Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America, was part of the British Empire during the war. This paradise of virgin tropical forest and exotic beaches was an unlikely place from which to depart for the grim, grey austerity of wartime Britain. Yet plenty of men and women from such locations around the world volunteered to do exactly that. They also volunteered to go to war in the full knowledge that many of them would not be going back home.
Cy Grant was one such man, volunteering for the RAF and training as navigator. He was one of the first commissioned officers from Guyana to go on operations. Over north west Europe conditions for bombers were just the same as they were on the previous night when men from other parts of the British Empire had had a narrow escape, and many more had lost their lives. It would be the same again for almost every night for nearly two more years:
We had successfully bombed Gelsenkirchen on Friday, June 25, 1943, when we came under attack as we flew home over Holland. The tail gunner, Pilot Officer Joe Addison, shouted over the intercom that a German fighter was closing in from underneath us.
The German fired a long volley and a jet of tracer spat out towards us. Addison, from his tail turret, returned fire immediately. The fighter climbed a little and veered off to the right, bringing him into the field of fire of the mid-upper gunner, Sergeant Geoffrey Wallis, who immediately opened fire. Everything was happening very fast. All hell had broken loose.
Flying Officer Alton Langille, the pilot, pushed the nose of the Lancaster into a dive, and in a moment the world was turned upside down. Then, as suddenly as it all began, everything was normal again.
The German fighter was nowhere to be seen. Our gunners must have shot it down! “Great work, guys!” shouted the skipper, his voice betraying both the strain we were all under and the relief! He levelled out and the plane behaved normally. The pilot checked our position with me. Despite the evasive action, I had a good idea of where we should be – somewhere south of Amsterdam, near the small town of Haarlem. In half an hour we would be back.
But our peace of mind was to be short lived. This time it was the mid-upper gunner’s voice over the intercom. “Starboard outer afire, Skipper!” So we’d been hit after all!
We dived steeply in an effort to smother the flames, but when we levelled out the flames had spread. Then one of the wheels of the undercarriage fell away in a flaming circle.
Now we were up against it. By the time we reached the coast, we were a flaming comet over the Dutch sky. Both wings were on fire now and I gave the shortest course to the English coast. Unfortunately we were flying into a headwind of about 80 miles an hour at 20,000 feet.
Undaunted, we had unanimously decided to risk getting across the Channel rather than turn back and bail out over occupied territory. But it was becoming extremely difficult for Al to control the aircraft and he sensed that we would not make it across the Channel. He decided to turn back over land.
No sooner had he got her round than he was forced to make another decision: “Well, guys, this is it, bail out and good luck. Get to it!” Our nose had gone down again and there was no other option. I moved forward towards the hatch in the bomb-aimer’s compartment.
I had never contemplated being in this situation. We had been instructed in the use of parachutes but never had to practise leaving an aeroplane by one. When I went forward I found that the bomb aimer and engineer who should have left in that order, were struggling to get through the hatch-door situated below the bomb aimer’s cushion in the nose of the plane.
Al left his controls and came after me. The four of us were soon piled one on top the other, tossed from side to side in the cramped space of the nose of the plane. Though not comprehending why we were unable to escape the now fiercely burning plane, I do not recall any sense of fear or panic . We seemed locked in a timeless moment of inertia when suddenly, with a deafening blast, which lit up everything, our aircraft blew up and disintegrated, freeing us from each other – a free-fall into eternity.
My ‘chute opened readily and I felt a sudden jerk and the strain of the harness on my shoulders as the wind snatched at the canopy. I was swaying violently from side to side. Except for the rush of the wind I was now in an unreal world of mist and utter silence. To add to the unreality, it seemed as if I was suspended in the air, for at first I experienced no sensation of falling.
I became aware of distant searchlights and a glow of a fire far below me. Our aircraft? It seemed that I was drifting aimlessly, with the only sound, the wind, swelling the silk of the chute above me. Then, the sudden rush of a shadow coming towards me at immense speed. It was the ground reaching up to gather me. Instinctively, I grabbed for the release knob on my harness, turned it and slapped it hard. The next thing I knew was that I was running on firm ground with ghostly billowing folds of silk collapsing all about me. I had made a perfect landing. I wriggled out of the harness.
I landed in a field south of Nieuw-Venneg, as I found out later, and hid out in a cornfield for most of the day. I was aware that the Germans were all about looking for survivors of the crash. My heart was pounding. We had been told to try to escape south and hopefully get to Spain – a seemingly improbable task for a black man in Europe without attracting attention.
I realised that my only hope was to seek help from the Dutch. In the early evening I managed to attract the attention of a farmer who beckoned me to jump the ditch separating us. He thrust a spade into my hand so it would appear from a distance that I was a farm hand. He then took me to the farm, where his wife tended the small cut on my head and gave me a hot meal.
I was told that the local Dutch policeman had already been informed of my presence, and he it was who handed me over to the Germans. I was taken to an interrogation camp in Amsterdam, put into solitary confinement for 5 days, dragged out in bright sunshine to be photographed. A few days later I was transported with many other PoWs to the camp named Stalag Luft III (later the scene of The Great Escape) before being sent to another compound a few kilometres away.
This account first appeared in the Daily Telegraph in 2008