RETURNING FROM OPS BY TRAIN
Vernon Thomson DFC - Navigator/Bomb Aimer
My name is Vernon Thomson and my story begins a few weeks after my twenty-first birthday during the summer of 1943. I was flying in a Halifax bomber aircraft from a base in Yorkshire and this was our third operational flight over Germany as a crew. During that mid-summer almost all the flights were to the Rhur we politely called it Happy Valley on the squadron but really had some horrible names for it in our conversations.
We flew into the target area with anti-aircraft shells exploding around when suddenly a blue master searchlight switched straight on [to us] followed by all the slave lights which formed a cone with us at the top. This was our first experience of being coned and looking down searchlight beams from the top end is just like a group of torches being thrust into your face.
The experience is like being caught in the middle of Piccadilly Circus by all car headlights with your trousers down. We corkscrewed, dived and turned to get out of the light but the heavily concentrated artillery had a good target to aim at. The crunch of the bursting shrapnel on the aircraft was like that noise you get when you push a rowing boat on the stoney beach at Brighton. It seemed to last ages but eventually we broke loose and assessed our damage.
One engine was completely dead and a second overheating through loss of coolant. A call-out check on each crew member miraculously revealed no casualties, the aircraft had taken it all. We limped back and across the North Sea. Called for the first airfield to take us in as we crossed the coast with all fuel gauges reading zero. The brakes and flaps operated OK enabling us to make a respectable landing on two and a half engines. We thanked God for landing safely.
The seven crew members were sergeants at the time and so we were dumped on to the uncomfortable chairs in the Sergeants Mess for the rest of the night. We had landed at a training station which promptly supplied us with Third Class railway warrants for York. Any journey across East Anglia in those days was a tiresome one with changes which didnt connect but we finally made it to Peterborough for the main line service.
At Peterborough station we could just count enough coppers between us to share two cups of tea, of course we carried French and Belgian Francs in sealed purses to assist us to escape if we came down but left our English money behind, it could trap us under interrogation.
The train to York was crowded so we jumped into an empty First Class compartment and fell asleep. I must add we were still dressed in our flying suits, with helmets, navigation books, logs, etc. So anybody could know we were on flying duty except the ticket inspector who demanded payment for first class travel.
Our Flight Engineer, always cracking jokes in his Welsh familiar way, offered the inspector French Francs but all we got was a request to move into the guards van or luggage van. The luggage van was empty and we had to squat on the floor that was gratitude from the LNER. However at one end of the van were some boxes which we found contained cherries so we retaliated by eating dozens of these cherries and spitting the stones out on to the floor.
At York the RTO (Railway Transport Officer) arranged transport for us back to base, where we were greeted by our Flight Commander with the words If you had got back sooner I could have put you on again tonight. Did he really mean it or was he just having us on?
Links & Notes
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page last updated 17 Aug 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010