95 Squadron

Memoirs of Group Captain Tom Harvey (Formerly 201 Sqn)
Recalls his time as a Sunderland Pilot...

"As the Flight Lieutenant Captain of a brand new Mark III Sunderland flying-boat, for three weeks I had worked-up an eleven-man crew at the RAF Ferry Training Unit at Oban, when on 19 July we set out on a thirteen hour flight to Gibraltar.

This was the first leg of a journey to our new base near Freetown in Sierra Leone. There we were to join No 490 (NZ) Squadron at RAF Jui, located on a crocodile-infested mangrove swamp some 15 miles inland...

After a couple of days at Gibraltar effecting some minor mechanical adjustments, we took off for the RAF base at Bathurst (now called Banjul) in the Gambia, on the second leg of our journey. Our course took us down the coast of Morocco, and what was then known as Rio de Oro in the Spanish Sahara. We expected to reach Bathurst after some 14 hours flying. We had been airborne almost 7 hours and had reached a point between the Canary Islands and the mainland off Cape Yubi, when oil was seen pouring at an alarming rate from the overflow pipe on the port inner engine.

One of the great things about a flying-boat is that, unlike a land-plane that needs a reasonably smooth strip of friendly territory, It can alight unmolested on the sea when problems such as this arise, provided, of course, that the sea is not in one of its rougher moods. In this part of the world in July, the sea is usually like a millpond. Happily for us, on this occasion it was just that. We touched down some three miles off the coast, having first called RAF Bathurst by W/T, informing them of our problem and how we intended dealing with it.

We stopped the engines and began to investigate the oil leak. Thoughtfully, Sunderlands were equipped with maintenance platforms that could be fixed under the front of the engines to enable limited inspections and repairs to carried out while the aircraft was waterborne. The problem was soon found by Sgt Ron Flockhart, our Flight Engineer, and proved to be a blocked oil filter, causing engine oil to escape through the overflow pipe. The filter was washed in petrol and quickly replaced. We called Bathurst again advising them of what we had done, and telling them that we would continue our journey.

We got airborne and resumed our course, but worse was to come. After flying for less than ten minutes the port outer and starboard inner engines almost simultaneously began to pour out oil, as the port inner had done. We called Bathurst yet again, informing them of our new predicament, indicating that we would repeat the previous procedure. We quickly put the aircraft on the water and, as the apparently deserted shoreline was fairly near, dropped anchor while we dealt with what was obviously going to take much longer than the first occurrence had done.

The maintenance platforms had, of course, to he rigged and derigged as we cleared what proved to be similarly blocked oil filters. A check on the starboard outer engine revealed that its oil filter was almost blocked. This was a situation we had not expected when the port inner engine was originally dealt with, and it made us wonder what might have caused this previously unheard of failure. (Later events made us suspect some dastardly interference.) When two of the three filters had been cleaned and secured, Ron was ready to complete the task by replacing the remaining filter on the starboard outer engine and securing it with its retaining screw. At that moment: calamity, our over enthusiastic Engine Fitter (second engineer), anxious to get all the cleaning paraphernalia quickly cleared away, had emptied petrol from the cleaning can overboard and the remaining filter retaining screw had gone with it. 'This was a disaster, as spares of this type were never required under normal operations and were not carried.

The first option now open to us was to try and get into the air under the power of three engines. We transferred the oil filter retaining screw from the port inner to the starboard outer engine. We then had to secure the port inner propeller to stop it windmilling as speed increased on take-off. This was essential, as the propellers on our Bristol Pegasus XVIII engines could not be "feathered" to stop the engine rotating. (This major shortcoming was eliminated towards the end of the war when the new Mark V Sunderlands were fitted with American Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines). The engine rotating at considerable speed without oil would have seized up very quickly. 'The propeller would of course continued to windmill and would eventually have sheared off from the engine with possibly disastrous results. This did in fact happen to several Sunderlands during the war, including one that I was flying over the Bay of Biscay en route from Gibraltar to the UK early in 1943. It was a frightening experience, and a failure that was believed to have caused the loss of several of these otherwise splendid aircraft and their luckless crews.

Once again we reported our actions and intentions to Bathurst and prepared for takeoff. I opened the two outer engine throttles first to get maximum airflow over the rudder, hoping that this would give us sufficient control of the swing to port when the starboard inner throttle was opened. Whilst luck had been on our side when we made our landings in windless conditions, this was not what was required for a successful take-off on three engines. By taking-off across rather than into wind, if there had been any, it would have been possible to use the force of the wind blowing on one or other side of the aircraft (starboard in our case) to counteract the swing caused by the imbalance of engine power. Also, wind over the water will always cause waves to develop. Even the smallest waves will help the aircraft to plane sooner, thus promoting the increase in speed and lift necessary to get the aircraft airborne. We made three or four abortive attempts at take-off, but the, aircraft simply swung in a wide circle to port, without the slightest sign of getting 'onto the step' and planing before gathering speed for take-off. However, there was still more than enough fuel available to get us to Port Etienne, the small RAF base in French West Africa about 280 miles north of Bathurst. So we decided to lighten the aircraft as much as possible by jettisoning surplus petrol. This done, we made several further frustrating attempts to get into the air, until severe overheating of the engines forced us to call a halt. 'The extreme heat off the African coast at that time of year did not help matters.

After some deliberation, we were forced to accept that a take- off on three engines in the prevailing windless conditions and smooth sea was a virtual impossibility. We then called Bathurst to advise them of this, and asked if a replacement filter retaining screw could be flown out to us. This sounded to us like the simplest solution. However, for some inexplicable reason, the answer we eventually got back some hours later was that a French naval vessel would be coming out from Agadir to tow us back to the port, where repairs could be effected. This was most disappointing, as Agadir was in Morocco, some 225 miles to the northeast. First, there would be a long wait for the towing vessel to reach us, and secondly, it would take them very much longer to tow us back to Agadir, Regrettably, there was nothing we could do, unless of course the wind came up before the Frenchmen arrived - it didn't.

The night of 23 July seemed endless. Then on the following morning there was a totally unexpected development. The R/T suddenly came to life with a call from another Sunderland. This was a Canadian-crewed aircraft that had been in Gib with us and had taken-off a few hours after we had. This aircraft was also heading for Bathurst and had been airborne for precisely the same time as ourselves when, by a strange coincidence, its engines had also started losing oil. The skipper had landed as we had done, but for some reason I don't remember, was unable to rectify the problem. It transpired that he was only some thirty miles away from us. He had anchored in a bay on the coast for the night, but in the morning some suspicious-looking locals had appeared on the Spanish-occupied shore opposite them. Thoughts of unfriendly military intervention and likely internment caused them to up anchor and motor quickly out to sea. They had also called Bathurst and eventually were told that an American torpedo- boat would be coming out from Casablanca to tow them in.

After some talk about the long wait for our respective towing vessels, we decided that we would taxi to meet each other and then continue in the direction of Agadir. As the American boat was coming from Casablanca, further north than Agadir, we reckoned that the French boat would reach us first and could perhaps be persuaded to take us both in tow in a north- easterly direction until the second vessel arrived.

At 1900 hrs the French vessel rendezvoused with us and proceeded to pass two ropes to take us both in tow, our aircraft being positioned some forty to fifty yards astern of the Canadian aircraft. When the ropes had been secured to the bollards on both aircraft, the French Commander was signalled to commence towing. Immediately, he opened up his engines at, what appeared to us, to be full throttle. Before any attempt could be made to slow the procession down, the leading tow rope had snapped. The Canadian Sunderland instantly slowed down, and the distance between us closed rapidly. There was no time to release our tow-rope from the bollard to which it had been securely attached. So, if a damaging collision was to be avoided, the only alternative would be to hack the rope free with the aircraft's hatchet, which is what our rigger quickly did. Unfortunately, a collision between the two aircraft could not be avoided, but rapid fending-off by my crew members reduced the damage to a small dent in the port wing-tip of our aircraft.

After we had extracted ourselves from this situation, the skipper of the Canadian aircraft called the French Commander and managed to explain that the tow would have to proceed at a maximum speed of 8 knots. As the Commander had not been at all happy with having his longest available rope considerably shortened, and not wanting a repetition of this incident, he accepted our advice. So, we continued on our north-easterly course throughout the night without further incident.

By the morning of 25 July the wind had risen from the north- west and we found ourselves in a fairly lumpy sea, a rare condition at that time of year. At about 0830 hrs we were relieved to see the American torpedo boat appear on the horizon, and by 0900 hrs both aircraft were under separate tow. The American boat with its Sunderland headed for Casablanca, while our Frenchman continued on course towards Agadir, albeit at a slower speed than previously on account of the worsening sea conditions.

With the wind on the port beam, the Sunderland travelled with a heel to starboard, with the result that the starboard float was taking a continuous pounding as it hit each wave. We managed to persuade the French Commander to reduce speed. We would also have liked him to take a more northerly course with the wind on the port bow, thus reducing the degree of heel on the aircraft and the pounding on the starboard float. However, a reduction in speed was as much as we achieved.

The wind rose considerably through the day and the heel to starboard increased alarmingly, This was eased only slightly by stowing all the crew's personal kit inside the leading edge of the port wing, together with as much heavy equipment - toolboxes, etc that the available space would take. (Access to the inside of the wing on a Sunderland was through hinged hatches in the leading edge.) Locating all the members of the crew, with the exception of myself, on the port wing further eased the problem as far as they could safely go. I remained at the controls and endeavoured to keep the aircraft as steady as possible, using the rudder to limit the tendency to swing into wind, drop the starboard wing and pound the starboard float.

During the night the wind eased and gave us some respite, allowing crew members to re-enter the aircraft for some sleep. However, by the morning of the 26th the wind was rising again and continued to increase. Despite having the crew back on the wing, the starboard float was taking a heavier pounding, with the wing rolling over to starboard for longer periods. We could only assume from this that the float had been punctured and was taking water. The sea swell had now increased and there was a considerable possibility that the float would become completely waterlogged with the risk of the aircraft losing stability, rolling over to starboard and foundering. At this point Sgt Flockhart volunteered to climb down onto the starboard float and endeavour to pump it out using a hand- pump. This was a risky exercise as, even though he would rope himself to the float, he might easily he swept into the sea with little hope of climbing back on to the float. Nevertheless, I reluctantly agreed to let him make the attempt, although we both realised that the float would fill again as soon as he had emptied it, since there was no means of effecting a repair under the prevailing conditions.

It was mid-afternoon as Ron swung himself down onto the float and, having roped himself to it, began pumping. Encouragingly, the steep roll to starboard began to case slightly; but as Roll progressed, taking the occasional rest, the sea swell was increasing alarmingly, causing the float to take an even heavier pounding. Occasionally, it smashed into the swell, forcing Ron to suspend pumping and cling to the float struts to stop himself from being swept off. Under the conditions, there would have been no hope whatsoever of his getting back on again. Determinedly, he continued his efforts until the float was almost empty.

By now, the sea state had developed a swell of some 20 to 25 feet. After the wingtip had struck the water several times, with Ron disappearing from view on each occasion, I decided it was time to call him in before he disappeared altogether. After a 'considerable struggle, he managed to get back up onto the wing. Helped by another considerable struggle he managed to get back onto the wing. Helped by another crew-member, he clawed his way up the slippery wing and back into the aircraft, completely exhausted.

It was rapidly becoming apparent to all of us on the aircraft and probably to the French crew also, that the starboard float was eventually going to fill with water. As it did so, the starboard wing would dig deeper into the sea each time the aircraft rolled in that direction as it came off every wave. With little buoyancy in the float, the wing would take increasingly longer to lift back out of the sea. Once the float had completely filled, it would stay permanently submerged. With several feet of the wing also in the water, there would be excessive drag on the starboard side. Whenever the wing was struck by a particularly large wave, it would be dragged even further into the water. This would allow the full force of the wind to strike the underside of the raised port wing, lifting it even higher. The crew-members precariously located on the wing would be swept down towards the centre of the aircraft. In all probability the now unstable aircraft would roll completely over, throwing the crew into the sea, with the aircraft left in a sinking condition.

With the onset of darkness, it was clear that imminent abandonment of the aircraft would be necessary if danger to the crew was to be avoided. Furthermore, the aircraft's inflatable dinghy was stowed under a quick-release panel in the starboard wing and could only be released with the aircraft in an upright position. We called the French Commander, advised him of our intention and asked him to standby to take us aboard. We also called Bathurst, advised them of the situation and our decision to abandon the aircraft. This done, in the fading light we began preparations by releasing the self-inflating dinghy and gathering the minimum amount of our kit that had not been stowed in the port wing. With four crew-members aboard the dinghy at a time, the whole crew successfully transferred to the nearby naval vessel. (Unbeknown to us at the time, of course, from that moment we had all established our eligibility for membership of the future Goldfish Club.)

As the Sunderland was equipped with the latest secret radar equipment, it would be necessary to sink the aircraft to ensure that it did not fall into enemy hands. At that point, we had been towed about 150 miles but were well out from the coast, still some 75 miles from Agadir. The French Commander was advised of the requirement and he instructed his 40mm gun crew to carry out the task. As we were now only about a hundred yards away from the aircraft, we assumed this would be completed fairly quickly. After several misses, much shouting from the Commander and a change of gun crew, our beautiful Sunderland eventually received a direct hit, burst into flames and quickly disappeared.

Arriving in Agadir on the morning of 27 July, we were taken to one of the local hotels where we stayed until the 29th. We then all crammed into an American Army Air Corps B-23 Marauder and were flown up to Casablanca. Here we were surprised to meet the crew off the other Sunderland who had suffered an experience identical to our own, with exactly the same regrettable ending, but happily, also without loss or Injury to the crew.

At their HQ, the American Navy conducted an enquiry into the whole episode, being most anxious to ensure that they and the French Navy had given both crews all possible assistance. It was unfortunate that the ultimate and totally unexpected sea conditions had prevented us from recovering a sample of the clogging material (rather like chewing gum) that had blocked the engine oil filters. Analysis might have established the nature and source of the material, indicating whether the two aircraft could have been the victims of sabotage in Gibraltar whilst moored outside the harbour, adjacent to the airfield runway. This was close to the Spanish Border where German agents were known to watch Allied aircraft movements. Thus, the cause of the blocked oil filters was never established. It is interesting to note that several Sunderlands were lost, or force-landed, off West Africa during 1944. Most of these occurrences were attributed to some form of engine trouble, overheating in many cases.

Leaving Casablanca in a Royal Navy frigate, we were taken back to Gibraltar, where we remained for the whole of August awaiting further instructions. On 31 August we flew in an American Dakota down to Rabat. There we transferred to an RAF Dakota and flew to Bathurst via Port Etienne in French West Africa (now Mauritania). After a further five days, during which time I did some flying with No 95 Squadron, on 8 September we flew in a Sunderland down to the RAF base at Jui. There I reported to Wg Cdr Gill, the CO of No 490 (NZ) Squadron, apologising for being some seven weeks late.

I wrote a full report of all the events that happened at the end of that July and was pleased to recommend Sgt Ron Flockhart for a Mention in Dispatches. In due course, it was very gratifying to hear that his exploits in trying to save our aircraft were recognised by the award of the British Empire Medal.

The above has been written more than 52 years after the events described. Unfortunately my copy of the report that I submitted to my CO was lost in a house move some years ago. Thus the only references I now have as to what actually happened are the barest details contained in my Flying Log Book, covering only dates and times, together with the names of those crew members I can remember. Naturally, there are numerous 'ifs', 'buts' and 'whys' that have not been dealt with, or have failed to remember. Of the crew, I have since met only Fg Off Peter Lee, my navigator, whom I was delighted to see at the Flying Boat Reunion at Pembroke Dock in Aug 95.