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About A Week: To Hell And Back

Peter Hinchliffe has a chance encounter with a war hero.

It’s not every day that you wander into a book shop and chance to meet a man who has been to hell and back.

Some months ago I was in Waterstones, Sheffield, scanning the shelves of military history.

A chap standing next to me suddenly said “I read a review last weekend of a book I want to read. Now I’ve forgotten both the title and the author.’’

“What was it about?’’

“RAF Fighter Command.’’

The chap was getting on in years, but his back and shoulders were militarily straight.

“Were you in the Forces?’’ I inquired, realising the question hardly needed to be asked.

He grinned, took a book from one of the shelves, opening it at a page of pictures. “That’s me,’’ he said.

There was a handsome young sergeant in Air Force blue. Harry Stunell.

The book: To Hell and Back - True Life Experiences of Bomber Command At War by Mel Rolfe.

Harry, now 80 years old, had indeed been to Hell. And the journey back required superhuman grit and courage.

Harry was a wireless operator, a member of the seven-man crew of Lancaster bomber M-Mike, part of 106 squadron based at Metheringham in Lincolnshire.

Snow lay on the frozen base when 16 Lancasters took off at 4.50 pm on January 7, 1945 to fly through the night - part of a force of 213 Lancasters and three Mosquitoes mounting the last bombing raid on Munich,

A further force of 384 aircraft would attack two hours after the raid in which 106 Squadron was involved.

M-Mike, following marker flares, dropped their bombs on target. Harry Stunell recalls “Looking down it was like a bloody great coloured nightmare of stark proportions. The whole wild scene resembled a contorted Turner skyscape daubed with deft fiery brushstrokes.

“Within it there was a huge sea of boiling red broth. Closely jostling Lancasters, some almost in line abreast, singled themselves out into much narrower air lanes, their crews requiring even more vigilance.’’

M-Mike dropped a 4,000 pound bomb and 954 four-pound incendiaries, then its crew were plunged into an even crazier and more desperate situation.

A Lancaster which was probably attempting a quick getaway from the target area came like a bat out of hell. M-Mike’s skipper, 23-year-old Flying Officer Jim Scott, tried to get out of its way.

The rogue Lancaster seemed to feather-flick M-Mike’s starboard wingtip. M-Mike flipped onto its back, dropping with the speed of a released guillotine blade.

Scott cried, “Prepare to abandon aircraft.’’ Because of the G-force the crew could not move.

The sound of the wind roaring through an open escape hatch rose above the scream of the Lancaster’s four engines.

“I knew I was going to die,’’ Harry Stunell recalls.

Somehow Scott and his flight engineer Les Knapman managed to wrestle the aircraft out of its dive. The damaged craft now headed on a new route, avoiding the towering Alps, to an emergency landing field in France, 20 miles from Rheims.

M-Mike’s instruments could no longer be trusted. They flew into a blizzard. At about 11 pm British time Jim Scott called out “Captain to crew - can anyone see the deck?’’

Jack Elson, the mid-upper gunner replied calmly “Yes skipper, it’s right below. I can see some trees.’’

“Can’t be,’’ said an alarmed Scott. “We’re showing 5,000 ft.’’

Second later the Lancaster hit the snow-clad tops of forest trees and began to break up. When it finally came to a halt it was blazing like a blow torch. Behind lay a fiery avenue of smashed timber and wreckage.

Five of M-Mike’s crew had died.

Flames shot up between Harry Stunell’s legs. Petrol had flowed onto the generators under his desk, igniting as it met sparks from a still rotating armature.

He was surrounded by a fire storm. Molten Perspex from windows was dripping onto him.

He stood on his seat and dragged himself through a hole in the melting astrodome. “Oh God!,’’ he shouted. “Get me out!’’

The whole of his body seemed to be on fire. His backside was burning.

He somehow managed to get free and crawl away, then rolled over and over in the snow to extinguish the flames in his clothing.

M-Mike had come to rest 80 yards from the fringe of the forest. A fierce wind drove snow into Harry Stunell’s face as he set out on tottering legs to seek help.

“I was freezing cold, stumbling along aimlessly, with tattered strips of skin flapping about in the high wind. I craved rest but could not stop. I had to keep my central engines running, my life blood circulating. I was naked from the waist down. Collapse from fatigue could be fatal in such Arctic conditions.’’

He eventually found a barn, lay down in some straw and fell asleep. When he awoke he heard a sound. A bell. He presumed it was a church bell. It rang and rang, the sound fluctuating in the wind.

He shuffled outside and headed towards it. Eventually he came to a village. A group of men closed around him in a circle.

“I slithered and fell. Two stood me upright and held me fast by each arm. Another showed me a long-handled pitchfork which he jabbed towards me.’’

The villagers thought that Harry was a German. He had left his identifying dog tags on a shelf above his bed at Metheringham.

He nodded down towards his breast pocket. A man stepped forward and retrieved two blackened coins, a florin and a shilling. The coins were handed round for inspection and the villagers’ expressions changed from hatred and suspicion to sympathy and welcome.

Harry Stunell thought he was the only survivor of the crash but one other crew member had escaped from the burning wreckage. Ron Needle, the rear gunner, staggered off through the snow, heading in a different direction.

Ron had a smashed leg, broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a dislocated shoulder.

He too was guided to safety and welcoming arms by the angelus bell which was being rung by farmer Andre Fromont, calling villagers to prayer at the old Roman Catholic church of St Evre.

I talked to Harry Stunell, who lives in Dore, Sheffield, for quite some time in that book shop. He autographed To Hell And Back for me: To Peter, with best wishes from Harry Stunell, ex WOP/AG 106 Squadron. Bomber Command.

A book to treasure.

I went home and phoned its author, Mel Rolfe, a retired journalist who lives near Grantham. Mel has written a number of books about the experiences of bomber command aircrew. All of them have the word Hell in the title. He is dedicated to preserving in vivid words the stories of brave men.

In civvy street Harry Stunell and Ron Needle worked for handicapped people.

They often return to visit their friends in Meligny-le-Grand where Andre Fromont still rings the angelus bell of St Evre to welcome them in.



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