Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Lucky Survivors - RAF Bomber Command

The Whitleys of No.77 Squadron were sent out on another such raid in June 1940, this time to the Ruhr. The crew led by Pilot Officer Andrew Dunn soon learned that these missions were to be very different from the earlier “nickels”. Knowing that the British bombers had been carrying only leaflets, the Germans made little real effort to intercept them. Nor did the Germans want to give away the positions of their searchlight and flak batteries when the only target on offer was a lone bomber that would be difficult to hit. When the British bombers came over in numbers armed with bombs the German response was very different.

As Dunn and his crew approached the Ruhr they were subjected to prolonged flak fire while searchlights weaved across the night sky. Dunn evaded the lights, but could not escape the flak. His aircraft was several times hit by shrapnel, though none of the crew were injured and no serious damage was done. The bombs were dropped and Dunn turned thankfully away from the Ruhr to head back to base at Driffield.

Suddenly everything changed as a hail of bullets tore through the Whitley. Sergeant J. Dawson, wireless operator, and Sergeant B. Savill, navigator, were both seriously injured and the intercom was knocked out. As Dunn glanced around in alarm the ominous dark shape of a Messerschmitt Bf109 flashed by in the night. Seconds later Pilot Officer, Leslie Watt, the rear gunner, saw a second Bf109 diving down to attack from behind the bomber. Unable to alert Dunn to the new threat, Watt moved his turret to get his guns to bear and opened fire. Flames burst from the cowling of the Bf109, which went into a blazing dive toward the ground. The German had, however, knocked out one of the bomber’s two engines.

Alone in the night sky once again, the Whitley droned northwest on its sole engine. The second pilot, Pilot Officer Charles Montagu, began to prepare the crew to abandon the aircraft, but found that Dawson was too badly injured to be able to bale out with much chance of survival. A hurried discussion followed as to what to do. It was decided that the crew would risk trying to cross the North Sea on one engine, with the consequent danger of ditching at night, rather than abandon Dawson.

The Whitley was losing height steadily and as the English coast loomed into view it was down to only 400 feet. Rather than risk crossing the coast and then failing to find a flat field in which to land, Dunn opted to pancake down into the sea close to shore. In a Whitley this was an even trickier proposition than in other aircraft as the bomber’s broad wings tended to create a cushion of air against the ground or sea at low levels that required a definite shove on the controls to overcome. Dunn managed to splash down successfully and his crew took to their dinghy to paddle ashore. They all survived. 

from "RAF Bomber Command at War" by Rupert Matthews

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