Veteran Stories:
Charles Lepine

Air Force

  • Painting of a Wellington Bomber flown by 150 Squadron, RCAF.

    Charles Lepine
  • Painting of a Lancaster Bomber flown by 617 Squadron, RAF.

    Charles Lepine
  • Operation Wings, the bar underneath denotes two tours of operation.

    Charles Lepine
  • Mr. Lépine in Montreal, Quebec, January 2010.

    Historica Canada
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"And I went right through a tree. The tree was alone in the middle of a large field. How in the world could this happen, to go right through that tree."

Transcript

On the night that we [617 Squadron, the Dambusters] were coming back, we had just bombed Munich, which is fairly deep in Germany, near Austria. We had successfully bombed and marked and so on. And on the way back from Munich, perhaps about 15 minutes or so, the aircraft, the wing blew up. It came apart, so we had to escape. The front part was jammed and you could escape from the front here or in the rear here. And we, the bomb aimer, the navigator, the engineer and myself, were to drop in the front, in the back here to get out with our parachute but they had problems and they, one of the parachute of the bomb aimer that was trying to open the hatch, blew up inside a bit [the parachute opened while he was still inside the aircraft]. And they had to grab it all up and then when he jumped, his parachute, I didn’t see that, but my others, one or two saw him, got caught here and he was dragged all the way down to his death, pulled by a parachute which was dragged in this tailwheel. This tailwheel was fixed, you see. But when this became jammed, we jumped from the back here, so I check the, toward the net, for the gunners, if they were in safe condition, they were, but they had already departed.

And then on that tail plane here, like the back, we had special antennas that we used for, we had special equipment to fight fighters, radar equipment which would tell us when they’re coming, what port, on what side and distance and so on. And I always felt, I said, “My God”, I said, if we have to take off from there, we could be taking off in the antennas, which was facing backward. But that was no problem there. The gunners had gone and then I jumped. But as I opened the, I was hit on the head by the part of my chute. And it’s blood which came through behind me and kept me warm as I was descending. It was completely dark but at the beginning, there was aircraft flying all around me. I was hoping that they would see in the dark, not to be hit.

When I hit the ground, it was complete darkness and I thought that I was still about, I think we jumped and it must have been around 21 000 feet. That might have been around 10 000 feet and so. And I went right through a tree. The tree was alone in the middle of a large field. How in the world could this happen, to go right through that tree and I had to try to get the chute for me to escape, to hide it. But tried to pull the chute out of a tree was, I had to give up after, I couldn’t do it at all. And daylight was coming shortly.

So I start walking. Now, you’ve had a jacket and we all had one jacket and one shirt because it was warm at times but outside, it was cold. And we kept this into our breast pocket here, so that gives you an idea how big it was. Well, in there, you had maps which were on a handkerchief, what I’d say was silk. It was very thin, it was very well done, of Germany and France. And my idea then was to try to escape to France because coming over deep into Germany, coming down, being shot down or in France, it was two different stories. In France, if you’re shot down and if you still had all your limbs and so on, you had a good chance of being picked up by the French residents. They would hide you and eventually get you into Spain and then into Gibraltar. Or that would be the same in Holland and Belgium.

But in my particular case, I had walked through Germany but in my case, in the Macdonald College [of McGill University], I was studying agriculture, we studied also agriculture from different country – Germany, England, France and so on. And I knew that how the area that I was in was Bavaria, that there would be farms and so on. But the people in Germany in that area, the farm is not like Canada where you have a farmhouse and the buildings behind a farmhouse and a home, and then maybe a mile or two away and the next farmhouse and so on. There, they would have all the people, all the farmers living in the same village, like. And they would have say part of their farm, say the south part of their farm on the east part, south, west and north, you see. And the next person would have a field next to him. So they would have spread like that so I knew that I could not find a farmhouse to try to get into the barn and get some food or something like that, that I had to stay away. And also, they had the dogs in there in the town so, as you approached the town at night, it was completely dark. The dogs would start barking so I knew that there was a village there. And also, say like at 1:00, the church in the village would ring one bell, 2:00 in the morning, two bells, three bells. That would give me an indication where the village was and try to stay away from it. And then from maybe about five miles away, if there was another village, that would be the same thing. But sometimes, I would be able to hear a bell from over there and this one and I was trying to figure out, try in between, you see.

Now, in the kit on us, normally when we flew over the water and so on, we had a little light here that we could use with a battery that we kept here. And this, as I said, once you went into the water and so on, that you could assemble people, you could assemble them because you could see them floating in the water and try to get them into a dinghy. I did crash in the sea once and that’s how it was. But fortunately when we crashed in the sea, we were not very far from land, so we could swim ashore. And but when you crash at night in the sea, it’s like hitting a wall about 65 miles per hour. So but everybody was not hurt, shaken a bit and I was one of the first one to get out through the astrodome hatch which was in the middle here. And get the dinghy out which was behind an engine but the dinghy was full of holes, it was punctured by the shell and so on. So it was floating but not any use. So, but the light, I was able to get the other people through the hatch and get assembled and then we swam ashore and it was in the winter. But the Mediterranean [Sea] is warm in the winter, so it was okay. But in the North Sea, you could not survive more than about 15 minutes doing that.

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