John Edward Lithgow McFarland RAFVR 1503993 – Navigator. 1944

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Many thanks again to John and David for passing on the full (colour) version of John’s logbook.

Browse John’s logbook here

Browsing the internet, I cam across Johns recollections on the ‘Big Lottery Fund’ website of all places. John had been successful in an application to get over to the UK for a Squadron Association reunion.

John’s story began when he came to Belfast in 1940 to sit a Latin exam for a pharmacist’s apprenticeship he’d secured in Derry.  “I’d always found the Latin a chore and a friend had told me about the great time he was having in the RAF so when I was in Belfast I went to the RAF recruiting office and joined up,” he said.

In June 1941 John was formally called up and began training as a navigator. After graduating, he should have gone to an Operational Training Unit where the air crews were put together, though they were infamous for their 20% loss of life.

“But then word came through that I was to by-pass this, I never knew why, and join a crew before going onto the 75th New Zealand Squadron as a replacement navigator – and you never asked who you were replacing,” said John.

He continued: “We flew from a remote base near Ely in East Anglia and were engaged mainly in sea and French railway yard mining operations as well as drops to the French Resistance. It was during one of these we were shot down. The Germans had the capability to fire vertically upwards. We were over Denmark and it was around midnight when my navigator’s table shattered and I knew we’d been hit from below.

“Everything happened so fast. We had to bail out and use our parachutes. The parachute wrappers used to put little notes in with the silk saying things like ‘all the best’!  Only three of us survived that night – the rear gunner’s parachute failed to open. That could have been any one of us for you just grabbed a parachute on your way out to board the aircraft…”

John landed in a ploughed field and was rescued by the farmer’s son whose family sheltered him for three days before the Germans found him. “I was sent to the same prison camp which featured in The Great Escape,” he explained. “Life there wasn’t great but some of the lads had built a radio and brought us news every day so we heard about D-Day and thought we’d be home by Christmas. Of course we weren’t.”

In January 1945 with the Russians advancing the POWs were put to march, sleeping in barns along the roadside, despite the bitter winter. “I’ve never experienced cold like it. One POW found a rat and held onto it just to keep his hands warm!” recalled John.

“I remember one morning though, two British fighter planes were circling overhead, making to attack because they thought we were Germans. We tried to spell out ‘POWs’ with towels on the ground but they came in, all guns blazing. Twenty men died – friendly fire I think they would call it today. Just days later we were freed by the British…”

Despite his stoicism in recounting the story, the tragic irony of that loss of life still sits heavily on John McFarland’s heart. “Back in the UK we were de-loused, de-briefed and told we could go home – so home it was,” he said.  “That’s when I understood what it must’ve been like for our families. Our Commanding Officer, a wonderful man, had sent a personal letter to them when our plane hadn’t come back that night…”.

read the entire article here

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