Howard Witwer’s Story – Surviving a Mid-Air Collision

Following his wartime career, Howard Witwer was posted to No. 407 Squadron during the mid-1950’s and flew a number of times aboard the museum’s Lancaster FM-159.
In 2001 he was a special guest at the museum’s “Salute to the Lancaster” during which he participated in the unveiling of a painting honouring the greatest of the Canadian-built Lancasters, KB732 X-Terminator.

Over 55 years have gone by since this episode took place and much has been forgotten. I will do my best to recall as much as I can.

I have been asked many times by family and friends to put my experiences down on paper, but have been reluctant to do so. I do understand their interest about that part of my life, so now I will try to bring some of the highlights back.

I was trained as a pilot, transferred Overseas after graduating July, 1943, eventually going to 419 Squadron at Middleton, St. George, Durham County, North England. This was a Canadian squadron in 6 Group. It was there that I converted onto the Lancaster Aircraft. (Less than 10 hours flying time) and I was ready to fly bombing sorties over enemy territory.

I had crewed up a short time before this. All my crew were Canadians, except for the engineer, who was British. We had completed 10 trips over Europe. Our 11th trip was a night operation to the city of Russelhiem, the target being an ammunitions plant. Our take off was about 9 pm. My assigned aircraft was the Lanc named “The Ruhr Express”, the first Lancaster built in Canada. The OC of the Squadron. W/C W. Pleasance told me that I had been selected to bring this aircraft home to Canada after I had completed our tour (about 30 trips over enemy territory was considered a tour). But that never happened. This aircraft developed engine trouble at the end of the runway that night, therefore we had to switch to the spare aircraft. It was a brand new one and had just arrived from Canada. Its side letters were VR-Y. Most Squadrons seemed to have an aircraft with a side letter that had a very short life on a Squadron. “Y” had that reputation in 419 Sqd.

After all the checks were completed, we got the green light for take-off. We had a routine climb to a designated rendezvous before setting course for the target, and establishing our altitude at 18,000 feet. Our bomb load was 13,000 pounds of high explosives.

At the briefing just prior to departure, we were given all necessary information about the mission, such as time of take-off, time to be at the rendezvous, course to fly, altitude, what and where we might encounter flack, searchlights, and fighters. We were also briefed on the target, and how it would be identified and marked by the master bomber with colored flares. Then a meal before being taken to our aircraft.

Our instructions were to fly south of the target, then make about a 100 degree left turn, and then have about a 30 mile run into our aiming point. This operation was carried out in darkness, with many other aircraft in the bomber stream, some briefed to be at your same altitude, with no navigation lights on. The only way you would know if there were others around you was by flying through someone’s slipstream, or if you were close enough you might see their red hot engine exhaust pipes. We had to be very near each other to see that.

I had just completed the turn, checked the compass, noted the Master Bomber’s flares at the target, when out of the corner of my eye, another aircraft was right there at the same altitude. I made an effort to evade a collision. As we had a closing speed of approximately 180 MPH there was really no time to avoid contact. I did feel a little “click”, I thought that I was very lucky if that’s all it was. But not so. Within a few seconds the nose dipped. I tried to bring it up, when all of a sudden we started to go down out of control. I wasn’t able to gain control over this tumbling aircraft. I still had my safety harness on, but I could see some members of the crew being thrown around. I yelled for them to bail out. It seemed that they were trying to get to the escape hatch, which was down in the nose. I kept trying to maneuver the controls, with negative results. It was then that I decided to release my safety harness and help the rest of the crew to abandon ship. As soon as I did that I was thrown against the roof, then landing on the floor. I have no recollection as to what happened after that until I came to, falling through the air. (The pilot on the Lancaster was the only crewmember who wore a seat pack (parachute)) I realized where I was so I groped for the “D”ring, pulled it, and the chute opened. Just then I heard a huge explosion, and then I was dangling from a tall tree. Then there was another explosion nearby It had to be the aircraft crashing. [Of the fourteen airmen aboard the two Lancasters that collided, Howard was the sole survivor.]

Now it was about 1a.m. and I could not see the ground, and had no idea how far I was from it. I wasn’t content to hang there until it was daylight so I hit the quick release on my parachute harness and had a free fall to the ground, which I estimated to be about 10 to 15 feet. I took stock of my injuries, which were just some cuts on the head, a big cut in my tongue, and some bruising all over. No broken bones though.

I lay there on the ground until daylight, I guess I slept a little. With the aid of the compass that was in the survival kit that we all carried on all trips over Europe I decided to start walking in a southwest direction, hoping to make it to Switzerland. I soon got to the edge of the woods, so the problem of staying out of sight became more of a problem. I did crawl quite a distance on my hands and knees. I managed to stay out of sight until about 5 p.m. of the same day, when two farmers saw me crossing a road. They yelled something and came after me and I was hoping they would help me to escape. It didn’t turn out that way. They escorted me to a small village nearby. Many people came out to see this “terror fleiger” as I was paraded to the local jail. Some people shouted “nasty” words at me and threw stones. The village officials informed a military garrison near by of my capture. They sent an army person on a motorcycle ahead to take over custody of me. The plan was to have a vehicle come along later and pick me up and take me to a larger lockup. The guy with the motorcycle got impatient waiting for the vehicle to come along so he ordered me to push the motorcycle and head out of the village in the direction of his base. When we were out of sight of every one he ordered me to stop. He pulled out his revolver and stuck it in my back and told me in no uncertain terms to get into the ditch. I refused because there didn’t seem to be any doubt on what would come next. Fortunately the vehicle to pick me up arrived at this time. I was then taken to a jail where I spent the next few days. The jailers said I slept for the next 36 hours.

I was then moved to Dulag Luft (an interrogation center for Airforce POW’s). I was kept there in solitary confinement for several days and interrogated two or three times. All kinds of questions were asked, military as well as personal. I was astonished at how much intelligence they had on my squadron. It was here that I was informed that I was the only survivor of the two aircraft that crashed after the collision, 13 good men perished.

It was time for me and several other POW’S to be moved to a permanent camp. We were assembled in a confined area. The group included several Americans, British, and some Canadians. We were all a little apprehensive of each other because we had been briefed at the squadron that the Germans could put impersonators with us in an attempt to derive more information from us. Two of us put our trust in each other and became friends. (His name was Stuart Fleming from Vernon, B.C.) He later became an MP in Ottawa and also Mayor of Vernon.

We then had several days on a train (most of the time in sidings) before we arrived at Stalag Luft 3. This was a permanent POW camp at Sagan, about 90 miles South East of Berlin. It housed several thousand commissioned aircrew of all nationalities. There were 5 separate compounds, each holding about 1500 “Kreigies” (POWS). The one I was assigned to was known as the East compound, which was next to the Americans. There was a high board fence between the two so there was no contact with them.

We arrived at the entrance to the camp under armed guard one morning in early September, 1944, to be welcomed by several eager POW’S. They were interested in who we were, if they knew any of us, had we been on the same course as them, what was the latest war news, and when was the war going to end. They also wanted hear about Jane’s latest adventures. Jane happened to be a lady in a comic strip in one of the English newspapers. It seemed that the producer of that strip had difficulties drawing clothes.

Each of us was assigned to a room. The room I was sent to was occupied by eleven others and was very over-crowded. Of course there were no extra beds, so the old timers of the room started to take one of the boards that could be spared off of the other bunks and furniture. I ended up in the top bunk of a triple decker. This room might have been 15 feet square, and held a stove, small table, some chairs, boxes for shelves, as well as the bunks. Much of the storage space was under the beds. By the way, my mattress was a sack filled with wood chips and shavings. Not one of “Beauty Rest’s” top line.

Our room held four Canadians, a New Zealander, two Australians, a South African and four British, all strangers to me. They all had been POW’S from six months to two years at that time. All good guys, and we got along well. Each one of us had a task to do – like keeping the room tidy, and cooking. This was done on a rotation basis. The Germans supplied some bread (black) in the mornings and usually a hot thin soup at noon. But our main staples came from the Red Cross parcels which we received one a week when I first got there. These weighed about ten pounds each and contained powdered milk, concentrated chocolate, spam, instant coffee, margarine, crackers and five packs of cigarettes. There might have been more but the memory is slipping. Most of the food parcels were American. About once a month we received a Canadian Red Cross parcel in place of the American, and once in a while we got a British parcel. Within a couple months or so, as the Germans were having greater problems maintaining their transportation network, the parcels were reduced to one every two weeks. Then the hunger pangs became more frequent, but we hung in there -a good way to lose weight.

The POW’S had no direct contact with the Germans, only our designated leader, Group Captain Wray (Canadian) or his Wing Commander, and they passed all relevant information down the line. There were Goons (Germans) wandering around the camp most of the time. The name that was given to them was “Ferrets”. Their job was to snoop everywhere looking for escape tunnels, secret radios, holes in the fence etc. The Germans held a head count (appell) twice a day, just to make sure no one went missing. When there was a discrepancy in their numbers we could be lined up for some time. As this was the camp that the Great Escape took place, and fifty were captured and shot, the German instructions were “ESCAPING WAS NO LONGER A HOBBY’. The Geneva Convention states that it is the duty of POW’S to escape. But it was believed then that the war would be over by Christmas 1944. That estimate was a few months premature.

Much of our leisure time was taken up walking the inside perimeter of the camp. That was the best way to socialize and talk without the Germans listening in. This perimeter had a low warning wire about ten feet from the barbed wire. Inside the barrier was a “no go” area. If you were caught in there the guards in the towers would shoot and ask questions later. If a ball or something should land within this area, a designated coat, which was hanging nearby, had to be donned and the guard alerted to the situation.

He would then give you authority to retrieve it. We did read books from the library, play ball and soccer, played many card games, (that’s where I learned to play bridge). There were many talented people with us. They gave talks, and gave courses on many subjects. Also had a few amateur actors who put on plays etc. The Geneva Red Cross supplied most of the equipment needed to carry out these activities.

We received a special Christmas parcel (American Red Cross) canned turkey etc. Some of the guys made raisin wine, but its supply was limited. As the military situation then was getting touchy, it was recommended that the wine consumption be kept under control, as sometime when one has consumed too much, he may do something that could be hazardous to one’s health. So drinking was discouraged.

We were quite well informed of the war situation, by German radio, and our own secret radio, tuned into the BBC. The news was monitored daily, copied out and read in every barrack building usually around noon. We had to be sure that no Germans were in the vicinity. There was quite a bit of aircraft activity, mostly to and from the Eastern front as the Russians were getting very close. About the middle of January, 1945 we started to hear gunfire etc, and see glowing in the night sky to the East.

Later that month the rumor went around that we would be moved out, somewhere to the west. Then on January 28 we got the order to prepare to go that night. There was snow on the ground and we didn’t have adequate clothing or shoes for that venture in the middle of winter, so we had to prepare for it with what we had.

Some of us put together a sort of sleigh, made out of bed boards etc. We gathered up all the food, blankets, clothing and anything that might come in handy.

About 9 p.m. we were ordered to the gate, and there we each received another Red Cross food parcel. We took out of it what we wanted and the remaining contents were discarded in the snow. Almost everyone kept the cigarettes (for the habit as well to barter with), chocolate, spam and anything else we could carry. My sled was overloaded by that time.

As there were several hundred POWS assembled, it took some time for the gate to open and start the trek. This happened around midnight. There we were all strung out, in somewhat of a formation, very unmilitary, in total darkness, and not knowing what to expect. All we knew was that we would be going in a westerly direction. I do not remember now how far we went on the first day, or where we spent the first night. There were guards every fifty men (estimate only). Quite often they could not be seen so there was plenty of opportunity to escape. But the prospect of trying to evade the middle of winter was not a very good option, since we believed the war would end any time. The rumor went around that the guards had no ammunition for their rifles and that the hand grenades they carried were phonies, no proof though. We stopped about every hour for a rest and something to eat. After two or three days my feet got very sore, and stiff. I found it difficult to start walking again after the stop. The shoes that I was wearing were the bottoms of my flying boots. They were made so that the tops could be cut off and discarded, leaving the shoes only. The idea being that you would not be so conspicuous when trying to evade. Since the shoes were sheepskin lined as well as the tops, they were not very suitable for walking. Much of the time in camp I wore wooden clogs which I found most comfortable.

The first few days on the march we had a variety of overnight accommodations. We “slept” in barns, a Catholic church, and in a glass factory. That was not too bad because the blast furnace was still on so we were able to get warm again. Most of the time we had to huddle up to keep warm.

The weather turned milder about the second day, the sleds became useless so were discarded. Then we had to carry everything. The non-essential things were left behind, including my diary. If I had that today, this task would have been much easier.

We did see German refugees fleeing from the Russians. They were packing all their belongings and hoping to find safety somewhere. They were a sorry looking lot.

There were always aircraft in the air, mostly German. There was always a danger of being strafed because it must have been difficult for the fighter pilots to identify all the movement on the ground. We did see dog fights in the air and some aircraft shot down.

We were probably on the forced march for five or six days before we arrived at a railway depot. Then we were loaded into box cars that were labeled on the outside in German – 8 HORSES OR 40 MEN. There were about 45 of us in the one I was directed to. It contained no facilities of any kind. This was our home for a few more days, although a lot of time was spent on sidings, when they gave us the privilege to get out to stretch, exercise etc. To me this was better than walking, because my feet were very sore, even though there was the ever present threat of being strafed by our own Airforce.

We (most of us) arrived safely at another POW camp near Bremen in early February. Conditions there were not as good as at Sagan, but we made do for the next two months. The British army was getting too close, as far as the Germans were concerned, so the second forced march began. At least the weather was more favorable this time. Again my feet were very sore as my “new” shoes were no better than the others. The Germans had some box cars available to transport some POWS, so they asked for volunteers to take the train. Again many were reluctant to go because of the risk of strafing, but my feet did the thinking for me and I got aboard the train. We arrived at Lubeck safely a few days later.

The British were getting very close. We could hear a lot of gunfire, and there was much military activity, both in the, and on the ground. On May 2nd British tanks appeared in the distance, and we were finally liberated. Our liberators rounded up all the guards that were left and escorted them to an open-air compound. Although we were free we were not at liberty to wander outside the camp because the army were still wiping up resistance of a few holdouts. We didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them.

The transportation that was provided for the return trip to England happened to be another Canadian built Lancaster. There must have been 15 or 20 of POWS who were flown to an airdrome in the UK, where we were deloused, showered, fed, and received our belongings that had been left behind. I was then transported to Bournemouth, to await passage home. We missed the VE Day celebrations. We didn’t care. It was good to be home.

I arrived back home in Acme Alberta, June 30,1945 and married Joyce McCoy Oct. 20, 1945. I rejoined the RCAF in 1949 and retired in 1968. We have one daughter Gail Ann, married to Bill Walter and they live in Vernon, B.C.

P.S. from Joyce. Howard passed away Nov. 23, 2002 and is greatly missed by family and friends.