Son of RAF gunner whose bomber was shot down and vanished after WWII raid on Berlin can finally lay him to rest after plane ‘and remains of crew’ were found in Dutch lake 77 years later

  • Sgt Leonard Shrubsall one of seven on board the Short Stirling Bomber in 1943
  • Wife Beatrice was three months pregnant when she was told he’d failed to return
  • Now his son, Richard, from Kent, has learned the bomber is to be recovered 

The son of an RAF gunner whose plane vanished during the Second World War may finally be able to lay his father to rest after the bomber was discovered by chance 77 years later.

Sgt Leonard Shrubsall was one of seven crew members on board the Short Stirling Bomber when it was shot down while returning from a raid on Berlin.

His wife Beatrice was three months pregnant when she received a telegram informing her that her 30-year-old husband had failed to return from the operation on March 29, 1943.

The father-to-be knew his wife was expecting their first child after suffering an earlier miscarriage and whilst on duty he wrote to her telling her that he was ‘the happiest man in the world.’

Now his son, Richard, 76, has learned the bomber is to be recovered at the end of the month from Lake IJsselmeer in the Netherlands where it was shot down by a German night fighter, used in times of poor visibility, with his father’s remains ‘very likely’ to be inside.

Sgt Leonard Shrubsall, pictured far right, was one of seven crew members on board the Short Stirling Bomber when it was shot down while returning from a raid on Berlin

A map shows how the plane took off from RAF Downham Market, then crashed in the Netherlands returning from the raid in Berlin on March 29, 1943

How agile 270mph heavy bomber terrorised German night fighters with lightning speed and manoeuvrability 

The Short Stirling formed the core of the British heavy bomber units during the Second World War and was the first four-engine bomber to serve in the RAF.

It was designed in the late 1930s by Belfast-based aerospace company, Short Brothers, to meet the demands of the British Air Ministry, which wanted a long range, high speed, four-engined penetration bomber aircraft, which could be completely designed and manufactured over a short period of time.

Prototypes were made and tests were ongoing, but the rise of the German Luftwaffe and the risk it posted to Britain saw the order of the Stirlings soar from 200 aircraft to 1,500.   

By the time the Stirling Mk III was developed, it boasted a speed of 270mph, thanks to its four 1,635 hp Hercules VI engines, while its 14,000lb bomb load was double that of any other bomber flying from the British-based aviation firm.

The production of the Stirling suffered delays due to the bombings of the Luftwaffe, but by August 1940, the No 7 Squadron at RAF, Leeming, North Yorkshire was outfitted with the new bombers.

The bomber entered the squadron service in early 1941, earning praise from pilots for its ease of handling and its ability to out-turn enemy night fighters. 

From the spring of 1942, a greater number of the Stirlings were deployed, and by May 1943, they would fly in the hundreds to the continent on bombing raids. 

In all their service, the Stirlings flew a total of 14,500 sorties, during which 27,000 tons of bombs were dropped, having been used in expeditions such as the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Garden and Operation Glimmer. 

Some 582 aircraft were completely lost, while 119 were simply written off, and by late 1943, they were withdrawn from the front line and relegated to transportation and other alternative mission types. 

This was due to the increasing availability of the more capable Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster, which took over the strategic bombing of Germany. 

The Air Ministry also played a role in limiting the Stirling’s performance, after deciding to restrict the wingspan of the aircraft to 100 feet.

Source: War History Online 

Richard, from Iwade, Kent, said: ‘The plane was found submerged in this freshwater lake. At first, it was thought the aircraft was a BK710, but when it was looked into further it was the BK716, which was my father’s plane.

‘The seven families of the crew have been informed and are led to believe their remains are still on the plane.’

Richard, who family members say resembles his father, often talks about him even though they never met, his wife Janice said.

The couple said they were ‘flabbergasted’ when they received a letter saying that the plane had been found.

She said: ‘I opened the letter indoors, my husband was out in the shed. I said to him I’ve just got this letter.

‘To be able to find the plane after all those years, we couldn’t believe it.. It just came out of the blue.’

The family had always thought that the plane had crashed into the North Sea after being reported missing almost eight decades ago.

Janice, 76, said: ‘The whole family was resigned to that fact. Nothing was ever said about any of this until last year. It’s just taken over our own lives.’

She added: ‘We’re ecstatic that it’s going to be recovered. It is emotional though. We think Richard is the only child of the crew members left.’

In 2008 a Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution team went to help a boat with engine trouble in Lake IJsselmeer, The Netherlands’ largest lake, just north of Amsterdam.

As the crew raised the anchor they found a part of an aeroplane’s landing gear had become attached.

The captain alerted Johan Graas, the Dutch chairman of the Aircraft Recovery Group 1940-45 which locates missing war planes and salvages parts for a wartime museum. They launched a full-scale investigation the following year.

Divers found an array of debris and items including a pen, cigarette case and a tail section of the fuselage belonging to a Short Stirling bomber bearing a barely legible identification number.

Mr Graas’ team initially thought the number was BK710, a plane belonging to 149 ‘East India’ Squadron.

But closer inspection by Dutch police forensics revealed the tail number was actually BK716 of 218 ‘Gold Coast’ Bomber Squadron which flew bombing raids out of RAF Downham Market, in Norfolk.

A cigarette case from the wreckage bearing the initials JMC, for the plane’s wireless operator James Michael Campbell, confirmed its identity. 

The recovery team had to backtrack and break the news to the BK710 crew members’ relatives that they had confused the planes.

Mr Graas said: ‘They were very happy that we found it, but it was terrible to tell them later that it wasn’t the BK710 but the BK716. I have to thank all the family of the BK710 crew members.’

The recovery team, which plans to hold a ceremony for the relatives of both sets of crew members, also investigated to see whether human remains remain on board.


The father-to-be, pictured left and right, knew his wife was pregnant with their first child after suffering an earlier miscarriage and whilst on duty he wrote to her telling her that he was ‘the happiest man in the world’

They found four parachute locks, part of a flying jacket and glove indicating it was very likely that the crew members’ remains are still inside wreckage.

Mr Graas added: ‘We hope all seven crew members will be found to give them an official grave. It’s most important for the relatives to have a place where they can come to.’

The last family member to see Sgt Shrubsall before the fated mission was his relative Keith Shrubsall, who is now 91.

One of the last people alive to have known Sgt Shrubsall, the nonagenarian was ‘thrilled to bits’ with the news.

Janice added: ‘He visited Leonard’s parents’ graves, Aida and Dick, when he found out. He said: ‘they’ve found your boy.’ It was lovely.’

Janice and Richard Shrubsall, the son of an RAF gunner whose plane vanished during the Second World War

A large group of Sgt Shrubsall’s descendants are planning to visit The Netherlands to take part in a ceremony to mark the aircraft’s recovery and to pay their respects.

Almere City Council, the authority near to the crash site, is funding the operation to remove the wreckage which is wedged in the muddy lake floor below just four metres of water.

The team stressed that the delicate operation will be carried out carefully out of respect to the crew members believed to be inside.

For decades Richard and Janice have paid their respects to Sgt Shrubsall at the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in near Egham, Surrey where the names of the flight’s crew members are commemorated.

If indeed Sgt Shrubsall’s remains are recovered from the wreckage, the couple will bury him next to his parent’s grave in Milton, Kent, where his name is also engraved.

Janice said: ‘We can’t put them anywhere else because everyone has been cremated.’

The telegram to Beatrice informing her that her 30-year-old husband had failed to return from the operation on March 29 1943

The serviceman’s daughter-in-law hopes that more of the crew members’ sentimental items will be uncovered when the wreckage is rescued.

She added: ‘The prospect of finding more personal items would be nice. If they found a cigarette box, pen and screwdriver, there’s got to be other items too. Name tags, wedding rings, who knows.’

The other BK716 crew members included the pilot Flying Officer John Harris, 29, flight engineer Sgt Ronald Kennedy, 22, wireless operator Flying Officer John Campbell, 30, navigator Flying Officer Harry Farrington, 24, the rear gunner Sgt John McCaw, a 20-year-old Canadian, and the bomb aimer Sgt Charles Bell, 29.

BK716 Short Stirling departed at 9:30am and was shot down near the Dutch village of Marken on their return flight that night by a German night fighter flown by Lt Werner Rapp.

What was Bomber Command? RAF body oversaw Britain’s strategic bombing from pre-WWII in 1936 into the Cold Wars years until 1968

The RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF’s bomber forces from 1936 to 1968, including Squadron XV, and was responsible for the strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War.

When the command was founded in 1936 it was only intended to be a deterrent, but the reality when war broke out three years later was very different.

Bomber command crews suffered incredibly high casualty rates. A total of 55,573 died out of 125,000 (44.4 per cent mortality rate), 8,403 were injured and 9,838 became prisoners of war.

Most who flew were very young and the vast majority were still in their late teens. Crews came from across the globe – from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all corners of the Commonwealth, as well as from occupied nations including Poland, France and Czechoslovakia.

It took astonishing courage to endure the conditions they faced. Flying at night over occupied Europe, running the gauntlet of German night fighters, anti-aircraft fire and mid-air collisions.

The RAF Bomber Command controlled the RAF’s bomber forces from 1936 to 1968 and was responsible for the strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War

But it was not until 1942 that the Bomber Command gained a real sense of direction, with the introduction of Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.

Harris was appointed as commander in chief of Bomber Command in February 1942, with instructions to start attacking German industry, much of which was located in large cities.

His objective was to destroy Germany’s industrial might and create a collapse in the morale of the civilian workforce, breaking Germany’s will to fight on.

Times were hard. Victory seemed distant, and chivalric notions of war fighting had been burned away in the fire of the Blitz. U-Boats were roaming the Atlantic, sinking merchant shipping in an effort to starve Britain into submission. 

The prospects of success were uncertain. Morale among British workers had largely held firm in the teeth of prolonged attacks by the German Air Force.

Harris, however, firmly believed that through a combination of improved aircraft like the Lancaster and Halifax, better training and navigational aids, and a ruthless will to press the attack, Bomber Command could knock Germany out of the war.

Bomber command crews suffered incredibly high casualty rates. A total of 55,573 died out of 125,000 (44.4 per cent mortality rate), 8,403 were injured and 9,838 became prisoners of war. Pictured: Wellington Bomber air crew who took part in the raid on Heligoland 

In May 1942, Harris launched his first ‘thousand bomber raid’ against Cologne.

The scale of the attacks shocked Germany, but the country continued to fight. Further attacks did have a devastating effect on the Nazi war economy.

Albert Speer, the German armaments minister, believed that a series of raids like that on Hamburg in August 1943, repeated in quick succession, might well have compelled Germany to surrender. But that wasn’t the case.

Other more specialised operations also took place. The famous ‘Dam Busters’ raid of May 1943 shocked the world with its audacity, as Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron launched a daring raid on the dams surrounding the Ruhr Valley.

Other attacks, like that on the battleship Tirpitz the following year, eliminated the German navy’s last major surface ship. 

Raids in 1944 and 1945 against German ‘V weapon’ launch sites were also a crucial defensive measure, helping to limit attacks from flying bombs and rockets on British cities.

Bomber Command switched its attentions to tactical objectives in early 1944, helping to pave the way for D-Day, the allied invasion of occupied Europe.

It played a vital and highly effective role attacking infrastructure around the invasion beaches. Attacking railways, roads and other transport links created chaos behind German lines, preventing the defending forces from massing to repel the landings.

The closing months of the war saw arguably the most controversial operations, such as the raid on Dresden in February 1945.

In four huge raids by the RAF and United States Army Air Force, a firestorm destroyed the city centre and killed thousands of civilians.

It took astonishing courage to endure the conditions they faced. Flying at night over occupied Europe, running the gauntlet of German night fighters, anti-aircraft fire and mid-air collisions. Pictured: Bomber Command crews prepare for the raid on Heligoland

The planners of the raid argued the city was a vital communications hub and needed to be targeted. The critics said that Germany was well beaten and the bombing was needless.

The truth is that it was a time of total war, and ideas about the boundaries of conflict were very different than those we have today.

Bomber Command did not win the Second World War independently – but the war could not have been won without their efforts.

The RAF’s attacks forced Germany to divert invaluable men, guns, aircraft and equipment to defend its airspace, effectively opening a second front long before D-Day.

The young men of Bomber Command faced dangers that today we can barely imagine, all in defence of our freedom. Their sacrifice and extraordinary courage should never be forgotten. 

Source: Bomber Command Memorial 

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