London Letter

by Ralph Michaelis, Air News London Correspondent

Every member of an RAF crew now must be able to handle the flying controls, as well as his radio apparatus, engines and guns. This new step in training has been prompted by the many cases of aircraft having been flown back by another member of the crew when the pilot had been killed or incapacitated; and of other cases where they might have got home if a member of the crew other than the pilot had been able to fly the plane. It is customary to carry a second pilot on the big four-engined bombers, though the medium bombers usually carry only one pilot. But two pilots can be knocked out as easily as one by a bursting cannon shell, and the new routine is undoubtedly going to save many lives and much valuable material.

But the list of pilots who, though badly wounded, have brought their ships and crews safely home is a long one. The other night a Wellington was flying off the Dutch coast when it was caught by searchlights. Almost at once an intense barrage of light 'flak' and ships' machine guns was flung up at it from a convoy crawling along the coast.

One shell burst right inside the cockpit, wounding the pilot badly in the right leg, hip and hand, and smashing the navigator's arm above the left elbow. When the smoke from the bursting shell cleared, the crew found that the compass was shattered and useless, several of the electric circuits were broken, and the radio apparatus was damaged. In spite of his wounds, the pilot threw his aircraft about in evasive action so successfully that the rear gunner shot out three of the searchlights.

They were then attacked by a fighter. With great skill and pluck — for it is no fun throwing a heavy machine around with two shattered limbs — the pilot outmaneuvered the fighter so that the rear gunner was able to get in a long burst of machine-gun fire at him to such good purpose that he was driven off. Then, badly shaken, and losing blood rapidly, the pilot set course for England, while the navigator fed him oxygen to keep him going and helped him to control the aircraft.

Meanwhile the radio operator was tending the navigator, tying up his arm with a tourniquet and dressing his wounds. So exhausted was the pilot with pain and loss of blood that he nearly lost consciousness several times; and when at last the crew got into telephonic communication with their airfield, the pilot was too far gone to understand the landing instructions from the ground. To make things still worse, the instrument which indicates whether the undercarriage is up or down had been smashed in the fight, and the pilot did not know whether the undercarriage would come down or not. In spite of these difficulties, the pilot gathered all his remaining strength with one last supreme effort, and made a perfect landing before collapsing.

Getting the lame duck home is a problem that frequently calls for considerable ingenuity, especially with single-seater fighters. In the North African desert, fighter pilots forced down or having to bale out have frequently rejoined their units after days of walking through enemy-occupied territory. Then one fine day, a Spitfire pilot whose companion had had to land inside enemy territory went down and landed beside him. The two of them somehow both squeezed themselves into the narrow cockpit of the one serviceable Spit, and flew home, the passenger sitting on the pilot's knee and controlling the stick, while the pilot used the rudder — a somewhat precarious way of flying one of the fastest aeroplanes in the world. For this spectacular rescue, the pilot was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. This started a perfect epidemic of dual Spitfire escapes, the reward for which was then reduced to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

There was another of these rescues the other day, when the County of London fighter squadron was out shooting up a large concentration of motor vehicles which they found sheltering in a wadi. The Spitfires dived, and shot them up so accurately that they destroyed at least fifty of the enemy's vehicles, in addition to sundry armored cars, tanks, gun positions, and a radio standard. The attack was so fierce and so sudden that it smothered all defense; but as soon as the Spits turned for home, the German gunners ran to their guns, and they hit one of the Spitfires flown by Pilot Officer D E Llewellyn. His glycol engine cooling system was hit and his fuel tanks holed; and although partially blinded by escaping fuel he succeeded in making a safe landing. Over his radio telephone he could hear his friends up above discussing what they should do about him; and he called back to say that he was prepared to walk home.

But Pilot Officer Bryan Terry, an Australian, would not hear of this and glided down to land. Llewellyn threw handfuls of sand in the air to indicate the direction of the wind, and Terry landed beside him. Now Bryan Terry is very tall, and Llewellyn is very short, so there was a bit of an argument as to who should sit on the other's knee, which was, however, cut short by a warning from their friends up above, over the radio telephone, that two German trucks were rapidly approaching the scene. They scrambled into the Spit, and made a safe trip to an advanced airfield.

But the champion escape this month in the Mediterranean was made by Squadron Leader Adrian Warburton, DSO, DFC.

The Squadron Leader's adventures started on a dirty Sunday morning when he set out from Malta on a routine reconnaissance patrol over the North African coast. The weather cleared a little, and the pilot was having a look below, when he was attacked by eight or nine Me-109s. Bullets hit his hood and ripped into the fuselage of his aircraft. He banked away, and, as he said on his return, "there seemed to be no future in that sort of situation, so I flew as fast as I could in a very startled aircraft."

Shaking off his pursuers, he realized that his oil tank had been hit and punctured. However his engine continued to run ("entirely on phenomenal bearings and Warbie's reputation" as a senior officer suggested) and he flew on to make a good landing at Bona in French North Africa.

It was found there that his aircraft could not receive an immediate patch-up which would make it serviceable. A French Admiral gave the squadron leader a lift to Algiers in his own aircraft. From there he obtained a lift to Gibraltar in a multi-engined bomber manned by a Czechoslovakian crew. Arrived at Gibraltar, it took him some time to persuade the authorities of his identity, as no signal had been received concerning him. Finally he persuaded them to let him have another aircraft, and set out on the return trip to Malta.

He landed twice in Africa on the way home, and he was on his final lap and not very far from the place where he had been attacked a week earlier, when he saw a Junkers 88 which, he afterwards said, "seemed to take no notice of me." He attacked it from astern, set the port engine on fire, and soon both the engine and the port wing parted company with the Junkers, and it spun down into the sea. Then another Ju-88 hove in sight and Warburton turned his attention to that, but the enemy gained cloud cover, and Warburton's ammunition gave out before he could bring the engagement to a definite conclusion. Then he returned to Malta, apologized for missing the second Junkers, and for coming home a week late.

Talking of rescues, I remember trying, in ancient days, to collect a man who was dangling from his parachute in midair. I was flying over the German lines in Northern France in a single-seat fighter when I spotted one of our balloon observers who had evidently had to bale out, and was drifting over German occupied territory in his parachute. It immediately occurred to me that I should fly into wind, stall the machine momentarily directly underneath him so that he could clamber astride the fuselage at the back of my cockpit — and thus, we would fly back in triumph to my airfield — or so I thought. I looked down and carefully noted the direction of the wind, and circled the parachutist warily. But as soon as he saw me coming he began to gesticulate wildly, waving me away with arms and legs, as if I had been the devil himself.

He evidently knew, as I did not realize at that time, that if I came near him, the slipstream from my propeller would capsize his parachute and drop him to Kingdom Come rather than into a Prisoners of War camp. I thought he was just being ungrateful, and secretly mourned the lost opportunity for some time.

Last month I wrote to you about the Battle of Biscay against the U-boats which steal from their bombproof reinforced-concrete water garages on that coast to prey on shipping on the US Atlantic coast. Now it is a question of intercepting these submarines before they can interfere with our convoys southward bound to North Africa; and the experience that Coastal Command of the RAF has obtained during the spring and the summer among these U-boat nests is now proving invaluable in this new campaign.

For now they know all the tricks of the Arado float planes (small seaplanes heavily armed with cannon and machine guns) and land-based Ju-88s, which are mainly used for intercepting the Catalinas and Hudsons of Coastal Command, and the Halifaxes, Wellingtons, Hampdens and Whitleys that Coastal Command borrow from Bomber Command for this duty.

Perhaps I should explain that Coastal Command of the RAF, which controls both seaplanes and land-based planes (though not aircraft operating from aircraft carriers, which are the responsibility of the Navy), is under the Operational direction of the Admiralty (British Navy Department) though it is a part of the RAF and is administered by the Air Ministry.

One of the planes that has been making a graveyard of German planes in the Bay is the Hudson of Coastal Command. The old Hudson, which is the first aircraft which the British bought from the United States in 1940, is really a converted Lockheed air liner. It has done a marvelous job for more than two years, but it is no longer fast by today's standards, though the dash with which it has been handled by its crews of the Demons Squadron, mainly Canadians, and Dutchmen of the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service of which I wrote to you recently, has caused Mr Goering some dreadful headaches. The Hudson, then, is not an aeroplane in which ordinary crews would choose to go chasing fast enemy interceptors in broad daylight. The Demons," however, are not ordinary crews, and although their business is mainly bombing, they regard a scrap with the enemy as "a very pleasant interlude," as Sergeant Jim Clancey, the gunner of a Hudson which shot down an Arado into the Bay the other day, has termed it.

Jim Clancey was a gunner in a Hudson piloted by Sergeant R C Dalgliesh, and they were flying in company with two other Hudsons, piloted by Flight Sergeant J O Ferguson and Pilot Officer Lorne Jenner respectively. These three merry Musketeers were out on a "strike" (or bombing offensive against enemy shipping) in the Bay when they suddenly spotted three Arados below them, right "down on the deck." They peeled off from their formation, each picking an Arado for himself, and dived on their prey. Lorne Jenner, afterwards described it as "just like a dog fight in the movies."

When the Arados saw the Hudsons coming they climbed away up to 1,200 feet, and from there they started to dive on the Hudsons, which, however, stayed below 500 feet and waited for them. For a full quarter of an hour the Demons fought it out with the Arados, until Lorne Jenner, by clever flying, maneuvered his plane into such a position that both his side gunner, Pilot Officer Arnold Aitkin, and his rear turret gunner, Terry O'Neil caught the Arado in their crossfire, and he went straight into the "drink." Their victory against a faster and more heavily armed enemy was a triumph of team work.

Meanwhile Dalgliesh and his crew shot the second Arado into the sea, and Ferguson and his fellows shot the third one up so badly that it scooted for home shedding big chunks of itself as it flew. And — oh yes, Dalgliesh still had his bombs on; so he went on to bomb his original target!

It was down in the Bay that a four-engined Halifax of another Canadian squadron and flown by Wing Commander Len Fraser had a dust-up with the Arados recently. Their assignment was to knock out the shipping in a certain harbor, and when they arrived there in the early morning light they found everything "lined up" for their reception. Flak batteries on either side of the harbor combined with the anti-aircraft fire of flak ships and merchant vessels to put up a curtain of bursting shells that seemed to be impenetrable. However, they went through it, dropped their bombs, and came out again; and on the homeward journey they found three Arados waiting for them.

The float planes dived on the Halifaxes in formation and when Craddock, the rear gunner, "pressed the bulb," instead of the crash of his four turret guns, there came the solitary tin-can rattle of a single gun. The other three had been put out of action by the flak fire over the harbor. The enemy aircraft tore in spewing cannon shells and bullets, some of which crashed into the Halifax. As one of them flew past, Len Fraser says the gunner seemed to point his gun straight at him. "I thought I had it," he said, "but the cannon shells just whipped past us into the sea." To make matters worse, their intercommunicating telephone had been knocked out of action, and the pilot could neither transmit orders to his crew nor receive information from them. This is most important in a big aircraft in which a pilot has to fly practically blind so far as the enemy is concerned, unless his crew can inform him of their whereabouts.

The Arados were diving like hawks from all directions and perforating the Halifax with their fire, so Len Fraser, unable to keep track of his enemies, and with only one pipsqueak of a gun firing from the damaged rear turret, opened up his engines and made for home. "But only just in time," he said. "They might have ruined my hat which was hanging up in the rest position which was holed by bullets."

This column was originally published in the February, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, 4, no 2, pp 32-35, 62.
The original column includes 4 paintings of Beauforts attacking enemy shipping and positions in North Africa, P-40 attacking the Afrika Korps, Hurricane attacking an Fw-200..
Paintings signed by David Evans, M Stalirander, G W Houghton, ; credits assigned to British Combine.