The Last Escaper

The Last Escaper

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The product of a lifetime's reflection, The Last Escaper is Peter Tunstall's unforgettable memoir of his days in the British Royal Air Force and as one of the most celebrated British POWs of World War II. Tunstall was an infamous tormentor of his German captors. Dubbed the "cooler king" on account of his long spells in solitary, he once dropped a water "bomb" directly in the lap of a high-ranking German officer. He also devised an ingenious method for smuggling coded messages back to London. But above all, he was a highly skilled pilot, loyal friend, and trusted colleague.

Without false pride or bitterness, Tunstall recounts the hijinks of training to be a pilot, terrifying bombing raids, and elaborate escape attempts at once hilarious and deadly serious-all part of a poignant and human war story superbly told by a natural raconteur. The Last Escaper is a captivating final testament by the "last man standing" from the Greatest Generation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781494559427
Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
Publication date: 02/17/2015
Edition description: MP3 - Unabridged CD
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Peter Tunstall (1918-2013) joined the RAF in 1937 and after pilot training joined No. 61 Squadron at Hemswell, Lincolnshire, flying the twin-engined Hampden bomber. After the war, Tunstall remained in the RAF as a flying instructor. He retired in 1958 and joined Laker Airways before moving to South Africa, where he continued to fly and secured a number of parts as a professional actor.

John Lee has read audiobooks in almost every conceivable genre, from Charles Dickens to Patrick O'Brian, and from the very real life of Napoleon to the entirely imagined lives of sorcerers and swashbucklers. An AudioFile Golden Voice narrator, he is the winner of numerous Audie Awards and AudioFile Earphones Awards.

Read an Excerpt

Peter Tunstall, portrait by John Mansel
(see page 109).



My great friend Dick Morgan—later to be my best man—and I succeeded in escaping from Spangenberg Castle, only to be recaptured a fortnight later and sent to Colditz after a term of solitary confinement. We were marched from Colditz railway station to the Schloss. My first view of this ancient castle was from the bridge over the river, and there it loomed above us. It was to house us for nearly two years. To my surprise I could hear the sound of cheering and pieces of material were being waved from the windows—which, as we drew nearer, I could see were barred. The noise grew louder and by the time we entered the cobbled courtyard it had grown to pandemonium, sounding like a first-class riot.

The Germans had two tables in the yard, each placed against the wall below the windows, and German officers sat there to take our particulars, photograph us and so on. To my amazement, water bombs rained onto the tables, and then a blazing palliasse was thrown down out of an upper window. Grinning faces looked down, roaring insults at our captors. Eventually a riot squad doubled in, wearing coal-scuttle helmets and carrying weapons. The Germans pointed their rifles up at the prisoners above and the proceedings were then completed in comparative quiet. Until that time we had only seen the well-behaved officer prisoners at Westertimke, a naval officers’ camp near Bremen, and at Spangenberg. Clearly, morale at Colditz was terrific and the prisoners were men to be reckoned with and respected accordingly by their captors.

Eventually the German guards left and the inmates of Oflag IVC poured down into the courtyard. “I’m Jack Keats,” said a smiling officer with glasses. “Come and join our mess in the Belgian Quarters.” Dick and I were taken up a spiral staircase with open doors off it through which we could see ablutions and lavatories, to a top floor and along it to an end room. This contained a number of double-tier bunks, plus some wooden tables and benches, and chairs made from Red Cross crates.

“How do you do? I am Peter Tunstall.” A well-built RAF officer with a moustache gave me a warm handshake. I learned that Peter Tunstall had just masterminded the near-riot that had only quietened down since the arrival of the armed German guards. Also that he was a fine shot with a water bomb and the result of his barrage on the tables on which the Germans had laid out the documents was chaotic and very effective.

Peter Tunstall obviously hated the Nazi system and he made this quite clear. When I got to know him better, he told me that before taking part in one of his first bombing raids, an official from the Air Ministry, who was lecturing him and his crew on how to behave if captured, told him that his first duty was to escape and his second was to be as big a bloody nuisance as possible. He was doing his best to achieve both and had already clocked up a record score of days in solitary confinement. Peter also told me that his Air Gunner, Sgt Joyce, an Irishman, was a cousin of William Joyce—Lord Haw-Haw—who was later executed for treason and whose body Sgt Joyce managed to get buried in Ireland after the war.

Peter Tunstall’s book is an easy and interesting read, which certainly describes what it felt like to plan and actually carry out an escape; to be tired, hungry and thirsty in an enemy country, trying to avoid contact with the local population.

After the war Peter served in the Royal Air Force until 1958, and later settled in South Africa. A brave, charismatic and resourceful officer whose name will always be associated with Oflag IVC in Colditz Castle. This is his story.

Major-General Corran Purdon, C.B.E., M.C., C.P.M.


“Another escaping book?” you’re asking. Haven’t we done all that already? Surely by this time we know everything we need to know about British escapers in the Second World War. Indeed, hasn’t it become a bit of a cliché? With the theme to The Great Escape being played by fans at every England international football match; with the cardboard cut-out figures of the dashing POW and the dim-witted Hun having become, for the British, the nearest things to symbols of their respective nations; with the name Colditz instantly recognisable—aren’t we in danger of stereotyping the Second World War, or even caricaturing it, as little more than a jolly good lark?

Well, yes—and that’s the point.

I too have read a great many of these escape stories. Some are classics of war literature and their accounts of life behind the wire ring very true to me. Others, to put it kindly, tell us more about the fantasy lives of their authors. But all of them, or nearly all, were written and published at a time very close to the events they describe. Their authors were still young men, with a young man’s perspective on experiences still fresh and vivid in their minds. They were also producing their accounts at a moment when readers expected a certain kind of narrative about the war: one that played up the notion of the victory having been won because of the Allies’ (especially the British) superiority, rather than, as we now know, because of good fortune and the viciousness and short-sightedness of our enemies. Book-buyers weren’t interested in hearing about hunger, pain, loneliness or fear. They wanted tales of excitement and adventure, of derring-do and ultimate success. And that, by and large, is what they got. It’s hardly surprising that escape books became a distinct genre. Nor is it accidental that the most famous ones—Pat Reid’s The Colditz Story, Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse, Airey Neave’s They Have Their Exits—were accounts of the rare break-outs in which the protagonists made it back to Britain, rather than the more typical ones where the would-be escapers were recaptured, or their attempts were foiled after months of difficult and dangerous work, sometimes before they’d even got outside the wire.

This book is different. There are three reasons why I’ve written it. The first is that it is the very last of its kind that will ever appear. To the best of my knowledge, there are fewer than half a dozen of us still alive who were in Colditz during the Second World War. The book you hold in your hands is the final testimony that will ever be given by those who experienced these things for themselves.

The second is that this is not a Boy’s Own Story. The subject matter is too serious for that. It’s often forgotten that for us, the war was not a game. At the age of twenty, a time when the most that young people usually have to worry about is their exams, or what to do at the weekend, my friends and I were thrown into a grim battle for national survival, under circumstances that made it all but certain that we ourselves would not survive.

The figures tell their own story. For every one hundred bomber airmen who flew on operations during the war, fifty-one died in action, nine were killed in flying accidents, twelve became prisoners of war. Others were seriously injured and never flew again. Less than a quarter survived undamaged, physically at least, to see the end of the war. For those like me, who were in it from the very beginning, the odds were far worse. To put it another way, the number of officers from Bomber Command killed during the Second World War was higher than the total number of officers in the British Army killed during the First.

If we didn’t see the war as a lark, still less did we consider our captivity in that light. The experience of becoming a POW was a devastating one, especially for those captured at the early stages of their operational career who felt they hadn’t had a good swipe at the enemy. There were a lot of people in that category: forty percent of all losses occurred during a bomber crew’s first five missions. Rightly or wrongly, many who were captured believed they’d failed in some way. We felt our sense of duty very strongly in those days, and one of the things that drove hard-core escapers forward was an overwhelming sense of urgency to get back in the fight. For just the chance to do so, we paid a high price. Escaping was a dangerous business. We were constantly warned that we could be shot while trying to get out of Germany, and some were. For my seven escape attempts, I was court-martialled by the Germans five times; spent a grand total of 415 days in solitary confinement (an all-comers’ record among British POWs); and was placed by my captors on the exclusive list of Deutschfeindlich (irredeemably anti-German) prisoners. Rumour had it that if Germany lost the war, the people whose names appeared on that list would not be permitted to survive. When fifty recaptured British prisoners were murdered after the Great Escape of spring 1944, that rumour seemed a great deal more credible.

But the third, and most important, reason for this book is that it’s the product of a lifetime of reflection. Had I written it fifty or sixty years ago, it would, perhaps, have had the immediacy and fine detail of recent memory and experience. But it could not have included the sense of perspective or quality of judgment that only comes with age and distance from the events of one’s own life. What you’re reading, then, is not just a reminiscence of vanished youth. For whatever reason, it appears that I am, quite literally, the last man standing from an entire generation who lived and experienced these things. In the pages that follow, you will find his final report, containing the information about his times that he hopes will be of most value to the generations that follow.

Chapter One

Mission impossible

I’m not psychic, so I can’t say that I knew on that summer evening, as the aircraft lifted above the boundary fence and began a climbing turn toward Germany, that none of us would be coming back. But I wouldn’t have bet against it.

August 1940 was not a good time to be a bomber pilot. France had fallen. It looked very much as though Great Britain was next. Most of the British Army had been pulled off the beaches at Dunkirk, but they had had to leave nearly all their weapons and equipment behind. The losses would take years to replace and we simply didn’t have that long. The Germans were massing on the Channel coast to follow up their conquest of France with a quick invasion of Britain. If they got across, it was hard to see what could stop them. Our troops had little more than small arms with which to defend themselves, and not much more than haystacks to shelter behind. Every morning and afternoon immense swarms of German bombers roamed across the southeast of England, seeking out airfields, factories and ports, clearing a way for the ground forces that were to follow. RAF fighters were desperately fending them off, but God alone knew for how long that could go on.

In all this darkness there was only one faint gleam of hope. The British bomber force still remained, the only weapon that could directly affect Germany’s war-making capacity. We knew that Germany had few natural resources of her own. In particular she was highly dependent on imported oil. She must already have used up most of her existing stocks in the campaign against France and the Low Countries. If bombing could destroy Germany’s remaining oil plants, her entire intricate war machine might grind to a halt. That, of course, couldn’t win the war for us. No doubt she would respond by building new refineries in places we couldn’t easily hit. But it would buy us precious time, at least until the autumn gales set in and made a sea-borne invasion an impossibility until the following spring.

Such, at any rate, was the theory. In reality my comrades and I were being handed a Mission Impossible. We had begun the war believing that we would be able to fly into Germany in daylight, and that formations of bombers would be able to defend themselves against fighter attacks. Our first few raids disabused us of that notion. Loss rates approached fifty percent, with the survivors being so badly mauled that they had little or no chance of hitting their targets. So we turned to night attacks. The darkness gave us some prospect of living long enough to be able to reach our objectives. But it also increased the difficulty of the task exponentially. For one thing, none of us knew very much about flying after dark. When I began my operational career, I had precisely two hours and ten minutes’ worth of experience as a pilot in command of a bomber at night.

Nor was that all. A bomber aircraft faces three challenges: navigation, target identification, and bomb aiming. With the miserably inadequate technology available at the time, all three largely defeated us. Unable to see the ground in the dark and lacking any radio-navigational aids, we found our way by what was officially known as dead reckoning (more honestly described as “by guess and by God”), that is, flying a compass course for a specified time and hoping that we would somehow wind up in the same province as our intended destination. The best of us navigated in much the same manner as Columbus had done when sailing to America in 1492—by using a mariner’s sextant to sight the moon or stars and measuring their altitude above the horizon. A skilled navigator using these methods could tell you, to within a radius of around twenty miles, where you had been fifteen minutes ago. That assumes, of course, that high clouds didn’t make it impossible to see the sky clearly. But this wouldn’t have been of any help to my crew. None of us had had any training in astral navigation.

Even if one did find the target area, identifying a black building against a black landscape was usually impossible. Often, the only time we knew we were in the vicinity of something valuable to the enemy was when his anti-aircraft guns started shooting at us. Our bomb-sighting equipment was also primitive, producing errors of hundreds of yards even in skilled hands. And the bombs themselves were too small, carried too weak a charge of explosive, and in a shockingly high proportion of cases failed to go off.

Lastly, there were innumerable problems with our new aircraft, the Handley Page Hampden. This was a twin-engine bomber with a crew of four. It was about the same size as one of the smaller commuter turboprops used today for short hops between regional airports and the big hubs. But in 1940 it represented the last word in British bomber technology. Although it was quite a robust aircraft and pleasant to fly, many of the technical issues had not been worked out when we started using it in operations against Germany. The mechanics, no less than the aircrews, were learning on the job, and breakdowns were frequent. Hardly a single flight took place without some critical component—engines, compasses, radios—giving up the ghost. But in a world war, it’s not possible to spend months or years in testing and development, especially when the war is going as badly as ours was. So we were simply thrown in at the deep end and left to figure out a way to cope with all these challenges by ourselves. Those who didn’t manage, never came back. It was as simple and as brutal as that.

These sombre reflections were much in my mind when, on the afternoon of 26 August, we were called to the briefing room to be told the details of that night’s mission. Our target was the Leuna synthetic oil plant at Merseburg near Leipzig. It was a hell of a long way away from our base at Hemswell in Lincolnshire, much further than any of us had ever been before. The round trip would take at least eight hours if the weather stayed kind, and longer if it didn’t. The target was difficult to see, and, as we knew from an unsuccessful attack by another squadron ten days earlier, heavily defended.

As was usual in 1940, we were briefed to choose our own individual routes to the target. The idea of a concentrated bomber stream which sought to overwhelm the defences, allowing most of the aircraft to slip through while the Germans were preoccupied with just one or two of the leaders, had not yet been conceived. We bumbled along singly, getting everything that could be tossed up by the enemy all to ourselves, like driven pheasants coming stupidly out of cover—only one at a time.

This formidable assignment was received with the usual apparent nonchalance, but left a distinctly heavy feeling in the stomach. It was especially discouraging as the Met forecast was the usual story of fronts and cloud systems along the way with “perhaps” some clearance in the target area. The last item of guesswork, no doubt intended to help morale, was quite unconvincing, and we knew only too well how unreliable the forecast winds could be.

After briefing, we went for a quick meal to the mess. When our flight commander, Charles Kydd, who had personal service transport, shouted, “Who’s for flights?” there was an undignified rush to scramble aboard his little Hillman van rather than walk the quarter of a mile down to the hangars. There in the locker rooms, dimly lit with windows already blacked out for the night as an air raid precaution, we put on thick woollen sweaters under our uniform tunics. Mine was a white one, which Ann had knitted for me with RAF colours in the V-neck. Then, over our tunics, we pulled on the harsh Sidcot flying suits, which in August would be warm enough without the detachable lining. Finally, we tied on our Mae West life jackets and began to feel like Michelin Men, cumbersome with clothing and equipment. Next came a last quick check of gear: topographical maps, code books, target maps, briefing instructions, and in my breast pocket, the usual six snapshots of Ann and—sentimental little boy that I was—the receipt from the Imperial Hotel, Llandudno, for the dinner dance on our last evening together.

Leaving the dim locker room in the hangar, with parachutes slung over our shoulders and leather helmets in our hands, it was odd to hit daylight again, like coming out of a cinema matinée. A watery sun was setting, giving a pink underglow to the ragged broken clouds scudding across the sky. The tarmac apron outside the hangar glinted with puddles from a recent downpour, and the tyres of the canvas-topped lorries sang in the wet as they sped towards us and stopped.

We clambered aboard the high three-tonners bound for the aircraft dispersal points, handing up to each other parachutes, navigation bags, ration packs and thermos flasks. It was going to be a long haul to Leipzig and back and a lonely night. As our lorry started to roll, somebody called from the hangar: “Good luck, chaps, see you in the ‘Snake Pit’ for a pint tomorrow night.” Somebody always did it and I rather wished they wouldn’t. Everyone knew the casualty rate well enough. The odds were against finishing a first tour of thirty sorties, and the jovialities always seemed a bit like tempting fate. This was by far the most trying part of any bomber sortie and I much preferred to be airborne.

The bomber pilot’s “office”—the cockpit of Peter Tunstall (PDT)’s Hampden.

We dropped out of the lorry at our own Hampden, which we had flight-tested that afternoon and found serviceable except for a minor instrument snag. Now the ground crew had her fully re-fuelled and our middle-aged corporal in charge of the ground crew assured me that everything was on top line, instruments all okay, bombed up and ready to go. I made a quick routine inspection round the aircraft, took a look into the open bomb bay to check that all safety pins had been removed from the bombs, and it was time to climb aboard. I noticed that one of my crew always gave the ground a ritual pat before he climbed into his battle station.

Parachute and helmet on and up the ladder to waddle across the wing with the pilot-type parachute bumping at the back of my thighs. One step up into the cockpit and I sank down into the metal seat with the ’chute and its sorbo-rubber pad forming the only cushion. Our corporal handed the safety harness over my shoulders and I buckled the straps to the ones coming up from the floor. Plug in the intercom for speaking to the rest of the crew; plug in oxygen and a nod to the corporal who gave me two pats on the shoulder (better than words) before disappearing down the ladder and removing it. I hoped nobody ever saw me trace the letters A N N for luck on the windscreen with my right forefinger.

Having run through the long list of routine checks, I shouted out, “Starting Port” and pressed the button to turn that engine while the lad underneath was priming fuel into the cylinders. With ignition switches on, the big three-bladed prop turned twice slowly, then jerked and, with a shuddering belch of blue smoke and a flash of flame from the exhaust, the eighteen-cylinder Bristol engine started. Now that we were committed, the tensions always eased. Starboard engine started, bomb doors closed, time now to wriggle a bit more comfortably down on that sorbo pad and tighten the shoulder straps.

Clear of dispersal, we were on our way and taxiing towards the caravan where “Paraffin Pete”, a junior aircrew officer, was in charge of the flare path laid out on the all-grass airfield. It was still bright enough, however, for us to be able to take off without illumination. Pete flashed us a green with his Aldis signalling lamp. Once in line with the avenue of unlit paraffin gooseneck flares, like a row of old black watering-cans with a fat wick sticking out of each spout, I completed the take-off checks and pushed the two throttles all the way forward.

With an almighty bellow, the Hampden heaved herself forward over the grass and began to accelerate. On she bounded towards that far hedge, which had already been breached by a Hampden or two in the past. Then a gentle backward pressure on the control column, followed by a bit more, and we unstuck from Mother Earth. At about 100 feet from the ground I brought in the wing flaps and began a climbing turn onto our first course and we were bound for Leipzig, nearly four hours and, by the route we were taking, somewhat more than 600 miles away.

Looking down through broken cloud in the failing light we could see Englishmen carrying on their normal lives, going home for a peaceful evening or on the way to the village pub. My Irish rear-gunner, Sergeant Joyce, said: “Wouldn’t mind changing places with them, sir, would you?” I thought it was a somewhat demoralising remark and I made some daft reply about how lucky we were to be able to travel so widely at government expense.

Soon after we crossed the English coast, the sea horizon merged with the sky as darkness fell and the cloud began to thicken. We were flying into the night and towards dirty weather. When I asked the navigator, Sergeant Murdock, what he could see below, I got the familiar answer, “Nothing, sir. It’s black as a witch’s tit down there.”

It is a pity we caught no glimpse of the enemy coast, for had we seen it, probably before the expected time, we might have become aware that the winds we had been given for navigation purposes were inaccurate in speed and direction. In retrospect, it’s clear that we were being blown faster and deeper into enemy territory than we expected and somewhat off track to the north.

We probed around for sight of a landmark but finally abandoned hope and climbed to a more comfortable height between cloud layers, trusting that we would later find the promised clearance in the weather that would enable us to make another effort at fixing our position visually. On the matter of finding the target I had come to a personal resolve. Too many of our previous missions had been failures—no more than the squadron average, perhaps, but failures nonetheless. Tonight we were going to extend ourselves to the utter limit or, as we used to say at the time, “shit or bust!”

As we forged on across Europe, the enemy would occasionally engage, their searchlight beams reaching up through low cloud, the heavy flak bokbokking away, and sometimes getting a bit too close when we neglected to weave around and confuse their sound detectors.

Eventually, by our time calculations we should have been nearing the target area. It was now necessary to descend through the cloud and try, once again, to establish our position visually once we had broken out into the clear. Ordinarily, no pilot would ever dream of doing this. If the cloud extends all the way down to ground level, as it often does, the first you’ll know of it is when you find yourself being quizzed by St Peter at the pearly gates. But these are risks that must be taken in wartime. If we were to find our target, there was simply no alternative.

More than seventy years later, my blood still runs cold at the memory of this descent. We sank into the blackness through the dense layer of cloud, throttles back, fretting about the higher ground we knew lay to the south of Leipzig, and trying to contrive that we erred in our navigation only in a northerly direction, if at all. As the altimeter unwound, my crew had their eyes straining for first sight of the ground while I concentrated on the instruments to keep the Hampden on an even keel.

The mind races quickly in these situations. The altimeter was showing 1,500 feet above sea level, but that was based on what the air pressure had been when we took off from Hemswell. Now, hours later, we might already be at ground level. 1,200 feet. Most hills that height are too low even to have names. 1,000 feet. This was getting ridiculous. We were going to fly into the ground and be killed instantly, without even having seen it. 900 feet. Two voices called over the intercom simultaneously:

“There’s the ground!”

“I can see the deck!”

For the first time, I lifted my eyes from the instruments and, sure enough, there were a few scattered lights below. The Germans appeared to be a bit careless about blackout regulations this far to the east and perhaps overconfident about an air attack on account of the foul weather. We scudded along the base of the cloud with the altimeter reading a perilously low 800 to 900 feet, twisting and turning in an effort to find the target and still petrified about invisible hills, factory chimneys or radio antennae. Our chances of identifying the refinery were hopeless and I knew it, but we continued to try.

Down below the natives were obviously hostile, opening up on us with some light flak. As the tracer flitted up, we reckoned there must be something worth defending, and we managed to discern the reflected glint of some railway lines. These led into an array of buildings that looked like enormous sheds or workshops, so we turned back and bombed them.

Murdock the navigator, who admittedly had a better view of things than any other crew member, and whose job it was to find and identify the target and then aim the bombs, always maintained that we were indeed over the Leuna oil refinery. Furthermore, he thinks he saw another Hampden over the target area. I cannot vouch for either of these assertions and, on reconstructing the operation over and over again, have always been of the opinion that we must have been much further to the east than we believed. I sincerely hope we didn’t bomb Russia.

Anyway, with the bombs gone among the buildings and railway lines, we were thankful that, with a clear conscience at having done our very best, we could pour on the power and start climbing, away from the terror of flying low and blind in unknown terrain, and away from the flak. As the altimeter wound up to a much safer reading, we were conscious only of our own deliverance from the acute anxiety of the past half-hour. Now there was a renewed chance of sharing eggs and bacon with Mike and Andy in the Mess, and a peaceful pint or two tomorrow night. We had done our best, inadequate though it was, and it was a relief to know that the rest of our efforts that night could be honourably devoted to our own salvation.

We found a comfortable level between layers of cloud, and sped homeward with no more than the usual interference from blind-firing flak, until the time approached for an essential navigation check as we crossed the enemy coast. We again descended to feel for the cloud base, but still found identification of ground features extremely difficult in the dark and dirty weather. We all knew that the only critical object was to see that coastline, for there was little hope of pinpointing our position exactly. Once clear of the European continent, we could send a radio message and get a course to steer from the ground stations tracking our transmissions. What mattered was to find England, any part of it from the Thames to the Humber.

Some minutes before his estimated time of arrival at the enemy coast, Sergeant Murdock, and soon after him, Sergeant Joyce, called over the intercom: “There it is, sir—enemy coast!” I banked the Hampden for a better view and saw dimly what certainly looked more or less like a coastline. Then the downward visibility was again obscured. We were heartened by the knowledge that all the signs on the way out had pointed to a probable weather clearance at base, so that we should not experience too much difficulty locating ourselves over England, provided another front had not swept in behind. Right now we were still in the cloud and I was becoming anxious about fuel. The gauges were reading uncomfortably low and I wondered whether we were losing any fuel due to flak hits, despite our self-sealing tanks. We had been airborne for nearly nine hours and had not seen a single thing that could verify our position after leaving our own coast. The situation was becoming really worrying. All now depended on getting those headings by radio from base.

It was time for the wireless operator, Sergeant Brock, to start passing me information. I asked him how things were going. He replied that he was having trouble with the radio. The engine-driven generator, which had packed up umpteen times on previous flights, seemed to have broken down yet again, and the main battery appeared to be flat. In an anxious tone of voice, Brock said he would try the emergency battery. I was concerned; not only was the fuel situation rapidly becoming critical but so was my personal pain threshold. These early Hampdens made no concessions at all to the pilot’s comfort. He was supposed to perch for the entire flight on a rock-hard parachute pack, with only a thin layer of foam rubber to ease the pressure. This was adequate, just, on relatively short flights of four hours or so. After seven or eight hours it became completely unendurable. We were now approaching the nine-hour mark. I wriggled and squirmed to try to relieve the intense stabbing pain in my spine and bum, but nothing seemed to help.

In the midst of all this, Brock called me and I thought he sounded almost tearful: “I don’t think we’re transmitting, sir. I can’t get any reply and all I hear is some European station like Hilversum playing gramophone records.” He patched it through on the intercom so that we could all hear it. Of all things it was that dear old African-American singer, Paul Robeson, performing “Deep River”. To this day that song gives me the creeps. Right then I was more concerned about the deep bloody sea.

It was long past our estimated time of arrival for the English coast. We could still see nothing and Brock had given up battling with the radio. Then came the most amazing remark of the whole episode. It was becoming a trifle lighter and clearer when Sergeant Joyce said,

“There’s a coastline and land behind us, sir, and we are heading out to sea again!”

Brock left his useless radio and joined in: “It looks like one, but it could be low cloud or something. We already saw the coast anyway, so it can’t be, and, anyway, it’s pretty clear we are still over the sea.”

This was mystifying, so I turned the aircraft to look for myself. There it was, a thin dark line on the sea, way back, not very distinct, but certainly something. It looked as if we were just leaving a land mass.

“What do you make of that, navigator?”

“Doesn’t make sense, sir. It can’t be a coastline of land behind us. There should be one ahead of us. We’re already well overdue to cross our own coast inwards.”

“Well, if that’s a coastline and if we are just heading out to sea, we’ve made a hell of a cock-up somewhere. I’m turning back on course; check through everything. And Brock, for God’s sake, keep trying for a bearing.”

“I’ve been trying, sir, for the last twenty minutes. Can’t get a bloody thing. I think our transmitter has packed up.”

“Well, keep trying. And Navigator, when you’ve checked through everything, pass the maps and your log up here. If that was the enemy coast and we went back to check up in this light, the Luftwaffe would have us for breakfast.”

A lone Hampden in daylight would indeed have been dead meat. On further consideration, we all felt sure that what we had just seen could not have been a coastline, but rather a trick of the dawning light on the sea and a bank of low cloud. By now I was really anxious about fuel, for there was still a minimum of thirty-five minutes’ flying to do before we could be seeing base—longer if we had a head wind, or if I throttled back and flew for maximum range or endurance.

We had now been airborne for more than nine hours and, no matter how I wriggled or eased a foot momentarily off the rudder bar, the bones in my backside ached so agonisingly that it was a struggle to keep my mind on what really mattered. By this time the fuel gauge needles were hardly flickering above zero.

Then a ghastly thought began to form and gradually fixed itself in everyone’s mind. Was it possible that we had overflown some narrow bit of England and were heading out into the Atlantic where we would eventually run out of fuel and nobody would ever look for us? We knew of so many strange things that had happened when crews had become as uncertain of their position as we were. Wally Sheen’s crew had landed in Ireland with his navigator not sure whether they were over the North Sea or the Atlantic. A Whitley bomber crew had mistakenly bombed an RAF airfield in England thinking they were over Germany. A good crew, whom I later got to know, were said to have thought they were crash-landing near some Scottish woodlands that turned out to be the Black Forest in Germany. All these stories came to mind.

A few lucky crews had been rescued from their rubber dinghies after ditching in the sea, but usually after they had been able to transmit an SOS and a position report. Many more had perished in those dinghies, and the bodies of RAF aircrew, supported by their Mae West lifejackets, were often washed up on the shores of western Europe.

Murdock passed his maps, instruments and navigation log up to the cockpit and, with the automatic pilot engaged, I checked through all the calculations as best I could. I could spot no obvious error but having been over the sea for well over an hour and with that pain in my spine, I was ready to believe almost anything. I had to imagine the British Isles and assume distances and Eastern Atlantic coastlines as best I could. How much gap was there between the Cumberland coast and the north coast of Ireland? I simply did not know that bit of the country intimately and now found it hard to visualise a map as accurately as I needed.

Oh for a simple school atlas at that crucial moment! It would have made all the difference. Joyce swore we were heading out into the Atlantic. If we had been in the grip of strong enough tailwinds, almost anything was possible. Murdock the navigator could suggest nothing either way and by this time poor young Brock was almost reduced to tears of frustration by his bloody radio.

Fuel gauges were flickering almost dead on the stops where I had never seen them before. How much leeway this allowed I did not know. Our situation was utterly desperate and inexplicable. A major decision was needed at once, otherwise I was going to be responsible for the tragically stupid loss of four lives.

As I saw it at that moment, the decision seemed a straightforward one. We were either east or west of England. If we were east, still in the North Sea and our fuel held out, we might reach our coast and, with a bit of luck, pull off a crash landing of the kind I had already experienced in my operational career. But if we had already crossed England and were now in the North Atlantic (next stop America) and stayed on a westerly heading, my crew would suffer a lingering death in a rubber dinghy where nobody would look for it.

On the other hand, if we reversed course onto an easterly heading, the prospects seemed brighter. Assuming we were already in the Atlantic, we would run up against the western coast of Britain or Ireland, and make a safe landing. At worst, if it should transpire that we hadn’t yet reached England, we would either ditch in the North Sea with at least some chance of being picked up by our own people, or we would reach the French or Dutch coast where there were allies and friends who could help us. The very worst-case scenario was that we would become prisoners of war.

Put like that there seemed only one reasonable choice. I turned around on to a course of about 120° magnetic, heading back for the coastline we all thought we had so very recently seen. My course was intended to hit, I hoped, the northwestern coast of Britain, or possibly Land’s End, if the hazy maps in my mind’s eye were about right.

Much too late for it to do us any good, we learned that the Hampden flies for quite a while with the fuel gauges registering empty. Meanwhile, we prepared ourselves as best we knew for ditching in the sea. Unlike the properly trained crews that would follow us, we had done no ditching drills or dinghy drills in a swimming pool, or even sailing drills in case we were lucky enough to have an airborne lifeboat dropped to us from a rescue aircraft. Brock jettisoned his two Vickers K machine guns, to make it easier for him and Joyce to escape the ditched Hampden through the rear upper hatch after releasing the self-inflating rubber dinghy, and that was about it.

It seemed like nearly half an hour before Murdock spotted the real coast ahead, by which time I had come to the sickening conclusion that I had probably made a wrong decision. After that, to turn westward yet again with virtually empty fuel tanks would have meant a certain lingering death for all of us. Then the starboard engine shuddered twice and cut—obviously out of fuel. By now we were almost over a coast. I turned to line up with a long firm-looking stretch of wet sandy beach and made a good wheels-down landing as the port engine also cut out. We had been airborne for over ten hours.

My nether regions had passed the painful stage and were almost numb so that my crew had to lift me out of the cockpit and help me down to the ground, but I still could not stand up quite straight. Sergeant Joyce was ecstatic: “’Tis Ireland, sir, ’tis Ireland! I’d know it anywhere!”

I had a sick feeling he was talking utter crap. There was no sign of life so I told Brock and Murdock, who knew what was what among our documents on board, to gather together any confidential material, make an inflammable heap of it inside the aircraft, and stand by to set fire to it. I told them to augment this with any residual petrol they might be able to drain from the fuel tanks. Meanwhile, I would take Joyce with me towards a hut on the sand dunes about 200 yards away. I took the Very signal pistol and a red cartridge with me and told the others to set fire to the confidential stuff, and, hopefully, the whole aircraft if I fired off the flare. Then Joyce and I set off. I found even walking rather painful at the bottom of my spine and could not quite straighten my back. I felt a bit bent, like an old man and not a very heroic one.

The hut was deserted and locked up. I peered through a window and saw a magazine with a headline in a language that was not English. I pointed it out to Joyce and asked him, “Is that Irish?”

He took a look through the window and said in a lugubrious voice, “No, sir, ’tis not.”

I replied, “No! It’s bloody Dutch!” And I fired off the red cartridge into the air.

Joyce and I started to run back to the Hampden and I was glad to see a wisp of smoke curling up from within. We were halfway back to the others when the sand kicked up in front of us and we heard a burst of machine-gun fire. Then we saw the German soldiers, five or six of them with sub-machine guns, walking towards us in an open line abreast from the sand dunes. There was nowhere for us to take cover. We were all unarmed and it was obvious that we were about to become prisoners.

The German troops, having fought their way across France, were obviously well practised in taking prisoners and had all the clichés ready.

“England kaput.”

“Ve shall be in London for Christmas.”

“For you, ze vore iss ofer.”

They were wrong on all three counts.

Those Germans were cock-a-hoop after their successful Blitzkrieg. They were really enjoying our plight and it made me angry. I thought of photographs I had seen at various times of miserable-looking, newly-captured prisoners and decided they were not going to have the satisfaction of seeing us like that. So I laughed at them and their boastfulness and told the others to do the same. I remember saying to the Germans, “The British may lose a few battles but they always win the last one.”

I had many occasions to think of that remark during the next four years and eight months.

Chapter Two

“Do you really fly?”

The hand on my shoulder squeezed gently as a warning and, as it pressed downwards, I sank slowly on to my belly and hoped I had disappeared into the tangled undergrowth. My companion’s larger frame had also melted silently from view and lay close beside me. It was he who had first taught me the technique of stalking.

“Lie flat and dead still. Remember, it is the twitching of an ear that betrays a buck to the eyes of a hunter—no fidgeting, no peeping. Cease to exist, and if an animal is sniffing around, try to relax. They can smell fear or panic.”

I had not spotted the reason for my companion’s alarm and could only guess at the danger. Then I heard the scratch of clothing pushing through bushes. Disaster would be upon us within the next few seconds. The earthy scent of leaf mould and pungent weeds, so long associated with a sense of freedom in these woods, became a fearsome stench. My thumping heart defied control and I was ashamed that I could not conform to the relaxed survival drill. Then, self-discipline slipped further. Very slowly I raised my nose off the ground and with eyes straining upwards peered through the lace of tangled autumn stems. Along the narrow woodland path I saw the man approaching. The gun lying comfortably across the crook of his left arm was gripped at the small of the stock with his right hand. I knew he could throw that weapon up and shoot accurately in one swift easy movement. At his heel was a black Labrador, eyes alert and eager for his master’s bidding. I let my face sink back on to the ground. A breath of wind stirred my hair like a flag to betray our presence. Now the stealthy footsteps were almost upon us and I could hear the dog panting. Man and dog passed almost within spitting distance and continued on their way. After a cautious interval my father slowly rose to his feet and brushed off dead brown leaves and twigs. He looked down at the pallor in my face and his eyes crinkled as he smiled. “That was a close one, old lad.”

A “close one” seemed to me an understatement. We village boys held all the squire’s gamekeepers in some awe, but Head Keeper Compton was an ogre! His purple veined face, fierce white upturned moustache, bushy eyebrows and thunderous bellow held all trespassers in abject terror.

“Dad, I thought the dog would scent us—why didn’t the dog…?”

“The wind. We were lucky. Just as they came up to us a breeze took our scent away. He keeps that dog very close to heel. Come on, time we got home for tea or we’ll be in trouble.”

Thirteen years later at the age of twenty-one, I was to experience a similar situation under truly perilous conditions near a German prison camp and I would remember the lessons learned that day.

My father and fellow poacher had grown up far from our village of Orsett in rural Essex, east of London. As the son of a stern God-fearing Cumberland miner, young Joseph Tunstall grew up with an acute awareness of the social disparities of those times. This permanently coloured his political outlook so that he grew into a committed champion of the underdog. A scholarly lad, he won a place at Durham University but, caught up in the surge of patriotism, left shortly before graduation to join the Durham Light Infantry to fight in the Boer War. Even then he had a soft spot not only for the underdog native Africans but also the wily Boers.

After the war my father became a schoolmaster and married a schoolmistress, Maude Carpenter, who gave him my first sister, Mary, then brother Geoff followed by sister Lucy. All too soon my father was away to another war, fighting the Turks in the bitter campaigns of Gallipoli, the Dardanelles, Palestine and Egypt. After his final home leave from the war he did not return again until some months after the Armistice and after I had become his second son, born on 1 December 1918.

As I came into the world, the mass slaughter of the war had stopped, but the scourge of another killer, influenza, now swept Europe. This claimed my mother thirteen days after my birth. Several months later, my father returned from the Middle East to deal with the problem of raising a motherless family. It was suggested to him that somebody’s distant cousin, a Miss Edith Attrill, had just broken off an engagement and might be enlisted as housekeeper and nanny. “Edie” agreed and to me she was “mummy” until I was about three years old when I learned differently with a jolt.

Possessed of a dominant spirit coupled with native wit and impudence, the handsome Edie soon established herself as the mistress of the house, now called Grasmere. With the forging of a powerful bond between her and me, she considered her position unassailable, and it began to take on a permanence that my father had not anticipated. He, undoubtedly starved of intellectual companionship at home, was strongly discouraged from having any women friends for fear, I suppose, that another might oust the ruling mistress and, worse, deprive her of her foster baby. She became utterly and passionately devoted to me—in an age before child psychology was really understood.

One distressing eruption and its immediate sequel is the earliest clear-cut memory of my life and every detail remains indelibly printed. This particular melodrama climaxed with my father declaring that Edie must go and that I should be sent to live with his relatives in Cumberland. Edie swept me up possessively into her arms and we were both tearful. I remember the smell of tears. Pa delivered a final blast and swept off to his study. Edie set me down and retreated wailing to the scullery. I trailed after her tugging at her skirts and crying, “mummy, mummy”. She turned on me in exasperation:

“Don’t call me mummy. I’m not your mother. Your mother is dead!”

My brother and two sisters, considerably my seniors, soon fled. Mary was something of a prodigy and at sixteen her headmistress reckoned it was pointless keeping her at school any longer. She was accepted by London University and soon had a first class honours degree. Geoff, full of derringdo, was packed off to the wilds of Canada at sixteen, and dear Lucy entered a London business house, progressed well and later married a local farmer.

After the war, my father took up a position as headmaster of the Training Ship Exmouth, which was anchored fore and aft in the River Thames off Grays, just four miles from our home in Orsett. This imposing vessel was a black and white steel monster built for her purpose on the lines of Nelson’s Victory with mizzen, main, foremast and bowsprit. Administered by a charity and later by the London County Council, she trained a complement of 600 boys mostly for careers at sea in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Service. All personnel wore naval uniform on which my father’s Military Cross looked incongruous and caused comment from more observant visitors.

At nine years old, bursting with enthusiasm, I entered Palmer’s Endowed School for Boys, a minor public school at Grays in Essex. Because of the school’s proximity to home I was, like some others, enrolled as a day boy and not a boarder. This marked a new and somewhat chequered chapter in my life.

Palmer’s was academically a highly successful school with its counterpart, Palmer’s School for Girls, a couple of miles away. My two sisters had been educated there and my brother Geoff had left the Boys’ School some years before. Unfortunately, he had not hit it off with the Headmaster, the Reverend H.A. Aldridge Abbott, M.A., better known as “Bunny”. My induction by Bunny dampened my enthusiasm slightly. He was not an attractive man, having rather fleshy lips, discoloured teeth and thick-lensed glasses. The rest of the teaching staff varied in popularity but none was really unlikable. Many of them I remember with respect and affection. “Dickie” Freestone, the gym master, taught me to swim by the simple expedient of dangling me from a pole in a canvas belt while I went through the prescribed motions. He gradually lessened the support, and told me I was swimming, whereupon I sank. Dickie then hauled me out, whacked my backside and said he would do it again every time I went under. I soon swam! Mr Jolly’s Shakespeare classes were vivid and delightful; enormously tall Frank Hughes could put anything over simply because he was such a thorough gentleman in every best sense of the word; and we enjoyed the savagery of Scottish Benson’s maths:

“Get ootside the door, boy, before ye feel ma boot on yer backside.”

Bunny’s teaching of Latin, on the other hand, did nothing to resurrect the dead language, but only buried it deeper. He made us chant loudly in chorus: “Amo amas amat, amamus amatis amant. Hic haec hoc, hunc hanc hoc,” all the while beating time with loud whacks of a ruler on the front desk. Over and over we had to do it until, by the time we came to the Gallic Wars, all of us except for a few creeping swots hated Bunny, Caesar, Virgil and all.

I enjoyed my part in the School Cadet Corps, as it was then called, and despite the fact that Bunny chose to run the band, I progressed. This must have been because my bugle noises were not as horrible as those of most of the other chaps. We marched and countermarched every Tuesday and Thursday blowing our guts out to the thunder of drums. For the local inhabitants the noise must have been appalling. We had four tunes to play, only two of which had the distinction of lyrics, and these were of limited inspiration. One went, “If your trousers do fall down, tie ’em up with string, tie ’em up with string,” and the other, “I asked Old Brown to tea, and all his family, and if he don’t come I’ll tickle his bum with a piece of celery.” It was hardly enough to keep a chap’s enthusiasm going for seven years.

Bunny appeared to have two principal roles at Palmer’s. One was to whack his ruler fanatically to “Amo amas amat” and the other was to whack little boys’ bums with a cane. I must admit he did this with an element of artistry. Any morning or afternoon, defaulters could be seen outside his office forming a subdued and apprehensive queue. Eventually he would emerge, a transformed character, not his usual dour self but in a kind of ecstasy which I ought not to have begrudged to such a miserable creature. He would rub his hands together in a washing motion, bare his yellow teeth in what was intended to be a smile and even put an arm around my shoulder as if we were buddies at last: “Well, well, well, so you’re here again—now I wonder what I can do for you! Just run along to my office and bring me a cane.”

In his office there was a drainpipe standing on its big end, and out of the top sprouted an array of canes. The thing was to select the most kindly looking one and hand it hopefully to the Reverend Headmaster. He would take it and make a few swishing passes at the air to see if it suited his current mood just as, I imagine, Titian would have selected a brush. “No,” he would say, “I think I’ll have another.” So back one crept to his armoury for the next least unkindly cane. Sooner or later he would be satisfied. A formalised crouch then had to be adopted, head very low, knees bent so as to protrude a properly presented target. Next Bunny would conduct an examination of the nicely rounded bum to ensure that nothing had been heinously inserted as protection between trousers and flesh. This gloating examination by feel was prolonged and conscientious; it would have exposed even a layer of tissue paper.

Then he would take up his expert stance like a top-flight golfer addressing the ball and at last the smile would fade and his face take on a dark flush of concentration. The cane would be laid lightly three or four times upon the target before he drew back for the cut. It came in a loud vicious swoosh preceding the sharp crack of impact. Although the pain was sometimes blinding, there was an etiquette to be observed at this stage. First, it was a matter of pride not to let Bunny know how much he had hurt. Second, if the victim involuntarily straightened up at the shock, even very slightly, Bunny purred that such indiscipline would entail an extra cut. Having taken two or four or six, as Bunny thought just, the offender was dismissed. Honour was thus satisfied and men were supposed to be forged. As for the psychosexual imperatives that underlay my headmaster’s magically transformed demeanour on these occasions, the nature of which suggested themselves to me only in retrospect, the less said the better.

There came a day when a worm turned and Bunny got his comeuppance. He administered six to a particularly recalcitrant youth and having told him to get up, could not resist another final cut just as the chap was unbending. The recipient saw red, snatched the cane out of Bunny’s hand and used it to give him a stinger across the face—for which deed he was expelled. Expulsion was a dreadful thing in those days, calculated to set a young man well on the road to ruin. In this case, however, the villain rose to the top of a most honourable profession, was knighted and became one of the Palmer’s legends.

To the disappointment of my scholarly father, my academic prowess at school faltered. I played all the sports and ran quite fast but never became a star at anything. Father began to preach to me only of study and success while I loathed school more and more. I employed every conceivable device to dodge my stint of homework. As in most unhappy circumstances there were compensations and I became a bit of a loner, escaping often to the fen. There I found a new outlet that was fascinating and different even if it did earn me some opprobrium as “that nasty boy who keeps snakes”.

I redeemed myself to some extent when a Scout Troop was inaugurated in Orsett to widespread enthusiasm. Then, as now, the worth of a Scout Group depended on three main factors: the attitude of the boys, the cooperation of their parents, and the calibre of the scoutmaster. In the early Thirties there was little problem about the first, especially in a more or less feudal village where everyone respected the squire, Sir Francis Whitmore; patriotism was still a virtue, we were proud of the Empire and its builders, and one could still speak openly of duty and honour without embarrassment. As our scoutmaster we were fortunate to have a pillar among men. Mr Hills, or “the old man” as he was affectionately called, was a martinet who bristled with all the military virtues and was utterly dedicated to doing all he could for his lads. In no time we were the smartest, most efficient unit for miles around and extremely proud of it. Since then I have encountered a fair share of testing experiences in life, and of one thing I am absolutely certain. When the chips were down I coped with them far better than I would have done without Scout training in those formative years.

My early boyish leisure reading concentrated upon adventure books, like F.S. Brereton’s A Boy of the Dominion, and I often fancied myself in a similar role, braving the menace of ferocious animals, the wilds and cruel savages. White men were all decent chaps and the other lesser beings could also be acceptable provided their behaviour was “civilised” and they had a proper respect for the King, the Empire and the white administrators who were doing their best to uplift them from their primitive ways. I saw that stirring film Sanders of the River, about a wise and heroic British District Commissioner in Africa in which there was an enlightened negro played by Paul Robeson. He could sing too. No doubt about it, not all black men were savages, some were okay.

The Great Empire Exhibition at Wembley confirmed to me that the subject races loved us and were grateful, and I was touched by the loyalty of native troops. Always an impressionable lad, these things together with the National Anthem, pipe bands, “Rule Britannia” and “Land of Hope and Glory”, never failed to bring a lump to my throat and a surge of pride. My attitudes were idealistic and the blemishes of the Empire were not then apparent to me.

One day a barnstorming character lobbed into a cow pasture near my home in an old Avro 504 biplane offering joy rides for five shillings a head. This aeroplane was a “kite” in the true sense. The whole contraption was supported on a leggy undercarriage with huge wire wheels fitted with narrow tyres. Between these a skid projected forwards like a huge ski to discourage the aircraft from doing somersaults after landing. I managed to scrape up five bob from somewhere and was soon thrilled beyond description to see Orsett looking like a clutch of little model houses. The pilot was at one stage alarmed at the strange noises coming from my cockpit until he realised I was laughing and cheering. I was hooked for good and all.

With more maturity, my leisure reading focused upon aviation and I doubt if there was an aircraft flying that I could not identify at a glance. My heroes were the great aerial fighters of the First World War—Mannock, Ball, Richthofen and Boelke—and I avidly awaited each new edition of the magazines Flight, The Aeroplane and, best of all, Popular Flying. I admired the German aces as much as our own and respected many of the national characteristics of the German military.

Fanning my growing ambition to be a pilot in the Royal Air Force was the proximity of my home to 74 and 54 Fighter Squadrons at RAF Hornchurch. They had Bristol Bulldogs and Hawker Demons, later replaced by Gloucester Gauntlets and then Gladiators. To gaze up at those silver flashes over the Thames Estuary as they flew in immaculate formations, or twisted, turned, rolled and looped in practice dog fights, filled me with a painful pride and longing.

Meanwhile, school continued a dreary necessity. Scout activities sublimated endeavour while tentative experiments with the comely lasses of the village became increasingly interesting. The house next to ours, half a mile away, was the home of the district surgeon, his wife and their only child, Ann. Although she was two years younger than me, she and I soon became friends. Ann was special, different, sensible. She never squealed with alarm at my snakes and was unafraid to handle them or tickle them under the chin. Snakes enjoy that. She had a pony and we enjoyed similar country pursuits. I had a respect for her that was a little tinged with awe. I always felt on my best behaviour and took no liberties, forgetting all the down-sides of life, school, Bunny Abbott, home tensions. It was nice and I was really happy. I did not realise what was gently, imperceptibly happening to me—not for some time to come.

Miles away in Germany and in a secretly loaned Russian base, a dedicated band of militarists disguised as civilians had long ago given birth to and nurtured the carefully planned German Luftwaffe which was soon to sweep the skies of Europe and help smash nations into subjection. I was not really interested in politics or international affairs at the time. It seemed to me that Hitler was a bit of a nutcase and needed to be brought down a peg or two, but the rumoured excesses of Nazi oppression were less of a reality to me than Bing Crosby’s latest gramophone record. Even the Luftwaffe’s role in the Spanish Civil War did not perturb me—or my contemporary potential cannon fodder—as perhaps it should have done. The young were very ingenuous.

At home, another clash was becoming imminent between my father and me. His ambition for me equalled my own but did not run parallel. His own academic fulfilment had been sacrificed to war. My elder sister had been an incredibly brilliant success and my father’s sights were set rigidly upon a similar performance by his younger son. The only role he saw for me was as a scholar following the path of learning trodden by him, my mother and my elder sister. His ambition was also fired by my headmaster’s repeated accusations that I had the capability but refused to apply myself. He was outraged by Bunny’s submission to him of some of my Latin examination papers when I first failed matriculation. I had answered none of the dreary questions but, perhaps in a gesture of defiance, had decorated my answer paper with a sketch of Bulldog fighters swooping in to attack a lumbering Handley Page Heyford bomber. Oh, what a scene there was about that!

When the shouting was over it was obvious that we must come to terms. I convinced my father that only the RAF would do for me but he was appalled when my impatience to join up crystallised into a demand to do so forthwith as a boy apprentice.

“You couldn’t even pass the entrance exam,” he roared.

“Let me try, then,” was the obvious rejoinder.

I was interviewed soon afterwards by a beady-eyed recruiting officer at Chelmsford who concluded the ordeal by opening a drawer behind his desk, at the same time watching me like a ferret sizing up a rabbit.

“Here. Catch!” From his hand shot a small object which flew high and off to my right. My arm reached out to full length and with a satisfying smack the missile was taken in my hand. It was a toffee. Only once on the Palmer’s cricket field had I ever managed such an immaculate performance. The inquisitor’s face softened; I had passed the interview. I wondered afterwards if the Air Ministry made a special stores issue of toffees to recruiting officers and how many careers must have been stillborn by a fumbled catch!

When I sat the examination I wrote upon the answer papers with reverence, for they had printed upon them the hallowed cipher, “Royal Air Force”. Would this be the first and last time I would be privileged to use its stationery? I romped through the examination with inspired success, and now poor old father had another problem. Although he flatly refused to allow me to go further, my bargaining position had improved immeasurably. No matter what, I was to remain at school for a further two years.

Compensation for my continued schooling arrived one day in the form of an impecunious, bearded aviator named “Dixie” Gerrans. In a rough little hayfield, four miles from home at West Horndon, he had erected a tattered First World War canvas hangar within which was installed a rather decrepit two-seater wooden glider, a battered old Chrysler motor car for towing it off, and a dual-controlled, radial-engined biplane called a Redwing. He was anxiously looking for pupils. This was it! I promised my father to apply myself more seriously at school if I could learn to fly. It was agreed and we stuck to our bargain. I passed matriculation well enough and he stumped up for flying lessons as best he could.

Table of Contents

Foreword Major-General Corran Purdon vii

Introduction 1

1 Mission impossible 5

2 "Do you really fly?" 21

3 Never say die 41

4 Bomber pilot 57

5 Temporarily unsure of our position 81

6 "Kommen sie mit!" 105

7 From Barth to Spangenberg and Thorn 143

8 "What's the plan?" 173

9 The only remedy, escape 205

10 Colditz 233

11 "O what a beautiful morning…" 265

Afterword 305

Index 317

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A remarkable memoir of a British lad's salad days flying bombers against the Nazis and then repeatedly escaping their prison camps . . . An engrossing valediction to the tough, imaginative generation forged by the war.” —Kirkus Reviews


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