Memories of a ditching (1943)

Drawing is taken from an article published in Flying Review in 1962 about the ditching of the aircraft

The following is a transcription of a handwritten account by my grandfather Flt/Lt John Wright (Jack) Armitage, about the ditching of Halifax HR929 and the eventful return of the crew to the UK
Transcribed by: Nick Place 8th January 2021

This is a true story about the experiences of a Pathfinder crew of No. 35 Squadron (No. 8 Group Pathfinder Force Bomber Command)

The ditching of Halifax HR929 (11/11/1943) took place on the 11th day of November at 23.00 hrs in 1943.

This story is told by myself, the Navigator, Flt/Lt Jack Armitage, after much persuasion by “Joe” Petrie Andrews our pilot and my very good friend for some 50 years.

The other five members of the crew starting from the nose of the aircraft were Air Bomber, Horatio Backhouse, a relief WOP/AG Henry Stroud (as Jock Berwick our regular WOP was sick), Flight Engineer, Taffy Morgan, Mid Upper Gunner, George Dale and Tail End Charlie Norman Barnett.

At briefing that night, we were informed the target was to be at La Bocca, large railway marshalling yards via Cannes in the south of France. The yards were supplying the transport for German Middle Eastern troops.

At this time, we had been operating as a primary blind and visual marker for some 10 months and had completed 37 ops including all the ops in the battle of Hamburg and several Berlin trips. The operation promised to be a ‘piece of cake’ after our trips to the rest of Europe.

Having crossed the Alps we reduced our height to 7,000 feet in order to drop our red primary markers. On our approach we lost an engine and judging by the sounds, suffered other damage to the aircraft.

After releasing out target indicators we had no chance of gaining sufficient height to climb over the Alps. We decided to fly to Sardinia. I gave course of some 180º to fly due south, when on E.T.A Sardinia latitude we turned 90 degrees to port. Here we lost another engine and shortly thereafter yet another engine. We then took up ditching stations.

As the aircraft hit the water at some 110 knots the perspex nose collapsed, the sea rushed down the fuselage and then out again taking with it all loose items including my leather Irvin flying jacket.

Our engineer, Taffy, pressed the automatic dinghy release button – nothing happened. He then pulled the release handle with a negative result. He then went through the escape hatch and hacked at the dinghy housing in the port wing root.

Whilst this was happening, Backy had returned to the fuselage to collect individual dinghies. A few seconds later he was found floating in the fuselage having been overcome by 100 octane fumes. Joe & George fished him out and at that moment the self-inflating M type dinghy self inflated (I should have been annoyed if it hadn’t). We all piled in and Taffy cut the mooring cord – seconds later the port wing rose high in the air and the aircraft disappeared rapidly.

Backy informed us later that his sister was in charge of the Dunlop dinghy section in Liverpool.

So, there were seven bods looking at each other in the circular dinghy, the water temperature was ideal for swimming.

We took stock of our possession, 7 tins of water, one verey pistol with cartridges, one chute, two canvas paddles a radio transmitter, an apple and a pocket knife.

Most of us were sick at this point through swallowing 100 octane fuel, we tried sending S.O.S signals but the set proved to be unserviceable.

We fixed up the chute to the dinghy radio poles and two of the crew took it in turn supporting the poles. I reckoned we made about 3 knots. The first night in the dinghy passed uneventfully and the 12th of November was ideal until 15.00hrs when a weather front became visible right across the horizon in the West.

The weather gradually deteriorated and by 18.00hrs the seas were mountainous. One moment we were monarchs of all we surveyed sitting on top of huge waves, the next we were surrounded by a wall of water. We took it in turn bailing out the water from the dinghy and when the light failed, we covered ourselves with the dinghy canopy and continued bailing.

In the early hours of the 13th we found ourselves in the water clutching the rope fastened to the dinghy base. Joe and Taffy threw themselves across the base thus righting the dinghy and we all climbed in.

Sometime later we were just North of Asinara Isle, about a mile I should say, when we had a devil of a job to dissuade Joe from trying to swim to the lighthouse. The chances were that this was unoccupied as it belonged to the Italians.

Around lunchtime we saw a cruiser in rather bad visibility heading due West. We fired several verey cartridges to no effect.

Darkness fell about 17.00hrs and we continued bailing out. About 21.00hrs we thought we could see land to the East. The following morning the land proved to be Sardinia and we could see Capo Testa which had a lighthouse and other buildings. Benito Mussolini had escaped from Maddalena the capital some 14 days previously. The Royal Navy were ensconced in their HQ in Maddalena.

Just before 23.00hrs progress was most difficult. The current was doing its best to take us North West to the Straits of Bonifacio. Had this happened we should have been on our way to the Italian coast.

Just before 23.00hrs we were only some 30 metres from the rocks which were at the foot of a cliff. It seemed ages before we finally made headway and climbed onto a large flat rock. Shouts from the cliff top assured us that help was coming and staff from the lighthouse using ropes helped us all to the top of the cliff.

We were greeted at the lighthouse by Commander Conté who previously had been a merchantman Captain. He spoke reasonable English and was most friendly.

We were offered ersatz coffee made with acorns which we all found unpalatable. Instead, we drank the remainder of our water!

We were informed that when the Italians saw our verey cartridges they reported to the Royal Navy that a German E-boat was in the vicinity.

After a good nights´ rest, the Commander cooked an omelette with 5 eggs which we all enjoyed very much,

Our arrival was reported to Royal Naval H.Q. Maddelena and two taxis were despatched to pick us up. After walking about a mile on rocks the taxis were waiting on what passed for a road.

The taxis took us to a ferry which we boarded for Maddelena. On arrival VAT 69 became the order of the day and a fine dinner in late evening.

Arrangements were made for a Royal Naval minesweeper to take us to Ajaccio Corsica the following morning from where we would be able to fly to Algiers in North Africa.

At 7.00hrs the following day we boarded a minesweeper with a crew of 2 officers and 120 men and proceeded to Ajaccio Corsica where we were greeted on arrival by the RAF rescue service who were very disappointed not to have rescued our crew as they had a record of 99 lives saved to-date.

The RAF replaced our uniforms with civilian clothes all labelled for discharged “sailors, soldier & airmen 1918”.

The following morning, we were taken to Ajaccio airport and boarded an Amercian DC3 bound for Maison Blanche Aerodrome, Algiers N. Africa.

Just before take-off, an aircraft flew low over the ‘drome and our DC pilot confirmed that it was a German ME 109. He informed us that German intruders were regular visitors.

We landed in Algiers with no further incident and reported to the FAR transit camp C/O, a young Flying Officer. We found the accommodation very much below standard and we left the camp.

We decided to contact North African Command HQ and a benevolent Group Captain fixed us up with a palatial room in the Albert Hotel. We managed to book another room at the Radio Hotel and shared the cost of this. We had our escape cash in francs and marks.

We received wonderful hospitality in the H.Q. mess. The Middle East types had not met a PFF crew before and were most interested in hearing about the air war in Germany.

We next contacted the engineering officer at Blida airfield and requested help in returning to UK.

He informed us that a glider towing Squadron had abandoned a Halifax Mark 1 Series 1A and that a ground crew had been left with the aircraft and had fitted a replacement for one of the engines. We later found out that the aircraft had been parked on a dirt strip for 6 months.

In the mess during our waiting period we had been looked after by Leo an American barman from the Bronx. He had volunteered to fly as a gunner; however, he was such a good barman I’m sure someone sat on his application.

He lived in a palatial apartment one floor below the US general in charge of Middle East operations, General Doolittle no less.

The answer to the mystery as to how he could afford such luxury came to light one day. Leo had been given permission to collect eggs from the farmers. He took a Gendarme in a jeep and commandeered hundreds of eggs which he then was able to sell on the black market. Leo used to send many dollars home and never drew his pay.

Leo really looked after our needs in the mess and when we told him that we intended collecting a Halifax from Mascara in the desert and that a Wellington would be taking us, he expressed his keenness to come along.

We four commissioned types decided to collect the aircraft and take Leo. We ‘promoted’ him to Captain, he provided the silver bars and we all boarded the Wellington at Blida.

The duties of the Wellington crew since arriving in the Middle East had consisted of coastal operations and they had no experience of interior flying. Eventually their navigator gave up the search. Backhouse started map reading and eventually we saw our quarry in a large field near Mascara.

The light was fading when Joe & Taffy found out that only three engines would start. A little later the Wellington returned to base and an American Lieutenant arrived. The Lieutenant was i/c food supplies to the town of Mascara. We introduced our ‘Captain Leo’ with some tongue in cheek – however everything passed off satisfactorily.

We asked our new friend the Lieutenant to find us accommodation as take off was impossible due to the state of the aircraft. He said that our ‘Captain’ could have his bed and that he would introduce us to the Gendarme who would help.

The Gendarme eventually came up with a flea ridden hotel for Backy & self – a large feather bed which was very depressed in its centre and a poor nights sleep.

The Gendarme then escorted Joe & Taffy to a French Foreign Legion barracks and accommodation was arranged in a 3 bed officers’ quarters. A little after settling down a Foreign Legion officer kicked off his boots and laid on the spare bed. He also put a newspaper parcel under his pillow – unwrapped same and produced a large fish. He then struck a match to ignite the newspaper over which he held the fish!! He turned to our intrepid aviators and said Mange? What a start to the day.

Our U.S Lieutenant collected everyone and we proceeded to the airstrip. On arrival we found the ground crew had lit a fire under the port wing and were in the process of cooking the plugs from the port outer engine. Joe kicked out the fire and told them to go some 50 yards away to sort the plugs out.

We noticed at this time an Arab with a camel and a donkey pulling a wooden plough at the far end of the so called runway. He had ploughed some 80 yards before being chased away.

On inspection the aircraft fuselage was found to have a spare tail wheel which we moved into the centre of the aircraft – also all walking areas were covered in mud.

Our Yankee Lieutenant informed us that the ground crew spent Fridays (their holy day) showing the local populace around the operational aircraft!

One of the snags with the aircraft was that the tanks had been filled by the French with 80 octane fuel instead of 100 octane – this causes a large drop in power. The intention had been to fly back to Blida over the mountains, however on take off we just cleared a 4 foot hedge and the undercarriage would not retract. Maximum altitude proved to be 1200 feet! We then had to fly over a winding river to the coast.

On landing the Chief Engineering officer inspected the aircraft and almost had a fit. He declared the aircraft unfit for further service and promised that we should be provided with a Lancaster P.F.F. aircraft that had been left at Blida after a shuttle raid on an Italian target. The aircraft was now 100% except for the radar equipment.

Joe had never flown a Lancaster- in the event he found no difficulty.

By this time, we had spent over three weeks in the Middle East and had purchased all sorts of goods to take to the UK for Christmas.

Middle East personnel had been invited to write home and send parcels so that by the time we were ready for take off the bomb bay and the fuselage had been filled. We also carried three passengers; a Lt/Col C/O of the 12th Lancers who had been in the middle east since 1940, a radar S/Ldr and a Fleet Air Arm pilot returning to UK for a Court Martial.

During our stay in Algiers we had spent all our escape cash plus a goodly sum received for our civilian suits and overcoats.

These we sold in the casbah which was out of bounds to the military. The French did not allow the Arabs clothing coupons consequently the black-market prices were astronomic.

Also to our advantage No. 36 Squadron were operating in the area and had been using the officers shop in Algiers -when we stated our requirements and our Squadron number no questions were asked. All our purchases were debited eventually to our service accounts in the UK.

When it was take off time (we had been routed to UK via Rabat Salle in French Morocco) we flew at about a thousand feet along the North African coast. We circled Gibraltar twice – none of the crew had seen it before. We then turned south to Rabat.

On arrival we reported to the G/Captain C/O. He was most friendly had never seen a Lancaster having dealt only with transport aircraft.

The aircraft was refuelled and we were informed that there was severe icing up to 25,000´; all transport aircraft had been grounded. Our G/Capt informed us that if we wished we could try to get above the weather.
We reached some 24,000’ experiencing severe icing and returned to Rabat.

Arrangements were made for all of us to stay at a Moroccan Hotel, all the rooms were sited on the first floor round a large open courtyard.

We retired at 1 am and at 2 am I was awakened by a large negress – some 18 stones I should say, sitting on my bed who held out a match to me and said ‘fume’! I told her to vamoose and went back to sleep. At breakfast the next morning it transpires that she had been to all the bedrooms.

The bad weather continuing we decided to go to a local cinema after shopping in the afternoon. Halfway through the main film the lights went on and a loudspeaker announcement recalled the Lancaster crew to the RAF station.

We were informed that it was possible to fly at 500’ to be below the cloud base. We decided to take off at 24.00hrs. The only serviceable aerodrome in the UK was St. Mawgan in the SW. All other stations were fog bound.

By taking bearings from occults on the Portuguese & Spanish West coasts I was certain of our position at all times.

I requested a D/F that is a position from our stand-in Wireless Operator. The result put us in the Atlantic! He said however it was a third-class fix – I ignored this and not long afterwards we landed at St Mawgan.

On landing a customs officer approached and requested permission to search the aircraft for goods on which duty would have to be charged. We informed him the aircraft had secret equipment on board and no civilian could enter. Joe then sent for a RAF Regiment guard to look after all the presents.

We retired to a local Hotel and after having showers and breakfast returned to the aircraft. By lunchtime we were aboard to take off for base. We literally hedge hopped all the way because of bad visibility.

We had been away from our squadron for one month – at this time we were senior crew having survived one more ‘op’ than another ‘A’ flight crew. Joe decided to let the boys know that we had returned and before landing decided to ‘shoot up’ the briefing room. He flew just above the building just as a visiting Air Marshal from Air Ministry was expounding on the dangers of low flying!

On landing Joe was put under open arrest and charged with ‘low flying’. The next day he was on the mat at H.Q. Huntingdon where A/V/M Bennett greeted him with the words “glad to see you’re back Petrie Andrews – the charge will be changed to ‘careless flying’ and your seniority will be backdated 6 months“.

We arranged for our station post office to send a 30 cwt van which the post office filled three time. The parcels were despatched in small quantities to avoid any questions. I filled my Riley saloon with an Arabic carpet, pouffe, oranges & dates etc etc…

We arrived at our homes in time for Christmas. Before leaving the Squadron, I put up a black with our new C.O whom I had never met previously.

I requested that our crew be given 3 weeks leave- one week for every 24 hours in the dinghy. He tried to get away with an offer of one week – we had information about our entitlement and he gave in eventually. He had his revenge when we re-joined the Squadron after leave, we were only detailed to fly to major German cities and missed out on the channel port raids.