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New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. I)

Appendix II — A Flight to italy in1940

page 382

Appendix II
A Flight to italy in1940

(The following account concerns the experiences of the crew of a Whitley bomber of No. 77 Squadron detailed to attack Turin on the night of 5 November 1940. It is written by Wing CommanderH. H. J. Miller, obe, dfc, afc, then a pilot officer and captain of the aircraft.)

On the morning of 5 November we found our target for that night was to be in Italy. As our squadron was stationed at Topcliffe, in Yorkshire, this meant gathering all our gear together, loading up with petrol and bombs, taking off from Topcliffe just after lunch and flying south to Newmarket where we landed beside the racecourse. There we parked our Whitleys so they could be checked over and the fuel tanks topped up while we had a meal and were briefed for the attack on Turin, as the target turned out to be.

We eventually took off just after dark–at 7 p.m. exactly–and, after passing out over the English coast through a corridor in our defences, headed for the French coast. There were lots of our searchlights waving about looking for enemy raiders and quite a bit of anti-aircraft fire engaging raiders as they came in over the coast. We could not help thinking how easy it was for them–a 250 mile round trip from their aerodromes in the Low Countries and France, compared with our effort for that night–we were facing a round trip of over 1,300 miles. The Germans were able to carry minimum petrol and maximum bombs and we were in the reverse position.

Our first spot of trouble arose over the French coast, where we were coned in searchlights and some flak rattled on the underside of the plane like hail. Fortunately no serious damage resulted and after violent evasive action we drew safely out of range and steadied on course once more.

The weather soon deteriorated alarmingly. We ran into thick cloud charged with static electricity which played and flamed all over the aircraft turning the airscrews into catherine wheels and giving the appearance of someone playing a gigantic purple hose over all the leading edges. The front turret was a mass of flame and the whole effect most unsettling though not really dangerous. The weather worsened and as we climbed steadily the cloud became thicker and more and more turbulent. Suddenly we were struck by lightning which blinded us all for a few moments. The wireless operator reported that the lightning had burned away our aerial and that blue flames had passed through the valves in the set and burned them out. Repairs were out of the question and from then on we must rely on dead reckoning. I hoped that sooner or later we would come out above the clouds and that the Swiss Alps would be clear enough to give us our position as we passed over one of the peaks or that we should see Lake Geneva or one of the well lighted Swiss towns. The immediate problem was to get above the cloud or, failing that, to get high enough to be sure of crossing the Alps in safety. As the highest peaks are about 15,000 feet and we had no means of checking our exact position we had to get high enough to be able to clear them should they happen to be on our track. Our problems were further increased by the fact that we were now experiencing severe page 383 icing. The temperature was about -10° C. and all the windscreens were well frosted over. Chunks of ice began flying off the propellers and hitting the metal fuselage with resounding crashes. The starboard engine coughed and cut out, due to carburettor icing, but recovered when ‘warm air’ was selected. Mainplane and propellor de-icers were turned on and we kept climbing as well as we could.

The poor old aircraft was labouring badly. She was carrying a heavy load–bombs, petrol and now a weight of ice which seemed to be the last straw. We painfully reached 13,000 feet, still in cloud, with the temperature down to -20° c., but the accumulation of ice ceasing. It seemed a pity to turn back at that stage. There was only one thing left to do–to increase engine revs. to maximum. This meant overheating, with serious risk of seizing up, bursting the radiators and certainly increasing petrol consumption beyond all bounds. It had to be risked, and I shoved the airscrews into fine pitch. We immediately began to gain height, but after climbing a couple of hundred feet the oil and coolant gauges had gone past the danger mark and I had to reduce revs. again, try to hold height and let her cool off. By repeating this process half a dozen times we eventually staggered up to 14,000 feet and broke out into brilliant starlight. There were masses of cloud about still towering above us but as far as we could see no peaks lay ahead and we carried on. As we flew over the Alps, the cloud broke a bit and we saw what we took to be lights of Geneva away to our left. We had not done so badly–we were at least somewhere near on track.

Making an alteration of course to take us to our target we began dropping down to get below the cloud which had thickened up again on the Italian side. By the time we were due over Turin we were down to 8000 feet but still in cloud. As we drew nearer searchlights sprang up and it was obvious that we were at least over some fairly well defended locality–we hoped Turin. Very conscious of the petrol expended in our struggle to get over the Alps, I did not feel justified in dropping much lower or in spending much time in target identification. So though we could not see the ground and had no means of definitely identifying our target, I ran into the middle of the searchlight concentration and the bomb aimer released the bombs. Their bursting produced a fine display of anti-aircraft fire.

With the bomb load gone and petrol half used the Whitley climbed like a lift and in no time at all we were clear of trouble and making height quickly through the cloud to pass back over the Alps. The weather seemed to be getting worse and this time we did not get out of cloud as we crossed. The temperature was very low and we did not experience any icing until we began to descend. All members of the crew were frozen stiff by this time. The heating system had long since given up the ghost and the temperature inside the aircraft was well below zero. The rear gunner, stuck in his turret far away in the tail, asked permission to come forward and thaw out and to have something to eat. He found, however, that he was so stiff that he could not get out of the turret and when he attempted to reak a piece of chocolate it was frozen so hard that even banging it on the guns would not shatter it.

The wireless operator had nothing to do as his set was useless and the navigator, after working out a probable time of reaching the French coast, could do no more as he lacked any information to work with. No radio bearings or fixes, no hint of wind speed or direction, no sight of ground– nothing that could give him any real confidence in his calculations. Our page 384 situation was rather like that of a blindfolded man trying to row straight across a fast flowing stream. We could but set a hopeful compass course and trust to luck!

Once certain that we must have crossed the Alps on the way home, I handed over the controls to the second pilot. Now was our chance to save petrol –long steady descent straight for the northern coast of France. Revs. right down, mixture weak, throttle open just enough to give the correct rate of descent. But now our problem was to keep the motors warm–we were reaching the zone of severe icing again. Again the dread crash of the ice flying off the airscrews, again the build up on windscreens, mainplanes, etc., and the horrible soggy feeling of the controls that feel as though they won’t continue to control much longer.

Time slipped by, and although we kept dropping steadily down and down, still the cloud remained solid and unrelenting. It was imperative that we get some sight of the ground, that we pick up some landmark–a river, a lake, the sea coast, something that we could identify and so fix our position. We might be, by this time, a hundred miles off our course, missing England and heading out into the Atlantic or possibly the other way into the North Sea. We must find out when we crossed the coast of France and we must find out where.

So down, down we went. I began to worry about hitting high ground. The navigator checked his maps and assured me that there was nothing over 1000 feet or so anywhere near our track. But were we anywhere near our estimated track? The risk had to be taken and as we approached our estimated time of crossing the coast we dropped down and down until at last we broke cloud at 1400 feet.

The night was as black as ink and we could see nothing. The heavy cloud cut off all light from the moon and it was impossible to tell whether land or sea was beneath us. What about dropping a flare? Not so easy–they were fused to fall 1500 feet and be well clear of the aircraft before igniting. And so we climbed back into the clouds–up to 2000 feet in grey clammy fog–so that the wireless operator could release a flare. And then a quick dive down again to get below the cloud before the flare burned out and deprived us of our glimpse of what lay below. A nerve-wracking business. The first flare was a failure–not enough height–it was out before we got below cloud again. The second one showed us land–open fields. We had not yet crossed the coast. Wait 15 minutes then drop another. Still land. Wait 15 minutes–drop again. Still land. For the first time our hearts really sank. We knew that if all had gone according to plan we should have been well over England and nearing our landing field by now. Here it was 5 a.m. and still somewhere over France. On and on. At 5.30 drop another flare and see water. Turn back, eyes straining to catch the coastline and glimpse some bay, some promontory, some island to give a clue to our whereabouts. There it is, the white surf faintly seen in the darkness. Drop our last flare–it is an island–quite a large, flat piece of land–and then darkness again as the flare dies out.

The question was which Islands were they? Identification was impossible as we had no more flares, and we dare not wait till dawn. Petrol was dangerously low already and enemy fighters would be up with the daylight. We could not believe that we could be so far off course as the Dutch Islands so assumed that it was one of the Channel Islands we had seen and I headed the aircraft north. About 6 a.m. came the dawn and with it the sight of a grey angry sea. No land in sight, not a ship, not a bird–not a living thing page 385 to be seen. We were now flying at about 700 feet–below the cloud and low enough to see very clearly the long rollers and the wind whipping the white horses. We all knew only too well what was likely to be our fate if we came down on a sea like that. If we were lucky enough to get out of the aircraft and into our little rubber dinghy not a soul would know we were there or would even think of looking for us. We would be assumed lost over the target or on the way there as our last contact with the outside world had been when we had taken off from Newmarket 11 hours before. We all sat and thought our own thoughts and searched the horizon for something– anything to relieve the grim prospects of the sea below. We all knew that petrol must give out at 6.30. Normal endurance was about 10° hours and we had carried overload tanks to give us an extra hour’s flying. I knew that I had thrashed the engines in getting over the Alps, and I knew that petrol consumption must have been above normal. We all understood that 6.30 was about our limit. We had time to work out what we were going to do if we had to come down–we went over and over the drill. Everything was ready. The rear gunner came out of his turret and chopped away the exit door through which the dinghy would have to be launched. Everyone took up his ditching station and stood by waiting for that cough of the engines which would be the signal that we had come to the end–because we knew that would be the end! Time ticked by and look as we might there was no sign of the white cliffs of Dover–or anything whatsoever. A low sea mist had developed and visibility was not more than half a mile at the most. I had been worrying about our identification of the Island.

Once again the navigator and I studied the maps and in the face of the non-appearance of signs of land, I felt sure that we had made a mistake and should indeed have been on a Westerly course. The navigator could not agree and contended that a strong head wind was holding us back. I suggested compromise–steer NW which would mean that we must still hit England from the Channel Islands but which would also mean that if it had been the Dutch Islands we would be getting nearer to England instead of heading straight up the North Sea.

So we turned NW and still the motors ran sweetly. As our zero hour approached, I took over from the second pilot and got him to strap me in as tightly as he could. Then I had him go through the whole plane and throw everything moveable overboard to lighten the ship. Over went ammunition, guns, oxygen cylinders, etc. Fortunately the intercom. still worked and all members of the crew were linked and could be kept informed of what was happening. Having done everything we could think of to bring us nearer to England, and give us some chance of getting out of the aircraft when we came down in the sea, we then were forced to sit back and wait and think.

6.30 came and went and still the motors purred. Every minute a mile and a half nearer home. Just before 7 a.m. one motor coughed. As a last desperate chance I switched the petrol cock back to a tank long since emptied and strangely enough the motor picked up its beat again.

The clock slowly ticked on on my dashboard and at 20 to eight we were still flying and the engines sounded the sweetest music I had ever heard. Our luck seemed fantastic, but since 6 o’clock we had expected to sight land at any moment, and as the hour passed by and then forty minutes more and still nothing was to be seen but unbroken sea, I came to the regrettable conclusion that we had somehow missed England and were now well out in the Atlantic.

page 386

We were all dead tired—we’d been on the go for over 24 hours, with all the nervous tension involved—the preparations at Topcliffe, the take-off and landing at a strange aerodrome with full bomb and petrol load—a strain only a pilot appreciates—the take-off again on our present flight and all the troubles that had befallen us—the eleven hours of intense concentration— flying blind in the worst of conditions, the worry of knowing we were lost and finally the tension of the last two hours each minute of which we had expected to be our last.

With the remark, ‘Well, we might as well get as close as we can to old England before we go down’, I banked the plane and began to turn. Hardly had we begun to change direction when the gunner standing by the rear door with his hand on the dinghy shouted ‘A ship! A ship!’ It seemed utterly unbelievable and we thought his brain had snapped under the tension. The rest of us strained our eyes and saw nothing. The gunner was sure. I continued the turn and then, coming into view from beneath the port wing, we all saw it, a couple of miles away; a tiny trawler—all by itself in a vast expanse of sea. It took not two seconds for me to make up my mind what to do. ‘Standby to ditch—gunner OK, wireless operator OK, navigator OK, second pilot OK.’ Fired off Very lights to identify ourselves as British as we swung round the trawler and then with motors still purring smoothly, a long slow descent planned to make a landing as near the ship as possible. We might have five seconds to get out of the plane before she sank—we might have five minutes—depending on what sort of landing we made. Very often no one got out and we knew that only too well. Would our luck hold or would the motors cut now, just when our salvation was in sight. Down and down till we are skimming the waves—big rollers 8 or 10 feet high—hold her off and keep the nose up—fatal if we go in nose first. Stick back—close throttles gently—‘Brace brace’ to crew—a gentle shudder as the tail wheel hits the top of a wave then ‘Crash!’ and a green wall of water overwhelms us. I am the only one left in the fore part of the plane as the rest of the crew are all at ditching stations aft. My way of escape is through a hatch directly above my head. Fortunately that had been kept closed, after much deliberation as it was liable to jam with the crash, otherwise I would have been drowned as the water rushed over us. I never thought to see the light of day again, but slowly the green mass seemed to grow whiter and lighter and suddenly I could see the surface of the water. I whipped out the quick release pin of my safety belt, burst open the hatch and was out on top of the fuselage. By the time I got down to the rear door, the dinghy had inflated and the crew were just climbing in, the navigator and the wireless operator clutching various maps and charts and secret and confidential documents. The plane was settling in the water and I stepped from the top of fuselage straight into the dinghy which was carefully being kept from touching the broken and torn wing flaps which had taken the first shock of the landing. A graze against a jagged bit of metal and we should all be struggling in the sea. The crew were pretty efficient and I stepped into the dinghy without even getting my feet wet. We seized paddles and quickly moved clear in case we should be dragged under as the aircraft sank. The waves were a little alarming at first until we trimmed ship—a round rubber ring with a canvas floor, but she rode remarkably well. We looked for our trawler. As we reached the crest of a wave there she was-just weighing anchor and beginning to move towards us. She eventually hove to to leeward of us and let us drift down to her. Soon we were close enough to catch a line and then the problem was to get on board. The sea was so rough that at one moment the boat’s rail page 387 was level with us and the next moment we were looking up ten feet or so at the trawler’s crew who were leaning over the side. The trawler was rolling heavily and the whole thing was pretty tricky. Each time she rolled and we coincided with the gunwale one of us was grabbed by strong arms and heaved on board as the dinghy disappeared from sight again. At last we were all aboard, including the dinghy, and heading for port.

Never has a skipper’s hand been shaken more fervently. We could hardly express our thanks we were so overwrought.

And where were we? Four miles off the NE coast of England. The trawler was, in fact, a Naval minefield patrol boat and had been anchored on the outside edge of the coastal minefield which gave protection from enemy surface raiders to our convoys as they moved between it and the coast. The minefield was a magnetic one and had we landed a couple of hundred yards nearer the coast we would almost certainly have blown ourselves up. Had that not happened, the boat would not have been able to come into the minefield to pick us up. The trawler captain and crew were marvellous to us and wirelessed the glad news to their shore station. We were met on the quay by an RAF car from the local fighter station and taken out there to await transport back to Topcliffe.

And so we completed our round trip.