A gripping story behind an adventurous citation

by Hugh A Halliday

Behind even the most adventurous citation there may be an even more gripping story.

JOHNSTONE, David Malcolm, F/O (86904, Royal Air Force) – No.224 Squadron – Distinguished Service Order – awarded as per London Gazette dated 29 October 1943. Born in Southsea, 1910; home in Icklesham, Sussex; educated at Tonbridge School. Commissioned 1940. Cited with Flight Sergeant R.J. Foss (awarded CGM) and Sergeant M.W. Dilks (awarded DFM).

“This officer and airmen were members of the crew of an aircraft engaged on an anti-submarine patrol in September 1943. During the flight, the aircraft was engaged by four Junkers 88s. The captain was killed in the early stages of the combat and Flight Sergeant Foss, the second pilot, immediately took over the controls. Flying Officer Johnstone, with commendable initiative, immediately went to his assistance and rendered material help in subsequent evading tactics. The enemy pressed home their attack, however, and the aircraft was extensively damaged and caught fire, while several of the crew were wounded. Although the aircraft was fast becoming uncontrollable, Flight Sergeant Foss and Flying Officer Johnstone, by a combined effort, succeeded in bringing the aircraft down on to the sea where it became wrecked on impact with the water. Although under water, Flying Officer Johnstone, who was himself injured, gallantly assisted two of his wounded comrades to get clear by allowing them to step on his shoulders and head and thus to scramble through a gaping hole in the submerged portion of the aircraft. Meanwhile, Sergeant Foss assisted other members of the crew into the dinghy. For nine days, these members of aircraft crew were adrift and during this period, Flying Officer Johnstone, Flight Sergeant Foss and Sergeant Dilks displayed great courage and high morale. Throughout this ordeal, their exemplary conduct set an example of the highest order.”

This award was the climax of an amazing story, best told through documents found in the service file of J6941 F/O G.H. Wharram (RCAF).

The first is a letter from the W/C A. Cloustom, Commanding Officer, No.224 Squadron to the Air Ministry (Casualties Branch), dated 25 September 1943, re the loss of Liberator FL959, 3 September 1943:

“I have the honour to refer to casualty Signal from C.T.O RAF St. Eval, No.T.49, dated 3rd September 1943, and to submit the following report concerning the above aircraft.

“Liberator FL959 (F/O G.H. Wharram) took off from Gibraltar at 1030 hours on 2nd September 1943, to carry out anti-submarine sweep in the Bay of Biscay. At 1615 hours, whilst in position 44.00 N, 11.00 W, Liberator was attacked by four Ju.88s. After combat, Liberator was forced to ditch. The captain (F/O Wharram) was killed in action.

“The crew was as follows:

Pilot – J6941 F/O G.H. Wharham [sic]
Pilot – 1313625 Flight Sergeant Foss, R.J.
Navigator – 138822 P/O W.R. Collins
Flight Engineer – 569893 Sergeant Bareham, D.H.
WOP/AG – 1216857 Sergeant Dilks, M.W.
WOP/AG – 11123y4 Sergeant Maloney, R.A,
WOP/AG – 136708 P/O J.R. Wilcox
WOP/AG – J8754 F/O J.C. Miller
Passenger – F/O Johnstone

“Sergeant Maloney was killed in the ditching process.

“The remaining members of the crew (Flight Sergeant Foss, F/O Collins, Sergeant Bareham, F/O Miller, Sergeant Dilks, F/O Wilcox and F/O Johnston) were in a dinghy for some days.

“F/O Miller and F/O [sic] Wilcox died on 7th September and 8th September 1943, respectively, and were both buried at sea,

“The remaining members of the crew were rescued at 0945 hours on 9th September 1943 by HMS Wildgoose, but P/O Collins and Sergeant Bareham died on board ship.

“The following personnel survived the ordeal and are now in hospital:

Flight Sergeant R.J. Ross [sic]
Sergeant M.W. Dilks
F/O Johnstone”

The same file contained the full report of F/O D.M. Johnstone on the events outlined above:

“I was on the return journey to United Kingdom from North Africa where I had been enaged on Investigational flights of enemy S,E. [Special Equipment or radar]. Jamming in different areas and had stopped at Gibraltar to collect kit, etc. I had intended to continue my journey on the night of the 1st September by Courier plane, but hearing that some 224 Squadron Liberators also returning next morning I saw F/O Warram, the captain of the plane and obtained permission to return with his crew on the morning of 2nd September.

“My principal reason for doing this was that I should have an excellent opportunity to gain experience in the operation of the Mark 5 A.S.V. on the aircraft.

“The trip was uneventful until about 100 miles north of Finisterre, the weather along the Portugese coast was cloudy with visibility frequently poor, but on entering the Bay it cleared up 2/10 thin strato-cumulous at about 5,000 feet. At about 16.10 hours B.S.T. an Irish ship was sighted on the starboard bow and about 16.15 hours an S.E. contact 12 miles to port was obtained and the aircraft turned to investigate. Owing to the rate of which the contact range decreased I told the Captain that it might come from an aircraft. Course was resumed and shortly after at about 16.20 hours the Gunners reported the approach of four aircraft identified as Ju.88s. One of these overtook us rapidly and I saw it pass ahead of us on the port side and when about 400 yards ahead turned sharply and made a frontal attack at the same time as the Pilot was turning and climbing to port.

“At the same time at the Ju.88 opened fire I saw the tracer from Mid-Upper turrey pass over its wings and nose. However, the burst from the Junkers scored direct hits, there was an explosion in the cockpit, and the Captain cried out that he was “done for” and died in a few seconds. The Second Pilot told me to remove the Captain’s body, and started to climb towards the clouds. I had the greatest difficulty in moving the Captain’s body, partly because of rigor which set in very rapidly and the difficukty of moving him without interfering with the controls, partly because I was in a somewhat weak condition with the Enteritis which I had contracted at Gibraltar. However I managed to shift him eventually and at the request of the second pilot, sat in the first pilot’s seat to take over in case he was knocked out. When requested to do so, I gave additional control on the rudder or elevator to assist in the evasive action and kept a lookout on both sides to give warning of the direction of attacks when the intercom had broken down.

“The first phase of the attack lasted about 20 minutes and after the first frontal attack, consisted mainly of rear and beam attacks. Every available use was made by the second pilot of the very poor cloud cover, in particular two further attempts at frontal attacks were frustrated in this manner. The Mid-Upper turret became unserviceable quite early in the attack and the rear turret was put out of action shortly after the rear gunner had reported seeing one of the Ju.88s in trouble after getting a burst from the side guns and the rear turret. It was seen to be climbing at a stalling angle, emitting smoke. The attacks then ceased for a few minutes but were resumed again by three only of the enemy aircraft. They knew obviously of our helplessness for they flew around taking various shots at us from no deflection rear attacks closing in from 400 to 50 yards firing continuously to full deflection beam attacks. No.2 engine was already out of action and had been feathered. No.3 engine went after emitting a 30 foot flame; there was a flame in the after part of the fuselage.

“The aileron control had gone and every surviving member of the crew was wounded, some seriously, so at 1700 hours the second pilot decide to ditch while there was still some control left. The enemy broke off the attacks when they saw we were ditching; the approach was made skilfully especially considering the condition of the aircraft and the fact that the second pilot was wounde in the hands and legs. The aircraft appeared to stall in tail first, our first impact being followed by a more violent one which knocked me out although I had braced carefully. I felt water rushing over me and saw a patch of light above me and swam about 15 feet upwards before I surfaced in time to see the tail of the Liberator going under; it had broken in two after the impact, and saw the dinghy with three of the crew in it and several others swimming about. When we all got in there were seven of us and a body floating with head submerged which we took to be that of the rear gunner who had been seriously wounded in the back.

“The condition of those in the dingy was as follows:

Myself – shrapnel wounds, hands and ankles
Collins – deep wound left leg
Miller – side and backl crushed. Bullet wounds, buttock and feet.
Wilcox – front of right leg blown away by cannon shell.
Dilkes – bullet wound left leg
Foss – bullet wound in hand; shrapnel in knees.

“In the dingy there were just paddles, pump, signalling flag and repair outfit and for supplies altogether we had two tins of water and five tins of emergency rations. There was no means of dressing the wounds except by covering them with handkerchiefs,

“About one hour after ditching we sighted what we thought was a ship and attracted its attention by waving and flashing a mirror, as it turned towards us we saw it was a U-Boat in Arctic camouflage, a dirty yellow colour. The decks were crowded with men; as they passed they shouted to us what I took to be in German, “Allies or not Allies” and when some of us replied British they carried on without slackening. I noticed a four-barrelled A.A. gun aft of the conning tower. They altered course south after leaving us. That night we had a difficult time as Miller was in great pain and we were all very cramped and felt it almost impossible to sleep.

“September 3rd – Drifting north most of the day. We tried to repair single seated dinghy which we had in tow, so that we could put Miller into it but it persisted in getting waterlogged. We each had a few Horlicks tablets and a small piece of chocolate. In the evening a Sunderland was seen heading North about three miles to the East of us, but we failed to attract its attention. During the night the sea became rough and breakers swamped the dinghy at frequent intervals.

“September 4th – Drifting North East most of the time. Attempted to catch fish using a boat pin and string with crewing gum as bait, with no success. Sea choppy, necessitating frequent baling out. Weather continuing cloudy but fine. Sighted aircraft in evening about six to eight miles to South, too far off to attract attention.

“September 5th – Drifting East. Weather fine. The seriously wounded men are developing gangrene. In the afternoon a Sunderland and Liberator was seen but did not notice us. Shared first tin of water, about three to four tablespoons each. Situation at night increasingly difficult due to coldness and cramped position.

“September 6th – Drifting East then South. In the evening a Sunderland heading North East passed about one mile to the South and apparently saw us just after passing, turned and circled us. They dropped a Sea Marker, then a Mae West filled with cans of water, first aid and emergency rations, but unfortunately no distress signals. Another Sunderland took over later in the evening, dropping more flame floats. After dark a Catalina patrolling overhead picked us up with search light, flying down the line of markers. Later another Catalina took over but failed to find us with its searchlight, probably because it did not swing the light as the first Catalina had. The search was abandoned about midnight.

“September 7th – Drifting South, a Sunderland passed about three miles to the East, heading South during the morning, but failed to see the dinghy. Miller had become delirious and we gave him two injections from the first aid ampoules. Two tins of water were left as we had drunk about one tin each overnight from the supply dropped by the Sunderland. Wilcos also showed signs of collapse and delirium. Both he and Miller, and Collins had been drinking sea water. Miller died just after dark and was put overboard, and during the night Wilcox got rather out of hand, trying to bite and interfere with those near him. We gave him injections and he decided to go over the side. We made no attempt to stop him as he was getting out of hand.

“September 8th – Sighted by a Sunderland, and afterwards by other aircraft, including a Halifax and Catalina which appeared overhead and dropped more supplies. We tried to signal them to land, but apparently they could not obtain permission. Bareham was in a very weak condition, and delirious, and Collins also showed signs of weakening. Some of the supplied dropped upwind, or to one side of the dinghy. In the afternoon the cloud dispersed and no aircraft were seen. Fortunately distress signals had been dropped so that when during the night a Catalina was heard, we let off some signals and the aircraft dropped flares around us which were seen b y the Sloops which had been looking for us for several days.

“September 9th – Two Sunderlands appeared early and homed the ships onto the dinghy. We were taken aboard and put in hot blankets and given coffee to drink. In spite of every attention, Bareham died the following night and Collins on the following day.

“The three survivors – myself, Flight Sergeant Foss and Sergeant Dilks – were landed at Liverpool 12 days later, having received the very best of care and attention from the Ships’ company.

“I do not feel it necessary to say much about those who failed to survive, although Wilcox impressed me considerably by his resolute conduct until his collapse, and Collins continuously exerted himself in the interests of the others. I though Flight Sergeant Foss’s handling of the aircraft during the action was most skilful and resourceful, the ditching, carried out without flaps or aileron control, and in a wounded condition, was an outstanding achievement.. Sergeant Dilks showed throughout a stolid indifference to danger and continued to operate the wireless even when seriously wounded. During the long spell in the dinghy he continued stolid and uncomplaining, and took his full share in baling, pumping and other activites,

“(signed) D.M. Johnstone, Flying Officer”

Originally Posted at http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?7913&p=93631#post93631