Saturday, July 1, 2023

Saved by the Silk: Another Miraculous Parachute Escape from WWII

by Cindy Kay Stewart

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 the experience of Royal Air Force (RAF) flyer who almost went down with his plane. If you missed the previous stories, you can find them here and here and here and here.

WWII British Halifax Bomber - Public Domain

Flight Sergeant Eric Sanderson served as Rear Gunner on a Halifax named 'R' for Robert. On the night of March 22, 1944, Sanderson flew on the last operation of his tour. On their way to bomb Frankfurt, Germany, a strong force of enemy fighters attacked Sanderson's bomber group. After watching the fighters go after the bombers behind them, Sanderson was ready. Sure enough, he spotted a Ju88 lurking under their tail, and he notified the crew. 

Sanderson's pilot initiated several maneuvers, diving, climbing, turning, performing a corkscrew, but the enemy fighter stayed with them, below and just out of reach of the bomber's guns. As a desperate measure, the pilot rolled the Halifax on its belly so the mid-upper gunner could shoot down at the fighter. The fighter took advantage and hit them with his cannon fire, igniting the incendiaries on the "R." With the wing root on fire, the pilot ordered all bombs to be released, but the mechanism didn't work.

The fire moved to the fuselage, and the pilot called for his crew to jump. The other members left through the main door and the nose hatch, but Sanderson was left to wind his turret 90 degrees by hand and attempt to tumble backwards out of the turret. Unfortunately, when he swung down, his legs caught under the dashboard. He dangled upside down and could not swing back up into the turret to release his legs. Flames from the aircraft poured over him, searing his hands and face.

Diagram of the British Halifax. Note the Rear Gunner Turret. Courtesy of Author Martin Čížek
via Creative Commons and Wikimedia

Sanderson expected to die. He didn't know how close he was to the ground, but by this time, the "R" had descended from 16,000 feet to 1,000 feet, which he later learned. Suddenly, Sanderson decided to pull the ripcord on his parachute, hoping he'd be snatched clear. He was now below 400 feet. His chute rapidly filled and Sanderson felt as if his body had been torn in half. He saw the trees below him and then passed out.

Sanderson, lying on his back, awoke to utter darkness and silence. He thought he had died. But his vision and hearing slowly returned, and joy filled him when he realized he was alive after all. He moved his head and his arms, but he had no feeling in his legs. He sat up, but only saw a tangled twisted mass where his legs should have been. Upon further inspection, his legs and feet were intact but tangled up in his Mae West and harness. After untangling himself, he was able to stand.

Next Sanderson pressed a patch of snow to his face, which was bleeding from severe burns. A flap of loose skin hung from the his burned hand holding the snow. He crawled on his hands and knees to where he could observe the burning Halifax. Sanderson called to four German soldiers nearby. After running over to him and flashing a lamp in his face, they carried him off to a village.

Sanderson's face and hands and broken collar bone healed in a prison hospital. "The only damage his legs suffered in their violent exit from the turret" were torn ligaments and muscles in his legs. All of his fellow crewman who bailed from the "R" for Robert landed safely, and Sanderson met them in captivity.


A Row of Halifax Bombers Being Assembled in Britain - Public Domain



Mackersey, Ian. Into the Silk: The Dramatic True Stories of Airmen Who Baled Out - and Lived. Sapere Books.


These true, heartwarming stories portray the love and bravery shown by many individuals who risked their lives to save those in danger and help win WWII for the Allies. Some found themselves at the mercy of their conquerors but managed to escape. Others sacrificed their lives. From snow-covered Norway to Japanese-occupied China, from remote northern Russia to the flatlands of Belgium, larger than life stories give credence to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. 

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Cindy Kay Stewart, a retired high school social studies teacher, and current church pianist and inspirational historical romance author, writes stories of hope, steeped in faith, and grounded in love. Her manuscripts have won the Touched by Love Award, the First Impressions contest, and the Sandra Robbins Inspirational Writing Award. They've also finaled in the Maggie Award of Excellence and the Cascade Awards, and semi-finaled in the Genesis contest. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of forty-two years. Her daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live nearby. Cindy’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. This was a very dramatic escape, hard to believe that Sergeant Sanderson survived this!!