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Story gleaned from The Advance - November 2016

An unusual and harrowing experience with a British 4-engine Lancaster bomber and three U.S.A. B-24 four-engine bombers: November 1945 – Naples, Italy

Written by WWII soldier, Bill Humphries shown at right, who was one of twenty British soldiers being flown home to England in a fleet of 20 brand new Lancasters that never participated in WWII nor were ever fitted with guns in the turrets, nor bombs in the bay. These planes were delivered after the festivities of the end of the war were over. It was an easier and more economical method of transportation to return the soldiers home compared to sea travel. Time was also a factor.

This true story is being written so a record of such an episode should not be lost. There was not a film made nor a picture taken to the best of the writer's knowledge, nor does he know of any other soldier who may have recorded the episode.

After a good breakfast, approximately 20 Lancaster bombers were lined up ready to take 20 soldiers in each to be returned to England. Naples airport was under dual control – the British Air Force and the United States of America Air Force.

Each Lancaster took off in the morning as time of flight was scheduled at 5 hours non-stop to somewhere in England. I do not know the names of the four crew members, but the pilot was 21-years old. I was 23 years old and had served four years overseas.

The flight seemed to be going along nicely riding above the clouds. Each soldier in his turn would have the opportunity to enter the top turret and swing it around to see the sights of such beauty from so high up. After approximately 60 to 90 minutes, I took my turn in that turret. While swinging around, I noticed two streams of oil flowing half way across the right wing. I called the crew member who assisted us to advise him to look at it. He soon went down and advised the pilot who immediately shut that engine off, causing the plane to fly at an angle. He let us know that we could still make it with the fuel we had. There was only a half-an-hour of extra fuel in the tanks.

All kinds of wisecracks were made about me not being allowed to get in the turret again. Approximately 40 minutes later, some soldiers did not take their turn, so I went up for the second look around. Lo and behold, the same motor on the left side was pouring oil on the wing. I called the crew man. After he looked he went up to the pilot. Again, action taken was to shut down that engine and then turn back to Naples. He then flew level with only the two smaller engines. Naples Airport is located south of town. The sea is west and close to the airport. To the north and to the east are mountains.

The pilot advised us of his options. He decided he had no other choice but to land ASAP. The two small engines could not lift the plane to take a second attempt. The British kept sending up green flares. The U.S. kept sending up red flares. Our pilot said there were three B-24 four- engine bombers lined up for takeoff. Despite the confliction of flare signals, he decided to proceed with his original decision. The time is two or three minutes after 12:00. We were approaching fast and intending to fly over them and land but at 12:05 p.m., the U.S. bombers roared into life to take off.

Normal landing speed for a Lancaster is approximately 85 m.p.h. We were going in at 140 m.p.h. because of the smaller engines needing to keep the plane airborne – and that is all they did – assist the plane to fly. The larger engines had other functions – supply brakes to the wheels, supply air to the landing flaps and generate the power for everything else in the plane. We were now just ahead of the first U.S. plane which soon was ahead of us. We dropped behind this U.S. plane very hard which caused us to bounce back up so high that the second U.S. plane flew under us and we dropped behind him, but we bounced up again high enough for third U.S. plane to fly under us.
Again, we bounced, but not quite as hard and continued to bounce until we were nearly at the end of the runway and then skidded onto a ploughed field before we were actually slowing down. Needless to say, it was a "bumpy ride."

Our Lancaster finally came to a stop with the wheels 10 feet short of a deep irrigation ditch. The British had all the fire and crash equipment in case anything happened.

Plus, all the top officers were amazed that one of the biggest aviation crashes did not happen. They praised the 21-year-old pilot for so skillfully controlling such a big plane with only two small engines with no other controllable parts to assist it. We too expressed our appreciation and thankfulness for our very survival through such an unbelievable episode. We were on the ground for approximately 10 minutes when the reaction set in.

Everyone was shaking severely enough to make it very difficult to light a cigarette. Army trucks came along to take us back to barracks. We were scheduled to fly out again the next day.

The options available in such extreme circumstances were:

1. Pull the wheels up and go in belly flop style – but then all of our kits and belongings were in a giant sling in the bomb bay.
2. Try to get ahead of these three B-24s, land and then use the emergency brake – every pilot that did that had this experience. Only one wheel would brake, causing the plane to immediately swerve and go off the runway, crash, go up in flames . . . no survivors.
3. Go in as easy and normal as possible under the circumstances, and pray and hope for the best possible result.

Our pilot chose option 3. He deserves recognition for handling this incredible situation so well, preventing a massive tragedy which would have included the loss of so many lives.

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