Corporal James D Cairncross

24 Nov 1942

Corporal James Dobson Cairncross, son of Robert and Elizabeth Cairncross, of Hawick, Roxburghshire, served with 9th Field Company (Airborne) Royal Engineers. He took part in the ill-fated Op Freshman mission to sabotage the German development of an atomic bomb at the Vermock Heavy Water plant in Norway.

Piloted by Sgt Doig and S/Sgt Strathdee in Airspeed Horsa Glider Serial number DP-349 and towed by Halifax tugs from 38 Group RAF, the mission flew from RAF Skitten, a Coastal Command Airfield four miles North-west of Wick, Scotland. Onboard were men from 9th Field Coy (Airborne) RE and 261 Field Park Coy (Airborne) RE, under command of Lt Methven, who had volunteered for the operation.

Taking off at 1745hrs on 19 November 1942, the mission soon became hampered by severe weather conditions. As the aircraft neared their intended targets the glider and tug encountered dense fog northwest of Rjukan which they were unable to emerge from. Fuel was getting low and as both tug plane and glider started to collect ice, they rapidly lost altitude. The glider released but crash-landed at Fylgjesdalen, north of Stavanger, killing the two pilots and six of the Airborne Engineers onboard (later buried at Eiganes Churchyard, Stavanger).

Nine members of those onboard Glider DP-349 survived the crash including Cpl Cairncross, Dvr Farrell, L Cpl Masters and Spr Smith who had all suffered serious injuries. After initially receiving medical help from Norwegian locals in a farmhouse, all survivors were soon imprisoned as POWs by the Gestapo. They were were taken to the Lagårdsveien jail on 23 November. The other five who were not badly wounded in the crash were then sent on to Grini concentration camp (where all were later killed in January 1943).

The four who remained were given lethal injections by Werner Fritz Seeling, a German Luftwaffe Doctor. Records of his allied war crimes trial in Oslo, December 1945 state that after falling into semi-conscious states, the four prisoners were subjected to torture by the Gestapo, during which time three of the prisoners were strangled and a fourth shot in the head on the night of Thursday, 24 November and morning of Friday 25th November 1942. The following day all the bodies were collected by truck and driven to the quayside. They still wore the head and arm bandages from after the crash at Fylgjesdalen. The four corpses were sunk at a few hundred metres’ depth off Kvitsøy Island. They have never been recovered.

Corporal Cairncross was amongst those killed whilst a Prisoner of War on 24-5 November 1942, aged 22 years old. His body was dumped at sea and never recovered. Corporal Cairncross is now commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Brookwood Military Cemetery, near Pirbright, London.

Profile photo kindly supplied by Tony Dunlop

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James D Cairncross

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  • Remembering the 4 Freshman soldiers with no known grave on Norway´s National Day 17 May 2021.jpeg

    Remembering the 4 Freshman soldiers with no known grave on Norway´s National Day 17 May 2021.jpeg

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