When the pilot of his Lancaster bomber was struck by shrapnel, Laurie Woods jumped to the controls and piloted the plane home during the closing months of World War II. On March 22, 2021, the World War II veteran died at 98, but not before he’d prepared a heartfelt video for GoFundMe expressing his dying wish. He’d hoped to donate one copy of his many books on Australia’s World War II history to every school in Australia.
“In my life I have found that the younger generation are the ones who finally become the ruling generations of our country, and I feel that the younger generation right now know more about what we did during the war than what their parents do,” Woods said emotionally in the video released a day after he died. “It would make these children grow up to be proud Australians.”
Woods enlisted at age 19 in 1942 and flew 35 missions as a bombardier — or “bomb aimer,” as the Australians called it — and backup navigator on Lancaster bombers with the Royal Australian Air Force’s No. 460 Squadron. He was one of about 3,300 Australians to participate in the D-Day invasion.
“We would have anything up to 500 heavy guns firing away at us,” he told the Australian War Memorial in 2019. “And when I say heavy guns, they were using the heaviest shells to get to the height where we were … They were the type of shells that were used for battleship-to-battleship fighting, so it wasn’t a picnic.”
Of the 49 original aircrew members in his squadron, Woods was one of just eight to survive to October 1944. In honor of his fellow airmen, Woods wrote four books. In Flying Into the Mouth of Hell, he recalled his last and most harrowing mission.
In a formation of 350 Lancasters, Woods’ aircrew flew a bombing raid over Wanne-Eickel in Germany on Nov. 9, 1944. He had just dropped the final payload of bombs over the target when he heard the pilot, Capt. Ted Owen, scream, “Laurie, Laurie, quick!”
Woods dashed three steps up to the cockpit area and found Owen slumped unconscious over the flight controls. He’d been hit with shrapnel when heavy flak and anti-aircraft fire slammed into his plane. The plane went into a dive, and as the navigator and engineer lifted Owen out of his seat, Woods grabbed the controls to level out the plane.
Owen had always believed a moment like this could come and had tried to prepare his crew. During training flights, he’d put other crew members, including Woods, at the controls, though that had only added up to a meager 10 minutes of flight time for Woods before the Nov. 9 incident.
“I had been in the Boy Scouts and learned from South African scouts, who were visiting Tasmania at the time, how to find direction using only your watch and the sun, so I set course that way before we entered cloud,” Woods said.
The clouds offered a new challenge for the first-time pilot because the wings began to freeze. As they approached England, Woods called to his crew and offered them the opportunity to bail out — he’d go down with the plane. But they all volunteered to stay, and he proceeded toward the runway. Remarkably, the pilot, Owen, despite his wounds, wanted to finish the job and complete the landing. Woods recalled standing behind the pilot, just in case.
“He made a perfect landing, but then half way down the runway he collapsed onto the controls, and I had to stop the motors and put the brakes on to stop us,” Woods said.
The ambulances were waiting on the runway and saved Owen’s life. Woods was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, received an immediate field commission as a pilot officer, and became only the fourth non-pilot to safely navigate a plane back to England after the pilot was severely wounded. Upon returning home after the war, like many Australian veterans, he felt ignored and forgotten. Many, including Woods, suffered from post-traumatic stress.
Woods hoped that his books would carry forward the legacy he tried to uphold. His GoFundMe page has collected close to $1,000 USD but still remains far below its goal.