Stirling B-Beer

Short Stirling Heavy Bomber: picture of 7 squadron Stirlings at RAF Oakington

Stirling Mk III LJ514 B – Beer, with nose art (a bear holding a beer bottle painted on the nose ; the mission symbols carried by B – Beer were small foaming beer mugs)

Bomber Command was stood down on 27/28 July but this was the full moon period and on the night following, a return to Hamburg was announced at briefings when crews were told that the raid would be on a far bigger scale than two nights before. At Feltwell Sergeant Neville Hockaday, who was not to be denied his trip to Hamburg, which his crew had failed to reach on 26/27 July, heard that nearly 800 bombers were planned to bomb the devastated town. At Oakington, Pilot Officer Leslie Sidwell, the rear-turret gunner on 23-year-old Flight Lieutenant Douglas Whiteman’s crew of Stirling B-Beer of 7 Squadron, made a note that said it was another ‘Thousand Raid’. He surmised, correctly, that the number was again being made up with OTU crews:

Out at dispersal we got everything finally checked and ready in the sweltering heat inside the aircraft before climbing out into the oh-so-welcome cool night air. It was lovely to relax outside on the grass and smoke casually before reluctantly putting on the flying kit which I knew would be badly needed for the cold later on, after the muck-sweat had gone. I donned flying kit, regretfully and knowing full well it would be freezing at height was soon in another sweat in the aircraft. We took off at 22.29 hours. The weather was good. We passed over Cromer and out over the North Sea. I spent the time taking the usual sightings from my rear turret on flame-floats we’d dropped to check drift for the navigator. We’d been briefed to cross the German coast north of the Elbe estuary, then to turn south 20 miles north of Hamburg to run up to the target.

Sergeant Neville Hockaday continues:

We made the sea crossing at 200 feet and planned to bomb from 8,000 feet, which would be just below the forecast cloudbase. This was a dangerous place to be, as one would be silhouetted against the cloud background but flying above it would expose us similarly to fighters. There was plenty of activity around Heligoland as we passed safely five miles to seaward and taking advantage of the confusion crossed the coast without interference and began the long climb to bombing height, levelling out as we crossed the Kiel Canal near Rendsburg. Twice I had to break away to avoid interception by searchlights and began a time and distance run as a precaution against the target being obscured by cloud. Ten minutes from the target there was much activity ahead: more ferocious than I had expected. There were about six groups of searchlights; each of which held a bomber in a cone, the flak concentrating on each. At one time I saw five aircraft going down in flames. The cloud was barely 8,000 feet and solid, having the effect of trapping the searchlight beams below it and turning the sky over Hamburg into a vast mirror. I could see that it would be no trouble identifying the aiming point if we could get to it! Just as I was preparing for the bombing run an FW 190 came out of the target area, having flown through his own flak and we narrowly missed a head-on collision. He was almost on top of us before he spotted us and he sheered off as Bruce opened fire on him. A few seconds before Drew [Sergeant Alfie Drew RNZAF, front gunner/bomb aimer] released our bomb a blue master searchlight fastened on us and just as ‘bomb gone’ was called we were coned in about half a dozen searchlight beams. Standing on the rudder pedals I threw F-Freddie into a stall turn to port, the most violent turn I had ever made. With the engines screaming the Wimpy went down in a spiral dive, speed rising to 250 mph until, eventually, we broke free from the lights. Heading north westerly away from the target the vibration of the airframe and the over-revving of the engines died down and we regained level flight at 400 feet.

Leslie Sidwell in the rear turret of Whiteman’s B-Beer continues:

There was heavy flak and we were hit just before the run up. Just after we’d bombed, someone on the intercom reported tracer coming up from below and we were hit by night fighter attack from underneath. I reported a decoy headlight out on the starboard quarter and searched around for other fighters. I reported one coming in from above on the port side and told the Skipper to turn to port. I think I hit him with a burst before my power went off. A fighter came in again from the rear and continued firing. My turret was shattered and we seemed to be in a steady dive. The Skipper gave the emergency bail-out order, quickly followed by what sounded like his cries of pain. Then the intercom abruptly cut off and we were on fire.

When my turret power had failed I’d been left partly on the beam. I started to operate the dead man’s handle (emergency winding gear) to centralize my turret so that I could get back into the fuselage to grab my parachute and bail out. (’Chutes could not be stored in the rear turret as one did in earlier two-engined jobs, which were dead easy for rear gunners to quit in a hurry). I wound away like mad at the hand-winding gear behind me, very conscious that we were losing precious height. As if in a dream, I saw a Me 110 closing in from astern with his guns blazing away. I wound away as I watched him through the shattered Perspex. My painfully slow progress was like a nightmare. I was conscious of the EBO order given in what seemed some time ago … Would I be in time? He was extremely close to me when he eventually broke away and I finally managed to move the turret sufficiently to fall back hurriedly into the fuselage. I grabbed my ’chute from the stowage outside the turret doors, forced open the nearby emergency exit door and as quickly as I could, jumped out into space. In those seconds I was conscious of flame and smoke up front in the fuselage. I gave no thought at all to any dangers of bailing out, or that I’d had no practice in jumping. I just concentrated in getting out of a doomed aircraft. In my haste to get out I banged my head on something as I quit poor old B-Beer, partly knocking myself out. I pulled the ripcord without counting as you were normally told to do. I must have done the right thing because I came to swinging in the air. I could see the waters of the Elbe shining below, with the full moon bright towards the south.

After all the turmoil I was now swinging gently in a strangely contrasting silence, floating down and rather higher than I’d expected. This peace was suddenly interrupted by a dazzling searchlight, which probed around as if looking for me. It held me in its blinding beam. I felt naked, vulnerable and powerless hanging there, not knowing what to expect. I raised my arms and wondered, ‘Is this It?’ But it soon switched off, as if satisfied that I’d been located and I was left to watch the Elbe more clearly as I lost height and to worry about landing in the wide waters. I’d never fancied coming down in the water and I pulled the rigging lines as instructed, hoping to spill air from the ’chute to alter my course. Probably more by luck than anything else, the Elbe disappeared and I braced myself for a landing, south of the river. The ground seemed to loom up very quickly in the moonlight and it wasn’t possible to judge my first parachute landing expertly. I landed rather clumsily and hurt my right ankle on the hard ground but tall growing crops helped to cushion me. My watch showed 01.10 hours just after landing. I remembered that my first duty was to hide my chute. As I struggled to gather it all up I thought I’d have a good view of a big ‘Thousand Raid’ but I was surprised. Little was seen or heard and I wondered, ‘Where are they?’

Sergeant Neville Hockaday meanwhile crossed the Kiel Canal at 2,000 feet when he saw tracer fire coming up over the port wing from behind.

I called Mike who replied that it was from a chap on top of a building. Bruce had just fired back and all had gone quiet; he thought he had got him. Later I checked to find that we had wandered over Meldorf and the building was probably the local barracks. We went well out to sea to avoid Heligoland and just as I ordered, ‘Watch out for “flak ships” ’ one opened up at us but we were too fast for him and were soon out of range. Mike said that not all our aircraft had reported to base after bombing and as we approached Cromer we were all diverted to Methwold. We assumed that someone was in trouble and that Feltwell was being kept clear for him. It was six am by the time we walked into debriefing to learn that of the 14 aircraft of our squadron only eight had returned. We then learned that far from there being 800 aircraft on the raid there had been only 165 as a late forecast had predicted bad weather on return and all except 3 Group had cancelled. If only we had been told we could have revised our tactics to meet the new situation.

Huia Russell on 149 Squadron in 3 Group recalled:

It was a bit disconcerting when sitting at the navigator’s table to hear ice breaking off the propellers and thumping the fuselage of the Stirling. Ice could be a hazard at many heights and this was the worst experience of icing that I had. There was thick cloud to about 2,000 feet but though all groups except 3 Group were scrubbed and the OTU aircraft were recalled we tried climbing through the cloud once we were over the North Sea. However, we had not climbed very high when we iced up and began losing height. Eventually we tried jettisoning our load of 4lb incendiaries gradually. It was not until we had released most of our bomb load that we were able to maintain height at under 2,000 feet. We then returned home after this unnerving experience.

No. 3 Group lost nine out of 71 Stirlings and 16 out of 94 Wellingtons and a Stirling crashed at RAF Coltishall. Four OTU Wellingtons, including a 101 Squadron Wimpy at Bourn, which was involved in a collision with a 101 CF Stirling at Oakington were lost. The Stirling crashed near Cottenham in Cambridgeshire. There were no injuries to the crew but all five on the Wellington died. A 10 OTU Whitley ditched in the sea ten miles south-east of Tynemouth.

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