Lancaster III PB302 - The Navigator´s account                                Updated:  10 JAN 2019

On 27 August 1944 LAN PB302 ditched in the North Sea. AOD has details. This is one of the stories about airmen Rescued by fishermen in the North Sea.

The airmen were rescued by S 304 »Ove« of Skagen.

See the long story in English about the rescue and the fishermen´s stay in England for the remainder of the war based on the account from skipper Hans A. Olsen.
Compare with the airman´s account of the same events.

See an airman´s story of the last operation and the rescue based on the account from Flight Lieutenant, Navigator Johnny Goldsmith.
This is a detailed account of a rescue operation in the North Sea. Other airmen may have had similar experiences.

This account is from "The Lancaster at War" by Mike Garbett and Brian Goulding. The book is still for sale on the internet.

See p. 91, the chapter Seven more for the Goldfish Club

No crew relished the thought of ditching in the cold, unfriendly sea. It was difficult enough to judge the swell in daylight, but at night it was even more hazardous.

A successful ditching demanded a high degree of skill on the part of the pilot and, once in the water, efficient crew drill was essential if, they were to get clear of the sinking plane. It was to prepare crews for such an event that mock 'dry-land' ditchings were practised regularly.

Once in the dinghy their adventures really began. Rescue could be within a few hours in clear weather, but in heavy seas or misty conditions they could drift helplessly for days and quickly become victims of exposure.

If they were unfortunate enough to ditch near the enemy coast, a German rescue launch might reach them first, and the thought of spending the remainder of the war behind barbed wire was a gloomy prospect.

F/Lt Bob Etchells of 156 Squadron brought off a textbook ditching in his Lancaster BIII, P8302 GT-B, in the early hours of August 27, 1944. F/Lt Johnny Goldsmith, his Canadian navigator, wrote the following account a few days later while the event was still fresh in his mind.

In the afternoon of August 26, 1944, I was asked to fly with F/Lt Etchells, as his navigator was sick. It was my first bombing operation that month, and I was glad of the opportunity to get in a little action. I was duty navigator that day, and I knew quite early that the target was Kiel, a very heavily defended target; but as most of the route was over water it seemed to be a pretty good trip. Take-off was at 20.00 hrs, so we were well over the North Sea by dusk. We were on track all the way to the target, and on time to within 10 seconds. The bombing run at 22,000 feet was good, although a slight overshoot, so we withheld our target markers but let the bombs go. A split second after the bomb aimer said, "Bombs away," the rear gunner yelled, "Enemy fighter astern. Corkscrew port." The fighter and our gunner opened fire practically simultaneously, opening range being about 300 yards. The rear gunner reported hits scored on the enemy fighter, a Junkers 88, and it was last seen falling away with flames coming from a position between its port engine and fuselage. The rear gunner claimed it as probably destroyed.

Our aircraft was hit in a number of places, and the damage was as follows: starboard outer propeller shot aff, starboard inner engine hit and on fire — so the engine was stopped and propeller feathered, and the fire went out. Port tail assembly pretty well shot away. Front of rear turret smashed, a two-foot square hole in the bottom of the fuselage near the tail turret, caused when one cannon shell exploded inside the fuselage near tail turret. Most of my navigation instruments made unserviceable, so I navigated to the North Sea by dead reckoning. As we still had the target markers, we decided to jettison them in the sea as it would be very dangerous to attempt a landing with them still on board. After jettisoning we found that the bomb doors could not be closed, also the port wheel had come down and could not be retracted. About an hour after leaving the target, the port inner engine caught fire, and we began losing altitude about 150 feet per minute, so 'ditching' was inevitable.

I figured our position at that time to be about 160 miles from England and 50 miles north of the Frisian Islands, held by Germany. This position was given to the wireless operator, but he could not get it off as an SOS because the fixed aerial was shot away and the trailing aerial was earthed on the open bomb doors. We were losing height rapidly, so crash positions were taken. Under the circumstances I doubt if any of the crew expected to live long. I know I didn't. Owing to the darkness and mist, it was almost impossible to see the water. We hit it nose first with a sudden smash, and the aircraft slid along for a short distance on its belly. The racket was terrible, and water was flying everywhere. We came to a stop with the nose under water, which seemed to be coming in everywhere.

Dinghy drill was carried out very well, and we all got out on the wing OK. The dinghy inflated all right, but we had difficulty getting it off the wing and into the water, as the wing was on a slant with the trailing edge in the air. We finally managed to get it into the water but found that it was under the tail, and it appeared that the aircraft would go under at any moment and take us with it. Three of us jumped into the water and started swimming with the dinghy in tow and, together with the aid of the others who were paddling, we finally got it away from the aircraft, which sank in a very short time. The estimated time the aircraft stayed afloat was about four minutes.

Now that we were safely down and into the dinghy, we began to take stock of the situation. It was still hard to believe that after all we'd been through we were still alive; in fact none of us was injured. At the time the sea was fairly calm, and I guess that was the main reason we were still alive. Our dinghy radio had been washed away, so there we were, in the middle of the North Sea and, as far as we knew, not a soul other than ourselves knew it. Things looked pretty black, but we had a good supply of water and emergency rations which we intended to make last for seven days. At the end of that time, if we were not found we figured we never would be. Most important of all we had a Very light pistol and about two dozen red flares. Helmets and boots were thrown overboard since there was some danger of their fittings puncturing the rubber dinghy. We decided to put out the sea anchor and wait until daylight before trying to paddle.

About 02.00 hrs we heard an aircraft approaching very low, and we fired off two red flares when he was overhead. The aircraft turned and circled and dropped a white flare, lighting us up, then proceeded on course. This cheered us up a great deal, and it seemed a wonderful bit of luck that we should be sighted so soon. During the next few hours we heard other aircraft, but none came close. Then, about 05.00 hrs, a Lancaster flew over low, and we fired off more red flares. He circled us four times, flashed OK on his downward identification light and left. By this time we were sure of being picked up soon; it just seemed a matter of time. Occasionally we could see searchlights on the German coast, and we had visions of ending up as prisoners of war.

Daylight finally came, and we started to paddle towards England, steering by small compasses we all carried. After about half an hour we realised how hopeless it was. The dinghy was round, and all we seemed to do was drift around in circles, so we finally gave it up as a bad job.

About 11.00 hrs that morning we heard aircraft, but visibility was very poor, and we were doubtful whether they'd see us. After half an hour we saw three Air Sea Rescue Hudsons patrolling about five miles away. We fired off red flares, but they were too far away to see them and they disappeared in the fog. About ten minutes later they came back, this time closer, and we fired off more red flares; but it looked as though they still hadn't seen us, when suddenly the first one turned and came directly towards us flying very low and followed by the other two. They circled us and dropped smoke floats to get a drift in preparation for dropping an airborne lifeboat. Finally one Hudson flew over at about 800 feet, and we saw the boat fall out and parachute to the sea, the idea being to drop downwind. A sea anchor would shoot out and anchor it, and we were supposed to drift into it. However, the mechanism which was supposed to shoot out the sea anchor didn't work, and the lifeboat drifted away from us, though we paddled furiously. We certainly felt low just sitting there unable to do anything and watching it drift away. Another thing, our dinghy was leaking and we had no bellows to blow it up; so things really looked bad.

A short time later another of the Hudsons flew over and dropped us a Lindholme dinghy which consists of another rubber dinghy and four containers holding emergency rations, water and flares. This was a very good drop, and we drifted on to it about 10 minutes afterwards. For a while it looked as though we were going to miss it, so we fastened a rope to the rear gunner who jumped into the water and tried to swim to it; but after four minutes he was exhausted trying to swim as the water was cold and very rough. He was practically unconscious when we pulled him back into the dinghy and it took quite a while to bring him round. This proved to us that if we fell out of the dinghy and drifted away, there was little chance of survival.

We tied the Lindholme dinghy to our own so that we were about to feet apart and, with sea anchors out, lessened the chances of one of the dinghies capsizing. The pilot, engineer and myself transferred to the other dinghy, as it was almost impossible to move with the seven of us in one. During the rest of the day there was at least one Hudson circling us. Towards late afternoon, the sky was overcast and the sea got rougher, and we were all soaked and miserably cold. It was impossible to keep the dinghy dry inside, so we were always sitting in water.

Towards dusk another Hudson appeared with an airborne lifeboat which was dropped fairly close, but it became dark before we could reach it. We stayed awake all the time because the sea was so rough we were afraid we might capsize at any time, and also we had to keep baling the water out of the dinghy.

Shortly after midnight the moon broke through the clouds. It was a beautiful sight and cheered us considerably. We soon saw the lifeboat. This time it was fairly close, and a few hours later we managed to reach it. It certainly felt good to get into it at last. There were seven dry waterproof suits in the lockers of the boat, which is about the same size as a large rowboat. We changed into these and threw our clothes into the sea as there was no room on the boat for them. As I was the only one who knew anything about boats I was elected to run it. I decided to wait until daylight, until the Air Sea Rescue Hudsons came out to us again. At 08.00 hrs the first Hudson appeared. We found out later that about this time a Junkers 88 was circling only a mile away, apparently looking for us, but it disappeared when the Hudsons closed in on it.

We got everything ship-shape on the boat, the two four-horsepower outboard engines were started, and we set course for England. After an hour the sea became so rough that the motors were swamped, and we couldn't get them started again. It was hopeless putting up the sail as a real northerly gale was blowing. It is estimated that the wind had a force of 30 to 40 knots, and the seas were mountainous.

The boat had been damaged when it hit the water and now, under the battering of the heavy seas, it began to break up and leak badly. By about 14.00 hrs the boat was almost completely awash and was held afloat only by the rubber buoyancy chambers lining the sides of the deck and the bow and stern. Practically everything was washed overboard. We had finally given up hope of being saved, and most of us were praying hard. It was decided that, as a last resort when the boat broke up, we would tie ourselves together and with our Mae Wests on would float as long as possible, although we didn't expect to survive long in the heavy seas. Two Hudsons were still circling at this time, but their efforts seemed futile.

About 16.00 hrs, when we had all resigned ourselves to the inevitable, Bob, the pilot, yelled, "A ship!" I didn't believe it at first, but sure enough it was a sailing boat being guided to us by the aircraft. When it got closer we saw that it was a small Danish fishing boat, and I'd say that it was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen or ever will see. It was quite an effort getting us aboard owing to the rough sea, but finally we made it. We were so full of relief we just laid down on the deck for a while trying to realise how lucky we were.

After a while we began to consider the situation. Here we were on a Danish fishing boat heading for where, we didn't know, but even a prisoner of war camp would have looked better to us than remaining in what was left of the lifeboat.

There were four Danes in the crew of the boat, and one fellow had fished out of Grimsby for six years before the war, and he could speak a little English. We asked him where he was going and he replied that he had finished fishing and was on his way to Denmark. Then we asked him to take us to Sweden where we would expect better treatment than from the Germans who would capture us if we went to Denmark, but he said that was impossible. When we said England, he only smiled. About ten minutes later one of the Hudsons flew over and dropped a message container. The message stated, "Steer course 250 degrees for England, Good luck." This seemed to worry the Danes and they argued amongst themselves for almost five minutes, then started turning round. One of the boys looked at the compass a while later and saw that we were on a course of 250 degrees, so all looked well. The Danes accepted the situation and took us down to the cabin and lit the stove, and we dried ourselves out and put on dry clothes which they provided. We were told we could use their bunks, and we were soon fast asleep. I felt better in the morning, but found I was so weak I could hardly stand. The weather was so bad during the night that we had to heave to until daylight.

One of the Danes brought us some food which consisted of canned meat and fish, German bread, which seemed to be half sawdust, and ersatz tea which tasted great to us as it was the first hot drink we'd had, but normally I doubt if I would be able to drink it as it certainly had no resemblance to tea.

During the day we tried to teach the Danes a little English and vice versa. The one fellow who could speak English told us a lot about Denmark and the Germans. They had a very good wireless receiver which they allowed us to use, and we listened to everything from German propaganda broadcasts in English to Bing Crosby. We found it rather amusing watching the Danes shaving off about two weeks' beard and getting all cleaned up for their arrival in England; in fact, when the Air Sea Rescue launch met us they couldn't tell who were Danes and who were English at first.

It was about 17.00 hrs on the 29th that we were met by the rescue launch. They told us they'd been very close to us the day after we'd ditched but lost contact with the aircraft who were circling us. Then one engine broke down, and they had to go back to their base. We were in the Air Sea Rescue launch until after midnight when we were landed in Grimsby, about 80 hours since we had left England. We then went to a Naval hospital where we were given a good meal, and the doctor examined us to see if we were fit. Next night we returned to the squadron, where we were given a great welcome and then went on 14 days' survivors' leave.