Thanks to Christian Möller's discovery at the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv of the Luftwaffe’s “Morning Report West of 12.4.45” it has at last been possible to identify with reasonable certainty the aricraft shot down by Werner Hensel. The report refers to the events of the night 11/12 April and reads:
Italy ... Own operations. NSG. 9: 6 Ju 87, 20.30-06.10, attack on artillery empacements in the region of the front without any special observations of effects. In aerial combat 1 Mosquito shot down. No losses. 1 Ju 88 carried out flash photography reconnaissance, Naples - Salerno.
While this report mentions no sorties by Fw 190s, it seems clear that it must refer to Werner Hensel’s combat — NSG 9’s air combat claims were not exactly numerous.
Enzo Lanconelli of Romagna Air Finders has identified (as I conspicuously failed to) a Mosquito lost early on 12 April). This was BK 184 of No. 256 Squadron, built as a Mk. II but rebuilt to Mk. XII standard, with AI Mk. VII radar, in 1943. In the words of the Squadron Operations Record Book:
At 05.24, F/O Putnam, R.A. and his navigator, F/S J.H. Curley, were airborne in Monsquito ‘V’ Victor [JT•V]. This aircraft failed to return and its crew, two of our best who had flown with the Squadron since 14/9/44 have been reported missing. It is believed, although there is no information to verify it, that the aircraft that the crew of ‘A’ Apple [S/L Smith and F/O Wilmer: see below] observed to be on fire SE of Ferrara was this Mosquito.
Earlier on the night of 11/12 April, a Black Widow (P-61B-6 NO, serial number 42-39515) of the USAAF’s 414th Night Fighter Squadron failed to return. An encounter with a P-61 would explain the US "stars and bars" that Hensel saw on his adversary but other circumstances do not fit. The date is a week earlier than he remembered and his aircraft recognition was faulty but his victory was real. "Frontdoor 50", the P-61 of 2nd Lts. Lael M. Cheely (pilot), Peter J. McGirr and Lucien M. Beam (radar observers) had left Pontedera at 20.56 hrs. on the 11th on an intruder/bombing mission to Ghedi aerodrome. They called in immediately they became airborne but were not heard from again. Blue Fighter Control called them at 23.47 and evidently concerned, asked “White” and “Rhubarb” to try as well: “Calls were continued until the aircrat’s flying time was known to be exhausted”. No searches were made by the Squadron at the time because the area was not thought safe for a P-61 in daylight, being too close to enemy territory.
Werner Hensel’s recollections point in two directions: his certainty over seeing American “stars and bars” suggests the P-61; his description of the sun coming up favours the Mosquito, which took off an hour before sunrise (and a pilot aloft will see the sun a little sooner than someone on the ground). Perhaps the most conclusive aspect however is the location, “not far short of Ferrara”. Curley and Putnam were buried in Ferrara’s main cemetery and Enzo Lanconelli has found this report in the city’s archives:
At 5.30 on the 11th of the present month, an enemy plane crashed near Palazzo Jaldi on via Ravenna, just on the outskirts of this city; this machine immediately caught fire and two airmens’ corpses were found among the wreckage. Some people who had approached the wreckage were injured by the explosion.
On the other hand, if Lt. Chael and his crew had taken a direct course from Pontedera to their target at Ghedi (as the Missing Air Crew Report presumes) they should not have come within 90 km of Ferrara and about seven hours before first light. Two weeks after the war ended, 1/Lt. Wayne Dorman of the 414th NFS was able to visit the P-61’s crash site at Fontanella Grazioli (Mantova). Local people recounted how at about 2200 hours local time the aircraft had approached from the SE at about 300 m before making a low starboard turn to attack a German vehicle. In pulling out, it had struck a power line and hit a treetop, losing a wing, hitting the ground and careering to a halt about 800 metres SE of the town. It broke up and caught fire.
IIf “‘V’ Victor” was Hensel's Mosquito then it seems probable that No. 256 Squadron's Mosquito JT•A (HK 508) of S/L G.M. Smith DFC and F/O H.J. Wilmer DFC, lost in the early hours of 19 April, was brought down by ground fire as was suspected at the time. Two American Mosquitoes lost on 22 April both took off around midday to operate against the Po crossings, so do not fit with Hensel’s description of a victory at first light. We do not know whether NSG 9's Maintenance Technical Sergeant examined the right wreck when sent to confirm Hensel's victory.
Hensel had two Flugbücher logging 656 flights but they were torn up by the Americans who captured him at the war's end. A contemporary record of the times he was in the air would have helped enormously in resolving this whole issue.
In May 2014, I was contacted by Ellen Manzo, the niece of Peter J. McGirr. She writes that:
Peter was a bright, capable, likable, and humorous sort of young man. The story about Peter is quite sad. He flew in the Army Air Corps and had just taken a test and was being recruited for a top flight group in the Navy. My Grandparents convinced him to stay with the Army Air Corps for he only had six months left and they wanted to see him come home and finish his college education. From what I understand, they never forgave themselves for convincing their son to stay in the Army Air Corps.
My Mother indicated that my Uncle John, Peter's brother, another WWII veteran, visited the town in which Peter's plane went down. John McGirr learned that some Italian villagers pulled the crew out from the wreckage and buried them behind a church in their own graveyard. John met the Granddaughter of the man who pulled the crew out from the plane. She had a flight manual that came from the plane and gave it to my Uncle. Some number of years later following WWII, Peter's body was recovered and brought back to America.
In August 2020, I got this email from Larry Haitz:
The pilot of the P-61-B (42-39515) was 2nd Lt Lael Milton Cheely from Monona County, Iowa. He was my dad’s favorite cousin. So much of his death has been a mystery to the family. Your book and additional website information ties up a lot of loose ends. Thank you for all your investigative work!
He included several images which he kindly invited me to use here: