Wounded in Action
In early 1944, Dad went from flying training to his first combat posting in North Africa, where he converted to the Lockheed-Martin B26 Marauder and did a bit of submarine spotting.
The Marauder, an extremely tough twin-engined light bomber, was known as the "widow-maker" when it first came into service. It had an extremely high full flap stall speed (landing speed) of around 170 knots, and the result was that many a crew returning from a raid lost control on landing, and were splattered all over the runway.
But in spite of this, it became a very much loved aircraft because of its almost supernatural ability to take a phenomenal pounding and stay in the air. I have no doubt that I owe the fact of my existence to a combination of this aircraft's legendary toughness and Dad's magical ability to fly anything that vaguely resembled an aircraft, even when all the laws of physics said it should have fallen out of the sky like, well, a brick aeroplane.
By the time Dad got to North Africa, in early 1944, El Alamein was over, Rommel was defeated, and the invasion of Southern Europe was well under way, setting the scene for the successful Normandy invasion in June. Sicily was taken, and Allied forces were moving into Italy - the deadliest campaign in the Western Theatre of Operations. The Germans were on the back foot, having famously made the bog-standard strategic error of invading Russia in winter (this is on a par with invading Afghanistan, which is vertical - I really would have expected the RAF to know better even if the Yanks thought it was viable). But the Germans were not yet defeated, and the fighting was brutal, and the casualty toll horrific. Every yard gained in Italy cost far too many lives, but slowly the Allies inched their way North.
General Mark Clark and the US 5th Army bogged down in several places, most notably Monte Cassino and Anzio, on their push up the Western half of Italy, and lost a lot of men as a result. Field-Marshall Sir Bernard "Monty" Montgomery, a far superior tactician fresh from his successful desert campaign, led the British 8th Army and the Commonwealth forces, including SAAF 12 Squadron, relatively briskly up the Adriatic coast; but that should not be taken to mean that it was in any way an easy campaign, and for logistical reasons they could not get too far ahead of Clark. At that point the war could have gone either way, it was the German's last chance, and so Italy saw some of the most ferocious battles of the war. And the South African Air Force, including Dad, aged just 20, was in the thick of it.
Day in, day out, they flew, raid after relentless bombing raid, usually two a day, sometimes with Spitfire cover, sometimes without, often against heavy anti-aircraft fire, often aiming for tactically important targets in the heart of German-held territory, scoring an eventual 21 bulls over the course of the campaign.
The front was a rolling offensive front. There were no airfields and hangars. The SAAF lived in tents or temporary billets, parked their aircraft in the fields, and took off from pressed steel plate runways.
The bombers were sent in first to pound areas held by the Germans, and try to take out the strongest defenses and critical supply installations - bridges, fuel dumps, arsenals.
Thereafter the artillery would be moved up to the existing front and pound the nearest German positions, and after that the Infantry would go in and the ground battle would commence. If the Germans were beaten and pushed back, the line would move forward. The engineers would be moved up to the new front to lay phone lines, get the runways laid down, make sure roads were in place for logistics and supply, and then the tents would be struck, the runways at the previous encampment rolled up and loaded onto lorries, and the entire camp would move forward.
For the bomber crews (and everyone else) it meant that very often they would be pitching camp in an area they had been bombing a week or two ago. More often than not, the carnage had not been cleaned up yet as the Italians were trapped between two armies and could do little. So the bomber crews saw what they had wrought; smashed houses, mangled and rotting corpses, horribly injured people, missing limbs, the ruined, the maimed, the dead. They were sickened and horrified; but they had to fight on. By that stage of the war, everyone knew what Hitler was, and what he would do if he won. He had to be defeated, no matter what the cost.
An acquaintance of mine from McGregor told me that her father had been in the South African Air Force, I think as bomber air crew as well, and had been posted to Italy. The first time this happened, and he saw what the bombers had done, he had some sort of breakdown, refused to fly again, and had to be given a desk job.
She seemed quite proud of this; and perhaps he was in some way a better, finer, kinder person than the young men like Dad, who stuck to their dreadful work and fought on. Or perhaps her father was just weak. I am not in a position to judge.
This much I can say, though; I think Dad and his fellows would have had harsh words for today's young bomber and helicopter pilots, who play video games from their cockpits, safe at 30 000 ft and many miles away, who take their massive war machines up to fight an invented enemy with little or no military capability, whose civilian kill rate has risen horribly, who think it is a game, who giggle while they press the fire button.
And they would have had much, much harsher words for the senior officers and politicians who send these boys out to fight unequal, unfair wars and tell them they are defending their country.
Dad and his fellows understood, as today's soldiers all too often do not, that war is so horrific that it can only be a last resort. They understood these words from Wilfred Owen's searing WWI poem:
"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori."
On the morning of 14 July 1944, shortly after 9am, SAAF 12 Squadron took off for Prato on a bombing raid. Dad and crew were in Marauder Z: 1st Pilot Parsons, 2nd Pilot Barnard (Dad), Navigator le Grange, two gunners and a bombardier: Warrant Officers Rodgers, Lees and Zerff. They had 8 Spitfires escorting what would probably have been 12 or 18 bombers - an unequal fight in the making. The anti-aircraft fire was heavy and accurate, and the plane started to take punishment.
Dad's log book is terse:
July 14 Marauder (no) Z, 1st Pilot Lt Parsons, 2nd Pilot self, crew Lt Lagrange, W.O. Rodgers, W.O. Lees, W.O. Zerff
Raid 46 Rly Y.D.S Prato Italy Posn 2a, Form 12, Escort 8
Spits, flak intense, very acc., broke away from box, self wounded.
Gunners baled out. Surmise tail gunner wounded, back of a/c spattered with blood.
Navigator slightly wounded in leg. Bombs dropped in sea. Returned to base singly. Successful landing.
He told me about being wounded ("shrapnel up the arse" was how he put it) - he had a large scar at the base of one buttock for the rest of his life, but it was a flesh wound and he was flying again in two weeks. He never said a word to me about the gunners, though.
The thing that seemed to fascinate him the most was the number of shrapnel holes in the aircraft - 464 if I remember correctly, but in any event it was well over 400. The fuselage, he said, was like a spiderweb, with more holes than skin. Why the aircraft continued to fly was a mystery (although it was successfully repaired and finished the war.)
My Uncle Philip, Dad's youngest brother, was too young for WWII, but after the war, he followed Dad into the RAF as soon as he was old enough, and became a fighter pilot. After Dad's funeral, this is the story he told me. I had never heard it before:
According to Uncle Phil, the aircraft was so badly damaged that they were convinced they were about to crash, and the 1st Pilot had given the order to bail out (and according to the log it’s clear that the other gunners had already jumped). They had already ditched their bombs and were struggling to keep the aircraft in the air. The wounded tail gunner was unable to move, & Uncle Phil told me that Dad, bleeding profusely from the shrapnel wound, stumbled to the rear of the aircraft, pulled the tail gunner forward to the bomb doors, which were open, threw him out, and pulled his ripcord as he fell. The parachute opened, but they were flying over a German machine gun emplacement at the time, and the machine gunner shot the parachute out of the air.
Dad and Parsons, appalled, decided to take their chances with the crippled aircraft, and barely managed to limp back to base, with le Grange, the navigator, the only other crew member who was still on board.
Is it true? I suspect so. Uncle Philip was capable of being the most dreadful bullshitter, but not about Dad, who was his anchor and lodestar, and not about the Air Force. Dad's old friend Frik Linde from IBM also says he remembers being told the story, late one night in the IBM pub when most people had already left. But no-one else ever heard the story, not even Jock, who didn't even know that Dad had been wounded.
Thanks to a wonderful SAAF researcher, Lt-Colonel Graham du Toit, I was able to get a copy of the ops incident record. According to this, they had already suffered a lot of flak damage when a shell exploded right next to the top gun turret. Had it hit the aircraft, that would have been that, and I would not be here to write this.
The shell destroyed most of the turret and either severely wounded or killed the top gunner; they found his bloodied headphones in the fuselage. The pilots said they had gone onto intercom silence when they broke away from the box to ditch their bombs, and that when they got back, the gunners were gone, so they surmised that they had bailed. Rodgers, the top gunner, was never heard from again. Lees and Zerff made it down safely, were captured, and spent the rest of the war as POWs.
If it happened as Uncle Phil said, why did they keep quiet about it? If it had gone the other way, if Rodgers had made it to the ground and survived, and if the aircraft had crashed with the pilots and navigator still aboard because of them having taken the time to get him out, it would probably have earned the pilots a posthumous DFC if not a VC. So why wasn't it in the incident report?
I think I know. I think they panicked, completely understandably, when the shell hit, and thought the aircraft was finished and they were going in. Dad was 20 and had had his wings for about six months, Parsons was probably not that much older or more experienced. I think Parsons ordered the gunners to bail. I think Lees and Zerff jumped, Rodgers couldn't, and Dad managed to get him out of the aircraft, just as Uncle Phil said. And I think he got shot out of the sky, just as Uncle Phil said, although from the sound of it it wouldn't have made much difference to him.
And then Dad and Parsons managed to fly the aircraft back after all, and arrived safely, minus their gunners.
I don't think it occurred to them that they had been as courageous as it is possible to be. I don't think it occurred to them that they had risked their lives to give Rodgers his only chance, and that it was impossible for them to predict that the aircraft wouldn't in fact crash.
I don't think they realised, either, that flying that aircraft back and landing it may well have been an almost impossible feat of airmanship. I don't know what happened to Parsons after the war, but Dad would go on to become an A-category Master Green C.I.R.E. transport pilot - the highest possible flying and instrument rating awarded in RAF Transport Command - and to spend several years as an RAF Pilot Examiner. He was undoubtedly one of the best military pilots of his generation, and who is to say that his incredible talent didn't play a role in getting them back to base that day?
All they saw was that they had made an error of judgement about the damage to the aircraft, and lost their gunners as a result. All they felt was guilt that they had lost half their crew; and it would have been some time before they found out that Lees and Zerff had been taken prisoner and were safe. So I think they decided to cover up (and if I can track down the descendants of any of the other crew members, I might be able to find out once and for all.) And once they'd done that, and perjured themselves on the official report, they had to keep it quiet.
And why do I think that? Because for the rest of his career, no matter how extreme the danger, Dad flatly refused to fly with a parachute. He would, he said, take his chances with the aircraft any day.
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