- Contributed by
- peter clare
- People in story:
- My father. Seymour 'Bill' Clare
- Location of story:
- The North Atlantic.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 May 2004
No120 Squadron Royal Air Force Coastal Command. Home Forces RAF Ballykelly. Northern Ireland.
At 20.00 hrs on 9 August 1942, an unidentified ship sent a U-boat distress signal, it was subsequently believed that this signal was sent by the troop ship SS LETITIA which had left the Clyde, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia on 7 August with 600 troops on board.
At 19.22 hrs on 11 August, two Corvettes were detached from convoy HX201 to search for survivors, on the following and subsequent days, aircraft were also used in the search. Consequently, on the morning of 13th August an aircraft of No120 Squadron joined the search.
The aircraft, a Consolidated B-24 Liberator MkIIIA serial No LV341.Z/120 was airborne at 05.33 hrs on that day. The crew of eight were. P/O. Victor Dennis James RNZAF Captain. Sgt. Hector Vivian Frances Archer RAFVR Second Pilot. F/Sgt. Alfred Burton Craig RCAF Navigator. Sgt. Seymour Clare RAF Flight Engineer. F/Sgt. Kenneth Henry Watson RAFVR Wop/Ag. Sgt. Peter F George RAF Wop/Ag. Sgt. William C Gordon RAF Wop/Ag and Sgt. Fredrick N Hollies RAF Wop/Ag.
At 11.25 hrs during the patrol the crew of Z/120 sighted a U-boat trimmed down on the surface, it was U 256, a type VII U-boat commanded by Odo Loewe
As the Liberator went into the attack it was sighted by the submarines lookouts who mistook it for a Sunderland. U 256 crash dived to a depth of 110 metres, three depth charges were heard to explode, but U 256 suffered no damage.
After this attack Z/120 sent a signal saying that a U-boat had been attacked but the results were unobserved, a further signal was sent at 12.20 hrs to say that they expected to arrive back at base at 16.27 hrs.
On the flight home the crew of the Liberator were feeling rather pleased with themselves but dissapointed at not seeing the results of their attack. James, the pilot and Archer, the second pilot were in their seats, Gordon, who was off duty was sitting behind them. Hollies was standing behind the pilots, Watson was operating the wireless, Clare, the flight engineer returned from a routine inspection to report that there was a slight smell of petrol in the bomb bay. Gordon was getting on at Watson to take his turn in the rear turret so as to allow George who was alrady in the turret to come up front for his stint on the wireless, Watson was not too keen to give up his seat until he picked up base, which for some reason he was having difficulty finding. Gordon insisted that he had over run his time on the set, and at last Watson relieved George in the rear turret.
At about 15.15 hrs, Gordon was helping himself from a large tin of raisins and talking to George who had taken over the radio position which was working perfectly, he was listening out for 7VY, 15 Group HQ in Liverpool. An explosion, heard by Hollies who was still on the flight deck took place in the vicinity of the bomb bay. The aircraft lost power and dropped rapidly towards the sea, George stood up and opened the top escape hatch, the skipper looked round, and at that moment the engines picked up, the skipper laughed and George shut the hatch. Then the aircraft seriously lost power, all four engines stopped fireing at the same time and the aircraft dropped like a stone, Z was flying at 500ft under low cloud. George opened the top escape hatch again and James shouted to Craig to fetch the Mae Wests from the tail of the aircraft, he then pushed the control column forward to pick up speed, and just off the water pulled back on the control column to stall her. Z hit the sea tail first, then the nose went in. Craig had jumped into the bomb bay to make his way towards the tail, at the same instant Gordon looked between the two pilots and saw the sea coming up to meet them at a great speed, he realised that the Navigator had no chance of reaching the Mae Wests and shouted for him to come back, Craig stood in the bomb bay looking up, seemingly not able to make up his mind who to listen to. Hollies also looked between the two pilots to see Archer frantically working the four ignition switches which were situated along side his right knee, up and down, in an attempt to get the engines to fire again, but they were dead. Hollies then laid flat on the flight deck.
As the aircraft hit the sea, George was thrown forward between the pilots seats, there was a heavy inrush of water, the nose section broke away and he was struggling to find his way out, he say in his own words "I think I got out through a hole in the front perspex, losing a flying boot in the process, I was the last man out". Gordon says "We on the flight deck in the nose, managed to fight our way out through the broken perspex before she sank, to do so we had to wait until the cabin was almost filled with water, we were actually under water and the force of it coming in made it difficult to get out. Six of us got out, but Billy Clare and the first pilot drowned before we could inflate the dinghies. Owing to the swell and our being fully clothed, this took some time, none of us had our Mae Wests on".
The Liberator carried two dinghies which could be released from inside the aircraft by a red painted handle above and to the left of the flight engineers control panel. Gordon made a grab for this handle but the aircraft hit the sea before he could reach it and he was thrown against the armour plate behind the pilots seat knocking his head, he was stuned, he felt weights on top of him, which he says were probably the flight engineer and his control panel. It is possible that the flight engineer was also hit on the head by the panel, he was also thrown against the armour plate and was stunned. Suddenly the weights which were holding Gordon down left him and in his own words, "Felt that he was drifting through cotton wool clouds, everything was very peaceful". Then his face broke the surface of the sea and the full horror of the situation hit him. The first thing he saw was the flight engineers face, he seemed to be looking at him in a faraway fashion, he then vanished without a sound, he was not seen again. George also saw the flight engineer in the water some yards away from him, struggling to keep afloat, he came up went down, then disapeared. Sgt Clare probably got out of the aircraft by way of the escape hatch above and behind the pilots position which had been opened by George, he had managed to get onto the wing but was washed off in the heavy sea, he could not swim. The tail section containing the rear turret with Watson trapped in it, sank, he too was not seen again. The skipper, James, had also managed to get onto the wing but he too had been washed off into the sea. James, a strong swimmer, was in the water close to Gordon and some distance away from George but a strong current was pulling then away from the aircraft. Archer, who was also close to George was struggling, he was wearing a collar and tie and they were restricting his breathing.
Z was now slowly sinking, the broken fuselarge sticking up in the air, it had snapped off aft of the mid-upper turret which had lost its perspex cover. It is thought that Craig, the navigator was trapped in the bomb bay when the aircraft ditched.
Hollies was the only airman left on the aircraft, he had got out via the upper escape hatch and onto the fuselarge but was afraid to let go and jump into the water as he too could not swim, he managed to reach and was standing in the mid-upper turret and as Z got lower in the water he was forced to climb higher up the fuselarge, in a last desperate attempt to escape the rising water held onto the RT aerial with his teeth and made a grab for a handle which he managed to grasp. Immediately two dinghies fell out, on fully inflated the other not. they had dropped into the water alongside George, he found the air bottle on the under inflated dinghy and triggered it, up it came, upside down, George turned it over, got in and pulled Archer in after him.
By this time, James and Gordon were further away shouting for help. George and Archer were trying to assemble the oars in the dinghy and shouted to them "Swim to us". Gordon pulled off his flying boots and battle dress blouse, as they were dragging him down and swam to the dinghy. Hollies was persuaded to let go of the handle and was pulled into the dinghy, as was Gordon. But James had disapeared.
The aircraft was carrying two anti-submarine bombs, so they paddled away to avoid a possible explosion, and watched as Z sank into the Atlantic. They were depressed at the sight, as only bits and pieces were floating around wher the aircraft had sank. They took stock of the situation searching the dinghies, they found that there was no food, no water and no pyrotechnics, but one bar of chocolate was found in Georges battle dress pocket, two squares each, they did find a piece of string which they used to tie the dinghies together.
There was a heavy swell running and they all felt seasick, they lay back and those still wearing boots took then off to avoid damage to the dinghy and stored them in the other one. George had a sprained ankle and lacerated leg, while the others were alright but bruised. Archer was asked how far he thought they were from land but he did not seem to know for sure, but reckoned anything up to a few hundred miles. They rowed for the rest of the day in an easterly direction and rested best they could during the night, the sky was cloudy and it began to rain, it rained on and off all night, their teeth never stopped chattering. The next day the sky was clearer and around noon they were cheered by sunshine, two ships were sighted in the afternoon and aircraft heard, they shouted and waved but with no result. A seagull flew around them and settled on the waternear to them, they tried to hit it with an oar but it was to quick for them and flew off. Gordon thought they must be close to land but the others said taht seagulls could be found up to six hundred miles from land.
Early evening saw a ship close by, it seemed to be heading towards them, they could no believe their luck. They all stood up, Gordon brandishing an oar so they could be seen, the ship approached them bow on, it closed in, one of the seamen had a Lewis gun trained on them, following them around, the crew thinking they were germans. The ship was a trawler, the GLENAGILL from Fleetwood, whose crew thew a line and picked up the four survivors. Heaven, hot cocoa, a plate of stew and a bunk to stretch out on, and sleep.
The next morning the four were transfered to a Naval vessel at the entrance to Lough Foyle, the BLUEBIRD, a peace time motor yacht owned by Malcolm Campbell and loaned to the Royal Navy. They had a shower and food and were met at the dockside by the Squadron CO. W/Cdr. Harrison, and then on to the sick bay and later a few days at home on survivors leave.
When Z/120 crashed she was on course for Inistrahull, a light house close to the entrance of Lough Foyale and the turning point for Ballykelly, therefore closr to the Irish coast. When the trawler picked them up they were 37 miles West South West of Tory Island and could see the coast of Donegal in the distance.
The troopship, SS. LETITIA arrived unmolested in Halifax on 16 August 1942. It was never discovered what ship sent the distress signal.
W.C. Gordon. F.N.Hollies and P.F. George survived the war. Archer was killed in May of 1943, having been shot down over the Bay of Biscay.
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