Low-level Navigation in Beaufighters
As a Navigator/W I was fully trained in all aspects of air navigation, wireless operation, reconnaissance aerial photography, bomb aiming and air gunnery. This qualified me to wear the more coveted 'O' badge (signifying the old aircrew designation of 'Observer' which originated in the first World War), rather than the new N series badges then being introduced for those with more restricted training.
I was perhaps spoiled by having been on an OTU on Vancouver Island flying Hampdens. If ever an aircraft was designed for a navigator it was the Hampden. The navigator's position at the nose was positively palatial. It was like a large Perspex enclosed office with a splendid view from port round to starboard beam. There was a large chart table, ample stowage space for maps and instruments, and everything was within easy reach. At each side window there was a socket into which an astro compass could be inserted so that bearings could be taken on ground features without getting out of one's seat. Likewise on the left was a conveniently placed drift recorder and on a panel at eye level were duplicates of the pilot's airspeed indicator and altimeter. And if it was necessary to use astro-navigation then it was possible to crawl back up to a seat behind the pilot (yes, the navigator had the choice of two seats, what luxury!) and use a bubble sextant through a small openable hatch and take sights on stars in the night sky unimpeded by reflections or distortions through perspex.
However, on our return to the UK in the autumn of 1943, Hampdens were obsolescent and my pilot Geoff (the late F/Lt GV Vardigans, DFC) and I were re-trained on Beaufghters at No 9 OTU Crosby-on-Eden. In marked contrast to the Hampden, the provision of accommodation for a second crew member on the Beaufighter seemed to me to have been something of an after thought. “Let's cut a hole in the top of the fuselage towards the back and stick him in there with a Perspex cupola over his head”, I imagined someone saying. “We'll give him a swivel seat and he can keep a lookout at the back, fire the rear gun, operate the W/T set. Oh, and incidentally, do the navigation. It won't matter that his forward view of the ground will be very much obstructed by those two bloody great engines.”
True there was a chart table that folded down in front of you and those old friends, the T1154 and R1155 W/T transmitter and receiver, were within easy reach on the right. But there was no D/F Loop aerial and no drift recorder, indeed there was naught else in the way of navigational aids except a hand held bearing compass—if you had remembered to bring it along. To swivel the seat round to face backwards it was necessary to first lift up the hinged chart table otherwise the back of the seat fouled it. Anything loose, like a pencil or protractor inadvertently left on the table, would of course fall off. What a hassle!
Therefore, as a navigator, I didn't like the Beaufighter at all to begin with—it was only later that I came to love 'em!
On completion of training we had expected to be sent to a Coastal Command strike squadron in the UK but instead we were posted overseas to South East Asia Air Command in India. To get there we were used as a crew to ferry a brand new Beaufighter from Cornwall in the UK to Allahabad in India. Thus my first service assignment was to navigate a Beaufighter on a journey of about 7000 miles which, at the latitudes involved, was nearly a quarter of the way round the world. But we got there!
After kicking our heels in Allahabad for a couple of weeks we were posted to No 211 Squadron which was in 169 Wing of 224 Group. The squadron was then stationed at an airfield near Bhatpara, about about seven miles from Comilla in East Bengal. On arrival, in April 1944, 1 found it was absolutely nothing like I had pictured. Indeed it was the nearest you could get to a World War One airfield 'somewhere in France'.
The airfield was just that, a grass field with a bedraggled wind-sock in one corner. Beaufighters were dispersed around under trees with no protecting earth works. There were no shelters and not a sandbag in sight, in fact the airfield was undefended except for sentries posted at night. The flight offices were in tents. Another small tent at one side of the field served as 'flying control' and was manned by a 'duty pilot' whose only contact with aircraft taking off or landing was by Aldis signal lamp. There was no equipment to make R/T contact with aircraft.
Navigator’s basha, 211 Squadron 1944 (Dennis Spencer)
Virtually all the buildings comprising the station were of bamboo construction, known as bashas. There was no running water and lighting was by hurricane lamps, except in a few buildings such as the Cook House and the three small Mess rooms. These were lit by electricity from a small generator, which failed frequently. Apart from a few local workers the only personnel on the station were members of the squadron. This made it a close knit community where relations between Officers, NCOs and Airmen were relatively informal. This all served to reinforce that 'World War One' feeling.
I learned the role of the squadron was that of interdiction. This involved sorties, mostly by lone aircraft, penetrating deep into enemy occupied territory over Burma to carry out offensive patrols along selected stretches of road, railway and river to deter the Japanese from using them during daylight hours. To get to central Burma, where most of our targets were, we first had to fly over a range of mountains known as the Chin Hills which had some peaks over 9,000 feet. The Beaufighter Mk Xs had a bit of a struggle to reach a ceiling of 10,000 feet under the atmospheric conditions prevailing. However, once over the mountains and down to treetop height the aircraft showed its worth. Experience had shown that low flying helped to escape detection and avoid fire from larger ack-ack guns. However aircraft could still be, and often were, hit by light machine gun and even rifle fire. But the Beaufighter was well suited to the task. Its sturdy construction enabled it to take a few knocks and, even cruising at 180 knots it was highly manoeuvrable for taking evasive action. None of this worried Geoff unduly except that low flying for long periods would call for continued high concentration. But what about me the navigator? What methods should I use to keep track of where we were under these conditions?
When I sought out the acting Navigating Officer I found that I knew him as he had been at navigation school with me in Canada. He had already been on several sorties and was able to give me some advice. "Best forget most of what we were taught", he said with laugh. "The majority of the trips are at low level with your pilot frequently taking evasive action. It is not practical to use charts for plotting or to use the normal Navigator’s Log forms, and in any case we don't have any charts or log forms!”.
"So you don't try to keep an air plot going then?", I said. "Goodness no!", he replied. "Plot tracks and make measurements on topographical maps and use a knee pad for jotting down times and other observations".
The RAF manual on Air Navigation (AP 1234) then extant devoted only one quarter of a page [Chapter XII, paras 40 to 54] to Low Flying Navigation Over the Land and was mainly about which navigational procedures were not practical. Clearly low level map reading was an art that needed to be learned by experience but during my extensive training I had not done any low flying over land. So I would have to learn quickly, but over enemy territory!
It didn't help matters much when I studied the set of maps I was given. They were 1:1,000,000 scale topographical maps, a bit lacking in detail in some areas which was not surprising since they were based on ancient surveys some as long ago as 1914. Even the colour keys used to denote contour heights were not the same on all maps. These were hardly the best aid for map reading over a country like Burma where rivers can change their courses over a period of time and where the appearance of the landscape can alter considerably with the seasons. Lush green valleys may become dried up river beds surrounded by parched brown countryside in a short space of time. But these were the only maps available.
During my first couple of trips I encountered several problems. Handling and folding the several maps in the confined space was not easy, particularly when our track passed from one on to another. Also orientating the maps was difficult as I frequently had to face backwards to keep a lookout for enemy fighters in certain areas. This led me to adopt my own solutions. The maps were about 26in wide by 19in high and four of them covered the main area over which we normally flew. I stuck these four together, having trimmed the edges where necessary so that they butted up, to form one large map approximately 52in by 38in. I then folded this with four horizontal and five vertical folds like a car road map. This gave conveniently sized panels of 8.5in by 12.5in and the map could be quickly folded so that one, two or sometimes four could be viewed at one time. Orientating the map in the line of flight was also facilitated, whether you were sitting facing forwards or backwards.
Letpadan Railway Junction (Dennis Spencer)
A small portion of an air navigation chart for Burma.
Because keeping a sharp lookout at the rear was vital, and when low flying the forward vision of the ground from my cupola was very restricted anyway, I soon adopted the technique of map reading while sitting backwards. This called for close co-operation with Geoff over the intercom—with a sort of running commentary— warning him what was coming up next etc. We had little rules like when we crossed a road or railway, perhaps en route to our target area, he would always look to port and I to the starboard side. By doing this there was less chance of missing tell tale signs of dust from moving vehicles or a wisp of smoke from a locomotive. Of course deviations from our track to make an attack on some such target of opportunity made my task more difficult, but careful pre-flight planning helped.
For most trips we were briefed in the late afternoon for a sortie the next day, because we would often have to take off before or around dawn so as to arrive in the target area about sunrise. This would give me time in the evening to study the intended tracks and note what land features I would use as position checks, not just along the track itself but on either side of it. Thus if, following some evasive action or unscheduled attack, I was not sure of our exact position I would know which was the best direction to turn to pick up some other feature such as a road or river that would lead us back to resume our original track. Of 49 operational sorties Geoff and I did together 33 involved extensive low level flying over land and we always made it back. But I came to regard myself more and more as an Observer rather than a practitioner of the science of Air Navigation. It was also my job to make reconnaissance notes of any enemy activities seen, what targets we hit and to assess the damage, to re-cock the 20 mm cannons if one jammed and to man the rear machine gun if necessary.
I was, of course, a trained wireless operator but this skill was seldom used. At low level over Burma we were completely cut off from any R/T or W/T communication with base by the intervening Chin Hills. For most of our sorties that T1154 Transmitter sat there like a useless passenger. I only used it twice and that was at high altitude over the Hills themselves.
But I grew to like the Beaufighter better. Even the swivel seat, which I had found irritating at first, proved to be very useful. When we made an attack Geoff would climb up three or four hundred feet to make a shallow dive. As he put the nose down I would swivel round to look forward because I could then see along the top of the fuselage and note whether we hit the target and with what effect. Then as he pulled up, usually banking steeply as well, I swivelled round to look backwards again to be able to make a further assessment. At the same time I would be ready to man the rear gun in case there was any retaliatory fire from the ground. I became quite adept at manipulating that seat under adverse gravitational effects. The accompanying vibration and din from the 20 mm cannons made it feel like a ride at a fun fair—without the fun.
And as to low level navigation in them? It was ironic that the RAF manual on Air Navigation, which I have said was of little help in this respect, headed each Chapter with short amusingly apt quotation from Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland'. Can there be anything more reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland than the technique I adopted much of the time of map reading sitting backwards? I knew where I was going by knowing where I had just been!
My Narrowest Escape
Although No. 211 Squadron was part of the Third Tactical Air Force, our role was not that of close tactical support but rather to penetrate deep into enemy held territory and carry out offensive patrols along selected stretches of road, railway and river to deter the enemy from using them during daylight hours.
Apart from the danger of being shot down by enemy fighters or anti-aircraft fire there were additional hazards due to the very nature of the terrain. The range of mountains, known as the Chin Hills, formed a natural barrier between the forward landing strips in the Arakan from which we operated and the central areas of Burma where our targets lay. On almost every trip we had to climb over them, often in atrocious Monsoon weather.
Once over the mountains there were other dangers such as the hazards of low flying for long periods to and from the target area. We flew at low level to escape detection as far as possible and to avoid fire from larger ack-ack guns. We could still be, and often were, hit by light machine gun and even rifle fire. This meant that every time we flew over or near small villages or groups of buildings that might be occupied by Japanese soldiers Geoff would start 'weaving'. This manoeuvre was a rather violent combination of banking, turning and side-slipping which made it more difficult for a gunner to apply the right deflection when aiming a weapon. Of course all this was very tiring for Geoff and one slight misjudgement could have resulted in disaster such as hitting a tree or flying into the ground. By the time we got back across the Chindwin river and started the long climb back over the mountains Geoff might have done as much as four hours of low flying.
Then there was the fear of the 'what if' scenarios.
What if I was badly injured? There was no way that Geoff could render any first aid and it might be two or three hours flying back to base. Worse still what if Geoff was injured or killed? Although I could crawl up the fuselage to the front and stand behind the pilot's seat it was impossible to change places and in any case I could not fly a Beaufighter. What if I baled out or by some miracle survived a crash and found myself alone several hundred miles inside enemy held territory? Although we wore survival suits and marching boots, and carried a revolver and dagger, I doubt whether I, a town bred westerner, would have lasted more than a few days in such an alien hostile environment as the jungle area which covered much of the northern part of Burma. What if I met some Burmese villagers? Even if they offered food and shelter how could I be sure that they had not sent someone to fetch the nearest Japanese soldiers? Then there was the vexed question of the money belt. On operational trips we wore a canvas money belt into which were sewn 400 rupee coins intended to pay Burmese people for any help they could give. However this was regarded by us as a bit of a two edged sword. It was alright if you were alert and still had a revolver but sooner or later you must sleep. Would they be able to resist the temptation to cut your throat, share out the money, and dispose of your body? After all 400 rupees was equivalent to about two years wages for the average peasant. What if I was captured by the Japanese? Heaven help you if you had already been robbed of your money belt, because they would assume that you had hidden it and torture you until you revealed where it was. On the other hand if you did have it they would simply take the money and anything else they wanted. Then, especially if it was in an area where it would be too much trouble to transport you to a labour camp, they would most likely kill you anyway.
Finally what if I was 'lucky' enough to be sent to a camp? In other theatres of war this would mean being put in a prisoner of war camp and at least being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. But the Japanese were not signatories to the Convention and to their way of thinking prisoners of war were dishonoured men. We had heard stories of how they treated them as virtual slave labourers forcing both officers and men alike to work on construction projects under atrocious conditions.
We were all aware of these potential dangers but seldom talked about them. In retrospect I wonder how I ever voluntarily climbed into the navigator’s cockpit of a Beaufighter and set off on a sortie far behind enemy lines. But I did, again and again and again, forty nine times in fact. Geoff and I were lucky in that neither of us received any injuries although our aircraft was hit on a number of occasions by machine gun bullets and shrapnel. We always made it back but there was one time, forever imprinted in my memory, when I myself missed death by inches and split seconds. Geoff might well have made it home by himself but with only dismembered bits of a navigator in the back.
On the afternoon of 7th of July we were briefed for a trip on the following day to the Bassein delta area which was well down to the South. I feared this region not only because it was a long way away, some 400 miles from base, but also because we would be uncomfortably close to several landing strips at Bassein and Rangoon where it was believed that some Japanese fighters were kept. Furthermore the Burmese people in this part of the country were amongst the most hostile towards the British. However there was the advantage that the area could be reached by flying all the way down the coast, a few miles off shore. Over the sea we could fly straight and level at about 200 feet. This was less hazardous and less tiring for Geoff than flying over the hills and across the plains in this Monsoon season of 1944.
Next morning we took off from Feni before dawn. We were in our 'favourite' Beaufighter, NE298 which bore the squadron letter 'V', but on this occasion we were not armed with rockets. Indeed the rocket rails themselves had been temporarily removed to reduce drag and thereby lower petrol consumption. This was normal practice for long range trips such as this which was expected to be of nearly six hours duration.
Unexpectedly the weather was fairly good and we flew down the coast to Foul Island without any problems. Foul Island was a remarkable little island probably of volcanic origin. It looked neatly round, about 2 miles diameter, and rose sharply some 150 feet out of the open sea. It was visible for quite some distance on this morning and provided a useful landmark to get my bearings in order to cross the coastline at the point where I had planned. When we reached the mainland we had to climb to about 3,000 feet to fly over the 'tail end' of the Chin Hills before reaching the flat area of the delta, where we began low flying.
After a few minutes we reached the railway where it crossed the Bassein river at a place called Nyogin Ferry. It was 0700 hours when we began our patrol along this section of line towards Henzada. There were two or three small stations or halts on the way but we saw nothing except a few derelict wagons at one of them. We always had to look at these carefully as the Japanese sometimes parked loaded wagons, which may have been in transit during the night, amongst them. They would cunningly camouflage them with old bits of splintered wood etcetera, to look like wagons previously attacked and damaged. Locomotives, which to them were virtually irreplaceable, were usually hidden away in the daytime in bombproof bunkers at places where there were convenient woods beside the track. Access would be via a short siding from points on the track so expertly camouflaged with foliage and rubble that they were very difficult to spot even when low flying. However what we were hoping to find, at this early hour in the morning, was a train on the move.
It took about 5 minutes to reach Henzada where the line had a short spur to a railhead on the west bank of the Irrawaddy river. This was the place that our Intelligence Officer had been interested in. But all was quiet and appeared deserted. In the briefing room at Feni there was a large 'flak' map on the wall which had coloured dots marking places where enemy fire had been experienced and which was continually being updated from reports by aircrews from all operational squadrons. Navigators would mark these places on their own maps for areas where they would be going. I had both heavy and light ack-ack symbols on my map for Henzada, which was known to be occupied by Japanese forces. Although the railhead was slightly south of the town we were at a spot where we had expected some enemy opposition. There was none.
We turned and flew northwards up the Irrawaddy towards a similar railhead on the opposite bank about three miles away. There was nothing to be seen here either and, as briefed, we followed this branch line for 18 miles to where it joined the main Rangoon to Proms railway at a town called Letpadan. we had planned to follow this line northwards, almost to Proms, before breaking off and heading back over the mountains. Letpadan was a town a bit smaller than Henzada and there had been no information about ack-ack batteries on our 'flak' map. Nevertheless it was big enough to almost certainly have some Japanese troops garrisoned there and had we flown across it we would probably have encountered machine gun fire. Instead we skirted round it to the south and east, taking a good look before swinging back to join the railway again just north of the town.
At this point an oil pipeline, which ran beside the railway, was clearly visible. This prompted Geoff to ask me if I knew the current state of the pipeline, that is whether it was carrying oil or not, according to our latest Intelligence. This pipeline ran all the way to Prome and then followed the Irrawaddy River round to the oilfields at Yenangyaung and Chauk. These oilfields were still producing some oil at this time and, as I understood it, the Allied policy was not to do any more structural damage to production plant, which presumably they hoped to recapture before long, but rather to constantly attack and breach or set fire to the pipeline. Of course the Japanese were continually repairing it, but at least it made it very difficult for them to transport oil down to Rangoon in any quantity. However the pipeline had not been mentioned at our briefing and I had to say to Geoff that I was not sure.
“Shall we give it a burst anyway then?", said Geoff. The terrain was flat shrubland with a few wooded areas. There were no villages or dwellings in sight and this seemed to be a good place to make an attack where there would not be any opposition. "Yes", I replied, little knowing that the very timing of my remark almost signed my own death warrant. Geoff banked to the right, climbing up three or four hundred feet, then turned left and made a shallow dive towards the pipeline. I had swivelled my seat so that I was facing forwards, as I usually did when we made such an attack. This was because while we were diving I could see along the top of the fuselage and make an independent observation as to where the cannon shells struck and what damage was done. He gave a short burst with the four 20mm cannons. These fired mixed armour-piercing, high explosive and incendiary rounds at a rate of about 10 a second, with devastating results. I saw smoke and debris fly up and flashes from the incendiaries but as we flattened out I lost sight of the target before I could see whether there was any leakage of oil or real fire. As we flashed over the railway Geoff started to climb and turn to the right intending to double back so that we could take a good look and assess the damage. I remember scribbling 0717 hours, the time of the attack, on my pad...then it happened.
On the intercom I heard Geoff mutter "Christ!". Simultaneously there was a tremendous bang. The whole aircraft shuddered and seemed to move sideways just as if we had collided with something. It banked violently to the left diving towards the ground, while a strong smell of petrol fumes wafted down the fuselage.
This was it, one of the worst of the 'what if' scenarios was actually happening. I was convinced that Geoff had been killed, or seriously injured, and that I was sitting helplessly in a pilotless Beaufighter diving into the ground. Damage must have caused a massive leakage of petrol, and so however it hit the ground it would explode in a ball of fire. There would be no escape! Events in my life really did rush through my mind with incredible speed together with all sorts of reasons why I was too young to die. Simultaneously I had the weirdest sensation that the real me was sitting on my shoulder relatively unperturbed and ready to 'bale out’ of my body. At this moment I noticed a cloud of red soil dust swirl up from the port wing tip, which must have been only a few inches from the ground. Then, as though to prolong the agony, the plane seemed to level up.
"Are you OK Denny?", said Geoff. Never in our many hours of flying together, before or since, had I been so relieved to hear his voice. " Yes", I shouted, "But climb! I can smell petrol, and we may have to bale out". But Geoff, who had the advantage of knowing what had happened, and that the plane was still under his control, kept his cool. "I'll climb in a minute", said Geoff, "But we better get out of range first. Are you sure it's petrol you can smell?" Even as he spoke I realised that, in the heat of the moment, I had jumped to the conclusion that the vapour was petrol, but it was not. "No", I replied, "it must be hydraulic fluid." Geoff was relieved to hear this because, although it might mean that we would have trouble with the flaps or undercarriage later, we were not in immediate danger, and he could continue low flying. It was only when I then asked him what he meant by 'getting out of range' that he realised I did not know what had happened.
He then explained that as he pulled up out of the dive he saw, too late, that he was turning directly towards a heavy ack-ack battery. There were at least two big guns in sandbagged emplacements which had been hidden from view by some trees. He had seen the flash from the barrel of one which was fired at virtually point blank range. The shell had hit us, fortunately without exploding, before he had time to take the violent evasive action that he subsequently did. This had happened at the very moment that I had turned my head inside the cockpit to jot down the time on my pad and so I had not seen the guns.
We continued streaking along at low level in a westerly direction for several minutes to get well clear of the area. Neither of us could see any damage from our respective cockpits, but the aircraft had received such a heavy blow that we had an uncomfortable feeling that something might go wrong at any minute as a delayed result. We therefore decided to abandon our patrol, make for the coast, and fly back over the sea the way we had come. We had to cross the Irrawaddy again, at a point where it was a rather exposed stretch of sandbanks and water channels, also another branch of the railway but we did not encounter any machine gun fire. From then on it was flat, relatively unpopulated, marshland stretching to the hills which we could see ahead and so we began to climb.
By the time we reached the coast at Bluff Cape and set course for Oyster Island we were at about 5,000 feet. Any threat from fighters was now receding and over the sea we could keep out of range of any gunfire. We therefore decided it would be safer to stay at this altitude because, if anything went wrong and we had to bale out or ditch in the sea, at least I would be able to make contact by W/T with one of the monitoring stations and give our position.
The sky above was overcast but visibility was quite good. At this unfamiliar height I could see the coast line and the off-shore islands of Ramree and Cheduba and had no difficulty in keeping track of where we were. This meant that I now had time to look around more carefully inside the aircraft for any signs of damage. I crawled forward a bit to the small header tank for the hydraulic system which was fixed on the left hand side of the fuselage. By unscrewing the filler cap and using a pencil as a dip stick I established that it was empty. The pipe leading from it was undamaged as far as I was able see down to the point where it disappeared into the floor. This was not the bottom of the fuselage but a false floor which covered the breech end of the cannons and extended backwards to the point where my seat was mounted. Any damage must therefore have been below this where I could not see.
Geoff was optimistic that, although we had lost all the fluid from the header tank, there might be enough in the pumps and system to get the undercarriage down. However he did not want to try it until we got nearer to base because, if it did work, we would have to fly the remainder of the journey with it down. Time then began to drag as we droned on for about an hour, everything seeming to be normal, except for the suspense of wondering whether or not we were going to be able to get the undercarriage down.
Finally, after we had passed Oyster Island and had altered course slightly to converge with what was now 'friendly' coastline, Geoff decided to experiment. First he selected 'flaps down' but there was no movement whatsoever. Then he selected 'undercarriage down', and gave an exclamation of excitement as the indicators showed that both legs had unlocked and started to move down. But then they stopped. No further manipulation of the selector lever had any effect. Then he decided to try getting them down by increasing the gravitational pull on them. He went into a shallow dive building up speed and then pulled the nose up very sharply. The centrifugal force produced by this manoeuvre increases the gravitational pull on the undercarriage and it has been known to work. But it did not. Undaunted Geoff said he would try again. This time he dived more steeply, reaching an even higher speed and pulled the nose up as hard as he could. I was pressed heavily into my seat with a force that must have been at least three ‘G’, but the undercarriage did not budge.
This was it. Suspense gave way to a feeling of apprehension as I realised that there was no way that we were going to make a normal landing. We resumed flying straight and level, now over land. When we were about twenty-five minutes from Feni Geoff made contact by R/T giving them our ETA, which was 0930 hours, and warning them that we were going to have to make a crash landing. They replied immediately asking how much fuel we had and Geoff told them we would have enough to remain airborne for just over an hour after reaching them.
By the time we arrived overhead we had reduced height to about 3,000 feet and Geoff was then in constant contact with the Controller as we began to circle. Feni was quite a busy airfield at that time particularly with American transport aircraft taking off or landing every ten minutes or so. The reason for their concern over our fuel margin soon became clear when they told us that they did not want us to make our crash landing on the runway but on a broad grass strip on the left hand side of it. However there were several aircraft parked on it which were in the process of being towed away and we would have to circle until it was clear.
They did ask us to descend and make a low level pass in front of the Control Tower whilst someone looked at the underside of our Beaufighter through binoculars. This we did but it only confirmed what we already thought, that the undercarriage doors were just open and the wheels protruding by about half their diameter. As we had flown along the line of the runway I had seen small groups of personnel standing with their faces upturned. On an operational airfield like this word spreads quickly that an aircraft is in trouble and they had no doubt come to see what sort of a job Geoff made of the landing. Oh, how I wished I was one of them with my feet firmly on the ground!
We climbed up a bit and continued circling for what seemed like eternity. Actually it was only about another twenty minutes before the last aircraft was towed away and the grass verge was clear of obstructions. The Controller suggested that Geoff make a dummy run over the grass strip to take a good look at it first. As we did this I was a bit alarmed to notice that at intervals there were some small drainage ditches about 18 inches wide running across it from the runway. Our wheels were partly down and would probably be forced back up into the nacelles as we hit the ground, but what if our point of touchdown coincided with one of these ditches? Would the wheels dig in? I began to have visions of the aircraft turning over and me being trapped upside down inside as it burst into flames.
Of course Geoff had seen the ditches also and as he made no comment about them I assumed he was not worried, particularly as he then told the Controller that he would make one final circuit and then make his crash landing. As we were on the down wind leg he suddenly said to me “Do you want to bale out Denny? If you do it's OK. with me”. This took me completely by surprise as I had not even considered the possibility. Was he worried about these ditches I wondered? “No, why?” I replied “you are not worried about making this landing are you?”
He then said that he thought he could handle it alright but was just wanting to give me the option because, although he knew the correct drill for making a crash landing, he had never actually done it. Certainly crash landings were fairly commonplace in the war-time RAF but, like Geoff, most pilots attempting one would be doing it for the first time. It was a matter of putting theory into practice with only one chance of getting it right. However I had faith in Geoff and there was no way that I would bale out and leave him to it. By the time we completed our circuit and he started his approach it was 0955 hours and I noted that we had been airborne for five hours and ten minutes.
As we neared the ground I was conscious that our speed was appreciably faster than normal because we had no flaps. Indeed just before we touched down the ground seemed to be really whizzing past below, but perhaps this was also partly because I was about four feet nearer to it than during a normal landing. Everything now depended on Geoff. I felt helpless knowing that I had no control over what would happen in the next few seconds.
I felt a slight bump as the tail wheel, which was a fixed one, touched first and then the front made contact with hardly a bounce as the whole aircraft slithered along the flat grassy ground. Of course I was jolted and bumped about a bit and there was much noise and juddering as the propeller blades were bent and forced to a halt. This would all have been a bit frightening if I had not experienced the crash at Crosby-on-Eden in the previous February. That had been much worse. By the time we slithered to a standstill a few seconds later Geoff had switched off the ignition and fuel valves. We both jumped out. It was a textbook 'belly flop', to use the RAF jargon. How wonderful it felt to have both feet firmly on the ground. We stood there jubilant that we had done it and were safe.
Within seconds we were surrounded by ground staff. Members of the crash crew stood by the engines with foam extinguishers but they were not needed. Everyone crowded round Geoff congratulating him on making a good job of the landing. I was standing behind the port wing when someone came up to me, shook my hand and said, "Gosh! you were lucky weren't you?" I started to make some complimentary remark about Geoff's skill when he interrupted. "No, not the landing, I mean that!", he said pointing behind me. I turned and got the shock of my life as I saw a gaping hole in the side of the fuselage. It was some twelve inches diameter with out turned jagged edges and was about eighteen inches directly below where I had been sitting.
Incredible though it may seem I had forgotten for the moment the very reason why we had had to make the crash landing in the first place. The dramatic events at Letpedan flooded back into my mind. That ineffable 'half out of body' feeling must have been a cognition of the nearness of my death, and was not directly connected with the traumatic few seconds that followed when I became convinced that Geoff had been killed and we were plunging into the ground.
However I quickly resumed an air of nonchalance as others gathered round to examine the damage. On the other side of the fuselage there was a smaller cleaner hole where the shell, which they reckoned must have been of 75 mm calibre, had entered. If the shell had been about eighteen inches higher it would most likely have removed the centre portion of my body with almost surgical precision. If it had been about eighteen inches further forward it would have severed my legs and worse, if there could be worse, it might have hit the magazines of our cannons and blown the Beaufighter in two. It had been a miraculous escape.
We were then whisked off for debriefing which did not take long. It had not been a fruitful trip but in war even the negative information that there were no signs of military activity in the area might have been useful. At least we had the satisfaction of watching them add another coloured dot to their 'flak map'!
By the time I got back to my hut and had changed out of my flying gear I noticed that it was still only 1030 hours. Hunger suddenly made me remember that on the previous evening I had ordered a late breakfast for around this time. I wandered off towards the Mess. Although it would probably be the inevitable tasteless soyalink sausages, a piece of bread fried in horrible gee and a mug of tea tasting strongly of chlorine, I knew that on this morning it was all going to taste good.