Ted Hedges was a flight engineer on B-17 with 220 Sqn, RAF Coastal Command during the latter part of WWII. In October 1943 he was in one of the first allied crews to arrive at Lagens field, Azores, were he got involved in the closing the “Atlantic Gap” patrolling the sea, escorting ship convoys and ultimately searching for German submarines.
On June 22, 2011, he returned to Lagens in a visit sponsored by Heroes Return, a program supported by the United Kingdom’s Big Lottery Fund. In this case he also had the local cooperation of the Portuguese and American air- forces, the Lagens “resident’s” since WWII period….
After this visit I was able to send him questions trough e-mail…
Land in Portugal: Why did you wanted to return to the Azores?
Ted Hedges: At age 19, I was the Flight Engineer on the third four-engined Boeing Flying Fortress to land on the grass airfield of Lagens.
For the next nine months I met and lived amongst a very poor but happy and kind people. Terceira is a very beautiful island and we found that in the midst of such people and the beauty surrounding us it was possible to do our operational duty despite the stress and strains of our flying.
When the opportunity came to go back to the island it was a wish come true. I would be able to see not only those friendly people but visit all those places which had only been names in 1943.
Land in Portugal: What places did you visited and why?
Ted Hedges: The first place I had to visit was Pria Da Vitoria. A family (now in the USA) welcomed me into their home and were very kind. Pria was a village at that time and we could get really great meals of fried chicken and chips with lovely fresh bread and butter. It was within walking distance of Lagens airfield or we could travel in the two-wheel horse-drawn carts for 5 Eskudos each. (In 1943 we got 100 eskudoes for £1.00). We had no organised transport so other than 2 or 3 visits to Angra, the remainder of the Island was only seen from the air.
My helper Eva and I stayed at the Angra Garden Hotel, which was very good, and we set out to see as much of the island as possible. We were taken on a complete tour of the island and made visits to the Portuguese command and American command bases.
We were well received everywhere and at the American base I was asked to do a recording (of which I now have a transcript) covering our operational flying by all the Squadrons based at Lagens in the nine months I was there.
We made three visits to the British War Cemetery. We visited all the graves and I laid flowers on my friend’s grave. Eva and I then laid flowers around the Cross from the families of men who had been lost in the seas around the islands.
We spent a morning in the garden of Angra. It is so beautiful there and the pictures we took match one I have from 1943 of some of the ground crew who serviced my Fortress aircraft, taken when sitting around the fountain.
Land in Portugal: There must have been some mixed feelings during your visit?
Ted Hedges: Feelings? Mixed? Yes. Visiting the graves of the men lying there. Reinforced my view that war is futile, wasteful, and takes the best of every nation that becomes involved. The older I get the greater the wonder and the thoughts of why was I spared. Why them and not me ? What great things might they have done if they had lived?
The cemetery is a place of great sadness, of ‘faces’ and memories which can never be forgotten, of peace and quiet. On my third and final visit I left in tears.
The sadness is bearable because when, in the subsequent time touring the beautiful villages, the coast, historic places, gardens, museums and churches and meeting the people, realising what great progress and developments have taken place since war’s end in1945, the sacrifice made by those men ensured that Terceira has had the time and opportunity to become the lovely place it now is.
Land in Portugal: Was there any particular moment of your RAF years in the Azores that you still remember strongly?
Ted Hedges: This question is most difficult. Robert’s book is full of such ‘special moments’. The first sight of Terceira as we overflew the grass valley which was to become our airfield. Our first loss and the search for the aircraft. The moment when realisation hit home of the speed with which the weather changed to downright dangerous in such a short time. Watching our little single-engined Walrus biplane landing across the width of our runway into a headwind while flying backwards in relation to the runway. There are so many moments.
Land in Portugal: Have you any particular memories related with the Portuguese people?
Ted Hedges: I left Terceira in July 1944 with very great regret. All of the Portuguese people I met were happy, kind and gentle. I was lucky enough to meet two
families. The first was the lady who did my laundry . She had two daughters and the elder was about to get married. Through her I was introduced to a very affluent family in Pria Da Vitoria and was welcomed into their home whenever I had free time from my duties. Of this family the father was, I think, the school master. There were three daughters Maria De Lourdes, Conceseion and Anna Maria. They learned that I was to be married on my next leave and after my future wife sent me a picture of the wedding dress she would like and her measurements, the family had the dress made. When I went home and was married it fitted my bride perfectly.
I have been in contact with this second family and all three girls now live in the USA.
In one of the questions I sent to Ted I wanted to know how was his typical day in the Azores. This was not the first time someone asked him that…
So he asked his friend Robert Stitt (see here) to give him a hand.
Robert – author of the book “B-17 in Coastal Command” (see here) – made Ted a similar question some time ago… and got a very complete and long answer.
Robert was nice enough and decided to send me part of his book – the description of a mission by Ted - and authorized me to use as much as I needed.
I took his word and abused a little but the words of Ted are so valuable. I have cut some parts – you will be able to identify them – in order to shorten it a bit, but the credits of this belong to Robert and of course Ted.
I would like to thank both of them for the cooperation.
Before going to Ted’s words, here is some information.
Two B-17 squadrons – 206 and 220 – arrived in the Azores in October 1943. Each squadron had 18 crews of eight men.
The crews were inserted in the operation board by the name of it’s captain – usually the pilot – in a rotation system. So when you arrived in the top of the board you knew the next mission was yours.
When the flight before yours takes off you are already with your crew, because if there is a call for assistance you would be the first in line.
This said, here is the description from Ted Hedges of a typical mission. He would stay up about two hours before the mission to shave, eat and get instructions. Then they go…
We learn that our mission is to provide cover for a convoy of 100 ships sailing from Canada to the United Kingdom. (…)
Our captain, Brian Reuter, checks in with all the crew and then taxis to the active runway. As flight engineer I stand entirely unsecured between the pilots with my arms looped around the shaped armour sheet fitted to their seats. My destination in the case of accident is 200 yards straight ahead through the windshield. (…)
We weigh 56,000 pounds… we are 6,000 pounds overweight… and have four engines of just over 1,000hp each for a total of 4,100 hp. Of our 26 tons, a little over ten tons is our full load of fuel and about five tons is weapons and explosives. As we occupy our take-off positions we know that if an engine fails we are likely dead… so until we all hear the reassuring ‘clunk’ of wheels locking in their housings, we each ponder the possibilities.
(…)We have no set height on patrol or transit but never fly at more than 3,000ft. Our parachute bags remain stacked against the rear wall of radio cabin on the port side and we never bother putting on our parachute harnesses. There is no ’chute servicing facility at Lagens and if we are ever called on to use these things we doubt they will open. For months, until the Nissen huts are built, our flight equipment bags sit on the bare earth in our tents.
From now on the navigator will not cease his calculations until just before we land. The two pilots remain in their seats all the way while the remaining crewmembers, including the flight engineer, change positions every hour. (…)
In the event of an anti-submarine action or an emergency, the senior WOP/AG takes over the radio as soon as is practical while the flight engineer does whatever is called for by the captain and the gun positions are manned appropriate to the situation… the top turret gunner is designated the ‘fire controller’ in the event the aircraft is attacked by enemy aircraft.
We took off at 05:00 and it is still dark, (…)
Remember, we are heading out into the middle of the Atlantic. We have no satellites or the super electronics of today. Our navigator has only his drawing instruments, a sextant, magnetic and gyro compasses, a very accurate watch, and his crewmates’ faith that, for perhaps the next 12 to 13 hours, his math and the drawing of lines on a chart will remain accurate.
We expect to meet the convoy at 09:00 which, at an indicated air speed of 150 knots, is something like 600 nautical miles from base. We are instantly alert to any ‘click’ and exchange over the intercom so only essential instructions are given to one another. (…)
Every 15 minutes after take-off, the navigator gives the duty radio operator the aircraft’s position in latitude and longitude for transmission to base. Since base knows our take-off time, the message fixes our last ¼-hour position so our likely position any time in the next 15 minutes can be calculated. (…)
We should be within sighting distance of the convoy but the weather is changing with the clouds down to low-level and rain squalls blotting out much of the sea surface. The navigator and captain briefly discuss that we are where the convoy should be but there is no sign of it. It’s decided to undertake a search so we fly a square pattern with so many minutes for each leg, but with no success. The captain then calls for a radar search which, in theory, should cover a 60 mile pattern… but again, nothing. There is only one more chance and we call on our senior radio operator [WO Joseph E Roch] ‘Rocky’ Boudreault.
(…)He transmits our call sign with an encoded request for an air-to-air homing, feeding bearings back to the pilot as he succeeds in making contact. He can tell we are approaching the holding aircraft as the signal strength increases and we at last make visual contact with the other Fortress, then using the trigger-operated Aldis lamp to communicate in Morse code.
We join the convoy at 09:45, some 4¾ hours after takeoff. Our relief aircraft is due to arrive at 13:00 so for next three hours we fly escort as requested. Our first task is to circle the convoy and count the number of ships to see whether they have had any losses and if there are any stragglers. We then communicate with the convoy commander and are instructed to carry out the type of cover required. We learn that the convoy changed course after we took off to avoid a U-boat concentration and that for more than four hours it has been steaming at over 15 knots some 70 degrees to port of its original course.
We have now been airborne for nearly eight hours and are expecting a relief aircraft to arrive. The weather is still deteriorating and it’s getting very rough in the aircraft. The power of the sea terrifies me. I’ve looked down on a convoy and seen 40,000-ton vessels buried up to their bridge structure by sea water and then seen the whole length of their bilge keels… smaller ships seem to disappear completely. (…)
The radio operator calls the captain to report he has received a signal that our relief aircraft has been recalled to base, as have we. The weather at Lagens is closing in and we may have problems getting down. The convoy commander is told we are departing and will not be replaced...
One’s awareness level is suddenly boosted to a very high level when the pilot and navigator hold a conversation regarding the latter’s inability to accurately determine wind and drift for the last 90 minutes. He has maintained two plots since we left the convoy, one based on his plot of our position when we found the convoy, the second on the position given to us by the convoy’s navigator. The latter should be the more accurate but the lack of a drift estimate applies to both plots and our actual position is now suspect, although both plots suggest that we should to be around 60 nautical miles from base.
The captain orders ‘Rocky’ to have the ASV radar manned, with the operator concentrating on our forward track to hopefully pick up the beacon at Lagens… there is silence as we await his report. It’s been 12 hours since takeoff and our fuel is getting low… what feels like a year goes by before there is the click of a mic switch and the report: “Radar to skipper, beacon ahead, 10 degrees to port.” The operator calls for a slow turn to the left until the beacon’s glow is dead on the centreline of the radar screen.
We know Lagens is 60 miles ahead but we are in solid cloud at 3,000ft and approaching our base with its 3,000-foot mountains on one side of the runway and a 500-foot hill on the other… we have to arrive in line with a runway or it could be very nasty. So we will conduct a BABS approach, a demanding procedure that requires absolute co-operation and trust between the pilot and senior radio operator.
We arrive over Lagens, invisible below us, at our safe height of 4,000ft and enter a circular pattern. ‘Rocky’ begins receiving signals from BABS while Brian flies the aircraft in accordance with a stream of instructions from the radio operator and with reference to a small instrument with two cross needles. Meanwhile the crew take up landing positions while I perform a final security check to ensure there are no loose items to fly around in the event of a rough landing… I then take my position standing between the pilots.
All is now set. ‘Rocky’ has guided the captain directly over the island and at a certain point the cross needles tell him we have over flown over the centreline of the airfield. The co-pilot starts a stopwatch at that instant and we are now fully reliant on the skills of ‘Rocky’ and Brian. They must follow a precise pattern, timed to the second and adjusted constantly to Rocky’s instructions.
A final turn should put us in line with the centre of the runway and we begin our descent at timed intervals. At the captain’s order, it’s “Undercarriage down” as the co-pilot strains for a glimpse of the runway. Next come: “Flaps down” and “Airspeed” and from this point on I constantly call out the airspeed. We pass through 1,000ft and are still in cloud. On through 700ft… 500ft… but still no sight of the airfield. ‘Rocky’ gives a slight heading correction at 400ft and at any second we will have to apply full power to climb to safety.
Then, just off line to the right, we spot the runway lights. With a slight right bank and correction we are lined up, then it’s throttles right back and the airspeed bleeds off. Brian has the control wheel pulled right back and we are just a few feet up. A slight forward and back movement of the wheel and there’s a thump followed by the immense clatter of the planked runway as we roll out and brake to a standstill. Touchdown is at 17:45 hours, 12 hours 45 minutes after we took off, 15 hours 15 minutes after we were woken up.
(…) As we climb into the truck, our captain speaks for us all: “Thanks, ‘Rocky’” No one has anything to add.
Note: This post has undergone changes related to historical aspects after contact was made by the author Robert Stitt on 13 September 2010. I wish to thank him