John Harder & the link with 434 Squadron

John Harder was a fighter pilot flying Spitfires with 64 Squadron; 434 Squadron was a Canadian Bomber Squadron, initially flying Halifaxes but converted to Lancasters towards the end of 1944. 

So… what’s the connection?

Well, the Harder family history (with evidence from letters & photographs) indicates that John Harder used to fly bombers. Although there is nothing in his service record to indicate this, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence…

  1. Harder spoke to the family about his time in these other Commands
  2. There are plenty of references in his letters home to his mother
  3. There’s a photo of him in the cockpit of a Stirling with the comment “Early Days, Bus Driver”; a photo of a Stirling’s controls; photos of B17s (possibly RAF “Fortress I”s) & a copy of Pilots Notes for a B17
  4. There’s a note written by someone (but not Harder) on a Pilot assessment has written “Refresher Course, ex Bomber Command”
  5. There’s a Pilot’s Assessment completed in October 1944 by W/Cdr John Plagis which shows over 426 hours flying Multi-Engined aircraft at night
  6. He has annotated each of his offensive missions with a number which is, according to my source at the RAF Museum at Hendon, far more indicative of Bomber Command than Fighter Command. 

So… we appear to have a link to Bomber Command, but why 434 squadron in particular? Well, in his photo album, compiled shortly after the war, there is the following photograph which shows a somewhat damaged mid-upper turret of a Lancaster of 434 Squadron …

The caption reads… “Terrys turret after Saarbrucken” 

Alan Soderstrom has pulled together an excellent website covering the activities of 434 Squadron (http://rcaf434squadron.squarespace.com) where I was able to discover the following information (follw the links to Crew 152 on the 1945 pages of the http://rcaf434squadron.squarespace.com/combat/ section of his site (where you’ll also see the above photo shared with Alan)…

To the target of Dortmund on 20th February 1945 Lancaster A/C “P” NG.497 of 434 Squadron was attacked by an enemy A/C at position 51:39N 06:20E height 9000, heading 230T.

The enemy A/C was first sighted by rear gunner simultaneous with warning by WO/AG on fishpond (an early form of defensive radar) in the astern position, slightly below silhouetted against the clouds. The rear gunner gave corkscrew starboard immediately but was unable to fire as the rear turret went U/S on the way to the target. The Mid-Upper gunner was unable to fire as the enemy fighter stayed below the bomber breaking away up to the port at 150 yards, at 200 yards the enemy aircraft began firing a steady burst until break away, killing the WO/P and wounding the M/U gunner. 

The crew on that night was No 152 and consisted of:

Cameron.DJ RCAFPilot J-45297
Weaver.SJRCAFAir gunner / R-275185 
Taggart.JHRCAFAir gunner / K-206351 J-93454
Davey.HARCAFWireless Op / R-194254 
Ennis.JGRCAFNavigator J-40720
Sutton.DFRCAFAir bomber J-39998
Stanfield.JRCAFFlt/engineerR-225215J-94479

Davey was killed & is buried in Craigton Cemetery in Glasgow & Taggart was wounded

There are some apparent inconsistencies…

  • The name “Terry” does not easily match with J H Taggart (‘though to be fair, I do not know what the J & H stand for. In addition, “Terry” may be a nickname derived from who knows where!
  • Saarbrucken is over 200 miles from Dortmund. Again this could have been caused by memories fading or places wrongly remembered.

What is incontrovertible is that there must have been some link between the mid-upper gunner of Lancaster WL-P and John Harder as why else would he have the photograph in his photo album? Especially as, at the time of the incident, Harder was a PoW in Stalag Luft 3 having been shot down in July 1944. There is a slight possibility that the mid-upper turret of Lancaster WL-P (NG497) was also damaged on another mission to Saarbrucken with a gunner named “Terry”, but from the evidence so far, this seems unlikely.

Also, from the RAF Museum at Hendon, I have the following… 

According to the Form 78 of NG497 it entered service on 23 January 1945, with 434 Sqdn.  The next day it was passed on to 424 Sqdn.  After suffering minor damage on 21 February 1945 it was repaired on site by 54 Maintenance Unit.  On 20 April 1945 it returned to active duty, with 434 Sqdn.  On 27 April 1945 it was transferred to 433 Sqdn, and on 11 October 1945 to 429 Sqdn.  On 24 May (?) 1946 it moved to 15 Maintenance Unit, presumably to be moth-balled, and was struck off charge on 25 March 1948. Having looked back to the photo, one wonders what “major damage” would have been if this is minor!

So, what’s the connection?

I have a theory…

During training, John Harder flew Stirling bombers (some photos to “prove” this…)

 

Whilst he was grounded due to problems with his eyesight (as referred to in letters home) his “usual” crew (excluding M/Upper gunner Taggart) were killed in action. The evidence for this is in a letter home dated 6th July 1942…

…”I regret to say that this is not a very happy letter. Five of my best friends were killed in action a little while ago and as the six of us had always gone through everything together it sort of leaves me lonely not to have them around…. On top of that, some silly old woman of a medical officer has grounded me again – he thinks permanently…”

“As far as Lewis is concerned … tell him not to look at flak, flash and flaming onions at night as it will ruin your bloody eyes for months; I know. Nothing permanent, sort of like snow blindness. Mine are serviceable, but a lot of fellows’ aren’t. Also tell him to avoid Catalinas, they’re cold meat these days…”

A Mk III Stirling had a crew of 7, Harder, Taggart & the 5 men who died as above. There is also a photo in his album of some grave markers with the caption: “August 17th 1942, F Freddie’s crew, pilot was Ellerton”. Again, there is a discrepancy with dates, but as the photo album was put together post war this is not to be unexpected; the name “Ellerton” does not feature in any casualty lists for the period, either.

The matching of a crew with a new pilot may have contributed to their loss in action.

Continuing with the theory… Harder and Taggart then remained in contact despite being in different Commands of the RAF and Taggart provided Harder with a copy of the photograph of his damaged turret after the war (or perhaps even sent it to him during the war) as a reminder of his “close shave”.

Until we can locate Harder’s Pilot’s log of this period, or perhaps make contact with Taggart (or any of the other crew members if they are still alive) then some of the above is, like other parts of the “Harder story” conjecture; hopefully one day there will be a definitive answer.