Crash Positions: Ditching a “Flying Coffin”
17 February 2020
By Gavin Jamieson
One of Great Britain’s most successful oarsmen and controversial coaches during the mid-1900s was Hugh Robert Arthur Edwards (1906–1972), also known as ‘Jumbo’ Edwards. He was an Olympic gold medallist (two gold medals on the same day!), British Empire Games and Henley Royal winner, Oxford Blue and Oxford winning coach. Edwards was also a renowned pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
HTBS is happy to publish the following four-part article written by Gavin Jamieson, who is married to Melissa, granddaughter of Jumbo Edwards. Writing this article, Gavin has accessed the extensive family archives to research the extraordinary life of Edwards. Included in the family archive is an unpublished memoir written by Edwards shortly before his death in 1972. Many of Edward’s personal recollections are included within this article.
Besides publishing this article, the aim of Gavin’s research is to expand the narrative on Jumbo Edwards’s career and to publish a book, encapsulating an eventful life from the Boat Races to the Olympics, from the Battle of the Atlantic to the coaching of Oxford. Gavin would be delighted to receive anecdotes from readers who may have been coached by Jumbo Edwards or had relatives that handed down stories of Edwards’s time in a boat, on the tow path or in the air. He would also be pleased to hear from anyone who expresses an interest in a book dedicated to the exploits of Jumbo Edwards. Gavin can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @gmbjamieson
Sunday: 21st November 1943
Buffeted on the waves of an endless grey expanse of the Atlantic floats a bright yellow inflatable life boat. The nearest land, the Scilly Isles, is 12 miles to the east. There is a solitary bedraggled and sodden figure lying injured and exhausted within the inflatable. Wing Commander Hugh Robert Arthur Edwards struggles to release two flimsy aluminium oars from the on-board supply bags. Edwards begins to row east, fighting against the swell and waves of a wintry Atlantic, leaving behind him an expanding patch of oil and the wreckage of his downed RAF Liberator.
1944 RAF Liberators, Coastal Command. Footage of the Liberator airplane similar to the one flown by Jumbo Edwards.
Eleven years previously, on a sweltering Californian day in August, ‘Jumbo’ Edwards was celebrating his two Olympic gold medals – won within an hour – for the coxless pairs and coxless fours. On that day in 1932, he rowed for national glory and pride. On this late November day, and four days after his 37th birthday, Edwards is rowing for his life and darkness is beginning to fall.
The B-24 Consolidated Liberator that Edwards was piloting had lost power simultaneously to three of its four engines, nose diving into the bitterly cold Atlantic from 300 feet. There had not been time for the crew to issue a mayday. Nobody was aware of the fate of Liberator BZ819 and its crew of eight airmen. There would be no search party until at least 5 hours after their intended arrival back to 53 Squadron and their temporary base at RAF St Eval, Cornwall.
On the previous day, Saturday 20th November, eight B-24 Liberators of 53 Squadron took off from the North Cornish airbase for a destination in the North Atlantic. In mid-afternoon, Squadron Leader K A Aldridge was the first to take-off from St Eval in his Liberator BZ816. This was followed by a further six Liberators at regular time intervals. Finally, at 2312 hours, Liberator BZ819 took to the night sky. On board the Liberator with Edwards were a crew that he had personally chosen as the “best-of-the-best”. The crew were: Flight Officer Alexander Davis (co-pilot), aged 26, of Cricklewood, Middlesex; Flight Lieutenant Francis Halliday (navigator), aged 24, of Toronto, Canada; Flight Lieutenant Bruce Hamilton (radio operator and gunner), aged 22, of Gosforth, Northumberland; Sergeant Stanley Johnson (flight engineer), aged 22, of Harrow, Middlesex; Flight Sergeant William Owen (gunner), aged 23, of Great Crosby, Lancashire; Flight Sergeant George Shield (gunner), aged 23, of Goring-by-Sea, Sussex and; Sergeant Leonard Terry (gunner), age and address unknown.
The mission for 53 Squadron was to rendezvous with a large convoy of 66 Allied ships, escorted by 20 warships, that was carrying vital supplies of food, equipment and raw materials from Port Said, via Gibraltar, to the UK. The escort mission to protect Convoy SL139 would be a round trip of approximately 1,500 miles for the Liberators. Carrying up to 2,500 gallons of fuel, the modified B-24 had an impressive range – about three hours of patrol time after flying 1,000 miles from its base. This made the Liberators the ideal long-range aircraft for escort duty and protection against German attempts to sink Allied shipping.
The Allied convoy had been spotted by the German Luftwaffe as soon as it had entered the Atlantic from the Mediterranean. As a consequence, it was being shadowed by a fearsome U-boat wolfpack. By the late evening of the 20th, the convoy had reached a point approximately 620 miles due west from the north-west tip of Spain. The Liberators of 53 Squadron made radio contact with the convoy and in the early hours of the 21st the collection of Allied ships reported the comforting sight of the planes a few hundred feet above the Allied ships.
At 0400 hours on the morning of the 21st, the crew of BZ819 obtained a radar contact on one of the U-boats that had surfaced close to the convoy. The heart of the Liberator’s anti-submarine capabilities was its microwave radar equipment, known as the Airborne Surface Vessel Detection ten-millimetre (ASV–10) radar. A skilful operator could identify a surfaced submarine at more than 40 miles and a conning tower at 15 to 20 miles.
Edwards brought the Liberator down to 50 feet above the ink-black expanse of the Atlantic. When the plane had reached the limits of the radar, and a kilometre from the target, the order was made to switch on the Leigh light. This 24-inch and 22-million candlepower spotlight, fitted to the underside of the starboard wing, lit up the churning ocean. In the distance the outline of the 220-foot U-648 was detected. The downside of the Leigh light was that the illuminated U-boat was now aware of the approach of the Liberator, and under the command of Leutnant zur See Peter-Arthur Stahl, the German vessel was quick to man the anti-aircraft gun. A few hours previously, and unknown to Edwards, Squadron Leader Aldridge had also identified U-648 with his Leigh light equipped Liberator. Aldridge’s aircraft had already performed one run towards the U-boat and coming around for a second attack it was shot down about 1,000 metres from the submarine by the quadruple 20mm anti-aircraft gun. Aldridge’s Liberator, in a trail of fire and smoke, plummeted into the ocean. All nine crewmen were lost.
Edwards continued to steer his plane towards the U-boat when tracer fire from the upper turret of the Liberator temporarily blinded him. Simultaneously the U-boat opened fire from its anti-aircraft gun. Edwards yelled to the bombardier to release the depth charges and then pulled back desperately on the yoke, whilst putting the plane into full throttle. As the Liberator thundered away from the U-boat the depth charges exploded at a depth of 25 metres.
They were not accurate enough to cause significant damage to Stahl’s vessel. The U-boat slipped back under the waves, and Edwards returned to the Allied convoy.
Not long after this return to the skies above the convoy, the Liberator picked up a further radar contact. Once more the crew manoeuvred the plane into position to attack another of the surfaced wolfpack. Edwards brought the plane down to 50 feet and this time the U-boat that was targeted was U-967, commandeered by Oberleutnant zur See Herbert Loeder. Edwards issued the command to switch on the Leigh light and ready the depth charges. The spotlight failed to switch on. The Liberator had been damaged by the anti-aircraft fire from the previous encounter. Without the illumination provided by the spotlight there was nothing Edwards could do other than to abort the attack and return to escort duty.
At 0800 hours, as weak Winter daylight began to filter through the thick cloud cover, Edwards left the convoy and the navigator plotted a course due north east to return to England. The fuel level was sufficient to fly the 700 miles, or so, back to RAF St Eval, but as with all these Atlantic missions the plane would be returning with very little fuel left from the mission. It was a cold, grey, November day and due to the low cloud level Edwards had to fly only a few hundred feet from the tops of the Atlantic waves to ensure that there was sufficient visibility and to avoid any chance encounter with enemy aircraft.
Six hours into the return flight, and only 20 miles from reaching the Scilly Isles, Alex Davies left his co-pilot seat and clambered down to the bomb bay. A decision had been made to transfer fuel from an auxiliary tank to the main fuel tanks. The crew began to flip the fuel switches to manage the flow.
Almost at once, the Liberator shuddered violently.
Three of the four engines ceased working, though the propellers kept rotating in the headwind. With an altitude of only 300 feet there was no time at all to make any desperate attempt to restart the engines. At a speed of 120mph, the 17-ton Liberator went into a lurching nosedive towards the ocean. Crucially there was also no time to reduce the speed and lower the flaps, no time to issue a distress signal, no time to pull the lever in the fuselage that would automatically inflate and jettison the life rafts.
All that there was time for was one frantic yelled command from Edwards: “Crash positions”.
The U.S.-built Liberator was first adopted by RAF Coastal Command in 1941. The high cruise speed, long range and heavy bomb load made it an ideal plane for operating over the Atlantic for U-boat hunting and convoy escort duty. However, it soon gained the ominous nickname of the ‘flying coffin’ both for its rather rectangular looks and, more darkly, for its limited options of exiting the plane in the event of a crash. The U.S. Army Air Forces soon gathered statistics on the Liberator and its performance in a sea ditching: two-thirds of the planes broke up on impact.
Although it was only a matter of seconds before Liberator BZ819 was to hit the Atlantic, the term ‘flying coffin’ would have crossed the panicked minds of the eight-man crew.
The Liberator hit the ocean nose first. The plane snapped in two with the rear portion of the fuselage breaking off aft of the bomb bay. The windscreen shattered instantaneously, and a surge of freezing cold seawater swept into the cockpit. The tumultuous noise of shattered metal and machinery was quickly replaced by silence. Without a sealed fuselage, Liberators would sink instantly. Miraculously, the front portion of the Liberator was still floating on top of the waves – thanks to the fact that the wings were still attached. However, it would surely be only a matter of minutes, if not seconds, before the ocean would claim the entirety of the plane. Edwards managed to release his seat belt and desperately clambered through the smashed frame of the cockpit and up on to the roof of the plane. Bloodied, soaking and panicked, the only instinct was to get out. Wearing heavy flying jackets and multiple layers, the Atlantic would soon drag them down. The crew were wearing ‘Mae West’ lifejackets, but these required the wearer to release a valve to inflate the lifejacket.
Edwards emerged onto the top of the fuselage just as the rear section sank below the waves. As there had been no time, the internal overhead lever to release and inflate the two life rafts had not been pulled. Edwards would have to deploy the life rafts manually. This involved turning the raft-release levers located on the top of the fuselage and then clambering to the wings to free the now exposed life rafts from their cradles. This was a difficult enough manoeuvre when practiced on a Liberator parked up on a runway, but now this vital task had to be completed on a fast sinking plane with waves sweeping over the slippery metal of the broken fuselage. At this point, as Edwards frantically made his way to the release levers, he was aware that three of his crew had made it out of the gaping hole that was once the cockpit: Bruce Hamilton, William Owen and George Shield. They were all bloodied and injured, clinging to the plane and unable to assist, with their only hope resting with Edwards and the successful deployment of the life rafts.
As Edwards reached the lever his mind was trying to recall the instructions that were held within his well-thumbed operator’s manual:
“LIFE RAFTS. Two Type A-2 life rafts are carried in the fuselage above the wing between Stations 4.2 and 4.4. To release either raft from inside the airplane, pull the ‘T’ handle at the centre of the airplane on the upper part of the forward face of bulkhead at Station 4.0. On B-240 No. 41-23640 and on, the ‘T’ handle is located immediately aft of the top escape hatch. The pull cable releases the lock pins holding the life raft doors closed and allows the spring bungee to throw the raft out, clear of the fuselage. A rip cord attached to the raft cradle automatically opens the valve which controls the raft inflation from the CO2 bottle. To release either raft from outside the airplane, the lever flush in the fuselage aft of each door should be lifted up and twisted 90 degrees. This action pulls the same cable that attaches to the ‘T’ handle on the inside and releases the raft in the same manner as described above. Do not release rafts until plane is at rest in the water.”
Edwards reached the first lever. At any moment, with the ocean continuing to rush into the broken fuselage, the remains of the plane were sure to sink. The freezing water continued to pound over the stricken Liberator but, with immense difficulty, the lever was lifted up and rotated. The door to the life raft cradle sprung open. But that was all. The life raft remained in the cradle uninflated. Frantically, Edwards manoeuvred himself towards the location of the second release lever. Once more the release lever was located and with hands numbed by the freezing water the lever was turned. This was the last chance for survival. The second cradle sprung open. The life raft, as with the first, remained uninflated.
The damage caused by the ditching was preventing the spring bungee from releasing the raft. With one final effort, Edwards pulled desperately on the trapped life raft. With more of a whimper than the expected explosion, the life raft emerged from its cradle but without the energy required for the CO2 canister to work fully – it only partially inflated the rubber cavity. However, it offered hope. Again, relying on his pilot training and a memory of the manual, Edwards pulled with what strength he had remaining on the rip cord. A further release of carbon dioxide provided some further inflation to the life raft, but it was not sufficient for any kind of buoyancy. There was only one further means of inflating the life raft and this was a top-up valve to which a hand operated concertina-type inflation bellows could be attached. Edwards located the bellows and managed to attach them to the valve. He had only a matter of minutes before the Liberator would disappear for good. Working desperately, Edwards could only hope that his three friends would be able to cling on to the fuselage. It would take a further 5 minutes before the life raft could be inflated enough to provide any kind of sea worthiness. Fully rigged, but near total exhaustion, Edwards turned back to help his injured crew into the raft.
They were not there. All that could be seen on the waves surrounding the stricken wreckage was a growing patch of black oil. Edwards yelled out but there was to be no reply, no cries of help.
Edwards clambered into the life raft just as the front portion of the Liberator sunk, serenely, into the Atlantic. Edwards manoeuvred the life raft in circles, calling out and frantically looking for any of the crew in the hope that they had managed to inflate their Mae Wests. By this time, darkness had now descended. His crew, his friends, had gone. In this despair it was only then that the agonising pain of his injuries hit home. Edwards had suffered five broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
With no further options available, Wing Commander Edwards, double Olympic champion and Oxford Blue, looked at the compass and took a bearing. He began to row east.
It was common knowledge amongst the Coastal Command aircrew during the Second World War that the chances of surviving in an inflatable life raft (assuming one made a successful ditching) in the North Atlantic were very slim. By the end of hostilities, 53 Squadron had lost a total of 13 Liberators, 107 crew, in incidents of ditching at sea. Not including Edwards, no aircrew had survived. In fact, only two bodies had ever been accounted for – one washed up on the shoreline of France, the other in Spain. Regarding the particular area of the Atlantic that the BZ819 Liberator ditched in, 17 Allied aircraft came down within a 70-mile vicinity of the Scilly Isles. Of these 17 aircraft, 83 crew were involved. Excluding Edwards, no one had survived. The odds of survival were very grim.
Within the life raft, Edwards would have had very limited supplies or equipment. A typical life raft would be stocked with the aluminium oars (some had a basic sail and mast), a few cans of fresh water, chocolate, a puncture repair kit, compass, the pump that Edwards had already put to use, a tin of brightly coloured dye to sprinkle on the water to attract the attention of any planes flying above, and a flare gun. Edwards knew roughly his position when the Liberator ditched, 12 miles West North West of Longships Lighthouse on the Scilly Isles, and there was only one option – to row towards land.
The late November afternoon sunlight had disappeared and with the thick cloud cover there was little moonlight and no sign of the stars. The temperature was soon below zero degrees and the only sound was that of the waves. Occasionally the engine drone of a high-altitude plane would be heard, but with the low cloud level the chance of being spotted was nigh on impossible. Edwards continued to try and row using the limited capabilities of the aluminium oars.
Part II will be published tomorrow.