Friday, 20 July 2018

W.G. "Bill" Boorer, 144 squadron

I mentioned earlier in the year that I had hurt my toe, which precluded walking in the Dales. I had been slowly building up the distance I was walking locally and yesterday decided the time was right to go for a longer - in this case ten miles - hike. I walk with a number of different groups, but on this occasion went with the local branch of the Ramblers Association who, inevitably given the fact that they walk on weekdays, are all retired. They are all somewhat older than me, and incidentally are an excellent advert for the benefits of regular walking. Anyway, I was strolling along in the sun - which continues to beat down here - minding my own business when I overheard a name that I thought I recognised. I asked the lady concerned if she had said 'Bill Boorer', and confirming that she had, she told me that he had been her godfather, following which a brief discussion made it clear that this was the same chap that I had known in London some fifty years ago.

I hadn't thought about him in a long, long time and didn't know him well, but he had a wartime experience in which readers may be interested. The following is taken, with no permission whatsoever, from 'A Drop in the Ocean' by Jim Burtt-Smith and John French. The whole book is full of stories like this and is fairly readily available second-hand. These are Bill Boorer's own words:

'After briefing on Thursday, 3 May, 1945 the Dallachy wing of "Torbeau" anti-shipping strike aircraft flew off from Dallachy for a major strike against a large fleet of enemy shipping which was assembling in Kiel Bay. Intelligence had suggested that the Germans were intending to escape to Norway and continue the war from there.

Peter Brett and I were one of the crews on the wing with the longest experience and we were therefore appointed as the "outrider" - the aircraft which would fly ahead of the main strike force, select the best targets and direct the strike force on to those targets.

We flew on ahead on a "flak free" route across Denmark selected by the 2nd Tactical Air Force, and made our landfall at Ringkobing. We were hedge-hopping a full throttle towards the "Little Belt" when we suddenly found ourselves engulfed in flak. We had flown between two batteries of 88 mm anti-aircraft guns.

Our port engine burst into flame immediately, but our speed and low altitude carried us quickly out of the danger area. Peter turned back for home with the intention of flying back on the starboard engine only. It was not to be. A short while after crossing the coast the remaining engine failed and we had to ditch in the North Sea.

At the time of ditching the sea was very calm and we had no problems - or so we thought. The dinghy emerged from the port wing and, as a non-swimmer, I jumped into it as it drifted back. Alas, I found it to be as flat as a pancake, having been peppered with holes from the flak which had shot out the port engine during the attack. Pete swam up, the Beaufighter gave a gurgle and disappeared beneath the waves, and we inflated our Mae Wests. We spent what seemed to be hours finding the various holes and sealing them with the adhesive repair patches. Finally we had to inflate the dinghy with the hand pump and clamber aboard, which was not quite as easy as it sounds. Suddenly we remembered the airtight container carrying the emergency rations, which was attached to the dinghy by a tie-line. we saw it floating a short distance away. As we pulled on the line, however, the container disappeared beneath the waves. Consequently we had no food or water throughout our ditching.

During the night the weather deteriorated, but on the morning of the second day, 4 May, we were in reasonably good spirits and had every hope of being picked up. For our particular operation Air Sea Rescue Warwick aircraft had been on patrol along the western coast of Denmark and I had managed to send an SOS on my radio set. I learned later, however, that, although my message was actually received, the signal was so weak because of the very low power generated by our one remaining - and failing - engine that the message had been indecipherable. Moreover we were drifting southwards quite rapidly. In fact when we were finally rescued we were some 50 miles south of our original ditching position.

During the second day we heard and caught glimpse of two aircraft and fired off some of our two-star red cartridge signals. But there was no response. In spite of a heavy sea that night, we were still relatively comfortable.

On Saturday, 5 May, the heavy sea continued throughout the day. In the evening the weather worsened into a heavy storm, with waves up to sixty feet high. Sometimes we were at the bottom of these huge waves and sometimes at the top, like a seaside roller-coaster. During the course of the evening we saw a Liberator some distance away. We fired off our last two-star red which they obviously saw, as they turned and flew right above us and a member of the crew waved to us from the rear door. Unfortunately, the sea was so rough that they lost sight of us almost immediately after, and although we watched them as they continued to circle and search, they gradually moved further and further away. And, of course, we had no more two-star reds! During that night we shipped gallons of water. Several of the adhesive repair patches became non-effective and had to be replaced with conical rubber plugs.

The weather eased slightly during the course of Sunday, but became extremely rough once again that night. We both began to feel the torture of thirst and had to resort to moistening our lips with our own urine - not a very encouraging experience. As the holes in the dinghy grew larger, the conical plugs had to be pushed further in and eventually had to be replaced with larger sizes. During the day I felt the need to sustain my spirits with a little hymn singing, but I had the feeling that Peter did not really appreciate my efforts.

By this time, too, my underpants, which were Canadian cotton issue, had shrunk considerably and I was extremely uncomfortable in a very sensitive area. Finally I cast modesty aside and left a certain part of my physical equipment hanging free. Peter described it as looking like the head of a very ancient and wizened tortoise.

By Monday morning the the sea had moderated considerably and by nightfall the wind had dropped. For the first time since our ditching the previous Thursday it was quite calm. Early in the morning we had fixed a piece of chewing gum to a line and thrown it into the sea in the hope of catching a fish. During the afternoon the dinghy gave a heavy lurch, the fishing line went taut and, sure enough, there was a cod on the hook. Despite our best endeavours to get it aboard, however, it eventually broke free and disappeared. In retrospect, I am not sure what we would have done with it had we actually landed it in the dinghy.

We had entered our fifth day aboard the dinghy feeling pretty weak and we again resorted to urine to stave off the demoralising effects of thirst. There was a growing apprehension about our future, particularly as the rubber plugs had now progressed to the largest size available and were now inserted well into the holes in the rubber, so that there was little of the plugs remaining for further insertion. Our spirits reached a low ebb.

As night closed in once more, we became aware of a gradually increasing noise. Eventually a small ship loomed on the horizon. Peter and I discussed whether or not we should attempt to attract its attention, since we had heard reports that Germans were prone to shooting up any British dinghies that they came across. We finally decided that in view of our deteriorating condition we did not have much option, so we blew our whistles, shouted and waved our hands. The ship, which turned out to be the Ella, a fishing boat from Esbjerg, altered course and hove alongside the dinghy.

Someone leaned over and shouted, "British Tommy?" and on hearing our affirmative he then shouted "Germany kaput!" This was the first intimation we had had that Nazi Germany had at last thrown in the towel, in fact on midnight of the day we had ditched.

Once on board the fishing boat I became somewhat delirious and the skipper, Christian Peterson, turned back to Esbjerg.

We arrived in Esbjerg fishing harbour during the morning of Tuesday, 8 May, were offloaded and taken by ambulance to the Central Hospital, arriving at midday on VE Day. One inmate, a victim of Gestapo treatment, sent us in his radio and we listened to the celebrations from Piccadilly.'

Mr Boorer never spoke to me directly about his experiences and the above is pretty much all I know, except that he subsequently sent flowers to his rescuer and his wife every year on the anniversary of them being picked up and that he named his elder son Christian.

To end on a random note, Boorer's younger son played guitar in Morrissey's post-Smiths band. Before that he had been in the Polecats, who had a UK top forty hit with a cover of Bowie's "John, I'm Only Dancing". Astute readers will spot that phrase as having been used as the title of the blog posting on Wednesday, the day before I went on the walk and overheard the conversation which engendered the train of thought which led us to this point. Make of that what you will.


  1. Great story. Love the understatement. Sounds like the reaction of someone who'd got a bit lost on the way back from the theatre, not a fellow most likely expecting to die. We don't make 'em like that very much anymore.

  2. still playing guitar with Morrissey - 29 years now!