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Off for a Rodeo
26 July 1942
After breakfast I was picked up by the squadron lorry and taken to the alert hut. No one was there, and it became clear that all of the wing pilots were attending a briefing about which I had not been informedthis was one of the several disadvantages of my isolated billeting arrangement. As soon as all of the pilots arrived, we hurriedly donned our gear and I was given a hasty briefing by my section leader, Fred Green. As I remember it, he said we were going to make a sweep over Abbville. We would proceed with radio silence, at minimum altitude, using 1,800 RPM to save gas, until we were close to the French coast. I was to stick close to Green throughout the mission. That was all I knew when we went out to start engines. I had no time to express my anger and indignation at the failure by Green and Squadron Leader Weston to arrange for me to get to the briefing. They had just forgotten about me. We took off in pairs at 1235 hours (double daylight saving time), formed up, and took up a course of about 115 degrees. On this heading, France was about ninety miles away, mostly over water. We ingressed so low that we picked up salt spray on our windshields.
I have since learned that Abbville is about eighteen miles in from the French coast, behind the Somme River estuary. Its airdrome, Ducrat, was the main base of the 2nd Gruppe of the 26th Jagdgeschwader. We were part of a larger operation with the Biggin Hill Wing (based just southeast of London) attacking SaintOmer. SaintOmer's airdrome, Fort Rouge, was thirty miles due east of Boulogne and was the main base for the 1st Gruppe of JG26, which was equipped similarly to the 2nd Gruppe. The Northolt Wing (based just northwest of London) swept the coast of the Pas de Calais in the area of our operation from Le Touquet north to Gravelines. Both of these wings launched at the same time as the Tangmere Wing and used the same approach technique: staying under the German defense radar for as long as possible to achieve surprise. Two spotter aircraft, also Spitfires, were launched at 1330 hours to cover the withdrawal phase of the operation in case any aircraft went down in the Channel. Both these wings and the spotter aircraft saw action and took casualties northwest of Calais.
About ten miles off the French coast our formation began a hard climb, crossing the coast at 10,000 feet and arriving over Abb�ville at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. The squadrons were echeloned in height in very tight formation with 412 the bottom squadron.
On the way in, after we knew we were clearly visible to German radar, Wing Leader Pedley, flying with 131 (the high squadron), called 11 Group Control and asked for the "form." He was asking for information on any airborne German aircraft. I did not hear the reply, but I believe control would have reported none, or at least none above us. I believe we achieved tactical surprise, for the flak was heavy over Abbville and aircraft were observed scrambling to the southwest from Ducrat's only runway.
I was completely surprised when Green suddenly took his section out of the squadron formation in a dive down to the airfield. There, I could see aircraft taking off in pairs. Green and I quickly closed on two just as they became airborne, and he fired at the wingman as they commenced a hard right turn. Green broke off quickly to the left, and since I observed no sign of hits, I also fired a burst at the same aircraft and quickly broke off to follow Green. I don't believe either of us scored a strike on this aircraft.
As I hurried to catch up with Green, he called and said, "Through the gate!" which meant to apply full emergency power as we headed back toward the coast right on the deckso low that we were under German radar. At this point I was excited and thrilled at having had such an easy shot at the enemy. Naively, I figured that there was more we would accomplish now that we were down there and had come all that way. I called to Green and said, "Let's find something else to shoot up!" Green responded quickly with, "No, let's get the hell out of here!" and I followed him as we raced for the sea on what I assumed was our return heading to England. If I'd had the benefit of the briefing, I would have known that our quick exit from the area was a prerequisite for survival.
The Germans must have quickly directed their aircraft, already airborne, in our direction. Since the war I have learned that some twelve to fifteen airborne FW190s were observed before our attack on the airfield. I was unable to keep up with Green, although I was going as fast as my aircraft would go. I now realize that I should have requested Green to ease up a little, but I knew that he could see me, and I figured he must know that I had fallen more than a hundred yards behind him.
It wasn't long before I saw four FW190s closing on me at my six o'clock. I don't remember reporting this to Green, but if I didn't, I should have, for I was soon under fire and a big hole suddenly appeared in my left wing. I knew that if I sat there I would be quickly shot down, so I called Green and said, "I'm breaking left now," and I pulled a hard climbing turn. Green did not follow. I heard no response from him, and I have never seen him since. From then on I was entirely on my own.
I'd planned to execute a 360degree hard turn and then try to resume my race to the sea. I hadn't completed ninety degrees of my turn, however, before I exchanged fire with a single aircraft in a headon pass. I continued my turn and, before I completed it, I exchanged fire in another headon pass with a single aircraft. As we passed each other, wing tip to wing tip, I glimpsed the muzzle flashes from the nose of his aircraft. I then dove down to the deck and sped out to sea. I could see four aircraft chasing me, but they appeared to be holding some distance in trail, possibly to give the coastal flak a chance to fire at me. As I crossed the shoreline, I was fired on by flak and could see the splashes from their fire in the water on both sides of me.
The four FW190s were closing to finish me off, and I could see their tracers going by. I realized I needed to do something pretty damn quick. Using the only advantage that my aircraft had over theirstight turnsI pulled up into a hard loop. To my surprise, when I came out of the loop in a dive to sea level, I had four enemy aircraft trapped right in front of me. I was closing on them fast with the added speed of my dive, but before I reached firing range, they spotted me. Two broke right and two broke left. I closed on the two turning right and fired on the closest, but after a short burst my guns ceased. I was either out of ammunition or my guns had jammed. I quickly broke off again and continued out to sea just off the water. I didn't wait to see if I'd hit the aircraft.
Apparently, the Germans had had enough, as I saw no further aircraft, and I concentrated on heading for England just above the water as fast I could go. After only a few minutes, however, my engine began running rough. Checking my instruments, I noted that my engine coolant temperature gauge was approaching the highest possible reading. What a revolting development, just as it was beginning to look like I might make it home! The Merlin engine didn't run very long after the coolant liquid was gone, and one shot in the radiator or its related plumbing was all it took.
I was a long way from England, and the prospect of a bail out or a ditching was dismal. The Spitfire had a notorious reputation for doing a bad job of ditching. When it hit the water, it tended to be pulled under abruptly by the radiator, which was located under the right wing, and then it headed for the bottom. Just a few days before, Wing Comdr. Paddy Finucane, a distinguished fighter ace, had had to ditch. He had apparently been unhurt, but he never got out of his aircraft. The news of Finucane's loss made me decide that if my engine froze or caught fire over water, I would bail out.
I zoomed up to about 10,000 feet and went through the bailout drill. Thank God no further enemy aircraft were nearby, as I was completely preoccupied with initiating a Mayday call; switching on my "pipsqueak" tracking transmitter; doffing my helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask; and jettisoning the cockpit canopy. When I pulled the emergency lanyard on the canopy, however, it broke off in my hand; the canopy came loose but did not fall free. I then tried to open it in the normal way, by sliding it back on its track, but it didn't budge. I was now as close to panic as I'd ever been.
To avoid stalling I was forced to descend, and soon I found myself back at sea level, expecting to hit the water at any moment. While my engine sputtered, I desperately looked for land, as a wheelsup crash landing on terra firma was my only hope of survival. A successful ditching with the hatch jammed shut would mean that I would go down with the aircraft. Ditching was bad enough under any circumstances, but trapped in the cockpit, I had no chance of making it out alive in the water. I was badly disoriented but saw land low on the horizon in a direction that I felt was north. In the Spit the compass is on the floor of the cockpit, but since I had braced my feet up against the instrument panel to ease the shock in case I hit the water, I couldn't see the compass. I sputtered in the direction of the land, hoping it would be England. I was going very slowly and was very close to the water. If the Germans had seen me, I would have been a sitting duck.
There was little wave action and I was not more than five feet above the water as I approached the shoreline. I was completely preoccupied with trying to stay airborne, yet I recall that the land appeared flat and treeless with a very shallow bank above a narrow beach and fields out beyond. I didn't know whether I was approaching the southeast coast of England or the west coast of France. They come very close together between Dover and Cape GrisNez.
When I reached the shoreline, I noticed a lighthouse off to my left up the coast about a mile. It later turned out to be the Cape GrisNez light, and I had made my landfall some thirty miles north of where I was engaged in combat. I lifted the aircraft up over the shallow bank and prepared to land immediately straight ahead in an open field. Ironically, as I pulled up my canopy broke free and disappeared. But I was fully committed to landing, and only later did I consider the options that had suddenly become available to me. I could have turned back out to sea and ditched or tried to reach England, which, unknown to me then, was only about eighteen miles away. In fact I was hoping that this was England and that I was "home and dry," as the Swedes say.
My airspeed indicator was frozen on 320 mph. Apparently the system had been shot out by the cannon shell that tore the big hole in my left wing. As I prepared to land, it became apparent that I had too much airspeed, and up ahead I saw a rock wall lying in my path. If I had hit that wall, it would have been curtains, but fortunately I had enough airspeed left to lift the aircraft over the wall and land in the next field, wheels up. My aircraft hit hard and swung abruptly to the right, dragging on the radiator below the right wing. The edge of the windscreen gave me a hard crack on the top of my head. I was bareheaded but still strapped in, so I wasn't seriously hurt.
I climbed out immediately and stood beside my battered Spit, catching my breath. The engine was spurting very hot coolant from the left side in a steady stream. As I looked around to see where I was and observe any sign of activity, a yellownosed FW190 suddenly buzzed me. My heart sank, for I knew immediately that I must be in France. I looked around for cover, but I was in the middle of a very large field. Armed men wearing white uniform coats were quickly approaching me from two directions. This was it. My whole world came crashing down.
The FW190 disappeared as the German soldiers arrived and began to lead me toward a hut in the woods, which appeared to be the command post for a flak unit. On the east edge of the field was a huge installation under camouflage netting. The flak unit appeared to be guarding it, since the soldiers had come from gun installations in the nearby woods. While I was being escorted across the field, a single Spitfire made a slow turn over us at about 2,000 feet. It drew fire from the flak guns before disappearing out to sea. I had the feeling that this aircraft had been sent to check out my situation. The air/sea rescue people may have been tracking my flight through my little radio beacon.
A senior noncommissioned officer dressed my cut head. Shortly thereafter, a car arrived and I was driven under guard to what I later learned was the htel de ville (city hall) of the town of Marquise, about fifteen minutes from my point of capture. I had been handled quite properly and without any hassle or excitement. My captors acted as if they did this kind of thing every day. When I recall that this area had seen intense aerial combat between British and German aircraft since September 1939, especially during and since the Battle of Britain, I realize that one more downed British aircraft was not at all unusual.
I returned to France in 1976 and found the field in which I crashlanded. A huge concrete ruin was still in place there, and I have since learned that it was the site of one of the big 380mm. coastal batteries that were used against British ships transiting the Channel. Thus the soldiers who captured me were probably German army artillerymen.
At the city hall I was escorted to a small secondfloor office where an officer took my name, rank, and serial number; relieved me of my watch, West Point ring, dog tags, and escape packet; and placed them in an envelope. I noticed that my parachute, helmet, goggles, and oxygen mask were on the floor in a corner of his office. He then asked me to follow him, and we went back outside. As I descended the steps of this old stone office building, which faced a small square, I looked up and saw that all of the windows of the French houses across the square were filled with the townsfolk quietly watching. They apparently had learned that the Americans had finally begun to arrive in France. Neither I nor they would have believed that it would be another two long years before we would arrive on French soil in force.
I was escorted under guard around the corner to a house facing the narrow street. It was an officers' mess. I was placed in a reading room alone with the doors either locked or guarded. After being quietly warned that if I attempted to escape I would be shot, I was held there for the rest of the afternoon with nothing to do but consider my predicament.
I felt terribly embarrassed for letting down my comrades. Here I was, the second most senior and experienced pilot in our group, responsible for the training of our young pilots, and I had become the first battle casualty. I was quite sure that this unhappy day marked the end of my career in the service. I was also angry. I felt that I had been left to my fate by my section leader, Flight Lieutenant Green, who had first sped west so fast that I could not keep up with him even at emergency full power, and then had failed to cover me when I called for an emergency break after being fired upon by overtaking enemy aircraft. All fighter pilots knew that if you fell behind you were asking to be shot down, so we absolutely depended on mutual support.
After the war I learned that the British commander of 412th Squadron was replaced two days after that mission. In retrospect I sensed no enthusiasm on the part of any of the senior British personnel with whom I was in daily contact to help me learn the combat business. They were more aloof than friendly and may have been unable to accept an officer of my rank with no combat experience. I had thought that they would eagerly welcome our assistance in fighting the war and break their backs to help us get qualified for the fight. I did not know then that I would have almost three years as a prisoner to mull this point over and feel bitter about it, if I chose to.
When dinnertime finally arrived, I was escorted to the dining room where some fifteen officers in green uniforms were assembled around a large table that filled the room. We were seated and served a cold plate of bread, sausage, and cheeses, probably a typical Sunday night supper. Before I had finished my meal, a fairly senior German officer arrived and went around the table, meticulously saluting and shaking hands with each of us. He was dressed in a blue uniform and was well decorated. After a few words I was asked to accompany him. I believe he may have been Maj. Gerhard Sch�pfel, the commander of JG26 and the elite Luftwaffe fighter wing who faced Britain in the Pas de Calais area and whose pilots I had engaged that day.
We departed the building in a small open sedan. I was placed in the front seat to the right of the enlisted driver. The officer who greeted me and another officer were in the backseat, and an armed guard was seated in a jump seat. We drove some distance to a town and entered a building with a cathedral ceiling, tapestries on the walls, and nice furniture throughout. I was introduced by an officerinterpreter to two or three pilots whom he said had been engaged in the operation that day. One of these pilots, I noted, was redheaded, like me. I was offered a cigarette, which I accepted, and a glass of wine, which I declined. As I sat there, these pilots crowded around me trying to get me to say how and where I'd been in the fighting that day. All they knew was where I had crashlanded. They all appeared eager to get credit for an aerial victory. I was not in a very sociable mood, and since I really did not know where I was or where I had been, I could not have helped them even if I'd wanted to. I could just as well have been hit by flak. The interview did not last long, and I was soon packed into a car and driven to a large city that turned out to be Boulogne. I was delivered to the military police headquarters and locked up for the night in a small room with a bunk. This was a tough, nononsense outfit.
In 1968 the book Horrido! by Col. Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable was published by Bantam. Page 291 describes a postwar interview with Gerhard Schspfel, who tells the authors a story in order to illustrate the chivalry of the Luftwaffe. He recounts how one of his sergeant pilots who had red hair shot down an American named Clarke (sic) who was flying a Spitfire with the RAF. He says that this Clarke crashlanded on the coast of France and his pilot flew low over him and noted that Clarke also had red hair. Schspfel arranged for them to meet that evening at their base, Fort Rouge, which was near SaintOmer.
This account has the year wrong (1940 rather then 1942), and for reasons that I will explain, I don't believe that this redheaded German pilot was the one who actually shot me down. However, I believe I must be the Clark he was talking about. I have also recently exchanged correspondence with Gerhard Schspfel. At the age of eightyfour and after years of being a POW of the Russians, he still remembers this incident. He stated in his letter that this young sergeant pilot was Hermann Meyer, who was killed in action in March of 1943 after gaining more than sixteen victories, each of which represented an airborne enemy aircraft destroyed.
To add further interest to this story, Donald Caldwell states in JG 26 that Sergeant Meyer, leading a mission of eight aircraft, took off from Ducrat Airdrome at noon German time on this date to attack British aircraft circling low over the water northwest of Calais, fifteen miles north of Cape GrisNez where I crashlanded. Since my combat was at about the same time but way to the southwest of Abbville in the vicinity of the Somme estuary, I don't see how we could have been involved in the same action. I believe he was either nearby, returning from that action north of Calais, and saw me when I slipped in and crashlanded unopposed, or he was called in to investigate after I landed. I am certain that I was unopposed from the time my engine started to "pack up" until I crashlanded. Then, since no one was able to claim me, he was given the credit, even after our evening chat. Sergeant Meyer's score that day, as reflected in the official Luftwaffe records for 26 July, credits him with two kills, one west of Boulogne and one south of Cape GrisNez (probably me). This gives one an interesting insight into the "flexibility" in the Luftwaffe victory credit system.
I am hopeful that someday I can learn more about JG26 operations on 26 July 1942 and tie down this interesting point. I do know that in the action north of Calais, the British lost three pilots, one a squadron leader, and the Germans lost four, including an ace with seventeen British aircraft to his credit. This latter pilot was not from JG26 but from a unit station farther north in Belgium and was flying an ME109.
The records also show that the air/sea rescue units on both sides were active while this action was in progress. Caldwell says that Sergeant Meyer's pilots reported upon their return to base that they had attacked a highspeed British boat in the area and expressed some regret that it may have also been searching for a downed pilot. On the other hand, British reports indicate that two highspeed boats were attacked in the combat area and one was seen to be burning fiercely. So, all in all, it was a rather serious scrap, as the Brits would say.