I think I hold the world record for a floating Spitfire, because it floated for about 3.5 seconds, which gave me enough time to get out and get into my little dinghy.
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With the [Supermarine] Spitfire, you never had any drill training, you had to learn the cockpit drill and learn your cockpit, and then you were shown an aircraft and told to take off. And that was it. Oh, a lovely aircraft. The first time I ever flew it I guess I was scared of it. It was fast, had a powerful engine, even the Spit [Mk] Is, I mean, they had over a thousand horsepower engine.
On July 9th, we went over to France, a sweep to Béthune [France] rail yards. There were six [Bristol] Blenheims, and anywhere from, I don’t know how many fighters, but there was I would say a minimum of 300 fighters, [Hawker] Hurricanes and Spitfires. The Hurricanes formed a beehive and they would be just buzzing all around the Blenheims. The Spitfires would be staggered from about 15 000 feet up to about 20 000 feet and the sole object was to induce the fighters to come up. If you sent fighters only, they might as leave you alone because you couldn’t do much damage. Sure, you could shoot the place up, but it wouldn’t do any real structural damage. So they added the bombers.
On July 10th, the next day, we had another flight to Saint-Omer and Lille [France]. This time, we had three [Short] Stirlings and the object was to bomb the fighter airfield at Saint-Omer. On that, when we got, after the bombing, the whole group of aircraft, three or more hundred of them, all turned left to go home. For some reason, my flight commander did a rate one turn to the right. Now, it doesn’t sound like very long, but it takes two minutes to do a rate one turn and by the time we did the turn, we were completely alone in the sky and the rest of them were five or ten miles away at the speed they were going. So anyway, we carried on for home and being the tail end and all completely on our own, we were jumped and I was hit by cannon fire in the belly of the aircraft. But nothing happened, the cockpit filled with smoke, but everything ran smoothly and I carried on. I’d been separated by this time and I dived for the deck and headed out towards the coast. And I crossed the coast of France at about 2000 feet and my engine packed up. The only thing, it didn’t show any sign of getting hot or anything, and I think I might have been hit in the gas tank or a gas line and the gas had drained away. Because the aircraft was flying quite smoothly.
I just kept gliding in until eventually I hit. Landing on water is like hitting a brick wall, you don’t skate on the surface. I was lucky, I wasn’t strapped in. I crash landed on water without being strapped in and I hit my jaw on the reflector side, but that was all the damage I did. I can’t understand to this day why the Spit with a one ton engine up front didn’t just dip down and throw me right out. But it stayed nice and level and I think I hold the world record for a floating Spitfire, because it floated for about 3.5 seconds, which gave me enough time to get out and get into my little dinghy, which I had been sitting on.
I was drifting in the [English] Channel some two to three miles off the coast. There was quite a strong tide in the Channel and I was drifting south. And eventually, an E-boat [a Schnellboot or S-boot, German motor torpedo boat] came out of the fog, and if he’d have been 50 yards either side of me, he wouldn’t have seen me, it was so thick. And anyway, they picked me up, they treated me well. They gave me a bar of chocolate, a sandwich and a bottle of brandy to drink.
Anyway, they took me to, I think, Calais Harbour, the tide was low. They brought me in, they had an ambulance waiting for me and they put me on a stretcher and hauled me up the side of the ambulance, side of the harbour and took me to Saint-Omer hospital. The Germans didn’t have enough air force camps available to take all the POWs. They had Stalag Luft I at Barth [Germany] on the Baltic [Sea]. That was officers and NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers], that was filled. And they were sending prisoners to Stalag IX-C [near Bad Sulza, Germany] and to Lamsdorf [Germany], which was [Stalag] IV-B, the overflow of prisoners of war while they were building Stalag Luft III at Sagan [now Zagan, Poland]. [Note: Stalag VIII-B was located near Lamsdorf while Stalag IV-B was near Mühlberg, Germany.]
Stalag Luft III had two compounds at that time, an officer’s compound and an NCO’s compound. I was an NCO. And they’re about, I don’t know how many officers there were, but there were about 1000 NCOs in our compound, mostly British, but there was a fair number of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Poles and Czechs. We were quite a mixed bunch. The camp was filling up. And the Germans decided to reopen Stalag Luft I at Barth and they wanted volunteers to go from there, from Luft III up to Luft I at Barth to reopen the camp.
So what have I got to lose, I volunteered, and we went, about 150 of us, went up and we had the old officers’ quarters in Barth. They were luxury compared to anywhere else. The huts had six to a room and flush toilets, if you can imagine. We played a lot of sports, softball, soccer. We had a sports day and I came second in the one mile walk, I don’t know how I managed it, but without any training, I managed it.
We did a lot of tunneling. We used to, the trouble with Barth though, the water table was quite near the surface. So you couldn’t dig a deep tunnel like 20 feet down because once you got down about five feet, you hit water. So you had to keep the tunnel comparatively shallow, and we never got anywhere, but it kept us occupied and kept the Germans occupied trying to find out. We understand that they had seismographs and could hear us digging and we had, once we decided to have a blitz, and I was in charge of three tunnels. But we didn’t get anywhere from them, they eventually all discovered. But we had some very cute ways of opening up into the tunnel. We went through a brick chimney, took the bricks out and then made a, sort of a papermâché- made in the shape of bricks that we were able to put back over the hole that we took out and you went in and down into the tunnel from the chimney so that it couldn’t be found from the outside.
And the Germans used to sometimes bring a little roller around, a heavy roller, all around the huts. We were waiting, and they brought it one day, but our tunnel survived and didn’t collapse. And we found it very interesting. Eventually, they found it.