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Library Reference Number: 188

At The Toss Of A Coin

Harry Fisher, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

As it turned out, Harry Fisher’s entry to RAF aircrew led into witnessing many heavy losses in Bomber Command before he himself was eventually shot down over France. Surviving a parachute descent was one thing but how does one survive and evade capture in an enemy occupied country? What is it that determines what the future holds? Harry believes all those events in an action packed aircrew experience started with “the toss of a coin.” Would Harry have survived if he had won the toss?

This is an account of two separate incidents which were to shape my operational career with No.218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command. For me personally in the first instance, it was my good fortune to lose the toss of a coin as I am still around today but at the same time the decision led to dire personal life threatening consequences. The second incident of which I shall describe later, was a game of football.

Having completed my training as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, including an advanced wireless course, I was posted in March 1943 to No.12 Operational Training Unit at Chipping Warden. It is here at OTU that individual members of aircrew go through the process of meeting others and becoming ‘crewed up.’ The method adopted was for all individual members on the same course to mingle freely in a large hangar and simply, by means of social interaction, quickly decide by mutual consent which members would be selected to form a group and become the crew with whom you would fly operational missions. It could be viewed as an initial stage of ‘aircrew friendship and bonding'.

Although flying ‘Wellingtons’ at out, we were destined to fly four-engined heavy bombers, the crew of which consisted of Pilot, Navigator, Bomb-Aimer, Flight Engineer, Wireless Operator, Mid-Upper and Rear Gunners.

Now for some reason, I must have been a bit dilatory and found myself along with another Wireless Operator, Sgt. Petre of having to choose between two Pilots. One was a Sgt. Knight whom we both knew. The other was a Sgt. Adams whom neither of us could recall ever meeting. In perfect circumstances, we'd have both chosen Sgt Knight and his crew and agreed to settle the issue by the toss of a coin and in which I lost. Consequently, I introduced myself to Sgt Adams and who had apparently held been held back from a previous course and on account of alleged visual impairment. It didn't seem like a good start yet he finished his tour of duty with 218 squadron, was commisioned and awarded the DFC.

The following events illustrate how the process of ’crewing up’ or tossing a coin was a complete lottery. After time spent at No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, both of our crews were posted to No.218 Squadron at Downham Market in Norfolk in June 1943.

After three months into our tour of operations, and during which time, not one single crew survived to complete the allotted number of operations, the prospect of survival seemed bleak!

On the night of 27th September 1943, Stirling aircraft EE937 ‘A’ captained by the Pilot Officer WFC Knight, failed to return from an operation over Hanover in which our crew also took part. There were no survivors and the wireless operator, my erstwhile friend Sgt Petre had won the toss of the coin but lost his life in the gambles of war and conflict. Sgt Petre, a Londoner, was the guy, who after returning from each operation in the early hours of the morning, would enter the Sergeant’s Mess and always play the same record on the gramophone, Flanagan and Allen singing “Underneath the Arches.” In the early hours of 28th September 1943 somebody else played his record in remembrance.

The second incident occurred about a month later. I was quite badly injured playing football and was carted off to the RAF General Hospital at Ely in Cambridgeshire. After being taken back from the operating theatre to the ward, I woke up with a pleasantly intoxicating feeling to the sound of music and a female lying on the bed next to me. Could this be Heaven? Amusingly, as it turned out, there was an ENSA concert going on and the girl was a WAAF who had been brought in from her ward to see the concert.

Later on, I felt such a fraud as the ward was occupied by badly injured aircrew from bombing operations. I was out of commission for several weeks and by the time I was discharged from the hospital and deemed sufficiently fit; my crew had completed their duty and tour of operations. They tried to get me finished with them in an effort to 'stick together' but to no avail. After this, I spent about three months with the squadron, became commissioned and flew in one operation as a spare Wireless Operator. Finally, I was crewed up again with five experienced crew members who had carried out numerous operations and who had lost their Pilot and Wireless Operator.

The six of us were sent back to the Conversion Unit at No.1657, Stradishall, in early March 1944 to meet up with a Pilot. This turned out to be a regular Officer who had completed a number of missions in the early days of the war. He had reached the rank of Wing Cdr but had reverted to Squadron Leader to allow him return to operational flying. I never found out if we were hand-picked to join him because of our operational experience.

We rejoined No. 218 Squadron,or at least the six of us did, now at Woolfox Lodge in Rutland, with our new Pilot Squadron Leader Poulter and who was made Officer Commanding ‘B’ Flight with the previous O.C. having recently got the chop!

Just after midnight, on 23rd April 1944 and while we were flying on an operation, we were attacked and shot down by an enemy fighter over Northern France. Before bailing out, I had made my way forward to the escape hatch. The Bomb Aimer and Navigator had already gone. I looked up at out Pilot Squadron Leader Poulter and he gave me a tap on the shoulder indicating it was time for me to go. I naturally thought that he would be following but either he was too badly injured or he had lost control of the plane. Either way, he went down with the plane.

After evading capture until 5th June 1944 when I was captured by the Germans, I finally escaped on 19th August 1944. After a spell with the French Maquis and thanks to ‘special operations’ I was flown back to UK on 3rd September 1944.

Destiny is a fleeting and unpredictable thing and where, for the sake of a game of football, I might have been spared the heartbreak of being shot down and the suffering while in German hands.

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