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.