F/L Alton Langille RCAF and F/L C.E.L (Cy) Grant RAFVR - 103 Sqn
Left - Alton Langille. Right - Cy Grant
Early in WW2 the RAF changed its recruitment policies and young West Indian men became eligible to join the RAF. Cy volunteered. He was one of 4 of the first Guyanese to be selected as aircrew and was very proud to be passed A1. His decision to join up had been prompted solely by a desire for adventure and to get away from what he considered would be a dull future in a British colony. A university education would have been impossible in war time even if he had been able to afford it.
Cy arrived in England in 1941. He was the among the first batch of about 500 West Indians recruited as aircrew. He had hoped to fly as a fighter pilot but, shortly before his first solo flight, the new RAF policy to split the old Observer trade into Navigator and Bomb Aimer was adopted. Suddenly for every bomber crew another trade was required. Cy had excelled at navigation on his Initial Aircrew Training and, because of this, he was selected to become a navigator.
It was a bitter pill to swallow but there was little he could do. As the Commanding Officer said, "We're fighting a war young man, and you volunteered."
Cy trained as a navigator at No 2 A.F.U Millom. After clocking up 78 hours, 40 minutes flying-time (over 35 of these at night) he was again called in to see a panel of Officers and this time told that he was being recommended for a commission. This news was extremely welcome and in some way compensated for his disappointment in not continuing his pilot training.
The Commanding Officer, no doubt aware of the RAF's previous policies about recruiting 'men of colour', said he was taking an unprecedented step in making the recommendation but that it was fully deserved and that he would take full responsibility for the decision. Should Cy encounter any difficulties in future he should not hesitate to get in touch with him.
At No 30 O.T.U Hixon, Staffordshire, he teamed up with his captain, Flying Officer Alton Langille, a French Canadian who chose Cy to be his navigator as he was to choose all the other crew members - because we were the best at their respective trades amongst the new batch of air crew. All the members of his OTU crew had commissions which I have never seen before.
His last flight at this unit, in which they trained on Wellingtons, ended in a crash landing on Greenham Common in the early on the 5 May 1943 after a training flight across the English Channel to drop leaflets on Nantes. No one was hurt.
The crew then went on to train on Lancasters at a 1662 Heavy Conversion Unit, Blyton before joining 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds on the 17th June 43.
The full crew consisted of,
F/O Alton Langille RCAF – Pilot.
Sgt Ronald Hollywood RAFVR – Flight Engineer
P/O Charles Reynolds RAFVR – Air Bomber.
P/O Cy Grant RAFVR – Navigator.
P/O Don Towers RAFVR – Wireless Operator.
F/S Geoffrey Wallis RAFVR – Mid Upper Gunner.
P/O Joseph Addison RCAF – Rear Gunner.
After just one cross-country flight by night on 19 June they flew on their first bombing raid on Mulheim on 22 June 1943. Two nights later they took part in another raid on Wuppertal.
The following night, Friday, 25 June 1943, one of the shortest nights of the summer, 473 bombers from Bomber Command of the RAF (twin and four-engine) attacked, among other places, Bochum and Gelsenkirchen in the Ruhr. For the operation over Gelsenkirchen, 24 Lancaster bombers from 103 Squadron were incorporated into the operations.
At 22.42 hours the first Lancaster took off from the airfield. This was F/S A E Egan and crew, veterans of 21 ops. Langille's crew in Lancaster W4901 were amongst the last to leave taking off at 2319. All 24 aircraft from 103 Squadron took off for rendezvous near Harwich, on the east coast of England. They joined the large stream of bombers, which set out across the North Sea in the direction of the Ruhr. The excitement was intense. 4 crews from 103 Sq were to return early due to mechanical problems.
The remaining 20 bombers proceeded toward the target - Gelsenkirchen, in the Ruhr. Amongst these were the Lancasters of F/L Van Rolleghem, W/O Denwood, SgtRudge, Sgt Cant, and S/L England.
Langille’s crew were trailing slightly behind the main body of Bombers when they arrived over the already blazing target.
Cy recalls that “Even amidst the deafening drone of scores of other aircraft, the muffled explosions below, the glow of the target area, the flak, the sweeping searchlights, and the sudden bumps as the aircraft rode the frenzied skies, I never questioned what I was doing there. I cannot remember feeling particularly frightened. The thought of imminent death did not cross my mind. It was as though we were in another state of consciousness, emotionally turned off but our minds functioning clearly whilst we got on with the things we each had to do. As navigator one is continuously occupied. It may have been completely different for my pilot having to fly the Lanc through all the flak, for the gunners looking out for fighters and for the other members of the crew. For myself my sense of responsibility for getting us there and back was paramount and that may be why the obvious dangers of the situation did not seem to count.”
They bombed from about 20000 feet and, shortly after were hit by flak which penetrated the fuselage exiting on the other side, fortunately without serious damage. They headed for home at an altitude of 21,000 feet, still trailing a bit behind the stream of bombers. Shortly after, over Holland, the tail gunner, P/O Joe Addison, shouted over the intercom that a German fighter was closing in from below. The German fired a long burst. Joe Addison, from his tail turret, returned fire immediately. During the exchange the fighter climbed a little and veered off to the right. This manoeuvre brought him into the field of fire of the mid-upper gunner, F/S Geoffrey Wallis, who immediately opened fire.
Everything was happening very fast. Al Langille took evasive action and commenced to corkscrew, pushing the Lancaster into a steep dive.
Inside the Lancaster the world seemed to be turned upside down. The evasive action continued as the two gunners returning fire and the fighter continued to attack. Then, surprisingly, as suddenly as it all began, everything returned to normal. The German fighter was nowhere to be seen.
Al Langille said "Great work, guys!" but the tone of his voice betrayed both the strain and the relief that all the crew felt. He levelled out and the Lancaster behaved normally. No serious damage was observed. Geoff Wallis was missing one of the covers of his ammunition boxes next to him, shot away during the attack but nobody had been hit.
Cy checked their position. The attack had occurred over Holland. They were south of Amsterdam, near the small town of Haarlem.
The relief was short lived. The mid upper gunner reported "Starboard outer afire, Skipper !" The fire did not seem significant and they were confident they would still make it home. They dived steeply in an effort to smother the flames, but when the Lancaster levelled out the flames had spread. The fire spread to the dinghy stored in the starboard wing. They dare not jettison it for fear that the slipstream would take it on to the tail-plane.
By the time we reached the coast, they were well ablaze. Cy gave the shortest course to the English coast. Unfortunately they were flying into a headwind of about 80 miles an hour at 20,000 feet.
It was becoming extremely difficult for Al Langille to control the aircraft and they were clearly in a hopeless situation. They turned back over land and the pilot gave the order to bale out. "Well, guys, this is it, bale out and good luck. Get to it !!" The nose had gone down again and there was no other option. Cy moved forward towards the hatch in the bomb aimer's compartment. There he found that the bomb aimer and engineer, who should have left in that order, were fighting to free the hatch door which was firmly stuck. Despite the combined efforts of the 4 men the hatch would not give. Cy comments that later he learned many crews on Lancasters experienced similar problems with the hatch and this must have cost many lives.
Then suddenly there was an explosion and the right wing of the plane was torn off between numbers 3 and 4 engines.
The Lancaster, now well ablaze, went into a spin and dive rocking from side to side. Trapped by centrifugal force Cy could not move. He awaited the inevitable without panic being resigned to his fate. Suddenly, with a deafening explosion which lit up everything, his aircraft blew up and disintegrated.
Cy found himself falling through space. He pulled his rip cord and, as his chute opened with a sharp jerk, he was swaying from side to side. He found himself in an unreal world drifting above the clouds with no sensation of falling and only the sound of the wind. He noted the distant searchlights and the glow of a fire on the ground which may have been his aircraft.
He then saw a shadow rushing towards him at great speed. It was the ground and he grabbed the release on his harness. As he landed he turned the release and slapped it hard. He had made a perfect landing and wriggled out of the harness unharmed. Incredibly 5 of the crew survived.
Alton Langille sustained a broken neck. He did not remember much about the incident at all but was told that, in the field where he landed, he was taken for dead and tossed into the "body wagon". He grunted so was taken to hospital. Whilst a POW an American prisoner, who was formerly a student chiropractor, worked on his neck, back and shoulder and Al was eventually able to make a good recovery.
Geoff Wallis also recalled little. He remembered a fire and explosion. Then he was tumbling through space and somehow managing to pull the rip cord of his parachute. The Flight Engineer, Ron Hollywood, was killed and is buried at Haarlemmermeer (Hoofddorp) General Cemetery, Holland.
Rear Gunner Joe Addison must have also escaped from the aircraft. Sadly however he died of wounds/injuries in a Dutch hospital on the 30th June. He is buried at Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery.
Cy was captured soon after and spent the next 2 years as a POW, firstly at Sagan where he was reunited with his skipper. In January 45 they were marched west to Luckenwalde and eventual freedom in May 1945.
Cy’s POW pic was published in a German newspaper - see above.
Post war Cy resumed life on civvy street and trained as a barrister. A change of direction followed as he embarked on a long and distinguished career as an actor, musician, singer/songwriter and author. He was the chairman and co-founder of DRUM, the London based black arts centre in the 70's and director of CONCORD Multicultural Festivals in the 80's.
In the years that followed Cy was to learn of a tragic and unforeseen consequence of the explosion of his aircraft.
"I was to learn many years later that one of the engines of the Lancaster had gone through the roof of the home of a Dutch farmer killing his wife outright. The incident so disturbed a young boy of the village that he resolved, when he grew up, to trace the entire history of that fatal flight that had traumatised his village. He would discover the name of the Squadron where the bomber had been based in England and all the details of the mission.
After a long and arduous investigation, the young Dutchman spectacularly fulfilled his boyhood promise by successfully contacting first the Air Ministry and then RAF 103 Squadron for details of the mission on the night in question - from the number of bombers from its base at Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, that had joined in the massive onslaught on the Ruhr, down to the actual plane that had crashed into his village, and the names of the members of its crew.
The writer had also contacted each surviving member of the crew, including myself, and compared our versions of events in order to produce an authentic document of our final mission. I have a copy of that document. The author is alive and can be contacted.
Unfortunately, today there is one only one survivor of the crew besides myself. The most striking part of this chapter of my life story is that we find the making and resolution of a personal tragedy in Holland, the formation of a lasting bond between Canadian and West Indian and English and Dutch, forged in the skies over Germany, and a relevant and compelling comment on racial attitudes of the time and how it affected and continues to affect my entire life."
A full account of Cy’s war time experiences is contained in his excellent book, A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race: WW2 Experiences of a Former RAF Navigator and POW, which is available on Amazon here.
Written by David Fell. Thanks to the late Cy Grant for his co-operation regarding this and permission to use his material and quotes.
Footnote - The difficulties experienced by Al Langille's crew with the forward escape hatch were replicated that same night when another 103 Sqn crew faced similar problems.
Alan Egan's crew were hit by flak near the target. With both port engines on fire the pilot ordered the crew to bale out. The forward hatch proved impossible to open and the Lancaster soon exploded. Alan Egan was rendered unconscious and propelled with considerable force out of the cockpit roof. He came to as he fell and was coherent enough to pull the rip cord on his parachute. He landed safely albeit with head and back injuries. Flight Engineer Sgt J S Johnston RAFVR and Air Bomber F/S W Miller RAFVR also had miraculous escapes when the aircraft blew apart.