Little Waldingfield History Society was absolutely delighted to welcome Len to the Parish Room last night, not just as a member but also to talk to us about his incredible experience as a tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber shot down over France during the second world war
As we had fully anticipated, he enthralled our near fifty member only audience with his remarkably detailed account of how he managed to escape, with just one of his parachute hooks secured and the chute itself beginning to catch fire. In his words:
On my third and final flight, we took off in the dark and crossed the Channel, but soon after we got picked up by search-lights. The pilot took some evasive action, diving steeply and we eventually got out of it and carried on towards the target. Because of this we were out of bomber stream, which was our protection as all the guns of the planes covered each other. I saw several Lancasters go down; just blowing up and going down, which was a terrible sight.
Suddenly there was a huge explosion in the front of the aircraft and flames started coming past the rear turret. Because we had been hit in the port engine, which drove the hydraulic turret motors, the turret stopped working so I had to wind it around by hand to get the doors lined up with the fuselage so I could get out. The plane had now started to dive and the whole fuselage looked like look a blow lamp - it was a mass of flames. I saw my mid upper gunner get out of his turret, put his chute on and make for the door. He got there first, opened the door and jumped out. I managed to get hold of my chute, which was burning, but because we were in a steep dive I couldn't get both hooks on; I just got it on one and thought: if I don't go now I'm not going to.
I jumped into the dark and hit my head on the tail plane; you're not supposed to jump, the theory was that you sat on the step and rolled out. On the way down, I was leaning to one side and felt something brush my face; this was the intercom attached to my helmet, which I had not taken off - another thing you were supposed to do. It got twisted up in the shrouds and the cable was hanging down so I hung onto it. I looked up and saw the parachute was smouldering and just hoped I'd hit the ground before it fell off.
On the way down, the only thing I could think about was where I was going to land - a field, a pond, up a tree? You had no idea and I was quite badly burnt. I hit the ground with a bang in the middle of my back, because I couldn't see it to get ready for the shock. I jumped on the chute, which had caught fire when it hit the ground, put it out and stuffed it in a hedge before wandering off in what I hoped was a southerly direction. I found a road, which I followed for about 8 miles. I passed some farm houses and dogs started barking and thought “I don't want this”, so carried on.
Len then described his experiences as a guest of the French resistance for three months, before being brought home to Blighty at the end of the war; another remarkable story which held our audience spellbound throughout.
After many questions, Len was allowed to enjoy the special cake to celebrate his 90th birthday just the week before - a truly memorable evening thoroughly enjoyed by all.
At our next talk, Pip Wright will royally entertain us with his presentation on the dissolution of the monasteries. Come along to experience the economic jiggery-pokery of 16th century life and hear how Suffolk's up and coming young men made their fortunes.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room on Wednesday 18th February for what is sure to be a fascinating evenings entertainment.
Andy Sheppard 22nd January 2015