Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Medals of courageous ‘Tail-end Charlie’ killed on 98th mission go on sale

The medals of a British airman who served with distinction as a “Tail-end Charlie” and was killed on his 98th mission only weeks before VE Day are expected to fetch £40,000 at auction.

Victor Roe overcame a traumatic childhood to excel as a rear gunner in an elite Bomber Command squadron and was one of only 11 men awarded the combination of Distinguished Flying Medal and Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. His medals will be sold by order of Roe’s family at Noonans auctioneers in London on December 7.

Wartime photograph of Victor Arthur Roe. Image: Noonans

Roe was born in Norwich in 1923 and was one of nine siblings who were all removed from the custody of their alcoholic parents and placed in local children’s homes. At 11, he was transferred to Mr Fegan’s Home for Boys at Yardley Gobion, Buckinghamshire. The home sought to prepare its boys for adult life through a regime of discipline and hard work and they spent time labouring on a farm at Goudhurst, Kent, before their “release”.

On leaving the institution, he was employed on another farm near Tonbridge before enlisting in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, aged 19, in January 1943. Roe then trained as an air gunner and flew 14 operational sorties on Wellingtons and Halifaxes before transferring to 35 Squadron — part of the Path Finder Force — and flying 84 missions as a rear gunner on Lancasters. Pathfinders were tasked with marking navigational routes and targets for bombing using flares, target indicators and incendiary bombs.

The odds of any bomber airman surviving numerous missions were slim, with 72 per cent of the 125,000 Bomber Command aircrew who served during the Second World War killed, seriously injured or taken prisoner. Yet, as a skilled “Tail-end Charlie”, Roe repeatedly engaged and fought off German night fighters from his cramped turret and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal just weeks after joining the pathfinders.

The citation for the award, in the London Gazette of June 13, 1944 describes how, on the night of May 8/9, 1944, Roe’s aircraft was detailed to attack Haine-St Pierre in occupied Belgium. As the bomber was approaching the target, two Junkers Ju 88 night fighters attacked but were successfully evaded thanks to the pilot’s manoeuvres. Shortly afterwards a Messerschmitt Me 110 made four successive attacks on the aircraft using cannon and machine-gun fire. Sergeant Roe returned fire on each occasion although his turret was hit and partially disabled and he was covered with oil.

“At all times his courage, skill and determination are a fine inspiration to his crew”

Citation for Roe’s DFM

The citation states: “When the Me 110 made the fourth attack, it was seen to have caught fire in one engine and it is claimed as probably destroyed. Throughout the combat, Sergeant Roe handled his guns with cool determination, clearing stoppages in between attacks although he had received a slight injury in his right arm from a cannon splinter early in the encounter. He carried on, showing a fine offensive spirit. Sergeant Roe is a very reliable Air Gunner who has always carried out his duties most conscientiously. At all times his courage, skill and determination are a fine inspiration to his crew.”

It adds that he was recommended for an immediate award of the DFM for his courage and devotion to duty.

Victor Roe’s medals: left to right, Conspicuous Gallantry Medal; Distinguished Flying Medal, 1939-45 Star with Bomber Command clasp; Air Crew Europe Star with France and Germany clasp; War Medal 1939-45. Image: Noonans

After completing their operational tour in October 1944, including raids as far east as Stettin, now Szczecin in Poland, Roe’s pilot John Forde and other members of his original crew chose to leave the pathfinders and go their separate ways in other RAF units. Roe chose to remain with 35 Squadron for a second tour and joined the crew of Flight Lieutenant Fred Watson. According to the medals specialists at Noonans, it was perhaps as a consequence of Roe’s dislocated youth that he opted for the continuity and stability of staying on with the squadron he knew.

Between November 1944 and March 1945, Roe flew on regular missions over Germany, including raids on Hanover, Munich and the bombing of Dresden on the night of 13/14 February 1945. On April 13, 1945, the London Gazette announced his award of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. The citation noted that since his DFM award, Roe had taken part in many more sorties and “proved himself to be a most enthusiastic and skilful air gunner” who operated with “undiminished determination and courage”.

Roe’s sister received his DFM and CGM at Buckingham Palace after he was killed in action. Image: Noonans

It added: “By his magnificent record of achievement and unfailing devotion to duty, this gallant Warrant Officer has set a sterling example to all air gunners.”

By the time of the announcement, however, Roe and his crew mates had been reported missing for over a month. On the night of 5/6 March 1945, their Lancaster was among the 760 aircraft allocated for a raid on railway marshalling yards at Chemnitz in eastern Germany. The raid, which would have taken the bombers around eight and half hours to complete, was intended to disrupt German efforts to reinforce their eastern front. Roe’s Lancaster was hit by flak and was one of over 30 aircraft that were lost. The remains of all seven crew members were recovered and buried in a collective grave in the German city.

Roe was 21 when he was killed. His sister was presented with his medals at Buckingham Palace.

The lot, estimated at £30,000-£40,000, includes Roe’s DFM and CGM along with his 1939-45 Star with Bomber Command clasp; Air Crew Europe Star with France and Germany clasp; War Medal 1939-45; Path Finder Force Badge Award Certificate; and various photographs and correspondence including the telegram informing his sister that he was missing.

Mark Quayle, a specialist at Noonans, said: “This is a remarkably poignant story attached to a rare group of medals. From humble origins, and the most difficult of starts in the life, Victor Roe rose above his difficult beginning to distinguish himself amongst the elite of the elite — the Pathfinder Force. A talented ‘Tail-end Charlie’, he regularly engaged and successfully fought off enemy aircraft from the rear turret of his Lancaster Bomber. Having crammed so much into his short life, he was killed in action on the raid to Chemnitz, 5/6 March 1945, aged just 21. It was his 98th operational sortie, just 2 shy of the elusive 100 club.”

The top image shows airmen gathering by their Lancaster bomber after their return from a raid on Stettin, Germany, in January 1944. The photograph is for illustrative purposes and does not depict Victor Roe’s crew. Photo: Alamy

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