restricted access 7. Premonitions of Disaster
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CHAPTER SEVEN PREMONITIONS OF DISASTER Doctors and others might dismiss resorting to charms, rituals, or even entreaties to an omniscient and omnipotent deity , along with belief in jinxes and hoodoos, as a return to the magical thinking of childhood. But for those who experienced them, premonitions were somehow “darker, more mysterious,” involving as they commonly did a sudden and overwhelming sense of imminent catastrophe that proved much more difficult to explain in such terms.1 They came unbidden, sometimes while asleep but often when awake, either to the fliers concerned or to observers—and seemed uncomfortably prescient. The goal of this chapter is to give a sense of the feeling of being marked and to explain how it was that flying personnel suddenly became, in their own minds, clairvoyant. Cases of apparent precognition began to appear among RAF fliers soon after sustained aerial fighting began. Paul Richey, flying Hurricanes with 1 Squadron in May 1940, suddenly became “continually troubled” by something that proclaimed itself as a premonition of disaster prior to being shot down.2 Later that summer, air gunner Mike Henry noted two cases of Blenheim aircrew members of 110 Squadron who seemed to have had an accurate premonition of death in the hours before they took off and failed to return. In the first instance a fellow gunner, normally cheerful and chatty, “didn’t utter a word” on the bus taking crews to their aircraft dispersal points and was subsequently killed in a crash landing . The second case involved a navigator who, after squadron briefing, “persisted in going the rounds telling everybody that he wasn’t coming home that night.” He did indeed not return.3 “I had an uneasy feeling that something was going to happen,” Roger Hall recalled of an evening in late 1940 in which he felt uncharacteristically “unsettled and restless” before taking off on patrol as pilot of a 255 Squadron Defiant.4 Desmond Scott, flying fighters with 3 Squadron in 1941, recalled waking up while premonitions of disaster : 79 on leave from a dream in which a friend was shot down in a burning Hurricane only to later discover that this fellow New Zealander had been killed in a manner consistent with his nightmare.5 The rapid expansion of Bomber Command and its night operations in 1942 brought forth more instances of foreknowledge that were memorable enough to be recalled and recorded decades later. At the end of May that year, Bob Horsley, a wireless operator/air gunner in a crew flying with 50 Squadron, “had the strongest premonition that we would be shot down.” That night the Manchester he was flying in was hit so badly by antiaircraft fire over Cologne that the crew were forced to bail out before it crashed.6 Three months later George Moreton, a Wellington navigator, after being briefed for a raid on Bremen, found that while changing into his flying clothing “I had the odd experience of knowing I was not coming back.” His aircraft was hit by flak and forced to crash-land in enemy territory. Like Horsley, Moreton had taken solace from the belief—later borne out by events—that while his bomber would not survive the operation , he would escape serious injury.7 Not so Lancaster rear gunner Roy Gadsen, who told his crew, before a raid on Osnabrück in early October 1942, that he was not going to last the night. Their aircraft was brought down by a fighter, and while the other six crew members successfully bailed out, Gadsen was killed in the attack.8 It was not just the men of Bomber Command who were experiencing unsettling thoughts about the immediate future by the middle of the war. In the Fleet Air Arm, fighter pilot Hank Adlam told himself just before takeoff from a carrier deck: “This flight is going to be your last.”9 The fliers of RAF Fighter Command also continued to be subject to occasional deathly premonitions. Spitfire pilot Bill Norris became “firmly convinced that he would be making his final flight the next day”—and so it came to be.10 American fliers also began experiencing premonitions after the USAAF commenced operations over the Continent. One morning in the first week of January 1943, Bert W. Humphreys, a B-17 pilot with the 91st Bomb Group, recorded in his diary how, after having “spent a very restless night” full of “wild dreams and nightmares,” he awoke “with [a] premonition that disaster...


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