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- BBC Southern Counties Radio
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- Contributed on:
- 29 October 2005
"This story was submitted to the People's War site by Caroline Toms, CSV journalists' network and has been added to the website on behalf of Charles Marshall with his permission and they fully understand the site's terms and conditions."
AIRMAN CHARLES MARSHALL BECOMES POW
Part one: training as a flight engineer on a Lancaster bomber.
Charles Marshall, flight engineer in RAF. Born 1922.
I was 17 and working as a messenger boy when the war broke out. I was later a postman in Camden Town sorting office and paid to sleep in to act as night watch during the London Blitz.
We had to register for military service and I chose the RAF. I joined when I was 20, in 1942. I trained to be a flight engineer on the four-engined bombers, the Lancaster.
In 1943 we were "crewed up". Pilots found their crews. An Australian pilot came up to me and said, "I think we will make a good pair". I trained with the crew and then joined an Australian squadron 460, because three of the crew were Australian. There were two Londoners, two Scots and three Royal Australian Airforce. This was in Binbrook, near Grimsby.
My rank was Sgt. All aircrew had the minimum rank of sergeant, because if you were taken prisoner sergeants and above weren’t made to work. Some German soldiers respected our ranks and stood to attention when they addressed aircrew.
The crew went to meet our commanding officer. He was group captain Edwards, aged 26. He had a VC, DSO and bar and DFC and bar. He said: "You have arrived too late for tonight, but we will get you on tomorrow."
So we went the next night as a crew. A squadron leader came with us, which meant he had my seat, so I had to stand up. The target was Munich and it took seven hours 55 minutes to complete the trip. The seat was only a hook-up one for taking off and landing; my position was to the right of the pilot, but there was no proper seat there. It was very cramped and we had to clamber over the wingspars in full kit.
My job was to repair anything that needed repairing and part of my job was to make sure we had enough fuel to get us back again! We were in trouble if we couldn’t do 1.1 air miles per gallon.
On this trip to Munich we didn’t run into any trouble, but when we got back, we were going in to land and there was a very strong cross wind on the runway, so we had to go round again. We had had two goes. All the fuel gauges said 0 and according to my calculations, we had ten gallons left. I told the pilot, Flying Officer Murray Caffyn*, we had better get it in this time because it required 40 gallons to go around again. He did. When they dipped the tank, there was just ten gallons left.
We were only there for a week, when we went on what was to be our final trip to Hanover. We took off on 8 October 1943. That was the one where we became prisoners of war. There were 55,000 aircrew killed in war, but luckily, I was not one of them.
The mid upper turret of the aircraft would not rotate when tested on the ground. Mechanics fixed that and everything seemed to be all right. When we got into the air, part of my job was to make sure everybody was getting enough oxygen. I got no answer from the gunner on the mid upper turret. I could see along the top of the aeroplane and the turret was going round, so I climbed into his turret and found that he had no electrics. So from the wingspars I had to give an extension lead for his intercom. It wasn’t quite long enough for him to sit up straight in the turret and he was not able to look out properly.
We were on the bombing run on Hanover. The bomb doors were open. The enemy fighters dropped flares above us and it was like going down a well-lit street, so without any warning we found we were being fired at from below. It was a bit like being in a tram and having the brakes applied suddenly: the whole plane shuddered, we were hit on both wings, where the largest fuel tanks with 500 gallons of fuel in each were. The biggest tanks were near the body and both were on fire.
I had seen the plane next to us go down in flames. I was able, from my position, to jettison the bomb load and change the fuel over from the burning tanks. We had tried to dive to put the fires out, but they got worse; the skin of the aircraft was magnesium alloy, which burns rapidly. By that time they had another go at us. Behind the main members of the crew at the front there used to be a steel door, but that was too heavy, so it had been replaced with plywood. That was shattered from top to bottom.
By now, we could see the rivets at the wing roots showing through red from the inside of the aeroplane. We decided it was time to bail out. We all had parachutes and the pilot’s and mine were stowed behind his seat, so I picked up one and put it on for him, clipping it on his chest. I then put mine on. I went to the front escape hatch and the pilot was still trying to keep the aircraft straight.
I bailed out. We didn’t have any parachute training, they just told us how to put it on, "Jump out, count to ten and pull the ‘D’ ring."
When I got outside — the plane was doing 140mph plus — I pulled the "D" ring and the parachute opened, but my harness was loose because I used to walk around inside the aeroplane quite a lot. When the parachute deployed it just took up the slack: it was quite a shock to the groin! I had pins and needles for weeks.
I was 20,000 ft up, but it was lovely and peaceful out there! The German fighters dropped flares either side of me and I thought: "Oh dear, they are going to shoot me now." I pulled my knees up, but they didn’t fire at me, I think they were counting us out of the plane. The pilot was still in his seat. I was the last but one out of the plane. *
Getting nearer to the ground, I could see a great big lake and I was aiming for that. I had seen films of people guiding themselves. You had to pull very hard to make yourself move over: I missed the lake. I came down between some trees; the branches broke and let me down gently, fortunately. I undid the parachute harness. We each had our own parachute with our names on. When I looked at it, it wasn’t mine! It was the pilot’s. The one that had my name on didn’t open and the pilot had had to pull the chute out by hand.
I had an escape kit and in it was a silk map. Hanover was marked and Denmark to the north. I looked at the stars and thought I would head for Denmark.
*I learnt afterwards from German war records that our plane crashed at Wiedensahl. Our pilot, Flying Officer Murray Caffyn, had died a month later from head injuries after bailing out. He is buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Berlin.
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