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A Lancaster Bomber's Last Flight

by actiondesksheffield

Denis Thorpe with his wireless-op visiting the crash site in Alsace

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Denis R.B. Thorpe
Location of story: 
Over Frankfurt
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 May 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by John Lofthouse of Radio Sheffield Actiondesk on behalf of Denis R.B. Thorpe, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

* * * *

It must have been 11.15am on the morning of September 12th 1944, when I was awakened by Rosie, our bat-woman. "You're to report to Flight Office by 12.15 hrs." "Impossible," I thought - we had been laying mines in the Keil area only the previous night and the day before that we'd been over Le Havre on a daylight raid. I suppose it didn't really count, our normal sequence of `Ops' was two nights on and one night off.

Having breakfasted with Pet. Off. Cox, my navigator, we went over to the Flight Office to find out the score. Sure enough, in bold letters on the blackboard - MAXIMUM EFFORT TONIGHT. Collecting the rest of my crew, we made our way to dispersal to see how the lads were making out with `G2' our own home which we'd flown in together since just before our fourth Op., apart from some time out when she'd had to have extensive repairs when we'd lost an engine over Stuttgart. Dan, the rigger, was polishing up the Astro-dome when we arrived, and John, the fitter, reported that he thought he'd fixed 'George' the automatic pilot, which had been giving a bit of trouble. We took her up for half an hour, checked George and confirmed that all the gun turrets were operating satisfactorily, and then we returned to base.

'Briefing' took place at 16.30 hrs; presided over by the Gp. Capt. and Wg. Cdrs. Nelson (12 Squadron) and Rodney (626 Squadron). We learned straight away that there were to be twin targets that night - Frankfurt and Stuttgart - our two Squadrons being on the Frankfurt target,
but that all the main force aircraft were to follow the same initial route, diverging only when they reached Karlsruhe - due south of Frankfurt. The `Met' man gave us little comfort - hardly any cloud-cover, but to watch out for icing above 30,000 ft! We then learned that, as an experienced crew of some 30 operations, we were to take a young Canadian pilot as ‘2nd Didcy’ and show him the ropes - a usual practice with all new pilots joining a squadron.

Briefing over, we adjourned for the traditional pre-0ps `bacon and egg' and eventually wandered over to the locker rooms, donned flying kit, picked up our escape packs, parachutes etc. and were driven out to dispersal bays. The inevitable inane banter took place - cigarettes smoked at a furious rate - all signs of 'pre-Op' twitch. The time came to board our aircraft, each man doing his own take-off check. The green 'Very' lights went up indicating that the Op was `on' and that it could not now be scrubbed. We then took our place behind C2 in the queue up to take-off. Getting the green light from `The Hut', we swung into line, locked on the brakes, stick well forward, opened up the throttles, released the brakes - we were off on operation 31.

We gained height steadily between base and the east coast and back, keeping a sharp lookout all the time to avoid other Lanc's and Halifax's that were milling around doing the same thing. On a word from the navigator we set a course of 200 degrees, our base at about 8,000 ft., still climbing, as well as our load of cookie incendiaries and 2,000 gallons of aviation fuel would allow. In the gathering dusk, we flew south, eventually pin-pointing Portland Bill, our departure point from the British Isles. We were bang on route and time. When I pointed out to our young Canadian co-pilot that that would be the last he saw of friendly shores for a few hours, I little realised what fate had in store!

Altering course, we headed for the French coast and flew on, climbing all the time. Guns were given a quick burst to make sure they were ready for action and shortly afterwards we started throwing out `window'- thin metal strips of foil to confuse the enemy radar. Searchlights popped up here and there probing the sky, hoping to latch on to some unfortunate `bod' - odd bits of flak floated up, but we droned steadily on unmolested. By this time we had altered course again and were approaching the diverging point of the two bomber streams. In the distance we could see the flak batteries round Karlsruhe, looking as though they were having a real birthday.

On a word from the navigator, we turned north on our appointed course towards Frankfurt, and, almost immediately, it happened. A fighter flare burst literally almost on our port wing, and I instinctively turned away to starboard to avoid the dripping magnesium. "Dive port, skip!" an urgent yell from Len, the rear gunner. We were now at about 22,000 ft. and old G2 was a bit sloppy on the controls but, nevertheless, I turned and shoved the stick forward to start a ‘corkscrew’ evading action. I could hear our own guns chattering away and instinctively lifted my foot from the rudder bar as I felt the cannon shells thumping into us with one of them nicking my flying boot. Almost as soon as it started, the firing ceased, the flare had expended itself and there was an exultant cry from the rear gunner, "I think I got him Skip, a 210!" Hardly were the words out of his mouth - I had just started checking on various members of the crew, when there were two terrific bangs, one somewhere back in the tail end of the aircraft and the other on the starboard wing where I could see the inboard engine blazing. Immediately I gave the order to the engineer to press the fire extinguisher button and feather the engine. At the same time I pushed G2 into a dive to try to blow out the fire. I asked Johnny Peart the wireless op to check on Len in the rear turret, as there was no reply from him on the intercom. At 11,000 ft. I pulled out of the dive, as it was obvious that the fire was not going out. The wireless operator reported that poor Len, the rear gunner, had `bought it', and that there was muck smoke and a smell of burning oil in the fuselage. Looking out at the burning wing, I realised that G2 was on its last legs. I turned to port to try and get over friendly territory and gave the order to abandon aircraft.

What followed is all somewhat confused. I certainly remember seeing three of the crew going past me to the forward escape hatch. I also remember thinking I must jettison the bomb load and cut off the petrol to the starboard engines but, before any of these things could be done, there was a vivid flash. My watch strap (an elastic type) stretched from my wrist and broke, and the next thing I remember was being aware that I was falling. Instinctively I felt for my parachute ripcord, pulled hard and then saw tree trunks flying past me as I swung through them. Later, I worked out that the aircraft had blown up, shooting me out unconscious. I must have `come to' sufficiently at about 1,500 ft; pulled the ripcord, and the parachute had opened in time to catch the trees and break my fall. I came to rest, bent my toes, and and my feet touched terra firma.

Still dazed, I then tried to take stock of the situation. I seemed reasonably mobile, although without flying boots. As they were the old loose-fitting type, they must have come off in my unusual exit from G2. My battle dress looked like one of Cinderella's cast-offs, and I noticed that blood was coming down my left arm from one or two peculiar cuts. Remembering a snatch of often repeated intelligence briefing, I tried to pull down my parachute to hide it. Unfortunately, it was inextricably caught in the trees , so I decided to abandon further attempts and try to get away from the locality. Taking out my escape kit I looked at the small compass and could not remember - in my still befuddled state - whether it was `two dots north' or vice-versa! A quick look at the Great Bear, however, soon started me hobbling westwards.

I must have walked on through the woods for about an hour - all the time cursing my misfortune, but at the same time trying to work out if I was anywhere near Alsace where I might chance upon somebody 'pro-British'.

Eventually I came to a minor road which I followed in a NW direction, skirting a village, which I had decided was still not far enough to the west. After about another three hours, after which time I was feeling decidedly weak and dizzy, I came to another, bigger, village. "This is it," I thought, "with a bit of luck I might get some help." I walked right through; there was not a soul about, and went to the last house and knocked gently on the door. After a few minutes, a small squat fellow came to the door. "Je suis aviateur Anglais, pouvez vous?" "Huh, Englander, Terreur, Fleiger!" he interrupted. Quick as a flash, he caught hold of my right arm and whipped a half-Nelson on me. As I could hardly stand with loss of blood and fatigue, I was in no position to offer any resistance. He then walked me what seemed to be only about 100 yds. down his garden, straight into an army post! There was a rapid exchange of words while several Schmeisers, Lugers etc. were trained on me. A quick search took away my escape kit and the next thing I remember it was daylight, and I was lying on a paliasse on the floor of the army hut with two guards standing over me!

After about an hour, during which time I was given a cup of ersatz coffee and a cigarette, a truck with three guards and myself inside took us all to what turned out to be Rastatt Hospital. As we drew up and I was ushered out, another truck was disgorging a stretcher - I looked in horror - it was Paddy, my mid-upper gunner, his face covered in blood, showing no signs of life. I spent about five days in hospital having lumps of metal and perspex taken out of various parts of my body and a finger-nail removed. During that time I managed to find out from the very considerate French-speaking doctor that Paddy had lost an eye, but that he would eventually be all right. While I was in bed, an orderly had taken my battle dress, had it all stitched up and returned it with a packet of cigarettes and a lighter in the pocket!

Now more or less as good as new I was given a pair of Wehrmacht boots and sent to a small staging post where I was delighted to meet up with Johnny, my wireless operator. Unfortunately he had been caught when trying to swim a canal!

It was while we were there that an amusing incident took place. We were put into a small bare room with two more RAF types - presumably to await further transport. We had been given a communal bowl of soup which had lasted us for about three hours, when one of the lads remembered that he had a small tin of sardines that he'd picked up from a Polish prisoner on his travels. I borrowed Johnny's `flying boot knife' (in the newer type boot, a knife was secreted in the fleecy lining, specifically for cutting away the tops and turning them into shoes), which strangely enough the Germans had not found. I opened the tin and we enjoyed the sardines. Unfortunately, we were unable to hide the empty tin from the Germans and a quick-witted guard wanted to know how we opened it! After vainly trying to persuade him that we had done it with our teeth and a soup spoon we were all put against a wall outside with our hands on our heads, covered by two more guards with Schmeisers at the ready and searched. We had previously hidden the knife on top of the door lintel. Finding nothing on us or in the room, the Sergeant in charge exchanged some heated words with the other guards, which ended in the ominous sound of safety catches going off and the two in front of us grasping their Schmeisers more firmly! It might have been a bluff-who knows? After all we were at war, but a quick debate among ourselves decided that we would at least give our lives more dearly than for a mere half dozen sardines! We told them where the knife was to be found.

The next day found us at the infamous Dulag Luft where we were sent our separate ways. I remained there for a week, during which time I was told the sad news of the death of the other three members of my crew. From there I was sent to Stalag Luft 1, where I remained until released by the forces of the USSR about 8 months later.

(ex Flt/Lt 626 Sqn. 1 Group March-September 1944)


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