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A wing and a prayer: The amazing story of John Hall’s Second World War

John Hall while he was cared for in Blesma home for limbless ex-servicemen

John Hall while he was cared for in Blesma home for limbless ex-servicemen

  • by TOM PETERKIN
 

JOHN Hall was typical of his generation, rarely talking of his Second World War experiences. But before he died at the age of 93, the full story was recorded of how he lost a leg on a bombing mission, was dragged for 24 hours across a frozen sea and built an artificial limb in a prisoner of war camp.

In the twilight of his life John Hall lived in a home for limbless war veterans in Perthshire. He lost his right leg during the Second World War and it was this catastrophic injury that qualified him for residency of the Ancaster BLESMA (British Limbless Ex-Servicemen Association) home in Crieff. As another Remembrance Day arrives, the number of surviving veterans has diminished further, and the passing of so many means that the home is now reaching the end of its purpose.

Mr Hall was one of the ever-decreasing number to be in the care of the Crieff home. A modest man, he rarely talked about his wartime service in the RAF, although it was obvous he had shown great courage to overcome his injury – walking on an artificial limb into old age and eschewing the help of a stick.

During his nineties he met Margaret Bennett, the Gaelic singer and folklorist who lives nearby and is interested in recording people’s wartime experiences.

So around three years ago, shortly before Mr Hall died aged 93, he sat down with Dr Bennett, who switched on her tape recorder and listened.

She was astonished by his vivid account of how he lost his leg when being shot down by German fighter aircraft while flying as a rear gunner in a Wellington bomber. Just as startling was his tale of how he was dragged for 24 hours across a frozen Zuider Zee, a bay of the North Sea in the Netherlands, with his injured leg shot to pieces inside his flying suit.

“Like most ex-servicemen of that generation, he didn’t really talk about war experiences,” Dr Bennett said yesterday.

“It had been mentioned in passing that John had been shot down over Holland – that’s where he lost his leg. No more.

“When I asked him what happened he simply summed it up in the same sentence which he had probably repeated for years: ‘Oh, I was shot down over Holland.’

“That was it. So I looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘John, what does that really mean?’

“It was as if he was visualising it all again – he could even tell me about the moon that night.”

Dr Bennett felt that Mr Hall’s recollections ought to be preserved for succeeding generations and has arranged for the recordings to be lodged in the Imperial War Museum in London.

On the eve of Remembrance Sunday, Dr Bennett and Mr Hall’s daughter Hilary Kirk have allowed The Scotsman to publish extracts from the tapes.

Hall: “There were two night fighters … one flew at 1,000 metres below us and the other was 1,000 metres above … and he had a bright light on him. When I first saw him I knew he was a decoy and I told the captain, but he never deviated from his path. He should have gone in for a bit of zig-zagging. And after a bit I knew this guy would come from the top, and I spotted him. It was very black, there was a bit of a cleft in the clouds. And the captain told me: ‘Don’t fire. Do not fire at him’ because he was about 700 yards away. That would give our position away. But I felt sure they had seen us anyway because we were against the moonlight on this side and he was in the dark and I suddenly spotted him crossing our path and he must have felt our slipstream because he immediately turned into a dark patch and came in. I knew exactly where he would be coming from and I spotted him, and he opened fire.

“We went a hundred yards past him and he hosed fire. It hit the wing tip, the engine, and it must have blasted the bottom because I could see the fire trail straight up the fuselage and by the catwalk. So I didn’t think any of the others had got hit but unfortunately the front gunner … he must have got him through the spine. He was killed immediately. So the thing was on fire. I couldn’t get out the turret at the back. I had to bale out.”

Sgt Hall’s leg had been blown to bits by the gunfire. He thought his best chance of surviving would be to jump.

Hall: “It [the turret] had two little doors; you had to back out those two little doors with your ‘chute on. That was inside the fuselage, remember. I tried to get out the half-door. I had to take my ‘chute off, hang out and try to get my ‘chute on while I was hanging outside. Well, I got that far but I realised I was never going to get the ‘chute on, so I got back in. There was no fabric on the port side at all but there was a big guy rope so I was able to hang on to that and shuffle along.”

Bennett: “Were you in agony when all this was going on?”

Hall: “Well I must have been but I wasn’t conscious of it. Everything happened so quickly, I was very busy dealing with what was necessary.”

Bennett: “To survive?”

Hall: “Oh, I had given up the ghost. Yes, I had commended my spirit to the Lord. It was a hopeless position. As far as I was concerned there was nobody else on the plane. It was going down at an angle of 70 [degrees] and it must have been doing over 300 miles an hour. Anyway, I got up to this circular flap where it had a dustbin turret – or should have – and I managed to get the thing open and I sat down and dropped my good leg out and I was just about to take the other one out when I could see the control cables up the side and I saw them move about eight inches. That meant there was somebody on the [control] stick.”

Bennett: “So somebody else was alive?”

Hall: “Somebody on the control and they were pulling up, which it did; I felt the plane come up. It’s a damn good job I saw those cables otherwise I would have been out and I think we were only about 500 feet from the ground, I’d never have made it. So I felt, ‘Right, he’s going to land somewhere, which one are we going to hit?’ But it was actually the Zuider Zee surface, frozen. It wasn’t smooth.

“The-next thing I knew we had touched down and the plane must have been scraping the ice off – it came through the sides and I thought for a moment it was petrol, but no, it was slush. And we bounced and thumped and the bottom had being ripped off. There was only the catwalk that I was on. We finally came to a stop and I made my way up to the cockpit and there was somebody bending over papers, maps and whatnot. I touched him and he jumped round. He didn’t think I was there; thought I had baled out.”

Hall had put his hand on Bill Jordan, the second pilot. Hall and Jordan had survived. In fact, of the six-strong crew, five escaped with their lives, including the captain, Bill Garrioch. The front gunner, Glyndwr “Taffy” Reardon, was the only one to die. Garrioch’s parachute harness was used to improvise a tourniquet for Hall. That stemmed the bleeding and the remains of his injured leg was strapped to his good one. With the ice melting from the heat coming from the stricken Wellington, Hall’s comrades pulled him away from the aircraft, which they later learned had been shot down by the German fighter ace Major Walter Ehle.

Hall: “I managed to get out of the cockpit … but it was useless getting along with one foot. I fell a couple of times … It took 24 hours to get to the shore and I was dragged every inch of the way … I hadn’t my leg. It was practically blown off. It was all in pieces, held on by my flying suit.”

Of the survivors, three pulled Hall along while the fourth walked ahead to test the ice. Now and again, Hall’s tourniquet was opened to let his leg bleed freely. According to Garrioch’s unpublished written account of the incident, seen by The Scotsman, seagulls flew down to collect the bits of flesh falling off Hall’s foot, which had turned a strange colour. Garrioch said that it was the fear of Hall dying and the fear of them falling through the ice that kept them going. Eventually, the intrepid airmen were met by German soldiers who helped them out of the water just as the ice was giving way. They were given Schnapps and two hours later an ambulance arrived, which took them to the Queen Wilhelmina hospital in Amsterdam. Hall’s leg was amputated below the knee.

Hall: “They were surprised in the hospital that I had lived at all – the loss of blood and the hypothermia. About ten days after I was in the hospital I contracted – well, I was showing symptoms of tetanus. That was a bit of a shock, it’s a dreadful death. But the doctor was an Austrian. He said: ‘Look Tommy, we’ve got an antidote but I’ll give you five times the strength. But it’s going to be – he used an expression, a German expression, which I understood. It’s similar to one we use: ‘shoot or bust’. So he gave me this – I don’t like to think about it but, anyway, I survived.”

Hall’s life had been saved, but he was now a prisoner of war and there was the added challenge of living with just one leg. In this regard, he and other injured prisoners showed great initiative by making their own artificial legs.

Hall: “We made our own … plaster of Paris and maybe a bit of metal to hold it … they used a crutch. They’d take the hand bar off, splay it and they’d get some material that was similar to cardboard, plywood to make a socket. They were very rough, of course. With the below knee we made a type of what they call “a patella tendon bearing”. That is, it took the weight – like Long John Silver’s. You took the weight off this muscle down the patella tendon and you held it on with a bit of cord or anything you put round your shoulder. And for a stump sock we used to cut the arms off our cardigans and put a knot in the bottom.”

JOHN’S STORY

BORN in Hamilton, John Hall left Scotland when he was 18 with ambitions to become an engineer. When war broke out he was stationed at RAF Leuchars, but he had fallen in love with a young woman from the Midlands called Ruby Dorricott, who was to become his wife. So, he applied for a posting south to be near her. It was on 10 February 1941, operating from RAF Wyton, near Huntingdon, that Sgt Hall clambered aboard Wellington bomber No T. 2702. Also on board was a 4,000lb bomb load and their target was the German city, Hanover. Having released their bombs on target, the Wellington headed home and as the Dutch coast approached, Hall looked out from his rear gunner position and saw two enemy fighters. Nearly 70 years later, John Hall recalled this moment.

• According to Hall’s daughter, Hilary Kirk, the home-made leg that served him for three years was incredibly comfortable. Mrs Kirk said yesterday: “He always said that the leg he had in the prison camp was the best ever, but I had no idea that he made it himself.

“Of course, comfort was always a big issue, that was why he suffered infections on his stump, but he never let it get the better of him. When I was a child he was just like anyone else’s able-bodied Dad, as we walked miles – and he even rode a bicycle.”

Mrs Kirk’s father died age 93, three years ago. But his memory lives on, and this dramatic account of his ordeal in combat will be preserved at the Imperial War Museum.

“He was very happy at the BLESMA home,” said Mrs Kirk. “They gave him excellent care and companionship, as they have given to many other brave servicemen and woman over the years. I was very saddened to hear that it is no longer to be run on that basis.

“But the family is delighted that his story will not be lost to future generations.”

 

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