Kingston Boy “Safe in Britain,” 1945 FLYING OFFICER STUART CRAWFORD (RET)
We were at 17,500 feet, on track and on time. It would take fifteen minutes to fly through the defenses of Hamburg. From my position I could see everything around me and all hell was breaking loose. There were many searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, and I could see puffs of black smoke all around, quite spectacular, but all was calm in our aircraft.
I joined the air force when I was twenty, to be a photographer. I’d been working for the Whig-Standard in Kingston as a paper boy, and the circulation manager there was also a photographer. He taught me everything I knew, and when he joined the air force photography department, he said, “We have a great photography department in Ottawa; why don’t you join us?”
When I reported, I was interviewed in Ottawa and was told I qualified for aircrew. I figured, why not take a chance? I didn’t want to get seasick in the navy, and I didn’t want to walk, which would have been the army, so I thought, well, flying might be better. It took two years’ training all over southern Ontario—Belleville, Trenton, Fingal, and London—and then I continued in Britain.
I ended up as a bomb aimer in the 419 Moose Squadron in 6 Group Bomber Command. We were in a Lancaster with a seven-man crew. Five of us were up front—a wireless operator, a navigator, a flight engineer, the pilot, and me. I sat beside the navigator. We were behind a curtain, so we couldn’t see much of anything, but we were quite comfortable—warm really—although crowded. I couldn’t complain, though. The poor tail and mid-upper gunners were operating in minus-forty-degree temperatures. It wasn’t nice back there!
On the morning of April 8, 1945, we were told we would be flying over Germany that night. The excitement started in the briefing room. It wasn’t fear, just extreme tension. Groans, mutterings, and chatter started up. You paid attention to every word that was spoken, particularly those of us who were navigators and bomb aimers because there was a tremendous amount of memory work involved—the tracks we were supposed to take, turning points, latitude and longitude, temperatures, wind and drift, plus much more. And, the target was Hamburg! That was a famous target, one of the heaviest in Europe.
I had a premonition before that particular trip. So much so that I went to see the padre. He asked if I wanted a prayer. “No,” I said. “It’s going to be an interesting evening, but it’s not going to be fatal.” That’s what I felt. Excitement somehow, and that it was going to be different. I also told the crew and my friend Len.
Every time we went down the runway, the ground crew waved to us and gave us a thumbs-up. With an aircraft like that we had fourteen thousand pounds of dynamite and two thousand gallons of high-test gasoline, and if something went wrong, we were goners. That night, I was looking out the window and guess who I saw at the end of the runway? The padre! I wasn’t a particularly religious person, but he was there, and I saw him giving me the thumbs-up.
The flight out was uneventful—if you could call a trip like that uneventful. It was the middle of the night, and there were 440 aircraft going on to the target. None of us had lights on. With 440 aircraft,
that’s a field about eighteen miles long by five miles wide. So we had to keep a sharp eye out!
Twenty minutes before target, I did my last fix on the Gee radar set, plotted it, then moved from the navigator table to the dark bomb aimer’s position in the nose of the Lancaster to set up the bombsight and the many switches on the bomb aimer’s panel. We were at 17,500 feet, on track and on time. It would take fifteen minutes to fly through the defenses of Hamburg. From my position I could see everything around me and all hell was breaking loose. There were many searchlights and anti-aircraft guns, and I could see puffs of black smoke all around, quite spectacular, but all was calm in our aircraft. Hugh, the skipper, and myself were the only ones talking.
I could see the fake target ahead to the right and the correct coloured markers dropped by the Pathfinder aircraft ahead on the Blohm & Voss Shipyards.
“Bomb doors open!” I called. I began directing Hugh—“left, left, steady”—lining up the coloured flares in the bombsight. Then I pressed the bomb-release button and called out, “Bombs gone!” What a great relief. We dropped down to a lower altitude to avoid night fighters.
The next thing I knew, our starboard engine was on fire! We were able to put it out swiftly, but then I saw a fighter flare at eleven o’clock high. I informed the skipper and moved up to my two guns, but I couldn’t use them because they operated off the starboard inner engine. That’s when things got interesting. The starboard outer engine caught on fire, but we managed to put it out.
We began to lose altitude quickly. The skipper called and asked my opinion on our options ahead. We were down to three thousand feet, and I replied that if we went southwest, we would fly into the mountains. If west, most of the Ruhr was in German hands and their flack would get us. If northwest, the Canadians would get us as their guns were set to fire on anything at three thousand feet or below to
take care of the flying bombs. And flying northeast was over occupied Holland and the North Sea and we didn’t care to swim.
“Prepare to abandon aircraft,” Skipper ordered. Then he turned to me and said calmly that he’d like to get out of this and could I tie down his rudder pedal so he could trim the aircraft to fly straight and level. I did and it worked! We were down to two thousand feet. It was time to go.
I quickly put on my parachute, pulled up the escape hatch, and jumped out headfirst. Four others followed me and the gunners went out the back. I had to pull on my rip cord after just three seconds because we were so low. There was a great swish as the parachute opened, and I was amazed how quiet it was going down! Then I heard our aircraft crash and saw it burning. I hoped everyone got out.
In seconds, I was on my back on a tile roof, ten inches from the side, and my parachute was twisted around the chimney. It was now 11:35 p.m. and I was in the middle of Germany! My next thought was: Is there an unhappy farmer around with a shotgun? No one appeared. I was about ten feet off the ground, so I jumped down and started off.
Then I heard two blasts from a whistle. It was our mid-upper gunner, Curly, hiding behind a tree. There is a bit of humor in all of this as before Curly and the rear gunner jumped, they were on about something, so I asked Curly, who was semi-bald, what had been going on. It was quite simple. Curly had yelled back to the rear gunner to bring his hat because he didn’t want to catch cold. But the rear gunner was nowhere near us now! Luckily, it was a mild night.
We carefully removed all the identification from our uniforms and started out. When we had been walking for some time, we heard trucks approaching. We had no idea if they were looking for us, but weren’t about to wait to find out. Leaping down into a ditch filled with water, we spread-eagled ourselves just above the murky surface. The last thing we needed was to get sopping wet. As the trucks rumbled
by, we didn’t dare look up to see whether they were good guys or bad guys; we knew we’d get shot either way. We waited a few minutes, then crawled out and set off again. We looked for a place to hide. I pulled some boards off a shed, thinking maybe we could hunker down for an uneasy rest inside, but some wood tumbled out. Since that didn’t work, we kept moving.
It was around 5 a.m. when we came upon a village. No one was in sight, but we were surprised by what we saw—white bedsheets hanging out of the windows and slung over the doors.
“They’ve surrendered,” I said. I couldn’t help but think, Maybe we’re okay.
A bedsheet flapped from a flagpole in the square right in the middle of the village, and Curly shimmied up the pole and pulled down the flannel sheet. He was taking his chances with that stunt, but still no one appeared. We stowed the sheet away. Dawn was breaking, and with it came a great lot of noise—a motor pool or tanks warming up. I knew we had to find somewhere else to hide and quickly!
We made our way to the outskirts of a town and found a barn set back some distance. We were in luck. The chickens had just laid eggs, which we devoured. That was the first time I had raw eggs for breakfast, but they satisfied the worst of our hunger. We clambered up into the loft, which was filled with piles of warm, scratchy straw. I poked about and soon discovered a loose roof tile I could lift to peek outside. The farmer had emerged from his house, and I hoped he hadn’t heard us over the clucking of the chickens. I took it as a good sign when he didn’t have a shotgun on him. He turned almost immediately and went back into the house and didn’t come back.
I peered out again from my little vantage point and spied a highway off in the distance. There were streams of people and tanks and trucks. The latter were emblazoned with stars.
“We’re home free,” I said. “They’re Allies!” We scrambled down and ran out.
Refugees by the hundreds were hauling wagons and whatever else they could and had filled them with belongings. I tried to discover where they were coming from with what little German I knew.
Eventually, we arrived at an intersection where a military policeman was directing traffic. With some effort, I convinced him who we were and he called a jeep that took us to Osnabrück. I’d never seen anything like it. It was bombed out, with rubble on all sides. We went through to what had been a school—the name “Kindergarten” was on the building. We went into a tent where we sat down in front of a British army major of the British Second Army.
“What direction did you come from?” he asked.
I told him.
“Look at our tent,” he said. It was filled with holes. “A few hours earlier, it was shot up by Hitler Youth. You walked through their territory and right through minefields. I think that I had better keep you out of any more trouble.” He then summoned another jeep for us.
As we drove along the Dortmund–Ems Canal, a flash of red caught my eye in the only building standing near the town of Rheine.
“Stop!” I called out to the driver.
We made our way into the building, and I could see what I had spied from the outside. There were flags everywhere—swastikas, parade flags, and other insignia. I grabbed one large flag and some small flags. On the way out, we were stopped by a military policeman.
“Sir, what are you doing in there?”
“We’re liberating these flags,” I said, waving one of them.
“The building is booby-trapped!” he said.
I couldn’t help but mutter to myself, “Stupid airman.”
That’s when the jeep driver said, “I’d better take you where you’re supposed to go.”
We ended up at a small air base at Burgsteinfurt where we met Air Commodore Boyle of the Royal Air Force (RAF) 2nd Tactical Air Force in support of the British Second Army. He asked us if we
wanted to fly back to Holland with him. “I’ll show you some of your work and some of our work along the way. But, you’ll have to keep your eyes open as we aren’t safe yet.”
“I’m not going to fly anymore,” Curly said.
“Well, I’ll be damned if I’m going to walk anymore,” I replied.
So, the air commodore and I took off on a great trip at two thousand feet above the Rhine River. He pointed out tanks that had been shot up by Typhoon aircraft and the city of Wesel—which was absolutely flattened—then we crossed the border and he flew me around the crumbled Philips Radio factory which had been the Gestapo headquarters in Eindhoven, Holland.
After our little tour, we landed on the first fairway of the golf course in our small aircraft. On entering the Golf Club, I was greeted by Group Captain Paul Davoud of Kingston, a friend of my brother. He made sure I got first-class treatment in Eindhoven and a trip back to England the very next day.
Back in England, I was escorted by a flight lieutenant in a private train coach to London to be interviewed by MI9. I knew MI9 well—they were military intelligence, the ones who trained us on evading and who set up all the escape routes in Europe. When we got to London, they quizzed me for two days. They replaced my grubby clothes with a new uniform, socks, shirt, and shoes, and I was fed well. When they were finally done with me, I made my way to air force headquarters and ran into yet another friend of the family, Corporal Jackson. Seems that Kingston men were everywhere!
I asked Jackson, “Am I dead or alive?”
“Wait a minute,” he said, “let me check my files.” He rifled through them. “You’re dead.”
“Oh, no!” I said, my heart sinking. “That means my parents got the telegram.”
“Don’t worry,” Jackson replied, and he quickly sent a telegram to my parents saying that I was okay.
Unknown to me, my brother Sergeant Don was coming through London on his way to my squadron to pick up my personal effects, having received a telegram that I was missing. Guess what? Don ran into Corporal Jackson, who asked him where he was going.
Don replied, “I’m going to Stu’s squadron to get his personal effects.”
“Don’t bother,” Jackson told him. “I was speaking to him, and he is safe.”
What about the premonition I’d had when I went to talk to the padre? And I also told my good friend Len about it. Normally, when aircrew go missing, airmen on the station will divide up their goodies, but Len had grabbed my gear and said, “You’re not touching a thing. He’ll be back!” And I was. In three days. Safe and sound! I later found out that the entire crew survived too.
During the war, we ran into an emergency, but we all did what we were supposed to do. Like everyone else in the war, we were just ordinary people doing what was expected of us. And we did it well!
The experience in the war made me feel like I could do things I never could before. Go back to school, do algebra and geometry and other subjects I wanted. Even go to university! I ended up working at the Whig-Standard again. First as a newspaper carrier and then as circulation manager. I am also a member of the Caterpillar Club, which means I saved my life by parachute.
Postscript: Postwar Kingston Connections
My brother Don, Group Captain Paul Davoud, and I had many coffee breaks at the restaurant next door to the Whig-Standard. Paul also kept me informed about Air Commodore Boyle, later Sir Dermot Boyle.
There were three former Whig-Standard paperboys on the squad
ron, and another was one of my customers. We all lived within blocks of each other and kept in touch postwar.
Our skipper, Hugh Cram, stayed in the air force and became the pilot for royalty as a wing commander. I spoke at his funeral in 2004.