Friday, 29 June 2012

How to Evade Capture - Top Tips: The Reality Part One

Lancaster Aircrew

Lancasters on a Daylight Raid

Lancaster - Hamburg 1943

Aircrew Return After an Op - 1943

1) If you have landed at night and are not badly injured, count your blessings. You are mobile and still free.

This scenario applied to RAF and Commonwealth airmen as the Americans did not bomb by night. A mixture of good fortune and skill was required to reach the point where they had landed relatively uninjured and could put their evasion training into practice.

Although some aircraft suffered engine trouble, ran out of fuel or sustained damage in other circumstances e.g. minor collision with another aircraft or land based obstructions, most aircrew were forced to bale out as a result of damage by enemy fighters or flak. Fire was often raging and at heights of anything up to 22,000 feet there was no choice but to abandon aircraft.

The airman who reached the escape hatch uninjured had survived the first tests. There had no been direct hit from flak which either liquidated the aircraft immediately or caused it to dive out of control with any surviving crew having little chance of getting out.

The aircraft would have been raked by cannon shells from enemy fighters (often from underneath at close range) or damaged by flak explosions gouging holes in the fuselage and peppering the inside with red hot shrapnel. Airmen were often killed or wounded in this way and also injured after being thrown around in the aircraft. Fires wreaked havoc. With heavy bombs, incendiaries and petrol on board it was a race against time to try to stave off any further enemy attacks, stay out of searchlights, extinguish the fire and if necessary jettison the bomb load before the aircraft was consumed in flames, no longer responded to controls or exploded.

When they returned to England, evaders F/O Robert Clements (RCAF) and F/O Jimmy Elliott described in detail in the official ‘Loss of Aircraft on Operation Report’ what happened to them on a raid to Dusseldorf. It encapsulates the reality, incredible discipline, reaction to events and decision making that happened so many times . It also illustrates what the evader would often have experienced before baling out and finally landing.

‘…the Lancasterwas attacked without further warning from underneath and dead astern. The aircraft was raked by a short burst of cannon fire from the stern to the rear end of the bomb bay. The Bomb Aimer saw yellow tracer coming up on either side of the nose at an angle of about 45 degrees. Nothing more was heard from either gunner who may well have been killed in the attack, but as far as is known no damage was done to the controls. Both the cockpit and the fore compartment were filled with acrid smoke and a smell of burning, so the second pilot opened his window.

The Bomb Aimer looked in his inspection panel and saw a can of incendiaries beginning to sparkle, so he immediately jettisoned the whole bomb load. The smoke was increasing and in his panel he could see much smoke and some fire just aft of the bomb bay and close to the flare chute. He reported this to the Pilot who ordered the Wireless Operator aft to deal with the fire. The Flight Engineer appeared to be wasting valuable time hooking on an oxygen bottle and the second Pilot suggested that they should go below oxygen level. The Pilot replied that they were already down to 10,000 feet as a result of the steep diving turn to port which he had executed immediately they were attacked. He now pulled out of his dive and flew straight and level on the reciprocal course to that he had been following before the attack.

After the Flight Engineer had been gone about half a minute the second Pilot suggested to the Pilot that he should go back and assist in fighting the fire also. The Pilot agreed but asked F/O Clements (second Pilot) to return and make a report to him on the condition of the fire. He therefore took a fire extinguisher from beside the Pilots seat and went aft. He found that the fire was situated close to the flare chute and that the photo flash which had not been jettisoned or exploded was well alight. He tried to push the flash out but was unable to do so. While he was making this attempt the Pilot opened the bomb doors again, but there was such a rush of flame along the whole length of the bay that he closed the doors immediately. The ammunition was now starting to explode and F/O Clements expected that the photo flash would do so at any moment. He went forward and reported to the pilot that the fire could not be controlled. All the time the Wireless Operator had been fighting the fire he had remained plugged in to the intercom and kept reporting progress. He also now reported that all the extinguishers had been used and that the fire was uncontrollable. The Pilot therefore gave the order to abandon the aircraft.’

Elliott and Clements put on their parachutes and correctly exited the aircraft first and second. The report states ‘Directly the order to bale out was given the second Pilot picked up a parachute and placed it on the pilots lap. He then hooked on his own and went forward.’

The Navigator who became a POW was the only other survivor of the eight men. Eyewitnesses that night reported seeing two aircraft crash and one explode in the air. Post war information has the aircraft as crashing and casualties being initially buried at St Truiden. There were no indications at the time Elliott and Clements left that the pilot did not have control of the aircraft, and it was flying at a reasonable height. Assuming both the gunners were dead, the Wireless Operator, Flight Eengineer and Pilot should have had time to bale out.


Once an airman had safely put his parachute on and reached the escape hatch, although he had received parachute drill training, he faced the prospect of baling out with no previous experience of making an actual jump. If the aircraft was still being fired at, flak would be bursting around. If that did not cause death or injury, one red hot sliver could set fire to the parachute canopy once opened.

The force of the parachute opening sometimes caused problems. Evader Navigator Herbert Spiller of 103 Squadron pulled the rip ring of his chute whilst looking down instead of turning his head to one side. His face took the full force of the parachute clipped to his chest opening and knocked him unconscious.

Drifting down from around 22,000 feet would take at least 20 minutes. The airman faced the prospect of not knowing where he would land and also the ground rushing up at the last moment could cause injury, especially if the surface was not clear and flat. The force of landing was estimated to be the equivalent of jumping off the top of a double Decker bus.

Herbert Spiller regained consciousness. In the darkness he could vaguely make out the ground in the distance below. As the earth rushed up he felt another jolt of pain as he made contact and lost consciousness again.

He woke with rain dripping down his neck and pressure under his armpits. In addition to pain in his head and neck, he now had discomfort in his legs. He was swinging from side to side and up through the darkness could make out his parachute canopy hanging entangled in the branches of trees. He could not see the ground, so opting to take a chance he pressed the release button on his chute. He seemed to fall for an eternity before crashing to the ground and slipping into unconsciousness for the third time that night.

When Spiller came to he was wracked with pain, but could at least move his legs. The soft leaves underfoot had cushioned his fall and the pads on the Mae West had helped protect his head and chest. He had to get as far away as possible from the hanging parachute. Germans would be searching nearby if the aircraft had crashed in the vicinity. After chewing some caffeine tablets from his escape kit he forced himself to move. Spiller had lost a boot during his descent, so cut a piece from the Mae West to cover his foot. He got to his feet and staggered off. Breathing with rattles and gasps and barely being able to stand he struggled along with chest and back pain and although he didn’t know it, a cracked rib.


RAF Navigator F/O Maurice Garlick of 12 Squadron had taken off with his crew from Wickenby on 3rd May 1944 on a disastrous raid to Mailly-le-Camp. They had dropped their bombs and were hit from underneath by a night fighter. With the port wing and engines ablaze, the order was given to abandon aircraft.

Garlick baled out successfully and all went well until just before the ground when he hit something. There was a flash and bang and he was thrown into unconsciousness. He came to, lying in a wheat field. Both legs were useless and the pain from them was horrendous. Parts of his trousers were blackened and his legs were badly burned. He spotted a high tension cable lying nearby and knew he had hit overhead power lines. He pulled his parachute over to keep warm, then cut open his trouser legs, took off his flying boots and started to bandage his legs from strips torn from the parachute. Eventually he drifted into a pain wracked sleep.

He woke at dawn and knew he would have to get away. Soon someone would arrive to investigate the damaged high tension cable and the enemy would already have started searching. By pulling himself along he crawled to the edge of the field where he buried his chute and helmet. He could see a wood about two miles away to the South East and decided that he would make that his target. He could crawl and take frequent rests, keep to the edges of fields and lie in bushes and hollows. He would need to make use of every aspect of field craft and survival instruction to stand the remotest chance of avoiding discovery by the enemy. His legs were in a bad way, the prospects looked hopeless...

Sources - National Archives Files
Ticket to Freedom - H J Spiller
Shot Down and on the Run - Air Commodore Graham Pitchfork

© Keith Morley


  1. Thank you for sharing Keith, it's difficult to understand how ordinary men, who previously had ordinary lives, coped under such hideously stressful conditions.

    I enjoyed reading your article, great pictures too.

  2. Great photos!!! Haven't read the article yet but will do.

  3. You can't leave it like that! Did he make it??

  4. More of Spiller's and Garlick's stories next week Sally and the Americans will also feature. In the 60's the BBC showed a WW2 escape drama 'The Long Way Home' - couldn't be a more fitting title.

  5. ‘Think of them. You did not die as these
    Caged in an aircraft that did not return….’

    Taken from the moving poem, ‘The Lost’ by Herbert Corby, this is what sprang to mind for me when reading here of the Aircrew’s massive ordeals. Yet out they went night after night to an uncertain fate. Yes they were brave but also scared. If they should not fulfill any such duty they were in danger of having the label LMF or ‘lack of moral fibre’ attributed to them. Some suffered terrible burns after their planes were attacked.The Guinea Pig Club was the name given to the pilots injured in the Battle of Britain who were treated by Sir Archibald McIndoe at the burns unit of Queen Victoria's Hospital in East Grinstead, West Sussex. The Guinea Pigs were given this name simply because McIndoe had no choice but to try out his ideas on the men as he had no book to refer to or guide him. The club was meant to have been disbanded when the war ended but it did not. As the war progressed, the type of patient treated at the burns unit changed from fighter pilots to bomber crews. In the final year of the war, 80% of those treated at the burns unit were from bomber crews. So if our aircrew managed to survive an attack but baled out, there were a whole set of other obstacles to their evasion ‘One woe doth tread upon another’s heels, so fast they follow’. The odds stacked against them- our evaders had to just keep going and use their initiative. From ‘The Lost’ again which asks us directly,
    ‘Think of those who dreamed and loved as you
    And gave their laughter, gave their sun and snow,
    Their grave blessed by their native dew
    That you would live. To them this debt you owe.
    Their glory shines about the sky forever.’
    But, there is still hope for our evaders in this post as they are battling on and shall not become the lost. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” (Darwin.) Well done on another involving post Keith, as we await further news on our aircrews’ survival....