6th NOVEMBER 1944
Eric W Hookings - Pilot
The anticipated breakfast of bacon and eggs were thoroughly enjoyed before leaving the mess to climb aboard our Lancaster bomber PG619, at around 16.30 hours on 6th November 1944, but not one of us quite imagined that it would, for four of us, be over eight months before we would be tasting bacon and eggs again.
Our destination on that fateful night was to be Dortmund-Ems canal, a known lock on a tributary of the Rhine, through which ships of the German Merchant Navy had to pass, carrying supplies to the factories situated along the Ruhr. The next two and a half hours were strictly routine, we were on course, the weather was predicted as being clear over our target and the seven crew aboard were vigilant in their observations.
Suddenly, from the rear gunner Alec Norris, the twenty year old from Birmingham who always seemed to be laughing and joking, came the shout Port Go Skipper, Port Go! and I knew we had an unwelcome visitor. My immediate reaction was to put the plane into an evasive corkscrew.
The staccato of guns firing from the rear and upper turrets ceased when Alec called some three minutes later Ive got him Skipper, Ive got him! and relief was unmistakable as we were able to resume our planned course, for the fear of collision with our colleagues, when flying in close formation on night exercises, was as extensive as being shot down.
Our relief was very short lived for shortly after making the normal checks for everyones safety and that no major damage had occurred, our world was shattered by high explosive cannon shells ripping through the underside of the aircraft obviously an attack from a second plane, for they were renowned for hunting in pairs.
The port engine was on fire and in spite of our attempts to extinguish the flames, we were helpless. The centre of the aircraft was now well ablaze and the port aileron was badly damaged which made the plane very difficult to control and we slowly began a dive to port.
Mindful of my crews safety and the gravity of the situation which, with a full bomb load was primarily explosion, I gave the order to the whole crew JUMP JUMP JUMP.
With the centre of the plane now an inferno, there was no other way out for the four members of the crew at the front, the engineer, bomb aimer, navigator and myself, other than through the small escape hatch situated down in front of the engineers seat.
Our frantic efforts to open the hatch fastening were hampered by the slip stream and I realised we were trapped. I yelled to John Tait, the engineer Get the axe and smash the hatch before turning to try to regain some control and hold up the nose of the plane to give those extra seconds to those trying desperately to battle the way out.
Miraculously the hatch flew open and we each plunged into oblivion.
Whether it was the stench of the cordite, fear, the tumbling action of falling or those wonderful eggs and bacon, I do not know, but I was so sick on the way down, a fact that I did not register until reaching the ground.
It was some time before I realised that my feet were not on the ground, although I had stopped falling and in that pitch blackness, I gradually came to my senses and realised that I was hanging from some sort of tree.
Training came to the fore through my intense fear and worries for the rest of my crew. Had they all got out? Had I acted correctly? How would my parents know I was still alive when the plane did not return and what was I going to do next? I remained inactive to collate my thoughts.
After about twenty minutes, I heard someone approaching and to my amazement realised they were whistling an English tune one that John Tate was always whistling and my relief knew no bounds when I discovered it was him. He helped me down from the tree and we bundled up and disposed of my parachute. To have a comrade, restored my confidence and within minutes I had resumed leadership and we were planning what to do.
The first thing to do was to remove from our uniforms all signs of rank and any items that related to our involvement with the RAF. The battledress of the RAF was very similar to that worn by those unfortunates who made up the ranks of enforced labour and we thought, by making our pristine uniforms dirty, we may be mistaken for one of them.
It was bitterly cold and I was dismayed to realise I had left my Irvine Flying Jacket in the plane which by now was God knew where and my survival kit which was tucked inside my flying boots had been lost when I tumbled around after bailing out of the aircraft.
Not knowing exactly where we were, I was grateful to John when he produced from his survival kit, a compass that was still functioning and I decided that our best plan was to walk due west toward what I hoped would be our advancing front lines.
Around 9.00 p.m., the heavens opened and steady heavy rain threatened to soak us through so that shelter became essential for we had not protective clothing. We discovered an isolated barn and gladly crept inside to try to obtain protection from the weather and make the most of the opportunity to try to get some sleep.
I was wakened from sleep by the creaking of the barn door opening and was startled to discover a dark shadow in the doorway. Fearful of discovery, I put my hand over Johns mouth and whispered for him to not utter a sound but the creature decided to find himself a niche in the rear of the barn.
About twenty minutes elapsed before John and I crept out of that barn to continue our way, but to this day I have no idea who our dead of night visitor was, could it have been a tramp or an escaping prisoner or even could it have been a member of my crew? I shall never know, for fear of capture was my prime consternation.
With the onset of daylight, it was obvious that we had to be pretty inconspicuous, so we journeyed through fields and hedges. Eventually we reached an autobahn which took a considerable time to cross because of the continuing steam of German military vehicles travelling along its route.
To have crossed this autobahn proved not to be entirely to our advantage for a shout from John made me realise that we were both knee deep in a bog! It took us what seemed hours to extricate ourselves and find another route westwards, a route that was to take us through hamlets and villages.
A plank of wood gave us our passport toward our longed for freedom and heaving it upon our shoulders we proceeded to dourly trudge along the road through the first village, looking for all the world like a couple of those pitiable enforced labourers.
We alternately trudged and rested, carrying our plank of wood, searching for something to eat, to no avail for the next two days. As night fell on the third evening, we found ourselves walking through a village and, passing what may be termed as the Village Hall we were terrified when the double doors opened and a stream of around eighty German soldiers spewed out into the street.
It was our good fortune that they had left a well lit hall and progressed into darkness which restricted their vision considerably. They all seemed very young and were deep in conversation to an extent that they never noticed the two dirty labourers that were trudging along less than an arms length away from them.
For John and I it was not only our uniforms that were dirty, but spare underpants were not a luxury that we carried with us. By this time, with all Johns emergency rations gone, we were ravenously hungry and feeling pretty low.
Confronted by a long straight gravel road we could see, in the distance, flashing lights which we could only presume to be fighting and this encouraged us to go on. In our wisdom of travelling at night to avoid being seen too much during the day, it was around 3 oclock in the morning when I heard voices ahead and I panicked and reacted by grabbing John and leaped into the roadside hedge.
The combination of gravel road and crackling winter hedgerows made enough noise to alert anyone and two German soldiers on foot patrol who had gone behind this particular hedge to have a cigarette caught us redhanded and we were captured and marched at rifle point to a nearby unit headquarters and placed in cages.
Although treated with the utmost courtesy at this stage, we were none the less very degraded and this was compounded even more next day when, upon being moved we discovered we had walked into Holland and our place of capture was just outside Enschede on the German/Holland border.
Links & Notes
6-7 Nov 1944
619 Sqn Lancaster III LM742 PG-S Op: Gravenhorst
F/O EW Hookings pow Stalag Luft III, pow no. 8813*
Sgt HJH Tait pow Stalag Luft VII pow no. 1212
F/L L Croney pow Stalag Luft VII pow no. 1231
Sgt RG Walters pow Stalag Luft VII pow no. 1215: escaped from forced march 20/1/45. To UK via Odessa
F/S RB Templeton RAAF +
Sgt AC Norris +
Sgt EF Wood +
T/o 1629 Strubby. To attack the Dortmund-Ems and Mittleland Kanal systems near Gravenhorst. Those who died are now at rest in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery.
RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, 1944 (WR Chorley, Midland Counties Publications, 1997): page 480
Footprints on the Sands of Time: RAF Prisoners of War in Germany 1939-45: Appendix I (Oliver Clutton-Brock, Grub Street, 2003)
* Eric's camp and pow no. were not listed by Clutton-Brock or Chorley, he has provided by them.
The Canal Raids 1940-45 http://www.bomberhistory.co.uk/Canal%20raids/Index.html
Dortmund-Ems canal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dortmund-Ems_Canal
page last updated 15 July 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010