Flight Lieutenant Furniss

Flight Lieutenant Furniss

Harry Furniss was now overseas, seeing the action he had wanted to be a part of. He documented two pieces of action while serving with 401 Squadron prior to his “personal Waterloo”.

The first was on January 1, 1945.  He recalls “10 Spit 1XBs on runway at Heesch, waiting to take off, when airfield was attacked by 40 plus Bf 109s and Fw190s.  Squadron immediately took off – – what else! … Where was I during all this excitement?  In bed!  Well, actually in my pyjamas and flying boots, dashing in and out of the door of the sleeping hut to get a glimpse of the action and avoid the hail of bullets from the Jerries beating up the airfield and the equally intense ground-level fire of our anti-aircraft defence units trying to drive them off…Acting on some hot radar intelligence later that day, we ambushed German squadrons over Rheine aerodrome as they returned home low on fuel and out of ammo.  We nailed three of them in a wild melee in the circuit, and damaged two others.  What a way to start the New Year!  Altogether 401 contributed nine destroyed to the Wing total of 24 that day.”

Two weeks later, on January 14, “10 Spit 1XBs from Heesch on a fighter sweep attacked Fw 190s taking off from Twente and destroyed 5 with loss of 1 Spit…I was there, but as the junior member of the squadron didn’t fire a shot.  When flying (fighting) in pairs, Number Two’s main job is to fly near Number One and protect his tail while he concentrates on the target.  When he runs out of ammo, it’s your turn.  Which he didn’t.”

Furniss met his “personal Waterloo” on March 1, 1945.  He describes his day.  ” Boy was I out of my class by this time!  Twelve of us in 1XBs from Heesch were on an armed recce, before breakfast.  An hour later I was a POW in Germany.  We were attacked by 40 pluse 109s and 190s and credited with four destroyed, 1 probable, for the loss of two Spit and 1 pilot.  One of the Spits was me – – in YO-Y.  Bill Klersy, our squadron leader, was credited with 2 109s and 1 190 destroyed over Dorsten.  I think I was flying Number Two with Bill that day, but my logbooks were destroyed in a house fire many years ago and now I can’t be sure.  I do remember being quite cheezed off with my Number One at the time.  I did a great job of protecting his tail and it was just bad luck that he couldn’t have returned the favor by protecting my nose, for I was shot down in a head on attack while I was diligently searching the sky to the rear.”

Spitfire in 401 Squadron in which Furniss was shot down

Spitfire in 401 Squadron in which Furniss was shot down

Shot down over German territory, Furniss was able to bail out and landed with only an injury to his ankle.  He eluded capture for a few days, lived on what he could steal in the fields and along the roads and slept in ditches and cellars until picked by Nazis who treated him roughly. Despite his injuries, he was badly kicked by his captors who put him in a prisoner of war train, which, after three weeks brought him to a prisoner of war camp. He got the first treatment for his ankle there.

While he was on the train it was constantly being bombed and strafed by Allied planes making transportation strikes ahead of the advancing Allies. He got his first chance to wash on arrival at the camp and there found clean sheets and bedding that evidently been stolen from the Americans. Doctors taped his ankle with paper tape and he was there only a few days before all the guards left the camp.

The German commandant, a colonel, was able to muster a patrol who went out to find out what was happening in the sector. They fell in with American advance columns a short distance from the camp and soon the prisoners were headed back through the lines to safety.

On an overseas radio broadcast, Furniss shared a day-to-day diary of this time as a POW as reconstructed from his memory:

“March 1 – Got down with a sprained ankle and the ack-ack boys took everything from me except my watch. They missed that because I managed to keep my long gloves. Marched five miles under guard to Wesel to see the town Kommandant. Taken back to farmhouse and locked in cellar. Quite dark, window boarded up. Black bread, thin potato soup.

March 2 – Allowed out for 10 minutes. “Come and breathe some good German air,” the guard said. More bread.

March 3 – First wash with terrible soap made of grit. Hobbled around yard with cane. Taken in motorcycle combination to Luftwaffe station in woods. Shoved into little room. Slept on palliasse on floor with guard watching me.

March 5 – Walked 10 miles under guard in the rain. On a country road a German officer got off a bicycle, stared at my wings, swore and pulled out his revolver. Untimely end averted by guard. On by series of tramcars. None of them could go very far. Tracks too smashed up. Small riot as we were getting on one tram. Crowd of civilians swore at me and kicked me. Ouch. Again saved from lynching by guard. Siren went, and everybody panicked for the shelter, including guards. Reached Gelsenkirchen at midnight. Put in cell to join R.A.F. Flight Lieutenant George Earp. My first cigarette.

March 6 – Area heavily bombed by R.A.F. Bombs all round gaol. Earp and I put on truck, and attempt made to drive us to Dorsten. Attempt abandoned. The place was a shambles. Back to gaol. Train to Dortmund. Gaol here.

March 7 – Started walking again. Army and civilians getting out on anything they could find. Joined by R.A.F. sergeant who had been walking all day. Arrived Wierl at dark. Put in basement of bombed-out house with 15 more prisoners of war – R.A.F., Canadians, Americans. Seven days’ beard, hungry, dirty. Felt weak. Unexpected luxury – a straw bed each and a blanket.

March 8 – Ate only twice during day, bread and soup. Stole potatoes. Russian prisoners gave us one cigarette.   Fourteen of us shared it.

March 9 – Left at 3 a.m. in the rain to try and get on a train. Hours waiting as line cut. Started walking. Had to go into railway tunnel with bomb-happy civilians. They were all for killing us. We started walking again.

March 10 – Walked all day. German soldiers say war over in two months. Near Frankfurt dumped in camp and locked in solitary cell. One plate of miserable soup after four hours. Luftwaffe intelligence officer very anxious to shoot me because I wouldn’t identify myself. Walked to Frankfurt that night. By now there were 50 of us. Frankfurt a shambles. No trains. Walked back to camp.

March 11 – All day in box car in lumber yard. All night in damp cellar. Stations all a shambles.

March 12 – Five hours in P.O.W. train then back down cellar. More raids. Talked guards into walking 15 miles to Dulag. Started at nine and arrived by four. Stole one potato. That was all for whole day. Arrived Dulag. Shower and meal from Red Cross parcels.”

Then followed days of hope, days of confusion among the enemy, days of continual raids by Allied fighter bombers until on March 28 the diary ends…”Yanks arrived in jeep. Terrific welcome. We took over the radios, set guards on the camp to keep out stray Jerries, and listened to the B.B.C. Oh boy!”

Furniss detailed his recollections of his time as a captive, on the road to the Dulag and eventual release.

“For…five weeks…trudged southwards to the main prisoner interrogation center at Frankfurt…

Each morning an armed soldier would pick me up at the local jail after a breakfast of bitter (ersatz) coffee and black bread which tasted as if it was half sawdust, which it probably was. At nightfall I would be locked up in a local jail and share a hot dinner of vegetable soup and more bread with the guard.

After about a week I arrived at an air field where I was locked in the cellar of a large brick building with about 15 other captured RAF and American flyers. This was a classy jail–we each had a straw-filled mattress and a blanket.”

Later, “we were marched out before dawn to the local railway station where we were joined by another 30 or so air force prisoners. The train which arrived had been badly shot up recently by our fighter/bombers and I prayed that it wouldn’t be a target while we were aboard…Eventually the train stopped at a bomb-damaged intersection and we had to walk past the cut and board another one. An hour later we stopped again quickly by a wood and everyone ran off to take cover from an air raid. Our guards took up a position in the ditch, facing us, and told us to stay put. The waiting was nerve-wracking but luckily the marauding Allied fighters passed us up in favor of more tempting targets on the other side of the wood.

There were other tense moments later when our group had to walk through towns which were still smoldering from a heavy bombing the night before…

Despite everything morale was high in our group….

All this time we were working our way south. I learned from one French speaking guard that we were headed to a big jail near Frankfurt where we would receive Red Cross parcels. Hopefully some clothes as well, for it had been a cold wet March and we had been sleeping in unheated jails or basements…

It took us almost a month to reach the military jail at Frankfurt which was the main German interrogation center for Allied airmen. The shock of capture had long worn off but we were still leery of what might lie ahead…Not a soul was visible in the large prison which could accommodate hundreds. Ominous.

Inside I was searched, photographed, finger-printed and then taken into a Spartan room where an officer sat behind a desk…I refused to answer…trick questions and was abruptly dismissed and locked in a tiny cell not much bigger than a coffin…a bare wooden bench ran along one wall of the cell. The small window was frosted, wired and barred…the large radiator hissed…room temperature shot up to around 100…window was shut tight and the sweat began to pour off…I realized later I had been in that sweat box about 20 hours although it seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly it ended …joined about 200 other prisoners who were being hastily loaded on a train…eventually we arrived safely at a proper prisoner-of-war camp (Dulag-Luft)…taken into a large shower room, deloused and then given our first meal from Red Cross parcels. It was pathetic the amount we filled up on. I had lost perhaps 25 pounds during the last five weeks.

Groups left almost daily for permanent prison camps far to the east, but I remained at the Dulag because of my ankle…

Yanks weren’t too far away…spent hours daydreaming about liberation…after several days of intense bombing…American corporal in a jeep…cut open the wire gates. The Germans had fled during the night and we looted their quarters for souvenirs and broke open a huge cache of Red Cross parcels. We found dozens of tins of turkey, cranberry sauce and all the trimmings and celebrated Christmas all over again.”

Harry Furniss was released from service August 20, 1945.  He had served in Canada, UK, France, Belgium, Holland and was a POW in Germany.

Furniss later became a deskman with The Province news staff. He got his private pilot’s license in 1991, at the age of 71, following a letter written in support of his application to the Personnel Licensing Inspector at the DOT in Vancouver. Cindy Lindberg wrote:

“Dear Mr. Nayross,

The attached application for a private’s pilot’s license is rather unusual and I thought you might like some background.

Harry Furniss, the applicant, is an RCAF fighter pilot of World War Two vintage who has been flying here as a student for the past two years. During the summer he passed the written examinations (in Victoria) for a private pilot’s license and last week completed a successful flight test with Gerry Elliot at Campbell River.

Because of Mr. Furniss’ RCAF background which includes more than 6000 hours on 27 different types of single and twin-engine aircraft, day and night, instrument flying etc., his flying skill was of such a high calibre that I had no hesitation in recommending him for the flight test despite the fact that he had not, strictly speaking, completed the usual number of hours of instruction and practise normally required of a student. I expect Mr. Elliot’s report will verify his abilities.

When Mr. Furniss left the RCAF in March 1947 after almost eight years of service flying in Canada and Europe (on operations) he was issued with a Limited Commercial Air Pilot’s certificate (C-4024). This is a historic document. Most of the aircraft for which the license is valid, such as the Fairchild 71 (bush plane on floats) and Lockheed 10 and 12 (the first Trans-Canada Airlines twin-engine passenger planes to fly the Rockies) have long since been prized by aviation musuems!!

Because his license is so antiquated, Mr. Furniss has opted for a modern-day private pilot’s license. He intends to fly only for personal enjoyment. I trust these comments will help you decide whether or not to issue a license to someone who has not followed the regular curriculum.

Yours sincerely,

Cindy”

Harry Furniss ~ RCAF Pilot, Newspaper Writer, Private Pilot, Author… if you’d like to learn more, please be sure to come into our Museum!