I Was There! - We Were 8˝ Days in Our Rubber Dinghy

The War Illustrated, Volume 5, No. 103, Page 71, August 22, 1941.

At 2:30 in the morning of July 1st an aircraft of the Bomber Command came down in the sea; at 12:30pm on July 9th the crew – all sergeants – were picked up by a rescue launch. The story of how they survived their 8˝ days' ordeal is told here by the pilot.

Engine trouble caused the bomber to turn back from a raid on Germany. The pilot hoped to reach the English Coast, but was forced to come down in the sea. He said:

When the bomber hit the water the dinghy was automatically released and the crew got out on to the wing and clambered into it. The bomber sank. We thought that we were only about 12 or 20 miles out from the English coast. Actually we were much farther out, and in a minefield! If we had known that, I don't think we should have been quite as happy as we were. We arranged ourselves in the dinghy as comfortably as possible and just sat there waiting for something to turn up. The wireless operator had sent out an SOS, but it was not received.

All we had in the way of signalling equipment were two distress flares. We had no compass. We had a few boiled sweets, a tin of food tablets, a few ounces of concentrated chocolate, about a pint of water and a small bottle of rum. We thought it would be only a few hours before we were picked up. About half an hour later a bomber passed overhead on its way back to England. We tried to attract attention but the distress flare failed to work. Occasionally, too far away or too high to be seen from the dinghy, other aircraft could be heard returning. Daybreak came, but the day passed without any sign of rescue. We dried our clothes and stripped our parachute harnesses of all metal to make them lighter. At night we lay packed uncomfortably in the bottom of the dinghy. We had ripped up the wireless operators Sidcott suit and spread it over ourselves. We all had bad cramp and no one got any real sleep.

The next day was cloudy and there was a fairly heavy sea. The waves were washing over the side of the dinghy and we had to bale out all the time with a small canvas bag in which our chocolates and tablets had been kept. When night came again we kept two hourly watches, two men at a time.

So the days and nights; went on. We rationed our food and water. The sweets and the tablets lasted about four days. After the second day we didn't feel hungry. What we wanted was water. We began by allowing ourselves a tablespoonful each twice a day and we measured it out in the lids of the tins. I was the official measurer. After three days we cut the water down to a tablespoonful a day and on the seventh day our ration only just wet the bottom of the lid.

We still thought we were not far off the English coast. We saw house-flies and a lot of green flies, and at times we could see white specks in the distance which looked like cliffs. Sometimes we could hear the sound of motorboat engines, and once we heard a noise under the water, which we took to be the engines of a submarine. Soon afterwards there were three violent explosions which seemed to be under the water. On the fourth day we saw three British aircraft coming straight towards us. They were low down over the water and they passed us about 200 yards away. We stood up and waved scarves and handkerchiefs and flashed two mirrors that we had. We thought at first that they must have seen us and were going on to finish a job before they came back to us. But they didn't come back and we knew that they hadn't seen us.

We were all growing beards and had a daily inspection. We made a fishing line about forty feet long, by unravelling a piece of cord from the dinghy and tying the pieces together. Then we made a spinner from a piece of tin. We could see plenty of fish, but none of them would bite. Each day we played about sluicing our heads in the sea and pouring water over each other's neck to cool ourselves off.

One day when we were trying to see who could hold his head under the water longest, the navigator lifted his head out or the water with a terrific shout. "There’s a damn great mine down here" he said. We all had a look. and there it was covered with barnacles, one of those great big circular affairs with knobs on. We began to realize then that we hadn’t seen any ships. Just after we had spotted the mine we saw three motor torpedo-boats coming straight at us, but when they were about two miles off they turned at right angles.

We made up our minds we’d try to paddle towards where we thought the coast was. We started at 11 o’clock one morning, and kept it up till eight that night, working two at a time in half-hour shifts. The next day we had a go at it from eight in the morning till eight in the evening, but we had to keep on taking rests. The day after we tried to paddle through the night also, but our strength was going and we couldn’t. I found then that I couldn’t even stand up in the dinghy. We had to keep pumping the dinghy up with the hand pump, and we were so weak that we couldn’t do more than a dozen strokes at a time. When we saw aircraft passing without seeing us, we kept on saying, "Our luck's bound to change" and each day we expected to find a ship or see the coast at dawn. Each night we could hear our bombers crossing over, and sometimes we saw them returning in the half light before dawn.

On the eighth evening a Hampden escorted by two Hurricanes appeared from the west at 2,000 feet and then turned north almost above us. We all waved, but they did not see us. By now we were out of drinking water and our tongues were beginning to swell and crack. We rinsed out our mouths with seawater but we didn't drink any, I think another two days would have been as much as we could of managed.

At 8.20 in the morning of the ninth day a Hampden came out of the sun at about 2,000 feet and passed us a quarter of a mile away. We waved and flashed our mirrors at it. The Hampden did a half turn, banked, put its nose down, and then we realised that we had been seen. We all joined hands and sang "Auld Lang Syne." The Hampden signalled by Aldis lamp "Help coming." Then it dropped its own dinghy on the water about 30 yards away from us. We paddled over, got the water bottle from the dinghy and shared out the water. Then we hitched the two dinghies together and sat waiting, The Hampden had wirelessed, and it circled round keeping us in sight for four hours. Then two Blenheims came on the scene, followed by two fighters. Soon afterwards we saw a terrific spurt of foam which quickly got nearer and nearer, and then we saw a launch, ''when we got on board we couldn’t walk without help. The boat's crew gave us something to eat and drink, and somebody gave me a cigarette, but I coulnd’t smoke it.

The skipper of the launch said that when he saw the dinghy the sergeants were waving their hands and shouting. When they got on board they each drank about a quart of water. I took them downstairs and suggested they should lie down on the bunks, but they said it wasn't necessary. They stayed in the wardroom for about half an hour and then came on deck and took an interest in what was happening They all wanted tea.

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