The final flight of Halifax LL510
is a true story of a "ditching" which happened to a Royal Air
Force aircrew of Squadron No. 518 on 21st November, 1944 based on the Isle
of Tiree in the Outer Hebrides, flying a Halifax aircraft No. LL510.
operational duty of this Squadron was to obtain and collate meteorological
data over the North Atlantic, the main sortie being the Bismuth sector 600
miles due west. Depending on the weather condition this could produce a
flight of around 11 hours.
Because of the length of the flight all aircraft were given an air test
by the duty crew on the day of the operational sortie, to ensure all aspects
of the aircraft were in tip-top condition. I was the navigator of this crew,
which numbered 8, but on this air test we were joined by an engine fitter
who "came along for the ride".
after we were airborne, the starboard outer engine caught fire. My skipper
"feathered the propeller" and pressed the fire extinguisher button
but nothing happened, if anything the fire seemed to increase. The flames
were so intense the skipper realised that it would be impossible to make
a circuit and return to base, so he decided to "ditch" and sent
out a "Mayday" signal. Looking at the fire, which stretched from
the engine to the tail fin, I was concerned that the tip of the wing might
break off due to the heat, in which case we would have spun in; or that
the fire would reach a petrol tank and cause us to explode. The recent Concorde
fire made me think that our situation could have been identical, except
that we were over water.
Despite a 30ft swell, the skipper sat the aircraft on the water spot on.
The perspex nose of a Halifax contained an immersion switch which, on contact
with the water, blew up a dinghy stowed in one of the wing housings. We
all had various positions to take up in such an emergency, mine was lying
on the floor with my feet braced against the main spar. To give me moral
support my arms were wrapped around our met observer, who was lying between
On contact with the Atlantic Ocean the nose broke up, a wall of green water
rushed towards us and I thought my number was up. When people comment that
in situations like this "one's life flashes before you", I can
certainly vouch for it. Fortunately, we all scrambled out of the escape
hatches free of injury, except our skipper who sustained a scratch to his
face. The relief of seeing the dinghy bobbing up and down in the water was
Our "Mayday" signal, transmitted seconds before the ditching,
resulted in the following activities:-
In spite of all this rescue activity we were not yet out of danger. The
water surrounding our ditched Halifax was a sea of petrol. In the middle,
to our horror, was a fuel tank that had broken lose which was bobbing around
with flames issuing from a hole. Our luck was in that day, however, and
the aviation fuel did not go up; had it done so, it would surely have taken
the entire crew with it.
- An American Airforce Liberator was heading our way.
- A Sunderland flying boat was flying up from Northern
- A RN Corvette was steaming up from Northern Ireland.
- The CO of our station rushed down to dispersal and
ordered the only available aircraft (which had been declared unserviceable)
to be started up.
- A local fisherman, living on the island of Tiree,
was rowing out to our assistance.
- An Air-sea Rescue squadron, based on the island with
us, was scrambled.
- Finally a small RN minesweeper - HMS Flanders, operating
a few miles north, saw the Halifax ditch and steamed south at full speed.
Initially there was not enough room in the dinghy for all nine crew to sit
on the edge. Three of us (yours truly included) were forced to kneel in
the well of the dinghy with a load of water which we had to bail out. The
situation was marginally improved when the Air-sea Rescue aircraft from
Tiree arrived on station and dropped a further dinghy. Myself and two colleagues
transferred to the second boat, but it was still no picnic! Our dicey predicament,
floundering in a 30ft swell in the North Atlantic on a bleak November day,
was eased significantly with the arrival of HMS Flanders. She delicately
manoeuvred alongside us to pick up eight airmen and a much-relieved fitter
who was more than happy to be out of the "drink"!
| I was lifted from the dinghy onto the
deck of the minesweeper and immediately collapsed. The ship's skipper came
along the deck with a stone keg of naval rum, which he administered to us
The crew of the Flanders were fantastic - they plied us with hot soup, warm
food, more rum, and then fitted us out with survivor's gear. I came ashore
dressed completely, down to my shoes and socks, as an Able Seaman - and
with a stomach full of rum!
at the station word soon flashed around that we had crashed, but initially
no details were available. Many of the WAAFs were deeply distressed - or
so we were told. When we docked at Tiree Port we were greeted by the Medical
Officer (with the Station Blood Wagon and more rum) together with most of
the senior pilots who had raided all the available aircraft for Verey pistols
and cartridges in order to welcome us with a firework display. That night
the MO packed us off to bed in the hospital where we were all given a sleeping
pill, but no one slept as the skipper of the ship paid us a visit with yet
were all given survivor's leave. One of our wireless operators, who had
not contacted his mother by phone or letter, was greeted by her on knocking
on the door with the words "you've been in an accident"!
In conclusion, due to the skill of our skipper Flt/Lt Freddy Green who was
in my view the best of the best on 518 Squadron, we all lived to tell the
W/O J.R.S. BRISTOW
4th July 2002
If you have not yet read Part 1 of this story