FLYING MEMORIES 9
During August we made numerous attacks against German armour, and as history records, we were mainly responsible for the annihilation of the German armour in the areas around Mortain and Falaise, during which the enemy put up fierce anti aircraft fire to knock down several Tiffys from different squadrons. Cheval Lallemant was promoted to Sqd/Ldr of our sister squadron 609 and we had a Canadian called Vic Kirsh replace him as Flight Commander. Paul Ezanno was shot down, only to return later riding a superb stallion, which our Groupie decided that he being a N.Z. and born in the saddle, would show everyone how to ride. He set off at a cracking pace forgetting that the wire mesh put down as taxiing strip would be as if it were ice for the well shod horse. They reached the mesh after about thirty yards where the Groupie tried to turn the horse along the track, the legs of the horse went always and they both came crashing down with the horse on top of the Group Captain.
Group Captain Scott was seriously injured, smashing up his leg and was lucky not to loose his command of the Airfield. The horse was luckier and got away with only cuts and bruises. Paul who was both upset and annoyed, muttered away in French which only Cheval had a clue what he was saying.
It was at Martragny B 7 where I almost came to a sticky end, a replacement pilot to the squadron was a fellow called John Champion. He and I had trained together in the States, but he had opted to remain as an instructor and became automatically commissioned, he was now an F/Lt and had been detailed to be my No 2 for the next armed recce. We had by this time adopted a method of speeding up getting our aircraft into the air, previously we waited until the dust cleared before you started your take off run, now we began taking off in pairs, with the first pair getting airborne and climbing fast, as soon as the next pair on the end of the runway could see them they would commence their take off but remain low but bank fairly sharply away from the Strip. This high -low procedure continued until all aircraft were airborne. The reason we adopted this method was simply because of the dust, it had transpired that all the sand being sucked into the engine air scoop was seriously damaging our engines. In order to overcome this, doors were fitted to the engine air scoop, which would open when sufficient air pressure was created to overcome the spring tension holding them closed. This was set to happen once we were airborne. The snag with these doors was that they could cause overheating of the engine, so it became imperative to get the planes airborne as quickly as possible. F/Lt Champion and myself were the second pair to be taking off, I allowed the first pair to start their take off and then proceeded to taxi in the dust storm onto the runway with Champion tucked in beside me, as soon as I saw the first pair in the air I gave Champion the thumbs up and received his in reply.
We opened the throttles and gathered speed in close formation down the wire mesh runway, we were almost at take off speed when I observed out of the corner of my eye a wing going up, I was concentrating on getting myself airborne and was not aware that Champion had crashed on take off until I was well and truly airborne. He had, apparently, raised the tail of the plane to high going down the runway, causing the enormous propeller on a Typhoon to catch in the wire mesh of the runway, which immediately threw him on his back, killing him instantly.
The three of us that were airborne landed at another Airstrip and waited until we received the all clear to return to B 7, the planned recce being abortive.
The whole wing developed a form of dysentery, which became known as pebble dashing, and the powers that be had to send to England for dozens of pairs of underpants, as it became impossible not to soil your underpants when pulling out of a dive. It was vital that we kept flying and were more than grateful when the Medical branch supplied us with a remedy. Never seen so much washing in my life!
Four of us were attacking a gun site just north of Caen when we noticed explosions not too far away, looking up we had observed all the Lancaster Bombers overhead but we soon cleared off when we realized that they were bombing Caen. The ground looked like boiling custard as these thousands of bombs came down; glad I wasn't on the receiving end of that lot. After the capture of Caen and the defeat of the German armour at Falaise the allied armies forged ahead and we left our beachhead airstrip at Martragny to occupy a couple of further airstrips at B.23 Bernay and B 25 Le Treport for only a few days at each before moving on to B 53 Merville Nr Lille. Merville was a genuine aerodrome with two concrete runways plus concrete taxiways and hard standings, but we still lived and dined under canvass.
We arrived on 11th September having vacated Martragny on 2nd September. Our job now was to help the Brown Jobs clear all the smaller pockets of resistance all along the coast- line. Places like Dieppe, Le Harvre, Boulogne and Calais put up some very stiff resistance and several pilots lost their lives during this spell.
Cheval Lallemant had by this time been promoted to S/Ldr of 609 Squadron also stationed at Merville, when he was now leading his Squadron on a show around 14th September when he was hit by Flak. In the hurry to get airborne he took off without his gauntlet flying gloves, (something he had drummed into us never to do as our flight commander) not because he had forgotten them but because he just could not find them. He climbed away from the target and set course for Merville, making sure he would be over friendly troops if he had to bale out. As he approached Merville he realized that the plane was on fire, but felt he could put her down O.K.
On crash landing the flames were engulfing the cockpit and his flying tunic was on fire and his hands were being badly burnt, added to this, the damaged caused by the flak had jammed the runners of the sliding hood and he found when trying to escape from the cockpit he could only move the hood about six inches.
Somehow with those terribly burn hands he found the strength and will power to squeeze himself free to fall onto the grass. After many weeks, and many operations grafting skin onto those poor hands, he was back again flying. What a chap!!!
Shortly before I was commissioned about 12th August, I was given my first chance to lead an operational sortie against a specific target which was a Gun position in the Falaise area. As a warrant officer this was quite an honour, but having been told that I was to be commissioned in the near future, as I was now leading sections with F/Lts and other commissioned ranks, Paul Ezanno decided that I had better get some experience straight away. The attack went well with the Guns being silenced plus we all returned unharmed. On another occasion I led my section of four to attack barges being used by the retreating Germans attempting to cross the Seine, we sank two and damaged others. Four of us attacked another 88mm Gun site at Cap Gris Nez with me leading, when three of us were hit by flak, Colin Coulson who was my No 2 pulled up after the attack streaming what looked like white smoke, he jettisoned his canopy in preparation to bale out, but I flew under and around him to check what damage had occurred. Seeing this white vapour I informed Colin that I could not see any serious damage, but thought he must have either a Glycol or Petrol leak.
We safely returned to Merville and allowed Colin to land first in his cold and draughty aircraft. Both Tim Milich and myself had received damage, Tim just behind the cockpit and mine in the starboard wing gun bay.
Tim Milich , an N.Z. Maori, and I became good friends going into Lille whenever time allowed to paint the town red, sometimes to stay overnight and catch the local train back to Bethune, the nearest station to Merville, the following morning. I was to receive the sad news of Tim's death later on when I was on rest at Aston Down. Tim who was as strong as an OX had the most perfect teeth I have ever seen, he would amaze us by opening bottles of beer by use of his teeth, and he also had the uncanny luck of winning all our money at Dice and Poker. It was mostly through his winnings that we could afford to enjoy our trips to Lille, most of this money came from our Escape Kit, which was a rectangular plastic type box full of survival aids. Included in these packs were French Escape Francs for the value of about 1500 Fr, so having started operating in France we all decided to spend them, with the people of Normandy quite happy to accept as legal tender.
I had occasion to fly back to Aston Down in order to replace my aircraft TP-Y, which had completed its number of flying hours and was due for a major overhaul and engine replacement, added to which Paul Ezanno said I could have a 48Hr pass.
I arrived at Aston Down , went to the motor pool where I was lucky in scrounging a lift to Bristol quite easily. Had a day and a half being spoilt by my parents who were delighted to see me, gleaned all the latest gen on Len and Pete's activities, managed to scrounge 1 1/2 Lbs of ground coffee from Dad, which on my return in a brand new plane back to Merville, was used to barter a smashing evenings drinking for most of the Squadron, nothing but Champagne all night. We already had discovered that a thick head in the morning could be eased by inhaling Oxygen, so it was easy to work out who had been on the tiles, because you would find them down at dispersal with their Oxygen mask on, plugged into a spare bottle of Oxygen. Magic! No headache, only the mouth tasting like the bottom of a parrot's cage.