Sgt Jack Bartley Wop/AG on 21 Sqdn
Sgt Jack Bartley Wop/AG on 21 Sqdn

Jack served at RAF Watton with No 21 Sqdn as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner during the first half of 1940.

During the advance of the German army into the low countries, signalling the end of the ‘phoney war’ in May 1940, 21 Squadron, in which I was serving at RAF Watton, was called upon to carry out a low level daylight bombing and strafing attack on enemy mechanised columns on the road from Maastricht to Tongres, in an attempt to stem the Panzer’s progress.

We took of at mid-afternoon on May 11th, overflying Holland and Belgium at around 15,000 ft, through sporadic anti-aircraft fire from ‘friendly’ gunners, whose aircraft recognition left much to be desired, eventually spotting the long line of vehicles that were to be the target. Diving down to attack, the bombs were released from a few hundred feet and pandemonium broke out below as the troops scattered for shelter amid bomb bursts and machine-gun fire.

Climbing away from the target with my turret gun assembly fully elevated and firing the remaining rounds of a pan of ammunition, a sudden loud and sharp metallic bang sounded through the aircraft as we were hit, possibly with return fire or more probably from shrapnel from the preceding attacking Blenheim’s bombs.

Being subsequently fully occupied in scanning the sky for sight of enemy fighters, it was some time before I could spare time to look for signs of damage. When I did, I discovered the gaping hole in the platform of my turret, which framed a view of the landscape below. Inspecting the roof there was no corresponding hole and I assumed that the missile had exited through the open sector of the cupola which allowed for gun barrel traverse and elevation, and concluded that I had been very fortunate to be unscathed.

After landing at Watton the airframe mechanics busied themselves with the job of patching up the damage whilst we went to debriefing. Later that evening I was to be found in the NAAFI with a group of Wireless Operator/Air Gunners, drowning the sorrow of the loss of one of our number who was found to be dead in his turret on our return from the sortie. Our sojourn was interrupted by a tired and thirsty mechanic who laid an object on the table in front of me. It was a jagged and twisted piece of shrapnel about 3/4” cube. “That was fused into the sponge rubber of your turret seat”, he announced. As my sphincter nerve gave an involuntary shudder he proceeded to draw further pieces of metal from his pocket, just recognisable as pieces of a medium size screwdriver. “This”, he said, “was lying between the turret platform and the fuselage”.

In taking the full force of the shrapnel leaving it with only sufficient momentum to fuse itself into the sorbo rubber of my turret seat there is no doubt that the screwdriver, accidentally dropped into an inaccessible and hidden space, had certainly been responsible for my continued ability to adopt a sitting, or possibly any other, posture.

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