Veteran Stories:
William Edward Fell

Air Force

  • A photo of a gold silkworm pin. This pin was given to Airmen who were saved by their parachutes during the war.

    Courtesy of William Fell
  • False Identity card provided by the French Underground.

    William Fell
  • William Fell pictured with fellow Air Crew.

    William Fell
  • Photo of a Bomb Sight taken from bombing runs to confirm target hits in Germany.

    William Fell
  • Portrait of William Fell.

    William Fell
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"one thing we brought out of the service was the fact that there were no heroes."

Transcript

I made four trips across the ocean by boat and then on one trip, the vessel was hit by a torpedo and those of us onboard never even knew that it had happened. And on that trip, they broke the record for a four-day crossing. But imagine a ship that big and it got hit by a torpedo and the people onboard never even knew it. Hard to believe.

The first one’s pretty scary because you have to fly for a little while before you realize how big it is up there. And that all those bursts around you and the cloud of smoke from the cordite, it might have gone off five minutes ago and it’s still there and you think it’s all around you but what you see doesn’t hurt you. And it takes a while to learn that.

You must remember that we were just kids; it was all a big adventure. It was exciting. We never ever thought of being one of the crews that didn’t come back. When you look back and you realize it was dangerous but nothing really kept you from going because it was exciting.

We liked the Halifax [bomber] much better than the Lancaster. The Lancaster had Rolls-Royce Merlins, a wonderful engine but they were water cooled. And if your radiator picked up a bit of flak [anti-aircraft fire], your engine was gone. So we liked the Halifax with the radial [engine] because it could be shot all to pieces and it would still get you home. And that was what was important. Even more than the target, it was getting home.

I lost all the instrumentation so I couldn’t keep my log up. And I wasn’t sure whether we had enough fuel to, even if we turned around then to get back home because there were, I didn’t know what tanks had been hit and what hadn’t, because the instruments weren’t working. So you were at kind of a quandary. You didn’t know whether you could make it or whether you couldn’t. And you didn’t know whether to take a chance or not. But when the flak got heavy again, the skipper made up his mind and said, head this up, boys.

What you’re afraid of when you got out the back door was you’re going to hit that tail plane when you bailed out, you weren’t sure. You were more afraid of that than the gunfire. I remember it was snowing that night and as I got closer to the ground, I could see the, I thought we were breaking cloud and really it was the horizon, so when I landed, I was flat on my back and I was a little sore. But I knew what to do, I had grabbed the rope that we used for getting into the dinghy if we came down at sea and cut off a piece and tied my boots together because I knew when we, when that parachute snapped open, your boots were going to come off if you didn’t have them tied on. So I tied my boots on and I got to the ground and undid them and went to walk away and I could hear somebody following me. And then I realized that I had taken a can of water because we could go for a few days without eating if you didn’t get captured but you needed something to drink.

So the can of water in my, tucked inside my battle dress had frozen. And every step I took, the ice in the can went clunk, clunk. I thought there was something following me. Kind of silly, eh? But just little things like that you remember.

I was very fortunate in being able to get in touch with the underground [members of the Resistance movement] in France at the time and they put me on a little farm because they were, they had a number of people who were called up for forced labour in Berlin and they were going to make their way to North Africa and they said, wait for us, we’ll all go to the other, you can got to Gibraltar and we’ll go across into North Africa. So they put me on this farm where it was really a dairy farm but they made cheese. And they were awfully nice people. The first thing they said to me was, what do you want most? And I thought for a minute. I said, well, what I’d like most is a bath. And they said, well, there’s no hot water but the milk for the cheese is hot. I said, well, I couldn’t do that. And they said, well, the Germans take all the cheese anyway. But I didn’t have the heart.

Going across the Pyrenees was quite an experience. We had three guides for the trip, one for each day and when the guide got you, he wanted to get you as far as he could take you and then get rid of you because you were a liability. So we didn’t have much rest; they just got us, took us on their part of the trip and hand us over to the next. So we went.

And I remember the last day we were at the top of a glacier and our guide said, get down like I say, this is the border of Spain and France, get down to the bottom of the glacier and there’s a little stream there, it comes from the ice, follow it down to the first town and give yourselves up. So that’s what we did but it was a bit of a joke because that little stream, kept running out to some place to walk on one side and you’d have to wade across it to the other and it was sure cold. And we got to the little town called Lekunberri, the mayor didn’t know what to do with us, he didn’t have a police station, so he put us in a chicken coop for the night. And if you’ve ever been in a chicken coop, there’s no place to sit down.

But eventually, someone came and got us and took us to a concentration camp [actually, an internment camp for military personnel] where we got in touch with the British Embassy and eventually we were taken to Madrid and then on to Gibraltar.

They took us downtown and got us some clothes to wear and we could draw on back pay, so we went to a bullfight and we went to an opera and went to the circus, rode around one of the only undergrounds in the world at that time was in Madrid. They had an underground [transit system] before most other countries did.

The reason we got in touch with the Embassy I think was through the Americans. The Americans sold wolfram [tungsten ore], which was something they used to make gunpowder. And they sold it to the Spanish who in turn sold it to the Germans at a big profit. And this was a bargaining point for them, that was the bargaining point that got us out of the prison camp.

I remember downtown one time, I forget where I was being taken by a guide and the guard and I got separated and I looked around for him and when I saw him, he was waving me away. And I thought, what is going on? So I looked at him and he waved more and I thought, well, it’s okay with me and I turned around and when I looked back and he had his gun up at the shoulder. Evidently, that’s the way they drove oxen - with a goad, waved and point the goad at the oxen and that meant come here, not go away. So that’s one of the times we just about got shot. I don’t know if he’d have shot or not. I don’t think so.

I think the one thing that you bring out of the service, having known [George Frederick] “Buzz” Beurling, who shot down [27] aircraft [in 14 days] and that was our best fighter pilot, and knowing the Dam Buster [Royal Air Force Wing Commander Guy Gibson] and his crew, and know that he won the Victoria Cross while he flew up and down in front of those dams drawing fire, while his crew were dying, had been wounded, one thing we brought out of the service was the fact that there were no heroes. No heroes. We took care of ourselves and each other. But there were no heroes.

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