She was all but out of control now, and I knew that I couldn't hold on much longer. I had heard Bob on the intercom telling Ken to "get that bloody hatch open". Well, Ken had opened it and I had seen three of them out when I thought quite suddenly that as yet no one had given me my parachute pack. "Where's my ..... chute?", I bawled down the mike, and almost before the words were out of my mouth - bang - the bulky thing hit me in the eye. Tom must have given it to me as he should have done in a practice drill, only more so! By this time both starboard engines were stopped with props feathered; the whole of the starboard wing was on fire and control was difficult to say the least, as I could hardly see my instruments - the glasses reflecting the flames. At this point the port inner engine dropped right out of the wing.
World War II Halifax bomber
At last both clips of the harness were fastened and I had undone my Sutton harness and torn off my helmet, and oxygen mask. All I had to do was bale out. Easier said than done. As soon as I tried to get out of my seat and let go of the controls, the stricken aircraft did very unusual and undignified things to me. What I have written probably Took place in a few minutes. Cutting the port engines right back and letting the machine take up a steep glide seemed to answer the requirements fairly well. Out of the seat I clambered and in trying to descend to the parachute exit I slipped and fell heavily. I didn't even feel the bump. My heart was beating like a steam engine and I scrambled along the floor for the open hatch. The aircraft was now rearing with her nose well up for I had quite literally to climb up to the hatch along a normally level floor. At last I reached the edge, crouched, and dropped through into space, with a fleeting vision of the huge aeroplane like a wounded bird. One wing was streaming blood-red flame and the starboard wheel, which had been locked up, was now hanging down, the great tyre a ball of flame.
Soon the first silvery streaks of a new day hit the eastern sky. It was about four o'clock when I had crossed the wood, travelling away from the crash and uphill, hoping to spy out the country from a better vantage point, and inwardly cursing the rapid approach of daylight. Once free of the wood and avoiding the skyline I gained a crest quickly enough. A village lay to the south-east. Open country with little cover stretched away to the other points of the compass but almost due south I could see what appeared to be a small, solitary farm. I had gone almost due north to get to my observation point, so that in order to gain the shelter of the farm buildings I must retrace my steps through the wood. This proved to be more difficult than I anticipated for I crossed it for the second time in the even denser part and forded a stream at its edge, before I gained a farm track that led I estimated in the general direction that I wished to take. Keeping off the track behind the hedge I walked or scuttled as cover dictated until the barn I had seen from the hill came into view. Alas, it was not an isolated farm as I had hoped but was attached to a large prosperous looking farm standing at the edge of a village. By now the sun was peeping over the horizon and I decided on risking the odd early riser, and made boldly for the barn. The village was still asleep and I reached the building without mishap. In one corner was a great stack of baled straw and I was even provided with a ladder, already placed conveniently against the straw. I could hardly believe my good Fortune, and lost no time in climbing the ladder and slipping down between two large bales on top of the heap.
From my position I could see without being seen if I kept low. As the day wore on several people passed by but I made no effort to attract their attention as I intended to wait until I could get a person unaccompanied before I would make myself known. I reasoned that two people together need not be in each other's trust, so I was content to remain hidden and felt a little depressed for the first time. It was decidedly hot under that tin roof later in the day, and I was relieved to hear the footsteps of a single person around two in the afternoon. A moment later a lad of about fifteen years of age entered the barn carrying a pitch fork. I made urgent little hissing noises and said foolishly enough "Garcon", which served my purpose for he looked up at me wonderingly. I beckoned him with my forefinger and he complied mounting the ladder still in possession of his pitchfork. The conversation which ensued was quite fantastic as every few words I would have to stop and think of a word, or else stop him in the middle of a reply or question, with a feeble "Pardon, je ne comprends pas." However, after a few minutes I learned that I was at a little village, (the name of which escapes me) near to the town of Fismes, which in turn was half way between Rheims and Soissons. The lad said he would go for the "patron" and left me.
It was arranged that I should start walking that night and shortly after this first visit the good farmer returned with my disguise. I donned it and parted with my battle dress and flying boots. I was arrayed as a peasant, in dark grey trousers, a darker coat, which was sadly short in the sleeves and could not be buttoned, a green high necked pullover, a cloth peaked cap and large inflexible army boots. He gave me change for two pounds, which I had in my pocket. Neither of us knew the exchange rate and doubtless one of us lost heavily on the transaction. I was told to be ready at eleven that night, when the farmer would take me to another farm where a man who spoke English would like to see me.
At about midnight a low whistle ended my vigil and the old man was at my side once more. He had a shoulder bag with him and a pair of blue trousers. By the light of a dim flashlight we packed the little bag and prepared to leave. The curfew imposed by the Germans in these parts was form 10 pm to 6 am. The old man impressed it upon me that to be found abroad during this period was to ensure a bullet for oneself - an exaggeration no doubt but given helpfully. Accordingly we walked on the grass by the roadside making no sound and showing no light. Soon we left the road and struck out across a level plain, crossing potato fields and rough arable land for about a mile. The barn was a high structure open sided, and very common in those parts. In a nook hidden by straw bales we found two men, one, could speak English I was reminded. It turned out that his knowledge of our native tongue was a myth apart from the fact that he could say "I speak English,- God save the King", "What is the time please", and a few other phrases. So we fell back on my French, which if very rusty, did produce more concrete results. I learned that there were many German soldiers in the locality. I was provided with a Michelin road map of the district, some more salt pork and bread, from the "English speaking" man and a great deal of advice and encouragement, which was in parts contradictory.
Soon the older man left us with a firm handclasp for me, and his interpretation of "Good luck", which surprised me. I think he must have learnt his short speech especially for the occasion. I felt genuinely sad as he made off into the night. Shortly afterwards the other two and I set off. They were to take me to the road, which would lead to the main highway between Rheims and Soissons. After nearly half an hour we came to a rickety signpost which stood at the convergence of three sandy tracks. I was shown my road and set off, after thanking my helpers, with much hand shaking between the three of us. So far so good I thought. At last I had made what I considered quite a promising start.