AIRMEN'S STORIES - Sergeant E. Salway
A CRUEL WAY FOR A HERO TO DIE
The story of ERNEST SALWAY, a young Battle of Britain Air-Gunner who suffered a tragic death in 1942
Like so many of his fellow countrymen, 19 years old Ernest Salway did not wait for the inevitable outbreak of war to take up the call to arms in service of his country, for in May 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve as an Airman u/t (under training) and awaited mobilisation. Hailing from North Wingfield near Chesterfield in Derbyshire, Ernest was called up on the 1st of September, and after training he eventually qualified as an air-gunner and was posted to No.141 Squadron at RAF Turnhouse near Edinburgh in late June 1940.
The squadron had become operational on Boulton Paul Defiant turret fighters at the beginning of that month having previously trained and worked up on a motley collection of Gloster Gladiators and Bristol Blenheims.
As Southeast England braced itself for the expected German onslaught, aerial combats over the English Channel intensified as the opening rounds of the Battle of Britain commenced, and it was on the 12th of July that No.141 Squadron headed south with their Defiants to the station of West Malling in Kent. Ernest regularly flew as gunner to Sergeant Pilot Russell Chapman 'Lofty' Hamer, and on the 16th of July they flew a patrol together in Defiant L6995 but encountered no enemy aircraft.
Three days later good fortune spared them from a massacre when the squadron received orders to send 12 of its fighters to Hawkinge early on the 19th of July. At around 12:30 hours a scramble was conducted for a patrol 20 miles south of Folkestone at just 5,000 feet! However only nine crews got into the air due to three of the RAF fighters becoming unserviceable on start-up!
Less than 30 minutes later Hawkinge witnessed what was left of the squadron return, when just two out of the nine Defiants landed intact after escaping ruthless 'Schwarms' of Messerschmitt Bf109's from Jagdgeschwader 51 who had pounced on them over the Channel. Four pilots and six gunners were either dead or missing with others wounded against which only one Luftwaffe fighter was destroyed. This had been the first taste of action for No.141 Squadron and it sadly proved to also be their last daylight battle of that momentous summer!
This decimated RAF squadron was quickly withdrawn away from the danger area to Prestwick in Scotland; the weakness of the Defiants gun-turret design had proved to be a flawed concept for combat against superior single-seat fighters! In September No.141 Squadron were re-tasked to fly hazardous night patrols and Ernest flew his last recorded sortie with them on the 22nd November, before being posted to the re-formed No.255 Squadron at Kirton-on-Lindsey in mid-December who were also tasked with flying night patrols in Defiants.
A further move came at the end of July 1941 when Ernest was sent to No.406(RCAF) Squadron that operated Bristol Beaufighters, but then later in the year found himself posted to No.1484 TT Flight whose task was the more mundane role of target-towing.
At the beginning of May 1942, Ernest now a Flight Sergeant transferred to No.158 Squadron of Bomber Command, but his stay only lasted a week before he was moved on again to join the Handley Page Halifax B.MkII heavy bombers of No.76 Squadron based at Middleton St.George near Darlington in North Yorkshire.
Joining the crew captained by 25 years old Pilot Officer Howard Norfolk, Ernest became the tail-gunner ('arse-end Charlie') in Halifax W1016 'MP-B' and embarked upon his first night bombing raid to the French port of St.Nazaire on the 22nd/23rd of May, and he had quite an exciting start!
The squadron ORB states:- "This attack on St.Nazaire was completely foiled by poor weather conditions. Bombloads had to be jettisoned. Outward and return journey's uneventful except for "B" which sighted a night fighter. An Me109 came into attack from the starboard quarter, but evasive action was taken by the captain by diving towards the enemy aircraft which banked away steeply and passed over 30 yards above the Halifax - our aircraft was travelling north at time of attack (03:50). Enemy aircraft came in from northeast and departed southeast". The shaken crew of 'B for Beer' landed at 06:30 hours after nearly seven hours in the air!
Ernest's next trip was against Cologne on the 30th of May as part of the first 'Thousand Bomber Raid', followed two nights later by an attack on the huge Krupps works at Essen in the heart of the heavily defended Ruhr. Once again Essen was the target for No.76 Squadron on the 19th of June and the next night the crew of P/O Norfolk were on 'ops' again for a raid upon Emden, this time in Halifax W1114 'MP-F'. The ORB states:- "This aircraft airborne at 23:28 hours since when nothing further has been heard. It is therefore reported missing".
The squadron were not yet to know that three of the seven-man crew had died that night with the survivors all becoming prisoners of the Germans. Flying over Holland at 15,000 feet 'F for Freddie' was first hit by flak, and then at approximately 01:43 hours was attacked by a Bf110 nightfighter of the dreaded 'Nachtjagd' that inflicted fatal damage. (Evidence suggests the German pilot was the renowned ace Oberleutnant Egmont Prinz zur Lippe Weissenfeld of Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 who had claimed three RAF bombers that night!)
The crippled Halifax was doomed and so the order was given to abandon the stricken aeroplane, yet for reasons not fully known Ernest did not have a parachute pack available to enable his escape. (It is quite probable that his 'chute' was damaged by some of the enemy shellfire whilst in its stowed position close to the rear gun turret).
In the short and desperate moments that followed inside the confines of the aft fuselage, a brave decision was taken that resulted in Ernest baling out clinging tightly onto the mid-upper gunner Sergeant D.S. Smith DFM. Caught in a dramatic fight for survival the two RAF gunners plummeted as one through the intense cold of the dark night air. Sgt Smith eventually grasped hold of the D-ring release of his chest parachute pack and gave it a good firm tug.
As the silk canopy deployed with a reassuring jerk, the abrupt brake in the two airman's descent caused Ernest with his numbed fingers to lose grip of Sgt Smith and all of a sudden he was gone. In utter horror, Smith had to watch poor Ernest disappear down and out of sight into the black darkness to his death. The bad luck of war that befell so many courageous heroes had claimed yet another victim.
The German authorities found the sadly crumpled and lifeless body of 22 years old Ernest Salway at Houwerzijl near Ulrum in Holland, where he along with his captain P/O Norfolk and their 21 years old Wireless Operator Sgt William H. Charlesworth are buried in the towns general cemetery. As we today rightly marvel at and glorify our more famous Battle of Britain heroes who died, be mindful of the less well known like Ernest, their pain in sacrifice was no less great.
Dean Sumner: December 2004
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"I regard it as a privilege to fight for all those things that make life worth living - freedom, honour and fair play"
Pilot Officer William "Bill" Millington Australian 79 & 249 Squadrons Fighter Command