Harrowing wartime tale of Eastbourne airman shot down over Atlantic
IN THE first of a series of interviews with local veterans, Herald reporter Richard Morris speaks to George Robertson about being shot down by the German Navy and clinging to life 800 miles from safety.
GEORGE Robertson can probably lay claim to being the luckiest man in Eastbourne.
He might not be a lottery winner but the sprightly 91-year-old owes his life to a string of good fortune after a plane he was in was shot down by a German U-boat 800 miles from the nearest friendly coast.
With some of his crew already dead, Mr Robertson and his comrades clung to an inflatable dinghy in the hope Allied Forces would respond to their frantic SOS call and send a rescue squad.
That rescue never came – leaving Mr Robertson and his five crew mates drifting aimlessly aboard the life raft. For 12 days.
During that time he would experience near delirium, survive on the occasional Horlicks tablet, battle to stay afloat during sky-high waves, see his raft threatened by giant whales and schools of dolphins and put together a makeshift sail out of a patchwork of RAF uniforms.
But, as he explained from the armchair of his Meads Road home, he certainly didn’t anticipate the drama which was to come when he set off aboard his aircraft just before midday on September 27, 1943.
“We had been allotted the squadron’s newest Mark VIII Halifax,” he recalled, “and learnt at the briefing that instead of making the usual trip into the Bay of Biscay we were to proceed on a south-westerly course into the Atlantic.
“Our patrol was extremely uneventful. It was a gift of a trip really and I was happy at the thought that there was no likelihood of our being jumped by Ju88s.”
Another member of the crew, 19-year-old Bob Triggal, also had good reason to be thankful the flight was fairly low-risk. It was his first time up in the air outside training exercises. However, the fledgling sergeant would not make it back.
Having just turned to head home, the Halifax caught sight of a U-Boat and went in for the kill.
The German submarine was sunk – but not before its gunners landed a hail of bullets on the underside of the plane. Within seconds a straight-forward mission had turned into an emergency and Mr Robertson and his crew mates had to prepare for a crash landing at sea.
“Within seconds the wing was a raging inferno with the fire spreading to the fuel tanks and breaking out in the fuselage,” remembered Mr Robertson.
“The skipper was calling ‘...ditching stations – we’re going straight in’.
“I have only a hazy recollection of stumbling back to my ditching position, having seen the starboard wing breaking up and drifting away in blazing chunks.
“When in my position I caught a momentary glimpse of Bob, making his way forward after evacuating his rear turret. He had nearly reached his ditching position when we made the first impact with the water. The rear section of the aircraft disintegrated, Bob with it.”
Plunged into the cold water, Mr Robertson said the initial reaction was one of relief – with the sea providing a respite from the heat of the flames.
However, shock soon set in, and having wrestled a rescue pack from the wreck of the now battered Halifax, the flight team soon realised a second person had lost his life, Sergeant Taffy Griffiths.
The U-Boat sank without a trace, leaving the half a dozen men sat in the life raft, faced with little more than the vast expanses of the Atlantic.
It was then that the very real task of staying alive long enough to be found first reared its head. What few rations they had (some small water containers and a pack of Horlicks tablets) were quickly laid out – with the team deciding not to break into the stash for at least two days, as per RAF guidelines.
That first evening they all suffered from extreme seasickness after swallowing bucketfuls of sea water, but it soon dawned on the crew that an upset stomach would be the least of their worries.
Although at times the sea was “as calm as a mill pond,” Mr Robertson said that more often than not it took up all their strength to stay inside the dinghy.
“The seas were mountainous and we were surrounded by enormous waves continuously swamping us. We tied ourselves to the dinghy. It did not seem possible that we could survive those conditions. [At times] it took all our effort to breathe.”
The crew had earlier narrowly avoided a collision with a passing whale, which Mr Robertson believes would have wrecked the inflatable and left them facing almost certain death.
In fact, by that time the pensioner’s family had already begun fearing the worst after receiving a telegram from the RAF reporting he had been shot down.
When they were finally rescued – having been spotted by a small Naval convoy who happened to be taking an unusual route back from an operation – it was not until the following morning that he actually realised he was safe.
“I remember knowing I was being put on a stretcher but I was delusional by then,” Mr Robertson explained. “A few days before I had thought I was on a cruise – things were very hazy.
“I must have been passed out when they saw the ship because I remember being woken up. It was our Flight Sergeant Ken Ladds.
“The night before we left we had been having a drink and I didn’t want another one. When we crashed he said to me, ‘I bet you wish you had had that beer now’.
“When I came round in the dinghy, Ken said to me ‘You’ll be able to have that beer now Bobby’.”
The drifters had been picked up by HMS Mahratta and, after a few days being weaned back onto solid food, Mr Robertson began to recover.
His story was featured on the front page of that week’s Daily Mail and he was treated like a VIP wherever he went.
However, though relieved to have been rescued, his euphoria was tinged with sadness by the news HMS Mahratta had gone down on her very next voyage – with only seven survivors.
“They were great chaps, brilliant men and it was hard to take in the fact that all those men who had been so kind and caring towards us such a short time earlier, had now perished.
“For me, that was one of the blackest days of the war.”