Shot down off Spain and ‘In the drink’

Busy scene by the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar. In the foreground various RAF marinecraft undergo maintenance. Parked behind them are shrouded Consollidated Catalinas of No. 202 Squadron RAF, while in front of the hangar, an engine service is undertaken on Short Sunderland Mark I, L5798 'KG-B', of No. 204 Squadron RAF based at Bathurst, The Gambia. Between 1941and 1944, this unit regularly escorted Allied convoys between Gibraltar and West Africa.

Busy scene by the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar. In the foreground various RAF marinecraft undergo maintenance. Parked behind them are shrouded Consollidated Catalinas of No. 202 Squadron RAF, while in front of the hangar, an engine service is undertaken on Short Sunderland Mark I, L5798 ‘KG-B’, of No. 204 Squadron RAF based at Bathurst, The Gambia. Between 1941and 1944, this unit regularly escorted Allied convoys between Gibraltar and West Africa.

Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 'AX-B', on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.

Air and ground crew of No. 202 Squadron RAF check equipment and ordnance issued to Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AJ159 ‘AX-B’, on the slipway at North Front, Gibraltar, in preparation for a patrol.

Consolidated Catalina Mark I, Z2417 'AX-L', of No. 202 Squadron RAF flies by the North Front of the Rock as it leaves Gibraltar on a patrol.

Consolidated Catalina Mark I, Z2417 ‘AX-L’, of No. 202 Squadron RAF flies by the North Front of the Rock as it leaves Gibraltar on a patrol.

The U-boat war may well have been ‘won’ by the second half of 1943 but the business of hunting them down remained no less dangerous. The battle was particularly intense over the Bay of Biscay, where every effort was made by the Germans to keep open the route from the U boat bases to the Atlantic.

RAF Coastal Command was now flying almost continuous patrols out over the Bay. Despite the pressure they were under the Luftwaffe still had enough fighters left to move them to western France in an attempt to fight back. Sometimes the RAF would successfully fight them off despite seemingly overwhelming odds, sometimes they would not.

Jack Foss was the second pilot in a Coastal Command patrol plane operating out of Gibraltar. On a fine September afternoon they were suddenly ‘jumped’ by four Junkers 88s. After a short sharp engagement his aircraft was badly damaged and he was finally forced to ditch:

The aircraft immediately sank and we went down with it — twenty feet under water – completely dark. The terrific impact with the water had broken its back and almost ours as well: like hitting a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour. It was far too dark to see anything. I just breathed in water and thought, “Here it is.”

We must have been under there nearly two minutes before any of us struggled free. No one can realise the horrible feeling it gives one, to be jammed in an aircraft under water and slowly drowning. But we did struggle free.

When we finally got to the surface, all except the skipper and Pat, I suddenly saw daylight and took a deep breath of air. We were appalled to see only one dinghy: the rest had gone down with the aircraft. It wasn’t easy getting seven of us into the two-man dinghy.

Our Mae Wests had been riddled and didn’t keep us up. Some could not swim and their wounds made it dicult to hoist them aboard. The sea was rough and we were sick over the side, from swallowing so much salt water.

We hadn’t beenin the dinghy more than an hour when we sighted smoke on the horizon. Somebody said, “Surely we’re not saved already,” and started to wave the telescopic flag. The smoke came nearer and we saw the shape of a vessel altering course towards us. We all started talking and cheering like wildfire as we thought we were going to be picked up and saved.

As the craft got nearer we saw it was a 517-ton U—boat with a modified conning-tower. It was dirty yellowish in colour. The navigator gave the order not to answer any questions; just to say “water”.

The U—boat came within twenty yards and we saw the Germans quite clearly. They were clean-shaven. One of them called, “You British? You Allies?” We did not answer: we just shouted “Water!”

When the commander of the U-boat gathered that we didn’t intend saying anything, he gave orders to his men to carry on, which they did, roughly in a westerly direction. Ben said, “Would you sooner be taken prisoner, rather than risk your chance of being picked up?” We all said, “No, we’d sooner take the chance.”

We were all highly thankful as none of us wished to be taken prisoner, especially on board a U-boat. We were thankful also because we were all expecting to be raked with machine-gun bullets at any moment so we were ready to dive into the water as soon as any of the Germans got behind a gun. Although some of us were badly wounded and dying, there still remained the thought that life is sweet, and we were determined to live as long as possible.

Had they fired on us, I don’t doubt that we would all have been killed, even if we had dived under the water. We couldn’t have stayed there for ever and they would be certain to have got us when we came up.

When the U-boat had passed on, we really gave vent to our feelings: a very lurid description ofwhat we thought about U-boats and Germans in general. The descritpion certainly isn’t betting to write on paper. There were some really choice words; among them, “The bastards have gone.”

Later on in the evening, we took stock of what we had and the results were not very encouraging. We only had two small cans of water, one small tin of orange juice, a green lemon and the usual Horlicks tablets and chocolate. As you can see, this was not going to last long between seven of us. And there was no knowing when we might be picked up – if ever. Ben said, “Well, boys, there isn’t much chance of shipping being this far down the bay.”

Our morale was very low for a short while, but in true English fashion we soon got over our low feelings and started seeing how badly wounded each of us was.

Ben had wounds everywhere; a lot of them being caused by the ditching and the rest by bullets and shrapnel. Jimmy had bullet wounds in his face and leg and also his rear. We had to lay him down in the bottom of the dinghy, as he was in so much pain.

Then there was Jack: he had the front part of his leg blown off by a cannon shell. He said, “Even if we are saved I suppose I shall have to have my leg off when we get back.”

Dick had a bullet right between the shoulder blades. Mike, Jerry and myself were the most fortunate of all. Mike had only a cannon shell blow a piece out of the side of his knee. F/O Thornton had a scratch on one of his fingers, and myself a bullet in the wrist and shrapnel in the knees.

Out of the seven men in the dinghy, only three would survive. This account, which does not give the exact date they were shot down, was published in 1955 in Hector Bolitho: A Penguin In The Eyrie: An Raf Diary, 1939-1945..

Catalina Mark I, Z2147 ‘AX-L’, of No. 202 Squadron RAF based at Gibraltar, in flight approaching Europa Point on returning from an anti-submarine patrol. While serving with the Squadron, Z2147 was credited with nine successful attacks on enemy submarines.

Catalina Mark I, Z2147 ‘AX-L’, of No. 202 Squadron RAF based at Gibraltar, in flight approaching Europa Point on returning from an anti-submarine patrol. While serving with the Squadron, Z2147 was credited with nine successful attacks on enemy submarines.

Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AH544 'AX-H', of No. 202 Squadron RAF sets course after taking off from Gibraltar on an anti-submarine patrol.

Consolidated Catalina Mark I, AH544 ‘AX-H’, of No. 202 Squadron RAF sets course after taking off from Gibraltar on an anti-submarine patrol.

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