A Lark on the wing
Name: Charles Lark
Unit: 460 Squadron
Fl Lt Charles Lark applied to join the RAAF in December 1939 but it was more than a year later when he was finally signed up. While waiting, he received lessons in trigonometry, arithmetic, algebra, mechanics, physics and the Morse code.
On 6 June 1941, he entered the Bradfield Park RAAF Initial Training School (near Lindfield in Sydney) and became a member of the 10 course. After about eight weeks all were posted to different training schools. Charles Lark was selected as a pilot and was among about 80 trainees posted to the Narromine No 5 Flying Elementary Training School near Dubbo in New South Wales.
His first solo flight came after 10 hours on dual and before long he was practicing steep turns, forced landings and even aerobatics. After about 60 hours he passed his last flying test without difficulty and learned to love the Tiger Moth.
Some days later he was posted to No 2 Embarkation Depot and left Australia on the RMS Aorangi, disembarking in Vancouver, Canada,. He moved on tot he Uplands RCAF Service Flying Training School near Ottawa where the aircraft, a Harvard, was a lot faster than the Tiger Moth, with a landing speed of 80 mph [118kph]. Going solo after eight hours dual, one day the wind changed and he landed crosswind, unfortunately going into a ground loop. His pilot's days were over.
Charles was then posted to the Trenton RCAF Station near Toronto, then to the Edmonton No 2 Air Observer School, qualifying as an Air Observer Navigator and flying Avro Ansons.
After that it was bombing and gunnery training at Mossbank, Sesketchwan in Fairy Battles. He graduated as an air gunner, received his wings and was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant. Finally, he went to the Winnepeg Astro Navigation School studying the stars in the Northern Hemisphere. He took particular notice of a beautiful bright star named Altair, which came in handy one fateful night some seven months later.
Promoted to Pilot Officer, he shipped out on SS Dominion Monarch from Halifax (after a wonderful R 7 R in New York) and disembarked in Liverpool, England, then on to the personnel reception depot in Bournemouth. Training continued until 12 April 1942 when he was granted a posting with No 3 AFU at Bobbington, Worcestershire, flying Avro Ansons once more and operating mostly over Wales and the Irish Sea.
In May 1942, Charles Lark joined 460 Squadron as a navigator, where all operations were carried out in Wellingtons.
His first bombing operation was to Emden in Germany, on 6 June 1942. His second, on 11 June, was a mine laying operation near Heligoland in the North Sea. The third (being the last of the three of the 1000 bomber raids to Bremen) was on 24 June. His fourth was a 'gardening' job in the Bay of Biscay on 29 June.
The fifth operation proved to be his last as he recorded in his book A Lark on the Wing.
"On 2 July 2 1942 the target was once again Bremen, and our entire bomb load was incendiaries and high explosives," he wrote. "460 Squadron was able to muster 18 aircraft on this mission and I had volunteered to take the place of the front gunner bomb aimer , who was still on the sick list. Our aircraft was again 'R' for Robert, and our take-off time 2300 hours.
"This was to be my fifth operation. However, I believe that Air Marshall 'Bomber' Hards once remarked that an air-crew justified the cost of its training after completing only two operations. Our crew were all Australians: Sergeant A F (Alec) Whittick - Perth WA, Pilot Officer A E W (Bert) Webb - Cottesloe WA, Navigator Sergeant A E (Ed) McCrae - Sth Kalgoorlie WA, Wireless Operator Sergeant J. D. (Jack) Hancocks - Kew, Victoria, Rear Gunner Pilot Officer C. R. (Chas.) Lark - Sydney, NSW, front gunner/ bomb aimer.
"It was still twilight as we climbed towards the English coast, - with a great area of golden, reddish haze in the western sky. Over the North Sea, with the engines straining to get extra height, darkness fell and we felt reassured as darkness finally fell. The gunners fired a few shots and tested their turrets. At about 16,000 feet as the call came 'Enemy Coast Ahead', and before long the flak started exploding around us again with the now- familiar smell of cordite and gunpowder filling the fuselage.
"We continued on and the flak then faded away behind us. I climbed up to the astro-dome in the middle of the fuselage to keep a good lookout for night fighters. I had not been there more than a few minutes when suddenly all hell broke loose. An enemy fighter approached from below our aircraft (as they had been trained to do), making it impossible to observe because of the angle from which it approached.
"The noise of our engines was suddenly drowned by the new, and terrifying, noise of cannons and machine guns. The darkness inside the fuselage was quickly transformed into brilliant light, as hails of tracer bullets came streaming up around me. Cannon shells were exploding and within seconds the fuselage fabric was on fire. There were big holes in the side of the fuselage and the starboard propeller wasn't turning.
"I felt myself hit in several places before falling to the floor, wondering when the shower of bullets would stop. As I tried to stand up I noticed that my right arm had no feeling and was quite useless. My eyesight seemed a bit blurry and I felt a sharp pain around the vicinity of my right eye. I yelled into the communication tube, but could get no answer. The Wimpy seemed to be in a shallow dive and was burning out of control.
"While I was still lying on the floor in the middle of the aircraft, the rear gunner, Sergeant Jack Hancock, came down from his turret and passed me a parachute from the rack on the side of the fuselage side. He climbed over the mainspar, and indicated he was going to see how the pilot, navigator and wireless operator were faring. I didn't see him again.
"It was extremely brave of this man to take the time in such a situation not only to assist me as I was wounded, but also to try to assist the other crew members, and I shall always remember him with deep gratitude.
"Eventually, I picked myself up but found I was too weak to disengage myself from the oxygen tube, so I pulled off the whole helmet including the tube. My next task was to attach the parachute to the harness. This was rather difficult because only my left arm was functioning and I discovered that the right hand harness clip was missing - it must have been shot off.
"However, I was able, after a while, to fix the parachute to the remaining clip. I then tried to climb over the mainspar to see how my mates were faring, but found that I couldn't make it. The going was uphill, as the aircraft was going down fast and lurching madly. By this time, the fuselage fabric and the oxygen bottles were also burning fiercely. The only escape hatch available to me now was up near the rear of the aircraft, just forward of the turret.
"Somehow I managed to stumble and crawl along the wooden catwalk to the small, diamond shaped exit. Parts of the catwalk were burning furiously, and as I made my way aft, my feet went through the wooden planks, losing both flying boots. At last I reached the escape hatch and with a feeling of great relief jumped into space. I was aware that I had been seriously wounded and couldn't help wondering whether this might be the 'end of the road' for me.
"I remember looking back unhappily and seeing the burning aircraft flying onwards and downwards without me. I couldn't see any other parachutes leave the aircraft.
I pulled the ripcord, and a moment later the jerk was so terrific that I'll swear I bounced! Luckily, the remaining clip on the parachute held fast and kept me aloft. I seemed to be suspended in mid-air for ages but I suppose it couldn't have been for too long. The peace and quiet was such a contrast to the holocaust of the plane. There was just the gentle luffing sound of the wind in the great white canopy over my head. it may have been peaceful, but I also felt quite helpless and cold.
"I was again conscious of something warm dripping down the right side of my face as well as a few other aches and pains. But I was also tormented by thoughts of my four crew mates. Had they escaped from the burning plane?
"At last I saw the water from a large lake rushing up to meet me, and just had enough time to push the lever and inflate my Mae West life jacket. Then I was in the water, and the canopy of the parachute settled down on top of me. It was some time before I found strength enough to get out from underneath it.
"But then, a fairly strong wind bellied out the parachute, which acted like a sail. I went skimming along through the choppy water for quite a distance, swallowing many mouthfuls until the wind dropped and the canopy finally subsided.
"It too considerable effort as I really struggled with my 'good' left hand to unclip the parachute from the harness. At last I was free and looked around in the darkness for land. The only sight of land was a faint dark blur on the horizon that seemed to be miles away and unfortunately across-wind. I roughly estimated the time to be about 1.30am.
"By this stage, neither arm seemed to be of much assistance, so I decided to turn on my back and 'kick for shore'. I knew that I must keep a reasonably straight course so that I wouldn't swim around in circles. Accordingly I kept my eye on a prominent star named Altair which I remembered from training days at the Astro-Nav Course in Canada.
"Because of the wind, the water in the lake was very choppy, with waves constantly breaking over my head. Apart from taking in mouthfuls of water, I was aware of something flopping about on my cheek, and finally realised (with a shock) that it must be my right eye. There was still absolutely no feeling in my right arm, but I noticed the pain was getting worse around my forehead, left arm and left thigh. I just kicked until I couldn't kick any more, and must have turned over many times to look for the shore, but it never seemed to get much closer.
"There were many times during that night when I didn't care if I drowned. But fortunately, somehow the will to live kept returning, and I managed to struggle on a little further. After what seemed the longest night in my life, darkness gave way to dawn and about an hour later I was able to clamber ashore.
"I made my way through about 200 yards of bullrushes, which really played havoc with my bare feet, at last coming to a clearing and a small canal. I tried without success to wade across it but was up to my thighs in mud and water. Being totally exhausted, I lay down on the grassy bank, shivering violently until the sun finally came up. I then decided it was time to make another effort, and staggered down the side of the canal.
"About 100 yards along, I came across a small boat and was able to push it across the canal. I finally clambered up the embankment, over a low fence and onto the roadway, where I stumbled along to a little cottage about 200 yards away.
"After knocking on the window of the cottage, I heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and an old lady, wearing a nightcap, came to the window and pulled up the blind. Admittedly I must have looked a pretty horrible sight, all wet and bloody. Not surprisingly, she quickly pulled down the blind and returned upstairs.
I then spotted another cottage about a 150 yards away, staggered across to it with growing difficulty and knocked on the door. Thankfully, it opened this time and some very kind people took me inside, laid me down on blankets on the floor and offered me a cup of tea and a cigarette.
"The man of the house was a boat-builder. His wife was also in the room, together with their two daughters and one son. The older girl, Anne Huismann, was 17 years old and the only one in the family who could speak English. They called in the local doctor, and after a quick examination he decided I was in no condition to even think of escaping. He then took me in his car to a hospital in the nearby town of Meppel.
"On arrival the nurses cut off my clothes, washed me with warm water and placed me in a warm bed. After about half an hour I stopped shivering. Before long, an eye surgeon arrived. I still recall him pouring cocaine into my now empty right eye socket. But even after several injections I was still very conscious when the doctor commenced cutting the tendons inside the socket as he finally removed the eye.
"The morphine and anaesthetic started to work and I awoke much later bandaged from head to foot and realised two German Luftwaffe guards (with rifles pointing at my head) were standing at the foot of my bed. One of them spoke in English the classic words 'For you, the war is over!'
"Sometime later I learnt that the name of the lake in which I landed was the Beulake, and is situated just east of the Zuider Zee. The little village on the side of the lake was called Ronduite.
"While still in the Huismann home, the local doctor assured me that I wouldn't die, but would need at least a minimum of two months in hospital. He told me that a bullet had entered the right side of my face, about half an inch below the temple, knocked a few splinters off the cheekbone and passed through my eye, which was left hanging by a few tendons over my cheek.
"This bullet took the skin off my nose on its way out. If it had entered half an inch higher it certainly would have meant the end for me. A cannon shell from the night fighter went through my right shoulder, leaving a hole (according to the doctor) the size of a man's fist. Also, another bullet had entered just above my left knee. It travelled up the thigh and is still lodged deep inside the groin. The doctor's considered it too dangerous to remove. A final bullet had entered the left hand side of my chest just below the armpit, and was later removed during my initial operation.
"On one of my recent visits to Holland I was delighted to meet the eye specialist again and thank both him and the hospital. I've also kept in touch with the Huismann family over the years.
Charles Lark was the sole survivor of the plane crash and spent time in a number of prisoner of war camps after the incident â€“ including the Dalag Luft, Stalag Luft III (of the wooden horse fame), Offlag XXIB (in north Poland), before returning to Stalag Luft III in the end.
Eventually he was one of the first two Australians repatriated as seriously wounded exchange POWs and arrived home in time for Christmas 1943. After the war, he married Valerie Dawson and they had three daughters and a son.
The material for this article was supplied by Charles Lark from New South Wales