© 2009 454 & 459 RAAF Squadrons
454 RAAF Baltimore Light Bomber Squadron
Desert Air Force - Italy 1945
Flight Lieutenant Keith "Snow" Howard
Service No. 423741
Died - 23.6.1999
THE CREW: FLIGHT 701D
Flying Officer - 'Snow' Howard- Pilot - 423741
Flight Sergeant - Sam Birtles - (Nav.) - 418049 - POW - Stalag Luft VII
Flight Lieutenant - Richard Litchfield - WOP/AG - 401239 - KIA - 23.8.44
Flight Sergeant - Chris Murray - WOP/AG - POW - Stalag Luft VII
The story of this flight can be found below.
From the Christmas 1994 edition of the Association's Bulletin, Keith wrote the following piece on the book he co-wrote with fellow 454 crew member Sam Birtles --
"A Piece of Cake in the Middle East"
"Prisoners of War" This was a term not widely used or discussed by aircrews operating in the Middle East zone and especially the Mediterranean during WW2 As a result, very little was known from press releases of the experiences of those serving in this theatre and the trials and tribulations endured by some thousands of aircrew involved. (For example 1132 RAAF aircrew were killed in action and 143 wounded in the Middle East 1940-45. Ed.)
In our book, therefore, Sam and I have endeavoured to portray, in part , the events which led up to, and occurred during our fateful "strike" and until our liberation following our period as "prisoners of war".
On 23rd August, 1944 our Martin Baltimore aircraft of 454 Squadron, RAAF, operating as part of the Tactical Air Force in north eastern Italy, was engaged on a daylight formation, close army support bombing missions just north of Florence. Suddenly, it was hit by German flak which blew it apart, changing the fortunes of its crew, which consisted of the pilot, Keith Howard, navigator/bomb aimer, Sam Birtles and two wireless operator/air gunners, Chris Murray and Dick Litchfield, who was standing in as reserve crewman.
Following this disaster three of the crew of four parachuted safely to the ground, to be taken prisoners by the Germans. Dick Litchfield did not survive. From here the stories of the pilot and the navigator unfold (separately), from their harrowing forced trek to the P.O.W. camps, their struggles for existence in the camps and up to their eventual liberation and return to England.
A tribute by Warrant Officer S.G. (Sam) Birtles, Nav/WAG - as printed in the 2001 454/459 Squadron's Bulletin.
"When I first met him, Keith Howard was a blonde haired man, so I called him "Snow". I've known him for over 55 years. We first met early in 1943 on the USS 'Hermitage" when I was a Sgt Observer and he was a Leading Aircrafts man. We were on our way to the USA/Canada for further Aircrew training under the Empire Air Training Scheme! I always thought that I was older than Snow as he looked so young and boyish, but he was 3 years older than me! I was in charge of the LACs who were being assigned to guard duties on "Hermitage", so for a short time I outranked him. In Canada Snow got his pilot's wings.
We next met at No. 75 RAF Operational Training Unit at Gianaclis near Cairo in the Middle East where, after Snow had a little trouble with one plane, we crewed up with two Queensland radio operators. We commenced operations with No. 454 RAAF Baltimore Squadron operating out of Benghazi were pleased to be the newest crew allocated to a plane. We then flew to Italy for operational duties as members of 454 Squadron which was pattern bombing the very heavily fortified Gothic Line defences designed to hold the British 8th Army on the Adriatic Coast.
L-R: Jim McGrath (WAG) Sam Birtles (Nav),
Keith Howard (Pilot), Chris Murray (WAG)
There on 23.8.1944 we were shot down and 3 out of 4 of us parachuted to safety and the POW life. Here it was demonstrated to me what a determined man Snow was. When "I landed on my bum" in Italy, before the Germans captured me, I threw my "escape kit" into the nearest blackberry bush. (It was found by an Italian hill-wanderer who reported to me in Australia that he'd found it, expecting me to demand it back).
Snow retained his escape kit and used the money in it to buy certain things which he needed after his capture. This was indicative of Snow's enterprise and determination (I did not see Snow while I was a POW in Germany - we met again Brighton, southern England 10 months later.
After Betty and Snow married they lived in Sydney, and he was then employed by various engineering firms until he joined Garlick & Stewart in Melbourne. Later he joined the State Electricity Commission as Senior Hydro Engineer.
Keith and Betty had had 2 or 3 children by this time and I was a convenient link for him to join the Sandringham Club. Here we played squash and tennis. (We were joint authors of a series of articles about our Prisoner of War trials and tribulations, published later ("A Piece of Cake in the Middle East" - by Keith Howard & Sam Birtles - 1994 - ISBN 0-646-20358-4).
We both retired to the south coast of NSW - Snow to Pambula and me to Mollymook. Most Anzac Days we attended the 454 Squadron reunions together in Sydney.
We offer our sincere condolences to Betty, Peter, Lynn and Robert and know that although they miss their husband and Dad, the gentle love and the respect he showed to everyone will be long remembered.
But behind this was a determination which made him a MAN!"
As copied with permission from A/C Mark Lax's book "Alamein to the Alps - 454 Squadron, RAAF 1941-1945:
There is a long held air force superstition that bad things come in threes, and so it was in August 1944. It was flak which caused the next two losses, the first in nearly two months. On 21 August, Wing Commander Mike Moore led a formation to bomb the fuel dumps at Limestre, near Florence, but the target could not be located. However, all six aircraft were holed by the accurate flak. The next day, a similar mission was organised and again, the bombs missed their target, but this time eight aircraft were holed. For the third day running, the Squadron mounted another two raids on Limestre and this time the gunners were waiting. On the second sortie, 454's luck ran out. The first box was again led by Wing Commander Moore, the second by Lieutenant Alex Dryden. While Moore's aircraft was hit in the tail and turret, he completed the sortie. But as aircraft FW701:D, flown by Flying Officer 'Snow' Howard, No. 3 in the first box, dropped his bombs, he was immediately hit. Two huge flashes from both engines were seen and the nose section had been blown completely off. Then, according to the Unit Historian, 'The aircraft rose almost vertically, with flames pouring from the port engine, then spun to earth in flames. One parachute was definitely seen to open, and other black objects come out of the aircraft, but no more parachutes were reported with certainty. Fortunately, three of the crew had escaped and become POWs including Flight Sergeant Sam Birtles and Chris Murray. The other crew member was not so fortunate, Flight Lieutenant Dick Litchfield, one of the most experienced gunners on the Squadron, had replaced Flight Sergeant Jim McGrath at the last minute while Jim was being hospitalised with a badly infected leg. Dick was killed by the flak and ensuing crash.
Keith Howard later recalled the event:
"I had just pulled the lever to close the bomb bay doors and was about to follow the CO in doing a diving turn off target when all hell broke loose. There was a loud explosion which stunned me for some time. How long, I have no idea, perhaps a few seconds or half a minute. When I came to, I found the cockpit a shambles with debris and smoke everywhere. My head was ringing from the noise of the explosion and there was excruciating pain in the region of my left foot. There was also a very high noise level and probably due to the fact that I wasn't wearing goggles, I was unable to see anything clearly. Whilst flying in formation is was usual to keep one's left hand on the two throttle levers with constant small adjustments to maintain formation position in respect to the leader. Amidst the turmoil I somehow had, on regaining consciousness, a vague recollection of finding myself holding two loose throttle leavers in my hand, realising they were useless and throwing them away. My next actions were instinctive towards self preservation or pure reaction stimulated by fear.
First, I attempted to fly the aircraft, but could not get any reaction from the controls to indicate that the aircraft was responding. The confusion was exacerbated by not being able to see where I was going to see what was happening. My action in trying to fly the aircraft had probably been due to some thought activation telling me to control the aircraft long enough for the crew to abandon the "dead duck" through the bottom escape hatches from which they could clear any aircraft protuberances...
...The Navigator, who fortunately had his parachute pack attached, was wounded in the arm, back and thigh with shrapnel, struggled out of the aircraft through the open nose and by some miracle managed to miss both propellers in falling clear. As for myself, I could not communicate with the crew and my oxygen mask and microphone had been blown off and as the fire was rapidly spreading to the cockpit I abandoned the aircraft as it rolled on its back and was thrown clear. Dick was in the upper gun turret when we were hit and the other gunner, Warrant Officer Murray was at the lower escape hatch....it was customary practice to fly over enemy territory with the lower guns mounted ready for action in a position which made it impossible to use the lower escape hatch without first jettisoning the guns which is normally quite a fairly simple matter. It appears that the aircraft went out of control immediately it was hit and Warrant Officer Murray relates that he was thrown around the inside of the fuselage considerably before the could jettison the guns an follow them out."
Dick Litchfield had little chance. He would have had to clear the turret, find his parachute, clip it on and jump clear - all while possibly being badly wounded and buffeted by wind blast through the open fuselage and under the stress of high 'g' forces pulling him down caused by the aircraft spin.
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