Air battles over Flevoland. Part 7: Don't get caught with your pants down

“There wasn’t any cozy chit-chat over Germany”

The story of the salvage officer who was involved in the salvage of, in particular, Allied aircraft wrecks in the Flevoland polders.


Boot of an unknown airman, excavated in the IJsselmeer Polders (Batavialand, G.J. Zwanenburg Collection).

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Long flights full of tension

I'm am lucky to have once flown in both a Lancaster and a Flying Fortress. A flight to Berlin was ten hours flying, of which eighty percent over enemy territory. You had to keep your eyes open. You could never get around the air defense. You could see everything around you and you felt the aircraft shaking. In addition the night fighters, sometimes you saw them, sometimes you didn’t. Often going back with a damaged kite, flying on with some blown engines. The mid upper gunner, sat on a linen strip with a piece of leather in the middle, with a pair of stirrups to put your feet in not directly an 'easy chair'! This is how you had to sit for ten hours. Peering into the dark. Can you imagine, you can’t do anything else but respect these men. They just did it!

Of course there was a chemical toilet on board. If you are going on a holiday, they say to you "Mr. Zwanenburg you drive two hours, then take a stop, some steps, and do your business." That wasn’t possible for them. The English have a very old saying: don’t get caught with your pants down. Let's face it: running with your pants halfway down your legs is impossible. It’s as simple as that. You had to be really desperate if you were going to use the toilet during a flight over Germany. For the simple reason you really had to look out. The tail gunner was in a small compartment and couldn’t move at all. The pilot had to remain seated almost all the time. The only one who sometimes walked back and forth, was the flight engineer. I once found some shoes in a Stirling in the polder. High shoes with laces. How could this be, airmen always wear flying boots. I asked a friend of mine who used to be an air gunner. ‘Oh, if anybody had shoes on, that would be the flight engineer. They sometimes had to walk through the whole aircraft and then the flight boots could be tricky, but not shoes’.

The aircraft was so big, you couldn’t see each other. You sat alone. You knew the others were there, you just couldn’t see them. They all had radio contact but this was only used in emergencies as they needed to keep as quiet as possible. The rear gunner, sat at the back, would instruct the pilot which way to fly is they were being attacked by a night fighter from behind. This was a special teamwork, the pilot and the rear gunner where tuned in to each other. There wasn’t any cosy chit-chat above Germany. It was imperative that you kept your eyes open. No time for chit chat!

If at all possible, they were given a flight path around the air defenses. However, there was always so much flak that this was hardly ever possible. When they flew back in a damaged aircraft, they took the flight path over the IJsselmeer and the gap at Egmond. It was a known fact. In between the take off and the landing the real work started. Work indeed, those flights sometimes lasted several days. That all depended on the weather. If, for example, they had two days of bad weather, they stayed inside but they still certainly flew enough. Some have had three or four consecutive flights to Berlin. Well, thank you very much! Today if they have to work ten hours a day, they say, ‘ten hours, you must be joking’.

Every time you took off, you didn’t know whether you'd be coming back. Of course everyone thought of this but everybody also thought I’ll be coming back. With this optimism they started their journey. I think you needed this optimism, otherwise nothing would have happened. It’s the same with a lot of dangerous things. "It’ll be alright." That was the attitude these men had too. They had a phrase for if someone didn’t return: “he is gone for a Burton”. Burton was a brand of beer. He is gone for a beer.

Some were able to make an emergency landing, they were lucky. The Americans flew during the day and during the day you could see more than during the night. They had proportionally more chances of making an emergency landing. It was always said, any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. Unfortunately you had no chance above sea.

Source: Batavialand, interview by Lenie Bolle with Gerrie Zwanenburg, 16th September, 2009.

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