On every wartime bomber station there is an intermission prior to the commencement of operations. A period of time after the bustle of preparation has died. The air testing, the refuelling, the bombing up, the briefing are all behind. Now the waiting. It is a time of calm, of anticipation, of apprehension, even of foreboding. It is difficult to describe. Almost indefinable. Yet anyone who has served on a wartime bomber squadron will be aware of it. It affects everyone from the Station Commander down to the humblest aircraftsman second class. It is a feeling which having been experienced will never be forgotten.
On Sunday 26th July 1942 around 2200 hours the calm of that intermission was about to be breached as the operational crews of 115 Squadron spilled onto the concrete perimeter path in front of the Flights. The engines of their motor transports spluttered into life. 115 Squadron was putting up fourteen crews as part of a 403 strong bomber force destined for Hamburg. Eight of the crews were from A Flight, six from B Flight. By the morning of 27th July Hamburg would have suffered its most severe air raid to date. The Hamburg Fire Department would be overwhelmed and forced to seek outside assistance for the first time. 337 people would lose their lives and 1,027 would be injured. 14,000 people would be made homeless. Damage would amount to the equivalent of £25,000,000.
The attacking force would not remain unscathed. Twenty-nine bombers (7.20%) would fail to return to their bases. In particular 115 Sqnadron's A Flight would take a severe mauling. Half its operational strength would be lost.
Wing Commander Frank Wright DFC had led the briefing. This 31 year old officer, popular with his crews, was flying that night in Wellington BJ615 KO-G. Some members of his crew had already completed a tour of operations as had W/C Wright. They were second tour men and respected by the other crews. Normally this crew would fly with S/Ldr Cousens, Officer Commanding A Flight. Cousens was on stand down. Not every crew flying to Hamburg was as well experienced. Sgt Jim Howells, a New Zealander, had completed five operations as a second pilot with other crews. Tonight he had been given a new A Flight crew. He was to fly his first operation as an aircraft captain in Wellington X3412 KO-L. It was an auspicious occasion for the New Zealander. There had been recent criticism of the Squadron for failing to obtain suitable photographs of the target. He decided he would show them. His crew would bring back a superb photograph. Sgt Jim Smith and crew had been with the Squadron for just over a month. They had been allocated to A Flight. Having overcome their operational teething problems, including writing off a Wellington when returning from a raid, they were now settled in to completing a tour of 30 operations. Flying in Wellington BJ723 KO-B Hamburg would be their ninth operational flight.
Another A Flight crew flying that night was captained by Sgt Baden Fereday. Sgt Fereday was an experienced pilot with 15 operational flights recorded in his log book. Sgt Kelvin Shoesmith, an Australian, manned his rear turret. His wireless operator, Sgt Glafkos Clerides, was a Greek Cypriot who had been educated at an English Public School. The youngest member of Baden Fereday’s crew was Sgt Frank Skelley aged 19. Sgt Skelley had joined the Merchant Navy as a boy. After war broke out he had transferred to the RAF to train as aircrew. He acted as bomb aimer and also manned the front turret. Sgt Harry Lindley was the aircraft’s observer. This crew had been allocated Wellington BJ670 KO-K.
At 0235 hours Hauptmann Helmut Lent of the II./NJG1 was patrolling the skies around the Hamburg area in a Bf110 night fighter. Helmut Lent was known as the innovator of the night fighter arm. He was noted for experimenting with new methods of attack. Later he would practise and perfect a diving attack which would give him sufficient speed to overtake a Mosquito and shoot it down. For being the first German pilot to overcome this versatile aircraft he would receive special praise from Goering. Eventually he would rise to the rank of Oberst with a position of high command in the night fighter arm. He would achieve 102 night victories and 8 day victories before being killed in a flying accident on 5th October 1944.
A dark shape loomed into his line of vision. Quickly closing the gap between himself and the other aircraft he perceived the unmistakable bulky outline of a Wellington bomber. Not wishing to overshoot and lose the enemy aircraft in the darkness he eased back on his throttles. Had Lent been able to read the serial number and code of the bomber he was stalking he would have seen it was BJ615 KO-G. Wing Commander Wright and his crew were doomed. Their aircraft crashed into the sea near the target at 0239. The only body recovered from the water was that of wireless operator/air gunner P/O J.Whittaker DFM.
Sgt Jim Howells, the New Zealander, had managed to coax his Wellington up to 14000 feet by the time he reached the target. He was carrying a mixed load of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Despite the opposition from the defences he was still determined to obtain a good photograph of his bomb bursts. Reaching the aiming point his bomb aimer released the bombs. This action automatically opened the shutter on the fixed camera and released the flash bomb. All the pilot had to do was fly a straight and level course until the flash functioned. The photograph would then be taken. More experienced, perhaps more prudent pilots would have had greater concern for the immediate safety of their aircraft than bringing back a photograph for the planners at base to study. The flak at Hamburg was accurate and intense. In such situations following the release of the bombs it was usual to stick the nose down in a shallow dive, build up speed, and corkscrew like hell away from the target. Sgt Howells, the novice captain, was resolute. Following a straight and level course he flew blissfully on. It was a golden opportunity for the flak batteries and one they could not ignore.
Almost immediately the Wellington was ranged. Flak hit the port engine. It may have damaged the propeller as well as the engine. Intense vibration began to rack the airframe. Jim Howells quickly feathered the propeller and switched off the engine. To his dismay the aircraft began to lose height. He managed to weave away from the target with no further damage to the bomber. Rapidly losing height he crossed the German coast line in an attempt to fly back over the comparative safety of the North Sea. It was all to no avail. The Wellington would not stay in the air. Below he could see clearly the tops of the breaking waves. He issued orders for ditching. The observer collected all the survival apparatus including the Verey pistol and cartridges and placed them in a bag. As the bomber hit the sea a wall of water cascaded through the fuselage. It tore the bag from the observer’s hand. When they clambered into the dinghy they found the marine signals stowed aboard had perished. They were adrift in the North Sea with no Verey pistol or any means of attracting the attention of a passing ship or aircraft. They were to drift like this for three days.
On the first day a Beaufighter came close to them but did not see them. That night they drifted within earshot of a fierce naval battle presumably between German E boats and a convoy. On the second day two Spitfires flew over without seeing them. On the third day a German seaplane from Norderney rescued them and took them off to captivity.
BJ723 KO-B carrying Sgt Smith and crew arrived in the target area about the same time as Sgt Howells. It was advantageous for them that the defences were preoccupied with another aircraft. They quickly made their way to the aiming point, released their bombs, and set course for the German coastline. Passing between Bremerhaven and Wilhelmshaven they were surprised by a flak shell which made a direct hit on their port engine. Smoke billowed out and fearing that it would develop into a fire Sgt. Smith feathered the propeller and shut down the engine. The turning torque to port of the starboard engine was enormous. He called the bomb aimer Sgt Lionel Harcus out of the front turret. Sgt Harcus pulled the rudder bar back and hung on to it. This offset the swing. Increasing the revs on the starboard engine failed to improve the situation. The Wellington was steadily losing altitude. The heavy flak batteries were still pounding away at them and they were dropping to within range of the light flak. Crossing the German coastline their prospect of reaching base was zero. They prepared for ditching. Sgt Jack French, the wireless operator, released the trailing aerial, sent out an SOS, and jammed his key down. The resulting continuous note would be picked up by the listening stations in Britain. When the aerial touched the water the signal would stop. The listeners would have the DF loop fix of the position of the bomber when the signal vanished. Further it would give the pilot an indication that he was down to approximately sixty feet. The bomb aimer and the wireless operator retreated to their ditching stations. Sgt. Smith shut off the starboard engine and began to glide, repeatedly dropping the nose and then pulling up gently. He was worried. It was too dark for him to see if he was landing into the waves. A cloud moved and the moon broke through. It was behind him. He managed to turn the Wellington and approached the sea tail down. The moon lit the sea like a flare path. Everything went according to plan and they were soon safely in the dinghy while BJ723 KO-B bubbled its way to the bottom of the North Sea. It was 0300 hours. A seaplane from Norderney picked them up at 0930 hours.
The aircraft in which Sgt Fereday and crew were flying, BJ670 KO-K, was carrying one 4,000lb bomb. This huge bomb was not designed to be delivered by a Wellington aircraft. Modifications to the bomb bays were necessary. Most of the flotation bags had to be removed. These were the bags which gave the aircraft buoyancy in the event of a ditching. As the perimeter of the bomb canister protruded below the bomb doors these also had to be removed. When the bomb was dropped the open space of the bomb bays would cause considerable drag.
Reaching Hamburg without incident, Sgt Skelley jokingly remarked that he wouldn’t be able to find the aiming point as the only part of Hamburg he knew from his Merchant Navy days was the red light district. The joking was soon to stop. The 4,000lb bomb was released from a height of 12,000 feet and they made their way from the target towards the German coastline.
Approaching the coastline they were suddenly coned in searchlights and caught in a barrage of very accurate flak. A huge burst by the nose of the aircraft blew out the hydraulics rendering the gun turrets useless and causing the undercarriage to drop down. Sgt Fereday’s cockpit navigational instruments were all damaged. He no longer had the use of a compass. Sgt Clerides standing in the Astro Dome watching for fighters shouted over the intercom that he had been wounded in the leg. He fainted and in falling to the floor his intercom plug was wrenched from its socket. From the rear turret Sgt Shoesmith reported that he also had been hit. Baden Fereday fighting to keep the aircraft stable momentarily lost control. The bomber went into a dive. Sgt Clerides recovering his senses and finding the aircraft plunging to earth immediately called up on the intercom. Not realising he was no longer connected to the system and receiving no reply he assumed the others had baled out. Scrambling back to the emergency hatch in the rear of the fuselage he baled out. In the meantime Sgt Fereday had regained control and flattened out at 8,000 feet. Without navigational instruments he was flying by the seat of his pants. The undercarriage and the open bomb bay were causing excessive drag.
Sgt Clerides landed safely in the outskirts of a town. He was soon surrounded by a crowd of civilians. Mistaking his Greek features for those of a Jew the cry of Jude went up from someone in the mob. In a trice they were rifling his pockets, punching and kicking him. Luckily a detachment of the Luftwaffe arrived and rescued him. He was whisked off to hospital in Bremen where an immediate operation was carried out on his leg.
Back in the bomber Sgt Fereday had no idea what course he was flying. He began to climb and managed to regain his original height of 12,000 feet. Straining to see the coastline ahead he was horrified to find he was approaching Hamburg. Turning on to a reciprocal course he asked Sgt Shoesmith to let him know if he thought the bomber was turning to port or starboard. By this rough and ready method of navigation they flew over the coastline and out to sea. Unfortunately their track took them close to Heligoland where once again they were engaged by the enemy defences. Swinging westwards, losing height because of the drag, they began their journey home over the North Sea. They were down to 1500 feet when both engines cut out. Hastily switching to the reserve fuel tanks they barely got the engines running again. Both port and starboard engines were spluttering and cutting out continuously. Ditching was inevitable. Unknown to them they were close to Norderney the Luftwaffe air sea rescue base. Holding off at 500 feet Baden Fereday realised he hadn’t released the pilot’s escape hatch. He struggled with this and as it opened he felt the tail touch the sea. The tail bounced three times then the nose dropped. The undercarriage caught in the waves pitching them violently nose downwards. Baden’s head went through the windscreen.
Kelvin Shoesmith scrambled out of the rear turret and fell into the sea. He became entangled in the trailing aerial and was being dragged down by the rapidly sinking bomber. Frank Skelley and Harry Lindley swam to him and released him. They all worked hard on the dinghy to inflate it but it was riddled with shrapnel holes. Their task was impossible.
In every Wellington bomber there is a loose wooden box like structure situated on the floor below the Astro Dome. It is for the crew member stationed in the Astro Dome to stand on. This had floated out of the open hatch just before the aircraft sank. They swam towards it. Each grabbed a corner with one hand and clung to it. The other hand held on to the adjacent crew member. So they drifted with the waves breaking over them continually. It was 0340 hours. The Wing Commander and his crew were dead. The crews of Sgts Howells and Smith were drifting in the relative safety of their dinghies. This was a luxury and a lifesaver denied the crew of BJ670 KO-K.
Kelvin Shoesmith was the first one to die. The shrapnel which had pierced his side had also penetrated his Mae West. Harry Lindley repeatedly blew it up to keep his head above water. No one knew the extent of his wound but the unequal struggle proved too much for the young Australian. He began to show signs of distress. His grip on the box loosened as he lapsed into unconsciousness. The others tried to hold on to him but he slipped from their grasp and drifted away. Three airmen now clung to the box and each other, bobbing up and down in the cold sea as the waves cascaded over them.
Time seemed endless; they had been in the water several hours. With the passing of time their resistance to the cold had lowered. They were all feeling the onset of exposure. Young Frank Skelley began praying. He prayed out loud and long to his God to be allowed to live. His anguished voice was lost in the vastness of the sea. The other two tried to comfort him but as Baden Fereday was to say later, “There wasn’t much we could do for him because we were all in the same boat.”
Frank’s prayers went unanswered. The young airman began to exhibit the same distress symptoms they had seen in Kelvin Shoesmith. His grip on the box loosened. The other two were too weak to hold him. He floated away as the North Sea claimed its second victim.
They had been in the water for nearly six hours when a Luftwaffe air-sea rescue seaplane from Norderney landed on the sea near them. It was just ten minutes after Frank Skelley had died. Harry Lindley had almost lapsed into unconsciousness. He remembers nothing of the rescue. The seaplane crew hooked them aboard and deposited them on the floor in a shivering heap. The two bodies floating nearby were recovered, examined, then cast back into the sea.
On Friday 21st August 1942 the body of an airman was recovered from Ho Bay in Denmark. It was that of Sgt Kelvin Shoesmith. Sgt Frank Skelley was washed ashore on the Dutch coast.
After the war Glafkos Clerides qualified as a barrister. He became prominent in politics in Cyprus. In 1988 he was up for election. The opposition began a smear campaign accusing him of collaboration with the Germans during his period of captivity. One of his supporters was a Greek Cypriot millionaire businessman who owned a string of hotels and several Greek newspapers. The businessman contacted Baden Fereday and Harry Lindley and asked if they would visit Cyprus and publicly refute the allegations. Harry and Baden accepted the invitation. They were flown over to the island and a chauffeur driven limousine was placed at their disposal. Accommodation was provided in the form of a magnificent suite in a luxurious hotel. All their expenses were paid. They took with them a short account of their final operation and this was translated into Greek and put in the newspapers. They made public statements to the effect that Clerides was a true patriot.
Despite their support for their former wireless operator he lost the election. However, for fourteen days Baden and Harry enjoyed the free holiday of a lifetime. Currently (1996) Glafkos Clerides is President of the Greek Cypriots.