World War Two - ATTACHED to 19 group of Coastal and equipped with a twin-engine Whitley aircraft, these embryo crews did much to help with the daily battles. They had a few successes, helped keep the U-boats occupied and slowed down, and lost several crews. One such loss occurred on June 14, 1943, when this RAF crew failed to make it back to England.
Australian Sergeant Arthur ‘Buzz’ Benson, from Inverell at the time, now a Crookwell resident, was 23 when he and his crew went to Costal.
His crew consisted of fellow Australian Sergeant RL ‘Bob’ Rennick (second Pilot), Pilot Officer Tom JJ Lee (navigator). Sergeant F Cock, Sergeant George T Graves and Canadian Flying Officer Alan Kingsley.
Their first operation came in May, the first of seven trips in all, yet on those sorties they saw and attacked three U-boats.
The first they spotted on May 30, attacked, but unfortunately Cock selected the wrong button and let all the depth charges go at once with them all falling behind the sub. The seventh and last patrol came on June 14.
It was a period when the U-boat crews were told to stay on the surface and fight back if attacked rather than crash-dive do Coastal crews knew they would have to face flak fire as they raced in at low level.
Coastal had selected two main patrol areas in the Bay of Biscay at this stage.
The German submarine U 564 had sailed from Bordeaux on June 9 and was heading out into the Atlantic for its tenth war patrol. It had already sank 33 Allied Ships. It was opne of five subs going out together and their tactic was if attacked their combined defensive would protect them all. The group of subs were located and attacked by a Sunderland of 228 Squadron on the evening of June 13. The U 564 was damaged but the RAF flying boat was shot down and the crew was killed.
Because of the damage to U 564 from the attack it was forced to turn back to port with one of the other boats U 185 escorting her.
The Sunderland’s crew radioed the U-boats position before their fatal attack and their approximate location was then known.
Benson and his crew flew into the area half way across Musketry in which the two U-boats heading east were situated.
Arthur Benson recalls:
“Our orders were to stay in the pack if we sighted one, as Mosquito aircraft would be cruising in the blockade area to attack with bombs and canons. It all sounded easy but there was one thing that was not taken into consideration and that was the very likely occurrence of a flight of Ju88 fighters being homed in on to us whilst we were shadowing the pack. All of the hazards that fronted a Whitley during a mission down in the Bay, that was one foremost in my mind, so the thought of waiting around for any length of time did not appeal.”
"However, after about two hours' flying we encountered ideal flying conditions for submarine hunting: quite heavy clouds down to about 2,000 feet where we could keep the Whitley at cloud base; even up in the bottom clouds for a period, then drop down to have a look, then up again. It gave you a chance of not being seen by any enemy aircraft that may be in the area as well as giving you the opportunity to spot any U-boats that may be travelling on the surface from a long range, without them seeing you.
"We always flew a long 'V' from Bishop's Rock and were just about at the end of the 'V' when we sighted two U-boats travelling in an easterly direction."
There were nine Whitley aircraft from 10 OTU operating over the Bay this
morning, the first having flown off at 0800, the last at 0949.
Tom Lee remembers:
"Monday 14 June began as any other operational day at St Eval. A very early call, breakfast, transport from our billet (in a small hotel) to the airfield, briefing, preparation of flight plans etc., and finally our journey to the Whitley. One deviation from the norm was that our bomb aimer, Sergeant Cock, had reported sick and would not be flying with us today.
"The only other special factor was that this was to be our last trip with Coastal Command as we would be enjoying a week's leave as from the 15th, prior to reporting to a Conversion Unit to go on to four-engined aeroplanes. We took off with the others of the Squadron, at 0949, on a course for Bishop's Rock where we were to fan out so that we could patrol the Bay on parallel north to south lines, returning on reciprocal courses.
"The outward journey was uneventful until we reached the southern reaches of the Bay and were contemplating our return home. I was actually working out our new course when Buzz Benson and Bob Rennick spotted two white wakes on the horizon. Buzz decided to have a closer look and gradually we were aware that there were two submarines 'steaming' alongside each other and on the surface. We descended so as to obtain a close-up view when we noticed small puffs of white smoke above and around us. Obviously AA fire. We soon got ourselves out of range and were now convinced that we had found two U-boats. We commenced homing procedure to bring in other aircraft and kept well out of range of the U-boats' guns."
Arthur Benson continues:
"It had been my intention if we sighted U-boats to attack right away, rather than hang around and have 88s hone in on us. Attacks with depth charges had to be made at low level and slow speed. Too much speed at low level would have the effect of causing the charges to skip across the water when released, and too much height might split the casing open. The pilot released the charges by pressing a trip attached to the top of the control column. The idea was to undershoot with the first D/C and the remaining five would fall in a line 20 feet apart and be fired by water pressure which activated fuses at a set depth, usually about 20 to 25 feet.
"As the U-boats were travelling from west to east we decided to attack from the south in a northerly direction, with the intention of spreading the six D/Cs across both of them, as opposed to attacking from stern to bow as in the case of single attacks. We started our run-in from about ten miles out as we had to lose 2,000 feet in height, and hoped we had not been observed but heavy AA fire greeted us whilst still well out of range of their guns.
"I remember concentrating hard to get down as low as possible above the water and saying: 'They are certainly throwing up some crap — get that gun going!' Bob, in the front turret with its single Vickers GO gun got off about 15 rounds. A call of: 'Gun jammed!' from Bob while at the same time Tom, who was holding the hand held camera taking photos as we ran in, called out: 'Don't do it, they have too much fire power for us!' — or words to that effect! My actions were instantaneous. In that fleeting moment, discretion got the better part of valour, for I broke off the attack. I have wondered many times since then what the result would have been had we continued our attack.
"We now contacted base, and kept on shadowing the U-boats as instructed. After a lengthy period and receiving no more word from base of the Mosquitoes coming to our aid we radioed asking what the hold-up was. Remain shadowing, was the stern reply. That was all very well but we were at the far end of the blockade area and obviously were going to be the last to receive assistance. Eventually it was obvious that we could not stay much longer as fuel was running short and we would be in danger of not making it back to base.
"It was decided amongst us that after shadowing the two U-boats for so long it would be a travesty to leave without making an attack. We explained the position to base and asked for permission to make an attack. 'Use your own discretion' was the reply. A beautiful answer that leaves the officer making the quote completely without blame no matter what happens."
The actual messages passed between the Whitley crew and base, were as follows:
1039 hrs, Whitley: "I am over two enemy submarines in position 4417/1025.
1515 hrs, Whitley: "Are aircraft on the way?"
1535 hrs, Whitley: "Any instructions?"
1600 hrs, Whitley: "Any instructions?"
1620 hrs, Whitley: "May we attack?"
1620 hrs, Base: "Carry out homing procedures."
At 1645 Base agreed they could make an attack. One reason why some of the other 10 OTU aircraft did not make an appearance was that at least two had located the other three U-boats still heading west. Sergeant C T Mason and crew (in 'E' AD703) sighted and attacked them at 1540 and then found another group of five and made a gun attack at 1635. At 1605, Sergeant K G McAlpine ('P' BD289) found the group of three and attacked.
"We had continued homing procedures for some two hours, keeping a keen lookout for other airplanes. None appeared – neither ours, not thankfully, theirs. I was now more worried about our fuel situation for although our Whitley had been fitted with additional tanks inside the fuselage, we had already flown two hours longer than we had first anticipated. I discussed this with Buzz and suggested that we should end the shadowing since it was unlikely that we should see any of our aircraft, and either return to base or attack on our own.
"Buzz told George to radio base for permission to attack. The reply, more or less, was 'please yourselves'. Buzz decided to go for an attack.
"Bob Rennick was sent forward to the bomb aimer's position to man the single gun and Alan Kingsley instructed to be ready to strafe with his four .303 guns as we passed over the subs. Buzz himself would release the D/Cs, a technique he had practiced many times. As we commenced our descent and long run-in, I could see the tracers targeting on us. Having nothing else to do I simply crouched down next to George and his radio equipment. As we approached, Bob opened up, followed immediately by silence. The gun had jammed again! Next, there was an explosion in our wing and a bit of a lurch but I was relieved to see the wing intact. By now we were well committed and continued with our attack.
"It seemed just moments before we had reached our targets at about 50 feet. Buzz pulled the nose of the aircraft up as he let go with the D/Cs and simultaneously I heard Alan let go with his four guns. Jumping into the astrodome and looking aft over the tailplane, I observed the water 'on the boil' and one U-boat in a vertical position, sliding stern-first beneath the waves. The other boat had already disappeared. We were not sure whether we had sunk it or not but we certainly felt we accounted for one of them. We were jubilant. We had sunk a U-boat and we were all in one piece."
Of the attack, Arthur Benson recalls:
"We made a long run-in, keeping as low as possible, and were met with the same amount of flak from the U-boats as we had on the first attack. However, they were awake to our tactics by now and one pulled back as the other shot forward, giving them both the opportunity to fire at us. We concentrated our attack on the nearest one and when we were positioned just above them I heard a loud thump under the port wing, which must have been a direct hit by a cannon shell. Our tail gunner fired on the boats with his four Brownings as we passed over, and shouted out in his distinctive Canadian voice: 'You've got the bastard!' One of the U-boats had cruised over No.3 D/C just as it exploded, causing the front to lift out of the water and then to sink slowly stern first. The conning tower was under water, thus trapping the occupants inside.
"The other U-boat crash-dived and was apparently unharmed. We circled the area and took photos before heading off for England. About 20 sailors who were presumably swept off the deck were swimming and forming a circle – a sight I shall never forget.
"The air escaping from the sinking submarine had caused an area of the sea, a circle about 40 feet in diameter, to turn into white foam. The sailors were in the middle of the circle. Live ones were holding hands and dead ones floating away. Deep red stains were following the ones floating away. It showed up so clearly in the white foam and was, presumably, caused by fire from our rear turret.
"We set course for base. During a previous U-boat attack the wings of our aircraft had been holed, so with this in mind I had decided not to let the fuel down from the tank situated above and behind the pilot's seat. After an hour's flying I decided to let the petrol down into the wing tanks, where it would be fed into the engines. When the tank was about half empty I could smell a distinct aroma of petrol. About the same time the radio operator asked if he could have a fag. Smoking was out at all times, especially now!
"Alan, in the rear, rotated his turret and reported seeing petrol coming out from under the port fuel lank, but we could do nothing about it. The self-sealing must have held for a time but the pressure must have been too much when the extra fuel entered the wing tanks. We now realised that we were going to have a tough time making it back to St Eval and looked at the option of going for the coast of Spain. It was not far to fly but the possibility of meeting enemy aircraft was a real one and if we came down in the sea, we would have less chance of a rescue from our own people.
"We now received a call from base wanting to know the result of our attack. We explained that we had been hit in the wing tank and were not likely to make base. The best thing to do was to open the throttles and use as much of the escaping petrol as we could while at the same time gain as much height as possible. Unfortunately we could not run both engines off the leaking tank, but by manipulating the cocks controlling the flow of fuel into the engines, managed to confine the port tank to the port engine. About an hour later the rear turret could not be rotated which indicated that the hydraulic system had been ruptured and the hydraulic oil lost. This also had the effect of preventing the port engine airscrew from being feathered when at last the engine stopped for the want of fuel. This left three prop blades milling in the air causing drag that might have been prevented had we still had hydraulics."
Problems were now mounting for the crew of G-George. The messages to base from the time of the attack were:
1757 hrs, Whitley: "Have attacked with depth charges – hydraulics u/s." 1825 hrs, Whitley: "My position is 4636N/0900W at 1837 hrs." 1850 hrs, Whitley: “SOS”
1900 hrs, Whitley: "Position 4706N/0828W."
1920 hrs, Whitley: "Starboard engine u/s."
1930 hrs, Whitley: "Position 4730N/0810 W."
2000 hrs, Whitley: "SOS."
The Whitley estimated time of arrival (ETA) base had been 1950 hrs.
"With the loss of our hydraulics and fuel, and with the damaged engine about to stop, it was now obvious that we were going to struggle to return home. We decided to jettison all portable gear and I assisted Alan to unload his guns and toss the ammunition out of the rear door.
"We soldiered on but all the while losing altitude. Keeping Buzz informed of our position for the purpose of sending out SOS signals, I prepared for ditching, taking the camera, charts and food etc., to the rear. Finally Buzz ordered George, Alan and myself to take up our ditching positions which were aft and just forward of the door where there was a step down in the floor of the fuselage. We sat with our backs to this step and held our heads with our arms.
"Buzz and Bob made an excellent job of landing on the waves, so much so that I was not aware that we were down until water started washing through the open door. The three of us jumped up and manhandled the rubber dinghy through the doorway into the sea. I pulled the cord to activate the compressed air cylinder but nothing happened! My first thought was that enemy fire had holed it but there it was, an undulating rubber carpet, partly submerged. George and I knew that there was a hand-operated air pump stowed somewhere in the dinghy, so we jumped onto the mass of rubber and frantically searched 'blind' with our hands. George found it and while putting it on and fastening it to his chest, I tcok the air tube and searched for the connector on the dinghy. Fortunately I found one and George started the slow process of pumping.
"We all held our breaths; would it inflate? Slowly it did and obviously was undamaged, so that we must have had a dud compressed air cylinder. As the dinghy became buoyant, Alan leapt in from the doorway. Poor Alan was a non-swimmer. During this confusion, much of our gear was floating away, maps and food mostly. We managed, however, to drag the camera into the dinghy before we started to drift away from the fuselage. By this time Buzz and Bob had climbed out onto the port wing and were shouting instructions, but we were unable to manoeuvre close enough to them, so they decided they must take to the water if they, literally, were not to miss the boat. Eventually we were all in the dinghy which was now fully inflated.
"We had also taken our pigeon on board and, taking him out of his cage and fixing a message to his leg, released him to take his chances. After a couple of dodgy circuits he disappeared from view. Also disappearing from view, in the gloom of evening, was our aircraft, BD220, still very much afloat."
Buzz Benson remembers the pigeon fell into the water at first and had to be rescued and dried out! Everyone thought it would be home by dark but it was never seen again. Tom Lee estimated they were about 90 miles short of Bishop's Rock when they radioed in their last position. Another anxious moment with the dinghy had occurred as it dragged along the side of the aircraft and across a jagged line of bullet holes which tore the rubber. This was to give them some more problems later on. When they took stock of their supplies they discovered that all they had was just 12 one-pint tins of drinking water. Within an hour all had been violently seasick.
Arthur Benson continues:
"For the next two days and three nights we spent in the dinghy we were wet all the time. It was impossible to get dry as the dinghy was wide open and without any form of cover. If one sat on the side one was hit by the full force of the breaking white-caps, and if one sat in the bottom, the water was constantly lapping around one's lower body. It was impossible to keep the dinghy bailed free of water, for as quickly as it was bailed, the breaking waves filled it up again. Though wet and cold were sheer agony during the day, when temperatures fell at night the cold and pain increased considerably.
"All through the 15th, aircraft from England flew over us at varying heights and although I fired shots from a Verey pistol, we were unable to attract anyone's attention. It soon became obvious that the longer we drifted, the less chance we had of being picked up. We had a small radio but the kite that took the aerial up kept diving straight into the water.
"We managed to plug some of the holes made by the jagged fuselage but some gradually increased in size and we had to use bigger plugs. During the second night, just on dark, a vessel in the form of a torpedo boat or corvette appeared on the horizon. I fired off a flare and the vessel headed towards us. We had a navigation flame float which we activated and tossed it out as the corvette approached. However, we drifted away while the float remained in position and although the vessel came right up when it was about 300 yards away it turned off and headed away in the direction of England. The crew must have thought it some sort of trap."
Bob Rennick takes up the story:
"We certainly owe our lives to Buzz's flying ability for he got us down without a scratch. Our food floated out the door before we could do anything about it but we saved the water. We all believed it wouldn't be long before we were picked up but gradually we drifted south.
"On the morning we were finally picked up it was dead calm. We saw this boat early in the morning, but then a thick fog set in, and when it cleared some hours later, the boat was a bit closer. We waved what we could find and were overjoyed when it changed course and came towards us. Rescue at last!"
"We had taken matters into our own hands on the Tuesday by rigging the mast and sail, then Buzz, as skipper, manned the tiller while I monitored our course on a small compass I found in the emergency kit. We also eat some of the emergency rations. We felt a little better and sailed north-east for the remainder of the day, that night and most of Wednesday until twilight when we had the encounter with the corvette.
"When rescue came it was a French fishing boat. As it drew alongside I slipped the camera overboard, not wanting it to fall into enemy hands. The fishermen were all smiles and I had visions of being back home in a short while. We were hauled aboard while one of the hands slashed the dinghy with a knife and sank it.
"We were taken below by the skipper, and Alan, who could speak French, explained who we were and how we had come to be where we were. We were given bunks, some dry clothing and then left to sleep, followed later by food and wine. By now we felt much better and through Alan started to discuss ideas for getting us back to England. Could the French smuggle us ashore and put us in touch with the Resistance or some escape organisation? No. The skipper explained their predicament. They were expected by the Germans to be back in their port by a certain time so they could not deviate to the Scilly Isles either, but that in any event, to assist us in either of these ways would result in serious consequences for themselves and their families."
"How good it felt to be dry and warm. We slept all day then had a meal of fish, potatoes and brown bread with French wine. We understood they were still a day's sailing from their home port and that if any French boats came out way and were going out into the Atlantic, they would transfer us on to it. They were not in a position to help us in any way as they were overdue and the German patrol boats would be on the look-out for them. Apparently, when they went fishing, their families were held hostage, so around 120 people were dependent on their returning, so taking us to England was definitely out. We didn't like it but could do little about it."
The fishing boat, named Jazz Band, was skippered by Capitaine Frangois. According to his daughter, Madame Lerouge de Rusunan, he and his crew had been out mackerel fishing. The weather was cloudy with some sea haze and they had heard some gunfire (not associated with Benson and his crew). They were already at the limit of their permitted range, but Capitaine Franqois alerted his crew and headed in the direction of the firing. By good fortune they happened to come across the dinghy, whose occupants Frangois later described as being in a state of great weakness. Taking them on board they gave the airmen food and clothing.
The airmen slept after hot drinks and that evening Franqois talked to his crew about the possibility of taking the men to England. The Frenchmen, low on fuel in any event, stayed in the area waiting for wind — their main power source — while everyone hoped a rescue plane would be spotted and contacted.
Soon time came for a final decision as their German-imposed time limit was nearly up. Again he asked if they should head for England. Three or four of the younger men were in favour but the family men refused through fear of reprisals against their families. Benson and his crew had finally to accept the situation and, reluctantly, Capitaine Franqois headed the boat for his French home port. There was little else he could do. At that stage of the war, the fishermen were not in touch with any forces of the Resistance and to try and smuggle the airmen ashore was fraught with danger for everyone. Capitaine Franqois and his boat came from Morgat, a small fishing village in the Bay of Douarnenez, south of Brest.
"Eventually we pulled into a small port somewhere near Brest. A French sailor rowed a boat to the shore and returned with German soldiers and we were greeted with what we were to learn was the customary German greeting to downed airmen – 'For you zee var is ofer.' And so began a period of one year, ten months in captivity."
"Before we had really stirred ourselves on that last morning, the vessel put into some port which I now know was Morgat. By the time we had got ourselves on deck, the skipper had already rowed ashore. We were at anchor in the bay and watched a motor boat approach filled with German soldiers. As their NCO remarked, the war for us was over – at least the flying was; we had yet to experience nearly two years of POW camps."
"The fishing boat had to heave-to before entering the harbour at Morgat, and then the Germans came out and inspected it before coming in. Once ashore, we were marched down the cobbled streets, followed by what appeared to be all the women and children of Morgat, giving us the V-for-victory sign, much to the annoyance of the Germans. We were taken to the nearby German HQ where the Commander came out on the balcony and had a look at us, then waved us away.
"To avoid the women and children, we were then taken down the sea wall and marched along the beach, but when we had to come up the sea wall again, there they all were again. They stood on both sides of us and showered us with flowers.
"We were put into a hospital building overnight and next day taken to Paris by train. There we were placed in a prison for half a day while waiting for a train to Frankfurt. Once in Frankfurt we were all given eight days' solitary confinement, bread and water twice a day, while we were interrogated. Finally we were separated, the officers, Tom and Alan, going to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, Arthur, George and I to Stalag Luft 6 at Hyderkrug, in East Prussia.
"The three of us were taken there for a year but when the Russians started their advances we were brought back to Thorn, in Poland. Three weeks later we were shipped to Camp 357 at Fallingsbostel in West Germany, where air raid sirens went day and night. In March 1945, we were taken out of the camp and put on the road, marching between the Allies to the west and the Russians to the east. This went on for some time, the Germans gradually losing interest in us. We were finally liberated on 2 May."
Arthur Benson and another Australian, also on this march, managed to escape from the column:
"It did not cut much off our time as PoWs but it happened at a time when every minute was precious. Our crew were to meet up in England after the war, not altogether, but individually. We have kept in touch ever since."
As for U 564, she had gone to the bottom. Her CO and 17 crewmen were later picked up by the escorting submarine U 185, once Benson had flown off. That evening these survivors were transferred to two destroyers, Z24 and Z25, which had put out from Le Verdon. When it became known that the U-boat had been sunk, and Coastal Command knew too that Benson and his crew had been successful, it was good news. That the Whitley had then failed to return was unfortunate. However, once news came that the five men had been saved and were now prisoners, Benson was awarded the DFM and was later promoted to Warrant Officer.
"I have often been asked about our thoughts while in the dinghy and our chances of survival. Only a week or so before we were shot down, our crew were ordered to act as pall-bearers at the funeral of a young airman who had been brought back from the Bay of Biscay. He was found, with a companion, in a dinghy after about 11 days from being shot down. Both were dead. I still visualise the boy's mother crying in the chapel and asking why she was not allowed to see her son. Time in a dinghy, of course, takes its toll; one becomes weak and helpless. The seagulls noticing no activity land on the dinghy, then, always on the look-out for food, see the occupants are not in a position to protect themselves, even if still alive. So the birds start to attack the faces, much as crows and hawks attack the heads of animals that cannot resist. First they take the eyes, then the corners of the mouth, the tongue, the nostrils, and from there they strip bare the entire front of the face. That is why the mother was not allowed to see her dead boy. There was nothing left to see."
Alan Kingsley and George Graves have both passed on. George had a heart attack on 14 June 1983 — exactly 40 years to the day they sank U 564 — and died the next day.
Crookwell's Arthur Benson is the only surviving member of that flight crew. Arthur has just turned 84.