Nightmare in a Mosquito 30,000 feet above Aachen

De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.

De Havilland Mosquito PR Mk XVI of No. 544 Squadron RAF based at Benson, Oxfordshire, December 1944.

A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.

A De Havilland Mosquito PR Mark XVI of No. 140 Squadron RAF, warms up its engines in a dispersal at B58/Melsbroek, Belgium, before taking off on a night photographic-reconnaissance sortie.

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.

Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV .

Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) for loading into a De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IV (modified) of No. 692 Squadron RAF at Graveley, Huntingdonshire. No. 692 Squadron was part of the Light Night Striking Force of No. 8 (PFF) Group, which specialised in fast, high-flying night raids on Germany, particularly Berlin. The specially-modified Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’.

Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany,

Part of a vertical photographic reconnaissance aerial taken over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, showing the naval ammunition depot at Mariensel, after the night attack by RAF Bomber Command on 11/12 February 1943. This raid was the first on which Pathfinder aircraft used the H2S radar successfully to mark the target accurately. The resulting bombing by the Main Force was very effective, detonating an explosion in the depot which devastated an area of nearly 120 acres and caused widespread damage in the dockyards and town. Blast damage can be seen to have spread as far as the oil storage tanks on the south side of the Tirpitz Hafen (bottom right).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor May 21, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Mike

Thanks for getting touch.

Can I use or obtain the photographs that appear on this site?

There are several aspects to this question which I have summarised on my FAQ Page.

Please see

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best regards

Martin

Mike Hillier May 16, 2017 at 11:03 am

I am arranging a remembrance service for 2 Mosquito Squadrons (Nos. 85 & 157) this coming November. To coincide with the service I will be creating a small display showing details and photographs of the aircrews who were killed in action whilst serving at RAF Swannington, and of the aircraft they flew. I see that your website is in copyright, therefore I would be grateful if you would grant me permission to show some of the photographs of the Mosquito aircraft from your website.
The display will be for one day only (Saturday 11th November 2017) and of course any photograph used will be source shown.
Many thanks
Mike Hillier
On behalf of the Parish Council of St. Peter’s Church, Haveringland, Norfolk.
.

a gray December 4, 2014 at 7:38 pm

What an incredible account of an attempt to escape from a damaged plane. His account of colliding with another aircraft is also fascinating. I wonder if the collision was with an Allied aircraft or a German night fighter.

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