At the age of just 19, Bob Allen joined the RAF to fight in World War II. Within six months, he was in No.1 Squadron flying a Hurricane in a dog fight over the Channel. On 25 July 1944, Bob was shot down, and the RAF informed his family that he had been ‘killed whilst on operations’. He spent the rest of the war in POW camps including the infamous Stalag Luft 3, where he was held in solitary confinement and interrogated by the Gestapo. In 1945, Bob underwent the infamous winter march before finally fleeing the camp and making his way to safety at the American HQ in Torgau.
Building on Bob's careful third-person memoir with detailed research, his daughter Suzanne Campbell-Jones, author of No Ordinary Pilot, tells the gripping story of a more or less ordinary man, who came home with extraordinary memories. Today’s blog post, an extract from the book, recounts the day Bob Allen was shot down and captured.
American war correspondent Ernie Pyle spent the night of 24 July in an apple orchard near Pont-Hébert. Bob Allen spent a miserable night in his tent being sick. Just before dawn he was called to breakfast and briefing. Ernie Pyle watched fighter-bombers dive in over the battle line. Then he heard a new noise, ‘a sound deep and all encompassing with no notes in it – just a gigantic faraway surge of doomlike sound’.31 Clouds of B-17 and B-24 bombers darkened the sky. Bob was climbing into his aircraft, number MN600. He turned the engine over. It coughed. It would not start. Leaving his parachute in place he climbed out and took over a spare aircraft, R8693. Another pilot had already been through the cockpit drill and left a parachute. Bob struggled to get the clips together. It was tight. He got it fastened as he was taxiing to catch up and take off with the squadron. He took his place leading the second flight. They were to search for a concentration of vehicles in woods close to the Orne River, south of Caen. About 20 miles away to the west, on the Saint-Lô–Périers road, Ernie Pyle took shelter by a stone farmhouse as a huge concentration of heavy bombers – estimates put the total at around 2,500 planes – dropped 5,000 tons of bombs, including white phosphorus and napalm, crushing their own soldiers, the enemy and the civilian population in the devastation. It has been described as ‘among the greatest concentrations of killing power in the history of warfare’.32
The Typhoons of 266 Squadron were still gaining height as they arrived at the front line. They were greeted by puffs of anti-aircraft smoke. They were high over their target, a group of 20 or more vehicles hidden in a wood 4 miles west of Thury-Harcourt. At 10,000ft the leader called them to attack. He dived down with the first group of four aircraft and began to circle the area. Bob, leading the following flight some 200–300 yards behind, flew straight into heavy flak. Bursts of fire and smoke surrounded them. Still the formation leader continued to circle, orbiting the area looking for the target vehicles. As yet another shell exploded close to his canopy, Bob cursed quietly into his silent microphone. He wanted to call out. ‘Watch out. For Christ’s sake get on with it. Dive down and attack or we’ll be hit.’33 At last, with irritating deliberation, the leader peeled off and began his attack. Bob had to hold back for a few more seconds to avoid colliding. The flak got worse. Finally. He put his wing over and began to dive at 45 degrees. As he dived he spotted the target. A glint of what might be metal in some woods just where the enemy was supposed to be. He set his sights. His aircraft had accelerated fast in the steep dive. He had to wait. The correct rocket-release height was 3,000ft. Then he could press the button and climb away. Out of trouble. At around 5,000ft he was about to start firing his cannon before releasing his rockets when there was a loud thump from the tail. His plane, still diving fast, began to yaw out of control. He had been hit. He released his rockets in the general direction of the target and tried to pull the aircraft out of the dive.
Bob struggled to pull his aircraft up but it continued to plunge. Rolled on its side and dived steeper and faster. He realised he was in serious trouble. His instinct was to jettison the canopy and get out. But that would leave him in enemy territory. He tried again to control the aircraft. To fly on. The dive continued out of his control. He pulled the canopy-release lever. The Perspex bubble over his head disappeared. The windscreen remained in place. He still stood a small chance of regaining control. But the aircraft was not diving straight. It was flying out of true. A slipstream rushed through the cockpit from side to side, pinning him hard back against the seat, so he could hardly reach the control column. All hope of saving the aircraft was lost. Now a basic instinct for self-preservation kicked in. He released the pin of his safety harness so he could get free of the aircraft. He felt the harness go. The buffeting slipstream sucked him out. Out over the cockpit and over the tail of his plane. His aircraft went on crashing downwards. He felt for the ripcord on his parachute. It opened immediately. He was swaying some 800ft above the ground.
Fast approaching the fields of enemy-held Normandy, Bob looked around for somewhere to hide. Then, suddenly, he was down with a thump. Landing with some force in a cornfield that had just been cut. The breath knocked out of him. He breathed slowly to recover and released his parachute. It drifted across the field. He was standing in the stubble with bare feet. His flying boots and socks had been sucked away as he left the aircraft. His right ankle was sufficiently painful to make walking, let alone running, very difficult. That cut down his chances of escape. And now there was the sound of gunfire. Running across the field came a number of German soldiers fi ring at him. They looked determined to stop him evading capture. Bob reluctantly decided that he would have to surrender. He stood still. An excited posse of young Germans raced up. Surrounded him. Pistols and rifles at the ready. ‘Hände hoch!’ they shouted. Bob let them take the rather large .45 Smith and Webley revolver that he always carried. The soldiers, who were obviously from the group that had just been attacked, were nervous and jumpy. Afraid of another attack. They hurried him across the field. He stumbled across the stubble in bare feet to the shelter of the wood he had attacked only moments before.
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