|Deploying Parachutes (Public Domain)|
This is no April Fool's joke.
Over a million Allied airmen flew missions over occupied Europe during WWII. Many of their planes were shot down, but 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. If you missed last month's stories, you can find them here.
Rear gunner Ken Downing served on an RAF Hampden on April 18, 1941 when he and his fellow crew members bombed a German airfield in Cherbourg, France. Downing's aircraft was protected by a cloud blanket over the French coast until it broke through the clouds at 900 feet. The plane dropped to 850 feet, bombed the fighters sitting on the airfield, and pulled up to escape into the cloud. A shell of anti-aircraft fire hit the port engine which burst into flames. The pilot announced he would try to land the Hampden, but gave permission for everyone else to bale out.
Downing pulled the jettison wire on the main door of the Hampden, but it would not release. He lost valuable time kicking the door until it finally gave way. Downing pulled the ripcord on his parachute as he slid out of the Hampden. His head just missed the horizontal stabilizer, and his chute, which was streaming, cleared the aircraft. Because he was facing up, Downing didn't know how close he was to the ground. His body jolted, his harness tightened, and he blacked out for a few seconds.
When Downing opened his eyes, he discovered he was sitting on the ground in deep soft mud, the only patch of mud in the vicinity. "Less than ten yards away on the other side of a hedge was the burning wreck of the Hampden." Downing's parachute lay close enough that the top of the canopy caught on fire. There were no other chutes near him - he was the lone survivor. Ammunition from the Hampden exploded, forcing Downing to crawl away on his broken right thigh and leg.
German airmen ran across the field and took Downing to the naval hospital at Cherbourg. The next day the German commander at the airfield visited Downing and congratulated him for his successful jump from 130 feet (almost unheard of). He spent the next four years in captivity.
|RAF Seafire (Public Domain)|
Lieutenant Commander P.E.I. Bailey and another pilot flew their RAF Seafire planes across the English Channel on the second day of D-Day. Their job was to spot for "the naval ships whose guns were supporting the ground forces in their drive inland" between Boulogne and Dieppe. "No sooner were they within range of the first ships than they were vigorously fired upon. Quickly they turned round and flew out to sea again." The gunnery officers on the ships had mistaken them for the enemy. Bailey later learned that German fighters had strafed the fleet only minutes before.
Bailey reached one of the headquarter ships by radio and was promised his message about being fired upon would be passed along. The two pilots flew in again, were shot at again, and retreated again. Bailey radioed the headquarters ship once more and was told to wait ten minutes before returning. Ten minutes later, Bailey returned. As he passed directly over a heavily armed anti-aircraft cruiser, the ship opened fire, spraying the two planes with metal. The tail of Bailey's plane broke off, and the nose went down. At 400 feet above the sea, he couldn't get his damaged hood to open more than nine inches. The plane continued diving toward the beach. At about 250 feet, although he was still trapped in the cockpit, Bailey pulled the ripcord on his parachute.
Next, the drop tank on Bailey's plane exploded, and as the aircraft disintegrated, Bailey was blown out. His chute opened and jolted him right before he bumped onto the beach. "The wind filled his canopy, and he was hauled off along the beach, dragged on his back over the sand." The canopy of Bailey's parachute detonated small anti-personnel mines attached to stakes near the water's edge before Bailey reached those areas.
Bailey succeeded in stopping his runaway chute, undid his harness, and discovered he was uninjured. A group of British beach commandos surrounded him, thinking they'd captured a German airman. After all, a British ship had shot him down, and he was wearing black flying overalls. The commandos pointed their guns at Bailey. He didn't have any proof that he was British, so the soldiers marched him off to a temporary wire cage, housing 150 disgruntled-looking German prisoners. By this time Bailey was quite disgruntled. He protested the whole way, but no one listened to him.
A captured German officer, who spoke perfect English, was also in the cage. He told the British soldiers that Bailey wasn't a German airman, but no one listened to him either. Finally, after two hours in the cage, Bailey drew the attention of a British officer who took him to a brigadier. The brigadier telephoned and established Bailey's identity and ordered him released. He returned to England the next day.
Return on May 1st to read more stories of miraculous parachute escapes during WWII.
Mackersey, Ian. Into the Silk: The Dramatic True Stories of Airmen Who Baled Out - and Lived. Sapere Books.