BADGE 72 (1)
Elaine, Russel and John Sergeant
Elaine and her son Russell with BBC presenter John Sergeant
inspect the wreckage of Lancaster DV202

The Lanc in the Lake

Elaine Towlson finally got the chance to say a proper goodbye to her father after the remains of his Lancaster bomber were discovered in a lake in northeast Germany.
   As she spotted the shattered fuselage of the Lancaster poking out of the water, her mind raced back to childhood memories of her father – walking in the woods, sitting by his side in front of the fire and polishing the buttons on his RAF uniform.    On 17th August 1943, when Elaine was just nine years old she waved him off on another hazardous mission against the Nazi war machine, wondering when she would see him again.    But she never did.    Flight Sergeant Stan Shaw and his Lancaster crew were shot down during the raid on a missile base at Peenemunde in northeast Germany.    His family never knew exactly what happened to him, only that his body was never recovered.    Every year Elaine has made a pilgrimage to the Air Force Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey, overlooking the River Thames on Cooper's Hill at Englefield Green between Windsor and Egham.    The Memorial commemorates by name over 20,000 airmen who were lost in the Second World War during operations from bases in the United Kingdom and North and Western Europe, and who have no known graves.  They served in Bomber, Fighter, Coastal, Transport, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands and came from all parts of the Commonwealth.  Some were from countries in continental Europe which had been overrun but whose airmen continued to fight in the ranks of the Royal Air Force.    At Runnymede Elaine is able to see her father’s name among the thousands of fallen heroes who were never found.    It was all she had to remember him by, until her son Russell began researching his grandfather’s final flight and realised that aircraft wreckage found in Kolpinsee, a lake in northeast Germany, was from the Lancaster in which her father perished.

Seventy years after his death, Elaine became the subject of a TV documentary which paid tribute to those airmen who lost their lives in the Second World War.
   She was taken to the final resting place of her father, accompanied by the TV presenter John Sergeant and her son Russell.    Elaine, who is now 80, said: “It meant so much to me because I never got to say goodbye to my dad.   That was one of the most painful things.   He was such a wonderful man.    As we stood on the jetty looking out at the lake, two rays of sunshine broke through the clouds and lit up the Lancaster like a spotlight.   It was a wonderful moment and my chance to say goodbye after all these years.    I never thought I would see this and I will never forget it.    It made me feel closer to him.”

Stan Shaw and Crew
Flt Sgt Stan Shaw with crew members

Elaine was only six when her father joined the RAF and became the rear gunner aboard Lancaster DV202.    At the grand old age of 31, Stan was a father-figure among the crew, some of whom were boys barely out of school.    She still remembers his visits home, often accompanied by three or four of his crew mates who would bring her sweets and hoist her on to their shoulders on trips to the cinema.    The last time she saw him was in August 1943. He had been given a few hours compassionate leave to visit his mother after she was discharged from hospital.    He didn’t even have time to visit Elaine’s mother and her baby sister Pam before reporting back for duty. “He was worried because he had got to go and he couldn’t see my mum” said Elaine.    “I didn’t even have time to clean his buttons, which I loved to do.    I just ran to the bottom of the street and waved him off.    He asked me to give my mum his love and a kiss and to look after her, and to look after Pam.    I’ve always tried to do that for him.    I often wish I could go back in time just to see him once more.    I loved him to bits but we missed out on so much time together.    I cried quite a bit on my wedding day because he wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle.    I still remember what he looked like and he will never change; he will never get old.    I will always be proud of him, but I wish he had never gone.” Stan and his crew took off on their final mission on August 17 1943.    They were part of a huge bombing raid on the missile base at Peenemunde on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom.    British intelligence believed the site was where the Nazis were making huge quantities of hydrogen peroxide for the deadly V2 missiles they were firing at London.    In total nearly 600 planes set off on Operation Hydra, including 324 Lancaster bombers.    It was a highly dangerous mission, carried out under full moonlight. Forty crews never returned.    Many of those who died were in the third wave, like Stan, whose planes were caught by heavy anti-aircraft fire. Botho Stuwe was a German soldier at the base who saw Stan’s Lancaster shot out of the sky during the raid.    He said: “There was a flash and a line of tracer fire, then an explosion.    This fireball hung there and then it fell down in a curving line into the Kolpinsee.” After the war a special task force was set up to find the bomber that crashed into the lake, killing everyone on board.    The team failed to find remains of the aircraft, but today a section of Lancaster fuselage is clearly visible from the shoreline.    Officials have never confirmed it was Stan’s aircraft but the locals have no doubt and have even erected a plaque to commemorate him and his crew.    Russell Towlson is equally convinced.    He began investigating his grandfather’s final resting place after he was contacted by the Canadian grandson of one of Stan’s crew mates who had heard rumours that a Lancaster bomber was still sitting in a lake in Germany.    Divers who explored the wreck even suggested the serial numbers they found identified the aircraft as DV202 – Stan’s aircraft.

Flt Sgt Stan Shaw
Flt Sgt Stan Shaw

As the evidence stacked up Russell and his brother Ashley hired a small aircraft and flew over the lake.    From that vantage point they could clearly identify the silhouette beneath the water. Russell said: “That first time we waded out to get as close as we could, we were in tears at being so close but not able to touch it.    So going back and getting even closer was very special.    I genuinely believe this was my grandfather’s plane and I’m not alone.    But I’m not sure it really matters whether it is or not, because we know grandfather was here at some point and he lost his life here and that's time we waded out to get as close as we could, we were in tears at being so close but not able to touch it.    So going back and getting even closer was very special.    I genuinely believe this was my grandfather’s plane and I’m not alone.    But I’m not sure it really matters whether it is or not, because we know grandfather was here at some point and he lost his life here and that's important for us to have that closure.    That was why we started investigating in the first place, because we wanted my mother to be able to say goodbye. After the war the bomber crews were shunned, but regardless of what you think of some of the missions they flew, they didn’t pick the targets.    It’s only right that they are remembered for the sacrifice they made.”

The bomber crews helped the Allies win the war, but the fact that so many of them never came home meant VE Day was hollow for many families.   Elaine and her family never joined the street parties.   For them the pain was too fresh but now it’s finally been laid to rest.

John Sergeant summed it up thus: “History records that the Second World War lasted until 1945, but for some people that doesn’t tell the whole story.   Elaine’s war finally ended 70 years later on a lake in Peenemunde.   The Lancaster is the plane that won the war and we owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands who gave their lives flying in it.   They were maybe the bravest we’ve ever had, who were prepared to die for the loved ones they left behind.”

Addendum. Plt Off R C Harding RCAF, Sgt T N Weston, Plt Off L Prendergast, Flt Sgt P Pynisky RCAF, Sgt W H Quance, Flt Sgt S Shaw and Sgt L F McDermott, the crew of DV202 will be remembered during the reunion Remembrance Service at Dunholme Lodge on Sunday 10th May when a plaque will be added to the memorial structure.