In the extremes of human existence, few compare with the experience of flight, and in particular, flight of an armed aircraft over long distances over enemy held territory during times of war.
WWII has provided us hundreds of these stories; men lost in the Sahara desert due to navigational error, men lost in the Pacific because of it’s vastness. Flight was not what it is today. Accidents or mechanical failure was common.
Or sometimes they were just plain shot down.
In the 1930’s as war appeared to be on the horizon, the British Air Ministry issued specifications as to an aircraft desired for long range service as a bomber and troop transport, a ceiling of 14,000 was required and, ominously, the aircraft had to fit into existing hangers.
Of course most existing hangers were for smaller planes. Short Brothers produced a prototype called the Stirling whose wings made the grade, they were short and stubby, but broader front to back than normally seen due to the requisite lift to meet the ceiling requirements. The RAF accepted the design.
The motto of Bomber Command was Strike Hard, Strike Sure. The 149 Squadron stationed at Lakenheath in Suffolk northeast of London had its own motto:
Fortis nocte– Strong by Night.
One night this squadron of Stirling’s were detailed to fly through the Alps to bomb the Fiat aircraft works in Turin, Italy. One such craft designated “H” for Harry, was piloted by an Australian Sgt. Rawdon Hume Middleton. This would be the 29th of his 30 requisite missions before allowed to retire. Seven other men crewed the aircraft.
Things went just fine crossing into France on this night of November 28-29, 1942. Then during the climb to clear the Alps Middleton advised the crew “she is not climbing well” and asked the flight engineer, Sgt. James E. Jefferies for a fuel report. The response, the first of several, was bleak.
“If we go on at this rate Skipper, we haven’t got enough juice to get us back to base. It’s taken a hell of a time to get to 12,000 feet and we’ve still got to climb. With any luck we may get back as far as the English coast, but it’ll be chancy.”
The weather was already bad and no moon assisted their journey. Middleton announced they would carry on, yet the safety limit for flights over the Alps was 14,000 feet and they just couldn’t get there. Calling out to the Russian born navigator and Pilot Officer George Royde, Middleton asked if he could find a pass through the mountains. Royde studied the maps and did the best he could. All the crew were ordered to keep eyes peeled as they flew down a gorge. Soon the mountains were so close there was no thought of turning around; there wasn’t room.
“Peak dead ahead Skipper!” called out the mid-upper gunner Flight Sgt. Douglas Cameron. “Watch out. Dead ahead!. Middleton deftly skirted the peak, the Stirling was said to be a wonder to fly despite it’s now obvious shortcomings. The rear gunner Sgt. Harold Wray Gough reported the rock wall past by in what seemed like inches.
The Stirling flew on, deeper, and deeper into the gorge. “Its’ coming to a dead end” Middleton reported, and opened the bomb bay doors to jettison the weight of the bombs, desperate for altitude.
Suddenly Sgt. John W. Mackie, the front gunner barked into the intercom “It’s there! Look to starboard!”.
The crew could see through a pass the flares earlier RAF crews had dropped to illuminate the target. Middleton banked the ship to the right and began the decent to the valley that held the city. He closed the bomb bay doors and began to set up for his run.
Calling out to flight engineer Sgt. Jeffery for a fuel report, Middleton learned if they followed orders and bombed from a low altitude they would just have enough to get back to the English coast. Middleton pressed the nose of the ship down, down, to 5000 feet, and they began to take anti-aircraft or flak hits. Asking the Scottish co-pilot Leslie Hyder to assist as the lateral control had been impacted, he reported in a thick accent “We’re OK Chaps” and continued to descend to 2000 feet as they crossed over the marshaling yards.
Suddenly an explosion rocked the cockpit between Middleton and Hyder and the bomber went into a dive. Middleton lost consciousness. Hyder recovered just in time to pull the Stirling out at 800 feet and again his heavy accent come over the intercom “Ok, I’ve got her’ notwithstanding his own wounds. Too low to bomb, Hyder brought the ship up to 1500 feet for the bomb run. Middleton regained consciousness despite grievous wounds, including a smashed right eye and exposed skull, and flew repeated passes over the target to ensure identification, three in all.
Middleton ordered Hyder back to the rest bed for first aid. Hyder was assisted by Flight Sgt. Cameron from the mid-upper gun mount. Makie left the front turret to survey the scene, and found Middleton alone, bleeding, and piloting the aircraft. There was some talk of heading south for North Africa, but after yet another fuel report he assisted by setting the compass heading back to the Alps, this time without bombs or as much fuel, but with holes in the wings.
Hyden’s wounds were barely dressed when he left the first aid station for the co-pilots seat, concerned Middleton might again lose consciousness. Both men were bleeding heavily from multiple hits. The shell that had impacted them blew out the windscreen on the pilot’s side. Ice cold wind blew in at 150 knots. They had 500 miles yet to travel to England.
All extra weight was jettisoned, even the guns and ammunition, despite having yet to fly over German occupied France. The rear turret had been largely wrecked by a flak shell in any case. The moon mercifully appeared, and the now lighter Stirling passed through the Alps with greater clarity of vision.
Over France a head wind afflicted the stricken bomber and crew. Fuel again became the chief concern. Many doubted they would even make it to the English Channel for ditching, yet a crash land in occupied France may just save the life of the pilot. But Middleton decided it was more important to get the crew back to England, even if they had to rely upon the Air Sea Rescue Service. And so he flew on.
Somewhere over France, a miracle occurred. The wind came back around to cease the headwind, and instead moved to the northwest. Yet they were still over occupied France. Search lights roamed for the craft representing this engine sound the Germans heard in the sky. Suddenly the cockpit was ablaze in light, not from a flak burst this time but from multiple ground lights; the bomber was “coned” making it an easier target for further flak. The surviving crew reported later the impacts of the shots were like a dentist’s automatic hammer on teeth.
Middleton summoned his remaining strength and pressed the kite into a dive, weaving between the main flak channels reaching up to strike them, down, down to where he pulled the ship out in a flash, and left the coning searchlights behind.
Suddenly the men saw the glow of the moon on the English channel below them. The crew began to prepare to ditch, but Middleton eased back on the stick. The ship began to climb. Middleton, his voice now barely a whisper asked Jeffery for a final fuel report. The flight engineer replied “I can guarantee five minutes petrol time, but not ten”. “Prepare to bail out” Middleton coughed.
The Stirling crossed the English coast, and Middleton flew 2 miles inland as a safety margin to ensure the men’s parachutes would not be just blown back to sea before giving the order to bail out. Hyder was assisted to the escape hatch by the front gunner Makie, who then sat down in the co-pilots seat and requested permission to continue flying the aircraft. Royde, Cameron and the rear gunner Gough went out after Hyder.
Wounded and oblivious somehow to the events outside of his station, the wireless operator from Yorkshire, Pilot Officer Norman Skinner was still working his post. He reported a new bearing he had received and heard the answer “don’t be a bloody fool, they have all bailed out.” He left his station with his parachute, and went forward to see some of the crew just leaving the aircraft. Remaining were Makie, Skinner, Jeffery and Middleton, who then turned the aircraft out to sea. Makie pushed Skinner to jump and told him to “Go, jump” so he did landing in the English countryside.
Here is where certainty ends. Here is where we speculate about what possessed Middleton to aim the bomber back to sea, toward the English Channel, and whether he or the other two on board bailed out. Most presume Middleton knew he would never survive the leap, and that he wanted to ensure the bomber would not crash land into the English countryside, perhaps injuring civilians. This sort of thing had occurred, and Middleton was that sort of airman to make sure this did not happen on his watch.
When a heavy craft such as the Stirling runs out of petrol it is not an easy glide path. Ditching was a perilous effort under the best of circumstances. The bodies of Jefferys and Makie washed up on shore the next day. Middleton’s washed ashore months later.
Royde and Skinner were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Hyder, Cameron and Gough were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. Middleton was posthumously advanced in rank to Pilot Officer, and awarded the nation’s highest military honor for valor, the Victoria Cross. He was 26.
This piece was prepared with the thought it should be published on Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and 48 other Commonwealth countries. It is also
Veterans Day in the United States. I publish in honor and memory of those who have served in defense of our nations.