For many years after the war Phillip seldom spoke of his war experiences but in 1968, a reporter from The Cape Argus interviewed him, and the following is based on what was discussed between them.


This is a copy of the newspaper report of the aeroplane accident that landed him in a burns hospital for seven months, in Tunisia, at Carthage - No: 1 RAF General Hospital, which had originally been a monastery:



Extract from the 'Cape Argus' on 17.4.1968:


Sub-headed; The sole survivor of another air crash recalls his miraculous escape.



'People who have seen the pathetic remnants of the Boeing 707 Pretoria in the veld near Windhoek are amazed that even a handful of men survived the disaster.

That Mr. Thomas Willard Taylor should have emerged from the wreck virtually unscathed is no less than a miracle.

But there are many men, alive and well today, who have survived similar crashes - men who have stepped out of the debris of pulverised aircraft to the astonishment of rescuers who expected to find nothing but corpses.

One such man is Mr Phillip May, a businessman of Gordon's Bay, who by all the rules, should have died in the flaming wreck of an aircraft on July 28, 1943.

Mr May, a husky six-footer, recalls the events of that day as clearly as if they occurred last week.  This is understandable - he was as near death as a man can be.

In July, 1943, he was a 19-year-old navigator in 52 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.

He was at the peak of his physical condition and it did not worry him that he had to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on a chilly morning to take part in a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean Sea in search of hostile Italian warships.

The pilot of the Baltimore bomber was his boyhood pal, DaveTowle.  Two other young men made up the crew - a wireless operator and a rear-gunner, all of them eager youngsters spoiling for a crack at the enemy.

Philip May tells his story: 'We were based at a Tunisian village called Protville where our squadron and another squadron had made camp near the airstrip on a farm.

'Generally we would take off from a runway which pointed towards the sea over flat ground.  An air corridor had been established in this area so that our own anti-aircraft guns would not fire on us in the dark.

'But on that morning, the usual runway was ruled out by strong and dangerous cross-winds and we had to take off in a direction which would aim the Baltimore at a range of encircling mountains.

'To avoid the mountains and to fly into the corridor, Dave would have to make a tight turn to the left immediately after take-off.  We had never used this runway before.

'I was strapped in the front section of the aircraft.  Dave was in the pilot's seat behind and above me and the two others were in their positions in the fuselage behind Dave.

There were 400 gallons of fuel in the wing tanks and another 400 gallons in a tank in the bomb bay.  Dave opened the two throttles and we sped down the runway.  Then we lifted off and we must have reached a height of about 100ft. at a speed of 125 to 140 knots.

'Dave started his turn to the left - and it was then that we hit a down-draught.  The plane dropped sharply and through my window I could see that the port wing was very close to the ground.  The light on the tip of the wing was the only illumination in the darkness.

'I shouted into the intercom: ?Get up.  We're on the deck.?  The others never said a word.  Seconds later, the port wing tip struck the ground.'

Later, as he lay in hospital recovering from extensive burns, Philip May was told what happened to the Baltimore.

The port wing was ripped off at the point where it was rooted to the fuselage.  The aircraft blew up in a blazing flash of gasoline and bits of it were scattered over a wide area.

The rear-gunner was incinerated along with his machine guns, the wireless operator was hurled out near the point of impact and killed, and the pilot was burned to death still strapped in his seat as 150ft flames mushroomed from the wreck.

The nose section, where Philip May was crouched with his arms over his head broke off and, like an astronaut's capsule, it hurtled through the air with the young airman strapped inside.

He recalls the blinding flash and the explosion and the roar of noise as the nose section tumbled over and over in the wheat field where they had struck.  But no pain - that was to come later.

When it stopped he tried to get out of the burning section but his feet were trapped and the lanyard of his revolver had been caught in the mangled seat.

He freed his feet by wrenching them out of his flying-boots and worked the lanyard and revolver loose.  Then he leapt out to safety.

'The wheat field, over an area of about 100 yards, was ablaze.  I hurried to the section where Dave was trapped.  I could see him, but I could not get within 50 yards because of the flames and I could see I was unable to help him in any way.'

He fired shots with his revolver to tell rescuers where he was; an action which he now regards as a shock reaction since no one could have heard.

After some 20 minutes, he saw a stab of headlights approaching.  A station-wagon [jeep?] stopped near the wreck and three men climbed out and stood silently.

Philip stumbled 200 yards through the wheat field to reach them and as he got near he heard one of them say: ?We might as well go back to the camp.  There is nothing we can do for them now.  They are all dead.?

Minutes later, the three men were astonished to see Philip May standing before them, dazed and burned, but very much alive.  They could hardly believe that he had survived the smash of the plane that burned all round them.

It was only in the car going back to the camp that the young flier began to feel the effects of the burns on his face, body and left arm.

Years later, he discovered that a rib had been cracked and healed up on its own.  He had also suffered lacerations to the head and legs.

After months of painful treatment in a military hospital, he returned to South Africa, which he had adopted as his home.  The doctors did a grand job.  Today, the scars are hardly noticeable.'


This account is reasonably accurate apart from a few minor points.  For instance, it was much more due to his youthful good health and the wonderful care of the nurses that he healed so well.  At that time there was not much doctors could do for burns particularly if the patient refused to have skin grafts, as Phillip did, at the well-known hospital in East Grinstead by the renowned cosmetic surgeon, McIndoe   It was the nurses who attended to the wounds, the bandaging, the burning and cutting off of the 'proud flesh' that grew uncontrollably because it was without skin restriction, the bathing in salt water and applying of ointments, the handing out of the daily ration of Guiness Stout and other items, such as condensed milk mixed with Milo, to build up the patient's strength and the great compassion and kindness to build up their spirits.  There was even a special bed in the ward called 'the sympathy bed' where any patient who was feeling particularly low could go and the nurses would then bestow extra special attention and care on him.  One of the treatments that proved most helpful once the patients had recovered to some degree was being allowed to bathe in the sea.

Another small point to make was that, after the crash, Phillip came across the field from behind the three men and as he spoke to them, they turned round and for all the world thought he was a ghost because he was so pale.  I think the vehicle they came in from the camp was a jeep not a station wagon or car.  For seven months Phillip was in the hospital, which was situated in an old monastery.


There are a number of anecdotes he recalls from that time, one of which concerns his efforts to return to South Africa once he was discharged from the hospital.  He found himself in a camp outside Cairo but unable to get permission to proceed to Cape Town, where he was hoping to enjoy a period of 'invalid leave' by joining his parents for Christmas.  The days went past as each morning he would rise early to go into the city where he needed to apply for some mode of transport south only to be frustrated by the endless 'red tape' and procrastination of the R.A.F. authorities.  Then the opportunity arose for him to approach the American Headquarters, where quite a junior officer was in charge.  His response was, 'How soon can you get your equipment from the camp and return here?  If you can make it by midday, I will get you on a plane then!'

And that was how he was on his way home with no further delay thanks to the different approach taken by the American military forces.


After his leave he was posted to Queenstown Air Force training camp and it was there he became very friendly with 'Sandy' Grieg, who after the war married a local girl called Joyce and they became the parents of the cricketer and commentator, Tony Grieg, whom we visited in Queenstown and met up with again years later in Sydney, Australia.  As it became evident that the war was approaching its end Phillip became concerned because there was a suggestion that he would be posted to the Far East and his demob would be delayed almost indefinitely, probably long after the war ended, so he spoke to his commanding officer reminding him that, after his convalescence, he had been delegated as not fit for further active service.  So, then the suggestion was made that as he was in the RAF he would be demobbed in England.  However, with further explanation of the pointlessness of sending him back to Britain and for him then to have to return to the Cape where his parents were living, it was finally agreed that he should end his service in South Africa.