cemetery’s that took place some time after the end of the war.

The cemeteries like the one in Milan and in Malta are looked after by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission and their staff around the world.



    I did the flypast in a Harvard aircraft of the SAAF Museum over the SAAF Memorial at Bays Hill on 10 October 2021 in honour of this event and am proud to say I was allowed to honour these gentlemen for what they did for us!!!!!

    1. Martin Urry

      Many thanks Darryl, the flypasts at our service every year are always much appreciated.


    As above

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