Sunday, 26 May 2013

Evasion and the Animals Part Two

Apologies for the late post - it was not possible to access the online American escape and evasion records at NARA last week due to update and maintenance work. I was originally going to include two stories in the post, but they both warrant separate attention.  

In the Middle East during World War Two, MI9 ran its escape and evasion operations from Cairo. The initial fate of airmen shot down in the desert could often rest on a matter of luck as it did in Nazi occupied Europe. Airmen operating over the desert areas were issued with ‘goolie chits’ which explained in Arabic that Arabs would be rewarded if they helped airmen return to their own lines. For an aviator attempting to evade through endless miles of parched landscape,  it often become a simple matter of whose side the Arabs were on when an  approach for help was made.
Cairo 1942
Wrecked enemy aircraft at Derna Airport
On 31 May 1942 Sergeant Michael Mackintosh of RAF 148 Squadron took off as second pilot in a Wellington detailed to bomb Derna aerodrome. As the crew prepared for a second bombing run over the target, they were attacked by an Me109 night fighter. The Wellington was badly damaged with fire breaking out on the wing. Its starboard engine became inoperable and the hydraulics system had partially failed resulting in the aircraft’s undercarriage lowering of its own accord. The pilot, Flying Officer Bill Astell (who was later killed on the Dams Raid with 617 Squadron) managed to jettison the remaining bombs before the fighter attacked again. Mackintosh was attempting to pump the undercarriage up by hand when he was badly shot up in the elbow from the fighter’s strafe. The force of the attack threw him back into the bomb aimer’s panel. Mackintosh reported:
‘…I only had feeling up to my elbow. When I looked at my arm it was in fact still there but appeared to be only just hanging on and was twisting and swinging in all directions, with blood pouring from the wound. It was not a very pleasant sensation.’
The situation in the aircraft worsened with fire burning in the fuselage and it’s instrument panel shattered. The wireless operator had a leg wound and the pilot had no choice but to give the order abandon aircraft. Mackintosh’s right arm was useless, so the navigator (Bish Dodds) had to fasten on the parachute. With the aircraft losing height, Mackintosh described what happened next.
‘Bish picked up my dangling right arm and put my fingers around the rip cord handle, but it fell away. I again replaced it, but again it fell away as I opened the trap door. The only way was to put my left hand over my right to stop it falling…’
The plan worked, and Mackintosh was able to bale out, pull the rip cord and collapse into ‘a curled up position’ on the ground after making a heavy rough landing from 2000 feet:
‘For a few seconds I was unable to move. To listen to oneself groaning, and being unable to stop was a most unpleasant sensation. I finally stood up. My helmet was missing and bombs were falling all around me. My field service cap was in the shoulder strap of my battledress, so I removed it and tucked it under my right armpit, hoping to bring some force to bear on the pressure point and so to check the flow of blood from my injured arm.’
Mackintosh picked out the North star and set off  in a south easterly direction with his arms folded across his body and a damaged desert boot and heel impeding his walking.
After a quarter of an hour he met one of his crew, gunner Fred Hooper who had elected to head north.  Hooper was able to temporarily patch up the wound and attend to Macintosh’s other arm which was also injured. Mackintosh took up the story:
‘We then set off on a desert track, but soon I had to stop as I was not feeling very well, to the extent that I told Fred to go it alone and leave me. He was very reluctant to leave me but I finally persuaded him to go on, so once again I was alone.’
After reaching and looking for survivors in his own burnt out aircraft, he moved on staying with the desert track, but was in a bad way:
‘…walking for about two to three hours, all seemed to be going quite well. My brain was quite clear and I was taking stock of all around me but I could not keep up the pace I had set myself ‘and just as dawn broke I had to stop for a rest,  so sat down and then lay on the sand - in retrospect very foolishly.
I became very cold and decided I must move on, but this was easier said than done as I seemed to be glued to the ground and it took several attempts before I finally got to my feet. From a nearby wadi* I could hear the sound of sheep and goats and the voice of an Arab. I knew Senussi Arabs had helped other airmen to evade being captured from behind enemy line, so I decided to go to them and hope they were friendly. At this stage I was leaving a trail of blood behind me and flies were beginning to attack my wounded arm so it was now time to try and find help.’

Desert Wadi
He approached the wadi which contained three tents and staggered up to an alarmed Arab tending the sheep and goats:
‘I greeted him in Arabic telling him I was English and needed food and water and asked if he was a friend of the English. He replied that the English were good and the Italians bad. He then led me down to the farm and into a tent where I was greeted by all present including the Sheik, Braiham Haarak, an old man with a grey beard.’
Another Arab entered the tent and he spoke some English. Yadem Addual Mustaffa Said removed Mackintosh’s bandages, washed and cleaned the wounds, applying some powder before re-bandaging the most seriously injured arm with clean dressings.
After declining an offer of food and drinking two glasses of goats milk, the airman left with the two Arabs. They took him to a cave to hide in during the day, placing a blanket on the floor and rolling a boulder across the entrance. It was a sensible move, as Mackintosh could hear aircraft engines being tested nearby and had seen German fighters in the air. Searches for him in the area were a certainty and his condition was deteriorating further:
‘It was not long before the flies started to disturb me and I noticed several bug-like insects being attracted to the exposed parts of my body, particularly my injured arm…About midday Yadem returned with milk and water, but the food he brought I refused.’
He was unable to stand without Yadem’s help and had almost reached the end:
‘…when he left me to go back into the cave to fetch the blanket, I fell down and all went blank. I think he thought I was going to die, and wanted to take me to the nearest German hospital, but this gave me the incentive.  I needed to get up once again and once up I stayed up, but only with the help of the rocks nearby. We later reached the farm and all was well.’
So ‘all was well.’ Mackintosh could barely move himself around, his right arm was virtually useless, infection had started to threaten the wound, insects were attacking the open areas of his body and the Germans were certain to be closing in. It was fortuitous that he did not know what lay ahead as regards his travel arrangements.    
The next day we again set out but not to the same cave. As before Yadem returned during the day with milk and water but as he was about to leave, motor vehicles were heard coming down the wadi. They stopped in front of the cave and I could hear car doors slam and raised voices. Yadem told me to say that he had just found me and was about to hand me over. When we finally looked out we saw four armoured cars about twenty yards away, stuck in the sand, but finally they made off towards the farm. In the evening when Yadem returned he said they were looking for me, looking for an ‘English Major’ who had been shot down at Derna, my name being clearly marked on my abandoned parachute.’
The cave was 10 kilometres away from the farm where Mackintosh had been resting at night. The airman had doubts about continuing the daily journey and also the dangers to Yadem. He told him:
‘I said I was going to try as soon as dusk fell to make for the British lines at Gazala, but he said I was not well enough and if I waited a few days he would arrange something, so I agreed. We set off having had a make-do sling for my arm and it was a little easier but I still had to hang on to Yadem. To urge me on, Yadem kept telling me how the cave was just in front or just around the next bend in the wadi. I was all in, and realized I would have to rest for a few days so they left me a good supply of water and then set off back to the farm. By following the shadow in the cave entrance around, as the day went on I tried to estimate the time.’  
Mackintosh made another worrying observation:
‘I noticed maggots, not only on the blanket but my elbow as well. There were too many to brush off. In actual fact, as I found out later they were saving my arm by eating away the infection.’
Yadem visited the cave later, made up some lemonade for him and outlined a plan the Arabs had devised for an escape:
‘They were going to take me to a British patrol but to do this they would have to borrow a camel and I would have to sign a chit to enable them to borrow one.’ (Presumably with Mackintosh’s left hand!) ‘We set off and all the village came out to see us off. They told me the next time I flew over to drop them tea and sugar. After one days travel we came to another Arab encampment where I was made very welcome, and in the roofs of the tents were letters from RA and Army personnel who had passed through.
By now I was getting tired of riding on a camel. I was sitting at its back and my legs were getting rubbed raw by the continual back and fore motion of the animal but we finally reached a wadi where we met a British officer and two signalmen. They were members of the Long Range Desert Group observing German troop movements on the Benghazi/Derna road.’
Mackintosh’s experiences of traveling on animals did not end there as he recounted with an interesting addition:
‘By now I was all in. One of the soldiers gave me a drink and when I asked what it was, he said it was issue rum. A signal was sent to Cairo for a patrol to meet up with us and while waiting for them I met the famous Popski and his Private Army. He told of some of his experiences and I realised what wonderful men they were.  I travelled on his horse to meet the patrol of the LRDG and so well was the patrol camouflaged that we were on top of them before we saw them.’
He waited for the three vehicle New Zealand patrol to arrive accompanied by a British doctor. The journey to the oasis took three days where he was picked up by Red Cross aircraft and flown to Cairo and an RAF hospital. He had somehow survived:
‘They wanted to take me on a stretcher but having got this far on my own two feet I declined. It was now 26 June.’

Long Range Desert Group - IWM E13 12385
There is little to add to a narrative full of courage, fortitude and again the huge  underplay of how it really was. Mackintosh’s elbow was rebuilt by surgeons and although his right arm was two inches shorter and remained painful, it was saved. Had he been picked up during the early part of the evasion, German or British doctors would almost certainly have amputated it.  

Mackintosh in later photo on camel - M F Mackintosh 

Sergeant Michael Mackintosh - M F Mackintosh

National Archives

Free To Fight Again  - Alan Cooper - Recommended Reading

Later this week – In the final part of Evasion and the Animals - the cow which helped an American P-47 pilot climb over the Pyrenees.


  1. It is amazing what a person will endure. Maggots - uggh. Although they did save his arm, still uggh.

  2. Quite a graphic story and not one for the squeamish. Amazing to think that if he had got picked up in the early stages of the evasion by either side, they would have amputated the arm. As it turned out, a Canadian surgeon made a new elbow joint out of the bone that was left. After this the arm used to 'grind like a coffee machine' when he moved it, but he still had it. After the war Mackintosh went into teaching and eventually became head of department at a school in Scotland. One of the subjects he taught was cricket!

  3. Another interesting article by Keith. Here follows some history of this therapy. Maggots have been known for centuries to help heal wounds. Military surgeons noted that soldiers whose wounds became infested with maggots had better outcomes than those not infested. William Baer, while at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, may have been the first in the Northern Hemisphere to have intentionally applied larvae to wounds in order to induce wound healing. During the late 1920's, he identified specific species, raised them in the laboratory, and used their larvae to treat several children with osteomyelitis and soft tissue infections. He presented his findings at a surgical conference in 1929. Two years later, after treating 98 children, his findings were published posthumously.
    Maggot therapy was successfully and routinely performed by thousands of physicians throughout the 1930’s, but soon it was supplanted by the new antibiotics and surgical techniques that came out of World War II. Maggot therapy was occasionally used during the 1970's and 1980's, but only when antibiotics, surgery, and modern wound care failed to control the advancing wound.
    “We shall heal our wounds, collect our dead and continue fighting.”
    Mao Zedong.

  4. Great article about 'Major Mac' he taught me both maths and cricket at the school Keith mentioned. I remember him bowling but not the arm he was using!

  5. Many thanks for your comment. Good to hear from someone who remembers the Major. Many of my posts are around the human stories. Personal memories and anecdotes are greatly appreciated and always add an extra dimension.. Curious to know what school it was. Somewhere in Scotland, I believe.

  6. The school in question was Crawfordton House a small prep school in Dumfriesshire. I was there 1975 to 1980 and 'Major Mac' arrived some time after me and was still teaching when I left. I remember him telling us how to find the North Star and how he had used this to navigate after he was shot down. Being the gentleman that he was he spared us the details of his injury.He had a torch that he showed us. He had been carrying at the time it had been hit by a round and he said he owed his life to it. I may have a photo somewhere I could scan and e mail to you if this is of interest.

  7. Thank you very much for the info. I was very interested to learn of your connection with 'Major Mac' from a purely personal interest angle. Would be great to have a sight of the photo and perhaps a more detailed conversation. All comments come through me as moderator before I post them. If you could send me your mailing address, I can then mail you 'off site.' Thanks again.

  8. I'm delighted to have found this article. I was also at Crawfordton House (1978-1982) where 'Major Mac' taught me maths and was my cricket coach. He was such a kind gentleman and so modest. We used to love hearing the story of his escape, complete with maggots and loss of two inches. Heres' a link to a cricket team photo from 1985

    1. Thanks for you comments and the link Malcolm. It was great to see the photo, and the character of the man is there in the picture. 'Major Mac' said so much to me about that generation with its courage, resilience, values and behaviour. I have not covered much of the Desert War on The Escape Line, but this was one story that fitted the theme of the blog post perfectly.

  9. I remember Major Mac, a really cheerful Maths teacher. I think his bowling days were over by the time I went through the school, but other than his tweed outfits, his happy demeanour and how to open a set of quadratic braces, I have one enduring memory from that school.

    We had Sunday service every week and one week (The Chaplin must have been away) Major Mac took the service, and after the usual songs and prayers instead of a sermon he told us a story of a downed pilot from the war, and some Arabs who were trusted with the life of the pilot and saved his life, at the end he told us that it was a true story, and he knew it was true as that pilot was him. We were all shocked and stunned that he had shared such a story of courage and bravery with us, and it has stayed with me to this day, some 20 years later.

    1. I have received a number of responses on Major Mac. I would like to run a short tribute post on this amazing man at some point. If anyone has any information about the Major, I would be very pleased to hear from them, especially any members of his family.

  10. I am Mike's daughter and loved reading your blog. A brave and modest man to the end..

  11. So nice to hear from you Mary and I'm delighted that you enjoyed reading my blog. Sometimes it is difficult when writing these posts to give a full picture to the reader of just how it really was for these amazing men. This was a prime reason behind my starting up The Escape Line. I felt that the human stories should be told as they really were and in doing so I hoped that it would go some way towards making sure that the men were never forgotten. The evasion reports and the quiet modesty with which the chaps recounted their experiences so often underplay the huge challenges faced and resilience showed. For me your father was a perfect example of this. He just got on with it and never gave up.

  12. I'm another old pupil of Major Mac at Crawfordton - such a lovely man - a true gentleman. We used to love hearing all his stories.

  13. Beautiful man.. gentleman.. at crawfordton Major Mac was a glowing star in a very, very cold dark place..