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Library Reference Number: 173

Ditching in the Indian Ocean

F/O S.D. Turner, R.C.A.F.

Allied aircrew carrying out operational flying in the Far East theatre during WW2, did not only have a ruthless enemy to contend with, but also massive distances to cover in order to make their presence felt. This did not seem to deter the Japanese; when in April 1942, six carriers under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo and 125 aircraft under leadership of Air Commander Mitsuo Fuchida attempted to invade Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It was this task force which had been principal components of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Although both Japanese and Allied losses had been heavy, the raid allowed the Imperial Japanese Navy to demonstrate their mastery of the Indian Ocean and also their ability to seize territory by capturing the Andaman Islands.

Prior to the attack on Ceylon, the aircraft carrier, Hermes, already damaged during a raid on the Maldives, had been ordered to Trincomalee by Vice Admiral Sommerville for repairs and escorted by the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire, the Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire, the corvette HMS Hollyhocks and several other ships.

On 5th April 1942, the Japanese Task Force were able to attack the naval base at Colombo and despite being spotted at a distance of 424 miles from the coast by a Catalina of 413 squadron, Canadian Air Force, flying Catalinas. During the raid, the cruiser Hector and the destroyer Tenedos were sunk in the harbour. According to best estimates, the Japanese lost eighteen planes during the raid while the RAF losses were twenty-seven.

Soon afterwards, the Japanese discovered the presence of the heavy cruisers Cornwall and Dorsetshire located two hundred miles southwest of Ceylon and both were subjected to concentrated aerial bombardment before both sank and taking four hundred and twenty-four men to a watery grave.

Fearing an impending attack on Trncomalee, HMS Hermes was hastily put to sea without aircraft on board and which is why the vessel was incapable of defending itself from seventy marauding Japanese bombers on the 9th April 1942. Hermes was hit forty times, sinking with the loss of 307 men; the Australian destroyer Vampire, the corvette Hollyhock plus two tankers were also sunk.

It would have been a catastrophic situation if the Japanese had gained entry to Ceylon, making a clear passage to occupy India, and thus cutting off our Allied Forces in Burma. Although No.160 and other Squadrons had been combing the Indian Ocean since origins of the Japanese invasion threat, searching for Japanese submarine and surface shipping, it was now considered time to take the fight back to the eastern side of the Indian Ocean.

Flight Lieutenant Les Waterfield, DFC, RCAF, of 160 Squadron and based in Ceylon, captained one of three crews who successfully reached Penang on 21st January 1945 to begin mining the Malacca Straits, taking 18 hours 50 minutes to make the return flight; the objective being to destroy Japanese shipping taking men and supplies to Japanese Forces in Burma.

When many additional operations laid mines all the way down to Singapore, the duration of eighteen hour flights was rapidly exceeded as the B24 aircraft were required to extend their special duty supply dropping operations to Thailand and Burma in the North and down to Singapore in the South. All those very-long-range operations being carried out from a jungle-cleared airfield in central Ceylon. The initial operation across the Indian Ocean by Flt Lt Waterfield lasting 18 hours, was later considered a short flight when compared with later missions.

Increased demands were made on the B24 Liberators; extending their specified range of 2,500 miles to over 3,500 miles on special duty operations typically dropping agents and supplies deep into enemy territory. Duration of very-long-range operations soared towards the twenty-four hour mark and actually reached 24 hours 10 minutes; this operation carried out by F/Lt Jack Muir, RCAF, of 160 Squadron.

Conditions for these air crews were not made easier in the knowledge that the Japanese had a gruesome reputation for maltreatment of prisoners, and many rumours prevailed they had even stopped taking prisoners if planes were shot down. Also, and given the vast flying distances involved, air-sea-rescue facilities were not available.

It also became almost inevitable that fuel, or the lack of it, could be as dangerous as enemy action and even before an actual ditching took place, one crew came very close to that situation. Eugene Vivian, a member of Jack Bate's 160 Squadron crew writes, "It wasn't particularly a fun flight. We had been sent to take night photographs of a spot along the coast of Sumatra and another near Singapore, and to drop the usual propaganda leaflets. However, on the return trip and whilst still some eight hours away from home base and one engine down, it was agreed that in no way could we make it on the gas we had remaining. The captain then shut down the corresponding engine on the opposite wing to reduce drag and save fuel, and ordered everything removable to be thrown overboard. We then sent out a S.O.S. and tried without success to contact some friendly shipping in the area. Had we done so, we would have ditched close by and hoping to be picked up."

"Finding nothing, we continued on for the want of something better to do although it was difficult to maintain altitude and the two remaining engines were working overtime. By now all crew members, not on duty, had taken up ditching positions with headsets disconnected just waiting for the crash we were sure was imminent. Roughly three hours out of Colombo, we were joined by a Catalina Flying Boat escort and it was some comfort to see them a few feet off our wingtip with the Captain grinning from ear to ear and the rest of the crew waving at us from the bubble."

"To reach our own base we would have had to fly over jungle and which would have been suicidal so we asked for permission to divert to China Bay which had a runway either right down to the waters edge or at least at sea level. When we reached the harbour, tugs were busy pulling shipping out of the way so we could come straight on in as we were only about ten feet above the water by then. In fact we often joked afterward that our altitude ranged between a minus ten and a plus ten."

"We did of course make it but when the tanks were dipped only one tank showed the faintest stain on the stick. The turbo superchargers on the two overworked engines had generated so much heat that they were actually out of shape and had the appearance of something about ready to melt. We couldn't have lasted another minute. We did get the distinction of making the longest flight alright but it was certainly not by choice."

An actual ditching occurred on 21st March 1945, when F/O Doug Turner, RCAF, 160 Squadron, made one of the most difficult decisions of his life, whether to make a controlled ditching far out in the Indian Ocean, or risk carrying on flying to get closer to the coast of Ceylon. The reason for careful decision making being that the B24 Liberator was fitted with boiler-type vertical glass fuel gauges, which to say the least were quite unreliable. Experienced crews placed more confidence in the extensive fuel consumption tests which had been carried out earlier at base, taking into account flying attitudes, engine readings, altitude, and mixture, boost & RPM settings.

The close liaison between a pilot and navigator was never more apparent, when F/O Yeomans informed his aircraft captain that, according to his navigational calculations, their ETA (estimated time of arrival) at base was still a long way off and perhaps he should confer with the flight engineer on the amount of fuel left to cover the remaining distance. Navigation being of crucial importance when flying vast distances across oceans, the three-way discussions between pilot-navigator-engineer created some concern about distance to cover and the fuel remaining.

It was upon those careful considerations by captain Doug Turner and Flight Engineer Harry Grundy, that disregarding the fuel gauge readings, they made the fateful decision to ditch after repeatedly going over all the calculations and realising they had insufficient fuel remaining to enable them return to base.

Deciding it would be more hazardous to risk multi-engine failure and an uncontrolled plunge into the ocean, Doug Turner ordered Frank Smith, one of the Wireless Operators, to go around the aircraft flinging out any removable equipment that might cause injury when hitting the water. It was also common knowledge that very few B24s had sucessfully ditched with all crew surviving and due to the lightweight roll-up bomb doors disintegrating on impact. This allowed sea water to pour into the aircraft thereby sinking the aircraft very quickly.

The crew consisted of captain F/O Doug Turner; RCAF, second pilot F/O Bob McCreadie, RAF; Navigator F/O F.M. Yeomans, RCAF; Flight Engineer Sgt Harry Grundy, RAF; W/Ops P/O Dorsey, RCAF; Sgt Frank Smith, RAF; Al James; & Ivan Hewitt, both RCAF. Fortunately Scots second pilot Bob McCreadie was a strong swimmer and was able to help other crew members, some of whom had become trapped in broken control cables and parachute harness. The following is the Captain's official report on the ditching.

From Air 27 1067 Public Records Office, Kew.
160 Squadron
Appendix No. 19/45
Captain's Report on Ditching of Aircraft P/160 BZ828

"At 0907 local time on March 21st, 1945, we ditched Liberator 'P' BZ828 in position 0915N 8205E, owing to lack of fuel. We ditched a mile ahead of a Merchant Vessel and about an hour later the whole aircraft crew was aboard the Dutch MV 'Tubian' (Captain Sante A. Jenker)."

"Six of the crew of eight had little trouble in getting out of the aircraft. The seventh member P/O J. H. Dorsey, 1st W.O.P. had fallen down the hole left by the radar spinner, and which had been knocked out. Dorsey was caught up among aircraft control cables and failed to make his way up through the hole and into the aircraft. In the meantime, he was taking in a lot of sea water. Finally, he noticed daylight shining under the aircraft and managed to swim from under the aircraft to the surface. At this point he was practically exhausted. He was helped over the wing by F/O R. K. McCreadie, R.A.F., 164144, and thence McCreadie pulled him up on to the wing."

"While this was going on, Sgt. Grundy, H the Flight Engineer, was trapped in the back of the aircraft which was slowly sinking. He had a broken hip and a terrible gash across his face. He was calling for help and McCreadie went over to the aircraft, handed Grundy a knife with which he cut himself free. McCreadie helped him out then over to the wing. Grundy is a very weak swimmer. The rest of us got the dinghies into operation and paddled around picking everybody up until eventually the eight of us were in the two dinghies awaiting the lifeboat from the Merchant Ship. The Merchant Ship was in sight at all times, which was a great comfort to us."

"McCreadie was the hero of the ditching. In my opinion he saved the lives of two members of the crew."

"Sgd. S. D. Turner, F/O, Captain"

Footnote: With the exception of Sgt Grundy who was too badly injured, the crew resumed operational flying after a short spell in hospital. They completed a tour of 500 hours, their longest operational flight being 23 hours 25 minutes on 28th July 1945. For saving the lives of two crew members, F/O McCreadie was awarded the BEM; and F/O Doug Turner, on returning to civilian life in Canada entered the legal profession and became a Senior Judge.

Webmaster Note: We’ve rarely mentioned how aircraft, launched from carriers, played an important role in World War 2. In the next library entry, I’ve added extracts taken from my website,'s History Zone and which explains what happened to to this Japanese carrier force. Click Here to Go There.

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