Spearheading the attack on Normandy was just the start of Geoff Packham's extraordinary experience as the end of the war approached.
Geoff’s first 'op' was like no other. Flying as a 'second dickey' to more senior airmen, Geoff and his fellow airmen of No. 550 Squadron launched the first bombs of Operation Overlord at 2334 hours on 5 June. The Squadron's Operations Records Book records, 'On the outward journey enough was seen to realise that the whole of southern England was on the move. A vast armada, of ships, was seen making their way towards France'.
While technically Geoff’s first mission, he was already an experienced pilot with 800 hours of flight time accumulated and had spent several years training Army pilots and then air gunners. He was a welcome addition to the Squadron and in the days following 6 June, Geoff and his crew took on missions into France and Germany.
Yet it was just 10 days later, on 16 June, that even more extraordinary experiences would unfold for Geoff.
Tasked with bombing a synthetic oil facility in Sterkrade, Germany, Geoff found himself piloting a Lancaster that couldn't climb to the needed altitude of 21,000 feet.
Flying at just 18,000 feet and exposed to threats below, Geoff's Lancaster was hit within 20 minutes of take off. With a hole in the fuselage, one engine knocked out and a second failing, a shattered Perspex nose and unserviceable instruments and hydraulics, the plane was in poor condition and losing altitude.
Geoff turned the plane back towards England, knowing that he had no brakes or flaps to land and a full bomb load that further endangered his crew. His best hope was for the crew to bail out closer to England.
Coming under attack from two Messerschmitts, Geoff gave the order to abandon aircraft. Exiting last after his crew, at low altitude and from a now spinning aircraft, Geoff's parachute slipped off his shoulders and he found himself parachuting upside down.
Geoff managed to right himself at the last moment and landed heavily in a wheat field outside the Dutch village of Vlijmen. It was in the cemetery of the Vlijmen church that Geoff came across the vicar’s wife, who led him to the vicar and ultimately into the underground railroad run by the resistance.
Shuttled between safe houses with a forged identity card declaring him 'deaf and dumb', Geoff was moved from Holland into Belgium, being reunited with his mid-upper gunner along the way. Nearing the end of the 'railroad' in Antwerp, Geoff and Jack, the gunner, were escorted by a large man from a safe house to a waiting car.
Within moments, the man had pulled a gun and proclaimed, 'For you the war is over'. Handed over to the Gestapo, Geoff and Jack were interrogated and ultimately imprisoned in separate POW camps.
Geoff and Jack had unwittingly fallen into the bogus 'KLM Line' set up by Nazi sympathizer Belgian Rene van Muylem. Rene had actually taken on the identity of a UK agent who had dropped into France to set up the underground line. His charade ultimately captured more than 170 airmen, as well as many resistance members. While the airmen were imprisoned, the captured resistance workers faced a much worse fate.
Following the war, Geoff was reunited with his family. The rest of his crew also survived the crash and were imprisoned by the Germans.
Thanks to D-Day Bomber Command: Failed to Return by Fighting High Publishing, www.fightinghigh.com.
This blog is in memory of all those men who did not return.