Shot Down Over Germany

Lewis Cockerill, now 93 years of age, gave a gripping account of his experiences in World War II.

On June 5, 1944, Lewis arrived in Glasgow on board the Queen Elizabeth, which had been converted from a luxury liner to a troop transport ship.

After some additional training, he flew his first mission as a waist gunner on June 28, 1944. The next day, problems with their B-24 bomber caused his crew to switch to another B-24 which had just been repaired. Like many Army Air Forces aircraft in the war, this B-24 had been decorated with nose art and a name:  Able Mabel.

After the bomber crossed the English Channel, the inboard right-side engine seized up. The pilot could have chosen to return to England, but decided instead to proceed on to Germany. During the start of the bombing run, anti-aircraft fire took out the second right-side engine. With both right-side engines out of commission, the aircraft was not capable of maintaining altitude. The crew threw overboard everything that was not bolted down, but the plane continued to descend. At 4500 feet, the pilot ordered everyone to bail out.

The navigator had been having problems with the aircraft’s two compasses, whose readings differed by 20 degrees. When the order to bail out was given, the navigator thought they were over Belgium or the Netherlands, but they were in fact over the part of Germany that lies between the Netherlands and Denmark.

All ten crew members survived the bailout with nothing worse than a sprained ankle, but they were immediately captured by German soldiers. Lewis was sent to Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow, Pomerania. Stalag Luft means “prisoner of war camp operated by the German air force”, and most of the prisoners were allied air force crews. Pomerania was originally a Polish province, taken over by the German Empire prior to World War I, returned to Poland after that war, and then taken over by Germany again in World War II. 

The POWs in Germany suffered appalling conditions. They were denied adequate food, clothing, heating, sanitation, medical care, and other basic rights supposedly guaranteed under the Geneva Convention. Stalag Luft IV held more than 8,000 men in 40 barrack huts of 200 men each. Some of the huts didn’t even have bunk beds in them, and the men slept on the floor.

On February 6, 1945, the POWs set out on a march that was called by some the “Black March” and by others the “Death March”. For almost three months, the POWs were forced to march under guard up to 20 miles per day with very little food, zig-zagging to avoid the approaching Soviet Red Army. Prisoners suffered from dysentery and diarrhea. The men slept in a barn or just on the ground in the rain and snow. The winter of 1944/1945 was one of the worst on record, with temperatures dropping well below freezing. Prisoners who could not keep up the pace were shot. Those who survived lost one-third of their body weight.

On May 2, 1945, British soldiers liberated the prisoners at the River Elbe near Lauenberg. Their problems were still not over, however, because the only assistance the prisoners received consisted of instructions to march another 40 miles to the west to a British army camp. Lewis and some of his fellow prisoners were able to scrounge rides in various abandoned vehicles, including a German tank. When they finally arrived at the British camp, they were welcomed with a cold shower and a barber to cut off their matted and lice-infested hair.

When Lewis was captured, he was carrying a pocket edition of the bible. A German soldier took it from him, but Lewis’s fellow crew member, Bruce, told the German to give it back, and he did. Lewis had that bible with him during his presentation to our club today. 

© Rotary club of fuquay-varina 2017