John Douglas Smith - Unsung Hero of Hastings 1920 - 1942

Uncle John (John Douglas Smith) Killed September 1942, buried August 1993.

P/O Smith was the navigator on Hampden No AT.138 which took off from Afrikanda, but was shot down near Aelekerti on the Russian/Finnish border.  Sgt. Bray was the only survivor of the crash, and was taken prisoner of war.


Hastings and St Leonards Observer - Saturday 06 March 1943

"HASTINGS PILOT OFFICER Pilot Officer John Douglas Smith, of 50, St. Helen’s Parkroad, Hastings, who was killed in action September last year, and in whose memory a friend gave £5OO to war charities. had already received bis commission when was posted missing. Our information at the time was that he was about to be commissioned. In a letter to his father, the Commanding Officer of Pilot Officer Smith's squadron said: We lost one our best crews for whom a great future had been mapped out. Your son had a considerable number of fying hours, and was considered a first-class navigator. Your son had been appointed commissioned rank as from the eleventh of July. He was extremely popular with other members his squadron and his loss is deeply regretted by us all."

P/O Smith is still listed as being “missing”, his name is inscribed on Panel 71 of The Runnymede Memorial which commemorates those airmen who fell in North-East Europe or adjacent seas, and who have no known grave.”

In loving memory of John who died in the cause of justice, freedon and peace

He does now, buried in Archangel, Russia in 1993

P/O Smith was my Uncle John John Douglas Smith whose family lived at 44 High St (bombed in May 1943 after they had moved to ‘Stepaside’ 50 St Helen’s Park Road).  His name is inscribed on the War Memorial in Alexandra Park.

He died a year before I was born  but my elder sister remembers his coming home on leave on one occasion.  My parents emigrated (with four children) to Australia and growing up there I understood my Uncle to have been shot down and now missing, and used to fantasise about his turning up, or my tracing him when I was older, or at least, finding where he died.

I must have mentioned this to my Mother at some stage, because she then told me that they knew where he was buried, the Germans had buried the crew of the plane with full military honours.  The pilot of the plane had survived and was taken prisoner, and this was what he was told.

Hastings and St Leonards Observer - Saturday 10 October 1942

My grandparents died in the 1960s and my Mother in 1986.

In August 1993 my Father was staying with us where we lived at the time in a Worcestershire village.  I came home from work one day in August and my husband said “You know that plane they’ve found in Russia, (it had been on the news the night before) I think that is your Uncle John’s plane.”

He is interested in aviation history and knew the plane had been a Handley Page Hampden, known as ‘the flying suitcase’ because it had a short, narrow but tall main fuselage with a very slender tail unit, resulting in cramped crew conditions.


The following day he rang RAF Brize Norton and confirmed that it was indeed my uncle.  He was told that the RAF had tried to contact relatives and some were flying in from as far away as Australia and Canada for the burial, which was to take place in Archangel, Russia, at the Allied Cemetery.  We learned that my Mothers’ cousins had been in contact and would be attending the funeral, but it was too late to arrange for us to take part.

For the next few days the national press was full of the story with headlines such as “War heroes are laid to rest at last”, “The Last Farewell”, “Final resting place for wartime airmen”, RAF flyers buried in Russia 50 years after they crashed on Murmansk trip”.

The fullest report was in the Daily Mail of Tuesday, 24 August 1993 and from this, and some background information from the RAF (some oif it used in The Daily Mail story) we got a fuller picture of what had taken place.

On the night of 4 September 1942 a mixed flight of 12 aircraft took off from Sumburgh, in the Shetlands, for North Russia where their role was to be the protection of a convoy carrying vital weapons to hold the German forces massed on the Eastern Front.  They were to establish a base to protect the convoy as it arrived in Murmansk.  According to The Daily Mail report “All were volunteers, because it was accepted that many would probably never return.”

Several aircraft were lost en route and one of these,, Hampden AT138 of No 144 Squadron, was attacked by enemy fighters.  Four of the five man crew were killed, the pilot survived, bailing out shortly before the blazing aircraft crashed at Alakurtti (this seems to be the commonest transliterated spelling) Lake Vikurij, Northern Finland.  (Alakurtti was formerly a Finnish village that was ceded to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.)

As my Mother had told me the reports say the pilot was captured by the Germans and informed that the aircraft was burnt out and the remains of the four crew members found in the wreckage were buried with full military honours.  But post-war investigations by the Russian authorities were unable to discover the graves.

So it remained, with the names inscribed on the Runnymede memorial as ‘missing in action’, no known grave until 1991 when the British Embassy in Moscow ere informed that the wreckage of a British bomber of the Hampden type, and believed to be AT138, had been found together with human remains, fourteen kilometres from Alakurtti.  In late August, 1992, after several delays, officials from the Air Attache’s officer were allowed to inspect the wreckage but couldn’t positively identify the aircraft.  One member of the crew had been thrown clear and he wore a ring bearing initials, which were linked to a crew member with the same initials and from this GMC Police managed to trace his sister to Australia.  She was sent a photo of the ring and was able to positively identify it, thus leading to the identification of the plane and remaining crew members.

An erstwhile member of the same squadron told, at the time of the burials, of how six planes went missing at the same time and a search was carried out, finding three of the planes, but not the others.  The searchers were hungry, and being bombed continuously.  Eventually they landed and continued the search on foot, but unsuccessfully. (My search for tragic airman John. [Eastbourne] Gazette, 1/9/1993}

What I find particularly poignant are the details in the Daily Mail apparently taken from a report written for the Air Ministry by the surviving pilot. (The Last Farewell, Julian Champkin. Daily Mail, 24/8/1993)

 “As the Hampden emerged from cloud over a German fighter base in the north of occupied Finland, two Messerschmitt BF109 fighters came up behind and beneath.

In the Hampden, rear gunner Roy Otter must have seen them coming at him.  A burst of enemy fire hit the rear of the plane, fire broke out... the crew members there probably died very quickly.

From the front of the plane, navigator John Smith, tried to crawl back with extinguishers to help his friends but the fire was too intense.  Before he could get back to his seat, a second burst of shells and bullets hit the centre of the fuselage and he was a casualty.

The fire was now raging throughout the plane, with only pilot John Bray left alive.  The blazing Hampden fell into a spin.”

This bravery shown by my 21 year old uncle, was echoed by my Mother 25 years later when she and I set out to walk through bushfires to reach to my then six year old sister where she was at school in Snug Tasmania.

Bomber crew to be buried in Russia

Monday, 23 August 1993

o    FOUR RAF crewmen who died while flying to Russia to help protect Second World War convoys will be buried on Wednesday with full military honours in the northern city of Archangel. The Russian army will provide a guard of honour.

The ceremony, to be attended by the men's relatives, comes 51 years after their Hampden bomber was shot down by German aircraft at Alekurtti on the way to Murmansk.

Only one man survived, the Australian pilot, Flt Sgt John Page, who was taken prisoner. The Germans said the plane had been burnt out and the four crew men trapped inside had been buried with full military honours.

The truth was that they and the remains of their aircraft had been left where it crashed close to Alekurtti, then still part of Finland.

In 1991, the British Embassy in Moscow was told that the remains of a British bomber had been found together with the remains of the crew. Leslie Harry Mallinson, an RAF armourer from the Manchester area, was identified by a gold signet ring.

The other members of the crew were Pilot Officer John Douglas Smith, the navigator, from Hastings, East Sussex; Flt Sgt George Kirby, wireless operator from Keswick, Cumbria, and Sgt Roy Otter, air gunner/wireless operator from Sheffield.

Hampden AT138 PL-C 144 Sqn

Pilot Sgt J C R Bray (1384708) OK/POW

Nav Sgt J D Smith (920973) KIA W/AG Sgt G D Kirkby (1181778) KIA

/AG Sgt R S Otter (950301) KIA

G/C AC2 L Mallinson (1476073) KIA

Off course near Alakurtti. Shot down by 2 Bf109′s . Crashed 9 miles from Alakurtti, besides lake.

The remains were recovered in the 1990′s and buried with full military honours.