The Luckiest Man in the World (4)

Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman, as we have seen, survived the crash at Dilhorne described in my last post The Luckiest Man in the World (3). Tom is listed as an Air Gunner. I suspect that he was the tail gunner and that is why he was not killed. The impact he had to endure was much less forceful at the back of the aircraft. Furthermore, he was further from any fire than the rest of the crew. And so, he survived. By this time he must have felt that he was extremely lucky. Perhaps he even experienced “survivor guilt”:

Let’s finish on a positive note. And one that explains the title of the post. After his fortunate escape, Tom Weightman joined 644 Squadron who flew Halifaxes and transported supplies for Special Operations Executive operatives, usually to Norway and Denmark:

On April 23rd 1945, probably without the dog, Tom flew off to Scandinavia in a Halifax Mark VII, serial number NA337, squadron letters 2P-X. It was Operation Crop 17, tasked with supplying the Norwegian resistance, the Ling, with 13 containers and 2 packages containing rifles, food, and clothes. These were successfully dropped but the aircraft flew off course by accident and was hit by German anti-aircraft fire. The pilot had to land somewhere, so he ditched the stricken plane in Lake Mjøsa which was the only flat area around:

The dinghy should have deployed automatically but it failed to do so. I presume that the members of the crew, as the cold, cold waters rose around them, must have decided to try to swim to shore. They could not have known that this was the largest lake in Norway. Alas, they all died from hypothermia. Flight Engineer Goronwy Amman Bassett (34) from Swansea. Wireless Operator Alec Naylor (22) from Oakenshaw in Yorkshire. Navigator Walter Reginald Mitchell (23) from East Dulwich in London. Bomb Aimer Gordon Russell Tuckett (23) from Cardiff and Pilot Alexander Turnbull (27) from Edinburgh.

The Tail Gunner and “The RAF’s Luckiest Man”, Tom Weightman, meanwhile, had by now recovered consciousness after being knocked out by the impact of the aircraft hitting the surface of the lake. He awakened to find all of his colleagues had gone. Water was still rising inside the Halifax so he climbed out through the upper escape hatch and walked out onto the wing. The dinghy was still in its special cupboard in the wing so he climbed back into the aircraft and released it manually with a winch. He then set off paddling across the cold waters of the lake trying to find the rest of his crew. This is the only picture I could find of a deployed dinghy:

There were no replies, though, to Tom’s shouts and it was far too dark to see anybody in the ice cold water. When it got light, the locals found Thomas in his dinghy and looked after him and made sure he was in good health. And then, quite rightly, they handed him over to the German Army because they feared, quite rightly, appalling reprisals to their families if they harboured an RAF flyer. And after just 14 days of captivity, the war ended and Tom Weightman was a free man. He was to have 62 more years of life than his colleagues in the 644 Squadron Halifax and 63 more years of life than Jack Sweeney.

Even his plane was lucky. It lay sleeping peacefully at the bottom of the lake for 50 years. And then somebody’s sonar turned up a very strange fish:

And then the Halifax Aircraft Association dived down, found it, rescued it, restored it in magnificent fashion, took it to the RCAF Memorial Museum at Trenton in Ontario and there it remains to this very day. If you ever manage to see it, make sure you look carefully at the rear turret and wonder what made the man in it so special.:

The Norwegian lake is still there. In winter it freezes over and recently it played host to some of the events in the Winter Olympics:

I could not have written this blog post without recourse to this website.

 

 

 

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31 Comments

Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History

31 responses to “The Luckiest Man in the World (4)

  1. Good Lord John, Flight Sergeant Weightman was extraordinarily lucky! It is pleasing to see that his aircraft is preserved at the RCAF Memorial Museum. This encounter reminded me of another lucky escape, that of Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (10 December 1922 – 22 June 1987) who was a rear gunner in Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster during World War II, who survived—without a parachute—a fall of 18,000 feet (5,500 m) when abandoning his out-of-control, burning aircraft over Germany. Andy posted the story on Aviation Trails: https://aviationtrails.wordpress.com/heroic-tales-of-world-war-2/rear-gunner-flight-sergeant-nicholas-s-alkemade-115-squadron-raf/ – Thanks for a great post John.

    • My pleasure and I’m glad you enjoyed it .I think the longer Bomber Command’s war went on, the more men realised the considerable role of pure luck in their survival. Having said that Flight Sergeant Weightman clearly knew that there was a winch he could use but the rest of the crew didn’t. Presumably he had acquired that knowledge somewhere. Flight Sergeant Alkemade though was off the scale. I can still remember reading his story on the front and back of Victor Comic on June 9th 1962.

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    Reblogged this on Lest We Forget II and commented:
    Next time I visit the museum, it won’t be the same…

    • Thanks very much, Pierre. I think one of the best things with history is how sometimes we in the present can actually see or touch part of the reality of a distant time.

  3. Fantastic story. A true example of the saying, “Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good”

  4. A truly lucky man, and what a remarkable story. For a while I thought it was going to be the Halifax in the RAF Museum, Hendon. But, what a fabulous rebuild they have made of that aircraft. Definitely one to visit if ever in Canada!

    • Absolutely. I am continually amazed at how what appears to me to be a complete pile of junk can be magically transformed into a pristine example of a WW2 aircraft! The Canadians have done a particularly brilliant job, though. It looks like it just rolled off the production line.

  5. What a fascinating story – he was truly a lucky man!

    • He certainly was. I wonder if that good luck continued after he came home from the war. Or did he return to his hastily parked car and find that every single time he had been given a ticket?

  6. The tail gunner station must have been a scary place to be, a bit exposed at the back of the aircraft there.

    • It certainly was extremely exposed, although as Thomas found out during his first crash, it could also be relatively protective if the aircraft was skidding along the ground during an emergency.

  7. What a story! He was fortunate to survive. Thanks for sharing his story.

  8. Unbelievable story, John. That man’s luck just never ran out. I guess it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Great write!! 🦋

    • You are very kind Amy. Maybe he used all his luck up in just a couple of incidents. Do we have a set amount allocated to us at birth, and once it’s gone, it’s gone?

  9. He was a lucky man, and all his colleagues, they died so young. It always happens in wars and other violent acts. I keep wondering why do they take place. But they have always been happening. Thank you for all your posts 🙂

    • My pleasure. I’m glad you are enjoying them! War is so pointless. Nowadays we here in England are good friends with Germany, Italy and Japan. The tragedy is that so many people had to die to bring it about.

  10. Jim Morgan

    Hi John. Thanks for putting this series together. As a WW2 enthusiast for many years now, it has always amazed me how so much has been lost or neglected regarding aircrew, aircraft and seemingly insignificant events that took place during the war that affected the lives of so many people from all walks of life.

    Churchill’s overall guilt regarding the destruction and death that Bomber Harris’s command had wrought during the war was something that he would rather forget than honour. Consequently, the lack of preservation of important bases and aircraft following the war years.

    My father, James Morgan Sr., joined the RCAF in May 1948 and retired from active service in 1979. As a base BRAT (born, raised and transferred), I grew up around RCAF lore and the stories I would pick up from those aircrew who had wartime experience.

    In August, 2004, I celebrated my Dad’s 75th birthday by taking him on a cross-Canada tour of many of the airbases he served at during his RCAF career. Since he had gone through Basic Training at No. 2 Manning Depot in Trenton, Ontario, it was only logical and appropriate that this was the place to start our tour.

    In the rear of the Air Museum hanger, the restoration of RAF Squadron 644 Halifax NA337 was nearing completion. I had the privilege of being able to complete a photo journal of the restoration progress from nose to tail (inside and out) on this aircraft to date.

    While taking photos of the completed rear gunner’s position, I was standing on a ladder trying to get the best photo of the interior of the gunner’s station when an older gentleman saw what I was doing and steadied the ladder for me. When I came down the ladder, he commented, “That used to be my office!” I queried him regarding that statement and he told me that this was his aircraft and that was where he was located when NA337 went down in the lake in Norway.

    Now, you have to remember that I did not know the whole story behind NA337. At that time, I did not realize I was talking to the only survivor of that crash, the former Flight Sergeant Thomas Weightman. He’d been in Norway when they recovered the Halifax and he noted that when they examined it, they found his thermos in exactly the same place he’d put it and it still had coffee in it! I didn’t even take a photo of him standing under the rear guns…why, I have no idea. It is something I’ve deeply regretted since.

    Fast forward to July 2017. I had been off work due to an injury and had once again picked up writing my Dad’s life story that I’d neglected on and off for over 10 years. In writing about his days at No. 2 Manning Depot in Trenton, I did some research on NA337 to determine what date the restoration had been completed and the aircraft officially unveiled at the Air Museum. I eventually found an article on the website: aircrewremembered.com, that told the story of a Whitley bomber crash (LA765) where a Thomas Weightman had been the only survivor. He was marked as injured but the site had no further details.

    I contacted the site administrator and suggested that this Thomas Weightman may have been the same person who was the only survivor of Halifax NA337. He did some further research which included a discussion with the man who helped raise NA337 from it’s former watery grave in Norway and confirmed that this was indeed the same Thomas Weightman.

    He was now able to input the finishing details regarding Flt. Sgt. Weightman’s history.

    Unfortunately, by November 2005, Flt. Sgt. Weightman’s health had deteriorated to the point that he was unable to attend the official unveiling of his former aircraft. He passed away in England in 2007 at 83 years of age.

    A very lucky man!

    • Thank you for all this. It is truly fascinating. And it’s amazing too that you should meet Mr Weightman in such circumstances. And the tale about the thermos flask is even more amazing. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to share it with all of us.

  11. It always amazes me that these men, after their many adventures, simply seemed to fit back into normal life.

    • A lot of them did but many didn’t. They couldn’t get jobs in many cases and hated the people who had jobs, because they were the ones without the courage to go away and fight for their country. There was also the problem of PTSD. My own father was not the man he might have been after six years in the RAF and the things he had to deal with there.

      • (I seem to be having trouble getting your comments John – just found a group under “Unread” that weren’t showing up.)

        The perspective may be different for me because I only met WW1 veterans in their 60s and WW2 veterans in their 40s.

      • Jim Morgan

        I believe this is true for all those who were unfairly marked as LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) by their commanders. Once they were taken off flight status they were treated like trash by whatever section they were transferred to. In a lot of cases, the received a dishonourable discharge which also affected their chances of obtaining a job.

        PTSD, known as shell shock during WWI, wasn’t understood by many of those who were in charge at the time. All they saw were aircrew who refused to fly for one reason or another and none of it was taken seriously. Even General Patton didn’t recognize when his troops were pushed too far and consequently ended up with him slapping two soldiers in front of hospital staff.

        Even now PTSD still holds a stigma that many have to deal with. And if they do get help there is still a segment of the population that sees them as cowards. No wonder so many of them take their own lives.

  12. The readers’ comments which I receive I always reply to, but I too have had things turn up seemingly long after they were sent to me. I don’t usually reply to the reader’s comment on what I have written because I don’t have the time although, to be honest, I think that the reader, almost like a customer, should have the last word. And above all I don’t want to turn a reader’s reply into the beginning of an argument.
    This is a reply, by the way, to ‘quercuscommunity’ not to Jim Morgan whose sentiments I would endorse 100%

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