Lancaster JB139 Dark Victor

MCurtisA1579599-161130-02.pdf

Title

Lancaster JB139 Dark Victor

Description

A memoir of an operation involving Len Curtis and his crew members. During the operation his aircraft was shot down and Len was captured. However, he was liberated by American soldiers and returned to London six weeks later.

This item was sent to the IBCC Digital Archive already in digital form. No better quality copies are available.

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33 printed sheets

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This content is available under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0). It has been published ‘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. For more information, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/ and https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/legal.

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Identifier

MCurtisA1579599-161130-02

Transcription

LANCASTER J B 139

[drawing]
DARK VICTOR

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[Photograph]

Don Cheney’s crew (photograph taken in London circa December 1943).

Back row (L-R): R. Pool, J. Rosher, W. N. Wait, McRostie. Front row (L-R): R. Welch, D. Cheney, A Curtis

L’équipage de Don cheney [sic] (photo prise à Londres vers décembre 1943).

Debout, de gauche à droite: R. Pool, J. Rosher, W. N. Wait, McRostie.
Assis, de gauche à droite: R. Welch, D. Cheney, A Curtis.

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617 Squadron’s campaign against the V-Sites in the Pas de Calais had concluded with the final assault on the V-1 site at Siracourt on 1st August, 1944. The Pas de Calais had been over-run by various units of the Allied Armies, positively breaking out from the consolidated beach-head area, and sending the German forces into headlong retreat along the whole front, save for the various French coastal redoubts, which the Allies initially by-passed without making any strong effort to subdue them.

617 Squadron, in company with other squadrons of Bomber Command, had pulverised the enemy’s E-Boat flotillas in the French harbours of Le Havre and Boulogne, forcing the remnants to retreat to the comparatively safer harbours of Holland, notably Ijmuiden. These units now had a much longer voyage to oppose the invasion support convoys and this, together with the short summer nights, had rendered their efforts against these convoys almost innocuous and very costly in the casualties inflicted by the convoy escorts.

With the underlying threat of the V-Sites firmly removed, 617’s efforts were re-directed against the French Biscay ports of Brest, Lorient and La Pallice. The aim was to deny these ports and their facilities to the ocean-going U-Boats and to drive them to other, and more northerly lairs. There was an additional purpose in the matter of Brest. Strong American forces had broken out of their bridgehead area and were deploying rapidly and with great purpose through the “bocage” country of Normandy and Brittany. American units had isolated the German garrison in Cherbourg, one of the planned redoubts, whilst other motorised and armoured columns were making all speed towards Brest. The Allies needed to capture a large established

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deep-water port as soon as possible. Thus, the German garrison in Brest, with their numbers greatly increased by the many other German units which had sought refuge from the American advance, needed to have demonstrated to them just exactly what the total Allied air supremacy would bring to them during any period they might resolve to hold out. “Drive out the U-Boats and intimidate the garrison” . . . these were the deadly purposes of the assaults about to be launched from the air on Brest.

Flying Officer Don Cheney eased Lancaster “KC – V“ (JB 139) into the air at 0949 hours on Saturday, 5th August, 1944, from RAF Woodhall Spa. The squadron effort was sixteen Lancasters, each armed with a Tallboy bomb, and “V – Victor” was the ninth aircraft to get airborne. Beside the pilot, Flight Sergeant Jim Rosher prepared to ease back the throttles and later set the “revs and boost” his captain would request for the climb to height, once the full take-off procedure had been fulfilled. Flight Sergeant Len Curtis prepared to take his Bomb Aimer’s position in the nose from his perch on the step immediately below the flight engineer’s position. At the navigation table Pilot Officer Roy Welch was busy “setting out his stall” . . as was the wireless operator Flight Sergeant Reg Pool at the W/T set. In the mid-upper turret Warrant Officer Ken Porter settled himself comfortably, whilst Pilot Officer William Noel Wait did likewise in the rear turret. Both gunners prepared to unlock and test their turrets when the engines were throttled back and it was safe to do so.

The aircraft circled the airfield until the navigator warned that it was almost time to set course. Don brought the Lancaster round on to the

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required heading over the airfield and commenced the long, unhurried climb to the operational height of 18,000 feet.

It was a beautiful summer’s day . . . very warm with almost cloudless skies affording continuous sunshine. The mighty Merlins lifted the heavily-laden aircraft effortlessly and without one discordant note. Don checked with each member of the crew that all systems were operational and that there were no snags. He actioned the occasional slight course correction offered by the industrious navigator. When the aircraft had reached the operational height, Don called for the necessary cruising “revs and boost” to be set on the dials, checking the readings when he had Jim Rosher’s assertion that this had been carried out.

Don felt quite elated that another operational phase was beginning for the squadron against the U-Boat pens, with formidable Brest as the first target. He had found the tasks on 617 much more self-satisfying than those long, and very demanding, hauls in the enemy darkness, to bomb Target Indicators laid by other unknown crews. In the daylight raids of 617, captains were required to identify their aiming-points visually and to aim their bombs at this point . . often able to observe the success of the squadron’s effort before the confirming reconnaissance photos were available. Even on the 617 night operations, the Lancaster crews knew that the target had been identified and marked with meticulous accuracy by the squadron’s Mosquito marking force, so that the red spot fires could be bombed with the certain knowledge that they were on the aiming point. Don’s mind slipped back to the attack on the Watten V2 site in the Pas de Calais on July 25th, when the very accurate flak defences had knocked out one engine of his aircraft and so severely damaged the hydraulic system that all turrets became inoperable: the bomb doors hung limply open and the

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availability of the undercarriage became a matter of conjecture and prayer. The fuselage was awash with hydraulic oil and filled with the acrid smell of cordite. Miraculously, the intercomm was working and Don had raised all the crew, save the mid-upper gunner, the Aussie “Mac” McRostie. Don instructed the wireless operator to investigate the silence, in case the gunner was in need of assistance. A shaken Reg Pool appeared beside him some moments later, puled Don’s right earpiece aside and yelled “Mac’s gone!”. Don banked the aircraft, to bring it round course back to the UK, at the same time surveying the area below. His eye picked up the white silk of a parachute against the background of green countryside. It was about four thousand feet below the Lancaster and drifting gently inland. Mac’s prisoner-of-war status had been reported to Allied sources within a few days by the Resistance network. Don had taken stock of the damage to the aircraft during the return flight, and was greatly relieved to discover that no fires had started and that no member of the crew was injured. Some desultory heavy flak was aimed at them as they neared the French coast, but it was inaccurate and did no damage. Jim Rosher called Don’s attention to something overhead and there, sitting some thirty feet above the Lancaster, and sliding gently across and back again, was a Spitfire. The Spit then perched just off the starboard wing, with he pilot giving “Thumbs Up”, until the English coast was reached and then, with a salute of farewell, it peeled off to starboard and was gone. There was a temptation to “drop in“ at one of the many ‘dromes en route, but dogged persistence drove them on to Woodhall Spa. Fortuitously, the emergency air bottles “blew down” and locked the undercarriage and “T for Tare” flopped in without ceremony or waste of time, on clearance from the Control Tower.

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It was this series of events that had introduced Ken Porter into the crew. Ken had finished his first tour with 619 Squadron at Coningsby and had immediately opted to join 617. By coincidence, Don Cheney had been the pilot of the Lancaster which had flown the short distance from Woodhall Spa to Coningsby to pick him up and effect his transfer to his new squadron. Don was very pleased to have a fellow Canadian in his crew, for all the other members were from the United Kingdom and . . . Len Curtis’ voice broke in on his musings. “English coast coming up, navigator . . . we look to be OK on track and I’ll give you “crossing coast” when we’re overhead”. Roy Welch duly acknowledged the message and Don alerted himself for the passage across the Channel and into enemy territory. Once over the sea, both gunners performed the ritual test of the turret guns and reported all guns serviceable. ”V – Victor” crossed the enemy coast without any opposition manifesting itself, with the promised Spitfire escort ranged above and around the assembling 617, as they marshalled at the rendezvous point. Don took his allocated position in the “gaggle”, which proceeded on its stately and irrevocable purpose. The bomb-sight data passed between the navigator and the bomb-aimer, to be re-checked once it had been fed to the bomb-sight and before the aircraft was committed to the bombing run. Then the formation swung sharply to starboard, denying confirmation to the defenders of Brest that the port was really the objective of the operation until the last possible moment., The campaign against the U-Boat bases had begun in deadly earnest.

The run-up to the target was some twenty miles in length. As always, the Stabilised Automatic Bomb-Sight demanded the closest tolerances of height, course and airspeed from the pilot and Don Cheney’s total concentration was

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on these three factors. He knew from Len Curtis’s calm voice and quiet, unhurried directions that the bomb-aimer had the target well and truly lined up in his bomb-sight. Sweat trickled into Don’s eyes and down the side of his face, soaking into the collar of his shirt . . . not much longer now, and the Tallboy would be on its lethal way and he would have the luxury of drying himself with his handkerchief . . . not much longer for that blessed relief . . . not much longer. Suddenly, the voice of the rear gunner broke into the intercomm. “Looks as if some quite heavy barrage fire is coming up, skip!”. Don did not answer, his whole being concentrated on the final crucial moments of the bombing run. Ken Porter swung his turret to check the rear gunner’s observation. A second string of black bursts appeared above the black cotton-wool of the initial salvo and his experienced eye could see that the salvos were creeping higher and nearer. Don heard the dulled explosions . . . under the nose and to each side, he surmised, but the bomb-aimer’s directions held him in thrall. Then came the memory-stirring clangs and thumps as direct hits struck the aircraft with giant hammer-blows. A gasping cry came over the intercomm but still the bomb-aimer continued his relentless commentary. The cockpit filled with cordite fumes and again fiery red bursts erupted around the aircraft. Another involuntary cry came over the intercomm, almost drowned by the triumphant cry of “Bomb Gone!” from the bomb-aimer. With the main duty now performed, Don began the task of extricating the crew from the serious situation in which they obviously were. He banked and dived the Lancaster to port to elude further predicted bursts. Jim Rosher folded his seat and moved towards the navigation table. Don was still holding the dive from the danger zone when Jim came on the intercom. “Roy and Reg are both hurt, Don” he reported. “I’m attending to Roy . . . Ken and Noel have come forward

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[inserted] 7 [/inserted]

and are attending to Reg”. “Any idea of the damage, Jim?” asked Don. “All the gauges on the Engineer’s panel are wrecked, Don” replied Jim. Ken Porter came on the intercom. “I got down from my turret after the first strike, Don, to see what the score was . . and then the second shell struck home, just aft of the main spar, I figure. I almost choked on the fumes from the explosion of that shell! The damage seems to be confined to the starboard side of the kite, in the wing-root area”. “There’s a large hole in the nav table” interjected Jim “and the radio compartment is pretty badly smashed!”. “Thanks both” replied Don. “Could Roy give me a course for Base when he’s ready?”. Jim Rosher realised that Don did not quite know the extent of the navigatgor’s [sic] wounds. Shrapnel had struck him in the face, tearing away the oxygen mask and removing his upper teeth and gums. Jim had just applied a field dressing to the area . . . despite the pain he was suffering, Ron had managed to smile crookedly when the pad was put in place. When Don’s request came over the intercomm, and to Jim’s utter amazement, Roy sat up in his chair, pored over his log and wrote some figures on a clip-board pad. He then stood up with a great effort. Aware of movement on his right, Don turned quickly. Roy was standing by the pilot’s seat, one hand grasping the high, armour-plated back and the other carrying the clip-board. His face was covered from nose to chin with a large antiseptic pad. There were large spots of blood on his shirt collar and on the side of his head. He was unable to speak but relinquished his grip on the seat-back, to hold the clip-board where Don could read it, indicating with his pencil the message he had written. “Heading 060”. . Don gave him a grateful nod and set the course on his compass repeater. Roy tottered back to his seat for Jim Rosher to continue to minister to his wounds. Len

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Curtis had switched off the SABS and all the bombing gear and brought the First Aid kit to assist the two wounded members.

Don continued the descending turn to port, aiming to bring the Lancaster on to the course so gallantly proffered by the navigator. He had noted that Ron was not on oxygen and assumed that Reg was in the same predicament, so he had increased the rate of descent in order to get down below oxygen height as quickly as possible. The compass needle was nearing a southerly heading in the continuing turn, when he felt a poke in the side. He looked to his right and saw Jim Rosher pointing to the starboard wing. Don looked along the raised wing and was appalled to see a large jagged hole between the two engines. It looked large enough for a man to crawl through! Beyond this chasm, was a number of smaller holes, from which were emerging small light blue flames and wisps of smoke. He continued the diving turn to port, to keep the possible fire hazard away from the fuselage. He mentally summed up the prospects and gave the order “Prepare to abandon aircraft! Prepare to abandon aircraft!”.

Jim Rosher checked that his ‘chute was readily to hand. He saw that Len Curtis was still busily engaged, ministering gently to the badly-wounded Wireless Operator, who had sustained wounds in the chest and legs from large jagged pieces of shrapnel. Jim lowered himself into the bombing well to prepare the escape hatch for abandonment, a duty which normally Len would have performed. He was lifting the hatch from its location when he noticed that Len Curtis’s ‘chute was lying loose on the floor. Fearing that the slipstream might suck it from the aircraft when the hatch was jettisoned, Jim let go of the hatch, which by this time was half-way out of the aircraft. The impact of the slipstream jammed the hatch across the

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escape exit. Jim crawled carefully around the partially-blocked exit and secured the rogue ‘chute in its proper stowage. He then endeavoured to deal with the recalcitrant hatch cover. He managed to budge it a few inches but that was all. He gave up and returned to his post beside the pilot.

On receipt of the captain’s order, Ken Porter and Noel Wait immediately went back to their ‘chute stowages to clamp their parachutes on their chests, leaving Len Curtis still ministering to the wireless operator. Noel Wait was having some trouble with his ‘chute pack and Ken Porter went to help him. Noel must have thought that Ken was on his way to the rear door, for he called urgently “Wait for me!” . . . which Don heard on the intercom and he sought to reassure the rear gunner that the order was only preparatory at that time. Suddenly the starboard inner engine failed and began to belch flames and black smoke. Jim Rosher quickly feathered the engine and threw the appropriate graviner switch to quell the flames in that engine. This seemed to deal effectively with the situation. “Both wings are holed, Don” reported Jim “and the fuselage is badly holed and torn in many places!”. Don could see a blue flame burning ominously in the No 2 fuel tank. It seemed to be growing even as he watched. He could feel heat building up from the starboard side of the cockpit. There was not a moment to Lose! . . “ABANDON AIRCRAFT! ABANDON AIRCRAFT!” he ordered.

At the rear of the aircraft, Noel Wait had plugged into the intercomm socket whilst Ken Porter had secured the rear door open. Ken saw that flames were streaming back from the starboard wing, almost the length of the fuselage. The flames and smoke dispersed suddenly, but hard on the heels of this Ken received a visual signal from Noel that the order to

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abandon aircraft had been given. He signed for Noel to go first, but Noel indicated for Ken to lead the way. Ken sat on the door sill with his legs dangling in the slip-stream. He leaned back and then tried to roll himself forward, as had been so easy in the practice drills. But due to the aircraft’s “starboard wing up” attitude, the roll forward took a great deal of effort and Ken found himself leaving the aircraft much closer to the fuselage than he might have expected. However, that seemed to ensure he was well clear of the tail assembly. He had no doubt that Noel would quickly follow him.

Jim Rosher slid forward into the bombing well and tried desperately to free the jammed hatch. Suddenly he was aware that Roy Welch was beside him, ‘chute clipped on and a large dressing still strapped across his face. In spite of his injuries, Roy assisted Jim to such effect that, although their efforts failed to free the hatch cover, it was moved sufficiently to allow a somewhat cramped escape route. Roy waved his hand in farewell to Jim and, with some difficulty, launched himself from the aircraft. Jim turned to see that Len Curtis was now in the bombing well. He put his mouth close to Len’s ear and said “How’s Reg?” “He’s right behind me!” replied Len “You leave now and I’ll follow you!” Immediately Jim manoeuvred himself through the restricted escape exit and was gone. Len edged his way around to his ‘chute stowage, clamped the ‘chute on to his harness and returned to the jammed hatch cover. He could see that he was not going to be able to negotiate the exit as he constituted at the moment, being, in his own words, “somewhat portly”. He tried without success to budge the jammed cover. Reg Pool was sitting dazedly on the fuselage floor, above the step leading into the bombing well. Len signalled Reg to retreat a bit, to give Len more

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room, but it was obvious that Reg just did not understand what Len was indicating. Len released the ‘chute straps from his main harness, whilst keeping the ‘chute secured in the clamps. He used both hands to raise the pack above his head and sat down at the escape exit with his feet through the narrowed opening. Gripping the pack above his head as tightly as his fingers would allow, he uttered a silent prayer and thrust himself into space. His stratagem worked and he cleared the aircraft without difficulty.

Don Cheney had ceased turning the aircraft to port on issuing the order to abandon and held it at height on a southerly course whilst his crew got out. He could see that the aircraft was just out to sea and felt that his crew would have a better chance of escaping capture in the area south of Brest, if the surge of the German retreat had been pell-mell northwards towards Brest once Wehrmacht units had been appraised of the American “break-out in great strength” some days previously. One of Jim Rosher’s last acts before leaving the aircraft had been to lay a ‘chute pack under Don’s seat, to expedite Don’s own departure from the Lancaster. Don had been fully informed of the situation with the jammed hatch cover. He was aware of the departure of the navigator, flight engineer and then his bomb-aimer. He knew that the two gunners had left by the rear door and appreciated that the badly-wounded wireless operator and himself were the sole remaining aircrew. He climbed down from his seat and, holding the aircraft as steady as possible by keeping his left hand on the control column, he strove with his right arm to help Reg to his feet. Slowly he managed to raise Reg and used both hands to steady the weakened aircrew. As soon as he had taken his hand from the control column, the aircraft began to wallow ominously from side to

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side. Don was forced to regain his seat and settle the aircraft again. Reg clung precariously to the side of the seat whilst this was happening. When he was satisfied that the aircraft was on even keel again, Don left his seat and clipped his wireless operator’s ‘chute on to Reg’s harness. Reg had been holding the pack, but was obviously too weak to do this task for himself. The Lancaster insisted on nosing into a steep dive each time Don took his hand from the controls and repeatedly Don had to regain his seat to bring the aircraft out of the dive. Eventually, Reg had been prepared for abandoning the aircraft. In one of the Lancaster’s “behaviour lulls”, Don was able to lead him down to the escape exit. Reg dangled his feet through the escape exit and, with Don’s help and guidance, was able to grasp the silver D-ring. Again, Don had to leave him to “recover” the aircraft from a dive. As soon as he could, he returned to Reg’s side. Don had some misgivings about Reg’s capacity to act correctly once he had left the aircraft and sought to reassure himself, although there really was no alternative to what had to happen. Don removed Reg’s helmet and, putting his mouth close to Reg’s ear, he said urgently “You will be OK, Reg, won’t you? . . . once you’ve left the aircraft?” The injured man nodded a couple of times. Somewhat reassured, Don continued “Keep hold of the ring, Reg and don’t pull it until you are well clear . . . understand?” Again he was answered with nods of the head. Don put his hands under Reg’s armpits, lifted him and eased him gently through the exit. Suddenly, Reg was gone without any further hurt or hindrance. Don peered through the exit but failed to pick up any sign of a parachute. He became aware that the aircraft was diving again and hurried back to regain control and to prepare for his own departure.

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Don had scarcely retrieved the situation when there was a surge of heat from the starboard side of the fuselage. Instinctively he turned to the engineer’s panel and was aghast to see bubbles appearing in the yellow paint of the panel. He climbed down from his seat and stooped to retrieve his ‘chute pack and clipped it to his chest. He had to remove his hand from the controls to effect this and immediately the Lancaster went into a steep dive. A noise like a roaring tornado developed as the slipstream tore in through the escape hatch and ravaged through the battered fuselage to escape at the open rear door. The engine noise was rising to a crescendo! . . . he fought his way back into his seat and with a superhuman effort, brought the nose up . . up . . up . . and then pushed the column forward until a semblance of “straight and level” flight was assumed. His mind had been racing ahead . . . no way was he going to be able to get down into the bombing-well and launch himself into space before the stricken Lancaster went into its final death-dive . . . no way could he reach the rear door exit, either! No, it HAD to be through the ditching hatch above his head! He turned in his seat, so that he was able to kneel on the seat cushion and jam his rump against the control column. He gave the release handle a firm twist and the hatch cover windmilled off into the slip-stream. The wind-noise increased ten-fold! Don removed his helmet and sun-glasses and tossed them towards the floor, but they were immediately whisked off down the fuselage. With his feet now on the seat, he forced his head and shoulders through the hatch opening but found he was unable to clear it. Urgently, he sought to get first one foot and then the other on the seat armrests . . . and then was shattered to find that the ‘chute pack prevented him from getting through the hatch! He crouched back again inside the cockpit. The

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aircraft was in a steep dive and his best efforts could only bring the nose up slightly. He knew he HAD to get out NOW! He resumed his attempt to get through the dinghy hatch, but this time was able to flip the pack upwards and clear of the hatch before beginning to wrestle the rest of his body through the opening. He stood on the armrests again and managed to get his right knee on the edge of the hatch. His left foot groped frantically for additional purchase below. Miraculously, he made contact with the back of the seat . . . felt his way upwards until his foot was at the top of his seat which provided a promise of firm leverage. He paused to gather all his reserves of strength and then gave a tremendous push on his left foot. He bulleted out into a roaring cacophony of sound. The blurred hump of the mid-upper turret flashed past and, with that peculiar human sense that allows one to observe the innocuous in moments of great personal stress, he gave mental thanks that Ken had remembered to depress the turret guns. The two large tail fins loomed and went safely by and with them the W/T aerials that could have cut through him like a wire through cheese . . . and then he was tumbling in space, with his knees drawn up to his chest. In his gyrations he saw blue sky and white clouds framed between his flying boots . . . then water . . . then land . . . then the sky and clouds again to complete the cycle. His consciousness was no longer dominated by the roar of the aircraft. Instead, there was a rushing of air past his ears. He felt around the pack for the release handle and seized it thankfully. He waited a further five seconds and gave it a very firm pull. It gave with incredible ease and he was conscious of holding the D-ring in his hand, with a two-feet length of wire attached to it and not the slightest slackening of his speed of fall! “Hell!” he thought “I’ve pulled it too

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hard and the “chute just isn’t going to work! What an ending after all I’ve escaped!”. A definite “whumpf” halted these thoughts in their tracks . . . his headlong fall was arrested . . . he assumed an upright position . . . no more rushing air in his ears. He was floating gently aloft, with only the gentle flapping of the beautiful white canopy above him to break the silence of that lovely summer afternoon. He heard the drone of an aircraft and looked around to see “V for Victor” in its death throes. It had reared from its downward plunge, with its nose rising until the Lancaster toppled over. For one frightening moment Don felt that there was a distinct possibility of the aircraft banking round and perhaps striking him, but then it went into a gentle spin towards the sea. An eternity seemed to pass before it finally struck the surface with one final roar. A great burst of red flames and thick black smoke was followed by a boiling circle of churning sea. The Don saw a series of smaller splashes as lesser debris hit the water, but finally nothing remained to mark the grave of “V for Victor” but a column of spiralling smoke which the sea breeze quickly dispersed.

A dull, muted droning of aircraft engines became faintly audible. Peering into the distance, Don could make out the specks of other 617 aircraft which, having delivered their bomb-loads, were now haring back to Woodhall Spa. Soon they were gone and an unbroken silence descended. Don could see no other ‘chutes in the sky around him. To all intents and purposes he was completely alone.

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Len Curtis was greatly relieved when the billowing silk canopy of his parachute arrested his headlong fall through space. He became aware that, whilst he had been wrestling his way through the narrowed escape hatch, the racing slip-stream had torn off his right flying boot, and for a few moments he was non-plussed . . . why hadn’t his left flying boots joined its companion? But he was swiftly dragged back to reality when he saw the Lancaster turning towards him in a shallow dive. For a few agonising moments, he was sure that it would hit him, but suddenly it resumed straight and level flight and the danger passed, but too close for real comfort. Len examined the area around and below him but failed to pick up the ‘chutes of Roy Welch and Jim Rosher. He began to assess his own situation and estimated that he would enter the waters of the bay some two miles from land. The sensation of rapid descent increased as he neared the water. He prepared himself for the plunge by unlocking the quick-release unit of the ‘chute. When he judged himself to be about fifteen feet above the surface of the sea, he struck the unit with his clenched fist, at the same time operating the automatic inflation lever on his Mae West. He fell out of his ‘chute and harness, which drifted away, clear of the spot where Len eventually hit the water. He went down only a few feet before rising buoyantly to the surface. He surveyed the geography of the bay and found himself in the broad base of its sweep. Undaunted, he commenced to swim towards the shore, deflating his Mae West slightly to allow himself to assume a comfortable swimming posture. He was glad to find that the water was quite warm and felt that, under less intimidating circumstances, it would have been quite a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon. He glanced at his watch . . it had stopped at 1220 pm.

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He made steady progress towards an outcrop of rock and estimated that he had been in the sea for about two hours, when a burst of automatic fire split the silence. He heard the hiss of the bullets as they passed overhead and he turned to face the direction from which they had come. He made out a knot of German troops on the beach. About half-dozen had their weapons trained threateningly on him, whilst one beckoned him imperiously to change his direction towards them, making it plain what would happen if he refused. Cursing his luck, Len swam towards them and soon he was standing on the beach, dripping wet, surrounded by Germans. They expertly removed all his valuables and possessions, which they pocketed with great satisfaction, but the reception was generally cordial. Obviously, they remarked between themselves on his missing boot. Len discarded his Mae West, and it was immediately examined by the interested troops. Len was disgusted to find that they were armed with Sten guns . . . the guns that the supply squadrons regularly dropped to the Resistance! His captors were obviously a platoon under the command of a Corporal, but quite soon a car appeared from which emerged a Wehrmacht officer. He strode across to Len, who stood to attention, as military etiquette demanded. The German studies Len for a few moments. “Ah, Feldwebel” he said and motioned Len into the car. With Len flanked in the rear by two “Sten-armed” soldiers, and the officer in the front passenger seat, the car moved off. It sped through a town which Len was to learn later was Douarnenez and on for some way until it reached a small military camp. Len was escorted to a cell and a meal of German field rations and hot black erzatz coffee was provided, again with the same cordiality that had reigned on the beach. He rested for an hour or so, when the door was unlocked and a Feldwebel beckoned him out. He was taken to an office block and escorted into a room where a different

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Wehrmacht officer sat at a table. Len saluted as he entered and the officer indicated the chair which faced him across the table. Len sat down and prepared himself for the interrogation. “Number . . . rank and name” he was asked, in quite reasonable English and Len provided this information, which was entered on the form in front of his interrogator. “Unit?”, came the next question. Len shook his head “I am afraid I cannot give you that, sir” he replied. The officer looked at him quizzically and after a few moments, pushed himself back from the table and left the room through a door behind his desk . . . Len heard a muffled conversation between perhaps three or four voices and then the officer returned. “Sergeant, you will be taken to Quimper airport tomorrow and handed over to the Luftwaffe. The information you have given us will be forwarded, as required, but we have more important things to do at this moment than to interrogate RAF prisoners.” He called for the Feldwebel and soon Len found himself back in his cell. Relief allowed him to sleep quite soundly that night.

In the morning he was given a meal and transported under guard to Quimper airfield. Before he left the camp, he was handed a pair of German Army issue boots. Len took a grip on the leg and boot of his flying boot with a few swift jerks, separated them by breaking the stitching, as provided by their design. He tore out the silk linings of the legging, folded them into small packs, and put them in the back pockets of his battle-dress trousers. He managed to have some conversation with his guards on the drive to Quimper and discovered that the majority of the troops holding this part of France were Austrian and Czech formations. There was an awareness of the American break-out from the invasion beaches and Len was left with the distinct impression that his guards wanted nothing more

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than to be captured in one piece and get out of this war! This cheered him no end, and went a long way in explaining the cordiality with which he had been received.

At Quimper airfield, he was placed in the custody of a Luftwaffe corporal, who seemed to be the only Luftwaffe representative left. His Wehrmacht guards and driver insisted on shaking hands with him before they left, and Len was becoming more and more at ease with his situation. The Luftwaffe corporal turned out to be a conscripted Czech who had a few similar Czech troopers under his command. He was quite amenable and spoke some English. Len gathered that the corporal was hourly expecting orders to evacuate the airfield and this would mean moving a band of about two hundred French Algerian prisoners-of-war . . and Len! He spent a not unpleasant day at Quimper and could see that morale amongst the German “mercenaries” was plunging.

The following day, Monday 7th August, the Luftwaffe corporal informed Len that orders had come through to evacuate the airfield and move all prisoners into the Crozon Peninsular. It was estimated that a march of some 45 kilometres lay ahead, which Len interpolated as around 28 miles. The corporal added that the march would be accomplished at night, since the Allied Air Forces had made the roads in Brittany very dangerous for the movement of large formations in daylight hours. Len rested most of the day in preparation for what lay ahead. At about 1700 hrs, the corporal and his troop began the thankless task of assembling their French-Algerian prisoners, many of whom had so many large packages draped about them that they looked like pack-mules! Just before 1800 hrs the party, in some fifty

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files of four abreast, trudged out of the camp, en route for the Crozon Peninsular, with the corporal pushing his beloved bike. It was a warm clear evening, with the guards anxiously scanning the skies and straining their ears for the first possible warning of an air attack. Fortune favoured the column in this respect and dusk fell with no interference from marauding Allied fighters. Dusk turned to night, with bright moonlight effectively lighting the road. The party, which had had a degree of compactness at the outset, was now strung out over a distance of some four hundred yards. Consequently, the escort became ever more thinly spread along the length of the column. They passed through what appeared to be sleeping French villages, although Len was certain that curtains were raised in darkened upstairs windows to observe their progress. He wondered if “underground” radios were passing the information on to Maquis squads and fervently hoped that no clandestine ambush would be laid against the party before its identity had been checked.

Occasionally a halt was called for a short break, generally in the area of a village pump, or public water supply. The dispersal of the marchers had one advantage, in that it made for less crowding around the drinking area. It also allowed the mass to coagulate somewhat, although the more lightly-weighted elements were soon ahead of the “beasts of burden” once the march was resumed. Len’s feet became blistered, and so he sat down on a grassy bank, removed his German field boots and put his feet in the cool water of the brook that ran past. He soaked some of the linings from his flying-boot and carefully bound up his blistered feet, revelling in the relief that the silk pads immediately afforded. He became aware that many of the Algerians now passing him were limping badly. Ignoring the guards, Len called to them, indicating for them to sit on the bank and bathe their feet as he had

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done. They did this gratefully. Len set to work to minister to as many as he could until his lining stock was exhausted, but he still signalled to others to bathe their feet. The guards shrugged their shoulders . . . some even joined their charges in their ministrations.

Still the trek dragged on its weary way. Fruit trees and occasional root crops gave sustenance to the prisoners, for no ration provision had been made for them when the march was ordered. Len quite understood when he saw them stuffing items into their baggage after each “windfall” . . . they were providing against what might lie beyond their next camp.

Len was padding along beside the bike-pushing corporal, who was becoming quite concerned about the spread of the column, now that their destination was about two hours walk ahead. The corporal called a halt for the prisoners at the head of his party and indicated to Len that he would be going back to “chivvy along” the stragglers. He left his bike in Len’s charge and strode back down the road. When he was out of sight, Len mounted the cycle and pedalled off towards the squad of prisoners ahead. Some of the Algerians thought he was escaping and gave him encouraging cheers, but Len felt his best bet in the obvious chaotic battle situation was to accept his present captivity until a genuine opportunity presented itself to make contact with Allied troops. In the meantime, using the corporal’s bike would take the weight off his blistered feet! When he was almost upon the leading batch, he dismounted and rested by the roadside. When the first file of the laggards hove into hearing and view, he remounted the bike and caught up with the leaders once more. He continued this routine of “riding and resting” for an hour or so before actually riding through the ranks of the pace-setters and finally making the guards understand that their batch should wait for the remainder of the prisoners

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to catch up, so that the party could arrive as a whole unit at their destination, which could not be all that far ahead. The prospect of a break appealed to the guards and the prisoners and they were quite content to rest for the hour it took the whole of the rear party to catch up. The corporal was pleased with Len’s arrangements but took the precaution of reclaiming his bike, so that Len finished the trek on his own two well-rested feet.

It was just after 1100 hours on Tuesday, 8th August that the whole party arrived at their destination in the Crozon Peninsular, some eighteen hours after leaving Quimper airfield. The Algerians were marched on to a makeshift camp, but Len was taken by the Czech corporal to a house that had been commandeered by the Wehrmacht. Len was accommodated in a bedroom converted into a cell and was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the rough pillow.

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Len was kept in this location for two days, with very little restriction on his movements. His corporal “friend” accompanied him on exercise walks in the immediate areas and Len was “on the ration strength” of the guard-room staff, eating the same food as they did. Len observed that the Wehrmacht were just as opportunist at supplementing rations as any other army in the field and included him in the share of the “extras”.

On the evening of the third day, a small Wehrmacht lorry stopped outside the guard-room. The driver produced orders for Len’s transfer to Brest and Len was duly handed over, after hand-shakes all round, much to the amazement of the lorry driver who proved to be a genuine ”German” German! Two Wehrmacht soldiers with fixed bayonets watched over him in the body of the truck, but they also showed great concern about the almost-continuous aircraft engine noise that accompanied that nocturnal journey to what proved to be Brest, but, to the great relief of all, they made the journey without incident. Len was initially kept in a small school, barricaded with barbed wire, along with mainly American Army prisoners, although he did come across two more RAF aircrew during his stay.

Yet again the Germans decided to move him and he was transplanted within the Brest boundaries to a castle which housed some one hundred and fifty American soldiers. He was occasionally included in the fatigue parties that were roughly assembled and marched down into the dock area to help clear the rubble-strewn streets, the legacy of the many bombing raids that the port was enduring. Low-flying and dive-bombing American fighter-bombers strafed and bombed the port’s defences continually throughout the daylight hours, with great effect. Len was crossing a street when he heard a bomb coming down that he knew was going to be very close. He dived into the

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gutter, with his face turned in towards the kerb and his hands clasped behind his neck. He sensed more than heard the explosion but felt the blast on his hands. He leapt to his feet and headed for a shelter like a scalded cat. He literally dived into the shelter which was mainly filled with German personnel but they made room for him and no-one objected to his presence.

On another occasion in the dock area he took shelter when the Air Raid sirens screamed their warning and an ominous silence descended on the port for a few minutes, until the heavy flak began to spit in anger. Instinct told Len this was a “heavies job” but he didn’t stand in the open to decide whether it was the RAF or the Eighth Army Air Force. A few minutes later the walls of the shelter trembled as salvos of bombs plummeted into the harbour area, although Len was pretty sure they were not Tallboys!

The Germans decided to move the prisoners from Brest. The military situation was becoming extreme for them and they could no longer spare the considerable number of front-line personnel needed to maintain the prisoner-of-war organisation. These guards were now needed as replacements for the defenders killed by the Allied Air Forces. The column of prisoners was moved out at night and marched, via the town of Le Fret, to the small seaside resort of Rostellec, in the Crozon Peninsular.

The days passed, with the food stocks dwindling. All French civilians had long been cleared out of Rostellec and Len and his immediate companions began to scavenge for food to supplement their meagre fare. It was a great find to discover onions in the overgrown wilderness of what had once been a lovingly tended vegetable garden of one of the village houses. The military population of the Crozon Peninsular grew each day, as the German troops

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retreated before the American mobile forces. Rostellec provided Len and the other Allied prisoners with a grand-stand view of the bombing of Brest by RAF and American aircraft. Soon the concentrations on the Peninsular were bombed heavily and regularly by light bombers and fighters, inevitably causing casualties among the American prisoners and some of the members of the French Resistance confined with them. Over fifty were wiped out in one raid alone.

Eventually, on Monday, 18th September, six weeks after he had been shot down, liberating forces of the American Army rolled into the Crozon Peninsular. The bottled-up Germans had had enough and the surrender was swift and unanimous. With magnificent perception, among the early arrivals with the US Army were large lorries liberally laden with “PX supplies” and soon field-kitchens were providing almost “peace-time” meals for the hungry hordes of prisoners. Len ate and drank his fill before slipping off to find a comfortable billet for the night. He found himself in a house that had been an impromptu Mess for Wehrmacht officers. The beds were clean and comfortable. He lowered himself thankfully into the depths of the most inviting of them and was soon sleeping that sound and deeply refreshing sleep which was known in the Air Force as “a short course of Death”.

The sun was well up when he surfaced again. He lay luxuriating in the bed, gathering his thoughts and making plans for the day. He would have to make contact with some US officer who could arrange transport . . or offer help . . to get him back to England and Woodhall Spa. Eventually he sat up and began to dress, when suddenly he became curious to know what might be contained in the furniture with which the room was furnished. The chest of drawers

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revealed nothing of interest but the wardrobe yielded a pair of German officer’s field boots! The leather was beautifully soft and shiny. Len drew them on, scarcely daring to breathe, and he almost shouted with delight at their perfect fit. He drew his battledress trouser-legs down over them which served to make it appear that he was wearing normal shoes. He finished dressing and made his way to the nearest field-kitchen where he was supplied with food by the American cooks without demur. When he was finished, he approached a huge sergeant-cook and asked where he could find a US officer. The sergeant stared at him for a moment “A god-dammed Limey!” he said “Jeez, they had one of everything in this place!” “Officers? Boy, they’re as thick as flies around here” he continued “Just walk around and you’re sure to find one!”. Len took his advice and soon saw a jeep with an American officer and two sergeants aboard. He approached the jeep, threw up a smart salute and said “Excuse me, sir!”. The dust-covered American looked quite startled but Len pressed on. “I am a bomb-aimer in the RAF. I was shot down six weeks ago and am anxious to get back to my unit in England. Can you help me?”. “Not personally, sergeant” replied the officer. “You see, there’s this war on and we’ve got to gather in all the Kraut prisoners and ship out all our own captured personnel for assessment and re-allocation . . and that’s quite a job in any man’s army!” He paused for a moment and then went on “Just down there, on the right, they’ve established an MT compound and Mess. Your best bet is to speak to one of the quartermasters. The lorries are running supplies from the dump at Rennes and the boys from up in the wild blue yonder have a makeshift airfield at Rennes . . chances are you can thumb an aerial lift there”. “Thank you, sir . . very helpful” replied Len, saluted and turned away. He heard one

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of the sergeants say “These Limeys! Always correct and military, even when they’ve been six weeks adrift!”.

Len found the compound and watch [sic] the activity for a while. He saw that the drivers of lorries arriving with stores vacated their seats to the Camp personnel and hurried off to the large marquee which was obviously a temporary Mess. German prisoners-of-wat supplemented the American Army personnel in the unloading of the vehicles. Once a vehicle was unloaded, it was driven off the site and parked in a lager where it was refuelled and checked. After some ten minutes or so, drivers came to reclaim their vehicles which were driven off westwards at a fair rate of knots. Len wandered over to where the top-sergeant was standing and occasionally bawling. “Excuse me, sergeant . . . how can I get a lift to Rennes?” The sergeant wheeled at the sound of Len’s voice and in a voice heavy with amazement said “A god-damn Limey! I heard you were all still stuck on the beaches!” “No, I’ve been here six weeks, sergeant” replied Len innocently. “Six weeks, eh?” rejoined the sergeant “Guess you want to get back to Limeyland real quick. Best you can do is go over to the chow tent and ask around . . . most of the trucks are running from Rennes”. Len thanked him and turned towards the marquee. “Limey” called the sergeant “Make sure you take some of the hard-tack for the journey. There are no roadside cafes along that road now!”.

Len sauntered into the marquee and marvelled at the quality of the food that was being offered to the drivers. He approached one driver who seemed to be almost finished eating. “Excuse me . . any chance of a lift back to Rennes?”. The American surveyed him for a few moments and said “Who are you?”. “RAF aircrew, shot down over Brest six weeks ago. I want to get back

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to England and an officer out there said the best way was to hitch a lift back to Rennes, with a chance of getting an air trip from the airfield there”. “Your luck’s in, fellah” smiled the American “My orders take me to Rennes airfield, to load up and return to this Base. I’ll be glad of the company!”. Len waited until the driver had finished his coffee and followed him out of the marquee. From a table close to the entrance, the American grabbed two bags and tossed one to Len. “Hard tack for the journey” he explained, at the same time lifting a large Thermos flask from the side of the table. The lorry was quickly located and soon they were heading westwards, on the 150 miles journey to Rennes. The driver was most anxious to hear about Len’s previous six weeks in France and that conversation, together with the “chow break”, made the five hours journey pass reasonably quickly. It was getting quite dark when they pulled into Rennes airfield. “No night-flying from this field, Limey” said the American. “Best plan is to find yourself somewhere to sleep for the night and try your luck in the morning”. Len thanked his for his help and descended from the truck near a group of airfield buildings. He found a camp bed and a blanket in one of the rooms and settled down for the night.

Len awoke around 7 am on what promised to be another fine day. There was no sound of flying activity from the airfield as he dressed. He found a stand-pipe tap between the buildings and had a refreshing cold-water wash which revived him no end. He looked across the airfield and saw what appeared to be Dakota aircraft on the farther side and began to walk around the grass perimeter towards this dispersal. Suddenly a wonderful small of cooking assailed his nostrils and reminded him that he was quite hungry. He followed his nose, somewhat like the kids in the “Bisto” advert, and came

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upon an underground air-raid shelter from which the aroma was issuing. He called down “Anyone there?” which immediately struck his as trite, since obviously some-one had to be cooking the food! His call brought the head and shoulders of an American sergeant into view. He looked questioningly at Len, without saying a word. “Any chance of some grub, sarge?” queried Len hopefully. “What’s a Limey doing here at this time of the morning?” countered the American. Len gave him a rapid potted history of the past six weeks, which seemed to satisfy the soldier. “Anything to trade?” queried the sergeant. Len offered him the choice of the few German badges and insignia he had gathered during his sojourn in France and the satisfied sergeant withdrew into the shelter. He appeared some minutes later with a huge sandwich, which Len found to contain a large portion of beautifully cooked Texas longhorn steak, topped with two eggs, to be washed down with as much coffee as he wished. Len did not rush this meal . . . such a feast needed to be savoured and appreciated to the last crumb! Finally he took his leave of his benefactor and made his way to the dispersals, which were now a hive of activity.

A study of the area revealed to Len what appeared to be the Administrative centre. He made his way over to this hut and explained his position to the top-sergeant seated in a smaller office inside. “Yeah” said the sergeant “Plenty of flights to England! Where are you heading?”. Len explained that he needed to get to London. “Fine!” came the rejoinder “Got one flight for London due to leave in about thirty minutes! Come with me, Limey”. He escorted Len across the tarmac and introduced him to two fur-jacketed American officers. “One returning Limey prisoner-of-war to be added to your manifest, sir” said the sergeant to one of the officers and sauntered off. Len found himself outlining the last six weeks to the two very interested

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Americans. Before long, the Dakota was taxying to the take-off point with Len comfortably settled in the fuselage.

The flight took a little over three hours and the aircraft landed at what is now Heath Row [sic]. Len thanked his hosts for the lift and made his way to a cluster of huts, to locate some RAF authority to report to and from whom to obtain instructions. He explained his circumstances to a sergeant who said “Follow me, Chiefie! There’s been quite a trickle of aircrew through here this past fortnight. I’ll take you to the officer who has the “drill” off pat now!”. Soon Len was on his way to the Central Hotel in London, where returning former P.O.W. aircrew were required to report for debriefing. He arrives at the nearest station to this Central Hotel and was walking the final stage when he heard behind him “Excuse me, Flight Sergeant”. He turned round, to find himself confronted by two Service MPs, beautifully turned out and burnished. He had time to note that one was of Warrant Officer rank, while the other, a flight sergeant, began to berate him for his appearance and threatening a charge for being improperly dressed. Mentally, Len could only agree with him, for his wardrobe consisted simply of his battledress blouse and trousers, the legs of the trousers still covering the German officer field boots . . . no socks, shirt, tie, pants or vest. However, his resentment welled up within him and he explained forcefully, with many epithets thrown in, just how he had come to this pass, and advised the SPs to allow him to continue on his journey to report his return to Higher Authority. Speechless, and suitably chastened, the SPs stood mute as Len turned his back on them and arrived at his destination.

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Once his identity had been checked and proved, Len was allowed to have a bath and provided with a shaving kit to make himself presentable for the programme which followed. First, he was given the full stringent aircrew medical, which he passed without any trouble. He was then given the items of clothing he needed to assume a “smart, airmanlike appearance”, although he retained the field boots as a souvenir of his exploits. He was given a meal and then subjected to a thorough debriefing, covering the period from the moment the Lancaster was hit until his arrival at “Heath Row”. He was required to stretch and search his mind for any detail that he had observed that might prove of value to Intelligence sources. Special interest was shown in his report that the Czech and Austrian elements he had encountered appeared to be looking for the opportunity to surrender and get out of the war whole. Eventually, when he had run the full course of the Central Hotel, he was again fed, given six weeks leave, with free warrant home and the appropriate ration cards, and two pounds in cash for subsistence on the journey home . . . most of which disappeared “down the hatch” by the time his train left London.

Collection

Citation

“Lancaster JB139 Dark Victor,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 15, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/43465.

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