Monday, June 30, 2008

A War Story....

One day in March 1944 my Mother, who was in her late teens, was at home with her mother who said. “I’ve dreamed I saw your brother laying in the snow. I’m worried that he’s been shot down.”

“Mum that’s impossible he said in his last letter that their aircraft had been used by another crew and they’d been shot down; so they are waiting for a replacement aircraft.”

“I know that but I can’t help these feelings. Go and listen to Lord Haw Haw and see what raids there were last night. “

The German radio announcer William Joyce who the Daily Express had named Lord Haw Haw said there had been a raid on Frankfurt and twenty-two RAF aircraft had been shot down. Shortly after my Mother heard the news, there was a knock at the door. It was a policeman who, when my mother answered their front door, asked to speak to her father. He told my grandfather that their son had been posted 'missing'.

My Uncle was a Flight Engineer, a Sergeant, with 466 Squadron, a Royal Australian Air Force unit that flew Halifaxes; this despite the fact that he had been born in South London and was English through and through. Between 15 February 1944 and 18 March 1944 he and his fellow crewmembers, who were all Australian, flew four missions against targets in France and Germany. The other six members of the crew were Flight Sergeants with the exception of the Wireless Operator/Gunner who was a Warrant Officer. On their first mission they bombed Augsburg, in Germany, they took off at 2103 and landed again at 0514 hours – meaning that they were airborne for over eight hours.
Their fourth mission on the night of 18/19 March was as part of a raid against Frankfurt – Twelve Halifaxes from 466 Squadron got airborne that night although two returned early due to hydraulic trouble. Seven of the remaining ten aircraft bombed the primary target and returned safely, three failed to return including my Uncle’s aircraft. A German fighter attacked HX231 killing the mid upper gunner Noel Lees and probably the other gunners, Jack Dansie and George De Fraine. With the fuselage a mass of flames the Captain told the crew to bail out, which Bill Bray. Ken Wilson and Doug Wooldridge all did. The Captain, Johnny Richards, pushed Doug Wooldridge out of the aircraft causing him to strike the tall, which knocked him out and broke his teeth. He came to in a snowdrift covered by his parachute, which in view of the very cold conditions undoubtedly saved his life. He was eventually discovered by German troops and admitted to a hospital run by Sister's of Mercy; Johnny Richards went down with the aircraft. Ironically the news reports the following day said that the bombers “met fewer fighters than usual”.

All three men who bailed out became POWs and separately passed through the Luftwaffe interrogation centre at Oberursel, near Frankfurt on Main before moving on to Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan in south east Germany where they were reunited. They were later moved to Stalag Luft 6 at Heydekrug, East Prussia before being marched back west in the wake of the advancing Red Army; they were found by Allied troops. The four men that died, including the pilot, were all twenty-one years old with the exception of Jack Dansie who was just twenty; they are buried at Rheinberg War Cemetery in the Ruhr. My uncle, Doug Wooldridge, was a month shy of his twenty third birthday - today at eighty-six he still enjoys playing golf and travels the world. He is just one example that illustrates the random nature of survival in RAF Bomber Command in WW2; the same can be said of every war.

My mother says that the worst part was waiting to hear more news after Doug had been posted missing. I cannot imagine what it would be like to live with the ‘not knowing’ and having to go on day to day about what passed for normal life during the war.


r morris said...

This is an amazing story, Richard. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to people who have had similar experiences where they knew, almost in real-time, what was happening to a loved one far away. There's much we still don't understand about perception and how human beings communicate. How did your uncle get that message out? We'll never know. Incredible.

Richard Havers said...

I agree Rob, it's a fantastic story. While I knew what had happened in broad terms it was only this week that my Mother told me about her mother's dream!

Ethan Pew said...

Stories about those times are really cool. You kinda imagine explosions going on in the background while planes soared high in the air. Everything's really intense in the battlefield - so intense that Mr. Woolridge was knocked out when they were bailing out of that burning plane.