Reproduced May 2002
This article was written by Pete Smith and describes the last Op of Q for Queenie that took place Jul 04/05,1944.
It is reproduced here in his memory and that of the other crew members that died that day and since.
Each time I hear a jet aircraft whine across the night sky I wonder how the pilot feels up there; I wonder how he feels about jumping, should the need ever arise and whether he knows about it, or has given as little thought to it as I had, and my mind goes back to the old days - in particular, to that well-remembered night when I had to jump.
My twentieth birthday had just passed and been duly celebrated in the usual way with wine, women and song. Life was good in between 'ops' and anything went. We did not, I suppose, consciously live for the day but that was nevertheless the basis of the pattern of our lives, and at the age of twenty I had tasted all the fruits that life had to offer and some of it I found sour and bitter.
We were seven, the crew of a Lancaster bomber who had proudly completed thirty four operations without serious mishap. We had never had a rest period and our nerves were beginning to show it; we knew all about the law of averages and I think each one of us had begun to dread the next trip.
We taxied around the perimeter track and took our place in the queue. The night was fairly dark, for the big bright moon that we dreaded had not yet risen. Now the first kite was on the edge of the runway awaiting the green from the control box. It flashed and the engines began to roar as the throttles were pushed forward. At crescendo, the brakes were released and with a jerk the monster began to amble slowly along.
Take-off was always a nerve-racking affair. Anything could happen and often did! With full tanks and five tons of bombs there was quite a bit of weight to get off the ground and we had to keep her on the ground until the very end of the runway to reach a sufficiently high speed to get enough lift to do the job. If, by then, that speed had not been reached it was too late; there was no more room left to slow down.
Engines had been in the habit of cutting just after leaving the ground and the slightest loss of power at such a moment was fatal to all - and made nasty big holes in the ground.
Number one had got away all right and the second plane was already following her. Now came our turn.
As flight engineer my position was next to that of the skipper and on take-off the rest of the crew sat in the middle of the fuselage, the 'rest' position, for balance and safety reasons. The green flashed.
My hand moved slowly forward until all four throttles were at full take-off power and staring ahead at the neat twin row of runway lights that seemed to meet way ahead, then, as the skipper released the brakes my whole body was pushed backwards into my seat as we lunged forward.
We rolled on, gaining speed fast. We started to swing off the runway to port; the skipper over-corrected and we veered to starboard. Finally he got her into a straight line. Ninety, one hundred, one hundred and twenty. I called out the speed on the clock. The end of the runway was in sight and racing towards us. We seemed to reach our maximum speed on the last yard left as the wheel was pulled back and we slowly left the ground, every mind aboard straining to help.
'Wheels up.' I repeated the skipper's orders as I brought the wheels up at the first safe moment.
We had gained some height now and could breathe a little more easily.
'Throttle back' - I brought the throttles back from the straining full-power position as we settled down to circle and gain height before setting course. The rest of the crew, navigator, bomb-aimer, wireless-operator, and rear and mid-upper gunners took up their duty positions.
We circled and circled the 'drome until we finally set course in a gradual climb along England just inside the east coast.
Our destination was Villeneuve-St. George, a suburb of Paris and our target a factory under German control but using forced French labour. Intelligence had managed to warn the people concerned, but we had nevertheless strict orders that if we could not see our target to bomb we were to bring our load back. This we had done on a previous occasion and it had ended up with a fight in the billets between our bomb-aimer and navigator! No one expected to bring them back tonight.
We crossed the English coast and one could feel a strange tenseness through the place as all talking over the intercom ceased. From now on it was maximum concentration and vigilance; more so, now that our hostile moon was well in the sky. German fighters, as with the sun, had a nasty habit of sneaking in from our blind side, having our clear silhouette against the moon.
Now we were over the Channel which we had always respected ever since a flak ship with deadly accurate predicted shells had blown a hole in us and stopped an engine on our very first trip, forcing us to land in southern England, but affording us a week's 'survivors' leave!
The navigator busily checking and re-checking our course as the bomb-aimer scanned the radar screen, both in a joint effort to make sure we crossed the French coast right on track, where, according to 'intelligence', there were few or no ack-ack sites. The bright boys did their best, no doubt, and gave us information in all good faith; but, heaven and hell knows, they were often well out and, apparently, grossly misinformed.
We must have been three or four minutes behind the leading kites as, still over water we watched that deadly and much feared belt of searchlights switch on and start probing the sky, eager to find their prey. It is difficult to judge distances from height but I am sure that belt must have stretched at least forty or fifty miles in each section.
Once caught in that master beam, which had a bluish tint compared with the others and the rest would be upon you in a flash; you would be 'coned' and the centre of attraction. Then the flak would start coming up. First the light stuff until they got the range. Then the heavy stuff until it was only a matter of time. Few escaped once they were coned!
Perhaps it was a terrible thing to do, but then in war most things are and, anyway, perhaps such prayers are ignored, but I used to pray hard that some poor devil up ahead would be caught and keep those beams busy while we sneaked through. And I'm sure the boys behind us did the same thing!
This night, however, we crossed the coast with little more than a few bursts of flak around us, none of it accurate enough to do any damage. Apart from the devilry it was a lovely night with good visibility with the big bombers' moon now high and all seemed fairly quiet. Perhaps it was going to be one of those lucky trips when things went right all the way. These were my thoughts as I stood there next to the skipper, having stowed my seat to allow a clear passage from the nose of the plane to the rear.
The rest of us knew nothing of what was happening until both gunners, having spotted Jerry more or less at the same moment, barked their orders over the intercom. 'Corkscrew to starboard! Corkscrew to starboard!'
These were the words dreaded by all bomber crews and meant only one thing - a German fighter coming in for the 'kill' on the starboard side.
Immediately, we banked and dived steeply and I had to hang on desperately to prevent myself from floating off around the plane. I could hear the staccato bursts from our totally inadequate .303's and wondered if our gunners could pull off a miracle.
We pulled out of the first manoeuvre and on the skipper's orders I moved the throttles through the gate into the full-power position once more, held it for as long as I dare and back again to the safe maximum speed notch. Had we shaken him off? No chances - down again and bank steeply. Was he still with us?
My answer came, forceful and devastating as his cannon shells tore into the plane. All hell let loose is an apt description, if one has had a taste of hell. This was it. There were bright flashes everywhere - green, red, white as the various instruments were hit and disintegrated. The bomb-aimer had been standing somewhere behind me taking readings from the various 'aids' we carried and I wondered if he was still in one piece. The smoke made visibility poor.
We'd been losing height rapidly in our efforts to shake off this murderer and were just levelling off once more when his second burst came. I had caught a glimpse of fire out on the wing and wondered why we hadn't yet blown up. With still most of our petrol load in the tanks and five tons of incendiaries and high explosives in our bomb-bay it was a miracle we were still in the air in more or less one piece.
The second burst almost ripped the side off us and I could see out of the corner of my eye more explosions in the fuselage down towards the stern. I now noticed that Chuck, the bomb-aimer, was still there, standing motionless - there was nothing he could do and he had, by this time, been badly wounded.
I was still doing my best to keep some sort of upright position so that I could control the throttles, but with so much manoeuvring, diving and levelling out it was difficult. Then something hit me.
It felt as though someone had driven a red hot poker into my back as well as a hundred red-hot nails. A few more shells had burst behind me. Whether or not we were pulling out of yet another dive I didn't know - for by this time I wasn't sure which way we were flying - when I went down in a heap. Perhaps the sudden shock or blast helped. The intercom had now gone dead on us as the shells had torn the wiring to pieces.
I tried to struggle to my feet. Strangely, I was not panicky and my mind was working fast. Was I really here or in the middle of some ghastly nightmare? There was fire everywhere. Why hadn't we blown up? No, it was no dream - the pain was real, or I should have woken up by this time. I was really here then, in the middle of this noisy, raging, bursting hell. So this was the way I was to die - no funeral; probably no body after we'd hit the deck and exploded!
Many things have been written about people facing death and particularly about their thoughts. I can assure you that I had no panoramic vision of my short life. But I had a clear vivid picture of my mother and father sitting around the fire at home oblivious to what was happening to their son; and I have always been proud of the fact that, despite the mess I was in, my main worry at that moment was of how they would take the news of my death. We had always been a very close family and always worried about each other rather than about oneself. I was the baby of the family, no doubt spoiled, and certain that the news would kill them, I felt guilty.
In the course of these few seconds I had managed to struggle to my feet and noticed we were diving steeply again and rocking crazily. It was obvious that Wilf, our skipper, was finding it difficult to maintain control. It was no use wasting any more time trying to lose our attacker; we would not be able to get far in this wreck.
Wilf was now banging me on the shoulder trying to attract my attention. I instinctively moved closer to him but with helmet and oxygen masks on it was impossible to hear any sound of voices. He was shaking his head in hopelessness and after pointing in the direction of the escape hatch, waved his arm indicating that we should get out fast. At the same time, as though to confirm what he meant, Chuck nudged me in the back.
The escape drill laid down for such emergencies was that the gunners and wireless operator should go through the rear hatch, the skipper through the roof of the cockpit, where he sat, and the navigator, bomb-aimer and myself through the forward hatch-way. I grabbed my 'chute and made my way to the nose where, as I struggled to clip my pack onto my chest harness, I noticed the navigator trying desperately to open the hatch. No joy!
As navigator, I don't suppose Bill had ever had a close look at that hatch. I suddenly realised that he was trying to lift it up as a trap door. I banged him on the back as a sign to get the hell out of it.
There were bolts holding the hatch to the fuselage and these had to be withdrawn and the hatch jettisoned. No doubt it had rarely been opened since the plane had been built and was therefore stiff. After managing to withdraw the bolts I found the hatch itself would not move. Time was getting short. Any minute we might blow up and if we did not blow up, I had no idea what height we were at and how long it would be before we hit the deck.
I stood up and held on to the nearest thing while I kicked frantically at the stubborn hatch. It finally gave and disappeared as a mighty rush of ice cold air swept into the plane with the roar of the engines.
Removing my helmet, I quickly checked that my pack was securely clipped onto my chest, then placed my arms on the pack, holding it, I paused only for a quick glance at the vague outlines of Bill and Chuck standing there - and dived head first through that black little hole, praying hard.
I suppose that what happened during the next few seconds is recorded somewhere in my mind. If so, it must be deep down in my subconscious and I have never known. Bomber crews were never given any training in the art of jumping - one just knew something about counting ten and pulling the ripcord.
The next thing I remembered was a loud crack, presumably as my chute opened and there I found myself, hanging in space with no visible means of support.
I caught a glimpse of a ball of fire disappearing up and away from me that must have been the plane. No sign of any other parachutes. Then I became aware of the noise all around and for a moment, panic seized me. I was in the midst of the main bomber stream! Those were aircraft engines and I waited in horror for them to tear into my chute. But our bomber had lost a lot of height, I reasoned, and must have been below the main stream when we jumped. No doubt, the noise seemed nearer at that altitude. I calmed down a bit.
I figured I was about eleven thousand feet. Looking around and below me I had a truly wonderful view of the whole countryside bathed in moonlight. In normal circumstances - if one could ever expect to find oneself in such normal circumstances - I should have enjoyed it. As it was, I had other things on my mind; although, it did not seem to occur to me that this was a most unusual position to be in, it had been accepted along with each occurrence as it had happened. I felt bitterly cold, having no flying suit on, only my ordinary battle dress, and yet, I could feel the warm perspiration running down my body. This, I later discovered, was blood.
My back still hurt and my arm too. It was obvious that a load of something had entered my body and as it was difficult to breathe at that height, due to the lack of oxygen, I was certain my right lung had gone. I thought of a lad back home whom I knew had only one lung and tried to recall what sort of life he had led. Quite normal, it seemed. In fact, if one did not know, one could not tell he had but one lung. I decided I would be able to manage on one too!
The ground was getting noticeably clearer now and various buildings and landmarks became clear. Right beneath me was a river and it seemed, probably quite without justification, that I should land right in the middle of it. Having heard something of the method adopted for guiding oneself by collapsing this or that side of the 'chute, I raised my right arm in an effort to pull on the webbing and shrouds. After one or two feeble attempts I gave up, in case I upset the whole thing and found myself without any functioning chute at all; and also because I was beginning to swing, pendulum fashion, not much of which would be required to make me violently sick.
Now I was able to judge something of my speed of descent as I neared the ground, and began to prepare for the landing. Having no knowledge of this technique I just braced myself for the jolt; the worst possible thing I could have done!
The river was just beneath my feet but I was so drifting that I would miss it. There was a large group of trees in my direction of drift, the worst possible landing place. Speeding through those branches, I thought, would surely break a few bones and probably leave me dangling at any height from the ground. While thus engrossed in my calculations I hit the ground and felt a searing paid shoot up my leg before all the wind was knocked out of my body.
I lay there for sometime until my breath returned and slowly got to my knees. About half an hour before, I had been in England. I had been picked up and then dropped down - into a foreign, hostile land where all the German army, navy and air-force were against me.
We had had lectures on escaping from enemy territory - what to do and what not to do, and it had always been stressed that the moment of hitting the deck was a critical one. The realisation of what had happened, where one was and, in most cases, how alone one was came as a profound shock to the mind and in many cases, to the body. We had been advised that, if we felt like crying, as would quite probably be the case, we were to sit down and have a damn good cry. I will tell you exactly what happened in my case as far as memory has not played any trick - which I do not think it has, for the scene was planted vividly in my mind and has remained so to this day.
Having got to my knees I surveyed my immediate surroundings. I had landed in a cluster of some sort of reeds close to a ditch and a hedge. Further away were some railway wagons which suggested there were sidings serving a factory, the large building which I could see.
I cautiously climbed to my feet; and promptly fell down again as the pain in my leg increased when I put my weight on it. Rolling my trousers up I felt where the pain appeared to originate and as there was no break in the skin and the leg appeared firm, I presumed I had cracked the bone.
Gathering my harness, shrouds and canopy together, I endeavoured to hide them as best I could among the densest part of the reeds. Not being able to bury them per the copybook instructions, I thought there was no likelihood of anyone coming near enough to this spot to discover them. They were, however, discovered very soon afterwards.
I then sat down, fumbled for some cigarettes and with my face close to the ground and my hands cupped, lighted one from my lighter. Still cupping my hands I drew the balmy smoke into my lungs.
Looking back, I remember acting all this time in a perfectly rational way; yet, my actions must have been more instinctive and the shock to my system and mind must have been greater than I realised. This was obvious at a later date when, on reflection, I remembered inhaling a large amount of smoke and then looking down to see if any of it was visible coming through the holes I knew I had in my body and lung. I have chuckled over this since, but at the time I was quite serious.
Suddenly, hearing the bark of excited dogs, I realised that I must have been spotted descending in the moonlight and that there was sure to be a hue and cry out for me and the other lads. I wondered where they all were. A few seconds interval between jumps could mean a separation of miles on landing. I hoped that they had all managed to get away.
The question now arose - what the hell was I going to do? I moved nearer the hedge and tried slowly to stand, which I did, but not without considerable pain. It would be possible to move by half walking, half crawling, but not indefinitely. And knowing, from closer examination, that most of my back, arms and left leg were bleeding, I wondered how long I could last without some form of medical aid.
The ideal solution was to contact a member of the French resistance movement (the Maquis) and leave the rest to them, but what the odds were on picking such a person at the first go I did not know; it would be a chance that would have to be taken, however. First thing to do would be to get away somewhere from these fields where I could perhaps observe some houses or people.
Slowly, I made my way along the ditch under the cover of the hedge until it met another hedge which I followed, trying all the time to keep in one direction and hoping thereby, eventually, to reach a road or some sort of track.
With the frequent stops necessary, this was a slow job and as far as I can judge, went on for about an hour. I did not think I could stand much more of it and wondered whether I could find some barn or other hiding place for the night. But that thought brought fears of bleeding to death before morning, of wounds turning gangrenous and a host of other complications, so I pressed on, anything but regardless.
I do not know what further period of time elapsed but whilst moving along yet another hedge I suddenly noticed what seemed to be a road or track forming the other side of the field which I was in. Dogs were still barking frantically but no sound of voices reached me so that I assumed they were still some distance way. By this time I was fairly exhausted and just about all in, but seeing a building which looked like a farmhouse, the first signs of habitation I had seen, I decided I would take a chance and approach them hoping it was not occupied by the Germans and that the occupants would be willing to take a risk with me.
It must have been the excitement of finally seeing some means of contact and possible escape that caused me to throw all caution to the wind, for, mad as it was, I now left the cover of the hedge and began to make my way across the open field, diagonally, to the road on the other side of which was the house.
I got within a few yards of the hedge. Everything was quiet and still. Strangely, the dogs had stopped barking. I moved slowly along the hedge seeking a gate or some means of getting across the road which now resembled a rough cart track. At last, a metal 'four-bar' gate. I had not the strength to climb over this and searched for some fastening. Then I froze!
Something moved in the shadows on the other side of the track. Sheep? Cows? I sensed not. Standing absolutely motionless, I waited for the next development which came almost immediately.
A deep voice barked something that I could not understand. But the pitch and tenseness of it indicated that its owner was on edge, afraid and ready - for something. Again came what was, obviously, a command - still unintelligible to me. Then a general movement, or rather a scuffle. I could dimly make out the shapes of a group of men, perhaps six of them, as they moved closer. Had I moved then or fallen I am certain I should have been riddled with bullets.
'Hans sup!' It dawned on me at last that I was being ordered to put up my hands and I slowly raised them as high as I could - the left one had long since become numb.
Two of my captors now vaulted the gate and while they pushed their automatic rifles into my face, probably to ensure that I could clearly see that they were not carrying pea-shooters, and the rest joined them.
What did these types think they had caught? Superman or the abominable snowman? Four or five of them were covering me with the carbines in a little semi-circle as though I was capable of destroying them all with the slightest movement of my finger. The big chief barked something at me again which sounded like 'pistoli' and it was again sometime before I got his meaning and tried to make it clear with a shake of my hand that I did not carry a pistol. He was not convinced and repeated his request or, rather, demand.
They were obviously aware that aircrew carried .38 revolvers as, indeed, they had until a few months back when the order had been rescinded. In any case, had I been carrying one when I landed I should have thrown it as far away from me as possible. If the powers that be, in their original wisdom, had in mind me plus a .38 against the whole of the German fighting machine, then all their psychological tests had failed as far as their assessment of my intelligence was concerned.
The next moment one of the group detached himself from the rest and, moving behind me, began to search for the apparently much feared 'pistoli'
He was a young lad, much the same age as myself as far as I could judge and obviously excited. Maybe I was his first prisoner although the front line could not have been many miles away. Anyway, he began 'frisking' me and each time he felt a part of my body from my shoulders to my legs I could feel the sudden withdrawal of his hands and sense him peering closely at them as he uttered a series of what could well have been 'Himmel!' or some such equivalent of 'My Gawd!' as they came away each time covered in blood. For by now most of both my trousers and battledress top were well saturated with blood. He muttered something to the others which immediately changed the atmosphere.
Their tense belligerence seemed to leave them suddenly as they realised that here was no superman with some magic 'pistoli' but just a poor bedraggled enemy, fed up with war and not having enough strength left even to stand. I had dropped my arms and was ready to collapse.
Two of the others, 'veterans' of war, no doubt, began a systematic search of my pockets and took everything - lighter, cigarette case, even my comb, the only thing that was ever returned to me. My escape kit, stuffed inside my 'top,' had been discovered in the search for the pistol and had puzzled them. I have never forgiven them for pinching my cigarettes.
Much excited chatter followed and a few orders which sent two of them back over the gate. The young lad was kneeling by me now as I sat on the ground and muttering something the tone of which clearly implied words to the effect of 'O.K. boy, don't worry; we'll soon have you fixed up.' He was genuinely concerned for me and I sincerely hope he survived the war and is now living happily somewhere, for this kind little episode helped to atone for much of what I suffered at the hands of his fellow countrymen later.
IN THE BAG
Shortly afterwards they managed to lift me over the gate, carried me across the track and laid me on an old door which had been rummaged from somewhere. I lay there in the cold clear air looking up at the sky and asked them for some water.
One of them moved off into the farm house and a few minutes later the farmer and, I suppose, his daughter appeared, the latter with a cup of water which she handed to me. I took a long drink and handed back the cup. She and her little old father just stood there and stared at me whilst the Germans gathered round and began to fire questions at me none of which I understood. Each voluble burst ended up with the shake of the head and a 'Nein?' as much as to say, 'You don't understand?' I didn't.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, expect that perhaps it was all I could say that would be understood, I uttered a feeble, 'Je parle Francais un peu.' This was my third form French but nevertheless brought the farmer's daughter over to me in a flash with volumes of French conversation, probably heavy with idiom and in some obscure dialect.
I shook my head in despair and they all laughed, no doubt at my 'bigheadedness' in attempting to speak a language I knew little about. A cigarette, one of my own, was pushed into my mouth and a light offered. The others smoked too.
It must have been at this moment that all my resistance gave out. The body, and mind especially, is a wonderful machine capable of calling upon immense reserves in times of need. But the time comes when either too much is demanded or the crisis is passed and only then is felt just what energies have been used up. I did not pass out completely but began to shake violently - the shock of all that had happened in the past couple of hours had begun to set in.
This seemed to shake the little gathering out of their state of morbid curiosity and after a further little discussion and one or two apparently heated remarks over something, during which, in my now semi-conscious state, I felt certain they were about to shoot me, they picked up the door stretcher fashion, and carried me off on a bumpy precarious journey.
Back on the squadron we had often joked about the enemy, baling out, escaping and so forth, but we had never really imagined it all ever actually happening to us!
Now I was there - a prisoner of the enemy!
Footnote from the magazine.
All the crew baled out except the pilot and rear-gunner. Three of them made contact with the French 'underground' and were back in the U.K. inside three months. The bomb-aimer, who was also wounded, managed to make contact with a house but the owner was forced to call the Germans the next day to obtain urgent medical care for him. The first I saw of him was late the next day as they carried me on a stretcher from my cell to the ambulance in which we were both taken to some frontline hospital.
There I left him and was taken to hospitals in Rhouen, Paris, Frankfurt and Meinengen before finally landing in a P.O.W. camp in Lower Silesia.
Until I returned to the U.K. after the war I knew nothing of the fate of the rest of the crew, until I contacted the 'mid-upper' who told me what he knew. The details of the fate of the skipper and rear-gunner seemed vague, so as soon as I was demobbed in 1947 I hitch-hiked over to France and succeeded in locating the village (and the spot) at which I had landed and the members of the underground. They took me to what was left of the aircraft and it appeared that the skipper had remained at the controls. The rear-gunner for some reason had not jumped. (probably wounded in the attack - Ed).
I traced and visited the wireless operator at Grays, Essex. All trace of the navigator appears to have been lost after the war, but the bomb-aimer returned to Canada. He was killed twelve months ago when he crashed in the small seaplane he used in connection with his work in the backwoods. The mid-upper died a few years back. There would appear to be, probably, only two of us left.
The squadron was No. 428 of Canadian '6' Group, stationed at Middleton-St.George and known as 'The Ghost Squadron' a small ghost being painted on the nose of each aircraft (see photo last month - Ed).
The pilot, navigator, bomb-aimer and rear-gunner were Canadian, the wireless operator English, and the mid-upper and myself (half) Welsh!