Interview with Leslie Curtis
Interview with Leslie Curtis
Leslie Curtis describes how, when flying from Gibraltar to Malta, his Wellington (Z8773) experienced engine failure and he was forced to ditch in the Mediterranean Sea. The sole survivor, Leslie was picked up after four days by the destroyer, HMS Avon Vale upon which his cousin was a crew member.
This recording was made around 1990, as Leslie recounts the story to his grandson, Matt Phillips.
This recording was made around 1990, as Leslie recounts the story to his grandson, Matt Phillips.
00:28:43 audio recording
IBCC Digital Archive
This content is property of the Matt Phillips who has kindly granted the International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive a royalty-free permission to publish it. Please note that it was digitised by a third-party which used technical specifications that may differ from those used by International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive. It has been published here ‘as is’ and may contain inaccuracies or culturally inappropriate references that do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Lincoln or the International Bomber Command Centre.
LC: Start about July 1941, at a place called Harwell, and Harwell was the airfield at which I had completed my training as a pilot, on Wellingtons, and at a time when we had just been crewed up. Now, by crewing up I mean that you had been given a navigator, and a second pilot, and a wireless operator/air gunner and two other gunners, which means a crew of six in all. And having got that crew and having practiced together, we were then posted to a place in the Middle East, which we weren’t to know until we got there, because we were due to go there in stages. And the first stage of that trip was from Harwell to Gibraltar. Now, there were a flight of eight Wellingtons in the crew, in the flight I mean, and the job really, was for the crews to fly out their brand new aircraft, by stages, first of all to Gibraltar, and then on to Malta and then from Malta on to the Middle East. Well eventually we took off and all went well, and although there was a flight of eight aircraft, we were to make our way individually to Gibraltar and of course at that time you couldn’t fly across France and across Spain to get to Gibraltar because these were countries that were unsafe to fly over, and therefore you had to go on the sea route, which meant you had to fly out to the south west of England, and then right across the Bay of Biscay, then right down the coast of Portugal or some fifty, sixty miles off the coast of Portugal, fly right round to the south of Gibraltar and you had to come into Gibraltar on a pre-determined route. You had to come into Gibraltar at a height of two thousand feet and not two thousand and fifty feet, or nineteen hundred and fifty feet, but exactly two thousand feet and on a bearing of exactly due north, coming up to the Rock of Gibraltar. Because as you approached the Rock, you had all the defending guns of the rock trained on you and if you didn’t come in at the right height and on the right course it was assumed you were an enemy aircraft and therefore you were liable to get shot down! You see. So you were very careful on how you approached Gibraltar. Which we did, and obviously we didn’t get shot down and eventually we were able to turn in to our landing run to come in and land on Gibraltar airfield. Now, at that time, and this is an important fact in the story, Gibraltar did not have any runways, which it does now of course. The Gibraltar airfield was virtually just an area of sand between the Mediterranean on one side, on the east side, and Algeciras Bay on the other side, and if you landed too short you knocked your wheels off on the kind of wall, that separated the airfield from the beach, and if you came in too high you were liable to run out of landing room and roll down the beach on the other side and finish up in Algeciras Bay. And I mention that point because that is crucial to the story as you will hear later on. Anyway, we got there all right, we landed, and one by one all the other aircraft landed and we taxied in and that was that. And then we had to stay at Gibraltar until we had clearance to take off and fly on to Malta, and there was several days before we were able do that, because there was a lot of Naval activity going on around Malta, as you probably know from your history, and therefore we couldn’t take off until all was quiet down there. Eventually we got the okay to take off, and one by one the aircraft taxied out to take off, having refuelled and that sort of thing. [Cough] Unfortunately because, as I mentioned to you, this airfield was just sand, as we were taxying out we hit a rough bit of sand which made the tail of the aircraft bump up and down over the ruts in the sand, and as the tail of the aircraft came down, in one of these ruts, the tail wheel had twisted round sideways and the weight of the aircraft taxying forward broke the tail wheel, and consequently the tail of the aircraft went down into the sand and we were stuck; we couldn’t take off. So whilst all the other aircraft got off safely, we were left stuck behind, on the airfield, with a busted tail wheel. Now, because this was [cough] 1941, there were not much in the way of maintenance or repair facilities at Gibraltar and consequently we were going to be stuck there until either a replacement tailwheel was flown out from England, or alternatively the fitters on the spot could make any repairs or any other arrangements. And what, finally, they managed to do, because there was no sign of anything coming out from England was to wade out into Algeciras Bay, where a Wellington had overshot and finished up in the sea some months before and had been there ever since! And they waded out to this aircraft, and they managed to detach the whole tailwheel assembly from this sunken aircraft out in the sea, haul it back to the land, take off my busted tailwheel and fit this recovered tailwheel on in its place. Alright, so we were okay to take off again. But the only trouble was that by this time, some more naval action had come about out of Malta and it was not safe for us to take off and arrive at Malta during this period. This naval activity and everything else that went on, bombing and what not, out of Malta, went on for some time, several weeks in fact, three or four weeks. During which time we were stuck in Gibraltar, and of course as a crew fine, it was a holiday for us, we used to wander off into Gibraltar town, and have tea and coffee and pastries up in the cafes and a few drinks and that sort of thing and buy cheap cigarettes, which you could do then of course, very cheap, and you know, come back to the airfield now and again to see if there was any news, and if there wasn’t, well. Anyway, we had a holiday for about three or four weeks, fine. But eventually we got the okay to take off. Now, the next important to mention is, that all the time that we were stuck at the airfield waiting permission to take off, the weather was very hot, and it was very windy, and the aircraft was parked on a sandy [emphasis] airfield, right. Now because of these circumstances, what I think [emphasis] happened was that during all this time, that sand got blown into the engines you see, and although from time to time when we went back to the airfield to see if there was any news, we used to start up the engines and run them, it was not possible to be certain that the engines were perfectly all right. So when we finally got the okay to take off, we had to assume that they were all right and so off we went and we didn’t take off until quite late at night. It was going to be a night flight to Malta which was going to be a bit dodgy anyway, because bear in mind we were very young trainee crews, you know, this was the, almost the first time we’d flown any distance from home, we were all very green and the idea of finding Malta, which is only quite a small island as you know, some I suppose, I don’t know, eight or nine hundred miles away perhaps, from Gibraltar. Well this would have been a fairly formidable proposition, even in broad daylight, but you can imagine, in these circumstances, after dark and with only an inexperienced navigator to rely on, it was going to be a fairly dodgy experience anyway, and although the navigator, assuming that it was a clear night, would be able to take star sights through the astrodome and get an approximate fix, as his position was known, that would have been some help, I think we would have been trusting to a fair slice of luck to be reasonably certain of arriving at Malta, because by that time, with any luck, it might have been daylight. I forget exactly what time we took off, we were certainly doing most of the trip, or reckoning on doing most of the trip, in the dark, but it should have been dawn by the time we got to Malta so at least we should have been able to see the island. However, as luck happened, we never did see the island because we never got there! And why we never got there was due to a very unfortunate set of circumstance. One of which was due, in my opinion, certainly with the benefit of hindsight, was due to this business of sand in the engines, because we had only been airborne and on our way for about three hours, two and a half to three hours, when the engines started playing up. Now how you can tell that engine is playing are one of a number of reasons. First of all obviously if the engine is in very bad shape it’s going to vibrate very badly so that you can feel that there is something wrong with the engine, but in this case, the first sign of trouble was by what was known as the oil pressure gauges. And of course, being a twin engined aircraft, the Wellington has two oil pressure gauges, and there is a range of temperature on those gauges in which it is safe for the aircraft to operate, but if the temperature on those engines starts going off the clock as we say, if it’s too hot then you’ve got problems. And this is precisely what happened, and it happened first of all with the starboard engine, that’s the engine on the right hand side, as I’m sure you know, and the temperature started going up to a very, very dangerous level, right. So the first thing to do was to try and close down that engine a little, to try and stop this overheating, but when we closed down the engine that side, a little, it obviously needed more revolutions on the port engine to keep the aircraft up, and when we increased revolutions on the port engine, the temperature on that [emphasis] gauge started mounting up and up and tending to go off the clock. So now we were in the awful position that we could not maintain enough revolutions on both engines to keep us flying level. So we didn’t know quite what we were going to do. But then the decision was taken out of our hands in effect, because what happened was that the starboard engine had overheated so much that it caught fire. And when it caught fire, of course we had a real problem because what happened then, was that although you have a fire extinguisher button in the cockpit, which you can press to activate a fire extinguisher in the engine, once you’ve done that of course, you’ve killed the engine. You can’t restart the engine so if you press that button you’ve killed that engine. But in fact, that again was also somewhat academic because the fire which had some back from the engine housing, had in fact set alight to the wing surface, and the wing surfaces of a Wellington are covered with fabric, as you perhaps know, they’re not metal wings like on modern aircraft, they are fabric covered and only the control surfaces were covered with metal. And this fire spread to the fabric of the aircraft, not seriously, but, well I suppose any fire in any part of an aircraft is serious. Anyway, the upshot of the matter was that it had now become impossible to maintain height on the power that we’d got on the left hand engine and if we had put the left hand engine up to full power that might have caught fire as well and that would have been curtains. Because as long as you’ve got some engine power you’ve got some control over the aircraft. When you’ve got no engine power at all you’ve got no control over the aircraft at all and it’s liable to drop out of the sky, isn’t it. So, we reckoned that by our navigation that at this time we were probably only about fifty or sixty miles off the North African coast and if you look at the map and you draw a line from Gibraltar to Malta you will see that at some point you are not very far north of the North African coast. So I decided, and being the skipper of the aircraft it’s entirely up to me what decision we make about the situation, I decided that no [emphasis] way were we going to be able to turn round and fly for two and a half hours or more back to Gibraltar, which was nearer than trying to go on to Malta, okay. So in view of the fact that we could neither hope to get back to Gibraltar, certainly not go on to Malta, my thought was, well all we can do is, we’re probably going to have to put this aircraft down in the sea, the best thing I can do is to turn south and get the blessed aircraft as near to dry land, whatever that land happens to be, that I possibly can. So I turned the aircraft south, told my wireless operator to send out a mayday signal, if you don’t know what a mayday signal is, it’s the internationally recognised signal for SOS, for assistance, sent out a mayday signal, we don’t know actually if that mayday signal ever reached anybody, but we sent it out anyway and I told the crew to prepare for ditching. Now that means they have to leave their normal seats, go back into the body of the aircraft, into the fuselage, and brace themselves as best they can with their backs to the front of the aircraft and to brace themselves as best they can for what is going to be a bumpy landing. Whether you land on the sea, or whether you land in the dark on open country it’s going to be a bumpy landing, or a dodgy one at the best of times. So that’s what we did, we headed south, losing height all the time, because by the time we decided these engines weren’t going to produce any more power, we were probably down to about two thousand feet and we weren’t going to stay airborne a lot longer, so we just kept on going down, and down, and down. And eventually there was just [emphasis] about enough light, starlight or moonlight, I can’t remember which, to see the waves, and so far as I was concerned, flying the aircraft, I was in the rather tricky position because although when you are flying the aircraft you are supposed to have your seatbelt on, in fact, it was hot and uncomfortable to wear a seatbelt, you know, down in the Mediterranean, and I hadn’t put my seatbelt on, in fact I was sitting on it! And because it was so difficult to control the aircraft and try and keep it flying at all, I couldn’t leave my seat or even get out of my seat in order for my second pilot to get my seat belt out from underneath me in order to wrap it round me and belt me in, you see. So I thought well, can’t be helped, I’ve just got to do the best I can. [Cough] So when it became apparent that we were getting near the sea and we were going to have to ditch it, all I could do, in fact, was to put my feet up onto the dashboard and brace it against the dashboard as best I could, and had the wheel, you know, in my hand, the steering column, and as we approached the sea, just to haul back on the stick to try and get the tail to hit first and we just ‘bump’ into the sea with an almighty kersplosh, you see. And because the, as I mentioned to you, the bulk of the Wellington aircraft is covered in fabric, much of the fabric must have been torn away on impact so the sea immediately rushed in everywhere, you see, and I was pretty well knocked out because having had the control column in front of me, as we hit the sea, so it whipped back and forth and the centre part of the control column hit me right on the top of head, above the temple and virtually knocked me out, I didn’t know what the devil was happening, but I became aware of the fact that there was water gushing in everywhere. One thing I forgot to tell you was that, as we were on the last stages before the landing, I’d asked the second pilot to open the roof of the cockpit, because on the Wellington you had, kind of glass doors, which you could open up, for an emergency, and he’d opened up these doors and the water just rushed me out of the roof, you see. And I came to in the sea, was sploshing around the thing and that I suppose brought me round to some extent, and I was aware of our dinghy floating in the sea about, I don’t know, I suppose ten or fifteen yards away and the only other thing I could see, and I remember seeing clearly, was the big tail of the aircraft, the fin and the rudder of the aircraft sticking up out of the water over there on my right. Anyway, I floundered and splashed my way across. I’d got my Mae West on, you know, the flotation jacket that you wore anyway, I’d got that on, I didn’t even think of flotating it, you know, at the time, you know, because I was so confused and half unconscious anyway, but I do remember floundering over in the direction of this dinghy which was tossing up and down on the waves and eventually I got there and grabbed the sort of rope going all the way round it, grabbed the rope and hung on to it for dear life, literally, and called out at the top of my voice to the others to tell them, you know, where I was and where the dinghy was, except that I didn’t get any answering shouts, or calls, which I thought was a bit strange, I remember. I thought well the next thing to do, I’d better get into the dinghy and I had the dickens of a job getting into the dinghy because, never having had any proper dinghy drill, I had completely forgotten that there was a little kind of rope ladder which hung down below the dinghy which was supposed to help you climb in, and I’d forgotten all about that, and it cost me nearly all my strength and energy to flounder over the side of the dinghy, eventually, and flop into the bottom of the dinghy and promptly passed out, and that was all I remember of that stage of it. Well then eventually I came round, I don’t know how long it must have been, I think it must have been just about getting light, so it was probably about, I don’t know, four, five o’clock in the morning, something like that, and there I was in the dinghy which was half full of water, and a horrible sort of yellowy green water and I wondered why it was yellowy green and I wondered if I’d been sick, and if I’d been sick was it that kind of colour? I eventually realised that that was because a thing called a marker, which the dinghy carried, which was a kind of chemical, a kind of phosphorescent chemical in a bag, which if you were in a dinghy you were supposed to trail this overboard and it would leave a fluorescent trail in the sea which was visible from a searching aircraft at some altitude you see. Anyway, I’d forgotten all about that as well. Well I came round in the dinghy and there I was all by myself. There was not another soul in sight. There were no signs of anybody floating or swimming round in the sea. Of course no more signs of the aircraft. The Wellington aircraft, incidentally, we were told, that if it was landed well, on a smooth sea, with luck it would float for seventy two seconds, which is not a lot of time, to evacuate an aircraft, and ours, you know, certainly didn’t float that long. However, there I was in my dinghy, to cut a long story short, I stayed in my dinghy, being sick from time to time, and being tossed around in the dinghy from time to time and trying to keep going on some inedible chocolate because there were what were known as emergency rations attached to the dinghy, and the emergency rations consisted of a tin, rather like a sardine tin, of unsweetened chocolate, which was horrible, and almost impossible to eat, you know, when you’ve got a dry mouth, something horrible, but there were some tablets there, I can’t even remember, oh, malted milk tablets I think they were, and there was some chewing gum, and there was also our water ration. And the water ration, and bear in mind the rations were intended for a crew of six, the water ration consisted of an ordinary hot water bottle full of water. I suppose about two pints of water. How long that was supposed to last a crew of six I don’t quite know, but anyway I sipped that from time to time and I sat there in the dinghy and from time to time it got rough and other times it calmed down a bit and I looked round the sky and I never saw any other aircraft or anything like that for about two days. On the third day I thought I spotted an aircraft a way up, very high in the distance, but it wasn’t coming my way anyway, so nothing further happened and I just decided to float around until something turned up. So I floated around and floated around and after the third night, I think it was, three days, no the fourth night I think it was, I was fast asleep in my dinghy and the sea was calm and smooth, it was dark and I was fast asleep, and suddenly the dinghy nearly turned upside down. A great wave woke me up in a start and I clutched the dinghy to stop myself falling out and looked up to see a great big dark shape going past in the night, very close to me. And I thought it’s a ship, it’s a ship, and nearly ran me down! And I yelled and the ship ploughed on, so I yelled a bit more, I said hey, come back! It disappeared into the night and I thought, oh my goodness, perhaps it was a dream, perhaps I’m dreaming this, perhaps it was a mirage, I never saw it at all, perhaps there wasn’t a ship, and then much to my huge relief, I saw the ship coming back and it came alongside me, and I couldn’t tell in the dark exactly what sort of ship it was, but a voice called out, who are you? [Laugh] You see. I said I’m the pilot from Wellington ZZ873, you’re a pretty sight, can I come on board? And they threw a scrambling net, as it’s called, over the side of this ship. A couple of sailors scrambled down this net ladder thing and they said are you able to climb out of there on this? I said I’ll get there if it’s the last thing I do! Anyway it was clear I was clearly wasn’t able to climb it up, I was obviously very weak by this time so a couple of darned great sailors came down this ladder and they got hold of me and they sort of hauled me on board and happily they also hauled the dinghy on board and then the ship got underway and I went down to the sick bay and they looked after me down there. Oh, and the story could go on and on for a long time but that was really, about the end of the active part of it, I can just wind up by saying that I finished up in hospital in Gibraltar, which was where the destroyer - I’d better tell you a little bit about that. The destroyer was one called HMS Avon Vale and was one of the civil destroyers which were screening what was known as H Force. And H Force was part of the Mediterranean Fleet, which consisted of I think it was the battleships Rodney and Renown, and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, and a couple of cruisers and about eight destroyers, which were known as H Force, which were all on their way back to Gibraltar from all this naval action which had been going on around Malta and Italy which had prevented us from going from Malta earlier than we did. Do you remember? I mentioned that earlier. Anyway, they treated me very well on the ship and they dumped me at Gibraltar and I was taken up to the KG5 military hospital, as it was called, in Gibraltar and I was there for, almost, in the main hospital, for about a week, not much longer, because I wasn’t really very seriously injured and then after that I was sent down to a sort of convalescent place, again still on the Rock of Gibraltar, until there was room on an aircraft to fly me back home. Which eventually there was. There was room on a Catalina, a flying boat, which was leaving for Milford Haven in South Wales. I got on board that, we took off and flew back, landed at Milford Haven in Wales and I got a travel warrant to go back up to London, where I met my wife, somewhat to her relief, and all was well. Except that a crew of six and a brand new aircraft went out and all that came back was a busted up pilot. End of story.
Matt Philips, “Interview with Leslie Curtis ,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 26, 2022, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/35620.
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