By John Telfer
At approximately 1300 hours on 24th March, 1944, a Lancaster bomber B Mk 1, took off from the Royal Air Force base at Hemswell, Lancashire, England, headed for Germany to bomb the Harpenrweg industrial plant at Dortmund. On board was Warwick man James Noel Griffin, a rear gunner, on his 22 mission against the enemy. When the aircraft was hit by flak from ground fire the 7- member crew were forced to bail out and, unfortunately, James went down in flames with the aircraft while the remainder bailed out. Although James died a heroic death against the foe, he was perhaps saved from a different fate than that of his crew members. Here is the story of James and his crew members on that fatal day.
James Noel Griffin was born in Warwick, Queensland, on December 15th 1924. He was the youngest son of John and Catherine Griffin of Pratten Street Warwick. James’s father was General Manager of Manahan’s Chain Stores in Palmerin Street Warwick, after relocating from Gatton, where he held a similar role. James had two older brothers in Jack (RAAF) and Patrick (AIF) as well as two sisters, Monica and Gloria. They were a very close family and strong catholic parishioners of St. Mary’s Church. James’s father John, became a dedicated member of the Hibernian Society, and was active in debating as well as an Adjudicator. He was also secretary to the Hibernian Race Club and very involved in many community events.
James and his other siblings all attended St. Mary’s Parish School and St. Joseph’s Christian Brother’s College and were keen participants in the annual St. Patricks Day parade each year. James was a keen student who successfully passed the State Scholarship Examination in December,1938. James was selected to participate in the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade through Warwick in 1938 where he and his sister Gloria played prominent figures on the Catholic float in the traditional procession.
Tragedy struck the Griffin family in 1937 when James’s father passed away on 18th January after a long illness, so the family moved to South Brisbane in 1939, and resided in Bretherton Street. It is not certain what young James did after he left school, but it has been recorded that he was a member of the Air Training Cadets at school, so when war broke out in 1938, James decided to enlist, and entered the RAAF as an air crew trainee under the British Empire Training Scheme (BETS). After his initial training as a Wireless Air Gunner he completed gunnery training in Australia at RAAF Evans Head in New South wales, James was posted to Canada, via America.
The stop – over in America was quite an experience as the RAAF boys were entertained at the Anzac and Air Force clubs in New York, before continuing on to Canada by rail for their training. After training at an Operational Training Unit, James was posted to 105 Squadron Royal Air Force, for combat duties. It was from this moment on that James lost his life on that mission mentioned earlier, but was saved from the brutal and undignified death of 4 of his crew members at the hands of German civilians.
The events surrounding the deaths of the other crew members, Flying Officer Morris, Flight Sergeant Kee, Flight Sergeant Masters and Flight Sergeant Gillies who were attacked by German civilians and subsequently murdered, are as follows. The deaths of these men were the subject of a military court trial held at Bochum Police Headquarters on 17th September, 1946. The German civilians, Heinrich Ihde, who was a former local Nazi group leader, Heinrich Reinmuller, Karl Erlenhofer, Heinrich Kohls and Alfons Konig, a former Captain and the Commander of a local defence force, were charged on two counts. This is how the charges were laid at the trial:
“All of the accused were charged on the first count that at Bochum- Laer on
24th March 1944, they were involved in the ill-treatment and killing of an un-
identified British airman, a POW, who was believed to be an Australian. Ihde,
Reinmuller and Konig were also charged on the second count that they, at
Bochum-Laer on 24th March 1944, were involved in the killing of three
unidentified airmen where the timing makes it possible that the unidentified
airmen could have been Flying Officer Morris, Flight Sergeants Kee and Gillies,
as well as Flight Sergeant Masters.”
Subsequently, the court found Ihde guilty on both charges and sentenced him to death, He was executed by firing squad at Werl on 6th January 1947, at 0800 hours.
Kohls was found guilty on the first charge and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
Erlenhofer was found guilty on the first charge of mistreating the airmen and sentenced to a term of 1 Year imprisonment. Reinmuller and Konig were acquitted of both charges.
All the deceased crew members were eventually interred in the Reichswalr Forest British Military Cemetery. James Noel Griffin was interred on 20th June 1947, Plot 25, Row E, Grave 10. His inscription reads:
“His duty fearlessly and nobly done. May he rest in Peace.
Born on 15th December 1924. Son of John and Catherin
Griffin, of South Brisbane, Queensland, Australia”
The other crew members who survived the crash were Flight Sergeant Gillies and Flight Sergeant Bawden, who suffered, but fared much better than their mates. Gillies was beaten by a hostile crowd before going to a German prison, while Bawden, who badly fractured his leg escaping from the burning aircraft, was liberated by U.S. troops on 14th April 1945, and repatriated back to England.
James Noel Griffin was only 20 years of age when he died a hero’s death in the service of his country, and will be forever remembered on the Roll of Honour at Assumption College, Warwick. Perhaps the students of the College will read this story and utter a silent prayer for a young man of the college who once walked in the grounds and classrooms of their school. He gave his life in the service of his country and for the freedom that all Australians now enjoy.
LEST WE FORGET.