The Burgum family history society is a member of the Guild of one name studies and researches the names

William Arnold Burgum (1921-1943)

The article below was written by John Williams and published in the magazine "After the Battle" (Number 131, 2006).


Bill Burgum was the son of George and Ethel (Goldworthy) Burgum, and the grandson of Timothy Burgum, the blacksmith from Littledean, Gloucestershire, in England. The family emigrated to Queensland, Australia, in the early 1900's, settling in the small town of Maleny, not far from the Gold Gold Coast.

Bill was born at Childers, Queensland, Australia, on 30th June 1922. He would have been ten years old when his grandfather Timothy died. Bill's father George died at Maryborough, a few hours north of Maleny, in 1969.

The picture (left) shows Bill in a tropical uniform of the Royal Australian Air Force. It was taken in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens at the end of 1941 or early 1942.

JUST ONE CREW OF MANY - By John Williams
This is a story that to all intents and purposes ended more than ten years before I was born. It is the account of seven men whose lives were cut short in the early hours of August 24, 1943 in a place that was many miles from their home towns. This is the tale of just one crew of RAF Bomber Command who were shot down and killed during the Second World War.

For me, the story began when 1 was a small boy about the age of 12, living in Miranda, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. My mother had a photograph of a young man walking down a street and, when I asked her who the person was, she told me his name was Harley Harber. (Pictured below, in George Street, Sydney).

When I asked her who Harley was, she said that he was an Australian who had been engaged to her sister Peg, and that he had been killed during the last war. But when I pressed Mum about how he had died, she said she didn't know.

An Australian, Harley Harber was just one of the 47,268 crewmen lost while serving with RAF Bomber Command (including 8,209 Canadians, 3,412 Australians, and 1,433 New Zealanders). A further 8,305 were killed in non-operational accidents plus 1,570 ground crews. In the four months of the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command lost 541 pilots but Bomber Command sometimes lost more than that number in a single night! Harley survived just three operations, just a tenth of a normal tour of duty comprising 30 sorties. This, the Air Ministry deemed, gave the individual a 50-50 chance of survival.

Time passed but the circumstances surrounding Harley's death continued to interest me, and by the time I was in my late 'teens I had to know more. How did he get killed? And when? As said, mum was not sure on either score and when I asked her why she had the photo, she told me it was because, after Harley was killed, Peg had asked her to get rid of all his letters and photographs. This she did, but she did not have the heart to burn the last picture.

I asked Mum how her sister had got to know Harley and she explained that they had met in Riverstone, a little town some 60 kilometres north-west of Sydney. As her brothers and my father were all in the army at the time, my grandmother and her three girls had to run the local news agency business. Harley worked as a livestock clerk at the Riverstone meat factory and, because he lived at Northbridge, which is north of Sydney and some 50 kilometres away, from Monday to Friday he lived in digs at River-stone. Apparently he called in every day to buy his newspaper which was how he got to know the family and Peg in particular.

In June 1982 I sent a letter to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra asking what they could tell me about Harley Harber. They wrote back the following month stating that the late Flight Sergeant H. C. Harber was killed in action on August 24, 1943 while serving with No. 158 Squadron, RAF. They also told me that he was buried in the Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery in Berlin-Charlottenburg in Plot 2, Row E, Grave 20.

I didn't know it at the time, but this one letter would have far-reaching consequences that would take me, on more than one occasion, to the other side of the world and back. It was the beginning of a journey of discovery that would last for well over 20 years.

The RAF had an odd way of assigning a crew. They put all the pilots, navigators, bomb-aimers, wireless operators and gunners together and then allowed them to choose themselves. Flight Sergeant William Arnold Burgum. 414463, a pilot of the Royal Australian Air Force, was posted to No. 10 Operational Training Unit at Stanton Harcourt in Oxfordshire, very close to the ancient and historical town of Oxford. The Whitleys at No. 10 OTU required a five-man crew so he needed a navigator, bomb-aimer, wireless operator and a gunner. The men he got together were: Navigator Sergeant Peter Leighton Buck, 1391079, RAF; Bomb-aimer Sergeant Donald Roy Hempstock, 1578243, RAF; Wireless Operator Sergeant Arthur Cox, 1175980, RAF; Rear gunner Flight Sergeant Harley Cecil Harber, 421595, RAAF.

Pictured left - Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, April 1943. The crew join each other, L-R: Sergeant Arthur Cox, the wireless operator; Flight Sergeant Bill Burgum, pilot; Flight Sergeant Harley Harber, the tail gunner, and in front, the bomb-aimer Sergeant Don Hempstock.

Exactly how the crew came together will never be known but it is likely that Bill and Harley, recognising each other as Australians by the deeper blue of their uniforms, decided to team up as they came from the same part of the world. It was at OTU training that the crew bonded as a unit. They would go everywhere together; live together; go to the pub together, and become closer to one another than they would to their own families. They had to have confidence in their skipper and believe that his orders in the air decided whether they lived or died. He in turn had to have confidence in each man in his crew that they would carry out their individual responsibilities correctly as his life depended on their accurate judgement. They were a team, and as a team would live, fight and, if luck went against them, die together.

After spending about two months — from April 6 to June 15, 1943 — at Stanton Harcourt, the crew were sent to No. 1658 Heavy Conversion Unit based at Riccall in Yorkshire to be trained in the skills of flying a heavy four-engine bomber. As this required a seven-man crew, they were joined by a flight engineer, Sergeant Roland Hill, 1202448, and a second gunner, Flight Sergeant Gordon Harrison, R/76374, of the Royal Canadian Air Force. For the next eight weeks each man worked hard to fine-tune his skills. The two gunners had to work as a team. Harley, or 'Happy' as he was known to the crew, in the rear turret was regarded as the senior gunner with Gordon in the mid-upper. On August 4, 1943, the crew had a close call during one of their training flights. They took off in a Halifax II, with Bill Burgum at the controls and his instructor Flying Officer J. G. Jenkins beside him, the rest of the crew occupying their usual positions on the aircraft, to carry out circuits and landings. Shortly before 1750 hours, Bill touched down heavily on one wheel and the plane bounced back into the air. Bill opened up and went around again and, despite the distraction of the warning horn sounding, brought the aircraft in for a second attempt. However, on touching down, the undercarriage collapsed. All those on board were unharmed, but the Halifax, W1093, was a write-off.

After nearly two months at No. 1658 HCU. the crew were posted to No. 158 Squadron at RAF Lissett on August 10, 1943. Seven days later they went on their first raid. Left: A moment's relaxation outside Brigstowe Cottage in the nearby village of Sutton. L-R: Don Hempstock, Arthur Cox and Harley Harber. Right: Our author John Williams travelled from Australia to seek out their old billet. He also traced the location of the picture below which he found had also been taken in Sutton. Then it was called the Chequers but now it is the Freeyman Inn. The two men having their breakfast are Don, two unknowns, Harley and Bill.

On the hot and sunny afternoon of August 17, Bill and his crew found themselves listed to fly on the bombing attack against the V-weapon research complex at Peenemunde scheduled for that night, August 17/18. Summoned to the briefing in the operations room, the older hands noticed the heightened security with this mission, which was code-named Operation 'Hydra'. Peenemunde lay some 180 kilometres north of Berlin. It was an easily recognisable target as it was on the Baltic coast and the island of Rűgen lay to the north-west. The aircraft would be attacking in bright moonlight, which was unusual as Bomber Command normally did not venture that far into Germany on moonlit nights. The aircraft were also to attack at 8,000 feet, a lower altitude than their normal bombing height of at least 18,000 feet.
(Picture right is a model of a V2 launchpad at the Deutsches Museum)

The crews were not told the true reason for this attack, only that the Germans were working on a new form of radar that would be used against the bombers. They were also told that if they did not destroy the target in this attack, they would have to return the next night and the next night until they did. As part of the cover for the raid, a diversionary attack was planned for eight Mosquitoes of No. 139 Squadron to be sent ahead to bomb Berlin. It was hoped that this would draw the German night fighters away from the main bomber force attacking Peenemunde. A number of Mosquitoes and Beaufighters were also sent to the German night tighter airfields to attack the enemy aircraft as they were taking off. In all, 596 bombers — 324 Lancasters, 218 Halifaxes and 54 Stirlings — were detailed to attack Peenemunde and of the Halifaxes, 24 would come from No. 158 Squadron.

For Bill and his crew the raid went without a hitch. As their Halifax HR738 approached the target, Don opened the bomb doors and looked down through his bomb-sight at the fast approaching target, their bombs being released at 0029 hours. The squadron Operations Record Book records the crew's comments: 'Visibility was good, with light cloud and smoke over the target. Target identified by Green Target Indicators. Cluster of greens in bomb-sight on bombing. Bombing appeared to be well concentrated on markers. The MC [Master of Ceremonies directing the raid] could be heard through some distortion.' Having been posted to Riccall in Yorkshire to undergo conversion to four-engined bombers with seven-man crews, they were joined by a second gunner, Sergeant( Gordon Harrison and Sergeant Roland Hill as flight engineer.
(The picture above shows Peenemunde on 12th June 1943)

Fours days later the crew found themselves on the battle order for an attack on Leverkusen on the night of August 22/23, for which the squadron was to provide a 22-strong force. For this mission, Bill and his crew were allocated Halifax JD298, 'N' for Nuts, and christened JAFBO standing for ‘Just About Feeling Browned Off.’ This aircraft had been on the strength of the squadron since June 30, this being its 13th trip. It would be lost on the raid to Nuremberg the following week. The bomb-load for this trip to Leverkusen would be one l,0001b bomb with a 37A time-delay pistol, one l,0001b GP bomb, plus a mixture of 4lb and 30lb incendiary bombs.

Bill and the crew were part of a force of 462 aircraft — 257 Lancasters, 192 Halifaxes and 13 Mosquitoes — assigned to the operation. The aiming point was the IG Farben chemical factory. The raid was not very successful, thick clouds covering the target area and bombs falling over a wide area. Having cleared Leverkusen, Bill's Halifax was just crossing the border between Germany and Belgium when at 0032 hours they saw another Halifax off to starboard come under attack from a German night fighter. This is their report: - Halifax II, Series 1A, 'N' JD298 of No. 158 Squadron. Target — Leverkusen-Köln. Position 51.05N 06.25E. Time 0032 hours Height 18,000 feet. Speed 155 IAS. Heading 279M. Weather, clear and moon on [unreadable] beam, no searchlights or flak, IFF off. Enemy aircraft identified as twin-engine aircraft firing at Halifax aircraft on starboard beam 500-600 yards away.

‘Rear gunner sighted Halifax on starboard beam being attacked by enemy aircraft, which was about 100 yards away and then saw Halifax shot down by e/a. As e/a was firing at Halifax, both rear gunner and mid-upper gunner opened fire, then e/a turned in to attack own a/c. Rear gunner gave combat manoeuvre to pilot, a diving turn to starboard, and enemy aircraft passed under own aircraft at 100 feet below, firing at own aircraft and was then lost to sight. No damage to own aircraft or casualties to crew. Damages claimed to e/a by both rear and mid-upper gunner. Number of rounds fired — 350.' In all, Bomber Command lost three Lancasters and two Halifaxes on this raid.

No sooner had they returned to base than Bill and his crew were assigned to an attack on Berlin the following night, August 23/24. This was the start of Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris' long-awaited attack on the German capital — 'the Big City' as it was known to the aircrews. As the curtain covering the map of Europe in the operations room was drawn back, the crews could see that they would be heading more or less on a straight line from where they crossed the Dutch coast to Germany, heading straight for a point to the south of Berlin. From here they would swing north to bomb the city, then head north and turn west over the Baltic to cross Denmark at its narrowest section before heading back to their respective bases. The reason for this long trip via Denmark was the hope that the bombers could outrun the night fighters and so make them land to refuel. In all 727 aircraft would take part in the attack — 335 Lancasters, 251 Halifaxes. 124 Stirlings and 17 Mosquitoes.

Bill and his crew were allocated Halifax HR980. 'E' for Edward. It had arrived on the squadron on August 3 and this would be its inaugural trip. The bomb-load for this mission was one 1,000lb MC, plus 420 4lb, 30lb incendiaries. After completing a test-flight on the new bomber and the usual pre-take off checks, Bill swung HR980 on to the allocated runway and allowing the engines to reach maximum revolutions, released the brakes, taking off at 2014 hours. The Operations Record Book shows only a stark entry next for their Halifax: 'Aircraft took oft at time stated and failed to return. Nothing was heard of aircraft or crew.' It was a bland, cold statement, typical of service terminology, blunt and matter of fact. The simple phrase ‘failed to return' had been entered so many times before and would be entered many times in the future — in fact, over 10,000 times for aircraft of Bomber Command alone, recording the loss of over 47.000 men.

Crews speak highly of the punctual and efficient way the Pathfinder Force marked the route and the target on the Berlin raid. A very concentrated attack quickly developed round the markers, causing large fires and a series of very heavy explosions which lit up the sky and from which flames appeared to leap to a great height. Smoke from the fires billowed up over 15,000 feet. Some crews claim to have identified ground detail in the Tiergarten area in the light of the fires and bomb bursts, and it is evident from the pilots' reports that the main weight of the attack fell to the west and south-west of the city. A photo-reconnaissance pilot who was over Berlin the following afternoon reported dense columns of smoke rising to 20.000 feet: 'Preliminary examination of the film reveals that the smoke completely obliterates the whole of Berlin south-east of a diagonal line running from south-west to north-east of the city. The Charlottenburg district suffered greatly from fires. A chain of about 80 fires was seen on the western fringe of the dense smoke. The fires appeared to be burning in the top storeys of residential buildings, starting from Bismarckstrasse in the north of the Charlottenburg district to Bahnhof Steglitz in the south. In all, about 100 fires were seen. There was little fresh damage in the central city area or the north of Berlin.'

In all, 56 aircraft were lost on the raid — Bomber Command's greatest loss of aircraft in one night so far in the war. Nos. 78 and 158 Squadrons (Bill's squadron) lost the most aircraft, each losing five. In the morning there would be many familiar faces missing from the messes or in the pubs and dance halls of the nearby towns. For many local people who had in a very short space of time become friends with the aircrews, there would be no news of the fate of those who failed to return.

For the loved ones, the telegram would arrive with its dreaded message like this one received by George Burgum. Bill's father: 'Regret to inform you that your son Sergeant William Arnold Burgum is missing as result of air operations on the 23 Aug 1943 stop letter will follow.'

(Picture above - The Berlin War Cemetery. Only three bodies were recovered from the crash).

The crew came to grief from the guns of a night fighter on their third mission — the August 23/24 operation to Berlin. They crashed not far from Hermann Goring's estate at Carin-hall (see After the Battle No. 71). Only three bodies were recovered from the crash. They were initially buried in Reiers-dorf (Kreis Templin) but in November 1947 were exhumed and re-interred in Berlin War Cemetery. Only Flight Sergeant Harber and Sergeant Cox could be identified. Pieces from the Halifax are still lying on the surface. The final fate of Bill and his crew would not be settled until April 1948 when letters were received from the Air Ministry by the next of kin of Harley Harber and Arthur Cox stating that their remains had been interred in the Berlin War Cemetery. But the remaining five crewmen — Peter Buck, Don Hempstock, Roland Hill, Gordon Harrison and Bill Burgum — were still listed as missing, a fate that would haunt their loved ones and never leave them for the rest of their lives.

Although I had known about Harley all my life, I only had a very small link to the past: the photo that my mother had kept. After I received the reply in 1982 from the Australian War Memorial telling me where he was buried, I began my search for the remainder of the crew. Over the next eight years I was able to track down a relative of all seven members. This was all done in the times before Internet and required a great deal of letter-writing. From this research I was able to find out more about the crew and the operations they took part in, enough in fact to write a book. I discovered that they had been shot down by a German night fighter some 50 kilometres north of Berlin after the Halifax had left the target area. The crash site was in a swamp in the Forsterei Reiersdorf, five kilometres south of the village of Gollin (on the B109 Berlin to Prenzlau road) in East Germany. I found that the Germans had searched the area a few days after the crash but were only able to recover a small part of the aircraft and the bodies of Flight Sergeant Harber. Sergeant Cox and one that they could not identify. Despite the use of special salvage equipment they were unable to retrieve any more of the aircraft or crew.

Having travelled over 10,000 miles to England, John then went on to Germany to investigate the crash site in the Forsterei Reiersdorf which had been shown to him by the son of the local mayor, Marko Unglaube. In 1947 RAF investigators from the Missing Research and Enquiry Service arrived but. despite their best efforts, they were unable to recover anything further. Then in 1949 the Iron Curtain descended over that part of Germany preventing further efforts and by the time I came to research the incident the Wall dividing East and West had been in place for many years. But times change. In 2000, after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and reunification of Germany. I sent a letter to the local mayor requesting help in locating the crash site. The mayor's son Marko Unglaube wrote back saying that he knew precisely where it was and that he would send some photos. To my surprise he said that pieces of the aircraft were still lying on the surface. Further enquiries revealed that the swamp is now more like a bog and that the remains of the Halifax are just below the surface.

In April 2002 I flew to London and then on to Berlin to visit the crash site. To me it was the end of a 20-year search that began with an old laded photograph and ended in a bog on the other side of the world. These airmen died a long way from home. They had left to fight for a better world and died for it. It is hard now as I look at their happy faces knowing what I know now. I think that I mourn for their lost youth, their chance to lead a full and happy life. We owe them a debt we can never repay. A team has now been put together to recover the remains of the other four crewmen. All that is awaited is a decision from the British and German governments as to which one is responsible for the operation.

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of After the Battle International Ltd, (Winston Ramsey, Editor-in-Chief), Hobbs Cross House, Hobbs Cross, Old Harlow, Essex CM17 0NN.