True stories of airmen who crashed - and lived to tell the tale

These are the stories of Allied and German airmen whose planes crashed on land or ditched in the sea during the Second World War. Many of them lost their comrades. Several were injured. All counted themselves lucky to be alive - and, in most cases, to fly again.

David Rowland, the author of several popular books on the last war, has researched dozens of gripping incidents and has spoken to many of the brave men who thought they were doomed to die but survived against all odds. The following extract gives a flavour of the amazing personal stories that it portrays:

On the 28th August 1941 Wallace Cunningham, a flight commander with 19 Squadron, took off from his base at Matlask, a satellite station of Coltishall, to escort a number of Blenhiem Bombers. The operation was a low level attack on shipping in Rotterdam harbour. This was demed to be a large raid by British bombers, but a stiff price was paid. The Blenheims came from several squadrons, including 21, 88 and 226, and they suffered heavy losses. A total of seven bombers were lost and several more were damaged. Another crashed on take-off from RAF Wattisham. Five crew members were taken prisoner but 16 were killed on the raid.

This wasn't to be a good day for Wallace either. As it was a low-level attack he was ordered to fly his Spitfire almost at sea level.

"We took off at 4pm after a two hour delay" he later recalled, "escorting two squadrons of Blenheims, to bomb a target in Rotterdam harbour. We were flying close to sea level and I can still see the tracks made by the twin engines of the bombers. We were ordered to keep down, as the Blenheims wanted the maximum advantage of surprise, although we as escort were no help in not being high enough to attack enemy fighters that might arrive on the scene. However, we might act as a distraction and draw the fire."

The group were met by the German defences, and one by one the Blenheims were shot down. The Spitfire escorts fared little better.

"I had succeeded well in keeping low crossing the Channel, but as I reached the coast I was shot down by multiple pom-pom cannon fire. Our Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader "Farmer" Lawson, and Peter Stuart, my no. 2, were also shot down, and both were killed. My Spitfire engine was hit by this shell fire. I knew I had a problem and also that I had to gain height in order to bale out. I tried desperately to climb, but as the glycol was leaking badly the Merlin engine was starting to seize up. I knew that was it. I gave no thought to becoming a Prisoner of War, just to get down safely. I came down on the sandy beach right in front of a gun post. Looking back now, I was 23 years old, a bit older than many of the lads in my squadron."

"During the previous few weeks I had started to suffer with getting sties in my eyes, and I had a couple of abscesses lanced by the doctor under anaesthetic. This was a sure sign of tiredness and I should really have taken a rest from flying. Mind, I was about to get a rest, albeit unplanned. I suppose my first thoughts should have been to look around for means of escape, but that was really out of the question, certainly in front of a gun post."

"However, I was congratulating myself on getting down to terra firma safely and uninjured, with undercart up and with no power in the engine. I obviously didn't know then, but I had 46 months of captivity in front of me. Just then the machine gun opened up over my head, and I certainly got the message."

  • ISBN 0-9539392-3-5
  • Price £10.99