Pilot Officer Neil Howard Denyer, No. 156 Squadron RAF

Posted on 29 June 2021

Neil Denyer was born in August 1921 to Hurtle and Ruby Denyer of Temora, New South Wales. He was a popular all-rounder at high school at Temora and Orange.

In 1939, the family bought a property at Munderoo near Tumbarumba. Neil grazed sheep with his father and paraded part-time with the 21st Light Horse Regiment in the Citizens Military Forces.

Neil enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force Reserve at Wagga Wagga in March 1941. He trained as an air observer; his role as part of a bomber aircrew was to navigate the aircraft and release bombs onto a designated target.

Neil sailed for England in November 1942, to No. 27 Operational Training Unit at Lichfield, Staffordshire. Neil was in a seven-man aircrew, including five Australians.

In April 1943, they were posted to No. 103 Squadron RAF in Lincolnshire, and carried out their first sortie over Nazi-occupied Europe. On 4 May 1943, Neil’s Lancaster crew was one of 596 aircraft that bombed the German city of Dortmund. Their aircraft received heavy flak but dropped its bombs and made it back safely.

Neil and his crew volunteered for the Pathfinder Force, an elite unit of Bomber Command. They flew ahead to mark targets with barometrically fused flares to ignite at a certain altitude, illuminating the aiming point for the other bombers.

Posted to No. 156 Squadron at RAF Warboys, Neil’s crew, Lancaster JA861, quickly clocked up operational sorties – striking targets in industrial Germany in the Battle of the Ruhr, and on Hamburg and the V2 rocket facility at Peenemünde.

In late 1943, RAF Bomber command undertook a major aerial offensive on Berlin. It was a long, treacherous journey flying at night across Nazi-occupied Europe.

On 23 August, Lancaster JA861 completed its first successful raid on Berlin.

Eleven days later, on 3 September 1943, Neil’s crew failed to return from their Berlin sortie. Their Lancaster JA861, R for Robert, was last heard from after taking off from RAF Warboys at 8pm. As aircrews had to maintain radio silence, it was unclear when their aircraft disappeared. 21 other aircraft also failed to return.

The wife of R-Robert’s pilot, Flying Officer Michael Shanahan, wrote to Neil’s parents expressing her “sympathy at this anxious time”:

“I want to say I have every hope that Michael and all the crew are safe and we will hear of them as Prisoners of War soon … I have a tiny daughter just one year and nine months old and I’m sure her Daddy will come back to us. Do try and feel the same way about Neil, it does help a little.”

No further official news emerged about Lancaster JA861. In April 1944, Neil’s parents were informed that he and the six other crewmen had died in the raid on Berlin.

Neil was 22 years old.

The crew members of Lancaster JA861 have no known graves. Their names appear on the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in Surrey, England.

Aaron Pegram, Senior Historian, Military History Section