Albert Smith was, after just two years, a veteran of 90 operations in RAF bombers. His role as navigator had been tested in Wellington bombers before he was selected for the elite Pathfinder Force which marked the targets for the main bomber force.
Here he flew in the Mosquito. The role was very far from being without risks, but with a very experienced pilot and a very fast aircraft, flying high, there was the reasonable expectation that they were better placed than the heavy bombers to get out of trouble.
The skies over Europe could be very crowded during bombing operations. Hundreds of aircraft were pushed through to the target as quickly as possible, all flying the same route. The aircraft were in close proximity at night. Radar was crude – and only in night fighters was it designed to identify nearby aircraft. Accidents could happen – and they might happen very quickly:
The 4th of December 1944 — 1900 hours — target: Karlsruhe. On the left, slightly higher than my head and facing forward, the pilot peers into the black night. I flick the switch on the nozzle of my oxygen mask, and he turns his head in my direction. A nasal, humid sound: “Alter course to one-six-four degrees. We’ll be over Aachen in two minutes.” The intercom crackles back: “OK.”
Suddenly there is a jolt, and I glance sharply to the left. Out of the window beyond Johnny’s head I see, for an instant, the grotesque black belly of an aircraft sliding by. Nothing happens for a moment, the drone persists — the course holds. Then with a sickening lurch, the plane cartwheels through the sky.
”Johnny!” I scream, as I am flung furiously against the instrument panel, then twisted through the air and thumped to the floor. But the floor itself is twisting. I grab the metal struts at the base of ]ohnny’s seat, pulling my face hard against them as my legs spiral above me. Urine flows uncontrollably, and my chest feels tight and painful.
Sliding my head round, I see Johnny wrestling with the joystick, but we are spinning viciously and out of control. He snatches his arm up and turns the handle of the escape hatch. It rips away, sucking the warm air of the cockpit with it. He reaches down to me, then starts pulling at the buckle of his seat harness.
He twists awkwardly out of his seat — his parachute on his back — and grabs at the joystick. Clutching it, he begins to rotate with the spin of the aircraft. Again he tries to reach down to help me. I stretch my hand up to his. But he seems to lift like a balloon, hover for a second, then shoots out of the black, gaping hole above him.
I pull my head further round, and see, in the dim light, my parachute strapped to the side of the aircraft. It is within reach, but if I let go of the struts then the violent spin of the aircraft will fling me out of the open canopy above. There is nothing I can do.
I pull my face hard against the struts. I tilt my head round a bit, so that the top of my head is facing towards the nose of the aircraft. I grip tighter, because I want to die wrapped in the warmth of the aircraft’s body. A dread of falling through space, formlessly, makes me shudder and I hug the struts closer.
I tilt my head so that it will hit the ground at the same instant as the aircraft, and I will feel nothing. I’m calm. I’m going to die. But I can’t do anything about it. It’ll be quick. And it won’t hurt. I feel so calm. There’s a yellow—red glow in the aircraft. The engines must be on fire! Please God I don’t feel the pain of burning before I die. I begin to hum — just a constant, quiet, surprising hum.
Then my legs slam to the floor, and the aircraft is no longer spinning — diving steeply but no longer spinning. I might live. My body quivers, and I feel the most intense fear.
I’m feeling unsteady, but I’m sitting. I claw at my parachute, still strapped to the side. Tearing off the straps, I fumble with it, and pull it and clip it onto my harness. Surely I’ll hit the ground at any minute, we’ve been falling for so long.
I pull myself towards the blackness but something jerks my head back. I pull again, and my neck is torn violently back. I tug my neck frantically, but still my head won’t move. The ground must be near now — I’m frantic with fear. I nearly made it, for God’s sake, I must make it.
My helmet! It’s still connected to the intercom cable. I wrench it off — my head feels light. I’m shaking as I scramble to the escape hatch. As I get close, a freezing wind stings my face. I feel like I am in water — nothing I push on stays firm. Push, for Christ’s sake, push. My legs are dangling inside the aircraft, my top half is out. I push one more time and thrust myself up, and I’m floating free.
Tumbling, tumbling — floating free. A smooth, unremarkable hissing sound fills me. I pull the rip-cord.
This is from the dramatic opening passage of Smith’s memoir, Albert Smith: Mosquito Pathfinder: Navigating 90 WWII Operations but the whole account of his service is equally well written.