- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Flt./Lieut. Oliver J. Wells
- Location of story:
- Germany, Belgium, Silesia & UK.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 May 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jenny Ford on behalf of Wing Cmdr. Oliver Wells and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
An extract from: 'An account of my experiences from September '43 to February '44' by Flt./Lieut. O.J.Wells
"On Monday August 30th 1943 it was announced that we were to bomb a war production factory at Munchen Gladbach on the edge of the Rhur. It was the shortest raid we had been briefed for, being only four hours from take-off (at 00.30 hours) land landing and should have been the easiest!
This Monday night everything went well until we were approaching the target, and were able to see the attack going well ahead of us. It was a fine night, pleasantly dark with no moon and a cloudless sky. The rear gunner reported a combat in progress on our port side and I made my stock remark about not watching it, but watching for the rest of the sky. Very soon after this there was a series of sickening flashes, yellow streaks and metallic clangs. This was just to the left of my pilot's seat and I realised that the port wing had caught a packet. Simultaneously the rear gunner called up to report the attack, asking me to turn like hell to port. It was just a second or two late, but the gunners cannot see everything all the time, and there was always that chance of getting jumped. Then Tom called up again to tell me that it was a Me 210 that had attacked us. The answer he got was that I didn't care a b ----- what it was, but watch like hell in case it comes back. Immediately the wing had been hit, a fire had started. I dived the aircraft to try to blow out the flames, but this was useless. Then I feathered the port inner engine and used to fire extinguisher. I didn't expect this to do much good, as the fire seemed to be behind the fireproof bulkhead of the engine, and it didn't!
It was then certain that the main petrol tank had caught it. The fire was getting somewhat out of hand by now with the flames stretching back from the trailing edge of the wing to beyond the tail. It was making a noise above that of the engines, like a giant blow-lamp. It didn't take long to decide that it was all up and I told Johnny to jettison the bombs. When he reported that this was done, I gave the order to abandon aircraft. In doing this I felt a curious sense of unreality, as we had so often practised it on the ground and it was hard to realise that this time they were doing it in earnest. The actual time from being hit to my order to abandon aircraft was little more than two minutes.
(The rest of the crew bailed out). Then suddenly there was some sort of explosion. The nose of the aircraft dropped and she started to spiral down to port in a sort of skidding spin. .... I left the seat and lurched towards the front escape hatch. My head and shoulders cleared it alright but there was a tremendous sideways force of air which blew me against the side of the hatch and I stuck fast. No amount of struggling and kicking would get me free! I saw the position was hopeless and that I would be killed and wondered what it would be like.
My next impression was wondering what I was doing face downwards on the grass. I lay there for a moment thinking how good and firm it felt. Lifting my head up, over to my right was the remains of the aircraft, somewhat spread about and a mass of flames and white hot metal.
I wondered what sort of shape I was in. My face felt a bit queer and I couldn't focus my right eye. Putting my hand up revealed a good deal of blood on the right side. Then I stood up, finding to my great relief that my legs were intact. I couldn't lift my left arm and it seemed rather painful. I thought at first it was broken but after gingerly investigating decided it was only the collar-bone as that seemed to be the centre of the pain. My Mae-West life jacket was still on, but no parachute or harness and the loose fitting suede flying boots I had been wearing were no longer on my feet."
Flt./Lieut. O.J. Wells walked at night and hid during the day eventually reaching Brussels and stayed with various members of the 'Organisation' on his journey. On January 3rd 1944 Flt./Lieut. Wells and a Sergeant Pilot called John were arrested by the Gestapo on a train to Paris. After a month incarcerated in Loos prison they were sent to a transit camp for a few dayas and with a batch of prisoners were sent to Stalag Luft III.
Flt./Lieut. Wells continues ...
"There are some loose ends and my Grandchildren would like to know what happened next. At the time I did not feel inclined to describe the rather frustrating and miserable life in prison camp, no place to be at the age of 21, and was more concerned with the future, but there are some incidents which should perhaps be recorded. One small incident on leaving the terrible prison at Loos in France that I missed out was the fact that to my great surprise my small valuables including a good watch and a signet ring which had been removed from me on arrival were handed back on departure!
On arrival at Stalag Luft III near Sagan in Lower Silesia I was regarded with some suspicion by the senior RAF inmates as I had been on the loose in Europe for several months and could have been a stool pigeon planted by the Germans. I had nobody to confirm my story of a rather unusual survival. Fortunately it did not take too long to convince them on interrogation that I was a genuine RAF Officer. After that I settled down into the P.O.W. routine of taking turns with the chores (we lived about 12 to a room), taking regular exercise, trying to plan an escape, reading and playing bridge in the evenings. My initial card home through the Red Cross was the first news that my parents had that I wa safe (already been notified that I must be presumed dead) and my mother's reply was a masterpiece of condensing the home news of five months into a small letter card which was all that was allowed. It contained the news that, inter alia, my much loved childhood nurse, who had remained at our home, had died of cancer and that my father had been made a Baronet in the 1944 New Year's Honours List, something which at least partly must have reflected his family's war effort - eight out nine children in uniform and three sons killed in action. Each prisoner was allowed one parcel from home of limited weight through the Red Cross. My mother took expert advice and sent my RAF greatcoast, a voluminous and warm garment made of good Melton cloth. At the time I thought it might have been something more interesting, but had good cause to thank her foresight later on. Throughout this time we received fairly regular news from the BBC on a secret radio obtained by bribing the German guards with Red Cross cigarettes or chocolate in exchange for the necessary parts. Once they had accepted the bribes this could be followed by blackmail threats of exposure to the German Commandant.
In March 1944 we received the shocking news that 51 prisoners from among the 80 who escaped through a tunnel from the North Compound of Stalag Luft III had been rounded up and shot on Hitler's express orders. This was effectively murder since these officers were protected by the Geneva Convention and it is the duty of all P.O.W's to try and escape and return home to fight on. After this disaster the British Officer vetoed escape attempts on the grounds that it would be a pointless waste of life. At least this had one small benefit. Our bunks had crosswise wooden slats to support the straw mattress we slept on, and there was a regular levy on these boards for lining a tunnel to prevent it caving in. After a time the bunks became decidely uncomfortable with only a few boards to support the mattress.
On 7th June 1944 the German papers announced the invasion of Normandy. This worked wonders for our morale and we all visualised being "home for Christmas" although an anxious few days followed until we heard that a firm bridgehead had been established. Soon after this on 17th June, the newspapers announced the first use of their secrect weapon, known as the V1. This turned out to be an unmanned flying bomb with wings, a simple Ramjet engine and a gyro-stabilised steering system. Launched from the Pas de Calais area, it had enough range to reach London but could not be accurately aimed. When the engine ran out of fuel it fell to earth and exploded. We were naturally worried about the damage this might do to London and the morale of the Londoners but newly captured prisoners arriving at our camp reported that the results were not devastating although obviously unpleasant for those in the area. Some of our newer fighters were fast enough to shoot them down or topple their gyros so that they fell in open country. The Germans too were developing faster fighters and it was disturbing to see a twin jet-engined fighter over our camp one day (an Me. 262). Less disturbing and very good for morale was to see a wing of a B17 Flying Fortress America bombers on their way to refuel in Romania after bombing the Eastern German munitions factories normally out of range.
In the latter part of 1944 the advance of the Allied armies in the West had met some stiff resistance from the Germans and slowed down considerably so that there was no prospect after all of being home for Christmas. The Red Army however, after the hard fought victory at Stalingrad was steadily advancing from the East. On a road which passed out camp we could see steams of refugees heading West with their possessions in hand carts, determined to keep out of Russian hands. We began to wonder what would happen next. In late January 1945 we were warned to be ready to leave the camp at very short notice. We had enough time to make up some hard-tack rations from Red Cross food parcels and to knock up some sledges out of old crates and hut furniture on which to tow our meagre kit and whatever food we could fit on. At 5am on 29th January we moved out of the camp in a column with armed guards on either side, towing our sledges through the snow. I was mighty glad of my RAF greatcoat sent out from England. It was a strange sensation to be outside the wire in open countryside but there was no point in making abreak for it as the situation was so chaotic and we were ordered to stay together for mutual safety. No rations were provided by the Germans but we had each been issued with a Red Cross food parcel on leaving the camp which enabled us to keep going. I believe we straggled along at about 20 Kms. a day, sleeping in locked farm barns at night in very primitive conditions with no opportunity t wash properly or shave but bouyed up by the expectation that it would soon be over with the Allies closing in from both East and West. The civilian Germans were not usually hostile a bit of bread or hot water for cigarettes. At one point my little group (we tended to stay with out room-mates from the camp) managed to capture a hen which was boiled, feathers and all, in a metal water jug and shared out with great glee. After five days a sudden thaw made our sledges useless so we had to carry all we could and abandon the rest. On the seventh day we reached a place called Spemberg where we were put into empty cattle trucks - 50 men to a truck which meant that we had to take it in turns to sit or lie down. The 60 miles journey to Luckenwalde took about 24 hours with frequent stops for air-raid alarms.
The new camp was just over 30 miles south of Berlin and was extremely squalid. There were groups of 12-3 tier bunks in each large room, in all containing 200 men with no facilities for washing or heating food or drinks and no Red Cross supplies. Life became very grim. The German rations amounted to one fifth of a loaf of black bread, half a litre of thin soup, a few potatoes and an ounce of margarine per day, about half the calorific value of a man's minimum daily requirement. So we were all permanently hungry but able to survive by avoiding undue exertion. Worse was the absence of anything to do - no books and no news about what was happening outside and no proper hygiene. I acquired a very bad attack of dysentery to add to the misery and no medical supplies were available.
One redeeming feature was the nightly air raids on Berlin. We could hear the air raid warnings and see a satisfactory glow in the sky from the bombing. At this time the marvellous Mosquito aircraft was pasting Berlin from such a high altitude and speed that they were almost immune from attack. What a vast difference more of these aircraft would have made to the terrible casualties in Bomber Command if only more had been available at an earlier stage in the war. With a crew of two they carried much the same bomb-load as a B17 Flying Fortress too.
A delivery of American Red Cross parcels somehow began to filter through in about the middle of March and things looked up a lot. ALso our secret radio bulletins started up again so we began to get some actual news instead of the German propaganda about counter-attacks. On 14th April the Russians were getting close and the Germans tried to move us again. We were marched down to the cattle trucks at the local station from which we were supposed to be taken to Moosberg ner Munich. This was very worrying news as all German transport was under heavy attack from the Allied airforces. Anxious by now no doubt to score some brownie points, the Germans provided some yellow paint and allowed us to paint RAF POW's on the roof of the trucks in huge letters. We were loaded into trucks for the night but no engine could be found to move the train and we were marched back to the camp the following morning.
On 21st April, when the Russians were reported to be very close, the German guards all vanished and the Senior British Officer put into action a defence scheme designed to keep the vital services of the camp going and ordered us to stay together for security. This seemed a very reasonable plan as there was absolute chaos in the countryside with armed SS units only too ready to fire on anything suspicious. When the Russian tanks arrived there was great excitement and some of the POWs climbed up the camp fences to wave to them. As the Russian idea of liberating us was to mow down the fences with their tanks, they had to jump off again in a hurry. The ordinary Russian soldiers of this unit were a fairly primitive lot, learning to ride bicycles which they had not seen before and bit too keen to acquire our wrist watches.
End of Part One. See Part Two for conclusion of Flt./Liet. Well's experiences.
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