The sea shall not have them: River Thames tugboat aiding with bomber recoveries

River Thames docked on 2 July 2019. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

August 2019 | Trelleborg, Sweden. Whenever climatic conditions and the sea state are satisfactory a 16-metre (50-foot) veteran tugboat by the name of River Thames, which is owned and operated by Gustav Fredericksen, a Dane, chugs slowly and purposely seaward from the southern Swedish port of Trelleborg. The vessel lifts, falls and rolls slightly as she moves purposely through Baltic swells to a location some 15 kilometres off the Swedish coast. There,  about 20 metres (60 feet) down in brackish water lies the wreckage of a Second World War Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber. With the dropping of the anchor, another day of underwater exploration begins. Project Director Karl Kjarsgaard recently graciously provided Military Aviation Chronicles with some insights relating to their quests.

River Thames moored. Photo: Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada).

In a former life River Thames was a working vessel that plied the River Thames in London, England. And like the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk‘ and the civilian watercraft that eight decades ago were commandeered and employed by the the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Marine Section and its Royal Air Force (RAF) Marine Branch counterpart in the Mother (England) country, the crew of River Thames are echoing the British unit’s Second World War motto: “The sea shall not have them.” However in this case it is not downed aircrew the intrepid sailors and divers aim to recover, rather the objects of their endeavours are submerged Halifaxes and presently one in particular: HR871.

River Thames entering Trelleborg harbour at dusk on 1 July 2019. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

Although the evacuation from Dunkirk utilised 34 tugboats, River Thames is currently the only of her kind on this operation. She is playing a vital role by enabling the underwater excavations in Scandinavian waters. The craft herself, which was obtained via a contract signed during January in Copenhagen, Denmark, contains a hydraulic crane, a machine shop and is equipped for diving support. River Thames contains berthing spaces for six to eight people, which is ample room for the divers from the Swedish Coast and Sea Center (SCSC).

Jan Christensen, SCSC Chief Diver for the Halifax Rescue Sweden Project, sporting a Halifax 57 Rescue (Sweden) cap. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

Currently the seamen and underwater team are salvaging HR871, a Halifax that was delivered to the RCAF from Radlett Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, England. Karl Kjarsgaard, Project Director and Canadian Halifax expert and aeroplane archaeologist, gratefully stated, “Gustav Fredericksen believes in our project and is donating his fine vessel for only the cost of fuel and oil.”

River Thames wheelhouse on 29 June 2019. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

Karl stressed the importance of Gustav’s donation. “We cannot use the small boats to do sand removal around the Halifax, and we definitely do not wish to fall behind on this work. If the wind picks up somewhat and the waves become too big for our small boats we would have to cancel excavations. However, with River Thames it is possible to anchor over the site in a moderate chop and with winds that would play havoc with the dinghies.” He added, “Another plus provided by River Thames is that the cook, working in a fully equipped galley, can at any time feed us hot meals.”

Kjarsgaard concluded his remarks on River Thames by stating the following: “River Thames is the best solution both job and budget wise for digging out the Halifax. So one can see how valuable this venerable ship is to our project.”

Loading the River Thames. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

Produced in 1943 and assigned after RAF acceptance to No. 405 Squadron, RCAF, HR871 was employed to mark targets with incendiary bombs in Nazi-occupied Western Europe and Germany. This tasking was always an important one because the main force of RAF Bomber Command, whose bombaimers depended upon accurate markings, would release their payloads onto the blazing coloured markers dropped by the pathfinders.

A No. 405 Squadron, RCAF, Halifax in WW2. Photo: Bomber Command Museum of Canada.

The date of the last combat operation of HR871 was 3 August 1943. Karl Kjarsgaard elaborated on the fate of HR871: “The plane was hit by lightning and two of the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines’ electrics were fried. A further complication was that the flight controls were also damaged by the bolt.” Karl recalled that “all the bomber boys called it the night of the great storm.”

As a result of the multiple anomalies pilot Flight Sergeant John Alwyn Phillips had marginal control of his large airplane. Phillips, realising that a safe return to England was highly unlikely, took decisions to divert to the neutral country of Sweden and abandon the stricken bird.

River Thames underway. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

All seven of the men successfully baled out just inland over the southern Swedish coast. Halifax HR871 continued to fly without human guidance until finally crashing into the Baltic and sinking. John Phillips was eventually repatriated to his homeland and has ever since resided in the United Kingdom. Karl Kjarsgaard reports that Phillips “is very keen on the recovery.” 

SCSC divers working the site. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

In recognition of the importance to Canada and the RCAF, the captain/owner of River Thames and his deckhands welcome the flying of a WW2 RCAF ensign, which has been provided by Kjarsgaard, an official of Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta. The flag waves from the mast located amidships and atop the wheelhouse. Accompanying Karl is fellow countryman James Blondeau, who represents the affiliated charitable organisations Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) and Ottawa-based Airplane Hunters, and Jan Christensen, the Swedish Coast and Sea Center Chief Diver for the Halifax Rescue Sweden Project.

Project Leader Karl Kjarsgaard aboard the River Thames. Photo: James Blondeau/Airplane Hunters.

Since 1943 the plane has been covered by sand, but three engines and small portions of the aircraft were visible to divers before they commenced with site preparation and recoveries.

Obviously it is not inexpensive to dig out and raise the Halifax from its underwater grave. The daily cost of operating River Thames alone is $500.00 (3,300 Swedish Krona). “Also,” said Karl, “I have just done the math on our weekly tab and it is fair to say that, in total, it costs $7,000 (67,444 Swedish Krona) to $8,000 (77,079 Swedish Krona) per week to do the overall salvage on the River Thames

Furthermore, lifting the airframe and wings requires the utilisation of ‘Bjorn’, the motorised barge that mounts a crane, because it is necessary to raise and transport large structures to the Port of Trelleborg. The costs associated with Bjorn are $2,500 (15,000 Swedish Krona) per day. Many other expenses are similarly incurred on a regular basis. Thus, donations are critical. Without them activities would be be necessarily halted.

Karl Kjarsgaard cited another critical offering, this one of space: “I was recently able to speak to Port of Trelleborg Manager Jonas Bramsved. He reported that officials have once again supported us with the granting of free docking and port facilities for the River Thames during our salvage.” Karl noted, “This is worth hundreds of dollars per week as port and docking facilities anywhere in south Sweden are not cheap.”

Halifax parts on the seabed. Photo: Swedish Coast and Sea Center.

“Additionally,” Karl said, “after we raise Halifax parts and transport them to our warehouse at the Port of Trelleborg the components are cleaned and crated and then they must be sent by air to Canada. Unsubsidised costs are involved with these tasks as well,” acknowledged Kjarsgaard.

Karl emphasised that, “It is important to obtain enough materials to enable the reconstruction of a Halifax bomber for display at Bomber Command Museum of Canada because thousands of Canadian and American Royal Canadian Air Force aviators flying with RAF Bomber Command perished while on operations within these aeroplanes. The men, their great sacrifices and the flying machines should never be forgotten.”

A Merlin engine being desalinated. Photo: Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada).

Karl Kjarsgaard expressed his sincere thanks to all current supporters and hopes for monetary or in-kind contributions from additional aviation aficionados and corporations. Funds may be transferred via the Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada) website or through the group’s Fundrazr.com appeal page.

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The author (John T. Stemple) reminds supporters that Bomber Command Museum of Canada will host a 2019 Halifax event from 20 to 22 September. The facility is an hour south of Calgary by motorcar.

Sources & Suggested Readings

Airplane Hunters

https://www.airplanehunters.org/

Bomber Command Museum of Canada

Divers set to recover WW2 bomber from Swedish waters

https://www.thelocal.se/20160405/divers-prepare-to-recover-wwii-halifax-bomber-from-swedish-waters

Dunkirk evacuation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation

Fundrazr.com

https://fundrazr.com/417498?ref=ab_6xc4pQ0ZKOK6xc4pQ0ZKOK

Halifax 57 Rescue (Canada)

http://www.57rescuecanada.com/

Handley Page Halifax

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handley_Page_Halifax

Little Ships of Dunkirk

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Ships_of_Dunkirk

No. 405 Squadron, RCAF
https://www.bombercommandmuseum.ca/bomber-command/bomber-command-no-405-vancouver-squadron/

Radlett Aerodrome

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radlett_Aerodrome

Resurrection

http://www.vintagewings.ca/VintageNews/Stories/tabid/116/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/567/Resurrection.aspx

Royal Air Force Marine Branch

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Air_Force_Marine_Branch

Swedish Coast and Sea Center

https://www.facebook.com/SwedishCoastandSeaCenter/

The RCAF Marine Section: A Brief History

The Role Of The Boats: Air Force, Part 46

Work starts to bring WW II Halifax bomber from Swedish seabed to Alberta town

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/halifax-bomber-nanton-sweden-1.4582097

WWII relic: Swedish waters finally give up bomber wreck