- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Harold Church
- Location of story:
- Lincolnshire & Germany
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 November 2003
AS WE WHO ARE LEFT GROW OLD
by David Bishop (Harold Church)
They did not know, they could not know, that within two hours, some of them would die, violently. Statistically, they were aware that there was at least a five per-cent chance they would not return that night, or any other such night, but they refused to admit it, even to themselves. A one in twenty chance tonight did not necessarily mean a certainty by twenty such nights. It happened to others, so they persuaded themselves; they believed, or pretended to believe, they were immune, even though, privately, most of them were scared of what lay ahead.. Even if they had known, there was little any one of them could do, except report sick, and it was too late for that now. It would be unthinkable to desert comrades with whom work and pleasure had been shared. Besides, any action deliberately taken to avoid participation would result in disgrace. Last month, one friend, a flight sergeant, suffering from extreme stress, had asked to be relieved from any more operational flying. L.M.F., (lack of moral fibre), had been entered in his service book, he had been reduced to the ranks, sent elsewhere and was now probably cleaning lavatories or whitewashing coal. It was harsh treatment for such a person, a volunteer, as they all were, who was genuinely at the end of his tether, but possibly advisable in order to attempt to ensure that expensive training was not wasted. Fortunately, such action was necessary only for a few. It is surprising how much value is attached to self-esteem. What was it that Shakespeare wrote, in ‘Hamlet’? ‘This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ If they had opted out, they would remember and be ashamed of themselves for the rest of their lives.
Fourteen colleagues had failed to return one night last week. They had raised their glasses and toasted ‘Absent Friends’, then those friends had been replaced almost immediately by crews, who would soon become friends, even if only for a short time. Such was life - and death, in the autumn of 1943 on a Lancaster bomber base. 49 squadron, based at Fiskerton, a few miles east of Lincoln, was one of many in 5 Group, regarded by many, and certainly by themselves, as the elite of Bomber Command, scattered on the flat Lincolnshire countryside, in isolated situations. The squadron’s brick buildings, the ‘Nissen’ huts, the control tower, three hangars and all the other necessities had been erected hastily, as had the three concrete runways in the usual ‘A’ pattern, and bomb dumps. Over a thousand airmen and members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, (Waafs), from Group Captain to A.C.1. had adapted quickly since their move, some months ago, from their previous base, Scampton an established pre-war aerodrome. The grass runways there had proved unsuitable for heavy bombers, particularly when they were fully loaded on take-off, bound for Germany. Even though they missed the many facilities that had existed previously, and complained about the War, Adolf Hitler, the rations, the basic accommodation and the mud, they cheerfully got on with their job. The squadron consisted of sixteen aircraft, eight in each of the flights, A and B, usually with a few spares, both in men and machines. War is an expensive business!
Unlike most bomber squadrons, painted emblems of blondes or bombs on the fuselages were scorned. This squadron was above such fripperies; the Lancasters flew unadorned, their crews proud of their individuality. Just the roundels, the squadron identification letters, and the individual aircraft letters were displayed. Nothing else was necessary. If questioned, though, they would have had to admit that the lack of emblems was based on pure superstition. Earlier in the war, a few crews on the squadron had had their aircraft decorated with emblems and it so happened that they were the ones that failed to return. So the commanding officer, or someone else in authority, had decreed that such adornments were not welcome. Oddly enough, though, many airmen were superstitious; a large number of them carried mascots on their operations.
The crew of seven stood by the huge undercarriage of their Lancaster, ‘E - Easy’, flies open, for their ritual urination before climbing into its dark and narrow interior. It was also advisable , for there would be no other reasonable opportunity for several hours. True, there was the Elson, (the chemical urinal), but there would be little time to use that.
The stars twinkled brightly in the early November sky; mist lay like a silver carpet on the damp grass; the dope on the wings and fuselage contributed to the unmistakable and evocative smell of a wartime airfield at night, one that cannot be described to those who have not had that experience. The heightened awareness of the senses augmented the sights, sounds and smells to help produce a feeling of excitement and adventure. This feeling was a natural one for young men; all seven were barely out of their teens: to be more accurate, one of them was eighteen and another twenty-three. The latter was sometimes called ‘grand-dad’ by his friends. Older men (over thirty years of age), were often considered unsuitable for the job; older men usually had more sense than to volunteer for flying duties, even though they did get paid an extra shilling or so a day as flying pay. Was it by reason of their youth or their hairstyle that R.A.F. aircrews were named the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ by some in the other armed services?
Norman Carfoot was the pilot; a squadron-leader at the age of twenty-one, he had already completed almost two thousand hours’ flying, most of them on Sunderlands, patrolling the Atlantic, searching for enemy submarines. He had become bored with this comparatively unexciting life, and had requested a transfer to Bomber Command. A burly young man, he had the confidence and deep respect of his crew, who would accompany him to hell and back, as they so often did. The aircraft he piloted did not just land; they floated to the runway and kissed the ground lightly. His magnificent moustache was the envy of many aircrew; why did they have still have mere down on their upper lips when they had tried so hard to grow something to twirl? All they could do to be different was to leave undone the top button of their tunic or battle dress. This method of ‘cocking a snook’ at ‘Authority’ became a tradition in Bomber Command.
Pilot Officer ‘Jock’ Mason, the flight engineer, was a typical Scot, dour, down-to-earth, good at his job and reliable. It was he who had reached the ripe old age of twenty-three. He had been an engineer with a reputable British motor manufacturer before volunteering for aircrew and spent many of his non-duty hours in fussing around the aircraft’s engines with the mechanics.
Flying Officer Harry Church, the navigator, from Norfolk, twenty years of age, was able to boast, quite modestly, that he had never been lost in the air. (All aircrew were adept at ‘line-shooting’, as it was called). He neglected to mention that once he had been lost in Lincoln, after drinking a few pints!
The bomb-aimer, Flight Sergeant David Putnam, aged twenty-one, was a Canadian, from Winnipeg, who had almost completed a pilot’s course in Canada, but had then been advised to transfer to a bomb-aimer’s course. He could never understand why all English houses did not have full central heating, As he spent most of his time in the nose of the aircraft, he always carried an empty milk bottle, in case he needed it. The particular part of his anatomy which did relieve that need became stuck in it on one occasion, during a long flight, much to the delight of the rest of the crew.
Sergeant Hank Woods, a Londoner, was the wireless operator, aged twenty, who dated a different girl every night of the week when he was not flying, and wrote letters to several others. His line-shooting to his colleagues consisted of boasting of his many conquests. His line-shooting to some of his conquests to whom he wrote, followed a different pattern.. He would sit in the Mess, writing to one of his ‘popsies’, as airmen usually called their girlfriends, pretending to be flying over Germany while he wrote, professing his undying love and hoping to see her in the not-too-distant future, should he survive the current operation! Hank could send and receive Morse code messages at over twenty words per minute.
Flight- Sergeant Steve List, the rear-gunner, aged twenty-one, came from Newcastle. He did not have a ‘Geordie’ accent, as his home town was Newcastle in Australia. He had volunteered to travel half way round the world for the purpose of sitting, cramped and cold, despite the electrically heated suit, in the most exposed, most lonely and most dangerous part of the aeroplane. He called himself a fatalist, taking the view that if his time was up he would not survive. While maintaining there was little purpose in searching the skies for enemy aircraft for his own sake, he assured the rest of the crew that he would keep a keen look-out in case he could save their lives! Was he serious, or was he indulging in an Aussie leg-pull? On the assumption that the latter was the case, the rest of the crew had made a point of thanking him effusively when he announced that generous concession! Steve was an excellent gunner, having qualified with high marks on his particular course, which included instant aircraft recognition as well as gunnery.
Sergeant Wilf Marsen, the mid-upper gunner, was the baby of the crew, just eighteen, having falsified his age in order to volunteer at the age of seventeen. Referring to the initials of his position in the aircraft, he told his friends that he must be a MUG to sit there for hours, searching the skies for something to shoot at. His home was only a few miles north of Lincoln. He always carried an old Home Guard helmet with him on operations, which he carefully tied around his groin. Many aircrew members particularly feared two fates: burning to death and damage to their valuable genitals. Wilf was determined to avoid the latter if at all possible. He was the joker of the crew. Small and wiry, he smoked an enormous pipe and had an imaginary dog, a figment of Wilf’s fertile imagination. He ‘walked’ it around the perimeter, to the ‘pub’ and even on the train to Lincoln, talking to it, praising or scolding its behaviour. Many a spectator was puzzled, to say the least. Wilf called his ‘dog’, Fido, named after the fog dispersal system recently installed on either side of the main runway. ‘F.I.D.O’. an acronym for Fog, Intensive, Dispersal Operation consisted of pipes, along which petrol, mixed with methane, was pumped in foggy weather. When ignited, the flames from the regularly spaced holes cleared fog over and near the runway, so that ‘planes from the squadron and others in the vicinity, or even those based in Yorkshire or Norfolk, could land in reasonable safety. However, it was only ‘reasonably safely’, in that the glare from the flames and the turbulence caused, did provide considerable problems for pilots, tired from an operation over enemy territory. Not only was the squadron the first to have the system, but the crew of ‘E-easy’ was the first to test it, one late afternoon in October,. This honour, if it could be so called, was a source of great pride to Wilf, although the choice was almost certainly due to the fact that Norman was probably the most experienced pilot on the squadron. On the first night testing, in early November, fire engines raced from Lincoln, thinking the buildings were on fire. No-one had told them of the practising. F.I.D.O. was very expensive on fuel; nearly two hundred thousand gallons of petrol could be consumed in one ‘burn’, and petrol was generally in short supply. Nevertheless, the system undoubtedly saved many aircraft and the lives of their crews, while landing in the Lincolnshire fogs after an operation. War is an expensive business!
On the first evening of the crew’s posting to the Squadron, Wilf had meandered to the mess in search of a pint.
On approaching the bar, a regular flight- sergeant, i/c Maintenance, eyed the lad, remarking, ‘You won’t be served until the chores are finished.’
‘Never mind’, replied Wilf, ‘I’m not really thirsty’.
‘That wasn’t the reply I expected’ said the flight-sergeant.
Assuming an expression of baby-faced innocence, Wilf queried, ‘What did you expect me to say?’
‘What chores’, flight explained.
‘A pint of bitter, please’, was the quick retort.
The flight-sergeant laughed, clapped Wilf on the shoulder, said,‘You’ll do, my lad’ and bought the pint.
This was their seventeenth ‘op’, although most of them had been undertaken with another squadron, before being posted to this special one. ‘Op’, short for operation, sounded more casual, less ostentatious, than the American ‘mission’. They had only thirteen more to do after this one to complete their tour. Completing a tour was not a simple exercise; towards the end of 1943, few crews managed to complete the thirty operations over enemy territory. However, they did have the privilege of a week’s leave every month or so. If they were lucky, and the weather suitable, the tour could be completed in about three months. Then they would be entitled to a long rest, probably as instructors, before beginning another tour. Needless to say, the completion of those thirty operations provided a reason for great celebration, by and for the fortunate crew.
‘E-Easy’ was an almost new Lancaster, only weeks old, delivered to the squadron by a young female pilot. Almost all aircraft were flown from airfields close by factories, to the operating squadrons, and almost always by young women of the Air Transport Auxiliaries, who, by reason of their sex were not allowed to fly on operations. Harry, for one, felt envious and quite inadequate when he saw these slips of girls piloting huge aircraft so competently. At Elementary Flying School, more than a year ago, he had learned to fly a Tiger Moth. He had managed to be allowed to go solo after ten hours of instruction, but on that memorable flight of some fifteen minutes, also had managed to land about six feet above the ground. The Tiger Moth had inelegantly bounced and bounced again, before coming to rest close to a hedge on the perimeter fence, with a damaged undercarriage. He was not particularly popular with the instructor. Harry liked to think that he was chosen to follow a navigator’s course because of good examination marks and ability in that occupation, rather than because of lack of promise as a trainee pilot. After all, he had managed to fly once without the help and advice of an instructor.
The Wing Commander, known as ‘Triple A’, (his name was A.A.Adams), enjoyed flying ‘E-easy’ and usually did so when he selected himself for ‘ops’. When ‘Wingco’ was not flying, Norman welcomed the opportunity to take over what he liked to think as his own aircraft, for night flying exercises as well as operations. Their previous regular ‘Lanc’, ‘F-Freddie’ had been written off, full of bullet and shrapnel holes and with one engine damaged beyond repair, on a previous ‘op’. Even in that condition, Norman had landed with his usual skill and aplomb. Lancasters were marvellous aircraft, but they did differ in performance. While ‘Freddie’ had been a bit of a beast, slow to climb and slow to turn, ‘E-Easy’ was a delight, with a ceiling of 22,000 feet, fully loaded, and a top speed of almost 200 knots unloaded. The average life of a Lancaster on operations was, in those days, about forty hours. War is an expensive business!
Briefing had been held that afternoon, attended by the fourteen crews nominated for the operation.. The number of aircraft involved depended on the demands of Group Headquarters, the number of serviceable aircraft and the number of crews available. Therefore, it was only on rare occasions that all the squadron’s Lancasters were involved in a particular operation. When the target was announced by the Wing Commander as Dusseldorf, with the aiming-point the fuel storage tanks for the developing German V rockets, there were hearty groans. The Rhine/Ruhr Valley, known by aircrew as ‘Happy Valley’, was not a favourite destination, being well guarded by anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights and fighters. ‘Short, sharp and shitty’, were the pithy and effective adjectives used by aircrew for those trips. Tracks to follow, expected wind-velocities, known searchlight and ‘flak’ sites were noted, cloud cover predicted, together with all the other information necessary. The briefings always ended with ‘Synchronise your watches, gentlemen; The time is now ------- ‘
After the briefing, the navigators stayed to complete their plotting of tracks and the first course to follow, based on the predicted wind velocity supplied by the ‘met’ officer. Later, they would need to obtain fixes on their actual position over the ground, calculate the actual wind speed and direction and the new compass course to take. This information would then be passed to the pilot, on the intercom. The necessary preparations relevant to their jobs were made by all other members of the aircrews,. It was ironic that many of the ground staff would already have a good idea of the target area for tonight; the amount of petrol put in the tanks to ensure that the maximum bomb load was carried was a vital clue. Five or six hundred gallons, consumed at a rate of about a gallon a mile, meant a short trip, and there was only one realistic venue, ‘Happy Valley’. Many of the ‘ops’ recently had been concentrated in that area, and were the most dreaded ones, together with the ‘big city’, as Berlin was called. Then came the kitting-out; helmet, oxygen mask, flying boots, jackets, parachute harnesses and ‘mae wests‘ were donned and parachutes issued. Valuables and any form of identification were handed in or put in lockers. Then they were ready for transport to the dispersed hard-standings, driven there by the pretty, young blonde Waaf, Vera, who was always very quiet on such occasions, though usually happy and talkative, particularly when she collected them on their return.
Climbing the steps behind the wing on the starboard side, the crew made their way along the narrow fuselage, clumsy with accoutrements. Those who were stationed at the fore climbed laboriously over the main spar, while the rear and mid-upper gunners settled themselves for an uncomfortable journey. The four mighty Merlin engines were started ; one by one they coughed, spluttered and roared into life. The necessary checks were made to ensure all was well. At a signal, the aircraft taxied out of its dispersal bay, leading the rest of the squadron aircraft towards the main runway. Reaching the runway, a further signalled ‘take off’’ preceded the howl of engines at full throttle, as ‘E-Easy’ sped towards the far hedge. Becoming airborne was always a tricky business with a full load of more than six tons of bombs. Three weeks ago, one Lanc had failed to do so, with disastrous consequences to all the crew as well as the ‘plane. Fortunately the bombs had not exploded. Tonight, they had about fourteen thousand pounds of bombs slung under the Lanc: two ‘cookies’, with several smaller brethren and incendiaries. The ground crew had inscribed the ‘cookies’ with short and impolite messages, addressed to Mr.A. Hitler.
Once airborne, the usual drills followed: the undercarriage was retracted and a course set, climbing steadily, westward first to gain height, then east, for the rendezvous over Skegness. About five hundred bombers, mainly Lancasters and Halifaxes, were operational that evening, all on the same course, without exterior lights, in a corridor some twenty miles long, two miles wide, and at heights between 16,000 and 22,000 feet. On previous operations many had near misses and some had no doubt collided, but this was a calculated risk, preferable to the use of navigation lights or straying from the main stream , to be picked off by an enemy fighter. There was safety in numbers; the enemy could not attack all the aircraft at once! It was a grim fact that those that were singled out for special attention seldom returned to base. Those that did return usually bore scars. Landings with three engines functioning were not unusual, while shell holes in the wings were commonplace.
After crossing the coast, the air-gunners gave a short burst from their Brownings, to ensure efficiency and readiness.
‘Navigator to pilot - course 097 - airspeed 185 knots - on track’ - E.T.A. 19.34’
‘Pilot to navigator - thank-you - changing course, now, to 097, at 185 knots’
‘Enemy coast ahead’, announced Steve, the bomb-aimer, over the intercom. and then they were over hostile territory; not that they had been particularly safe from fighter attention over the North Sea. Now they would have searchlights and flak to deal with too. They were becoming used to this, gaining more and more confidence with each ‘op’, but they knew they could not afford to become over-confident or careless. Harry remembered the first one; after the target had been confirmed and the time of take-off approached, he had felt very unwell and had almost persuaded himself that he was unfit to fly, that he would be a danger to the rest of the crew and ought really to report sick. It had taken a great deal of will-power to convince himself that he was not really ill, just scared stiff. After that, it had been a bit easier. The waiting was the problem; once they were in the aircraft, all the crew members had their specific tasks to perform and involvement with the job in hand left little time to think of other things.
At the pre-arranged point, a further change of course was made; the track to the target usually entailed at least two such manoeuvres to attempt to confuse the enemy as to their destination. A further minor course correction was necessary, arising from referral to the H2S and Harry’s subsequent calculations of wind speed and direction.. The H2S was a blessing; this navigational aid had been developed quite recently and the squadron, often known as the ‘try it out squadron’, was one of the first to use it. Pulses from the transmitter beneath the aircraft were reflected back to the aircraft from the surface below, whether or not there was cloud. The nature of those surfaces were displayed on a cathode ray tube above the navigator’s table; towns and water below could be distinguished by the difference in shades from light grey to black. Dead reckoning, using the Mercator’s chart, was still essential, but this new aid was very valuable in obtaining a ‘fix’. However, what they did not know and what the boffins did not then know, was that German fighters could home in on the H2S, having already salvaged and painstakingly reconstructed one from a crashed Lancaster. Had it been known, or suspected, aircrew would not have been at all keen to use it anywhere near the target!. On later raids, the navigators would make sure it was switched off during the bombing run. The ‘Gee’ set, hitherto used, and still installed, was useful, but limited in range in that it relied on synchronised radio signals from England, which could be jammed by the Germans, while astro-navigation, using major stars to obtain bearings, could not give an accurate fix. The wireless operator, too, had to maintain silence, except in case of dire emergency, as Morse-code signals would be picked up and homed in on by the enemy.
Then came the first attack. ‘Enemy fighter to port’, called Steve, before his Browning guns began to chatter spitefully at the intruder to their air-space. Wilf’s joined in, and the enemy broke off to choose another target. The two gunners had sent a twin-engined German fighter, a JU88, spiralling in flames on one trip, much to their delight and the relief of the others. Most operations were like this. Enemy fighters were often spotted, but there was no point in attracting attention unless they attacked. Some did attack and were either driven off or broke off the engagement for some other reason. Such attacks had usually resulted in some minor damage to their aircraft, but so far none of the members of this crew had been injured and Wilf’s helmet had been superfluous. On two or three occasions, anti-aircraft fire, (flak), had torn jagged holes in the wings, but the overworked, dedicated and efficient ground-crew were adept at such repairs, so that the damaged aeroplane was quickly made serviceable again.
‘Windows’, the aluminium strips that confounded enemy radar, were ejected, then spot on the estimated time of arrival (ETA), the target loomed ahead. It could not be missed. Myriad searchlights probed the night sky; occasionally an aircraft was caught in interlocking beams. A blazing bomber spiralled down in flames, while another suddenly exploded. The crew of that one did not have time to suffer. Innocuous looking, but deadly, white balls of cotton- wool appearance blossomed around: as expected in ‘Happy Valley’, the ‘flak’ was heavy tonight. The cotton-wool puffs were close, now and ‘E-easy’ rocked, as if in protest of the intrusion of her air space. Then began the run-in, straight and level. Now came the really ‘hairy’ half-minute or so.
After the bomb-aimer had released the load, the aircraft would leap, due to the sudden loss of weight, but it would be necessary to stay as straight and level as possible until the camera had functioned. The resultant photographs should indicate the accuracy of the bombing and also give valuable information as to probable damage when they were analysed by the experts.
‘Bomb-aimer to pilot, left, left, steady, right, -- steady…steady…bombs gone.’ Simultaneously and before Harry could enter that fact and the time in his log, they were coned by searchlights. The interior of ‘E-Easy’ was starkly illuminated. All aircrews dreaded such a misfortune for they knew that the operators rarely allowed their victims to elude them. Anti-aircraft shells or a night-fighter’s bullets would target them, and all too few returned to base to tell the tale. Norman threw the aircraft into a dive, turning violently to port at the same time. The searchlights pursued ‘E-easy’ relentlessly and the flak increased in intensity. The aircraft shuddered like a wounded beast as the anti-aircraft shells exploded; in the harsh light it was obvious that the starboard wing had been badly damaged. The flak stopped, suddenly, but the crew knew the likely consequence. Surely enough ---
Steve announced, almost conversationally, ‘JU88 to starboard - dive, dive’. The gunners’ Brownings burst into action. But they were already diving! Norman fought for control. Then came disaster; the gunners’ fire had no effect on this occasion. Harry missed death by inches as tracer bullets appeared lazily to cross his vision from left to right. This illusion of laziness was caused by the fact that tracers were regularly spaced among the equally deadly other bullets in order to help the gunner to direct and correct his fire.
The port wing burst into flames. Jock made valiant efforts to divert the fuel supply to a different wing-tank. Norman’s calm voice was heard over the inter-com., checking the well-being of the crew. . No reply came from the wireless operator, but the others reported in, one by one. Seconds only had passed, but already it was obvious there would be no bacon and egg tonight after landing and debriefing. As the ‘op’ was an early evening one, that treasured meal in wartime Britain, keenly anticipated, was due on their return, rather than before the trip. Often on a long operation, perhaps of eight hours in duration, crews were served with a meal beforehand. Some aircrew were unkind enough to suggest that by serving the meal after the operation, a saving of rations was very likely.
Inevitably, the dreaded ‘Abracadabra, Jump, Jump’ order was issued, calmly, by the pilot.
‘Skipper, I can’t get out’ stated Steve, from the rear turret.
‘The navigator will come to help you’, said Norman, reassuringly, as if such a minor problem would soon be solved. Harry drew the blackout curtain behind him, when over the still-connected intercom Steve announced, ‘I’m O.K. now skipper’. Harry could not help his vast relief that he would not now have to struggle to the rear of the blazing aircraft. Relief turned to shock as he looked to his left and saw the wireless operator, or what remained of him; The bullets that had passed across the navigator’s table had not missed Hank, who was now quite unrecognisable with his head a pulpy mess. The shock was even greater in that he had never before seen a dead body, even from a peaceful death. By this time the pilot had managed to pull the Lanc out of its steep dive in order to enable his crew to leave; had he been unable to do so, their evacuation would have been almost impossible. Harry quickly reported Hank’s fate, clipped on his parachute, removed his oxygen mask and moved to the escape hatch in the nose. As he passed Norman, still fighting the controls in order to keep the aircraft as steady as possible, his pilot, skipper, friend and colleague took one hand briefly from the joystick and actually waved goodbye! “Greater love has no man ….” They both knew that Norman had no chance of survival. If he relinquished the controls, ‘E Easy’ would spin violently. The hundreds of gallons in the tanks would probably cause a major explosion at any second. Even if, by some miracle, he had managed to reach the hatch, it would not have provided him with a means of escape, as he had often remarked, in a jocular fashion, “I’ve tried out the hatch for size and I’m far too fat for it to be any use to me”, or words to that effect.
Reaching the nose, Harry saw that the hatch had been removed, and David and Jock had gone. Now it was Harry’s turn. E-easy was now burning fiercely. He dived out. At that height the temperature was much below freezing point and his oxygen supply now non-existent.
While it was inadvisable to use the ripcord on his chest parachute too soon, in case the aircraft exploded immediately, it was necessary to reach breathable air and a warmer temperature as quickly as possible, but also to avoid blacking out before he could pull the ‘D’ ring. The few seconds’ delay in his doing so was certainly not from force of habit. He had not had this experience previously and sincerely hoped he would not repeat it. As the ‘chute opened several seconds later, he saw their aircraft, below and in front, plunging earthwards in a ball of flame. A minute or two earlier he had escaped death by inches, now he had survived by seconds; but at that time he had thoughts only for Norman, Hank and any others of those close friends who may not have been able to escape from that inferno.
Harry drifted down; the quietness now was almost unbelievable - entirely free from the barely perceptible sounds that are not even registered in the brain in what is thought of as total silence, on a quiet night in the countryside or on a deserted mountain. Not only was it such an enormous contrast from what had just happened, but a silence he had never before experienced. This was so peaceful and in spite of his predicament, almost relaxing. The fall seemed unending; it must have taken at least thirty minutes. Then he saw clouds below, and suddenly, with no warning, he just stopped, standing upright. The ‘chute collapsed around and on him.
“Now I know where I am”, he thought. “I am at the Pearly Gates, and at any moment, Saint Peter will greet me” However, as he came to his senses, which no doubt had been partly befuddled by a lack of oxygen, he realised what had happened. The cloud was actually a ground mist, the same type of mist he had left such a short time ago. He had landed gently in a ploughed field. So much for the warning that landing by parachute was similar to a jump from a high wall. As he gathered up his parachute he also gathered his wits, deciding what to do next. Fortunately, he wore the new type of flying boots, laced shoes on the feet with the legs attached; so many others had lost the old type while baling out.. In order to avoid attracting attention he cut off the tops with the knife provided, then tore off his navigator’s brevet and insignia of rank. A nearby straw-stack offered a hiding place for the parachute, harness and Mae West; he ripped the ‘chute into several pieces and pushed them under the straw, retaining one small piece. He knew that he had torn the parachute so that it could not be used by the enemy, but had no idea why he kept a piece of it. This was no time to think of mementoes,and he wasn’t a sentimental type! He sat by the stack for a few minutes, deciding what to do.
Orientating himself by the Pole star, he trudged south, intending to find a copse or wood until any probable search had been called off. However, after a few hundred paces, he climbed over a low bank and found himself on a narrow road, along which he walked. By now the moon was shining brightly and he was able to identify what looked like a village ahead. Deciding to bypass that, he prepared to take to the fields again, but before he could do so, he heard footfalls and a man’s voice called ‘Gute nacht’. Although a few German phrases were posted in the Mess for such an eventuality, Harry now wished he had learned to speak the language. However, the meaning was obvious, so he returned the greeting as best he could. One small hurdle had been surmounted. Jumping another bank, he crossed another field, and luck in, he saw trees ahead. Approaching, he found it was indeed a small wood in the corner of the field. He entered, pushed his way through bracken and bushes and sat down. He would wait until midnight, when all should be fairly quiet, before resuming his journey. Looking at his navigator’s ‘Omega’ watch, he could see well enough that the time was 2l.25, (or 9.25 p.m. in ‘civilian’ time!). ‘What a lot has happened in a few hours’, he muttered to himself. A favourite quip among aircrew was ‘Join the Navy and see the world; join the Air Force and see the next’. Well, he hadn’t done that- yet, but he thought again of his friends, who had so recently died. Hank had ‘bought it’, as aircrew, seemingly callously, referred to those who had been killed; Norman could not possibly have survived; of the other four, how many had been as fortunate as he?
Harry had two and a half hours to wait, to think and to plan his next moves. Thinking came first. His Mother, Father and his ‘Popsie’ would not, in their wildest dreams, believe the situation in which he found himself. They did not even know he was on operations, as he had deliberately not told them. Why should they worry unnecessarily ? There would be time to tell them when he had finished the tour of thirty ‘ops’. Now he wondered whether it would have been better to have mentioned it when he was last on leave: tomorrow Mum and Dad would receive a telegram, ‘I regret to inform you that your son is missing in action’, or words to that effect. Any additional platitudes in the letter that would follow could not disguise the fact and could not be of much comfort to them. Had they known that he was on ‘ops’, would they have been better prepared? How long would they have to wait before knowing he was still alive?; would it be on his arrival in a neutral country, after escaping, or would it be after he had been captured.? The latter he knew was a possibility, even a probability, but he must think positively. He thought ruefully, ‘In a few days’ time I should have been on a week’s leave’. Such leaves were not usually postponed, except in emergency. In fact, the welcome breaks were sometimes advanced, when a crew due for leave failed to return from an ‘op’.
Now he must think constructively. To the north and west were the rivers Rhine and Ruhr; bridges would be guarded, and he could swim only the two lengths of the pool compulsory for aircrew. He had never fancied the possibility of ditching in the ‘drink’, even though it would entitle him to membership of the exclusive ‘Goldfish’ club. He could never fathom why such a short distance had been chosen; such limited ability would not help in the North Sea, or in crossing a river, particularly fully clothed. If he had failed the swimming test, would he have failed his aircrew training? He mused, ‘Well, at least I qualify for the ‘Caterpillar Club’ the other exclusive organisation for which membership is granted to those who have saved their lives by parachute”
To the north and west, too, would be German troops, thousands and thousands of them;
and they would be very unfriendly. Eastwards would not be a rational direction to take, so Switzerland seemed to be the best bet. After all, it was only some three or four hundred miles south, to that sanctuary, with just the Alps to cross on the last part of the journey.!
His mind made up, plans were made. Knowing he would not be far from Dusseldorf, he would first travel eastward, through the less populated uplands of Westphalia, before striking southwards towards Mannheim. He knew the location of many German towns and cities well enough from the charts he had so often studied and worked from. Surely he could ‘jump’ a goods train travelling south in the direction of Basle. If he did manage to reach Switzerland, he would probably be interned for the duration of the war. Harry could not help thinking of that possibility as a bonus, in that he would then be freed from the dangers of his chosen war-time occupation. No, that was not the right way to think; his first duty was to escape from Germany and its occupied countries and his second priority was to return to England. Nevertheless, internment remained an attractive proposition, and certainly an additional incentive in his attempt to leave Germany. Checking his watch, recently synchronised and correct to the second, (necessary for astro-navigation), Harry began the journey. Before he left he had had chocolate from his emergency rations and a ‘pep’ pill, to keep him wakeful. Resolutely he set off, planning to walk for an hour, rest for ten minutes, to continue this pattern, then to hide and rest when he became really tired. Although the moonlight helped, the first hour’s journey seemed interminable. He stumbled on unfamiliar ground, and caught sight of two army patrols before finding a dry ditch in which to rest. After ten minutes or so he rose, to continue the journey and began to feel hungry. He spotted a farmhouse, with outbuildings, ahead; stealthily approaching, he saw a shed. Could there be chickens? A hen’s egg would not be amiss. There were chickens and there were eggs. Harry took two eggs, feeling guilty; it was stealing and he had not been brought up to do that. The journey continued and by now he realised he had a long, long way to go to reach freedom. A running stream provided a much-needed drink. The pattern of walking and resting continued.
At 2 a.m. he rested for longer, this time burrowing into the base of a stack of straw, and ate the two raw eggs, ruefully contrasting them with the egg and bacon he should have had hours ago. Although weary, he could not sleep or even doze, as the tablet was still taking effect, so the escapee set out again. About half-an-hour later, he stumbled on a railway line, running north to south. He had intended to walk much farther eastwards, but this looked promising. If he could find an upward incline, a goods train might pass slowly and he could perhaps jump on a passing truck. After all, it happened in films, where it looked quite easy!. He walked southwards along the line. Then Harry saw a bridge spanning the railway, with what seemed to be a minor road approaching it. He had another idea; perhaps he could stand on the bridge and drop on a slow-moving goods train. He had seen that in films, too. It had not been a wise idea, he quickly realised, as he began to make his way to the centre of the bridge.
‘Halt, who goes there?’ were not the words actually spoken, but the command and meaning were quite clear. Harry turned to run, but the sound of a shot dissuaded him and he halted. He had been lucky twice - to avoid death three times in a few hours was too much to hope for. Two soldiers approached, rifles at the ready. One soldier appeared elderly, the other young, in the light of the torch that one held.
‘Englander terror-flieger’, the older man declared. ‘Schweinhund’, said the younger. Unwisely, Harry retorted, ‘Hitler ist scheisen-hausen’, one of the very few phrases of German that he knew, even though he couldn’t spell the words’!. For his pains, he received a spiteful blow on his knee from the butt of the youth’s rifle; the natives were not at all friendly and it seemed that his all too short attempt at escape was over, at least for the time being. It was difficult to realise that he had been captured; ‘in the bag’, in R.A.F. slang.
IN THE BAG
Harry was taken to a nearby anti-aircraft site; there he was instructed to stand in the corner, like a naughty schoolboy, he thought, and was searched, somewhat perfunctorily. His pep pills, emergency rations and map were taken from him, but he was allowed to retain his wrist-watch. Then he was motioned to sit on a narrow wooden bench, while a spotty-faced, young German soldier sat facing him, revolver in hand. After some time, Harry was escorted outside the hut to relieve himself, then back to the bench. A mug of hot ersatz coffee, made from acorns, was put before him; he was very thirsty and drank it gratefully. ‘If this is a sample of their coffee’, he thought, ‘they are sadly lacking in taste’. No food was offered, so, hungry, lonely and somewhat depressed, he stretched himself out on the bench and eventually dozed, fitfully. In the morning, at about 7 a.m., Harry was prodded and given another mug of the unpalatable brew, with two pieces of bread sparsely covered with margarine. The bread that he was used to eating was usually white, sometimes brown, but this was almost black. It was his first experience of black rye bread. Unpleasant that it tasted, he ate it hungrily, wondering again that German troops had to put up with that sort of fare. What is more, they seemed to almost enjoy the similar food and drink that they had before them. Breakfast over, with no opportunity even to wash, two soldiers escorted him outside; he was pushed into a small closed vehicle and driven off, he knew not where. On reaching the chosen destination, seemingly a police station, Harry was escorted into a cell and left there for an hour or two before being searched again. No-one spoke to him, which he thought to be rather unfriendly; on this occasion his watch was taken from him, which was also unfriendly. A receipt was given, which seemed incongruous, and meant nothing, although he retained it. This search had been very rigorous ; all possible hiding places on his body were explored, which he found most embarrassing. However, the miniature compass, concealed within the top button of his tunic, was not discovered. This was not because the searchers did not attempt to unscrew the button, but because it had been fitted with a left-hand thread!. Obviously, previous shot-down aircrews had been searched, the hidden compasses discovered and somehow that information had found its way back to Britain. Therefore intelligence officers had decided to change the thread, rather than choose another hiding place. Such was the typical methodical and almost predictable nature of his captors, who could hardly be said to be endowed with the gift of lateral thinking. Harry was then left alone in his cell, containing nothing but a bucket in the corner, which he used during the hours that he waited, not knowing what would happen next. During the day, he was given a bowl of soup; it tasted like boiled, sour cabbage, which was probably what it was. He ate it hungrily, with real appreciation of its quantity but not of its quality.
In the evening, after darkness had fallen, Harry was taken to a railway station and accompanied by an armed soldier he guessed to be of about forty years of age, was put in a guard’s van. The train clattered through the night and he dozed on the straw, which had been so generously provided. He had no idea of the time, which was of little consequence to him, anyway. His companion did not communicate with him; it would not have helped had he done so, unless, of course, his guard spoke English, and even had he done so, it was certain that conversation would not have been stimulating. His custodian did not sleep, but sat, revolver in hand, looking at him. Harry became hungry and thirsty, then very hungry and very thirsty. Eventually the train came to a stop and guard and prisoner emerged, alighting at the platform of a large station. Harry read, ‘Frankfurt um Mainz’, and thought ruefully, ‘Well, at least I am travelling towards Switzerland, but the circumstances are not as I would have wished. There he was bundled unceremoniously into a small covered lorry and taken, unfed, unwashed and unshaven, to the infamous interrogation centre, the Dulagluft at Oberurall, nearby.
The cell to which Harry was taken was about seven feet long by five feet wide. There were no windows, but a bare bulb hung from the ceiling to provide light. The door had a spy-hole and an aperture near the bottom, a little larger than a letter- box opening. The cell contained a narrow wooden bunk, a straw palliasse, a rough grey and tattered army blanket and an uncovered bucket in the corner. The door was locked and he was left alone. Eventually, the inevitable bowl of soup, spoon, and a mug of ersatz coffee were pushed through the door aperture, - by now he was prepared to eat, and almost enjoy, anything edible, and was beginning, but only just beginning, to know what hunger was like. Most healthy people profess to be hungry when they have had no food for several hours, while deprivation for a day seems to be an ordeal. Real hunger, approaching starvation, is a state where the sufferer can think of nothing else but food. A humble, dry crust becomes a mouth-watering dream; the mind is entirely focused on food and drink; nothing else matters, not even family, friends or bodily comfort. Energy is dissipated; but Harry had by no means reached that state, yet. He lay on his bunk and eventually slept. Some time later, he had no way of telling how much later in the artificial light, he awoke, sweating profusely and removed his now dirty tunic. Then off came his trousers and shirt, but he continued to perspire freely. Eventually, tired out, he slept, but probably not for long. He awoke, in a very cold atmosphere, chilled to the bone, put on shirt, trousers and tunic, wrapped himself in the blanket and again, ultimately, fell asleep. The heat was then reintroduced and the pattern continued, it seemed for ever. The alternating hot and cold temperatures continued for days; he later learned it was five. At the time it seemed like weeks. Occasionally, and it seemed irregularly, a mug of coffee, a bowl of turnip soup or a slice of black bread, were pushed through the aperture; sometimes cabbage or potato soup was presented as a change in the menu. Harry soon learned that the bowl and mug had to be pushed back through the door aperture if they were to be replenished. On occasions, too, he was taken along a corridor, with no natural light and lined by similar cell doors, to a lavatory at the end, and guarded while he attended to the needs of his bowels. It provided a crumb of comfort that he did not have to use the bucket in the cell for that type of evacuation. No words were ever spoken. This, then, was the softening-up process of which they had been warned at lectures that had taken place, it seemed so very long ago; the ‘sweat -box’ method had been mentioned, but no words could ever describe the actual experience. However, the knowledge helped in the preparation for what was to follow a bit easier, although the thought that others had had the same treatment was of little consolation. That the cell had been occupied previously was evident by a scratching on the plain brick wall above the bed; the word, “Greetings” had been scratched, probably by using handle of the spoon provided for the soup. Harry was cheered to know that someone had retained his sense of humour. He decided to add his own message, which read, eventually, “Harry was here”. It took a long time to scratch this, his first and only attempt at graffiti. However, he had plenty of time, not only to deface the wall, but also to think and to review his twenty years of life.
Until the beginning of the War, in September, 1939, his life had been unremarkable and unexciting. He still remembered his first trip out of Norfolk, on a Sunday-school outing to Thorpeness, in Suffolk. He recollected a short ride on his uncle’s B.S.A. motor-cycle and the rabbit shooting ritual on Saturday afternoons, with his father, on which occasions he had learned to fire a twelve-bore shotgun, with some success. He thought longingly of the cheery log fire, always lit in the ‘front room’ on Sundays during the winter months.
On leaving school, he had obtained a job in an office in Great Yarmouth, where he licked stamps and learned the basics of accounting. He reflected that he began with a salary of £25 - that is, ten shillings a week, from which he retained a shilling for his pocket-money.
He had learned ballroom dancing, played tennis, fell in and out of love three or four times a year, and became widely travelled by occasional visits to Norwich, some twenty miles distant, in order to see Norwich City, (the Canaries), play football.
When the War began, when he was almost seventeen year of age, life began to change. It is said that all humans have three main needs; security, identity and stimulation. Harry had reasonable security, with savings amounting to nearly ten pounds, caring parents and several good friends; now stimulation was at hand. He joined the newly formed Home Guard, learning how to clean and fire a rifle and a Bren machine-gun and how to throw a hand-grenade without blowing up himself, or others. On night patrol he once fired his ‘303’ rifle at a marauding German bomber, flying low overhead. Unfortunately, he failed to shoot it down! However, the bomber did immediately drop its bombs - on a field on the outskirts of the village! No doubt it was a coincidence.
At the age of eighteen a decision had to be made. He would soon be called-up to join one of His Majesty’s services. If he waited until that happened, he would probably be allocated to the Army. While that service might well be more efficient by reason of his membership, he did not fancy the possibility of being perforated by an enemy bayonet. His father had served in the first World War and had been wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, while his father’s brother was killed in France a year later. His girl friend’s father had been gassed and still suffered greatly from the effects. No, life in the trenches, whether they be muddy or sandy, was not for him if he could help it. He was not at all keen on the Navy, either, with the prospect of a watery grave. His choice was now limited to the Royal Air Force, which he rather fancied, as the girls seemed to prefer that uniform. The problem was how to join that Service. If he waited for his call-up, he would probably be allocated to the Army, anyway. The responsible authorities usually seemed to place conscripts in the Service they did not wish to join, and more often than not to do a job for which they were not suited or qualified. He decided, therefore, he would volunteer for flying duties in the R.A.F. Aircrews were even more popular with the girls! Youngsters of his age were being offered the opportunity to join the PNB scheme, just being introduced. The initials represented Pilot, Navigator, Bomb-aimer and the procedure involved a basic training, during which the candidate would be assessed on his potential ability as a pilot or a navigator. What was not advertised was the implication that should he be found an unsuitable prospect for either, he would be expected to follow the appropriate course for a bomb-aimer.
Harry continued his mental autobiography and re-lived the procedure that he followed. The application, the interview and the initial medical examination, first in Norwich and then, months later, at RAF Uxbridge had indicated that he was suitable, both physically and mentally, for aircrew and he was given an RAFVR badge to show that he was a volunteer waiting to be summoned. He had not yet learned the services motto, ‘Never volunteer for anything’.
The next delay, for several months, had seemed interminable. During the waiting period, he had met Olivia and had fallen in love for about the seventeenth time. They talked, walked, cycled and danced together; then came the summons to report to Lords’ cricket ground, St. John’s Wood, London, on the 6th March, 1942, at 11.00 hours. An uncle, who was a farmer, gave him a ten-shilling note as a going-away present, and he had felt quite rich!
On arrival at that illustrious venue, with others of the intake, he had been issued with a uniform. Surprisingly, it fitted quite well! Then he collected various items of underwear and had been instructed to parcel up his civilian clothes and post them home. He and his new comrades were then marched, (or rather, their pathetic rendering of that skill), to their abode for the next three weeks, namely very expensive and exclusive flats in St. John’ Wood, taken over by the R.A.F. All were there instructed in the art of blanket-folding, with corners at precise right-angles, cleaning boots until they dazzled the onlooker, and presenting kit on beds for frequent inspections. Drill, more drill and yet more drill eventually transformed the new squadron into a reasonably smart unit, marching in time - well, most of the time. More medical examinations and tests of physical and mental ability were dispersed among the drill periods and parades. “Haircut, you”, became a common, dreaded command from an officer or N.C.O. Often, the offender had just had a haircut, expensive in terms of income, but protests were confined to inaudible comments on the parentage of the issuer of the order. They were ‘rookies’ then and would not dare to risk disobedience by ‘forgetting’ the order and hoping to avoid retribution. Lack of money was not accepted as an excuse.
Three times a day, every day, they had marched through Regent’s Park, to the zoo premises, where they were fed, and three times a day they were marched back again, for more instruction and more drill. They had also learned Morse code, having to pass a test in operating at four words a minute. For all this mental and physical activity they were each presented with the princely sum of ten shillings and sixpence a week, with free board and accommodation. They had enjoyed the experience of course, although they had not enough money to visit central London.
Then, Harry reflected, the whole squadron was marched to the railway station; now which one was it? From there they had been entrained to Scarborough, to I.T.W. (Initial Training Wing). Was it there, or at St.John’s Wood they had been given the white flashes that were inserted in the front of their forage caps, to denote they were aircrew under training.? How proud they had been of those flashes.
They had thoroughly enjoyed their twelve weeks at Scarborough, learning the basics of navigation, aircraft recognition and Morse code at a greater speed. They had become very efficient at marching. An improvement in general fitness was ensured by participation in cross-country runs. Was it St. Michael’s Mount that was a favourite destination decreed by the P.E. instructors? In spite of the humorous grumbling, most airmen enjoyed the runs. It was on the first of these runs of about five miles, that Harry had discovered his aptitude in that activity; he had become bored with trotting along with the majority, taking the view that the sooner he finished, the sooner he could shower and change. He had put on speed and finished well ahead of the rest. Now that he had discovered this latent ability, he began to train and soon achieved a reputation. He had never been so fit.
Whatever was the name of the hotel at which they had been billeted? Oh, yes, the “Prince of Wales”. It was while they were there that a few friends had gone out for the evening, had a couple of beers each and had then ‘fished for submarines’ in the ornamental pool across the road from the hotel. Harry smiled at the remembrance that they had then returned to their room, and wakened sleeping friends by asking if they would like to buy a submarine. The generous offer was not accepted; in fact, the replies received were unnecessarily impolite and unprintable. He wondered where those friends were now. No doubt many of them had lost their lives. Perhaps others had reached high rank. He reflected that he still had, at home, a photograph of a group of those friends, signed by each on the back. It was there, outside the entrance to the ‘Prince of Wales’, that he had done his first, and only, guard duty during his service life. It did seem a pointless exercise and he was glad he had not joined the Army.!
After I.T.W., all who had passed the course were transported to somewhere near the Solway Firth to an Elementary Flying Training School - E.F.T.S. A few had managed to fly solo after six or seven hours training; rather more were allowed to do so within the mandatory maximum of twelve hours, while those who were not allowed to fly solo were adjudged to be unsuitable for further pilot training.
Harry would not forget his first ever flight, with his instructor at the controls. Air experience, it was called. The instructor, a veteran fighter pilot on rest from ‘ops’, had flown the Tiger Moth under telegraph wires. He had put the aircraft in a spin and had looped-the-loop. Strangely enough, Harry had not been even slightly scared, knowing that the pilot had no intention of risking his own valuable life in assessing whether a pupil would be completely unsuitable as a pilot. He thought, “I was reminded of my one and only solo flight only a few weeks ago, when that attractive young woman delivered ‘E-easy’”.
The survivors of the course had then been posted to Heaton Park, Manchester, where they were to be assessed and posted somewhere for further training. Hundreds of aspiring pilots and navigators slept out in lodgings and spent all day, every day for weeks, waiting. Those who had not come were the prospective bomb-aimers, some of whom were probably destined to train as air-gunners. At that stage, Harry had been informed that he was well suited to continue training as a navigator. Eventually, his group were told they would continue their training in South Africa. Before they had the opportunity to rejoice at their good fortune or bemoan the fact that they would be delayed before they could help to finish the War, the posting was rescinded. Harry would have liked to have gone to South Africa, being in no great hurry to endanger the life he was thoroughly enjoying!
After a further short delay, the group of firm friends had been posted to No.1 Navigation School at Bridgnorth, Shropshire, and were divided into two flights, A and B. An intensive and demanding course was followed for weeks and weeks, or was it months? Those of each flight who passed the final examinations were then posted for flying training. Those who failed were probably encouraged to train for other aircrew duties. ‘A’ flight had been posted to Canada and ‘B’ flight to North Wales. Harry was in ‘B’flight.
‘B’ flight had duly arrived at an airfield at Llandwrog, at the foot of Snowdon. What a silly place to have an airfield for ‘sprog’ (inexperienced) navigators, they thought; what happens in fog? They soon found out. Within a week of their arrival, an Anson, attempting to land in murky weather, had ploughed into the lower slopes of the mountain. The Anson, often called the flying greenhouse, because of its vast expanse of glass, was an ideal aircraft in which to train navigators. The all-round visibility enabled trainees to map-read more efficiently, a vital part of their early training. This period was another very enjoyable part of service life. Most days they were flying over beautiful countryside, not just Wales, but also along the west coast of Scotland, using their new-found skills to guide the pilot on given tracks, eventually to arrive back at base. One never-to-be-forgotten sight was the tip of Snowdon, just protruding from a layer of white stratocumulus cloud above which the pilot and Harry were flying. At least, it was an excellent fix, to ensure they were on the right course. That part of the training over, the trainees had been presented with their wings, qualifying them as fully fledged navigators and promoted to sergeants or pilot officers. The rank allocated appeared to depend on the school attended, the father’s profession, (rather than job!), games played and the accent of the candidate! They were then all sent on a week’s leave.
‘B’ flight, in its entirety, was then posted to an operational training unit at R.A.F. Cottesmore, flying in larger aircraft, in their case the two-engined Wellington, or ‘Wimpy’, as it was affectionately called. As night flying was of paramount importance, most of this further advanced training was done during the hours of darkness, over all parts of Great Britain, on flights of several hours’ duration. It was at this final stage of their training that crewing-up took place. The method of deciding who should fly with whom was largely self-selective. Harry well remembered how he and James, his first pilot, had teamed up, after being joint winners of a rifle shooting competition. They had been good days, too.
Then a further development had occurred in moving to a heavy conversion unit, at Wigsley, equipped with Lancasters, the first that any of them had ever flown in. It was easy enough for most of the crew, who performed the same work in slightly different surroundings, but very different and more difficult for the pilots. It was highly regrettable that James just could not manage to fly a Lanc with competence, so he remained with most of the crew, to be posted elsewhere. Harry had been sent to his first operational squadron, in Lincolnshire. On arrival, he had been informed that Norman Carfoot , a flight lieutenant then, had asked that he should be allotted as his navigator. Apparently, or so it was said, Norman had a habit of getting what he wanted, and was reputed to have an older brother, a Group Captain, at Air Ministry headquarters, who had some influence. This polite request could not have been refused, anyway, so that was how he and Norman had met. Norman did, in fact, tell Harry, at a later date, that his elder brother worked at H.Q., but the rumour of exerted influence was probably unfounded. So had ended the fun and now, Harry had reflected, he must begin to earn his keep. He chastised himself for being such a fool in volunteering for aircrew. He would have enjoyed the R.A.F. just as much and in almost complete safety if he had been appointed as a Group Captain in charge of WAAF welfare. Oh well, perhaps he would have been bored looking after the needs of hundreds of young and attractive women! It was conceivable that such a post was not available anyway, and had it been he might well not have been chosen! Perchance to dream.
In early October, Flight Lieutenant Carfoot and crew had been posted to their new squadron. Norman had been promoted and was immediately appointed as Flight Commander.
At some stage during the habitation of his cell, Harry reviewed the sixteen ops they had completed, or rather tried to review them! He remembered the first, of course, although not in the same way that the first girl-friend is remembered. That had been a baptism of fire, over Peenemunde, a small island on the Baltic coast. British Intelligence had discovered this was a fortified centre for the development and production of unmanned V bombs, the first guided missiles. All available British bombers, including some from operational training units, were sent to destroy the development base. This was a precision attack at low level, and the crews were told at briefing, that if success was not achieved that night, a return visit would be ordered immediately. The importance of that raid was thus demonstrated. Had a return visit been necessary on the following night, they suspected half the German airforce would be waiting for them. Six hundred bombers, of all descriptions, set off on a clear moonlit night; extremely dangerous for the crews, but ideal conditions for the German fighters. Success was achieved, to the relief of all, but at the cost of almost ten per-cent of the bombers; truly a baptism of fire for those whose first ‘op’ it was. That raid had taken place in mid August.
Several attacks on Berlin had followed; on the first of these, his then squadron had had no losses. Later raids on the ‘big city’ had resulted in heavy losses; in three attacks, a total of one hundred and twenty aircraft and their crews had failed to return. Aircraft factories at Kassel had been attacked and severely damaged, while Hannover and Mannheim had also been targeted. There had been Nuremberg,, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, (a good friend and navigator with whom he had trained had failed to return on that one), and Leipzig. There they had had to circle the target three times before finding a gap in the cumulous cloud in order to bomb accurately. This raid had been the one on which severe icing had reduced their airspeed so much that Jock had warned Norman that there was insufficient fuel left to return to base. Harry recalled his pleasure on calculating that R.A.F. Coltishall, a fighter airfield in Norfolk, was the nearest feasible alternative and the relief of all when the fuel lasted until Norman touched the wheels on the grass runway. Any fleeting ideas of a brief visit home or to see Olivia, were soon dispelled. Norman was far too keen and conscientious in ensuring that they arrived back at base by noon the next day, in case they were needed for another exciting evening. Who needs that much excitement? Evidently Norman did!
There had been other ‘ops’ among these, Harry remembered, but they must have been the uneventful ones. On the journeys there and back, as far as German fighters were concerned it was as if most of the enemy pilots had been given a night off duty. It was a shame that it was never peaceful over the targets, where fighters, searchlights and flak were ever-present hazards. He certainly remembered the ‘hairy’ ops very well. It was very unlikely he would be involved in any more of those, although escape was still a possibility. ‘Oh well’, he said to himself, ‘there’s no point in dwelling on the past, and certainly futile to feel sorry for oneself in the present predicament. It can only improve.’ Not yet, it wouldn’t!
For, on the sixth day, Harry was taken to a small room with a table, told, in English, to sit down, and was presented with a form to complete. This form, headed “Red Cross” was so transparently ingenuous and naïve that it almost cheered him up. Name, rank, number: these he filled in as required by the Geneva Convention. Then followed: Squadron number, where situated, number of aeroplanes, name of squadron commander. He made no attempt to complete this section, in spite of threats that failure to do so would result in ignorance of his survival to parents and the Royal Air Force. This then, he thought, was an example of the reputed German efficiency. No further comments were made.
Harry was then escorted to an adjoining room, well furnished. A very smart German senior S.S. officer, who had evidently lost one arm, probably in battle, sat behind a large desk, with telephone and files; a chair had been placed in front of the desk, facing the officer. Harry correctly saluted the senior officer, by standing to attention, as he had no headgear. In perfect English, he was invited to sit; the tone of voice was very friendly. A cigarette was offered, but politely refused. He noticed that the cigarette was in a British packet.
‘You have given your name, rank and number, but I see you have omitted to complete the rest of the form’
‘Yes,--Sir,’ was the reply.
‘But this is essential if your family and friends are to know you are safe. Where do you live in England? I know by your accent that you are English.’
‘I am authorised to give you my name, rank and number, and no more - Sir.’
This mild exchange continued for a time, the German hoping to gain unimportant information in order to progress further, while the Englishman knew that he must not give such information.
The tone became less friendly, then following more unanswered questions, very unfriendly.
‘You realise that you can be shot as a spy; you have no indication on your tunic that you are a flyer, no brevet or badges of rank. Unless you co-operate, you will be shot, just as one of your comrades is being shot outside, now’. The interrogator moved to the window and gave a signal, which resulted in a number of rifle shots. Harry decided that he might not have been brave enough to resist this last threat had he not been warned, in those lectures, as to what was likely to happen. Even as things were he did not feel at all brave, just depressed, weak, hungry and washed-out. ‘Oh well’, he thought optimistically, ‘things can only improve.’
Harry was pushed back into his tiny cell, but was incarcerated there for only one more day. By this time, with no wash, shave, or change of clothes for over a week, he was very glad he was not due to meet a girlfriend immediately; she would have not appreciated the sight or the smell. However, he was in good company, for, when he was escorted to a large room in the building, he found it was inhabited by eight aircrew, in a similar dirty and unshaven condition. The nine must have been the sole survivors of the operation a week or so ago. Much to his delight and relief, among them were Jock and David. However, pleasure was soon tempered by grief, when he learned that David had been told, during his interrogation, of the fate of Norman, Hank and Steve and was assured that the remaining crew member would soon be found, alive or dead. David had actually landed on the roof of the police station in Wuppertal, probably the same one in which Harry had visited briefly. Jock had landed in a street and was saved from a probable lynching by an understandably angry crowd at the intervention of a passing patrol. The bodies of Norman and Hank had been discovered in the crashed and burned-out aircraft, evidently identified by their ‘dog-tags’, Steve’s body was retrieved from the Rhine, while Wilf had not been mentioned. Obviously the German authorities had concluded that Jock, David and Harry were part of Norman’s crew, accounting for a total of six of the seven. What had happened to Wilf? It was unlikely, but perhaps he had escaped!
. The nine airmen were then taken outside and photographed; no-one smiled at the photographer! Wearing their best scowls, and in their dirty, scruffy and unshaven state, it would be surprising if such photographs would be of any use in identification of escaped prisoners. Then, inside again, each was issued with a small cardboard box, by courtesy of the Red Cross. How grateful they were to that wonderful organisation. Each parcel contained a bar of soap, a small towel, a toothbrush and a razor. Two by two, the prisoners were escorted to a basic washroom, where they cleaned themselves as best they could. Back in their new abode, they were issued with an enamel mug and a spoon, before receiving a welcome meal, even though it did consist of the inevitable stale, black, rye bread and a bowl of watery vegetable soup! Although the airmen now had time to talk, they knew they had to be very wary of a possible listening device or the presence of a German dressed as a British airman. By unspoken agreement, no squadron numbers or names were mentioned. They did, however, begin the process of ‘goon baiting’, which consisted of annoying and baiting enemy guards. They talked of the good food they had had in England, of the certainty of Germany’s downfall and anything else that might irritate their ‘hosts’. They did hope their conversation was recorded. ‘Goon baiting’ seemed to be a way of life for aircrew prisoners, helping to relieve the monotony. The procedure could not have been learned from anyone; it just seemed the natural thing to do!
During the afternoon, the nine were escorted to the railway station at Frankfurt and
bundled into a carriage, escorted by two armed guards. The train, carrying passengers in other carriages, travelled eastward for hours, at first in daylight. They were not in the right frame of mind to appreciate the wonderful scenery. Darkness fell, the train stopped at a station and water was brought. It tasted better than the acorn coffee! Still the train rumbled on, until, during the night, they reached the end of that journey. There were no lights to identify the name of the station, but ‘Leipzig’ was shouted by someone outside. Jock, David and Harry remarked, ruefully, ‘We were over here a couple of weeks ago.’
By this time, deprivation of food and drink had begun to befuddle the prisoners. They had little idea of time and distance and were almost in a stupor; even their eyesight was affected.
They did vaguely remember being herded into a cattle truck, already partly filled with civilians,
male and female, young and old. One of the airmen spoke German fairly well and learned that they were Jews, being transported they knew not where. The conditions were most unpleasant for all; the cattle truck itself was not an ideal means of transport and the crowded conditions provided little or no opportunity to sit. The journey seemed never-ending and became more and more uncomfortable as time passed. The airmen were more sorry for the Jews than they were for themselves and they were certainly sorry enough for themselves. All things eventually come to an end, so, eventually the train stopped, the airmen were selectively removed and were herded, shuffling, along a narrow road, with fields on either side. Some stumbled and were prodded to their feet to continue.
Ahead, a large rectangular enclosure loomed, fenced with double coils of barbed wire to a height of about ten feet, with sentry boxes at each corner and others spaced along the sides. The enclosure itself was approximately two to three hundred yards square, with a formidable gate at the end of the road, guarded by sentries, with rifles. Outside the camp were acres of bare fields, on all sides; there were no trees, hedges or vegetation of any kind. They would discover, later, that nor were there any birds, which always seemed strange. The interior of the camp was similar in that there was no vegetation; just a great number of large wooden huts, grouped in separate compounds, together with a small, detached section containing more solid administrative buildings and German quarters.
Once inside, the nine were taken to a brick building, where they were told to strip, then ordered into a room in which there were a number of shower points along the walls. The welcome showers were turned on for far too short a time, but sufficiently long for them to clean themselves, with the aid of the soap provided by the Red Cross. After drying, they dressed, unfortunately having to don again their dirty clothing . Escorted to another room, their hair was shorn, almost to baldness. They were, by now, so tired, hungry and thirsty, they could not have cared less. Then they were escorted, non too gently, carrying soap, razor, mug and spoon, to their living accommodation. This consisted of a large wooden hut, about eighty feet long by thirty feet wide; into this space were packed almost two hundred bodies, all airmen. The new home was numbered 57. Most of the available space was taken up by double rows of bunks, about six feet long and two feet wide, in three tiers, so that on a floor area of seventy-two square feet, eighteen bunks could be accommodated. Narrow gangways between the double rows provided access. Straw palliasses adorned the bunks, and that was all. Apparently their captors considered that their ‘guests’ would not need luxuries, such as blankets, as sufficient body heat would be generated to keep them all warm. The remaining floor area, about ten feet wide, running the length of the hut, was adorned by a few trestle tables and wooden benches, enough to seat perhaps forty. Simple arithmetic showed that when the inmates were confined to the hut, one in five could sit at the tables, while the remainder would lie on their bunks. Sitting on the bunk was almost impossible, except for a dwarf or a contortionist, as the headroom was very limited. There was nothing else in this palatial apartment; no chairs, no lockers. Indeed, the latter were hardly necessary, as no-one had possessions, apart from a small Red Cross cardboard box each. To be fair, there was a tortoise stove near the end of the building, but as there was hardly ever any fuel available, it was almost superfluous! A doorway, with no door, at the end of this structure, led to a narrow tiled area, along the walls of which were rows of metal troughs, with taps at either end, providing running water for ablutions, drinking and the washing of small items of clothing; needless to say, the water was cold: only sissies would need hot water! There were also four elementary urinals. Into this, then, their new abode, stepped the nine.
All this luxury was not apparent at first, for they were greeted warmly and each given the inevitable cup of acorn coffee and a slice of stale black rye bread. They did not realise at the time what a sacrifice this was, for the daily issue to each P.O.W. at the camp was an eighth of a loaf per day, while a ration of an ounce of margarine was issued weekly. It would have been difficult to weigh and distribute a daily ration! The coffee was certainly not plentiful. A bowl of watery soup formed much of the rest of the daily allowance. A few ounces of potatoes, fish-paste, vegetables (mostly dried), millet or barley, and about an ounce of cheese, the ‘entitlements’ for the week, were issued to the cook-house, staffed by P.O.W.s, and incorporated into the sparse diet. An infrequent allocation of meat was welcome, even though it was not prime beef or pork. In fact it was horse or dog. Inmates tried to forget that cart-loads of dead dogs were delivered to the camp each week. Fruit was never available. The occasional arrival and issue of Red Cross parcels, however, did alleviate their hunger and saved many from near starvation. Unfortunately, the receipt of such luxuries was far from regular, and one issue a month was the most that could be hoped for. The new arrivals had yet to experience the longing for the arrival of the next delivery and the excitement of the receipt of the food the parcels contained.
Jock, Harry and David were allocated three of the few vacant bunks, on which they flopped, slept and slept. When they awoke, the first to greet them was Ivor, a navigator of their own squadron, whose aircraft had failed to return from an operation in October. Ivor had been the only survivor. News was exchanged and the three learned more of the camp. Apparently the stalag, 4B, had been built as a transit camp only, but no-one ever seemed to be transferred to a more permanent one. This meant that as a transit camp it was never inspected by Red Cross representatives, so the rules of the Geneva Convention could be conveniently ‘bent’. There were five compounds: one for R.A.F., one for British Army prisoners transported from the North African campaign, via Italy, one for other western Europeans, one for Russians and one for Polish Jews. It was rumoured that many of the latter had been gassed or executed and that over three thousand of them were buried beneath the soil of one of the compounds. It was said that a total of about twenty thousand prisoners were held in the five compounds; while the Russian’ and Jews’ compounds were inaccessible from the others, inmates of the other three were able to communicate during daylight hours on the occasions they were allowed to leave their huts. The camp was surrounded on all sides by a low fence, beyond which one would pass at the risk of instant lead-poisoning, from the machine-guns of guards, situated in sentry boxes, perched high over the outer fences at about forty yard intervals. The twin outer fences consisted of intertwining rolls of barbed wire, to a height of about ten feet. It was evident that the captors took much trouble to retain their guests!
The R.A.F. compound contained eight huts, all of the same size and each accommodating nearly two hundred airmen, ranging in rank from sergeant to flight lieutenant. Many of these airmen wore wooden clogs, issued to replace their flying boots of the old type that had been lost in the clouds. The compound itself was a rectangular enclosure, about half the size of a football pitch. The inmates were generally permitted to leave their huts during daylight hours and take exercise by walking around the perimeter, and to make use of one of the four communal lavatories in each compound, sited close by the fence.. These were not the epitome of luxury, containing two facing rows of ten wooden seats, with the necessary apertures. Almost needless to say, the sanitation was elementary; the results of users’ labours, so to speak, dropped directly to a long trench below. The trenches were emptied regularly, from openings in the exterior walls, by a group of Russian prisoners, escorted by guards, and then removed from the camp by cart. Fortunately, the lack of food ensured that a visit to one of these edifices was necessary only infrequently; once a week was usually sufficient, unless the intake of food well past its ‘best by’ date prompted urgent visits. However, the description of this facility is necessary, as it became a focus of attention later .
Life in the camp became a boring routine. During inclement weather and in the evenings, there was absolutely nothing to do, except wait and long for the daily issue of stale, black bread and vegetable soup, brought to the entrance of the huts for the inmates to distribute. As most of the available space was occupied by bunks, a system was evolved to ensure that all had an occasional opportunity to sit on a bench. Fortunately for those who remained reasonably alert and optimistic there were some who stayed on their bunks all day and every day, except to collect rations. On the increasingly rare occasions that Red Cross parcels arrived, even these depressed airmen shared in the excitement. The parcels, containing such luxuries as tinned meat, usually ‘Spam’, dried milk (labelled ‘Klim’), condensed milk, tinned jam, tea and biscuits, were distributed and gloated over; the contents were examined and re-examined and decisions made as to what to eat first. Often, three or four particular friends would share parcels, so that an opened tin of meat lasted the group two or three days. Although it was a great temptation to eat all of a parcel’s contents in a few days, most airmen made theirs last at least a week. Some empty tins became drinking mugs, while others were carefully and laboriously fashioned to become plates. Nothing was wasted. On one occasion a Red Cross issue contained packs of cards and books, four packs and six books for each hut in the R.A.F. compound. Those occupants of Hut 57 who were fortunate enough to be able to read at least one of the books enjoyed the temporary escapism, while bridge players made good use of the cards during most waking hours.
The other great excitement was the arrival of mail from home, collected by the senior officer in each hut. Jock, David and Harry had to wait almost three months for their first letters, when they learned that their parents had been informed of their safety at the beginning of January, some two months after they were reported missing. They realised how traumatic the wait must have been for parents, wives and fiancees, and felt very sorry for those near and dear to the rest of the crew who had not survived. As the letters were censored, the news received was confined to family matters, but it was the receipt of the letter that mattered more than the contents. It was even more of a problem in writing letters to the nearest and dearest. Usually, a postcard was issued, irregularly, but not more than once a month. With pencils provided by courtesy of the Red Cross, the prisoners wrote their messages. They could not write of the conditions in which they lived: not only would the German censor obliterate such references, but it would hardly be fair to burden those at home with further concerns as to their welfare. Therefore, most cards, and the occasional letter-sheet, contained cheerful comments, without actually saying or implying that their treatment was of a satisfactory standard. One particular incident did give the opportunity to assure loved ones that all was well. One of the inmates, a Belgian who had joined the R.A.F., had been a hypnotist in civilian life. On a well remembered evening he consented to give a performance, which was truly amazing. Subjects leaned over to impossible angles, sat without chairs and became inebriated on water. Letters home were then able to include, without actually lying, “We thoroughly enjoyed a concert”. No doubt some recipients thought the prisoners were having a comfortable time, with no wish to escape. They could not and should know of the deprived conditions or that escape was constantly in the thoughts of most of the incarcerated airmen, second only to the need for food!.
Christmas 1943 came and passed, as a non-event in terms of any kind of celebration, other than the event itself. Extra food and drink were conspicuous by their absence, although thoughts naturally turned even more to home. Shortly after this time, Ivor received his first letter from his parents, mentioning that Alan, his twin brother, had recovered from necessary twenty-five visits to the lavatory. Although the censors must have been puzzled, the comment was not obliterated. As Alan was also a navigator on another Lancaster squadron in Lincolnshire, Ivor concluded that he had returned successfully from that number of operations over Germany, with five more to do before a welcome and deserved respite. However, Ivor was not thrilled with the news that his twin had almost completed his ‘tour’, for only on the previous evening he had made a point of coming to Harry to voice his concern. He said that he knew, without doubt, that Alan had, just at that time, been killed. Harry did his best to reassure him, but to no avail. Ivor knew, and that was that. Ivor did know: later, he learned that Alan had indeed lost his life, on his thirtieth and last operation, on that very evening that his twin brother had had the premonition, or perhaps telepathic message. Harry had heard, or read, that identical twins usually shared experiences, even when apart. This occurrence surely was proof that such telepathy existed. Harry had completed most of his training with the twins, from air crew reception right through to the postings to squadrons, some eighteen months later. It was only at that stage that authority had decreed that the twins must serve on different squadrons.
PLANNING TO LEAVE
As has been observed, the lavatories in the compound were close by the inner fence. Guards never bothered to enter those palatial premises or to check comings and goings. The contents were emptied regularly by Russian prisoners, scraping the effluence through apertures along the outside of the buildings. Those facts prompted considerable thought.. Given the necessary tools and ignoring the unpleasant surroundings, a tunnel could be dug from under one of the lavatory seats, under the fences, to the field beyond. It had to be assumed that it would contain growing crops by mid-summer and these would be tall enough to hide escaping prisoners from the traversing searchlights, after the barbed wire fences had been negotiated.
Although in this particular camp there were no means of providing false documents or civilian clothes, the optimists were convinced that once out, other difficulties could be resolved. Plans were made. The occupants of the hut would need to be told and involved. Each airman would be asked to contribute bed-boards to help prop up the sides and roof of the tunnel. With the bed-boards about two feet long and four inches in width, more than seven hundred would be required for a tunnel up to eighty feet long. The soil was soft, particularly at the beginning of the tunnel! Thus, there was no great need for a digging tool any more sophisticated than empty tins from Red Cross parcels. Dispersal of soil would present no insuperable problem; it could be dumped in the other apertures or ‘filtered’ through trouser legs on to the compound.
Jock and Harry were involved from the planning stage, as were ten or a dozen others. Who else should be included? If possible it would be wise to confine the knowledge to those who had to know; the more that knew of the proposal, the greater the chance of a leak. As it was, there was no way of telling whether an infiltrator had been planted in order to hear of such plans. Prospective escapers could make their way, individually, to the building, in the evening, before nightfall. After all others had left, they would have ample time to negotiate the tunnel, break through the soil above and begin their journey to freedom, before their disappearance was discovered. Once out of the camp, they would travel in pairs, each pair to decide on their preferred route. Jock and Harry agreed they would travel north-west along the river Elbe, and attempt to reach Lubeck, on the north coast. They had no maps, but estimated the distance to be some two hundred miles. At least, following the Elbe would ensure they were going in the right direction. Harry remembered, from his Mercator charts, that Dessau and Magdeburg were on the proposed route, after which Berlin would be to the east. There should be few other large centres of population. Perhaps they would be able to board a boat travelling to Sweden. The Lubeck-Sweden escape route had been one of those suggested by the intelligence officer in lectures on escape procedures back at base. A major problem was the lack of any disguise, but they could do nothing about that at this stage. Stolen clothes were a possibility, while purloined bicycles could provide transport.
However, there were still difficulties to be overcome before the break out. They would need to ensure that the chosen lavatory seat was not used during the excavation. They would have to contrive a means of keeping their clothes reasonably clean to avoid suspicion during the period the tunnel was being dug and for the period after the escape. They could dig in the nude, but how would they clean themselves afterwards? The issue of use was soon resolved: the chosen latrine block was the nearest to the fence and it should be possible to contrive a method to attempt to ensure that the particular aperture that would cover the entrance to the tunnel was not used by those who were unaware of the proposed excavation. The last seat in the line would simply be damaged in such a way that it would be avoided. No-one would wish to risk splinters in the rear!
The problem of clothing for the digging was difficult, but eventually a possible solution was found, albeit a risky one. At least two pairs of overalls would be required, one for a digger at the tunnel face and one for a soil transporter to the beginning of the tunnel. With only two airmen working at any one time, the operation would take a long, long time, but time they had in abundance. It so happened that a wireless operator, Jim Hobbs, one of the instigators, was fluent in the German language, having spent several holidays in the Black Forest area before the War. Jim had discovered that one of the guards, who had been wounded on the Eastern front, lived in that district and he had cultivated an acquaintance, with the obvious ulterior motive of bribery. The occasional gifts from home of cigarettes, using the Red Cross facilities, were used for this purpose, as they were greatly prized by the captors, some of whom were not averse to exchange when little risk was involved for them. In contrast to the coarse, half-filled, noxious weeds they smoked, even in 1943, British cigarettes were indeed nectar. It was decided that Jim would attempt to procure the overalls from this source, pointing out to the not over-intelligent guard that they were required for use in cleaning the floor of the hut with the two brooms provided for that purpose. After all, the airmen’s uniforms were all they had and they were scruffy and dirty enough already. Once obtained, the overalls could be smuggled to and from the hut and workface, under uniforms. Jim would begin negotiations when the opportunity presented itself, so that the overalls would be accepted as commonplace.
Most potential difficulties now appeared to have been overcome, although there were many minor points to be considered. These could be left to a later date, when participants had been chosen and details finalised. It was decided that the digging would commence in May, 1944, when there would be longer hours of daylight.
Life at the camp continued its boring routine. Inmates had to will themselves to walk round the compound as the shortage of food made them weaker, knowing that some exercise was vital in order to remain reasonably fit. Two circuits were usually enough for most. Part of the routine was a daily parade of bodies, usually around breakfast time. Breakfast time it may have been, but there was certainly no breakfast at that time. The first and only meal would be available at mid-day. At this daily assembly, the occupants of each hut were required to line up in five rows in the compound, prodded by dangerous looking bayonets. They would then be counted. It was surprising how a group of servicemen could be so awkward in such a simple exercise! It was also surprising how difficult it was for the German unteroffiziers, (non-commissioned officers), to count up to two hundred! A slight disturbance in the ranks or another distraction would result in a recount. Unfortunately, the ‘goons’ possessed no sense of humour, at least not comparable to the British one, so they often gained their revenge. Thus, on particularly cold and frosty mornings, the inmates of a specific hut would be kept standing for hours, while two or three German soldiers searched their hut for anything that ought not to have been there. Nothing was found, as there was nothing to find, but some of the captors did have the annoying habit of scattering the airmen’s few possessions, mug, tin plate and carefully preserved contents of parcels, causing much annoyance and re-sorting after the interminable parade. Strangely enough, the soldiers did not attempt to steal the contents of the parcels.
It became a point of honour not to collapse from cold or hunger during such occasions: surprisingly few did. Apparently, the unter-offiziers did not like their smart uniforms to get excessively wet, so, fortunately for the airmen, lengthy parades were confined to dry weather.
Even then the goon-baiting continued; the prisoners would not allow their captors to relax.
Another relief from routine was the occasional visit to the showers. These excursions were most welcome, for, after about a month, the odour of two hundred young men in a confined space did become rather offensive, although, given time, one can get used to anything.
On these infrequent occasions, the occupants of each hut were escorted from the compound to the brick buildings that contained the showers, those that the nine had been taken in November.
Unfortunately, the prospect of the cleansing process was somewhat spoiled by a rumour that the brick building also contained the gas chamber used for the Jews reputed to be buried at the camp.
However, they were reassured by the knowledge that, so far, all R.A.F. personnel had returned to their huts after showers! The newer occupants of the hut soon learned the routine: as the showers were blissfully warm, it was the practice to undress, but to drop one’s clothing at one’s feet, to be washed also. Then, when the typically efficient warm air was produced to dry the bodies, clothing was also dried, even though only partially. The captors did have the decency to leave on both showers and hot air for some time. In retrospect, the infrequency of the showers was understandable. Even if the facility were extended only to those who were neither Russians nor Jews, some ten to twelve thousand bodies would use the showers, presumably on a roster.
Inevitably, in a camp of that size, there were illnesses and deaths. Only the serious cases of illness could be dealt with in the small basic hospital, mainly staffed by British and other European prisoners who had had medical experience during or before the war. Of course, nothing could be done for those who suffered from malnutrition, as this applied to all the inmates of the camp, but minor operations could be performed. A captured British medical officer was available for dental work, but unfortunately for the patients, urgent treatment was a painful experience, as no anaesthetics were available. Needless to say, only those in constant pain asked to be escorted to the dental surgeon to have a tooth extracted; there were no facilities for fillings. No medical facilities at all existed for the Russians and Jews: if they were ill they were ill and if they died they died. Cartloads of deceased and naked Russian and Jew prisoners were often seen leaving the camp, piled one on top of another.
During the early Spring months, plans for the proposed tunnel were complete. After much deliberation it was decided that twenty should be the maximum to make the initial attempt.
If all went well, others could follow, before absences were discovered. The plotters and diggers would go first. Occupants of the hut who wished to be involved drew lots for the remaining initial places. Jim had negotiated for and procured not two, but three overalls from the guard. The overalls and brooms were on constant display; the hut had never before had such clean floors. The vital bedboards had been promised, readily, in spite of the fact that the bunks would be even more uncomfortable in their absence. The lavatory seat had been deeply scored and inspections showed that it was no longer in use. The Russian detail had evidently not noticed, or didn’t care, that they had nothing to extract from under the last aperture in the line.
Work on the tunnel began in early May, and a routine was soon established. The first two diggers of the day would saunter to the latrine, with overalls under their uniforms and empty cans in pockets. Another airman would follow, to act as look-out. After about an hour, the first workers would be relieved by two more would-be escapees, who would change into the overalls, while the two finishing their shift changed back into uniform, taking with them in their tucked-in trouser legs the soil they had excavated, to shake out in the compound. The look-outs were also changed frequently. The last pair, before the evening confinement, took back the overalls.
Transporting the bed-boards to the scene of operations was left until twilight, so that stiff-legged prisoners would not be so readily spotted by guards in the towers or patrolling the compound.
The first few days of digging were extremely unpleasant, as the first foot or so of soil removed was liberally mixed with excreta. However, it had to be done, the work was shared and the going was fairly easy. The diggers soon became accustomed to the use of the tin cans as tools and quickly evolved an efficient system. The ‘topsoil’ was scattered beneath the other lavatory seats, until the hole became deep enough and wide enough to insert bedboards vertically, to support the shaft. Then the construction of the horizontal tunnel began, sloping downwards slightly for the first few yards, until it was estimated to be about four feet below the surface of the compound, leading towards the fences. After each few feet of construction, vertical bedboards were inserted, with a horizontal board pushed, banged and persuaded above each pair. Mistakes were made and minor collapses occurred, but the novices gradually became more proficient as they progressed, slowly but surely towards their objective. ‘Slowly’ was the operative word, as the method of execution, the need for secrecy and the tools available were not conducive to speed and efficiency. No doubt one man, with a modern machine and an efficient supporting system, could have constructed a much safer and neater tunnel in a few hours. This masterpiece, it was estimated, would take weeks, if not months, at the initial rate of about two feet a day, on those days when it was safe to work. As the tunnel became longer, the excavation, transportation and removal of soil would take more time. Still, they had nothing else of importance to do; although the conditions were claustrophobic, the tunnel diggers did have the satisfaction of knowing they were ‘digging for victory’, so to speak.
Those who have never had occasion to attempt to dig an elementary tunnel, two feet wide and two feet high, with nothing more sophisticated than tin cans, wriggling forwards and backwards in a claustrophobic space, in a fetid atmosphere, cannot possibly understand what the experience is like. Those few who have had occasion to do so are probably slightly mad! Of the twenty original volunteers, some withdrew, either from illness or claustrophobia, to be replaced by others. The work continued, albeit slowly.
By the middle of May it was estimated that a total length of about seventy feet would be sufficient to ensure that the exit would clear the barbed wire fencing, into the field beyond, but only just. The crop growing in that field was watched anxiously and soon identified as wheat. By mid June it would be tall enough to hide crawling bodies. Searchlights constantly swept along the outer fences after twilight, so it would be a tricky operation for the escapees to run, one by one, across the frequently lighted area, before reaching the haven of darkness. Each such dash would need to be timed to coincide with the brief dark periods of the sweeping beams. One reason for the necessity to shorten the tunnel was one that had not been thought of! After only a few days of excavation, the interior of the tunnel began to darken, so that the job in hand became more and more difficult. Some form of lighting was necessary if the diggers were to see what they were doing, and indeed to maintain a straight line. The suggestion of one wag that they should beg, borrow or steal a searchlight was ill received, while a shortage of glow-worms precluded that form of illumination. It was soon decided that Jim Hobbs’ bribable guard should be approached with a view to obtaining a few candles and a box or two of matches. The need could be explained easily. The lights in the huts were turned off after dark and it was sometimes necessary for an inmate to visit the urinals during the night. How much more considerate to others it would be to do so without making a noise in stumbling towards the objective. So, in exchange for a packet of cigarettes, candles and matches were obtained.
Progress continued, but even more slowly, as the tunnel lengthened. Fortunately, for the purpose in hand, the diggers were all very slim, even skinny, due to the enforced diet, but even so, the laboured crawling to the work-face, empty tin in hand, and the even more laboured crawling backwards on knees and elbows, with a full tin in each hand, was a time-consuming procedure. Two feet per day does not appear to be much, nor is it, until it is realised that the soil dug out and transported amounts to eight cubic feet. A medium size can holds about forty-five cubic inches, so it was necessary to dig out and transport about three hundred cans full to reach that daily target. It was also necessary to dispose of the soil. This then, was a further reason to shorten the tunnel, as the labourers became even more weary and output decreased.
In spite of the increasing difficulty, the tunnel lengthened by about one foot per day and spirits became high. Optimists estimated that an upward shaft could be excavated by mid-June, while the more cautious reckoned that the end of June was a more realistic target.
THE BEST LAID PLANS ---
During the first week of June, when it was calculated that the escape route had reached a point below the first rolls of the outer barbed wire, the Germans demonstrated their childish sense of humour and their capacity for deceit!. One fine morning, when the first shift had begun their labours, the look-out was surprised by the rapid arrival of an armoured truck, from which descended, equally rapidly, several guards, armed with rifles, bayonets fixed. Four invaded the privacy of the privy, while two remained on guard outside. The two labourers in the tunnel were invited to come out, somewhat impolitely, prodded to the waiting vehicle, and taken away. They were not seen again by other prisoners, but it was hoped they had been transferred to another camp no worse than this one. It was known, although no-one seemed to know how it was known, that a camp only a few miles north was a concentration camp, solely for Jews. Surely the two would not have been transferred to that place.
The occupants of hut 57 were then paraded and informed, smugly, that the Commandant and his officers had known of the existence of the tunnel since the first soil had been removed, but as the Commandant had no wish to spoil the enjoyment, they had been allowed to continue. Now he intended to give them the pleasure of filling in the tunnel again, using the available contents below the seats of the remaining lavatories. Of course, they could decline, but if they did so it was regrettable that no food would be made available until they willingly agreed to his suggestion. This infantile sense of humour was not appreciated by the inmates of the hut, who nevertheless decided that a short period of unpleasantness was vastly preferable to further deprivation. Thus, the tunnel was filled in, very sportingly by several who had not been involved in the excavation, who took the view that enough was enough for those who had participated. Surprisingly, neither the commandant nor his officers took any further disciplinary action against the occupants of hut 57. There was little point in speculating whether the guard had reported the bribery in obtaining overalls and candles, whether the comings and goings from the latrines had been noted or whether a German in R.A.F. uniform had been planted in their hut. They did seem to be the main possibilities. It had to be admitted that the captors had at least ensured that several of their troublesome charges had been kept out of further mischief for a while. Disappointment was great, to say the least. All that work - and hope - for nothing. However, they realised they must not be too despondent; despondency could lead to despair, and that must be avoided. After all, they had caused considerable trouble to their captors.
They also reflected that a successful escape from the confines of the camp would have been only the first of three difficult stages; the long journeys through Germany would have been extremely hazardous, as would egress through any of the closely guarded borders.
Other attempts to escape were made by those in other huts. One hopeful warrant-officer concealed himself in the refuse being taken from the confines of the camp by escorted Russians, perhaps inspired by the efforts of Hut 57. Although he did manage to escape from the confines of the camp and then from the cart, he was soon recaptured, almost certainly because of the delicate perfume he emitted. His courage in taking this extreme method was much admired, although close proximity to his person was avoided until he had washed his clothes and himself in the cold-water troughs provided in the hut. Two other airmen exchanged clothes and sleeping quarters with privates from an Army hut. These privates were occasionally sent out of the camp, escorted, on working parties, labouring on the adjoining fields, so there was always the possibility that an escape could be effected. Alas, no opportunity arose, and after a week or so, they returned to their own abode and friends. They consoled themselves with the memories of fresh air, fresh surroundings and some stolen food from crops in the fields in which they had worked.
EXCITEMENT IN CAMP
News of the progress of the War did filter through as new prisoners were brought to the camp. Their irregular arrivals were the only source of any information, as of course, there were no radios or newspapers. By the middle of June, a fresh batch of captured Allied airmen brought the glad tidings of the successful landings in France, following the ‘D day ‘ operations.
Spirits soared and ‘goon baiting’ intensified. Although no-one was optimistic enough to think that the War would be over in a few weeks, at least the end was in sight. Then, gradually, more and more American ‘Flying Fortresses’ were seen in the skies during the day. On one occasion Allied fighters strafed the camp; the toilets at the end of hut 57 were hit, but fortunately no-one was hurt. Evidently the camp was mistaken for an army barracks.
Now, at least, there was something to talk about. When a group of young men are confined to a small space for months and months, with no news of the outside world, no experiences of any kind to relate, no ‘lineshooting’ to do, and no conquests to describe, stimulating conversation does become difficult, if not impossible.
Then, one fine morning, the first few to leave the hut for the daily exercise in walking around the compound, came dashing back quickly, exhorting all to come and look outside.
Soon, most of the occupants of hut 57 and the other huts too, were lined along the inner boundary wire, gazing longingly across the adjoining field. It was truly a sight for sore eyes. A solitary German woman, young and buxom, was hoeing, some two hundred yards away. Perhaps such interest was understandable, as many of the inmates of the camp had not seen a woman for two or three years. Possibly they were concerned that they might forget the appearance of the ‘fair sex’, and would fail to recognise a member in later years? Some of the airmen stayed a long time, just looking, until the young woman was approached by a man, probably the farmer, and led away from the ogling stares.
One effect of the advance of the Allies across France was the increasing rarity of delivery of Red Cross parcels to augment the diet of bread, soup and acorn coffee. Even the issue of bread was reduced to one loaf for nine inmates. Those who shared each loaf would gather round the day’s sharer, who would divide the bread into nine portions, as equally as possible. A roster ensured that turns to choose were in strict rotation, the sharer taking the last piece. He then had the privilege of first choice the following day. It was sad, even demeaning, that such a measure was taken, but every crumb seemed important to hungry young men. Hunger became an obsession, so that they thought of little else, yet comradeship was so close and valued that there were few quarrels over the division of rations, or indeed about anything else.
During the early summer months of 1944, the attitude of the German officers and guards had remained arrogant, but gradually a change was perceptible. Fewer rifle butts were viciously used by the younger guards who had been previously only too willing to vent their spite on those who had dared to oppose their idol and leader, Herr A. Hitler. The more mature guards had always been more amenable, and became even more so as they realised that eventual defeat was more than a remote possibility.
One day in early autumn Harry received, through Red Cross channels, a present from Olivia, his girlfriend back home. He had had cigarettes, also through the Red Cross, from her, as well as from parents, relatives and friends; while they had been much appreciated, this present, a blanket, was prized indeed. He could now take off his uniform blouse and trousers at night, and keep reasonably warm. Wearing a uniform, the same one, day after day, night after night, for almost a year, was not only uncomfortable, but extremely unhygienic Rolled in the blanket, even the straw mattress was more comfortable. He was the envy of many!
By this time, the inmates had become inured to the discomfort and the lack of belongings. Those who have never gone without what are known as basic requirements do not and cannot imagine life without them. Taken for granted are such needs as a change of underwear and socks, a spare handkerchief, comb, toothbrush, soap, flannel, scissors (for nails and haircuts), towel, toilet rolls, sleeping apparel, sheets, a bed, a chair, hot water, cutlery, newspapers, books, radio, to mention but a few amenities that seem almost necessities, and of course, a cup of tea with milk and sugar. The prisoners could not, however, become used to hunger. As hunger increased, so energy decreased. A plain white slice of bread, preferably with butter and cheese to accompany it, became a day-dream to savour; luxuries, such as meat, fish, fruit and vegetables were not nearly so important as that plain white slice of bread!
As energy decreased, health deteriorated. Many confined themselves to their bunks for most of the day as well as during the night. Fewer and fewer took any exercise. Some died and were taken out of the camp for burial. New arrivals brought further news of the Allied advances on all fronts. Even these glad tidings failed to inspire many, for whom food, food, food, became the only concern.
Christmas 1944 was again just another date in the calendar. Although there were no calendars available to the prisoners, days were counted, so that the date was always known.
Early 1945 was extremely cold. The meagre ration of fuel for the tortoise stove in each hut was completely discontinued; the one consolation was that the hosts were also suffering the same shortages as their resources became more and more depleted.
The first American airmen arrived at the camp, and they were in a sorry state. Many had dysentery, which spread among existing inmates. More prisoners died and their bodies were taken away. It was better not to think of the poor Russians and Jews, who were even less well-treated. It was reported that an Alsation dog had been put into one of the Russian huts to quieten the noisy inmates; the next morning its skin and bones had been found outside. It was also reported that retribution was swift and severe. There was no way of telling whether the story was true or invented.
The coldness intensified, as did hunger; the days seemed interminable. However, the now rapid advances of troops from the West and now from the East did begin to cheer the prisoners, who began to be more optimistic that release from their tribulations was imminent.
Then, one day in mid-April, as the weather improved, all British and American prisoners, some five or six thousand in total, were paraded in one compound. The commandant, who spoke English, addressed them, using a loudspeaker. He announced that he had received instructions from the German High Command that all prisoners of war were to be executed. This was very unwelcome news to the assembled airmen and soldiers, but before they had time to realise that such an announcement was quite unnecessary, as a mass execution could be carried out without such a warning, he paused, then continued to declare that he had no intention
of obeying this order. He trusted that his clemency and humanity would be remembered, if and when the American or British troops liberated the camp. Those gathered there that day cheered - not because the commandant had been so lenient, but because liberation must now be close and the war in Europe almost over. For the next week or so, the guards continued to guard and the searchlights continued to search, but it became obvious that almost all the German captors were now completely demoralised. In most, arrogance was replaced by attempts at comradeship, rejected of course. A few still refused to believe defeat was near.
April 23rd 1945 was a date to be remembered for the rest of their lives. In the early morning, the sound of exploding shells and machine-gun fire was heard throughout the camp. Prisoners awoke and warily opened hut doors. No guards, nor their accompanying dogs, were to be seen. The whole camp appeared to be deserted; there were no searchlights operating and sentry boxes were unoccupied. Still the prisoners wondered what could have happened. Then the outer gates were flung open and a troop of Cossacks rode through, armed to the teeth, with revolvers, rifles and swords festooned around them and with hand grenades on their belts. Among them were a few young and tough-looking young women! They were singing, to the recognisable tune, “Song of the Plains”. The locked gates to the Russian compound were contemptuously broken and those imprisoned therein flooded out in greeting. In spite of their dreadful physical condition, they were herded out, presumably to join the advancing Russian army, of which the Cossacks were in the vanguard. The gates to the Jewish compound were also broken. Nothing was said to the remaining prisoners and they were left to their own devices, while the mounted troops departed.
The priority was to find food. What little there was in the camp kitchens was soon devoured, but the outer gates were wide open, so a large adjacent field of rhubarb became the focus of attention. It was truly amazing how quickly a huge crop of rhubarb, not yet quite fit for harvesting, was completely cleared. It was not quite so amazing how quickly the almost- starving population of the camp suffered the effects of raw rhubarb on empty stomachs. Probably, there were many who would never again eat rhubarb, and those who did would certainly remember this feast.
Some of the occupants of hut 57 decided to walk to the nearby small town of Muhlberg, some two miles distant, in search of something to eat. As they left the camp they noticed, on the right-hand side of the road, a row of poplar trees, which appeared to be adorned with hanging objects, one to each tree. Approaching closer, the hanging objects were seen to be uniformed Germans, one of whom was the commandant and the others officers and guards from the camp. Evidently the Cossacks had meted out summary justice; the commandant’s plea for clemency was now irrelevant. The remainder of the journey to the town was not uneventful, either. Dead Germans were evident in several places, all men. Some were uniformed, others civilians. Some showed no sign of visible damage, while others had neat, black, round holes in their foreheads. These sights were most unpleasant, even though Germany had been, and still was, the enemy.
The town, a very pretty one, on the eastern bank of the Elbe, appeared to be deserted.
Despite their condition and the circumstances, the airmen hesitated to break into houses to find food. It did not seem right or fair to do so. They tried knocking on one or two doors, with no success. However, they did find, eventually, a baker’s shop that had been looted, probably by the advancing Russians. In it was some black rye bread! Actually, it was reasonably tasty, as it was about a month fresher than that which had formed the bulk of their rations. So having eaten, they returned to the camp, to see what was happening. On the way back, they did notice a group of Russian ex-prisoners, lying beside a pig they had evidently killed and on which they had been feasting. Their stomachs were distended and they all looked very unwell, having reached the state when they looked very dead indeed. On reaching the camp, they discovered what had happened in their absence; precisely nothing.
The senior British officer called the Army and R.A.F. personnel together during the late afternoon. He told them all that he had been informed of the following facts. The British and American armies had crossed the Rhine and were making good progress eastwards: the Russian Armies had reached the river Elbe, (this, of course, they knew already) and were now heading northwards towards Berlin. There was no doubt that the war with Germany would soon be over. In the meantime, the inmates of the camp were advised to stay where they were for the time being. The Russian liberators would make every effort to ensure that sufficient food was available for the immediate future, until arrangements could be made for repatriation. Alternatively, those who wished to take the chance could attempt to make their own way westwards. A few, mainly R.A.F. personnel with serviceable shoes, decided they had had quite enough of the camp and would prefer to take the risk of passing through the Russian and German lines in order to reach the British or American armies. They informed the senior British officer of their intention, collected their possessions, (practically nothing!), and set out. All took what food they could find, in their cardboard boxes. Harry also took his blanket!
The few, about a dozen, travelled in a group along the right bank of the Elbe, for several miles, in what appeared to be a deserted countryside. They had no watches, but by the position of the sun in the sky they knew they had perhaps two hours of daylight left and during that time they would need to find food and drink and somewhere to spend the night in comparative safety.
Their physical condition was such that the distance they had already walked exhausted every one of the airmen, so it was advisable to find somewhere to rest fairly soon. Fortunately, what appeared to be a farmhouse lay ahead, so, by mutual agreement they decided to investigate, with the prospect of satisfying their requirements. In the best tradition of films they had watched in the dim and distant past, two crawled ahead to ‘case the joint’, while the others waited in a ditch beside the roadside hedge. Their luck was in, for, after a short time, the two scouts returned and reported that indeed it was a small farmhouse, with outbuildings and that the premises appeared to be deserted. The whole group then approached the house and cautiously entered via an open door, creaking eerily on rusty hinges in the slight evening breeze. Quietly they filed along a passage, with open doors on either side. As if by previous arrangement, they explored each of the four rooms in twos; what was evidently the living- cum dining room, contained a plain wooden table with six chairs, a clock, still ticking, a picture on the wall and nothing else; a ‘front’ room, also undisturbed, contained a sofa and four easy chairs, ornaments on the mantel-shelf over the fireplace, and a few pictures on the walls. It seemed likely that this room was used only on Sundays. What was evidently a scullery contained a sink and the usual utensils one would expect to see; the fourth room, a kitchen, had a well-polished kitchen range for cooking, a scrubbed wooden table and a pantry. The pantry was empty. All the downstairs rooms were neat and tidy, and very clean.
The airmen who explored upstairs soon wished they had not. The bathroom was empty, but the three bedrooms were not. The farmer and his wife, aged perhaps about fifty, were lying on their double bed, sheets thrown off. The farmer was in his nightshirt, the wife was naked; their throats had been cut from ear to ear. Both had horrified expressions, indicating they had not died in their sleep. The second bedroom provided an even more unpleasant sight, in that the occupants, two small children, one in a bed and one in a cot, had been ruthlessly murdered with knives or bayonets. The third bedroom was probably that of a daughter of the older couple, and mother of the two small children. She had recently been a very attractive young woman, blonde and shapely. The two airmen who entered that room felt sick. They knew they would never, ever, forget that sight, and that even if they lived to a ripe old age, they would visualise that terrified face and that mutilated body in their nightmares. This German family had not been enemies, not of the British and western allies, nor of the Russians. Could members of the advancing Russian armies have possibly performed these loathsome deeds? There was no other feasible explanation.
Upset and sorry as the airmen were, life had to go on. They congregated in the living room to decide on their plans. As there was nothing they could do for the murdered family, they must leave them were they were. No doubt, survivors in the area would find them and probably arrange for a proper burial. It seemed callous, but they must think of themselves; their actions in the near future would determine whether they had a longer future!.
The priority was clearly the obtaining of food and water; then shelter for the night, but certainly not in the farmhouse! As it happened, all three requirements were soon satisfied. In an adjoining barn they found hens and hens’ eggs, while in the corner of the same structure were piles of hay. A pump in the yard produced cool, clear water. The small stock of food they had set out with that afternoon had long been eaten, but although they were very hungry, they knew that they must not over-eat if they were to avoid the fate of the Russians who had eaten so well but so unwisely earlier that day. The airmen made do with raw eggs and cold water. None of them fancied killing a chicken and eating it raw! Hungry as they were, they were aware of the probable consequences. By this time it was dusk, so they stayed in the barn and made plans for the following day. Common-sense dictated they should split up. Obviously ten scruffy but generally uniformed young men would attract more undesirable attention that two such individuals, so they decided to proceed on the morrow in twos, and that each pair would endeavour to cross the Elbe and then make progress westwards. With luck and a bit of skill they would be able to pass through the Russian lines and then the lines of the retreating German army to reach advancing British or American troops. They had a fair idea of their position, deciding that they were about thirty miles east of the town of Halle. The distance to probable safety was no great problem, but the obstacles in those miles seemed a bit daunting. Deciding to depart from the farm in the morning, at different times, they said their farewells and lay down to sleep.
Harry was fortunate in that he had, as his partner, Jim Hobbs, whose fluency in the German language could help on their journey. In the morning, Jim found two small canvas bags in an outhouse , so they transferred their few possessions, including four or five hens’ eggs, from their cardboard boxes. They set off last, just as dawn was breaking, as Harry never did like getting up early! Travelling northward, parallel to the Elbe, they looked for a bridge and after only a mile or two saw one in the distance. Cautiously moving closer, they noticed two Russian tanks on the near bank, guns pointing threateningly across the bridge. Coming to the conclusion that all bridges over the river would be similarly guarded, the pair decided there was nothing else for it but to approach, hoping that their uniforms would be recognised and that trigger-happy troops would refrain from firing. Apparently, just the two of them, obviously unarmed, appeared to pose no threat, so they were allowed to approach. They pointed to their uniforms and said “English, English airmen”. Jim tried the same formula in German too, which could have been a serious mistake! It was almost an anticlimax when a Russian officer, lolling by the bridge, simply waved them over and said nothing, nothing at all, not even “Good morning, and what a beautiful morning it is for a walk before breakfast.” So they simply walked over the bridge, although it must be admitted they had an itchy feeling in their backs, or wherever this type of apprehensive feeling originates, that they might not reach the other side. Having crossed, the two walked along the road until they were out of sight of the bridge and then promptly sat on a bank to recover from what should have been a dangerous escapade. They almost felt cheated!
As the bridge had been guarded, it seemed likely the Russian army was not ahead, and that it was equally likely that they intended to consolidate on the eastern bank of the Elbe. It therefore seemed quite probable that the pair would now have to negotiate their way through German troops retreating from the Russians, towards German troops retreating from the British or American armies! In the event, it was much less difficult than that; in fact, it was so easy as to be unbelievable, a ‘piece of cake’, in R.A.F. parlance.
There they were, sitting on a bank, minding their own business, when along the road travelling towards them and towards the bridge they had just left, two American jeeps approached, complete with well-armed G.I.s. As the airmen rose rapidly to their feet, the jeeps stopped. From one, an American soldier called across to the other, “Just look at those two poor buggers!” Jim and Harry looked round to see to whom he was referring, but could see no-one else in the vicinity. Perhaps the Yanks were suffering from battle fatigue! Ignoring the rude remark, the overjoyed couple identified themselves and were lifted bodily into one of the jeeps, which was turned in the road and driven back in the direction from whence it had come. The other jeep continued on its journey towards the river, after ascertaining from the two ex-prisoners that there was nothing of note between them and the Russians encamped on the other side of the Elbe. The G.I.s had had orders to patrol as far as the river, and no farther.
If the journey to Halle that followed provided a tremendous relief, the arrival and reception at an hotel that had been requisitioned in the captured town, was pure bliss, and the fresh white roll, with real butter and real cheese, they were given, was manna from Heaven. Harry had dreamed of such food for the last year and a half; now he was in his dream. The two airmen were also each given a steaming hot cup of real coffee, with real milk and sugar. That too, was appreciated far more than their liberators could have imagined. Having been treated so kindly, they could hardly ask for a cup of tea instead; the liberated pair did not know, then, that Americans hardly ever drank tea! They were not allowed to eat anything else for the present, which was probably a wise decision, even though not fully appreciated at the time. Then followed hot showers and a debugging process, also greatly welcomed. Their clothes, such as they were, were taken away and undoubtedly consigned to an incinerator, but not before Harry had asked if his blanket could be debugged and saved for him. They were then issued with a complete American army uniform, in a fetching shade of tan; even the underwear was of that colour. Pyjamas were also given to them and they were escorted to a room with real beds, real sheets and blankets. They felt they were in Heaven in such luxury and then they slept, slept and slept.
On waking, rising and washing Jim and Harry were taken to a mess and given breakfast; again, not much, but the fruit juice, a slice of buttered toast and coffee were really delicious. It wasn’t that their hosts were short of food, but considered it important to introduce proper victuals gradually to their contracted stomachs, (but strangely distended on the exterior).
Then followed an exchange of information. The two described their experiences to an Intelligence officer, while he in turn gave them news of recent events. He told them that it had been agreed that the Russian armies would advance to the Elbe and no further, while the Americans would do likewise. Berlin had not yet fallen, but would do so soon. The War in Europe was in its last stages and until it was over all rescued prisoners would stay where they were. In the meantime they would be nursed back to health, as they weighed only about seven stones each. They would be given writing paper to write home, and they would be issued with other luxuries, such as a comb, a razor, toothbrush and toothpaste. They should rest as much as possible and their intake of food would be increased progressively.
Harry and Jim wrote to their parents. Their letters would not be censored, so they could now report their whereabouts, their freedom and their expectations for the future without fear of erasure. Understandably, only one letter was permitted. They thorough medical examinations, they rested and read, and they fed. They were joined by several other liberated prisoners, who did not look at all well on their arrival; in fact, they appeared to be emaciated ‘poor buggers’. It was difficult to believe that the two of them must have looked like that only a week or so ago. Many of them had journeyed from the same camp, including four who had begun their travels with Jim and Harry.
On the 8th May, 1945, VE day, Germany had capitulated . Adolf Hitler had already been reported dead. In a week or so, arrangements would be made to repatriate the former prisoners, first to Brussels and then home. It seemed almost unbelievable that the past was an unpleasant experience that could now be just an unpleasant memory. It would remain a memory of course, one that would never be forgotten.
During the following week, the freed airmen gradually regained health and strength, thanks to the kind and compassionate treatment given by the medical staff and all the other American personnel with whom they came in contact. They began to eat such luxuries as bacon and egg, pancakes, fruit, pies and cake. They began to put on weight. They also had plenty of time to think.
Harry, no doubt among many others, began to realise they had all learned a very significant lesson, a lesson in values, which are so often taken for granted. Possessions were not that important; what really mattered were the basic necessities of life. Freedom is a vital need, as are friends. One must have enough food and water, in order to exist, while good health is very important. Shelter and warmth are other essential needs. Nothing else is absolutely necessary. Yes, something else is necessary: a sense of humour! He vowed that never, ever again would he complain at any lack of material possessions, and he hoped he would be able to keep that promise to himself.
By about the middle of May, Dakotas flew in to the nearby airfield to ferry the ex-prisoners to Brussels, from which town they were transported to an aerodrome near Oxford. Even the unsentimental were affected when the white cliffs of Dover were seen ahead!
All the repatriated airmen were then transported to Cardington for re-kitting. The first person Harry met on his arrival was a Warrant-officer from his own village in Norfolk, who had been based there for much of the War, in charge of stores. The second was Ivor! ‘What kept you?’ was his greeting. He had been there for two days, having been sensible enough to wait at the Stalag until he was taken over the Elbe by Russian troops and handed over to the Allies. Those who had left the camp to make their own way need not have bothered!
By the end of May, most of the British repatriates were home with their families, on extended leave and double rations for six weeks! Real freedom was wonderful, good fresh food was really appreciated, a proper bed with sheets was bliss and the weak wartime beer was nectar.
Many of the repatriates would recover completely from their wartime experiences while some would suffer physically or mentally. Some stayed in the forces for only a short period, while others decided they would like to remain in the armed services for the time being, anyway. Many would meet their erstwhile comrades again, while others would not. Many would marry, while others would remain bachelors. The end of an era was the beginning of another. All would never forget the time they spent as guests of the Third Reich.
Harry was one of those who did marry and did contact some of his wartime comrades again. He joined the teaching profession, he and Olivia married and they continued to live in Norfolk. They had a son and a daughter, of whom they were very proud, and grandchildren, of whom they were also proud. In enjoying a full and busy life, they had little time to reminisce about the past, although, naturally, old times were referred to occasionally. While they would never forget their wartime experiences, they chose not to remember the harrowing periods. Fortunately, it seems part of human nature to have a selective and optimistic memory.
The three survivors of the crew of E-Easy kept in touch for several years, exchanging occasional letters and Christmas cards, but almost inevitably, the letters became fewer and gradually ceased. The fifty or so years that followed the War have no part in this narrative, so these few lines are sufficient as far as Harry is concerned. Similarly, the lives and fortunes of the others who were thrown together during the War are irrelevant to the story, which has not yet reached its unforeseen conclusion.
A Squadron Association re-union took place more that fifty years later, in the village from
which the squadron had flown,. Harry arrived at the car-park of the inn in good time for the service and dedication of the bound book of remembrance containing the names of the nine hundred and six airmen of the squadron who had given their lives during the War. As he parked his Rover, he noticed that several cars were already there, ranging from a Bentley and two Jaguars to a battered and elderly Mini. About forty men and a few women were gathered, chatting ; he joined them, introduced himself and , in turn, others introduced themselves. He recognised no-one’s face or name, nor was he recognised. Sadly, he reflected, they all looked elderly; and of course, were elderly, now.
They all walked to the church, to join the many from the village. The church was full and the service a moving one. Before the service began, Harry sat quietly and reflectively in the pew, comparing, or rather contrasting, the old times with the present day. Nowadays, many young men who played football for a living, earned, or rather, received, hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and were called heroes by the media and fans, when they scored goals. The young men whose names were inscribed in the book of remembrance earned a small fraction of that in a year, if they were lucky enough to live that long. Society in general had certainly changed, as had values. Money and possessions were gods to so many.
Nowadays, so many young people took drugs; drugs were almost unheard of fifty years ago. The only ones that could be called such were the tablets taken to keep the airmen alert on a long trip over enemy territory. In those days, grass was green and was mown, ecstasy was a state of extreme pleasure, coke was put on the fire and a joint was a piece of meat. Yes, times have certainly changed, he pondered; but change is inevitable. Anyway, he was harbouring unkind thoughts in the comparison; only a small minority of today’s youngsters were addicted to drugs, while the great majority behaved much in the same way as we used to behave. After all, we did not always behave that well, he mused. When we were not on duty, the local residents surely found some of our conduct weird, if not reprehensible, particularly when we had ‘had a few.’. Whatever must they have thought of the sanity of Wilf and his companions, when he chatted to a non-existent dog! Whatever did they think of our R.A.F. slang: ‘wizard’, for first-rate, ‘a black’, for an error of judgement, ‘blackouts’, for W.A.A.F. underwear, ‘blood wagon’, for ambulance, ‘close the hangar door’, for stop talking shop, ‘he’s bought it’, or ‘he got the chop’, for he has been killed, ‘it’s a piece of cake’, for it’s easy, to name but a few?
When the service was over the association members returned to the inn for a chat and a pre-lunch drink. The efficient and dedicated secretary, Tom, had arranged that the Battle of Britain Lancaster, City of Lincoln, would fly over the old base at noon, so just before that they all trooped outside. Almost to the second, the once familiar roar of the four Merlin engines presaged the appearance of the last serviceable Lancaster, still flying. Once, there had been so many in the skies of Lincolnshire. The Lanc flew sedately over their heads, the pilot dipping the wings in salute. They all watched, they all thought their private thoughts, they all waved. The Lancaster, now elderly too, circled Lincoln and returned, once more dipping its wings, then disappeared in the direction of its base at Coningsby, nearby. They returned to the inn for sandwiches and their modest glasses of beer or sherry. How times changed; but after all it was fifty-plus years ago that those same men and perhaps some of the women had gathered there evening after evening, drinking , chatting and singing songs. Harry read and re-read the names of his friends: a separate list, compiled painstakingly by ‘Uncle Will’, the chairman of the association, showed him that the remains of his crew who had been killed on that fateful night so many years ago, were interred at the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, in Germany, having been initially buried in the Nordfriedhof, Dusseldorf. Wilf’s name was included on the list, so Harry knew now that he too had lost his life. There was no way of knowing how, when and where, although it seemed likely that he had not been found in the burned-out aircraft.
After a while, and before the journey home, Harry drove down the quiet country lane to find the old airfield, passing two fairly new housing estates on the way. Arriving at the entrance, he switched off the engine and reminisced. Surprisingly, a few of the old buildings were still there, albeit in a dilapidated condition. He recognised the officers’ and sergeants’ messes, facing the road, and saw that other buildings remained beyond them. As the place did not look particularly private, on impulse he drove in and parked his car. Several lorries were parked on the forecourt, but there were no signs of occupancy. He walked a few yards, to inspect more closely, when a man and a dog appeared from around a corner. The dog wagged his tail in greeting.
‘Hello: can I help you?’, the man, who appeared to be about sixty years of age, offered.
‘I’m sorry I have intruded, but I was stationed here during the War and could not resist a look’, replied Harry.
‘You are more than welcome: my name is John Weston and I run my transport business from here. Do come in and have a closer inspection.’
They walked in to the old sergeants’ mess; pictures of Lancasters covered the walls and items of memorabilia were scattered on benches. Incongruously, a large engine reposed near the centre of the floor. Mr. Weston explained. He had been a young lad, living close by, during the War, had watched the bombers take off, night after night and listened for their return. In those days the village had revolved about the airfield. After the War, he had watched the runways, control tower and hangars being removed and the fields restored to arable farming. He had prospered and decided that he would buy the remaining land and buildings, using them as a base for his business as a contractor. He had vowed he would keep the now dilapidated buildings in their present state, as his tribute to the squadron.
Harry signed the visitors’ book that he proffered; looking through the names, with addresses far and wide, he recognised no-one that he had known.
‘Before I take you on a tour of the rest of the buildings’, said Mr. Weston, ‘I must tell you about my ghost. Even if you do not believe in the supernatural, please hear me out The mess really is haunted. You see that engine; perhaps you recognise it as an old Merlin engine from a Lancaster. I found near the site of one of the squadron’s hangars. I had it brought in, years ago, intending to strip it down and smartening it up a bit, but I never did get around to doing anything with it. Well, one morning, two or three years ago, when I came in, it had disappeared! Just like that - gone.! I just could not believe it, as it was not possible to lift it manually. Besides, who would want an old aircraft engine? I dashed through to the office to tell my wife and she came in to look. I wasn’t away for more than a minute, but when we came back, there it was in its usual place. Obviously, she thought I had been dreaming. Then tools began disappearing during the night, and appeared again the following morning in a different place from where I had put them. Joan, my wife, was convinced after I suggested that she put the tools somewhere she would choose when we left the premises after work, and to check for herself the following morning. She did so and surely enough, the tools were in a different place. The ghost seemed attracted to my pipe, too. I would put it down and find it somewhere else, later. There was nothing malicious and we both quite enjoyed the game; it was like playing hide-and-seek with a child.’
Mr. Weston continued: “Then, for a time, my ghost became unfriendly. Tools were taken and not replaced for days. My pipe disappeared and I never did find that. The telephone in the office, next door, was unplugged and the computer, on stand-by, was turned off. I wondered why, because my ghost had always been such a friendly joker. Then, suddenly, there were no more unkind pranks after I had returned the safety helmet I wear for demolition jobs, to its usual place, over there.’ He pointed to a corner bench.. ‘Surely there could be no connection between a missing helmet and a ghost’s irritation. Anyway, I left the helmet there and used another one. I cannot think why a ghost would value a pipe and a helmet, or for that matter, play hide-and-seek with an old engine’ He emphasised ,‘I’m not kidding, you know, it’s all true.’
Of course, Harry showed interest in what Mr. Weston was telling him, making suitable comments. However, he did not air his views as to a possible explanation that had occurred to him during the tale; the theory was too far-fetched! How on earth, (no perhaps that is the wrong phrase), however could anyone believe that a youngster of eighteen, killed in 1943, come back to haunt his old squadron’s premises? If his ‘ghost’ did exist, why did he (it) wait fifty years before coming back to his old mess? It just did not make sense.
Just then, the dog came through the doorway, wagging his tail. Mr. Weston told Harry that he spent a lot of time in the old mess, just lying there quietly. Sometimes, if outside, he would prick up his ears, as if listening, then run into the mess, and wait, as if expectantly. His previous dogs had spent much time in the old sergeants’ mess, too. He remarked, casually, that he had called all his dogs ‘Fido’. Harry decided to join in the game, thinking, ‘well, it can’t do any harm’. He pulled an old pipe from his pocket, and asked, ‘May I leave this, as a kind of memento? ; your ghost may like a change.’ Seemingly unsurprised, Mr. Weston welcomed the sentimental gesture, and suggested it should be placed in an old saucer that was on the window sill. Harry put his pipe carefully on the saucer, just as a gentle breeze wafted through, caressing his cheek.
“So you are still at it, Wilf; goodbye old friend”, I murmured.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Now I have identified myself as Harry! Readers probably came to that conclusion after a few pages, but had I done so at the beginning, it would have been obvious that I had survived this long. Writing in the ‘third person’ seemed easier too. Many a writer uses a pseudonym, and it was certainly necessary for me to do so. ‘As We Who Are Left Grow Old’, by Harry Abbot , on the cover, followed by a story in which Harry Abbot figures, would have looked a bit stupid if written in the third person! For that matter, David Bishop could be a pseudonym. So now I don’t know whether I am Harry Abbot, David Bishop or someone else of whom you have never heard.! If the reader is not totally confused by now, it’s not my fault!
While driving home from Lincolnshire, I realised that my experiences at the old airfield during the last hour or two had caused me to reconsider my views on the supernatural. It wasn’t that I had been a complete sceptic, as I had read and heard of several incidents that had no seemingly logical explanation. Nevertheless, I did have my doubts, because I had never had such an experience myself. So much has been said and written about ghosts and spirits, but the only spirits I had contacted were poured from a bottle! So many hoaxes had been perpetrated, which hardly encouraged belief. However, I do realise that we still know little of the mysteries of life and of the universe, let alone an after-life, or possible reincarnation. Examining the evidence, I became convinced, well partly convinced, that Wilf’s ghost was genuine, so to speak. The pipe, the helmet, and the dog, all reminders of Wilf’s constant companions, on ‘ops’, or on squadron premises, seemed to provide too many coincidences; and Wilf was certainly a joker! Mr. Weston and I had never met before, so his story could not have been an elaborate leg-pull. There was no possibility that he could know anything about Wilf. Why did his dogs, all ‘Fido,
visit the old Sergeants’ Mess so frequently? Surely there must be a rational explanation? I could not think of one!
A year or so later, Olivia and I travelled to Lincolnshire for a short holiday and Olivia expressed an interest to visit the old squadron premises. On arrival, we met Mrs. Weston, who showed us round the buildings. Mr. Weston was away on business, so his wife showed us around. She did mention that they used to have a mischievous ghost, but he had suddenly disappeared about a year ago! I wondered, ‘Had Wilf been waiting for a fellow crew member?’
I began to wonder even more about the supernatural.
For more than fifty years I had no intention of writing about wartime experiences, partly because they were similar to those of so many others and partly because I had had no expertise in writing, except for personal and business letters. As I found these particular occurrences half a century after the War so fascinating and extraordinary I decided to relate them. However, without recounting some of the wartime events that preceded my later visits to the squadron premises, it would have meant little to any readers and would have certainly been too short to be of any interest to anyone. Therefore, I decided I must begin at the beginning, or rather from the time that we set out on that fateful night, fifty-six years ago, at the time of writing. The facts are basically true, except that names have been changed and some places not fully identified. Memories do fade after all that time, and the detail of some of the described happenings may have been forgotten or even suppressed for more than half a century. Had I claimed complete veracity, no doubt I would have been challenged on some aspects, or even committed some kind of infringement of the rules, in writing Harry’s part biography - or is it a section of my autobiography?
Readers, (if there are any) must now decide for themselves whether the story itself is completely true, apart from the fictitious names, whether it is almost true, or whether the writer is suffering from senile dementia. By the way, although I am not sentimental by nature, the blanket did service in the car boot for many years, I still have a small piece of a parachute , and a tattered receipt for an Omega watch! I wonder what happened to that watch?
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