London Letter

By Ralph Michaelis, Air News' London Correspondent

It is one thing to shoot down a German aircraft, or to sink a U-Boat, but quite another to persuade the authorities at home to credit you with such a victory. But if the RAF are tough when it comes to requiring confirmation by independent witnesses, the Admiralty (British Navy Department) — well, you ought to hear what the crews think of the Admiralty as assessors.

The other day a Liberator of the RAF spotted a submarine in the Bay of Biscay. Determined to get it, the pilot went right down "on the deck" — in fact he went so low that he caught his tail plane on the conning tower of the U-boat as he dropped his depth charges on the deck. There was a terrific upheaval in the water, as the Liberator staggered away with only half its tail plane, and by skillful flying was nursed back to its base. The crew put in their report to Intelligence. The naval assessors examined the claim and made their award — "probably sunk."

This incident probably accounts for the story of the pilot who was pressing his claim to have sunk a U-boat before a dubious interrogating officer.

The pilot threw a German sea boot on the table.
"Now will you believe me," he said. "That was blown into our cabin."
"That's still no proof," replied the officer.
"Well, take a look at the leg inside it," replied the pilot,

I don't believe the story for a moment; but it helps one to appreciate the difficulty of persuading the assessors.

But Coastal Command is anything if not persistent.

Another pilot spotted a U-Boat, and dived down to drop his depth charges. The charges went off on impact with a terrific explosion that tossed the airplane into the air like a toy, tearing away a part of both elevators and bursting the main hydraulic pipe. It also blew off the doors of the near gun turret and blew out the side window of the cabin. The compass burst, the dinghy was blown away, and the bomb doors jammed open, so that lateral control of the aircraft was almost impossible. Then the radio transmitter failed, and a short circuit caused the fans and the heating to come on.

You can imagine what it was like in that aircraft with the fans adding to a near 200-miles-an-hour slipstream that was blowing through the smashed cabin window. The Flight Engineer dashed to the batteries, and switched them off, and went back to see if he could get the bomb doors closed. Then four of the five elevator controls broke. And yet somehow the derelict flew on like an old tub in a rough sea without lateral control, and with precious little vertical control.

With the dinghy gone, it was useless to bale out into the Atlantic or to attempt to alight on the sea, for the aircraft would not float for more than a few minutes, at the most, and in any case, they had no radio with which to call assistance.

They flew on, while the Flight Engineer struggled with the bomb doors, and after an hour and a half of work, he succeeded in getting them shut. That made the lateral control easier; but with half of the elevators blown away and only a single elevator control left, a 200-miles-an-hour of frozen draught blowing through the aircraft, the journey home was not exactly a joy ride.

But the engines never faltered, and somehow the battered Liberator held together, and staggered home to make a crash landing on its belly. One man got a fractured leg, and the others, who were unhurt, dragged him out as the aircraft burst into flames.

The RAF Liberator pilots speak very highly of those Pratt & Whitney engines. They tell me they never have any trouble with them.

I met a couple of young pilots the other day at a Coastal Command station who had been flying on anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts for the last two years without a rest. The alternative was to take a spell of instructing at a flying school, and they preferred to remain on operations.

They had transferred recently onto Libs from Hudsons and they were eloquent in their praise of their former loves. It is interesting to talk to young pilots about their change of aircraft, not that they are always right or even reasonable in their judgment of their new crafts' virtues and vices, for they are as prejudiced on behalf of their old machines as a motorist for his old automobile. These boys did not like the change from the lighter machine to the heavier one. Young pilots never do. It is like going from a jeep to an omnibus. But they grow used to it, of course, and become as attached to the new as they were to the old machine.

Have you any idea of the work involved to the pilots in getting a big ship off the ground?

The first pilot has 48 different checks to make between starting off and landing a Liberator. These include cheeks on the tank valves, the engines, the bomb doors, undercarriage retracting gear, the posting of the crew, the loading of the aircraft, etc, and he does not even start his own engines. The Second Pilot does that; and he has 16 checks to make when starting, 12 while warming up, 7 more before the takeoff, 7 during flight, 8 before landing, 3 after landing, and 3 for stopping the engines.

One of the reasons why the pilots like their Hudsons and are sorry to leave them is that they are so maneuverable.

Just listen to this description of a fight over the Atlantic between a Hudson and a big Focke-Wulf 200. As soon as the FW spotted the Hudson it turned into the sun (with the object of blinding the Hudson's gunners) and fired its side guns, while it remained at a lower level than the Hudson (that is the way that big, slow aeroplanes fight, when attacked). The Hudson pilot dived, firing his front guns, while the FW continued turning until it was flying due south at about 180 knots. The Hudson, having the advantage of speed, swung to starboard to allow its port side and turret guns to bear, and then turned to make a front attack on the beam of the FW. The Hudson pilot repeated this maneuver several times, and each time the enemy aircraft turned slightly to port, while keeping at a lower level than the Hudson. Maneuvering thus the fight went on for 22 minutes while the Hudson's front and turret guns put in some very accurate shooting. At the end of this time the Hudson had to break off the fight, owing to the very heavy fuel consumption; but another patrol coming out shortly afterwards found a large unidentified aircraft flying so low over the waves that it was throwing up spray, so that it would appear at least unlikely that the FW ever saw the Fatherland again.

And, talking of Hudsons, reminds me of a two-year-old story that has never been written before, and would not be written now, if I had not dragged it word by word from Captain Sipel of RAF Ferry Command at Montreal.

It was during one of the early ferry flights across the Atlantic that the oxygen gave out in mid-ocean, and left the seven Hudsons marooned above the clouds in the frozen hell of the stratosphere. The seven had taken off together from Newfoundland, proposing to fly together, because the leader, Captain Store of British Overseas Airways, was the only man among them who had ever flown the Atlantic before — and besides he had the only sextant.

Soon after leaving land, however, they ran into cloud and separated. Four hours out they encountered icing conditions, and climbed out above the clouds to get out of them.

They had switched on their oxygen as they climbed, and all went normally for the first fifty minutes, and they were flying in clear skies above 20,000 feet when all at once in all seven planes men reeled and fell unconscious. The oxygen had failed. A technical hitch had occurred in cleaning the tubes, and it had all leaked out.

At 22,000 feet Captain Sydney de Kautzow, the Australian captain of Sipel's aircraft, passed out, as did the radio operator, and Sipel took over the controls.

Sipel told me that his main trouble was to keep awake.

At 22.000 feet the slightest movement is like shifting a sack of coal. Your brain, as well as your body, slows down to virtual immobility, and any exertion will cause you to lose consciousness.

Sipel dared not dive his aircraft down through the clouds to a lower level for fear that the physical effort necessary would render him unconscious and they would crash into the Atlantic.

He was terrified lest he should forget the course on which he had to fly, and kept repeating to himself "118 degrees, 118 degrees."

The thermometer was long since down "off the clock." On Hudsons it only registers to 30 below zero, and on Libs to 40 below; but on flights across the North Atlantic in winter time it is always down "off the clock." And in those sub-zero temperatures your eyelashes freeze so stiff that you cannot even blink, hot coffee poured from a vacuum flask freezes as it falls, and you need an axe to cut a sandwich.

In another of the Hudsons, Captain West, an American pilot, and his Norwegian co-pilot, Captain Stien, who had already fought in France, were sitting at 20,000 feet with their knees braced hard against the steering wheel. Their radio operator was unconscious, their trimming tabs had frozen in the position set for climbing, and it needed all their strength to prevent their aircraft from climbing out of the sky.

Only one man in each of the remaining five Hudsons remained conscious. Out of 21 members of those crews, 13 were unconscious.

For six hours the survivors flew on alone; and finally landed to hand in their routine reports that "the journey was uneventful."

At 23, Captain Sipel was the "baby" of the flight. Most of the others were middle-aged men, among whom were the 52-year-old Captain H Smith, an American who had previously flown against the Japs in China, 50-year-old Captain Gilhausen, 40-year-old Jim Ellison, who had flown in the Spanish war, and been shot down by the Japs in China, and 47-year-old Bob Leroy, who flew as co-pilot to Dick Allen of British Overseas Airways.

One of the Ferry Command Captains told me when I was waiting at Bermuda to fly home in a Catalina last spring, that they had run into an Atlantic storm on a previous trip and been blown off their course so that the first landfall they made was Gibraltar. The other Cat that had left them had made a landfall at Dunkirk, and it was only because there was a 100-mile-an-hour gale blowing that the German fighters could not get off the ground to get at them. They turned about and made their landings safely at their British terminal in between 26 and 27 hours nonstop flying.

These old Cats seem to go on forever. Only the other day four of them came in from Bermuda after having flown for 24 hours in an appalling Atlantic storm, with the usual mixed civilian and RAF crews.

About 1,500 miles out of Bermuda the storm hit them. Their automatic pilots were rendered unserviceable, their compasses were distorted and the pilots had to manhandle the ships through a terrible buffeting for the next seventeen hours.

"Everything that was loose started flying around," said a member of the crew of one of the Cats, "and we were ducking our luggage, spare parts and everything else. Blue flames were shooting out of the radio set, and running up and down the wings."

The crew of one of the other Cats, pitched everything movable overboard to allow their captain to try and climb up above the storm. Although they had no oxygen equipment with them, he went up to 19,000 feet, after warning his crew to sit down and move about as little as need be. They remained up there for an hour, and their nails turned black from lack of oxygen.

Their first landfall was the Southern tip of Ireland, owing to the fault in their storm-stressed compass, and to avoid flying over Ireland, which is neutral, they turned back over the Atlantic in spite of their exhaustion and waited for dawn to make their correct landfall in Northern Ireland. The storms into which they ran back were so bad that it took them another five hours to make their base with nothing more serious than a few cases of air sickness among the passengers.

And talking of those middle-aged gentlemen who ferry the machines across the Atlantic reminds me what a very young service is the RAF. The junior flying officers are mostly in their teens or early twenties. Squadron Leaders (equivalent to Majors) are usually between 20 and 25, Wing Commanders (Lieut Colonels) 25 and 30, and Group Captains (Colonels) round about 40. Few even of the most senior officers are older than 50. Twenty-eight is the limit for any man to enter as a pilot, and although there are one or two men of 40 still flying on operations — men who have been in the service all their working lives, it is extremely rare.

I wonder if the fame of the Gremlins has reached you yet. They are the little Walt-Disneyish demons who blow sand into the engine cylinders, short circuit the electrical leads, drink the oil out of the hydraulic system, and generally make themselves a thorough nuisance at awkward moments. Down at an operational station the other day I inquired if the Gremlins had been giving any trouble, and was told that they had been behaving fairly well lately; but they had a disconcerting habit of getting out on the runways at dusk and smoking their pipes, which causes a knee-deep haze to settle that makes landing awkward.

This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 3, pp 31-35.
The original column includes 5 paintings: Liberator and Catalina attacking shipping, Fw-190s attacking a Hampden, bombers over Munich, Lancasters over Turin, Hurricanes attacking Bettys over Colombo, Ceylon.
1 painting usigned; 1 painting has signature cut of in prep; paintings signed by R W J, Blake, Jobson.
Credits assigned to British Combine.