They travelled together
by Roger Gibbons, with the help of many
This story is my tribute to seven brave young men from 35 RAF Pathfinder squadron who crashed their Halifax and survived, thanks to the skill, ability and strength of their pilot, Max Muller.
From L to R
Melville Max Victor Lewis Muller
Plt Off. ‘Mac’ Maskell
Pieces of HR777
The final few yards!
Bridge Farm, Bradfield in the heart of rural north Norfolk, was the home of William and Matilda Gibbons, and their son Jack. Farming was pretty tough in the thirties and forties, no cars, tractors or combine harvesters; no telephone or electricity in the house.
October 8th 1943 had been just another day, and as is the habit of the farming community, they retired early. On the many RAF airfields across East Anglia it was a different story. Hundreds of airmen were preparing for take-off. Their bombers were fully laden with a deadly load of assorted bombs to be delivered to the heart of the Third Reich. That night the main force was to visit Hanover, with a diversionary force to head for Bremen.
The crew of Halifax HR777 TL-Y of 35 squadron, members of the crack Pathfinder Force based at RAF Graveley in Hunts., were to mark the target at Bremen. They took off at 22.46 hours and headed off to join the formation.
What happened after this is best described by Derrick Coleman, then a nineteen year old air bomber and radar operator.
‘.......... Ross Whitfield had gone to an Australian Squadron and his place as rear-gunner had been taken by a Canadian, Sgt.’Benny’ Bent. About 50 miles from the target I had left the H2S and moved into the nose of the Halifax in preparation for a visual bombing-run using the Mk XIV bombsite. There was no moon, no cloud and visibility was good in a bright starlight sky. I quote now from the official combat report which I obtained from the RAF Museum, Hendon.
‘... the rear gunner (Sgt Bent) saw a Ju 88 at 250yds on the fine port quarter slightly up and closing in fast. Sgt Bent told his Captain (Fg Off Muller) to ‘corkscrew port’. The E/A (enemy aircraft) opened fire at 200 yards with cannon firing a very dull trace, hitting the Halifax and setting the port outer engine on fire. The rear gunner returned the fire with two short bursts, aiming point blank and hitting the fighter, causing it to pull up sharply. The Halifax was now in a spin and the Ju 88 appeared to Sgt Bent to be hanging on it's props on the starboard beam. He gave it another very short burst, observing strikes and saw it fall away, apparently out of control.
By now the bomber was falling fast in a spin with flames pouring from the port outer engine. The pilot regained control after losing 8000 feet in height, but as the port outer engine was u/s and the port inner engine appeared to have been damaged, the aileron and elevator controls also damaged, besides the turret being u/s and other damage to the aircraft, the bombs were jettisoned and course set for base.’’
I was terrified during the spin as I was pinned to the floor of the bomb-aimer’s position, could not move and thought this was the end. Although the report states the bombs were jettisoned, I recall attempting a bombing run on a solitary searchlight which was seeking us. The searchlight went out! Max Muller did a magnificent job in getting the aircraft back to England, gradually losing height all the way and using full right rudder to keep the aircraft straight. My brief attempt to help by tying my inter-com lead round the rudder bar and pulling was very ineffective.
We crossed the English coast in daylight attempting to reach RAF Coltishall, but crashed a few miles short; just not enough power to hedge hop in. In the Halifax the bomb-aimer occupied the co-pilot’s position for take-off and landing. I recall quite vividly while in this position the ‘hedge hopping’ as the pilot struggled to keep the aircraft above ground. The aircraft passed between two trees which hit the wings. It was a complete write off; although the nose and part of the fuselage remained reasonably intact at least one of the engines had been torn away and was on fire. All the crew escaped injury except for Tommy Ellwood, the flight engineer who had taken up his crash position behind the main spar and sustained a bad cut over one eye which required stitching. There was a touch of humour at the end. Blazing petrol had, unknown to him, landed on the back of ‘Benny’ Bent’s flying clothing, but ‘Hoop’ Arnott, the mid- upper gunner had seen this happen so jumped on ‘Benny’ (who must have wondered what was happening) to roll him over, so putting the flames out. A rather nervous couple living in a nearby cottage (sic) initially thought we were Germans, but when they realised we were RAF we were invited inside and given cups of tea until transport arrived. Fl t Sgt Emery was the navigator, and Pilot Off ‘Mac’ Maskell the Wop. There was no doubt in the minds of all crew that we owed our lives to the amazing ability and strength of the pilot, Max Muller.''
In a written account of the same incident by the Flight Engineer, Tom Ellwood, given to Max Muller’s son, Derrick’s recollections are confirmed. It includes the following extracts:
‘ ...........by this time the Halifax was also in a dive and I was knocked off my feet. As I fell I struck my head on the main spar, cutting my face badly but found I was unable to get up because the ‘G’ forces were so great. The Halifax was obviously spinning out of control. To my great relief the plane eventually came out of it's spin. I found Max grimly but firmly in control of a very damaged Halifax. He alone had used his great physical strength to pull that plane out!’
‘....the turret and hydraulic system was damaged, and petrol had been lost from two or three tanks .........the bomb door ...refused to close, adding drag.’ ‘ Max asked us all for our views and opinions on the unpleasant alternatives facing us - bale out now and risk being a POW, fly on and risk a possible ditching/drowning in the North Sea or try and limp home. After a brief discussion it was decided to fly on..........’
‘Our ‘Mayday’ was picked up as we approached our coast and we were directed to Coltishall. The dim lights from the airfield were a welcome sight...the port wheel failed to lock......By this time we were flying on one engine.........The Halifax came down with a heavy jolt, it wavered and crashed finally grinding to a halt. It seems we had hit a tree which, fortuitously, had slewed us around and diverted our progress away from a farm house......eagerly scrambled out as the Halifax was now on fire, to be confronted by two figures behind a wall who were relieved when they realised that we were not Germans.’
‘They helped us back to their farm and provided us with strong hot tea and sandwiches. Never had a cup of tea tasted so wonderful, nor has the feeling of being amongst friends felt so good, as we all sat in the warmth of that farm house.’
The farmhouse was Bridge Farm, and the nervous folks were the Gibbons family.
After the event ....
Jack Gibbons cycled to the next village of Antingham, and with difficulty managed to arouse the post mistress in order to phone the police. The Norfolk Civil Defence Diaries record this call at 04.38 hrs, and show the crash as happening at 03.30 hrs. There is a question mark against this timing, since Derrick Coleman distinctly remembers the crash occurring in daylight.
The crew were transported to the hospital at RAF Coltishall, and after the necessary care, were taken by road back to Graveley.
The crew then split up. At the time of writing I have been unable to track down the two Canadian gunners. It is believed they completed their tours before returning to Canada.
Tommy Ellwood’s cut affected his eyesight and he was permanently grounded. He resumed his previous career as an engine fitter. He lived until the 1990’s.
Johnny Emery, the navigator, was the only survivor of Halifax JP123 which crashed on a raid over Stettin on 6th Jan 1944. He spent the rest of the war at the POW camp at Sagan, venue of the infamous ‘Great Escape’ saga.
On 23rd May 1944, Flying Officers Mac Maskell and Derrick Coleman flew together in Lancaster ND 762. They were shot up by a nightfighter. There were just three survivors, including Derrick, but Mac Maskell died.
Derrick’s experiences were astounding. His unbelievable escape from the plane, his avoidance of capture, the movement under the cover of Dutch and Belgian underground and eventual betrayal by a female traitor is described in vivid detail in an article in the ‘Pathfinder 2000’ publication. He too ended up in the notorious Sagan POW camp. All of this happened before Derrick had reached his twenty first birthday! On release Derrick stayed in the RAF, finally retiring as a Squadron Leader in 1961. He then pursued a business career with NCR Ltd. Today Derrick lives on the south coast. Modest by nature, Derrick still has an alert, sharp mind belying his years. I am so grateful for his kindness in helping me with compiling this story, and feel honoured to have met him.
Finally, the remarkable Max Muller. In Feb 1944 he transferred to 25 OTU as an instructor, but returned for a further operational tour with 35 sqn, this time piloting Lancaster bombers. On April 8th, just 30 days before the end of the war, he volunteered for yet another raid over Germany. The Lancaster was hit by flak over Hamburg. Max and all his crew except for gunner Charles Wilce DFM, died that night.
As for the Gibbons family, 81 year old William never really recovered from the trauma of that night. He died 55 days after the crash, and 75 year old Matilda followed just seven days later. They were buried together in nearby Trunch cemetery. Their headstone is etched with the words ‘They travelled together’.