Lancaster ME839

Sidney Witham recalls:

I was born at Old Whittington, Chesterfield on the 22nd April 1922 and lived with my parents Ada and Fred Witham, and siblings Ada, Fred, Lillian and Ernest. We lived on Holland Road.
After leaving school I worked as a welder for Sheepbridge Coal and Iron Company.
I was 20 years old when I joined te RAF, I had to go to Sheffield to enrol. I remember having a medical and then I was posted to 166 squadron of the Lancaster bombers. Here I found a mixture of working boys like me and also university graduates, but we all rolled along together...
I think we did our training in Wales, we had lessons in a classroom showing us how to operate the aircraft and also lessons in the aircraft itself.
The first time I flew an aircraft I was terrified. But you soon get on with it.
You would know if you were going on a long flight because they would say you have 2,154 gallons in which meant that you could fly for eleven hours. At night we slept in the barracks.
We were told to 'get crewed up' which meant to put a crew together, there were seven to a crew and mine consisted of me - Sidney Witham, Hugh Wagg, there were 2 gunners Lou and Buzz, our navigator was a Canadian airman, I also forget the name of our bomb aim, but he was a little snooty to the rest of us, lastly our wireless operator was Joe Butler.
On 3rd August 1944, we were in the Pay Parade and the paying officer said "will all operational crew report to briefing immediately".
At the briefing we were told we were going to Northern France on a bombing raid, we were to leave at a quarter to two in the afternoon. This was unusual in itself as the Lancaster bombers were night bombers.
The raid should have been carried out by the Americans 5 group.
When we went on raids the pardre used to give us 2 wakey wakey pills to keep us awake and he would say "may you live long, die happy but may you be in heaven 10 days before the devil knows you are there. God Bless you"
When we got to France we manoevered our planes into a line to start bombing, I said to Hugh Wagg who was the pilot with me, "look at this lot up here" there were some of our aircraft positioned above us and they should have not been there. Next to us was a Lancaster Flight Lieutenant Johnson. Our bomb doors were open and the order was given to drop our bombs.
The bomber above us dropped his bombs, one knocked our wing and engine off and hit Flight Lieutenant Johnson on the middle upper gunner, they flew for another ten minutes and then were taken prisoner by the Germans as they crash landed in France.
Back in our aircraft Wagg was in trouble, the control column had jammed and we couldn't move, Wagg was fast in and couldn't get out so I went down to the bomb aimers compartment and opened the escape hatch. A terrific wind came in and he shouted I am free and came running down the steps, he bailed out and I followed him to the ground, even with a parachute the ground was coming up pretty fast, we were met in the air by enemy gunshot and the other five crew members unfortunately did not make it......
Down on the ground, Wagg was in quite a bad way, his parachute was torn to shreds but I was aware that the Germans would be hot on our heels so I decided to make a run for it, the Germans came along and took him back to a POW camp.
It was tough being in a strange country without any supplies, we had landed in a large forest not far from Paris and I walked for four days without water or food.
I eventally came out of the forest and saw a teenage girl mowing a field, I whistled her and got out my phrase book which was issued to soldiers in such an event. After some difficulty, she eventually indicated that she understood and would go and fetch help.
Some time later she returned with two men and two women, they told me to strip off all of my clothes so that I could not be recognised as an English airman. They brought me some old clothes and a pair of old shoes. Being six foot two you can imagine how ridiculous I looked in clothes meant for a much smaller Frenchman, the trousers were almost up to my knees and the shoes crippled my feet.
I was taken to a safe house in the forest and was given water to drink.
The next day I went to Chantilly to another safe house, I was to follow a teenage girl from one safe house to the other, although at a short distance. She walked in front of me flaunting herself, moving in and out of doorways until we reached our destination which was a bungalow owned by a lovely lady called Yvonne Fournier.
Yvonne looked after me very well, I was given food and drink and very relieved to be there.
The French Resistance came and said they were sending to Switzerland. Later that same day another bloke came who spoke perfect English, I said "what tribe do you come from" but all he said was you are not going to Switzerland, a guide will take you over the Pyranees to Spain and a representative will meet you there.
I made the long and arduous journey over into Spain and as I got down to Salou in Spain we got word that the war had ended.
I made my way back to Chantilly and when I got there pulled up a Yank in a jeep and asked him to take me to Paris to his HQ, he gave me some wonderful food and drink and said "hang on a minute I will just ring up the airport" he came back and said "we can't get you back to England today as someone has sabotaged the landing lights".
He took me to Limoges Airport, whilst I was walking outside an English soldier came up to me and said "can you help me? I have been in a POW camp at St Dennis for the last 5 years and need to get home" I said "I need help myself but if I can't help you no one can"
We both travelled back to England together on the same plane, whilst aboard, the pilot came back to us to introduce himself, he told the soldier that he could go to the cockpit and have a look. The soldier said "who is flying the plane?" and he replied "George" and the worried soldier replied "well I can't see George so can you go back and fly the plane please?"
When we got back we went to the Air Ministry. They sent me to Ennersley Gardens Hotel which was run by the RAF. When I got there a female corporal came up to me and said "you look scruffy" and I suppose I did as I had not had a bath for months. An officer came out of his room and played hell with her he said "have you just come out?" and I said "just".
I borrowed some money off another bloke and rang Wraggs Coal Merchants on Holland Road that was a few doors away from my parents house, Cissie Wragg the daughter answered the telephone and I said that it was Sid Witham and that I was alright and to let my family, including my wife Kathleen with our young son John that I was OK. She replied "Sorry but Sid is missing in action" and put the phone down!
Nevertheless I did manange to get the message through eventually and finally after many many months return home..........



Hubert Wagner recalls:

Hubert (Hughie) Wagner Was Born 1917 While his Parents Were In Malaya, He went to Public School In Cheltenham

and on to University in London as a medical Student until the outbreak of war in 1939, Although in the reserve

occupation, But he wanted to join up for real. After a little difficulty, He was able to Terminate his Studies

and Join the R.A.F. as a member of the aircrew. This progressed onto serving as a Pilot and serving with 206 Sqn

ans 166 Sqn. During Tours he was sent to Instructors flying school, after passing out he was posted to

R.A.F Kirmington when it was A.F.S. Later he was posted on to instruct on Gliders, even though He had never

been sent to the Glider instructors school at Thame.
After the war Hugh return to the medical profession, gained hons. in Physiology and served as a doctor.
Sadly Hugh Passed away in March this year(2005) but previously before he would get to know of the internet, Hugh had written the following; How that in 1944 whilst leading the second daylight wave on a V1 launch site at St Maximin,near Creil. We were right on line for the final stages of the run, My Bomb aimer was instructing to "hold her steady Skip" it was a perfect line up, a Lancaster on my starboard broke formation to avoid the accurate German Ack-Ack, That plane gained about 200ft and eventually drifted right over us, the rest of the formation closed up F/O Jobson was formatting on my port wing, so close I could plainly see his smiling face! My engineer Sid Witham brought to my notice the resence of that Lancaster above. (I was concentrating on keeping the plane very steady on our final run-in to the target as we wanted to get a "hat-trick" i.e. a third "best photo" of a direct hit of the bomber force, our previous two "best photos along with recorded direct hits were on La Havre submarine pens, for which we were presented enlargement photos that were also printed in the Newspapers in England) I contemplated breaking up the formation but realised that this would have presented a formidable task, and my crew were against it saying that they were probably closer to danger on the night raids but could not see it. I had told My Engineer Sid to fix his parachute before going down to the nose to throw out the radar-jamming silver strips, Sid gave me a quizzical look, raised his eyebrows in surprise but relented when I persisted, pulled his chute from under his seat and patted it and again moved his lips as if to say "now, are you satisfied"

We were loaded with 7 pairs of 1,000lb bombs, As we released our bombs, I managed to glance up and counted four pairs of these sleek armour piercing bombs in front of our plane, one of the fifth set landed on our wing root, tearing off the wing and both engines, another bomb hit us midships and
tore a hole through the fuselage from top to bottom. Another bomb hit F/O Jobson plane slicing off his outer engine, he managed to remain airborne for another 10 minutes before crashing finally being captured. When we lost the wing the plane went into a very fast spin and most of us were jammed in one way or another. I saw Sid in the nose but could not get myself free, my head bleeding profusely, my leg jammed between the controls. When I saw the ground, the trees etc, and had given up all hope of getting out, Sid managed to free the hatch door, and a tremendous blast of air seemed to steady the spin enough for my leg to break free and slithered down the stairway, bumping into Sid and shoot out of the gaping hatch, I looked up to seem my parachute severely torn a bomb had also passed through it leaving me with only half of a parachute and knew I would be hitting the ground in seconds, even so during that time I knew someone was firing into the parachute canopy as it kept on tearing along the holes until it would reach a seam and stop. I curled myself up and waited for the impact the ground was not visible due to the enormous pall of smoke and dust along with other debris thrown up. At the time of impact I was only aware of the enormous blast of hot wind,earth and stone hitting me, a 1,000lb bomb had exploded directly below me that force of the blast must have stopped my inevitable inertia into the ground, the ground on which I landed was very hot, I reached to release my parachute harness but the force of the blast had completely ripped it off and much of my uniform was torn, I knew I had to get out of the target area, it was in fact then I realised I was in the bomb crater as it was very difficult to crawl up the steep sides, when I got to the top I was shocked to find myself right beside the launching ramp of a V1 rocket, there were some even visible stack against a wall without their wings. I knew there would be two more waves of bombers and that I had to get out of this place, my back hurting as well as my knees, headache was fast overtaking me, I turned towards the fields after climbing up the collapsed quarry onto level ground, there I caught sight of Sid my Engineer who was running fast towards the fields, Only two persons survived; my engineer Sid Witham and myself, we were the only two wearing parachutes at the time we were hit. However both of us were caught in the second and third waves. I found it better to lay on my back and watch the wave of sleek black bombs coming down than to lie on ones face and not know what was happening, watching this rain of bombs became almost fascinating the one nearest to me would penetrate deeply into the ground heave up the earth and me. The disorientation and pain got worse I tried to orient myself with the button compass and escape maps but could not see it clearly, the sun seemed too bright for me to see. Finally I gave up thinking the rest would put me right. The intermittent busting of the 500lb time delayed bombs shook me back to reality, two exploded a very short distance from me, they blew all the leaves off the small trees and bushes near me, pushed me several yards and covered me with earth. By dark I saw German troops and tracked vehicles moving Eastwards. across the other side of the road I saw a house and made up my mind. After another rest I would get there, as I could speak fluent French, I acted irrationally, approached some German soldiers and spoke to them asking the way to Creil. Some could speak French and asked me what I was doing out after curfew hours, I spun them a story about the damned English bombers that had caught me in the fields and that is why I had all this blood over my face, extraordinary thing was they never saw my pilots wings on my left chest or recognise the remnants of my uniform. they directed me but said I would not be allowed on the road until their columns had passed that took so long I lay down I the ditch and must have lost conscience again, for when I woke the place was quite except for men fixing the telephone wire, I did not cross the road fearing this was a trap. My engineer Sid did cross the road and was put up there and was later picked up by the advancing Americans. With all the confusions and losing consciousness I was later found and carried by German troops to an occupied house interigated before being sent to Sagan Stalag Luft III.


Mrs. Witham

JPM (aka Fifi)