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Library Reference Number: 187

What A Birthday!

Ron Holton, Scottish Saltire Branch,ACA

With my 87th birthday fast approaching, I recalled to mind my 21st which I had spent in the mess, not wisely but only too well with the inevitable consequence the following morning that left me suffering with the well known malady most of us have experienced as young men - in other words I had the most horrendous hangover, and all I longed for (other than die!) was to have a quiet, very quiet, day followed by a good night's sleep. Alas, that was to be denied to me. Later that morning, I was informed that my crew was rostered that night as strike crew. I groaned because that meant that I had to endure an uncomfortable night in the strike hut in an armchair fully clothed in flying kit with our aircraft at the ready immediately outside.

I was based at Blida, an airfield south of Algiers, and officially I was second pilot on the latest mark of Wellington fitted with Bristol Siddeley engines giving double the power of the old Pegasus, and equipped with centimetric radar and a Leigh light. I had been with the other pilot, Jimmy, since Cranwell was where we had both received our wings on the same day, both had trained together at OTU at Moreton-in-the-Marsh, and both had attempted to fly out to India twice and succeeded on the second attempt. In each case, the first had failed adventurously causing us to be rescued by a British destroyer – so we knew each other pretty well. We shared all take-offs and landings and all hours at the controls, however, Jimmy at twelve years older than I and where I believe I was the very youngest on the course at Cranwell, it seemed appropriate to crew us together, and I must say it worked very well indeed.

When Jimmy went down with a serious disease in India and had to be hospitalised for some considerable time, I received my captaincy. Later he rejoined us and we both saw operational experience in Burma where we lost half of the squadron and following on from its complete loss at Singapore; but now we were back in the Med with a far better aircraft.

Normally on such occasions we would be scrambled first and then given our instructions when airborne, but such was not to be the case on this night. Suddenly, the CO walked in with a large map under his arm and which he proceeded to place on the map table. Apparently, a U-Boat had managed to slip past the Straits of Gibraltar and had immediately sunk an American troopship with much loss of life. Our task, the CO said, was to start what was known as a swamp operation, with us patrolling an area off the south-east tip of Spain. The theory was that as we knew precisely where the U-Boat had been, we believed that it was en-route to its base at Marsailles.

Allowing for its known speed both on and under the surface, we knew it should be somewhere within the designated area of our square search. Two other aircraft would be following to take up station with one to the west of us and another to the east. As time progressed more aircraft would 'swamp' the area until it was felt the submarine would have to surface and although he might be fitted with a snorkel, it might be detected by our radar if the sea was calm as it was on this night.

Accordingly we departed and took up station as instructed. I remember it was a beautiful night with almost a full moon and the Med looked its absolute finest but I was in no mood for admiring the scenery. All I wanted was a quiet uneventful eight-hour patrol and then back to base and glorious bed!

I was to be disappointed though! We had been on patrol little more than an hour and I was at the controls when suddenly Tommy, our Wop/ AG, exclaimed that he was receiving a 424 message with lat and long. 424 was code for "I have a suspicious contact and am investigating", and it came from the aircraft to our west. The drill was that a follow-up message, confirming or not, should be sent no more than four minutes later. The minutes passed but no signal was forthcoming. Mike, our Navigator, already had a course worked out and accordingly I turned onto the heading.

After a short time Tommy who, amongst his multifarious tasks, was monitoring the radar, announced he had picked up a blip about seven miles away and gave me a bearing on which I turned. At the same time I noticed flames on the water to our left, obviously the remains of the first aircraft, whilst Mike went aft to lower our Leigh light. I then saw the sub on the surface only about a mile off the Spanish coast and going like the clappers as the jargon has it and making a tremendous fluorescent wake.

I told Tommy that he should send a confirmatory signal and told Mike to raise the Leigh light in order to give us a valuable extra ten knots and while visual sighting of the submarine was as clear as daylight. I then opened the bomb doors and primed the first stick of four depth charges. I began to give a running commentary to the crew and warned Ricky, our rear gunner, to be ready to spray the whole length of the sub as we passed over with his four VGOs.

At about the time I first saw the submarine, their crew must have seen us because a tremendous barrage was sent up against us. It seemed as though there were several Bofors guns firing as well as machine gun tracers and I knew that it was impossible to get through all that flak without getting hit. I took careful aim with my course to attack with about a thirty degree angle to the boat, and allowing for the excessive speed of the sub, I planned to drop my stick so that two DCs fell either side of it. This I achieved, but as we went over, I knew that we had been hit badly. Ricky's guns opened up and our craft was filled with the familiar and unmistakable stink of burnt cordite.

Because of our angle of attack, I realised we could not avoid flying over Spanish territory and that I had lost the port engine. I could see rocks and trees flashing past below us - far too close - and at any second, I expected to hit the hillside. Fortunately there were no high-rise flats of hotels there then!

I began a slow left turn into the dead engine, contrary to good airmanship, but I had no alternative. I still had the bomb doors open with the remaining four DCs and which I knew I couldn't jettison whilst over land in case I killed some poor unfortunate Spaniard and brought about one hell of a diplomatic incident.

At last we cleared the coast, much to my relief, and when we were about a mile off-shore, I jettisoned the DCs and closed the bomb doors, which made handling the aircraft easier, and could then look to my left to see what had happened to the submarine.

She was lying in a great welter of foam, stationary, and about sixty degrees to her original heading, and then I noticed the third Wellington making its attack completely unopposed. Apparently, Admiral Donitz had issued orders to his commanders to remain on the surface to fight it out, giving them a greater degree of safety. It had worked with the first aircraft, but not with us.

We did the usual round of all the crew to ensure that no-one was hurt. A rather weak voice came from the rear turret saying that he was hit. Jimmy and Tommy went aft to drag him out and lay him on the stretcher that all Wellingtons carried. His whole left side was one mass of blood and where a cannon shell had exploded just outside his turret. He was lucky to be alive!

Jimmy and Tommy applied wound dressings as well as they could and in the meantime, Mike had given me a course to the nearest friendly airfield which was Bone and where I knew that we couldn't make it back to Blida in our present state. When Tommy got back to his position, I told him to send a distress message to Bone telling them that we needed an ambulance and that we wanted a straight in approach.

To cut the story short, we made a safe landing and poor Ricky was immediately carted off to hospital. He had lost a considerable amount of blood but otherwise his wounds were not as serious as we had first thought and after about six weeks he was returned to the squadron but never again to fly with us - for which, I am sure, he was heartedly grateful! After everything that happened on that night, I suddenly realised that my self-induced hangover had completely disappeared but what a way to effect a cure! Most definitely not to be recommended!

The vagaries of war are sometimes strange and unfair. Throughout my operational career, I lost three air gunners although none were killed, thank heaven! Two, both Canadians were sufficiently injured to cause their repatriation back to Canada while Jimmy received a bad head wound during a serious crash landing. During all the mayhem, I walked away with only a sprained ankle - all so, so very unfair.

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