The Dover Crash
by Frank Tibbo
On January 2, 1942, a Digby (B-18) bomber made a forced landing in the water close to the shore line of Locker's Bay in Dover.
Some people were just getting out of bed in Dover and Hare Bay when they heard the explosions. It sounded as if it the explosions were "out over the water" and it made a few wonder if the bombers from Gander had found a German submarine. As one resident put it, "New Year's Day had been celebrated the day before, so we knew it had nothing to do with that." There really was not much to celebrate on the second day of 1942; the war was the predominate concern of everyone.
Thirty minutes prior to the explosions, Flying Officer Don Maltby had deftly manipulated his aircraft controls as his overloaded Digby bomber lifted off the runway in Gander. The mission for him and his crew was to fly cover for an Allied convoy heading to Great Britain. The convoy was over 300 miles east of Gander. In order to get there and fly cover for a few hours, the fuel tanks had to be full. A full load of depth charges combined with full tanks, machine guns, bullets, food, water and the seven-man crew added up to more than the "never exceed weight." Maltby knew that the excess weight could only be carried as long as the two engines remained healthy.
F/L Don Maltby levelled off at 900 feet just below the cloud and turned the aircraft to 123 degrees magnetic. The navigator, when he had given the course to Maltby, noted that they would be heading out over Lockers Reach just north-east of Dover.
The pilots adjusted their controls in order to extend the flying hours to 17 from the normal 12. Shortly after the adjustments had been made a loud bang came from the right engine. The co-pilot looked at the number two engine and yelled at Maltby, "She's on fire!" The co-pilot hit the starboard fire-extinguisher while Maltby feathered the propeller. In 30 seconds the fire was extinguished; but as soon as the explosion occurred, the bomber immediately started to lose altitude.
Pilots are trained to be always on the lookout for places to land in an emergency; Maltby kept his eye on a body of water close to the shore. The bomber had descended to 600 feet and was slowly but surely losing more altitude. The pilots knew they would have to shed some weight fast, and the easiest thing to get rid of was the depth charges. There was nothing below except ice and water. Maltby released the depth charges, and a few seconds later the explosions announced to the residents of Hare Bay and Dover that there was something unusual happening.
By now the bomber had slipped below the tops of the surrounding hills, and Maltby made a quick decision that it was safer to crash-land there than try to get back to Gander. "We're going to land parallel with the shore just straight ahead – keep wheels up – feather number one – release escape hatches – master switch off!" Maltby's greatest concern, now that his depth charges were gone, was the potential explosion of a full load of gasoline when the aircraft hit the water. He had turned the master-switch off which disconnected the batteries to prevent an electrical current from causing a spark that could ignite the volatile fuel.
"We skimmed along the water for a few hundred feet, then as the body lowered into the water the windshield shattered by the sudden force of the water. We were floating high and all appeared O.K. The crew immediately opened their rear escape doors and expanded the rubber escape raft. After a short time the radio operator asked me if it was ok for him to turn the Master Switch back on so he could report back to base. I asked Hutch (co-pilot Flying Officer Hutchinson) if he could smell anything (gas); he said no and I couldn't either. So I said ok and the switch was turned on. Immediately, there was an explosion. One of the gas tanks below us had split on landing. We were engulfed in flames."
Maltby and Hutchinson scrambled up through the flames to the emergency hatch that they had released prior to crash-landing, jumped on the wing and rolled off into the water to extinguish their flaming clothing.
"Hutch and I looked up at the burning escape hatch and saw our radio operator attempting to get out. This hatch was for the pilot and co-pilot only. We rushed, flames all around us, and pulled him bodily out and threw him into the sea. His face and hands were badly burnt.
The crew paddled the raft from the rear to the front of the aircraft where they picked us up and proceeded to shore. We didn't have long to wait, the local residents had heard the unusual loud noises and came rushing to discover the burning aircraft and give immediate assistance. They took us to their homes, and we were afforded gracious Newfoundland hospitality."
People from the community heard the aircraft and thought it must be in trouble. When they saw it they were sure! Smoke was pouring from one of the engines. Then they saw a bomb or depth charge drop from the aircraft to the water. They knew then that the crew must be preparing for an emergency landing and that they were getting rid of anything that was likely to blow them to bits when they landed.
The bomber disappeared as it descended behind a hill. Within a few minutes smoke was seen rising in the distance, and some men started off for the rescue.
When the men arrived, they discovered that the six crew members had all escaped unharmed, however, they were soaking wet and freezing cold. Mrs. Parson's late husband, Nathan, transported the men to his house using his horse and sleigh.
The six crew-member soon found themselves in the kitchen of Mrs. Mary Parsons. She knew when her husband left to search for the men that if he found them he'd bring them back. She knew that any survivors would be cold; but when she finally did see them, she was shocked that they were soaking wet and shivering uncontrollably. Extra wood in her Waterloo stove forced out heat until the two covers were blood red. As soon as the soaking airmen got in the house and felt the heat, they said, 'Oh my! This is some good,' because they were so cold.' The men hurriedly got out of their wet uniforms which were hung in the hot kitchen for drying.
Mrs. Parsons had her kettle boiling, and the grateful men gulped down hot tea while she fussed over their clothes. Mrs. Parsons remembers one 19-year-old airman who said, "If my mom only knew that I was in the water the second day of January, she'd be worried to death!"
Mary Parsons got her iron from the top of the stove and started to iron one of the tunics. She said:
"The fellow who owned it said, 'Mrs., please don't make my uniform look too good or they'll never believe we were in the water,' but I just laughed and continued to press their clothes. When the Commanding Officer and the doctor came, I had a big pot of moose soup on the stove – I was getting it for the other men. I asked the Commanding Officer if he wanted a bowl of soup and he said, 'No, thank you. I don't think I will.' I thought maybe that he thinks it's not good enough for him. Then when I put it on the table for everybody else, the commanding officer said, 'Mrs. Parsons, that soup smells awful good, I think I will have some.' Then he ate two bowls. By the time they left, all the soup was gone."
The men had managed to send a distress message to Gander, and before long a rescue plane landed nearby with a physician and the commanding officer. The grateful airmen, now dry and warm, were airlifted back to their base at Gander.
A team of two mechanics, Mr. Adams and Mr. Whittney, were dispatched to Dover to dismantle the aircraft so that the parts could be recovered and taken back to Gander. The two stayed with the Parsons for 17 days.
"Do you know how much I got for looking after those two men for 17 days? Seventeen dollars! Fifty cents a day for each man! That's all they paid me."
I talked to Mr. Donald Maltby by telephone in his home in Richmond, BC, on July 18, 1999. He was the pilot of the Digby and a Flying Officer:
"The people took marvellous care of us. They must have seen the explosion, and they came to take us back to the village on horse and sleigh. We were soaking wet and the first thing they did was to give us dry clothing. The ceiling was about 900 feet, and we flew out to the coast at 700 feet. We were out over Dover when the right engine blew. We feathered the prop and dropped our bombs in the sea. We were all in it (the aircraft), and we managed to reach shore. The aircraft by that time had completely burned down to the waterline. Did we feel at times we wouldn't make it? Most certainly."
The Digby was a two-engine aircraft which was modified from a Douglas DC 2 for antisubmarine patrol. He and his wife Mary Alice Owen, the head nurse at the RCAF Hospital at the time and a Flight Lieutenant, met at Gander and were married here in November 1941. Maltby was posted to Gander in 1941.
Digby Bombers Gander WWII
Submitted by F. Tibbo