We had an email recently, from Richard Curtis in Kitchener, Ontario, asking why Wing Commander Charles Gray was on the last flight of the Townsend crew, 405 Squadron. For details of the deaths of this crew on 29 July 1944, see our page: REMEMBERING DEREK. Only one body was ever found, that of Colin John Blyth, RCAF; the rest are thought to still be in their Lancaster under the waters of the Ringkøbing Fjord off the west coast of Jutland (see image).
By the time that he died, Wing Commander Gray had become a Group Captain. This was a very senior rank for someone flying as a gunner. His age was also very notable – he was 36 years old. Our immediate assumption was that he was a senior officer, possibly a Gunnery Leader or a staff officer at HQ, who was flying a trip to keep his hand in, as was required of all AOC Bennett’s squadron commanders, leaders and staff officers in a dictum laid down by Bennett himself. Many would be lost in this way, but it was a matter of principle that all leading officers must keep thoroughly up to date with the reality of Pathfinder warfare and that the only way this could be done was by flying on ops, ‘moderately frequently’. (See Bennett’s book Pathfinder, p.178, details at foot of page.)
Assumptions are always dangerous. Charles Gray is a highly unusual case and there is quite another reason for his rank, seniority, and presence on the Townsend crew. As the newspaper clipping below shows, he had served as Director of Accounts in the RCAF Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario, before getting his wish to remuster as aircrew. The undated clipping gives his age as 35 when he remustered, giving a comparatively short training and operational period before his death.
Charles Gray seems to have been a permanent member of the Townsend crew on 405 Squadron, often called the Canadian squadron although Bennett ensured that there was a 50/50 balance of nationalities. Here is an exert from the 405 Squadron ORB concerning an earlier operation flown by the Townsend crew; this was on 6 July, some three weeks before the crew died. (Apologies for the very poor quality.)
Charles Gray and four other Canadian members of the Townsend crew, including Elwood Albert Townsend, the pilot (who was only 22), have no known grave and are remembered at the Runnymede Memorial. More than 17,000 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, or Canadians serving with the Royal Air Force, died during the war, and about a third of these have no known grave.
It should be remembered that all these men were willing and highly motivated volunteers; there was no Canadian conscription for overseas service until the last months of the war and then only a small number of home defence conscripts were sent overseas. See also:
REFERENCES & CREDITS
D C T Bennett, Pathfinder: Wartime Memoirs (Frederick Muller, London, 1958).
405 Squadron ORB: British National Archives, ref: AIR 27.1789.
Newspaper clipping and information on Canadian war statistics from Charles Gray entry: The Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Image of Ringkøbing Fjord off the west coast of Jutland: Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality