It had been a hot windless day in 1944 in southern Italy. RAF Pathfinder Halifaxes were flying overhead on their night journey eastwards and leading a 205 Bomber Group attack on the Black Sea oilfields of Ploesti. On the ground a Canadian pilot was driving seven of us, Australian, British and Canadians to a darts competition with our neighbouring Squadron.
Amid high expectations of an exciting evening, we motored eastwards along the dusty Foggia Manefredonia road and turned off towards the encampment of 178 Squadron faintly visible in late evening light amongst olive groves in the distance. On nearing the squadron we negotiated a newly constructed curve on a high embankment, then took a track leading to 178's Officer's Mess, a marquee and Nissen hut erected near a farmhouse.
Our hosts for the occasion were an English pilot and his Geordie navigator. They met us and, in friendly ribaldry, determined to show up these Pathfinders from 614 Squadron and we seven were determined to not let down our Squadron.
The evening went swimmingly in darts, drinks and chitchat amongst various groups of flyers, swapping yarns of attacks and in talk of home and the progress of the war. The hum of voices and laughter went on well into the night. Some 178 bods took pains to point out that 614 Squadron had been late to put down their Pathfinder markers on a recent target and 178's planes were kept waiting for the Pathfinders to do their work. We were only too sadly aware of our imperfections. Navigation at night over a blacked out Europe was difficult enough, with bad weather, ground mists and enemy action making things tough. But so often our Pathfinder electronic gear failed too and we could be left spending precious minutes searching for that elusive target while anxious bombers circled, waiting to come in and drop their bomb load so that they could fly off home again. Nevertheless our darts night was a great success and we made many new friends.
Departure time came and we seven walked out to our vehicle in wartime darkness. Our Canadian took the wheel again and amid shouts and farewells we gathered speed. Then it happened! Our driver overshot that dangerous corner and we rolled over the newly constructed high embankment and ended in a deep gully below. All of us were shocked, bruised and bleeding, and blood from a cut in my forehead poured down over my face.
Help came from our friends of 178 and they soon had their medical staff patching us up. Their doctor discovered I had an injury to my neck and forehead and worked to support me from my shoulders to my head. It was very late indeed when we arrived back at base!
We met at breakfast next morning just as our Commanding Officer, Group Captain Laird, came in fuming. No only had he discovered his car had been used without permission and was badly dented, but he also discovered seven of his key flyers arrayed like hastily patched up casualties of the latest air battle. When he heard our story the set lines of his strong handsome face showed how troubled he felt, for 614 Squadron was short of experienced Pathfinder crews. So many crews had flown out into attack and not returned. Pathfinder Halifaxes lay shattered in distant places in flights as far afield as France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and northern Italy.
Breakfast that morning became a fearfully silent affair as we seven meditated on just what our Commander had in mind for us. We had not long to wait. We were called to 614ís dressing station where Doc Francis and his ever-helpful assistants set to work to make our injuries more presentable, outwardly at least. However, Group Captain Laird did not let us off the hook. He had us listed to fly into attack that night and be part of the force leading the bombers northward into Europe and we had to make the best of it. For me it was a most unpleasant flight. My neck was too painful to turn and I was in such misery I couldn't have cared less if the whole of the Luftwaffe had attacked us!
In 1993, when co-writing the book, "After Voice from the Stars", with my wife Laurel , I found myself recalling the details of this story, something I had forgotten about for so many years. Suddenly my wife was discovering the source of that mysterious scar on my forehead and she wanted the whole story. My memory began to unfold and I recalled how that forehead wound had healed up neatly because 614's Doc Francis had used a newly available plastic type of skin to draw together the gaping flesh. But X-rays of my neck even today still reveal the continuing painful dark shadows of injury received that memorable night we rolled over the embankment on the way from a darts evening at 178 Squadron in Italy.
One aviation historian, W.M. Gould, looked at the task of writing about the strategic bomber force in Italy but ended up writing, `The full record of this famous group's operations demands its own historian, so great was their scope and intensity executed under conditions of equipment always a lap behind their counterparts in the UK.'
I feel privileged to have written part of the needed history as expressed by WM Gould, but I continue to chuckle over that fascinating evening we spent with a neighbouring squadron in Southern Italy and the resulting confrontation we had at breakfast after our Commanding Officer saw how we had used his staff-car. Truly our sins had found us out!