Phil Smith was falling.
He was still strapped into the pilot’s seat of B for Baker, having a moment ago been preparing for the jolt that usually accompanied the release of the bomb load from a Lancaster. But then something extraordinarily and suddenly violent had happened, and now he could feel no aeroplane around him.
He quickly came to the obvious conclusion:
I immediately released my seat belts and then my parachute. It seemed to open immediately.
Looking up, he could see that one of the two risers from which he was hanging had been half cut through in the blast, so he hung on above the break with both hands until he landed on a large grassy field.
I seemed to be all in one piece but my flying helmet and one flying boot had gone. There was no indication that I had been seen.
His left wrist and hand were somewhat sore but otherwise he felt unharmed. Gathering up his parachute, he crept off in a direction away from some nearby houses in order to find somewhere to hide it.
Apart from the two Lancasters which came down in Flanders on the way home, there is little surviving evidence to show exactly which fate befell the remaining ten aircraft that failed to return from Lille that night. Richard Jozefiak shows that all ten crashed within about five miles of the target. Out of these, the night raid report suggests that four had been seen to go down in combat with fighters and two had collided. There was perhaps one more victim of a collision (the aircraft which hit Pilot Officer Dear in ND896), which leaves three lost to entirely unknown causes. It appears unlikely, however, that sufficient evidence has or will ever come to light to be able to make a determination, with any degree of confidence, of what happened to these aircraft, and by extension, of what exactly caused the crash of B for Baker. Even Phil Smith himself never knew for certain. “All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it,” he wrote to his parents shortly following his liberation a few months later. Theories abounded. “He must have had a miraculous escape,” wrote his aunt Cis to her brother, Phil’s father Don Smith. “He didn’t know if another plane hit them or if their own bombs exploded, as directly their own bombs were released he remembers a terrific flash of light – but felt absolutely nothing.” In November 1944 the Air Force sent an extract from Phil’s official evasion report to the family of his rear gunner, Gilbert Pate:
…while bombs were falling from the aircraft it was hit either by flak or by enemy aircraft and exploded in mid air
Later still, Phil wrote a letter which he sent to the Air Force for onwards transmission to the family of his wireless operator, Dale Johnston:
We had a straightforward trip up to the time when the bombs were falling away from the aircraft when something hit us and the aero-plane exploded. I have no idea what happened to the rest of the crew or the remains of the aircraft – after seeing flame in front of my eyes I did not see or feel anything solid until my parachute opened.
And three years after the Lille raid, Phil’s father told him of a letter received from Fannie Johnston. She had been to France, it seems, and spoke to a local who suggested the aircraft had been involved in a collision. “I suppose they found the remains of two aircraft together”, Phil guessed. “A collision is as likely as any other cause…”
Collision? Own bombs? Flak? Nightfighter? Even when my own family spoke with Phil a few years before he died, he was still unclear on exactly what caused the loss of his aeroplane.
All that was some time off, though. Right now he had far more pressing matters to deal with. Squadron Leader Phil Smith was on the ground, alone, in enemy-occupied territory. He did not know it yet, but out of the 84 aircrew on board the twelve Lancasters which had failed to return from Lille, he was the only man still alive. After gathering up his parachute, Phil began heading roughly south-east, navigating roughly by the North Star. His vague plan was to walk to Switzerland, which he considered a better prospect than trying to escape via Spain. He hid his parachute and mae-west lifevest in a pile of roadbuilding stones and carried on, soon coming to a big barbed wire fence. This, he supposed, was probably the Luftwaffe airfield which he knew was south-east of the target. He decided that walking across the airfield would be easier than going around it and looked for a gap in the wire. But then he heard gun shots.
I had not been challenged but felt sure that they were meant for me. I changed my mind and immediately crept off as quietly as possible in a North-Easterly direction.
Planning to avoid contact with any people and to get as far from the crash site as he could on the first night, Phil walked on. Having lost one fur-lined flying boot in the explosion, he now found his remaining boot soaking up dew from the ground. It became too heavy and he was forced to abandon it.
I was then committed to walking cross-country in my socks.
After wading across a narrow canal of some sort (”an unpleasant process”, he wrote in his usual understated way), he found himself walking up steadily rising, wooded ground.
By this time I was tiring, there were signs of dawn and the cover seemed quite good for lying up during daylight.
Phil picked a likely-looking spot, hid himself as best he could, and fell into a fitful sleep.
This post – published at 23:45 on 10 May 2014, exactly 70 years since the last known message was sent from B for Baker – is part of a series called 467 Postblog. See this link for an in-depth explanation of the series, and this one for full citations of sources used throughout it. © 2014 Adam Purcell
 Smith, Phil, undated. Recollections of 1939-1945 War, p.24
 Smith, Phil, letter to parents, 09SEP44
 Smith, Cis, letter to Don Smith, 13SEP44. From the collection of Mollie Smith
 Air Force to Kathleen Pate, letter, 12NOV44. From the collection of Gil and Peggy Thew
 Smith, Phil, letter to Fannie Johnston, 13APR45. Transcript from NAA: A705, 166/20/131
 Smith, Phil, letter to father, 16MAY48. From the collection of Mollie Smith
 The description of Phil’s attempt to walk across France, and quotes in this section, are from his Recollections typescript