Just as we were within, probably 15 seconds of the target, there were several explosions, one right after the other. We got four direct hits. Two in the bomb bay, one in the starboard wing and another just further back in the fuselage. The starboard wing caught fire. Smaller flak had also hit us. There were smaller holes in the plane, but the biggest hole in the starboard wing, a man could have climbed right through it.
Don Cheney joined the RCAF on his 18th birthday, 1940 and trained Canada and England. Following his conversion to Lancasters, he was posted to 106 and 630 Squadrons, RAF. After completing 20 operational missions, he and his crew were selected for the 617 "Dambuster" Squadron, RAF, where the crew was trained for special missions employing the Tallboy 12000 pound bomb, most notably the bomb's first use at the Saumur Tunnel. On his 39th mission, 5 August 1944, Mr. Cheney was shot down while attacking submarine pens over Brest, France. With the aid of the French Resistance he successfully evaded capture, returning to England about a month later.
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Unfortunately, later on, probably on one of the next raids we went on after our last V-weapon attack [the German Vergeltungswaffen, a set of long rang artillery weapons designed for strategic bombing], we were detailed to attack the submarine pens at Brest. And these were huge reinforced concrete pens that would accommodate each bay, of about eight bays, two submarines end to end, big German submarines. And they could drive the submarines right into these bays. They were full of water. They had huge reinforced doors on them, which they could close to protect them from attack. And we were detailed to bomb these submarines pens and again with the Tallboys [a British 12,000 lbs. type of aerial bomb]. And we were using the bomb sight that I mentioned, the stabilized automatic bomb sight, which was also developed on our squadron and there were only 25 in existence in the world and they were so secret that they were either to be destroyed, if the aircraft was shot down, or otherwise disposed of, because they were so secret. But the principle of them was, that they had a gyroscope that would keep the bomb sight level at the whole time. It had a long graduated glass platform on it, which had cross hairs on it and the pilot and the bomber had to team up about 20 miles back from the target. And the pilot had to fly absolutely straight and level for about the first 20 miles up to the target. The bomb aimer all the while looking for the target in his bomb sight. And the minute he got the target in his bomb sight back, let’s say 18 miles, he would turn on his automatic bomb sight, the automatic part of it. And the target would bring itself right down the main central hair of the bombsight until it met the final cross hair, which was the point at which the bomb had been calculated to be released. The Tallboy being a very accurate bomb and the bomb sight would release the bomb automatically. Now the bombardier’s job was to tell the pilot if he was two degrees off course or five degrees off course. “For God’s sake, get back.” Absolutely straight and level. Absolutely at the precise altitude required. The bomb sight even compensated for outside air temperature and calculated wind speed and so it was a very, very detailed exercise. Very hairy for the pilot and the rest of the crew. The bomb aimer, of course, was very busy. The pilot had to be extremely, extremely careful and with such a long run up, lasted probably, straight and level, for between 10 and 12 minutes.
The German predicted flak--88 mm flak—[the 88mm gun, a German anti-tank and anti-aircraft gun] would just cause us to fly right into it, which is what happened to us. Just as we were within, probably 15 seconds of the target, there were several explosions, one right after the other. We got four direct hits. Two in the bomb bay, one in the starboard wing and another just further back in the fuselage. The starboard wing caught fire. Smaller flak had also hit us. There were smaller holes in the plane, but the biggest hole in the starboard wing, a man could have climbed right through it. And there was blue flame just belching out of it and red and orange flame and so forth. My mid upper gunner told me that when he jumped out of the rear door, he said that the flame was trailing farther back than the tail wing of the aircraft.
Three of my crew were quite badly wounded. The wireless operator had a shell come up and explode--a small shell came up and exploded right under his table and splintered it all and smashed his equipment. But he was very badly wounded in the stomach and in the middle of his body. The navigator was also hit twice by shrapnel from these direct hits. And terribly, terribly wounded on one side of his face. The bombardier had realized what had happened and he put a big poultice on the side of his face, which he got out of the emergency box. But Roy, nonetheless got up with blood running down the side of his face and his neck and his tunic stained with blood, stood up beside me and gave me the course for base. And he was hanging on the side of my seat. He got up right out of his seat. The tail gunner was also killed, but he bailed out safely. We have no idea what happened to him. The only thing I know is that he was dead afraid of water and we were over the Bay of […]. We were over water. It was August [5th, 1944], so the weather was warm. But he was, I think, so afraid of water that he may have forgotten to release his parachute when he hit the water and he may have been dragged under and drowned. His body was not found until after I got back to Canada, about a month later. His body was found by the French Underground. The wireless operator’s body was found the day after I came down in the water. And I went to identify him. I was brought to identify him by the French underground.
But, I came down in the sea. Immediately got rid of my parachute by tearing the buckle off my chest. And it went off on its way. So I kicked off my flying boots and that brought my legs up, so I was able to navigate through the water a little better and I looked around and I could see a town in the distance. And I could also see that I was about a mile from shore. And I started to swim towards shore and was making some headway when I suddenly saw that the shore was lined with what looked to be obstacles of various types. And then all of the sudden, there were spurts in the water and I realized that I was coming under fire from machine guns that were along the coast--coastal pillboxes. So I turned around and started to swim back out to sea again. Fortunately, the sea was warm because it was August and it was a beautiful day.
We were shot down at exactly --almost at quarter past twelve, I guess. No exactly 12:00 noon. A bright sunny day. So there I was in the water. And I suppose I was in the water perhaps an hour, an hour and half. I began to feel hypothermia, in spite of the water was comfortable. And I heard voices and I looked around and here’s a fishing boat coming up. And they’re all shouting and gesticulating and pretty soon they got next to me and it was a wooden fishing boat with big heavy timber sides and several hands reached down and just snagged me out of the water and brought me over the side and plunked me down inside the boat. And it was lovely and warm and sunny and they pulled off my jacket and one of the chaps gave me his windbreaker. And I looked around and I said, “Où sont les boches?” Where are the Germans? “Boches kaput.” And they made sort of a throat slitting gesture with their hands.
And I found out later that that particular day, the commander of the harbour, the French Commandant Marine, who was the harbour master was negotiating with the German commander for a withdrawal of the German forces from the town. However, when my aircraft came over and was shot at and crashed, the German commander thought that he had been double crossed and he called off the negotiations. And he then threatened to call in tanks and troops, reinforcements from further south, and bring them in and take the town by force. And when he did, he said that he would shoot all of the male inhabitants and send all of the others to concentration camps. However, this did not happen and the Germans did eventually take control again. They had left the city in the morning to go on a sort of a route march and an exercise and left only a handful of men guarding their Kommandantur, their headquarters. And the French Resistance had attacked them and overwhelmed the remainder at the command post and opened the gun locker and got all of the guns and ammunition out and took the town. And barricaded the roads into it so that when the Germans came to come back in, they found they couldn’t come back in.
Interview with Captain Donald Cheney DFC FCWM Oral History Project
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum