Another Bridge Too Far

Flight Engineer, 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit, 295 Squadron, 570 Squadron, 299 Squadron

Tom was a flight engineer in the RAF flying first on Short Sunderland flying boats and then Stirlings. This story was sent for use on our website by Peter Harvey of Keighley & District Model Aircraft Club, where Tom was also a member. Tom’s Stirling LJ 896 of 299 Squadron was shot down during a raid on Rees, Germany on 21/22 February 1945. One of four survivors, Tom baled out and made his way to the Rhine, to reach Allied forces on the Dutch side.

March 1943 and my first travel warrant was to Kings Cross and thence to St Johns Wood and Lords Cricket Ground. This in itself was an experience; I don’t think I had ever been further than Southport in my life.

I was there only just long enough to receive my inoculations and vaccinations, which put me in Abbey Lodge Hospital with Vaccine Fever and Hospital Blue.

I was then posted to Cranwell to further my education. This was as a result of string pulling by my Bingley A.T.C. C/O who had been a pilot in the 1914-1818 war and subsequently attained Air Rank. While there, I did some 10 hours on Tiger Moths (Solo’d in 8) and scrounged rides in various other aircraft including Ansons, Oxfords, Proctors etc. However it was eventually discovered that I had never been to Initial Training Wing so in September 1943 I was posted to No.21 I.T.W Torquay to be knocked into shape.

After 12 weeks I was given my first leave some nine months after joining. I was then posted to No.4 School of Technical Training, St Athans, South Wales to learn my trade – Flight Engineer. I was selected to train on Sunderland Flying Boats – not a lot of time to spare here although I did manage to get a ride in a Beaufighter on test from the M/U. I also managed to hook up the ripcord of my parachute on exiting the aircraft – cost me 2/6d. (Perhaps about £5 in 2019 money – Ed)

In between classroom work I went to on courses to Bristol’s at Filton to study the finer points of the Hercules and to Shorts at Rochester for hands-on training and my first flight in a Sunderland. On completion of my course at St Athans I received my three stripes and my engineer’s brevet and a posting to 9(O) AFU Penrhos, North Wales for the compulsory Gunnery Course. Technical Training had taken just over 8 months. It was now early August 1944 and a posting to 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit, Tilstock in Shropshire to be crewed up. A quick look at the map – NO WATER HERE. Sitting on the dispersal pads were scores of clapped out war-weary Mk I and II Short Stirlings.

Crewing up was a very casual affair. Crews were complete except for the flight engineers. My new crew had completed half their tour on Albemarles with 295 Squadron based at Harwell, dropping arms to the Maquis in southern France and supply drops to the S.O.E. The skipper, as did most others, found the conversion to Stirlings a bit daunting, twice the size of anything he had ever flown and with a vicious swing on take-off. However, after only 8 hours 15 minutes day and 7 hours night flying, we were considered ready to go. Back with 295 at Harwell, re-equipped with factory-fresh Short Stirling Mk IV. We were kept busy glider towing, paratroop dropping and generally getting used to the job.

My first operation was on the night of 17 th September. We were slightly annoyed that we had not been selected to tow gliders to Arnhem that morning. Take-off 21.00hrs. Ops Pistol III southern France, Dijon area. 5hrs 40 minutes.

On crossing the coast we encountered heavy flak and were hit amidships severing the hydraulic pipe lines to the rear gun turret – incidentally our only armament on Stirling IV. I managed to repair this with a few jubilee clips and some rubber tubing from my toolkit and the coffee from our
Thermos flasks. I thought a D.F.M. at least. My engineer leader recommendations fell on deaf ears. Instead I got a strip torn off by the C.T.O.

Three ops in quick succession to Arnhem Market III (Paratroops) on the 19 th September, followed by Market IV and V re-supply on the 21 st and 22 nd .

In early November, some of my crew had finished their tour of operations and I was posted to 570 Sn Rivenhall on a temporary basis, until joining 299 Special Duties Squadron and Flight Commander Sqn Leader Spear at Shepherds Grove, Suffolk. SOE operations followed, mostly low-level, carried out individually on moonlit nights, as navigation was all D.R. and map-reading, to southern France, the Alps, Holland and Norway. The latter codenamed Doomsday.

By mid-January the requirement for S.O.E operations on the continent
was beginning to ease off and operations to Norway were hampered by
severe weather conditions. The airborne assault in the Rhine was some way off. We were kicking our heels and Group had the bright idea that with our experience on accurate low level flying and the fact that the Stirling was by far the most manoeuvrable of the heavy bomber, we could be
usefully employed on close support and special low-level bombing operations.

21 st February 1945 – my 27 th op. Briefing 1400 hrs Target ‘REES’ in the Ruhr Valley – a busy river crossing point, 3 bridges, barge traffic and major railway marshalling yards. Take off time 18.30. Six aircraft were detailed, each carrying twenty four 500lb G/P bombs to be released at half-second intervals. Aircraft to be over target at 5 minute intervals at 7,000 feet. This wasn’t low-level ? (Would be a piece of cake – a picnic – we were told) We were to be the first away with 5G-C Charlie, a converted Mk III which we had never flown before. Our own aircraft 5G-G George went u/s on airtest the previous day. It was squadron procedure to conduct an air test prior to an operation and as C-Charlie had not been air tested, the skipper suggested that we should all go out to the aircraft
earlier than we would normally do to give her a thorough going-over. He also insisted that we should all exchange our parachutes, despite our protests that we had done so only two weeks earlier and we didn’t have all that much time to spare. The procedure was to pull the ripcord on handing it over to the WAAF Packer in the parachute section. The navigator’s didn’t work.

We took off on time – visibility was near perfect – climbing steadily as we crossed the coast at Orford Ness and droned our way cross the North Sea to Schouwen Island and the Dutch coast. We were dead on course, engines were running sweetly, the familiar patchwork of Holland sliding below in the moonlight as we made our way to Eindhoven. Here we altered course to the north to bring us towards the target area with 45 miles to run and 16 minutes to target. At this point the skipper asked for 2400rpm + 2 boost, pitch levers fully up fine, mixture normal, this gave more control response. I also at this stage selected main fuel tanks to all engines in case we should have to take evasive action. Our IAS was 155 mph.

On intercom ”Navigator to Skipper – 5 minutes to enemy lines”.

“Skipper to crew – keep a good look out, seems unusually quiet, could be
fighters about”

“Navigator to Skipper – alter course 070deg. 15 miles to run”.

At this time the Rhine was clearly visible in the moonlight like a big silver ribbon. Some light anti-aircraft fire and the odd searchlight was also visible but well to the north of us. Gabby Allen, our Aussie bomb aimer who had been down in his position for quite some time map reading readying his
equipment, requested bomb doors open. I flicked the switch and the green light came on. Almost immediately, light and medium anti-aircraft shells were bursting around us. The skipper took evasive action, however evasive action doesn’t stop you flying into a shell burst, which we did. The port outer first poured black smoke, then flames. I shut off the fuel cock and closed the throttle whilst the skipper pressed the fire extinguisher button. I feathered the prop. The fire went out but by this time, half the cowling had gone. We managed to escape the immediate are and the skipper asked for a damage report. Apart from a few shrapnel hols everything seemed to check out. The controls were OK and no-one seemed to be injured. I took this opportunity to clip on my parachute. We came round again, quite tight this time with the intention of dropping our bombs and then diving down to come out on the deck. As we approached the target for the second time, a blue radar controlled master searchlight
beam latched onto us. Geordie, our gunner, opened fire and the blue beam slowly faded away but not before we were coned by 4 or five white searchlights (we were very vulnerable at this height). The target was dead ahead and we had to keep straight and level. A shell burst immediately under us. The aircraft reared like a bucking bronco. The skipper immediately pulled the bomb jettison toggle – I turned to look over my shoulder and could see just a flicker of flame in the centre section, but before I had even time to get out of my seat I could see the extent of the damage. We must have taken a direct hit. A couple of bombs still in the rack, had punched a hole clean through the floor. The starboard inner engine was on fire and the fuel balance pipes in the centre section were pouring burning 100 octane fuel. The whole cockpit was bathed in an eerie red glow, reflected back from the windscreens. I was still on the intercom and the skipper, who was desperately trying to maintain control, gave the order to abandon a/c. It was obvious it was becoming impossible. He shouted at me to go – “get out”. I wasted no time descending the two steps into the nose section where the front escape hatch was located. The wireless operator and navigator were already down there, both miraculously unscathed. The bomb aimer was very badly wounded and while he was getting attention I kicked open the hatch catch bar to release the hatch. The noise and debris took us all by surprise. All three of us then eased the bomb aimer through the escape hatch and out into the night. My turn next – someone gave me a push – when I hit the slipstream it was like being hit by an express train. I felt like my whole body was being torn apart. Then oblivion. My next recollection was gently swinging under the open canopy, the ripcord still in my hand. Apart from the occasional flash and muffled explosion, of some distant flack shell, there was an eerie uneasy silence. The heavily wooded snow covered ground silhouetted in the bright moonlight which for most of the descent had appeared stationary, suddenly rushed up to meet me, and I hit with a force that knocked the breath out of me. After what appeared to be ages, but was
probably only minutes, I had recovered sufficiently to remove my chute and harness, which I then hid in a nearby hedge bottom. There was no sound of life anywhere, so I set off to put as much distance as possible between myself and the immediate area. Almost at once I realised I had badly sprained or broken my ankle. Eventually, tired, hungry and very cold, I decided to find somewhere to hide. Fog was beginning to form when I took shelter in a small thicket. It was just past midnight. I ate some chocolate and raisins and smoked a cigarette, then settled down for the night. At first light, still shrouded in fog, I ventured out but it wasn’t until around 11 o’clock when the fog began to lift that I was able to get a clearer picture of my surroundings. With these visual observations and together with the map and compass from my escape kit, I decided my most likely position was in the triangle formed by Emerick in the north, Wesel in the south and Bocholt further to the east. As the day wore on I was becoming increasingly restless, but I knew I had to wait until dark before moving on.

I set off in what I thought was the direction of the Rhine. I had been walking for well over an hour and beginning to think the original estimate of my position was wrong, when there, only 100 or so yards away, was the railway line I was hoping for. I was only a few straight miles from the Rhine which I was anxious to cross as soon as possible. After heading west down the track for approximately a couple of miles, I was beginning to feel rather conspicuous in the open countryside, so I left the railway and picked up a dirt road going in the same direction. The going here was easier and I walked well into the night, only stopping occasionally to rest my ankle. Eventually the road veered to the right, away from the railway, and not wishing to lose it, I climbed back up the embankment and continued walking along the track. After only a very short time as my eyes focussed in the dark, I could make the shape of a bridge. By this time my legs were beginning to give way under me and it took all my energy to slide down the embankment where I curled up under some bushes. It was almost 3 o’clock and I had been walking for nearly nine hours; cold and exhausted, I dozed off. I awoke before dawn, stiff and cold. It had begun to rain and was thick in fog. It was obvious I must find somewhere better
to shelter. I remembered I had passed a rail workers cabin a short distance down the line.

It was getting daylight by this time but shrouded by the fog I made my way back. Once inside out of the rain I settled down for the day and in comparative comfort. I ate what was left of my raisins and chocolate and took some painkillers from my escape kit. The fog lifted a little but it rained hard all day. I was very reluctant to leave when darkness fell. Walking was a little easier as I had found a shovel handle in the cabin which made an ideal walking stick. The rain stopped and I retraced my track towards the river bridge. As I approached, I could hear a great deal of vehicular activity and noise. I had no alternative but to turn north across open country. The field were pockmarked with hundreds of deep potholes. Everywhere mud and slush. I skirted a small town to my left and soon afterwards came to the remnants of what must have been part of a major rail network. I followed the remains of a main road leading off to the left, hoping it would lead me to the river. At last, there in front of me was the skeleton of a once massive bridge. It was a zone of concentrated destruction. The river was wider than I had expected and looked black, deep and very cold. Around the base of the bridge tower was a substantial concrete and steel fender tapering off to the left to a large paved yard, and what appeared to be a maintenance depot. Protruding at an angle from this were a number of moles. It was against one of these that that I found a small flat-bottomed boat – just what was needed to propel myself around the base of the bridge tower and along the lee side of the heavy steel beams – some of which still protruded above the water. Almost half way across the river with the current continually pounding the boat against the beams, I was completely exhausted. The boat out of control went swinging and swirling with the current. Eventually the river swung away to the right and by some miracle I found myself drifting towards a breakwater, lying in the mud, shivering, battered, bruise, and soaked to the skin.

I was on the other side.

I was very relieved – it would have been an anti-climax to drown. It was quite some time before I had the strength to climb the steep muddy bank. This done, I walked long into the night before seeking shelter in a wood. I don’t remember dozing off – must have been all-in. It was broad daylight when I woke. It was raining steadily and I was stiff and cold, and my watch had stopped. I ate some concentrated chocolate and some Horlicks tablets from my kit, although I didn’t feel very hungry – I would have much sooner had a smoke but my cigarettes and matches were soaking wet. In all, I spent a very miserable day. It was still raining when I moved off. Having previously studied my map, I decided to head south-west. I had not long been out of the wood when I encountered a railway and canal running parallel to each other and I was fortunate in soon finding a place to cross. It was still raining and by now most of the low-lying fields were flooded. Plodding through the mud was playing havoc with my ankle and it was a struggle to make any sort of headway. I found a reasonably dry pace to hide in a dark wood. It was around midnight. I didn’t sleep that night – the continuous soaking was beginning to take effect. I ate some more Horlicks tablets – not because I was hungry but to pass the time away. It seemed the night would never end – morning at last – it had stopped raining. The dank misty stillness was almost frightening. This was the Reichswald Forest, a vast area of pine trees. I decided to move on as I could see no point in waiting until darkness. The pine trees were so dense, the daylight hardly seemed to penetrate. I made reasonably good progress – the thick layer of pine needles were much kinder to my ankle than the sticky mud of the past couple of nights. It was probably around noon when I first heard gunfire somewhere in the distance, spasmodic at first, then gradually getting nearer and becoming more intense. I didn’t move for some time, then even nearer still, I could hear the unmistakeable clanking and screeching of tanks coming in my direction. I took cover in some dense undergrowth. Within a very short time, scores of German light tanks and armoured vehicles were in full retreat some 200 yards away on a roadway of which I had been unaware. As the afternoon wore on, vehicles gave way to groups of dishevelled infantrymen. During the night the barrage started again, shells and tracer screaming overhead in a continuous onslaught. By dawn, vehicles were again driving down the road, but this time with a big white star on the side. I made my way to the roadside – hands above my head – shouting “R.A.F” – “R.A.F” .

Eventually a Jeep slowed down and a big burly Canadian hoisted me over the side.

He didn’t say a great deal during the very bumpy ride into Goch. Here I was taken to the 1 st Canadian Army Command Post in the cellar of a ruined house. The lieutenant who interviewed me was not very impressed when I gave him only my Number, Rank and Name. When I showed him the route I had taken he told me that I had just walked through a minefield!

After a mug of tea and a cigarette, and a thorough warming, it was off to a field hospital where it was decided to stretcher me the 45 miles to Eindhoven. Three days later I was put on a Dakota to Wroughton in Wiltshire for further treatment. From here it was back to Shepherds Grove and 299 Squadron and a spot of leave. Of the six aircraft participating, five were shot down over or near the target area. The sixth was shot down by an intruder when coming in to land back at base with the loss of the air gunner.

Of my crew:
Pilot – Squadron Leader Spear DFC, DFM.ADC. Killed.
Gunner – Flight Sergeant Geordie Wilkinson. Killed.
Bomb Aimer- Flying Officer Gabby Allen. Taken prisoner.
Wireless Operator – Flight Lieutenant Jock Henderson. Taken prisoner.
Navigator – Flying Officer Dave Saunders. Evaded capture.
Flight Engineer – Flight Sergeant Tom Toll. Evaded capture.
Sqn Ldr Spear and F/S Wilson are both buried in Reichswald War Cemetery, Kleve, Germany.

I was on leave when on the 24 th March 1945 it was announced on the BBC News Bulletin the Operation Varsity, the airborne assault on the Rhine, had taken place involving 2931 aircraft and gliders (I had already been there). Back from leave ans a new crew. First flight 31 st March. Not allowed on Ops. It was transport work and testing only. As soon as the war in Europe was over, we flew regular flights to Oslo, Prague and Germany on a regular schedule (Mail runs). By the end of August 1945 we had converted to the ultimate version of the Stirling, the Mk.V, a civil freight/passenger variant, 40 plus passengers plus freight, operating regular scheduled flights to India.

My final flight in the RAF was on the 19 th February 1946.



Over the past 60 years the role of the Royal Air Force has been repeatedly analysed and questioned on moral grounds by a generation who were probably not even born until after 1945.

When the fighting was over as well as cruel and uncaring the world men returned to seemed harshly ungrateful, what they had done did not seem to matter. Whilst the powers that be decided that aircrew ranks were for wartime protection only and that flying was not considered to be a trade and for those who were allowed to stay in the RAF had to take a drastic cut in status.

The coldly bureaucratic demotion of men who had served their country was a shabby chapter in the history of the RAF.

The psychology of switching from flying in an offensive which was vital to victory, to being downgraded so that one could be ordered to do this and that by a corporal who had never flown in his life, was devastating and humiliating.

A leading barrister who flew as a navigator on operational raids said in court “I could not now ever recommend anyone to volunteer for dangerous duties in the service of Great Britain without warning him that once his usefulness was over, he must expect to be treated as surplus to requirements. On the scrap heap.“

I leave you to form your own conclusions.

It was strange way of life to protect a way of living.

However after saying this all this I have no regrets. I was just grateful to have survived.

I was one of the lucky ones.