Tales from the Sunderland Wardroom by Philip Adams
I became a Sunderland pilot by chance or fate – call it what you will.
After our wings were presented to us in1941 in Calgary, Canada, the whole course was scheduled to entrain for Halifax and then by troopship to the U.K. As we waited outside the barrack block awaiting transport the Station Warrant Officer announced that 12 men were needed to attend a General Reconnaissance (G.R.) course in Canada. All our papers had already gone ahead and so selection was to be made alphabetically. Adams, of course, led the rest. My best mate, Bill Sprott, who had joined up the same day with me was also a selection and this softened the disappointment at not going off with the rest.
Our six week course, including navigation, was on Prince Edward Island, a lovely old fashioned part of Canada with the nicest and kindest people one could ever meet. On completion of the course we went to Debert, an airfield about 60miles north of Halifax, to convert to Hudsons and then ferry one of them to the U.K. Alas, a few days after arriving the senior course were sent off on a night cross-country, in a forecast snowstorm and the result was that five of the six aircraft failed to return! No more Hudsons for three months so it was back to the troopship. Arriving in the U.K. we went to a reception centre in Bournemouth where we were asked to indicate our preference between torpedo, shipping strike or flying boats. Sprott and I chose the land planes – any role; the other ten all chose flying boats. Result — Adams and Sprott – flying boats, the others to the land planes
So off to Alness in Scotland and soon we learnt how to taxi, take off and land on water. Our conversion course over, the Wing Commander, course commander, sent for us both and said that as we were already 12000 miles from home (‘home being Australia) and could not go home for leave at all, he hoped that we would volunteer to fill two posts on 95 Squadron in West Africa. We hesitated, because we said we thought that West Africa was going away from the War. He then explained to us that the U-Boats were sinking 4-5 ships every day off Freetown. When the convoys for the Far east and Middle east called into Freetown – where they had to go to refuel – they got caught; it was all part of the same war! Well,of course, put that way (and it was December and very, very cold in Scotland) we agreed. Thus, we both joined 95 squadron and quickly found that the Wg. Cdr. had not been exaggerating.
Flying along the coast the beaches were strewn with debris and wreckage of ships. So we settled down very quickly. My tale relates to what happened on the 3rd September1942 when I was second pilot on Sunderland Mk 3 DV957 tasked to carry out an anti-submarine patrol. The aircraft was serviceable to fly, but had only one serviceable revolution counter — the supply of spares was difficult, no doubt largely due to the U- boat activity, but at that time if it could fly then we went and we could cope without the other three rev counters by synchronizing the engines by watching the shadow effect of the propellers and listening to the even-ness of the noise.
The weather that day was peculiar for Freetown. A dense fog sat at about 50 feet over the take-off area; unusual but not restricting and we took off without any difficulty. Climbing away the fog became patchy at about 700 feet. I was synchronising the two starboard engines when I noticed the aircraft was turning to port and saw the captain looking over the side, probably trying to find the railway line that ran along the western side of the harbour — while doing so the air craft was turning to port towards the high ground. Remembering how it was dinned into us at the SFTS to trust our instruments and never to look over the side in poor visibilityI pointed out to him that we were turning, but apparently the damage was already done.
The fog became a little patchy and in so doing it saved our lives. Suddenly, we saw we were losing height even though our instruments showed we were climbing. Obviously, the ground was coming up to meet us faster than we could climb. So, full power, turn to starboard away from the high ground. We might have made it except for one tall palm tree, which emerged from the mist just before we slammed into it with the No. 4 engine.
The fire was instantaneous and beyond any response from our own extinguisher system. We were at full power with the other three engines tearing through the small trees and taller bushes until a larger tree emerged from the mist. This tree stopped us almost immediately slewing us around to come to a halt. I had released my seat belt a little earlier and I was thrown sideways out of my seat to finish up on my back on the floor beside the navigation table. A lot of nasty flames were over my head coming out of the wing by the flight engineers seat — he had already escaped a moment or two earlier, down to the lower deck.
I cautiously moved to see if I had any broken bones and, having found that I was fit and able to move, I wriggled on my back up to the throttle quadrant where I found that No2 engine was still at full throttle. I shut it down and the propeller slowed down just before one of our signallers was about to run down the nacelle to jump off! I reached for the small cockpit window and, I have no idea how I did it, pulled myself through it to escape. On the ground I found I was un-injured except for a lot of scratches because I landed in a large thorn bush!! A quick look around showed no injured lying about and the intensity of the fire and the proximity of the depth charges persuaded me run for cover! Avoiding the smashed up port mainplane I made my way to a fringe of bushes and small trees which were still intact and were offering some shelter. I found the captain and three other crew members there and noted that the small shelter had a shallow depression which would offer additional cover when the depth charges exploded.
The Captain had a very serious eye injury and he was clearly in some distress. His left eye had come out of its socket but appeared to be still attached to all its vital parts. Fortunately, I had a large white handkerchief, newly laundered, and we managed to replace his eye well enough to support it by using the handkerchief as a bandage. It then occurred to us that some one might have jumped off the aircraft — it was a good height to jump– and be lying nearby. One of the crew came with me but there was no way we could get close enough to locate anyone — 2300 gallons of 100 octane certainly make a good fire! We returned to the shelter and took stock. The Captains bandage seemed to be keeping in place (and in fact lasted until we were able to make it to the medical chaps) but at that stage it was the turn of the Verey cartridges to put on their display. Reds and Greens in abundance and in the misty fog they struck some colours that gave an eerie feel; so much so that one of the lads said quite seriously “we are not alive you know we are in hell." I said to him “ Well look out for that snake that's about to slide over your leg”. He moved very quickly and we all had a laugh which served to lighten the gloom a little.
Before we could make a move we had to wait for the depth charges to explode. It was not too long to wait with a massive, deafening, explosion. Bits and pieces shooting over our heads and into the trees behind us; no fire thankfully and then blessed silence. Nobody hurt and all we had to do was to concentrate on getting down the mountainside. We took it in turns to take the Captain–one on either side of him as the ground was pretty uneven – and, of course, steep. the bushes were very prickly and every now and then extra help had to be given to get over some of the trickier bits. However, we safely negotiated the hillside and came to the road which ran from Freetown to the countryside, the Navy and Army units and our own station at Jui (NE of Freetown – and the slipways and hardstandings are still visible on Google. Ed.). Not before long an Army lorry came along and, of course, stopped and gave us all the help possible. We duly arrived at Jui and were directed immediately to the sick quarters where the M.O. quickly made arrangements for our Captain to be sent to the military Hospital in Freetown. After we had had all our scratches liberally washed with the right stuff we were told to go to the to the Officers' mess. This was right next to Sick Quarters and the Station Commander, who was a South African and keen to get everyone's views as to what had happened, was there waiting to see us. We were all, N.C.O.'s as well, given a welcoming drink. Then, the navigator and his party came in — they, having got out from the rear door, sensibly moved up the hill rather than join us thus keeping well away from the burning aircraft.
Well, the long and the short of it was that we were all given a groundnut curry lunch, told to have the next day off and to report for duty the day after that. (No sign of PTSD and counselling in those days then! DAW) After being re-crewed most of us were airborne again the next day as if nothing has happened.
Life continued pretty routinely (well what passed as routine for war-time aircrew) for the rest of my tour. I left 95 Sqn in November 1943 and then went as an instructor at the G.R. school at Squires Gate but fortunately that lasted only a few weeks before I was posted to the Ferry Training Unit at Oban where we checked out all the crews ferrying and, in most cases, Joining Boat squadrons overseas. In October 1944 I was posted to No, 10 Squadron RAAF at Plymouth and was the Flight Commander until the war ended.
Returning to my first career, the legal profession, I quickly found out that I preferred Flying. I had my Civil Licence but by then the Russians started to look a bit aggressive and so I packed up the family and returned to the U.K. On joining the RAF I was off to Pembroke Dock the very next day and, a few days later, became flight commander on the great No.230 Sqn. In 1952 I couldn't avoid Staff College and then between 1953 and 1954 served in 12 Group. Finally from 1956 to disbandment it was back to 230 again – this time in possibly the best job going; in command. I finished my RAF career with what turned out to be a fascinating four years in the MOD then took, and was fortunate enough to pass, the open exam to the Civil Service side which gave me some great times in the Secretariats and finally in Cyprus.
All in all a great life in harness – and the remainder has not been too bad either!! In fact there might be one or two more tales to be told…………….