The following article was written by Johnny Foster, the rear gunner in Crew 81. It appeared in the “Ex Air Gunners’ Association of Canada” newsletter – issue #61 – dated March 1998.
A Halifax Experience
On February 29th 1944 – Our Last training flight under F/O Smith (#1664 Conversion Unit) was a highlight in survival during training. Halifax V -DHU, unknown to us at take off time, would never fly again. We were on a cross country and bombing flight. The bombing was to take place off the coast of Wales near a little town of Appeporth. We were to drop a load of dummy sand filled bombs on a smoke marker in the sea. The bombing practice was to take place at 20,000 feet. It took quite a few circles over the big bay to reach this height. Then instructor Smith, as ordered, was to test DHU to see if it could reach 25,000 feet with a bomb load. This test was based on the fact that there might be an all out raid on the night fighter airdromes and coastal defences. The old training planes were to be crewed by instructors as ‘backup” if needed.
The old Halifax V responded slowly but surely at about 25,000 feet or a little more – “Disaster’. The crankshaft in the inner port engine broke. No hydraulics. Surprise – no panic. Fast decisions were made, all the while going in circles out over the sea. F/O Smith slowed down to the slowest speed possible to reduce the windmilling effect and to maintain as much height as possible. Bomb bay doors had to be opened, bombs dropped, bomb bay doors closed and landing gear lowered. All this had to be done by one small hydraulic pump after much huffing and puffing from the engineer; (Mugs) Stan Mulligan, bombardier (Red) Bernard McGouran, Navigator (Clueless) Harry Billingsley, Mid-Upper gunner (Scotty) Jock Grey and WAG Cliff Phillips
Nobody wanted to parachute into the sea so it was decided to ditch the plane on the edge of a beach by belly landing in water and sliding onto the beach.
We had descended to 10,000 feet when a small airdrome used for drogue towing planes was seen.
So more puffing as the landing gear was lowered manually. At this point I reminded the Skipper that I was still in the tail turret. “Out of there”, he ordered, “everyone to crash positions.” The flaps were lowered at the last possible moment and the gallant old Halifax lined up with the runway. F/O Smith was one cool top-gen fellow. At approximately 100 miles an hour the old plane feather touched the runway. Remember no brakes!! Jock Grey jumped up saying “We’re down OK!” Skipper Wright grabbed him yelling “Get down, we’re not stopped yet!” At the same time we felt a bump. Jock got down alright with the help from bumping his head on the radio rack. Then came a series of bumps and rendering of metal. To this day I remember we were all laying head to toe in crash position, braced against the walls. We hardly felt any jar at all. There was one last slow crunching sound then all was quiet.
Then panic – fire! The escape hatches were pulled and the crew piled out as fast as possible. I was the last one out and I could hear Red outside doing the most prolific swearing. “Who pulled the so and so dinghy release?” It had inflated and he had hit one edge of it, bounced right over and land shoulders first on the other edge. No fire. F/O Smith had shut off all the switches on landing and the fuel tanks were all down in fuel.
Where was F/O Smith? Looking up we saw him standing on top of the pilot’s escape hatch, a big smile on his face, like a father whose wife had just had a baby boy. His crew were OK, we would all fly again.
After running out of runway we had crashed through two small stone walls that enclose the farms in Wales. Our landing gear was left at the first wall, motor and wings were left at the next. The aircraft ended up with its nose pushed against a small hillside. F/O Smith had been literally pushed through the escape hatch. He had a torn trouser leg and one small cut on his leg. Then came the humorous part.
A small Austin ambulance and a small Austin fire engine appeared on the scene. No fire to put out, no major injuries. Of course Jock made the most out of his bump on the head. Nurses were very attentive and were relieved that we had all survived. We enjoyed their hospitality until a bus arrived to take us back to Dishforth.
But one thing I must say, every one of us stood and blessed Halifax DHU for giviing her all to save us for future adventures. It gave us faith and trust for flying in future Halifax planes. They seemed to have a personality and dedication to be one with us instead of being a metal machine that could fly. Our crew survived due to the lesson we learned from F/O Smith in Halifax DHU “We could survive” The old plane with a windmilling prop cranking a broken crankshaft turning in the engine next to the fuselage for 15 to 20 minutes and had not torn off a wing, proved that the Halifax could take it!!!
P.S. The crew and I went on to do an operational tour of 42 trips in a Halifax, thanks to the overworked and underpaid ground crew at Croft Yorkshire, 434 (Bluenose) Squadron.