WITH THE R.A.F. OVER EUROPE
AN ADDRESS BY
FLYING OFFICER D. T. WITT, D.F.C., D.F.M., ROYAL AIR FORCE
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Sanderson.
Thursday, February 19, 1942
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Nothing, I think, has seized our admiration more than has the valour of the Royal Air Force. So often it is the case of individual bravery against bravery, skill against skill, wit against wit, and our Royal Air Force has built up for itself that magnificent reputation which all of us so much admire. The Empire Club today has achieved something that it has wanted for a long time, that is the privilege of having a first hand story from a Flying Officer, and we welcome Flying Office Witt as our Guest-Speaker at this luncheon meeting. (Applause.)
I don't want to embarrass Flying Officer Witt, but for the benefit of those people who are listening to us on the air, may I say that, as the audience in this hall can see, he is still in his very early twenties. Yet in spite of that, he has taken part in sixty-five raids over Germany and Italy, and among his special targets has been that of the Scharnhorst. He has had the unenviable experience of having to bale out. He wears the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Flying Medal. Gentlemen, in your name I am very happy to welcome Flying Officer Witt, who will speak to us on "With the Royal Air Force Over Europe". Flying Officer Witt. (Applause.)
FLYING OFFICER D. T. WITT, D.F.C., D.F.M.: Mr. President and Gentlemen: The very pleasant reception you have just given me, a stranger in your midst, is a lot different and a lot more pleasant than the receptions I have been given during the past two years from a people in whose midst I was also a stranger, but glad of it. Here, it was applause; and over there, the explosion of antiaircraft shells. But I must admit that I think I'd rather be facing anti-aircraft shells than standing up here to try to tell you of one airman's experiences on operations.
When the Chairman, after his introductory remarks, turned the meeting over to me, I felt that same queer feeling in my tummy that we used to get just before zero hour on our first operational flights at the beginning of the war, when the heaviest things we dropped were packages of leaflets. I have done 65 raids on enemy territory but this is the first time I have ever had to describe publicly even one of them.
I well remember those first raids, which incidentally, while not of any apparent value in converting the Germans to our way of thinking, were invaluable to us as tests for navigation and endurance. In addition, those raids helped build up our morale and prepared us for the more vital work that lay ahead. In those days we carried about 1,500 pounds of leaflets, and the odd bottle or brick which gave us intense personal satisfaction, although it was against regulations and could not be entered in the official operational history.
When I left my squadron last September, our loads had changed from 1,500 pounds of paper to the heaviest loads of high explosives carried by any aircraft in the world, bar none. And, needless to say, we didn't bother carrying the odd bottle or brick.
I started flying in 1936. By the time the war broke out I had taken a very thorough ground course and had done sufficient flying to be called "experienced". But, despite that, I must honestly admit I had the wind up when it suddenly became apparent that war was inevitable and that we would soon be flying in actual combat against a real enemy who was very much in earnest.
On that fateful Sunday morning, September 3, 1939, we were all gathered around the radio waiting for what we considered to be the word "go". Immediately it came in the form of a declaration of war, our fighting spirits got the better of us and we all rushed off to the flights and demanded that we be allowed to take off immediately and go into action.
Imagine our horror when we were told that there would be no immediate action such as we had envisaged, but that we would be standing by to go--and drop pamphlets. We were mad at that! Our great day, or night rather, came on September 8, five days after war was declared, when we were ordered to leave our visiting cards at Kiel.
Up to that time there had only been two pamphlet raids and these were done by other squadrons in the command, and we had absolutely no knowledge of what had gone on over the other side. The general feeling was that this would probably be our first and last raid, we having heard hair-raising stories of the locality called Windy Corner, which was then the right turn into Germany around the top of the then neutral Holland. We expected that spot to be absolutely thick with fighters and, in their absence, an anti-aircraft barrage such as had never been seen before.
With these thoughts in mind we were a solemn squadron that night in the briefing room, but thanks to our Squadron Commander, then Wing Commander Staton, an old timer of the last war, who had had plenty of contact with the Hun, we were given a real old-fashioned pep talk which quickly restored our confidence, the more so because he himself was going with us in one of the aircraft.
That is the kind of man he is, which is better shown by his later exploits as the leader of the first British attack on German land objectives--that of the famous raid on Sylt. Those of you who saw "Target For Tonight", the British picture which depicts how a raid is planned and executed, will probably remember the Group Captain in the operations room. That was Group Captain Staton. If you saw the picture, you got a glimpse of the kind of man he is. That picture gave a better insight into his character than I can ever hope to convey.
The great moment for which we had been waiting arrived at last. Donning our heavy flying clothing, we proceeded to our aircraft, a walk that was interspersed with seemingly thousands of handshakes and goodbyes. It was very melodramatic and, by the time we had got seated in our aircraft, we were again sure that this was goodbye forever. The great moment came as we taxied out and had our last message from the base, a green light O.K., to go.
Everything checked, we roared off into the darkness and, as we left the ground, I was overcome with the greatest feeling of relief I have ever experienced. The tension was broken and, in place of my feelings of anxiety, I felt a surge, of pride in the knowledge that I was fortunate enough to be one of the first to get a crack at the enemy and experience the rare satisfaction that comes with the realization that you are doing something for your country. There's nothing insincere about a feeling like that. It does come to you. I and all my comrades thrilled to the same inner feeling that we were prepared without regrets to give everything we had for Britain and the Empire.
We had never flown under such conditions before, where the whole of England was one black void. Our last glimpse of our country was a barely discernible coastline, after which there were hundreds of miles of cold, unfriendly sea. Not knowing what to expect, we climbed and climbed until we could positively get no higher.
Imagine our surprise when, on our first sight of enemy territory, we found it was all lit up. There was an immediate panic check of the navigation for fear we had missed our real mark and had gone off course and were in danger of violating the neutrality of Denmark.
All was well, however. The lights below were German lights and we continued on. As we drew near to Kiel, we prepared ourselves for the anti-aircraft barrage we fully expected would be sent up against us. Imagine our amazement when there was not even as much as a single searchlight directed up toward us. This again led us to doubt our position but another check revealed that we were actually over our target.
We got rid of all our pamphlets and set course for home. We droned along for three hours and, just as dawn was breaking, we got our first glimpse of the English coast. Gentlemen, you can well imagine the feelings that sight induced; they were akin to the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover after a long dangerous voyage.
Whether the enemy was saving ammunition for what was to come later, I shall never know, but, had he any idea of the way that trip raised our morale and built up our confidence, he surely would have considered it money well spent to try to bring some of us down.
In comparison with this trip, the next one, to us at least, was really exciting, because we had our first experience of going through searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, which, although relatively light, was sufficiently heavy to give us an initiation into flying under fire and what to expect in the future.
When considered in the light of the flak which we were later to experience, the shooting of the Germans that night was atrocious, but we didn't think so at the time.
We did another pamphlet raid, this one on Hamburg, and it was over this second largest city in Germany that we ran into our first spot of trouble. We had unloaded half our leaflets when both engines iced up and cut out completely. We were at 8,000 feet and the powerless Whitley began descending rapidly.
We prepared to abandon the aircraft, and, when it dawned on us that we would land on German territory, I had a vivid mental picture of what that would mean. I saw myself in a German prison camp, wielding a heavy, stone-cracking hammer, while the other members of the crew spread the stones on a road I imagined we were building.
Perhaps this fleeting, instantaneous, mental picture of what I thought was in store for us caused me to pause momentarily. By this time the aircraft was down to 2,000 feet. Suddenly one of the engines cut in. The icing conditions had disappeared. The vision of the German prison camp vanished.
We were down to 1,000 feet when the second engine came to life, and there was a cheer from the crew. I might state here that the crew must have been calmer than I, since they had thrown out the rest of the pamphlets during this spell of trouble. Rather than risk crossing the North Sea for England, we decided to run the gauntlet of the enemy and fly right down the middle of the Ruhr Valley into France.
All went well until we got to France, where we ran into some of the worst weather I have ever experienced. By this time we were getting short of petrol and we had to make a landing. We came clown and, to our dismay, there was a fine drizzle of rain obscuring the whole countryside. As we sat there, peering into the murk, we couldn't help thinking of what a dismal anti-climax this was after having so successfully overcome our previous difficulties.
The landing had to be made, however, and we circled around looking for a suitable field. We sighted what we thought was a field big enough, and we came in for a landing. Before we finally touched down, we had to make four tries at it, clue to the mist and rain. Imagine our consternation, after having made a successful landing under those conditions, to be suddenly confronted with a huge haystack into which the Whitley buried her nose.
We were rescued by friendly French peasants, who took us to their farm and gave us one of the most welcome meals we ever had. Later in the day, an Air Force salvage party extricated our machine and hammered out the dents, and we were able to fly back to England.
After doing two more pamphlet raids, we got the opportunity which we had been awaiting. You all remember the raid on Sylt. After this we did a spell of security patrol which was to us very dull but very necessary. On this patrol we used to fly from Sylt to Norderney to Borkum, hovering over German seaplane bases from which came the aircraft which laid the magnetic mines around Britain. You remember the number of ships that were sunk by magnetic mines, and how they were curbed, and how later still the menace was virtually eliminated. The curb was effected by our security patrols for, as soon as a German mine-laying aircraft got ready to take off on its deadly mission, we would unload our bombs on it.
But air warfare isn't all bombing and destruction. There are times when the glory of peace and beauty overshadow the grimmest experiences and sights. I'll never forget the Norwegian campaign. We were sent out one night to bomb shipping in the Oslo fjord. It was a perfect night. The moon was full and cast a luminous glow over the grandeur of the Norwegian coast. Expecting ideal conditions for our attack, we were greatly surprised to find the fjord completely cloud-covered. We decided to attack our alternative target, which was Stavanger.
To get there we had to fly over the high Norwegian mountain ranges. It was a sight beyond description, but one that will live in my memory forever. Unless you can actually see for yourself the wondrous beauty of a high, snow-capped range of mountains, glinting in the moonlight, no matter how I try to describe it, you will never catch the real beauty of it. I sat in the cockpit, awed, and was sure I'd never again see anything to compare with it, yet, within a short while, I saw an even more beautiful sight, when we flew over the Alps to bomb the Fiat works at Turin, in Italy.
The first part of this trip was over blacked-out France. It was like flying in a huge void. Then, suddenly, without warning, we saw Switzerland, lit up like something out of fairyland. It seemed as if someone had a master switch and had suddenly turned on' every light in the country. Actually, what happens is, you don't see Switzerland until you are directly in line with it but not over it, for Switzerland was and is neutral. And we observed her neutrality by carefully avoiding flying over any part of the brightly lit countryside. Being neutral, Switzerland had no blackout, which explains the unexpected appearance of lights on a continent which was almost entirely blacked out.
So much for the beauty we saw on our raids. The sights we saw during the Battle of France weren't so pleasant. During the last month before the fall of France, we were called upon to exert maximum effort, and we did two nights of flying with one night of rest. By the end of the third week we were physically exhausted. We witnessed some awful sights in that last terrible week--the sight of the flames from huge fires consuming Calais and Dunkirk, visible over forty miles away, which hid from us our army which, we knew, was desperately fighting to hold off the Huns until they could be evacuated. The sudden realization that now we were the only ones who could strike directly at the Hun, overshadowed our feeling of depression brought on by the Battle of France, and gave us new hope and determination. The knowledge that now it was up to us, gave us the incentive to redouble our efforts.
From that moment the strength and striking power of the bomber command grew steadily. We went out night after night smashing at the Ruhr and other German industrial centres. By August, 1940, I had done 38 raids and the powers that be decided that I was due for a rest. By some stroke of luck I was picked to help develop the four-engine Stirling bomber which at that time was just coming into service.
This work took five months and we then decided the Stirling was fit to be tried out under actual active service conditions. This machine was at that time, and still is, the largest and heaviest weight-carrying aircraft that has gone into active service anywhere in the world. By this time I was completely rested and ready to get into the fray again. Our first test of the new bomber was a nice easy trip to the channel ports and was, to everyone's satisfaction, a complete success.
The Stirling, being a success, we decided to do some real work with it and tried it out on Brest. the haven until last week of the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau. Full of confidence, I sailed right into the attack. I knew the defences around these two battleships were supposed to be the heaviest and most concentrated around any single objective, but what the Germans sent up at us was a complete and very unpleasant surprise. We were caught in a heavy concentration of searchlights and were helpless to do anything to evade them. The only thing left was to dive clown to sea level and try to shoot out the searchlights and the men manning them. As we went down, the heavy flak we encountered at 10,000 feet gave way to green curtain and red light flak, which surrounded us down to sea level.
Our spectacular dive was witnessed by the crew of another Stirling which also carried a neutral observer who had been sent to England to get a first hand account of R.A.F. bombing tactics. When we got back to base, the crew of the other Stirling told us that they watched us going down and were so convinced that we would never pull out that they waved goodbye. The neutral decided on that one trip that he had seen enough to make him thoroughly conversant with operational conditions.
This attack was carried out last February, which gives you some idea of how long these two battleships have been under bombardment and also some idea of the damage which must have resulted. That our attacks were having effect is borne out by the fact that the Germans were continually adding to the defences around the ships. For example, on that raid in February all we encountered was heavy and light anti-aircraft fire and scores of searchlights. We next attacked the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in April, and this time we had to contend with a verv thick balloon barrage and a heavy ground smoke screen in addition to the anti-aircraft fire. This meant that our attacks became nothing more than practice shooting for the anti-aircraft defence, with our aircraft as targets, because we were unable positively to identify the ships through the smoke screen.
There was one answer to this-daylight attacks. Before the plans were formulated, however, for this new kind of attack, the Scharnhorst under the protection of the smoke screen and barrage, had escaped further damage, and was made sufficiently seaworthy to sail, under the cover of dirty weather, to La Pallice, a French port near Bordeaux.
She was missed from Brest, soon after dawn. by the coastal command reconnaisance patrols. Within the hour she was sighted and an immediate standby order was issued in Bomber Command. Imagine our joy when it was decided to give our Stirlings the job of making the first attack on the Scharnhorst at her new haven.
Our squadron supplied three of the six machines ordered to do the immediate attack. I was fortunate enough to be chosen to captain one Stirling. My navigator was a Canadian making his first raid. He is Pilot Officer Ed. Baker, of Calgary, a graduate of the British Empire Air Training Plan. And right here I want to pay tribute to his courage and ability. He probably had that same squeamish feeling in his stomach which I had when I made my first raid, only I had the advantage of making my first trip tinder the cover of darkness and at a time when anti-aircraft defences were weak and untried. He made his first trip in the face of one of the heaviest antiaircraft barrages that I have ever experienced. In addition, the raid was carried out in broad daylight, which meant that we also ran the risk of being attacked by fighters. Unperturbed however, Baker came through like a veteran, and, even when shells were bursting all around us as we made the final approach he kept cool enough to make a precision sight on the ship and hit her squarely at midship with a 2,000-pound bomb.
We were still cheering Baker's great effort when the second pilot seemed to lose his voice, but not for long, and when he found it he wasn't cheering. He had spotted twelve Messerschmitts closing in to attack us. Our three Stirlings closed formation and dived to a low altitude to prevent the fighters getting under us. We were then ready to take them on, and I assure you that we were not dismayed at the odds, because we knew that our combined fire power was equal to that of three Messerschmitts, which was the maximum number that could effectively attack us at one time. They made their first attack and our gunners held their fire until, in their own expression, they could "see the whites of their eyes". This strategy was very effective for one Messerschmitt went crashing into the sea.
They attacked again and we shot down another fighter, which had the effect of making the Germans show a little more respect for us. This was evident by the fact that they stood off at long range and shot at us with cannon fire. At this range our machine-gun fire was not very effective but we scored a lucky hit and set one on fire. That was apparently enough for them because we were not attacked again, and we all arrived at base, safe but slightly battle-scarred.
The next day further good work was done and the Scharnhorst was hit again by the Halifax Squadrons. Apparently she had been damaged so extensively that repairs could not be carried out at La Pallice and the next night she was escorted back to her much more heavily protected base at Brest. Again she was with her sister ship, hidden from our bombers by the smoke screen and balloon barrage, which prevented us doing further serious damage.
The ambition of every bomber pilot is a trip to Berlin. For me the realization of this ambition was a memorable and exciting experience. The first time Stirlings were sent to raid Berlin, three machines were detailed. We all got away without any difficulty but, due to minor trouble which would have jeopardized the safety of the aircraft on the long trip to Berlin, two of them had to attack their alternative target. I was not aware, however, that they had abandoned the Berlin trip and I carried on in blissful ignorance.
We all knew that this trip would be tougher than any we had yet done. We had been told that Berlin was guarded by a belt of searchlights and exceptionally heavy flak, thirty miles wide. This can well be illustrated if you picture in your minds Toronto as the target we had been sent out to bomb, to reach which we had to go through a belt of anti-aircraft fire extending almost to Hamilton on the west, Oshawa on the east, and Aurora on the north.
Things were really hot that night. It was so bad that I never believed a barrage of such intensity could ever be produced. Hitler's promise that no British aircraft would ever reach Berlin had been proved false once again. but they certainly did their best to stop us. When I returned home and found that I had been over Berlin alone. I got again that queer feeling in my stomach. Then I realized why the barrage had seemed so terrific; when, as I thought, they were firing at other aircraft as well, they were actually all concentrating on our machine.
We got a lot of satisfaction next day, however, when we saw the German communique telling of a raid on Berlin by scattered forces--and admitting damage in the heart of the Capital. Apparently the work of the Stirling was so effective that the Germans were convinced there must have been more than one.
We had a comparatively quiet time after this. I did another three raids on Berlin and several on German industrial centres, including Dusseldorf and the Ruhr Valley, and also had a very interesting trip in the search for the battleship Bismarek. She fell prey to the Navy, however, before we could get at her.
The exploits and work of certain members of the crew of a heavy bomber like the Stirling are not as common knowledge as are those of a pilot or a navigator. The gunners and engineers, for example, share exactly the same danger, and experience exactly the same thrill in accomplishment, and frequently see a lot more action, than anyone else in the aircraft.
An outstanding example I have in mind on a daylight raid against the seaplane base at Borum. I was doing my 57th raid at the time. We had gone out on a lone mission without fighter escort, relying entirely on cloud cover to keep us hidden to within striking distance of our target. All went well until we were within three miles of our objective, when we were suddenly caught at our game by six Messerschmitts. They descended on us out of the clouds. Then began a not very pleasant game of hide-and-seek, nipping in and out of the clouds, with the six enemy planes in two flights of three, chasing us. We had not dropped our bombs at this time and our main concern was to elude the fighters until we had completed our primary task.
This we did successfully and then turned to the other job on hand. The fighters, yellow-nosed Messerschmitts, Goering's hand-picked fighter boys, came at us, guns hazing. A cannon shell from one of the fighters exploded in the rear turret, wounding the gunner in the wrist. The intercommunicating telephone system was blown to pieces and he could not tell the rest of us that he had been hit. He climbed painfully out of his wrecked turret to come forward and get a relief gunner, when he spied another Messerschmitt commencing an attack. He knew he had not time to get back into his turret and the protection its armour offered, so, disregarding all risk, he flung himself forward, grabbed the gun control with his good hand, and, taking pot luck aim, let the Messerschmitt have a long burst. His aim was good, for the fighter shot into flames and crashed into the sea.
The engineer then took over the wounded gunner's position in the rear turret and repeated his success by sending another Messerschmitt down into the water. We then regained the sanctuary of the clouds and escaped without further trouble.
To the layman, these experiences may seem melodramatic, but to us, they were part of a job that had to be done. Almost every man who was ever a member of a bomber crew can tell you the same kind of experiences. They occur every day.
On my 62nd trip, for instance, we had to do a night raid on Hanover. Having successfully completed our mission, we were leaving the target area, when a tremendous blast of anti-aircraft fire burst directly underneath us. There was an immediate check made to see whether any vital damage had been done. We knew we had been hit, but not how badly.
Our troubles did not immediately show themselves and we got to the Dutch coast before the engineer discovered that our petrol pipe lines had been damaged by the shellfire and that we were steadily losing petrol. At that moment we had barely enough to make the English coast. Preparations were made for a descent into the sea, and, for the first time in my flying career, I had to send out an S.O.S.
To conserve petrol, I stopped two of the four engines, and it seemed that we would make it. Without warning, however, one of the operating engines cut dead, and we swung around in circles, out of control. The other engine had to be throttled right back to enable us to keep the aircraft straight. Fortunately, we were at I4,000 feet and had plenty of time to look for the trouble. The engineer quickly made temporary repairs and the engine came to life again.
We continued on course and suddenly I saw a flashing beacon ahead. I shouted "England ahead", and there was a lot of whooping and cheering. I thought of bacon and eggs waiting at base and started calculating how long it would be before I could get at them. That was a very pleasant moment. I scanned the sky and then I saw the moon ahead of me. It took a moment for the significance of that to sink in, and then came the awful realization that the moon was in the wrong place for us to be heading for England. It should have been behind us. We were heading back toward the Dutch coast.
I immediately swung the aircraft around and set course for England, and, after a careful check, we decided that we might just make the coast. We were within five minutes of the English coast when one of the two remaining engines died on us. The next five minutes were like five years, but suddenly all our fears and worries vanished. We saw a challenging searchlight shoot up from the coast and we knew that we were over land, which, in itself, acted on us like a tonic. We had hardly finished congratulating ourselves when the last engine cut out-all the petrol had gone.
The machine was uncontrollable. We were at 9,000 feet and losing height rapidly. I immediately gave the order to abandon aircraft. I held the aircraft as steady as possible to give the rest of the crew a chance to jump clear, and then climbed down, attached my parachute pack to the harness, and tumbled out through the escape hatch in the bottom. I pulled the rip-cord, and it seemed an eternity before I felt the sudden jerk on the harness which told me the parachute had opened. The wind swayed me from side to side and my arms were so weak from battling with the almost uncontrollable aircraft that I wasn't strong enough to pull on the webbing and spill the air out of the parachute and stabilize it.
I was suddenly violently air-sick and lost all interest in life. The next thing I knew was a terrific thump and I was spread-eagled on the ground in the middle of a cornfield. To me that stubble-covered field was more comfortable than the softest couch. I was so comfortable, relatively speaking, that I lay there for fully fifteen minutes before moving a muscle. Finally, I gathered myself together and limped off to find help. I then suffered the final indignity of the whole trip by being taken into protective custody by a John Bull-type of farmer, who mistook me for a parachutist and turned me over to the local constabulary.
The same experience was suffered by a Canadian, Pilot Officer Keith Keyell, of Alemeda, Saskatchewan, who was my navigator on that and twenty-four other raids. He broke his ankle landing when we all jumped, and was replaced in my crew by Pilot Officer Ed. Baker, who was with me on that raid on the Scharnhorst.
In practically all of these experiences I have recounted, there was a Canadian-not a Canadian who, perhaps years ago, went to England and is now a veteran, but a young Canadian who has enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force since war broke out.
There are at least 21 distinct R.C.A.F. Squadrons operating in Britain today, and, in addition, hundreds of R.C.A.F. pilots, observers, and gunners, serving with R.A.F. units. Over here you really don't get a true picture of what is being accomplished by the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Over there, you can see the finished products, coming by the hundreds to reinforce R.A.F. squadrons and many separate R.C.A.F. squadrons.
You probably don't know, either, that the first Canadian graduates of this vast Air Training Plan stepped into the breach when we were sorely in need of well trained air-crews. They came when ten were of far greater value than a hundred at a later date. They were welcomed with open arms. Since the beginning of the war the R.C.A.F. has grown from 4,500 officers and men to the present ever increasing total of over 100,000. Their work has been excellent and there is not a day that passes without the recording of some outstanding feat. They have established an amazing record in a short time, a record of courage and skill which will go down as a milestone in the history of this struggle against ruthless, unwarranted aggression. I am proud to have been associated with your sons and the sons of your countrymen. (Applause-prolonged.)
MR. C. R. SANDERSON: Gentlemen: Air Commander Brookes has added to our indebtedness to him by having persuaded Flying Officer Witt, not too willingly, to discard a little of his reticence and let us share this story with him. To Flying Officer Witt I would say in your name that we have been thrilled with this story-a story told with all the modesty of an airman, and yet a story that leaves every one of us conscious of the fact that he has crowded several lifetimes of experience into a couple of years and even then left much to be told, if he would tell it to us.
To you, Sir, may I say that we are truly grateful for the privilege today of having listened at first hand to this magnificent story of an airman's own experiences. (Applause.)