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Chronicles of a Charmed Life

by jack bartley

Contributed by 
jack bartley
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Location of story: 
in the air over europe
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
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Contributed on: 
25 February 2004

By Jack Bartley

During the advance of the Germany army into the low countries, signalling the end of the 'phoney war' in May 1940, 21 Squadron, in which I was serving as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner at R.A.F. Watton, was called upon to carry out a low level daylight bombing and strafing attack on enemy mechanized columns on the road from Maastricht to Tongres, in an attempt to stem the Panzers progress.
We took of at mid-afternoon on May 11th, overflying Holland and Belgium at around 15,000 ft, through sporadic anti-aircraft fire from 'friendly' gunners, whose aircraft recognition left much to be desired, eventually spotting the long line of vehicles that were to be the target. Diving down to attack, the bombs were released from a few hundred feet and pandemonium broke out below as the troops scattered for shelter amid bomb bursts and machine-gun fire.
Climbing away from the target with my turret gun assembly fully elevated and firing the remaining rounds of a pan of ammunition, a sudden loud and sharp metallic bang sounded through the aircraft as we were hit, possibly with return fire or more probably from shrapnel from the preceding attacking Blenheim's bombs.
Being subsequently fully occupied in scanning the sky for sight of enemy fighters, it was some time before I could spare time to look for signs of damage. When I did, I discovered the gaping hole in the platform of my turret which framed a view of the landscape below. Inspecting the roof there was no corresponding hole and I assumed that the missile had exited through the open sector of the turret cupola which allowed for gun barrel traverse and elevation, and concluded that I had been very fortunate to be unscathed.
After landing at Watton the airframe mechanics busied themselves with the job of patching up the damage whilst we went to debriefing. Later that evening I was to be found in the NAAFI with a group of Wireless Operator/Air Gunners, drowning the sorrow of the loss of one of our number who was found to be dead in his turret on our return from the sortie. Our sojourn was interrupted by a tired and thirsty mechanic who laid an object on the table in front of me. It was a jagged and twisted piece of shrapnel about 3/4" cube. "That was fused into the sponge rubber of your turret seat", he announced. As my sphincter nerve gave an involuntary shudder he proceeded to draw further pieces of metal from his pocket, just recognisable as pieces of a medium size screwdriver. "This", he said, "was lying between the turret platform and the fuselage".

-~ In taking the full force of the shrapnel leaving it with only sufficient momentum to fuse itself into the' sorbo rubber of my turret seat there is no doubt that the screwdriver, accidentally dropped into an inaccessible and hidden space, probably during manufacture of the aircraft, had certainly been responsible for my continued ability to adopt a sitting, or possibly any other, posture.

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Message 1 - chronicles of a charmed life

Posted on: 17 March 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Jack

I read your story with great interest. 11 May 1940 must have been an extremely tense day for you. According to Graham Warner's superb "The Bristol Blenheim - A Complete History" on 11 May 1940 21 Squadron had been standing by ever since 0430 but you didn't take off from Walton until 1510; that must have been very tense. You were led by W/Cdr L. Bennett and 12 Blenheims took part. Warner says that P/O Macdonald in Blenheim P6886 had his Gunner, AC1 R. Charlton killed by machine gun fire and eight of the twelve Blenheims were damaged. Is this correct? I cannot find R. Charlton on the usually accurate War Graves Commission site.

Kind regards,



Message 2 - chronicles of a charmed life

Posted on: 01 April 2004 by jack bartley

Hallo Peter- In answer to your question, regarding the stress of the situation, at the time to which you’re referring it wasn’t at all stressful. If you consider, I was only age 18 at the time and I had joined the R.A.F because I wanted to fly, so this was just another wait for a flight. The time was spent by us ‘erks’ (common airmen) in the crew room of the hanger, and we passed the time by almost continuously playing ‘ukkers’ our name for Ludo.The Pilots and Observers were either of Sergeant of Officer status and could ‘stand by’ in their respective messes, where they could be called on the telephone , which was not possible in our barrack blocks Also at this time previous losses had been quite desultory, and it wasn’t until May 10th that what was to be the slaughter started, when we began to meet the German fighters en masse. Subsequently, I know that people did start to crack up under the strain when events like losing 11 out of the 12 aircraft that set out on a raid had happened, severely weakening the theory that we had all previously felt that it was never going to be you that bought it, always the other fellow. Two of my chums suffered nervous breakdowns during that period.
My logbook says we took off at 1500 hours that day, but my book was made up by another person as at the end of May when logbooks went for signature I was still in hospital in France. Paddy Charlton was found dead in his turret on our return having received the only bullet to hit his aircraft through his lung1 `


Message 3 - chronicles of a charmed life

Posted on: 02 April 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear nosxaj

Thank you very much for your detailed and informative reply. I have made a note in Graham Warner's book regarding AC1 Paddy Charlton's unfortunate and tragic death from a single bullet. We owe a great deal to him and you.

Best wishes,



Message 4 - chronicles of a charmed life

Posted on: 09 April 2004 by jack bartley

received your latest peter. i have posted another story under' blenheims in 1940 battle of france,

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