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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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User ID: U1509903

Eric Harrison is a good friend of mine. He does not have access to the Internet so I am writing this in his name; with his approval, of course.

I joined 612 Squadron RAF (Coastal Command) in November 1942 as an Observer (Navigator) based at Wick in the North of Scotland. The Squadron was equipped with Whitley IIIs which had been rejected by Bomber Command as being too old and too slow. I also served with 228 Squadron (Sunderland flying boats) and 355 Squadron (Liberators of Transport Command in India). Being slow was a quality required by aircraft on Coastal Command for hunting U-boats and escorting convoys!

A Whitley anti-sub patrol to Iceland was very nearly the end of me, Captain Flight Sergeant D.T.(Tom) Perry, second pilot Bob (Killer) Ordish and the three wireless operators/air gunners. The crew took off in Q for Queenie, Z9382, for a patrol lasting about eight and a half to nine hours. We saw Iceland in the distance before deciding to return to base due to poor weather. So far the trip had been uneventful. However, while flying in cloud the `plane became subject to the most vicious vibrations, so much so that Tom and Bob were almost unable to keep the aircraft in the air.

Ditching: An SOS was sent out; the radio waves immediately became silent and ditching positions were taken up by the WOp/AGs. I went about my emergency duty which was to crawl into the nose to get rid of the depth charges. This proved difficult. Four were cleared, on `safe` of course but two `hung up`. While this was going on a small gap appeared, as if by magic, in the 10/10ths cloud through which we had been flying. Below I realised was the small island of Foula which is off the south-west coast of the Shetlands.

The Captain decided to do a belly-landing and expertly picked out the only possible place to make a forced landing. The crew took up crash positions and the pilot made his approach over the cliff top, said to be the highest in Scotland. There was an almighty bang when the Whitley sat down, running on for fifty yards or so until it hit a six-foot high peat bank, turned port through 90 degrees, being smashed completely through the middle, and stopped. We all climbed out through the astro-dome except Tom who had badly strained his back trying to keep the `plane in the air. He was the only casualty, although one of the WOps whose ditching position was by the Elsan had the contents of seven hours and 20 minutes of flying time tipped over him!

Landing: The Captain had made a good choice of landing spot. Today this is Foula`s small, grass airstrip. At that time Foula had about 80 inhabitants. The local schoolmistress and the Church Minister billeted the six of us until we were picked up two days later by lifeboat.

On inspecting the wreckage a Court of Inquiry found it was a Category E write off; that the split-pin which secured the tail-trimming tab had not been secured in place. When it dropped out in flight it resulted in the severe vibrations experienced.

It had to be an act of God that none of us was killed. For nearly eight hours after leaving Wick we had never passed over land, yet had found Foula beneath us when we probably had only seconds to live.

Rough Sea: We never would have survived a ditching. Whitleys were notorious for sinking in less than a minute, and the sea was rough from a 30-knot wind. The mechanic responsible was court-martialled and dismissed the service.

At the time of the crash landing I made sure to release both pigeons carried in the aircraft. The distance to Wick had been about 100 miles as the crow, but not the pigeon, flies. They turned up at Wick five days later absolutely exhausted. It was explained that they would not fly through the weather front, but round it, over to Holland, before heading back to base!

This story of the crash-landing, featured in the September 1988 issue of Shetland Life Magazine, enabled me to `re-discover` two other members of the crew although they are now, regrettably, no longer alive. One of them who went back in 1989 was given a hero`s welcome, being featured on Shetland radio and given `royal` treatment. By then Foula was down to a population of about 40. It can be cut off from the Shetland mainland for up to 40 days at a time with nothing being delivered until storms abate.

A little known fact is that Whitley flying time was counted double towards the Coastal Command `tour` of 800. My 200 hours in Whitleys equalled 400. I wonder why? You tell me!

And finally; you will now understand why, although I have not yet been back, Foula is my favourite place. There`s still time!

Eric Harrison

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