Best Seat In The House
by Bob "Tex" Schalit
You might expect that after 50 years of storage in the dark recess of unused memory that the clarity of the senses and the intensity of emotions would have somewhat faded. Not at all. As I brush away the dust and cobwebs I can clearly see and am deeply moved with emotion by the magnitude of the responsibility, the excitement and the anticipation experienced during the two most monumental days of my life.
I was First Lieutenant Robert Schalit. "Tex" to my associates. I had transferred from the Royal Air Force to the U.S. Army Air Force in November 1943 but was left attached to my British Squadron. The uncanny skill of my long time friend, Navigator Pilot Officer Raymond Town, Royal Australian Air Force and his remarkable ability to direct our flights to obscure targets under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances, and the way we had proven to function as a dependable team, was reason for us to be selected to lead the British Airborne Forces to their destination and spearheading the invasion of the Continent on "D" Day.
Our responsibility this exciting day of June 5, 1944 was to carry ten Rangers, their cargo of small arms and a new radio-homing device called "Rebecca" to the precise spot that the Airborne troops would expect to arrive at hours later. This new device was to make it easier for the regular Airborne Pathfinders to arrive at their proper destinations. Scheduled for departure at "H" minus five hours ("H" - the code for initial movement of all invasion units), our aircraft, the British twin-engined Albemarle, very similar to the American B-25 in performance and appearance, was serviced and taxied to a position in proximity of the departure end of the runway.
Eleven other aircraft from our squadron were parked at random in the same area. All crews and Rangers gathered on the Tarmac to be led in a brief service by our Chaplain and then returned to our aircraft each waiting to start on its vital mission. The sun had set but the brilliant twilight outlined in stark relief the silhouettes of the heavily equipped Airborne Rangers. The glow of cigarettes and the quiet conversation of young men facing imminent, unknown danger actually charged the atmosphere with tension. There was no evidence of fear among them, only a nervous eagerness to begin the job for which they had been so long and so well trained.
Out of the gathering darkness, all were startled at the silent arrival of a long limousine and more than a little surprised when it stopped in front our aircraft - and the unmistakable figure of Winston Churchill left the vehicle and walked towards us. You could actually feel the strength of purpose and determination that made him one of the greatest men of our time. He had obviously been well briefed because he addressed us as "Tex" and "Ray" and simply said, "We have a great night for it." He then greeted the Rangers each by his first name, then returning to us, he placed his hands on my shoulder and said, "Tex, we all wish you well, and God's speed." He then went on to visit the other crews and their precious passengers and I knew he left them, like us, deeply moved, inspired and keenly aware of the importance of the mission on which we were about to embark.
Shortly after the. Prime Minister's departure it was time for us to get the show on the road. Our Rangers were boarded and we were on our way. On our way to set the stage for the invasion of Hitler's fortress. Our trip through the black night was uneventful. Since we were first on the scene following our extremely low level flight across the Channel the Germans were not prepared for us. We were able to deposit our Rangers on target unaffected by the flak that greeted those that followed. A few burst from a flak barge as we crossed the coast were not close enough to cause concern.
On our return home to R.A.F. Station Harwell, a beautiful prewar facility just south of Oxford, we found a beehive of activity. The invasion had begun. The Allies had put into motion the most formidable military force ever assembled, committed to the destruction of the Nazi War Machine. "D" Day - Deliverance Day - had arrived. The whole station and, I expect, the whole world awaited anxiously for encouraging news.
After a thorough debriefing, Ray and I were served our welcome ration of one egg and two strips of bacon, the usual reward for a completed mission. Following our treat, we made our way to the Flight Control area where we could monitor the return of our buddies. I am pleased to report that each of the other 11 aircraft in our squadron returned safely. Some a little beat up but miraculously no injuries: and as a tribute to the intensive training we had for this job, each crew was successful in its mission.
By now 8:00 am June 6th, we felt it prudent to get some sleep since we were scheduled for a second "D" Day mission later in the day. An important part of the invasion plan was to put as much firepower as possible behind any lines of resistance that existed above the beaches. To accomplish this, airborne troops were utilized in great numbers. Some were paratroopers and others glider troopers. It was, we felt, our good fortune to be able to return to the beachhead to deliver a glider loaded with eager soldiers and a couple of light artillery pieces. We would return to the same area we had visited the previous night just a few hours before. Our Horsa Glider had all of the grace and beauty of a railroad tank car with wings and did not glide much better. It did though have a great useful load capacity - up to 30 armed and equipped troops or the equivalent weight in munitions and supplies. Its glide ratio was not much better than a brick so it was important that they be towed close to appointed landing sites. Our mission was to tow our glider to a site just south of the city of Caen and a few miles beyond the invasions beaches. We would release them to land and do battle while we returned to the comfort and safety of the British Midlands.
Throughout the day the reports reaching us from the battle zone were varied. Rough seas and bouts of severe sea sickness, combined with the stiff resistance of stubborn, dedicated German Forces made for much anxiety concerning the possible success of this operation; and at the time of 9:00 pm departure there was still great uncertainty regarding our ability to maintain control of the narrow strip of France that surprise, tremendous firepower, and the courage and determination of our dedicated young men had literally torn from the enemy at a staggering cost in lives.
Our flight south to the Channel was uneventful except for the growing amazement at the endless stream and multiple layers of aircraft. Aircraft for every purpose: fighters, heavy bombers, fighter bombers, reconnaissance, troop carriers, every type and size and in numbers never assembled in like quantities before, or since
You had the impression one could literally walk from one to the other as they flew to their targets or back to base for more fuel and armament. Our squadron was flying in loose formation at about 4,000 feet and shortly after leaving England's south shore, we encountered a brief Session of rough air followed almost immediately by an urgent call from the pilot of our glider.
The turbulence had caused his cargo to shift and he was not certain that he would be able to maintain control and continue. I immediately sent Ray to the rear of the aircraft where he was able to see our charge. He reported that the glider seemed to have one wing low and was trailing at a measurable angle from center. By now I was very aware of the effect the change in the glider's attitude had on the flying characteristics of our aircraft. It soon became apparent that we could only continue at the sacrifice of speed and altitude. We had no trouble convincing our glider pilot that we should continue and have some chance for success and avoid the unpleasant option, to release and ditch. That could be done when we were out of altitude and had no option. It was a challenge to our experience to keep this clumsy vehicle in tow. Continue we did, slowly losing altitude and falling further and further behind our squadrons. The longest 30 minutes of my life brought us with little altitude left to the line of nets held aloft by barrage balloons to protect the Navy from low level attack. In spite of the thick pall of smoke, a result of the continuous barrage pouring from the heavy guns mounted on our ships strung along the coast. The inspiring sight of the greatest Armada ever assembled will never by forgotten. We were able to dodge the balloons and found ourselves at a few hundred feet, looking in awe at the invasion in progress We were looking from the best seat in the house at the "Activity that changed the World."
As we flew across the same beach we had visited in the dark of night but a few hours earlier, it was almost impossible to comprehend that the sights ahead and below were real. We were stunned at the partially sunk and destroyed landing craft; stunned at the number of dead bodies - some still in the water and many between the waters edge and the top of the high ground a few hundred yards inland.
It was hard to believe that this devastation had been part of a successful effort. A few moments later and four or five miles inland we realized what remarkable progress had really been made
Since we no longer had enough altitude to allow our glider pilot to actually reach his destination on his own it became necessary for us to tow him to within yards of his point of landing. He thanked us for our effort and released a mere hundred feet above his landing zone. We never learned of his fate. We were subject to a few anxious minutes over the Drop Zone since at our low altitude we were vulnerable to the danger of the tow ropes being released from other units far above us. Needless to say, we ran the gauntlet successfully.
Freed of our charge, we opted to remain low as we returned across the battle area. We were able to see the expression on faces of both German and Allied Infantry as we streaked across the hotly contested countryside for the comparative safety that the Channel would offer. Dealing with our crippled glider made us about 20 minutes late in returning home. We will never forget the sincere warm welcome from our 'mates' who were concerned that we "had bought the farm,"
Two days following this, my last mission with the Royal Air Force, I transferred to a squadron of the U.S. Army Air Force and was paid the greatest tribute I could ever imagine. I was allowed to take Ray Town with me to continue to operate as a team. It was unprecedented and bore testimony that the military recognized our value. We continued to share our fate and adventure - good and had - till the end of hostilities.
Some of these adventures may be worth telling about - but it seemed important to me on the 50th Anniversary of the occasion, that you share with me, my experience on "D" Day.
There are a couple of interviews of Bob on youtube!
Update: here is a link to Ray Town's story , in his words.