When on 10th May 1940, Hitler’s troops crossed the Maginot Line into Belgium, it brought them into confrontation with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were rushed up from France. To support the BEF, the RAF mounted the first real ground attack raids of the war so far, and what a dreadful experience it was going to prove to be.
One of the first of these operations was mounted in the afternoon of May 11th to bomb an armoured column between Mastricht and Tongres At 16.30 hours Squadron Leader Pryde took his bombers down into the attack. The defences, in and around, Maastricht to put up a dense curtain of flak as the Blenheims shallow dive-bombed and gained hits on an assortment of vehicles that clogged the road. Aircraftman P.Charleton, the airgunner in Pilot Officer P. MacDonald’s Blenheim, P6806, was killed by shrapnel during the attack, while no less than eight of the Squadron’s aircraft were unserviceable the following morning.
21 Squadron Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Jack Bartley noted the details of this raid in an entry in his diary of May 11th 1940. “. . . Paddy Charleton was killed by the only bullet that hit the machine and pierced his lung. Pretty successful raid despite the Ack-Ack over target and from points all the way over.”
Aircraftsman Harry Osbourne was with the Squadron ground-crews at this time and wrote to Colin Waugh on the subject: “It was not long before I got myself involved in a traumatic situation for a young man. In order to get injured airmen out of the Blenheims, a wire strop had been devised which hooked on to the straps of the parachute harness and in turn to the overhead crane in the hangar. This enabled the casualty to be winched out quickly, or so we thought
One day an aircraft appeared in the circuit firing red Very cartridges, landed and then taxied in at a fair rate, being marshalled into the hangar under the crane. The Medical Officer, ‘Doc’ Buckler, and ambulance were standing by and it could be seen that the casualty was the rear-gunner, so the MO jumped up to attend to him. He disappeared through the top hatch but no one else moved so I clambered on to the wing to render what assistance was necessary.
The gunner was sitting on his seat with his eyes closed and his head resting on the ring of the turret, just as though he were asleep. Buckler made his examination and word was passed down that the man was dead, killed by shrapnel that had entered his back. It now came apparent that there was a breakdown in the system, since if the chap had had the faintest chance of getting away with it; he could easily have lost his life through lack of expertise.
To explain what went wrong it must be pointed out that with a hydraulic turret; the seat went down as the guns were raised and, conversely, came up when the guns were depressed They were in the latter position when the unfortunate occupant was killed and as the MO tried to get the body out he found that it had jammed in a curved position. I shouted for him to press down firmly on the lip of the seat so it would bleed down. This he did and the body fell back.
The sling was then attached and I called for the crane to be raised. Slowly the body began to emerge but it was obvious that something was wrong and hindering the withdrawal; his foot was caught in the pedal of the turret and I had to call for the crane to be lowered while the MO freed it. Then up again, only to be halted when it was found that the chap’s helmet was still plugged into the wireless socket and was caught round his neck. Out came my knife and the wire was cut through. Slowly the body came out of the hatch and I guided it over the side and down, where it was placed on a stretcher, put in the ambulance and driven away.
The excitement passed, I slowly made my way down off the wing and outside the hangar. There I lit a cigarette and sat down trying hard to stop myself from shaking as delayed shock took over. I was on my second cigarette when one of the lads came over and said the flight commander wanted to see me. Entering his office, and wondering what I had done wrong, I was surprised to find myself being congratulated for showing initiative as it was patently obvious that some technical assistance was very necessary in such circumstances.
I was then asked if I could pick two colleagues to assist me and take over the job of helping the MO in similar circumstances. My first reaction was ‘no-way’ that incident had shaken me quite enough but after some persuasion, I saw that it might mean the saving of someone’s life, so I agreed.