‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Synopsis

On September 16, 1944, an RAF Lancaster from Squadron 617 peeled off from a convoy of sixteen planes returning from Yagodnik, in northern Russia, to their base in Great Britain. Instead of taking a direct route that flew high over neutral Sweden, PB416 veered to the west towards Norway, occupied by the Germans. Its path was intentional, as its coordinates were verified without surprise by a location fix originating at Dyce, Aberdeen, timed at 1:21 GMT the following morning. Shortly afterwards, the plane crashed into a mountain at Saupeset, west of Oslo, in the Hallingdal valley, killing all crew members on board.

The circumstances of the plane’s voyage and the make-up of its crew were extraordinary. It had been a member of the partially successful attack-squad on the Tirpitz, a feared German battleship berthed in Norway’s Altenfjord, which had taken place only three days earlier. After several unsuccessful raids launched from the United Kingdom, the RAF had early in September suddenly gained approval from the Soviet Government to launch the attack, Operation PARAVANE, from inside Soviet territory. This replaced a previous plan that would have allowed the squadron to land in northern Russia after the attack, in order to refuel before the long journey home. Unfortunately, the speed with which the arrangements were made, the atrocious weather conditions, and the lack of appropriate navigational aids over unfamiliar terrain, caused seven of the planes to be rendered unflightworthy. No lives were lost, but the reduction in available aircraft meant that the spare airmen had to be repatriated by being allotted as passengers, in twosomes, alongside the established crews of seven.

Local Norwegians who came across the wreckage, and the remains of the passengers, made a valiant attempt to honour the victims by erecting a simple monument. The Germans did not allow any names to be registered, but the number of bodies recovered was signalled by ten simple nails hammered into a cross. In this fashion the first anomaly appeared, since the RAF officer in charge at Yagodnik supplied nine names as members of the crew, which were recorded on the initial flight loss card. Yet after the Germans had retreated from the area in the summer of 1945, the records of the Graves Registration Unit were changed to show that there had been eleven casualties from the crash. This amendment was partially due to the fact that the Norwegians had by now recovered uniforms and dog-tags from the victims, and were able to list the names of ten officers. It seemed that the remains of one officer had been burned beyond recognition.

A shocking disclosure then evolved: the names did not tally. Two of the names listed on the new Norwegian memorial, Wyness and Williams, had never been recorded as being on the doomed plane. Williams had been detained in Yagodnik with severe dysentery, while Wyness had returned on another plane. Such facts are verifiable because both airmen were killed in the following month. On a mission to bomb the Kembs barrier in southern Germany on October 7, 1944, their plane was hit. They both bailed out successfully, but were subsequently executed on the spot under Hitler’s new draconian orders. This caused considerable consternation at the Air Ministry. In July 1945 the Flight Loss Record was amended to delete Wyness and Williams, reducing the number of casualties to nine again. Undeniably, two passengers impersonating the two officers had been victims in the crash at Saupeset.

The number of victims eventually settled to ten, with the name of McGuire (whose remains had been destroyed) added to the list. A story circulated that the local British consulate had clandestinely removed one of the bodies from the scene, which would explain the complement being reduced by one. By August 1946, those ten bodies had been re-interred in graves at Nesbyen Church, with one described as belonging to an ‘unknown British airman’. The memorials comprising ten headstones, nine crosses and one with the Star of David, can still be seen today, carefully maintained by local well-wishers. Moreover, the paradox of the airmen masquerading as Wyness and Williams was swiftly but uncomfortably buried too –  for eighty years.

The mystery airmen were undoubtedly Soviet citizens, agents of the NKGB, perhaps press-ganged into the operation, who had been given the outward identifications of Wyness and Williams. This must have happened with the approval of the British authorities in Yagodnik. The NKGB must have made an arrangement by which they were going to be infiltrated by parachute into Norway under British cover. No British airmen were missing: if the ‘stowaways’ had been Norwegians, they would have had no need to dress up in British uniforms to arrive in their home country. Why on earth had the British authorities acceded to such a madcap scheme, and what could its objective have been? And how was the secret maintained when so many persons (including Wyness and Williams, of course) must have known about the high-risk escapade and its tragic outcome?

A study of political events in Norway at this time indicates that Joseph Stalin wanted to have a rebel Communist assassinated. Peder Furubotn was the designated leader of the Communist Party in Bergen, the provincial town to the west of Oslo. Before the war he had spent several years in Moscow, where he had been dangerously outspoken about Stalin and his purges, and had also defended one of Stalin’s victims, the Old Bolshevik, Nikolai Bukharin. Furubotn was fortunate not to have been executed himself, but he was able to escape Stalin’s clutches, and return to Norway before war broke out. Yet during the war, he continued to defy Stalin, disobeying orders to move to Sweden, showing signs of support for the Norwegian government-in-exile, challenging Stalin in proclamations, and arguing fiercely with Stalin’s favourite communist and close supporter Osvald Sunde.

While the final agreements about the ploy must have been cemented over a matter of a couple of weeks, Stalin’s plans had been fermenting for some time. The NKVD (which morphed into the NKGB) had in 1941, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, developed relationships with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was responsible for sabotage in occupied Europe. Joint projects had even led to the Soviets using British planes to parachute their agents into countries such as France and Yugoslavia – activities that would have received the stern disapproval of the respective governments-in-exile. The Soviets were poorly equipped with long-distance aircraft, and SOE, under Churchill’s encouragement, committed to such operations under the codename PICKAXE. SOE’s chief Colin Gubbins liaised with the NKGB’s representative in London, Colonel Chichayev, and SOE’s George Hill performed a similar role in Moscow. A British military mission had also taken up residence in Moscow, but its leaders became quickly frustrated with Soviet obtuseness. By the summer of 1944 relations between the respective organizations had grown sour.

On the other hand, Stalin had for some time been developing stratagems for stealing British and American aeronautics and weapons technology, since what the Soviets had developed lagged way beyond what the Allies had been able to deploy. In June 1944, he had given permission for the Americans to manage a base at Poltava, in Ukraine, in order that the USAAF could launch bombing-operations against Germany, but he used this as an opportunity to inspect aircraft that crashed on Soviet territory. The Americans were abused in other ways: the Soviets failed to defend the base against a very destructive raid made by German bombers on June 21. He roused the Americans’ ire, which was one reason they did not chose to carry out the September infiltration mission.

Soviet intelligence had also been plotting behind the scenes. One key personality was an officer named Zoya Voskresenkaya, also known as Rybina. She had been sent to Stockholm by the NKVD in 1941, ostensibly as press attaché to the Ambassador, Madam Kollontai, but in fact as head of station, where she kept a close watch on progress on atomic weaponry. One remarkable fact of the whole adventure was that in February 1944 she was authorized to travel to London on one of the modified Mosquitoes of the ‘ball-bearing run’. This was a privilege allotted only to very important passengers, and it is highly likely that her mission was to consult with Chichaev on the possibilities of exploiting the PICKAXE program to execute Stalin’s act of political revenge.

Moreover, relations between, on the one hand, Roosevelt and Churchill, and, on the other, Stalin, had deteriorated rapidly when Stalin refused to allow the Poltava base to offer any air support to the Poles during the Warsaw Uprising in August. He stilled his troops on the eastern banks of the Vistula river, waiting for the Nazis to crush the Uprising. Significantly, Stalin relented on September 9, when it was clearly too late to save the beleaguered city, and that gesture was probably linked to his granting permission for Squadron 617 to launch its Tirpitz attack from Soviet territory. The circumstances of that approval are very murky: the British had some experience of using airfields in northern Russia, but the final decision was very sudden, and thus caused those hectic and error-prone adjustments –  which Stalin might well have expected.

Churchill’s swift acceptance of Stalin’s offer shows how quickly he was to forgive the dictator for his obduracy over Warsaw, but also reveals his misconceptions about the threat of the Tirpitz. Churchill was indeed obsessed with the German battleship, and had authorized multiple attempts on its destruction. Yet, by September 1944, it was much less of a menace to the Arctic convoys that continued to send supplies to the Soviet Union, practically immobile in its fjord retreat, with a demoralized crew, and lack of fuel. It is entirely possible that, in his excitement at wanting to finish the job with a higher chance of success with a surprise attack from the East, he acceded, as a quid pro quo, to Stalin’s request to use one of the returning Lancasters for the mission of sabotage and probable assassination.

Few could have known of the exact details of the plot. The RAF would have regarded it as simply another of the PICKAXE missions, and, probably following orders with some resentment and apprehension, went along with the subterfuges and ploys that were necessary. Probably only Churchill and Gubbins knew the exact details of the mission’s objectives and the wiles required. For it was an enormously dangerous venture, bearing a high degree of risk. Whether it was successful or not, its outcome could have had disastrous repercussions, if the general public (and the Norwegian government-in-exile) learned that Soviet assassins had been allowed to impersonate British officers to kill a Norwegian citizen in his home country.

What happened in the final few moments before the Lancaster crashed can only be speculated on. Perhaps the Soviet agents, essentially sent on a suicide mission, had second thoughts. Maybe the pilot resisted their pleas, trying to fulfil the mission he had been given, rather than returning to Scotland with the agents still aboard. Perhaps a fight broke out, and shots were fired. The outcome was of course a catastrophe, but the fact that the prime witnesses were all dead assisted the cover-up. Wyness and Williams were surely bound not to say a word in the few brief weeks before they themselves had to offer the ultimate sacrifice. The British authorities have managed to keep a lid on the story for eighty years, but it is now surely time for an apology to be offered to the relatives of all who lost their lives in the crash, and for a more honest appraisal to be given when the annual ceremony at Nesbyen Church takes place in September.

                                                                                                © Antony Percy, May 2024