George VI presents Gordon Ritchie with a Distinguished Flying Medal for his bravery in trying to save his critically wounded pilot.
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 12, 2010
On the night of June 7, 1944, Gord Ritchie climbed into the gun turret at the rear of Halifax bomber LW128.
His Canadian crew faced another harrowing mission over occupied Europe, this one coming hours after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The assignment for this evening was an attack on the railway marshaling yards at Acheres, outside Paris, to hinder the enemy’s ability to bring reinforcements to the landing sites.
Mr. Ritchie, aged 20, had already survived several harrowing bombing runs, including one near-miss when his pilot was struck in the face by flak. Despite the dangers, he had returned from all missions safely aboard his aircraft.
He would not have so happy an outcome on this night.
The same pilot, Squadron Leader William Brodie Anderson, was at the controls, having recovered from his earlier injury, when flying splinters left him temporarily blinded.
The Royal Canadian Air Force crew from No. 429 Squadron, popularly known as the Bison Squadron, lifted off the runway at Leeming air force base about 45 minutes before midnight. In the skies above Dieppe, the French coastal resort that had earlier been the site of a failed commando raid, the Halifax got hit by flak.
The pilot suffered grievous injuries, slumping over the controls, sending the large bomber into a nose dive.
At his rear post, the force of the dive pressed Mr. Ritchie into his seat. He struggled to free himself.
What happened in the following hour would become part of squadron lore.
Gordon John McDowell Ritchie was born in Montreal to Agnes and William Ritchie, both of whom hailed from Scotland. An older brother, also named William, enlisted in the RCAF at age 18 in 1941. Gordon followed him into the air force 10 days after his own 19th birthday in December, 1942. He graduated from No. 9 bombing and gunnery school at Mont Joli, Que., eight months later.
His first mission was the mass bombing raid on Leipzig, Germany, on the night of Feb. 19, 1944. The raid was a disaster for the Allies, as unhelpful weather and German fighters wreaked havoc. Bomber Command lost 78 aircraft, almost 10 per cent of the raiding force, in what was to that point the most costly single night of the war.
Most of his other missions also involved deep penetration into the skies over Germany, including attacks on Essen, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Dusseldorf.
While returning from an attack on Karlsruhe, anti-aircraft fire struck the cockpit, sending splinters into the pilot’s eyes. He fulfilled his duties as captain on the flight back to base, though a second pilot handled the controls.
As the Halifax crossed the French coastline that June night, the bomber once again attracted enemy fire. The aircraft was flying at 18,000 feet.
“All hell broke loose,” Mr. Ritchie once said, “as the flak guns opened up on us.”
The pilot “caught a rather large fragment — and gave us the order to bail out.”
The navigator, bomb aimer and wireless operator all exited through the front escape hatch, jumping with parachutes over occupied France.
The airplane went into a steep vertical dive.
In the cockpit, Sgt. Gilbert Steere, the flight engineer, ignored the order, instead tending to the semi-conscious pilot, who was bleeding heavily. S/L Anderson was eased from his position, as Steere pulled the bomber out of its dive. His flying experience consisted of just 10 minutes in a light trainer. The pilot offered as much instruction as he could before passing out.
With the plane leveled and the bomb load jettisoned, the two gunners crowded into the cockpit.
“We administered morphine to our pilot,” Mr. Ritchie said in an interview conducted for The Dominion Institute’s Memory Project, “and began the ordeal of carrying him back to the escape hatch at the rear of the aircraft.”
It took nearly an hour to haul the 200-pound (90.7-kilogram) pilot through the fuselage.
The injured man passed in an out of consciousness, in his alert moments urging his crew to jump, patting their parachutes as encouragement.
The flight engineer had to squat to handle the controls, forcing him to rely on the altimeter and airspeed indicator, as he could not see over the instrument panel.
He coaxed the damaged bomber back over England, where their mayday call received many responses, though no station could pinpoint their location. Lacking a crew member with experience in landing, the decision was made to abandon the Halifax.
The gunners took care of the pilot.
Mr. Ritchie said, “We attached his parachute D-ring to the static line — that’s a length of strapping approximately 30- or 40-feet long — to the aircraft. And then we attached the other end to his D-ring, as he was not able to pull his own ripcord on the parachute.
“And we slid him out the end. Out of the rear exit.”
The unconscious pilot’s parachute deployed when the static line reached its length.
Then, Mr. Ritchie, the mid-upper gunner, and the heroic flight engineer jumped into the dark night above the Oxfordshire countryside.
The unoccupied bomber crashed about a half-mile (800 metres) north of the airfield at Benson.
By the time he was found, the pilot had succumbed to his grievous wounds. A piece of shrapnel had entered his left side, exiting through his chest.
All the other jumpers survived.
Back in France, the navigator and the wireless operator were both taken prisoner by the Germans. The pair were sent to Stalag Luft 7 near Bankau, Poland. Meanwhile, the bomb aimer evaded capture. With the help of the underground, he eventually made his way overland to Gibraltar, from where he returned to England.
The dramatic events aboard the Halifax led to the awarding of the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to the flight engineer, the sole Royal Air Force member of the crew.
The two gunners, Mr. Ritchie and John Mangione, of Ottawa, received the Distinguished Flying Medal.
Mr. Ritchie received his medal from King George VI during an investiture ceremony at his air base two months later.
The pilot received a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross for his leadership in the earlier incident during which he had been wounded in the face.
After the war, Mr. Ritchie had a 26-year career as an accountant with the Montreal Pipe Line Company and another decade with Imperial Oil Limited. He later worked as a manager of sales for the Montreal Board of Trade.
Number crunching was his vocation, though he far preferred to count strokes on the golf course. He made several expeditions to play the famous links courses of Scotland, his ancestral home.
Gordon John McDowell Ritchie was born on Dec. 6, 1923, at Montreal. He died on Jan. 15 at Abbotsford, B.C. He was 86. He leaves his second wife, Sally Ann Maher, as well as a son and two daughters from his first marriage. He also leaves three grandsons and a sister. He was predeceased by his brother, who had been a Hurricane pilot during the war.