Fatal error at 18,000 feet over Germany

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command's first Victoria Cross.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command’s first Victoria Cross.

RAF Bomber Command had hardly paused since the attack on Dresden a week earlier. A series of attacks on Wesel were designed to support the advance of the armies approaching the Rhine. A large attack on the town of Bohlen on the night of the 19th had largely failed because the Master Bomber had been shot down early in the raid, demonstrating the narrow range of factors that separated a success from failure.

On the night of the 20th-21st three large raids were made on Dortmund, Dusseldorf and Monheim, while a ‘small diversionary raid’ of 66 Mosquitos went to Berlin simply to keep the capital’s anti-aircraft defences, and the residents, on constant alert. This last raid on Dortmund, which had been repeatedly bombed throughout the war, was so devastating that no German records survived from it. The attacks on Dusseldorf and Monheim were to successfully halt the production of synthetic oil in both locations, further contributing to the fuel crisis being suffered by the Wehrmacht.

Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.

Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.

However, the German night fighters were still active, especially well prepared for raids over the Ruhr. Warrant Officer W G Pearce RAAF flying in Q—Queenie, a Lancaster flown by Flight Lieutenant A D Pelly of 156 Squadron, describes how small mistakes caused by lack of oxygen meant the difference between survival or not:

We were detailed to mark the synthetic oil refinery at Reiszholz in the Ruhr Valley. Still some way short of the target we were caught up by an enemy fighter (later identified as a Ju 88 using upward firing cannon) and the starboard inner exploded and caught fire.

The captain soon decided our position was untenable and ordered us to bail out: we didn’t need to be told twice. I discarded my flying helmet and oxygen mask (we were at 18,000 ft), picked up my para- chute pack from the floor and started to make my way to the rear door on the starboard side of the aircraft, just forward of the tail- plane.

I sat on the main wing strut, fumbling to attach the parachute pack to the clips on the front of the harness. This is where the lack of oxygen began to take effect and I thought that I had better get moving. When I eventually reached the door the mid-upper gunner was there before me.

He had made the fatal mistake of picking up his parachute pack by the shiny handle, the ripcord, and it had opened in the aircraft. He had, however clipped it to his harness and gathered the canopy in his arms. I watched him jump and saw the canopy which was torn from his grasp by the slipstream pass over the top of the tail-plane and his body beneath. His body was found later on the ground, still attached to his parachute: he had been killed by the impact when dragged back into the tail by his entangled canopy.

Now it was my turn to leave the aircraft, by now somewhat light-headed from the lack of oxygen and not too concerned by my predicament. I looked at the fire in the wing and thought ‘that sure is burning well’. The next moment I fell out of the aeroplane and after tumbling for what seemed an age thought ‘well I had better pull it now’. I was overcome by a feeling of absolute loneliness, but the cold and the lower altitude soon brought me back to my proper senses.

But I could now hear other aircraft swishing past me and was frightened of what would happen if one of them hit me: this did not happen of course. They soon passed and I was left hanging in complete silence.

As I drifted down towards a cloud bank I could see a search- light running around on the underside of this cloud. Again I was frightened of being picked up by this light and becoming target practice for an anti-aircraft battery: again my fears were groundless as the light was switched off before I entered the cloud bank.

Below the cloud the darkness was even more complete and I couldn’t see the ground. I realised I was drifting backwards and remembering my parachute drill I tried to correct; I wasn’t very successful and I hit the ground in an untidy heap.

There was very little wind and my parachute quickly collapsed, I had landed in the middle of a paddock, but had hurt my left shoulder and the arm was virtually useless.

This account appears in Martin Bowman: Reflections of War: Armageddon (27th September 1944-May 1945) (Bomber Command)

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

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