THE PARACHUTE JUMP
The present edition of this war misadventure is the result of an idea that was born on the 28th September 1989. Having written its draft copy by hand, I rewrote it many times, each time adding new material as my memory was jogged to produce hi thereto forgotten events, thoughts or anecdotes. The final text begins with an error in the date of the event, because for some reason, I had always celebrated my parachute jump on the 27th September. I recently came across the only piece of evidence I have to put me right. This is a cutting from "LE JOURNAL OFFICIEL" containing the citations in question. This gave the date as the 5th November 1944. Unfortunately, I mislaid my flying logbook many years ago. This is very regrettable because it would have not only provided me with all the relevant dates, but also with the details of each flight, as well as the target attacked and damage sustained by the aircraft.
When an inaccuracy becomes accepted as being veracious, one persists in adopting it as the truth, and since the first line of my account relies on this inaccuracy to convey the idea of anniversary, I am loath to alter the text. I have entertained the wrong idea for so long that it will have to stand. So, dear reader, interpret the 27th September as being the 5th November 1944. ( Odd .... , I never did connect that jump with Guy Fawkes day!)
The final print of the text took place as the onslaught on Iraq is in its second month. I felt 1 had to mention this sad event, as it strengthens my conviction that war, any war, is one of those ingrained deplorable habit that man will have to shed if he wishes to survive.
22nd February 1991
Last night, I have recalled an event that took place forty five years ago; an event that saw me dangling at the end of a parachute, falling towards a ground that was uncertain- since I might very well alight on land held by
the Germans. Briefly, the area was in close proximity to the borders of Belgium, Holland and Germany. We had been forced down, and I was uncertain on which side of the front I would fall. Suddenly this event assumes a great importance as I recall the impressions of this younger version of myself, prior to, whilst, and after landing safely under the billowing mushroom that attenuated the law
These far away events have stirred old emotions, but they have mainly humbled me in the sense that on the 27th September 1944, round about three o’clock in the afternoon. I owed my life to the thought of a very Christian lady to
whom I appealed as my crippled aircraft, a Douglas Boston IV, was plunging slowly towards disaster. I was sitting in the small perspex compartment right in the front of the aircraft, unaware that it was going to crash, whilst all
inter-communication between the rest of the crew and myself had been severed due to damage inflicted by enemy anti-aircraft fire.
In those days, I was not religious in the sense that I attended Mass, nor was I consciously aware of the presence of some deity; however, I did believe in the finality of ”goodness“. When I realised that after having been solidly peppered by the enemy flak over the target area - the bridge at Venlo on the Rhine - in which the German artillery had virtually filled a whole cube of airspace with exploding 55 mm shells; that I had suddenly lost all contact with my pilot and the two air-gunners; that one of the propellers had been feathered whilst the other engine was emitting black smoke; that the skipper had taken a heading that had nothing to do with the emergency heading I had given him, should the occasion arise, to steer the aircraft towards Grimbergen (Brussels); and that we were gradually losing altitude, I was seized with a sense of helplessness that
soon began to turn into panic.
Logically speaking, what is the point in having a navigator on board - my purpose - if he is unable to communicate his observations and pass on information to his pilot regarding the safe navigation of the aircraft? I do
not think I have ever felt such helplessness owing to a lack of communication as I did all these years, forty five years or ever since. Now comes a piece of irony, (Murphys law?) for had we been flying in the older Boston III, written brief communication would have been possible not only between the pilot and the navigator, but also between the two gunners and the pilot. This was achieved through a system of pulleys placed in the navigator's compartment, the pilot's cockpit and the gunners' positions. These pulleys were connected by wires that passed through a suitable aperture in the bulkheads separating the members of the crew. All we needed from the pilot on that day was a small piece of paper travelling along these wires, and all we needed to read on that piece of paper, a single executive instruction: “SAUTEZ" This, of course, never came so we just had to sweat it out!
As the aircraft came down, gradually but inexorably, from twelve thousand to two thousand feet; this feeling of isolation, the humdrum drone of the remaining engine, still functioning in spite of smoking, the sight of the dead propeller looking so indifferent to all the human emotions that were seething within the confines of our stricken craft rendered almost human because of its struggle to fight the odds: all these impressions and emotions began to prey on my mind. As we approached four thousand feet, it dawned on me that there now was a real possibility that my young life was to be cut short. Was the rest of the crew still alive, or even on board? To these pressing questions I received but the laconic reply of that single engine purring, but saying nothing! What does one do in such a case? Something has to be done if only to fight this sense of nascent panic. I could not pray in the conventional way since my religious upbringing had been flawed in such a way that I was confused as to the true nature of the god I had been told was all merciful, whilst his official representatives on earth informed me most gravely that with lots of luck -mind you- I might just, but only just, escape roasting in hell for ever, to redeem my soul by roasting in purgatory for a rather undefined length of time that could be reduced by saying certain prayers at an appointed time ordained by the said representatives.
This was hardly the moment to try a bit of horse dealing by striking a bargain with such a god. Well, in those moments of growing anxiety mixed with fear, hopelessness and helplessness; when I felt that panic was fast approaching as the ground features loomed larger with every passing seconds, my thoughts flew instinctively towards "Miss Jones", as I called her then.
She was an elderly lady of the Anglican faith, with whom I had been billeted on the outskirt of Manchester, whilst kicking my heels in Heaton Park awaiting transport to Canada, where I was to undergo a course in navigation, gunnery and bombing. She devoted her life to the care of an older sister who was crippled by arthritis, and looked after me as if I were her own son.
To me, Hiss Jones represented the epitome of modesty, gentleness and decency. She was also a convinced Socialist as she felt that Socialism represented the creed that was closest to the teaching of Jesus. If anyone was good, it was Hiss Jones. Shortly before these events, I had decided - after a philosophical discussion with an airport fireman in the bar, on the nature of God - that God could be described as an active and benevolent Force that endowed the abstract concept of "goodness" with life. Since Hiss Jones was good, and since goodness could be described as an active and living force: ergo, a deity characterised by benevolence, I concentrated all my thoughts on her goodness and asked for help.
By that time the aircraft was approaching two thousand five hundred feet, and I knew that 1 had a mere five hundred feet in which to make up my mind to bale out or take my chances. It is then that 1 suddenly became very calm as an authoritative voice said in my head: "JUMP!”. Without any hesitation or qualms, and quite calm,);" I proceeded to clip my parachute pack on the harness, opened the trap door in the floor, so designed that if you open it during flight, the force of the relative wind tore its retaining hinges, so leaving you with a rectangular opening - and I jumped!
To this day 1 still wonder that 1 actually did jump, and can only explain it because of this outside influence that not only ordered me to do so, but also gave me the courage to perform this unusual deed. Our very training lasting about a year had never prepared us either to perform the deed, nor had we been made psychologically aware that one day, there was nothing else to do but jump. Our whole brief in the matter had lasted exactly one hour, I remember the class being assembled in a large hangar with a sergeant instructor first showing us a parachute with its various components; instructing us how to clip the parachute on quickly and efficiently and then showing us what happens when the release ring is pulled. In fact, he enjoined us to be careful when handling it since the actual release of the ring involved a lot of work in re-assembling it again. He then instructed us on the correct way of bailing out of an aircraft whilst taking the precaution to hold the parachute pack itself firmly in one's arms and releasing the ring three seconds after jumping. What happens if one does not hold tight to the pack whilst jumping is rather interesting, although somewhat frightening, as I was to discover!
To bale out of a burning aircraft, or an aircraft out of control is obviously the wisest course of action to take, but to do so when none of these conditions obtain, and to do so without consultation, just did not seem at all rightful.
Furthermore, an aircraft is something solid: one clings to it just as a baby finds comfort within his mother's womb. I discovered later that the pilot had pressed the alarm bell that ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. Alas! That, also, had been put out of action, and he - bless him - felt he could not abandon us to whatever fate chance would allot us, so decided to stay put and make the best possible crash landing.
After I jumped, I made the mistake referred to above: I forgot to clasp the parachute pack in my arms. So I fell through space, and the first thing which struck me was that spinning about one yard above me was this strange square pack attached to some straps! What had happened was that the pack has its own straps neatly folded on top of the straps of the harness, and held in place by a length of ordinary string. When falling in free space, the pack detaches itself froIIl the harness, breaking the string so that the actual parachute is at some distance from the head.
After my initial surprise, instinct took over; I grabbed the straps at the end of which the pack was spinning, drew them towards me, reached the pack, grabbed the ring on top of it, and pulled. What a relief to feel suddenly myself jerked as I heard this dull thud that indicated that the parachute had opened, to see this beautiful white canopy spreading itself against the sky. What a joy! For a few seconds. I actual1y' enjoyed the sensation of gliding downwards. However this pleasant interlude can only have been brief! Because as I was nearing the ground, I became aware that I was travelling backwards. From the one hour lecture I had received, I remembered that in order to correct this, one had to cross one's arms, pull the 'chute's cords from right to left, and vice versa, thus achieving a complete 180 degree turn.
That manoeuvre worked. My next problem was to make a good landing in the best tradition of someone who has never made one: that is one that one can walk away from _ without any assistance. I then noticed that the wind was quite strong, because I was descending at quite a shallow angle, but, at least I was not going to land against any building, as I was over open land. So I landed in a very soft potato field, released the parachute as my feet hit the ground, bent my left knee whilst protecting my head with my left arm - all copy book manoeuvres. But performed quite instinctively - and I rolled over a few yards.
My next concern was to retrieve my parachute. Whether this was motivated ~y feelings of gratitude, or by a reluctance to waste good equipment, or even because I had simply to do something in the high state of excitement I found myself in. is hard to define, but I felt compelled to catch it, The surface wind was quite strong because it was sauntering along the ground with a rounded canopy. I caught up with it and folded it rather untidily.
I then became aware that some people were approaching me from my right quarter; they seemed to hesitate and cautious in their gait. For some unexplained reason, I thought they were Germans, so I just shouted: "Guten morgen. konnell Sie mir sagen wo ich gefallen bin ?" They were obviously not German, because they immediately scattered like scared birds. so I promptly tried to repair my gaffe by shouting once more: "Kom terug, ich ben geen Duitser, ik ben een Franse vlieger!" They stopped running and began once more to edge cautiously towards me. They must have been perplexed to hear a man who claims to be a French flyer first asking them in German where he had fallen and then tell them in Flemish that he was no German. so would they please come back.
These good people never reached me, because, suddenly from my left hand side appeared a soldier armed with a gun and fixed bayonet. I immediately recognised the familiar features of the American uniform, and I was overwhelmed with joy. At least I was not going to end the war as a guest of the German government in some Stalag of doubtful comfort. Besides which, towards that time, Hitler had unilaterally decided that all allied airmen, were to be considered as "terrorists of the air and summarily executed, It is to be noted however that the German High command did not comply with that instruction. The order may have very well seemed repugnant to them, and in any case, they probably realised that since they would soon end up in our hands, there was no point in making things sticky for themselves.
So I ran joyfully towards the G. I. and told him how glad I was to see him - in English, this time. Now I must explain that the uniform I was wearing was the standard R. A. F. grey battledress and that the only insignia I wore were my French Sergeant's single gold stripe and my R. A. F. navigator's badge. This uniform had caused confusion because it resembled in colour that of the Luftwaffe's. Some British airmen baling out over liberated territory had been mistaken for German airmen, and roughly treated, This eventually caused all R.A.F. grey battledresses to be replaced within the confine of European operations with the Army's standard khaki. Presumably my American soldier may have been in such doubt, or perhaps he was just being cautious, so he just raised his bayonet against my stomach Just as I was about to greet him like a long lost brother, and said:" Put your hands up! "
There followed a comical interlude in which I informed him that I was an allied airman, and that I could provide him with my R.A.F. form 1250 - identity card. He asked me to show it to him, but as I reached the inside pocket of my battledress, he obviously became nervous, pressed the point of his bayonet against my stomach, and ordered met once again, to raise my hands. I then intimated to him that we had a problem: that of my inability to produce the required document whilst immobilising my hands in an upright position.
The identity card was eventually produced, although I cannot recall whether my captor relented and allowed me to get it out of my" pocket, or whether he frisked me. I know that at one stage, I invited him, as a sign of good faith and surrender into his keeping, to remove my revolver, which I kept inside the jacket of my battledress. I did so because I hated the idea of keeping a revolver in a holster; furthermore, should I have found myself alone in ene11JY territory. I would certainly not have used it - except in extremis. My interpretation of my duties in this war was to bomb, or at 1east, attempt to destroy the enemy's war potential. Should I no longer be able to do this I was not prepared to play war with a silly gun, I was then quite ready to accept that under the Geneva Convention. I was entitled to humane treatment by the adversary.
However, with my natural propensity to lose things, it turned out that in my fall. I had managed to part with the gun, and I understand that, subsequently a cursory search was made by my American hosts, but the gun was not found.
With the relief of finding myself in the safe custody of my American captor who became quite civil after securing my I.D. I began to grow calm and took stock of my immediate situation. I then noticed two things: first I had a gash in my right hand between the index and the middle finger - I still bear the scar; second, I had also lost a flying boot which fortunately was found nearby.
What happened after my capture by the American G.I. was that he walked me a small distance to his unit where I was immediately surrounded by very friendly and smiling black American soldiers. They patted me on the back, and expressed their joy at seeing me relatively unscathed after my ordeal. I was deeply touched by their warmth and sincerity, and when I think that not long after this they must have borne the brunt of the Wehrmachts sudden breakthrough with their last remaining reserves of Tiger tanks in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, I am saddened to think of the casualties all these kind hearted Americans must have suffered.
They then took me to a train in which they seemed to be quartered. The majority of these soldiers were Negros led by white officers. I was introduced to the officer in charge of this unit: he turned out to be a young Lieutenant. I still feel the impression he gave me, because he was a slim extremely handsome, very gentle in his demeanour; and of impeccable courtesy towards me. He invited me to have lunch with him and his fellow officers, and I was led into a carriage that had been beautifully arranged into a luxurious dining room. The meal was a rather formal affair, which surprised me as I always imagined Americans to be rather easy going in all their dealings. I received the impression that the tone had been set by this young officer. I recall feeling rather at a disadvantage with my hosts in view of my scruffy battledress, dishevelled appearance and soiled bandage round my hand.
During the meal, I was informed by my host that I was technically in their custody until such time as my identity had been confirmed by my squadron in France. With wartime conditions still prevailing, this would probably take some time. Since I was treated regally by my hosts who, by now, certainly dealt with me as though I were a bona fide allied airman, the technicality of my custody merely gave me a sense of being a very special person. (Vanity of vanities ....)
During that meal, I must have enquired about the fate of my companions, but, sadly, I was left in ignorance as to their whereabouts, or indeed, as to their safety, the thought of my companions now gave me a nagging feeling of guilt. This must have been brought about by the complete lack of contact between the time we were hit and the time I baled out, Not "knowing" creates a vacuum that has to be filled, and in my case, imagination and anxiety combined to induce a feeling of guilt, After the meal, and once outside the railway carriage that reminded me somewhat of the description I had read of the Orient Express, I recall exchanging pleasantries with the Lieutenant who lost the formality he had adopted in the mess; we even exchanged addresses which, to my great regret, I mislaid. All I remember about him is that he lived in Maryland.
After the Lieutenant took leave of me to resume his duties, I was told that I now would be found accommodation in the village nearby, but before being taken in a jeep, sti11 a great novelty, I was once more surrounded by a crowd of smiling black faces; they had come to say "good-bye!" And doing so, they showered me with a carton of cigarettes, a quantity of bars of chocolate and a bottle of Bourbon Whiskey.
I was driven a short distance to the village whose name and physical features are a complete blank in my mind. This is a great pity, because I would now dearly love to pay it a visit. However, I was taken to the house of" a Catholic priest - a big homely old house - who offered me some unconsecrated wine as a refreshment I and 1 clearly remember that it did not meet with my vinous approval. He showed me to a beautiful large bedroom, whose religious decorative artefacts somewhat made me f"ee1 uncomfortable, as though I were there under false pretence. The bed was enormous, made of solid dark carved wood; the mattress, of pure eiderdown. I just sank in it and slept soundly.
The next morning, the priest had some disquieting news for me, but he warned me not to put too much credence in the information he was about to give me, as these news were not substantiated by evidence. Brief1y, he told me that some villagers claim to have seen two men jumping with one parachute from an aircraft that shortly after, was heard to crash, the sad thing about the two men was that the parachute had not opened. This news greatly distressed me, as with such scant information and I was hungry for information I was led to conclude that I was the only survivor. The thought of returning alone to my unit, not only filled me with a sense of sadness and loneliness, but also accentuated the feeling at the back of my mind that I had betrayed my friends.
The sequence of events that followed this sombre information remains clouded by the passage of time. I am left with fragments of reminiscences that, like scattered pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, fail to present a coherent picture. Moreover, with some pieces of the puzzle missing, some details of chronology will have to be sacrificed. 1 do not recall where I spent the next two nights, but I do remember that soon after being given the sad intelligence by the priest - perhaps 24 hours - I received news, from whom I know not, that all the rest of the crew were alive and well. The aircraft had crashed in a wood not far away from where I had 1anded, about sixteen ki1ometers, a distance which was consistent with the rate of descent to reach ground level. The two gunners were brought to me in the village, and told me that Leger - whom they had visited in the hospital in Liege - was being kept for three days in order to recover from a deep gash he had sustained on his forehead upon crashing.
They then proceeded to fill me in with what had happened during that raid, most of which 1 knew from visual observation. What 1 did not know was that the aircraft's fin and rudder had been so damaged that turns could only be effected to the left. Leger had decided, upon realising that we were without on board communication, to follow the course of the river Meuse, feeling certain that he would recognize the land's physical features around our base at Vitry-en-Artois on reaching its proximity, and effect an emergency landing. This explained the wide left turn manoeuvre he effected shortly after leaving the target area, since he was unable to execute a right turn. In fact, I clearly recall being surprised and worried at this manoeuvre, becal1se it did not tally with the emergency heading I had given him for Brussels-Grimbergen prior to take-off. Furthermore, the wide slow and almost 360 degree turn he made took us initially towards Germany, which, at the time, increased my anxiety.
Since one engine had been feathered, and the remaining one was not working at full capacity, it was not possible to maintain altitude, and when Leger realised he was not going to reach base, he operated the emergency bell that should have given us the signal to bale out. Alas, that was inoperative, and I can imagine poor Leger's frustration at not being able to slip us a short written message. and his dilemma at what to do next. He, too, must have gone through the pangs of making a decision, and put his fate in the hands of whatever deity he subscribed to. So he decided bless him! - to stay, with the aircraft, since he could not tell whether we were on board or not, and make the best of possible crash-landing.
Through that brave decision, he certainly saved the lives of the two gunners, whilst risking his own. After all, apart from crash landing, not knowing where, and with all bombs on board, the odds were stacked against him. Whi1st all this was going on, all these emotions seething on board, and nobody to talk to~ apart from the two gunners who were as much in the dark as I was, they, having read the altimeter and the air-speed indicator they had in the rear, decided, as 1 had, that they should jump also. What followed convinced me that my solitary position was instrumental in saving my life.
Having decided to abandon the aircraft, each of the gunners hoped that the other would take the initiative, and so, not having settled the question of who would jump first, they, stayed on board! As stated before the aircraft crashed in a wood. It consisted of closely planted saplings that not only snapped as the aircraft's wings ploughed through them like a combine harvester but acted as a brake of the aircraft's path. Leger suffered a forehead wound as the aircraft's arrest jerked him fore ward against the instrument's panel, and the two gunners, tossed about like dead leaves got away with just a few superficial scratches.
When they had recovered their wits, they clambered out of the wreck in order to establish in what state the rest of the crew found themselves. They first climbed on the pilot's cockpit to find Leger slumped in his seat still stunned from the blow received on his forehead upon crashing. Having helped him to clamber out of the aircraft, they then felt it incumbent upon them to check the nose section, and ascertain in what state they might find me. They confided that they felt great reluctance at carrying out this investigation, for the simple reason that they feared the worst. A brief description of the structural damage sustained by the aircraft as a result of its impact will make it easier to appreciate their forebodings.
Both wings were partly torn off the fuselage; the fuselage itself was broken in two distinctive sections 1ying at an angle of about 10 degrees from the longitudinal axis of the aircraft, so that it was obvious what deduction could be made of the state of the nose section, since it had borne the brunt of the impact. When they looked at the nose section, they found it smashed right up to the bulkhead that separated it from the pilot's cockpit. The only momento they found of me ,was my navy blue forage cap, and the odd thing about it was that the metal kestrel badge secured by two pins driven vertically in the cap, to be then secured by folding them outwardly, had simply disappeared without leaving a trace of a tear. I still find this inexplicable!
Naturally, they assumed that I had either been violently ejected on impact, or that I had baled out. I believe that by that time they had been joined by a party of British soldiers who helped them to make a cursory search of the surroundings after some of them had taken charge of poor Leger whom they took to the hospital. These soldiers then looked after them, and probably made the enquiries that led them to be reunited with me. I do remember that one or two British soldiers brought them to me in the village, that we had a very happy reunion, and that they took us back to the wreck of the aircraft. It was guarded by a lonely Tommy who allowed us to examine the wreck. This is when 1 found my forage cap. 1 decided then not to indulge in unnecessary scruples about collecting at few souvenirs it gave great pleasure to unscrew the Bendix small navigator's clock, still ticking, I also kept the first aid kit. I took that clock on all my subsequent flying, right up to the Berlin airlift, until one day, landing at Bovingdon aerodrome, I stupidly left it dangling at the end of a string over the Halifax's navigation table.
Since Leger did spend three days in hospital in Liege, the two gunners and I just have spent at least two whole days together. This is where some of my reminiscences went completely blank for I have no recollection of where we spent our nights, but 1 do recall that I was befriended by a young couple who probably offered me shelter.
I remember having a meal at this nice couple's house, and felt rather sad that I was unable to let them have my parachute. It must be remembered that in 1945 liberated Belgium, there was a scarcity of all kind of wares. They even offered me money for it, but 1 was under the impression that I would be in breach of military discipline if 1 failed to hand my 'chute in upon returning to base. Strictly speaking, this is true, but losses are allowed for in war. and I don't think anyone would have bothered to ask any question if I had not returned it. In fact, after such episode as ours I could have claimed a replacement for every accountable item in my possession.
On the day that Leger was discharged from hospital the village authorities decided to honour us by giving an official ball in the village hall. Monsieur Ie Maire made an appropriate speech of welcome in French and Flemish in which he told us of his pride at being able to express his gratitude to the first representatives of Les Forces Aeriennes Francaises Libres for the part they had taken in liberating Belgium. The gesture, I thought, was sincere and delightful, albeit somewhat embarrassing as I never relish official functions. After the speech. the village band played the Marseillaise and the Brabançonne after which a good time was had by all concerned. Once again people asked me to sell them my parachute. Sadly I had to decline.
About three days after the crash, the four of us were driven back to Vitry-en-Artois to rejoin our squadron, and on the long drive back. I began to feel uneasy about having baled out without official sanction. I also pondered over the inner voice that had commanded to do so, but should I be censured for the deed, 1 had no intention of invoking higher authority to Justify my action since the Almighty Himself cannot claim to be a recognised member of the French Armed forces.
However, upon arrival .. we were given a very warm welcome by the C. O's deputy, le Capitaine Cremieux. I remember him very well for two reasons: first because he looked like Richard Wagner, and secondly because, even though he was at heart a kind person, he was one of those extremely pompous persons who always imposed rank on the lower orders of the military hierarchy, namely the N. C. Os. In so doing he was constantly attempting to subdue a Sergent Lewino who had decided to show the Capitaine that he had risked his life to fight the Boche: not to submit to the sort of petty tyranny that masquerades under the name of discipline Lewino was one of nature's genii, but also a born rebel who showed the greatest disrespect for any form of bullshit. He was constantly' arguing with 1e Capitaine Cremieux when on parade over trifles, so that one could expect some kind of altercation every time these two met. One day Lewino turned up on parade in his usual scruffy manner with a tame crow on his shoulder, and when Ie Capitaine began to make a little speech on the necessity of strict military discipline, from the rear rank came this raucous voice: " Ta gueule Cremeux! " It was Lewino’s crow who had proffered of disrespect for authority. To his credit, le Creillieux did not punish Lewino.
After the initial warm homecoming welcome had subsided, I recall that 1 was summoned to see the C. O. Just me! I naturally wondered whether 1 was not to be closely grilled to establish the preliminaries to a court martial, so entered his office with a certain amount of apprehension. Twenty minutes or so later, 1 left his office with a flea in my ear, but not the sort of flea I had expected, on the contrary, one that I am proud of.
What happened was that le commandant Garot - one of those rare breed of professional soldiers that I could trust and respect - had at first expressed his joy at seeing me safe and well after my ordeal. He congratulated me on my decision to bale out, and he was pleased to announce that the whole crew had been recommended for a second palm to our existing Croix de Guerre. Now the sudden switch ~-roI11 a state of mind in which I expected at least a "raspberry" to being made into a hero sounded so farcical to me, that the rebel in me rose to the occasion, and I took him somewhat aback by saying: " Why?"
Now, commanding officers are not in the habit of having the wisdom of their decision questioned by someone lower in rank, but since his recommendation was to reward me, and since in his mind, I was a “hero” I could afford the luxury of behaving like one. He then proceeded to show me the draft copy of a citation he had prepared. 1 found the whole text absolutely ridiculous, as well as inaccurate in some details. I began by pointing the obvious inaccuracies and then pointed out that what I had achieved was merely to save my hide. But then 1 went too far; in sheer embarrassment I suggested to him that the decoration ought to be awarded to the German artillerymen who had done a good job. Upon which, le commandant became angry, told me dryly that the citation would stand as it was, and dismissed me with the Order of the Boot - to boot! I wonder what would have happened had I jumped and the aircraft returned home to effect a safe landing.
I realise now that I had insulted the "glorious" traditions of the French military establishment of which le Commandant Garot was a decent, intelligent, and respected member. He was also courageous because as the C. O. there was no need for him to participate in operations over enemy held territory, yet he did so, even when the missions were known to be sticky.
So this is how heroes are made. It does not cost the state much to shape a bit of metal into some impressive looking gong, slip a nice coloured ribbon through it to enhance its aspect, and instil in its recipient this beautiful glow around the heart that La Patrie is grateful, It also helps to "encourager les autres": to keep alive and well the "noble" tradition of wasting one's life at the bidding of governments for quarrels they may have with other governments.
After this episode, 1 was granted fifteen days leave, To me that meant going back to Bristol where my parents occupied a beautiful house in Stoke Bishop. I loved this spacious house because it had dignity_ Everything about it inspired admiration and respect, but what gave it a soul was an old Westminster clock that chimed every fifteen minutes, To me that clock rendered the soul of this beautiful House audible!
As I reminisce about this home coming, a sense of deep nostalgia intermingled with regrets of something indefinable seize me, There is no doubt in my mind that I was glad to leave the theatre of war for a while; that I was delighted to be in that beautiful house, and to enjoy a feeling of inner peace that comes with the contemplation of nature, and listening to classical music for which my tastes had been awakened, But - and this may be part of my malaise - 1 could not share anything with anybody_ I found it impossible to talk to my father as man to man, probably because any attempt at giving an opinion about anything had always resulted in my being "shot down", When I told my parents the reason I was on leave there was no reaction from him so I just clamped and offered no descriptive narrative, I could tell that my mother was worried, but said nothing: one did not show one's feelings in the presence of the old man, It just wasn’t done!
The only time my father did show some emotion concerning what had happened to me, was on yet another occasion, This time, he was gravely ill in hospital after a brain operation. He became very emotional, and insisted on telling one of the nurses that I had just returned from what he called: "the hell of aerial warfare", I remember being embarrassed - and angry - at the nurse's reaction: she just gave him a look of indifference tainted with contempt; and she walked away without a word, I felt angry on two counts: first I could not accept that my father, albeit a hard man, should be treated like an imbecile, because he had always inspired respect to his acquaintances and friends, and secondly because he was a very sick man, and it struck :me then that the staff in those days treated all patients like morons.
I was almost glad to return to my squadron, amongst my friends, even though by that time, having been shot down twice after twenty three missions, I had the nagging feeling that war was a messy affair in which an awful lot of useless
carnage was perpetrated for no particular valid reason. I had also become too aware that I could be killed. I could longer ignore the portent of what had happened to us, and my instinct of survival became primordial.
So I resumed operational sorties without my former blissful ignorance of some the more gruesome aspects of war. It had now become serious business in which on1y one thing mattered: survival! Fate decided that I was not to finish my war as peacefully as possible, that is to say without any further unpleasant episode. On my thirty third operational sortie, whilst attempting once more to destroy a bridge on the Rhine in Holland, we suffered structural da11lage that required us to make an emergency landing at Melsbroek (Brussels) airport, this time.
Upon reaching Melsbroek, and having requested emergency landing instructions, it was discovered that the port main undercarriage had been Jammed inside its housing. This put me in a precarious position, because should the nose wheel collapse under the strain of having to bear an extra load, I cOl1ld very well end lip acting as a shock absorber for the ensuing impact! Leger asked me if 1 would not prefer to jump once again.
Since a short time before, a colleague of mine, finding himself in the same situation had declined the invitation to jump and was killed when the nose of the aircraft hit a tree at the end of its emergency landing run, 1 felt no hesitation in choosing this alternative course of action. Leger, however, wisely decided that before 1 jumped, the ventral rear gunner should pop his head outside the square opening in the floor of the aircraft. and see if the nose wheel was up or down, Since the nose wheel happened to be positioned just behind the trap door through which I was to effect my exit, it was vital that this should be as free as possible, The nose wheel was found to be in the down position, could not be retracted. so that all we could hope now was that it would hold firm upon landing,
The Control tower was advised of our decision to crash land. Permission to do so on the runway was given as we approached the ground, I remember putting on my Flak helmet and bracing myself for the landing, Now, the runway was covered with snow so that when the port wing settled on the ground, it skidded smoothly on it. The nose wheel held, but when we overshot the end of the runway. we found ourselves heading for some trees, Leger, a1ways very cool in any emergency, solved that problem by swinging the aircraft violently to the left, and our crippled Boston came to its final rest. So it was that we chalked up our third aircraft, One interesting point; each aircraft has a large letter painted on it. Every time we expended one, it bore the letter "S", I remember developing a feeling of annoyance at being allocated yet another “S” Aircraft After our first crash after my second one. I even began to feel superstitious about the letter S.
For about fifteen years after the war, I suffered nightmares connected with flying. Even to-day, when driving a car and Suddenly passing through a shal1ow pool of lying water, and hearing the dull thud as the water strikes the underneath of the car, so reminiscent of the noise produced when a piece of shrapnel hits an aircraft~ I experience an automatic reaction of anxiety. Now, 1 cannot claim to have been seriously wounded, or psychologically scarred as a result of what occurred to me during the war, yet something lingers in my subconscious. How much more terrible must it be for those who have suffered irremediable harm to the body and mind! Just because a war ends does not mean that the suffering has stopped. Statistics may tell us that millions of human beings have been killed - murdered might be more aptly described - and after being aghast at the sheer number, we set it conveniently aside, Those killed, in a way were the lucky ones: their suffering on earth is ended. Thousands of broken limbs have to be mended, how many tortured minds will have to live with a living nightmare that will probably haunt them for the rest of their torn life?
And what have those who rule the destinies of nations learned from all this? Precisely, b" " all! And what have the peoples, those who had to pay with their blood and sufferings for this infernal lie that is war? What have they really understood of all this as they find themselves submerged by tissues of lies: organised propaganda that relentlessly bombard their psyche with the vile notion that:
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". To this last question, I must not reply because 1 have to give their silent suffering a mark of silent respect, Here, I find myself as though entering the mystery of Crucifixion as my mind is filled with the sound of a sentence that seems to indicate that one day, all our sufferings will be at an end:
How awesome these words, because they could be projected to a not so distant future where man, in his stubbornness carried to the ultimate folly, could trigger the signal for total nuclear annihilation, because after the last holocaust, none of us has grasped the eschatological meaning of this rehearsal, Someone told me recently that the only thing we have learned from history is that we have learned nothing! We just go on believing that we have to be strong against a11 possible enemy, which, of course, means preparing for war,
War, being something waiting to happen, we have already programmed our psyche to such eventuality will turn up to oblige our predilection for self- fulfilling prophecies, If, to this. we add man's ability to indulge in self- righteousness when it comes to defending himself on his own patch; but perform extraordinary'" feats of moral gymnastics when it comes to waging aggressive war abroad .. he just cannot lose, He is always right!
With so many nations being absolute1y convinced of the "righteousness" of their cause, is it to be wondered that as long as we believe in the "sovereignty" of nations, with all its displays of theatricals designed to impress the masses and fill their psyche with the poison of nationalism, thousands of convinced subjects will rally to the flag, and provide the necessary cannon fodder for the system, In that context, any state, any system is evil!
Alas, the pattern set by Cain when he murdered his brother has made man feel that he is an Abel who has been given divine right to "defend" himself by reversing the roles,
World War One was the war to end all wars, Instead, its "peace treaty" laid the foundations for World War Two, World War Two was Supposed to bring the dawn of a brave new world~ since the evil of fascism and Nazism had been destroyed: but somewhere along the process of eliminating those systems, we became infected by their evil whilst being convinced that we were in the right. Today we are well prepared for World War Three! even though the wicked Communists have suffered a total collapse of their system. Iraq has recently obliged the most powerful nation on earth by giving it a good excuse to engage in realistic manoeuvres in which not only the art of war is being refined so as to inflict maximum damage by effecting what we now call surgical operations, but in which the Coalition pour crocodile tears over the regrettable death of innocent Iraqis. The Gulf war was not fought for the 1iberation" of Kuwait which as a state is ruled by an obnoxious bunch of Fascist Arabs. I would guess that this war was imposed on the world by the all-powerfull international oil cartel who, like a powerful mafia Family could not tolerate being outdone by a minor gangster like Saddam Hussein.
" wann wird man je verstehen ... ? “
" HlSTOIRES de VACHES "
Having embarked on the first part of my memories of war, it is only normal that I should want to narrate at least those memories that - because of their poignancy - are indelibly engraved in my mind. What was done in the first attempt at relating those far away events, was to paint a vivid picture by placing the reader straight away in the thick of the action, and perhaps shock him, thereby conveying the reality of the unnaturalness of the, situation which is war.
In my second attempt, being aware that in the process of concentrating on the picture itself, I have omitted the framework which, as in a painting, sets out the picture and completes it to give a whole, this frame will consist of background information which will assist the reader to appreciate the preliminaries that took place before a raid was undertaken. Whilst these are mostly routine, they are not necessarily devoid of emotional experience; on the contrary, they can actually constitute the most anguishing part of the whole operation.
Certain difficulties are bound to prevent an account as might have been given by this younger version of myself, because I shall not be able to roll back the carpet of time without uncovering the dust that will obscure the overall picture. I shall have to add to the narrative what the present "I" feels, thus giving an account distorted by the mirror of time, not fixed but slightly warped. Whilst, of necessity, my older self will pass comments, judgements and opinions that are not those of the young man whose particular misadventure I am about to tell, I can assure the reader that the actual account of this particular raid will be faithfully given as handed to me by my younger "alter ego". At least I owe him that little!
I wish to resurrect those momentous times because they have been instrumental in making me reach some very important conclusions that have opened my eyes as to the REALITIES of war, and also the conduct of human affairs by entities which we call governments.
I can assert that my war has been an education and unlike all the unnecessary useless excess scholastic baggage unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of oblivion - it has been extremely useful in enabling me to assess the validity of subsequent events on the international as well as national level.
War is something I wish no-one to have to experience; since in the process of this “education”, too many people have to suffer and pay for mine, However._ sad1y I have to say that without knowing what it is all about. I might still suffer from the unfortunate disease - conveniently spread by those who either have a vested interest in the business, or even those who are still under some unfortunate delusion - which "idealists" call "patriotism", but which might be more aptly be described as Jingoism dressed up as nationalism, It is this disease, transmitted to us by Cain, that from time to time flares up, and, like the demonic spirit that was driven into the Gadarene herd of swine, drives mankind to jump over the Fatal Cliff whilst those who have spurred us into such action stay well behind the theatre of operation.
War is the greatest obscenity devised by Man! In the first place, it goes against God's commandement to love one another, and explicitly transgresses that which states: "Thou shalt not kill!" My abhorrence of war will be made obvious by the narrative which will follow.
I am struck by yet an even greater obscenity diabolically devised to make the very notion of war "acceptable". It is that which would have liS believe that it is a painful necessity; a patriotic duty to be performed in the name of freedom, democracy or even Justice when the truth - too unpalatable for public consumption - lies in power politics combined with economic interests.
This further obscenity becomes even blasphemous when the Almighty Himself is invoked by one side - if not both - to give the combatants success of arms against the other side. Poor God, what is He to do with his call-up papers enjoining Him to support both sides? Is He to call some celestial tailor, and try a few uniforms for size? Perhaps whistle a couple of cupids and beckon them to hold a mirror in front of Him whilst He decides which uniform He likes best!
It has been said that in beginning God created the world, and then man. With the passage of time Man has outgrown himself in arrogance, and has refashioned his creator and in such a way that God has become man's creature! (no wonder
the world is in such a mess!)
The notion that God is on our side is unfortunately conveyed by some passages in the Old Testament and renders it respectable. As a child, I thought the God of the Old Testament definitely suspicious, but then He was the God Nan had invented to suit his purpose. Plus cele! change, plus cela empire! (Perhaps }fan ought to "belt up" for the next thousand years and start listening to the small inner voice that tells him what's what.)
The particular adventure - misadventure would be more to the point - I propose to narrate is the one that had a twist before the end. In fact, it had two that made me decide that apart from being obscene, war comprised not only a tragic, but a wasteful element that ought to make all combatants ashamed of themselves. It took place on the 27th September 1944, and even though my fingers are reluctant to strike that date on my word processor because of the import it has 0n my mind with regards to the "date" of my “War Memories One” I have to face the fact that truth is more important than fiction. It took place during (yet) another unsuccessful attempt at destroying a bridge on the Rhine in Holland – Zaltbomme1 or Roermond.
To provide the narrative which will follow with some background details, I have to explain that I was a Sergeant navigator-bomber serving with the the 342 "Lorraine” Squadron of the Free French Air Force, I began operational sorties from Hartford Bridge (now Blackbushe) flying on Douglas Boston III and IV, American built twin-engined medium bombers. They were of solid construction ~ highly manoeuvrable, capable of hedge hopping which was exciting when told that: we could "have a go" after Leger - my pilot - had been cleared to fly solo. However, the poor sheep that happened to find themselves behind the hedges were terrified. Whilst I cannot claim sufficient technical details about the Boston to assess its rating as a bomber. I can assert: that it could take an awful lot of punishment before being forced down.
After part of the Continent had been retaken from the retreating Wehrmachtt our Squadron was moved from Hartford Bridge to an aerodrome called Vitry-en-Artois close to Douai in Northern France. There we were quartered in billets that were dilapidated; half destroyed houses that were occupied by extremely poor people. The winter of 1944-1945 was harsh and seemed to have allied itself with the gods of war in order to inflict the maximum amount of suffering on an already afflicted section of the community.
In order to keep warm, we used to burn anything that we could lay our hands on! Our official ration of fuel consisted of one ordinary household bucket of coal per day. In the centre of the fair1y large room in which four of us were quartered, stood a small stove. Since we did not spend most of our time flying, and the bar had strict opening hours, the miserable bare room we occupied was home, and the small stove as what made home homely. So part of our time was devoted to foraging for any combustibles to ensure that we had a couple of hours of warmth in the evening before turning in.
Close to our billets, there was a rather large farmyard paved with cobblestones and surrounded by low bui1dings that seemed deserted. If these buildings were abandoned, they must have been so only recently because they had a tidy and cared for look about them.
A few days after arriving in Vitry, curiosity drove a member of our room to explore the buildings surrounding the farmyard. He discovered a rather large store-room packed with regulation Luftwaffe wardrobes. I remember admiring them for their solidity. Made of wood and looking quite beautiful in their natural colour, each one was adorned with a neat Swastika which had been made by perforating the left hand upper part of one of the doors with small holes that served as an air vent.
Beautiful they were these wardrobes - in spite of the Swastika. But we were cold, so, ruthlessly laying aside any feelings of aesthetics_. a large number of them were unceremoniously chopped into adequate sizes in order to satisfy the law of demand and supply.
Forty seven years after the event, it is virtually impossible, without an aide-:me11loire~ to give an accurate description of what occurred on a particular day. However remembering the routine that I went through thirty five times, before, during and after a raid and recalling the salient points and impressions firmley fixed in my mind - that characterised this particular day, I am able to reconstruct a scenario that will be veracious as to the events and impressions I lived and felt on that fateful day.
HISTOIRE DE VACHES
There is something definitely unpleasant about being brutally awakened by the Sergent du Jour who sarcastically enjoys shouting at the top of his voice: "Debout la dedans; grouil1ez-vous; il est cinq heures. Briefing en vingt-cinq minutes” Military discipline seems to demand that some people put in authority should wield that "authority" like a whip in a lion tamer's hand, I do not know what kind of corporal Stabsunteroffizier Adolf Hitler was in the first world war, but judging from the attitude of some people, higher in rank, that I have met. I’m not surprised that he turned out to be a bad apple.
Rubbing our eyes sti11 heavy with sleep and swearing at the intruder responsible for such rude awakening, the four of us quartered in this drab, bare room furnished only with beds, try to get our eyes accustomed to the light given by the naked light bulb. It is cold. very cold. and our miserable small stove has long since burned out meagre supply of coke supplemented by the chopped up Luftwaffe wardrobes stuffed inside it the previous evening.
Since Briefing is to take place in such a short time, there is no time to wash (a tap in the courtyard: only cold water!), we dress silently'. gather our flying gear and assemble outside the house to wait for the truck that is to take us to the aerodrome about five kilometres from Vitry.
There is something unreal, almost ghostly about this poor village, for it bears the scars - physical and spiritual - of war, and conveys an atmosphere of defeat and resignation to the dying of the spirit, as well as the dissolution of its pitiful dwellings. The houses are stark, with their overall grey soulless shade. Bereft of any adornment, they convey a deep sense of mourning. Most of them are damaged and seem to shelter poor people who were probably given a few francs to billet us. The inhabitants, few in number, are drably dressed, silent, stunned and hungry.
Poor they were probably before the war; poorer they must certainly have been during the German occupation since its armed forces lived off the fat of the land. Now that they have been "liberated", they are still poor and hungry; they have to live off their meagre rations whilst the liberated rich and black marketeers abound in the smart restaurants of Douai where anything is available. without coupons~ if you can pay for it. Vive la liberation!
Soon the rumbling noise of a heavy truck is heard disturbing the deadly silence of the village, and as it gets closer, one can hear the clanging of" chains holding the shuddering back panel. There is something powerfully alive in the roar of this ugly monster which contrasts almost obscene with the atmosphere exuded by this moribund village. I feel like an intruder, with our noisy ways~ our lively canteen and bar where we are certainly provided with more material goods than are available to these poor villagers.
There is virtually no contact between us, French "1iberators" and them the "liberated" Frenchmen and women. I do not remember seeing the man who lived in our house except once. When I did see him, he seemed to want to avoid us, as if he were ashamed to be seen in such dire straits. What is this liberation all about if all we can do is to drop bombs, and ignore the people for whom the dropping of bombs was all about in the first place?
I recall an old man timidly entering our bar one day. He was small and his face bore the ravages caused by a long uneven struggle. Come to think on it. all these villagers were small, shy and quiet. But he had overcome his shyness prompted by the fact that his wife was, or had been ill. He explained to us that the doctor had told him that a glass of Champagne would cheer his poor wife up. coud we oblige? Now there were stacks of "Cordon Rouge Mumm" in our cellar. all acquired through courtesy'" of the decamped luftfaffe, and available to us for the sum of three shillings. But ... military regulations explicitly said "NOI". and he was denied his request. We might as wel1 have had a notice affixed on the door of the bar: "EINTRITT STRENG VERBOTEN ZUR FRANZöSISCHEN ZIVILBEVöLKERUNG!" in order to hide the fact that we were French.
We clamber on board the truck, sit morosely on its hard wooden benches; two, one on each side of the truck. Those who have no seat stand holding on to any leather strap that hangs from the canvass enclosure. Once all aboard the monster roars taking its human cargo, bad tempered, disgruntled and shaken 1ike sacks of potatoes as it bounces off the numerous potholes that make the road. After about ten minutes we arrive at the briefing room on the airfield.
Briefing rooms during the war an aura of starkness. They seemed to have been designed, by their cold features and sickening (regulation?) green that adorn the lower part of the brick wall, to remind you that you are now entering the antechamber of Old Nick's Boiler House. I've never ceased to wonder that in the middle of a war, and the area barely retain from its previous occupiers, the R. A. F. has managed to transfer all its decorative bad tastes - including the sickening green - to a dilapidated building in France.
Rows of wooden benches face a slightly raised platform. On the wall behind the platform hangs a large map of Western Europe dotted with various symbols, Coloured threads Joining various pins already give us some idea of the route we shall be required to follow to the objective and back. On the walls adjacent to our seats are pictures and silhouettes of enemy aircraft plus a few posters to remind us that "Careless talk costs lives!"
Silently the various crews, looking like big bears in their lambskin lined leather Irving jackets and large f1ying boots, take their seats on the benches and await the appearance of the three Briefing Officers. Glancing curiously at the map behind the platform, we try to deduce from its display the object of the forthcoming mission, (Strange, this word "mission" with its religious connotation.) Soon the three Briefing Officers preceded by the station's Commanding Officer make their appearance like artists on a stage. The command “Attention!" is rung loud and clear! and we all rise clumsily whilst the C. O. and his followers make their way to the platform, when they finally face us, the C. O. bids us to sit down; moves aside to the edge of the platform to obtain a better overall view of the displays, and the briefing begins.
The first Briefing Officer announces the target, and - of course - stresses the importance of destroying it, He then points a long stick to the map to show us the route in and out of the target area. These routes are so drawn as to avoid known areas of concentrated air defence, as well as to ensure that successive waves of aircraft do not get in one another's way. Any questions?
Next the Intelligence Officer gives us an assessment of possible air defence over the target area. Towards the end of 1944 the enemy's air defence consisted mainly of antiaircraft 88mm shells since the Luftwaffe was rapidly incurring crippling losses in an effort to protect their own soil. After the war, when I realised how desperate and demoralised our opponents had become, I could not help feeling sorry for them. After all, they too were victims of this madness, and what did they have to look forward to? The Intelligence Officer then stressed the absolute necessity of keeping complete radio silence during most of the time we were to be airborne,
The reason for keeping maximum radio silence was simply because any transmission might be picked up by the enemy, and various transmissions from the same moving source could assist him in plotting not only one's position, but also the heading of the source, i.e. the aircraft transmitting, In spite of such reminders, there was, from time to time the odd crew member who decided to have a chat on the on-board inter-communication system with another crew member. Ai though this method of communicating between crew members of the same aircraft was not transmitted on the air-wave, the position of the intercom and transmit buttons were in very close proximity so that it was easy to press the wrong one.
So it did occur that anyone caring to listen on a certain frequency was treated to a lengthy account as to how Bill and Joe spent their previous evening. Fritz, of course, listened to all this, not with the keenness of an aficionado addicted to the social behaviour of members of his species as depicted in some serial. but with a view to exploit the intelligence provided by the carrier wave, plus any information that might come forth from the contents of this powow. When finally Bill and Joe realised what they had done, not only did they get a strip torn off officially, but also had their legs pulled about the nature of their private conversation.
Third came the Meteorological Officer who supplied us with essential weather details. This included the weather forecast for the whole of the route including the winds applicable to various sections of the route~ as well as those that obtained at different levels in the vicinity of the target. The last information was of particular importance to the navigator- bomber since the mean wind deduced therefrom was to be fed on the bomb-sight. Once a bomb-sight has been programmed with the relevant mean wind, the aircraft's altitude, heading and air speed, all the bomb-aimer had to do was to look: at an electronically fed cross on the sight’s mirror, guide the pilot in such a way that the target appeared directly under the cross, and ..... bingo bombs away!
Finally came the C. O. who now became the father figure and entreated us to be careful. His tone was gentle and caring; he obviously must have felt something akin to tender responsibility upon gazing at all these attentive young faces as they listened to the briefing that was the prelude to an act performed many times, but whose outcome could not be known in advance. Perhaps he, too~ had a son in the forces ... He then wished us luck and left as once more we rose from our seats.
After the briefing, where incidentally, all watches, had been synchronised - Just as in the pictures - we had breakfast in a mess room that would not have rated a single star in the Michelin guide. However, ? 1a guerre comme ? 1a guerre, the food was plain, but good and plentiful. Egg and bacon. fried tomatoes, bread and butter and a delicious mug of hot tea that put some life into one. I particularly remember that the tea served by the R. A. F. during the war was always good.
Breakfast over - by the clock - and before drawing our parachutes, we all had to file one by one into the Intelligence Officer's office, duly empty all our pockets, and leave behind anything - be it a bus or cinema ticket - that might betray the location of our Squadron should any of us fall into the enemy's hands. Having been checked that through carelessness we should not inadvertently supply the enemy with useful information, we were then issued with a small survival kit, all in a neat little box measuring about IO X IO cms. Inside this fascinating small box of goodies were found the following items: a small compass not bigger than the present day penny; a very beautiful silken map - not bigger than a normal size pocket handkerchief - containing the whole of Belgium, part of west Germany', south Holland and part of northern France, These two implements were to help us to navigate roughly on terra firma should we be unfortunate enough to be forced down, al though no-one ever bothered to ask where to!
The next two items were concerned with sustaining our strength and - if required - with exerting ourselves beyond our natural strength. Indeed! the pack contained two small pieces of very dark chocolate in case we had nothing else to eat; and two tablets that were only to be taken in extreme emergency, and in case of utter exhaustion, but with the imperative necessity of “pressing on”, Naturally, I did try the chocolate one night when I felt peckish and had nothing to eat. The stuff was rather sickening, certainly satisfied my hunger for that evening, but spoiled my appetite for the next breakfast. As for the two tablets, well, not being adventurous by nature, I could not ever see myself playing the hero on the run from a squad of German police and bravely taking the drug! especially if I had no idea where I was fleeing to, so I did not bother to find out how they affected one.
Finally we were given, gratis and above our normal sweet ration, a medium size bar of Cadbury's milk and hazelnut chocolate. I used to keep it for the return journey after a raid when safely outside the enemy's sphere of activity when I could really savour it whilst relaxing. Cadbury's milk and nut chocolate has remained my favourite ever since.
As I dip into this distant past, it strikes me that the most unpleasant aspect of any mission was not the actual flying nor even the period during which we had to cross an area of intensive flak concentration, but this brutal and sardonic announcement that a raid was imminent, followed by that gloomy journey in the big lorry ,,,here we sat. dejected and resentful at being wrenched from sleep to the stark reality of conditions imposed by the war, I find it particularly sad to think that what I hated most about my involvement in this struggle, was the fact that there were would-be little Adolf Hitlers within our own ranks. They loved their miserable power. Alas, it would appear that the military establishment relies on such petty tyranny to give it an appearance of efficiency".
Those among us who had volunteered for active service, that is kick the Boche out of France, and particularly those Frenchmen and women who had risked their lives to escape to England in order to fight, were only interested in the sort of discipline that would blend our various skills into an effective and decisive Force de Frappe. For my part, I did accept the three months of square bashing that the R,A.F. imposed on us during our I.T.W. (Initial Training Wing) because it was applied fairly and consistently by a Flight Sergeant whom we respected. There wasn't too much of it, and did not interfere with the serious business of a variety of subjects that was to prepare us for our subsequent qualifications.
Once on active operational service, we were professionals who had enough intelligence to accept the value of self discipline, and we could dispense with the blind discipline that some idiot wanted to impose on us just because some "authority" had been bestowed upon him by reason of his higher rank.
As soon as the airfield had been reached, and the briefing had started, the depressive lethargy induced by the violent reveille combined with the pitiful conditions in which we lived, plus the cold dark morning of this bleak northern France landscape - all that disappeared as our interest was absorbed by the details of the mission at hand and the preparations for the flight.
It was a good thing that we had our mind so occupied~ because it gave us no time to think about what might happen. Instinctively no-one dwells long on the thought that he might be a casualty of war; that always happens to other people. It may also be that with the knowledge that already thousands of victims of war have paid the price, one feels subconsciously that perhaps the gods of war are satiated and will let one off the hook? I don't know, However that may be, it is amazing how human beings can lu11 themselves into a sense of security just to keep their sanity in spite of their fears.
The greater the sensitivity of the individual, the greater his imagination and his fear, but the more he seeks reassurance from the gregariousness and (apparent) insouciance of his peers. After all, they too are risking their lives. They are not afraid - or so it seems - so why should I? Here in contrast, it is interesting to note that there are people - certainly in the minority - who simply do not seem to know what fear is, nor do they seem to be aware of the great danger to which they expose themselves as well as those unfortunate enough to be under their command. I met two air aces. The first was a Frenchman who was virtually covered with decorations from his chest to his belly button. He looked ridiculous, not only· because his array of hardware, but also because he behaved like a spoilt brat, He inspired no confidence as a human being, and certainly displayed no quality of leadership.
The other ace was British. He too displayed the same characteristics of utter irresponsibility and disregard for the most elementary precautions of safety. It is evident that both possessed something that was useful in war: the ability not to know fear combined with their skill at getting the enemy before he could get them. Having personally experienced being led irresponsibly in battle by an officer displaying the above "qualities", and having been shot down as a result~ I have developed a healthy suspicion for these people. To make a whole formation go round again over the target knowing that there are other formations behind us adhering to a strict timetable is the height of recklessness as it not only endangers the formation performing this stupid circus act, but creates the further danger of getting in the next formation's flight path. Mistakes made by leaders somehow are never made public but are hushed up for the sake of good order and discipline.
As can be deduced, war can become unpleasant because of one's own shortcomings. That can cloud one's rosy perception of the noble aims of the enterprise and lift the curtain that brings one face to face with the horrible reality of this senseless butchery. Once the adversary has given one a bitter dose of the medicine one so self righteously administers him; and the realisation that this is no longer a thrilling game, that the guy down there actually means to kill one, a new perception is brought forth: why are two complete strangers engaged in such a deadly game?
Fritz and I - complete strangers - are at each other's throats simply because those who are above us have conflicting interests. " They" know neither me nor Fritz. In fact they’ll most probably don't even know of our humble existence; yet "they” order that we should murder each other, invoking some magical incantation that mesmerises us to perform the bloody deed that suddenlv becomes the noblest thing a human being can perform. The interesting thought that makes me cynical is that had Fritz and I been born in each other's country. We'd merely swop uniform. and presumably murder each other with the same sense of righteousness, The conclusion I have to draw from such supposition is that we are merely acting a role in which we were not consulted: we have both been manipulated for the greater glory of vested interests.
The raid that is the object of this writing took place. as already stated, in the last days of September 1944, and the target was either the bridge spanning the Rhine at Zaltbommel or Roermond in Holland, This was to be my thirteenth operation and although, up to now .. nothing real1y unpleasant had occurred, the number of times we had at least collected a few holes in 'the aircraft's superstructure was such that after the initial sense of pride at having had my baptism of fire, a feeling of deja vu set in followed by the deduction that if Fritz persevered, he might strike lucky and blow right out of the sky.
The tide of war had now turned in favour of the Allies as they were pushing the hard pressed Wehrmacht slowly, perhaps, but relentlessly towards its own borders, whilst the Red Army had stopped retreating over a year ago after the battle of Stalingrad, and was now pushing westwards through Poland; so that a giant nutcracker had the Third Reich well wedged in its grip, exerting a growing and inexorable pressure that would eventually cause Hitler caught in his bunker to kill himself.
Whilst the Luftwaffe was conspicuous by its absence on the western front, a high concentration of anti-aircraft fire appeared to grow around the bridges on the Rhine. The news seemed to indicate that the war was slowly beginning to end, and I felt that all this bombs dropping on targets with unromantic nomenclature such as "Ammunition depot", "Marshalling yards" and “Troop Concentrations" seemed somewhat unreal .. because I never did observe an ammunition depot blow up; the marshalling yards looked very much after the bombing as they looked before. As for the troop concentrations, well. I never did see a single German soldier! Sometimes I felt that we were sent on bombing raids because there was a war on. and we had aeroplanes capable of carrying bombs.
In short, I think that in a way, I had become a little bit blasé; a feeling of uncertainty had entered my psyche, and as I had already observed that once "1iberated", people just carried on in the same old way, and instead of venting their hatred on the occupier, they now denounced one another and all claimed they had been in the resistance, Well. I joined up to fight, and now that I had my wish, I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps I needed a shock to my ego if only to make me realise that this War had not been waged either to amuse me, or to gratify the lure of adventure. I needed some shock that would make :me grow up. and I was heading for one!
By that time my former "patriotic" fervour, so keenly felt in the comfort of home and far away from the messy conditions of life on the war scene, was beginning to lose its gloss. At the conclusion of the war, the poor thing was quite dead; moreover, I'm now allergic to the notion.
"Patriotism" 1s a much abused term which has been substituted for jingoism. Its misuse is a deceit played on millions of people in order to spur them on to perform acts of sheer barbarism, In our days of inter-global communication, when we KNOW that man's worse enemy is himself through the way 1,e is slowly murdering mother Earth, it is out of order to think in terms of balance of power and ascendance of one group over another. Jingoism is destructive because it does nothing to foster a spirit of tolerance and patient efforts to establish true harmony between all the peoples of our beautiful planet. It should be relegated to the British Museum as a sad curiosity next to the dodo! This does not mean that there is no room for the love of one's place of birth and culture. In that context, all countries, all cultures, all the peoples have something to offer. About forty years ago I developed a strong feeling for a combination of the English countryside and the music of Elgar. His music had captured what I felt was the spirit of the landscape through which I was passing at the time, and had endowed it with life and grace. To me, this consists a gentle patriotism that springs from the Love of transcendental Beauty.
So, away with you, merchants of "patriotism", politicians or other scoundrels who exhort me to wave a multicolour piece of cloth at the end of a stick, and to engage in some tribalistic vociferations that seem to invoke a spirit by shouting the name of a country in order to vent one’s subconscious voodooistic hatred on the Enemy God's command to love one another is universal and knows no frontiers.
Having been awakened and briefed having had breakfast and satisfied the Intelligence Officer that we carried on our persons no tale telling information that might be useful to the enemy we draw our parachutes and board once more the large lorry that will distribute the various crews to their different dispersals that dot the whole circumference of the airfield. By effectively scattering all aircraft over a wide area, the enemy wi11 find the task of destroying them more onerous, thus thwarting his intention of securing a rapid and effective strike.
Arriving at each dispersal, the appropriate air-crew alight where they are met by a ground personnel consisting of an engineer who satisfies the pilot that the aircraft is airworthy and an armourer who has just loaded the four two hundred and fifty pound bombs in the bomb bay, and supplied the machine-guns with ammunition. After a brief consultation with the ground crew, we all climb in our respective compartments.
Our crew consists of Sergent-Chef Leger, our pilot and Captain; myself as Navigator-Bomber; Sergent Jourdren, Wireless Operator Air-Gunner and another sergeant Air-Gunner whose name I do not recall because for some reason that I cannot account for, this fourth member always seemed to be different. In fact, I felt rather sorry for this "supply" airgunner because he never seemed to belong to a particular crew. Moreover , his was the most uncomfortable and boring ,job. During most of the flight, he just lay on his belly on the hard floor, his hands poised over a .303 Browning machine-gun that pointed out of the aircraft through a square opening in the floor His job was to ward off any fighter that might attack from below. His discomfort was that apart from his uncomfortable position, he was exposed to the bitter cold draught that rushed through the opening that was his only access to the outside world. On returning from any raid, the two gunners always looked frozen and miserable.
Leger sat in his warm cockpit, and 1 in my nose bubble that was certainly draught-proof, and provided me moreover with a grand two hundred degree unhindered panoramic view of the countryside. As opera seats go, I certainly had the best, however when the action began to be in earnest, I felt very vulnerable. To climb in my bubble, I had to open a narrow trap door underneath the aircraft, hoist myself in, and sit on a bench type surface backing against the bulkhead that separated me from the pilot's cockpit. Having taken my seat, a member of the ground personnel closed my trap door from the outside and I lowered a navigation table hinged vertically on my left hand side. In front of me I had the bomb sight, and slightly ahead on my right, a large rectangular steel box called a Gee-Box. By interpreting visually displayed signals received from two different ground stations, the navigator equipped with a special map could establish his exact position. I understand that subsequently this method of navigation became accurate enough for a "hole formation to home in on a predetermined point on the “Gee” map! which had been computed beforehand, so that, that exact point was that, when at a certain altitude, airspeed and heading, at which a bomb aimer would actually see the intended target in his sight and release his bombs. In other words, one could actually bomb blind!
Having placed my parachute pack next to me on the bench, I now empty my enormous green - sickening green - canvass navigation bag on the lowered table~ and proceed to spread all my navigation implements on its restricted surface. The irony of the situation is that I am not likely to put any of my acquired skills to any use; because the raid will be carried out en block by a box of six aircraft led by Number One. He will be in charge of the overall navigation of the formation, and issue the instruction for all six aircraft to drop their load of bombs.
So, there am I, a sitting duck in my small compartment most of which is just perspex glass. my government has seen it fit to spend a fortune on about a year's training consisting of navigation, bombing and gunnery. Although I was a qualified gunner! I did not have a machine-gun in my small bubble. (Just as well because I hated the damned thing. Not only was it noisy, but it also shook one as does one of those road drillers.) Most of the time, my purpose "as to sit and wait for the leading navigator to issue the order to drop our deadly load. I shall then press a small black button that will release four two hundred and fifty pound bombs. These bombs will hurtle downwards, at first with a rocking motion that will eventually stabilise into a smooth curve as the air rushes through their fins. This curve has been scientifically calculated to land the bombs on the target - at least in theory. In practice, they will mainly miss: such is the irony of war.
Once comfortably seated in our separate positions, our first task is to establish on-board comunication between al1 the members of the crew. This is vitally important since the two gunners, the pilot and the navigator are distinct units physically separated because of the design of the aircraft. Without such inter-communication between us, we cease to be an effective crew as was demonstrated when I decided to abandon the aircraft on my twenty third mission.
Next comes a cursory instrument check including a brief ca11 on V.H.F. to the control tower. It is worth noting that Very High Frequency had only been invented recently, It provided a clear system of air-to-ground, air-to-air communication in which the transmission was clearly heard as opposed to the long wave in which - as far as I recall - all one heard was an incomprehensible garbled noise in which one had to use all one's telepathic aptitudes to decode the message. It has to be said, however, that since the messages contained mostly standard information, half their contents could be guessed.
Since the start-up time had already been determined during the briefing session, shortly after the on-board pre-flight checks had been carried out, the pilot gave the thumbs-up to the ground engineer standing outside with a starting trolley. This consisted of a movable generator that was plugged into the starting mechanism of the engines, thus saving precious battery on board since quite a surge of power was required to start the engines from cold. One after the other the two engines were started, and after the initial burst of black smoke that cleared them of oil residue in the cylinders. they both developed a smooth rhythm of constant purring. Another thumbs-up sign from the pilot indicated that he was ready to taxi, and that the triangular wooden chocks placed underneath the two main wheels could be removed. Having done so the engineer, in turn, gave the thumbs-up. At the appropriate time, the R.T. (Radio-telephony) came alive as each aircraft called the control tower for taxiing instructions. Normally a control tower bears the name of the aerodrome it serves, but in war-time this cannot be allowed since enemy ears were bound to scan the air-waves. So a code-name was used instead. I am now going to reveal a military secret, taking a chance that I might fall foul of of Section Two's all embracing provisions of the Official Secrets Act:. The Code-name of our base was: KOLYNOS At the time I did wonder whether this stange name indicated some obscure god belonging to Greek mythology or whether it referred merely to a popular brand of tooth-paste that was currently selling. However, just to demonstrate how the power of advertisement impinges on one's subconscious, I chose that particular brand which sounded vastly superior to “Maclean"!
Kolynos having been called gave us taxiing instructions which contained the runway in use, the surface wind and strength and the airfield's barometric pressure at ground level (Q.F.E.). The last information constituted the basis on which an aircrafts altimeter indicates one's altitude above ground level. Soon, a number of aircraft moving like waddling ducks congregating towards a pond arrive from different directions at the beginning of their take-off run on the runway and take up their respective positions, the whole forming two inverted "V"s. With an interval of about twenty seconds between each aircraft, we took off one after the other and climbed overhead the airfield to rendezvous at an agreed height before setting course for the target. From time to time a solitary figure clad in black stood close to the edge of the runway. Whilst controlling his soutane that was being bl1ffeted by the wind, our dutiful priest gave each aircraft his blessing as it gathered speed on that runway that was the first stage of a journey into the unknown.
Casting my thoughts back to these days, I must admit to a certain neglect of this isolated member of our squadron. He seemed so remote, so "different" that not only do I not recall even talking to him, but I have no reminiscence as to how he looked. I seem to recall that he certainly made no attempt at talking to us so that he was just a non-person, and yet he must have felt for us in order to drag himself at the end of the runway to give us his blessing. Did he feel unwanted with the majority of us never bothering to go to Mass? As far as I can remember, two or three officers did attend his services giving the impression that religion was strictly for the higher orders. How sad!
Once airborne, all six aircraft climbed overhead the airfield to rendezvous height where they manoeuvred to constitute a box, after which the ascent to operational height continued on course for the target. If the weather was fine this caused no problems, but if cloud was encountered during that climb, thereby making visual contact impossible, the order was given for the left wing of the formation to alter course to port by ten degrees, with a corresponding alteration of course by the right wing to starboard whilst the two aircraft in the middle maintained their original heading.
On one occasion another box in our vicinity became confused as to which aircraft should do what! They were Canadians who eventually talked heatedly to one another to determine what they were doing. In the end, they panicked and began to advise each other that they were about to fire Verey cartridges in the hope that this might be seen by their companions. Such antics had the effect of worrying everyone and must have caused considerable help as well as amusement, to our adversary scanning the air-waves.
I seem to recall that on that day, the weather cleared rapidly from a dull indistinct grey sky to a clear crisp firmament dotted with Just a few cirrus-type clouds, so that the trip itself, as far as navigation was concerned, turned out to be a piece of cake. Although as stated before , there was no navigation to be implemented by the box as far as individual aircraft were concerned since this was the overall responsibility of the leading aircraft's navigator, I found it good practice to keep a log of my own navigational observations; to keep progress with the flight and to store whatever findings deduced in order to know at least my position just in case adverse circumstances should split us from the main body of the box. It also helped to keep the mind occupied and greatly reduce the growing tension that was felt as the target was approached,
From my own private small glass case, on a nice day like that one, I was able to indulge in the contemplation of the sheer beauty of Earth as seen from ten thousand feet. A deep feeling of quiet satisfaction is derived from observing this huge colourful carpet revealing its manifold, varying patterns under the effect of the changing light. It is no longer the aircraft that moves - all being relative - but the carpet that is being pulled backwards by giant invisible hands whose owner wishes us to comprehend his Work! And, of course, height has a way of lifting us well above the nether regions thereby instilling a clear concept of one's own sense of dimension and importance within the framework of of the picture of infinity. As height increases, so does our sense of proportion and humility reducing us to nothing. Paradoxically, we then become aware of the values that really matter. Looking below us, all these miniscule dwellings with all these little people living in them become very dear. Yes, even with their quarrels, their many defects and their horrible senseless wars, they matter! Could it be that the aviator shares something of God's view of the world, and perhaps because he has momentarily left the lower strata, is able to share something of His compassion?
Flying almost due north through northern France and Belgium, my vivid impression was of the snow covered Ardennes during the last desperate push of the Wehrmacht with their last reserves of Tiger tanks in an effort to split the Allies and recapture the port of Antwerp. I am aware that my scenario is getting rather Jumbled up since I now, take liberties with Time, but rather than imagine the actual trip. I'd rather stick to what I remember clearly even if in the process I am producing a montage. After all if the frame of a picture is changed to enhance its contents, both elements are still valid because they do not alter their basic quality.
On this particular flight, I noticed signs or' a battle taking place on the ground which seemed to indicate that the Germans had pushed farther west than had been admitted by the allies. Since our adversaries were busy on the ground trying to Outmanoeuvre our American allies! they ignored our presence and we proceeded completely unhindered.
After having cleared the Ardennes, the flight through the rest of Belgium was uneventful and short, and suddenly I became aware of a very different physical feature looming large in the distance. It was a giant snake-like silvery object that reflected the light of the sun, and its coils twisted and turned: it was the Rhine! And on that silvery snake that now assumed more of a fiery dragon's appearance 1ay our target: the bridge at Zaltbommel (or Roermond). It had to be destroyed in an attempt to prevent the harassed foe from fleeing across it and retreating towards his homeland in order to make a better organised stand.
We knew it would be heavily defended by a strong concentration of artillery fire: their famous "Eighty-eight guns". We also knew that our "box" was to be the third of a total of six composed of Free French, British and New Zealander manned aircraft. The implication was that by the time ours would be called upon to make its bombing run, the enemy batteries would have computed from the passage of the two previous boxes, our altitude, speed and heading. With such information fed on their guns' instrumentation, they would then be able to give us a hot reception.
Already. in the not very far distance, I was able to distinguish the first box in the target area getting fairly heavy although random firepower as shells burst in puffs of black smoke and darkened a section of the sky. Their bombing run accomplished, and having dropped their bombs, they were seen to effect a violent tight turn to the left before setting course for home. It was now up to box number two to make its bombing run. I would hazard a guess that we were about ten to fifteen mi1es behind them, so that we were good witnesses to the reception they were about to receive. With the sky still soiled by the smoke of the previous salvo directed at Number One box, the silvery dragon began to belch an angry and fairly concentrated cube of deadly exploding projectiles at the intruders. By that time, of course, Number Two Box was committed to its bombing run, and until they dropped their load, they would have to fly straight and level at a constant speed. As I watched the sky being darkened in the deadly cube of exploding shells distributing thousands of searing pieces of burning metal my mouth became with fear and anguish in the knowledge that our turn was next. Suddenly the voice of the leader of our Box came through on the R.T.; "Blue leader to blue formation, prepare for bombing run", All executive instructions were given in English .. since they" were standard, clear and concise. Any departure from standard phraseology might have led to some misunderstanding, especially since at such moments people are extremely nervous. Even Léger, my pilot, who could not string more than three words of English together in an ad-hoc conversation, knew however, and understood his R. T. patter perfectly as long as it did not deviate from the norm.
Upon receiving that instruction, the formation had to tighten up and adjust itself to the leading aircraft. From now on, every pilot had to stick to his wing man, fly at the speed set by Blue Leader, and ignore anything else - if he could. I from my beautiful opera glass box, was privileged with a grand panoramic view of the great moment of the unfolding drama I hurriedly donned my flak helmet. Made sure that I had my bombing button close at hand, watched and looked for the bridge and steeled myself for the most dangerous part of the whole show. God knows what the two Air- gunners must haye felt apart from the cold and their fears. Jourdren the top gunner sitting in his turrett his fingers at the ready close to his machine-gun in case of "bandits" (enemy fighters) appearing, must have seen all the firework display, and perhaps have wondered why he was so exposed when up to now we had never encountered fighter opposition. As for X. our "supply" ventral gunner, he could only see the flak below us, and probably hoped it would soon be over so that he might warm up on terra firma. From time to time the gunners used to inform us of the position of the flak. Why, I do not know. because by the time those shells burst, there wasn't anything one could do about it! Although by the time the order to prepare for the bombing run was given, we had not quite reached the dreaded cube. some German artillery crew must have indulged into a bit of target practice because, we were honoured with a tentative welcoming salvo that was fairly well off the mark, I think that I was far more concerned with what I saw ahead as the second box was treated to the real thing. As I watched the sky becoming black with the smoke of bursting shells, it struck me then that this was just about the worst nightmarish war scenario that I had ever seen.
"Blue leader to blue formation, open bomb doors!" As soon as that order was issued and the doors dropped, I vividly remember a most worrying dull noise indicating that the doors had dropped and at the same time, a marked reduction in speed "as felt as the air was heard to rush through the bombs bay creating a noise that reminded me of a badly played organ. As an overture to an opera, it was appropriate. The sombre and lugubrious overture thus entoned, heralded the next tragic act.
The bombing run lasts for two to three minutes approximately, and as can be imagined, is the most critical part of the operation since we are now flying straight and level; at a steady speed and our bombs exposed. I naturally tried to do everything possib1e to keep busy and ignore the violence of the fire power that was directed at us as we now entered the dreaded cube. I therefore fed all relevant information on the bomb sight in, order to establish the position of the target in relation to the electronically fed cross on my sight's mirror. That would give me some idea how accurate - in my estimation _ the strike was 1 like1y to be when the order to bomb wou1d be issued.
On a previous occasion whilst attempting to hit yet another bridge on the Rhine, I was to discover to my horror that, as the order: "Bombing ... , ... bombing ... GO!" was given, right underneath my sight's cross appeared yet another cross on the roof of a large! building: a Red Cross! On the assumption that technically my bombs should hit that Hospital, I delayed casting our bombs for about two seconds. In the event, all our bombs, that is ours and the rest of the formation's fell harmlessly in the waters of the Rhine.
Suddenly, whi1st the sky had not cleared of the previous salvo, it became black with the bursting in close proximity of at least a hundred shells, all exploding to the right, to the left, above and below us. We had entered the cube of fire as I heard the voice of the leader's navigator give slight heading corrections to his captain: "Left left three degrees", or: "Right two degrees" or even : "steady. .. steady! " The "left" correction was always given twice to obviate any misunderstanding.
During the run, the intensity of one's feelings at being exposed to all that flak is such that each second becomes an eternity of sheer hell of deadly fear and consuming anxiety. By now, even though I tried not to look at the flak, I could not help noticing out of the corner of my eyes that quite a few bursts were .. RED! That meant that they were very close indeed. Through the organ-like sound of the air rushing through the bomb bay, I could distinguish dull thuds that indicated that the aircraft was being hit.. and suddenly, I felt dreadfully scared as something told me that any time now we were going to blow up!. I just could not see a way out of this hellish nightmare.
I cannot remember at what stage of the bombing run we were, and I cannot recall hearing even the beginning of the command that would end with off loading our now undesirable cargo that was more dangerous to us than to them below, because suddenly, all that was taking place all around us - all my turbulent thoughts, my fear even - all that disappeared as though I had been removed to another dimension in a violent invisible commotion, right in front of me, and feeling like a giant hand, slapped me r1ght across the face!
Then a terrific rush of air filled my whole cabin, and everything all around me began to whirl and float as though the law of gravity had been suspended. Maps, pencils, log sheet, Just had acquired a will of their own. I reeled from the shock of this slapping giant hand; I could not understand what had happened .... I no longer seemed to relate to reality. Was it the hand of God who guided some obscure German gunner? This slap in the face certainly had a profound influence on my subsequent attitude to the war.
My next sense of awareness brought me closer to reality as I noticed that a red liquid was spurting from somewhere and making a mess a11 over the place including the perspex glass in front of me. I felt no pain, but like a person experiencing slowly re-entering into the world of awareness after a deep sleep, I decided that this red liquid still squirting from somewhere must be my own blood, and that I had better do something about it before I lost it all. It is interesting to note that as the invisible hand stuck me, I lost all awareness of enemy fire, I saw no flak; the premonition of immediate impending doom had melted away, and the only thing that mattered now was poor little me bleeding. I cannot help reflecting how self-centred - excluding anything else _ one becomes once personally physically affected. I do not recall at what stage I communicated my situation to Leger, but what really brought me back to the reality of the raid was the fact that suddenly our aircraft made a violent turn to the left.
It was I who made the first on-board communication call by telling Leger: "I think I'm wounded!" - my exact words and that I was endeavouring to locate the wound itself. (come to think of it, it must have sounded ridiculous). Leger then informed me 'that the bombing run had been aborted,. that the aircraft had Suffered such structural damage that it was imperative we should make an emergency landing at Grimbergen (Brussels) and asked me a heading to reach it. With most of my navigational implements being scattered all over the place; my map, log sheet still flying about, I dispensed with having recourse to the normal method of establishing the required heading, and gave him a "guestimation" of the heading and likely E.T.A. (Estimated time of arrival). The heading guess turned out to be correct, but the E. T. A. slightly inaccurate since a change in our flight plan became subsequently necessary, as will be revealed!
At some stage, I opened the emergency first-aid kit, took a dressing and having ascertained from the direction of the blood squirting that its source lay somewhere on my face. I promptly located it as the crown of my nose, and upon applying I gentle pressure, was relieved to notice that the "tap" had been turned off. With my left hand keeping the dressing in p1ace, I tried to grab my map with the other one, but even when I did secure it, it flapped in such a way that I could not have begun to read it. I told Leger that the best thing to do would be to make an emergency call to Grimbergen and request "homing".
In the meantime, the blood had stopped flowing as the dressing itself did not become soaked; and since apart from till being slightly shocked and rather uncomfortable with his awful rush of air penetrating my cabin, I did not feel any pain or sign of weakness, I concluded that my wound could not be serious.
Soon a after the violent turn to the left, we seemed to be alone and I never did obtain a satisfactory explanation as to what happened to the other five aircraft, All 1 know, is nobody dropped their bombs, I can only surmise from this intelligence that the enemy's firepower had been such - as was made obvious to me - that it 1iteral1Y broke up the formation and forced it to abandon its objective, It is to be noted all aircraft that made up our formation - except "S" aircraft (us) _ returned to base safely , whether they returned formation, minus one , or individually, I did not even try to establish, because I sensed the question would have been embarrassing since the truth might have revealed that the adversary had foiled our plan, And yet, such failures are normally ceremoniously turned into a heroic deed by writing a few lines in the "JOURNAL OFFICIEL " "about the sterling qualities of the hapless crews. 1 never did consider that whatever we failed to achieve was something to be ashamed of since the fortunes of war, most of the time, depend not on brilliant strategies – even though a battle may begin with one – but the fickle mood of the mad gods of war who infect us with their madness as the carnage becomes utterly senseless.
So it was that we found ourselves alone, badly damaged with a large section of the fin and rudder blown off, and limping for Grimbergen, a small emergency airfield just north of BrusselS, Since Leger's command of English was confined to a strict routine R.T. phraseology, and since this was an emergency in which more than R, T, patter would involved, he asked me to initiate our "MAYDAY" call
to Grimbergen, I was relieved to hear my call answered immediately a very comforting English voice that on my initial handed me in the first instance a Q.D.M, of 220 degrees. (Course to steer in order to reach the called station with zero wind) , Since that happened to be tbe course I "guestimated" , I feIt quite pleased with myself, All we had to do was to give Grimbergen the odd call, so that their D.F. <direction finder) might take a bearing on us and pass it on as a reciprocal.
In the course of our many transmissions, we informed them of our circumstances, and having ascertained that we sufficient fuel on board to prolong our flight, they advised us to jettison our bombs before attempting to land. Could we do that? We replied that the bomb doors did not open and that we would attempt to jettison our unwanted In tbe meantime, after tbe shock of our hot reception subsided, Leger ascertained that the two gunners were safe and sound and warned them to be particularly vigilant since a stray damaged aircraft was easy prey to a maurauding “bandit” Soon after , Jourdren , from his dorsal turret’s position reported seeing a fighter aircraft that could be a M.W 109, and that it was catching up on us. On the wise assumption that this was indeed a bandit, and being in no mood to engage it in a silly game where any of us could suffer harm, Leger just put the nose down and dived into a blanket of cloud about two thousand feet below us where we decided to hide for a while.
Whilst all this was going on, my bleeding had completely stopped, and we could not have been far from Grimbergen. I was still unable to attempt any navigation, but that was unimportant since we were now being nursed home by that reassuring English voice. We emerged from our blanket of cloud and were greatly relieved to see that whatever aircraft had been on our tail was no longer with us. Whatever damage had been inflicted on the aircraft, the consequences were that apart from very sluggish responses to the various controls, the old kite functioning... more or less. We therefore decided to get rid of our bombs from such altitude as would enable us to make an accurate hit, where it would cause the minimum amount of damage, since were now over liberated territory; and, of course, the bombs were to drop "safe", that is with their safety pins in place to make certain they would not blow up on impact,
With the reality of our situation calling on us to keep our wits, I had by then recovered completely from the shock, and since this bombing run was to be mine entirely, my professional pride took over, I was not required to press a button on somebody else's command, I was in charge and had to make sure that these bombs would do as little damage as possible, and I felt responsible. It was almost 1ike old times when returning from a navigation exercise in Canada, we had to drop small smoke bombs on an appointed target and the next day, we were told how close they had scored,
We decided to drop our unwanted cargo from one thousand feet, and upon reaching that height, I advised a large empty grass meadow that appeared to be completely deserted. I aimed for the middle of it, went through all the procedures and as I was about to jettison the bombs, what should quietly amble out from underneath a few trees on the edge of the field.... a herd of black and white cows! I hesitated an instant, and felt great revulsion at pressing the button, so I didn't! I advised Leger that I had to abort this one, told him why and I think I heard some pretty strong language on the intercom. Dead ahead, I saw an alternative, a large clearing in the middle of a wood this time. I hurriedly gave Leger a quick correction of heading, announced: "Bombing.... bombing ... , GO!" and pressed the black button. Down went the bombs, reached the ground in no time ..... and exploded .... - which they were not supposed to do!
The explosions rocked the aircraft, and from that moment, events happened very quickly and turned out to be most unpleasant as well as dangerous. When flying low one's field of vision being restricted I was unaware that hardly half a minute from that wood lay a main road, and that on that road there happened to be a large convoy of American troops, and as chance would have it, we were heading straight for that convoy. So. when they saw this low f1ying bomber heading for them, a bomber that had just dropped bombs not that far away from them, they just reacted swiftly by letting fly at us all their available firepower. They even had tracer bullets. Now, tracer bullets have this uncanny way, when looking at them, to make you feel that they are heading straight at you. Leger yelled at Jourdren to fire the colours of the day with the Verey pistol to indicate to our "friends" below, that we were allies. To no avail, We flew straight above them, and even though they must have recognised that this was an American built aircraft; even though they must have seen the large black and white stripes surrounding the fuselage and both wings - stripes shown by all allied aeroplanes - they just kept on firing and pierced our fuel tanks.
The situation was now critical because we were low and losing fuel rapidly. I called Grimbergen and stressed our new emergency upon which they gave us further headings. Within hardly five minutes. we spotted the landing strip dead ahead, obtained clearance to land, and Leger made a perfect landing. As soon as the aircraft touched ground, he switched everything off since petrol was gushing out of the fuel tanks, and our poor "Boston" breathed its last because soon after. it was declared a wreck, A fire tender and an ambulance arrived on the spot, and we were taken to the first aid post. Later we counted 103 holes in the aircraft IS superstructure, (including half the rudder shot off). Our American allies had comp1eted what our enemies had begun! C'est 1a guerre !
In the first aid post! I was examined by a paramedical who informed me that although my wound was not serious - a small gash at the top of the nose - it was lucky that the piece of glass perspex that had occasioned the cut had not struck my eye. A number of fine fragments of perspex had also lodged on the very edge of the eyelid among the eyelashes. As for the reason for all this: a piece of shrapnel had entered the cabin at the apex of the very nose of the aircraft, had followed such an angle to the vertical of the longitudinal axis of the aircraft, that it had scraped my flak helmet, and presumably lodged itself in the wall of the bulkhead separating my section from the pilots cockpit. There again, I had been lucky, because had it not been for fortuitous circul11stances. that shrapnel would have ki11ed me had it struck one inch lower.
After all the emotional turmoil that small cut had caused, I must admit that mv macho pride was ruffled at the thought that it had not been worse; that it did not even deserve two miserable stitches. All I had to show for it was a small sticky plaster. How could these nasty Germans do that to me? (That's right, blame somebody instead of going on your knees and humbly give thanks for your lucky escape, you vain man!)
One more technical detail relating to this mere scratch which had me wondering why the blood was pouring out of me as if assisted by a powerful pump: much later I discovered the answer. Our aircraft were not pressurised, so that at twelve thousand feet, the pressure inside the body is much higher than that inside the aircraft, thus creating a pumping effect from inside the body with every heart beat .
That evening, someone drove us into Brussels. I did not want to go because I felt shoddy in my blood stained batt1edress, but I needed the companionship of my crew. Brussels in those day was still celebrating its liberation, and I felt terribly ill at ease in the midst of all these artificial celebrations and general carou1sals. The atmosphere of nightclubs where Leger insisted on drowning the events of the day seemed downright sordid to a country bumpkin like me. Everything was unreal and I ended the day feeling empty and disillusioned with this world of false hilarity. In other words, the contrast had created an awful anti-climax to a very unusual day. And suddenly, I felt sick of everything because nothing seemed to make sense.
(in the form of Epilogue)
It has been my experience that, in life, the greater the mental shock, the better is the lesson brought home. Also, the more likely is the lesson to be retained. This particular raid taught me the following: we were to destroy a bridge; we failed just as we fed led to destroy other bridges on the Rhine, and yet no-one seems to have twigged that perhaps high level bombing was not the way to destroy them. To add a touch of irony to the matter of those bridges, I believe that the Germans themselves destroyed them after having succeeded in withdrawing their troops across them, so that all our bombing had only achieved was risking our lives and that of Dutch civilians in vain. By successfully breaking up our formation, the adversary had not only saved the bridge for himself, but had probably saved the lives of Dutch people. This point demonstrates that once a conflict or a particular action is undertaken in the pursuance of waging war, the unexpected happens, because there are too many imponderabilities, and in the process, senseless carnage and waste of resources are incurred on a scale that is downright scandalous.
The second minor point about this raid which has nevertheless had a profound influence on my attitude to war, was that I just could not drop my bombs in close proximity to a herd of cows. (just as well I didn't: the poor dears would have been blown to bits!. Now, if I will not kill cows, how can I justify killing human beings? Not just Germans, but innocent civilians.
The third point I wish to make is that in the turmoil of this particular raid, a body of frightened American soldiers nearly killed us. In other words, when man feels threatened because of unusual circumstances - as was the case with our flying low over them - he reacts instinctively and will fire at anything that acts suspiciously.
During the winter of 1944-45, there occurred a "regrettable mistake" in which a number of allied aircraft bombed a contingent of American soldiers entirely surrounded by German troops. The sad thing about this :massacre was that the officer in charge of that particular raid was warned on the R.T. by a young Sergeant, leading one box, of the grave mistake, he was about to commit. The Sergeant was told to shut up under severe stricture, to which he retorted: "Mon Commandant, vous etes un con!", and broke his box away from the main body. All the boxes taking part in that raid, except that of the Sergeant who bombed the right target, finished off those unfortunate Americans. Analysis of photographs taken during both different bombings established the Sergeant to have been right. The Sergeant was not court martial1ed, and the officer who had made the mistake was awarded the Legion d’Honneur!
For reasons of morale, most of the sordid aspects of war are carefully set aside, best forgotten, By the end of the war, with the senseless bombing of German civilians with the R.A.F. IS (in)famous thousand bomber raids where incidentally, more aircraft were lost due to the enormous problem of air congestion and bad weather than through enemy action, the majority of the public accepted these raids as a consequence of securing Victory, It is my belief that the longer a war lasts, the more we become imperceptibly dehumanised.
War is the ultimate admission of failure between nations to let reason takecprecedence, and even if it solves one problem, it will have fathered countless others. If only ordinary citizens of all nations would come to realise, that whatever conflict is being engineered and fought in their names, has nothing to do with them, If they bore in mind that the conflict only exists in the minds of those in whose hands we place our destinies; ie Christians and all those confessing a religion took heed of the fact that all of them forbid killing, and if we would only consider that we are a11 brothers and sisters on a very small beautiful planet, we might begin to divest ourselves of the narrow view we have of the world, do away with all our nasty xenophobic tendencies born of the fact that for most of our life we have been led to believe we are really better than "them".
Man, as an individual already suffers from a propensity to commit unsavoury deeds without any outside influence (origial sin?), When that inclination is organised, drilled, channelled and made not only acceptable. but elevated to the highest purpose that makes a combatant proud to serve his king or emperor or whatever, we have wars. By allowing the powers that be to manipulate not only our hearts, but also our minds, we hand them the key to our Pandora's box, and they'll know when to open it.
Since the beginning of this century. the so called great European nations have plunged the whole world in two of the most horrific slaughters known in the history of man. And what, pray, have we learned from all this obscene senseless carnage? Nothing. because we all insist on having fought for a noble cause. So. what have we learned from the Holocaust of the Jews and millions of other people classified as "Unter-mensch" by the master race? Well, we all got on our high moral hobby horse, put all these nasty nazis in a specially constructed dock; we hanged a few, condemned others to various terms of imprisonment, and the Nuremberg trial Judges categorically told the world that no soldier should escape -the consequences of committing atrocities against defenceless civilians even if ordered to do so.
Of course it is "they" who must not perform such atrocities because when "well do theI11, as did the French in Indo-China and Algeria, and the Americans at the massacre in My-Lai the whole episode is soon forgotten, The French never admitted their atrocities, As for the Americans, they condemned LL Calley for a long term of imprisonment for what he had ordered. Three days later, he was pardoned by Nixon!
The point I am tryins' to stress is that if dreadful deeds are still perpetrated in spite of all the moral pronouncements made on the subject, it is simply because we fail to recognise our own propensity to do evi1 things until it just happens to be convenient to perform them, It is not by taking a self righteous attitude in which we arrogantly think ourselves incapable of stooping that low that we shall not sin, it is by recognising that because we share our humanity with these monsters, we also; if we are not prepared morally, can be as they are, given the right circumstances, After the war when the full horror of the Holocaust became known, it occurred to me that the meaning of Original Sin meant that most of us, given the right pretext, opportunity and circumstances could behave as the Nazis did that it was by this terrible awareness of our potential for evil, and not by sticking our heads in the sand of outraged virtue, that we ought to acquire the enlightenment that comes from true hllmi1ity, and the spiritual and moral strength to say a resounding "No!" to A.NY violence from whatever quarter. but especially" from our OWN. If, after the war, when the whole world had learnt about the Holocaust, and the horrors of war in general, all nations particularly the victors - had proclaimed their shame at what humans were capable of doing through the guilt of our German brothers, and decided to atone after proclaiming a world wide "Mea culpa!", instead of keeping us on our toes by forging an alliance against the Soviet Union, there would not have been a Korean war, a Vietnamese war and all the other conflicts which both the East and the West kept goin8 bv se11ing all sides their obscene and expensive weaponry. Nor would we have witnessed the phenomenon of terrorism that was born out of the injustices that were allowed to be perpetrated against minorities.
Alas, it was not to be because men had their foolish pride and insatiable greed, all skilfully manipulated by the evil and power mad politicians, ( This race of vipers!) Sad1y, it must be acknowledged that no government has ever given a morora1 lead that was disinterested in the field of international po1itics, All of them have indulged in sickening orgies of outraged virtue when condemning the crimes of their opponents, and litanies of hypocr.itica1 excuses when committing their own bloody deeds,
I note with relief the fact that the Church is beginning to wake up after nearly two thousand years during which she was more concerned with protecting her own interests and influences than looking after her flock. She is beginning to stir thanks to brave and courageous priests who, throughout the World, and particularly in Latin America, have come to identify the poor with Jesus, They have seen and experienced the massacres and exploitations perpetrated against the poor at the covert instigation of the most powerfll1 nation on earth, It is the poor, the persecuted and the martyrs of today who have jolted the conscience of these real missionaries, and brought home to them that they represent the embodiment of the living Christ still being crucified,
It is my belief that true religion happens when Christ is recognised in any situation where compassion is needed and wholeheartedly given regardless of nationality, creed or political persuasion.
The "Our Father” and "Confiteor" should be lived - not just recited, A careful study of those prayers and basic beliefs that have been transmitted us by Jesus should seriously be re-examined by all Christians in the 1ight of man's obvious failure to guarantee life on earth, The advent of the industrial revolution followed by man's giant leaps in the field of technology have brought life to the brink of global disaster due to our failure to balance our enormous physical progress with a corresponding spiritual one. In fact, I now hold, it that the discovery of atomic power was man's ratification of his own death-warrant because more than fifty years after its discovery, all man has done is to rely on its possession to ward off any other power from using it. Terror is the instrument of evil, and all maJor power have subscribed to it therefore placing greater trust on its retention than an inherent faith in the path of peace. The U. S. A, Russia, China. France and Great-Britain as well as any other nation that now have nuclear power are the great criminals in this world, and for the first named five "great" powers to take the attitude that they have a responsible attitude to the possession, and implying that other nations might not be so relied upon not to indulge in the initial use in earnest I merely confirms their innate arrogance. (After all the U.S.A. DID use these weapons in earnest when it is now known that Japan was a bout to surrender)
If we are to revert this trend - and I do not expect Governments to do so - it is now up to each one of us to convince our administrations to do so, We could start by individually LIVING our re1igion in such a wav that gradually the world will become a living Gospel, Torah, Qu’ran - or whatever - a world in which we shall gradually grow in divine wisdom, a world that will emulate this perfect hidden world to which we must aspire, even if it does not exist. The main ingredient should be FAITH in a good world! In spite of the deplorable moral state of our capitalist society, which still exploits the poor not only in each country where capitalis111 thrives, but also bleed the economy of poor nations through the abominable hydra of the multinational companies and international banks exacting obscene interests from the poor nations ( your petty bank robber is a saint compared with them! ) I believe there exists a large body of peop1 e throughout the world who realise that our very survival wil1 depend not on1v on how we treat Mother Earth, but also its teeming poor, exploited and persecuted. If a spiritual regeneration is to come - we certainly need one - it will come from the Hispanic New World d where Liberation Theology was born from the suffering of the people, Is it not ironical that the very continent which suffered abominable treatments at the hand of "Christian" conquistadores, the very same people who had the Christian religion forced down their throat by hordes of European savages, should have got to the stage where they are forcing even the Church to re-appraise the message of the Gospel. The West crucified these people: their suffering has given them an affinity with The Crucified One now reminding us through them that the time has come for us to Live His Teaching. Even the Vatican, after having first shunned Liberation Theology as being tainted with marxism, has now hijacked the notion, probably because its failure to espouse such philosophy would leave it isolated. Whether, Liberation Theology is safe in the hands of the present administration of the Vatican is rather doubtful, but I like to think that Justice wil1 somehow prevai1.
Finally, I know that we have to start living an attitude in which we can divest ourselves of all the false gods we have accumulated during two thousand years of doubtful Christianity. Perhaps we have gone through a painful gestation. Now we have to be born into the light of the real Presence and live His Teaching.
“ Wann wird man je verstehen ? “