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WWII Bomber pilot who survived the ‘UNSURVIVABLE’: How RAF hero lived after Lancaster was shot down

The son of a Bomber Command pilot whose plane exploded in a fireball in Nazi Germany has revealed his father’s incredible story of survival during the war.

Gerald Sherwood, 80, from St Austell, Cornwall, told how Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood took part in a daring mission before being captured in his new book.

He also highlighted how the RAF hero was chucked in Stalag Luft III – the Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp made famous by the Great Escape.

The pilot had been set the daunting task of flying his Lancaster in a daylight raid on Augsburg without any fighter escorts.

He chugged across 600 miles of enemy territory at just 250ft in the heavy bomber and reached his target.

John and his crew dropped multiple direct hits on the Bavarian U-Boat diesel engine factory in the city but got caught in enemy fire.

Their Lancaster was blasted by anti-aircraft guns, erupted in flames and plummeted to the ground.

The plane was blown to pieces on impact and another pilot – who saw the ‘orange fireball which lit up the sky’ – told his superiors no one could have lived.

Gerald Sherwood, 80, from St Austell, Cornwall, told how Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood (pictured) took part in a daring mission before being captured in his new book

John flew at 250ft across 600 miles of enemy territory with no fighter escort during a daring daylight raid on Augsburg on April 17, 1942. He is pictured fifth from left with 76 Squadron in 1938

John flew at 250ft across 600 miles of enemy territory with no fighter escort during a daring daylight raid on Augsburg on April 17, 1942. He is pictured fifth from left with 76 Squadron in 1938

After scoring direct hits on the Bavarian U-Boat diesel engine factory, his Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft guns, causing it to catch fire and plummet into the ground. Pictured: Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood is seated two places left of Simba the dog - the squadron mascot

After scoring direct hits on the Bavarian U-Boat diesel engine factory, his Lancaster was hit by anti-aircraft guns, causing it to catch fire and plummet into the ground. Pictured: Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood is seated two places left of Simba the dog – the squadron mascot

After being captured he is pictured on the right with colleagues outside their Luft III Kriegie hut

After being captured he is pictured on the right with colleagues outside their Luft III Kriegie hut

Armed forces chiefs relayed the tragic news to John’s wife Bernice, but she simply replied: ‘I would know if he was dead and I think he’s okay.’

Incredibly, she was proved right as her husband miraculously survived while the other six members of his team from 97 Squadron were killed.

He had been catapulted clear of the blast in his pilot seat and was found unconscious but alive by enemy troops.

Despite being alive, John had been badly injured – suffering a ‘burnt face’ and spending six weeks in hospital.

Pictured: Gerald's book on his father's incredible survival story

Pictured: Gerald’s book on his father’s incredible survival story

When he recovered, the Nazis slammed him in Stalag Luft III, which became better know as the Great Escape camp immortalised in the Steve McQueen film in 1963.

John bored witness to the ‘Wooden Horse’ escape as well as the preparations for the Great Escape on March 24, 1944, but was not involved.

In the final months of the Second World War he endured a dreaded Long March – where prisoners who could not keep up with a walk were shot.

John left the RAF in 1958 and died aged 54 in 1973, with his son Gerald now releasing Bomber Command Pilot to document his wartime bravery.

Gerald took notes from talks he had with his father in the final years of his life, but did not have the time to research them further until he retired.

Since 2014, he has spent hours in the National Archives learning more about John’s 43 raids – including daylight missions to bomb German cruisers at Brest.

One subject his father never opened up about was the Great Escape because the reprisal executions of 50 RAF officers at the camp left him devastated.

John is only believed to have had a peripheral role in the attempt, but fondly recounted memories of the ‘Wooden Horse’ escape in October 1943.

In this similar daring bid for freedom, a vaulted gymnastics horse was used to cover the entrance to a 100ft tunnel.

Three prisoners – Lieutenant Michael Codner, Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams and Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot – escaped and caught a ship back to Britain.

Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood and wife Bernice are pictured on their wedding day

Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood and wife Bernice are pictured on their wedding day

The tragic news of Wg/Cmdr Sherwood's presumed death was relayed to his wife Bernice. But, instead of breaking down in tears, she remained unmoved, stating matter-of-factly: 'I would know if he was dead and I think he's ok.' Pictured: John is second from right with 97 Squadron officers in 1941

The tragic news of Wg/Cmdr Sherwood’s presumed death was relayed to his wife Bernice. But, instead of breaking down in tears, she remained unmoved, stating matter-of-factly: ‘I would know if he was dead and I think he’s ok.’ Pictured: John is second from right with 97 Squadron officers in 1941

The 97 Squadron Avro Manchester flown by Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood is pictured

The 97 Squadron Avro Manchester flown by Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood is pictured

Pictured: In 1938

Pictured: After he was captured in Germany

Wg/Cmdr Sherwood, who was born in Egypt, was commissioned into the RAF after leaving a school in Britain in 1936

Gerald said: ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book about my father but I didn’t have the time until my retirement and then you find yourself looking after young grandchildren.

‘My father and I worked together in the final years of his life (in the finance and insurance industry) and during those one-on-one conversations he opened up to me about his wartime experience.

‘I also studied the National Archives and spoke to a fellow World War Two airman to learn more.

‘My dad experienced suffering from feelings of guilt and trauma when he first arrived at Stalag Luft III, all as a result of his fortunate sole survival from the seven-man crew of Lancaster OF-K King as it was blown to pieces on hitting the ground.

‘He appreciated that luck alone had ensured that he was catapulted clear of the blast, as the sole scorched survivor.

‘Post war, he only ever volunteered very scant information concerning the Great Escape.

‘If the conversation persisted for too long on that theme, he would soon change the subject to the far happier outcome associated with the Wooden Horse escape project.

‘He had been able to experience the thrill of jumping over the horse whilst the nearby easily entertained spectator Germans remained totally oblivious to the activity going on in the ground beneath the horse as they were looking on.

‘My dad had definitely been shocked by the needlessly cold-blooded execution of 50 fellow RAF officers (per Hitler’s orders after the Great Escape).

‘He was a gentleman and he had an extraordinary war – people who have read the book have told me if it was a Hollywood movie they would not believe it.’

Pictured: A photo of the original June 4, 1942, Air Ministry telegram

Pictured: A photo of the original June 4, 1942, Air Ministry telegram

Pictured: 97 Squadron Commanding Officer's letter to Bernice, which was issued soon after the revelation Flap was alive in enemy hands

Pictured: 97 Squadron Commanding Officer’s letter to Bernice, which was issued soon after the revelation Flap was alive in enemy hands

John, who was born in Egypt, was commissioned into the RAF after leaving a school in Britain in 1936.

He clocked up a 30-sortie tour against enemy targets in the summer of 1940, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

He added a Bar to this award for his actions in the Augsburg Raid, with his citation reading: ‘He led his squadron on the daylight attack on the important Diesel Engine Factory at Augsburg, Southern Germany.

‘With great skill and ability Squadron Leader Sherwood led the formation at very low level across 900 miles of enemy occupied territory – eventually leading all his aircraft directly on to the target.

Pictured: Henri Picard's caricature of Flap from 1943 while he was a POW

Pictured: Henri Picard’s caricature of Flap from 1943 while he was a POW

‘On the approach to the target itself, heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire was experienced but, with extreme daring and cool-headedness he pressed home the attack with his Section. Scoring direct hits on the factory with his bombs from a very low level.

‘While bombing the target his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft guns and caught fire.

‘Squadron Leader Sherwood continued to lead his section away from the target with one wing well alight and until such time as the aircraft became uncontrollable.

‘By extreme devotion to duty, Squadron Leader Sherwood ensured the success of the operation with which he was charged and continued his daring leadership until the end.

‘His conspicuous bravery on this occasion crowned a long and distinguished career in the service of his country.’

Flight Officer Ernest Rodley, who was in close pursuit, reported back to base John’s plane ‘exploded into an all-consuming orange fireball which re-brightened the fading evening light’.

But his survival was revealed in an Air Ministry telegram sent to Bernice seven weeks later.

It read: ‘Mrs JS. Sherwood Lingfield Tor-o-Moor Rd Woodhall Spa Lincs from Air Ministry Kingsway P6182 3/6 further information now received through the International Red Cross Committee states that your husband Squadron Leader John Seymour Sherwood DFC is a prisoner of war in German hands stop.’ 

Pictured: Air Service Training pupil intake in 1936. John is pictured back row, third from the left

Pictured: Air Service Training pupil intake in 1936. John is pictured back row, third from the left

One of the last pictures of Wing Commander John 'Flap' Sherwood shows smiling at a harbour

One of the last pictures of Wing Commander John ‘Flap’ Sherwood shows smiling at a harbour

Pictured: December 1941 - A bomb bursts on and around the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in Brest harbour, in an image taken from 'Flap's' Manchester L7492 OF-A at 15,000ft by crewman Sgt. K. Williams

Pictured: December 1941 – A bomb bursts on and around the Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in Brest harbour, in an image taken from ‘Flap’s’ Manchester L7492 OF-A at 15,000ft by crewman Sgt. K. Williams

John wrote from Stalag Luft III to an air force friend on June 26, 1942, in a letter which appears in the book.

It said: ‘Dear Hind – Just a line to let you and the boys know that I am OK, but not a little ‘browned off’.

‘I got away with a burnt face followed by Scarlet Fever. I have no news of the rest of the crew & fear the worst.

‘However, it is good to think that we had done our jobs well. I hear that we are all ‘heroes’ at home. All the best to all Flap.’

Of the 12 aircraft which took part in the raid, only five returned – a chilling 58 per cent loss rate.

Sir Winston Churchill said: ‘We must plainly regard the attack of the Lancasters on the U-boat engine factory at Augsburg as an outstanding achievement of the RAF.

‘Undeterred by heavy losses at the outset, the bombers pierced in broad daylight into the heart of Germany and struck a vital point with deadly precision.

‘Please convey the thanks of his Majesty’s Government to the officers and men who accomplished this memorable feat of arms in which no life was lost in vain.’

  • Bomber Command Pilot: From the Battle of Britain to the Augsburg Raid: The Unique Story of Wing Commander J S Sherwood, is published by Pen & Sword and costs £25

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