EVERY day for nearly 70 years, Dennis Bartlett silently thanked bomber pilot Bill North for saving his life. The last time he’d seen his Second World War comrade was in July 1944 on a pitch-black hillside in France where Bill crash landed their bullet-ridden Lancaster after a Luftwaffe attack.
Wounded Bill, then 22, bravely decided to down the plane rather than bail out when he learned another crewman’s parachute strap was damaged and he couldn’t jump. The pilot thought Dennis had parachuted out but when the bomber hit the ground, his friend was still on board. The men were captured by the Nazis that night and when they were taken to separate prisoner-of-war camps, Dennis feared he would never see his pal again.
But last week they were reunited at the retirement home where the former RAF pilot now lives, and relived the incredible, untold story of their great escape.
As emotion welled inside him, Dennis, 87, said: “The memories of that night in France have been with me for 67 years.
“We all owed our lives to Bill. Without a thought for himself and while terribly injured he stayed on board our doomed bomber in order to save us. That still moves me to this day.” Bill is now 89 but he remembers what happened so vividly it could have been last week. He said: “I was never scared of flying. My fear was of letting my crew down. “We had become the firmest of friends as well as comrades and had complete confidence in each other’s abilities. It would have been a bitter blow if any one of my crew had been killed.”
Their mission was to attack the German base in St Leu d’Esserent, France, as part of an Allied force of 231 Lancasters and 15 Pathfinders. They dropped 1,000lb bombs to cut communication to the base but 12 Lancasters and 83 lives were lost. Bill recalled: “We dropped our bomb load and suddenly we were being attacked. Bullets were ripping into my Lancaster.
“We lost our port inner engine, flaps and one of our petrol tanks. I was shot in the left elbow and thigh, my left arm just dropped down useless because the nerve had been severed. The aircraft was not responding to the controls so I gave the order ‘abandon aircraft’. “But then one of our men said his parachute harness had been shot off and he couldn’t jump. I decided the only option was to crash land the aircraft. I was not going to leave him behind.”
Bill, of Basingstoke, Hants, brought down the aircraft over tree tops and landed tail down to prevent the wings from combusting. To his surprise, Dennis appeared from the wreckage and helped get him out. But they were captured by the Nazis and Bill spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 1. “Fortunately the crash landing was successful,” he said. “My overriding feeling was one of immense relief and satisfaction my crew survived. “I wasn’t decorated but then no-one in authority knew of our crash landing.
“For my part, I was only too pleased we survived the war. Every night we flew in the shadow of death. I think about it every day.”
The touching reunion was down to Chris Keltie, a former neighbour of Bill’s who was fascinated by an old photograph of the crew. Three years ago, he decided to track down Dennis and write a book on the hero pilot’s life. Chris said: “I think Bill should have been awarded a VC. His story needs to be told.”