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Sgt. Donald Frank Tittley
Royal Air Force 77 Squadron
from:BirminghamThis fragment, in the possession of his younger brother, is all that can be found of a longer account of the wartime experience written by the late Donald F Tittley. (1434973 WO1 RAF. )
Donald Tittley's Recollections of 77 Squadron RAF. At the Squadron Re-Union in September 1989 I was asked to produce what I could remember of my time at Elvington with 77 Squadron.
It was in July 1943 that I was first introduced to other members of the crew at Rufforth and we were brought to Elvington in a service bus. We were put in a Nissen hut miles away from the station proper. It was a time of considerable activity and losses; we were held in reserve until we replaced a crew that had been lost. This was in the first week in August and before flying operationally as a crew both Peter Garlette, the pilot, and I flew with other crews to gain experience. Our first operational trip as a crew was about the first week in September. From that time on we were on many operations, not always bombing targets in Germany. Our duties included patrols round the British coastline, back-up flights for the air-sea rescue teams and once or twice we were reserve crews for dropping agents into France.
Looking back to these months we spent at Elvington I recall the abysmal Nissen hut site, always muddy and cold in spite of us keeping the stove red hot all day and night. Also it was rat infested and every morning a Land Army girl used to patrol round our site with three fierce ganders who chased the vermin away. Unfortunately they chased us too. We only slept in the huts and the ablutions hut and the Mess was a good ten minutes walk along a railway line and this caused us problems. Should we walk along in pyjamas and greatcoat, dress fully only to disrobe in the shower block and re-dress and go straight in to breakfast? The prospect of being chased by these creatures when in pyjamas and overcoat, given the damage they were said to inflict, made even the carefree reflective. Those geese frightened us more than the Germans.
Away from the Station we led a merry life; locals at Elvington treated us like family and I still marvel at the kindness and tolerance we received from everyone in York. We were spoiled and cosseted everywhere we went. Our noise and foolish, sometimes infantile, pranks were treated with forbearance and we were always pushed to the head of the innumerable queues there were outside cinemas, hairdressers and tea-rooms. It was a strange life we led, enjoying the glorious summer weather, wandering across those broad fields and chatting with the farm workers sowing autumn corn. They incidentally, from regular observation of the fuel tankers round the airfield, could predict with remarkable accuracy our likely target for any given night. Those of us familiar with bees used to help the local Vicar with his colonies. He was a keen beekeeper and endeavoured to supplement the village food supply. On wet days I would spend time combing the bookshops in York. Then as soon as it was dark we could be flying off into conflict. If we were lucky, back in the early hours for breakfast and a brief nap before another day in York. Often we walked to York or some other village and returned by Liberty Bus later in the day. We had a week off duty every seventh week and naturally we all rushed off home or, if you were from abroad, to some club, usually in London. Because of this and being quartered in a dispersal unit, we only ever got to know our immediate neighbours and our own ground crew.
Of the regular Station personnel we knew little except for encounters in the Mess, squabbling for the best armchairs or the morning papers. But one must not forget to mention those wonderful WAAF girls of the kitchen staff who fed us so cheerfully every hour of the day or night. Other wonderful lassies were those in the parachute section; there was to be an occasion when I thanked God for their consummate skill and devotion to duty. Then there were the girls from the transport section who drove us to our aircraft and, on many occasions when we were 'standing- by', would bring us tea and cakes every hour or so. It was not until many years later that I learned that each WAAF gave up a day's pay each month to provide us with these goodies.
The girls from SHQ, the control tower staff, the meteorological office and administration always seemed so cool and professional on duty, but at odd moments one saw a tear stained face. Sometimes when we were discussing operational points or concerns, a girl would rush away and hide herself from view for a time. It took me some time to realise that those who saw us off and awaited our return during the long hours suffered anxieties and stress too.
Our last day at Elvington was cold and icy and there was a low haze hanging over the fields. As we walked from our hut along the familiar railway line to the crew room our boots crunched the thin ice into the mud. It was a damp site and we were often scolded bitterly by our ground crew if we left traces of mud in the aircraft, so we always attempted to clean our boots before clambering aboard. When the usual briefing was over we were transported to Halifax Z Zebra. Scrambling aboard we waited. There was an ominous delay before we trundled down the runway and got airborne. We climbed and I looked for my favourite landmark, Beverley Minster. Its tower was always the last shape discernible in the darkening sky. It was to be forty-five years before I returned to Elvington.
There was the customary flak and searchlights as we approached Texel but after that it was quiet; an ominous sign that the night fighters were out. However, we flew on through occasional cloud and reached the Magdeburg region ahead of schedule. Over the target area we looked for the coloured flares which would mark our target and there were none to be seen. For several minutes we circled round until suddenly a red flare appeared; we lined up on it and proceeded to drop our bombs on to the target, a concentration of secret weapons (later to be called V2s). As we did so a Me 110 appeared on our starboard beam about a mile off. He began to attack us in a classic curve of pursuit. With his 30mm cannon he could hit us from far off, but we continued on our bombing run and as the bomb doors were closing we began taking evasive action. He rapidly closed in and followed us in our corkscrew. Firing again he hit our starboard wing setting it alight, but he had come close enough for our fire to damage him. Both turrets aimed at and hit his starboard wing root. He drifted slightly to port and I gave him two three-second bursts of fire as he closed and flames spurted from his starboard engine. I had shattered his exhausts I think. He broke away smartly, diving to port with his engine aflame. Anyway, were alone in the sky once more and we began to congratulate ourselves when Peter, the pilot, ordered us to prepare to abandon the aircraft. Despite George, the flight engineer, reporting that the starboard engine temperatures were normal there was a fear that the tanks would explode. So we jumped. Tumbling for a few seconds, then in seemingly absolute silence I was gliding very slowly downwards. Above my head was the huge white canopy of my 'chute and below like a beautiful model lay the city of Magdeburg and the river Elbe twisting towards the horizon. Soon I could see the outline of the famous castle and cathedral, then an island, a bridge and some mud banks. As I descended the noise of war resumed. Guns were roaring, tracer shells shot across the sky. The white searchlights began sweeping the sky as the blue master beams signalled them. Now, at what I thought was steeple height, I feared I might land in the river itself. Side-slipping I steered myself into a small field some fifty yards or so from the water and quite near a house landing amidst somebody's washing line and linen. Beyond I saw a yard and the back door of the house which was open. I heard voices so I lay quite still for a while. I saw no-one. I discarded my harness and 'chute by draping it over the washing line with the other sheets. Backing away from the house I discovered I had lost a flying boot in my descent so I threw the other one into a pool of water and ran off in my electric slippers. I cannot remember much after that apart from seemingly walking for a long time. Realising it would soon be day, I searched for a place to hide.
My capture, when it came was almost comical. Quite suddenly somewhere in the darkness to my left I saw flashes then heard rifles being fired seemingly wildly. Not at me, but all over the place. I later learned I had walked into a Home Watch Patrol. I dropped into a ditch full of icy water and tried to sneak along the road. I had gone but a few yards when I almost bumped into a crouching German policeman who, I think, was sheltering from his comrade's rifle fire. He grabbed me and said something in German before shining his torch at me. He joined the others and they led me to the Mayor's house, kicking at the door until he was awakened and came, in his nightshirt, to look at me. Behind him his diminutive wife carrying a most magnificent candelabrum was also in quaint night attire.
Next I was taken to the police station. I didn't know where I was but I saw on the way a signpost with the name Konigsborn. I was treated with a mixture or formal courtesy and kindness. There was only one incidence of ill-treatment when an elderly policeman unfastened his service belt and began to slap my face with it. Immediately the others stopped him and led me down to a basement cell. Some time later while it was still dark a constable opened the cell door and led his wife in to see me. They brought me some soup and a hunk of black bread. In broken English he told me that he and some of the other policemen had been prisoners in Suffolk in the last war. After the soup I fell asleep and dreamed of plucking fowls and tossing the feathers about. Suddenly the feathers began to fall on my face. I woke and discovered that local children on their way to school were dropping pieces of paper on to my face through the iron grating in the cell wall. One young boy spoke to me in good English, even quoting Shakespeare to me to the admiration of his comrades. Further exchanges were curtailed when my policeman chased them off to school. Later in the day another bloodstained airman was led in; it was the bomb-aimer of my crew. In accordance with our training we pretended we did not know each other.
Early the following morning we were collected by Luftwaffe guards and driven to a Luftwaffe station. We soon discovered that all movements of people and goods happened in the hours of darkness. There were about eight of us sitting inside this canvas topped truck; we couldn't see each other and as we tried to give clues as to identity the guards would shout 'Silence, silence' and cock their rifles. We arrived at Kȍthen, a celebrated Luftwaffe base just as day broke. After formal registration in the Adjutant's office, we were put in solitary confinement in the sparkling clean cells of the service lock-up. The feeding was meagre, a slice of black bread and honey at 0630; a bowl of soup at midday and a slice of bread at 1800. This and the fact there was nothing to read or do were the chief hardships. At odd times in the day an officer would visit us or the gaoler would let us out for a brief chat to some of the others. I always remember the man in the next cell to me was a German pilot serving four weeks for low flying offences.
About a week later we were taken in small groups across Germany to Frankfurt am Mainz to the central interrogating centre called Dulagluft. Again life was lonely and boring, confined in cells little bigger than a wardrobe. One could only lie and look at the plain walls or the barred window. The lighting and heating were controlled centrally so were in constant glare of electric lights. The heating fluctuated ceaselessly from very cold to intense heat and one could only dress and undress to keep any sense of comfort. It was while I was stripped naked during a hot session when the guard the guard came to take me for interrogation. Hurriedly dressing myself I was bustled away to a large airy room. There at a desk sat a German officer; around him English books, papers and cigarettes. The walls were covered in English maps and illustrations. When I refused cigarettes, there was a choice of brand, he promised to try and get me a pipe and tobacco. In common with others I was astonished at the personal details he knew about me, my crew and Squadron. We chatted amicably enough for several minutes about different English verbs; what was the difference between to occupy and to reserve a seat? He then wanted to know why I had failed to become a pilot. I hadn't told him this. He was guessing I had trained in England not knowing of course I had been an instructor in Canada before commencing operational flying. By this I was afterwards able to work out the sources of his intelligence. There must have been an excellent filing system containing all references to the RAF personnel in the British press including birthday greetings and such like. This linked with your service number gave them a basic outline which could be filled in by interrogating other prisoners.
Soon after this we were moved to a transit camp in the middle of Frankfurt. Here there was an English army officer and a Sergeant-major in charge. These two were a source of worry to me months later. Suddenly one evening just as it got dark we were loaded into trucks and driven to a nearby railway siding. Here we were loaded into cattle trucks, twenty five to each wagon; by the use of barbed wired screens the guards divided us into two groups, leaving space for themselves in front of the doors. For over a week we travelled across Germany, Poland and into Lithuania. Every five or six hours we stopped, often outside a town, where we would be allowed to stretch our legs under close guard. Two of us would be detailed to collect large buckets of coffee or soup from a military canteen or club. At Frankfurt am Oder I walked about half a mile along the track to collect coffee from the rear of a military canteen. As I stood there I glimpsed through the serving hatch and saw a crowd of German servicemen on their way to the Eastern Front. They eyed me in a strange wistful manner. Another occasion, with the same guard, I stood on a station platform. I was in Germany but the other side of the track the platform was in Poland. On either side of the railway tracks were fields littered with rusting burnt-out tanks, trucks, horse drawn carts and other battle relics. It was here the war had begun.
Some time in March we finally reached our prison camp. It was at a place called Heydekrug in Lithuania. In a way I suppose I had reached my next RAF station. It was Stalag Luft VI and I had a new number - 913.
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