The Tempsford Special Duties Squadrons




The Loss of Halifax LL358 MA-Y
8/9 August 1944 : Operation Tom 53

Crew of Halifax LL358 MA-Y

The aircraft carried a crew of seven:

Pilot - F/Sgt. J W Nicholls (22)
Navigator - W/Op. J B Grady (RCAF) (26)
Air Bomber - P/O G E Rhead (28)
Wireless Operator - Sgt. A A Rivers (23)
Engineer - Sgt. B C F Dean (27)
Dispatcher - Sgt. C G Bragg (20)
Rear Gunner - Sgt. E Markson (38)

Except for the dispatcher on this mission this crew had flown eight missions of this type together, and would have been quite skilled. The previous mission on the 5/6th August dropped 2 agents with 3 containers and 3 packages into the area around Chouzy in the Touraine.

The Mission

This was a dual mission being flown with another Halifax piloted by F/Lt. Abecassis, the mission was to supply an underground cell in the Picardie area that was being run by Capt. Etienne Dromas. This group of the French underground had successfully helped over eighty downed Allied airmen to escape capture and even to return to England through its network. This drop of arms and explosives was packed into special canisters and packets designed to withstand impact with the ground but which could still be taken apart and carried by one person.

The Flight

On the night of 8/9 August 1944, two specially adapted Halifaxes of 161 Squadron left Tempsford on a mission for the SOE (Special Operations Executive). F/Lt. Abecassis took off in Halifax MA-Z LL453 at 23:45 and F/S Nicholls in MA-Y LL358 followed 10 minutes later at 23:55; the duration of the flight was expected to last a little over 4 hours. Pinpoint navigation was required to find small villages, and then dead reckoning was used to set a course to the target area. Once found, the aircraft flew in at a little over stall speed (in this case 145 mph, at 400 to 500 feet). Time spent over the target ranged from 10 to 15 minutes. The ETA was 01:52 and 01:58. However, reception was finally found with a Morse flashing at 02:09 by F/LT Abecassis, and 15 containers and 7 packages were dropped on the first run.
His debriefing notes state – "When making drop, an aircraft was seen ablaze about 3 miles to the south east."

From the ground at the drop site.


The French reception committee, commanded by Capt. Dromas, was at the drop zone before the required time and had heard a German night fighter flying up and down the area. However, it seemed that he had left when the two Halifaxes arrived. So it was decided to flash the Morse signal to bring the aircraft in. F/Lt. Abecassis flew in low, dropped his load and climbed away to allow the second Halifax to come in; the signal was flashed, and Nicholls responded. As he came in there was a burst of gunfire from the German night fighter; the aircraft was hit and on fire; it banked, and crashed into the field, bursting into flames. All 7 members of the crew were killed.
The French ran to the aircraft but could do nothing; the crew had been incinerated in their seats. As they had been flying so low, there had been no time for anyone to bail out.

The next day at the Village of Cugny.

The next day the bodies were removed, placed in numbered coffins, and taken to the Cugny cemetery. The Germans, fearing an emotional outburst of anti - German feeling, forbade the townspeople to attend the burial. In defiance, the entire village (at great risk to themselves), turned out en masse to shower the caskets with flowers, while members of the Gestapo looked on.

Back at Tempsford.

The aircraft was posted missing, and F/Lt. Abecassis was debriefed. However, the Squadron Commander, W/Cdr. Alan Boxer was not satisfied and requested SOE to try to find out what had happened to their aircraft on "Tom 53". A radio message was dispatched to the French requesting information. A copy of the reply was forwarded to the Station Commander that the aircraft had indeed been shot down and all the crew killed. To the families of the dead airman the usual telegrams were dispatched stating they were missing in action and, after a while, the Red Cross returned some personal items found on the bodies.

After the war.

After the war the crew were left where they lay in the small cemetery at Cugny, probably at the request of the French. In 1971 the Mayor of Cugny asked permission from the Queen to place a memorial by the roadside where the aircraft had crashed. This was granted, and a stone inscribed with the names of the crew still stands there today.


Capt. Étienne Dromas survived the war as a hero and set up a museum as a memorial to the French underground in the Picardie area. It is called the Musée de Résistance et Déportation de Picardie, and has an exhibit about the events of the 8/9 August 1944.


On the night of 8/9 August 1944 it seems that Ofw. Todt of I/jg301 flying a ME109g-6 claimed a Halifax destroyed in some unspecified area near the south of Belgium / northern part of France, probably compatible with Cugny. He is credited with downing 11 allied aircraft.

Researched by Dennis Markson

Additional research Bob Body (GR)
Stephane Muret (FR)
Sunday, March 12, 2023 16:02