LAST FLIGHT OF HX 313: VICTOR POPPA “TRAPPED IN THE TAIL BUBBLE” MAY 27/28,1944
This was HX 313, The Blonde Bomber, 424 Tiger Squadron, RCAF
Bomber Command, Skipton on Swale, Yorkshire, England
Each of the survivors in HX 313 had his own struggle with death on the night of May 27,1944.
The most detailed account was sent to me by Victor Poppa who was George Freeman’s
best friend and a fellow air gunner.
This is Victor Poppa, 22 year old tail gunner in HX 313.
I was able to interview him several times between 1984 and 1987.
He figured he was a dead man when HX 313 was heading
to the earth ablaze and pilotless. Survived. Eventually Victor sent
me his diary of his war experience. Long and detailed with
many humourous sexual experiences. It will take some time
to convert to digital but I will do it. Victor was George Freeman’s
best friend through 1943 snd 1944. Victor cried when he was
told of George’s death in 1945. Five of the eight man crew of
HX 313 bailed out and survived. Three did not. George was
one of the three who died.
Your letter came to me approximately three weeks ago, and upon opening and reading the first paragraph, I could not talk.
My throat constricted and I had to cry. It was 40 years ago this day (letter written May27, 1944), that we were preparing for a
raid on a town in Belgium…Borg Leopold. This camp contained 13,000 German troops who had been fully trained
and were to be moved out the following day. To keep these troops out of their air raid shelters and above ground our
air force planners arranged for the RAF to overfly Borg Leopold and to continue on to bomb Achen. This force
consisted of some 200 Lancasters. The Germans at this time went into their air raid shelters. Then another force of some
45 Halifax bombers were routed over our target. They then made turn and continued on to bomb Dusseldorf. Again the
Germans went under to their shelters. Then we came along…Number Six Bomber Group, RCAF with 333 aircraft which included
424 Squadron Halifax’s ardour aircraft Q.B. – B – Hx313. QB were the letters of our Squadron. B was our airport letter in the
Squadron. HX 313 was the serial number of our aircraft.”
“We were to bomb from three levels. The first level was 9,000 feet; second level was 10,900 feet; third level or wave was
11,900 feet. We were the third level. Each wave consisted of 111 and each aircraft carried 18 x 500 pound bombs.
The raid was to last for ten minutes. As I found out later this raid was a classic for night bombing accuracy. We killed
8,500 German soldiers in ten minutes with hardly any casualties the Belgian civilian population.”
Note Made 1984: At this point Victor Poppa explained the routine events of a bomber operations day from briefing to
a special meal of bacon and eggs. As the day wears on the crew begin to get nervous. Some write letters. George Freeman
wrote to a girlfriend (platonic by sound of it) and sounded cheerful. Faking perhaps. (see Georges’ letters later).
Some even preferred to write their last wills and testaments. Not George or Victor that I could tell. As evening approaches
the crew put on their flying suits. Victor loaned his fur lined suit to Bob Irwin as his feet got freezing cold…moreso
than the rest of the crew. Victor prefers the electric flying suit as it take less space in the tiny tail gunners bubble. One
of the most moving snapshots sent was taken surreptitiously from the crew truck. It shows a corner of the truck
windshield and off in the distance silhouette against the skylines HX 313, the Blonde Bomber.
“Into HX 313 we go, each to his position. Eric and our passenger Bob Elliott, co pilot; Moe, our engineer; Ken to his bomb
aimer’s position; Bob, our navigator; and Wilf ,our wireless operator;…all accounted for. Then George and myself to our
gunners bubbles…George as upper middle gunner and me as tail gunner. Eric goes through the check list and soon we
are taxiing around the perimeter track to the main runway. In position. Eric advances the throttle and we are on our way.”
Note: Liftoff is extremely dangerous as HX 313 is loaded with bombs and high octane fuel. An error can detonate the load.
There would be little chance of survival. The crew knows this…they have seen it happen.
“We are soon at altitude. Bob, our navigator, has given Eric a course and suggested so that we can arrive as scheduled.
All of the previous aircraft have stirred things up.” (Perhaps German soldiers in Bourg Leopold will be out watching
the bombers overflying their camp.) “Ken (bomb aimer) is now in his position for bombing as we start our run. He
gives Eric course directions…left, left, right, etc. We are now but a few miles from the target when Ken says, “Vic, there is
a JU 88 below us. I stand up and try to see under our aircraft but cannot. Eric is asked to drop a wing so George can
see. He can’t see it either. Ken is asked to give Eric evasive action instructions if necessary. Just then there is a
horrible explosion in our left inside motor. HX 313 lurches up as if struck by a gigantic hammer. Flames run down our
left side. Then a few seconds later there is the clatter of machine gun bullets and cannon shells slamming through our
aircraft. The plexiglass nose is shot out but the bombs are secure.”
“Our bombe did not explode. There were fires in from front to rear. The inside of much of the plane was cherry red.
My first thoughts were: ‘You have been waiting for this and now it has finally happened.’ I called on the Intercom
but received no answer, only static. HX 313, however, was still flying in a straight line.”
“I pulled off my flying helmet, opened my turret doors, reached for my parachute and snapped it to my chest. I stayed in my
position because I saw no parachute go by the tail. Then, a few seconds later, I saw one. It was open and on its side
parallel to the ground just missing the port rudder and fin. Then I decided to go. I swung my turrets 90 degrees in the
fuselage and tried to go out but couldn’t because of the fire and wind. I tried twice to no avail. By this time the ground
was appearing quite close. I could tell from the fires that to bail out from the aft fuselage exit would have entailed too much
time and by then it would be too late anyway. So I sat there waiting for my end. The aircraft then went into a flat spin.
My turret twisted free and I was flung out by the brute force. My leg, however, was stuck momentarily under my leg guard.
I could feel my knee pull right out of its socket. Then my leg came free. I was falling flat on my back. I looked on my
chest for my parachute and it was not there. The parachute had been pulled away for my chest by the wind force and was
nowhere feet from my face and above. Pulled on the
harness and brought the parachute down close enough so I could grab the D ring and pulled. It opened with sharp snap. A pain
knifed through my groin, I put my arms above my head, grabbed the harness and pulled thereby relieving the pain. A few
seconds later I saw the ground coming up real fast. I felt as though I was an arrow. I hit the ground hard and collapsed
with my parachute falling on top of me. I am sure the chute had opened at less that 1,000 feet and our aircraft had been
at 11,900when we were first hit by the flak and then shot up by the JU 88.”
“I managed to get onto my feet but I could not feel anything from the waist down…felt like metal bands were clamped around
my ankles and knees. I was standing balanced as though on stilts. Just t hen I could hear motors screaming…an aircraft
in its death sieve. I Dropped flat to the ground. It is amazing how close you think you are to the ground, as if you are being
pulled down tight, pressed into the grass. This aircraft hit a few fields away and exploded.”
“All of this happened at approximately 2 a.m. on the 28th of May, 1944. After the explosion I found I couldn’t walk but moved with
a painful shuffle. I moved away from the area slowly. At wire fences I would put my body through and then with my hands pull my legs through.
I moved along in this manner until the dawn started to glow. Then I made my way into the centre of a wheat field where I lay down
and fell into a deep sleep. I awoke at noon hour with the sun shining down at me. I made my way out of the field and crawled under
a tree. I took off my electric suit and found I had suffered some spinal chord damage and had torn open my left leg and buttocks.
The leg was swollen twice its normal size and black and blue. I also had torn muscles and ligaments. I crawled to a farm house
where the farmer was kind but reluctant to hide me. He gave me water and milk to drink. We were advised in England never
to impose upon these people. I they showed willingness, fine. If not, leave. If we were caught with them they would suffer
“My legs were starting to stiffen up and the pain was increasing. I made my way to another field where I lay down and rolled and rolled
in agony. I was this way well into the afternoon. Finally I felt that I must get some assistance. On my knees I made my way
back to the farm house and indicated I would like police assistance. While waiting, a Belgian doctor gsve
me an injection of some sort but it had no effect. I gave the farm woman all of my escape money and shortly two Luftwaffe
NCO’s came in an automobile. I was placed in the back seat with one NCO and because I could not bend my legs I had
to lay across his body.”
“I was driven to our target the previous night. There was one room left standing where I was deposited on a bed. Despite all
of the killing we had done I was not mistreated. I was given a bowl of greasy stew which i could not down. Later, I was visited
by a German medical officer All he did was rant and rave at me in German. Although I Felt he was going to strike me, he did not.
Three days later I was taken outside and placed in the back of a truck with four caskets. A German NCO pointed to one and
said “Komerad Irwin. This was our navigator Bob Irwin. I gave a negative response. He then pointed to the casket on my right
and said “Kamerad Wakely”. This was the coffin of Wilf Wakely. Again I gave a negative response . I was not questioned about the
third caskrt. This one must have been George. The fourth was empty as I had moved it with my foot. At that time I did not know George
was dead. It wasn’t until I returned to England after the war was over that I got word from RCAF records that George had been
killed. This left me stunned as Hank (George) and I were real close friends.”
Note: Victor Poppa’s account closed the file on the last flight of HX 313. He was the last person to get out of the aircraft. All had
been able to get out one way or another, except for George Freeman. Two who got out were killed when they hit the ground.
The rest survived. George was likely killed when the JU 88 strafed the plane. One of the crew remembers George’s legs hanging down
as he worked his way past the upper turret to reach the escape hatch. The nagging thought that George was remained alive because
gunners were often trapped in their turrets like Victor Poppa. HX 313 exploded on impact near an abandoned railway station. Eric Mallett
and Ken Sweatman were escorted past a pile of melted metal that had once been The Blonde Bomber. They could not stop to look
closely for their escorts were members of the Belgian Underground and it was imperative that they hide Ken and Eric as
quickly as possible. Victor Poppa, George Elliott and Morris Muir became POW’s.
Victor’s adventures as a POW Had similarities to Steve MacQueen in the The Great Escape…only life was a hell of a lot less
fun. Worse for the Russian POW in he adjoining camp where abuse was more prevalent. Victor had a choice when the war
ended. Either to walk out of the Stalag or stay put until Russian troops took over. The German guards just disappeared one
night leaving the gate open when the sun came up. Victor and a friend decided to take their chances and start the long and potentially dangerous
trek through the Russian sector in hope he could reach the American sector. He had he good fortune of hooking up with nine
French girls hiking their way back home from a German labour camp.
Victor had been on a long march from a POW camp in Poland to another in Germany. On that trek he became aware of the
hatred the German civilian population had toward air force prisoners. The bombing of Bourg Leopold killed many but the
constant bombing of German cities killed a whole lot more. Mobs tried to attack air force prisoners. “While in Kohn train station we were
threatened by a large mob. Our guards, however, kept order and we were not molested.” So he knew the risks when he walked
out of his Stalag and headed south to American lines. In one instance, at dusk, Victor and his French girls entered a German house
which they thought had been abandoned. Instead they met a German officer who was already in bed but with a Luger under his sheet
aimed right at them. They left without incident. Fear was spreading through the German civilian population in what was to become
East Germany. German officers and soldiers feared for their lives.
REMEMBERING GEORGE (HANK) FREEMAN
This story began as an attempt to find out what happened to George Freeman on that horrific May 27/28 evening.
“At times Hank and I went on leave together where we had undisciplined fun. Hank had a real way of charming the girls in the mess
as well as on our trips away from he base.” As Day approached the crew of HX 313 were working together like a well
oiled machine. A human machine. “On one mission it was Hank’s birthday and we arranged for Ken to say ‘Happy Birthday Hank’ instead
of ’Bombs away’. QB B HX 313 was shot down on its fourth mission. The crew had flown more than double that number. Eight missions
for some. For others, many more missions. The death rate was high. They knew that.
Both planes and men had short lives in #6 Bomber Group. The results of the steady bombing was a devastated Germany.
Ciies turned into rubble. Factories flattened. Many many thousands of people maimed and killed. As allied land troops fanned
out across Germany this devastation became an embarrassment to many. As a result the Bomber Groups were never given
full recognition for their service and some felt neglected. Side lined. Overlooked.
The story was assembled back in1984 and now updated in 2019. Much has happened and continues to happen.
Discoveries. Take the war graves for instance. One of my colleagues, John Maize, was working in Holland in 1984
and I asked him to see if he could find the grave of George Freeman. He found George and Wilf and Bob all
buried side by side in a military grave in Belgium. What day do you think he visited the grave site?
…John Maize arrived there on May 27, 1984…exactly 40 years to the day after the Bourg Leopold attack.
And on that same day, May 27, 1984, Victor Poppa, Eric Mallett and Ken Sweatman sent the letters that made this
GEORGE FREEMAN’S LAST TWO LETTERS: THEY WERE NEVER MAILED
When George Freeman’s personal things were returned aunt Kitty and Uncle Chris, there were two letters
that George had written but never mailed. They reveal much so have been included. George was a young man…barely
past the teen age part of his life as will be apparent. Thoughts of death are not a big part of the letters but those
thoughts can be found between the lines.
“Arrmed Forces Air Letter
Flight Sergeant Freeman, G.F.,
MAY – 1944 (/)
MRS. C.W. FREEMAN,
C/O Scanons Store,
1439 Kingston Road,
Toronto 13, Ont.
Dearest Mom and Dad,
Well dearest, here I am again. Have received a letter from you and another from Mickey (sister). It sure is swell to hear from you.
We have been pretty busy of late and I’m pretty tired and would like to see the end of the war. Maybe it’ll end soon. I’m
flying as a spare gunner and also as a regular member of the crew, it’s a bit risky flying every time but at least it keeps me from
being browned off. Auntie Jean and everybody down that way are fine and send their love to you and dad. I’m sorry dad can’t get the help
he needs the golf course. (Chris was head greenskeeper at the Hunt Club Golf Course in Scarborough where George spent
his teen age years caddying.) I don’t think I told you about the visit I paid on my last leave to one of the girls parents house.
The girl works in our mess and is a good girl. In fact, mom, she is a Cockney so you have an idea that what she is like.
Her parents made me very welcome and I had two eggs there. Eggs area blessing when you can get them. (This ‘good girl’
and George were planning marriage but her name has been lost). Frankly, mom, I like Cockneys the best of anybody
in the south of England. They don’t beat around the bush if they are going to tell you something. Gosh! I almost forgot you
should receive a Victory Bond pretty soon. I’ve paid for it so do what you want with it. Seems like there isn’t much more
to say Mom, outside of I’m fine and hope you and everybody are the same. I’ll close for now with love to all and all my love
to you and Dad and may God
be with you.
All my Love,
Note: This letter had been ‘opened by the examiner’ on April 6, 1944.
All personal letters were censored in case crucial information would
compromise the war effort.
SECOND LETTER TO ‘DOT’, A GIRLFRIEND BACK HOME IN CANADA
This is just a couple of paragraphs to let you know I’m still kicking and that Jerry hasn’t had much success in getting rid of me. How
goes the battle with you and are you still working as hard as ever? First, I want to thank you for the swell Valentine. It was super.
How did you ever dig it up? I’m sorry I couldn’t return the favour and send you one. Guess you’ll have to settle for a
Christmas card when Christmas rolls around again. Will you thank Beryll for her card and tell her as soon as I can find the
address I will write her too. Kind of me don’t you think? Thank her for the pics as well.
Things are pretty much the same as ever over here. Nothing good to eat and lots of beer. I’m still as teetotaler. The dances
are corny…always will be. This mountain music they dish out here is worse than Columbus Hall stuff. Guess I sound pretty
browned off (fed up) with things. Well I’m not too badly put out. It’s just the monotony of things. One good thing is ‘leave’
which comes up pretty regularly. We do get a bit of a change in scenery, faces, etc. I saw Sam Manhood on one leave.
He looks pretty fed up with everything not to mention that he has aged about 4 years. Say, I wonder if I have aged too?
The next thing on my list of jazz to talk about is flying. That too is very monotonous. I have put in a few trips over Germany
and haven’t had too much trouble with Jerry although he does try to give us a scare once in awhile. The last trip over the
skipper was in an excited mood at having seen his first real live fighter…F.W. 190. So he “dood it in his pants’ if you know
what I mean. If I ever did that I’d ask for my discharge so help me. The agony of it was that he had to sit that way for
six hours. On the whole it’s not to bad over there if you keep your eyes open. Maybe I’ll live through it. Who knows?
Let’s skip that and talk about you. That picture we had taken sure was terrific. I had some time explaining to the boys
that it was purely a platonic friendship we had for each other. How goes you and the Masonic Temple. Still up there regular?
Are Beryll and Freddie still on just friendly terms or has Freddie put on the old charm and made her fall for him?
Well, Dot, there doesn’t seem to be much more to say outside of it’s closing time. So give my love, etc. to the gang
and write soon. Love to Berryl.
xxxx love xxx
xxx George xxx
CONCLUSION: SO MUCH HAS NOT BEEN EXPLAINED
There is so much that needs saying about HX 313, especially the larger picture of the RCAF and 424 Squadron. To
do so , however, needs a lot of space and a lot of time. Even a discussion of the gunners and their guns needs
to be explained. Why were the guns of limited use? Why did many gunners see their role as spotters more
than gunners? Why, also, were the guns useless when the pilot of HX 313 took evasive action? Who was
bomber Harris? Why did the streets of Hamburg start to burn after the bomber raids? How many German
civilians were killed and maimed by Bomber Command? Were phosphorus bombs inhumane? How many young
Canadian airmen died? How were the thousand bomber air raids organized? What did air crews do on leave?
Fortunately I have Victor Poppa’s diary. If time allows I will transcribe it in the next few emails. I should
warn you however, that it includes sexual exploits. Readers who find sex distasteful have now been forewarned.
Oct. 10, 2019