My memories of wartime England consist of damp weather and cold Nissen huts, chipping the ice from the water troughs in order to shave and endless hours of training flights in bloody awful flying conditions. Then too, the food was no great shakes! If you put in a flight of four hours or more you qualified for one greasy fried egg. Such bounty!
While on a training flight over the North Sea in a Wellington, one engine packed up and we started to lose altitude. Our skipper, Johnnie Clothier, who already had a tour in as an Air Gunner, spoke calmly to our crew stating that we may have to ditch. I immediately got on the wireless set and started sending a repetition of OOO, the next category to SOS and it was amazing how every station went silent. The mad cacophony of Morse chatter had ceased and the whole world was listening out to hear of our plans. Fortunately on reaching a thousand feet, our sluggish old Wellington decided to maintain height and we managed to creep in over the coast. On approaching an aerodrome we couldn’t raise the tower so I fired a red Very shell to wake everybody up.
Our crew was ordered to crash positions. Apparently all on the ground were having tea except for one aircraft that chose to taxi onto the runway as we were on final approach. Our Skipper could only turn away from the dead engine and we wound up hitting a large Oak tree, tearing off one wing and screeching to a halt against a pub wall. All safe, one Wellington destroyed.
Thirteen days later, we were in the circuit, preparing to land, when both engines quit. I was busy on my wireless set when our navigator bashed me on the shoulder and pointed at the intercom. I heard our Skipper mumble, “Hang on, fellows, here we go again!” I quickly stood up preparing to head back to my crash position when the Wellington hit the ground. For what seemed like an eternity I found myself bouncing from the floor to the ceiling, smashing my face against the projection on the direction finder, then slamming my legs against the main spar while thinking, “This is no fun at all!” Eventually the aircraft ground to a halt, leaving that familiar smell of hot engine and ground up dirt mixed with petrol and spilled oil. The upper escape hatch was jammed but, as on our first crashed Wellington, the fuselage had snapped just aft of the wing, leaving a large jagged opening through which I stumbled. As I limped past the tail I saw our rear gunner had bounced out of his turret, caught his boots in his guns and had been dragged across the field leaving him with a bit of a concussion. I went to help but since I was unable to stand I fell down. When the emergency crew showed up one of them stuffed a parachute under my head and asked if I could use a cigarette. And I thought, “Oh, boy, at least I’ll get a free smoke out of the deal,” but was sorely disappointed when he asked which pocket I kept them in. How could both engines have quit so suddenly? Easy, if you had a dumb enough mid upper gunner in your crew. When the skipper had asked him to change tanks he simply shut off all the valves.
Second Wellington crash
After a short stay in hospital I was released to go on to the joys of Operational training on the mighty Halifax.
By the time we got to OTU our crew was, to say the least, somewhat jumpy and no longer too enthusiastic. We had to quickly adapt to the technicalities of the huge Halifax, an aircraft with manual controls (no hydraulic assists), which meant that while we were practicing evasive action I would stand behind our skipper and watch him sweat as he wrestled that big airplane. But, at least I had a small window to look out of, not like on the old Wellington where I never knew what was going on. Two positive memories stand out during my time on the Halifax. On a daylight flight while at 20,000 feet over the English Channel, I moved forward and stood in the Plexiglas nose. It was like looking down on a large map. There was the coast of England and over there was France! Then on a night exercise while cruising above solid cloud I booted the mid upper gunner out of his turret and sat at his guns while enjoying a 360 degree view of the ruffled clouds below which were lit up by a full moon. I remember, while sitting in that cold turret, swearing that if I ever got safely back to Canada I would never complain again. (I’ve tried to adhere to that thought ever since).
Eventually we were posted to 432 Operational Squadron at Eastmoor in Yorkshire and continued preparations for going on ops. There followed a number of excursions over enemy territory, mainly diversionary operations, dropping Window (strips of aluminum) to confuse the enemy radar. Then the day came when we were scheduled for our first major night operation. We were briefed and already in flying gear when the Officer Commanding Flying woke up to the fact that our skipper had yet to go with a more experienced operational crew. So, as our crew stood down (with a sigh), Johnny went as “Second Dickey” with a highly decorated crew on the last trip of their second tour. They had their bags packed and their passes ready for the boat ride back to Canada. The operation was to Chemnitz, a long and dangerous journey. During the time that aircraft were forming up over England there were a number that crashed on takeoff due to icing. And while standing on the dark field I witnessed a number of bright flashes in the clouds, indicating the immediate loss of dozens of airmen through mid air collisions.
While returning from Chemnitz the aircraft Johnny was in suffered major damage from fighters and the skipper decided to attempt a landing at an emergency airdrome. Their flight path would take them over the prohibited area at East Anglia so their wireless op informed the ground stations of their intentions. Unfortunately the message wasn’t passed on to the gunners at East Anglia and the aircraft was shot from the sky, killing the whole crew.
My crew then had to endure a gut wrenching period of breaking in a new skipper, a bit of a hot-shot who delighted in low flying over the sea. Fortunately it was not long before the war ended. It could be said that my skipper, Johnny Clothier, lost his life and saved mine.
Me (middle of back row) and crew by Halifax
Remember my friend, Bruce, who was so thrilled at being posted overseas? His brother, Ian, who had been shot down in the desert and held as a prisoner of war until 1945, was released and returned to England. He was looking to reunite with his younger brother, but learned Bruce and his crew had been shot down by an ME 262. All were killed.
While waiting to be repatriated to Canada I made friends with a guy who was in charge of the Link Trainer section. He allowed me access to the inner workings so that I was able to check out the basic operation of a Link Trainer. Although I’d never flown an airplane, I liked the fact that it had stick control because it seemed to be the natural way to fly an airplane. It also had a standard set of instruments plus those necessary for blind flying.
I learned that if you didn’t handle the thing properly you could wind up spinning and crashing it! After discussing some of the finer points of flying the Link he challenged me to fly a particular test called the “Tee Test”. To fly the test required precise timing and almost perfect rate one turns. One had to start out under the blind flying hood which shut out the world and, while on instruments, fly a series of compass headings, interspersed with a number of turns. If the pattern and turns was flown accurately enough you had a good chance of joining up at your exact starting point.
While I was “flying the pattern”, eyeballing airspeed, altimeter, clock and compass, the Link instructor was monitoring my progress at his desk where a large machine traced my course on a sheet of paper. Finally he called a halt and when I opened the hood he handed me the result of my test, remarking, “Congratulations!” I have kept that test in my wartime log book to this day. It is signed by the Link instructor and shows that I flew a perfect tee test. Pure luck, methinks. But as you will see, it may have played a part in saving my bacon years later.
My Tee Test
My final posting in England was to Paignton in Devon. On being invited to the Singer Mansion I was able to participate in horseback riding (English style of course), dancing in the ornate ballroom and sitting for a pencil portrait.
After returning to Canada I spoke with Johnny Clothier’s Mother in Vancouver and lied through my teeth when she asked how her son was killed. There was no way I could tell her that British gunners had shot her son down.
Chapter Three of “The Life & Times of Glenn Mathews” tomorrow.