One Of Our Planes. . .WWII Veteran Tom Cox's Unscheduled Trip to the Beach
© Copyright 2021 by Daniel Hicks
Photo of Tom Cox (on right) and a Dakota.
And now it was all coming true.
As well as the five-man crew there were two Australian ferry crews, maybe sixteen men, whose task it was to ferry aircraft from Bristol to where they were needed in North Africa, and four ‘majors’. Tom recognised these men from previous flights. Wearing civilian clothes they would invariably sit immediately behind the cockpit and speak only to each other or the captain throughout the flight.
The plane refuelled at Gibraltar and took off at nine o’clock on the evening of 12 November, with an estimated arrival time of seven o’clock the following morning at RAF Tilstock at Whitchurch near Bristol.
For almost four and a half hours the flight was uneventful as the plane flew over the Atlantic, roughly parallel to the coast of Portugal. Then at 01:25 the fuel pressure to the starboard engine began to fluctuate. The cross-feed was turned on, allowing fuel from the port side to compensate for the loss, and normal cruising was resumed.
Captain Rae was taking no chances - he told Tom to send an SOS to Portishead and altered course to make landfall as soon as possible.
Their relief, however, was short-lived. Within thirty minutes the fuel pressure to both engines began to fall. The cross-feed was turned off, which allowed the port side to return to normal, and the Australian crews took turns to man an emergency hand-pump to supply the starboard engine. Leaning down over the machine they worked till their hands and arms were blistered. The blisters burst and still they fought to maintain the dwindling pressure.
And then the port engine began to lose power. Driven by two barely functioning engines the Dakota limped towards the coast, dropping to a mere two and a half thousand feet above the waves. Captain Rae instructed Tom to remove the freight door, which was positioned on the port side towards the rear of the fuselage, and stationed the majors at intervals along the centre of the plane to relay Tom’s shouted estimates of their altitude.
Tom looked down at the shrinking gap between him and the Atlantic Ocean, and took an educated guess: “Two thousand feet.”
“Two thousand feet,” his estimate was passed along to the cockpit. Tom felt quite privileged, this was the closest anyone had ever come to conversation with these men.
“Fifteen hundred feet” It was a cloudless night and there was a full moon; he could see the white flecks of foam on the waves below.
“One thousand feet.” And now he could make out the individual waves as they rushed up to meet him. Getting nearer. And nearer…
“Five hundred feet.” He could make out nothing now – too close – too fast – just a dark-coloured blur rushing beneath his feet. He thought of Phyllis, expecting him home on leave tomorrow…
Suddenly there was no blur. Just eight feet below him there was a static, solid surface. Well, not all that solid – in the light of the full moon he could see it was sand.
He didn’t know quite what had happened. Then everyone burst into wild applause, followed by a spontaneous chorus of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Captain Rae had managed to turn the Dakota to align with the beach and execute a faultless landing on the soft, flat sand. To their right the beach dropped towards the lapping waves. To their left it rose in a series of dunes and scrubland. Ahead there were more dunes; another fifty yards and they would have crashed into them. It was as though something had guided them to this emergency landing strip.
At this point they had no idea whether they were in Spain or Portugal. If it was Spain they could expect to be handed over to the Germans so Captain Rae immediately organised the burning of all sensitive documents.
They were quite relieved when, at about three in the morning, a lone Portuguese policeman arrived, pushing his bicycle over the dunes, and arrested the entire party of about twenty five people. A KLM pilot had picked up their SOS and relayed it to Lisbon. The plane had come down at Viana do Castelo, less than thirty miles short of the Spanish border.
The plane was made secure and they accompanied the policeman to the town centre, a cross-country hike of about six miles, where they were incarcerated in the local prison. Exhausted, they sprawled on benches and floors and slept.
Tom was awakened a few hours later by Captain Rae and accompanied him to the office where he manned a hand-operated generator powering the telephone system. The captain contacted the British Embassy and requested a replacement fuel pump and engineering assistance.
At about three in the afternoon they were all released to a fleet of waiting taxis and transferred to the Santa Luzia Hotel. This establishment had been closed for the winter months but the authorities had contacted the manager, who organised staff to cater for their unexpected guests. The men were supplied with fresh clothes and allowed complete freedom of movement.
“Have you seen the papers, Phyllis? One of our planes has crash-landed in Portugal. That’s nothing to do with your Tom, is it?”
“No, I telephoned Bristol and they told me they’ve been delayed – waiting for spare parts.”
It couldn’t possibly be Tom’s flight. Could it?
The Capito do Porto was having dinner with the men at the hotel when Captain Rae informed him he intended to fly the plane out the day after next, the engineer confident that his temporary repairs would get them back to Lisbon.
“That would be impossible, Captain, the surface is just loose sand?” he said, as he topped up their wine glasses.
Captain Rae smiled, “I was hoping you might be able to organize some volunteers.”
“Volunteers? To do what – push it?”
As word spread the townspeople and local villagers turned out in their hundreds. Armed with axes and saws they set to work amongst the short, stubby trees that lined the beach beyond the dunes. They carried trunks, branches and even twigs to where the plane was parked and began to lay two tracks, five feet wide, stretching back along the beach.
By late afternoon the preparations were complete. The workforce retired to the dunes for a grandstand view. The plane had been stripped of everything that could be moved, every pound reducing the weight, and the chances of crashing. Captain Rae took the controls, accompanied by an engineer. If the take-off was successful everyone else would travel by road and rail to rejoin the flight at Lisbon.
The starboard engine would be started first: the plane had to be turned to face north along the twin tracks that stretched along the beach. Beyond that the trajectory would have to curve with the coastline to avoid more dunes.
As the engine roared into life in a billowing cloud of sand the terrified locals dived back behind the dunes, a few brave dogs standing on top, barking their defiance.
The second engine was fired up and, one by one, the spectators’ heads popped back into view to watch the plane begin its assault on the makeshift runway. They pressed their hands to their ears as the aircraft thundered down the tracks, leaving a mini-sandstorm in its wake. As it reached the end it started to lift and veer to the left as the captain fought to avoid the dunes, then it was skimming above them before heading out to sea. Cheering crowds and barking dogs swarmed onto the beach and watched the Dakota climb towards the clouds as it turned southwards.
Tom stepped from the train as Phyllis ran down the platform to meet him. She fought back tears of joy and relief and forced a smile. “Late as usual, Tom Cox.”
On 19 August 1944 Capt. Gilbert Rae was
with Capt. W. Orton and RO G Roberts, when the Mosquito he was
piloting crashed into the North Sea.
In 2011 my wife and I were fortunate to have as neighbours Tom and Phyllis Cox. We were only there for a few months but he told me the above story and showed me a souvenir collection of photos and documents.
I started writing about twenty-two years ago, in my late fifties. I have had several articles published in motorcycle magazines and local papers but the only two instances of payment were as second place prizes in poetry contests. I have two short books, about 10,000 words each, languishing on my PC and now that I have discovered Storyhouse I will submit the child-friendly one shortly. I'd better check it one more time.
My main writing activity has been songwriting, having written about 100 songs, and myself and my collaborators have had demo tracks played on the radio in the UK, Australia, and the US. But we're still waiting for that big break when a famous recording star recognises our genius and decides to record one. You can see/hear an example on You Tube; it is titled "War Of The Worlds II" and it's at, https://youtu.be/hHFsYhbtDGQ
I look forward to seeing some of my work in print (maybe).