Halifax tail gunner remembered – 80 years on

Exactly 80 years after his death, the niece of a young RAF airman killed in World War Two has been revisiting his old airbase

Edwin Bowen was the tail gunner on a Handley Page Halifax bomber that flew from RAF Elvington – now the site of the Yorkshire Air Museum (YAM) – on  bombing missions over Germany. On the night of March 26, 1943 his aircraft, JB842, was lost over the Baltic Sea after a mission to Berlin. His body and that of the wireless operator were never found and they are remembered at Runnymede, Surrey, the RAF memorial for those with no known grave. Other members of the crew are buried in Germany and one in Denmark.

His family received the telegram with the news that he was lost the next day, 30th March. It, and the letters he had sent home, are on display at YAM. Edwin’s niece Celia Wolfe has been to the museum to pay her respects to the uncle she never knew and to see the only surviving example of the Halifax bomber he flew in.

Celia said: “My mother and grandmother grieved for him for the rest of their lives. Even though he was only 19 when he died, I think of him as ‘Uncle Ted’. He was afraid. On his last leave he told my mother he always polished up the Perspex [of his gun turret] so it hadn’t got a mark on it because any little mark could be mistaken for a night fighter. And she knew from that, that he was very nervous and afraid. But who wouldn’t be?”

Celia standing by the rear gun turret of YAM’s Halifax Mk.III, holding a photo of her uncle
Celia standing by the rear gun turret of YAM’s Halifax Mk.III, holding a photo of her uncle Courtesy YAM

The telegram the family, who lived in Surrey, received told them that Edwin’s aircraft had gone down and he was missing. Celia said her grandmother had already been preparing herself for bad news:

“When he left from his last leave, he kissed my grandmother goodbye and set off, then turned round and came back and kissed her again. And that really upset my grandmother because she was terribly superstitious. She said to the family, ‘I don’t like that. Why did he come back? I don’t like it.’ And when the telegram came to say he was missing, she knew already what it contained. She knew that it had been the last time she’d see him.”

The letters and Edwin’s photograph were among the very first exhibits at YAM and the Allied Air Forces Memorial when it started nearly 40 years ago and will soon feature in a new ‘Favourite Objects Trail’. YAM is also raising funds for the restoration of its Grade II Listed 1942 Control Tower, from where Edwin’s Halifax would have been counted out and where it would have been officially listed as missing. The building, which was only designed to last ten years, is one of the few WW2 Control Towers, or Watch Offices, left in its original state.

Museum director Jonathan Brewer said: “These family papers are amongst many that the museum holds commemorating the young lives lost in those terrible years of 1943-5. This Tower, or Watch Office as it was sometimes called, was where the planes were counted out and counted back, with many of them never returning and their loved ones left waiting for news. The telegram is a very poignant reminder of why we are here and why we are so keen to raise funds to restore the tower for posterity.”

The telegram the family received on March 30, 1943
The telegram the family received on March 30, 1943 Courtesy YAM