One learnt to be philosophical during war service. Many times you could remark that was lucky, if it was not for that thing happening, we would have bought it. Consequently in the back of your mind there was belief in a Guardian Angel, or If a bullet had your name on it! An optimistic attitude of inevitability.
It was 1943, Sunday 6th June. Stationed in Palestine (now Israel) we were flying nightfighter Beaufighters. A formidable aircraft with four 20 mm cannons in the nose and six 0.303 machine guns in the wings. It was still daylight when we were scrambled. I was the navigator, ground control vectored us to a position fifty to sixty miles off Haifa and instructed us to climb to angels eight. This indicated a bandit at 8000 feet, so we climbed to nine thousand feet to get the advantage of attack.
When in position we circled around. The weather was fine, there was ten-tenths cumulus at six thousand feet, a beautiful carpet of pure white cloud below us, blue sky above, we could see for miles but no sign of any other aircraft.
Ground control came back to us insisting angels eight. After cruising around for ten or twelve minutes we were considering returning back to base when a small hole broke in the cloud below us and, as I watched looking through it, framed an aircraft far down below almost at sea level.
I yelled instructions to the pilot over the intercom and we dived down through the cloud as steeply as possible. A Beaufighter was deemed to be dangerous over 400 mph before we pulled out just above sea level and directly in front of the bandit.
It was an Italian Cant Z 1007. A large four engined aircraft heavily armed with front, upper, and rear turrets. We were a sitting target but to our surprise no attack came, they must have been asleep! We did a sharp turn to starboard round to the rear and made an attack across the aircraft. But we had not lost our initial speed and were travelling at least three times his velocity, so as we passed over to the front we were subjected to a withering and accurate hail of fire.
We wheeled around and attacked again, bullets coming like hail through the fuselage, and, as we repeated the run for a third time, we saw his starboard engines burst into flames. The aircraft then dipped sharply to the right, lost what little height he had and crashed into the sea. We circled around for about ten minutes but, apart from a bit of wreckage, we could see no bodies or signs of life.
We had not come out of the fight unscathed. We had lost all the electrics, with no radio, radar or intercom. I could not speak to the pilot and most of the instruments were dead.
I worked out a course to get back to base and then had to crawl across the top of the cannon shell containers, a space of about twenty inches, to the top of the fuselage and hand a piece of paper to the pilot with the course and ETA written on it.
We got back to the aerodrome and landed, taxied up to the flight hut and switched off. The entrance to a Beaufighter was by a hinged door underneath the aircraft with steps built into it and, as I climbed down, I was met with a sea of black oil. As I hesitated a member of the ground crew paddled over in wellington boots and gave me a pick-a-back to the other side of the oil lake.
The pilot and myself went in to be debriefed and report on the sortie. Afterwards we went out to ascertain the damage to our aircraft and the reasons for the oil lake. The engine fitter had already found the cause, he produced a piece of one inch copper pipe with a small hole in the side, also the steel core of an armour piercing shell. He explained that the bullet had pierced the main oil pipe to the engine, and had then stuck effectively sealing the hole it had made. When we landed it jolted free and all the oil just pumped out. If this had happened during our flight we would have joined our victims beneath the sea.
However our guardian angel did not finish there, shortly after the armourer came along and he remarked You were lucky Sir, an explosive shell went into the machine gun belt tank in the wing but it failed to explode, only jammed the gun.
Two more Cant Z 1007s were shot down later that day by Hurricanes. It was rumoured that these were being flown by German crews as about three months later Italy capitulated.
I still have the steel core of that armour piercing bullet to remind me of the lives that were lost that day, and to ruminate on the point, does one have a guardian angel or is it just pure luck?
Links and Notes
Bristol Beaufighter http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Beaufighter
Cant Z 1007 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CANT_Z.1007