Shot down over Germany

Name: Lionel Jeffries
Date: 1943
Unit: RAAF
Location: Shot down and wounded over Nuremberg

On the night of the 27th/28th August 1943, Fl Lt Lionel Jeffries RAAF, was the pilot of a four-engined Stirling bomber aircraft on a raid to the railway marshalling yards of the city of Nuremburg, Germany.

In addition to the Stirlings on the raid, there were hundreds of Lancasters and Halifaxes all flying some 1200 metres above the maximum height of 4900 metres flown by the Stirlings, according to Mr Jeffries. Because the Stirlings were at the bottom of the 800 strong force of aircraft, they were not only bombing but being bombed.

All of the aircraft were timed to be over the target within the space of minutes with the aim of saturating the enemy radar tracking devices, a very crucial point, according to Mr Jeffries.

"On the run in to the target, our aircraft was struck by some unknown object," he recalled. "It may have come from one of our friendly aircraft above as we had been on the receiving end of a number of incendiaries in this way on a previous raid on Berlin. It may have come from the ground or a night fighter, who knows? Whatever it was, it caused the aircraft to shudder violently. It was too positive for the mythical gremlins which aircrew speak about but nothing seemed to have been affected and we continued on the run in.

"In the middle of this dilemma, we were suddenly coned by what seemed to be hundreds of searchlight beams," he said. "One beam had picked us up and the rest converged on us. In this well lit situation we were sitting ducks for either night fighter or anti aircraft fire; flak, which would have been directed not necessarily at us but at the centre of the cone, hoping for us to become a casualty.

"In this instance there was no flak so we assumed, and were later proved correct, that night fighters were about. The brilliance of the lights destroyed the night vision of our gunners and I had to lower my seat to get my eyes below the level of the sides of the plane and fly by what I could dimly see of the instruments on the instrument panel. By a practised manoeuvre of evasion called jinking; violent alterations of height and direction, I was fortunate to extricate us from the cone before any attack came in this situation.

"We resumed our course to the target. Just after exiting the target area the wireless operator raised the alarm of free flowing petrol in the cabin of the aircraft near him. Much later, I came to the conclusion that a fuel line was probably fractured when we were hit by whatever it was on-the run in. There were no other options other than to fly on

"Then came an attack by a JU 88 German night fighter. The gunners were unable to see the attack coming because of their impaired night vision but they recognised the type as it passed near us on the attack. There was no report of damage resulting, in other words he missed. I can distinctly recall thinking 'Surely, no more, we've had our quota', a sanitised version!

"We were not to be so lucky. Another attack followed shortly after. This time, under similar circumstances, it was an ME 109 but he did not miss. He set the starboard inner engine on fire. With free flowing petrol in the cabin and fire in the starboard inner engine the situation was, to say the least, critical. I gave the order 'Prepare, to bail out' and to my knowledge all members of the crew responded to this standard procedure. I feathered the propeller of the offending engine, which means the engine was stopped and the blades of the propeller turned into wind in order to reduce the drag of flat blades. I then activated the appropriate one of four extinguisher buttons, but to no effect."

Mr Jeffries said his next action was to put the aircraft into a steep dive in an attempt to blow the flames out. This had been done by a fellow squadron pilot a few nights before but the fire continued to burn and he knew they had had it. He gave the final order to bail out.

"While I presumed the crew were responding to that order, I was not sure because at that stage the rear gunner informed me that he could not rotate his turret in order to retrieve his parachute from where it was stored in the fuselage," Mr Jeffries said. "He said his turret was jammed on the ratchet. He was naturally nearing the panic stage. But there was nothing I could do for him. He was at the other end of the aircraft, some 50 feet away with a developing conflagration of petrol and fire in between. I also had to fly the aircraft in order to provide as much time as possible for him to remedy his problem.

"I equalised the uneven thrust of the engines by cutting the opposing port inner engine to the one on fire and adjusted the trimming devices with the aim of having the aircraft fly 'hands off'. In this I was to learn 27 years later that my efforts were reasonably successful. The wireless operator told me that he saw the plane gently circle him in a downward spiral three times before crashing. But more of this later.

"The navigator, before diving through the flames to his escape route through a hatch in the floor of the bomb aimer's compartment in the front of the plane, inquired of me in a very casual way if I required anything. It was such a casual inquiry that I think if I had asked him for a cup of tea, he would have attempted to do something about it (there was enough fire to boil the billy). In the event, I asked him to pass up my parachute to me from where it was stowed just out of my reach.

"In so doing he saved my life because I would not have had the time to do this. When he dived, he expected the hatch to be open for him to go clear through. This was not the case and he finished up in a heap in the bomb aimer's compartment. By the time he had rectified the situation, he was badly burnt. His right hand, thought to need amputation, was saved.

"With the flames near at hand, I clipped on my chute, disconnected the oxygen and intercom leads. By this time there was too much flame for me to follow the navigator so I stood up in the seat and for a moment steadied the aircraft with my feet on the control column. The only place for me to go then- was through the top escape hatch, which for a moment I had some difficulty in opening. Then, with half a jump together with the suction of the slipstream, I went out like a cork out of a bottle.

"The flames followed me out. Both my hands and face received second degree burns. I had unthinkingly removed my flying gloves in order to make the correct selection of the fire extinguisher button earlier. I then had proof of the inadvisability of exiting the aircraft from this hatch while in the air, but I had no choice. I hit the tail plane, or more correctly, the tail plane caught up with a wallop. When I rolled off the tailplane, I knew my parachute would not get caught up on the plane and take me with it. I pulled the ripcord and was relieved to see it open and undamaged by the flame (the material was silk and the cords nylon).

For the next few minutes as I descended, peace reigned supreme. There was no flame. no noise, nobody calling our their problem and the air was beautiful and cool (I have heard others say the same thing).

"I knew it wouldn't last. I thought I was going to land on top of a building, I was coming in backwards, unable to operate the guy lines to turn around because of my burnt hands. I made what I think must have been a two-point landing; my left leg and my bum.

"Whatever it was, I landed heavily in a daze I what turned out to be a clearing in a forest. After some time I tried to stand up and could not understand why I fell over. After several attempts and the same result, I realised my left leg was broken. I was obviously going nowhere under my own steam. My escape kit provided me with a tube of condensed milk which I opened with my teeth, with some difficulty because of my burnt hands. It gave some relief to my face and hands but I became a sticky mess

"I was approached by a group of elderly men who kept calling out something like 'comrad' In my dazed state, I thought that was a Russian word and I spent some time puzzling how I got to Russia. Many years later I was to learn that the word 'comrad' or camrad' was the German word for surrender.

"It was some time before I settled down and the men closed up on me with caution, presumably thinking I may have been armed. They stood around discussing the situation. I was obviously not popular, naturally. One fellow spat and I don't know if he aimed at me but it went mighty close. This could hardly be called a war crime.

'It was much better treatment than I could expect from an enemy I had bombed. My wireless operator, for example, had to be rescued, just in time by his guard from a lynch mob on Nuremburg Station when he was captured a few days later, after being on the run. There was a rope around his neck and the other end over a beam when his guard returned from the toilet. I don't blame the Germans for this attitude. I think I would have had similar thoughts to a German airman bombing my home town of Rockhampton."

Fl Lt Jeffries was eventually carted me off on a farm trolley to a house nearby. The old lady occupant insisted on his being put on her sofa. Fluid from his burns and the condensed milk leaked all over it.

"A German officer came later and abused me for quite a while," he recalled. "Well, I think he abused me but I did not understand a word he said. The body language said plenty. He wouldn't believe my leg was broken. They were actions not really in line with the modern-day idea of counselling, but I still think I was extremely fortunate to get what I got."

Some hours later, Fl Lt Jeffries was picked up by a military ambulance and taken over a wide area looking for other airmen. He was joined by his navigator and two other Englishmen. They were taken to a POW hospital near Nuremburg where his burns were treated with gauze covering his face, with slits for mouth nose and eyes.

"My leg was tin-splinted up to as far as possible and my tail bone supported by an air cushion." He said. "I was by no means mobile. Other POWs fed me, and raised and lowered me when necessary. It was a Yugoslavian doctor, himself a POW, who attended me."

Apart from the four Allied airmen, the rest of the POWs were Belgian army soldiers. This situation gave rise to a comical incident when Fl Lt Jeffries tried to exercise his very limited knowledge of the French language.

"In my attempt to ask a Belgian to lower me on my bed from a sitting position, I apparently asked him to have sex with me," he recalled. "The whole room burst. into laughter and I wondered what had happened. They explained to me what I had said but I hasten to say that the fellow did not take advantage of my offer. I must have made an impression on him, however, because he was later to offer me the use of his prized possession, a toothbrush.. On the premise that 'greater love hath no man than to giveth up his toothbrush to his friend', this was truly a wonderful offer on his part. I did not become the seventh user."

"During the next six weeks, Fl Lt Jeffries received word from a Belgian that news of his survival had been passed on to the British Government but the word would not be passed on to his relatives for some time in order to protect the underground movement which had organised this information.

"My first visit to the toilet under my own efforts was also not without incident," he said. "My urine, which I had not seen for several weeks while in bed, was blood red. My immediate concern was that I had some internal injury. My quietness in coming to grips with this concern was noticed by my navigator who inquired of me the reason. My explanation to him was met with a burst of laughter, much to my disgust. He then explained the reason for the colour red, was because of pills given to both of us to combat the poison from our burns. I joined him in laughter, mine was more heartfelt than his. Even so, the cloud of boils I developed on my legs was attributed to the poison from the burns."

Towards the end of November, Fl Lt Jeffries and his navigator were moved to Hohmark Hospital or asylum near Frankfurt on Main. Uninjured POWs were sent to Dulag Luft interrogation centre. The journey was made by train and he was not allowed to have a walking stick but his navigator again helped support him. At Hohmark, an Institution run by a Catholic Order of Nuns, Fl Lt Jeffries was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks.

"Every now and then I was interrogated by different people with accompanying threats as to what would happen if I did not give full responses to the questions put to me about service life, what was happening in England, my squadron. etc," he said. "Our instructions from the RAF were that we were to impart only our name, number and rank, and this was in accord with the Geneva Convention.

"After one such interview, when the senior intelligence officer had given me my first smoke for some time, he and I dumped our butts in an ashtray. When the officer departed, an orderly who had not spoken to me all the time I was there, produced a zigzag paper and indicated to me that, I could roll a smoke from the two dumpers. which I did with kind thoughts to him.

"At the end of a fortnight, we were all transferred to Stalag Luft III, Sagan, near the then Polish border. In this period before we left for Sagan, an amazing event occurred. The senior intelligence officer, who had been questioning and threatening me for the past fortnight, invited me, as the senior British officer, with the exalted rank of flying officer, to hold a church parade for the group of about 12 of us who were there.

"I submitted the idea to them and they agreed to the service, but with some misgivings. We all thought it was some sort of ruse to extract further information from us. Before the gathering got under way, the officer actually asked my permission to attend the discussion. I had no reason to refuse the request. after all, it was his idea in the first place and he was the boss.

"He made a further request during the discussion, and that was for permission to say a prayer. The prayer was normal until near the finish when, to our amazement, he called on God for guidance for Mr Churchill, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr Stalin and Hitler. Here was this German, the paragon of all evil or so we had been told, and a somewhat belligerent intelligence officer to boot, calling on God for guidance for the leaders. I think Hitler would have had him shot had he heard of this supplication.

"Along with the others, I thought it was a ruse to soften us up so that we would provide information-to this, our new found 'religious friend'. But, as we left next morning for Sagan and had no further contact with him. I came to accept that he was genuine about his religion, far more religious than an Australian Minister of Religion who was heard to say from the pulpit 'the only good German is a dead one'. I will never forget the incident, and the circumstances in which it occurred."

In 1970, while on a European trip. Mr Jeffries and his wife Ines made a special trip from Koblenz by train and taxi to Hohmark. It was still an asylum, and one of the sisters, Sister Freda, who was there during the war, took them up to the room where he had been in solitary confinement. He was the third person to return for another 'look-see'.

"While on the same trip. and in England, I caught up with my bomb aimer from Ireland," Mr Jeffries said. "He and his wife came to England to see us. Together, the four of us journeyed to Liverpool to meet up with my navigator and his wife.

"Up until then I thought the rear gunner had gone in with the plane when it crashed. I mentioned earlier that he was trapped. In addition to this, my navigator and I had been told at debriefing after prison camp, that we three were the only members of the crew to survive. I believed everybody, apart from the gunner, had cleared the aircraft that night and I presumed the other members of the crew had not survived subsequent events.

"In our discussion, an amazing event began to unfold. The bomb aimer mentioned that he had an idea that Bill Bailey, the wireless operator, had survived and returned. I began an investigation. Air Ministry was most unhelpful, in fact deliberately misleading for, they explained later, it was for the protection of Bailey. I could have been somebody seeking retribution. Further investigations from another Department resulted in a suggestion that I contact Somerset House, which is apparently a house of records. I prepared an application to that Institution with the full story together with the information that I was returning to Australia in a few days.

"They informed me that Bailey was alive and that in view of the circumstances, they had taken the liberty of informing him of my presence in England and my address. It was an incredible thrill to receive a phone call from him at my hotel. It was the first time I had ever spoken with a ghost. He and his wife travelled to London and spent the last day of our stay in England on that trip. We have spent several very enjoyable days with them since.

"Bill Bailey's story was of great importance to me and my peace of mind. He told me of his experience in the plane the night we were shot down. When he heard of the gunner's plight over the intercom of being trapped in his turret, he, of his own volition, went to the rear of the plane to assist the gunner. He was fully aware of the dangers of the combination of petrol on the floor and fire in the aircraft because he had been the person to report both to me.

"He paddled through the petrol, got to the rear turret and released the gunner. He then came back through the plane, saw me still at the controls, then like the navigator, dived through the flames through the bottom hatch which was open for him, unlike for the navigator. I am not sure who went first, the navigator or the wireless operator. When he opened his chute, he could smell burning and like me looked up in fear to see if the chute was on fire. With no trace of fire there, he looked down to find his boots alight. By some strange oversight I have never asked him if he took them off, piddled on them or was able to smother the flame. I know he had some footwear because he was on the loose for some days.

"It was on the way down that he saw the results of my trimming. The plane circled him three times before eventually crashing. My years of anguish over the events of that night would have been considerably eased if I had carried out my intention to visit the relatives of the deceased members of the crew on my return to England from prison camp in 1945.

"My first call was to the mother of the rear gunner and I felt I did more harm than good by disturbing the healing process of time by bringing her sorrow back into focus. I just could not have faced another interview like that in my mental condition at the time. So I dropped my programmed intentions. Had I continued, of course, I would have learnt the good news in 1945 not 1970 that the wireless operator had survived and the rear gunner had been released from the horrible death of being trapped, if death can be so qualified.

"As I said earlier, it would have been physically impossible for me to go back to release the gunner and fly the plane at the same time. My satisfaction and relief came from Bill's story because my delayed exit and actions on the controls, allowed Bill the time for him to do what he did, and live to tell the tale - particularly to me, even though it, was 27 years late.

"I discussed the subject of Bill Bailey's actions that night with an Australian Air Vice Marshal while on a Pilgrimage to Stalag Luft III in 1994. With his approval and support I made a recommendation to both the Australian and British governments for a bravery award to be granted for what Bill successfully volunteered to do, in the face of the enemy and while under attack..

"The recommendation was declined for the reason that, by a British Act of Parliament 1960 no further recommendations would be considered for actions in World War II. I sent my recommendation to Bill for him and his family archives. And that is the summary of events; the conditions of entry to nearly two years in Stalag Luft III and other places, which is another story."

The material for this article was supplied by Mr Lionel Jeffries from Queensland


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Shot down over Germany, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 2 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/shot-down-over-germany
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