By Sgt. Walter Peters

YANK Staff Correspondent

The first correspondent to fly with the RAF’s Polish Squadron learns how our allies have turned a Nazi secret weapon against its inventors. Using parachute mines, they are bottling up the enemy harbors and shipping lanes.

SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND {By Cable}—One night in November 1939, when a lot of people were saying the Germans had perfected a terrible secret weapon that would destroy British sea power, a sentry at Shoeburyness on the Thames estuary casually glanced up at the sky and saw something that startled him.


The rear gunner, a 21-year-old kid with 18 operations to his credit, saw the chute open up and that big round mine hit the water.

Swooping down from the dark blue like an ugly black buzzard was a German plane, apparently a Heinkel 105, The plane leveled off at 1,000 feet and few seconds later a round something plunged out of the ship.  Hanging above the object was a white parachute. At first the sentry thought it was a German parachutist, but a second glance changed his mind.

The incoming tide prevented him from wading into the sea after the thing. He called the Admiralty. The British Navy authorities were happy. Maybe this was a sample of the German secret weapon they’d been waiting for. The best mine experts rushed to Shoeburyness and retrieved the object from the water intact. Sure enough, it was the much discussed German secret weapon—a magnetic mine.


German magnetic sea mine

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the experts to work unceasingly until they discovered a device to destroy the magnetic mine’s effectiveness. Within a short time an antidote called the degaussing girdle was developed, and soon every minesweeper and ship was equipped with one.

More important, however, the British hit back at the enemy by stealing his own technique of laying sea mines from the air. The British began with two-engined Hampden bombers in April 1940, and later fitted four-engined Lancasters and two-engined Wellingtons for the job of dropping these parachute mines.

Now, almost four years later, the records show that the number of mines planted by the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm runs well into the six-figure column. No single harbor or shipping lane along the coast line of Western Europe from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay is safe for Axis shipping these days.

Working on this great job with the British are airmen of the smaller United Nations. As the first correspondent to fly with the Poles on any air mission, I accompanied the RAF’s Polish Squadron on a mine-laying sortie recently and saw first-hand how that kind of an operation is carried out.

The crew consisted of five young Poles. Altogether they had bombed Germany and Occupied Europe 126 times. The pilot was a 24-year-old sergeant named Tadeusz, who had been out on 37 “high wars,” as the Poles call high-altitude bombing. This was his first “low war.” He was a small man, about 5 feet 4, and he always smiled, even when he cussed. He cussed most of the time.

A few minutes before briefing time, the men gathered around an old stove that had no fire in it. They talked about this and that, and then the squadron leader entered the briefing room.

Everybody rose to attention. The officer clicked his heels. Then everybody sat down.

In Polish the squadron leader explained that the targets for tonight were certain enemy waters in the area around the Frisian Islands north of the Netherlands. When he had finished, an RAF intelligence officer spoke in English. He pointed to a map on the wall and discussed the various places where the mines should be dropped. In night flying, the planes do not fly in formation, and in mine laying every plane has its own spot where it is supposed to drop its load. When he finished, the British officer lightly clicked his heels, just the way the Polish squadron leader did. Then a Polish intelligence officer, who sounded like a football coach between the halves, told the men they were doing much more than laying traps for enemy ships.


A Vickers Wellington bomber in 1942

“Remember,” he said, “every time you go out there the enemy must follow your tracks with a large mine-sweeping fleet. That means a loss of manpower for the Germans. Then again, you force them to send out night fighters to patrol the area and slow down shipping traffic between Germany and the Scandinavian countries.”

“As a result of your activity,” the officer went on, “shipments of iron ore and aluminum to Germany have been cut down. This has seriously impaired the German production of war machinery.  In other words,” he said, looking around the room, “you’re bottling Germany up so tightly she is gradually being forced out of the shipping lanes. The tighter Germany is bottled up, the sooner we’ll see Poland again.”

In the supply room, several men approached me and asked if I had any flying equipment. I didn’t, so each one offered me some of his own. When I was completely dressed, I found that my flying boots were British, my coveralls were American and another garment, which a sergeant told me to put on over my coveralls was of Polish origin. This garment was wool-lined inside and silk outside, and plenty warm.

A flying officer, temporarily grounded after completing 30 missions, asked me to wear his shirt. It was light green in color, with pin stripes broken by dots. “My wife made it for me just before I escaped from Poland,” he said. “I’ve always worn it on operations. It would lease me, Panie Amerykanie (Mister American), if you would wear it tonight.”

A truck stopped in front of the supply room and a WAAF, and English girl, opened the door of the cab and shouted in Polish: “Predko, predko (Hurry, hurry).” One of the sergeants shouted back “Okye, okye,” sounding like a Cockney. We all piled in and she drove us off to the plane.

A few minutes before the take-off, Tadeusz suggested that the best position for me would be under the astro-dome . “From there you can see everything,” he said. “Besides, we need a man in that position, just in case enemy fighters decide to dive at us from the sky. If you see any aircraft at all, let us know quickly.

As an afterthought, he added: “Yell in polish or in English, whichever comes faster.” And then he cussed me out, though politely, and smiled and patted me on the shoulder.

Over the interphone we could hear a girl’s voice. It felt good to hear a woman talking just before we left on a combat mission. It made us forget there was danger ahead. It seemed almost as if we were leaving on a nice pleasant journey from La Guardia Field.polish

The voice we heard belonged to a WAAF in the control tower. She was telling our pilot to taxi up to the flare path.

As we took off, the long lines of planes behind us looked like a motor caravan on the Boston Post Road or the Lincoln Highway in America. They were Wellingtons, just like ours, and their wing lights were on.

Except for the voice of the navigator, Pilot Officer Ludwig, there was little talking over the interphone. It was the navigator’s first combat mission, but his voice was steady and he seemed to be very sure of himself when he spoke.

Once in a while the pilot would yell through the interphone:  “How are you, American? Everything Okey-dokey?” Once I couldn’t locate the reply switch on the interphone so I couldn’t answer Tadeusz immediately. “Hey, Yankee Doodle Dandy,” he yelled. “This is no time to sleep. Hurry up, American, wake up.” I finally located the switch and apologized. Tadeusz laughed and cussed me out again.

It’s not very beautiful in the middle of the North Sea late at night. At least, it didn’t look pretty this night. The clouds were a very ugly black and they hung low. The water below, when we could see it through a break in the clouds, looked heavy, brown and slippery. There was all thins nothingness around us. None of our planes was in sight. There wasn’t even an enemy plane. I felt like rolling up and going to sleep.

Then, far beyond our left wing, I sighted a plane. Its wings and fuselage blended perfectly against the muddy sky and a white little light on it looked like a moving star. But there were no stars out now, so I knew it was a plane and I called it to the attention of Tadeusz.

He checked and then reported back quickly. “It’s okey dokey,” he said. “It’s Wimpey.”

Within 30 minutes of our target, the interphone was busy. The navigator, rear gunner and bombardier checked back and forth with Tadeusz. As we penetrated deeper and deeper into enemy coastal waters, the clouds thickened.

This played hell with the pilot’s nerves. He cussed the clouds over and over again. In Polish, Tadeusz used such expressions as “May lightning strike you: in English his cussing was more to the point. He was angry because he had come all this way and now the clouds threatened to interfere with our job of planting mines right on a pinpoint in the shipping lane.

“A mine doesn’t do any good outside of the shipping lane,” the intelligence officer said, and we began worrying and hiping that by some good luck there would be a break in the clouds before we reached the target.

It is strange how thirsty a man can become at times like that. We were flying low and didn’t need oxygen masks, so it was easy enough to drink something or chew candy. I remembered there was a thermos bottle full of hot coffee in a canvas bag behind the astro-dome. Everybody had brought along an individual thermos bottle. I reached into the bag, took out the thermos and poured some coffee into the aluminum cup.

Just then the pilot called to the bombardier: Only one minute.” The bombardier said “Okay.” That meant we’d be right over the enemy’s doorstep in a minute. If we could believe the stories the Fortress gunners had told us, the Frisian Islands were not exactly armed with peashooters. We expected plenty of opposition.

I sipped my coffee slowly and kept looking all around and up. Now I could see coast line. Our plane was flying right through a break between two islands. Suddenly the plane began to rock and then it lost altitude. Out above the left wing bursts of green fire could be seen and for a moment I thought the plane had been hit.

Tadeusz was using the interphone plenty now. Then suddenly the plane dropped again, almost into a nose-dive, until I thought we were going right in the drink below. All this happened in 10 seconds, but time up there is different from time down on land.

Tadeusz straightened out the plane. Ahead, behind and above us, there was the most beautiful Fourth-of-July display of fireworks I’d ever seen. Far in the distance and all around us were big red bursts. Closer to us were light green bursts. The red bursts represented heavy flak. The green stuff was light flak.

At one point I stuck my head closer to the top of the astro-dome to get a clearer view of our rear. Then I ducked fast. Hot, brightly illuminated slugs from machine guns passed high above me. I gulped whatever coffee there was left in the cap and looked up again.


At one point I stuck my head closer to the top to get a clearer view. Then I ducked fast.

Then I head the navigator talking. “Czas,” he said, “czas.” That means “time.” The bombardier muttered something in Polish and then I could feel a heavy thud from below the center of the fuselage and I knew the mine had been released. From where I was, it was impossible to see the mine parachuting into the shipping lane, but the rear gunner, a 21-year-old kid with 18 operations to his credit, saw the chute open up and the big round mine hit the water.

Time dragged slowly after that. It seemed as if an hour passed before we circled our way out of the position between the islands. Actually it was only about 10 minutes, but the continuous barrage of flak and machine-gun fire made it seem six times as long. All this while Tadeusz was cussing. He was much happier now. We’d planted our load and the only thing that could prevent us from returning to base would be a lucky shot from somewhere. But there were no lucky shots for the Germans this night and we soon were out over the North Sea again.

Over the interphone came Tadeusz’ voice. He warned everybody to be on the look-out for enemy convoys, so that if we spotted any we could radio our base to notify British torpedo boats. Far in the distance ahead of us there was a large amber light. Coming from it we could see faint sparks of light. It was an enemy flak ship and it was shooting at one of our planes. Tadeusz said it might be a convoy. Them the navigator called out a slight change of our course to get out of range of fire and Tadeusz turned the plan e in that direction. A few minutes later the amber light was gone and nothing was left but the ugly black clouds and the heavy brown sea below.

But they looked prettier than they had on the way over. We were satisfied our job was well done, and back at the base the WAAFs would hand us a shot of brandy and coffee and sandwiches. We also knew there would be some warm beds waiting for us. By this time we were all very hungry and damn sleepy.

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