Tale Of A Tail Gunner
“I suddenly was hit on the side of the head with something. The next thing I knew, I was falling with the sensation of a great rush of wind. My flying suit had come out of my flying boots and was flapping up around my face and I realized that I was in a free-fall, pulled my ripcord and with a very short interval, I landed on top of a roof, rolled off onto a cobblestone courtyard.”
—Jim McPhee’s account of his crash over Germany, November 21, 1944
Jim McPhee in uniform in 1945.
Jim McPhee was a tail gunner in the Second World War flying sorties over Germany for Bomber Command in 408 “Goose” Squadron, RCAF. In one fateful sortie, his Halifax was shot down. If you listen to his audio online you will hear a story of great drama and excitement as he explains his free fall through the air before pulling the rip cord on his parachute, and landing on the roof top of a house. After a week of roaming, he decided to hide away in a barn for warmth and much-needed rest only to be discovered by the farmer and eventually lead away by the German Army to the police station in Dusseldorf. The story online ends there, but it was only the beginning of Mr. McPhee’s experiences as a prisoner of war (POW).
His story continues when the train he and his prison guard are riding from Dusseldorf to Frankfurt is shot up by an American aircraft. German passengers jump off and as panic ensues, he loses sight of his prison guard, only to be surrounded by a hostile crowd once they realised he was an allied airman. His prison guard managed to warn them off and after a short while another train arrived to take them to a Frankfurt interrogation centre. After being interrogated, Mr. McPhee was sent to a segregation camp awaiting assignment to a prison camp and there he was reunited with his pilot, the only other surviving member of his crew. After ten days in the segregation camp, he was taken to a prison camp near Krakow, Poland, which he described as a typical prisoner of war camp.
In January 1945, the Russian front was fast approaching, and the Germans marched the POWs west to avoid liberation. They marched for three weeks straight in the cold of winter, many dying; freezing on the side of the road. After losing so many and suffering severe frostbite, the POWs refused to go any further and organized a sit-down strike. Finally relenting, the Germans ordered a train to carry them to the final destination. After three days in boxcars without food and very little water, they arrived at Luchenwald, Stalag IIIA, where many POWs continued to suffer from a variety of sicknesses. As the Russians moved closer, the POWs thought they would be freed, but once the Russians captured the prison camp, they did not release the prisoners. On May 7, 1945, an American convoy arrived to evacuate the camp, but were ordered away by the Russians. It was at this time that Mr. McPhee escaped from the prison camp to the American convoy camp, where he was fed and deloused. The Americans then helped fly him back to England, from where he eventually made his way home to Canada on the troopship, Louis Pasteur.
Jim McPhee in Remembrance Day Parade. Date Unknown.
As I speak with more and more veterans, I realize that we only get to hear the tip of the iceberg. Though the importance of their service is still captured in just that small segment, it is what is beneath the surface that often carries the most weight.