Wednesday 10 June 2015

Captain Evans, Monty and the Flying Fortress - Part Two

Richard Evans (left) and some of his crew with Monty (Bobbie Kinnear)

Having duly met King George VI and having found him to be, as Monty had predicted "A very nice chap", the time soon came for Captain Evans and his crew to start the work for which they had been selected.

This was on a flight from Tripoli to Cairo and as well as Montgomery, the B-17 carried a full party of VIPs, amongst them General Henry Maitland Wilson, known as ‘Jumbo’ due to his large size as well as the ever present ‘Freddie’ de Guingand. The atmosphere was relaxed as the crew of the bomber gave their British guests an impromptu tour of the aircraft, even allowing the British Generals the opportunity to squeeze into some of the gun positions. Whilst all this was going on, Monty was settled into his small office area that had been set up in the converted bomb bay and carried on with his paperwork. Monty seemed – and was – an austere type but ‘Freddie’ had earlier spoken to Captain Evans and reassured him that Monty’s “disinclination to smile” as he put it, was nothing to worry about and that Monty could be “a most pleasant fellow” in the right circumstances.

Gen. Sir Henry 'Jumbo' Wilson (IWM)
During the course of the flight, Evans noticed that the oil pressure indicator on the B-17’s number 3 engine was showing a very slight drop in pressure. There was nothing particularly untoward in this; the desert environment was extremely tough on aircraft engines with sand constantly being ingested into the cylinders and gradually wearing the pistons, thus allowing oil to leak slowly into the space and escape into the airstream. Although this was a slow process at first, for an older aircraft like Theresa Leta unless the engines were replaced at regular intervals, these leaks would steadily get worse.

Even so, it was nothing to worry about, the B-17 could quite easily fly on three engines if required and as a precaution Evans decided to shut down or ‘feather’ no. 3 engine to save wear and tear and then re-start it on approach to Cairo so as to have full power available for landing. Whilst this was a slightly unusual procedure, for an experienced pilot like Richard Evans it was not an issue to cause concern. Even so, when Lieut. Johnson, the co-pilot enquired whether he should inform the passengers of the developments, Evans wisely decided against it, so as not to cause them undue alarm. Despite the wisdom of this decision, it was one which was to have repercussions for Evans – and for Monty. Leaving Theresa Leta on autopilot, Evans decided to go back and speak to his passengers and passing Monty in his office, he casually invited him up to the flight deck, having completely forgotten that his bomber was flying on three engines!

Lieut. Johnson was despatched to stretch his legs and to free up the co-pilot’s seat for Monty, who settled in gingerly. Evans felt that he was making real progress with his British master, who for the first time began to relax and speak with some freedom. It was clear that he was enjoying the flight as he spoke to Evans about his time in the British Army and his exploits against Rommel.

During this conversation, the British General suddenly noticed something and rasped in a very un-Monty like voice “It’s stopped, it’s stopped! The engine’s stopped – it’s not running!” Evans had been so engrossed in his conversation with Monty that he had completely forgotten that he had feathered the engine and now Monty had embarrassed himself in front of an American officer. Captain Evans tried his hardest to reassure Monty that there was no cause for alarm and even tried a little humour in telling the great man that Boeing had deliberately given the B-17 an excess of power just so that one engine could be switched off so as to rest it!

It was all to no avail and Monty stormed from the flight deck, clearly upset and embarrassed that his legendary calm demeanour should have cracked in front of an American officer and a fairly junior one at that. Evans cursed his forgetfulness and vowed never to let this happen again.

General George S Patton Jnr (US Army)

As well as incurring Monty’s displeasure, Evans also managed to upset the volatile American General George S Patton. This incident came when he was flying Monty and a B-17 full of distinguished British VIPs to Palermo for a conference with Patton regarding the ongoing campaign in Sicily. Apart from Montgomery himself, the passengers once again included ‘Freddie’ de Guingand and General ‘Jumbo’ Wilson, Eisenhower’s Deputy Commander.

Prior to the flight, General Patton had advised Monty that the airfield at Palermo “was satisfactory for all types of aircraft”, information that had been passed on to Evans. However, upon arrival over the airfield, it quickly became clear that Patton's aviation knowledge did not match his expertise in tank warfare. The runway looked alarmingly short for a large aircraft such as the B-17 and Evans growing apprehension could not have been helped by his then witnessing a C-47 transport aircraft, better known to the British as a Dakota and a much smaller aircraft than the B-17, run the full length of the runway before crashing in flames into the trees at one end of the airfield.

Perhaps fortunately for his passengers, they remained blissfully ignorant of affairs on the ground whilst Evans circled the field trying to assess the situation. The only positive that could be drawn was that the smoke billowing from the crashed C-47 provided an excellent indication of the wind speed and direction!

The question now for Evans was whether to attempt a landing and risk quite possible disaster, or to incur the possible displeasure of Montgomery and the certain wrath of Patton by aborting the whole operation as unsafe and returning to Gela. To add to the pressure on Captain Evans, he could already see General Patton on the ground, his polished steel helmet glistening in the Sicilian sunlight, impatiently awaiting the arrival of his British counterpart, for whom he was already developing an implacable loathing, something that would grow into an obsession by the time of the Normandy campaign a year or so later.

Against his better judgement, Evans decided to attempt a landing, confident in his own ability as a pilot to pull off a diagonal landing across the field, thus maximising the available limited space. Touching down into the brisk headwind all seemed well at first but an initial touch of the brakes revealed that the brakes on Theresa Leta had failed and that an already perilous landing on a short field was now being turned into something altogether more hazardous.

Thinking quickly, Evans decided to try to ‘ground loop’ the big bomber in an attempt to avoid meeting the same fate as the C-47 that he had seen crash earlier and indeed to avoid ploughing into it’s wreckage. This was achieved by using the engine throttles on the port wing of the aircraft to make a fast, powered turn to effectively reverse course on the ground.

Through superb skill and a little luck, Evans managed to turn a potential disaster into a very rough landing, almost a controlled crash and taxied the B-17 up to about fifty feet from where General Patton was waiting to greet his British guests. No sound could be heard from the on-board VIPs and certainly no sound was coming from General Montgomery’s makeshift office created in the bomb bay of the B-17. Outside the bomber, it quickly became clear from General Patton’s expression that he was not impressed!

Patton in fact, had a face like thunder. Notwithstanding his intense dislike of Monty and all things British, even he considered that it was bad form for an American officer and a mere Captain at that, to go endangering the life of a British general!

Patton’s ‘greeting’ to Captain Evans was brief, to the point and typical of the man – “What kind of a landing do you call that?” he asked. Evans managed to stay surprisingly calm and replied that he had executed a deliberate ground loop to avoid crashing into the burning C-47. He also added that on reflection, he should not have attempted a landing and should have returned to Gela. Captain Evans repeated his apology directly to Monty but it was quickly apparent from the British General’s expression that he too was not best pleased with his American pilot. As for Patton, his face was now crimson and for a brief moment, Captain Evans felt that the apoplectic General might actually physically strike him.

However, without any further words spoken, both of the senior officers along with their entourages piled quickly into their transport and headed for their conferences. On their next meeting, after the conference, Monty gave Evans a “slight smile” as he probably realised that the American had in fact, saved his life.

Some books, notably ‘Patton, A Genius for War’ state that the B-17 was destroyed in this incident. This was not true and after some repairs, the bomber was quickly made airworthy once more.

Despite these early setbacks in their relationship, Monty soon became genuinely attached to ‘his’ crew, holding a sincere concern for their well being and mentioned this in a letter written later that summer, which was transcribed in full in Part One of this article, the original of which is now a proud possession of Richard Evans’ daughter, Bobbie Kinnear.   

"The crew of my Fortress are a fine body of officers and men and their comfort and well being is one of my first considerations. It is a very great honour for a British general to be flown about by an American crew in an American aircraft and I am very conscious of this fact."

The relationship between Monty and Evan’s and his crew quickly became one of mutual respect and friendship and another proud possession of Bobbie Kinnear today is a photograph that Richard Evans subtitled ‘Friends at last’ which shows a smiling Monty along with Captain Evans standing in front of the Theresa Leta.

Friends at Last - Monty & Captain Evans (Bobbie Kinnear)

Richard Evans continued to fly on combat missions out of Sicily, whilst still being on call to Montgomery and actually flew Monty back to the UK for the British General to begin work on planning the invasion of Europe.It was at this time that Monty requested that Evans should stay on as his personal pilot for the Normandy campaign and beyond. Evans declined as he wished to return to full time combat duties and although Monty was disappointed, he greatly respected this decision and wrote Captain Evans a generous and sincere letter of thanks, which must surely have been a useful item to have had in one’s Army Air Force Curriculum Vitae!

The letter is reproduced below and is written in the typical no nonsense style beloved of Monty but is obviously sincere as well as being to the point:

"On the occasion of the departure of you and your crew I would like to thank you all, each one of you, for the good work you have done whilst with me.

It has been a great pleasure to have had you serving with me, and with the Eighth Army.

Good-bye and the best of luck to you all, always."

Evans and his crew may have departed but true to his word, General Eisenhower provided Montgomery with an aircraft and crew right through to the end of the war in Europe, although given the way Monty later strained their relationship, there must have been times when Ike was sorely tempted to abandon the arrangement and make his British subordinate walk!

Monty's 'thank you' letter to Richard Evans and his crew (Bobbie Kinnear)

Richard Evans and his crew returned to combat duties, flying out of Italy on raids to Venice, Rome, Pisa, Austria and targets in Southern Germany before completing fifty missions in 1944 and returning home to the USA. He then trained to fly the B-29 Superfortress for combat missions in the Pacific and actually flew three raids on Japan out of Tinian before being ordered to return to the USA in order to bring another wing of B-29s out to Tinian. The war ended before he could achieve this and instead he was ordered to fly a B-29 to Delhi and then return to Okinawa.

Evans left the USAAF in 1946 to become a financial planner in Pasadena, although he continued as a reservist. In 1952, he re-entered the Air Force as a Colonel and was made head of operations for the development of the new B-47 bomber at MacDill AFB, Florida. He did all of the flying scenes in the movie ‘Strategic Air Command’, starring James Stewart (himself an Air Corps veteran) and flew B-47s out of Thule, Greenland and bases in England.

Evans left the Air Force in 1959 and became a consultant for Northrop Grumman in the B-1 Bomber competition as well as working as a consultant for Douglas on the C-5A transport aircraft.

Richard Evans died on June 13th 2006 and was buried with full military honours having loyally served his country and the Allied cause as well as achieving much for Anglo-American relations in the process.

I am indebted to Bobbie Kinnear for making her late father’s papers and unpublished memoirs available to me. It is to be hoped that these can be published in the future as the exploits of the unsung heroes of World War Two such as Richard E Evans and his crew deserve to be read by a wider audience.

The Crew of the Theresa Leta:

Captain Richard E Evans
Lieutenant Fred I Johnson (Co-Pilot)
2nd Lieutenant Albert L Beringsmith (Bombardier)
2nd Lieutenant Thomas Carver (Navigator)
Tech. Sergeant Dale Owens (Flight Engineer)
Staff Sergeant Francis (Frank) R Morris (Radio Operator)
Staff Sergeant Victor Kennedy (Waist Gunner)
Tech. Sergeant Lewis (Top Turret)
Staff Sergeant Austin (Ball Turret)
Staff Sergeant Charles (Chuck) W Ward (Tail Gunner)

Published Sources:

The Memoirs of Field Marshal The Viscount Montgomery of Alamein - Collins 1958

Unpublished Sources:

Unpublished Memoirs of Colonel Richard E Evans, USAF

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