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Thread: Death of Sgt William Watson Downer RCAF on 16 April 1944

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    Default Death of Sgt William Watson Downer RCAF on 16 April 1944

    Hello,

    Sgt William Watson Downer RCAF joined 93 Sqn on 4 September 1943 and was killed as a Plt Off on 16 April 1944 when, returning from sortie in failing light over sea, he misjudged height and crashed at sea. Between these two dates he claimed five German fighters destroyed (including three in one week in Anzio area) and two damaged over Italy. He was awarded the DFC.

    I found the following account on the Net:

    KIA (Spitfire MH643) 16 April 1944 - returning from patrol over the Anzio Beach Head in failing light, misjudged height and crashed at sea, north-west of the landing ground at Luqa. A large search was mounted, the pilots of Spitfire aircraft flew 20 sorties. Beaufighter, Walrus, and Warwick aircraft crews all searched the area to no avail. Pilot Officer Downer has no known grave. His name is inscribed on the Malta War Memorial, Malta.

    There are two problems with the above. First the Spitfire production list shows that MH643 was sent to Australia (confired by the RAAF serials website) while MH623 was lost by 93 Sqn on 16 April 1944 so probably a typo (but repeated on the RCAF Awards webpage).

    MH623 IX CBAF M63 39MU 14-9-43 47MU 29-9-43 Ionian 3-10-43 Casablanca 19-10-43 NAfrica 30-11-43 93S FTR ops 16-4-44
    MH643 VcT CBAF M55 6MU 31-7-43 215MU 8-8-43 Durham 14-8-43 Australia 18-10-43

    The other problem is the given crashplace, off Luqa. As far as I know, there is only one Luqa, in Malta, and there is no way a Spitfire will return there after a patrol over Anzio. The Italian town of Lucca is too far north of Anzio to be the good one.

    My sources:
    http://airforce.ca/uploads/airforce/2009/07/ALPHA-DI.html
    http://www.acesofww2.com/Canada/aces/downer.htm
    http://www.spitfire.ukf.net/p063.htm

    So can anyone:
    1) confirm that he was flying the Spitfire MH623 rather than MH643 ?
    2) tell me where the crash took place ? And if it was off Malta, my guess is that it was not on the return of an Anzio patrol.

    Thanks in advance

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    Default Spitfire Loss

    G'day Laurent

    The Spitfire 'Bible' (Morgand and Shacklady) show Spitfire Mk. IX s/n MH623 as the following: 93S FTR ops 16-4-44

    Cheers...Chris

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    re: MH623

    I believe the location off the loss of P/O DOWNER to be off the coast of Campania between Castel Volturno and Mondragone. At the time 93s were based at LAGO, which was located nearby

    It is quite easy to see how LAGO and LUQA could have been confused with one another, especially when compiling from handwritten notes (no ballpoints in those days)

    dg

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    Concerning the Spitfire serial, I seem to recall finding a few Spitfires recorded as shipped to Australia ending up with 417 Squadron in North Africa and Italy. I assume they were diverted while en route.

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    Re: Spitfire VcT MH643.

    http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/ItemDetail.asp?M=0&B=3046009

    See: pp.58-9 of 61

    Col.

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    Default Downer

    I have now expanded and corrected the Downer awards entry (most notably respecting the Spitfire serial) although it will not appear quickly on the Air Force Association site, unless one uses the "Search Tools" avenue. The revised version is now as follows:


    DOWNER, P/O William Watson (J86143) - Distinguished Flying Cross - No.93 Squadron (deceased) - Award effective 15 April 1944 as per London Gazette dated 21 December 1945 and AFRO 155/46 dated 15 February 1946. Born 30 July 1922 at Wybridge, Tiny Township, Ontario. Educated in Separate School No.5, Tiny Township (1929-1934) and Midland High School, Home in Midland, Ontario; warehouse truck driver for Maple Leaf Milling, Port Colborne, 1941. Enlisted in Hamilton, 20 October 1941 and posted to No.1 Manning Depot. To Station Trenton, 11 November 1941. To No.6 ITS, Toronto, 5 January 1942; graduated and promoted LAC, 27 March 1942; to No.12 EFTS, Goderich, 29 March 1942; graduated 20 June 1942 when posted to No.1 SFTS, Camp Borden; graduated and promoted Sergeant, 9 October 1942. To “Y” Depot, 24 October 1942. To RAF Trainee Pool, 27 October 1942. Disembarked in Britain, 5 November 1942. To No.5 (P) AFU, 22 December 1942 and to No.53 OTU, 23 February 1943. Promoted to Flight Sergeant, 9 April 1943 To No.5 PDC, 5 May 1943; posted to North Africa, arriving 27 May 1943. With Headquarters, No.325 Wing, 7 June 1943 and No.108 RSU, 21 June 1943. Joined No.93 Squadron on 4 September 1943. Promoted Warrant Officer (2nd Class) on 9 October 1943; commissioned 27 March 1944. Killed in action (Spitfire MH623) 16 April 1944, returning from sortie in failing light over sea, misjudged height and crashed at sea. Grave not known; name on Malta Memorial. He had four brothers including P/O James A. Downer, age 30, serving in the United Kingdom. Chris Shores, in Aces High (2nd edition) gives the following listing of victories: 15 October 1943, one Bf.109 damaged, Volturno River (Spitfire BR487); 13 February 1944, one Bf.109 destroyed, Anzio (Spitfire EN138; on this occasion he was one of ten Spitfire pilots covering the beaches; he gained his victory at 1300 hours but then his engine failed due to a glycol leak; throttled back and was able to land at Nettuno); 16 February 1944, one FW.190 destroyed and one FW.190 damaged, Anzio (Spitfire EN138); 19 February 1944, one Bf.109 destroyed, Anzio (Spitfire MH602); 27 March 1944, two FW.190s destroyed north of Rome (Spitfire MH602).

    "Pilot Officer Downer has flown as a pilot with this squadron throughout the Italian campaign. In his first combat in October 1943, he damaged a Messerschmitt 109 and over the Anzio beachhead he destroyed three enemy aircraft in one week. He has since destroyed two more bringing his total victories to five. Pilot Officer Downer has proved himself a keen and determined fighter pilot. He has always shown the utmost keenness to press home his attacks."

    NOTE: Public Record Office Air 2/9629 has the original recommendation (by Squadron Leader J.H. Cloete), made on 29 March 1944 when he had flown 504 hours (130 in the previous six months); his operational hours totalled 117 (79 sorties). The text was much longer than the final citation:

    "Warrant Officer Downer joined the squadron in September 1943 and has flown throughout the Italian campaign. His quiet, diffident manner gave no hint of the cool determination with which he would face the enemy, though he damaged a Messerschmitt 109 in his first combat in October 1943.

    "It was when the testing time came, over the Anzio beachhead, that he showed his true quality. He opened his score on 13th February 1944 by destroying one Messerschmitt 109, following this on 16th February 1944 by destroying one Focke-Wulf 190 and again destroying one Focke-Wulf 190 on 19th February, making a total of three in a week.

    "On 27th March 1944 he destroyed two Focke-Wulf 190s in the course of a single sortie. With a total of five destroyed and two damaged to his credit, Warrant Officer Downer is strongly recommended for his courage and example which is an inspiration to all who have flown with him."

    The Group Captain who commanded bis wing concurred on 31 March 1944, writing:

    "Warrant Officer Downer has proved himself to be a keen and determined fighter pilot. He has always shown great enthusiasm to press home his attacks on the enemy. I strongly recommend this award."

    RCAF press release 3052 issued 11 April 1944 described much of his actions. It noted that gone ashore at Salerno with a landing craft, as an advance element for his squadron, and that he had slept in a tent that shook from blasts of German and Allied artillery. The damaged claim of 15 October 1943 had been “over Capodichino airfield at Naples”. The action of 13 February 1944 was described as a direct chase - two Spitfires after to Messerschmitt 109s and he was able to catch one. “Almost immediately afterward, his Spitfire has engine trouble and he had to do some fancy flying to get back to Allied territory before forced-landing at Nettuna. [sic]”.

    Re the combat of 16 February 1944 the press release read:

    "A couple of afternoons later, Downer and another fighter pilot found themselves over Rome in the middle of twenty Focke-Wulf 190s and fourteen Me.109s. Ack-ack was adding to the confusion.

    "'The Germans were up above and they kept diving down in twos from either side,” Downer explained. “They’s pull up on the other side, doing beautiful upward rolls - I don’t know why - and then they’d wait their turn to peel off and come down again.

    "'This went on for about ten minutes. I managed to get strikes with cannon and machine gun fire all down the side of one FW.190. I knocked off the starboard tailplane too, and she burst aflame. A few minutes later, I got the top of the tail off another. Then we broke away. Somehow my kite wasn’t hit at all.'"

    The engagement of 19 February 1944 was written up as follows:

    "The third engagement that week, Downer says, “was just a running fight.” It was on the fringe of Rome and at low altitude.

    "'Some FW.190w were trying to lead us into the tall radio towers on the edge of Rome. I got one FW.190, closing in from 150 to 50 yards, and he went into the deck. I was chasing another and a couple more came in behind me. One got in a burst but he wasn’t a very good shot. A couple of rounds went into my cockpit.'

    "They missed by about a foot and a half. He returned to base."

    Press release 3240, issued 18 May 1944 (and noting that he had now been reported missing) , appears to describe the action of 27 March 1944:

    "His pals around the squadron like to recall Bill Downer’s farewell exploit - how he went out on a sweep with his RAF squadron but sighted no enemy aircraft. The Germans wouldn’t come up to fight. The pilots were told there would be no further operations; everybody could have the rest of the day off.

    "The fighter pilots didn’t whip off to town for some fun. They stood around in the dispersal hut and discussed how they’d like to defy the Nazis over their own airfields. The CO phoned headquarters and asked permission for the squadron to go out on a free lance sweep.

    "'Go ahead', said headquarters, You’re on your own.' So instead of taking a holiday, the squadron took off on a mission more hazardous than usual. Deep into enemy territory the fighters flew - sticking out their necks, gunning for the enemy, playing for keeps. They roared over the German airfields above Rome. “We saw plenty of kits on the field,” Bill Downer said on his return that day. “But they wouldn’t come up.

    “We headed for home as we figured there was nothing doing. It wasn’t until we were almost back at our own drome that we saw twenty enemy fighters above.”

    "Even with the odds of 20 to 12 the Germans didn’t want to fight. The Spitfires chased them northeast of Lake Bracciano, where the Germans turned and fought. There were swirling dogfights, furious dives with indicators at 500 m.p.h. and cannon and machine guns blazing away.

    “I got on the tail of one,” said Downer. “He led me about thirty miles. He seemed to know the country well. He led me down through a little gully - it was only about twice as wide as a Spitfire’s wings - but very deep. We were flying along there well below the level of the ground on both sides.

    “I couldn’t get a good shot at him at all. I think he was trying to get me to ‘prang’ (crash). But then he came out and I got close. One of my bursts knocked a piece out of his kite. That slowed him down. I closed to a hundred yards and let him have everything. One burst knocked off the engine cowling and the whole cockpit cover. He rolled over the side and tried to bale out at 150 feet. His parachute streamed out but did not open. After he fell out, his kite rolled over and went down into the ground after him.

    “Another enemy fighter came across in front. I fired and he caught fire right away. It was mountainous country where we were. I followed him for about ten miles, firing repeatedly. Smoke and flames were streaming from his machine. He could only do 160 miles an hour and I had to throttle back to go slow enough to stay behind him.

    “I used up all my ammunition. The side of his engine was all burned away. He had flown into a valley at low level and I realized he could never get the altitude now to get out.

    “When I looked at my petrol gauge and it said fourteen gallons, I looked up above and there were sixteen enemy fighters overhead. I was scared then. I got down on the deck and headed for our emergency landing field on the beachhead.”

    "Warrant Officer Downer was credited with two destroyed out of the squadron’s total for the day of four destroyed and three damaged. Three of the Spitfire pilots made forced landings and one received a machine-gun bullet through the thigh, but none was lost.

    "Dark closed in shortly after Bill Downer landed in the beachhead and he spent the night in a tent between German artillery and their target. He could hear screeching shells all night. “I didn’t sleep much,” he said. In the morning his Spitfire was refuelled and he flew back to his squadron."

    Accident: On 13 February 1944, 1300 hours, Spitfire EN138, he had been airborne 95 minutes on a beach patrol. “I was following an Me.109 that I had shot down when my engine stopped completely. Finally, by throttling right back and reducing my R.P.M. it started with a great deal of black smoke and puffs of white smoke from the exhaust stubs. I could not get more than 2,50 R.P.M. or minus two boost without my engine cutting completely. I got it to the Nettuno strip at 300 feet and made a normal wheels down landing. The Engineering Officer of 306 Servicing Squadron told me that my intercooler had blown up. I returned to Lago airfield the same evening by an American transport ship.” Assessed as due to a glycol leak.

    Circumstances of Death: On 16 April 1944 he was flying one of eight Spitfires which took off from Lago airfield at 1835 hours to patrol the Anzio area. Two enemy aircraft were reported flying at 30,000 feet and the formation climbed to intercept them. The enemy were not sighted and the Spitfires returned to base. “It is believed that Pilot Officer Downer broke away to carry out a cannon test over the sea, west of the base. An American anti-aircraft post on the shore saw an aircraft crash into the sea, one mile off shore west of Lago Landing Ground. An Air/Sea Rescue search was made that night and continued all during the next day, but nothing was seen or heard of P/O Downer or Spitfire MH623,” There was speculation that his windscreen had frosted over and thus he would have had difficulty judging height. A further report stated that Beaufighters and a launch had searched in the night, followed by Warwicks and a Walrus on the 17th (about 20 Spitfire sorties also looked out for him). “A piece of driftwood, which closely resembled a dinghy from above, raised false hopes during the afternoon, but was exposed upon investigation by the ASR Launch which had been directed on to it.” Search called off at dusk of the 17th.

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    Thanks to all for the replies and extra details

    Laurent

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