(Editorial Note: When John Hartley Watlington came home in 1944, it seemed as if he had returned from the dead, for he had been completely lost to his family for just under a year. He was extremely reserved concerning his adventures for he knew that many brave French people who had befriended him and other allied service men would be punished by the Germans if their activities became known. Hartley Watlington told his story to his mother, who took it down in shorthand and then wrote it out. Later on, at the end of the war, it was passed for publication by the Security Officer but was never printed. We have now persuaded Mr. Watlington to let us publish it in the Bermuda Historical Quarterly, for we feel that it is a document of real historical interest – and not merely to our own generation.)
In the summer of 1943, England was subjected a good deal to what were called “tip-and-run” raids by German fighter-bombers. One of our defensive tactics against this was known as “intruder operations.” It consisted of sending single-seater fighters over to particular aerodromes in France and Belgium to intercept the raiders on their return. As soon as the approach of the raiders was picked up by radar, pilots were detailed to take off on one of these missions.
Thus it was that on the evening of June 21st, 1943, several of us pilots were ordered to the R.A.F. Station at Ford on the South Coast for night operations. On arriving at Ford Aerodrome we reported to the Operations Room for briefing instructions from the R.A.F. Intelligence officer, who incidentally was one of my school masters in Canada prior to the war. We spent a couple of hours after briefing in making up individual flight plans to prospective aerodromes in France which we might be called on to visit. About midnight I ate a very hearty meal of bacon and eggs, etc. (strictly aircrew rations) and then, sure enough, I was alerted shortly after 2 a.m. (22nd June) to patrol an aerodrome quite near Amiens.
I was at this time attached to 400 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, the first Canadian squadron of some fifty to reach England after the declaration of war. It came under the R.A.F. Army Co-operation Command, and later became known as the Tactical Air Force. With our photographic reconnaissance aircraft and medium bombers we were the eyes and aerial striking power for the Army. But up to this time we had done little, apart from the epic attack on Dieppe in August 1942, except training. Having become proficient at the Canadian Army’s “seeing-eye,” we had been allowed to carry out such active operations as train-busting over the French countryside (we were limited to freight trains) in which we also became quite proficient. I had the honour of holding the short-lived record of coming across seven locomotives, all of which were well pranged before I returned home. We then advanced to some earnest night-flying training preparatory to “Ranger” operations, which again involved a bit of train-busting, beating up road convoys and generally making a nuisance of ourselves, all by the light of the moon. These particular operations put us in good stead for being used to counteract the tip-and-run attacks mentioned above, as carried out by the Focke-Wolf 190 fighter bombers. We were equipped with the Allison powered North American Mustang (P.51) a single seat fighter aircraft suitable for low altitude reconnaissance work. It was armed with eight machine-guns firing forward and could be coaxed to some 350 M.P.H in a pinch.
To resume my story, it took me but a couple of minutes to get into the air, fly to Beachy Head, where I set course for the estuary of the Somme River. It was a clear moonlit night and I easily picked up the French coast and the estuary. Here I climbed to a thousand feet, then opened throttle and made a long dive, parallel with the coast, picking up speed from 350 to 400 miles an hour before turning, crossing the coast at some fifty feet. At this altitude and speed my aircraft presented a poor target to any ground defences. Everything was very clear with a full moon in front of me, and the fields, hedgerows and farmsteads stood out from the landscape through which the silvery river twisted and turned. There was not a light to be seen anywhere.
It took perhaps twenty minutes to reach Amiens but there was heavy flak over the town so I avoided it and flew to the vicinity of the aerodrome. I patrolled up and down for about a quarter of an hour but there was no sign of a flare path being lit up, heralding the return of the enemy, so I decided to try and locate any “secondary targets” such as locomotives or road transport, which we were allowed to attack at our discretion. Following the railway line north toward the town of Albert, I saw a locomotive under way. I attacked at once at right angles but because of the poor visibility this attempt failed, so I turned around and had a try from the other side, this time placing the locomotive between me and the moon thus silhouetting it. Meanwhile the engineer of the locomotive had stopped the train and opened up the doors of his firebox so that the target was nicely illuminated by the time I was ready to make my second attack. I opened fire with a long burst with little chance of missing. On looking back after my attack, I could not see the locomotive for the smoke and steam enveloping it. It has always been my belief that the engineer of this particular train purposely acted as he did in stopping and making such an excellent target of his locomotive for me. I reached Albert without seeing anything else. Over the town there was very heavy flak put up for my benefit but I managed to avoid it and decided it was time to go back down the line to Amiens and resume my patrol. As I neared the town, there was a locomotive coming out, travelling slowly in an easterly direction. Thinking that the shooting was pretty good tonight and that the aerodrome patrolling would wait a couple more minutes, I decided to have a ‘go’ at the second opportunity. I flew out to the side of my new target going up to 800 feet preparatory to making a slow gliding approach down to it; the slower the glide the longer the attack. When at 500 feet and concentrating on the locomotive, all hell seemed to let loose and I was rudely awakened to the fact that I was directly over a very heavily defended area – an intense barrage of light ack ack fire had opened up from below. This flak was tracer, making a very bright streak of light, resembling water from a fire hose. At the same moment on came the Jerry searchlights, which caught and held me in their beam. I immediately took violent evasive action. The light was blinding and the overall effect of this treatment was considerably demoralising to say the least. While thus engaged, the plane was hit by a solitary bullet, which pierced the radiator situated just behind and under my seat. I heard the bullet as it struck and it sounded like someone using a can opener on the old ‘kite.’ Anyway it prompted a little more violent evasive tactics, and I was ready at this point to try anything to quit all this attention.
The intense light of the tracers and searchlights had blinded me temporarily. I must have been at about 500 feet when I was struck. The throttle had been bent well open at the first signs of tracer, but because of my rough handling of the controls in trying to shake off the searchlights, it was impossible to pick up much speed and despite my efforts the searchlights still held me. So the more violent evasive tactic was an almost vertical diving turn with full power on and judging ground level by the flak and the actual searchlights, I pulled out somewhere quite close to the deck, with much speed in hand. Although it is not my opinion, the whole show probably only took a few seconds. Anyhow this last manoeuvre foxed them and I flew off in an easterly direction with the thought that I was not going to get home that night. In a moment or two the cockpit filled with fumes and a fine spray of engine coolant liquid from my damaged radiator; this irritated my eyes, making it difficult to see, and if it hadn’t been for my oxygen mask, I would certainly have suffocated. Having flown well away to the eastward, I turned onto a southerly course, putting the moon over my left shoulder, and started a normal climb. With the emergency lever I next jettisoned the cockpit cover, which leaves just the windscreen in front of the pilot. This had little effect, as I hoped it would, of dispersing the fumes and spray coming up from the radiator. The windscreen and instrument panel was covered with this coolant liquid spray so I had to wipe off each instrument to see its reading. Flying the aircraft and keeping on course I accomplished, under these conditions, by keeping the moon over my left shoulder. Next I switched on my two-way radio telephone and at approximately 2,000 feet I established contact with England. The radio reception was excellent and I was able to outline my predicament, which they acknowledged. I spoke to them as much as possible, thus enabling the listening stations in England to plot my actual position over France. After giving them such information as to my course, engine temperatures, the various altitudes (as I was still climbing) and the fact that I was preparing to abandon the aircraft, I received their further acknowledgement and a “good-luck” before they listened out. I was flying south because I didn’t expect the engine to continue running much longer and also to avoid the French coast or possibly the English Channel if I tried to make England and then had to bail out. I was climbing to make it as safe as possible when I had to leave the aircraft. I probably overdid it in this latter respect as I reached approximately 9,000 feet or about two miles before making my exit, which it must be conceded, is plenty of height to allow a parachute to open. My engine gave an excellent performance although its cooling system was rapidly being drained. At 5,000 feet the temperature was indicating its highest reading but nothing abnormal happened until another 4,000 feet had been gained when the engine commenced running roughly. At this sign I throttled back, released my cockpit safety straps and holding the nose in a climbing position thus reducing speed I waited a few seconds before the stalling speed was reached an then shoved the stick forward, making the nose drop, and jumped upwards and out to one side. I was very much concerned over clearing the rail surface, as we had had reports of pilots injuring themselves in jumping from Mustangs. However, I must have hit on the right procedure as I floated slowly past the tail at some ten feet to spare. The aircraft fell out of sight before I remembered all about the rip-cord, which I gripped and gave a ruddy good yank. This was immediately followed by a violent jerk and on looking up there was the parachute all spread out as it should be. After blessing Scotty, the Squadron’s parachute man, I was stunned to find myself in the midst of so complete and vast a silence after listening for an hour or so to a twelve hundred horsepower engine perform. The moonlight was brilliant and below me lay a great countryside, which I began to observe with growing interest. Faintly, in the distance, I could hear my plane falling; and soon afterward saw the fire on the ground where it crashed.
It being a perfectly clear night, not a cloud in the sky to pass, I had no sensation of my descent and after several minutes I began to wonder how long I was going to be kept dangling. Nevertheless it was an interesting experience, which I would like to try again – in daylight. At several hundred feet the ground appeared to be coming up at me, and shortly after I landed in a field of corn about a mile and half south of the spot where the machine crashed. It was not a violent fall and my descent must have taken nearly ten minutes. As soon as I found my feet, I unfastened the parachute harness, took off my ‘Mae West’ and piled the lot in an inconspicuous heap. Then I ran to the edge of the field. In the distance I could hear the spasmodic explosion of ammunition as my aircraft burned. Taking bearing by the moon I started off to the south, an opportune direction, with the intention of putting as much distance between me and my crashed plane as possible.