Despite the froamtion of the RAF, the Navy has retained control over some squadrons for naval work. The primary focus at this time was the Navy’s attempts to block the entrance to the canal at Zeebrugge, and to Ostend harbour, in order to close the waterway communications with the German inland naval base at Bruges.
202 Squadron had done extensive work in photographing the area at different times to get information for varying conditions of tide. As the naval blocking operations were to take place at night and under cover of smoke-screens, another important aspect of the air work was a survey of the buoys marking the channels by which the objectives could be reached.
The success of the plan depended on secrecy. The ships were to assemble some sixty miles from the Belgian ports, and because the passage to the objectives would require about seven hours there would be some hours of daylight during which the force might be surprised by German aircraft or by submarines. Arrangements were therefore made to screen the assembly and early movements of the shipsincluding aeroplane, seaplane, and airship patrols. Seaward patrols by surface craft, all directed against possible submarines, and air offensive patrols, over the fleet by aircraft from Dover, and over the Belgian coastal area by Sopwith Camels from Dunkirk were also planned.
During the operation the Royal Air Force was required to divert the attention of the defenders by making bombing attacks on batteries in the area of the objectives. These attacks were to begin two and a half hours before the naval zero hour, and were to continue, with increasing intensity, until the blockships, with their supporting vessels, reached the objectives.
It was hoped that these attacks would impel the crews of the German batteries to seek shelter and leave the guns unattended at the time when the expedition reached the coast, and it was also hoped that the searchlights would be diverted to the aeroplanes, away from the approaching fleet.
During the final period of the approach, the aircraft were to drop incendiary bombs to cause fires which would illuminate the area, and immediately before the time of arrival of the ships the pilots were to release parachute flares for the same reason.
At 2240 this evening, the first of the Handley Pages of 215 Squadron (1462) left its aerodrome, in bad weather, for Zeebrugge. For an hour the Handley Page was presented as a target for the enemy searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries, and it was hit because at 1330, over the sea, one engine suddenly failed, and the aeroplane lost height and eventually crashed on the water seven miles off Ostend.
The pilot, Captain John Robin Allen, was not seen again and presumed drowned, but the observer Captain Paul Bewsher, and the gun-layer Lieutenant Maxwell Clive Purvis, were picked up by a coastal motorboat and taken back to Dunkirk.
Bewsher later published a book about his experiences, “‘Green Balls’ The Adventures of a Night-Bomber”. Here he describes the crash:
“I rush into the back, and push over quickly all the little levers by the side of the machine. I climb forwards into my seat, and see that we are only twenty feet or so from the water, which lies swelling and heaving with an oily heartless calm all round us, lit up by the wavering light of the parachute flares. For a moment I see the sides of a ship on the right sweep past us and vanish. Then I realise we are just above the sea, which now streaks below us: I see the two whirling discs of the propeller on either side; I put one foot on my seat … ready….
CRASH! Crack—splinter—hiss—there is a sudden, swift, tremendous noise and splash of water, and I feel myself whirling over and over, spread-eagle-wise, through the air. I hit the water with a terrible impact … there is a white jagged flash of fire in my brain, I feel the sudden agony of a fearful blow … and sensation ends.
I become conscious of an utter fear. In sodden flying clothes, now terribly heavy, I find myself being dragged under the water as though some sea-monster were gripping my ankles and pulling me under the water. My head sinks beneath the surface, and, inspired by an absolute terror, I frantically beat out my hands. I realise in a swift vivid second that I am going to die—that this is the end. As my head rises again I become conscious of the oil-glittering surface of the sea, shining strangely in the light of the three flickering parachute flares which hang above me like three altar-lamps of death. Here, in the irresistible weight of these soaked clothes, only semi-conscious and quite hysterical, I begin a ceaseless, piteous wail. “Help! Help!…”
In my weakness I sink again below the water, and thrust out my arms wildly to keep myself up, panting furiously, and crying for help.
Some twenty feet or so away the top wing of the machine lies out of the water at an angle, a dark high wall a hundred feet along. Inspired into frantic energy by my sheer dread of dying, I begin to fling myself along the surface of the water with the insane strength of despair. I kick out my heavy legs, so cumbered with the great leather flying boots and huge fur-lined overalls. Frenziedly I beat my arms. Again and again I sink. Nearer and nearer grows the shining surface of the tight fabric.
“Oh! Help! Help!”
Under the water goes my agony-twisted mouth. Again I rise and resume the unending cry to the empty night.
At last I reach the wing and begin to beat vainly upon its smooth steep surface with my sodden leather gloves. There is nothing on which I can grip, and with an ever-growing weakness I drag my hands down, down, down its wet slope like a drowning dog at the edge of a quay. It seems awful to die so near some kind of help. Kicking my legs out, I manage to move along the wing and at last come to the hinge, where the wing is folded back when not in use, and there I find a small square opening into which I can thrust my hand.
With a feeling of immense relief I let my body sink down into the water. One hand and my head are above the surface. So weak am I, and so heavy my water-soaked flying clothes, that I can scarce hold up my weight. Across my battered face is plastered the fur of my flying-cap. My strength is so rapidly ebbing away that I know that in but a few minutes I will have to leave go and drown unless I am helped. So once again I send my sad wail across the cruel shining waters. Now and again I hear a deep dull boom sound across the sea, and I presume that somewhere a monitor is shelling the German coast.
Now I suddenly see sitting astride the top of the plane, some nine or ten feet above me, a muffled figure. I think at once that my pilot is saved and begin to shout out—
“Hello! Roy! I can’t hang on! Oh! I can’t hang on! What shall I do? Is any one coming? Is there any chance?… I’m drowning, I’m drowning!”
“Hang on if you can!” comes the encouraging answer. “There is a boat coming!”
My strength, however, has almost gone, and it is an effort even to hold up my head above the water.
Now does reason whisper to me to leave go. You have got to die one day, it says, and if you sink down now and drown you will suffer scarcely at all. Since you have suffered such agony already, why not drift away easily to dim sleep and the awakening dreams of the new life. Leave go, it whispers, leave go. Tempted, I listen to the voice, and agree with it. Shall I leave go, I ask myself; and then instinct, the never absent impulse of life, cries out, “No! Hang on!” and I hang on with renewed strength inspired by the dread of approaching death.
“Hang on, hang on! The boat is coming up!” shouts the man above me.
“Oh! what are they doing? I can’t hang on any longer!”
“They’re lowering a boat—hang on—they’ll be here soon!” encourages the watcher on the wing.
Changing hands I turn round quickly, and vaguely see in the darkness a motor-launch or some such boat, twenty feet or so away.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry!” I yell, dreading that my strength may give out in these last moments of waiting. It seems utterly wonderful that I may be saved. I realise how fortunate it is that the machine is floating. If it were to sink but a foot or two, and the little hole through which my hand is thrust were to go under the water with it, then I should not be able to hold myself up, and would soon die. Still sounds the roar of near-by explosions: still shines the smooth cruel sea around me: still float the quivering flares above; then I hear the glorious sound of a voice crying—
“Where are you? Give us a hail so that we can find you!”
“Here—here! Hanging on the wing! Do come quickly—do come—I can’t hang on any longer.”
I hear the splash of oars, and then two strong arms slip under my armpits, and I am dragged up to the edge of the boat. I am utterly weak and can use no muscle at all, so for a moment or two they struggle with me, and then I fall over the side on to the floor, where I lie, a sodden, streaming, half-dead thing.
“Save my pal! Save my pal!” I cry.
Down the wing slides the other man, and suddenly I see it is not the pilot at all, but the back gunlayer.
“Where’s Roy? Where’s Roy?” I shout in a sudden dread.
“He never came up!” is the terrible answer.
“Oh! Save my pilot! Save my pilot!” I call out, bursting into sobs, partly with hysteria at the ending of the strain, partly with utter grief. “He was a wonderful chap … one of the best … one of the best. Save him! Oh! Do save him! He can’t be dead! Roy! Roy! He was the best chap there—ever—was.”
About the time that the Handley Page crashed, the weather became worse, with rainstorms and poor visibity, and only three of the six additional Handley Pages of 214 and 215 Squadrons, allotted for similar bombing attacks, reached the objectives. One of them (3119) was forced to land in Holland and was interned with its crew, Captain Edward Robert Barker, Lieutenant Frederick Herbert Hudson, and Lieutenant David Crichton Kinmond.
The Navy then decided to abandon the mission because of the unfavourable weather, and the fleet accordingly withdrew.