By Terry Edwards
GUARBECQUE, France – It’s a good guess that Browning aircraft machine gun Mk II* B99327 was first to the scene of the crash.
The massive Stirling bomber crashed at over 300-mph, nose first and upside down. The twin guns in the forward turret ploughed into France almost flat on their tops. The impact jarred the rear sear of B99327 loose. The open bolt sprang forward to chamber a round. As the gun locked, the firing pin fell.
The crack of a lone .303 was lost in the crush of twenty tons of bomber. Trapped inside, five young men died. The impact pushed B99327 deep into the dark soil. The flash-hider and muzzle-booster tore off. The top cover sprang open and was ripped away. The left part of the feed-way vanished, and the barrel and receiver bent like a bow. The side plates of the receiver buckled and seized the bolt in mid-recoil. Fire-blackened and sealed in mud, B99327 kept the secret of its final shot for seventy years.
Until the phone rang in the fall of 2010, that is. The caller identified himself as a long-lost army friend from a generation (or, two) ago… Now a retired USAF liaison officer, Chris Charland had been contacted by two friends in Europe. The Association Antiq’ Air Flandres-Artois asked if Chris could trace the whereabouts of a descendant of a crash survivor… Terry Edwards… one of those spooky coincidences.
It’s a grey December day in Northern France. Halfway down an empty lot, an excavator swivels in a muddy mess, scooping twisted black metal and mud onto trucks and trailers. There is no plan to excavate all the wreckage. The shovel can only dip down about six feet, and after three feet, it is under water.
Around the crumbling edge of the hole lie a few large pieces. A part of the tail wheel assembly is remarkably intact, but, most pieces are black and crumpled bits of aluminum, the unmistakable remains of catastrophe. Someone hands me a beer. I’d looked for the wreck since I was a teenager, and while it was satisfying to see it, it was no celebration. There was no forgetting what happened here. Disquieting tangles of parachute cord screamed out those last moments in deafening silence. I have no taste for beer… after a swig, I pour the rest to the ground.
By noon, the grassy field was restored. The house next door, owned by M. Deniselle, survives. As we walked to wash up in the small courtyard, Canada Gunsport publisher G.N. Dentay pointed to the back of a truck. In the black muck and crumpled metal was a twisted Browning aircraft machine gun, Mk II.
The gun came in two models, the fixed and the flexible. The flexible gun usually sat in a mount that incorporated a hand grip. This relic was what remained of a fixed gun: an unadorned steel box sprouting a perforated steel tube to the unwashed – a distillation of form following function in singular perfection to the rest of us.
Wet and fresh from the earth, the rescued gun looked to be well preserved, but, encrustation covered surfaces and filled markings. After cleaning later on, the gun is revealed as a Mk. II*, serial number B99327, made by the Birmingham Small Arms Co.(BSA). Some rough math says it was made in the late summer of 1939, perhaps within days of Britain declaring war on Germany. BSA’s subcontractor, Standard Motors, began production at almost the same time. All are marked on the top, behind the top cover. The serial numbers of BSA guns are prefixed by B while Standard Motors have BS.
It turned out the Association often presented attending descendants with an artefact. Gun B99327 went into my trunk with some bullets and a piece of fuselage.
The summer of 1941 was a low point for gun B99237 and Great Britain. Britain had no foothold left in Europe. The Allied offensive was in reality a few dozen bombers. Much of the load fell on the new four-engine Stirling Mk. 1s of the Royal Air Force Squadron Number 7, stationed north-east of London.
The Stirling’s first operation was in February, 1941. In the next five months, a total of 84 Stirlings were delivered, and 67 were lost.
On July 8, gun B99237 rode in the largest allied air raid launched so far in the war. Circus 39 had over 360 aircraft, but only three bombers, all Stirlings from Number 7 Squadron. This was my father’s sixth combat mission in his one month in action. Crew survival was an average of three missions, but the numbers didn’t matter – you’d go home as soon as you won the war.
Stirling N6034 carried seven men and seven tons of bombs. My father, Flight Sergeant George S. Edwards, was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, assigned to the RAF. He had joined the crew a few weeks before and was co-pilot under British Pilot Officer, Reginald Morley. The crew were all in their early twenties, and had flown several aircraft. They had scattered leaflets and bombed battleships, submarine pens and harbours at Ostend, Brest and Kiel. The day before, in another bomber, they had bombed what is now the Airbus factory. This was the second time they flew N6034, but the first flight was simply the last leg of its delivery from the Belfast factory. This was the plane’s maiden combat flight.
The bombers took off in total darkness. The course of Circus 39 took them south over sleeping England. The bomber crews could see the glowing exhaust pipes appear as Spitfires and Hurricanes slid protectively into place around them.
Similar missions had been flown with the more nimble Beaufighter bringing the punch, but, Bomber Command wanted to see if they could use the heavy-weights. Shortly after Stirling N6034 went down, the experiment was ended.
From 10,000 feet, the sun was up as the formation passed over the English coast at Rye and swung east into the sun over the sparkling English Channel. As the formation turned, the German radar on the French coast ahead directed fighters and anti-aircraft batteries.
On the flight deck my father and P.O. Morley jumped as the front gunner test fired his guns over the English Channel; as usual, ‘forgetting’ to warn the other crew. The surprise test routine was sort of an ‘in-joke’ with air gunners, usually the youngest and lowest-ranking aboard.
In the nose turret of N6034, Sergeant Leslie N. Chappell manned twin Browning Mk II guns. The Stirling had eight of them; four guns in the rear and two each in the dorsal and nose positions. B99327 was on Chappell’s right and set to feed from the right. Another recovered gun was revealed as a Vickers, serial number V11075 made in 1941.
The Stirling used the FN 5 turret in the nose. In this case, FN does not stand for Fabrique Nationale, but, for Fraser Nash, the Englishman who designed the turret. The FN 5 carried two guns with 1,000 rounds each and was used in the nose and the dorsal position. The tail carried the four gun FN 4 turret. Each of these guns got 2,000 rounds.
The FN turrets used the aircraft’s hydraulic system directly. Some turrets used electric motors to power hydraulic systems. In any case, a catastrophic hit meant the immediate end of electric and hydraulic power. Hand cranks were provided to help the gunners escape.
Every allied gun in the air that day was a Browning. The gun was already immortal. Sir Winston Churchill called the Battle of Britain, England’s Finest Hour. It was perhaps the Mk II s finest hour and one of John Browning’s as well. In the summer of 1940, the .303 Mk. II was the sole weapon of The Few, the roughly 1,000 pilots, many of them Canadian and American volunteers, who won the decisive Battle of Britain. Circus 39 carried well over 2,000 Mk IIs.
The Mk II* is a thorough-bred of accelerated evolution. Twenty-five years before, opposing pilots waved and in World War One, machine guns grew wings.
Not every machine gun was suitable. Some were too heavy and boiling water and steam were non-starters. Aircraft guns need to fire fast and work at any angle under many times the force of gravity. It has to feed ammunition with links, drums or strips because flapping cloth belts become hazards. And, it’s cold up there… Some guns don’t work well cold and whatever could go wrong had to be fixed with gloves or frozen fingers.
Synchronization had been important. World War One fighter pilots who could sight along their guns and point the aircraft had a huge instinctual advantage. The synchronizer was a special trigger to fire the gun so the bullets would pass between the spinning blades of the propeller.
The first issue Browning .30 machine gun didn’t appear until 1917, so it’s not surprising an aircraft model was too late to see action in World War One. However, the first aircraft Brownings were quickly made up by Westinghouse for the U.S. Air Corps. Four 1918 guns were air tested by Britain in 1918.
Despite its short development time, the 1918 was a carefully thought-out gun. It could be fired by the old-fashioned finger trigger, or, by the trigger motor mounted on the left side. The trigger motor fired each shot semi-automatically, all synchronized to pass between a fighter’s propeller blades or to stop firing when the muzzle passed over one’s own aircraft. The bolt was lightened, the recoil spring strengthened and a muzzle booster added to take the fire rate up to 1,200 rpm.
But, interest faded with the war’s end and Westinghouse wanted out of the gun business. The U.S. Army, which contained the Air Corps, decided to continue development of a Browning aircraft gun at Springfield Armoury.
Their improved version was named the 1918M1 and all the existing 1918s were recalled and rebuilt into 1918M1s. Newly made guns were called the 1919 – not to be confused with the sizable catalogue of other 1919 Brownings.
At Springfield Armoury, Captain Groton continued development and designed numerous improvements to the guns. He built prototypes to incorporate the ability to feed from either side. But, Colt held the rights to make the Brownings in the U.S. and wanted to do the development in order to sell to the U.S. and the rest of the world. The U.S. government agreed, and, Colt took the lead in development.
Colt introduced their new lightweight aircraft gun in 1930. It soon became known as the Colt Model MG40. The functional design is the classic Browning system, but the MG40 is slimmer, lighter, and much faster than its earth-bound siblings. It used links, could be easily synchronized and fed from either side. There were no sights, hand-grips, finger trigger or cocking handle… all those functions were done by accessories.
The MG40 was adopted by the USAAF as the AN M2 .30 caliber Browning. Aircraft makers began designing around the gun and foreign sales were a great success.
The British flight tested the gun during 1933 and 1934. It was an immediate success. The high altitude cold didn’t faze it, and the gun devoured long belts through all the twists and turns.
There was the matter of caliber. Time after time, Britain tried to get away from the rimmed .303 cartridge but wartime pressures, followed by economic ones, kept the .303 in use into the 1960s. The new aircraft gun had to be in .303. Britain received her first 75 guns from Colt in 1935.
Vickers-Armstrong now represented Colt in Britain and the British government secured manufacturing rights. As demand ramped up, Vickers-Armstrong couldn’t meet the Air Force demands alone, so the Birmingham Small Arms Co. was contracted to make more of the new guns. Orders skyrocketed still and BSA sub-contracted Standard Motors to join them. It still wasn’t enough. The Canadian John Inglis Co. tooled up in Toronto. Britain would also continue to buy the guns from Colt until 1942 when home production in Britain caught up.
The British put the famous Major Reginald V. Sheppard in charge of getting the aircraft gun into production. Sheppard also headed several other British arms programs including the No. 4T sniper rifle. His initial is the S in Sten gun.
There were hiccups with the new gun. The MG40 fired from a closed bolt, so when ready to fire, the gun had a loaded cartridge chambered and locked in front of a cocked firing pin. But, when a gun barrel is over-heated from a long burst the cartridge left unfired in the hot chamber can heat up until the propellant ignites. Usually this just fires the gun. Thanks to the gun-powder used in the U.S., cook-off wasn’t an issue, but the British .303 used Cordite. Cordite was more sensitive to heat than the American powder, and worse still, the heat sometimes made it explode rather than ignite. After a mid-air test gun blew up, the design was modified to fire from an open bolt.
A new sear was designed to catch the bolt in its rear position. The bolt was now released when the trigger was pressed. The bolt would slam forward and lock, but, the firing pin still had to be tripped. Since the trigger no longer did that, a second, internal trigger had to be designed. This trigger was tripped by a device attached to the side of the gun, the trigger motor. The firing impulses are generated in response to the propeller shaft. Ironically, as synchronization was mastered, it fell out of use as banks of guns lined the wings of new fighters. These guns simply fired on closing.
Early in the manufacturing history, several minor changes were made, so guns already issued, had to be brought up to date. The Mark One became the Mark Two Star, and, after more changes, the Mark Two Star Star.
The Colt MG40 and the Mk2 are the final evolution of the Browning rifle calibre guns that began in 1900. While it armed the Royal Air Force at the most critical time, the gun was already obsolete, soon to be pushed aside by its fifty-calibre cousin.
On the French coast ahead, the German AA guns opened fire. As the first planes closed in, Circus 39 veered to dodge the heaviest concentration. The low ceiling of the B-1 Stirling made it particularly vulnerable.
Aviation lore says the Stirling was knee-capped by an official requirement it fit existing hangers. The specifications did demand a 100-foot wingspan, but this had more to do with using improvised airfields than spoiling mechanics. The Stirling actually out-handled some German fighters, and for most, S stood for Sugar. Its other nick-name, the Flying Coffin, was initially a comment on its admitted resemblance.
But, with the same wingspan, the American B-17 had a useful ceiling of 36,000 feet to the Stirling’s 16,000.
Circus 39 cleared the coast. The target was straight east, a power plant in Mazingarbe, France. Cruising at about 200-mph, the bombers bored overland in the fifteen minute race to the target. Above and around them, fighters turned back German attacks. Close to the target, dozens of flak guns opened up. The bombers levelled out and dropped their bombs. Reportedly, N6034 did the most damage. The Stirlings banked north, then west for home.
But, moments after dropping her bombs, N6034 took a direct hit. The inside starboard engine, about twenty feet to my father‘s right, exploded into fire. The wing was breaking. Pilot Officer Morley ordered everyone out. The aircraft nosed over and began picking up speed.
Ahead and below was the French village of Guarbecque. The people drawn outside watched the bombers approach from the south-east. One was descending too quickly and trailing smoke.
In the nose, Sergeant Chappell released the escape hatch and jumped into space. Only gravity and the angle of the plane sent my father out next – he believed he struck his head on the still-open bomb-bay doors, but he had already gripped the ripcord.
If anyone in Guarbecque had slept through twenty tons of bombs exploding a dozen miles away, the Flak barrage and the noise of several hundred airplanes, it’s unlikely they missed the arrival of N6034.
The plane tore through the hedge belonging to George Deniselle and thundered into the garden next door. The site is almost in the center of the town, yards from the church. Incredibly it is just about the only open space around. Houses shook and plates rattled, but no one on the ground was killed.
Hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel rose in flame and smoke. The escape hatch and parts of the broken wing fell into several backyards. Two parachutes descended. My father was unconscious from hitting the bomb bay door. Someone told him a Hurricane circled him as he went down.
In Wing Leader, the auto-biography of Johnny Johnson, the top British ace of World War Two, he describes the raid and says he saw an airman slumped in the parachute harness, unconscious or dead. He circled the parachute as it descended.
Then the planes were gone. Townspeople and emergency crews rushed to the smoke but a wall of heat and exploding ammunition kept them back.
My father and Sergeant Chappell landed close to each other. My father’s first recollection was of two French youngsters. One was urging him to put on a civilian coat. There was no underground, in fact, the idea was only voiced by Winston Churchill a few weeks later. They sent the kids away and hoped they weren’t seen.
More villagers arrived. They saw the airmen appeared injured, but the German 208 regiment cordoned off the area. The two men were surrounded and captured. Neither was armed.
One villager recalled the airmen were last seen in the back of a commandeered Citroën; heading east out of town – they had worried about them.
The airmen were taken to nearby Bethune. The villagers needn’t have worried; their captors took the prisoners for a stiff drink. There was no issue with a dress code at the café: Fliers wore their uniform jackets and a properly ironed shirt and tie into combat.
Seventy years later, ‘Joss’ treated us to lunch in the Deniselle’s home, now owned by Georges’ son Marc and his wife. In the warmth of Deniselle’s house, the Deputy-Mayor told me about the two boys my father mentioned. They had been playing soccer when the big plane crashed barely a hundred yards way. They were indeed arrested. Some papers were found; one noting a time and place… The Germans suspected it was some kind of subversive meeting. It was a soccer practice.
Several days after the crash, the Mayor convinced the Germans to let the boys go – a feat he was justly proud of. The boy with the coat died as a bomb casualty later in the war. The other survived.
A German salvage unit came in later. Fire had consumed much of the wreckage. One of N6034’s radial Hercules engines pushed over six feet into the earth. The rest of the plane hit with such force that parts of the rear turret were pushed so far into the earth, the salvage crew never found them. The engines were recovered, remains gathered, and debris removed.
Pilot Officer R.D. Morley, Sergeant William Ross, Pilot Officer John Bailie, Sergeant William Williams and Sergeant Robert Lomas-Smith are buried together in the cemetery at Longuenesse.
Three other Circus 39 planes went down, two Hurricanes and a Spitfire. The Hurricane pilots, P/O Henry Percy Duval and Sgt. Jozef Mensik survived and got back to England. Both were killed later. The Spitfire and its pilot, Sgt. William Hendry is still missing.
But, later the same day, another RAF bomber was lost. Sergeant Charles S. Edwards, also from Toronto, was aboard as a gunner. So, two Sergeants from Toronto went Missing In Action on the same day: G.S. Edwards and C.S. Edwards.
Weeks later, the mother of C.S. Edwards got the happy news her only son was alive, a POW. My father’s parents received letters of condolence, and George S. Edwards name was added to a memorial book just going to press. Then, a few weeks later, my grandparents got a postcard from Germany – the POW was my father, G.S. Edwards. Sadly, C.S. Edwards remains MIA.
When the salvage crews were gone, the villagers recovered more remains and buried them under a temporary memorial. After the war, they were placed with the others.
My father was promoted while a POW and, now being an officer, was sent to Stalag Luft Three. He was there during the Great Escape. He joked he was several hundred down the list, but he took his turn smuggling dirt into the yard.
He brought back a German bayonet; Luftwaffe issue and still matched to its scabbard. He traded a German guard a pack of smokes for it. So, when his six year old asked what Dad did in The War, thank God he had something decent to show for it.
It wasn’t an obsession, but, I wanted to find the crash site. The first try was with a friend, disguised as teenage backpackers in 1971. I knew only the name of the town, Bethune. After three days of cold rain and colder French, we hitch-hiked for the Belgian border.
In 2005, a dozen years after my father’s death, I finally got to Bethune, this time, with my surprisingly patient fifteen year old son. France had changed and the weather had certainly cleared up. The people were helpful and genuinely welcoming, but, they knew nothing about a crash.
But, just a few weeks later, and a few miles away, Jocelyn ‘Joss’ Leclercq and Hugues Chevalier and Jean Pierre Coupez scouted a vacant lot in Guarbecque. In 1994, Joss founded The Association Antiq’ Air Flandres-Artois. The members have researched all the wartime crashes in their region. Much of the results were published by Hugues in 2005 in Crashs sur le Pas-De-Calais, 1940 to 1945. The Association also mounts an impressive travelling exhibit.
I love Belgium. Where else in the excitable post-911 world can you still carry a muddy machine gun into your hotel and raise only polite interest?
An urgent cleaning job was required. Even if the gun wasn’t deemed a threat to Canada’s future, you still can’t import dirt – and dirt was packed in every opening: It filled the barrel jacket and the receiver… it was reasonably soft.
I used a plastic spoon to scoop away inside the warped receiver. There was something suspended inside, encased in the packed dirt… something brass… the dirt came away… like a clock frozen at the instant of disaster… an empty .303 shell casing was poised in front of the bolt face and barely out of the chamber. When the impact had fired the gun, the bolt closed, fired, and began to recoil. The casing just had time to come out of the chamber before the gun bent, seizing the mechanism. Like the lava of Pompeii, the mud packed in, freezing the moment between extraction and ejection. Of the thousands of empty casings at the site, only this one shows a firing pin dent…
The author is indebted to Blake Stevens and Dolf Goldsmith at Collector Grade Publications for generously sharing their material, knowledge and advice.
The Association Antiq’ Air Flandres-Artois can be reached at 51, route de Fromelles - 59249 Aubers, France. firstname.lastname@example.org. Hughes’ and Joss’ book is in French but well-illustrated and fascinating even to a non-French speaker.
Terry Edwards covered conflicts in Lebanon and Nicaragua for SOF in the 1970’s and received his Canadian Armed Forces commission in 1981. He spent thirty years in film and television production as a props buyer and weapons handler. His first solo video production is a soon-to-be released documentary about Herbert W. McBride and his book A Rifleman Went To War.
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