After Flight Lieutenant Chris House was shot down in RB396, he knew he had to get away from the crash site as quickly as possible. As he was coming in for his forced landing, he had noticed a large build with a Red Cross on the roof. Rightly deciding this was a German field hospital, he made for the fields in the other direction.
As he was escaping, he could see German troops making their way towards RB396. Safely away, Chris needed to make sure he wasn’t found. In a field where he noticed a few people working, Chris burrowed into a haystack and hoped for the best. He was found by Herman ter Duis and taken to their farmhouse. With the aid of a translator, Chris explained his situation and that he had come from an airfield in Germany. Chris remembered they listened to the BBC before turning in for the night.
The next day, April 2nd, a local guide turned up with a spare bicycle and they made their way toward Allied lines, using the ditches and hedges for cover. Eventually, Chris found the advanced units of the Guards Armoured Division and he was safe. From there, he made his way back across the Rhine to B.100 at Goch, Germany. When he arrived back, the rumours that had been whispered were now confirmed, 174 (Mauritius) Squadron was to be disbanded in the following days.
The Squadron was not in the best of mood but the ORB Summary noted that the mood lifted noticeably when an exhausted Chris turned up and told all about his adventure. With the war’s end in sight, 2TAF were consolidating their units. In 121 Wing, 174 Squadron were the third to be disbanded. Between Chris’ return and the formal disbanding of the unit, 174 Squadron flies 11 more sorties, Chris himself flew one more on the 7th, four days after getting back, before being posted to 175 Squadron where he saw out the war.
174 Squadron had been formed at Manston on 3 March 1942 around seventeen Hurricanes and eight pilots from No.607 Squadron, and as a result, was able to begin operations on the same day. They flew on the Dieppe Raid and converted to Typhoons a year later. After being equipped with Rockets in January 1944, 174 would play a key role as part of 121 Wing 2nd Tactical Air Force, including the attack on the Jobourg radar station near Cap de la Hague on the day before the D-Day landings. RB396 would only be a part of the squadron for a little under four months but she lived up to the squadron’s simple but apt moto, “Attack”.
April 1st 1945 dawned dull but 174 Squadron was called upon at noon to deal with a report of MET (Mechanised Enemy Transport) on the roads near Hengelo in the Netherlands. Departing the safety of their base at B.100 outside of Goch, Germany, Flight Lieutenant Chris House was flying as Red 4 in Hawker Typhoon MkIb, RB396 for the first time. Her usual pilot, Frank Johnson, was shot down just two days before and taken PoW. He was flying another aircraft that day because RB396 was being repaired from flak damage picked up whilst being flown by Sydney Russell-Smith two days prior to that.
The convoy was soon spotted and Red Section made their first attack, unleashing the Typhoon’s powerful payload of 8 RP-3 60lb rockets on the trucks below them. Wheeling around after his first pass, F/L House and RB396 followed up their attack with their 20mm cannons. Despite the carnage created by the rocket attack, the Germans responded with heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire from their light flak guns. RB396 was at about 500 feet when she was hit by this intense flak.
F/L House had moments to react, getting RB396 away to the north, he knew he would not be able to return to base and he successfully force landed RB396 in a field outside of Denekamp, Netherlands. Once down, the rest of Red Section were relieved to hear Chris radio that he was OK. Chris unstrapped himself, unplugged his RT and Oxygen cables and perhaps with one last look at the Typhoon with the name of another man’s girlfriend written on the nose, in his words, ‘did a runner’.
Chris recalled that dull April day many years later in a letter, he said, “I left the aircraft and ran away from the direction of what I presumed was a German field hospital. I also observed some Germans heading in the direction of the crash. I skirted several fields in which there were one or two men working and eventually I came to a haystack and decided to burrow into it pulling the hay in behind me.” Later Chris was found by a local farmer, Herman ter Duis. Noticing the British uniform, Herman approached and was greeted by the offer of a cigarette. Chris was taken back to the farm that Herman shared with his brother, where he spent the night.
Chris later wrote in a letter, “I was discovered by a young lad who took me into the farm where several adults were in the kitchen. They made me welcome and whilst there they showed me their hidden radio with which they listened to the BBC news. They were very kind to me.” Chris slept in one of the farmhouse bedrooms with his revolver placed on the bedside cabinet.
The following morning Chris was provided with overalls, a bicycle and a guide. They set off in the direction of the Allied advance. Chris remembered, “we had to cycle past a long column of German armour and eventually later in the day I said goodbye to my guide and bicycle and after using ditches to hide in, I was eventually found by the advanced elements of the Guards Armoured Division and a couple of days later was returned across the Rhine to my Squadron.”
In a very matter of fact way, Chris recorded in his logbook that he had been “Shot down 5 miles SW of Lingen. Evaded. Returned a couple of days later.” His return was recorded by his CO in the Squadron’s ORB on 3rd April by the comment, “Depression lifted slightly today when House was known to be safe and on his way back. Poor Chris looked nearly exhausted when he came in but what an adventure.”
75 years on from that final flight, the project to return RB396 to the skies where she belongs has announced new initiatives for how you can support the rebuild. There is a new and exciting tier to the Supporters’ Club, as a route for those who are able and willing to contribute to the rebuild at a higher level than is currently available. It is the Platinum Club, and with significant interest already, it has the potential to enable the rebuild to progress at a much faster pace than is currently possible. It seeks just one thousand people who really want to see the rebuild take off, membership to this club is limited. Alongside that, a range of special new merchandise to commemorate the events of the 75th anniversary have been produced, including a Limited Edition artwork, depicting Chris escaping from the scene of his forced landing. Throughout this 75th anniversary year, the HTPG is planning special events, to mark the anniversary. As soon as restrictions allow, those events will come to fruition and will be incredibly special.
Chris heard that the family who had helped him escape had been shot by the Gestapo. This haunted him forever, and he passed away in 2007 never being able to bring himself to return to the area. Through countless hours of extensive enquiries, the research team on the HTPG have now discovered that the family survived. They were not shot by the Gestapo. The team have now been in touch with the descendants who helped Chris, including the then young boy, as well as Chris’ own family. Planning is ongoing to reunite the two families, in the anniversary year of the final flight, at the exact site, bringing a degree of closure to the story.
To support the project to return RB396 to the skies, 75 years after she fell from them, please head to the “Get Involved” section of this website.
While RB396 was still being repaired from the damage of the 28th, P/O Frank Johnson continued to fly, today in Typhoon SW495. They took off in a flight of four 174 Squadron Typhoons at 13:40 with Frank flying as Red 4. They were tasked with intercepting some enemy transport on the roads near Neimberg. after their first attack with rockets, Frank seems to have been hit by flak and radioed in that his engine was cutting out and he was returning to base at Goch. He never made it back, force landing near Gronau. Germany.
Frank can explain what happens next better than we can.
On this 75th anniversary of Frank being shot down, we are delighted to present this excerpt of The Memory Project’s Shayla Howell interview with Frank, where he describes the mission and its aftermath.
We are honoured to have partnered with The Memory Project, an initiative of Historica Canada, to share Frank’s and other Canadian Typhoon pilot’s experiences.
The Memory Project Archive houses more than 2,800 testimonials and over 10,000 images from veterans of the First World War, Second World War, the Korean War and peacekeeping missions. While the archive no longer accepts submissions, it remains the largest of its kind in Canada. You can access the interviews, digitised artefacts and book a speaker at www.thememoryproject.com/stories.
After a day of indifferent weather, RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson were back in action, flying close support mission in aid of the ground forces pushing deeper into the Reich. The morning operation had four 174 Squadron Typhoons proceed to their cab rank station, with P/O Frank Johnson in RB396 flying as Red 3 with the newly joined F/L Chris House flying as his wingman in Red 4. Soon their controller, ‘Limejuice’, had trade for them. They were vectored to a farmhouse the Army designated with red target smoke. A force of German troops were holed up inside and the four Typhoons made four attacks on the building, first with rockets and then with cannon. The result was that the building was totally destroyed. All aircraft returned safely to B.100 at Goch, Germany after a forty-minute sortie.
That afternoon, Frank and Chris would together again on an Armed Recce to Winterswijk on the Netherlands/German border. Frank would be flying in another Typhoon, XP-M, as F/O Sydney Russell-Smith was flying RB396 as Red 4 that afternoon.
The operation was a patrol over the bomb line that took them to Zutphen in the Netherlands. While no trade was given by forward controllers, they spotted some anti-aircraft guns and made an attack. Due to the increasing cloud cover, the results on the ground were inconclusive, but the effect on RB396 was clear. Sydney reported that they had been hit in the starboard tank.
This did not stop Sydney and RB396 from making a safe return to B.100 after a sortie of 1 hour and 10 minutes.
RB396 would be out of action for the next three days.
The project has had extensive contact with Sydney’s son and family, and Sydney is still with us. He is certainly the last known pilot to have physically flown in the very aircraft that the project is working on rebuilding. Sydney managed to sign two copies of the artwork depicting RB396 that was painted by Neil Hipkiss. Sydney, who was a P/O at the time, completed his ground training for the Typhoon MkIb on the 8/9th January 1945 and he appeared to arrive with 174 Squadron, who were at B100 Goch, sometime before the 22nd March 1945, completing his first sortie with them on that date.
The day broke fine and 174 Squadron put up 9 operations of four aircraft each. RB396 and P/O Frank Johnson would fly two of them with Sydney Russell-Smith as their wingman. The advance into Germany continued apace with Monty’s 21st Army Group pushing into the Rhineland from Wessel and Patton and Bradley in the south pushing in from Remagen.
The first op of the day saw them airborne for 09:15, flying as Red 3, and they proceeded to the holding point for the Visual Control Point (VCP) ground controller to call them in. With no target given, they were directed to their alternate, which was the town of Isselburg, north-west of Wessel. They attacked the town with rockets and cannon, which all landed in the target area but no clear results were seen or reported. All aircraft returned to B.100 safely after a sortie of just 45 minutes, which show how close to the frontline 174 Squadron was based.
Shortly after RB396’s return, the next set of four Typhoons departed for their cab-rank. But the lead aircraft, flown by F/L D.C. Nott crashed on takeoff. The remaining three aircraft got away ok, Nott was unhurt and his Typhoon would be repaired and returned to service. On such a busy day, this could have been disastrous for the wing operating out of Goch.
The interior of “G Air” Command vehicle. “G Air” is responsible for all air support within the Corps and sets in motion bombing by Allied planes of enemy concentrations and Typhoon RP attacks on tanks. Image: IWM BU 428
After a break of 6 hours, RB396 with Frank Johnson at the controls were airborne again. Their usual V.C.P. controller, callsign ‘Limejuice’ handed them over to another, callsign ‘Armour’, who had a group of enemy troops holed up in a house that needed clearing. White smoke was laid on to the house and RB396 went into the attack. Attacking with rockets and cannon, Frank noted the success of the strike in his logbook saying: “Attacked “Jerry” billets. Scored several strikes. Buildings left burning.”
All aircraft returned to base safely after a 50-minute sortie. 174 would fly two more operations that day, including one lead by F/L Nott in a borrowed Typhoon. The squadron summary noted at the end of the day that “targets and results were both very good. Pilots happy and tired.”
While RB396 and Frank Johnson were busy, freshly captured Wessel was visited by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He made the crossing with little fanfare and was not far from the fighting throughout his visit. Eisenhower was not amused.