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
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 5½ 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
3. Go in as easy and normal as possible under the
circumstances, and pray and hope for the best
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.