I AM THE LUCKIEST GUY ALIVE
He was thrown into the next county when his plane hit an English mountain The Gestapo threatened to shoot him after he jumped from a flaming bomber He’s crashed half-a-dozen times by plane, train and car. He’s fine, thanks
SINCE the night of May 30, 1942, when I bailed out of a flaming aircraft over Cologne, I have flown only once.
That was two days after the war ended in Europe. I had just survived a head-on train collision and I wasn’t travel-minded. But I was heading back to England after three years in a prison camp. I put my forebodings behind me and climbed aboard a Dakota transport at Brussels airport.
The Dakota ahead of ours nosed onto the run-
way, revved up, hurtled down the take-off strip, blew a tire, burst into flames and burned at the end of the field. Moments later our own aircraft began to rev up for the take-off. I tensed myself—in a few seconds we’d be racing into the airstream.
But we didn’t. We blew a tire too and rolled to a safe but bumpy stop.
“That sure was lucky,” a crew member said as we climbed out. “If that had happened a few seconds later down the runway we’d have groundlooped like that other kite.”
“I know,” I said wearily. “It’s always like that.” He looked at me curiously. There was no use
explaining. Things just seemed to happen when I was aboard.
Somehow, aircraft and trains and cars and things are allergic to me. Half my squadron mates would have preferred court-martial to traveling in the same aircraft with me. The other half figured I was the luckiest guy in the world. I’ll buy that. I figure I’m the most fortunate man alive.
As a flier I have been thrown 600 feet over a mountain top by the impact of a crash—literally knocked into the next county.
I have smashed, at 80 miles an hour through a fence and two tin huts in a bomband fuel - laden aircraft, and walked away from it.
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I have hung in a parachute harness over burning Cologne with the sound of an aircraft out of control whistling in my ears and another one coming at me in the dark. They missed me.
I have waited breathless in an aircraft over Mannheim while a crewman battled a high explosive flare. He got
I sat as navigator over Hamburg while the Germans pumped 38 holes in our Whitley and brought us screaming down over the rooftops.
I fought to get aboard an aircraft once and they wouldn’t let me go. The aircraft went missing.
Then as a prisoner of war I had a 7hour session with the Gestapo who shackled me and planned to shoot me. Inexplicably, they changed their minds.
I drew lots for a chance to escape from Stalag Luft III. I lost my chance. Fifty of the “lucky” escapees were murdered by the S.S.
After liberation I climbed aboard a Belgian train which hit another head on. I sailed home to Canada and the next year emerged unscathed from two car accidents. Let mathematicians calculate the law of averages; let philosophers probe the vagaries of fate. I’m just thankful to be alive and quite happy to settle down, at 32, with my wife and young son.
Since I write for my living I’m going to set down some of the highlights:
I was an air observer—the navigator and bomb-aimer of a bomber aircraft. Duke Schiller, daddy of the bush pilots, and Danny Dugan, a wild Irishman off the cotton-dusting circuit, were among the pilots who survived my practice navigation. The three of us had a fair-thee-well do in Montreal before I went overseas. They were on the Atlantic Ferry run.
“We’ve got it soft, but you, kid, are in for a time of it,” Duke Schiller said.
That was in March, 1941. Two years later Duke and Danny were dead. So were half the men I trained with. We numbered 501 in training. There are 48 of us living today.
I arrived at 10 Squadron, RAF, on the morning of August 20, 1941. The following morning I was called for a night operation to Le Havre. Twentyfour hours later, two of our crew were dead. The remaining three of us lay in hospital at Kendal, Westmoreland.
An Easy One for a Start
Lying there, we heard the BBC broadcast an Air Ministry communique: “An effective attack was made on the harbor at Le Havre and the docks at Ostend, and Dunkirk was also bombed. One aircraft is missing.”
That aircraft was ours. My logbook entry of that first operation reads:
“August 21; Hour 20:02; Aircraft— WTitley T4234; Pilots—P.O. Leibeck, Sgt. Fletcher; Duty—Navigator; Remarks—Ops Le Havre—crashed on returning; Flying Time 4:37.”
Dick Speer was tail-gunner, Murray McLaughlin wireless operator, both of Ottawa. Murray was a veteran of 20odd operations. The rest of us were on our first trip. It was a “nursery trip”— an easy raid on a coastal target. We saw some flak but it wasn’t close and I wasn’t scared. Fear feeds on memories and I was just a babe at armaments
When we hit the English coast, home-bound, the weather closed in. We flew above solid cloud for an hour and 40 minutes. Landmarks and navigation beacons were blanketed out, but I didn’t worry. If my calculations were close, the high tops of the Pennine Range were 18 miles to west of us; the Yorkshire Wolds safely off to starboard.
Fletcher had been at the controls; now the skipper was taking over again. I watched the cumbersome business of two pilots changing places, disconnecting oxygen and intercom cords, then plugging them in again.
Between them the greenish glow of the airspeed indicator registered 165 miles per hour. “Too fast,” I thought. “We’re nosing down a little. The skipper will ease it out when he gets settled.”
McLaughlin was bending down to wind in the trailing aerial. I turned back to my charts. I picked up a blue pencil and marked in the last leg of our air plot. I never did put the pencil down on the table. Crew voices and engine hum swelled to a bone-crunching orchestration.
Then we were plowing the earth. The walls of the fuselage were suddenly gone and I was floating out, hurtling forward, tumbling down through space. Lights burst around me in a black universe. Then the lights went out.
We had crashed into Boars Fell, a 2,012-foot peak of the Pennine Range. We hit at something like 160 or 170 miles per hour just as the skipper pulled back on the stick in the last moments of his life to save three of ours. The aircraft kissed the earth of Westmoreland County, smashed into a stone fence on the border and hurtled in pieces into Cumberland. The first bounce threw me through the aircraft roof, probably at 100 miles per hour. Dick Speer says I went a thousand feet. I think it was about 600.
The doctors said the bog I landed in face down, saved my life. I had a gashed head, stiff knee, and sore foot. Two small foot fractures kept me on my back for a month. While in hospital I got to pondering.
“If the other 29 trips are like that first one,” I told Dick Speer. “I’ll be a nervous wreck.”
Silver’s in Again
But in 1941-2 the average air crew survived only eight trips. I got it on my ninth. In nine trips I survived two crashes, three “tricky” landings, four “written off” aircraft; a night-fighter encounter over Sylt, a lethal hosing near Hamburg, and destruction over Maastricht. A German prison camp was a peaceful place to ponder my memories.
On the take-off for my third operation we wrapped two Nissen huts around one engine and several yards of barbed - wire fencing around the
I slumped behind the second pilot and relaxed for the fiery wedding of a 3,000-pound bomb load and a thousand gallons of gasoline. When they didn’t explode on impact, I took my time finding the exit.
We were unhurt but an ambulance sped us back to sick quarters. A tall sombre doctor watched us file in. Then he saw me.
“Oh, no! Not you again,” he said.
I did a trip to Mannheim one night with another crew. When the engineer launched the photoflare it jammed halfway out the chute and the tensecond fuse burned toward destruction. We survived because the engineer had the forethought to carry a broom handle. He poked the flare clear.
These and other incidents were building the legend of my jinx—or my luck. The operation we did to Hamburg confirmed the squadron’s fears.
Midway across the North Sea we discovered the oxygen system wasn’t working. Then when I climbed into the nose position I found the intercommunication was haywire. I couldn’t talk directly with Tony Moore, our 19-year-old, five-foot pilot who looked like a cherub in a flying helmet. The second pilot relayed our messages. t
The muddy flats of the Dutch Islands skimmed under us and there wasn’t a sign of flak; we crossed the Cuxhaven peninsula and not a searchlight flickered.
Like lambs we went to slaughter. When they had us safely inland, the blue beam of a master searchlight flicked like an adder’s tongue to catch us. Four seconds later we were writhing in the cone of a dozen cold white beams. The light drowned out everyrJ thing. It was like being suspended stark naked at the end of a fishing pole.
Tony twisted the Whitley but the, cone held us. Heavy flak burst in a* crump-crump around the aircraft. Two fiery balls broke just beneath where I lay on the plastic bomb-aiming panel.* Cordite fumes filled the fuselage.
The Whitley dived shuddering. Wing fabric and equipment were tom loose in a half dozen flak bursts. I watched the altimeter on the bomb-aimer’s panel fall away. We were dropping at five miles a minute to German earth. Then I remembered the bombload and flicked it free.
Were we out of control? Huddled in the nose how could I guess. My mouth slammed the bomb sight as the aircraft pulled from its plunge. Roof tops skimmed past the nose beneath me. ’ Out over wharfs and warehouses we fled to the coast. Guns lashed us all the way.
Flak hit us 38 times; shells tore away one elevator flap and jammed the other. They jammed the rudder controls. The aerial mast was shot away, or broken off.
Half by skill and half by instinct, Tony wheedled the Whitley on and upward; gunning one engine and then the other. As I clambered up from the nose, he winked at me like an elf.
“You know,” he shouted in my ear. “It’s highly unlikely we’ll get back to England tonight.”
But we limped through to Addington fighter base where they filled the sky with rockets and flares for us. Tony fought the dying Whitley toward the flare path. In a last exhausted thrust, the plane settled onto the landing strip.
An engineering officer examined our Whitley next morning. “You may have flown it in,” he said, “but I think it impossible.”
“Is it badly hit?” Tony asked.
“Main braces are broken in four places and it should have fallen apart,” he replied. “I’m writing it off now— completely.”
That was the last time we ever flew Whitleys. I had survived three of them and had a sentimental feeling for the lumbering craft that flew nose down like a hound dog. But progress caught us and we converted to a four-engine Halifax.
One day all leave was canceled and a cloak of security fell over Bomber Command. The word went round: “Stand by for a big do.”
Our crew was sent to Scotland to bring back a Halifax. At Lossiemouth we were photographed. It was the last picture ever taken of Tony and the two gunners. That was May 28.
On the thirtieth, every crew on the station was called to briefing. An air commodore addressed us.
“Tonight,” he said, “we’ll make history.” It was the first thousandbomber raid.
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They sent twin-engine kites in first. We carried three and a half tons of incendiary bombs to keep Cologne burning. We could see the Whitleys and Wimpeys skittering home as we churned eastward over Holland.
Near Maastricht I left my chart table and climbed up beside Tony to check a map point. The moon was near full and at 16,000 feet it was almost daylight. Three miles below, the Maas River was a strand of tinsel. Sixty miles ahead, Cologne was burning.
We were on course. I stood a moment caught by the beauty of a moonwashed sky. A sharp bark of explosive shells silenced the intercom. Like a hacksaw, shells ripped our middle. For ten seconds balls of fire danced around us. They passed between Tony’s body and mine; they poured through the chart table and the seat I had lately vacated.
Then there was silence and the stench of burned cordite. Still the four engines plowed on and the aircraft was steady.
I looked to Tony and he took his right hand from the controls. He formed the fingers into a fist and inverted the fist. Then he thrust his thumb downward and gestured slowly with it.
I could see no flames and there was nothing in his face to suggest fear or finality. But I knew what that gesture meant. I knocked the chart table back on its hinges. I reached for the ring of the escape hatch. It was stück. The bomb-aimer helped me force it open.
I didn’t know then he was temporarily blinded. Nor did I know that the incendiary bombs were burning up from the bomb bay, in a solid flame back of the bulkhead door—and our gunners were dead.
I clipped on my parachute and looked back up the short stair to Tony. Thurlow, the engineer, was beside him; Thurlow’s arm had a cannon shell through it. Tony looked once impatiently toward me.
“There’s seven guys to get out, you know,” he said in his glance. “And you’re first.”
I waved bravely as I could, clutched the parachute ring in one fist, thrust my legs through the hatch, and slipped into the night.
I don’t remember counting ten, nor even of pulling the ring. All I thought was: “This is one night we don’t get
back to England.”
Then I heard the roar of an aircraft. Perhaps it was our own, or the Jerry who ripped our middle. The roar of the motors grew in the stillness around me. My mind saw propeller blades thrashing the air to reach me. The roar grew to a scream of rage and I waited for the end. A great black shadow slipped past me and there was silence again. I closed my eyes to the night around me and shut my ears to the flap of the parachute canopy. Alone in the vastness I prayed.
I hung three miles above Maastricht and watched Cologne burn.
Condemned to Die
Two days later, a policeman was looking for a stolen bicycle and found me riding it through Holland. Every stitch of clothing I wore was Dutch.
How had I acquired the clothes? A Dutch family risked their lives to provide them.
Shortly after my capture, four Gestapo men marched into the cell where the Luftwaffe had lodged me. They ripped the clothes from my back. They pulled French, Belgian and Dutch currency from the seams of my coat. They ripped a compass from one sleeve; a map from the other.
This stuff had packed compactly into an escape kit I carried in a battle-dress pocket. But plucked from my clothing, it made an incriminating pile on the cell floor. When a wicked little hacksaw blade fell from my trousers, the Gestapo were certain they had a sabo-
At gun point they removed me to Amsterdam Police Building. . Outsize handcuffs fastened my hands behind my back; leg irons, on an 18-inch chain, held my feet. The handcuffs and leg irons were joined by a heavy chain that was disconcerting to sit on.
For 40 minutes, a man, who looked like Eric von Stroheim in a spy picture, screamed at me in German. Angered by fear and futility, I roared back at
It was useless to argue. When he had talked himself out, he summoned an interpreter. The interpreter informed me I would be shot as a saboteur.
I repeated my name, rank and number; I pointed to the identification discs they had ripped from my neck. I told them I had been shot down on operational service with the RAF. I told them they couldn’t do this to me.
“International law says we can shoot you as a saboteur,” the interpreter answered. “You were found in civilian disguise.”
For three hours they grilled me about my disguise. I told a story of stealing the clothes from Dutch farm homes. Again and again they made me trace my escape route on a map. As I led them a false course I could see in my mind’s eye the Dutch family and their three blond children. Finally they believed the lie and I was sent to prison
Silver Rides Again
When we were liberated, with a half dozen others I made my way south to Emsdetten. There we managed a rail warrant to Ostend, but we didn’t make it. Midway to Antwerp on the last night of the war in Europe someone put two trains on the same track—ours was southbound, the other was traveling north. I awoke when I hit a pair of sizetwelve boots with my head. A former squadron mate—six-foot Robin Hunter, of Jamaica, was wearing the boots.
We climbed from the shambles of a Belgian train, shaken but not much hurt. Hunter looked at me.
“With you on that train, I might have known,” he said.
A few months later, back home in Canada, I drove through the night on a long trip. Toward morning I dozed momentarily and my car edged from the road. Instinctively I opened my eyes, cut back too sharply and swerved from the pavement. I saw the car would somersault so I lay flat on the seat. The car bounced off the road and lit on its roof inside a farmer’s fence.
I crawled out of the wreckage unhurt and flagged down the next car. The driver looked around. The car was on the other side of a four-foot fence and I was unscathed.
Then he listened to my story. But I don’t think he believed me.
After all, how was he to know he was talking to the luckiest man alive. ★
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