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RAF Air Gunner-Multiple Crash Survivor

by Fredfield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Fred Oldfield
Location of story: 
Langham, Norfolk & Western Desert, Egypt
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 May 2005

RAF Air Gunner- Multiple crash survivor

The following stories are accounts of 4 crashes from which I escaped during WW2 whilst finishing training as a Wireless Operator Air/Gunner and later operations with 221 Squadron in the Middle East and Malta. The stories are excerpts from a book which I wrote for my family.

1st Escape

At the end of our training as aircrew we had to do practice take-offs and landings at night, which for some reason couldn't be done at Cranwell.We flew to the satellite airfield at Langham, near to the north Norfolk coast and were billeted in a large house. My friend Pat and I, were on the same crew. The object of the training was to give the pilots experience of take-offs and landings at night (known as circuits and bumps), and involved taking off, doing one circuit of the airfield and landing. The only reason for carrying the air gunners was because the Luftwaffe was operating intruder patrols, sending night fighters across to wait for our aircraft to land, and shooting them down when they were at their most vulnerable, with flaps and undercarriage lowered. It was decided to man the rear turret at all times, although normally the rear gunner was out of the turret for take-off and landing.
I was in the turret for the first circuit and the pilot, managed to misjudge his height, and landed on one wingtip. The badly damaged aircraft bounced around madly and eventually came to a standstill the right way up. The risk of fire being so great in a fabric covered aircraft, had the crew evacuating very quickly, not waiting to use the ladder, but jumping straight through the trap-door under the nose ... all the crew that is except me! I had been knocked unconscious by my parachute, which had been flung out of its stowage by the force of the crash.
(The parachutes we were issued were in two parts, a harness with straps over the shoulders and under the legs which plugged into a quick release mechanism, and a separate parachute pack, which had two rings that clicked onto two hooks on the front of the harness. There was a stowage for the pack near each crew-man's position. In fact I was never to wear the harness again because all our operations were over the sea at a height of only 1,000 feet and a parachute was of little use.)
I came round fairly quickly to find that the turret had partly rotated and I couldn't open the doors. As there was no hydraulic power, due to the engines being stopped, I had to rotate the turret manually, a difficult and slow operation, during which Pat came knocking on the outside of the turret to ask if I was all right and did I need any help? I was a bit annoyed by this and said, nobody had bothered when they jumped out of the aircraft and left me, and I didn't need their help now. Feeling a slight pain in my left hand I looked down and saw that my wishbone ring was missing. ( The ring had been given to me by a Maltese airman who said I would never come to any harm while I was wearing it )Searching for it I found it on the floor of the turret but it was broken into two pieces. Perhaps it had done its job.
I managed to extricate myself from the turret and made my way to the front of the aircraft, where, finding no ladder had been used, jumped out of the aircraft as the others had done. As I jumped my parachute harness got caught on something and I found myself dangling a few feet from the ground. My crew-mates were standing in a group some distance from the aircraft, smoking and laughing, and paying not the slightest heed to my calls for assistance. After a while I realised I only had to turn and thump the release box on the parachute harness and fall the few feet to the ground. This, highly amused my crew-mates who said it must have been the shortest parachute jump ever.
The skipper decided to commandeer the crew wagon and took us all to the pub in the village of Morston, on the coast, a few miles away. Still in our flying gear we walked into the pub, to a chorus from the locals of 'Did you see that there aeroplane crash?'. 'See it, we were in it', we replied. This ensured free drinks from the locals for most of the evening. Pat and I had noticed some dead ducks hanging behind the bar and when we asked the landlord about them, he said they had been shot on the marshes, and if we cared to go down the following day he would lend us a couple of shotguns, and we could do some shooting ourselves.
This was too good an offer to refuse, and the next day we presented ourselves at the pub, picked up the shotguns, managed to buy some 12-bore cartridges at a nearby village, and made our way to the marshes. All that day we tramped and squelched our way around the marshes with never a duck to be seen, and heartily fed up, we were about to pack it in, when along came a young lad with a dog. When we asked him where all the ducks were, the lad said we had been wasting our time, as the ducks only came over as it was getting dusk, and if we sat quietly and waited it would not be long before the ducks were coming over. So we sat and waited quietly and sure enough as dusk fell we heard the sound of the ducks coming in. I was so excited by this sound that I pulled back the hammer of the shotgun with my thumb, but my hands being so cold my thumb slipped off the hammer. With an almighty bang the shotgun went off, blasting a large hole in the ground and sadly, shooting off the dog's tail. As the dog disappeared into the misty dusk of the marshes, followed by his young owner, we decided to call it a day and beat a hasty retreat to the pub. After a round of drinks and a round of jeers from the locals for coming back empty handed, we were treated by the landlord, to a marvellous dinner, laid out on a small table in front of a roaring fire. Yes - it was roast duck!

2nd Escape
Landing ground 89. Western Desert of Egypt 1942.
On April 8th we were at last crewed up, as a few more aircraft began to trickle through to us. Although we had more than 20 crews we only had 3 aircraft. I was put on the crew of P/O Tapley, I asked what sort of pilot F/O Tapley was and they all said he was very good, and had been an airline pilot, which served to reassure me after the Langham experience. The reassurance was short-lived however.
On May 1st I was introduced to the crew. The captain was P/O Tapley, 2nd pilot was Don Cochrane, (I think this was also to be Don's first trip) navigator was Jock Whiteley and the three W/op AGs ( wireless operator air/gunners ) were Ted Hancock, myself and A.N.Other. We took off at 7pm in Wellington 'K', heading west across the desert to LG05 at Sidi Barrani, with me in the rear turret - not my favourite place, now of course, but I soon got used to it again.
When we landed at Sidi Barrani there was little to be seen, as everybody lived in dugouts because of the incessant bombing. We were only a few miles from the front line. The place seemed deserted but suddenly heads popped up out of holes in the ground, revealing ground crews who looked filthy. All had beards and hair matted with sand, their shirt and shorts covered in grease, not having been changed for many weeks. They lived in these individual little holes which they dug in the ground, then hollowed out a shelf to sleep on. They very rarely got any water and had to wash themselves in petrol. Their first question was: 'Have you brought any water?', and when we gave them the water which we carried in the aircraft, we had a mug of tea in no time.
This was made in the standard desert way, by filling half a petrol tin with sand, soaking it with 100 octane petrol, placing the other half of the petrol tin 'Katie-cornered' on top of the first one. This was filled with water, lots of tea, sugar and milk thrown in, then all stood back as a match was thrown on the petrol soaked tin. With a whoosh, flames and black smoke rose 50 feet in the air, and when these subsided, there was the top tin bubbling away, full of rich, thick brown tea. Our admiration for these men knew no bounds. They lived and worked in these conditions for months at a time, whereas we only went up to advanced base for a few days at a time, and then back to comparative luxury at LG89.
We left the aircraft to be refuelled and bombed up, and went for a meal in a dugout, where we were given a plate of stew which was soon laced with sand, trickling down between the sandbags. There was rice pudding for a sweet and when we asked if we could wash our plates, we were directed to a bucket of water with at least two inches of grease floating on top. We decided against washing and held out the plates for the rice pudding. The sand was now coming down in a torrent, and the cook was stirring it hastily into the pudding. When we asked him for a drink of water, he said sardonically: 'Where do you think this is, the Ritz?'. We did get a mug of tea made with sea water.
At briefing we were told that we were to search for shipping off Tobruk and had been loaded up with a new kind of bomb, called sticky bombs. These had a long rod attached to the nose and the idea was that they would explode above the deck of the ship, spraying shrapnel around. We were told to be careful as they were very sensitive, due to the rods attached to the nose. We were taken in a Garry (lorry) to the aircraft and took off, heading out to sea and turning west to Tobruk. After searching for many hours and finding nothing, the Captain decided to return to LG05 with the bombs still aboard.
As we came in to land, he misjudged our height, stalling the aircraft at about 100 feet and nose diving into the ground. The undercarriage collapsed, the propellers bent, the wing tanks burst open and the aircraft ploughed along the ground, coming to a halt with all the crew popping out like corks from bottles, and doing even time across the desert, away from the dreaded sticky bombs. Fortunately they didn't go off and when we checked each other to see if we were all right, I found that I had only sustained a scratched leg while the only other sign of injury was a boot print on P/O Tapley's face, where Don Cochrane had trodden on him. I should have said that after the Langham incident I had decided, circumstances permitting, to adopt a certain procedure for all landings and take-offs. This procedure was to take up a position immediately under the Astrodome, to twist my wrists through the straps in the roof (similar to straps on tube trains), and sprag my feet on the main spar. This ensured I couldn't be thrown about during a crash or bad landing and saved me from injury on this occasion and certainly on two later ones.
The C.O. of LG05 came down in his jeep, asked if we were all right and took us down to the beach for a swim in the sea - beautifully clear water, in which you could see the fish swimming around your legs. We were bathing with nothing on because we didn't have bathing costumes, but the nearest women would be about 500 miles away from there so it was no problem.

3d Escape

Shallufa, near Suez, Egypt.
On November 15th 1942 we were called upon to ferry barrels of oil and petrol to Gambut, which was quite well up towards Tobruk. This was required for the fighter aircraft which had followed hard on the heels of the Eighth Army, and we loaded the aircraft and flew the several hundred miles to Gambut. The place was like a beehive, people all over the place, but we got a mug of tea and a bite to eat from a mobile caravan. By this time we had got a new Sqdn C.O. - Wing Commander Jock Hutton - and he was at Gambut. He was a smashing bloke and he stood in the queue with the rest of us, with a mess tin in his hand.
We took on five passengers - ground crew chaps - and this skipper of ours, had to show off by flying a few feet from the ground the whole way back. Whenever he saw some kind of a camp he would beat it up, blowing down tents, then going out over the sea where you could see great big troughs where the slip stream hit the water. We were so low we were practically touching the water and he was laughing, this being just his kind of thing. It was obvious to me that something would go wrong, and I prepared myself in the usual position, under the astrodome. Then it happened - he flew the aircraft into the ground. There was a slight rise and he flew the aircraft into it. The engines screamed, the propellors bent and buckled and the belly of the aircraft was ripped out. We even went under some telegraph wires before plunging into the ground again, eventually coming to rest.
I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren't hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks. I climbed in and gingerly operated the switch, ready to dive for the hatch, but nothing happened and the SOS I sent, was in fact received in Malta and relayed back to our Sqadron.
The skipper set out across the desert to look for help and we settled down around a small fire that our ground crew had got going, brewed some more tea and cooked the emergency rations of tinned sausages and tinned tomatoes, served up with hard tack biscuits. The skipper returned eventually with some blankets and we got down for the night around the fire. We were woken after a while by a sound, and it turned out to be a couple of Bedouin Arabs, looking for their sheep, which they said had been scattered by the Germans. They were very pleasant and even gave us some cigarettes.
The next morning we made our way to the road, stopped a few lorries and cadged some cigarettes. After a while we found a German stores which had been abandoned in such haste they were almost intact. We got all sorts of souvenirs; boots, haversack, ground sheet, shirt and shorts, a helmet and caps, and a jacket with the German eagle badge on it.... didn't do us much good because we lost the lot later. We had a high old time throwing mortar bombs around and were lucky we didn't blow ourselves up. We quite enjoyed ransacking this German store.
One of our aircraft came up to rescue us. It was piloted by the Flight Commander, Harding - He couldn't land, so he went back and arranged for a lorry to come and take us to LG013. I think they were South Africans at this landing ground and we were given a tent and slept on the ground. The next morning we did some more exploring and found an abandoned German HE111 aircraft which we had a good look round, and then my old skipper, Peter Gay, came up in a Wellington and took us back to Gianaclis, where we packed our kit. He then took us back to Shallufa.
We had a day in Suez and on November 25th I had to go to Wing H.Q. and take an exam on radio and radar, which I passed quite easily. I can't remember what Wing we were on but I remember the group as 201 Naval Co-operation Group. We were then told that we were converting to torpedoes and that we might go out to the Far East, but nothing came of it. These rumours used to fly about all the time. Some of them turned out to be true, but not many.
On November 30th, 1942, the Flight Commander came into our hut and asked for three volunteer crews to go on detachment to Malta for an unspecified period. Each aircraft would carry two torpedoes to attack any shipping found en route, and would be loaded to the gills with petrol and all the crew's kit.
************************************************************************ The 4th escape will be added as a separate story.

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