Sgt John Gale
- Created: 26 March 2014
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We have been kindly sent these documents by Mr David Poissant and we reproduce them here in their entirety with the permission of him
© David Poissant • First published in ‘Dispersals’ Newsletter of 2nd Tactical Air Force Medium Bombers Association.
John Gale is an unassuming man, quick with a smile; an engaging conversationalist...raise your voice, please, he’s quite hard of hearing...says it’s nature’s way of protecting him from things he’s not meant to hear.
He celebrated his 100th birthday on 16 June 2013 at the home of his son Roger, in North Ferriby, East Yorkshire, UK. Also part of the festivities were sons David and Stephen, respective extended families, and many family friends; grand and great-grand children were in abundance, keeping Roger’s large back garden humming with activity.
John Gale; note the Caterpillar tie pin
Born during ‘The Great War’, where his Dad suffered a wound that would see two bullets remain in his head for the rest of his life, John has seen much history go by. He has also been a part of history, serving as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in 98 Squadron RAF. Sergeant Gale flew in the first WWII operation by 98 Squadron, part of the first crew of the B-25 Mitchell that would become known as ‘Grumpy’. That aircraft would go on to set the record number of operations (125) for an RAF Mitchell, although John was not present to observe the occasion, having been shot down by flak over Boulogne in another Mitchell on 13 April 1943; he served the rest of the war interned in German POW camps after his parachuted escape from the burning Mitchell (see ‘Dispersals’ November, 2012).
John with part of his family and friends
Great Grandchildren Charlie & Eva with Mum Emma
The Sunday celebration was the day after John’s actual birthday, but being Father’s Day, was rather fitting for a celebration of a man so obviously well loved and respected by those about him. I was honoured to have been invited to attend; and lucky to be able to meet the man of whom I wrote and very much admire. He’s an alert individual with a fine sense of humour, good memory and quite fit; it was no surprise to see John easily walk to the back of Roger’s garden where he enjoyed his pipe...one of his enjoyments which also include an occasional dram of ‘Teachers’.
I finally meet F/Sgt John Gale
Son Roger recounts events of 100 years
2nd Tactical Air Force Medium Bombers Association’s recognition for F/Sgt John Gale
Once again, Happy Birthday John...and keep an eye open for that wartime photo album; we’d love to publish your photos in a coming issue of ‘Dispersals’.
JOHN GALE’S HEYDEKRUG RUN
John was keenly aware; their aircraft had suffered a flak hit and was on fire. He and Sgt Frank Gower, in the rear section of the Mitchell high over Boulogne, had not heard a bailout order when John saw Ian Tweddell, their Navigator/Bomb Aimer, take to his parachute.
P/O Gordon Calder
The intercom must be u/s...“Time to get out!” John called as he slapped Frank’s arse to get him out of his turret seat in the smoke and melee of the stricken B-25. They jettisoned the rear crew door in preparation to bail out; “Frank was not wearing his parachute harness” John recalls, “I was helping him on with it, kneeling in front of him to get the connecting strap and buckle between his knees when the aircraft went into a power dive.” Gordon Calder, their pilot, put the plane into a steep dive in an attempt to extinguish the fire. “We were thrown to the roof of the craft. Our pilot then put it into climb mode to put the fire out.” When Calder pulled out of the dive the manoeuvre’s centrifugal force hurled John, unscathed, through the open hatch; Frank must have collided with the aircraft floor. “I was shot out at the end of the dive” John said, “the chute shot off my chest and was hanging at the end of the straps, vibrating; I just reached down and pulled the handle...opened with a bang!” John was travelling at a considerable speed when his parachute opened with a yank, the force of which ruptured his diaphragm...an injury that would bother him for years. He saw their aircraft, still on fire, climb after pulling out of the dive and then saw his pilot bail out. P/O Calder’s parachute was aflame; he didn’t survive. The aircraft went into a spin; it would have been impossible for Frank to get out, even if he was conscious. Suspended in his parachute, John watched as B-25C Mitchell II FL197 (41-12757) crashed into the sea near Hardelot, France.
It was noon on Sunday, 13 May 1943; they had just bombed the Boulogne Marshalling Yards on their 13th operation (including 2 Air Sea Rescue searches) with 98 Squadron RAF. Their first ‘op’ had been 22 Jan 43, which was also 98 Squadron’s first of WWII; and the first for the Mitchell they had flown on that operation, FL176 VO-B ‘Grumpy’.
P/O Gordon Calder's grave
Photo: Russell Legross
Sgt Gale had little time for reflection; he was over the sea, anxiously steering his parachute for the dry landing he soon experienced. A group of German soldiers that watched his descent were waiting a short distance away as he landed; “sit still” a voice called “you are among mines.” An officer arrived shortly and directed John through the mines and took him to an interrogation hut; P/O Ian Tweddell was already there. John was in a long room with a table down the middle when an officer with a patch over one eye entered; John came to attention as a mark of respect. Curiously, the officer turned and leaned against the wall in what seemed an attitude of shame. The ‘name, rank and serial number’ interrogation ensued.
P/O Gordon Calder, RCAF (Pilot) and Sgt Frank Gower, RAFVR (AG) were buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. F/O Ian Tweddell, RCAF (Nav/B) and Sgt John Gale, RAF (WAG) became prisoners of war; Tweddell in Stalag Luft III for commissioned officers at Sagan and Belaria (see Dispersals February 2012) and Gale in Stalag Luft I at Barth, Germany. Looking back on it now, this first camp seems luxurious; They had musical instruments; John loves music, was a musician and played in the RAF band earlier; he conducted a small orchestra at Stalag Luft I.
Sgt Frank Gower's grave
Photo: Russell Legross
But it wasn’t to last long. They were moved to Stalag Luft VI for non-commissioned officers in Sept ’43 when it opened at Heydekrug. They left Barth on a long cattle wagon train, about 40 men to a wagon with standing room only. Rations consisted of one loaf between 5 men; a loaf between 4 men on Sunday. Station stops were their only toilet facilities and they never stopped when any civilians were about. At the end of their journey, an empty wagon was fitted out to resemble an supposed accompanying kitchen wagon, and photographed with German officers in attendance.
Stalag Luft VI was the most northern of German POW camps: Near Heydekrug, East Prussia, just a few miles from the Baltic coast, in what is now Lithuania. It would eventually have 3 compounds: 1 American, 1 British and 1 joint American/British (Americans arrived in Feb ’44). Each compound contained ten brick barracks, each with a capacity of 552 men, and 12 wooden huts each housing 54 POWs. The men slept in double-decker bunks with tables, stools, lockers and a single wood stove in the middle of the room. With a total capacity of 6,168 the camp came to hold a conservatively-estimated 10,400 many of whom were quartered in tents.
“We were allowed to walk ‘round the camp twice a day” John relates, “There was a warning wire 6 feet from the main double wires. Two prisoners went over the warning wires while I was there. Both shot dead.”
Promoted to F/Sgt, John quickly settled into camp life and, among other everyday things, began writing letters and cards, one of which was to the Irvin Parachute Company to claim his ‘Caterpillar Pin’ and club membership, awarded by the company to anyone whose life was saved by an Irvin parachute.
The requirements for Caterpillar Club membership are rigid; members must have saved their lives by jumping with a parachute. Consequently RAF Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, who during World War II bailed out of a RAF Avro Lancaster without a parachute and landed uninjured in a snow-drift, was refused membership because a parachute had not been used. More recently, a group of twelve skydivers were denied membership when one of them fouled the plane's tail and caused it to fall from the sky. He died in the crash, but the other eleven parachuted to safety. They did not qualify because it had been their original intention to jump from the plane. The pilot, however, was admitted to the club.
The Stalag Luft VI Commandant was Oberst Hermann Von Hoerback, a Prussian Army officer; he was very strict but fair; he committed no acts of cruelty; and allowed a camp council with elected barracks leaders who could put forward items for discussion; they were also responsible for distribution of food parcels and communications. After the 50 Allied officers were shot following ‘The Great Escape’ at Stalag Luft III in March ’44, the SS visited Luft VI and told the men about it with a warning “Recaptured escaped POWs lose their rights and are to returned to the Gestapo.” Things were about to tighten up
In July of 1944, the Russian Army had driven through the Baltic states and were nearing Heydekrug; the Germans decided to move their charges to another camp farther from the Russian advance: Stalag Luft IV at Gross Tychow, Poland. The transfer to Gross Tychow was done in 3 groups: one via the cargo ship ‘Masuren’, a captured Russian vessel; the second in the ‘Insteberg’, a ship of German registry; and the third group travelled entirely by train. F/S John Gale travelled the 4-day crossing of the Baltic sea in the hopelessly over-crowded “about 400 of us crammed in” hold of the steamer Insteberg, without sanitation or fresh air in mid-summer heat, to the Baltic port of Swinemünde. Upon docking, the men were unloaded and immediately marched to waiting railroad boxcars; here the prisoners were shackled in twos, hand and foot, up to 50 men to a car, for the 24-hour trip, with no food or drink, to the station at Kiefeheide, near the Stalag Luft IV.
After arrival at Kiefeheide on 18 Jul 44 the shackled Heydekrug Sergeants were forced to double-time to the new camp through a cordon of SS, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine guards that became a 2-mile gauntlet of vicious dogs and equally vicious guards slashing with fixed bayonets. To add to the misery and confusion guards released the dogs and encouraged their vicious biting. John remembers “Jerries each side with fixed bayonets. Chased uphill dodging the jabs. Medics were waiting at camp with iodine. Everybody pants down.” They were strip-searched at Stalag Luft IV and had most of their possessions taken from them; no medical attention was available; only the most basic first aid. John suffered “only a couple of bayonet wounds”; others were very seriously injured. Incredibly, only one man was killed. This trip and the gauntlet is often referred to by its Allied veterans as ‘The Heydekrug Run.’
An International Red Cross report of October 1944 described Stalag Luft IV as being divided into 5 compounds (A-E) separated by barbed wire; POWs were housed in 40 wooden barrack huts, 200 men per hut. Compounds A&B had 3-tiered bunks; the remainder had no bunks; POWs slept on the floor. Huts were not heated; the entire camp had just 5 small iron stoves. Latrines were open-air; there were no proper washing facilities. Medical facilities, supplies of food and clothing were all meagre. At this point the POWs numbered 7,089 Americans, 606 British, 147 Canadians, 37 Australians, 59 Poles, 22 New Zealanders, 8 South Africans, 2 French and 1 Norwegian.
John recalls an incident where, while working on an electrical power pole, a guard was electrocuted when a ‘Kriegie’ (POW) somehow switched on the power! He goes on “One time the Americans sent us brand new boots, as many of us didn’t have shoes. The Germans confiscated them; the only time we saw those new boots were on the feet of the guards.”
In January and early February of ’45, with the Russian advance threatening to overrun Stalag Luft IV, two trainloads of sick and wounded prisoners were taken to camps in Germany for medical attention. During 6-7-8 February the 6,000 remaining prisoners were ordered to leave the camp on foot, at bayonet point, with only a few hours notice.
John and his fellow POWs, in groups of 250-300, were marched long daily distances on starvation rations. They lived in filth and slept in open fields, or barns when lucky. Clothing, medical and sanitary facilities were almost non-existent. Hundreds of men suffered from malnutrition, exposure, trench foot, exhaustion, dysentery, tuberculosis, numerous other diseases and incredibly ill treatment by the guards. John: “Whilst we were marching, the young Germans started stabbing everyone with fixed bayonets; one bloke ended up with nearly 40 stab wounds to the backside; he was barely conscious.” Ill or exhausted prisoners were assisted by stronger comrades. Some men escaped to hide out until they found an Allied unit.
During the later stages of the march, “Jerries got wind the end was near and started deserting.” Under the ‘relaxed’ supervision, John continues: “a young army lad called Jack Copley and myself broke into a food storeroom on a farm. We found legs of pork and vegetables; the owners couldn’t report us, as they were hiding food illegally from the Germans. I took a leg and shoulder to the farm woman: if you cook this leg for me, you can have the shoulder.” Done. During the exchange, John related that he had managed a butcher shop before the war; “the next morning, the woman’s 10-year old boy said ‘come’. Someone had given her a pig; she asked if I would kill it for her.”
On the road again. John and his group eventually met up with Canadian Forces, got a lift in Allied lorries to a channel port and HOME!
Reunited with his wife Joan in Kingston-Upon-Hull, East Yorkshire, John returned to managing the butcher shop. They raised three sons: David, Roger and Stephen; John was also from a family of three sons: John, the eldest (born 15 Jun 1913), Gillian who died many years ago, and George who also served in the RAF. John played in and conducted The East Yorkshire Regimental Territorial Army Band; Roger has a 78rpm recording of Glen Miller’s Moonlight Serenade/American Patrol recorded just after the war by The RAF Band on which his Dad is featured. Joan died in 1967; John did not remarry and still lives at home in Hull; his son Stephen lives with him. John’s other two sons are also in the City of Hull.
Photo: Roger Gale
John wrote the Irvin Parachute Company twice more: soon after arriving home in 1945 to request a replacement Caterpillar Club membership card that he lost “when Jerry deprived me of my scanty belongings during captivity”; the company happily complied; and again 6 years later, after his Caterpillar Pin went missing; another was supplied at a price of 5s.
My research for this article grew from interest generated during my earlier writing on Ian Tweddell...I wanted to know the entire story; among the records provided me by Ian’s daughter Linda was a note from John regarding arrangements for a meeting in 1962 when Ian visited from Canada; the only time they met since the interrogation hut of 13 May 43. Based on John’s then return address I placed a request for information in the Hull Daily Mail and received emails from John’s nephew; a son; and a family friend in addition to a hand written note from John telling me that he, at age 98, was the man I was seeking.
John is obviously a loved and respected man. He has a neat sense of humour; his second note informed me that he was “98 years old and still Compus Mentos”; he then went on to tell me “When I was shot down it was awful to see my pilot go down with his parachute on fire! It was my pilot’s action at the time that saved my life.”
Former F/S John Gale (Wop/AG) in his garden in Kingston Upon Hull
A great deal of thanks is due John Gale’s son Roger who shared valuable information and anecdotes on his Dad. Thank-you also to Carol Towse of Hull, for whom John “has been a family friend for a great number of years.” And to John’s nephew Cliff Gale for his assistance.
Roger, in forwarding John’s notes on captivity, said “I have searched everywhere for photos of Dad in his RAF uniform and in his flying suit, unfortunately, he has put the relevant album ‘somewhere’ and we don’t know where. It will turn up again I’m sure, but too late for your article.” Those photos, when they do surface, will be welcomed into the Dispersals album.
With information from ‘Evacuation of Stalag Luft VI’ by Victor Arthur Martin RAF • ‘The Heydekrug Run’ by Greg Hatton (experiences of his father S/Sgt Hyman Hatton) • ‘The Heydekrug Run’ by Ed Hays • Second Generation Research on www.b24.net • Hell’s Angels 303rd Bomb Group
Reproduced with the kind permission of David Poissant