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Friday, 31 October 2014

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Stop the Scharnhorst

A VETERAN AT 18: Ernie at 18 and already a veteran with over six missions over Germany under his belt. Right, Ernie with his wife, Irene

TALKING to Ernie Constable about his experiences in the war, he will tell you – like so many World War Two veterans – that he was only doing what had to be done at the time, and that he wasn’t doing anything different to most of the young men of his generation.

But Ernie was doing something different: he was a member of a Halifax Bomber crew that successfully attacked and put the German battlecruiser The Scharnhorst out of action. It was one of the deadliest warships of its time.

The raid resulted in him being shot down and spending the rest of the war as a PoW.

Although now a Whitehaven man, Ernie was born in Liverpool on October 7 1921 to his Workington-born mother Edith and Liverpudlian father George. He also had two sisters, Edith and Dorothy.

One of the schools Ernie attended was the Liverpool Institute (years later, his son Ian, a youngster just discovering music, rushed in shouting: “Dad, dad you went to the same school as Paul McCartney and the Beatles!” His father answered in a matter-of-fact way: “No, son, they went to the same school as me – I was there before them.”)

While at school he discovered a passion for building and operating radios, mainly one-valve sets that were the predecessors to ham radio. It was an interest he was to bring into use in the RAF as the bomber crew’s wireless operator.

He followed his dad George onto the railways as a railways signals installer, which entailed installing the new electric signals that were coming into use on the rail network.

During the build up to the outbreak of war there was a recruitment drive for what was known then as the militia, but Ernie had other ideas. “Being flat-footed I wasn’t going to walk to the war, so decided to enlist in the Royal Air Force” – which he did on August 31 1939 at the age of 17. Four days later, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced we were at war with Germany.

After training as a wireless operator and then at gunnery school, he was posted to his first active squadron, 102 squadron at RAF Topcliffe in Yorkshire, flying in Whitelys (dubbed Flying Coffins because of their shape).

Ernie’s first mission was over Berlin as a rear gunner with only two planes going and coming back from the mission.

A new squadron of Halifax Bombers, which preceded the more illustrious Lancaster Bomber, was commissioned. Ernie recalls those early planes having a problem with their undercarriage collapsing on landing – so much so, Winston Churchill phoned their Commanding Officer most mornings to ask how his “weak-kneed squadron were that day”.

It was decided the aircraft were to be manned by veteran aircrews – those with six or more missions over enemy territory under their belt. So at 18 and already a veteran, Ernie joined 35 Squadron at RAF Linton on Ouse with the team of men that he was to finish his active service with.

After flying various missions in Halifax L9512 TL-U as the wireless operator/air gunner with pilot Flight Sgt Stan Greaves and five other crew members, their squadron and the only other squadron who had the new Halifax, 76 squadron were given a special mission: to Stop the Scharnhorst.

On March 22 1941 the Scharnhorst and her usual raiding partner The Gneisnau, after being at sea for 60 days and having sunk 22 merchant ships, sailed into the port of Brest on the west coast of France for a refit.

Despite repeated attacks by RAF bombers, the Scharnhorst – known throughout the German navy as a lucky ship – had escaped any damage, and on July 23 she sailed into the port of La Rochelle, south of Brest, ready to resume her deadly missions.

Because of various time restrictions, and the fact that the Scharnhorst was ready to leave port soon, a daylight bombing raid was decided upon. The only problem was that, with the target more than 600 miles away, fighter cover was out of the question. So the task fell to the still-new Halifax bombers because they had three sets of guns and were considered able to defend themselves without fighter support.

At 10.30am on July 24, the roar of 36 Merlin engines filled the air, and at 10.35am the nine aircraft of 35 squadron took off at one minute intervals, joining up with the six aircraft from 76 Squadron for their mission to France. In an effort to avoid enemy radar the bombers flew below 1,000ft to a point 50 miles west of La Rochelle. They then climbed steadily to the intended bombing height of 19,000ft. The weather was excellent: a cloudless sky with brilliant sunshine and perfect visibility which caused the attack formation the first of its problems – an enemy destroyer spotted them and, thinking it was about to be attacked, took evasive action and opened fire. No plane was hit, but the sighting of the bomber force now took the element of surprise from the operation.

Arriving at the target, it was evident the destroyer had warned of the approaching bomber force. Thirty-one ME 109 fighters were counted circling the area, and as the bombers neared the Scharnhorst they were met with a thunderous barrage of flak. As the bombers drew nearer to start their bombing runs, the fighters closed in and attacked. The giant ship was protected by it’s own 51 guns as well as those of its destroyer escort, and with the shore-based guns joining in, the bombers had to fly in with all the luck they could muster to press home their attack.

With the sky black from bursting shells and the acrid smell of cordite from their own guns filling the interior of their aircraft, Ernie’s Halifax made its way in for its bomb run with the enemy fighters making continued attacks. Ernie, now on the side guns, and his colleagues fought back fiercely against the heavier-gunned fighters.

After the attack Sgt Sammy Walters (the bomb aimer in Ernie’s Halifax) called over the intercom that he had only been able to release half of his bomb load. The skipper called to the crew: “Shall we go in again?” Ernie and his comrades gave a unanimous “Yes” and in doing so they scored five direct hits on the Scharnhorst. Three of them penetrated the armour-plated deck, going through the bottom of the ship without exploding. The other two damaged the starboard shaft tunnel and No 4 dynamo room causing fire to break out.

The damage led the Scharnhorst to ship 7,000 tons of water but the watertight bulkheads held, enabling the ship to limp back to port for urgent repairs, taking it out of the war for four months.

But the price for this success was that Ernie’s Halifax was shot down, along with three other of the raiding party bombers. Ernie received leg wounds while manning the beam guns, a wound that still troubles him to this day, with only bomb aimer Sgt Sammy Walters escaping injury.

“By this time the engines were on fire and the fuselage looked like a colander,” Ernie recalls. “It was a miracle any of us survived the ceaseless onslaught.”

Despite their injuries, all of the crew managed to bail out of the stricken bomber, with the skipper, Stan Greaves, only just clearing the aircraft when it exploded, a sad sight for Ernie and his crew mates strung out across the sky in their parachutes.

Coming down in the sea not far from the Scharnhorst, Ernie was picked up by a German Motor Torpedo Boat, whose captain said smugly: “The English airmen weren’t that clever now were they,” or words to that effect. Ernie remembers nodding back to the listing Scharnhorst and answering: “Do all your battle ships list like that then?”

He was transferred to a French hospital under guard to have his leg wounds tended to. A French nurse put his hand onto her heart and thanked him on behalf of France.

While he was in the hospital, three German fighter pilots came to visit him: this wasn’t an aircrew courtesy call, it was to see which one of them could claim his bomber onto their own kill list.

During six days of hospital treatment Ernie was moved no fewer than six times – to prevent the French Resistance trying to rescue him. He was then transported by ambulance to his first PoW camp. Ernie remembers: “It was a solid wheeled thing, and with the roads in the condition they were and my wound, it wasn’t the most comfortable journey.”

The camp was no more than a hunting lodge with barbed wire around it where half of the 200 inmates escaped: most were caught and transferred to more secure camps, which Ernie in turn was, to Stalag Luft 3, the camp made famous by the film The Great Escape. Ernie says he couldn’t recall a Steve McQueen character there at all...

The camp’s title Luft was given to camps that were mainly for aircrews, as Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering held them in higher esteem. As far as Ernie was concerned the guards were respectful of their charges as they were men who, like the prisoners of war, were only doing what they had to do. The only really bad time was when the camp staged a mass breakout with about 50 of the men who had escaped being shot on Hitler’s orders. The news was passed to the prisoners on parade.

WHILE in the camp, the officers were still paid a wage, but because it was in German Marks, they had no use of it while in the camp, so passed most of it over to the Warrant Officers and Sergeants to put it to good use.

To keep morale as high as they could, activities were organised such as drama and gardening groups. These acted as diversions for planned escapes as well as ways to stay sane while in captivity. Ernie was involved in a drama group, with most of the costumes being hired from Berlin using the money paid to the officers.

If you remember the part of The Great Escape in which the escapees were going under the stage while a play was being acted out, Ernie was part of the very same drama group: a photograph of him dressed as a pantomime dame was taken by a German officer and put on display at his old squadron’s base at Linton on Ouse.

Towards the end of the war, as the Allies were pushing in from all sides, the Germans started to use the PoWs as bargaining tools and started emptying the camps, making the prisoners march for miles as the front line was changing daily, so when the troops came to liberate a camp it was empty. This time in history is recounted in a book by John Nichol and Tony Rennell called The Last Escape.

On one sad occasion, Ernie remembers, “we were walking down the road when they were attacked by rocket-firing English Hawker Typhoons who, thinking we were an enemy column, came in, cannons blazing”. The resulting attack killed 60 of the PoWs who had only days to go before the war was officially over.

The war ended with Ernie and the PoWs on a road somewhere in Germany with the prisoners becoming the guards as the Germans started to surrender their arms. It was then every man for himself as they made their way to friendly forces to be processed back into normal life.

“We [him and three others] stopped a brand new Opel motor car which was being driven by retreating Germans escaping from the Russians, shouting at them to get out before setting off on our way north to our own lines and home.”

Back home in England, Ernie’s mother and father had divorced during the war with his mother returning home to Cumberland, which is why Ernie made his way here.

On leaving the RAF he joined the police: he wanted to join their radio branch but after being posted to Grange- over-Sands he was declined his transfer because he was told they couldn’t afford to let Constable Constable go.

Aggrieved by this, he promptly resigned and went back home, getting a job working at the British Rail goods department at Workington for a while, then having a spell in insurance before settling into Ivy Cottage, his home near the Pelican Garage, with his wife Irene, and a job with Imperial Tobacco, based in Whitehaven but travelling between here and Newcastle. He worked for the company until he retired to spend more time with Irene.

Never one to sit idle though, Ernie, now 86, still likes to dabble in things. “I like things that test me,” he says – he has fully embraced the computer age and has a desktop computer and a laptop (for the living room), and as well as surfing the net, he is able to keep in touch with his son Ian, who now lives in the United States with his wife Sarah.

In 1981, 40 years after the mission, the entire crew was reunited and spent a moving and memorable day when they were flown back to their Lynton on Ouse base by their skipper Stan Greaves (who had carried on flying after the war) to complete their mission. The officers’ mess of the present-day squadron has a commissioned painting hanging in the mess of their aircraft, Halifax L9512 TL-U as they have gone down in squadron folklore as the crew that bombed the Scharnhorst.

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