WWII bomber pilot cheated death in fireball explosion and witnessed The Great Escape

The miraculous survival of a Bomber Command pilot whose plane exploded into a fireball is revealed in a new book by his son.

Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood flew during a daring daytime raid on Augsburg on Sept.

After a direct hit in the Bavarian submarine diesel engine factory, his Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft guns, caught fire and fell into the ground. It was blown to pieces on impact and another pilot, who witnessed the “orange fireball that lights the sky,” told his superiors that no one could have survived.

The tragic news of the alleged death of Wg / Cmdr Sherwood was passed on to his wife Bernice.

But instead of bursting into tears, she remained unmoved and said soberly: “I would know if he were dead and I think he is fine.”

Her intuition proved correct because while the rest of the seven-person crew of Wg / Commander Sherwood were killed in the crash, he was somehow catapulted from the explosion while he was still strapped to his pilot’s seat.

Wg / Cmdr Sherwood, of 97 Squadron, was found unconscious but still alive and spent six weeks in hospital due to his “burned face” before being taken to Stalag Luft III, the Great Escape Camp.

There he experienced first hand the escape of the “Wooden Horse” and the preparations for the legendary Great Escape on March 24, 1944, which was immortalized in the 1963 film with Steve McQueen in the lead role.

And in the final months of World War II, he endured a dreaded Long March in which prisoners who couldn’t keep up were shot. Wg / Cmdr Sherwood left the RAF in 1958 and died in 1973 at the age of 54.

Now, almost half a century later, his son Gerald Sherwood has published a book called Bomber Command Pilot, in which he recounts his unbelievable military service.

He noted down conversations he had had with his father in the last years of his life, but had no time to research any further until his retirement.

Since 2014, he has spent many hours studying the National Archives to find out more about his father’s 43 attacks, including daylight missions to bomb German cruisers in Brest.

One topic Wg / Cmdr Sherwood would not discuss, however, was the Great Escape, as he was deeply concerned about the retaliatory executions of 50 RAF officers. It is believed that he played a minor role in this pursuit of freedom, although he better remembered the “wooden horse” escape in which an arched gymnastics horse was used to cover the entrance of a tunnel.

A 100-foot tunnel was dug and three prisoners, Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot, escaped from Sagan camp and boarded ships back to Britain in October 1943.

Gerald, 80, of St Austell, Cornwall, said: “I’ve always wanted to write a book about my father, but I didn’t have time until I retired and then they take care of young grandchildren.

“My father and I worked together for the last few years of his life (in finance and insurance) and during these one-on-one meetings he shared his wartime experiences with me.

Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood in 1936

“I also studied the National Archives and spoke to another WWII aviator to find out more.” the seven-man crew of Lancaster OF-K King when they were blown to pieces on impact with the ground.

“He appreciated that luck alone had ensured that he was the only burned survivor to be catapulted from the explosion.” After the war, he disclosed very little information about the Great Escape.

“If the conversation on this subject went on too long, he would soon switch the subject to the much happier outcome associated with the Wooden Horse Escape Project.

76 Squadron Wellesleys and Crews 1938 John 'Flap' Sherwood pictured fifth from left

“He had been able to experience the thrill of jumping over the horse while the nearby German spectators, who were easy to entertain, completely ignored the activity in the ground under the horse while watching.

“My father was definitely shocked by the unnecessarily cold-blooded execution of 50 RAF colleagues (according to Hitler’s orders after the great escape).

“He was a gentleman and had an extraordinary war – people who read the book told me if it was a Hollywood movie they wouldn’t believe it.”

Wg / Cmdr Sherwood, who was born in Egypt, was drafted into the RAF in 1936 after leaving a British school. In the summer of 1940 he completed a tour of 30 sorties against enemy targets and received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

He added an ingot to this award for his actions in the Augsburg raid, with his quote: “He led his squadron in the daylight attack on the important diesel engine plant in Augsburg, southern Germany.

A happy looking Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood next to his plane.

“With great skill and skill, Squadron Leader Sherwood led the formation at a very low level over 900 miles of enemy-occupied territory – and ultimately led all of his planes straight to the target.

“When approaching the target itself, heavy and precise anti-aircraft fire was experienced, but with extreme boldness and prudence he pushed the attack home with his section. His bombs hit the factory directly from a very low height.” .

“While bombing the target, his plane was hit by anti-aircraft guns and caught fire.” Squadron Leader Sherwood continued to lead his section with one wing far away from the target until the plane became uncontrollable.

“Through extreme fulfillment of duty, Squadron Leader Sherwood ensured the success of the operation he was entrusted with and continued his bold leadership through to the end.

“His striking bravery on this occasion crowned a long and prestigious career in the service of his country.”

Flight officer Ernest Rodley, who was closely followed, reported to the base that Sherwood’s plane “exploded into an all-consuming orange fireball that brightened the fading evening light.”

However, Sherwood’s survival was revealed seven weeks later in a telegram from the Air Department to Bernice.

It read: “Mrs. JS. Sherwood Lingfield Tor-o-Moor Rd Woodhall Spa Lincs of Air Department Kingsway P6182 3/6 Additional information now received from the International Red Cross Committee says that her husband is Squadron Leader John Seymour Sherwood DFC Stop prisoner of war in German hands. “

Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood and Mrs. Bernice on their wedding day

Sherwood wrote of Stalag Luft III on June 26, 1942, in a letter that appears in the book, to a friend of the Luftwaffe: tanned.

“I got away with a burned face followed by scarlet fever.

“I have no news from the rest of the crew and I fear the worst.

“But it’s good to think we did our job well. I heard that we are all ‘heroes’ at home.

“All the best to everyone, Flap.”

Of the 12 planes that took part in the raid, only five returned – a staggering 58 percent casualty rate.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill said glowingly about the attack: “We must clearly regard the attack by the Lancasters on the submarine engine factory in Augsburg as an outstanding achievement by the RAF.

“Initially unimpressed by heavy losses, the bombers penetrated the heart of Germany in broad daylight and hit a vital point with deadly precision.

“Please convey the gratitude of His Majesty’s Government to the officers and men who accomplished this memorable feat in which no life was lost in vain.”

Bomber Command Pilot: From the Battle of Britain to the Augsburg Raid: The Unique Story of Wing Commander JS Sherwood, is published by Pen & Sword and costs £ 25.

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