Library Reference Number: 027
The Cliffs Were Just Too High!
Sam Liggett, MID, graduated from Elementary Flying Training School in the United Kingdom and was selected for advanced training in USA with the Arnold Scheme. Awarded his wings in September 1942, Sam was posted to No.78 Squadron which was based at Breighton, near Selby. As captain of a 4-engined Halifax bomber, he set out on an operation to Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr Valley flying Halifax JD157 on 9th July 1943. Being unable to coax his heavily damaged aircraft high enough to clear the cliffs of Dover on his return, gives rise to the title "The cliffs were just too high!" The following account of this courageous attempt to return to base is given in Sam's own words.
We were an all NCO aircrew flying together for the first time, three of us being Scots, myself, the wireless operator and the bomb-aimer Bill Watt, who incidently was the eldest member of crew at 29 years. We had a fairly uneventful trip to the Ruhr Valley flying over thick cloud. Nearing the target however, things took a dramatic change. Suddenly search-lights were all around us, and we found ourselves being 'coned' within a multitude ofsearchlights. Attempting to evade this situation we were hit on the port wing by flak which resulted in the inner port engine catching fire. With help from the f/engineer, I managed to feather the prop and extinguish the fire in this engine. We later found some fuel tanks had also been badly holed causing a serious fuel loss, discovered when the engineer checked the fuel gauges.
Starting our run in to the target, we were caught in the slipstream of other closeby aircraft giving us an extremely bumpy ride, also being subjected to increasingly heavy ack ack fire from ground defences. Managing to level out to give the bomb-aimer a better chance, he called out "bombs away" and I turned to prepare course for home. I selected 'bomb doors closed' - but they remained stubbornly open, thus giving me a hint that further damage may become evident as we made our attempt to return to base. Already fully aware that our speed would be drastically reduced by bomb-doors remaining open, and the loss of one engine, we would also be steadily losing fuel from the damaged fuel tanks.
Fifteen minutes after setting course for home, my rear gunner reported an Me110 down on starboard quarter at a range of approximately 500 yds, and coming up to attack. The enemy aircraft immediately opened fire, putting the rear turret out of action - but mercifully leaving the rear gunner unharmed. I turned sharply to starboard on the rear gunner's instruction, and then commenced to corkscrew. The enemy aircraft then made four attacks from the port quarter level, and our mid-upper gunner got in several good bursts of fire. During the fourth attack, the mid-upper gunner saw the Me110's port engine burst into flames. The enemy aircraft came in for a fifth attack when the m/u gunner got in a burst at 100yds range, and also raked the aircraft with gunfire during its breakaway to starboard. The Me110 did not open fire during its fifth attack, was last seen diving down to starboard with its port engine on fire, and a vivid flash was observed a little later. During these attacks I was corkscrewing and turning to port alternatively, and there was a complete absence of searchlights and ack ack ground fire. Our Halifax aircraft had lost one engine having been shot up over the target. We had now sustained damage right along the mainplane completely destroying the dinghy among other equipment. The rear gun-turret had been badly damaged during the first attack from the enemy aircraft, trapping the gunner inside.
Jock Birrell, my wireless/operator informed me that oxygen tubes had been broken and burning, and the W/T set smashed. He, along with the navigator and bomb-aimer set to work with fire extinguishers and anything else available to put out the fires, and after some time and some very hard work they managed to extinguish all the fires. I then asked the f/engineer to take position in the Astrodome, while ordering the m/u gunner (5' 2") to help extricate the rear-gunner from the rear gun turret where he was still trapped. This was carried out by hacking the turret doors off with a crash axe, then hauling the 6' 1" gunner from the wrecked gun turret. Whilst all this was taking place, the f/engineer informed me that a FW190 was approaching, and with no defence I threw the Halifax into a steep port spiral, and then was unable to recover until we were down to about 4 -5,000 ft. I was then able to straighten up and used excess air speed to return to about 10,000 ft. The crew were badly thrown about with those tactics, but all reported well except rear-gunner who had a badly bruised leg. The f/engineer and mid-upper gunner had just returned to their normal positions, when the starboard inner engine spluttered and died - we had no choice but to feather this second unserviceable engine. Flt/engineer then informed me of further bad news - all 12 fueltanks were fluttering on the 'empty' position!
The good news (lasting only two minutes) was that bomb-aimer and mid-upper gunner almost both together reported they were sure they could see the English coast ahead. This was not possible to check with our maps - they had all been destroyed by fire. I made a Darky Call and a female voice replied, but unreadable. I called again and advised that I was hoping to ditch close to the coast which could now be seen more clearly as dawn was breaking. I ordered all crew to their ditching positions, when at that point the port outer engine gave up the ghost. The plane landed in the water at 04.50 hrs on 10th July, 1943, ending the flying part of the exercise. All out safely on to port wing noting that the dinghy had been ripped to shreds. Two crew members decided to swim, while another slipped off the wing, fortunately all had inflated Mae Wests. Firstly we heard, then we could see a Walrus (Air Sea Rescue) aircraft, and we fired a Verey cartridge to attract attention. Shortly afterwards, a Rescue Launch appeared and we directed this to pick up the injured gunner who had slipped off the wing. The remainder of us heard the belly of 'T' for Tommy touching the gravel on shore (what a lovely sound) so decided to wave the Launch away - and step ashore with only wet feet. All crew members were mentioned in despatches for our efforts. I later joined ATA flying 42 different types of aircraft all over U.K."