05/06.03.1945 No. 10 Squadron Halifax II M948 ZA-E Fl/Lt. Dess F. Moss DFC
Operation: Chemnitz, Germany (Operation "Thunderclap")
Date: 5/6th March 1945 (Monday/Tuesday)
Unit: No. 10 Squadron
Type: Halifax III
Base: RAF Melbourne, Yorkshire
Location: 2 Miles NE of Babenhausen
Pilot: Fl/Lt. F. Dess Moss 199566 RAFVR PoW (Escaped and evaded)
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Harold William Tasker 1890136 RAFVR Age 30. Killed
Nav: P/O. Robert Edward Davenport 191980 (formerly Fl/Sgt - 1394974) RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Air/Bmr: W/O. Lindsay Wilkie Webster R/151294 RCAF Age 20. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. ‘Jock’ R.C. Fowler 1369742 RAFVR PoW - Injured (remained hospitalised until liberation)
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Lionel Leslie Hall AUS/53477 RAAF Age 21. Killed
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Fred Fearnley 1594868 RAFVR Age 39. Killed
Air/Gnr: Fl/Sgt. Steve Hodgson 1594027 RAFVR PoW - Injured (remained hospitalised until liberation)
REASON FOR LOSS:
Took off at 17:09 hrs from RAF Melbourne, Yorkshire to attack Chemnitz, Germany as part of operation Thunderclap. 70 aircraft took part (498 Lancasters, 256 Halifaxes and 6 Mosquitoes) 9 aircraft were lost after crashing near their bases in icy conditions.
The city is known to have suffered severe fire damage and several important factories were within the fire area and the Siegmar factory which made tank engines was destroyed.
A massive loss total of 40 aircraft were lost on this operation, 169 crew members were killed and a further 51 made PoW.
Halifax MZ948 was shot down and crashed 3 km. North East of Babenhausen which is 30 km South East of Frankfurt during its homeward run at around 23:45hrs. 3 crew baled out, 5 others perished in the aircraft. It is thought to have been shot down by Major Max Eckhoff of II/NJG2 although this cannot be confirmed. Major Eckhoff night fighter ace with 19 confirmed kills was himself killed on the 16/17th March 1945 over Wittenburg when he bailed out too low after a combat.
Crew of Halifax MZ948 taken in July 1944 (minus Sgt. Hall) L-R rear: Fl/Sgt. Fred Fearnley, Sgt. Harold William Tasker, W/O. Lindsay Wilkie Webster, Fl/Sgt. ‘Jock’ R.C. Fowler. Front: Fl/Sgt. Steve Hodgson, Fl/Lt. F. Dess Moss, P/O. Robert Edward Davenport.
Fl/Lt. Dess Moss was made a PoW along with Fl/Sgt. Hodgson and Fl/Sgt. Fowler, but Dess managed to escape.
Description of events as described by the pilot Fl/Lt. Dess Moss DFC:
“We went to Chemnitz on the night of 5/6th. March 1945 - a long, cold journey, cloudy conditions and only a little better over the target area. Our incendiaries were dropped over the target indicators but the 2,000 lb.
' cookie ' would not release. We circled and tried to release it in the target area but nothing happened so we set off to return. Our Air Bomber, 'Buz', and Flight Engineer, 'Jimmy' inspected the bomb release mechanism as closely and carefully as possible. It is no joke peering through a 9" hole with a torch in the face of an icy 200 mph blast and trying to pry loose a ton of freezing steel and explosive with frost bitten fingers, knowing that if you are successful those numb fingers will probably go with the bomb, and they reported that the release mechanism appeared to be OK but just didn't work; probably ice had formed somewhere inside the mechanism.
Above an earlier Mk II Halifax from 10 Squadron (courtesy IWM)
I decided to descend below the cloud into warmer air and try again. Several minutes later we levelled off about 2000 feet above the sleeping countryside and the boys tried again. Again ' It looks OK ' so the bomb doors were opened and the button pressed - with no result! I tried the ' jettison ' release - nothing doing! Jimmy tried again with a screw driver and fire axe but after five minutes could only report that the bomb and bomb slips were ' working in the airflow '. I warned everybody to hold on tight and threw the Halifax around a bit. Eventually there was a crack and a shout of ' Hurray, it's gone '. Bomb doors were closed and the there was a flash from the ground and we were thrown about a bit more; we had got rather low in the last few minutes. I opened up to climbing power and we went up through the clouds again into clearer air.
We levelled off a few hundred feet above the clouds and got back to normal routine. There was a shout from Steve in the rear turret - ' Night fighter attacking! ' and I saw tracers curving away from below and behind us up to starboard. I started ' corkscrewing ' as violently as I could, but it was soon obvious that we had been badly hit. The fuselage filled with smoke and I could no longer hear instructions from the rear gunner.
Jimmy (Flight Engineer ) was trying to draw my attention to something and I realised that although we were on fire amidships, the emergency signalling light from the rear gunner was flashing - good for Steve! He kept doing his job and shot down a JU 88. By this time our port inner engine was blazing and out of control, the starboard was also on fire as was the ' rest position ' area of the fuselage. I could get no reply from any of the gunners - we had one in the mid-under blister on this trip - and we were losing height and unable to bring the flames under control. I decided we had better get out whilst I could still keep the Halifax reasonably steady and ordered ' Bale Out ' on the inter-com, and also tapped out the letter ' P ' several times on the emergency signal-light circuit in the hope that the gunners would see it and be able to get out in time. I saw Jimmy pass my seat, wearing his chest type 'chute and disappear past the blackout curtain to the front escape hatch. After a few seconds I tried to follow him and found that my seat harness would not release. Somehow it had jammed. I struggled to release it - and then the world exploded!
I woke to find myself dangling in my parachute harness a few feet from the ground. I looked up; the canopy was caught up in the tree branches. I pulled the straps gently at first, then more and more violently and soon dropped to the ground where I rolled myself in the 'chute to keep warm - and went to sleep! Later in the day I awoke, very hungry and took stock of my position. My face hurt, I had nothing on my feet, only a hazy idea of where I was and I was thirsty. I got out my emergency kit and had a look at my face as best I could. The hair which had not been covered by my flying helmet was singed. I had pulled my goggles into place when the heat and flames got too unpleasant, but the eyelashes and eyebrows were gone and the remainder of my face which had not been covered by the oxygen mask was raw flesh where all the skin was burnt away. I still had both my flying gauntlets, which I now took off. I had only Gentian Violet Jelly in the kit and applied this liberally to the burned areas of my face and neck - even my eyelids. I ate some of the emergency ration in the kit and then tried to plan my next moves. First, I had to start going west if possible - without shoes? I put my gauntlets on my feet and tied them on with parachute cord. I picked up my emergency kit again and stowed it in my battledress blouse, rolled up the parachute and harness, stuffed them under some bushes and set off in a westerly direction according to my ' button ' compass. I came to a rough lane in a few minutes and after looking around carefully turned left ( down hill, more chance of water ) along it. After some hundreds of yards I was still in trees and no sign of water so I retraced my steps.
It was now late afternoon and I had another problem to worry about. Gentian Violet protects burns alright but it gradually sets hard! I was having trouble now with my eyes - every time I blinked or closed my eyes it was harder to open them. I struggled on, past my original landing-place, being somewhat encouraged by the sound of aircraft engines somewhere ahead of me. As it grew dark I stumbled on an aircraft and gratefully crawled into the fuselage and went to sleep again. I soon awoke, very cold, and found some pieces of cloth which had covered the windows of the aircraft. These helped me to pass the night in fitful sleep. In the morning I ate some more of my rations and inspected my surroundings, having to prise open my eyelids and clean off the burn dressing to do so. That wakened me up in short order! I applied a very thin layer of jelly again - carefully. I was in the abandoned fuselage of an old JU 52 - the original single engined model - and fuselage is all there was! I prowled around a bit trying to think. An abandoned - not damaged - aircraft with aero engines heard not too far off meant an airfield somewhere near and perhaps a chance to fly home in style! At the very worst, the Luftwaffe, not the Gestapo! In the distance along the lane I could now see in the morning light, some more aeroplanes under the trees. They looked like Fw190 - and by chance I had been studying the cockpit layout of that type of aircraft only a few days before. Of course, they might also be abandoned shells - but what a chance! It was not to be. Only a hundred yards away, behind some bushes was a small guard post. I was indeed near an airfield. I was seen and arrested - but they did give me a drink.
I was taken to a First Aid Post in the nearby town of Aschaffenburg where my burns were cleaned and dressed. From there I was escorted to the Obereusel Interrogation Centre by a lone corporal with a big rifle. We went by train to Frankfurt, arriving after dark just as the air raid sirens went. My escort insisted that we descend into the Shelter under the Railway Station - even though I showed him the red ' candles ' of the Target Indicators drifting down on to the Marshalling Yards just a couple of hundred yards off. Down we went, still in RAF battledress with wings plainly showing to join several hundred German civilians in a large cellar. My corporal put me in a corner and stood in front of me with rifle across his body and carefully loaded it and worked the bolt action to put a round in the breech - making sure everybody saw what he was doing. There were many hands and voices raised but he stood his ground and I left the shelter unharmed. We arrived at the Interrogation Centre safely and I was immediately transferred to a large house some half a mile away which was used as a Prison hospital. There I received further treatment for several days. The upstairs wards were full and at first I was confined to a small room downstairs by myself. I was visited daily for medical attention and meals were brought to me.
After a day or two I noticed that the door was not always locked after my tray had been brought in so I ventured to explore my surroundings, in hospital pyjamas, of course, as my clothes had been removed on arrival. I found that although the food was brought in from the Interrogation Centre, there was a small kitchen for the special diets which was also used as a servery for the main meals and also for the staff meals. If I watched carefully I could slip into this kitchen after the staff had eaten and whilst they were collecting the ' empties ' from the patients upstairs. There I could find plenty of scraps to augment my own somewhat meagre rations so that when the doctor pronounced me well enough to join the other PoW's upstairs I missed the extra ' rations'.
However, it was only for a few days, then I was returned to the Centre for interrogation. The interviewer certainly knew a lot about me and my Squadron and - amazingly - my family. ( My father had helped the pre-war RAF in some camouflage experiments). I refused to give anything more than my name, rank, and number so I was soon packed off to one of the cells. There I stayed for several days and nights - sometimes uncomfortably hot, but mostly very cold - but there was nothing more I had to say to my captors and eventually I left with a party of other RAF types in transit to the camp at Wetzlar. A lone Thunderbolt spotted our column marching down the road and made a pass but we saw him in good time and were safe in the ditch before he got in range. He must have had more important things on his mind and he did not try again.
We waited until nightfall in a wooded railway cutting, trying to sleep under the bushes and about 10 p.m. a somewhat rickety train clanked alongside and we were pushed into assorted trucks and vans. After some hours of uncomfortable and intermittent travel we were decanted beside a road and told to march off. We were escorted up a steadily rising dirt road and finally arrived at Dulag Luft on the top of a low hill. Here we were introduced to ' proper ' POW life - long barracks with uncomfortable bunks, palliasses stuffed with very stale straw and supported on board frames at intervals - which depended on how many boards had been used for fuel in the stoves. Meals were taken in a ' dining room ' and consisted mainly of potatoes and concoctions made up from the contents of whatever Red Cross supplies were available. Our captors were no better off; their food was perhaps more plentiful but not as varied. Here I met 'Jock' Fowler our Wireless Operator. He was in the hospital there having injured both his ankles when he landed. He told me he had seen Steve Hodgson, our Rear Gunner, but he had already left the camp. Incidentally Jock, Steve, and I were the only survivors of that crash and we still keep in touch - Jock now home in Glasgow, and Steve in Canada.
About a week after arriving at Wetzlar we were warned to be ready to leave the camp. All PoW who were fit to walk were to be evacuated to a new camp at Nuremburg. Early next morning we were paraded between the barracks, carrying what possessions we still had and each man was solemnly presented with a box of Red Cross goodies to feed him for the journey. Then our numbers and identities were checked, the gates opened and out we went, about 90 PoW, mostly RAF and USAF airmen with a few paratroopers who had not yet been sent to the Army.
The column was headed by a platoon of German guards, then followed the main body of PoW, three abreast, and after them another platoon of Germans with a small cart carrying their kit. There was also a file of guards along each side of the prisoners, but not too close, making the column in effect about seven abreast. This, of course, completely filled the narrow lanes along which we went, causing some confusion whenever we met any traffic.
One could not say we marched, although the Major in charge of the detachment tried to keep up a good steady pace. We were as well aware as he of the necessity for speed - the Allied Armies were poised on the Rhine and we had to be cleared from the battle area if we were to be any further use as hostages (or do our own bit of rear area resisting) - so we did all we could to slow down our progress. We were not in good enough condition to march at infantry pace - we said - and any hills caused an immediate drop in ' speed '. People got stones in their footwear and had to fall out (literally on occasions) until we were shown that the Germans' feet were in no better condition and further excuses would not be accepted. We stopped at mid-day for a meal break, being led into a field and surrounded by our guards. There was a small rivulet where we could get water to drink or wash.
Our progress was resumed after about an hour - minus three paratroopers who had mysteriously ‘disappeared’ - and continued until dusk when we were ushered into a school playground and lined up for a head count. After our numbers had been checked we were led into the single large school-room. This was about 30 feet long and 15 feet wide. In one long wall the windows overlooked the playground, where the baggage cart was parked and a field kitchen was set up. The opposite wall was bare and a row of planks had been set up about six feet from the wall and the space between filled with straw. The far end wall contained a fireplace opposite the only door through which we now filed in. Hot water was eventually provided to go with whatever food we could supply and we were escorted singly to the single small toilet behind the schoolroom. We slept on the straw as and where we found space. When we mustered in the morning we were short of a few more. Of course, no one knew anything about it, so eventually we set off for another day's march.
It was a long morning. We were going as slowly as possible, but our guards were getting impatient and we had to keep going. We finally came to rest in a farmyard in mid-afternoon for our ' mittagessen '. We were allowed to use the farm's copper wash boiler for ' brewing up ' and managed to make ' potmess ' which included potatoes, oatmeal, broken biscuits, soup tablets or powder, and stale crusty bread. This last item came from the German soldiers who could not resist the smell of our brew up and bartered their half a loaf a man a day ration for a mess-tin full of our ' soup '. Some of us managed a ' cat-nap ' but it was soon time to move on. We were concerned that we were behind our schedule and would have to keep marching after nightfall as we were supposed to be getting on a train at midnight. We were determined we were going to miss that train.
We were following secondary roads as main roads were not safe, anything moving on them was attacked by roving fighter-bombers. As we plodded on through the lengthening shadows, our line straggled more and more, and the Germans got more and more irritable as they tried to keep our column closed up. Late that night we stopped for a rest as we left a small village. after a few minutes we found out why - the Major in Charge had seen a donkey and ' commandeered ' it to save his feet! We gave him an ironical cheer as he appeared, then set to work on the guards saying ' it was alright for some '. These soldiers were getting a bit fed up with the whole thing anyway and became more friendly as time went on. More people had managed to slip away by now - not all of them PoW's.
I had by this time, a small blister on one foot and used it as an excuse to limp along as slowly as I dared, gradually dropping back along the column - several other chaps were doing the same thing. Eventually we found ourselves among the group of Germans with the baggage cart at the rear of the line. From time to time the Major rode up and down the column and the next time he arrived he asked why we were so far behind our comrades - it was necessary to keep together and not get separated! We gave our excuses and suggested that if the pace had to be maintained perhaps we could ride on the cart. He considered the proposal seriously but decided that the horse would not be able to cope with the extra weight. He therefore beckoned to a ' Gefreiter ' who was limping carefully along behind us and gave him detailed directions with the aid of his field map. Then he told us that we were to follow the rest of the company at our best speed, in charge of the Gefreiter (Corporal) and two soldiers and rejoin them when they halted for breakfast. We thanked him for his kindness and wished him ' goodnight ' as he turned to rejoin the column. He turned in his saddle, smiled whimsically at us and in his careful English said ' Goodbye, gentlemen! '.
So now there were four of us left with our three guards, all tired and limping. We carried on slowly for an hour or so, then came to a mutual decision that it was time for a brief rest and review of the situation. ' Our side ' consisted of two Americans, a Major, who spoke passable German and a coloured Sergeant still suffering from shell shock sustained when the tank he was driving had suffered a direct hit from a heavy shell, two RAF men, a Sergeant Air Gunner and myself. Neither of the NCO's understood anything but English and I knew only a few words of German and the usual ' schoolboy ' French and Latin. The ' other side ' consisted of a German Corporal (Gefreiter), a lance corporal and a private. Only the Corporal had any knowledge of English and not much of that! Conversation was slow, hard work. We were all for retracing our steps westward, or at least staying where we were until ' over-run ' by the advancing Allied Armies and we really thought we had convinced our guards and persuaded them to come with us and that we could look after each other, playing the roles of captors and captives alternately as occasion demanded. But the Lance Corporal suddenly decided he was still on duty, loaded his rifle and insisted we continued to our original destination. The other Germans agreed they had better do the same so up we got and plodded drearily on. The soles of the German Army boots our guards were wearing were of thin cardboard so they were in no state to hurry but insisted we must keep on moving.
In the afternoon we came to an ' autobahn ' where the smooth surface made walking easier, though we had to get off the road sometimes when planes came over (and once for a Fw190 to take off from the roadway!). In the late afternoon we left the ' autobahn ' at a sign post reading ' Bad Hersfeld ' - that was where we were supposed to catch a train. Just before dark we stopped for the night in a barn next to a small farmhouse. Here we traded a soap tablet for a loaf of bread and some eggs. They also gave us hot water for our coffee and let us have our first proper wash for three days. We slept on hay that night in comparative comfort and woke refreshed to the sounds of the farmyard. A gift of some of our American coffee to the farmers wife produced boiled eggs and bread for breakfast, so we set off in good heart.
The cobbled road was not easy for our aching feet and it was afternoon when we crossed the Fulda river and then began to enter the small town of Bad Hersfeld. We made our painful way to the Railway Station. Our Corporal went off to report to the Town Major. He returned much later with the news that our POW party had left on the train the previous night and there would not be another till midnight. We resigned ourselves to a long, uncomfortable, hungry wait as no one knew for certain when the train would actually arrive. Our escort took turns to have an hour off. One came back with the good news that there was a Forces canteen behind the Station and that we could all go in. There were some raised eyebrows when we walked in but some hurried negotiations resulted in us being pushed into a small room with a table in the middle and chairs and benches. We relaxed gratefully and were astonished when a kitchen assistant brought some bowls of potato soup with chunks of bread. This went down very well and we all settled down to wait for midnight.
Suddenly our peace was disturbed by a crowd of German soldiers bursting in wanting to know who we were and why we had so much room in the otherwise crowded canteen. Our escort explained that we were ' Kreigsgefaugener ' and told them to leave, but the new arrivals would have none of it. They were veterans of the ' Afrika Korps ' who, having managed to escape from Africa, had fought in Italy and were now on leave and making their way home for the first time in three years. They spoke halting English but were friendly and wanted to talk. They showed us snapshots of wives, families, and girl friends whom they hoped to find safe and well. They produced a stack of bottles of beer and we had quite a party - though our escort refused to join in as they were on duty! The arrival of the train took us all by surprise. We said our goodbyes and hurried out to the platform.
The carriage had the usual wooden seats on each side of a centre aisle and we were pushed into the facing seats with our guards on the inside places. More soldiers crowded into the carriage as it filled up and insisted that the ' Kreigsgefaugener ' gave up their seats and stand up in the aisle. Our escort protested that they could watch us more easily when we were seated together in one small place. The argument grew heated but ended abruptly when cannon shells started smashing into windows, roof, and partitions. Everyone for himself! We all scrambled out and ran. I dived across the platform and under a railway wagon. The night intruder (a Mosquito) made another straffing run and then disappeared into the night. I got up and hurried to the side of the tracks but the wall was high and unclimbable. I retraced my way to the Station building hoping to pass through unnoticed in the noisy confusion.
There were several groups of people talking in the booking hall, obviously discussing the event, so I walked quietly through until a hand clutched my jacket and a frantic voice exclaimed ' Captain, Captain, what do we do now? ' - IN ENGLISH! It was the shell shocked sergeant, his nerves upset again. I shook myself free and said quietly, ' Don't talk now, just follow a few yards behind me and if I am stopped cross the road immediately and keep on walking '. We left the Station and walked along the street, then turned down a narrow lane. This soon narrowed further into a footpath along the bottom of the railway embankment and was fenced on both sides. Abruptly it turned left and entered a tunnel cut under the railway lines, containing a deep culvert for a swift running stream. It was lit by dim blue lamps and signposted as an emergency aid rail shelter. The far end was bricked up. We returned to the Station and tried the other direction. After a few yards I was stopped by a ' Hitler Youth ' with a large automatic pistol. He waved it at me and demanded my papers. I shrugged my shoulders - I had nothing in my pockets which would have distracted his attention for a moment - and was immediately ordered ' Hande Hoch ' and was prodded in the direction of the Town Major's office.
That officer was a very busy man. The area was now under Military Rule - ' Martial Law ' - as the Allies had crossed the Rhine and the nearby Fulda river was the next river defence line. He listened impatiently to the Youth's report, gave me a quick look, then said the single word ' Tot '. I knew that meant ' Death ' and tried to protest, first in English, then in French. An Officer said ' Etes-vous Francais? ' ' Non, je suis aviateur Anglais de RAF ', I replied and carefully showed him my service identity discs hung around my neck. He examined these and then turned to the Town Major and began a lengthy explanation. The Major listened, shrugged his shoulders and gave more instructions. I was taken away to the local jail and locked in an upstairs cell of the ' two up and two down ' jail house. I huddled on the bare boards of the bottom shelf of a two storey bunk and eventually fell asleep.
In the morning a young woman brought a piece of dark bread and a mug of acorn coffee for breakfast. I asked if there was a toilet and was escorted downstairs to a very primitive apparatus. On the way I heard an English conversation in one of the downstairs cells and on my return journey I asked in a loud voice if there were any other Englishmen there. Two voices replied ' Yes ' and a few minutes after I had returned to my cell I was visited by two Army Officers who had been taken prisoner at Dunkirk. They had been in transit from one camp to another and had managed to get away from their escort but had been recaptured in the town. (After the War one of them gave a short talk on the BBC and mentioned our meeting!). We were allowed to talk for a while before they had to return to the cell they shared downstairs next to the front door. During the same day the young American sergeant tank driver was brought in and we were allowed to visit him. By the end of the day we had arranged with our ' jailers ' (two young women who cooked and cleaned for the Police Chief and the jail) that we could have the run of the place so long as we did not try to talk to the occupants of the ' upstairs front ' cell who were political prisoners. Some time later some shells landed in the town and the women, who had just brought our supper, bolted for safety - leaving the street door open. We were out and off in a moment and ran up the street and across the road at the end into a doorway to decide which way to go from there.
A shout from the end of the road told us that we had been seen but not recognised in the evening twilight. The door behind us was not locked so we slipped inside and down some stone steps into a cellar apparently under the pavement, and under the stairway itself. Heavy footsteps announced the arrival of the men who had seen us, then a voice shouted that we should come up or be blown up. A whispered conference resulted in a decision to risk staying where we were but a few seconds later there was a metallic clatter and a hand grenade rolled into sight. We reached the top of the steps well within the five seconds fuse time. Our captors marched us across the street and lined us up against the wall, then backed off and raised their machine pistols. I thought my time was up when the old Police Chief came round the corner and demanded to know what the soldiers were doing with his prisoners! He shouted down all protestations that we were deserters and saboteurs and insisted that we were his responsibility. It seemed that our ' captors ' were more of the ' Hitler Youth ' and that the policeman had known them all their young lives and they were used to him being ' their ' policeman. Once we were safely back in jail we got a stern lecture and were locked in our cells again. My new friends translated the gist of the lecture to me as ' Don't be so damned silly, you are much safer in jail whilst the battle for the town is in progress '.
A few hours later the two young women ran in, saying that some SS men had heard about us and were coming along to make sure we did not escape again. There was an old sofa in the cell - minus most of its straw stuffing. I managed to climb in from the underneath and arranged the remaining straw as strategically as possible so that the sofa appeared merely to be properly ' stuffed '. My ruse was successful - there was apparently nowhere to hide in the cell and the searchers gave the place no more than a cursory glance before going on to find the ' political prisoners ' upstairs. These unfortunates were dragged out and shot before the SS Troopers moved on. When we dared to come out of our hiding places the girls came back from the Police Office and told us to come down to the cellar under the next house which was used as an Air Raid shelter. This was the idea of the Police Chief as he told us when he visited us later. He said that the town was not now safe for civilians who had all been evacuated as it was expected that the area would be defended fiercely by the SS troops who were now in command. He wished us goodbye as he had been told to leave. As an old soldier of the ' last ' war he told us he expected matters would be settled one way or the other in the next two days. As the ' girls ' were ' forced labour ' conscripts he had told them to stay with us - it was obvious that he expected we should be free quite soon.
He then said that, as the last remaining civil authority in Hersfeld, he would like to hand over the administration to Allied Forces - and he considered us to be the representatives of those forces! So it was that we found ourselves ' in charge ' of a town about to be assaulted by our own forces and wondering how to tell them not to ' have a go ' at us. I told the others that although I was accustomed to aerial tactics and manoeuvres I would prefer to leave decisions on ground tactics to them and suggested they might like to try their hands at getting a message to the advancing Americans before the fighting came too near and we were caught in an artillery bombardment. They agreed and set off, having armed themselves from a pile of weapons in the Police House and left me to reflect on our position. I grabbed an automatic myself and made a local reconnaissance looking mainly for food, but the inhabitants had taken all their supplies with them.
When the others returned they said they had encountered some Frenchmen from the local ' labour camp '. Their guards had fled and the Frenchmen had welcomed our two officers as liberators. They knew the area well and thought they could get across the river to warn the advancing forces of the position in the town. This might take some time as they would have to stay clear of the remaining SS troops who were determined to make a last stand at the river. We were receiving occasional shells already, probably stray ' overs ' so decided we had better retreat to the Air Raid shelter until we got more news.
There was not much food - some potatoes, black bread, and sausage. However, I was still carrying the remnants of my Red Cross parcel, with a small packet of powdered coffee, a ' Klim-tin ' of dried milk, and a large packet of Bemax breakfast food. Supper was potato soup thickened with Bemax. So was breakfast, with the addition of weak coffee. We slept that night on the floor, where I suddenly realised that I was not alone! I scratched furiously, realising that my short stay in the inside of the old straw sofa had been long enough for its inhabitants to make the most of their opportunity to explore the warm new blood which had suddenly visited them!
There was not much sleep anyway. The guns rumbled intermittently throughout the night. During the following day I played endless games of patience with the pack of Red Cross cards. We were visited by a Frenchman from the local labour camp. He said that attempts would be made that evening to contact the American forces to try to arrange that their assault teams were aware of the position of the labour camp which was full of conscript workers from all over the Continent. He came back about mid-night with another guide and they led us to the river which we crossed in an inflatable rubber boat, as the bridge had been destroyed. We hauled ourselves across by the rope which had been stretched from bank to bank, being greeted on the Allied side by a very suspicious American sergeant with a very large sub-machine gun. He took us back across the fields to a group of houses and handed us over to some MP's who made us empty our belongings on to a table, then called us into another room where we were interrogated by a Major who was the local Army Commander. My ' dog tags ' eventually convinced him that I was not an enemy and the Tank Driver sergeant had little difficulty either. The two ex-Dunkirk PoW Officers were not as easy but eventually he believed their stories. We were given some food and a room to rest in.
Later the following morning we were invited to return to the town. We said goodbye to our young friend who was returned to America and were taken by jeep back along the road. In a few minutes we drove the distance it had taken us hours to cover so painfully a few days before. We crossed the Fulda river by way of a brand new ' Bailey ' bridge and entered the shattered town. We were able to return to the jail house where we found the two young women still hiding in the cellar. In the Police Station we found arms and ammunition for ourselves, then started to arrange a way home. We ' liberated ' an old saloon car which was big enough to hold all five of us - the two soldiers, the two girls, and myself - and persuaded the local American transport officer to fill the tank with petrol, check the oil and tyres and then managed to acquire enough ' C ' rations from the Army for a week. All this, we said, would enable us to return the girls to their home in Frankfurt and then get to an English unit without having to trouble anybody with further transport, rations, or lodging problems! The US Commander smiled somewhat disbelievingly, I thought, but he was so glad to be ' rid ' of us that he gave us an official pass valid for the whole army area back to the Rhine!
We set off about mid-day but the badly rutted roads and frequent halts for check points and priority military traffic made it dusk before we reached Frankfurt and our destination, a small suburban house.
The middle-aged couple who lived there were overjoyed to see their daughter after years of not knowing exactly what had happened to her and welcomed her young friend from the forced labour camp. They eyed warily the three somewhat tattered and nondescript men with them but after a long and involved discussion we entered a very happy home. Our rations provided the basis for a welcome home party - it was now after curfew hour so no other guests could be invited - then eventually we slept in real beds for a change.
It was late the following morning before we could get away and there was a lot to do. First we had to see the local Military Commander, tell him our story again and produce our pass and identify ourselves all over again. It was well into the afternoon before we got away, with passes to take us to Metz where we were to report to a certain unit. We were not much more than halfway there when the lengthening shadows warned us that curfew time would soon be here and we would have to get inside. Fortunately we came across a small inn which was unaccountably deserted. We explored the place cautiously - mindful of ' booby traps ' but found nothing - no people, no food, no beer! Then we noticed the cellar door behind the bar. Down we went, our torches showing a low room with mattresses on the floor, and the ceiling reinforced by thick planks with stout supporting columns - obviously the landlord's Air Raid Shelter. Down here, as upstairs, there were smashed glasses and bottles, relics of the conquering American Army. Sadly we turned to the stairs again - cold, dry ' C ' rations for supper seemed to be our lot. Then we realised that the wine racks were unharmed - the Yanks had drunk all the beer and spirits but didn't fancy the wine! We had another party that night, washing down our rations with plenty of German wine.
We slept late the next morning, but the ' hair of the dog ' got us going again and we reached Metz before dark. We were taken to a commandeered hotel for ' transit personnel ' and given a meal and a bed each whilst someone worked out what to do with us.
In the morning we were interviewed again and then sent out to the airfield. A small plane was about to depart for Brussels and we were booked to go in it. The cloud base was low and we had a very bumpy ride, both my companions being rather air sick. When we reached Brussels there was a welcoming Committee for us. As ' Dunkirk Survivors ' my two companions were taken in tow by Army Intelligence Officers and whisked quickly back to England.
I found myself in the back of a lorry and was taken to an austere reception centre where I stayed for a week. Every day I was taken to a medical centre for treatment for bites and scratches I had received whilst hiding in the straw stuffing of the sofa in the cell. I had to strip naked and be painted from head to foot in some smelly white lotion, then stand there until the stuff dried on me and I could dress myself again.
Some of the rest of my time was spent in recounting my experiences to various intelligence officers and eventually I was allowed to return to England.
I was flown from Brussels to a South Coast airfield and driven to an interrogation centre in London. I re-told my story and there was an official Court of Enquiry into the loss of ' E - Easy '. Eventually I was given a leave pass and a travel warrant. I went to my nearest relatives - an uncle and aunt near Reading, and was there able to telephone my parents and set their minds at rest.
Durnbach War Cemetery: Grave photographs available at high resolution courtesy David Franklin, please contact us if required.
Initially buried at Babenhausen - crew identified by No. 3 MREU on the 20th June 1947 - Reinterred after war end to Durnbach.
Sgt. Harold William Tasker. Durnbach War Cemetery. Grave: 1.E.24. Son of Richard Groves Tasker and Emily Beatrice Tasker, husband of I. Tasker, of Edgware, Middlesex, England. Grave inscription reads: “Not Left To Lie Like Fallen Tree, Not Dead, But Living Unto Thee.”
P/O. Robert Edward Davenport. Durnbach War Cemetery. Grave: 1.E.23. Son of Frank Edward and Louisa Emma Davenport, of Upper Holloway, London, husband of Mary Bertha Davenport, England. Grave inscription reads: “He Have His Life For The Liberation Of Mankind.”
W/O. Lindsay Wilkie Webster. Durnbach War Cemetery. Grave: 1.E.22. Son of Lindsay and Lizzie Webster, of North Bay, Ontario, Canada. Grave inscription reads: “In The Home Of Many Mansions We Shall Meet Him Bye And Bye Mon, Dad, Gord., Bill.”
Sgt. Lionel Leslie Hall. Durnbach War Cemetery. Grave: 1.E.21. Born on 15th January 1924 - Son of Frank William and Ivy Hall, of 74 St. Albans Road, East Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Grave inscription reads: “Loving Son Of Mr. & Mrs. F. Hall Of Geelong, Victoria. Ever Remembered.”
Fl/Sgt. Fred Fearnley. Durnbach War Cemetery. Grave: 1.E.20. Son of Thomas and Anice Fearnley, husband of Eveline Fearnley, of Blackpool, Lancashire, England. Grave inscription reads: “One Of The Best. Gute Nacht. Und Gott Sei Mit Dir.” (Good night. And God be with you)
Researched with information supplied by David Mole and Dess Moss. Grave photographs courtesy of Davis Franklin. With thanks to sources as quoted below. Also to 10 Squadron Association for the memorial photo at Melbourne.
Note: Grave photographs available at high resolution courtesy David, please contact us if required.