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Don Howell

I joined the RAF after attestation at Euston House London the war having broken out on my birthday three months before so that by Christmas I was at an RAF reception centre Padgate, Warrington, which strangely enough was the town where my father was discharged from hospital in 1920 having been badly wounded at the Somme.

After two years training I left the advanced flying unit Dumfries and went across the sea to Ireland from Stranraer to Larne — the worst storm the Irish Sea had known for 40 years. We proceeded to Nutts Corner Belfast, now the International Airport, for training with Transport Command.

Unfortunately the first pilot I was assigned to was ex-Coastal Command and he had the ability to float the aircraft across the airfield with the disasterous effect that one day due to installation of perimeter lights ‘the wimpy' we were flying in finished up in the ditch, and I in hospital. He was sent to back to Coastal Command and on discharge from hospital I took the place of a fellow airman who had been killed from another crew.

Being one course in front of me I had some catching up to do, but my new ‘skipper' was a flight lieutenant who had been flying with Imperial Airways since 1933 in the old Hannibal and Horatious tri-winged planes out of Croydon.

On completion of the course we were posted as a crew to Lynham and so we joined No 3 FERRY CREW POOL to fly any type of aircraft to any battlefield wherever. Naturally many trips were made to the Med / North Africa and we became seconded to the Mediterranean Command. Seeing service through the North Africa Campaign and returning in early December 1943 to Lynham and obtaining leave to the 19 December.
On reporting back we were posted to 216 Squadron Cairo, which we well knew from the previous service but as there was no aircraft flying out at that time we were ordered to Speke (Liverpool) to pick up an aircraft — Hudson Mark IIIa recently crated over from USA.
The test flights and the subsequent trip back to Lynham presented no problem, a few days later on instructions we flew down to the number one OADU (Overseas Air Dispatch Unit) Portreath.

The Skipper must have got ‘cheesed off ‘ and ascended above the cloud layer and as a result with the stronger winds we went slap bang over Plymouth, and in typical RN fashion they shoot first and asked questions after despite the IFF set being on so descending rapidly below the cloud I fired off the signal of the day cartridges with the magical effect the guns ceased firing ‘just like that'. We reached Portreath only to find next day there were heavy falls of snow which closed the airport and it was not until 30 December after de-icing the aircraft that we were able to take-off next morning at 03.31 hours, with a ‘brief ‘ to fly out to eleven degrees west to avoid enemy aircraft operating out of Brest / Bordeaux before coming in on a Vector to Cape Finnisterre.
Unfortunately we ran into three JU88s operating as a flugel, with 88mm cannons fitted in the fuselage and extended through the roof and operated by means of a periscope.
Simultaneously one attacked from the front and one from either above or below on either side. A cannon shell came through the port engine. At that moment too a gunner we carried as a spare ‘bod' operated the upper turret and shot one of them so badly he plumed smoke and the other two broke off engagement when they saw their buddy going down. With the skippers expertise i.e. Flaps down and under carriage down we ascended into the cloud layer above, and by the time we emerged there was no sign of the enemy aircraft.

Being so badly disabled we threw everything moveable including guns and our kit over board and maintained height until the Spanish coast and proceeded south heading for Gibralter using thermals from the mountains.
It was fine until we reached the mouth of the Tagus in Portugal and there seemed no alternative but to proceed in land and crash somewhere!
So skirting the southern built up area of Lisbon we proceeded to cross the peninsula to Setubal, and crossed the Sado river to the other side where Trolas golfing complex and high rise buildings now stand and moments later turning into wind we crashed in the soft sandy soil to the north of Grandola. Again due to the skipper expertise it was wheels down but not locked so we emulated a camel on its knees.
Immediately due to the ruptured fuel lines on the port engine fuel ran across to the starboard engine with the result that a fire ensued.
We had minutes to get out and due to the heat from the fire the upper turret though on ‘ fail-safe' caused the guns to fire with the result that as we ran away we repeatedly had to threw ourselves to the ground and watch the spurts of sand as the bullets struck. Simultaneously we had our own firework display from the Very cartridges stored in the Astro dome and exploding skywards.

Five years ago I reported this to a Faro reporter who had asked for contributions from RAF airman, the Luftwaffa and USA who had crashed in his country in WWII. During a television broadcast I stated that I had no idea that Portugeuse soil was so productive that women literally sprang from it in their typical Portuguese clothes with baskets on their backs, having been gleaning the fields of the debris from the crops of either of corn or maize which they used to alternate each year, even since Roman times. And so fearing for their safety we tried to shoo them away and a overseer on horseback rode up thinking we were the Hun.

An enquiry as to how far the nearest town was brought a miss understanding, we assumed it was 9 kilometers but the Overseer meant it to be 19 kilometers so began our trek. We reached Grandola mid morning after a stop at a missionary lodge, for refreshments and made for the Municipal building to surrender to the civic authorities rather than the military. The overseer had ridden ahead to the soldiers barracks and as he returned from one side of the square we came in from the other side, a hectic run ensued and we burst into the wide heavy wooden doors of the Municipal building and were delighted to find that the Mayor and his brother were English speaking and more importantly pro-British who arranged accommodation and a meal in a local hotel until the British Vice Consol, who had been alerted, came to pick us up later that evening and convey us to the Esperanca Hotel in Setubal. This was a new years eve I will never forget and the next day we watched a football match between Victoria and Setubal so began what proved to be almost five weeks internment or a prisoner of the Portugeuse (I am not a POW I'm a POP). On the Sunday the British Vice Consol came in a taxi to take us to Lisbon for debriefing at the consulate and we crossed the Tagus by ferry near to Beleam accommodation at the hotel Bristol and after debriefing by Wing Commander Schrieber the Air Attache we moved to a large department store opened especially for us (British Aviadors) at the special request of the Consol to be kitted out with suits, socks, shirts, underwear, shoes,handkerchiefs, toiletries etc and a travel bag or case to put them in and either a raincoat or light overcoat. So on the 4th January under escort of the International Police and made the journey to Caldas DA Rainha for residential internment in the hotel Rosa (right opposite the Civil Guard Barracks)

Our reaction?! This was day one how many more we wonder? But that is another story. Before we finally flew away on the 5th February 1944. The crew was split up and after O.T.U I joined Bomber Command and again that is another story.
As a Chriatian I beleive that nothing happens by chance so a couple of hours before leaving Portreath I read a passage from Genesis chapter 28 Verse 15 I think you will agree came alive to me on that trip.

Available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/91/a4445291.shtml

© Copyright Don Howell 2005

 

 

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