Richard Kukura and
Richard Kukura and Tommy Hulme in Ireland
May 10, 2004
On the 17th of March 1943, my navigator/wireless operator and I, a pilot officer, sat in the crew room at RAF Station, Port Ellen, on the Isle of Islay. We were waiting for the violent storm that was raging outside, to abate. We had orders to do a flight, the plan of which was Port Ellen to Rockall, a rock the size of a football field, some one hundred miles out west in the Atlantic Ocean. From Rockall we were to fly to the Isle of St Kilda. From there we were to continue to Taree, on the north west corner of Scotland, and then return to base at Port Ellen.
The purpose of this flight was to test the operation of the Beaufighter aircraft and its fuel consumption, preparatory to flying it to the Middle East. In this case, Cairo, Egypt.
My navigator, whom I had known only a few weeks, was Flight Sergeant Tommy Hulme, an Englishman who was born in the village of Marple Bridge, near the city of Stockport. He proved to be a gem of a man and also a gem at his job in the aeroplane.
At approximately 3.30pm the storm appeared to calm somewhat, and we were ordered to take off. This we did at 4.10pm. Very soon after take-off we found ourselves in the thick of the storm again. Tommy computed the wind at 63 knots, which is almost hurricane force. Cloud base was 500 feet and intermittent heavy rain made visibility difficult. However, Tommy was equal to the task. When our estimated time of arrival came, Rockall appeared in an enormous trough beneath us shedding tons of water from its granite surface, and then disappeared in a mountainous swell.
On reaching St Kilda we flew over the natural harbour and in it were four ships taking shelter from the storm. This made me think that we were idiots to be out in weather that made ships take shelter.
On the way to Taree, the weather started to improve and by the time we arrived a few of the last rays of a peeping sun glinted off the flooded landing field. On setting course for Port Ellen in failing light, I saw directly ahead of us a great bank of cloud, which seemed to indicate we were going to fly back into the storm. A short time later the cloud base was 800 feet and night was upon us.
Tommy contacted Base to check on our course and reported that all was well. A moment later there was a huge thump in the aircraft and a great sucking draft swept through the aeroplane. Our speed dropped by about 4 knots. I checked the controls and everything worked. The engines were still running sweetly. Then Tommy called me on the intercom and asked me if I wanted the bad news or the worse news first. I told him to give it to me as it came. He told me that the entry hatch cover had slammed open. It appeared that the ground crew had not shut it correctly and the slipstream had worked on it until it opened. Tommy had told me that the great draft had sucked out all his papers and maps and also the secret information we carried that could have helped us in finding our position from time to time.
The worst blow of all was at the time of the hatch
cover slamming open, Tommy had been using the radio and it was in the
“use” position that brought it out on a cantilever arrangement
that placed it above the entry well. The hatch cover had hit the radio
and caused a lot of damage.
Tommy told me that he was going to try and repair the radio, and I told him, for the purpose of safety, I was going to climb through the overcast, remaining on the same course. We broke cloud at 7 000 feet and above the cloud there was a very small slice of moon.
Some time elapsed before Tommy told me that he had repaired the radio to work on one valve. However, we could not receive transmission; only transmit. He kept broadcasting our plight so our situation was well known to all.
When our estimated time of arrival had passed, I started to fly a square search pattern in the hope I would find a break in the cloud. All the time hoping a night fighter, fitted with radar, would intercept us and, with the aid of signalling lamps, we would be able to converse. This way we would be led to safety. It did not happen, and I decided to fly south to find a break in the cloud and escape from the influence of the storm. By this time we did not know our position and fuel was becoming important.
We were flying due south for about a half an hour when I saw light reflected on a bank of cloud. A minute or so on we were driving through a hole in the cloud with an image in my mind of a double row of light. My heart said flare path, but my brain said city lights in Eire. I found myself flying west, down a city main street at an altitude of 300 feet and as the twin row of lights ended, I could see white caps below us. This told me that we were over a city on the west coast of Eire.
Because of our fuel situation I had to make quick assumption as to which city this was. On the spur of the moment the city of Donegal was my pick. Knowing that the border between Northern and Southern Ireland ran roughly from east to west to a point where it turned north somewhat east of Donegal, I did a U turn and steered due east. Simultaneously I climbed hard to avoid any high ground. My aim was to cross the border before the fuel ran out. I decided not to take into consideration the Earth’s magnetic variation or the aircraft’s magnetic deviation. I thought that the maximum error in the course I was steering would not be more than 10 degrees, and in a flying time of about fifteen minutes or so the difference would not matter.
When I estimated that I had approximately five minutes of fuel left I told Tommy to prepare to abandon the aircraft. When the fuel gauges showed zero, I wished him luck and told him to jump. He returned my good wishes and was soon gone.
It was time for me to go, so I pulled the release for the hatch to open, with no result. I pulled the release a few times, but still without result. That left me with two choices and very little time. The first choice was to exit from the top hatch, which was used for escape after ditching into an ocean or lake. The disadvantages were, with parachute attached, it would take more time to exit because the top hatch is small, and there was a very real risk of being hit by the tail of the plane or the rudder.
The alternative and the course I decided to take, was to unbuckle my safety harness and parachute straps, lay back the backrest of my seat and turn over on my stomach, after making sure that the aircraft was flying straight and level. I then wriggled my head and shoulders down into the exit well, placed the four fingers of each hand onto the bottom edge of the hatch cover and pushed toward myself with all my strength. It did the trick, and I was lucky to get my hands and face out of the way as the hatch cover slammed up and locked.
Trying to remain calm, I pulled myself away from the well, turned the right way up and buckled on my parachute. I then took the controls and straightened up the starboard wing, which had dropped somewhat in the meantime. I then congratulated myself that I had done everything and was ready to go.
In quick time I climbed down the in-built ladder in the hatch cover, stood for a second on the bottom rung, then pushed myself off into space. There was a muffled roar and I looked up and saw my aircraft disappear. The parachute opened and I forgot all else, but the pain in my groin. I had forgotten to tighten the leg straps on the parachute harness. With a lot of pulling on the shrouds and the leg straps, I was able to sit on the straps in comfort but this took some time.
I was then able to look around. I had already gone through one layer of cloud and after a moment I went into another layer. Then below me was only scattered cloud with dark patches in between. It could have been either land or water. Then I was through that band and I could see fields and stands of timber and other patches I could not identify.
I thought to myself, “I must be getting close.” Then my left knee hit the ground forcefully, turning me over. My head crashed into a depression. I was turned over onto my back with a terrible thump while rolling in between boulders. This knocked the breath out of me.
There I lay in a lot of pain. Some minutes later, after the pain had subsided sufficiently, I was able to ascertain if I had sustained any serious injuries. My body appeared to be unbroken and there was no blood. The wind was cold and strong and was the cause for landing so severely. I stood up and followed regulations by rolling up my parachute and tying it up into a bundle.
Looking around, I saw to the right of me a stand of what appeared to be Cypress trees and behind the trees was a ghostly white shape. I realised it was a house when I saw a patch of pale light about half way down its length. I realised that the light was an open door. With an overcast sky, I had no idea of direction. Also I did not have a pocket compass. I decided to take a chance and called out, “Is anyone there?”
Voices answered and two shadows detached from the Cypress trees and came toward me. I walked forward to meet them. One of the two was a boy. They invited me into the house where a woman waited at the open door. It was apparent that the family had been disturbed by the crashing Beaufighter and had gone outside to see what had happened. They were a pleasant looking middle-aged couple with a boy who appeared to be about 12 years old. I told them why I was there, while enjoying the roaring fire that was alight in the farmhouse kitchen. I asked them if I was in Eire and they said yes, adding I was about three miles from the border. At that time it was just midnight.
In the meantime, the woman busied herself around the fire and in a short time I was sitting down to bacon and eggs, and appreciating their kindness to a stranger.
After some conversation, which I tried to keep to a minimum, I told them that I had to move on and if they would kindly point me in the direction of the border. They protested and told me that I was welcome to a bed for the night. I declined, explaining that I would be “interned” if caught by the authorities. They were not familiar with the term but when I substituted the word, “prison”, they caught on.
After a small discussion between the man and the woman, they told me that they would send the boy down the mountain to bring back a man “who knew all about these matters” and would lead me to the border. This I accepted and the boy went off by himself.
About thirty or forty minutes later the boy returned with a man who appeared to be about forty years old. After greeting me, he told me that we would have to wait until 3 am so that there would be no one on the tracks. And so it was. We conversed in generalities until it was time to leave.
When I got up I thanked my benefactors for all their kindness and offered the woman my parachute to remember me by. She accepted it gladly and then my guide and I left on our journey to the border.
It took us about an hour of silent walking until my guide stopped and told me to sit on a handy log while he went to a nearby police station to bring back some transport. Some time later I heard a car coming and I hid behind a shrub. When I saw two policemen and my guide exit from an old Chevrolet I showed myself and was greeted by the police. I thanked my guide and shook his hand. He seemed anxious to be off and we said our goodbyes. Very quickly he disappeared and left me with the feeling that he had done things like this before.
The police took me back to the police station where I found a bed ready for me. After I gave them a rundown on what had happened, I finally got to bed at about 4.30 am. Just after 9 am a constable awakened me to more bacon and eggs and with the news that Tommy had escaped over the border. He was waiting to be picked up at an army observation post not very far away. The police car took me to the observation post where I was reunited with Tommy, a happy occasion.
From there the police took us to an Australian Sunderland Flying Boat squadron on Loch Neagh where we were debriefed and treated for our injuries. After five days of being pampered by the medical officer, we were flown back to Port Ellen. Our adventure was over.
Now I must tell you Tommy’s story as he told it to me. Tommy always wore RAF issue flying boots, which were always a loose fit, and inside them he wore woollen socks. At the moment of his parachute opening, the shock peeled off his boots and socks leaving him to land in bare feet.
Tommy carried a small hand compass and with the aid
of this he headed east. Finding a road that went in the same direction
he walked for a short distance but his feet began troubling him. At
that time he came to a house with some light showing and he knocked
on the front door. A light was switched on and the door opened revealing
a Catholic priest. Tommy explained the situation and asked the priest
if he could give him a pair of old shoes. The priest shut the door but
left the light switched on. Tommy waited and a moment later the door
opened and a pair of old sandshoes was thrown out. Then the door was
slammed shut and the light switched off.
This is what I remember, but perhaps I have forgotten a few happenings as my memory has been dimmed with the passing of the years. In four days I will be eighty-seven years old.
Tommy Hulme (T. W. HULME) died on the 28th of June 1995, aged 81.
Written by Richard Kukura