Lancaster Pilot Survived Freefalling When A Searchlight Helped Him Find His Parachute Which Wasn’t Strapped On

On February 19th, 1944 over the German town of Hannover, pilot Barry Douetil’s Lancaster was attacked by a Focke-Wulf 190 night fighter plane. The attack quickly set the wing on fire causing the Lancaster to roll over. Douetil was thrown clear of the burning plane when he found all too late that his parachute, which he had been given by his flight sergeant, but he did not have time to put on properly, was nowhere to be found.

That was when he saw the light—a German searchlight –  which by chance illuminated his parachute just ten feet away while it was searching for the other bombers in his stream. Douetil managed to reach the parachute before it was too late, saving his life at the very last second. The pilot was quickly captured, and he was brought to the Stalag Luft III POW Camp where the Great Escape would take place a month and a half later.

Douetil and his story were never highly publicized, despite the incredible nature of his last-minute survival at 20,000 feet. Of all sources to first reveal his story to the public, nobody likely would have expected Antiques Roadshow, yet that is indeed the source of the WWII pilot’s story. Douetil’s son is the one to reveal the story after presenting the show with a picture of his father.

A searchlight deployed at a coastal battery. Photo Credit
A searchlight deployed at a coastal battery. Photo Credit

The pilot wrote down his story, which was another document his son presented to the show. His account revealed the horrors of being aboard a burning plane. The fire was noisy, the impact was sharp, and instinct was the only thing Douetil had to save him. Douetil was given a parachute pack, but he did not have time to strap it fully on before the plane rolled over and he was thrown clear of the burning plane. After finding the pack, he was able to reach the ground with little more than a dislocated shoulder.

According to Douetil’s son, speaking for his father, he only pulled open his parachute mere seconds before reaching the ground. Before finding the pack, he was in the air for what felt like five minutes while contemplating his potential (seemingly imminent) death. Luckily, fear did not keep the pilot from being alert enough to find his pack while in the searchlight, or else he would have died on hitting the ground.

The pilot survived a crash which killed five of his crew; the Lancaster crashed near Langenhagen Airfield. Engineer F/Sgt John Gill, bomb aimer F/Sgt William McMillan, wireless operator Pilot Officer Basil Cude, gunner F/Sgt Bernard Sparkes and gunner Flying Officer Frederick Hale were all killed in the crash and are buried at the Hannover War Cemetery.

His son suspected survivor guilt as the culprit for his silence regarding the issue. Douetil lived into his 70s and did not share his experience outside of his family until his son pressured him to write it down. His son was excited to finally reveal the story to a larger audience on Antiques Roadshow, revealing his father as the fortunate soldier that he truly was.

Joris Nieuwint

Joris Nieuwint is a battlefield guide for the Operation Market Garden area. His primary focus is on the Allied operations from September 17th, 1944 onwards. Having lived in the Market Garden area for 25 years, he has been studying the events for nearly as long. He has a deep understanding of the history and a passion for sharing the stories of the men who are no longer with us.