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Desmond Pelly (1923- )

We're Bomber Command's Last Survivors


As part of our crusade to raise £1.9m by the end of next month to ensure a fitting memorial is built to our ‘forgotten’ war heroes, we speak to the men who risked their lives fighting the Nazis.

As the only car owner among the Lancaster bomber crew, it was only natural that Flight Lieutenant Desmond Pelly regularly ferried his men to and from the local watering holes. However, squeezing seven burly fliers into his two-seater MG presented something of a challenge.

In those dark days, when the outcome of war hung in the balance and the brave young men of Bomber Command took the fight to Hitler, the crews were like families. They spent almost every waking hour together, trusted one another with their lives and, knowing that each sortie over Europe could be their last, made the most of their down time.

“In my MG we had two sitting on the mudguards, two on the hood and the rest of us crammed on to the front seat,” says Desmond, now 87, who became a father figure to his crew, taking responsibility for their safety in the air and their enjoyment on the ground. “We thought nothing of it. There was a tremendous bond between us and, in spite of what was happening, we did have some wonderful times. In the air we had to be a team and it was up to me, the pilot, to bring everyone together although we came from all walks of life.”

Bomber Command suffered appalling casualties in the second World War, when more than 55,000 men lost their lives. For the aviators in Pelly’s 156 squadron, based at RAF Upwood in Cambridgeshire, the risks were even greater. They were the Pathfinders, sent in first to light up targets before returning for a second run and unloading their deadly cargoes. Against the odds and despite being shot down, Desmond survived 41 missions, but one of his closest friends wasn’t so lucky, killed on his first combat flight.

“That did shake me but it happened regularly,” says Desmond. “In the evening you would just go to the pub and try to relax and forget about it all. It was the only way to operate, otherwise you’d become a nervous wreck. I knew all about the high casualty rates but I was young and always believed it would never happen to me. I still remember the faces of friends who didn’t come back.”

Growing up, Pelly always wanted to fly and volunteered for the RAF straight from school. He was selected for Bomber Command, joining the Pathfinders in the later stages of the war and receiving the DFC.

The wartime role of Bomber Command is controversial because of the number of civilian casualties inflicted, but he says: “At the time I didn’t feel any emotion, I was just doing a job. As I’ve grown older I do sometimes wonder how many people I killed but I still believe we had no choice. We had to reduce Germany’s capacity to fight.”

Despite all his precautions in February 1945 Pelly’s Lancaster was shot down by a German fighter. “The aircraft caught fire and I gave the order to bale out. The rear gunner was killed in the attack but I stayed at the controls until everyone else was out.”

Two more of the crew died during the escape, but the pilot found himself on the ground, safe and sound but stranded in the heart of Germany. He set out to walk home, evading capture for 24 hours. “We had little compasses so I just headed west,” he says. “I was captured by a German soldier and during interrogation was told that my crew members had died.”

Pelly spent the remainder of the war in a PoW camp. Three weeks after he was liberated he married his fiancée Nancye and they recently celebrated 65 years together. His determination to hike for home is typical of the spirit shown by the crews. They qualified for a break after completing 30 missions but many chose to continue putting their lives on the line for their country.

Daily Express, Thursday, 30 Sep 2010
By Adrian Lee

Owner of originalDaily Express
Date30 Sep 2010
Linked toAndrew Desmond Pelly (Military Service)

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