People in story: Noel W. F. Thackray, Edward L. Humes, John R. Moulsdale, Reginald E. Bromley, P. (Jock) Hughes, Clive W. Banfield, Clem H. Henn, Conen
Location of story: Aachen, Brussels Unit name: 514 Squadron
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Edward L. Humes and has been added to the site with the authors permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Chapter 3: ABANDON AIRCRAFT!!!
The day was 11th April. The year 1944. Our target was to be a fairly easy trip to Aachen. Perhaps our shortest flight over Germany. The usual preparations were made and in the early evening we set course for the target hoping to return well before midnight. All went well and we dropped the bomb load over the city and set course for home.
Disaster struck ! The port outer engine caught fire. It seemed that we had been hit by flak as none of the air gunners had sighted enemy aircraft. Noel ordered us to prepare to abandon which meant that all secret equipment and navigational and wireless codes had to be destroyed. Gunners had to leave their turrets and all had to head for the escape hatches except of course for Thack. For a few moments we flew on. Clive was doing his utmost to extinguish the blaze and believed that we would be able to continue. The blazing engine fell away. The end was near as the pilot could no longer keep control.
ABANDON AICRAFT !! Jack answered at once. Reg reported that his turret would not operate. Jock said that he would try to help Reg and Clem responded that he too would move to help with the rear turret. Clive was not at all pleased that we were to abandon. As for myself, I headed for the front escape hatch passing both Clive and Thack who was still at the controls. As I reached the top of the steps I was astounded to find the escape hatch open but Jack's parachute pack was still in the container. There was no sign of him!
I had no time for further thought for at that moment the nose of the plane dropped and I found myself trapped by my legs. To this day I do not know what was preventing me from leaving the stricken aircraft. What was I to do? Without any further thought I pulled the ripcord . I felt a sharp pain in my legs but to my great relief my `chute pulled me clear of the aircraft. I drifted towards the earth but could see nothing nor could I hear a sound. I prayed to almighty God for his help and cried out for my mother. All this had happened in seconds.
I assumed that I was drifting downwards but could not be sure where I was going to land. Crash! I had landed in undergrowth but where? I did not have the slightest idea. Minutes passed., I could feel that my uniform was in tatters and that I was bleeding profusely. Strangely I felt no pain. I heard movement and immediately began crying for help but was warned to be quiet. Obviously it was not German soldiers in the immediate vicinity. Helping hands picked me up and untied my Mae West, I had responded to training and had by instinct got rid of my parachute silk on hitting the ground. When I awoke I was lying on something very soft but could not see what it was. My right leg gave me a lot of pain and I ran my hands over it. It seemed to be a peculiar shape. Gradually my hearing improved and I could hear voices in what seemed to be prayer. As yet I could not see where the sound was coming from but realised that I was being addressed in English. A doctor had been called and he was advising me that there was nothing he could do to treat my wounds but that he would make me comfortable until the Germans arrived. A couple of pieces of wood from the garden fence were used to make splints for the leg that had sustained a very bad fracture. My face and hands were washed clean of blood that had come from multiple scratches. After making me comfortable and allowing me to sleep for the remainder of the night the Germans were called. As soon as they arrived the atmosphere changed. What had been a quite room now became a very noisy area indeed. I was to be taken away by them but it appeared that the family would not permit the enemy to move me from the sofa on which I was resting. Finally I was carried, still on the sofa, to the waiting lorry.
I discovered some 50 years later that the family name was Conen and had the pleasure of meeting the only surviving member.
A GUEST OF THE GERMAN NAVY
Somewhere about tea time my guards deposited me at a hospital staffed by German navy personnel. I was well scrubbed and put into a nice clean bed. A meal of Black bread, cheese from a tube and the most foul tasting coffee was given to me. All the time I was eating sailors wandered by to take a look at the English captive.
My next real visit was from a Medical officer who explained that there would be a need to operate on my leg in the next few hours. He was quite friendly and was in no way what I had expected. Maybe this was part of the softening-up process I had been warned to expect in those briefing sessions in training. Some time later I was taken to the operating theatre and knew no more until I woke up in a private room with a large picture window on the left and a pair of doors to the right of my bed. There I lay, with my leg in traction but with no sign of a plaster cast. A large iron framework kept the sheets from weighing on my legs. Looking further to my right I saw a German sailor standing guard inside the doors and, beyond him a further sailor, both with fixed bayonets! I was told afterwards that these guards were there to keep Belgian people out for there was no way I could possibly escape.
What lay ahead of me? Meals were delivered on time and once I had become used to the black bread and acorn coffee the rest of my diet was quite pleasant. Strangely enough I felt very little pain and I was able to see quite well. After a few days my Rosary was returned to me and it transpired that one of my guards was a Catholic. Now we had a talking point but he was not particularly interested in teaching me German but wished to improve his English so that he would be able to converse with English citizens when Germany defeated England! Sign language was used more often than words in the first instance but we got along very well indeed.
At first time passed pretty quickly. When night fell I would listen for the sound of Allied aircraft passing overhead and try to work out where they might be going by working out the time that elapsed between the inward and outward journey. Sometimes an airman would be brought in to occupy the second bed in the room and I would become updated with the progress of the war. Sadly, there was seldom a time when any of these new aircrew members stayed longer than one day. As the weather outside improved I began to yearn for a move to somewhere among English speaking prisoners. I was aware that there were no prisoners from the Allied forces in the hospital in which I was being treated.
Early in June fighter activity began to increase quite dramatically and the air- raid sirens were often sounded. Each time this happened my guards disappeared and I soon found out that part of their duties was to man part of the air defences. I cannot remember the date but one evening I noticed that the night sky was rapidly illuminated with brightly coloured flares. This could only mean one thing- the area was to be the target for that night ! ! ! I was right Sirens wailed and anti-aircraft guns blasted away at the allied aircraft. Soon bombs began to fall and I heard explosion after explosion. Surely I was not going to be a victim of action by the R.A.F? Soon I had my answer for my bedroom shook and glass windows broke. The noise was horrendous and because of my situation I could take no action whatever to hide away or to reach shelter. Just as I pulled up the bed sheets over my head I felt an almighty crash and wondered what the outcome of this was going to be. Gradually the noise subsided and soon I was able to risk turning down the sheets. The window and doorframes were lying across the cage which protected my legs and I saw searchlight beams and ack- ack bursts. THE CEILING HAD COLLAPSED ! ! ! ! ! I was alive but terrified. What would happen to me now? One of my guards visited to check on my condition but it was some hours before I was made aware of the extent of the damage caused by the raid, my room was reasonably sound when compared to the rest of the hospital.
A Change of Surroundings.
As the morning passed I could hear the sound of rescue crews moving about the hospital grounds. Now and then there would be an almighty crash as a building toppled. Fires burned brightly and soot fell making my once white bed linen look very dirty indeed. I thought for a time about the times when I had been bombed back in England and how enemy fighters had attempted to destroy the barrage-balloon sites on which I served but I am afraid it gave me little comfort, there I had been among friends but now I was among enemies. How would they re-act to the night's events? I was soon to find out.
From the background of soot and smoke there appeared the figure of one of the surgeons who had cared for me over the previous weeks. His apron was bloodstained and in his hand he held a scalpel likewise covered in blood! What was he going to do to me? He soon put my mind at rest and after referring to the air-raid being carried out by my friends, he told me that although I should be in traction for a further four weeks there was nothing that could be done but to remove the pin and other items and transfer me as quickly as possible to another hospital.
No sooner said than done! I just had to grit my teeth, hold tight and the job was done. A lorry was drawn up to the ruin and a stretcher was brought from somewhere and I was loaded aboard for my journey, no guards this time. Off we went, sometimes dodging the pot holes but more often than not there would be an almighty jolt as we hit what I presumed was a crater. Suddenly the stretcher left the floor of the vehicle and I was deposited on to the boards. I felt more pain than I had felt since leaving the aircraft but, try as I may, I could not get the attention of the driver. Another gritting of teeth until we reached our destination which turned out to be a "Rest Home" for German officers.
I got little sympathy and was informed that there was not the facility to deal with my new injury which was a re-fractured femur, the fall had undone the work which had been done. Soon I was on my way again to another hospital somewhere in Brussels. I was hungry, dirty and in quite some pain but at last I reached my new home. The hospital sister was not at all pleased at the state I was in. She was unaware of what I had been through and commented that surely no soldier would set out on a mission in the dirty state that I was in." Stand up and follow me to the bathroom" she said. Only when I had convinced her that my leg was broken did she realise the predicament I was in. Immediately her attitude changed. She became an angel and remained so for the rest of my stay.
Now spotlessly clean I was placed in a bed in a barrack room along with twenty or so captured Allied aircrew and learned that I was in an annexe to a German military hospital in the centre of Brussels. They were not too happy to hear that I had been captured several weeks earlier and thus could not give news of the Allied advance through France, to be honest I was pleased to know that our forces were on their way. My next information was that I would have twenty four hours to talk about my predicament and then the subject would be taboo. My " Angel" returned to prepare me for an operation on my right femur.
She explained the whole process and commented on how lucky I was going to be to have a leading surgeon carrying out a recent technique to put my bone together again.( I have since learned that the procedure was known as The Kuetschner Nail Method) Off we went to the Theatre and the surgeon began on his task. He was far from happy when I yelled with pain! I had felt his scalpel cut into my upper leg!! Initially he did not believe me but quickly realised that the spinal anaesthetic had not done its work. At once he took steps to remedy the matter and my next memory was that of waking up in bed again in traction and being cared for by a young lady in white. Was I in heaven? No, I was back in the P.O.W. ward.
The following morning the operating surgeon came to check on my well-being and to apologise for the slip up of the previous day. He told me that the operation had gone well and that I would be in traction for approximately twelve weeks- where had I heard that before?
Now I was able to learn about' my fellow prisoners and to catch up on the progress of hostilities.
My colleagues were from all parts of the Commonwealth, U.S.A, France and there was even a prisoner with Russian nationality. Their injuries were of many kinds. Severe burns, broken limbs and some had limbs that had been amputated. I was only a small player.