Trade: Flight Engineer
Taken Prisoner of War by Germans
John’s personal account of what happened on the night of 2nd March 1943
24 Hours In The Life Of A Flyer
Monday the 1st March 1943 would have started much the same as every other day for the aircrews of 76 & 78 Sqdns at Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire. I was a member of a Halifax crew under the command of Squadron Leader John Fletcher DFM ‘B’ Flight Commander who was on his second tour of operations.
After breakfast I would have contacted my “skipper” in his office to see if there were any orders for me. If he had no instructions I would have probably gone to the “Link Trainer” for some flying practice or Tommy and I would have collected some ammunition from the armoury together with a rifle and gone to the rifle ranges for practice. The practice with the rifle came in very handy, on days when the aircrews were “stood down” for bad weather conditions and there were no operations, we would go to York. There was a shooting gallery there with one accurate rifle out of those available. It was easy to collect a full score and the tablet of Lux toilet soap for the prize. I remember that I went on leave around Xmas with an attaché case virtually filled with bars of soap and the large short bread biscuits which were given to us for flying rations. I never found time during operations to think of eating and since I had a brother and two young sisters at home I had saved the biscuits together with those that were given to me by other members of the crew.
At lunch time one would be waiting to hear if there was to be an operation that night. February had been a fairly quiet month because of the weather conditions prevailing at that time of the year. On Thursday 2nd we had visited Cologne, Tuesday 16th Lorient, Thursday 18th Wilhelmshaven, Friday 19th Wilhelmshaven again and on Thursday 25th Nuremburg. After lunch the word began to circulate that something was on for that night. The whole station seemed to step up a gear, ground crews became feverishly busy preparing the loads for the night. Probably at around three to four o’clock all aircrew were called to the briefing room. There was an air of expectancy in all the aircrews present, the maps on the wall were covered and we were all waiting to find out where the target was for that night.
Our squadron commander Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire (later to become Group Captain Cheshire VC) arrived, the crews were called to order, the buzz of expectant chat disappeared and the map was uncovered and the target BERLIN was announced together with the route to and from the target, time of take off and the time to be over target (usually about a 20 minute period). We were advised that maximum effort was to be made that night which would have meant putting about 300 heavy aircraft in the air for the operation. The Intelligence officer gave us what information was available about the enemy defences, this was followed by a report of the weather conditions which were likely to prevail that night. As the flight engineer of our crew my main interest was the weight of the bomb load together with the fuel requirements for the operation, these normally had to total 60,000 lbs, which was the all up weight of the Halifax II. The bomb aimer and the navigator joined their individual leaders as the crews were dismissed from the briefing to collect their maps and further information relevant to the operation.
Now we were off to the mess to have our pre-flight meal of eggs, bacon and sausage, and collect our flying rations. It was at this time in the short interval available before one started putting on your flying equipment, that one really came to terms with ones thoughts about the task ahead and the risks involved.
Our flying equipment was stored in a locker room on the edge of the field and from there we were taken out as individual crews, to our aircraft which were dispersed at various locations around the airfield.
Tonight we were taking a second pilot with us who had just joined the squadron, so that he could gain some experience, his name was F/Lt Wheatley.
From this point onwards we all had a job to do and we were all reliant on each other to do it well. I had a word with the ground crews and received their reports in relation to the aircrafts airworthiness. There was the fuel load to check, the photoflash flares to be checked that they were stowed safely, the fuel cocks were checked to be sure that they were switched to the right tanks, the Very cartridge identification “colours of the day” were checked that they corresponded to the previous information given at the briefing. Now was the time to start filling all the headings of the flight engineers log. An entry was required for every change in engine revolutions or boost setting and any variation in height of 2000 ft all these factors would affect the fuel consumption and although we had fuel gauges on each tank they were not used except as a cross-check. The fuel consumption was calculated against engine settings and time, and the tanks were only switched normally on these calculations. In fact it was normal practice to advise the pilot of the fuel position in a tank and then proceed to the fuel cock levers situated under the two bunks either side of the aircraft between the main spars. Since the four engines were all fed from a different tank it was reasonable to expect the inner engines on the port or starboard sides would use up the fuel from its tank about the same time and similarly with the outer engines so normally tank changes came in pairs. I would normally wait there until the pilot felt the engine fail either port or starboard side and he would advise over the intercom and I would change the tank this ensured that we were making the best use of the fuel in case our journey proved to be longer than first envisaged due to weather conditions or for any other reason.
Eventually there was a Very light fired from the control tower and we started the engines, ran them up to maximum power to check that all was well and then left our dispersal point and join all the other aircraft on the perimeter track and moved towards the end of the runway, to take our turn, on receipt of a signal from the aldis lamp of the control officer, to take off. ?The first critical period was over once we had lumbered down the runway and eventually become airborne. For take off, the engines were run at 3000 rpm 12 lbs boost and once we were airborne they were throttled back to 2850 rpm 4 lbs boost which was the normal cruising settings for the Rolls Royce Merlin 20 engines powering the Halifax at this time.
The course was now set for our first landfall which was to be in Denmark. We passed over the British coastline with a view of Flanborough Head below us, gradually climbing to our operational height of 20,000 ft. As we flew we were joined in the bomber stream by the other aircraft of the bomber force the Stirlings reaching their operational height of 18,000 ft and the Lancasters 22,000 ft and so we would fly to the target stacked in three layers. Some nights if vapour trails were forming one would be aware of the other aircraft about you, whilst on other dark nights it seemed as though you were completely on your own all the way to the target.
Our route was across Denmark and over the Baltic to a point northwest of Rostock where we changed course and headed for our target. I remember there was some excitement in the crew since this was to be our second visit to the “big city” as we had nicknamed Berlin. The previous occasion had been on the 16th January. Over the Baltic I became aware that one of the engines was over heating and it was at this point that decisions had to be made as to whether to continue with the mission or not. It was decided to rest the engine until we were approaching the target so the airscrew was feathered and we continued on three engines. The target was well lit that night and although there was fierce opposition from the flak and search lights we managed to make our bombing run without incident.
Having now set course for home which was roughly due west we assessed the condition of the aircraft, I had checked that all the bombs had been released by visually checking through the inspection panels into the bomb bay, this was standard procedure as it was possible for the electrical release mechanism to fail and in such circumstances the bomb bay doors were reopened at a suitable time and the bomb released by hand operation. The engine which had been restarted during our run in to the target was running again above normal temperature but was remaining stable, also now we had another engine temperature rising. Again decisions had to be made as to whether we should feather two engines and conserve them. We decided to keep a close check on them and feather them only if conditions became critical.
Way ahead of us the early aircraft over the target had started meeting stiff opposition from Flak and a great concentration of search lights in the region of what should have been Hanover. The pilot questioned the navigator in respect of the accuracy of our course, previously there had never been such a concentration of defences north of the Ruhr or south of the Hamburg region. Taking into account the uncertain reliability it was decided to take a course south of the Flak concentration and so we set our new course and all the activity was passed on our starboard side.
After another period when everything appeared to be going well the engines were still running within reasonable tolerances, we were quite suddenly coned by a vast number of search lights. The Flak became intense and there we were on our own coming across the north Ruhr defences. For what now appeared to be an unending period the skipper put the Halifax through some amazing evasive manoeuvre changing height and direction so rapidly that I can remember being weightless at times and actually floating in the air about my position in the aircraft, and then the G forces would be such that I became literally stuck to the floor. We did not receive any direct hits during this period although we had never experienced Flak as intense. The noise of the Flak sounded like metal dustbin lids being clashed together above the scream of the engines and the air flow around us. Miraculously we lived through it and eventually the search lights were switched off as quickly as they had appeared and the Flak disappeared.
What a sense of relief was felt by us all. The skipper started checking over the intercom system that all the crew were OK and checks began for damage sustained to the aircraft. I had made a tour of the rear end of the aircraft for any noticeable damage and had returned to my position to carry on checks of the engine conditions and the fuel state. The air gunners had been advised to keep a sharp look out for enemy night fighters when suddenly there were several loud thuds, the aircraft seemed to rear up, a fire started in the port inner engine and the pilot gave the order immediately “bale out chaps we’ve had it”.
From that point I did everything automatically as I had rehearsed in my mind a thousand times. I tore off my oxygen mask and helmet, grabbed my parachute from its stowage and clipped it onto the harness as I vaulted the two main spars across the centre fuselage. I have a recollection of something flicking past me as I ran aft whether it was tracer fire or what I do not know. At the mid-upper turret position I passed Tommy the mid-upper gunner in the process of clipping on his parachute, meanwhile I reached the rear exit, reached down, opened it, sat down, put my feet out and out I went. I do not remember consciously releasing the parachute by pulling the rip cord, but the next thing I was aware of was the jolt of my harness as the parachute opened. There followed a strange silence everything was completely black I saw no sign of a burning aircraft although I recall that the canopy of the parachute, soon after it had opened, partially closed, as though buffeted by some external force. This could have been caused when the aircraft blew up. In the dark the feeling was strange, it felt as though I was rising rather than falling. I started to search below me in the darkness for any signs of where I might be landing. Suddenly I saw what I thought was a tree, but while the thought entered my mind, I hit the ground and I was sitting on a clump of marsh grass. It was at this time that I really believed that there was a God in heaven, who controlled all things, whether we are able to understand the reasons or not. Since this time I have always been willing to take life as it comes and accept my destiny.
When I looked about me in the moonlight I was in a small field with clumps of marsh grass everywhere, I was minus a boot which had blown off when I baled out. There was not a sound that I could hear, so I gathered together my parachute and proceeded to bury it, together with some small personal possessions under the grass which lifted quite easily. I reached into my battledress pocket for my escape kit and opened it. The tube of condensed milk had burst and the little compass in the kit was ruined, the needle was stuck and would not move. Still not to worry I had another hidden in the waistband of my battledress and this I proceeded to remove. Unfortunately it slipped from my fingers on to the ground and I was unable to find it.
There was no other choice but to rely on the stars for direction so I looked for the north star put it behind me and headed in a southerly direction. I found the field to be bounded on all sides by ditches containing water but at one point there was a piece of timber like a tree log over which I could pass. I found a sandy track going in the right direction which I was able to follow for some distance. I had no idea of the time, as I had left my watch in the aircraft where I used it in the preparation of my log and the necessary calculations of my job. After some time possibly nearly an hour I found myself approaching what appeared to be farm buildings and at first I thought the track I was on, would lead me directly to them, the dogs had detected me I suspect and they were barking loudly. Fortunately however about 200 metres before the buildings the track forked to the right.
Some little time later I came upon a road and was able to turn to the left and continue roughly in a southerly direction. Along this road I eventually came across a small village, in the dark it only appeared to have one road through it, and about 30 houses. I was not anxious to stay and I continued as quickly as possible. At one point as I was walking down the right hand side of the road I saw a light low down in a small building on the left and I heard some voices.
Some of the road I travelled on had a cobbled surface but I cannot remember which section. Maybe after a further hour of walking I became aware of a light approaching, at this point there were open fields to my right and I quickly left the road and lay down in the field. It transpired that the light was on a peddle cycle. The moon which had been so bright when I first landed must have disappeared by now because it had been quite dark along this part of the road. I began to get the impression that the dawn could be near and that it was getting lighter, so I started to look for somewhere to stay for the daylight hours and then travel again when it was dark. Further down the road I could see a small wood on the right hand side of the road approximately 200 metres from the road. I made my way amongst the trees covered with leaves which were very plentiful. When I first settled down I was warm, but after a while I began to feel the cold. I also noticed that it had gone darker again and that dawn had not arrived, so I decided to carry on walking until nearer day break.
I encountered further lights and pedal cyclists along the road and on each occasion I left the road until they had passed. Eventually there were two lights approaching and in front of me probably at 300 metres was a building on the right of the road. When the lights got level with the house they stopped and I assumed that the cyclists had entered it. From my position in the field I decided that it would be best to pass behind the house. When I started to go in that direction I became aware of another building lying about 100-150 metres behind the one on the road, so I decided to pass between the two giving a wide berth to the one on the road. As I drew level with the second house a door opened about 10 metres from me. As the person that came to the door must have seen me, I approached them and I explained that I was a British airman. I was invited into the house and there found an elderly lady and gentleman they conversed in a language which I took to be Dutch. A little while later a young man appeared he wore a blue uniform he had a conversation with the older people and then went. I sat there hoping for the best. Eventually he returned and in English explained to me that he had informed the Germans that I was there. He said that the penalties for helping me were so great that he must protect his parents. I could understand how he felt, but wished that he had told me that in the first place and sent me on my way. Thinking about it over the years I suppose I could have been a German “plant” to see what the occupiers reactions would be.
So it was that in due course we left the house and met two Germans with a vehicle on the road. The meeting was quite civilised I was asked if I was armed, I was not, they searched me for arms and I was taken to their local headquarters. Here I was put in a room where I found Blackie the navigator. We did not converse with each other in case there were listening devices.
Later in the day we were transferred to Luftwaffe personnel who had been to the wrecked aircraft, and taken by transport together with the boxes containing the bodies of our dead colleagues. There were five in all and their names had been printed on the side of the boxes.
We noticed that F/O Souter-Smith was missing, so possibly free, this assumption subsequently proved to be true and he was able to make his escape to Switzerland. During the journey we learned from the Luftwaffe Sergeant, who was part of the escort, that the aircraft had probably blown up in the air before hitting the ground, as it was spread over a wide area. The dead crew were left at a small cemetery Chapel at Antwerp and we were taken to the Luftwaffe airfield at Antwerp where we stayed for two days before being taken to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt-on-Main for interrogation.