During the Second World War, RAF personnel regularly described their activities on the radio for listeners of the BBC. These broadcasts described their experiences in their own words and in effect provided the human stories behind the official communiqués. Each month we present one of these narratives, an account selected from over 280 broadcasts which were, at the time, given anonymously. One of those men was Flight Lieutenant Reginald Burrage.
It was at 07:25 on the morning of 22 October 1941, that Pilot Officer D.H. Limbrey took off from St Eval at the controls of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley T4329. He and his 612 (County of Aberdeen) Squadron crew had been tasked with carrying out an anti-submarine patrol.
After an uneventful patrol Limbrey turned for home. It was soon after that disaster struck. Returning from the Bay of Biscay, and having suffered starboard engine failure, Limbrey was faced with no option but to ditch his aircraft – a feat which he safely achieved at a spot 75 miles southwest of the Scilly Isles. It was 10:55.
The problems for the Whitley crew mounted when their large dinghy failed to operate correctly. All six men were forced to squeeze themselves into the remaining, smaller, two-man dinghy. For three hours they remained in this state until spotted by a searching Coastal Command Lockheed Hudson.
At the same time the Whitley ditched, a Short Sunderland from 10 Squadron RAAF took off from Pembroke Dock on, as the squadron Operations Record Book (ORB) notes, a “special flight to locate and escort a Whitley aircraft which was returning to base with engine trouble”. The flying boat, W3986, was captained by Flight Lieutenant Reginald Burrage. The account in the 10 Squadron ORB reveals a little of what followed for the Sunderland crew:
“At 11:49 course was altered to fly along the estimated track of the Whitley aircraft. A square search was commenced at 12:43. At 13:52 a creeping line ahead search 12 miles either side of the main line of advance, at 10 miles intervals, was commenced. At 15:15 the Wireless Operator intercepted the following message from a Hudson which was co-operating in the search – ‘Am over dinghy in position ……., contains five [sic] aircrew’.”
Twenty minutes later Burrage’s crew received a message from Pembroke Dock to proceed to the Hudson’s location. His instructions were “not to attempt a landing unless conditions permit”.
“Course was altered for the new position,” continues the account. “A special equipment [radar] indication was observed and it was found on investigation to be a Hudson aircraft eight miles distant on the port side. The Captain, thinking this Hudson aircraft was in position over the dinghy, altered course in its direction. As the Hudson continued on a steady course the chase was abandoned and our aircraft circled endeavouring to establish special equipment contact.
“At 16:45 hours a special equipment indication was observed and on investigation it was found to be two Hudson aircraft circling steeply. As our aircraft approached, a dinghy containing six men was observed on the water. One sea marker and several smoke floats were dropped and all bombs and depth charges were jettisoned. After making several dummy runs over the dinghy in order to gauge the state of the sea, the Captain decided to attempt an alighting.”
Moments later, at 17:25, Burrage skilfully put the Sunderland down approximately one mile away from the dinghy, which he immediately headed towards. By 18:01 he was airborne again, all six men from T4329 safely on-board.
However, the final part of the rescue had not been without its problems, as Burrage himself later recounted in his talk on the BBC:
“It was my flying-boat which picked up the Whitley boys from the Atlantic, but we only came in at the end of the job. If it hadn’t been for a spot of good navigation by the Whitley crew themselves, and then by the Hudsons, these lads would never have been found at all.
“The Whitley crew sent out their position so exactly when they came down, and the Hudson navigators worked so well, that the leading Hudson was over the dinghy, dropping a bag of comforts, only 59 minutes after taking off. In the comforts bag that was dropped were food, brandy and cigarettes. That’s one way to get a smoke these days.
“We in the Sunderland were flying towards the last-known position of the dinghy. Then my wireless operator intercepted a message from one of the Hudsons: ‘Am over dinghy, in position so-and-so.’ We altered course for the new position, and at last came upon two Hudsons circling round in steep turns. Soon we got close enough to see the dinghy on the water. It was a dinghy made for only two men, but there were six in it. They gave us a cheer as we went over.
“We cracked off a signal to base that we were over them, and then I began to wonder about getting down to pick them up. It’s a tricky business putting a big flying-boat down on a rough sea in the Atlantic. A heavy wave can easily smash the wing-tip floats, or even knock out an engine.
“We flew around, talking it over, and looking very hard at the sea. It wasn’t too promising. The waves were about eight feet from trough to crest. But there was one good point – the wind was blowing along the swell, and not across it.
“We decided to have a try, and I picked out a comparatively smooth piece of water, about a mile from the dinghy. We landed all right. It was a bit bumpy, but it was all right. The next problem was to get the boys out of the dinghy and into the flying-boat. We taxied near to them. Two of my crew clambered into one of our own dinghies, at the end of a rope, and tried to paddle across to the Whitley dinghy. But the rope was too short.
“We tied another piece of rope on the end. It was still too short, even then. One of my crew then climbed out on the Sunderland’s wing and fastened the end of the rope to the wing-tip. But by that time the Whitley dinghy had drifted away, out of reach.
“Then I thought we would tow our dinghy up to the Whitley’s dinghy. We started up the engines, and moved off slowly, pulling our own dinghy along behind us. I’m afraid the lads in my dinghy got a bit wet.
“After a few minutes we brought both the dinghies together. They floated alongside the Sunderland itself. The Whitley dinghy seemed to be very crowded. When I took the crew aboard, I learned that their big dinghy had failed. So all of them had had to cram into the smaller one, which is designed to hold only two men.
Their dinghy was gradually filling with water, and I doubt whether it would have lived through the night.
“We pulled them aboard through the after-hatch of the Sunderland – and just about time, too. Their dinghy was gradually filling with water, and I doubt whether it would have lived through the night. It was only half an hour before dusk when we picked them up. They were quite all right, though. Just a bit tired. We gave them some hot tea and some food, and they turned in for a sleep on the way home. We did get one bit of amusement before we got back to base … About 30 miles off the coast we saw beneath us one of the high-speed rescue launches, haring out towards the position where we had picked up the crew.
“We flashed a signal to the launch: ‘Have picked up six air crew from dinghy in position so-and-so.’ The launch flashed back only one word – ‘Blast!’ – and turned round and headed for home. Just one other point strikes me about this rescue incident. It had a fine international flavour.
“The British crew in the dinghy included one New Zealander. They were located by Lockheed Hudson aircraft built in California. And they were picked up by a flying-boat manned entirely by Australians. There seems to be a nice touch of co-operation about that.”