What started with the story of a lone crash survivor, a British airman, waking up in a European cornfield in the summer of ‘44, now stretches across two continents, unravelling along the way, a timeless tale of patriotism.
And in the end, this poignant story unearths the life and death of a Trail war hero who never made it home.
Lest We Forget.
How it all started
Earlier this year a remarkable story came up about Henry Ramsay Carruthers, a 21-year old from Trail who went to fight in the Second World War, where he tragically died in battle.
Henry is buried in the Belgrade War Cemetery in Serbia, his date-of-death listed as July 7, 1944.
Other than that, internet searches come up scant about this brave young man killed in a bomber crash over what was then the country of Yugoslavia.
So this year the Trail Times is remembering and posthumously thanking Warrant Officer Class II Henry Carruthers for his service, by piecing together what little is known about his life and death.
This story, with all its twists and turns, began this past spring when Radovan Zivanovic, a WWII crash site researcher from Opatija, Croatia, reached out via email to Sarah Benson-Lord, manager of the Trail Museum and Archives.
Mr. Zivanovic told Sarah that he found the crash site where Henry died in 1944.
Henry, barely out of his teens, was already an experienced air bomber. His last breath was taken that Friday night over a country far from his hometown, as were the lives of four crew members. One, in fact, survived.
First, Mr. Zivanovic introduced himself by saying for the last 20 years he has been searching for downed planes from the Second World War.
With the help of a few friends, to date, he has researched and found about 120 crash sites in Europe.
Through his findings, Zivanovic, 43, has turned up documents, photos, and contacted many families from pilot/crew members from those planes, with the goal of one day opening a small museum to memorialize the war heroes and display the many artifacts he’s recovered.
Regarding the Henry R. Carruthers crash site, Zivanovic revealed it all began after he read a 2019 story about Heather Maling in a Croatian newspaper called the Jutarnji List.
In that story, he learned that Heather Maling is the daughter of British navigator Derek Maling, the only surviving crew member of a WWII plane that went down over then-Yugoslavia on July 7, 1944.
Heather Maling had travelled to Slovenia to trace her father’s footsteps and visit the site where her dad survived and four young men - including 21-year old Henry Carruthers from Trail - perished.
From this newspaper story he also discovered that because Derek Maling was a navigator, he made a map with all the places where he hid after the crash. (Maling was later rescued and flown to a base in Italy).
That is what piqued the researcher’s interest and eventually led him to the actual ground of the downed Wellington LP131 from 70 Squadron RAF (Royal Air Force).
“Every information she (Heather) had was correct, except one crucial,” Zivanovic wrote to Benson-Lord.
“Her father did not crash in Slovenia, he crashed in Croatia, near village Klanjec, close to Slovenian border. Next day I found Heather and give her new informations. Since then we stay in touch. Shortly after first contact to Heather I had chance and I went to that village. I found crash site with small pieces still there and even one eyewitness, Zvonko,” Zivanovic revealed.
“Zvonko is a beautiful old man who was very young at time of crash but still he remembers a lot of details about crash. Those details were also similar to story of Derek Maling. Last fall Heather come again to Croatia, and we all went to visit Zvonko, who show us all details and his remembrance about crash.
“That was beautiful day.”
The next branch of this story involves Benson-Lord, and how she was able to bring the focus of this email back to Henry Carruthers, as Mr. Zivanovic asked for details about the Trail boy.
After doing a lengthy research of John and Marion Carruthers, Henry’s parents, she came up with a few clues.
John Carruthers retired from Cominco in 1959. It appears the couple left for Nanaimo where John died in 1964, though he was buried in Vancouver. Benson-Lord could find no record of Marion’s passing. Their other children, according to a 1944 notice in the Trail Times when Henry was classed as “missing,” were a brother James and a sister Jean.
Benson-Lord was also able to make a present-day connection to Henry’s mother Marion, née Ramsay.
She found a relative, Laura Price (née Steven) who still lives locally. Laura is the daughter of Henry’s cousin, also named Henry, though he went by Harry Ramsay Steven. Harry’s mom was Agnes Steven (née Ramsay) and sister of Henry’s mom, Marion Carruthers.
Benson-Lord, however, was not able to track down anyone from the immediate Carruthers family.
With permission from Laura Price, Benson-Lord shared these details with the Trail Times, though unbeknownst to her at the time, the newsroom had been trying to find out information on Henry Carruthers for eight years, to no avail.
Laura went digging in her storage room back in May and found an old family portrait of the Carruthers.
“I remembered my dad talking about his cousins and I was sure I had some old pictures,” she shared. “I was thrilled to find one of Henry with his family. I’m guessing it was taken shortly before he departed.”
Heather Maling also connected with Laura.
She shared her father’s recollection of the day of the crash as well as her own journey to Croatia to follow her dad’s journey.
“My father was mistaken in believing that he landed a distance from the aircraft. It is clear that he came down very close to it but was taken quickly to a safe place by the partisans,” Heather explained to Laura.
“There is an eye witness (Zvonko) who remembers the plane coming down and seeing four bodies. He showed us where those who died were originally buried before being moved to Belgrade,” Heather shared.
“It was a remarkable experience to go to the crash site last autumn and to meet such lovely people and feel the respect they felt so many years on.”
The Times contacted Heather Maling, who lives in Wales, to ask about her experience tracking down the crash site.
“I would be delighted to share this story with you,” she began via email.
“On that fateful night my father flew with the ‘Custance crew’ for the first time as his usual pilot was sick and so was their navigator. It was a bright moonlit night, so bright that the Luftwaffe were able to send out their day fighters as well as the night ones.
“My father was the only one of 25 crew to return from that fateful night,” she said.
“It had a huge effect on him and he wrote an amazing account from the aircraft catching fire and breaking up, to his rescue by the partisans and his journey across Jugoslavia and nail-biting conclusion to the story. It is worthy of a Hollywood movie!”
As far as visiting the crash site with Mr. Zivanovic and Zvonko, she had this to say.
“Henry was not forgotten,” Heather shared.
“I read all their names at the crash site last October and the ‘present day partisans’ brought candles and a flag for a moving few moments of silence.”
The following was written by Heather’s father, Navigator Derek Maling, in the 1990s, using his original report written in 1944.
He recounts in great detail the harrowing mission that killed air bomber Henry Carruthers of Trail, and three other airmen.
Through Maling’s words, an image of Henry emerges, one in which the reader will find that the Trail air bomber must have been fearless given the close calls he made it through before that final flight sealed his fate at such a young age.
What happened that night
“The crew with whom I was flying when shot down was the ‘Custance Crew’ which, had already experienced more adventures than was good for them.
I had first flown with Warrant Officer Custance in the autumn of 1943 shortly after I joined the Operational Training Unit at Enstone, when I did a series of trips with more experienced crews as a second navigator.
On one occasion I flew with them we had engine trouble resulting in having to make a forced landing at Portreath in Cornwall, where bad weather kept us grounded there for about a week. By the time we met again on 70 Squadron they had already completed a fair number of operational flights some of which for various reasons had been aborted.
Thus, the crew had already made more than 30 war-load take-offs and on several occasions they had been forced to jettison their bomb load.
By the early summer of 1944 they had gained a reputation for near disasters, such as suffering a burst tyre on take-off, and returning from one trip with a considerable amount of one wing missing.
Their misadventures had been so numerous that I had little misgiving about flying with them for it seemed that they were indestructible.
On take-off that fateful night I was impressed how the crew prepared for emergencies by completely removing the astrodome and occupying standard aircrew ditching positions until we were safely airborne.
No other crew I had flown with ever went to such extremes.
The crew was:
• Pilot and Captain: W/O Custance RAAF (Australia)
• Navigator: F/O D.H. Maling RAFVR (UK)
• Air Bomber: W/O H. Carruthers RCAF (Canada)
• W.Operator: Sgt M.C. Hunt RAF (UK)
• R. Gunner: Sgt B.J. Hackett RAF (UK)
I was flying in place of Flight Sgt. London, Custance’s regular navigator but who was (fortunately for him) sick.
The following narrative will show how I presently found myself alone, wounded and very much at the mercy of people whose language I did not understand and quite unaware of the dangers to which I was exposed or they had been at risk as the result of looking after me.
A few week’s exposure to the language gave me a smattering of Serbo-Croat so that I could understand more and more as the days passed.
The original narrative was written by me during the first few weeks after returning to Italy.
About the end of September I returned to the U.K. on the ‘Capetown Castle’ and because I had been graded as being medically unfit, I was able to share a cabin with another aircrew officer in a similar situation.
He had a portable typewriter and I was therefore able to type that text.
This was the original document which was read by many friends.
The original text was turned into a Protext file prepared in the early months of 1993 and heavily edited by me towards the end of 1993. This document is the result.”
“Feuersbrunn is a village on the north bank of the Danube between Melk and Krems about 20 miles West of Vienna. At that time it was a fairly important fighter base and these aircraft used to harry the 15th Air Force bombers when they flew to the oil refineries in Romania and the other industrial targets in Czechoslovakia.
I had already been involved with two other operations on this target; on 29/5 and 29/6. These had been minor attacks. After this span of time I cannot remember much about them. Indeed I think that the first had only involved a few aircraft and we were briefed to bomb individually at different times.
On July 6th it was to be a maximum effort operation and we were briefed that we might expect difficulty from fighters.
There was a full moon and it was likely to be a rather bright night.
We took off from Tortorella a few minutes after 2100 BST in Wellington aircraft LP 130 (D).
We flew across the Adriatic towards Lake Novigradsko and thence to the target. We crossed the Jugoslav coast on track and on time.
The target was marked by Halifaxes from 614 squadron.
Illumination was over the target, but the flares was very high, at about 10,000 ft so that we had to fly through them. There was very little flak but it was already evident that the night fighters were more active than usual.
Indeed I later heard that because it was so bright, day fighters had been scrambled also.
We had already seen several aircraft shot down before we reached the target.
After dropping our bombs we descended to 6,000 feet and set course for the Jugoslav coast.
Because there was too much fighter activity for comfort we increased airspeed to get away from this area. The flak defences around Graz and Maribor had usually been a deterrent to low flying in this area.
For this reason, Custance preferred not to fly too low but soon climbed back to 10,000 ft.
However it later transpired that the majority of aircraft which returned safely that night (for example, 70 Squadron “N” flown by F/Sgt Bridges and a 40 Squadron aircraft flown by their C.O.) made the return journey as low as was practicable.
An aircraft burst into flames on our starboard bow and we had to alter course to avoid it.
Then we were attacked by what the rear-gunner thought to be a Ju 88, but he lost us.
We were approaching the Drava River so I went forward to the cockpit to obtain a pin point by map reading. We crossed the river about five miles east of Maribor and I returned to my table.
We had been attacked at about 0130 DBST on 7/7/44.
A well-known feature of such experiences is that people who have been concussed by a bad parachute landing have no recollection of leaving the aircraft. Consequently I might have been able to make a more orderly exit from the aircraft.
If that had been so, there was a possibility that other members of the crew might have jumped likewise, but there had been no evidence of this.
In addition my memory of a sensation like being painfully crushed is still present.
Consequently I think that I probably fell free when the aircraft broke up. This would have happened if the break occurred at the line of the front spar of the wings, where I was lying.
However this is pure conjecture.
On the ground
About 0215 I found myself lying in a cornfield.
My first impression was that I felt so cold that this could not be hell and that curiously, all my limbs seemed to move correctly.
There seemed to be no pain.
I had landed close to the edge of a small field of standing oats, close to the edge of a wood. I seemed to have missed the branches of a fallen oak tree by a few feet.
A fairly large patch of the corn had been flattened by my body and the parachute for I must have rolled some distance downhill after first hitting the ground. Near the place where I regained consciousness lay a small section of the geodetic fuselage of the aircraft.
I removed my parachute and harness and took the first aid kit from my Mae West.
I dumped these near the edge of the field but took no precautions to hide them properly.
Then I walked to the top of the hill, which was near the top of the cornfield. The moon was still bright so I was able to identify several major features of the surroundings.
To the south west the country appeared to be undulating and well-wooded, culminating in some fairly high mountains which were silhouetted in the moonlight.
I decided that these might lie 15 - 20 miles away; too far to reach that night, but offering some protection if I could reach them.”
The plane came down at approximately 1:30 a.m. on July 7, 1944.
Navigator Derek Maling was rescued on Aug. 6, 1944 from Vocin, in the Papuk Mountains, 200 miles east from the crash site. By this point the Allies had gathered several American airmen.
They piled in the back of a Mitchell aircraft as the German tanks were coming down the road.
Heather Maling is writing the story of her father’s wartime journey.
“His is, obviously, the most remarkable. But mine is full of coincidences and amazing discoveries, journeying through the mountains, in my father’s footsteps with a wonderful guide,” Heather said.
“I’d be happy to share for Henry to have his story told.”
To see where Warrant Officer Class II Henry Carruthers was laid to rest, visit theCommonwealth War Graves website at Cwgc.org.
Lest We Forget.
Interestingly, one last internet search right before this story went to print finally turned up some details on Henry Carruthers.
Veterans Affairs Canada has been updating its Canadian Virtual War Memorial and uncovering photos through a campaign called “Operation Picture Me.”
Therein is information on Henry.
His enlisting papers show he was born Jan. 1, 1924 in Armadale, Scotland, though his citizenship was Canadian. He went to Central School from 1929 to 1937 and Trail high school from 1937 to 1940.
He lists photography as his hobby “useful” to the air force, and skating as a sport he extensively engaged in.
He was a carpentry apprentice at CM&S (now Teck Trail) when he enlisted on May 2, 1942.
His family home was at 980 Elm Street in Trail.