Last brave WWII RAF pilot sent on secret mission to Russia dies at 101

THEY were the aerial daredevils who engaged in a high-risk, top-secret mission to save Russia from the invading Nazis.

Now the last of those brave men who took to the freezing skies in 1941 has died at the age of 101.

Alamy

After engaging in a top-secret mission to save Russia from the invading Nazis, decorated Eric Carter was the last brave man who took to the freezing skies in 1941[/caption]

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The great-grandfather died on Monday aged 101 of ‘old age’ after battling Covid, here the young RAF hero looked relaxed before his high-risk mission[/caption]

Great-grandad Eric Carter fought off Covid earlier this year but “finally died of old age” on Monday at a residential home in Birmingham, his son Andrew has said.

Andrew added of his dad, who is also survived by two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren living in the US: “He led a full and charmed life. I am proud of him and the others in that greatest generation that sacrificed their youths, if not their lives, to enable us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.”

The decorated airman was further honoured in 2013 when then-Prime Minister David Cameron awarded him the Arctic Star medal for his service protecting the naval convoys heading for northern Russia.

The following year, at the Russian embassy in London, he was awarded that nation’s Ushakov medal for bravery. And brave he was.

Of all Eric’s aerial exploits, his missions in the Arctic Circle were the most crucial and the most dangerous. As part of 81 Squadron, 151 Wing, he was dispatched to freezing Murmansk, Russia, in 1941 on the orders of Winston Churchill to defend the port “at all costs”.

Together with a tiny band of RAF comrades, they shot down more than a dozen Luftwaffe planes, including 11 Messerschmitts and three Junkers Ju 88 bombers to help keep the port out of enemy hands.

‘I didn’t have the foggiest where we were going’

But Eric’s role was kept secret for decades because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin would not admit to asking the RAF for help.

Murmansk, which lies above the Arctic Circle, was one of Russia’s last remaining lifelines after the Nazis invaded in the summer of 1941. If Murmansk fell, Churchill knew, Russia’s resistance might crumble, allowing Hitler to focus Germany’s military might on the Western Front.

Stalin asked for Spitfires but Churchill refused, insisting they were too precious. He hatched a plan to instead ship out 550 Hawker Hurricane fighters — less agile than the Spitfire but more heavily armed.

“They had eight machine guns,” Eric recalled of the Hurricane. “A two–second burst was a heck of a thing. It would blow a hole through a battleship.”

The mission was codenamed Force Benedict. Airman Eric was staying with his parents at their home in Birmingham when a telegram arrived on July 28, 1941. It read: “Return to unit immediately. Stop. Adjutant 456 Squadron. Stop.”

He was packing his kit bag when a policeman knocked on the door with an identical message.

He knew the mission was urgent but no more than that. Such was the level of secrecy, he was ordered to bring a tropical uniform and mosquito net from the RAF stores to throw off potential spies.

At the docks in Liverpool Eric boarded a ship to the naval base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

I said to myself, ‘You’d better make this good or that German pilot won’t half be cross. Because there’s only one going to come out of a fight between two’.

Eric Carter

Even then, he said, “we didn’t have the foggiest idea where we were going”.
Only when two translators and a Russian intelligence expert turned up did the chilling truth become clear.

They were part of the very first arctic convoy to Russia, codenamed Dervish, which meant braving 30ft waves in seas laden with icebergs and patrolled by German U-boats.

Eric said later: “I can tell you how bad it was. When we disembarked to go to Murmansk, I was very happy to be facing the Luftwaffe hundreds of miles from home in a frozen foreign country rather than have to get back on that ship.”

The convoy left Scotland and sailed via Iceland as part of a ruse to throw off the Germans. They then looped over Murmansk before docking in Arkhangelsk — or Archangel — on Russia’s White Sea coast.

Eric and his comrades rebuilt their Hurricanes, which had been shipped in pieces, before flying back 300 miles west towards Murmansk and the front line. Over the next four months, they cheated death time and again as they were strafed and bombed by waves of Luftwaffe planes sweeping out from occupied Norway.

They were based at the Vaenga aerodrome ten miles outside the port.
Yet despite the daily Luftwaffe attacks, they launched a staggering 365 sorties — averaging three missions a day — while also training Russian pilots to fly their Hurricanes.

Eric said of his Russian comrades: “We used to think they were mad. They’d fly in snowstorms, which we wouldn’t do.

“But that doesn’t mean they were bad pilots. They were good pilots. A bit less careful than we were, let’s put it that way!”

I know some pilots used to come back to the mess at night and have a party but it never struck me that way. It was a tragedy on all sides.

Eric Carter

One of his Russian comrades, fighter pilot Zakhar Sorokin, downed a Messerschmitt by ramming it with his Hurricane before crash-landing miles from their base.

It took Sorokin a week to find his way back in -40C temperatures. He lost both feet to frostbite but was fitted with prostheses and continued to fly, shooting down nine more Luftwaffe planes. Eric was banned from discussing his heroics until the Sixties, under threat of court martial.

A further breakthrough came in 1994, after the collapse of the USSR, when premier Boris Yeltsin invited the Queen to Russia for a state visit. Eric said: “She said, ‘Yes, I will — if you’ll acknowledge we helped you in the war’. Yeltsin said, ‘OK, we’ll do that’.”

The Queen accepted the invitation and invited Eric to come with her.
He would make half a dozen trips to Murmansk for events commemorating those heroic days.

Recalling one of his many dogfights over the Arctic wastes, he said: “I was flying along and just below me, a few hundred yards ahead, was a Messerschmitt 109.

“I flipped the cover off the firing button and as I looked at the 109 — it sticks in my mind so vividly — I said to myself, ‘You’d better make this good or that German pilot won’t half be cross. Because there’s only one going to come out of a fight between two’.

“I gave him a burst and he went off into the clouds. I don’t know what happened to him. I think I hit him.”

Eric was often modest about his role in the action. He said: “I had potshots at several but couldn’t claim any kills. To be truthful, I don’t want to claim any. I know some pilots used to come back to the mess at night and have a party but it never struck me that way. It was a tragedy on all sides.

Harry said, ‘Us pilots are not as good as you’

“It was a job that had to be done but I didn’t see any point in rejoicing about it.” It wasn’t only the Luftwaffe he had to worry about at Vaenga. One of Eric’s closest shaves came when he suffered acute appendicitis at the aerodrome.

His son Andrew told The Sun: “It had to be removed in primitive front-line conditions. It was more terrifying than being in combat, as the primary anaesthetic was vodka.”

Towards the end of their stay, Eric and his comrades thought they had been sent on a suicide mission with no way to get home.

He remembered: “We all reckoned the government thought we’d never survive.” But he made it back by hitching a ride on a British warship which hugged the Norwegian coast while bombarding Nazi positions.

TV’s Dermot O’Leary penned the foreword to Eric’s memoir, writing: “It is a miracle they survived.”

During a short spell back in Britain, Eric retrained to fly Spitfires — and married fiance Phyllis, whom he spent more than 60 years with until her death in 2005.

He ended the war in Burma fighting the Japanese — and would joke that his tropical uniform had come in handy after all.

In 2012, Eric hit the headlines when he was invited to see a Spitfire display in Stoke-on-Trent — but staff refused to let him sit in the cockpit amid health-and-safety concerns.

Us pilots now are nowhere near as good as you guys would be.

Prince Harry

Eric said: “I used to fly those things every day fighting the Germans. Now that really was a health and safety concern, let me tell you! I wish the Luftwaffe had been so caring.”

Later he flew in a dual-control Spitfire TR9, which he said felt like “jumping back in your first car and feeling at home”.

He later met Prince Harry, then an Army Air Corps helicopter pilot. When Eric said the flying in World War Two was “real”, the Prince admitted: “Us pilots now are nowhere near as good as you guys would be.”

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Wartime image of the hero pilot who took part in mission Force Benedict, he told ‘we didn’t have the foggiest idea where we were going’[/caption]

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Eric, aged 92, before his flight in a Spitfire after he had retrained to fly them[/caption]

Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC

Eric receiving the Arctic Star from then-PM David Cameron[/caption]

Getty – Contributor

Stalin and Churchill in 1945[/caption]

TV’s Dermot O’Leary penned the foreword to Eric’s memoir, writing: ‘It is a miracle they survived’

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