I Was There! - How We Saved Our Burning 'Plane

The War Illustrated, Volume 3, No. 58, Page 387, October 11, 1940.

The official story of the heroic feat over Antwerp which won eighteen-year-old Sergeant Hannah of the R.A.F. his V.C. is given opposite. Here is his own account of the incident, making light both of his heroism and of his injuries which, unhappily, resulted in serious illness.

Writing to his mother from hospital, Sergeant Hannah said:

Dear mum, At last I have managed to get a rest. As you see by my address, I am in "dock" (hospital). I suppose you will have had some official news that has got you all worried. Still I am O.K., and would have written sooner but only managed to get my eyes open this morning. Well, to tell you all about it, I am lucky to be alive.

We got caught in a terrific "ack-ack" barrage overby. Our 'plane went on fire. At the time it had signed my whiskers. I realized that we were liable to blow up any minute, so I made for my parachute, only to discover that it was on fire, too, so you can guess there was some panic.

By this time the navigator and gunner had baled out, and the 'plane was a blazing mass and a terrific target for the "ack-ack" and they were still letting away.

Still I did some quick thinking and started throwing all the flaming mass overboard. During this, ammunition on the kite was going off ten a penny with the heat.

Finally I got the fire out and the pilot and I limped home.

They rushed me to hospital right away, but I heard since then it caused a great sensation. They have "ack" chiefs, bomber command chiefs, and many more big noises having the kite photographed from all angles. I have had so many C.O.s and big shots visit me that I feel a big shot too!

I have had a telegram from an officer in command congratulating me on my conduct. Apparently it was the first time that a fire has been put out in the air.

My pilot is getting the D.F.C., so I expect that I will be getting something too. But, if you feel the way I do, you will be quite thankful that I am alive, without worrying what I am getting or am going to look like.

Well, if you could see me now I'm sure you would burst out laughing. They have my face all covered with a black plastic stuff, and my hair is still black from the smoke, so I look like a nigger. The nurses won't believe I have got fair hair. I am quite happy here. If what they tell me is true, my face should be practically clear when the stuff comes off. It is a new pattern stuff, and if it works I should be as good as new.

They were worrying about shock when I came in, but I seem to be O.K. The only snag I have is that I cannot eat. My skin is all frizzled up. You won't likely know me when you see me. I have gone thin already, and if they have changed my face I hope I don't get lost looking for my home!

The Air Officer Commanding the Hampden bomber group where Sergeant Hannah was stationed paid high tribute to his courage. He said:

Sergeant Hannah would have had every justification if he had left the burning aircraft. He could have escaped, but he remained in the rear cockpit, which must have rapidly become an inferno.

All the inflammable equipment inside the cockpit was alight and ammunition was exploding.

Sergeant Hannah very probably saved the life of his pilot. He certainly saved the aircraft when he must have known that his last chance of safety was apparently hopelessly jeopardized. No one who has seen the aircraft can be otherwise than amazed at his extraordinary presence of mind and extreme courage.

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