John Umbers - WOp/AG
In the beginning it appeared to be just another night operation over the Balkans from a snow covered airfield in Southern Italy which had originally been a ploughed field.
But once over the Adriatic the starboard engine gave trouble and I believe we turned back for a while. However, the engine picked up again and in the classic phrase we pressed on towards our target, the marshalling yard at Salonica (now Thessaloniki) in Greece.
All seemed to be going satisfactorily when suddenly, as we approached the target area, the port engine cut completely out and refuse to start again. The bombs were jettisoned and the aircraft made a rapid descent to a lower altitude. On only one engine the Wellington was unable to maintain sufficient height to clear the high ground between us and our base in Italy.
It was then that I heard over the intercom the spine-chilling words Prepare to abandon aircraft. I took up my position complete with parachute, by the rear escape hatch feeling really depressed. It was perishing cold, we had no warm flying clothing and we were over German occupied Greece in the middle of January 1944. I was also bothered by the fact that I was unable to fasten one of the leg straps of my parachute harness into the quick release component. No doubt it was suffering from sand packed up when we were operating from North Africa earlier. However, I reminded myself that I had read that a one leg strap could be enough to support a body so I was not too worried and never mentioned it to the others.
Fortunately the Navigator, who was the Navigation Leader on the Squadron, suggested that we should try and make our way to Turkey which was neutral. This suggestion was welcomed all round. Though he didnt have maps covering the whole route the Navigator thought we should be able to judge when we had crossed the boundary between Greece and Turkey. The Captain agreed to this and we set off eastwards towards Thrace in European Turkey.
The Captain then asked me to send a message back to the Squadron to the effect that we were making for Turkey on one engine and would see them soon. This proved to be easier said than done as owing to our low altitude and the fact that the engine driven generator was in the dud port engine the Squadron had great difficulty in picking up my weak wireless signals. But eventually, after repeating the message many times, I was grateful to receive an AR (message received). I later learned that in the morning it was common knowledge on 150 Squadron that we were heading for Turkey on one engine but of course they didnt know whether we would make it safely to Turkey. In fact our aircraft was I believe the only one at that period to get a message back to the Squadron when in trouble.
By this time there were oil fumes in the aircraft from the starboard engine which was overheating and I took turns with the Navigation Leader and Bombing Leader in operating the quite small and fiddly oil pump located in a somewhat inaccessible position behind the main spar. Soon the fuselage was filling up with oil fumes and we were furiously operating the oil pump in the hope of keeping the starboard engine going.
It must have been about two hours later when daylight arrived that the Navigator reckoned we should be across the Greek border and now over Turkish territory. Once again the Captain suggested we bail out but the general consensus of opinion amongst the rest of us was that we would rather stay with the aircraft if he would have a shot at landing it. The Captain agreed to this though I understand that his Sutton harness could not be secured properly and he apparently just put one arm across the front edge of the cockpit and operated the control column with the other arm.
In the event the pilot made a brilliant belly landing on the beach in Gallipoli, Turkey. The aircraft slid along the beach and came to rest in an upright position. We had taken up our crash landing positions, the Navigator on his chart table, the Bomb Aimer on the bed, the Rear Gunner in his turret turned side ways and me sitting on the floor with my back against the communicating door to the pilots compartment and arrived on Turkish soil quite unharmed.
Except for the Rear Gunner who had his own escape route we all scrambled out as quickly as possible through the pilots overhead escape hatch and slid down the wing to the ground. I think none of us would have been surprised if the aircraft had blown itself up what with all the hot oil and petrol around
There was then silence except for the sound of petrol dripping down on to the sand. Once on the ground we realised how cold it was. There was a chilling wind which felt as if it had come straight from Siberia and we only had the usual battledress and our Mae Wests. An attempt was made to set fire to the aircraft. A Mae West was soaked in petrol, thrown on the fabric covered wing and ignited. It made quite a brave show burning away but the wind was so fierce that it blew the flames out before much damage was done to the aircraft. I have a clear recollection of the Bombing Leader mourning the loss of his operational hat, a beautiful faded and corroded article as a result of the North African sun which had just disappeared with the bomb aimers compartment into the sand together with the aircraft bomb bays.
We then moved away from the Wellington in case it decided to be contrary and blow itself up. Some land workers came over, shook hands and to our relief said Turkeye! Turkeye! They kindly made a fire for us of brush wood.
At this stage the question of the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) came up and we realised that it could still be intact in the aircraft. I had always wanted to press those two buttons which activated the detonator in the set so I made my way back to the aircraft. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that a person in uniform had now joined our party. He turned out to be a Major in the Turkish Military Police.
I managed to get back into the Wellington and was most relieved to hear the IFF at the back of the aircraft blow itself up with a satisfying bang when I pressed the two buttons. I then thought it would be as well (a bit pathetic I agree) to tear up my message pad and had just done this when the Turkish Major joined me in the aircraft. He didnt seem to approve of my actions but didnt say anything (he couldnt speak English) and we walked back together to the rest of the crew.
The Major made sure that we were not armed and then indicated that we should follow him. We had a six mile hike over rough ground and patches of snow to what appeared to be a school. There we were interrogated together and gave our name, rank and number in the approved manner but nothing else. We were given a good meal of bread and cheese and some substitute tea in small glasses without milk but with sugar. (Turkey was unable to import tea from India at that time because of the war.)
By this time we were all feeling tired so it was a relief when the Turks laid some blankets on the floor and we were invited to lie down together and get some sleep. This is the only time that I have slept with a Group Captain, a Navigation Leader and a Bombing Leader!!
Next day the aspect outside was pretty bleak with snow still on the ground, but a breakfast of eggs made things seem much better. The Turks produced an Army Great coat for each of us and we wore our flying helmets.
Then a horse and rather primitive cart with hay on it appeared and we all lay down on the hay to get some shelter from the bitter wind. We made some slow and steady progress until the horse broke loose and had to be rounded up again. It was bitterly cold and Ill never forget the icicles hanging from the horses nostrils.
At about 4.30 p.m. we stopped for a meal at a small military outpost in the middle of nowhere. A further wagon with what appeared to be a cotton hood was produced and we started off again. The general terrain was very rough; there were no roads to be seen and the Major travelled in a separate cart. The horses and carts had quite a hard time and, in fact, one of the wheels of our wagon came off and we had to continue the journey on foot.
Before long we reached a Turkish Army Cavalry establishment in the Kesan area of Thrace and we were welcomed by the local Mayor. We were given an excellent meal with plenty of drinks including the local raki. Many of the officers spoke good English so there was plenty of conversation at the table and the whole atmosphere was very convivial. I remember the officer I was speaking to was clearly very impressed by the exploits of the German parachute troops in taking the island of Crete. I have since read however that because of the very heavy losses they sustained at Crete Hitler forbade the use of German parachutists again.
I recollect the Turkish Officers saying to us that you must eat when you drink and they were forever pressing nuts on us at the table. It was a jolly evening and in the event it was the Turkish Officers who let themselves go and entertained us by doing a dance together which bore some resemblance to a Highland Sword Dance.
That night we were given comfortable beds in the Officers Mess and in the morning we enjoyed the luxury of our first shave since leaving Italy.
After a meal the officers gave us an effusive send off and we went by bus to a railway station. There tables had been set out in the main hall and we were given a farewell dinner with more raki before setting off on the night train to Istanbul, accompanied by the Major and an officer cadet of the Turkish Military Police. On the journey the young officer cadet frequently plied us with more nuts like we had had the night before.
On arrival at Istanbul some formalities were completed and then the Major gave us a conducted tour of the city in a taxi. This included the famous St Sophia mosque and the Bosphorus.
Later we caught the train to Ankara. Once in Ankara it was a case of a taxi to the British Embassy as we were not allowed out in uniform. At the Embassy we were fitted out with civilian clothes of quite reasonable quality rather similar to the utility suits that were issued when leaving the forces.
Having got our civilian clothes we were taken by taxi to the Yeni (New) Hotel where we were handed over to the resident military police. We were locked in at night but allowed out on parole during the day. We were also allowed an occasional late pass till one or two in the morning and could thus sample a bit of the night life which didnt seem to start until about one a.m. in the morning.
Once settled in the Yeni hotel we were soon on good terms with the other residents. These included Americans who had been on the raid to bomb the oil wells at Ploesti in Romania, a Spitfire pilot from Cyprus, a South African Air Force Marauder pilot, and a Russian light bomber pilot.
There was also a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109 pilot who had served in a flak unit Spain in 1936, then trained as a pilot, serving in Poland in 1939, France in 1940 and, after operating on the Eastern Front in Russia had decided that he had had enough and flew his Messerschmitt to Turkey. While we got some pay from the Air Ministry and some from the Turks he had to exist on the pay from the Turks alone. Though invited out by one of the British residents he would not venture out because it would mean passing the German Embassy and he was afraid of being caught by them.
During our stay in the Yeni hotel we were joined by the crew of a South African Air Force Hudson aircraft two of whom had come down successfully on one parachute! And also by an RAF Torpedo Wellington crew who had been stalking some German surface vessels. What from the ASV (Air to Surface Vessel Radar) they had thought to be a nice fat German merchantman with escort turned out to be a German cruiser and they were literally blown out of the sky.
Fortunately the pilot made a very fine job of ditching the aircraft and all the crew managed to clamber out before it sank. They were not far from the Turkish shore and managed to paddle their dinghy to the beach where they were treated as shipwrecked mariners. On that basis they were allowed to pass straight through Turkey and back to the RAF in contrast to the rest of us who were kept for three months or longer.
We lived well in Ankara with two good meals a day in the best restaurant in the town run by a White Russian called Papa KarpiÁ. We could also be served with chi (tea) and an omelette together with bottled beer at most times of the day in the Yeni hotel but funds did not often permit this.
One evening a party of Germans entered the restaurant and took their places some distance from us. Included in the group was Von Papen, the wily German Ambassador to Turkey at that time. Needless to say we all behaved very correctly and there were no incidents.
In the end it was a case of being cleared by the Turks to return to the RAF. I travelled from Ankara with the SAAF Hudson pilot on the night Taurus express to Aleppo in Syria where there was a RAF station that put us up for the night.
Next day we hitched an airlift to Tel Aviv in Palestine where we also stayed the night. On the following day we hitched a lift in an American Army Air Corps plane to Payne Field in Cairo where we parted.
I made my way to the RAF Transit camp in Cairo. I was still in civilian clothes with no identity papers and my welcome back to the RAF in the clothing store there took the form of the words Another bloody Palestinian. I then knew that I was back in the RAF!
I would very much like to share memories with other members of the crew but have so far been unable to trace them.
Wimpeys struck at night - and contributed to Italy's capitualtion
An Air Ministry press release provided by John for first publication Saturday's evenings and local papers, Sep 18th (1943): -
The magnificent work of Wellington crews who made repeated night raids on Italy - and thus contributed substantially to her capitulation - prompted Major General James H Doolittle recently to send this special, message of congratulation to Wellington Squadrons of the StrategicAir Force in North Africa, describing the operations of the RAF and RCAF Squadrons operating he said;-
"Their excellent record is going to be to be difficult for any organization in our Allied forces to duplicate..... Night after night Wellingtons have taken off from their base with almost bus schedule regularity to seek targets on the Italian mainland. They have attacked communications from the North of Rome to the toe of Italy. Each night they have sorted out and bombed marshalling yards, yards, rail and road junctions, bridges and airfields and kept the pressure of Allied attacks on Axis supply lines at top pitch. British and Canadian night bombers switched to new targets as soon as Reconnaissance photos confirmed the links in the enemy chanin of transport had been smashed. The destruction of bridges, temporary bridges, and diversion routes required bombing of a high standard. Nowhere would the news of Italy's capitulation be received with more joy than the Wellington base shown in these pictures.*
* not now available
Sgt J Umbers, of Coulsdon, Surrey, the Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in a Wellington crew: source John Umbers
John Umbers, 2002: source John Umbers
Links & Notes
The late Len Norris, chairman of the Branch, also served in 150 Squadron as a WOp/AG.
page last updated 15 March 2012: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010