The 617 Squadron Association ‘Historian’

I am posting this Special Bulletin to record a recent email exchange between Dr. Robert Owen, the official historian of the 617 Squadron Association, and me. As part of my campaign to elevate awareness of the saga of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, I had tried to contact the Squadron through various means, without success. Then, in the middle of May, I found a different email address, and sent my Synopsis (see ), as well as the supporting PDFs, to it. At the end of the month I received an email from Dr. Owen, and the following brief correspondence ensued.

Dr. Owen to me, May 29:

“Dear Mr Percy,

Your analysis of the crash of Lancaster PB416 has been passed to me for comment.

There are certainly a lot of unanswered questions in respect of the loss of this aircraft, not least the actual number of bodies found at the crash site and subsequently interred.

 In analysing your hypothesis I have also consulted with my counterpart in the IX Sqn Association (an ex RAF Tornado navigator) who has also looked into this incident, hence my rather delayed reply.

My own reading of this work is that it tells two separate stories – Operation Paravane with the loss of PB416 and, if I have understood it correctly, an alleged plot (the explanation of the Soviet/Norwegian element is not easy to follow) for Soviet agents to assassinate Peder Furubotn

 The link between these two lines of enquiry is ascribed to the crash of PB416 in Norway, and the continuing mystery surrounding the number of bodies aboard the aircraft and their identities.

 The difficulty in reconciling the number of bodies is not disputed. Their identities are confused by the initial reports listing personnel allegedly aboard PB416 who are definitely known not to have been on the flight.  This issue of identity can be explained by an administrative error.

The claim that there were more than nine bodies (the official crew/passenger number) cannot be explained with any certainty, but again administrative error, combined with the later exhumation and re-burial might be a contributory factor.  Without exhumation of the remains of the “unknown airman” in Nesbyen cemetery (which seems an impossible scenario) and formal identification by forensic methods this mystery seems likely to remain unresolved.

 It was suggested for a long time that the additional casualty might have been a member of ground staff – but this can be categorically refuted since all RAF members on Paravane – less those known to have been officially on board PB416 are known to have returned safely – including all of the ground contingent.

 The idea that there was a stowaway has also been discounted.  The question was discussed amongst a number of Paravane veterans and they were all adamant that It would have been impossible for a stowaway to conceal themselves aboard the Lancaster without the connivance of the crew.

 Thus the presence of any addition personnel on board would have to have been with the knowledge of the crew.  If this was the case how might this presence be explained?  If, as is suggested the additional personnel were Soviet agents who were to be parachuted out over Norway, how could this action be explained to the crew?

The key to keeping anything a secret is limiting the number “in the know” and, ideally that those “in the know” are of sufficient rank/status to be entrusted with such information. If this is the case (and surely any alleged plan for the despatch of Soviet agents into Norway for an assassination would be seen as having the highest security rating) then why was a relatively junior crew selected for the task.  Frank  Levy was a Flying Officer.  Furthermore, why were these Soviet agents placed aboard an aircraft that was carrying not only its normal crew complement of seven, but an additional two passengers – thus increasing the number of personnel who would have knowledge of the operation?

 It would have been far more logical for any such agents – assuming that there were such – to have been carried aboard a senior officer’s aircraft.  In this case this would be that of W/Cdr Tait, with his aircraft carrying only his normal crew of seven.

 If W/Cdr Tait and his crew were not to be involved, and if these personnel were to be dropped at night over unfamiliar territory, with terrain that by its nature had limited features to assist navigation, then another sensible assumption might be that the aircraft/crew chosen contained an experienced / senior navigator.  The most obvious choice in such an instance would have been the crew of S/Ldr Fawke, a more senior captain, whose navigator, F/Lt Bennett was the Squadron Navigation Officer.

 So why would Levy, relatively junior, whose aircraft was already carrying two additional passengers, be selected for such a task if indeed the scenario is correct? Who might have selected him?  Presumably the Squadron Commander – W/Cdr Tait.

In his later years Tom Bennett, Gerry Fawke’s navigator, became the No. 617 Squadron Association historian  – my predecessor.  I knew Tom well.  As might be expected of a navigator, he was a man of detail, conscientious and diligent.  One of his areas of enquiry was the loss of PB416 and the mystery of the identification of its casualties. He pursued many avenues including Air Historical Branch, the British Embassy in Oslo, the Norwegian War Graves Service and local Norwegians. He also discussed the episode with W/Cdr Tait.

 As Squadron Navigation Officer, he was responsible to W/Cdr Tait for all matters concerning navigation.  He was closely involved with the final navigation preparations for Paravane, to the extent that before the operation he was sent personally to collect the required charts of Scandinavian and Soviet territory from RAF Northolt under conditions of the greatest security.

 Likewise, as Navigation Officer he would have been involved in post-operational navigational analysis – including consideration of possible reasons for the loss of PB416.

 This being so, it seems inconceivable that Tom would not have gained some knowledge (even if only a hint/suspicion) of any covert circumstances, had there been any, relating to this flight, either at the time, or in later conversation with W/Cdr Tait.

 The results of his investigations failed to establish any definitive answer to the mystery of the identification of crew members.  They did however, suggest that there had been several layers of compounded administrative error which can be explained by a number of reasonable factors –the fog of war, poor record keeping or lost documentation.

As for as the reason for the aircraft’s loss:  The location of PB416’s crash clearly places it off the planned route back to Woodhall Spa.  This is sometimes attributed to a navigation error – which might include the “blown off course” explanation quoted.

However, the crash location might also be accounted for if the the aircraft was on an intended route for it to make a landfall in Northern Scotland.  There might be several explanations for this:

 Airfields in the Moray region were acceptable as diversionary airfields. The aircraft may have been making a diversion to Lossiemouth, as did a number of aircraft returning the following night.

 John Sweetman’s “Tirpitz – Hunting the Beast”, p. 116 cites the instance of F/O Watts of 617 Sqn,:

 “..Watts in KC-N hit ‘a huge occluded frontal system’ over Sweden, lost his pitot head and ‘all indicated air speed’, then discovered that fog had closed in over Woodhall causing him to divert to Lossiemouth.”    A number of other aircraft also diverted to Lossiemouth.

 Admittedly, the weather does not appear to have been an issue in the night of 16/17 September.

Levy’s aircraft may have experienced a technical problem which resulted in the crew deciding on a shorter route, with a shorter sea crossing to a diversionary airfield such as Lossiemouth or Kinloss.  There are uncorroborated reports that before the crash an aircraft was heard which sounded as if in trouble / with rough running engines.

 There is no conclusive proof that this was PB416, but it might suggest that the aircraft was experiencing technical issues.  It is known that engine problems were experienced on account of the low grade Russian aviation fuel and that one IX Sqn aircraft was forced to abort its return flight for this reason and return to Yagodnik.

Another consideration is that the aircraft may have been fired upon by flak as they transited across Finland, Sweden or Norway.  This again is given credence by Sweetman (p114):

 “Iveson’s log book shows that KC-F was fired on over Finland”  and on p. 116: “Three 9 (N flown by Harris with a JW bomb load, W & V) and two 617 (E & Z) Squadron Lancasters left on 18 September. Flying in Knilans’ KC-W 17 September, Bell the navigator recalled that ‘our aircraft had a bent frame, was difficult to control, and the starboard outer engine needed a major overhaul’. He failed to mention three extra passengers from a crashed aircraft. Off course near Stockholm, the Lancaster attracted the hostile attention of Swedish anti-aircraft guns. (Hell, I thought these guys were supposed to be neutral’, hollered Knilans.) Like Watts, they found Woodhall fog-bound and diverted to Lossiemouth.”

A Norwegian account attributed to one of the first to reach the crash site states that the wreckage of PB416 showed evidence of battle damage and that the fuel tanks were “torn and empty”.

 If this is correct, then the possibility of PB416 receiving battle damage necessitating a diversion should be factored into the debate.

The question of an additional crew member, or members on board remains enigmatic, but here again the waters are muddied by lack of conclusive evidence. If we accept that there were other(s) on board the aircraft, there is still no proof positive to link them to the alleged Soviet assassination plot. It would make as much sense, to suggest that they may have been additional personnel who were being ferried to the UK.  If so, then unless their origin/identity/purpose can be determined no conclusion can be drawn.

“The work is a hypothesis lacking firm proofs, but offering enough credible evidence to provide as watertight an argument as can be expected.”   Though each separate line of enquiry has been well researched, there is no firm indication of any conclusive link between the Paravane force and a Soviet assassination attempt, or even suggests any such connection. Any hypothesis based on such a claim must be at best conjecture based upon supposition and circumstantial evidence.

 Gaps and inconsistencies in documentary evidence, are not unusual.  Often it is a case of human/administrative error, or the loss of records with the passage of time.  Such omission/inconsistency does not necessarily indicate subterfuge or conspiracy.   Absence of evidence is just that… absence of evidence.

 Without further evidence to link the two directly the enigma must surely remain?

With all good wishes, 


Dr Robert Owen

Official Historian, 617 Sqn Association”

I immediately sent a message of thanks, as follows:

“Dear Rob,

Many thanks for your patient and comprehensive reply.

What gratifies me most is that I see at last an admission that the crash at Saupeset represents an ‘enigma’ that clearly needs an explanation. In my investigations, I was dismayed by the lack of any recognition that anything untoward had happened, which led me to believe that the authorities wanted to bury the episode.

Over the weekend, I shall study very carefully your message, and respond with appropriate seriousness in a few days’ time. I am by no means a dogmatist, and developed my theory after intense study of much archival and biographical material. As I am sure you will agree, the final word on any historical event is never written, and I look forward to exploring with you the possible circumstances that led to this extraordinary disaster. 

With thanks again for the considerable time you must have spent on this,

Best wishes, 


On June 2, I sent Dr. Owen my full response:

“Dear Robert,

I am replying to your very thoughtful message, which I very much appreciated.

I have a few general comments, and I shall then attempt to address your more detailed points.

1)      Anonymity and Secrecy: I was puzzled by the apparent secrecy behind the investigations of historians before you. You state that ‘it was suggested for a long time . . ’, and ‘the idea that there was a stowaway has also been discounted’. Yet you give no indication as to who made these assessments, or where and when they appeared. It seems astonishing – even shocking to me – that no proper investigation was undertaken soon after the events at the end of the war, when witnesses were available. (Perhaps it was, but the report was suppressed . . . ) What happened to Tom Bennett’s report (if he wrote one)? Were the results of these investigations ever promulgated so that the public or other historians could discuss them? If not, why not? Why is there nothing on the website that refers to the tragedy?

2)      Administrative Errors: Likewise, you state that ‘the issue of identity can be explained by administrative error’. Who has made that judgment? And how can such an unfortunate  series of circumstances all be laid at the feet of some careless administrator? After all, fifteen Lancasters made it home that night, with a full complement of aircrew and passengers correctly recorded. Thus the error to which you ascribe the identification problem affected the sole aircraft that went off course, resulting in a confusion over who was killed that went on for two years. Surely it was the responsibility of the flight supervisors to be absolutely accurate over the composition of crews of airplanes, so that next of kin could be confidently informed when incidents of this nature occurred? Was the problem characterized as an administrative error at the time, and was remedial action taken?

3)      Breadth and Depth of Research:  You mention that Tom Bennett ‘pursued many avenues of research, including Air Historical Branch (= what?), the British Embassy in Oslo, the Norwegian War Graves Service and local Norwegians’. But when did this happen? And what was he told? Did he have communications with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission? Or the Air Ministry, or its successor, the Ministry of Defence? Do you believe that Wing Commander Tait had been completely open with him? Do you not agree that the investigations that I have carried out concerning SOE and Operation PICKAXE, the military mission in Moscow, the NKVD, Milorg, the Norwegian Communist Party, the Americans at Poltava, etc. etc. are relevant to a proper analysis of the case?

To address your other points:

·         I am surprised that you say that an exhumation of the remains the unknown airman at Nesbyen seems an ‘impossible scenario’. If he is indeed ‘unknown’, no one should be offended, and DNA analysis should reveal vital clues to his identity.

·         It is important that the idea of a ‘stowaway’ be discarded. I have never suggested that any agent could have secreted himself on the Lancaster without his presence being detected, even if in British uniform camouflage! The crew must have known that some special operation was under way. It might have been explained to them as another PICKAXE operation, where RAF bombers were used to drop Soviet agents in occupied territories as part of the SOE-NKVD collaborative project. And the fact that PARAVANE veterans discussed this possibility proves that the idea had been considered. But how was the mystery introduced to these veterans? Were they told about the Wyness/Williams debacle? Did they discuss whether agents might have been infiltrated on board with the approval of the authorities?

·         I would regard the minor distinction between exposing the secret to nine rather than seven, as a risk, as minimally relevant. After all, was not each of the fifteen Lancasters returning that night carrying extra passengers, because of the damaged craft left behind as not being airworthy?

·         I have no insights on the suitability for such a mission of Wing Commander Tait versus Flight Officer Levy, or how Levy was selected. But maybe Tait’s role was to lead the squadron in its loose information, and the chosen plane had to be last in line, so that it could peel off without its deviation being noticed by the crew of any other craft. I agree with you that Tait must have selected Levy for the operation, and again wonder how much he told Bennett. (One could surmise, perhaps cynically, that the least experienced crew was chosen to undertake such a dangerous mission, and that Churchill would not have been too chagrined had it failed.)

·         You suggest that it seems ‘inconceivable’ that Tom Bennett would not have picked up any hint of covert operations, had there been any. Yet the issue of ‘stowaways’ had been raised, which truly suggests some clandestine activity had been suspected. And, if he had indeed picked up such suspicions, might he perhaps have been strongly instructed not to disclose them?

·         You refer to the ‘fog of war, poor record-keeping, and lost documentation’ as possible causes of the mystery of the identification, and treat them as ‘reasonable’ factors. (Though how ‘lost documentation’ could be a predecessor phenomenon in this incident seems hard to believe.) Yet again, I reinforce the fact of the peculiar circumstances whereby these ‘administrative errors’ affected solely one plane out of sixteen – one that had a large number of enigmatic aspects to its flight crew, its adjusted flightpath, and the troubling circumstances of its demise.

·         You again use the passive voice: the location of the crash ‘is sometimes attributed to a navigation error – which might include the “blown off course” explanation offered’. (How could a ‘navigation error’ take place when the aircraft were flying in formation? How easily could a Lancaster be ‘blown off course’ without making a correction, or communicating the problem? And how come no other plane underwent the experience?) Who has submitted these explanations and judgments? Why does no one take responsibility? Moreover, the Flight Loss Card indicates that PB416’s destination was ‘Norway’, and it records the crash site as being near Nesbyen. The plane was reported as having circled the area for some time. Moreover, there was no apparent surprise when the navigator asked Dyce for a QDF reading! Why do you ignore this clearly documented evidence?

·         As for making landfall in Northern Scotland, as I understand it, some of the Lancasters were rerouted to land at Lossiemouth, because of fog at Woodhall Spa, and did in fact land there (as Flight Officer Watts recorded). The maps indicate that the safest route was still to fly over Sweden and north of Denmark, and then make progress towards Lincolnshire or Northern Scotland. Taking that sharp turn to the west across occupied Norway offered no advantage whatsoever. You admit that weather does not appear to have been an issue that night – at least not over Sweden.

·         Could Levy have decided on a shorter route without informing his controllers, or without the controllers noticing that he had diverted? Why, if the aircraft was experiencing technical issues, would it remove itself from the formation, and pass over hostile territory? Moreover, if you look at the map of the route, once a plane reached the Skagerrak in the North Sea, Lossiemouth is actually closer than Lincolnshire.

·         If low-grade Russian fuel was to blame, how come that PB416 was again the sole victim of this misfortune? Presumably all sixteen planes were fuelled from the same source, and fifteen made it back without incident. By the way, you quote Iveson’s log (mentioned by Sweetman) that stated that his crew, ‘like Watts’, found Woodhall fog-bound, and the plane thus diverted to Lossiemouth. Is that Sweetman’s interpretation? Was it really left to the officer to make that determination? If so, how could it have been that Levy, in PB416, knew about the needed diversion when he was over Sweden?

·         Where is the Norwegian account of the crash site held? Can it be inspected? I am not surprised that, if PB416 flew into a mountain, the craft ‘showed evidence of battle damage and that the fuel tanks were “torn and empty”’! Did anyone really expect that they would survive the impact intact? Should we really treat this information seriously?

·         The evolution of the ‘identified’ members of the crew  – and passengers – of PB416 merits special attention, as shown in the following phases:

i)  The September Operations Record Book, showing the original seven listed from the departure on September 11 (without Naylor and Shea), and recording the disappearance of the aircraft on September 18, with an assumption that the crew was the same;

ii) the roster (‘nominal roll’) of those that left Yagodnik on PB416, compiled by Squadron Leader Harman (unavailable, but apparently adding only Shea as passenger);

iii) the recognition on the Flight Loss Report made out at Woodhall Spa the day after the accident that Naylor and Shea had both been passengers;

iv) the numeration of bodies on the ground, made by local Norwegians;

v) the listing of names on the crude memorial in August 1945 (including Wyness and Williams),

vi) the initial Graves Registration Report from August 1945 (which omitted McNally, but included Wyness and Williams);  

vii) the ‘final’ War Graves Commission report in December 1946 (with McNally restored, and Williams and Wyness removed); and  

viii) the ten headstones in Nesbyen Churchyard, including an unknown airman.

·         The public deserves to know about this. While I, in my articles, have done my best to describe and interpret the sequence of events that drove the confusion, I see no evidence that the Squadron has performed any rigorous analysis of the debacle. Yet the fact remains: there is an unknown airman lying in rest in the Churchyard, and neither you nor the Ministry of Defence can explain who it might be, as there is no British (or Canadian) officer missing to be accounted for. I agree that I can offer no solid evidence of the conspiracy, but my hypothesis is much more plausible than the vague claims of human and administrative error that you propose. (The ‘fog of war’ is an inadequate explanation.) Professor Titlestad (whose father was Peder Furubotn’s security officer) is one of several who accept my conclusions. It will remain an enigma only so long as you keep it under wraps, and show no resolve to explore it further. I hope that my endeavours will encourage you to open up, publish your findings, and engage in a further debate about the events. Also, that the Squadron and the Ministry will be ready to offer an apology when the eightieth anniversary of the crash comes up this September.

I respectfully await learning what your next steps will be.


Dr. Owen’s reply of June 5 was disappointingly terse:

“Dear Tony

I have spent a considerable amount of time considering your hypothesis, and commented as requested.  

I have nothing further to add.


This failure to engage was extremely depressing. I am sure that Dr. Owen is a fine man, dedicated to serving the Squadron Association for whom he works, but his behaviour does not display the attributes that a serious historian should regard as essential to his or her craft. It was incurious, unimaginative, obscurantist, selective, insular, and proprietary. It reinforces my belief that history is too important to be delegated to ‘official historians’. To ignore the evidence and resort to identifying causes such as ‘the fog of war’ is simply unprofessional. I therefore issue this posting in the hope that someone else may pick it up and gain the attention of more independent and resourceful analysts.

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