An incredible story of wartime survival has emerged after a widow donated some of her late husband’s belongings to Mid Sussex’s Wings Museum.
The story focusses on George Luke, once of Handcross Nurseries who joined the RAF early in the Second World War.
Back at home, the Luke family had a 16-year-old evacuee called Patricia billited with them.
Sgt Luke and Patricia became friends, a wartime romance developed and they were eventually married. Now, George’s widow has donated his RAF memorabila for display at the Wings Museum, in Brantridge Lane, Balcombe.
Daniel Hunt, curator of the Wings Museum which is dedicated to Britain’s World War Two flying heros, has collated the story of George’s incredible survival after his bomber ditched in the North Sea.
Daniel says that on 28 August 1941 at 11.30pm at Coningsby in Lincolnshire, the base of 106 Squadron RAF Bomber Command, a Handley Page Hampden bomber serial number AE193 ZN-A for Apple taxied out onto the runway.
Its target for that night was the Ruhr Valley in Germany but this was no ordinary operation for 5 group as only 49 and 106 Squadrons were involved.
The fliers of 106 Squadron had been briefed to attack and harass searchlights in the Ruhr which necessitated flying extremely low.
The crew of A for Apple was the pilot Sgt Eric Robert Holmes Lyon, aged 21, from Kent; navigator/bomb aimer Sgt John Kenneth Woodroofe, from Yorkshire; wireless operator/air gunner Sgt Geoffrey Brian Stanton, 24, from Derbyshire on his 20th operational flight; and mid-air gunner Sgt George Luke from Handcross on his third operational flight.
From Connigsby they crossed the Dutch Coast south of the Ijsselmeer and headed for Duisbury flying at 1,100ft. Over the target they met considerable opposition from flak and searchlights.
After releasing their bombs they climbed to 10,000 feet and passed over the river Texel with no hint of any trouble until 40 miles north west of Texel when one engine cut out followed by the other shortly after.
The pilot had no choice but to ditch. The sea was very rough and it was 3.30am.
Despite a heavy impact the crew managed to get into their dinghy but soon began to suffer from extreme sea sickness. The waves were large and their dinghy drifted out until dawn. They made sails from their flying jackets and paddles from the parachute harness and drifted towards what they thought should have been the Dutch coast. There was a heavy storm and they had no food or water or means of getting warm and Sgt Luke was too ill to help with the paddling.
With no sign of any rescue planes night fell again as cold as ice. Sleep was impossible.
The next day the weather was better, the sea calmed and they spotted a fishing boat but it did not see them. Another monotonous day passed and at night a powerful north west wind blew.
Early Sunday morning they sighted four cargo ships but saw them disappear over the horizon. They paddled all day and saw some chimneys but the tide changed and they were once more swept out to sea.
Then a big wave hit the dinghy and Sgt Lyon was tipped overboard. As he tried to swim back his comrades feverishly tried to bale out the water. Another wave capsized the dinghy and everything was lost, but to their joy they found they were in shallow water on the Waddensee.
Tired and weak they now regained hope, regained the dinghy and started walking towards land. They ate some mussels and saw an Me110 German fighter which, luckily, did not see them.
They then anchored the dinghy in shallow water and ate more mussels but did not sleep well as they were afraid of being swept away from the coast. They remembered little of the third day; the sun blinded them and they cried out for water.
Weak and suffering they were at the end of their tether when, in the distance, they saw some small Dutch fishing boats. At 1.30pm after much shouting and waving a little boat approached them.
The Zoutkampers saw them and J.W. Bottema spotted the stranded airmen through his binoculars.
Sgt Lyon was in a bad way but eventually they all made it onto the little fishing boat. Piet Westra spoke some English and after another five hours they got to Zoutkamp.
Their rescuers were unable to hide the airmen because of their physical condition but they gave them water, hot coffee and cigarettes. They were handed over to the German Authorities and given bread and butter, tomatoes, wurst, coffee and cognac.
They had survived but were prisoners of war until released by the advancing Russians in 1945. Sgt Luke spent the remainder of the war at Stalag Luft 3 and before release, he and other prisoners used bed sheets to make armbands with the Russian word “Amepnkaheu” (American) painted on them so Russian troops did not mistake them for Germans.
Sgt Luke also took the opportunity to liberate his PoW personal record card from the camps office along with a Nazi dagger as a camp souvenir.
Now, this record card along with the original armbands, dagger and other memorabilia are on display at the Wings Museum in Balcombe. The museum is open every Saturday and Sunday until the end of October.