A reunion of some of the last British RAF survivors of the Second World War has revived memories of a Harrogate war veteran’s miraculous escape after being shot down by the Luftwaffe.
Eric Coling, 95, who lives in Granby Care Home relived his incredible story of daring and survival at a meeting of the 50 Squadron of ex-Lancaster bomber crews.
This amazing orphan and former bomb aimer was able to attend the reunion thanks to the care home’s general manager Suzy Smith.
Suzy said: “As the daughter of an RAF Squadron Leader and the wife of an RAF Sergeant, I’ve always had very close personal ties with the RAF, and it was truly an honour and a privilege to share this experience with Eric and his fellow veterans.”
Suzy only took over as general manager at Granby a few months ago but was determined to help.
She said: “Eric had been unable to to attend the annual reunion meeting of 50 Squadron since 2002.
“So I made enquiries and made the necessary arrangements and escorted him to the reunion dinner. It was a very emotional weekend for Eric and for me.”
As a result Suzy of making Eric’s acquaintance, Suzy was privileged to hear his amazing story from the Second World War.
After living in an orphanage to the age of 14, then working on the railways, Eric joined 50 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire, as a bomb aimer and observer flying Lancaster bombers.
On his 15th mission on the night of September 29 in 1943, Eric’s Lancaster LAN JB143 was attacked and badly damaged by a German night fighter, a JU-88.
Using a desperate tactic, the captain, Pilot Officer Ron Code of the Royal Canadian Air Force, put the Lancaster into a steep dive, hoping that the increase in speed would extinguish the fires.
Once that had failed, the pilot was forced to ditch the plane in the Baltic Sea.
The crew survived the crash but the emergency dinghy failed to deploy.
As the Lancaster bomber went under, Eric crawled out onto its wing and took an axe to the appropriate compartment and freed the dinghy.
Sadly, as Eric and the crew struggled in the choppy waters to board the dinghy tragedy struck when the navigator and a close friend of Eric, Sergeant Bernard Ridsdale, was swept away by a wave.
Eric and his comrades drifted in the Baltic Sea for five days before being spotted by and taken aboard a fishing vessel, the Niels Aaen, which sailed into the Danish port of Thyboron on October 3 only for the RAF men to be captured by the German Wehrmacht.
Eric became a prisoner of war and spent the remainder of the war in Stalag IVB Muhlberg.
It’s now 73 years since those momentous events but Eric has not forgotten his fallen comrade.
The reunion took place at the new International Bomber Command Centre on Canwick Hill overlooking Lincoln, though work is far from complete.
In fierce rain Eric and Suzy saw the unveiling of a new memorial in the shape of a huge spire.
Eric was also particularly interested in another part of ongoing memorials to RAF’s fallen heroes.
The names of all members of 50 Squadron personnel who were killed in action have been inscribed on a series of steel walls adjacent to the main spire.
Suzy said: “Eric was very keen to confirm that the name of his friend Bernard Ridsdale who died on that fateful September night in 1943 appeared on the list of names. We quickly found it and it was a very poignant moment.”
The weekend also saw Eric and several of his fellow Second World War veterans being presented with a 50 Squadron lapel badge by the president of the association, Air Vice Marshal Nigel Baldwin CB CBE.
All in all, the reunion was memorable for both this remarkable war veteran and the general manage at Granby Care Home.
Suzy said: “There were some very heavy downpours at the weekend and we had to make our way to the site through mud and clutching our umbrellas.
“But I hope we can do the same next year and for as many years as Eric is still able to make the journey.”