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by Phil Davenport

Contributed by 
Phil Davenport
People in story: 
Ron Day, (RAF) Phil Davenport (RAAF)
Location of story: 
Norway to Australia
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 April 2005

Coming Home

RAF navigator Ron Day and I took off from Banff, Scotland, on 11th April 1945 on our last sortie of the war. We flew in a formation of 40 Mosquitos to attack German shipping in Porsgrunn Harbour in Norway. After flying 500 kilometres across the North Sea and 350 kilometres over land, we were off course to the north of Porsgrunn and, when the harbour was abeam, the formation wheeled right onto a southerly heading followed by tight turns onto west and north for a diving attack on the harbour.

On the radio someone yelled, “Bandits three o’clock!” Enemy aircraft were about to attack the formation! But, according to the rules of the game, once committed to the attack, you do not turn away but follow through to the target. Peripheral vision registered a ship’s masthead, flags flying, flash past high on our right. We broke away left, towards the late afternoon sun and Scotland. The aircraft became difficult to control and I realised the control surfaces, and the fuselage close behind our seats, were badly damaged.

We flew low across serried ridges of rock; mountainous, dark in shadows and covered with pine trees: millions of them, like spears, pointing up. When I saw a lake it seemed to have a long stretch of sand; hardly an acceptable runway but better than baling out. I pulled off power, dived into the shadows, levelled off and realised the sand was ice.

We crashed down and bounced sideways into the lake. Peat-coloured water flowed around and over us. At first my leg was jammed and I became resigned. But, when it came free, I paddled desperately up to the surface.

Sunlight was on hilltops and Ron was afloat in his life jacket. Although his face was splotched with blood, my relief was immense. The life raft burst from its stowage in the submerged aircraft and, hissing with discharging air, came to the surface and took shape. Demons laughed to see two mentally and physically numb fellows struggling into a circular life raft. We shivered in light, wet clothing. My arms and legs were numb. We had to get ashore and warm and there wasn’t much time to do it.

I heard a shout and saw a man in a boat rowing towards us. Someone grasped my wrist and towed us to the edge of the lake. There was vast comfort in the warm shoulders of farmers, Per Grini and Halvor Deilhaug who lifted us from the life raft. They lit a fire and massaged our limbs before rowing us along the lake to level country. Then, carrying Ron and me in turn, they ran hard across open land to a farmhouse.

After dark, lamplight and flickering flames from the stove cast distorted shadows on unpainted timbers as people moved around the house. Ron and I were in different rooms but I could see, by moving shadows, he was receiving care. The Norwegians became tense and told me, “Germans come”. When they came, the tramp of army boots on timber floors and the harsh authority of unmodulated voices shattered a feeling of wellbeing. An altercation between our hosts and the enemy was resolved by the menace of German guns.
* * *** * *

Having arrived at 500 kilometres an hour, we departed at a walking pace. Soldiers collected my clothes, wrapped me in blankets and laid me on the flat top of a pony cart. My feet extended beyond the back edge and the tail of the pony brushed my head. On a rough track, the handicap of darkness was offset by a sure-footed man who led the pony-cart and two guards who stumbled along behind. We crossed a ridge and came down to a gravel road. Here I was transferred into a small car and taken further to a seven-seat sedan. While I sat and shivered, the cart and small car travelled back to bring Ron.

In the town of Lunde, soldiers carried us into a guardroom then sat around a table until dawn. Their talk was low key and barely intruded into the quiet. After the violence and cold of yesterday, we were lulled again by the warmth and quiet of a room. Our bodies ached and we longed for rest, but anxiety precluded sleep.

In the morning we departed to drive 200 kilometres to Oslo. Ron was lying on the back seat. I had to share a seat with two guards while two Norwegian drivers sat more comfortably in front. In mid afternoon we drove into Oslo and parked in front of a building surrounded by barbed wire. One driver and the two guards joined a flow entering the building. Our uniforms were stained and torn and Ron was crowned by a bloodstained bandage. Pedestrians stared but kept walking.

Our morale sagged when our driver indicated the building and announced “Gestapo”. A man in a grey suit jumped from a car and stopped to stare at us before hurrying into the building. He looked like a weightlifter; solid, short and nearly as wide. His short neck actually tapered in, supporting a round head with hair not much longer than the unshaven blue on his jowls. He looked as friendly and as handsome as a wild boar.

Later when the flow through the entrance diminished, one of the guards, in unaccented English, asked if we needed food or drink. He brought drinks and, telling us not be afraid, explained he had been in Oslo for five years and had seen nothing of the real war. Everything about him was contradictory: a low-ranking, well-educated soldier demonstrating kindness while guarding one of the cruelest organisations in the world.

Eventually an English-speaking corporal came and announced we were going to hospital. He sat in front with the driver and was armed with a revolver but we had no other guards. Ron was kept in hospital for three weeks while I - uncomfortably, undernourished and alone - occupied a two-by-three-metre cell in a prison on Fornebu airfield. An exercise yard at the back was ten paces long and half as wide with three-metre walls topped by a barbed-wire lacework that offended the clouds above as it did us, the inmates below.
* * *** * *

On Monday 30th April Hitler committed suicide in the Berlin bunker. On Wednesday I found the front page of a German broadsheet newspaper in the toilets. The banner headline translated as “Our Beloved Fuehrer is Dead. He urged us to Fight On!” A photograph of a large hall filled half the page. A bier and coffin draped with a Nazi flag dominated the foreground. A helmeted soldier, head bowed and hands folded over the butt of a reversed rifle, stood at each corner. The distant wall was entirely draped with Nazi flags.

Next Monday a guard told us, “Krieg Fini”. The following morning cell doors, the guardroom door and doors to the world were unlocked. From the exercise yard, I saw an RAF Dakota overhead. A piece of red bunting, in fact the Danish flag, was unfolding into irregular shapes and falling like an autumn leaf. Excited, I rushed to tell the two RAF, other inmates, Gordon and Tom. “Come on, we’re getting out of here! Come on! Come on!” I opened the metal-bound door of the prison. Instead of walking past the outer guard, I bade him “Guten Tag” and entered the guardroom.

When the Dakota taxied into sight, I made the soldiers understand I intended going to the aircraft. Holding my breath, I walked aware of a creepy sensation over my back: half expecting to hear “Halt!” or the rattle of automatic weapons. Nothing happened. For me the war in Europe was over.
* * *** * *

The occupants of the Dakota had gathered around Air Commodore Darvall MC. His white hair and moustache and his bearing indicated his Military Cross and wings had been earned in the First World War. Journalist Alexander Clifford of the Daily Mail was translating for the air commodore and the airfield commandant. Apart from journalists the party included photographers, a prince of Denmark and another senior RAF officer, Air Commodore Brackley. They had already “been first” into another country and seemed to be collecting credits like bird watchers or train spotters. The presence of the prince provided the incentive, if not an excuse, for the Danish flag to be falling through Norwegian air space. When I gained the attention of Air Commodore Brackley he agreed we bedraggled ex-prisoners could have a ride back to the UK and he gave me the news that my brother Jack had been awarded the George Medal.

Two German pilots joined the crowd. In grey uniforms, they could have been young men in the RAF. One spoke to me in English and it was weird to remember that, only yesterday, we were obliged to kill each other. Rhetorically and unhappily he asked, “What is to become of us?”

The Luftwaffe general arrived from Oslo with his chief of staff who was tall: literally head and shoulders above his boss. Together they stepped up to Air Commodore Darval and gave the Nazi salute but without the redundant “Heil Hitler”. The general, although short, was solidly built. He had a dollop for a nose and large ears that were translucent in sunlight. He removed his right glove and offered his hand to the air commodore. The RAF officer ignored both the salutes and the proffered hand and stood still and straight like ramrods of earlier wars. With confrontationist attitudes established, the Luftwaffe general let the air commodore know who held the cards. He pointed out we were still at war and he could, and might, make the RAF party prisoners.

Things could only become worse at Fornebu so no time was lost before we were airborne, on course for Copenhagen. On the climb we passed a flying boat bringing the official delegation to take the surrender.
* * *** * *

At Copenhagen the sun was low and the breeze cold. Dainty Luftwaffe FW190 fighters were landing and taxying to a stand nearby. Ground crews opened the parachute compartment of each and lifted out a man, apparently frozen in the foetal position and unable to help himself. They had to be thawed to become functional: frozen proof of the Germans’ desperation to avoid capture by the Russians.

At sunset I was left at the Hotel d’Angleterre. I was alone and felt more so among the variety of uniforms milling around in the foyer. My uniform was torn and stained green from the yellow dye released in the lake. But it was enough for a British paratrooper to identify and introduce me to Helen Neilsen from Sydney. She and her Danish husband, Paul had been caught in Denmark when war broke out. Helen, Paul and I went to the apartment of another English-speaking couple. Potatoes, cooked or distilled, contributed respectively food and aquavit, to the excitement of that VE (Victory Europe) evening. They told stories of the occupation and from outside, we heard spasmodic gunfire. Reprisals came with the joys of liberation.

Around three in the morning the four young people escorted me back to the hotel. Intermittent gunfire was still part of the noises of the night. We heard a speeding car, with its engine revving hard, coming from behind. To my friends, during five fearful years of occupation, such sounds were often the prelude to a shooting. Recent experiences had honed my awareness and I understood when the men dropped behind to become shields for their wives.

When they left me at the hotel, the place was quiet. The lights were dimmed and the desk was deserted but every lounge and much of the carpet were host to sleeping men: resistance fighters. For five years they had opposed the enemy in hazardous clandestine operations. After the surrender they emerged as a force in the return to civilian control. Considering the hatred and bitterness of war it would have been naïve to believe that some had not played a part in reprisals. In the hotel lounge, with automatic weapons in the crooks of their arms, they were sleeping off exhaustion. My nerves were still tingling. I sensed if they were abruptly awakened, their reaction would be to start firing. I crept into a corner and dozed until daylight.
* * *** * *

From Copenhagen we flew to Celle in Germany. Hundreds of young men in khaki crowded the airfield. British soldiers, they had been herded around by the enemy during the fast-moving final battles of the war. Flying over German target cities and the Ruhr industrial areas, we looked down on devastation: miles and miles of rubble. The few buildings still standing were shells with interiors blasted out through blackened holes that had been doors and windows. Now they gaped like empty sockets in a skull. From the air it seemed that nothing moved: no smoke rose from chimneys and all trains, traffic and people were still.

We landed again at Brussels then flew to North Holt near London. Here I found the world had changed since I left Banff four weeks earlier. Then I had been significant enough to call some of the shots. Now the bureaucrats were moving back.
* * *** * *

Australian prisoners of war were directed to a reception centre at Brighton. I was fatigued and unwell but, most of all I was worried about my brothers, Jack and Keith. My driving priority was to know they were safe. Someone comfortably behind a desk at North Holt patiently explained there would be facilities to make inquiries at Brighton. Urgency didn’t register with the fellow. No, I could not make phone calls from North Holt. Condescension and inflexibility had become part of the peace. My anger became cunning. “OK, I’ll go to Brighton right away.” They sent a flight sergeant to escort me to Waterloo Station. He found me a seat on the train. I thanked him, dismissed him and phoned London friends.

That night I got through to Jack in Scotland. Next evening he and Keith arrived in Brighton and listened until the early hours while I told this story. Jack and Keith then told me their side of the saga.
* * *** * *

I was among spectators at the Henley-on-Thames Regatta. The Leander Rowing Club, following its hospitality to US forces after the First World War, was host to the RAAF. The weather produced that one perfect day about which Englishmen love to boast. Leander Club members in pink caps, pink blazers, grey trousers and pink socks, strolled with the crowd along the towpath. Lord Stanley Bruce, Prime Minister of Australia from 1923 to 1929, tottered along with the strollers.

Two weeks later I sailed in SS Orion with 3,000 Australian and New Zealand airforce and army. Most were airforce and many had been prisoners of war for as long as four years.
The voyage home, all the way in glorious weather, was a mystical experience. In the calm seas and clear skies of the Atlantic there was no menace from man or from nature. We were without commitment and there was time for dreaming. There was a constant sibilant protest from an ocean shouldered aside and rushing past to bubble astern in a long wake. The Pacific war was on the other side of Panama Canal.

When Orion docked in Panama, we almost had a riot. On the wharf there were cafes, a PX store, jazz band, a film, a concert and other symptoms of generous but anxious hospitality. But visiting the city was banned. The wharf gate was locked and guarded. And there was little to distinguish the khaki uniforms of the US military police (MP) from Nazi uniforms. Their boots, leggings, belts, gun holsters and caps were shiny black leather. The American eagle on their caps replaced a German eagle. Black armbands were common to both. Instead of a white swastika, the Americans’ black bands displayed a white MP. To ex-prisoners, the minor differences were lost in a sensation that they were again under enemy control. When an MP jumped onto a counter to direct a crowd surging around a stall, danger became palpable. It hung there for a long moment. Then a collective mind understood and danger dispersed.

This weird event could have been sadly different if collective anger had been reinforced by alcohol. The unicity of that collective mind could only have occurred with such a gathering: men who had for so long, been collectively and exclusively in a common experience. I tried to understand by thinking of flights of birds or shoals of fish: how, in an instant, they change direction, climb or dive; always in absolute unison. That military policeman should have been thankful to be safely at home that evening.

When Orion sailed into the Pacific, the atom bombs had not been dropped. Our route took us far from the battles that were engulfing Japan. In Wellington the New Zealanders disembarked and on Saturday 8th September, while we were still 300 nautical miles at sea, a Sydney race meeting was broadcast through the ship’s loud speakers. The collective mind again reacted as one. This time it was with an urge to roll on the deck to laugh or to cry; to hear again, after four or five years, the Australian accent at its most strident. We were surely coming home. On a clear calm day we sailed between the great cliffs, into Sydney harbour. Ken Simpson DFC and many others didn’t make it.
* * *** * *

Copyright 2003
Phil Davenport

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