Manawatu man visits fiord where his uncle was shot down
Flight Sergeant Arthur Evans perished in the face of the German navy's fortress at sea. Now, his nephew is on a mission to a far fiord to pay tribute. Sam Kilmister reports.
It was the ship that couldn't be sunk.
As Royal Air Force bombers approach the 45,000-tonne pride of the German navy, a blanket of defensive shrapnel is hurled through its protective smokescreen into the cold Norwegian air.
They are confronted by a 250-metre-long titan with an attacking arsenal so formidable that no single ship in the British navy can take her on.
This was the view of New Zealand Flight Sergeant Arthur William Smith Evans as he drew near on the night of April 28, 1942, tasked with the "impossible" mission of sinking the Tirpitz.
As an air gunner and wireless operator on board a Halifax bomber, he looked down on a battleship that boasted several wartime modifications. With eight 15-inch guns in four twin turrets, it was the heaviest battleship ever built.
Evans was one of 64 airmen in World War II killed as Britain for two years attempted to drown Hitler's prized possession.
When the Tirpitz sailed to Norway in January 1942, her positioning was of great concern.
From Norway, the Germans could strike at shipping in the North Sea and Atlantic.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said its presence ensured a significant number of allied ships were placed in the Atlantic, preventing them from being used elsewhere.
In January 1942, he wrote: "The destruction or even crippling of this ship is the greatest event at sea at the present time. No other target is comparable to it."
Despite a search discovering the aircraft in 2014, Evans' body was never found.
An investigation into the crash revealed the crew were shot down by flak at 4000 feet.
The aircraft hit the water at speed, with the nose breaking off and sinking on impact in the Trondheim Fjord.
Initially, the crew managed to fly through the barrage of firepower sent into sky by Tirpitz. The navigator, however, was unable to release the compartment to drop the mines while they were over the Tirpitz.
Pilot D Petley informed the crew that they would circle round for a second attempt.
Flying in from a slightly different angle, the bombardment of flak they faced on the first run had subsided. The crew were soon to discover this was the calm before the storm.
As the aircraft neared the Tirpitz for the second time they were suddenly met by a severe and intense attack from what must have seemed, and probably was, every single German weapon in the area.
The port wing of the aircraft was hit and caught fire. It quickly began to fall from the sky and Petley was forced to crash land.
Positioned in the lower deck of the cockpit in a compartment below the pilot, it is likely Evans was hit by flak from the Tirpitz, which is why he didn't make it out.
In the crew of six, four survived the crash. But they were captured and became prisoners of war.
Wireless operator sergeant GE Cranstone was the first man out, followed by flight engineer Sergeant GP Price, who released a dinghy.
They were soon joined by Petley and tail gunner Sergeant G Pomroy. After realising two of the crew were missing, Pomroy re-entered the aircraft to look for them, but the Halifax was sinking fast and he had to retreat to the dinghy.
Navigator Sergeant AB Columbine and Evans did not survive.
For three hours, the men drifted around the fiord, unable to make any headway with the dinghy paddles due to the strong currents. They were found by two Norwegians, who rowed out to them. They threw a line and towed the crew to the shore.
They were taken by train to Oslo and from there they were flown to Germany, where they spent the rest of the war as prisoners.
Although Evans was only 23 when he was killed, he was considered lucky, having survived 14 attacking raids.
Next month, his last remaining descendent will visit the location where he and his aircraft rests.
Feilding's Evan Lloyd will follow the path of his uncle all the way to Norway, 75 years on from the moment he plunged to the bottom of the Trondheim Fjord.
Less than 500 metres from where the ship eventually sunk in Faettenfjord, stands a monument of the allied airmen killed during its attack.
Lloyd will be holding a private ceremony at the Runnymede Memorial in honour of his uncle. He will join families from other members of the flight crew.
Evans was always destined to join the war, Lloyd said. He joined the air force as soon as he left school.
After training at the air base in Levin, he was posted to Canada. During the war he flew from the British air base in Scotland.
"It's a fascinating part of history," he says.
Talking about the war was hard for Lloyd's family. It changed his mother's life forever and it was easier to repress the experience altogether.
Her three brothers all went to war. Only one returned.
"My mother described Arthur as a very outgoing, likeable kind of chap. She didn't say a lot – I think the loss of Arthur and her other brother hurt her.
"I sometimes regret not pushing her for more. I found out most of what I know from [mum's] friends.
"One of the promises I made to my mother on her death bed was to visit the site on behalf of the family. It was one of her biggest regrets to not visit her brother's war grave."
Visiting the site that cost his family so much will be tough, Lloyd says.
"I'm an emotional kind of guy, so it will be emotional for me. I'm very proud to have inherited Arthur's medals and I'll wear them in any little private ceremony we have in Trondheim.
"I think all these young people are heroes. You marvel at the courage it took to get in those aircraft at the time, especially when the survival rate was so low – about 50 per cent in the early stages of the war.
"Anzac Days have grown in significance. I'll be very proud for my three boys to wear my family's medals."
Lloyd has brought a little greenstone tiki to take with him. His uncle always carried one, labelling it his "good luck piece".
As a symbolic gesture, Lloyd will dip the tiki into the ocean above the site where the aircraft and his uncle lie.