I participated in the Dresden affair, which was a terrible thing. The fire raid. I understand there were about 135,000 or so people killed in that raid. We were told that the Russians were advancing and the Germans were falling back into these cities and when the Russian armour went by, the Germans would fan out and cut their supply lines up and for these reasons, certain cities had to be obliterated. This is what they told us. And then it started to filter through later that this wasn’t a tactical thing. What I think really happened was that the Russians were moving very, very rapidly and the Allies decided they would show the Russians that even though we had a tremendous army, we also had a tremendous air force, so don’t get too cocky, you guys, or we’ll show you what we could do to Russian cities. This was Churchill and the rest. This was a calculated atrocity, no question in my mind.
We weren’t in the first phase, we were in the second. Even then, the city was burning. We could see the great flare in the sky for a long way out and we knew that was Dresden burning. Burning cities is a technique, you know. You didn’t need any atomic bombs; you could create what is called a fire storm. You had incendiaries and then heavy bombs and this would create an artificial wind roaring up the streets and it sucked the oxygen out and people didn’t die, or die all that much, of fire; they died because the life was literally sucked right out of them.
We went there at night and the Americans went there the next day and they had the long-range fighters protecting them and strangely, the Germans had fighter protection for the area, but the order was never given and so their fighters sat on the fields. The American fighters went down and strafed the poor bastards in the streets who were picking up the corpses and this German who told me this after the war, was very bitter about that. This strafing in the streets, by the Americans. That was a beastly thing, wasn’t it? Our guys didn’t do that, did they? Only the beastly Huns did that, didn’t they?
We carried incendiaries over Dresden and the Pathfinders were leading us into places where major fires hadn’t started yet. I mean, there would be a patch over here, say some residential area and the Pathfinder pilots would scoot over there and drop their markers. It was wholesale destruction of a city, using the latest in city-burning techniques. It was indescribable! When we saw the photos two days later, it was dreadful. Dreadful. It was then that I felt we’d all been had. I thought it was a pretty…Dresden was an unarmed city. Maybe a couple of battalions of home guards or Boy Scouts or something and there was no military justification for that. As far as I’ve ever been able to find out later, I was right. A straight political destruction of the city. No tactical advantage. The straight politics of destruction.
A Canadian airman of RAF Bomber Command.
Stanley Harrison RAAF pedalled on his bicycle up to 460 Squadron RAAF ‘B’ Flight office at the front of one of the large hangars at Binbrook. It was the morning of 13 February 1945. The Australian pilot was unaware that it was the 13th of the month and would not worry about it. In any case he was not superstitious, at least about the date. He could not know that he would be part of the BBC news in the early hours of the following day. But as he rode up from the officers’ mess he realised that the weather was fine and that meant that they would be operating over Germany that night. Having checked that all the crew members were fit for flying at 0915 he reported this to his ‘B’ Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Bob Henderson DFC. All the aircraft captains, or ‘skippers’, were sitting round in the Flight Office talking shop or any interesting happenings, personal or otherwise, in which Bob Henderson joined every now and then when something concerning the Flight, operations, the performance or operation of the aircraft was being discussed. At 10 o’clock Henderson went to the daily conference in the Squadron Commander’s office. The three flight commanders and the navigation, bombing, wireless and gunnery leaders were all present and while they reported their state of readiness, details of the ‘Operations for Tonight’ came through from Bomber Command via Group and base headquarters. Harrison continues.
‘At lunch in the mess Bob Henderson told me that we were flying that night in ‘J-Johnny’ instead of our usual kite ‘T-Tommy’ and that, as briefing was not until later in the afternoon, we would have time to run-up the engines and check the aircraft. I contacted the crew in the sergeants’ mess and told them to be at the locker room at 2pm to take our gear out to the aircraft, to run it up and check it over. There we collected our Mae Wests. Jack Peacock, the wireless operator, took the kit bag of our leather flying helmets, Peter Squires, the flight engineer, took his bag of tools and on the way out to the aircraft we collected the eight .303 Browning machine-guns for the turrets.
‘After the crew bus had taken us to our aircraft dispersal area on the perimeter of the airfield, Peter and I gave it a thorough check over externally and internally, including starting up the four engines with a complete test in all phases of operation for each. When the starboard outer engine was run up, ‘Curly’, officially Flight Sergeant Tony Walker, tested his mid-upper gun turret for smooth, efficient rotation, elevation and depression of the guns. He counted into his intercom microphone as he did so, to test that the intercom was OK in all positions of the turret. Maurice Bellis, the bomb-aimer, tested the H2S radar transmitter, as Max Spence our navigator was still at Navigation Section waiting for any ‘gen’ that may have come through concerning times for navigators’ briefing, etc. When the port outer engine was being run up, Jock Gilhooly, the rear gunner, tested his turret in the same way as the mid-upper, while Jack tested the ‘Gee’ radar receiver.
‘After a thorough check of the cockpit controls and instruments, compasses, transmitters and intercom at all points, we left the bomb doors open ready for loading from the bomb trolleys and switched off the motors. Leaving our gear in the aircraft we returned to the Flight Office to learn that briefing was at 1800 with a meal at 1700 but the navigators’ briefing was at 1645. This was unusual as the navigators were normally briefed after the meal, before the main briefing, so I thought that maybe it was a very long trip, or a very involved route. The fuel load was 2,154 gallons – maximum load.
‘While sitting in the anteroom of the mess after our meal, a few whispers were going around about our target for tonight. The Russians were pushing westwards in the southern sector of the Eastern Front, so we looked at the map in the newspapers and my tip was Dresden. I mentioned this to one of the navigators and he blurted out, ‘Who told you?’ The cat was out of the bag now but naturally I kept it quiet, sitting there thinking of the route we might fly and the heavily defended areas along the way.
‘At about 0540 I went over to the briefing room and drew the Aids Boxes, for use if we were shot down and our flying rations. There was the usual moan when we had ‘Empire’ chocolate, as it was the worst grade of chocolate available but it was remarkable how good it would taste after we left the target and settled down to the long tiring trip back. Then we would be trying to stay alert, when a natural winding down from the tension of the bombing run and general fatigue set in. We each received two small three-penny bars of chocolate, half a box of barley sugar sweets, or about six sweets each and two packets of chewing gum. Our Aids Boxes contained concentrated foods, a compass, rubber water bottle, some water purifying tablets and some Benzedrine tablets, which bucked you up if you needed a little extra to make a break for it, etc.
‘We emptied our pockets and then put back only handkerchiefs, about £1 in money, an identity card and an Aids Box. The rest of the contents of our pockets – keys, letters, bus tickets and anything else – were placed in the bag that had contained our Aids Boxes with a label for each crewmember. Then all individual bags went into the big crew bag and the intelligence clerks locked this in a safe. This ensured that if we were shot down, there was nothing to tell the Germans where we came from, so they would be unable to identify our squadron and its location. At least this was the theory. But some of our Squadron who were shot down and interrogated and later escaped back to England, said that the first thing the German interrogator said to them, after hearing that the crashed aircraft had our Squadron letters ‘AK’ on it was, ‘How is your commanding officer, Hewgie Edwards VC?’ (The Germans never could get their tongues around ‘Hughie’!)
‘Maurie had his target map and we looked at the route on the big map at the front of the Briefing Room and the photos of the target area, its defences and known searchlight areas, as well as the heavily defended areas on or near our route. Times for sunrise, moonrise and moonset, as well as the phases of the moon, were all on the board. So were ‘phase of attack’ times, ‘H’ hour (the actual time of the start of the attack when the first phase commenced dropping their bombs), take-off time, total distance, bomb loads and ETA back at base. On another board was all the signals gen: the Master Bomber’s call sign, together with those of the Deputy Master Bomber, radio link and the VHF radio channel on which to receive them. Shortly before briefing was due to start, Max came in with his navigator’s bag crammed full with maps, charts and instruments. In reply to my query of, ‘What do you think of it Max?’ he made the dry wisecrack, ‘I wish Joe Stalin would get an air force of his own or come and fight on the Western Front if he wants our help like this!’
‘The corniest crack of all was overheard from behind. ‘I guess there won’t be many Jerries left in Dresden after tonight!’ Similar wisecracks were being passed and general back-chat was being indulged in around the room while the crews all waited. Max told me that we were in the second phase ‘H+2’ to H+4’ and that we were on the lowest bombing height again! (There were four bombing heights, each 500 feet above the next, starting from our height and going up.) Then everyone was on their feet as the Squadron Commanding Officer entered, followed by the station CO and the base commander. We waited until they were all seated then we all sat down again but there was no talking now and the room was suddenly quiet as the Squadron CO, Squadron Leader ‘Mick’ Cowan, walked to the front and started the briefing proper.
‘Your target tonight is Dresden. The attack is divided into three phases. Here are your aircraft letters, phase times and bombing heights. First phase on target from ‘H’ to ‘H+2 minutes’. ‘B-Beer’, Flight Lieutenant Marks.’
Flight Lieutenant Marks stood up. ‘All correct sir!’ (Indicating that all his crew were present and ready to fly).
‘This checking of the crews and allocation of the heights was repeated until all the aircraft in the first phase had been detailed.
‘Second Phase on target from ‘H+2’ to ‘H+4’.
‘O-Oboe’, Flying Officer Whitmarsh.’
‘All correct sir!’
‘J-Johnny’, Flying Officer Harrison.’
‘I was on my feet. ‘All correct sir!’
‘As I sat down there was a whispered comment from my friend Doug Creeper, who was sitting behind me.
‘Can’t that kite of yours get any higher than that, Stan?’
‘I did not bother to reply. Our aircraft, ‘J-Johnny’, was certainly not new, had completed more than 30 raids on Germany and was not the fastest in the Squadron but as I had pointed out to my crew, ‘Johnny’ had developed a very good habit of coming back at the end of each trip.
After all the crews had been allocated their bombing heights, the CO called for the various specialist leaders to give their briefing.
‘The Flying Control Officer produced his blackboard. ‘The runway for takeoff is ‘22’ (i.e. the compass bearing was 220 degrees). ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight aircraft will taxi round the perimeter track behind the control tower to this side of the runway, whilst ‘C’ Flight aircraft will turn left from their dispersal areas and taxi to the other side of the runway. On a ‘green’, taxi on to the runway and take off on the second ‘green’. Watch the comer of the runway. It’s soft on the grass there, so taxi slowly and keep on the asphalt!’
‘We had heard most of this at every briefing since we joined the Squadron but there were some new crews and repetition did no harm considering the speed at which some clots taxied. A fully loaded Lanc had a maximum overall take-off weight of 84,000 lb, so it took some distance to stop. This could lead to trouble when 23 aircraft had to taxi to the end of the runway and even with ‘C’ Flight coming round from the other side, there would still be 15 of us following one another along that side.
‘Foggo’, as the Control Officer was affectionately known then had his little joke. ‘The runway for return will be the long one (2,000 yards) but I cannot tell you at this stage from which end we will be landing you!’ This raised a small laugh and we were thankful that the forecast was not for strong winds.
‘The beacon will be flashing the usual ‘BK’. Join the circuit at 2,000 feet and do not call up (for permission to land) until you are over the airfield! All three emergency airfields are fully serviceable.’
‘This was a very comforting thought in case we lost engines; brakes or the undercarriage would not lock down.
‘When coming back over the East Coast, you must be at 6,000 feet, as the Dover belt of ack-ack guns are still in operation to guard against flying bombs. Do not exceed 250 mph.’ (This caused general laughter as the Lanc cruised at 180mph.)
‘Burn only your navigation lights and not your downward recognition light! Any questions?’
‘As there were none, the CO called the ‘Met bloke’ who had charts drawn showing where the weather fronts were located and another giving cloud amounts, heights of bases and tops for the whole of the route to the target and home again. He gave us the gen on the weather to be expected during the whole flight. Cloud was expected from the French coast in to the target, hopefully with some breaks near the target, to give a clear view on the bombing run.
‘Weather here ‘mainly clearing’, with no cloud over England on return.’ (I hoped he was right this time, for we did not want another cloud base of 150 feet after a long trip like this one, with everyone tired and 23 aircraft having to find their way down through it to our airfield. One of these recently was enough for a very long time to come!)
‘Icing level 3,000 feet, with Icing Index ‘Moderate’ to ‘High’ in cloud. Any questions?’
‘How about contrails?’
‘Only above 20,000 feet, so they won’t worry you! Anything else?’
‘The CO called on the Bombing Leader. ‘All aircraft are carrying the same load, one 2,000lb and eleven containers of incendiaries.’
‘Bomb-aimers select and fuse bombs when the bomb line is crossed. After bombing check immediately that all bombs have gone and if unable to get rid of any hang-ups there, do not jettison them on the track out of the target but keep them until you cross the jettison area in The Wash on your return.’ (Not long back some clot jettisoned a canister of incendiaries in the first leg of the route out of the target and gave every night fighter within 50 miles a clear signal of the route being flown from the target.)
‘Set target pressure (estimated atmospheric pressure) as you enter the aircraft and I use the Broadcast Bombing Wind, multiplied by 1.1.’
‘The Signals Officer will give the time of this broadcast. All aircraft are carrying flashes. Captains, keep your aircraft straight and level while the red light is on and let us have some really good photos tonight.’
‘That sounded easy in the Briefing Room but with other aircraft, slipstream turbulence, not to mention searchlights and ack-ack, it was not quite as simple as that over the target and our camera had fogged up with condensation on our last three trips.
‘Bomb-aimers obtain your pro-formas and bomb-stations for your aircraft from the Bombing Section after the briefing. Any questions?’
‘The CO then called the Gunnery Leader. ‘Just a word to all gunners! Enemy night fighters are particularly active in this area, so keep an even sharper watch in your search pattern than usual.’ (Comforting news, I don’t think but then he was not likely to tell them that there were no fighters about and that they could go to sleep was he?)
‘You all know your search plans. Cover all the sky, all the time. Load your guns while you are still in your dispersal area and do not unload or leave your turret until you are back in your dispersal area. Jerry may try an intruder raid with night fighters again and it could be tonight, so stay alert even when approaching base.’
‘The CO now called the Signals Leader ‘R/T call signs of the Master Bomber, Deputy Master Bomber and R/T link are ‘Snodgrass 1, 2 and 3’. The Main Force bomber stream is ‘Press On’. Channel ‘C’ on VHF and ‘1196’. Wireless operators listen out on your Marconi set on the wavelength shown on your ‘flimsies’, which are available at the back of the briefing room. Remember, skippers, if you cannot get the Master Bomber on VHF, tell your WOP to select ‘1196’ and press button ‘C’. Broadcast wind velocities will be broadcast at 0015, 15 minutes before ‘H’ hour and will be the usual five-figure group preceded by ‘X’. Aircraft on ‘Darkie’ watch on the return trip will be ‘G-George’, Flying Officer Dowling; ‘J-Johnny’, Flying Officer Harrison; and ‘K2’, Flying Officer Creeper. Do these captains know what you have to do?’
‘Yes sir,’ we replied.
‘On the return journey listen out on Channel D for any aircraft in trouble or lost.
‘Very well, that’s all. Any questions?’
‘Now it was the turn of the Intelligence Officer, Squadron Leader Leatherdale and a First World War pilot, who was always worth hearing. ‘Your target tonight is the Old World city of Dresden. The attack is divided into two parts. 5 Group are opening the attack at 2230, two hours before your ‘H’ hour, with a slightly different aiming point. You should see their fires still burning when you get there. Jerry is shifting all his government offices with staffs and records for the Eastern Front to Leipzig – raided by 4 Group last night -Dresden and Chemnitz. These three cities are roughly in a triangle. Dresden has not been attacked before as there were no targets there but now, with the ‘Big City’ being evacuated partly to Dresden and with large concentrations of troops and equipment passing through to the Russian Front, the city is crammed full and needs disorganising. As you can see from the target map, the city is fairly easy to identify and, on your bombing run from approximately north to south, you have several good pin-points to help you check your run.
‘Now for the route. Base to Reading, to Beachy Head, to the Rhine, keeping clear of Mainz to starboard and then on until you pass just slightly starboard of Frankfurt. Frankfurt has a large searchlight area and some ack-ack guns, so keep clear and stay on track. Turn slightly north and then run up as though heading for Leipzig, or when you pass to port of that, as though the ‘Big City’ is your target. Just north of Leipzig, you head east and across through this searchlight belt and you may have quite a few lights put up there but there should be little or no flak. North of Dresden you have a turn of nearly 90 degrees, so watch out for other aircraft and so avoid collisions. You have a reasonably long run-up and, after bombing, you hold the same course until you have completed this short leg, then turn southwest towards Stuttgart and Nuremberg. Keep on track and pass south of these two places or you may have trouble. Then you head west, cross the Rhine on the southeast corner of France and keep clear of this area, where they are still active and getting too many of our aircraft. Cross the coast at Orfordness at 6,000 feet at least and then lose height across The Wash to base.
‘The defences of Dresden are not considerable but they may have brought back mobile flak guns from the Eastern Front, so the flak may be moderate but I doubt if you will find it heavy. ‘Oboe’ Mosquitoes are marking the target at ‘H-2’ with a single red TI. Then the flares will go down and Pathfinders will drop their TIs. Red and green TIs cascading together will be used only if they can positively identify the Aiming Point. If there is cloud over the target, ‘blind-marker’ crews will use sky-markers, which will be green flares dripping red stars. Your order of preference for bombing will be: 1. Master Bomber’s instructions. 2. Red and green TIs. 3. Sky-markers on the exact heading of 175 degrees True at 165mph indicated airspeed. 4. H2S run. Any questions?’
‘The CO now walked out to the map, summarised the briefing and told us the heights at which to fly on each leg of the route.
‘Phase times for return: First Phase, 10 minutes before ETA. Second Phase, on ETA. Third Phase, 10 minutes after ETA. Use Aldis lamps for taxiing out and taxi slowly, even on return, when you will have some daylight! Position yourselves on the circuit on your return and we will get you down much more quickly. Any questions? Have you anything to say sir? (This was addressed to the Station CO.)
‘Yes. I just want to impress on you chaps the necessity to be very careful to keep a very keen look-out at all turning points and so avoid any risk of collisions!’ (Didn’t he think we knew that? About 200 aircraft all heading for the same point within 6 minutes at the most, with no lights on, was enough to make anyone ‘keep a very keen lookout’! We could not guess that within two weeks he would be the one who would have a mid-air collision over France when the ‘Met blokes’ ‘boobed’ and we would have to climb through 15,000 feet of cloud. After the other aircraft crossed on top of him, wiping out all four of his propellers and his canopy, he dropped back down into the cloud and was the only survivor, losing the crew he had ‘borrowed’ for the trip!)
‘All right chaps, that is all. Have a good trip and hit it really hard.’
‘We all filed out to the locker room to change into our flying clothes. Jack and Maurie collected their pro formas and flimsies on the way. Jock and Curly started their long job of getting dressed in electrically heated flying suits, socks and gloves, while Peter and I changed too. Max had gone back to the Navigation Section. It was a cold night on the ground and the ‘Met bloke’ said that the temperature at 20,000 feet would be -25 degrees, which would not be as bad as the -45 degrees we had had once or twice. But it would still be quite cool so I put on my long wool and rayon underpants and long-sleeved singlet. As ‘J-Johnny’ was not a cold kite, I did not put on my big hip-length socks but put on my usual pair of woollen socks and a pair of woollen ‘knee-warmers’ before getting back into my trousers, then my flying boots. My shirt collar was left undone and tie loosened but left on, in ease of diversion to another airfield on return. It would be awkward to go around without a collar and tie. I left the front collar stud in place, as there was a small compass built into the back of it, for use if I had to try to get back from Germany on the ground. I put on my ‘once white’ silk scarf to keep the wool of the roll-neck pullover away from my neck, as it got very irritating after a few hours rubbing on the stubble of whiskers. Then a sleeveless pullover and the big rolled-neck one that came down over my hips, eliminating any draught between trouser top and battledress when seated. Then, with my torch and small-scale map with the whole route on it stuck into the top of my right boot and my flying rations down the left one, I was ready. I put ‘George’, my fur dog mascot, into my battle-jacket, then went to see how the rest of the crew were getting on. I carried my three pairs of gloves (silk, chamois leather and outer leather-zippered gauntlets) and found Peter ready and waiting for me, similarly attired, except for all the gloves. John needed practically nothing extra, as he sat on top of the heater unit. Maurie had a few extras similar to Peter and also a big scarf, as it got draughty with his head down in the open-ended perspex ‘bubble’ while he was keeping a look-out for night fighters homing on to us from below.
‘Curly and Jock were in their electrically heated suits and socks and now Curly pulled on the waterproof outer flying suit I had loaned him, as his issue buoyancy suit was too bulky to let him and it into his turret together. (No doubt it was Curly who was too bulky but this arrangement ‘suited’ him very well.) Jock put on his big rollneck sweater, a sheepskin vest (by courtesy of the Australian Comforts Fund through the hands of his skipper in the cause of another warm and happy gunner). Then his battledress jacket. Long knee-hip socks and heated flying boots completed their outfits, with their heated gloves. ‘Max had not come in yet but would follow later so we went to get the crew bus out to the aircraft in the dispersal area. Many crews had the same idea and after finding the right bus in the darkness and telling the WAAF driver our aircraft letter, we piled into the back and waited until the thing was full to overflowing with other crews. We visited several other ‘B’ Flight dispersals and wished the other skippers well.
‘Have a good trip. Doug!’
‘Same to you, Stan. I bet I beat you home tonight!’
‘So you ought to. You have a start on me. I’m in the second phase!’
‘We arrived at our dispersal and again Peter and I went right around the aircraft, thoroughly checking for leaks, looking at the tyres for pressure and seeing that the aileron and rudder chocks had been removed. After checking inside again, we were ready to run-up and when everything was in order we switched off and climbed out for a final smoke, spit, swear, yarn and a ‘leak’ before take-off. We had about half an hour to go and the boys on the ground crew took the wheel chocks away, as I would not be running up again, while I went over to the ground crew hut to sign the aircraft maintenance Form 700. I just took a quick look to see that it had been signed up by the various maintenance types, then signed it as taking the aircraft in satisfactory condition. The main thing was that the Flight Sergeant in charge of the aircraft said it was OK. If he said it was OK, then you could bet your boots or your life that it was!
‘Max arrived, got in and sorted all his gear out, with his charts, etc, in their right places. The ‘Doc’ came round with his ‘wakey-wakey’ tablets and Peter took charge of them, except for two each for Jock and Curly. We very rarely used them but it was handy to have them in ease anyone felt really tired! They had an effect for about 4 hours and I wanted to know who took them and how often. Everyone now had their Mae Wests on and the rest of the crew had on their parachute harnesses, as their parachutes were stored separately near where they were stationed, while I sat on mine and strapped the harness on when I got into my seat at the controls. It was about ten minutes before we were due to take off so we all climbed aboard, with a final ‘See you in the morning about 6 o’clock’ to the ground crew and their reply, ‘Right – have a good trip, Skip!’
‘We sorted ourselves out in our various positions and started up the engines. We confirmed with Max that the Distant Reading compass was correct. Then we tested and left the oxygen turned on. With a ‘thumbs up’ to the ground staff by torchlight, we were signalled out on to the perimeter track, having the radio on in ease of a change of runway, etc. Maurie shone his Aldis signalling lamp on the edge of the asphalt about 50 yards ahead. With engines just idling we taxied slowly along. Peter kept a lookout on his side (starboard) and called the distance between the starboard wheel and the edge of the track and kept an eye on the brake pressure gauge. Jock kept the lookout behind to ensure that no one taxied into us from the rear. The Lanc was heavy to taxi with a full load but answered to the brakes and motors, although you could feel the weight on the corners. At the controls you felt that the air was its natural element and it ‘suffered’ this crawling along the ground, only because it was necessary so that it could become airborne again.
‘This taxiing took so long that we seemed to be taking an age to get to the take-off point but then everything took so long on these operations. We were about three-quarters of the way to the start of the runway and about half-way down a slight slope beside the bomb dump when I noticed a truck coming round on the track from the airfield controller’s caravan and its lights suddenly disappeared behind something in front of us. I had Maurie shine his lamp directly ahead and there seemed to be a dark shape out there, probably an aircraft but no lights were visible. Then suddenly torches and lights shone from everywhere out in front, with frantic signals for me to stop. As if I needed to be signalled to stop! I had a fully loaded aircraft; some unidentified obstacle was blocking the perimeter track in front. There was grass, probably soft, to port and a drop down to the entry to the bomb dump to starboard – where did they think I was counting on going?
‘I turned on the landing light (which we never used for taxiing in ease it got into the eyes of a pilot taking off and we did not use it for landing either) and it revealed two aircraft ahead in an unfriendly embrace! Just what we did not want at this stage, a taxiing accident! Peter was already worrying me about the engines overheating, as we had been taxiing downwind most of the time since leaving the dispersal. I warned the crew that there had been a taxiing accident and we might be late taking off. Max was not amused as he would have to watch all his timing calculations very carefully now to see that we set course on time or, at the worst, try to make time on the way, which was not easy with a fully loaded aircraft. Jock was now shining his torch out the back to warn any aircraft behind us not to taxi into us – I knew that there were three following us.
‘After a few minutes, which seemed a very long time, we were signalled to turn off the perimeter track on to the grass in order to pass the obstruction. How I would have liked to break radio silence to warn the others of the obstruction and to get confirmation that the grass was firm enough to take our weight without getting us bogged. But we really had no alternative. I could not go forward, I could not turn to starboard and the track behind was blocked by other aircraft waiting for me to show them that it was safe to turn to port, then swing wide to starboard round the trouble ahead.
‘I became reconciled to having to risk getting bogged and I was convinced that the airfield control types out there signalling to me to move did not really know if I would get bogged or not but they also had no alternative to offer. Peter reminded me again that the motors were getting ‘bloody hot, Skip!’ I ‘bit his head off’ by telling him didn’t I already know that and what did he want me to do about it? I couldn’t turn into wind here and we had other problems at the moment!
‘Tell me when the gauges get well into the ‘red’ just before they blow off!’
‘They are into the ‘red’, Skip and I thought you should know that we haven’t got very long before we have real trouble with them!
‘I realised that I was getting ‘edgy’ and as I started to turn off the track I said, ‘Sorry, Pete but I don’t like this going on to the grass caper after old Foggo’s warning about the soft grass up at the corner of the runway.
‘I don’t like it either,’ he replied, ‘but it seems all right so far, Stan.’
‘We made our way slowly around the two aircraft to a clear section of perimeter track. I got an enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’ signal in the light of a torch from a very relieved airfield control chap, who had solved one of his problems and, in a few minutes, would have only the taxiing accident to sort out. We had a clear run to the ACP’s caravan and now the pre-take-off drill was done, with each item repeated aloud, so that Peter could check them all. Maurice came up out of his position in the nose for the take-off and sat beside Max. I flicked my lights to the ACP to indicate that I was ready and immediately he gave me the ‘green’ from his signalling lamp, as all the aircraft from the other side of the perimeter track had taken off while we were sorting out our problem.
‘We taxied out slowly, keeping as near to the end of the runway as possible in order to use every yard of it that we could for take-off. We rolled forward a short distance to straighten the tail wheel, then stopped again. The friction nut on the throttles was tightened firmly so that they would not work shut if my hands came off them for any reason. Gyro was set on ‘zero’ and ‘unengaged’, i.e. it was free to spin and to indicate any change in direction in the darkness up beyond the end of the two rows of runway lights.
‘I opened the throttles to the gate’ (normal maximum power position) for the two inboard engines as Peter reported, ‘Fuel pumps on. All set for take-off!’ ‘The motors were not the only thing revved up, as the adrenaline was flowing and I always got a feeling of ‘goose pimples’ with the sound of the Merlins at full throttle. The ACP flashed another ‘green’ indicating that the runway was clear. I told the crew, ‘Righto, here we go!’
‘With the throttles for the outboard engines neatly half opened and Peter holding the inboard throttles open, I released the brakes and pushed the control column as far forward as I could to get the tail up as quickly as possible. The aircraft had been vibrating with all this power on and the wheels locked with the brakes. Now it surged forward in spite of the full load. I corrected any tendency of the aircraft to swing with the thrust of the engines by using the starboard throttles. When we had the tail up and were heading straight along the runway, I took the outboard throttles to the ‘gate’ also and called to Peter, ‘Full power through the gate!’ He pushed all four throttles past the gate to the ‘Emergency’ position and locked the friction as tight as he could get it so that the throttles could not creep back when he took his hands off them.
‘Full power locked on!’ he reported.
‘I felt the extra power as a thrust in my back. A quick glance at the gauges for revs and boost confirmed that all the engines were OK and, with both hands now on the control column, I concentrated on those two rows of lights between which we now raced. I held the aircraft down so that we were not bumped prematurely into the air as we went over a slight rise about three-quarters of the way down the runway. This would have us in the air in a poor flying attitude and one in which it took longer to build up speed. As we came to the end of the runway I eased back on the control column and we climbed away.
‘Peter repeated the order and selected ‘Up’. The red warning lights came on, then went out as the undercarriage became fully retracted. We had reached 135mph, which was the minimum flying speed at which you could stay in the air with three engines and a full load. I always relaxed a little and breathed more easily once we had 135 on the clock. (Fourteen trips later I was very busy for a while at this stage, as I had to shut down the port outer engine due to a coolant leak at a height of 400 feet!) Now I asked Peter for 2,850 revs and +9 boost which brought the throttles back to the normal ‘full power’ position, at a height of 400 feet.
‘Flaps up in easy stages.’
‘Peter repeated and complied, raising them five degrees at a time, while I re-trimmed the aircraft to accommodate these changes. A mistake made with this operation, with the flaps raised too quickly, would cause the aircraft to lose lift, then a stall and a crash could occur! With training and growing confidence between the two of us, I did not hesitate to call on Peter to operate the flaps on both take-off and landing. Although he had had no training as a pilot, he now had a good understanding of changes in conditions, which required slightly different operation of the flaps. A crew that understood what each had to do and co-operated so that it was done most efficiently was on its way to being a good crew and good crews had the best chance of surviving!
‘With the flaps up and a climbing speed of 145-150 mph, I asked for ‘2,650 rpm and +7 boost’. Peter repeated the details and brought the throttles back to our ‘climbing power’ setting. We climbed on a heading of 270 degrees and shortly Max told me to turn back to base, then, when back over base, we set course on our first leg to Reading and we were on our way at last! Large bombing raids certainly took a long time to get under way and were not a case of ‘sit in the dispersal hut and scramble when the siren sounded’ as in the Battle of Britain days for fighter boys. ‘Otto’ and ‘Kari’, our two legendary German night fighter boys, who patrolled the northern and southern sectors of Germany, were probably sitting around waiting to hear where we were heading tonight!
‘At 10,000 feet we lowered the engine revs to save both fuel and the engines and completed a check of the oxygen flowing to all of the crew, also checking the emergency intercom. On this run to Reading we kept a very sharp lookout for other aircraft as they climbed from the various airfields to join the main bomber stream, all heading for this first turning point. I tested the autopilot and after an initial ‘kick-up’ ‘George’ engaged, which I anticipated, settled down and functioned quite well. I then disengaged it and we continued our climb. At Reading we had the benefit of all the other aircraft still having their navigation lights on but I still had to dive a little to avoid one clot who turned without checking that we were there!
‘We set course for Beachy Head and that bacon and eggs for tea seemed well down now and I nibbled some chocolate, interrupting Peter’s log keeping to give him some. He answered with a ‘thumbs up’ ‘thank you’ before going back to his log and ‘gallons per hour used’, etc. I called to each of the crew in turn to ask how things were in each position and to see if the gunners’ heated gear was working OK. All replied ‘OK, no problems’ and Maurie merely rolled over and went back to snoozing. His time for hi looking for fighters and later guiding us to the target had not yet arrived.
‘After altering course slightly at Beachy Head we were out over the Channel. Here I got to thinking that the tension, although under control, was too high. I thought of offering a prayer for a safe return and wondered whether or not I might be a good I leader and set an example to my crew. I was having trouble maintaining our required rate of climb, so I asked Peter for a slight increase of 50 rpm, which meant that he had to re-synchronise the four engines. If this was not done correctly, the sound of the engines developed a ‘beat’, which seemed to go right through your head after a few minutes and the best way of doing this was to look along the line of the two propellers on each side. The ‘shadows’ of the props appeared to move when they were out of sync’ and remained practically still when the engines were synchronised to the same rpm. A small thing really and I suppose I should not have let it get to me but in my book it was just ‘tidy’ flying and one less thing to get on the nerves of skipper and crew.
‘I switched off the external lighting master switch and the boys checked that the lights were all out. (Some chaps went over Germany with their lights on and a few of them even returned!) We were climbing again and Jock now had on his ‘village inn’, the automatic gun-laying turret. After he had adjusted the settings it worked well, giving warning ‘beeps’ on the intercom when another aircraft came within range of its radar scanning beam. The ‘beeps’ got louder and more frequent as the other aircraft came closer, building up the tension until Jock identified it through the small infra-red telescope mounted near his gunsight. All our aircraft were fitted with two infra-red flashing lights in the nose and these were visible in the rear gunner’s telescope. The rate of exchange in the frequency of the ‘beeps’ is what I listened for and when there was little or no change it usually meant that another Lanc had drifted across our track and Jock would come through with ‘It’s OK, Skip, it’s one of ours’.
‘Maurie was now lying on his stomach with his head down in the perspex bubble, keeping a look-out down below. Max gave me an ETA for the next turning point and then muttered some suitable comments about the Germans and the radar jamming in particular, as his ‘Gee’ set had just become unusable because of the jamming signals obscuring everything else on the screen.
‘I asked him about the H2S airborne radar ‘How is your ‘Y-set’?’
‘OK so far,’ he replied and on we flew.
‘Five minutes later Max was back on the intercom and very annoyed! The ‘Y-set’ had packed up now and this was serious. We were over cloud, unable to see anything on the ground and had no means of establishing our exact position, with a long way to go to the target and back again, as well as keeping clear of those heavily defended areas mentioned at briefing.
‘Jack had just received the first Broadcast Wind which he gave to Max, who commented, ‘I hope they’re accurate tonight because we haven’t got anything else.’
‘He was not the only one who had that hope. I quietly thought to myself what a big place Germany was to be flying over with no navigational gear, except a compass, a watch and a Broadcast Wind! It would be bad enough after the target, as I always said that we could get home by flying ‘west with a bit of north in it’. But the route going in was going to be tricky, if those Broadcast Winds were not accurate or if we missed them when they were broadcast.
‘Jack,’ I said, ‘you will be careful not to miss those Broadcast Winds won’t you?’
‘That’s for sure, Skip, you can count on it!’
‘I quietly thought to myself, ‘Yes, I knew I could’ and it was that feeling of complete confidence in each other, which had grown up through our training together that was so important now. As I thought about it I realised that I had the same confidence in the other crews in the Squadron and in the other squadrons, who would be sending back their calculated details of the wind, as we had done on other trips. So of course the Broadcast Winds would be accurate! That is what made Bomber Command the force that it was!
‘How’s the heat tonight, Stan?’ Jack was doing his usual thorough check of all his responsibilities, as well as making sure of receiving the Broadcast Winds and, I suspected at the time, was just making sure the Skipper was not brooding on the loss of the ‘Y-set’.
‘OK, thanks, Jack!’
‘All right with you, Max?’ he asked but Max was not really paying attention to the heating or anything else, except his navigational problems after the failure of his equipment.
‘It’s fine but if you have any spare heat you could try to unfreeze that scanner,’ he replied.
‘No hope of that, I’m afraid,’ said Jack.
‘Aye, what about the poor bloody frozen gunners?’ Jock had joined in the talk. ‘It’s all right for you lot with all your mod cons. Curly and I have got minus 23 degrees back here!’
‘Isn’t your electrical heating working, Jock?’
‘Aye, it is. Skipper but it’s still bloody cold!’
‘Don’t let your turret freeze up will you?’ (I realised that it was quite a while since I had felt the slight swing of the nose of the aircraft caused by the rear turret being turned from one side to the other and then back again to check free movement.) Curly joined in. ‘No chance of that, Stan!’
‘Good, Curly,’ I replied, smiling to myself at the immediate ‘banding together’ of the two gunners against any implied criticism. A minute or two later I felt the nose swing slightly one way then the other as Jock checked his turret and I had another quiet smile to myself.
‘We were lucky as we approached ETA Frankfurt as there was a break in the cloud ahead to port and we could see the searchlights. Max was pleased, as so this put us bang on track, so we turned on ETA alongside Frankfurt. So far, good and all was well!
‘Maurie said, ‘I think we’re going into those lights!’
‘They always looked closer than they really were, particularly from his position out front. I did not know if he thought that I would fly straight into a group of searchlights, which were not defending our target, or if he was just getting a little ‘on edge’. We were right on track with not too much further to go and this was the turning-point that I was worried about when we lost the ‘Y-set’, as being only slightly off course would have put us right over the defences of Frankfurt.
‘Nice work, Max! We hit that turning point right on the nose!’ it ‘Good, Stan. Those winds must be spot on, thank heavens!’
‘Blast the idiot!’ Some clot had jettisoned his load of incendiaries. They were strung out, burning on the ground, marking our new course for every night fighter this side of Stuttgart to see! Thank heavens the clouds were moving across again so that they were being screened. Occasionally, another aircraft was seen near us and identified as friendly, either visually or by Jock through his infra-red telescope.
‘Max now wanted a slight increase in our speed to make our next turning point on time, so Peter had to re-synchronise the engines, while still keeping a lookout on the starboard side. Occasionally we ‘hit’ the slipstream of another aircraft and this threw us around but it was a good sign as it meant that someone else was flying our course and we hoped that his navigation equipment was functioning correctly so he was right on track. It also meant that we were not the only aircraft on this area for the German radar-predicted flak guns to concentrate on, if there was a unit near here.
‘Even when experienced many times, the effect of ‘hitting’ the slipstream of a four-engined aircraft still caused the old heart to thump a bit. It was as though some giant hand had taken hold of the aircraft and twisted it one way and up or down at the same time! There was nothing you could do about it, except to push the control column forward and apply full opposite ‘bank’ to avoid a possible stall and to level the wings. After a matter of a few seconds that felt like hours, the aircraft would dive through the area of affected air and return to normal ‘feel’ and control again.
‘As we sat there flying steadily on towards the target, I did not realize that the tension was gradually mounting until something very simple annoyed me, then I had a quiet talk to myself. ‘Relax, you silly goat. Things are under control!’ The clip for the oxygen tube to my face mask had slipped off the strap of my parachute harness, so that the whole length of the tube was dangling from the face mask and was dragging it whenever I turned my head, which was nearly constantly at this stage of the trip. I had got annoyed at the fool of a way of securing it, as it would not stay in place but at the next try it remained fixed and all thoughts of animosity towards it and its inventor died without trace.
‘I checked through the crew again with some casual remark to each of them and judged by their replies whether their oxygen supply was OK and for any signs that they were tensing up.
‘Any icicles out the back, Jock?’
‘No, not yet, Stan but it’s none too warm, ye know!’
‘He was all right and wide awake. ‘How are things on top Curly? Can you see anything?’
‘No. Everything is quiet up here, Stan. Where are we now?’ (Evidently my turn for a test!)
‘Just running north of Leipzig, Curl.’
‘Anything down there Maurie?’
‘Yes. A heck of a lot of cloud but nothing else!’
‘What petrol are we using at this rate, Peter?’
‘About 185 per hour, Stan. I’ll check on my tables if you like.’
‘No, that’s OK, thanks. Is that a chink of light through the curtain there?’
‘Instantly, Peter was searching the blackout curtain between us and the navigator’s area for any sign of light. ‘It’s all right, Pete, it’s only a reflection from the perspex in your bubble.’ (This ‘bubble’ in the side window on the starboard side allowed Peter to look down and it had caught some stray light from outside and reflected it into our area.)
‘What is our ETA at this last turning-point, Max?’
‘After a while Max replied, ‘Well, it’s hard to say as I’m only running on DR (Dead Reckoning) based on Broadcast Winds. I hope they’re somewhere near accurate!’
‘How do you think they are?’
‘Not too bad so far, I think, Stan. Our ETA is 2357.’
‘How does that make us for time?’
‘About a minute late, so step it up a little, if you can.
‘OK, Max, I’ll try 170 but this kite is getting old now.’
‘Righto, Stan but we need a bit more speed.’
‘2,350 revs, thanks, Peter.
‘2,350. Right, Stan.’
‘The revs were increased and I kept checking the airspeed to see if I could coax that extra 5 mph. In a newer aircraft I would have just put the nose down for 200 to 300 feet, then level out when we had 170 and slowly pick up the height again. ‘J-Johnny’ was reluctant to go much over 17,000 feet and it would be a hard job to pick up the height that we had lost. After a while, with no increase in speed visible, I asked Peter for 2,400 revs and eased the nose forward slightly to gain that extra speed. As the speed increased I carefully kept it and coaxed ‘Johnny’ back up again to approximately 17,500 feet. (The Lanc was very hard to accelerate by use of engines alone. Anything up to 300 revs increase had to be used to get the extra speed. But then only 50 revs over the original were needed to hold it, so the easiest way to increase revs by the amount necessary to the hold speed and actually gain that speed was by losing height gently followed by slowly regaining the lost altitude.) ‘You can put the bomb sight on now, Maurie!’
‘OK, Stan. Is ‘George’ right out?’
‘Yes and has been for over an hour!’ (Bombsight gyros needed time to settle and it was best to give them about half an hour.) Up ahead we could now see the bright patch on the clouds caused by a searchlight belt and we were thankful that the cloud was there shielding us. There was nothing to do but search the sky for fighters and fly on and continue to search.
‘What’s that over there on the port bow?’
‘Yes, there was something black there!’
‘I searched for it by looking slightly away from where I thought it was and then I saw that it was another aircraft, which looked like a Lanc. ‘Curly, can you see that aircraft on the port bow, slightly up?’
‘After a short wait: ‘Yes, it’s another Lanc I think, Stan.’
‘The aircraft did not close in or move away and gradually I could make out the twin fins and rudders and the four Merlins. He was close enough but he was above us and headed our way! On we flew and I started to look for the time to turn at the last turning point before the target.
‘There are some fighters about, Stan, I think,’ said Jock. ‘I’ve just seen two of their flares out here behind us (small flares were used by the night fighters to indicate our route). Try looking right back past the port rudder fin. I can just see the two tiny orbs of red light dropping slowly.’
‘Yes, you’re right, Jock. Keep your eyes open for them now, the pair of you.
‘Aye, I will! Jock replied in his broad Scots accent.
‘Yes, right,’ said Curly and our nervous system got another notch tighter.
‘How’s our ETA, Max?’
‘Two minutes to run but we’re still a bit late, so we have to turn early and ‘cut the corner’, OK?’
‘Yes, OK, Max. What is the next course?’
‘179, Stan – I’ll tell you when to turn.’
‘179! Right, Max.’ I resumed searching from side to side and back again and repeated this again and again and again, as there were likely to be other aircraft making good this turning-point after some slight variation from their proper track. Others might be going to ‘cut the corner’ earlier than we were and could be coming across us.
‘All right, start turning now, Stan.’
‘Turning on to 179! Thanks!’ Making sure it was clear; we came round to 179.
‘Steering 179 now, Max.’
‘OK, Stan. I think we should just about be right on time at this speed! Twenty-one minutes to run to the target.’
‘As I looked ahead I saw a glow in the distance and realised that it was the glow of the fires started by the earlier attack by 5 Group! After all this flying we were at last getting near the target!132 OK Max, I can see it ahead and there is a break in the clouds so should get a good run.
‘Rather agitated, Max asked, ‘How far is it ahead?’
‘Oh, quite some distance yet – about 15-20 minutes I would guess.’
‘Oh, righto. I thought you meant we were nearly there and that I had boobed and got us here too early!’
‘Not likely with you worrying over our times all the way, Max!’
‘This course will put us bang on target too! Turn on the VHF will you, Jack?’
‘She’s on, Skipper.’
‘OK, thanks.’ I selected channel C and after a few seconds the background noise told us that the set had warmed up and I left it turned on waiting for the Master Bomber to start broadcasting. A few more fighter flares were seen, so they knew where we were and everyone was now very wide awake and searching the sky intently. Jack received the Bombing Wind and, after Max converted it, passed it to Maurie.
‘3-1-5, 25. Right, thanks, Max.’
‘Maurie set it into his bombsight. We were tracking nicely towards the target and suddenly a voice came on the headphones. ‘Snodgrass I to Snodgrass 2. Here is a time check. In twenty seconds it will be 0015. 10… 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Now! Over’
‘Snodgrass 2 to Snodgrass 1. Loud and clear. Out!’
‘It was all so very British! Here we were running into the target in the heart of Germany after 4½ hours flying with no ‘navigational aids and wondering how we were going to make it. Now, when we were at last in sight of the target, we were being greeted by a couple of typically English chaps with very English call signs, quietly checking that they had got the time right, down to the last second! Our reception was all right, so we did not have to worry about the other sets. The illuminating flares were going down now and they hung in the sky in rows like gigantic yellow lanterns. More and more of them dropped and the whole sky in that area was lit up.
‘Just hold it steady about there Skip and we should be right on it.’
‘Curly and Jack keep that search going. They’re dropping more fighter flares. Are you in the astrodome Jack?’
‘In the astrodome, Skipper!’
‘Aye, I’ve got my eyes wide open, Skip’.
‘She’s right, mate,’ replied Curly.
‘The TIs were being dropped now and Maurie was satisfied with our track towards the target. ‘Yes, there go the TIs, Skipper. We’re right on track!’
‘How are we for time, Max?’
‘Three and a half minutes to run.’
‘The target was now obscured from my view, as it had passed under the line of the nose of the aircraft. Peter was busy pushing ‘Window’ down the ‘chute to confuse the German radar operators.
‘Again a voice came loudly out of nowhere. ‘Snodgrass 1 to Press On. Bomb on the red and green TIs. Bomb on the red and green TIs. Out.’ This was repeated by the R/T link.
‘The red and greens. OK, Skip,’ said Maurie. ‘Left! Left! Steady!’ he chanted and I repeated and executed these instructions as he alone now guided the aircraft to the bomb release point.
‘I replied ‘Steady’ as I tried to keep the aircraft straight and level while still watching out for other aircraft near us on our level, directly above and slightly ahead. The greatest danger over the target was not from searchlights, flak or fighters (who usually stayed clear of the area immediately over the target to give the flak gunners an ‘open go’) but collisions or being bombed by an aircraft above us. I was watching another Lanc on my side that was slowly crossing our course slightly above us, when Peter pointed out one on his side also. I watched these two as we continued our run-in.
‘Left! Left! Steady!’ These were repeated and executed and Maurie’s chant became, ‘Steady! Steady! Steady!’ The aircraft on the starboard side had crossed OK and was now just clear of us but the one on the port side was going to be a nuisance! There were not many searchlights and little flak, thank goodness! A very bright searchlight came very close but at the last moment before catching us it swung away. There was no more noise than usual while the sounds of bombs exploding, as heard in Hollywood movies, proved that the producer had never been here! Exploding flak was usually seen but was only heard when it was very close and if you could smell the cordite as well it was time for a ‘damage report’!
‘Steady! Steady! Left! Left! Steady!’ chanted Maurie and I complied. ‘That aircraft is getting closer!’
‘We might just make it, as the release point must be close.’
‘Steady! Bomb bay doors open!’ I repeated and executed.
‘Snodgrass 1 to Press On! Bomb the centre of the red and green TIs. Bomb the centre of the red and green TIs. Out.’
‘Did you get that, Maurie?’ I switched off the VHF to cut out the R/T link’s voice, which might have interfered with Maurie’s instructions.
‘Yes. Centre of red and greens,’ Maurie replied quickly.
‘Steady! Steady! Steady!’
‘I felt a slight bump, like someone kicking the wooden seat of a chair you are sitting in.
‘Cookie gone! Incendiaries going,’ reported Maurie.
‘The red camera light started to blink in front of me but I was more concerned with the aircraft that was coming from the port side and was now nearly above us. As his bomb bay doors were open, I turned away to starboard.
‘Sorry Maurie!’ I said. ‘Another photo gone west but he nearly bombed us!’
‘OK, Skip, take it away.’
‘We had bombed at 18,000 feet, having lost our extra 500 feet running in from the last turning point. As we straightened up again I brought the rev levers up until we had 2,500 and with nose down we headed out of the target with 220 on the clock.
‘179 is the course, Skip’, Max came through, as though we were just leaving a practice bombing range.
‘OK, Max. Are things quiet up there with you, Curly?’
‘Yes, OK, Skip but I think there are fighters about as there’s a Lanc in these searchlights.’
‘OK. Keep that search going well.’
‘Corkscrew port, go!’
‘I heard the turret machine-guns open up as Jock’s call came through. With a warning of ‘Down port!’ I threw everything into the corner, full port bank, full port rudder and control column forward. We heeled over and dived to port and as the speed built up we came out of it as I dragged back on the control column, calling to the gunners ‘Changing – up port!’ With the buildup in speed we went up like a lift. Before we lost all this speed I called ‘Changing – up starboard!’ Then, as we lost speed, ‘Changing – down starboard!’ As we started to dive again, Jock called, ‘Resume course, go! It’s OK, Skip, he passed us by but he’s disappeared up in the starboard beam so keep your eyes open for him, Curly.’
‘Starboard beam up. OK, Jock.’
‘We settled down again on our course, with everyone alert and searching intently.
‘Next course is 2-1-5, Stan.’
‘OK, turning on to 2-1-5.’
‘All clear starboard, Stan,’ reported Peter. Aircraft that were visible in the glare over the target could not be seen now but we did see one or two that turned close to us. We settled on to the new course and, after a few minutes, I looked back to starboard and saw Dresden burning. While I watched, I saw a fire start in the air and there, against the target, appeared the perfect miniature outline of a Lanc. The port wing burned furiously and, after flying level for a few seconds, the aircraft heeled over and dived down as the wing fell off. We were too far away to see if any ‘chutes came out. ‘One of our aircraft is missing.’ Max logged the time, height and position.
‘Are you busy Max?’
‘No, not for the moment.’
‘Well, you wanted to see a target.’
‘Max came out from behind his curtain and asked, ‘Where?’
‘I pointed to the rear over my left shoulder where the yellow of the flares, the white of the incendiaries burning on the ground, the searchlights and the pin-point of light in the sky (from the flak at the stragglers from ‘last phase’) could clearly be seen. Clouds of smoke rose thousands of feet into the air. With the last of the red and green TIs, it completed a Technicolor nightmare of Hell.
‘Aagh! I never want to see that again,’ said Max. ‘I’ll go back to my charts. You can keep that.’
‘But he stayed a bit longer to look hard at the scene, before disappearing back behind his curtain. I suppose it was an awful shock to suddenly be confronted with such a sight. I realised that the rest of us had become used to this type of scene, while Max had spent his time on each trip at his charts without knowing what was actually happening outside the aircraft and what it looked like. I never did find out what his thoughts about it really were but I suspected that he actually was a very sensitive type, who disliked being suddenly confronted with such a scene of destruction. I never knew anyone who really liked the job but I suppose there were some who did.
‘It looks like we’ve done our job,’ remarked Peter.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think we’ll have to come back again…All right, now, let’s see that none of those fighters jump us on the way home. Are you going down in your bubble, Maurie?’
‘Yes Stan. I’ll give you a call when I want a rest from flying upside down.’ (When he did I rolled the aircraft over until Curly could see down under us and called, ‘All clear, starboard’, then I rolled it over on to the other wingtip and waited for his call, ‘All clear, port’.)
‘We’re on the job too, Stan, you can count on it,’ said Jock.
‘That’s right, Stan,’ joined in Curly.
‘Good, I’m glad to hear it. How long to our next turning-point, Max?’
‘Not for quite a while yet, Stan. This is a long leg and I’ll let you know in good time.’
‘I noted that, as usually happened, the crew tended to be informal in speaking to me, except during take-off and landing and when we were near the target area, when it became ‘skipper’ or ‘Skip’. I assumed this was unconscious recognition of their reliance on me but that reliance was really each other, so perhaps it was only a matter of naturally looking for a leader i times of stress and danger.
‘Can I have the ‘1196’ in for our ‘Darkie’ watch please, Jack.’
‘Yes. It’s on now, Stan.’
‘I thought back on the attack and the roles of the various participants. From the Master Bomber who often marked the Aiming Point from only 3,000 feet, to the marker crews from the Pathfinder Force, to the Flare Force aircraft and to the Main Force; a very complex machine of destruction. The Marker crews and Flare Force aircraft dropped their TIs and flares over the target, then turned away, flying around and rejoining the stream of Main Force aircraft coming into the target, then dropping their bombs on their second run through the target. Once through the target was enough for me but before not too many more trips we were selected as a Flare Force crew, finally joining the Pathfinders for the rest of the war.
‘We flew on and on, making the next turning point and turning more westerly, now that we were past Nuremberg. Presently I saw a patch of light in the sky to port and wondered what searchlights they were, until it dawned on me that they were the lights on the shores of Lake Constance, Switzerland! I wondered what they thought of the war, apart from the money they were making. Being neutral certainly paid off, when you could be the world’s clearing house! I told Max and he was quite satisfied. We were slightly off track to the south but we were clear of Stuttgart so we waited until we were very close to the light before altering course to nearly due west, along the Swiss border towards France.
‘I was tired and hungry, which was no wonder as we had now been in the air over nine hours. My last piece of chocolate tasted very good, poor quality or not and a cup of sergeants’ mess tea from Peter’s thermos tasted wonderful and helped get the eyes open again. I had ‘George’ doing the work now but had my hand on the lever to disengage the autopilot the moment anything happened, so there was only a partial relaxation. Across the Rhine now, we altered course for England, losing height as we went so that our airspeed built up to 200 on the clock. If the Jerry fighters wanted us they would have to find us and catch us. My thoughts wandered. Dresden had certainly copped it but hang this supporting ‘Joe Stalin’ and his boys – it was just too damn far. Helping Monty and his merry men was much more ‘the shot’ that appealed now.
Peter broke into my wandering thoughts to ask if I had changed the supercharger control down to ‘medium’ as we had descended into that range. He was happy to know that I had and it was good to know that he was still right on the job, although like all of us he was now very tired.
‘Halfway across France Max told me that his ‘Gee’ set was working again. ‘We are only fifteen miles off track, Stan but you had better alter 30 degrees to starboard to avoid that possible trouble spot they mentioned at briefing.’
‘Righto, Max. Altering 30 degrees to port. Now.’ (Trouble spot? Briefing? That all seemed days ago. I seemed to have been sitting in this seat for a week.) Only fifteen miles off after more than 4 hours’ navigating back from the target by dead reckoning and the Broadcast Winds, was a terrific effort and I congratulated Max, who merely uttered that ‘George’, our dog mascot, must have really been looking after us.
‘The French coast was crossed, then the Channel, through the fence of lights at Orfordness, navigation lights ‘on’ and nose down for base. As we approached I listened out and heard the various boys calling up as they reached home and I checked out who had arrived back safely. Our beacon flashing ‘BK’ was a very welcome sight. There was no ‘story book’ or ‘Yankee film’ welcome, just ‘Johnny’, 1,500 feet’ from the control tower. I knew that my call for permission to land had been heard in the debriefing room, where we would be posted up on the ‘Returned’ board.
‘It all happened very quickly now and after more than 9½ hours in the air I shook myself wide awake to make sure that nothing could go wrong in the last few minutes. We had permission to join the circuit. Maurie was out of the nose. I called ‘Downwind’ and immediately Doug called me, ‘Keep in close, Stan, I’m right behind you.’
‘Right, Doug,’ I replied in strictly non-RAF R/T procedure.
‘I flew a tight circuit on the ring of lights surrounding the circuit area, cut in close at the ‘funnel’ leading to the start of the runway and wasted no time. Doug Creeper would have swung a little wider and turned into the funnel a little later than usual to give me time to get clear of the landing area so that he would not have to go around again. After nearly 10 hours in the air, having to waste time by flying round the circuit again was something no one wanted, particularly when we landed 23 aircraft in less than 33 minutes.
‘Johnny’. Pancaking. Out. Full flaps. 2,850 revs.
‘Peter complied. I managed to grease it on and Jock gave his greatest praise – complete silence! As soon as I touched down, Control called, ‘Keep rolling,‘
‘Johnny’ rolling,’ I replied, with a quiet smile to myself. I was not likely to stop in front of my mate and have him land on me, when we had just worked things so that we could both get down quickly. I suppose our talking between ourselves was not heard officially but they ‘officially’ warned the aircraft that had just landed that another was landing immediately behind. At that time of the morning it was all a bit much for me.
‘We arrived back at our dispersal and were greeted by the ground crew who were pleased to hear that we had no trouble with the aircraft and that there was no damage to it that we knew of. In the crew bus going back to the crew room we greeted other crews, talking tiredly about the trip and any trouble they may have had. Jack dumped his gear quickly and hurried to the debriefing room to put our name on the board and so reserve our place in the queue of crews waiting to be debriefed. The rest of us arrived shortly afterwards. By way of an informal report, the Squadron Commander asked me, ‘How was it, Stan? Much flak, any damage, good run to the target?’
‘A pretty quiet trip, thanks, sir,’ I replied. ‘Only light flak and a few fighters about but I don’t think we have any damage.’
‘Good – it was a long one and you will be looking for bed. Tell your crew to turn in straight away too.
‘Right. Thanks, sir, I will.’
‘As I turned away I thought that there was something odd about that last remark but then one of the other skippers spoke to me and the thought went out of my head. As I headed for a cup of tea, the Doc was there quietly running his eye over each of us without any fuss.
‘How was it?’ he asked.
‘Not bad, Doc but it was a long one. Nine hours 45 in the alit’
‘Yes, a good night’s sleep is what you need. Do you want anything?’
‘No thanks, Doc. I have no trouble. I’m off to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. I just have to stay awake while ‘Bags of Flak’ rambles on over there’. I indicated a table at which one of the crews was being interrogated by the WAAF Intelligence Officer, known to all as ‘Bags of Flak’ due to her habit during the interview with returning crews of asking, ‘How was the target area? Bags of flak?’
‘The Doc smiled, as he was in on all the jokes and sayings round the Squadron and knew what ops were like, having closed the rear door of the Flight Commander’s aircraft five times, from the inside. ‘That’s good. If there is anything when you wake up, just drop over and see me.
‘The tea and biscuits tasted wonderful and Jock and Curly were arguing as usual over whose turn it was to have the tot of rum that I didn’t drink, as well as the tot each had already had. Jock knew very well that it was Curly’s turn but this was a harmless way to ‘unwind’ a bit after the trip and the rest of us joined in with suitable comments, while silently cursing ‘Bags of Flak’ for taking so long with each crew. At last it was our turn.
‘What time did you bomb? What did you have in your bombsight?’ she asked. (I would never forget her look of dismay and then disbelief when later, after a daylight raid on Cologne, with an Aiming Point near the cathedral, Maurie, who was bored stiff with this same question time after time, decided to liven things up by replying ‘Two nuns and a priest!’)
‘Was there much flak?’ (Someone must have told of her of her nickname’)
‘What did you think of the raid?’
‘We had a quiet trip,’ I replied. ‘A very concentrated attack. One aircraft seen shot down shortly after we left the target.’
‘No, I think that’s the lot, thanks.’ I signed the report and at last was on my way to breakfast. While eating my bacon and eggs I vaguely heard the CO say that he thought we might be on again that night but I was too tired to care or connect. I was only interested in a good long sleep. I said ‘Cheerio, see you later’ to the others in the mess. No one was missing from the trip so we were all happy. I fell into bed at 07.45 but little did I know that I would be woken at 1245 to be told that we were on the Battle Order for that night! After a late lunch, the whole routine, just complete, would be repeated. After another trip, of 9 hours 20 minutes in the air to Chemnitz, I would fall into bed tomorrow morning, exhausted and with only one assurance that there was some limit to how often we were expected to be able to continue these operations. The Doc would tell me to get ‘a good, long sleep’. When I replied, ‘Just like yesterday Doc?’ he would quietly say, ‘No – if they try to put any of you who have flown these last two trips on a Battle Order for tonight, I will declare you ‘medically unfit’.’
‘Thank God for the Doc!
In all, during the two RAF raids 1,478 tons of HE and 1,182 tons of incendiaries were dropped. In the third attack 316 of the 450 B-17s of the 8th Air Force dispatched attacked Dresden shortly after 12 noon on 14 February, dropping 771 tons of bombs. (The Americans bombed Dresden again on 15 February and on 2 March). RAF Bomber Command casualties were six Lancasters lost with two more crashed in France and one in England. An 8000C firestorm tore through the heart of the Saxon capital, burning thousands of Dresdeners alive. In a firestorm similar to that created in Hamburg on 27/28 July 1943, an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Germans died in Dresden. (At Böhlen the weather was bad and the bombing scattered).