'My war nearly ended when a Wellington crashed into my plane'. World War Two veteran's view of El Alamein
AFTER being blessed with a bird’s eye view of the Battle of El Alamein, former Fleet Air Arm pilot Peter Manders, now 92, thought his war had come to an end when his aircraft collided with a Wellington bomber in mid-air.
Manders, Sub Lt; Taber, WW Sub Lt; and McBride, A L/A.
While illuminating enemy positions for Wellington W5478 of 104 sqdn RAF, they collided with each other and crashed near El Alamein.
Manders taken POW, and Taber, WW Sub Lt and McBride, A L/A were both killed.
All of the RAF crew killed.
Former Fleet Air Arm pilot Peter Manders aged 92 formerly of Binegar who now lives at Torrwood care centre in Wells SMJB20130930F-010_C
My association with 821 Squadron was from the 9th January 1942 until the 30th October 1942, my last operation ﬁnishing at 0045 on that final day.
I remember the time distinctly because I had just looked at my watch and the thought in my mind was that in 15 minutes time I could leave the target area and head for home for an early breakfast.
However, fate decided that I, together with seven others, would not be enjoying that.
After the 10th June 1940 when Mussolini, thinking it was as good as all over and he may as well get in on the act and claim some of the spoils, declared war on Britain and the remains of France, the Mediterranean became an increasingly dangerous place, especially for carriers, the danger coming mainly from the Germans.
The ‘Eagle’ and ‘Ark Royal’ were eventually sunk and the ‘Illustrious’ and ‘Indomitable’ had to withdraw for repairs.
The result was that all Fleet Air Arm Squadrons were shore based in Malta or North Africa.
Rommel was entirely dependent on convoys from Italy for men and supplies and aircraft in Malta were ideally situated for attacks against these.
It was the failure of a large percentage of men and supplies to reach their destination that had such a great effect on the campaign in North Africa.
We, in 821 Squadron helped to deal with those that did arrive.
We had really been trained for operations with a naval ﬂavour and stood by, ready and armed with torpedoes a number of times.
But the targets never came within our range. With hindsight this was probably fortunate for us because our aircraft, the Albacore, was not designed for dodgy daytime operations, where, at least, a reasonable speed would be helpful.
Actually my ﬁrst operation did have a naval ﬂavour, illuminating a target on Rhodes for a naval bombardment.
It took 7.5 hours, longer than it takes now to ﬂy across the Atlantic.
My second operation, also a longish haul of 5.5 hours for a single engine aircraft, was mine laying in Derna harbour.
The night was pitch black and I had a few interesting moments, such as the engine suddenly stopping on the way out, while ﬂying at 50 feet, and running out of fuel on the way back but still 100 miles from base.
I still had quite a way to go before I would reach land, so that, with the fuel gauge stuck solidly on zero and the engine demanding three-quarters of a gallon a minute, it seemed a lifetime before crossing the coast.
A bit of luck comes in handy on such occasions and, of course, it was still dark.
The luck was that I had crossed the coast, where there was a desert airfield, just an area ﬂatter than the rest, which I could just make out.
I landed and taxied a short way before the engine died.
This time everything was in one piece, which was not the case shortly before this incident.
Again it was night. The engine lost power but this time there was no convenient ﬂat area below.
However, below I had to go to test the saying ‘Any landing you walk away from is a good one.’
We did walk away, but if the aircraft could have spoken, I doubt if it would have use the word good.
It was vertical with bits missing and may still be there. It certainly didn’t ﬂy again and was not even salvaged for spares.
Strange to say it was the only time any of my crew congratulated me on my landing. I have a feeling that on our way earthward they didn’t fancy our chances and relief dictated their opinion.
The situation on the ground in North Africa at this time in 1942 was not going well for us. In fact things everywhere were at their lowest.
The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour; the ‘Renown’ and ‘Prince of Wales’ had been sunk and Hong Kong and Singapore had fallen.
Rommel had been driven back to Agedabir 275 miles inside Libya where both armies halted because of supply problems.
But Rommel recovered first and attacked on the 19th January, taking us by surprise. He quickly captured a huge amount of our equipment, including 1,800 trucks, 280 armoured vehicles and 127 guns.
He advanced 175 miles to the Gazala Line where he stopped to gather strength for a summer offensive. The British ground forces were now suffering from a number of disadvantages, mainly in the command area.
We had no generals with the skills of Rommel and worst of all was the increasing awe in which Rommel was held.
821 were now well up in the desert at El Adem, south of Tobruk. We had a few naval ﬂavoured operations in the form of anti-submarine patrols around convoys attempting to reach Malta.
From now on we would be path finding for RAF Wellingtons. It was realised that it was easier and more efficient if we, in our Albacores, sought out the targets and illuminated them with ﬂares, so that the Wellingtons, based farther back towards Cairo, would not have to hunt around themselves.
The usual pattern was that we went out with a mixed load of ﬂares and bombs, found the target — at this moment airfields – illuminated them for 45 minutes, dropped our own bombs and returned home.
We were operating thus from El Adem but Rommel began his advance from the Gazala Line, again surprising and confusing our ground forces, so that a retreat eastward, or what was named ‘The Gazala Gallup’ commenced.
It was now May 1942 and this ‘Gallup’ continued until early July when El Alamein was reached, with Tobruk and Mersa Matruh falling with enormous loss of men, equipment and fuel.
Our stay at El Adem was coming to an end and with this in sight we were told to stay in our aircraft until further notice.
When the notice to evacuate came, everyone took off from wherever they were parked.
A Fleet Air Arm Albacore SMJB20130930F-008_C
Desert airfields were only tented affairs with few facilities and minimal organisation. Certainly no permission to take off or land was sought and once airborne there was no communication between yourself and the ground.
For night operations it would be a bit of a luxury to have any lighting. On ‘take offs’ one just opened up and hoped nothing was in the way.
We were now moving back from one airfield to another and co-operating with the Army as well as the RAF, illuminating and bombing tanks and M.T. as well as airfields.
Luckily the Luftwaffe were suffering from aircrew strain and serviceability, so that the army was left virtually unmolested from the air.
While operating from Bagush I had engine trouble and tried to ﬂy back to Dekheila, our base near Alexandria for an engine change.
The aircraft trailed an oily black cloud and it was obvious, with a rapidly falling oil pressure, that I would not make it, so it was back to Bagush.
An engine was rushed up and almost fitted when the order to evacuate came. Everyone left, leaving my ground crew and myself to ﬁnish the job.
This was done but when it came to trying to start the new engine we had no luck. Some Army chap came through in a jeep saying the enemy was not too far away and continued his ‘gallup’ eastward.
Actually, the enemy appeared in a few minutes in the form of a ME 109, which proceeded to shoot us up, destroying another aircraft nearby.
Still failing to start the engine, we had no choice but to take to the road, joining up with the Squadron at an airfield farther back from where, that night, I ﬂew my last operation from the desert, landing farther back still at Dekheila.
The landing here was a bit of a worry because I had a bomb ‘hung up’ and I didn’t know how secure or insecure it was.
Just to test it I made, probably, the hardest landing I had ever made, unintentionally, but it stayed put.
From Dekheila we continued illuminating and bombing tanks and M.T. concentrations; airfields and Mersa Matruh.
The airfields we were now bombing were ones from which we had been operating a short time ago and Mersa Matruh was a small harbour 150 miles away, past which we had retreated and through which Rommel could now bring supplies.
lt could deal only with small vessels, the nearest large port being Tobruk, where we laid mines on the night of the 21 June, 320 miles west of Dekheila.
By now there was a fair old panic going on. Mussolini had a white horse sent over for him to ride through Cairo in the Victory Parade.
Our headquarters staff in Cairo were legging it back to Jerusalem and secret documents being burnt created so much smoke that the day was called Ash Wednesday.
Barclays Bank was pretty well cleaned out of money by those intent on removing themselves to a safer area. Oddly. at the time, we knew nothing of these capers. We were busy doing what we had to do and really living in a world of our own.
A mass of bureaucracy had built up in Cairo, ‘Cairo Canaries‘ and ‘Groppi’s Light Horse’ (Groppi’s was the popular eating and drinking place), living a life of luxury with siestas, cheap drink and abundant food.
These were the ones to panic because their life style was in danger.
They may well have had good cause to panic because Rommel, now only 60 miles from the Delta, made a final attempt down at the southern end of the Alamein Line, to push for Cairo and Alexandria.
The Battle of Alam Halfa had started. Even before the Africa Korps had started to breach the minefields, we in our Albacores found his units and illuminated them all night for the Wellingtons.
This was the night of the 31st August and I ﬂew two operations. It was a bombers battle. Twenty-two squadrons of Spitﬁres; ten of Hurricanes and two of Tomahawks, cleared the way for the day bombers – the Bostons, Mitchells and Baltimores.
There were 35 aircraft in the air every hour, day and night, so that the enemy had no rest and it was all over in three days.
After this battle and my last operation on the 3rd September, we had a short rest from ops., but not from ﬂying. Every day was spent training until we were soon back path finding, ﬁrst over airfields and then we were switched to enemy positions along the Alamein Line.
The night of the 23rd October was one of these. I took off with my usual load of bombs and ﬂares at 2045 and was over the target, beginning my 45-minute stint of lighting things up at 2125.
The ﬂares, which were contained in tubes about 3ft 6in long and 6in diameter, were very effective, literally turning night into day. We dropped them from 5000 feet and they descended slowly on a parachute, while the Wellingtons bombed from above us at 5500 feet.
After 15 minutes, at 2140, the ground beneath me appeared to erupt and I gathered that there was some artillery activity. What I didn’t know at the time was that it wasn’t just ‘any’ artillery activity but the beginning of the Battle of El Alamein, with a gun every 13 yards on a seven-mile front opening up, each to ﬁre 600 rounds in the next 5.5 hours.
Secrecy had ‘prevented us from knowing about the start of the battle and I now realise that I was the only person to have a bird’s eye view of the turning point of the war because no Wellingtons put in an appear while I was there.
In ignorance of events, I ﬁnished my stint, dropped my bombs, turned for home and touched down at 2300 hours, having more or less forgotten the recent sight.
However, we were soon aware of the situation and operations in the same area were stepped up. After ﬂying two operations on the 25th October, I took off again on the 29th at 2330 hours, arrived at the target at 0015 and dropped my first ﬂare, carrying on until 0045 when I dropped, what turned out to be my last one.
I remember the time, having just looked at my watch and noted that I had another 15 minutes before heading home. One’s eyes are continually on the move, never settling long in one direction but looking left, right, up, down, across the instrument panel and forward.
Having just dropped a ﬂare I looked down to see what was below and almost immediately looked ahead, not that much could normally be seen in that direction in the dark of the night. This time it was different.
I did see something in the form of a Wellington about 200 yards away and we were in a head-on situation.
I had less than two seconds to do something. There was no time to turn and I was still loaded with bombs and some ﬂares, so couldn’t climb in the time. So down it was and I thrust the stick forward but he hit me behind the wings, removing the tail end of the fuselage.
Everything was now hurtling rapidly earthward and soon passed the ﬂare I had just dropped. The next collision, only seconds away, would be with the ground.
All that was holding me to my part of the aircraft were my straps. Pulling out the pin which held them together, I was thrown clear into sudden silence, still approaching the ground at speed, so that it was something of a relief when, after pulling the rip cord, my parachute opened and I ﬂoated down to an uncertain welcome.
Peter Manders flying log book recording the mission when he failed to return following a mid air collision with a Wellington bomber, also his flying goggles, medals and Caterpillar club membership card SMJB20130930F-009_C
I couldn’t really be expected to be greeted in too friendly a manner because, as the Afrika Korps diary records say – ‘Officers and men were badly shaken and their ﬁghting capacity considerably reduced by the enforced dispersal and lack of sleep and the strain of waiting for the next bomb’.
It is satisfying to know that we had achieved our aim.
As it was, no hard feelings were shown by my German captor when he approached me with the barrel of his gun pointing in my direction. He may well have said ‘For you the war is over’ because after 60 operations. it was.
It had all happened very quickly, the whole episode spanning seconds.
A short while later it may well have been over for him as well, because in a few days, where I was now standing would be occupied by Allied Forces.
Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to hang about waiting for them but taken rapidly westward on the way to Italy and Germany, a tour which would occupy my next two years and seven months.
At least I had witnessed the turning point of the war, a victory for which church bells, which had remained silent since the 3rd September 1939, were rung.
It would be early May 1945 before the European War would end and I arrived home four years after leaving, to be welcomed by a mug of NAAFI tea and a puff of DDT down the back of my shirt — and other places.
Some time later I heard of a signal, referring to this North African struggle, sent by their Lordships at the Admiralty, saying — ‘As the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons have taken no part in the campaign they will be moved to ...’
Perhaps we should give them credit for actually knowing we were in the area at all. They were probably a little behind with the paper work.
At least Montgomery knew a bit more, as in his memoirs concerning the Battle of Alam Halfa he says ‘The Albacores found two large concentrations, one of 2,000 tanks and another of about 1,000. These were bombed all night’.
Also in the ‘Official story of Air Operations in the Middle East’ – ‘Such night bombing was achieved only because of the magnificent work of the Naval Airmen and their slow Albacores who went ahead and dropped ﬂares for the Wellingtons.
‘There is no doubt that these continuous night attacks were one of the decisive factors in crushing the enemy attack’
So we must have done something, although Headquarters didn’t know about it.