Jack served at RAF Watton with No 21 Sqdn as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner during the first half of 1940.
On the morning of 14th May 1940 we looked up at the clear blue sky with not a little apprehension. We all knew the Germans were advancing with amazing rapidity through the Low Countries, and we also knew that, cloud cover or no cloud cover, we should be required to attack and bomb some sector of the enemy columns that day in an attempt to stem their advance at that point.
Throughout the morning we were ‘standing by’ whilst 82 Sqdrn, our sister squadron at RAF Watton made a short two hour trip to attack the victorious Panzers in Northern Holland, carrying out the raid without loss to themselves. At last the long awaited summons of the Pilots and Observers to the Ops Room was announced, and received with the quickening of the pulse that it never failed to effect in me, and sighs of genuine relief from all concerned. We had been ‘standing by’ since 4 am, and activity of any sort was infinitely preferable to that tedious occupation. With assumed nonchalance we trooped into the crew room to receive the ‘gen’ from our Squadron commander.
Our target, as it had been at Maastricht on the 10th and Tongres on the 11th, was the advancing enemy mechanised columns, with the additional attraction of an important crossroad at Sedan, near the Luxembourg frontier. We were to make a dive attack for accuracy, but to repair quickly to formation after the attack for protection against the Jerry fighters whose presence was regarded as inevitable. Take off was at 4 p.m. and at that hour twelve sleek and shining Blenheims were lined up on our dispersal field at Bodney awaiting the order to start engines.
I was to be found standing near my machine, a little nervously laughing with the ground crew who had been mercilessly ragging me in the NAAFI the night before to the effect that it was my ‘turn’ – as it undoubtedly was if the previous alphabetical sequence of losses of Air Gunners was to be adhered to. Tich Birch had never returned from a Heligoland ‘recco’ – Johnny Ball had been killed in action a fortnight back – Paddy Charlton had died on landing from the Maastricht raid after getting the only bullet that hit his aircraft through his lung. Butch Burgess had piled straight in from 15,000 ft over Tongres the day, when his machine received a direct hit from flak. I had been flying No 3 to his leader at the time, and after seeing pieces of his tailplane flying past my turret, had watched as if hypnotised the crippled machine’s devastating plunge down onto the target, culminating in a terrific explosion. I was the only remaining surname ‘B’ so I was forced to agree that it was my turn, though privately I had other views on the subject.
The signal to run up was given and the engines roared into life, when down the line of machines came the CO’s car. Stopping at our machine W/Cdr Bennett emerged and yelled out that a fighter escort of 30 Dewoitine machines had been arranged to patrol the target area from 6 to 6.30.p.m. I have often wondered since if that information was for the benefit of our morale or indeed if the French ever possessed 30 Dewoitine fighters. The fact remains that the rendezvous was destined never to take place.
We took off just after 4 p.m. in a cloud of dust, and as I saw the faces of my friends amongst the ground crews rapidly receding, I began to wonder – but I’d had those doubts before and returned safely, so I fought down that feeling of over-excitement mixed with not a little fear that seems to bring your heart into your mouth and keep it there. My services weren’t needed for a little while, so I leaned my forehead on the chin rest of the gun mounting and closed my eyes to allow the excitement to die off, and to get my thoughts into order for the approaching zero hour. When I again looked up we were just about to cross the coast and I watched the chalk cliffs slowly grow indistinct in the summer haze. I’d often had the experience before, yet never before had I felt quite so wistful towards them, or realised more fully how much they really meant to me as on that lovely warm afternoon in May.
Followed the boring flight over the Channel, the monotonous ripples broken only at one spot by the ugly hull of a small merchant vessel that reared almost vertically out of the water, presumably the victims of an enemy bomb or mine. We oft-times came across mines on the return trip when pilots would put machines noses down to nought feed and cut the wave crests with spinning ‘props’, giving one a most exhilarating sensation of speed that was not entirely without foundation. I often thought the trips well worth while if only for that exultant flight home, careering over the wave tops.
The French coastline appeared out of the haze, and our presence sent a small convoy of merchantmen zigzagging frantically. We had climbed to 12,000 ft so perhaps there was some excuse for their failing to identify us, but the same cannot be said of the Ack-Ack gunners at different points along the whole of our journey across the Continent whose fire, though sparse and rather inaccurate, was at the same time infuriatingly misdirected. However, it served considerably to relieve the monotony of that seemingly endless flight to our targets, for we kept to 15,000 ft, and could not improve our knowledge of the countryside from that height.
At long last Johnny Outhwaite, my Pilot, yelled out over the inter-com that we were approaching the target area, whereupon I gave the magazine of ‘ammo’ on the gun a reassuring slap to ascertain its being properly fixed, and forsaking my comfortable pose for a more alert attitude, kept my eyes skinned. I set the turret buzzing round and looked ahead but could make out no sign of activity. It was 6 o’clock and we had 5 minutes before being due over the target. We flew on. I began to have misgivings about our fighter escort which were by no means decreased when I caught sight of two machines 2,000 ft or so above and flying across our track, their square wing tips almost spelling out the word Messerschmitt.
Holding myself in readiness, and watching them like a hawk, I wondered why they made no attempt to attack us, when suddenly the reason was forming all about us in the shape of hundreds of black puffs from exploding anti-aircraft shells, and we were going down in a dive.
For a moment I though we had been hit, but a glance showed me that the rest of the squadron were with us in our descent, though the formation was loosened to go through the flak. We were flying No. 3 in our sub-formation and I could see Sqdn/Ldr Sarll’s machine at No.1 with Leo Lightfoot his gunner and Tug Wilson the gunner in the No.2 aircraft. Ack-Ack fire is always rather awe-inspiring, especially when you know you are the object of its attention. Big black blobs appear all over the sky with not a sound to announce their arrival, or so it seems after one’s helmeted ears have listened to the roar of the engines for an hour or so, and even those that burst close enough to set the machine staggering drunkenly appear to make as much noise as a penny demon on 5th November, though there is more significance in the sharp report of shrapnel piercing the metal fuselage.
We straightened out at about 8,000 ft leaving behind us the large artificial black cloud that was Ack-Ack. A jubilant shout through the phone compelled me to lower my eyes and see that Sgt Broadhead, our Observer, had landed his bombs smack on the crossroads. Looking around for the remainder of the squadron, my eyes were arrested by the sight of a Blenheim in flames about 2,000 ft below, and going down, but before there was time to watch for the crew’s escape my attention was riveted on a 109 fighter approaching from above and on the port quarter. Yelling out the ‘gen’ to Johnny, I saw that this one had singled me out for attention, and swiftly got him in my sights, until at 200 yards lie started firing, giving the appearance of blowing smoke rings from his leading edges. Tracers were zipping a little over my head and I gave a short burst in reply to see where my tracer was going. He closed in further and I held on until I really had the weight of him, as he evidently had of me, for I felt a couple of slaps on my legs and holes were appearing in the fuselage around my turret.
Then I gave him all I had as he neared 50 yards range, keeping my trigger depressed and seeing my tracers going firstly into his port wing and then raking his fuselage, as clearly as I saw his streams of tracers coming straight at me and seeming to veer off at the last moment. Unwaveringly he kept on until at thirty yards it seemed he was intent on ramming us, when suddenly his nose dropped and he was gone. The unorthodoxy of the dive led me to believe I had downed him, and I was leaning out to catch some glimpse of him when I felt a terrible pain in my back as if a red hot poker had been thrust into it, and turned to see a second Me. 109 about to break off his attack made from the opposite beam simultaneously with the first machine. Immobilised with pain for a second or two, I recovered too late to get a smack at him as after traversing the turret and attempting to fire the gun with no result I realised that I had emptied the pan of ammunition in the previous encounter, so with a twist of my turret control I lowered myself into the fuselage, hurriedly removed the empty pan and reloaded before elevating myself again, to be greeted with the sight of a fighter dead astern at 400 yards. Jagged holes appeared in the tailpiane whilst I manipulated foot and hand levers till the gun was in position for shooting alongside fin and rudder. He closed in until his machine guns sounded like a much accentuated typewriter tapping in my ears above the engine noises and in between my own bursts of fire. Attempting to follow him down after his break away my heart missed a beat or two when I found my turret would no longer respond to pressure on the hand bar – the hydraulics were evidently severed. Desperately I grasped the pillars of the turret and shoved but to no avail, the turret just would not budge. I was, in effect, disarmed. Fortunately at this juncture there was a lapse in the attack.
Placing my hand to my aching back I brought it away covered with blood, and a feeling of nausea swept over me. Blood was also streaming from a wound in my thigh, so I decided to leave the cordite reeking atmosphere of the useless turret and have my wounds attended to, pressing the emergency lever that would lower my seat and allow my exit. To my horror I felt no lowering of my seat in answer to my pressure there, and realised I was virtually trapped in my turret. I doubled my body down in an effort to slip off my seat and fall into the fuselage, and was rewarded only by a shower of petrol in my face as it came below the level of the fuselage. It must have been leaking in through the wing roots from the severed feed pipes. I became aware that we were diving steeply and for the first time in the action I had time to be frightened. Feverishly I punched the release button to relieve myself of my parachute harness, tore at the strings of my Mae West and fumbled with the Irvin suite zip finally managing to extricate myself from these encumbrances and then with a manoeuvre worthy of a contortionist I at last managed to squeeze myself between the turret seat and its side down into the fuselage.
With the machine still roaring earthwards I donned my harness, this time with parachute attached in readiness, replugged my phones in the midships socket, and, wondering if Johnny had given the order to jump, or indeed if he were still alive, yelled down the mike “I’m out of action Sarge, I’m out of action Sarge”. There was no reply, but my increasing fears were allayed by the gradual straightening out of the machine, and through the camera hatch I saw we were flashing over forest land, only a couple of hundred feet from the tree tops. Then my hopes of survival recently cherished were dashed to the ground as more jagged rips appeared in the already riddled fuselage, bullets whipped inside the machine clanging against metal, and above it all, nearer and nearer, the terrifying tapping of those lethal typewriters.
A couple of bullets smacked into the parachute fastened to my chest, and, deciding I had not much longer to live, the mortal fear I had of being wounded in the stomach forced me to double up and point my head towards the tail, resignedly hoping for a mercifully quick end. The fact that I presented a small target in that position was purely incidental, though it was probably responsible for saving my life, for though I received two ricocheting splinters in my side during the next few seconds, live through the inferno I did, much to my surprise, though the ache from my wounds and the infuriation at my inability to retaliate knew no bounds. The firing stopped as suddenly as it had begun and all went comparatively quiet. I fervently hoped that was the last of the fighters to pay us its unwelcome attentions. (I can’t remember praying through the ordeal, or of any of my past misdemeanours passing through my mind).
My wishes in this respect were borne out, though we were still not out of the wood, as, wriggling over the bomb well and peering over the pilot’s seat I could see that Johnny was having one royal time endeavouring to keep the machine on some sort of course and to check her pitching, the difficulty arising, as we afterwards found, from the fact that half the tailplane was non-existant, and the resemblance of the rudder to a tattered rag fluttering in the breeze. I managed to attract my Observer’s attention, and he placed a shell dressing over my worst gash in the back from which blood still oozed in a steady stream.
Johnny yelled out that he would have to force lob her before the remaining fuel supply gave out, and after flying over seemingly endless forests covering the slopes of the Ardennes, we perceived through the cabin perspex, which had not escaped the onslaught unscathed, a comparatively flat stretch of grassland. Banking steeply, Johnny prepared to put her down, and, realising that even if the attempt were successful the landing would be a very bumpy affair owing to the unserviceability of the undercarriage from both tactical and practical points of view, I rolled myself up in the bomb-well, the strongest part of the aircraft, and gripped the nearest fuselage rib as if my very life depended on it. I saw the ground approaching through the rips in the metal fuselage, heard the swish of air as the flaps lowered, and a crash that shook every bone in my body as I was thrown from my grip of the rib, dashed against the ceiling of the fuselage and down again two or three times, till with a scraping and rending, the battered machine came of a halt, and all was curiously quiet. Here let me pay tribute to Johnny’s grand show in landing that crippled machine on that rough and steeply sloping grassy stretch in the Ardennes Mountains without so much as scraping a wing tip, though of course the propeller tips and bomb doors were somewhat buckled.
The possibility of the kite firing spurred me in my opening the hatch and scrambling onto Terra Firma, over which I stumbled for 20 yards or so, followed by Johnny and Sergeant B, until my injured leg refused to carry me any further and buckled beneath me, and I fell to the ground, weak, sick and exhausted, but with that triumphant feeling of exhilaration that only those who have passed through the Valley of Death and survived can ever know.
Ed: I am delighted to say Jack Survived his encounter with death and lived to a great age.