Who was John Murray Forman

With all my thanks to Ann Forman, his daughter, and Kent Frazer, his cousin

Murray was the third (surviving) child of six born to John Forman and Mary Fraser.  He was born March 20, 1913 at the Forman family farm, Lot 53/54, Concession #1, Elma Township, east of Listowel, Ontario.

He was a very keen student in high school and “would have dearly liked to go on to study law, but as was common in that era, I had to take on a variety of jobs pre-war”.   For example, he recalled working with his first cousin Roy Johnson at the cheese factory in Carthage in 1933.

Murray (serial number J15236) enlisted July 2, 1940 in Toronto.  To his great disappointment he was informed that at the age of twenty-eight he was too old to be a pilot and instead he would be trained as a tail gunner.

He trained at No.1 ITS (Initial Training School) in Toronto and graduated 14 September 1940.  His father died one month later (October 18, 1940).  Murray headed to Calgary for No.2 WS (Wireless School), graduating with the first class on January 20, 1941.

He returned to Ontario for a few weeks at No.4 BGS (Bombing & Gunnery School, Fingal), graduating 17 February 1941.

Before the mission

He went to Europe in April '41, nine months after enlisting.  Few details of his service are known for the period April 1941 through August 1943.  He was commissioned as an officer in February 1942 and by September 1943 he was a Flight Lieutenant, which was a junior officer rank, comparable to a “Pilot Officer” or “Flying Officer”.  In the twenty-eight months since leaving Canada he had completed 28 missions over France and Germany.

It is important to recognize that there was no role in World War II more dangerous than a RAF Bomber Command air crew.  Only one in four would survive and evade injury or capture:  55,573 were killed (55%), 8,403 were wounded in action (3%) and 9,838 became prisoners of war (12%).  Murray Forman was part of only 2% who were shot down and evaded capture.

Murray also had a dangerous role within the crew.  Rear turrets were a cold and lonely position at the back of the aircraft and the main defense against German night-fighters who tended to attack from the rear. 

Visibility was the key to survival, and often gunners removed the perspex panel immediately in front of them to improve the view, despite the stunning cold of the wind blast.

The eyes of an alert, professional rear gunner were the salvation of many a bomber crew, and the chilling cry of "Corkscrew starboard, GO!" as the gunner opened fire on a night fighter bearing down on them caused an instinctive and immediate violent reaction in any Bomber Command pilot.


Murray joined the RCAF “Ghost” Squadron 428 when it formed in January 1943 as part of No. 6 Group (which was the Canadian group) of Bomber Command.  For six months the squadron flew Wellington bombers.  In the summer of 1943 they moved to RAF Middleton St George in northeast England and were re-equipped with Halifax B Mk V Bombers.

The Halifax Bomber dated from 1939 and would serve in various versions throughout the war.  The B Mk V was identical to the more commonB Mk II except fit had inferior landing gear.  Early Halifax models had triangular tailfins, which were replaced by rectangular fins on the Handley-Page Halifax Mk Vs flown by the 428 Squadron – The redesigned tail may have been crucial to Murray’s survival.

Murray and his crew flew inHalifax V Serial Number LK913, specification #637 (one of the 420 ordered in that configuration), manufactured by Rootes Securities Ltd, Speke, UK.  It was delivered sometime after July 18, 1943 as part of the squadron’s conversion from Wellingtons and therefore it was no more than 55 days old when they crashed.

Typically a Halifax had a crew of six or seven:  A pilot, three gunners, navigator, wireless operator and a flight engineer.  The navigator and the wireless operator were seated in the front fuselage, between the front turret and the cockpit. The flight engineer sat behind the pilot and kept very busy with adjustments and fuel management.  Despite being a Canadian squadron, all crews of 428 included a British flight engineer because the RCAF did not train anyone for that position; and crews often included other British flyers.  Still, it was unusual that LK913 took off with a crew of eight on September 15, 1943.

The Mission

On September 15, 1943, the crew was looking forward to celebrating the birthday of their wireless operator (Malins) with an evening at Betty’s Dive, York.  Instead, they were called in to be briefed on an operation.  Fortunately, the mission looked ideal.

The    Dunlop Rubber Factory at Montluçon, France (280 km south of Paris) was being used by the Germans for its synthetic rubber production, since natural rubber could not be imported by the Nazis.  The attack would be low-level and without flak.

Dave Fraser recalls Murray mentioning that some of the crew on the Montluçon mission were ground officers flying without permission – This was not uncommon when an easy mission came up and may explain the presence of eight on the plane.  A photo of the LK913 crew pictures six airmen - Five of those six flew September 15.

Ed Mason would take the place of the regular navigator, Pilot Officer Morley Snow, but that may be due to Mason’s title as Lead Squadron Navigator accompanying a pilot with the rank of Wing Commander.  The photographed crew would be joined by Pilot Officer E. Bell and Air Gunner Pilot Officer J. M. Nelmes.

The crew of LK913 consisted of six Canadians and two British: 

  • Pilot  Wing Commander  Smith, D.W.M.  RCAF
  • Pilot 2 Pilot Officer  Bell, E.N.   RCAF 
  • Engineer Sergeant   Heyworth   Charles RAF
  • Navigator  Flight Lieutenant  Mason, E.B.   RCAF 
  • Bomb Aimer Flying Officer  Dereniuk, H.  RCAF
  • Wireless Operator Pilot Officer  Malins, Richard O. RAF 
  • Air Gunner Pilot Officer  Nelmes, J.M.  RCAF
  • Air Gunner Flight Lieutenant   Forman, J. Murray RCAF

At 7:48 pm on September 15, 1943, Halifax LK913 took off from RAF Middleton St George, joining a force that included 369 aircraft of Nos 3, 4, 6 and 8 Groups - 209 Halifaxes, 120 Stirlings and 40 Lancasters.  Five American B-17s also took part.  More specifically, there were 63 Halifaxes from the 419, 427, 428, 429 and 434 squadrons of 6 Group on mission “Z657”.  They turned south for the 1,000 km trip to Montluçon.

The Pathfinders marked the target accurately and the Master Bomber, Wing Commander DFEC Deane, brought the Main Force in under conditions of good visibility, bright moonlight, little or no cloud and only very moderate defenses.

From altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet the crews released 116,000 pounds of high explosives and 228,000 pounds of incendiaries.  The bombing lasted 27 minutes, from 11:25 to 11:52 PM.  Every building in the factory was hit and a large fire was started.  Bombs also struck the nearby village of Saint-Victor.  There were 36 deaths on the ground and more than 250 injured citizens.

Despite the light defenses, the mission was not without risk.  Several aircraft, including two from 428 squadron, returned to base before bombing due to engine trouble.  Some aircraft were hit by flak but were not seriously damaged.  One crew reported an attack from enemy aircraft, but there was no damage.  DK253 of 427 squadron made it back to England but crashed at Harmondsworth, killing the crew of 7.  And LK913 would not return.

Crash Landing

LK913 dropped its bomb load and turned north, but was struck by a cluster of incendiary bombs from a Stirling bomber above. 

According to wireless operator Dick Malins, “The inevitable happened – nose gone, one wing on fire, utter chaos within.  No intercom – no orders – get out or stay?  Instinct and training prevailed – I jumped; as did the navigator – the only two to ‘fly’”.  He would land in a field north of Montluçon.

Ed Mason also jumped, landing in a field of potatoes.

The plane travelled north, to the large Troncais Forest, 25-40 km north of Montluçon.  As the plane got lower Murray said into the intercom “Skipper, I can see the treetops beside me and some higher than we are”.

Smith brought the plane along a steep hillside of young oak trees, laying it down softly, cushioned by tree tops and sideways to the hill so that one wing snapped off, slowing the impact speed.  Concerned that he would be trapped if his turret jammed, Murray had the mental alertness to rotate his turret immediately before impact.

He was knocked unconscious and injured his back, but was able to roll out of the rear turret when he came to.

The plane was partially burned, but all had survived in reasonably good condition.  Murray attributed the crew’s survival to the Halifax’s new larger tail design and the buffering of the forest. 

In 1969 the fireweed and broken tree tops enabled Murray to find the exact site.  It is not now known exactly where the plane went down in the Troncais Forest:  It was called the Vallée de Bouteille.  There is a small village named La Bouteille near the south end of the forest, but his first safe home was in Ainay-le-Chateau, 15 kilometers further north.  Bits of metal, including a numbered piece from the fuselage, were brought back to the Canadian War Museum.

After the crash the crew separated into three pairs to avoid detection:  Smith with Dereniuk, Heyworth with Nelmes and Forman with Bell.  Murray soon realized that his condition would hold young Pilot Officer Bell back, so he sent Bell off on his own.   Murray hid in the bushes at the edge of a narrow track through the forest.  He and the other seven airmen were determined to evade capture in occupied France.

Back in Canada his family was informed that Murray was missing.  At Middleton St. George, Don Kennedy would gather the crew’s personal effects.  After the war Kennedy would immigrate to Canada, raise a family, lose his wife and remarry to Dave Fraser’s mother-in-law.  Meeting Murray in 1970, Kennedy remembered the loss of the crew and even found the list of their names.

In France

Sometime in the morning an old French farmer came along the forest trail with a horse dragging a “saw-log”.  He looked at Murray, said nothing, but slowed long enough for him to crawl up onto the log.  After dragging him a ways the farmer silently gestured for Murray to get off and wait by a road (either in a ditch out of sight or in a hedge-row).  He hid there all day.  In the late afternoon a young boy came by and gave him an apple.

After dark the Maquis (French Resistance) came and took him to the home of Madame Dubois in the village of Ainay-le-Chateau, north of the forest.  He was smuggled in to by the back door and taken upstairs.  Monsieur Vincent provided him with new clothing.  George Simonet found him a doctor.  Andre Montazeaud tended to Murray’s wounds and cared for him over the next five days.  By then the Marquis had learned that the Germans were getting close, so Murray was smuggled out through the back door, into a truck and away, just ahead of the Gestapo.

Murray had no direct contact with his crew, but by the time he left his first safe house three had been captured.

Pilot Smith and Bomb-aimer Dereniuk made their way to Saint-Amand-Montrond, then Laugère (near Charenton-du-Cher), where three young people cared for them and found them clothes.

Malins, who had bailed out just north of Montlucon, made his way to a village near Montlucon where he was put up for one night.  The next day the villagers gave him a beret, a loaf, a bottle of wine and directions to the local train station.  He managed close calls along the way and made it all the way to Perpignan, where he happened to be at the station at the same time Smith and Dereniuk were being arrested.  He showed his dog tags to the ticket taker, who gave him directions to a certain bistro where the proprietor would contact the Maquis to arrange a guide across the Pyrenées.  Malins got a room – And someone reported it to the Germans.  After waiting two days for a guide to take him across the Pyrenées, Malins started out on his own - Within 20 minutes he was stopped by Gestapo.

After leaving Murray, the young co-pilot Bell evaded capture until December, when someone informed the Gestapo of his presence in Bourges.

Smith, Dereniuk, Malins and Bell would spend most of the next 20 months in Stalag Luft III Sagan (Prussia).

Note: The Stalag Luft III Sagan is the POW camp for airmen who was made famous by the "Great Escape" - " a movie played, among others, by Steve McQueen

Murray may have heard from the Maquis that Heyworth, Mason and Nelmes were still on the loose.  He would certainly connect with them in the coming weeks. 

The full list of safe houses and “Helpers” is not known.  While there may have been some stops after leaving Madame Dubois’ around September 20, Murray’s second long-term stay was 15 kilometers to the south at the Virlogeux farm near Pernier and a few kilometers southwest of Cérilly.  He stayed at the farm for two weeks, from late September through early October.

A "Helper" brought Murray food during his stay at Pernier

Note: In the English text, the exact phrase is: "A Helper Murray brought food during his stay at Pernier". . I do not understand the meaning. Like many farms, Pernier was self-sufficient in food (especially such a firm practicing subsistence agriculture). Lost in the Bourbonnais, she even offered an ideal resting place for the wounded. The proof photo :

In translating the following sentence that I found the meaning of the first sentence: It needed a "helper" to ensure the survival of Murray. It was the family farm Virlogeux.

The senior Jean Virlogeux had farmed there and had been mayor at nearby Cérilly (1929-1935).  His son, Pierre Virlogeux, was a ceramics engineer at the "Les Grès Flammés" pottery in Riom, 80 km to the south.  His wife, Claude, was a teacher at the girl’s college there.  More importantly, Pierre was a leader of the Maquis, assisted by Claude and their son Jean.

No doubt, the Virlogeux’s played a key role in Murray’s move south to the Riom area and likely arranged his visit to a doctor in Riom for an x-ray in mid-October (Soon after that visit the local German garrison became suspicious of activities at the hospital and it was abandoned). 

The Virlogeux’s would pay a high price for their activities on behalf of the resistance movement and the escape network.  On February 8, 1944, just three months after Murray’s departure, the entire family, including Pierre, Claude, son Jean, 11 year old Marc, Claude’s parents and a maid, were arrested by the Gestapo.  After a day of interrogation the Gestapo released the grandparents and the young boy.

Pierre committed suicide in prison to avoid the risk of talking under torture – It is said that the Gestapo threatened to make him watch them torture his children.  They buried him in the barrack’s courtyard.  His wife was deported to a concentration camp at Revensbrück – She lived long enough to know France had been liberated (August) but she died November 11, 1944 at the age of 41.

Their son Jean was forced into labour, digging up unexploded bombs from train stations that had undergone heavy bombardment in eastern Paris.  By May 1944 he was transferred to a prison camp at Wöbbelin near Ludwigslust, then to work at the Fallersleben Volkswagen plant.  On April 7, 1945, with the Allies approaching, the SS evacuated them east to Wöbbelin – Many died during the 8 day journey.  Two weeks later the Americans arrived.  After recuperating from typhus Jean finally returned to France in late June of 1945.  He would become the chief ceramics engineer in a pottery factory and maintained contact with the Forman family.

(The timing of this paragraph is not accurate (see testimony of Jean Virlogeux), but I keep unchanged the testimony of Murray Forman).

In Riom there is a statue, a square and an avenue named in tribute to Claude and Pierre Virlogeux.  Where once stood the barracks where Pierre died now stands a school: Lycée Claude et Pierre Virlogeux”.

Pierre Virlogeux’s last words, reported by a survivor were "The time has come. I'm dying. I did my duty. Calm friends, I said nothing.  My son can bear proud. Farewell! Vive la France!

Having recuperated with the assistance of the Virlogeux’s, Murray was moved 50 km west of Riom to Giat, stopping for a time at the "Hotel du Commerce" operated by the Villedeux family.  Then he settled in to a stone house in the hills 11 km beyond Giat, living for a few weeks with crewmate Ed Mason and a number of Maquis under the leadership of Duronton. 

Mason, Nelmes and Heyworth had all become active in the Maquis Giat (Puy de Dome).  Both Mason and Nelmes would stay and fight, including the famous Mont Mouchet battles in June 1944.  They would finally fly from Toulouse to England September 22, 1944, one year and one week after his arrival in France.

Murray was on the move again by some time in late October.  Heyworth had become ill and the two moved 170 km west to the estate of Charles Franc, close to the city of Angouleme, north of Bordeaux.  This fine home was in the centre of cognac country.  Charles Franc was a senior leader in the Maquis, which the Germans would discover – Shortly after Murray departed the home was blown up, killing all but two and severely injuring Monsieur Franc (He lost the use of his left arm and left eye).

On the night of November 16, 1943, a small Lysander aircraft touched down in a field near the Franc home. 

The date was chosen for the full moon, essential to a Lysander navigating to the field marked with just four or five lights – Failure November 16 and 17th would have meant another month of waiting.  The small aircraft was painted matt black and fitted with a ladder over the port side to hasten access to the rear cockpit.  The rear cockpit was designed for one passenger, but could carry up to three in extreme discomfort.  Murray jammed in with ailing Heyworth and Charente, a Resistance agent, for the two hour flight back to Tangmere, Chichester, in southern England.

A night or two after their landing, a terse message crackled over the airways of the BBC.  It said, “La bouteille est arrivée”.  To a number of French Resistance Fighters, huddled over their hidden radio, the message was a morale-booster of the highest order.  It meant that two Canadian flyers, whom they had risked their lives to help, had made is safely back to England.

It would not be a celebration for Charles Heyworth.  By the time he left France he was severely ill, with pneumonia or perhaps a burst appendix.  On arrival he went directly to the Chichester Hospital.  His wife, nine months pregnant, travelled 250 miles to see him.  Their son was born eight days later.  Charles held his son in his arms and sent a message, “He’s lovely.  Tell her I love her and am proud of her”.  Charles Heyworth died ten days after returning to England.  His best friend, Dick Malins, had bailed out over Montlucon and spent the war as a POW, not knowing his mate’s fate.  Upon release, he met with Charles’ widow – They married two months later.

Murray Forman would be forever grateful “for the help and enormous bravery on the part of many members of the French Resistance”.  In later years he was very active in the Royal Air Force Escaping Society, an organization which hosted members of the Resistance and their families in Canada, as a way of saying “Thanks”.

After France

His back injury meant the war was over for Murray.  After medical demobilization in 1944 he returned to Canada and continued working for the Air Force.  Before leaving the Air Force to join the Canadian Pension Commission he was promoted to Wing Commander.

In July of 1945 he became one of the very few air gunners to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross:

FORMAN, W/C John Murray (J15236) - Distinguished Flying Cross - No.428 Squadron - Award effective 5 July 1945 as per London Gazette dated 17 July 1945 and AFRO 1507/45 dated 28 September 1945.  Born 1913, Listowel, Ontario; home there; salesman.  Enlisted Toronto 2 July 1940.  Commissioned February 1942.  Postwar - Canadian Pension Commission. Trained at No.1 ITS (graduated 14 September 1940), No.2 WS (graduated 20 January 1941) and No.4 BGS (graduated 17 February 1941).

"This officer has proved himself a brilliant and inspiring leader.  As a flight commander he has trained his crews to an exceptional degree of efficiency and keenness.  On one occasion he was shot down over enemy territory but successfully evaded capture and returned to this country.  His courageous leadership has always set an inspiring example to all other air gunners. "

In 1947 Murray was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star (France).

In 1948 he married Kay Todd, also an R.C.A.F. Veteran.  Their daughter Ann was born a year later.

In 1966 he was promoted by Prime Minister Trudeau to Deputy Chairman of the Canadian Pension Commission.