While fortunately three of the crew had survived much more happened before P/O Mahn was rescued fourteen days later on 18 June 1942. The details surrounding the crash and ultimate rescue of P/O Mahn are found in part in numerous documents and articles. On Saturday 20 June 1942, the following Air Ministry News Service release was made:
19/6/42 - No. 32 Air Ministry News Service
Air Ministry Bulletin No.7328
“Fourteen days in an open dinghy on the North Sea, the almost unbearable distress of watching two comrades die before his eyes without being able to aid them, the terrible pangs of hunger and thirst - all these were suffered and conquered by a young American member of RCAF 415 Squadron, Pilot Officer Holbroke Mahn, now recovering from his ordeal in hospital.
The story of "Hoke" Mahn is one of tragedy and great heroism. It is a tale of the will to live conquering all odds. And yet the young flier survived his ordeal so well that his doctor was moved to say: "It is amazing how well he survived his experience. After seeing him and talking to him, one would say he had not been exposed more than two or three days."
It was 1 a.m. on the morning of June 4 that the young pilot took off from his home base in his Hampden on a roving mission to the Frisian Islands. With his crew of sergeants, two Canadian and one Scottish, he set out on what appeared to be a routine flight but turned out to be an unforgettable experience. As the aircraft reached a point 30 miles from the Dutch coast, the port engine suddenly cut out and the plane, flying at a level of 200 feet, lurched and dived into the sea. One of the crew (Sgt Peebles) was killed immediately, while the others made for the small dinghy which the plane carried, and climbed aboard.
The dinghy, caught in the strong swells of the North Sea, began to drift away in a direction the crew hoped would carry them to safety. Husbanding their supply of water and small rations, the airmen settled down for an uncomfortable night. One night stretched into several nights, and still no signs of rescue. Often the men sighted planes, friendly and enemy, high overhead during daylight hours, or heard the drone of motors during the hours of darkness, but their tiny craft remained unsighted. Then, to their delight, about a week after the crash, an enemy Ju88 sighted them and swooped low to investigate. Enemy plane or not, it promised rescue, and the young American and his crew stood up and waved wildly as the aircraft circled their position.
But a British Beaufighter spotted the enemy plane and dived to the attack, and in a few moments the two had disappeared from sight - the Ju.88 striving to escape, the Beaufighter hot on its tail while the three disappointed airmen sank despondently down in their tiny dinghy, unseen by the British pilot. What, thought the three, could the future hold now? Food and water gone, dirty, wet, and despondent, they sat huddled together in the bottom of their craft. That night one of the sergeants died (F/Sgt Stirling).
Thirst or starvation may have caused his death, but Mahn believes it was due to the shock of seeing their first hope of rescue chased away.The remaining two lowered the body of their friend over the side and watched it slip into the sea.
Several days later, days of horror and suffering, the second sergeant died (Sgt Thomas).
One day a gull perched on the rim of the dinghy and in a few moments Mahn tasted his first food since their small rations had given out in the early days.
Seagull, eaten raw, is not the tastiest of morsels but it is food. Later his rescuers found the bones and feathers of the gull strewn over the dinghy.
On the eleventh day a little rain fell, and Mahn secured enough to wet his parched lips that had not touched water for almost a week. Rescue finally came. At 12.30 a.m. - 00.30 hours in Service parlance -- a motor gunboat of the Royal Navy spotted the tiny, floating dot, still off the Dutch coast, and Mahn was taken on board and rushed to an English port. Before five o’clock he was tucked into a hospital bed, with the doctors marveling at his condition after 14 such harrowing days and nights. The tall, dark, young native of Denver, Colorado, was far from being a well man, but he was alive and safe.
P/O Mahn’s own words provide a poignant account of the fortnight spent in a dinghy at sea.
“On the fourth day a high wind sprang up and the heavy swells soaked us to the skin. On the evening of the eighth day, about two hours before sundown, our spirits were revived. A Junkers Ju-88 circled our craft. Thinking our rescue was near; we drank the last of our water. But then a Beaufighter dived low over our dinghy. We waved but it made off. Soon after sundown the navigator died (F/Sgt Stirling).
The ninth day was rough and there was a wind which drove us from the coast of Holland, which we had hoped to reach. About four to five o’clock four Hudsons came over us on a parallel course, but our dinghy was not spotted. Now the gunner lost hope. He was much weaker than I, and he began drinking sea water. I took away the can and threw it into the sea. Soon after drinking the water, the gunner became delirious, and two hours later he died (Sgt Thomas).
On the twelfth day I had to stop baling owing to my weakness. On the thirteenth day I had my first food. A seagull alighted on the edge of the dinghy. It stuck its head under its wing. I grabbed it, cut off its head and sucked the blood. I also ate the fish it had swallowed. Barely had the fourteenth day of agony begun – it was 1245 in the morning of 18 June, when help arrived and I was rescued”.
Search and Rescue decisions taken at Headquarters 16 Group
One of the two returning 415 Hampden Crews reported seeing a red flash on the sea two hours after takeoff. With this report, the only clue to the fate of the missing crew, two crews took off at 6 am on the 5th of June to carry out a search. At the edge of their search area, 100 miles east of Lincolnshire, S/Ldr Benn discovered a large oil streak. Five miles further on he found a pigeon container, some wreckage and a body floating just under the surface with a Mae West that appeared not to have been inflated. Two other crews were being held on readiness, but on receiving S/Ldr Benn’s report the 16 Group Headquarters operations staff decided that the aircraft must have been completely destroyed and there would be no survivors. The search was called off.
On the 11th of June, a Beaufighter of 235 Squadron flown by F/Lt Birt sighted a dinghy with two men on board. These men waved at the aircraft. Soon there after a Junkers 88 fighter engaged the Beaufighter. Both aircraft registered hits on each other. The Beaufighter sustained damage to its wing. F/Lt Birt remained in the area, but was unable to re-establish contact with the dinghy. On return to base, he reported the engagement and sighting. Given the likely drift over the previous week, the discovery of the dinghy appeared to tie in with the position given of the earlier sighting of a dead body and wreckage.
Before a new search could be mounted, the intelligence staff at Headquarters Coastal Command intercepted a German signal giving the position of a German dinghy with two Luftwaffe crew aboard. This position was very close to the one reported by the Beaufighter. Bomber Command had very few losses on the night of 11/12 June, and those that occurred were reported in target areas. The 16 Group Headquarters operations staff assumed therefore that the dinghy was German, and no further action was taken.
A further twist occurred the next day. A bomber of No. 3 Group was reported missing along a route that took it close to the last reported dinghy position. A Hudson, with Beaufighter support, took off to conduct a search. Intelligence staff reported that the Germans were also active in the area, which appeared to substantiate the belief that the dinghy sighted was indeed a German one. Enemy air activity increased and the senior air staff officer recalled the searching aircraft. No further attempts were made to locate the dinghy.
Five days latter MGB 344 left Great Yarmouth to patrol close to the Dutch coast. Just before darkness, a lookout saw a dinghy and MGB 344 investigated. The crew found Mahn lying alone in the bottom of the almost beyond hope. Beside him were the remnants of the seagull. He was rushed back to hospital where it was discovered that he had gangrene in both of his feet due to prolonged immersion in sea water.
Written Messages and Last Thoughts
On one of the two Emergency maps discussed above, Sgt Thomas wrote the following message: “June 12th 1942. Sgt Thomas, E. Canadian. R70743. In dinghy for 8 days, no sight of boats, Hudson missed us. Jim Sterling died last night. Please notify Miss Joan Hill 29 North Parade, Sleaford Lincs. Mrs. Mabel Ayry, Lampeter Ave., Draydon Hants.”
P/O Mahn wrote the following series of messages on the second map: “Thirty five minutes after twelve on the night of 4/6/42 the port engine packed up while flying at 200-300 ft on instruments and taken by surprise was unable to control it crashed. F/Sgt Stirling, F/S Thomas and myself P/O Mahn were lucky enough (?) to escape to the dinghy. There had been no time for warning and we had no pigeon or radio. There were two quart cartons of water attached to the dinghy. The next eight days were of indescribable harsh. Cloths constantly wet to the skin. Cold winds even if snugly wrapped in each other trying to keep warm.
Aircraft flew near but failed to see us. Signal flares were wet and would not ignite. Cracks in both outer cases. Yesterday, the eighth day out, a JU88 spotted us and flew around us getting a fix. After about 40 minutes, a Beaufighter came and chased the JU88 away and we saw no more of either the JU88 or Beaufighter. This … piece of a …. and has cost us …. didn’t last more … fighter pilot … at roughly 2100 hrs (this section of approximately four lines has worn away).
Please inform Margaret R. King … Hill … Kent of my death and send her my officer’s cap which I left in the crew room and my Hamilton watch which is in the left hand pocket of the battledress I have on. F.H. Mahn P/O
A Slow but Short Lived Recovery
P/O Mahn’s ordeal was not over with his rescue. Weighing only 80 pounds when he arrived at the Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead, Fred spent the next eighteen months recovering having had both his legs amputated below the knees. Using artificial legs and a cane he was able to walk again and incredibly returned to limited flying duties.
In March 1946 he became ill and died on 5 March at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. He was buried in the Cambridge City Cemetery. His three crew mates are remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.
Information for this article was gathered from the following sources: the official 415 Squadron history book titled “Swordfish – The Story of 415”; 415 Squadron WWII Operations Record Books; Air Ministry Bulletin No.7328 dated 19/6/42 - No. 32 Air Ministry News Service; “Canadian Squadrons in Coastal Command” by Andrew Hendrie; and P/O Mahn’s Emergency Maps. The article was compiled by Chris Henneberry. The 415 Squadron Association gratefully acknowledges the input provided by David Wurtele Eaves, which was the impetus for the retelling of a tragic story - the loss of the Mahn 415 Squadron Crew. They are Remembered
PILOT OFFICER MAHN’S FOURTEEN DAYS ADRIFT IN DINGHY
A HAROWING ORDEAL ON THE NORTH SEA
Recently two World War Two RCAF Emergency Maps for aircrew were found by David Wurtele Eaves, a nephew of 415 Squadron’s first commanding officer E.L. (Wally) Wurtele. These maps, one which covered from Normandy to Heligoland and the other Normandy to the Mediterranean, had been written upon by members of Mahn’s Hampden Crew, whilst they were stranded in their dinghy floating in the North Sea. Somehow these artifacts, which had presumably been handed off to the then CO of 415 Squadron, had found their way into the estate of Jean Wurtele, the sister of Wally. As the Executor of the estate, David decided that these artifacts should reside with 415 Squadron. A study of the maps has moved us to recall the courageous and heart breaking story of both P/O Mahn and his entire crew.
Fredrick Holbrook Jr. Mahn was born on 26 July 1916 in Buffalo New York. His family subsequently moved to Denver Colorado. On 21 October 1940, at the age of 24, he reported to No.2 Manning Depot Brandon Manitoba and joined the RCAF. Fredrick completed basic flying training and obtained his Wings. P/O Mahn was subsequently sent to the UK and joined 415 Squadron on 4 November 1941. He qualified solo on the Hampden on 4 February 1942. His Hampden crew, which included those listed below, flew their first operational mission on 14 May 1942.
Pilot P/O F.H Mahn R/74716 Denver, Co
Observer F/Sgt J.W. Stirling R/67851 formerly Wales
WO/AG Sgt W. Peebles R/60374 Lethbridge, Ab
WO/AG Sgt E. Thomas R/70743 Qu’Appelle, SK
415 Squadron Association
On 04 June 1942, P/O Mahn’s crew, in conjunction with two other Hampden crews, departed RAF North Coates to conduct anti-shipping patrols off the Frisian Islands. At approximately 30 miles from the Dutch coastline, while flying between 200 and 300 feet in instrument conditions, the port engine on Mahn’s aircraft suddenly failed. He later recalled that the plane lurched and hit the sea. Three members of the crew were able to reach a small dinghy, which had automatically deployed. Tragically Sgt Peebles was lost in the crash.
David Wurtele Eaves presents the 2 maps to Bert Campbell in Montreal for delivery to 415 Squadron.