A Close Shave





One of the finest rewards I have for being editor and designer of Vintage News is finding new friends among our 10,000 subscribers. More than a year ago, I became acquainted with someone who I now call a good friend. His name is Bob “Kirk” Kirkpatrick of Humboldt, Iowa. It took me a year, but I eventually met Bob last summer in Hamilton when Jerry Yagen’s Mosquito made its last public air show appearance before being offered for sale. Bob is a special individual, the type that men and women gravitate to. He is a man of quiet elegance, with a pilot’s appreciation for the great outdoors, possessing an understated and sardonic wit, a deep love for his wife Ginny, and is surrounded by rank upon rank of loyal friends.

One of those friends and a man I hope to meet in person someday, like Kirk, is Warrant Officer Hugh Bone, himself a veteran Mosquito fighter/bomber pilot. Hugh and Kirk graduated together at Number 9 Coastal Command Operational Training Unit, a Beaufighter conversion school at Crosby-on-Eden in Cumbria, Northern England. Hugh and Kirk went on to a Mosquito conversion course at Number 13 OTU at Bicester. After these two friends graduated from this course, they were assigned to two different but storied Mosquito squadrons (Bone to 487 RNZAF and Kirkpatrick to 21 Squadron RAF) and they would not reconnect until the 21st century allowed them to find each other on a Mosquito Forum called The Mosquito Page (Mossie.org). Since then, they are in nearly daily contact through email.

Recently, Hugh Bone shared with Kirk his personal memoirs, from birth to the present day and I was lucky enough to be allowed to read them too. Bone fits into that category of exceptional raconteurs who relate a magnificent history with a gentle sense of humour and a certain sadness, and without writing themselves as some sort of heroic and dashing daredevils imbued with sang-froid and accomplishment. Bone, like other writers we have known such as Bill McRae and Archie Pennie, writes only of his own story, on the ground, in training, in love, in combat and in the cockpit, but in so doing, gives a humble yet powerful voice to a generation of young men who went to war in the air, many of whom did not come back. His story is remarkably honest and forthright and I am honoured to have been allowed to read it.

At the end of the war, Bone’s 487 RNZAF squadron was disbanded and members moved to other squadrons. After taking “Passionate Leave” (a bit of squadron humour for Compassionate Leave taken to get married), Bone returned to occupied Germany and was assigned to 107 Squadron and promoted to Warrant Officer, then quickly to Pilot Officer (which he was at the time of this story, but by the time he was demobilized, he had the rank of Flying Officer). Not long after this, he was reassigned by request to 268 Squadron, an RAF unit that was largely populated by former New Zealanders from his old 487 Squadron. He was back home with his Kiwi brothers. Immediately upon joining 268, he was tasked with giving a few Army officers a familiarization flight in a Mosquito. What seemed like a walk-in-the-park milk run turned into a near fatal brush with death, long after the cessation of hostilities—a postwar vignette that shows us just how dangerous wartime flying was... even without the war. We pick up Hugh Bone’s story at that point. — Dave O’Malley

A Close Shave, by Hugh Bone

A day or so after rejoining the squadron, a number of army officers were attached to us for ten days, while some of our fellows went on exchange to see how the army functioned. We gave all of them a trip in a Mossie, and on 26 November, I was to give one of these officers a flight. We were to fly a formation of four, the lead aircraft consisting of a normal crew while the other three would have a pilot plus an army “bod”. Takeoff was at 1100 hrs and the meteorological forecast was for good weather but with a ground mist. More unsettled weather was on its way but wouldn’t reach base until evening. I was flying number four and, once more, I was flying a brand new aircraft, only just delivered to Bill Kemp a few days before. “Look Hughie,” he said, “you know what you did last time, try and bring this one back in one piece won’t you.” I assured him that I would. “After all,” I said, “they aren’t shooting at us anymore.” [During combat operations on 23 December, the previous year, Bone had been assigned Kemp’s other brand new Mosquito for a bombing operation near Prüm, a small city in Germany near the Belgian border. On that mission he had made a bombing dive from 1,500 feet. After releasing his bombs, he felt a concussion hit his (Kemp’s) aircraft, but assumed it was the shock wave from his bombs. The next day, much to the disappointment of his commander who had cautioned him to take good care of his “kite”, it was revealed that he had been hit by flack. “From about a foot behind the cockpit and all the way down to the tailplane, the fuselage was peppered with bullet holes while one bomb door had a great hole in it. But if it was an entrance hole there was no exit hole to be found and it was conjectured that whatever had hit us had occurred while the bomb doors were open, perhaps even an artillery shell from the ground battle,” wrote Bone in his memoirs.—Ed]



The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito was one of the finest, fastest and most versatile fighter/bomber aircraft of the Second World War. Possessing very good speed, massive firepower, and a highly useful bomb load, the Mossie made for an excellent low level penetration aircraft, able to approach at very low levels and high speeds. The FB Mk VI variant shown here, and flown by Hugh Bone, was also a fighter as the FB (fighter/bomber) designation suggests. Mosquito bombing raids were often escorted with other Mosquito Mk VI models acting in the fighter role.
 

I picked up my passenger, a Lieutenant Gil Rushton, and we took off on schedule, finding that the haze was rather thicker than forecast. Up ahead the weather looked even worse—very murky. We pressed on and were soon in thin cloud but we could still see each other as long as we held close formation. The object of the exercise was to show the army officers the local terrain from the air as well as their own ground positions, and there seemed little point in continuing with such poor visibility.

I called up the lead aircraft and suggested we abandon the flight. Instead, he decided to alter course from 045 to due north and continue on that course for a while. We didn’t know it at the time but we were flying deeper into the bad weather. It was now impossible to hold formation and I called again and suggested that we fly at “safety heights” from each other. He agreed to this and stayed at 3,000 feet, while we each stepped up 500 feet so that I was now at 4,500 feet. It was now quite dark and there were signs of icing, so I called up again and requested a course for base and an estimated time of arrival. With no navigator and no sight of the ground for 45 minutes, I was getting a little worried for our safety, especially as we bore the responsibility for the safety of the three army officers. The flight commander agreed that this was the most sensible course of action and, after a couple of minutes, he passed us a course and an ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival).

I called back to inquire what our present position was, but I only heard a couple of words of his reply when there was a loud crackle on the VHF radio followed by silence. My radio was dead. This was not encouraging, but there was an emergency switch. If you forced the switch through a safety wire it engaged a secondary radio. I’d never heard of anyone using it, not that I’d ever heard of anyone losing their radio either, but I engaged the switch and—nothing. No air to ground contact and no intercom.
 
I loosened my helmet and indicated to Gil to do likewise. “We have a problem,” I shouted, “the radio is kaput.” “What will you do?” he anxiously inquired. “We’ll carry on to our ETA on this course and hopefully break cloud somewhere. If we can’t make base we’ll find an airfield where we can put down,” I told him. I was not unduly worried, I had operated at night in equally bad weather and always got down safely so why not now? The problem was that I had no navigator, no idea of where we were and was unable to map read because of the cloud, and the weather would have caused a noticeable difference in the strength and direction of the wind since we took off.
 
On the ETA, we were still enveloped in cloud, so I altered course for what I estimated would be the shortest route for the coast, which we should reach after about fifteen minutes. If I had to descend through this cloud I needed to be over the sea or over very low lying land. The barometric pressure would be entirely different inside this front and the altimeter could give an entirely false reading. I flew on beyond the fifteen minutes and then started to descend. At 600 feet, I was still in thick cloud and dared not go lower, I was already too low for safety. I turned onto a reciprocal course and climbed to a safe height as I flew inland again.

I was now seriously worried, but I had to keep a calm and cheerful exterior for Gil Rushton’s sake. A few minutes later, I spotted a slight break in the cloud base with a glimpse of ground beneath. Precariously flying in and out of cloud, I made a steep spiral earthwards and when I broke clear, I was no more than 200 feet above the ground and in pouring rain. The visibility was appalling. Suddenly, there was a large black hill in front of me, the top enveloped in cloud and we were rushing towards it at 270 mph. I heaved back on the stick and prayed. We shot straight up into cloud again without hitting anything. I tried edging down once more and at the same moment I broke cloud, another black hill loomed in front of us. Once again I heaved on the stick and avoided the hazard, but it was now apparent that there was no way to get beneath this cloud. Try once more and we would probably kill ourselves. I discovered later that we had been over the mining district of Mons, and those big black hills were slag heaps from the mines.
 
I still had about an hour and a quarter of fuel left, so I decided to try my luck above cloud. Perhaps I could see the edge of the front from there. When I had reached 9,000 feet, it was still as dark as ever, ice was clanging off the airscrews onto the fuselage and the aircraft was sluggish to handle as it was covered in ice.

I explained the situation to Gil. Poor fellow, it was his very first flight. “There is only one safe way down for us now,” I told him, “and that’s by parachute.” He turned a pale and anxious face towards me. “Haven’t we sufficient petrol left to try a bit longer?” he asked. We had an hour’s gas left, but I thought that if I told him that he’d never jump. “Only ten minutes” I replied, hoping that he didn’t know where the fuel gauges were or how to read them.


 
Pilot and navigator sat very close together in a de Havilland Mosquito, the navigator displaced slightly behind the pilot. The crew escape (and entry) hatch was to the right of the navigator. It was because they sat so close together, that pilot Hugh Bone was able to reach over and eject the door and the passenger.

I instructed him how to put on the navigator type ’chute. “Just clip it on to those two rings on your harness. Right, when you jump, count slowly up to five and then pull that ripcord with your right hand.” He nodded that he understood. “Right, you see that red handle on the door, well that removes the door hinges, so you pull that free first.” He made a few half-hearted tugs to no effect so, acting as though it was a commonplace occurrence, I leaned over, gave a hard tug and removed the hinges. “OK, now release the door handle and give the door a hard kick.” He tackled this in the same unenthusiastic manner so I unstrapped and moved out of my seat and gave the door one good kick and away it went. Although I had reduced speed to 200 mph in preparation for the bail out, I wasn’t prepared for the tremendous noise that assailed our ears. The roar of the starboard engine plus the rush of ice-cold air made conversation almost impossible. “Off you go then,” I shouted, “see you down there later.” He sat in the door opening, hanging on to the side with both hands, not daring to jump. I gave him a push with my foot and he disappeared from view but I could see his fingers still clutching the opening and very faintly I heard him shout, “I’m scared.” No more scared than I am, I thought as I bent over and pried his fingers free.



A nose-on view of a de Havilland Mosquito Mk VI being “bombed up” by a couple of RAF armourers. Here we see the position of the escape hatch/crew door on the starboard side of the aircraft. Sitting on the left seat, pilot Bone would have had to reach across Rushton’s lap and down to the starboard side door... he could only do this by unbuckling from his harness. One can see that the propeller would have been turning only inches from where he exited the aircraft.



All though this is a diagram of a Night Fighter variant of the Mosquito, it demonstrates clearly the seat arrangement and placement of the escape hatch. The seat pan for the pilot’s parachute can be seen at lower centre. In the lower right corner we see the escape/entry hatch. The navigator’s seat pan would be between the pilot’s and the door, slightly out of this picture. We can see the need for the navigator/passenger to leave the aircraft first before the pilot can easily exit. There is a warning placard on the door that reads “BEWARE OF AIRSCREWS”. A too-enthusiastic leap forward would result in serious “headaches”. Image via 456FIS.org

Once he was away, my veneer of calm deserted me. “Must get out,” I thought, “I mustn’t start thinking or I’ll never get out.” Pilots were supposed to dive out of the hatch, there being the chance that the seat type ’chute could foul the opening if you went feet first. I nevertheless decided on a feet first exit. I climbed into the opening and took a last look at the instruments. “Oh my God, it’s in a steep turn.” If I’d gone then I would have hit the tailplane. I heaved it straight and level and jumped. In the thick cloud there was no sensation of falling. I counted to five slowly and pulled the ripcord. Rip was the word; I wasn’t wearing my own parachute which was being repacked. The harness on the one I was wearing was too loose and when the ’chute opened I felt a most agonizing wrench under my armpits and between my thighs. At least I hadn’t fallen out of the loose harness, and was now dangling under a canopy of silk in freezing cloud. I had been cool and calm during the emergency but now it was over, I felt a deep depression. The elements had beaten me and I’d lost an aircraft. Was there anything else I could have done? Would Gil get down safely? What if the plane crashed into houses or a street and killed people? We had been told that unless one was over a heavily built-up area, the odds were very much against anyone being killed. “You’d be surprised how much open space there is, even in overcrowded Britain,” our informant said. I was awakened from these morbid thoughts by the sound of an aircraft. Who else is flying around in this weather, I wondered. It came closer and I realized that it was at about the same height as I was. Then it whipped overhead with an ear-splitting roar and I swung on my ’chute. It couldn’t have missed me by more than a few feet and it suddenly dawned on me that it was my own pilotless aircraft. The sound returned and, once again, it seemed as though it was going to smash into me but again, it missed and the sound died into the distance and thankfully didn’t return.
 
I seemed to have been in the cloud forever, and when I finally broke cloud I was not far off the ground, and it was pouring rain. I myself was like a snowman, covered in a layer of white ice. I can see the scene as clearly today as all those years ago. Beneath me were ploughed fields with an intersecting road, which had telephone wires along the nearside. A man was cycling along the road and there was a farmhouse in the near distance. I shouted to the man, it wouldn’t be every day that he’d see someone descend out of the clouds, but he naturally looked behind and to the side, but not up. It looked as though I would foul the telephone wires. I drew my legs up into my chest and just scraped over, landing splat into the mud of the ploughed field. The quick release button on the ’chute became filled with mud and I was so frozen that there was no strength in my hands and I was dragged through the mud for some distance before I could finally free myself of the harness. I was now plastered in mud from head to toe and when I tried to stand, I promptly fell flat on my face again. I had strained both knees when landing and that, combined with the cold, caused me to fall. By this time some people had emerged from the farmhouse and they quickly helped me to my feet and stumbled along to their house. They were quite wonderful. I was close to the village of Fleurus and the nearest military were the Americans (again!) at Charleroi. The farmer contacted them while I sat in front of a roaring fire wrapped in a blanket while Madame dried my battle dress. Goodness knows how she achieved it but an hour later she presented me with a clean and dry uniform. I was unable to shake off the cold and the reaction from my recent experience, and was shaking like a leaf. I couldn’t stop myself no matter how hard I tried.



Though Bone was unhappy abandoning a perfectly good aircraft (except for the radio), his main concern was where the pilotless Mosquito would come down—hopefully not into a populated area. He would learn later that it crashed into open farmland near the town of Fleurus, Belgium. Photo illustration by Dave O’Malley
 
Finally, a truck arrived from Charleroi, and the American driver was cold comfort. The plane had crashed and five of the crew had been killed. I pointed out that it was a crew of two and both of us had bailed out. Oh, it must have been civilians that had been killed then. I was beside myself with worry, wishing myself dead instead of innocent civilians. At Charleroi, I was shown into a waiting room that contained a desk with a sergeant sitting at it and, glory be, Gil Rushton, sitting on the floor with his rolled up ’chute beside him. He leapt up and put his arms round me. “Thank God you are safe,” he said, “you saved my life.” Almost lost it for you, I thought sardonically. He had also been given hair-raising tales of casualties, ranging between four and ten dead. We learned later that the aircraft had crashed in open farmland and the only casualty was a large hole in the ground. The kind folk that had rescued me had given me a meal but the Americans had given nothing to Gil. Again, Americans were treating me in a manner that bordered on contempt and they had no respect for the fact that we were both officers. They treated their own officers with scant respect so they had no respect whatsoever for officers of another army, or the fact that we had just come through a rather unpleasant ordeal. We tried to find an officer to make a complaint but with no success. Gil had no memory of his descent, he pulled the ripcord and then blacked out and the next thing he knew he was being transported in a lorry. Obviously his ’chute had opened into his face and knocked him out, which was borne out by the very painful neck that he was nursing. We both needed the toilet and were directed up a flight of stairs where we would find toilets. There was a long corridor with doors on either side and I couldn’t help but laugh, it was so comical. Gil was in front, and at each door he had to bend his whole body in order to read what was written on the doors. We must have looked a sorry pair, Gil with his neck and me hobbling along on my injured knees.
 
We sat on the floor of that waiting room for three hours. We were not offered a chair nor were we offered a cup of coffee. The sergeant just ignored us as if we were not there. We weren’t US Army so we were of no account. Finally, a car arrived from base and drove us home, and we lodged an official complaint, hoping that it would be passed on to the Yanks. Next day, we were welcomed by the whole squadron, and Bill Kemp, rather than being mad at my losing his new aircraft, congratulated me on my course of action, agreeing that I had done everything possible and that he would back me to the hilt at the official enquiry. Oh, official enquiry, I hadn’t thought of that. It took place two days later, and the result was an official whitewash. The main culprits were the meteorological office that had given us a completely duff forecast. Fortunately, the forecast had been passed to the squadron office on the telephone, and all such calls were recorded, which bore out our statement that there had been no mention of the incoming front.
 
However, they said that the squadron commander should have double-checked as we were carrying passengers and no navigator. As the pilot, they said I should have continued to fly towards England as the weather was still clear there, but commended my putting the safety of my passenger first. It was a whitewash, not putting blame on any one party. The blame actually laid fairly and squarely at the meteorological office’s door. The lead aircraft had just got in to base before the weather had closed right in and he stated that he’d never have made base without a navigator. Gee fixes had shown them to be well off course because of a change in the force and direction of the wind and it was the navigator’s skill that had plotted a new course and got them back to base. The two other aircraft diverted to Brussels where there were ground approach facilities. One landed safely but the weather was so bad that the other pilot had difficulty in seeing the runway and had made a bad landing, damaging the undercarriage. It was altogether a “bad do”.
 
There was, however, a consolation prize to this adventure. The Allies were using Brussels and Paris as leave centres and the Americans had bagged “Gay Paree” while the British forces were allocated dull conservative Brussels. There was an RAF officers hotel in Paris, but only for such officers that had duties in the city. Bill Kemp worked a four-day pass for Gil and I, and I persuaded him to give one to my friend Alf Hewitt, a NZ navigator. The hotel was the Commodore on the Richelieu-Drouot, which was nothing short of luxurious. We fell under the spell of the city and visited all the famous sights by day and the Folies Bergere and Casino de Paris by night. There were not many RAF officers on duty calls to Paris so the Commodore was never more than half full, which we noted for future reference. Both Alf and I were determined to revisit Paris at the earliest opportunity. Gil Rushton was none the worse for his adventure and became one of the few army officers that could wear the emblem of the Caterpillar Club, awarded to anyone that had saved their life by using an Irving type parachute. He would have quite a tale to tell when he rejoined his unit.




A couple of portraits of author Flight Lieutenant Hugh Bone taken after the war. Though he was an Englishman by birth, Bone served the bulk of his combat flying with 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force and therefore proudly wore the “silver fern”, worn as an unofficial decoration by many New Zealanders, especially aircrew, on the left breast pocket. Photos via Hugh Bone



Born in Odiham, Hampshire, Hugh Bone is English through and through, but sharing many combat ops with a superb fighting unit like the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s 487 Squadron, he was proud to wear the silver fern worn by RNZAF aircrew. Here we see a close-up of that pin. Image courtesy of ww2wings.com



Hugh Bone (front row, far right) and members of 487 Squadron RNZAF pose with one of their war-weary Mosquito Fighter/Bombers. Hugh has high praise and fond memories for his flight commander, Squadron Leader Bill Kemp, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, sitting fifth from the left in the front row.  Kemp would eventually become Wing Commander. Photo via Hugh Bone


The end of the war brought peace and contentment, but also tragedy. Here, a few of the Hugh Bone’s 268 Squadron mates, pilots and navigators, get their photo taken on the boardwalk at Sylt, Germany with the North Sea to the left. The war-weary men are Bone (left), Louis Precieux (from Mauritius), Ted Bowden and John Emburey. Ted Bowden, the “chunky fellow” at the back, flew two operational tours with the Wing Commander Paddy Maher. Just two hours after this happy photo was taken, Maher and Bowden, engaged in gunnery practice, were killed on takeoff at Sylt. Bone relates the incident which he witnessed: “Their aircraft was about 100 feet above the ground and the undercarriage retracting when the starboard engine cut out, the plane flipped onto its back and dived straight in and blew up. It was a terrible tragedy, to have operated throughout the war and then to die in an accident. Only two hours before, Ted had been walking along the promenade with myself and a couple of other fellows and we had our photo taken. Now he was dead. We accepted death as a way of life during the war, but now, after a year of peace, this tragedy affected us deeply, especially as Paddy was such a popular leader.” Photo via Hugh Bone



The author, a youthful and sartorial Flight Lieutenant Hugh Bone, veteran Mosquito fighter/bomber pilot, at home this year in Göteborg, Sweden, where he lives with his beautiful wife. Of his wartime experience, Bone had this to say, “It was seven years since the commencement of the war, undoubtedly the most eventful years of my early life. There was sadness at the high cost in lives within even my own limited horizon. Of the hundred names on Palmers Roll of Honour, I knew twenty-five personally and some of those were good friends. Others, such as Bob Major and Sticky James, were severely disfigured. What happened to many of the friends I made during training I will never know, but on the law of averages I doubt whether more than 50% survived. Of those with whom I trained in the latter stages, it was less than 50% that survived. There were the losses of friends on the squadron, losses of men that were not on the squadron long enough to get to know, and I have been forever grateful for being granted so long a lease of life when so many lost theirs when they were no more than 21 or 22 years of age.” Photo via Hugh Bone

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