|WWII Reenactment of the 82nd Airborne Division - Public Domain|
Over a million Allied airmen flew missions over occupied Europe during WWII, and many of their planes were shot down. The parachute played a pivotal role in saving the lives of tens of thousands of these troops. Fascinating stories of miraculous parachute drops abound. Today's post covers a few of the experiences of Royal Air Force (RAF) flyers.
First, a little information about the process of parachuting during WWII is in order. Once a soldier left his aircraft, either by jumping or being blown out, he fell at about 175 feet a second - 120 miles an hour. After his parachute fully opened, his descent slowed to 19 - 21 feet per second - about 11 miles an hour. If the parachute was dry and had been freshly packed, once he pulled his ripcord, the parachute fully opened in one to two seconds. The faster the aircraft traveled, the quicker the chute opened.
The closer the soldier was to the ground, the more dangerous his landing and chance of death. If a man jumped from an aircraft that was diving, he would fall at a faster rate, and a thousand feet above ground might have been too low for his parachute to open.
RAF Flight Lieutenant Dudley Davis defied these odds. On July 21, 1940, he flew his Hampden aircraft over the Wilhelmshaven harbor at fifty feet above the water and dropped a mine under the German battleship Tirpitz. It was timed to explode an hour after release.
|WWII British "Hampdens." Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.|
Two other Hampdens flew in separately for the same purpose. A high-level diversionary bombing attack was scheduled for a few minutes before their arrival. However, unexpected winds interfered with the operation, and the diversionary attack was over when the Hampdens arrived. The flak guns gave the three enemy aircraft all of their attention. Davis' plane was the last to arrive, and streams of flak set his plane on fire before he arrived at the docks.
The Hampden continued flying with fuel tanks ablaze, and Davis dropped the mine close beside the Tirpitz. By this time, flames were spurting up through the cockpit floor, and the plane was too low for Davis to order his crew to jump. With the cabin behind him on fire and heavy smoke in the cockpit, Davis open the hood, crouched on the starboard wing, and clung to the cockpit edge. As the aircraft began to roll to starboard, Davis pulled his ripcord. He was no more than fifty feet above the water.
Davis' canopy filled and snatched him backwards off the wing. His back hit the plane, bounced off, and hit something else. He discovered he was lying on his side on a stone pier. He stood up and was unhurt except for a few bruises and a minor face burn. He was immediately captured and spent the next five years in a German prison camp.
The Germans were outfitting the newly launched Tirpitz at the time, so the explosion from the mine delayed its completion. Crew members from the other two Hampdens also survived by parachuting from their planes which were shot down.
|WWII British "Fairy Battle" Aircraft. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.|
During the Battle of France in the spring of 1940, Flight Lieutenant Crews and wireless operator/air gunner Evans flew out of their base at Rheims, France, to bomb a vital bridge on the German invasion route at the German-Belgian frontier. About thirty miles from their target, they encountered heavy fire from German antiaircraft gunners from the convoys below. The ack-ack smashed the plane's instrument panel.
When Crews flew within sight of the target, anti-aircraft fire blasted a big hole behind the engine, causing burning gasoline to stream back under his seat in the cockpit. At this point, Crews was flying over rolling wooded country with no place to land. He shouted for his men to bale out. He slid the hood back, and flames gushed up, burning his legs and face. They were no more than 200 or 300 feet above the trees, and the plane would go no higher.
Crews didn't doubt that he must jump, but he didn't expect to survive. He stepped out on to the wing root and pulled his ripcord as he dove off. He closed his eyes, hit the trees seconds later, felt burning on his face from pine needles scraping his skin, and then experienced a tremendous jolt.
Crews discovered "he was hanging on his rigging lines held from the top branches of a pine tree by the half-opened canopy" only six feet above the ground. Two yards away, Evans was suspended in another tree in the same way. They stared at each other. "Apart from minor cuts and bruises neither was injured." Their plane was burning on the ground only thirty feet away. Crews and Evans tried to escape through the German lines but were captured and held prisoner for the next five years.
Return next month for more stories about WWII miraculous parachute escapes.
Mackersey, Ian. Into the Silk: The Dramatic True Stories of Airmen Who Baled Out - and Lived. Sapere Books.