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Warrant Officer Keith Prowd

Warrant Officer Keith Prowd at the controls of his Stirling

Warrant Officer Keith Prowd

 

Unit : 196 Squadron, 38 Group

Awards : Vliegerkruis

 

Warrant Officer Prowd, of the Royal Australian Air Force, was the pilot of Stirling EF248 which, on Tuesday 19th September 1944, was shot down over the Arnhem area. This was the first of 196 Squadron's aircraft to be lost during Operation Market Garden. The crew consisted of Warrant Officer Keith Prowd (RAAF, pilot), Flying Officer George Powderhill (navigator), Sergeant Dennis "Lofty" Matthews (flight engineer), Pilot Officer John Wherry (wireless operator), Flying Officer Reginald Gibbs (RCAF, bomb aimer) and Flight Sergeant Jim Gordon (RCAF, rear gunner). In addition there were two air despatchers of 63rd Airborne Divisional Composite Company, RASC, Drivers William Chaplin and Frederick Smith, and two passengers, Flying Officer Frank Chalkley (RCAF, navigator) and Air Mechanic 2nd Class Leonard Hooker (Royal Navy H.M.S. 'Daedalus').

 

At the time several members of the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm were flying with RAF crews to gain experience of Stirlings, however AM2 Len Hooker is not mentioned on the "Details of Crew" and therefore his presence aboard the aircraft must be recorded as unofficial. In any case, as has been reported in a book about the Arnhem operation, Hooker was not a friend of Keith Prowd, nor was he invited aboard the aircraft by him. Prowd writes:

 

"Leonard Hooker was not a friend, and to my recollection I had not met nor seen him prior to 19/9/44, and even then I would have thought he was a Despatcher, but I cannot really remember what he looked like, and being a Despatcher he would have been cleared by either the Flight Commander or the Squadron office. In Frank Chalkly's case he was cleared by the Flight Office. Frank was a friend and a particular friend of our Navigator. Frank was the Navigator for another Australian Pilot... Pilots could not take passengers on flights without permission... A lot of pre-take off drills have to be observed by every crewman and in the pilots cockpit drill he checks that each crew member has performed his checks prior to starting up the engines. My instructions to all personnel after check was to make sure that if they walked around the 'plane to take their parachute with them; I specifically did this to anyone except my crew who already knew the rule."

 

"The reason we went on that day was that a guy called Cess Light (Pilot Officer C.E. Light), who later made quite a name for life saving equipment in the surf business, couldn't go on this Tuesday, there was something wrong with their aircraft, and the commanding officer asked me if we would go. I needn't have done as we had done our particular duty but the boys agreed and Cess Light's navigator, Chalkley came with us plus a couple of "Matelots" in the back to push out stuff and the normal crew."

 

"I cannot remember the route we took to Arnhem, but a very short time before Drop Zone we were hit by flak which set the outer starboard engine on fire, with smoke billowing out from it, making us an easy target. If we had had more time I would have feathered the propeller and used the anti fire button."

 

"Formating on our port wing was another 196 Squadron pilot (Fred Powell an Englishman) and we waved to one another just seconds before we were hit by the flak which set us on fire, and at the same moment the Despatchers were pushing the containers out of the side back door. I found out after I was liberated from POW camp that Fred had reported that no one would get out of V Victor as it was all smoke and flames, and no one could survive. It was not until the 50th Anniversary at Arnhem that Fred found out that some of us were still alive."

 

"Our height at the time was 1500 feet and due to the heavy flak we also lost 2 more engines, and a Stirling doesn't fly very far on 1 engine. I was afraid to increase power to the engines for fear that more petrol would cause an explosion, from which no one would survive, especially at that height. Obviously I instructed the crew to bale out. Hooker was apparently behind me near to the Navigator, and did not have his parachute because it was beyond the main spar where the fire was fiercest, and he had asked John Wherry if he could parachute down on his back... At about 750 feet I was satisfied everyone had evacuated the 'plane and I put my 'chute on, rushed back to the main spar called out to anyone, no answer so went back to the escape hatch up front and noticed the Altimeter was at about 550 feet, I pulled back on the control column, down to the hatch and noticed the ground was so close, uttered a profanity, pulled the rip cord wrapped my arms around the 'chute and jumped; while still falling I heard a very large explosion and thought it was probably V Victor."

 

"I landed in a pine forest, parachute caught in the tree, released myself and stupidly buried my Mae West, but not the parachute, I then knelt down looked up to heaven and said "What do YOU want me for?" because I really thought I should have been killed; I surveyed the situation and wandered around for quite awhile when to my surprise I was confronted by a squad of German soldiers who lined me up against a tree, I was of the opinion I was to be shot but they searched and then marched me off to Kleine Kweek, where I was informed of another airman in the area and the guard took me over to him; it was Mike Powderhill who had been shot with a spray of machine gun bullets from his head to his thigh and his private was out so the German guard allowed me lift his trouser and drop it back in. To me that was the defining moment for poor Mike and at least he had a little dignity at the end." {Mr. Rap, a Dutch farmer, witnessed Powderhill's descent who, after landing in a clearing and discarding his parachute, attempted to run towards some woodland but was hit by small arms fire from German soldiers in a nearby farm.}

 

"I did not see Leonard Hooker's body... I was not aware his body was at Kleine Kweek... Gibbs, our Bomb Aimer, was injured (shot at), on the way down. Both Jim Gordon and John Wherry {both of whom were wounded by rifle fire during their descent} saw him in hospital and when Germans advancing on the hospital threw a few grenades in, Reggie Gibbs was unfortunately killed. Lofty Matthews, our Canadian engineer came out on a pannier I found out afterwards, and was found near a hotel on top of this pannier and was dead. It is presumed that he was also shot dead on the way down" {Of the RASC Despatchers, Driver Chaplin died of his wounds in a German hospital on the 11th November 1944, while Driver Smith is listed as missing in action and has no known grave. AM2 Hooker was the only member of the Royal Navy to be killed during Market Garden.}

"We were taken to a holding area in Arnhem where I was subjected to severe questioning by a very big blond German who wanted to know if any 'planes were coming over the next day. When I failed to respond he hit me across the face with a small Italian Berita revolver in his hand. Believe me it hurt. He then stole my wristlet watch and signet ring, both given to me by my parents in Australia for my 21st birthday which I had in the UK. Went outside to meet up with John Wherry and Jim Gordon; if my memory serves me correctly one of them saw Reg Gibbs; and I think Lofty Matthews. We were then entrained off to Weisbaden where I was held for 3 weeks interrogation, then sent to POW camp Stalag Luft VII at Kreitsberg near Bankau (or it may have been Bankau near to Kreitsberg) some 20 ks from Cracow in Poland)."

 

"Then on 20 January 1945 we were assembled, packed up and sent on what has been declared 'the German Death March,' ahead of the Russian advance. We marched day and night for a couple of days with quite a few dying from cold as the temperature was about -20C and more , and we did not have any warm clothing. A lot has been written about this March. For this purpose, sufficient to say that what food we received, we stole, we ate snow and any grass we saw, we stole potatoes, dehydrated silver beet and anything else we could find. At one stage I had severe Bronchitis which Dr Morrison diagnosed as double bronchial pneumonia, and had it not been for two friends (Frank Tait and George Pringle both Queenslanders) and the only 3 days rest we had on the entire march I would not have survived. We were paraded at night and were forced to walk through a very, very severe blizzard which was very scary, and quite a few were lost in that blizzard. We lost a lot of weight. Also we were strafed by the USA Thunderbolt aircraft when some 66 were killed."

 

"After about 6/8 weeks of snow walking, we were entrained to Luckenwalde about 50 ks from Potsdam. I would like to mention with great respect and homage, Capt Collins who was a Church Of England minister of religion who would walk up and down the column (which at the beginning was about 1500 POWs) saying "only a few more Kilometers fellows keep you pecker up" or words to that effect, he did that at least twice a day, so one does not have to be a genius to understand how the fellow POWs felt about him, and how many more kilometers he walked than us. Not only that, but he would always find a box to set up an altar and have a service. He was a big man, an Oxford Blue and had two of the biggest feet I have ever seen. At Luckenwalde there were 30000 odd people, mostly Russians, Americans, and Britishers, some Poles and Italians. There were some scenes about obtaining wood for the fire illicitly obtained by dismantling an unoccupied building. A visit by the Red Cross inspected us, made some recommendations but none were carried out. The food was brought to us in copper clothes washers but it was better than nothing."

 

"We paid 1500 cigarettes for the purchase of a Lancaster Bombers radio from one of the guards, (and we also had a Sergeant Shoultz who was also a very big man but a glorious singer who had performed in the Berlin opera House.) We were able to follow the advancement of the allies and Russian advances, the Allies stopped at the River Elbe, which was only 50 ks away, but the Russians came our way and eventually liberated us, by driving their Tanks down the barbed wire fences, which also crippled the tracks and they had to stay there. The Russian commander demanded at a meeting of all Pilots that we had to go and fly their planes which we refused to do, and as a result of our refusal closed down the camp, and reduced our food supplies. Before this incident 6 of us saw where there was a weakness in the wire so we lifted the nails and walked around the forest and perimeter of the camp and mended the wire when we returned. Then we received a visit from and American reporter who hadn't been advised of our liberation, so he organised a truck to pick us and take us to the crossing on the River Elbe; days went by and we decided to take matters into our own hands and went to our wire corner, drew lots to go out, and when we went the last one was fired upon, but the rest of us got away, when some few kilometers down the road we saw an American truck approaching, so we told him of the trouble and he hid us under the seats and filled the truck with others who had decided to leave, and after 36 hours and much procrastination by the Russians we managed to cross the Bailey Bridge at Magdeburgh where we were treated royally by the Americans; Back to UK via Brussels where we attended the 21 club and had a sit down meal. Then back to my beloved Edna and we married on 6th June 1945 one year after D Day. What a lot happened in that year."

 

My thanks to Keith and Ken Prowd for this account, and also to Arie-Jan van Hees for his permission to use extracts from his book "Green On!", details of which can be found in the Shop.

 

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