(This article was originally published in the magazine for CAF - the Commemorative Air Force, based in Dallas Texas, who I wrote it for in 2022.)
The world’s biggest history festival takes place outdoors every year in the beautiful Wiltshire village of Broadchalke in the south of the UK. The Chalke Valley History Festival has a strong emphasis on military history, particularly of World War II and is one of the few remaining places that people can meet and listen to veterans who give talks on their war experiences, always to packed out audiences.
Des Curtis was one of the veterans invited to this year’s festival. 98 years old but still sprightly, he was joined on the stage by famous military historian, James Holland, and John Lilley who is the Chairman of The People’s Mosquito, a charity he established in 2012 to restore a Mosquito aircraft to British skies.
Flight Lieutenant Des Curtis was an RAF navigator who flew over 70 sorties with the same pilot, Doug Turner, and was awarded a DFC for his exceptional navigational skills. Signing up at the age of 19, he flew in Beaufighters before moving to the brand new Mosquito, one of the fastest British aircraft of World War II. His service included flying for Coastal Command and the highly secretive 618 Squadron as part of the Dambusters operation.
In front of a captivated audience, he told his tale with humour and typical English understatement.
Des was 19 when he enlisted in 1940, keen to do his bit for the war effort. When he was on parade one day while still in training, an officer said, ‘we need volunteers to fly Beaufighters for Coastal Command, so when I call your name you fall out’, and so he found himself in Coastal Command, whose primary function was the protection of Allied convoys from German U-boats. He said he didn’t object to being forcibly volunteered, instead that it was quite exciting because the word ‘fighter’ came into it. Nearby to where he was in training was an RAF Convalescent home and ‘a lot of the characters in there were Battle of Britain pilots so on a Saturday when we finished work they would come up to the local cider house and regale us with the stories of their Battle of Britain flying. It was sheer vanity to want to be in a fighter.’
Partnered with Doug Turner in 235 Squadron in Scotland, their role was single aircraft reconnaissance down the Norwegian coast looking for enemy shipping, then acting as fighter escorts for Torpedo bombers once the warships had been discovered.
They spent a lot of time flying over the North Sea; it was two hours out and back and they would have to fly in and out of the lees within the islands as the ships were so difficult to see hidden in the darkness of the fjords. Flying close in and at low level, without revealing that the they had spotted the ship, was always a challenge. There were occasions when they were seen by the enemy, which Des described as, ‘always an exhilarating ten minutes or so’.
On one such occasion they had an intelligence officer on board who had wanted to join an operations flight, just to see what it was like. In the two seater Beaufighter, the officer was stowed behind the pilot and the door which separated the pilot from the fuselage. He had to stand there for over four hours and it was on that occasion that they were spotted. Doug had a great defence mechanism if he was being attacked by a single aircraft; he would descend and fly in a corkscrew motion so that if the fighter behind got anywhere in the turbulence, it was strong enough to literally push them out of the way. For ten minutes the enemy tried to fire but because of Doug Turner’s skill and evasive action, they never got a single shot in. Once they were safely flying back to base, they invited the rather shaken intelligence officer to crawl up to the front and join them for a bottle of beer and a cigarette. “Of course it was totally illegal,” said Des, “but that’s just what you did then.”
Everything changed when he found out they were to convert to Mosquitos. Previously Des and Doug had only seen them when they had to do an emergency forced landing in December 1942 during a snowstorm, and returning to their aircraft the following morning there were ‘these lovely sleek aeroplanes parked there that we had heard of but hadn’t seen. We were very envious as we would have loved the chance to fly those’. The opportunity came the following March when they were sent on a conversion course.
Des described it as ‘like going from a Morris Minor to a Rolls Royce’. First of all you were seated in tandem, with the navigator sitting slightly behind the pilot. There were single controls rather than dual so pilot had sole command, but it was comfortable and everything was at hand making it a very pleasant experience and ‘the sound of those two engines is electric, it’s a wonderful sound.’
John Lilley, Mosquito expert, explained that the Mosquito is a beautiful, slick design with the wing made as one piece and the fuselage made from two moulds which then sat on top of the wing. Made from ply and balsa wood in a modular form they had to turn to a specialist workforce of cabinet and piano makers to take it from an ingenious idea to something that could be made in quantity. Des said he had never felt any concern about flying an aircraft made of wood and that the Mosquito never let them down once. It proved itself towards the end of the war when a heavy gun was added and the plane not only held the weight but the recoil had no effect on the fuselage nor loosened any bolts, which really says something about the strength of the construction.
“It makes me furious when I see the Mosquito. I turn green and yellow with envy. The British, who can afford aluminium better than we can, knock together a beautiful wooden aircraft that every piano factory over there is building, and they give it a speed which they have now increased yet again. What do you make of that?...They have the geniuses and we have the nincompoops…” (Reichsmarschal Hermann Goering)
Des and Doug left 235 Squadron in March 1943 to join a newly formed 618 Squadron, assuming they would continue the same work as before, just with better aeroplanes. However, after 36 hours by train to the far north of Scotland they arrived at a deserted airfield and saw that the rest of their new squadron was a mix of 105 and 139 squadrons from Bomber Command and some of 235 were there due to their sea flying experience.
Surrounded by Service Police they were told that their squadron was top secret, that they were not to discuss their work outside the Operations Room, that all letters home were to be censored and they could not even write about the weather or put ‘x’ at the bottom for kisses, as it could be interpreted as code. Even engineering staff did not need to know where they were flying.
The CO had ensured that the nearest village was a ‘dry’ one with no alcohol on sale and they were told that, “you’re going to carry out an an operation which is highly dangerous, so anybody not prepared to undertake this can step forward and will return to the unit from which you came without a stain on character”. Des said that nobody so much as twitched.
The mission was a daylight low level attack on the German battleship Tirpitz using a specially designed weapon, a bouncing bomb. At this stage, they knew nothing about 617 Squadron, the famous Dambusters with their bouncing bombs which later destroyed the Ruhr Dam in Operation Chastise. The Tirpitz was moored 1120 miles away, the range of the Mosquito was 980 miles so the navigators had to work out a solution to this, as carrying the bombs meant there was no space for extra fuel.
A variety of options was put forward by assorted officers, each of which was more ridiculous than the one before. One suggested that after the attack they fly on to Russia and use their pistols to demand their planes be refuelled. Another that they bail out over the ocean and get the Navy to pick them up - from U-boat infested waters so cold you could die within 3 minutes. Another suggestion put forward by an officer was that they fly back inland along a Swedish railway line, land in the trees once they had run out of fuel and walk along the line until they were hopefully picked up by the weekly train. Des and his colleagues swiftly realised that they were expendable.
“To say that we were scared has a little short word in front of it that I can’t mention with ladies present, but when you’re stuck in an environment like that you couldn’t discuss your fears. If I had said to Doug ‘I’m scared’ he might then not want a navigator who is scared, as he would want somebody who is bold.” Des explained that they all acted out with a lot of stupid behaviour in the mess due to the stress that was going on every day with no form of outside relaxation.
Time passed heavily. They learnt about the raid on the Ruhr dam and that it had been a successful use of the bouncing bombs, albeit to a different spec, but they still didn’t have all of the aircraft they needed for their mission and they were still trying to overcome a further problem of their bouncing bombs being phased one behind the other so that it didn’t knock them out of the sky. Their conclusion was that they were going to die. “I was 19,” Des said to the silent audience, “I had no desire to die, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice myself for King George VI or anybody else”.
The mission was eventually called off, and the Tirpitz wasn’t attacked until a year later in 1944. Des and Doug were posted to Cornwall where they formed part of 618 Special Detachment, flying the Mosquito MK XVIII which had an anti tank gun attached. It was developed by the Army who had decided against using it but thought the RAF could make good use of it. The RAF soon realised it was effective for chasing U-Boats and so after just three days training, they were on their next secret mission of chasing U-boats off the Atlantic Coast with the 12 foot Tsetse gun projecting out of the nose, its flame measured at over 130 feet, so they ended up flying into their own flame.
Their role was to chase U-boats as they entered and left the U-boat pens which was when they were at their most vulnerable as the water was so shallow. The Ultra signals were intercepted by Bletchley Park and the Squadron’s job was to be at the same location and fly down the path the U-boat was to take.
Their first sortie was a disastrous one - they saw a lone trawler which was suspicious as there were no fishing nets or seagulls swarming around it and they released it was there to protect a U-boat. The Commanding Officer, Charlie Rose, flew in for a closer inspection, climbing to 4,000 feet then diving at a 30 degree angle to get as many shots in as possible, but they suddenly saw smoke coming from his port engine and he overshot the trawler, crashing into the sea. The wreckage and his body have never been found. “Needless to say, that trawler had the hell beaten out of it before we left,” said Des.
Over the following months, Des and Doug continued with the attacks on U-boats, sinking several despite the onslaught of anti-aircraft fire and fighter escorts, that tell-tale brown slick of oil spreading across the sea the sign that they had been successful. The attacks became less secretive once the D-Day invasion had begun in June 1944. Once the war in France was over, they were no longer needed and returned to Scotland, where they joined RAF Banff Strike Wing, Coastal Command, whose primary function was to fly missions to attack German shipping in Norwegian waters and German ground positions in Norway. Des said up to 60 aircraft, mostly Beaufighters and Mosquitos, would look for targets along the coast, the German ships fleeing their homeland giving them their pick of vulnerable targets.
Overall, Des and Doug flew over 70 missions, finishing in January 1945. By that time they had flown for two years without a single break and were both ‘rather tired’. “That’s the end of our flying days,” they said, and went their separate ways, one of the most successful World War II flying partnerships coming to an end. It hadn’t always been plain sailing, there were times when they literally came to blows. “Like in any happily married family, we had our moments. Doug’s idea of a good time was drinking beer and talking flying. My idea as a 19 year old was finding where the nearest girl was I could take out and have a bit of fun with. So our off-duty objectives were somewhat different. But we got used to each other and he was a damn good pilot I have to say, first class pilot, and we survived the war, others suffered badly.”
They were both awarded the DFC for exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air but Des said that the main thing was “we both survived and with only a few minor exceptions, we returned the aircraft in the same condition we got it in.”
There is a postscript to his time in the war. One of the U-boats sunk by him and Doug was the U976, which they bombed in March 1944, killing four Germans. Decades later, Des and the Commander of the U-boat got in touch and ‘got along famously’, recognising they were just two soldiers on different sides doing their jobs. They and their families would visit each other regularly and on one occasion were at a large gathering and amongst all of the noise and merriment around them, the commander said quietly, “Des, why did I have to wait so long to find a younger brother?” Des said that moment pointed out the total futility of war, when two honourable people who had fought to kill each other realised how absurd the whole thing was.
There was a long standing ovation for Des, the audience so impressed by this funny, humble man who had given so much at such a young age to defend Europe from Nazism.