Black, Freeman, Gibbs, Green, Rigby, Rochester and Zapfe

The loss of a Halifax B/GR Mark II bomber and what preceded the event has been told through the eyes of the tail gunner, Flight Sergeant Merton Earl Zapfe, who assumed that that the aircraft had crashed in the Morsebel polder. However, available data also suggest that the aircraft was damaged somewhere over Nieuwkoop and that the pilot had attempted to make a belly landing in the Morsebel polder. Neither opinion adds or subtracts from the nature or conclusion of this story.

The air space was momentarily quiet so that Zapfe could recline in his seat awhile. He remained alert, however, checking the plexiglas panels at the rear of the airplane to see what was happening outside the craft. It looked like an inferno, high up in the darkness of the night sky above the Roer area. An incredible scene that could almost be considered beautiful were it not so real. Below, in Dortmund, one could see the slow explosions of heavy bombs. Whose were they? It took a few seconds for the two 1000-pound bombs to touch ground and by then the airplane had moved on. Unless tracer bullets were being used, the crew could hear but could not see the vicious German anti-aircraft fire exploding alongside the airplane. Then it resembled what 60 years later might be called a laser show. Just like the beams of those enormous search lights, these explosions lit up the sky all around. The enemy was defending the industrial heart of Germany with everything available. Above – or rather from every direction – you could hear the rapid swell and drone of engines as well as the rounds of machine gun fire from enemy fighter planes. It was a miracle even to survive this violence. Flying towards Germany it was still relatively quiet, since the airplane was flying in a gigantic formation composed of 826 bombers – all the airplanes that were available to the Allies in England and Scotland. They had soon lost sight of most of the other aircraft; only part of their own squadron was still in the vicinity.

Thus the plane was left to fend for itself. They only had the cover of darkness and their on-board guns for protection – i.e., 9 Browning 0.303 machine guns (1 fore, 4 in the canopy located on the back of the plane, and 4 aft in the hands of tail gunner Zapfe). He fought ferociously but never knew whether he had hit any target.

Canadian tail gunner Sgt Merton E. Zapfe

Formation scattered

De twee Canadezen aan boord van de neergeschoten Halifax: Sgt. M.E. Zapfe en Sgt. Henry G. Freeman

Now Zapfe’s Halifax HR 836 was nearly flying solo, their formation having been scattered. At least one airplane had crashed after being damaged and nothing was known about what had happened to the other aircraft. Only the HR 835 remained, as both planes cruised brotherly wing to wing, first in the direction of Apeldoorn, then via Alkmaar, and once on the other side of the North Sea from Flamborough on to their airbase in Snaith, Yorkshire, where they had taken off at about 23:00 hours. Zapfe could give himself a few moments rest. He was just 20 years old. The pilot commanding the aircraft from the cockpit was Flying Officer Rigby who himself was only aged 21. The crew, numbering seven men, was completing its first operational flight. The Halifax was also a new airplane which was not especially unusual because the lifespan of such a bomber was usually brief. The squadron to which it belonged had, at least on paper, 24 aircraft, but in the past eight weeks they had lost no less than 25 airplanes. The crew members had to be replaced so frequently that many men barely had the opportunity to become acquainted.

As they flew over Essen, everything began to go wrong. The HR 835 was hit by gunfire and Zapfe could only watch as the airplane spiraled downward aflame. It crashed into a house in the Parkfriedhof (Church Yard Park), the symbolism of which remained obscure to Zapfe. Although they had escaped, they now had to fend for themselves. To clear his mind, he thought about home, in Canada, where his four older brothers had already left home, leaving their 8-year-old sister alone with their parents. Two of his brothers, Graydon and Bill, were also in the air force. As Flying Officer, Bill recently had gone missing when his plane crashed. His brother Gerry, who was in the Navy, had already made 25 crossings between England and the United States. It was only one year earlier that Zapfe had graduated from high school, had taken leave of his rugby club and church, and had signed up with the army where he was assigned army number R/139842 and conscripted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. There he had been training as gunner after passing his last examination on 28 August 1942. Thereafter, in England, he continued to follow the longest leg of his training, i.e., learning to fly large bombers. On 15 May 1943, after completion, Zapfe was detached as Flight Sergeant to the 51st RAF Squadron.

From ‘Operations record book’, of 51 Squadron RAF 23-24 Mei 1943. ‘Nothing further was heard’.

Shot down by a Messerschmitt  

The date is 24 May 1943. As far as Zapfe can ascertain, they are flying alone above Apeldoorn. In fact, they are flying off course above Arnhem. Presumably their navigator Henry Freeman had been wounded and at any rate Zapfe can no longer make contact with him by means of the on-board radio. They are approaching Leiden now rather than Alkmaar. However, Oberfeldwebel Heinz Vinke who has received orders to take off from airfield Bergen knows exactly where he can intercept the RAF plane. German radar had picked up the Halifax on screen and could flawlessly direct Vinke by radio towards Zapfe’s airplane. Vinke was not worried about flying unaccompanied like the Halifax. In contrast to the crewmen in the Halifax, Vinke was an accomplished pilot flying a fast and more easily maneuverable fighter plane, a Messerschmitt ME-110. Heading towards Leiden, Vinke catches sight of the Halifax at the level of the Overveer polder in Oegstgeest.

The slower solitary bomber with its newly trained crew members was no match for the Messerschmitt with Vinke in the cockpit. At 02:24 hours the German shot the HR 836 out of the sky. Zapfe did not even see him coming. Heinz Vinke himself will die 9 months later.

Heavy bomber: Halifax B GR/II series I

The damaged aircraft that had been shot down landed in the Morsebel polder, now Haaswijk, at the eastern end of present-day Kleyn Proffijtlaan between the spot where the road bends to the left and the little green where the bus stops. Since 2009, a small monument remembers to what happened (see below).

A Halifax B GR/II Series I is not a small aircraft. It had four engines and a wing span, measured across both wings, of 32 meters. The largest span is 30 meters. The rear of the fuselage remained halfway above ground and could be recovered. However, the foremost section of the fuselage, including wings and cockpit, was buried for the most part underground where the front gardens of the houses built on the south side of the road are located. The tip of the right wing and cockpit would thus be buried under the asphalt of the southernmost lane, the cockpit about in the middle between both curves in the road. They still are lying buried there.

On 27 May 1943 Merton Earl Zapfe was buried by the Germans in the ‘military cemetery Oestgeestleiden’ as later reported in a Canadian newspaper, without much ceremony,. All of his fellow crewmen had also been killed. The bodies of Green, Black and Rochester could be recovered easily and were buried on the date mentioned. However, it was quite a different story for Freeman, Gibbs and Commander Rigby. Because only a few of their body parts could be recovered, they were buried together in a double grave, with their three tombstones placed side by side to symbolize this fact.

Sergeant Black’s parents
It was the explicit wish of Alastair Black’s parents, who lived in Richmond, Surrey, to be reunited with their son here on earth. With this last wish in mind, the urn containing the ashes of Norman Black was placed in the grave along with his sons last remains on 1 June 1960. Present during this ceremony were Alastair’s brother  who lived in South Africa, an officer in the Royal Air Force and members of the Committee for War Graves Oegstgeest. On 16 May 1989 the urn holding the ashes of Jean Black, Alastair’s mother, was also buried in the grave along with her son and husband.

Three crew members were left behind
Freeman, Gibbs en Rigby
When it crashed, the foremost part of the Halifax buried deeper into the ground than the rest of the fuselage, even deeper than the layer of clay in Haaswijk. The Germans, who held sway over the Dutchmen who were attempting to recover the bodies of the Allies, considered it neither possible nor necessary to recover more than a few body parts which could not be identified. Because the few limbs recovered appeared to belong to two individuals, they were therefore placed in separate coffins for burial alongside their fellow mates, with crosses inscribed with the words ‘Unknown’ marking their graves. Later, during reburial, the contents of both caskets were combined. However, the bodies of the last three crewmen remained buried under ground in Haaswijk.
As a result of an RAF inquiry in October and November 1945 regarding the identity of military men missing in action, the RAF attempted between 28 December 1945 and 31 January 1946 to locate and salvage the plane’s fuselage. However, in that cold and inaccessible terrain, their attempt had failed because they had begun counting the many watery ditches marked on the map from the wrong location. Therefore, they arrived at the wrong spot, found nothing – except the engine of another airplane the origin of which still remains a mystery – and concluded too rapidly and erroneously that the aircraft must have incinerated completely. In reality, however, the fuselage and tail had been seen by various eyewitnesses and found to be in a reasonable condition.

Flying Officer John Edward (Ed) Rigby


Crew of the Halifax HR 836:

1. Flying Officer John Edward Rigby, pilot, commander, aged 21 years. Son of William Albert and Ethel Rigby, Appley Bridge, Lancashire, England.
2. Flying Officer Thomas Herbert Green, bombardier, aged 25 years. Son of Charles Lewis Green and Fanny Selina Green; husband of Daisy Ellen Green, College Green, Bristol, England.
3. Flight Sergeant Henry Graham Freeman, navigator, aged 24 years. Son of Arthur Charles Freeman and Mary Etta Freeman, Britannia Beach, British Columbia, Canada.
4. Flight Sergeant Merton Earl Zapfe, tail gunner, aged 20 years. Son of Mr. and Mrs. W.P. Zapfe, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

 5. Sergeant Alastair Milner Hood Black, flight engineer, aged 25 years. Son of Norman and Jean Black; husband of Winsome Noel Gardiner Black, Richmond, Surrey, England.
6. Sergeant Aubrey Edgar Perrin Rochester, radio-operator/gunner, aged 33 years. Son of Edgar and Beatrice Maud Rochester; husband to Doris Temperance Rochester, Swindon, Wiltshire, England.
7. Sergeant Henry John Gibbs, gunner, aged 18 or 19 years. From England.

Seven gravesones of the Halifax-crew. The stones of Freeman, Gibbs and Rigby are placed against each other on 2 graves.

 Monument at the place were the Halifax crashed.

On 4th May 2009, a small monument was placed where the Halifax crashed and three crew members were not salvaged. On the press-cutting below, David Rochester attended the unveiling. He was a little boy when his father Aubrey Rochester, died and was buried at the ‘Groene Kerkje

Press-cutting from English newpaper. David Rochester at the monument in Oegstgeest.