The Brabant village Oisterwijk and Operation Market Garden
J. Hartnell-Beavis final flight
J. Hartnell-Beavis wrote a book about his career after the war, his last flight with
Halifax-II JD207 and his captivity in Dalag Luft III, an Allied prisoner camp in
Germany. The following is extracted from this book:
July 25 1943
‘By making some phone calls I was able to collect my entire crew for this mission
except one. They managed to get to the station in time for our briefing. I borrowed
a bomb aimer from another flight and was informed by our Intelligence Officer that
our target that night would be Essen. This was already told to me by our commanding
Officer Jimmy, who said he was coming with me as second pilot just for the ride.
After the briefing we gathered in the crew room and collected all our gear. While
the others were transported to our aircraft my WAAF driver brought me to collect
the CO, Jimmy and drove us to ‘V’ Victor. Here we found the rest of our crew smoking
a last cigarette while the ground crews were checking the aircraft. ‘V’ Victor was
a relatively new Halifax, slightly faster than my previous one and with a better
ceiling. Just when we were to climb onboard a limousine arrived with the AOC from
Group H/Q who got out, grabbed Jimmy and bundled him back in to his car. We therefore
took off with a reduced crew with our borrowed bomb aimer and my permanent crew consisting
of Smithy my wireless operator, Jonah my navigator, ‘High’ my Canadian engineer,
Al the mid upper and George my rear gunner.
When we were entering the fighter zone Jonah's voice came over the intercom. “Ok,
keep a good look-out everybody." We were still climbing and reached 20.000 feet as
we saw the Dutch coast coming up. After the Pathfinders turning point I informed
Jonah who gave me my next course and I set in on the compass grid-ring and turned
on to the next course. Already we could see the glow of the Ruhr, caused by the search
lights, Pathfinder flares, incendiaries burning on the ground and layers of Flak.
We flew at 21.000 feet, and Victor was sluggish. I was flying straight and level
to maintain height, as jinking, in my opinion, was unnecessary when ‘Monica’ our
night fighter detector, was switched on. We were now well in the searchlight area,
and I picked a gap between two cones, flying on a course which would take me about
five miles of the starboard cone, and a mile from the one on the port side. The machine
on the port side, as we came abreast of him, was twisting and turning, and we were
watching him with interest; when suddenly, with no warning, we were temporarily blinded,
as the whole cone switched across to us! I had been taking slight evasive action,
but I suppose as we appeared on the detector screen alongside their first victim,
the operators thought we would be easier to hold. “Hold tight all,” I yelled down
the intercom, as I pushed the stick hard into a diving turn to the right. We could
feel the bumps as the Flak got nearer, and every now and then, hear a series of ‘crumps’,
which means that it is very near. After one particular loud ‘crump’ there was a rattle
on the fuselage like hale, and my heart skipped a beat. I had my head well down in
the cockpit, so as not to be dazzled by the blinding bluish-white light; my eyes
were glued to the instruments, and I was sweating like a pig, as I hauled on the
controls. Resisting the temptation to throw Victor into the wildest acrobatics, I
kept the air speed at 200 m.p.h. turning on to different headings, but all in time
working my way in a certain direction, until at last, after just over three minutes,
according to Jonah, the glare lessened, the ‘crumps’ became fewer, and eventually
the last light flickered out.
Remembering the ominous rattling, I called up everybody by name, and told High, the
engineer, to check his instruments carefully. We had lost 3.000 feet of precious
height, and we were well off course, so we came in to attack the target from the
north-east instead of the north-west, and I felt some apprehension, picturing the
500 odd other aircraft flashing across our path in a series of near misses.
This was usually one of the most tense moments of any bombing raid, as you have to
ignore the Flak, and fly as straight and level as possible, obeying the bomb-aimers’
instructions. And yet, with a full bomb load, and bomb doors gaping wide, the aircraft
is at its slowest and most vulnerable altitude. However, I always took the view,
that as the run up lasted only a few minutes, we could rely on our luck not to be
hit at that time. Also, I myself, and some of my crew, had felt all along, that our
luck was going to hold, and had a sort of blind intuition that we’d finish our tour
We had to keep her on course until the camera had recorded our aiming point, and
I held her steady with my left hand, as I flickered up the bomb door lever with my
right hand. The red camera light flashed on and off, and I pushed the nose down,
going into a steep turn to the right, noting with satisfaction the ASI reading 220
We still had to pass through the searchlight area, but now we were light, had plenty
of speed, and had no difficulty in evading the master searchlights.
“Searchlight coming up astern,” said George.
I turned 90 degrees to port, glanced left, and saw the beam moving slowly along our
original course, radar controlled.
“Ok Skipper, it’s stopped. Now it’s gone out.”
“How many fires, George?”
“Six large separate fires, with a healthy red glow, and a mass of incendiaries to
the south of the target area. Smoke is up to our height. More incendiaries about
10 miles S.W. of target.”
“Probably Jerry diversions.”
“P.F.F. flares still going down. Four cones of searchlights.”
“Machine going down on our starboard quarter.”
I turned starboard and saw a yellow glow increasing in size, and going down at a
slant, like a very slow comet. We watched its leisurely progress in silence, and
after a few moments a series of sparks appeared, and the glow split in two or three
separate flames. You can never see parachutes at night, unless you are very close,
and we always like to think they all got out, although in fact this is very rarely
the case. Jonah’s clear voice came over the intercom and gave me the next course
that we had to keep for 8 minutes at 180 m.p.h. on 17.000 feet.
“everybody keep a good look-out, as Monica’s u/s.”
We had been flying steadily for about five minutes, and everybody was slightly relaxed,
as the danger area was past. At this period you always experience a feeling of relief,
your nerves return to normal, and you get the feeling of having accomplished something.
Our course was checked, and we were on time, and right on track, in the middle of
Suddenly, with no warning at all, our peace was shattered by a series of deafening
crashes, which developed immediately into a loud roar. The plane rocked and pitched
forward, and I felt the stick go dead in my hands. ‘Christ, it’s happened,’ I thought,
‘but it just can’t be, it can’t possibly happen to us.’ Long training came to my
aid, and although I felt like jelly inside, I tried to keep my voice quiet, as I
came out with the formula, “Prepare to abandon aircraft.” Not a sound from the intercom.
The cockpit was glowing bright yellow, as the starboard wing had caught fire. I knew
a fighter had scored a direct hit on us, as I had seen a yellow stream of tracer
spreading fanwise in front of us, and below. The roar of flames increased, and although
I knew it was useless, I cut the starboard engines, and pressed the extinguishers.
The perspex around me was shattered, and a hurricane was sweeping through the cockpit.
“Jump everybody.” I yelled, but felt that the intercom was dead. Victor was going
down very steeply, and I could see the altimeter unwinding fast, and I started to
panic. At that moment another loud bang, and more tracer appeared ahead. ‘The swine
is following us down, and with the flames for a target, he can’t miss,’ I thought.
I really panicked this time, and tried to heave myself out of my seat, but found
I couldn’t move, and thought ‘Machine must be in a spin, and I’m being held down
by centrifugal force.’ I sat back resigned to stay in, relaxed, and then realized
that I was still strapped in! I pulled the harness release, and lurched forward,
and started to climb out of my seat, pulling myself up by the hand-hold above the
windscreen. I got my right leg over the flaps and undercarriage levers, and was starting
to get my other leg out, when the hand-hold broke, and I fell down the steps in the
forward compartment, my left leg just coming free in time. I crawled back to look
behind my seat. High was slumped down in such a position that I realized at once
there was nothing I could do for him.
Back again in the forward compartment it was dark, and my eyes, dazzled by the flames
above, could see nothing. I groped for my parachute pack, found it, and like a clumsy
fool, on picking it up, must have pulled the D-ring, as I felt the pilot chute jump
into my face. I hugged it to my chest, to prevent the main chute coming out of the
pack. I could now see dimly, and instead of seeing the hoped-for cavity in the floor,
I saw the hatch was partly open, and somebody was struggling with it. Holding my
pack under my right arm, I tried to pull the hatch upwards, but found it would not
budge, and then saw that it was being held down by a parachute pack, the harness
of which went through the gap, and presumably it was somebody’s weight outside in
the slipstream, which was holding it down. A concerted effort on my, and the unknown
person’s part freed the hatch, and the pack whipped through the cavity. I started
to try to hook on my pack to my harness. The string tying the straps in place had
broken, and the straps were hanging behind my back. As I struggled to pull them over
my shoulder to the front, my pack slipped from under my arm, and I could see the
white chute start to billow out into the airstream coming through the open hatch.
I got hold of one hook from the shoulder strap at last, pushed the white silk to
one side, and after what seemed an interminable time, found the corresponding hook
of the pack, and snapped it on to the harness. This had probably all happened in
much less time than it takes to tell, but it seemed that hours must have passed since
we started to go down, and again I panicked, thinking that at any moment we should
hit the deck. I looked up, saw no movement in the navigator’s position, and thought,
‘Thank God, everyone’s gone.’ As I slid through the hatch, feet first, I was immediately
jerked upwards violently, and thought for a moment that my open chute had been caught
on to part of the aircraft. This was not so, however, as the deep roar died rapidly
away, and I looked down to see the last of Victor, both wings on fire, spiral down
and hit the ground with a muffled explosion, about five seconds later.