‘Tonight you are going to the Big City.
…You will have the opportunity to light a fire in the belly of the enemy that will burn his black heart out’
– Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command –
At around 03:20 hrs, amongst a wave of planes, flak bursts and falling parachutes, and illuminated by big fires on the ground, a British Halifax heavy bomber overflies the Nazi capital during another RAF Bomber Command air raid on the city. Seconds later and hit by enemy fire, the four-engined bomber fell in a steep dive from a height of 17,000 feet and crashed onto the KaDeWe building, the famous West-Berlin department store which still exists today at the same location at Wittenbergplatz.
This story, a real story from World War II, has been told many times and by many sources, but never before in the right way.
According to the KaDeWe website: “During the Second World War, an American plane crashed onto the roof of the building causing a major fire” meanwhile the store’s official chronology states that “[in 1943] An American airplane crashes into KaDeWe.” Another source, in this case a German author described the dramatic action and dates it also: “During the war, KaDeWe experienced its blackest day on November 24, 1943, when an American bomber crashed into the atrium of the building, which burned out completely”. Other sources state that this happened on the night of 22/23 during the attack which wiped out the southwestern part of the city. This is most likely due to the fame that the raid achieved after the war, the best known of the British bombardments on Berlin and of devastating effectiveness.
Actually, this deadly crash happened not in November 1943 but three months later, on the night of 28/29 January 1944 during a lesser known but also heavy RAF air attack on Berlin. Primary sources and official documents from those days allow us to match the actual date with the bomber and the men that starred this amazing but terrible incident, which caused both the death of the seven-man crew aboard the downed Halifax and the end of the original KaDeWe department.
[Ruined but not destroyed: Kaufhaus des Westens after being damaged by Allied bombs in World War II in 1943, says the original caption of this picture.]
The crashed plane was bomber Halifax HR841 ‘KN-T’ from No 77 RAF Squadron and piloted by Pilot Officer Duncan, which the official RAF loss report listed as “Collided with an enemy night-fighter”. Another record, based on German reports, states that the bomber “crashed at WITTENBERG PLATZ, BERLIN” detailing that the aircraft “crashed with a German plane and then crashed on a large building”, the large building being without any doubt the KaDeWe store at Tauentzienstraße.
Which was the origin of the wrong assertion and which was the first source that created this ‘urban myth’ is unknown to us, a mistake increased even more when the crashed plane is described as an American bomber (or fighter), an air force that was still months away from starting to fly and to fight over Berlin (March 1944) and always on daylight raids. Sadly, internet sources often copy each other and with same mistakes, the unaccurate information and year being copied and circulated by most of the German media, newspapers (Der Tagesspiegel, Der Spiegel…) and tourism websites (tip-berlin, the Culture trip…). Of course, the Wikipedia page referred to the KaDeWe also repeated this.
But what was the backstory?
28/29 January 1944 raid
On that night, Commanding-in-Chief of Bomber Command Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris put his sights on Berlin again, to keep the aerial offensive and pressure on the Nazi capital. It would be a maximum effort raid that includes the Halifax-equipped squadrons again, left on stand by on the previous operations against Berlin by Harris order due to the type’s lower ceiling and performance, which soon became intolerable losses.
In the early afternoon, No 4 Group sent new mission orders via teleprint to its assigned squadrons. At RAF Elvington in Yorkshire, home of the No 77 Squadron, the incoming operation was prepared as the squadron would dispatch twenty-one Halifax heavy bombers to bomb the city targets, part of the 677 aircraft attacking force that Bomber Command sent to destroy Hitler’s home one more night.
[RAF 77 Squadron crews at the briefing room at Elvington prior of the incoming operation to the German capital, in this case the opening raid of the ‘Battle of Berlin’ on August 23, 1943.]
The night before 515 ‘heavies’—this time only Lancasters, preferred by Harris and accompanied by 15 Mosquitoes— had visited the ‘Big City’ in a bombing raid that had achieved medium success only, losing 33 of the bombers most to German night fighters. This time, the bombers would fly to Flamborough Head as usual and from there to Berlin following a long route through northern Denmark and the German Baltic coast for more than 3 hours, inside the bomber stream and protected by large amounts of Window (stripes of metal used as radar countermeasures).
Following the usual operation briefing, P/O Duncan and his crew went to dinner and finally to the ‘dressing-room’ to prepare before boarding their assigned aircraft for the mission, serial HR841 coded ‘T’. ‘T for Tommy’ was their usual ‘kite’ at the squadron, a Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber in which the armourers had loaded a mix of 1,000-lb bombs (long-delayed fuses) and canisters of 30-lb and 4-lb incendiaries, as the Squadron’s ORB shows. By Harris order, the load weight on some squadrons of the Halifax force had been increased, which led to some aircraft crashing during take off and higher figures of early returns. Furthermore, bad weather made that time ops was delayed twice and the bombing force didn’t take-off until midnight, which only get the crews more tired and nervous. This delay also made ineffective the ‘spoof’ raid on Hannover by four Mosquitoes to confound the Nazi defenses a few hours before the Main Force attacked Berlin.
Minutes later, after taxiing in and wait for their turn to take off, Duncan opened the throttle and the four 1,280 hp Rolls-Royce engines roared, the bomber lifting off Elvington’s runway at 00.07 hours in complete darkness and radio silence. The pilot circled the airfield to gain height before turning on to a heading across the North Sea. No one would see them alive again.
The crew of Halifax HR841 consisted of:
- Pilot Officer Robert McI Duncan, RCAF, from Ontario, Canada, aged 25, the ‘skipper’.
- Sergeant William Cannon, aged 20, from Great Crosby, Lancashire, Flight Engineer.
- Flight Sergeant Kenneth W Chalk, aged 21, from Wiltshire, Air Gunner.
- Sgt Geoffrey M Jandron, RCAF, aged 32, from Quebec region, Canada, Air Gunner.
- Sgt Frank Jarvis, aged 21, from Clayton, Manchester, the Wireless Operator.
- Flight Sgt Henry H Streeting, aged 22, from West Hartlepool, Co. Durham, the navigator.
- Warrant Officer II William C Thom, RCAF, aged 21, from Ottawa, Canada, bomb aimer.
[Portraits of the three Canadians part of the crew of Halifax HR841, KIA on the early hours of 29 January 1944 over Berlin: (L-R) Pilot Officer Duncan, Warrant Officer Thom, and Sergeant Jandron.]
Duncan seven-man crew had been in combat for just two months. They were posted to 77 Squadron after passing through the OTU and the 1652 Conversion Unit, arriving at Elvington in September 1943. Their first operation together was on the night of November 3rd (in Halifax LW341, target was Düsseldorf) and this would be their second visit to the Reich capital, having already completed the same mission on 22/23 November 1943 flying HR841 too. The 77th was one of the original Bomber Command squadrons, flying Whitleys from the early days and converting to the more capable Halifax bomber in early 1943. Now, lead by Wing Commander John Roncoroni, the squadron was in the middle of Harris’ ‘Battle of Berlin’.
The crew had missed the previous show over Berlin (20/21 January) and ‘their’ Halifax HR841, assigned to another crew on that night (P/O Hogg’s crew) finally did not leave for the German capital either. The next day, the crew was ordered to fly to Magdeburg as part of 648 bombers that bombed the city. On Friday the 28th, Duncan and his men were detailed to bomb Berlin again.
[The 77 Squadron combat log (ORB) listing January 1944’ operations show the fate of Halifax HR841 and the Duncan crew following their depart from Elvington: “This aircraft failed to return from operation”.]
‘T for Tommy’
This Halifax, serial HR841, was built by Handley Page under contract No. A/C 1688 as a HP59 B.Mark II in late 1942. The bomber had served before with No 35 Squadron during 1943 but it was reassigned to the 77th at Elvington station at the end of October as ‘KN-T’, being flown in most of her combat ops by Duncan’s crew. This would be her third trip to bomb Berlin, being manned by another crew on the previous 29 December raid. By the time of her loss, and from comparing pictures of closer serial Halifaxes, HR841 had most probably been already modified with the new glazed nose section, improved Merlin XX engines too and/or squared ‘D type’ tail fins to improve directional stability. Sadly, there are no known photos of HR841 to confirm the configuration during her last sortie over Berlin.
[The closest serial number we have found picture is Halifax Mk II HR846 of No 35 Sqn, seen here taking off from RAF Graveley in July 1943. Part of the same construction batch as HR841, this plane was modified with the one-piece nose section and a H2S radar unit in mid-1943 although retained the original rounded tail unit. She was also lost on 23/24 August 1943 on a Berlin raid.]
[The crew of Halifax Mk II HR723 ‘KN-M’ from No 77 Sqn, posing at Elvington with their aircraft in November 1943. This contemporary aircraft shows how Halifax HR841 should have looked at the time: plastic nose section and Rolls-Royce XX engines fitted with improved exhaust shrouds].
Shot down in flames
It is unclear what was the actual cause for the bomber loss. As we have mentioned early, this bomber was reportedly lost in a collision over the target area, although modern research has established it was shot down by a night fighter. Thanks to Theo Boiten’s excellent research work about the German Nachtjadg during the war, we know that Oblt. Werner Kucharsowsky, a 9.Staffel pilot of ‘Wilde Sau’ unit JG301 claimed an enemy “4-mot” (four-engined bomber) over Berlin at 03.21 hrs whose description and time matches with our fallen bomber, crashing into a store at Berlin-Schöneberg (according to the OKL/RLM victory lists). The victory was confirmed by the Abschusskommission on 9 September 1944.
[Silhouetted against the glare of incendiary fires and German searchlights, a Halifax bomber of RAF No 4 Group releases its bomb load on Leipzig in 1944. The “Mattscheibe” (ground-glass screen) is shown to good effect here: the silhouettes of the bombers against the illuminated cloud cover allowed ‘Wilde Sau’ fighters to make contact and attack the enemy bombers.]
[A Bf 109G-6 ‘Wilde Sau’ fighter pictured here at Bonn-Hangelar with Ofw. Bremer (left) and Uffz. Schiffer. Part of the original Luftwaffe’s Wild Boar unit, Jagdgeschwader 300, this night fighter was equipped with additional 20mm cannons and wears a heavy black oversprayed over the camouflage finish and the German crosses. Note the flame dampeners added over the exhaust stacks, a night fighting modification. This unit was very active against the November 1943-early 1944 RAF raids over Berlin.]
Nevertheless, there are no further known records or maybe they were lost during the war, so we cannot confirm if the German Jadgflieger shot at the bomber or if he collided with it in the thick of aerial battle. Perhaps he rammed it intentionally as other ‘Wilde Sau’ pilots did, or misjudged the distance following a ‘corkscrew’, an evasive action used by British pilots. Anyway, the Germans recognized as an aerial victory whether by shot or by ramming, as long as the enemy plane hit the ground so both options could be right.
What is certain is that the Halifax, mortally wounded and with its crew on board (who knows if wounded, already dead or trying to escape from the bomber) fell on the southwestern part of the capital. Did the crew see the attacker? did the tail gunner return the fire?
Combat reports from that night confirmed that the relative immunity from fighter attacks ended abruptly when the bombers reached Berlin and a fierce air battle developed over the city during the bombing run. Returning crews reported over 150 sightings of enemy fighters in the target area which indicates the defenders’ high degree of response. Another crew from No 77 Sqn (F/Sgt Robertson and flying Halifax LK728) reported slight damage on their plane by fighter attack just before the bombing run and HR841 must be close at the time. Around twenty-five bombers were destroyed over the Great Berlin area with JG 301 claiming two of them —one the Kucharsowsky claim— and JG 300 eleven more, although none of these claims later were filled or confirmed by the RLM. The Germans paid a high prize too: ‘Wilde Sau’ units lost nine fighters with 3 pilots killed and another wounded on this operation.
[Two Bf 109G-6 ‘Wilde Sau’ fighters, in this case from 1./JG300 at Bonn-Hangelar, early 1944. The pilot is probably Hermann Wischnewski, a German ace who claimed two enemy bombers destroyed on this night over Berlin, although none of these claims were confirmed by the OKL. Note the “special” light blue finish, intended to chase RAF Mosquito intruders at high altitude.] 
The Kaufhaus des Westens („KaDeWe“ for short or Department Store of the West), the majestic department store located at Tauentzienstraße 21-24 next to Wittenbergplatz, was the adventurous idea by Berlin businessman Adolf Jandorf. Designed by architect Johann Emil Schaudt, when the store opened its doors on March 27, 1907, it was a massive building with five floors and 26,400 square meters, which immediately had an impact on its surroundings transforming the street into a shopping area. Acquired by the Hertie-Konzern in 1927, the KaDeWe was expropriated by the Nazi regime in 1933, just after it had been expanded into a six-story building with 40,000 square meters, the largest department store in continental Europe at the time.
[A peaceful view showing Wittenbergplatz and Tauentzienstraße in the 1930s looking west, with the KaDeWe store at left and the imposing Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in the background, both would be hit hard during the RAF air bombings.]
The crash caused a major fire and severe damage to the upper floors and atrium of the building, which until that night had survived barely intact from destruction. It was left abandoned in ruins until the post-war years, reconstruction work took almost a decade and a half. KaDeWe was the first of the war-damaged department stores to be rebuilt in West-Berlin: it was reopened on July 3, 1950, meanwhile many houses were still in ruins at the Schöneberg district and became a symbol of the new beginning.
This map shows Wittenbergplatz, Tauentzienstraße and the KaDeWe location (marked in red), the Berlin-Schöneberg area where Halifax HR841 crashed on that night.
[By war’s end, ruins and debris were the terrible panorama at Wittenbergplatz, with the destroyed U-Bahnhof entrance and the burned out KaDeWe store as background.]
The impact of the falling bomber, a large and heavy aircraft (the Halifax had a wingspan of 31,75 m and a maximum weight of 55,000-lb, including its bomb load) had to be very loud and violent and, of course devastating for the building’s structure. As the bomber did not return to its base nor did any of the crew survived, it is not possible to confirm if it was shot down with the full bomb load aboard or had already been dropped bombs on the city. Known photos of the square taken during the last year of the war —although often wrongly captioned as 1943—shows the building badly damaged, with a burned out roof and the structure totally twisted at the impact point, but still standing. If the aircraft would exploded on impact little or nothing have remained from the famous store after the violent deflagration.
[A Halifax bomber, in this case an early variant with the original nose turret, being ‘bombed up’ at a Bomber Command station in England. The maximum bomb load of the Handley Page ‘heavy’ was 14,500-lb.]
At least six returning crews from the squadron reported to have seen a big explosion with large fires (“big red-orange glare”, “terrific glow, violent explosion”) in the city area which by the hours noted could be related to the impact of the Halifax onto the Kaufhaus, although most likely it refers to a direct bomb hit on the Tegel gasworks which was destroyed on that night too. There is also no record of any personal losses at the building or in the vicinity because of this, whether civilians or members of the city’s emergencies services, although the rain of bombs and fire that the city was taken at the time was outstanding and would last until 03.30 hrs, which makes almost impossible to discern death causes here.
Remarkably, not the crash or the KaDeWe itself are mentioned in the city bombing reports: the reason behind could be that these January 1944 raids were so devastating (75% of the previous November raids damage) and the extent of destruction was so huge that the city authorities were no longer able to compile detailed air raid reports as previously with singled out damage areas or buildings, as the report itself noted.
[A 1945-picture of the ruined KaDeWe building. Taken from U-Bhf Wittenbergplatz and looking southwest, we can appreciate the burned out roof and smashed structure where the British bomber hit the large building that night.]
Following the end of the war, the Allied Grave Registration Unit (GRU) tried to locate, register and identify the fate of the dead or still missing airmen, especially casualties on the enemy territory; sometimes the information was obtained several years after the death of those men. In March 1949 the case related to the crew of Halifax HR841 was registered and finally, closed. After the crash, two of the bodies were brought to the Olympiastadion for identification and initially buried at the Döberitz-Elsgrund cemetery (where the Germans concentrated the fallen Allied soldiers, mostly airmen) as the Missing Research & Enquiry Service (MRES) report states. Later identified as the remains of Sgt Jandron and Sgt Jarvis, when the area became part of Eastern Germany in the post war years reburials were carried out to the British cemetery in Charlottenburg, the Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery at Heerstraße (part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) where both airmen laid to rest today.
No trace or burial of the other five airmen was found however, so their names are recorded on the Runnymede War Memorial at Englefield Green in Surrey, England (32 kilometers west of London). 20,450 RAF airmen are commemorated there.
[A composite image of the headstone graves of RAF airmen Sergeant Geoffrey M Jandron (left) and Sergeant Frank F Jarvis at the war cemetery at Heerstraße, which were killed when Halifax HR841 crashed on that night.]
[A view of the 1939-1945 War Cemetery at Heerstraße, Berlin-Charlottenburg. 80 per cent of the total buried here were airmen who were lost in the air raids over Berlin. The two graves from the HR841 crew are located on the left hand side from the main entrance.]
[The Air Ministry’s Post Presumption Memorandum No. 990/49 File Number P.413172/44, relating to the crash of Halifax bomber HR841 and the missing crew, registered and finally closed in March 1949.]
The British lost 46 bombers (6.8%) on this raid and six more crashed on the return flight due to bad weather on England. Back to Elvington, four 77 Squadron aircraft were missing. One was Halifax HR841 with Duncan’s crew.
 „Im Zweiten Weltkrieg stürzte ein amerikanisches Flugzeug ins Dach des Hauses und löste einen Großbrand aus. Der Wiederaufbau zog sich über fast anderthalb Jahrzehnte hin”. Signa Unternehmensgruppe, 21. Dezember 2019. (accessed Oct 2022).
 The KaDeWe, State for more than 100 years. (accessed Oct 2022).
 „Im Krieg erlebte das KaDeWe seinen schwärzesten Tag am 24. November 1943, als ein amerikanischer Bomber in den Lichthof des Hauses stürzte, das daraufhin völlig ausbrannte“, quoted in: Hans Aschenbrenner. “3. Juli 1950: Das KaDeWe meldet sich zurück”. ©Edition Luisenstadt, Berlinische Monatsschrift Heft 3/2001.
 Andreas Abel: “Als die Gedächtniskirche in Trümmern lag”, Berliner Morgenpost, 22. November 2018. (accessed Oct 2022).
 International Bomber Command Centre. Jandron, Geoffrey Maynard. (accessed Oct 2022).
 see Post Presumption Memorandum No. 990/49, File Number P.413172/44.
 The US Eighth Air Force first raid on Berlin was on March 3rd, 1944. Although recalled due to bad weather, some bombardment squadrons reached the German capital.
 Cay Dobberke: “Geschichte des KaDeWe in Berlin: Von Hand zu Han”, Der Taggespiegel, 17. September 2013 (accessed Oct 2022); Rosanna Steppat: “KaDeWe: Was ihr zum Kaufhaus des Westens wissen müsst”, tipBerlin, 14. July 2022. (accessed Oct 2022).
 <https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufhaus_des_Westens> (accessed Oct 2022).
 A complete description of the 29 January raid can be found at BOWMAN, Martin. RAF Bomber Command: Reflections of War. Volume 3. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2012, pp 203-205; and MIDDLEBROOK, Martin. The Berlin Raids. R.A.F. Bomber Command Winter 1943/44. Cassell & Co, 1988, pp 239-247. The Germans reported the enemy’s Main Force coming from the northwest and the raid inflicted heavy damage to the city with western and southern districts suffering most of the hits. According to Bomber Command mission report 1,887 tons of bombs were dropped during the raid.
 MIDDLEBROOK: op cit, p 239.
 see TNA AIR-27-657-2. The National Archives of the UK (TNA). © Crown Copyright.
 The personal information of the HR841 crew was obtained from Bomber Command veterans and memorial associations: Canadian Virtual War Memorial, Pilot Officer Robert Mcintosh Duncan. International Bomber Command Centre, DUNCAN, ROBERT MCINTOSH. (accessed Oct 2022).
 77 Squadron RAF, Canadian Roll of Honour 1939-1945, available online at <https://77squadron.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/77-Sqn-Canadian-Roll-of-Honour-Merged-Final-Reduced-v7.pdf>
 see TNA AIR-27-657-2.
 JACOBS, Peter. Bomber Command Airfields of Yorkshire. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2017, pp 43-50. Detailed info and stats about the 77 Squadron can be found at: WARD, Chris. 4 Group Bomber Command: An Operational Record. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2012.
 see TNA AIR-27-657-2.
 when 648 aircraft were dispatched (55 lost, four a/c from the 77 Sqn failed to return). The crew dropped bombs over the city at a height of 18,000ft at 23.05 hrs. ibid.
 Ted Church,Tail End Charlie. (accessed Oct 2022).
 Royal Air Force Commands, Halifax II HR841. (accessed Oct 2022).
 BOITEN, Theo. Nachtjagd Combat Archive. 1944. Part one: 1 January - 15 March. Red Kite, 2019, p 58; MURAWSKI, Marek and NEUWERTH, Peter. JG 301 Wide Sau. Kagero, 2003, p 21; FOREMAN, John and PARRY, Simon. Luftwaffe Night Fighter Combat Claims, 1939-1945. Gardners Books, 2003, p 145.
 ibid. A low-profile Luftwaffe pilot, Kucharsowsky was most probably flying a Bf 109G modified for night fighting but there is no known picture of him. He would be killed on 20 June, 1944, during aerial combat at Bernburg.
 BOITEN: op. cit. pp 56-62.
 see TNA AIR-27-657-2.
 BOITEN: op. cit. p 56; Middlebrook for his part listed 27 bombers shot down, MIDDLEBROOK: op cit, p 246.
 BOITEN: op. cit. pp 56-62.
 Falke Eins, “1./ JG 300 wilde Sau Bf 109s at Bonn Hangelar, late 1943 or early 1944 - Ebay win! - Day fighter aces of the Luftwaffe”, 21 October 2014. (accessed Oct 2022).
 Compiled from The KaDeWe. State for more than 100 years, and DAS KADEWE. (accessed Oct 2022).
 see TNA AIR-27-657-2.
 the preliminary report listed 531 killed and 206 missing (see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 702, Bl. 31; s. a. LAB, A Rep. 005-07, Nr. 559, o. Bl) and nearly 80,000 people homeless (LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 702, Bl. 59 ff). The combined three raids total was estimated on 1,341 Berliners dead and a further 1,090 missing with 4,061 injured, MIDDLEBROOK: op cit, p 257.
 see LAB, A Rep. 005-07, Nr. 559, o. Bl.
 see Air Ministry Post Presumption Memorandum No. 990/49, File Number P.413172/44. Many graves were damaged or even destroyed during the Soviet activities there, the cemetery was completely abandoned in 1948, after all the graves found had been relocated at Charlottenburg. More info at Aircrew Remembered. (accessed Oct 2022).
 Government of Canada, Memorials in the United Kingdom, Runnymede Memorial. (accessed Oct 2022).