Halifax III HX296

 

 

On the 16th December 1943 RAF Sqn 466 at Leconfield was preparing to train and familiarise themselves in their new Halifaxs, It was a wet and overcast day so the training was put on hold.

Since early July most crews had flown in Wellingtons in which they had used to bomb Germanys heartland and dropped parachute mines at U-Boats in the harbours along the French coast and Frisian Islands.  However they decided that Wellingtons(Wimpys) were to be replaced with Halifaxes.

We have a story from a crew on this training op, which unfortunately ended badly after a short while, the story comes from Pilot officer Jack Evans.

“We were put on hold. We were to fly in an almost new Halifax Mark III with Flt Lt Thompson as SCREEN, in the use of H2S and the handling of the aircraft generally.

Some of our crews also went into Lancaster’s. It was 1100 hours when we got a clearance to fly out at 1200 hours.

We took off without a bomb load, the weather being quite good, on course to Inverness in North Scotland, then down to Larne on the coast of North Ireland, and from there back to base. We had been airborne for about 5 minutes at about 800 feet when George Kent, our Flight Engineer, reported that the starboard outer engine was overheating. From a window I could see a fire burning through the open gills of the engine nacelle, and I relayed this to our Pilot, Gerry Birmingham, who put out the fire from his cockpit controls and feathered the propeller. Everything seemed O.K.

We were doing all right on 3 engines and maintaining height. I still kept my eye on the engine in case the fire restarted but, shortly, to my horror, the plates on the leading edge of the wing were buckling and starting to blow off in the slipstream. Smoke poured out from all over the wing and it was apparent that the fire had travelled down the fuel lines to the tanks. We were still only about 800 feet up, too low to bale out, and with a fire going that threatened the destruction of the entire wing. About 10 minutes had elapsed since take off and there was no way we could make it back to base so Gerry gave the order "'Prepare for crash landing".

The aircraft was still holding up fairly well but, as more plates blew off the upper edge of the wing, it became more difficult to control and I could hear through my earphones the frantic yelling of the Flt Lt to Gerry "Keep the nose up". (Perhaps he had seen a nose dive before).

It was only by a super effort on Gerry's part that the aircraft was in a flying attitude at all, and the fact that we were now losing height rapidly. A couple of miles ahead there was a large ploughed field, and it was on this that he intended to belly-land. I had previously plugged in my intercom and slipped my oxygen mask across my face so as to keep in touch with Gerry.

Ted Gribble, our other Navigator, opened the escape hatch immediately above our crash position, then he and I (also a Navigator) and Taffy Roynan, the Radio Operator, lay on the floor with our feet against the main spar of the wing - heads cupped in our hands. I took a last look out of the window to see how high we were, and we had only 50 to100 feet to go.

Wheels up and at about 150 mph we torpedoed across the ground sweeping away small trees and whatever else was in the way - tearing metal, thumps and bumps, until at last we came to a stop, followed by a terrific flash inside the length of the fuselage, probably coming from the electricals fusing.  Ted was the first to get up off the floor, but with both a Mae West and a parachute harness on, neither of us could get through the opening and dropped back inside - apart from that, we were in the middle of the bonfire and the heat was terrific. Ted and Taffy moved aft and I never saw them again.

I stumbled around dazed, but aware that I was losing consciousness, no idea that I was being baked (not burnt) in an oven of our own making - just like anaesthesia - and having to force myself from sitting down and going to sleep. My eyes were gumming up, and I could not see properly. Although it was impossible to put any time frame on this stumbling around, eventually by enormous good luck I found myself out in the open. I could not believe it, and to this day I do not know where I got out.

I got my eyes partly opened and started to make my way from the fire, exploding ammunition and pyrotechnics. It was then that I saw George Kent and Frank, the mid-upper gunner, walking about as if lost, then a young woman running towards me from a farmhouse about 300 yards away. She came up to me, looking very frightened, and it was then that I noticed my hands hanging like parchment shreds, so I asked her to remove my oxygen mask and helmet and to get my handkerchief out and blow my nose, which she did, and I felt much better.

Charlie Angus, the rear gunner, had been killed when his turret and tail assembly came apart in the crash and lay quite a way behind the fuselage. There were now two farm hands rushing around the port side of the fuselage trying to rescue anybody they could get to. I was led over to the farmhouse by the woman, and sat in the kitchen with George and Frank who had got away unaided and only slightly injured. I do not know where they got out. After about 10 minutes, Gerry was brought into the house on a stretcher by two farm hands, unconscious and covered in blood and laid on a double bed. They had found him down in the bomb aimer's bay under the cockpit. Ted and Taffy were also retrieved from the fuselage, but both were dead. I don't know who phoned for an ambulance but after about 20 minutes a Doctor arrived almost out of breath as the ambulance that he had been travelling in had taken a short cut across the fields and had become bogged. He had finished the journey on foot.

We were all given a shot of morphine and a cup of tea - the midday meal for the family still remaining half-eaten on the table when they rushed out to assist us who had dropped in unannounced. Frank's face was now bright pink so he and I were put into the ambulance and taken to Driffield Base Hospital and, after a clean-up and bandaging, were put to bed. Gerry who, I was later told, had a fractured skull and burns to his back and buttocks, was taken to a hospital somewhere in the Midlands, and I never saw him again until 1945, back in Australia.

As Driffield Hospital had only basic facilities, it was decided to shift us by ambulance to Rauceby with two nurses looking after us. It was then about 2100 hours. The night was very foggy, and the ambulance driver very slowly got lost and I haven't a clue what time we got to Rauceby as he had to stop several times and enquire the way. It must have been very late. The journey was unforgettable, as shock had now kicked in, and I had been given lots of fluid to drink, but could not pass a drop.

So it was that I spent Christmas 1943 at Rauceby with much merry-making going, on, and me who could not care less about it! The nurses were wonderful and, with Dr. Braithwaite, started my healing programme with pinch grafting taken from both thighs. The usual high jinks continued to go on in the ward.

On 20th March '44 I was discharged from Rauceby, and sent down to Marchwood Park with others for a period of rehabilitation. It was on 10th June '44 that I was admitted to East Grinstead, Ward 3, where between Dr. Archie McIndoe and Squadron Leader (Dr) Swan a good deal of Dermatone grafting was done to my hands, and I was really improving in every way.

One cannot eulogise too much or too often about the treatment at that place, suffice to say I had become a "Guinea Pig" and it set me up for my future life. In all the years since then I have never had any breakdown or trouble with my hands that I could not fix myself, and I am most grateful.

I was discharged from East Grinstead on 28th November '44, and sent up to Morecambe for assessment by the Medical Board. Repatriation home was offered, but I requested getting back to operational flying, which was refused and instead I was given a posting to RAF Bishops Court in Northern Ireland, an I.T.S. for pilots, which turned out to be very uncomfortable. It was a shocker after the comforts of East Grinstead. I knew nobody, and it seemed nobody wanted to know me, and I only scored one cross-country flight in an Anson, so when repatriation was again offered, I accepted it, arriving back in Australia on 3rd May '45.

After about a month's leave in Melbourne, I was admitted to Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital for several more operations on face and hands done by Lt Col Benjamin Rank and Captain Wakefield, comprising 3 Wolfe Grafts and removal of Digital Webbing and Keloid scarring - they also pinned my ears back, after which my treatment following the crash was declared complete. The farm on which we had crashed was owned by the Scholey family and Mr William Scholey, Senr., of Decoy Farm, Hutton Cranswick was later requested to present himself at Buckingham Palace for the presentation of the MBE. The Citation read "For Gallantry in saving some members of an Air Crew".

Jack Evans (9729 5230)

 

A newspaper clipping from the accident

  

 

An amazing story, here we remember this crew of Halifax HX296, a brave crew like so many.

Pilot - P/O G R Bermingham - RAAF – Injured

Bomb Aimer – P/O J E Evans- RAAF – Injured

Navigator – P/O E H Gribble – RAAF – Killed

 

Wireless Op – Sgt E J Roynon – Killed

Flt Engineer – Sgt G E Kent – Injured

Mid U Gunner – Sgt F C Brown

Rear Gunner – F/S C W Angus - Killed

H2S Instructor F/L M Thompson – Injured

 

 CWGC Graves of the crew killed on 16th December 1943

 

 

Picture of Sgt F C Brown on his Wedding Day was kindly supplied by his son Keith Brown.

Pictures of P/O E H Gribble and P/O J E Evans kindly supplied by Colin Brown.

Picture of Sgt G E Kent kindly supplied by his daughter Patricia Mason.

Thanks to John Dann of

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