Amazing Story of How Six WW2 Airmen Survived Weeks At Sea!

After their Halifax Bomber was lost to the Atlantic Ocean, six WWII airmen found themselves desperately striving to save their own lives.

The Halifax, with its crew of eight men, captained by Flight Officer E. Hartley, left RAF Base Holmsley South at 11h28 on September 17th 1943. Their mission was to patrol the Bay of Biscay for U-boats which were causing untold damage to the Allied shipping with great loss of life. At 17h05 and approximately 150 miles into the Atlantic, somewhat north of Spain, their equipment showed a surfaced U-boat.

Hartley flew in low and dropped eight depth charges, as fire was exchanged. The attack was successful; the bow of the U-boat rose at an angle and slowly slid underwater. Hartley was not then to know that he had sunk, the U-boat captained by Hans-Hartwig Tojer, (known as Count Dracula) who had been responsible for huge losses to Allied shipping.

The Halifax had however, not come out unscathed, for she sustained a hit on the wing which set fire to a fuel tank and shortly after the fuselage too. There was nothing left to do but relay an SOS, and ditch the craft in the Atlantic. While the craft sank quickly, the crew scrambled to get out via the escape hatches, except for the rear gunner, who was not seen again. The front gunner escaped the plane and was briefly supported in the water by his crew-mates but slipped from their grasp and drowned.

The crew – now six men – managed to get into the inflated dingy and then had plenty of time to consider their predicament. After a night in which all of them were heavily sea-sick, probably due to being wet, cold and swallowing a lot of sea water, they were able – on September 28th – to review their position.

They heard an aircraft, but since there was heavy cloud, they knew there was no chance of being seen. Meanwhile they took stock of their extremely meagre rations comprising: Horlicks tablets, barley tablets, chewing-gum, a little chocolate, a tube of condensed milk and – most thankfully – 5 tins of fresh water. The following day although still cloudy, they semi-dried their clothes and set about trying to catch fish with the aerial of the wireless, with no success. They managed to keep fairly cheerful and since the rationing had to be extremely strict, each slowly sucked their little bit of chocolate!

September 30th was a long cold night, followed by the night of October 1st, when the Atlantic swells reached 35 feet, eventually over-turning their dingy and causing more of their meager kit to be lost. By now the men were thoroughly cold, wet and exhausted since the dingy was slopping water, requiring them to continually bale it out. The men had instituted a prayer session both morning and evening, which certainly helped to keep them positive.

The 2nd and 3rd October passed by, with the men cold and by now becoming stiff, yet still retaining high morale. They had admired a beautiful sunrise and had been badly disappointed by the sighting of the light of a ship – which turned out to be Mars shining brightly.

They had viewed whales from close up and had seen dolphins accompanied by flights of seagulls pass by. They had even fashioned a make-shift fishnet using underwear tied to the bellows handle – with no result. The only catch was jelly-fish which were absolutely inedible. They saved on their water, by using a handkerchief to catch the drizzle and then taking turns to suck that. Morale remained high for they still expected to be rescued.

By the October 4th the decision was made to use the wind and sea-currents to take them closer to shipping lines. They fashioned masts and – by sewing together two shirts with copper wires – a sail. This increased their speed by a surprising amount.

The men were now becoming very easily tired. They had little in the way of food to sustain them and the nights were cold and difficult. Since their daily rations were so drastically curtailed, their talk was centered on the subject of food. Their morning and evening prayers continued to be a great comfort to them.

October the 6th was a particularly bad night, with rough seas and torrential rains which, while allowing the men to catch water and drink from their hands, was cold and miserable. One of the men became delirious, requiring that he continuously be watched. By the following day October 7th – there were two men suffering delirium, requiring the constant alertness of the others. This was dreadfully tiring, causing them – together with the lack of food and the suffering of being open to sea, wind, and weather – to start losing stamina and – worse still – hope.

October 8th – the 11th day dawned. The night had been fraught danger, as the men faced high seas, exhaustion and illness. At 14 hours, Ken Ladd sighted the masts of a naval vessel. Barely believing their eyes, the men fired off three cartridges. It is impossible to even imagine how they felt while watching H.M’s destroyer, The Mahratta maneuvered into position to pick them up. Just twenty minutes later they were safe aboard – rescued!

How do we know so much of this story? Hartley – once recovered – returned to service, married and had a daughter to whom he left his war memorabilia. Having no children to leave these historical effects to, she recently decided to sell them by auction, thereby creating much public interest.

Besides Hartley’s medal – the Distinguished Flying Cross – there were his old logbook, various papers and his diary covering this event. In amongst the papers was the letter, dated September 29th 1943, in which his CO had written to his parents telling them of the downing of his plane and writing:

“The area has been thoroughly searched without result. I am afraid that the chances of rescuing him are now not very great.”

Then there was the telegram, sent 12 days later. It stated:

“I am delighted to inform you your son E.L. Hartley is safe!”

It was a wonderful end to what could have easily been a disastrous tragedy. Although they had sent off the SOS, it had not been received; the sighting of this little dingy in the massive Atlantic Ocean was nothing short of a miracle.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE