Sunday, March 2, 2008

Weekend Wings #9: Final Flight

This will be a rather unusual Weekend Wings. It's been difficult for me to write it: but as you read it, I know you'll understand.

The Bristol Blenheim was a light bomber developed in the mid-1930's for the Royal Air Force. The original Mark I is shown below.

It had a rather unusual genesis, as this video clip explains.

It would go on to be developed into the Beaufort torpedo-bomber, among other designs:

Unfortunately, the only video clip I've been able to find of the Beaufort in flight shows a tragic collision between two of them:

Both of these aircraft were to play a significant part in the life of one man: and he was to play a very significant - indeed, vital! - part in mine. Let me tell you the story.

On the morning of May 17, 1940, Wing-Commander Paddy Bandon, the Earl of Bandon, stood on the tarmac of the Royal Air Force base at Watton, England. He was the Commanding Officer of 82 Squadron, equipped with Blenheim Mk. I bombers, and he was waiting for twelve of his aircraft to return from a raid on a German armored column at Gembloux in Belgium. The Germans had launched "Blitzkrieg", the "lightning war" that would conquer the Low Countries and France in an astonishing six-week campaign, and his Blenheims had been tasked to stop one arm of their offensive.

Around the Wing-Commander were gathered a few of the officers of the Squadron and the Base, and a few lowly NCO's and airmen stood nearby. One of the latter, a twenty-year-old aircraft mechanic with the rank of Corporal, was leaning on his bicycle. He was known to his comrades as Bill.

Eighteen years later he would become my father.

They waited interminably for the return of their planes. At last a lone Blenheim appeared, smoking, staggering through the air, one engine dead, the other stuttering erratically. As it approached the crew fired a red flare, indicating that they were declaring an emergency for landing.

The Blenheim landed bumpily and coasted to a stop, its engine dying. An ambulance and fire tender roared up as the pilot, observer and gunner climbed down and sank exhausted to the grass. Wing-Commander Bandon hurried over and asked an urgent question. His head drooped and his shoulders slumped at the reply. This was the sole survivor of his squadron. All the rest had been shot down.

Slowly, sadly, he turned to my father and ordered him to take his bicycle and ride around the perimeter track, telling all the waiting ground crews to secure their equipment and close the hangar doors. In later years, telling me about it, Dad had tears in his eyes as he described grizzled, hardened Flight-Sergeants and Warrant Officers turning away from him, weeping, to obey the orders he conveyed. He said it was the hardest job he ever had to do in his life.

(To the very great credit of the Earl of Bandon, he immediately went to his superior officers and demanded replacement aircraft and crews. They demurred, and were considering disbanding the squadron entirely: but he stuck to his guns, insisting that the remainder of the squadron - the ground crews - deserved better. His bosses gave in. Twelve new Blenheims and their crews arrived within a day or two, and the Earl of Bandon led six of them on a raid against Germany within twenty-four hours. For his leadership he was justly decorated. He went on to achieve the rank of Air Chief Marshal, equivalent to a USAF four-star General, after World War II.)

Shortly after that incident my father met my mother - by falling on top of her in a bus during an air-raid! She always said that he proposed to her that same day, and she adamantly refused. He kept up the pressure, asking and being refused, until he told her one day that he would shortly be drafted overseas. If she said "No" one more time, he wouldn't see her again. She said "Yes", and they were married in early 1941. By then Dad had been commissioned as an Engineer Officer.

Within weeks after the wedding he was posted overseas. His intended destination was Singapore, but he was taken off the troopship at Durban in South Africa to help deal with an urgent engineering problem on Beaufort torpedo-bombers being assembled there for use by the South African Air Force. The rest of his convoy went on to Singapore, where all its troops were captured by the Japanese in early 1942. Dad always reckoned that some Guardian Angel had been looking out for him, because only about three out of every ten of that draft came home after the war. The rest died in Japanese prison camps.

Dad spent a few months in South Africa fixing the Beaufort's engineering problems and helping to establish several airstrips for the Empire Air Training Scheme, then was posted to Khartoum in the Sudan. He was tasked to go out into the Sahara Desert with a recovery crew to retrieve crashed aircraft. They used Commer and Bedford tractor trucks hauling "Queen Mary" trailers, designed specifically for aircraft transportation.

Khartoum was the East-bound terminus of the famous Takoradi Air Route. Aircraft were flown or shipped to Takoradi in what was then the British colony of the Gold Coast, then flew East from there across Africa to Khartoum before turning North for Egypt. By doing this they bypassed the German-controlled Mediterranean and North Africa. A map of the route is shown below (click it for a larger version).

Almost 5,000 aircraft were ferried over this route between 1940 and 1943. Many didn't make it to Khartoum, getting lost or running out of fuel and landing in the desert - hence the recovery effort.

Some less-damaged aircraft were dismantled and brought back entire; others, more severely damaged like the one below, had parts salvaged from the wreckage for re-use.

Aircraft were in such desperately short supply at the time that a new aircraft might be put together from the remains of three or four others. Dad helped to assemble many such "phoenix planes" that had "risen from the ashes" of their ill-fated predecessors. They went on to give good service.

In due course Dad went North to Egypt. High-flying German reconnaissance aircraft (mainly Junkers Ju-86P's) were observing British defenses and giving the Royal Navy at Alexandria a hard time.

In an effort to intercept them, Dad was part of a team that designed and fabricated extended wingtips for the Spitfire Mk. V in a field workshop. The Spitfire Mk. V illustrated below is of the same type that he worked on, but of course for interception missions it didn't carry a bomb as shown.

The new wingtips increased the wing area and enabled the aircraft to fly at higher altitude, aided by a specially-boosted Merlin Mk. 46 engine and a four-bladed propeller to make best use of the extra power. Their improvised, field-expedient modifications worked. In August 1942 one of the modified Spitfires shot down a Ju-86P at the then-incredible altitude of well over 40,000 feet, and two more Junkers reconnaissance aircraft were brought down over the next few months. As a result the latter were withdrawn from operational service in 1943.

After the Second Battle of El Alamein in late 1942, when Rommel was retreating all the way from Egypt back to Tunisia (while US and British forces landed in North Africa behind him) the RAF had a hard time keeping up with the rapid advance of the British Eighth Army. As a way to keep up the pressure on the retreating Germans, some bright spark hit on the idea of setting up temporary landing fields behind the German lines. My Dad was involved in this operation. They'd go out in a convoy of trucks laden with fuel and munitions. Escorted by the famous Long Range Desert Group, they'd loop South into the Sahara Desert to get around the German front line, then cut back up to the North.

They'd find a smooth, flat stretch of desert and lay out markings that could be identified from the air, then radio their location to the RAF squadrons behind British lines. The aircraft would fly over the German lines next morning, bombing and strafing as they did so, and land at the new airstrip. They'd be refueled and rearmed, then bomb and strafe the Germans again on their way back home. He described it as an exciting task, particularly on those occasions when retreating German forces approached close enough to threaten their operations. At such times the lightly armed airstrip crew piled into trucks and escaped into the desert.

Dad always spoke very gratefully of the help the USA provided. One of his favorite stories was the time he flew into an US Army Air Force base in North Africa in early 1943 in a very worn, clapped-out C-47 transport to collect some spares. He was treated to a GI lunch, and over the meal said something about how hard it was to keep the old transport going. To his astonishment his host, a USAAF Colonel, said off-handedly, "No problem - we'll give you a new one. Sign here!" and handed him a clipboard full of Lend-Lease forms. He duly signed on the dotted line, and the Colonel led him and his crew to a brand-new C-47 that had just arrived from America. "Take this one," the Colonel invited, and left them to get on with it.

When Dad arrived back at his squadron in a brand-new transport he was apparently the hero of the hour . . . although he later confessed to me that for the rest of his time in the RAF he dreaded receiving a letter demanding to know why he had dared to sign for an aircraft without official authorization. He fully expected to be required to pay for it! Fortunately the bureaucrats never traced the paper trail back to him . . . probably because he claimed to have signed the Lend-Lease form using the name "Flight-Lieutenant Winston S. Churchill"!

After the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943 Dad was transferred to Palestine (today Israel). The RAF used bases there and in the Lebanon to fly in support of the ill-fated Dodecanese Campaign in late 1943, one of Germany's last victories of World War II. After the fighting died down he had a few months in Palestine, and his descriptions of that troubled land (even then riven with strife between Arab and Jew) were fascinating. Terrorist attacks on the night train between Cairo and Haifa led to armed escorts being placed aboard, and he commanded some of those missions. He returned to England in 1944 after more than three years away from Mom, and spent the remainder of the war on home territory.

I suppose by any standard Dad had a "good war" (if there is such a thing). Between 1939 and 1945 he rose from the equivalent of Lance-Corporal to the substantive (permanent) rank of Flight-Lieutenant (equivalent to Captain in US terms) and the acting (temporary) rank of Squadron-Leader (equivalent to Major). Even more important, despite several close encounters he managed to avoid being injured or killed (unlike many of his comrades), suffering only permanent partial deafness (which worsened in later life) from the roar of aircraft engines. Mom was equally fortunate, despite enduring over 100 bombing raids and standing watch for incendiaries through many lonely, fearful nights armed only with a bucket of water and a stirrup-pump.

After the war Mom and Dad emigrated to South Africa, tried Canada for a short time, returned to South Africa, and settled down to raise a family. They both obtained Ph.D.'s (starting without even the equivalent of Grade 12 between them) and had four children - three daughters and yours truly. Dad worked for a number of employers, the last twenty years or so of his career being with BP, the oil company. Mom lectured and provided counseling services.

In retirement Mom and Dad settled in the town of George in what is today the Western Cape province of South Africa. Mom died three years ago after 64 years of marriage, and Dad began to get weaker and weaker. He's told me several times that he's ready to go - he's 88 years old now.

Last week Dad suffered a heart attack. He's very weak now and we know the end is near for him. I wanted to post this tribute to his wartime service before he leaves us, so he understands that we remember all he (and so many like him) did for all of us in the free world.

Dad, we haven't forgotten your sacrifice and Mom's. Freedom requires men such as you to fight for it from time to time. We're grateful that you answered the call: and, if need be, we'll follow your example - as will our children, and our children's children.

May your final flight to God be smooth and peaceful. May Mom and your wartime squadron-mates be there to greet you, and may your reunion be joyful. We hope to see you there in due course.

Thanks for being my father.



Joe Allen said...

Thank you for sharing your father's story.

He - and your mother - are a shining example that the "greatest generation's" exceptional achievement was not limited to the war.


Murphy said...

Sorry to hear the news, Peter. Thank you as well, for his story. The story of a good man will continue with the life of his children.

Take care in this difficult time.

Anonymous said...

Hear Hear!

Similar story father was "Old Army" (US)before the War, served in the MidEast in some very strange and arcane capacities, and stayed on in the Army until the early 1960s when he finally retired and took up schoolteaching.

They are indeed "The Greatest Generation."

Ambulance Driver said...

Touching tribute, Peter.

CRiley said...

Please pass along my deepest respect to your father and your family. Too often, as we get obsessed with the transfer of power in this country and the other mediocre details of day-to-day like, we forget about the men and women of the generation that fought the last Great War and who paved the way for all of us, regardless of race, creed, sex, or political affiliation, to think, live, and speak in the manner we wish.

My father is my best friend even though he passed on Feb 20, 2003. Thank you for reminding me to remember his achievements.

Good luck and Godspeed.

-Chip Riley

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking time to tell your father's story.

I lost my own dad, another WW II veteran, several years ago.

Just because it isn't a surprise doesn't make it easy.

Your family are in my prayers.


Anonymous said...

"greatest generation" indeed. We are left to wonder if we,their successors, could have done a fraction as much.

I am privileged to know such a man as a friend, mentor and hunting partner. Grew up with "not much" in the teeth of the Depression, served on North Atlantic convoy duty in the RCN, built a successful career-and he can still outwalk and outshoot me any day of the week.

"Rod" will be 87 in May, and I expect he'll still be chasing pheasants long after me.

Godspeed, and thanks.

Brandon said...

This is an absolutely beautiful tribute to your father and his service. I'm sure it means a great deal to him to know how highly he is respected by his son, along with a lot of strangers who are grateful for his service in that time of darkness.

Anonymous said...

Good job sirs.

Angus S-F said...

Fascinating story, sorry to hear about your father. My father served in the British Army in West Africa (and elsewhere) and lived through it, as did all his brothers (those old enough to serve; not all served in Africa). I haven't heard anything as exciting as this from any of them.

You wrote "Unfortunately, the only video clip I've been able to find of the Beaufort in flight shows a tragic collision between two of them". A few minutes of googling turned up this video at, the last three minutes of which has a lot of Beaufort bombers in flight. Perhaps you can excerpt a small clip from this one, or there may be others in the google search results, I didn't check more once I found this one.

Kansas Scout said...

Well done Peter

Stuart Garfath said...

The collision between the two Beaufort torpedo bombers happened on wednesday, 14 April, 1943, over Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, New South Wales.
The three aircraft had just finished conduction dummy torpedo attacks and in the final low level fly-by, they executed a 'Prince of Wales' break, wherein the lead aircraft pulls up and the other two break right and left respectively.
Unfortunately, in this instance, with tragic results.
Eight men died that day.
The two Beauforts that crashed had serials numbers, A9-27 and A9-268.