Russell Margerison was one of hundreds of thousands who volunteered for service in the RAF during World War II, serving as a gunner on a Lancaster bomber. His chances were survival weren’t great, as more than 12,000 RAF Bomber Command aircraft were shot down and 55,573 airmen perished out of a total of 125,000.
The Daily Mail is printing excerpts of Margerison’s book, “Boys at War,” which includes this riveting description of being shot down during a raid on Germany’s Ruhr Valley:
“We were on the return flight, at 23,000ft, when there was a sudden heavy rattle of cannon and vicious, sparkling white tracer whipped through us. The Lanc appeared to stop dead, as if to gasp for breath, then lurched on like a drunken man.
“Both port engines were ablaze and flames spewed back over the port tailplane and fin.
“The firing had lasted for no more than two seconds, but it was more than enough. Down went the nose of the aircraft, the engines screaming in agony, and my head felt as if it was going to burst with the pressure.
“‘Pull the bugger out, pull the bugger out,’ someone shouted, and in reply the aircraft slowly responded.
“‘Feather port engines,’ Max ordered, then immediately: ‘Abandon aircraft. Abandon aircraft.’
“Shocked at the suddenness and speed at which events were moving, I watched as curls of metal rolled off the huge oval tailfin and revealed the framework underneath.
“Off came my gloves. I uncoupled my oxygen supply and electrically heated suit, then vacated the turret in record time.
“The whole fuselage was an inferno. Flames licked at my parachute, which lay on the floor. I grabbed it and with a sharp tug tried to hook it on to the harness I was wearing. I failed.
“Gib, wearing his ‘chute, opened the back door, turned, gave me a thumbs-up and disappeared from sight.
“Smoke and lack of oxygen were making breathing difficult as I tried, and failed, once again to clip on the ‘chute. I leaned against the fuselage side and said aloud: ‘Well, this is it.’
“The heat was intense as I moved nearer the door. Ammunition was exploding. Through holes made by the cannon shells, I could see flames outside.
“‘What the hell am I doing?’ screamed my fogged brain. In sheer desperation, I banged on the ‘chute as I tried to attach it again. This time it stayed on, and I rushed to the door.
“As soon as I poked my head outside, I was whipped out of the plane by a fierce wind. As I floated down I could hear a fighter coming closer and, as his engines became a deafening roar, I tried to curl myself into a little ball. The night was so black I couldn’t see him but, thankfully, the noise faded.
“It was a grim sight, watching our plane curl ever downwards, streaming flame as she went.
“I had seen many go down but this was different. Some of my mates could well be inside this aircraft. The Lanc hit the ground to leave a circle of fire. I turned my head away.”
Margerison would spend weeks on the run with the Belgian underground following his plane’s downing before being captured by the Germans. He eventually returned home to England after the war, still six months short of his 21st birthday.
Some 59 years after being shot down, he returned to the Continent, to visit the Belgians who risked everything to help him.