N/461

The following chapter 'N/461' was taken from the book 'They Shall Not Pass Unseen' by Ivan Southall and first published by Angus and Robertson in 1956. Mr Southall has kindly granted permission for it to be reproduced here on this website.

'N/461'

© Copyright 2003 Ivan Southall

“Please convey my congratulations to the crew of the Sunderland of 461 Squadron R.A.A.F. for their outstandingly gallant and successful action with a formation of Ju-88s in the Bay of Biscay yesterday” . . . Archibald Sinclair

“I should like Flight Lieutenant Walker and the surviving members of his gallant crew to be told of the admiration and pride which I felt on reading the details of this epic battle which will go down to history as one of the finest instances in the war of the triumph of coolness, skill and determination against overwhelming odds” . . . Sir Charles Portal, Chief of Air Staff, R.A.F.

The Sunderland in this tale was the same as any other. It didn't carry field-guns for armament or steel panels for a hull. It was an ordinary aircraft with eleven average fellows for its crew, but it did have an interesting modification which never had been tried before. That modification consisted of two Vickers .303 machineguns, one to each galley-hatch on the lower deck. For years the old Sunderland had flown with a bare bottom. It had one gun up in front, two on top and four at the tail, but underneath it was naked and unprotected. The boys at 461 had never liked that, neither had anyone else who had flown a Sunderland in combat. So they devised the galley guns in their own workshops and fitted them without telling too many people about it. That was the only special qualification the Sunderland could claim, but it was untried, an unknown quantity.

Until 2nd June 1943 this particular aircraft was known as N/461. Thereafter it ceased to exist. Bits and pieces of it were scattered over the Bay of Biscay. Great lumps of it were pounded by the seas. Yet this aircraft, this ordinary average piece of machinery, became the inspiration of a German intelligence report. They called it, and all Sunderlands along with it, the most dangerous aircraft in the Bay of Biscay. Its armour-plate deflected cannon shells from its hull; its secret weapon, possibly a 37-millimetre cannon, was used with devastating effect.

Back in February 1943, N/461 had been shot up by a number of JU-88’s and FW-190’s. It had been damaged quite badly, but its crew, who were the same boys who went out on the second of June, were unhurt. They had bullet-holes and cannon-blasts all round them but weren't scratched. Their aircraft was patched up and resumed operations. They flew on through the rest of winter, through the spring and into the early summer without distinguishing themselves in any uncommon manner.

Walker was the captain and he played the piano very well. Dowling and Amiss were the pilots, Simpson was the navigator, Miles and Turner were the engineers; Fuller, Miller, Lane, Watson and Goode were the wireless operators and the air gunners. Nothing startling about them, just a good average bunch, yet on 2nd June 1943 they fought and won a battle in the Bay of Biscay which virtually stands alone in the history of Coastal Command. Nine Australians and two Englishmen in that lone and solitary Short Sunderland N/461 routed an overwhelming enemy force which engaged them with the utmost fury and determination. Eight Junkers 88 twin-engined heavy fighters manned by thirty-two courageous Germans armed with fixed and free-firing cannons and heavy-calibre machine-guns, closed in combat with the Short Sunderland twenty times in three-quarters of an hour. Their assault was shattered. They might as well have attacked the Great Pyramid of El Gizeh. The tenacity of the Germans in the face of mounting disaster was extraordinary. It cannot be explained. On the surface there does not appear to be a logical answer. If we delve deeper there is one possibility. Perhaps the Sunderland was mistaken for a transit aircraft carrying between Britain and Gibraltar a person whose decease was desirable. The Jerries were out to get that Sunderland hell or high water.

At 1331 hours, half-past one in the afternoon, Sunderland N/461 was airborne from Pembroke Dock on what was known as an anti-submarine derange patrol. It was part of a carefully planned and intensive operation of a new type, designed to force the U-boats to the surface within immediate striking distance of the nearest aircraft. Walker did not bother the U-boats that day.

At briefing he had heard a story about a defenceless British airliner which had been slaughtered the day before by a large formation of German fighter aircraft. The airliner had been flying from *Gibraltar to Britain and the Jerries had been thirsting for its blood. It had crashed in the Bay of Biscay and its crew and twelve passengers were missing. One of the passengers was Leslie Howard. Ironically, the Jerries had made a special point of nailing that aircraft, not because of Howard or any of the other passengers aboard, but apparently because of one man who was not aboard. Walker's crew had been asked to keep one good pair of eyes always on the water, because somewhere along their particular patrol line there may be a dinghy. There wasn't a dinghy, although they looked for it hard enough. They couldn't help the airliner crew or its passengers because they were dead, but they did avenge them. Walker cut their killers to ribbons. *The airliner, KLM Flight 777 a Douglas Dakota DC3, had flown from Lisbon, not Gibraltar.

The weather at Pembroke Dock was dull and the aircraft wasn't far out before a drizzling rain was sweeping across the dreary sea. Cloud forced them down low, but as they rode southward the sun began to break through with patches of misty brightness and long, slanting rays. Then it was all sunshine and cloud had vanished, and Walker went up to two thousand feet to continue his southward journey sedately but not smoothly. The rev. counter for his port-inner engine was fluctuating and every now and then a squirt of smoke and flame exploded through the exhausts.

Walker put up with it for an hour or two in the pained silence which captains reserved for such displays, because they were accustomed to it. It was common enough, but it was always worrying. Sometimes it got better. If a captain returned to Base it invariably did. If he pressed on it usually got worse. He was between the devil and the deep blue sea. After a while Walker called up Miles, his engineer, on the intercom.
“How do you feel about it, Ted?” he said. “What's it going to do to us?”
“Give it another thirty minutes, Captain. If it hasn't cleared up by then I'd think about turning back.”
“Okay,” said Walker. “Thirty minutes.”

Time 1835 hours – 6.35 p.m. The crew changed watch, which they did every hour. The pilots moved over, Amiss out of the flying-seat and Walker into it. Dowling into the right-hand seat. Another wireless operator sat down at the set and plugged in; the engineers changed and the relief gunners moved into the turrets. The reports, as always, came over the intercom in correct sequence.
“Tail to Control. Goode in position.”
“Midships to Control. Fuller in position.”
“Nose to Control. Watson in position.”
“Control to all positions. Understood!”
Simpson had left his charts and now stood in the astrodome. He looked out over the glaring sea and into the cloudless sky.
“Keep a sharp look-out,” he said deliberately. “We're in the Tiger Country. We're approaching the position where the airliner was shot down yesterday. It's on our course. Don't forget the dinghy.”

1845 hours. The boost-gauge and the rev. counter for the port-inner engine still fluctuated. The sea heaved gently, almost calm, but was marked by the long curving ripple lanes of the breezes. A suspicion of haze softened the tones of the water and the depths of the sky. Through the sky the great white Sunderland droned on and on.

1855 hours. The turrets moved slowly while eyes strained in the sunlight. This was indeed the Tiger Country, a slaughteryard, a stage for a play of suspense and savagery, where all men at one tike or another knew the meaning of fear. Here there were no parachutes and no patriots in the back country.

1900 hours. Goode, swinging his tail turret to the right, suddenly stopped. His eyes widened and his heart missed a beat:
“Tail to Control,” he barked.“Eight aircraft. Thirty degrees on the port quarter. Six miles. Up one thousand feet.”
Pause. Electric silence. A moment or two of shock. Simpson suddenly jumped to the astrodome. Walker rammed his throttles wide and sounded the alarm. Dowling hauled on the pitch levers and the engines howled at twenty-six hundred revolutions a minute.
“Control to Tail. Can you identify those aircraft?”
“Twin-engined,” said Goode. “Probably Junkers 88’s.”
They were. They came sweeping in at high speed.

“Captain to Wireless Operator.” Walker's voice was sharp and urgent.
“Message to Group. O/A Priority. Attacked by eight JU-88s . . . . How's that inner engine, Engineer?”
“No worse, Captain. No better.”
“Captain to Galley. Have you got the bomb-racks out?”
“Ready, Captain.”
“Right. Bombs gone. You've got to work fast. Run in the racks, close the doors, and get cracking with the galley guns. Who's down there to man them?”
“Miles on the starboard, sir. Lane on the port.”
“Thanks.”
“Control to all positions.” That was Simpson again. “They've spread all round us. Hold your fire until they're in range. Don't shoot before six hundred yards. Three are on the Starboard beam; three port beam; one on each quarter. Range fifteen hundred yards; fifteen hundred feet up.”
Simpson paused and they all waited. Suddenly his voice was there again, precise, calm, yet - underlaid with urgency.
“Okay. They're coming. One peeling off from each beam. Prepare to corkscrew. Twelve hundred yards. One thousand yards. They're firing. Prepare to corkscrew to starboard. Eight hundred yards. Corkscrew starboard. Go!”
Walker jammed over the wheel with a violent thrust of strength. The Sunderland screwed steeply down. Shell and tracer blasted right through it. "Corkscrew port. Port. Now port. Go!"
Walker savagely reversed controls. The boat shuddered with shock and climbed giddily to the left. The port-outer engine burst into flames. Smoke and fire scattered over the wing. Incendiary bullets ripped up the cockpit. Walkers compass blew up and sprayed him with blazing alcohol. Liquid fire splashed across the bridge and poured down the companionway into the bow compartment.

Through a confusion of sound and vibration and choking smoke Walker heard Simpson urging him to straighten up. But two more 88’s were on the way in. They had blooded. They had scored in the first attack. They were screaming in for the kill. Walker yelled at Dowling.
“Take over! Fly it! We've got to get these fires out!”
Amiss wrenched the extinguisher from its bracket on the bulkhead and turned it full onto the captain, because Walker was burning. Simpson's calm voice still was coming through the earphones.
“Eight hundred yards,” he was saying. “Corkscrew port . . . Corkscrew port . . . .”
And Walker was hearing it but seeing nothing, only smelling the smoke and the extinguishing fluid, and now the Sunderland was plunging down again and Dowling was fighting the controls. Amiss, hanging on his extinguisher and clinging for support to anything he could hold, was chasing the fires. Walker pressed the Graviner switch to extinguish the blazing engine. The fire snuffed out into clouds of white smoke which the aircraft left behind it as a billowing trail. The engine was finished. The airscrews windmilled and dragged and Dowling was up against it. Walker swung on Amiss again.
“Give the wireless operator a message for Group, On Fire.”

The 88’s were still coming in, again and again. They pressed home their attacks with increasing fury and reckless courage and Dowling could, scarcely hold his aircraft. It was pulling like a mad thing to port into the dead engine. He wound the trimming tabs over as fast as his hand could fly, but it still didn't take up the pressure; he still had full weight jammed against the rudder pedal to hold it in control. Simpson's voice suddenly dropped in pitch.
“They're reforming. They've returned to the quarters and the beams.”
There was a pause, a breather for a few seconds. Amiss overcame the fires on the bridge and Walker again took the controls. There was a brief silence on the intercom. They were in terrible trouble, and there wasn't a man aboard who tried to deceive himself into believing that they weren't. Suddenly a new voice came over the intercom. It was Fuller in the midships turret, up there on top in the weakening sunlight. He was singing:
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
“They're coming,” said Simpson. “One from port and one from starboard. Firing from a thousand yards. We'll go starboard first. Eight hundred yards. Turn and dive starboard. Go!”
“Tighter, Captain! Now port. Port. Corkscrew port. He's coming right in. Tight as you can make it, Col.”

Shells and bullets crashed into the Sunderland. Tail had a go at the rapidly nearing fighter on the port but Midships didn't. Fuller's guns lay fully depressed with his turret turned starboard. He rested over his guns, eyes slitted. Little Fuller, no more than a boy - he even looked a boy - sat on his guns, barrels down, and watched the 88 on the starboard side hurtle at him, watched the bullet-holes spatter all round him, yet didn't waver. He watched until that thundering 88 filled up the sky, head on, and was fifty yards off the wing-tip. Fuller flashed his guns up, sighted and shot. Hundreds of rounds slaughtered the 88 as it broke away. Fuller poured them into it and suddenly it was a cloud of flame and black smoke and bits and pieces. It screamed vertically into the sea.
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition . . . .”
“Straighten up,” said Simpson, not unmoved. “Straight and level. Get some height. They're coming again, two more of them in line astern on the port quarter. Twelve hundred yards. Prepare to turn and dive to port. One thousand yards and they're firm cannon. Eight hundred. Hold your fire. Turn and dive to port. Go!”
They went, over and down, a tight, giddy turn towards the sea. The Sunderland didn't fire. No man fired except the 88. Nose and Tail and Midships sat over their sights and waited. Shells and armour-piercing bullets crashed into the hull, shot away the elevator and rudder-trimming wires, severed the tail hydraulics, and slammed the turret violently against the stops. Goode collapsed over his guns.

Still the enemy came in. Still the Sunderland held its fire. All it did was scream round its turn and didn't fire a shot. The first 88 broke away. The second came on and in to two hundred yards.
“Fire!” yelled Simpson.
They fired, Nose and Midships together, Fuller and Watson as one man. Tracers spun their lazy arc towards the Junkers. It pulled up sharply. It was almost a positive movement and broke away. Fuller and Watson followed him without pause or mercy. A thin stream of smoke came from the fighters starboard engine; then a sudden burst of dark flame . . . . It dropped towards the water and struck the surface in a smother of foam. It bounced vertically, hung for a split second then plunged into the sea. A column of oily smoke shot up like a rocket.
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
“Superb,” said Simpson. "Two destroyed. There's another coming in now on the starboard. Prepare to turn and dive to starboard . . . .”
Walker turned and yelled at Amiss,
"Get another message away, ‘Two shot down’!”
“Turn and dive to starboard,” said Simpson. “Go!”
Amiss lurched back to the wireless operator and pencilled the three words on the signal pad.
“And now they're coming up from below. Watch them, Galley. One on each, quarter. Fire as soon as you like. Tail, he's yours, too. Get into him. Good shooting, Galley. You've scared him off 88 on the starboard is still coming in. Don't hold your fire, Tail, get into him! Control to Tail .... Captain, “Tail's bought it.”
A brief silence, then Walker's voice.
“Captain to Second Pilot. Get him out. Put in a galley gunner. Be slick.”
Then again it was Simpson's voice.
“An attack developing. from the starboard. One thousand yards on the starboard bow. Two aircraft in line astern. Prepare to corkscrew starboard. Eight hundred. Corkscrew. Go!”

Suddenly the bridge was filled with smoke and flying shrapnel and broken glass. A cannon-shell burst inside the aircraft against the radio bulkhead, shattered the petrol gauges and every instrument in sight, wrecked the wireless during transmission, and wounded half the men on the bridge. The wireless operator was injured, the first pilot and the navigator. Simpson came down from his dome in a heap with a lump of steel in his leg. Miles, down below on the starboard galley gun, clasped his stomach and collapsed.

Simpson pulled himself up into the dome again and sighted the 88s almost on top of him. He tried to speak into his mike but couldn't. The intercom was dead. Walker dragged the Sunderland out of its turn and it took all his strength to straighten it up. There was a long moment of dreadful confusion. It was chaos. The bridge was a maze of twisted metal and broken glass. It reeked of cordite. The intercom had been shot away. There was no wireless airspeed indicator had ceased to work. The flying controls were damaged. The airframe was warped. Walker looked out to port and actually saw the port-outer propellers and their reduction gear fall off the engine and tumble down into the sea. He also saw another 88 coming in on that side, already at short range, so he turned towards it, shouting at Dowling to help him. They turned and it took the strength of two men to control it. Simpson still stood in the dome, his voice silenced. Now they had to fight without co-ordinated control. What the pilots saw they would be able to avoid. What they didn't see would shoot them down.

Simpson dropped from his dome a second time and yelled desperately at Miller, the wireless operator, another man who had been silenced.
“Watch me,” he shouted, "and tell the captain! Tell him what to do!”
Miller nodded, and so the continued. Simpson up in the dome with his life-blood oozing over his boots, flying the evasive action with his hands and his screaming voice, and Miller mimicked action him and passed it on to Walker. Amiss was still trying to get to the tail turret to get Goode out and put another man in, but it took him a long while to get past the galley because it was there that he found Miles, convulsed over his gun, dying fast. With Lane's assistance Amiss lifted him clear -and tried to get him through into the wardroom; but they couldn't open the door. They couldn't even smash it down. The airframe had twisted so far that the door was closed forever. They'd never open it, that or any other door that was shut, neither could they shut the ones that were open. They laid Miles down on the bomb-room floor and Turner came down from the engineer's bench and took Mile’s place at the gun.

The battle continued. Walker and Dowling flew together, flew with masterful precision an aircraft which was scarcely an aircraft any longer, still turning and corkscrewing and diving into attack after attack with all the power the straining engines could find. The noise and the smell and the smoke and the vibration were indescribable. Amiss was still struggling towards the tail. He was down on all fours like an animal, fighting his way an inch at a time along the catwalk up to the turret. The hull was like a colander and it was swimming in oil and de-icing fluid from punctured tanks and hydraulic line. Amiss was flung from side to side with the violence of the evasive action. He was covered from head to foot in oil and muck. He reached the turret. He couldn't stand up, just stayed on all fours shaken and half stunned. The rear of the aircraft was shot to ribbons. He could see out of it, out into the sky and the sea, through the great rents of cannon explosions and the multitude of small holes from machine-gun bullets. The turret itself was jammed over hard to port, and if Goode were alive it would be a miracle.

Amiss raised his fist and thumped against the turret door, and Goode looked down at Amiss and gave him a weak grin and turned his thumbs up. Amiss tried to get him out, but Goode wasn't interested. Despite shock, despite concussion, he mastered himself and began to move his turret with the pressure of his body alone. He elevated his guns, although he had only his fingers to fire them, and was back in the fight. Up on the bridge the struggle went on in conditions of unbelievable disorder, yet in that material confusion they controlled their fate with an almost supernatural calm and discipline. Discipline wasn't imposed, it was a self-created force held firm by mutual example and a supreme spirit. Simpson stood in a pool of blood. Miller and Dowling ignored their injuries, Walker forgot his burns. Is there a man alive who would not care to be numbered amongst them?

Pause again. Another breather. The six 88’s withdrew to the beams and the quarters to re-form, for yet another time, for the final assault, for the ultimate kill. Simpson began again to act his pantomime, Miller to mimic it, Walker and Dowling to put it into effect. A single 88 opened the assault from the starboard quarter and Walker turned steeply into that attack-saw another coming from the port-and changed his turn into a violent corkscrew. The fighter on the starboard side broke off his attack surrounded by Fuller's long-range tracer, but the one on the port kept coming in with a fierce and sustained approach. Goode took up the challenge, fighting to hold his turret steady. He sighted it and depressed the sears of his guns with his fingers. He got it. Tracers ripped through the great jutting engines, and at point-blank range and not before, Fuller poured two hundred rounds into its belly. The 88 screamed away like a winged bird in a crazy blazing arc, and smashed into the sea at three hundred miles an hour. But the German airmen did not withdraw. They came again and again and again, driven by some peculiar desperation which we cannot even attempt to explain. Each attack was beaten back by a virtually impenetrable shield of tiny .303 bullets. Never in the history of German operations in the Bay of Biscay did fighters meet such phenomenal gunnery. Not one escaped undamaged.

Yet another aircraft closed in a suicidal onslaught across the starboard bow, and Watson in the nose emptied a pan of ammunition into its port wing. It vanished, engine ablaze, black smoke belching from the cockpit. They never sighted it again anywhere. Didn't see it go into the sea and didn't see it escape either.

Suddenly, so suddenly that the revelation came as a shock, only two 88’s remained in the sky. Two only, and they sat off the port beam two thousand yards out, a shattered remnant of what had been a powerful fighting force; yet they came in again in line astern and the Sunderland prepared to meet the assault. But it didn't come. It petered out. They broke off at eight hundred yards without firing a shot and, thrashed and humbled, turned into the east and headed for France.

At one thousand feet the triumphant N/461, alone in the sky, position unknown, throttled back its shuddering engines and slowly circled. It was silence now, deep and breathless and pained, except for the engines beat and the groaning of the tortured aircraft. They relaxed, all of them, pale, trembling, lips black, tongues swollen fantastically in their mouths. Walker weakly lifted himself from his seat, lit a cigarette, and thanked God.

And the silence continued. They weren't wholly conscious. They couldn't believe it had happened. They couldn't believe that this tattered shell remained in the air. They couldn't believe they had fired seven thousand rounds. They couldn't believe that they had destroyed three JU-88s, probably destroyed a fourth, possibly a fifth, and damaged three more. They couldn't believe they had dispatched the Bay Hunters almost into total oblivion. But the major revelation was yet to come. The British naval listening station which maintained a constant watch on German frequencies listened in wonder to the repeated calls which were directed to the enemy aircraft. Only two replied.

But what of No. 19 Group Headquarters Coastal Command? What of Pembroke Dock itself? Walker was already believed lost. The signal which the exploding cannon-shell had cut short was deemed to be his last. Three aircraft were immediately diverted to search for survivors. They found nothing except an oil patch or two which could have been anything.

Somewhere in the Bay of Biscay, position unknown, Walker set an approximate course for England and Dowling moved over into the flying-seat. Amiss took his place in the right-hand seat, but Amiss didn't fly. No. All Amiss did was force his weight against the starboard rudder-bar to keep the Sunderland straight. When he could bear the strain no longer he took hold of the port pedal with his hand and pulled. Then Lane came up from the galley and told Walker that Miles was dead. Silence again. Everyone seemed to know without being told. They knew there was a lass home in Britain who had been widowed too early in life.

They turned their attentions to Simpson. They sat him on his table and looked him over. His trousers were sodden with blood. His boots were covered in blood. They ripped the trouser-legs up the seams and while they dressed the wound Simpson smoked a cigarette. He didn't say much but when they had finished he looked at Walker.
“What course have you set, Col?”
“030. Should be about right, I think.”
“Could be but needn't be. I'll take a sun-shot.”
“You won't. You're a cot case. I'm the navigator of this aircraft and I'll navigate it back to Base. Give me a hand into the dome.”
So they lifted him into the astrodome and held onto him while he sighted the low sun with his sextant. He gave Walker a correction of course and collapsed over his charts.

Turner, second engineer, was confronted by fuel gauges which registered zero. That didn't mean the tanks were empty because the gauges were broken, but it could have meant it just the same: There were a lot of holes in the starboard wing and, all told, there were five tanks out there. No one could say they had escaped damage. So he opened the balance cocks to feed the three engines from the port side. Then he went out into the starboard wing, into that thundering hot-box behind the engines, and inspected the tanks. Turner knew if petrol fumes were present he would be in trouble. He'd be dragged out unconscious if anyone could get to him. But there weren't any fumes. The tanks were intact.

Walker went below to look things over and to have a few words with the boys down there and the others in the turrets. They weren't injured. They were fit and fine. Walker could scarcely believe he had lost only one man because the place was a shambles. Goode was pretty sick, but there was nothing wrong with the others that a good sleep wouldn't fix. Fuller looked Walker in the eye and said,
"How about a fortnight's leave to see my little sugar-plum?"
Walker smiled.
“It's yours, boy. Make no mistake about that.”
Walker broke into the emergency rations and took orange juice round to them all by devious routes to bypass the jammed doors. It wasn't much he could give them just a small measure, but no sweeter offering ever passed their mouths. When Walker took it up to the pilots, Amiss was hanging onto the rudder-bar to keep the Sunderland straight. Amiss was still there, still hanging on, a couple of hours and three hundred miles later.

Walker went below again, pulled up the floorboards and inspected the hull bottom where he could. He realized there were at least five hundred holes and rips in the fuselage and mainplanes. It would float like a brick. It wouldn't float at all. The moment he touched the water he'd have to go flat out for land and run it ashore. There wasn't any safety margin at all. The only margin there might be would be luck.

“Okay,” he said, “we've got to get these doors open even if we have to smash them to pieces. Get busy with the leak-stoppers and plug every hole you can find below the water-line.”
They got the doors open and they did smash them to pieces; but the leak-stoppers didn't go very far. Before long they were down to strips of rag and items of clothing.

The engineer began a tour of destruction through the aircraft. He took an axe with him. He chopped out everything he could move: The wireless set, the radar, anchor, mooring chain, bunks, pyrotechnics, personal kit, ammunition boxes; the whole lot went overboard to lighten the load. But they kept their guns and maintained watch in all turrets. Fuller connected the tiny dinghy radio to the aircraft's trailing aerial. He stuck it between his knees and started winding the handle. He transmitted an unending stream of SOS’s which no one heard. Amiss still hung onto the rudder-bar.

The miles became minutes and the minutes hours, and at 2235, twenty-five to eleven at night, they sighted land in the long summer twilight of the British Isles. It was Cornwall. They hadn't really expected to see land again. Walker didn't alter course, just flew on towards the piece of coast he could see, because he knew by now he'd never get to Base in daylight. Pembroke Dock might as well have been on the other side of the earth. He couldn't face a night landing in this aircraft.
“What are you going to do?” said Dowling.
“What can I do but ditch?”
Walker called up one of the lads.
“Get everyone onto the bridge,” he said. “Tell them we're going to land close inshore. As soon as we hit we're abandoning aircraft. We'll paddle ashore in the dinghies.”
But first Walker patrolled the coast up and down for half an hour, selecting a likely spot and continually transmitting through the dinghy radio on the international distress frequency. Again their signals were not heard.

Walker took the full weight of the controls and Amiss crawled away from the rudder-bar. They prepared for ditching and Walker edged close inshore. Under his wing was the village of Marazion; ahead of him a stretch of beach, Prah Sands. At eight hundred feet he turned in along the swell, judging his speed by instinct because he didn't have an instrument that could record it for him. He throttled back. The starboard inner engine backfired and cut dead. That nearly stood his hair on end because now all safety margin, however frail, had gone. Now he had to get down this time because the aircraft would never be able to climb away for another attempt. He slipped down and down and didn't flatten out until the swell was on his nose. A seven-foot sea rolled in towards the beach and the Sunderland sagged towards it and struck at the crest of a wave. It slid into the trough and pulled up plunging and wallowing, three hundred yards offshore.
“Okay!” yelled Walker, “all out!”
They went out, up through the escape hatch onto the mainplane, dragging their dinghy packs with them, but Walker went down instead of up, down to the lower deck. The seas were coming in but not as rapidly as he had thought they would.

He decided to beach and recalled the crew. He opened his two remaining engines and at full bore charged towards the shallows. She wallowed and slewed and thumped and began to go down, but Walker stuck at it. They sea flooded number one deck and rose two feet above the floorboards. Suddenly she shuddered and dug in within walking depth of the shore and the captain cut the switches and wipe the sweat from his brow. Then that odd silence was there again, short-lived, but it was there. Walker got out of his seat and looked at them all.
“Let's go,” he said. “I think we've had enough for one day.”
Two men came running along the beach and three of the crew waded in to meet them.
“Hullo there, boys,” the strangers called. “How are you?”
“All right, thanks.”
“You sound like Australians.”
“I guess that's what we are.”
“What about your aeroplane? Can we do anything to help?”
“No. She's had it, I reckon.”
Then nothing more was said. They all turned and looked back to the Sunderland. Four crewmen wading waist-deep were carrying Ted Miles ashore.

Then suddenly women were coming along the beach. The boys stared in wonder because they weren't coming empty-handed. They were bringing their hospitality with them-cups and jugs and steaming hot tea. Walker, last of all, came splashing up the beach, filthy and blackened and wet.
“Thanks", he said simply. Shortly the people took them up to the house. It was back on the foreshore, not far. They asked no questions however great their desire for information may have been, but went about making them comfortable and warm, with hot water and clean towels and dry clothes and a substantial filling of fried eggs and sausages which were probably their rations for a couple of weeks.

Walker asked for the telephone. He shut the door behind him and rang the officers' mess, Pembroke Dock. Time, midnight.
“Hullo,” said a sleepy voice, “what can I do for you?”
“Wing Commander Douglas. Can you get him for me?”
“Hang on.”
Douglas was in the ante-room with a few of the boys. They had been drinking to the damnation of all JU-88’s. He got the phone.
“Douglas here. Who's speaking?”
“Col”
"Col who?"
“Col Walker.”
“Walker! You're dead!”
“This is no ghost you're talking to.”
“Well, I'll be damned.... Where are you?”
“Penzance.”
“What are you doing at Penzance, for Pete's sake?”
“Playing pirates.”
“Come off it, Col.”
“I had to ditch. We had a bit of strife.”
“Yes.... I guess you did. What happened?”
“We're all right. We got out of it, but we lost Sergeant Miles. He didn't live very long.” Walker paused.
“Yes, Col?”
“We . . . had a fairly successful combat.”
“Good man. In what way?”
“We got stuck into them.” Walker was rather breathless. “There were eight of the blighters. We shot down half of them. We damaged the rest.”
Douglas chuckled dryly. "Now pull the other leg, Col."
“This isn't a leg-pull, Chief. No. The gunners were wonderful. Young Fuller was magnificent. You've never seen guts like it in a lifetime.”
Douglas came back, after a pause which was still almost unbelief.
“This is marvellous, Col; but I'm finding it . . . difficult to get a grip on it.”
“That's my own complaint.”
“Tell them, Col . . . hell, I don't know what you can tell them. Tell them I'm so proud of them there aren't any words.”
“I'll do that. Now what about the boat? Shall I put a guard on board?”
“To hell with the boat. Let it sink and get some sleep. I guess you need it .... I'll put you through to Intelligence because they'll want to hear all about it. But don't let them keep you up half the night!”

And so it went on record and ceased to belong to Walker and his boys. It belonged to every man, woman and child who could read or hear. But the Sunderland? What of that wonderful aircraft which flew when no aircraft could have been expected to fly, which fought one of the great battles of the war with its left arm in a sling? In the morning it was gone. It was bits and pieces. It was lumps of wreckage pounded by the seas for hundreds of yards along the beach. We're not making a habit in this story of recording honours and awards, for they were many. There were also many awards which should have been but never were given, but this is different. This is a blend of perfect discipline, perfect courage, and perfect spirit which is more than a little above normal. In most cases any number of crews faced with a given set of circumstances would have acquitted themselves equally well and therefore decorations were largely a matter of luck. But this set of circumstances, this lot, is in a watertight compartment. It's personal.

One man received his commission posthumously, another received the D.S.O., another the D.F.C., two the D.F.M., and one was mentioned in dispatches. But the story has not yet ended. It went on because the crew had not amassed their eight hundred hours on operational patrol. The inhumanity of war robbed it of its passing glory. Walker didn't go out again, but he had been flying for longer than his crew and, his tour was all but finished anyway. Amiss, like most other second pilots, soon passed on to another crew to step up the ladder to first pilot and thus Dowling took command.
On 13th August 1943 Dowling and his boys failed to return.

The chapter ‘N/461’ is from the book ‘They Shall Not Pass Unseen’ by Ivan Southall
First published in July 1956 by Angus & Robertson
© Copyright 2003 Ivan Southall
All Rights Reserved

© Copyright 2003 Rowan Matthews
All Rights Reserved