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A NIGHT OUT IN A BOMBER - AND AFTERWARDS by Mr Charles Dear Further recollections
|DATE: 25.5.1940 LOCATION: FELTWELL, NORFOLK||AIRCRAFT: "WELLINGTON" Mk. lc. NUMBER: L7793. (LF-O)|
|CREW: Capt. S/Ldr. A.R.Glencross.||Co-Pilot. Plt.Off J.S.Cameron.||Nav. Sgt. R.C.Parkhouse.|
|W/Op L.A.C. C.A.Dear.||A/Gnr. A.C.I. B.Stanhope.|
BRIEFING: To attack crossroads near the town of AVENES, BELGIUM. Supposedly vital to the German advance.
We took off from the airfield at Feltwell late evening of the 25th May 1940 and on arriving in the target area commenced a low level search in brilliant moonlight for the crossroads we were to bomb. We had barely commenced this task, when suddenly all hell broke out around us when an alert German gun crew saw us and opened fire. Violent evasive action was taken and eventually we broke away, but we had been badly hit.
With composure restored, the Captain called for damage reports from the crew and though no one had been hurt it was found that the starboard wing fuel tanks had been badly holed and as a result we had insufficient fuel to reach England. Therefore, the decision was taken to head for the nearest friendly airfield - Ostend.
We reached Ostend just as dawn was breaking and were aghast to see that trenches had been dug across the airfield as a precaution against German landings. A small strip had been left for use by Belgian air force Fairy "Fox" Biplane fighters, but this was totally inadequate for our lumbering "Wellington". Nevertheless, with fuel now very low, a landing had to be made.
Touchdown was achieved at the very edge of the cleared strip and we careered across this and into the first trench, which we hit with some force. The port undercarriage leg was forced upwards into the engine, puncturing the oil tank. This produced a cloud of horrible green/yellow smoke into the fuselage. Fortunately, this did not ignite but it was most unpleasant to have to dash through it to the forward escape hatch.
Later, when the smoke had cleared, I re-entered the aircraft and attempted to contact R.A.F. Manston by wireless, so that I could inform them of our predicament. Unfortunately, the Captain when evacuating the aircraft via the escape hatch above his head, had broken the wireless aerial, and though I repaired this with a spare piece of wire, I had no success.
My next task was to disconnect and destroy the I.F.F. set, which I battered to pieces and scattered its remains. The I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) was a supposedly secret device, but Iím sure that the Germans had acquired many sets by this stage of the war.
Meanwhile the Captain and Co-Pilot had gone to the Belgian Air Force and through them had contacted an appropriate British authority for guidance. We were asked to salvage what we could from the aircraft - particularly the propellers, and then destroy the aircraft.
Aided by Belgian technicians, we did succeed in salvaging the machine guns, but without the appropriate tools or equipment this was the limit of our endeavours - all to be lost later anyway.
Stanhope and I armed with axes then proceeded to break hydraulic lines, the reserve oil tank in the fuselage and anything else that would readily burn. I then fired six signal cartridges into the fuselage to set it ablaze, but it would not burn. The signal cartridges burned through the fabric and fell to the ground. Eventually, we were forced to tear strips of fabric from the fuselage and build a substantial fire in it to get the aircraft to burn.
Meanwhile the Captain had returned and told us that we would be taken to Ostend docks where a ship the "Aboukir" was loading and that we would sail in her that night. He also brought a small vehicle for our use and the care of an Army motor cycle despatch rider who had a broken leg resulting from a road accident, and who was to be evacuated with us.
Later we made our way to the docks, introduced ourselves to the ships Captain and then waited, but only for a short time. German air attacks had started and grew steadily worse, and though the docks did not appear to be the primary target some bombs were falling too close for comfort. We decided therefore, to use our vehicle to take us to a wooded area south west of the town. This proved to be a big mistake, for shortly after gaining a degree of safety we became the target. Unknown to us an oil tanker was burning in the woods and began to attract all the German bombers. The tanker was probably deliberately fired for this purpose to take the bombs away from the town. Fortunately, ready dug trenches provided us some protection. Eventually we decided to run the gauntlet and leave for less dangerous places and when doing so, passed the cause of our discomfort, the burning oil tanker and its billowing smoke.
Proceeding back to the docks we were disappointed to learn that due to enemy action the "Aboukirís" cargo had not been unloaded, and as a result her departure had been postponed by 24 hours.
I cannot recall where the information came from, but we were told of the location of a British Army unit billeted at a nearby farm and advised to join them.
As shot down aircrew, we of course had nothing but what we stood-in and were happy to accept some support. We had had nothing to eat for more than 24 hours and were also feeling somewhat tired.
Arriving at the farm we found the Army unit occupying a barn and little else. However, they did provide us with some cans of ready cooked sausages, embedded in cold fat, but it was food and we were grateful. Bed for the night was the floor of a farm wagon - not very comfortable.
Since the army unit were to be evacuated as we were, on the "Aboukir", we remained at the farm for the whole of the following day, moving back to the docks that evening the 27th May.
The "Aboukir" left the dockside immediately after dark and proceeded out to sea. Again it was a clear moonlit night. Meanwhile the ships Mate had made his cabin available to us. This was a small single berth cabin totally inadequate for four persons - Stanhope had remained on deck - I therefore decided to vacate this somewhat overcrowded situation and join him, leaving S/Ldr Glencross. Plt/0ff Cameron and Sgt Parkhouse in the cabin.
A short while later when standing at the stern rail, I saw the tracks of two torpedoes approaching, one missed the stern by a few feet and I vividly recall looking down at it as it passed by. The second torpedo did not miss, and slammed into the "Aboukir" amidships.
My next recollection was of being an awful long way underwater and came to the surface near drowning. Fortunately, there was some floating debris nearby which I eagerly clung to. Meanwhile the "Aboukir" had completely disappeared.
Strangely, I do not remember any noise, no cries for help, no machine guns, no engines - complete silence. Contrary to some other reports.
Some time later, I saw a piece of wreckage in the distance offering greater safety than the inadequate piece of flotation I was clinging to. Kicking off my flying boots I swam to what proved to be the top of a deck cabin. From this I learned a lesson, always take your life raft with you since the deck cabin was further away than I had reckoned, and fully clothed was almost beyond my capability.
On reaching the raft I found Stanhope, a member of the ships crew and an R.A.F. Officer (Ian) already on board.
I cannot recall that we had a lot to say to each other. Sitting in cold water up to ones waist was hardly conducive to any form of banter. We simply had to bear it and await rescue.
It is difficult to give times for these events. I would estimate that the "Aboukir" was sunk at about midnight and it was about 7am when we saw a flotilla of six destroyers approaching. Fortunately they saw us and a lifeboat from H.M.S. Greyhound picked us up. We were then transferred to H.M.S. Grenville which about turned and took us to Dover. The remainder of the flotilla headed for Dunkirk.
On arrival at Dover Stanhope and I were taken to R.A.F. Hawkinge, where we were rekitted and given rail tickets for our journey back to Feltwell.
I have no idea what loss of life was involved with the sinking of the "Aboukirí, it must have been considerable and consisted of both military and civilian personnel, including the Army despatch rider we had cared for. What did prove amazing was the rescue of a small black and white Terrier dog found standing on a plank of wood.
The other thing I found amazing was the reluctance of "Wellington" L7793 to burn. The "Wellington" was infamous for readily catching fire. It was reckoned that one had only to kick the tyres to ignite it, and yet L7793 despite having its starboard wing peppered and fuel tanks holed did not ignite. It did not ignite when the port engine oil tank was ruptured and finally we were forced to build a fire within her to get her to burn when signal flares failed to do so.
Following our re-establishment back at base we were granted 10 days survivors leave. During this time I was approached by the B.B.C. to broadcast this story. This I did in the programme "Air Log" on the home service on the 4th June 1940 for which I was paid the princely sum of 8 Guineas. It almost made it seem worthwhile.
The bodies of S/Ldr Glencross, Plt/Off Cameron and Sgt Parkhouse were never found and their names were commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
The foregoing is a true story.
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