Library Reference Number: 031
An Anson Saga
In August 1950, an 8 Squadron pilot, Flying Officer Len Dickson, had a problem with flying an Anson from Khartoum to Aden. He had an engine failure and had to carry out a wheels up forced landing on a reasonably flat patch of ground close to the village of Keren, in Eritrea. It was a fine piece of airmanship, because it was the only suitable landing place in the area, and it was surrounded by high hills and mountains.
Perhaps I'd gained a reputation for flying ailing Ansons, or maybe I was merely considered expendable. For whatever reason, and probably neither of these, I was detailed to take Bob Griggs as my navigator, and fly the Anson out from its forced landing site. A party of squadron mechanics had been working on the aeroplane and had jacked it up back onto its wheels. The engine had been repaired, or replaced, and I was assured that by the time I arrived in Keren, it would be serviceable and ready to fly.
My navigator,Bob Griggs, and I were flown to Asmara, in Eritrea, in a Dakota of the Aden Communications Flight, piloted by a NCO pilot. This chap, Pete, had quite a reputation for being somewhat of a character, and he was forever getting into trouble. On one occasion, it is said, he was scheduled to fly a group of senior army officers to some place or other. He arrived at his aeroplane after all of his passengers had embarked and been seated. Instead of passing through the passenger cabin to take his place "up front" at the controls, he took a vacant seat amongst the army "brass". They were beginning to get a bit up-tight at having to wait in the heat and stuffiness of the cabin, and Pete started to complain about the delay, himself. In a loud voice he exclaimed that, "If the pilot didn't arrive soon, he'd take the controls and fly the bl-dy plane himself"! This remark rather startled the passengers who'd no idea who this upstart airman was, and assumed that he was just another passenger, and a scruffy one at that. They were still more alarmed when he eventually left his seat, entered the cockpit, and started up the engines. His action caused considerable consternation, and required the navigator to persuade the unhappy passengers not to evacuate the plane, explaining to them the true facts of the situation. This might have pacified the army officers, but it certainly didn't restore their faith in their pilot, and they must have been extremely relieved when they eventually landed safely at their destination. Needless to say, Pete had put up another black, for which he was duly reprimanded. Having said that, he was, in fact, a very good transport pilot. Bob and I arrived at Asmara safely, having been perfectly happy to trust ourselves into Pete's care.
Asmara was, and perhaps still is, a product of the Italian occupation of Eritrea, prior to World War 2. Its position, seven thousand feet high up on the mountain plateau, gives it a most equitable climate and, indeed, it was the location of a leave camp for Servicemen and women based in Aden. It provided them with welcome respite from the heat as well as a chance to enjoy some greenery in the scenery, as opposed to Aden's barren and inhospitable landscape. The food, with its Italian cooking, was also very good and, in particular, pork was a speciality of the area. The local brew of beer was Melotti, and very drinkable it was, too. Bob and I were accommodated in the leave camp quarters whilst we made arrangements for transportation to Keren.
At the time, Eritrea was embroiled in political unrest. Ethiopian nationalists, whose terrorist organisation went under the name of the Shifta, were campaigning to annexe Eritrea as part of the Ethiopian nation. Like all terrorists worldwide, they didn't mind who they killed or maimed in the process of their activities, but former Italian colonists and British Servicemen were prime targets. Our army had a base in Keren, so it was sensible for us to travel in the relative safety of an army convoy of trucks leaving Asmara to drive to Keren. The road that we followed was a magnificent example of Italian colonist engineering at its best. It wound its way through awe inspiring mountains and negotiated the steep sided passes with breath taking curves and bends. It was ideal country for the Shifta to set ambushes, but we completed the fifty odd miles with nothing more than a couple of pot shots taken at our vehicles from the security of the mountain slopes.
Keren was also a product of the former Italian colonists and it was a sort of market town for the hill farmers. We were accommodated in the Mess at the army garrison, which was rough and ready, but hospitable. My immediate task was to make a close examination of the Anson and to review arrangements that were in the hands of the local Public Works Department (PWD) to construct a suitable strip off which I'd be able to fly the aeroplane.
What I saw made me want to beat a hasty retreat back to Asmara. The Anson was the least of my problems. I was fully prepared to accept the mechanics' report that it would be fit to fly. However, that take-off strip was an entirely different ball game. It would've been ideal for a motor cycle scramble, but was totally unsuitable to even taxi the aeroplane upon it, let alone attempt to fly it off.
The Anson had force landed on a field planted with groundnuts (peanuts) and maize, and these crops were almost ready to harvest. The strip, as it was, had been formed by the simple expedient of scraping off the plants and some of the topsoil, following the undulations and un-eveness of the ground surface. The far (up-wind) end passed through the maize, standing some six to seven feet high, and the width cleared through it was hardly sufficient to accommodate the width of the undercarriage wheels with a little to spare. The aeroplane's wing would be scything the maize tops at the end of its take-off run. My first request was to cut back more of the maize. I didn't relish the thought of the effect it would have on the leading edges of my wings striking it at sixty-five knots or there-a-bouts.
The length of the strip, whilst not being over-generous, was as long as some of the airstrips I'd become used to, whilst flying in the Aden Protectorate. The surface, however, left a great deal to be desired. It was anything but level and even, but my main concern was with pockets of very soft, sandy loam, which were prevalent, especially at the up-wind end in the maize patch. I gave further instructions to have these soft spots consolidated and made arrangements with the ground crew to carry out a taxi test run the next morning, before attempting a take off.
Bob and I then set about exploring our new surrounds. The town, such as it was, had little to offer. Its main feature was a large church, which was quite attractive and well cared for. We discovered, on the town outskirts, a large cemetery with row after row of identical white crosses. It was clearly military and was dominated by a large, white cross. At night, this cross was illuminated, and it looked quite eerie standing out against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains. We learned that, during World War 2, Keren had been the site of a fierce military engagement fought between the Italian defenders and an Allied expeditionary force. It was obvious that it'd been an Allied victory, as evidenced by the proportion of Italian crosses to Allied headstones. Our exploratory ventures further afield were cut short by the intervention of a returning army patrol that called us out as being a couple of idiots, wandering around, unarmed, in terrorist country. From then onwards we were made to carry a handgun apiece, yet with a pistol, I couldn't hit the proverbial barn door at ten paces, let alone a terrorist!
The following morning found us down at the airstrip early, but not bright. We'd had a serious session in the Mess bar the previous evening with our friendly army hosts. Needless to say, there was nothing ready for us. The mechanics had forgotten to provide a battery to start up the engines, and the PWD workmen were far from completing the rolling of soft spots on the strip. The maize had been cut back, but it still didn't look sufficient to clear the wing tips. However, there was no way that the farmer who owned the crop would allow more of his precious maize to be sacrificed for our purpose, so I let it go, hoping that it'd suffice our needs.
Despite this, I was able to get the Anson moving about mid-day. The engines seemed to be fine, with pressures and temperatures all near perfect, but the strip was still far from being so. As I'd suspected, the up-wind end was still very soft and we almost bogged down under the weight of the taxiing aircraft. I returned to the down-wind end, turned facing into wind, shut down the engines and despondently climbed out.
I discussed the problem of the soft going with the PWD engineers who assured me that they would improve it for the take-off. I gave instructions to have every unnecessary item of equipment taken out of the aeroplane, including the radio and the crew seats, and I informed Bob that this would be a trip I'd be doing on my own. He wasn't at all happy about that, and he said so in as many words, but I wanted to reduce weight to an absolute minimum. It was arranged for my take-off to be early the next morning.
That night it rained, and rained, and rained, as it can only rain in the mountains in the monsoon period. The sight that met us at the strip in the morning was most depressing. The better part of it had been washed away by the rain. Obviously, there'd be no take-off that morning, and only on the following day if the PWD workmen, aided by the African sun, worked a miracle to get the strip into shape again. They certainly did work hard, and they were rewarded for their labour by more rain that night. It was the same as the previous night, and the strip presented the same sorry sight the next morning. There seemed to be a jinx on our efforts to get Anson VL346 back into the air.
The PWD personnel were truly magnificent. Undeterred, they got stuck back into the job of filling in the holes and rivulets left by the rain, and they rolled the strip until late into the night. This time, the Gods must have shown mercy, because it remained dry all night.
Log entry: 27 September 1950; Anson; VL346; Self; Nav I Griggs; Keren to Asmara; precautionary take-off; 35 minutes.
The day dawned bright and clear, and down at the peanut field airstrip there was an atmosphere of carnival. It seemed as if all of the townsfolk of Keren were assembled, together with the off-duty army personnel. The armed sentries around the perimeter of the field had been augmented, and an army ambulance was ominously stationed at the up-wind end of the strip. I took a quick walk along its length and satisfied myself that it was as good as it would ever be, but still soft in parts. I looked around for Bob to say cheerio, but he was nowhere to be seen. I thought he might be sulking some place, although it would be most unlike him. I thanked our army hosts and the PWD chaps, and climbed into the aeroplane.
Bob was standing behind the pilot's seat and I could tell by the look on his face that it'd be of little use to try to argue with him to leave. He intended to accompany me, even though he'd be without a seat and, therefore, unable to strap in for his safety. He had a better opinion of my flying capability than I had myself. The crowd outside was now very quiet and expectant. I received the all clear signal and started up the port engine. It fired easily and ran smoothly. The procedure was repeated for the starboard engine. Whilst the engines were warming up, I made a final check of the controls and fuel content (sufficient only for the short flight to Asmara to keep down the weight). I then ran the engines up to maximum revolutions, each in turn, and checked that their temperatures and pressures were still OK. From my position in the cockpit, the strip ahead of me suddenly looked frighteningly short, rough and narrow. It would be like taking off from a country farm track, but there was no point in hanging around and the spectators were waiting for their money's worth. I asked Bob to read out the airspeed so that I could keep my full attention on maintaining a straight run on the narrow strip. My intention was to lift off at sixty knots. If we weren't airborne by the time we'd reached the maize patch, we were really going to be in trouble. Fifteen degrees of flap was selected, a wave given to the crowd, and the signal given for "chocks away".
Standing on the brakes, I slowly opened up to full throttle. As the tail tried to lift, I released the brakes and we started rolling. The speed slowly built up, but far, far too slowly. The surface of the strip was acting like porridge and reluctant to release the wheels. We were half way down it but Bob was reading out an airspeed of only twenty knots. Then we were into the maize patch. This was no good. We were now into the really soft stuff. Should I pull up? No, it was too late. We either had to get airborne or crash into the inevitable pile of rocks, which were rapidly getting closer at the end of the strip. What was wrong with that damned air speed indicator? Why didn't Bob callout the sixty mark? A rapid glance at the instrument gave me the reason. It had barely reached forty knots. Drastic measures were now called for. I yanked the control column hard back into my stomach and the tail wheel bounced hard onto the strip surface, momentarily lifting the main wheels free of the ground. I repeated the manoeuvre, and this time we floated a little longer before dropping back, but I could feel a definite wish on the part of the "Annie" to fly. I could only try this once more and then we'd be running out of strip. Hard back with the stick; bounce; airborne; centralise the controls and, wonder of wonders, we stayed airborne. We staggered into the air and cleared the rocks at the end with inches to spare, but that's all that was necessary.
I glanced again at the airspeed indicator and realised that something was wrong with it. At the speed it indicated, we shouldn't have been able to leave the ground. Clearly, it was under-reading. I trimmed to a slow climbing turn to get us out of the basin of encircling mountains, and then we had time to take stock. The crowd on the ground below was dispersing. The show was over and there'd been no thrills, for them! The remainder of the short flight was an uneventful anticlimax. Bob gave me a course to steer and we were over Asmara in half an hour. I ignored the obviously defective airspeed indicator or the landing, and we taxied to the parking apron for all the world as though we'd just completed a routine flight. I reported the airspeed indicator instrument as being unserviceable and I later learned the cause of the fault. There'd been an obstruction in the pitot tube head. This protruded from the front of a wing and it provided a differentiation of pressures from which airspeed could be indicated on the instrument. During the forced landing, it must have become blocked by something being forced into it as the aeroplane ploughed along the field on its belly. That "something" was believed to have been a piece of peanut!