Bomber Command Aircrew Chronicles
Our sprog crew boarded the aging 419 Squadron Halifax II, acutely conscious of the lethal payload slung in its bomb bay. At precisely 1739 hours Rich cleared the runway at Middleton-St.-George and turned eastward on the heading Arch gave him. Seven young Canadian airmen were off on their first operational trip to Germany. Almost 40 years later, snug by a cracking fireplace in Rich's living room in the Laurentians, we reminisced about that trip- and the 33 which followed before we got that magic message from RCAF 6 Group HQ: "crew screened." As we flipped through the pages of our wartime photo album, the yellowing pictures prompted memories of life on No. 419 (Moose) Sqn. Even the ladies present at the reunion joined in the excitement of recollection, though none of them knew us in those far off days.
We recalled that It was a balmy spring evening when we set out on Op. No. 1 in "W" William. Before reaching the English coast, we joined scores of heavy bombers in a stream headed for the submarine base at Kiel, three hours flying time across the North Sea. As sunset faded into darkness, bomb aimer Mac moved from the co-pilot's seat to the radar set, obtaining "GEE" fixes for navigator Arch to plot on the outward chart. Flight engineer Les busied himself with watching the rpm and fuel gauges, while wireless operator Aub checked his radios. Leo and Don, our 19- and 17- year old rear and mid upper gunners, respectively, rotated their turrets and kept a sharp look out for other aircraft. Skipper Rich levelled out at 15,000 feet and switched to auto pilot on a heading of 085 degrees. We settled down to make this, the culmination of months of training in Canada and England, a bang-up first mission.
Two hours later we approached the enemy coast. The clouds which had covered Yorkshire had gradually dissipated till now only broken patches covered the North Sea three miles below. In "W" William, the seven-man crew sat tensed for action. "Hello pilot, navigator here. Alter course 30 degrees starboard and watch for flak on port bow." Mac's voice came calmly from the aircraft's nose, "Coastline directly below. Can you see those lights to port, skipper?" His question was interrupted by Rich's sharp command, "Hello engineer, take a look at that port outer engine. It's on fire!"
The big ship tilted slightly, then rightened itself and resumed course as Rich battled to feather the flaming motor and retrim the Halifax. In less than a minute "W" William had lost 500 feet and could not maintain its former speed on three engines. The occasional slipstream bump reassured us we were still in the bomber stream as we turned onto target heading. Suddenly, the pathfinder flares started bursting ahead and slightly to starboard. "Right, right," guided Mac from the nose, "Bomb doors open" announced Rich. "Left, steady - bombs gone," said Mac, and "W" William jumped a little as its load of destruction went hurtling earthwards at the bomb aimer's press of a button. "Set course 307 degrees and dull steam ahead," said Arch from his little curtained off compartment and "W" William wheeled onto the homeward journey. The time was 2131 hours, back across hostile territory we flew, Rich urging our Hally's three good engines to give all the speed they could muster. In the turrets, Leo and Don kept watch for lurking night fighters who might pounce on our crippled bomber.
In the distance they saw flak floating up like giant fireworks. Searchlights caught one plane in a cone, then lost it as the pilot took evasive action. We crossed the enemy coast westbound at 2216 hours. We had been lucky. No enemy flak or fighters had bothered us; our plane was apparently running easily on its three serviceable engines; in a few hours we would be safely back at Middleton-St.-George, our first operation successfully completed. But we knew we couldn't relax yet. Jerries had a bad habit of following the bomber stream, preying on aircraft whose crews let the relief of being clear of their shores give them a false sense of security. Presently, however, Leo saw, not an enemy fighter, but bright orange flames go whizzing by his rear turret.
The port inner engine had caught fire this time, and aging Willy wasn't equal to the task of maintaining altitude on the two starboard motors. Halfway across the North Sea seven men knew what they'd have to do and offered silent prayers that they had done those dinghy drills which had seemed such a bind during training. Now all went about their respective tasks as routinely as if they were practicing in a hangar or swimming pool. "Hello navigator, pilot here. I think we can stay up for about another half an hour. Tell Aub to contact air-sea rescue and get cracking with the emergency procedure." Rich's voice on the intercom was as calm as always. While Mac, Les, Leo and Don jettisoned guns, tools and whatever other heavy implements that were loose, Aub and Arch collaborated in sending out and receiving the necessary data essential for rescue at sea. At 6000 feet Aub began tapping out SOS and radioed Arch's estimated ditching position.
"W" William was losing height more rapidly now, so the crew proceeded to their ditching stations, after strapping Rich securely in his cockpit. One of the escape hatches had stuck and had to be chopped open with an axe. At 1000 feet Aub and Arch abandoned their posts and joined the others in the fuselage. Six men lying flat on the bombers floor inflated their Mae Wests and prayed that their young captain would be able to set "W" William down with only two starboard engines to work with. At 200 feet by the altimeter Rich switched on the powerful landing lights and prepared for his final approach. He took his eyes from the instruments and peered into the murky blackness without. Surely the water must be close, but as yet Rich could see nothing. Suddenly, the landing light rays caught the waves rushing by with blinding whiteness. This was a far cry from the firm concrete of an aerodrome. "Brace, brace," called Rich over the intercom to the straining crew. "Here she comes!" Those awful seconds seemed a lifetime. "W" Willy hovered over the wavetops, seeming reluctant to settle down. Then the tail touched, and in a split second the nose plunged into the water with a shuddering, grinding crash.
We were engulfed in blackness and in silence, but we were still alive. We leaped from our prone positions and scrambled for the escape hatches above. Mac was out first and climbed onto the wing to assist the dinghy from its stowage. Next out the forward hatch went Aub to take the supplies handed up to him by Arch. Water was slowly rising in the kite, but Rich had made a perfect ditching and the aircraft frame was unbroken. Meantime, Rich crawled out of his hatch and back along the top of the plane, while Leo and Don evacuated from the rear hatch. Last out was Les, who had been temporarily knocked out, and was literally yanked out by the scruff of his neck. Gingerly, we climbed aboard the bobbing, slippery dinghy and tried to paddle away from sinking Willy. After several minutes of futile paddling, we realized we were still tied by the umbilical cord to the aircraft. A swift slice of the axe rectified this problem and we floated away on an undulating sea. The time was 2355 hours.
Our circular rubber boat rolled lightly on the gentle swell. Above, the sky was partly overcast, but a few stars peeked through and the air was chilly. At first wisecracks went the rounds as each tried to cheer the other up, but gradually the inevitable reaction set in and we grew silent, huddled together in little pools of water. One hundred yards away "W" William still floated, and we wisely decided to stay close to the slowly sinking hulk. Unknown to us at the time, an air-sea rescue aircraft circling its home base had received our estimated ditching position and headed for the spot. Simultaneously HMS Kurd, a converted trawler, got the message and proceeded to our location. We had "landed" smack in the middle of a mine field, 70 miles due east of Hull.
Three hours went by. Arch got sea-sick and only the firm grip of his crewmates prevented him from going for a North Sea swim. Suddenly, the sky was illuminated by a brilliant star- shell, it seemed to have come from a surface vessel. Les fired off a Verey cartridge and everyone sat with eyes glued on the western horizon. The light from the star-shell faded and dies, leaving the sky blacker than before. We waited in trepidation. Then we heard the faint drone of aircraft engines, growing steadily stronger on a course to port of our fragile boat. Les fired off two more cartridges and we saw the navigation lights turn slowly in our direction.
Things started happening fast. The crew of the search aircraft had spotted our signals. The pilot zeroed in on our position, dropped to 1000 feet and we were surrounded with marker flares, turning night into day. Presently, another powerful star-shell shot into the air from the west, much closer this time. HMS Kurd was picking its way through the mine field to the rescue. Plane and ship communicated by Aldis lamp while we were in the dinghy prepared for departure. "What a night to go yachting," a deep Cockney voice bellowed from the naval ship's bow as they came alongside our bobbing rubber raft. Seven eager pairs of hands reached for the net lowered over the trawler's side, but before we could climb aboard the ship's crew bodily picked us out of our fragile craft and deposited us unceremoniously on deck. It was a question who were the most excited - the rescued airmen or the rescuing sailors.
Questions came thick and fast. "Is anybody hurt? Are you all here? How long have you been in the water?" Obviously, we were the first crew this ship's company had ever picked out of the North Sea. The captain and first mate escorted us into the captain's cabin. Much to our surprise, a bottle of scotch instead of rum was broken out for our benefit. Les, who normally never touched that stuff, took a hefty double and promptly brought it up. Meantime, the ship's gunners preformed last rights on "W" William, still barely floating in that blasted minefield. Six hours later HMS Kurd docked at what used to be called in those days "an east coast port." Her whole complement turned out to see us delivered into the hands of navy ambulance drivers. Our first op was finally completed.
When we returned to Middleton-St.-George several days after our expected arrival, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the crew of the aircraft which had found us was based only a few miles distant and had phoned to invite us to their station for a party. So it was that crew of "W" William acted as Bomber Command ambassadors in thanking the Air-Sea Rescue Command for the wonderful work they were doing. One month later Flying Officer Richard H. Peck was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his fine effort. He received his decoration personally from King George VI. Three more DFCs to other crew members followed.