Eleven Days in a Dinghy – survival against the odds

Written by John Davenport DFC ex 502 and 58 squadron

On 27 September 1943 Halifax ‘B’ of 58 Squadron took off from Holmsley South in the New Forest, north of Christchurch, at 1128 mid-day for a U-Boat patrol in the Bay of Biscay. The crew consisted of F/O Eric Hartley, Group Captain R C Mead Station Commander of RAF Holmsley South flying as second pilot, a Canadian navigator, a flight engineer and four Wop/Air gunners(Wop/Ag’s). 58 and 502 Squadrons, equipped with Halifax Mk.II with Merlin engines were the only two operational Halifax squadrons in Coastal Command specially modified with extra fuel tanks in the wing bomb bays to give an endurance of 12 to 13 hours. They were also equipped with the latest Mk.III Radar, Gee navigation aid, Mk.XIV bombsight, a quantity of different types of Flares for night attacks. They carried up to eight 250lb. depth charges for attacks on U-Boats or six 500lb. bombs when on Anti-Shipping patrols.

hartley

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Flying Officer E L Hartley and crew

Taken before the incident, the crew are on the wing of a 58 squadron Halifax at RAF Holmsley South

Rear rank, Sgt A S Fox, not known, F/sgt K E Ladds, F/O T E Bach, Sgt R K Triggol

Front rank, Sgt M Griffiths, F/O Hartley, Sgt G R Robertson

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B/58 had reached the southern extreme of its patrol about 150 miles out in the Atlantic from northern Spain at 1705, still daylight, when a radar contact revealed a surfaced U-Boat.

4908080905_c64b736714    U-221 crestu-221-crest

Eric Hartley flew in to attack at 50 feet and, on pilot release crossed the U-boat at 30 degrees to the port bow dropping eight depth charges. Fire was exchanged but the attack was very successful straddling the target just aft of the conning tower. The U-boat was seen shortly afterward with the bow rising at an angle of 20 degrees then slid under.     (The attack on U-221 actually took place over 500 miles from north west Spain and 786 miles West South West of their base at Holmsley South – Ed.).

img_2002  img_1976-crpd img_1971-crpd  img_2011-crpd-web (1/700 scale Diorama and Photos by Henry Goodall)                                                                 ‘B’ sustained at least one hit in the starboard wing setting rise to a fire in a fuel tank which quickly spread towards the fuselage. Ordering an SOS to be sent, the only option left was to ditch, at 110 kts without flap. The tail broke off, water was rushing in and the aircraft stood on its nose, most of the flames were extinguished. Most of the crew got out through the escape hatches, but the rear gunner was in transit from the turret and was not seen again, and the front gunner was briefly held by the others, but slipped from their grasp and was drowned.

Fortunately the dinghy appeared to be undamaged, inflated, and was boarded with difficulty. Unfortunately, however, there had been no time to bring emergency dinghy equipment (e.g. food, water, dinghy radio etc.). The ditching was three miles or so away from the U-boat which was not seen again. There was doubt about the SOS as it was sent in haste at a height of about 300 feet about 700 miles from England.imgid59994156-jpg-gallery

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The Survivors

F/O E.L Hartley, Pilot, awarded the DFC.  G/Capt R C Mead AFC, 2nd Pilot

F/O T E Bach RCAF, Navigator   Sgt G R Robertson, Engineer

F/Sgt K E Ladds, Mid Upper gunner awarded the DFM

Sgt A S Fox, Wireless Operator  

Crew Members lost

Sgt R K Triggol, Rear gunner   Sgt M Griffiths, Front Gunner

The first night was a trial. the crew were wet, shocked, cold and seasick. The next morning they found a quantity of emergency rations, Horlicks tablets, barley sugar, chewing gum, chocolate, condensed milk, and, most important five pint tins of water. For six people, with a prospect of a long wait for rescue, no food was consumed on the first day; subsequently very careful rationing was maintained. On drier days clothes were dried out, some even freshened up with a swim. Rainwater was collected in handkerchiefs. A few days later the sea became very rough and the dinghy overturned. With sensible forethought rations were saved. Efforts were made to fish, without success, and jellyfish were caught but found to be foul and bitter.

A Very pistol and cartridges had been found. This was carefully stowed and secured for possible future use, even tested, when a light appeared on the horizon, only to find it was Mars, bright and red.

Nights were cold and cramped. Luckily it was late October, not as icy cold as winter but mental and physical reserves were weakening after day after day. One crew member became delirious. Efforts were made to rig a sail made of two shirts with the idea of using the westerly winds to take the dinghy nearer convoy routes or air patrols. Ten days had passed, and spirits were low indeed.dinghy

Suddenly everything changed – one afternoon, 8th October at 1430 hours the mast of a ship was sighted. Three Very cartridges were fired-three naval vessels came to them-in twenty minutes came alongside to pick them up. The rescue ship was the destroyer MAHRATTA homeward bound from Gibraltar in company with two other destroyers Matchless and Valiant. Six weary survivors were given wonderful care and attention. They were landed at Plymouth two days later and were taken to the Royal Naval Hospital, Plymouth.

It was sheer chance that they were found by HMS Mahratta as no SOS had been received. The U-boat was later identified as U221, sunk with the loss of all hands by B/58. Eric Hartley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Ken Ladds the Distinguished Flying Medal. As a sad footnote,Eric Hartley was to read, not long after, that the Mahratta was sunk while on Russian Convoy duty, with only three survivors. Eric Hartley returned to fly Halifaxes with 58 Squadron and moved to fly from St.Davids in December 1943. He died about ten years ago (written in 2004).

Eric Hartley’s flying Logbook records the mission thus:

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