Seventy-five years ago, ADAM W HUNTER’S bomber pilot grandfather Andrew Wilson guided his crippled Halifax bomber back home to safety after an appalling mid-air collision over France. Ahead of VE Day, Adam tells the story...

My grandfather could not sleep on the night of Saturday January 13, 1945.

He had just piloted his crippled Halifax bomber - which had taken off hours earlier from RAF Snaith in East Yorkshire - back home to a safe landing on British soil. That was no mean achievement. Just north of Paris, my grandfather’s Halifax had collided with another Halifax bomber, this one from RAF Elvington, and incurred horrendous damage. It was later to be described as ‘one of the most damaged RAF aircraft to land on an English field’.

That night, he and the four other survivors of his crew were too hyped up to be able to sleep. “We just sat up together smoking,” he once told me, in the understated fashion typical of his stories about the war.

At the age of 21, Andrew Wilson had flown nearly thirty missions to targets in mainland Europe. It was never easy, but that night’s sortie to Saarbrücken on Germany’s western border with France had been something else altogether.

Photographs of the five survivors standing in front of their plane leave you wondering how they could possibly have remained in the sky. About ten feet of the nose had been torn from the front, and wires, pipes and fuselage hang to one side. The navigator’s station is crushed, and the pilot’s flight deck exposed, open to the thin, freezing air.

The crew look tired, two of them visibly clutching cigarettes to calm their nerves. Wilson, tall and imposing in the centre, looks almost nonchalant.

Reading accounts of that sortie today, I remembered his telling me about it as I sat on the floor next to his chair as an interested grandson in the late 1980s.

The mission had been ‘uneventful and without incident’, according to Wilson’s files, until just north of Paris another plane from RAF Elvington - with a French crew piloted by Edmond Jouzier - moved across their front and the two collided.

In his report of the collision, French mid-upper gunner, Robert Memin, describes how the tail of his plane shattered with a huge crash as they began ‘climbing, diving and turning’. Realising the plane was out of control, he evacuated, and parachuted into a tree in front of the mayor’s house in a tiny village near Gisors, Normandy. During his descent, he watched as his plane exploded on the ground.

Listening to Wilson’s stories as a child, the decision-making and clear-minded adherence to protocol needed to make it home was hard to imagine. Only reading the official reports now does it come fully to life.

Immediately after the collision, his aircraft had felt like it was ‘falling around the sky’, and he watched as the plane from Elvington seemed to ‘hang in the air’ beside them for eternity. But after regaining control, he followed his training. First, he checked the crew, noting simply that ‘the Navigator and Bomb aimer had gone’. His friends, Stan Whitehouse and Dave Hauber, positioned as usual in the nose of the aircraft, had fallen to their deaths. Later, Wilson would visit the Normandy memorial to the two men and three French crew who also died.

Next, the crew checked their equipment and instruments. All maps and charts were gone, all major instruments including their radios were ‘useless’ – sparks were flying from severed wiring. They switched off all electrics to guard against the risk of fire. Wilson notes: ‘We were obviously in a bad way.’

There were four remaining parachutes between the five airmen. Expecting to crash, he told his crew to evacuate. They refused.

They climbed to save fuel and to give themselves ‘a little time to think’, but at what Wilson thought was around 11,000 feet the engines began to stall. The altimeter could not be trusted, and once the engines were restarted survival was their only goal. Wilson looked to the sky, not for spiritual revelation, but rather to find constellations that would guide them home. ‘Having identified the North Star,’ he reported, ‘I flew North West until I estimated we were somewhere near Lincolnshire and started the Standard Distress Procedure.’

The Distress Procedure required the pilot to circle until the ground crew picked them up on radar and provided homing searchlights. It worked, but as he made his approach to Ford in West Sussex and lowered the speed the plane swung and yawed violently. They had to go round again. This time, Wilson approached low and fast, and landed safely.

Records of the time state that ‘seldom if ever did an RAF aircraft land on an English airfield with more damage.’ Weeks later, the entire command received a memo about my grandfather sent on behalf of Air Chief Marshal Harris – the famous ‘Bomber’ Harris. The memo reads: ‘This Officer undoubtedly showed a very high standard of Pilotage and Captaincy in bringing his Aircraft back to a base in the United Kingdom in its crippled condition. By his coolness and sound airmanship in adverse conditions he saved the lives of the remainder of his crew.’

Later, Wilson and French gunner Memin, who survived the crash of the Elvington Halifax, formed a friendship. They wrote to each other regularly, exchanging photographs and stories. The letters from Memin ooze affection.

Throughout, he writes to ‘my dear Andy’, inviting him to visit the family home in Poitiers when he next visits ‘La Belle France’. Both were stationed in Yorkshire during the war, and there are several mentions of a bar where the servicemen would go to unwind.

Memin, who once visited Elvington for a reunion, wrote: "It reminds me of Betty’s in York during the war."

In one letter, Memin referred to a model Halifax he had seen at a memorial in Normandy to the lost crew of his bomber. ‘Brachet was written on the nose,’ he wrote.

Robert Brachet had been the navigator and captain of Memin’s crew, and died after the collision in 1945. The model designers had found the name in a book about war heroes.

In his letter, Memin enclosed a copy of the chapter from the book about Brachet. The French navigator is described as ‘a big devil, sculpted, with a coiffured slick hairstyle and straight forward look which speaks volumes. He is only 25 years old, but a true leader.’

The author describes the captain’s decision to remain on board with the pilot in theatrical fashion.‘Brachet... knows that the time has come to be great. Le Capitaine Brachet, your name will remain a symbol of the perfect air captain of the finest character.’

Reading these lines, I wondered if these were simply the colourful flourishes of an author, and whether an account such as this would make it into a book this side of the Channel. The understatement of our official reports, the Air Vice Marshal’s letter, and Wilson’s own descriptions of his actions feel curiously British. Wilson’s logbook entry for the flight reads, simply: “1945 Jan 13, Halifax III MH-Y, Ops. to Saarbrücken. collided nr. Paris. A./B. + Nav. killed. Landed Ford.”

Looking, as I can now, at his Air Force Cross, awarded for an act of ‘exemplary gallantry while flying’, I can marvel at his cool airmanship and captaincy, and the leadership and courage he showed at only 21.

Perhaps Memin puts it best. Referring to a photograph that Wilson had sent him of the crew standing in front of the damaged plane, he wrote: "I appreciated the photos of your crew. They look very relax[ed] indeed. At this time of our life we were [a] happy and careless mess. I think our dangerous job could not be done without these qualities."

Adam W Hunter

You can follow Adam on Twitter at @adamwhunter