Seven Thousand Feet and Falling

Digital Art by Piotr Forkasiewicz

Seventy-two years ago this weekend, on the night of 16–17 January 1943, 20-year-old Flight Sergeant Andrew Carswell was in trouble. Deep trouble. He was the pilot and commander of 9 Squadron Avro Lancaster WS-A (RAF serial number W4379). Somewhere over the city of Magdeburg, Germany returning from bombing a heavily defended target in Berlin, he was hit by heavy and accurate flak. His starboard engine was on fire. His aircraft was in an uncontrollable dive. The fuel tanks were threatening to explode. It was only his fourth mission. This night would end his flying war, but it would not end his fight nor would it end his long flying career. Carswell’s memoir, called Over the Wire, is one of the most gripping tales of survival, evasion, imprisonment and escape I have ever read—stranger and more wonderful than fiction. His publisher has agreed on this anniversary of his bailing from his doomed bomber, to allow us to publish Chapter One - Seven Thousand Feet and Falling for your enjoyment. The rest of the book is no less enthralling and one of the best war memoirs one can find, though in very limited print. Carswell’s son John has donated 300 of his books to Vintage Wings of Canada and 300 to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (CWHM), who operate one of only two flyable Lancasters in the world. At the end of this story, if you want to read more, you can order this rare book directly from CWHM and the proceeds will be shared by these two organizations dedicated to keeping alive the memory of our great aviation heroes of the Second World War. - Dave O’Malley, Vintage News

Here now is, Seven Thousand Feet and Falling:

 

There was no sensation of falling. I seemed to be floating motionless in space as I heard the high-pitched scream of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines rapidly fading away into the cold blackness of the night.

Suddenly a slight popping noise interrupted my dreamlike state, there was a rustle like a flag in the wind, and I was jerked straight toward the stars at 120 miles an hour as the parachute harness cut painfully into my crotch. The faint scream of engines in the distance stopped. There was a muffled explosion. Then, except for the sound of my parachute, a deathly silence.

In contrast to the blackness of the sky, the stars were so bright I felt as if I could touch them with my fingertips. It was deadly cold – twenty or thirty below zero Fahrenheit. Here I was, a nineteen-year-old boy, not long out of high school, thousands of feet up in the air, swinging from a parachute not far from Berlin, floating down into the middle of enemy territory.

A mile or so below me were dark woods, moonlit fields, and a silvery river. The swinging had stopped and everything was motionless, silent. I felt very alone. A few seconds ago there had been nothing but noise: the roar of four 1250-horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin engines trying to tear themselves apart at more than three thousand revolutions per minute. The thump of exploding anti-aircraft shells all around us. The scream of air rushing by when Paddy Hipson, our bombardier, pulled the emergency releases on the escape hatch, exploding it out into the roaring darkness. The flames from number three engine eating into the leading edge of the wing, flickering brightly, inches away from the main fuel tanks, with their thousands of gallons of high-octane gasoline.

I had just dived through the forward escape hatch of a burning Lancaster bomber, hurtling toward the ground at more than three hundred miles an hour, with my parachute chest pack hooked onto my harness by two flimsy-looking hooks, and my right hand firmly clutching the D ring. Being left-handed, I had listened to many a story about lefties who had panicked in just such situations and had hit the ground still clawing with their left hands at a nonexistent D ring. I had also heard stories of those who had panicked and pulled the D ring too soon, filling the cabin with parachute silk, and not getting out at all. This was my fourth operational trip over enemy territory, with only a few hundred hours of flying experience, captain of a four-engine bomber with a crew of seven, and I was the only one on board who knew how to fly the plane.

A little more than a year previously, I had graduated from high school, having just passed my eighteenth birthday. It was the summer of 1941. Being of legal age to enlist, although too young to legally drink beer, full of patriotism thanks to the propaganda of the day, like most young fellows I enlisted in the RCAF – the Royal Canadian Air Force.

I had recently seen James Cagney in Captains of the Clouds, a Hollywood movie about a hotshot Yankee bush pilot who joins the RCAF as a pilot and proceeds to win the war almost single-handedly, so I decided that I would be a pilot.

By pure luck I was chosen as a pilot trainee, not having obtained sufficient marks in mathematics to qualify as a navigator. Being very healthy and also very fast – I’d been trained in running by the school bully – I easily passed the physical tests.

In those days, in the normal scheme of things, you joined the air force as an aircrew candidate, then waited your turn for selection and training. It took months, and sometimes years. You were given a blue RCAF uniform with a little white flash in the wedge cap, to signify that you were an aircrew trainee, filled full of vaccines and serums, and immediately marched around in the hot sun in a heavy wool uniform until you almost passed out. You were taught how to march and how to curse and swear and tell dirty jokes by disgusting little men called “discip.” corporals, who seemed to be just slightly under God in the powers assigned to them by the government.

The trusting souls would then be given a rifle and assigned security guard duties at some obscure aerodrome in Saskatchewan until a course came up at the ITS (initial training school), where he would be tested, trained, and selected for one of the three aircrew categories.

In 1941, new schools were opening regularly, and while our group was at the manning depot in Toronto, anxiously awaiting a posting to security guard duty, a new ITS had opened in Belleville, Ontario. Magically, our group was sent there instead of some more deserving group that had done its stint of security guard duties and that would logically have been next in line for the course.

Leading Aircraftman Andrew Carswell (second from left, third row from the top) stands proudly for a group photograph of “G” Flight, No. 2 Squadron at the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 5 Initial Training School at Belleville, Ontario on Lake Ontario. The date was October 1941. Photo: Carswell Family Archives

Naturally, we didn’t complain. We considered ourselves to be the lucky ones, short-circuiting the normal procedures. None of us realized that a fast track through the training system for many of us was just a quicker ticket to oblivion.

After a couple of months in ground training and selection at the ITS, some of us were selected as pilots, some as navigators, and the rest as air gunners. Most of my classmates were killed, one way or another, before the war ended, and I would have been too, I suppose, except for my “bad luck” on January 17, 1943.

My “luck” persisted, and I was selected as a pilot trainee. More “good luck.” No leave, no waiting; a new course for pilots was opening up at number 12 EFTS (elementary flying training school) at Goderich, Ontario, and there I was posted. Sixty or so flying hours later on a biplane called the Fleet Finch, I graduated from elementary flying training and was reassigned to number 5 SFTS (service flying training school) in Brantford, Ontario, to learn how to fly twin-engine planes on the good old reliable Avro Anson. So I was to be a bomber pilot!

At No. 12 Elementary Flying Training School in Goderich, Ontario on Lake Huron, 18-year-old LAC Andrew Carswell stands beaming with pride next to a Fleet Finch (4581). Two years later, this particular Finch was lost in a Category A accident at Goderich. Photo: Carswell Family Archives

Elementary flying training students practice formation flying on Fleet Finches somewhere over Canada in the early 1940s. Photo: From copy print LAC-Canada. D&D-PL 4178

Student pilots (white cap flash denotes a BCATP student) of Course 15 at No. 12 EFTS pose inside a flight line hangar with officers and a Fleet Finch. LAC Andrew Carswell is fourth from the left in the front row. The date was Remembrance Day, 11 November 1941. Photo: J. Gordon Henderson via Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol

A close-up of the previous photograph reveals the youth of the student pilots who will soon put their lives on the line—many still in their teens. Andrew Carswell is fourth from the left in the front row. Photo: J. Gordon Henderson via Huron County Museum and Historic Gaol

Number 5 Service Flying Training School, where Andrew Carswell did his Service Flying Training. This image, so typical of training facilities across the country, reveals several details of a typical base—crash truck, control tower and concrete gun butts for testing and aligning aircraft guns. Photo: RCAF

Andrew Carswell flying an Avro Anson at three thousand feet on his second cross-country training flight, Canada, 1942. Photo: Carswell Family Archives

An Avro Anson cruises over the shoreline of either Lake Ontario or the Ottawa River. Anson 7150 served with both the Test and Development Flight at RCAF Station Rockcliffe, Ottawa and the Test and Development establishment at RCAF Trenton, Ontario. Photo: From copy print LAC-Canada. D&D-PL 9658

We envied those who had gone on to service flying on single-engine Harvard trainers, for they were destined to be fighter pilots – a glamorous job that everybody in the air force wanted. Despite this, I felt lucky. Others who had enlisted with me were still waiting for their initial training, or had “washed out,” and here was I, well on my way to getting my wings.

I was still a fairly innocent young man when I got my wings in the summer of 1942 – a not uncommon condition in those days. My idea of a wild night on the town was to invite a girl to the corner drugstore or to the White Spot hamburger joint for a milkshake or a Coke, which would set me back about fifteen cents. The Beach district in Toronto where I grew up was like a small town in those days, and still is to some extent. Most of us there went to the same high school and bummed around on the beach in the summer. There was a boardwalk along the lake, exactly a mile long, from Beech Avenue to Woodbine Avenue. Most of us could jog down to Woodbine and back without even breathing hard. The couples smooching on the benches in the park facing the boardwalk paid us no heed, nor we them.

Now I was more than a mile above the brightly lit countryside, and just floating. I could tell by the speed at which I was drifting across the ground that a strong wind was blowing from the northwest. We had passed through the top of a weather front, with clouds, turbulence, and icing, and had entered the clear, cold, and moonlit night sky of northern Germany. The temperature was about forty below zero Fahrenheit at twenty-five thousand feet and the cockpit windows had been so badly frosted on the inside that, when the searchlights hit, all we could see was the inside of the aircraft, and our own white, frostbitten faces. The aircraft heaters were ineffective at that altitude, and even the sheepskin jackets, pants, and flying boots, called Irving suits, couldn’t erase the chill from our bones – or was it fear? There was a lot of that also.

I had been anxious at the ops briefing when I saw that our target was Berlin again, for the second night in a row. Same route, same altitudes, same turning points, exactly the same in every respect as the night before. The rationale was that the Germans wouldn’t believe that the RAF – the UK’s Royal Air Force – would be stupid enough to use the same route two nights in a row.

After the briefing, my crew and I had filed into the mess hall for our traditional bacon and eggs, a big treat in wartime Britain, where the average civilian might see an egg once or twice a month. One of the experienced captains at the next table was expounding to his crew on what a great opportunity this was going to be. He was a flight lieutenant with twelve operational trips to his credit, the crew one of the most experienced on a squadron that had been decimated so many times recently that twelve was a pretty respectable number. Nobody had completed a tour of operations (thirty trips) for quite some time and was not likely to for some time to come, unless we could find a way to keep the Germans from shooting down our squadron members in such numbers.

The more inexperienced the crews, the more unconcerned they tried to act. The bravado and the wisecracks only covered up the creeping realization that there was a good chance all of us were going to die. No one on the squadron had finished a tour of ops for a long time, the most experienced captain having survived only twelve operational trips.

But I couldn’t believe it would happen to me. In the books and movies, and the war stories, the “good guys” always survived. So we all believed, or tried to believe, that we would be the ones who survived, and that the “other guys” would be the unlucky ones.

Andy Carswell (right) and his brother Jim pay a visit to their parents in Ottawa for Christmas of 1941. The Carswell boys’ father was an electrical engineer who had moved to Ottawa to work for the Department of National Defence. Andy was now a sergeant pilot with his new wings, while his brother was in the Canadian Army. Jim Carswell graduated from the Royal Military College and served in the Artillery. After the war, Jim worked in the U.S. space program (Nike, Titan, Mercury, Apollo, and Space Shuttle) where his specialty was trajectory analysis. Photo: Carswell Family Archives

On a sunny day in England, likely at their Lancaster conversion course, Andrew Carswell (right) and a crew member pose with a Lancaster. We assume this is at the conversion course as Carswell was only operational for four ops before being shot down in mid-January. The weather in this shot looks decidedly warm—perhaps in the fall. Photo: Carswell Family Archive

A 9 Squadron Lancaster takes off from England. Photo: Imperial War Museum

January 1943 had been a bad time for Bomber Command. Whenever the enemy brought out some new weapon or improvement in its air defence, we would lose some more bombers. When the RAF countered with an advanced technique like “G,” a radio navigation device that allowed our forces to navigate in bad weather and bomb through clouds, we would lose fewer aircraft. Then the enemy would counter with another new device, like radar-directed searchlights, and more of our crews would be lost. It was like a game of chess, played by generals and air marshals, and politicians. We were the expendable pawns.

January 17, 1943, was one of those nights when the Germans seemed to have all the cards, including the weather, and they were waiting for us all along the route. Our route was from a point on the east coast of England, straight across the North Sea to Denmark, with its heavy German flak batteries, and out across the Baltic Sea, to a point more or less due north of Berlin. There we were to turn south and fly directly over Berlin, where the Pathfinder force was to have laid down all sorts of marker flares, and drop six or seven thousand pounds of high explosives and incendiary bombs on a given marker.

History would later show that most of these bombs never hit a specific target, but when you drop tens of thousands of pounds of high explosives over the middle of a large city, there is bound to be very heavy damage, particularly to the civilian population.

I had heard tales of British aircrew who, when rounded up by the irate German citizenry after a particularly heavy air raid, were strung up on the spot. I heard similar stories about hapless German crews, arriving by parachute in East London after a particularly bloody raid, done in by the local populace. These stories may have been apocryphal, but I suspect there was more truth than fiction in some of them, considering the circumstances.

Aerial view over the Schöneweide district of Berlin near the Landwehr Canal on 16–17 January 1943, the night of the attack. The white patches are from heavy anti-aircraft guns. Photo: C 5713 / Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942–45 / Imperial War Museum

The exact Schöneweide suburb of Berlin today. It is ironic to note that Johannisthal (upper left corner) was the site of the first airfield in Germany, opened 26 September 1909, just a few weeks after the world's first dedicated airfield was built at Reims, Framce. Photo via GoogleMaps

So here I was, in a plane diving almost straight down, near a town called Magdeburg, not far from Berlin, with a fire in the starboard inner engine that was burning into the wing. I hauled back on the almost useless control column with all my strength, trimmed back the elevator trim as far as it would go, and tried to appear calmer than I actually was.

“Jock” Martin, my Scottish flight engineer, was acting pretty cool too, methodically picking up the parachute chest packs from the rack on the starboard side, reading the names in the flickering orange light of the fire, and handing them out to the navigator, bombardier, radio operator – and me. Considering the careless way some of us treated our chutes in the crew room, I think he wanted to make sure he got his own.

I had managed to get the crippled and burning aircraft into a more moderate dive and gave the order to “bail out,” in what I hoped was a fairly professional tone. The fire in the starboard inner engine had refused to go out, despite the engine fire extinguisher, and was rapidly eating its way toward the main fuel tanks still containing hundreds or more gallons of high-octane aviation gasoline. In seconds the fuel tanks could explode!

Paddy Hipson, our Irish bombardier, pulled the release pin on the forward escape hatch, and the pad on which he had been lying minutes before, as well as the hatch, was ripped downward into the roaring darkness. The front cockpit of the Lancaster was now full of engine noise from the three remaining Rolls-Royce Merlin 1250-horsepower engines screaming above the roar of the wind, with papers, maps, and debris being sucked into the dark void. Paddy hesitated, then stepped into the black hole, and disappeared.

Jock Martin carefully folded up his jump seat on my immediate right, opening up the way to the nose compartment, and proceeded forward. Without a pause he dived head first through the opening, clutching his chest pack with both hands. Our English radio operator and air gunner, Eddie Phillips, followed him out smartly without even a nod in my direction. I was glad to see them going out so fast, as the aircraft seemed about to explode, with bright orange flames steadily eating into the wing, only inches away from the fuel tanks.

An Avro Lancaster Flight Engineer reaches back to flip a switch on his engine instrument panel during flight. He is sitting on a fold-down jump seat. It was this seat that Jock Martin folded up and out of the way to allow other crew members access to the forward escape hatch. Photo: Imperial War Museum

A view forward from Eddy Philips’ position (Carswell’s Wireless Operator) shows the extremely tight space for crew members. The seat facing to the left was John Galbraith’s Navigator position. He and Andrew Carswell were the last to leave the aircraft. This and the following illustrations are courtesy of Piotr Forkasiewitcz, a Polish Digital artist of prodigious ability. To view more of his exceptional work, read A Terrifying Beauty or visit his astounding website at peterfor.com

The pilot’s position in the Avro Lancaster. The crew would have to hold on to the yellow handrail and step down into the Bomb Aimer’s compartment and dive through the open hatch. Illustration by Piotr Forkasiewicz

A view of the parachute escape hatch in the Bomb Aimer’s position down in the nose of the aircraft. Carswell’s Bomb Aimer, Paddy Hipson, was tasked with opening the hatch by pulling the release ring. All the forward air crew would then make their way to this small hole in the aircraft in their bulky gear and parachutes and, while the aircraft dove to the ground out of control, make their escape—in darkness. Illustration by Piotr Forkasiewicz

A strained voice over the intercom from the mid-upper gun turret – Joe de Silva, an Englishman, older than the rest of us, married with kids – “I’m stuck! I can’t get out!”

Then Claude Clemens’ voice, our Canadian rear gunner: “Hang on, Joe! I’ll go and yank him out!” A long pause, then Clem’s voice again: “He’s okay now, Skipper – he’s out of the kite now, and I’m right behind him.” Then silence on the intercom.

We were below ten thousand feet now, and the altimeter needle was spinning down at an alarming rate. The cockpit was full of noise and wind. I was straining with all my strength to hold back the control column. The airspeed indicator was past the red line, and the noise from the open hatch was deafening. The four throttle levers were back to idle, but the props were still winding up. There were only two of us left, John Galbraith, our Canadian navigator, and me.

John’s intercom was unplugged, the cord dangling from his leather flying helmet. I grabbed his shoulder, pulled him to me, and screamed in his ear, “Get out, you dumb bastard!”

He looked at me with a strange expression on his face and shouted back over the noise, “We can get her back home!”

I grabbed the dangling wire on his helmet, pulled his head over to mine, and shouted into his ear, “Look at that fire, you fucking idiot! We’re going to blow up any second and you’re standing there arguing! Get the hell out! The controls are shot and I can’t hold it any longer! If you don’t get out, I’m going anyway!”

“Turn onto a heading of two seven zero, due west,” he yelled in my ear, “and we’ll get out of here.”

“Don’t be an asshole!” I yelled. “We’re heading straight for the ground!” We were now at about seven thousand feet.

He stood there, his parachute chest pack already hooked on, and looked at me with a strangely wild stare that I had never seen before. My parachute pack was still on my lap where Jock had dropped it. I let go of the control column, picked up the parachute pack, and clicked it in place on my chest harness.

“Out of the way, then!” I yelled and pushed by him. I grabbed his collar and pulled his face close to mine. “You’d better follow me now – you’ve got about ten seconds!”

He stared at me with wild eyes. Then I dived through the open hatch into the roaring black hole, clutching my parachute pack to my chest.

In all of the heroic aviation stories that I had ever read, the captain was always the last man to leave the ship, even if he was only a sergeant pilot. And I was the second last man to leave my ship! I didn’t have time to argue with John. I knew that in seconds we were going to blow up in the air, or crash into the ground. I hoped that he would come to his senses if I clinched the argument by diving out ahead of him. I had another strong motivation: I didn’t want to die!

James Cagney or other movie heroes of the day probably would have knocked John out with a clean punch to the jaw and carried him out of the burning aircraft. I wasn’t built in such a heroic mould.

We found out later that he wasn’t in the plane when it hit the ground and exploded. And I figured that I’d seen the last of my Rolex Oyster wristwatch that John was wearing that night. My father had given it to me for my eighteenth birthday. It had been inscribed with my name and service number, and date of my first solo flight. I had lent it to John that night. So many crews had been lost on the squadron in the past few months that the supply section had run out of standard-issue navigation watches. John, needing a good watch to navigate with, had borrowed mine. He still had it on when he went out the hatch – if he went out the hatch.

I’d never made a parachute jump before. In those days, paratroopers spent months training for their jumps, seldom jumped at night, and never jumped when the wind was strong. This, my first, last, and only jump, was at night, with a bitterly cold surface wind at about forty miles an hour from the west, and twenty-below-zero-Fahrenheit temperatures. When the plane was at twenty thousand feet, the wind had been close to a hundred miles an hour. No wonder we were well off course, and over Magdeburg instead of Berlin.

By now, in the bright light of the moon, I could make out the fields, woods, some little villages, and a river. As far as I could estimate, I would probably pass over the woods and land some distance past the river. I was hoping that I wouldn’t land in the river when, with a crash, I tumbled through the treetops almost in the centre of the forest. It happened so fast that I had no time to prepare for it. One moment I was drifting rapidly over the woods, seemingly thousands of feet in the air, and the next moment I was dangling high above the ground with my parachute hooked in the top branches of a large pine tree.

After the noise of crashing and branches breaking, there was a sudden and eerie silence. I found myself swinging gently and helplessly a few inches from the trunk of a tree, twenty feet above the ground. The wind had been knocked out of me.

I hung there thinking that half of Germany must have heard the racket and would be coming after me. Minutes passed, and the silence was deafening. I could hear the blood thudding in my eardrums. I couldn’t be dead because I was starting to feel the cold. And my crotch hurt!

When I was a small boy in the Beach district in Toronto, I spent a lot of time climbing trees. I’d scaled a few sixty-foot elms and chestnut trees in my neighbourhood. That skill now paid off. I swung myself over to the trunk of the tree, climbed up a foot or two to loosen the tension of my parachute shroud lines, and punched the quick-release button over my belly.

My harness swung clear, and I slid carefully to the ground, leaving my parachute and harness dangling from the top of the trees. I sat down on a large root at the base of the pine tree, lit a cigarette, and tried to take stock of my situation.

I seemed to be deep within a pine forest. The trees were tall and fairly close together, with patches of moonlight in the clearings lighting up the deep snow, which reflected into the woods around me, casting everything in a ghostly light. A full moon shone down and the stars seemed brighter than usual. There was no wind inside the forest, although I could see the tree tops above me swaying. It was deathly quiet, and extremely cold.

I began to wish that I had worn my full Irving suit. Although I was wearing the sheepskin jacket and boots, I hadn’t bothered with the heavy sheepskin pants because they restricted the movement of my legs and feet and affected the quality of my rudder control, especially when landing. I had been rather vain about my ability to “grease in” the sixty-five-thousand-pound “kite” without bouncing it on the runway. Now, doing a smooth three-point landing didn’t seem very important.

I had ripped off my leather helmet, earphones, and oxygen mask just before diving through the forward escape hatch, so my head was bare. I was glad that I hadn’t been able to get a haircut for the past three weeks, for my thick brown hair was now keeping my head reasonably warm. I pushed the fur collar of my bomber jacket higher around my head and warmed my ears with my hands. My thin, RAF-issue leather gloves had a silk or nylon lining, great for flicking cockpit switches and pushing throttles, but not exactly designed for winter cross-country hiking.

I examined my escape kit, a standard issue to all aircrew: some chocolate bars and pills, a very large jackknife, bottle and can opener, compass, hacksaw blade, hard candy, emergency rations, a large silk map of Europe, and some French and Dutch money. I removed my right flying boot and one of my two pairs of wool socks, then carefully folded the silk map and placed it so it would be between the two layers of socks. The combination hacksaw blade/compass I put between the two socks on my left foot. (The two-inch hacksaw blade was magnetized; to use it as a compass you were supposed to hang it by a thread from a hole in the middle of the blade. The sharp end would point north.) There was a “wakey-wakey” pill to keep one alert, supposedly to be used in an emergency. This seemed to be an emergency. I wasn’t particularly sleepy – but I took the pill anyway.

I finished off the chocolate bar, distributed the rest of the escape kit in various pockets of my uniform, and walked into the middle of a clearing. Most of the northern constellation, including the Big Dipper and the North Star, was exactly where it was supposed to be. I was probably not the only person looking at the North Star that night, but I was pretty sure that few others could have felt as alone and insecure as I did.

I could hear very faintly in the distance the sound of an air raid siren sounding the All Clear. The reality of the situation was beginning to sink in. This was no Hollywood movie scene, where the hero miraculously stumbles onto an Me 109 Aerodrome, fools all the Nazis with his flawless German and perfect disguise, jumps into a waiting Messerschmitt – which just happens to have its engines running and enough gas to get it to England – and flies back into the waiting arms of his girlfriend, after shooting down a couple of enemy squadrons on the way.

This was for real! A boy pilot with a few hundred hours’ flying time, no knowledge of the German language, a very elementary knowledge of European geography, and no particular talents except the ability to run, climb, swim, camp, paddle a canoe, and fly a four-engine bomber, stuck in the middle of Germany!

“If that’s north, then this must be southwest,” I thought, lining myself up in the proper direction, and starting out in a generally southwesterly direction. I knew that Holland was in that direction, about four hundred miles away, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do other than to sit where I was, and it was much too cold for that. Walk I must, or I would freeze to death.

The large sheepskin collar of my jacket, when turned up, almost covered my ears, and I thanked the designers for having such foresight. With my hands stuffed into the jacket’s side pockets, I trudged through the deep snow in the silent forest, trying to maintain my direction.

The brilliant moonlight fell in pools in the small clearings, the reflected light making every tree and bush stand out eerily. The only sound was the crunch of my boots in the crisp, new snow.

I came across a road, crossed it at right angles, and re-entered the forest. I ploughed through many deserted fields and quite a few frozen creeks. Trying to jump a small creek, my foot went through the ice, up to my knee. I could feel the cold water seeping in. I pulled my boot off, shook out some water, and stuffed it back on. My hands were numbed by this small operation, and the toes of my wet foot were losing their feeling.

Keeping moving seemed to be the only way to keep warm, so I trudged on. My watch said that it was two o’clock in the morning. It didn’t seem possible that I had been walking for more than four hours. I wasn’t sleepy or tired – probably the result of the pill in the escape kit that I had taken. God only knows what powerful drug it contained – and I had never taken anything stronger than Aspirin.

The rest of the night was an icy horror, staggering and shuffling through the empty woods and fields. There were no Free French, Dutch, or Norwegian Resistance workers to smuggle me out of the country.

The truth was that I was an unimportant, expendable sergeant pilot who happened to be lost more or less in the centre of Germany, with no idea of how I was going to get out, not to mention that I had just recently attempted to drop several thousand pounds of high explosives on its capital city, a fact that might annoy some of the more excitable citizens.

These thoughts were going through my mind as I dragged myself across ditches, over fences, and through fields and woods, falling regularly and brushing off the snow mechanically. The sky was growing light to the east behind me when I fell for the last time in a field just short of what appeared to be a fairly well-travelled road.

I got up, looked at my ice-encrusted legs and half-frozen feet, pushed my numb hands back into my jacket pockets, and headed for the road. A basic survival logic took over.

I could hide in the woods, and the Germans would never find me. Not till spring, anyway. And then all they would likely find would be a half-rotten corpse, nibbled at by wild animals. Or I could walk down the road, and maybe someone would capture me and lock me up in a nice warm jail! The sun was starting to come up. I had been walking for seven or eight hours and it was now about five or six o’clock in the morning. I’d eaten all my chocolate, candy, pills, and everything else edible in the escape kit.

My mind made up, I walked boldly down the deserted country road, fully expecting at any moment to hear the sound of a military vehicle bearing down on me. Nothing. I might as well have been walking on the moon. In the distance, about a quarter of a mile down the road, I could see that there was an intersection of two roads. The road to the left appeared to lead to a small village.

When I arrived at the crossroad, I stopped, looking toward the village. A few hundred yards down the road, on the right-hand side, was a small-frame, two-storey house, with a short driveway on the far side and some sort of outbuilding behind. A dog barked in the distance. There was no other sign of life. I walked toward the house.

Even now, sixty years older and a lot smarter, I still can’t think of any alternative to what I did except freezing to death in the woods. Still, I felt guilty about simply surrendering to the first German I came across, particularly after the scene with John Galbraith. I had thought about it all night as I stumbled along through the snow, and hoped and prayed that he had made it out of the escape hatch – he would have had plenty of time. The aircraft had been in a shallow dive and had not exploded until it crashed, quite a while after my parachute had opened.

Andrew Carswell

Sergeant Andrew Carswell (fourth from right in back row) poses with fellow inmates at a German POW camp. The next chapters of Over the Wire together paint a powerful and emotionally draining image of defiance. Photo: Carswell Family Collection

A detail from a page of the 9 Squadron Operational Record Book (ORB) dealing with the crews that went out on the 17th of January. It shows that Carswell was flying Lancaster W4379 and took off at 1654 but did not return. Photo: 9 Squadron ORB

To determine the aircraft code of the Lancaster W4379, we refer to the ORB pages from the previous night (16 January) in which he also flew W4379. The summary page indicates this was aircraft “A”. Photo: 9 Squadron ORB

Andrew Carswell at Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in 2014. The ceremony took place with the Lancaster inside the hangar. Each of the seven crew positions was honoured with the attendance of a Second World War Bomber Command veteran of that position. Andrew Carswell represented the pilot’s role in the Lancaster team. He wears his Escaper’s Tie Pin, his Irving parachute silk worm pin, Bomber Command clasp and Air Crew tie. He did not get the Aircrew Europe Star. It was required that he fly operationally for two months to qualify... but he was shot down on his fourth operation. He also wears a peacetime Air Force Cross. Andrew Carswell went on to a peacetime flying career with the RCAF flying, amongst other aircraft, the Canso flying boat on Air Sea Rescue missions on the open water. Photo: John Carswell

 

BUY THE BOOK and Support VWC and CWHM

Your purchase of this excellent memoir will do two things. Firstly it will supply you with a gripping story of life in German Prisoner of War camps and two almost successful escape attempts. Secondly, your purchase of this book will help keep the Lancaster flying and support organizations like Vintage Wings of Canada and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

What People are saying about “Over the Wire”

“His story exemplifies the courage and integrity of the generation that sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom ... The greatest single attribute these men who enlisted possessed was the virtue of high moral character and a willingness to do their duty ... It is my pleasure to recommend this book wholeheartedly. Read it, it will make you proud to be a Canadian.”

-T.J. Lawson, Major-General, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff National Defence, Canada

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“Because I did not have the luxury of reading Andrew Carswell’s fine book in one sitting as I would have liked, I was forced to parcel it out over about 30 days. This reading was always done in bed right before going to sleep. A book written in such a descriptive, personal style such as “Over The Wire” provides an “immersion experience” for one such as myself.

Throughout this past month, during the day I would find my mind “re-living" scenes Andrew described the previous night. I could see the people he met during his life-changing two and a half year incarceration. They were like my memories. Thank God I did not experience the cold or the evil smells he describes.

“Wire” really pulled me in and is a great memoir and tribute to the courage and undauntable spirits of Carswell and his comrades in arms. I highly recommend this book. 

- Bryan FitzGerald, Film Maker, Writer, Adventurer, FitzVideo.com, Witchita, Kansas

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”This is a quiet Victory in Europe story ... Carswell’s story of personal liberation in the dying days of World War II, and his harrowing bailout over Germany, reads like an epic.”

-Scott Simmie, The Toronto Star

If you wish to purchase a copy of Over the Wire, just click on one of the links below.

Hardcover http://www.warplane.com/gift-shop/books/over-the-wire-hardcover-book.aspx
Softcover http://www.warplane.com/gift-shop/books/over-the-wire-softcover-book.aspx

The Cover of Over the Wire courtesy of CounterPunch Inc, book designers

Vintage Wings of Canada would like to thank John Carswell for sharing his father’s story. As well we would like to thank digital artist Piotr Forkasiewicz, Mindy Shea at Vintage Wings of Canada, Linda Gustafson and Peter Ross of CounterPunch Inc, book designers and above all, Andrew Carswell who lives in Toronto.

 

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