Veteran Stories:
Alex Campbell

Air Force

  • Alex Campbell (right) and "Taffy" standing in front of the tail turret of their Avro Lancaster bomber.

    Alex Campbell
  • A reconnaissance photograph taken by Alex Campbell during a bombing raid over Villers-Bocage, France on 30 June, 1944.

    Alex Campbell
  • Alex Campbell (right) with his crew.

    Alex Campbell
  • Alex Campbell at the controls of an Airspeed Oxford training aircraft.

    Alex Campbell
  • Alex Campbell at the controls of an Airspeed Oxford training aircraft.

    Alex Campbell
  • A map displaying the location where Alex Campbell and his crew were shot down in July 1944.

    Alex Campbell
  • Alex Campbell's Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Alex Campbell
  • Alex Campbell and Bomb Aimer Chapman in their Lancaster bomber in 1944.

    Alex Campbell
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"I just grabbed at my rip cord. It was not there, absolutely gone. No harness on my upper body at all. And I thought, “Don’t tell me after all this and I’m going to, this is going to finish me."

Transcript

28th of July I looked on the bulletin board in the morning in the Officer’s Mess.  Alphabetically would have probably been Armstrong, Baker, Campbell.  Oh, boy.  We’re on.  In a way that lets the tension off and in another way it starts a day of terror.  Your stomach acts up and your throat’s dry but you’re making jokes all the time, just silly jokes, keeping our spirits up.

And we went down to see the armourers, yes, everything’s full.  We’re full fuel load again.  It’s a long trip and we were talking about it and we decided, well, it couldn’t be Stuttgart; we obliterated that place two nights ago.  But we’re all in now and we’re seated.  The CO [Commanding Officer] had come in and, okay, as you were gentlemen.

We all sat down and he goes over and he says, “Now here is your target,” and they draw the drapes back and there was a big zigzag line all the way to Stuttgart, the groans.  But I didn’t do a Berlin trip but apparently that got horrendous for morale going back to Berlin so many times.

But anyway we did.  We took off at, it says in the official book, 21:47.  That’s quarter to ten, around there.  Thirteen minutes to ten at night.  And as the rest of the script says, “This aircraft has not been heard from since.”  We flew for 50 minutes there and two hours.  The German pilot who shot us down in his log book said, “Sighting, opened fire at 00:01 the 29th of July.”  They were very efficient, the Germans, always seemed to be.  And that is when he actually opened fire.

So 2 hours and 14 minutes later, we are just past Châteaudun [France] and about five minutes before that I’d noticed the sky in the cloud getting brighter.  And I said, you know, I don’t think this is going to last all the way to the target.  It was supposed to have lasted to within 50 miles of Stuttgart, the cloud cover.  And we were all well trained in instrument flying.  You feel safer too and I wasn’t looking forward to it too much but I wasn’t alarmed at all.

But I said I’m going up to see how thick this cloud is.  So I climbed up and popped out into bright moonlight and I’m sure there was two or three other [Avro] Lancasters likely doing the same thing because they were experiencing this as well.  And there was cluster, there were several hundred of us in this cloud.  So, heck, we’ll go down and see.  Boy, it’s only 500 feet in thickness now and it wasn’t a big development at all.  And I guess that must have been about one or two minutes to twelve.  It was because, Ben, the wireless operator, he said, “Wireless up to skipper.  I’m leaving Monica now, tuning into base broadcast.”

Every hour and half hour he got weather updates and course changes if necessary and so on.  And he left his visual Monica and no sooner had done then the rear gunner was hollering, “Fighter port go” at the top of his voice.  But the shells were already on their way.  The Junkers 88 [German twin-engine aircraft] was able to see us from underneath the cloud and behind us.  He says he was 50 meters behind us when he opened fire.  That’s like in this room here.  Oh, my goodness.

No, the shells just almost obliterated us right away.  I gave the order to prepare to abandon aircraft.  Put on parachutes.  You repeat it very distinctly.  And to make sure that your conversation isn’t garbled.  The only person who didn’t here me was the mid upper gunner because the shells had shattered his turret.  He was not hit with a direct shot but he was peppered with, oh, bits of shrapnel and Plexiglas.  And he had under his armpits all full of this shrapnel and festering.

I said, “Jonesy, what were you doing?  You’re supposed to be shooting the enemy down not sitting there with your hands over your face or your head.”  He says, “That’s what I was doing.”  He had his hands up like that because the splatter from the Plexiglas was stinging him, it cut his face and his arms.

The bomb aimer would be the first one out being at the front.  He lifted the escape hatch door out and placed it up in the forward turret.  He had a turret up there too, a gun turret.  He was to put it up there so it wouldn’t get stuck in the opening.  Then the next would be Bob Giffen, the second pilot.  But unfortunately he caught his parachute rip cord on the way down two little steps and his whole chute just burst open.  Filled the cockpit with fluttering silk and shrouds and all the shrouds were tangled and the flight engineer very adeptly got all his chute wrapped up and tucked it around him and got him down and out the hole.  But unfortunately he died, the chute didn’t function properly and he was dead the next morning on the ground.

Anyway, I got out and I wasn’t going to count one to three and pull the rip cord.  You’re supposed to do that to clear the tail wheel because it’ll chop your head off, you know, because you slow down.

The human body falls at a TV, a terminal velocity of 120 miles per hour.  That’s a round figure.  So I would slow down to that and I didn’t say one, two, three.  I just grabbed at my rip cord.  It was not there, absolutely gone.  No harness on my upper body at all.  And I thought, “Don’t tell me after all this and I’m going to, this is going to finish me.”

I saw a glint up above and it attracted my eyes in that direction.  And I could see a dark blob of my parachute pack going back and forth.  I thought, “My God, it’s still with me.”  And I bent my feet to reach for it and I felt a tug there and sure enough it was the thigh straps had just caught around my ankles and they were still there.  And I grabbed hold of the harness.  Found the rip cord immediately.  Gave it a pull.  Dug my fingers into the harness and almost immediately, the chute just, bang, snapped open.  And it cracked my two ankles together with a whack.  My head snapped down.  I’m hanging there upside-down and almost seemingly motionless after the speed I was going.

But I saw what I took to be a roof.  I started to rotate.  I guess I’d wound up a bit between me and the chute and I thought I saw a roof go circling by.  And I bent my head forward.  I was going to take the weight on my shoulders.  I was going to pull myself up by my knees so I’d take the weight on my shoulder and, whack, I hit the ground just like that and, yeah.  I lay there.  Found out it was a stubble field, a stubble wheat field and I got up and looked around.  The plane was burning not too far away, explosions from pressure vessels and cylinders inside the aircraft and so on.

And all our bombs were still on board.  And, anyway, I chose the right house to go to.  There were two houses I could see.  There were men and women outside one of them and only women outside the other one.  Well, I’ll go towards them.  I can probably run faster than they can if they’re unfriendly.  But, no, you know, that seems to, I think that’s about enough for today.

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