The Caterpillar Club, for aircrew whose lives had been saved by a silken Irvin parachute, is well-known. Less so is the Goldfish Club, for aircrew whose lives had been saved by an emergency dinghy. Few of the aircrew who ditched in the sea survived, but one of the lucky ones was Robert Butler of the Brill crew, 97 Squadron. He won the badge on 28 February 1942 whilst in training.
He told the story of his lucky escape in a long letter to his beloved sister, Mary, who was in the WAAF and understood very well what being in the RAF was like.
Written from RAF Jurby on the Isle of Man, Tuesday, 2nd March 1943
This is just a short letter to let you know that I had my first crash on Sunday night.
There were five of us in an Anson, returning from a navigation exercise, and we were three minutes away from the Isle of Man coast, on the Irish side when we hit the sea. Our altimeter registered 1500 feet and ASI registered 110 knots, which is just normal cruising speed so that we had no idea we were only a few feet off the deck and descending.
However it was 9 o’clock when we hit the sea, and luckily no one was seriously hurt except for cuts and bruises. I escaped with a bleeding nose.
[…] We clambered onto the wing and blew up our Mae Wests, chucked our parachutes in the sea and waited for the dinghy to inflate. We then got aboard it, called the roll and pushed away from the kite which had settled deeper, nose first into the sea, and we drifted till 10 past 9 and saw it go down.
Well, it was becoming terribly cold; water 8 inches deep in the dinghy, the wind was getting up making the sea terrible, so that we were thrown all over the place, making the navigator sick and rendering the use of the paddles absolutely nil.
However, we had bought with us the emergency box. I suppose you have seen one, painted yellow, about 4 inches deep, 3 feet x 2 feet, something like that. In it we found bags of cartridges (which, when fired, threw a red star in the air), chewing gum, fresh water and a pistol to fire the cartridges etc.
Well, we drifted till 10 o’clock without seeing a thing, then, when we were all feeling pretty depressed we noticed a kite in the distance. We immediately fired a couple of cartridges but he didn’t seem to notice us. However, at 10.30 five Ansons came out from base and we started firing rockets, flares, cartridges and waving the flag etc. They circled round us and picked us up with Aldis lamps they carried, then one of them disappeared and then came back dropping flares in our direction. A light appeared on the water which turned out to be the Air-Sea Rescue launch from Peel, a little fishing port on the west coast of the Isle of Man.
At half past eleven we were picked up, given fresh clothing (a marvellous big white polo sweater, underclothing, long thick woollen stockings, and a pair of slick pin-striped daks) which I still have, lots of rum, cigarettes, and attended to our cuts etc.
To cut a long story short we were taken to Peel, where all the population turned out to see us, met by the MO who bought us to Jurby in an ambulance, and we arrived here at 2.30 a.m., stayed the night in sick quarters.
I was the luckiest of the lot as far as injuries are concerned. Since then I’ve done nothing but make out reports, sign forms for our clothes and get through all the necessary ‘bullshit’ which goes with an accident.
Well, I am quite OK, absolutely in the pink and consider that I am the luckiest guy alive considering we hit a rough sea at 160 mph groundspeed.
As the MO said, it was the so-and-so Gremlins who put us in the ditch but it was God who got us out safe.
[…] I’ve got the pistol and a piece of rope off the dinghy as keepsakes. […] I guess I’ll be seeing you soon, and I think you will consider it an honour to be with me when you see me.
So cheerio for now
Your loving brother
Robert’s card (which is owned by the Archive, together with his extensive correspondence), is now on display at RAF Wyton in the Black Thursday display. Very sadly, Robert lost his life on 16 December 1943 over Berlin, when his aircraft was hit by flak. The incredible story of his prayer book (also on loan to RAF Wyton) is told here: Tales from the Archive – 3. 16-17 December 2017