When ex-RAF navigator Des Curtis visited Raymond Teisler in Germany in June 1993 he wasn’t at all sure how he would be received. In the event, the fact that Des and his pilot Douglas Turner had been responsible for sinking the U-boat captained by Herr Teisler in March 1944, didn’t prevent them becoming firm friends in the years that followed with the former Commandant once remarking, ‘Why did I have to wait so long to find a younger brother?’
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Despite being born into the Irish Guards and spending his formative years at Wellington Barracks, a 17-year-old Des opted to join the RAF in 1941. “They did ask for my birth certificate and I passed it under their eyes fairly quickly. I don’t think they were worried too much if you were under age.”
Des, now 94, began his aircrew training as a wireless operator, and went to Ontario, Canada, to train as a navigator. In the Autumn of 1942 at an operational training unit he teamed up with the pilot with whom he would spend the next two years. “My pilot, who was an ex-Metropolitan Police officer, had read that Des Curtis had been marked above average so he found me and said ‘My name’s Doug Turner. How about we crew up?’ That began a long relationship, during which we made 70 operational flights. Indeed, I saw an awful lot more of him than his wife did!”
Des, then 19, and Doug formed a two-man Beaufighter crew and were posted to No 235 fighter Squadron in Coastal Command in January 1943. From there they made 11 sorties onto the Norwegian coast either as a single aircraft reconnaissance flight or as escorts to Hampden torpedo bombers attacking shipping. But in March 1943 everything changed when they were selected by their CO to go with him to convert to the de Havilland before moving to RAF Skitten, an isolated airfield in the north of Scotland.
“We were a newly formed squadron, No 618. We did not know that No 617 Squadron was formed on the same day, 1st April 1943,” said Des. All the aircrew were summoned to the now blacked-out operations room, where the first to address them was an Assistant Provost Marshal. “He told us that, from that moment on, everything we heard and did was to be treated as Top Secret.”
The CO then revealed that the squadron had been formed to carry out a daylight low-level attack on the German battleship Tirpitz at its base in Kaa Fjord in the very north of Norway. As a navigator it didn’t take Des long to work out that this was essentially a suicide mission and years later, Des came across Government papers recognising the attempt as incurring ‘the possible loss of all aircraft’. Fortunately for Des, the attack was called off. His book detailing the history of the squadron was published in 1989.
By September that year Des and Doug formed part of a small special detachment from 618 Squadron to RAF Predannack in Cornwall with yet another secret weapon - this time a 57mm artillery gun mounted in the bomb bay of a fighter version of the Mosquito. Des said: “Our task was to seek out German U-boats as they entered or left their heavily protected bases on the French Atlantic coast.”
In May 1944 Des and Doug were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Des’s citation read: “On 25/3/44 he was navigator in the leading aircraft of a formation which attacked an enemy convoy and sank a U-boat (U-976). On 21/3/44 he was navigator of a formation which attacked and sank an enemy tanker. On 27/3/44 he was again the leading navigator of a force which attacked a convoy of thirteen ships and again hit and damaged a U-boat in the face of intense opposition."
Many years after the war, Des decided to try and make contact with the captain of U976, the U-boat he and Doug had sunk on March 25, 1944. He said: “There was an archivist in Germany whose speciality was the history of German U-boats so I wrote to him and he replied that he knew the captain and that he was still alive. He said he would pass a letter on for me.
“How do you write a letter to a chap and say years ago I tried to kill you? It took me a month to write the letter, and I didn’t speak a word of German which didn’t help, but eventually I got a letter back. He said he had been in hospital but once he was on his feet and back home he would be prepared to see me. That was the beginning.
“My wife and I went to Herdecke in Germany and met up with him in his garden. My wife hung back because we weren’t sure how it was going to go. I walked into the garden calling, ‘I’m looking for Herr Raymond Teisler’ and a voice said, ‘I’m here’. He stood up, put his sticks down and we hugged each other.”
It was the start of an unlikely but long friendship which saw the men visit each other often.
“He was a lovely character. His family stayed with us in Wimborne. We met up at the Mosquito museum with some of his crew, and I went out with them to the wreck of the U-boat. Once he said to me, why did I have to wait so long to find a younger brother? It just shows you the futility of war.”
Des Curtis is the former chairman of SSAFA Dorset’s fundraising committee. He became a Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d'Honneur in 2017. His book A Most Secret Squadron is available on Amazon.