Well, I certainly hit the mother lode with this ‘IRVING’ folder. As well as the postcard and photo of my Great-Grandfather Hugh IRVING, I also found an envelope stuffed with primary sources – birth, marriage and death certificates (some of them originals). Seems my Dad was in correspondence with his second cousin Evelyn IRVING and his cousin Lizbeth HAY re the IRVING family tree.
Will take me a while to enter it all into my genealogy software of choice (MacFamilyTree), but I can already see that Frederick IRVING had a son called Hugh (after his Grandfather) and that he too joined the Forces, but this time in World War II.
In the envelope is a testimonial from his unit commander:
TESTIMONIAL 14363857 Serjeant IRVING, HUGH. MILITARY CHARACTER-EXEMPLARY. Joined this unit in August 1944 and has since served in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. A first class and dependable soldier in every way who has had an excellent record since being with the unit. He has been employed as a fitter and through hard work has worked his way to his present rank. He is honest, sober, clean and a first class organiser, and has shown great initiative in handling men. Is intelligent and a good sport, and should be a great asset to any future employer. [Signed] (FD PILE) Major, Comd 1st Royal Tank Regiment. BAOR [British Army of the Rhine] September 1946.
I’m sure his Dad, and his two Uncles who all died in World War I, would have been proud.
The story which you are about to read was narrated towards the end of World War 2 by the man who underwent all these experiences. The depth of feeling underlying this account is almost impossible to put on paper and therefore the imagination of the reader can only be aided by what is written. Without formality we introduce the narrator of the story -
Flight-Lieutenant Norman Robert Holloway.
At the beginning of March 1943 Sgt Holloway was a Night-Bomber Navigator on 104 Squadron, under 205 Group RAF, and was flying Wellingtons in the Mediterranean theatre. His Squadron was based at Gardabia, surrounded by nothing plus a lot of sand, at the time when New Zealand units of the Eighth Army were by-passing the Mareth Line. These troops were being hampered day by day through dive-bomber attacks, and the job of eliminating the Stukas fell upon the RAF Night Bombing Force. From this juncture we will allow the narrator to carry on by himself:
During the late afternoon on March 30th 1943 we were standing by our aircraft in preparation for Take-Off. Our Canadian Skipper, F/Sgt McKenzie, was doing his first trip as a Captain, and my own pilot, Sgt Eric Jones, was doing his last trip as a second pilot. It was our seventh operation and since we had flown on the previous night there was mush dissent amongst the other crews who disliked us going out of turn. Why there is so much keenness on the part of these boys who want to fly on operational trips and stare into the face of Death the World has yet to find out.
The Wing Commander drove around the dispersal areas checking up and talking to each crew. Then after a brief inspection of our aircraft – “Well, McKenzie, everything seems to be alright; Good Luck to you, and Jones – after tonight you’ll be on your own. Bring her back in one piece, won’t you?”.
With a final word of luck he left us to climb aboard. Several minutes later we were in our positions, the hatch was closed, and the motors started.
A whine rising in pitch finished with a metallic bang. A roar. Then the fuselage began to vibrate as the airscrew churned the air. The confident note of the motor was comforting to our ears, and as usual it would not falter until in five or six hours we were back again.
This time the starting noises were drowned by the sound of the throbbing port motor and after a brief interval we were off to start our nights work. Soon afterwards we set course from Gardabia and headed into the setting sun. Wellingtons straggled upwards through the fading daylight and one by one set their individual courses towards West. Over to starboard was Tripolitanian coastline with the vast expanse of deep blue Mediterranean beyond in sharp contrast with the light brown shadow-scattered desert beneath us.
Almost an hour passed. Now the sun had set, and the attacking force edged its way into the darkness and on to the target. We were to bomb the aerodrome at Sfax, a large port on the South-Eastern seaboard of Tunisia. Time passed slowly and our motors continued their ceaseless drone in the darkness four thousand feet above the waves.
The crew, as usual, was quiet during the trip. Each man concentrating on his particular job as efficiently as possible. The Captain was sitting up in front with my own pilot beside him. A few feet from my right sat Freddie the Wireless Operator, looking serious and intent upon listening to his signals as he always did. Occasionally he would press his hands to his earpieces to cut out the internal noise of the aircraft when concentrating upon making coherent messages from incoming babble of ‘dits and dahs’. He was one of the two married members of the crew, having plunged into Matrimony scarcely 6 weeks before. Very soon afterwards we had left England and flown out to Tripolitania via Gibraltar so he was living on memories of the past and hopes for the future. With luck we should finish our operational tour in a few months whereupon we should return to England. It was a happy thought.
Down in the bomb-hatch Barry manipulated the switches on his fusing panel and levelled up his Bomb-Sight after a brief request for some straight and level flying from the Skipper. Instead of a dead load of metal in our bomb bays we now carried more than two tons of death and destruction all ready to go.
In the rear turret the Gunner stopped his perspex covered cage from swinging for a couple of minutes whilst the Captain held the aircraft steady. It was a lonely place to be, back there in the night, apparently cut off even from the rest of the crew; but we had a good man there and we knew that through his all-seeing night eyes we would be safe from attack. Joe Denton was a very keen and enthusiastic type. He was the second married member of the gang, waiting patiently for the day when his fighting was finished in order to return to his homeland and his wife.
By now the target was in sight. The whole crew automatically changed over from passive to active efficiency, and the attack began. The world down beneath looked still and artificial in the pale yellow glow of magnesium light. It could have been a model, until a line of five miniature volcanoes arose from the picture. Five mushrooms of dark red flame mixed with smoke crept along in a regular pattern across the airfield. Those curving strings of light, those tiny balls of fire creeping up from the ground looked so slow and harmless. Up they came, slowly at first, getting faster – and faster until – Whoosh! They sped past our wings and up into the blackness. It became a pattern, a jigsaw of light, as we weaned through the wispy smoke tails of the magnesium flares. Sticks of bombs burst at irregular intervals across the airfield, causing havoc amongst the aircraft parked down there. But now our part of the job was done. All we had to do now was to get back!
Finally we left Sfax and set course out to sea, happy knowing that once again we had done a successful night’s work. Joe came on the intercom, sounding very pleased and optimistic:
“Good show! That’s another one done.”
It was ten o’clock, and some time soon after midnight we would be back at base eating our suppers before getting a few hours of well-earned rest. However, it was not to be, for within ten minutes of leaving the coast we had trouble, and as trouble came in, Good Luck left the aircraft in a hurry.
Without warning, the monotonous tone of both motors, which normally is unheard by ears familiar with its note, suddenly changed. Almost immediately the port motor gave a cough and a bang and then seized up completely. For a brief moment a feeling of uncertainty crept into six hearts. The old aircraft was now in an unstable condition and the Skipper put three alternatives to us. We could either turn back towards the Tunisian mainland and bale out, whereby we would have been taken prisoners, or we could have attempted to crash land on the beach to suffer the same eventual fate, or we could attempt to make some forward progress before ditching in the sea in the hope of being a little nearer to the Allied Occupation Area.
Quietly and calmly the crew carried on, but now more alert than ever, there was no unnecessary talking over the intercom which would otherwise bring on touches of panic. I made three checks on our Dead Reckoning position which gave me a reasonably accurate idea of our actual position and informed the Wireless Operator. Then after pushing the angle-poise lamp from the chart table over to the Navigator’s Compass I saw that the card was spinning. What the devil was this! This was no time to meander over the sky, and I angrily called the Captain to keep flying straight. What chance has a Navigator if his Pilot does not stay on course? His answer came back as a smooth apology, typical of the man’s temperament to say that he was doing his best. Little did I know that the starboard motor was pulling us around in circles as we were losing height and slipping off to port.
It was hopeless. We were riding a death-trap down into the sea and we were helpless to do anything to save ourselves. Freddie continued to send out his “SOS” on the Morse key, with apparently no more concern than he would have had in merely taking a radio hearing until we were finally ordered to our ditching station in preparation for the splash.
During Aircrew training our positions had been drilled into us until it came into our minds simply and as second nature. But instead of jumping off a mock-up fuselage into a tank of water, this was now the real thing. The sequence of events was tabulated clearly in our memories and owing to the tremendous urgency of the situation our hearts beat faster although we tried to show outward calm as best we could.
My ditching position was on the crash bed, alongside the Bomb-Aimer, and together we were to brace ourselves ready for the impact – not forgetting the all-important Second impact. As I withdrew my intercom plug I gathered up my maps, charts, Verey cartridges and pistol, and stepped over the main spar. I took in a deep breath to calm myself.
It seemed pure fantasy. I couldn’t visualise where I would be, or what would be happening, in two minutes time. That was years ahead. On reaching the fuselage centre support I unbolted the Astrodome and completely removed it. We didn’t want that to be jammed in a twisted structure. Now my Pilot, Eric was walking back through the fuselage doing a check-up and I called to him to get down. He never heard me.
There was a rapid succession of thoughts racing through my mind and I tried to get rid of them. What was it like to die? How does it come about? Is there any pain or suffering, or does an eternal grey-black veil blot out all earthly remembrances? They were weird imaginings and this was not the right place for them.
Eric was hurrying up and down and I could see that he was getting rid of equipment. The guns and parachutes had gone overboard. He jettisoned the fuel and turned off all the cocks. Again I called:
“Get down, Eric. Get down!”
Mac now rapidly checked his panel and switched off the ignition after pulling back the starboard throttle lever, he was a bit flurried because ahead of him lay a sheet of dirty grey mist.
“I can’t see the water! I can’t see a thing!”
His voice rose to a higher note and the first tone of nervousness entered it. He was having more difficulty than he had expected.
I cast another glance at my navigation gear and equipment by my side. This suspense was now making me sweat. How unnatural everything seemed. No sound of vibrating, roaring motors: only the slight tinkling of metal and the creaking of the fuselage structure. I began to wonder when ……………
The tearing, twisting metal. A deafening crash bending and breaking girders. A thousand things happened in a split second. It was hell let loose. We were destroyed. Immediately an unearthly scream of stark terror and human agony rose above the cacophony and was suddenly stifled. It was horrible. That single scream of bodily torture will echo in my ears for the rest of my days. It seemed like the last living utterance of humanity. One second he was alive, the next second he was a mangled and broken hulk of flesh and blood and bone. It scarcely registered then in my conscious mind for it seemed not of this world.
Time did not stand still. Looking forward along the fuselage for a fraction of a second I just caught a glimpse of a solid wall of water rushing towards me. I closed my eyes. The solid mass hit me whilst it might have been travelling at almost a hundred miles an hour. I was engulfed. The sound of collapsing structure, of shearing framework, of crumpling woodwork – it was now muffled. The only sound now was a steady buzzing in my ears.
I could feel the pressure of water around my body. With my lungs blown up I was now like a human air bubble in a tiny canister of water. At this stage my mind ceased to function and I must thank Providence for the sequence of events which eventually saved my life. I blew upwards, like a cork out of a bottle, right through the astro hatch. My life-saving jacket was torn to ribbons on the jagged edges but I kept rising. I have always been afraid of opening my eyes under water and I had not changed even in this last apparent moment of my life. I drifted up to the surface, not daring to yell, for to open my mouth meant disaster. All my emotion was keyed up inside me and I could not cry with pain. The rise to the surface took years.
Then suddenly I bumped my head gently. It was fantastic. The surface of the sea should not feel like that. Then it dawned on me that, by the Grace of God, I had risen beneath the rubber dinghy! In frantic haste I scrambled into it: my ankle made me wince with pain and I guessed that it was broken. Once in the small rubber craft a feeling of sheer relief crept over me, as though all my strain and worries had just been left behind there in the water. Then I realised another most important fact. The dinghy was free. It had broken away from the aircraft!
There was no moon, there were no stars. It was pitch black and it was impossible to see more than a few feet. But up from the sea came an eerie glow. Luminous aircraft instruments. Bits of wreckage tapped the sides of the dinghy, but of the aircraft there was no sign. She had gone straight down, From the darkness came the sound of splashing. I called out. Then in a few moments a head and chest appeared by the dinghy. It was the captain. Slowly he clambered into the tiny craft and in the blackness I could vaguely make out his face. It appeared as black as the surroundings, though it was really red with blood. At the moment of impact his Sutton harness had snapped with the disastrous result that he had been thrown forwards through the windscreen. Another shout came across the waves. I recognised Freddie’s voice:
“Bob! Where are you? For God’s sake where are you?”
The sound was quite a long way from us. In which direction it was impossible to guess. I answered his call, hoping that he would be able to get more idea of our position. Slowly the minutes dragged by. Then there came a different call as Joe began to shout too. He sounded much closer, and by taking pieces of floating driftwood from the surface Mac and I were able to paddle the dinghy towards the sound.
It took a long time to find him, calling out intermittently, but we came across him eventually. Then as we saw him near to us we heard more calls from Freddie. He was a long way off now, and it caused us to feel heavy and helpless. We were very close friends, Freddie and I, which was probably the reason he was calling out my name through he must have had no idea which of us had escaped from the crash.
We must find him! We must find him! Curse this hellish blinding darkness! If only we had the light of the stars it would be easier. Before our time men had discovered lost men in the darkest disease-ridden jungles of Africa; men had discovered lost men in the vast Antarctic wastes – surely we must discover one more comrade lost in the soul-destroying blackness of the Mediterranean night. But now Freddie had almost ceased to be Man – he was merely a voice, crying out for his life to be returned. Now his calls of panic were intermingled with my name and his wife’s name, ‘Kathie’. These broken, echoing phrases were his prayers to reach safety; but the difference between Life and Death still remained – Darkness!
The dinghy tipped downwards, causing us to cast nervous glances towards the depressed side. From the sea a huge black shape reared up and crawled over the inflated rubber edge. It was Joe, wearing his complete flying suit and life-saving jacket, looking tremendously fat and heavy with soaked fur. He dropped into the craft and sat still, as from the distance came a last call. The three of us in the dinghy answered in unison as loud as we could. Then we listened. Waves slapped gently against the sides of our craft, but as for Freddie – there was silence.
Long minutes stretched into hours, and we remained quiet – our only movement was the rocking from the slight swell. Throughout the endless night we remained like that. Quiet, tired, but nearly always awake. Sleep never came to us fro long, because our thoughts constantly turned to the events of the few previous hours. Shortly before there were six men, six friends, sharing the same dangers and hardships and risks of war. Now there were three. Barry was with me amidships during the crash. I had been blown out of the wreck but Barry had not been so unfortunate. He was still there in the sea-filled wreck now resting on the bottom of the Mediterranean. Eric – that would have been his scream I heard as we were torn asunder – he must have been mangled to pieces on impact. And finally Freddie. Drifting out alone into the darkness with no help, no hope of safety, just waiting and waiting with the ripples splashing at his chest until Death overtook him by exposure or hunger or thirst or drowning. It was ghastly. I wanted to cry and scream at the whole horrible nightmare.
And so came the dawn. Slowly I was able to discern the silhouettes of the other two members against the half-light of the horizon, until eventually all their features were visible. I shook myself, endeavouring to come to my senses, and finally I realised that I had actually been in my precarious position since the following evening and it was not merely a bad dream as I had hoped it would prove to be. I presented a wretched appearance. Could I have looked anything like the other poor fools who were sitting staring at me, no doubt thinking exactly the same? Poor old Mac looked as though he had his face in a mud pack, but in actual fact it was covered with the layer of blood which had hardened and turned dark brown during the night. Joe looked quite cheerful considering his anxious condition of the previous evening. By now he had more than a ‘five o’clock shadow’ and his hair gave him that ‘dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards’ appearance.
I finally came to my senses and realised that it was now to be a fight for our lives. What did people do under such circumstances? We had heard it all before, and it had always been in the back of my mind during training lectures that such things would never happen to me. But here I was, it was happening to me. Even now I had happy and optimistic thoughts. I would arrive back on the Squadron and my pals would shake me by the hand. I would be able to say ‘Yes’ I really ditched and lived to tell the tale. I was not giving a thought to the fact that the battle for existence had only just begun and that we were far from being saved.
My battledress was beginning to dry on me and my shirt was feeling very sodden. I felt extremely uncomfortable and wanted so much to stand up and straighten my legs. My right ankle was giving me a lot of pain and feeling sore so I ventured to have a look at it in order to diagnose for myself. It was no surprise to find that it had swollen considerably and had turned dark purple. There was a neat ‘V’ shaped tear in the left knee of my battledress and I noticed a small abrasion on the skin underneath. In the seat of my trousers just at the base of my spine there was also another tear but I did not enquire of the others if they could see any wound on the skin.
All this time I was lying with both my legs outstretched for comfort as this was the only way I could stop the constant throbbing of my ankle. The other two were doing their best not to disturb me, with their legs entwined amongst mine as well as they could. Joe took off his flying jacket and trousers and laid them out on the side of the dingy to dry. It was surprising to notice the difference in the size when rid of his water-soaked fur-lined inner suit.
It was fully light now and we looked around the dinghy to see what accessories it contained. On the floor, under a rubber cover we found a miniature Verey pistol with sixteen tins containing three cartridges in each. These were to be used for signalling for when fired they sent out a vivid red flash and a ball of red flame into the air. Naturally I thought that these would certainly be our final means of bringing about our rescue, not knowing at the time what disappointments lay in store for us. There was also a pair of bellows strapped on to the floor which I immediately put to use after testing since the sides of the dinghy were becoming soft. Topping up was certainly necessary because we had a small leak below the water line from which came an endless stream of bubbles. A thought flashed across my mind. Would our small craft remain seaworthy? At this rate I rather thought it would not! Here we were, unaware of our position in the ocean, in a piece of inflated rubber – with an air leak. Hardly conducive to our optimistic hopes. I took off my navigational wristwatch which, strangely enough was still in working order and hung it on the side so that we could all be reminded of the time – not that it would help to save us any quicker. The watch was so full of water that it looked as though the hands were floating. By now we had begun to count the hours we had been afloat. Twelve hours on this puny rubber island of ours. It seemed incredible.
After the crash we had salvaged one or two small items which were floating around and amongst these was a canvas parachute bag as well as several pieces of wood. Between us we managed to construct a temporary sail by cutting the seams of the bag and tying strips of wood together to form a mast. Unfortunately this was not very successful as it only remained in position as long as the wind was steady and directly behind us, with the result that the mast blew down too often. Joe also broke the biggest blade of the white bone handled knife in the process. I was sorry about this for it was a small gift which had been given to me by my Father many years before and I treasured it very much – but then, should I worry about such trivialities when there were so many greater things at stake?
By this time I had begun to wonder as to our whereabouts. We had deviated from our course so much during out last few minutes of being airborne that my estimated position was very vague. On all sides of us, in every direction, there was nothing but deep crystal blue stretching out to a continuous horizon, and from the East the sun was beginning to cast a golden mantle over the soft rippled surface of the Mediterranean. Since becoming a Navigator in this theatre of operations I was well acquainted with the meteorological reports concerning this area and now my memory did much to help me. It was a well-known fact that the prevailing winds blew from the North in our particular region and this was more than a little encouraging as eventually we would be blown back on to the African shore. I had several visions of finally drifting ashore in enemy territory. What would be our fate in the hands of the Italians or Germans? We might even be picked up by an enemy vessel and I had heard some pretty ghastly stories about the treatment of prisoners under such conditions.
It was whilst imagining all this that alongside the dinghy I noticed a large dark mottled patch coming to the surface which upon investigation, proved to be a large turtle. Between us we had three revolvers and eighteen rounds of ammunition, and of course Joe impetuously remarked that we should put a bullet through it. My suggestion was that we should conserve the little ammunition we had, and whilst we were arguing over what we ought to do the turtle had almost disappeared. We could see him apparently diving to the sea bed which settled our argument completely.
My watch showed the time to be mid-day, and when we began to feel the heat of the sun our thoughts naturally turned to our drinking supply. Then the seriousness of the situation really dawned upon us. Here we were, presumably miles from anywhere, not knowing when we would see fertile land again and totally without one of the necessities of life – water!
Emergency water rations are always carried in the aircraft and these are a separate part of the emergency equipment. Unfortunately they are not attached to the dinghy. Owing to the circumstances of my exit I was unable to recover any of this stuff. The only nourishment we had with us was contained in a small ration pack which Mac had always carried in the front pocket of his battledress, so this will give some idea of the amount it could hold. The contents were approximately thirty small Horlicks tablets, a small two-ounce block of plain chocolate, and about three packets of chewing gum. There was also a packet of powder which could be used for purifying water, but not sea water.
This then was the total amount of food which we had between us and it would be considered ample to sustain us under normal conditions for twenty-four hours. Apart from the slight thirst which I was acquiring there was no immediate worry. We could not possibly be drifting around for more than several hours. We still remained in high spirits and there was no sign of panic.
On several occasions during the afternoon we discussed small incidents of the previous night. Even now a clear picture was taking shape of the various events and the sequence in which they had occurred. I never at any time queried the actions of the other two and I was quite sure in my mind that what they had done, as in my own case, had been to the best of their abilities. I still do not know, even to this day, the cause of the engine-failure.
The time seemed to be passing remarkably fast, perhaps because there was a certain sense of novelty about this new experience and so far there had been no monotony as each part of the day had brought some change which we had not seen before. It was as the sun was slowly setting, giving out its warm orange glow in the West, that I realised that a second night was fast approaching. Now it would be at least another ten hours before the dawn and a further hope of rescue.
During the first night we had been very cold but we had naturally attributed this to the fact that we had all been in the water and our clothes had been soaked. I was wondering now whether we would feel the cold or whether the night would be fairly warm. Joe had managed to dry his fur-lined flying suit in the sun during the day and I thought that if the worst came to the worst we would be able to huddle together and find sufficient warmth with this as a covering. As the dusk fell around us we naturally strained our eyes to catch any movements. Then it became completely dark and we gave it up as a bad job. Our only chance of finding safety now was by giving our position to any craft patrolling this area, either in the air or on the sea, by using one of our Verey cartridges.
I still felt quite active and normal. Probably the other two were the same; so eventually we would be sure to drop off to sleep. It was suggested that to ensure a complete watch through the night one of us should stay awake at least for a part of the time or until he could see that another member had taken over the watch. Joe was the first to volunteer, but for the first two or three hours of the night Mac and I remained awake and alert with him.. It is impossible to say after this how long any of us slept, if indeed we did sleep. I think our minds were too heavy and we all thought that if there was anything to be seen we wanted to be awake when it happened.
Throughout the night, instead of gazing out across the sea I spent most of my time looking up into the darkness overhead, and by watching the Pole Star I tried to convince myself that we were constantly drifting Southwards. I also thought that the wind was blowing to our advantage. I must have counted almost every star in the heavens, since as there was no moon they all seemed more brilliant than usual. The night seemed endless and I kept glancing at the time shown by my astro watch, which, to my amazement, still ticked steadily when placed against my ear. I tried to stop myself from looking at it so often but after three parts of the night seemed to have gone I peered at it once more. It was only just past mid-night. There were no untoward incidents between then and the dawn. Occasionally one of us would become a little cramped and desire a change of position. It was by this movement that I knew we had all remained awake for the whole night.
Much to my relief the dawn came and I knew now that we would again experience similar circumstances as on the previous day. This might start a feeling of restlessness and uneasiness amongst us. There was never any spoken reference to lost hope as we knew that with the daylight our chances of being picked up were increased considerably. Only after two or three hours of daylight did we realise that a large expanse of sea was around us. I never thought that there could be so much water without a single small ship in view. Of course I remembered that our dinghy was very low in the water and that our field of view was limited. However, this did not discomfort me as I was a good judge of distance and I assured myself that although there was no life within a radius of three miles an observer on the bridge of a ship, with the aid of a pair of binoculars, would see us first.
Just as we expected similar events occurred as on the previous day only now we were more accustomed to our little world. There was a slight worry concerning our water supply as it was rapidly becoming a serious problem. None of us talked very much on this subject though I knew that the others were only human like myself and must have felt just as parched. The sun had passed on its course again and was now overhead. Probably with the noon-day heat we were feeling a little lazy and not so alert as usual.
When Joe turned our attention to a given direction I had some difficulty in seeing to what he was referring. At length both Mac and I saw a slight wisp of smoke trailing along the skyline and from the little I knew it could only be from a steam vessel. Immediately one of us grasped the Verey pistol and fired off a distress signal, hoping against hope that it would be seen. Unfortunately within a short space of time the wisp of smoke grew steadily fainter and smaller until it finally disappeared from our horizon. This incident had caused a small spark of hope to run through us for at least we were in some part of the Mediterranean where there was shipping. We might even be drifting towards one of the shipping lanes. I assured the others that this was only the beginning and that undoubtedly there would be dozens more opportunities for us to give away our position.
The afternoon passed without further incident but as each hour slipped slowly by the danger of not being picked up before it was too late was becoming more imminent. At this stage none of us mentioned that such thoughts were passing through his mind. For a short interval, after a suggestion, one of us on each side of the dinghy tries using small pieces of driftwood, which we had salvaged, as paddles. I gave a rough direction to aim for, taking my bearings from the sun. Whether it was because one of us had a stronger arm than the other or whether the pieces of driftwood were not evenly proportioned I did not know but e were not able to make much progress. Most of the time it was apparent that the dingy was going round in circles. Anyway, this occupied some of our rime and I knew that if we could take our minds off the seriousness of our situation we could find the time passing more quickly and pleasantly. It was commonly known from our pat experiences that if it were possible to interest the mind fully it was possible to work for hours at a stretch without even bothering about nourishment.
Joe assumed control of the emergency ration pack and he divided the contents equally amongst the three of us. IT will be divided the contents equally amongst the three of us. It will be appreciated that as we had no idea of how long we were to stay in our precarious position we had no idea of how to ration out the little food we had. The only solution was for us to partake of this whenever it was urgently necessary. Joe seemed more keen to eat than Mac or I but he never ate anything without making sure that we had our share. Several times I had to refuse as I did not feel as if I wanted any, although I had not eaten for almost two days now. In any case the Horlicks tablets and chocolate would in all probability make me more thirsty.
Since we had been in our little boat the responsibility for its seaworthiness was mine. I had made sure that it had remained properly inflated and that there were no large leaks. I was hoping that the small air leak under the water would eventually seal itself up but even now the air could be heard coming out and small bubbles were rising to the surface of the water. However, as long as the bellows remained in working order it would not require much effort to keep the dinghy serviceable.
I sat watching the sun disappear behind a thin mass of stratus cloud only to reappear a few minutes later, and by this time it was casting a vivid orange beam of light once again across the waves, the shaft seeming to reach almost to our craft. Whilst watching this, strangely enough I could almost watch the sun’s movement though this was being exaggerated because the cloud was moving in the opposite direction. Finally it became a semi-circular mass of fire on the horizon, getting small and smaller until in the end it disappeared altogether. The second day had passed and our chances of survival had diminished still further. It occurred to me that at this rate we could go on experiencing the same situation endlessly until at last we became unconscious. Although it was possible for the dinghy to remain upright and in good condition for days or even weeks, as it was built of strong material, it was apparent that our bodies could not survive as long. I had no idea of the limit of human endurance under such conditions as ours. We had not given this a thought as quite obviously there was nothing any of us could do. We had heard before that crews had ditched and had survived up to ten or eleven days but in each case they had been fortunate enough to salvage from their crashed aircraft complete emergency rations including numerous tins of water.
With the darkness came all the old familiar feature in the sky and on the sea which had been seen on the two previous nights so that none of it was new to me. Again we decided amongst ourselves who was to keep awake first and as usual we all remained alert. At times I felt myself nodding and when it was not my turn for watch I tried very hard to snatch a wink of sleep, but t it was no use, the urgency of the situation constantly weighed upon my mind.
Several hours of darkness passed. I used my usual instrument of measure, namely judgement, and at least I thought that this seemed correct. I was the first to hear a new sound above the noise of the wind and the splashing of the small waves against the round surfaces of the dinghy. It was the slight drone of an aircraft’s engines. Naturally, I drew the attention of the others and it was not long before they agreed with me that the drone was getting louder, as the aircraft was coming in our direction. Joe snatched up the Verey pistol which we always kept loaded for such occasions and immediately there was a small report and a ball of fire sped upwards almost above our craft. For a second the ball of flame hovered overhead and , as if it were attracted to the dinghy, it fizzed down and just missed hitting us. For a moment my heart came into my mouth.
Suddenly two Read and Green stars appeared in the sky in the direction from which we could hear the sound of the aircraft’s engines. What hopeless fools they were in that aircraft! Didn’t they understand that a Red Verey light in the sky meant that we were in danger? Instead, all that they had done was to assume that we had challenged their identity and had merely replied to us with the appropriate colours of the day. This was useless. What if this should happen every time we fired one of our cartridges? Immediately I suggested a further trial an another puff of flame seared the darkness. Joe made sure that he aimed down-wind this time and there was no fear of being hit and set alight by the dropping missile. Much to our disgust there was no further reply from the aircraft and by now the purring of the engines was becoming fainter and fainter – another chance and hope gone!
We had quite discussion over the latter incident and Joe let loose a little language which would hardly grace a respectable drawing room. Of course, it did him good to air his feelings but I told him not to shout too much as this would tend to dry his mouth and would make him more thirsty. He agree, and silence reigned once more.
Occasionally I felt a cold shudder run down my spine and the others remarked that it was becoming more cold than it had been before. This caused us to huddle together much closer and we were constantly trying to make the flying suit cover all our bodies, but all that was happening was that the two outside me were for ever pulling it backward and forwards. Mac, being the centre person, was happily shielded the whole time, but no comments were passed.
By now I had no feeling in my right ankle. The throbbing had disappeared and when I felt it I knew that it could not possibly be well, as I measure it against the other one by placing both my hands round either ankle. When I touched my right ankle I almost winced with pain and I knew that there must be a fairly big bruise.. The remainder of the night passed without further outstanding occurrence but it seemed terribly long. I was very relieved to see the dawn again as I thought once more that our chances of being picked u, if at all, would be better during the daylight hours.
Surely enough when daylight came I felt more cheerful and somehow, by the Grace of God, my bodily system was mastering the great strain which I was placing upon it by not having anything to eat or drink.
It was on this day that Joe suggested that it would be some comfort if we offered up a small prayer for our safety. Up till now I never knew he had any religious beliefs, but it is strange that danger will always bring out either the good or the bad in a man’s character. Now, so long after the incident, I feel that this small prayer of ours was definitely answered, and to it we attribute the fact that we were eventually rescued.
I shall never rightly be able to describe the mental agony and torment which I had now, and I was certain that the others were suffering the same way. Of course, the first thought which I had to counterbalance this was to ask myself why should all this happen to me, and what had I done in the face of God to justify such punishment? I bean to picture very slowly a brief outline of my life, and the events which seemed most marked were all the more beautiful and loving incidents I had known. I then pictured my whole family and relations and the most horrible thought of all crossed my mind. If I did not survive this terrible ordeal I could never laugh, sing, talk, or play with any of them again. I wanted to cry out, and it was only because I knew that it would be useless that I refrained from doing so.
By now our Squadron Commander would have given us up as lost and the inevitable word – Missing – would have been placed against our names. On asking Joe if he knew how long it would be before the terrifying news was despatched to our parents, he replied that he thought it was two days. If this were the case then, telegrams would now be on their way, and I visualised the feelings of those who were to receive them.. Would they not suffer almost the same torture as us? And what about the relatives of those who had been killed? Even though I were not safe yet I knew that they would definitely never see their sons again.
With what I know now, I would have given anything to have spared the sufferings of my parents. I will never know really what they suffered, but with the small amount of correspondence which I received afterwards I was able to form a rough idea of their feelings.
The time seemed to be dragging and it was ages before the sun was high. Up till now I had not bothered to check my watch which I assumed was still ticking steadily away. Instinct suddenly told me to look at it and see if it was still going. Unhappily I discovered that after winding completely it ceased to tick. Judging by the altitude of the sun I figured that it had not been stopped very long and although I had not been consciously aware of its movement, to my subconscious mind its activity had been apparent.
Trying once again to take my mind off the terrible predicament, I sought to find something with which to occupy myself. What was there to do? It would have helped to ease the situation considerably if we had had some playing cards, but such things would have given a semblance of organisation and that would hardly have fitted into the picture of things, as so far we had not carried out anything really successfully and according to the rules which had been drummed into us over and over again. Of course, this disorganisation was not our fault and I assured myself that whatever we had done, was done as well as possible.
Fortunately I carried with me a schoolboys essential equipment namely a penknife and a piece of string, omitting the shilling because we were not allowed to carry money or personal documents on operations. I decided to use t piece of string as a fishing line by fixing a safety pin on to the end. Now what could I use as bait? I had an idea that if I were lucky and secured one fish, I could clean it out and use the innards as further bait. But what was I to use to commence my operations? In despair I decided to fix a small piece of cloth on to the end of the hook. When I look back on this incident I realise that the fish were no more fooled than I was, and this will give some idea of my mental state. Whatever was I thinking, that I could have been successful in such a stupid escapade.
There were times during which I completely forgot the gravity of our situation, and I had suddenly been placed upon a river in a small rowing boat it would have been no different, until, of course, I had come to my senses and fitted this in with my previous activities.
It was whilst I was experimenting over the side with my improvised fishing line, that I suddenly heard sea-gull cries. Looking around I observed two or three of these birds in the air and two on the waves. Once more Joe was quick to suggest some sort of action, and he withdrew his revolver. Two or three shots echoed in quick succession in the direction of the birds. No luck – dammit – and the birds were frightened away. It was strange that these birds should have come so near to us, and I had a little discussion with the others concerning this. It is a known fact that sea-gulls either stay near the coast, or at least follow in the wake of a vessel. This caused numerous speculations but no further despondency, and in fact the situation appeared to be much brighter. It will be noted here that the pistols which are mentioned had not become affected by the sea water. It was always customary on all operations for each individual to carry a revolver with six rounds of ammunition, and it was only now that this rule had proved its worth.
Evening came again, during the rest of the afternoon there had still remained a clear horizon on all sides. I ad ceased to worry any longer over the question of nourishment, for I had gone beyond this. The same old thought kept passing through my mind; how long would it be before the end? I had not entirely given up hope and I flatter myself that I endured so much without the least bit of panic. Of course the others were the same and had any of us become hysterical it would no doubt have upset the remaining two.
I resigned myself to another seemingly endless night. I had almost considered it a fact now that we would not be picked up during the hours of darkness, and indeed my assumption was correct. With the dark came the brilliance of the stars, and we once again huddled ourselves together in the vain hope that the long dreary night would soon pass. I know I must have slept during part of this night as the hors did not drag as they had done on the three before. My sub-conscious mind would immediately have awakened me had either of the others seen anything which would have assisted us. The dinghy was continuously tossing up and down, for although the waves were very small our little craft was light. However, I soon became used to this constant movement, so much so that when in hospital later on two consecutive occasions I awoke and placed my hand outside the bed, wondering if I were still on the water. The bed being rigid was apparently not following my sub-conscious movements.
With no watch I had no idea of the time, but I observed that the position of the Plough had turned through a semi-circle since nightfall. I estimated it to be well past midnight. It was now that we became aware of a bright beam of light, presumably a searchlight, sweeping over the ease to the South. Foolishly we all tried shouting together and as a last resort blowing our whistles which we had attached to the collars of our battledress. We gave three short blasts followed by three long, and then a further three short ones. This we thought would serve as a distress signal but it was no use. We also fired off another Verey cartridge and when nothing happened we were even more disgusted. Why were we being so antagonised?
The excitement of the last event had made us more alert and until the dawn we were continually staring into the darkness. There was still nothing more seen and after two or three more hours, constantly being heaved up and down on the swell, I was pleased that the dawn arrived. This day was eventually to be recorded as the worst we experienced during the whole five days and nights.
Very early in the morning a stiff breeze started blowing, greater than any we had known previously. It needs only a little imagination to realise how our little craft was blown around. Towards the middle of the morning dark storm clouds loomed up from the North and although I knew that with a storm we would be heaved around there would be a chance to collect some rainwater and so moisten our parched throats. It was not long after this that one of us said that he felt a spot of rain on his face, and almost immediately large round globules of water appeared on the side of the dinghy. Soon there was quite a steady downpour of rain. I empties the cartridge tins of their contents and laid them out in a row in the centre of the dinghy hoping that they would present a large surface to collect some of the precious liquid. A piece of canvas from the parachute bag, previously used fro the sail, was also laid out, and this being rather durable it was hoped would hold some water.
To our joy and amazement we managed to collect enough water to rinse our mouths and I cannot describe my feelings as this precious liquid touched my palate. I sincerely hope that never again in my life will I want to crave drink as much as this, providence is to be thanked that the whole of this terrible ordeal happened in the cool months of the year. I hate to think of trying to exist like this in a hot Mediterranean summer.
Whilst we had been so overawed in collecting the water we had failed to notice that the sea was fast becoming a maelstrom and for the first time since we had been in the craft the water was flowing over the side. Every moment the storm was increasing in violence and fury and we were tossing around more and more.
The waves were getting larger and the foam and spray intensified. Every few seconds a great wall of water, at least ten to fifteen feet high, loomed up in front of us only to break underneath and send us hurling upwards. As each successive wave broke against our little craft, water continually poured over the side. It was necessary for us to put pressure on one edge of the dinghy to let all the accumulating water heap up, so that we could use only one of the Verey cartridge tins to bale it out.
This latter movement gave us an idea. If I sat on one side it would cause the other to rise up, and if Mac and Joe helped to weigh the dinghy down on my side, by holding on to the rope which ran across the centre, I could make it ride over each wave without shipping water. This was terrible. Before us now was the greater difficulty that we had yet encountered. Already having suffered hunger and thirst at least we had remained afloat. Even now our very lives were resting as if on the edge of a giant precipice just waiting the final push before being hurled into a chasm to eventual death hundreds of feet below. Everything was completely soaks and we did not possess one piece of dry clothing between us. What part of us had not been drenched by sea had been soaked by the rain so we must have looked a pretty picture.
For a short while Joe started an element of fear running through us, and for the first time in four days he remarked that the whole situation was simply hopeless and withdrew his revolver from its holster in an effort to end it all. In a moment of panic I followed suit and for several minutes Joe and I pondered.
‘What do you think of it all, Mac?’
In his usual unassuming way he had nothing to offer either one way or the other but merely told us what he was going to do.
‘I’m going to wait another day and see what that brings’
It was this marvellous attitude of his which prevented us from taking such a drastic step.
I do not know how long it was before the storm abated. It seemed hours that we had been wrestling between Life and Death. There was I, using my weight, and riding the dinghy over the waves, with Joe and Mac lying inside bailing out the small amount of water which continually seeped over the sides. It must have been late in the afternoon. I had no means of judging time as the whole sky was overcast. Finally I was able to sit back in the dinghy with the others and take stock of the situation. There was still quite a lot of water which was impossible to get out, and as we rocked up and down first one side would get the flow and then the other. It was terribly uncomfortable.
It must have been the small amount of water which I had used to rinse my mouth earlier in the day which caused my lips to feel very dry. I mentioned the fact to the others and they felt the same. Mac had a brainwave and produced a lipstick suggesting that we use it. This we did, and it proved very satisfactory.
What a say this had been. Practically everything had happened to us and even as darkness was approaching I wondered if the words Mac had used previously would ring true and that we would be picked up the following day. The same routine followed, except that this night our clothes were sticking to us making us feel just as uncomfortable as we had been our very first night. There was also another small difference. We had not seen the beautiful sunset which had been so marked on the other evenings. Little did we know as we huddled together, keeping constant watch, that this fifth night was to be the last. Time dragged on and I cannot say whether or not I had any sleep. We were just waiting for the dawn.
So we entered the fifth day; the day which was to mark the final triumph of Life over Death, though in our hearts we had almost given up hope of ever seeing civilisation again. By now we had ceased to keep up a steady conversation with one another and I had a sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach which was not entirely due to lack of nourishment. It was not the actual fear of leaving this world which was causing me unrest, but the uncertainty. ‘How long will it be before we reach the end?’ Occasionally a horrible picture passed through my mind: that of Freddie drifting, becoming less conscious, and finally dying – for he must be dead by now. He could not possibly have lived through the exposure.
By this time my brain was becoming less alert and when during the course of the morning – at least I judged it fairly early in the day – a small wave lifted us it did not register immediately in my brain that there was something in the distance, a shape which had definitely not been there on the previous four days. AS soon as I realised that there was something which might be Life itself I hurriedly drew the attention of the others and three pairs of eyes were quickly focused on the Southern horizon. Minutes passed into hours, and so as not to be deceived by any false hopes of security we turned our eyes away intending to wait some considerable while and see if eventually we could notice any difference in the shape, then either we were moving into the shore or the object was moving towards us.
The sun was now high, and I estimated that it was about mid-day; and as if the Spark of Life had been re-kindled in me I confirmed with the others that the object was moving towards us. At a rough guess I immediately expressed my opinion that I thought it to be the superstructure of an aircraft carrier, and to my joy the other two agreed. Could our luck possibly have changed and after all this endless hardship there was safety almost within our grasp? Somehow, it seemed as if the heavens had suddenly engulfed us and there was a Guardian Angel bringing us in on the wing. Yes, the object was getting constantly nearer, and a crisp Northerly breeze was slowly drifting us in the right direction.
It must have been about two o’clock in the afternoon when we were able to discern a slight brown haze on the horizon in the same plane as our object, and to my relief we all agreed that it was coast-line. This was further enhanced by the appearance of several palm-trees. We were all elated with Joy; and only those who have suffered for so long can fully appreciate out feelings.
Joe was the first to suggest a small celebration, and he promptly stripped off all his clothes and jumped into the water taking care that he constantly had hold of the dinghy. I knew he did not want to have a recurrence of the previous experience; anyway he could not swim. Mac followed almost immediately, and I lay back peacefully.
It was the first time that I was able to stretch my body, as now there was plenty of room. They were both hanging on and by paddling their legs they were propelling the dinghy ever nearer to the coast. After a considerable amount of splashing around they both got back, and I was really amazed at their liveliness. They soon dried themselves. At length I could not resist the temptation and in spite of my bad leg I just had to follow suit and have a swim. The cool water was very refreshing. I am sure we must all have benefited by it. At least we were more cheerful but no doubt this was not entirely due to the swim!
Finally we were all settled back in our usual places. Now I noticed that the coast-line was becoming very clear and I assured the other two that with moderate luck we would make land by dusk. Fortunately my prophecies were short lived for we were to be saved much quicker and most unexpectedly. It was not long after we had become settled that we first noticed the sails of a boat which was moving along parallel to the coast and at right angles to our direction of drift. Our luck had certainly changed. We seemed to be surrounded by good fortune, though there was still a little doubt in my mind as to whether we would be spotted for we were not definitely ion the path of the vessel. We decided to make an all-out effort to attract attention and again the lip-rouge carried by Mac came in useful. We tied a shirt to one of the pieces of spare wood and streaked it with lipstick, making it look rather like an improvised Union Jack. This we waved frantically for what seemed ages.
Suddenly we noticed the vessel alter course. It was headed straight towards us! I cannot express the joy and happiness that I felt on seeing this, and for the second time since the crash I imagined everything was over. But it was not quite over yet! The vessel was soon near to us and we could see that she was a typical coasting schooner, heavily laden, and in full sail. It was owing to this last fact, and the lightness of our bobbing dinghy which made it impossible to get within helpful distance.
The master had quite a tricky problem to cope with and he sailed around us in a complete circle before he hit upon the solution. Reef his sails: that was the only thing to do. This was carried out by the crew with amazing rapidity and very soon she was within easy reach of the dinghy. AS we closed in towards the gunwhale one of the crew hurled a huge thick rope towards us, almost swamping our light little craft. Anyway, we were soon hauled alongside and with aid from the crew of the schooner we were pulled up on to the deck.
By the time we had all boarded the vessel the dinghy had drifted away and one of the crew immediately made frantic gestures. Before I could attempt to understand his jabbering he had demonstrated by his actions what he meant. Straight away he took off his shirt and dived into the sea to recover the dinghy. In a matter of seconds, and with the aid of the other sailors it was hauled upon the deck. The three of us were amused over the incident, but we were more concerned about getting something to drink. They had a big barrel of water on board and we crawled along the deck towards it, but a big burly hand was placed before us and we were stopped.
Although we were all secure on a ship we had no idea of its nationality and for all we knew perhaps we were prisoners. However, we were soon satisfied because with the aid of what little French I could remember the fact was established that we were aboard the French-Arab schooner ‘Aroussa’ which was shipping grain from Tripoli to Zuara. At least we were in Allied hands. The incident of the water supply was not so strange after all because almost immediately the Captain introduced himself and made us drink some halibut oil presumably to grease out our systems first before taking any water. Naturally we did not like it at the time but afterwards we realised that he had been very thoughtful.
Joe was the first to sing out his praises. He went almost mad with joy and continued praising me for what I had done for him on the night of the crash, though it was only what the average person would have done in the circumstances. Would anybody in the same position have watched one of his comrades drifting away without trying to do something about it? After all, I had been the lucky one, being the first to find the dinghy.
Now we were getting nicely settled on the schooner and it was not long before the Captain was talking to us , though his French was much too fast for my untrained ears. I was able to understand one or two phrases and eventually I made it clear to him that we had been five days and nights in the sea and that three of our number had been killed. At length he allowed us to have more water, and looking at a mugful of this precious substance was like looking at stardust from Heaven. Soon I had gulped down one cup, then two, three, four, until I was sure I would burst. The Captain must have thought we were in a bad way – and indeed we were.
It was whilst I was relaxing in safety that it suddenly dawned on me the condition I was in. It seems that when danger is imminent the human body is able to endure much more hardship than it normally would, and now I was relaxed the strain was beginning to tell on me. I had a large growth of beard, the longest I ever had, and I imagined I would have to use scissors to cut it eventually. One of the crew of the schooner had a little stove working and before long we had a cup of tea without milk, for which the Captain murmured his humble apologies. Then, as if he were giving away precious Life itself, he offered us a tin of bully beef and some hard tack biscuits. These we accepted gratefully, being only too pleased for small mercies. Strangely enough, I did not feel very hungry but I managed to eat a little, even if it was only to show gratitude to our rescuers.
Almost every moment I noticed one of the crew staring at us. I suppose to them we really appeared poor stupid wretches. They were thinking, no doubt, what silly fools we were allowing ourselves to partake in such foolhardy missions, laying ourselves open to such danger and suffering. I felt very proud.
During our short stay on the vessel the Captain by various gestures gave me a rough idea of our position and from his description I knew that w had drifted some considerable way during the five days and nights. Soon he pointed out Zuara harbour which was looming up ahead. At a rough estimate we had been on the vessel about an hour now and although I enjoyed the hospitality of the crew of the schooner I was glad when we dropped anchor at Zuara. We were helped into a little rowing boat and taken towards a battle-scarred jetty, where strangely enough there was a reception committee consisting of two S.A.A.F. Captains who thought that we were the crew of a Baltimore which had apparently ditched earlier in the day. They were quite surprised when they learned of our experience.
I found considerable difficulty in walking, mainly owing to my weak condition and my injured ankle, but with aid I managed to climb into a Jeep which took us off to hospital.
Everywhere was terribly battle-scarred; there were trenches, and palm trees uprooted. The harbour itself was full of sunken craft, some with their sides blown to pieces, others with masts broken. It was a regular scrap heap.
There is not much more to describe, but I must not conclude without a word a praise for all the wonderful attention which I had in the hospital at Tripoli where I was eventually moved for treatment. It was here that we were known as the ‘Three men in a boat’. This caused much amusement, especially to the Matron. It was some considerable while before we were all fit again. The circumstances which led up to my eventual recrewing on the Squadron and further operating are part of another unwritten story – but is sufficient to say that I completed my further operations without any further major incident like this.
First posted on the internet on 8th November 1996