Mae West flap lifejacket : Wing Commander Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett, 10 Squadron, RAF

Accession Number REL34487
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Personal Equipment
Physical description Brass, Chrome-plated metal, Cotton tape, Cotton twill, Kapok, Rubber
Maker Aristoc Limited
Place made United Kingdom: England, Nottinghamshire, Nottingham
Date made 1941
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945

Yellow Air Ministry 1941 pattern Mae West life waistcoat of yellow cotton twill, fitted with inflatable internal bladders in a stole pattern at the chest and neck. The lower right front of the waistcoat is fitted with a carbon dioxide cylinder with a chrome-plated actuating lever for instantaneous inflation. Each frontal lobe and the collar is also fitted with a kapok pad; a zipper is fitted to the base of the collar to allow access to the filling and bladders. The front of the waistcoat is secured by three dished brass buttons and two cotton tape ties, and is supplied with two pairs of cotton leg ties. The rear is fitted with a triangular flap, the apex sewn to the collar and each corner attached via snap fasteners to the lower rear corner of the waistcoat. A roll of sponge rubber is sewn into an internal channel along each side of the flap. The left rear of the coat is fitted with a flap, designed to be torn away using a fitted cotton tape. This originally held a green dye pocket which could be released into the water. A label sewn to the inner collar reads '(crown symbol) / A.M. / 1941 / MANUFACTURED BY / ARISTOC LIIMITED / LANGLEY MILL, NOTTINGHAM / Contract No. Contracts/ Stores / 1192/C.34A/41 / SERIAL No____ / TYPE : FLAP / SIZE : LARGE'.

History / Summary

'Mae West' style life preserver used by Wing Commander Donald 'Don' Clifford Tyndall Bennett, born 14 September 1910 at Toowoomba, Qld. Donald Bennett joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1930 and was seconded to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1931, where he was posted to RAF Calshot, a flying boat base, serving as an instructor until he left the RAF in 1935, retaining a reserve commission. Bennett spent the next six years flying for Imperial Airways and establishing a reputation for precise navigation and long-distance flights, and setting a number of long-distance records. With the onset of war, Bennett was asked to consult on the establishment of a trans-Atlantic aircraft ferry service between the United States and Great Britain, with great success.

He rejoined the RAF in 1941, was promoted to Wing Commander and appointed to command 77 Squadron; in April 1942 he was given command of 10 (Halifax) Squadron. On the evening of 27/28 April 1942, he was leading his squadron as part of an attack by five squadrons (the others were 35 & 76 (Halifax) Squadrons and 44 & 97 (Lancaster) Squadrons) on German warships, primarily against the Bismark class battleship, Tirpitz, sheltering at Fættenfjord Fjord at Trondheim, Norway. Bennett's Halifax was one of 20 aircraft which attacked at 200 feet (the remainder of the force attacked from 12,000 feet) and his bomber was almost immediately hit on its approach run, wounding the rear gunner (Flight Lieutenant How) and engulfing the starboard engine in fire.

Unable to clearly drop his 1,000 pound sea mines on the target, Bennett decided to make a second approach. Although he managed to drop the mines close to the Tirpitz, the Halifax was again hit and he immediately told his crew to abandon the plane. Bennett himself only just managed to clear the cockpit and deploy his parachute before he hit the ground. It was fortunately deep with snow, cushioning his fall. He quickly recovered and buried this Mae West and his parachute harness under the parachute canopy and covered the whole lot with snow. Within hours, both were safely recovered and hidden by local villager, Redier Fordal. Most of the parachute materials were salvaged and used by the village, but Reidel kept the Mae West hidden from the Germans until the end of the war.

With the assistance of local Norwegians, Bennett and his wireless operator, Sergeant Forbes managed to escape to neutral Sweden but was interned as a prisoner of war by the Swedish Air Force. The three remaining crew survived and were made prisoner by the Germans. Despite being interned in Sweden, Bennett applied pressure and was back in England within a month. For his leadership and bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and was shortly being championed by Air-Vice Marshall 'Bomber' Harris for command of the newly established Pathfinder Force, a position he held until war's end, by which time he held the rank of Air-Vice Marshall.

Don Bennett died in 1986. In 1992, Bennett's widow, Mrs Ly Bennett, visited Trondheim on the 50th Anniversary of the raid and was presented with this Mae West by Reider Fordal, who had kept it safe for 50 years in the hope he could present it personally to Don Bennett. The Mae West was then donated to the Pathfinder Force Association (Queensland) upon Ly Bennett's death in 2000, before being offered to the Australian War Memorial in 2006.