Odd Bod Ken W. Nolan, R.A.A.F. (d.10.4.06)
Ken Nolan's prize-winning account of his experiences as Wireless Operator/Air Gunner with 295 Squadron RAF, flying Stirlings into Arnhem, was published in the 'Arnhem 1944 Veterans' Club' Newsletter, dated June/November 1995/1996. That account was an extract from the original report, which Ken's daughter Gabrielle sent me later, and which is reproduced here.
Note: According to the 295 Squadron website (see www.raf38group.org/295squadron) F/O Neil Couper's Stirling IV LJ618 was lost during re-supply mission Operation Market IV.
Return Ticket to Holland
by Flying Officer K W Nolan 419436
File number VX058055 R.A.A.F.
It was just after noon on 20th September 1944, when I took off from Harwell as Wireless Operator-Air Gunner in the crew of Pilot Officer Neil Couper flying Stirling 8EB of 295 Squadron, 38 Group. R.A.F. Our mission was to drop supplies to the airborne troops we had towed by glider to Arnhem in Holland in Operation "Market Garden" the week before.
Neil Couper was a New Zealander, as was the navigator Sgt Jack Corcoran. The Bomb-aimer, Flying Officer Harris, and Flight Engineer Johnny Johnston were English. The rear gunner, Sgt Desmond 'Paddy' Bowers came from Dublin. On this trip we carried two extra crew. They were British airborne troops who would jettison large cane baskets through the floor hatch. I was the only Australian crew member.
Aircraft of 38 Group usually flew alone at night and dropped airborne troops, arms and supplies, and agents, to Resistance movements throughout Europe, from Norway to Yugoslavia. These operations were highly secret and required extremely accurate navigation and the ability to map read at night to locate a small dropping zone with split second timing.
Today was different for we were part of a gigantic aerial armada heading to capture bridges over the rivers in Holland. All went well as we flew across the English Channel towards Europe. As we approached Arnhem we ran into intense and accurate 88mm cannon fire from gun emplacements, vehicles and flak barges on the rivers. It sounded like being inside a tin shed and being bombarded with small stones and gravel. Large holes were appearing in the side of the aircraft.
By the time we approached the dropping zone the aircraft had suffered considerable damage and was full of blackish, acrid smoke and cordite fumes. We released the containers in the bomb bays by parachute and the despatchers pushed the large basket of supplies out to the troops below. We were at about 500 ft and received several direct hits which set the aircraft on fire.
The pilot gave the order to bale out but there was no reply from the rear gunner and the despatchers, so I went down the fuselage to convey the order. The despatchers had pulled their plugs out of the intercom as they moved around, so I shouted at them, clipped on their parachutes and opened the rear door for them. When I reached the rear gunner I could see that his turret had been hit, his intercom cut and his leg jammed. I managed to turn the turret until the doors faced outwards and undid his flying boot. He left his boot behind as he baled out backwards. I then headed back to the pilot.
By now the engines and fuel tanks were on fire and the cabin full of thick smoke. When I reached Neil Couper, the New Zealand pilot, he was standing up at the controls and beating his chest, indicating that he did not have his parachute. I searched for it desperately, eventually locating it under the navigator's table. I clipped on his 'chute, then mine, and he gave me the thumbs up.
With my arms raised, I dropped my legs through the front hatch to bale out. Then, almost immediately, the aircraft exploded. There was an awesome noise and searing heat and then silence. I must have been stunned because I have no recollection of pulling the ripcord, although my hand was on it when I jumped. When I gained consciousness I could see I was over a village and heading towards a church spire at about the same height. I spilled air from the 'chute by pulling on the shroud lines and began to fall towards a river. I released the canopy and plummeted into the water from about 50 ft.
As it was some distance from the river bank I inflated my life jacket and started swimming. When I neared the bank and could stand up I realised I was being fired at from the opposite bank, so I removed my life jacket and stayed under water as much as possible.
Gradually I swam towards the river bank and when I reached the grass I saw a man, an unarmed civilian, coming towards me. He was friendly and helped me into a ditch. He seemed unsure of me and kept looking at my revolver. It dawned on me that because I was in a dark blue uniform he might have thought that I was German, because the Royal Air Force wore grey. I smiled and raised my hands and he put out his hand. We shook hands and he indicated that I was to stay where I was and went away.
About 15 minutes later he returned with two bicycles and we rode into the village of Druten. He took me into a shop and into the residence behind. Here, in the kitchen, he introduced me to his wife, who was holding a baby, and together they helped me to remove my wet clothes and dried me. They gave me dry underclothes and a suit. They kept looking for a wound because the fluorescent dye in the life jacket, which is a reddish brown colour in daylight, had permeated my clothes and was all over my body.
My helper wrote his name on a piece of paper, Allard van Mook, showed it to me, and threw it in the stove. He took my flying boots, quickly found the knife hidden in the fleecy lining and cut off the tops, making me a pair of shoes. By doing this I knew he was an experienced helper as the escape boots were not known to everybody. I kept my wet tunic as I did not want to be captured out of uniform, but I rolled his coat up under my arm. They undid my packet of cigarettes and carefully laid them on the stove to dry.
About half an hour had passed when there was a lot of commotion and voices outside whereupon I was taken upstairs and concealed in a bedroom cupboard. I heard the sound of army boots downstairs, German voices and then boots coming up the stairs. There was more than one person and I could hear them talking, and they stopped outside the door. There was silence for a while and the door opened. I held my breath in sheer terror. The silence was broken by the sound of feet being shuffled. Then they closed the door, went downstairs and soon afterwards the street door closed.
I stayed in the wardrobe and waited. I felt lucky to be alive. I knew I was armed and could defend myself, but I was concerned also for the safety of my helpers. About an hour later - more sounds of someone coming up the stairs and into the room. Slowly, the cupboard door opened and a voice in English said, "Hello, stay where you are; you are in good hands". I looked out and saw a priest, who told me he had learned English in Rome, that I was to do exactly as I was told and not try to escape by myself. These people would be endangered if I did anything silly and help was on its way. I felt reassured. He blessed me and left.
Some time later there was more activity; I could hear an engine running and heavy footsteps on the stairs. The door was flung open, an arm pushed the clothes aside and to my amazement an officer of the Royal Horse Guards said, "We must leave immediately".
Parked outside the shop was a British scout car. I climbed in and we took off at high speed. There had been no time for me to thank Allard and his wife. As we sped through Druten the residents were unfurling flags and banners, in the belief that they were being liberated, but then they realised that their celebrations were premature - the Royal Horse Guards were only the advance units of the liberating army.
We approached a river bank where a British tank was preparing to shell a barge ferrying German soldiers across the Waal. I was hurriedly transferred to the tank, found a space in the turret, and with great crunching noises the tank took off. When we stopped we were in a forest with other tanks.
A few Dutch people were around, and then a lad of about 12 approached me, took me by the hand and started to lead me through the trees. I took off my R.A.A.F tunic, rolled it up under my arm and wore the coat I had been given. When we came out of the woods we were opposite an inn. He took me to the rear door and a very pleasant woman sat me down at a table and gave me a newspaper and a drink. She kept talking to me, but the only word I could understand was, "Moeder". There were German troops drinking and talking at the bar. I realised that I had been planted there and the landlady wanted to give the impression that I was a local, and so every time she passed with drinks she mentioned my mother.
I had been thinking of my mother and wanted desperately to get back to England before any cable could be sent notifying her that I was listed as Missing in Action.
It was now fairly late in the afternoon. I had arrived in Druten at 2.15 pm and now it was five o'clock. The boy returned and sat down beside me, and indicated that I should go with him. He again led me through woods to a British tank which took me into the city of Niymegen (sic) and I was now safe in British hands.
The Royal Army Service Corps had a depot there and I was attached to them for rations and a billet. That night I had a good meal and a sound sleep, although there was much military activity as German frogmen had planted mines on the Niymegan bridge in an attempt to destroy it and stop the Allied advance.
Next day to my surprise and delight I met up with Paddy Bowers, Jack Corcoran and Johnny Johnston. They had been rescued by Dutch and British forces. The bomb-aimer, Flying Officer Harris, and the Army Despatchers had been captured and were Prisoners of War. I told them the bad news that Neil did not get out of the aircraft before it exploded. [F/O Neil Banks Couper RNZAF is buried at Druten (Puiflijk) Roman Catholic Churchyard in Holland - Ed.]
Paddy told me how he had stolen a bicycle and had ridden it as fast as he could, with only one boot, only to be stopped by a Dutch policeman who put his bike on the right hand side of the road and push started him, in the opposite direction.
We now had to give some thought on how to get back to our squadron. The R.A.S.C. had trucks going to Eindhoven so we arranged to go with them. Before we left we bought as many cigarettes as we could afford and carry. We knew that cigarettes were the unofficial currency. After breakfast we climbed into the back of a truck headed for Eindhoven. The advancing army had pushed rapidly through Holland but a lot of the country beside the roads was still in enemy hands.
Every so often a military policeman would appear on a motorcycle and stop the convoy as fighting continued for control of the road ahead. We were told to lie on the floor as we could expect to come under fire as we proceeded. Previously, when on leave, we had regarded the military police with some scorn as they would stop us and check passes and generally, we felt, make a nuisance of themselves. But my opinion of them changed when I saw them carrying out their duties under fire and could see they had the safety of the convoy as their top priority.
We reached Eindhoven around noon. The people were still celebrating their liberation from years of German occupation. We sat up in the rear of the truck with our backs to the tailboard so we could see the festivities. Suddenly I had an arm around my neck and I was being dragged backwards out of the truck. Some lunatic was screaming at me and I saw he had a knife at my throat. The British soldiers grabbed him and Paddy and Johnny pushed him away while pulling me back into the truck. Because I was in dark blue uniform among British soldiers, my attacker had assumed I was a captured Nazi, and he wanted to ensure that I got what he thought I deserved.
After much explaining in English, Dutch and French, and hand waving and pointing to the Australia label on my shoulders, he took me by the hand and patted me on the back and repeated "Australie, Australie".
During the afternoon we hitched a lift with a U.S. army driver who was going to Louvain in Belgium. Here celebrations were also going on. We found a pleasant little hotel and in school French booked rooms and food. We offered cigarettes and the landlady took a couple of packets from each of us. That night there was a party, to which we were invited, and after much 'joie de vivre' eventually got to sleep with 'Sur le pont d'Avignon' and numerous other French songs ringing in our ears.
Next day we were back on the road and were picked up again by a U.S. army truck, this time going to Brussels. Here we decided to report to British Army authorities to see about getting back to England. We finally located the Town Mayor in what had been the Brussels gaol. The German army had occupied it and now it was used by the Allies as a dormitory for strays like us. It had whitewashed stone walls with large red writing in German which said "It is forbidden to sleep in bed with your boots on". We were given some stew made from tinned food captured from the Germans, and it was foul.
We needed to see somebody in higher authority about transport back to England and eventually appeared before a dear old Brigadier wearing his World War I ribbons, among others. He looked perplexed and said "I don't know what we can do about you fellows - very busy, you know - war on, you know". That summed up our position - no help here.
It was now around 2 o'clock on Friday 22nd September and I remembered that a week or so before we had evacuated Allied Prisoners of War from an airfield outside Brussels. Jack, the navigator, was sure that it was north of Brussels. There were trams in the city, so we boarded one heading north. When the conductor came to us for the fare we each gave him a cigarette whereupon he stopped the tram and summoned the driver to get his cigarette from each of us.
After a while we could see Dakota DC3 aircraft circling. This meant we were heading in the right direction to the right place. These were aircraft from 46 Group R.A.F. which also towed gliders, dropped paratroops and had also been at Arnhem.
We got off at the terminus and walked until we eventually reached the airfield. The gates were open, there was no guard or sentry, so we walked in. We tried to find somebody in charge to whom we could report, but nobody took any interest in us. We could see the Allied Prisoners of War sitting on the grass with grey blankets around their shoulders waiting to be told to embark on an aircraft. Johnny found some blankets in a storeroom and we went and sat with the POWs, similarly with blankets draped around us. Finally we were ushered into a queue in an orderly fashion and counted into an aircraft.
After we had been airborne for some time a nurse came around to check on identification tags and medication. We now had to disclose our identities. The second pilot came to interview us when the nurse reported our presence. He took details of our names, rank, numbers, musterings, squadron etc. He said he would have to check our bona fides over the radio. Apparently quite a few Nazi war criminals and others had escaped by mixing in with the wounded and Prisoners of War.
The pilot came to us later with the news that we had been cleared. He said that where he was taking his passengers was not far from Harwell and after he had delivered them, he would fly us home. So at around 6.30pm on Friday 22nd F/O Norris in Dakota KG218 made an unauthorised landing at Harwell and taxied up to the control tower.
Four scruffy, unshaven airmen with crumpled clothes and no caps, walked into the Operations Room where a rather haughty W.A.A.F. officer shouted "What is the meaning of this!" On telling her we had just got back from Arnhem her attitude changed and immediately all was smiles, hugs, handshakes and kisses.
Even the Commanding Officer, Group Captain Bill Surplice, came to greet us. We were the first of those listed as missing from our mission to make it home. The Intelligence Officer wanted to debrief us immediately, but the C.O. told him to wait until after our evening meal, which we had with the C.O. and his wife in their cottage.
Before returning to operations, I celebrated my 21st birthday a few days later while on ten days survivor's leave.
FOOTNOTE: After the war I tried to contact my Dutch helpers by letter, without success. But in the late 1950's a Dutch friend, Bill Bakker, visited Druten and made enquiries for me. Bill had been in the Dutch Air Force and had come to live in Australia after marrying an Australian woman. I had met Bill as a member of the Air Force Association. When I heard he was travelling to Holland I asked him if he would be going anywhere near Druten and if so, could he make some enquiries regarding a Mr Van Nook. He did this and found there was no Mr van Nook, but a Mr van Mook - I had remembered his name incorrectly. So at last I had an address and could write and finally thank him and his wife for his help.
We corresponded for many years, exchanging family photographs. On a trip to Britain and Europe in 1973 I visited Allard and his family for a very special reunion. In 1977 Allard and his friend Bernard, who was able to act as interpreter, came to Australia and spent a very happy Christmas season with me and my family.
Reproduced here with the kind permission of Ken Nolan's daughter Gabrielle Kerstens who would love to hear from anyone, or their families, who knew her late father, F/O Kenneth William Nolan RAAF, based at Harwell in Oxfordshire.